Monday, October 02, 2006

Little Thoughts

A collection of musings on this sunny but brisk Monday morning here in the Hub.

- Congratulations to Freddy Sanchez for not only capturing the National League batting title, but in the process providing an exclamation point on the analysis of everything that's wrong with the Pirates franchise. Sadly, it's not likely to bring about very much change, as Dave Littlefield will undoubtedly pull the trigger on the first Ryan Klesko or Luis Gonzalez he can get his hands on and thus continue the cycle of overpaying guys who had a decent season once upon a 1999 despite the presence of younger, cheaper players who could perform just as well, or win batting titles, or something.

- Congratulations also to the Minnesota Twins, my American League team if I had to pick one due to the abundance of blood relations I have living in the Twin Cities and the number of games I've attended at the Metrodome in the last decade or so, far and away the most of any non-PNC Park sporting venue, even the Altoona Curve's Blair County Ballpark.
However, I do have to say that I think any American League team would be better off facing the Yankees in the first round, especially a team built around one dominant starting pitcher, as the Twins are. If the Twins were to play the Yankees in the ALDS and Johan Sanatana won his two starts, the chances of lucking into a win in one of the other three games is much greater than needing to luck into two wins in five games (or even four, if Santana were somehow able to pitch three games in a best-of-7 series). Regardless, I'll be rooting hard for the Twins. Come on guys, do it for Brad Radke.

- The Pirates closed out the year with back to back shutouts. If I was just emerging from a cave and given this information, I would have assumed Zach Duke and Ian Snell or some combination of the two had started the games for the Bucs. However, the guys taking the mound for the home team at PNC Park the last two days were probably very close to the list of "People least likely to pitch seven consecutive scoreless innings in the same Major League Baseball game," even if such a list were compiled in July.

The Pirates scored three runs on Saturday night, an impressive feat considering they'd plated more than two runs just twice during the eight-game losing streak leading up to the game. The beneficiary of this offensive boon was none other than Marty McLeary. Yes, the Marty McLeary. His mound opponent that night was Bronson Arroyo, creating probably my favorite pitching matchup of the entire season, and my brother got to go to the game instead of me by virtue of actually living in Pittsburgh from September through April.

McLeary is the thirty-two year old of perhaps the most unremarkable Minor League career ever. After attending Mount Vernon Nazerene University, a school supposedly in Ohio although I tend to believe it doesn't actually exist, McLeary was drafted by the Red Sox in the 10th round of the 1997 draft. From then on, he posted a 3.96 cumulative ERA in ten Minor League seasons, splitting the last four between the Marlins, Padres, and Pirates organizations.
He was called up on August 28 with the DLing of Mike Gonzalez and Tom Gorzelanny after enjoying easily his best professional season to date. He was one of the Indy Indians' most valuable pitchers, acting as a swingman, putting up a 2.68 ERA and striking out over a batter an inning while starting 13 games and appearing out of the bullpen in 22 others. At the time of his callup, I'm pretty sure I was the only person on the entire planet who even got remotely excited about the move. But there's nothing not to like about a 32-year-old rookie getting a chance at the Major League level for absolutely no reason.

It wasn't McLeary's Major League debut, as he experienced a thoroughly forgettable stint with the Padres in 2004 in which he allowed 6 earned runs in 3 2/3 innings, but he was determined to come back with a vengeance, thanks to a revamped slider and a diving changeup that were key to his success in Indianapolis. After being used in back to back games during his first series with the Pirates, it looked as if he might go the way of the Vic Santos when he was allowed to pitch in a real game just once in the entire month of September. When Paul Maholm, like every other under-25 Pirates starter not named Zach Duke, experienced some sort of discomfort in his elbow/shoulder/knee/face and was forced to skip a start, McLeary was one of the few options available to take his September 24 start against the Padres in San Diego.

He took the start and ran with it, allowing just one run in five innings to the Padres, in the thick of a pennant race with their rivals in Los Angeles and the half-dozen or so teams still competing for the National League Wild Card. It was all the more impressive considering the fact that he had not appeared in a live game in 20 days. McLeary again took Maholm’s next start by default in the penultimate game of the season on Saturday against the Reds and scattered five hits across seven innings while not allowing anyone to cross the plate.

The following afternoon, taking the hill for the Pirates in the season finale was a pitcher with just about as fun a story as McLeary. This one was left-handed, Nigerian, and about six years younger, but nevertheless a long shot to ever pitch a shutout in the Major Leagues.
Shane Youman, son of a Nigerian-born father, was raised in New Iberia, Louisiana, and was drafted in the 43rd round of the 2001 draft out of Louisiana State, essentially making him the Rob Mackowiak of pitchers. Already off to a slow start than most because of his age when entering professional baseball (22) and low draft stature, Youman was an afterthought as a long reliever, although he was just successful enough to progress one level each year, from short-season Williamsport, to low-A Hickory, to high-A Lynchburg. By 2005, Youman was ready to pitch in Altoona, where he had his worst season as a pro, and his future as a prospect, as if it weren’t doubtful enough, really began to hang in the balance.

In Spring Training 2006, someone within the organization had the brilliant idea of turning Youman into a starting pitcher. This has been widely covered by the Pittsburgh media, but I still haven’t seen the idea actually attributed to anyone. Regardless, it seemed goofy at the time because most of the time, pitchers who struggle as starting pitchers in the Minor Leagues get converted to the bullpen and become lights-out (see: Mike Gonzalez). For some reason, though, Youman experienced the exact opposite. In Altoona’s rotation, his walk rate drop drastically and he was so dominant that he was still a candidate for the Eastern League’s Pitcher of the Year award despite leaving the Eastern League for the greener pastures of the International League in mid-July.

With the Indy Indians, Youman was solid, though nowhere near as overwhelmingly good as he had been with the Curve. Youman was one of two September call-ups the Pirates made from Indianapolis, and made his Major League debut on September 10 in lieu of the injured Tom Gorzelanny. He was mediocre, although he exhibited uncharacteristic wildness that he attributed to nerves. In his next appearance six days later, he served as Gorzelanny’s caddy in Gorzo’s return from his ailments. Gorzo pitched four innings, Youman the next three, allowing just one run in a 3-2 victory over the Mets who at that time were still trying to clinch the N.L. East. It was this performance that caused Mets broadcaster and former first baseman Keith Hernandez to liken Youman to a young Darren Oliver, the main difference being that in his age 26 season, Oliver started 30-plus games at in the Major Leagues for the second consecutive season, while Youman still hasn’t made thirty starts in his entire professional career. Hopefully, the opposites continue and Youman ends up having a Major League career with a sub-5 ERA.

Youman made one more start and one more relief appearance, the latter in a much more effective manner than the first, before Ian Snell’s fatigue due to bad-assedly finishing in the top 10 in the National League in strikeouts per nine innings forced him to miss out on starting the season finale. Youman stepped in, and the rest, as they say, is history. He yielded just four hits in his best Marty McLeary impression, using a well-located sinking changeup to induce a whopping 14 ground ball outs, making the fact that he only struck out one batter pretty much irrelevant.

Apart from the fact that these two guys are both the result of moderately fun stories, the likes of which can only be found in professional baseball (see: Ken Ray), I also have interest in what becomes of them this offseason and next March. It is a given that the Pirates will want a mediocre right-handed pitcher to be the fifth starter next season, because the same thing happens every season. Given the Pirates status, finances, and intelligence of the front office staff, this pitcher will probably end up being not very good, and there’s a good chance McLeary would fare no worse than whoever they bring in at a fraction of the cost, especially if they decide to just bring Shawn Chacon back. At the very least, he’d be a worthwhile addition to the team in the Ryan Vogelsong role, except he’d be more likely to actually get people out. Youman would make a perfect addition to the bullpen, especially since Jim Tracy absolutely needs at least three lefties, especially if one of them is the closer. Damaso Marte is a) not very good and b) about to be a free agent, so that leaves a spot open for Youman, who’s probably better than John Grabow anyway.

Unfortunately, due to the way the Pirates work, in all likelihood neither one will be given much of an opportunity. Sure, they’ll both be name-dropped at the beginning of spring training as being in the running for the annual fifth starter and third lefty reliever derbies, but because of the stereotypes handed down from the scouting department (age, inability to throw really hard), neither one will be given a fair chance. I really hope I’m wrong.

- Congratulations to Sal Torres, who tied Kent Tekulve’s Pirates record for appearances by a pitcher in a single season, having pitched in 94 games this season. In doing so, he became one of just four pitchers to ever pitch in 90 games in a season, which was a surprisingly low number to me. These four immortals are Sal, Teke, Mike Marshall, and Wayne Granger. Sal’s return from five years in which he did not play professional baseball of any sort to become one of the most consistent, durable, and effective relievers in baseball is one of my favorite baseball stories since the turn of the century. I generally don’t like Dave Littlefield and I generally don’t like giving middle relievers multi-year, multi-million dollars contracts. That said, I really do like the contract DL gave Sal last winter, as unpopular as it was at the time. If anyone in our bullpen is worthy of such a prize, Sal is it. He’s the anchor.

- According to Dejan Kovacevic, Dave Littlefield was booed by the 25,004 at PNC Park Sunday afternoon during the postgame ceremony honoring Freddy Sanchez. The season finale is generally a big draw among season ticket holders, so it seems like the fan base is really starting to figure out what’s up.

- Moving across the ocean, Spurs finally kickstarted their season about a month late by taking home three points against high-flying Portsmouth. Sadly, the only thing anyone wants to talk about in relation to this game is Didier Zokora's alleged dive that referee Chris Foy awarded a penalty, which Jermain Defoe converted for Spurs's second goal, a goal that became crucial when Nwankwo Kanu headed home a Gary O'Neil cross five minutes later to cut Spurs' lead in half.

Spurs held on for the 2-1 win, but the main talking point still remains Zokora's antics. Now, let me say that yes, it is pretty obvious from watching the replays that Pedro Mendes did not touch Zokora as the Ivoirian turned him in the box. In case you haven't seen a replay of this, watch this clip.

I am finding it hard making up my mind about this, since there does seem to be pretty overwhelming evidence that Zokora did indeed intentionally take a spill in an attempt to draw a penalty. I don't want to believe that Zokora would do such a thing, especially since, having watched him since the World Cup, he hasn't been prone to such theatrics that I've seen.

However, regardless of what was actually going through Zokora's mind, a point that I have yet to see being brought up is that this all would have been completely rendered moot if Pedro Mendes HAD NOT DRAGGED HIS LEG ACROSS THE DRIBBLER'S PATH. I realize that, as a defender, you have to do what you have to do to stop an opposing player in your own box, but when you stick your leg out like that AFTER THE OPPOSING PLAYER HAS BEATEN YOU, you're asking to be called for a foul if the attacker goes down no matter the reason for the attacker going down.

As for Chris Foy, the idea that he really screwed up in awarding the penalty is ludicrous. At game speed, it would have been nearly impossible to tell that there was no contact made unless you happened to actually be Zokora or Pedro Mendes. I was watching the game with a friend of mine who supports Manchester United, and he was shouting for a penalty as soon as the play happened. Even the commentators on the clip I linked to had no qualms about the penalty decision until they saw a replay. Unfortunately for Pompey, slow motion instant replays from multiple angles are not a luxury Chris Foy possesses when he's out on the pitch having to make spur of the moment decisions.

- I can't really complain about Spurs' performance apart from that, except that Jermaine Jenas really needs to learn how to finish. He's easily been the most frustrating player I've had to watch over the last year. He does so many things right, he tackles well, he moves from box to box, he's willing to play on the wing if Martin Jol deems it necessary, he's capable of putting a dead ball wherever he wants, and he has an uncanny knack for a midfielder of getting himself in excellent positions to score. The problem is, he doesn't score nearly often enough considering the amount of chances he has. On Sunday he had three golden opportunities to net one, but only managed to put it on target once, earning a good save from David James. Of the other chances, one was scuffed and one was shot into the stands. I like Jenas as a player, but I think he needs to be shaken up a little bit. He's the only Spurs midfielder to start every single game in all competitions for Spurs this season, which is ridiculous when you consider the absurd amount of center midfielders currently in the squad.

- I'm even more convinced now after watching the first half of Sunday's debacle at Paul Brown Stadium in Cincinnati that the Steelers are still the best team in the AFC North. I won't concede anything about the Ravens until they play the Bengals and more importantly, the Steelers themselves. Seriously, bring on the Ravens.

On the other hand, it was nice seeing them take care of San Diego so effectively, at least from a defensive standpoint. From the looks of it, they basically gameplanned to take Ladainian Tomlinson and Antonio Gates out of the equation, which seems to be the way anyone with a competent defense is able to beat the Chargers. The Steelers did it last year in front of a prime time national television audience in San Diego, and I think they'll be able to do it again next Sunday. Cowher doesn't need to motivate his boys any more than to say, "Look, guys, if the Ravens can do it..."

- Finally, the last play of the Jets/Colts game has to be the best thing ever to transpire on a football field. The NFL needs more of things like that.

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