As we venture deeper into the bowels of September, many Rays fans, announcers, bloggers, and baseball pundits have taken to talking “chances”. We are all looking at the remaining schedule, counting games, evaluating opponents and match-ups, and figuring out what the Rays have to do to make the postseason and prolong our baseball entertainment.
(Yes, we’re selfish. We want the team to win because we tie a piece of our happiness to the outcome of a baseball game. It’s cool. Don’t be embarrassed. That’s why we’re here.)
At its very foundation, baseball and chances go hand and hand. Baseball is a game of percentages and numbers, risks and rewards. We talk about runners taking chances on the basepaths and managers moving defenders around the field to minimizing the chance a batter will get a hit. Many of these chances are mathematical, much like playing dice. And this of course is the origin of statistical analysis, so-called SABRmetrics, and the guiding forces behind the Rays hovel of super secret number-crunching Keebler elves.
But baseball has another type of chance, a more personal “chance of opportunity”. Derived in many cases by mathematical chances, the chance of opportunity is what creates our narratives, our stories, our legends, and our heroes. Kirk Gibson, for example, would never have been a World Series hero if not for the opportunity to bat against Dennis Eckersley in October 1988. Lou Gehrig would never have been able to embark on his legendary career if not for the opportunity to replace then-regular Yankee first baseman Wally Pipp. Even Jackie Robinson’s historic 1947 season wouldn’t have happened if not for the opportunity given to him by Branch Rickey.
The 2011 Rays have been chock full of opportunitistic narratives this season. Of course, there are rookies such as Desmond Jennings, Jeremy Hellickson, Brandon Guyer, Jose Lobaton, and others. And there are also veterans such as Casey Kotchman taking advantage of the chances provided them. But for me, three stories stand out among the rest. From spring to September the stories of three Rays pitchers has given us a complete glimpse of the entire spectrum of what it means to have the opportunity to succeed or fail in the Major Leagues.
Going into last offseason, there was little doubt the Rays were going to trade one of their veteran starting pitchers. David Price, Wade Davis, and Jeff Neimann weren’t going anywhere, leaving the most likely options either James Shields or Matt Garza. Garza, hero of the 2008 ALCS, was coming off a stellar season in which he won 15 games and threw a no-hitter. Shields, on the other hand, was coming off the worst season of his career, if you looked at the popular numbers.
But there was more to Shields’ 2010 season that met the eye. Despite the 5.51 ERA, he had an extremely above average (read: unlucky) opponents’ batting average and several other stats that seemed to not fit his ability or potential.
So knowing what they know about how other organizations think and what stats they value, the Rays had to choose to either trade Shields or Garza. And whereas the offer for Shields might not have been that high, the package for Garza was an overwhelming package of prospects. It was a no-brainer. Of course, with the belief that wasn’t actually as bad as his record and popular stats showed, it meant the Rays were taking a chance on Shields and giving him the chance and the opportunity to redeem himself to the organization and the Tampa Bay faithful.
Redeem himself he has, pitching one of the best seasons in Rays’ history and becoming a possible Cy Young Award candidate. None of which would be possible if it was he, not Garza, who was shimmied to Chicago.
Back in 2007, when James (then Jamie) Shields was first breaking into the majors, the (then Devil) Rays had another right-handed pitcher who was trying to make a name for himself. With a semi-decent 2007 and respectable 2008, the Rays thought Andy Sonnanstine had the makings of a major league caliber starter. Although he didn’t have an overwhelming fastball, his pin-point control and ability to get ground balls made him an interesting option in a staff that would include newcomers Jeff Neimann and Mitch Talbot.
After bouncing from the starting rotation to the bullpen through 2009 and 2010, the bottom dropped out of Andy Sonnanstine’s career in 2011. Even though his 2009 season was bad, Sonny’s 2011 season was downright horrible. His strikeouts per nine innings dropped, his walks per nine didn’t decrease, and his home runs per nine soared to an astronomically pathetic level. He went from plucky soft-tossing underdog to the bane of the Rays blogosphere. Many questioned why he was still wearing a major league uniform.
After his terrible start, on July 9th Sonnanstine was sent to the minors. While in Durham, his numbers weren’t particularly great either. His walks per nine innings were higher than they had ever been in the minors, his strikeouts were lower than they ever were, and he allowed a whopping 10.3 hits per nine innings. In other words, he was still allowing runners to get on base and not getting people out, even at AAA.
Yet, an amazing thing happened on September 1st: Andy Sonnanstine was given another chance with the Rays. Even if it meant sitting on the end of the bullpen bench, he was again a major leaguer.
While in Durham, Andy Sonnanstine shared the Bulls clubhouse with another pitcher seeking a return to big leagues. Signed in January, author/pitcher Dirk Hayhurst immediately became a key character on the Rays roster. His book, The Bullpen Gospels, was a best seller, he was a thinking man’s pitcher, and his quirky obsessions with Star Trek and the mythical Garfoose made him a darling of the baseball twittersphere. The former Padre and Blue Jay reliever was a perfect match for the Rays. And the team knew it, showcasing him at Rays FanFest and throughout Spring Training.
Sadly, Dirk Hayhurst’s season did not have a happy ending. He pitched only 11 games for the Bulls before he was placed on the disabled list on July 15th with a sore elbow. His elbow injury put him on the shelf for over a month and on August 29th Hayhurst was released, his season over and his chance to take the mound for the 2011 Rays gone.
Baseball has a way of humbling even the best players. It is a game of failure, where the best hitters succeed only around 30% of the time and the best pitchers allow two to three runs a game. But no one can ever show they belong at the big league level without an opportunity. To take the field is an opportunity they all work hard for, putting in hours of extra practice and study. Baseball is their livelihood, something they strive to be successful in. Some, like James Shields, take advantage of a second chance, tinker with their approach, and find a new way to be successful. Others, like Dirk Hayhurst, come face-to-face with the fragility of the human body and are left with the stark realization that their best might not be good enough and their dreams might rapidly be coming to a close. And then there are those like Andy Sonnanstine, who get one more chance despite their inability because they threaten to go public with embarrassing photos of the owner dancing with a lampshade on his head at the organization’s 2010 Christmas party.
(You may be asking why this post has a picture of James Shields with a dolphin. Because, Shields got a second chance and so did the dolphin with the fake tail in the new movie with Morgan Freeman. Although I don’t think that’s the same dolphin in the picture, there is a symmetry there. But the bigger question is why is Shields wearing sunglasses in a pool? Who does that?)