Sports

INTERVIEW: Craig Calcaterra of Shysterball

The blogger opens up at the baseball season's midpoint about predictions, injuries, and prospects.

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Top Orioles prospect Chris Tillman. (Photo copyright the Baltimore Sun.)

As the MLB season reaches its halfway mark, Splice has once again consulted ShysterBall's Craig Calcaterra, our favorite baseball blogger. Calcaterra, a lawyer by day, is passionate and opinionated about the sport, as his answers from a weekend interview reflect. Short takes: the Baltimore Orioles are currently boring, but might become “frisky” in the next couple of years; the Dodgers could go wire-to-wire, ending up as World Series champions; and EPSN’s color commentator Steve Phillips is “obnoxious.”  


SPLICE TODAY: Mercifully, the interleague portion of the MLB schedule has ended, although it remains as popular as ever with fans. Did you find the match-ups more interesting this year, any revelations from the results, say, perhaps, a growing parity between the leagues?

CRAIG CALCATERRA: No more interesting than I ever do. They're just games to me. And they seem pretty much like the same games as they were last year. I think the NL has a few more wins than last year, but they're still the weaker league. And the reason why they are weaker—there are no teams really pushing anyone in the NL to spend more and get better like the Yankees and Red Sox do in the AL—isn't going to change any time soon.

ST: Which manager is the next one to walk the plank? I'm betting on the Indians’ Eric Wedge, despite GM Mark Shapiro's vote of confidence. And why do you think, every spring it seems, that baseball writers have the Indians penciled in for the playoffs?

CC: I agree that Wedge is probably the next to go. It's just so stale in Cleveland right now. The fans are disillusioned. Terry Pluto [Cleveland Plain Dealer] ran a column a week ago in which he suggested that Wedge is going a little nuts too. It's probably best for him and the team that they pull the plug right now. As for all of the pre-season optimism (which I shared), I think the experts all fell victim to the same thing which trips up so many fantasy players: paying too much attention to second half results from the prior year.

The Indians really played well after the Sabathia trade last season, and everyone figured, "Well, if they can do that for a full season, they'll be awesome!" Add in Kerry Wood and Travis Hafner returning and the addition of Mark DeRosa [just traded to the Cardinals] and it was easy to talk yourself into good things happening with the Indians. In hindsight, everyone—including Shapiro, I'd add—was counting too much on too many guys with horrible injury histories. If everything had broken just right, this team could have won 90+ games. But how often does everything break just right for anyone?

ST: You're a Braves fan, and the team, despite not playing quite at .500, is certainly in the hunt for the NL East division title. What can the Braves do to get over the hump and knock off the injury-riddled and lackadaisical Mets and surprisingly lackluster Phils, who can't seem to win at home? The Braves rotation is solid, even if Derek Lowe's in a rough patch right now, but they can't hit with consistency. If you're in charge of the team, what deal do you make to reach the top again? And is Tommy Hanson the next big pitching star in the NL?

CC: After the past few games I think they've given up the hunt. Or at least they should. There's just no offense there and they're fooling themselves if they think they can keep up with New York and Philadelphia. I mean really, the Phillies have played terribly recently and the Braves have actually lost ground on them. Nice try boys, but it's not happening.

Not that I'm terribly disappointed. I harbored suspicions all winter that Frank Wren was planning to punt 2009 and shoot for 2010 as the real year to compete, and with the exception of rushing Jordan Schafer up to the majors to start the season, he has basically held to the plan, however secret it may be. It's a good plan, actually. You take this season to see if there's any hope for Jeff Francoeur (nope!), to break Tommy Hanson in in a low pressure setting (so far so good) and to give Jason Heyward a little more ripening time (he's playing just fine in high-A this year, and will likely finish in either AA or AAA).

If I'm running that show right now, I make sure that Hanson isn't overworked and that Brian McCann and Chipper Jones don't kill themselves this year either. I scope around for one more corner outfielder, knowing I have time on my side (we don't need him until next spring).  Then I plan on starting next season with Hanson in the rotation, Heyward in the lineup, and Jeff Francoeur rolled up in a carpet at the bottom of a reservoir somewhere. Under such circumstances, I like the Braves’ chances.

ST: You're not a baseball writer who speculates upon who or who didn't take performance-enhancing drugs. Nevertheless, with A-Rod and Manny Ramirez now tainted, is it fair for fans to put every player over 28 under the microscope? I think the baseball world would be turned upside down if either Cal Ripken Jr. or Derek Jeter were exposed as users. Both Rodriguez and Ramirez aren't sympathetic characters, but Jeter and Ripken (and Pujols) are "faces" of baseball. Any comment on this?

CC: I guess it might be fair to put guys who've been around under the microscope; I just think it would be pointless. To the extent that people (not me, but others) care a lot about steroids, they tend to care about records and Hall of Fame legacies, and really, all of the guys worthy of that conversation have been outed already. The big home run hitters in Bonds, Sosa and McGwire; the big strikeout pitcher in Clemens; the most famous player around today in A-Rod. Let's say that tomorrow that Jermaine Dye or Chipper Jones or Lance Berkman were exposed as guys who tested positive in 2003. Does it really matter? Does anyone care beyond the first day's news cycle? Probably not. I'll grant you that Pujols, Jeter and Ripken (though he was gone before any testing was done at all) would be different stories, but for the most part it's just become gossip fodder at this point.

I think the next big steroids story is going to spin out of the Sammy Sosa business. ESPN reported the other day that the feds are looking at the Miami doctor who prescribed Manny Ramirez his hormones or whatever they were. The word on the street is that that guy is well-connected with Latin ballplayers. You'll recall that, despite the fact that so many Latin players have tested positive since the testing program was fully implemented, very few were named in the Mitchell Report or spun out of the BALCO, Radomski, or McNamee stuff. If I were a betting man, I'd guess that this Miami business could be something really, really major, and will yield more names than any of our idle speculation will.

ST: Switching gears, back in November, you told me you were "relieved" that Barack Obama won the presidency, and eschewing all the emotional rhapsody of the win, you hoped his administration would be one that was "very boring, but very businesslike and ultimately successful." What's your opinion of his first half-year in office?

CC: So far: very boring, very businesslike, and somewhat successful. He's got so many balls in the air right now that it's hard to truly judge how he's doing, but I think he's basically getting it right, or at the very least trying to.  A lot of left wing groups are pissed at him, and that's a good sign. Mostly I'm just happy that we seem to have an adult in the White House for the first time in, oh, 17 years, as opposed to self-absorbed or self-righteous culture-war-crazed Baby Boomer nutcases.

ST: Last Friday, you joked that some Orioles fans get peeved at you for a lack of positive remarks about the now-perennially struggling team. Nick Markakis is a bona fide star, which you acknowledge, but are there any other players who've shown promise under GM Andy McPhail's leadership? For example, I think Adam Jones has loads of potential, but even though he's young and still learning, he sometimes betrays his talent by loafing in the field or making base-running mistakes (an O's specialty). Any encouragement you can offer for this woebegone franchise?

CC: It's funny, because I'm really hard on some teams, but I've never really gone after the O's in that way. I think the readers' problem with me is that I rarely say anything at all about Baltimore. But that's because they're in that not-too-good-but-not-hopeless gray area that makes a team's essence hard to capture in my daily recaps. The Marlins are in the same boat, as are the Blue Jays, White Sox, and Rockies. Greatness inspires me, so I write a lot about the Dodgers and Red Sox. Audaciousness inspires me, so I write a lot about the Yankees and Rays. Drama and neurosis inspires me so I write a lot about the Cubs, Mets, and Angels. Finally, futility inspires me, so I write a lot about the Nats and Padres, Indians and Royals. The Orioles may be in last place, but they're pretty decent for a last place team, and I do think there's a good future in Baltimore, so right now, they just kind of bore me.

As for that future: They won't have Huff and probably not Melvin Mora next year, but everyone else in the lineup will be back, with the young (read: good) ones all a year older and wiser. I could see the offense taking a major step forward next year. The rotation has kind of been a disaster, but there is a lot of help on the horizon in the form of Chris Tillman, Jake Arrieta, Brian Matusz and some others. In fact, there may be a starting surplus in 2010 and 2011. While none of them look like top-of-the rotation guys, they're in much better shape than they've been in recently. If I had to guess, I'd say that the Orioles will be frisky next year and straight-out contending in 2011.

ST: Are the Dodgers that good or will they run into trouble should the team make it to the Series and face, say, the Yanks, Red Sox, Rays or Tigers?

CC: Like they say, anything can happen in a short series. They could be the best team around, but if they go cold for three or four days in October it's all over. That said, I think they're a really good team. The Manny stuff is actually working to their benefit in that come playoff time they'll have a well-rested superstar and a guy in Juan Pierre possessing new found confidence who can provide improved depth. Clayton Kershaw is quickly becoming a stud, and could be the Dodgers' version of Cole Hamels this fall. I wouldn't bet against them.   

ST: Would you rather watch a nationally televised game on ESPN or Fox?

CC: Is suicide not an option? Or TBS?

Seriously, if I had to pick between the two I'd pick FOX at this point, because ESPN has now polluted all three of their weekly broadcasts with either Rick Sutcliffe or Steve Phillips, and those guys are simply obnoxious, broadcast-killing personalities. Wednesday would be great if they'd leave it at Dan Shulman and Orel Hershiser, but no, they stick Phillips in there. I'd even be cool if they stuck with Jon Miller and Joe Morgan on Sunday because, even though he gets lots of criticism, you can at least kind of tune out Morgan. Why they decided to add Phillips to that team too is beyond me.

Joe Buck and Tim McCarver are awful themselves, but (a) there're only two of them, and that beats the ESPN three-man booths (baseball never needs three men analyzing it at once); and (b) the color commentator in the lone ESPN two-man booth—Sutcliffe on Monday nights—is the only color guy in all of baseball more assaulting to the senses than McCarver, so I'll take the lesser to two evils.    

ST: Last week, you praised both Dusty Baker and Joey Votto (of the Reds) for how the latter's anxiety problems have been handled. Care to expand? The reason I ask is that although chronic depression and anxiety attacks are very serious, it seems like, not to be glib, this is a new fad in MLB. Dontrelle Willis, the life of the party in Florida, and really fun to watch, having these symptoms just seems kind of fishy to me. With the exception of Zack Greinke, who from all accounts was ready to leave the game, I can't shake the feeling that this sort of malady is a soft excuse for putting a player on the DL and clearing a spot on the roster.

CC: I was just really impressed by the sensitivity Dusty showed in an interview about Votto's problems a month or so ago. Though no one has been publicly dismissive of guys with emotional problems in baseball, there's always this certain kind of code baseball people have used to talk about players who are gone for non-injury situations. Lots of "thoughts and prayers," lots of "we wish him the best." You get the sense that everyone is doing the moonwalk away from any kind of emotional and personal problems. Baker, on the other hand, talked a bit about the kinds of pressures young players face and seemed genuinely concerned and thoughtful about Votto's issues. Maybe that's not praiseworthy in the real world, but in baseball it was huge. As for Votto: He was very open about his anxiety or whatever it was, provided a lot of detail regarding his mental state, and I was really surprised about that for the same reasons. Athletes are conditioned to not show weakness, and Votto was baring his soul, which is not something you see every day.

I'm not sure what to make of all of the anxiety problems this year. By all accounts, Votto and Khalil Greene's situations were serious, though whether they are actually social anxiety disorders as opposed to some other mental problem I have no idea. Part of me suspects that they're lumped in with anxiety disorders because Greinke sort of made the term "anxiety disorder" acceptable in baseball circles, whereas depression or any number of other specific neurosis remain new and scary in that world. I voiced skepticism of Dontelle Willis' thing, mostly because (a) he said he felt great and that his only problem was that he couldn't pitch; and (b) the "anxiety" only seemed to come up when the Tigers needed to move Willis off the active roster to bring in a productive player. I think there have been a lot of disabled list shenanigans this year—amazingly, Boston’s Dice-K injured at just the perfect time—and it wouldn't surprise me if Willis' were another example of it.

ST: As I recall, you stayed up past the witching hour last year and watched the entire All-Star game. Maybe you'll just tune in for an inning or two this year, or does it still hold some appeal, if only for the sake of nostalgia?

CC: I still don't know why I stayed up last year. I was doing a running diary for the blog, but no one had a gun to my head to make me complete it, so maybe I'm just sick. I hate to sound like a crank, but the All-Star Game ain't what it used to be. Too many players, many of whom don't seem to care all that much. Too many short relievers coming in to fire gas for an inning and thus lowering offense to too great a degree. I'd like to see them cut the rosters down and get rid of the every-team-must-have-a-player rule, but that's probably not happening.

But yeah, I'll probably still watch. Especially this year, because the game falls on my birthday, so it's one of the few nights where I'll be able to get away with telling everyone in my house to leave me alone and let me watch a game from start-to-finish in peace.

ST: What player, team or trend has surprised you most in the '09 MLB season? Something that you'd never have predicted.

CC: It's going to sound like some lame fantasy addict's response, but I'd have to say Jason Bartlett down in Tampa. As of Sunday morning, he was at.366/.404/.566. Where the heck is this coming from? He's almost 30 years old, so it's not like you could have expected that. There aren't too many other things that are surprising me greatly. Raul Ibanez, maybe, but I suspect that he'll be back to his old self once he gets off the DL. I will say that I may have been the only guy out there who picked the Rangers to win the West this year, so get ready for my big "I told you so" column at the end of the season.

ST: You were, not surprisingly, fairly lenient when mentioning future Hall of Famer John Smotlz's crummy debut with the Red Sox last week. As a Sox fan, I'm baffled at why the Boston front office, as well as that town's normally nasty media, has treated Smoltz like a messiah. It frustrates me, since Clay Buchholz, who's withering away in the minors for the Sox, is denied a spot on the club's roster largely because of Smoltz. Is this an irrational beef on my part?

CC: Smoltz, nothing: I think he's denied a spot because of Clay Buchholz. If he hadn't gotten beaten up in his 15 or 16 starts last year, the front office wouldn't have felt the need to go out and get Smoltz and Penny. Once they got them, I think they had the obligation to use them, if only to showcase them for a trade like they seem to be doing with Penny.

Not that Buchholz won't get his shot. I'm guessing that one of two things (or both of these things will happen soon): Penny will get traded and Smoltz will prove fragile. If the September/October rotation isn't Beckett, Lester, Wakefield, Buchholz—with Smoltz either gone or setting up Papelbon—I'll eat my hat.

ST: What's the best book you've read in '09 and the best film you've seen?

CC: It's been a bad year for motivation on these fronts for me. I spent January and half of February between jobs, so I didn't feel much like tackling anything major. During that time I read a comic book series: Y: The Last Man, which is the story about the last man left after the simultaneous death of every male mammal on the planet. It ain't Hemingway, but it helped me keep my sanity while I was looking for a job, and for that it's at the top of the list. If I have to go with a real book with words and everything, I'll go with The Way Some People Die by Ross Macdonald. I'd read it before, but I decided to re-read every Ross Macdonald book I own back in January (he's my favorite author of all time), and that's currently my favorite. Well, either that or The Galton Case.

I've seen even fewer movies. With little kids at home we're a big wait-for-DVD household, but I can't say that I've seen anything life-altering since the beginning of the year. I liked the new Star Trek movie a lot, but given that I named a comic book as my favorite book of the year, that's probably not too surprising.

ST: Finally, how often are there days during the season when you wake up and think, "Oh, man, I really don't feel like writing today"?

CC: I'll grant that there are nights—when I start reading the box scores for my daily recap feature that publishes in the morning—when I think "ah, maybe I'll just not do it today," but that's less a function of the writing itself than it is of sleepiness, and it's nothing that has persisted past a cup of tea.

Really, though, I've practiced law for 11 years, and it wasn't until I started writing about baseball that I realized, hey, you don't necessarily have to loathe what you do for a living. I don't write for a living yet, but doing the blog is the best part of my day and I wouldn't give it up for the world.

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