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Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Durham Bulls Road Roundup, Vol. 1: Margins for error, errors from margins

Posted by on Tue, Apr 26, 2011 at 7:00 AM

Reading from the Bhagavad Gita
  • Reading from the Bhagavad Gita
The Durham Bulls just concluded a three-game series at Norfolk, winning one game and losing two against the worst team in the league. The 11-8 Bulls remain in second place in the IL South Division, dropping three games behind the red-hot Gwinnett Braves.

Even though you probably have to go back to something like June of 2009 to find the last time the Bulls were more than two games out of first place, it's unwise to read too much into the team's current position. It's early in the season, a three-game deficit is basically nothing, Triple-A rosters change dramatically over the course of the year, and keep in mind the guiding principle of rooting for a minor-league baseball team: You must practice non-attachment, you must root for effort not outcome. This is Buddhist advice. Take it. Follow the nine-man path to minor-league enlightenment.

Bulls fans are a spoiled bunch, having watched their team make the playoffs for four straight seasons, and that is largely due to the perspicacity of the Tampa Bay Rays' front office, which keeps the farm system well stocked with talent. A glance at the 2010 opening-day roster was a virtual guarantee that the Bulls would be playing past Labor Day. Not necessarily so with this year's edition. It's still a good team, with very good pitching. But read on a little bit and discover some soft spots. Discover, too, why it's dangerous to draw conclusions from road games, and a partial explanation for why Triangle Offense isn't covering them this year.

A little shout-out to erstwhile Bull Fernando Perez, now toiling in Des Moines, Iowa (hometown of former Bulls ace Jeremy Hellickson, as it happens), where the Chicago Cubs have their Class AAA affiliate: First, because he recently tweeted something nice about the writing here; second, because he just turned 28 two days ago (the same day that Shakespeare turned 447); third, because he seems to have gotten half of his plate goggles back on with a 21 percent walk rate so far this year. I say half because he also has an ungodly 50 percent strikeout rate, and he's hitting .208. That all has to change. Still, the walk rate tells you something's clicking. He's healthy for the first time in well over a year. Give him time to synch the parts up before you exile him to Iowa. (Oops, too late.)

It was Perez who handed me a copy of Stephen Dunn's Pulitzer Prize-winning Different Hours last year at the end of our three-part interview, and I couldn't help making a note of this line in "Emperors," in which the narrator is reading a newspaper:

My favorite second baseman
had gone 0 for 5—there it was,
in black and white. How many of us
could bear a daily record
of exactly what we'd done?

The empathic affect of this line is partially unintentional, because one thing the last couple of Bulls games have reminded me is that box scores aren't a reliable "daily record"—and they certainly aren't, despite the newspaper's colorlessness, "black and white" in their presentation of the so-called facts.

Take Sunday's game, the second of two straight extra-inning contests the Bulls played at Norfolk, which spanned a total of 25 innings—worse, Sunday's was a one o'clock afternoon start time right after a night game that lasted until after midnight. Both teams were probably exhausted by the time Durham scratched out a run in the top of the 11th inning, somewhere around 4 p.m., on an RBI single by Ray Olmedo. That put the Bulls up, 5-4.

The Bulls' overworked bullpen had virtually no one left in it at this point, and to foreshadow the depletion Craig Albernaz came in to catch in the bottom of the 11th inning after Jose Lobaton was lifted for a pinch runner during the rally in the top of the frame. The message was clear: If the game were to go on much longer, Albernaz would do emergency duty at pitcher very soon, as he did in the Bulls' blowout home loss to Gwinnett a little over a week ago.

Until then, Mike Ekstrom, who had thrown two perfect innings in Saturday's 14-inning win, came back on no rest to try to earn a save. The Tides' Nick Green led off with a seeing-eye ground ball single to left field, just beyond the grasp of Ray Olmedo. Brendan Harris followed with a hard grounder to third base that J. J. Furmaniak couldn't handle. It bounded down the left-field line, where Justin Ruggiano chased it down. But by now there were runners on second and third with no one out. A perilous situation.

Harris's ball was ruled a double by the official scorer, much to the shock and dismay of Bulls' broadcaster Neil Solondz, who adjudged it an error all the way. Now any ball scored a hit has to have something to recommend it as such, or the official scorer will be publicly chastised—he saw something, besides a home uniform, that encouraged his ruling of a double rather than a two-base error. And probably Solondz's sympathies at this point listed toward the Durham relief pitchers, who by now were working on their 14th inning of heroic work in just two days. Still, if a team's own broadcaster is ready to saddle one of its players with an error, chances are that's what it should rightly be called.

Ekstrom struck out the next batter, former Bull Michel Hernandez. But Blake Davis hit a longish drive to left field for a game-tying sacrifice fly, and Matt Angle followed with a single to center to score Harris and give the Tides a 6-5 win.

The box score—in which Stephen Dunn found "a daily record / of exactly what we'd done"—shows that Ekstrom gave up three hits and two runs, both earned, and took the loss, his first of the year. His ERA basically tripled as a result, from 0.75 to 2.13, all because of a debatable decision by an official scorer in a visiting ballpark. The official play-by-play recap on milb.com calls Harris's so-called double a "line drive to left fielder Justin Ruggiano." That simply isn't what it was—even if it was a double, it wasn't a line-drive to left, it just "looks like a line drive in the box score," as the old cliche goes. So you have to hope that the Rays didn't get their information about the loss from the box score alone, because it doesn't tell the whole story, or even, really, the factual one.

Nor, it should be added, does Desmond Jennings's 3-6 performance in that same box score: One of those hits was a bunt single, and another was an infield grounder—well struck, to be sure—that he beat out for another single. The "daily record" also doesn't show that Ruggiano had a long drive to the outfield that should have been a home run but became an out thanks to Norfolk's pitcher-friendly environs and a strong wind that knocked the ball down shy of the wall.

It's really shortages of time and money that keep Triangle Offense from reporting on the Bulls' road games, but the occasional radio fragment I'm able to catch confirms the accidental and unearned runs wisdom of leaving them alone. It's too easy for us to compound ballplayers' errors (and official scorers') with our own when we extrapolate from box scores, which are really just part of the game's appendices, its margins if you will—and not really a true "daily record" any more than the credits on an album explain the magic of its music. And even a radio broadcast, though it gets the listener closer than the next day's newspaper, can only communicate so much.

Some notes about errors and radio broadcasts:

Despite his misplay at third base on Sunday, there's no reason to be too hard on Furmaniak. For one thing, it didn't sound like an easy play to make; for another, Furmaniak is more naturally a middle infielder; he's played less than 20 percent of his 1,100+ minor-league games at third base, a position which requires a significantly different skill set than second base and shortstop, where he is more comfortable. Also, let's not forget that Furmaniak drove in a pair of important runs in that same game—they tied the score in the sixth inning—and two days earlier hit a game-winning home run to cap the Bulls' comeback win over Charlotte at the DBAP.

The thing is that the Bulls have little margin for error these days, and there's no room for vitiating their run-scoring hits by committing run-scoring errors. They seem to be just about exactly as good as their starting pitching on most nights, although I'd have to crunch some numbers in order to verify that. The bullpen has been superb, notwithstanding a couple of hiccups (and Paul Phillips's total seizure against Gwinnett not long ago), but a bullpen is a shield, not a sword. The hitting hasn't been good enough to buy the team any breathing room. Last year, the murderous Durham lineup often made it unnecessary for the pitching to be any better than average. This year, the Bulls are right around middle-of-the-pack in many important categories—the team OPS, for instance, is just .696—and their batting average with RISP is only .237. (i was surprised to discover that it's that high, actually.)

Durham has also committed the third-most errors in the league so far this year—five of the 19 by Russ Canzler, splitting time between third base and first—and there have been instances where those errors have led not only to unearned runs but, more damagingly, longer outings by a pitching staff that is already on high-use mode less than three weeks into the season. I wouldn't be entirely surprised, when Chris Bootcheck returns to action from the disabled list, to see Paul Phillips, the obvious odd man out, get to stay in the picture for now, with perhaps third-catcher Craig Albernaz handed the sweatshirt until further notice. Few teams carry 13 pitchers on a 24-man roster, but that's where the Bulls need the most soldiers.

(In a way, it isn't entirely a loss that the Bulls fell again Monday to Norfolk, 5-2. Although the result was the wrong one, the game required only two Bulls pitchers: Edgar Gonzalez, who did his veteran job—eat innings—throwing seven frames, and R. J. Swindle, who coughed up another homer and is still finding himself this season. The gopher ball he allowed didn't much affect the outcome of the game, though. The rest of the Durham relief corps should be as fresh as you can reasonably expect them to be after consecutive extra-inning games.)

Speaking of Phillips, he pitched three near-perfect innings of last-ditch relief in Saturday night's 14-inning win over Norfolk, and got credit for a well-deserved victory. It was the first inkling that Phillips might be getting into game-ready shape after a late start to the season. As Solondz said during the Saturday broadcast, disclosing information I'd been asked to withhold a week earlier, Phillips discovered a lump under his arm during Spring Training. There is cancer on both sides of his family, and he was understandably very concerned. It turned out to be a relatively harmless hematoma—a sac of blood that will eventually dissolve on its own. But in the mean time, while Phillips waited for test results, he didn't pitch at all. As a result, he had only faced live hitters two or three times by the time the season started. This was very obvious from his first outing in Durham, when his fastball clocked 87—89 mph on the DBAP radar gun. He is capable of throwing 95 mph and usually ranges from 91—93. Clearly, he was not himself.

Phillips's velocity increased a bit in his next outing, but he was still ineffective. On Saturday, though, that same 91-mph fastball, in tandem with his slurvy breaking ball and his changeup, kept Norfolk from hitting him really at all—the one hit he gave up in three innings of work was a double that, if I recall, wasn't well played by right fielder Chris Carter. As Solondz noted, if there's one benefit that can be said to have come from Phillips's health problems and subsequent struggles on the mound, it's that his decreased velocity forced him to pitch rather than merely throw. In the past, he's sometimes done more of the latter. If he can keep working smartly, mixing his pitches, and also regain his old velocity, he could be a valuable long man out of the bullpen for the Bulls, who don't currently have another one. Brian Baker, the former occupant of that role, was moved into the starting rotation when Richard De Los Santos was shut down with shoulder tendinitis; the wistful irony is that Baker himself hasn't been able to hold it down. He left his previous start, the rain-delayed, dangerously damp Friday win over Charlotte in which he lasted only three innings before leaving with what was apparently back or side stiffness. (Meanwhile, Virgil Vasquez was just released by the Angels—you think the Rays want to give him another shot, sans scooter?)

And so it goes for the beleaguered Bulls, but look at it this way: They're probably a little lucky to be in second place, having underperformed a bit so far. They've scored only eight more runs than they've allowed; two teams in their division are weak; and some of their key hitters (e.g. Leslie Anderson, Robinson Chirinos) haven't done much at all this year. They're getting a hugely pleasant surprise from Brandon Guyer, who is fifth in the league in batting average (an eye-opening .352) and sixth in OPS—that production is a reminder that Guyer was the Cubs' minor-league player of the year in 2010, and perhaps as important as the surprising Sam Fuld in the Rays' thinking when they traded Matt Garza (plus Fernando Perez and another low-level minor-leaguer) to Chicago in the off-season for five prospects.

Guyer's fellow refugee from Tennessee (the Cubs' Double-A Southern League affiliate), Russ Canzler, a free-agent acquistion, has also hit well and shown excellent plate discipline, sporting a .415 OBP to bolster his .283 batting average. Desmond Jennings is showing the makings of the form that won him the 2009 Southern League MVP award—his .261 batting average is all that needs improvement, and a few more of those infield singles will accomplish such a result. Justin Ruggiano, though he has cooled off from the torrid run he had last week, has his strikeout rate down and may very well put up the All Star-caliber season he's capable of. Jose Lobaton has an improbable team-leading OPS of 1.038 (which will come down significantly, but still). Chris Carter is batting over .300—he just needs to hit for more power.

There are good signs here, especially if some of the slow starters begin to heat up along with the weather. The Bulls could easily start charging again—don't forget that they reeled off five straight wins from 4/12-16. But to return to where I began, non-attachment is everything, outcomes nothing. In the majors, what counts is results: If your 400-foot drive is an out, it's an out and you're a bum. In the minors, the out reminds the big-league club how hard you can hit the ball. The inning by Mike Ekstrom, regardless of the loss he took, should not dissuade the Rays from keeping him in mind, and they surely know what he did in that game, not what the daily record says. In the minor leagues, when Stephen Dunn's favorite second baseman goes 0-5 in black and white, the poet might not know that he hit four line drives right at fielders and smacked a hot grounder on which his opposite number made a diving play to throw him out; or that, in the field, he turned a sure single into a nifty double play, or made a perfect relay throw to gun down a runner at home and save the game. This is the true daily record, and it doesn't show up in the box score.

The Bulls are in Kentucky to take on the 12-6 Louisville Bats for the next four games, a potentially tough series that threatens to deal them more losses. If that's what happens, then hold in your awareness this much older, perhaps more appropriate poem than Stephen Dunn's "Emperors," although it is to some degree about one. Until next time, I'll leave you with these lines from the 5,000-year-old* Bhagavad Gita:

You have a right to your actions,
but never to your actions' fruits...

Self-possessed, resolute, act
without any thought of results.

* In more recent scholarship, this Hindu text has been dated much later, to about 2,000-2,500 years ago. —ed.

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