I spent Thursday afternoon at the Great American Ballpark watching the Cincinnati Reds host my beloved Chicago Cubs. While I play Baseball Analyst for all of you by night, during the day I'm an Investment Analyst for an Institutional Investment Consulting Firm. I happen to have the privilege of working for a man who used to work high up in the Cincinnati Reds organization. Luckily, he enjoys baseball as much as I do and we're able to squeeze in a few ball games a year while traveling for business. Since I was there and got to see the action up close, thanks to some incredible seats that left us 8 rows back of home plate, I thought I'd take the time out to write about it and provide a little insight on what I saw from a baseball analysts' point of view, from a baseball fan's point of view, and from a Cubs fan's point of view.
I'll get to the meat and potatoes of the article before I start ranting about the Cubs. First and foremost let me state that I'm not a "scout"nor have I ever been one, so my "professional"opinion IS a bit limited but I'll do my best to play a scout in this article.
Let's take a look at the game's starting pitchers first. Jason Marquis was on the mound making his debut for the Cubs. Marquis was signed to a much maligned 3 year, $21 million dollar contract that had many fans wondering if Jim Hendry was still on medication from his publicized health scare in spring training. I just thought Hendry was trying to make sure Cubs fans really know how he felt, by giving us all a slight hear attack. Unfortunately the reasoning behind the signing was ultimately that Marquis was an innings eater who had been a proven "winner". Even more unfortunately for Cubs fans neither of these two qualities have little to do with the pitcher's ability and have more to do with the team he's playing for. Anyways, I digress, Marquis threw 6 innings of what would look in the box score to be a pretty efficient outing. He kept his pitch count under 80 for the 6 innings got a majority of ground balls and looked to have regained some of the movement on his sinker that helped him be an effective starter in St. Louis. However this was one start where I felt the numbers lied a little bit. While Marquis' velocity was solid and his sinker was effective in forcing ground balls, his control was shaky at best. Of the 82 pitches, he threw 51 for strikes. He constantly worked behind in the count and was conveniently helped out by some Reds swinging at 2-0 sinkers that they had little chance of doing much with. He was able to keep the ball down when he had to and that helped him out of some jams. But for the most part, he was bailed out by lack of patience by Reds hitters and seemingly little plan at the plate. A few times in the game a Reds leadoff hitter would work a good AB off Marquis only to be followed by the next hitter swinging at the first pitch and grounding out. Marquis also had the benefit of a few warning track fly balls that seemed to be helped by the 40 degree temperature in Cincinnati. His delivery also seemed to be inconsistent throughout the game which likely led to some of the control problems. Marquis' final stat line of 6 IP, 1 ER, 4 hits, 1 K, and 2 BB's may have been inspiring to some Cubs fans, but it wasn't to me. Marquis will need to be more consistent with his delivery and his ability to get ahead early in the count if he's going to return to league average innings eater he once was.
On the other side of the mound for the Reds was Kyle Lohse, who was banished from the Twins organization last season and scooped by the Reds. In the American League, Lohse's fringe stuff didn't translate very well, but in the National League he had some success down the stretch. This year he opens as the Reds #3 starter and in a best case scenario will be league average and win 13 games or so. Lohse worked in the mid to upper 80's for most of the game consistently in the 87-89 range with his fastball. He also mixed in a slider which he had solid control over and was able to keep Cub hitters off-balanced. He didn't seem to use his change up too often but did mix it in early in the counts the 2nd and 3rd times around the order. Lohse stuff looked very average to this untrained eye. He threw the ball on a level plane the majority of the day, unable to drive the ball down into the zone. His fastball didn't seem to have much movement but he was bailed out by the Cubs inability to hit with runners in scoring position. Unlike Marquis, Lohse was able to throw strikes as he pounded the zone, throwing 73 strikes in 103 pitches. Lohse left relatively unscathed throwing 6 1/3 innings, allowing 2 ER on 10 hits, while walking 1 and striking out 3. Lohse was the beneficiary of the Cubs inability to convert with runners in scoring position and seemed to benefit a bit from the cold weather as well as the Cubs bats looked slow, resulting in lots of lazy fly balls to the opposite field. While Lohse won't be of very much significance this year in most fantasy formats he'll be a key to the Reds success pitching out of the 3rd slot in their rotation. If he continues to pound the strike zone like he did on Thursday he likely could provide some stability in the rotation, however he gave up too many fly balls for my taste and pitching in that ballpark could be a big problem for him as the weather warms up a bit.
There wasn't a lot of offense in the game so from a fantasy perspective there's little to talk about in terms of what impressed me. Especially since much of it came from the likes of Cesar Izturis, Mark DeRosa, Jeff Conine, and Scott Hatteberg who all took advantage of elevated fastballs in the 88 mph range with little movement. There were some things however from a pure fan's standpoint that were well worth writing about. First and foremost the Great American Ballpark is a beautiful place to watch a baseball game. As soon as you walk in through the turnstiles, the stadium has an open view that allows you to see the field clearly as you walk around the stadium concessions area. Since my only previous ballpark experiences include Wrigley, Fenway, Dolphins Stadium (Marlins), and Shea (all older ballparks) I'd yet to see this type of "open area". It's beautiful and something that should be mandatory in all the new ballparks as you're able to follow the sounds of the game clearly when you're standing in line for a cold brew or a hot dog without having to stair at a small monitor and listen to the radio announcer's broadcast. Secondly, as I mentioned the seats I was able to sit in were tremendous. Sitting right behind home plate you can really get a feel for how the ball just comes off some guy's bats differently. Soriano and Dunn made the biggest impression on me throughout the game as the ball just sounded differently and seemed to "jump"off the bat anytime they made contact. These "diamond"seats also came with an unlimited supply of food and drink, which was included in the $200 face value of the ticket. This, to me, seemed to be one of the greatest deals in all of sports. Granted, I don't have the good fortune of going to a lot of sporting events throughout the year, but I have gone to an occasional Marlins game and paid $10 for my ticket, followed by $7 beers, $5 hot dogs, $4 sodas, etc. If I pay for a "non-bleacher (OF)"seat the ticket price jumps to the $25 range. Over the course of a usual game a few hot dogs and drinks will easily run me $30-$40, add the ticket price in and we're looking at a $60 trip to the ballpark, certainly not outlandish but expensive. Now for $200 I got the pleasure of the best seat in the house, a buffet of gourmet food in a restaurant under the stadium, and unlimited supply of "ballgame food"and drink while in the seats. I know it's still an expensive venture, but when you hear about floor seats at a basketball game going for $1,000, this seemed like an absolute steal to me. On top of all of the benefits, the service the people in the stadium provided was phenomenal, checking in on us after every inning.
Now onto the perspective of a Cubs fan. Here are some of the positives Cubs fans can take from the game: 1) Marquis while wild, did seem to have better sink on his 2 seamer and was able to generate ground balls consistently; 2) While the offense still only generated 2 walks, they were able to work the pitch count up on Lohse despite his ability to pound the strike zone; 3) While I was against everything the Soriano signing stood for (I can elaborate more on this later if subscribers want my opinion, but I'm warning you, it's a long-winded somewhat non-sensical rant), Soriano himself has a smile that brightens up the ballpark. Whenever he'd come up to the on-deck circle he'd survey the crowd and pick out a youngster which he'd make eye contact with and wink at. It's a small thing, but in a society where we relentlessly chastise all the bad things about athletes' behavior, it's the small things like that which go a long way. To see the smile on some of the kid's faces just light up, it was evident Soriano had made their day.
Other than that, there wasn't too much as a Cubs fan to be excited about. I've already talked about Marquis at length and alluded to the Cubs inability to convert with runners in scoring position (largely a result of some very poor AB's in critical situations), the game also features a bullpen that couldn't find the strike zone and some questionable managerial decisions. The Cubs bullpen is supposed to be one of their strengths this season, but on Thursday it was an absolute mess. The Cubs system tends to value very highly hard throwers who post strong K totals, however they don't put much of an emphasis on control and the bullpen showed this weakness on Thursday. After Howry was unable to get PH Jeff Conine with 2 outs, he walked Ryan Freel forcing the go-ahead run into scoring position. Then Will Ohman was brought in to face Adam Dunn, and he threw a wild pitch allowing the base-runners to advance early in the count, before throwing a 3-2 sinking fastball which Michael Barrett "olay-ed"into another wild pitch which let the go ahead run in and somehow allowed Dunn to advance all the way to 2B. Why Will Ohman never threw a curveball (his best pitch) in the entire sequence to Dunn is beyond me. In the next inning Scott Eyre's lack of control lead to a walk which was followed by a HR by Scott Hatteberg after Eyre again fell behind in the count.
On top of the bullpen being terrible, there were 2 dubious decisions made by Pineilla during the game. The first came in the 7th inning as the Matt Murton had just drawn a BB and as Kyle Lohse was being removed from the game Pineilla PR for Murton with Ryan Theriot. The move ended up looking bad because after Theriot stole 2B he was caught in a rundown on a ground ball to 3rd that was for all intents and purposes the end of that Cubs rally. My real problem with the move is that it showed for the 2nd time in 3 games the Cubs were viewing Theriot as a defensive replacement for Murton. While Murton certainly isn't a gold glove OF, he's quite competent in LF and may be the best defensive OF the Cubs currently have on their roster and for the 2nd time in 3 games he's been replaced by a guy who's now logged 2 career games in the OF. I know Lou has a sweet spot for Theriot and wants to get him some playing time, but this is a bit ridiculous. Any Cubs fan who watched Theriot pitching a tent for his 3 ring circus out in LF on Wednesday night could've told you this. He's raw out there and while he has enough speed to make up for his un-Magellan-esque routes, he's still learning to play the OF. Later in the game this move also came back to limit the Cubs flexibility should the game had gone into extra innings. With runners at 2nd and 3rd and 2 outs in the 8th inning, Pineilla brought in Cliff Floyd to PH with the Cubs trailing 3-2. The Reds then went to the mound to bring in Mike Stanton, a LH. At this point the only options on the Cubs bench to PH for Floyd were Ronnie Cedeno, who may have been the worst positional player in all of baseball last season, and Henry Blanco (the Cubs backup catcher). Clearly Blanco was going to be left on the bench in case of an emergency to Barrett, so despite Cedeno being the only remaining position player that could come in and play the field later if an injury were to occur, and despite the fact that while Cliff Floyd doesn't hit lefties well, Ronnie Cedeno doesn't hit anybody well... Cedeno was Piniella's choice. Cedeno promptly worked the count to 2-0 (with Soriano on deck) and then popped out to 3B on a high fastball that may have been ball 3. UGH! Regardless of the end result these 2 moves would've given the Cubs zero flexibility had the game gone into extra innings and had Theriot not been brought in as a PR/defensive replacement for Murton the Cubs would've had the option of PH with a more patient effective hitter in Theriot in the 8th inning. Needless to say, it was a poor performance all around for a Cubs team that yet again found a way to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. They're 1-2 now to start the season and have already managed to tame the enthusiasm that comes to Wrigley Field every April before their opening home-stand.