Tag Archives: pitching

Managing the “AAA” Franchise: A View from 102

“Baseball is a simple game. If you have good players and if you keep them in the right frame of mind then the manager is a success.” Sparky Anderson

“I believe managing is like holding a dove in your hand. If you hold it too tightly you kill it, but if you hold it too loosely, you lose it.”  Tommy Lasorda

This has been an interesting year for the Norfolk Tides.  For me the year has been the first where I have had the opportunity to observe the game on nearly a daily basis from field level behind the plate. The proximity of where I sit to the playing field in Section 102, Row B Seat 2 at the Church of Baseball, Harbor Park Parish has given me the chance to sharpen my eye for the nuances of the game.  Part of this has been lessons on life, leadership, strategy, player development and the psychology of winning and organizations that win.  In fact if you are a regular reader of this website you will likely note that baseball is pervasive in my writings.  Likewise the subject of baseball is usually entwined with my local team the Norfolk Tides who inhabit the parish church with me.  Thus my closest observations of the game come from watching the Tides.  Over the course of the season I have become familiar with the players met a decent number of the starting pitchers on more than one occasion each as well as talked with scouts and former players.  Additionally one of the best baseball men round who really needs to be hired as a color man for the Tides radio show is Elliott the Usher. Elliott and I have had numerous discussions regarding strategy, player development and baseball philosophy throughout the season, not always agreeing, but each hearing what the other had to say.  Elliott knows the game, knows the players and despite being a Red Sox fan, not that there’s anything wrong with that is a great human being.  Thank the Deity Herself that he is not a Dodgers fan, yeech!

So anyway, here are a couple of Padre Steve’s observations about the Tides this year that I think hurt player development and kept them out of the playoffs.   Now I don’t think being in the playoff as a minor league team is the end all of life, but it does not hurt the organization.  My thesis is that although the Tides suffered an end of July and August collapse that need not have happened and may have hurt a number of player’s chances of making the majors.   The collapse was like the old “June Swoon” days of the San Francisco Giants only worse.  Yet despite the swoon the Tides continued to maintain one of the highest batting averages in the league and their pitching, though not as reliable as earlier in the season was constantly around the middle of the league.  I think that there is a reason for what happened to the reliability of the pitching and it is not because the pitchers suddenly went bad. I’ll explain this further on in this article.

Fielding, in regard to the number of errors committed by the infield was not that much different than their International League South rivals.  However it seemed that the errors committed by Tides players tended to come at the worst possible time and often scuttled solid performances by pitchers.  My thesis is that this was not a case of the talent available to the team despite mid-season call ups and injuries. Nor is it just because the players did not play as well as they could thus I would take issue with those who would who want to simply blame the collapse on these factors.  Did they play a part? Yes, were they the over-riding factor? I don’t think so.

The most important person on a Triple “A” team is the Manager.  The manager sets the tone for the team and is the face of the team.  The manager is not simply a teacher, but someone who has to have a feel, almost a 6th sense for how players are doing at given points in the game or season, what their strengths and weaknesses are and what makes them tick…in other words the way that a manager deals with his players is as important to their development and success as is the talent and ability that the players bring to the team when they show up.  A minor league manager cannot allow himself to just be a cog in the big league club’s system.  The manager needs to be able to make the hard calls of telling the big club what he thinks of where players can fit and when and where they should play. A manager should never be a slave to arbitrary pitch counts, especially if he sees a pitcher is really doing badly early, or if he sees a pitcher doing well enough to complete a game.   Psychology is as important as numbers.  There are times players need to be handled with great care and other times that they might need a dressing down or boot up their ass, but this must be well thought out and not an arbitrary process.  Likewise, there is the emotional tone that a player sets in the clubhouse.  There is no right or wrong as to style, but the manager needs to be able to make his style work. If he cannot the cohesion of the club will suffer as will the hardiness of the players, individually and as a team to weather difficult times during the season.   All this said it is my belief that Tides manager Gary Allenson was not effective in this, especially during July and August.  This is certainly not to be interpreted as a sour grapes kind of accusation.  As someone who has had the responsibility for over a hundred personnel, and a couple of million dollars worth of equipment and property as well as regularly dealing with people in life and death circumstances I am sensitive to the weight on a manager’s shoulders and I have taken my share of criticism.  The job is not easy and Allenson has had a lot of success during his managing career.  So I am not saying that he is a bad manager, but that this year his management of the team was a causal factor in the collapse.

To go into specifics the biggest places that this was apparent was with the pitching staff.  When a starter of reliever got in trouble it seemed that Allenson was often disengaged.  Maybe he was trying to reach a pitch count with them or maybe trying to teach them how to pitch through difficult situations. Patently these are important in grooming pitchers but cannot be seen as the goal itself.  They are rather measurement tool to assess the pitcher’s development and readiness to play at the current level or move up in the organization.  However, the tools cannot be allowed to dictate the manager’s decision making process.  Observing this close hand watching the pitchers at various points during the game and season and watching Allenson’s body language in the dugout as well as how long it would take to have  a reliever ready makes me believe that these were overriding factors in the decision making process.

I do not know if Allenson’s intent was to let pitchers try to work through rough outings without relief every time that they pitch, or if it is something that the Orioles have instructed him to do.  Regardless of what it is that plan did not work.  The pitching staff became demoralized it was evident in their body language and by what was heard around the park.  It is fine to occasionally let a pitcher work through a difficult patch and even get roughed up a bit.  That builds character and perseverance, in fact not to do it promotes a false sense of confidence that hurts the pitcher later on.  However it is not a good policy to do this in every game as it becomes counterproductive as the pitcher loses confidence because they are not winning.  This appeared to be what was happening with Tides pitchers.  The psychology of pitchers depends a lot on winning. To take a pitcher out before he gets in trouble while he is ahead is not a bad thing. Winning helps promote a winning attitude that carries over from game to game.  Pulling a pitcher before he gets in trouble can be used to the benefit of the pitcher and the team.  This is the way of great major league managers including Earl Weaver.  Allowing pitchers to be roughed up and have no relief waiting in the bullpen on a regular basis is detrimental to their development and serves no purpose.  Thus if a pitcher is beaten and the manager knows it leaving him in the game serves no purpose unless it is simply to preserve the bullpen.  If a manager senses that a pitcher is in trouble he should be more like Earl Weaver and get the guy out of the game for his good as well as that of the team.  Losing is contagious.  Lose a lot, especially when the losses could have been avoided and a team loses its fire and often its heart.  Take a look at perennial winning and losing teams and you will find that it is not just the talent that makes a team, it is the management and manner in which they work with the talent available that make them the organizations that they are.  Winning organizations promote winning at all levels.

Another aspect of the management of Tides pitchers has been the lack of consistency in developing relief pitchers.  It is important to work to individual pitcher’s strengths in how they are employed.  If a reliever finds his particular niche then it is incumbent on management to build on this.  Relievers are a quirky breed and by the time that they are in Triple “A” ball the management should have a relatively good idea of where they fit in the organization and start preparing them for that role on the big league club.  Thus at Triple “A” it is not the best policy to give players shots at all the different relief situations, especially if it takes someone who has the potential to be a great closer out of his game.  Case in point for the Tides was the use of Jim Miller.  Miller became the Tides closer early in the season and by the All-Star break had 15 saves.  When Miller went in during the first half of the season it was almost automatic that he would close the game successfully.  After the All-Star break Miller was bounced to middle relief and occasional set up roles as the Orioles according to Gary Allenson “wanted to turn him into a two-inning pitcher, because he’s probably not going to close games in the big leagues.”  Miller said recently that he would rather finish games. “That’s what I’ve done my whole career. They wanted to stretch me out, have me throwing 30-35 pitches. If that’s what they want, of course, that’s what I’ll do. But I like closing games.” It was noticeable how uncomfortable Miller was and how his effectiveness went down when moved out of the closer role.  I’m a firm believer that if someone does something better than others that you play to strength and build on it. Guys who can close a game and have a closers mindset are rare; those guys need to be coached to be even better and not bounced around.  Miller has come into the game in the 9th in close situations since the 31st and has been his old self, even games where he had no chance at a save he shut the opponent down.  It may be the case that the Orioles do not need Miller as a closer, however he could be the 8th inning set up man, not the 5th to 7th inning middle reliever and still keep a closer mindset.

Winning organizations know when a player is in his element and from thereon work hard to make him the best at that position and to put complementary players around him. To win an organization needs no only to produce a lot of middle of the road jack of all trades utility players but guys who can become All-Stars.  Utility players do not end up on the All-Star team and while important to an organization are not the building blocks of it.  I have heard it said that giving infielders experience at a lot of different positions helps them get to the majors.  While I believe this has some validity,  I think if an infielder is gifted at a certain position, say 2nd, 3rd or shortstop and has the potential to be a starter in that position on the major league club then it imperative that the organization focus on making him the best possible player at that position.  Can the player be used at other positions occasionally?  Of course, they need to be somewhat versatile but to use a military expression, I think it is best to “train as you fight.”  In other words of the player is being groomed for a certain position don’t waste too much time trying him at other positions, or moving him to allow someone who is a utility player to play in his spot.  A Triple “A” team might have one of these players on their team at any given time; they should be the linchpin around which utility players are utilized.   I think that 2nd Baseman Justin Turner was this player on the 2009 Tides and should be used in this manner in 2010 as the Orioles prepare to bring him up. Can he play other positions? Certainly, but watching him the further he was moved from 2nd base the less effective and sure of himself he became.

Next year should be interesting.  Several of the late season call ups from Bowie should be good additions to the club, notably outfielders Jonathan Tucker and Dave Krynzel.  Guillermo Rodriguez should remain at catcher as he has the potential to develop pitchers and be available on short notice to play in Baltimore as a backup for Matt Wieters.  Injured Scott Moore, Donnie Murphy and Justin Christian should be back as should Rhyne Hughes, Brandon Snyder and Brandon Pinckney.  Pitchers Chris Waters if not taken up to Baltimore or traded should be back, as should Jake Arrieta, Chris Lambert and Chris George.  Andy Mitchell would be an ideal middle to long reliever to follow hard throwing starters with his submarine style delivery. Jim Miller needs to be kept if not brought up to the Orioles or traded, as should Josh Perrault and Troy Patton.  Other pitchers on the current staff could still be of use; Bob McCrory seemed to be doing well at the end of the season and as did Ross Wolf.  I believe that starter David Pauley is a free agent after this season so I do not know if he will be back.  Of the other position players I think it unlikely that 37 year old Jolbert Cabrera comes back and wonder if Melvin Dorta and Blake Davis need to be at Norfolk as both had significant numbers of errors.

If I was the Orioles organization I would re-look to see if Gary Allenson is the man to continue to lead the team.  The last half of the season the team has not performed to the level that it could have. Some of this maybe a lot has to do with management.  It is possible that Allenson’s superiors in Baltimore are calling the shots at Norfolk and that he wants to manage differently.  However my assumption has to be that Allenson was unable to get the team to gel after the loss of players to mid-year injuries and call-ups and did not adjust well to losing so much hitting at that time.  Again my take is not that of a disgruntled fan, but an observer trying to make sense of what happened from the end of July until the end of August.  My assessment is that it is largely a managerial problem, likely at the field level, though possibly higher in the Orioles organization as well.

It is too easy to criticize a manager and I have tried to be as fair as possible, however a team’s success is always to a great degree dictated by the manager and at the end of the year every organization has to ask itself if it has the right man for the manager’s job.  It is incumbent to the organization to do so.

Peace, Steve+

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Dad’s Gift of Baseball to Me

Note:  This is a substantial re-write of a post that I did toward the beginning of this site. At the time I had very few readers and of course it had very few views.  I think sometimes there are times in life when you have to go back to things that are important.  Revisiting the better times in the past is sometimes a way for me to get through the more difficult days of the present. My dad has been in End Stage Alzheimer’s Disease for some time now. He is down to 112 pounds and when I last saw him in May was only occasionally able to have any meaningful communication and I was blessed to get a few minutes on a couple of consecutive days where we had conversation s that bordered on better times.  The funny thing they revolved around baseball for for dad and me was a point of connection through most of our lives.  If we could talk about nothing else, there was always baseball. I have been kind of down about his condition lately as he for all intents and purposes hangs between life and death, not really the man that I knew, the man who taught me to love the game of baseball.  My mom and I talked this week and she asked when I was coming out next.  The thing is I don’t know.  I just had to tell her that we would wait and see.

Me and Lefty PhillipsMe with Lefty Phillips of the California Angels in 1970

Baseball, it is said, is only a game. True. And the Grand Canyon is only a hole in Arizona. Not all holes, or games, are created equal.” George Will

Baseball has always been a source of enjoyment for me.  I’ve noted in numerous other posts that God speaks to me through baseball.  For me there is something mystical about the game.  It extends beyond the finite world in some respects and there is symmetry to the sport unlike any other.  George Will’s quote at the beginning of this post is dead on.  Not all holes or games are created equal.

Oak Harbor Little LeagueMy First Ball Field, Oak Harbor Washington

Though I had played Little League Ball in the 1960s and well as a lot of backyard or sandlot games, it was  1970-1971 when my dad began taking us to California Angels games while stationed in Long Beach California that the game really captured me.  The seed of course had been planted long before games on a black and white TV, playing catch, teaching me to throw, field and run the bases.  We even saw the Seattle Pilots in person while stationed in Washington State. While my dad thrived on all sports, baseball was the one that he gave me as a gift.  He gave my brother golf, another spiritual game, which Zen masters love, but which is not to be compared with baseball because it is not in its purest form a team sport.

1972 Oak Park AL RamsOak Park Little League 1972 American League “Rams” I am at top left

Growing up with baseball was something that I cannot imagine have not done.  It was part of life from as far back as I can remember and this was because dad made it so.  It kind of reminds me of the beginning of the movie For the Love of the Game where home movies of a child playing ball with dad are shown during the opening credits and score.  I can close my eyes and remember vivid details of ball fields and backyards where dad would play catch with me play pepper and fungo and teach me to pitch.  He never did much with hitting.  When I had him in a brief lucid moment when I visited in May I thanked him for teaching me to love the game, told him I still heard his voice telling me to keep my butt down on ground balls and that he did not teach me to hit.  He simply said “you can’t teach someone to hit, it’s a gift, lots of people can’t hit.”

Binkley and baseballI wonder if my Dad felt this way at times?

Those days at Anaheim Stadium when it was called “the Big A” due to the scoreboard shaped like a large “A” with a halo ringing the top were magical.  I met players, got signed balls and hats, and was even selected as a runner up in the “My Favorite Angel” contest.  For that I met my favorite Angel, First Baseman Jim Spencer a Golden Glove Winner who later played for the White Sox and Yankees, and two tickets behind home plate.  I met Spence at the game as well as an autograph signing at a local Von’s grocery store.  When trying to look him up in 2003 I found that he had passed away on February 10th 2002 while I was deployed.  He wasn’t very old, only 54 dying of a heart attack. Before his death he was lending his expertise to the Naval Academy baseball team. In 15 years in the majors in which he played in 1450 games and only made 55 errors, a .995 fielding percentage, one of the best in baseball.  During the 1970’s he was considered one of the premier defensive First Basemen in the game.  He played in the 1973 All-Star Game, won the Gold Glove in 1970 and 1977 and played on the Yankee’s 1978 World Series team. He was one of my favorite players growing up. I think that is why I like sitting behind the plate in my little world of Section 102, Row B, Seat 2 at Harbor Park so much now.

jim_spencer_autographJim Spencer’s 1979 Signed Yankee Card, I have one of these

When we moved to northern California we reconnected with the San Francisco Giants and the Oakland A’s.  This was during the A’s dynasty years and we saw a number of games including an ALCS game against the Tigers.  Seeing the greats like Catfish Hunter, Reggie Jackson, Rollie Fingers, Campy Campaneris and Vida Blue was awesome.  However our first love was the Giants.  We only occasionally got to Candlestick Park where they played in those days.  Candlestick if you have ever been there is a miserable place to see a game for nothing else that it is colder than hell, if hell were cold.   One game we did see was Ed Halicki’s no-hitter against the Mets in 1975.

halicki no hitterEd Halicki’s No-Hitter, Dad took me to this

While dad was deployed to Vietnam my mom would drop me off at Billy Herbert Field in Stockton California where we lived and let me see the Stockton Ports who were then the California League single A affiliate of the Baltimore Orioles.  Those games were always fun.  I remember talking to Orioles great Paul Blair when he visited a military base that I was serving and he told me how he remembered playing in Stockton as a minor leaguer.

billy hebert fieldMy Childhood Haunt, Billy Hebert Field, Stockton CA, former home of the Stockton Ports

In high school and college due to other diversions I stopped playing baseball and did not have as much contact with it.  However it never completely left me, I always longed to be either playing in or watching a game.

Other major sports do not hold me captive the way baseball does.  I think there is the nearly spiritual dimension that the game has which makes it timeless.  Other sports such as football, basketball, hockey and soccer are limited to rectangular playing surfaces of set dimensions determined by their leagues. With the exception of a few old hockey rinks there are no individuality to these venues, save perhaps for team or sponsor logos.  Likewise all of the other sports play a set time clock.  If a team gets way ahead early, it is likely that the game will be over.  While it is possible that a game could go into “overtime” the overtime in these games has different rules than regulation time.  “Sudden death” “Shootouts” and truncated times show that these games are not meant to go past regulation time.  It is an aberration from what is considered “normal.” In these games a team with a big lead can simply sit on the ball and run out the clock. Earl Weaver put it well: “You can’t sit on a lead and run a few plays into the line and just kill the clock. You’ve got to throw the ball over the damn plate and give the other man his chance. That’s why baseball is the greatest game of them all.”

Baseball is not like that.  In order to win you have to throw the ball over the plate and give the other team a chance to come back. The nine innings could in theory go on for eternity, as they nearly do in W.P. Kinsella’s The Iowa Baseball Confederacy, A story which is patently eschatological, though not in a pre-millennial dispensationalist manner.  Foul lines in theory go on for eternity, only the arbitrary placement of the outfield wall and the physical limitation of hitters keep the game within earthly limits.  I’m sure that outfields are a lot more spacious and have a wonderful playing surface in heaven.

Save for the late 1960s and early 1970s when fascists took over the design of stadiums in order to make them suitable to play football on, baseball parks have had their individuality.  Outfield dimensions, type of grass, the kind of infield and warning track soil which is used, are all determined by the team.  Some fields cater to hitters, others pitchers.  And with the overthrow of the stadium fascists at Baltimore’s Camden Yards, the baseball park regained its dignity.  Gone were the ugly, drab oval stadiums, fields covered in often shoddy artificial turf.  The unsightly and even hideous venues such as Riverfront, Three Rivers, Veteran’s Stadium and others, even dare I say the Astrodome and Kingdome were demolished and made nice piles of rubble, replaced by beautiful ballparks each with its own unique character that reflect the beauty of the game.

three run homer by fiorentinoJeff Fiorentino Hits Three Run Homer at Harbor Park, my view from 102

This year for the first time in my life I bought season tickets for my local AAA team, the Norfolk Tides who are the AAA Affiliate of the Baltimore Orioles. I also went Norfolk’s Harbor Park to see the Commonwealth Classic an exhibition game between the Baltimore Orioles and Washington Nationals.  Harbor Park was one of the first of the new generation of minor league parks and a wonderful place to see a game, or as I like to say “Worship at the Church of Baseball.”   When Harbor Park was built the Tides were affiliated with the New York Mets. As such the outfield dimensions are nearly identical to the former Shea Stadium, making it a very large yard and pitchers playground.  The outfield backs up to the East Fork of the Elizabeth River, shipyards and bridges dominate the view.  There is not a bad seat in the house. Since coming back from Iraq the ballpark is one of the few places that I have been able to consistently go where I am at peace, not hyper-vigilant and anxiety free.  In a way my season ticket has been both therapeutic and pretty essential to me getting a bit better in the past year.  Last year when the minor league season ended  it was difficult.  I am not looking forward to 6 months without a ball game here.

harbor park opening dayOpening  Day at Harbor Park: One of the few places of peace in dealing with my PTSD

With every home game the gift that my father gave me begins to unfolds again as I gaze in wonderment at the diamond.  This year is different; my dad is in a nursing home in the end stage of Alzheimer’s disease.  Last year he still knew enough of what was going on to talk about baseball, especially the San Francisco Giants and bad mouth the American League. Dad was always National League fan and he loathes the designated hitter. He used to call the American League the “minor league.”  He told me stories about the greats of his childhood and he was an avid fan of Pete Rose, he loved his high intensity play and hustle, something that he passed on to me. I can still recall him yelling at me to “get your butt down,” “stay in front of the ball,” “hustle down the line any time you hit the ball” and “don’t be afraid to run over a catcher or go in hard to break up a double play.”   Rose’s banishment from baseball for gambling hit him hard.  I guess it was for him like the banishment of “Shoeless Joe” Jackson and for me the agony of the Steroid Era which was a stain on game but now is now history. Unfortunately it is being used by self-righteous politicians a bureaucrats to make baseball and baseball players look bad so they can look good.   At this point I say reinstate Shoeless Joe and Pete Rose and stop with the endless illegal leaks of documents and alleged positive tests of players whose names are being leaked out one or two at a time.  I think my dad would say the same now, if only he could.

Me and last last picMy Dad Carl and I, May 2009 Giants fans to the end

Dad gave me a gift, a gift called the game, the game of baseball.  Sure, it’s only just a game.  Right… Baseball is only a game in the sense of the Grand Canyon just being a hole in the ground and the Pacific Ocean a pond.  I’m sure that the Deity Herself must agree.

Peace, Steve+

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Filed under alzheimer's disease, Baseball, Loose thoughts and musings