TSN Baseball Insider Steve Phillips answers several questions each week. This week, topics cover the Toronto Blue Jays and their troubled bullpen, the frequency of Tommy John surgery, Wrigley Field's 100th birthday and the absence of Sammy Sosa, and the Michael Pineda pine tar incident.
1) The Blue Jays bullpen was supposed to be a team strength this season, but it hasn't worked out that way of late. The bullpen's overall numbers in the last seven games: 23 2/3 innings pitched, 22 earned runs, 23 hits and 24 walks. Is this just a blip, as manager John Gibbons suggests, or is this a developing problem? Perhaps fatigue is already setting in with the starters not going deep into games very often? How can Gibbons fix it – he's talking about a six-man rotation.
Make no mistake about it. The bullpen is the area where general managers make the most mistakes. It is so difficult to quantify the impact of innings worked, pitches thrown and appearance from the preceding season. Each pitcher reacts differently. It is completely unpredictable. Every time you think you know, you don't. The Jays had good reason to feel confident about their bullpen coming to the season as it performed very well last year.
I like to look at the bullpen as a living, breathing organism where the head is the closer. When the head is strong the rest of the bullpen has a chance to be strong. When the head is struggling or changing the rest of the bullpen is likely in distress as well. Casey Janssen's injury has forced the rest of the bullpen to pitch in different roles. Everyone has moved one notch up the depth chart so to speak. The 6th inning option now pitches in the 7th. The 7th inning options are now appearing in the 8th. And Sergio Santos has moved to the end of the game. The entire bullpen's mojo gets affected when this happens. Add to that Santos' occasional inconsistency and it puts everyone on edge. Success in the bullpen is contagious but so can be inconsistency.
When the bullpen is in disarray and it feels like the manager is guessing whom to use, he probably is. Sometimes managers just search to find a hot hand. John Gibbons' best shot of stabilizing his pen is getting a number of consistent scoreless outings from Santos. That will calm the rest of the pen and allow them to get comfortable in their roles. Certainly a healthy Janssen would do the most to realign and stabilize the pen.
2) Tommy John made some public comments this week about the rash of elbow surgeries he made famous. He claims the problem is over-use during development. Is he right? What can the baseball community (and MLB) do to fix the epidemic? The NFL is pushing coaches at all levels to teach kids to tackle properly to reduce concussions, hockey is working to take headshots and hits from behind out of the game. Is there some way MLB can influence grassroots level baseball to reduce the staggering number of pitchers needing TJS – many before they even become professionals?
There is an epidemic in baseball today. Fifteen pitchers at the major league level have had Tommy John surgery this season alone. We are only about a month into the season. There is clearly a problem.
Pitching arm injuries occur because of poor mechanic and overuse. Unfortunately the overuse is not exclusively a major league problem. Each God-given arm only has so many bullets in it. No matter how perfect one's mechanics may be the arm will break down if it is used too much. The arm was not constructed to throw a baseball. Every time a ball is delivered there is tearing and fraying that takes place in the arm. There is bleeding that takes place. Just like any injury that causes bleeding it takes time to heal. That is why pitchers have four days off typically between starts. That is why managers tend not to want a reliever to throw three days in a row. The wear and tear put on even a well-protected arm will at some point take a toll on a pitcher. Recovery time is important.
When I took over as Mets' general manager in 1997, one of the first things I did was meet with our team doctors and pitching coaches. We had so many young prospects breaking down and needing surgery. I needed it to stop. Out of that meeting we devised very rigid and strict pitch counts for our minor leaguers. It worked. We dramatically reduced our surgeries.
Tommy John is right that we need to do a better job of protecting young arms. Little League has implemented very strict pitch counts for its participants. I fully support that. But this needs to be implemented at every level of the game. One of my sons plays high school baseball and a kid on his team threw 132 pitches last week. That is too many. There are kids playing on multiple teams and they will pitch for one team on Tuesday and the other team on Friday. That is too much. Every year at the College World Series there will be a pitcher who will start a game on one day and then come in relief the next day. That is too much. Some kids play baseball all year round. They never work on different muscles of their body. They never let their body fully recover. That is too much.
I don't profess to have all of the answers about parenting for sure. I don't have all of the answers about baseball either. I have four boys and I have encouraged them to play multiple sports. So they play football, basketball and baseball. Their favorite sport depends upon the season of the year. I have found that this has allowed them to develop all of their muscles and allowed their muscles to recover as well, especially in the summer. I also believe that every sport emphasizes something different about character and teamwork. Baseball helps kids learn to deal with failure. It helps with discipline and focus and concentration. Basketball has given them the best sense of team. They have learned how to help and assist teammates. They have learned the importance of technique and fundamentals and how hustle can overcome size (work ethic). Football is the sport where they have learned to expand their limits. They have learned to overcome adversity and deal with pain. They have learned that when they need to dig for more that there is always more there.
There is no one right way to do things. Everyone's experience is different. Each parents has to do what is right for his or her kids. Sometime I have had to protect my kids from their own ambition and drive because their health was most important. But as parents, let's advocate for our kids' physical, mental, emotional and spiritual health before their professional ambitions.
3) Wrigley Field celebrated its 100th anniversary this week. What is your favourite memory/moment at this historic baseball venue? And did the Cubs make a mistake by not inviting Sammy Sosa to the festivities? Despite his fall from grace, many fans and media people were upset that the team's best and most charismatic player in the last 20 years was not there to help celebrate.
Wrigley Field is one of my favorite stadiums. It is such an iconic park. There is always a party going on there and there just happens to be baseball being played as well.
My most memorable moment at Wrigley Field took place on October 14, 2003. It became known as the Steve Bartman incident. Steve Bartman was a Cubs fan sitting down the left field line who reached for a foul ball, deflecting it and prohibiting Cub left fielder Moises Alou from making the play. It was the 8th inning of Game 6 of the National League Championship Series, with Chicago ahead 3–0 and holding a 3 games to 2 lead in the best-of-7 series. The Florida Marlins went on to score eight runs in that inning and won 8-3. They won Game 7 as well and went on to win the World Series. Poor Steve Bartman. Poor Cubs fans.
The Cubs celebrated the 100-year anniversary of the stadium with many of the most heralded Cubs players from the past in attendance. The glaring omission was Sammy Sosa. He wasn't invited. Cubs spokesman Julian Green said, "There are some things Sammy needs to look at and consider prior to having an engagement with the team."
It is suspected that Sosa was one of the 100+ players that tested positive for PEDs in 2003 anonymous testing program. Plus at the end of the 2004 season he clashed with the organization and sat out the final game of the season, leaving Wrigley Field before the game was over. That obviously rubbed the organization the wrong way and they traded him in the off-season to Baltimore.
My experience is that life is too short to hold grudges. Sosa has acknowledged he needs to make amends to the Cubs. Living a life of recovery I understand that making amends doesn't exclusively mean to apologize. It means that Sosa needs to own and take responsibility for his behavior as a Cub. All of it. He needs to acknowledge where he was wrong.
I have also learned that resentments don't do anybody any good. But I learned too, that if I have a resentment, I need to find what my part is in that resentment. That more often than not when I am resentful of someone else I have some blame in the issue too. Sosa needs to own his part but so do the Cubs.
Maybe the Cubs' role in the problem was their lack of boundaries and accountability for a star like Sosa. Maybe they treated Sosa a certain way and he came to expect that. Maybe they stuck their head in the sand about some things that should have been confronted.
My experience is that when there is a problem with a relationship that both sides have a role in the problem. The best resolution is when both parties acknowledge their role. It sounds like Sosa is willing to own his part, maybe the Cubs will too.
Both sides need to point thumbs at themselves instead of fingers at the other. It would have been nice to address this before the anniversary celebration. But better late than never.
4) On Thursday Major League Baseball handed down a 10-game suspension for Yankees pitcher Michael Pineda for "possessing a foreign substance on his person during the bottom of the second inning of his club's Wednesday, April 23rd game against the Boston Red Sox at Fenway Park." Pineda had a big blob of pine tar on his neck in that second inning and it was a violation of baseball rule 8.02, which states, "The pitcher shall not apply a foreign substance of any kind to the ball."
This was the second time that we know Pineda has used pine tar on the mound. He was seen with pine tar on the base of his pitching hand in a game against the Red Sox on April 10. However, in that game Pineda was alerted that the television cameras had focused on the dark stain on his hand and he had washed it off before anyone confronted the issue. When asked after that game, he claimed the mark on his hand was just dirt. It was clearly pine tar. He had dodged a bullet that day.
So why did Pineda use the pine tar? Was he trying to get the ball to move in abnormal ways? Was he cheating?
Let me first say that if there is a rule in place it should be enforced. Pineda got caught and he deserves a 10-game suspension. What he did was either very arrogant or very dumb. Take your pick. How he ever thought that lathering pine tar on his neck, in a major league stadium, with cameras everywhere, made sense, I will never know. I mean he knew all eyes would be on him as he escaped capture in his previous game against the Red Sox. He didn't even try to hide the illegal substance. Put it behind your belt. Put it under the flap of your spikes. How about under the brim of the cap? No, he went in the dugout and put it on his neck. That is absurd.
Pineda used the pine tar because he couldn't grip the baseball in the cold weather. You know that feeling when you are in the cold and your hands dry up a bit and feel very slick. It is very difficult to grip a baseball when that happens. In the first inning of the game on Wednesday, Pineda could not control his pitches. The ball was slipping out of his hand. It was especially problematic when he tried to throw a slider. Pine tar gives a pitcher a much better grip on the ball and allows him to manipulate it with his fingers to get the ball to move. It allows him to deliver the pitch in a way that he would be able to otherwise if not for the cold weather conditions. The pine tar does not allow the pitcher to make the ball move in extraordinary ways, just ordinary ways.
Red Sox manager John Farrell said after the game that he fully respects a pitcher trying to get a grip on the ball but Pineda left him no choice but to confront it as "it was on his neck." Even Yankees manager Joe Girardi and general manager Brian Cashman acknowledged that Farrell had to approach the umpire to check on Pineda. It does make you wonder what conversation the Yankees had with the young man after the first pine tar incident two weeks ago. If they didn't tell him not to use it, then they should have told him to hide it better.
If it wasn't so obvious I don't think Farrell would have challenged it. But he had it on his neck. Farrell knew that by confronting Pineda he was opening up challenges to his pitchers possibly cheating as well. Red Sox starter Jon Lester was seen with pine tar on his glove last year in the playoffs and fellow starter Clay Buchholz was seen applying sunscreen to his arms in Toronto on a day the roof was closed.
Baseball Rule 8.2, which prohibits the use of foreign substances by a pitcher, was put in place so pitchers would not use spit or Vaseline on the ball. Slippery substances can make the ball move in extraordinary ways. Make no mistake about it, pine tar is considered illegal because it is a foreign substance but it is not the product that the rule is trying to prohibit. There are currently many pitchers in the majors who use pine tar, even though it is a violation of a rule.
At every game in every stadium there is a bag of rosin behind the pitchers mound. Rosin is a substance that helps dry sweat or liquid on a pitcher's hand and allows for a better grip. In the heat of the summer a pitcher can work up a sweat. You can often see pitchers grab the bag between pitches to ensure the grip of the ball.
What is the difference between rosin and pine tar? The only difference is that pine tar is better for grip in the cold weather and rosin is better in the warm weather. Yet, rosin is approved while pine tar is illegal for the pitcher. It makes no sense.
I would like to propose a rule that I would like to call the "Pineda Rule." This rule will allow a pine tar rag to be placed next to the rosin bag at the back of the mound. It will do away with consistent violation of rule 8.02. Plus it will make hitters safer as pitchers will better be able to command the ball in cold weather.
Sometimes we need to see something ridiculous to prompt change. Thank you Michael Pineda for that hickey-sized glob of pine tar on your neck.