2010 Rays Diary Update

Rays Diary: July 28, 2010 (sent to Tampa Bay Rays-again- and various local sports media members, as usual, without reply.  So I might as well print it in my BLOG)

Note: Since this article was written, Matt Garza followed his “nervous breakdown” with a no-hitter, James Shields calmed down and threw a well designed 2 run start and David Price returned to his “three quarters” delivery in a game in which he began throwing almost “side arm.”  Manager Joe Maddon actually used a right handed reliever to strike out a left handed hitter who hits “lefties” better than “righties.”  Unfortunately, the Rays have had an average of about 4 hits in their last 4 games.  The principles repeated again and again in this article will not disappear with a few victories.  It’s time, I believe, to take them seriously.

Tampa Bay Rays-Before it’s Too Late                                                    July 23, 2010

The Tampa Bay Rays are clearly at a crossroads.  Through overall wise general management, between the experience of Mr. Hunsicker and business acuity of Mr. Friedman, the Rays have amassed a team as talented as any in baseball, even as talented as the Yankees.  They have done this with approximately one third of the Yankees’ budget!  It would be a pity, indeed, to lose such a large portion of that talent because these same talented general managers could not find coaches to rival the quality of those on the Yankees or the Red Sox.

I do not say this lightly.  Compared to ex-coach Butcher, who could not relate to any of the Rays’ pitchers, who caused them to trade some really good players because he could not teach them the useless “skills” he thought so important, Jim Hickey represents a welcome addition.  (I feel confident, for instance, that Mr. Butcher will totally destroy Scott Kazmir’s waning career if given enough time.)  Hickey seems to enjoy the confidence and trust of his pitching staff, but until he addresses some of his own inadequacies, his staff will continue to gradually deteriorate, no matter how much raw talent it may possess.

On far too many occasions, Mr. Hickey has not been able to formulate an appropriate strategy for his pitchers.  As I have pointed out in the past, he has completely befuddled James Shields, somehow convincing him that he is some sort of power pitcher.  He is not!  Sorry, his fast ball doesn’t move enough, even though he throws it over ninety miles an hour.  It is effective only on the corners at the right height, and against the Yankees, Marlins and Red Sox, there is no right height, apparently.  Despite Mr. Hickey’s insistence, Mr. Shields will have to establish his slider first, then his fast ball and change-up to be effective.  No fastballs over the middle of the plate, no matter how ticked off you are, James!  Actually, Shields is one of the league’s premier junk ball pitchers, even at his relatively young age.  The fact that his fastball is ninety miles per hour plus is simply an added advantage!

Matt Garza, of course, is a similar problem for Hickey, who has failed to train his catchers in how to keep his pitchers out of deep trouble.  Like Shields, When Matt gets angry, the lucky opposition batter is usually treated to a ninety-five mile per hour fastball down the middle of the plate, even though Matt still seems surprised by the one hundred ninety five mile an hour home run that usually follows.  Hickey often waits too long, before going out to talk to his pitcher.  Actually, the catcher ought to do this, but usually does not.  Worse yet, when coach or manager does go out to the mound, things usually get worse.  I have to assume, of course that this is because they often have no clue as to what they need to tell the poor pitcher.

Classic examples of this are the cases of David Price and Wade Davis.  Both pitchers are prototypical “three quarters pitchers,” as Rube Walker used to call them.  Throwing from “10 o’clock” and “2 o’clock,” respectively, their pitches always move downward, if thrown properly.  Even on a mediocre day, a few miles off the fast ball, or a little inaccuracy and their downward moving pitches are still extremely hard to hit.  If, however, they drop their arm angle even a hair towards “nine o’clock” or “3 o’clock,” their fingers gripping the ball on the side instead of on top of the ball, they become very hittable.  The catcher should be instructed to watch for this and immediately remind his pitcher of the problem.  Luckily,  Wade Davis did this only twice in his last start, one time hitting a left handed batter as his pitch sailed about two feet from right to left.  David Price was permitted to throw from the wrong angle for his entire, but short lived last start.  Poor Scott Kazmir, a “3 quarters” pitcher, will have everything but his name changed before Mr. Butcher ever recognizes this problem with his pitcher.

The other, even more serious problem with Mr. Hickey is that his manager, Joe Maddon, claimed that he kept him because they shared the same “philosophy of pitching.” Though I am not sure what either man’s actual philosophy is, I can assure everyone that it will decimate the Rays’ relief staff for the third year in a row.  As obvious as it may be that Manager Maddon possesses one of the highest I.Q.’s in baseball, that he enjoys a rapport with players rivaled only,perhaps, by Bobby Cox, it is equally obvious that he suffers from a fairly serious case of obsessive compulsive disorder.  Warming up every pitcher in the bullpen every game and trying to use as many relief pitchers as possible in so many games is bad enough, but combining this with the obsession of using righty-righty and lefty-lefty match-ups, even when inappropriate, can become entirely counterproductive.  In the Baltimore series, introducing his aging left hander to a left handed batter, hitting the same against right and left handed pitching (two base hit, 2 RBI’s) and then a left handed batter hitting .500 against his lefty (now hitting .540 with another RBI) was absurd , considering both “righties” and “lefties” are both hitting close to nothing against Benoit, who was waiting patiently in the wings.  

If pitching coach Hickey was kept for “philosophical” reasons, and new hitting coach Derek Shelton was hired for “philosophical” reasons, perhaps it’s time to change “philosophies.”  Frankly, its time to get rid of the “stupid” computers we see the players watching and time to start using film or tape or, in a really startling move, watch the actual player swing the bat.  They can’t, except maybe for coaches Martinez or Hendrick, be watching much of anything, because most of the team’s hitting problems seem to be of the Little League variety!

Carlos Pena came to the Rays about like he is now, hitting .210, striking out every other at bat and running into a home run streak every once in awhile.  The fired hitting coach, Henderson, apparently shortened his swing and, somehow, added sixty points to his average.  B.J. Upton, somehow, was not mired in his slump at that time either.  Heaven forbid anyone should think of looking at film or tapes of those swings and comparing them to their current swings.  They might see that every time they try to “level” Pena’s swing, he temporarily stops leaning his right shoulder and all his weight toward the plate and onto his toes, before he has to take another 10 seconds to move back to his heels and finally swing at the ball.  You’re supposed to rotate your shoulders, not bend them forward.  They’re supposed to teach that in Little League.

If Pena begins his long arduous swing on Monday and finishes it on Tuesday,  Upton’s can be said to finish on Wednesday.  Admittedly, Upton is not Gary Sheffield and cannot afford to hold his hands up as high as he does, only to bring them down before he swings.  All the time his coaches foolishly waste, trying to change his left foot machinations, are also very laudable.  However, B.J. did both of these counterproductive things back when he was hitting the ball sharply.  What he was not doing then, was swaying backward, instead of rotating his shoulders on his back swing.  As every professional golfer knows, this results in constantly pulling the ball dangerously left in golf and harmlessly foul in baseball.  Sorry, but this,also is usually discovered early in Little League.

Unlike most fans, I don’t mind Mr. Maddon constantly changing his lineup.  Admittedly, I would not do it, but he gets so little help from his hitting coaches and their “philosophy,” that I can see why he does so.  Zobrist would be an excellent lead off hitter if someone would explain to him that there is no need to hit any home runs in the lead off spot.  In fact, since pitchers are still afraid of his home run power of last year, they are pitching him all sorts of hittable pitches on the outside part of the plate.  Of course, he hardly ever swings at them, because he’s waiting for the juicy pitch on the inside or middle portion of the plate.  Don’t fret, talented hitter that he is, coaches, it only costs him about 25 points in his batting average.  The same thing goes for Jason Bartlett, who should be hitting all outside strikes to right field.  Apparently under Maddon’s hitting philosophy, Jason’s five or six “accidental” home runs last year may cost him 80 to 100 points in this year’s batting average and, heaven only knows, how many needless double plays (perhaps the most unacceptable sin: pulling an outside pitch into a double play, the Ray’s “philosophical” specialty).  Little League hitting principle 101: pull “inside” pitches and hit “outside” pitches “the other way.”  It is what the Yankees, Red Sox, and other winning teams do, after all.

I really am sorry if my evaluation of the Rays’ current status seems overly critical, but, unbelievably, most people “can’t see the forest for the trees.”  Before the Rays make any rash trades, they need to identify their true weaknesses.  It’s a lot easier for coaches to see the mistakes they make or to see things in a new light than it is for players.  Bringing in new players to make old mistakes is fruitless.  Bringing up David Price won the Rays a pennant, because they had decimated virtually every other arm in their bullpen.  Last year, there was no late season David Price.  There is only one left handed pitcher in the Rays “pen.”  His arm is already tired.  Everyone else is soon to follow, especially with the manager’s “philosophy.”  Looking for another hitter?  Try a proven philosophy: pitching, pitching,pitching.  Improve our coaching and get another late season left handed relief pitcher.

Allen Finkelstein, D.O.