The Conversation: Ollie Connolly

CINCINNATI, OH - MAY 31:  Bryce Harper #34 of the Washington Nationals bats during the game against the Cincinnati Reds at Great American Ball Park on May 31, 2015 in Cincinnati, Ohio.  (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

By Edward Overend

EO: We’re coming up to a third of the way through the season. Divisions are starting to properly take shape, apart from the ridiculously open AL East. I haven’t caught up with Ollie Connolly since preseason. It’s now time. Ollie, let’s start with your Red Sox. Starting pitching seems to be picking up, but as is the way with baseball, the offense seems to have disappeared. And yet, the Sox are well in the race in the division. You should be confident. I know you’re not, but where do you see the East race?

OC: Thanks Ed!

The East race is fascinating. It’s wide open and it’s showing no signs of becoming any clearer. Everyone has a shot. I really think offseason management and luck will dictate the winner. It’s not going to produce a good team but it’s going to bring us one of the best pennant races of the season.

The Sox have been a disappointment but a foreseen one. The Minnesota series was beyond frustrating. Given this rotation, any time they hold a side to three runs they should be producing more than enough offensively to take two out of three. I get incredibly frustrated watching so much so that I’ve taken to split screening news bloopers to keep my energy high.

It just haven’t been good enough, but I don’t know what anyone can expect given the starting rotation and the bullpen. Who knew? A way below average rotation, a dodgy bullpen and an offense that can be both devastating and frustrating equals a sub .500 record.

EO: It’s what makes baseball so alluring, the little things, the ‘if onlys’. Why are the Royals doing so well when their starting rotation stinks? How can the Astros be good when they strike out so much? One thing that is very noticeable is that the top bullpens, measured by ERA, are all from successful clubs. There’s no random Brewers reliever corps anywhere to be seen. In fact, it might be the big inefficient that is being exploited by the numbers guys.

OC: It really shows you the defensive direction of the sport. It’s high heat arms. No errors, a power bat and manipulating runs. How do you feel about the direction? I loved the power era and I also love this era. I’d obviously like more hitting and we’ve discussed before directions the game should take. But I’m spellbound by how impressive multiple bullpens have been this year. Games are over after seven innings. It truly is remarkable.

EO: One of those high-powered bullpens is in Kansas City. The early leaders in votes for the All Star Game were announced this week. The Royals absolutely dominated the top of the American League. Now, there’s no denying the Royals have had a fantastic start to the season, but, if a fan base can influence a vote this much, it can’t be healthy for the sport. This is especially ridiculous if the game itself is actually worth something. While Rob Manfred would probably want to have changed the rule of winning league getting home field in World Series immediately on becoming Commissioner, I guess he didn’t want to look completely disrespectful of Bud Selig. However, it needs changing and soon. Do you think letting the fans vote is the correct way of choosing All Star teams or is it about time the best rather than the most famous players got in?

OC: I don’t get angry about it like some. Of course you want the most deserving players to get into the game but it’s an event for the fans, an entertainment event, and so it’s likely those fans would rather see Derek Jeter than Brandon Crawford no matter how deserving they were. I’m fine with that. The issue is when you take it from an exhibition game to a competition with meaning. Now you have player who have no chance of making the playoffs influencing the World Series. The onus falls on media and fans. People wanted a more competitive game and for that you have to sacrifice a competitive element of the World Series. I hate that. But we can’t have it both ways. If you’re fine with an entertainment product for the weekend (I am) then it won’t be as competitive a game and will have marketable players in over deserving players. Or you have a competitive game (and even then it’s not that competitive) influencing the balance of the ultimate goal and I couldn’t detest that more.

It’s about sacrifice and what you want as a fan and media member. I’d like the weekend to be a promotion of these fabulous people/players who are simply playing too much to be marketed like a football star and keep the World Series as the ultimate reward. I think the risk, as we’ve seen in other sports, is putting the individual goal ahead of the team goal. Again, I can’t stand that.

I think the issue is confusing ‘ballot stuffing’ with ‘what the fans want.’ In my opinion you should only be able to vote if you’re in a ball park. Every day you go you get a vote. If you go twenty times you get twenty votes. Once, one vote. If i never go because I’m on the other side of the world I get no votes and I’m fine with that.

EO: I couldn’t agree with you more whole heartedly.

We’re at the point where some teams can begin to look like a bit of a mess. This can be down to a run of injuries, internal wrangling or just because they are no good in the first place. While the Marlins have long been the target of national ridicule, also in the NL East, it looks like the situation in Philadelphia might finally be coming to a head. Everyone knew this season was going to be tough, but we now have Rubén Amaro Jr having a go at the fans and reports that a lot of his moves have been ordered from the top. How do you read the Phillies situation?

OC: Well I think Amaro is hilariously incompetent. He turned his ire on the fans. They didn’t bring in old players, resign those players and refuse to hit the restart button two years ago when it was obvious to everyone it was over. And this isn’t hindsight. Every Phillies fan I know and every blog I read said the same thing. To paraphrase; what a run we’ve had and how fun it’s been. Now for the new era. That’s exactly what it is, a new era. I don’t have any confidence that Amaro is the man to do that job.

I’ll say this though. I was in favour of them getting out in-front and moving Cole Hamels during the spring. But given the parity of the bigs and dichotomy of the AL East. The mediocrity, the trade artillery and the fragility of the jobs I think they’ve played it perfectly well. Hamels hasn’t necessarily pitched too well. He has a sub three ERA but a 3.89 FIP the highest it’s been since 2007 (I check every day as a Sox fan) but he may very well be the best starting arm on the market. A market that has numerous big hitters desperately looking at all avenues for help. It’s going to drive the price up and it should be the launching pad for the Phillies to really kickstart a rebuild.

EO: There are some big budget teams with gaping holes in their starting pitching that’s for sure, not just the Sox but the Dodgers and Yankees also have chasms. The problem the Phillies have is that they need just about everything.

Another team in need of potential help might be the Cardinals. Matt Adams is effectively out for the season at first base and they don’t really have an obvious replacement. They’ve been chugging along in their typical way since the loss of Adam Wainwright but it may be time to do something.

Are there any other clubs you see that have glaring needs that ought to be moving now?

OC: It’s difficult because of the parity/mediocrity particularly in the American League. There isn’t a team I can think of that doesn’t need to do something. Obviously the Mets are a big one. They need offensive help, do they have the means and want to get a bat or two that really improves their lineup? I doubt it. Detroit have so heavily planted their flag in 2015 that they certainly have to do something to finally upgrade their bullpen and there’s plenty of teams willing to move on from guys. By my count you have; Colorado, Milwaukee, Cincinnati, Philadelphia, Atlanta and Texas who would be willing to move pieces for future assets and you also have clubs with high expectations for themselves, the A’s and White Sox, who just haven’t got going at all. But with so much time left and the right moves both those clubs could still turn it around. It’s just so difficult to make in season needle moving moves.

EO: One place where a lot might go on is San Diego. Our offseason darling, AJ Preller, is certainly not shy of a trade! Having started the season strongly, they’ve been an abomination of late. The outfield defense is horrific, as we knew it would be, their very right-handed heavy lineup has a lot of swing and miss in it and even Craig Kimbrel has been awful. Justin Upton has been really good and, in the last year of his contract, should go. I just think it needs a couple more weeks of mediocrity and a sledgehammer could be taken to the roster in Petco.

OC: It’s difficult. I don’t know what else they can do. They obviously have flaws at second base, shortstop and their rotation needs help. But I don’t know how many major moves they could make to address those issues. Now never count out AJ. I think you’re right that they’re comfortable in doing whatever and they know they need to get better defensively, in their infield and rotation but what else do they have to move out?

EO: I’m thinking they may trade away most of what they acquired in the offseason for prospects. I really wouldn’t be surprised if it’s a complete about turn.

OC: Really? I can’t see that. That’d be an admission of being wrong. They still have a shot at the playoffs and that’s the mandate. I’d be shocked if they decided to tear it down.

EO: We’ll see. Anything else grabbed your attention in the last few days?

OC: We can’t talk and not mention Bryce Harper. Here’s his heat map for the season…

BryceHarperAverage

BryceHarperZone

He’s just been outrageous. You can see where they’re trying to attack him low and away. He’s just crushing them.

EO: He has been absolutely fabulous. It’s what we’ve all been waiting for. It’s not just the home runs though. He is walking at an enormous rate too. In fact, if he carries on at the rate he is now, it will be the most free passes since Barry Bonds. So it’s not like he’s going up and just hacking, it’s been selective hitting. His breakout has perhaps been the main positive story of the first few weeks. Let’s hope there are some more performances like his for us to get excited about as we move forward.

OC: I love this spray chart.

chart

His hitting the ball all over the place. His patience at the plate combined with his raw power and natural eye make him impossible to pitch too. I can’t see anyway he regresses. I doubt he keeps close to this pace for the entirety of the season. But these are now the standards we can expect from him year in and year out. Before it was just potential but now he’s shown it for a prolonged stretch. He’s the most ‘must watch’ person in baseball right now.

EO: It just shows how much Bryce has progressed as an all round hitter this year. People tend to forget he’s only 22. We need more players like him. Whilst there was a poll earlier in the season saying he was the least popular player amongst fellow pros, this essentially means he is somebody who is noticed and feared.

In the era of low offence, having somebody who is capable of hitting as many home runs as he is what the sport needs. That he rubs some people up the wrong way is neither here nor there. We want the public to be talking about baseball, have baseball leading Sportscenter, not an endless narrative on who’s been arrested in the NFL.

I hope Harper continues his torrid start to the season and I hope other emerge like him. We’re at the period in the year, once the NBA finals are done, where baseball can dominate. We all want that and Harper might make that possible.

You can find Ed on twitter @EdwardOverend or join in the conversation @CTBPod

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