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Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Durham Bulls Road Roundup, Vol. 2: Facts of Life

Posted by on Wed, May 4, 2011 at 6:00 AM

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  • Print by Rick Short
The Durham Bulls returned home last night from a three-city, 11-game road trip on which they went 5-6. There's an old baseball formula that says you should aim to win three fourths of your home games and half of your road games. So far this season, the Bulls are 6-3 at home, 9-9 on the road. They are very, very close to the exact numbers prescribed by the formula, which would result in a sparkling .625 winning percentage over the course of a season.

But the Bulls are just 15-12, a .556 winning percentage, and in a virtual tie with Gwinnett for first place in the IL South Division. That, as you probably figured from the above home/road splits, is because they have played twice as many road games as home games so far this season. The drastic imbalance—which is a league-wide one (take a look at the IL standings' home/road records)—helps explain the team's apparently middling start, which is in fact better than it may look at first glance.

The Bulls got to fly home from Indianapolis, Indiana last night. That was a rare perk for a team that is nearly always made to bus it by the Bulls' front office. Given that they have an off-day on Wednesday—their first scheduled one of the season (there were two rain-outs on the just-concluded road trip)—this was a double surprise. I bet this team, already rather beleaguered by its April barnstorming, will get plenty out of today's hiatus back at "home." I put the word in quotation marks because Durham has barely resembled home for the road-tripping Bulls so far this season.

Some general impressions follow.

The first thing to note is that the Durham Bulls' actual record is essentially identical to their "Pythagorean Record," which is derived from the team's run differential and usually a good predictive estimator of a team's actual record. The Bulls have scored 125 runs and allowed 114. Seventeen of the runs they've allowed have been unearned., i.e the result of errors and passed balls.

I start there because Durham's fielding is, so far, the only cause for real concern. The Bulls split a doubleheader with Indianapolis on Tuesday, and in the first game, a 5-2 loss, the decisive inning was the bottom of the fifth (remember, Triple-A doubleheader games are only seven innings long). Ryan Reid, recently called up from Class AA Montgomery—unclear so far if this is a Bisquick move or not—came on in relief of a so-so Brian Baker, who had allowed three runs in four innings. It was 3-2, Indians.

The first batter Reid faced, Gorkys Hernandez, hit what was apparently a fairly easy ground ball to third base. But the Bull's Russ Canzler, who already has seven errors this year, mishandled it. It deflected off of his glove and right toward shortstop Ray Olmedo—or rather, right where Olmedo would have been had he not been doing the correct thing and backing up Canzler. The ball bounced into shallow left-centerfield, and Canzler was charged with a two-base error.

Except—wait—no, he wasn't. The official scorer in Indianapolis ruled Hernandez's "hit" a double, prompting Bulls broadcaster Neil Solondz to moan, "Oh, my, God," as though he'd just walked into a truckstop bathroom that hadn't been cleaned in a week.

This official scoring incident was an echo of a game earlier in the road trip, at Norfolk, when the Bulls' third baseman—in this case, J. J. Furmaniak—flubbed a grounder that was ruled a double by the home team's official scorer and essentially cost the Bulls the game in extra innings. Yesterday, Canzler's miscue started the following sequence: steal of third base; infield comes in to cut off the run with no outs; Reid gets Corey Wimberly to ground out to second base, Hernandez holding at third; the next batter, Chase D'Arnaud, hits a bloop single over Furmaniak's head to score Hernandez, a ball Furmaniak would have caught had he been playing at regular depth; Alex Presley flies out; D'Arnaud steals second (speed on the basepaths seems to be the Indians' only meaningful asset right now); Matt Hague singles up the middle to score D'Arnaud. 5-2, Indianapolis. Ballgame, basically, over.

Especially over, after the Bulls put the first two runners on in the top of the sixth but the threat is snuffed out by an inning-ending, ground-ball double play hit into by—yep—Russ Canzler. Russ. Canz. Canzie. Don't make me start calling you Can'tzler. (Really no danger of that: The guy has an .890 OPS, third on the team among qualifiers. You take the good, you take the bad, you take 'em both and there you have the facts of life.)

The Bulls' outfielding is well above solid. Brandon Guyer, Desmond Jennings and Justin Ruggiano, who form the trio out there most days, are fleet and sure-handed—Ruggiano made another nice play on Tuesday to save a pair of runs. Other than that, Durham glovework is iffy this year. Canzler hasn't been convincing at third base or first, Leslie Anderson is diffident, and the middle-infield troika of Furmaniak, Omar Luna and Ray Olmedo is unpredictable: all three are capable of highlight-reel heroics, but they're also prone to occasional episodes of blooper-reel boners. Furmaniak threw away an easy ground ball in Game One of yesterday's doubleheader, leading to a last-inning unearned run for the Indians, and Olmedo misplayed an easy grounder that helped seal a Bulls loss at Louisville last week. Luna cost Dirk Hayhurst and the Bulls a shutout at home the week before that.

As for the catching, it would probably look better on paper had the Bulls not just played Indianapolis, which leads the league in stolen bases and ran at will against Durham in the Bulls' recent 3-1 series win there. As it stands, Durham backstops have thrown out 11 of 32 base-stealers, a 34% caught-stealing rate, better than the league average of 29%. I'm fairly certain that the Indians stole something like 19 of the 21 bases the Bulls have allowed so far this season. I'll check that math—no, I won't.

***

The hitting has improved, and that is thanks mainly to five players: Canzler, Chris Carter, Guyer, Jennings and Ruggiano. These five Bulls all have OPS numbers over .800, with Guyer's eye-popping 1.057 second in the league (it's powered by his outlandish .370 batting average, which is likely to come down some). Carter, who seemed to hit nothing but singles for the first three weeks of the season, has been banging out homers and doubles recently; Ruggiano has followed a slough of despond with another hot streak; and Canzler and Jennings have been steady.

The concern begins below those five. From Jennings's above-average .811 OPS, you hit a precipitous 249-point drop-off to the next regular player, Ray Olmedo (.562). Behind him are Leslie Anderson (.522), Furmaniak and Luna (both at .493) and the woefully underachieving Robinson Chirinos (.454).

In other words, the Bulls are like two different lineups, and although they average out to a decent-hitting team, that's because they have five studs and five banjo hitters; there's no one in the middle of the pack, it's either All-Star or No-Star. Anderson and Chirinos have the ability to improve—Chirinos's struggles so far are especially mystifying, since he has a career minor-league OPS of .772, and better than that since his conversion to catcher in 2008 (he was mostly a middle-infielder previously). But it's still early in the year.

***

The pitching has seen some ups and downs, and a few personnel adjustments. Alex Cobb missed a start, for the very noble reason that he was called up to Tampa Bay to make his, um, major-league debut (!) on Sunday. He didn't do all that well, surviving four innings more or less unscathed (one run) and then coming apart in the fifth. The Rays eventually lost the game, 6-5, to Anaheim. Cobb has been optioned back to Durham. Montgomery Biscuit Jeremy Hall was called up to take Dirk Hayhurst's place in the starting rotation—Hayhurst is on the disabled list with what I believe was called "elbow soreness." Hall has been only okay (perhaps a little worse than that, really), and he is probably just a patch until Hayhurst can return. Brian Baker continues to hold down Richard De Los Santos's spot, although his version of holding it down resembles something like holding down a tent in a windstorm. Baker has a 6.35 ERA and a 1.76 WHIP.

Brandon Gomes was called up to Tampa, who essentially swapped him in for Jake McGee, demoted to Durham on Monday—whereupon McGee promptly allowed three hits (one an infield single, if I recall), a walk and two runs in 1 2/3 innings, his heretofore 95-mph fastball averaging only about 90-91. (Gomes threw two scoreless innings for the Rays right after he arrived.) McGee was dominant late last season for Durham, after his callup from Montgomery, and earned a spot in the Tampa bullpen this year. But something seems amiss so far—it can't have helped that McGee's early struggles led to his relegation to the end of the bullpen chain; thus he has thrown scarcely enough innings to work out whatever problem he's been having. Here's betting that, unless he's having an arm problem, he winds up turning things around in Durham, while also giving the Bulls a second lefty out of the bullpen to complement R. J. Swindle, the soft-throwing sidearmer who has also had trouble so far this year.

Meanwhile, Chris Bootcheck finally returned to action post-concussion, and the previously mentioned Ryan Reid also joined the Durham bullpen from Montgomery.

If it seems like the Bulls have an awful lot of pitchers right now, you're right: There are 13 active pitchers and just 11 position players. Alex Cobb will report to Durham soon, probably sending Jeremy Hall (or maybe Ryan Reid, or maybe even the badly struggling Paul Phillips) back to Montgomery, but the 13:11 ratio seems like it will stand for now. Given how heavily the Bulls lean on their relievers, that seems like an acceptable (if unbalanced) configuration until further notice. The Bulls' team ERA is 3.62, fifth in the 14-team IL. The hitters' collective OPS happens also to be fifth in the league. In other words, in some important numerical ways, this looks like a solid team—keeping in mind, of course, that only the top four teams make the playoffs.

Well, it's a long season, and certainly it's far too early to be thinking about the playoffs. The Bulls are four games into a stretch where they play two of the league's worst teams, Indianapolis and Syracuse, for 16 straight games (?!)—yet another oddity of a schedule that, so far, has subjected them to a lopsided home/road imbalance. The current one—Chiefs and Indians, don'tcha know (no Braves, though)—would seem to work in Durham's favor, and they're already 3-1 versus the lowly Indians.

After today's off-day, the Chiefs come into town on Thursday. These two teams have played some memorably tense and dramatic games over the last couple of seasons, marked by ejections, steals of home plate, and controversial home runs. The Chiefs are on their fourth manager in as many seasons—this year's scapegoat-to-be is Randy Knorr—but it hasn't helped them much so far in 2011: Syracuse is just 9-16, tied for the second-worst record in the league. Nonetheless, it should be fun to watch them scrap with the Bulls this weekend—immediately following which the Bulls will host Indianapolis at historic Durham Athletic Park on Monday, May 9. The Bulls' long-awaited return to the old DAP last year went well enough that they decided to do it again this season. It should be a fun way to spend a Monday evening. I'll see you this weekend and next week at both ballparks.

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