1. Can’t anybody here understand this game?
Here comes the baseball, zinging through the summer air.
Here comes the baserunner, streaking around third and steaming home.
Here goes the catcher, setting up to take the throw for a close play at the plate.
Right here is where it sure would be nice if everybody understood the rules, wouldn’t it?
Twice in the past week, in last Wednesday’s Reds-Pirates game and again in Friday night’s Mets-Marlins game, we were reminded that, conservatively speaking, nobody is completely clear on where a catcher can position himself, and when.
"I am completely dumbfounded," Mariners manager Lloyd McClendon told MLB Network Radio. "I just don't get it."
He's got the company of nearly everyone in baseball. Seriously. I’ve spoken with enough catchers, managers and coaches this season, and they’re all fuzzy on what should be black and white.
But where it really melted down to Three Stooges, nyuck, nyuck, nyuck territory came in the two games last week.
In the first, Pirates catcher Russell Martin received the throw home ahead of a sliding Devin Mesoraco on a bases-loaded force play. Reds manager Bryan Price argued that Martin illegally was blocking the plate, and after consulting with the video replay headquarters in New York, the call was overturned and Mesoraco was ruled safe.
Pittsburgh manager Clint Hurdle was so angry he rightfully (and righteously) phoned MLB executive vice-president Joe Torre immediately after the game before he even met with reporters. And the next day, MLB issued a statement admitting that the ruling was in error (via Pittsburgh Tribune-Review) and Mesoraco should have been out.
Thankfully, intelligence has won out in this case, as MLB has already acted to change the rule on force plays at home plate, per Ken Rosenthal of FOX Sports (h/t to CBS Sports). Umpires will no longer apply the new blocking rules on such plays, but still for any non-force play, such as a sac fly, attempt to score from second on a base hit, etc.
Two days later in the eighth inning in Miami, left fielder Marcell Ozuna’s throw home was well ahead of David Wright, but Mets manager Terry Collins challenged the play, arguing that Jarrod Saltalamacchia did not provide a lane in which Wright could slide.
After instant replay review, the out call stood.
Then, the game ended when Kirk Nieuwenhuis was nailed at the plate by another Ozuna throw on what would have been a sacrifice fly.
So the Mets lost 3-2 and were not happy about what they viewed was the inconsistent manner in which umpires are enforcing the no-blocking-the-plate rule.
Easily, the most entertaining aspect of all of this was the reaction of Mets general manager Sandy Alderson. He was the angriest of all the Mets...and is the chairman of the committee that designed the rule in the first place.
That, friends, is what crystallizes my earlier point: Nobody is clear on this, including one of the new rule’s chief architects.
Like Hurdle, Alderson quickly got in touch with MLB to complain.
“The rule that is currently written is the product of a negotiation between the players’ association and Major League Baseball,” Alderson told reporters, via ESPN's Adam Rubin. “It is not the rule that was written by the playing-rules committee. Beyond that, I can’t really comment on the plays tonight because it would compromise my league-wide position as chairman of the playing-rules committee.”
He then quipped: “I do have a couple of thoughts as general manager of the Mets that I can’t really share tonight.”
The field manager of the Mets said the next day that he expects next year will bring a new college-style rule in which baserunners must slide on close plays and catchers will be barred from dropping down and using their shin guards to block the plate. Given Alderson’s authority, you figure Collins is speaking with some inside information.
So for now, score this as E-Good Intentions. Admirable as it may be that folks are attempting to protect catchers from violent collisions at the plate, as usual, when a committee is formed to study an issue, it winds up looking as if the committee was staffed with a bunch of Moe, Larry and Curlys.
Worst-case scenario now is that a key moment in the playoffs or World Series will turn on one of these home-plate fiasco plays. Clearly, the rule needs changing again—and soon.
2. Byrnes, baby, Byrnes: Padres whack their GM
As another season sinks toward the bottom of Mission Bay, the Padres could have done what they usually do and fire the hitting coach. Since Petco Park opened in 2004, they’ve run through six of them.
They could have gone the cliche route and fired the manager—though Bud Black did guide them to 90 wins in 2010, was named as the National League Manager of the Year that season and remains highly respected within the industry.
Instead, credit an ownership group that still has that new-car smell for dispensing with the window dressing and cutting straight to the root of the problem. Josh Byrnes is a good baseball man and a good man, period. But for a variety of reasons, some through no fault of his own (an inordinate number of injuries) and others created when he gambled and lost (bad contract extensions and a trade with the Reds that backfired badly), the Padres roster is a disaster and the future appears bleak.
The Padres, through 77 games, are hitting a humiliating .214 with an embarrassing .274 on-base percentage. Both of those numbers over a full season would be the worst since the mound was raised in 1969 and the Padres were added to the NL as an expansion team. As of now, since ’69, the lowest batting average over a full season belongs to the 1972 Rangers (.217), and the worst on-base percentage belongs to the ’72 Padres (.283).
At 12.5 games behind the Giants, this year’s Padres, away from the pitching mound, have been an unmitigated disaster.
Chase Headley turned 30 and has battled ankle, knee and back problems. His trade value has never been lower, and talk of him signing an extension dissipated long ago.
Yasmani Grandal and Everth Cabrera are not even close to the players they were before each was suspended for failing performance-enhancing drug tests.
The big Mat Latos trade with the Reds two winters ago has turned disastrous: Grandal (.193) and Yonder Alonso (.210) have been terrible, and starter Edinson Volquez (now with the Pirates) was dispatched long ago.
Several contract extensions have been horrible: Carlos Quentin (three years, $27 million, full no-trade clause) has been injured as often as he’s been on the field. Cameron Maybin (five years, $25 million) does not look to have much of a future. Nick Hundley (three years, $9 million) regressed to the point where his trade value was so low that the Padres had to pay most of his $4 million salary this year when unloading him on the Orioles—even though Baltimore had an injured catcher, Matt Wieters, at the time. And in April, the Padres gave Jedd Gyorko a five-year, $35 million extension—and Gyorko (.162) had the lowest batting average in the majors among qualifiers when he went onto the DL last week with a sore foot.
Byrnes’ deal acquiring starter Andrew Cashner for first baseman Anthony Rizzo looked OK earlier this year, even as Rizzo was settling nicely into Wrigley Field, but it seemed fitting that Cashner landed on the disabled list for a second time this season on Monday, the day after Byrnes was let go.
Changes among GMs have become increasingly rare. The Padres’ move is the first since Houston fired Ed Wade following the 2011 season. And GM changes especially once were rare in San Diego, where Kevin Towers lorded over the franchise from 1996-2009.
Since then, Jed Hoyer and then Byrnes served, and now there is talk about Towers’ possible return given his situation in Arizona and the Diamondbacks’ hiring of Tony La Russa earlier this season to oversee baseball operations.
Hold that thought, though. Padres president Mike Dee said Sunday that the team will conduct a thorough search, so a permanent GM—Towers or anyone else—likely won’t be named until later this season, or even shortly afterward.
In the interim, former Expos and Mets GM Omar Minaya and current assistant Padres GMs A.J. Hinch and Fred Uhlman Jr. will fill the “office of the GM” and, ostensibly, guide the Padres through the July 31 trade deadline. Lines are open now for Quentin, closer Huston Street, set-up man Joaquin Benoit, starter Ian Kennedy and practically anyone else as the Padres desperately work to upgrade their talent.
3. Big Papi, Tone it down
Let me say this right up front: Nobody enjoys David Ortiz more than I do. I’ve known him since 1996, when I was covering the Twins and they acquired him as the player to be named later after shipping Dave Hollins to the Mariners, and I’ve always found him genuine, smart and personable. As well as one heck of a hitter.
That said, Ortiz needs to get off this kick where he berates the official scorers every time he thinks one has robbed him of a hit. His most recent tirade came a few days ago when Fenway Park official scorer Bob Ellis gave Minnesota’s Joe Mauer an error instead of Ortiz a hit. Ortiz was angry both during and after the game, when he said he thought “people were supposed to have your back at home, and it never happens.”
Truth is, it happens far too often. More and more, it is becoming impossible to get an error. In general, more official scorers than not are way too lenient. These are the major leagues. Balls are supposed to be caught. If a play does not take extraordinary effort when it is not made, then it should be ruled an error. Period. Home or away.
4. Zero gravity, zero runs
Pitching continues to dominate in this post-steroid era, and if it seems to you that there are an inordinate amount of shutouts this season...you would be on to something.
Good buddy Paul White of USA Today wrote a riveting piece on this Thursday, and here are some updated numbers entering this week: So far this season, there have been 170 shutouts in the majors, an average of one every 6.66 games—a faster pace, even, than the big-league record of one every 6.77 games in 1915.
Currently, the game is on pace for a record 364 shutouts, even more than in that 1915 season (359), and more than the 357 in 1972, the most since baseball went to a 162-game schedule.
The Cardinals are leading the way with 14 shutouts, followed by the Braves, Rays and Blue Jays (nine each).
5. Two pitching nuggets
— If you missed it, one of the more remarkable streaks in the majors ended in Minnesota’s 6-5 victory over the White Sox on Sunday: The Twins’ Phil Hughes actually walked a batter, Chicago catcher Tyler Flowers, in the third inning. It was Hughes’ first walk since June 1 and spanned 106 batters—which wasn’t even Hughes’ best this season: Between April 20 and June 1, he reeled off a streak of 178 batters faced between walks.
For the season, Hughes has fanned 82 hitters and walked nine in 95.1 innings.
— Meanwhile, into his Monday night start against the Red Sox, the Mariners’ King Felix Hernandez over his past three starts had allowed only two earned runs in 22.1 innings with 31 strikeouts, 11 hits...and zero wins. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, no pitcher since 1900 has started four consecutive games and gone at least seven innings pitched allowing zero or one run and not won.
6. No-Doze Dozier
He’s running fifth in voting behind the Mariners’ Robinson Cano, the Tigers’ Ian Kinsler, the Red Sox’s Dustin Pedroia and the Astros’ Jose Altuve, but Minnesota’s Brian Dozier is quietly making an All-Star case for next month's game at Target Field.
Sure, the deck is stacked against him given those big names and resumes ahead of him, but Dozier leads the AL with 58 runs and leads all major league second basemen with 15 home runs. He owns a .359 on-base percentage.
The Twins’ eighth-round pick in the 2009 draft, Dozier’s defense is slick, too, in his second full major league season, and he’s establishing himself in other ways.
“He’s such a good guy,” says Rob Antony, Minnesota’s assistant general manager. “He’s a team leader. Everybody in the clubhouse respects him. And when he gets a strike, he’ll hit the ball hard and take his chances.”
A former shortstop, Dozier has good range at second. And one thing that has impressed Antony and others: He finishes plays. When he dives and gets to a ball, rarely is he in no-man’s land where he can do nothing with it.
7. Most likely to...coach high school baseball?
Who would have ever pegged David Wells as that? Yet, it’s true: San Diego’s Point Loma High School named Wells, one of its most famous alums, as its head baseball coach last week, according to U-T San Diego.
“It’s about giving back,” Wells told the paper. “The message I want to send out is that if you’re serious ballplayers and you want to play in my program, I’m going to get you the right help. I’m going to teach you everything I know.”
Wells has been the school’s pitching coach since 2012. And as you may recall from the day Wells pitched a perfect game for the Yankees in 1998, both Wells and Don Larsen, who pitched a perfect game for the Yankees in Game 5 of the 1956 World Series, went to Point Loma High.
8. Standing Ovation for Sammy Sosa
Out of the tragedy of another of the sickening rash of recent school shootings comes this:
Christopher Michaels-Martinez, 20, was one of six college students slain in May in Isla Vista, near Santa Barbara.
In the days since, his father, Richard, has quit his job as a defense attorney and dedicated his life to speaking out, pressuring politicians and working to affect change so maybe these horrific shootings one day may stop.
Anyway, during one of several national interviews Richard conducted in the days after the massacre, he told many, many stories about his slain son. One of them involved Christopher’s Little League days, when he slugged so many home runs that he was nicknamed “Mini Sammy Sosa.”
Well, not long afterward, Richard’s phone buzzed from a number he did not recognize. He picked up, and it was Sosa.
According to the Los Angeles Times, Sosa had seen the interview of Richard breaking down into tears, which made Sosa think of how much pain he would be in had he lost one of his six kids.
They talked for 25 minutes, and at the end of the conversation, according to the LA Times, Sosa told Richard that he planned to donate $5,000 to a memorial fund.
9. Thin air and stuff to cook turkeys with
Justin Upton returned to the Braves lineup last week following a three-day absence with a sinus condition.
I’ll let David O’Brien, the Braves’ beat writer for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and one of my favorite musicians, Jason Isbell, take it from here:
@ajcbraves Truth. We're in Colorado now. It's like singing through cheesecloth after holding your breath for 30 seconds.— Jason Isbell (@JasonIsbell) June 21, 2014
9a. Rock ‘n’ Roll Lyric of the Week
"Driving to a baseball game, on a Friday afternoon
"Hotter than hell in Atlanta, Georgia
"I guess it's been fifteen years since I came through here
"Probably should have called to warn you"
— Jason Isbell, Stopping By
Scott Miller covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report. He has over two decades of experience covering MLB, including 14 years as a national baseball columnist at CBSSports.com.
Follow Scott on Twitter and talk baseball here.