Big Papi gets big support from Francona; should Torre stand pat?
The power is still out in major league baseball. While last year's home run decrease drew headlines, this year's has gone largely unnoticed. The rate of homers per game this season (1.03) and per at-bat (one every 33.33 ABs) is higher than each of the last two years, but still trails by a wide margin the numbers from the first part of this decade. In 2000 there were 1.17 home runs per game and a longball every 29.39 at-bats. In fact, the last three seasons rank at the bottom of the decade's standings in both categories. (Part of this, though it's unclear how much, is certainly due to MLB implementing a steroid-testing program for the 2004 season.)
Perhaps more surprising than the drop in home runs has been the names of the powerless. Now one month into the season, 275 of the 668 players (41 percent) to have gotten an at-bat this year have hit at least one home run, a list that includes such lightweights as
Very, and with good reason. Before the Red Sox opened the two-game series with the Yankees in the Bronx that they swept this week, Francona had a conversation with Ortiz that was designed to boost his struggling slugger's confidence and remind him that that the manager will give Ortiz time to return to the fearsome hitter he has been over the past several years. "I know how you feel," Ortiz said his manager told him. "I hit that way my whole career."
Francona's not far off. He was a .274 hitter in parts of 10 major league seasons with 16 career home runs. Ortiz isn't quite that bad, although he has yet to hit a home run this year, the longest drought since he came to the Red Sox in 2003 as a mostly unwanted spare part from the Twins. "I've been standing there for five years patting him on the fanny as he runs by, knocking in all those runs and winning games for us," Francona said. "Now when he needs a little help, I don't want to be the one to abandon him. I'm not going to do that. I want to help him."
"You've got to take the positive thing out of [this slump] and be a man," said Ortiz. "See the pitch and don't miss it."
Francona's handling of Ortiz says a lot about both the manager and the difficulty of the job. Most managers would be vilified for not only continuing to play a .208 hitter with no home runs but also batting him third, the most important spot in the lineup because of its significance in run-scoring opportunities. Francona's talk has not led to a big blast from Big Papi, but Ortiz did respond by going 3-for-6 with four walks, two doubles and two RBIs as the Red Sox took both games of their series in New York. It's little surprise that Francona is so beloved by his players. Ortiz went so far as to tell reporters, "I don't see Terry as my coach anymore. I see Terry as my dad."
This is another example of the true shame of the Steroid Era. Even players who have never been connected to performance-enhancing drugs are being viewed with a suspicious eye by fans and media, who sometimes forget that the overwhelming majority of players still owe slumps and breakdowns to age and injury, rather than the use, or lack thereof, of steroids. There has been no evidence of any kind that suggests Ortiz took steroids, and until there is, it's unfair to assume otherwise.
Based on comments he made over the weekend, not only is Torre not concerned, but he doesn't think Loney is either. "James doesn't even know he doesn't have a home run yet," Torre told the
Torre has never put a huge premium on home runs, preferring instead that his players take good at-bats and have the ability to beat you even when they aren't hitting for power, usually by lacing line drives all over the ballpark. Loney, in particular, has not been much of a pull-hitter so far, with only five of his 27 hits going to right field. The one concern might be where he hits in the lineup. Torre has said he's reluctant to juggle the order with his team playing so well, but Loney is batting just .220 in the fifth spot, his primary position in the lineup, compared to .348 when he bats sixth or seventh.
I don't think they will and I don't think they should. This discussion can pretty much begin and end with the fact that owners would lose far too much money to even consider such a proposal. As it stands right now, each team plays 81 home games. If the season were cut to 124 games -- it would have to be an even number so each team would play as many games at home as on the road -- they would be losing 19 home dates and all the extra revenue for parking, concessions, etc. that come with it.
As for expanding the playoffs, I'm in the group that thinks they are fine just the way they are. Baseball allows a smaller percentage of its teams into the postseason than any of the four major sports: 37.5 percent in the NFL (12 of 32), 53.3 percent in the NHL and NBA (16 of 30; what is this, youth soccer?) and only 8 of 30 in Major League Baseball or 26.7 percent. This ensures that only the most deserving teams reach the postseason and that the regular season maintains its level of importance. Baseball has enough trouble drawing and maintaining fan interest over the course of 162 games without devaluing the product any further. Commissioner
For now there's not a whole lot of non-pitchers available, at least not on the big league roster. The Cardinals, like a lot of teams these days, are carrying 13 pitchers and only 12 position players (two catchers, six infielders and four outfielders). Nor is there really a great need for pitching help, at least not as long as the Cards continue to lead the NL Central. Even the one player whose name has probably popped up in trade rumors more than any other -- outfielder
That's certainly held true in this decade. Of the 31 triple plays turned in the big leagues since the start of the 2000 season, the team that pulled it off has gone 12-19. Here's the record by season for teams pulling off a triple play:
It's pine tar. Several hitters, including
I think the Reds should focus first on having a winning record, which they haven't done since 2000, and then on reaching the playoffs, which they haven't done since 1995 (or in a non-strike-shortened year since 1990) before they worry about winning the World Series. Having spent a few days around this team during spring training, I can tell you this is a confident group but one that is not at all ready to win a World Series this year, or perhaps next. They do have a tremendous nucleus, both in the lineup and in the rotation, but need more depth top-to-bottom in both areas to be a legitimate Series contender.
Since the Home Run Derby was added to the All-Star Game in 1985, only one player has won the event outright and then gone on to win the World Series that fall: