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Tag: Houston Astros Page 1 of 4

Game 87: Houston, We Have No Problems

The Yankees really couldn’t have asked for a better game in their first return to Houston since the 2019 ALCS than the one they got tonight.  Great pitching, minimal drama, and timely hitting – if the post-All Star Break Yankees can tap into the vibe of today’s 4-0 win more often, we could still get some enjoyable baseball down the stretch.  To the takeaways –

Daily Doubles.  The Yankees came into the game with the fewest doubles of any team in baseball, indicative of their overall offensive woes this year, but broke out the two-base bats today with some clutch hitting throughout the evening.  They broke a scoreless tie in the top of the fourth after Gleyber Torres and Gio Urshela lined a pair of singles, setting up a two-out, two-run double off the bat of Brett Gardner against starter Jake Odorizzi.  Insurance runs came in the 7th, when Brett Gardner walked and Tyler Wade skillfully hit against the shift, poking an opposite field double down the left field line to put runners on second and third.  DJ LeMahieu worked a 10-pitch at bat against reliever Bryan Abreu, showing great poise and tenacity after falling behind 0-2, and then smacked a double to left to extend the lead to 4-0.  LeMahieu is hitting .311 since June 19. The Yankees totaled 12 hits today, including 4 doubles.

Nasty Nestor.  Nestor Cortes Jr. was pretty excellent over 4.2 innings today, surrendering only two hits and no runs over 72 pitches.  He induced a lot of soft contact, as the Astros’ exit velocity against him averaged only 85.6 mph. Cortes is not a hard thrower, topping his four-seamer out in the low 90s, but managed to miss barrels all night against a really excellent offense – the Astros are first in the majors in runs, OBP, and OPS. He’s been great overall over 25.2 innings this year, as he lowered his ERA to 1.05.  Nobody would have predicted Nestor Cortes holding up the starting rotation as we head to the All-Star Break, but the Yankees will certainly take what they can get.

Gleyber shows signs of life.  Much has been written about Torres’ offensive struggles this year, including his general lack of power and low exit velocity, but he made some great contact against Astros pitching.  His second inning single measured 107.1 mph, and his fourth inning single clocked 106.3.  The Yankees would really love for Gleyber to regain some of his power moving into the second half, and today was certainly encouraging.

The bullpen steps up.  After Cortes’ good start, Lucas Luetge, Chad Green, and Jonathan Loaisiga were fantastic in relief.  With Aroldis Chapman’s recent ineffectiveness and a spate of injuries, the Yankees have relied heavily on those three pitchers to throw some high leverage innings, and today they did not disappoint.  Luetge came on with two outs in the fifth to face Jose Altuve and struck him out on a great breaking ball, going on to throw another scoreless inning before handing the last nine outs to Green and Loaisiga.  Green threw two scoreless and struck out two, and Loaisiga was on fire in the ninth inning, dialing his fastball up to 101 mph to close out the game.

Leftovers

  • Aaron Judge’s ninth inning double was the 500th hit of his career.  He is the second-fastest hitter in Yankees history to get to 500 hits and 100 home runs, behind only Joe DiMaggio.  Pretty good company.
  • Tonight was the Yankees’ 9th shutout this year, the most in the American League.
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Houston Astros Series Preview: May 4 to 6

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Here it is.  The moment Yankees fans have been waiting for since news of the Houston Asterisks cheating scandal broke in late 2019 – starting this evening, the Bronx faithful will have the opportunity to boo the Trashstros out of Yankee Stadium.  I’ll be there, and I look forward to sharing that collective catharsis with the other 10,000 people who are there for the same reason.

The series comes at a good time for the Yankees, who seem to be in the process of recovering from their early season struggles.  They are coming off a three game sweep of the Detroit Tigers, which featured outstanding pitching performances from Corey Kluber and Gerrit Cole and offensive breakouts up and down the lineup.  If the team can continue its production on both sides of the ball throughout the week, Houston, who is coming off a 2-of-3 series win against Tampa, might have a problem.

The Rob Manfred Conundrum

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Rob Manfred is the perfect embodiment of sports in 2020.

There has never been a time in American professional sports when the intent of owners and league executives is more clear. Similar to the office of President in the minds of some men, sports are an incredible avenue to generate profit. Team owners laugh and scoff at the idea of winning championships. Their grins spread from ear to ear at the thought of the earnings their shiny toys generate. These are savvy businessmen who largely view the franchises we love as nothing more than an additional stream of income. And despite being totally unable to increase the popularity and relevance of his sport, Rob Manfred makes his bosses very happy. He has secured lucrative TV and licensing deals among other revenue-producing ventures. In some ways, Manfred’s reign is a rousing success.

Life would be great if all of our jobs were that simple. We make our bosses happy and sometimes we reap the rewards (at least during “normal” times). The issue for Manfred is his responsibility extends beyond making money hand over fist for billionaires. The commissioner is the steward of competitive integrity for the league. In order for business to maintain public trust, he or she needs to ensure that the product on the field is fair. The Apple Watch offense, the Houston Astros’ scandal, and the Boston Red Sox sign-stealing scheme are clear demonstrations that Major League Baseball has a cheating problem. The league is like the Ashton Kutcher of pro sports. The foundational integrity of the game is at stake. And yet, Manfred is seemingly content with doing the absolute least to protect it.

It is hard to imagine someone dropping the ball in two significant investigations. At the very least, the first probe should have been a roadmap for the second one. Instead, the Boston “punishment” is impressively weaker than the Houston punishment. In fact, the details of the Red Sox investigation slightly suggest the players were in some way victims of the cheating scheme. This is a quote from Manfred’s statement:

I feel bound by the agreement not to impose discipline on Red Sox players who testified truthfully in this matter. Even if I were not so bound, I do not believe that the Red Sox players who suspected that Watkins used game feeds to decode sign sequences should be held responsible for his conduct. Watkins knew of the rules and was responsible for not utilizing the replay system to decode sign sequences. Some players may have suspected that Watkins was using the replay system improperly, but they did not know that with certainty. Others had no idea how Watkins obtained the sign information. 

Rob Manfred

In Rob Manfred’s absurdist world, the video replay system operator is a bigger culprit than the players on the field. The idea that some players “suspected” Watkins was up to something but didn’t know for sure is laughable. Was Watkins simply a connoisseur of sign stealing? Was he building up his resume to be the future manager or general manager of the Houston Astros? Are we really to believe the video replay system operator wasn’t in partnership with at least one Red Sox player in a sign-stealing scheme? As my grandmother likes to say, I was born at night, but not last night.

The commissioner can’t help but view his decisions through the lens of labor. I’ve said this in a previous column, but it bears repeating. Manfred will do everything he can to limit the leverage of the players union. He granted the Astros and Red Sox players immunity in exchange for open testimony so the Players Association didn’t have a rallying cry for future collective bargaining. Despite their collective public denouncement of the Astros cheating scheme, there is no way the players would accept the precedent of historical player suspensions. It wouldn’t bode well for the future of their union members. As it currently stands, the owners are in the driver’s seat when it comes to CBA negotiations. The union has weak leadership. Manfred doesn’t want to give the players a lifeline. The rationale makes total sense, but it comes at the cost of the game he leads.

All of this begs the question, what are Rob Manfred’s intentions? Is he just an extension of the owners’ desire to cash in on the game? Does he genuinely care about the health of the sport? Is he at all interested in moving the game forward? It is becoming painfully obvious that Rob Manfred lacks vision. The obsession with pitch clocks, mound visits, and three batter minimums is nothing more than window dressing for an utter lack of progressive thinking to make the game better.

Under Manfred’s watch, we’re experiencing the major league version of corporate profit margins, downsizing, and lack of awareness. We’re witnessing a broken free agent and arbitration system. Minor League baseball will soon lose multiple affiliations. The amateur draft, under the guise of the coronavirus pandemic, will almost certainly cut down its rounds in the years to come. The sport has yet to make inroads in black communities and it severely lacks mainstream stars.

And yet, financially the game has never been healthier. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the revenues were pouring in. The business side of baseball is booming. The bottom line is a great smokescreen for a stagnant game. The frustrating part is a lot of us know it’s stagnant, but we keep coming back for more.

And that is what makes Rob Manfred great at his job. He can feign being tough on baseball crime knowing that baseball fans will really be the judge and jury for teams like the Astros and Red Sox. He just needs to do the bare minimum because he knows the fans will do a lot of the heavy work. Fans will continue to watch on tv and pay for tickets. We’ll keep buying apparel. Some will keep creating gifs for social media consumption so MLB doesn’t have to spend more money on marketing. And others will write blog posts complaining about the commissioner’s unimpressive performance. All the while, Manfred continues to make his bosses happy.

Rob Manfred is the perfect embodiment of sports in 2020.

Spring Training News & Notes: Gerrit Cole Speaks, Astros Press Conference, & More

We’re entering the initial stages of a routine for the 2020 season. Aaron Boone had his first press conference of the year yesterday. We’re seeing amazing cell phone video of pitchers’ first bullpens. And we’re beginning to get our first public comments of the year from the players. We’re a little more than a week away from our first game. This is all exciting. Let’s get to the notes of the day.

1. Gerrit Cole Continues To Win The Press Conference: Gerrit Cole is an incredibly engaging player. Beyond having the privilege of watching him pitch every five days, we will bear witness to his impressive insight on the craft of pitching. We caught a glimpse of it after his victory in the Game 3 ALCS, but nobody in Yankeeland really cared about that at the time. Cole’s first press conference as the official ace of the Yankees was a brief masterclass. Here is Gerrit talking about the importance of a catcher’s set up in regards to the strike zone:

As knowledgeable baseball fans, we understand the general concept of a catcher setting up to aid the pitcher in executing a pitch. Most of us understand this as a technique to throw a strike. In the video above, Cole emphasizes the importance of intent rather than a pure result. Pitching is a complicated process. In its simplest form, a pitcher’s objective is to get a hitter out. This is much easier said than done. It demands a high level of execution and intelligence to keep a lineup down. Cole combines both and the result is one of the best in the business. It’s really cool to hear him break down some of the processes.

Cole was innings away from winning a World Series last year with that team from Texas. The Nationals came back in Game 7 to win the title. Gerrit was left sitting in the bullpen as his fellow pitchers blew the game. Jack Curry of the Yes Network asked Cole about his feelings regarding the pressure of playing for a title with the Yankees:

This dude is the perfect fit for this team. We knew that before he signed. It was obvious in his introductory press conference. The more I hear him embrace the Yankees’ edict my excitement increases exponentially. It aligns perfectly with his makeup as a competitor. This is going to be really fun.

Cole was asked about the Astros sign-stealing scandal. He said that he didn’t have any knowledge of what was going on. This response was expected. We won’t ever get to the bottom of this scandal. One of the reasons for that is in our next note.

2. A Comical Display of PR Malpractice: The Astros held a press conference this morning to address the sign-stealing scandal and it did not go well. Jim Crane, manager Dusty Baker, Jose Altuvé and Alex Bregman were in attendance. Crane took center stage in this theater of absurdity. Here is the first ridiculous statement from Houston’s owner:

This is a sterling display of privilege. Crane defiantly dismisses facts here. He fired his wildly successful general manager and manager precisely because they permitted a scheme that directly impacted games. Two other men lost their jobs for the same offense. Crane knows all of this and still chose to exhibit smug defiance. The best part of this exchange is a few moments after saying the sign-stealing didn’t impact the game; Crane denied saying that the sign-stealing didn’t impact the game. This is truly incredible nonsense.

This sham of a press conference lies at the feet of Commissioner Rob Manfred. He didn’t punish the players out of fear of the MLBPA. He went out of his way to praise Crane’s run as an owner. This is just really bad stuff all the way around.

The comedy didn’t stop with this quote though. Marly Rivera of ESPN asked Crane directly how does sign-stealing not affect competition and if he truly believes that why were the Astros apologizing. Crane’s response was “we’re apologizing because we broke the rules.” Rivera followed up:

Oof.

3. Astros Players Attempt to Apologize: After Altuvé and Bregman read prepared statements masquerading as genuine apologies; multiple Astros’ players spoke to the media about the scandal:

Everyone reading this can feel free to arrive at their own conclusions.

4. The Big Stache: Following the tradition set by Don Mattingly, Jason Giambi, Brendan Ryan, and Alvaro Espinoza, James Paxton arrived at camp with an impressive mustache. Here it is in all of its glory:

I like the look. There is a little more intimidation with Paxton now. Hopefully, he keeps it following his return from back surgery. The big lefty does believe a May return is possible. The team is being more conservative with their timeline and anticipate a June return. The important thing is Paxton being at full health and ready for a long run into October. The rotation is more than equipped to handle the loss of Paxton for the first few months of the season.

Rob Manfred And The Deterrent That Isn’t

Rob Manfred missed the mark.

The punishment levied against the Houston Astros management is both historic and significant. It is a sentence that many believe is deserving and will serve as a deterrent for future behavior. Except it very well may not be a deterrent because the main culprits, the Houston Astros players, are walking away scot-free. It is hard to curtail crime when the ones who actively break the rules are immune from the consequences. If anything, Rob Manfred’s investigation tells players that you can continue to undermine the integrity of the game because management is the only entity potentially exposed to repercussions.

To be clear, I’m all for gaining competitive advantages within the rules. If a catcher can’t put signs down well enough to hide them from a runner on first, so be it. When a runner on second base can relay signs to a hitter, that is on the pitcher and catcher. If a team can identify a tell in a pitcher’s set up, then the pitcher deserves his fate. However, manipulating available technology and building a communication system through that technology is clearly crossing the line.

The commissioner’s ruling is an important one for institutional checks and balances. It was a clear statement that franchises have to regulate organizational behavior. What it did not do was directly address the act of illegal sign stealing in baseball. The Astros were seemingly punished for allowing the stealing to continue. They were not punished for it happening in the first place. The commissioner took the weakest route possible to give the illusion that he is protecting the game’s integrity.

We need to address the elephant in the room. Manfred granted players immunity (prior to the launch of the investigation) in exchange for honest testimonies for one reason. He didn’t want a fight with the MLBPA. The commissioner did not want to allow the players’ union to have a rallying point in their CBA discussions. Manfred is well aware that he is in a strong position at the bargaining table so weakening that position doesn’t make much sense. Even if it comes at the cost of the sport he represents.

It would’ve been in the best interest of baseball if Manfred invited a fight. Did the Astros players really have that much leverage when clear visual evidence was being revealed on social media every day? Outside of Astros fans, were there people denying what their eyes and ears were telling them? It is really difficult to impose a deterrent to a clear problem in the game when the main perpetrators are immediately protected from punishment. What exactly is the end goal when the threat of consequences is removed from the equation?

Then again, why would any of this ultimately matter to Manfred? He comes out looking like the good guy. He can give the appearance of being really tough on crime. The media can focus on managers and general managers getting fired while completely forgetting about the ones who executed and benefitted from the rule breaking.

These decisions also create a tenuous “adult vs kids” scenario where management is supposed to be the grown ups and the players are the adorable toddlers just being kids by harmlessly drawing pictures on white walls with permanent markers. It is a dangerous and undermining dynamic to create. The players know exactly what they’re doing. They’re going to challenge the limits whenever they can to gain an advantage. This adult vs kids dynamic is even more ridiculous when you consider one of the scheme’s masterminds was a 38-year-old player on his last legs and considered a savant in the industry.

This is not to say Luhnow, Hinch, and Cora don’t deserve their punishments. They absolutely do. You can make the case that their penalties aren’t harsh enough (at least for Luhnow and Hinch). If MLB came down with a John Coppolella-level sentence it would be deserving. It is also laughable that Jim Crane was not only protected in Manfred’s statement but praised for being a good owner. This is the same tone deaf attitude that allows the offenders on the field to get a hall pass. It also keeps the commissioner in the good graces of the almighty owners.

The players needed to be severely punished in this case. A precedent should have been set. The idea that MLB investigators wouldn’t be able to determine which players participated in the scheme is absurd. Lucas Apostoleris was able to hop on YouTube and provide us our first visual evidence of the cheating occurring in real time. Jomboy was able to expand on this and provide more evidence. We can both see and hear the precise moments when the scheme was taking place. We can see when hitters are laying off nasty pitches.

A simple Google search reveals at least some of the players involved. There is no public evidence of AJ Hinch destroying two monitors. Yet there is clear evidence of Evan Gattis and George Springer using the scheme to aid their at-bats. How can Manfred honestly tell the public he couldn’t identify the players who took part when we can see it for ourselves? The decision to grant immunity was strictly a matter of the commissioner not having the fortitude to fight a union that is desperately looking to pick one.

In the context of labor climate and negotiations, this decision makes total sense. The problem is we can’t entirely view this sport through that prism despite MLB being a multi-billion dollar private corporation. MLB is also in the business of competitive integrity. The sport loves to get on its high horse when it comes to steroids and tradition. It loves to remind you of the heroes of yesteryear. When it comes to punishing the cheaters of today MLB decided to cower. The Astros punishment is not truly a deterrent to future sign stealing. It is a relative slap on the wrist that lets players know that you can get away with a lot if you just tell MLB what they want to hear.

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