FLOYD SITS FOR FOURTH STRAIGHT DAY:
For the past several days, Rays manager Joe Maddon has insisted that DH Cliff Floyd would return to the lineup the following day. Each day passed, and Floyd wasn't in the lineup. The only solace for the benched veteran had to be Maddon's assurances that he would play again "tomorrow". Yet the promised playing time never came, and Tuesday night's game was the fourth straight in which Floyd did not start.
So how did Floyd react to what seems like the surest sign yet of a benching?
"I don't blame him," Floyd said. "We're winning. We all have the same purpose: to win games. When you're on the road, it's tough to win games. Guys are swinging the bat great right now; I haven't. We're going to go with that and get me healthy, too."
"We're playing with the hot bats," Floyd said. "I'm a realist. I like to win, too. At the end of the day, who will give you the best chance to win? And that's life. That's how we're going to ride with it.
"I've never been selfish in my life. ... I just want to win. My swing is getting better, and I feel myself getting better every day."
Maddon insists that this is all there is to it; that it is merely the club riding the hot hand in 1B Willy Aybar, and that it has nothing to do with Floyd's surgically-repaired right knee. Floyd did acknowledge that one of the primary benfits of the time off was the opportunity to rest his knee, but he also said that it gave him the opportunity to hone his swing. Though Floyd is hitting .250/.329/.474 on the year, he is just 1 for his past 12. Aybar, meanwhile, was hitting .306/.358/.551 going into last night's game, including .412/.444/.765 in 18 PA since the start of the road trip.
But the move is about more than Aybar's hot bat. By resting Floyd, a hole opens up at DH where the Rays can slide in Eric Hinske. That removes a defensive liability from the field, and the net gain is huge when you figure that the opening allows defensively-adept Gabe Gross to start in his place in right field. Also, by starting the switch-hitting Aybar, the Rays remove the need for a pinch-hitter in late inning matchups. That is especially important when you consider that OF Jonny Gomes is in the midst of serving a five game suspension, thus shortening the bench.
The Rays are absolutely making the right call here. Is Aybar the better bat over the course of the season? Probably not, but you never mess with a hot streak, and Maddon is vigilant of this old adage. Besides, as mentioned above, Aybar's hot bat allows the Rays to start a defense that is appreciably better than what they would throw out normally. As we've seen in the year-to-year improvement over 2007-08, you can never underestimate the importance of a defensive improvement.
Also, Floyd is no spring chicken. He was injury-prone even when he was younger, and even the DH is not going to make him an everyday player. That time in his career is past, so he will need spells of time off like this. It is best to pace them with his slumps, so as not to suffer a loss in offensive productivity. This isn't a long term changing of the guard, methinks, but in the immediate it is the best utilization of the present personnel. And give Floyd credit for being a team player about the whole thing and being selfless. He is still a very useful baseball player, but he might be an even better teammate as this matter shows.
KAZMIR ADJUSTS APPROACH:
Both the St. Petersburg Times and Tampa Tribune, as well as RaysBaseball.com, feature something about a change in the approach of LHP Scott Kazmir this season, with the Tribune and RaysBaseball.com doing full articles on the topic. Both are worth reading, but I personally think the Trib covered it the best:
Advised by the Rays' medical staff not to throw his slider because of the twisting action required to do so, Kazmir threw changeup after changeup during his workouts. That was a departure for the lefty, who rarely used the off-speed pitch in past seasons.
"I just started getting more and more comfortable with it," Kazmir said. "I was throwing it in warm-ups all the time, so I got a good feel for it."
Oddly enough, the pitch that helped Kazmir get well has been the difference-maker in his remarkable run since coming off the disabled list. He kept using the changeup once he returned to action, not only because he had gotten used to it but also because he was initially fearful of putting excessive strain on his elbow.
Marc Lancaster goes on to note that the change has replaced the slider as Kazmir's go-to secondary pitch. This is correct, although according to Kazmir's Fan Graphs profile, the difference in usage between the two pitches is almost negligible. Kazmir throws the change slightly more often this season-13.5% as compared to last year's 11.6%-, but the real change has come in the reduction of his slider usage. He is throwing 7% less sliders this year, down to 11.8% this year. He is also throwing his fastball more; his rate this year is close to 75% fastballs, a career-high.
Kazmir feels that the emphasis on an off-speed complement to his hard slider and fastball is proving to be beneficial, however, as it throws hitters off. Though the change has brought Kazmir's strikeout numbers down a bit-8.8 per nine innings this year as opposed to 10.41 last year and 9.66 for his career-both the pitcher and Maddon feel that the change is allowing him to be more efficient. Indeed, Kazmir's 2.60 BB/9 is a marked improvement from his career average of 4.02, and his P/IP is at a career-low 15.78. It had never been below 16.8 previously.
I like what I'm seeing from Kazmir. Obviously his absurd ERA is not going to be sustainable over the long-term, but the change in approach is doing two important things:
- It is allowing him to work more quickly, throwing fewer pitches per inning and thus going longer into ballgames. Part of the problem last year was that he would be at 100 pitches after four innings, and while he held his opponent scoreless during that time, his long innings left the bullpen with long stints in which to clean up after him. That's when things got nasty. That might be less of a problem this year with an improved unit, but stressing your bullpen is never a good idea, no matter how good it is.
- It results in fewer walks. Though Kazmir is striking out fewer batters to go along with his marked reduction in walks surrendered, the trade-off is still proving to be beneficial. His K:BB, at 3.38, is by far a career high, and his .181 opponents' batting average proves that he can be effective with his stuff by pitching to contact. His opponents' BABIP is low, but not flukishly so, and a 0.91 WHIP means that when he does give up extra base hits, chances are less likely that it will occur with one or more runners on base. Then again, that hasn't been a problem either, as he has surrendered just one home run in 45 innings pitched this year. So, in short, he can be successful using this approach because he can pitch to contact effectively. That means fewer walks, which in concert with pitching to contact effectively, means fewer opposing baserunners.
FROM THE INFIRMARY:
RHP Troy Percival threw 30 pitches in a simulated game yesterday, facing OF Jonny Gomes and reporting no problems. Percival, rehabbing from a sore left hamstring, is expected to be activated when eligible on Friday. The impending activation of Percival means that one member of the bullpen will have to be Designated for Assignment to make room for him. RHPs Grant Balfour and Gary Glover are the two most likely to be on the chopping block.
Meanwhile, Rocco Baldelli competes in his last Extended Spring Training game today. He is expected to be the Designated Hitter. After his outing today, Baldelli will most likely be sent on a rehab assignment with one of the Rays' minor league affiliates.
CRAWFORD WANTS TO DH:
LF Carl Crawford says that the Tropicana Field turf is taking a toll on his knees, and as a result, he would like to be the Designated Hitter for at least a game or two on each homestand. Though he will miss four games of the upcoming homestand due to suspension, Crawford would like to broach the matter for future home stints. Manager Joe Maddon seemed open to the idea, but needed to discuss the matter with Crawford first.
Given his penchant for granting days off fairly liberally in the past, I wouldn't be surprised to see something happen here fairly soon. I can certainly sympathize where Crawford is coming from here. No matter my quibbles with his approach at the plate, and his unwillingness to play center in the field, he is a guy who takes to the field 160+ times a year, including nearly every home game. That's got to take its toll after five years, so he has a valid case here. Who knows, maybe the reduced strain will help him hit.
There was an interesting story in yesterday's Times about the Rays' hiring of a prominent local lobbyist to promote their interests at the county government level. Ed Armstrong is well-connected with many of the county commissioners (and he went to Vanderbilt!), a fact that may prove invaluable considering how so many of them are pissed off at the team for their lack of forthrightness regarding many details of the proposal to build a $450 million stadium on the St. Petersburg waterfront.
The County Commission is set to vote, possibly sometime in July, on the Rays' request to dedicate a 1% hotel bed tax to paying off the debt on the new waterfront stadium. The tax, to be used for 25-30 years, is one of the primary components of the team's funding proposal. The tax is currently devoted to, among other things, servicing debt payments on Tropicana Field. Without this tax allocation, the Rays' current financing plan, and thus the stadium, is dead in the water. As such, the hiring of the "insider" Armstrong may be crucial to winning support among County Commissioners unhappy to date with, among other things, how the team has been pitching their proposal to various local elected officials.
Meanwhile, the Pinellas Tourist Development Council will be meeting this morning at 9 a.m. to address the team's request on the bed tax. Though no final decision rests with the council, it will make a very important recommendation next month to the Board of County Commissioners regarding whether the tax should be allocated according to the Rays' wishes. Aaron Sharockman of the St. Petersburg Times has an excellent breakdown of the issue, as well as the cases for and against the Rays' request, on his Ballpark Frankness blog.
From the Tribune:
Negotiations are ongoing with first-rounder Tim Beckham, but the parties aren't believed to be close to a deal. That's not a surprise, as only one first-round pick has signed so far, with Toronto inking 17th overall selection David Cooper on Tuesday.