1. A catch suddenly is not a catch
Apologies in advance for turning this into my first seminar of Baseball for Dummies, but...OK, dummies, tell me what a catch is. You know, simple pop fly, fielder catches it, an out is called.
Disclaimer: I’m a dummy, too. Because based on some of the nonsense I’ve been watching this season, I apparently no longer know what a catch is, either.
If these early days are notable for anything other than the Brewers grilling opponents like overstuffed bratwurst and the Diamondbacks needing to return to remedial pitching school, it is this: We are being forced to unlearn one of the most basic aspects of the game.
Major league officials warned clubs this spring of a more strict “secured possession” interpretation in 2014. Or, if you will, a reinterpretation of what a catch actually is.
The gist of the rule: Umpires and replay officials have been instructed to make sure every fielder has secured the ball this season, including the part where he transfers the ball from his glove to his hand.
Already, it has produced some of the most ludicrous and embarrassing moments for the game since they blew up Bee Gees and K.C. and the Sunshine Band records between games of a Comiskey Park doubleheader in 1979.
Last week in Cleveland, the Indians' Elliot Johnson made a fine running catch in deep right field. He took three steps after the catch, bumped into the right field wall, turned to throw...and then dropped the ball.
Not only did umpires say "no catch," the replay guy back at Central Command, apparently watching Modern Family reruns instead of the game (hopefully, at least, the one where Haley gets tossed out of college for assaulting a police officer), sided with the men in blue.
San Diego’s Chris Denorfia wound up with a double on the play (another problem: If no catch, it clearly should have been called an error).
“I thought, if anything, maybe they would call traveling,” Indians manager Terry Francona quipped. “Because he took about three steps.”
The Padres, thrilled with the break, nevertheless were flabbergasted. And these moments are sprouting around the game like spring crocuses.
Rays second baseman Ben Zobrist was burned on an attempted double-play relay against Kansas City. He appeared to get the force at second before dropping the ball while making the throw to first, but umps said he didn’t even get the first out. The Tigers’ Andrew Romine, same thing against the Orioles. Count Texas’ Elvis Andrus in the club, too, on a play against Boston.
Seattle left fielder Dustin Ackley twice thought he caught the ball for an out the other night against Oakland. No dice.
“I don’t like it,” Oakland’s Josh Donaldson—who, like Denorfia, actually was a beneficiary of this crazy new emphasis—told reporters. “I have a glove on my hand for a reason. If somebody catches a ball in their glove, you’re out.
“I’ve been playing baseball for over 20 years now. If a ball goes in a glove, it’s always been a catch to me.”
Turns out, silly us.
It’s like the Food and Drug Administration suddenly telling us that an apple, after a zillion years, now will be called a banana. As one manager says, “It’s asinine.”
Managers, players and coaches across the game expect this loony tunes, new interpretation to again be revised, likely this winter. Several broadcasters have practically popped a capillary attempting to describe what they just saw.
“I would assume they’re probably going to revise the rule,” Padres right fielder Will Venable said. “Because if you’re telling me you catch a ball and you run six steps, and then before you get your footing and make the throw the ball slips out of your hand, if you’re telling me that’s not a catch. …”
Matter of fact, yes. That’s exactly what we’re now telling you, Will.
“I’m going to assume it’s because of replay, the rules have been more clearly defined in writing and defined in language, how things are to be enforced,” Venable said. “Now you’re getting the technical version of the rules.”
Rays manager Joe Maddon is among the growing chorus of those insisting the rule must be “revisited.”
For now, “we’re telling our guys to catch the ball, and then transfer it to your bare hand and show the ball,” Padres manager Bud Black says.
Suddenly, we’ve gone back to Baseball 101. Who knew this was such a problem.
2. The Brewers: From Pennsylvania to Pennsylvania Ave.?
As one scout who has watched the Brewers this season told me Monday, “If they can stay healthy, I’m not saying they’re going to win the pennant, but they will contend.”
Not “can” contend. “Will” contend.
So, after the Brewers ripped through the Quaker State’s major league clubs—sweeping the Phillies in Philadelphia and the Pirates in Milwaukee—to run their winning streak to nine games entering this week, is it time to consider making White House reservations for them next spring?
At 10-3, the Brewers are off to their best start since beginning 13-0 in 1987. Who knew Yovani Gallardo, Matt Garza and Kyle Lohse would conjure up memories of Teddy Higuera, Bill Wegman and Juan Nieves?
Lohse annihilated the Pirates on Sunday, surrendering just one run and four hits over 8.2 innings.
“He was so good,” the scout said. “He was just burying pitches in that outside corner. From the third inning on, the Pirates had no chance. And they’re a good-hitting club.”
Ryan Braun is back and hitting, Carlos Gomez has developed into one of the game’s most exciting players, and shortstop Jean Segura, obtained from the Angels in the Zack Greinke deal two summers ago, is legit.
One key: Third baseman Aramis Ramirez, playing with a mutual player and club option for 2015 dangling, staying healthy, interested and productive.
3. The Diamondbacks: Is there a Jenny Craig program for ERA?
As the losses stack up in Arizona thanks to the worst pitching staff in the game, one thing to watch will be the spotlight on manager Kirk Gibson.
And within that, here’s added intrigue: General manager Kevin Towers, despite 17 years as a general manager—he ranks fifth among GMs in seniority—has never fired a manager.
Towers mostly worked with skipper Bruce Bochy during his years running the Padres (1995-2009) and then Bud Black when Bochy fled for San Francisco following the 2006 season.
Gibson is recognized by his peers more as a manager of personalities and a motivator than as an in-game tactician, and with the club’s current pitching staff, Connie Mack and John McGraw could do no better. The Diamondbacks’ 5.96 ERA ranks dead last among the majors’ 30 teams.
Still, if things don’t turn soon, Gibson, despite a one-year contract extension through 2015, will move squarely into the favorite’s role as the first manager to be fired. Be it Towers’ decision, or orders from an Arizona power greater than Towers (no, not Sen. John McCain).
Either way, with Patrick Corbin out for the season and Diamondbacks starters struggling mightily, phenom Archie Bradley, pitching for Triple-A Reno, can’t be far away.
4. The Rays look into their Silver Linings Playbook
It was a devastating enough blow when the Rays lost lefty Matt Moore for the season. Then Alex Cobb suffered an oblique strain and will miss four to six weeks.
This is a team that, with healthy pitching, started the season as a legitimate World Series contender (I had them over the Cardinals). Now manager Joe Maddon must pull his biggest rabbit out of the hat yet.
Cesar Ramos made an emergency start Sunday, and the best thing about him remains his nickname “The Joker” (think of the old Batman series, and Cesar Romero). Ramos didn’t make it out of the third inning Sunday in Cincinnati.
Erik Bedard—remember him?—will get what probably will be his best, last shot to recapture his old game as the Rays desperately search for starters. Beyond that, unless they fall completely out of the race, it’s impossible now to envision David Price on the July trade market.
5. No Der-ek Je-ter!
A strong surgeon’s stomach and a medical degree is required to watch the Yankees for even a few minutes these days, given that their players are going down as if victims in one of those old slasher movies.
Within that, manager Joe Girardi made one of the smartest moves of the season Sunday night when he left Derek Jeter on the bench despite Yankee Stadium chants calling for the Captain.
The temptation to juggle the infield and play him surely was there after Yangervis Solarte was hobbled in the sixth inning and Brian Roberts was down with a back injury against the Red Sox.
But with Jeter nursing a tight right quadriceps, given the plethora of his false starts last summer, it would have been irresponsible to deviate from a plan to get him three days off (Saturday and Sunday games, Monday is an off day).
The only way Jeter, who turns 40 in June, is going to make it through the year at shortstop is if Girardi and the Yankees are smart about it.
Where have you gone, Robinson Cano? Oh yeah.
6. The no-no watch was on in Arlington…
But alas, after Yu Darvish’s five perfect innings against the Astros on Friday night, Matt Dominguez started the sixth with a single, and that was that on a night that had potential no-hitter written all over it.
The Astros played Thursday night in Toronto, arrived in Texas near the crack of dawn and had to face Darvish (who compiled a 2.83 ERA in five starts against Houston last year with 52 strikeouts in 35 innings). And, the Rangers won 17 of 19 against Houston in 2013.
Darvish, by the way, has yet to allow a run in 15 innings pitched this season—partly because he’s held opponents to 0-for-12 with runners in scoring position. They’re hitting .157 against him overall.
7. Jedd Gyorko is the new Chase Headley
The Padres smartly signed Gyorko to a five-year, $35 million deal Monday (it begins in 2015; he’s already signed for this year), and while the congratulations were still going around, it suddenly appeared as if Headley was yesterday’s news.
Following two years of trade and contract rumors, Headley is a free agent this winter. Despite Padres ownership publicly saying last summer that they expected to sign him, it’s gotten harder and harder to justify that position.
Though Headley has started to come around over the past couple of days, and though it is still way early, he’s hitting just .174/.224/.283 and has been uncharacteristically sloppy in the field.
Best-case scenario at this point probably has the Padres trying to deal him in July, but that will be tough. His current trade value?
“At all time low,” an opposing scout texted. “He should fire his agent.”
8. Huddy, the Brandons and Giant steps
While Brandon Belt and Brandon Crawford—along with Buster Posey and Michael Morse—have put a charge into the Giants offense, don’t underestimate the addition of veteran Tim Hudson to the rotation.
In three starts, Hudson is 2-0 with a 2.35 ERA, and one scout who watched him beat Arizona last week raved about the way Hudson is pounding the strike zone, staying down and looking as if he were 10 years younger.
9. Go get 'em, Tiger
The Tigers’ trip to the West Coast allowed new hitting coach Wally Joyner to visit with old pal Bud Black, a colleague of his in the Angels organization years ago.
The best memory of Joyner for Black, former Angels pitching coach and current Padres manager, from back in the day?
“One winter, (pitcher) Ramon Ortiz suddenly went from 29 years old to 32 years old,” Black said. “On the first day of spring training, Wally showed up with three birthday cakes for him.”