Why I Love Baseball
In George Orwell's incisive essay "Why I Write," he says that all writers have multiple reasons for doing what they do. Some they keep to themselves, some they share with others, and some even they don't know about.
Orwell's meditations are pessimistic. To him, all writers are driven by selfishness and vanity mixed with other mysterious motives that may be more pure. "I cannot say with certainty which of my motives are the strongest," the author of Animal Farm and 1984 wrote, "but I know which of them deserve to be followed."
I'm a writer. It pays the bills. Strangely, though, when buried under jobs that promise a check and a publication credit, a weblog post ends up at USSMariner.com with my first name under it. Why is this? I've wondered a thousand times.
Leaving aside the smell of the grass or the way a broken-in glove feels -- everybody says that -- I've come up with a few reasons why I love baseball, and why I write about it when for all intents and purposes I should be doing something else.
I love baseball because we share it, all of us.
One of my wife's Okinawan uncles is fanatic about the game, and not just Japan's yakyuu. He checks out American box scores daily, watches all the televised Mariner and Yankee games, and tries to convince me that the Mariners' demise is directly related to the absence of Dan Wilson.
He grew up on a 700 square kilometer island in Asia and became a businessman. I grew up in rural Oregon intending to become a starving novelist and poet, dropping texts randomly into obscure journals and small presses for people to discover. He speaks no English. I barely speak the Japanese and Okinawan languages.
Yet we talk for hours about records, statistics, the arc of a swing or the contour of a pitch.
I love baseball -- odd as it seems -- because we disagree about it. I may think that you have dramatically underestimated the value of Ichiro, or overestimated the importance of a veteran closer, or too easily discounted the chances of the Cleveland Indians. You may think what I say is patently absurd, and your stance may be vindicated by history and logic.
But I'll still buy you a beer and laugh if it turns out that way. About what other than baseball is this true?
My job during college was a 40 hour a week gig at a youth sports organization. I signed kids up for Little League. Black kids, white kids, boys, girls, rich kids with roman numerals after their handles, hippie kids named "Heron" and "Thunder" and "Mountain." I watched them all walk out in new uniforms, glowing with anticipation and thought about how someday I'd like to write anything that gave people that kind of joy, without worrying about whether or not I got paid for it.
I love baseball because of Jackie Robinson.
Sport can be a great unifier, especially a game that's grown up with us. In these times where we -- as families and as a nation -- disagree about so much else, it's wonderful that there is the common vernacular of baseball and an accepted response to any discussion of a team's fate: "If they could only get some pitching." (This useful phrase has elicited many a knowing nod, solving numerous uncomfortable silences.)
Even better, there is an entire community of dedicated people devoted to studying whether or not this old canard is, in fact, true. Not because finding the answer will make them a profit, mind you, but just to see. To know. To learn. To share that learning with others.
I love baseball because Japanese-Americans, interned during World War II, built those most American of structures, baseball diamonds, where they were imprisoned. This embrace of the national pastime was a shining example of perseverance and love of country during a tragic, difficult period.
Then there's the lore of the game, those charming and occasionally apocryphal tales. Like the one about when Yogi Berra was introduced to Ernest Hemingway, he didn't ask about what deep and complex matters drove him to put words on a page. He asked "What paper you write for, Ernie?"
I love baseball because the Suquamish Indian Tribe sent a team to tour Japan in 1921 -- and is still so proud of those guys that they've got a photo of them hanging in the tribal center's entry hall.
Baseball mimics the seasons. When winter comes, the game goes away, and with Rogers Hornsby, we stare out of the window and wait for spring. At its core, this cycle is about hope. After my favorite team becomes the first in history to follow two 90 win seasons with two 90 loss campaigns, fans like me can get discouraged.
I love baseball because it reminds me of what I could be, and what I am trying to become. I write about it because it reminds me which of my motives are base, and which of my motives deserve to be followed.
In January, I'm going back to Okinawa. For a gift, I'm bringing my uncle one of my most cherished possessions -- a bat Mark Grace used during an early '90s spring training game.
His eyes are going to get big. I'm going to bow, and smile, and regret that we don't speak the same language.
You know what, though? We really do.
Jeff Shaw is the fifth-smartest baseball mind on the staff of USS Mariner, a blog about the Pacific Northwest's hometown nine. He lives in Bellingham, Washington.
Breaking 'Em In (Part 2)
More than any other award, the Rookie of the Year trophy awards performance. While the other main end-of-season awards surely rely most heavily on an individual's output, rarely will a winner come from a non-competitive team. With the Rookie of the Year award, performing on a competitive team only adds to one's resume, while the opposite hardly demands exclusion.
Yesterday, I went through the best 7 teams in the American League, and looked at the rookies that were implemented into the Major League roster. The number of players per team increases as we move down the ladder, and is quite high with bottom feeders like the Royals, Devil Rays and Mariners. Simply, these organizations have far less to risk by rushing a prospect, and letting him learn on the fly.
Today I want to look at the worst seven clubs in the AL, and examine how they used rookies throughout this season. And then, at the end of today's piece, I will be the first to hand in my Rookie of the Year ballot, with brief explanations for my choices. In order of descending records:
As always, the offense was the least of the Rangers problems in 2005. The club was third in the AL in runs scored, but third from the bottom in runs allowed. This continued problem forced John Hart to pick quite a bit from the minor leagues. The season will now finish with three of those rookies in the rotation, while at least two others received chances.
Chris Young entered the season as the best known of the group, but more for his size (6-10) and basketball history than his pitching. By July 1, Young had won eight games, and Orel Hershiser was getting pats on the back for refining the right-hander. The wheels have since come off a bit, as Chris has won only three games since then. His July was atrocious, and the club contemplated shutting Young down towards the end of the year. He'll enter 2006 with big expectations, as the club will hope to see what they did from May 1 to June 30 for an entire season.
Second in the rotation in size, and second in rookie performance is Kameron Loe. Standing 6-8, Loe also doesn't bring the velocity you would expect from a pitcher taller than 75 inches. Like Chien-Ming Wang yesterday, Loe's strikeout numbers will hardly command respect from the sabermetric crowd. However, he has a 2.42 GB/FB ratio in one of the Majors most difficult parks for pitchers. His 3.04 ERA since the All-Star Break will tease Texas fans all offseason.
Height will get you a long ways, but sometimes, nicknames will get you farther. Juan Dominguez was dubbed "Little Pedro" in the minors, when he developed one of the better professional change ups. However, his inability to develop anything else led to struggles in both the 2003 and 2004 seasons. Working close with Hershiser, Dominguez is another who has improved as the season has progressed. He will give up his share of home runs, but that's a pill the Rangers must swallow considering his 3.45 post-break ERA.
A comparison never dies, it just gets passed on. Dominguez' went to another pitcher in the organization this year, when Edison Volquez impressed Ranger brass with electric stuff. Beginning the year in the Cal League, Volquez had a chance -- and failed -- to break into the rotation in August. In that regard, he is joined by C.J. Wilson, another rushed player, albeit with a considerable smaller ceiling than Volquez. The only non-pitcher to get any time with the team was Adrian Gonzalez, who finally exhausted his rookie status, and continued to prove he's nothing more than the bad version of Carlos Pena.
Toronto Blue Jays
This was supposed to be the year everything was put together in the J.P. Ricciardi plan. Of course this did not happen, although the Jays were able to mix in rookies with veterans, as Ricciardi had planned. His farm system is middle of the pack though, and you can bet ownership was paying close attention to the two former first-round picks that received quite a bit of playing time.
The incumbent starter up the middle in April was Russ Adams, who had been drafted out of UNC in 2002. After a fantastic .887 OPS in 72 September at-bats last year, expectations were high for Adams this season. So much so, that Adams had more at-bats from the leadoff spot than anyone else this year. His output was very modest, however, with an OPS that could fall on either side of .700 as the season closes. Improved patience and a low strikeout rate will make the Blue Jays think about giving Adams the #2 spot in the lineup next year, although he must hit southpaws with more consistency. Expect a sophomore improvement as his BABIP rises from .272.
Unlike Adams, Aaron Hill can't blame bad luck for his 2005 struggles. Instead, the only way to explain what happened is to say that the former 2003 first rounder fell flat on his face. After making a lot of noise when entering the Majors -- his batting line was .337/.393/.476 at the All-Star Break-- the wheels came off as the season wore on. Hill has hit just .207 since the Midsummer Classic, with both an IsoP and ISO under .100. Neither is an acceptable number, especially one who spent much of his season at third base.
Please note that Hill was much better against southpaws than right-handers, indicating that the Blue Jays could platoon the combo next year.
But as modest as the two hyped players performed, the opposite was true for the Blue Jays 2004 minor league pitcher of the year. Gustavo Chacin, with his weird delivery and new cutter, began -- and is in the midst of finishing -- his rookie season with gusto. The southpaw picked up four wins in April, and after a combination of bad luck and ineffectiveness, would win just two more by July 1. Chacin then won 5 games in July, and has finished out the season marginal in the win column. But he has been as consistent as any Blue Jay starter this year, and will slot in very nicely behind Roy Halladay in the 2006 rotation.
Dave Dambrowski is not one for children. An acclaimed rebuilder, Dave's job in the Florida, and what he is trying in Detroit, are both more veteran-oriented than anything else. Rookies have their chance, for sure, but it was a difficult thing to do, without question.
The only position really dedicated to rookies this year was the centerfield spot. This became true in late April when Nook Logan took the job, after a fantastic start to the season. But as he gained more at-bats, Logan began to look more like Nook Logan, and his season will finish where we would have predicted: with a sub-.750 OPS. However, Nook didn't have the job for his entire plight, as the Tiger blue-chip prospect, Curtis Granderson, took over in late July. With fare less fanfare than a Murton or Francoeur, Curtis secured himself a 2006 starting spot with an .863 OPS.
Besides center, the only other two examples are of rushed prospects. Justin Verlander was called up to Detroit on two different occasions, when it looked as if the 2004 top five pick had proven all he could in the minors. But his struggles have likely convinced the Tigers to start Justin in Toledo in 2006. The other prospect rushed was Tony Giarratano, who started quite a few games up the middle after gaining notice with a .333 Spring Training batting average. The Tulane product even began his career well, getting on-base five times in his first ten plate appearances, before reaching just six more in his next 37.
With a similar stance to Dambrowski, and 'legitimate' Wild Card hopes, rookies were never going to be an important part of the Baltimore Orioles in 2005. Furthermore, if the season had continued on like the first two months, with the Orioles flying high, a rookie may not have ever even sniffed the roster. But as the injuries and losses began to mount, more and more rookies broke into the lineup.
Things began to crumble in May, when Luis Matos went down, and the club made an all-too-aggressive decision. Following a good debut and start to his Carolina League season, the Orioles called up Jeff Fiorentino in May. He was fine if not fantastic before being sent back to high-A, but showed a lot of poise despite being thrown into the fire. Then when rotation and bullpen injuries struck in late May/early June, the club turned to Hayden Penn and Chris Ray. Penn struggled in the Majors, while Ray continued to pitch well out of the bullpen.
As a result, Ray was the Oriole rookie with the most 2005 experience. Later in the season, a couple others -- Walter Young and John Maine -- had chances, but it looks as if only Ray truly stuck with the team. An improving farm system and upcoming organizational philosophy shift will likely provide Baltimore fans with more young guns to watch in 2006 and 2007.
This is when the rookies begin to really mount. All the buzz in Seattle has been around one rookie this season -- Felix Hernandez -- who has played well to earn all the credit. The teenager is a very special talent, and his fantastic debut is remarkable. It's really too bad it couldn't have happened at a different time, however, as his late start all-but-prevented Hernandez from a high finish in the Rookie of the Year race.
In fact, only one rookie went the distance with the Mariners this year, and it's one you are likely to hear complaints about from Mariner fans: Matt Thornton. The hard-throwing southpaw stuck it out all season, despite numerous bouts with control and general ineffectiveness. Another aging rookie to join Thornton on the pitching staff was Jeff Harris, who did his best Ryan Franklin impression during his stay. Organizations could do worse than Harris as their fifth starter, but blueprinting any team in February with his name on the depth chart is a bad idea.
While no rookie truly took the job, the shortstop belonged to a host of different ones throughout the year. It began with Wilson Valdez, who had been a waiver claim from the White Sox in April. Despite good defense, Valdez did not last long, and he was gradually replaced by another White Sox refugee, Mike Morse. Morse made waves in Seattle after a strong start (.856 pre-Break OPS), but fell out of favor with a poor finish, mixed in with a steroid suspension.
After Morse came the rookie that took the job, and probably the second-best Mariner rookie behind King Felix in 2005: Yuniesky Betancourt. The Cuban signing from the winter was thrown into a tough situation quickly, but gave the Mariners just what they suspected. It did not take long for the Mariner to become a regular on Web Gems, and Seattle fans will gloat about his defense to whoever will listen. Betancourt's problem is his offense, which is inept besides a good strikeout rate.
Other rookies for the Mariners included minor league veteran Greg Dobbs, as well as an offensive contingent that tried handling left field: Chris Snelling, Jamal Strong, Shin-Soo Choo. It's likely that none will stick, as the Mariners will likely sign a left-handed left fielder this winter.
Tampa Bay Devil Rays
This is the place for rookies. And you can only expect that to improve when the Devil Rays change managers at year's end, and young guns stop being blocked by players like Damon Hollins. Sure, if we mentioned Aaron Small yesterday, Hollins deserves a mention, but he was more a means to an end than the opposite.
In fact, it's likely that Hollins did more harm than good. One thing we know for sure is that his presence delayed the promotion of Jonny Gomes, who unsurprisingly took very little time to become one of the Devil Rays best bats. Tampa will realize that a poor free agent class will open up a considerable market for Aubrey Huff, whose exit from the organization is helped by the presence of Gomes' bat. Hollins also took playing time from Joey Gathright, who while not as damaging to the scoreboard as Gomes, surely would have produced far more electricity in Tropicana than Hollins.
On the mound, the key rookie was Scott Kazmir, who topped the 100 walk mark yesterday. Besides control problems, Kazmir had a fantastic season, winning ten games and striking out 174 batters. His stuff is as good as anyone in the AL East, but Kazmir must hit his spots better with that fastball before making the jump to the next level. A similar thing is true of Seth McClung, who is quite simply the bad version of Kazmir. 62 walks, 88 strikeouts in 101.1 innings. A 7.11 ERA. Yikes.
Finally, the club's bullpen, one of their strongest parts, was anchored heavily by Chad Orvella. Following a fantastic 2004 minor league season, Orvella has the chance at finishing the season with 40 appearances if the week ends right. His stuff is not quite there, but Orvella challenges hitters in a similar way to Huston Street.
Kansas City Royals
The bullpen was just one of many places that rookies saw time with the pathetic Royals in 2005. The relief corps was also home to the organization's most exciting rookies, though many will be calling for changes back to the starting spot this winter.
Leading that group is Andy Sisco, their Rule 5 selection, who performed even better than we could have dreamed in December. The big southpaw has pitched in nearly 75 innings with the team, striking out just that many while keeping his ERA under 3. He has been the Royals best out of the bullpen, but never gained the trust from a manager to be given the closer role. The Royals would likely be best to leave Sisco in the bullpen, where he has flourished in short outings that lessen his issues with control. The same is true for Ambiorix Burgos and Leo Nunez, two live-armed right-handers that also made the switch in 2005. Burgos was fantastic this year, just one season removed from pitching in the low-A Midwest League.
In the rotation, the season began with Denny Bautista pitching every fifth day. I had high hopes for Bautista, who I have loved since the 2003 Futures Game, but his season was ruined with injury in the early going. He was replaced by 2004 first-round pick J.P. Howell, a southpaw with a repertoire as far different from Bautista's as one can get. Howell saw considerable struggles in 2005, but as I've said before, I do believe he has a career in the Mark Redman mold ahead of him.
One of the preseason favorites to win Rookie of the Year was Mark Teahen, the player that Royals brass fell in love with when scouting during the 2004 Carlos Beltran auction. But Teahen's bat never came alive this season, and one can bet it won't be long until second overall pick Alex Gordon is breathing down his back. Another trade acquisition, Chip Ambres, also made his debut this year, although expectations were far lower than Teahen. Ambres started off hot, so much so that he may have earned himself a starting job in 2006.
Joining him in the opposite outfield corner will likely be Matt Diaz, who was one of many bats the Royals tried to use this season. Both Justin Huber and Shane Costa were rushed to add more punch to the lineup, and unsurprisingly, neither succeeded in such a role. Huber, however, still has a good chance at helping the organization.
After two days worth of examining organizations, it is time to narrow the field and make my picks for the 2005 AL Rookie of the Year. The field was substantially mediocre this year, as well as being very deep.
Bryan's Big Ten Rookies of the Year
1. Joe Blanton - Had thrown more pitches than Street did all season by June 19.
Eight honorable mentions that just missed inclusion, in no particular order: Russ Adams, Ambiriox Burgos, Kameron Loe, Chien-Ming Wang, Bobby Jenks, Ervin Santana, Andy Sisco, Jesse Crain (exclusion from yesterday).
As always, tell me why I'm wrong in the comments. And to change things up, also list your top 5 2005 rookies in terms of career value. Who will become the best?
Breaking 'Em In (Part 1)
There are many factors to having a good farm system. Successful drafting and a powerful international presence helps, as it gets pre-professional stars into the organization. Also important is having a teaching staff ready to develop these kids from short-season ball all through the minors. But most importantly, teams must not be afraid to implement these players into their organizational plans.
Many teams have a few good prospects waste away in the minors, as the team would much rather have a player with a well-known name playing than the young kid. But as the Braves can tell you, after going from Brian Jordan and Raul Mondesi to Kelly Johnson and Jeff Francoeur, sometimes the prospects are the best bet. This is just one of the many reasons that has made Atlanta successful over the years, as in no season was the club not playing some rookie.
This season saw an upswing in the time given to rookies. Prominent organizations have began to see the light more, and realize what kind of production prospects can give them. This increased farm system trust is a good thing all the way around, as all of the contending AL teams can tell you. In the first part of this series, which should cover all 30 teams, I wanted to look at what the minor leagues contributed to the 7 best American League ballclubs.
New York Yankees
What can two hundred million dollars buy, you ask? Apparently an extremely top-heavy team, lacking depth completely, as the 2005 version of the Yankees can attest. This was not a club built to handle injury, or worse, performance endemics. It was not prepared for Tony Womack to fall flat on his face, as many predicted, causing a call-up of their top second base prospect. It wasn't expecting Bernie Williams to be unable to continue playing the outfield, bringing a center fielder from the minors that had no business in the Majors. And it surely wasn't built to handle the injuries and inconsistency brought forth by Kevin Brown, Jaret Wright and Carl Pavano.
Still, the Yankees prevailed, and must be considered a playoff favorite with just six days of regular season baseball remaining. This can largely be attributed to the play of three minor league call-ups: Robinson Cano, Chien-Ming Wang and Aaron Small. At last count, the Hardball Times gave the three a total of 23 Win Shares, good for nearly 8 wins. But considering their play, when the Yankees needed it the most, I have the feeling Joe Torre would say eight was low-balling it.
For example, Cano has now played more than 120 games this season, in which he was expected to gain more experience at AAA Columbus. Instead, Robinson has been thrown into the fire, and performed brilliantly. A .294 batting average, 51 extra-base hits, only 66 strikeouts. Cano has drawbacks -- Yankee Stadium, southpaws, and defense -- but he is one of the smallest problems on a Yankee team that will surely be tweaked considerably this winter.
One must also expect the Yankees will give either of the two starters a job next season. Small has pitched worse than his perfect record indicates, but it also says that he keeps his club in games. If either of the players is going to lose a job, it would likely be Small, a minor league veteran with a relief history. But this team could do far worse than to stick Small in the swingman role, using him when injuries demand it. And with this team, you know they will.
Wang likely will have a full-time job next year, even if his strikeouts call for a sophomore slump. However, Wang's propensity for the groundball, as his 2.91 GB/FB attests, might allow him to avoid such a fall. His FIP, another THT stat, is just a few points higher than his ERA. In fact, it appears that Wang will be one of the more reliable players on a volatile pitching staff next year. As Randy Johnson and Mike Mussina age, Carl Pavano and Jaret Wright stay battered, and Shawn Chacon comes back to life, I think you'll find Wang become the Yanks' rock in 2006.
Other, less successful, tours were given to Melky Cabrera and Sean Henn. Both players might contribute down the road, but were rushed following minor league hot streaks. It's great to see the Yankees, an organization long removed from giving minor leaguers a chance, re-shift their organizational philosophy. Now it's just a matter of picking and choosing who to trade and who to keep, rather than trading them all. Yankees fans will like the new way better, even if the columnists in need of news and big names do not.
Boston Red Sox
Designed far differently than the Yankees, fans could have guessed before the season that minor leaguers would not be a big part of the 2005 season. They would have been right. This was a generally healthy team that was built for both injuries and inconsistencies, and have dealt with both appropriately. It is an organization that is building a farm system from scratch, and entered the '05 year with very little at the top.
One of the winter's unheralded signings was surely Roberto Petagine's return to America. After years of dominance in Japan, the Red Sox brought him back, stashing him most of the year in Pawtucket. This move could be argued, as Kevin Millar had a horrible season, and Petagine produced both in the minors and a Major League small sample. However, it looks that Petagine might just be a quad-A player, and given the leadership and experience that John Olerud provides, Roberto is expendable.
Quite the opposite is the state of Jon Papelbon. After a good 2004 season, Papelbon was considered one of the Red Sox top, if a bit raw, pitching prospects. But he was anything but in the early going this year, posting one of the best K/BB ratios in the Eastern League. Papelbon was promoted to Pawtucket for only a short time before being thrown in the fire, first at his new role as a starter, and then ultimately his collegiate role as a reliever. Both roles work for Papelbon, who will probably continue to pitch in both during the 2006 season. But given his ceiling, it would be a shame if the Red Sox forced their talented prospect to make the full-time switch back to relieving.
A few short-needed times of bullpen health called for appearances from Abe Alvarez, Cla Meredith and Craig Hansen. 6.1 innings and 13 earned runs later, it's time to count those all as rush jobs.
Chicago White Sox
Despite the offensive inadequacy and pitching prowess from this season, the White Sox' needs from their minor league system were backwards this season. Besides Tadahito Iguchi, who was never a minor leaguer, the only other prospect to receive 20 at-bats was Brian Anderson. Instead, the Sox needed 2 pitchers, Bobby Jenks and Brandon McCarthy, to fill important roles.
And it has been their play that has forced Ozzie Guillen to continually use the combination. In fact, in just a short half-season, White Sox fans have been treated to watching the development of a future ace and a future closer.
McCarthy did not look like an ace until after being returned to AAA after yet another bad July stint. When leaving the White Sox after a horrible outing on July 4, the rookie right-hander had pitched 20.1 innings in the Majors, and had allowed 22 earned runs and 6 homers. The problem was clear: a two-pitch combination including an ineffective fastball and hang-prone curve. But since spending a month gaining confidence in his change up, McCarthy has become unhittable. He has given up just 17 hits in more than 30 innings, while allowing just 4 earned runs. Suddenly, White Sox fans are not only calling for Brandon's inclusion on the playoff roster, but in the cramped playoff rotation.
Jenks will also make a difference in the playoffs, as he has become Ozzie Guillen's most reliable reliever. After the all-too-predictable regression from Dustin Hermanson, it made sense for the Sox to put their hottest reliever at the closer spot. Jenks has pitched admirably, and given fantasy players a reason to drool when thinking about him as a late round 2006 steal. Big Bobby is horrible to face for left and right-handed hitters, and his one drawback -- control -- has been better of late. In fact, since August 1, Jenks has walked just 8 in 26.1 innings.
While the White Sox have fallen apart in the last two months, they have received unexpected support from their rookies. Since August began, this tandem has allowed a combined 11 runs in nearly 60 innings. The future has become the present on the south side.
Rather than working in rookies, the 2005 season has been the year for Eric Wedge to develop the players who debuted in less exciting years for this franchise. Players like Grady Sizemore, Cliff Lee and Jhonny Peralta have become stars under Wedge's watch, while Crisp, Martinez and Hafner have only gotten better. In fact, for the first time in years, rookies were used to plug short-term holes rather than long-term ones.
The only rookie to gain any significant experience this season has been Fernando Cabrera. After Cleveland has such a horrible bullpen in 2004, Mark Shapiro worked diligently to improve that part of the roster. When Arthur Rhodes and Bob Wickman became re-born, Shapiro looked like a genius. A similar stroke came in adding depth by calling up Cabrera, who has been great through 12 games. Cabrera, like Jenks, might be the future closer of this team, given the acknowledged volatility of relievers, as recognized by the GM himself.
If there is an American League organization that understands the value of rookies, it's the Twins. Both the organization and front office were recently built through the development of minor league players. The complete foundation of this Minnesota team was built through the farm system. However, 2005 was an off year for such a philosophy, as the Twins had few holes and fewer rookies.
Luis Rivas' continued troubles did open up significant playing time in the infield. Both Bret Boone and Michael Cuddyer tried to fill Rivas' spot, but failed. While Cuddyer moved, the club was forced to play Terry Tiffee, who proved any hope of a career founded in 2004 to be false. Then, the team moved to Luis Rodriguez at second, and Jason Bartlett at short. But, this middle infield is not a winning combination. For a team that spends no money, a few dollars thrown at infielders during the offseason would be greatly suggested.
What the club does not have to worry about during the winter, however, is the pitching staff. The Twins are in the process of implementing even more young players to a rotation that could stand improvement after giving out nearly 60 starts to Joe Mays and Kyle Lohse. In their spots should be Scott Baker and Francisco Liriano. While the latter has not pitched well at the Major League level, he is one of the handful of players one must consider for Minor League Player of the Year.
Baker was not the caliber prospect of Liriano, or even J.D. Durbin, but has looked good since Spring Training. He has looked better since the All-Star break, after which his MLB ERA is just 3.19. He is even more guaranteed than Liriano, as the Twins care more about success than development as they attempt to rectify their position in the game's weakest division.
Los Angeles Angels
Before the season, we would have figured the Angels would lean on any of their offensive prospects most heavily in 2005. With Bobby Jenks off the team, Ervin Santana returning from injury, and all other pitching prospects far from sure bets, the Angels figured to be forced to patch up pitching staff holes on the waiver wire.
Instead, when a spot opened the red-hot Ervin Santana grabbed it, making 21 league-average starts during the season. He wasn't the best of the Angel pitchers, like other players on this list, but he gave them a start every five days when it mattered the most. Santana has also been better in 13 starts since the All-Star Break, during which he has a 3.69 ERA. Despite a WHIP of 1.40 and a lacking K/9, Santana has found success in the Major Leagues. He has much to improve upon, but will be counted on to make 30+ starts next season.
None of the other Angel rookies were of long-term help this season. Dallas McPherson was supposed to be that player, but injuries led to a very disappointing rookie campaign. In a sense, we saw just what we expected from Dallas in his 200 at-bats. A low average (.244), especially against southpaws (.196), a lot of strikeouts (64), and rather unimpressive defense. But he also hit for very good power with the team, showing very good potential. Having McPherson slowly move from a platoon to a full-time role is probably the best idea in 2006, when he makes his second trial at a full Major League season.
Other contributions came from Maicer Izturis and Casey Kotchman. Izturis played a lot of third base with McPherson out, which was not a good idea considering his horrible bat. Izturis also gave Cabrera quite a bit of time off at shortstop, which is where he's best suited to play. Look for a more utility-like career starting in 2006. Also look for Kotchman to get 500 at-bats, as the team saw his production from May 1 on, and benched Steve Finley in favor of Kotchman. He has responded well, showing great plate discipline and better power than he ever did in the minors.
With this club, rookies have not come with small sample sizes. Instead, the A's have depended on them like few other teams have: to account for about 20% of the production on the team. Luckily for Billy Beane and Oakland fans, he picked four good players to hang his hat on.
Enough cannot be said about Huston Street, and his meteoric rise to the Majors. In just a year, Street went from being one of the NCAA's most dependable closers, to becoming one of the American League's best. His stuff is completely lacking when compared to the great closers, but like Bob Wickman or Eddie Guardado, he always gets the job done. This fearless nature -- coupled with Street's .163/.220/.203 line against right-handers -- explains his success in 2005.
Joining Street on the pitching staff is Joe Blanton, who also is making a seamless transition to the Majors. After a good-not-great season in Sacramento last season, Oakland entered the year unsure if Yabu, Cruz or Meyer presented better starting options than Blanton. False. Instead, Blanton has the best starter ERA for a pitcher who began at least 20 games, thanks in part to a 2.63 ERA since the All-Star Break. His season record, as well as his month-by-month splits, show a pitcher who has been guilty of inconsistency, a fault Blanton should look to improve upon next year.
But Blanton's consistency issues pale in comparison to Nick Swisher, who must be considered one of the game's most hot and cold hitters. During Spring Training, there were rumors that Nick had lost his swing, which nearly cost him his job in 2005. He was even benched in May after starting the year with just 22 hits in 104 at-bats. But things improved for Swisher considerably as both the weather and A's heated up, as his June and July stats were fantastic. His .951 OPS in July was one of the best on the team, powered by the plate discipline we had seen in AAA. But alas, it appears that Swisher will close out the season with two sub-.700 OPS months. His patience has been good in both, but a .154 average in September will not cut it in a pennant race. Swisher has shown the ability to become a star in this league, but only showing up two months out of the year will eventually land him on the bench.
Unlike Swisher, Dan Johnson did not enter the year thinking he had a job. Scott Hatteberg and Erubiel Durazo promised to have his spots, so it appeared the reigning PCL MVP would be shipped back there. But when the 1B/DH combination had problems with both injury and performance, Beane looked to his prospect that was his surest bet. And Johnson has taken off without looking back, with his only prolonged problems being this month (.205 in September). Johnson's propensity for contact, in addition to his patience and power, should make him an All-Star candidate in the coming years. To do so, however, he must be able to boost his ISO against southpaws, which was just .105 vs. LHP this year (as opposed to .264 vs. RHP).
Are any of the players mentioned above your choice for Rookie of the Year in the American League?
Shame, Fame, and Lame
The second-to-last weekend of the regular season received a good deal of my attention but not quite all of it, as I was also busy watching USC pummel Oregon after falling behind 13-0, the Americans bounce back to defeat the International team in the President's Cup, and just enough pro football to keep tabs on my fantasy team.
Powered by Matt Leinart, Reggie Bush, Fred Couples, Chris DiMarco, Jim Furyk, and Brian Westbrook, I hereby deliver reality baseball in a smorgasbord format.
A Snitch in Time Saves Nine?
Rafael Palmeiro's season and possibly career came to an abrupt end following a claim from an anonymous source who said the 500 HR/3,000 hit club member cited a vitamin he received from Baltimore teammate Miguel Tejada as possibly causing the positive steroid test that led to his suspension this summer. Palmeiro was just 2-for-26 with one RBI in seven games following his suspension last month.
Executive vice president and general manager Jim Beattie made the following statements:
"He wanted to come back and play, but I think in this instance we had to do what we felt was best for the rest of the players out there."
Beattie also said it was "doubtful" that Sammy Sosa would return to the Orioles this year. The slugger who ranks seventh in career home runs with 574 was in a 5-for-50 skid when placed on the disabled list at the end of August. Sosa's career may also be in jeopardy after hitting .221 with 14 HR and 45 RBI.
All of the news out of Baltimore wasn't so gloomy though. Tejada, who the Orioles said was absolved by MLB of any wrongdoing, hit his 50th double of the year during the past week. Brian Roberts had 50 two-base hits last year. The B-12 Bomber and his keystone partner are the only players in Baltimore history to accomplish that feat.
Most Versatile Player?
Figgins is valuable in the sense that he is versatile, but he isn't the Most Valuable Player on the Angels. The MVP of the Angels this year is the same player who was the MVP of the AL in 2004. The only difference between Vladimir's two seasons is about a dozen games, which has had the effect of slightly reducing some of his counting stats. In any event, Guerrero beats Figgins up and down and around in all the summary stats, including Win Shares and Value Over Replacement Player (VORP).
At the risk of sounding as if I'm arguing out of both sides of my mouth, I believe Figgins is more valuable than the raw statistics suggest. You see, a player who allows a manager the flexibility to write his name on the lineup card at any one of several positions is more valuable than what VORP tells us because the size of rosters is finite rather than infinite. Figgins, who has played 52 games at 3B, 46 in CF, 39 at 2B, and filled in occasionally at SS, LF, RF, and DH, gives his team roughly the equivalent of three or four players wrapped into one.
I like the fact that Figgins is being recognized for his role with the Angels and am hesitant to find fault with his teammates selecting him as their co-MVP. He's probably worthy of being the Most Valuable Player on a half dozen teams this year but not one with Vladi on board.
Cy Young or Sigh Old?
Colon didn't do himself any favors in the Cy Young balloting by allowing ten hits and six runs, including three home runs in an 8-4 loss to the Tampa Bay Devil Rays on Sunday. His record fell to 20-8 with a 3.51 ERA.
The Cy Young Predictor, a Bill James concoction that tries to project the winner based on past results, rates Mariano Rivera (7-4, 1.41 ERA, 42 saves) as the most likely choice. Rivera has had an outstanding season and could also get support for the Cy Young as a Lifetime Achievement Award in a year in which many questioned him after he got rocked in his first two outings.
Over in the National League, Chris Carpenter (21-5, 2.71) is still the favorite according to the Cy Young Predictor, but I can't help but think that Dontrelle Willis (22-9, 2.44) would win if the voting was held today. He has more wins and a better ERA than his chief rival. Carpenter and Roger Clemens (12-8, 1.89) lost ground this past weekend when the former got shelled (5 1/3 IP, 12 H, 9 R/ER, 3 BB, 4 SO) and the latter sat out with a sore left hamstring while Willis (8-5-1-1-2-7) pitched another gem.
While on the subject of pitchers, Tom Glavine won his 274th game in a 5-2 victory over the Washington Nationals on Saturday. He needs 26 more wins to reach 300. Two more good years, right? Not so fast. Glavine won 9 games in 2003, 11 in 2004, and has 12 with one week remaining in the 2005 season. However, the two-time Cy Young Award honoree won 13 or more games in each of the prior 12 campaigns.
According to Lee Sinins, Glavine has 306 Runs Saved Above Average (RSAA). All of the retired pitchers above Glavine are in the Hall of Fame except. . .well, I think you know who.
The other two members of what was once known as the "Big Three" made news this week as well. Greg Maddux picked up his 13th victory of the year last Thursday and has a chance to extend his record of winning 15 or more games to an 18th year if he can get a "W" in his final two starts of the year (tomorrow and Sunday).
Maddux's numbers are pretty much in line with those in 2003-2004. The four-time Cy Young Award winner (in four consecutive seasons) still throws strikes and gets two times as many ground balls as fly balls. If not for his tendency to give up home runs these past three years, Maddux would continue to rank among the elite pitchers in the game. He is tied with Phil Niekro at 318 wins and will be trying to surpass Nolan Ryan and Don Sutton (324), Eddie Plank (326), John Clarkson (328), and Steve Carlton (329) when he returns in 2006 at age 40. Twelve more wins will vault Maddux into the top ten all time.
While Glavine and Maddux are trying to add to their career win totals, John Smoltz may skip his next scheduled start on Wednesday to rest his sore right shoulder if the Braves clinch a playoff spot before then. The 1996 Cy Young Award winner has thrown 229 2/3 innings this year, his highest total since 1997.
Win One for the
White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen says if the team wins the World Series, he might step down. First things first, Ozzie. I can see Joe Torre saying something like this but Ozzie Guillen? If he wants to retire, fine, but I don't think it is going to motivate his Sox one bit. Now if Frank Thomas was on the postseason roster. . .
Is There Any Advantage in Keeping Fielders on Their Toes?
Ever heard someone say that a pitcher wants to "keep his fielders on their toes" to succeed? Let me present you a quote from an online paper to explain this idea:
Greg Maddux is the type of pitcher that works his spots around the plate and throws a healthy diet of off speed pitches. He will keep fielders on their toes by getting the batter to hit ground balls. This way, the fielders aren't just standing around falling asleep while the game is being played.
This attitude has always seemed a little strange to me, to be honest. Personally, I've never seen a fielder just standing around because the pitcher allows so few balls in play. In fact, and this is based on personal observation only, it seems to me that pitchers who allow many walks and strikeouts (in other words, pitchers who do not allow many balls in play) tend to be fly-ball pitchers, and fly-ball pitchers tend to allow lower Batting Average on Balls in Play (BABIP) than ground-ball pitchers.
I decided to take a look at this question by conducting five studies. What I found was very interesting.
First of all, I took every pitcher season with at least 350 Batters Faced (BFP) between 2002-04 using the Lahman Database. This gave me 529 pitcher seasons, more than enough for a large sample size. The first Study I ran was pretty simple: I calculated each pitcher's Balls in Play per Batter Faced (BIP/BFP), and split the data into three groups, pitchers who were one Standard Deviation (SD) above average in BIP/BFP, pitchers who were one SD below, and the rest. What interests me are the first two. Take a look at the results:
N BFP BIP BIP/BFP H-HR BABIP R IP RA High BIP/BFP 67 44600 35465 0.795 10502 0.296 5686 10360 4.94 Low BIP/BFP 90 62826 39982 0.636 11353 0.284 6090 13502 4.06
The first (High BIP/BFP) is the group that is supposed to keep batters on their toes. As you can see, its BABIP against is higher than that of the second group, and by quite a bit. It seems that the more Balls in Play (BIP) you allow, the higher your BABIP becomes. There is one problem, however, with this initial Study, and it has to do with the last column in the above table. The Run Average (RA) of the first group is much higher than the RA of the second group. This creates a potential bias for which we need to control. That forms the basis of my next two studies.
What I did to attempt to control for this bias is split the 529 pitchers into three groups: pitchers who were a SD below average in RA, pitchers who were a SD above average in RA, and the rest. For studies two and three, I used the first two groups.
Study #2 focused on the bad pitchers, those that were one SD below average in RA, of whom there were 102. I then repeated the process I used in Study #1 on this group of pitchers, and came up with the following result:
N BFP BIP BIP/BFP H-HR BABIP R IP RA High BIP/BFP 19 8548 6811 0.797 2083 0.306 1309 1914 6.16 Low BIP/BFP 16 8224 5468 0.665 1646 0.301 1266 1810 6.30
Again, the pitchers who supposedly do not keep their fielders on their toes had a lower BABIP. This time there was no bias in terms of RA; in fact, the group that allowed more BIP/BFP had a lower RA.
Let's move on to Study #3 which replicates Study #2, but using the best players, those with the lowest RAs in the data set. Here are the results:
N BFP BIP BIP/BFP H-HR BABIP R IP RA High BIP/BFP 11 8655 6576 0.760 1822 0.277 763 2112.3 3.25 Low BIP/BFP 10 6439 3655 0.568 1006 0.275 510 1598.3 2.87
The same problem that arose in Study #1 is apparent here as well. The low BIP/BFP group has a much better RA than the high BIP/BFP group. This is because the low BIP/BFP group strikes out so many more batters, and it's a problem that cannot really be addressed within the parameters of this study. However, the BABIPs for the groups are so close that when we factor in that the BABIP for the low BIP/BFP group has to be regressed a little more due to a smaller sample, we can conclude that there is no difference in BABIP between good high BIP/BFP pitchers and low BIP/BFP pitchers. I think. (I say that because in a minute I will show this conclusion to be incorrect). Still, we see no evidence that "keeping fielders on their toes" will result in better fielding.
Studies #4 and #5 repeat what I did in studies #2 and #3, respectively, except I adjusted pitcher BABIPs for their team BABIP, thus filtering out other potential biases (fielders, park, etc.). The groups are the same; the only thing that will change are their BABIPs. Let's take a look at the high-RA pitchers:
N BFP BIP BIP/BFP H-HR adjBABIP R IP RA High BIP/BFP 19 8548 6811 0.797 2083 0.312 1309 1914 6.16 Low BIP/BFP 16 8224 5468 0.665 1646 0.309 1266 1810 6.3
Adjusted BABIP was calculated by taking each player's hits on balls in play, finding his expected hits on balls in play based on his team's BA, and then dividing hits on balls in play by expected hits on balls in play and multiplying that by the average BABIP of the group.
Here, we again see that those who allow few BIP/BFP have a better BABIP. Let's move on to my final study:
N BFP BIP BIP/BFP H-HR adjBABIP R IP RA High BIP/BFP 11 8655 6576 0.76 1822 0.269 763 2112.3 3.25 Low BIP/BFP 10 6439 3655 0.568 1006 0.256 510 1598.3 2.87
Now you can see why I said that among pitchers with low RAs, the ones who have low BIP/BFP rates also have better BABIPs. Adjusting for team makes a big difference.
Anyways, as you can see, in all five studies, the pitchers who allowed few BIP/BFP, pitchers, who could also be called "three true outcomes" pitchers because they allow many home runs, walks, and strikeouts, had much better BABIPs than those who allow the ball to be put into play most often. Why? It seems to me that the positive correlation between strikeouts and BABIP is part of it, probably a large part. But no matter what the exact reason, it seems fairly clear that this piece of conventional wisdom is wrong. "Keeping fielders on their toes" does not ensure better defense; in fact, it does the opposite.
Note: I also thought of doing a study using pitch count data since throwing more pitches results in longer at-bats, and fielders that supposedly get bored. However, as walks and strikeouts are really what dictate how many pitches a pitcher throws, and since they largely dictate a pitcher's BIP/BFP, the correlation between BIP/BFP and Pitches/BFP is almost perfect (.95 r-squared). In other words, doing such a study would add nothing new.
[Additional reader comments and retorts at Baseball Primer.]
Background September Starts
There is no question that baseball has become a game of September. While the drama of October, the craziness of the Winter Meetings, and the feeling of April all reaffirm our love, it is built in this month. Not only are we being treated to some of the best races in a long time, but every year the month brings some of the game's best young players to the forefront.
Yesterday was a perfect example of this. Despite the importance of games like Cleveland-Chicago, or Philly-Atlanta, I found myself more intrigued by different games when perusing the pitching lines. Five bona fide rookie starters? It doesn't get any better than that.
So between flipping between watching my Cubbies lose, yet again, and the White Sox almost blow another, I was treated to not-so-good performances from the day's five rookie starters. Only one of the five (the best prospect), Matt Cain, made it past the fifth inning. Only Cain managed to give up less than four runs. None managed to win. While five rookie wins probably would have created a story, today will be a review of the five young starters of Tuesday, and whether this lack of success will continue.
The day started with Tuesday's least important game: the first game of a Tigers-Royals doubleheader between Mike Maroth and J.P. Howell. The latter was fighting to keep the Royals at 99, as the team continues to fight its inevitable tumble into the 100 win category. And despite Howell's best efforts, the Royals abstained yet again -- as they would do in the nightcap -- staying on 99 losses.
At the start of the game, Howell reminded me of my previous thoughts on his pitching:
...I witnessed Howell pitch one of the more impressive 11 baserunner, five earned run performances I had ever seen. On the mound Howell is a master, as he did not throw one pitch outside of 77-88 mph at U.S. Cellular. In fact, Howell's problems began when his fastball went from 84-85 to 86-88, likely straightening out when the velocity improved.
Howell began by striking out Curtis Granderson, and then provoking both Placido Polanco and Chris Shelton into line outs. The deception that he needs to be successful was present, especially with Granderson, whom he struck out with a good mixture of offspeed and breaking pitches. However, the second key to his game -- control -- was not there today.
In the second inning, J.P. did the impossible, walking Pudge Rodriguez on seven pitches. He would walk two more, in addition to two wild pitches, as well as one hit batsman. Control has been an issue all season with Howell -- unconventional for a junkballing southpaw -- who has now walked 82 hitters in 163 innings spread across four levels. This is not acceptable, and it likely means that while Howell thrives on pitching with so much movement, even he does not know in which direction it's going.
Like most pitchers in the system, the Royals madly rushed Howell to the Major League level. He has proven to be completely not ready for the Bigs, and instead is probably currently a AA-AAA tweener. Even giving Howell the same treatment as Justin Huber, an even more polished player that the Royals babied in comparison to the Longhorn, would have helped his development.
I do believe that Howell will find success at the back end of a rotation, profiling to have a similar career pattern to Mark Redman. His pitches are heavy with movement, and his assortment makes deception fairly easy. However, this is only so effective without any semblance of control, allowing hitters to get ahead in counts and hammer Howell's mediocre fastball.
Quite the opposite is true of Matt Cain, another rookie starter that found a little more success on Tuesday. While his problem is traditionally control as well, he throws with considerably more velocity than Howell. In fact, while Cain was only 90-94 mph on the MLB.TV gun, he appeared to be throwing much harder than that. His breaking pitches provided stark contrast and remain the proof behind Cain's 2005 PCL strikeout victory.
Like I expected, Cain began the game off with significant control problems. Brad Wilkerson went ahead 3-0 before singling, and then Jose Vidro walked on five pitches. Cain's fastball was all over the place, but as the game went on, he calmed and only walked one more batter. What excited me most of Cain was a smooth delivery and mature moxie that translates to lots of success coming in his future.
The broadcast also told an interesting story that the Giants first noticed Cain "on accident," while scouting one of his teammates as he was a junior. The team followed him, made him a first round draft pick, and talked him out of a commitment to Memphis. Now it is Cain doing the convincing, as he fights for a role in the 2006 rotation. I think what you'll find is that the two make a perfect fit.
In Cain, the Giants finally bring a well-developed player to San Francisco. In the past, Brian Sabean has been quick to ditch San Francisco pitching prospects for quick band-aids at the Major League level. Ask fans in Minnesota and Chicago, and they will tell you, as both Francisco Liriano and Jerome Williams pitched yesterday as well. Cain is one of the few to slip through the cracks and actually make the Majors, and his presence will be good for public relations in convincing fans that the organization's minor league system isn't worth completely ignoring. For Cain, San Fran will be an opportunity to pitch in a spacious stadium, as he needs. Few top prospects had flyball tendencies quite as profound as Cain, as he is proving in his cup of coffee.
Expect this match made in heaven to begin what should be a long career next April, and for Cain to be the best starter on a staff Barry Bonds hopes will give him one last hurrah.
Sabean didn't look so stupid yesterday, as Francisco Liriano struggled against the Oakland A's in his quest to make the A.J. Pierzynski trade the worst of all-time. Expect Liriano to eventually push it into the top five, as nights like this will be few and far between in the future.
However, not this year, as I believe the Twins have really screwed up with their handling of Liriano. The team neglected to call up their organization's hottest arm in August, during which Liriano was striking out a dozen per game, and the Twins were still in the Wild Card race. Liriano's power arm could have been a huge asset out of the bullpen, even in the Ron Villone-swingman role, rather than continuing a dominating International League streak. Instead the club continued to abuse Francisco's surgically-rebuilt left arm, deciding to keep him in the rotation, both for Rochester in August as well as Minnesota now in September.
The time is now for the Twins to shut down Liriano, and keep an open mind about giving the youngster a rotation spot next season. I'm worried that this organization -- once so against giving Johan Santana a starting spot -- will incorrectly view Tuesday a sign of things to come, and delay his entrance into the rotation. Instead, Terry Ryan must point the finger at himself, shut down Liriano, and turn everyone's focus to February.
Simply put, Liriano was just too hittable yesterday. It did not look like the Francisco I saw at the Futures Game, the point in time in which his tear really took off. Still, there was a smell of dominance in the air, as despite struggles in his 3.2 innings of work, Liriano managed to strike out six hitters. Few pitchers have no-hit stuff (3 good pitches, none under 85 mph) as consistently as Liriano, who even amidst a bad performance showed why he is top dog in a loaded Minnesota minor league system.
Similar in style, if not results, to Liriano and Cain is John Maine, a pitching prospect that has seemingly forever been caught in the "will eventually become 4th/5th starter" group. The 2003 minor league strikeouts leader is finally getting his chance, and before yesterday, had been progressing in the solid manner through which he has run his career. Nothing spectacular by any means, but an ERA south of 4.00 with some good peripherals. While the YES announcers said that Maine had control issues, I didn't find that particularly evident in his Tuesday or minor league performance.
However, I didn't find a whole lot of success either. In fact, Maine barely had time to walk people on Tuesday, what with the Yankees constantly knocking him around. The book on Maine was obvious, as the YES announcers pointed out, and the Yankees offensively philosophies quietly stated. Make this kid throw a breaking ball. His fastball has control, it has movement, it has it all, but after that, he offers very little.
Wait until a breaking pitch comes, and do damage with it. If Maine is going to be the back-end starter that everyone has been predicting for years, he must spend this offseason working on his breaking stuff. His curveball must become more crisp, and his slider should add a little more movement to it. Otherwise, I see Maine headed in the Brad Thompson middle relief role, a far cry from his days atop Oriole prospect charts.
Tom Gorzelanny has never been atop a prospect list. Always behind someone, he entered the year as "just another southpaw" in a Pirate system with Oliver Perez at the top and Zach Duke on the cusp. Gorzelanny had potential, but 2005 Major League aspirations? One wouldn't think so. Still, with injuries to most of the Pirate starting rotation, Gorzelanny got his first chance yesterday, walking along the path already paved by Duke and Paul Maholm.
Unfortunately, Gorzelanny did not start off his Major League career in a similar fashion to Zach Paul. Instead, in his first start, Gorzelany drew the Astros, the Wild Card leader in a must-win situation. He drew a similar pitcher with a much better pedigree in Andy Pettite, who continued his improbable season with yet another victory yesterday. Still, there is some hope for Gorzelanny, and you can bet that he will show that in starts two and three, if the Bucs believe he has earned them.
One, for instance, is that splitter. Will Carroll gave the pitch high praise in Monday's UTK, claiming it "the best splitter in baseball I've seen since Mike Scott." Gorzelanny did use that weapon effectively on Tuesday, garnering seven groundball outs during the game. However, his other stuff must become less hittable if he stands any chance at emerging amonst a sea of southpaws. This is, of course, the Pirates plan, but at some point, enough is enough.
Always lost amidst the annual great races that September provides are the opportunities for dozens of cups of coffees to be handed out. Expect more on this topic in the coming weeks, but for now, let's just appreciate the best month in sports.
First Hole to Patch
This year baseball's MVP voting will be dominated by the game's traditionally most offensive position. Big surprise. For years, the first base/DH spot has been a pitcher's worst nightmare, and it is hardly a shock to see the likes of Albert Pujols, Derrek Lee and David Ortiz keeping up that notion. It has now become nothing short of an expectation that every organization should have positive production from those spots.
That expectation will likely be responsible for a substantial forthcoming raise for Paul Konerko. The hot-and-cold White Sox slugger is the best first base has to offer from a weak winter class. This is why the time is now for the Devil Rays to trade Aubrey Huff, and the Brewers to deal Lyle Overbay. For once, demand seems to be greater than supply.
Suddenly, huge markets in New York (the Mets), Boston and Baltimore will be on the prowl for a corner bat. This happening has organizations -- like Tampa and Milwaukee -- looking internally to find first basemen, which would allow the exit for an established name at little cost to the team's production.
Prince Fielder is the rare prospect that will allow such a thing. Despite Overbay's .290/.380/.465ish line as a Brewer, the club's faith in Fielder paves Overbay's exit. This is a faith that has been building since Prince dominated the Midwest League as a teenager. Since then, however, Fielder hasn't quite met the high bar that has been set.
So, we must ask, have we been overrating Prince as a product of his top ten draft status, family lineage and 2003 season? My answer: no.
Simply put, Prince Fielder is a very streaky player. Few prospects impressed their brass during the first few weeks of camp than Fielder. All this banter created expectations for Fielder, far too high, and immediately, his play regressed. After slugging home runs in bunches during Spring Training's beginning, few players did less in the late stages to instill confidence from their managers than Fielder. A year, minimum, spent at AAA would build consistency. Or so the Brewers hoped.
Consistency, it did not build. However, Fielder continued to be the offensive threat he was in the past this year, coming back from a horrible beginning. On May 16, Prince was hitting just .226 with a .316 slugging at Milwaukee's newest AAA affiliate. Two of his three home runs in those 38 games were among the first two, as Fielder would go on to stop hitting for extra bases. Plenty of people were concerned, and the Fielder-is-overrated chants grew louder and louder.
However, as he constantly does, Fielder then threw us for a loop. In his 245 at-bats since May 16, Fielder has collected 80 hits, for an astounding .327 average. Forty-three of those eighty hits were of the extra-base variety, giving him an insane .706 slugging during that time. Throw in a good number of walks, and we can say Fielder ended his season in a .330/.420/.700 fashion. Trade Overbay...now.
Few situations contrast Fielder's as dramatically as the one in Philadelphia. Where Milwaukee hosts a battle of unproven prospect versus inexpensive veteran, the Phillies have both a validated prospect (Ryan Howard) as well as a very expensive Jim Thome. While both players would likely be able to co-exist on a roster together in the AL, the current situation is problematic.
Sure, Howard doesn't walk a ton and has some god-forsaken contact skills. However, his power is better than Thome's at this point in time, and Ryan consistently tends to produce solid batting averages. The only real issue is one of dollars and cents, as Thome's contract all-but-guaranteed a retirement as a Phillie. Ed Wade is beginning to regret that decision, however, there is little he can do about it. It is not likely that a team will pay big for Thome unless the Phillies eat considerable dollars off his contract, a move that is unlikely to see ownership make.
So, that leaves Phillies fans hoping for one of three scenarios. First of all, retirement from Jim Thome. This is very unlikely, considering Thome's career path, and would mean that his current injury is much worse than previously thought. Second, that Ryan Howard can make bundles on the open market. Are the Red Sox willing to give up Hanley Ramirez, Jon Lester and Kevin Youkilis for Howard? Doubtfully, but it is worth shopping him around to see. In this scenario, all you need is one sucker to make it happen.
Finally, the most likely happening is that the Phillies have to find a way to make the two co-exist. Thome will have to be understanding that like Jeff Bagwell in Houston, he is simply slowly being fazed out of the playing rotation. Conversely, Ryan Howard must be able to hit the ball with the same gusto as this year, despite possibly not playing on an everyday basis. Lots of "if"s for the Phillies, but surely, two sluggers are better than zero.
If anything, you can bet Ryan Howard wishes he was playing for a different organization, namely the Los Angeles Angels. It is that organization that believed so much in their top first base prospect, that they benched an eight-figure, aging center fielder to give him a spot. On top of that, they also re-moved a Gold Glove-caliber first baseman to the outfield so Casey Kotchman could begin playing consistently.
OK, ok, so maybe it wasn't all for Kotchman. Maybe Steve Finley's OPS is to blame. But really, was there a simpler solution to finding Kotchman a spot? This was a player that probably was ready in Spring Training, though his preliminary play would hardly have convinced you so. Casey's overall AAA numbers, .289/.372/.441, are all brought down significantly by a terrible beginning, notably a .198 average in the month of April.
Unlike both Fielder and Howard, Kotchman does not profile to be a future Home Run Derby participant. While his power at the Major League level has been both greater than Fielder's and more prodigious than any of his previous minor league spots, it's likely that Casey will return to his days of having fly balls find the gap in 2006. Still, it will be hard to imagine the Angels having a problem with this, considering Kotchman's fantastic plate discipline, bat control, and contact skills.
While good, however, not even Kotchman can match Conor Jackson in terms of contact. While Ryan Howard has struck out about 33% of the time at the Major League level, both Casey and Conor were around 10% at AAA. Jackson made it just under, striking out 32 times in 333 at-bats, likely one reason for his .354 batting average.
Like Kotchman, if anything, the power will be Jackson's problem. He only hit eight home runs this year at the Coors Field that is Tuscon Electric Park. Instead, about 80% of Conor's extra-base hits were doubles, and scouts aren't sold that they will begin to go over the fence. Jackson also lacks the athleticism of your typical doubles-first slugger -- like Kotchman or Mark Grace -- and will not win any Gold Gloves at first.
Still, the Diamondbacks have shown quite a bit of faith in their former first-round pick. The club moved Chad Tracy -- another first baseman that could be history this offseason -- to the outfield in July, during a pennant race, to make room for Jackson's bat in the lineup. After that experiment failed, the team continued to tout Conor as their first baseman of the future. However, the club also re-signed Tony Clark to an extension following his career season, meaning Jackson will be broken in slowly, in a way different than the rest.
If all eligible, these four would likely be among the top five first base prospects in baseball. However, neither Howard nor Kotchman will still be on lists, leaving us with a slightly less Major League ready crowd. Here is my top five, along with projected Opening Day assignments in 2006:
1. Prince Fielder (MIL) - ML
Of the players we did not talk about, Huber is the only one who may find a starting spot in April of 2006. Bankston's presence allows for the exit of Aubrey Huff on a long-term plan, but the big first baseman is probably not ready as of yet. Daric Barton will make Scott Hatteberg's move to the front office painless, whenever the A's deem his power refined enough for a call-up. Finally, Michael Aubrey -- once deemed a poor man's Casey Kotchman -- followed in the Angel's footsteps, losing almost an entire year to injury.
Other players I like among the first base crop include Mark Trumbo, Joey Votto, Brian Dopirak and James Loney. All have their flaws at this time, but given a few adjustments, could make a Major League splash. And history will tell us that if they make any sort of long-term splash, if anything, it will be a result of a MVP-caliber bat.
Letting Loose on Use vs. Abuse
In a recent interview with Bert Blyleven, I asked the man who ranks fifth in career strikeouts and ninth in shutouts how Felix Hernandez compared to Dwight Gooden. Blyleven's following response caused several readers to reply in the comments attached to the article and via email.
Again, let's see how Felix does in his next start and how he finishes the season. Baseball has always compared this player to that player. Hernandez has made only two major-league starts. It's not fair to him to start comparing him to Gooden or any other pitcher. "Doc" Gooden had a very bright future in the game of baseball but ruined it by taking drugs. We will never know how good he could have been over a long career because of his choices.
More than a few readers blamed Mel Stottlemyre for Gooden's subsequent decline. In reaction to those comments, I said pointing the finger at Stottlemyre for Gooden's problems would be like finding fault with Darryl Strawberry's hitting coach as the reason he fell short of the high expectations placed upon him.
To get another perspective, I asked Bob Klapisch, who has covered baseball in New York for more than 20 years with the New York Post, New York Daily News, The Bergen Record and ESPN.com, "Do you believe Dwight Gooden's failure to put together a Hall of Fame career is due to overuse, drugs, or some combo of the two?"
Here is what Klapisch, the author of five baseball books (including High and Tight: The Rise and Fall of Dwight Gooden and Darryl Strawberry) had to say:
Definitely drugs and drinking. All the Mets failed to take the game seriously back then, but Doc and Darryl were the worst offenders. They thought it was cool to show up to the park hungover. I remember when Kevin Elster gave it one last go-round with the Yankees in spring training in '02. He still had great hands, but he was like some alien creature to the other players - showing up two minutes before everyone had to be on the field, still smelling of beer and cigarettes. Everyone else had already been in the complex for two hours working out, but Elster - like all the other Eighties Mets - never believed in that. Gooden especially.
Klapisch, who also co-authored a book with Gooden (Heat: My Life on and Off the Diamond), knows as much or more about the 1984 NL Rookie of the Year and 1985 NL Cy Young Award winner as any writer in the business. He witnessed and reported on Doc's good years as well as the bad.
Although not directly related to Gooden per se, I thought Bill James made some poignant comments regarding pitcher usage on the SABR-L board last Monday. With Bill's permission, I am reprinting his post in its entirety:
Since my research has been cited in the discussion of pitcher longevity, I thought perhaps I should take a moment to put my views on the issue on record. Sabermetrics prizes knowledge and despises opinion. Over the last thirty years, many serious people have made sincere and dedicated efforts to understand the relationship between pitcher usage patterns and pitcher injuries. It seems to me that, despite these efforts, there is very little about the subject which is actually known. What we have is more along the lines of research-based opinions.
Given the results of Hernandez's last two outings, it will be interesting to see if Seattle opts to shut him down for the remainder of the year. He has already acquired a lot of valuable experience and the Mariners are going nowhere fast. As such, it seems like there is more to lose than to gain by pitching Hernandez the final two weeks of the season.
As history and the above commentary demonstrates, pitcher usage is an inexact science. Every pitcher and situation is different. Some can handle the increased loads better than others. How Blyleven and Gooden responded is a matter of record. What becomes of Hernandez remains to be seen.
[Additional reader comments and retorts at Baseball Primer.]
Stats and Almost Nothing But
There are three players this year who are likely to reach the gold standard by posting .300/.400/.600 seasons.
AVG OBP SLG Derrek Lee .341 .423 .678 Albert Pujols .336 .432 .622 Alex Rodriguez .321 .423 .608
Derrek Lee and Albert Pujols are the top two candidates for National League Most Valuable Player (sorry, Andruw Jones), and Alex Rodriguez is in the process of putting a padlock on the American League MVP.
Lee leads the NL in AVG (.341), SLG (.678), and OPS (1.100); ranks second in HR (44) and R (113); fourth in OBP (.423); seventh in RBI (102); and ninth in BB (77). Pujols tops the NL in R (119), while ranking second in AVG (.336), OBP (.432), SLG (.622), OPS (1.054); third in HR (39) and RBI (109); and seventh in BB (87).
Rodriguez leads the AL in HR (43), R (111), SLG (.608), and OPS (1.031); ranks second in AVG (.321) and OBP (.423); third in BB (83); fourth in RBI (116); and tenth in SB (15).
As a third baseman, A-Rod's monster season stands out more than those produced by Lee and Pujols. While there have been 24 different first basemen covering 54 seasons who have put up .300/.400/.600 years, only seven third basemen have posted such rate stats. In fact, there have been just a dozen 2B, SS, or 3B in the history of baseball who have reached those magical numbers in the same season.
THIRD BASEMEN, SINGLE SEASON
YEAR AVG OBA SLG 1 George Brett 1980 .390 .454 .664 2 Al Rosen 1953 .336 .422 .613 3 Chipper Jones 2001 .330 .427 .605 4 Albert Pujols 2001 .329 .403 .610 5 Ken Caminiti 1996 .326 .408 .621 6 Chipper Jones 1999 .319 .441 .633 7 Jim Thome 1996 .311 .450 .612 8 Eddie Mathews 1953 .302 .406 .627
George Brett, Ken Caminiti, Chipper Jones (1999), and Al Rosen were named MVP during their .300/.400/.600 seasons. Rosen, in fact, was a unanimous choice. The Cleveland third baseman led the league in HR and RBI and missed winning the Triple Crown by finishing second in AVG to Washington's Mickey Vernon by a single point. Pujols, lest we forget he was once a 3B, was the NL Rookie of the Year in 2001 when he rang up the first of his soon-to-be four .300/.400/.600 seasons.
Rogers Hornsby accomplished this feat six times (1921-22, 1924-25, 1928-29) as a 2B. Heck, the Rajah almost went .400/.500/.700 in 1924 when he hit .424, .507, and .696. Hornsby, perhaps the greastest right-handed hitter ever (see OPS vs. League Average table below), won the Triple Crown in 1922 and 1925. Nap Lajoie also won the Triple Crown in 1901 when he posted the only other .300/.400/.600 season among second sackers.
SECOND BASEMEN, SINGLE SEASON
YEAR AVG OBA SLG 1 Nap Lajoie 1901 .426 .463 .643 2 Rogers Hornsby 1924 .424 .507 .696 3 Rogers Hornsby 1925 .403 .489 .756 4 Rogers Hornsby 1922 .401 .459 .722 5 Rogers Hornsby 1921 .397 .458 .639 6 Rogers Hornsby 1928 .387 .498 .632 7 Rogers Hornsby 1929 .380 .459 .679
Of note, if Rodriguez finishes the season at or above .300/.400/.600, it won't be the first time he has accomplished this trifecta. As a shortstop in 1996 and 2000, A-Rod hit these targets, posting almost identical totals five years ago and in 2005.
SHORTSTOPS, SINGLE SEASON
YEAR AVG OBA SLG 1 Arky Vaughan 1935 .385 .491 .607 2 Alex Rodriguez 1996 .358 .414 .631 3 Nomar Garciaparra 1999 .357 .418 .603 4 Alex Rodriguez 2000 .316 .420 .606
To put Alex's current season in perspective vs. Derrek's and Albert's, let's check the first basemen who have reached these three milestones in the same year.
FIRST BASEMEN, SINGLE SEASON
YEAR AVG OBA SLG 1 George Sisler 1920 .407 .449 .632 2 Bill Terry 1930 .401 .452 .619 3 Lou Gehrig 1930 .379 .473 .721 4 Lou Gehrig 1928 .374 .467 .648 5 Lou Gehrig 1927 .373 .474 .765 6 Todd Helton 2000 .372 .463 .698 7 Andres Galarraga 1993 .370 .403 .602 8 Jimmie Foxx 1932 .364 .469 .749 9 Lou Gehrig 1934 .363 .465 .706 10 Norm Cash 1961 .361 .487 .662 11 Jimmie Foxx 1939 .360 .464 .694 12 Todd Helton 2003 .358 .458 .630 13 Jimmie Foxx 1933 .356 .449 .703 14 Lou Gehrig 1936 .354 .478 .696 15 Jimmie Foxx 1929 .354 .463 .625 16 Frank Thomas 1994 .353 .487 .729 17 Lou Gehrig 1937 .351 .473 .643 18 Stan Musial 1957 .351 .422 .612 19 Eddie Morgan 1930 .349 .413 .601 20 Johnny Mize 1939 .349 .444 .626 21 Frank Thomas 1996 .349 .459 .626 22 Lou Gehrig 1932 .349 .451 .621 23 Jimmie Foxx 1938 .349 .462 .704 24 Todd Helton 2004 .347 .469 .620 25 Frank Thomas 1997 .347 .456 .611 26 Jimmie Foxx 1935 .346 .461 .636 27 Carlos Delgado 2000 .344 .470 .664 28 Jason Giambi 2001 .342 .477 .660 29 Lou Gehrig 1931 .341 .446 .662 30 Hank Greenberg 1934 .339 .404 .600 31 Jimmie Foxx 1936 .338 .440 .631 32 Johnny Mize 1938 .337 .422 .614 33 Hank Greenberg 1937 .337 .436 .668 34 Todd Helton 2001 .336 .432 .685 35 Jimmie Foxx 1930 .335 .429 .637 36 Jimmie Foxx 1934 .334 .449 .653 37 Lou Gehrig 1933 .334 .424 .605 38 Jason Giambi 2000 .333 .476 .647 39 Albert Pujols 2004 .331 .415 .657 40 Hank Greenberg 1935 .328 .411 .628 41 Hank Aaron 1971 .327 .410 .669 42 Ted Kluszewski 1954 .326 .407 .642 43 Jim Bottomley 1928 .325 .402 .628 44 Willie McCovey 1969 .320 .453 .656 45 Frank Thomas 1993 .317 .426 .607 46 Hank Greenberg 1938 .315 .438 .683 47 Johnny Mize 1940 .314 .404 .636 48 Mark McGwire 1996 .312 .467 .730 49 Hank Greenberg 1939 .312 .420 .622 50 Jeff Bagwell 2000 .310 .424 .615 51 Frank Thomas 1995 .308 .454 .606 52 Dick Allen 1972 .308 .420 .603 53 Jim Thome 2002 .304 .445 .677 54 Jim Gentile 1961 .302 .423 .646
Don't misunderstand me, the above is not meant to be a knock on Pujols, who has gone .300/.400/.600 every year since he broke in, except 2002 when he slumped to .314/.394/.561. Get this, Pujols' career rate stats are .334/.417/.624.
Pujols, in fact, is so great, he ranks second behind Hornsby among RHB in career OPS vs. the league average.
DIFF PLAYER LEAGUE 1 Rogers Hornsby .276 1.010 .735 2 Albert Pujols .268 1.040 .772 3 Jimmie Foxx .263 1.038 .775 4 Hank Greenberg .249 1.017 .768 5 Frank Thomas .232 .995 .763 6 Mark McGwire .232 .982 .751 7 Manny Ramirez .231 1.004 .773 8 Joe DiMaggio .213 .977 .764 9 Willie Mays .210 .941 .731 10 Frank Robinson .206 .926 .720
* through 9/16/05
Here is the same table through age 25:
DIFF PLAYER LEAGUE 1 Jimmie Foxx .300 1.073 .773 2 Albert Pujols .268 1.040 .772 3 Joe DiMaggio .229 1.025 .796 4 Rogers Hornsby .215 .897 .682 5 Joe Medwick .201 .938 .738 6 Frank Robinson .195 .946 .750 7 Joe Kelley .188 .952 .764 8 Vladimir Guerrero .183 .965 .781 9 Hank Aaron .176 .931 .756 10 Alex Rodriguez .170 .949 .779* through 9/16/05
Source: Lee Sinins, Sabermetric Baseball Encyclopedia
While Lee's season appears to be either a break out or a fluke, A-Rod's and King Albert's are more the norm than not. I'll let others spend the next couple of weeks and beyond arguing about who the MVPs should be. Me? I'm going to sit back and enjoy watching two of the greatest players in the history of the game doing the stuff they do so well.
[Additional reader comments and retorts at Baseball Primer.]
What Went Wrong
As a fan, there is nothing worse. Over the long season, your time builds hope for a late season run. Then, without warning, at or around Labor Day, they take a nosedive. The race becomes out of reach, and you're left with nothing but broken dreams.
Suddenly the "Baseball Tonight"s of the world have forgotten your club, spending their valuable time on those organizations with heartbeats. Without warning, coverage is gone, and you're left with pigskin and the "Wait 'til Next Year" mantra.
Fear no more, Baseball Analysts (with a little help from our friends) has you covered. We reached out to members of the baseball blogosphere covering the four September flops of 2005: the Mets, the Twins, the Dodgers and the Cubs. Sure, not all teams had equal chances a few weeks ago, but go to their fan bases and they'll tell ya, somewhere inside there was hope...until September. So, we asked four bloggers questions about their team, from the highs and lows to the winter ahead.
We start with the first team to hit the rocks: Dusty's boys. To help us analyze the Cubs, we have brought in Baseball Toaster and Cub Town writer Derek Smart. His answers...
What turned out to be this team's Achilles heel?
When Achilles and his infamous heel are linked with the 2005 Cubs I get an image of an enormous, athletic, mighty Grecian who, despite the traits which make him ideal for mortal combat, is covered from head to toe with fleshy knobs - vulnerable heels scattered over the length and breadth of his body like warts on a toad, offering so many inviting targets for the opposition that one wonders why one would bother to magically armor the rest.
Or to put it more plainly, it's difficult to point to a single factor that made the Cubs a disappointment this season.
There were bullpen issues galore, as it took the club seemingly forever to determine that LaTroy Hawkins was, for whatever reason, simply unable to perform as a closer, or that Ryan Dempster was better suited for the bullpen than the rotation, or that Glendon Rusch was Dempster's opposite in that regard (although they even forgot that after a while).
There were also issues among the starting staff, as Kerry Wood and Mark Prior both missed extended periods with injury, Greg Maddux continued to devolve into a highly paid fifth starter, and those pitchers plugged in to cover for those missing time enjoyed only intermittent success, if any at all.
It would also be easy to blame it all on injuries, and certainly that's been part of the problem, but even losing all the days and dollars they did doesn't fully explain what happened, nor do I believe it's the single, fixable thing that should be focused on by the organization during the off-season.
What really killed the Cubs this year, the thing that made it nearly impossible for them to have a season that could be termed as a success, was their appalling lack of teamwide OBP.
Despite being second in the NL in batting average, the team is (as of the end of play September 12) eleventh in the league in OBP and dead last in walks. This is how a team that is also second in SLG manages to be seventh in runs scored - no one's on base when the big hit comes.
In order for the Cubs to have a chance at the postseason next year they have to have more people with big red C's on their hats standing on little white bags on hot summer days and nights.
How do you hope Jim Hendry attacks this problem in the winter?
Item one on Jim Hendry's agenda needs to be deciding on a free agent target who can help with the problem, particularly at the top of the lineup where the team took a disproportionately large hit from their on-base issues, and pursue him aggressively.
One of Hendry's strengths as a GM has been an ability to, in general, keep from overpaying for free agents in terms of time and/or treasure, and this has been achieved primarily by keeping his nose out of bidding wars. He has a price he's willing to pay and when things get significantly beyond that point, he tips his cap and walks away.
However, the Cubs are beyond the stage where that strategy gets them anything, at least in terms of solving the issue of men on the bags at the top of the order. There are only a few options out there for the job, they will be expensive, and Hendry has to be willing to pay - even overpay - or else the solution isn't likely to be found.
Factoring all of this in, my ideal - perhaps not in a vacuum but in the market to come - is Rafael Furcal, who not only can provide an adequate lead-off man from an OBP perspective, but also helps solve some speed issues the team has had, along with shoring up what has been a weak middle infield defense.
Furcal will cost a bundle, particularly if the salaries given out to men like Orlando Cabrera and Edgar Renteria get factored heavily into the negotiations, but without legitimate in-house options likely to come to town in 2006 (I just can't see Felix Pie getting any kind of real shot until, at best, mid-year), I think it's a cost the Cubs can't afford not to take on.
The other big OBP sinkhole was...well...the entire outfield, and filling those holes should be Item Number Two on the agenda. Left field can be solved simply by sending Matt Murton out there every day, and while a prerequisite for doing that might be an alteration of Dusty Baker's DNA (despite some very obvious flaws, I doubt the Cubs' manager is going anywhere), sometimes you have to take one for the team, right Skip?
As for the rest of the outfield, I could go on - Example 1: Wouldn't Brian Giles look yummy in Cubbie blue? Example 2: Taping Corey Patterson's bat to his shoulder = Instant OBP Improvement - but further speculation might result in extraordinary foolishness - Example 3: Now playing center field: Tom Jane as "The Mick" - so I'll stop.
Who would you label as team MVP and LVP?
He wouldn't have been my pick before the season started - I would have said Aramis Ramirez, or even one of the Big Three starters - but at this point in the year the answer is so obvious that it's almost not worth stating. Still, since you asked, I'll tell you who my MVP is: Neifi Perez.
(A pause while the author has the spirit of Dusty Baker exorcised from his corporeal body.)
I mean: Derrek Lee.
As for Least Valuable, I'll have to go with my old favorite, Jose Macias. He's not the worst player on the team in terms of VORP - that's Corey Patterson with his shocking - 7.9 to Macias' second place -3.2 figure - but he compounds his lack of discernable offensive skills with an accompanying failure to contribute anything of value on defense.
Patterson may have been awful with the stick this year, but at least he plays a good center field. Macias barely plays a good cheerleader.
The emergence of Derrek Lee as an elite offensive force.
Alright, that may turn out to be an exaggeration over the long term, as I can't say I expect him to approach this year's level of production in the future - yes, he will drive in 100 runs again; yes, he will score 100 runs again; but I have a hard time believing he'll be hanging around the 1.100 OPS neighborhood over the next few years.
Still, as far as this year's concerned, any "highlight moments" I might bring up nearly always would include the man I've dubbed "The Savior" anyway, so in this season where the good times have been difficult to remember - what with the remarkable staying power of all the baseball related horror I've witnessed - it's the greatness of Lee's entire season that I'll recall most fondly.
I'm so unsure where to go with this. There was the worst way I've seen the club lose a game this year, which happened when LaTroy Hawkins tried to end the contest on a lineout double play in the top of the ninth but somehow managed to bounce the ball off the helmet of Jose Offerman and into the stands, scoring the tying and eventual winning runs for Philadelphia.
There are two losing streaks of eight games to think of, the up and down injury woes of Kerry Wood, and the line shot that nearly ended Mark Prior's career, but I don't think those quite do it.
No, to sum it all up, to really pinpoint the lowlight of the season, you have to go way back to the moment when Nomar Garciaparra tore his (gulp) groin coming out of the batters box in April.
I think there were times during the year when I actually felt lower, but in retrospect, that was the moment when it all began to come apart. Think of it as the lowlight that started it all, the event that cascaded into everything else bad that happened throughout the year. It was, indeed, the instant when the season was truly lost, even if we didn't fully realize it at the time.
Next, we have the other organization that was not ecstatic about their hopes on September 1: the Dodgers. To talk about them, we brought in (who else?) another Toaster writer, Jon Weisman. His answers:
What turned out to be this team's Achilles heel?
The Achilles heel, as well as every other body part in sight. It's been well-documented that the Dodgers went all-world with injuries this season. Whether you buy into the idea that those wounds were self-inflicted or bad feng shui from the Dodger Stadium seating changes, 2005 sure rubbed the wrong way. In terms of what was left on the field, the biggest problem (and one that gets no press) was the pitching. A team ERA of 4.50 - 21st in baseball - is, for a Dodger Stadium team, practically Charlie Brown-like.
How do you hope Paul DePodesta attacks this problem in the winter?
With humility and backbone, both of which I like to think he has. With a willingness to learn from his mistakes and a willingness to stick with good philosophies that the fates sidetracked. To increase the scoring, even with Drew returning, DePodesta's going to need a first-rate slugger, in part because Jeff Kent will probably tail slightly from his 2005 numbers. To help the pitching - that's going to be tougher. The Dodgers have prospects ready to help at least the bullpen; that plus Eric Gagne's return should solve those problems. But the rotation is highly questionable, especially because Jeff Weaver probably isn't returning (and at the salary he's going to demand, probably shouldn't). Brad Penny is somewhat reliable, who knows about Derek Lowe and Odalis Perez, and then who knows, period, because the minor league aces might not be ready yet. Finally, there's the ongoing poker game with Jim Tracy to deal with - it's time for the players to show their cards.
Kent is clearly the MVP, with statistical contributions that dwarf those of anyone else on the team. And in a sense, the LVP has to be Darren Dreifort - remember him? For guys who actually played, there has to be an argument for Jose Valentin, who did little but limp for about 90 percent of the season. But without shame, I'm actually going to factor in a little chemistry into the criteria and cast my vote for Scott Erickson, who not only provided nothing but trouble in the No. 5 spot of the starting rotation - at a time when the Dodgers were still a plus-.500 team - but also emptied the first beaker of clubhouse poison by blaming everyone but himself for the calamity.
The 12-2 start calls to us from our past like fond memories of the Daisy Hill Puppy Farm.
It's a tough year when surgery for Gagne doesn't even reach the lowlight medal round. Drew's broken wrist alerted us to the stark reality of 2005, and Kelly Wunsch's season-ending misstep on the Coors Field bullpen stairs, while by a bit player, hit over the head with it. With the Milton Bradley unraveling in August, things just got ugly. But I also go back to the month of May, when a staff-wide dead-arm period seemed to hit the Dodgers and the team allowed 150 runs in 28 games. Just average pitching during that time would have changed the complexion of the entire season.
Finally, we'll round out the National League teams with the New York Mets. While staying afloat in baseball's toughest division for awhile, the Mets fell apart around Labor Day. In to talk about it is Ricardo Gonzalez from Metsgeek:
What turned out to be this team's Achilles heel?
Though a talented team, the Mets had many Achilles' heels this year. The back-end of the bullpen gave us some problems, Willie Randolph had a rough rookie year, and Jose Reyes was seemingly unable to take ball four. But if I had to choose just one deficiency of the 2005 Mets, it would be without a question the production of the right side of the infield. Both Doug Mientkiewicz and the lethal combination of Miguel Cairo and Kaz Matsui provided the Mets with the worst production from first base and second base in the major leagues. If the Mets had been able to get just average production from those two positions, the team could very well be printing playoff tickets right now.
Well, considering that Paul Konerko is the best first baseman available in free agency, that's hard to say. I suppose that I would like to see Omar explore the trade market and see what's out there. As for second base, unless a better option presents itself, I think Kaz Matsui should be given another chance. If he fails, Anderson Hernandez and Jeff Keppinger are just a phone call away.
Who would you label as team MVP and LVP?
MVP: For a team that is fighting to reach .500, the Mets sure seem to have a lot of candidates for most valuable player, but because of his consistency and talent, no one deserves it more than David Wright. At the young age of 22, he's already one of the 10 best players in the NL and the scary part is that he's going to get better.
There have been a lot of good games this year, but none felt as good as the Mets' first win. Here's what I wrote about it when it happened:
This was one of those games in where the outcome defines the type of ballgame. If we lose, its another tough loss . If we win, it's a classic. And a classic it was. In a day where John Smoltz was at its nastiest, Pedro Martinez, Rey Pedro, delivered a performance so magnificent that is beyond adjectives. In a day where the Mets a clutch hit, Carlos Beltran, the matinee star, delivered the biggest hit of the year. In a day where the Mets needed to win, they won, and hope is still alive.
With the season on the line, the bases loaded, and Miguel Cabrera at the plate, Willie Randolph decided that it was time for Shingo Takatsu to make his Met debut. Not surprisingly, Cabrera to hit a bases clearing double just past Cliff Floyd in left field that not only sealed the game, but the Mets' season as well.
Lastly, we will finish with Aaron Gleeman, talking about the Minnesota Twins. After staying in the Wild Card race for most of the season, the Twins fell badly behind the division rival Indians in the last month. Here's Aaron's take on why...
What turned out to be this team's Achilles heel?
How do you hope Terry Ryan attacks this problem in the winter?
That's all, boys and girls. We'd like to thank our guests for visiting this week and sharing their thoughts. And for those of you out there with one of these four as your team, we apologize. And we feel for you...more than you know.
[Additional reader comments and retorts at Baseball Primer.]
Hot Doggin' It: A Peek Inside the Sausage Race Factory
Like most of us, my dreams of setting foot on a major-league baseball field died a painful, inglorious death in youth. In the spring of 1985, my name was left off the call-back list for my high school freshman baseball team. Mistakenly, I'd anticipated a bull market for good-field/no-hit futility infielders with outstanding hustle, decent plate discipline, and a working knowledge of the nascent field of sabermetrics. The coaches of East High's rookie squadron begged to differ, a decision that no doubt haunts them to this day.
Twenty years later, however, I did make it onto a major league baseball field, and in a manner that even some big-leaguers would envy: I ran the Sausage Race at Miller Park. With my wife Andra and an entourage of six others -- including her parents Aaron and Aune, celebrating their 40th wedding anniversary on that very day -- in tow, I made my major league debut as 20,000 cheering fans looked on, shouting my name in encouragement. Thirty-five-years old, two years removed from arthroscopic shoulder surgery, I made The Show at last.
The Sausage Race (officially the Brewers/Klements Racing Sausages) began in the early '90s as a scoreboard gimmick. Back when the Brewers played at County Stadium, three virtual sausages -- the Bratwurst (#1), the Polish Sausage (#2) and the Italian Sausage (#3) -- "ran" an animated race to the accompaniment of the "Chariots of Fire" theme at the end of the sixth inning. By the mid-'90s, the Hot Dog (#4) joined the lineup. But more importantly, the team which brought you the Bernie Brewer mascot sliding from a chalet perched in centerfield into a giant beer stein after a Brewer home run had come up with a new gimmick: for Sunday games, the mascots as we now know them -- over seven feet tall and made of foam -- would conclude the race after the animated portion, emerging from a gate in leftfield. In 2000, the team's final year at County Stadium, the "real" sausages ran every game, and the scoreboard element was consigned to the dustbin of history.
My father-in-law claims that the idea of actual racing "sausages" (instead of their video counterparts) may have come from him. There's the slightest possibility he's onto something. His son Adam, now my brother-in-law, worked for the Brewers in ticket sales in 1993 and 1994, and would have been capable of passing the idea along; years later, with no single person claiming credit for the "eureka" moment, a Brewers employee he met admitted that the idea came from the father of one of his fellow employees. Well, that's Pop Hardt's version of the story, and he's sticking to it.
Like all too many of the good things in life, landing a role in the Sausage Race takes a connection on the inside. Several years ago, when Andra returned to Milwaukee to continue her film career, she became friends with one Mike Zidanic. Last spring on a visit from New York City, she met Mike's brother Joe, the Brewers Controller and Director of Spring Training Operations. Andra told Joe about my website and my writing, and came away from the conversation with a business card and a promise that given two weeks notice, Joe could get me into the race the next time I was in town. As fate would have it, that next time was the weekend of my wedding back in May. Alas, the Brewers were on the road; otherwise our family and friends might have been treated to a rehearsal dinner with me in a seven-foot tall costume. Much to the relief of my mother, things didn't happen that way.
Andra's parents may have differed on that topic, however. Their pride in all things Wisconsin -- from the Badgers to the bratwursts to Summerfest to the spectacular art museum -- is strong, and Andra guessed right when she set the wheels in motion to get me into the race as part of the surprise, action-packed anniversary weekend she and her brothers had planned for her parents. They were truly tickled to have me providing some of the afternoon's entertainment by upholding a local tradition, one that the whole family would be talking about years from now. It's not as though they've never touched mascot greatness, however. Adam once got to bring the Bernie Brewer costume home from work, and photos of the occasion dot the Hardt household. I'm still not sure that doesn't trump my claim to foam-covered fame.
Normally I can't be separated from my scorebook when attending a ballgame. I keep score not only because I want a precise and personal record of what happened and what I saw on any given trip to the ballpark, but also because it keeps me tethered to the action. But knowing what I've signed up for, I've left my scorebook in New York City this time. It's hard enough getting a friend to cover when I take a refreshment break at a ballgame, but asking someone to score while I run the Sausage Race is too much, even of an in-law.
Besides, by the bottom of the first inning, I can tell that everyone in my entourage is just as distracted as I am. After the Brewers put two men on with nobody out against the Padres' Jake Peavy, the heart of the lineup -- Prince Fielder, Carlos Lee, and Geoff Jenkins -- all goes down swinging. Apparently, even the Brewer sluggers can't wait to see me run. A few shakes of the head are all we can muster.
And so we watch with only mild interest as Peavy and the Brewers' Doug Davis settle into a pitchers' duel as the innings fly by. The Padres score the game's first run in the third inning on a handful of singles and a bunt. At this point I realize that breakfast is a distant memory and that salted peanuts alone are not going to be enough to tide me over until my duty is done. Against the admonishments of my mother-in-law, I take my Family Day coupon for a free hot dog and small soda to the nearest concessions stand, load up on Secret Stadium Sauce, mustard and sauerkraut, and down my dog -- an impressively grilled frank that puts the Yankee Stadium fare to shame -- in about two minutes time. Alas, the entire bottom of the third and top of the fourth take scarcely longer (a combined 16 pitchers, I discover later), the hitters swinging early in the count like they've got a plane to catch.
My palms sweat as the bottom of the fourth approaches. Just nine more outs until I have to report for duty, my hot dog and soda now churning in my stomach. The Brewers put something together. Fielder leads off the inning by ripping a double down the rightfield line. Lee lines a single up the middle; Fielder freezes momentarily, and only reaches third base. On a 2-0 count, Jenkins hits a screaming one-hopper right to Xavier Nady, the Padre first baseman, who's close to the bag as he holds Lee on. He steps on first, then, almost with a look of astonishment that I can see from the upper deck, throws home. Fielder tries to score, doing so with a style that suggests Refrigerator Perry smuggling a Thanksgiving Turkey into his bedroom while his relatives load their plates with stuffing. Uh-uh. It's his second baserunning mistake of the inning. Fielder lowers his head and collides with Padre catcher Miguel Olivo, who holds onto the ball. Out. Two pitches later, Lee and Hall advance as Olivo's throw back to the mound eludes Peavy. The powerful Russell Branyan is intentionally walked to load the bases to face weak-hitting Chad Moeller, who promply pops out to end the threat.
The next inning sails by, and soon Andra walks me down to Guest Services, on the first level behind home plate. Joe is there to meet me, and two of my fellow participants are there as well: Kip Elliot, Chief Financial Officer for the Minnesota Twins, and Matt McKenzie, a writer for Street & Smith's Sports Annuals. Joe greets us, then quickly hands us off to Chris Peck, officially the supervisor of the Brew Crew, the in-game hospitality staff which runs the ballpark's between-innings festivities. Later I learn that Chris likes to refer to himself as the VP of Mascot Affairs to impress the ladies.
Joe tells Kip's wife and Andra to stay nearby so that he can get them onto the field to shoot photos when the moment arrives. Chris guides us down into the bowels of Miller Park, along the bare cement industrial concourse that rings the field. Doors to offices, clubhouses and storage rooms open off the concourse; there's even a mini concessions window with what must be employee prices listed on a small plastic sign: "Hot dog, $1.50." Kip, Matt and I make small talk amongst ourselves as we're led down a hallway to the Sausage locker room. Around us, a buzz of ushers, concessionaires, maintenance and ground crews go about their business.
It's not even as glamorous as you'd expect. The four huge costumes lie face up on a concrete floor bare except for a heap of four smaller sausage costumes. It's Sunday, and as Chris has explained, that means this race is actually a relay, with the four big weenies running their appointed routes from partway down the leftfield line, around the dirt behind home plate and to the Brewer dugout on the first base side, where we'll tag our little weenie counterparts, who finish the race by running all of about 20 yards.
Before we do anything, Chris passes around a clipboard. Each of us required to sign a waiver indemnifying the Brewers and their employees should anything happen to us in the race. Nobody gives the waiver a second thought as we sign our disability payments away while sizing each other and our costumes up. We're all rookies at this, and none of us has any real preference as to which sausage we'll represent. I had gone into the weekend thinking Bratwurst, perhaps a simple Pavlovian reaction to the word "Milwaukee," but the thought of lederhosen, fake though they may be, is too much. Thinking of the quality frank I'd ingested a few innings before, the ease of punning around with the title ("Top Dog," "I Wanna Be Your Dog," "Frankly, My Dear"...), and a bit of doggerel my grandfather used to recite ("A loaf of bread, a pound of meat, and all the mustard you can eat..."), I pick the Hot Dog. With an eye towards strategy, I note that it's also the smallest costume, which makes sense as I'm the shortest of the three of us. Matt, who stands about 6'3", takes the Italian, the other short one -- a completely opposite strategy from mine. Kip takes the Bratwurst, leaving the Polish for our mystery guest, who we're told is a TV announcer for the Padres.
We study our costumes, attempting to stand them up and watching them crumple (they're soft at the base) as Chris runs down what to expect: the costumes are hot, but we won't have them on for more than a few minutes; we'll carry them down to the leftfield gate, a good schlep for these contraptions, which appear to weigh about 30 pounds; you can't see much through the mesh screen; you can't lift your arms very far; you don't want to lean too far forward or you'll tip over; please don't tip over, because it costs us about $5,000 to clean a costume; keep running after you tag your little partner, because we have to be off the field in 90 seconds.
It's a lot to digest, and so Chris keeps hitting some of these points as we carry our costumes back down the hallway and onto the concourse. As we do, a vehicle -- a golf cart without its top or a set of clubs, perhaps -- whizzes by. It's Derrick Turnbow, the Brewers' scraggly closer, headed down to the bullpen now that the fifth inning has ended. Turnbow can't even be bothered to turn his head at the sight of us, but then he's probably seen this very sight some 70 times this year.
A few steps along the concourse and Chris has recruited Marty Hagedorn, a younger employee wearing a navy blue t-shirt with the words "Brew Crew" on the back. Marty is to carry the Polish costume down to the gate, and if the mystery guest doesn't show up, to run the race himself. No sweat; Marty tells us he won on Saturday, running as the Hot Dog. In the absence of "celebrities" like us, Brewers employees often get to race themselves.
As we pass the entrance to the visitors clubhouse, a stocky, bald man comes hustling in from the other direction. It's Mark Grant, the Padres color analyst and a former major league pitcher. He's going to change into short and a t-shirt and will meet us at the gate. Meanwhile, Kip, Matt, and I have reached a gentleman's agreement on strategy. Rather than risk injury or embarrassment to ourselves or each other, we're treating our upcoming race less as a competitive affair than as a "Sunday jog." With the kids involved, we've decided to keep things close so that they can decide the final outcome.
Finally, we reach the entrance to the gate, where two big doors swing open to let us in. To the left of us is the paramedic cart, manned by two stern-faced medics, one of whom is reading a newspaper. To the right is the batting-practice cage, where we lean the costumes upside-down. Through the gate is Brewers leftfielder Carlos Lee watching as Doug Davis retires the Padres 1-2-3. I look through the chain-link fence as Chris continues with his advice: the dirt we'll be running on is loose, and it changes in consistency near home plate, so don't be alarmed; watch out for stray bats near the on-deck circles; the costumes are top-heavy, so please don't tip over.
Grant shows up, bursting with energy and enthusiasm. Husky at 42, he certainly looks more athletic than the rest of us, though we're all plausibly in shape. He tells Chris of his plan to mix it up with Padres reserve Robert Fick as he runs by the visitors dugout. Chris turns white as a ghost. "Please don't," he pleads, motioning to Elliot, "Or else I'm going to have to hit up this guy for a job. Don't."
Tangling with the players is no laughing matter, not since the fateful day two summers ago when Pirates first baseman Randall Simon catapulted the the race into the forefront of the sporting nation's consciousness by hitting the Italian Sausage (worn by one Mandy Block, a "Brew Crew" employee) with a bat. The blow caused the Hot Dog (worn by Veronica Piech) to fall as well, causing both young ladies scrapes and bruises. A county sheriff arrested Simon after the ballgame on a charge of disorderly conduct, handcuffing him and booking him at the Milwaukee County jail. Simon was released but fined $432. He paid and apologized, but his career, marginal enough as it was, became a migrant one as well. A month after the incident, he was traded to the Cubs, helping them down the stretch and nearly to the World Series. But he split last season with the Pirates and the Devil Rays, hitting a meager .188 with three homers, and drawing releases from both clubs. After tearing up the Mexican League earlier this year, he's presumably pounding the sausage somewhere else.
As Chris pleads, all I have to say is "Randall Simon" before Grant concedes the point. There will be no tomfoolery, at least no more than usual. The message is clear: mess with this particular sausage party, and you'll be a pariah.
Chris advises us to stretch and our quartet begins to limber up, mindful of our shoulders, backs, hamstrings, calves, and groin muscles. Nobody needs a trip to the DL for this, we remind each other, repeating our "Sunday jog" mantra. The medics watch us, their icy glares reminding that they have little desire to cart anybody off the field, especially a non-player.
As they glare, a ball comes whizzing into leftfield, ricocheting with a loud bang off of the outfield wall as Padres leftfielder Damian Jackson retrieves it. Brewer second baseman Bill Hall has whacked a double, scoring Geoff Jenkins to tie the game. Both hits come off of Chris Hammond, who has relieved Peavy after five innings. The home crowd is getting worked up into a frenzy. From the second deck directly above us, two fans call out, "Which one of you is the Hot Dog?" I raise my hand. "Kick some ass, Hot Dog," he screams, clearly a couple beers ahead of the rest of us. I give the fans a thumbs-up.
Chris has told us not to suit up until there's one out in the home half of the sixth, but with the Brewers mid-rally, who knows when that will be? Brewer manager Ned Yost sends up a pinch-hitter for Russell Branyan in Wes Helms, prompting Padre manager Bruce Bochy to counter with reliever Clay Hensley. As Hensley warms up, I whip out my cell phone to call Andra, relaying the message that I'm the Hot Dog and telling her to spread the word to the family. Helms takes the at-bat to a full count before lofting a fly ball to shallow right, deep enough to score Hall from third base, where he advanced on the previous throw home. It's 2-1 Brewers, and the crowd has reached a fever pitch.
It's also time to suit up, and the four of us turn away from the gate and towards our costumes. I feel like an astronaut about to don my spacesuit, but I'm wrong. There's no way a spacesuit can be less cooperative. I watch as Matt struggles to put his costume on, laughing nervously at his expense. Looking into the costume, I'm reminded of a scene in Home Movie, a Chris Smith documentary Andra and I had watched on my laptop in flight. One couple has bought an abandoned missile silo in Kansas and converted it to an subterranean home; Smith shows several shots down the cylindrical tunnels that remind me what I'm viewing here, the top of my costume seemingly 15 feet away.
It takes me two tries to get into the costume straight enough so that my head goes through the shoulder harness. My arms are pinned to my sides, and I worry about my surgically repaired shoulder as I struggle and twist my way into uniform. Finally, I'm in, but even as I struggle to balance myself standing up, that's the least of my problems. Now I can't see a damn thing.
The costumes each have a circle of mesh just below the characters' necklines. The mesh is colored white, and the holes are very small. In direct sunlight, the effect is literally blinding; it's necessary to create an artificial visor by cupping my hands in front of the mesh, just to get my bearings. To say that I can really see is a stretch; suddenly the danger inherent in this endeavor is much more palpable than before. As Hensley strikes out Moeller and Davis to end the inning, I get that much more of a reminder when the gate swings open, nearly clocking me even as I'm looking straight ahead.
Chris instructs us to head down the foul line to the notch where the warning track inside the field of play ends. My adrenaline surges. The sun beats directly down on us, and it's difficult to see. The crowd is on its feet, trumpets herald our place at the starting line, and the PA announcer introduces each one of us to the cheers of 20,000 fans. I've got the inside position, next to Polish, German, and Italian, hoping that this gives me an advantage.
A gunshot sounds over the PA and we're off. Polish Sausage clearly didn't get the memo about the Sunday jog, and gets about 10 paces ahead of the field before the rest of us know what's hit us -- I'm left wondering if Grant greenied up in the Padre clubhouse.
As we choke on Polish's dust, the other three of us are neck-and neck-until Italian Sausage makes his move. German Sausage responds by giving him a wider berth, stumbling as he does so. Our empty heads collide; we trade paint. I'm not sure if it's my fault, so I bark out a rather sorry "Sorry!" without breaking stride. By the time we've passed the Padre dugout, I've got sole possession of third place, but a good ten paces behind Italian and another ten behind Polish.
As we round the home plate bend, I maintain my lead over German, but by then Polish has already tagged his partner. Lost cause. Italian tags, and his partner, the fastest of us all, nearly closes the gap before the little Polish crosses the tape. By then I've tagged my partner, slapping a hollow-headed little Hot Dog as she runs her way to third-place glory. We've been instructed to keep running through the tag because we have to get off the field ASAP, though Polish and German have stopped. As I tag I see Andra, video camera in hand, but I can't even stop to talk as we're hustled off the field still nipping at the heels of the little weiners. Some people get 15 minutes of fame; our entire race is done under 45 seconds.
Still, it's a hero's welcome we receive at the rightfield gate as we jog off the field and onto the concourse. Struggling out of our costumes, we shake hands with each other, hug our wives, and high-five our relay partners; mine's a cute brunette girl of about eight named Sabrina, who's apparently looking forward to regaining her two front teeth. I've had the costume on for all of five minutes, but I'm drenched with sweat, charged with adrenaline. No, I didn't win, but the important thing was that I competed, and no one will ever be able to take that away.
Yes, I'm afraid so: when you run the Sausage Race, everyone's a weiner.
Jay Jaffe is the creator of the Futility Infielder website, an author of Baseball Prospectus, and a graphic designer who lives in New York City. He'd like to thank Joe Zidanic, Chris Peck and the Brew Crew for making his race day happen, the Hardt family for their love and support, and Nicole Hanson for providing the great race photos.
[Additional reader comments and retorts at Baseball Primer.]
In every sport, there are a few valuable commodities that owners find most important. In these certain situations, this commodity can take full control of the organization, pushing his weight around in every department. Because in the end, it's all a game of dollars and cents, and the owners know, superstars (sometimes even more than winning) pay the bills.
Basketball fans can attest to the influence that players like LeBron James and Kobe Bryant have in the front office. In football, Brett Favre proved that #4 was number one by all-but forcing Javon Walker to end holdout talks and come to camp. Major League Baseball has players that also believe their numbers should dictate in organizational decision making. Barry Bonds, whose importance to the Giants has not gone unstated, is that kind of player.
While it is way to early in the process to be putting him in that echelon, Delmon Young realizes he is en route to that category, and has already started the drama-queening. With Vince Naimoli slowly stepping away from the Tampa Bay limelight, Young saw a good time to criticize the organization that once made him the first overall draft pick. Young's threats -- one could surmise -- are simply an attempt to get through to the new ownership, and make them realize change is needed. For gosh sakes, here they have the potential savior of the franchise already counting down his days until free agency.
Chuck Lamar is as good as gone. While GMs like Dan O'Dowd and Dave Littlefield sit on the hot seat, at this point, Lamar might as well begin packing up his belongings. With rumors of skilled rebuilder Gerry Hunsicker interested, expect the Devil Rays to make a change at some point. Then, maybe then, Delmon gets his wish, and this team stops being so cheap.
Simply put, Young's comments should be taken as more of a call-to-attention than a direct threat. There is significant time for things to change in Tampa, and for this organization to stop being the one like destination on every limited-trade clause. In fact, given the Florida weather, state income tax policies and distance from Spring Training, one could even imagine the Devil Rays eventually becoming an attractive target. By then, Young should be a superstar, and given his current path, will be making even more outrageous demands.
It isn't hard to find flaws in how this organization was built. Scan any stat or transaction sheet since the expansion and you'll find mistakes worthy of criticism. Kevin Stocker for Bobby Abreu. Josh Hamilton. B.J. Upton's ever-non-changing position. Nowhere in there, however, will you find the handling of Delmon Young.
The 2005 Southern League MVP and Baseball America Player of the Year had a season he should be more than proud of. At the tender age of nineteen, and amidst huge expectations, Delmon had a fantastic run. Before leaving AA, he was damn near flawless. His contact skills were great, with a .336 average and a strikeout rate of just twenty percent. His huge power skills had produced 37 extra-base hits in 330 at-bats. He stole 25 bases, and was one of the league's best outfielders. The only remote trait worth criticizing was a walk rate (25 in 330 AB) that could have used improving.
When moving to the International League, however, it didn't improve...it got worse. In fact, in 52 games with the Durham Bulls, Young walked just four times. While people can hope that Young can make like Jeff Francoeur and get away with it, that isn't likely. Young's .303 OBP at AAA proved he was in a little bit over his teenage head. Furthermore, his stolen base success rate dropped, and his power began to revert to being more gap than home run. Despite having the talent to keep his head over water, Young was flailing.
There is no reason to promote Delmon Young for the month of September, following a less-than-spectacular AAA trial. He is, without doubt, close to the Majors, and will probably have a legitimate argument for a big league job out of Spring Training. However, his first exposure to this new type of lifestyle should not be destined for failure, as promoting a .303 OBP would suggest. Give Young time (yes, wait until about June of 2006) to further his discipline skills, while conveniently, waiting for that arbitration clock to begin to tick.
Stuart Sternberg might not see it that way. The new primary owner of the Devil Rays will likely see Young as a player that must be pleased...at all costs. If true, that leaves Devil Rays fans with one option: hope Delmon's attitude is far more influenced by B.J. Upton than Elijah Dukes. If not, the height and then plight of the Los Angeles Lakers (would this example make Upton our Shaq?) becomes Tampa's best comp.
All that, while ignoring the style from yesterday. In a more short-winded format than that from above as well as Tuesday, here is a look at the other award winners from AA on up:
Southern League Pitcher of the Year: Ricky Nolasco - Second year in AA, really tightened things up. Has emerged as a similar pitcher to Sergio Mitre, a versatile sinker/slider guy that could be everything from an innings-eater to a ROOGY. His great year still leaves him beyond a few Cubs pitching prospect -- and at least one Jaxx (Sean Marshall) -- on the organizational ladder.
Eastern League MVP: Mike Jacobs - Has gone onto make a name for himself at the Major League level, but only after leaving the EL in the top ten in each of the triple crown categories (1st in RBI). Jacobs has been fantastic since joining the Mets, showing the same power and better discipline than he had in Binghamton. Believe me, the club could do much worse than finding a left-handed bat to split time at first between Jacobs and Mike Piazza for 2006.
Eastern League Pitcher of the Year: Jon Lester - Few things make me more proud, as I believed in Lester's breakout before the 2005 season more than any other player. Lester's season was fantastic, probably the best of any prospect in a now-loaded Boston system. But like last year, if you take out the first couple starts, the season looks even better. They gotta het him going earlier next year, and who knows, by midseason, he should be contributing.
Eastern League Rookie of the Year: Chris Roberson - I'll give him this, I definitely didn't believe in him. After a good FSL season in 2004, I thought Roberson was nothing but a fluke. He now appears to be more than that, a good centerfielder with a solid mix of speed and power. His K/BB numbers must get better -- and he must continue to make himself look better than Michael Bourn and Greg Golson -- but for once, you'll hear my say that Roberson has a chance of making an impact in this organization.
Texas League MVP: Andre Ethier - Two points for whoever saw this coming. After a nice career at Arizona State followed by a modest introduction to professional baseball, Ethier likely made himself a part of Billy Beane's plans for the future of this organization. In a sense, reminds me of current 'A' Jay Payton, who was drafted high after playing at Georgia Tech. His AA season in 1995? .345/.397/.535. Ethier's? .319/.385/.497. Payton showed better contact skills, while Ethier is more disciplined. Similar power as well as speed in the outfield should give Ethier a similar career path.
Texas League Pitcher of the Year: Jason Hirsh - I truly believe that Hirsh was headed to be a good 2005 Rule 5 pick before he kept on just coming along. I noticed him early in the year and made a note about his upcoming Rule 5 eligibility, which should fall by the wayside after the Astros add him to the 40-man roster. Hirsh vs. Fernando Nieve makes for an interesting argument, and while Hirsh probably comes up short, it isn't by as much as you would think.
International League MVP: Shane Victorino - Not really a prospect, but turning out to be a damn good Rule 5 pick. Victorino added a power spike to his game this year, while showing a little less speed. Still, with good contact and discipline skills, mixed with a touch of power and the ability to play the outfield, and Victorino looks destined for a fourth outfielder slot.
International League Pitcher of the Year: Zach Duke - Like Jacobs, now famous after a great debut to the Majors. Duke's season may be in question because of a small injury and heavy workload, which should bode well for his future. In his few starts this year, Duke showed a knack for changing speeds and confusing hitters. He figures heavily in the Pirates' rebuilding plan.
International League Rookie of the Year: Francisco Liriano - Another proud award winner of mine, because like Lester, he was a breakout selection. Liriano's fantastic year makes him one of the top five pitching prospects in the minors, and a contestant in the second-to-King Felix argument. He throws the ball with a ton of movement, and a ton of philosophy. Throwing Liriano and Johan Santana on back-to-back days will be fantastic for this organization.
Pacific Coast League MVP: Andy Green - The Rick Short of the West. Give the park some credit and his age some credit, but admit to me, this guy should be getting some ML at-bats, no? Naysayers will point to an awful 100 at-bats last year, but overall, Green would be a good option for this team. He is good especially as a bench player, where his versatility and bat will help.
PCL Pitcher and Rookie of the Year: Felix Hernandez - The best of the bunch, save maybe only Delmon Young. What could be said about Hernandez already has, so I just want to say this: no rookie in the last 20 years has started quite like King Felx. But like Duke, the Mariners wouldn't exactly be stupid if they shut their star right-hander out for the year.
The Unsexy Awards
Few awards in minor league baseball are more revered and respected than Baseball America's Player of the Year. Since the award began, such players as Jose Canseco, Frank Thomas, Manny Ramirez, Derek Jeter and Andruw Jones have won before going onto great careers. The magazine attempts to pick a winner based upon 2005 performance multiplied (unmathmatically, of course) with future value.
What plays second fiddle in the MiLB award process is the various awards handed out by each league in the minors. Most of the time leagues hand out both MVP and Pitcher of the Year awards (sometimes Rookie of the Year, or Most Outstanding Prospect as well) to players. These players are often middle-of-the-road prospects that end up lost in rankings, nearly ignored for their great 2005 seasons.
Over the next two days, I want to pay homage to the 23 players that won full season awards in minor league baseball, as well as trying to find their place in the prospect landscape. Today we begin with the 11 players in A-ball that won awards, and tomorrow we will finish with the AA and AAA winners.
South Atlantic League MVP: Matt Miller
In 2004, it was Rockie prospect Ian Stewart that victimized South Atlantic League hitters in Asheville, tearing up the league to the tune of .319/.398/.594. Ultimately the former first rounder lost out in the MVP trophy race, but the Tourists were repaid as Miller avenged Stewart's loss in 2005. A 2004 13th round draft pick, Miller was chosen from tiny Texas State University, following a huge .387/.444/.580 final season. This season Miller continued with gaudy numbers, hitting .331/.375/.575 en route to a late-season promotion to help the Cal League team in the playoffs. Miller's skill set is mostly offensive, where he mixes good contact skills (only 71 K in 508 AB) with substantial power (34 doubles, 30 home runs). Miller, as could be expected from being drafted from such a small school, is a little raw everywhere else, with a well-below average walk rate and not fantastic defense. Basically, he's very similar to Colorado's second-round pick in 2005, Daniel Carte, who was profiled well by John Sickels yesterday. Miller has a long way to go before being a good prospect, but for now, you can bet the Rockies are drooling at the possibilities of bringing that power to the Rockie mountains.
South Atlantic League POY: Ray Liotta
Lost in the shuffle likely because of Gio Gonzalez, Ray Liotta is more than a celebrity namesake. In fact, when it's all said and done, people might ask, "Ray Liotta the actor, or the ballplayer?" A southpaw that left Tulane for the junior college landscape, Liotta is a pitcher of the rare variety: strikeouts and groundballs. While in Kannapolis, Liotta had a K/9 over 8.00, while his GB/FB was very close to 2.00. In fact, in six of his twenty starts in the South Atlantic League, Liotta provoked more than ten groundball outs. His three-pitch arsenal held up when he moved to the Carolina League in late-July, as the southpaw had a 1.45 ERA in eight regular season starts. Liotta's mixture of control (51 BB in 165 IP) and movement (6 HR allowed) make him a can't miss prospect in a solid system...even if he's a far cry from Gio.
South Atlantic League Most Outstanding Prospect: Hunter Pence
Like Liotta, Pence managed to win a Sally League award without staying the entire year, also leaving the league for the Carolina League in late July. Also like Liotta, his success continued as he moved up the ladder, proving to be worthy of his promotion. Pence began the year like few other players, and it was only an injury that slowed down his torrid pace. He ended up hitting 25 homers in just 302 SAL at-bats, while also showing contact and patience skills. His huge frame and ability to play center field make Pence a very good prospect. However, he was old for his league this season, after (like Matt Miller) being drafted from a small Texas college. Expecting similar numbers in the future would be too much of the Astros, but by 2008, they could very well have a big, patient, powerful starting centerfielder on their hands. Even if he's 25.
Midwest League MVP: Carlos Gonzales
Similar to Miguel Montero, Carlos Gonzales was lost amidst a deep Arizona system before the 2005 season. However, his play in the Midwest League has catapulted Gonzales into the Diamondbacks' top ten, and gained respect from various Midwest League insiders and observers. Gonzales teams fantastic defensive value with solid offensive tools across the board. Not fantastic, by any means, but there are no clear weaknesses. Contact? Check, .300+ average and below 100 strikeouts in more than 500 at-bats. Patience? 48 walks in about 550 plate appearances isn't ideal, but for a 19-year-old, it's fantastic. Power? Oh yes, as his 52 extra-base hits attest. Below the top Diamondback prospects lies a great deal of B- to B+ players, such as Gonzales, Montero, Mock, Nippert, Zeringue, Carter, Owings, and others. Not a single player from that group has the upside that Gonzales gave us a taste of this season.
Florida State League MVP: Brent Clevlen
It was a do-or-die year for Brent Clevlen, the former second-round pick of the Detroit Tigers. With a bad year in the FSL, Clevlen would have likely been left off the Detroit 40-man roster, and would have been susceptible to being drafted in the Rule 5 Draft in December. In 2004, Clevlen was lost in the FSL, showing only a semblance of power and patience amidst some of the league's worst contact skills. One would think, "oh what a difference a year makes." However, the same rings true today, as Clevlen only moderately improved his ISO (.046 points) and ISoP (.009 points). His big year was a result of a much-improved batting average that likely can thank a .360 BABIP. Clevlen's contact skills should always prevent him from becoming a good prospect, and the volatility of his BABIP will determine how good each year goes for him. Baby steps were made in the contact department this year, but that's it. For what it's worth, I would have Clevlen third on my ballot, behind Matt Kemp and Adam Lind.
Florida State League POY: Jordan Tata
Undoubtedly the more deserving of the two Lakeland players, Tata had a fantastic season in the FSL. In fact -- and I bet you'll hear me say this again -- Tata had the year Garrett Mock tried to have in California. Both players mix OK strikeout numbers (134 K in 155 IP) with good groundball rates, and both are workhorses with solid control. Tata was a bit old for the FSL at 23 this season, and will face a real test when moving to Erie next season. You can bet that HR/9 rate will jump a little bit, and considering it wasn't great last year, it could even become a problem next season. Tata mixes good size with solid stuff and good pitchability, making him a good third pitching prospect behind Justin Verlander and Joel Zumaya. However, he still has much to prove, and a trip to one of the minors' toughest parks next yearshould prove where Tata belongs on the prospect totem pole.
Carolina League MVP: Leo Daigle
It's not a sexy choice, that's for sure, but it's the right one. Despite leaving the league after just 108 games, Daigle was a presence to win the Carolina League triple crown. In his time in Winston-Salem, Daigle dominated, hitting .341/.414/.637 with 50 walks in 411 at-bats. Sure, us prospect hounds would have liked to see Kory Casto or Jarrod Saltalamacchia win the trophy, but Daigle was the deserving choice. A move to the International League proved to be WAY too much for the 25-year-old, whose OPS dropped below .600 in AAA. He's simply a worse prospect than Casey Rogowski in his own system, and will likely follow the career path of players like Joe Dillon, receiving cups of coffee only when his numbers are really gaudy.
Carolina League POY: James Johnson
Another player on the bubble, Johnson was a bad year away from one of two fates: the bullpen or the Rule 5 draft. He avoided both with a fantastic year in the Carolina League, one in which he had career highs in most categories. Still his ERA was worse than it was in 2004, despite improvements in nearly every peripheral. His one regression was in the walks department, in which his BB/9 went from 2.53 to 3.61. If this came at the cost of improved stuff, you can bet the Orioles are willing to let Johnson's newfound control issues develop at their own pace. I was unimpressed with Johnson's arsenal at the Futures Game, where he struggled with both his breaking stuff and velocity.
California League ROY: Billy Butler
Oh, what a debut! Seriously, do first years get any better than this? When the Royals selected Butler, it was viewed in Kansas City as Daniel Glass taking another shortcut with a draft day bargain. They had been down that road before. However, Butler proved that school of thought wrong this year, showing hitting skills far more advanced than your average teenager. Butler has already been moved from third base to left field, and it wouldn't surprise me if after that, he makes the move to first base. I've made the comparison before, but Butler is simply Jim Thome waiting to happen. Ignore the problems with athleticism and realize that Butler's bat will dominate the middle of the Royals lineup for as long as he's under contract. Sure, High Desert was a good place to begin his career, but this kid could hit in any field in America...just give him a bat.
California League POY: Jared Wells
Yuck, really? How does Wells win this award despite horrible peripherals, when Garrett Mock led the league in innings, strikeouts, and stayed in the top ten in ERA. Instead, voters went with Wells, the league leader in ERA. Earlier this season, I made the comparison between Wells and Ryan Franklin, both defense dependant pitchers that like Brent Clevlen offensively, will go up and down based on their BABIP. I guessed Wells ERA would go over 3.50 again before the end of the season, which the Padres organization prevented by promoting Wells to the Southern League. There, Wells struggled, allowing 51 hits in 43 innings while striking out just 22 en route to a 4.40 ERA in seven AA starts. Wells could build a back-of-the-rotation career much like Franklin has, but that's simply if the ball bounces his way.
California League MVP: Brandon Wood
Last but certainly not least, I wanted to close today with Brandon Wood. As I said earlier, the Baseball America Player of the Year award attempts to combine 2005 performance with perceived future value. Because of this, Delmon Young was able to steal the 2005 award away from Brandon Wood. In actuality, it was Wood's 100+ extra-base hit season that was worthy of award, not Young, whose chances were hurt by a midseason promotion.
In 2003, I feverishly disagreed with Baseball America when they gave Joe Mauer the Player of the Year award. Jeremy Reed had flirted with .400 for much of the season, and Reed had clearly been the minors' best player that year. To me, he was worthy of the award in 2003. Last year, both my system and BA's system agreed upon Jeff Francis. This season we will again end in disagreement, as I believe Brandon Wood was the minor league baseball player of the year.
Wood's future is a little murkier than Delmon's, to be sure, but his 2005 season was damn near flawless. Sure, you can attack his environment and non-perfect patience numbers, but Wood more than made up for that. Add his premium position into the mix, and out comes one of the top ten prospects in baseball. Wood has created a SS debate -- Joel Guzman, Stephen Drew, Wood -- that should go on all offseason. Finally, he has likely created debate within his own organization, where the Angels have to put up with Omar Cabrera for three more seasons.
Few players in minor league baseball history had a season like Brandon Wood in 2005. We can't provide perspective to his numbers by using historical context, but simply put, Wood was the minors most lethal hitter in 15 years. That, my friends, is a lot more deserving than just a Cal League MVP trophy.
Weav Only Just Begun
Jered Weaver was credited with the victory on Thursday night as the Arkansas Travelers swept the Tulsa Drillers three games to none to win the Texas League's Eastern Division Championship. The Travelers will face the Midland RockHounds, who defeated the San Antonio Missions in a best-of-five series 3-1, for the Texas League Championship beginning Monday.
The Travelers (Angels) and RockHounds (A's) are battling it out just like their parent ballclubs. In addition to Weaver, Arkansas sports future major leaguers Erick Aybar, Howie Kendrick, and Kendry Morales, while Midland counters with Daric Barton, Dallas Braden, Kevin Melillo, and Jason Windsor, the 2004 College World Series MVP. Windsor (Cal State Fullerton) and Weaver (Long Beach State) know each other well from their days dueling for the Big West championship.
Weaver pitched six innings, allowing a like number of hits, three runs, and two walks, while striking out nine for the third consecutive game. The College Player of the Year in 2004 improved his record with Arkansas to 4-3 and is now 8-4 on the season with a 3.95 ERA.
The 6-foot-7, 205-pound right-hander has had an up and down first year, showing flashes of brilliance and even dominance. However, he has yet to build back his arm strength and has only completed seven innings once this year.
Weaver didn't sign with the Angels until May 30, minutes before he would have been forced to go back in the 2005 First Year Player Draft. He reported to Rancho Cucamonga (High-A) a week later, worked out for about ten days, and made his professional debut on June 20. After struggling in his first three starts, Weaver won four consecutive games while limiting opponents to nine hits, four walks, and six runs (four earned) in 23 2/3 innings. He struck out 36 batters (or more than 1.5/IP) during this streak, capping his California League experience with a seven-inning, one-hit, ten-strikeout performance in a 1-0 win over Inland Empire.
I pieced together the following game logs from the box scores:
IP H R ER BB SO HR GO FO BF 6/20/05 3.0 3 1 1 2 4 0 2 3 14 -- 6/25/05 2.1 5 4 4 0 5 1 0 2 12 (L, 0-1) 6/30/05 4.0 8 7 5 1 4 1 1 6 20 -- 7/05/05 5.0 2 2 0 0 7 0 1 7 19 (W, 1-1) 7/11/05 5.2 3 3 3 1 8 1 3 6 21 (W, 2-1) 7/16/05 6.0 3 1 1 1 11 0 3 3 22 (W, 3-1) 7/21/05 7.0 1 0 0 2 10 0 3 7 23 (W, 4-1) ----------------------------------------------------------------- 7/26/05 4.0 7 4 3 1 2 1 3 7 21 -- 7/31/05 6.0 3 1 0 2 6 0 2 11 24 (W, 1-0) 8/06/05 5.0 6 4 4 4 6 1 2 7 25 (L, 1-1) 8/12/05 4.0 7 5 5 3 6 2 2 3 21 -- 8/18/05 6.2 5 2 2 4 2 0 6 12 29 (W, 2-1) 8/24/05 6.0 4 0 0 1 6 0 1 11 23 (W, 3-1) 8/29/05 5.1 6 4 4 3 9 1 3 4 25 (L, 3-2) 9/03/05 6.0 5 2 1 1 9 0 2 6 24 (L, 3-3) 9/08/05 6.0 6 3 3 2 9 2 5 3 25 (W, 4-3)
Although three of Weaver's first four starts at Arkansas were nothing to write home about, the four-million-dollar man has bounced back in his last five outings to record a 3.00 ERA while striking out 35 batters in 30 innings. In the department of good news/bad news, Weaver has struck out at least one batter per inning in 14 of his 16 starts but has gotten more outs via the air than the ground in all but two starts.
H/9 SO/9 K/BF BB/9 K/BB G/F HR/9 WHIP ERA 8.12 11.41 0.30 3.07 3.71 0.40 1.10 1.24 3.95
Most impressively, Weaver has struck out 11.41 batters per nine innings, equal to 30% of the batters he has faced this year. However, his 0.40 G/F ratio is off the charts in the other direction. To wit, if Jered had these same stats in the majors this year, he would be the most prolific strikeout and flyball pitcher in the game.
MLB, TOP TEN K/9 IP
K/9 K/BF G/F Mark Prior 10.00 .267 0.94 Jake Peavy 9.98 .278 1.17 Johan Santana 9.24 .259 0.93 John Lackey 8.93 .231 1.37 Pedro Martinez 8.77 .251 0.82 Jason Schmidt 8.61 .218 0.93 Randy Johnson 8.51 .229 1.21 Brett Myers 8.40 .225 1.41 John Patterson 8.38 .227 0.62 A.J. Burnett 8.38 .223 2.60
MLB, BOTTOM TEN G/F
G/F K/9 John Patterson 0.62 8.38 Scott Elarton 0.65 5.52 Eric Milton 0.67 6.03 Chris Young 0.69 7.62 Cliff Lee 0.75 6.56 Pedro Martinez 0.82 8.77 Bronson Arroyo 0.83 4.62 Woody Williams 0.83 6.13 Tim Wakefield 0.85 5.87 Runelvys Hernandez 0.87 5.22 Ben Sheets 0.87 8.10
I realize the above comparisons are not "apples to apples." They are meant to add perspective in terms of profiling Weaver more than anything else. As an extreme strikeout/flyball type pitcher, Jered most closely resembles John Patterson among today's starters. I hesitate to suggest that his upside could be Mark Prior, but one would have to be oblivious to the facts to think otherwise. His downside appears to be Chris Young. I admit, that's a wide range but they represent reasonable ceilings and floors for Weaver, depending upon whether he makes the proper adjustments or not.
As I have pointed out in the past on more than one occasion, there is no denying that Prior has better mechanics and stuff than Weaver. Nonetheless, their college stats were eerily similar--even when adjusted for competition and park effects--and they both possess good command and control while having the ability to strike out batters.
Weaver, more likely than not, will wind up being somewhere between Prior and Young. Think Patterson or a right-handed Cliff Lee. I even made the case for Ben Sheets 18 months ago and was ridiculed for reaching so low. Well, that was before the product of the University of Louisiana at Monroe (formerly known as Northeast Louisiana University) pitched a one-hitter, struck out 18 batters in another game, and fashioned a 2.70 ERA, 0.98 WHIP, and 264 Ks during 2004.
Jered's height gives him an advantage by allowing the former two-time All-American the ability to throw on a downward plane. That said, he clearly needs to work at or near the knees more often and preferably add more sink to his two-seam fastball. A power pitcher, Weaver favors his four seamer while mixing it up with his breaking ball and change-up. Like his brother Jeff, Weaver works in the low-90s but his big turn and length can make batters feel as if he is bringing it a couple MPH faster than what the gun says.
The soon-to-be-23-year-old is scheduled to pitch for the Surprise Scorpions in the Arizona Fall League. His teammates will include current Travs Kendrick and Morales as well as his fellow former Quake Brandon Wood, who led the minors in home runs and doubles this year. At the end of August, Morales was ranked first on Baseball America's Prospect Hot Sheet, Wood was second, and Kendrick fourth.
So much of life ahead
It Was Forty Years Ago Today...
Sandy Koufax pitched a perfect game against the Chicago Cubs at Dodger Stadium on September 9, 1965. My Dad was in the press box that evening, covering the game for the Long Beach Independent, Press-Telegram. He was also the official scorekeeper. As it turned out, Dad didn't have to make any judgment calls that night (other than ruling an overthrow by Cubs catcher Chris Krug an error). All he really needed to know was how to record various outs in the scorebook, especially those marked by the letter "K" (as in Koufax).
In the "Best of George Lederer," I bring you another anniversary special from his archives. Here is the article exactly as it appeared in the Long Beach newspaper the following day.
NO HITS, NO WALKS, NO NUTHIN' Perfect Game for Koufax! By GEORGE LEDERER
In the notes section at the end of the article, in what Dad termed "DIS AND DATA," he added, "Koufax struck out 10 or more for the 79th time in his career and 18th time this season, both major league records." An excerpt of the National League standings, titled "The Great Race," was included in the body of the article. The Dodgers (80-61), who went on to win the World Series in 1965, were tied for second place with the Cincinnati Reds (80-61), 1/2 game behind the San Francisco Giants (79-59). The Milwaukee Braves (77-62) and Pittsburgh Pirates (77-66) were in fourth and fifth place, respectively.
Although there were only 29,000 people in the ballpark "and a million butterflies" as Vin Scully so beautifully called it, I'm sure there are hundreds of thousands who now claim they were there. I had always thought the low turnout for a Koufax start in a pennant race in September was owing to the Watts riots the previous month, but the Dodgers drew 53,581 and 48,576 vs. the Giants on the Monday and Tuesday before Sandy's perfecto. The crowd dipped to 21,918 for a Houston Astros game the following Sunday, but it never fell below 30,000 the rest of the year (a period which included a ten-game final homestand against the Cardinals, Reds, and Braves) and exceeded 55,000 for all three World Series games vs. the Minnesota Twins.
Unfortunately, I wasn't one of the fans in attendance that night, but it sure is fun to relive the game 40 years later. Thanks, Sandy. Thanks, Dad.
When I was five years old, we had this Saturday morning tradition. Dad would take me and my two-year-old brother Barry to 7-Eleven, or Schepps, for something out of the ice cream freezer. I think I usually went with a Banana Fudgsicle, Barry one of those orange Push-Ups, or maybe a Drumstick.
There were four games in town in the mid-70s, one of which was king. My parents were religious Dallas Cowboy fans (not that that distinction made them even remotely unique in these parts). Fall Sundays were devoted to football, usually at our house or the Donskys', with Halleck's chicken, chips and El Fenix queso, and Pepsi as the everyday lineup, and a mess of all kinds of other stuff in rotation around it.
Pulling up to Schepps on one of those Saturday mornings, I asked Dad how many Cowboy players he knew personally. Upon learning that the answer was zero I questioned why he cared so much whether Dallas won. I have no recollection what his answer was. But the question, and the parking space we pulled into while my question hung in the air, are etched permanently in my memory.
There were also the Texas Rangers and Dallas Tornado and Dallas Blackhawks. The latter two were never televised. The Rangers were televised roughly once a week, which made them no different from the Cowboys in that respect. They were different in just about every other possible way, though. Rather than serve as the focal point of the day, the televised Ranger game, if anything, was generally background scenery while we got ready to go swimming somewhere.
My most vivid memories of Ranger games on TV in the mid-70s involve Mark Fidrych firing a gem against Texas (while at either the Kreislers' or Bruckners' house, waiting to swim); Eric Soderholm driving in a game-winner against Texas in the ninth (ruining my mood as I dove into the pool at the Viroslavs'); and Willie Horton hitting three home runs in a game (while at Grandma and Papa's, about to head to the pool). I have it stuck in my mind that Adrian Devine pitched in the game that Horton went nuts in.
When I was seven, we graduated from weekly ice cream to a pack of Topps, baseball half the year and football the other half. (I can't remember whose idea it was to make the switch, but I like to think it was mine.) I still remember the older man who ran the Schepps grabbing the cardboard box full of wax packs off the top shelf of the candy aisle, pulling out not the top pack but one near the bottom of a stack and promising me and my brother that there'd be a Cowboy in it. And he was right: a few cards in (seems like Lem Barney and Vern Den Herder delayed the gratification, though there's no way I actually remember that part), Rayfield Wright's All-Pro face smiled at me, keeping to himself the secret of how Schepps Man knew. The bookmark-grade slab of "gum" was an afterthought, if that.
The love affair with sports no longer belonged only to Dad.
I'm not sure when baseball separated itself from football for me. My parents weren't really baseball fans. If I'm really honest with myself, the time when football was no longer riding shotgun, and instead began to take a backseat, was probably 1984, when the Cowboys started missing the playoffs -- until that time I was as crazy a football fan as I was a baseball fan. As demoralizing as it was to have my football year end with the regular season, I look back on it and realize how it set me up to be somewhat of a snobby fan. It's easy to slither off the bandwagon when a team you expect as a child to go to the Super Bowl every year has as awful a win-loss record as 9-7!
Further back -- and the fact that I vividly remember this tells you how snooty a Cowboy fan I was ... how entitled I felt ... even at age eight -- the Cowboys had a 1977 home game against Tampa Bay blacked out because they failed to sell out Texas Stadium (The horror!). What I remember about that is the stroll on which Mom took us (including my five-month-old sister Mandy) around Pennystone and Blue Trace, with the game on the radio, courtesy of Verne Lundquist and Brad Sham (I've always been a radio guy anyway, in both sports, from those days until now).
I was profoundly sad. The blackout shook my eight-year-old soul like a stock market crash. Because in those days, Dallas Cowboy ups and downs were Jamey Newberg ups and downs.
But Dallas went on to smack the Broncos in the Super Bowl that year. I celebrated by working and reworking my jigsaw puzzle that winter of Randy White and Harvey Martin mauling Norris Weese. A thousand times.
So how was it that baseball kept up with football in those years? Dallas was winning 11 or 12 games every season, finishing atop the division almost without exception, while the Rangers would annually hover around .500 (with the exception of the 1977 Willie Horton club, which won 94 times but still finished eight games behind the Royals). How was it that my affection for the Rangers didn't keep as company the Tornado and Blackhawks, rather than the Cowboys?
Because of the tosses with Dad or Barry, or the daily games of streetball, or the pitchback in the backyard? Doubt it; they were all just as likely to involve a football as a baseball.
I think it was a few things. Football was a once-a-week event, baseball a daily ritual. Though we never missed an opportunity to meet Roger Staubach at Neiman's or Drew Pearson at Joske's, it was a lot easier to catch Jim Sundberg and Mike Hargrove at John Mabry Clothiers, or Jim Fregosi and Bill Fahey and Roy Smalley at Northaven Field to kick off the Little League season. And the world of baseball cards proved to be limitless, football cards not so much.
(Anytime I hear "Philadelphia Freedom" [Elton John], or something by Cliff Richard [thank goodness that's pretty much a non-existent possibility these days], or "Steal Away" [Robbie DuPree], or "Too Much Time on My Hands" [Styx], or "Still the Same" [Bob Seger], I immediately think I'm in the car with Mom, as she's about to drop me off at whatever mall the baseball card shop "Remember When" was located at.)
Once I was old enough to play organized ball, there was lots of baseball, no football. There were summers when the game was part of my routine every day, either games at Northaven or practices at Walker or scorekeeping at Churchill. And Risenhoover and Merrill on the radio at night, bringing me Rangers baseball as I drifted to (or fought) sleep.
And as for the Rangers, those years of mediocrity probably solidified a loyalty that Cubs fans made an art, and that Cowboy fans have never really shown, or understood. It's easy to root for a perennial winner; there's more character, though, in standing behind Sisyphus and helping push.
The game itself has always captivated me. You can't find a book about football in the same league as "Nine Innings" or "Men at Work" or "Three Nights in August," none of which I imagine would show up on a list of the 100 best baseball books ever written. I'm a competer -- which I know isn't a word but which still connotes something different than "competitor," I think -- and I find irresistible the chess matches that make up the at-bats and the innings and the games and the series and the seasons and even the off-seasons in baseball. I say that now as a fan; once upon a time it was as a player.
There was a photo of Bucky Dent one '70s spring in Street & Smith's, hurdling a runner trying to break up a double play, and a shot in the same magazine of Robin Yount ranging into the hole, and they made me want to be a shortstop. It was my home on the baseball diamond for 12 years, until my high school coach put me on the mound as a junior and made me a pitcher-outfielder my senior year. (My day to pitch? "Bullet the Blue Sky" on my headphones, on the bus headed to Loos Fieldhouse or Reverchon Park.)
I hated Coach for moving me to the outfield. And then I wished someone had moved me sooner. It's where I ended my baseball career one year later and two years after that, in that one week in Austin, that one day in Georgetown, and that one final week again in Austin. I love the outfield. I loved shortstop more; but I was better as an outfielder.
To this day there are guys I played with in Little League and middle school and BBI and high school and those 10 days at Disch-Falk and that one at Southwestern and on the intramural softball fields with whom I keep in touch. Maybe that's what it's been, more than the baseball cards and the transistor radios and the Street & Smith's and even the chess matches, that's responsible for my latching so acutely onto baseball. I've been able to share my passion for this game with so many people, a group that has multiplied exponentially the last eight years.
Erica just started Kindergarten. And though she didn't know any of her classmates beforehand, it won't surprise me if she sat down to eat lunch last week with someone who one day will stand up at her wedding.
And on that day when her mother and I give her away, I hope to remember these Kindergarten days well, and the things I was thinking about as we were getting her ready to head out the door that first morning. One of which was which kind of ice cream she'd pick out that afternoon.
Jamey Newberg, author of www.NewbergReport.com as well as six annual Bound Editions of the Newberg Report, is a lawyer at the Dallas firm of Vial, Hamilton, Koch & Knox, maintaining a practice specializing in general civil litigation, school law, and insurance coverage. He earned his undergraduate degree, his law degree, and two "Thanks, but no thanks" pats on the back from Coach Gus after trying to walk onto the University of Texas baseball team in 1987 and 1989.
A Way Off the Rockie Road
On the morning of August 20, the spread was 8.5 games. With just about forty games left for each team, many would have called the difference "insurmountable." However, over a period of just two-and-a-half weeks, 15 games for one team and 16 for the other, the teams have flip-flopped in the standings. Suddenly, without notice, the Colorado Rockies are no longer the worst team in the National League.
If only they hadn't changed the rules, maybe baseball's quietest bit of news would have made a newspaper today. In the good old days, a.k.a. two years ago, the 2006 draft's top pick would be awarded to the National League team with the worst record. It would have been the "winner" (loser?) of this race fighting for the rights of Andrew Miller. Instead, it's the Kansas City Royals who will scoop up Miller, leaving the Rockies and Pirates to battle for rights of the draft's second prospect.
Dave Littlefield had likely been waiting for the Pirates to make such a slide to fire manager Lloyd McClendon. While I would suggest he fire himself first, the Bucs could be said to be moving in the right direction...at a snail's pace. However, it is the red-hot Rockies that previously wouldn't even be credited with heading the right way. In fact, since a playoff berth in just their third year of existence, the Rockies have been swimming in a pool of mediocrity, and barring a finish even hotter than their recent pace (11-4 since August 20), Colorado will win under 75 games for the fifth straight season.
What was once sabermetric's holy grail, figuring how to win in Coors Field, has now been discarded as an impossibility. Dan O'Dowd has used the high altitude as a crutch, finding a way to stay atop the organization for longer than anyone with such a record deserves. If only his team could find a way to do the same, and pick a season to be on top of the divisional standings.
If anything, this was the season. With Coors Field attendance in a slow decline, and the NL West generating worst-division-ever arguments, the Rockies could have used a big season. Instead they preached patience, again, and put one of their worst products ever on the field. In the first half, in which the Dodgers and Padres pretended to be good before fading, the Rockies had just two ten-game streaks in which they amassed a winning record.
The second half has been a different story...kind of. With a pair of hot streaks (7/31-8/8; 8/20-now), the Rockies have shown they could sneak up on people in 2005 if the NL West has another five-under-.500 type season. Don't expect either, although if they continue to play ball like they did during those streaks, amassing 24 games in which the team had an 18-6 record, than surprises could happen.
Unsurprisingly, much of the praise for the solid 24-game stretch (or pair of stretches) should go to Coors Field, itself. A crash course on Rockies history would undoubtedly tell that Colorado's problem has not been high altitude, but leaving the Rocky Mountains. In the 21st century the Rockies have a 259-217 record at home, good for a .544 winning percentage. However, the tide always turns when leaving Denver, as the 2005 record of 20-46 more than attests. And of course, during the 24-game stretch in question, the Rockies win percentage at home (1.000, 8-0) is substantially better than away (.625, 10-6).
Another unsurprising fact is that in many of the wins, it has been the offense that has carried this team. Again, this is an organization that consistently ranks in the bottom twenties (or 30th) in team ERA. In eight of the games (coincidentally matching the number of home games?), the club scored eight or more runs, winning each time. However, the team also received some semblance of pitching, limiting opposing teams to three runs or less in half of the games. Their record in such a scenario? A perfect 12-0.
So wait, not only have the Rockies been kinda-winning (10 out of 16 ain't bad!) on the road, but they also have been pitching well? What gives? Well, in the 24 games, the starters have an ERA of 3.45 (thanks, Dave). A look at the seven players that started during that time:
GS IP ERA Jeff Francis 5 28 5.46 Jamey Wright 4 24 6.38 B-H Kim 5 33.2 1.87 Jose Acevedo 1 6 1.50 Aaron Cook 5 30 1.80 S-W Kim 3 14.1 2.51 Zach Day 1 5 3.60
Wow, wasn't expecting that! Has anyone else noticed that Byung-Hyun Kim has suddenly become one of the more hot pitchers in baseball? Certainly, he's proving to be a bargain considering his acquisition allowed the team to rid themselves of Charles Johnson and his Charles Johnson-sized contract. His namesake has also pitched well since being put into the rotation, replacing Jose Acevedo. Now it appears that Zach Day, acquired for Preston Wilson (and his Charles Johnson-sized contract), will take Jamey Wright's place in the rotation. And Jeff Francis, despite his recent struggles, will likely have a Dan O-Dowd type tenure within this rotation.
The wild card here, it appears, is Aaron Cook. Returning from injury, Cook is just starting to catch fire and resume his old status. With yesterday's victory, Cook is 4-0 in his last seven starts, lowering his ERA from 14.54 to 3.47. The cause has been a substantial rise in his groundball outs, as he has caused at least 11 in all seven starts, and at least 14 in each of his last four. For a pitcher that lives and dies by the sinker, this is a very, very good sign. Odd arm angles and sinkerballers? Could the Rockies be onto something?
Going forward, my suggestion to the Rockies would be to take their newfound pitching discovery to the next level. Start to teach all (most?) pitchers in the system how to throw a sinker, similar to the Toronto Blue Jays' new obsession with the cutter. Try acquiring many relievers with different arm angles, and for floundering minor league relievers, see what moving to side-arm would do. Experimentation will prove to be the key to success in this environment.
This offseason, Dan O'Dowd should be happy he has four good starters in Francis, Cook, Byung-Hyun Kim and Zach Day. Moving Sunny Kim to the swingman spot would be a good idea, and scouring the free agent/trade markets for the next bargain-turned-Kim. The important counting and rate stats to consider? How about groundballs and G/F? Don't go overboard with another Mike Hampton-type signing with A.J. Burnett, instead asking what the A's are charging for Kirk Saarloos. Or how about taking a chance/risk on the recently-released Sidney Ponson? Not good for public relations, sure, but at this point, the only thing that can help that department is a big improvement in the win column.
In 1995, the Rockies paid only four pitchers (Bret Saberhagen, Bill Swift, Darren Holmes, Bruce Ruffin) seven figures. Instead it was the bargain-basement signings teamed with the big offensive names that led the Rockies to their one-and-only playoff appearance. This is what the Rockies must build towards. For every Byung-Hyun Kim there must be two Ian Stewarts and Troy Tulowitzkis.
Even if that means sometimes missing out on the #2 pick, though Dallas Buck would look really good in purple.
The One and Only Felix
If you do a search for Felix on Baseball-Reference.com, you will find the following players with matching first or last names.
With apologies to four All-Stars (Jose, Mantilla, Martinez, and Millan), I have to think this must be one of the worst groups of namesakes involving 17 or more players in baseball annals. You could put Felix Unger in there and not miss a beat.
Well, hop on the bus, Gus. You don't need to discuss much. It's time to make room for the one and only Felix that matters. Who could that be? The answer is easy if you take it logically. Felix Abraham Hernandez. Like Cher, Madonna, and Prince (oops, not so fast), the rookie might just be good enough to be known as simply Felix.
When Felix was born on April 8, 1986, Julio Franco had already played in 485 games and had 1,883 at-bats, 250 runs, and 532 hits. Roger Clemens had thrown 231 2/3 innings and struck out 200 batters in 1984-85. The Rocket, in fact, won the first of seven Cy Young Awards when Felix was about six months old. Barry Bonds and Greg Maddux made their major-league debuts the year of Felix's birth.
Red Sox fans may want to forget, but 1986 was a pretty good year for baseball. Not a lot has changed in Seattle though. The Mariners finished last that season with a 67-95 record, 25 games behind the first-place Angels. Mark Langston was the star pitcher back then, striking out an AL-high 245 batters in 239 1/3 innings. The closest thing to Felix was Edwin Nunez, a 6-foot-5, 237-pound, hard-throwing right-hander, who had made his MLB debut four years earlier at the tender age of 19.
Nunez never really panned out and Seattle wallowed for another five years before reaching the .500 plateau for the first time in the franchise's 15-year history. Edwin was long gone by then but a relative newcomer by the name of Randy Johnson, who came to the Mariners in 1989 from the Montreal Expos in a trade involving Langston, was just beginning to hit his stride at the more advanced age of 27.
Although mired in last place behind the Angels once again in 2005, the M's won more than half their games nine times from 1991-2003. Granted, the past two years have been difficult but hope appears to be on the way in the form of a 19-year-old kid from Valencia, Venezuela. Let's face it, Felix just may be the single most valuable property in baseball today.
Courtesy of MLB Extra Innings, I had the pleasure of watching Felix mow down the Oakland A's on Sunday. Felix combined with three relievers to shut out the A's 2-0 despite an impressive performance by Oakland's Joe Blanton, another young, baby-faced pitcher.
Felix's 2005 Game Log:
IP H R ER HR BB SO GB FB W/L Aug. 4 @DET 5.0 3 2 1 0 2 4 11 0 L Aug. 9 MIN 8.0 5 0 0 0 0 6 11 6 W Aug. 15 KC 8.0 3 1 1 0 1 11 9 4 W Aug. 20 @MIN 8.0 5 2 2 0 1 9 11 4 - Aug. 26 CWS 7.0 7 3 3 2 1 8 9 3 - Aug. 31 NYY 8.0 4 2 2 2 4 7 15 2 L Sept. 5 OAK 7.0 4 0 0 0 1 5 14 2 W Totals 51.0 31 10 9 4 10 50 80 21 3-2
If Felix qualified, his ERA (1.59) would rank numero uno in the AL and second in the majors among starting pitchers; his WHIP (0.80) would place him at the top; his K/BB ratio (5.0) would be good enough to tie him for seventh in the majors; and his G/F ratio (3.82) would be the second highest in the bigs. Small sample size? Maybe. But it's not just the stats telling the story here, folks. There are also times when you gotta give in to your eyeballs. And, when it comes to Felix, seeing is believing.
I have watched Felix work his magic a few times now and am more convinced than ever that he is not only the real deal but one of the elite pitchers in baseball. Now. Not next year or the year after. He is as good as any pitcher right now. I know that may sound outlandish to some, but I'm just telling it like it is.
Felix throws four pitches. A four-seam fastball that ranges between 96-99 MPH, a two-seamer that he runs up there anywhere from the low- to mid-90s, a hard-breaking curveball, and a plus changeup. I would argue that each of his pitches ranks among the top 10% in the game. As such, I don't think there is a pitcher around who can match Felix's overall stuff. Furthermore, I'm beginning to think that his command rates right there with the best.
I know that is a lot to put on a guy who was pitching in the California League (High-A) last summer. But I'm living in the present and am more concerned about the future than the past. As I mentioned ten days ago, "he is what he is. . .one of the very best starting pitchers in the league. Period."
Here is the play-by-play data from ESPN in bold with my added commentary:
Bottom of the first inning:
Bottom of the second:
Bottom of the third:
Bottom of the fourth:
Bottom of the sixth:
That does it for Felix. Seven innings, four hits, one walk, five strikeouts, and no runs. He threw 107 pitches, 68 for strikes. Of the 21 outs, 14 are on the ground and five by strikes.
J.J. Putz, George Sherrill, and Eddie Guardado get the last six outs to save the victory for Felix. All hail the King.
Dis and Data
When my Dad became a beat writer for the Dodgers in 1958 (the team's first year in Los Angeles), he labeled the notes at the end of his articles "Dodgers Dis and Data." This section was in agate type and in the format of what I call dot, dot, dot. By December of that year, he shortened the title to "Dis and Data" and it remained as such for ten years until he changed jobs and became Director of Public Relations and Promotions with the Angels.
In honor of my Dad, I hereby dust off his creation for today's version of Baseball Beat with opening comments on, who else, the Los Angeles Dodgers.
With all the talk, finger pointing, and second guessing about the lack of team chemistry and wins this year, has everyone forgotten the recent past? The Dodgers won 93 games last year, the most since 1991 when they were victorious the same number of times...That's kinda interesting but not my main point here. It turns out dem Bums of yesteryear went 63-99 the following season...Sound familiar? Well, as poorly as this year's team has performed, the Dodgers have already won 61 games...Look, things tend to ebb and flow in life, and the Dodgers, whether under Branch Rickey (63-91 in 1944), Buzzie Bavasi (71-93 in 1958), Al Campanis (73-89 in 1986), Fred Claire (63-99 in 1992), Kevin Malone (77-85), or Paul DePodesta (61-72 in 2005), have had their ups and downs over time. More than their fair share of ups than downs, mind you...Dan Evans, in fact, was the lone Dodgers GM who escaped a losing season. In fairness, he was also the only one--other than Malone--never to win a division, league or World Series championship.
Speaking of general managers, J.P. Ricciardi obviously got dumb in a hurry last year when the Toronto Blue Jays went from 86 to 67 wins. With the team playing .500 ball this season, I guess he is somewhere between genius and idiot...Funny how Billy Beane had his comeuppance three months ago--or so his detractors thought. Now that Oakland is right back in the thick of things, I can hear the same folks blaming him if the A's fail to make it to post-season or lose once again in the first round of the playoffs...I mean, you can take that one to the bank...If Beane and John Schuerholz aren't Executives of the Year in the AL and NL, respectively, you may as well ditch that award.
I think it is safe to say that Eric Gagne's streak of throwing 82 1/3 innings for three consecutive years won't be extended to a fourth...Despite his arm troubles, Gagne amazingly struck out 22 batters this year in just 13 1/3 innings. His K/9 rate of 14.85 was the second highest of his career (only behind the 14.98 per nine in his phenomenal season in 2003, which just might be the greatest year ever by a relief pitcher)...Gosh, I wonder if Gagne's presence in the bullpen all year might have made the tempestuous clubhouse more like the A's and Yankees of yore rather than the misfits we're bombarded reading about today?
Jay Payton made one of the best plays I've ever seen on Wednesday night. Unless you saw it live or on the highlights (a rarity for a west coast game at night), it would have been easy not to notice. Here is how ESPN's play-by-play report described it:
M Izturis singled to center, D Erstad scored, M Izturis out at second.
Hold on here. Izturis out at second. That's it? How did that happen? Sit tight and I'll tell you...The Angels third baseman hit a dunker into shallow center field that fell between Mark Ellis, Marco Scutaro, and Payton. Payton fielded the ball on a hop, looked up, and noticed that nobody was covering second base. He ran with the ball like a running back heading for the endzone and slid in front of the base feet first to tag out the hustling Izturis in the nick of time. That's 8-U (as in unassisted) on your scorecard...Payton's awareness, athleticism, and tenacity were such that I don't think there is another CF in the game who either could have or would have made that play.
Payton followed up one spectacular play on Wednesday evening with another on Thursday night. He gunned down Chone Figgins, one of the fastest runners in the league, trying to score from second base on a single to center. Payton's throw was breathtaking, an absolutely perfect strike from medium center field to home that Adam Melhuse caught chest high. You could have hung the laundry out to dry on the clothes line Payton created with that throw. It beat Figgins by such a wide margin that the Angels speedster tried to reverse course before getting tagged out by the A's catcher...Oh, here is how it reads in the play-by-play report:
G Anderson singled to center, C Figgins thrown out at home.
Sheesh, what's a guy gotta do to get a little respect (or recognition)? By the way, did I mention that Payton also made a nice, running catch near the warning track earlier in the game?...For one series, Payton looked like a Gold Glove outfielder to me. Who knows, he might even look like a Shannon Stewart-style MVP to Jayson Stark when the season is over.
Not sure if this qualifies as Department of Useless or Useful Information but Florida's Jeremy Hermida became the second player to hit a grand slam in his first plate appearance and the only one to do it as a pinch-hitter when he connected in the seventh inning Wednesday night. Only two players -- William "Frosty Bill" Duggleby in 1898 and Bobby Bonds in 1968 -- had previously hit a grand slam in their first major-league game. Duggleby is the only other player to do so in his first at-bat...I had the good fortune of watching Bonds do his thing at Candlestick Park against the Dodgers in a game televised to the Los Angeles market. Bonds hit his grand slam in his third at-bat, a shot in the sixth inning off Dodgers reliever John Purdin...Thanks for bringing back those memories, Jeremy, who, at 6-4 and 200 pounds with power and speed to burn, could put up a whole bunch more Bobby Lee Bonds-type numbers before his big-league career is out.
From the Press Box to the Pitcher's Mound. . .Sort Of
"If I ever get some super-cancer," I say to Alex Rodriguez, "I know exactly how I'd want to go out."
The Yankee third baseman flexes an eyebrow.
"Go ahead, tell me," he says.
"The Make-A-Wish Foundation comes to my bedside and says, 'Anything you want.' I say, 'OK, let me pitch to Alex Rodriguez. One at-bat. I've got him figured out.'"
Now A-Rod is laughing.
"How would you pitch me?"
"I am so below your hitting speed you'd never touch me. All off-speed stuff. You'd be wrapped so tight you'd over-swing at everything and would have to retire on the spot. Then I could die in peace."
Rodriguez, still amused, says, "You figured it out, didn't you? Pretty good for a writer."
I take that as a compliment - sort of. It wasn't the sportswriter in me that was talking to A-Rod, it was the semi-pro pitcher who hasn't let go of the game in his 40s. From Leonia (NJ) High School, to Columbia University to the Hackensack Troasts in northern New Jersey's Majors-Met League, I've led a not-so-secret double life that's set me apart from my colleagues in the press box. As the father of two toddlers, baseball has helped me cope with diaper-hell, as well as stave off a total surrender to the couch.
I've been covering New York baseball since 1984. I love a 2-1 pitcher's duel because I still see the grace and beauty of fastballs at the knees and sliders on the corners. Truth is, I see myself out there, which is ludicrous considering everyone else my age has stopped reaching so high.
I remember Don Mattingly recounting how he and Tino Martinez snuck off to a back field in spring training in 1999. The Yankee captain hadn't picked up a bat since his last plate appearance in the 1995 Division Series against the Mariners, but Tino had convinced Mattingly to spend a few minutes in the cage, tap into his ghosts, just to see if they still were breathing.
"First couple of pitches, it all came back to me, line drives up the gaps," Mattingly said. "Then I thought, 'What the hell am I doing?' I put the bat down and never went back there. I know I'm never going to be what I once was. And I'm okay with that."
I know I should be as reasonable as Mattingly. The other New York baseball writers who had successful college careers have moved on, too. John Harper from the Daily News (who played at University of Bridgeport) and Tom Verducci from Sports Illustrated (who played at Penn State) play golf now. So why can't I?
Maybe it's because they were never pitchers. From Little League all the way to Cooperstown, there's a fraternity convened by the adrenaline rush of throwing a baseball. Bret Saberhagen once told me, "Nothing matches making a hitter swing and miss. It's the greatest feeling in the world. Guys who retire, they spend the rest of their lives looking for it, but once you stop pitching you never get it back."
Of course, my addiction will be easier to kick because I don't throw all that hard. At 80-mph (on a good day), my two-seamer resembles Kevin Brown's, minus 10-12 mph and the personality disorder. But Saberhagen was right about the miracle a major leaguer creates every time he throws a ball. That's why I laugh when people say writers are jealous of the players' money.
Me? I envy the heat. Just about everyone can toss a football or sink a jumper. In that sense, any amateur athlete can mimic an NFL or NBA star. But the ability to throw 90-plus is a gift from the gods, bestowed upon the (very) few. If you don't believe me, check out the gun readings at one of those pitching-booths at the ballpark. Even the toughest-looking guys, all beered up and trying to impress their girlfriends, have trouble reaching 70-mph. Most everyone else is in the 50's and low 60's.
At 80-mph I'm at least able to picture what Mount Olympus looks like. One afternoon in 1997, I was sitting in the visitor's dugout during batting practice in Atlanta talking to Al Leiter about - what else, pitching - when he suddenly said, "Get a ball, let's see what you've got."
So there I am, playing catch with the then-Mets' ace, sweating through my street clothes trying to make my fastball run. For some stupid reason I wanted to impress him.
"Fucking Klap, give it up," is what I heard John Franco say through a smirk, while Leiter was busy analyzing my delivery. For one precious moment, he no longer saw me as a writer but as a fellow pitcher, although with his harsher scrutiny came a piercing blow to my ego.
"Your ball moves, but you need to throw it harder," Leiter said. "You have to get on top of the ball."
Leiter unleashed a cut-fastball the likes of which I had never seen or caught. He threw it so hard I heard the ball hiss, which was unsettling enough. Then it broke to my left, as if it'd been hijacked by a wind shear. Somehow, the pitch accelerated as it darted, which so completely overloaded the synapses of brain my glove never moved.
I just couldn't catch it.
"That's what I'm talking about," Leiter said matter-of-factly.
"That's what you throw in a game?" I said in disbelief.
"Not really. That was about 80 percent."
All that happened before Leiter and I stopped speaking to each other in 2004, when I wrote that he was partially responsible for getting Scott Kazmir traded to the Devil Rays. Leiter subsequently told Michael Kay on ESPN Radio that I should be working for the National Enquirer. So much for my frat brother.
Sooner or later, writers and ballplayers all reach the crossroads. Sides must be chosen: you're either with the press or with the club and the gulf gets wider every year. I've made my peace with the fact that, A-Rod aside, pitching helps my soul more than it does my standing in the clubhouse. The majority of major leaguers are like Derek Jeter, who've decided there's no upside to getting close to the press. We can only hurt the corporation, is what Jeter's handlers have convinced him.
So why do I keep pitching? Probably for the purest reason of all - it's what I do, at least when I'm not writing or helping feed the kids. To stop now would mean tearing away layers of psychological flesh. I guess I'm afraid of what's underneath. Middle age, maybe.
All this explains why I play in a league populated by college kids home for the summer, or ones who've just graduated and are looking to get picked up by an independent team. I've chosen this universe instead of some creaky over-40 league where no one runs or plays defense anymore. But it's also true the kids don't appreciate baseball like the older players. To them, the games are just one of the leisure options that include, in descending order: girls, the bars and the Jersey shore.
One 24-year-old lefty sat next to me in the dugout this summer and drank Red Bull while listening to his iPod between innings. When it was time to get back on the mound, he didn't even turn the music off - just hit the pause button. Such is the confidence that comes with a 90-mph heater.
It's the kid's utter belief in himself that keeps me in touch with the mindset of a major leaguer. Minus the millions in the bank, the kid is Jeter. He is simple, primal, untouched by neurosis. By the time I come home from Hackensack, I am somehow a better husband, a more playful father. My writing is leaner as I picture myself on the mound, engaged in a war at 60 feet, 6 inches.
The longer I play, the more I understand what Saberhagen meant about chasing the holy grail. It doesn't come from writing on deadline. That's just typing in agony. It doesn't come from being in the clubhouse. Too much standing around. Even delivering a spot-on column has a smaller pay-off than it used to. I worry that everyone's lost interest in the written word.
One thing's for sure - the kids sure don't buy the paper. To them, reading is for the elderly, the sedentary. My career interests my teammates not because of my writing, but because of my access to Yankees tickets, even though I've told them the Yankees don't comp the press. And, of course, I'm the one they go to with questions about Jeter - the most common of which is: who's he banging?
The camaraderie in Hackensack is terrific, but I wonder if any of my young friends will still be playing in ten years. Most won't, I bet. There aren't too many Julio Francos (or even John Francos) left. It takes too much work to keep the addiction alive. I still remember the 1996 World Series and what David Cone looked like after Game Three.
He's stopped the Braves cold in their home park, out-pitching Tom Glavine after the Yankees had been flattened twice in the Bronx. Looking back, if Cone's 5-2 victory didn't save the franchise, it at least kept Joe Torre from being fired. Without him, the Yankees would've conceivably been swept, and it would've been just as easy to think of Torre being dismissed by George Steinbrenner.
As courageously as Cone had pitched, he paid a heavy price. He was limping heavily, pained by the arthritic hip that would ultimately end his career in 2003.
"You know, this gets harder every year. I can't even fucking walk," Cone said grimly. "I don't know why I keep doing this."
"You know exactly why," I said.
Cone stopped and nodded. The more it hurt, the more he actually loved it.
Someday, I hope my son understands why his wrinkled old dad is still pitching. Considering he's only three, I better keep popping the Advils and never look back. The couch might be gaining on me.
Bob Klapisch has covered baseball in New York for the New York Post, New York Daily News and, most recently, The Bergen Record and ESPN.com. He is the author of five books, including "The Worst Team Money Could Buy" (Random House). His work has appeared in Sports Illustrated, Men's Journal, FHM and The Sporting News.
Klapisch, who pitched at Columbia University, still throws for the Hackensack Troasts in the semi-professional North Jersey Majors-Met League. He lives in Westwood, N.J. with his wife and two children.
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