Archive for August, 2011

A Mighty Moment

As Jose Altuve took his frenetic warm-up swings before his at bat in the fifth inning, I considered the stats they showed on screen. A fine average for the little guy, but just one home run? The powerfully built second baseman could surely muscle a few more out of the park. How about right now? I love to predict a home run, and I would like to say I predicted Altuve’s shot into the Crawford Boxes last night, the first run in what turned into a blowout. Pirates right-hander Charlie Morton’s sinker, though, so puzzling for right-handed hitters, quelled the optimism. How could Altuve get his hands through the zone quick enough to pull the ball? (And pulling the ball was his best shot at Minute Maid Park.) J.D. Martinez and Clint Barmes were each struck out by Morton’s easy rider of a fastball inside, that disappeared under the wrists at around the time the hitter thinks he should be hitting the ball.

With an out in the fifth, Morton threw another one to Altuve. He crooked his wrist and side-slung the sinker in. And it was in, but Altuve was also in, and the ball he hit dropped into the first few rows of the Crawford Boxes like a piece of candy into the upturned palms of a child. Like I said, I didn’t predict the home run. Instead, it was a response. In those few moments, beginning when I hoped for some life from Altuve’s power bat and concluding when his home run ball dropped into the seats, the Astros dismal record faded to the background. Hunter Pence’s remarkable run with the Phillies faded, too, and Lance Berkman’s hot start in St. Louis. The entirety of the baseball universe was contained within that moment. I stood up from the couch and raised my arms.

All was Altuve, the mighty mite.

The Wandy Waffle: We Did the Right Thing

Rarely in life do you get a chance to hit the figurative reset button and correct a wrong, but when the Rockies claimed Wandy Rodriguez off of waivers yesterday, they were basically begging Ed Wade to hit CTRL-ALT-DELETE on the original contract.

Instead of hitting CTRL-ALT-DELETE, Ed Wade is going to try and tinker around with some crappy virus scan software while his computer grinds to a paralyzing halt.

While this commentary from Sean Pendergast over at the Houston Press’ Hairballs got a good laugh out of me, I thought I’d offer my counter position.

Pendergast, a sports radio host on 1560 The Game (my new favorite radio station, BTW, and an intriguing entry given its relationship with Yahoo! Sports, one of the staid sports presences in the blogosphere/online baseball environment), has taken an extreme stance, to be sure, and I’m the type to avoid extreme stances. Pendergast admits himself that the Wandy deal is a really good deal, and that Wandy is a very good pitcher. To give that away for nothing valuable in return would seem the equivalent of throwing money away. It’s sort of the inverse of the Roy Oswalt situation that has left us paying his salary while he plays elsewhere. To hand over Wandy to the Rockies would be essentially handing them the savings outright. We may be rebuilding, but I don’t think that warrants literally handing over value to an opponent. Value is value, and given the cost savings the Astros will soon enjoy given that we’ll have no veterans left on the team, we can surely live with the Wandy price tag and its high value level.

I’m not arguing that it’s a great deal, as Wandy’s going to age and probably won’t be same pitcher in a few years. But to jettison the Wandy now with no return would be to a) ignore his trade value this winter, as obviously there is interest in the deal from other teams and b) show a short-sighted view of the potential of a young team to have a breakout year, in which a strong pitcher like Wandy can have a huge impact. Rebuilding does not mean blind demolition. It means getting younger value for your older players if you’re able to, and finding good value when you do keep on veterans.

Wandy is a great pitcher, with a pretty good contract in place. Whatever the state of the team, under few circumstances should such a player be shipped off as thought he was Carlos Silva.

A Season Stamped in Tin

This season is stamped in tin: there will be nothing after game number 162. (In fact, ‘Duk at Big League Stew confirmed that the Astros have been eliminated mathematically.) As Brett Myers gave up hit after hit in the bottom of the first inning, I couldn’t help but think that he was just making sure we Houston Astros fans didn’t get ahead of ourselves. For all of the excitement and mystery that the young Astros like Jimmy Paredes, J.D. Martinez, and Jose Altuve lend to the game, Myers was there to say: “Hold on, now, we’re still a godawful team. As a gentle reminder of my contract status and our position in the standings, I’m gonna huck some sad, lifeless sliders at the top of the strike zone to some of the game’s more dynamic young hitters. Aaaaaand…my work here is done.”

A thirty-seven run first inning sealed this one up early, and besides some nice Rockie-watching and a few J.D. shots, this game featured a mid-game drought to challenge the rainless wasteland that is the state of Texas currently. Only a Matt Downs nine iron home run in a too-little-too-late ninth inning ruffled the sails a sketch before the sad voyage came to an end.

Rockies Style

The Colorado Rockies are among the teams that I haven’t watched much despite hearing about them on a pretty regular basis. Fine players like Troy Tulowitzki and Carlos Gonzalez are hazy for me in terms of the cuts of their respective jibs. The odd little series under their fine Colorado skies is just the sort of taste of obscured talent to freshen up a tough season, and a tough loss.

CarGo impressed on Monday night, with a booming home run to right field off of a low Brett Myers breaking ball and another double to boot, is a big, imposing hitter, whose swing reminds me of Larry Walker’s in the that he stays low and meets the ball way out in front of the plate. It’s hard to believe the big fellow can run, too.

Tulowitzki was not in the height of his form, conversely. Perhaps the dramatic vistas over the rim of Coors Field mesmerized him, because he couldn’t see even the mediocre sliders last night. His power is apparent even when he swings violently and misses. His stance is kinetic, and impatient, as though he can’t wait to tear into something. I’ll admit, in a loss such as the Astros endured last night, I wouldn’t have minded seeing the best hitting shortstop in baseball send one a couple of four hundred feet closer to the Rockies.

Dexter Fowler, the rangy prospect slowly turning into a major leaguer, swings the bat like an exuberant Little Leaguer. I slot him firmly into the Jimmy Paredes style category. We’ll call them The Exuberants for now.

Todd Helton, the old grizzly, reminds me deeply of Will Clark in swing and aura. Clark felt, to me, like he was 39 every day of his career. Helton is actually 39, but he can still hit like Clark.

Jordan Schafer’s Astros Debut

In Jordan Schafer’s first at bat with the Astros, he rolled over a foul ball and struck out looking on a questionable high fastball. Not much to work with in terms of getting a sense of his style, but from the way he holds his hands close to the body, he suggests the composure of a slap hitter. In his second at bat, Schafer hit into a pretty standard double play grounder. A few more easy groundouts followed, and Schafer’s debut did little to take the sting out of the loss of Michael Bourn, who appeared in the highlights the other day crashing into the wall while making a fine catch in center field.

A Modest Jhoulys Chacin Scouting Report

I’ve never seen Jhoulys Chacin pitch before. He’s of the type that is praised by fantasy baseball bargain hunters for his strikeout rate and consistency under the radar, so I wasn’t surprised to watch him fool Astros hitters and present a steamer trunk full of above average stuff.

The most visible article is his hard sinker, a 92-93 mph heavy ball that he was able to start at the bottom of the strike zone, so that by the time it arrived at home plate it was around shin level and unhittable. He complemented the hard stuff with a tough straight change-up. But the sinker is the bread and butter. Sinker ballers with such drastic action on their fastballs have a certain leeway that pitchers with straighter heat don’t. Seattle Mariner Felix Hernandez is probably the prime example of the sinker ballers cushion. His control, while certainly above average, is hardly Maddux-esque. Instead he lets the natural–and insane–movement on his pitches do the the hard work, essentially starting his best pitches around the middle of the strike zone and letting them dart around like he was releasing baby seals back into the wild.

Astrosphere (aka links from the online Astros community):

Someone is Coming Up at Astros County, on who will be pitching this Thursday

The work of a young Marvin Zindler, crime photographey at Bill McCurdy’s Pecan Park Eagle

Carlos Lee: Elite Defender? at Crawfish Boxes

 

Gone to the Country

I tuned in to Milo Hamilton and Dave Raymond on the radio while driving back from a weekend at the ranch. There’s not a better way to acclimate to civilized society than baseball on the radio. I came in when the game was tied at 4 and headed into the deep innings, promising a tight game to keep me alert at the wheel–in stark contrast to my dog, who was passed out in the back seat having spent half of the weekend ill-advisedly barking down a palomino horse and the other half dodging the nips of a native Jack Russell Terrier.

Milo Hamilton, whatever his shortcomings as a broadcaster these days, is a master of the emotionally compelling baseball narrative. Early in my listening experience, for example, Milo reminded his audience of Henry Sosa’s proclivity for four-run starts just like the one he tallied on Sunday. That makes three in a row for the consistent young pitcher, and while I didn’t see or even hear much of his start, Sosa seemed to have once again wobbled early before righting the ship for a few more solid innings. Milo told me that story succinctly and with humor, highlighting the quirk in a tone of voice that reminded me of the familiar weirdness of baseball, which we are regularly reminded is a series of probabilities acted out on a board, even as we marvel at its strange inconsistencies.

I’d have also liked to see a couple of J.D. Martinez’s three hits and two runs batted in, though I did have the misfortune, once I settled back in at the house, to witness his utter failure in scoring even one run with the bases loaded and just an out in the crucial bottom of the ninth. J.D. actually took a third strike, which in that situation was viscerally akin to just outright wetting oneself. The tie remained, and it was on to extra innings, which I was able to enjoy on the teevee with Jim Deshaies and Bill Brown until I fell asleep, all country tired on a Sunday afternoon, following the Kung Fu Panda’s two-run roundhouse to center field. The promise of an eleventh inning rally wasn’t enough to keep me–or the dog for that matter–awake.

So where do we stand this year? The Astros acquitted themselves respectively against the San Francisco Giants still in the hunt, adding a couple of wins to tally up a four-game streak before the loss on Sunday. Jordan Lyles and Wandy Rodriguez both pitched well, and there are hitters on this team who are doing their best to prove that they are pro hitters.

Lyles

With the pitch count restrictions befitting a prized prospect in this modern era of arm management, I was curious to see how the Astros would stay within the innings limits that were placed on Jordan Lyles, in the 170 innings range. Would he simply sit for the last weeks of the season? Would he get the hook after three innings every start? We now have the answer: he’ll be demoted, then called up to serve as a reliever, according to Brian McTaggart at Astros.com. Lyles has a starter’s repertoire, with his lively but not overpowering fastball, a sneaky change-up, and an improving curveball. But logic would dictate that good pitches for a starter would be good pitches for a reliever. As the whole relief thing will be a short-term project with a well-defined end point, I can’t imagine this odd late season stint will have much of an impact on Lyles’ career one way or the other.

Jose’s Odyssey

Saturday evening, I had just stepped inside for a glass of water to escape the searing country heat when I got a text message from my friend Half Boot. “Inside-the-parker by Altuve!” I grinned. Context was irrelevant. In my mind’s eye, away from cable teevee or the Internet, I could see young Altuve on his fantastic voyage, scampering through the crowded void of space: passing forming nebula, skirting seething black holes, and dancing around fast-moving comets while the forces of entropy seeking disorder and disarray attempt, that being the completion of baseball’s perfect circle, the completion of the orbital circuit.

Astros Win: Bogusevic Beats the Cubs With a Game Winning Grand Slam!

Carlos Marmol didn’t know what to throw. In the bottom of the ninth inning, down by three with the bases loaded, the Cubs erstwhile closer blew a few fastballs past pinch-hitter Brian Bogusevic, then fooled him with some sliders. With the count at 2-2, Marmol threw him another fastball. The bases were loaded and the Cubs were up by three when Bogusevic started his workmanlike swing. When the ball bounced of the standing room only seats near the gas pump, Bogusevic was nearly skipping around the bases, and when he crossed the plate the game was over. Astros win.

I only got to the game in the sixth, with a belly full of fajitas from the original Ninfa’s on Navigation1. I settled in to watch the game around about the sixth with little information and a satiated appetite that had an amazing effect on my overall optimism. I soon learned that both Ryan Dempster and Brett Myers had pitched their way into that inning, though Dempster’s Cubs held the 4 to 1 advantage.

Not a dissimilar proceeding from last night’s 4-3 result, but for the relative experience of the game’s starters. Experience, for the pitcher, is probably one of the most subtle, yet most impressive aspects of the game of baseball. That a pitcher who has lost many miles per hour off of his fastball can continue to pitch well is a testament to the importance of deception as well as power. Dempster loses very few pitches to the middle of the plate, and all of his pitches wrinkle or shimmy away from the plate. Don’t get me wrong, he is not Greg Maddux. But the Dempster who came up throwing in the mid-90s is no more, and in his place is a spinner baller with a pitching motion to veil his stuff as long as possible. Speaking of which, the glove twitch the Dempster started a few years ago to supposedly keep him from tipping his pitches must also lend him a cardsharp’s sense of security behind the distracting flutter of the unused hand.

Dempster outlasted Myers by a few hitters, and in the top of the 8th, Myers’ replacement Wilton Lopez gave up a couple of ringing shots to Aramis Ramirez and Carlos Pena. A hanging slider inside to the former, who homered to bring the Cub lead back to 3 and cancel out the effort of Shuck, who scored after hitting his own double in the previous half inning.

In the bottom of the 9th, JB Shuck ignited yet another rally, this time with a single through the right side off of Carlos Marmol. He took second base on a passed ball from Marmol with Barmes up. Barmes would single himself, and provide Matt Downs with a chance to tie the game with a swing. “Hang a slider, hit one into the seats, and we’re tied,” said Jim Deshaies. “It’s that easy.” Downs swung at and missed a couple of hittable sliders, then took a walk from the wild Marmol. He passed the work down to Brian Bogusevic.

Staying Centered

Bogusevic has a soft spot for dead center field, where both of his major league home runs have fallen.

More Heat from Wood

Kerry Wood, slimmer than he was when he struck out Derek Bell and others 20 times a million years ago, pitches with both experience and power. Well aged composure with a hard, straight fastball and calm, devastating slider to match. It’s true that the Astros can’t hit anybody these days, but at least Kerry Wood in his several appearances seems to quash every Astros effort at a rally legitimately rather than by default.

Rookie Notes

I didn’t see much of the game, as I noted above, but in the innings I saw, JB Shuck flashed his Mattingly-esque crouched lefty swing and hit a long double and a . Shuck doesn’t look to hit many home runs, but sound fundamentals suggest he could manage a late-Erstad-like presence at the plate if given 50 percent of an opportunity.

  1. For what it’s worth, the fajitas lack some X factor that used to keep them up there in my top five dishes of all time. Now they’d be lucky to crack the top fifteen.

Astros Lose 4-3 In Game 1 of the Cubs Series

One of my favorite pastimes when I find myself in conversations with a British person over a drink is to discuss the difference between American and European sports. I found myself in just such a whiskey-warmed scenario this past weekend–explaining, perhaps, my glossing over of the Dodgers series, despite my newfound love of LA–talking to a visitor from England who had just gone to an Astros game. He noted first that baseball fans were a distracted bunch, socializing pleasantly when our English counterparts might have been chanting two-hundred-year-old epithets and pressing each other against chain link fences. The other observation my new English friend offered was that baseball stadiums feature no home-and-away crowds and the requisite sense of rivalry that such arrangements engendered. I reminded him that there are not thirty-six teams per metro area as in England, therefore each schoolchild isn’t rooting for a different team. He was shocked that a visiting fan could come to a place like Houston wearing the colors of the visiting team and face no retribution, assault, or lambasting whatsoever.

The Cubs offer a fine example of this cultural divide. Every time the Cubs play in Houston, they flock to Minute Maid Park to support the team they grew to know by watching cable TV. The Cubs, for all of their futility, infuriate fans of middle range teams like the Astros wherever they travel when their fans tip the color palette strongly to primary blues and reds in away stadiums. If any volume of Astros fans do a thing about their quiet ire, I’ve never seen it. If a Yankees fan ventures down Yawkey Way bedecked in pinstripes, or a Dodgers fan flaunts his wares in San Francisco, a scuffle seems possible, but it’s hard to imagine an Astros fan working up the kind of deep-rooted, block-to-block, ingrained distaste for a visiting fan to make it into a thing.

That said, the Cubs are hardly big boys on the block these days. Their fans in blue and ours in–as far as I can tell and myself included–mostly retro stars and Hs are cheering to drown out the sound of pity from across the MLB. Henry Sosa faced Rodrigo Lopez.

Sosa, for his part, will continue to learn that fat pitches to good hitters will lead to hits. Aramis Ramirez, still a fine slugger even if attention paid him has diminished, was more than happy to teach Sosa that lesson early on in the match against the Cubs by ripping a quick single on a pitch right down the middle. Carlos Pena played teacher’s assistant by leaving a divot in Tal’s Hill just out of reach of the climbing, diving Jason Bourgeois. Those fat fastballs gave the Chicago Cubs a two-run lead over the Houston Astros before the home towners had a turn at the plate. Should Sosa learn to throw his pitches a few inches one way or the other of the middle of the plate, he will have marked success. The natural break on his slider already takes it away from the worst danger. The fastball tends more heavily to Main Street, but when it finds the alleyways and back streets, it’ll shine.

The Astros finally struck when Matt Downs dropped a single to right in the fourth inning and challenged the lean right fielder Tyler Colvin to make a throw to second. That throw bounced away from Darwin Barney, and J.D. Martinez, who had singled, scored easily. The aggression that led to the run led to Downs poorly deciding to attempt third on a fly ball tag-up to center field. He was thrown out immediately, committing one of baseball’s cardinal sins.

As he did in his first major league start, Sosa settled in after a tough first inning, veering away from the aforementioned danger, in the end holding the Cubs to only a few runs for a while. Then, a tough 6th inning put the pressure on the Astros to score more than their typical one or two runs.

In the bottom of the 6th, J.D. Martinez (see more on the many of his successes below) was involved in an at bat that defined a rally when he worked the count to full after hitting some effective foul balls, and a near double down the line, only to take a walk from Rodrigo Lopez before Matt Downs–who my wife said looks like Toby from The Office–did his Morgan Ensberg impression–my choice for his body double–when he drove a ball to left center field to drive in Martinez and Jose Altuve and bring the Astros within a run.

Astros relievers were able to escape catastrophe in the 7th when Fernando Rodriguez busted in on Reed Johnson with two outs and the bases loaded in the top of the 7th, inducing a pop out. The score held at 4 to 3 in the Cubs favor.

No more runs would score for the either side, and that includes the trailying Astros, whose hitters failed to stick it to Jeff Samardzija in the 7th inning; in the 8th inning, J.D. Martinez led off the inning with a strikeout against Sean Marshall’s evasive curveball, El Caballo dinked an out up the middle, and Downs failed to repeat the power stroke of the earlier rally, sending the game to the ninth with the Astros needing a run to tie the game.

In the crucual bottom of the ninth, down by a run, Michaels, Paredes, and Quintero couldn’t cool the Kerry Wood burn, and the game ended. This was a good loss. The game was well-played. We hit the ball, they hit the ball. We pitched well, they pitched well. In the end, the math was in their favor.

Hello, Starling

Starlin Castro has a trebuchet of an arm, propelling the ball across the diamond on a trajectory that could dent a brick wall. Castro seemed to field the lion’s share of plays through the first three innings, each throw of which beat the runner to the base by parts of a second. 1 Castro showed his youth, though, when he booted a very simple ground ball hit to him easily by Jose Altuve. Castro

The J.D. Way

JD Martinez hit a single in the first, a fine line drive up the middle, and another in the fourth. I’ve coronated the young man already, but many hoped that Chris Johnson would’ve proven himself sufficiently in the second half of last year to last at the major league level. Now he’s creaming Triple-A pitchers. Martinez does not hit as though he is a fluke. He hits balls to the opposite field, and he takes a walk. His success isn’t dependent on only home runs or only infield singles, but on a varied palette of flourishes.

Making his Mark

A closer’s stuff is often judged by his fastball, and the velocity therein. The odd great closer earns his paycheck with an offspeed pitch. Those that come to mind are Trevor Hoffman and his change up, Brad Lidge and his slider, and probably twenty more. Tonight, even in a game the Astros trailed by one during his appearance, Mark Melancon showed a big game curveball, with a hard drop close enough to 90 degrees to justify a protractor. Combine the Uncle Charlie with his unnerving cut fastball, and Melancon may well possess the two-pitch arsenal that a closer needs to succeed.

  1. The strong fingers and wrists that make those throws also enable him to swing the bat prettily.

The Desert Madness Subsides, and the Astros Lose in Calm Fashion

Astros lose 6-3 in a thankfully modest fashion

From the middle lane of Interstate 10 through Phoenix, Arizona, on my way from the Pacific Northwest down to the Gulf of Mexico, I had trouble making out Chase Field in the distance, on account of the sandstorm. What was an odd brown haze obscuring a view of the track houses in the suburbs was building to a series of 30-foot high dust devils and full scale, in-your-face, The Mummy-style mayhem. The field looked nice through the veil, but I was in little mood to stop and look around as this unknown phenomenon threatened to swallow up me and my little car. And we were almost out of gas.

Just outside of the city, the dust storm crescendoed as we drove through a Native American reservation whose wide and unoccupied landscape rendered Phoenix a mirage. Visibility dropped to ten or fifteen feet as cyclones brazenly approached the highway and crossed them like escaped convicts.

I pulled into the last gas station for miles and left my wife and dog in our little car and tried to fill up the same way I had over and again through the course of the previous twenty-five hundred miles. But not one of those miles was a sandstorm mile. As my head cleared the protection of the driver side door, my face was pelted with burning sand, propelled by an oven-hot wind that heated my skin on contact. I leaned into the yellow menace to keep from rolling away like a tumbleweed.1

As I pumped gas–it was hard to imagine that the fuel wouldn’t be chock full of grit–I marvelled at the sublimity of the Arizona desert, where interior shots of air-conditioned oases such as Chase Field, with its green grass and swimming pools and happy-looking citizens, belie the surreal terror of the desert that waits, hot and ornery, at the edges.

The Astros’ trip to Phoenix continued to contribute to the sense of other worldliness I felt in the middle of the Arizona sandstorm. On Monday, Houston staged a hit parade against a solid pitcher in Dback Daniel Hudson. On Tuesday, Brian Bogusevic hit a prodigious home run to center field, but that and home runs from Jimmy Paredes and JD Martinez couldn’t hold off Justin Upton and Miguel Montero. I watched much of that game, but faded in the late innings, and the strange conclusion was little more than a fever dream.

Last night, much to the relief of the earnest National League fan, the pitch and yaw of all those hits and runs ebbed, and baseball equilibrium returned. Starting pitcher Henry Sosa, late of the San Francisco Giants, raised my hackles out of the gate with his poorly controlled fastball, though his live arm showed promise. In the early going he clocked in at 94 mph regularly, with a ton of lateral slide. The problem was that he couldn’t control that kind of movement; instead of starting in the middle of the plate and letting the natural movement catch the edge of the zone, he started it on the edges and let it sail. When he tried to get one over, it fattened up. Power hitter Willie Bloomquist touched one such fastball for a very quick home run to start the game.

Reminiscent shades of failed Astros pitching prospect Ezequiel Astacio–whom Sosa vaguely resembled in the first inning in both coiffure and command issues–evaporated as the innings wore on. Sosa, to his great credit, adjusted. He didn’t adjust to opposing hitters in particular; he adjusted to himself. The velocity of his fastball dropped in the 2nd inning and beyond, and with that drop came an increase in his command. Though his fastballs were a touch slower, they nicked the edges of the strike, and but by the grace of Greg Maddux, they stayed low. If I was a major league pitcher, I would take a day trip on an off day and visit a local tattoo artist, who I would commission to ink STAY LOW across my pecs in Old English font. Unless you are Aroldis Chapman, staying low is better than throwing hard, and young Astros pitchers like Sosa, Bud Norris, and Jordan Lyles must learn this from the likes of Wandy Rodriguez to solidify themselves at the highest level. Henry Sosa showed himself capable, and after the Bloomquist-stained first he kept the game respectable.

Sosa’s counterpart, some guy called Collmenter, threw straight over the top with the odd deliberateness of an Olympic track and field athlete.2 I was reminded of Rod Beck3 The delivery must have created some deception, though, as the Astros swung right through through a good number of easy-going fastballs. Collmenter’s change-up floated homewards like a retiree easing his way into a 5 o’clock buffet, and his curveball elevated and fell in roughly the time it takes for the desert sun to rise in the morning and set in the evening.

Things are Looking Upton

The owner of the prettiest right-handed swing I can think of, Justin Upton has pummeled Houston pitching at a Pujolsian rate. For the best hitters, the norm consists of impact drives and even outs that challenge the skill of the defense. Weak outs are an aberration. By the end of this third game of the DiamondSnakes series, I simply assumed, first, that Upton would hit a home run. Barring that, second was a double, then a long out to the outfield, then a sharply lined ground ball out, etc. A strike out was unthinkable, a walk possible but unlikely.

Upton hit a home run on Tuesday that launched off of his bat like a bottle rocket, along with a double and another hit for 4 RBI. Yesterday he hit a double and a couple more singles, one of which screamed past the ole´-ing glove of Jimmy Paredes, who surely never dreamt of fielding a ball hit so hard while dominating the home fields in Bajos de Haina, San Cristobal, Dominican Republic. Back to Upton, have a look at his Fangraphs page for a look at a well-rounded, elite baseball player who is the anchor of this unexpectedly fine Arizona team.

  1. Also, there was tumbleweed.
  2. JD and Brownie managed to wring a ton of content from the fact that Collmenter was from Michigan, that his little town hosted a Josh Collmenter Day, etc., which is what happens when the home team is in last place, I guess.
  3. It was the arm slot that drove the recollection, not Collmenter’s demeanor, which was decidedly unBeckian.

Power Stroke: The Strong Swing of JD Martinez

I didn’t watch JD Martinez hit his third home run live last night, because I was foolish enough to think that a cable channel with a deal to show Astros games would actually show Astros games rather than “letting” me watch the game “for free” on a separate paid subscription service. But I did watch it in replay form, and there’s a certain element of Martinez’s thus far very effective home run swing: the end.

The beginning isn’t half bad, sure to say. Martinez holds his hands high over his head before the pitch, with his front leg extended towards the pitcher aggressively. As the pitch arrives, he shifts his leg over to a more reasonable spot, then draws his hands back as though he was loading up a slingshot. His hands take a direct course to the ball in the swing, and that is where the swing gets good.

Successful pro power hitters distinguish themselves in the moment when their bat meets the ball. The best out there–from Lance Berkman to Albert Pujols to Prince “oh my goodness” Fielder–seem to direct all of their weight, bat speed, and momentum into that single point where the bat touches the ball. One can almost feel the moment when the ball exchanges the kinetic energy provided by the pitcher for that of the hitter, as though the image freezes for a barely discernible instant. During this paycheck moment, the hitter’s bat seems to lose no speed as the ball springs towards the fence.

Early returns suggest to me that JD Martinez is capable of such moments. When he hit the ball last night, it sprang to the opposite field with special vigor, driven by Martinez’s powerful shoulders. He finished with a one-armed flourish, then flipped the bat back across his body. Let me repeat that, because it is the element that I take the most pleasure in: JD Martinez hit a home run, then flipped his bat.

JD Martinez flipped his bat because he is a power hitter. In the hands of a power hitter, the bat is an expressive object, an instrument of creation; a paintbrush, not an anchor.

Elsewhere, David Coleman at Crawfish Boxes mentioned the unexpectedness of Martinez’s power, casting some doubt over my untroubled conviction about his power swing: “Martinez, questioned about his power stroke every season he’s been in Houston’s system, was projected by ZiPS to hit just four home runs for the rest of this season. That’s over a projected 157 plate appearances. He’s got three in 34 plate appearances right now. Project that out over a whole season and he’s on pace to hit 52 home runs. There’s no way that happens, but it still flies in the face of everything we thought we knew about J.D. Martinez.”

Once It’s Gone, It’s Gone

I just came across this Ultimate Astros story by Steve Campbell from a few days ago, via Astros County, which discusses Carlos Lee, and El Caballo’s slow ride into the sunset of Astros prominence.

“You can’t control the game,” Lee told Campbell. Caballo’s relaxed attitude about his fading ability and the fading fate of the team’s win-loss potential has an almost Eastern feel. ” I’m pretty easy-going about it,” he said. “What other people say, what other people do, you can’t control that.” The term control seemed to pepper the conversation. There’s no control in baseball. No outcome is predictable, nothing is sure. Players can control their effort, and that’s all, which is why we criticize Lee’s effort. But he’s a big guy, whose maximum effort still won’t look like Hunter Pence’s.

We believe we know Caballo’s heart. He claims we don’t, and he’s right. We want control, too. We can’t have it. Thank goodness.

Says Lee: “You want to win games. You don’t want to be a loser. But sometimes, that’s the way it goes. You can’t control the game.”

Norris and the Astros Bow Down to Greinke and the Prince

“The first place Milwaukee Brewers” rings as odd to me as “the rebuilding Astros.” But it’s true: the team that defined mediocrity for 15 or 20 years leads the league, and not just in the arm tats category, leads the NL Central, three games ahead of the Cardinals, and even further ahead of the sliding Pittsburgh Pirates and Cincy Reds. The Brewers’ offseason trades have given them a combination of pop and pitching that justifies their confident air, led by Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder, as dynamic a duo as there is in baseball. Those two elite players, who keep Houston baseball interesting despite itself, offer Astros fans a vision of a possible future filled with, say, Jonathan Singleton and whatever hitter we draft with the first pick next year.

Against Zack Greinke, one of the aforementioned acquisitions, there seemed little chance that the Astros would crack their 0-5 record against the first place Brewers. As a result of his early season injury playing basketball, I believe that he’s been overlooked as an elite NL pitcher, though his ERA and WHIP have hovered around 1 since the All-Star Break. Looking at his arsenal, the amateur Greinkeist sees a pretty good sinking fastball, a tight slider, and a big curveball that he really likes to bury in the dirt. In fact, Greinke felt little reason to spend much time in the strike zone at all against the Astros, typically starting an at bat with a strike, and neglecting the edges altogether while our side flailed at his array of ins and outs.

Against leadoff hitter JB Shuck1 and company barely fazed Greinke, who also made a nice play in the field, drove a fly ball to deep center for an out, and laid down a perfect sacrifice bunt, begging the question: is there anything he is bad at? Who’s up to challenge him to a game of Scrabble?

For the second game in a row, Prince Fielder turned on an inside slider and hit a grown-up home run to right field, with singular flourish. Jim Deshaies, Bill Brown, and the FSN Houston team did a fine job illustrating just how similar the pitchers from Brett Myers the night before and Bud Norris on Sunday were, by placing the two side-by-side and playing them simultaneously. Not only were we privy as the TV audience to two equally deliberate and misguided breaking pitches, but we also had the chance to see, in stereoscopic glory, two swings from a left-handed slugger who rivals Cowboys vs. Aliens for explosiveness.

The two-run deficit Fielder established in the first inning would multiply several times before the night was up, thanks to the lesser known hitters batting behind the prince in Kotsay and Betancourt, rather than Ryan Braun batting ahead of him. Those typically punchless two combined to go 6 for 10 with more runs driven in than the Astros would score on the night. We lose 7-3, without ever casting any doubt on the eventual outcome.

Bud Judgment

It’s not easy to distinguish a great Bud Norris start from a bad one, except in the final tally. When he’s throwing well, the sharp low 90s fastball is well-located, and his slider stays in the bottom of the zone and below. But even when his slider is effective, it’s got a tight, small break, so a bad slider and a good one don’t look too different. In the end, as is often the case with pitching at this level, it comes down to location. The slider to Prince Fielder was too high, and though it was inside Fielder has already proven that his bat was quick enough to find a breaker in that spot.

Notes

The Astros’ second and third place RBI leaders this year are currently in the minor leagues.

In the third inning, Carlos Lee discovered another way to prove his awkwardness in the field, spearing a sharp, low line drive from Prince Fielder. El Caballo, however, slung his first basemen’s mitt upward with the effort, and slung the ball into shallow left field like a lacrosse player. Fielder reached and Lee, as is not unusual, found himself lying on the ground in the field.

With a full count and two outs, Clint Barmes was picked off of second base. I’d be more upset if he wasn’t making very solid plays in the field.

I’d like to see the total number of minutes that MLB have historically spent at bat throughout MLB history. I’d wager that the Astros are challenging for least ever. The number of quick innings this post-Pence/Bourn team tacks up keeps these games easy on the grandfather clock.

Brian Bogusevic hit a bloop single in the top of the 8th, and the crowd cheered like it was a double in the gap. When there’s nothing else, you cheer for a bloop single. Fortunately, Jose “Turtle” Altuve hit a single, and Caballo picked up his pre-Pence/Bourn trade form and drove them both home. On his way home, Altuve ran through a stop sign from third base coach Dave Clark, and grimaced guiltily after popping up from his slide at home. As Altuve barrelled in, Clark had to literally get out of his way after being ignored, side-stepping him like a matador.

  1. yes, in his third major league game, the kid is hitting leadoff, though I’ll admit he has a pleasing, Tony Gwynn-esque singles swing