June 22, 2009

Mr. Sports Know-It-Mostly

Amid the abundance of good feelings associated with the Cubs' heart-pounding four-game winning streak, you can count on me to urinate all over your Cornflakes. Per Cubs.com's Carrie Muskat:
The Cubs' overworked bullpen got a fresh arm Sunday when the team recalled right-hander Kevin Hart from Triple-A Iowa and placed Angel Guzman on the 15-day disabled list.

Guzman's right triceps had been tender, and he reported to Wrigley Field on Sunday with some tightness. Although the right-hander only needs five or six days to recover from the strain, the team felt it was better to be safe and give him 15 days.
Wow, Angel Guzman is hurt? Who would've guessed?

Me, that's who, suckers. In last week's post decrying the Cubs' eight-man bullpen, I hypothesized that Angel Guzman might be the Cubs' mysterious tender-armed reliever, and chastised Lou Piniella for using him excessively. Turns out my theory was correct.

After missing a full week of action, Guzman returned on June 17, going two innings and throwing 34 pitches -- his second-highest total of the season -- in a 4-1 loss to the White Sox. Sure the guy's been sidelined for a week and has an injury list longer than Luis Gonzalez's neck, but the only way to find out if he's really hurt is to push him beyond any reasonable limits. That seriously has to have been the thinking. The only alternative is just as frightening: that is, that there was no thinking at all.

After Guzman threw another two innings on Saturday, his right triceps decided it could no longer resist the siren song of the disabled list, and like the swallows of San Juan Capistrano, Angel Guzman returned to his familiar summer destination, where he was no doubt feted with a hero's welcome.

Wait a second. Overworked bullpen? Really? Look, I know Muskat's a shill for the Cubs, but c'mon. Coming into Sunday's games, the bullpen's 189.1 innings meant it was the 15th-most worked in the 16-team National League. Even if they'd been used 20% more -- that is, logged a total of 227.1 IP -- Cubs relievers still wouldn't crack the top-5 in innings. Not to mention that the pen's paltry workload is divvied up among a ludicrous seven pitchers.

Huh? Seven pitchers, you say. What about all that 8-man-bullpen-based bitching you did last week? Well last Tuesday, in a move with little fanfare, the Cubs finally succumbed to reason and trimmed one of the bullpen's numerous fifth wheels, moving Jason Waddell to the disabled list with a horribly gruesome non-injurious injury. Or if you prefer the Cubs' phrasing, "for evaluation and treatment of a non-baseball-related medical issue." To which they might have added, "Which we made up as an excuse to promote Jake Fox."

So in one fell swoop, the Cubs rectified of two of their more boneheaded decisions: going with a 13-man pitching staff, and optioning Jake Fox to Iowa.* But amazingly, they were not done making rational moves.

* Incidentally, the Cubs had to create an injury to someone in order to bring Fox up because league rules stipulate that a player optioned to the minors can't be recalled for 10 days unless someone on the major league roster is placed on the disabled list. Fox had only been down six days.

In what had to be the most shocking development of all, before Friday's opener against the Indians, Lou Piniella told the Trib:
"We have to find a place for [Fox], so we're going to put him at third base."
Now you might remember a certain blogger advocating giving Fox a shot at third. Quoth Mr. SKIA:
Sure, Fox might be a complete disaster at third. But what's the worst thing that could happen? They'd lose games 8-7 instead of 2-1?
Yes, the Cubs unknowingly heeded my advice. But then, in Fox's first game at the hot corner, they openly defied me. Instead of losing, the Cubs actually won. By a score of 8-7.

I mention these things -- Guzman's disabling, Fox's thirding, the coincidental scoring -- not to set a record for most times linking to my own posts nor to pat myself on my so-richly-deserving-of-a-pat back, but rather to temper this news: Derrek Lee is currently making me look like an idiot.

You may recall this extensive entry, where I summarized the reasons that Lee was a contract albatross. Or this one, where (in item No. 5) I not only say he is done, but compare him to 75-year-old Bill Russell in the process. And yet here are Derrek Lee's numbers since May 1 (through Sunday):


Damn, that's impressive, you might be thinking. But look at what he's done since June 11:


A .789 slugging percentage? Yes, I suppose that's adequate. So how is Lee doing it? My belief that he was done wasn't even really based on his April -- the second of the aforementioned posts was made on April 16 -- although he did have a god-awful first month:


I was going more off of the way he played last season, but combined with his start this year, it looked pretty bleak. From May 1, 2008 to April 30 of this season -- that is, a full calendar year -- Lee posted these stats:


While not downright horrible, for a first baseman with two years (counting this one) remaining on a 5-year, $65 million contract, that's pretty damn shitty. So where did Lee's sudden explosion come from? While I'd love to draw some Jerod Morris-level attention to my little blog and scream "STEROIDS!!!" from the mountaintops, at this point that would be both intellectually lazy and somewhat unfair.

Therefore, I'm going to suggest two possibilities. The first is that Lee's wrist, which he broke in April 2006, is finally healed. The injury seemed to sap him of most of his power: In 2005 Lee belted 46 homers in 691 plate appearances for a home run rate of 6.7%; in his first 1577 PAs following the injury -- from June 2006 through April of this year -- he hit just 48 more, for a rate of 3.0%.

That's a precipitous decline. And now, he's hit 10 homers in 154 PAs since May 1, increasing his rate back up to 6.5%. Still, if his resurgence was spurred by a recovery from injury, wouldn't we have seen a gradual climb to his former levels, and not a quantum leap? While I'm no physiologist, I would think that'd be true. But human biomechanics are so sophisticated -- and hitting a baseball moving at 90-plus miles per hour requires so much precision -- that I have to at least consider the possibility that having a wrist at anything less than 100% could be enough to completely derail a player's power stroke.

Still, three years for it to heal? Doesn't that seems excessive? But suppose he came back too soon. He returned to action in June, just two months later, before landing back on the DL for another month in late July. It's possible that rushing it only prolonged the injury's effects. Plus, just from my own experience, I can say that wrists are maddeningly slow to heal. A while back, I collided with a heavy-set woman at first base in a softball game -- it sounds like the setup for a joke, but it's not -- and screwed up my wrist in breaking my fall. Seriously though, I bounced off her like a SuperBall and she barely moved. I can't say for certain that she even noticed. Anyway, it's been nearly two years and my wrist still isn't the same.

The other possibility? Well, this is a 135 at-bat sample size we're talking about. It's feasible Lee's approximate skill level is that of a league-average hitter, and he's just currently enjoying an insane hot streak, as league average players sometimes do. This stretch, for one, immediately popped in my head:


Those numbers are from the beginning of Chris Shelton's 2006 season. Following the sizzling start, Shelton's numbers fell off so precipitously that, unbelievably, he was in the minors by the end of July. Within a small sample size, even average (or in Shelton's case, below average) hitters can put up eye-popping numbers. Cubs fans won't want to hear it, but that's potentially the case with Lee.

So which one is it, healed wrist or fluky hot streak? I'd lean towards the latter, but let's be honest: Don't we all just hope it continues? And for me, it's win-win. Either Lee reverts back to his mediocre form and proves that he was, in fact, done, or he continues to hit everything in sight and carries the Cubs back into the postseason.

The real question is, would I rather have the Cubs make the playoffs, or would I prefer to be right? Well, let's put it this way: there's a reason the name of this site isn't Mr. Hopes-the-Cubs-Win-It-All.

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