Saturday, September 16, 2006

Playoffs In Sight for Padres?

In 1990 the long-awaited sequel to "Chinatown" was released, sixteen years after the original. In "The Two Jakes" Jack Nicholson returned as Detective J.J. Gittes to solve mysteries in Southern California. Though the third film in the trilogy was never made, sixteen years later a mystery worthy of Mr. Gittes is playing out in San Diego. Curiously, this one also involves two Jakes, who happen to be the same person.

In the prior two seasons, the Padres' Jake Peavy was one of the best pitchers in baseball. In 2004, at 23 years of age, he led the National League in ERA at 2.27, while going 15-6 for the Padres. Despite his great season, he didn't get one vote for the Cy Young Award. In 2005, he led the league in strikeouts with 216 while going 13-7, and his 2.88 ERA was sixth best. Again not one Cy Young vote. Despite the modest ERA dropoff, he showed improvement in a number of key stats from '04 to '05. Namely, his hits/nine innings dropped (7.90 to 7.18), his strikeouts/nine increased (9.36 to 9.58), his strikeouts/walk ratio increased (3.26 to 4.32) and his WHIP (walks plus hits per inning pitched) dropped considerably (1.20 to 1.04). All of this foretold a tremendous 2006 season.

So how's he doing? He's 9-14 with a 4.19 ERA, and his WHIP is back up to 1.22. Even though his season has improved recently (just six weeks ago, he was 4-10 with a 5.15 ERA and a 1.31 WHIP). it's still a considerable step back from the success of the past two seasons. What's the reason for the turnaround? How did the '04-'05 Jake become the '06 Jake? Bad luck, bad advice and a bad vision plan. The obvious three.

As for bad luck, Peavy had four no decisions (not a win, not a loss) in which he gave up only one run, and in three of those, the team won the game in the 10th inning, after Peavy had left (they lost the fourth). The Padres have averaged over 4.0 runs in the games Peavy has started, so ordinarily, those efforts would be rewarded with wins. But their run support for Peavy has been so erratic (hit or miss?) that in 10 of his 29 starts, they scored NO runs while he was in the game. Zero. In fact, in his 14 losses they've scored just 27 runs, less than 2.0 per game. That's the kind of support that makes a guy feel unwanted.

His won-loss record isn't all about bad run support, as he did have a few terrible starts, in which he gave up 8 runs once, 7 runs twice, and 6 runs four times (one of which he won). So what else is going on?

In late July Peavy moved back to pitching from the third-base side of the rubber. Though he had pitched from that side during his ERA title season in 2004, he moved to the first-base side because he felt this spot allowed him to better locate his tailing fastball against lefties. But after two straight seven run stinkers this year, his pitching coach suggested he switch back. In this age of extensive video analysis and managers who won't pee without knowing what time of day the urinal works best, how could an All-Star pitcher's changed location go uncorrected for so long? The coaching staff weren't the only ones who didn't see something big.

Peavy is legally blind. He had his prescription changed during Spring Training, but until August 16th, wasn't able to get contact lenses to match that new prescription. Said catcher Rob Bowen, "I thought we were going to have to go to smoke signals...I was putting signals everywhere, but Jake was having trouble picking them up.” So one of the game's top pitchers couldn't see what pitch to throw and his team didn't correct this until there were six weeks left in the season? How is that possible? Major League players can get same day MRIs (try getting that on your health plan, if you still have one), surgeries done before games even end...the best and fastest treatment money can buy. Apparently this doesn't extend to vision plans.

The Padres are 1.5 games behind the Dodgers for the division lead, and are ahead in the Wild Card standings by 1.5 games over the Phillies. They may still make the playoffs, but if they had corrected their star pitcher's pitching location and vision during Spring Training, they'd be in the driver's seat towards consecutive division crowns. As for the Cy Young race this year? "Forget it, Jake. It's Chinatown."

Friday, September 01, 2006

Fruits of Your Labor Day

Thanks for all of your responses to the trivia question. The answer is...

The five switch hitters to have hit 40 home runs in a season in Major League Baseball history are:
Mickey Mantle, NY Yankees, 52 HRs, 1956; 42 HRs, 1958; 40 HRs, 1960; 54 HRs, 1961
Todd Hundley, NY Mets, 41 HRs, 1996
Ken Caminiti, San Diego Padres, 40 HRs, 1996
Chipper Jones, Atlanta Braves, 41 HRs, 1997; 41 HRs, 1999
Lance Berkman, Houston Astros, 42 Hrs, 2002

I don't have a particularly good reason why three of the four players happened to have accomplished the feat in 1996 and 1997. Well, Caminiti admitted to using steroids during that time, but still, it seems like just a statistical quirk that they were bunched together. Mantle (1956), Caminiti and Jones (1999) all won MVP awards during those seasons, while Hundley finished 18th, tied with teammate Lance Johnson. How three members of the 1996 Mets (Bernard Gilkey was 14th) finished in the top 18 in the MVP race, when the team finished in fourth place, 25 games out, is beyond me. Though pointing these things out is certainly not beneath me.

Bonus Answer: The Mets' Carlos Beltran, with 39 home runs, should become the 6th player to enter this group sometime this month, and Lance Berkman will repeat.