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Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Charlotte Knights hold off Durham Bulls: Objectivism

Posted by on Wed, Aug 11, 2010 at 6:00 AM

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DBAP/ DURHAM—Any Durham Bulls fan would probably tell you that the home team lost to Charlotte, 5-4, last night, in disappointing, choking, frustrating fashion, wasting golden opportunities in four of their nine at-bats. Twice they left the bases loaded without scoring a run—once after filling the sacks with no outs—and had the tying run in scoring position with one out in the ninth but failed to deliver the hit they needed. They had 17 baserunners overall and scored only four times; they left six runners in scoring position. They could have run the bases a bit better. Some of them looked bored and invertebrate out there. They got some bad luck, too, in the form of bad bounces, broken-bat bloopers that fell in for Charlotte hits, liners hit right at outfielders and close pitches that weren't called their way.

But you know something? The Charlotte Knights got some bad luck, too, and some close pitches weren't called their way, and the Bulls had some broken-bat bloopers that fell in for hits. Moreover, the Knights had two players come out of the game after sustaining what appeared to minor but nonetheless unpleasant little injuries (one guy was hit by a pitch, another hurt himself sliding into second base). And as much as the Bulls wasted their chances, the Knights relievers also made some good pitches when good pitches had to be made. They hit an important home run off of a pitcher who is extraordinarily difficult to homer off of (Joe Bateman). Where the Bulls failed to plate leadoff walks in the fourth and fifth innings, the Knights cashed in on the only leadoff walk they got. The Bulls don't have Jeremy Hellickson or Mike Ekstrom or Dan Johnson—all are gone to Tampa—but Charlotte no longer has the excellent starter Daniel Hudson, who was traded to Arizona, and they also persevered without Chris Sale, the 21-year-old power-lefty reliever who was drafted in the first round by the White Sox in June, shot up to Triple-A, pitched very well for the Knights, and has already, just weeks into his pro career, been called up to the majors.

With the win last night, the Knights are 7-2 over their last nine games—eight of them at home against a couple of terrible teams. The Bulls went 6-2 against a pair of bad teams on their most recent road trip. Sometimes it depends who you're playing. Is that team good? Have you seen them a lot before? Don't forget that Durham and Charlotte play each other something like 485 times each year; they're now 6-5, Bulls, head to head. Don't forget, either, that the Knights' Lucas Harrell is considered a better pitcher than the Bulls' Brian Baker, and Harrell beat Baker last night. He pitched better. He was supposed to.

Stand back and look at the game in and of itself, and you can sometimes see past your affiliation—and it would be nonsense for me to say, even as an ostensibly "objective" journalist, that I don't have one myself; the Bulls are the team I cover, know well, care about more, write about all the time—you can see that one team won the game and another team lost the game; and you can see that there are reasons, all kinds of them, why that is; and you can see that both teams participated in manufacturing the result. You can also see that, to some degree, it doesn't make any difference. At this point in the season, the overriding goal of all sports—to win, win, win—has almost ceased to matter to the Bulls. They have a 13-game lead over Charlotte with 27 to play, and also boast the best record in all of minor- and major-league baseball. Charlie Montoyo's obvious frustration with his club last night notwithstanding, all they have to do is accidentally win a few more games, and they'll land in the playoffs without even trying very hard. No wonder they had trouble looking like they cared last night. Not only that, but how many of them, do you think, really have anything invested in winning the International League championship? Wouldn't they rather go home, recover from their nagging injuries, be with their families? Does it pain us to have to consider the possibility that bringing home to the Dirty D a second straight Governors' Cup trophy doesn't always matter, all the time, in all weathers, all circumstances, to the disparate imports known collectively as the Durham Bulls, and even less to the franchise that owns its players?

And if that's all true, can you love the game anyway?

Ways to love it, and ways to see it, after the jump.

I was reading an article by Joe Posnanski yesterday—if you read my stuff and you don't read Posnanski, hop to it right away, since what I do is basically just like his work, only minor-league—and in the comments section of the piece I read, someone brought up "regression to the mean." Eventually, life being an ultimately slide-toward-center-of-the-bed proposition, if you leave things to themselves, they'll find their comfortable place, all things being equal. In 2009, Brian Baker, who started for Durham last night, posted a 4.54 ERA for Double-A Montgomery. Somehow, as of July 23, 2010, he had put up a 2.48 ERA for Triple-A Durham in 28 appearances, most of them as a reliever, fewer as a starter. (He made 31 appearances for the Biscuits last year, 18 of them starts.) It is pretty rare to see a player show improvement that dramatic at a higher level than the one he just came from. That isn't to say that Baker can't do that as a Bull, but that it isn't likely that he'll sustain it. Sure enough, as we move into the hot maw of late summer, Baker is regressing: over his last three outings, including an absolute nightmare at Pawtucket in which he served up 10 runs in just three innings, Baker's ERA has risen to 3.78—still decent, but not awesome like 2.48 is, and closer to the level you'd expect. His WHIP is now 1.38; last year it was 1.31.

In other words, we know what kind of pitcher 27-year-old Brian Baker is, and we saw him last night. He was neither especially good nor especially bad. He did generate 12 swings-and-misses with his 88 pitches, which is a fairly high proportion for a guy with his stuff, but then again Charlotte has three of the league's top five striker-outers in Stefan Gartrell, Tyler Flowers and Jordan Danks, and they fanned six times last night. The Bulls' relievers were better at whiffs than Baker was. Darin Downs got four swings-and-misses with 24 pitches; Joe Bateman, seven with 33. Those totals make it possible to be more objective about Baker's work.

What he did was keep the Bulls in the game. Four runs in 5 1/3 innings, while quite a bit worse than a 3.78 ERA, is more or less acceptable for your fifth-starter—for, in fact, a guy who isn't even really that; a guy who wasn't intended to start any games at all for your team; who wasn't meant even to be a Durham Bull (he doesn't appear in the team's Media Guide, which includes many of the Double-A personnel expected to make it to Durham by season's end); who is just holding down Carlos Hernandez's slot in the Bulls' starting rotation until that magical day when Hernandez can pitch again, whenever that turns out to be (if it turns out to be). In that light—that objective light; not the one where Brian Baker is a 2.48-ERA, 13.6%-whiff-rate rising prospect—in that light Brian Baker, who took the loss last night and has allowed 16 runs in his last 13 1/3 innings pitched, is a pleasant surprise.

So is Leslie Anderson, who went 2-5 last night with a pair of singles, raising his batting average to .389 since joining the Bulls. Once again, he looked canny and focused at the plate. Peer closer, though, and you could see that Anderson grounded into a bases-loaded double play with one out in the fatal seventh inning (the one in which the Bulls loaded the bases with no outs and failed to score), and then struck out with the tying run on third base in the ninth to end the game. (He also struck out looking in the second inning.) He seems to have a weakness against breaking balls inside and low, swinging impatiently and a bit wildly over top of them. If you're looking for a goat in last night's loss, Anderson is undoubtedly it. Yet he also singled to lead off the sixth inning and came around to score an important run. So which is he, then?

To answer that question, you have to answer the larger one: Is Anderson to be judged by his contribution to Bulls wins, or by his own growth as a player, i.e. by trying to learn to recognize breaking pitches better? Also: Does it matter if the Bulls win? Does it matter in the current climate—13-game lead, best record in all the country of baseball—and vis-a-vis the minor-league project of developing players for another level rather than caring abut whether they win at this one? Does it matter to you personally, Bulls fan, how the team fares? If so, then why didn't anyone boo when the home team choked, repeatedly, in the clutch last night? Objectively speaking, what are we here for 72 times a year? I don't know the answer for myself any more than I know it for the crowd or the players, who are (some of them) trying to make it to the majors, (some) trying to make it back to the majors, (some) thrilled to be in Triple-A at all, (some) just clearing a paycheck at this point, clocking in and out with the same slack boredom as a widget salesman flying to Fort Wayne or a shopgirl behind an unvisited counter. (Shocking fact: the minimum salary for a Triple-A baseball player is $2,300/month.) I know that baseball gives me something interesting to write about every time I watch it, and for that reason alone I love coming to the ballpark. From that objective standpoint, of course I want the Bulls to do well: If they do, they make the playoffs, which means more games to watch—they are simply satisfying my selfish needs when they win. If I was living in Charlotte, I'd be disappointed that the Knights aren't going to make the playoffs for the same reason. (But if I was living in Charlotte, would you please come get me out?)

Charlie Montoyo said after the game that "somebody's got to pick up the slack for Dan Johnson." Well, it was hard not to reply that in fact Chris Richard, who is now hitting cleanup in Johnson's place, is second in the league in OPS to... Dan Johnson; he is picking up as much of the slack as you can reasonably ask them to pick up. Newly arrived Leslie Anderson is a nice player, but is also a line-drive hitter who has drawn one walk in 19 plate appearances as a Bull. Johnson, who is a home-run hitter, averaged one walk about every five plate appearances with the Bulls (and, amazingly, after last night's four-walk performance in support of Jeremy Hellickson's second big-league win, has drawn 11 walks in 29 plate appearances for Tampa). There's no one else on the way to Durham who will pick up Johnson's slack, unless Johnson himself returns to the Bulls when the Rays' Carlos Pena is reactivated following his stint on the disabled list—and even then, Johnson doesn't figure to be in Triple-A long before September 1 roster expansion allows the Rays to call him right back up. The objective here is to make the Rays better, not the Bulls. The Bulls are plenty good enough.

To be sure, it's not as if the Bulls have been terrible without Dan Johnson. They're 4-4 since he left, a holding pattern that will land them safely in the playoffs, probably with a season-ending double-digit-game lead over Charlotte and everyone else in their otherwise ragged division; and they have averaged 4.5 runs per game in that eight-game span. That's quite a bit lower than the team's season average (5.4/game), but it's also a better mark than nine of the 14 teams in the International League. Objectively, there is no slack to pick up. Objectively, there's nothing to get exercised about except Jake McGee's 97-mph fastballs and whether Leslie Anderson can draw some walks and whether Fernando Perez and Carlos Hernandez will be healthy enough to play again.

Oh, so Fernando Perez is still day-to-day with shoulder aggravation. He is almost sure to return to the lineup before the homestand ends; he almost played last night, in fact. Hernandez, though, sorry, no word. When asked about Hernandez, Charlie Montoyo got that helpless/beset look on his face that he gets any time he wants, badly (you can tell how badly), to have something be a certain way and yet it is not that way at all and he wishes he could do something about it but he can't, and then finally he gives us the standby line about "taking it day to day." Really, though—objectively—isn't that what Triple-A managers always do, every single day? And also, more to the point, the Bulls aren't taking it day to day anymore. They're essentially just taking it regular-season-to-playoffs, and the object until the postseason starts is simply to guard against a total, catastrophic, implosive collapse. Even if they went an unthinkable 0-27 from here on out, Charlotte would still have to at least go 14-13 to win the division, if my math is right. (It's close enough, anyway.)

Elliot Johnson will leave the team for three days, according to Montoyo, to attend a wedding. (Who gets married in the middle of the week?) The Bulls have plenty of middle-infield depth, so this is no big deal—except that Omar Luna isn't the hitter Johnson is. Angel Chavez sort of is, in some ways.

Super-fun transaction of the day: Indianapolis Indians catcher Luke Carlin, until the end of time immortalized in these parts for attempting the wonderful (and not-allowed) feat of blowing a ball foul at the DBAP on Sunday, was traded on Monday by his parent club, the Pittsburgh Pirates, to the Cleveland Indians. I think the trade was for a player to be named later, but wouldn't a wind machine be more appropriate?

Twenty-eight-year-old Bulls right-hander Virgil Vasquez, who did poorly against Charlotte on July 16, starts for the home team tonight against 28-year-old Knights right-hander Matt Zaleski, who did well against the Bulls on July 17. Someone will pitch better than the other one, one team will win, one will lose—and the game will be, like every other baseball game, a beautiful tangle of improbabilities, inevitabilities, reversals, successes, failures and delights. I already can't wait, and I'll see you there.

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