Springer gets the call in Houston

April 15, 2014

I love it when they make me look like I know what I’m talking about.

Prior to last season, my friends and I shared our best-in-the-AL West-prospect lists. Rangers’ prospect Jurickson Profar took almost everyone’s top spot. Mariners’ right-hander Taijuan Walker got a lot of love as well. Other consensus choices were Mike Olt, Mike Zunino and Carlos Correa. One of my best friends who is an A’s fan — God bless him — even threw Sonny Gray’s name into the mix.

But there was one name strangely absent from everyone else’s list.

It was at that moment I proclaimed Astros outfield prospect George Springer might just turn out to be the best player of any then-current minor-leaguer out of the AL West.

Who the heck is George Springer? — someone asked. I don’t much talk to that someone anymore.

At the time, my answer was simple. George Springer is a right-handed version of Larry Walker. Too high of praise, my friend accused. Like I said, we don’t much talk anymore.

Walker was indeed a great player. He is one of those guys I put in the class of greatest players that justifiably aren’t in the Hall of Fame. Through 17 years in the big leagues, Walker could do it all. In an era where the term “five tools” got bandied about far too readily, Walker was a legit five-tool player.

The Rockies great won three NL batting crowns in four years: 1998 (.363), ’99 (.379) and 2001 (.350). Walker not only led the NL with 49 home runs in 1997 en route to being named NL MVP, he also earned one of his seven career Gold Gloves. He also tabbed 150 career assists as a right fielder.

The point of the player comparison wasn’t to claim Springer is going to compile such a resume. Who the heck knows what Springer is going to do over the next decade or two? Maybe he will pull a John Frank and decide to quit professional sports to attend medical school. (That is your obscure reference to 49ers football of the ‘80s, thank you very much.) In the meantime, rest assured that in the here-and-now, George Springer is a bad, bad man on a baseball diamond.

Last year, Springer took it to another level. After two seasons of proving himself as a solid prospect in 2011 and ’12, Springer emerged as one of the best prospects in all of baseball in 2013 while being promoted from Double-A Corpus Christi and Triple-A Oklahoma. The center fielder fell three homers shy of going 40-40, clubbing 37 home runs and stealing 45 bases. And yes, he can catch and throw.

On the heels of his alma mater UConn sweeping the national championships in men’s and women’s basketball, it is fitting Springer received the call to the major leagues Tuesday.

Good luck, George Springer. Thanks for making me look like I know what I’m talking about.


Leake spectacular for Cinci

April 9, 2014

I tuned into the Reds-Cardinals game Wednesday to watch Cards phenom Shelby Miller pitch. Ultimately, the reason I kept watching was because of Reds starter Mike Leake.

The first time I ever saw Leake pitch was on a breezy April 24, 2009 game at Cal. Then a college junior, Leake was the ace of an Arizona State team that would go on to advance to the College World Series semifinals. Leake dealt at Evans Diamond that Friday, limiting Cal to one run on five hits to earn his 10th win of the season.

Even at the collegiate level, Leake demonstrated only moderate velocity. What immediately impressed me about him was the command of his secondary stuff. Leake could absolutely throw darts with his curveball and changeup, which made his fastball seem electric. He struck me as a young right-handed version of Kirk Rueter. And what he’s done since that day five years ago has made me feel really good about that evaluation.

Leake went on to post a Pac-10 best 16-1 record that season as the Sun Devils advanced to Omaha only to be eliminated by Brandon Belt’s Texas Longhorns. Leake was named the American Baseball Coaches’ Association National Player of the Year for his performance, proceeding 2008 winner Buster Posey.

With the Giants drafting sixth overall that June, I had hoped they would select either Leake or Vanderbilt left-hander Mike Minor, but instead opted to go the high-school route with Georgia-born Zack Wheeler. Within the next two overall draft picks, Minor and Leake went off the board, with Minor being selected seventh overall by the Braves and Leake eighth overall by the Reds.

At the time, that draft order seemed about right to most prognosticators. And I’ve long since learned not to quibble with the way the Giants evaluate amateur pitching prospects. But with Leake’s first win of the year Wednesday, he improved his career major league record to 43-30. Mike Minor, already solidifying himself as a top-of-the-rotation talent, entered play Wednesday with a career record of 32-24. Wheeler, of course, was traded by the Giants to the Mets in the notorious Carlos Beltran deal of 2011, and has amassed a 7-5 record since being called up by New York last season.

Wednesday against the Cardinals, Leake was even more dominant than he was five years ago against Cal. The 26-year-old right-hander delivered eight shutout innings while allowing just four hits, needing just 100 pitches to get the better of the Cards’ Miller, who falls to 0-2 on the year.

So, while many may spotlight Wednesday’s performance by Reds’ rookie leadoff man Billy Hamilton — the speedster went 3 for 4 with two steals and two runs scored, including his turning a pop-up off the bat of Jay Bruce to very shallow right field into a sacrifice fly by essentially swiping home — it was Leake who emerged as one of the cornerstone players upon whom the 2014 Reds will build.

Replay is all about ad money

September 8, 2013

Welcome to the future, folks.

We got a glimpse of the imminent replay era in Major League Baseball in the 10th inning of Sunday’s eventual extra-inning Giants win over the Diamondbacks.

On a missed call that almost cost the Giants dearly, pitcher George Kontos was covering the bag on a grounder to first baseman Buster Posey, when umpire Tom Hallion called the base runner Aaron Hill safe, saying Kontos missed the base with his foot. However, Kontos so obviously tagged the base that the umpires soon conferred to overturn the call, not only ending the inning, but costing Arizona a bases-loaded shot at breaking a 2-2 tie, which instead culminated in Diamondbacks manager Kirk Gibson getting kicked out of the game for the second time in a four-game series.     

Baseball fans best get used to the sight on calls getting overturned, because next year when full-blown replay kicks in, it’s going to be a daily spectacle. Thanks to the National Football League for the instant-replay revolution. Yes, that is epic sarcasm.

From what I can tell, the NFL has become the most glorified dance-off on the planet. Granted, I was busy watching baseball on the opening Sunday of football season. But during intermittent channel changes between innings, it quickly became obvious that celebratory posturing and posing continues to turn the professional gridiron into a theater of the absurd.

But baseball isn’t far behind. Posing and posturing has been festering in MLB for a generation, from Barry Bonds’ iconic pointing to the sky, to Brian Wilson’s similar gesture, to the Angel Pagan salute and the Pablo Sandoval bow-and-arrow mimicry. Notice when Dodgers shortstop Hanley Ramirez does his Batman shtick, Sergio Romo – owner of one of the most animated celebrations in baseball, no less – loses his shit to insight an on-field confrontation.

Posturing and posing has nothing to do with gamesmanship, mind you. Neither does instant replay. They are both born and bred from the same marketing strategy to keep you, the consumer, watching. Why? Because a vast majority of people in the modern age watch baseball on television. And the more television broadcasts can keep audiences’ eyes trained to the screen during the game, the easier it is for advertisers to do so during commercial breaks.

This is why television commentators are all on the same page in advocating for instant replay. Notice when MLB announced in mid-August plans to expand instant replay in 2014, how the entire broadcasting family banded together in regurgitating what sounded like the same script? Now that’s some serious Big Brother shit.

Football has long since opened Pandora’s box of integrating replay technology with advertising. And boy has the NFL got its act down. During the second quarter of the 49ers’ opening-day win over Green Bay, there was a replay that intervened on Eric Reid’s first career interception.

Fox Sports replayed the interception in question three times – the final time, just before cutting to commercial, drew the focus to the bottom third of the TV screen. Standard operating procedure is to draw focus to the middle of the screen. However, for instant replay, commercials seem to be calibrated to take advantage of drawing the audience’s attention to different quadrants of the screen. And sure enough, the Google ad that followed launched a flurry of movement towards the bottom of the screen; making for a seamless line-of-sight transition from instant replay to commercial advertisement.

This style of subliminal advertisement is rampant in football. Now baseball is following suit. All-Stars like Josh Hamilton and C.J. Wilson – whose combined baseball salaries are $25-million this season – are endorsing an alcohol-ridden shampoo that damages hair follicles and exacerbates baldness. But if they told people that, millions of consumers would stop using their product every day. So, they aren’t going to tell you that. 

Whether they know it or not, every pose, posture, and dance in which players engage is implicit in the practice of dirty advertising, just as every stride taken in the direction of integrating instant replay into sports. I’m not trying to be judgmental. Just like everyone in the business, I’ve often evoked the spirit of Jerry Maguire by shouting: Show me the money!

But to people on TV, lobbying for TV technology to be integrated into the game, under the guise of doing it for the integrity of the sport….

Bullshit. That’s just propaganda. Plain and simple. And dystopia isn’t too far off, if it isn’t upon us already.

Crisp & Pence close on 20-20

September 2, 2013

Alright, quick quiz. And no cheating. As of Monday night, who has more home runs on the season: Hunter Pence or Coco Crisp?

Haha! Trick question. Pence and Crisp are currently tied with 17 home runs apiece. I do not apologize for the trick question. (However, I do apologize for the “Haha!” Admittedly, that’s just bad form.)

Crisp’s power production is big news though. With a pivotal two-run blast Monday in Oakland’s 4-2 win over the Rangers, Crisp set a new career high in home runs. He previously hit 16 homers with the Indians in 2005, and that was in 594 at bats. He has tallied just 426 at bats in 2013 thus far, and with 25 games remaining in the regular season, the 33-year-old switch-hitter has a legitimate shot at hitting 20 home runs. He is concurrently three steals/three homers short of a 20-20 season.

With the Giants, Pence too is closing in on the 20-20 mark. Monday, he swiped his career-high 21st base in San Diego, leaving him just three homers short of the esteemed plateau.

The similarities between Pence and Crisp are noteworthy, especially for two players who have appeared to be the antithesis of one another throughout their respective careers.

For Pence, the power production comes as no surprise. He has hit over 20 home runs in each of his five full seasons in the Major Leagues. Valued as a five-tool player, he has consistently been a power-first threat, with his speed on the bases a serious, but secondary commodity.

Crisp has long been renowned as a speedster. When he signed with the A’s prior to the 2010 season, he had notched 20 steals four times in his career. He went on to become one of the most feared base stealers in the game over the next three years, setting a career-high with 32 steals through just 75 games in ’10, before surpassing that mark by swiping 49 bases in 2011. Last season, he maintained his prowess by stealing 39 bases.

Despite past differences, the respective abilities of each Pence and Crisp seem to be intersecting this season. It just goes to show how good players must continue to evolve in establishing successful careers. So, it’s fitting that Crisp’s big blast on Monday helps keep the A’s continue on the path of realizing another place they’d like to see the green-and-gold intersect with Pence, that being the winning of a World Championship.

With Monday’s win, the A’s move into an outright tie with the Rangers for first place in the American League West. And something catastrophic would have to happen for both teams not to advance to the postseason. In the wild-card race, Tampa trails the top seed by three game – meaning if the season ended today, all three would qualify for the playoffs – one by virtue of a division title, and the other two advancing to the one-game wild-card matchup. The Orioles are the first team currently outside the postseason bubble, and they currently trail the Rangers and A’s by 5 ½ games.

Crisp does have a World Championship to his credit though, as member of the 2007 Red Sox. And since the A’s optioned relief pitcher Hideki Okajima to the minor leagues, Crisp in the only player in the A’s clubhouse to boast a World Series ring.

Feldman on fire in May

May 21, 2013

Less than two months into the baseball season, the success of Scott Feldman is already producing the perfect storm of trade rumors.

Feldman signed a one-year deal with the Cubs prior to this season, and has righted the ship after a slow start with his new team. After losing each of his first three starts, the right-hander has been one of the best in the big leagues, winning four of his last five starts, and tabbing a 3-0 record in May. His 2.19 ERA is tops among Cubs starters, and ranks sixth in the National League.

Meanwhile, the Cubs (18-25) are trying to stay out of the cellar in one of the best divisions in baseball. They are currently seesawing with the Brewers at the bottom of the NL Central. And with Feldman in a contract year, his dominant May is certainly catching the eye of contending teams in search of a hot veteran starter.

Feldman envisions a different scenario though. After spending eight years with the Rangers, he would be game for another such long-term tenure in Chicago. And Feldman has his eye on the ultimate prize.

“I think it would be awesome to re-sign here,” Feldman said. “I think that this organization is headed in the right direction. You never know when it’s going to happen, but (the Cubs are) not too far away from being a pretty good team. I think when this team finally does finally win, and win the whole thing, this town is going to just go crazy. So, I think it would be awesome to try and be a part of that.”

Feldman isn’t getting too far ahead of himself though. In the midst of one of the best months of his career, Feldman said he’s taking things start-by-start. His first start of the month was one to savor though, as he went the distance against San Diego on May 1. Not only did he notch a career-high 12 strikeouts. It was also the first complete game of his professional career.

“Yeah, first one,” Feldman said. “It took me awhile, but it was nice to finally get that one.”

Feldman is settling in with another Bay Area native in his first year with the Cubs – former Giants outfielder Nate Schierholtz. And like Feldman, Schierholtz is off to the best start of his career. The left-handed batting right fielder has been hitting predominantly in the No. 5 spot of the order, and is generating the power numbers to stay there. Schierholtz is currently mashing to the tune of a .520 slugging percentage, and has already hit five home runs. He tabbed his career high of nine homers in 2009 with the Giants.   

“He’s been one of the more consistent hitters in the league to start the season,” Feldman said. “I think getting out of [AT&T Park], that’s a tough place to hit when you’re a left-handed hitter. You really have to crush a ball, unless it goes right down the line. I think just getting him in a normal stadium and getting more playing time is really going to let him show off his ability a lot more.”

Although they first met prior to the start of this season, Feldman and Schierholtz were conference rivals at the community-college level in 2003. Feldman is the all-time career wins leader at College of San Mateo, having pitched there from 2002-03. Schierholtz was a slugging third baseman at Hayward’s Chabot College, ranking second in the state with 18 home runs in 2003.

Feldman didn’t pitch against Chabot that season, so the two never faced one another in college. They were each drafted out of their respective junior colleges in 2003 though. Schierholtz was a freshman draftee, taken in the second round by the Giants. Feldman was drafted the following day by Texas in the 30th round.

Cespedes does it all for A’s

May 19, 2013

For all the excitement surrounding Yoenis Cespedes’ game-winning home run Sunday, it should be noted that Cespedes initially got the A’s offense going with his legs, not his bat.

As Oakland mounted its third comeback win in as many days against the Royals, it was Cespedes’ all-out base running that allowed the A’s to get on the board in fourth inning. Kansas City already led 2-0. But after leading off the inning with a bloop single, Cespedes went from first to third on a single by Brandon Moss with as much intensity as you’re ever going to see on a take of 180 feet.

Moss smashed a hard chopper through the hole into right field, but the ball was hit so hard, Cespedes had to stutter-step around it to avoid having it hit him. Despite his late break for second, Cespedes accelerated quickly, and found another gear as he turned and burned around the bag at second, never hesitating as he sprinted towards third.

Royals right fielder Jeff Francoeur is renowned for having one of the best outfield throwing arms in the game, but Cespedes’ speed, agility, and intensity proved equally as impressive. And a slightly imperfect throw from Francoeur was all the window Cespedes needed to dart safely into third with a feet-first slide.

Not a bad effort for Cespedes, who may just lead the league in slowest walks from the on-deck circle to home plate prior to his at bats. His approach was so exaggerated in the final two games of the Royals series, both opposing starters – Ervin Santana and Luis Mendoza – had moments when they had to step off the mound during Cespedes’ antics.

But the Cuban sensation proved the hero Sunday. After crossing the plate with the A’s first run on Josh Donaldson’s sacrifice fly in the fourth, Cespedes later walloped a majestic home run to left-center off Royals reliever Kelvin Herrera to give the A’s a 4-3 lead, which held up for the win.

“He has a flair for that, there’s no question,” A’s manager Bob Melvin said. “We’ve seen him do late-inning stuff. Guy is throwing a hundred miles an hour – really didn’t need to do anything mechanically to try to catch up with it. Just saw it and hit it.”

With the win, the A’s not only rise above the .500 mark with a 23-22 record, but also in one-run victories. With three straight one-run wins to sweep the Royals, the A’s are now 8-6 on the season in one-run games.

“Personally, I’d rather see us win by 10 runs,” Melvin said. “But the fans get a kick out of it. We have a little bit of a flair for the dramatic in close games here at home. It makes for a little bit more excitement. Certainly for the fans, and for us too.”

Milone perseveres in Oakland

May 18, 2013

Ervin Santana’s first big-league win was a masterful one. Arriving in the Majors with the Angels in 2005, the right-hander fired a five-hit shutout against the White Sox in just his second major league start. But Santana wouldn’t notch his next complete game for quite some time – in 2008 to be precise – over three years later against the Royals.

Santana took the mound for those same Royals in Oakland Saturday night in search of his 100th career win. And judging by the top eight hitters in the A’s lineup, it seemed Santana was poised for another masterpiece.

But Eric Sogard would have none of that. Hitting in the No. 9 spot, Sogard was the only A’s hitter to solve Santana early on. The Oakland second baseman tallied a 2-for-3 night, including a leadoff double in the sixth that sparked a two-run rally. Backing a “Houdini” effort by starter Tommy Milone, it was all the runs the A’s would need, as they edged Kansas City 2-1. 

Milone looked to be in dire straits early on. The lefty couldn’t put anybody away the first time through the batting order, and his inability to do so ran his pitch count to 63 after just two innings. But Milone buckled down by allowing just one run through six innings to earn the win, upping his record to 4-5.

“That was Houdini,” A’s manager Bob Melvin said. “He [threw so many pitches early on] and goes six innings…. I’ve been impressed with a lot of his outings before – I don’t know any more than that.”

It was actually the Royals’ left-handed hitters that gave the southpaw trouble the first time through the order. Kansas City’s leading hitter Alex Gordon grinded out an 11-pitch at bat in the first inning, before pounding a double into the left-center gap. Gordon would score two pitches later on a bloop single by Billy Butler to plate the Royals’ only run of the night.

In the second, Milone responded to a lead-off single by Salvador Perez by surrendering back-to-back nine-pitch walks, first to the left-handed Mike Moustakas, then to righty Jeff Francouer, to load the bases. But that’s when the magic act began. Milone went on to induce a foul pop-out off the bat of Elliot Johnson, then struck out both Lorenzo Cain and Alcides Escobar to strand the bases loaded. Kansas City would go on to leave seven runners on base throughout.

“Across the board it was just a terrific outing, for what could have been a come-ou-of-the-game-in-the-second-or-third-inning,” Melvin said.

Oakland’s offense pulled the proverbial rabbit out of the hat though, as the A’s took the lead in the bottom of the sixth. The rally came just in time to ensure the win for Milone, who made way for the bullpen to start the next inning.

And as should come as no surprise, the A’s bullpen kept the Royals bats on lockdown. Oakland relievers worked three shutout innings, facing just one over the minimum. Ryan Cook entered in the sixth, striking out two while lighting up the radar gun at 95 mph. After earning the win in Friday’s game, Sean Doolittle induced three straight groundouts in the eighth.

Then closer Grant Balfour emerged to record his eighth save of the year in eight opportunities. Mr. Perfect’s streak of consecutive save conversions is now at 26, dating back to May 5 of last season.