Archive for the ‘Reviews’ Category

Book Review: The Art of Fielding

Monday, August 12th, 2013

Fun weekend all around for the Cubbies. As nice as a sweep would have been for the boys in blue, taking two out of three against the Cards while playing with a lineup full of dudes I know nothing about is impressive.

I haven’t watched a Cubs game since the final day before the All-Star break—not because I don’t want too, but because I’ve been in between moves once again—and my daily glances at the box scores have provided many a “who in the world is (insert player name)? I caught a few glimpses of the game yesterday peeping in the windows of local bars, while parading down a long stretch of road in my new place.

The series win was not only sweet because of the opponent, but also because it provided the somewhat lovable Pirates a chance to put a few more games between them and the redbirds. Unfortunately the Buccos decided it was a prime weekend for them to get swept by the Rockies in Denver.

Since topics of the offseason and next year’s prospective team/lineup have already been rehashed a bit, I thought it would be a good change of pace to talk a little “bookworm.” Some of my favorite pieces on the blog over the years have been reviews, critiques or observations from baseball/sports books and it may be fun to get back into that business.

Once every month or two, I’ll try and get something out about a baseball book that I’ve recently read. Reading is one of my favorite pastimes away from work and it doesn’t happen nearly enough considering my weekly workload. In the few weeks between finishing my last job, moving 1,300 miles and starting a new job, I was able to finish “The Art of Fielding” by Chad Harbach.

The novel is the first for Harbach and it was published in late 2011, so I’m a little late to the game—so to speak. The book was recommended to me by a friend who is a baseball lover and a high school English teacher—he told me that this is one of the best sports books he has ever read.

So I took his word for it and did a little research about the book beforehand. I’m a little weird when it comes to picking books in a bookstore, because there are so many good things to read. Most of my reads come from personal recommendations or being force fed by close friends—an idea which I will incorporate into the post later.

“The Art of Fielding” outlines the story of a small-school college baseball team, who stumble into an unknown, but incredible baseball prospect. The book’s hero is a shortstop who challenges for the NCAA record for most games in a row without committing an error—a record that is currently held by the boy’s childhood hero.

The story is told through the eyes of three important characters in an interesting weave of differing emotions and ideals. The topic of baseball is the front door of the book, but the story outlines the complexity of human relationships and how we deal with different personalities. Tragedy and joy are prevalent throughout, in a roller coaster that toys with your own emotion.

While the book is long-ish, it basically reads itself from cover to cover.

For the sake of being cheesy, I’d give the book 4 ½ gloves out of five. Definitely worth the read if you enjoy good baseball fiction, especially if you like a reasonably priced e-book.

I want to give YOU, VFTB fan club, the choice to pick my next read: Francona or The Summer of Beer and Whiskey. Vote in the comments.

  • Starlin had a day that was normal for him over the past two years—3 for 4 with an RBI. He’s managed to      creep that BA over .250 finally, but 2013 cannot end fast enough for the guy.
  • A month without the Mr. Hyde version of Edwin Jackson officially ended, as the Cards tagged Jackson early. Only three more years (maybe) of miserable starts.
  • What’s the point of coming back in a game if you are going to give the lead back?

STATE OF THE SYSTEM
Right Field

by Rob Willer

Top Prospect: Jorge Soler, 21, RF  Jorge Soler the prize of the international free agent pool for the Cubs signed right out of Cuba for 9 years and 30 million. Soler has a patient approach at the plate and a rare combination of big, raw power with a quick, short swing. He profiles as the prototypical corner outfielder who slots into the heart of a strong lineup.He stands 6-foot-4 and 215 pounds, Soler runs better than one would think for his size. Due to his athleticism most scouts believe he will last longer even with his great size compared to the likes of big power hitters that eventually run out of gas. Coming into this season Soler was ranked the 34th ranked prospect by Baseball American and the 42nd by MLB.com.

2013 Season: So far this season at High A Daytona Soler has contributed a line of .283/.383/.467 while hitting eight home-runs and driving in 35 runs. Soler’s walk to strikeout ratio is surprisingly very good as he was at 38 strikeouts to 21 walks through 55 games. The big issue is that Soler was injured on June 14th for what is being described as a fractured left tibia. Initial reports suggested that Soler would be out four to six weeks. This in turn would have placed his return to be late July/Early August but the fracture hasn’t competently healed yet. According to Carrie Muskat the MLB.com beat writer for the Cubs has reported that Soler will undergo tests Monday to decide whether or not if he can play in the Arizona Fall League. Albert Almora of the Kane County Cougars also is being reported as a candidate for the Arizona Fall League. We’ll keep you up to date later on in the month on who will be on the roster for Arizona in the fall.

Sleeper Prospect: Rubi Silva, 23, was the Cubs top position player prospect out of Cuba before Jorge Soler came aboard.  Silva is a great athlete who can play all 3 OF positions and 2B. Silva started off his Cubs career by skipping Rookie Ball and Short Season A jumping right into Low A Peoria in 2011. 2011 was a mixed bag for Silva as he absolutely tore up Low A Ball by producing a line .300/.319/.400 while contributing seven triples three homers and 16 doubles. After 95 games the Cubs thought Silva was ready for Advanced A Daytona where pitchers are more refined and the competition jumps considerably. Silva played the final 29 games at Advanced A Daytona where he chipped in a line of .229/.250/.362 not the numbers Silva was looking for on the season. There weren’t many positives at his stint at Daytona in 2012 as he only walked three times but struck out 22 times showing poor plate discipline.

2012 Season: After his struggles at Daytona Silva spent 111 games at Daytona and boy did it make a difference after his line turned in a .302/.322/.412. Silva really worked hard that off-season to get back to where he was pre-promotion to Daytona in 2011. Some other note worthy stats for Silva include 15 doubles, 11 triples and three home-runs while driving in 61 runs. From first glance it seems Silva has great speed due to the double digit triples and his power seems non existent as he only hit three home-runs. After he turned in a successful season at Daytona they promoted Silva to Double A just like they did in 2011 when promoting him to High A after a hot start. Silva did fairly well at Tennessee in the 20 games he played for the Smokies. He had a line of .263/.277/.413 while also hitting three triples in less than 80 at bats.

2013 Season: Silva continued to develop this year at Double A Tennessee picking up where he left off at the end of the 2012 season. Silva’s up to date stats include a line of .294/.313/.493. We see first off the dramatic change in slugging percentage as he jumped 80 points from last year. In his first two seasons Silva combined to hit 10 home-runs over 253 games across 995 at bats. In 106 games and 402 at bats Silva already has hit 13 home-runs to go along with 27 doubles and seven triples. He has turned in all-around great season and seems very deserving of his third call-up in three years. Stay Tuned as I move across the outfield to center for tomorrow’s piece.

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Out of the Park Baseball 14, iOOTP13

Wednesday, May 15th, 2013

From 2006, when EA lost the rights to make MVP Baseball, to 2011, I was an MLB: The Show guy. I got a PS3 instead of an X-Box 360 specifically for the Show. But as I played the game through the 2011 season, I tired of the Road to the Show mode, and found the Franchise mode underwhelming and lacking depth. The greatest frustration was with Sony’s miserable “potential” rating. A prospect’s trade value was entirely tied to his potential rating, but said potential rating had absolutely nothing to do with his skill level or age, and the game limited how much any one player could improve. So not only was it annoying, but it was a major exploit.

As a result, I started looking for a new game to play, and quickly found Out of the Park Baseball. OOTP is entirely in a website style HTML window, and the games are text based. If you’re looking for the on the field type of simulation provided by the Show or MLB 2K, OOTP is not for you. If you’re looking for a game that lets you experience what it’s like to run a franchise, though, OOTP is like manna from heaven.

I won’t pretend to say that I’ve played all the modes available, but you can develop a custom league, play a historical league, or play online leagues in addition to a standard MLB league with 2013 opening day rosters. In a standard MLB game, you’ll control the MLB team, Triple A team, Double A team, High A team, Low A team, Short Season A team, Rookie League team and an international complex. In other words, you control the entire organization, from the 16 year old Dominican signee to your biggest superstar.

The big improvement to the game last year was in the user interface, significantly modernizing it to make it look more like a modern web browser. This year the UI was more a cosmetic improvement, but improvements have been made elsewhere.

OOTP13 appears to have a more realistic international scouting setup than prior versions, where you basically had to luck across international prospects. It also seems to have scouted current minor leaguers a bit better than prior versions.

With that said, there are still exploits, particularly against the computer. You can pretty much always trade a terrible bench player for a high potential reliever (for example, I was able to trade Brent Lillibridge for Carter Capps). You’ll also see some pretty good young, high potential relievers hit the waiver wire. I’d bet it’s a coding in the software that makes team err on not designating for assignment significant salary amounts, which probably is the proper way to err.

The one negative to this season is that it’s been a buggier run than prior versions, with some mid-game shut down issues upon release. However, it seems that the developer has gotten a hold on that through patches.

Overall, OOTP is still by far the best franchise running experience in gaming. If you’ve ever wanted to feel what that is like, go out and buy it.  It is available for $39.99 on Windows, Mac and Linux here.

There is also an iOS version of the game, iOOTP Baseball 2013, which is available on the App Store for $4.99. I honestly think the best description of iOOTP is as OOTP light. You only get one minor league team to run, and they don’t play games. They’re more a supplemental roster. It’s a great game to get as either a trial version of OOTP, due to the lower price, or if you have long train commutes or are traveling.

Aside from it being a lighter version of OOTP, my only complaint about the iOS version, which I have only played on an iPhone, is that it can be difficult to make some roster moves due to the amount of information that needs to be posted on a small screen. You need to move some pretty small buttons around. That’s likely a necessary evil to put a game with this much information on an iOS device.

If the money isn’t an issue and you know it’s for you, I’d suggest getting OOTP. If you want to try it out for a lower cost or have a lot of time alone with your iOS device, get iOOTP. Either way, you’re getting the best baseball game available on that device.

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Recommendations for the 2013 Baseball Season

Monday, April 8th, 2013

It’s home opening day. I know things haven’t quite been going as well as they could have been, but don’t let that get you down. Instead, let’s take a look at some recommendations for this season.

One of the things I really try hard to stick to is not promoting and “recommending” a product that I didn’t think was a good one. I get so many e-mails from people asking to mention things on the site. I try to spare everyone from that and only let you know about ones I think are worth your time. Let’s take a look at pair I’ve found recently.

Wrigley Field E-Guide – When I got this e-mail, I was a little skeptical. Kurt Smith, founder of Ballpark E-Guides contacted me to see if I’d take a look and promote his guide to Wrigley Field. I figured I’d look at it, find it a waste of time, and promptly delete the e-mail. However, when I looked it over, I was pleasantly surprised. While I would never use this particular E-Guide since I’m from Chicago, I found it really well done and would definitely spend the money on one of the other team’s e-guides next time I visit one of those stadiums. There is nothing worse than going to a new environment and leaving feeling like you missed something. From where to sit, how to get there and what to eat when you’re there, these guides meticulously detail each of these and more. Currently there are guides for 16 of the 30 MLB teams and each is only $4.99. In my opinion, that’s a small price to pay to limit the chances of making a mistake and maximizing the visit to a new park. For info on the guides, please take a minute to visit Kurt’s website, www.ballparkeguides.com and have a look around. If you buy one, be sure to let me know what you think.

Beats by Cubs? – OK, so that’s not the name of this next product, but it’s one I’m enjoying very much. One of my most prized possessions is my 120 GB, iPod classic. The thing goes everywhere with me, including to bed with me. I’m an iPod dork and always have it going. In particular, I like to use it when I’m blogging or just overall piddling on the laptop. The problem is that my family does not want to always have to hear sports podcasts. That’s where the folks at Bigr Audio came in. Usually my listening experience is enhanced by purchasing $0.99 ear buds off E-Bay from Hong Kong, waiting for them to ship and then replacing every few months when they die. When I was asked to preview the Chicago Cubs version of the Bigr Audio headphones, I jumped at the opportunity. Shortly after, this arrived at my doorstep. They are so much better than what I am used to using. They do a good job at cancelling out noise, though they are not advertised as noise cancelling, and they allow me to support my team when I’m at the gym looking like a dork for being the only guy with over the ear headphones on. The pair I have retails for $99 and they have all of the teams fully licensed. Check them out at www.bigraudio.com

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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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Book Review: Wherever I Wind Up

Tuesday, June 19th, 2012

I don’t write many book reviews so the fact that I’m writing my second in less than a month is a little surprising. I tend to write them when the book that I read was really enjoyable. That’s the case with the biography / memoir of R.A. Dickey, Wherever I Wind Up.

When I first received this one in my mailbox, I was reluctant to pick it up because it wasn’t Cubs related. I didn’t feel like it would interest me. Then I began to hear some of the reviews of it and decided to see what it had to say. What I was greeted with was a memoir that I enjoyed just as much if, if not more, than similar books by Tony Dungy, Josh Hamilton, and Jim Bouton.

“Wherever I Wind Up: My Quest for Truth, Authenticity and the Perfect Knuckleball” is available on Amazon. Click the image to be taken to the page.

For those not familiar with Dickey, and that is totally understandable before this year, he’s one of the only players in the Majors who still throws the knuckle ball with any regularity. Coming out of the University of Tennessee, Dickey was a member of the USA Olympic team and a highly touted power pitcher going into the 1996 draft where he was selected by the Rangers 18th overall. The book discusses that process and the bad news he was given just hours before being ready to sign his contract. From there it takes you through dealing with those struggles while battling a host of other demons in his life while continuing to pursue his dream.

What I liked most about the book is his open and honest attitude with the reader. It’s not a book for kids, as Dickey discussing things like sexual abuse that he was a victim of, but it’s blatantly honest writing from someone who is still in baseball and doing very well these days. That’s hard to do when you know fans and teammates will be reading and could use that information to be harsh and cruel. Dickey opens his heart on how the abuse affected him in his life and how he dealt with it.

He also discusses his marriage and how that struggled as a result of his past and how he dealt with those struggles as well while maintaining the life of a fringe prospect bouncing from organization to organization trying to find a permanent home for his family and his career. It takes a big man to admit failure as man when it comes to things like being a husband and a father and Dickey does it openly, humbly and honestly.

Finally, the central theme running throughout the book is Dickey’s relationship with Christ. I make no secret about my faith and have mentioned it on here a few times to mixed feelings. I’m not going to sit here and preach about why you need to believe the way I do on this forum. If you want to talk more about that, e-mail me. Instead, I want to encourage you to not let the mention that a major theme of the book is his Christian walk deter you from reading it. Whether you agree with those views or not, the book should not turn you off as a result.

Overall, Dickey’s memoir is well written, thoughtful, and very informative. I would highly recommend picking it up. It’s an easy read that you can have finished in just a few sittings.

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