Hits Galore

Baseball blogs make a successful pitch for legitimacy.

On July 7, Dave Cameron sat in his North Carolina home, hunched over a computer screen and obsessing over a non-televised ballgame 3,000 miles away. It was a Saturday match-up at the Coliseum in Oakland that pitted the Seattle Mariners and 21-year-old pitching phenom Felix Hernandez against the hometown A's. Using an Internet tracker that produces live updates, Cameron charted balls, strikes and — most crucial on this particular occasion — pitch location and velocity.

Summer nights with a computer and a ballgame aren't unusual for Cameron. Since 2003, along with Derek Zumsteg and Jason Michael Barker, he has put nearly twenty hours a week (and his own money) into the U.S.S. Mariner, a blog devoted to all things Seattle Mariners. Cameron says he has been following Hernandez since the latter was a sixteen-year-old the Mariners signed out of Venezuela's amateur leagues. (The blogger also coined Hernandez's nickname: "King Felix.")

In late June, Cameron, who spends his days working as a corporate cost analyst for Hanes clothing, penned a post he titled "An Open Letter to Rafael Chaves," imploring Mariners pitching coach Rafael Chaves to get Hernandez to throw more breaking balls in the early innings. The post, which contained detailed evidence in support of the fact that Hernandez was getting crushed early in games by opposing batters who could confidently anticipate seeing his fastball, was the culmination of a months-long crusade by the U.S.S. Mariner to alter the approach of the frustratingly inconsistent but immensely gifted youngster.

After the M's-A's game, the victorious Hernandez, who allowed no runs and only two hits in eight innings, told reporters, "Chaves gave me a report. On the Internet, they say when I throw a lot of fastballs in the first inning they score a lot of runs. I tried to mix all my pitches in the first inning."

"The Felix Incident," as the U.S.S. Mariner writers now refer to it, was not the bloggers' first close encounter with Major League Baseball. Back in April USSM co-founder Derek Zumsteg posted an entry on another blog he maintains called The Cheater's Guide to Baseball, showing pictures of Angels closer Francisco Rodriguez frequently rubbing the bill of his cap while on the mound, leading to speculation that Rodriguez was doctoring the ball. The post led to a brief investigation by MLB officials, who eventually dropped the matter.

But it's Cameron's "Open Letter" — and the fact that Hernandez took its message to heart — that stands as a shining example of the increasing influence baseball's blogging community exerts on the sport it covers.

"It was a landmark event," says Geoff Baker, the Mariners beat writer for the Seattle Times. "Baseball managers and coaches have used press clippings before. But we're not talking about the mainstream media here. We're talking about a group of fans."

Informed of Hernandez's abrupt turnaround and the pitcher's willingness to tip his hat to a fan blog, St. Louis Cardinals manager Tony La Russa responds with skepticism. "If that's true, then the [Mariners] pitching coach isn't doing his job," says La Russa. "I think blogs are things that are fun, and I love that people are interested in the game. But I don't take 'em seriously."

The skipper's sentiment comes as no surprise to Larry Borowsky, Denver-based creator of the popular Cardinals blog Viva El Birdos (www.vivaelbirdos.com). "I don't think what happened in Seattle could ever happen on a Tony La Russa-managed team," Borowsky says. "I would like to think there are people within the organization that value that input. But I don't think [pitching coach] Dave Duncan and Tony La Russa are the guys who value that information."

Borowsky cites several instances in which the Cardinals might have benefited from his observations, including a long-running campaign questioning the team's handling of 25-year-old pitcher Anthony Reyes, who's back in the minor leagues after starting this season 0-10 with the big club. Borowsky believes Reyes' struggles are the result of La Russa's and Duncan's well-documented predilection for ground ball-inducing pitchers. Forcing Reyes to perfect a two-seam fastball that sinks and forgo his four-seamer, which crosses the plate high in the strike zone — and which made him successful in the minors — is, Borowsky maintains, a self-confidence-killing recipe for disaster. Bloggers are quick to point to their use of sabermetrics, statistical measures pioneered in the 1970s and '80s by Bill James, as one of their chief routes to respectability within the baseball community.

James, who these days is employed by the Boston Red Sox, was working as a security guard when he published his first Baseball Abstract, a yearly report that crunched then-exotic stats — "win shares," "runs created," "range factor" — named in honor of a fledgling organization called the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR). Sabermetrics gained traction over the decades, then received a vast boost in 2003 with the publication of the best-selling book Moneyball, in which author Michael Lewis showed how Oakland A's general manager Billy Beane had exploited the statistical yardsticks to build winning teams on a threadbare budget. The 2007 SABR convention, the group's 37th annual convocation, takes place in downtown St. Louis this weekend, at the Adam's Mark Hotel. Nearly 700 stat-heads will take part, including Borowsky.

Matt Philip, author of the sabermetrics-based Cardinals blog Fungoes (stl.sabr.org/fungoes), will attend as well. "Whereas a blogger might have once been considered a crazy fan typing alone in his basement, suddenly you have any number of reputable baseball blogs doing serious research," says Philip. "Their ideas and suggestions have a lot more merit and are perceived as being more serious, and therefore, worthwhile."

In turn, adds Dave Cameron, blogs have helped move the language of sabermetrics into the mainstream. "Two years ago if someone said 'on-base percentage,' I'd be happy," he says. "Now it's common."

While bloggers are still banned from major league press boxes and clubhouses, it has become increasingly common for front offices to develop relationships with them that sometimes rival those they maintain with traditional news outlets. Beane, for example, holds several question-and-answer sessions each year with the authors of Athletics Nation, one of the first and most successful team-based baseball blogs. Mariners GM Bill Bavasi has appeared at many U.S.S. Mariner functions. (Other sports have even begun granting game-day access for bloggers. In June, for example, the New York Islanders of the National Hockey League made headlines for creating a "Blog Box," a press box specifically for local bloggers.)

Meanwhile, in an effort to keep pace with the blog boom, most beat writers at large daily newspapers now maintain a blog of their own, as a means of keeping up with fans' insatiable demand for coverage. The Seattle Times' Geoff Baker says more people read his Mariners blog these days than click to see his game recaps. "A beat writer can't get away with rampant boosterism," adds Baker. "If you go in there blindly and repeat what the team wants you to repeat, you're going to get ridiculed by legions of fans."

Baker believes the outlook for sports blogs is bright. "In the future I think [blogs] will be read by players, the front office and coaches," the beat writer says. "I think they'll be paying a lot more attention than they were, say, two years ago."

Maybe even in St. Louis. Though Borowsky's position on Anthony Reyes is getting no traction with the Cardinals' manager, Jeff Luhnow, who manages the team's farm system and draft, occasionally exchanges e-mails with Viva El Birdos and other Redbirds-centric blogs.

And Luhnow, who was hired by the Cardinals in 2003 to "streamline" their scouting organization and develop the team's presence in Latin America, is a stat-head himself.

The protégé of Cardinals chairman Bill DeWitt, Luhnow has seen his own influence steadily increase in his four years with the organization. His rise, coupled with rumblings about Cardinals general manager Walt Jocketty's unhappiness in St. Louis, have led to recent speculation that the statistics-minded Luhnow, who holds economics and engineering degrees from the University of Pennsylvania, might be next in line for Jocketty's post, though the team has repeatedly denied the rumors.

Whatever transpires, Borowsky will continue blogging. "In the end, nobody knows it all," he says. "The fan know-it-all and the sabermetrics guy don't know it all. Neither does the guy in the uniform. Everyone takes their best guess. Sometimes it works out, and sometimes they look like a complete idiot."

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