Saturday, August 05, 2006

Various Baseball Notes

On television, I'm watching both the Chicago White Sox, playing the Blue Jays in Toronto, and the Chicago Cubs, at home against the Pittsburgh Pirates, take first inning leads. Not a bad way to spend an afternoon in Chicago. Of course, the early lead for the Sox, if it holds, means that they stay in the thick of the wild card race and within shouting distance of the astounding Detroit Tigers in the division. In contrast, the early lead for the Cubs only means that the team is marginally less atrocious now than they had been in the first four months of the season.

In the first inning of the Sox game, Scott Podsednik got caught in a rundown trying to score from third base on an infield grounder (he had walked, reached second on a wild pitch, and stole third). His aggressive running cost the Sox a run, because Tadahito Iguchi reached first on the grounder, went to second when Jim Thome walked, and scored on a Paul Konerko single. What was a single run could have been two.

There's been a lot of talk in Chicagoabout Joey Cora, the third base coach, being too aggressive. This talk reached an apex when the Sox were in the depths of their recent slump. There was even talk that manager Ozzie Guillen should fire Cora, but couldn't because the two are old friends. In truth, Cora is doing exactly what Guillen wants: he's coaching aggressive baseball. What surprised me is that the Sox, despite what seems like a lot of games where runs are lost for overaggressive base running, have actually scored more runs than any other team in the majors. This doesn't dispose of the question of whether the aggressiveness on the base paths helps or hurts the total of 612 runs, but at least it shows the Sox can afford to take risks.

What's also interesting is that the White Sox, at least for stealing bases, have not been especially aggressive. As a team, they have 67 stolen bases on 96 attempts, putting them in the middle of the pack for steals. The New York Mets lead the league in stolen bases, with 103 steals on 127 attempts. However, this does not tell us if the Sox are more or less aggressive at base running than other teams, as there is no stat for how often a player is thrown out trying to make an extra base on a single, or for taking chances on infield grounders.

The Sox pitching staff has mostly come out of their slump. All but Javier Vasquez, today's pitcher, have had good starts recently, and seem to be able to get the strikes and outs they need. The biggest relief is Mark Buehrle, who, after a run of five well-deserved losses, pitched six strong innings against the Kansas City Royals last week. He'll have his next start Monday against the somewhat more formidable Los Angeles Angels. Vasquez today is pitching better than he has in a long time: he's got a no hitter through four innings with five strike outs. But he usually pitches well through five innings. The test if he's still pitching this well in the sixth.

Mark Prior pitches today for the Cubs. He's gone from hope-inspiring phenom to gutless wonder in about two years. Those Cubs fans who take the game seriously, probably a minority of Cubs fans, now view him as a player unwilling to play through pain, who would rather sit out than risk injury. The fans who say this probably have no sound basis for doing so other than he's injured a lot, but that's Prior's reputation anyway. If it bothers him, he can afford to buy some friends to cheer him up. And it doesn't help that he broke down in the playoffs after that idiot Steve Bartman stole one of his outs. Prior could have still won that game, but he got flustered.

The Cubs spotted him four first-inning runs today against the Pirates, and he got himself out of trouble in the top of the second, throwing a strike out and a double play ball after giving up an unearned run. So far he's got four strike outs through four innings with no walks, and this looks to be his best overall start since he returned from injury in June.

UPDATE: Vasquez survived the 6th in a big way: he threw eight pitches, getting two first-pitch outs, and a strike out on the 6th pitch to Frank Catalanotto. He did pretty well in the 7th, get three strike outs swinging. A little shaky to start the 8th, he still got through the inning 1-2-3. He's got 13 strike outs.

Prior didn't end up having a great start, but he pitched well enough to win. 5.2 innings, 5 strike outs, 3 runs, 2 earned. Of the 8 starts he's had this year, this is only his second good one.

UPDATE 2: Cubs win 7-5; Sox win 7-1.

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