NASCAR heads home to Charlotte for the Coca-Cola 600

Start your engines! Photo via: Wiki Commons.

NASCAR heads home this week to one of the crown jewels of NASCAR for the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway. This race is considered by many to be the second most important race on the schedule behind the Daytona 500. Its six-hundred mile distance makes it one of the most difficult races not just in NASCAR but in the world. The race begins in the heat of dusk and as the race winds down the track cools off tremendously and there is a lot more grip. Things will really start to change late in the race as there are four stages instead of the regular three. Considering this race is the Coca-Cola 600, there will also be practice and qualifying this week, so that could really give us a good idea of who has speed this week.

Last week's race at Circuit of the Americas we saw something we have never seen before and may never see again, racing in the rain. This was an absolute disaster, and it wasn't because of the rain itself but the standing water that came with the rain. Because of the large puddles of water around this massive 3 mile racetrack, it was next to impossible to see through the spray. There were multiple serious accidents involving Bubba Wallace, Kevin Harvick, Martin Truex Jr. and Cole Custer. When asked about the conditions, Harvick responded by saying "We don't have any business doing this. This was the most unsafe I have ever felt in a race car." The race was red-flagged and the track was dried enough to where it was serviceable, but there were still plenty of drivers who drove off track or spun out. When the waters settled, it appeared that it was going to come down to Hendrick teammates, Chase Elliott and Kyle Larson but along came the rain again. It got so bad that NASCAR decided to end the race early and award Chase Elliott the victory. This is the sixth victory on a road course for the defending champion and his first win of the season.

With Chase's victory, this now means that all four Hendrick Motorsports cars have clinched a spot in the playoffs. This is the first time since 2014 that this team has been able to accomplish this feat. These last couple of years have been especially tough for the winningest team in NASCAR and while they did win the title last year, it seemed like the team as a whole had a hard time finding speed. What a difference a year makes as now each driver has won a race this year. One thing I can attribute to this run of success was the decision to move crew-chief Chad Kanus to Vice President of Competition. Because of this, he can now focus on making the entire team better as a whole and not just one car in William Byron. Look for Hendrick Motorsports to continue to be the team to beat in the future.

While all eyes will be on the Hendrick four horsemen, the driver I have winning this week is Penske driver Joey Logano. The 2018 champion punched his ticket to the round of 16 by winning at the Bristol dirt race, since then it has been up and down. He has found a bit of a groove here in the past two weeks with back to back top fives at Darlington and COTA. I think he is due for another win. This track has been pretty good to him, and he has the highest average finish here of all active drivers. Look for Logano to take the #22 Mustang to his second victory of 2021.

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It’s the issue that has dominated Astros conversation all season and it gets louder each time Jose Abreu strikes out or pops up with runners in scoring position.

All the announcers can say is, “Abreu’s been making better contact lately” or “Abreu’s long out in the third would have cleared the fences in 12 ballparks.”

Would have. Didn’t. Abreu is hitting .214 heading into Tuesday night’s game against the Blue Jays. And he appears stuck there. He’s mired in a two-month slump with a slugging percentage bogged down at .264.

What should the Astros do with Abreu – keep playing the $19.5 million disappointment or pull the plug and find anybody else?

Let’s put that debate to the side for the moment and dispel one excuse/explanation we keep hearing for why Abreu stays in the lineup.

“The Astros have to play Abreu because they don’t have anybody else on the roster with real experience at first base.”

Cue the sound bite from Moneyball.

Billy Beane: “(Playing first base) it’s not that hard, Scott. Tell him Wash.”

Ron Washington: “It’s incredibly hard.”

Actually, Beane was right. Playing first base may not be easy, but it clearly is the easiest position in baseball. Almost always, if you’re a Major League player, with a crash course in footwork, you can learn to play first base adequately.

Certainly adequately enough to replace a .214 hitter with no power and a $58 million contract.

From Abner Doubleday to Little League to high school ball to the big leagues, first base has been the best hiding place for a poor defensive player. First base is where a lousy fielder does the least damage. First base is where a big, tubby, slow fumble fingers can stay in the lineup and get his rips at the plate. Next stop: designated hitter or designated for assignment.

A first baseman rarely has to make a hard, accurate throw … or any throw other than an underhanded flip to the pitcher covering first, or tossing the ball back to the pitcher after an infield out. Jeff Bagwell injured his shoulder in 2001, could barely raise his right arm, and still played four more seasons at first base for the Astros. Bagwell could hit.

A first baseman doesn’t need to have much range. He has to protect only a few feet of fair territory to his left. Unlike other infielders, a first baseman can bobble a ground ball and still get the out at first.

A first baseman doesn’t need to be fleet of foot. In 2011, Bleacher Report featured “the 25 slowest players in MLB history.” Thirteen of them were first basemen, including Jim Thome, David Ortiz, Cecil Fielder, Mo Vaughn, Willie McCovey, and John Olerud.

Then there was Dick Stuart. He was a slugging first baseman who played in the ‘60s. He was such a disaster in the field that his well deserved nickname was Dr. Strangeglove. Also Stonefingers. Also the Man with the Iron Glove.

Despite his horrible fielding, he made two All-Star teams and finished his career with 228 home runs. He led the American League in total bases one year and finished Top 10 in homers five times. He couldn’t field. But he could hit. When it comes to first basemen, a good hitter will win you more games than a good fielder will save you.

You like analytics? Let’s crunch some numbers. Between 2000 and 2016 a study by the Hardball Times compared the fielding statistics of first basemen with veteran experience to first basemen with limited or no experience at the position. The study tracked 237 players and approximately 2,691 throws to first from second base, shortstop and third base.

Bottom line: a veteran first baseman doesn’t save all that many runs compared to a newbie at the position.

On average, there are 6.4 throws from an infielder to first base during a game. I know, Framber Valdez is a ground ball machine, but we’re talking average.

Most interesting and germane to the Astros current situation, a first baseman with limited experience at the position, less than 50 games, will cost a team 3.7 more runs over a season – an entire season – than a veteran first baseman.

A first baseman will less than 10 games at the position will cost a team 4.7 extra runs over a season.

A total newcomer to first base will cost a team just 5.4 extra runs over a season. That’s less than one extra run per month.

So just for argument sake, if the Astros were to move Yordan Alvarez or Yainer Diaz or Chas McCormick or Mauricio Dubon or (fill in the blank) to first base, the team would surrender only a handful more runs than continuing to play Abreu, who by the way has led the American League in errors four times.

Didn’t Alvarez work out at first base during spring training this year? Backup catcher Diaz got a start at first this week and promptly hit a home run. He’s 6 for 9 the past two games.

The question isn’t how many runs does playing Abreu at first save the Astros, but how many more runs the Astros would score with somebody else.

It’s not that hard to play first.

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