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11 May 2011

The Report on UCB Radio Hour Tonight

Join The Redbirds Report on the UCB Radio Hour at 9:30pm CDT tonight.  Just follow this link and listen live.  I will be joining Bill Ivie and we will spotlight the current Cards/Cubs series, and look ahead to this weekends big showdown in Cincinnati against the Reds.

Here's the rundown for tonight's show
9:30-9:45pm  Bill and Mike will open the show giving a quick breakdown of recent events and either a game recap or updates on the game progress
9:45-10:10pm  Bill and Mike will be joined by Ryan Maloney of Prose and Ivy to discuss the series with the Cubs and what the Cubs fans feel about the remainder of 2011.
10:10-10:25pm  Bill and Mike will welcome Dave Mitchell from Battle Of Ohio Baseball to discuss the upcoming series with the Cincinnati Reds. 
10:25-10:30pm  We put the wraps on another show.

Interesting topics about the Cardinals and a couple of NL Central division rivals.  It should be enlightening and enjoyable.  If you can't listen live, you can download it from iTunes, or listen on Blog Talk Radio.

Let's Talk Nice About the Hitting Coach

There are many thankless jobs in professional baseball.  Every decision of a manager is easily scrutinized and criticized if things don't go as hoped.   A general manager who is praised when he signs a player the fan base is clamoring for can be lambasted by the same fan base when that player gets hurt or doesn't perform up to expectations.   But the singular most thankless job in baseball is that of hitting coach.

Often, the hitting coach is unknown by a majority of fans.  Most people outside of the clubhouse don't have any idea exactly what the hitting coach does, or has any idea of how much impact he has on the performance of the team.

Yes, being a hitting coach is truly a thankless job.  Normally, the hitting coach is invisible until a team-wide slump strikes his team.  Outsiders cannot judge him any other way.  And the truth is, is he really going to change the swing and approach of great hitters like Albert Pujols, Holliday, and Berkman?  No.

Mark McGwire
The St. Louis Cardinals have a high profile hitting coach in Mark McGwire.   And perhaps it is time to note that by all appearances, he is doing a fine job.

After a horrible first week of the season, the Cardinal batters have been the class of the NL Central division.  In fact, the Redbirds lead the Major Leagues with a 286 batting average - 15 points better than second place Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim.  Their prowess with two outs and runners in scoring position has been exceptional so far. 

Matt Holliday has been training with McGwire for years, and is off to an unbelievably hot start to 2011. Holliday is still hitting nearly . 400 - his .393 average leads all MLB players.  Lance Berkman has been the steal of the off-season free agent pool with 10 HR's and leading MLB in RBI's after showing fading skills the last couple of seasons.  And of late, Daniel Descalso has proved to be clutch in late game high-leverage situations.

Hitting a baseball is a tricky thing.  If you've played any ball at any level, you know that thinking about what you're doing courts disaster.  If you're confident, you see-ball, hit-ball.  If you're not confident you miss the meat and swing at cheese.

From all I've read, McGwire's approach has been to look for a pitch the batter can handle, and put a good, solid swing on it.  Drive the ball.  In the long haul of the baseball season, that is the essence of the equation.  The recipe for success.

Another big mark in McGwire's favor is the lessening of reliance of video scouting of pitchers.  It may be the main culprit for the disturbing trend in recent years of the Cardinals turning rookie starters into Bob Gibson.  If you rely on video to prep for a pitcher, how do you prep for someone with no video?  You don't.  You need to go out and see-ball, hit-ball.

The sample size is small, and he can't swing the bat for his charges.  But what I've seen thus far, Mark McGwire is a success as hitting coach.

08 May 2011

McClellan's Mother's Day Masterpiece

Kyle McClellan (source: Wikipedia)
Kyle McClellan had a Mother's Day gift for the maters of Cardinal Nation on Sunday, pitching a gem as St. Louis beat the Milwaukee Brewers 3-1.  The Hazelwood West High School grad thrilled the home crowd by crafting eight innings of excellence.  It marked the longest outing of his big league career.

McClellan was impressively efficient, only throwing 108 pitches on the day.  Even more impressive is the fact that he had to throw 10+ extra pitches in the first inning due to a Tyler Greene error on a easy chance on a Prince Fielder ground-ball.  The Cardinals put the infield shift on for the left-handed hitting Fielder, and Greene did not come up with the play ranging slightly to his left on the outfield grass.

In Greene's defense, he did make good with the bat.  He went 3-3 on the day with one run scored.  But the big hit was by Colby Rasmus in the fifth inning.  Facing a tiring lefty in Chris Narveson, Rasmus stroked a two-out two-run double that gave the Cardinals a 2-0 lead.

Milwaukee starter Chris Narveson - the former Cardinal - was on his game early.  Often he had the Cardinals flailing wildly at his pitch.  He especially picked on the hot-hitting Lance Berkman.  Berkman, batting from his weaker right side, was exposed by nice change-ups from Narveson.  But Narveson was not as efficient with his pitches, and the Cardinals followed their now usual norm of wearing down a starter and pouncing on opportunities when they tire.

The story of the day was McClellan offering even more proof that he is more than just a capable fifth starter.  He showed moxie escaping the first-inning bases-loaded jam that was set up by the Greene error.  McClellan wasn't necessarily sharp at the beginning of the game, but once he escaped another jam in the fourth (thanks to a smart defensive play by Albert Pujols), McClellan found his groove.  He breezed through the next four innings, and started the ninth inning.

In the ninth, Prince Fielder lead off and poked a seeing-eye single through an infield skewed to the right because manager Tony La Russa employed the shift.  It was a weak ground ball, and would have been an easy put-out if not for the shift.  As thanks for coaxing the big-hitting Fielder into a what should've been an out.  La Russa pulled McClellan and inserted Eduardo Sanchez to get the save. 

I do not agree with TLR's handling of this situation.  If he had no faith that McClellan could handle a touch of adversity, why put him back out there in the ninth?  McClellan induced a weak grounder from Fielder that got through the infield because of the shift. McClellan did his job, strategy failed.  If the hook was coming simply because one batter got on despite McClellan's work, why not bring in the youngster Sanchez to work from a less stressful clean slate?  McClellan was in the zone, and got what he wanted fromFielder.  If he was good enough to do that, he should be good enough to handle the rest of the inning.  But big league managers pull this crazy stuff all the time, and no one knows why - including the managers that pull this crazy stuff.

Anyway, Sanchez sandwiched two outs between two walks, and with the bases loaded could not put pinch-hitting veteran Craig Counsell away.  On the 13th pitch of the at bat, Counsell hit a sharp grounder into the hole between short and third that Theriot made a good play to stop from reaching the outfield but had to wisely stick in his pocket as Fielder scored from third.  It was a run charged to McClellan, when it was anyones fault but his.

By then La Russa had seen enough of Sanchez' drama, and fetched Fernando Salas from the bullpen.  Salas promptly dispatched Rickie Weeks, striking him out on three pitches.  The game - and the series - belonged to the Redbirds.

07 May 2011

Cardinals Jaime was El Jefe Tonight

Jaime Garcia (source: Wikipedia)
Everyone in Cardinal Nation - if not baseball - is agog at the performance of Jaime Garcia tonight at Busch Stadium against the Milwaukee Brewers.  I have to admit I missed most of it as my sister-in-law had an automobile emergency at game time that I had to respond to.  I wasn't happy about missing the game, but a man must do what a man must do.

I caught the game in the top of the sixth via at bat on my iPhone as we drove back across the city towards home.  It did not take long to notice how quickly Garcia was getting the ball, getting signs, and delivering.  The score was 6-0 at this point, and Garcia's actions made me think more was involved.  A quick touch of the box score showed that my instincts were correct.

What I did see of the sixth and seventh inning told me that Garcia had it all working.  Every pitch was low in the zone, and the movement was exceptional.  The furtive swings of the Brewers' batsmen told me the backstory I had missed, and their body language as the looked at called strikes solidified my extrapolations.

In our house lives a beautiful 15 year old girl.  A girl who has lately  discovered the joys of baseball (I thank the Arizona Diamondbacks and their fun ball park for this).  After one out in the eighth, I was thinking I had the perfect opportunity to show her the second-by-second drama that only sports can provide.  And the build-up/release rollercoaster that is at the heart of what baseball is about.  But before I could stand up to do this, Garcia walked a man.  Now pitching from the stretch, he promptly lost the no-hitter to Yuniesky Betancourt (of all people) on a sharp ground ball that found the hole between second base and shortstop.

The quick loss of the no-hitter once a man reached base did not surprise me.  In fact, I was looking for it.  The past week taught me some lessons.

It marked the fifth time this week that such an event occurred.
I first noticed the trend during Garcia's last start on Sunday when he started the game with four perfect innings.  But the fifth inning started with a single.  The it went  out, 2-run HR, walk, single, and a run-scoring single.  Then on Monday, Kyle Lohse was lights out again through two 1/3 innings, then he lost all control.  The Gaby Sanchez grand slam punctuating my point.  I thought it all a fluke until Jake Westbrook cruised through 4 2/3 innings Thursday without allowing a Florida Marlins getting a runner on base.  But once Greg Dobbs reached base and Westbrook began delivering from the stretch, the Marlins next 4 batters reached base and two runs scored.

Of course, the Marlins getting their first hit with one out in the eighth is hardly evidence of some latent failing amongst an otherwise outstanding starting staff.  But once Garcia finally let a runner reach base and approached Betencort from the stretch, the no-hitter was lost.

Why?  I don't know.  Perhaps losing a good groove then pitching from the stretch  is just enough to tip the balance of competition to the favor of the hitters.  It has also been a certain something the Cardinal hitters have exploited.  If nothing else, it's an interesting trend - one I noticed only because all the starters were lights out...until someone got on base.

06 May 2011

I Miss Skip

(source: Wikipedia)
I have heard/read/inferred that segments of Cardinal Nation are not missing Skip Schumaker while he's on the DL.  Many of these opinions are based on a recent hot streak - and one scintillating home run - by Daniel Descalso.  I want to make a public statement: I still miss Skip.

Why do I miss Skip?  First, I have drank the Tony La Russa Kool-Aid.  I prefer proven veterans with a track record of success as my everyday player.  Skip has proven to be a successful big league hitter with a .290 career batting average.  He remains a liability against lefties, but he hits .308 against right-handed pitching.  And in case you haven't noticed, there is a preponderance of right-handed pitcher in baseball.  Additionally, he has been clutch in his career - batting .288 with RISP and .321/.371/.491 with runners on third base.
Secondly, Skip's defense is not as horrible as it is made out to be.  Clearly Descalso has the better skills at second (it is the position he came up playing), but Skip has some positives.  I have come to appreciate a good arm at second base, and Schumaker's hose was the envy of Rick Ankiel we he was in St. Louis.  A strong arm helps tremendously on turning double plays and on relay throws, and Skip's allows him some wiggle-room to compensate for his unfamiliarity on positioning and footwork in the infield.  And those instincts are improving.  Skip is a determined worker, who managed to fill a gaping hole in the roster in 2009 with only an off-season of training.  A more infielder-focused training regimen this past winter had Skip looking more fluid in the field this spring, with an easy to identify increase in range to his left.

Thirdly, his attitude and grit are needed.  The Cardinals will take the field of battle 162 times each season.  La Russa's clubs are celebrated for playing a "Hard Nine" innings every game.  Schumaker is the type of warrior his mates want fighting to the end every day.  Identified as a core player of the team by his manager, one can infer his teammates and coaches feel the same.  His sacrifice to make the adjustment to 2B goes a long way in my book.  A superlative defensive corner outfielder, his power wasn't up to the standards of that position, but it fits well as a middle infielder.

While Descalso has impressed thus far in his major league career, he still is just a .238 hitter who has had some awful at bats against elite pitchers this year.  Descalso at the moment is best used as a defensive replacement and spot starter.  He is still vulnerable to being over-exposed as a hitter at this stage in his career.
Surprisingly, as a left-handed hitter he hits lefties better than he does right-handers.  With David Freese's bad ankles and bad luck, Descalso provides depth at that position.  And the Cardinals have been desperate for a decent backup at third for some time now.

Yes, I miss Skip.  We need him in the lineup as the starting second baseman.  Descalso has value as a platoon against lefties and a late-inning defensive replacement at 2B.  It also gives La Russa the flexibility with resources that he so desires.  All of this adds up to utilizing Descalso in a way that maximizes his chances for success.

Next year?  It could be a different story.  If Descalso keeps growing - and hitting - as he has been lately, it might make for some tough decisions for St. Louis GM John Mozeliak when Schumaker's contract ends after this season.  Maybe then Skip can be rewarded for his sacrificial move to 2B with a bigger contract with a lesser team in need of his talents.

But for now, we need Skip.  Cardinal Nation should be missing him as I do.