Rare Pitching Prospects of the AFL
Yesterday, I mentioned the Arizona Fall League to be one of the most hitter-friendly leagues in professional baseball. This is due to not only the environment in which the league is set, but also the competition that is brought forth every year. Teams usually send some of their top A+ or AA hitting talents to the AFL for further work, while not doing the same with pitching prospects.
However, the outcry for a change in the status quo is developing. Last year Sandy Alderson and AFL president Steve Cobb began to demand that changes be made. The league's offense reached all-time highs last year, with more than half of the games resulting in combined run outputs of thirteen or more. While those involved with the AFL know it's difficult to ask organizations to risk injury, Cobb noted that only twice last year did a pitcher throw seven innings.
Whether the pendulum is beginning to swing remains to be seen, though I will venture that this pitching crop seems to be a little better than those of year's past. Last year Huston Street was the buzz in Arizona, and the rest of the top ten in ERA were all names that will likely never make a splash at the Major League level. Expect that to change this year, depending upon what pitch counts their teams set for some of these very solid prospects.
Presented in a bit of a different format than yesterday, here's a look at the top 15 pitching prospects of the AFL, along with a thought on what I believe they must accomplish this winter.
Pretty much a different pitcher since I underrated him in my midseason prospect list. Billingsley supporters are quick to point out that what appeared to be early season struggles were in fact numbers masked by a few bad starts against Delmon Young's team, and what was then a high BABIP. However, the BABIP ship has been righted, as his current number is right around .280. This is due to an August in which Billingsley has excelled, while also having a BABIP under .150. In those 33 innings, he's allowed just 14 hits, while 'only' striking out 31 batters. However, while some of this success is surely do to luck, it's also important to note his control problems are starting to go away, with just eight free passes issued in the month of August. I'm worried that the AFL will add to a workload that is nearing uncomfortable levels, and should push him to 180 innings over seven months. While many of the minors best pitching prospects are graduating to the minors, Billingsley has an argument for being the best left under the surface. He'll look to continue that argument this winter, where he will need his newfound control to not find himself in trouble.
The subject of a recent article at Baseball America, and likely the subject of concern for the Cleveland Indians. Before injury I had Miller ranked above Matt Cain, but now he's in danger of slipping, and slipping very quickly. He gets lee-way, of course, for rehabilitation time, but the AFL will be the start of evaluating his progress with no more ifs, ands and buts. Instead, Miller must see his velocity raise back to past levels, and his strikeout numbers must again prove to be a product of his fantastic stuff. When looking at Miller's numbers in the AFL, it will be much wiser to look at his K/9 and velocity readings rather than everything else. Those are what will tell us if pre-injury 'Mr. 101' ever has a chance of resurfacing.
3. Jered Weaver - RHP/SP - Los Angeles Angels
I'm a bit wary of this decision, not because of Jered's inning count, but rather the environment. Weaver is among the minors most prominent flyball pitchers, and unless the winter will be spent adding a cutter, he could serve quite a few home runs in Arizona. However, this is a player that needs to be challenged, and also needs to give Los Angeles an idea of what his timetable should look like. Weaver's pitchability is matched by few in the minors, and that plus his great control could make up for the flyball tendencies. While we all know that Jered can strike hitters out, the AFL will be a good test to see how he deals with adversity, and if he can limit damage despite being HR-prone.
4. Edwin Jackson - RHP/SP - Los Angeles Dodgers
Like Billingsley, I'm not sure I agree with the decision to send Jackson to the AFL. Has any player in this system faced more adversity than Jackson this year, who went from thinking he's have a rotation spot, to being a month away, to not getting any AAA hitters out, to being demoted to AA, to getting a chance in LA. Jackson has started to right the ship in Jacksonville, however, the environment is far more friendly for pitchers there than in Arizona. Edwin must continue to grow and keep using the advice and mechanical changes he has received in Jacksonville. He is something of a conundrum in the Los Angeles system, but a good AFL might be enough to convince the Dodgers to plan on him for yet another offseason.
Well, this decision makes sense. While Billingsley and Jackson will both be carrying high workloads going into the AFL, it will be Miller who is in need of innings. He has not pitched very much since returning from injury, getting a Curt Schilling-like glimpse of the life of a reliever. Miller once had the stuff to succeed in either role, and the AFL will go a long way in determining which role that should be. Expect the Dodgers to inform Miller's manager that while Billingsley and Jackson need to be handled delicately, Miller should be thrown into the fire. At a certain point, it's time for the Dodgers to take off their gloves, and see what this kid is made of.
6. Glen Perkins - LHP/SP - Minnesota Twins
His path this year has been emulated by many in his draft class, as he dominated Florida State League hitters before reaching considerable challenges in the Eastern League. Perkins was neither worth leaving in high-A nor ready for AA, which is probably right where the AFL talent-level lies. Perkins stuff is average, but like Weaver, he has very solid pitchability. The Twins are stacked in the pitching department, meaning that hometown-boy Perkins will be given all the time he needs to develop. Expect Perkins to have an AFL similar to Sean Marshall's in 2004 (8:1 K/BB ratio), and begin next season back in Double-A. Glen has a future in the Twin Cities, no doubt, but unlike many of his college companions, expect that to happen sooner rather than later.
7. Angel Guzman - RHP/SP - Chicago Cubs
No minor league pitcher is harder to get a grasp on than Angel Guzman. We thought this would be the season for Guzman to finally make waves in Chicago, but much like many of the other Cub starters, he let the organization down. 2005 has been a lost year for Guzman's development, and the AFL is essential to his new and improved timetable. Will we see the Guzman of old when he gets to the AFL, walking few batters, while still showing fantastic stuff? Or have injuries led to a slow deterioration of the prospect that was supposed to stand aside the Priors, Zambranos, and Woods of the north side?
8. Jason Hirsh - RHP/SP - Houston Astros
In a system that has seen quite a few breakouts this season, Hirsh might be the biggest surprise. At midseason I was thinking Hirsh would be a good Rule 5 pick in December, but has now all-but-guaranteed himself a spot on the Astros 40-man roster. The only thing that could stop that, I think, would be an arm injury before the end of the regular season or a disastrous showing at the AFL. Expect neither from Hirsh, who is one of the older prospects on this list, even if his success is a relatively new happening. Hirsh is the real deal, and should end up a back-of-the-rotation starter with the Astros by the end of next season. His AFL performance should further that opinion.
9. Sean Tracey - RHP/SP - Chicago White Sox
It seems like Sean Tracey has a ceiling higher than most of the names that surround him on this list, but he can't consistently show that in the minors. I have pointed out before that Tracey is the unusually rare K+GB pitcher, although he has had some troubles consistently (there's that word, again) generating groundballs. My guess is that his problems are due to the occasional inability to keep his fastball down in the zone. However, when he does, Tracey becomes dominant, and when combining that with his inning-eater skills, is a very good prospect. The AFL will be key for Tracey to start showing the, um, consistency that has plagued him in the past.
10. Adam Loewen - LHP - Baltimore Orioles
Again, these are the types of pitchers that I love. Loewen has God-given talent that is off the walls, to the point that his balls have movement that parallels the best stuff in the minors. However, when he releases the pitch, seldom does Loewen know where it will end up. His career is moving at the pace of a snail, and his control problems hardly have improved this season. If he puts it all together -- like he has in a few various starts this year -- then Loewen could become one of the top handful of pitching prospects in baseball. However, that isn't likely, and we will probably see the control problems stick until the Orioles decide it's time to try his arm in a relief role. It will be there, I predict, where he will succeed (see: Ambiorix Burgos).
11. Wade Townsend - RHP/SP - Tampa Bay Devil Rays
When the AFL begins in October, few pitchers in the league will enter with an 18-month workload less than that of Wade Townsend. Since ending his career at Rice in 2004, Townsend's professional innings have been limited to his short-season performances this year. The two-time top ten pick needs to start justifying his placement on draft boards, or at the very least, proving people wrong that thought the Devil Rays were reaching. Townsend will begin a full workload in 2005, so he must use the AFL to start re-improving the endurance/stamina that he has likely lost over time.
12. Clint Nageotte - RHP - Seattle Mariners
Like Greg Miller before him, Nageotte's AFL will probably say much about what his future role with the Mariners will be. If I had to guess, Nageotte's solid fastball-slider combination will see him setting-up Rafael Soriano when it's al said and done. However, the Mariners probably won't quit on the idea of Nageotte as a starter so soon, much like they won't with newly acquired Jesse Foppert. While the latter probably has the moxie to stick in the rotation, Nageotte has always struggled at the Major League level, and might be best suited for one-inning roles when he can throw the slider about 50-70% of the time. Or, maybe the Mariners are thinking that Nageotte will end up similar to Shawn Chacon, bouncing back and forth on roles depending upon the season. As always, time will tell.
13. Travis Bowyer - RHP/RP - Minnesota Twins
Most of the names on this list I will/have suggested a future move to the bullpen. Travis Bowyer is one that is already there, and has been now for a couple years. He's also about 15-20 good AFL innings from Minnesota opening up a relief spot for him in 2006, much in the way they handled Jesse Crain before him. However, I don't think we can expect Bowyer to have a winter like Huston Street's 2004, in which he was the most talked about player in the league. Bowyer just isn't that good of a reliever, as I mentioned after seeing him and the fastball-only repertoire at the Futures Game. But he's dominated AAA this year, so by all means should Bowyer make mincemeat of these less-advanced AFL hitters.
14. Scott Mathieson - RHP - Philadelphia Phillies
With Gavin Floyd in a year-long slump and Cole Hamels hurt (again), Scott Mathieson's right arm has become the focus of the Philadelphia system. After representing the organization in the Futures Game, Mathieson has continued to pitch with just-OK results. In a sense, Mathieson reminds me of a fellow AFLer that I previously doubted: Bill Murphy. Both have live arms, but lack any semblance of pitchability. Not only must his consistency of control improve, but to become an elite prospect, Mathieson must start to have games with big results. He has a chance to have a career at the back of a rotation, but given his track record of performance, middle relief is much more likely.
15. Taylor Tankersley - LHP - Florida Marlins
Seen as a bit of a risky pick in 2004, Tankersley has not had a great year this season, seeing struggles with Sally League hitters. It also can't help that he's watching a fellow draft pick, Jason Vargas, pitch well at the Major League level. Tankersley has showed a bit of dominance a few times this year, and like many players, just needs to add a bit of consistency to his good outings. I'm not sold on him as being a good prospect however, so his AFL will need to prove something to the prospect evaluators. If he does have a Major League career, you can bet that it will be as a sort of swingman, as it was occasionally in college.
Arizona Fall League (Offensive) Preview
Few things bring out the best of minor league hitters like desert heat. While the Florida State League has long been known as a pitcher's paradise, southwestern destinations like the Texas League and (parts of) the California League greatly favor offensive players. Furthermore, during Spring Training -- oftentimes a mixed bag of Major and minor leaguers -- the Cactus League is almost always more high-powered than its Grapefruit counterpart.
For these reasons, we have come to expect the best of minor league hitters to show itself during winter ball. More specifically, the Arizona Fall League is slowly becoming an extension of the regular season for many of the game's best hitting prospects. While organizations are becoming more wary of their best arms, limiting their innings, many times the prospects are beating on pitchers that do not match their caliber. This is why offense is the most important aspect of the AFL, and why in 2004, the Scottsdale Scorpions ended up in the championship game.
While the pitching staff was an unsuccessful product of starters like Dustin Moseley, Jeff Housman, and Michael Burns (who?), the Scorpions were armed with the league's best offense. Two of the league's most productive home run hitters -- Conor Jackson and Jason Repko -- were in the middle of the lineup, joined by others like Rickie Weeks, Dustin Pedroia and Russ Martin. While the club was also helped by minor league vets like Jesse Gutierrez, Corey Myers and Marland Williams, the prospects made up the backbone of the roster.
Last week, Major League Baseball released the preliminary list of the players that will be attending the AFL. As usual, the league promises to be offensive-friendly, with some of the best prospects jockeying for positions both in the lineup, and in some cases, on the field. I have since ranked the top six offensive teams in the AFL, and provided a rough look at what players the team will field on a usual basis (solid prospects and MLB players in bold).
1. Peoria Javelinas
C - Jeff Clement
The best way to describe the Javelinas' fantastic offensive depth is to look at their catching position. The team features three of the top eight catching prospects in the minors, when including Clement. Kottaras falls just below Clement on the depth chart, particularly do to Jeff's higher ceiling, in addition to the fact that his 2005 season was shorter. Expect Iannetta to face a good number of southpaws, as the club would be best suited to platoon the position. No matter how they slice it, however, the club will get production from the backstop that most teams in this league will envy.
In addition to the catching position, the middle of this lineup will be filled with three of the best young players in the minors: Fielder, Stewart and Markakis. All three have significant power, and should all vie for the AFL home run title. Expect few players on this roster to take playing time away from this trio, which should be the best 3-4-5 in the AFL.
Another loaded position on the team is at shortstop, where the team will split two players currently starting full-time in the Majors, while moving a top prospect to the outfield. J.J. Hardy will cap off his disappointing rookie campaign with a trip to the AFL, where we can only expect he continues to right his ship. Hardy proved himself consistently in the minors, and we can only expect a return to dominant numbers in November. Hardy, while being very good defensively, will not even be the Gold Glove winner on his own team, as Yuniesky Betancourt should be the best in the league. However, the AFL will be a time for Betancourt to further refine his offensive skills, as the rush treatment the Mariners gave him left little time for that.
Moving to centerfield for Hardy on this team and Betancourt in real life is Adam Jones, who has already begun to make the transition in the Texas League. Given Jones plus speed and plus-plus arm, the move should be no problem, and we can actually expect him to be a real asset there in short time. While he must prove his 2005 to not be a fluke, Val Majewski must try not to make this year a wasted one. While Jason Kubel will sit winter ball out, Majewski will rehab in the AFL, before the Orioles determine his correct placement for 2006.
All this has been said without mentioning Josh Barfield and Corey Hart, both who should perform above the league averages at their respective positions. The other bench players not already mentioned aren't great, although Jeff Salazar will surely find a way into about 75 at-bats. Top to bottom this team is stacked like few else, with their only holes coming about four-deep on the bench.
2. Phoenix Desert Dogs
C - Jarrod Saltalamacchia
Not nearly as deep as the Javelinas, the defending champion Desert Dogs have an argument for being just as top heavy. Their catcher, first baseman, shortstop, third baseman, centerfielder, and designated hitter all rank among the top four at their position in the minors. This is a fantastic feat, and should lead for an offense that gets big offensive production.
It's hard to forecast who will be the best hitter on this team, but despite the presence of Drew and LaRoche, I might lay my money on Saltalamacchia or Bankston. Both are players coming from poor offensive surroundings, and should be expected to blossom in their new surroundings. Still, Drew is the safest choice, especially now that it appears he may have a chance at starting next year in the Majors for a significant cash incentive. Will there be a more motivated player in the league than the vying-for-seven-figure Drew?
Maybe not, but expect Matt Kemp and Andre Ethier, making up the offensive corners, to try and prove naysayers that their breakout seasons were for real. Both players came from nowhere this season, but now find themselves on the radar like never before. Both the Dodgers and A's are using the AFL as help to decide whether either player should factor into the future plans of the Desert Dogs.
The holes on this team are fairly obvious: second base and bench. Elliot Johnson should get the most starts by default, although both Tony Abreu and Jonathan Schuerholz will unspectacularly spare him. All were solid -- if flawed -- players in A-ball, but have been their weaknesses exposed since being moved to higher levels. The only two players on the bench worth talking about are Kurt Suzuki and James Loney, who will both give the current starters much needed time off.
3. Surprise Scorpions
C - Gabe Johnson
While the Desert Dogs are back to defend their title, the Scorpions will be looking for another season atop the AFL offensive rankings. They will be helped, without a doubt, by two of my top ten prospects, Brandon Wood and Billy Butler. Both players made a mockery of the California League this season, but remain relatively untested (save Butler's sample size promotion) at higher levels. They could either continue to prove why we think so highly of them, or perform just modestly, which would of course be a product of a more difficult environment.
Even with the doubt surrounding the team's two best prospects, the Scorpions should figure to finish in the top half of the league's run scoring. The club's second tier prospects (Huber, Kendrick, Morales) are all performing well in AA, and should have little trouble with the transition to winter ball. Huber could have a season similar to Chris Shelton's 2004, and Kendrick and Morales will simply look to continue their fantastic hot streaks. While Morales is listed at DH, expect him to steal quite a few starts from both Huber and Hanson on the corners.
The problem with this team is depth, as Travis Hanson is just one of three suspect starters on the team. I completely guessed who will be the predominant starter at catcher, but considering the three names, don't be surprised if the club gets less production from the backstop than any other organization. The Cardinal starter besides Hanson is Cody Haerther, who should regress a little bit after a 2005 season in which he performed over his head.
This is also a hard team to pin a starting lineup for, because in addition to the problem at backstop, I could also envision Josh Anderson and Wade Robinson stealing quite a few at-bats. Still, despite the uncertainty at a few positions, the Scorpions mix of high-ceiling blue chippers and sure-bet second tier prospects should make for quite a few trips around the bases.
4. Peoria Saguaros
C - Neil Walker
Please note that while I listed the Saguaros as the AFL's fourth-best offensive team, this is a club with the ceiling to rise to the top. None of the players are sure bets like Prince Fielder, Ian Stewart, Justin Huber or Daric Barton, but there is quite a bit of breakout potential on this team.
Two of the players that I'm talking about, obviously, are Neil Walker and Adam Lind. I have spoken about both players before, as I expect the two to blossom in the power department going forward. Walker must use the AFL to both walk more and improve his defense however, as those two flaws will limit his ceiling moving forward. Lind will likely be the subject of more than one of my pieces this winter, as I fully expect him to begin his breakout in October. Look for the power he showed in July -- if July only -- to begin to resurface in the desert.
Besides those two, the club does have a few sure bets for success. In 2004, Brian Dopirak followed his Midwest League home run title with seven AFL homers, good for second in the league. This year, expect another minor league lumberjack, Brad Eldred, to contend for the home run title. Sure, he might not bring much else to the table, but boy, Eldred can hit the ball a long way. Brandon Moss, Ryan Sweeney, and Ryan Zimmerman are quite the opposite: players with plus contact skills that lack great power skills. Moss is on the border of corner outfielder/AAAA player in my mind, and the AFL will go a long way in deciding which side of the fence he's on. Sweeney just hit his first home run of the season this week, and will need the winter to finally justify scouts claims from 2004. Finally, if Zimmerman is to stay at third, he must begin to show more substantial home run power than he has in the past.
The club's other starters (Harris, Valido and Murphy) are all solid, but figure to give substantial playing time to both Ryan Roberts and Rajai Davis. However, I do believe Murphy could have a breakout AFL, and begin to show what I've suspected for awhile, that his upside is greater than that of Moss. Guillermo Quiroz is the club's most interesting bench player, one who is very similar to the player he is backing up. Quiroz must use the AFL to re-enter the Blue Jays organizational plans, for if he doesn't, the club will likely need to pursue a catcher during the winter.
5. Mesa Solar Sox
C - Justin Knoedler
I was tempted to put the Solar Sox last, but the club got a boost from having quite a bit of Major League service time on the roster. Knoedler, Giarratano, Murton and Granderson are all role players that have been in the Majors, and in the case of Murton and Granderson, have been successful. However, the two players still have things to prove, as Murton must show some semblance of power, and Granderson must show some semblance of defense.
Both Eric Patterson and Dan Ortmeier will have prospects breathing down their necks, in the cases of Kevin Frandsen and Brad Snyder, respectively. However, expect Patterson to show the Futures Game made a mistake, while Ortmeier shows that even at his age, players can still be top prospects. Still, neither of these players figure to have jaw-dropping performances, leaving the club a little short on offense.
If it does come, expect most of it to come from the 1B/DH position. It will be there that the club decides how best to rotate Michael Aubrey, Joey Votto and Brandon Sing. Votto will be on the Wednesday/Saturday taxi squad, likely leaving the injury-recovering Aubrey with the majority of at-bats. Unfortunately this leaves the club with yet another position in which they will receive less-than-average production in the slugging department. Do not expect that from Sing, who like Brad Eldred before him, figures to be among the more prominent sluggers in the league.
6. Grand Canyon Rafters
C - Mike Jacobs
Well, at least the manager will have fun playing around with the defense, huh? On this team, I think Mike Jacobs should play everyday at catcher, trying to convince the Mets not to spend there during the winter. Eric Duncan should move across the diamond to first, as he likely will not be supplanting A-Rod anytime soon. Drew Meyer should continue in his quest for a career in utility, playing a little at second, short, and in center. This will also allow Lastings Milledge to begin to get a feel for right field, as he will likely replace Mike Cameron long before he will Carlos Beltran.
Duncan and Milledge are the two best prospects this club has to offer, and either could see their weaknesses exploited by AFL pitchers. The second tier isn't bad with Jacobs (another MVP candidate), Moses, and Span, but again, only Jacobs on that list has handled the AA transition well. In fact, Jacobs has moved up to the Majors well, and if his streak continues, should lead this league in home runs.
Besides those mentioned there is little on this team, despite the fading hopes that Bronson Sardinha or Meyer might finally breakout. It won't happen, and in all likelihood, the Rafters will finish last in the AFL standings.
Back tomorrow with a look at the league's crop of pitching, in addition to some predictions about top performances and a prospect ranking of the best talent on display.
Billy Wagner: Time to Give Him His Due
Which active pitcher in the big leagues has the best collection of career rate stats? Pedro Martinez? Randy Johnson? Roger Clemens? Greg Maddux? Nope. Ahh, it must be a relief pitcher, ehh? Mariano Rivera? Trevor Hoffman? Eric Gagne? Wrong again.
The answer, my friends, is Billy Wagner. Yes, Billy Wagner. He is number one in hits (5.87), baserunners (9.28), and strikeouts (11.97) per nine innings, and is in a virtual tie for third with Hoffman behind Martinez and Curt Schilling in strikeouts/walks (3.84) while ranking second behind Rivera in ERA (2.44).
Having the best rate stats doesn't make Wagner the best pitcher in baseball, but it might make him the most underrated. Martinez, Johnson, Clemens, Maddux, and several other starters have been more valuable than the 34-year-old native of Virginia because they have pitched many, many more innings. Total value is determined by rate stats times volume and Wagner simply doesn't have the latter to be considered on a par with the starters. However, Billy Wags is the best of the best when it comes to measuring performance on a per at-bat or inning basis.
Without the fanfare of a Rivera, William Edward Wagner is having one of the best seasons of any reliever this year. He is 4-1 with 31 saves and a 1.65 ERA. Billy has allowed only 36 hits and 15 walks while striking out 62 batters in 60 innings.
Wagner has been hotter than a Philadelphia summer day the past six weeks. The Phillies go-to-guy hasn't allowed a run since July 19, a scoreless streak covering 16 games and 16 2/3 innings. He has given up just five hits and one walk while saving all 11 opportunities.
Far from a summer fling or one-year wonder, Wagner has been dominating opposing batters his entire career.
IP H R ER HR BB SO W L SV ERA Career 614 400 177 166 58 212 815 34 30 277 2.44
* through 8/28/05
Remarkably, the left-hander has racked up more than two Ks for every hit allowed. He struck out more than a batter per inning at every stop in the minors and majors, including over 1.5 per inning from 1997-1999. As the winner of the National League Rolaids Relief Award in 1999, he established a big-league record for strikeouts per nine innings (14.95)--a mark since topped by Gagne (14.98) in 2003, a season some believe to be the best ever by a reliever.
In addition to his strikeout prowess, it should be noted that Wagner has never allowed an on-base plus slugging average of .600 in any campaign other than his injury-shortened season in 2000. His career OPS is .557. To put that in perspective, Alberto Castillo, with the worst OPS among active players at .592, has been a more productive hitter throughout his career than the average batter vs. the four-time All-Star (1999, 2001, 2003, 2005).
Like almost all closers today, Wagner, for the most part, is now a one-inning pitcher. However, that wasn't always the case. Going back to his rookie year in 1996, Billy, in a period encompassing less than 30 days, pitched 3 1/3 innings on June 6, 2 1/3 on June 13, 3 on June 14, 2 2/3 on June 20, and 3 2/3 on July 2. On those back-to-back outings on the 13th and 14th of June, he gave up one hit and one walk while striking out six. Seven of the eight outs on the 20th of June were Ks.
Although Wagner has never started a game at the major-league level, he was used exclusively as a starting pitcher in the minor leagues. Wagner started all 70 games he pitched, throwing 402 innings while compiling a 3.20 ERA. In 1994, Wagner had 204 Ks in just 153 IP at Single-A Quad City. But that was nothing compared to what he did in college.
Wagner, while posting a 17-3 record in three years at Ferrum College (VA), set the Division III mark for career strikeouts with 327 in 182 1/3 IP. He still holds the single-season NCAA records for K/9 IP (19.1) and fewest H/9 IP (1.58) as well as the career record for fewest H/9 IP (2.22). Yes, you read those numbers right. He averaged more than 19 Ks and fewer than two hits per 9 IP as a sophomore in 1992.
Selected by the Houston Astros in the 1st round (12th pick) of the 1993 amateur draft, Wagner made his MLB debut on September 13, 1995. He pitched well as the setup man in 1996, giving management the confidence to trade closer Todd Jones to the Detroit Tigers in December. Wagner became the ace in 1997, a position he held until the Astros traded him to the Phillies in November 2003 in a move designed to free up salary that was later used to sign Andy Pettitte and Roger Clemens.
While Houston's Brad Lidge emerged as one of the most dominating closers in baseball last year, Wagner was beset by injuries which limited him to 45 appearances in his first year with Philadelphia. Healthy in 2005, the 5-foot-11, 201-pound reliever is one of the principal reasons the Phillies have the inside track on the Wild Card berth in the NL. A free agent at the end of the year, Wagner, who is making $9 million this season, reportedly turned down a two-year, $16-million contract with a club option for 2008. He is believed to be seeking a three-year, $24-million deal with a no-trade clause.
No stranger to physical pain while growing up, Wagner broke his right arm twice playing football. With his throwing arm in a cast, Billy began to toss the ball left-handed and, as they say, the rest is history. Although Wagner eats and writes with his right hand, he throws his signature 100-MPH fastball as a southpaw. He also mixes in a 86-90 MPH slider, which breaks in on RHB and down and away on LHB. Over the years, he has learned to pitch on both sides of the plate and is almost unhittable when he throws his gas up in the strike zone.
At a minimum, Wagner is the best left-handed relief pitcher in history.
CAREER LEADERS SAVES
SV 1 John Franco 424 2 Randy Myers 347 3 Billy Wagner 277 4 Dave Righetti 252 5 Sparky Lyle 238
* through 8/28/05
Although John Franco and Randy Myers have more saves than Wagner, their peripheral stats don't compare to the new kid on the block.
ERA WHIP BAA K/9 BB/9 K/BB Franco 2.89 1.33 .249 7.0 3.6 1.97 Myers 3.19 1.30 .233 9.0 4.0 2.23 Wagner 2.44 1.00 .184 12.0 3.1 3.84
* through 8/28/05
Not only does Wagner have a better career ERA than Franco and Myers, he sits atop all left-handed relievers in this department.
CAREER LEADERS ERA
ERA SV 1 Billy Wagner 2.44 246 2 Ron Perranoski 2.79 179 3 John Hiller 2.83 125 4 Sparky Lyle 2.88 238 5 John Franco 2.89 424
* through 8/28/05
Forget relief pitchers. Wagner is one of the best lefties period. Don't believe me? Check out the following tables.
VS. LEAGUE AVERAGE
ERA DIFF PLAYER LEAGUE 1 Billy Wagner 1.78 2.52 4.31 2 Lefty Grove 1.36 3.06 4.42 3 Randy Johnson 1.28 3.07 4.35 4 Lefty Gomez 1.16 3.34 4.50 5 Barry Zito 1.15 3.41 4.56
BASERUNNERS/9 IP DIFF PLAYER LEAGUE 1 Billy Wagner 3.39 9.46 12.85 2 Johan Santana 2.17 10.91 13.08 3 Carl Hubbell 2.14 10.62 12.77 4 Randy Johnson 2.08 10.88 12.95 5 Lefty Grove 2.04 11.60 13.63
HITS/9 IP DIFF PLAYER LEAGUE 1 Billy Wagner 3.11 5.93 9.03 2 Herb Score 2.39 6.39 8.78 3 Randy Johnson 2.15 6.98 9.13 4 Sandy Koufax 1.95 6.79 8.74 5 Johan Santana 1.89 7.48 9.37
STRIKEOUTS/9 IP DIFF PLAYER LEAGUE 1 Billy Wagner 5.48 12.26 6.78 2 Randy Johnson 4.84 11.12 6.28 3 Herb Score 4.05 8.78 4.73 4 Sandy Koufax 3.71 9.27 5.57 5 Rube Waddell 3.39 7.04 3.65
* through 2004
But, wait a minute, Wagner might even be better than advertised. You see, he has pitched more than half of his career in home ballparks (Enron/Minute Maid and Citizen's Bank) that are considered unfriendly to pitchers.
Career Home and Road Splits:
ERA WHIP BAA Home 2.80 1.03 .199 Away 2.03 0.96 .168
* through 8/28/05
Another factor working against Wagner is that 54% of his games and innings pitched have been at home. His adjusted Earned Run Average (ERA+), which assumes a 50-50 home/road split, was 169 going into this season. By comparison, Pedro Martinez, the all-time leader among those with a minimum of 1000 IP, 3000 PA and 100 decisions, had a career ERA+ of 167 entering 2005. (Note: Rivera betters both with a 190.)
Based on rate stats, Wagner is unquestionably one of the best active pitchers, left-handed relievers, and southpaws in the history of the game. Playing outside New York and unable to work his magic in the World Series, the man some call Canned Heat has flown under the radar screen for nearly ten years. It is high time we begin to recognize his greatness.
[Additional reader comments and retorts at Baseball Primer.]
One on One: Five Questions (Part Two)
On the heels of yesterday's One on One segment, we switch gears for Part Two. It's now time for Bryan to grill Rich with five burning questions involving the NL West, the AL Wild Card, the worst team in baseball, a certain pitcher from the Northwest, the NL ROY and the AL MVP. Find out what the latter has to say.
Bryan: Rich, you're a West Coast guy. I know no one east of the Rockies cares about the NL West, but do you? Is it worth paying attention to, or is the winner just going to go three-and-out come October?
Rich: I don't think many people in the Rockies care about the NL West. The AFC West, yes. But not the NL West.
Despite where I live, I'm not the right guy to ask. I picked the Giants to win the division before Barry Bonds went down, then reluctantly chose the Dodgers in mid-May. Can I choose a third team? Like a stopped clock, I'm bound be right one of these times.
If San Diego wins the Worst...err, I mean the West, then you would have to give them at least a chance to take one of the playoff games in the first round. How's that, you ask? Well, Jake Peavy is good enough to win a game almost single-handedly. He has a sub-3 ERA and is tied for the major-league lead in strikeouts with 189 and is first in K/9 (10.03). Jake's fifth in WHIP (1.00) and Average Game Score.
Back to your original point, Dave Studeman said it best. "The NL West is now officially the worst division ever." He pointed out that the NL West teams are playing .443 ball overall, .413 outside of the division, and have a combined record of 5-7 against the Kansas City Royals!!!
Bryan: Speaking of the Royals, what in the world can they do to return to success? Give me a blueprint that you would advise Mr. Baird to follow to get the Royals among the AL Central contenders again.
Rich: Get a new owner. Get a new stadium. Get a new general manager. Oh, I guess that would be a tough sell to Baird. Seriously, I would suggest that the Royals follow the Jacobs plan as closely as possible. They are not in a position quite yet to lock up as many players as the Indians did a decade or so ago. But they need to make sure they take care of the talent they have.
Signing Alex Gordon is obviously numero uno. Let him get his feet wet in the instructional league this fall. Invite Gordon to spring training but don't rush him or Billy Butler or any of the other elite prospects in the system. Realize and be thankful that you're likely to get another Gordon or two in the 2006 and 2007 drafts. Think in terms of a couple of years out when these kids will most likely be in Kansas City. As such, trade Mike Sweeney and don't be so damn stubborn about paying a portion of his remaining salary. If you can find a
Enunciate your plan to the fans. Stick to it through thick and thin. Evaluate your progress. And, by golly, step up the payroll when the time is right by adding the last one or two missing pieces of the puzzle via trades and/or free agency. It won't be easy, but it can be done.
Bryan: At least one outlet on the Internet currently has the Cleveland Indians ranked as baseball's best team. Are the Indians for real enough to outplay the A's and Yankees for the next month?
Rich: I don't see how the Indians could be considered baseball's best team, but I certainly think they are real enough to win a Wild Card berth. Why not? Cleveland is essentially locked in a three-way tie along with the Yankees and A's. Given their schedules, one could argue that the Indians have the inside track.
Cleveland has been en fuego on the road this season. Through Thursday night's action, the Indians are 39-26 away from Jacobs Field. For the mathematically challenged, that is a win-loss percentage of .600. To show you how insane that record is, consider that the Oakland A's (31-30) are the only other team in baseball that has a winning record on the road.
As far as the best team goes, I have to go with the St. Louis Cardinals. Not only do the Redbirds have the best record (80-47), they have the best run differential (636-500) in the majors. Most impressive to me is the fact that the Cardinals have overcome several injuries to their starters (Molina, Rolen, Sanders, Walker) without whining and feeling sorry for themselves. I predicted that the Cards would win the World Series before the season started, and I see no reason to get out of the driver's seat now. I mean, I have a responsbility to all those folks who hopped on board the wagon.
Bryan: Much has been made about the fantastic beginning to the career of Felix Hernandez. Where does the 19-year-old currently rank in your mind among pitchers in the AL, and should we consider him a Cy Young contender for 2006?
Rich: Felix Hernandez is as good as any pitcher in the AL right now. I know Hernandez has only pitched 29 innings in the majors (before Friday night's start vs. CWS), but do you know that he hasn't even allowed an extra-base hit thus far? He's going to give up some doubles, triples, and home runs--just not as many as the next guy. Look, other than big-league experience, this kid has it all. I don't know why we have to wait until Felix "proves" himself to call him what he is. I mean, he is what he is. . .one of the very best starting pitchers in the league. Period.
If you're talking about Cy Young candidates for next year, you gotta put Felix in the same conversation as Johan Santana, Rich Harden, and Roy Halladay. Why couldn't Hernandez do next year what Vida Blue did in 1971 or Fernando Valenzuela in 1981 or Dwight Gooden in 1985? I'm not saying he will, but I think he has that kind of upside season in him.
Bryan: Of all the end-of-season awards, the two closest races seem to be that for AL MVP and NL ROY. The White Sox don't have a real contender for MVP and Jeff Francoeur is the only rookie producing big for a NL contender, although he hasn't been doing it very long. Who is going to come up with a big month and take these awards?
Rich: I'm not so sure those are the two closest races but if you want answers, I'll give you answers. We live in a (baseball) world that has awards. And those awards have to be guarded by men with stats. . .You weep for Francoeur and you curse the White Sox. You have that luxury. You have the luxury of not knowing what I know: That Francoeur's lack of walks, while tragic, probably saved many games. We use words like AL MVP and NL ROY. We use these words as the backbone to baseball. [With tongue firmly in cheek] I have neither the time nor the inclination to explain my picks to those who then question the manner in which I provide 'em.
Bryan: Well, can you at least come up with A Few Good Men?
Rich: OK. NL ROY. . .Jeff Francoeur, Rickie Weeks, Ryan Church, Willy Taveras, Zach Duke, and Jason Vargas. Francoeur has the most buzz of these players and his team is the most likely to earn a playoff spot. Unless he falls off the cliff next month, look for the Atlanta rookie to win going away. With respect to the AL MVP. . .Now that one is crystal clear to me. Alex Rodriguez.
Well, there you have it. We hope those of you who can handle the truth enjoyed this week's One on One.
One on One: Five Questions (Part One)
With the playoffs less than six weeks away, baseball still has so many unanswered questions. Divisions, Wild Cards and individual awards are all in need of winners, and none of us knows who will have the Septembers to walk away happy. However, we all want to know if our sneaking suspicions are true. Can the Cleveland Indians sneak in under the radar? Are the newest young phenoms for real? How can the Kansas City Royals turn things around?
In this week's One on One, Bryan and Rich asked five questions to each other, hoping to find some answers to baseball's biggest questions. In Part One, Rich serves in the capacity as the interviewer, posing questions to Bryan on baseball's biggest superstar, newest superstars, and the trade deadline, v2.0.
Rich: The trade deadline came and went with little or no fanfare. The end of August when playoff rosters have to be finalized is fast approaching. Which of the players who have passed through waivers and are eligible to be traded will be sent packing before the month is out?
If not Griffey, it will surely be someone else joining a club that is just 6-10 in their last sixteen contests. Since the All-Star break, the White Sox have been fourth in the AL in team ERA but fourth from the bottom in runs scored. The lineup has become Tadahito Iguchi, Paul Konerko, A.J. Pierzynski, and then everybody else. The bullpen and rotation have been fantastic during the second half, so Williams would be better suited spending his energy finding an offensive player.
But who fits, you ask? First of all, let me go out on a limb and venture that the White Sox will not acquire any of the three one-time offensive superstars on Stark's list: Griffey, Mike Piazza and Rafael Palmiero. Rich Aurilia also does not fit a team that acquired Geoff Blum just one month ago, and he also plagues from an Ozzie Guillen obsession with Pablo Ozuna. So, who does that leave us? Five players: Mike Sweeney, Matt Stairs, Dmitri Young, Wes Helms and Edgardo Alfonzo. I doubt that the club would acquire Sweeney or Young, two in-division players that are fairly DH-only options on this team.
I also think that Williams wants to make more of a splash in the Chicago newspapers than Helms could provide, and it makes little sense to acquire another right-handed bat for third base. For that same reason, I also doubt Alfonzo is the option. So, that leaves us with Matt Stairs, who -- while in division -- plays for a team that isn't worried about such things. Instead, the Royals want whatever young players the White Sox are willing to part with.
My prediction: on August 30, the AP Wire will read that the Chicago White Sox acquired Matt Stairs from the Kansas City Royals for a player to be named later, who will eventually be named...oh, I'll go with...Robert Valido.
What's interesting is just how much coverage the Giants have received this year, while the Indians and A's aren't on half of the country's radar. How many people could tell you much about Cliff Lee or Dan Haren? Travis Hafner or Mark Kotsay? Sure, they could tell you about what the latest prognostication on Bonds' head cold is, but that's about it.
Even without his playing this year, Bonds is one of the three greatest baseball players in the history of the sport. But when can we begin to accept what has been obvious since June (at the latest): that Bonds will not play baseball in 2005. Let's hear about him again in December, but please ESPN, don't waste any more space on my TV screen on him during the stretch.
OK, on to a someone who is at least suiting up. Here is a multiple choice question. Jhonny Peralta is:
"Nothing more than a flash in the pan." This is presumably the response of many people who are undervaluing Peralta's 2003 season. In 2002, at just the age of 20, Peralta had an .800 OPS in the Eastern League, slugging .457. Despite having started his full-season career off with OPS numbers of .663 and .684, Peralta was the Indians new hot prospect. The team got too excited about Peralta, and in '03 after just 237 poor at-bats in AAA, he was handed the full-time Major League job. Can we blame him for being overwhelmed? In 2004, Peralta redeemed himself in the International League with an .871 OPS, showing his tendency as a late bloomer. He's not going away, it just took him awhile to get here.
"The best SS in the AL." I immediately thought this to be a stretch, and was pleased when the Hardball Times validated my initial reaction. It wasn't long ago that Miguel Tejada was being named a potential MVP candidate, and it is hard to call a slip in OPS to .918 a regression. Not only that, but Win Shares seems to be underrating Tejada's fielding, as Peralta earns a full Win Share more on his defense. Offensively, Tejada is the best in the league, and while Peralta is the new flavor of the week, bear in mind he's fifth on the Win Shares batting list among AL SS alone.
So after shooting down three of your suggested answers, I'm left with C. While Mr. and Mrs. Peralta obviously did a nice job raising a fine ballplayer, what in the hell they were thinking with the name 'Jhonny' should forever be a question from us all.
Rich: I did a double take when I noticed that Jeff Francoeur walked on Sunday. It was his first base on balls in more than 130 plate appearances. I was curious who the wild man was on the hill so I checked the play-by-play and learned that San Diego Padres reliever Akinori Otsuka walked him intentionally. The Atlanta rookie is only 21. Given his age, should we cut him some slack for his poor plate discipline? Or should we extend a high five to him for his aggressiveness in view of his eye-opening numbers thus far?
Not many players in the Major Leagues can claim to have put their team in a position to win with both a home run, a bunt and an assist. This kid is talented, and the Braves should work him hard this winter to get that plate discipline up to average, and him to star status.
Rich: Here's my last one for you, Bryan. What might just happen between now and the end of the season that nobody--and I mean nobody--has talked about?
This year, purely for selfish reasons, I'm hoping the Minnesota Twins win the Wild Card. That's because I believe the Twins would run into a similar path as the '02 Angels, and spend September running into a pitcher they didn't even know they had. Francisco Liriano is the best starter in the minors, with no pitches below 84 mph and nothing left to prove. His arsenal would be perfect for both a rotation that contains Joe Mays, and a bullpen that could use his power arm.
With Felix Hernandez already paving the PCL-to-AL path, look for Liriano (if called) to have a big September. And man oh man will it be hard to pick between the Indians and Twins in 2006.
Please return tomorrow for Part Two when Rich is on the hot seat.
The Predictive Value of Bases on Balls
Since the introduction of sophisticated baseball analysis twenty-five or so years ago, analysts have recognized that on-base-percentage (OBP) is the most informative statistic when evaluating a batter. That is, of all the traditional statistics, OBP best reflects a batter's contribution to run scoring. Because the main difference between OBP and batting average is mainly that the former includes bases on balls while the latter does not, an increased recognition of the value of a walk has occurred recently.
Not surprisingly, as analysts gained an appreciation for the value of the base on balls, the importance of the ability to draw a walk began to be applied in instances that may not be as appropriate. Some began to look at the propensity to walk by a minor leaguer as a predictor of major league success. The theory behind this idea derived mainly from the belief that a high walk total signified good plate discipline and strike zone judgment. The existence of these latter two skills, in turn, suggested a player had a higher likelihood of continuing to develop as a hitter.
I never really liked this theory. In the base data set I used in my work on modeling player careers, there was one player who debuted in the majors with a horrible walk ratio but later evolved into a Hall of Famer with a decent walk rate. Willie Stargell walked only 17 times in 438 plate appearances (excluding hit by pitch or sacrifice flies) in 1964, while recording a .304 OBP and .501 SLG. Seven years later Stargell had a huge season, leading the Pirates to the championship with a .398 OBP and .628 SLG. That year he drew 83 bases on balls in 594 plate appearances.
Of course one counter example proves nothing, but it suggested to me that young players who walked only infrequently could develop into stars as well. Furthermore, one can easily imagine the theory supporting this opposing view: a young player who rarely walks has additional room for improvement as they further learn the strike zone (and some players like Alfonso Soriano keep hitting without ever learning the strike zone).
To test whether the ability to draw a walk as a youngster leads to a higher propensity to evolve into a quality major leaguer, I looked at a number of minor leaguers and compared how they developed. Specifically, I looked for pairs of regular players of the same age, minor league level (AAA, AA, A+, or A), and ability who differed significantly in their likelihood of walking. I generally looked for pairs that differed by at least .060 BB/PA, although most had a larger difference. I found 31 such pairs using the years 1998 and 1999; the average BB/PA for the low walk players was .047 (19 BB per 400 PA), while the average for the high walk players was .130 (52 BB per 400 PA). I have highlighted one pair below as an example.
Player Level Year Age MLEOW OW25 BB/PA Encarnacion, Mario AA 1999 21 .515 .620 0.118 Barrett, Michael AA 1998 21 .518 .623 0.056
To approximate ability I used Offensive Winning Percentage at age 25 (OW25), a statistic discussed at length in Paths to Glory, a book I co-authored with Mark Armour. Offensive Winning Percentage was developed by Bill James twenty-five years ago to measure the contribution of a player's batting statistics within the context of the game. Offensive Winning Percentage attempts to estimate the winning percentage of a team with eight other hitters of equal ability and league average pitching and fielding.
James further introduced the concept of minor league equivalencies in the 1985 Baseball Abstract. He demonstrated that minor league batting statistics are meaningful and could be translated into major league equivalents. The key for making sense of minor league statistics, as with many of baseball's other statistical issues, is context. The three contextual items that one must consider in minor league player evaluation consist of the player's age, the level of the league, and the run context the team plays in, including the average runs scored per game in the league and effect of the team's home park.
For the analysis of minor league players I first convert the player's season statistics to a major league equivalent offensive winning percentage (MLEOW). And second, I adjust the MLEOW based on the player's age to predict what his Offensive Winning Percentage at the major league level will be at 25. Using this metric for all players provides a common evaluation point at an age by which most quality players have made their major league debut.
The pairs were then compared three years later to check if one group or the other improved more dramatically. To compare the two groups I took a simple average (not weighted by plate appearances) of their OW25 three years later. [Note: After three years some of these players had been promoted to the majors, so no minors to majors adjustment was needed.] To jump to the conclusion, there is little difference between the development of the two groups. Superficially, the high walk group seemed to exhibit a higher level three years later.
Type Number OW25 OW25 y+3 Low Walk 31 .392 .259 High Walk 31 .394 .322
For several reasons, two theoretical and one practical, I do not believe the difference above reflects a real difference in the development of players. On the theoretical side, a number of the marginal minor leaguers were receiving only limited plate appearances (leading to a wide range of non-representative OW25 due to the small sample sizes), thus, potentially skewing the simple averages. Second, adjusting for players no longer in Organized Baseball (OB) is a little bit tricky. If the average OW25 of the 62 players is close to .400, averaging in a zero for players out of OB will tend to artificially depress the numbers for a group. If these players remained in OB they would probably be below average, but not zero. In this sample the low walk group had nine players out of OB three years later, while the low walk group had six.
To adjust for the first concern, I looked at all players with more than 250 PA or zero. I still included players with no plate appearances because if a player was out of the league that did indicate a lack of improvement. Making this first adjustment slightly narrowed the difference between the groups.
Type Number OW25 y+3 Low Walk 30 .262 High Walk 22 .312
On the practical side, one of the reasons why I do not believe that the above two tables suggest high walk players develop better is that there is not an equal likelihood for all players to move up to the major leagues. Poor minor league hitters are unlikely to make the majors regardless of whether they can draw a walk.
Type Number OW25 OW25 y+3 Low Walk 9 .538 .398 High Walk 9 .539 .389
Finally, I evaluated only the top prospects; those with an OW25 of at least .500. Only ten players (five in each group) hit this well. For these minor league hitters, the low walk group actually improved more, although I wouldn't read too much into such a small sample size.
Type Number OW25 OW25 y+3 Low Walk 5 .596 .421 High Walk 5 .596 .371
One interesting aside of this analysis is that it gave me a chance to test my adjustments in calculating OW25, the estimated offensive winning percentage of a player age 25. Obviously, individual players' performance varies widely over a three year period, but for a group of players the value should remain fairly consistent. In fact this seems to be the case. The 37 players who had 250 or more PA three years later recorded an OW25 of .397; three years earlier those same 37 had an OW25 of .421. As can be seen above, all 62 averaged an OW25 of .393. In other words, the adjustments seem to reflect player aging fairly well. One can also see some regression to the mean, however, in the last two tables above: on average, players recording a very high OW25 in a single year do not seem to be able to hold that level as they move through the minor league system.
In terms of player value, baseball analysts have been instrumental highlighting the value of a walk. A walk contributes to team run scoring, and the sabermetric offensive statistics include walks in calculating the run contribution of a batter. But this value should not be confused with some sort of a predicative significance for young ballplayers; at least not until some additional research suggests otherwise.
Dan Levitt is the co-author of Paths to Glory, winner of the 2004 Sporting News-SABR Baseball Research Award. He manages the capital markets for a national commercial real estate firm.
[Additional reader comments and retorts at Baseball Primer.]
Short End of the Stick?
If not unprecedented, the least you can say is the Nationals recent handling of their 2005 first round pick is abstract. Or how about gutsy, odd and questionable? On Sunday, the Washington Times indicated the Nationals would consider calling up Ryan Zimmerman before September rosters expand, where he "would be used as a fill-in for both third baseman Vinny Castilla and shortstop Cristian Guzman."
To prepare for this rigorous test, Zimmerman has spent the better part of the last two weeks playing shortstop, a position he only occasionally manned at the University of Virginia. However, rumors of this transition have been present since the Nats first targeted Zimmerman before the draft, and the move seemed to surprise few baseball insiders. However, the idea of moving from third base to shortstop is an idea seldom tested at the big league level. In fact, as Bill James wrote in his 1982 Baseball Abstract (courtesy of Rich's great series), "As a player grows older, and in certain other cases, he tends to be shifted leftward along this spectrum...But always he moves leftward, never right." Rich went on to write in his review:
James concedes that certain young players whose position-specific skills are either undeveloped or under-utilized can move rightward but notes these shifts are always dangerous and often disastrous.
Not only is Zimmerman -- still just 20 years of age -- moving three spots over on the spectrum, but to the most demanding position there is. The early results have not foreshadowed anything dangerous nor disastrous, especially for what the Nationals hope to be a short-term switch. Next year Zimmerman is expected to return to the hot corner, where he should continue to be mentioned as a future perennial Gold Glove winner.
There is, in the research I conducted, just one example similar to this. In 1979, on the heels of a bad skid in late July, the Texas Rangers decided to move their Gold Glove third baseman Buddy Bell off third. On July 26, 1979, Bell started his first career game at shortstop. Ten days later -- on August 5 -- Bell began a streak in which he would start 16 games at short over the course of 22 days. With newly acquired Eric Soderholm a far better option than anything the Rangers had up the middle, Bell played 33 games from July 1 to September 22 at shortstop. The move did little to revive Texas, who had been slipping since mid-July after finding themselves fourteen games over .500.
This is the path you should expect from the Washington Nationals. A club that swept the Cubs to open July and advance themselves to 50-31, Frank Robinson's group is just 15-19 since. Like the Rangers, a late July skid seems to be to blame for making a brash decision with their organization's best defensive talent. what's interesting is that Zimmerman profiles to be a similar player to Bell, with modest power to go along with fantastic contact skills. Don't be surprised if Ryan's career runs in a path similar to Bell, who also debuted at 20.
If the Nationals defy the 1979 Ranger tradition and make the playoffs with Zimmerman on the roster, don't expect much. The growing trend is a good idea, as many of these teams carry at least one awful bench player (hello, Carlos Baerga), seldom does the prospect fare too well. Just ask the Minnesota Twins and Anaheim Angels, who in 2004 saw a combined 2/16 performance from prospects Jason Kubel and Dallas McPherson, respectively.
In the end, I doubt Jim Bowden's decision will come back to stunt Zimmerman's growth. He's still a top 30 prospect in my mind, and one who will likely not see a significant stock change in the next month. However, Jim Bowden's handling of the shortstop position in the last nine months -- from handing Guzman money to moving Zimmerman -- is nearly grounds for firing itself when new ownership finally takes the helm of this organization.
A few news and notes from around the minors:
While many organizations have been rather aggressive with promotions this year, the Angels seem to have held strong to their decision to keep Wood in high-A for a whole season. It's hard to criticize a conservative move like that, but there is now little question that Wood has mastered everything the Cal League has to offer. He's the league's most feared slugger at the age of 21, playing the game's most difficult position. The Angels haven't exactly been quick to find spots for their minor leaguers recently, but if nothing else, they must find room for Wood...as early as 2007.
This week the Devil Rays announced they will not call up Delmon Young as one of their five September call-ups. This seems to be a silly decision, as Young is playing very well in the International League already. While the walk total threatens to hold Young back from greatness, Delmon would be much better suited to learn discipline in the Major Leagues than in Durham. And he also should be considered the favorite to win the 2006 RF job, as bringing back Damon Hollins and giving Young the B.J. Upton treatment would be an abysmal decision. It's time to throw this kid in the fire, a la King Felix, and see what kind of player/person he really is.
As for Liriano, I think there is no excuse for the Twins having not already called up Francisco Liriano. Not only is Liriano a substantially better option for the starting rotation than at least two of their starters, he also has better stuff than half their bullpen. I mean, how is Aaron Gleeman not beating down the doors of the Metrodome on this one? Again I defer to Goldstein here, who writes, "In 79 Triple-A innings, he has over twice as many strikeouts (93) as hits allowed (43)." He is the best pitching prospect in the minors at this moment, and again the Mariners correct handling of Felix applies here as a sign of what an organization should do with a player this good.
But don't let me be all negative, I don't have complaints about the handling of Zumaya or Butler. The Tigers will likely give Zumaya a few September starts, and it's hard to expect results much different than Jose Capellan in 2004. I think Zumaya has better secondary stuff than Capellan, but there is no question that both players need to be coached out of the current over-relience on their fastballs that they currently suffer. Butler is doing just fine in the Texas League considering his age, and expecting much more would be foolish. He's a great prospect who I still believe will have Thome's bat at the Major League level, but let's wait until 2006 to expect him to dominate Double-A.
Loney isn't quite back to where he once was, but he's again on the map. After a fantastic Spring Training in 2004, Loney was abysmal last season due to a few injuries (and again, the Southern League). But his second run in AA is proving to be more successful, with pretty good numbers across the board. Still his ISO is just in the .130 range, hardly an acceptable number for a first baseman. If he can finally begin to turn those doubles into homers, as was promised out of high school, James will begin earning my respect again. I will say this, however, that there is less of a difference between Casey Kotchman (one of my top 50 prospects) and Loney than you would think.
Not Your Everyday Sight
Despite what the numbers say, the term "everyday catcher" is not an oxymoron. It is, however, a precious commodity in the Major Leagues, where only nine catchers currently qualify for the batting title, just two of which (Varitek, Mauer) have an OPS above .800. In fact, in the ten years before 2005, only twelve catchers had two seasons with an .800 OPS. No other position has been as weak in the last decade as what many have called the most demanding position on the field.
The minor leagues is another home for a lack of top-notch catchers, as few positions offer less at the top. Brian McCann's upcoming exit from Prospectdom leaves the minors without a true #1 catcher, and will likely not have one in my top thirty prospects. Today I want to look at the game's top ten catching prospects, and try to uncover the next players that will join the elite status of becoming an everyday catcher.
1. Jarrod Saltalamacchia (ATL) - In a sense, Saltalamacchia's season reminds me of Curtis Granderson's from 2004. While both were solid seasons overall, their rate statistics were drastically driven up by a near-unreplicable hot streak. For Jarrod it was the month of July, in which he hit .411 with a good slugging percentage to boot. Still, take the month of July out of his numbers, and his season numbers are still solid. His defense behind the plate draws conflicted reports, so that leaves us to guess average, which puts him behind Russ Martin in that regard on the totem pole. However, where Martin's power is nearly non-existent, Saltalamacchia has more to add, especially when more of his doubles turn into home runs, and he leaves a stadium that has not treated him well on the year. Brian McCann had a similar .210 ISO in his season in Myrtle Beach, where he was widely referred to as the most powerful catching prospect in the game. If his defense remains manageable, Saltalamacchia's switch-hitting bat might play better than both McCann's and Johnny Estrada's at the Major League level. Remind you of anything?
2. Russ Martin (LA) - The default choice by many, Martin is the leader of the "solid if unspectacular" prospect brigade, where he teams with Brian Anderson. However, the latter is a far better prospect, as Martin's offensive tools lie completely in his plate discipline. Only Jeremy Hermida has a better eye among good prospects, and Russ combines his discipline skills with a solid strikeout rate. However, besides those skills, Martin is a mediocre-at-best offensive hitter. His low number of whiffs indicate good contact skills, but Martin's .358 BABIP is unsustainable, and if prorated to about .320, Martin's average drops in the .280 range. While a .280/.400/.380 catcher is solid, he does not project to be an offensive force by any means. On defense, however, is where Martin nearly laps the field. The Dodgers were extremely impressed with Martin's combination of catch-and-throw and game calling skills during Spring Training, and will surely give him a longer look next season if Dioner Navarro's struggles continue.
3. George Kottaras (SD) - There is no clear cut choice for third, so I will go against Sam Geaney's better judgment here and go with Kottaras. Geaney, the scout-like writer at Calleaguers.com was none too keen on Kottaras, apparently a dead pull hitter from the left side. Still, I think Kottaras is better than Geaney gives him credit for, largely due to very good discipline skills. This has allowed Kottaras to take a midseason promotion in stride, and while he's not exactly raking in AA, the 22-year-old is holding his own. While his selectivity is fantastic, Kottaras has seen a substantial rise in his strikeout numbers since moving to the Southern League. But given Kottaras' past this shouldn't be a concern, but just an early stumble during the Double-A transition. Going forward Kottaras must rectify his dead-pull tendencies while continuing to mix above-average contact and power skills with good discipline. Like many of the prospects on this list, Kottaras will not be winning Gold Gloves at the Major League level, but he will do no worse than Ramon Hernandez, the man who he could eventually replace.
4. Jeff Mathis (ANA) - It seems as though there could be 100 different articles written on whether Mathis is a legit prospect or not. His inconsistency is an annoyance at best, as few prospects have as many torrid/horrid streaks skew their numbers as Mathis. In the end, for the past two seasons anyway, it seems Mathis usually falls in the gray area between solid prospect and not-so-good. Last year was not great by any means, but Jeff was given credit for breaking down in the Texas League, a difficult environment for any catcher to show endurance. This season his numbers have been substantially better, but are a result of both a fantastic beginning and a hitter's park. Mathis' walk and strikeout numbers are not worrisome, but not strengths, nor is his defense. Of the six tools that I recognize, Mathis hovers around average in five, and of course below average in foot speed. Consistency in the power department would be enough to put Mathis in the second spot on this list, but a lack of opportunity at such an age might be enough to argue he should be seventh.
5. Neil Walker (PIT) - Definitely a sleeper pick for this high up, I think Walker is a similar player to Saltalamacchia. Both early-round picks out of high school, their large frames give promise to future power numbers. Furthermore, both players also are not great defensively, though Walker's skills are better than Salty's, and almost surely will allow him to stay behind the dish. However, there is one great difference between Jarrod and Neil, probably a substantial enough difference to justify why Walker is not highly thought of: plate discipline. On the season the former top twelve pick has just 19 walks in 479 at-bats, a rate that will no doubt stunt any potential for growth. What will blossom well, however, is the power that the Bucs used to justify their hometown selection a year ago. Expect a few of Walker's 33 doubles to turn into home runs as he moves up the ladder and further develops his strength. I do believe that if Neil can double his walk rate -- a tough task no doubt, and one that would still not be great -- his star can shine nearly as bright as Salty's, with power that could turn out better.
6. Miguel Montero (ARZ) - Went from hardly a blip on anybody's radar to hot-prospect-of-the-week back to forgotten slugger in the course of two months. Or more simply put, Montero was the 2005 version of Jon Zeringue, right up to the struggles at AA. But while Montero has bounced back some from an abysmal start in the Southern League, his numbers are far worse than Kottaras' in a similar sample size. And while his 1.028 OPS and Geaney Overall ranking beats the Padre, Montero can't really make much of an argument for being over Kottaras. However, the Diamondbacks are hoping that out of quanity comes quality, and one of Snyder, Hill and Montero can play a solid catcher at the Major League level. To me Montero has the look of a back-up, with very good defensive skills mixed with solid pop and decent-enough contact skills. His patience and offensive consistency should never be good enough to garner 400 at-bats, but as a six-figure bench player, Montero has significant value.
7. Chris Iannetta (COL) - Another player that Geaney ranks ahead of Kottaras (but below Montero), Iannetta was (like Montero) one of the catchers on this list that attended the Futures Game. He did not do anything in Detroit to distinguish himself from the crowd, instead managing to do that with his Cal League numbers. His power is something second only to the Diamondback, but unlike Montero, Iannetta walks and strikes out at big paces. He profiles to walk 60 and strike out 100 times annually in the Majors, given the right number of at-bats. Like Kottaras, Iannetta is struggling in AA, but has enough polish in his game to make up for a poor batting average. Chris showed good power at North Carolina before showing a ton his junior season, and could provide big things in Colorado. However, poor contact skills and defense that is solid but not back-up worthy could yield to his downfall.
8. Kurt Suzuki (OAK) - The last of the Cal League catchers on this list, Suzuki is the widely-recognized last of the four, and the only one yet to move onto Double-A. I should note there is a pretty substantial break between Iannetta and Suzuki, but not between Suzuki and even some members of the Honorable Mention. However, at this point, we are far beyond players that should become solid everyday catchers. Suzuki is sort of a poor man's Russ Martin, mixing fantastic discipline skills with a little bit of everything else. However, where Martin brings another significant plus to the table with his defense, Suzuki is just marginal behind the plate. Offensively he's solid, with good contact skills and average-at-best power. For some reason or another I see a bit of Wiki Gonzalez -- minus the laziness issues -- in Suzuki, which considering Wiki's lackluster career, is not exactly a compliment in Kurt's direction.
9. Jason Jaramillo (PHI) - The first of a few college players starting in low-A ball this year, I decided to go with Jaramillo first. Probably the best thought of player coming out of school, Jaramillo has played solid despite playing in a hitter's ballpark this season. His contact skills, power, selectivity and defense all fall under average, C+/B- prospect, and should allow Jaramillo to gradually rise through the Phillie system. For every one Johnny Estrada in this group of players there are 25 that don't make it, and even more than never get consistent playing time. Jaramillo will go unnoticed for years because he just doesn't do anything wrong, both a positive and a negative for a prospect.
10. Curtis Thigpen (TOR) - Gaining a bit more recognition than Jaramillo, because the Blue Jays decided to test Thigpen with a midseason promotion to AA, altogether skipping the Florida State League. While Jaramillo was a better prospect coming out of college, Thigpen came from the best program, where he was a part of the annual College World Series contenders, the University of Texas. Thigpen was thought to be a bat-first catcher leaving school, but that is not a good sign for a player that showed poor power in the Midwest League. His defensive skills are adequate, and if you call Suzuki a poor man's Martin, you might call Thigpen a poor man's Suzuki. Curtis might have a career as a back-up because of that batting eye and those contact skills, but any team that gives him 400+ at-bats in a season needs to go shopping.
Clint Sammons (ATL) and John Jaso (TB): Very different players, but they fit in the Jaramillo/Thigpen low-A college player group. Jaso is the best hitter of the four, with polished skills all around, but probably lacks the athleticism to stick behind the plate. Sammons is another solid player that has a chance to be the best of the foursome, if any of those 25 doubles start going over the fence.
Guillermo Quiroz (TOR), Kelly Shoppach (BOS), Mike Napoli (ANA): Another good group to stick together, because these guys are the home run-or-nothing crowd. Their offensive skills are probably ranked Napoli-Shoppach-Quiroz, but their defense goes in the opposite order. All three are best suited for Jim Leyritz-type careers, where Shoppach probably has the best chance to do so. Still, I think Quiroz is the best prospect, and a good AFL could catapult him past Kurt Suzuki.
I hate to rank recently drafted players on prospect lists, because short-season sample sizes never tend to tell us very much. However, I will say that Jeff Clement and Brandon Snyder are both prospects worthy of mention. Beyond that, the 2005 draft crop didn't offer too much in way of catchers, with Teagarden, Butera, and Nick Hundley a few players that will be in the 8-15 slots a year from now.
However, Clement and Snyder are much better than that. Clement, drafted third overall in June, is beginning to rack up a decent number of at-bats in full-season ball since signing about a month ago. An offensive-first catcher with better power than even Saltalamacchia, Clement has three home runs in 64 at-bats in the Midwest League. He's very polished as a hitter, and has already walked 11 times, though like many with his resume, tends to strike out quite a bit. Going forward Clement must prove naysayers wrong behind the plate, where many believe he isn't adequate defensively. Personally, I think Jeff profiles similar to another Mariner catching draft pick, Jason Varitek, who is lauded for his handling skills, if not catch-and-throw abilities, at the ML level.
Snyder is a bit harder to rank, simply because we do not know if his future position is behind the plate. For years I would have excluded Josh Willingham from a list like this, knowing that Willingham does not have the athleticism to play catcher in the Majors. Snyder, however, is different from this. Snyder was drafted after playing catcher and shortstop for his high school team, and has split between a few positions in short-season ball. His athleticism is not a problem, but it seems as though he has just never taken to the catching position. He is, however, a good prospect, and one that has walked in about 1/6 of his plate appearances coming out of high school. His .935 OPS is great for a teenager in the Appy League, but Snyder will have to decrease his strikeout numbers in full-season ball next season.
At this point I think Clement probably would rank third on my list, with the caveat that he should be in the top two a year from now. Snyder probably fits in right in front of Neil Walker, because of plate discipline, but I could see an argument for his placement anywhere from 5-8.
As you can see, the catching depth in the minors is hardly top-heavy like other positions. There are only two (three if you include Clement) catchers that I consider top 50-worthy prospects, and probably just five or six that would garner top 100 consideration. While everyday catchers do exist, don't expect the number of them to rise anytime soon.
A (Devil) Ray of Sunshine
Don't look now but the Tampa Bay Devil Rays have won five games in a row, the longest current winning streak in the majors. Fluke? I think not. The Devil Rays (23-12) have the second-best record since the All-Star break, trailing only the more highly publicized Oakland A's (24-12).
Yes, the franchise with an all-time record of 502-753 (.400) is not only the hottest team in baseball but perhaps on the verge of becoming one of the best. Incredibly, this is the same team that had an even worse record in the first half (28-61) than the Kansas City Royals (30-57).
A telltale sign of whether the Devil Rays are for real will be revealed in the final six weeks of the season. To wit, Tampa Bay plays 32 of its final 38 games against ballclubs with winning records, including seven vs. Boston (71-51) and Cleveland (68-56), and six vs. Los Angeles (71-53), New York (67-55), and Toronto (63-60). Five weeks ago, these five teams--all seeking playoff berths--were wringing their hands in anticipation of facing the then lowly Devil Rays during the stretch run. Not now though.
Tampa Bay has undoubtedly made the most of its run differential (176-165) during the past 35 games, winning four more contests than its Pythagorean record would suggest was reasonable. The team is 7-1 in one-run games since the All-Star break, an unsustainably strong pace that is likely to even itself out over the course of the season. However, if the Devil Rays can split their remaining games, the franchise known more for its futility than anything else can match its all-time best win total of 70 reached last year.
I realize that it would be difficult to get overly excited about a ballclub with back-to-back 70-win seasons, but I think the Devil Rays are in the midst of putting together a highly competitive team over the next three-to-five years.
With an average age of 27.4 years, Tampa Bay sports the second-youngest roster in baseball. The Devil Rays also have the second-lowest payroll ($37,975,067), giving the front office a lot of room to compete for free agents as well as flexibility to make trades should owner Vince Naimoli decide to get serious for the first time since TB broke into the league as an expansion club in 1998.
Looking ahead to 2006, the Devil Rays could field a talented lineup highlighted by Jorge Cantu (.319/.352/.481 in the second half), Carl Crawford (.289/.312/.481), Jonny Gomes (.279/.388/.550), Aubrey Huff (.277/.314/.538), and Julio Lugo (.317/.373/.463), plus newcomers B.J. Upton and Delmon Young. Rocco Baldelli, who has spent the year recovering from knee and elbow surgeries, and Joey Gathright figure to battle for the center field spot with perhaps the odd man out becoming trade bait in a package to add depth to the team's starting rotation.
Cantu, 23, leads the team in doubles (30), home runs (19), RBI (81), and on-base plus slugging average (.815). He can play first, second, or third base and figures to be one of the starting nine next April.
Crawford, 24, is on pace for 191 hits, including 30 doubles, 17 triples, 16 homers, 98 runs, 85 RBI, and 44 steals in 50 attempts. The 6-foot-2, 219-pound speedster with developing power could become one of the elite players in the league if he can cut down on his strikeouts and learn to draw more walks. Crawford still makes too many outs, an important stat that receives far too little attention inside and outside the game.
Gomes, 24, has slugged 17 home runs in 214 at-bats, a rate of one HR per 12.6 AB. Only Manny Ramirez (12.4) has hit homers at a more prolific rate than the 6-foot-1, 205-pound rookie. The fiery Gomes does more than just swing for the fences as he has reached base 14 times in his last 25 plate appearances.
Upton (.303/.391/.501), who turned 21 on Sunday, has 56 extra-base hits, including 17 HR, to go with 70 BB and 37 SB in 485 AB for the club's Triple-A Durham affiliate. Young (.336/.386/.582 with 20 HR and 25 SB) put up outstanding numbers in Double-A and the 19-year-old is holding his own (.294/.312/.444) since being promoted to Durham last month. Like Crawford and several other Devil Rays, Young needs to improve his pitch selection and plate discipline in order to reach his full potential.
The starting rotation is led by Scott Kazmir, the hard-throwing lefthander who joined the Devil Rays last year in one of the organization's most lopsided trades ever. He leads the team in IP (146.1), ERA (3.94), SO (134), and K/9 (8.24). Moreover, the 21-year-old is 4-1 with a 2.42 ERA in seven starts since the All-Star break.
The signing of Joe Borowski, on the heels of being released by the Cubs, has solidified the bullpen. Since joining the Devil Rays, the veteran reliever has not allowed a run in 16 appearances. Over a span of 17 1/3 innings, Borowski has allowed only six hits. Danys Baez has recorded a save in 21 of Tampa Bay's last 30 victories and leads the majors with 15 saves since the All-Star break.
After a long dryspell, things appear to be looking up in Tampa Bay. Granted, the Devil Rays are in a tough division, but they just might have the best combination of talent and youth per payroll dollar of any team in baseball.
Analyzing and writing about baseball the past two-plus years has been an extremely enjoyable experience. One of the biggest rewards is meeting others who share the same passion for the best game ever invented.
I have met dozens of baseball writers, bloggers, and executives in person and communicated via email and telephone with many, many more. I have even been fortunate to attend ballgames with the likes of Brian Gunn, Jonah Keri, Rob McMillin, Dayn Perry, Joe Sheehan, Bob Timmermann, and Jon Weisman. I have had pre-game meals with Ken Arneson, Mat Gleason, and Sean Smith, and have broken bread with Jim Callis, Will Carroll, Alex Ciepley, Jay Jaffe, Bill James, Nate Silver, Bryan Smith, and Peter White. The purpose of the foregoing isn't to name drop but to add color to the wonderful friendships I've developed over the past three summers.
Well, Thursday night television was known for Friends, so it was appropriate on that very night to hook up with another baseball writing pal of mine, Patrick Sullivan. Pat, known to most in the blogosphere as Sully of The House That Dewey Built fame, is vacationing in Long Beach with Johanna Wise, his girlfriend of five years, and Ryan McDonough, his longtime friend from Boston.
Johanna was born and raised in Long Beach, and her parents live within a couple of
Sully just so happened to time his trip to Southern California while his beloved Red Sox were in town for a four-game series with the Los Angeles Angels. He invited me to go the Thursday night game with Johanna and Ryan, the son of the late great Will McDonough.
I picked up the threesome at the home of Johanna's parents a couple of hours before the game. Dressed in Red Sox garb, Sully and Johanna (who is actually a Cubs fan at heart) were raring to go. Ryan's outfit was more non-descript. Like me, he is more passionate about baseball than any one particular team. However, just as I lean toward the Angels and Dodgers, Ryan, if pressed, would root for his hometown Red Sox over the other 29 teams. His first love though is the Boston Celtics. You see, Ryan works for the team as a Special Assistant in Basketball Operations.
Wearing a button down short-sleeve, cranberry-red shirt with no team name, I could pose as a Red Sox or Angels fan. You might say I was sitting on the fence. If so, you wouldn't be far off because we sat in field box seats down the right-field line. We had one future Hall of Famer and a retread from the Japanese leagues playing directly in front of us all night. (Sorry, Johanna.) Our view of center field was totally obstructed by the seats in right field. As a result, we had to rely on the crowd noise and the video screen above the grandstands in the outfield to determine if a ball hit to deep right-center, center, and left-center were fly outs or home runs. As an example, we had no idea what happened on this play until checking out the replay on the scoreboard.
Oh well, we more than made up for the missed plays with good chatter and banter throughout the game. Trying to bridge the gap with my Bostonian friends, I told them that Joe, when asked by a park director who his favorite player was, replied, "Ted Williams." I get a kick out of that story because Joe was just seven years old at the time and The Splendid Splinter had been retired for 26 years. Williams is actually one of my favorites, too, and, if the truth be told, he died on my birthday.
Looking like Teddy Ballgame, Casey Kotchman hit a line drive that almost literally knocked Tim Wakefield out of the box in the fifth inning. Kotchman, who homered in the second inning to give the Angels a lead they never relinquished, has surprisingly hit for more power than average in his second stint in the big leagues this year. I have to keep reminding myself that the rookie is only 22 years old. A first-round pick in 2001, Kotchman has hit well in the minors and is generally regarded as one of the top dozen prospects in the game.
Kotchman is good enough right now to start at first base for the Red Sox. Sully won't disagree with me here. He knows more about Kevin Millar's failings than just about anybody. Did you know the Sox first sacker is slugging .285 on the road (with no HR in 190 AB) this year? The Bruce Springsteen wannabe isn't dancing in the dark or hitting in the dark (.241/.332/.319 at night). To put it bluntly, Millar is the worst-hitting first baseman in the big leagues.
Although Kotchman is usually compared to Mark Grace, it's possible that his upside could be as high as Don Mattingly. The 1985 American League MVP--has it really been 20 years?--displayed little power in the minor leagues while hitting .332, yet slugged 30 or more HR in his second, third, and fourth full big-league seasons. At 6-foot-3 and 215 pounds, there is no reason why Kotchman shouldn't develop into a 20-30 HR type (whereas Grace never went yard more than 17 times in any season).
In any event, make Sully the Boston manager and Roberto Petagine would be his first baseman. Granted, the 34-year-old hasn't played in the majors in seven years, but he tore it up in Japan from 1999-2004 (223 HR in six years) and was putting up big numbers at Pawtucket (.327/.452/.635) before he was recently recalled. Although the native of New York, New York didn't have a plate appearance on Thursday night, he had a 10-pitch walk as a pinch hitter on Friday evening. Given his age, he is obviously not the answer to Boston's problems at first base longer term. However, Petagine could be the solution to their woes this year. Sully just wants Terry Francona to give Roberto a chance.
Following Sully's lead, we headed for the exits after the Red Sox batted in the top of the eighth. I thought that was something only Southern Californians pulled, but I guess even Boston fans leave early when their team is behind 10-3. Had we stayed 'til the finish, Sully would have had to endure the Angels padding their lead with three more in the home half of the eighth. Bill Mueller hit a home run in the top of the ninth--or so I'm told--to narrow the final margin of defeat to less than a touchdown and PAT plus a field goal.
I better quit now before we start comparing notes on the New England Patriots and the. . .and the. . .hmmm. Baseball, friends, Thursday nights. It sure beats the heck out of TV.
Speaking of Friends and Bruce Springsteen, who did the Boss pull out of the audience and onto the stage in the Dancing in the Dark music video?
The Official Scorer
Any fan attending a baseball game knows at least some of the players. Many of the more astute fans will know at least one of the umpires. But the one person who has an effect on the game who usually goes unnoticed is the official scorer. This person is appointed by the league, sits in the press box and determines whether a play is a hit or an error, a wild pitch or a passed ball or even sometimes no play at all.
But just who is this person and why is there a need for one anyway?
"Baseball is a game between two teams of nine players each, under the direction of a manager, played on an enclosed field in accordance with these rules, under jurisdiction of one or more umpires." Section 10.01(a) states: "The league president shall appoint an official scorer for each game. . .The scorer shall have sole authority to make all decisions involving judgment, such as whether a batter's advance to first base is the result of a hit or an error."
Players, coaches, managers, broadcasters and fans all see a play on the field and have an opinion as to what the call should be. However, most people's decision is biased in favor of their team. The official scorer provides an unbiased look at each play to determine what that play was and how it shall be recorded.
These scoring decisions feed the box score of each game and the box scores feed the statistics for each player and team. Ultimately, each call becomes part of the official record of baseball and can affect many aspects of the game, such as league leaders, post-season awards and the record book. But these decisions have a more far-reaching effect because statistics drive player salaries and eventually Hall of Fame voting.
Until 1980, newspaper writers held these positions. However, those papers decided that this was causing a conflict of interest for someone who had to interview field personnel to write a story. Thus, baseball started hiring independent contractors to fill the job of official scorer.
The qualifications for a scorer are: (1) knowing the rules, especially section 10; (2) knowing how to apply the rules; (3) having the integrity to make the correct call regardless of the consequences; (4) understanding that someone who questions a call is upset at the call not the person making it; and (5) being aware of the entire field during a play.
Let's look at each of these points in more depth.
The tenth and last section of the Official Baseball Rules is titled "The Official Scorer." The 24 parts of the section cover game situations and are divided by topics such as "runs batted in," "hits," "caught stealing," "assists," and "earned runs." In this section the rules committee has spelled out what the decision should be for each type of play. Some of the phrasing is more precise than other parts but this is the text that determines how a scorer does his job.
For example, section 10.12 states: "Credit participation in the double play or triple play to each fielder who earns a putout or assist when two or three players are put out between the time a pitch is delivered and the time the ball next becomes dead or is next in possession of the pitcher in pitching position, unless an error or misplay intervenes between putouts."
This seems simple but in order to apply this rule you also have to understand rule 10.10 on putouts and 10.11 on assists. Also, the last phrase requires some interpretation. Just what is "an error or misplay?" Let's look at a sample play. With a runner on first base, the batter hits a ground ball to shortstop, who tosses the ball to the second baseman covering the bag for a force out. The relay throw to first base is wild and bounces to a stop near the stands. The batter/runner sees this and starts toward second while the catcher retrieves the ball in foul territory. The backstop's throw to the second baseman is in time to put out the batter/runner. This is not a double play because the wild throw to first is a misplay between putouts which caused the batter/runner to attempt the advance to second. The correct scoring here is a 6-4 putout on the runner and a 2-4 putout on the batter/runner but no double play for the team.
If the batter/runner reached second base safely, then the correct scoring would be to charge the second baseman with an error on the throw to allow the batter/runner to advance.
There are many times that a scorer has to know how to interpret or apply the rules. The previous example is one example but here is another version of the same play. The throw by the second baseman is right on target, in plenty of time to put out the batter/runner at first base. However, the first baseman drops the ball, thus allowing the batter/runner to reach safely.
Many people will use the phrase: "Don't assume the double play" to rule on this play. This comes from rule 10.14(c): "No error shall be charged against any fielder when he makes a wild throw in attempting to complete a double play." However, there is also a note after this rule that says: "When a fielder muffs a thrown ball which, if held, would have completed a double play, charge an error to the fielder who drops the ball and credit an assist to the fielder who made the throw." Therefore, this play is considered a double play. Rule 10.04(c) about RBI also applies here.
Some scoring rules reference playing rules in other sections of the rule book. For example, rule 10.07(e), which concerns the concept of determining the value of base hits, states: "When the batter/runner is awarded two bases, three bases or a home run under the provisions of Playing Rules 7.05 or 7.06(a), he shall be credited with a two-base hit, a three-base hit or a home run, as the case may be." So the scorer must know and understand rules 7.05 and 7.06 to correctly use rule 10.07.
The third qualification is integrity. Official scorers are often the target of yelling and name calling. It seems that everyone has an opinion about the correct call to be made. A fan yelling is annoying. A player or manager calling the press box and yelling is more disturbing. Rarely does the complaint get more violent than just yelling but it does happen occasionally. A scorer has to make the correct decisions regardless of the consequences.
Many times a manager will talk to the scorer about a decision hoping that it will be changed. Even if that call is not changed, the manager hopes to influence the scorer in future decisions so that calls will be more favorable to his team. Calls can not be changed simply to quiet complaints. If a rule was misapplied, then change the call but a scorer cannot bend to the will of a team employee who complains about a call.
This leads into the next qualification. If someone is upset, it has nothing to do with personalities. It is the call itself and not the person making that call that is at issue. A scorer cannot take it personally if someone complains. Some jobs just draw complaints - this is one of them. Thinned-skinned people need not apply.
The last qualification is very important. The scorer must be aware of every player on the field who is participating in a play. If there is a runner on first and the batter hits a ball down the right-field line, the scorer has to watch the ball and the fielder for a possible misplay. However, the scorer also has to watch the runner to see what he does.
If the fielder mishandles the ball slightly and the runner scores from first, whether or not the batter is credited with a run batted in is determined by the actions of the runner and the third base coach. If the runner stops at third but then runs home because of the misplay, then there is no RBI and the fielder is charged with an error. If the runner never stops or slows down at third, then credit the RBI and no error. See rule 10.04(d).
Good judgment on the part of the official scorer is critical to success and the scoreboard cannot affect the call. If a pitcher is throwing a no-hitter when there is a mishandled ground ball in the infield, the scorer should make the call based on the play and not the fact of the no-hitter. If a batter scores on a ball hit to the outfield that is mishandled by a fielder, then the scorer must determine if that misplay rises to the level of an error regardless of the concept of an inside-the-park home run.
About 90% of all calls can be made by most people. The official scorer is hired to make the other 10% of the calls. Rule 10.18 is probably the most misinterpreted rule in the book. It relates to earned runs and requires a lot of interpretation on the part of the scorer. The issue comes from this sentence: "In determining earned runs, the inning should be reconstructed without the errors (which include catcher's interference) and passed balls, and the benefit of the doubt should always be given to the pitcher in determining which bases would have been reached by errorless play." Some of these innings are easy but many are not. These innings always come under the 10% rule.
So there you have it - a short look at what it takes to work a job that has the potential to upset someone every day.
Here are some sample plays to call. The answers appear at the bottom of the column.
Answers For Sample Plays
David Vincent is a long-time member of SABR and was presented with the organization's highest honor, the Bob Davids Award, in 1999. Vincent is the founding secretary of Retrosheet, which is collecting play-by-play accounts of every game in major league history. He has served as an official scorer in four minor leagues, working over 800 games and is now the official scorer in the Washington Nationals debut season. He is known around baseball as "The Sultan of Swat Stats" for his expertise in the history of the home run.
[Additional reader comments and retorts at Baseball Primer.]
Sample Size Pitching
Any precinct of the small sample size police will tell you the same thing: pitching is easier to judge on a short-term basis than hitting. If a scout decides he must observe a hitter, it might take 3-5 games for the scout to witness enough swings to make the necessary judgment. However, with a pitcher, it only takes so many repetitions of a pitcher's delivery to develop an understanding of their velocity, control and arsenal.
I have said this before of course, particularly dealing with the Futures Game. In a contest that allows most pitchers to throw no more than one inning, hitters are near impossible to judge. The most disciplined will make the teenage phenoms throw a ton of pitches, only swinging at one or two. The toolsiest will make pitchers beat them with their best pitch. But no matter what, seldom do we see any hitter take more than five cuts at the baseball.
Pitching is different, however. Even in short spurts, we can get a feel for the pitcher. With just one inning, I was able to develop an understanding of Francisco Liriano:
All hard stuff. Southpaw with a mildly clean delivery mixes in mid-to-high 90s fastball with high 80s to low 90s slider. Also has solid feel for mid 80s change. Shows best control with fastball and uses slider as strikeout pitch.
This is, of course, the backbone philosophy of the Cape Cod League. It takes many swings for scouts to develop an understanding of hitters, but as few as one outing to do so for pitchers. Relievers like Brooks Brown and Steven Wright gained exposure this season pitching in late-inning roles, while pinch hitters or even starting position players were exempt of such analysis.
Not only is hitting so hard to scout, but the Cape Cod League was dominated with good pitching this season. It's truly the year of the college pitcher, with five good enough to be in the top ten, and at least five more that are first round worthy. A short list of the top pitchers in the CCL:
1. Andrew Miller (LHP) - North Carolina: Truly the best pitcher in his class, posted insane strikeout numbers with increased control. If his ceiling can be accepted as Major League ace, his basement is that of a dominant left-handed reliever. Throws two plus-plus pitches, and it's only a matter ot time before he's one of the game's best.
2. Dallas Buck (RHP) - Oregon State: One of the game's best, Buck took a while to get acclimated to CCL life. A late joiner because of a mid-summer change to start playing baseball, Buck's first few starts were unspectacular at best. However, the player Peter Gammons once mentioned as a possible #1 overall pick got in a groove from there, ending as one of the state's best in his age group.
3. Daniel Bard (RHP) - North Carolina: Needed a big summer, and undoubtedly fulfilled all of his agent's wishes. Bard would win the CCL Cy Young if such an award existed, and truly was the league's most consistently dominant starter all year long. Of course he'll need to show such dominance in a tough ACC schedule next year, but it looks good for a second-time Big Tener that has little else to offer.
4. Derrick Lutz (RHP) - George Washington: The reliever of the summer, Lutz posted Craig Hansen-ish numbers. He cemented the opportunity to become George Washington's closer this year, making them a candidate for an upset or two during the season. Lutz should be the best of a deep crop of college closers, considering his summer was far better than the rest of the crop.
5. David Huff (LHP) - UCLA : Currently enrolled in one-too-many years at UCLA, Huff should become the Friday Night pitcher for a program that has been lacking a dominant starter for years. Huff is not that, but instead a rich man's version of Abe Alvarez, the Long Beach State ace from a few years back.
The rest of the top 13, all in order, withholding comments:
6. Tim Lincecum (RHP) - Washington
That's the best the current crop has to offer, with somewhere from 5-8 spots making the first round. And a good summer is all they needed, of course, because scouts needed very little else to realize what was happening around the next bend.
Not Getting Any Younger
In all likelihood, the St. Louis Cardinals will enter the 2005 playoffs the favorite to win the pennant for the National League for the second straight season. This is a feat, of course, that has only been duplicated by two teams since the strike-shortened 1994 season: the 1995-1996 Atlanta Braves and most recently, the 1998-2001 New York Yankees.
The Braves were, of course, a team that succeeded on pitching. Their 1995 club was actually below average offensively, but rode a staff with three great starters and four great relievers to a World Series win. The club was built around youngsters, as three spots in the everyday lineup, and two very important spots on the staff (starter and closer) were given to 25-and-unders. Surely the Braves would not have had nearly as good a season without Javy Lopez, Chipper Jones, Ryan Klesko, Steve Avery and Mark Wohlers. Simply put, the Braves were a byproduct of one of the most successful scouting and development departments in the game.
New York and St. Louis went down very different routes than Atlanta to make that first World Series appearance. Their clubs were not built in-house, but rather through savvy moves by the highest members of their front office. Money was thrown around early and often, and youth was not valued in the slightest. Production was. Only one influential player on both teams was under 25: Derek Jeter for the Yankees and Albert Pujols for the Cards.
Going forward, the Yankees put even less emphasis on their minor league system. While the club had developed Jeter, Jorge Posada, Bernie Williams and Mariano Rivera, King George decided no longer would he allow significant time to be wasted on youngsters. Only once in the Bronx Bombers four-year World Series run did a youngster break into the lineup: Alfonso Soriano, who waited to do so, and only started playing at the tail end of their success. Players like Ruben Rivera and Ricky Ledee were not allowed to grow so that everyday spots could be filled with seven-figure acquisitions. Others like Mike Lowell, Nick Johnson, and D'Angelo Jimenez were traded for those Major League spare parts.
Then, just like that, something happened. A drought previously unfathomable by the Yankee faithful happened, and New York has not won the World Series since, reaching only (gasp!) once. Worse, the club is currently behind in a fight for the playoffs, of which they currently trail the A's by 2.5 games. No playoffs? No playoffs!
And quietly, without much warning, we have seen a psychological change in this organization. With Tony Womack struggling at second base, the club turned to Robinson Cano for help. With a rotation in shambles, it was Chien-Ming Wang and Aaron Small. When centerfield became the Yankees newest hole, they rushed Melky Cabrera to the Major League scene to use as a band-aid. And the trading deadline came and past, and no major Yankee prospect was traded.
As for the Cardinals, they are doing just what the Yankees of 1999 did: win and win often. They might be winning in a different fashion than last year, but still, very little time has been given to young players. The club recently considered using a six-man rotation for the rest of the season, giving star prospect Anthony Reyes a spot. They even brought him up for one spot start, when he was brilliant, only to be sent back down the next day. The most substantial help from their farm system has come from the likes of late-20s veterans like John Rodriguez and Scott Seabol.
In the end, the Cardinals might not be so lucky as the Yankees, who despite ignoring their minor league system, have given their fans those World Series appearances in addition to ten straight playoff appearances. Instead, the Cardinals might trip onto the same path that Brian Sabean currently finds himself on. After winning the 2002 NL Pennant with no dependency on youths, the Giants managed to enter the 2003 playoffs about even-money to repeat as National League champions. Instead, San Francisco lost to the Marlins in the first round, and have seen the walls come tumbling down since, finishing second in 2004 and likely fourth in 2005.
At some point the age curve always bites down, and teams that had spent years riding the peak find themselves inexplicably on the decline. By the time they realize what a difference a few prospects could've/should've made, it's too late. It's a slippery slope to the bottom, and unlike the Yankees, the Cardinals don't have the money to buy their ways off.
Instead of trying to emulate the Yankees spending habits, Walt Jocketty should try and turn over a new leaf, and find a new idol. Every organization should make the realization that the Red Sox apparently have given their recent system re-build: John Schuerholz is the best in the business. The Atlanta Braves do things right, and as a result, award the Turner Field faithful year in and year out.
You can bet what has happened during the course of this season was not in Schuerholz' blueprint on April 1. You can bet Schuerholz was not planning on Jeff Francoeur seeing quite this many at-bats, and the same holds true for Kelly Johnson, Brian McCann, Wilson Betemit and a host of others. But he understands that in a season that lasts this long, the unpredictable always happens, and multiple back-up plans are always needed. He also trusts the men around him, especially [farm director] Dayton Moore and [scouting director] Roy Clark. These are the men that make things like Francoeur's 1.215 OPS possible.
These things do not happen in places like New York, San Francisco, and now, St. Louis. Not at all. The Yankees and Giants are too late in realizing this, but the Cardinals still have a chance of salvaging their system, and have quietly showed a desire to do so with a strong 2005 draft. Still, the blocked Anthony Reyes and traded Daric Barton will tell you that's just one part of the equation, as properly developing and finding places for prospects are even more important than drafting them.
Just ask the hottest rookie alive, and the most successful club in organized sports.
A few notes around the minors...
And while we can continue to marvel at his resume, something needs to change soon. He's pushing the label, currently hitting .308/.395/.508 while trying to upstage the minors best player. The Devil Rays must, must make a decision on Upton's future this offseason. His arm and speed will make any position possible, from shortstop, to the hot corner, to second base, to any outfield spot. They just need to decide, and stick with their decision.
Check back Wednesday, as I review the recently completed Cape Cod League. Congrats to the Orleans Cardinals for their dominant victory to end a wild and fun summer.
Q&A: Bert Blyleven on Felix Hernandez (and Much More)
When Felix Abraham Hernandez pitched scoreless ball for eight innings in his home debut for the Seattle Mariners on Tuesday, there was one former major leaguer on hand who was two months younger than baseball's newest teenage sensation when he won his first big-league game. His name? None other than Rik Aalbert Blyleven. You see, Blyleven was working that night as a broadcaster for the Minnesota Twins, the team Hernandez defeated, 1-0.
Born on April 6, 1951, Blyleven made his major-league debut in June 1970 when he was 19 years and 2 months old. Bert did much more than just pitch in the big leagues that season. He went 10-9 with a 3.18 ERA and was named the American League Rookie Pitcher of the Year by The Sporting News.
In Blyleven's first month in the majors, he pitched a complete-game victory against the Chicago White Sox, allowing just two hits, one walk, and one run while striking out eight. Bert tossed four more complete-game wins that season, including two four-hitters (one of which was a shutout), a three-hitter, and a seven-hitter in which he fanned 12 batters. Get this, Blyleven allowed no more than two runs in 14 of his 25 starts that year.
Who better to ask about Hernandez than Blyleven himself? I caught up with Bert on Thursday to get his impressions of the young pitcher already known as King Felix.
Rich: Felix Hernandez pitched a five-hit, no-walk shutout over eight innings in his first major-league start at home Tuesday night against the Minnesota Twins. How did he look in person?
Rich: I know you are reluctant to compare Hernandez to others, but, if you wouldn't mind, I wanted to ask you about two other pitchers. The first one, Dwight Gooden, went 17-9 with a 2.60 ERA while striking out a career-high 276 batters in just 218 innings during his rookie season in 1984 when he was 19.
Rich: That's true. All right, I promise the next one will be the last. It's someone you've watched pitched many, many times. Johan Santana.
Bert: Johan Santana is a very good pitcher who is also from Venezuela. You can stop there with the comparisons. Johan won the 2004 American League Cy Young Award. Besides the one game, what has Hernandez won?
Bert: If you have baseball talent the scouts will find you, no matter where you live. The game has changed because of so much talent in the Latin American countries. These players work hard to try and fullfil a dream. It's the American way, isn't it? I was born in Holland but raised in Southern California. I was given the opportunity to fulfill my baseball career, but it took a lot of hard work. The Latin American players have the same opportunity like everyone else to succeed. I think that's great.
Rich: Since you retired 13 years ago, Roger Clemens and Greg Maddux are the only pitchers who have exceeded your win total of 287. Do you think we will ever see another 300-game winner during our lifetime?
Looked at it another way, had you been a hitter, you would rank right there with Rickey Henderson in hits and Eddie Mathews and Ernie Banks in home runs. With or without 300 wins, you are in pretty rarefied territory.
I broadcast for the Minnesota Twins and I look at each game, that we televise, as if I were pitching that game. Through my job, I have a lot more then 287 career wins. But I also have a lot more then 250 career losses.
Rich: That's for sure.
Bert: My career numbers rank with the great pitchers in the game in every category. I hope they put as much time doing their homework as any pitcher does in preparing for a game. You are all hereby "circled."
Bargaining with Rick Monday
Like bellbottoms and white loafers, Rick Monday has drifted in and out of style. On more than one occasion, he has dressed the diamond with aplomb - the most beloved or desired baseball player in the country. At other times, you just want to box him up and cart him off to Goodwill.
From my earliest moments as a baseball fan to today, for 30 of Monday's 40 years in the game, he has been one of the most vexing characters I have witnessed on the baseball stage. And I'm going to tell you why.
Let's start out of chronological order, with an anecdote.
When I was a kid - and I couldn't remember the age without looking it up, but it turns out I was 12 - I was sitting in the reserved level of Dodger Stadium on a school night with my dad. The Dodgers were in a tough game against the Reds, still their top division rival of that era.
By this time, Rick Monday had established himself as a true disappointment in Los Angeles. Through his first three seasons with the Dodgers, he had managed 34 home runs after hitting 32 alone in his final season with the Chicago Cubs. He wasn't a complete failure - white loafers don't go out of style overnight. But he was an easy target for disdain for a kid in the blue seats who had already seen better.
I was a quiet kid and a small kid, but a huge fan. This manifested itself in cheering when things went well and quiet moans when things did not. But frustration with Monday had been building for a long time.
In the bottom of the ninth inning, Monday came up to bat. And while he was at the plate, I suddenly screamed out, "Monday - a homer or your life!!!"
You just have to imagine the distaste that I must have built for Monday for such an eruption. My father, not prone to shock, was agog. In the row in front of me, a stranger, a veteran of the baseball wars, turned back and growled, "Dream on, kid."
The pitcher (Doug Bair) threw. Boom! Over the fence. Ballgame. Dodgers win.
The hero was Rick Monday? The hero was Rick Monday.
My dad was beside himself. The man in front turned back, his turn to be agog.
Not for the first time and not for the last, Dodgerdom had sold its soul to a fickle Monday.
The ups and downs of Rick Monday don't start with the Dodgers, of course. Monday, as many of you know, was the first amateur baseball player drafted by the majors, ever. He was picked No. 1 by the Kansas City A's in 1965, after starring at Santa Monica High and Arizona State. Monday then rewarded the A's a year later by going 4 for 41 with six walks (.384 OPS) in his first season - evidence that his seductive charms could not be trusted blindly, though it's hard to blame Monday, who was still only 20 years old.
For several years thereafter, before he penetrated my consciousness (I was born in '67), Monday was a good player, if not a star. Ten consecutive seasons with an OPS+ over the league average of 100, nine of those seasons above 120. Monday had some power, some speed, and could draw many a walk, first with the A's (in both Kansas City and Oakland), then with the Chicago Cubs.
Trying to catch up to the Big Red Machine in 1976, the Dodgers had already been engaged in trade discussions with Chicago concerning Monday when the Cubs came to town for a three-game series in April. Monday went 1 for 8 in the first two games, but was still batting an enticing .345 (1.053 OPS, not that anyone paid attention to that then) on April 25.
In the bottom of the fourth inning, 37-year-old William Errol Morris and his 11-year-old son suddenly appeared out of nowhere in the Dodger Stadium outfield with a flag and some lighter fluid. To this day, I had always wondered why, and baseball researcher Bob Timmermann found me a newspaper clip to explain it. "The man who tried to burn the American Flag at Dodger Stadium was attempting to draw attention to what he claims is his wife's imprisonment in a Missouri mental institution, authorities say," wrote the Los Angeles Times on April 30.
The incident has always been painted as a protest against the country, but by this evidence it seems there was something more eccentric at work - which frankly fits with the story I'm trying to tell. In any case, Monday's response to the attempted flag-burning, in the nation's bicentennial year, won national acclaim.
"He got down on his knees and I could tell he wasn't throwing holy water on it," Monday told the Times, and you can just hear the future broadcaster in him, can't you? "If he's going to burn a Flag, he better do it in front of somebody who doesn't appreciate it. I've visited enough veterans' hospitals and seen enough guys blown off defending that Flag."
And so Monday dashed over from his center field position and swiped the flag so that it could be delivered to safety - which at that time was known as police impound. (Ultimately, it found a haven in Monday's residence.)
With this dramatic act, Monday became the most popular man in baseball. Ceremonies honored him in virtually every city he visited. From the famous Los Angeles Herald-Examiner photo of the flag rescue a poster was made, a copy of which found a spot in my bedroom. Yep, I was eight years old and on the Rick Monday bandwagon.
He had become too popular, it appeared, for the Dodgers to continue entertaining their dream of acquiring him.
"There's no way they'll trade him now," Dodger vice president Al Campanis told Ross Newhan of the Times. "He's Mr. Red, White and Blue."
But with Monday, you never knew.
Monday, who earned $90,000 in 1976, requested a multiyear contract in the offseason that Chicago wasn't willing to offer, reopening the door for the Dodgers. "A romance of considerable duration was consummated" on January 11, 1977, wrote Newhan, when with reliever Mike Garman, Monday came to Los Angeles in exchange for Bill Buckner, Ivan DeJesus and Jeff Albert. Newhan wrote that Campanis had pursued Monday for "nearly four years."
Even back then, I had mixed feelings. Buckner had been a Dodger my entire baseball-watching life, and I liked him. So as warm as I might have been toward the patriotic Monday, I didn't take this as particularly good news.
And my pessimistic instincts were right. In Monday's first season with the Dodgers, they won the National League pennant. But Monday wasn't a part of it. In his worst season since he was 20, Monday batted .230 (91 OPS+) with 15 home runs in 118 games.
But Monday is getting one of the last laughs on me. When I went back this week to look at his stats from ensuing seasons, I found they have aged well. From 1978-1983, Monday's OPS was .837, which is something for that era as a Dodger.
Still, it's safe to say that Monday probably would have faded into Dodger oblivion had it not been for his second dramatic moment: a pennant-winning home run in the 1981 NL Championship Series against the Expos, a blast that I heard in the middle of another school day, late for class, on a transistor radio surrounded by about 20 schoolmates in front of my high school library.
The hero was Rick Monday? The hero was Rick Monday.
The clip of Monday jubilantly rounding first on his home run sprint probably received more local airtime in the 1980s than any other Dodger memory. It became as imprinted on your brain as anything that side of Kirk Gibson. And count me among those who wonder if Monday's two games of Capture the Flag paved the way for him to begin a broadcasting career in Southern California, and who wonder sometimes if those flags were worth it.
Driving home from work one night this month, I listened to the Dodger radio broadcast with a hint of this story in mind. I turned on the radio and prepared to keep track of the number of minutes it took for Monday to give the score of the game.
It's a sad prejudgment, but all too reasonable. On the radio, you will hear Monday extoll the virtues of baseball fundamentals, all the while failing to execute the primo fundamental of calling a ballgame - providing the score.
When I left my desk that evening, the Dodgers were winning, 4-2 after seven innings. In the car, I waited for an update. When the half-inning ended, Monday said that the Dodgers ended up with nothing except a two-out walk by Milton Bradley, and that going into the bottom of the eighth, the Dodgers led, 5-2.
Huh? Was I crazy? Where did that run come from?
As it turned out, Hee Seop Choi had homered in that eighth inning while I was walking to my car. But by the time three outs had been recorded, Monday had apparently forgotten about it.
Listening to Monday broadcast is really a strange phenomenon. He can speak, or at least be understood - that's not the problem. And the fact that some of his insights aren't always that insightful isn't the most aggravating thing. He honestly just seems easily distracted. He seems to treat the game as background music, mere accompaniment for his solo. Sure, he'll look up and check out what the band is doing on a regular basis, but his focus just seems to be somewhere else for long stretches.
In a sense, he covers a game like a blogger, giving you something extra from time to time but relying on you to fill in the nuts and bolts. A radio blogger is an interesting concept, but not an ideal choice for the game's play-by-play man.
Ross Porter, the recently martyred Dodger broadcaster, might not be the announcing magician that Vin Scully is, but with Porter, there was no mistaking his solid understanding that the game was the thing. For all the grief Porter took - some of it unfair - over peppering his broadcast with stats, the game always came first. It isn't the case with Monday, who you'll often catch calling two pitches at once because his digressions have put him so far behind. ("The first pitch is a ball and now he strokes a single into right field ...") The idea that Monday remains a Dodger broadcaster to this day, that he has essentially been tenured, almost makes me want to give back the '81 title, and gives me non-serious thoughts about wishing William Errol Morris had been allowed to make his husbandly statement.
And yet, I find I have misjudged Monday more than once in the past. This guy has been part of my baseball life for pretty much the whole time, and figures to be around for a while longer. He doesn't seem like a bad guy to me. He seems very much who he is, very flawed but very genuine.
I want to like Rick Monday. I want my long association with Monday to ultimately be positive. I want to be able to cherish his heroics, rather than rue them. Wouldn't that simplify my life?
Perhaps someday I'll meet Monday, and just knowing him will do the trick. But if that day doesn't come, I'm still willing to make a deal. I'm willing to try, once more, to embrace him. I just have this one request.
"Monday, the score or your life!!!"
[Additional reader comments and retorts at Baseball Primer.]
Three Up, Three Down
As we enter the season's final stretch, hope seems to be a changing concept across the nation. In some markets, hope has been restored by a midseason surge in the Wild Card standings. In others, the dog days of summer have not been so kind and hope is pushed back yet another season. Some places are just hopeful for one player, be it a potential phenom or an established star.
Today, we run through what hope is left, from the Wild Card, to the MVP voting, to the top level pitching prospects.
Rich: Happy Wednesday, Bryan. There are three items that are of primary interest to me. I'm going to cover them one by one.
First up on the agenda is none other than the Los Angeles Angels-Oakland A's three-game series. Both teams came in with identical 64-47 records. The Angels have been pretty consistent all year long while the A's went from having one of the worst records in baseball at the end of May to the one of the best by early August.
This series is the first of three remaining. Whichever team wins six of the ten games will have a two-game advantage over the other for the remaining 41 games. If either the Angels or A's happen to win seven, I would imagine that would be enough to lock up the division. The good news for the second-place team is that the Wild Card is there for the taking. Cleveland and New York might have a say in the matter, but the so-called loser between the Angels and A's has the inside track to make the playoffs as the fourth and final team in the A.L.
With that in mind, let me ask you this, Bryan. If you don't finish with a better record than Boston and ergo win the home-field advantage in the first-round of the playoffs, are you better off finishing first and playing the Red Sox or finishing second and playing the White Sox?
Bryan: I go back and forth on the merits of the White Sox more than Shareef Abdur-Rahim changes teams. Right now I'm supportive of the team I have not seen lose in person this year in eight outings to U.S. Cellular. When I look at the argument of which color Sox is better -- or rather a worse playoff opponent -- I look in the direction of pitching and defense. I think the A's and Angels look at these two lines, and realize they have something worth fighting for:
Option ERA H/9 BB/9 HR/9 A 3.49 8.56 2.36 0.92 B 4.33 9.13 2.36 1.03
The White Sox, option A, are clearly better in the 1-4 spots in the rotation. Note neither of those rate stats include two of the best postseason pitchers alive, Orlando Hernandez and Curt Schilling. Instead, the difference can probably be attributed to Mark Buerhle, the best pitcher in Chicago. And don't say Jon Garland, please, because that's like voting Dontrelle ahead of Pedro in the NL Cy Young race.
Maybe the Angels used that comparison as motivation last night, because they quickly grabbed hold of the division lead and the chance to play the Red Sox. Vladimir Guerrero's second inning grand slam was all the doctor ordered, as John Lackey continued his very good, quiet season on the mound. The A's showed little life until the eighth inning, when they scored both their runs off Angel mop-up man Joel Peralta.
Of the Wild Card contenders, it was the Cleveland Indians who showed the most resiliency on Tuesday. On a day in which both the A's and Yankees lost, the Indians moved a game closer in the Wild Card standings in dramatic fashion. Down 7-2 in the top of the ninth inning against the lowly Royals, the Indians scored eleven runs to win the game. Grady Sizemore had two at-bats in the inning that led to RBI, and the quietly resurging Aaron Boone doubled home the go-ahead run.
In fact, there may not be a more fitting term for the Indians than quiet at this point, who are now 12-4 in their last sixteen games. Cleveland has their offense to thank for that, as the club has scored more than five runs in nine of those sixteen games. This is an organization that should also thrive down the stretch given a weak schedule that includes nineteen more games against the Royals or Devil Rays. The AL West teams? Just nine combined games against the AL bottom feeders, equivalent to the number of games they have left against each other.
I don't doubt the Indians have a chance to use that scheduling to their advantage, and rather quietly steal the division from the second AL West team. Just don't expect it to happen, as both the A's and Yankees are far more experienced with meaningful September baseball, a fact that can't be ignored.
Rich: Sticking to the A.L. West, the second of my three big stories involves Felix Hernandez. How ironic was it that the 19-year-old made his major-league debut on the day Roger Clemens turned 43? Despite getting tagged with the loss, young Felix did nothing to embarrass himself in that game. I would think that a 5-3-2-1-2-4 line is gonna win more games than it loses.
Well, Hernandez decided not to leave such things to chance in his second outing on Tuesday night. He almost single-handedly beat Minnesota with an eight-inning, five-hit, no-walk shutout. This guy is the real deal. A strikeout pitcher who throws 96-97 MPH and gets the bulk of the other outs on the ground always gets my attention, whether they are 19 years old or 43 years old.
I don't know if the man (boy?) they call King will be the next Rocket or not, but Bob Feller wouldn't be so bad either.
RUNS SAVED ABOVE AVERAGE
RSAA 1 Bob Feller 49 2 Gary Nolan 27 3 Dwight Gooden 24 4 Wally Bunker 21 5 Don Gullett 15 6 Rube Bressler 14 T7 Don Drysdale 13 T7 Pete Schneider 13 9 Billy McCool 12 T10 Jack Bentley 10 T10 Joe Wood 10
My only concern after reviewing the above list involves longevity. Gary Nolan was a teenage idol. A hard thrower who came up at the same time as Tom Seaver and was thought to be every bit as good as him, Nolan was out of baseball before he turned 30. Dwight Gooden was all but done at 30. Wally Bunker was literally finished at 26. Don Gullett retired when he was 27. Rube Bressler and Billy McCool hung up their spikes at 25, Joe Wood changed positions at 26, and Pete Schneider was history at 23. Don Drysdale and Jack Bentley made it all the way 'til the age of 32. Feller was the only one who had a long career and even his was interrupted by three years serving in the military during World War I.
I have no doubt that Hernandez will be a star--did I mention that I picked him up in our fantasy pool back in May?--but I can't help but wonder how long his career will last.
Bryan: There is no question that we must exercise caution in predicting King Felix's career value. I mean, these are the Seattle "Where Pitching Prospects Go To Die" Mariners, for Ryan Anderson's sakes. Still, after just two starts in the Majors, I think we can argue that the 19 year old's stuff rivals that of most American League starters at this point. How many of the men on your list could say that?
Believe me, Hernandez is far closer to the talent of Feller and Drysdale than Nolan and McCool. I should also mention that players like Bert Blyleven, Fernando Valenzuela, Walter Johnson, Sandy Koufax, and Dave McNally all 4-7 RSAA before 20, a total that makes more sense for Felix to land in.
Felix continued his quiet dominance yesterday, allowing just seven of his 24 outs via something besides the groundball or strikeout. So far in the Majors, he's allowed just six flyballs...in two starts. Furthermore, one of those flyballs was of the infield variety. His stuff is so 'heavy' that even when opposing batters make contact, they knock it into the ground. This talent of Felix cannot be overvalued.
One other subplot from Hernandez' rise to the Majors is that it opens up a spot for the honor of best pitching prospect in the minors. At this point, only four people can really make claims:
I'll go with that order for now, but this group is so close, it's changing with every start. Gone are the days of an uncontested #1, bad start or good, soreness or not.
(By the way, for a more detailed analysis of Felix, check out what Seth Stohs has to say).
Rich: Lastly, can Carl Yastrzemski sleep soundly knowing that Derrek Lee isn't going to become the next Triple Crown winner? Not to demean what your first baseman has accomplished this year, Bryan, but I find it somewhat ironic that he is no longer leading in any of the three categories--much less all three. In fact, his numbers (.349-33-84) are no better than what Albert Pujols (.341-31-89) has put up thus far.
Given that Pujols is playing for the team with the best record in the league and Lee is playing on nothing more than a .500 ballclub, I have to think this could finally be Albert's year when it comes to the MVP voting. Pujols, Lee, and Miguel Cabrera are probably 1-2-3 right now. Morgan Ensberg could slip in there if he continues to hit like Mike Schmidt and the Astros find themselves in the playoffs.
I guess we shouldn't dismiss Clemens as an MVP candidate. He is the answer to "Who was the last starting pitcher to be named the Most Valuable Player?" Oh, and the last starter to win the MVP in the N.L.? Bob Gibson. 1968. 1.12 ERA.
Bryan: Here you go with the Astros praise again. Morgan Ensberg? No thanks, I'd rather have the stellar season that Andruw Jones is experiencing, batting average be damned. Jones walks, hits homers at a superstar rate, and plays the best outfield defense in the National League. Furthermore, his team is feeling a little safer down the stretch than that of Ensberg and Clemens.
Still, Jones probably is fourth in the MVP race, south of Pujols, Lee and Cabrera. We can agree on that order, sadly, and I'm afraid it will only get worse for Derrek. He has looked bad lately, likely due to the shoulder injury that was not treated very delicately. This, of course, is due to the pressure put on Dusty to get Lee as many at-bats as possible. Yes, that's right, I have both handed a Cardinal my MVP vote and not blamed Dusty Baker for a Cubs problem in the same paragraph.
Am I delusional, you ask? Maybe, but that's what a seven-game losing streak will do to you. While as a Cubs fan I should have expected a fall like this to happen, I -- like Will Carroll -- expected the great activation to at least yield some victories. Instead, I've been left amazed at not the play of Kerry Wood or Nomar Garciaparra, but a more impressive return from injury: Ken Griffey Jr.
While Jason Giambi has garnered a lot of credit for returning from controversy to become the AL's best hitter in July, are we paying enough attention to the NL Comeback Player of the Year? Are we noticing that Griffey has 8 home runs in 77 at-bats since Detroit? Subtract a rough April from the numbers, and Griffey has been one of the NL's most dangerous hitters this season.
Hell, I'd vote him fifth for the NL MVP, right ahead of two Astros. Even seven straight losses can't confuse me that much.
Not the Center of Attention
August 3 was a newsworthy day for all three members of the Devil Rays' smallest problem.
Let us assume for a minute -- a stretch, I know -- that Chuck Lamar has a plan. At the top we can guess is to find Delmon Young and B.J. Upton jobs for next year. If that means firing Lou at this point, you have to think that's the move that must be made. Somewhere in the plan is to find a one-year stop gap at first base, as the club is set there for the future with Wes Bankston. The plan is likely to trade Aubrey Huff, who will make some money in arbitration, for someone that could help a rotation with only two serviceable starters.
Not many places in the plan is too much depth an issue. This is not an organization used to this, so guessing how they will handle their newfound issues in center field is a fool's game. But, as early as next February and going into 2007, Tampa's front office will be forced into picking from a trio of solid players to man the middle of Tropicana's outfield. This may have been ignorable for the last few months, while Damon Hollins and Alex Sanchez were jockeying for position, but not since last Wednesday.
Joey Gathright was the only one of the three playing, and he made news landing a rare start, and collecting two hits en route to what would be a 7/16, four-game hit streak. Rocco Baldelli was left watching it, but credited with helping the club he hasn't played for this season nonetheless, as he was their new good luck charm. The opposite display of gamesmanship was on display in the Devil Rays' AA affiliate, Montomery, in which Elijah Dukes was serving yet another suspension for yet another run-in with an umpire.
One is all speed, no power. Another is all tools, no polish. The last is all talent, no toughness. And all have formidable arguments for landing the full-time job in Tampa during one of the next two seasons.
Argument A: Joey Gathright
This is an organization that respects speed. In an age in which stolen bases are avoided, Tampa has two men that currently have swiped thirty. Still, both of these players are slower in a foot race than Gathright, who might just be the fastest baseball player alive.
However, we know that foot speed does not make a viable centerfield option. In fact, these type of players are normally classified into two groups in the minors: either the Juan Pierre/Willy Taveras acceptable leadoff man, or the Tom Goodwin of the 21st century bench position. Gathright has been thought of as the next version of Pierre since hitting a combined .334 in 2003.
Although Gathright was feared to be a poor man's Pierre, as his power was even worse than Juan's at the same age. This was an understandable concern, as Gathright's 208 AB debut in 2002 yielded just one extra-base hit. However, it seems as those worries have been absolved, as Joey seems to have developed power at a later age than Pierre or Taveras. Here are their extra-base hit percentages at a variety of levels:
Lvl JP JG WT A 5.81% 1.82% 5.52% AA 4.56% 3.32% 3.91% MLB 1.00% 4.00% 4.86%(with MLB meaning the player's first 50ish games)
Pierre went on to increase that rate by more than five percentage points the next year, more than catching up with the numbers of Gathright and Taveras. I think those numbers tell me that while Joey has caught up since his days below 2%, he still should have less power than the two Major Leaguers, meaning a .100 ISO will always be a strength.
Gathright also strikes out more than Pierre. With more balls put in play, it follows that Pierre will generally hit for a higher average than Gathright.". However, Joey has better discipline numbers, meaning he could likely match or better the OBP rates that Pierre has put up over the ages. Considering Pierre spent 2001-2004 hitting about .310/.360/.385, expecting Gathright's line to look like .290/.360/.360 over the next few seasons. Oh, and with about 50 stolen bases a season at that.
Argument B: Rocco Baldelli
We can project Gathright and Dukes all we want, but Baldelli is the real question mark. No one knows what will be there of the player that captured Tampa by storm in 2003. After both knee and elbow surgeries, it's impossible to guess what will become of a former Gold Glove-caliber center fielder.
His offense is a question mark, as well. I should mention that PECOTA, the BP forecasting system, had Tommy Davis pegged as Baldelli's #2 comp before the season. Davis, for those who don't remember, was fantastic for the Dodgers in the early-60s before missing nearly a whole season, and never again playing as well as people had been guessing. We can only guess that Baldelli -- a true gamer with the MLB logo on his ankle -- can avoid the luck Davis fell victim to.
My guess is that Baldelli takes about a season, or maybe only a half-season, to find his old offensive skills. Unfortunately, it's hard to think that Rocco will remain so skilled defensively, after suffering injuries to both his leg and arm.
Argument C: Elijah Dukes
Player A: .329/.391/.526 14 SB 33W/61K in 346 AB
Simply put, in this scenario, Player B is just 40 points of average from being identical to Player A. In other words, save a midseason slump, Elijah Dukes has been a spitting image of the AA version of Milton Bradley this season. Bradley's season was limited to just 350 at-bats, however, as injuries have been known to cut many seasons short for the Dodger outfielder. The Devil Rays are hoping that Dukes can become the player Bradley is, while avoiding those health issues.
What Elijah hasn't avoided, unfortunately, are the same make-up issues that plague Bradley. The Indians were forced into trading Milton in Spring Training, after the outfielder continually embarassed the Cleveland front office. Dukes is now suspended in the Southern League for too many ejections via argument, and has even drawn blame for an attitude change that Delmon Young has undergone this season.
We will never know if it was injuries or not, but Bradley was very slow to break into the Majors. It took three horrendous seasons before Milton came to realize his potential, and by then, he had been run out of two organizations. I have no doubt that Bradley could be special under the right scenario, it's just that we have still yet to see too much from the Expos former top prospect.
Because of Dukes' extreme resemblance to Bradley, and Milton's slow development, I would actually advise the Devil Rays to trade Elijah. I believe his ceiling is higher than both Gathright and Baldelli, but he also could cause exponentially more headaches during his tenure in Tampa. Using his current high stock to acquire a pre-arbitration player would be intelligent, even if the Devil Rays end up kicking themselves for someone that got away down the line.
In conclusion, I'm going to preach the Devil Rays' motto of patience in this situation. This is a problem that will likely solve itself, as six-to-eighteen more months will probably yield the best option. However, during that time, I would keep both Gathright and Baldelli, while remaining amicable to trading Dukes for the right player. If Dukes is traded and neither Gathright or Rocco are good fits, B.J. Upton will always need a new position. And you can bet that the Upton problem is a little higher on ol' Lamar's priority list.
A Tale of Two Pitchers
Daniel Cabrera must be manic depressive. His highs are really high and his lows are extraordinarily low. At his best, Cabrera is as good as any pitcher in the major leagues. At his worst, he is as bad as any pitcher in the big leagues.
Case in point: Saturday, August 7, 2005. Baltimore Orioles vs. Texas Rangers, the top-scoring team in MLB, at Ameriquest Field in Arlington. Cabrera opens the game by striking out David Dellucci, Michael Young, and Mark Texeira. Now those are three pretty good hitters. Their combined on-base plus slugging (OPS) is roughly .900 this year.
Fifteen pitches. Ten strikes. Five balls. Not one ball in play. According to the game story, Cabrera was reaching the high-90s with his fastball in that inning.
OK, let's check to see how the big right-hander fared in the second inning.
Six runs on three hits and no errors. Did I mention three walks? Two with the bases loaded? Aargh! Amazingly, the three batters that Cabrera walked all had two strikes on them. He had Mench 2-2 and Matthews 0-2. Yes, with one out in the second and the bases loaded, Cabrera threw a called strike and another one past a swinging Matthews. Strike him out and then any ol' out will suffice to escape the inning unharmed. Instead, he loses Matthews by throwing four balls (with a foul ball mixed in there) and then follows that up by walking Alomar, too.
Now I'll grant you that Matthews (career .249/.327/.397) is no longer the easy out he once was. He's hit 11 home runs since June 29, but you gotta go after him in that situation. We're not talking about Eddie Mathews or his Dad's former teammate Willie Mays here. Heck, the son of Sarge has played for six different teams (including two separate stops with the San Diego Padres), excluding a winter with the Atlanta Braves.
With respect to Alomar, this is Sandy (circa 2005), not Roberto (circa 1993-2001). Junior has only walked 20 times in a season twice! The last time he had that many free passes was more than a decade ago. His career high? 25, for goodness sakes. I mean, this guy walks less than a chauffeured aristocrat.
How can a guy so good be so bad? Well, I'll let Cabrera try to explain that.
"The first inning was good. Everything felt right. The next inning, I gave up two base hits and that's when the problem started. My problem was walks. I was trying to make the perfect pitch."
Cabrera pitched a scoreless third, then got Alomar to ground out and Dellucci to strike out for the second time to open the fourth. Just when it looked like the native of San Pedro de Macoris, Dominican Republic was back on track, he walked Young after getting ahead of him 1-2 and gives up a two-run dinger to Texeira. Exit Cabrera with the following line for the game:
IP H R ER BB SO 3.2 5 8 8 5 7
Of the 11 outs, Cabrera whiffed seven and retired three more on groundballs. Let me tell you, I like guys who get more than 90% of their outs via Ks and on the ground. Unfortunately, he faced 21 batters in all. Ten of the 21 reached base successfully. Five hits and five walks. Aargh! Two of the five hits were home runs. Both were to left-handed hitters.
Cabrera's lefty-righty splits are about as wide as I have ever seen:
SPLIT AB H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO BAA OBP SLG OPS vs. LHB 251 74 14 3 10 46 49 53 .295 .416 .494 .910 vs. RHB 228 37 7 0 1 20 22 69 .162 .248 .206 .454
Cabrera absolutely dominates right-handed hitters (if you can even call them that). Check that line once again. One HR in over 250 plate appearances. A slugging average of .206. How good is that? Well, no batter from 1900-present with 400 or more plate appearances has ever finished a season with a slugging average lower than that. Not Hal Lanier (.239) in 1968. Not even Goat Anderson (.225) in 1907.
Looked at it another way, Cabrera has been almost as unhittable vs. RHB as Bob Gibson was in 1968--in a year some have argued is the best ever by a pitcher--when the Hall of Famer produced the lowest single-season ERA (1.12) in the post-Dead Ball era.
Cabrera ('05) and Gibson ('68) vs. Right-Handed Hitters
BAA OBP SLG Cabrera .162 .248 .206 Gibson .160 .203 .197
Aside from the huge differential in batters faced, the only real variation is OBP. And that is totally a function of the number of walks allowed by Cabrera vis-a-vis Gibson. Cabrera actually hasn't been all that wild when facing RHB (one per 11.5/PA). It's just that Gibson was so damn stingy (one per 19.6/PA) vs. such batters. Other than that, we're looking at two peas in a pod--at least when it comes to facing righties.
Some of you may not give a Hoot, but Cabrera's numbers arguably are even more impressive than Gibson's when adjusted for context. In 1968, the N.L. hit .243/.300/.341. In 2005, the A.L. has hit .269/.332/.427. The difference between the two years in AVG and OBP is approximately 10% and the disparity in SLG is roughly 25%, yet Cabrera's BAA and SLG numbers vs. RHB are almost on top of Gibson's.
Cabrera even stacks up nicely with Pedro Martinez in 2000 when the latter posted the best adjusted ERA (285) in modern baseball history. The league AVG, OBP, and SLG were about 3-5% higher five years ago.
Cabrera ('05) and Martinez ('00) vs. Right-Handed Hitters
BAA OBP SLG Cabrera .162 .248 .206 Martinez .185 .238 .306
Other than Cabrera's inability to get LHB out, what are his problems? Well, from a statistical viewpoint, he walks too many batters (5.0 BB/9, the worst in the majors among pitchers with 100 or more IP). Daniel also goes deep into too many counts (4.04 P/PA). As a result, he throws far too many pitches (17.9/IP). In addition, Cabrera doesn't pitch nearly as well with runners on base (.256/.381/.433) as he does with nobody on (.214/.304/.301). The power pitcher has been lights out in the first inning (.198/.309/.272 with more than one K per 4/PA), facing the opposing team's best hitters. He apparently has pitched in bad luck away from Camden Yards as his 7.09 ERA on the road belies his .245/.352/.399 component averages.
With respect to mechanics, Cabrera has been known to have an inconsistent release point, which leads to high walk totals and erratic intra-game performances. Stuff-wise, the man who stands 6-foot-7 has an excellent fastball (which sits in the mid-90s and can reach the upper-90s) as well as an above-average curveball. He needs to develop a more formidable off-speed pitch, such as the changeup he began throwing for the first time when he reached the majors last year.
Cabrera vs. C. Zambrano, 2005
K/9 HR/9 G/F Cabrera 8.6 0.78 1.71 Zambrano 8.0 0.72 1.79
The biggest difference between the two pitchers is that the Big Z, unlike DC, has been almost as effective against LHB (.225/.333/.347) as he has RHB (.201/.273/.297). Zambrano has also learned to throw more strikes than Cabrera, plus he has induced opposing batters to hit into 10 more double plays than his counterpart. However, Cabrera throws a "heavy" fastball, too, so one would think that he could eventually rival Carlos when it comes to getting DP.
Cabrera's downside is probably that of a closer. He has the heat, the two pitches, the ability to get a strikeout when needed, and the high G/F that you like to see in a late-inning reliever. That said, I hope Cabrera can make it as a starter because I think he has an incredibly high ceiling. I know one thing, if I were a general manager, Daniel Alberto Cabrera would be high on my shopping list this winter.
The King, Cavalier and Sinkerballer
Undefined ratios are thought to be unspeakable for pitchers. The kind of outing that can send a pitcher straight down to the minors, no questions asked. Or, in the case of Felix Hernandez, they can be a sign of mound dominance.
But before he could reach that level, King Felix had to pitch his way out of a jam that could have left with the bad kind of undefined ratio...or something close to it. Instead, with the bases loaded, Felix induced Dmitri Young to ground into a double play, and then struck out Pudge Rodriguez to escape the first with just one run allowed. Because of that, and the final look of his box score, people will say that Hernandez pitched well "for a nineteen-year-old" yesterday.
Don't buy it. It's hogwash. He pitched great for any age in his Major League debut.
The National League Cy Young race will be a choice of two men at year's end, Roger Clemens and Chris Carpenter. While Clemens remains a statistical anamoly, we have seen Carpenter grow before us since arriving in St. Louis. Two weeks ago, Rich Lederer wrote, "More than anything, his success this year is attributable to career-high strikeout and groundball/flyball rates." Simply put, the pitcher who can give up the least percentage of flyball outs is best on track for good overall numbers.
Yesterday, Hernandez kept that percentage at zero. His groundball-to-flyball ratio? Undefined, with ten ground ball outs and not one ball in the air. In fact, not once yesterday did Felix allow a flyball, even one that dropped for a hit. After an antsy beginning, Hernandez calmed, and dominated the Tigers the rest of the way. An avid box score reader seeing four strikeouts won't see that, but those of us that saw weak grounder after weak grounder being caused by Felix's arsenal (a 94-97 FB and two great breaking pitches) watched it happen.
It also appears that these type of outings are sustainable, as Hernandez has also been this type of K/GB pitcher in AAA. In 88 innings, Hernandez coupled a fantastic 10.23 K/9 with a 1.67 GB/FB ratio. Those numbers are very similar to, and even better than, Matt Clement's 2004, who Rich noted held the highest groundball ratio for a strikeout pitcher last year at 1.60. At this point, a little control and an average BABIP is all Hernandez needs to become the star we have envisioned for two years.
Well, avoiding injury is pretty important too. Hernandez was delegated to the bullpen in Tacoma for five outings this year following a battle with shoulder soreness, an injury King Felix appears to be past. Still, my worries led me to Will Carroll, who said of the 19 year old's delivery, "I have some concerns about his delivery. He seems unbalanced, doesn't use his legs well, and ends by falling to first. He has an incredible arm and sometimes, you just leave things as is and hope it doesn't backfire. I'd be reluctant to change much."
Let's just hope nothing changes, from the delivery, to the stuff, to the outcome. Instead, in the words of Dave Cameron, "All Hail the King. Long Live the King."
The '2005 Draft Race to the Majors' got thrown a curveball yesterday, when this appeared in the Washington Post
The Nationals' considerable offensive slump during their month-long slide will have General Manager Jim Bowden scouring the team's farm system next week, wondering if there is any sort of solution available in the minors. One distinct possibility: First-round draft pick Ryan Zimmerman, just two months removed from his career at the University of Virginia, could be in Washington before too long.
However, the article also mentions that Rule 5 pick, Tony Blanco, is hitting .287 at AAA on a 'rehab' assignment. This will likely be the Nats' first choice to replace Vinny Castilla, who has struggled horrendously with a bum left knee. Is there a bigger contract-year player in baseball than Castilla, who will likely retire when his contract runs out after 2006?
As far as Zimmerman, I think the club will wait until rosters expand in September, meaning he will probably tie Joey Devine and narrowly beat out Craig Hansen in the three-handed race. Zimmerman is the best prospect of the three, if you ask me, as Bowden also said, "He's one of the best defensive third basemen in baseball -- right now." That's high praise, and shows just how high Washington is on their first-rounder who is hitting .327 with a .564 slugging in his last 101 at-bats at AA. The concern? Just eight walks since coming up to the Eastern League.
I have very high hopes for Zimmerman, and have no doubt that he would be one of my top 50 prospects (ahead of Eric Duncan and Kendry Morales...no use to speculate beyond that) if included. In Zimmerman, I see a mix between Gary Gaetti, Tim Wallach (who hit a similar .393 at a big program his last year of college) and Graig Nettles at the Major League level. Gold Gloves, a few random huge seasons, and an overall solid career. Not to mention, in Zimmerman's case...the first National true fan favorite/hero.
[Delmon Young] on White Sox righthander Sean Tracey:
I'm a little late on this bandwagon, as Baseball America surprised some people by ranking Tracey so high last year. Futuresox.com wrote in their midseason system review that following Bobby Jenks' promotion, Tracey might have the best stuff in the system. The numbers don't quite support that theory, however, as the big right-hander is nowhere close to striking out one hitter an inning.
Instead, it appears that Tracey has shown his power sinker this year more than ever. He has a groundball ratio of about 1.70 this year, and has had a couple starts that would make Derek Lowe jealous. But what holds Tracey back is similar to Daniel Cabrera at the Major League level: walks. The command is not quite there yet, and while Sean has been impressive as a sinkerballer, he hasn't been particularly consistent. When looking at Tracey's season, I found this quite interesting:
Dates ERA GB/FB K/9 BB/9 4/1-5/6 2.16 2.14 6.48 4.86 5/7-6/15 5.66 0.74 7.84 3.70 6/16-now 4.38 1.77 4.74 4.93
What this chart tells me is that Tracey's success is hardly as dependent upon his K/9 as his groundball and walk ratios. If Tracey is effectively controlling the ball -- while keeping it low in the zone -- he will succeed. When he reverts to being a flyball pitcher, trying to throw his mid 90s fastball by people, he becomes just another ordinary hard-thrower. And if days like July 31 continue, Tracey has top-of-the-rotation potential: 7 innings, 13 ground ball outs, 10 strikeouts, 3 walks.
Another sign of Tracey's inconcistency has been his occasional complete lapse of talent, resulting in some awful starts. If you take out three starts this year, in which Sean allowed 22 runs in just 9.2 innings, his ERA drops to the low-3.00s. Now I'm not quite sure it's fair to expect him to eliminate bad starts, but controlling them to a better degree will come with age.
In the end, I think there is a decent chance that Tracey will become a better pitcher than McCarthy. For that to happen, however, a lot of maturation must occur at high levels. The White Sox must continue to preach control, control, control, while simultaneously keeping the ball down in the zone. If Tracey can become a strike-thrower with the power sinker, that four seamer will appear faster and faster.
Let 'er Rip
Early in 3 Nights in August, we learn this about Cardinal manager Tony La Russa: "La Russa likes his hitters to be aggressive on the first good strike they get in an RBI situation. Especially pinch hitters, because they often get only one good strike in the entire at-bat. La Russa and his coaches inculcate this philosophy into players from the earliest stages of spring training . . . . ." A few pages later, the manager watches approvingly as Scott Rolen swings and misses at an 0-0 pitch with the bases loaded: "La Russa prefers his aggressiveness here, would rather see it than not, convinced that this aggression will produce more runs over the course of the season."
Is that a fact? If so, it flies in the face of the deep-count batting approach that our SABR-savvy generation deems proper. In the Age of On-Base Percentage, first-pitch swinging has a terrible rap; you can't draw a walk if you go up there hacking. You're supposed to be patient, work the count, and wait for your pitch.
But what if you get "your pitch" on the first pitch?
As regular readers of my blog, Viva El Birdos, know only too well, I'm with La Russa on this one; or rather, I'm against the knee-jerk preference for "patience." My feelings on the subject sharpened this year in reaction to the popular storyline about StL's new leadoff man, David Eckstein. "He always takes a strike," broadcasters and writers repeated ad nauseum; "he fouls off pitches, really battles, makes the pitcher work." This list of virtues fits right in with the OBP gospel, although in Eckstein's case it strikes me as being a tad empty -- his career OBP is a middling .339. In mid-May, after watching him take a fat first-pitch strike late in the game with two out and the tying run at 2d base, I bitched:
[Eckstein] did get himself a couple of pitches to hit later in the at-bat (esp. a sloppy breaking pitch way up), but they came on 2-2, after he'd gone into hunker-down mode. He battled, and the at-bat lasted 8 pitches, but the best hitting opportunity was the first pitch -- and Eckstein was taking all the way, for no reason.
If Eckstein had swung at that 0-0 pitch and popped it up, he would have been criticized for lacking plate discipline. But when a hitter takes an 0-0 fastball right down the middle, nobody peeps; that's just seen as smart, patient hitting.
It isn't. Using the miracle of Retrosheet, I sorted all the at-bats for every National League team from last season according to what happened on the first pitch. (See the end of the article for data sources and notes.) Each at-bat went into one of five first-pitch categories: called ball, called strike, swinging strike, foul, and ball put in play. If we combine the last three categories -- which all involve swinging the bat -- into one, we end up with three basic 0-0 outcomes: called ball, called strike, or swing. Here are the results:
The table does reinforce one Age of OBP doctrine: discretion is good. Better to get ahead 1-0 in the count than to swing on 0-0. But the blanket "take a strike" approach looks rather foolish per these data; when the first pitch was a strike, hitters who swung at it (even if they missed or fouled it off) were 40 percent more productive than hitters who took it for strike one. Even with respect to getting on base, the swingers were more effective than the takers: hitters who swung at the first pitch had an OBP 25 points higher than hitters who took strike one.
I'm not suggesting (nor are the data) that hitters should swing at any 0-0 offering that comes within a foot of the strike zone; these are macro figures which mask all sorts of micro situations in which it might make sense to take a strike. If the pitcher breaks one off on the corner or puts a sinker in at the knees and you can't do much with the pitch, might as well take. And if the pitcher is struggling with his control, maybe it's not a bad idea to see if he can follow up strike one with strike two. But it is a bad idea simply to take a first-pitch strike on principle. La Russa's instincts are correct: you ultimately score more runs if you attack the first strike you see.
And the effect is hardly limited to the Cardinals. It's nearly universal. Only one National League team (the Marlins) was better off taking an 0-0 strike than swinging at it -- and the advantage was infinitesimal (0.1 rc/27). All 15 of the other teams scored more when they swung, with advantages ranging from 0.5 rc/27 (San Francisco) to 2.6 rc/27 (Atlanta).
Of course, pitches don't come across the plate labeled "ball" and "strike" -- most of them are borderline. If the batter lets it go, maybe he gets the call and it's ball one; if he swings, it's a strike no matter what. So let's combine the two "take" categories -- i.e., called balls and called strikes -- into one, and boil the matter down to the hitter's fundamental choice: take or swing.
Basically, it's a wash -- hitters who took on 0-0 registered tiny, probably random advantages in OPS and rc/27 over hitters who swung. But the data still seem to validate La Russa's emphasis on aggression in RBI situations. In such situations you generally need a hit, not a walk -- and first-pitch swingers hit 17 points higher, and slugged 32 points higher, than first-pitch takers. Conversely, if your team needs a baserunner more than a base hit, the conventional wisdom -- take a pitch -- is with you.
Interestingly, nearly half the teams in the league (7) were more productive when they swung on 0-0 than when they took, irrespective of whether the pitch was a ball or a strike. That's fairly remarkable, since swinging on 0-0 radically decreases the chance of a walk. Leaguewide, hitters who swung on 0-0 had a walk rate of .026; hitters who took (whether ball or strike) had a walk rate of .089. But some teams overcame that inherent OBP deficit by slugging the daylights out of the ball on 0-0. Consider the Cardinals and the Braves, who both were about 0.6 rc/27 more productive on at-bats that began with a swing:
Whatever they lost in OBP by swinging aggressively, these teams more than made up for in slugging.
Leaguewide, National League batters swung at 47.8 percent of the 0-0 strikes they saw in 2004. But this percentage varied widely from team to team. The Expos swung at the lowest percentage of 0-0 strikes, only 38 percent. That's just 0-0 strikes, not all 0-0 pitches; the Expos let a lot of hittable pitches go for strike one. At the other end of the spectrum we have the Cubs, who hacked at 59 percent of the 1st-pitch strikes thrown their way.
The team-by-team median percentage was 48 percent. Now check this out: Of the seven teams above the median -- i.e., the teams that swung most often at 0-0 strikes -- six ranked among the top seven in NL runs scored. The seven teams below the median all ranked at the bottom of the league in runs scored, with the lone exception of Philadelphia. The teams that swung on 0-0 most often averaged 802 runs; the teams that swung least often, 698.
It's also interesting that the 0-0 swingers -- with the notable exception of Chicago -- ranked in the upper half of the league in both walks and OBP. Here, take a look:
For all the first pitches they took, the Marlins and Dbacks et al drew fewer walks than the teams that went up there hacking. Which tells me that it's possible to be aggressive without sacrificing discipline. On the contrary, from this study -- admittedly limited, one league one year -- it appears that aggression is an essential component of discipline. You have to keep the pitchers honest, take the get-me-over fastball out of their kit and force them to work the corners from the beginning of the at-bat. That's how you get favorable counts -- make the pitchers work fine on 0-0, take part of the plate away from 'em. So it's not all about running deep counts and waiting for your pitch; it's about knowing the strike zone and recognizing your pitch -- even if it happens to come on 0-0.
In early June, after Scott Seabol hit a dramatic first-pitch homer to key a win over the Yankees in June, I had this to say at Viva El Birdos:
We've been trained to think the only good at-bats are patient, carefully considered ones, in which the batter steps out of the box between pitches to think things over and tap his pipe on the heel of his shoe. But a first-pitch swing can be carefully considered too; you can go up there looking for one pitch in one zone -- say, a fastball middle in, like the one Seabol whacked out the yard yesterday -- and swing if and only if the pitch meets those specs. That takes as much plate discipline as a 10-pitch at-bat, imho, for the latter is often born of sheer survival -- if it's close, you have to swing -- while the former requires a true exercise of discretion.
If Seabol had popped up, there would have been hell to pay. But he took the right approach; he was playing percentage baseball. Even in the Age of OBP, sometimes you just have to let 'er rip and take your chances.
A NOTE ON THE DATA
If you've ever used these files, you know they are a) extraordinarily useful and b) a bear to work with. For the sake of simplicity, I used fields that did not code outs for things like sac bunts, sac flies, etc. In my data these outs showed up as ordinary outs, inflating the number of at-bats and thus lowering all the run-scoring output. The effect is small enough that I decided to live with it, but I wanted to make the disclosure.
A second disclosure: Since the subject of interest is the batter's discretion to swing or take on 0-0, I threw out all at-bats in which that discretion was removed -- i.e., intentional walks and bunt attempts. However, only the failed bunt attempts could be excluded, since the ones that succeeded on the first pitch -- or that began with ball one -- were subsumed under other data categories. Similarly, I could not exclude mandatory swings on hit-and-run plays, nor mandatory takes sent in from the bench. A more refined study would account for such factors.
[Additional reader comments and retorts at Baseball Primer.]
One on One: Hot August Nights
If the regular season can be divided into thirds, it can be said that we are approaching the last leg of the year. The first part is all about who gets out of the gates the quickest, the second is spent jockeying for position, and the third is when the riders go to their proverbial whips (or should we say WHIPs?).
With that in mind, we take a look at how the various races are shaping up. So, without further ado, let's get after it.
Rich: We're heading into what some call the Dog Days of the season. But given how tight four of the division races and both wild cards are, I think this month could be better described as Hot August Nights.
Bryan: Four division races? That's pushing things. I think not only are both Central divisions wrapped up, but pretty soon here we have to start accepting Boston and Atlanta to be playoff teams. It's dangerous to say this -- I mean, I'm a Cubs fan! -- but both these teams are geared for good play the rest of the season. I think the Yankees and the NL East contingent should just be fighting for their Wild Card lives at this point.
Rich: Well, I was just trying to be polite to the folks in and around Washington, D.C. Both you and I saw the writing on the wall at the All-Star break even though Atlanta was trailing the Nationals at that time.
Bryan: Yes, most definitely. We would have both said in May that Washington and Chicago were destined for midsummer collapses. But as they say in the baseball industry, 1-for-2 ain't bad. The Nats have fallen apart for a bevy of reasons, but this can only be explained as luck catching up to them. They are average across the board, and probably no more than a .500 team on paper.
Rich: I don't even know that the Nats are a .500 team. In fact, the team's so-called expected won-loss record was 49-56 (the inverse of its actual totals) going into Tuesday night's play.
Bryan: Yes, meanwhile the Braves have outscored their opponents by nearly 100 runs, despite being decimated by injuries this season. How they continue to do it is astonishing, and we must continually be singing the praises of Bobby Cox, Leo Mazzone and John Schuerholz. This team has also been given loads of support by a farm system that has been well tended to for a long time. It seems this is what the Yankees want to become...maybe that's why Mazzone-to-NY rumors have already surfaced.
Rich: Dollar for dollar, I'll take the Braves over the Yankees. I picked the Marlins to win the NL East this year. I like Florida, but I should have learned by now not to bet against Atlanta.
Bryan: Don't feel bad, we all should have. It also appears we shouldn't have bet against Ozzie, as we were both so quick to do in our early season White Sox two-on-two. Despite the lack of offense, the club has been consistent in their winning ways the entire season. Still, and I do hate to keep betting against Guillen, but will they have any success when only playing non-AL Central teams in October?
Rich: Are you trying to put me on the spot again, Bryan? It took me half a season, but I finally came around on the White Sox last month. They are a lot better than I had given them credit for previously.
Bryan: Of course I'm trying to put you on the spot! If the season ended today, the White Sox would be playing one of your California teams, currently the red-hot A's. How would you preview that series? Whichever club gets some version of consistent offense wins by nullifying the other's pitching and defense, is my take.
Rich: I've got a ticket around here from the MGM that makes me less than objective when it comes to the A's this year. I'm sure glad I didn't tear it up around Memorial Day. Let's put it this way, come October, I know Chicago wants nothing to do with Oakland.
Bryan: Well, I'm not so sure I even have the A's making the playoffs. It seems to me this is a club too reliant on too flaky a rotation. Baseball Prospectus has shown Dan Haren is in danger of being overworked, and I'm worried we'll start to see the same telling signs from the likes of Huston Street, Rich Harden and Joe Blanton down the stretch. Personally, I'd rather have Bartolo Colon-Jarrod Washburn-Francisco Rodriguez or Randy Johnson-Mike Mussina-Mariano Rivera.
Rich: Haren may be over worked but at least he's not over cooked like those Yankee starters. But remember, Bryan, you need at least three good starters in the playoffs. Haren, Harden, and...Barry Zito. Add in Blanton and Kirk Saarloos for a spot start here and there, and I think that is a plenty good enough rotation, especially in view of the team's deep bullpen.
Bryan: Maybe, but I think I'll take the rich organizations in the final two months. The Yankees just have too much offense, and I don't think Torre has worked the front end of the bullpen like years past. In Anaheim, I think they are simply above-average across the board. I can only imagine how much fun an Anaheim-Boston series would play out.
Rich: I don't know if Oakland is so much battling New York as they are Anaheim. You know, Joe Morgan thinks the A's are the best team in baseball now.
Bryan: Personally, I don't really see a facet of the game in which the A's are discernibly better than the Angels. Offensively, it's Los Angeles by a big margin. The rotation probably gives an edge to Oakland, but as I said, I think that will change in the final two months. The Angels have the better bullpen, and I'll say push defensively, though it's probably Los Angeles there, too. Once this hot streak cools off a bit, expect LAAoA to win by a few games.
Rich: Hold on now. Outside of Vladimir Guerrero, which hitter on the Angels causes pitchers to fret? This team can't buy a run. They rank third from last in the league in HR and BB. This is a lineup with more holes in it than the local muni golf course.
Bryan: Holes, they have, but what AL team doesn't? Chicago has about six spots in which the players don't hit home runs, and even Boston is showing weakness at a few positions. The Yankees are the best offensive team, but if they don't make the playoffs, it's an NL-looking American League playoff.
Rich: You brought up defense. I'll grant you that the Angels are better than average when it comes to fielding, but the A's just might be the best in all of baseball.
Bryan: Attacking my claims one-by-one, I see. The Angels are better than the A's at three huge positions (C, 1B, SS), and maybe at second, too. Are there four better positions to have an advantage over?
Rich: I'm not so sure Orlando Cabrera is better than Bobby Crosby at short. In fact, I would be hard pressed to come up with a better glove and arm in the entire majors at that position than Crosby. He has probably been the single most influential player as far as the A's turnaround goes.
Bryan: I can agree with you there. Crosby and Mark Kotsay have been so important to the A's, but are generally underrated by the East-friendly press. I know when Kotsay rumors began in July, I was checking the transaction wire every ten minutes hoping to find him a Cub. Those two California college boys have been great, no doubt.
Rich: Yes, they both can go get it, as they say. Eric Chavez is as good as they come at third and Mark Ellis ain't half bad at second either.
Bryan: OK, ok, I'm going to have to cut you off before this becomes "One on One: All A's." Let's try and pain ourselves for a few minutes and pick a winner in the NL West. Yikes.
Rich: All right, all right. Cut me down at my knees, why don't you? Is it a rule that one of the teams in each division has to make the playoffs? I mean, shouldn't you have to go at least .500 to make the postseason?
Bryan: You would think, but these teams try and prove that theory wrong everyday. I look at the Padres in a similar fashion as I do the A's, a good team that was helped by a ridiculous hot streak. After a big June, this team has proven to be nothing special. I'll take the D-Backs for now, but a late Dodger run isn't out of the question.
Rich: I'm going out on a limb and saying the Rockies have no chance at all. Same thing with the Giants. (By the way, is there a more non-descript team than San Francisco without Barry Bonds?) As far as the other three go, I say "paper, rock, or scissors?"
Bryan: I think the Diamondbacks success could depend on their new plan to play Conor Jackson at first, Chad Tracy in right, and Shawn Green in center. Gutsy move by Bob Melvin, especially for a team that is shockingly playing its way into October. If this move backfires, and Green starts hitting like the Chavez-Ravine version, then watch out as the Dodgers grab hold.
Rich: I guess the Diamondbacks and Padres would be favored over the Dodgers at this point. Arizona actually looks like the best team as far as the Beane Count goes.
Bryan: Well, enough of this. I think we can agree whichever team it is, they will lose in the first round. So, let's move onto the NL Wild Card, which boasts a much more interesting, mega-team race. Any favorites there?
Rich: I think the Astros have all but locked up the Wild Card. In fact, I see Houston as no worse than the third-best team in the NL and one that I wouldn't want to face in the playoffs.
Bryan: "All but locked up," are you kidding? Not sure that's possible when you have two spots in the rotation that are spotty at best, and three key offensive players (Wily Taveras, Craig Biggio, Morgan Ensberg) due for some big second half regression. Not to mention Andy Pettite, who I'd happily give 10:1 odds will not finish with an ERA under 3.00.
Rich: There isn't a better threesome in baseball than Roger Clemens (10-4, 1.45 ERA), Roy Oswalt (14-8, 2.40), and Pettitte (9-7, 2.58). As far as the latter goes, here's $10 to your $100 that Pettitte finishes below 3.00. I'm telling you, this guy gets no respect. Andy has not only been one of the better pitchers over the past decade, but he has been throwing as well as ever since the middle of June (6-0, 0.80 w/ 56 IP, 44 H, 5 ER, 11 BB, and 45 K). What's not to like?
Bryan: Fine, but the bet's off if Pettitte can't make 6 more starts, because his left pinky toe gets a hangnail. You're in dangerous territory tooting the Astros horn in my direction, Mr. Lederer. Now I'm not so sure my Cubs have it in them to climb over a few teams and catch Houston, but I'm taking Florida in the Wild Card.
Rich: I'll grant you that if Houston doesn't win it, then Florida is as good a choice as any other team. With respect (and I use that word loosely) to the Cubs, I think your motto of "Wait 'Til Next Year" applies once again.
Bryan: Always, Richard, always. I have no doubt my Cubbies will come close, but fade, leaving me to sympathize with fans in Oakland, Los Angeles, San Diego, Washington, and yes, even Houston. It's becoming about as annual as the Braves winning.
Rich: Oakland and both Los Angeles teams have won a World Series during most people's lifetime. Show me somebody who was around when the Cubs last won it all? Us Californians own you Illini.
Bryan: And that is one thing we won't argue about, unless your talking about food, but that's for another discussion.
Rich: OK, Bryan, who do see winning each of the divisions and the two Wild Cards?
Bryan: I will say the playoffs will look like this: CWS vs. NYY and BOS vs. ANA in the AL; STL vs. FLA and ATL vs. ARI in the NL.
Rich: You know, we didn't even mention the Indians but they just might have the easiest path to the Wild Card as any team in the AL. That said, I'm going with OAK over LAA (not sure who you meant by ANA) in the West, BOS over NYY in the East, and, of course, CWS over CLE and MIN in the Central.
Bryan: That's all, old man? Did we forget about the Wild Cards and No-good League?
Rich: I'm getting there, I'm getting there. The Yankees by a game over the Angels for the Wild Card. Thank you, Orlando Cabrera. As a result, I see the AL matchups as follows: CWS vs. NYY and BOS vs. OAK. I picked BOS to win the AL before the year started but am leaning toward OAK now. For the record, I'm not jumping on the A's bandwagon in August. I picked them to win the West way back in March.
Bryan: Rich, as much as I like the dramatic presentation style for the American League, I'm waiting on a whole 'nother league of picks here.
Rich: OK, OK. HOU wins the Wild Card going away. STL winds up with the best record by far. However, once again, these two teams can't face each other in the first round. As such, I've got STL sweeping ARI and HOU taking ATL in five, just like last year.
Bryan: Well don't get ahead of yourself, Rich. Before you go picking NLDS winners, let's see who makes it through the hot nights left on tap for August.
My Kind of Town
. . .Chicago is.
I was in the Windy City for business last week and had the opportunity to go to Wrigley Field for the first time, the National Sports Collectors Convention, and hang out with three of my favorite baseball writers.
On my flight from Los Angeles International to O'Hare a week ago today, I read Luckiest Man: The Life and Death of Lou Gehrig. I didn't realize that Jonathn Eig, the author, lived in Chicago. I would have tried to arrange a meeting if I had known that because Eig captures Gehrig like no writer before. As far as I am concerned, the book is the definitive work of my all-time favorite baseball player.
Aside from Eig, the book has Chicago ties that made reading it that much more enjoyable on this particular trip. Gehrig's wife, the former Eleanor Grace Twitchell, lived with her mother and younger brother on Chicago's South Side prior to their brief courtship and subsequent move to New York prior to tieing the knot. The real Mrs. Gehrig was far different than the one portrayed by Teresa Wright (1918-2005) in The Pride of the Yankees. Although Wright received an Academy Award nomination for her work in 1942 (and an Oscar for another film that same year), her role as Gehrig's wife didn't quite capture the poker-playing, cigarette-smoking, and hard-drinking woman that she was in reality.
After I checked into the hotel, I took a courtesy shuttle back to the airport to catch the Blue Line toward Wrigley Field. I took the train to the Irving Park exit where I met Dayn Perry of FoxSports and Baseball Prospectus for the first time in person. Dayn and I then rode the bus to Wrigley, walking the last several blocks in the rain. A native of Southern California, I wore blue jeans and a t-shirt and--other than a small umbrella which failed me--was ill-prepared for a rainstorm that evening.
We picked up our tickets across from the ballpark and passed through the turnstiles more than a half hour before the scheduled game time of 7:05. I have never been tempted to sign up for those credit card promotions that can be found at almost any sporting event but came pretty close to doing so that night. I didn't need any credit, mind you, but a dry t-shirt and/or blanket (even with the Chicago Cubs logo) was somewhat appealing at that moment in time.
As we made our way toward aisle 110, I was hoping that the rain would go away and come back some other day. The tarp was lifted nearly three hours later and the game finally began around 9:40 p.m. The rain delay wasn't so bad because it gave Dayn and me a whole bunch more time to talk. What did we talk about? Baseball. And more baseball. From sabermetrics to discussions about the Hall of Fame merits of certain players to possible subjects for future articles, we talked about everything under the
Our patience was rewarded when Greg Maddux struck out Omar Vizquel (does David Schoenfield really believe Omar is a worthy HOF candidate?) to end the third inning. You see, it wasn't just another strikeout. It was the four-time Cy Young Award winner's 3,000th K of his career. Maddux is now one of only 13 pitchers to strike out that many in the big leagues.
This is how the all-time leaders looked at that moment in time.
STRIKEOUTS SO 1 Nolan Ryan 5714 2 Roger Clemens 4440 3 Randy Johnson 4303 4 Steve Carlton 4136 5 Bert Blyleven 3701 6 Tom Seaver 3640 7 Don Sutton 3574 8 Gaylord Perry 3534 9 Walter Johnson 3509 10 Phil Niekro 3342 11 Ferguson Jenkins 3192 12 Bob Gibson 3117 13 Greg Maddux 3000
I pulled out a copy of my train schedule so I could have something to write on, and Dayn and I came up with 12 of the 13 within a couple of minutes of Maddux's achievement (including the top six in order). I wrote down Warren Spahn, thinking his 20-plus-year career would have resulted in 3,000 Ks even though he never whiffed 200 batters in any season. As it turns out, Spahn only struck out 2,583--good for 22nd on the all-time list.
Shortly after Bruce Sutter sang Take Me Out to the Ballgame in the home half of the seventh, Dayn and I decided to exit stadium left. It was a couple of minutes before midnight. I didn't want to turn into a pumpkin at Wrigley Field and, besides, I had a long drive ahead of me the following morning. We caught the Addison bus directly in front of the ballpark and made our way to the blue line, not knowing that the Cubs were in the midst of tieing the score and sending the game into extra innings. There is the sentimental part of me that wishes I had stayed, but, thankfully, the more rational side won out as the game didn't end 'til about 1:15 a.m.
I had dinner with Bryan Smith on Wednesday night. We met at the Cheesecake Factory in Oak Brook, directly across the street from McDonald's world headquarters. We talked about the ballgame the night before and lots, lots more. Three hours went by in what seemed like 90 minutes. Bryan and I didn't prepare our food, but we cooked up some interesting ideas down the road for Baseball Analysts.
My baseball travels found me at the National Sports Collectors Convention on Thursday. Hundreds of memorabilia dealers had tables set up to buy, sell, and trade anything from old baseball cards to artwork and photographs to game-used equipment. Penny Marshall was there along with some members of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, who were signing autographs. You could also buy autograph tickets for Hall of Famers Ralph Kiner, Rollie Fingers, Billy Williams, and Dave Winfield, as well as Dwyane Wade, Ara Parseghian, the 1965 Green Bay Packers, and many former Bears, Bulls, and White Sox players.
On Saturday morning, I had the good fortune of having breakfast with Jim Callis of Baseball America. Jim is one of the brightest and most knowledgeable baseball writers in the biz. He is also a great guy. Married and the father of two boys and two girls, Jim was nice enough to meet with me prior to coaching a summer league youth baseball game that morning.
Callis predicted the first 18 selections in the MLB draft in June in the exact order that they were taken. From Justin Upton at #1 to Cesar Carrillo at #18, Jim nailed each and every pick. He missed the Rangers' and Cubs' choices at #19 and #20, got back on track when the A's grabbed Cliff Pennington at #21, and dialed a few more first rounders to boot.
We chatted about Jered Weaver, Stephen Drew, the recent signings of Craig Hansen and Jeff Clement, and rumored baseball deals a day before the trade deadline. Jim and I agreed that we could have talked baseball with each other for hours upon hours with no problem whatsoever.
A trip like this could only happen to a guy like me. And only happen in a town like this. So may I say to Dayn, Bryan, and Jim most gratefully as I give Greg Maddux a high five, this is my kind of town, Chicago is. My kind of people, too. The Wrigley Field, Chicago is. The National Sports Collectors Convention, Chicago is. One town that won't let you down. It's my kind of town.
Gray Area Firing
From a tangible angle, Sunday was a good day for Dave Littlefield. The ever-rebuilding Pittsburgh Pirates swapped a 34 year old free agent to-be for a player that finished a not-so-distant third in the 2003 Rookie of the Year voting. Unfortunately for Littlefield, currently in his fifth season running the Bucs, general managers are not always evaluated from a black-and-white approach. It's the speculation that could very well lead to Littlefield's firing.
There is no doubt many Pittsburgh fans will call for the axe of their GM, who arguably entered Deadline Week with as many bargaining chip pieces as any other seller. An organization that has gone 292-373 under his tenure was in desperate need of the yield that veterans like Jose Mesa, Mark Redman, Rick White, Kip Wells, Daryle Ward and Matt Lawton could have provided. Instead, Littlefield got just one of the six, much like the Bucs on their current road trip.
We have no way of knowing what transpired on Littlefield's cell phone in the past week, besides knowing it wasn't enough to convince him to pull the trigger. But it's hard to believe a market that paid two prospects for the likes of Ron Villone would not take a closer like Mesa. Or if Shawn Chacon of all people can net two players, there isn't anything that Redman or Wells would bring? Our educated guesses that contradict the front office may just be enough to bring an end to a legacy that has been spotty at best.
On the trade market, Littlefield has been very up and down since taking hold of the Pirates a few weeks before the 2001 deadline. Six times has he dealt players perceived as being very good on the market, twice of which ended fantastically. First was Todd Ritchie, in the 2001-2002 offseason, when Kenny Williams tried to solve the White Sox pitching problems by trading Kip Wells and Josh Fogg. Ritchie was nowhere near as valuable for the White Sox in 2002 than either Wells or Fogg was for Pittsburgh.
The Ritchie trade was the second of its kind, and followed Littlefield's first real disaster. Just seventeen days after Kevin McClatchy named him the general manager, Littlefield dealt the enigmatic Jason Schmidt to San Francisco. His return? None other than the still-horrible-after-steroids Armando Rios and arm problem riddled Ryan Vogelsong. Schmidt went on to put things together in San Francisco (with Barry Bonds), and led the Giants to a World Series, while the Pirates have received little-to-negative value for the package.
If we can say those two nullified each other, Littlefield can hope for the same of his midseason 2003 trades. Again, the first of the two was bad, when the Pirates packaged both franchise player Aramis Ramirez and Kenny Lofton together for the in-division Cubs. In return, Jim Hendry sent veteran and free-agent-to-be Jose Hernandez as well as minor leaguers Bobby Hill and Matt Bruback. Hill was a well thought of second base prospect that couldn't break Don Baylor's lineup, and Bruback a mid-grade pitching prospect. Since, Hernandez moved on quickly, Bruback didn't materialize, and Hill is only beginning to pay any sort of a dividend.
After that, July 31 came and passed in 2003 without Littlefield letting go of Brian Giles. The star outfielder had been rumored in trades for seasons, but the peak came that July. Towards the end of that August, a team finally met Littlefield's high demands, when the Padres claimed Giles in minors. Their payment for the saber-friendly outfielder was pitching prospect Oliver Perez, recently-acquired Jason Bay and Cory Stewart. Perez had been called by Barry Bonds as one of the game's best young lefties, and Bay was in the middle of a huge season at AAA. The two quickly became integral pieces for the Pirates in 2004, and figure to do the same well into the current rebuilding plan.
Since 2004, there have been two more trades, both with players that had been long-rumored like Giles. Kris Benson had a golden arm on Team USA as an amateur, but arm problems led to consistent underperforming. He finally was traded last July to the Mets, in an odd three-way, in which the Mets dealt Justin Huber to the Royals for Jose Bautista, so they could team him with Ty Wigginton and Matt Peterson in a trade for Benson. Wigginton quickly went on Lloyd McClendon's bad side after a horrendous start with the Pirates, playing himself out of long-term plans. Peterson looks to be a player in the same mold as Bruback and Stewart, which is hardly a compliment. The prize of the deal should be Jose Bautista, maybe the third baseman of the future, but still hardly as valuable as Huber. While this doesn't look like a great deal, the jury is still out here.
Finally, after these five, Littlefield felt it was time to step in the ring with the trade master: Billy Beane. Needing a high-OBP catcher for his rebuild, Beane quickly turned to Jason Kendall, who signed a too-costly extension with the Pirates that ownership did not like. So, Kendall was traded just for two veterans, Mark Redman and Arthur Rhodes. The latter was then quickly shipped off for Matt Lawton, who of course, brings us back to where we started. The Kendall deal wasn't awful either, but the inability to land one player under thirty was disappointing.
The next offseason, a reliever was needed, so the Pirates turned to the Expos' Matt Herges. The price? Chris Young, all 6-10 of him, who is now thriving in Texas. Finally, while it doesn't look so bad, I get the feeling in a few years we will look back negatively on Littlefield's acquisition of Benito Santiago for Leo Nunez. The Pirates pitching staff would sure look better with Marte, Young and Nunez than it does now, and would have more than allowed for some of the veterans to go.
In both Marte and Young, Littlefield and staff drastically underestimated the talents they had. This is a problem that has happened time and again for the current player development staff. This is a staff that waived Bronson Arroyo in need of a 40-man spot, and watched him go on to pitch in the World Series for the Boston Red Sox. Or how about Duaner Sanchez, another waiver wire claimee, this time by the Dodgers, who have since inserted Sanchez into some high-leverage situations.
They also have been pickpocketed a few times by the Rule 5 draft, when players were inexplicably left off the 40-man roster. The best example is Chris Shelton, the first player drafted by the Pirates in December of 2003. Shelton is now a middle-of-the-order hitter for the Tigers, while the Pirates found him to be about equal to the likes of J.R. House. Other players that stuck in opposing organizations after being drafted include D.J. Carrasco -- who put up one solid season in K.C. -- and Chris Spurling.
Still, it would not be fair to evaluate Littlefield without giving him credit for where the Pirates are headed. First of all, you like to see any organization have a plan for future success. And I'm told by a Pirates source that the club has certain preferences for players, tailor-made for PNC Park. They are:
1. Left-handed power hitters: Short porch in right field.
It also appears that the Pirates are sticking to this plan. In each of his last three drafts, Littlefield has spent a first round pick on a player that fits this criteria: Paul Maholm (LHP), Neil Walker (LH power), and Andrew McCutchen (speedy OF). We have also seen these preferences through other outlets, like Zach Duke and Mark Redman or Daryle Ward and Matt Lawton, and finally Jason Bay and Jody Gerut. The combination of an intelligent plan and dilligency to stick to it bode well for future success.
As does a very good young core, which is centered around Bay and Perez. Joining Oliver in the rotation will surely be Duke, who has been fantastic so far this season. Duke has been compared to Tom Glavine on numerous occasions now, and he has shown the ability to pitch without his best stuff. Ian Snell should also be there, after impressing the organization a great deal the last two seasons. The club also hopes Duke-like southpaw Sean Burnett bounces back from surgery successfully next season. Finally, the organization also has high hopes for former high picks Maholm and Gorzelanny, both pitching well at high levels.
On the offensive side, things look far less impressive. The middle of the infield should be Bobby Hill and Javier Guzman, both players that should boast modest OBPs in the future. The corners are looking like Brad Eldred and Jose Bautista, with the former joining Bay in the middle of the order. The club is definitely hoping Jody Gerut reverts to his old form in the outfield, where he should be with Bay and Craig Wilson. That is, if Wilson can ever stay healthy for 10 games. He will also be the first to be replaced should McCutchen rise through the system quickly.
Still, don't expect the base to be enough for Littlefield to salvage his job much longer. Ownership has put up with a lot in the past regarding the front office, and is still waiting for its first good post-Bonds team. After Sunday, they would be foolish to think that will happen soon with the same arrangement. While we'll never the details of Littlefield's last week, enough people will be guessing the same thing, and that should lead to a forthcoming replacement.