Thursday, June 17, 2010

#153: The Element of Surprise

---Fooling a Cynic is Tough---

Just when I think I have the motives and the strategies of the Pittsburgh Pirates upper management figured...

...the general manager calls up pretty much their last ace in the hole to get butts in seats in the middle of a season-long losing streak.

...the general manager announces he's actively trying to trade a player a lot of high school teams wouldn't want right now.

...the general manager gets his option for 2011 picked up.

Yes, Pirate fans (and fans of other teams who like to stop in for a laugh), welcome to Bob Nutting Land - where the well-intentioned get punished, the undeserving get rewarded, and everyone gets taken for a ride.

Less than a week ago, I posted my prediction that the Pirates were going to wait until the season was officially kaput (late July at the earliest) before calling up prized 2008 draftee Pedro Alvarez.

I can't help but think that if the Pirates had won at least two games in the last eleven (as of this writing, the Bucs have lost eleven straight after being swept by the Chicago White Sox), Alvarez would still be down at Indianapolis.

So, as the emergency brakes have been virtually blown off of the team's downward-sliding elevator, the Pirate brass must have had no choice but to try to fashion some sort of financial parachute to keep a large contingent of fans from jumping ship before summer officially arrives.

To the second point: Neal Huntington is now actively seeking to trade Akinori Iwamura, the $4.8 million dollar trade acquisition from the Tampa Bay Rays - who were going to let him go, anyway (tell me that the Rays don't have guys who know what they're doing). Raise your hand if you thought the Pirates already got rid of David Littlefield.

Trying to trade a player (and an expensive one, at that, for all his liabilities) when his stock is absolutely nil, is asinine. Announcing that you're trying to trade him is that much worse. All that laughing we're hearing across Major League Baseball isn't at Aki. It's at the franchise.

And finally, it was announced that both Huntington and manager John Russell had their contract options for 2011 picked up.

Ok. That one wasn't a shock. They're the perfect lapdogs for Bob Nutting's Syndicate, so why would he jettison them? They're the perfect cannon fodder, even though their predecessors received the same criticism, to help protect the man behind the curtain. The faces have changed, but their roles are identical.

At this point, I wish the Pirates would stop surprising me, because all of genuine surprises have been to the detriment of a team I thought had already hit bottom.


That's right.

We're in Nutting Land.

Well, in that case...



Some other thoughts -

- Poor Jose Tabata. It's almost like he's the hex. He's played in seven games in while up top (eight have been played), and still not a win to show for it. He's been playing well, though, and you can tell he's playing to win. Can he pitch? Maybe someone should ask...

- During these eleven losses, the Pirates have hit seven home runs - four solo shots and three two-run homers. Delwyn Young has two of those multi-run blasts (Garrett Jones, the other). The Bucs have been outscored 60-33, and they've committed 13 errors. Yeah, they committed six in one game, but that still leaves seven errors spread across the remaining ten losses.

- For years, I had tried to encourage my small, but loyal fan base to stop buying tickets to games. Maybe they have. But I may have figured out why season ticket packages continue to be sold (and re-upped).

If someone has kick-ass seats in the best ballpark in America, they're going to want to have those seats when the time comes that the Pirates are back in the postseason (or even the postseason hunt). They're willing to keep paying the price so that they can laugh at all of us doubters when the time comes.

The best they can hope for is that this Forbes article from early last month is true, that Bob Nutting will sell the team.

If not, they'd better be prepared to spend a lot of dough on a lot more heartbreak. The only ones laughing will be those with the Syndicate.

On the other hand, if those blindly loyal fans would give up their seats, some ticket broker who lives outside of the 'Burgh would snatch them up and sell them on a game-by-game basis.

You can't win here, team and fan alike. Thanks, Bob.

- Speaking of the Syndicate, while watching the Bucs lose the final game to the Sox tonight, I couldn't help but notice that the entire broadcast was more like a pledge break on PBS. It just so happened there was a game going on in the background. I'm pretty sure FSN reporter Rob King got more airtime than Pedro Alvarez.

To the charity auction itself, I'm even skeptical that the money being raised was for any genuine philanthropy. In the fine print, I almost expect to see proceeds from these packages go to things like, "Starving Children for the Construction of a New Ski Lift at Seven Springs" and "Disabled Veterans for Increased Circulation of The Herb Companion Magazine".

But even if the money does go to a good cause (or several), I still think that some of the items contain a bunch of "things they left out of the description on purpose."

My favorite one was something like "Kids Take the Field." The winning bidder has his kid bring eight friends to a home game, where they get to be announced on the field next to a starter on that team's roster. Then they get an autographed ball from that position player (or pitcher) that they got announced with (wanna bet they fight amongst themselves on who gets announced with Andrew McCutchen...if he's even in the line up that day?). Each kid gets two tickets. One for him/her, and one for a parent.

The corporate sleight of hand is that, if their kids are going to be down on the field, more than just one parent is going to show up.

Like, the whole damn family's coming.

So, nine kids times five friends and relatives (on average) is 45 more people than were going to come to the game in the first place. Add souvenirs and refreshments, as well as tickets...well, the Syndicate is going to eat well again.

I suppose if the winning bidder is shelling out between $2,000 and $3,000 for that package, the rest is just a drop in the bucket to them. But the Syndicate profits from it.

Even in charity work, there's mega-promotion going on.


Saturday, June 12, 2010

#152: Defeat Goes On...

---...As Does the Spin---

Before my next Pirates lament, a couple of quick hits:

1) I need better sources. No sooner had I declared that all-around baseball stud Bryce Harper was, in fact, going to fall from the top slot in this past week's draft, than I learned that Washington was undoubtedly going to take him. Talk about an unneeded hit to one's already insignificant credibility. In any event, now that Bucs have drafted the best remaining pitcher, it remains to be seen if he will be signed.

2) Chicago wins the Stanley Cup. Steeltown Sports went 10-5 this year predicting each series' victor on the Shots-on-Goal Differential scale, though predicting a hot goalie (and, usually, the number of games) remained a challenge. Make no mistake, though. Montreal's run to the Eastern Conference Final was the biggest statistical fluke we've seen in a long while.

3) Props to the Philadelphia Flyers for hanging with the 'Hawks. Four of the six games were decided by one goal (two in overtime), a fifth game could have been a one-goal game if not for an empty-netter, and had Chicago goaltender Antti Niemi not made the best save he's made all playoffs, we'd have been looking at a seventh game.

4) Today is the one-year anniversary of the Pittsburgh Penguins winning the Cup against Detroit in that heart-stopping Game 7.

With the preliminaries done, let's talk baseball.

Sort of.

As of this entry, the Pittsburgh Pirates are 23-38 (15 games under .500), and owners of a six-game losing streak. They are in the National League Central cellar by a full game entering play tonight (which takes into account a Houston loss to the Yankees this afternoon), and they're tied for the 2nd worst winning percentage in all of baseball (with Seattle, better only than Baltimore).

And this, believe it or not, might be the good news.

One of my favorite lines from the comic play "Fools" by Neil Simon says:

"When you're going downhill, it gets faster at the bottom."

Now, while this character is misquoting the idea (replacing "toward" with "at"), this is very appropriate when talking about the Pirates and their current five-year plan (the end of this season will essentially mark the end of Year Three).

Another "plan" is virtually in shambles, and ownership and management know it.

Every year, they have a player who they can market the team around. Last year, it was Andrew McCutchen. The year before, Nate McClouth. Before that, probably Jason Bay, or maybe Freddy Sanchez.

This year, it looks like McCutchen is again the guy, but he's not as fresh. Neil Walker is showing promise, especially considering that he was drafted as a catcher, but now plays on the opposite side of the diamond in the Bigs.

I can only imagine how much the marketing department is struggling right now.

Anyway, Pittsburgh (to my surprise) finally promoted outfielder Jose Tabata and pitcher Brad Lincoln, probably hoping to generate some buzz.

To a certain extent, they even managed to screw that up.

Lincoln could have made his debut facing off against last year's number one overall draft pick in Stephen Strasburg (whom even the likes of Greg-Maddux-in-his-prime would have struggled to outduel that night, let alone Jeff Karstens).

I haven't even bothered to read why they didn't allow Lincoln to debut at the same time, giving a national spotlight (albeit on the MLB Network) on both clubs, not just on Washington. While it's unlikely that the outcome of the game would have been much different, all of the pressure still would have been on Strasburg. Instead, Lincoln had the spotlight squarely on him the following game, and he got stung.

Something tells me that Pedro Alvarez is to be their late July call-up when the entire season is in the crapper (30 games under) to get butts in seats late. Lincoln and Tabata are just to keep people paying attention so that they'll know when it happens.

You know things are bad when we start predicting the spin, rather than anything relevant to the game.

So, how bad is this team statistically?

Well, start with one of the key indicators of whether a team is at least heading in the right direction: run differential.

For the statistical novice, this is easy to compute if you can't find it on some stats page: take the total number of runs scored, and subtract the number of runs against. The Pirates are the league's worst in that category (-144). Next closest is Baltimore (-117). Then Houston (-96). Best? Tampa Bay (+101).

According to the Relative Power Rankings (RPI) at, the Pirates expected record is 15-46.

While a good many of us don't hold ESPN in the highest of esteem (I personally think its letters stand for "If You're Not in a Big City, We Don't Care" in Icelandic), it still makes you scratch your head that, given the statistical data accumulated so far this season, the Pirates are actually overachieving this season by eight games!

That's difficult to swallow, considering that they have scored the fewest runs and possess the league's second-highest ERA and WHIP.

The Bucs need a mere 44 defeats on the season, and the record number of losing seasons legally becomes an adult.

The losing streak will have to register with Selective Service. It will be able to register to vote. It can drive a car after midnight.

I think on that day when the 82nd defeat occurs (which figures to be around August 19 at home to the Marlins), I will loudly declare to anyone who asks me about the losing streak:

"That's MISTER Losing Streak, to YOU!"

At this point, you have to make your own fun.

Friday, June 04, 2010

#151: Perfect Disaster

---Getting Things Wrong---

One, history will remember forever; the other... might get a few mentions for about a week (outside of Pittsburgh).

The first, of course, is the one-hitter that was actually a perfect game thrown by young Detroit Tigers pitcher Armando Galarraga.

Naturally, as with all officiating travesties in sports, the crucial call game at the precise moment when the game should have ended.

Two outs, top of the ninth, his team up by three, and the 27th opposing batter comes to the plate. The Cleveland Indians' Jason Donald (remember that name: it will be the answer to a trivia question) grounds the 1-1 pitch to first. First baseman Miguel Cabrera fields it and quickly flips the ball to Galarraga who has come off the mound to cover the bag. The ball beats Donald by a little less than a step, but first base umpire Jim Joyce (another name to remember for trivia purposes) calls Donald safe.

It would have been bad enough had the call come in the top of the 8th with nobody out (and the rest of the game could have been perfect), but the timing in this case was, and is, excruciating.

Some critics were saying that you have to give the benefit of the doubt to the pitcher in this case, but I disagree. Had the two arrived at the same time, then the tie should go to the runner (the rule indicates that a tag or a force must occur "before" the runner reaches the bag.

But this was not a tie.

It is also not the first blown call in Major League Baseball history, so I implore those wanting to lynch Joyce to calm down a little bit.

The crime appears to be happening in baseball's front office.

As of yesterday, commissioner Bud Selig said that the call will not be overturned.

His office does have the power to rule a play differently, but is electing not to.

Selig (and the few who support his decision) and the thousands who think the call should be reversed are both citing "integrity of the game".

As though juiced baseballs and athletes, in addition to poor officiating, haven't denigrated it enough.

I have never wanted to see replay instituted in baseball, because it's a slippery slope that will probably ultimately replace human umpires with strike zone-precise machines.

But in a case like this, where an historic 3rd perfect game in a season was denied by human error, it might be time to institute a challenge rule, like the one used in the NFL.

With the exception of balls and strikes, each team can challenge two calls per game (including foul balls, close plays at a particular base, diving catches, or home runs). If they're right twice, they get a third, and so on, until they are incorrect.

Even this idea makes me shudder, but if there's going to be replay, I'd rather the decision to review a play be in the hands of the teams rather than the umpires.

Unless something changes, "Steeltown Sports" congratulates Armando Galarraga on his perfect game*.


The other disaster unfolding is much closer to the Steel City.

The 2010 Major League Baseball amateur draft starts on Monday, and the Pittsbugh Pirates have the second overall pick.

The word has been that the team with the first overall pick, the Washington Nationals, will probably not draft all-around high school player Bryce Harper, having tied up a ton of money in last year's #1 pick, Stephen Strasberg.

This would leave a potential cornerstone player (once again) ripe for the plucking for the Pirates.

However, rumors are abounding that Pittsburgh is poised to draft someone else.

Not that we should be surprised.

Remember all the arm-twisting/tooth-pulling/rectal-thermometering that went on two years ago when Pirate management reluctantly selected Pedro Alvarez...then nearly lost him because super-agent (and baseball's super-villain) Scott Boras would not settle for less than a major league contract?

Well, as usual, the best player in the draft has Boras as his agent (that's almost more predictable than a Pittsburgh losing season).

After getting schooled by Boras two years ago, it's unlikely that Bob Nutting, Frank Coonely and Neal Huntington want to walk that road again, especially since saving (and banking) money is this organization's modus operandi.

And when they pass on Harper (I really don't think this is much of an "if") expect lots of talk to gloss over their actual pick and focus more on the talent they have coming up (or those that are already here). Lots of touting Andrew McCutchen and Neil Walker. Talking up Brad Lincoln, Pedro Alvarez and Jose Tabata (while delaying promoting them, so they can save some more money by keeping them down in the minors.

Meanwhile, no one will mention that their actual #1 pick does not have Scott Boras for an agent.

I don't blog too much about the Bucs anymore, because it all comes back to a whole lot of Nutting.

But I do take pleasure in pointing out to the Pirate fans who continue to fork their money over to the Syndicate that they are the ones making this perfect circle of ineptitude continue to roll.