Thursday, May 26, 2011

Enough's Enough

Nobody can really enjoy watching Giants catcher Buster Posey have his season ended in a horrible home plate collision. It's ugly, and the sight of Posey writhing in pain afterward is even uglier.

Yet plenty of baseball fans seem willing to say, "Well, too bad. That's baseball." For a hundred years, collisions at the plate have been part of the game, they say. That's true, but I'm here to argue that it's time for this to stop.

I hold no malice toward Scott Cousins of the Florida Marlins for barreling into Posey. He did what Major League ballplayers do on that sort of play: he tried to run the catcher over. In his own words, "I decided to try and knock the ball loose." In other words, his goal on the play was to separate Posey from the ball he was trying to catch. If you watch the video, you'll see that Cousins' path isn't really to the plate--it's toward Posey's head.

In the big leagues, that's a heads-up play and it makes you a hero in the clubhouse. In high school and college baseball, it makes you "out at the plate". The NCAA realized that bigger, faster, more aggressive players were creating greater havoc in home plate collisions and that player safety was at risk on each of these plays.

The NCAA's "Collision Rule" (Rule 8.7 in the college baseball rulebook) was amended before the 2011 season, and it makes one thing clear: runners trying to score have to try to score, not try to dislodge the ball from the catcher. The rule reads, in part, "Contact above the waist that was initiated by the base runner shall not be judged as an attempt to reach the base or plate."

A runner who violates Rule 8.7 is out, and if the umpire finds the contact flagrant or malicious, is also out of the game--ejected.

Posey's agent, Jeff Berry, has already served notice that he'll ask Major League Baseball to do something about home plate collisions. As he points out, it's ironic that the NFL has just toughened its rules to punish players who take headshots at defenseless receivers, yet MLB persists in applauding players who mow down catchers.

Again, I don't fault Scott Cousins (and I'll bet Buster Posey doesn't, either). He was playing within the rules. But it's way past time for those rules to change.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

A Crazy Game

For San Jose Sharks fans, it's a familiar feeling. A very good team that didn't quite measure up when it counted.

For the second straight year, the Sharks saw their season end in the conference finals. The team that beat them last year went on to win the Stanley Cup. I'd say there's a pretty good chance the team that beat them this year will do so too.

When you lose a series 4-1, as the Sharks did to the Vancouver Canucks, it's tempting to say that anyone who says it could have gone the other way is a whiny loser. But this series was a lot closer than 4-1. The series-ending game was largely dominated by the Sharks, who just didn't get the bounces and breaks--and no bounce was any weirder than the one that led to the winning goal.

People who've watched more hockey than I have say they can't recall a crazier series-ending goal: a puck that it seems was only seen by one player, Vancouver's Kevin Bieksa, after a zany bounce off a stanchion in the rinkside glass. Bieksa's shot was one of the ugliest you'll ever see, but a thing of pure beauty to the roaring crowd in Vancouver.

Now begins the annual flogging of the Sharks, a team upon which high expectations are heaped year after year. There will be those who blame Patrick Marleau or Dany Heatley. Both are high-paid forwards who are expected to score. Marleau suffered the pathetic rantings of former teammate Jeremy Roenick earlier in the playoffs, and answered by scoring 7 points in the Vancouver series. Heatley's effort in Game 5 can't be questioned, even if he never broke through on the scoresheet.

Sports can be cruel in its finality. The fact that the Sharks didn't win doesn't make them losers, and a calm assessment of the team's strengths should reveal that the best thing to do is probably to stand pat. The core of the team is set. Young forward Jamie McGinn, notably, becomes a restricted free agent and I can't imagine the team failing to re-sign him after the postseason energy he displayed.

Dump on the Sharks for failing to win it all, if you must, but do remember that this team has taken the Bay Area deep into spring hockey pretty regularly. If Vancouver ends up winning the Cup, it'll be a bittersweet balm, but at least the Sharks will know that they were right there with the eventual champions.

Monday, May 23, 2011

And You Were Surprised?

It's somehow weirdly fitting that members of the U.S. Postal Service cycling team used to refer to the banned blood-enhancing drug EPO as "Edgar Allan Poe". The words "mystery" and "macabre" come to mind when discussing Poe's body of literary work, and cycling's inner workings are nothing if not mysterious and macabre.

Tyler Hamilton's lengthy interview with "60 Minutes" may have blown all of this onto the front page--and irrevocably dented Lance Armstrong's continued protestations of innocence--but nobody who knows anything about the sport can possibly be surprised.

In the same way that baseball's steroid years should have been obvious to anyone following the sport, revelations about the inner workings of cycling's drug-soaked culture are not exactly shocking. The details are juicy, of course--"clean" cell phones to use when discussing doping, code names (like Edgar Allan Poe), clandestine flights--but "cycling" and "doping" have practically been synonymous for years.

A few key thoughts:
  • Can human beings be expected to do what pro cyclists do without doping? The sport's marquee event, the Tour de France, lasts for three weeks, covering well over 2,000 miles. The winner's average speed, after all those miles and all that grueling climbing, routinely exceeds 25 MPH. Do me a favor: hop on your bike, see if you can get it up to 25 MPH, and then hold it there for 5 minutes. Didn't think so.
  • The tendency to blame riders for being "cheaters" is misguided. Put yourself in their place: you're in your 20's, have been doing nothing but race a bike for years, and the "boss" tells you to "get with the program". Your choices? Do it, or say "no" and start figuring how you're going to get a real job with no education.
  • As usual, it's about the money. Race organizers want the most demanding courses so they can maximize their profit. TV wants day after day of grueling competition. Team owners want maximum exposure for their brands. Managers want to win so they can keep their paychecks. Figure that problem out and you'll be on the way to figuring out how to end the doping. Hamilton's told "60 Minutes" and federal prosecutors that the U.S. Postal doping program was run by the team management itself and this is certainly the case with other teams, too.
  • If you think testing programs will eliminate drugs from sports, you might also believe in Santa Claus. Armstrong's oft-repeated claim that he never failed a drug test (see also: Bonds, Barry) doesn't prove he was clean--it merely proves he didn't get caught. I was fascinated by Hamilton's explanation of how the U.S. Postal doping program relied on taking just enough EPO to get a boost--but not enough to exceed the doping-control thresholds. These people know what they're doing.
  • Lance Armstrong is at a crossroads. His impact on cancer fundraising and consciousness-raising has been massive (his foundation has now sold more than 70 million of those yellow wristbands), but what happens to his credibility as the evidence against him mounts? For now, the Armstrong response is right out of his combative playbook: accuse everyone else. Tyler Hamilton is just saying all this because he wrote a book. CBS "has demonstrated an unpardonable zeal to smear Lance Armstrong." And so on. We'll see if this still plays if Armstrong ends up under indictment.
  • Sure, it's self-serving, but the Armstrong camp's question about whether a massive federal investigation in the best use of the taxpayers' money is at least worthy of discussion. Look, I enjoy bike racing, but I'm wondering if it's really my government's job to clean up the sport (especially when most of the nefarious behavior took place overseas).
Tyler Hamilton didn't look like a guy who was much enjoying his turn in the "60 Minutes" spotlight. True, he might sell a few books, but to get there, he had to choose between telling the truth to federal prosecutors and clamming up to protect a sport that used him up the way it has so many others. Cycling, unlike major American pro sports, has no collective bargaining for its athletes. Some get rich, but most just get ground up and spit out.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Arms Race

It's only mid-May, but this Bay Area baseball season is shaping up to be something special for folks who enjoy good pitching.

As I write, the A's staff ERA is 2.75, best in the American League. 23-year-old righthander Trevor Cahill is already 6-0 with a gaudy 1.72 ERA. Somebody with a lot of time on his hands at the Elias Sports Bureau figured Cahill's start is the best by an A's pitcher since 1925 (only he and Sam Gray of the '25 A's can claim to have started a year 6-0 with an ERA under 2.00).

Across the Bay, Tim Lincecum may be pitching better than he ever has. Although his record is just 3-3, The Freak has posted a 2.11 ERA (his career best for a season is 2.48), he's striking out 10.7 batters per 9 innings (his career best for a season is 10.5), and his WHIP (walks plus hits per inning pitched) is the lowest of his career at 1.03. He's on pace to strike out more than 270 hitters after leading the league in that category the last 3 years.

But Cahill and Lincecum are merely the anchors of two very good pitching staffs. The A's starters have been very good. The Giants' starters have been pretty good, but the bullpen has been ridiculously good. Each team has lost a starter to injury (Dallas Braden in Oakland, Barry Zito in San Francisco) but has gotten more-than-capable help from the fill-in starter (Tyson Ross for the A's and Ryan Vogelsong for the Giants).

Each team has fielded some terrific pitchers in the 44 years they've shared the Bay Area baseball market. The A's might have the single-season edge with their staffs in 1971 and 1974. In '71, Vida Blue put up ridiculous numbers in winning the Cy Young Award (24-8, 1.82, 301 K's, 8 shutouts) but teammate Catfish Hunter also threw 4 shutouts and went 21-11 with a 2.96 ERA.

Three years later, Hunter was The Man on an A's staff that led the league with a 2.95 team ERA. Catfish won the Cy Young with 6 shutouts, a 25-12 record, and a 2.49 ERA. Blue and Ken Holtzman (19-17) were strong backup acts.

The Giants have had their share of great pitching seasons, too, although you have to hand it to the A's for the real headline-grabbing years. One Giants staff that flies below the radar was the 1987 edition. The Giants led the league in ERA that year, despite the fact that their top winner was 13-10 Mike LaCoss.

The '89 Giants featured very effective starters Rick Reuschel and Scott Garrelts and a righty-lefty closer combo of Steve Bedrosian and Craig Lefferts--while across the Bay, the world champion A's led the league in ERA and had 4 starters with 17 or more wins (Dave Stewart, Mike Moore, Storm Davis and Bob Welch). That '89 season, of course, saw the A's and Giants in the World Series.

Last year, each team led its league in ERA and each saw the emergence of young stars like Dallas Braden, Madison Bumgarner, Gio Gonzalez, Cahill and Brett Anderson. The Giants' starters get the headlines, but you could argue that it was their bullpen that made the difference in a World Series-winning season.

It's too much to hope, of course, that we'll replay 1989 and see a Bay Bridge World Series. But we might just be watching the best collective pitching staff the Bay Area has ever seen. Chicks may dig the long ball (as the advertisement went), but real fans find the beauty in a 1-2-3 inning.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Why Clouds Are Cool

Old Sol wouldn't be smiling if he was a major-league hitter.

New research indicates that when the sun comes out, batting averages go down.

The study also found that day games played in bright sunshine produce more strikeouts, lower ERA's, and an increased win percentage for the home team.

Researchers from Kent State University combed through stats for more than 10,750 Major League day games stretching back to the late 80's. What they found provides indisputable evidence that a ballgame under bright sunshine will be different from one under cloudy skies, although the why of this is open to discussion.

The researchers theorize that glare and eyestrain on a sunny day make it harder on hitters. Mets third baseman David Wright is among those who buy that theory, saying "I always prefer a little cloud cover." The study did not tease out the effect on hitters of those dreadful late-afternoon games, where the mound is often in shadow but the outfield in bright sunshine. I'm guessing the hitters suffer even more in those conditions.

The study reveals another anomaly: while both teams see batting averages drop and pitching stats improve when it's sunny, the home team sees the most pronounced impact. Take a look:
  • Batting average: On cloudy days, home teams outhit visitors .266 to .259. When the sun's out, the home advantage narrows (.256 to .251).
  • Earned runs allowed: Cloudy-day ERA's favor the home team (3.93 to 4.50), but again, the gap narrows when the sun's shining (4.26 to 4.68).
  • Strikeouts: Home-team pitchers beat the visitors in strikeouts on sunny days (6.65/game to 6.14) as well as cloudy days (6.22/game to 5.67). It's close, but the home team still sees a slightly better bump from the weather.
Here's something to ponder: the home team wins 56% of the time when it's sunny--but only 52% of the time when it's cloudy. That's a staggering number--a difference of 7 wins over a 162-game season! Of course, a team doesn't play all its games at home and it doesn't play them all in the daytime--but still, it's enough to make you want the sun shining when your team is playing at home.

Oh, by the way: the study looked at night games and games played indoors and found that while hitters fared better in those conditions than in the sunshine, they still did better under cloudy skies.

Bottom line: if you like offense, pray for a little cloud cover. But if you want the home team to win, hope for sunshine.

You can see a quick summary of the study here.