Archive for June, 2012

Book Review: If You Love This Game

Tuesday, June 26th, 2012

Let’s get a few things clear here: if for some inexplicable reason you don’t like Andre Dawson, it’s probably best for you to stop here. If you don’t like to read, gold star for making it this far – you’re excused. If you’re not a Cubs fan, this book probably isn’t as compelling as it will sound. But if, perchance, you count yourself a fan of Dawson, reading, and the Cubs (not necessarily in that order) allow me to persuade you that Andre’s latest book is more than worth your time.

I’m going to skip some of the usual ‘Who is Andre Dawson?’ stuff. I’m assuming you’re aware that Dawson is a former Cub and Hall of Fame rightfielder who patrolled Wrigley in the late 80s and early 90s. His latest book, If You Love This Game, chronicles his life specifically in relation to baseball. Andre had teamed with Tom Bird on a similar project in the mid-90s; this offering clearly brings greater perspective from a man who hasn’t played a game in more than 15 years.

Dawson recounts his life as a boy in South Florida being raised by a village of family members, while himself helping to raise his younger siblings. He discusses some of the difficulties he dealt with as baseball took him farther and farther away from home at an incredibly young age. At my age, I vividly remember Dawson’s days as a Cub. But Andre details the highs and lows of every season he spent on a major league roster.

If You Love This Game is wrought with lament for the seasons that, in his opinion, ended prematurely. Whether it was with the Expos, Cubs, Red Sox, or Marlins the years that pained Andre most were almost exclusively the most successful from a team standpoint. His insightful memories only made me appreciate former Cubs even more; to play for so many years, never sniff a World Series, AND not regret picking Chicago – as a fan I definitely appreciate that sentiment.

Making special note of the friendships he forged during his years in the game, it’s easy to see why Dawson was widely loved by teammates. He’s also proof that perceived ‘shortcomings’ are sometimes intentional products of a player’s confidence. He talks about how even as early as 1983 he knew that he was more confident and deadly as a free swinger – he essentially resolved to NOT work the count. It’s good to remember that no player is ‘perfect’ – even HOFers – and sometimes what makes them so great can be mistaken by observers as an area for improvement.

Andre is candid about his personal life, times he felt mistreated by his employers or friends, even situations which he should’ve handled differently. Larry Himes, franchise antagonist, draws some of the Hawk’s sharpest criticism. For two-plus pages we get a glimpse into the vindictive nature of the worst GM in baseball history.

There are countless stories about various players with whom Andre shared a uniform. A great one about Sammy Sosa buying a suit on Dawson’s dime – 100% silk, the most expensive suit in the store! And you’ll surely be surprised about some of the players for whom Andre has great respect and admiration. Steroid allegations notwithstanding, several of baseball’s bad boys are lauded by Dawson a good human beings – whether they always exhibit it publicly or are known as such.

But most obvious to me was how central to his life those years in Chicago were for Andre. It was only six years, but circumstances in and around his life clearly made it a momentous time for Dawson. Though we’re prone to forget it, even baseball players deal with everyday struggles just like anyone else; it can affect them at work just like anyone else.

I would highly recommend the book to fans of baseball, Dawson, the Cubs, or even just prolific readers. It’s pleasant, enjoyable, and authentic.

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The Farm Report: Arizona League Edition

Tuesday, June 26th, 2012

Last week, we looked at a few of the exciting prospects on the Short Season Boise Hawks. This week, we go even further down the road to Arizona, where the Cubs’ Arizona League rookie team started play last week. The hardest of the Cubs’ U.S. based minor league teams to follow (they do not even really have their own website), the team will get significantly more exciting as some of the recent draftees make their initial pro appearances as the summer moves along. Before they do, though, a trio of interesting 2011 draftees highlight the roster.

Dan Vogelbach (1B)- Many Cub fans had visions of our own Prince Fielder dancing through their heads when the Cubs drafted Vogelbach in the second round of the 2011 draft. Listed at 6′, 250 pounds, Vogelbach is a big boy and had a well deserved reputation for prodigious power from the showcase circuit. Vogelbach’s size was going to be an issue, and even if he stays in shape it’s unlikely he is going to be more than an average defensive first baseman. As a result, his value is going to come from the bat. The problem with Vogelbach this spring and in extended spring training was that the approach at the plate did not appear as advanced as many scouts expected. You just have to hit so well to be an above average first baseman, that the issues with the swing are a concern. With that said, there is a ton of power in that bat. For the moment, he has almost certainly slipped out the Cubs’ Top 10 prospects, but could slide right back in with a strong end of 2012.

Dillon Maples (RHP)- This is kind of cheating, since Maples is not actually pitching yet. The news out of the minor league teams is harder to come by, especially at the very low levels, so it is hard to tell if Maples is dealing with injuries or the Cubs are more working on his off speed pitches and tinkering with his pitching motion. As a draftee, he reportedly essentially did not have a change up and, despite being an athlete, had a pretty unathletic throwing motion. Considering the Cubs lack a truly top tier pitching prospect, though, Maples is for all intents and purposes tied for the Cubs’ top pitching prospect with Trey McNutt and Pierce Johnson.

Trevor Gretzky (1B/OF)- The Great One’s son was one of the Cubs’ later round overslot signings last year. Much like Shawon Dunston, Jr., many thought Gretzky might be better suited for college than pro ball at this point. Gretzky showed good contact skills and drew some walks in extended spring training, but hit for absolutely no power. He’s very thin at 6’4″, 190 pounds, so he has time to grow into his frame. However, Gretzky is someone who is going to take some time to grow into whatever sort of player he is going to become.

Others to watch: SS/2B Carlos Penalver, OF Garrett Schlecht, and all the 2012 draftees. Also, just for a fun piece of news, the Arizona Cubs’ hitting coach is Jason Dubois.

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Game 73: The New Old Travis Wood

Tuesday, June 26th, 2012

Mets 1 @ Cubs 6

Box Score / Highlights / Condensed Game

What Went Right

  • The title of this recap is no grammatical mistake–Travis Wood is finally pitching like the guy we hoped we’d received in return for Sean Marshall.  When he didn’t make the opening day roster out of Spring Training, I lowered my expectations significantly for what, if anything, he’d contribute this season.  I never dreamed he’d pitch a game like the one he threw Monday night.  I mean, he out-pitched Johan Santana–who saw that coming?  He threw 7 solid and economical innings (only 93 pitches), giving up only 5 hits, 1 BB, 6 Ks, and no runs.  I wasn’t able to watch the first half of Wood’s performance, but Pat and Keith were clearly impressed with his pitch location.  And what little I did see of his performance only backed that up.  Wood’s improved by leaps and bounds from the guy who was promoted because he couldn’t be any worse than Chris Volstad.  Look out–if he strings together a few more starts like his last couple, with him and Matt Garza and Jeff Samardzija, we might actually have the makings of a real starting rotation.
  • Joe Mather put the Cubs on the board with a 2-run homer in the bottom of the 4th.  After the rough weekend he had in front of his family and friends back in Arizona, I was glad to see him contribute to the win.  Despite some of his recent struggles, I think he has a better upside and more versatility than most of the rest of our bench, and I’m hopeful he won’t be the guy we dump later today to make room for Anthony Rizzo.  With the promotion of Rizzo and the emergence of Luis Valbuena at third base, Mather can probably look forward to even less playing time than he’s had so far.  But he got the start Monday and I was happy to see him do something with it.
  • In the bottom of the 7th, the Cubs scored 4 runs on 1 hit.  Yes, you read that correctly.  The Mets kindly gave them 3 extra outs to work with on 3 errors.  The first came on Adrian Cardenas’ pinch hit pop up to, well, only a few feet away from home plate.  The ball went almost straight up out of the batter’s box, and looked to be a simple play for David Wright coming in from third base.  Instead the ball bounced off his glove and shot back to the bricks behind homeplate, where it died.  To his credit, Cardenas was running it out and wound up on third.  A couple batters later, Darwin Barney hit a lazy fly ball into shallow right field that bounced off Lucas Duda’s leg and rolled into foul territory.  Cardenas scored easily and Barney slid safely into third for, that’s right, the second three-base error in the inning.  And it didn’t end there–Starlin Castro was the next batter, and he reached safely on an infield error by former Cub Ronny Cedeno, which also allowed Barney to jog home from third.  A walk, a single to RF, and a groundout brought in the other two runs, but those batters never would have come up to the plate if the Mets hadn’t given away three easy outs.  The whole circus was outstanding–in part because we Cubs fans are so often on the other side of those kinds of catastrophic innings.
  • Shawn Camp pitched an inning of scoreless relief.  That wouldn’t normally be news, but our bullpen has been so bad that it seemed worth mentioning.

What Went Wrong

  • James Russell worked one inning of relief and gave up the Mets’ only run on 1 hit, a solo homer to Ike Davis.  I blame myself–I knew with only two outs in the bottom of the 9th, it was too early to be gearing up to write about a shutout.

Personal Note

  • This week is my 1-year anniversary here at VFTB.  In fact, today (Tuesday) is the anniversary of my first game recap (and my second-ever post).  I’ll admit that in the past year, it’s occasionally been a struggle to explain to my non-baseball-fan friends why I enjoy spending so much of my free time writing about the Cubs.  What’s great is that I don’t have to explain it to you–the fact that you’re reading this is proof that we share a similar mania for our beloved Cubs.  Please know what a profound pleasure it is to inform and entertain you, and to commiserate (often) and celebrate (less often) with you.  Thanks everyone–especially to Joe and all you regular commenters.

 

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Mets Series Preview

Monday, June 25th, 2012

The Cubs limp back to Chicago for their last homestand before the All Star break.  Can they look forward to any success against the surprisingly viable Mets?  Or will they continue to be the NL’s piñata?  Find out in our series preview.

Probable Pitchers

Courtesy of MLB.com

Monday at 8:05pm EDT – Johan Santana vs. Travis Wood

Santana tossed six shutout innings against the Orioles on Tuesday night at Citi Field, allowing only four hits. The win marked his eighth quality start of the year and first since tossing a no-hitter on June 1. Wood finally got a win, his first with the Cubs in his last start. The lefty gave up four hits over six innings and was able to escape a jam. He’s given up three runs or fewer in six of his seven starts and has a 2.92 ERA in his last four.

Tuesday at 8:05pm EDT – Dillon Gee vs. Randy Wells

Gee delivered his seventh straight quality start on Wednesday in a win over the Orioles, allowing two runs on only three hits in 7 1/3 innings. He struck out nine, tying a career high set earlier this season against San Diego. After a rough outing on Wednesday vs. the White Sox, Wells will another shot in the rotation with Ryan Dempster on the disabled list. Wells allowed three earned runs on five hits and four walks over 3 2/3 innings against the South Siders.

Wednesday at 2:20pm EDT – Jon Niese vs. Jeff Samardzija

Niese picked up his fifth win of the season on Friday night against the Yankees at Citi Field, surrendering only two earned runs over 6 1/3 innings. He walked just one batter and has done so in each of his past four starts. Samardzija lost to the D-backs on Friday night at Chase Field, giving up five runs on seven hits in five innings. He hasn’t won since May 29 at Wrigley Field versus the Padres. He is 0-3 with a no-decision and an 8.53 ERA in his last four starts.

How to Pitch to the Big Boys

Each series we’ll take a look at the top three home run hitters in the opposing team’s lineup to establish how to get them out and minimize the damage. The heat maps show each player’s isolated power based on area of the zone. If you’re not familiar with the stat, Isolated Power or ISO is a sabermetric baseball statistic which measures a batter’s raw power. The formula is Slugging Percentage minus Batting Average, which removes all the singles that are included in SLG%. The final result measures how many extra bases a player averages per at bat. By limiting extra base hits, you drastically increase your chance to win the game

Our Take

by Jeremiah Johnson

Given my relative proximity to Phoenix, it’s a little surprising (to me at least) that I’ve never gone there to see the Cubs play the Diamondbacks.  But then we have a series like we had this past weekend, and I get all the reminders I need.  It was tough to watch the Cubs throw away three games to Arizona, especially considering how well the roadtrip started against the White Sox.  But none of that matters now, as the Cubs limp back to Chicago to face the Mets and the Astros.

In some ways the Mets are a lot like the Cubs this season–expected to go nowhere and in need of some major rebuilding.  The difference?  They actually have some significant big-league talent, and they’re in a division that’s been up-ended by injuries and underperforming favorites.  Having two of the best pitchers in the NL (Santana and the unavailable to start against the Cubs R.A. Dickey) certainly helps their chances to stay relevant.  Add to that an insanely hot-hitting David Wright and a bunch of role-players who are actually playing their roles, and you’ve got a team might wind up a surprise contender.

Does that mean you should ignore the next few games altogether?  No way.  The Mets have been playing well, but I wouldn’t call them special, and certainly not unbeatable.  Anything can happen, especially at Wrigley.  Samardzija has been significantly better at home than on the road–maybe that will continue Wednesday against a pitcher the Cubs have feasted on in the past.  And good gravy!  Did you get a look at Reed Johnson’s career numbers against Santana?  If he’s not in the lineup tonight, someone needs to perform the concussion tests on Dale.  I can’t give you much optimism for Randy Wells’ start tomorrow, except to say that it might be his last in a Cubs uniform if he doesn’t show up.  But it looks like that will be the Cubs debut of Anthony Rizzo, so at least there will be something to watch for.  We’ll see if any of that comes to fruition in the next few days.  And even if none of it does, rest assured you’ll have a warm, dry place in our comments section to complain about it.

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Coffee Talk: White Sox Trade, NBA Draft, Favorite Players

Monday, June 25th, 2012

Let’s start have our mid-day coffee and discuss some topics in the world of sports.

The White Sox traded for Kevin Youkilis from the Red Sox on Sunday, but should they really be buyers?

I was a little surprised when I saw this move come over Twitter. When you look at their team, a team not expected to compete with the Tigers in the AL Central coming into the season, it’s not really a roster that you can see winning the title, evenwith Youkilis. It’s hard to be an executive and wave the white flag when you have a chance to win the division, but the Sox really could have been best served to make a few seller type moves. For example, Jake Peavy is pitching like his pants are on fire. No one seems to have told him that his arm basically fell off recently. He’s  making $17 million dollars this year and the Sox have a club option for $23 million next year with a $4 million buyout. There are a number of teams, including the Red Sox, that can use a starting pitcher for the stretch run. It seems to make more sense to maximize return on high priced guys, especially when your fan base doesn’t seem to want to come out to the park to support the team.

The NBA Draft is this Thursday…will you be watching?

I’ll be honest with you. I like the NBA to a point. It’s rare that I watch a regular season game, though I follow results for every Bulls game, and this year my playoff watching ended with Derrek Rose’s Achilles injury, but there is always something fun about the draft for all sports. I get excited about watching, tune in, and then find myself bored within about 15 minutes. All I care about this season is where Myers Leonard goes, as I’m an Illini fan who thinks he’s too immature at this point and would have been better served staying one more year, and who the Bulls select. There are rumors of a draft day trade that involved Luol Deng, so we’ll see what happens.

Who are your favorite players in sports right now?

For this, they don’t necessarily have to be good players, but rather they just need to be your favorite. If I had to create my list of 10, and these are in no particular order, it would be:

  • Ray Rice
  • Eli Manning
  • Sean Marshall
  • Taj Gibson
  • Jason Kidd
  • Josh Hamilton
  • R.A. Dickey
  • Jonathan Toews
  • Brian Urlacher
  • Julius Peppers
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