Archive for the ‘General’ Category

Baseball’s Misunderstood Demographics Problem

Tuesday, February 10th, 2015

My car has an odd feature on it where WBEZ, Chicago’s NPR station, gets a lot of static when my rear defroster is on. As such, on cold winter mornings I spend my brief drive to the train station flipping between ESPN Radio and the Score, typically deciding whether I can tolerate Mike & Mike talk about football generally or Mully and Hanley complain about the Bears particularly more. This morning, however, the Score featured a conversation about baseball, meaning Mully and Hanley won. Unfortunately, their topic of choice was how baseball fans are too old, so the game needs to be sped up to attract the young ‘uns.

There are legitimate reasons to institute things like a pitch clock. I’m not necessarily in favor of a pitch clock, but there are arguments to be made for it. However, I’m not writing about that today. Today, my focus turns to the misunderstood demographic problem in baseball.

Baseball has a demographic problem, although it’s not the one that everyone thinks it is: that the fans are too old. Nor, even if that was the real problem, is there any legitimate solution for 8 year olds not watching baseball games.

I, along with many of my peers, did not have cable in 1989. I turned 8 late that summer, and that was the first year I fell in love with the Cubs. I would get home from school or camp and catch the last few innings of the game, thankfully being unaware that a closer who walked nearly 6 batters per 9 innings was a bad thing. Of course, I essentially had no options of anything else to watch. I had 4 or 5 channels: it was baseball or bust. Sure, I had an NES, but I had either beaten all my games, or their status as Nintendo hard got me to give up on them.

Kids these days have more entertainment options than I could have imagined. Look, they’re just not going to choose turning on a live sporting event of any type over their iPad, or their Xbox, or Nickelodeon and Disney Channel.

And teams, including the Cubs, know this. The Cubs have been moving as many day games to night games as possible for nearly three decades because weekday day games just don’t draw the ratings they used to, or the ratings of night games.

Yet baseball is financially as healthy as ever. Team revenues and team values are skyrocketing. Teams that go on sale are being bought by very successful businessmen at these high values. These teams are not being bought with the idea that they will lose value 10 or 20 years down the line as the old guard of fans die out.

My inclination is that this misunderstanding comes from comparing baseball to football when, really, no sport should be compared to football. Football gets a massive boost from two things: First, each team plays only once a week, with the vast majority of them all playing on one day. This helped turn football Sundays into a social event, where friends and families will get together to just watch the game. No one is getting together on a Tuesday night to watch every baseball game on television.

Second, and even more importantly, fantasy football is by far the easiest fantasy sport to play. Whereas fantasy baseball and basketball remain relative niche endeavors that require daily attention, nearly everyone I know is in at least one fantasy football league involving a meaningful monetary award. Whereas baseball fandom remains regional, this has turned football fandom national. The Bears may have been terrible last season, but if I needed 18 points from DeMarco Murray on Monday night to win my fantasy matchup, you could bet that I’d be watching the Dallas Cowboys once my kids went to bed despite the fact that I don’t care about the Cowboys. Or really much anything from Dallas.

Baseball should be compared to basketball and hockey, and, on a fan basis, it’s doing just fine. Like basketball teams, good baseball teams generally draw strong attendance while poor teams don’t, with a few franchises buoyed by history and a few hampered by poor arenas.

Baseball’s actual demographic problem comes not from the fandom, though, but from the demographics of its best young players. Baseball is a very expensive sport, especially compared to basketball. A baseball field requires several times the space of a basketball court, and requires exponentially more maintenance.

Also, of all the major sports in the US, baseball is the one where pure athletic talent, size, strength and speed, isn’t enough to succeed. Sure, many of the greatest players, the Mike Trouts and Andrew McCutchens, are phenomenal athletes. But there are plenty of guys who are as big, strong, and fast as Trout and McCutchen that just can’t tell a slider in the dirt from a fastball on the outer third. This need to not just be a gifted athlete but to have advanced baseball skills to draw scouts’ attention has led many with MLB aspirations for their kids to obtain private lessons, or send their children to private schools with superior baseball programs.

Most often this has been cast as an issue of a the diminishing numbers of African American baseball players, but I think it’s a larger issue than that. For American kids and teenagers with legitimate aspirations to play either a college or professional sport, baseball has become a game for rich kids. While poor, athletically talented Dominican and Venezuelan kids are being brought to baseball academies at age 14 to catch up to their American peers, American kids are stuck with their random parental assignment through high school. If you take two kids with the exact same athletic ability, drive, and desire, but one has upper middle class parents and the others are just scraping above the poverty line, the prior would have had access to training and coaching the latter could only have dreamed of.

And this is what MLB should work on: getting these resources, in some manner, to our poorer urban and rural areas. The MLB shouldn’t focus on the fact that these kids aren’t watching baseball. That’s not going to change unless we go back to four channels and a radio. What they should really worry about is that a lot of kids aren’t playing the game, and especially that a lot of talented athletes aren’t playing the game into their high school years.

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Is James Shields Worth The Risk?

Monday, February 9th, 2015

We’ve now found ourselves in February with only about 10 days left until pitchers and catchers begin to report to Spring Training. While top names like Hanley Ramirez and Max Scherzer have found homes for the next half decade and beyond, one big name still remains without a team for the 2015 MLB season.

James Shields, the Opening Day starter for the World Series runner-up Kansas City Royals, has yet to sign a contract as the season looms in the distance. Not unlike Kyle Lohse from two seasons ago, who wound up signing in the middle of March, it appears that Scott Boras may have overestimated the market and potentially hurt his value in the process.

Reports have come out throughout the offseason that the 33-year old is looking for a contract valued anywhere from $100-$125 million over the course of five years, the top end of that potentially making him the 5th highest paid player in all of baseball. Given his track record and expected output over the next few years, it’s clear that a contract of that size (or anywhere in that ballpark, really) would be completely unjustified and an enormous risk for the team that pulls the trigger on it.

As noted, Shields is already 33 years old and unfortunately for him has nearly 2,000 innings already logged in the majors. Once Shields throws his 90th inning this year, he will join a group of just 198 starting pitchers over the course of baseball history to hit the 2,000 inning mark. Mileage is certainly a concern, as those innings will inevitably begin to catch up to him in more ways than one.

The first, and probably most glaring, is velocity. Over the past few years Shields has experienced something that not many pitchers deal with while they’re aging; he’s actually throwing his fastball harder. After throwing his fastball at an average of 91 miles per hour during the 2009 season, Shields hurled it at 92.4 this past season, all while throwing it more than he has since 2010.

It’s not a question of if his fastball will start to fall off, but when, which is incredibly concerning considering his already declining strikeout rate. His K% has dropped each of the last three years even with increased velocity, so not being able to work off of hard stuff may be tough for him, especially since his best pitch is his changeup.

He has improved his walk rate, which is certainly a positive, but it hasn’t helped him consistency at all. This past year, it was a toss-up over which version of Shields that you were going to get, the July version in which he struck out 38 batters in 37 innings and posted a 2.63 ERA, or the June version where he posted a 4.88 ERA, had only 18 strikeouts in 31 innings and posted a 1.59 WHIP.

On top of his month-to-month inconsistencies, he’s had some real troubles in October despite being billed “Big Game James”. Over the course of his career, he’s posted a 5.46 ERA throughout postseason play and has gotten absolutely tattooed the past three postseason appearances in particular. He’s simply not someone that plays up the level of competition that he sees after the regular season concludes, which should be another red flag for those in the market for a starting pitcher.

With all of this being said, I would certainly feel comfortable if my team was rolling into Spring Training with Shields as my number three pitcher, but that’s simply not going to be the case for the team that signs him. You’re going to be looking at a 4 or 5 year commitment that could cost upwards of $80 million. After all of the failed contracts that we’ve seen handed out in free agency throughout the last few years I would be very cautious in signing Shields, as he very well may be the next big flop.

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GirlieView (02/05/2015)

Thursday, February 5th, 2015

GirlieView Definitions

  • Lizzie = A funny, timely quote made on the VFTB site by our writers or commenters.
  • Lizard = The best Lizzie.
  • MVL = Most Valuable Lizzie’er: The person with the most Lizzies in the period under review (usually the past two weeks.)
  • Top 10 of the 2014-2015 Offseason = The folks with the most aggregate Lizzie points YTD (1 point for every Lizzie, 3 points for every Lizard.)

As you already know, this is all completely subjective and according to my whims.

Lizzies

  • Congratulations to Seymour on his first MVL for 2015. Seymour, are you currently at camp? If so have fun and let Joe Pepitone know you are the MVL, he may let you wear his toupee at dinner.
  • Mar – Barney
  • Did you buy it 2 years in advance?
  • If he’s in a batting stance, I have money that says Darwin published that calendar himself.
  • I also don’t think pace of play is the reason why less kids watch baseball, as much as it is multitude of entertainment options compared to 20 and 30 years ago.
  • I can’t see the need to readjust your batting gloves or your junk between every pitch and I’m all for putting something in place to prevent this.
  • If your at bat lasts more than 4 hours, please consult a physician.
  • Could also make you do things like row a boat on a lake, share furniture restoring projects, hug on a bench, dance to your old vinyl records and sit in separate bathtubs viewing the sunset. Sounds dangerous.
  • Mark from Toronto wants to put something in place to prevent this. Any ideas?
  • Raker, I had some unhealthily long at bats during my undergrad. Should I be concerned?
  • How would he ban the shift? Draw boxes on the field where the players have to stand. That’s what they do at Randy’s camp so the senile campers know where to stand on the field.
  • Boxes sound like a great idea. Then when a fielder steps on a line before the pitch leaves the pitchers hand he would be penalized – maybe by giving the batter an automatic hit. We could watch the replays in super-slo-mo on split screen to figure out exactly when his foot touched the line and the ball left the pitcher’s hand. All these ideas would make baseball much more fun to watch because there would be penalty delays all the time. Maybe we could add invisible runners too. Those were always fun when we were kids.
  • No we give the fielders the invisible fence necklaces and put an electric charge that gets activated if they leave the box before the pitcher throws the ball. Imagine the excitement as A-Rod tries to cheat goes into a spasm as the ball shoots past him and the Yankees lose again.
  • The acrobats would put Ozzie Smith to shame – and the yelping would be hilarious. Someone needs to contact the commissioners office with these ideas.
  • Sometimes, all it takes is a kind gesture from an athlete passed on by a grandmother, and a team gets a new fan.
  • I think of Ernie Banks whenever I am talking to someone and am tempted to drift. Thank you, Ernie, for the very valuable lesson. You’ll be missed.
  • Who decided the games are too long? I don’t think the games are too long. We’ll sit and watch NFL games for 3 1/2 hours even on a work night and not complain. Baseball is an escape from reality. Why shorten that little trip?
  • I agree, Eddie. I don’t personally have a problem with game lengths – except for the lengths of commercial breaks, which we know won’t be shortened.
  • My view exactly! What needs to shift is the idea that a 2 hour game is somehow preferable to a 3 hour game.
  • For me, I think it’s more that a short game and a long game can be just as exciting. A 2 hour and 15 minute well pitched game involving 2 starters who move as fast can be just as exciting as a 3 hour 45 minute game with a final score of 15-14. And, on the flip side, a 2 hour 15 minute game where one team jumps out to a 6-0 lead by the 2nd inning and is never challenged can be just as boring as a sloppy 3 hour 45 minute game characterized by errors, a bunch of walks, and one team slowly stretching a blowout lead even further away.
  • Usually when you go to the ball park it is an event, something you want to linger. When I watch at home, I want the game to last because it gives me a good excuse not to get off the couch and do something I don’t want to do.
  • Reed Johnson is a free agent. Any team wise enough to sign him will get a man who plays hard.
  • Funny you mention that, as I’ve been looking into Johnson’s tenure with the Cubs. Long story short, that may have been a cup.
  • Hundley sweeps the field with a 1-7-10 trifecta.
  • In 1968 he caught 160 games. That stat doesn’t show up here.
  • Not unless you count the last line under the column that is headed by the letter G.
  • That’s called a row, Jedi. Tighten up your spreadsheet game.
  • You can’t imagine how much this pains me, but rows are horizontal, columns are vertical. We don’t want any of our Johnsons going all light-sabre on us.
  • Row not line, not row not column. You follow?
  • The British have made the word row utterly confusing in print. Any word that can be used to mean both quarrel or line should be avoided at all costs.
  • Get in queue for that beef.
  • it is amazing that bad catching would lead to such a discussion on spreadsheets – which goes to prove it is all about the spreadsheet. Whatever “it” means

Lizard

  • May Ernie Banks rest in peace.

Shout Outs

  • No one had their very first 2014/2015 off-season Lizzie this time so let’s have a shout out for everyone! Thanks for being here!

MVL

  • Congratulations to Eddie von White and Seymour Butts, our co-Most Valuable Lizzie-ers this time! Congrats to both of you!

Top 10 of the 2014-2015 Offseason (one point for each Lizzie, three points for the Lizard)

1. Eddie Von White
2. jswanson
3. Doc Raker
4. Seymour Butts
5. Doug S.
6. Noah Eisner
7. Dork
8. Jerry in Wisconsin
9. Jedi
10. Joe Aiello
10. SBardo

Chit Chat

It’s nearly time for our annual debate: whether Spring Training games are fun to watch or utterly useless. How do you feel about it? Will you be watching/listening to Spring Training games or do you skip them and wait for the regular season?

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Top 10 Worst Offensive Seasons as a Cubs SS

Wednesday, February 4th, 2015

Keeping with the theme from yesterday, I present the worst offensive Cubs seasons as a shortstop. Discuss among yourselves.

Rk Player OPS+ PA Year Age G R 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO BA OBP SLG
1 Don Kessinger 37 336 1965 22 106 19 4 3 0 14 20 44 .201 .252 .233
2 Rey Sanchez 39 324 1996 28 95 28 9 0 1 12 22 42 .211 .272 .253
3 Ivan de Jesus 44 460 1981 28 106 49 8 4 0 13 46 61 .194 .276 .233
4 Mick Kelleher 48 363 1976 28 124 28 12 1 0 22 15 32 .228 .264 .270
5 Larry Bowa 49 423 1984 38 133 33 14 2 0 17 28 24 .223 .274 .269
6 Ronny Cedeno 54 572 2006 23 151 51 18 7 6 41 17 109 .245 .271 .339
7 Don Kessinger 55 628 1967 24 145 61 10 7 0 42 33 80 .231 .275 .272
8 Shawon Dunston 62 359 1987 24 95 40 18 3 5 22 10 68 .246 .267 .358
9 Don Kessinger 67 707 1968 25 160 63 14 7 1 32 38 86 .240 .283 .287
10 Jeff Blauser 69 435 1998 32 119 49 11 3 4 26 60 93 .219 .340 .299
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Top 10 Worst Offensive Seasons at Catcher for the Cubs

Tuesday, February 3rd, 2015

With the Cubs apparent shift of focus from offense behind the plate to a more defensive minded and pitch framing approach, there is the chance that offensively behind the plate, the Cubs could be challenged. I don’t think it will be horribly challenged, but I think we could see struggles. That got me wondering what the worst offensive seasons at the catcher position have been.

To compile my data, I only looked at seasons in the expansion area “1961 – present” and limited the search to players who played at least 75% of their games at catcher and saw at least 300 plate appearances. From there, I ordered them by OPS+

With that said, I present to you the top 10 worst offensive seasons behind the plate.

Rk Player OPS+ PA Year Age G R 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO BA OBP SLG
1 Randy Hundley 52 387 1972 30 114 23 12 0 5 30 22 62 .218 .261 .294
2 Dave Rader 55 348 1978 29 116 29 13 3 3 36 34 26 .203 .281 .295
3 Dick Bertell 61 350 1963 27 100 15 7 2 2 14 24 41 .233 .284 .286
4 Scott Servais 63 360 1998 31 113 35 15 1 7 36 26 51 .222 .289 .338
5 Steve Swisher 65 411 1976 24 109 25 13 3 5 42 20 82 .236 .275 .326
6 Steve Swisher 65 325 1974 22 90 21 5 0 5 27 37 63 .214 .307 .286
7 Randy Hundley 68 406 1973 31 124 35 11 1 10 43 30 51 .226 .283 .342
8 Joe Girardi 72 447 1990 25 133 36 24 2 1 38 17 50 .270 .300 .344
9 George Mitterwald 72 382 1977 32 110 40 22 0 9 43 28 69 .238 .295 .378
10 Randy Hundley 73 606 1968 26 160 41 18 4 7 65 39 69 .226 .280 .311
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Way Too Early Awards Predictions for 2015 MLB Season

Monday, February 2nd, 2015

Coming off the heels of one of the best Super Bowls of all-time (at least that I’ve been able to witness), it’s now time to start shifting into baseball mode. With only 17 days left until pitchers and catchers begin to report for Spring Training, baseball is right on the doorstep; which is something that I can’t believe when I look outside and see a foot of snow.

With that in mind, it’s time to start laying down some predictions for the upcoming MLB season. The Fangraphs and PECOTA projections have already come out, but unfortunately for me I don’t have any algorithms that can create such detailed graphs and charts, so I’ll stick to individual awards.

AL Rookie of the Year – Rusney Castillo

While there is certainly a debate to be had regarding international players that have played professionally in leagues outside of the MLB winning the Rookie of the Year, the fact of the matter is that they’re still allowed to win it (and they typically have a leg up on their competition in the process).

With the recent success of Cuban players in the MLB such as Jose Abreu, Yoenis Cespedes and Aroldis Chapman, it’s clear that the top leagues in Cuba definitely have top-level talent that translates well to MLB teams. Castillo showed a glimpse into his potential with a September call-up and I expect him to run away with the award.

NL Rookie of the Year – Kris Bryant

I figure that the folks reading this will probably like this prediction, but I’m not making it just to pander to a majority of my viewership. With Javier Baez and Jorge Soler already making their big league debuts, the stage has been set for Bryant to come in and perform for the up-and-coming Cubs.

He’ll certainly have to work through some flaws that have been pointed out in his game (such as his relatively high strikeout rate), but that’s the case with any rookie. He seems to be far more advanced than the majority of rookies that you will see coming to the majors, so I anticipate that his transition will be relatively smooth.

AL Cy YoungDavid Price

Looking at his 4-4 record with an ERA of 3.59 may cause the casual observer to say that Price underperformed in his brief time with the Detroit Tigers, but a look deeper shows that he was just as good as ever. His FIP of 2.44 shows that he may have just dealt with some bad luck and his .317 BABIP (.032 higher than his career average) just adds weight to that suggestion.

With Max Scherzer now in Washington, Price is going to be looked at to anchor the rotation of a team that’s World Series window may be in it’s final year. Along with that, he also happens to be in a contract year, so a career year now could result in him topping the $200 million mark in free agency. With Anthony Gose slated to play center, Torii Hunter now in Minnesota and Jose Iglesias returning, the defense behind him should be far improved over what he experienced over the second half of last season.

NL Cy YoungClayton Kershaw

He’s far and away the best pitcher in baseball and it’s just a matter of if he can top last year’s performance at this point. I’m incredibly happy that I get to see him pitch in his prime.

AL MVP – Mike Trout

He’s far and away the best pitcher player in baseball and it’s just a matter of if he can top last year’s performance at this point. I’m incredibly happy that I get to see him pitch play in his prime.

NL MVP – Bryce Harper

This is probably the riskiest/most controversial prediction of the six that I made, but it’s one that I feel decently confident about. While many are taking Giancarlo Stanton to win this year, I just don’t see the Marlins being able to grab a playoff spot, especially considering that Jose Fernandez won’t be back until mid-season at the earliest.

Andrew McCutchen has an argument here, but I expect Harper’s season to trump his. While he had some struggles last year, many of them were due to a thumb injury that he suffered towards the start of the season. He came on strong late and was an unstoppable force in the Nationals playoff series with the eventual World Series Champion San Fransisco Giants. I envision that that version of Harper (the one we’ve been waiting for the past two years) will be the one that we get to see throughout the course of the 2015 season. Injuries may come up again due to his occasionally reckless style of play, but if he can stay healthy the NL is in some real trouble.

How do you feel about my picks for each of the respective awards? Who do you have winning each of them?

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Does Baseball Need to Change?

Friday, January 30th, 2015

The game of baseball has changed many times over the years. Like any successful endeavor, baseball must evolve to stay fair for players, exciting for fans, and yes, as much as we may not like to think about it, marketable to a wider audience (and the advertisers who covet those eyeballs).  While baseball’s attendance and TV viewership are both healthy at this point, its never bad to be proactive if making changes could enhance the future popularity of the sport. Modifications to the game have included raising or lowering the mound, adding the DH in the AL, and, most recently, adding instant replay challenges. There has been a flurry of news recently in regard to proposed changes to game, from banning defensive shifts (covered by Brian here - I agree that it’s not necessary), to installing a pitch clock, to forcing all pitchers to face a minimum of two batters. Those last two ideas relate to what seems to be the primary concern of those waving the “change or die” flag: shortening the length of the game. It seems clear that game length is the primary concern of MLB right now. From a Yahoo! article by Mike Oz:

“In September, MLB initiated its “Pace of Game” committee that would be exploring ways to speed up games, which had reached a record 3:08 in 2014. In 1984, the average game time was 2:40, so MLB has added almost 30 minutes in 30 years.”

The Pitch Clock

The pitch clock experiment began in the recent Arizona Fall League, and the 17 games in which it was used were an average 10 minutes shorter than the average AFL games the previous season. The pitch clock will now be used in AA and AAA this season (along with a rule requiring the batter to keep one foot in the batter’s box). In this scenario, pitchers have 20 seconds to come set on the rubber, or a ball is added to the count. Of course, Rule 8.04 already exists, which gives pitchers 12 seconds maximum between pitches, but umpires don’t enforce it. Many in the media are for this change:

Pitch clocks are (eventually) coming to baseball – SB Nation

MLB needs a pitch clock — and support for the idea is growing - New York Daily News

The Pitch Clock Is Getting Closer – Deadspin

…and others are against:

A pitch clock in Major League Baseball? No thanks … - Hardball Talk

Major League Baseball doesn’t need a pitch clock - Bless You Boys

…and then there’s are own Jon Lester (no surprise here):

Jon Lester is firmly against pitch clocks in baseball - Yahoo!

My opinion? Instituting any sort of clock is a major change for the game – not that major changes are necessarily bad. However, I think I’d prefer if the umps just enforced Rule 8.04. I know umps probably don’t enforce it because there’s no clock, but I think they could handle this if they were empowered by MLB.

Pitchers Facing a Minimum of Two Batters

Ken Rosenthal recently wrote a column entitled: “Make Relievers Face More Than 1 Batter for Faster Game, More Offense.” Guess who ol’ Ken reports the idea came from…yes, your very own President of Baseball Operations Theo Epstein. It is an intriguing idea. I’m thinking about all the ways it would change strategy – from bringing in relievers and pinch hitters to bullpen construction. This was just an idea floated at the GM meetings and taken up by Rosenthal – no formal proposal has been made.

So, what do you think? Have baseball games become too long? If so, and if they need to be shortened, are these the right strategies? Are there other ways to shorten games that won’t affect gameplay as much as these ideas? I’d love to hear your thoughts. Have a great weekend.

 

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My Grandmother and Mr. Cub

Wednesday, January 28th, 2015

Looking back it seems somewhat ridiculous really.  A piece of paper with a quick message and a signature on it. For years my grandmother and her twin sister attended the Duke Children’s Golf Classic, which up until a few years back, was held in Durham,NC and raised money for Duke Children’s Hospital.  Picture the Pebble Beach Pro-Am without the Pro golfers and big name A-list celebs.  A large majority of the players were ex-athletes of various professional sports.  They definitely brought some decent names to the tourney and by no means was it a small ordeal.  My grandmother had a few favorites that she looked forward to seeing each year, but there were two that stood out for her….Sonny Shroyer (Enos from Dukes of Hazzard) and Ernie Banks. She told me Ernie always had time for his fans. He would hang around and take a picture or sign an autograph and acted like it was his pleasure to do so. Prior to her mention of Ernie Banks, I wouldn’t really say I was a Cub fan.  Growing up in southeast Detroit makes you a Tigers fan, and I loved the Tigers and still do.  However, to this day I blame Ernie Banks and my grandmother for making me a Cub fan too. It sounds crazy but on my birthday in 1987 my grandmother handed me the little piece of paper you see attached to this post, one that I have kept ever since.  It instantaneously made me a fan of a team I would come to learn were known as “The Lovable Losers”. I didn’t start out a huge fan as I was for my Tigers, but a good fan from afar if you will. It is nutty the little things that can happen to make a 12 year old child find interest in a sports team.  A hat from an uncle, a mitt with a facsimile autograph in the palm, or a piece of paper with a signature.  Moving to Chicago some 10 years later would seal the deal for me. Sometimes, all it takes is a kind gesture from an athlete passed on by a grandmother, and a team gets a new fan.

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Why Jon Lester Should Not Get David Ross as His Personal Catcher

Tuesday, January 27th, 2015

As with most who will be writing about the Cubs this week, I’m going to start with something brief on the great Mr. Cub, Ernie Banks. I am too young to have watched Ernie play, but he has been a constant presence in Cubdom for so long, that it just seems… wrong… that he no longer will be a physical presence with the team. I really have nothing to say that others have not said more eloquently in the last several days. I am, however, grateful that I work right around the corner from Daley Plaza, where the statute of Banks will be placed from Wednesday through Saturday, so I will be able to pay my respects to Mr. Cub.

On that note, though, we all know what Ernie would want more than anything else: a World Series championship on the North Side in 2015, so we’ll turn to my topic of the week on something that could affect the Cubs’ results in the coming season: Jon Lester and his catcher. When the Cubs signed Lester, a lot of people thought that the Cubs would make a run at his personal catcher in Boston in 2013 and the first half of 2014, David Ross.

While it made sense for Lester to have Ross as his personal catcher in Boston, it would not in Chicago. In 2013, the Red Sox’s primary catcher was Jarrod Saltalamacchia, an offense first catcher with somewhere between below average (in 2013) and utterly terrible (in 2014) pitch framing skills. In 2014, the Red Sox brought in A.J. Pierzynski, a terrible defensive catcher as well as a poor framer, to the start the season as their primary catcher. As a defender and a receiver, Ross was a huge upgrade over the regular starter.

This was an upgrade worth giving Boston’s ace pitcher, even with Ross being terrible offensively against right handed pitchers. While Lester has very good stuff, he is not an overpowering pitcher, with fastball velocity averaging just under 92 miles per hour last season. He succeeds as much on excellent control, especially over the past couple of seasons, as anything else. And when you rely on control, getting those strikes on the edges, or just outside the edges, called as strikes is vital.

Moreover, Lester’s biggest weakness is controlling the running game. His pickoff move is essentially non-existent, and we saw in the AL wild card game what could happen to him without a competent battery mate when Geovany Soto went down with injury midway through the game.

Yet all these reasons present in Boston to give Lester the defensive minded backup catcher are not present in Chicago. The Cubs have two excellent defensive catchers and pitch framers in Ross and Miguel Montero. Montero hits right handed pitching, but struggles against left handed pitching, while Ross does the opposite. However, there is not a meaningful difference in defensive and receiving prowess between the two: they are both very good in both skills. Lester doesn’t need the defensive minded backup here because the primary starter is also defensively strong, and the Cubs will be a lot better offensively running a straight platoon with Montero and Ross whenever possible. Since playing to Montero’s and Ross’s offensive strengths is what is most likely to improve the team, that should be the Cubs’ priority in choosing who starts on a day to day basis.

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