Luck of the Drawl
In the summer of 1990, I was working on a project which required me to spend long stretches of time in Atlanta. That entire summer working with my native Georgian colleagues over lunches at the Varsity, I predicted that their Braves would be the team of the future, what with their great pitching prospects. But the local yokels only saw a team peopled by Andres Thomasi and Oddibe "Young" McDowells. It's odd given the spoiled, playoff-weary, "we don't even bother to chop until the second round of the playoffs" types the fans have become.
I remember one game I attended with eight thousand hearty souls in which Dale Murphy, Ron Gant, and Pittsburgh's Bobby Bonilla all homered twice. Barry Bonds went deep just once, the slacker. And the Pirates came back from a 13-7 deficit to score four in the top of the ninth, but came up short as pinch-hitter John Cangelosi led off and ended the inning with a strikeout (the other out being a rare K for Bonds). The scant few fans in the upper deck section in which I was seated went crazy and bonded in that impersonal yet connected way that sportsfans do.
However, despite the presence of youngsters Tom Glavine, John Smoltz, Steve Avery, Pete Smith, Derek Lilliquist, and Kent Mercker on the pitching staff-all under 25 and all getting amble innings-the Braves finished last for the third straight year in 1990. They did, though, make one very important move, hiring back Bobby Cox two-thirds of the way through the season.
Of course, since 1990 the Braves have won thirteen division titles. They have not missed the playoffs since the last Bush presidency (I am ignoring the playoff-less 1994 season in all of this analysis). They have 15 in total since divisional play started in 1969. That's two more division titles than the next team (the Yankees and A's both have 13).
Their 13 straight playoff appearances is the longest such streak in baseball history. The Yankees current streak of ten is their longest (five-year streaks: 1949-53 and 1960-64; 4-year: 1936-39 and 1955-58). The Indians had a five-year streak in the mid-Nineties (1995-99). The Giants had a four-year streak back in John McGraw's day (1921-24). The A's had a four-year streak broken last year and had a five-year streak in the days of Reggie Jackson and Vida Blue (1971-75).
And that's it. No other team has won more than three straight (unless you count Charlie Comiskey's St. Louis Browns of the American Association in the 1880s, before they were known as the Cardinals). And even though one could argue that with an extra round of playoffs added in 1994 it's easier than ever to make the playoffs, the Braves have done it by winning their division, not by using the wild card backdoor. The Yankees have two wild card appearances in their current streak (1995 and 1997), and the A's had one wild card in the middle of their four-year streak (2000-2003).
The Braves have had more playoff appearances during their current streak than six of the original sixteen teams have in their entire histories.
They are discussing having their names permanently etched in the top spot of the NL East for all posterity. Few seem to remember that when the "streak" started they were in the NL's Western Division (a remnant of the Gussie Bush and Phil Wrigley era), there were no wildcards, and there were just two rounds of playoffs.
The odd thing is that with all that success, the Braves have just one World Series ring to show for it (1995) and only five National League pennants, the last coming in 1999. They have not been able to get out of the first round of the playoffs in seven of the last eight years. Since the Braves won their last World Series title, the Marlins (1997 and 2003) and the Mets (2000) -- both division rivals -- have gone to the fall classic via the wild card and the former has two rings to show for it.
A lot of that has to do with how Atlanta constructs and employs a roster for the regular season, the long haul, in such a way that does not lend itself well to the micro-season that is a playoff series. And a lot has to do with some rather odd in-game decisions by Monsieur Cox that I won't go into right now. However, one has to wonder how bad their streak of luck in the playoffs has been, from an historical standpoint, and if another such streak can be found on this side of the Buffalo Bills.
First, let's take a look at the Braves record and determine if it truly is that much worse than anyone else's. As I mentioned earlier, the Braves have won 15 division titles since divisional play began. They have five National League pennants and one World Series crown to show for it.
The Orioles have the same number of league pennants and one more World Series title but did it with just eight division titles. Ditto for the Reds, except they have three World Series wins. The Dodgers have five pennants and two World Series rings to go with their nine division championships. The Yankees have ten pennants and six World Series championships resulting from 13 division crowns. The A's have six pennants, four Series rings, and 13 division titles. Even the Marlins have two rings without ever winning a division title. (Note: these numbers reflect just the divisional play era.)
The bottom line is that the Braves have converted less than 7% of their division titles into World Series rings. Of teams with more than three division crowns, the only team with a worse conversion ratio is Houston (0-for-7). Also, the overall expectation for any given division champ to win the World Series is 19%, based on the results so far.
But how many rings would one expect the Braves to have won? Given that there are eight teams that make the playoffs, let's assume that each has a one-in-eight chance to reach the promised land of champagne showers and Bud Selig-presenting trophies. In the days before the wild card, each team had a one-in-four chance (i.e., 1969-2003, excluding the strike year of 1981 in which eight teams made the playoffs). In the days before division play, let's assume that each playoff team had a one-in-two chance. (Yes, this may be simplistic, but given that weighing factors home-field advantage, series length, series procedures, and regular-season win differential would produce odds that are better predictors but given the limited sample size and the number of various factors, I don't think anything conclusive can be derived.)
One would expect the fifteen Braves division titles to translate into 2.5 World Series crowns, so they have come up 1.5 short. Given the odds, here are the teams that underachieved and overachieved the most in the era of divisional play.
Those lists should not be a surprise. The Braves are the worst of the group. Before we put this into an historical context, let's look at Atlanta's record in converting division crowns into pennants. The Braves have five pennants from their 15 division titles. That's 33%. The average conversion ratio for a division winner has been slightly higher at 39%. Here are the underachievers/overachievers for league titles:
OK, now let's put the Braves' World Series underachieving in a more historical context. Combining the data from before and after division play was instituted, are there bigger underachievers than the Braves?
The Yankees leading the overachievers list is no surprise given that they have 26 rings and all. However, the Red Sox appearance may be a surprise given their infamous 86-year drought that was ended last year, but the Red Sox have a history that parallels the results the Braves have witnessed during their current streak: early success followed by a long period of failure.
Also, you might notice that the underachieving by the Braves in recent years is not even in the class of the Cubs and the Giants over their entire franchise histories. One thing should be kept in mind, however. Given that there are four times as many teams in the playoffs today, it takes four times as long to reach the same level of underachieving.
For instance, the Braves have been in the playoffs without winning the World Series in each of the last nine years. Given that they have a presumed one-in-eight chance of winning a ring, they have just underachieved by slightly over one World Series win during this span. From 1911 to 1913 McGraw's Giants lost three straight World Series. The expected number of World Series for them during this span is 1.5. Therefore, the Giants' underachieving was much more efficient than the Braves'.
So where does this leave us? Yes, the Braves have come up very short during their division-title streak, but how badly they have underachieved may have more to do with the era in which they play than with any "choking" by the team. Who's to say they would have even made the playoffs throughout the current streak had baseball never expanded to three divisions? They had an inferior record to the NL West winner in two of the seasons of the streak, and their NL East opponents were very weak in a number of the others.
Mike Carminati is the proprietor and author of Mike's Baseball Rants.
Two on Two: NL East Preview
The Two on Two previews of the 2005 Major League Baseball season conclude with today's outlook for the NL East. With us to discuss the Land of the Free and the Home of the Braves are Brad Dowdy of No Pepper and Jason Mastaitis of Always Amazin' and MetsGeek, a new site formed through the collaborative efforts of eight members of the Mets blogging community.
Rich Lederer: Excluding the strike-aborted season in 1994, the Braves have finished in first place in the NL East every year since 1991. Which team is most likely to dominate the division over the next decade?
Bryan Smith: Wow, that's a loaded question. To touch on each team quickly, I first think it is hard to bet against any team run by Scheurholz, Cox and Mazzone. But eventually the streak will end. New York and Washington are very big markets, and a new stadium should further enhance the market of Miami. Philadelphia and Atlanta spend too, so I think once the Atlanta run ends, we should see some equality in this division. I would say that no division in baseball has five equal markets like the NL East.
Brad Dowdy: Atlanta's streak could end at any time, but with the way the organization is run from top to bottom, I think their success in the NL East will continue. New York is going to be right there, especially with the revenues coming in from the new television network next season. Philadelphia spends money, but it is unclear to me where this organization really has a plan for the future. Florida and Washington each have their own issues -- ownership (or lack thereof), stadium deals, and payroll -- and should have more fourth and fifth place finishes than the other clubs over this time period.
Jason Mastaitis: I agree. This is going to be a very competitive division over the next decade and the dominance of any one team is going to simply depend on all lot of things falling the right way for them (especially health, since every team has some significant issues to key players). But you can never bet against the Braves, the Patriots of baseball. They have the best front office, the best coaching staff, they make smart personnel decisions and they know how to extract the maximum amount of talent from what they have. And until Schuerholz, Cox, and Mazzone are broken up, they're going to be the team to beat. Darn it.
Rich: I concur, Jason. The Braves have a competitive advantage as long as those three are on board. However, I'm not sure if I would compare them to the Patriots. New England has won the Super Bowl three times in four years. The Braves, while a dominant team in the division, have only won it all once. It seems to me they are more like the Buffalo Bills of the early-1990s or perhaps the Denver Broncos or Minnesota Vikings from an even earlier period. You know, a team that wins a lot -- and is always right there -- but just unable to win the big one.
Bryan: Yes, while the Braves are constantly lauded (and deservingly so) for their dominance, it almost goes unnoticed that the Marlins have won more World Championships than the Braves during this period. I mean, in the last six years the Mets and Braves are tied in World Series appearances. Is this a case of, as Billy Beane would say, the well-run Braves not having their **** work in the playoffs? Or, is there some flaw in their construction?
Brad: This is always a difficult question for me to answer as a Braves fan. We've done it with pitching, we've done it with hitting, but the overwhelming majority of the time, we fail to get it done in the playoffs, and there is no one specific reason why. There is some talk that since the Braves usually win the division by a comfortable margin they aren't as "up" for the playoffs as some of the other teams who fought down to the wire, but you can't exactly quantify that. When the Braves won the World Series in 1995, they won the East by 21 games - the largest margin of any season during the run.
Jason: Sometimes bad things happen to good teams. Sometimes bad things happen to good teams again and again. And sometimes you just can't explain it. The Braves are unlucky in that the playoff structure changed in the middle of their run, giving them an added opponent and added opportunity for an upset.
Brad: So, who is going to take the title from them this season? I think the Marlins have a great shot, especially after signing Carlos Delgado.
Rich: Brad, I like the Marlins a lot this year. Is there a better one-two punch in the division than Delgado and Miguel Cabrera? If Josh Beckett and AJ Burnett can stay healthy all year, this is the team to beat. I think they have the right blend of hitting, pitching, and defense, as well as proven veterans and players on the verge of blowing up.
Bryan: Leiter was definitely an odd sign, I mean, are the Marlins just trying to ensure him as a color commentator when he retires? It seems like my Cubs, there are some health concerns up and down this rotation. If Beckett, Burnett and Leiter make 90 starts, this is a good team.
Rich: Yes, and it will be even better if Beckett and Burnett can make 65 of those 90 starts. Leiter's DIPS ERA was 50% higher than his actual ERA last year. He averaged one more pitch per inning than everbody else in the majors last year. The guy will be 40 on his next birthday. Did I mention he was responsible for trading Scott Kazmir?
Brad: Florida does have some lingering health questions. Even Juan Pierre may miss a little time early on.
Bryan: What seems odd to me is the exposure some of these teams have received this offseason, except that it was all quiet on the Phillie front. The projection systems love this team, and Ed Wade needs to put a winner out there soon or he'll get the axe.
Jason: Honestly, I think the Phillies have a decent shot, and I really think their signing of Jon Lieber was one of the steals of the offseason.
Brad: The Phillies lineup is very impressive, especially if Pat Burrell carries his big spring into the season. But as good as the Lieber signing was, there is no stopper in that rotation. That worries me a bit in a ballpark like Citizens Bank.
Jason: The Mets still need another year to grow...and a bullpen.
Brad: I like what the Mets did this offseason, but I do agree with Jason that they need one more season to fine-tune.
Rich: To me, New York is the biggest wild card in the division. If everything goes their way, I don't think it is out of the realm of possibilities for the Mets to win more games than the Yankees this year. I wouldn't want to bet on it, but I think they could just well be the toast of the town come October.
Jason: You're absolutely right, Rich. I'm being very cautious in my predictions for the Mets this year, but I haven't been this excited about a team since the late '80s. Jose Reyes is finally healthy, looks absolutely fabulous and, even though he still doesn't walk, he's been taking more pitches this spring and has greatly reduced his strikeouts. And he's still only 21. He's my sleeper breakout candidate for the division...anyone else?
Bryan: Reyes is definitely a good one. I saw him in the second half of 2003 and fell in love with him.
Rich: How about David Wright? Does he count or did he break out in just a half season last year?
Bryan: Gavin Floyd is someone I think could make a huge difference and should get more Rookie of the Year hype than he does.
Brad: I'm not really sold on Gavin Floyd as a difference maker in Philly. I know he has been around a while, but I think people have forgotten just how good A.J. Burnett was when healthy. Comeback player of the year?
Jason: Comeback player? How about Raul Mondesi under Bobby Cox?
Brad: It's a strange fit, but signing Mondesi to a 1 yr/$1 million contract is really a no lose situation. He either toes the company line in the clubhose and on the field, or Bobby will jettison him at the first opportunity. I think he will be a pleasant surprise from a production standpoint.
Bryan: This organizations seems really untrusting of Ryan Langerhans, who I think could be better than both Brian Jordan and Mondesi out there. Mondesi and Jordan could just be fighting for one spot when one of the two big blue chippers is ready.
Brad: As much as I am fine with the Mondesi signing, I really don't understand the fascination with Jordan. Langerhans is a good bet to outproduce Jordan over the course of the season, but Jordan looks to be the opening day starter. Maybe Schuerholz is making up for trading him to the Dodgers?
Jason: I was pretty surprised to see Jeff Francoeur cut so early. Is he not ready yet?
Bryan: Prior to Spring Training, Scheurholz had lots of quotes boasting Francoeur and how he might be more ready than Marte. He's not at all ready in my mind and would need a big change in plate discipline to make me think otherwise. Marte is ready, and Chipper should go back to left, in my opinion.
Brad: Francoeur's definitely not ready yet. I think a full season at Double-A will do him wonders. As far as Marte goes, I agree with Bryan.
Bryan: And while we are talking about breakout players, let me mention Adam LaRoche. Few had higher slugging percentages in the second half last year.
Brad: I was a big LaRoche supporter prior to last season - I'm glad he made me look good!
Jason: LaRoche could have a monster year -- he and having a healthy full year of Marcus Giles, who absolutely slaughtered the Mets last year, is a big reason why I'm not too down on the Braves' offense. They still won't quite make up for the loss of Drew's production, though.
Bryan: Well, I think the offense will be good, albeit a step down from last season. What should take a step up, however, is the starting rotation.
Rich: I'm sure Braves fans are hoping that Tim Hudson will be another Greg Maddux in Atlanta. The drop in his strikeout rate is a bit worrisome but, otherwise, he and Maddux are about as similar as two pitchers could be. John Smoltz adds intrigue, if not innings.
Jason: The question is how many innings can Smoltz give you? 150? 170? 200?
Brad: Smoltz is the key to the season in my opinion. If he misses any significant time, I think the trickle down effect could be costly. I'm hoping for at least 170.
Bryan: Or then you could say Kyle Davies will become very, very important. He could be one of those midseason call-ups that helps propel a team. Atlanta loves him.
Jason: BP was kind of down on him this year, especially his mechanics.
Bryan: I think there already is a trickle down effect from Smoltz leaving: the bullpen. The team loses more than 150 innings of 2.75 ERA with the exit of Smoltz and Juan Cruz. That's tough to replace.
Jason: Danny Kolb has some big shoes to fill. While I think he'll be a servicable closer, he's definitely a downgrade from Smoltz.
Rich: If Kolb comes through this year, then Leo Mazzone should go straight to Cooperstown.
Brad: The bullpen has been a patchwork job over the past few seasons anyway, but the one constant had been Smoltz. The Braves could be in for some interesting late-inning situations on the mound.
Bryan: So Kolb, Smoltz and Mondesi/Jordan are the keys for the Braves?
Brad: That's it in a nutshell. For me, it's mostly Kolb and Smoltz. I think the offense will be OK.
Jason: Sounds good to me --I'm a little warier of the offense but then I really didn't expect much out of Johnny Estrada last year, either.
Rich: Put me in the skeptical camp overall. While I expect Mazzone to continue rocking on the bench this year, I don't see Jordan or Mondesi doing any rocking at all.
Bryan: While they have downgraded in offense, I agree they will be fine there.
Rich: They will be fine if the Joneses don't regress any further and if LaRoche hits like he did in the second half last year rather than the first.
Bryan: The Mets are a team that improved their offense a ton. Who will score more runs, the Braves or the Mets?
Brad: Good question, and I'm going to have to go with the Mets. They look better than the Braves 1 thru 8.
Jason: Whoof, that's a toughie. The Mets have so many issues and so many health problems, it's really hard to say. To be better than the Braves, Reyes and Wright need to improve; Mike Piazza, Mike Cameron, and Cliff Floyd all have to be healthy; and Matsui needs to adjust. That's a lot to go right.
Bryan: Yikes, that is a lot. Wright was their best hitter in the second half last year and -- barring a sophomore slump -- he'll be dynamite.
Jason: I think Wright could be one of the best position players the Mets have ever had. And I think he'll be this team's leader in three years, even with Pedro Martinez and Carlos Beltran. He has no pressure on him this year either with those two around.
Bryan: Well, I'm not sure that's true. There is pressure on the 25th man in New York, no matter how many stars fill up 1-24. But less pressure is true, I think.
Jason: I guess what I'm trying to say is that Reyes was looked upon as a savior two years ago and then became really frustrated when he got injured. No one is really talking that way about Wright this year, thanks to the offseason signings.
Brad: From what I have seen of Wright in interviews, he seems to have an air of calmness around him. I think he is going to thrive for the Mets, pressure or not.
Bryan: How about Beltran? This is a guy that thrived in the spotlight last October, and got to pick the big market this offseason. Is he going to take the step he took in the playoffs full-time?
Rich: Nobody can do what Beltran did last October on a full-time basis. He is a great player -- a complete player -- but, other than his batting average, I don't look for him to improve upon his numbers from last year one iota. Remember, he's going from a hitter's park in Houston to a pitcher's park in New York.
Jason: Shea will hurt his power numbers but he's going to steal a lot of bases under Willie Randolph.
Brad: That playoff performance was unbelievable, but to ask for that much would be unfair to Beltran. He is a star, no doubt, but savior may be a little more than he can handle.
Bryan: I think he'll stay the player he was in KC, not turn into the super-superstar he was depicted to be in Houston.
Jason: He's been surprising -- a lot more media friendly than everyone expected and the NY media has had nothing but good things to say about him.
Bryan: And then there is savior #2, my third-round pick in fantasy baseball this year, Pedro Martinez. Peter Gammons has beaten into our heads that Pedro is more of a horse than people make him out to be, and I think he could be a better signing than Carlos. With Shea, an ERA of 3.00 would shock me.
Brad: Pedro really should thrive in Shea, but how deep will he go into games, and will the bullpen be able to pick up the slack? I need to see more before I buy into the "horse" argument.
Rich: I'd call Pedro a horse, of course. A talking horse. Get this, at 106 pitches per start, Pedro was among the leaders last year. In fact, he had the third-highest pitch count of his career and the most since 1998.
Jason: No DH. No Fenway. No Yankees (well, fewer Yankees). Pedro's been lights out so far this spring and I wouldn't be surprised to see him vie for the NL Cy Young this year. He's been great with the media so far as well.
Bryan: OK, with a Braves and a Mets guy both on board, who is better this season, Hudson or Pedro. I'm going to cop out and say they finish with the exact same ERA, around 2.60. Hudson will have more innings, Pedro more strikeouts, and the bogus win stat total determines the Cy Young.
Brad: Brutal question. Hudson will have more wins, but Pedro will have better numbers overall. How's that for a hedge?
Jason: Woof. I'm going to go out on a limb and say Pedro -- better all round.
Brad: I'm taking Pedro in a Cy Young race though.
Rich: Hmmm. Not only did I convince Brad that Pedro was a horse, he's now talking in terms of Martinez being a thoroughbred.
Bryan: Good, that softens my fantasy concerns. The problem Pedro might have, as Brad mentioned, is whether the bullpen can pick up the slack. That ain't Keith Foulke saving games for him.
Jason: The bullpen could be better than people think and Heath Bell has been looking downright filthy this year. He could end up being the set up man we've been looking for.
Bryan: Ah Bell, the official pitcher of MetsGeek. I agree he's good, but will Willie trust him?
Jason: I do think Willie will trust him. He seems like he's going to play around with the bullpen until he finds the right mix. Willie's really impressed me so far this year. He's run a great camp.
Brad: Bell seems to have earned whatever trust he needed this spring, and I imagine Willie will get more comfortable with his role as the season progresses, as Jason suggests.
Bryan: Well we've been pretty positive on the Mets across the board, but Jason and Brad both mentioned earlier they need another year. Why is that?
Jason: Too many things have to go right for them to take the division. Youngsters need experience, health issues need to be addressed, and we need another year to let the farm system recover from last year's purging. By next year, we should also know what we have in Petit and Humber.
Brad: I think the back end of the rotation needs a little work, as does the bullpen. Plus, with two new star players and a new manager in the Big Apple, there are liable to be a few growing pains. Look out in 2006 though.
Rich: I don't disagree with the prevailing logic at all, but I'm still of the mindset that if the stars and planets are aligned, this is a team that could take this division and maybe go deep into the playoffs.
Bryan: OK, we've talked about the two new New York stars. But Miami, as they soon will be called, landed their largest sports star since Shaq this winter. Another tough question, who has more VORP, Beltran or Delgado?
Rich: I have no doubt that Carlos will win out here.
Jason: Whoa! We must be at IHOP, 'cause those waffles sure smell delicious! Seriously, I think it depends on how much their home parks hurt them; Pro Player is brutal on lefties. I expect them to be about the same. Delgado's in the better lineup, though.
Bryan: The difference was 2.4 in favor of Beltran last season, which isn't much at all. But Delgado has struggled all spring, has to play first every day, and goes to a tough park. Beltran is my pick.
Brad: I think Beltran as well. He is a safer bet to not suffer a dropoff after switching leagues in my opinion.
Rich: Delgado could out-VORP Beltran, but the latter is likely to out-WARP the former. Translation: Delgado may outhit Beltran, but Beltran will be the more valuable player when viewed in the context of their positions and defensive contributions.
Jason: Well, it looks like it's going to be Beltran-Piazza-Floyd-Cameron if Willie has his way (he's spoken openly about batting Wright eighth). Wright may force him to change his mind though. The key is having a bounce back year from Piazza -- we really need him to play 130+ games for the lineup to click.
Bryan: At full strength, he is definitely the best catcher in the division.
Rich: I don't know if he's the best catcher, but he certainly can be the best hitter among these backstops.
Bryan:...he doesn't beat out Lo Duca in terms of the public's favorite, that's for sure. When oh when will Lo Duca start to let them down? I've been predicting it for years.
Rich: Piazza and LoDuca were both favorites in Los Angeles and fans are still muttering under their breath about losing both of them.
Jason: I'm certainly crossing my fingers for failure this year.
Brad: I don't think quite yet...
Bryan: Another player on this team with a lot of good publicity is Miguel Cabrera. What I find interesting is that Cabrera comps well with Andruw Jones, and David Wright does with Cabrera. Is this, offensively speaking, a like group?
Jason: I think it's too soon to tell -- Cabrera and Wright are still so young. And Wright hasn't even had a full season yet.
Brad: Somewhat. Wright may hit for a higher average than the other two in the long run, but Jones and Cabrera may hit for more power. I think it is still to early to tell on Wright.
Jason: I still can't believe that Jones is only 27. He's had a monster spring, too.
Bryan: I think Cabrera is actually the most talented hitter of the group, and his comparisons are scary-good. Like Rich said, Delgado-Cabrera is a sweet, sweet 1-2 punch. Beckett and Burnett could be, too. The flaw is the depth of this team, for sure. Can a team with so little on the bench, a fringe back-end of the rotation and decent bullpen win a division crown?
Jason: I think so -- they may just end up pounding everyone into submission. I do think the bullpen is a big question. As down as Mets fans are on Armando Benitez, he had a dominant season for the Fish last year. I don't know how consistent Mota will be in that role.
Brad: I think they have a shot - health permitting of course.
Rich: I think they have more than a shot. I'd go out on a limb and say they are the big shots in the division this year.
Jason: I think the Phillies will be very good. Their lineup is super scary (especially with the Met killer Pat Burrell back on track), Billy Wagner is healthy to head up the pen, and their rotation is solid, unspectacular but solid. Would anyone take Abreu-Thome-Burrell over Cabrera-Delgado-Lowell? I think I would.
Rich: Well, if you want another 1970s reference, Rollins reminds me of Garry Templeton and Templeton went into the toilet at about the stage where Rollins is now. Of course, Garry may have brought it on himself, if you know what I mean?
Jason: Yeah, would the real Jimmy Rollins please stand up, please stand up, please stand up? And then there's the whole Polanco-Utley question to address. Regardless of who starts, the Phillies were wise to keep the unhappy Polanco since he anchors what could be a very deep bench with Todd Pratt, Ryan Howard, and Jason Michaels.
Brad: I expect Rollins to continue more along the lines of last season, as opposed to the 02 /03 version. He and Abreu are the catalysts to a strong lineup which shouldn't have any problems scoring runs. But it's not the Phillies offense I am concerned with -it's their starting rotation that gives me pause. 2004 ERA+ for this years projected rotation: Lieber 104, Randy Wolf 102, Vicente Padilla 96, Cory Lidle 84, Brett Myers 79. I really don't see much room for improvement in 2005.
Bryan: Well, Randy Wolf was truly on the verge of stardom before an injury has turned him into average. Padilla and Myers just have not progressed since reaching the Majors. Lieber and Lidle are innings-eaters that best serve as third or fourth starters. Ed Wade's "safe" 2004-2005 offseason -- one where Randy Johnson, Tim Hudson and Mark Mulder all were traded -- should eventually lead to his firing.
Rich: I would take issue with how you categorized some of the Phillie pitchers and the Big Unit certainly wasn't going to approve a trade to Philadelphia. As far as Hudson goes, the Phillies apparently didn't want to give Oakland any of their young arms. Mulder? He was a good pitcher prior to the second half of last year, but I would not have paid up for him at this point in his career and contract.
Jason: Well, let's not forget Gavin Floyd who seems to be slated to be the #5 starter given Myers' struggles. Also, the player on the Phillies who impressed me the most last year was Ryan Madson. He held batters to a .631 OPS in that ballpark and had nasty stuff against the Mets. If he sets up for Wagner, that's a pretty good 1-2 punch picking up where the rotation left off.
Brad: As down as I have been on the Phillies rotation, the Nationals are in much worse shape in that department. Livan Hernandez is as solid as they come, but there is not much substance after that. Loaiza looks like a fluke, Tony Armas is already back on the DL, Tomo Ohka could be decent, and Zach Day is your standard issue #5. Are they going to end up anywhere but the basement with this starting five?
Bryan: Well, I'm going to say that the rotation is improved. What they are losing are the near 40 starts made by Scott Downs, Claudio Vargas, Shawn Hill, Rocky Biddle and T.J. Tucker. That's 180 innings of a 6.35 ERA. Besides that group, the starters had a 4.07 ERA last year. I think Day and John Patterson could both surprise, and this rotation won't be awful.
Rich: Addition by subtraction, huh? That's fine as long as Washington's starters are blessed with good health this year. Otherwise, Frank Robinson's hair is going to turn totally gray by the end of the summer. I mean, this is a team that has a few good players here and there but absolutely no depth. Realistically, I just don't see how they can compete in this division.
Jason: Rich is absolutely right and, it's sad to say, but Omar Minaya is largely responsible for the lack of depth since he traded most of the farm system away while he was in charge. Granted he was operating under some severe constraints but right now Mike Hinkley is really one of the only quality prospects left. They need some major rebuilding, and I don't mean Cristian Guzman or Vinny Castilla.
Rich: You mean, Nick the Walking Stick? I don't know. Tom McCraw sounds like a bigger head case than Johnson. According to the batting coach who never could hit a lick, you've got three changes -- psychological, physical, and mental. Stay with me now, he then goes on to say that "you've got to get him mechanically to where you want him, then you got to get him comfortable in that slot, and then you go to work on the head -- knowing what you want to do." Got that?
Jason: Atlanta, Phillies, Mets, Marlins, Nats (with the Phils, Fish, and Mets all lumped together).
Brad: 1. Braves 2. Marlins 3. Mets 4. Phillies 5. Nationals. I think the top three teams could finish within 5 games of each other.
Bryan: I'll say Braves, Mets, Phillies, Marlins, Nats, though I think Washington might look good early.
Rich: All right, guys. I guess I'm the contrarian in the group. I say Marlins, Braves, Mets, Phillies, and Nationals. However, I wouldn't be surprised if any of my top four teams took the division. The Nats may win at the box office but that may be short-lived if they don't wind up putting a better product on the field sooner rather than later.
The Braves are the consensus choice to win yet another divisional title. There is no agreement on which team will finish second. Three out of four see the Mets ending up in third place although Jason and Rich both think they could be the sleeping giant in the NL East. There is unanimity among the panelists that the Nationals will wind up in the cellar -- a familiar home for Washington ballclubs.
Please join us next week when we ask all twelve of our Two on Two guests for their World Series, MVP, Cy Young, and Rookie of the Year selections. Don't be surprised if we deliver a few more "fun" categories as well.
Prospects in the Desert
For a prospect, every Spring Training presents another adventure. In one year, they won't be invited to Major League camp. In another, they will for the drills but will see little to zero playing time. The next season, they may hang around for awhile, but then get sent down. And finally, there will be that March when they prepare to head north.
This March, it appears as though ten of my top sixty prospects will land on the Opening Day roster. Another ten were still in camp a week from Opening Day, though their first destination will be the minor leagues. Twelve more solid prospects have already been sent down but had some game experience in Major League camp before leaving. There are a lot more that rarely pitched or hit, instead just practicing with the big league squad, before getting one-on-one time in minor league camp.
Today, I want to go through what I've learned, and what I'm thinking after this March. Spring Training numbers have to be taken with huge grains of salt, but to completely disregard them is foolish. As Jon Weisman has mentioned in the past, we need walks and strikeouts for stats to be complete. Nonetheless, MLB TV is blessing enough. My thoughts:
Finally, I think now is a good time to look at how my rankings have revised in the last two months or so. Below, the top ten hitting and pitching prospects in baseball.
Hitting: Delmon Young, Andy Marte, Prince Fielder, Ian Stewart, Dallas McPherson, Casey Kotchman, Joel Guzman, Jeff Francoeur, Lastings Milledge, Rickie Weeks.
Pitching: Felix Hernandez, Scott Kazmir, Chad Billingsley, Matt Cain, Jeff Francis, Jeff Niemann, Brandon McCarthy, Gavin Floyd, Yusmeiro Petit, Joe Blanton.
Amazing the difference a couple months and some preseason games can make. Here's to hoping for a Grady Sizemore sighting in Jacobs Field, a B.J. Upton home run in Tropicana, and a Felix Hernandez slider. Baseball is almost back my friends, and I for one can't hardly wait.
Baseball As Numbers
Ten, twenty, one hundred, one thousand. Yes, we like our nice, round numbers. The world of baseball even embraces them more than society at large.
Oh, there are certain numbers not ending in a zero that resonate with baseball fans like no others. Mention 755 and nobody outside my immediate family will say the month and year of my birthdate. 73? Yes, that was the year I graduated from high school but that number conjures up a different meaning in baseball circles.
Baseball statistics is a language in and of itself. You can't say the number 60 or 61 without thinking of Babe Ruth and Roger Maris. Offer up 2130 and I've got a black and white still image of Lou Gehrig wiping the tears away from his eyes while giving his "luckiest man on the face of the Earth" speech.
Baseball is full of milestones based on 3000 hits, 500 home runs, and 300 wins. We love them zeroes. Attach a zero to any crooked number and there is bound to be a feat or player that comes to mind.
Rightly or wrongly, the difference between a 20-win season and a 19-win season is much, much more than just one win. Greg Maddux has put together a streak of winning 15 or more games for 17 consecutive seasons. He's won 20 games only two times during that run. Little does anyone know or care that Maddux has also had five seasons with 19 victories. Had Greg won just one more game in each of those years, he would be tied for third with the most 20-game seasons since World War II. Instead, the four-time Cy Young Award winner is tied with Joe Coleman, Larry Jansen, Frank Lary, Joey Jay, and Howie Pollet (among others) for 36th.
Numbers are revered in baseball. Can you imagine what the reaction would be if we just rounded all numbers to the nearest ten? Man, that would be sacrilegious. Yes, we like 'em round but we also like them profound.
Just as 20 wins is everything and 19 wins is just another number, 200 hits makes fans think of Pete Rose, Ty Cobb, or Wade Boggs. Let the number one-nine-nine roll off the tip of your tongue and people are going to think you are talking about your weight or perhaps last year's gasoline prices. One hit in this case may as well be 50 in the world of baseball numerology.
The truth of the matter is that we like to put players in nice, neat boxes. At the assembly line of statisticians, you can hear them packaging 40-HR seasons here and 50-HR seasons there (although Brady Anderson's 1996 campaign may have a hard time getting past the folks in quality control). Does anybody care that Gehrig and Harmon Killebrew each hit 49 dingers twice? I didn't think so.
At the risk of feeding the frenzy surrounding magic numbers, I present the Magical Numbers Tour. Step right this way!
OK, speaking of hitting 40 home runs, there are three active players who have current streaks in tact. Barry Bonds with five, Jim Thome four, and Albert Pujols two. Alex Rodriguez and Sammy Sosa had their streaks halted last year at six. Only the Babe (7) has had more consecutive 40-HR seasons than A-Rod and Say It Ain't Sosa.
Thirteen players are working on two or more straight seasons with 100 RBI, topped by A-Rod and Manny Ramirez (7 each) and followed by Thome (6); Miguel Tejada (5); Scott Rolen, Carlos Beltran, and Pujols (4); and Bobby Abreu, Hideki Matsui, David Ortiz, Aramis Ramirez, Gary Sheffield, and Aubrey Huff (2). Jimmie Foxx and Gehrig are tied for first all time at 13.
Sixteen have scored 100 or more runs in two or more consecutive years, led once again by Mr. Rodriguez (9, which is every full season of his career); Johnny Damon (7); Todd Helton (6); Bonds (5); Pujols, Lance Berkman, Beltran, and Ichiro Suzuki (4); Rafael Furcal, Craig Biggio, Juan Pierre, Michael Young, Manny Ramirez, Jeff Bagwell, Sheffield, and Carlos Lee (2). With 100 runs this year, A-Rod can move up into a tie for fourth place for the longest streak of such seasons -- behind Hank Aaron and Gehrig (13 each) and Willie Mays (12).
Only three active players have accumulated 200 or more hits for at least two seasons in a row. Suzuki (4) can tie for second place all time with another 200-hit campaign, trailing only Boggs (7). Pierre and Young (2) also have current streaks in tact.
There are other ways to get on base besides a base hit. Five players have walked at least 100 times for two or more years, including Abreu and Thome (6), Bonds (5 with a 200+ season thrown in just for fun), Berkman (3), and Helton (2).
With respect to hits and walks, the following combination is one of my favorite Boggs stats of all:
1 Wade Boggs 1986-89 4 2 Lou Gehrig 1930-32 3 T3 Babe Ruth 1923-24 2 T3 Lou Gehrig 1936-37 2
Source: Sabermetric Baseball Encyclopedia
That's not a bad threesome. Wade, Lou, and Babe with the recently elected Hall of Famer on top.
How 'bout a few rate stats? Nine players are trying to extend the number of consecutive .300 seasons beyond two, led by Helton (7), Manny Ramirez (6), Bonds (5), Suzuki and Pujols (4), Abreu (3), and Pierre, Young, Jason Kendall, and Mark Loretta (2). Among this group, Bonds and Helton (5), Abreu (3), and Pujols (2) each have .400 OBP streaks on the line as well. Bonds (5), Helton and Pujols (2) are also working on .600 SLG streaks. The only other active player who has posted back-to-back seasons with .600 SLG is none other than Jim Edmonds.
Turning to OPS, five players are currently trying to extend the number of 1.000 seasons beyond two, including Manny Ramirez (6), Helton and Bonds (5), and Edmonds and Pujols (2). Gehrig is once again numero uno in the history books with 11 straight years (1927-1937).
Although not as much attention is paid to negative stats, Pierre is in a position to tie Dave Cash for the most consecutive seasons creating 500 or more outs with three. Bobby Richardson had two skeins of two each. Cal Ripken, Jr. had a record five such seasons during his career but he managed to space them out so as not to post back-to-back seasons more than once.
The type of outs created doesn't mean as much in determining the value of hitters as they do to pitchers but Brad Wilkerson is the only active player with a string of two or more seasons of 150 strikeouts -- and he has accomplished this feat three years in a row. Rob Deer (4) and Sosa (5) are the only batters who have fanned at least 150 times in consecutive seasons more often than Wilkerson, who, with 100+ BB and 30+ HR, is fast becoming known as one of the top Three True Outcomes players in baseball.
Oh, this is also the year Rafael Palmeiro is expected to get his 3000th hit and Maddux his 3000th strikeout. That's 15 years of 200 or 20 years of 150. Either way, 3000 is a big, round number that only two dozen hitters and a dozen pitchers have ever attained in those categories.
Baseball is much more than just numbers, but there is no doubt that the stats are a part of the fabric of the game. The two are inseparable. If you're not convinced, the Magical Numbers Tour is just waiting to take you away.
Speaking of numbers, I strongly encourage readers to pick up a copy of The Numbers Game (Baseball's Lifelong Fascination With Statistics) by Alan Schwarz. Henry Chadwick, Branch Rickey, Bill James and more.
[Additional reader comments and retorts at Baseball Primer.]
I Saw It On The Radio
Like Eric Neel, Vincent Edward Scully was my favorite announcer growing up and, in fact, Vinny remains atop my list to this day.
"Dodger baseball is on the air" meant a whole lot more than just listening to another baseball game. Don't get me wrong, the baseball games were great. But they were made even greater by Vinny. The games were just not quite the same when Scully's sidekick, Jerry Doggett, was on the air for his two innings of work. This is not a knock on Doggett. Nobody could match Vin, be it his distinctive voice, his engaging stories, how he called the game and how he sometimes let the game call itself.
The Dodgers may as well have given the redhead a uniform because he was every bit as much a part of the team as Hall of Famers Walter Alston, Roy Campanella, Don Drysdale, Sandy Koufax, Tommy Lasorda, Pee Wee Reese, Jackie Robinson, Duke Snider, or Don Sutton. The graduate of Fordham University has been calling Dodgers games since he partnered up with the great Red Barber back in Brooklyn in 1950. He has outlasted Walter O'Malley, Peter O'Malley, and, thankfully, FOX to entertain three generations of fans.
Over the years, I have had the privilege of hearing Scully, now 77, bring us Sandy Koufax's four no-hitters, Don Drysdale's and Orel Hershiser's consecutive scoreless innings records, Kirk Gibson's World Series pinch-hit home run, and hundreds of other moments that remain firmly entrenched in my memory bank. I treasure some of his recordings, including the ninth inning of Koufax's perfect game, the highlights of Drysdale's streak, and Dodgers '59 (an LP of "the season's most thrilling moments as reported on KMPC by Vin Scully").
When I was a kid, my Dad (at left, sitting next to Scully at a restaurant, circa mid-1960s) worked nights. You see, he was either in the pressbox at Dodger Stadium or at Candlestick Park, Crosley Field, Forbes Field, or one of the other ballparks in the National League. With my Dad not home and able to tuck me into bed, it was Vin Scully's voice who I would last hear before falling asleep at night. I would turn the "sleep" dial to the maximum allowable 60 minutes and hope I could stay awake just long enough to catch the last out.
Back in the "old" days, baseball games routinely started at 8:00 p.m. The only Dodger games that were ever televised were the nine on the road in San Francisco. That was it. These games were incredibly special. There were usually three series of three games. As such, we would watch the Dodgers on TV no more than about every other month.
I remember watching most of the Dodgers-Giants games in black and white. My Dad received a big color TV console from the Dodgers as a Christmas present after the team won the World Series in 1959, but my parents traded it in after a couple of years for an equally large High-Fidelity stereo. The Hi-Fi had two speakers built into the walnut-stained furniture that housed this new piece of technology.
But I didn't need a Hi-Fi stereo to listen to the Dodger games. I only needed my bedside radio. Me 'n' Vinny. I'll be the first to admit that li'l Richard felt very secure in bed, knowing Vin was there keeping me company.
Given the choice, I would rather listen to Vinny than just watch a game. With the introduction of cable-TV, there are nearly as many games broadcast on television as on radio. As a result, it is now possible to do both. But there was a time when I saw almost all the Dodger games on the radio. Yes, with Scully describing the action, I saw all of those Dodger games even though they weren't on TV.
Play-By-Play (I Saw it on the Radio)
-- Terry Cashman
Play-by-play on the radio
("There's a long one, deep to left center, back goes Gionfriddo. Back, back, back, back, back, back, he makes a one-handed catch against the bullpen. Oh ho, doctor!")
Out on the porch in the summer heat
And out in St. Lou it was surely the same
And it was play-by-play on the radio
The swing of The Splinter, DiMaggio's glide
Out of thin air pictures somehow appear
And it was play-by-play on the radio
Play by play, I saw it on the radio...
("There's a drive, way back, it may be, it could be, it is"..."Base hit, right field, the Tigers win it, here comes Kaline to score and it's all over"..."Stargell swings and there's a long drive hit deep into right field, going way back, back, back, back, she goes and you may kiss it goodbye, over the roof for a home run")
The men at the mic, they make it come alive
And it's play-by-play on the radio
Yes, day after day
("It is going, it is going, it is gone")
Thank goodness for baseball, radio, TV, and play-by-play announcers. And thank you, Vinny. You allowed me to see a lot of games on the radio.
Growing Up With Vin Scully
I first met Vin Scully in my grandfather's kitchen. He came singing out of a small black transistor radio that sat on the windowsill above the sink. These were the Dodgers of 1974. I was six years old. I'd sit listening on a stool near the sink while Papa washed dishes and Vin called the action. There are times and places, most of them brief and small, when you feel perfectly at home in the world, when even the thought of any sort of sorrow or peril is a million miles from you. That stool, in that kitchen, with Vin's inimitable voice was one of those times and places for me.
My parents were going through a divorce. My mother was sick most of the time, and my father was elsewhere. I was scared and I didn't really trust anyone. Except Vin. He'd say, "Hi again, everybody, and a very pleasant good evening to you, wherever you may be," and my life would come back on line. It wasn't just that he was out there and that he loved baseball as I did. It was his sound, the sound of a merry gentleman, full of comfort and joy.
I know there were kids like me in the heartland clinging to Jack Buck on KMOX, and I'm sure there were boys and girls back east falling for Ernie Harwell or Mel Allen. But I don't know if they could ever feel what I felt for Vin's voice. I swear the way his smooth, round Irish lilt wrapped itself around me, it promised, almost every summer night, to keep me safe.
It's been 30-plus years since those first games in Papa's kitchen and still, every time I hear Vin I get a rush of that same feeling. Like Proust's madeleines his voice kicks me back. And my four decades are just a drop in the bucket. Scully's been singing Dodger stories since 1950. Think about that. From Brooklyn to Los Angeles. He's seen Sandy Koufax come and go. He was there when the Dodgers' forever infield -- Garvey, Lopes, Russell, and Cey -- broke in and bowed out. He was at the mic for Fernandomania and he welcomes Gagne to the jungle now. The team's town has changed, its players have changed, and its owners have changed, but Vin has remained.
How do you assess the value of that? Not just for me or for any one fan, but for the franchise and the community? I honestly don't think you can. In an era dominated by free agency and disaffection, when Darryl Strawberry comes in one year and Mike Piazza gets sent out another, the identity of a professional club, the thing, the attitude and spirit, you root for and identify with is at risk. It's no turn-back-the-clock slam on the players or the union to say so, it's just what is, and has been for a while now.
People say you root for the uniform, and sure, there's some of that, but in the case of the Dodgers, I think Vin is the uniform. As it was with the Lakers and Chick Hearn for so long (and how blessed has LA been in this regard, with the Kings also having Bob Miller for so long), Scully, the sound of Scully, is synonymous with Dodgerdom. Whatever else we're doing when we put on a cap or a t-shirt, we're pledging allegiance to Vin. He's who we are.
That's no doubt true in many major league cities, but it's especially crucial in Los Angeles. It's a vast stretch between the coast and the desert, and thanks in part to a tangle of freeways, a history of water grabs, and great geographical diversity, the L.A. area is a spread-wide place, with communities distanced and often cut off from one another. That's part of the charm of the place, for sure; you get great variety and, at the margins, some fantastic cultural, culinary, and political mélanges. But it comes, too, with a kind of alienated undercurrent, like the city's prone to spin, from time to time, like Yeats' widening gyre, like you're not always sure what connects you to folks on some other spoke of the wheel. I've always felt that Vin counteracts that in some steady, fundamental way.
I was at a game at Dodger Stadium in the early '80s, I think, and it was souvenir-baseball-radio night. The first 10,000 fans or something got baseball-shaped transistor radios. And there we all were, holding the balls up to our ears, watching the game with our eyes, and listening to Vin describe it with his words. Every radio was on. The open-air stadium was like your living room, rich with his voice. And I remember thinking then that it's Vin who unites us -- culture, class, and race be damned. I've been at stop lights and in unfriendly bars, restaurants, gas stations, gyms, and liquor stores where Vin's name -- or the sound of his call on a radio -- has been nothing less than a shibboleth.
Which brings us to his words. Because it's not just the voice, of course. It's how he tells stories. I could talk about a hundred different things -- from his flare for the homespun phrase with a touch of Shakespeare (or his flair for the Shakespearean phrase with a touch of home) to his feel for the classic structure of tension and resolution (his sense of which I'd put up there with any great filmmaker you want to mention), to his pitch-perfect metaphorical touch ("He's like a tailor; a little off here, a little off there and you're done, take a seat," he once said of Tom Glavine) -- but I'll focus on two: detail and empathy.
Thanks to Rob McMillin at 6-4-2, I had a chance to hear Scully's call of the ninth inning of Koufax's 1965 perfect game again recently. It's a terrific piece of poetic storytelling (Gary Kaufman wrote a great piece about it at Salon.com several years ago), and the thing that jumps out at me is his habit of describing, without fanfare, just the smallest sorts of actions and gestures. There's a bit in that ninth inning where he describes Koufax and his hat:
"Koufax lifted his cap, ran his fingers through his black hair, then pulled the cap back down, fussing at the bill. Krug must feel it, too, as he backs out, heaves a sigh, took off his helmet, put it back on and steps back up to the plate."
Like Hemingway, Scully lets the mundane resonate and tell its own story. As a batter steps into the box, Vin tells you where he comes from, what his mother and father do, or what he likes to read. It's at those moments in which the players, who might otherwise be unfamiliar to us -- by virtue of what they do, how much they make, and how they've been characterized or ignored by the press -- become known on some basic level.
The temptation as a storyteller is to make too much meaning, to layer dramatic moments with interpretation. You hear a lot about Scully being the consummate professional because he's no homer, because his calls are objective and clean of angle. That's all true, but I think that's a byproduct of this other thing. I think a key to his genius is that he often lets things be what they are and, like a good writer, he pays attention to the little things. You're as likely to hear about how a runner moves his feet or a batter wiggles his bat as you are to hear about whether the one is thrown out or the other gets a hit. Nothing escapes notice, so meaning tends to layer itself in our minds as much or more than in Scully's.
I've often thought of this as a kind of "giving way" on Vin's part. As much as Scully's an unmistakable presence on air, he's also willing to recede to the point of remaining totally silent at certain times. In the moments after Kirk Gibson hit his famous home run in Game One of the 1988 World Series, while Jack Buck was giddily shouting, "I do not believe what I just saw!," Scully, who'd called the shot like he's called so many others -- "High fly ball into deep right field. She is...gone!" -- took a long pause to let the crowd noise reach the mic and the moment reach its emotional height, before coming back on to cap things with the sweet little turn, "In a year that has been so improbable, the impossible has happened."
But even more than in these characteristic silences, Scully's empathy shines through in his habit of describing a scene by trying to imagine himself in it. He'll often playfully speculate about what a first baseman must be saying to a pitcher in a mound conference, or some such thing, but that's not what I'm talking about. I'm talking, instead, about those times -- and they happen almost every game -- when he introduces a scene by thinking, almost feeling, through the likely emotional register of Teddy Roosevelt's proverbial "man in the arena."
Here are the key moments in the ninth inning of Koufax's perfect game (italics mine):
And . . .
It's hard to describe the effect this turn has, but I think, for lack of a better term, I'll call it ethical -- and I mean that in the classic sense -- as a mode of thinking outside of oneself and about the fortunes of another. You hear all the time that listeners feel as if they know the announcers who call their home team's games. You hear, too, that they feel as if they're known by those guys behind the mic. It's never true, of course (I'm sure Scully hears a dozen times a day, as he did from me when I first met him in person two years back, that he's been "such an important part" of the life of someone he's never met), but I think in Scully's case, there is, in his tone -- and in his rhetorical style -- something inherently welcoming, something that underwrites his calls with a genuine sense of its being possible.
That's a powerful thing. It meant the world to me when I was six.
And the truth is, it still does. The season officially begins on Sunday night, April 3, when the Yanks and Sox go heads-up. But for me, like it's been for thirty-odd years, the real start of the season comes two nights later, when Vin says, "Hi again everyone, and a very pleasant good evening to you, wherever you may be."
I'll be in the kitchen.
Eric Neel is a columnist for ESPN.com's Page2 and a regular contributor to ESPN the Magazine. He lives with his wife Gwen and daughter Tess in Humboldt County, California.
Two on Two: AL East Preview
The Two on Two series moves cross country from the west coast to the east coast. The AL and NL Central and the AL and NL West were the warmup acts. In week number five, we bring you the AL East, starring the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox and their three backup singers.
Rich Lederer: When anyone mentions the AL East, it is only normal to think of the Yankees and Red Sox or the Red Sox and Yankees. Are the Orioles, Devil Rays, and Blue Jays destined to finish behind New York and Boston forever and ever?
Patrick Sullivan: Good question. For now, Baltimore is the best of the lot but unlikely to catch either team because they are old and have little coming down the pike in the form of young talent. They'll run out of time. Toronto seems forward thinking and all, but I need to see some results. God help Tampa Bay.
Cliff Corcoran: I really thought Toronto was going to make some waves last year based on their 2003 performance and the mindset of their front office, but they fell very far very fast and have way too much ground to make up. I do not have any faith in the Orioles putting together a pitching rotation any time soon and agree with Sully that their key players won't last until they do. I think they've been routinely overrated in pre-season predictions in recent years. It's becoming a pet peeve of mine.
Bryan Smith: No. Whether it takes a labor stoppage and a salary cap to change things, I don't know. But it won't keep happening. I actually think the Yankees could be in a funk in the coming years. They will be fine this season but in 2006, 2007 or 2008, they will be shelling out a lot of money for what's just not a ton of performance. At some point writing another check just won't be enough, and some creativity will need to be involved. Boston should be fine for quite some time, just maybe not the Yanks.
Cliff: There's something to that, but the Yankees' doom has been foretold for the past three or four seasons and they have yet to do as poorly as the Wild Card. I don't have much faith in their decision making, and it seems they've finally reached their luxury tax threshold, but I'm thisclose to putting them in the Braves' category of I'll-believe-their-demise-when-I-see-it. The thing about how the Yankees do business is that you can't predict three years from now because it's not about who's on the team now or in the minors. So who knows?
Sully: Cliff makes a good point in that many have been predicting New York's demise for some time now. But while previous offseason moves could probably be characterized as "sub-optimal," I think they made some moves this offseason that were patently dumb. I have a feeling that the combo of their inability to accurately identify areas of need along with an apparent disregard of their farm system may start to be problematic.
Bryan: Boston has got a lot of New York in the past year, but now they want to strip everything from the Yankees. It reminds me of Denzel Washington's character in "Man on Fire," they simply won't stop until all bragging rights are gone from the Big Apple.
Sully: I think the roster the Sox put together at the outset of last year was a one of historical significance, capable of winning well over 105 games. Three factors made the team merely excellent. Pedro Martinez and Derek Lowe badly underperformed reasonable expectations, and Trot Nixon missed a lot of time. But the team that played from about August 10th through the end of October was one of the best teams of the last decade and pretty clearly better than the Yanks if you ask me.
Rich: Woulda, coulda, shoulda...
Cliff: ...so if the Red Sox, at full strength, were one of the best teams of the last decade (a decade which included the 114-win '98 Yankees and the 116-win '01 Mariners, by the way), you'd have to list last year's Yankees with or ahead of them. Except it doesn't work that way. It's a 162-game season for a reason.
Bryan: My thinking is that the Red Sox have the better lineup for sure. The Yankees lineup is full of people who will be declining with age, and of course, Tony Womack. Boston's lineup doesn't suffer so many holes.
Cliff: Is there a huge difference between "who has the better roster" and "which is the better team?" I really think these teams are very even. I give you the Red Sox lineup by a hair, but I like the Yankee pen. The rotations are pretty even if the Yanks can keep theirs healthy (though the Sox are the ones with two men on the DL). Sox win on bench, even on defense. I'd say it's even.
Sully: Boston. While both teams are supremely talented, both teams carry considerable risks and, therefore, both will likely rely a fair amount on their respective benches, for better or worse. Boston's bench represents the largest advantage for either club, followed by New York's bullpen.
Bryan: Yes, the bench is impressive. It seems that Theo really focuses on building a deep team, while the Yanks are more top heavy. A 162-game season has to favor the former philosophy.
Sully: Absolutely. Theo is relentless in his pursuit of a complete roster. Jay Payton is an enormous upgrade over Gabe Kapler, as is Ramon Vazquez over Pokey Reese. Doug Mirabelli is probably the 15th best catcher in baseball or so. And boy, do I hope Roberto Petagine returns healthy.
Bryan: Yes, Petagine could be a fantastic signing. His numbers in Japan were .317/.446/.633, and even given the tailoff last season, he's not far from Hideki Matsui when he left the Far East.
Rich: Hideki is primed for a monster season or maybe I should say a Godzilla season.
Cliff: Taking a closer look, I give you Mirabelli, but Vazquez and Payton don't really wow me. I don't know jack about Petagine, but I do know that if Steve Karsay helps Andy Phillips to a roster spot the Yanks could be in much, much better shape on the bench than you might think. He can play 3B/1B/2B and hit with power and patience.
Sully: Payton has a career .285/.335/.443 line. How's the Bombers 4th outfielder looking? Bench players aren't meant to wow, but if they're average, that'll get you somewhere.
Rich: I think Payton is a very capable fourth outfielder. He's better than what he showed in the pitcher's ballparks in New York and San Diego and not as good as he appeared to be in the extreme hitter's park in Colorado.
Bryan: OK, I am going to agree that Flaherty, Phillips, Sanchez, Crosby and Sierra don't really compete. But my question, Cliff, is what's more important, bench or bullpen?
Cliff: Bullpen, no question. Consider it a lesson learned from last year. The Yankees had a great top of the pen, but nothing to support it and distribute work. That's what cost them the ALCS, and they won the division and almost won the ALCS without any bench to speak of. This in a year when they lost Giambi almost completely.
Sully: Well, Kenny Lofton was on the bench. Or was he?
Cliff: Lofton was on the bench last year, Sully, and that points to one problem with the Yankee bench that's larger than the players sitting on it: how Joe Torre uses it. Which is to say, he doesn't. Lofton got on his bad side and, thus, despite the fact that the Yanks really needed him to spell Bernie in center with regularity, he got buried in favor of Ruben Sierra at DH and Bernie in center, which was just awful. They gave away 50 points of OBP every time they played Sierra over Lofton and who knows how many runs on defense (not that Lofton was great shakes but Bernie is a disaster out there now).
Rich: I wouldn't look for a repeat of what the Yankees got out of the bullpen last year. As much as I like Mariano Rivera, he's 35 years old and I would look for his numbers to worsen at least a tad. Tom Gordon was worked extremely hard last year and, in fact, his numbers suffered in the second half as well as in the playoffs. So, while the Yanks' pen might be better than the Red Sox, I think the gap may not be as wide as generally believed.
Sully: As for the pens, the Sox could make up the entire difference with a healthy Matt Mantei. "Healthy Mantei" is oxymoronic-sounding I know, but possible. But Keith Foulke is every bit as good as Rivera, and Mike Timlin and Alan Embree aren't that much worse than Quantrill and Gordon.
Bryan: Not quite sure that's accurate, but I see where you're coming from, Sully.
Sully: The Sox, by mid-May, will have six above-average starters. That will push a very good pitcher into the pen, thereby strengthening it. John Halama, too, has been excellent in relief the last three seasons.
Rich: Bronson Arroyo, for example, could be incredibly effective in the more highly leveraged situations before turning the ball over to Foulke in the eighth or ninth inning.
Bryan: Also, a quick look at the numbers tells that the Red Sox pen was 56 runs better last year. For the Yankees to make up all that and then some, it might be asking a lot.
Cliff: You have to remember some of the disasters that made their way through the Yankee pen last year: Felix Heredia, Gabe White, Donovan Osborne, Esteban Loaiza . . .plus ungoodness like Prinz & Proctor and then there was the fact that Quantrill melted like a piece of cheese after the All-Star break. But Sully's right. We shouldn't underestimate the Boston pen. I think Gordon makes a huge difference, though.
Bryan: So what about the rotations? My thinking is that Wade Miller and Jaret Wright are the difference makers there. Can Wade be the midseason acquisition Peter Gammons keeps boasting of, and can Jaret not sustain the negative Mazzone effect?
Sully: I just don't see any reasonable way to project anything all that great for Wright while I think Miller ought to contribute 20 solid starts. The comparison gets us back to the depth question, though. If Miller contributes nothing the Sox still have a good-to-great rotation. If Wright stinks then its WOTS (Worcester's own Tanyon Sturtze) time in the Bronx!!
Cliff: Actually, I'm liking what the Yanks are seeing from (and doing with) Chien-Ming Wang this spring. I think this kid is ready to be number five if need be. Of course that doesn't work if Brown goes down, too. The Yankee rotation has a wide range of possibilities, but the key is Randy Johnson should rival Johan Santana as the best pitcher in the league. Meanwhile, between Miller, Curt Schilling's still tweaky ankle and the ever back-balky stool-trippy, fight-havey David Wells, the Boston rotation isn't that much of a sure thing.
Bryan: Well, I think you guys are forgetting the inevitable July trades. I think Boston will shore up their bullpen, and I wouldn't be surprised if the Yanks add a starter and get Soriano back to replace Womack. That would make a big difference.
Sully: Tough to forecast trades, though it should be noted that the Sox farm system has made great strides. They probably have 5-8 valuable chips now. Other than Wang and Duncan, not sure what the Yanks could offer.
Cliff: Remember, the Yankees big deadline deal last year was flipping Jose Contreras for Loaiza. I won't factor in deadline deals. And Soriano is never coming back to the Bronx unless he's a 38-year-old Sierra-style pick-up. Though I do hope the Yanks will identify a superfluous reliever and flip him and Womack or Sanchez for Placido Polanco at the deadline.
Sully: Polanco on the Yanks could tip the balance...
Bryan: I think Cliff might take his Polanco obsession to the grave. Anyway, both of you have admitted the Red Sox offense will be better. How many runs does the Boston offense have on them? It was 52 last year, mind you.
Sully: 70...healthy Nixon, SS improvement plus a better bench more than covers for age regression.
Cliff: I'm gonna say it hangs right about 50 still. Yanks could make up some ground with Giambi contributing and Sheffield healther, but I'll give it a status quo 50. Oh and Tino, even if he doesn't hit much, will tear up the OBP the Yanks got from Clark/Sierra last year.
Rich: Remember, Cliff, the Yankees had John Olerud for part of last season, too. He could get on base a little.
Bryan: I'll go with the middle, 60ish. Another good question will be how far is the difference between New York and Baltimore. It was 55 last time, and the Oriole offense is no doubt improved. Will they be an offensive factor?
Sully: Baltimore is a decent bet to win 85 games, in my opinion. I say the O's score 875, right around the Yanks. Sammy Sosa plus improvement from Luis Matos and Larry Bigbie = significant improvement.
Cliff: Sosa's replacing Jerry Hairston Jr. plus a chunk of David Newhan. He created 81 runs last year, Hairston 46 and Newhan 64. I give the O's 20 extra runs maybe -- that's assuming Raffy doesn't implode completely and Javy Lopez and Melvin Mora can keep it up. Besides, with their pitching they'll never reach .500.
Rich: I actually like the Orioles more than most. Although the O's were only 78-84 last year, Baltimore scored more runs than they allowed.
Sully: According to Davenport's W3% at BP, they were an 86-win team last year. I think they improved. To clarify, I think Matos and Bigbie will improve significantly upon 2004. So will Gibbons.
Bryan: The question is definitely pitching. I think Daniel Cabrera, Erik Bedard and Matt Riley are all due for some improvement, though, given last year was essentially all of their rookie seasons. Sidney Ponson and Rodrigo Lopez aren't bad middle-of-the rotation starters, but they have no star. They might be able to put something together for 2006, but that's a ways away.
Cliff: Ponson is bad.
Rich: Suffice it to say, the Orioles are all about hitting, not pitching.
Sully: As I said, they were unlucky last year and have improved. A good way to take some money from your friends will be to get some good odds (4-1, 5-1) and bet the O's to win more than the Yanks.
Rich: I think the Orioles have a shot at beating out the Yankees but those odds seem a bit on the skimpy side to me.
Bryan: Well Cliff, what odds would you set?
Cliff: 50-1? Higher? I just don't see the Orioles being a good baseball team, I'm sorry.
Rich: 50-1? Now we're talking, Cliff! You and me should talk afterwards.
Sully: Maybe Rich and I are the only two in the world that like the O's, but I think they have reason for measured optimism for the first time in a while.
Cliff: They were smart enough to sign Steve Kline (grrrr).
Sully: Yup. Inexpensive and an improvement. That simple.
Rich: Heck, the Tribune is paying for Sosa to play for Baltimore this year. Granted, the guy's not getting any better -- in fact, his batting average, on-base percentage, and slugging average have declined for three straight years -- but I don't think it's quite time to stick a fork in him. At least not yet.
Cliff: Yeah, I don't really see the downside. It'll make them money and better in the short term.
Bryan: As a Cub fan, I can tell you the downside will purely be a political one. The man is not a "pro's pro," but I'm not sure what difference that makes in the W-L column. Given the cheap price, I say good move. And surprisingly enough, that move alone might have made their offseason better than the one in Toronto. Who has the better roster: Toronto or Tampa?
Rich: I'm not sure. Toronto is an enigma to me. They were 40-41 at home and 27-53 on the road. Will the real Blue Jays please stand up?
Bryan: The old guy is quoting Eminem. I'm trying to find a way how that compares to the Blue Jays, but I got nothing.
Cliff: Toronto easy.
Bryan: Yes, that's a lay-up question, I think. I'm a bit concerned about whether there will be enough offense, but I think Tampa has that issue too. Toronto's staff is much more formidable.
Rich: If Halladay returns to form, the Jays should be better than the Rays this year. However, I don't think it's a given that Toronto will beat out Tampa Bay.
Cliff: Keep your eye on Russ Adams at short. I liked what I saw from him at the end of last year. Add in Vernon Wells and Corey Koskie, Orlando Hudson is a solid defense-first 2B, Gregg Zaun is a strong-OBP catcher. The Rays' second-best hitter just might be Julio Lugo. Try that on for size.
Cliff: Okay, third-best hitter, but mind you that Crawford's career EQA is .254 and Lugo's is .252. Crawford is just 23 and should continue to improve, but I would like to see what he does this year before I commit. (I'm leaving out Rocco Baldelli because he's on the DL.)
Bryan: How does Chuck Lamar still have a job? Might he have some info on Tampa ownership that he's blackmailing them with?
Bryan: I agree completely. He's proven at AAA, and they have very little to lose. Throwing as many youngsters out there as possible, like the late-90s Twins might be a good rebuilding idea. That means Cantu, Gomes, etc.
Cliff: Gathright, Young . . .totally. Well, Cantu should start, but that's not enough.
Sully: I agree. I can't wait to see Delmon play.
Bryan: Not a lot of teams have a 1-4 like Upton, Kazmir, Delmon and Niemann. I really think they do have 2008-2010 potential.
Cliff: But can they make it happen? Seems unlikely.
Bryan: Not with current management, that's for sure.
Rich: If not for being in the AL East, this is a team that would have a decent future.
Bryan: OK guys, we've hit on it all. I need predictions now, 1-5. I'll start off by saying Red Sox-Yankees-Orioles-Blue Jays-DRays with the Yankees winning the Wild Card. As for Boston, I see Edgar Renteria having a huge playoff until they LOSE in the World Series.
Cliff: Yanks, Sox, O's, Jays, Rays (of course). Sox Wild Card, sure.
Sully: Sox-Yanks-O's-Jays-Rays. Sox depth, on the bench and in the rotation, catapults them to a second straight World Series appearence.
Rich: I second Sully from top to bottom. He'll like to know that I actually think Boston will win by five to ten games. In fact, I think the Yankees will be closer to third place than first.
Bryan: And Cliff, what do you think will happen in the playoffs?
Cliff: I'm tempted to say someone not from the East makes the Series, but I'll go with Randy Johnson and Matsui propelling the Yanks there for yucks.
Well, surprise, surprise. Sully picks the Red Sox and Cliff the Yankees. Who would have thunk? Interestingly, it's the first time in the Two on Two series that our guests have parted ways. On the other hand, Bryan and Rich agree for the first time.
When you shake it all up though, the Baseball Analysts consensus has the Red Sox winning the division, followed by the Yankees, Orioles, Blue Jays, and Devil Rays. The fact that all of us see eye-to-eye on the third, fourth, and fifth place finishers means you can take it to the bank that the standings won't end up quite that way.
How do you see the AL East?
Mr. Smith Goes to Arizona 2
When we left off yesterday, my father and I were leaving Hi Corbett Field in Tucson. Our trip was half over, with six teams and three stadiums out of the way.
Following the Rockies game that closed yesterday's entry, we made the ten minute venture to the other stadium in Tucson. It did not take long to realize why there are only ten night games scheduled in the Cactus League: it gets pretty cold. With tempertures in the forties after a day of seventy-plus, it felt more like an April game in Wrigley than an exhibition in the desert.
Game Four: Rangers at Diamondbacks- Tucson, Arizona
Of the stadiums we visited, Tucson Electric Park was the most impressive. Given that it is used during the year as a Pacific Coast League stadium, this did not surprise me.
When we first sat in the seats, I noted to my Dad just how similar the park was to Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City. Beautiful outfield area, though the highway is just visible in the distance. Concourse above all of the seats, with limited food options. The stadium is also said to have huge problems with the number of beer vendors, as just two were working the whole stadium on this night.
What I found odd about the stadium was that Texas fans seemed to outnumber Diamondback supporters. Still, the stadium was most loud when the announcer introduced Craig Counsell. This was quite annoying to me, and led me on to ramble to my father about America's obsession with the likes of Counsell, Joe McEwing and Willie Bloomquist. I mean, Bloomquist's career was made by a 12-game September callup!
When we returned home that night, two of the first stories I read on-line were of McEwing's release and Bloomquist's new venture into catching. And that marks the official Twilight Zone happening of the trip.
1. Craig Counsell
After five innings of play, when some of the starters began to get taken out, the score was 9-2 in favor of Texas. This doesn't look so bad -- just another game -- until you realize Rod Barajas was Texas' cleanup hitter for the game. Russ Ortiz is only accountable for three of the runs, but he did look awful in his 3.1 innings of play. He allowed a home run to Ryan Drese, and threw 76 pitches before being removed. Expect the combination of age, leaving Leo Mazzone, and moving to Arizona to make the Russ Ortiz signing look about as good as the Bartolo Colon one did a year ago.
Game Five: Cubs at Athletics- Phoenix, Arizona
If you like minor league baseball, this is the park for you. I didn't know quite what to expect when we ventured to Arizona, whether there would be promotions in between innings, or a more serious, Major League-type environment. While I found the latter to be true, such was not the case at Phoenix Municipal Stadium.
There were races on foot and in go karts. There was a girl trying to throw bean bags in a bucket for gift certificates. There were t-shirt giveaways on a seemingly constant basis. Looking on the field, I expected to see Lorenzo Barcelo, not Greg Maddux.
But from what we were told, Maddux was the main draw that day. Cub fans travel, let me tell you, and they had gone south from Mesa for this game. The stadium was at a full capacity 9,361 for the game, and trying to find brokers outside the gates was impossible. Imagine that, a Cub sell-out.
This was our repeat stadium, more because of the competitors than wanting to come back. My Dad is a White Sox fan, and despite trying to raise me as one, lost me at a young age. Both of us regressed to the mean a bit, rooting for both with an emphasis towards one. But when it comes to Cubs v. Sox, it's an all-out war.
While the Cubs and A's game was jam-packed, I was surprised to see a lot of empty seats when the game began at 1:05. Also surprising was the small amount of heckling that took place, far less than what the first inning of the regular season Interleague game would have.
Also frustrating was the return to the midwest, and to weather in the mid-forties. While we can crunch numbers and punch our keyboards as much as we would like, baseball is more than the outcome that happens on the field. It is the experience. The hotdogs, the sounds, the atmosphere. And most of all, the company. I was relieved to find out nothing had changed over the winter, and that it is all still so much fun.
Wait 'Til Next Year? Bah, I can hardly wait until next week.
Mr. Smith Goes to Arizona
My father neither worked for a baseball team nor managed a Spring Training game. His managing was confined to a league in which stealing home is as prevalent as third, and the worst player is always thrown in right field.
When pitching, my delivery was learned from him. My fastball grip was a product of his baseball knowledge, as was my swing. He had grown up in a time with no ESPN and no Internet, yet was just as much a fan as I. He bought me the first pack of baseball cards I had come across, and taught me the statistics on the back. He, not the men on the cards, was my hero.
Together, we have gone to hundreds of games. We saw the first Comiskey, the second, and the renovated U.S. Cellular Field. We've seen games as far west as the Kingdome, and as far east as Fenway. Games as meaningful as a Cubs playoff game, and as meaningless as an A-ball game in the summer.
What we hadn't seen - save a few games in Ft. Myers, Florida - was March baseball. It was proposed we do so this year, with schedules that matched for a week trip. Past vacations to Phoenix made us relatively familiar with the state that we would travel across. Four days, five stadiums, six games, ten teams. To echo Mastercard, it was priceless.
With programs and notebook at my side for each game, I came up with lots of notes on the stadiums and games we attended. Let me reiterate that I am far from a scout, so be sure to take my comments with some salt. Come away with me...
Game One: Athletics at Mariners- Peoria, Arizona
First visible from Peoria Sports Complex is an impressive one. Coming off the highway (110 W), you see a very well-built area of Peoria. Surrounding the complex are various impressive restaurants: Cheesecake Factory, P.F. Cheng's and Buca Di Beppo to name a few. There are also a few nice sports bars and a huge movie theatre, giving the area some surprising surrounding life.
There is no question in my mind that the complex is the best Spring Training facility we saw. Mind you, not the most impressive stadium by any means, but the numerous fields around the stadium give a good instructional feel. Since the Padres and Mariners share the complex, both have buildings around the stadium that serve as an administrative office/clubhouse, and probably split the fields.
As for the stadium itself, it is as generic as any. Like all of the ballparks, it was constructed to give a Native American feel and also supports the grass seating behind the outfield fences. The park seats 9,000, and on that day drew 8,965. There were more retirees in attendance -- perhaps a telltale of the town -- at this game than the others.
I would guess that the field favors neither pitchers or hitters, with rather basic dimensions: 340 feet down the lines, 389 in the alleys and 410 to straightaway center. In center there was a huge wall - over which I heard no one has hit - that guards a concession house right behind it.
Peoria Stadium's most unique nuance is the food. In my notebook I described it as a "carnival concourse" offering everything from turkey sausages to gyros to fried twinkes. The booths were built very colorful and unique, with tents that made me feel I was at the circus. Pluses in the food and surrounding area departments made the first park a positive experience.
Game Two: Brewers at Giants- Scottsdale, Arizona
Home to the Arizona Fall League Hall of Fame, Scottsdale Stadium was built far more like a professional baseball park than Peoria. The teams had clubhouses, and the field was the only one in sight. Trees formed a nice background beyond the outfield walls.
Constructed by the same man that designed Camden in Baltimore, Scottsdale was a pitcher's park. The left field wall was 360 feet, and it was 430 to center. Barry Bonds has it the easiest with it only 340 feet down the right field line, but the outfield was very spacious. Given the AFL's propensity to be a hitter's league, this surprised me.
Unlike Peoria, the food options here were terrible. There are very limited options beyond a hot dog or cheeseburger, neither of which were particularly good. The nuance here was music, which was more targeted for the younger crowd that filled the bleachers.
We were also lucky enough to show up on the Navy themed day, which included a Navy band, jugglers in the concourse, and most exciting of all, the Parachute team. The "Leapfrogs" presented the colors, diving in as the national anthem was being played. While the anthem tends to get quite bland at Major League stadiums across the country, this colorful touch was refreshing.
Game Three: Angels at Rockies- Tuscon, Arizona
With our hotel in Phoenix, our farthest drive was to Tuscon, nearly two hours away. The town has two stadiums, Hi Corbett Field and Tuscon Electric Park. After the Cleveland Indians spent Spring Training in the former for tons of years, the Rockies took over in Hi Corbett recently.
The stadium was built in the 1930s, and you can tell. Fans were complaining about the stadium around me, and I overheard that a replacement might soon be built. The stadium's best feature is free parking, as they share a complex with a golfing course, zoo, and an elementary school.
As for the stadium itself, if any of you have ever been to a game in Clinton, Iowa, you will understand what it looked like. The field has a lower level that goes only five rows back, with an elevated upper level behind it. It seats only about 6,000 people, and the attendance of 4,633 was the worst of the trip.
Don't let me complain too much, the vendors were plentiful and friendly. The food was good, with options such as a foot-long brat and some ultimate nachos that will knock your socks off. With a state containing such a large Hispanic base, it was no surprise to see the Mexican food options were so good in each park. A good surprise, mind you.
Tomorrow, I'll be back with the second half of the trip, including two Cubs games, the best stadium yet, and lots of veteran starters.
Monster's (Fast) Ball
"I liked Dick a lot. He was a great, fun guy who enjoyed life to the fullest." -- Bill Monbouquette
"He was well liked and respected by the other players. He wasn't a flaky reliever but a down-to-earth family man." -- Frank Malzone
Source: We Played The Game (1994)
We lost another All-Star from a time when baseball was just a game. Richard Raymond Radatz died Wednesday when he fell down a flight of stairs in his home. He was 67.
Forty years ago, in an era when saves were considered a hockey stat, Dick Radatz was the premier relief pitcher in baseball. He was a big guy with a loose arm who could really bring it. His windup and sidearm motion make me think of Don Drysdale. Like Big D, Radatz coupled a slow, deceptive delivery with a devastating 95-mph fastball. He was as unhittable as anybody in his heyday.
Dick Radatz was a rookie the year of my first APBA baseball game set. He was an A* (XY)(Z) in 1962 and 1963 and an A* (XY) in 1964. A letter grade of "A" was the highest awarded to pitchers at that time, the "X" and "Y" symbols were only given to the best strikeout pitchers, and the "Z" was bestowed upon those with excellent control. The asterisk meant a pitcher could only be used in relief.
Sandy Koufax was the type of starter who was an A (XY)(Z) and Radatz was the prototypical A* (XY)(Z) reliever. Radatz was not only the best relief pitcher of his day, but he arguably had the greatest three-year run of any reliever in history.
From 1962-1964, Radatz appeared in 207 games -- all in relief -- and, get this, threw 414 innings (yes, you read that right, an average of 138 IP per season or nearly twice the output of today's typical closer). He only allowed 292 hits and posted a cumulative ERA of 2.17 (with a low of 1.97 and a high of 2.29). His ERA+ (the ballpark-adjusted ratio of the league's ERA to that of the pitcher) was 180. He had a 40-21 record (a .656 winning percentage) and 78 saves during that period. By comparison, the Red Sox were 224-259 (.463) during those years or 184-238 (.436) in games not won or lost by Radatz.
Radatz had the best ERA among pitchers with as few as 150 or more IP and was number one in saves, strikeouts/inning, and hits/inning from 1962-1964. He was even second in Runs Saved Above Average and fifth in strikeouts.
AMERICAN LEAGUE (1962-1964)
EARNED RUN AVERAGE 1 Dick Radatz 2.17 2 Gary Peters 2.46 3 Dean Chance 2.54 4 Whitey Ford 2.60 5 Juan Pizarro 2.89
RUNS SAVED ABOVE AVERAGE 1 Whitey Ford 87 2 Dick Radatz 80 3 Dean Chance 73 4 Camilo Pascual 68 5 Gary Peters 60
STRIKEOUTS 1 Camilo Pascual 621 2 Whitey Ford 521 3 Dean Chance 502 4 Juan Pizarro 498 5 Dick Radatz 487
STRIKEOUTS 9/IP 1 Dick Radatz 10.59 2 Al Downing 8.32 3 Dick Stigman 7.34 4 Camilo Pascual 7.23 5 Gary Peters 6.85
HITS 9/IP 1 Dick Radatz 6.35 2 Al Downing 6.73 3 Gary Peters 7.18 4 Jim Bouton 7.47 5 Joe Horlen 7.54
SAVES 1 Dick Radatz 78 2 Hoyt Wilhelm 63 3 John Wyatt 52 4 Stu Miller 50 5 Ron Kline 33
Source: Sabermetric Baseball Encyclopedia
Among relief pitchers, Radatz is the greatest strikeout artist of all time. Of note, Brad Lidge set the NL record for strikeouts by a reliever last year with 157. Radatz topped him twice with 181 in 1964 and 162 in 1963. Dick set the record 40 years ago, and it has remained unbroken ever since. He ranks first, third, and seventh for the most strikeouts in a single season by a relief pitcher.
YEAR SO 1 Dick Radatz 1964 181 2 Mark Eichhorn 1986 166 3 Dick Radatz 1963 162 4 Brad Lidge 2004 157 5 Dick Selma 1970 153 6 Goose Gossage 1977 151 7 Dick Radatz 1962 144 8 Mike Marshall 1974 143 9 Rob Dibble 1989 141 10 Eric Gagne 2003 137
If you're unfamiliar with Radatz, think Rich Gossage, circa 1977-1978, in terms of the number of innings and strikeouts. Dick was every bit as overpowering as the Goose was with the Pirates and Yankees those two seasons. Radatz, though, worked his magic for three consecutive years. The Boston fireballer led the league in games, games finished, and saves in 1962; was second in all three categories in 1963; and led once again in games finished and saves in 1964 while placing second in games.
Radatz was an All-Star in 1963 and 1964, and he ranked 5th and 9th, respectively, in the MVP voting. He was named Fireman of the Year by The Sporting News in 1962 and 1964.
In the New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract, Bill James termed Radatz's season in 1964 the sixth most valuable relief season ever and called his 1963 season the most valuable in the league that year. Radatz had 21, 24, and 24 Win Shares, respectively, in 1962-1964. To put those totals in perspective, Eric Gagne had 25 in 2003, in a year many have called the best ever by a relief pitcher; Lidge topped the majors last year with 17; and Mariano Rivera has never even had 20 in a single season.
I asked Bill if he could share a memory of Radatz from the latter's playing days.
"In Kansas City we were very jealous of Radatz. We had our own star relief ace at the same time, John Wyatt, and, although of course Wyatt was nowhere near Radatz, he was nonetheless one of our biggest stars, and we were loathe to believe that anybody in the same role was better. Radatz is one of the key people who established the notion of using hard throwers as relief aces. He was a big, strong, overpowering pitcher, which was a contrast to most of the relief aces of that time -- Ted Abernathy, who whipped the ball to the plate underhanded; and Hoyt Wilhelm, who could have raced his pitch to home plate and finished in a tie; or Ron Perranoski, who threw a big, wide curve; and Stu Miller, who threw 18 different changeups, none of them over 70; or Ron Kline, a washed-up starter who released a mediocre fastball from the middle of a dizzying array of twitches and gyrations intended to force the batter to guess when he might decide to turn loose of the ball."
Radatz had several pitching outings that would be unheard of today. Most notably, on June 9, 1963 and June 11, 1963, Radatz pitched 14 2/3 innings over a 50-hour span, allowing five hits, two walks, and no runs, while striking out 21 and picking up two wins in relief. In the first game, Radatz recorded 18 outs, including 10 strikeouts, five foul pop-ups, a sacrifice bunt, and one caught stealing. The only batter he walked was intentional. Moreover, only four of the 20 batters hit the ball into fair territory.
One of Radatz's most memorable performances came in the 1963 All-Star Game, when he struck out Willie Mays, Willie McCovey, Dick Groat, Julian Javier, and Duke Snider in two innings of relief. He also struck out five more batters -- including Hank Aaron -- in the following year's All-Star game, before serving up a game-winning home run to Johnny Callison in the bottom of the ninth inning in what Radatz later termed the biggest disappointment of his career. Although Radatz was tagged with the loss in the 1964 All-Star game, he struck out 10 batters in just 4 2/3 innings of work in his two mid-summer classics.
Speaking of striking out Hall of Famers, according to a Boston Red Sox press release, Radatz K'd Mickey Mantle 44 times in 67 lifetime at-bats. (Update: Rob Neyer tells me that David Smith via Retrosheet determined that the actual numbers are 12 Ks in 16 at bats and 19 plate appearances. Still impressive but not of the legendary magnitude previously reported.) Radatz became known as "The Monster" after overwhelming the Mick at Yankee Stadium in one particular game. Richard Goldstein, in a New York Times tribute to Radatz, relayed the following story:
"I had a lot of success with Mantle," Radatz told Bob Cairns in 'Pen Men,' a history of relief pitching. "I'd just start him out with fastballs around the waist and go up the ladder. For some reason he just couldn't move on it. I struck him out in Yankee Stadium with the bases loaded and boom, ba-boom, ba-boom, he started cussing and Monster came out about the tenth word. He was cussing so loud that the press heard it."
"The Monster" also whiffed Roger Maris and Elston Howard -- striking out three AL MVPs in a row -- on a total of 10 pitches. After that game, Radatz, one of the first pitchers to show emotion after getting the last out, punched the sky, as if to say, "I did it!"
Not surprisingly, Mantle once said, "I guess I would have to say that Dick Radatz was the toughest pitcher I ever faced." Bill Monbouquette, Radatz's teammate from 1962-1965, recalled, "Mickey used to say, 'Damn it, I know what he's going to throw and I still can't hit it.' I think he hit one home run off Dick, in Yankee Stadium, and I think Dick broke his bat."
Monbouquette, in We Played The Game, believes Radatz "was the best reliever there ever was. Dick could pitch five innings one day and then pitch the next day. If he had been used differently, where he pitched only an inning or two a game, I know he could have saved between 80 and 100 games a year. That sounds farfetched but I believe it."
"One game, I was leading the Yankees 1-0, but I loaded the bases with no one out in the ninth. Then Dick came in and struck out, in succession, Maris, (Yogi) Berra, and (Johnny) Blanchard. Maris and Blanchard I could see, but Berra was, along with Nellie Fox and Bobby Richardson, the toughest guy in the league to fan."
A native of Detroit, Radatz was a baseball and basketball star at Michigan State during the late 1950s. One of his college teammates was Ron Perranoski, later an outstanding relief pitcher for the Los Angeles Dodgers and Minnesota Twins. Radatz was a starting pitcher in college and the first two years in the minors. He was moved to the bullpen in 1961 by Johnny Pesky, who also managed Radatz in the majors in 1963 and 1964.
Despite dominating American League hitters in his first three years, Radatz tried to develop a sinker in the spring of 1965. The Neyer/James Guide to Pitchers attributed the following Radatz quote to Splendor on the Diamond:
"Ted Williams had said that I needed another pitch. So I tried adding a pitch in '65. It got me into control problems. I changed my arm position, and came up with a sinker. I started using it when I shouldn't have, and it as all downhill after that. It was a classic case of, if the wheel's not broke, don't fix it. I tried changing something, and it became a nightmare for me."
Although Radatz saved 22 games in 1965, his ERA increased more than one-and-a-half runs to 3.92. He was traded to the Cleveland Indians for Don McMahon and Lee Stange in June 1966 and was out of baseball three years later. Radatz never started a game in the big leagues but, man, was he a Monster in relief.
Back to the Future
Forward thinking is the reason I love prospect evaluation so much. But I also believe that sometimes it is the art's largest flaw, since seldom do we go back, and learn from past successes and mistakes.
On Thursday, John Sickels went back to 1997 and looked at his top fifty, giving a sentence on what happened to each player. I found this "Blast from the Past" to be inspriring, and wanted to do something similar. So, I decided to look ten lists back, and go in detail on what I found at the top.
So, using the BA Top 100 lists, I am able to look at Baseball America's rankings from 1996. I've decided to look at the top eighth of the 100 (13 players), and see how each have done. For each player, I've included a paragraph on their credentials when BA graded them in 1996, and what has happened since them.
This will prove that just like in baseball, ya win some and ya lose some.
1. Andruw Jones, of, Braves
Pre-1996: Few players can boast to have the minor league season that Andruw Jones had in 1995. In his full-season debut at the age of eighteen, Jones flashed every skill in the South Atlantic League. Power? 71 extra-base hits. Speed? 56 steals. Patience? 70 walks. Defense? Plus-plus as the scouts say. All of it was there, and you could argue the only flaw was his contact skills. Between a .277 average and 122 strikeouts, Jones clearly had something to work on. I mean, something had to get pointed out. His ranking atop this list can hardly be argued, few five-tool talents like his ever come around.
Post-1996: The problem is, not all five tools developed. Andruw Jones is a fantastic Major League player and again, worthy of a top ranking, but it would be a lie to say he met every expectation he was given. Jones would later become known as lazy and a problem to coach, and some weight gain would make stolen bases a non-factor in his game by 24. Batting average has been a problem too, as only once has Jones topped .280 in the category. But given all that, Jones is one of the best defensive outfielders ever, and has 250 home runs before his twenty-eighth birthday. Only nine players have done that in history, and it would be a shame if all nine don't end up in the Hall of Fame (Juan Gone the only question mark). Andruw is on the bubble right now, and has been one fun player to watch grow up since those three playoff homers in 1996.
2. Paul Wilson, rhp, Mets
Pre-1996: Chosen first in the 1994 draft out of Florida State University, Wilson was a fantastic college pitcher. Before discussing his minor league credentials, I'll defer to FSU's Hall of Fame biographies (he was inducted in 2000):
Paul Wilson was one of the most dominating pitchers in Seminole baseball history. His blazing fastball and command of the game from the mound made him one of college baseball's most intimidating pitchers. Over his three year career he led Florida State to some of its greatest wins and capped his career with his selection as the first pick of the 1994 Major League Baseball Draft.
After just 11 starts following his signing in 1994, Wilson torched through AA and AAA the next season. Pitching in the Eastern League, Wilson had a 2.17 ERA, 6.66 H/9, 9.5 K/9 and 1.8 BB/9 in 16 starts. His numbers were strong in ten AAA starts, with a 2.85 ERA and strong peripherals. With Bill Pulsipher and Jason Isringhausen, Wilson made up one of the top trio of organizational starters in recent memory. And Paul was top dog.
Post-1996: Nowadays Izzy can claim to be the best of the group, but it is hardly something to brag about. Pulsipher basically flamed out with injuries, and a move to the bullpen saved Isringhausen's career and widened his checkbook. As for Wilson, he would struggle as a rookie in 1996, his only time pitching as a Met. The near-350 innings that Wilson threw in '95 and '96 caught up with him, and arm injuries derailed his career until a Tampa rebirth in 2000. His ERA has dropped in each of his five full seasons, culminating with a solid 4.36 while pitching atop the Cincinnati rotation last season. But claiming to be the 2004 Reds ace is about as impressive as being the best pitcher of the three great Met pitching prospects. Oh, and will someone tell Rich that not all can't-miss college pitchers are Mark Prior?
3. Ruben Rivera, of, Yankees
Pre-1996: Signed at 16 in 1990, the Yankees were determined to handle Rivera like a baby in the early 90s. He would spend 1991 in the Dominican Summer League, 1992 in the GCL, and '93 in the New York-Penn League. His full season debut came the following season, when Rivera seemed to put things together. His 33 homers and 48 walks catapulted him to second on the 1995 BA list, despite 163 strikeouts. Ruben continued to impress in '95, both hitting 24 homers and stealing 24 bases. Nagging injuries and contact problems were ignored, as Rivera's combination of power, speed and patience pushed away any concerns.
Post-1996: Hindsight is 20-20. Those strikeouts, those never-high-enough batting averages, that make-up concern all should have sent red flags. In 1996, Rivera had a .711 OPS in the International League, his first full season of health. It would also prove to be his last. Traded to the Padres in April of 1997, Ruben battled with injuries all of that season. San Diego kept trying to turn him into a great baseball player, but from 1998-2000, he hit just .203 in 1006 at-bats. Cut from San Diego then, Ruben has been around the Majors a lot since then. Rivera will likely most end up being known for the theft of the 1992 Spring Training, when he stole of out his teammates lockers so he could later profit off the memorabilia.
4. Darin Erstad, of, Angels
Pre-1996: Given the first choice in the 1995 draft, the Anaheim Angels had no choice but to choose the nation's best hitter: Darin Erstad. A good fielding centerfielder with power? From Nebraska's All-American web page:
Darin Erstad enjoyed a stellar 1995 season on his way to consensus first-team All-America honors. He hit .410 with 19 homers and 79 RBI, while setting single-season records in extra-base hits (46) and total bases (194). One of the best hitters in school history, Erstad finished his three-year career as a top-five performer in eight categories and is NU's all-time hits leader with 261. The first overall pick in the 1995 MLB Draft by the Anaheim Angels, Erstad has played in the majors for five seasons and is a two-time AL All-Star.
It doesn't take a genius to figure out a great college hitter in an A-ball hitters' league is going to yield big results. Erstad proved that after signing in 1995, hitting .363/.398/.493 in the California League. That coupled with his college career was proof enough for Baseball America. Can't say I can blame them.
Post-1996: That still rings true. Erstad has taken a lot of hits from the sabermetric crowd, but his first overall selection has been validated. He's entering his tenth season in an Angel uniform, and will surely surpass 1,500 hits before his too-big contract expires. Still, his one-year peak was really high, and in most seasons he has been valuable. His defense and leadership are both highly thought of, and he still makes consistent contact. To be somewhat valuable for years in the future, Darin will need more consistent plate discipline, and that high average. Those two will make him a solid top-of-the-order hitter, but the difference between a .308 and .409 on-base percentage is quite large. Oh, and if his career slide wasn't enough, Alex Gordon is currently sixty hits from taking his NU hits record away.
5. Alan Benes, rhp, Cardinals
Pre-1996: His brother was the first overall choice in the draft once, and with Alan going sixteenth, the bloodlines were thought to be strong. Both out of small Midwest schools had good overhand curveballs and some nice velocity. In 1994, Benes moved through four levels, throwing more than 200 innings that year. His 184 strikeouts to just 52 walks landed him fourteenth on the BA top 100. Pitching only 72 innings in 1995, Benes looked very good in 11 AAA starts, and had some bad luck in a 16 inning debut. Thought to be over the injury that started him on the DL in '95, BA had little concerns about the rightie that had yet to be thoroughly challenged.
Post-1996: Benes would go on to throw more than 350 innings between 1996 and 1997, looking like an ace atop the St. Louis rotation. He had developed some moderate control problems, but other than that, was on the verge of becoming one of the league's premier starters. But all those innings caught up with his right arm, and Benes missed all of 1998 and all but 17 innings of 1999. Since 2000 he has been up and down between AAA, never more than the 46 innings he pitched in the Cardinal bullpen in 2000. His WHIP has never been under 1.50 in AAA, and is a poor starter there, so his career is likely over. File Alan somewhere in the "What Coulda Been" folder, because if the Cardinals hadn't pushed so hard, they might still have him as an ace.
6. Derek Jeter, ss, Yankees
Pre-1996: Magically, by the touch of the baseball gods, Derek Jeter fell to the sixth spot in the 1992 draft. Picked ahead of him: Chad Mottola to the Cincinnati Reds. Jeter looked abysmal in the GCL after signing, showing no particular skill to be proud of. He was solid in his first full season in 1993, hitting .295 but showing no traces of power. He would take off the next season, flying through three levels with a .344 average and 58 walks. Seldom did the shortstop with huge error totals strikeout, but he never really hit extra-base hits either. In 1995 the Yanks decided to have him spend the entire season in Columbus, and it would be there that he would forever lock up the Yankee shortstop position. With a .317 average, 20 steals, more walks than strikeouts and 27 doubles, Jeter made himself a millionaire.
Post-1996: Four years into the Majors, he had 63 home runs. Known across the world as the heart and soul of the Yankees, there isn't a lot to say that hasn't already been said about Derek Jeter. Through 30 years of age, the Yankee captain has 1,734 hits, thirty-eighth all-time at that point, and 10 more than Pete Rose had at 30. Jeter has started to walk a lot less the last two seasons, making him a good-but-not great leadoff hitter. Unfortunately, no one told Joe Torre that he could have been amazing in that spot for so many years. There was no way to put Jeter any higher than this when BA did so in 1996, but Jeter is a sure-fire, first ballot Hall of Famer. Let's just hope they don't talk about his great defense on his plaque.
7. Karim Garcia, of, Dodgers
Pre-1996: Unlike Riben Rivera, Karim Garcia's treatment was quite agressive after signing just after being able to drive. Signed out of Mexico, Garcia made his debut in 1993 as a 17-year-old in the California League. Obviously there were struggles, but a .247 ISO at 17 is really good. In 1994, Garcia was sent to the pitcher's park at Vero Beach, but was unfazed. He hit .265/.326/.511, smacking 59 extra-base hits but walking just 37 times. Moved to the PCL the next year, Garcia had a .915 OPS in 1995. He always walked around 37-38 times and struck out in the 100-110 area, but his batting average went up in 1995. With big power, a big arm and now an average, it looked like a career was next.
Post-1996: Didn't happen. For Karim, a career has still not happened. Los Angeles kept him in AAA the next two years, despite dominating numbers in Albuquerque. Arizona acquired him in 1998, and in my first Internet fantasy league experience, I drafted him. His numbers? .222/.260/.381. His career numbers have improved a bit since then, but his OPS of .703 is aided by 197 good at-bats in Cleveland in 2002. Those fifty games probably extended his career another 3-5 years, but it shouldn't take much longer for teams to realize he just isn't the option. Karim will always have a little big of power and a good outfield arm, but the Dodgers, Diamondbacks, Tigers, Orioles, Yankees, Indians and Mets will all probably tell you that's not enough.
8. Livan Hernandez, rhp, Marlins
Pre-1996: Not only armed with a pitcher's body and some good velocity, Livan Hernandez had a story. He arrived in America on a small boat with a few other Cubans, and his Caribbean legacy was enough to secure this ranking. Like most players out of Cuba, there were scouts promising he would be the best, with people pointing to how he had beaten the U.S. team once.
Post-1996: But unlike most Cubans, Livan has turned out well. Both he and El Duque have been questioned numerous times about their listed ages, and neither are saying whether it is the truth or not. No matter what his age is, I think it's safe to say that Hernandez has become the best MLB Cuban pitcher ever, with over 1,700 career innings of 4.13 ERA ball. His arm is as durable as they come, and with Montreal/Washington has become resurrected. He has been one of the more valuable pitchers in baseball each of the last two years, and fans in Washington should love him. His career will be best known for his pitching in the 1997 playoffs at 22, but that shouldn't hide the fact that in the last 30 year only 18 pitchers have had more innings through 29.
9. Vladimir Guerrero, of, Expos
Pre-1996: A lot had been said about Guerrero before 1995, when he was in short-season ball, but it was that season in which people started to know he was for real. In the Sally League that season, Guerrero hit .333 despite striking out just 45 times in 421 at-bats. He didn't walk much either, but hit 47 extra-base hits and showed that trademark huge arm. A real five tool player, Guerrero's skill set was complete then.
Post-1996: Vlad would debut the next season and become a regular in 1997, hitting the Majors in stride. He has yet to let up, hitting 273 homers and smacking 1,421 hits in nine years. Through the age of 28, those rank tenth and thirty-seventh, respectively. Basically, if you were starting a Major League team and didn't pick Vlad in one of the top three spots, you'd be an idiot. His arm and bat are fantastic, and the comparisons to Roberto Clemente are fair. In fact, Vlad might be better.
10. Ben Davis, c, Padres
Pre-1996: At least Darin Erstad had a track record. If Baseball America draws any consistent criticism, it is that they overrate people who have been drafted the June prior to ranking. Davis was chosen second after Erstad in 1995, and the Padres were happy to have him. He managed just under 200 at-bats in the Pioneer League after signing, hitting a modest .279/.341/.426 and drawing positive reports for his defense.
Post-1996: Looking back, judging by the other players from that top ten (Wood, Helton), it looks like a reach. His minor league career was solid, and the Padres hoped he'd take the job in 1999 or 2000. He didn't, so in 2001 they decided to hand it to him. A year's worth of .694 OPS was enough for Kevin Towers, who then shipped the catcher to Seattle. Working as a back-up to Dan Wilson there for three years, Davis was shipped to Chicago last year. He'll be a back-up again this year, but with his topping the .700 OPS mark just once, you have to wonder why he's constantly secured a job.
11. Jason Schmidt, rhp Braves
Pre-1996: Drafted in 1991, Schmidt always had an intriguing but frustrating arm. His BB/9 was in the mid-3.00s from 1993-1995, and after 1995 his K/9 had gone down for three straight years. But his ERA and H/9 were the best of his career in 1995 at AAA, which earned a short stint in Atlanta. The Braves did a very good job of not overusing Schmidt, who threw 120+ innings just once in the minor leagues.
Post-1996: Big fastballs are good for scouts to see, but Leo Mazzone demands control. Schmidt walked 50 batters in 83.2 innings in Atlanta in 1995-1996, and as a result, was traded to Pittsburgh that year. He improved his control at the cost of some stuff in Pittsburgh, and was a mediocre starter from 1997-1999. Some injuries hit in 2000, and halfway through 2001, Schmidt was traded midseason to San Francisco. His ERA is just 3.02 since coming to San Fran that season, and given his success, I would be shocked to see him go. Schmidt has become the best pitcher in the National League, great control or not.
12. Matt Drews, rhp, Yankees
Pre-1996: Chosen thirteenth overall in the 1993 draft, Drews was more than appealing as a 6-8 Floridian flame-thrower. But it was control and not power that was most impressive when the Yanks sent Drew to the NYPL in 1994. A WHIP of just 1.06 was helped by his 1.9 BB/9, though his 6.9 K/9 left room to be desired. The K/9 stayed there the next season, the walks went up and the hits down. He was still a pitcher with good control and a huge frame, and with 15 wins in the FSL, was a great player. Those strikeouts, or lack there of, didn't get a whole lot of notice.
Post-1996: Yikes. In 1996, the hinges came off. Drews pitched in three levels of the New York organization that year, and walked 72 in 84 innings. To make matters worse, he struck out just 56. The Yanks included him with Ruben Sierra for Cecil Fielder at the trade deadline, leaving him to Detroit to figure out. In 1997 and 1998 his H/9 was over 10.00, his K/9 in the fives, and his control was not particularly good. Out of baseball after the 1998 season.
13. Derrick Gibson, of, Rockies
Pre-1996: Before 1995, Gibson was considered an athlete full of tools that had yet to put them all together. In the Northwest League in 1994, he struck out 102 times in 284 at-bats. But when reaching Asheville in 1995, Gibson showed some polish. The outfielder his .292 with 32 homers and 31 walks. He left a lot to be desired in the strikeout and walk departments, but again, this was a power-speed guy. Everything gets ignored then.
Post-1996: Promoted to the Eastern League in 1996, Gibson managed just a .730 OPS. Everything was down across the board, and when that happens, 125 strikeouts and just 30 walks gets noticed a lot easier. After seemingly putting it together, Gibson was never really given a shot, and then gone from baseball after 1999. He played well for Long Island of the Independent League in 2003, and a decent minor league outfielder for the Angels last year. Sadly, that's all the upside his career has at this point.
Included in this list are four of the better players in the Majors, three very solid players, one overdeserving catcher, and five "busts." I think we've learned of the BB/K importance in hitters, and Matt Drews has surely taught that strikeouts are essential for pitchers.
I like to think that had I been doing this list, Jones, Guerrero and Jeter all would have made the top five. I'm sure that's wrong, but it sure is fun to speculate.
The Mazzone Effect Revisited
Back in the early days of the off-season, like many of my fellow Braves fans, I began to ponder the Braves pitching situation for the upcoming season. The team was about to lose three members of the rotation along with several effective members of the bullpen. It looked like the Braves would be rebuilding a pitching staff with spare parts once again.
With the exception of the "Big-3" of the 1990s (Glavine, Maddux, and Smoltz), the Braves pitching staff is always in motion. This is not much different from many other teams, but few clubs with such shuffling have had the sustained pitching success of the Braves. And much of the success has come from players not deemed worthy of roster spots on other big league clubs. The Braves have made a habit of turning cast-off non-roster invites into big-name free agents.
Clearly, the Braves are doing something right, and much of the credit has gone to pitching coach Leo Mazzone. The table below lists the mean rank and the mean of each team's ERA since 1991, Mazzone's first full year has the Braves pitching coach.
Team Mean MLB Mean Team Mean MLB Mean ERA Rank ERA ERA Rank ERA -----+-----------+----------+--------+-----------+-------- ATL 2.18 3.50 PIT 15.04 4.37 LAD 4.57 3.75 OAK 16.14 4.49 NYM 8.04 4.01 ANA 16.39 4.46 STL 9.36 4.12 SEA 16.75 4.49 HOU 9.50 4.02 CHW 16.96 4.45 MON 10.04 4.09 TOR 17.21 4.48 ARI 10.79 4.20 CLE 17.54 4.50 SFG 10.89 4.15 MIL 18.21 4.56 SDP 12.00 4.21 BAL 18.57 4.56 BOS 12.57 4.25 MIN 19.61 4.70 FLA 13.42 4.35 KCR 20.96 4.72 CHC 13.50 4.28 TBD 22.29 4.89 NYY 13.50 4.26 TEX 23.50 4.92 CIN 13.86 4.32 DET 24.57 5.04 PHI 14.61 4.32 COL 27.46 5.32 League 4.38
There's no doubt that the Braves have had the best pitching staff in baseball since Mazzone became the organization's big league coach. But, just as I was becoming complacently confident in the Braves ability to succeed with a new group of pitchers, I began to have doubts. Is Leo Mazzone as good as we think he is? We all remember Jaret Wright, John Burkett, and Damian Moss; but what about Albie Lopez, Odalis Perez, and Jason Schmidt? Maybe, we're just remembering the success stories. Maybe some of the guys who were successful with the Braves just got a bit lucky during their tenure. Even if the success under Mazzone is for real, maybe John Schuerholz's keen ability to nab good pitchers or Bobby Cox's clubhouse management are the real secrets to success. I needed to know. (Little did I know that the Braves would soon make some bold moves by adding Tim Hudson and John Smoltz to the rotation, and acquiring Danny Kolb for the pen.)
With this in mind, I set out on a quest to analyze how much better pitchers have been with Mazzone than without. I looked at every pitcher who had pitched at least one full year for Mazzone, and compared their seasonal ERAs with and without Mazzone as their pitching coach. In December of last year I posted some rough results on my weblog, Sabernomics. The verdict: having Leo Mazzone as a pitching coach lowered a pitcher's ERA by a little more than half a run. This estimate controlled for many potential biasing factors. To my surprise the results set off a chain-reaction of follow-up studies at Baseball Think Factory, which largely confirmed the robustness of my initial findings.
Since I first crunched the numbers, I haven't had much time to work with the data in greater depth. Thanks to a kind invitation from Rich and Bryan, I have a reason to revisit the issue. In this article I discuss an expansion of my previous approach looking at the difference in Mazzone's effectiveness on starters and relievers. One of the supposed keys to Mazzone's success is an off-day throwing program for starters. If this is his "secret" to success, the Mazzone effect should be more pronounced for starters.
To begin, I used The Lahman Baseball Archive to identify all pitchers who pitched at least one full season for Leo Mazzone over their careers. I used a sample of pitchers who pitched for both Mazzone and a different pitching coach, and I only looked at player-seasons in which the player stayed on the same team for a full season. Using this data, I compared the seasons in which the pitchers pitched for Mazzone to the seasons without his oversight. To control for other influences, I used multiple regression analysis -- including control variables for age, the run environment of the league, the career quality of the pitcher, and the defense behind the pitcher.
Defining a pitcher as a starter or a reliever is a bit tricky, because some pitchers do a little of both over the course of the season. After some toying around with the data I settled on the following definitions. For this study, a starter was a pitcher who pitched at least 100 innings and started 75% of the games played in that season. A reliever must have pitched at least 30 innings and started in only 25% or less of the games in which he played that season. I tried several other starter/reliever measures, but they yielded results that were not meaningfully different from the ones I present below.
Here are the regression-estimated impacts of Leo Mazzone on park-adjusted ERAs for all pitcher-seasons in the sample (a minimum 30 innings pitched for a pitcher-season) and separated into starters and relievers. For simplicity, I only report the coefficient estimates (which are statistically significant) on Mazzone's presence as the pitching coach, the number of pitchers, and number of pitcher-seasons in the sample. You can view the full regression results and technical notes here.
Pitcher Impact Pitchers Pitcher Classification on ERA in Sample Seasons --------------+------------+----------+---------- All -0.625 98 694 Starters -0.412 22 152 Relievers -0.676 56 248
When looking at all of the pitchers in the sample, Leo Mazzone's presence lowered a pitcher's ERA by about 0.63 ERA points. To put the effect in perspective, for the average 2004 National League pitcher (4.31 ERA) Leo's impact on earned runs was about the same as Coors Field in the opposite direction. Note to Dan O'Dowd: take the balls out of the humidor and hire Leo Mazzone.
When separating pitchers into their defined roles, relievers appeared to benefit more from their time under Mazzone than starters did, though not by much. For starters, having Leo Mazzone as a pitching coach was worth about 0.41 earned runs per 9 innings or 1 earned run per 22 innings. For relievers, Mazzone was good for about a 0.68 reduction in earned runs per 9 innings, or 1 run per 13 innings. It's pretty clear that he helps both classes of pitchers quite a bit, but he seems to do a little bit more for relievers than starters.
What about the ability of players to retain what they have learned from Leo? Should we expect success under Mazzone to continue? And what if the success under Mazzone is the result of John Schuerholz identifying good pitchers before they become Leo's responsibility? One of the results from my earlier study was that players tended to pitch worse both before and after pitching for Leo. So, I ran a second set of regressions with indicator variables for seasons pitched before and after working under Leo.
Pitcher ERA ERA Classification Before Leo After Leo --------------+------------+------------- All 0.625 0.624 Starters 0.367 0.461 Relievers 0.747 0.559
Starters and relievers pitched worse both before and after playing for Mazzone. Something good was clearly happening when pitchers played for the Braves. One noticeable difference between starters and relievers was that the Before Leo impact for starters was smaller in magnitude. Why might this be? I considered the possibility that the long run of Glavine, Smoltz, and Maddux in the Braves rotation, all of whom had some pitching success before Leo arrived, might be the culprit. When I dropped the Big-3 from the analysis, the estimated impact was the same, though the before Leo variable was just barely statistically insignificant. The smaller impact on ERA from seasons before Leo may reflect John Schuerholz's ability to target good starters that make Mazzone's job easier as well as some of the impact of the Big-3.
But, there is no doubt that pitchers of both classifications suffered when they left Atlanta. If Leo is just spotting problems and fixing them, pitchers should retain the advantage they received when they join the team. It turns out that whatever inspiration Leo provides, you can't take it with you. Whether it's a lack of fine-tuning by Mazzone or Braves management just knows when it's time to cut a guy loose, I can't say. No matter what the cause, these numbers do not bode well for the Angels, Diamondbacks, and Yankees who acquired Paul Byrd, Russ Ortiz, and Jaret Wright in the off-season. While all of these players may provide solid pitching performances for their new clubs, I don't expect their performances to be as good as they were for the Braves.
The fact that pitchers seem to lose the Leo magic when they leave the Braves indicates to me that part of the Mazzone method involves handling pitchers during the game. The larger ERA gains for relievers over starters are consistent with this hypothesis. If this is the case, then manager Bobby Cox deserves some credit as well. It would be interesting to study the in-game use of pitchers by the Braves, and how their strategy differs from other organizations. I bet Studes could figure out a way to do this with Win Probability Added.
So where does this leave us? Well, Mazzone is a pretty darn good pitching coach. I think we already knew that, but now we really know it. Leo's influence seems to extend beyond a simple off-field training strategy for his pitchers, and both starters and relievers benefit from his oversight. If the powers that be ever decide to open the Hall doors to pitching coaches, Leo Mazzone has a very strong case.
J.C. Bradbury is an economist who runs the weblog Sabernomics: Economic Thinking About Baseball.
[Additional reader comments and retorts at Baseball Primer.]
Two on Two: NL West Preview
After previewing the AL Central, NL Central, and the AL West, the Two on Two series tackles the NL West. Jon Weisman of Dodger Thoughts and John Perricone of Only Baseball Matters join us this week to discuss (in order of finish last year) the Dodgers, Giants, Padres, Rockies, and Diamondbacks.
Rich Lederer: Arizona and Colorado play home games in ballparks that are two of the three most favorable to hitters in the major leagues. Los Angeles and San Diego, on the other hand, play home games in ballparks that are two of the three most favorable to pitchers. Even San Francisco plays in a pitcher friendly stadium.
Jon Weisman: Well, to the extent that you believe that the Rockies may never figure out a way to become a consistent winner where they play, it's not a coincidence. But obviously, Arizona has been successful and became so in a very short time, so yeah, I figure that it is a matter of biorhythms and pixie dust that the three pitcher-park teams are favored.
Bryan Smith: I'm not sure it's just magic for the pitcher-park favoritism, especially considering Colorado. This is simply a club that can't figure out its ballpark and needs a change of scenery. Arizona got by while they were succeeding by using starters that would dominate in Little League stadiums. It seems that the Dodgers, Giants and Padres are better built for their stadiums.
Jon: I don't expect a significant jump in runs per game because of the shrunken foul territory in Dodger Stadium. This is very oversimplified reasoning, but...I would guess that a given Dodger Stadium game will lose no more than three outs per game on average because of the foul territory. I haven't checked how many foul popouts per game have been recorded at Dodger Stadium, but I can't imagine it's much more than this. The percentage of those outs becoming baserunners should be what, maybe 30 percent (keeping in mind that the batter will have at least one strike on him when he returns to the plate). So one extra baserunner a game? Even if it's sometimes a home run, what impact is that really going to have over the long haul?
John Perricone: PacBell has a small, treacherous foul territory. Both bullpens occupy the outfield foul ground, meaning there are mounds and usually players in the way. I mean, past first base, there's just about nowhere to go. I doubt that it's as few as one baserunner per game, but it's certainly not five. I think the impact is more along the lines of the added loads on the pitchers and added pressure on the defense.
The pitcher feels like he never gets an easy out via the foul pop. More foul balls out of play mean longer at-bats, and the defense (especially the ancient mariners in the outfield) -- already playing more towards center as it is -- must feel like they can never get to balls along the lines, let alone in foul territory.
Bryan: I'm not sure the extra baserunners are as important as the additional pitches. I'm guessing that games in Dodger Stadium last year had (on average) about 5-10 fewer pitches than PacBell or Wrigley. And with more pitches, as John has mentioned, comes added stress.
John: I guess if you're used to it, there must be some advantage. For visiting clubs, though, I'd bet it's no fun at all.
Rich: I've been to Petco and it's a big ballpark in terms of distance from home plate to the fences as well as the amount of foul territory. I can't help but think the fact that the California ballparks are at or near sea level is another plus for the pitchers.
Jon: Well then, all things being equal, how do you like these teams' pitchers?
Rich: Jason Schmidt is, by far, the best pitcher in the division. He also has two teammates in Noah Lowry and Jerome Williams who could also contribute mightily to the Giants if they can throw 200 innings.
Rich: I wouldn't put too much stock in Rueter's spring, John.
Jon: Kirk Rueter's days of defying gravity are over, I think. The sooner the Giants can get him out of their rotation, the better for them.
Rich: Unlike the Giants and Padres, I don't think the Dodgers have an ace. What they do have though are four quality starters. If Derek Lowe comes up as big as his contract and Brad Penny stays healthy all year, then the Dodgers' staff is every bit as good -- if not better -- than the other teams in the division.
Bryan: I am positive on Lowe and think that he is going to have a very, very good season. If I'm wrong, will someone blame Studes for me? Also, I should mention if injuries attack, having Edwin Jackson and Chad Billingsley will prove to be a good thing. But I'll admit that it is good to have an ace.
Rich: Jake Peavy is, in my opinion, the second best pitcher. He won the ERA title last year while dramatically lowering his walk and home run rates and increasing his strikeout rate. Granted, Petco helped him but he was almost as effective on the road as he was at home.
Jon: The Padre rotation is good, although I think the Padres are kidding themselves if they think Darrell May will solve their problems at number 5. The thing with the Dodger staff is that they should only get better as the season goes on, as the older guys heal and young prospects start to mature.
Rich: Should Javier Vazquez return to his pre-second half 2004 form, he would easily rank as no worse than the third-best pitcher in the division. Going from Yankee Stadium to the BOB sure isn't going to help him though. Same thing with Russ Ortiz. Shawn Estes actually should benefit, but what does that mean -- going from a nearly 6.00 ERA to closer to 5.00?
Bryan: I'm a big fan of Jeff Francis and think Colorado will have the best home ERA they have had in awhile. Francis and Jason Jennings are good pitchers, and Joe Kennedy and Jamey Wright have shown sample sizes of success in the high altitude. Throw in a decent bullpen with the solid Chin-Hui Tsao closing, and I look for them to improve on last year's 6.27 home ERA. But, similar to what Rich said, mid-six to mid-five still leaves a lot to be desired.
John: Well, Bryan, I think it's time to accept the fact that baseball cannot be played at Coors. The park effects are so extreme they are going to send a pretty decent hitter into the Hall of Fame (Todd Helton), while simultaneously destroying just about anybody who pitches there.
Rich: Turning to the bullpen, as long as Eric Gagne is Eric Gagne, the Dodgers should have the best one in the division. Wouldn't you agree, Jon?
Jon: The Padres had a very nice bullpen last season with Trevor Hoffman, Akinori Otsuka and Scott Linebrink. I think the Dodgers overrate Giovanni Carrara, but yes, I do like the bullpen. They would love to have the luxury of Wilson Alvarez in there full time.
Rich: Manager Jim Tracy uses Gagne the same every year. Literally. Get this, he has pitched 82 1/3 innings in each of the past three years.
Bryan: Interesting for sure, though I think that's coincidence more than anything else. Reminds me of Billy Packer on CBS talking about how odd it was that a college basketball team had two starters with the same points per game totals. What wows me the most is that in those three years, hitters are managing a .473 OPS against him. Insane.
John: As for the Giants bullpen, the Armando Benitez signing -- albeit pricey for my tastes -- was exactly what was needed. He allows all of the other relievers to operate in their comfort zones. Jim Brower can start the fifth or sixth inning and give Alou up to three innings if he needs it. Scott Eyre can concentrate on the opposition's one tough lefty. All of the spot guys can relax. Heck, even Matt Herges might be useful again. Benitez, or at least last season's Benitez, turns a weakness into a strength.
Rich: Yeah, Benitez was flat out nasty last year. Hitters, if you can call them that, put up a .152/.220/.257 batting line against him. However, you have to expect that his batting average allowed on balls in play of .169 will regress toward the mean in 2005. I think he will end up closer to his DIPS ERA (3.26) than his actual ERA (1.29), but I have no doubt that he will give the Giants 70 or so quality innings in highly leveraged situations this year.
Bryan: Regression to the mean is a good comment, because I look for that to happen in a lot of the bullpens. Benitez, Hoffman/Otsuka/Linebrink, and Yhency Brazoban all may have pitched over their heads last year. But even regression makes them better than Colorado and Arizona, who have a lot of inexperience coming in the game during key situations.
Jon: So after all this discussion of ballparks and pitching, here's a question for you. If the Rockies' starting lineup played 81 games a year in Los Angeles, San Diego or San Francisco, what would the expectation be?
John: Colorado was 14th in runs scored on the road last season (.246/.315/.403/.718 OPS) and first in runs scored at home (.303/.375/.506/.881 OPS). I have a hard time imagining them winning any more games if they played somewhere else because the team has been put together in an effort to utilize the effects of Coors. In fact, looking at their team doesn't inspire me at all. Playing at sea level would reduce their offense, by 10 or 15%. Their pitchers would obviously benefit, but again, it's still not much of a team.
Rich: I think the biggest difference is that Colorado's pitchers wouldn't get beat up so quickly and lose their confidence at such an early stage in their development or tenure with the team.
John: The positive benefits for their pitchers could never make up for the fall-off of their hitters. Most of their best guys are washouts at sea level (again, with the exception of Helton, who isn't the superstar on the road that he is at Coors ). Let's face it, they are a terrible, terrible offensive team. To succeed in a pitcher's park, their pitchers would need to drop their ERA from the 6 and change at home last season to something like 3 and change. Is that even remotely possible? No. They have a couple of decent pitchers and about 10 unknown commodities.
Jon: The Rockies look down and out. So, to me, does Arizona. Take this with a grain of desert sand from someone who was as wrong about the 2004 Diamondbacks as one could be, but I think rumors in certain parts of their rebirth are erroneous. Talk all you want about potential holes in the Dodger lineup, but here are the Diamondbacks with Royce Clayton, Craig Counsell and Koyie Hill/Chris Snyder/Kelly Stinnett in three lineup slots. Jose Cruz Jr. brings a league-average OPS+ to the outfield, and the best days of Luis Gonzalez and Shawn Green, if not Troy Glaus, are behind them.
Rich: I agree, Jon. The D-Backs might win the "We Try Harder" Avis award for what's taken place this offseason, but I'm not sure they are materially better. It's hard to believe but those G-Men you mentioned averaged 49 home runs just four years ago. I'd be surprised if they averaged much more than half that total this year.
Living in the past might work for Jethro Tull but not when it comes to building a baseball team.
John: I don't know if I am as down on the D-Backs as you guys seem. Their pitching staff will be better than it was. Glaus will be the most productive third baseman in the NL West. Cruz is an excellent defensive outfielder. Not to suggest that they will contend, but the moves they made put them well above the Rockies, in my book. They spent a lot, but they did pick up some decent talent, Ortiz, Glaus, Vazquez, Green. This team will probably fight with San Diego for second this season.
Bryan: I'm with John here. I think while they overpaid a lot this season, they improved a ton. No team in the West (even the Giants) will get that kind of production from the four corners. The rotation, while without Randy, is deep this season. They won't be fantastic, but it's possible they will make some noise.
Jon: I don't think we were saying that the Diamondbacks wouldn't finish ahead of the Rockies. Certainly, Arizona is not without talent. But...saying that their pitching staff will be better than it was is a) dubious because of Randy Johnson's departure and b) not much of a statement, even if it's true.
As far as the Diamondback offseason goes, I have mixed reviews. Some good moves, but I don't think Russ Ortiz really passes as decent talent anymore. And Jose Cruz may be a good defensive outfielder, but that's not going to make much of a difference.
Rich: Beating out the Rockies is one thing but finishing ahead of the Dodgers, Giants, and Padres is a whole 'nother matter. I'm sorry, but I just don't see that happening.
John: Well, I didn't like the Dodgers offseason at all.
Jon: Since you say that Arizona will fight San Diego for second place and you don't like the Dodger offseason, do I gather that you think that their respective offseasons will eliminate the 40-odd win gap in 2004 between the Diamondbacks and the Dodgers?
John: I think the Dodgers will be way off from the 90-win plateau and, yes, I think the D-Backs will come up quite a bit from their 100-plus loss season. It's hard for a team that bad not to improve from just plain old regression. The Dodgers lost a lot of pitchers and a tremendous amount of offense in Adrian Beltre and Green. That said, 40 games is a lot. I will stand corrected. The Dodgers will be in the race, their pitching should be strong, top to bottom. The question is, do they have the offense to battle the Padres and the Giants?
Jon: I don't know if they will have enough offense, John. I do think that most people are assuming mediocre-to-worst case scenarios for Los Angeles. Even supporters of Paul DePodesta seem to think that mere adequacy is the best they can get from third base, catcher and first base, among other positions. But some of those folks are young and do have upside potential. On the other hand, few seem to have factored in that aging might hit the Giants anywhere but in outfield defense. Basically, I see three or four teams in the NL West with the potential to win as many as 95 games or as few as 75.
Bryan: Rich, you have Arizona at a zero delta? C'mon, after seeing the Royals in 2003 and the Rangers in 2004, you should know better. If Arizona was an option, I'd buy them from you all day.
Rich: I'd sell you an option at 81 games, if that is what you'd like. Remember, they only won 51 last year. Even the Tigers only improved 29 games from 2003 to 2004. Add the same number of wins to the Diamondbacks and you come up with 80. What I'm saying is that there is no way they can win half their games this year.
Jon: I'd be willing to predict that one of the three favorites you mentioned will finish below .500. I just don't know which one.
Rich: Moving on, San Francisco outscored Los Angeles and San Diego by about a half of one run per game while allowing about a half of one run more per game than both teams. Is there any reason to think those differentials will narrow or widen this year?
John: The Giants are a good bet to both lower the runs allowed and score more runs. I think the Giants pitchers are going to be a lot better this year. Benitez alone will eliminate probably 10 or more losses. The Giants relievers had 29 losses and 46 saves against 28 blown saves last year, converting just 62% of their chances. By comparison, Florida with Benitez had 53 saves, 22 blown saves and converted 71% of their chances, behind only LA and the Cardinals. Alou will be an upgrade, shortstop will be better in every way, Feliz seems to be on his way to an everyday job, and of course, there's Barry Bonds.
Rich: I like Benitez, John, but eliminating 10 or more losses? That seems like way too much to me. He only had 16 Win Shares last year when he put up a career-best ERA. I can see Benitez accounting for, maybe, five or six wins, but I wouldn't attribute his presence to much more than that.
Jon: I can certainly see the Giants being the favorite in the division. Bonds, like the Atlanta Braves, is going to have to show me he can't do it anymore before I'll predict it. San Francisco should have pitching as good or better than last year (despite a regression from Brett Tomko, I suspect). But I'll go along with most of the crowd and say that San Francisco better do it in '05, because they don't look well-positioned for the coming years.
Bryan: Yes, if the Giants "Wait 'Til Next Year" they are finished. But pardon me for being contrary, not sure about the Giant pitching staff improving. Benitez should do some work on helping the bullpen, but I think the starters' ERA will move up from 4.18. Tomko and Noah Lowry both pitched over their heads last year, though I do expect Jerome Williams to improve this year. Schmidt and Kirk Rueter should be at about 4.30 combined, leaving the ERA slightly worse in my mind. And when you factor in that bad defense, even Barry Bonds might not be able to offset all that.
Rich: OK, let's talk a little bit more about the man who can't get rid of that "S" word. Settle down now, John. I was referring to Superman. I say Barry hits .340 with 40 home runs and 200 walks. What do you say?
Bryan: I'm kind of with Jon here, I think, age and health should force him to regress at some point. I'll say 350 at-bats, .330 average, and 35 home runs. And for every at-bat, there will be at least five annoying hecklers mentioning BALCO.
John: I think Rich's predictions are right on, unless he gets hurt. I'm beginning to worry about the steroids thing more and more. The hype is just overwhelming any dialogue or reason. Bonds' exclusion from the hearings seems to indicate that he is in the BALCO's prosecutors sights for perjury. Going for the record and everything that entails will be enough, but oh my God, what a circus it will be if somebody comes forth with evidence against Barry.
Health, however, remains the 2005 Giants biggest worry. If Head Trainer Stan Conte can work his magic, I think the Giants will emerge from the NL West with an eye on the team's first San Francisco ring.
Rich: Speaking of health, I think J.D. Drew needs to play 140 games or so and put up something along the lines of a .300/.400/.500 season for the Dodgers to feel as if they got their money's worth this year.
Bryan: To get their money's worth, the Dodgers must get a lot from Drew, Jeff Kent and Milton Bradley. Los Angeles got about an .855 OPS from lineup spots 3-5 last year, and will need that again in 2005.
Jon: I doubt that the Dodgers honestly expect Drew to play more than 145 games. They may well treat him like Barry Bonds, or a catcher, and schedule days off for him to keep him fresh and productive. The Dodgers may compensate for the days he (or Kent, or any big starter) sits by using quite a few guys as super-utility players, trying to find good batter-pitcher matchups. Jim Tracy has a history of getting guys like Paul Lo Duca or Jose Hernandez in the outfield to bridge some injury gaps.
John: Watching San Diego last season, they looked like a team with a lot of upside. A lot of their top talent is young, and some of it is very impressive, like Khalil Greene.
Jon: I agree, the Padres will be in almost every game they play with their pitching. Their lineup, on the other hand, does not intimidate at all.
Rich: Brian Giles, Ryan Klesko, and Phil Nevin are all 34 years old. At their peaks, they were outstanding. Giles is still one heckuva player, but his numbers were held back by Petco. I like Greene, but I'm beginning to wonder if Sean Burroughs is ever going to fulfill his promise?
Bryan: No, just think of him as Jerry Royster, without Royster's strengths: speed and versatility. I do love Greene, who has every tool, and should explode this year.
Rich: Well, I think we have covered the division from California to Colorado and Arizona, if you will, in between. It's time to go on record with your picks. One through five. Bring 'em on.
John: OK, here goes...
San Francisco 95-67
Jon: It's tough, man. I can't remember having this much trouble choosing among three teams in this division. But I'm going to give Bonds and Schmidt's team the benefit of the doubt, with the Dodgers and Padres close behind, Diamondbacks fourth and Rockies fifth. Then the Dodgers in a runaway in 2006.
Bryan: I think the Dodgers are going to get it this year. Derek Lowe is going to make DePo look smart, and they have room to fill holes midseason. I'll say the Giants second again, with the Diamondbacks my surprise pick for third. Look for the Padres to fall off a bit and be right around .500. Also, the Rockies should be the worst team in the NL, and battle with the Royals for worst in baseball.
Rich: I agree with Jon. This is a tough division to call. In the so-called winner's bracket, I'm going with the Giants, Padres, and Dodgers, in that order, with the range between first and third no more than six games. In the loser's bracket, I think it's a coin flip. I'll be different and go with the Rockies fourth and the Diamondbacks fifth with both teams right around 70 wins.
There you have it, folks. The San Francisco Giants are the consensus choice among the Baseball Analysts panelists to win the NL West. Bryan is the only one of the four not to pick the Giants. In fact, he is fast becoming known as the Lone Ranger as he has differed from his fellow participants in three of the four previews thus far. Interestingly, Rich was the one standing on the ledge all by his lonesome last week when he selected the A's over the Angels.
Our guests, on the other hand, have always agreed on which team is going to win the division. Will that streak continue? Be sure to check back next Wednesday for the fifth installment of our Two on Two series when we cover the much-ballyhooed AL East.
"In Billy We Trust." Over at Athletics Nation, this is the defining phrase of the site. Across the Internet, Billy Beane is lauded for his talents as a General Manager -- with admirers pointing to the team's performance over the last several years within the constraints of a tight budget.
For one reason or another, I've never been a diehard fan of Beane's. Maybe the constant praise is to blame or maybe the glorification that was Moneyball. I respect the great work he does annually, but often his praise clouds good work throughout the rest of MLB.
One of those people -- ever so quietly -- and my choice for the Majors' most underrated GM is Doug Melvin. While Milwaukee has been less than impressive since Melvin took the reigns in October of 2002, I find that to be more telling of the train wreck he inherited than anything else. While Director of Scouting Jake Zduriencik stockpiles talent beneath the surface, Melvin has proven to be both cunning and innovative.
With the Selig family giving way to Mark Attanasio atop the organization, hope has sprung that the payroll will rise in coming years. If you combine an increased budget with Zduriencik's top-heavy farm system and Melvin's ability to acquire free talent, it is easy to see that the future looks bright in Milwaukee.
First and foremost atop that list is Melvin, who has had an impressive start in his second GM stint. A look into his two seasons of work provides much of his thinking on how to run an organization:
1. Scour the waiver wire, minor league free agency, and other organizations for cheap, undervalued talent. 2. As age old as capitalism: Buy low, sell high. 3. Use contenders' needs/desires as leverage while trading veterans. 4. Stockpile youth. 5. Hire good teachers for organization.
When rebuilding a franchise, I think it's safe to say those are some good principles to have. With limited pocketbooks comes smaller room for error and Melvin has not proven to be a risktaker. Not yet has he signed a free agent to a deal that pays anything more than $2.35M a year, and only once has he inked a multi-year contract with a free agent. There will be time for that, but seeing limited upside, Melvin knew that time was not 2003-2005.
Instead, Melvin spent time looking at all inexpensive options, looking to find those diamonds in the rough. He has succeeded in doing so, as I account 64 Win Shares in 2003 and 78 in 2004 to the Milwaukee front office's watchful eye. Twenty-two players played in two seasons in Milwaukee after being acquired via the waiver wire, minor league free agency, Rule 5 draft or through trade for cash/meaningless minor leaguers. Extraordinary.
In his first offseason, some of Melvin's first moves were landing who would later be his 2004 and now 2005 starting centerfielders. In his first official transaction, Melvin claimed 27-year-old Scott Podsednik off waivers from the Mariners. Once with Melvin in Texas, a recurring theme here, Poddy would go on to compile 37 Win Shares in two years. Replacing him will be Brady Clark, claimed off waivers from the Mets (1/03) when Melvin saw a player with versatility and discipline. After seven and thirteen Win Share seasons, Clark will open the 2005 season atop the Brew Crew lineup.
During that same winter, Melvin signed two pitchers who would later become his first and last man in the bullpen. Another ex-Ranger, Dan Kolb, was signed and would be influential as a reliever in his two seasons. Brooks Kieschnick was given the opportunity by Milwaukee to play both ways, becoming the most unique 25th man in the Majors. Baseball Prospectus 2005 amusingly points out that in 2003 Brooks excelled in his PH role, while in 2004 his strength was his arm. A great way to spend a few hundred thousand, that's for sure.
Melvin's first trade came a week after the Kieschnik signing, as he attempted to shore up two roster spots with two low-A pitchers. Seeing depth in Minnesota's catching and pitching, Melvin deemed Matt Kinney and Javier Valentin undervalued commodities. Of course, later that spring Melvin needed more outfield depth, and subsequently traded Valentin to Tampa for Jason Conti. Sure, neither turned out particularly well, but six Win Shares is better than Matt Yeatman and Gerry Oakes have amassed.
Not all of his discount signing, however, came that winter. Since then, he acquired (to name a few) two starters and two key relievers. Doug Davis was released by the Blue Jays in July of 2003, allowing Melvin to sign the southpaw as a minor league free agent. Yet another player from his regime in Texas, Davis has turned it around this season, as Baseball Prospectus tabbed him as one of the Majors 20 best pitchers last year. While Victor Santos, Dave Burba, and Jeff Bennett (Rule 5) have not contributed to Davis' level, their contributions were well worth their price.
When success happens to these players, gradually their price -- or the perception of it -- rises. And then, you sell. This has been a philosophy that has most recently been used on Melvin's cell phone, and the type that has benefitted the Brewers the most for the future.
Dean Taylor's stay in Milwaukee isn't one to brag about. Like Chuck LaMar, longevity was about the nicest thing you can reflect on. His best move, in my opinion, was the acquisition of Richie Sexson at the trade deadline in 2000. It didn't take long for Sexson to become a hero in Milwaukee, his power and personality made him an immediate fan favorite. But his salary made him a burden and caused Melvin to trade him last winter. With home run numbers galore you can imagine that there were suitors, but would anyone guess he acquired six players in return?
While there was no way to know this before the trade, Melvin was "helped" by the fact that Richie Sexson went down with injury. Lyle Overbay hit 53 doubles as Sexson's replacement, and his emergence allowed the team the good fortune of not rushing Prince Fielder. Junior Spivey's presence would allow for another trade, Craig Counsell was the "veteran leader," Chad Moeller the fill-in catcher, and there is hope for Chris Capuano and Jorge De La Rosa. Nothing fantastic, but this group totaled forty Win Shares last year, and Sexson has already left Arizona. Two thumbs up.
Another Taylor move -- months before his exit -- was a deadline veteran dump of Mark Loretta to the Astros. We can look at this now and find another thing to make fun of Taylor for, but one of the acquisitions was Keith Ginter, a good player. I've sung Ginter's praises for awhile, and even though I still think he is a better player than Spivey, Junior has definitely allowed for his exit. Melvin, seeing Beane drooling at Ginter, acquired Justin Lehr and Nelson Cruz for him. Early reports say the trade will be good for the Brew Crew, who may have found something to be proud of in Cruz.
Finally, with respect to the true "buy low, sell high" moves, Podsednik's waiver claim now looks a lot better after this winter. Knowing the Sox wanted to trade power for speed, Melvin used the most efficient basestealer as bait and landed a big fish. Carlos Lee. Milwaukee once again has another big right-handed bat to complement Geoff Jenkins, and put a little more punch to the middle of the lineup. Don't you mind that Luis Vizcaino, this was one of Melvin's best moves to date.
Another good move was selling Kolb high. While his revival these past two seasons has been fantastic, the strikeout rate is beyond concerning. So, with John Smoltz moving to the rotation, the Brewers were able to get value for Kolb. Good value. Top fifty prospect value. I've already labeled Jose Capellan my most talked about player, and I'll say if he doesn't succeed as a power starter (remember, think Bartolo Colon) he'll succeed Kolb in short time. Great, great acquisition.
But, I would be remiss in talking about Melvin's skillset without mentioning his weakness. Deadline deals. Dumping veterans. For some reason or another, those two have not mixed well, and the returns have not panned out. While trading veterans is not an easy thing, especially fringe players, you hope that every once in awhile something you get back will help out.
Nine veterans: Paul Bako, Ray King, Alex Sanchez, Curt Leskanic, Eric Young, Mike Dejean, Dave Burba, Ben Grieve, Manny Alexander. Not a fantastic group by any means, but certainly something worthy of more Major League return than Wes Helms (16 WS as Brewer), Wes Obermueller (9), John Foster (1), and some cash. I would hardly say this trait is essential in a General Manager -- I mean when they get good he won't need it -- but it certainly helps when rebuilding.
What has helped is good teaching, something Melvin seems very intent on giving his Major League players. Ned Yost has been a good manager, an ex-catcher and then third base coach for the Braves, I've always been impressed while watching him. Butch Wynegar has some solid reclimation projects as hitting coach, maybe dampening the blow of never fulfilling his promise as a catcher. And in my mind, Mike Maddux is one of the game's three best pitching coaches. The help he has given players (especially Kolb, Davis and Ben Sheets) has aided in making Melvin look good.
The newest addition to this coaching staff, if you will, is Damian Miller. This was Melvin's first major free agent splash, and it's hard to call it that when the total sum doesn't reach ten million. But still, Miller has had an excellent history of catching good pitchers, and that should only help this young staff. His offense will always be serviceable, but the combination of low cost, good defense, and hometown hero more than justifies this deal.
Overall, Doug Melvin is a very good General Manager. His stint in Texas was very good, and while it's going to take a bit to get things going in Milwaukee, time will tell that he should stay in his position a long time.
The final question I want to answer today is the following: How long will this winningless drought last? When will Milwaukee get some playoff games? My answer: not long.
This year should be a bit of a struggle for the Brew, the last season of finding cheap options and, most importantly, further developing their youth. J.J. Hardy will get a ton of at-bats up the middle, as will Dave Krynzel. Rickie Weeks and Prince Fielder will call their own shots, but I would guess both will be more than ready in 2006. Jose Capellan is very similar and should have 10-15 Major League starts under his belt at this time next year. Those are the big five, the group that should determine whether this rebound happens.
And what they do, I think, is give Melvin a very defined route to take in the next twelve months. Fielder, Weeks and Krynzel will allow for Overbay, Spivey and Clark to become expendable. Along with Hardy, they give the club four starters for under $2M. Throw in the Branyan/Helms combo coming in cheap at the hot corner, and 62.5% of the lineup will be about $5M.
Geoff Jenkins is signed to an extension already, one that will pay him $7.5M in 2006, and then $7M in 2007. Damian Miller will be making $2.35M and $2.25M in those respective seasons. That's just fifteen million dollars, leaving one outfield spot open. Think they have room to lock up Carlos Lee? I think so. Carlos would have a hard time turning down a midseason extension, a move Melvin has proved willing to make in the past.
Melvin also needs to sign Ben Sheets to an extension. A four-year deal for about $50M would in line with the recent signings of Johan Santana, Roy Halladay and Kerry Wood. Sheets is fast becoming one of the game's best, and the club would be seriously mistaken to not tie him up. And with Doug Davis, Chris Capuano, Jose Capellan and Ben Hendrickson filling the rotation for about $3M, the club can afford to pay up for its ace.
All of the above is before the haul that Melvin is likely to get for Overbay, Spivey and Clark. He will have about $10M on the open market to spend judiciously. Really, the only thing stopping this team now is one of the big five failing, which I don't see happening. The combination of these youngsters and a solid core of Sheets, Jenkins, and Lee could be enough to win one or more division titles in the not too distant future.
Then, Melvin will finally get his due.
Stealing Their Thunder Rather Than Bases
The number of stolen bases has been flat to trending downward for the past 30 years. Why? Well, in a nutshell, stolen bases are simply not as valuable in today's high-scoring environment as they were in the Dead Ball era or during the pitching-dominated 1960s and early 1970s or, for that matter, during a more neutral environment like the 1980s.
Traditionalists may long for the next Ty Cobb, Maury Wills, Lou Brock, or Rickey Henderson, but the emphasis has moved away from base stealing to such a degree it is unlikely that baseball will produce another 100-stolen base season anytime soon. In fact, Vince Coleman may turn out to be the last player who built most of his value around his speed and baserunning ability.
Yes, Marquis Grissom stole nearly 80 bases twice during the early-'90s, but he has transformed his game to the extent that the soon-to-be 38-year-old outfielder has hit at least 10 home runs for 13 consecutive seasons (including 20+ in three of the past four). Kenny Lofton has combined a nearly .300 lifetime batting average with sufficient walk totals to elevate his on-base percentage .031 above the norm -- making him much more valuable than just someone known for stealing bases.
One might be able to make an argument on behalf of Otis Nixon, Brian Hunter, or even Tony Womack, but they each had just one season stealing 70 or more bases. I'm telling you, they just don't make thieves the way they used to -- or maybe they do but, instead of playing for the Dodgers or the Cardinals, these bandits chose to sign up with Enron and Worldcom and the like.
Only one player has stolen 70 bases during the first five years of the current century. His name? Scott Podsednik. The year? 2004. Let's take a look at the top 20 stolen base leaders for last season.
2004 STOLEN BASE LEADERS
PLAYER TEAM SB Scott Podsednik Mil 70 Carl Crawford TB 59 Juan Pierre Fla 45 Carlos Beltran KC/Hou 42 Bobby Abreu Phi 40 Dave Roberts Bos/LA 38 Ryan Freel Cin 37 Ichiro Suzuki Sea 36 Chone Figgins Ana 34 Endy Chavez Mon 32 Corey Patterson ChC 32 Jimmy Rollins Phi 30 Rafael Furcal Atl 29 Brian Roberts Bal 29 Alex Rodriguez NYY 28 Tony Womack StL 26 Cesar Izturis LA 25 Derek Jeter NYY 23 Matt Lawton Cle 23 Mike Cameron NYM 22
Only two players even stole 50 bases and only five nabbed 40 or more. How valuable were these stolen bases? Here are the stolen base leaders in the context of caught stealing.
SB LEADERS WITH CS TOTALS
PLAYER TEAM SB CS Scott Podsednik Mil 70 13 Carl Crawford TB 59 15 Juan Pierre Fla 45 24 Carlos Beltran KC/Hou 42 3 Bobby Abreu Phi 40 5 Dave Roberts Bos/LA 38 3 Ryan Freel Cin 37 10 Ichiro Suzuki Sea 36 11 Chone Figgins Ana 34 13 Endy Chavez Mon 32 7 Corey Patterson ChC 32 9 Jimmy Rollins Phi 30 9 Rafael Furcal Atl 29 6 Brian Roberts Bal 29 12 Alex Rodriguez NYY 28 4 Tony Womack StL 26 5 Cesar Izturis LA 25 9 Derek Jeter NYY 23 4 Matt Lawton Cle 23 9 Mike Cameron NYM 22 6
Juan Pierre stands out in the above table for the number of times caught attempting to steal a base. Pierre was thrown out so often, he would be well advised to just stay put. I know that flies in the face of conventional wisdom, but there is no disputing the facts here.
James Click of Baseball Prospectus has demonstrated that the breakeven point for stealing second base is approximately 73%, and it ranges from 70% to 93% (depending upon the number of outs) for stealing third base.
OUTS STOLEN BASE BREAKEVEN 0 Second 73.2% 1 Second 73.1% 2 Second 73.2% 0 Third 74.8% 1 Third 69.5% 2 Third 92.7%
In other words, if a player isn't successful about three-quarters of the time, then he is doing more harm than good by attempting to steal bases. I realize there are some other factors at play here, such as the score, who's pitching, and who's at bat. But, generally speaking, a baserunner needs to be called safe nearly three times as often as out when taking that extra 90 feet.
To determine the most efficient base stealers, I devised a simple formula in which I took stolen bases minus two times caught stealing. The reason behind this logic is twofold:
1. A baserunner who is caught stealing not only produces an out, but he also removes himself from the basepaths. It truly is a double whammy.
2. The breakeven point is 67% or slightly below the needed success rate to justify the event in the first place. I could have used three times rather than two to come up with a 75% breakeven point. I decided to err on the side of conservatism, plus I think it is slightly easier to compute the net number in your head using two times rather than three. I'm a big fan of KISS -- and I don't mean Gene Simmons. Keep it simple, stupid.
MOST EFFICIENT BASE STEALERS
PLAYER TEAM SB CS SB-(2*CS) Scott Podsednik Mil 70 13 44 Carlos Beltran KC/Hou 42 3 36 Dave Roberts Bos/LA 38 3 32 Bobby Abreu Phi 40 5 30 Carl Crawford TB 59 15 29 Alex Rodriguez NYY 28 4 20 Endy Chavez Mon 32 7 18 Ryan Freel Cin 37 10 17 Rafael Furcal Atl 29 6 17 Lew Ford Min 20 2 16 Tony Womack StL 26 5 16 Derek Jeter NYY 23 4 15 Eric Byrnes Oak 17 1 15 Jose Reyes NYM 19 2 15 Ichiro Suzuki Sea 36 11 14 Corey Patterson ChC 32 9 14 Darin Erstad Ana 16 1 14 Luis Castillo Fla 21 4 13 Luis Rivas Min 15 1 13 Jimmy Rollins Phi 30 9 12 Jeff Davanon Ana 18 3 12
Podsednik is not only the most prolific base stealer, but he also happens to be the most efficient. Carlos Beltran would be number one if I chose to subtract three times the number of CS rather than two times. Lew Ford, Eric Byrnes, Jose Reyes, Darin Erstad, Luis Castillo, Luis Rivas, and Jeff Davanon all show up for their efficiency even though none of them finished in the top 20 in stolen bases.
If the players in the table above are the most efficient base stealers, who are the least efficient?
MOST INEFFICIENT BASE STEALERS
PLAYER TEAM SB CS SB-(2*CS) David DeJesus KC 8 11 -14 Juan Uribe CWS 9 11 -13 Casey Blake Cle 5 8 -11 Bernie Williams NYY 1 5 -9 Luis A Gonzalez Col 1 5 -9 Jason Bay Pit 4 6 -8 Gary Sheffield NYY 5 6 -7 Milton Bradley LA 15 11 -7 Jeromy Burnitz Col 5 6 -7 Jacque Jones Min 13 10 -7 Michael Barrett ChC 1 4 -7 Quinton McCracken Sea/Ari 3 5 -7 Alex Sanchez Det 19 13 -7 Manny Ramirez Bos 2 4 -6 Andruw Jones Atl 6 6 -6 Dustan Mohr SF 0 3 -6 Todd Walker ChC 0 3 -6 Paul LoDuca LA/Fla 4 5 -6 Coco Crisp Cle 20 13 -6 Bobby Hill Pit 0 3 -6 Henry Blanco Min 0 3 -6 Ross Gload CWS 0 3 -6 Raul Mondesi Ana/Pit 0 3 -6
Every player above is literally costing his team outs and potentially runs and even wins. Milton Bradley, Jacque Jones, Alex Sanchez, and Coco Crisp might win their fantasy baseball owners a few extra points, but they are a net negative for their real owners -- at least as far as stealing bases goes.
I suggest these players lose their CS (and SB) as well as their fancy names. Look, if you can't be in or around Mister Roberts' neighborhood (as in Padre outfielder Dave), then you may as well forget about trying to stealing bases altogether.
Interestingly, speaking of fancy names, Juan Pierre was the most inefficient base stealer in the majors last year using the more aggressive three times CS in the inputs. Rather than being the best base stealer in baseball as chosen by scouts in Sean McAdam's Hot Stove Heaters article for ESPN in January, Pierre is arguably the worst.
I got a big kick out of the following comment from a so-called "talent evaluator":
"He steals when it means something. He's not padding his total. Everyone knows he's going and he still makes it most of the time. That, to me, is the mark of a really great basestealer."
Does that also mean Pierre is thrown out when it doesn't mean anything? Well, for fun, I decided to check to see what Florida's record was in games Pierre stole a base and in games he was caught stealing. It turns out the Marlins were 22-15 in games in which Pierre recorded a SB and 11-12 when he had a CS. This finding may not be statistically significant although it could shed some light on the value of stolen bases and caught stealings in the context of a team's wins and losses.
The bottom line is that "making it most of the time" is not good enough. And it's certainly not "the mark of a really great base stealer."
Weekend Roundup: Hot off the Press and Griddle
Welcome to the first of what promises to be many Weekend Roundups. This format is designed to allow me the opportunity to present information in a less formal manner than my normal Baseball Beat column. It will be eclectic and run the gamut from news, notes, and short takes on happenings inside the world of baseball.
Owners of Baseball Prospectus 2005 get a lot more than a bunch of photocopies. Flip the book open to page 397 and you get the minor and major league statistics plus proprietary BP metrics (MLVR, EQBA, EQOBP, EQSLG, EQMLVR, and VORP) since 2002, the PECOTA projection for 2005, and a full paragraph of commentary for Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau, Luis Maza, and Jose Morales. Call it one penny apiece for Mauer and Morneau with Maza and Morales thrown in for free.
I won't give all of the book's secrets away here but suffice it to say that BP is concerned about the health of one of the M & M boys and thinks the other may "soon become one of the 20 best hitters in the league." OK, I'll give you a hint as to which is which just this one time. The latter's initials are...wink, wink...J.M.
Buy three books like I did through Amazon and the shipping is free. Hurry up. What are you waiting for? For you fantasy leaguers, your draft is less than three weeks away! For everyone else, emulate Theo Epstein and make Baseball Prospectus "one of the first things (you) read every day." Hmmm. Now that I think about it, I wonder where he keeps his book?
The Bullpen Book has 20 pages of articles and 90 pages of statistical tables. Studes has created Win Probability Added for relief pitchers. I am a big fan of this stat as well as BP's Expected Wins Added and believe they may be the best measurement tools for evaluating the performance of relievers. The Bullpen Book is a must read for anyone who is serious about advanced sabermetric studies.
The multi-talented Belth has partnered up with Cliff Corcoran to form a powerhouse among Yankee blogs. Be sure to stop by and see what Alex, Cliff, and the rest of the Toastmasters are cooking up while the Hot Stove League is in full swing.
Baseball Prospectus, The Hardball Times, Baseball Toaster, and Baseball Analysts. That's not a bad foursome for your daily reading. Add in Baseball Think Factory/Baseball Primer along with the columnists in the sidebar and your personal favorite blogs -- many of which are also listed on this page -- and you have the makings of an All-Star lineup of baseball analysts and writers right here on the 'net.
Enjoy your weekend and don't forget to check back on Monday for the next edition of Baseball Beat.
Ups and Downs
TINSTAPP. This is the idea that pitching prospects are always overrated, that their volatility is too large to be able to closely predict future greatness. The term has been overused over the last few years, has been taken out of context, and also has been dismissed by yours truly.
Do I completely reject the theories it presents? No, there is undoubtedly some validity to the idea. But at the same time, any prospect evaluator would be remiss to claim weakness in a player just for throwing off a mound.
This week, the Cleveland Indians discovered that my second ranked pitching prospect, Adam Miller, would be sidelined until June with an elbow injury. Luckily, Adam is avoiding Tommy John surgery, though he's hardly assured that he won't go under the knife at some point. Injuries are the most unfortunate of event for a player like this, a kid that touched triple digits and then spotted a change twenty miles per hour slower.
The aforementioned volatility causes pitching prospects to go in all sorts of directions. Baseball America released a really fun feature this week, looking at their various top 100 prospect lists since 1990. This allows us to go back to, say 1996, and see that the top five pitching prospects were Paul Wilson, Alan Benes, Livan Hernandez, Jason Schmidt and Matt Drews, respectively. Talk about a wide range of results, huh?
Today, I want to look at three players that have each been top five pitching prospects in their career, and try to evaluate their future going forward. All of these players were expected to don their organizations Major League uniform this season, one as early as Opening Day, one from the bullpen, and one at some point to a hero's welcome.
Ankiel's past is well-documented, he came to the Majors at 19 in 1999, as St. Louis' prized jewel. His 2000 season was fantastic, 175 innings with an ERA+ of 133. And then the 2000 playoffs, Steve Blass struck, and Ankiel could not find the strike zone. 2001 was a disaster, as a clouded mind and damaged arm forced a fall from grace that no one would have predicted.
But, Rick Ankiel's mind was not as weak as some made it out to be. Last September, Ankiel re-emerged as I called it "one of the best baseball stories of the year." Rich watched his first game, and said of it, "you didn't have to be a Cardinal fan to get caught up in the moment." Back was that mid-90s fastball, the Zito-esque curveball. Most importantly, back was the called strike. No more.
Now the only called strike in Ankiel's future will be a bad thing, he'll be hoping for balls to end up at backstops. Ankiel will be in the batter's box, a place where he's not quite as bad as you'd expect. In the last thirty years, 19 players have had between 50 and 100 at-bats at the age of 20. Ankiel did so in 2000, hitting .250/.292/.282. That just so happens to be the 10th best of those 19 players, smack dab in between Dale Murphy and Jim Thome.
OK, ok, I know I just lost some credibility throwing those two names out there. He's not that good by any means, but that isn't to say he's bad. In 2001, when he was in the Appy League trying to figure out how to pitch again, the club let him hit on his days off. Would you believe that in 105 at-bats he hit .286/.357/.638? John Manuel of Baseball America points out that had he had enough at-bats, he would have led the league in slugging.
This past Appy League season, only one player had a slugging that high. Mitch Einertson. His slugging was .692, and he was named by BA as the league's best prospect. But, remember, all this was in 2001. This season, Ankiel will be 25, normally a little too old for the Appy and Midwest Leagues, the two most likely destinations for Ankiel this season.
I'm going to miss that Ankiel curveball, the kind that makes hitters duck in fear only to realize the pitch was a strike. But I am not convinced that we have heard the last of Ankiel, something I wouldn't have believed in 2002. This kid is just full of surprises.
"Frank Cashen is known in baseball circles as an uncommonly conservative man who frowns on rushing youngsters into the big leagues."
The first quote is from the Seattle Times on March 4, on Felix Hernandez. The second from a New York newspaper during the 1984 Spring Training. Dwight Gooden was in camp, and the team swore they wouldn't bring Doc up north, right up until they announced he had made the team.
He pitched 16 innings that spring, he had a 3.37 ERA, with 13 hits, 8 strikeouts and 3 walks. Nothing spectacular, except that the Mets vice president said, "Dwight Gooden throws four different pitches, and has command of everything."
Cashen the promised to be careful with him, saying, "We won't do what we did with Leary in that ill-fated game in Chicago when it was so cold and windy. At least early on, I hate to use the word 'coddle,' but we'll coddle him a bit."
Except that on April 13, Dwight Gooden started in Chicago against the Cubs. He didn't last long, throwing just 3.1 innings before Davey Johnson took him out down 6-0. Between that and the 218 innings that Gooden logged that year, not sure "coddle" was the word that Cashen was looking for.
Through the Mariners study of young pitching prospects, Mike Goff (director of instruction) said that, "there is no set pattern." That's the nice way of saying the track record for 19 year old pitchers is disastrous.
Eleven pitchers have thrown 50 innings at 19 in the last forty years. You've heard of some, Gooden and Blyleven, Catfish Hunter, Jim Palmer, Jose Rijo. But all eleven had their careers shortened in some way, whether it be by one lost season, or in Gary Nolan's case, out of the Majors before 30.
The best way to go, in my mind, is to break Felix in through the bullpen. Jim Palmer, Catfish Hunter and Jose Rijo all spent significant time there at 19, and through this probably set the standard at pitcher. Few people have arms like Blyleven did, throwing 25 starts at 19 and never looking back.
Wednesday, in a spot start, Felix Hernandez allowed four runs in just over an inning. Hopefully, this will be reason enough for Seattle brass to start the right-hander in AAA. When he pushes the envelope in June, bring him to the bullpen. Work him into the rotation by August.
There is no recipe to avoid pitching injuries. There are cautionary measures. With a kid like this, the Mariners need to be making a list of them, and checking it twice.
In this article at the Hardball Times, I gave a list of twenty players that at 20, played for the first time and would go on to make 20 starts. Those, I think, are the players that Greinke should first be compared to.
By ERA+, Greinke is tied for sixth on this list with Mike Witt, behind Dennis Eckersley, Dave Rozema, Chet Nichols, Dennis Blair, and Bret Saberhagen. What's really interesting is that only two players before Greinke, Rozema and Saberhagen, had a K/BB ratio of 2.0 or more. Rozema was best at 2.71, which shows the dominance that Greinke (3.85) has in that category. And as I've said before, just the simple task of keeping his K/BB where it is for the duration of his career would put Zack fourth all-time in that category.
That stat helps show the incredible poise Greinke has in the mound, changing the movement on his fastball and the speed on his breaking pitch. One worry that was originally expressed with Zack was his strikeout ratio, which stood at just 3.82 after five starts. But after closing at 6.21, the only problem is that home run ratio. 26 in 145 innings is not OK, and really the only flaw that currently stands in Zack's way.
I think, similar to comparison Rozema, you will see Greinke face more struggles this season did than he did in 2004. His walk ratio should raise a bit, his strikeouts down a little. He's not a player that I would particularly reach for in fantasy baseball, unless I was in a keeper league. Because in those leagues, few players will have more value than Zack in the next 15 years.
You ask me, and I'd rather predict greatness for Jason Schmidt and Matt Drews and be wrong on one than tossing both aside.
There is such thing as a pitching prospect. Never is one can't miss, and even a talent as great as King Felix is hardly future Win Shares in the bank. Sometimes they get injured, sometimes they can't find the strike zone, and sometimes they succeed. You have to coddle, you have to teach well, and you have to pray.
Balls, Strikes, and Holdouts
Before Curt Flood, Donn Clendenon, Ken Harrelson, Bobby Tolan, Jim Hunter, Andy Messersmith, and Dave McNally, there were two ballplayers -- Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale -- who received little or no credit for the eventual rise in major league baseball salaries.
It was no coincidence that the players hired Marvin Miller as executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association for $50,000 a year, effective July 1, 1966. In the aftermath of the Koufax and Drysdale holdouts that spring, the players realized they were dealing from a position of weakness rather than strength.
Koufax and Drysdale weren't the only holdouts on the Dodgers that year. Maury Wills held out as well although, unlike his teammates, he went it alone.
The following article dated Thursday, March 10, 1966 is from my Dad's archives. In the "Best of George Lederer," I bring you another anniversary special -- this one from 39 years ago to the day.
IN SAME CLASS WITH RUTH Wills Set to Sign for $80,000 Up By GEORGE LEDERER VERO BEACH, Fla. -- A comparison between Maury Wills and Babe Ruth no longer is as far off base as a normal lead by the Dodger captain.
Two days earlier, my Dad wrote the following bulletin as an aside to his daily story:
STRIKE 'TOO' AT BIG D'S EATERY The tigers have turned on their trainer at Don Drysdale's restaurant in Van Nuys. Drysdale, as the world knows, is holding out with Sandy Koufax for a joint million-dollar, three-year contract with the Los Angeles Dodgers.
As it turned out, Wills did not sign with the Dodgers that day. The headline to my Dad's article two days later read: "Wills Balks at 'Final Offer,' Won't Join Club in Florida." Dad wrote a follow-up piece on Monday, March 14, suggesting that Wills and Bavasi had agreed on a compromise of $78,000 -- a figure that "might reach $80,000 with fringe benefits."
Two days later, the headline to my father's daily article was as follows: "Maury in Tune at $75,000." Bavasi told Dad, "He will sign for $75,000 but with a great year he can make from $5,000 to $10,000 more."
Wills had perhaps the worst season of his career to that point (.273/.314/.308 with only 38 SB in 62 attempts) and was traded to the Pittsburgh Pirates after jumping the team without permission when the Dodgers were in Japan for an exhibition tour following their World Series loss to the Baltimore Orioles. He returned in 1969 and finished his career as a Dodger in 1972.
Update: Attention Dodger fans...Former All-Baseball colleague Jon Weisman has moved his superb Dodger Thoughts to the brand new Baseball Toaster website, effective today. Be sure to bookmark both locations and make them a part of your daily reading.
Two on Two: AL West Preview
Our third Two on Two segment (AL Central, NL Central) takes us westward, as in the American League West. How will the West be won this year? We asked Tyler Bleszinski of Athletics Nation and Jeff Shaw of U.S.S. Mariner to join us in a roundtable discussion.
Will the Angels repeat? Are the A's in transition? Can the Mariners come back? And are the Rangers for real? Let's find out what our panelists have to say...
Bryan: Blame east coast bias if you want, but every single year the AL East is drastically favored to take the Wild Card. Yet, the West has had two teams make the playoffs twice in the last four years, and they've been right there every season. Is the West disrespected generally and, if so, why?
Blez: I think there is a tangible disrespect for the West. That's what happens when almost all national media outlets are located along the eastern seaboard. But overall, the West is the most competitive division in the American League, especially now that Texas isn't a cakewalk any longer. Seattle was bad last year, but they should have a mashing offense this year, although I'm not sold on Richie Sexson's health and whether or not Adrian Beltre's was a one-hit wonder. I'm always suspicious of guys in their contract years.
Jeff: I wouldn't call it "disrespect" necessarily because the term is overused by folks looking for controversy or bulletin board fodder, but I do believe there is something to this. East coast bias is too easy to blame (though I think that's because it's generally true and, hence, an easy fallback).
Rich: Well, let's face it, the AL East perenially sports two of the best teams in baseball so I don't think you can attribute the lack of respect in the West solely to east coast bias.
Jeff: I think what's truly at work is economics. Until Arte Moreno brought his princely checkbook to Anaheim, the Mariners were the financial big dog in the division. The East has the Yankees and the Red Sox, who are not only the most high-profile teams in baseball, they are also the biggest spenders.
Bryan: Jeff, good point about the economics issue. I think the West has gotten a little more press since Moreno took over, and the Mariners definitely were helped by the publicity from the Ichiro signing. The Rangers didn't get much out of Alex Rodriguez, so they are almost an economic joke.
Blez: The West doesn't feature a Tampa Bay, Toronto or Baltimore to beat up on and, with the in-division weighted schedules, Boston and New York have a distinct schedule advantage from day one. Not that they need it. If the truth be told, Boston looked like a far superior team to the Angels last year in the playoffs.
Bryan: Blez, what do you think the new owner will do for the A's -- from both a payroll and PR sense?
Blez: I think people are approaching Wolff right now as you would embrace a new stepfather. You don't really know what he's all about just yet. I also think that the financial constraints will remain with the team for now and not just because Wolff is as frugal as Schott, but because that's when Billy Beane is at his creative best.
Bryan: I don't know, Blez, that seems flawed to me. It almost sounds like an insult to Billy, like he couldn't operate under a $60-70 million payroll. I like to think he'd be even better, but I could be wrong. I'll tell you what I do know -- moving the club to Sacramento was not the bad idea that some made it out to be.
Rich: Gosh, I must be out of it. I knew there was an NBA team in Sacramento but hadn't realized that the A's had moved there.
Bryan: You are out of it, but you're right, the A's didn't make it to Sacramento. Between this post by Blez and the article he links to, I was sold on the idea. The Kings do quite well there, and I think success there could give Beane more to work with. Imagine that...
Blez: That's pretty funny, Jeff. I wasn't implying that Billy is better with a small payroll, I was just saying that you get a chance to see his genius because of the limited payroll. Trust me, I think the team would be better if it had Hudson, Tejada, Mulder, Damon, Foulke and company. But watching Billy manuever within the unofficial cap is like watching Mikhail Baryshnikov dance in a phone booth. You know it will be beautiful regardless of the constraints and it makes it much more fascinating to see how he works with the limitations.
Jeff: I wonder if the A's GM sees his limits as a kind of gift? It's analogous to that old double-bind discovered by working class folk who prosper: growing up broke teaches values and skills that you might not learn otherwise, but you work your whole life so your kids won't have to learn 'em that way.
Rich: Limits or no limits, Beane has put the A's in a position to go to the playoffs nearly every year since he has been in charge.
Blez: The truth is that being an A's fan you have to realize that we're going to lose stars, so don't get too attached. Beane is often heard saying that people root for the name on the front of the jersey instead of the name behind.
Bryan: Well, with that being said, let's talk about the group of players that will be wearing Oakland uniforms. Is there reason to trust Billy still, after what may have been his most controversial offseason yet?
Rich: Man, speaking of disrespect...I don't understand the pre-occupation with questioning Beane as if he was a rookie GM without a track record. I think the moves he made this offseason were nothing short of brilliant. I like the fact that they were proactive rather than reactive.
Jeff: When evaluating someone, you can't just look at the last few moves they made, regardless of the fact that those are most fresh in your mind. Beane's track record is such that you have to believe he knows what he's doing.
Blez: I completely agree. Beane has shown he knows how to be ahead of the game on a consistent basis. While it hurts to lose talent like Mulder and Hudson, you have to realize he has a vision. 95 wins per season is nothing to sneeze at.
Bryan: Yes, I agree with those comments. While mainstream media is quite harsh on the A's this year, talking about how much they've gotten worse, I'll think they'll be OK. Is a prospect guy the only one that thinks that rotation could be better overall than last year?
Blez: Well, they don't have that much to live up to...at least in the second half. Mulder and Hudson were both average. And Hudson was out for six weeks. I'm also not convinced that Mulder is 100 percent right yet. I read an advance copy of Aces and it sounds like he's having a mind problem more than anything.
Jeff: Could the rotation be better? Sure. Will it be? The jury is out from my perspective. I believe that Beane made the team better for sure in 2006. If Dan Haren and Joe Blanton are ready for prime time, maybe 2005 as well.
Blez: I think Haren and Blanton are going to surprise some people. Dan Meyer will probably start the season in AAA unless he's stellar the rest of the spring.
Rich: Have we forgotten about the new ace of the staff...you know, a guy by the name of Rich Harden?
Bryan: No, I don't think any of us have forgotten about him. He is more of a given in my mind. I'm guessing he takes a big step, and replaces Hudson in that rotation. 4.24 was the staff ERA last year. Barry Zito is going to need to be a lot better if they get under that.
Blez: All the reports say that Zito believes in himself again...which if you know much about Zito, he thinks 95 percent of pitching is mental.
Jeff: Zito is one of my favorite players in baseball, and not just because he got with Alyssa Milano. But I'm not sure he's going to be as good as he once was again. His strikeouts are down, walks are up, and I'm not sure any kind of visualization exercises, surfing of lefty guitar strumming is going to help him strike out Adrian Beltre.
Blez: Don't forget yoga.
Jeff: I'm going to yoga tonight, baby! Maybe I'll see Barry there. Hope, against all odds, he brings Alyssa.
Blez: Jeff...I hate to break this to you. It's as painful as Brad and Jennifer, I know. But Barry and Alyssa are no more.
Bryan: OK, gossip squad, unless Alyssa is in his head while pitching, the break-up won't do much. One thing that shouldn't be in any starter's head this year is worrying about who they give the ball to. I love how Billy has set that group up.
Blez: I personally love the pen, although losing Chad Bradford to back surgery hurts. At the same time, it opens a spot for Huston Street, who appears ready to go. To me, the main question mark in the pen is actually going to be Dotel. Can he really close? Juan Cruz, Kiko Calero, Huston Street. Billy's been paying attention to those Angels Angels of Anaheim.
Jeff: At this point, the A's bullpen looks ridiculously good. That's likely true for the foreseeable future, given that Jairo Garcia is probably going to start the year at AAA. The Oakland 'pen is stacked like 3 a.m. hot cakes.
Rich: I like Dotel a lot and think the A's bullpen will rival the Angels as one of the best in baseball this year.
Bryan: Well, I know dumping Dotel if he falters won't be too hard. My Cubs are more than willing to take him off your hands.
Blez: That actually could come quickly if the A's falter out of the gate.
Bryan: I think the concern with the A's is that the lineup doesn't have a lot of pop. With pitching so reliable on 25-year-olds, don't they need more power to win from the LAAoA?
Blez: The offense actually does concern me a bit. Although Bobby Crosby did hit 22 bombs as a rookie, Erubiel Durazo could hit more than he did last year and if Eric Chavez stays healthy the entire season, I wouldn't be shocked to see 40 from him.
Bryan: And that's before you get to the Rookie of the Year...
Rich: Nick Swisher? Michael Lewis would be happy about that.
Blez: But I agree with Jeff, the Angels should be the favorite to take the division, despite their silly name.
Jeff: I think baseball writers should just agree to start calling the Angels by random city names, cities they aren't from. The Fresno Angels. The San Luis Obispo Seraphim. The Rancho Cucamonga Cherubs.
Bryan: This division just seems weird to me. Every team has a serious issue. That Angel rotation is so bad, unless Bartolo changes a lot...
Jeff: Blez is correctamundo, as the Fonz would say. All the teams have issues, but relatively little has to go right for Omar's Army compared to the Mariners, A's and Rangers. Better than the Giants? I don't know about that. Good enough to be a playoff favorite? Yup.
Bryan: The Angels can sure pound the ball from top to bottom. Is that lineup better than the East Coast giants?
Blez: Actually, it scared me a lot more with Troy Glaus than Dallas McPherson and Steve Finley. And I'm just glad to be rid of that pest David Eckstein. Better than the Yanks or Sox though? Probably not.
Bryan: So you guys actually do agree with the mainstream about the division favorite. What bothers me most about popular opinion is the praising of the Rangers. Does anyone else think they could be the '04 Royals?
Blez: Yeah, Kenny Rogers isn't going to get 10 runs of support again this year.
Jeff: Under no circumstances. Counting on the emergence of Ryan Drese, the triumphant return of Chan Ho Park and the continued ability of the Gambler to draw to repeated inside straights is a sucker bet.
Blez: Who's the best offense in the AL West, since you brought up the Rangers?
Bryan: Top to bottom, it has to be the Angels.
Rich: The Angels have the best offense in the division. The Rangers may put up comparable numbers but remember that they benefit by playing half their games in a hitter's ballpark.
Blez: Better than the Rangers and the suddenly potent M's? The A's will also on-base you to death.
Jeff: It's gotta be the Angels, doesn't it? Assuming McPherson gives them anything at all, even if he doesn't break out. I think Texas' home park makes us think they're a hair better than they actually are.
Blez: The Rangers infield is ridiculously good. Does anyone think Michael Young can duplicate his 04 campaign?
Bryan: I think Young will have a small dropoff, but not the kind I'm expecting for Carlos Guillen. He's a solid player, a great sign by the Rangers. The real issue up the middle should be when Hart pulls the trigger on an Alfonso Soriano trade.
Jeff: The Rangers' infield is seriously young and seriously good. Even if Young regresses -- which I believe he will -- he will be a valuable element, surrounded by emerging gems.
Blez: Hank Blalock will be monstrous this year, I think.
Bryan: Yes, me too. But I tell you guys, with Ian Kinsler coming up, it would be idiotic not to deal Soriano for pitching.
Blez: Here's a quick question...do you think it's predestined that A-Rod steals Chavez's gold gloves? I think East Coast bias plays into this too. I think if A-Rod stays healthy, there's no way Chavez wins the Gold Glove this year. But I'm a bit biased.
Bryan: Well, I think that all depends on whether Chavez gets to that 40-HR plateau you mentioned earlier. And whether the A's shock the world in the win category. Offense and team wins, that decides the Gold Glove.
Jeff: Even if Chavez wins the Gold Glove, A-Rod will just run up the third base line and try to slap it out of his hand.
Blez: Jeff, that's a classic line that should be framed and inducted into the blogging hall of fame right now.
Bryan: But wait, there's a new man to that argument...Jeff....
Jeff: Adrian Beltre should be a perennial Gold Glove candidate. I truly haven't watched him enough to know how compares to Chavez, but his reputation and performance in defensive stats is superlative.
Rich: I've watched Beltre for a half dozen years, and the guy can pick it. Outside of Scott Rolen, he was as good as any third baseman in the NL defensively.
Jeff: Can I just say how thrilled I am about the Beltre deal? With the way the market went, the M's got a steal. His deal isn't far off from Glaus', and Beltre a) is young, b) is better, and c) has an arm that may stay attached.
Bryan: Yes, that deal was one of the three best of the offseason, without question. Bavasi went from game's most questionable GM, to serviceable. It's like Neifi Perez's performance with the Cubs last year.
Jeff: Truly. It goes back to what I said about Beane and his record of performance. One good offseason -- and Bavasi did have one -- does not wipe out seven mediocre efforts.
Rich: Let's not forget, it's also a function of how much cash your owner lets you spend.
Bryan: Which third basemen will lead the AL West in Win Shares?
Jeff: Man, the Win Shares question is a stumper. Both Chavez and Beltre are exceptional, and you have to consider that guy who allegedly gets up earlier and works out harder than anyone else, too.
Bryan: Don't forget Blalock, my friend.
Blez: Well, I'd say Chavez easily, but he might not get too many pitches to hit unless Durazo or someone else provides adequate protection. I'll actually say Blalock because he's got that offense around him.
Jeff: Fair enough. If pressed -- and Bryan is pressing -- I am going to homer out and say Beltre. He is young, does everything well, and bats behind Ichiro! I would not be surprised to see any of the others take that honor, though. so much can happen.
Bryan: I think that Beltre is going to kind of be Paul Konerko in the sense that he goes back and forth into greatness and simply being solid from year to year.
Blez: I'm not 100 percent sold on Beltre not being a one-year wonder either. Players can be very motivated by contract status, as we've seen many times in the past.
Rich: This isn't saying much but put me squarely in the camp that says Beltre winds up somewhere between last year's numbers and those from his first five years. In other words, he won't be as good as he was in 2004 or as indifferent as he was prior to that.
Bryan: The other stumper question I could throw is which AL West player wins Rookie of the Year? Dallas? Swisher? Jeremy Reed? Stacked group there, too.
Blez: I gotta be a homer here and say Swisher. The kid played all last season with a busted thumb. He's got the attitude combined with ability.
Bryan: I agree with Blez, even though I ranked Dallas the highest in prospect rankings. Though I think there is a possibility that Reed adjusts to major league pitching faster than the power hitters.
Jeff: Yes. Hey, you're the prospect guy. I am higher on Reed than a lot of my cohorts, and I think his line-drive power to the gaps will serve him better in Safeco than some believe. He won't have the power that McPherson will, though.
Rich: Are we talking raw numbers or ballpark adjusted? Reed and Swisher play in tougher hitting environments than McPherson but the latter is more likely to break the strikeout record than win Rookie of the Year honors, if you ask me.
Blez: And don't forget Blanton. I wouldn't be surprised to see him jump in the mix somewhere. Although it's tough for a guy who isn't playing every day.
Bryan: So Jeff, you are positive on Beltre and Reed. What about the rest of that offense?
Jeff: Fair to middling. I think Sexson has the potential to be a real disaster: an aging first baseman coming off two major injuries entering a park that's tough on righthanders. Given that, I think the offense will still be much improved. If Sexson just stays healthy, he will dramatically improve output from that position. Any injuries, though, and this team is hosed. They have no bench.
Rich: Well, if Sexson tanks, I don't think you can say Bavasi had a good offseason. In fact, if he doesn't hit .275 with 30+ home runs, I think it is safe to say that the Mariners overpaid for him.
Bryan: I, personally, find the M's to be a bit overrated. I think they have .500 potential, but then its about plus or minus five after that I think.
Jeff: I think they're a low-80s win team. I predicted 82 victories, but I see substantial variance possible around that number. It would not shock me to see them contend, but it would shock me less to see them falter and slip below .500.
Blez: To me, the M's variables are whether Sexson can stay healthy, Beltre isn't a contract-year phenom and whether or not that rotation can hold up. To quote Tony Montana, "Jamie Moyer's like 103 years old."
Bryan: Jeff, what's your take on the M's and how they should handle the Phenom?
Jeff: I think they should baby King Felix as much as possible. If he forces the issue with a Goodenesque spring, so be it. But you still have to watch his pitch counts closely and keep tabs on his health above all else. The M's have a terrible record with pitching prospect injuries, as I'm sure you know. I would rather delay his debut by a year than turn him into Ryan Anderson 2: electric surgeroo.
Bryan: Yes, they do. As do pitchers who get called up at 19. There aren't a lot of things that bodes well for Felix's health. He does have one amazing arsenal, that's for sure.
Bryan: OK guys, let's get some predictions...
Blez: I think the Angels win 93, the A's 90, the Rangers 83 and the M's 78. The West could be the most competitive division in the majors. But whoever wins it this year better enjoy it because the A's will be reclaiming it for many years to come.
Rich: A's are my surprise pick this year. The Angels will finish second and probably not make the playoffs. The Mariners edge out the Rangers for third with both teams struggling to win 80.
Blez: I truly believe that Beane looked at 2006 as a new age of A's baseball, and that's why he made preemptive moves. It also wouldn't shock me though to see the A's struggle this year while some of the newer players figure out MLB pitching.
Jeff: After consulting the I Ching, divining for sweet water, getting my palm read and counting the frosted blond hairs on Bret Boone's head to arrive at numbers, here's what I got: Angels win 92, A's 85, M's 82 and Rangers 75. The beauty of baseball is the ample surprises, of course, so I may look silly -- er, sillier -- at the end of the year.
Bryan: I'll say Angels 93, A's 92, M's 80, and Rangers 72.
Jeff: I think every team but Texas could win the division, but a ton has to go right for the M's, a bit less for the A's, and not much for the Angels. If I were laying odds on the division title, it'd be 70 percent, 20 percent, 10 percent.
The consensus is pretty clearcut. Rich is the lone dissenting voice this time, making it three-for-three that a Baseball Analysts panelist diverges from the others. The A's are picked to finish second, the Mariners third, and the Rangers fourth or, ahem, last -- but fourth sure sounds better, doesn't it?
Smith & Stroh Cubs 40 (Part Three)
As the title implies, this is the third part to a series counting down the Cubs top forty prospects backwards to forwards. We started the list with 40-31 on Sunday, followed by 30-21 at The Cub Reporter yesterday. Today, we return with the third segment, Cubs prospects 20-11. Enjoy...
20. Brandon Sing- 1B- West Tenn
Smith: Am I skeptical of Sing this high? Gosh yes, the man's offensive past prior to 2004 hardly is better than that of Ronny Cedeno. It is undoubtedly risque to put Sing, after six minor league seasons, in the top twenty following his first .800 OPS campaign. But, since we closed part two talking about the lack of ceiling in Cedeno and Geovany Soto, it's fitting to talk about a guy with a huge ceiling now. Sing's 2004 season was everything and more that Jason Dubois' 2002 was, which sent Dubois to a Blue Jays uniform for Spring Training 2003. Sing, on the other hand, was passed on by all twenty-nine teams in the Rule 5 draft this December. Credit that to his spotty offensive past, and a little athleticism problem, similar to that of Philadelphia Phillie prospect Ryan Howard. Sing is a Three True Outcomes player, chock full o' homers, walks and strikeouts. I can already envision the following he'll get, a mix of chicks and sabermetricians. Yikes.
Stroh: Part of me says, yeah well you try anything three times and you'll probably succeed, and the other part of me says egads, a .970 OPS would be incredible if it were in Little League. Sing's always had a ton of power, and Fleita originally compared him to Jim Thome about 4 years ago, in terms of being a late bloomer with tons of power. Sing's walk rate also increased dramatically last year, at least partially because FSL pitchers undoubtedly pitched around the guy who would later be the league's MVP, which almost makes his 32 bombs even more impressive. The only real negative to his season last year was a middlish .270 batting average. The story goes that power prospects face a tough adjustment in AA because pitchers have a much better command of their breaking stuff, and I will admit that Sing still can look rather foolish against good offspeed stuff. But in the end, I'm emphatically on the fence. If he can hit home runs and draw walks, nobody will care if AA pitchers do make him look foolish. Either way, Sing is likely to be prime trade bait for an organization with a stud like Brian Dopirak behind him, and a guy like Dubois in front of him.
19. Jon Connolly- SP- West Tenn
Smith: Funny, I thought as the true "stat-heavy" evaluator of the two of us, that I would have Connolly higher on my list than Stroh. It was not true though, as the other Bryan was singing his praise when we argued over positioning. When you see Connolly, you just wish that every prospect had that kind of change, a pitch that has been good enough to let him dominate low and high-A. Despite that, my concerns with Connolly are an awful long list, one that leads me to be skeptical on how he'll handle AA. First, there is the lack of a big league fastball, or even a AA fastball for that matter. Second, a K/9 that has never topped 7.0, and only got over 6.0 this year. While the rise is encouraging, it is still too low for me to really believe he'll keep it going. I like his control and K/BB, it was just be nice to see a little more pop...both on his stat sheet and the catcher's mitt.
Stroh: Why is it that performance analysts still have questions about guys like Connolly? If what they espouse were really true, wouldn't they be falling all over themselves in support of guys like this? I think the fact that they are not is a tacit acknowledgement that there are certain things the numbers don't tell you, and in this case, it's that Connolly's fastball rarely tops 87. Still, as much as I would like to start talking up scouts, most of the guys who see Connolly pitch probably don't stick around for long unless they have his stat sheet in front of him. The Cubs have a pretty good history with pitchers like this, starting with Scott Downs in '99 and Carmen Pignatiello more recently. Connolly's numbers last year were a lot like Downs' in 98-99, just with fewer strikeouts (but not with any corresponding increase in walks or hits). As a left hander with possibly the best changeup in the system, Connolly will get plenty of chances, and if his lone AA start last year is any indication, his lack of velocity won't matter. I see Connolly knocking on the door to Des Moines fairly early in 2005.
18. Will Ohman- RP- Iowa
Smith: We have already talked about Russ Rohlicek, the aging LOOGY that we both think could do significantly better than Stephen Randolph given the opportunity. Better than Rohlicek, we think, would be Will Ohman. If it seems like Ohman has been in this organization forever, it is because he has: drafted in the eighth round of the 1998 draft. His 1999 as a swingman was encouraging, his 2000 as a reliever was fantastic. Think Chadd Blasko's 2003, from the bullpen. And like Blasko, things worsened a bit the next year, only to find that his arm had some structural damage. Everyone had given up on Ohman; his 2004 spot in the Iowa 'pen was probably due more to loyalty than optimism. 45 games with a 12.9 K/9 later, his bandwagon is getting crowded again. There are monster control problems still, and his season wasn't awe-inspiring, but the solidness of it all caught us off-guard. To do so again in 2005, Ohman will get that WHIP down, while keeping the K/9 up. If he does so, Stephen Randolph will become the unemployment rate's concern.
Stroh: When I saw Ohman last Spring, he wasn't anywhere near the same pitcher I saw at Wrigley a few years back. His fastball was under 90, his slider didn't have much bite, and he seemed to really be struggling with himself. But after a year of mediocrity in AAA, Ohman's arm is apparently back, and his numbers over the winter seem to prove that. This will be the proverbial second year after arm surgery, and Jim Hendry talked up Ohman a number of times this winter. At this point, I think Ohman has the potential to be more than a LOOGY, given the quality of his slider. At best, he's BJ Ryan, but at worst, he's still a left handed arm with a power slider, and that is still a valuable commodity in a game filled with inefficient markets. Heck if we actually gave up something to get Steven Randolph...
17. Mark Reed- C- Peoria
Smith: As Stroh did yesterday with Eric Patterson, I'm pretty much going to pass this report over to my partner. While Grant Johnson was the Cubs first choice in the 2004 draft, I was a bit surprised to see Mark Reed get more hype. Credit that to his brother, probably, and I should mention that everyone says their hitting abilities are equal. Reed was very good in his first ten professional games, but the raves from scouts are definitely more notable than the stat sheet. I can tell you this: consider my appetite already whetted from the possibility of combining Jeremy Reed's offensive set with a catcher.
Stroh: In Vineline's annual prospect report, Mark Reed was rated as having one of the top "baseball IQs" in the Cub system. I may be biased, but guys like that tend to do well. Reed was drafted in the 3rd round, but that was partly a signability question, and nobody questioned his talent as a first or second rounder. His ability to catch obviously adds value, but the Cubs are thrilled with his athleticism and his ability to play nearly any position. Scouts project him with more power than older brother Jeremy, who will probably start in CF for the Mariners this year, but with the same plate discipline. He's still a long ways away, but his bloodlines and athletic ability indicate big things ahead.
16. Matt Craig- 1B/3B- Iowa
Smith: Back to a guy I know a lot about, and love, we have Matt Craig. I'll admit to fighting for his placement this high, so if he falters, you guys know where to find me. Plain and simple, this kid can flat out rake. He's getting old and his athleticism is not a strength (in the slightest), but we Craig is one of the top three hitters in this system. At the University of Richmond, he was sensational, drafted in the third round following a season where his OPS neared 1.200. He finished out the 2002 season in a struggle, and had an unimpressive 2003 season in the Florida State League. A .782 OPS isn't bad there, but it definitely isn't enough for a offensive-minded third basemen. Now, following a .275/.363/.509 season in West Tenn, I can officially become a full-fledged supporter. His walks were way up this year (strikeouts too, unfortunately), and his twenty home runs are enough to brag about given the league and park. Defensive issues will keep him back and forth at the corners, but if his basement (to continue the house analogy) is Greg Norton, I'm glad we have him.
Stroh: To be blunt, Craig's value comes almost purely from his ability to continue to play 3b, something that is severely in question at this point. If he has to play 1b, he suddenly doesn't look all that special standing next to Brandon Sing and Brian Dopirak. I have no problem with my partner fighting for Craig's high placement, because I love that Craig is a well rounded hitter. He hits a few doubles, a few homers, draws a few walks, and if I'm going to the mat with Micah Hoffpaiur, then I should do the same with Craig. And I will. I just hope I'm saying that his offense outweighs his defensive woes, rather than trying to come up with a reason for him to be useful as a first baseman.
15. Roberto Novoa- RP- Iowa
Smith: Another player I'll admit to not knowing a ton about, but reports of him have made my initial reaction on the Kyle Farnsworth trade a good one. A mid-90s heater with a plus-slider, minus the craziness that Kyle gave North Siders on a daily basis. It is easy to get lost in the mess of solid relief prospects that the Cubs have, so it is a possibility that Novoa won't even sniff the Majors with this organization. Heck, it's possible he won't sniff the closer's role in Des Moines. While this trade was a good move for the Cubs, in my opinion, it definitely wasn't the career move that Roberto Novoa was hoping for. He was looking forward to a team plane and five-star hotels, not the Iowa Cub bus with the occasional motel. Ya gotta feel for the kid.
Stroh: Novoa's right arm is like a sling shot that needs to be aligned, and I think that is a good thing. Nothing he throws is straight. He flings his two-seamer from varying 3/4 arm slots, and his slurvey slider acts like a Frisbee more often that not. I only saw him pitch twice last year, so I can't comment further until I see him in Mesa, but Novoa has an arm and a frame that go together like pizza and beer. His control can be an issue, and there are also rumors of makeup questions (what, again?). But all in all, the return on the Farns wasn't half bad. Novoa will be one of a cast of thousands hanging out in Des Moines this summer, waiting to get the call.
14. Mike Wuertz- RP- Iowa
Smith: His 2004 numbers were as good as any PCL reliever. His two-pitch combo was impressive enough for Dusty to bring him north last season. Alex Ciepley phrases it well, when asking, "Is it because he's not blonde?" Todd Wellemeyer and Jon Leicester undoubtedly have the lead in the last-spot battle, though I don't think Wuertz has done too much, besides being a wonderful Iowa closer, to really prove he's the right man. Take yesterday, when Wuertz was awful in his first spring outing against the Giants. The kid has had some problems stepping up when the time is right. I like him a lot, and think he deserves 40-50 games in a big league bullpen. But I also have part of me asking, "Is he just another quad-A player?"
Stroh: Wuertz's slider is about the best in the Cubs system (reminds me of Jason Hart, circa 1994). He can throw it to both sides of the plate on any count, and when he was successful last year, he was able to stay ahead of hitters. Wuertz was among the most reliable members of the bullpen last September, but unfortunately Dusty only used him early in games. He's not flashy and will never blow it by hitters, but he profiles very well as a setup man, and is a refreshing part of the depth the Cubs have in the high minors. Where as the Wellemeyers and Leicesters of the world have 95 mph FB calling cards, Wuertz can come in and nibble with his offspeed stuff (which is admittedly better than either of those two). In the end, pitchers with even a single dominant pitch still have success. Heck, Mel Rojas lived off his great splitter and nothing else for many years, so I can see Wuertz becoming a good setup man. But he'll need the opportunity to be able to do that, and I wonder if he'll get the 40-50 innings to prove himself in Chicago.
13. Richard Lewis- 2B- Iowa
Smith: Part of me thinks that Richie Lewis, if given the opportunity, can be everything this year that Mark Grudzielanek was a year ago. The other part of me thinks that Lewis' breakout that began in the Arizona Fall League in 2003, and went through all of last season is a bit fake. With Soto, Cedeno and Craig all having good years this season after bad offensive histories, you have to wonder if there was something in the water in Jackson, Tennessee this year. If so, then Lewis must have been drinking loads of it, because he had a year to remember in the Southern League. Lewis has doubles power, walks just barely enough, and strikes out too much. His career length will be decided on how often he makes contact, and how high that batting average is. Lewis is the only thing that will make the Juan Cruz trade justifiable, so you can understand why his fan base rose so dramatically this season.
Stroh: What are we supposed to do with his 100+ Abs at Iowa at the end of the year, before he got hurt? Sure, his .900+ OPS at AA is incredible, especially for a guy who doesn't have a ton of power. But what about his AAA time? I, of course, am willing to chalk that up to nerves or changing scenery or whatever, otherwise we wouldn't have Lewis this high, but it is fairly concerning. Hendry loves Lewis, and talks about him as a possible 2b replacement for Todd Walker if he ever leaves. Like Bryan Smith said, Lewis hits a ton of doubles and walks just enough to balance out his lack of home run power. He was voted the MVP of the Southern League last year, and will probably play a bit more of a utility role this year in AAA, both because of Fontenot's presence, but also because it could hasten his ability to contribute to the Cubs. Andy Pratt is chilling in Milwaukee now, so Lewis is all we have left if Billy Beane can turn Juan Cruz into Octavio Dotel.
12. Grant Johnson- SP- Daytona/Peoria
Smith: I'm going to pretend that selecting Johnson so high in the 2004 draft had nothing to do with him being a hometown boy (from my rival high school, no less), or because of Jim Hendry's connections with the Notre Dame program. Instead, I'm going to hope that Hendry got some inside info from his friend that coaches at ND, verifying that Johnson is at full health. Still, I worry about spending so much on a college pitcher with an injury history, which is why Mark Reed excites me more. Still, Johnson is supposed to be a solid kid with a heavy fastball, who still could use some baseball experience. His control is a problem, and in case you wondering, Johnson was not one of Craig Burley's top 100 pitchers in the 2004 college season.
Stroh: Every year I have to rank somebody based on nothing more than what I've read, and I hate that. Hence, my yearly trip to Mesa, Arizona in about two weeks. Because of this, I can't really objectively comment on much, other than to say that Johnson already had shoulder surgery and came through it still with his 94 mph fastball in tact. To say that is rare would be like saying teenage girls are fickle. Some scouts think his slider is his best pitch, and to his credit, he pitched most of the year last year at Notre Dame without even using it. Jim Callis (or should I call him sempai?) says that Johnson was easily a 1st round talent who fell because of his injury and because he could have gone back to school. Without a first round pick last year, the Cubs were smart to get early round value with guys like Johnson, Reed, and Patterson, even though none were actually picked that high. The Cubs have followed Johnson for years and are said to love his makeup (there's that word again). While he might start relatively slow because of his arm history, it wouldn't be a surprise to see Johnson start in sunny Daytona this year. The easiest comp for Johnson is Blasko. Blasko has a longer arm delivery and a different breaking ball, but both are taller, power right handers. Reproducing Blasko's 2003 would move Johnson to the top 5 of this list in a heartbeat.
11. Bobby Brownlie- SP- Iowa
Smith: Unfortunately, I have never had the pleasure of watching Bobby Brownlie pitch. But, I've talked to people who have, and most come away with the same report. Flat, unimpressive fastball, but wow, "you should see that curve." I think of Brownlie as a poor man's Gavin Floyd, but if his fastball is as straight and slow as I've heard, he's not going to have much success. A lot of home runs indicate that he tends to hang that curve too, but who doesn't? As his arm injuries become more and more a thing of the past, anyone has to wonder if that fastball velocity is going to ever return.
Stroh: Sometimes I wonder how much Brownlie's stock has dipped over the years simply because of these 94 mph radar gun readings when he was a junior in college. Since then, Brownlie has been anywhere in the 87-92 range, but I wonder how we would analyze him if we didn't know that he used to throw a bit harder. If we didn't know that, he might not be quite this high, but he'd still be pretty high -- I mean, it's not as if he can't get anybody out, and last I checked, he still had that hammer curve ball. Brownlie's deuce is an any count, any speed, any time pitch. His control is very good, and the Cubs love his ability to attack and control hitters. His change still ranges from good to not so good, but he doesn't have to use it that much since his curve is that good. One scout last year made the comment that he didn't see Brownlie as any more than a setup man because of his velocity. However, that news never made its way back to Bobby, as he continued to throw outs on his way to a 3.36 ERA in 150 innings at West Tennessee. This is one of the things that separates shallow analysis from well-rounded baseball analysis. In Brownlie's case, much like Connolly, he constantly is downgraded with the whole "where's the velocity" bit, which has been around for years, and even the stats guys say the same thing. Even if it is a point that needs to be made, the extent to which it dominates the discussion is a bit unsettling. In the end, Brownlie is getting guys out, he is getting them out frequently, and there are plenty of guys in the big leagues who throw 90 and don't have Brownlie's curve. Doesn't that count for something?
Our series will close tomorrow with the final installment at the Cub Reporter. I want to thank Bryan Stroh for what has been a very fun and enlightening set of articles. As for me, expect me to abandon the Cub bias later this week.
On March 7, 1964 -- 41 years ago today -- my Dad (George Lederer) and Los Angeles Dodgers manager Walter Alston changed places for one day. Dad managed the Dodgers -- coming off a World Series sweep over the New York Yankees the previous October -- in a spring training intrasquad game in Vero Beach, Florida, and Alston wrote an account of the game for the Long Beach Independent, Press-Telegram.
Alston managed the Dodgers from 1954-1976, operating under 23 one-year contracts for owner Walter O'Malley. The Hall of Famer won more than 2,000 games, seven National League pennants, and four World Series championships as the skipper of the Brooklyn and Los Angeles Dodgers. However, his playing career (with the St. Louis Cardinals) lasted about as long as Dad's managerial reign.
Here is the article exactly as it appeared in the Long Beach newspaper the following day:
ALSTON'S ACCOUNT: I, P-T Scribe Flop as Mgr. ED. NOTE: Dodger manager Walter Alston and I, P-T baseball writer George Lederer traded jobs Saturday -- for one day. The following is Alston's account of Lederer's managerial debut and retirement, written exclusively for the Independent, Press-Telegram: By Walter Alston (Who feels quite secure today) VERO BEACH, Fla. -- I'll try to break it to you gently:
My Dad. Number one in the Dodgers' program for a day. Number one in my heart for a lifetime.
Stroh & Smith Cubs 40
Last year, former blogger Bryan Stroh helped Christian Ruzich, ranking thirty Cubs prospects for the Cub Reporter. This year, Bryan and I have agreed to combine our knowledge to form one list, which will feature forty Cub prospects. Over the next four days, TCR and this site will alternate pieces as Bryan and I count from forty to one. Enjoy...
40. Jermaine Van Buren- RP- Iowa
Smith: The hope with JVB is that he becomes the next Joe Borowski, a who-woulda-thunk signing from the Independent League. Van Buren actually came with a little more notoriety than JoBo, as he was suggested to the organization by super scout Gary Hughes. Last year was his first extensive stint in relief pitching, and it went extremely well. Jermaine made a mockery of the Southern League, posting a H/9 below four. The issue here is one with control: he walked more men than he allowed hits to. Van Buren will be part of a ridiculously good Iowa bullpen, and has enough youth (24 this year) to wait it out for a year there.
Stroh: Last year, Van Buren was buried in the Cubs media guide along with most of the rest of the roster filled in the organization, and this was unsurprising given that Van Buren had been signed out of Indy league and looked to be roster filler at either Daytona or West Tennessee. Indeed, Van Buren broke camp last year with Lansing, and pitched middle relief for the season's first two weeks. When a roster spot opened up at West Tennessee, the Cubs decided not to fill it with one of the young arms at Daytona, and instead opted for Van Buren. Thrust into the closer's role by complete fluke, Van Buren earned Manager Bobby Dickerson's confidence with a smooth first outing. From there, it was more of the same, and as my partner points out, Van Buren's final numbers were outstanding. This is a former 2nd round draft pick that combines good stuff with Joe Borowski's "moxie." If only it was always this easy. Van Buren's fastball doesn't rise above 90-91, but he has a knack for making big pitches at big times, and his secondary stuff allows him to put hitters away when he gets ahead of them. This year, he is in big league camp and surely will have more than the obligatory 10 lines in the Media Guide. He'll be only a 75 minute flight away from Chicago, playing at beautiful Sec Taylor Stadium in Des Moines.
39. Adam Greenberg- LF- West Tenn
Smith: In my mind, opportunity will be the only thing holding that holds Adam Greenberg back from becoming a useful fourth outfielder. A left-handed bat, the ability to play all three outfield spots, a good amount of speed and keen batting eye are all working in Greenberg's favor. On his to-do list should be adding muscle, not too many Major League outfielders succeed at 170 pounds. A great hitter at UNC, Greenberg has very little power, though he does have enough pop to get by. To me, Coco Crisp is the perfect comparison, though Covelli definitely has age in his corner. If all goes to plan, Greenberg would make a fine fourth outfielder for Dubois-Pie-Patterson.
Stroh: I confess that I've probably underrated Greenberg over the years, and once again I am sure there will be those out there who decry his ranking at #39. After a solid .291/.381 in 300 at-bats in Daytona, Greenberg followed that up with .277/.366 at West Tennessee. The Crisp comparison is a good one, especially if Greenberg can have the kind of year that Crisp had in 2003 in AAA (.360/.434/.511). Greenberg will probably never slug .500, but if he keeps his OBA above .370 or so, he'll make his way onto a big league roster sooner than later. Oneiri Fleita says that the question is not whether Greenberg will play in the majors, but when. While that optimism is outstanding, especially coming from Fleita, the rest of us are left to debate whether Greenberg will end up more like Coco Crisp or Doug Dascenzo. I'm on the Dascenzo side, but I'm hoping that years of working with John Cangelosi and Vince Coleman will give Greenberg a 10% chance of becoming Scott Podsednik.
38. Dave Crouthers- P- Iowa
Smith: Crouthers is like the Christmas card you get from the family friends you dumped those extra tickets on. You couldn't have used the tickets anyway, but more was expected in return than a family portrait. The Sammy Sosa trade was not about Dave Crouthers, nor do I think the Cubs carefully handpicked him from the Baltimore farm system. Said to have modest stuff, Crouthers looks far more like a reliever than the starting he has been doing. A stacked Iowa pitching staff could leave him in and out of roles, as the Cubs see if there is some niche that will work for him.
Stroh: I love my partner's comparison here, as he is dead on. Crouthers was plagued by questions of, brace yourselves people, mental makeup during his time in Baltimore. Of course, nobody has any idea what this means, other than that perhaps Crouthers' demeanor on the mound was lacking on those days when the slider just rolls and the changeup bounces in the dirt. Doesn't Carlos Zambrano also do that? Oh yeah, it's ok with him since everybody knows he's good. People only question your makeup when you don't succeed, even when you do the same stuff as the guys who are good. Oh well, Crouthers throws 92-93, touches 95 and has an above-average slider. As a starter, his changeup always hurts him, but the Cubs are rumored to be converting him to relief to see how his two pitch repertoire takes to the bullpen. A source I trust a great deal says that Crouthers' fastball/slider combo "will be filthy out of the bullpen." Look for Crouthers to begin his career as a reliever at Iowa, part of what looks to be a pretty unique collection of talent in a AAA bullpen.
37. Carlos Vasquez- SP- West Tenn
Smith: With a winning record below .500, a K/9 under 7.0 and ERA close to four, it's understandable to forget about Carlos Vasquez. Personally, I might have missed him if not for his inclusion on the 40-man roster, chosen above the likes of Andy Sisco, Luke Hagerty and Ricky Nolasco. I'll let Stroh hit on his attributes, because I am the skeptic of the two of us. A K/BB under 2.0 and a WHIP nearing 1.50? Come on, even a leftie with a power sinker isn't intriguing with those numbers.
Stroh: For me, Vasquez is the one I wanted back. Somehow I ranked him way, way too high last year, undoubtedly falling in love with the idea of a left-handed sinkerballer that is smart enough to pound sinkers all day long. Simply put, in over 350 career minor league innings, Vazquez has allowed a whopping 19 home runs. Having had Tommy John surgery in 2002, the Cubs were very pleased with his progress in 2003, as he posted a solid 3.74 ERA at Lansing. Last year, Vasquez didn't necessarily build on that, but he didn't regress either. He only managed 79 innings, but his numbers were remarkably similar to the year before. His velocity isn't outstanding, but he's still just 23 and he'll be one more year removed from his arm surgery. Bryan Smith is right to say that his peripheral numbers, at first glance, don't suggest great things, but it is far too early to forget about Vasquez. The Cubs clearly think he is intriguing, and I'll trust Fleita any day of the week. It wouldn't shock me at all to see him win 12-14 games this year and throw 150 innings with a sub 3.50 ERA.
36. Darin Downs- SP- Peoria
Smith: Downs shows that this list is far more reflective of where these players are at than where they are going. On the outside it might appear that Downs is similar to the aforementioned Vasquez, what with that same poor K/BB and 1.50 WHIP. But Downs repertoire offers far more, remember that the Cubs were quite happy to end up with him in the fifth round in 2003. I think he could take off in his first year of full-season ball, catapulting up this list very quickly. He's definitely a candidate for 2005 Breakout Cub Prospect of the Year...I can't wait to see him pitch.
Stroh: I agree Downs is quite the (almost trendy) breakout pick, though I will confess that I was a bit disappointed when I saw him pitch last Spring. He clearly has a good idea of how to pitch, and at times his deuce was outstanding, but it was very inconsistent and the rest of his stuff didn't overly wow me. Now, in his defense, and as his father apparently tells anyone who will listen, Downs may not be done growing yet, as his growth plates haven't completely fused together yet. As such, it wouldn't surprise me to see end up more toward the 6-4 side than the 6-2 side. He's currently listed at 6-3, but that's kind of like how I was listed at 6-4 in my high school basketball program. I saw Downs next to Sean Marshall and it reminded me of how I would get announced at 6-4 and would go run out to shake hands with the guy from the other team who was actually 6-4 and he would be at least 2 inches taller. Anyway, Downs should start the year at Peoria, and while he might not bust out this year if he's still growing and learning how to harness his body, this is a guy Jim Callis liked better than Sean Marshall when they were drafted in 2003. That says a lot, and as much as I like to think I know about baseball and Cub prospects, compared to guys like Callis and Fleita, I'm still just the kohai to their sempai.
35. Scott Moore- 3B- Daytona
Smith: Part of the Kyle Farnsworth package, Moore is similar to the kid that drops out of Harvard, but 'forgets' to change his resume accordingly. Being chosen eighth overall will undoubtedly be what he tells his grandkids, fittingly leaving out the repeat of high-A that he'll spend a year doing. There were worries that he was going to be too big for shortstop when he was chosen, how the Tigers chose him over Khalil Greene or Russ Adams is ludicrous. Moore doesn't even have the versatility of Drew Meyer, chosen tenth, who still has the bench role career route. Scott simply has the unfulfilled promise of power, lost amidst his horrific contact skills.
Stroh: Moore actually hasn't played SS in awhile, as he played every game this year at the hot corner. Smith is right that being the eighth overall pick has a certain ring to it (as opposed to, say, the 1,345th overall pick). The Cubs were clearly interested because Moore has the kind of power rarely seen among infielders, let alone those who hit left-handed. Moore evidently has a "classic" left handed stroke, according to Baseball America, but two straight years hitting .230 doesn't bode all that well. To be honest, this might even be a bit high for Moore, who clearly is living off his "Harvard" status, but whose numbers really don't compare to the many players in the deep Cub system who have put up much, much better (see Sing, Brandon; Collins, Kevin; et al). Maybe a change of scenery will help, but let's face it, it would still be progress if he hit .250 and only struck out 120 times this year.
34. Robert Ransom- SP- Daytona
Smith: Whether he succeeds or fails, I am holding my partner responsible for this selection. His career at Vanderbilt can be summed up by looking at where he was drafted in 2003: 673rd. Since then his control has taken a step up, and it appears he'll go as that goes, since there isn't really much else to offer. Best case scenario, in my mind, is that he ends up a solid middle reliever, but throwing him every fifth day just isn't worth it.
Stroh: Ok, here's our deal. If a guy succeeds, I'll take credit, if he doesn't it's your fault. Ok? Sounds pretty good to me. In Ransom's case, he was picked 673rd, but in light of our discussion of Scott Moore, that doesn't seem quite as relevant as it once did. As a stats guy, my partner should appreciate Ransom more. A sub 1.00 WHIP in 62 innings at Lansing, and an even 1.00 WHIP in an even 23 innings at Daytona. The Cubs even gave him a start in AA at the end of the year. Admittedly, it's not surprising for a guy from a good college program to move quickly in the low minors, but this isn't Sean Overholt we're talking about here, or even Rocky Cherry. This is a guy Baseball America called the Cubs "best late round pick" last year, and while his ceiling might not be any higher than a #4 starter, his chance of reaching that ceiling is higher than most of the Andy Siscos and Jae-Kuk Ryus of the world who have the ceiling that scouts love to dream about. Look for him at West Tennessee this year.
33. Mike Fontenot- 2B- West Tenn
Smith: I'm a little confused as to what level Fontenot will be playing at, given Richard Lewis surpassed him on the prospect radar this year. When looking at Fontenot's numbers, 2003 jumps out, and then you realize that he played in Bowie of the Eastern League. His two other seasons are far more telling of what he'll offer: league average hitting, a decent number of walks, and a bunch of doubles. Not sure if it would be a better career decision to spend the next month learning short and the hot corner, or taking his demotion to AA quietly.
Stroh: Fleita has said that part of the fun of his job is trying to find places for people to play, and in this case, Smith is absolutely right to point out that Fontenot and Lewis are both promising second basemen coming off decent to good years in the high minors. Perhaps one will shift to SS or LF, or perhaps one will DH twice a week. Whatever the case, Fontenot draws a decent number of walks, but that is balanced by an Adam Greenberg-esque slugging percentage of around .400. Further, Fontenot's AAA numbers last year were not nearly as nice as AA numbers the year before when he hit .325/.399/.481 in the Eastern League. Baseball America was remarkably prescient in 2004 when it called Fontenot "trade bait," and the Cubs finally bit when they sent the Sammy Sosa Circus to Baltimore. Fontenot deserves credit for having some success in AAA, but his ceiling is probably something akin to Craig Counsell. If Fontenot broadens his horizons this year and plays a little short and third, he might find himself with a similar career, and hey, Counsell was once a World Series hero.
32. Russ Rohlicek- RP- Iowa
Smith: For the Cub fan that forgot about Tom Gordon and his dump to Houston shortly after Jim Hendry's arrival, meet Russ Rohlicek. Anyone else get the feeling that punctuality is not one of Russ' strengths? His career has been slow-moving if not successful, what with a college career at Long Beach and then he now enters his fifth minor league season. Nonetheless, the chance of Russ not succeeding as a LOOGIE is pretty low, so the Cubs were fairly lucky not to lose him through the Rule 5. Let's just hope that in 2006, he and Ohman give the Cubs a 600k replacement for Remlinger and Randolph.
Stroh: It's a little unfair to talk about how Rohlicek is a little older than most "prospects" since his early career with Houston almost doesn't even count anymore. Shortly after the Cubs got him in the Tom Gordon deal, Rohlicek converted to relief and started throwing from a low ¾ arm angle (along with a number of organizational arms at the time, such as Ron Mahay). Since doing that, Rohlicek has put up some serious numbers, including a 2.09 ERA at West Tennessee last season. Control will determine whether Rohlicek becomes a LOOGY with a 10 year career, or one who bounces around from camp to camp in the Spring, with organizations hoping he'll figure it out on their behalf that year. I give it 50% odds that he’s a nice cheap alternative, as Bryan Smith says, to Mike Remlinger in 2006. In the meantime, he'll cool his heels down the left field line of Sec Taylor (noticing a trend here? Man that’s gonna be a sweet bullpen).
31. Jae-Kuk Ryu- RP- West Tenn
Smith: The Cubs might not go as far as the Orioles with psychological testing, but it wouldn’t take a scholar to realize that Ryu is not the normal human. His career was going solidly until that fateful day with the osprey, and coupled with arm injuries, he's kind of in a tailspin. 2005 will be his opportunity to get both feet firmly on the ground, though he’s now become a relief pitcher. I don't think it's the worst thing that could have happened for Ryu, but it sort of guarantees his future isn't with this organization. The hope now is for a great season, allowing Hendry to deal him in short time.
Stroh: As a longtime Ryu apologist, I think it is a big step for me to announce that my patience with him is wearing thin. Come on, congratulate me. I think I'm growing here. Anyway, he allegedly threw 95 in the AFL, but is likely headed for a full season in the bullpen at West Tennessee. On a scouting scale, Ryu's pure stuff is just about as good as anybody's in the organization. Of course, there's more to pitching (and life as a minor leaguer), than those numbers between 20 and 80 would otherwise indicate. Sometimes you have problems adjusting to your new culture, sometimes you throw a ball and hit an osprey, sometimes you get into fights with teammates, and sometimes your shoulder just hurts. I'd give it a 10% chance that Ryu figures it out this year and starts dominating out of the bullpen, and if that happens, he's one of Jim Hendry's prime chips to use come July 15=July 31, 2005.
Check TCR tomorrow for the next fourth of this list...
Two on Two: NL Central Preview
To continue our look at each of the six divisions, we move on this week to the National League Central. Here to help us in the analysis are J.D. Arney of Red Reporter and Alex Ciepley from The Cub Reporter.
Bryan: As an NL Central fan, I can say what bothers me about the division is the disparity that exists, almost representative of the disparity in Major League Baseball. Three of the last four years the division has been dominated by the three high-spending teams -- the Cards, Astros and Cubs. Is this something that might be fixed or will it take either a salary cap before the other three are legitimate contenders?
Alex: I think GM competence is the big factor in the division, not money. The Cubs have almost always been near the top of their division in payroll. And, for most of their time in the Central, they've struggled.
Rich: I don't think it is coincidental that the AL Central and NL Central both sport a number of "small market" franchises. Many of the teams in these two divisions simply don't have the resources available to them to retain and compete for free agents.
J.D.: I don't think a salary cap is necessary for the NL Central to see different teams contending. I think it's altogether possible that the Astros are about to go into a bit of decline, and there are things to like about the Brewers, Reds, and Pirates. The biggest problem with the NL Central is that all three of the second-tier teams thought that building a new stadium would be a panacea, when it clearly is not. I think now that stadium construction is finished for the Brewers, Reds, and Pirates, they'll all focus more on trying to build contenders because that's the only way to increase attendance for the next 20-30 years.
Bryan: Yes, the small-market teams are showing that the right order is a good team and then a new ballpark rather than the other way around. You have to spend money to make it, not tax the public, right?
J.D.: Absolutely. I'm pretty tired of teams blackmailing cities into financing their stadiums with promises of future success. Cincinnati's been through that twice now, with the Bengals and Reds, and it's failed twice.
Alex: Sure, though I think one (good team) and the other (new ballpark) have little to do with one another. If you have a good team, you're likely to get good crowds, no matter how bad the stadium. Look at Montreal in the '80s.
Bryan: Yeah, the Cubs were first place in the division in attendance.
Rich: Surprise, surprise. The Cubs are the largest market team in the NL Central.
J.D.: I think crying poverty is just a good way to excuse failure.
Bryan: When really, some of these good teams should be crying bad management/ownership.
Alex: I understand the point about the stadiums, I just think that the general incompetence of the Brewers, Pirates, and Reds is why they've not been successful recently.
Bryan: Yes, I agree Alex. J.D., would you say that the incompetence of the GMs or the small pocketbooks of the owners are to blame more?
J.D.: It pains me to say it, but all three of those teams have been run into the ground for one reason or another. I'd say the incompetence of front offices definitely. It's certainly a handicap to operate with a smaller budget, but quite a few teams have shown that it's possible to succeed on a shoestring. You have to be creative though, and Pittsburgh, Milwaukee, and Cincinnati have all spurned that route and instead gone the stadium route.
Alex: The Reds have been the unluckiest of the bunch, but their moves this offseason don't give one any confidence.
Bryan: Are you optimistic that a new regime and maybe some luck could turn things around?
J.D.: I think the Reds are going to need a great deal of luck, but I've seen things in the past year that do give me some hope. Dan O'Brien didn't draft the way I'd like, and he made some (very) questionable free agent moves, but he's still an improvement over Jim Bowden.
Rich: I think the Reds are the most fun-to-follow sub-.500 team in baseball. They have a collection of big-name talent that ranks among the game's best-known players (in the case of Ken Griffey Jr.) or most promising youngsters (Adam Dunn, Wily Mo Pena, Austin Kearns). If Junior and the Outfielders -- sounds like a '60s group out of Motown -- can stay healthy, it stands to reason that the Reds are going to put up a lot of runs this year.
J.D.: Dan O'Brien seems conservative to a fault, so I think he's getting off on having insurance in case one of the outfielders (or Sean Casey) is injured. However, if the Reds make it to the trade deadline relatively intact, and in striking distance then I think Pena's going to be dealt. I don't see Austin Kearns going anywhere because if he's healthy then he'll put up monster numbers. Everyone forgets how good he was in 2003 before Ray King sat on his shoulder, but he was among the league leaders in quite a few offensive categories at that point (April: .303/.431/.640; May: .287/.368/.455). I expect him to exceed virtually everyone's expectations this year because I don't think he's as fragile as people are making him out to be. His injuries have been completely of the fluky variety, not the chronic.
Rich: I agree with you, J.D. I think Kearns is apt to surprise a lot of folks this year, but I won't be among them.
Bryan: I think the Reds have a lot to get over, and expecting anything this year will be a disappointment for their fans. But there is some sign of pitching being developed.
Rich: Boy, I just don't see it, Bryan. The Reds were next to last in pitching in 2004. Eric Milton should help but not as much as one would expect from a starter with an $8.5 million annual salary. Ramon Ortiz wasn't good when he was good. What am I missing here?
J.D.: I can't really disagree when it comes to Milton or Ortiz (although I think both can do pretty good imitations of league average pitchers, which would help the Reds tremendously), but there is some talent coming along. Thomas Pauly and Richie Gardner are two names that don't get a great deal of publicity, but both are looking like they'll be solid major league pitchers. You look at their strikeout and walk rates last year (Gardner: 7.6 K/9, 1.7 BB/9, 2.56 ERA at AA; Pauly 10.0 K/9, 1.9 BB/9, 2.97 ERA at high-A), and they both look like really solid prospects that haven't gotten enough attention from prospecters, in my opinion. If the Reds can just develop one or two solid starters in the next few years -- years in which they still have Kearns, Pena, and Dunn pretty cheaply -- then they could find themselves in good shape.
Alex: While I've seen some writers get all in a tizzy over the Reds' potential improvement in 2005 -- and I myself think they could be okay -- I still think the Brewers are the bottom-dwelling team with the higher upside. Rob Neyer's recent column on Team Efficiency (via the Bill James handbook) indicated that this might be true as well: the James handbook points out that the Brewers were actually a "77-win" team last year, while the Reds were a "66-win" team -- a virtual flip in their actual records.
J.D.: I wrote a little about the Brewers a couple of weeks ago, and I just don't see them climbing out of the hole they've dug anytime soon.
Rich: The Brewers are on their way up. I'm not suggesting that they will be good this year, but there is cause for some optimism a couple of years out.
J.D.: They've got some good minor league talent, but their method of operation seems to be almost entirely draft dependent, and they really don't seem to draft well enough for them to have a sustained run. I could see them becoming quite good in a year or two and for a year or two, but I think that's the best Brewer fans can hope for.
Bryan: Prince is definitely the best of the three; it won't be long until he is right in the heart of that order. Weeks' struggles worry me, but I think he'll have a good year and allow the team to trade Junior Spivey. And while I might be a seller of Hardy, he's going to be an everyday player. Maybe Royce Clayton, but an everyday player.
Rich: Don't get me wrong here. I'm not suggesting that Hardy and Weeks will become the next Robin Yount and Paul Molitor. But Fielder certainly looks as if he would have fit right in there on Harvey Kuenn's Brew Crew ballclubs in the '80s.
Alex: ...and then trading those three. I actually applaud their trading methods more than anything else.
J.D.: I will admit that I'm a big fan of the Posednik for Lee trade. Most teams come out ahead when they trade with the White Sox though.
Rich: Trading Kolb for Jose Capellan is exactly the right type of move a team like the Brewers should make. What good is Kolb going to do them?
Bryan: I will say that I think Mike Maddux is now the second best pitching coach in the game. If they can recreate some offensive numbers of old, I think success is likely.
Rich: That's about as unlikely to happen as Carlos Beltran playing for the Astros this year.
Bryan: Does everyone look for the Astros to completely fall from grace this year?
Alex: I think it's become in vogue to unfurl the "Astros Suck" banner -- and I know I've been guilty of that bit of heraldry -- but, in actuality, I think their demise is a bit overblown. Roger Clemens and Roy Oswalt will again be among the best pitchers in the league. The offense has a lot of question marks, but it still has a good amount of talent.
Bryan: Yes, preventing runs won't be the problem, though I must say I won't be the one to reach on Brandon Backe in fantasy leagues this year. I think scoring is the issue here. Jeff Bagwell -- and I'm sorry to say this Alex -- won't be around forever.
J.D.: They've got to be worried about Lance Berkman as well.
Rich: The Killer B's may kill the Astros this year rather than the opposition.
Alex: I only hope that the Astros worry, worry, worry about Berkman, and decide he's not worth the investment. I hope the Astros worry about Berkman so much they fail to offer him a contract.
Bryan: You want him in Cubbie blue?
Alex: He'd look mighty good in left field for the Cubs come 2006.
J.D.: How about that Cubs outfield? Kind of the Achilles heel, isn't it?
Alex: Don't say the word Achilles around a Cubs fan, J.D.
Alex: Corey Patterson could go either way -- I've seen projections all over the place. Ron Shandler thinks he's a huge risk, but BP seems to think he may be about to explode into an All-Star.
Rich: Now that's one outfielder I do like.
Bryan: I just hope he's out of the leadoff hole. It's funny, I was happy with the idea of a Hairston-Patterson-Dubois outfield, but now it looks like it will be Hollandsworth-Patterson-Burnitz.
Alex: Jason Dubois is their second-best hitter in the outfield...and he'll be in AAA. That's what he gets for having an option left! I don't like Hairston at all. I like...can you guess...AUBREY HUFF.
Bryan: I don't think Aubrey will be dealt until next winter, when the Cubs have already found something else.
Alex: You're probably right. Tampa Bay actually should trade Huff this year, when his value is highest, but when do the Devil Rays actually do something that makes sense?
Bryan: You know Jim will go get somebody at the deadline.
Alex: Hendry has proven himself adept at the "big deal," so I'd be surprised if he doesn't pull out a trick or two this season. It's just the small details that cause the problems.
Bryan: Maybe that he signed Jeromy Burnitz?
Alex: I'm not a fan of Burnitz, but it wasn't a horrid pickup under the circumstances.
Rich: Let's face it, the Cubs are only going to go as far as their pitching takes them. If they stay healthy and pitch like they are capable of, even Steve Bartman won't be able to derail them this year.
Alex: Why are Mike Wuertz, Jon Leicester, Todd Wellemeyer, and Sergio Mitre fighting for one bullpen spot? Those are the types of pitchers that you use to fill in the back of your bullpen cheaply and effectively, not Ryan Dempster.
Bryan: Yes, I like Leicester a ton, and he's just never going to see the ninth.
J.D.: Ahh, Ryan Dempster, what a fun guy. I attended a game where he gave up nine in less than four innings to the Phillies. Great day.
Alex: Yeah, he was awesome in Cincinnati.
Bryan: Yes, and now talk is that JoeBo is going to get his job back.
Alex: Well, there's an article out on cubs.com that says he is hitting 90 mph again. If so, then that would be most of the way back (better than last season), but I don't know if it is enough. He walks a thin line with his stuff; he's a pitcher who does need the extra mphs on his fastball to be effective. I think Wuertz is the best of the lot.
Bryan: OK, we're showing our Chicago bias. Will this matter, or will the Cardinals dominate this division again?
J.D.: I think last season for St. Louis was one of the flukier ones I've ever seen to be honest.
Rich: I don't understand why the Cardinals' season would be categorized as a fluke other than it was perhaps unexpected. They had a trio of players -- Jim Edmonds, Albert Pujols, and Scott Rolen -- who were among the best in the league last year. If not for Barry Bonds, you could easily make a case on behalf of all three for MVP honors.
Alex: I agree, Rich. The numbers supported their wins. This wasn't a team that got lucky in the number of runs saved/runs scored.
Alex: Last year's version was a team in which many risks turned to gold and bad signings turned out well.
J.D.: Yeah, but you look at how healthy they were, especially their pitching. Maybe that's a comment on their team health staff, but generally you're going to have people go down at some point. Their five starting pitchers all pitched over 180 innings.
Alex: Yes, you're right. I thought of them as a healthy team, but I also thought of them as a team where Chris Carpenter went down. Rolen and Pujols played through injuries.
Bryan: "Played through" being key there. If that doesn't happen again, the Cubs could walk into the playoffs.
Rich: Hold on, Bryan. Dusty Baker's Cubs don't know how to walk.
Alex: I don't think Pujols and Rolen are too big a risk though. I'd be much more concerned about the other two Big Boppers. Iron Men Edmonds and Larry Walker.
Rich: Come on now, Alex. Edmonds may not be an Iron Man but Jimbo isn't the injury risk that everyone makes him out to be. Do you realize that he has played 150 or more games in three of the past five years? He actually ranks fifth among all center fielders in games played during the 2000s.
Alex: Come on right back, Rich. Even our deepest crushes can't blind us to the realities of life. Realities like...aging. Edmonds has shown an ability to play through aches and pains, and you're right -- he's played often recently -- but he's no spring chickadee. Like all good things, or at least like all bleach-streaked showboats, he can't last forever.
Bryan: I almost forgot about Walker. Full season of him now, too. Walt Jocketty definitely deserved that raise of his.
Alex: I think that the Cards take a step back -- maybe a 10-15 game step back -- but they will still make the playoffs easily. Mark Mulder's great, but is he better than Dan Haren or Woody Williams at this point? Didn't both Jason Marquis and Jeff Suppan pitch over their heads?
J.D.: The Cardinals are a lot like the Braves. Everything they touch turns to gold.
Alex: I'm actually just bitter about the Cards' pitching last season.
Bryan: One thing Ken Rosenthal noted was that the Cards had more groundballs than anyone else last year and, believe me, they are losing a ton of range up the middle.
Bryan: I know you guys thought if no one else mentioned it we might not talk about it, but we can't just forget about the Pirates. In my opinion, this team is marginal at best, terrible at worst. I feel like Dave Littlefield is just waiting for the trade deadline, desperate to trade Kip Wells and Matt Lawton. I'm just not sure their draught will ever end.
J.D.: It's really a shame the Pirates' offense is so dismal because they've got some very interesting pitching. In a year or two, they could have two bona fide aces in Zach Duke and Oliver Perez -- but it seems as if it's going to be wasted because of their lack of offense. If they ever decide to spend money, they could probably get good in a hurry because offense is generally cheaper than pitching. But I can't really envision a world where Pittsburgh signs big-name free agents.
Rich: Do you realize that the Pirates haven't fielded a .500 ballclub since winning the NL East in the first three years of the 1990s? A dozen years and not one in which they won as many games as they lost.
Bryan: Simply put, they have to be the worst-run team in the Majors.
Rich: Well, it just seems like the Pirates are always rebuilding. Renewing Jason Bay's and Oliver Perez's contracts sure isn't going to win them any points either.
J.D.: Do you guys think the Wild Card will come out of the Central again?
Alex: I think the Wild Card is more likely to come from the NL Beast this year.
Bryan: The NL East? Gosh, no. The Cubs are far better than any team there, in my humble opinion.
Rich: What do the Cubs have to do with the Wild Card, Bryan? I know you are going to pick them to win the division.
J.D.: I could see the Wild Card coming from the East. I was actually surprised that it didn't come from there last season.
Alex: I'm picking the Cubs for last this year. I'm tired of having any expectations...65 wins is a goal! I think the Cubs win in 2008. A tidy 100th anniversary party.
Bryan: Alright guys, let's close this out with some actual predictions. I'll lead it off: Cubs, Cards, Astros, Brewers, Reds, Bucs.
J.D.: Well, while you're thinking, Rich, I'll go with the Cardinals, Cubs, Reds, Astros, Pirates, Brewers.
Alex: I say Cardinals, Cubs, Astros, Brewers, Pirates, Reds.
Rich: Put me down for the Redbirds and Cubs 1-2. No way any of these other teams finish first or second. I'll pick the Astros for third but with a record right around .500. Pirates fourth. Reds fifth. Brewers dead last once again.
So, for the second straight week, it looks like Bryan is by himself in the divisional prediction. The official Baseball Analysts consensus has the Cardinals on top, followed closely by the Cubs. The Astros, despite most of the roundtable participants expecting a reasonable regression, are projected to place third.
Outside of J.D., the Reds, Brewers and Pirates are picked to finish anywhere from fourth to sixth. While we hope promising farm systems and new regimes will even out the division, color us skeptical. Dollars don't always have to be the determining factor in success, but a lot more sensibility will be needed than what Cincinnati, Milwaukee and Pittsburgh have shown in recent years.
Next Year is Here
Every year, prospect evaluators are forced to open their eyes to someone they never saw coming. Suddenly, this once marginal player is the flavor of the week, flying up prospect rankings.
Maybe it was due to added strength or perhaps a full season of health. Maybe a new pitch was implemented, or velocity was added, or that change refined. No matter how, success is happening at paces no one thought possible.
Call me naive, but I also think that statistics can bring us hints as to who might break out next. Jeff Francis, for example, closed out his 2003 season going 10-1 with a 1.06 ERA. Or Jason Kubel, who had a modest .761 OPS in 2003 while playing in a pitcher's park in a pitcher's league. A year later, both were player of the year candidates.
Today, I will look at 15 players that I am predicting big things for in 2005. For some it will be great things - becoming one of the game's top prospects - for others, simple name recognition. I've found that these fifteen players usually fit into one of two groups: they are either solid but hardly stars (Francis pre-2004), or full of tools, but no polish (Alexis Rios pre-2003).
Three of these players landed in my top 75 this year as a result of my confidence, two of which were in the top 50. Others wouldn't be in some top 200 lists, but trust me, people will know them soon.
The most well-known player on my list is Nick Markakis, who many would argue does not belong on such a list. Already recognized as the top Oriole prospect by many sources, I have not seen a list that has Markakis higher (32) than I. Still learning the nuances of hitting, the former Junior College Player of the year has less offensive experience than a lot of hitting prospects. His season began poorly, leading some to question Doc Rodgers decision to take him off the mound.
Except, as I wrote in his entry in my prospect list, things clicked in Markakis' last 225 at-bats. He hit .333/.400/.538, while striking out only 37 times. This is the kind of performance I hope to see from Nick in 2005, playing in the hitter-friendly Carolina League. There is no reason to believe, even with the acquisition of Sammy Sosa, that Markakis won't be the Baltimore right fielder in 2007. I also believe he'll be a top twenty prospect in just one year.
My other well-known favorite is Jon Lester, who some might call the reach of my top 75. At forty-eight, I believe this will be the season that Lester puts it all together. Endurance has always been a problem with Jon, sustaining his good numbers from start to finish. His stuff at its best is fantastic, his fastball was up to the mid-90s in Sarasota last year. He was the player Arizona specified for in any Randy Johnson package, and if he isn't damaged goods, the D-Backs won't be the only club asking for him soon enough.
Chris Young of the Chicago White Sox is the last of the players that are found both on my prospect and breakout lists. Compared by Phil Rogers of Baseball America to Mike Cameron, Young is the definition of a Three True Outcomes player. Strikeouts, walks, home runs. All are very prevalent in Young's game, and when you mix that with great defense, I believe you get a future Major Leaguer. He was a little old last year for the South Atlantic League, and this must be the season Young breaks out of his shell.
Another five players that I think will break out next year were in my honorable mention. A player similar to Chris Young in terms of being a raw outfielder, is Elijah Dukes. One of many Devil Ray outfield prospects, Dukes is truly second to only Delmon Young in the organization tools-wise. He walks a little, has some pop, makes enough contact, and has tons of speed. The problem? Make-up issues, ending in an arrest this offseason. Once Dukes matches his head with his talent, he'll be joining Delmon in more than Montgomery.
Two more outfielders are on my list, both of the 'solid if nothing else' variety. Melky Cabrera of the Yankees has drawn comparisons to a poor man's Bernie Williams on this site, with pretty solid skills across the board. He hit 38 doubles between the Midwest and Florida State Leagues, both in stadiums that don't exactly favor the hitter. As he moves to the Eastern league, look for some of those doubles to start clearing the fence in due time.
Another of the same variety is Alex Romero of the Twins, who had a .792 OPS in the same stadium that Kubel had that .761 in. Romero doesn't have much in terms of power yet, but both his contact and plate discipline skills are top notch. Alex was also a star in the Venezuelan Winter League, and then later the Caribbean World Series. While projecting a Kubel-esque breakout is probably unfair, any development of power will make Romero a fairly complete prospect.
Despite Minnesota already having an extremely deep system, Romero and Francisco Liriano both should help add more prospects next year. Liriano, a power southpaw that came over in the A.J. Pierzynski trade, progressed well after just pitching nine innings with arm problems in 2003. In thirteen of his starts this year, Liriano struck out seven batters, showing fantastic power skills. Both his H/9 and ERA were too high considering the rest of his stats, and for Liriano to be taken for real, both need to come down in 2005.
Another Francisco with a similar profile is Francisco Rosario of the Toronto Blue Jays, a power right-hander who spent 2004 returning from arm injuries. His power stuff was almost back last year, and should be back in full this year. Rosario is quite dependent on his control, when his walks get up in numbers, he really struggles. Rosario will be 25 next year, making him quite old for a prospect. If he doesn't take off in AA next year, look for the Jays to consider moving his power stuff to the bullpen.
Speaking of control problems, few in the minors need control to succeed like Ambiorix Burgos of the Royals. Last year in the Midwest League, Burgos struck out 172 batters in just 134 innings, while allowing just 109 hits. His problem? 75 walks. Burgos struck out more than ten batters four times, but also walked at least five on seven different occasions. Kansas City isn't the best organization to teach control (Colt Griffin), but they should make a point of it, because Burgos is one special talent.
The final pitcher in this mold is Carlos Marmol, southpaw in the Cubs organization. A former catcher, Marmol slugged just .353 in 502 at-bats between 2000 and 2002. Moved to the mound in 2003, Marmol had a great season in low-A last year, striking out 154 with a 3.20 ERA. He needs to cut down on the walks and be more consistent with the stuff, but the right seeds have already been planted.
Moving to the more polished pitchers, I have two: Sean Marshall and Thomas Pauly. Marshall was fantastic in the Midwest League, with a 12.75 K/BB in 51 innings. He was hurried to AA, but suffered a hand injury before getting acclimated there. The team brought him back into the limelight in the AFL, where he labored a bit, but still struck out 16 and walked just two. He'll need a little more stuff to be a top prospect, so here's hoping that's what the winter provided.
A former reliever at Princeton, Thomas Pauly was great last year in the Carolina League with a strikeout-to-walk ratio over 5:1. Given that with a H/9 around seven, and finding problems gets difficult. I guess I could pick on him for that HR rate, but viewed in more context, it isn't even that bad. Don't be surprised to see Pauly give the Reds a pitching prospect they can actually brag about in just one year's time.
We'll close today with three hitters, each far different than the other. Andy LaRoche, Dodger prospect and brother of the Atlanta first baseman, was a 39th round draft pick when teams expected him to attend Rice after junior college. Following a summer when he was named the Cape Cod League's best position prospect, the Dodgers gave him top-round money. Good decision. Once the average catches up with the rest of his skills, most notably his .197 ISO in a pitcher's Vero Beach stadium, LaRoche should be one of the game's top third base prospects.
Finally, we have two short-season players: Asdrubal Cabrera of the Mariners and Francisco Hernandez of the White Sox. Dave Cameron wrote in his most recent Future Forty, "Once Felix leaves the Future Forty, he's the guy we'll get excited about." Cabrera is a middle infielder with big league defense, to go along with speed, selectivity, and a bit of pop (.155 ISO). His bat will never be fantastic, but with that defense, it won't have to be. Let's just hope that Matt Tuiasasopo, who is terrible up the middle, doesn't push Asdrubal to second.
As for Hernandez, he's a switch-hitting catcher reminiscent of Victor Martinez. His offense and defense both were great in short-season ball, and the true test will be this year, when his body has to take 100+ games behind the plate. That's really the only thing negative I can come up with his game right now. I mean, can you find anything wrong: .326/.372/.492, 13 walks (OK, maybe a little low), 32 strikeouts in 181 at-bats?
In conclusion, here is the list of the 15 breakout players I talked about today: Nick Markakis, Jon Lester, Chris Young, Elijah Dukes, Melky Cabrera, Alex Romero, Francisco Liriano, Francisco Rosario, Ambiorix Burgos, Carlos Marmol, Sean Marshall, Thomas Pauly, Andy LaRoche, Asdrubal Cabrera, Francisco Hernandez.
Luck, Fate, or Providence
I first became aware of Bill James and his work during the spring of 1983. At the time, I was 15 years old and a fanatic baseball fan, growing up in Des Moines, Iowa.
One day, my father took me on a business trip to Kansas City. At the time, he thought we were going to drive home that evening. But for some reason, my dad decided he needed to stay an extra day to meet with some additional clients. I needed to get back home to go to school, so my dad bought me a bus ticket to get back that evening. He also bought me a copy of the 1983 Baseball Abstract so I would have something to read on the bus ride.
I think my dad bought me that book to help me get interested in math. At the time, I was struggling badly with high school algebra, and he likely wanted me to see things in a new light. As it was, I still got a "D" in high school algebra, but I was quickly completely absorbed in the Baseball Abstract, and a rapid convert to the way that Bill James thought about baseball.
One thing that I particularly respected was his writing ability. His sense of humor and his love of the game shone through in every essay. Growing up in a Triple-A city, I had always been interested in young players and how they projected to do in the Majors. Bill's creation of the Major League Equivalent (MLE) for minor league numbers was, for me, the most fascinating part of his work. It eventually became the starting point of all quantitative prospect analysis.
I graduated from high school in 1986, and went to college at Northwest Missouri State University. I decided to study history, with the goal of becoming a college professor. Following baseball prospects was my main hobby, but at the time I had absolutely no idea that it would become not just a hobby, but a career.
I went off to grad school at the University of Kansas in July of 1990. I picked KU for two pragmatic reasons: they gave me a graduate assistantship, and it was within driving distance of Northwest Missouri State, where my girlfriend Jeri was two years behind me. I knew I wanted to marry her, so keeping close was very important for weekend visits.
I knew Bill James lived in Lawrence, the home of KU, and in the back of my mind I wondered if I'd ever run into him, but it was no more than a fleeting thought.
Jeri and I got married during the spring of 1992 after she graduated from college. In early May of 1993, Jeri asked me what I wanted to do for the summer. My teaching assistantship did not cover the summer months, so I made ends meet during financial dry spells by delivering pizzas and working fast food. I jokingly said "I'd love to work for Bill James." Ha ha. It would certainly beat slinging tacos.
The next day, Bill James walked into the luggage store where my wife worked, to purchase a briefcase. She recognized him from the name on his check, asked if he was Bill James the baseball writer, and off-handedly mentioned that her husband was a big fan and would love to work for him. "I'm looking for an assistant," responded Bill, "if he is serious, here is my business card. Have him call me."
Luck, Fate, or Providence. Take your pick.
At the time, Bill was writing a yearly annual called the Player Ratings Book. He needed someone in the office who knew about minor league players, and I was fortunate enough that my interests and skills matched his needs.
I worked with Bill from late May of 1993 through August of 1996. My main duty was to help him with research for the Player Ratings Book, but I was also involved with research for some of Bill's other books, including Whatever Happened to the Hall of Fame? (also known as The Politics of Glory), The Bill James Guide to Baseball Managers, and some early work on the New Historical Baseball Abstract. I also answered the phone, took messages, changed light bulbs, and made sure nobody broke into the office when Bill was on vacation. Along with Jim Baker, Rob Neyer, Matthew Namee, Mike Kopf, and Mike Webber, I am one of only a small handful of people who have had the opportunity to work with Bill. It is fair to say that I would not be doing what I do for a living were it not for the events of May, 1993.
Bill is probably the most unique thinker I've ever met, especially in the way he can express ideas on paper. Bill is not always comfortable with talking or expressing ideas orally. Some people think he is gruff and unapproachable, and at times he really does come across that way. But he is really an exceptionally kind person, once you get to know him.
On more than one occasion, Bill would try to give me oral instructions about a research project, but would get frustrated with his inability to explain what he meant (or my inability to understand what he was talking about). He would then disappear into his office for a few hours, eventually emerging with a written document explaining in detail what it was he was trying to say. Bill is adept at using both mathematic and grammatical forms of written communication, both numbers and language. He is constantly thinking and tinkering and testing, not only conventional wisdom but also his own assumptions.
While Bill is certainly the "father" of modern sabermetrics, he isn't really a "numbers geek" in a pejorative sense. He is more aware of the difficult-to-quantify factors in baseball than many people believe. Sabermetrics is not about plugging numbers into a computer. That's one of Bill's pet peeves, the misconception that sabermetrics is about "computerizing baseball." I think Bill would say that the whole goal of sabermetrics is to study baseball, to test common assumptions, to find out what we know, and what we don't know, and to try and find ways to improve our knowledge. Yes, a part of that is to find ways to study and quantify those things which are difficult-to-quantify. Using numbers and computers and formulae are a part of that process, but they are not the process itself. The point is to gain knowledge.
If there is one thing that working with Bill taught me, it was to not reject something just because it does not fit into your preconceived notions. If you find a piece of information that doesn't fit into your system, make sure that the problem isn't your system.
Bill and I remain in touch, and I am fortunate enough to consider him a good friend.
John Sickels worked with Bill James from 1993-1996. He publishes the John Sickels Baseball Newsletter and is the author of several books, including The 2005 Baseball Prospect Book. John's work can also be found on Minor League Ball.
[Additional reader comments and retorts at Baseball Primer.]
Breakfast With Bill James (Part Three)
Who: Bill James and Rich Lederer
[The discussion transitions from Bill's former assistants to his current boss.]
RL: In "Inside-Out Perspective," a chapter in the 1984 Baseball Abstract, you wrote about the differences between the way a forest looks on the inside and the way it looks from the outside. How do the trees look now that you are on the inside working for the Red Sox and General Manager Theo Epstein?
BJ: Theo works phenomenally hard. He is 31 and has a lot more energy than I do. He works really hard. At the same time, what makes him successful over the course of the year are eight or ten decisions. If those eight or ten decisions are good, he's going to have a good year. If they're not, he's not. But it's not just those eight or ten decisions because, in order to make those eight or ten things happen, you have to try to make 800 things happen and only one percent of them actually happen. I try to stay close enough to the process of trying to make things happen to contribute to seeing the eight things that eventually happen are good decisions. I don't try to work as hard as Theo because I couldn't. I don't try to make the decisions because they're not my decisions to make. I just try to stay involved enough to know what's going on.
RL: After the 1984 Baseball Abstract sold 150,000 copies and peaked at #4 on the New York Times bestseller list, the Elias Sports Bureau produced The 1985 Elias Baseball Analyst. How did Elias impact your decision to stop publishing the Abstracts a few years later?
BJ: Not only the Analyst but other books started to appear. It started with Rotisserie guides. It started a competition to get the books out earlier, which caused the timeframe in which the books had to be written to evaporate. In the 1978 Abstract, if you read it carefully, you'll find remarks about things that happened early in the 1978 season because by the time the '78 season had opened, I wasn't even done writing the book. I probably finished it on April 20th of 1978 and was selling it by early May of 1978 because it was just a matter of getting it copied and bound.
The first national publication -- the 1982 Abstract -- was due to the publisher by December 15th and was out in bookstores the first week of April. I tried to push to get the deadline moved back into January so I had a little more time to write the book. The first Elias Analyst came out in March, so we tried to come out in early March, then they tried to come out on the first of March, so we tried to come out in late February. This competition caused the book to be due to the publisher by November 10th or something. The season ends on October 25th! If I were older and more mature, I would have told the publisher "You do what you want but I'm not sending this book until January 15th." But I tried to cooperate with them and they would talk to me how important it was to get the book in earlier. I tried to go along with them but it just caused the timeframe to disappear.
BJ: I wasn't aware of that.
RL: Was it due to the new deadlines imposed on you?
BJ: I don't know what caused it. It could be the fact that I had a baby in '86. [smiles]
RL: Fair enough. In the 1985 Baseball Abstract, you developed the Major League Equivalencies, which I think had a big impact on baseball.
BJ: Right, [deadpanning] it could be the end.
RL: You also analyzed the Major League draft and the impact on drafting high school and college players. At one time, there was a bias towards high school players. Now the bias is towards college players. Do you think it is possible that could change again?
BJ: We debate this a lot -- and I can't really tell you what we debate within the Red Sox system -- but we all assume that, if more and more people move toward drafting college players, there will come a point at which the advantage of college players will disappear. Then there is a question of how we will recognize that point and when will it occur and how close are we to that point occurring. We worry about that a lot, but I don't think we know the answer.
RL: The 1986 Baseball Abstract was dedicated to John and Sue Dewan, your "heckuva good wife" Susan McCarthy, Dan Okrent, Pete Palmer, and Craig Wright. I know Craig is a "treasured friend and compatriot." What is he doing these days?
BJ: Craig, at one point, retired from sabermetrics entirely. He was working as a Christian Science counselor -- I think he still does that -- but he's back doing some sabermetrics. I got a very long email from him last week, talking about the Red Sox, congratulating me on the World Series, and I responded to that. I still hear from him several times a year, but since we talk almost entirely about baseball, you asked what he's doing personally and I don't really know.
RL: Who was the best baseball player you ever saw?
BJ: George Brett, probably.
RL: If George Brett was the best player you ever saw, who was the best pitcher?
BJ: I'll give you a Kansas City baseball fan's response to that. If you ever saw Bret Saberhagen on a day when he had his stuff, I'm not sure that you could have been better. You would see Saberhagen on those days and think, "This is perfection in a pitcher." He would be throwing 98 with excellent movement on the fastball, big curve, tremendous change, fantastic control, excellent fielder, and a phenomenal understanding how to pitch. I know over the course of his career he wasn't (Roger) Clemens -- I guess Clemens is the greatest pitcher I ever saw -- but Saberhagen on a given day, when he was healthy, it was hard to see what separated him from being perfect.
RL: Short answers on the following players, who mostly spanned the life of the Abstracts. I have to lead off with Bert Blyleven.
BJ: Wonderful curveball and apparently a wonderful character. There are a lot of stories about him that you hear from inside baseball that I never knew about when I was writing.
RL: Mike Schmidt.
BJ: Sabermetric superstar. A .270 hitter but such a great player despite a modest batting average that everyone had to figure out he was a great player anyway.
RL: Joe Morgan.
BJ: Similar. We all wish he was as good a broadcaster as he was a player.
RL: Johnny Bench.
BJ: I don't have any comment on him.
RL: Gary Carter.
BJ: Carter hit about the same things as Bench did, only he did them less spectacularly.
RL: Carlton Fisk.
BJ: I loved watching Carlton Fisk play. There's a movie, "For Love of the Game," in which Kevin Costner plays a no-nonsense baseball player and, to me, Carlton Fisk was that character come to life. Although the character was a pitcher, it still fits him.
RL: Rickey Henderson.
BJ: Rickey is one of a kind. Someone should write a really good book about Rickey. There is an essential connection between ego and greatness and no one better illustrated that than Rickey. When Rickey is 52, he will still believe that he could play in the majors. You can say that his ego is out of scale to his real world, but his ego is what made him so special. Somebody should document mannerisms and Rickey was a walking catalog of annoying mannerisms. He was a show. Every at-bat was a show. It's not like a Reggie Jackson show where it's done for television. It's a live show. It's done for the guys in the ballpark and the guys on the field. The show made him totally unique.
Tim Raines was almost as great of a leadoff man and almost as great of a player. Tim is a good guy, just a nice, reasonable person that everybody likes. Rickey is a show. [laughs] The show was essential to his greatness.
BJ: Absolutely not. If Bobby Grich or Darrell Evans ever makes the Hall of Fame, that's a tribute to Bobby Grich or Darrell Evans. It has nothing to do with me.
RL: There were about eight managers during this time that were among the most significant in the history of baseball. Could you comment on Whitey Herzog?
BJ: Whitey always reminded me that there is more than one way to make things work. I don't mean he reminded me personally. I've never had a conversation with him in my life. Whitey's way of thinking about problems is very different from mine, but it was self-evidently effective. That always reminded me that there are a lot of things that I'm just looking at this in one way, and there are other ways of looking at it that work very well, too.
RL: Who was your favorite manager during the 1970s and 1980s?
BJ: Earl Weaver and Herzog were very different. Both were wonderful managers to watch work. Herzog was "let's take charge of this game, let's make this game as hard as possible for the other team, let's force the action, put pressure on them, and make them lose." Weaver is like "let's be patient, look for our opportunities, and eventually grind out a win." Their approaches were totally opposite, but they were both extremely effective.
RL: Gene Mauch. How do you feel about the little ball versus the three-run homer?
BJ: I think Mauch was a tremendous manager. I know that his record was .500 or under .500, but I think that he was a terrific manager and if you had put him in charge of a team like the Red Sox last year he would have been as successful as we were. I think he was very, very good. He's just different.
RL: Dick Williams.
BJ: Dick Williams may have been too much like me personally to have been a successful manager in the long run. Dick was not subtle or generous or patient. Dick knew what he thought and he knew what he wanted to do and his notion was that since he was the manager that was the way things ought to be done. [laughs] And so he was very, very effective in the short run. In the long run, you had to do something else.
RL: If you were to produce the 2005 version of the Bill James Baseball Abstract, what would be some of the features that you would want to discuss?
BJ: Baserunning and fielding. I know that I've spent more time worrying about fielding in my career than I ever have about hitting, but that's because we started out so far behind and that is still true. We're still way behind on fielding and baserunning. We ought to do better.
RL: That's great. We've got 99% covered on hitting...
BJ: Right, right.
RL: ...and there are these guys who are still worrying about finding some magic formula...
BJ: I know, I know.
RL: ...it drives me nuts.
BJ: Me, too!
RL: Why not put that same time and energy into fielding and baserunning instead of that last 1% of hitting?
BJ: That's right, that's right.
RL: As you look to the future, is there anything beyond fielding and baserunning that we haven't even begun to develop?
BJ: Transitions between levels. As the world gets smaller and there is more interaction all the time between people playing baseball in Caracas and people playing baseball in Japan -- if you look at the playing biography of Tsuyoshi Shinjo, he went to the Domincan to the Japanese minor leagues when he was 16 [laughs] -- maybe he wasn't 16, who the hell knows? [laughs] There is a difference in the quality and also a difference in the way the game is played and our understanding of that could be a lot better.
RL: Bill, you credited "veteran leadership" in a couple of interviews after the World Series as the reason the Red Sox came back and beat the Yankees. There was a debate whether or not you were saying that tongue-in-cheek.
BJ: Right. I certainly was not saying that tongue-in-cheek. You also have to understand that somebody asked me why the Red Sox won in 2004. I can't say it was because we were geniuses. First of all, it's not true. Even if it was true, you're trying to find an answer that (a) is true and (b) you can give. And by saying veteran leadership was more important than other things -- maybe not really -- but it's a valid answer. I don't think you can come back from a 3-0 hole against the Yankees without guys who really believe in themselves [laughs] and guys who know how to handle a situation like that, so it's a true answer. Maybe it's not the only true answer, but it's the one I chose to give.
RL: I think that's great. There really was this discussion wondering whether you were saying that in jest like you've been known to do sometimes or if you were being serious.
BJ: I was being very serious.
RL: Well, Bill, you've been very kind and generous with your time. I enjoyed our discussion very much.
BJ: I appreciate it. I have a meeting upstairs. We've got irons in the fire and I better get up there. Thanks a lot.
RL: Thank you, Bill.
Bill and the Boston Red Sox were busy indeed. They signed David Wells the day before to a creative two-year contract although the official press release wasn't announced until two days after our meeting. We talked about that deal as we walked out of the restaurant.
In addition, the Rule 5 Draft was the day after our meeting. The Red Sox also signed John Halama, Edgar Renteria, Matt Clement, Wade Miller (in what may have been the best acquisition of the offseason), and Jason Varitek within the next two weeks.
December 2004. A special month for the Red Sox and me.
[Additional reader comments and retorts at Baseball Primer.]
Breakfast With Bill James (Part Two)
Who: Bill James and Rich Lederer
[Bill returns from the buffet with eggs Benedict and potatoes, Rich with scrambled eggs, sausage, and fruit. The discussion turns toward today's more advanced sabermetric studies.]
RL: Do you feel as if the baserunner on the front end of a double play has much bearing on the outcome?
BJ: I think it probably has an impact. I wish we had specific data about it. Less than two weeks ago, I was studying it with some guys I work with at BIS (Baseball Info Solutions), who do the Handbooks now, working on a form for a baserunning report. One thing that it will say on the stat sheet is how many times a guy is thrown out on the front end of a double play. There is no reason not to know.
RL: Do you think people are calculating that on any level?
BJ: The information is available. If they're calculating it, they're not publishing it.
RL: With respect to baserunning, are you working on any other stats that are of interest to you?
BJ: We are working on it. It's of interest to me at least. The problem is you can create 20 categories of events for baserunners (first to third on a single, baserunner stops at second on a single, baserunner is thrown out at third on a single, baserunner scores from first on a double, etc.). If you are going to report those results, then you need to summarize the categories somehow. So it's hard to report summary categories without leaving out specific information or, on the other hand, it's hard to find room to publish the whole detailed report.
RL: Do you think there is much work left on outfielder's throwing arms in allowing or preventing base runners to advance?
BJ: Yes, there is. As long as we've been doing this and as much attention has been paid to this, it is curious that we don't have this information. Well, someone has it. But where is it? It's curious that this basic information, such as runners going first to third on Vladimir Guerrero vs. ordinary right fielders, is not publicly available. There is no reason for it.
RL: Another thing, Bill, that needs work -- and you brought it up in one of your Abstracts regarding Toby Harrah -- is the idea that advanced defensive metrics only account for the quantity of the balls that may or may not get through, but not the quality of the result. In the Harrah example, the fact that he played the line and prevented more doubles by doing so isn't adequately reflected in his fielding stats.
BJ: John Dewan (BIS) is working on the problem also, and he has shown some results. He has a formula. Just this year, he added that adjustment.
RL: Is it significant for both infielders and outfielders?
BJ: Yes. As far as significance, take the case of Torii Hunter. If you are making five extra plays a year and they are all what would be otherwise home runs, it's real significant. It's very significant also for infielders. I suppose if you have a first baseman who plays way off the line, he may wind up making plays that the second baseman would make anyway whereas the balls he's not getting to wind up going for a double down the first base line.
[The conversation shifts back to a chronological review of the Baseball Abstracts.]
RL: I just realized, Bill, but it just happens that we covered the 1977-1981 Abstracts before taking a break to get a bite to eat. These five books were, of course, self-published. Things began to look up the next year when Ballantine Books won a bidding war to publish the 1982 Baseball Abstract.
BJ: Well, as to the bidding war -- I don't think I've ever told anybody this before -- but I believe Ballantine paid me $10,000 for the first national Abstract. It wasn't exactly the type of bidding war in which one retires. (laughs) The first one did well enough that we did get a contract for four years for a reasonable amount of money.
RL: The 1982 edition was the first Abstract that included "Bill James" in the title of the book.
BJ: Yeah, that wasn't my decision or idea. I would have never done that myself.
RL: Your name didn't even appear on the cover until 1979...
BJ: Is that right?
RL: ...and then only as an author.
BJ: People from publishing said, "You gotta put your name in the title of the book." The publisher made that decision.
RL: Dan Okrent wrote an article for Sports Illustrated about you the previous year. How did Dan discover you?
BJ: I can't speak for him but one of Dan's friends ordered the book when Dan was organizing the Rotisserie league. The guy had this book and then Dan got interested in it. He contacted me from that, I believe.
RL: You had written an article in Esquire before that?
BJ: The first Esquire article was in '79 but that also was Dan. In '78, Dan found the book and wrote me a letter to arrange for me to write the Esquire baseball previews in '79, '80 and '81.
RL: When were you first published in a national magazine?
BJ: I was published in Baseball Digest in 1975, so it depends on how you define "national magazine."
RL: There you go. In the 1982 Baseball Abstract, you introduced the Defensive Spectrum, which I believe was one of your biggest contributions. How did you develop that and does it still hold true to today?
BJ: It still holds true. I use the Defensive Spectrum as an example to try to explain to somebody why the definition of sabermetrics proposed by the dictionary ("computerized study of baseball records") is totally wrong. The Defensive Spectrum doesn't have anything to do with numbers, doesn't have anything to do with computers, statistics or anything. It has to do with organizing concepts so that you can understand them.
The Defensive Spectrum is still tremendously useful to me. The Red Sox...we don't have a shortstop -- we're losing (Orlando) Cabrera -- so there's a debate in the organization. If we had no second baseman and could come up with a lefthanded-hitting second baseman and a righthanded-hitting second baseman that were pretty good, no one would worry too much about it. But shortstop is really hard to find guys who are good. If you wind up filling in someone at that position, you almost, by definition, wind up weak. If we needed to attune at first base, we'd be fine. We'd find a guy who could crush lefties and a lefty who was pretty good, and we'd be fine.
At shortstop, if you have to fill in, you're in trouble most of the time. The Defensive Spectrum is a necessary concept to explain why that is true because there is nobody drifting into the shortstop position because he failed [chuckling to himself] at somewhere else. Nobody! There are guys who are good and there are the guys who are not shortstops because they're not good.
RL: One of the things you have pointed out is the absence of players at the right end of the Spectrum and the abundance of players at the left side. As such, in building a ballclub, Bill, is it important to focus on the right side if you were starting a team from scratch?
BJ: I think a lot of people understand that even if they have never heard of the Defensive Spectrum. I have a nephew who's been a huge Red Sox fan since birth who's very, very sharp about what the Red Sox need to do. Very often he calls and tells me "I think the Red Sox ought to do this, this and this" and, at that moment, that's exactly what we are trying to do. He's that sharp. He's a huge Nomar fan, so a year ago he was asking, "Why are you guys getting all these minor league shortstops?"
We have five shortstops in the minor leagues who are going to be major league players. I'm not kidding you. We have Hanley (Ramirez), who everyone knows about. There's a guy who's going to be at Triple-A next year, Kenny Perez. He's probably not going to be a major league star, but he is going to be a major league player. The guy we drafted last year named Dustin Pedroia. He's very good. Guys in the lower levels, Christian Lara and a guy named (Luis) Soto. And they are all good. The reason why you do that is they are all good, but they are probably not all shortstops. One of them will be a good second baseman, one may be a third baseman or a leftfielder or something, but you start them out at shortstop.
RL: It gives you a lot more flexibility.
RL: If you start out at first base or DH, there's nowhere to go.
RL: One of the other things you wrote about in the 1982 book was that players who have "unusual batting stances" tended to be good hitters. You mentioned Rod Carew, Brian Downing, and I think John Wockenfuss.
BJ: I imagine John Wockenfuss is very flattered to be mentioned with Rod Carew. [smiles] I don't know if they tend to be good, but I still like them. A lot of scouts like a guy who's odd just because if you thought they were doing something wrong, you can fix that. If he's doing something that no one else can do, then that's probably a useful thing.
RL: In the 1983 Baseball Abstract, you said "Hi. My name is Bill James, and I'm an eccentric." I think that was the first time you called yourself "an eccentric."
BJ: Probably the last. [laughter]
RL: You mention that year the debate over four-man and five-man pitching rotations. Do you think we will ever go back to the four-man rotation?
BJ: Between 1973 and 1984, baseball made two important steps back. In the early '70s, the workloads of pitchers were at historic high-water marks. They were higher than they had been since the Dead Ball era. Within ten years after that, we switched from a four-man to a five-man rotation and also began to limit pitchers in how many pitches they throw in a game and began to use more and more relievers earlier in the game.
In spite of these changes, it is difficult or impossible to establish that injury rates for pitchers have dropped. It seems to me that the desire to avoid injuring pitchers is certainly good and we should do whatever we can to avoid injuring pitchers. But it seems to be clear that one of those adjustments was appropriate and one was overkill. It's difficult to explain how you can make two changes designed to reduce injury rates to pitchers without reducing injury rates to pitchers! I think there is better evidence for the pitch limits than there is for the five-man rotation and, therefore, I think it's reasonably likely that at some point in the future we will go back to the four-man rotation.
RL: In the old days, pitchers like Christy Mathewson would throw harder to certain batters than to others. The fact that we have DHs now and second basemen who can hit, does that have an effect on the quality of each pitch?
BJ: Yes. When I wrote about that, I wasn't aware of that transition in history until I was working on the Historical Abstract -- and I wrote about that in '83 or '84. When I wrote about that, I thought it was over. I thought that was a transition that happened in history but what I didn't realize, particularly in the '90s, was this transition was still ongoing. One of the great differences between the '70s and now is that now you have a lot of guys who throw 86 as starters who can throw 90 as relievers for one inning and who do that. So, the starters push themselves harder, are out of the game earlier, and then you see a series of relievers who are throwing harder. So yes, it does affect the quality of the pitch but it's an open question -- a fair question -- whether by making this transition we've lost this, sort of, "pitchtility."
The Orioles in the '70s were extremely successful with a bunch of pitchers who probably threw 82-85 ninety percent of the time. Mike Flanagan, Scott McGregor, and Steve Stone weren't hard throwers but they could pitch 250 innings by saving their best stuff and pacing themselves. People don't pitch that way anymore, and it's not clear that you couldn't pitch that way anymore. It's fairly likely you could.
A few years ago we had a lead-off man, Brady Anderson, who hit 52 homers. In the '70s the idea of a lead-off man hitting 30 home runs was preposterous. Now it's as common as dirt. So that's a real transition, that you have to worry about the home run on every pitch. A lot of people because of that are reluctant to throw that 82 mile-an-hour screwball or cutter or something because they're afraid they're going to be changing the scoreboard with just one bad pitch.
RL: Excellent. In the player ratings section of the 1983 Abstract, you mention that you were hired by the Hendricks Brothers to help on Joaquin Andujar's salary arbitration. When did you begin to serve in that capacity?
BJ: It started in November, 1979, I think. I worked with the Hendricks Brothers regularly for about ten years and gradually cut it down and eliminated it in the early 1990s. I also worked for a lot of the other agents.
RL: Switching gears here, the Law of Competitive Balance, the Plexiglass Principle, and the Whirlpool Principle are all favorites of mine. How do these theories relate to how you would analyze trends or players today?
BJ: It relates to how you would analyze everything. People are astonished that our elections tend to wind up 50/50 or 51/49 but it's just the Law of Competitive Balance. When a political party is ahead, they get arrogant and start to overreach. When they are behind, they tend to compromise and gain. It's just the Law of Competitive Balance working itself out. It relates to how I analyze everything.
RL: In the Player Ratings section of the 1983 Abstract, you did a number on Enos Cabell.
BJ: I believe I told this story to several reporters, but I don't remember ever seeing it in print so I'll tell you again. One of the agents I worked for was Tom Reich and I went to a party at Tom's house and Enos Cabell was there. I was introduced to him and there was no look of recognition in his eyes and I thought, "Thank God." [laughs] But, later in the evening, I was talking to him and he made a joke about something I'd written, and I realized he knew exactly who I was. He was just unbelievably classy in handling it. So, from that time on, [chuckling] I assure you I have not written another negative word about Enos Cabell in the last 20 years. He was a very nice man and a very classy man. I don't know what I wrote about him, but I know people still ask me about it. [laughs]
RL: In the 1984 Baseball Abstract, you dedicated the book to sportswriters Bob Hentzen, Jim Murray, and Leonard Koppett.
RL: I found it surprising that they were the heroes of your adolescence rather than athletes.
BJ: I think that's fairly common. For a lot of people, the athletes are sort of the secondary heroes of the universe. If you interview general managers, I think that you would find that more of them grew up fantasizing about being general managers than fantasizing about being second basemen. Maybe they want to be second basemen, too, or clean-up hitters but...
RL: ...I'd rather grow up to be Bill James than Jim Rice.
RL: You hired Jim Baker that year. I was wondering if you could talk about some of the different people that worked for you. The fact that your disciples have become notable in their own right reminds me of the success of Bill Walsh and his assistant coaches.
BJ: Jim Baker is a very talented person. I conducted perhaps an over-organized search for an assistant at that time and hired him. He was the most talented person I could find. He is an extremely funny writer. He's hilarious. I think everybody who knows Jim and knows how good his stuff is has been waiting for him to explode as a popular pop icon for 20 years. It hasn't happened yet and maybe it won't, but he's a very talented guy.
RL: Rob Neyer was your second assistant.
BJ: Rob is the easiest person to work with that I've had. I hired him just because I liked him. I knew he was a big baseball fan. It was sort of a trial thing and I didn't really know how long it would last. He is a natural assistant to me because I'm not organized enough to spend any time directing anybody's work. You give Neyer a stack full of baseball books and he's busy. He was naturally doing it by his own intellectual curiosity and interests so I never really had to worry about what he was doing, which was a good thing for me.
RL: How about John Sickels?
BJ: I hired John because I was looking for an assistant. We went to lunch and one of the things I did was draw up a list of young players. I thought I'd ask John to see if he knew anything about them as sort of an intern test. He knew far more about these players than I did! Just off the top of his head, he could rattle off where they were last year and what they were doing. I was quite amazed at that. John always had -- and it doesn't have anything to do with me -- an area of expertise. He always knew more about that stuff than anybody did. Through working with me, he was able to let people know all of the expertise he had in that area.
RL: Though he is not as well known as Jim, Rob, and John, tell me about the relationship between you and your good friend, Mike Kopf.
BJ: Mike is an interesting guy. He's single, older than I am, thin, spends a lot of time at racetracks, a lot of time at bars. Mike also reads voluminously and has this phenomenal acquaintance with classical music. He has this memory that, you go to a baseball game -- he's sitting there drinking pretty heavily -- and you can talk about the game two years later and you realize that he can still reconstruct the fourth inning in his mind and he starts debating with you why the manager bunted in a situation in the fifth inning. [laughing] "What in the hell are you talking about?!" [laughter persists] There's no frame of reference here at all. He remembers and bursts upon certain instances that happened in a game.
RL: Mike seems like quite a character. Thanks for sharing those stories.
Be sure to check back tomorrow for the third and final segment of my exclusive interview with Bill James.
[Additional reader comments and retorts at Baseball Primer.]