Wednesday, March 30, 2011

A Review of Pre-Season Rays Writing

We are less than a week away from Opening Day. A day romanticized by fans, writers, announcers, analysts, and everyone else associated with The Grand Old Game. It’s also the day of dreams, hopes, and projections. It’s the day we look to the Rays front office and hope they made the right moves, beseech Lady Luck helps us, and pray the Injury Bug stays as far away as possible from our defense of the AL East crown.

But do you know everything there is to know about the team about to take the field this Friday night? If not, if you are still itching to read more about Rays before you dive into broadcasts and boxscores, there are two publications out there worth looking into.

RaysProspect 2011 Guide

From comes the RaysProspects 2011 Prospects Guide. Written and edited by Kevin Gengler, this free downloadable .pdf includes everything you would want to know about the best players of the Rays minor league system. It gives bios of each of the top 15 pitchers and hitters in the organization, from highly accomplished prospects like Desmond Jennings to new draftees like Josh Sale. It also has prospect previews of nearly every Rays minor leaguer and what to expect from each team, from the Bowling Green Hot Rods to the Durham Bulls.

As if that wasn’t enough, what I found most interesting was Gengler’s articles on pitching phenom Matt Moore, the prospects with the most tools, and his “Prospect Battle Royale”, a comparison of the Rays Top 10 Prospects Lists from 2006 to 2010. Which class was most successful, which had the most flops, and which has the most promise?

If you are a fan of the minor leagues or just want to take a peek at who might be making their way to the Trop in the near future, I definitely recommend downloading the RaysProspects 2011 Prospect Guide.

The Process Report 2011

Since 2008, R.J. Anderson has taken part in writing annual previews on the Rays. In 2008, he primarily authored the first DRaysBay preview. That preview, no longer available for download, featured a few articles by Anderson and others and player previews by the DRaysBay staff.

In 2009 and 2010, the DraysBay guys again put out season previews. The 2009 preview featured only a few articles, but was heavy on the player profiles, fantasy picks, and prospect projections. The 2010 preview was nearly double the size, with Anderson getting help from the rest of the DRaysBay crew as well as several well-known baseball research writers. Of course, being double in size, it is also exponentially heavier on the numbers and charts. But that’s their niche.

That brings us to 2011 and R.J. Anderson’s latest guide. Now with The Process Report website, the preview is in a much different format. It is geared for print, not just for online consumption. It is also no longer free. Anderson and crew are actually trying to see some profit out of their years of work, which from a writer’s perspective, is totally understandable.

The biggest difference however, between the old DRaysBay previews and the TPR 2011 preview is in the content. Gone are 95 percent of the numbers, charts, and graphs. Gone are fantasy guides. And gone are a lot of the acronyms and terminology that isolated the stats crowd from the hotdog and beer, wave the foam finger, and boo BJ Upton crowd.

This year’s preview is much more philosophical than its predecessors. It talks about “The Process” of building and maintaining a successful Tampa Bay-based baseball organization able to compete in the AL East. There are articles comparing Joe Madden with a character in a Kurt Vonnegut novel, another which compares Andrew Friedman to Hall of Fame executive Branch Rickey, an ode to Fernando Perez, and an article on the rebuilding of Manny Ramirez’s reputation. These are not stat heavy subjects by any means.

Although it is very good and an interesting read, The Process Report 2011 is not beyond critique. One writer drops an f-bomb and uses another four-letter word I wouldn’t say in front of my grandmother. I thought the article on Jim Hickey could have elaborated more on the duties of a pitching coach between games and mentioned Hickey’s assistants. And calling David Price a “solider of resiliency” I thought was pushing it a bit, especially when Matt Bush, Dirk Hayhurst, and to an extent BJ Upton call the same Spring Training clubhouse “home”. But that’s nitpicking.

With Opening Day fast approaching, if you haven’t already caught the baseball bug and still don’t know everything there is to know about the 2011 Rays, I suggest getting your hands on both the RaysProspects Guide 2011 and The Process Report 2011. Both are great reads and the result of a lot of hard work by fellow members of the Rays blogosphere.

(Disclaimer: Cork and I are both featured in RaysProspects 2011 forecasts and I received a complimentary copy and have corresponded frequently with the writers at The Process Report. I respect all of these writers’ knowledge of the Rays and hold them all in high regard.)

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Filming Rays PSAs and Commercials

If you have ever been to the ballpark early, you’ve probably seen the public service announcements the Rays video folks play. They usually go on about an hour before the game and warn fans of the consequences of smoking in the stands, blocking the line of sight, using foul language, and generally ruining the experience of other fans.

Over the last two weeks the Rays have filmed these videos and other commercials for the 2011 season. Being currently between jobs, I had the pleasure of going to Tropicana Field and answering both casting calls for extras. It was a very cool experience.

The first casting call was strictly for the pre-game PSAs. These were done by people I think were part of the Rays’ media team and marketing staff. There were no trained actors, just the Rays Team girls, Raymond, a few employees, and a bunch of extras. There was also no script, just a format and a direction. They filmed the drunk fans bit, the people with crazy hats bit, the guy who sits in the wrong seat bit (coincidentally next to a very pretty girl – imagine that!), and as a very cool added bonus, the guy with afro bit. That’s right, there is a very good chance you will see my smiling face front and center in a Rays pre-game public service announcement. Of course, I’m not giving you any spoilers, but let’s just say it involves a rubber chicken and it’s funny.

(Oh, and for those who might think me acting in a Rays commercial will ruin my objectivity as a writer, I didn’t get paid. These were completely voluntary and we had to sign waivers releasing our image, etc. So fire Joe Maddon and trade BJ! Kidding!)

A few days later, I returned to the Trop for the second round of filming. These shots were for the Rays Baseball commercials that I think will air on TV. These shots had a much more professional feel to them. For one, the director wasn’t big on the afro wig and made me take it off. Second, there were professional actors delivering professional lines and professional models looking professionally pretty. Just being in the shot made me feel kinda Hollywood.

Being part of the Rays casting calls was a fun experience and hopefully I’ll see myself on either the scoreboard or on TV sometime this season.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Grapefruit League Tour 2011: Braves vs Blue Jays

(This post originally appeared on Bus Leagues

Even though I riffed on Spring Training in my last post, I'm still a baseball fan and can't resist the allure of sitting in the stands and seeing the game I love. So I ventured from my place in Tampa to Dunedin, Florida for my second attempt to see the Blue Jays warm up for the season.

(My first attempt did not go well. I drove 45 minutes just to be told the game against the Rays was sold out. Luckily, I got my parking fee back as I was only parked for 10 minutes. But I did buy a ticket for this game against the Braves.)

As expected, both the Blue Jays and the visiting Braves played a majority of their starters for the first few innings. The only major star I did not see for the Braves was Brian McCann. But on the field was Jason Heyward, Dan Uggla, Freddie Freeman, Alex Gonzalez, and on the mound was Jair Jurrjens. The Blue Jays played Jose Bautista, Adam Lind, Yunel Escobar, and on the bump was Brett Cecil.

What should have been good pitching match-up quickly vanished after Jurrjens was pulled after one inning. I later read it was due to a health concern - you can never be too cautious in spring. Following Jurrjens was Peter Boylan, who pitched well, and Scott Proctor, who couldn't find home plate with a GPS. After overthrowing the first baseman on a routine grounder back to the mound, Proctor allowed the runner to steal third uncontested, threw a wild pitch, then allowed a home run to Jose Bautista. Not good if he was on the roster bubble.

(Note: the Braves allowed two uncontested steals of third. Two! That is unforgivable. That has to be the fault of the pitchers. They are lucky they pitched out of those jams.)

Brett Cecil, on the other hand, pitched very well for the first four innings. He had Braves hitters off balance and caught a few looking at strike three. Then the fifth inning happened and the wheels came off. After the Braves scored one, Heyward followed up with an RBI single, and then Uggla smacked his first home run of the spring, a three run shot over the left-center wall. After the smoke cleared, Cecil had allowed five runs and was saddled with the loss.

A few final notes:

- Attendance was 4,285. That's a good crowd for a game in Dunedin. It was roughly 40% Braves fans, 50% Blue Jays fans, and 10% fans of baseball.

- A local sports bar gives a you free beer if you present a used ticket worth more than $18. Although it's only good for game day, that's a great deal. Especially after paying crazy prices for beer in the ballpark.

- Speaking of beer, there is a vendor at the ballpark in Dunedin with an amazing voice. It is one of those deep baritone "radio friendly voices", kinda like the homeless guy in Ohio. When he made a beer call, everyone heard it.

- The Blue Jays spring uniforms don't have names on the back. That makes it tough to identify the players, especially the non-major leaguers.

- Simple spring training math: Subtract the player's number from 100. That is usually the percentage chance the player has of making the team. Take the highest 25 percentages and there is the major league roster.

- There was a memorabilia silent auction at the ballpark that didn't make a wit of sense. They had a table full of autographed baseballs. The bidding for Nolan Ryan's autograph started at $150, Cliff Lee started at $100, Tom Seaver for $80, and Roy Halladay for $250. $250 dollars for Roy Halladay! As much as Lee and Ryan combined! Or more than three times the value of Seaver! How does that make sense? I'm starting to rank memorabilia sellers down there with paparazzi and lawyers on my own approval ratings.

- Boxscore via Yahoo! sports.

Why Spring Training is Overrated

(This post originally appeared on Bus Leagues

This may be the least busleaguesbaseball thing I have ever written, but please bare with me.

Although some might think it is the greatest thing since sliced bread, I think Spring Training is quite overrated. First, even though the Major Leaguers barely play half the game, ballparks charge major league prices. Forty dollars to see the New York Yankees? In a seat that costs six to see the Tampa Yankees? Ridiculous.

Then there is the parking situation. Minor league parks in Florida aren’t used to having full houses. Their smaller parking lots get full quick. Spring training fans usually have to find a spare lot in front of a neighboring house to park in front of. And those usually cost between 5 and 20 dollars. During the minor league season, some teams don’t even charge for parking.

The third reason I think Spring Training is overrated is because for the price of seeing three innings of major leaguers and a smattering of minor league future stars, has beens, or never will bes, residents in the Tampa area can see games that count at Tropicana Field. Cheap seat tickets at the Trop cost anywhere between 12 and 20 dollars, depending on the opponent. Although that's usually a lower level seat in the Grapefruit League, again, the decision is between an exhibition or a meaningful game.

Fourth, did you know there are “premium” Spring Training games? Ballparks charge more to see three innings of the Yankees, Red Sox, and Rays starters and their respective minor leaguers than three innings of anyone else in Grapefruit League. Seriously?

I remember 20 years ago when my Dad used to drive me down to Port St. Lucie to see the Mets on the day of the game. We would buy two tickets, at usually less than 10 dollars each, and sit in the bleachers. We saw the Mets take on the Yankees, the Dodgers, and the Red Sox. I doubt that is possible anymore.

Spring Training has become big business for stadiums and communities alike. But for baseball fans in the Tampa area, although it means another baseball season is soon upon us, it is just another tourist trap to be avoided.

Maybe I'm an unromantic putz, who takes for granted the divine mysticism of spring baseball. Maybe I take Spring Training for granted, being that I have lived so close to it for so long. But I’ll wait until the Florida State League starts and attend games at the same parks for a quarter of the price. Or I’ll head to the Trop, where I don’t have to worry about sunburn, parking in someone’s front yard, and the players actually play the whole game.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

A Review of The Extra 2%

There is no doubt some of the best sports books ever have been about baseball. Every baseball fan has their favorites. Personally, I am fan of The Curious Case of Sidd Finch, Boys of Summer, and Ball Four.

But whereas the amount of literature is staggering and certain stories have been told, re-told, and told once again, no one had yet written about the Tampa Bay (Devil) Rays – unless you count Vince Namoli’s Baseball, Business, and Beyond. But if a book is written, and no one reads it, does it count?

Esteemed baseball and business writer Jonah Keri attempts to rectify this lack of Rays literature with his new book, The Extra 2%: How Wall Street Strategies Took a Major League Baseball Team from Worst to First. Keri, who has written for Baseball Prospectus,, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and many other places, tells the tale of the rise of the Rays, from the early days of expansion to the present era.

The Extra 2% is not a typical baseball book, however. Focusing primarily on the new Rays ownership, Keri looks at the Rays history from a business perspective, using terms such as “leveraging”, “opportunity cost”, and “arbitrage”. Having been years removed from my college business course, I was a bit intimidated, but Keri’s writing style speaks to the average fan and carefully explains the business terms and makes them easily digestible. Even for an English major.

Written in chronological order, the first few chapters of the book detail the excruciatingly poor business operations of Vince Namoli. Although Namoli is given credit for battling MLB to get a team in St. Petersburg, he is vilified for each of the boneheaded blunders he makes when the Devil Rays actually start play. There are stories of failed fan interaction, mangled marketing, poor public relations, and awkward organizational management. Keri doesn’t mention what Namoli is up to currently, but given his detailed mistakes, it’s hard to see him positively contributing to any company these days.

In the early chapters, Keri also discusses the ineptitude of the Devil Rays’s baseball operations, to include former Devil Rays GM Chuck Lamar. Unlike Namoli, Lamar comes off as a sympathetic character. His quotes throughout the book do everything short of apologizing to the fans. He seems like a man who was overmatched and misplaced, and one you hope has found better employment.

As the book progresses, Keri writes about the Wall Street careers of Matt Silverman, Stuart Sternberg, and Andrew Friedman. Keri covers their successes in trading, evaluation, and decision making and their adoption of those same skills to the Rays front office. He delves deep into the background of Joe Maddon, discussing his propensity for ideas and why he was the perfect fit for the Rays. Once these characters are introduced, Keri talks about the deals, signings, and business decisions this new team had to make to transform the laughing stock of baseball into AL East contenders.

While Keri did a great job providing background and bios and making even the most astute Rays fan realize the magnitude of this Cinderella story, I do have a few critiques. First, there is no index. I know it would have been more work on the writer, editors, and other members of the Keri team, but for a book with so many characters, and one that will probably be referenced for years to come, I would have liked to see that feature.

Keri also spends too much time detailing the Devil Rays failure to draft Albert Pujols. Although there was no reason for the Devil Rays not to draft him, a writer could write volumes on missed picks and failed draft opportunities. And besides, a year later, the Devil Rays did follow the advice of a traveling scout and signed a player from an obscure backwoods area. That scout did such a great job finding the next “Babe Ruth” that both he and the player were mentioned in dozens of national publications. The scout’s name was Benny Latino and his prized find: Greg “Toe” Nash, a legendary slugger from the swamps of Louisiana who was out of professional baseball after only one year.

Despite those and a few other small critiques, The Extra 2% is an absolutely great read, not only for Rays fans, but baseball fans in general. According to his notes, Keri interviewed approximately 175 people, everyone from Joe Maddon’s mother to the Cowbell Kid to Rays front office folks to people who worked for the City of St. Petersburg. There is a lot of work evident in The Extra 2%, and it’s great to finally have all that history and those perspectives in one place instead of scattered throughout the Internet.

The Extra 2% has already often been compared to Michael Lewis’s classic Moneyball. And that is true to an extent. Both highlight unorthodox methods of franchise management, both cover a team’s attention to details neglected throughout the industry, and most importantly, both give snapshots of stories still taking place. These are not books written with the hindsight of history, such as tomes on the 1927 Yankees, the stories of the ’69 Mets, and tales of Hank Aaron’s home run chase. These are living stories, and there are, as Keri mentions, still unresolved issues for the Rays: a stadium no one likes, fans to win over, and the constant struggle against Major League Baseball’s most financially powerful juggernauts.

Jonah Keri’s book is not a book of solutions, nor is it a classic baseball story. It’s the story of the Rays, how they came to be and who they are today. Whereas fifty years ago, Roger Kahn introduced the masses outside of Brooklyn to The Duke, Pee Wee, Jackie, and Campy, Keri introduces the world to the Tampa Bay Boys of Summer: Stu, Matt, Andrew, and Joe.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

The Rays Combat Coaching Corps

During my time in the military, I could always tell how good a unit was by watching the interaction between the commanding officer and the non-commissioned officers (sergeants and the like) under their command. Good units had tight communication and a well-defined road ahead. Officers dictated their intent and the non-commissioned officers trained and molded the troops to fulfill the vision of their leaders. Less quality units lacked either that overarching guidance or had a commander who suffered from either being too distant, too buried in paperwork, or too full of his own ego to be approachable.

Although football often draws the most war-like comparisons, there are a few baseball-military comparisons that can be made. One could liken Spring Training to a sort of Basic Training, where the basic skills are learned or brushed up on and new recruits learn the philosophy of the organization, although there is hardly the level of intensity in spring baseball that there is in a place like Fort Bragg or Camp LeJune. One could also make the leap that daily batting practice is similar to the daily physical training, where members exercise and work out before the duty day.

My favorite baseball-military analogy however is comparing baseball coaching staffs to military units. Like military units, there is one commanding officer – the manager. Underneath him is a team of coaches whose sole objective is to ensure players have the capability to fulfill his strategy. They are essential in bringing out the best in a roster’s manpower. A baseball team, like a military unit, is only as strong as its weakest link, and coaches are there to ensure that weakest link is ready to support whatever weight is placed on it.

(Ok, I know no coach can turn terrible players into all-stars. There is a level of responsibility for the front office to bring in capable talent. But no team can win on talent alone. Managers make decisions throughout the season that rely on the roles and responsibilities of coaches.)

Coaches fall into two categories: strategic and tactical. Strategic coaches – batting and pitching coaches – ensure players know how to perform the tasks required by the manager. They are masters of the specifics, helping refine players’ techniques, such as bunting, baserunning, pick-off moves, etc, to make them better equipped to help the team win. They are very similar to lower level non-commissioned officers who help soldiers with marksmanship, map reading, and their specific job functions. While they may make suggestions during a game, a majority of their work comes between games in the preparation phase.

For the Rays, these positions are filled by Derek Shelton (Batting Coach) and Jim Hickey (Pitching Coach). Both return to the Rays after filling the same positions in 2010. Hickey has been with the staff nearly as long as Joe Maddon, and is regarded as one of the premier pitching coaches in the league. Shelton, on the other hand, was criticized heavily throughout his first year as hitting coach. Perhaps the additions of veteran hitters Manny Ramirez and Johnny Damon can help, as they may provide well-regarded peer-to-peer counseling.

The Rays also have an additional hand in the form of Assistant Pitching Coach Stan Boroski. According to the MLB coaching rosters, most teams do not have assistant pitching coaches. When hired prior to 2010, Boroski took the place of current Rays commentator Brian Anderson. According to the Rays website, Boroski assists with pre-game warm-ups, developing a game plan for the pitchers. After the preparations are complete, he then watches the game in the press box.

Unlike strategic coaches, who work mostly before the game, tactical coaches do most of their work during the game. Tactical coaches include bench coaches and base coaches whose primary function is to advise the manager or the players of decisions that can impact the outcome of a game. There is a lot of dispute over the value of a good tactical coach, but there is a reason most personnel fill one of these positions before taking a managerial role. They are among the most trusted of confidants on the staff and usually directly influence a manager’s outlook.

Tactical coaches are most like the senior non-commissioned officers in a military unit staff who oversee the training, the morale, and the wellbeing of the troops of their unit. They are the personnel who tell an officer if the men can march another mile or if they need food or water. They deal in the immediate and their job is to take care of troops as well as to see that they are put in positions to succeed. Especially if it means waving in the winning run or suggesting which pinch hitter to use.

The Rays bench coach positions in 2011 are filled by George Hendrick and Tom Foley, at first and third, respectively. Both are stalwarts of the coaching staff, with Hendrick having filled the position since 2005 and Foley since 2001. They prove the theory that while a bad coach should be replaced, a good tactical coach is invaluable.

Also invaluable are the Rays are the men on the bench, Dave Martinez and Don Zimmer. Martinez fills the position of bench coach – or in military parlance, Team Executive Officer – and Zimmer fills the role of Senior Baseball Advisor. Although there was concern neither would be with the Rays after 2010 (Martinez was a candidate for the Blue Jays manager position and Zimmer is nearly 80 years old), both are at Joe Maddon’s side yet again. It is interesting that Maddon, one of the most open-minded of baseball managers, is flanked by both one of the youngest assistants in the game and the oldest.

Whereas most teams only list the above coaching positions, the Rays also list two special assistants who should both have a major impact on the team in 2011. Joining the Rays this year is Rocco Baldelli as special assistant in Scouting and Player Development and Dave Eiland, who will be a Special assistant in scouting draft candidates, evaluating minor-league prospects, and offering advice on potential acquisitions.

While we are all familiar with Baldelli’s background, the newcomer Eiland gives the Rays an new unprecedented advantage. For the last three years, Eiland served as pitching coach of the New York Yankees. And with the Yankees only making one major pitching acquisition this offseason, signing former Ray Rafael Soriano, the Rays now possess a source that knows everything there is to know about the capabilities of one of their biggest rivals. There is no doubt Eiland’s knowledge of the enemy will help both Joe Maddon and the Rays hitters prepare against the Yankees hurlers. I’m sure he has already visited the Rays’ top secret labs, met with their Sabermetric Keebler elves, looked over the Rays scouting reports of Yankees pitchers, and provided intelligence that will prove key on the field of battle.

Ironically, Eiland was replaced by name familiar to the Rays’ faithful, former manager Larry Rothschild. Having been removed from the organization nearly 10 years ago, however, there is probably little Rothschild can bring to the Yankees in regards to intelligence on the Rays.

Finally, wrapping up Joe Maddon’s support corps are the bullpen hands of Bobby Ramos (Bullpen Coach) and Scott Cursi (Bullpen Catcher). With his famous off-kilter personality, Ramos is comparable to an old cagey sergeant who is in charge of the mess or the supply tent – maybe like Corporal Klinger in MASH. Cursi, on the other hand, is one of the most unlikely veterans on the staff – a man with little professional baseball experience coming into the position, but who has made himself invaluable since 2000 with his steady service.

Of course, as an aside if he makes the team, the internet’s favorite Rays reliever Dirk Hayhurst fits the mold of Anthony Swofford, John Crawford, or Tim O’Brien – military members who wrote of tales from the front lines. Could The Bullpen Gospels follow the trail of Jarhead be made into a movie?

Where ever they came from or whatever their backstory, there is no doubt Joe Maddon relies on his squad of coaches more than most. Together, they provide some of the best tactical and strategic advice of any group in the business. While they might not get the headlines or the fame or the glory, the cohesion and teamwork of the Rays coaching staff is an essential part in the war for the AL East.