Cleveland's Promising Left Side
Jhonny Peralta and Andy Marte make up the young and talented left side of Cleveland's infield. Peralta started off with a bang in 2005, and it has been noted this spring that he revived his physical condition and also corrected a vision problem. Marte has been followed by the hype associated with a top prospect, and now is the time for him to show if he can live up to the expectations.
A few weeks ago, I mentioned to Rich that Peralta was a guy who I immediately liked in terms of his swing. Short and powerful, it looked like the type of stoke that would support the type of numbers he was putting up as a rookie. In 2006, however, Peralta hit a bump in the road, but as I monitored his swing, there did not seem to be a significant physical difference. Here is a look:
Both of these clips are home run swings that are synched to contact, with the 2005 version on the left and 2006 on the right. Being rather picky, Peralta appears to carry his hands a little higher in the clip from 2005 and perhaps this allows him to get to the ball slightly quicker. Toe touch and foot plant occur at about the same time, which indicate that his overall swing timing is very similar, but it does look like his hands start a little earlier in 2006. It is a very small difference, costing maybe a slight amount of power. It is not a major red flag, in my opinion.
As part of one of my winter classes, I did research on vision and timing during the baseball swing and this made me think coincidentally of Peralta. Was it possible that he was just not seeing the ball the same way? Apparently, this was the case . Peralta went through with a Lasik surgery procedure this off-season to correct myopia (near sightedness). Now that his vision has been restored, I will be looking for Peralta to bounce back for some solid numbers at the plate. Indians GM Mark Shapiro recently said, "He [Peralta] just needs to be closer to the guy he was in '05," and I agree with the boss here that this can be done.
In Marte's case, reaching his potential with the bat might be more of a painstaking process. Bryan Smith gave me a heads up on this one by sending me an email from Florida after watching the Indians during spring training. He commented that Marte's swing looked long and dominated by the action of his arms. I happened to have a shot of J.D. Drew, whose swing looks quite similar and shows which adjustments might allow Marte to become the power bat that Cleveland is hoping for:
Both swings are home runs to the pull gap, again synchronized to contact. Let's look at images from each segment (launch, middle and contact) to see a bit of cause and effect, and hopefully how some adjustments at the beginning of Marte's swing might translate into more consistent, powerful contact. Here is the launch of the swing at the time where the stride foot is landing:
Of interest here is that Marte has more external rotation of his rear arm going into footplant. Both players are rather quiet in terms of loading the hands (shoulder-scapula region, really), but Drew stays quieter for longer, which I think it a good thing. In other words, Marte is starting to unload his shoulders-hands-bat earlier than Drew and this may be costing him efficiency and power. Moving forward a few frames, this still image gives an idea of the developing problem in the swing:
Although the angle is slightly different, Marte's hands appear further behind his back shoulder. I think Drew is in a better position that is more indicative of his ability to transfer rotational momentum from his hips and torso into contact, where it really counts. Now we come to the moment of truth:
The early disconnection in Marte's swing shows up here as he pushes his hands forward in more of a linear move than what Drew is showing. A graphic in Robert Adair's The Physics of Baseball explains this concept most simply: the idea is that the knob slows and changes direction which transfers energy to the bat head for maximum bat speed. Drew is essentially showing a more effective release of the bat head into contact.
Because the duration of a player's swing time (actual time he is unloading) is so short, roughly .2 seconds, it is virtually impossible to recover from any early breakdowns in the swing. Many hitters talk about getting into good positions to hit, and this is time factor is why those good positions are so important. A possible step 1 for Marte would be attempting to tighten up the load-unload that launches his swing and see how that affects the release of his bat into contact (easier said than done).
If nothing else, this would allow him to be a bit quicker to the ball and perhaps improve plate discipline and batting average. Consistent power could very well develop if Marte is able to finish off his swing in a more Drew-like manner.
In an effort to foster Marte's development at the big league level, Cleveland will be batting him in the 9-hole to reduce expectations. This might very well pay off if the message gets through that Marte does not have to be the man, but can focus on making necessary adjusments. Often times, players need opportunities to "fail" (take one step back before taking two steps forward) and this appears to be Marte's chance. He can now focus on the day to day process of refining his swing, and hopefully for Indians fans, the results will fall into place.
Two on Two: NL Central
Another Friday, another Two on Two. Today it's the NL Central and we have two of the best on these here internets accompanying us for the preview. Jeff Sackmann, most famously of Brew Crew Ball and the invaluable Minor League Splits, joins us. Also contributing is Larry Borowsky of Viva El Birdos, a tremendous site devoted to coverage of the St. Louis Cardinals. The previous installments can be viewed via the following links.
Sully: Thanks guys for joining us as we preview the NL Central. It promises to be one of the tougher divisions in baseball to call this season. What are your introductory thoughts on the division? What's exciting about the NL Central in 2007?
Larry: It's a wide-open division. World Champs or no, the Cardinals are no longer perceived as invincible. The Cubs and Brewers have caught up to them talentwise, and if the Astros get Clemens back they may be right in the mix. Even the Pirates have a chance to play some meaningful late-summer games.
The most interesting thing about it, in my mind, is the wealth of young starting pitchers. Every team has at least one young hurler with a chance to make a big impact either this year or next. I would include on that list Anthony Reyes, Adam Wainwright, Rich Hill, Fernando Nieve, Matt Albers, Ian Snell, Tom Gorzelanny, Homer Bailey, Yovani Gallardo, Carlos Villanueva . . . . who'm I leaving out?
Sully: Looks like a pretty comprehensive list to me, Larry. I am most excited about the Milwaukee Brewers. They seem to have been going about team-building "the right way" for a market of Milwaukee's size but people have been saying that for a while now. Is this finally the year that they put it together and contend? That to me will be the most fun storyline to watch in the NL Central.
Jeff: If you think the 2006 NL Central was bad, you ain't seen nothin' yet. Sure, the Brewers and Cubs will be improved, but the talent drain from the rest of the division is bad news. The division winner will win more than 83 games, but I wouldn't be shocked if the fourth place team (remember, that's out of 6) doesn't crack 70.
Rich: You know what is interesting about the NL Central to me? The lack of quality relief pitchers. Quick, name the closer for each team in this division . . . OK, I'm still waiting. Unless Brad Lidge returns to form, I guess Francisco Cordero would be the best of the rest. Cordero's not terrible but his ERA isn't going to be remotely close to the 1.69 mark he put up with Milwaukee last year. As a result, to answer Sully, I guess the excitement in the Central in 2007 will be the number of games blown in the ninth inning. If you're a fan of one of these teams, be sure to stick around for the whole game.
Sully: What's everyone thinking about the defending World Series Champs this season?
Larry: The Cardinal defense is one of the overlooked aspects of their dominance this decade, and it remains among the best in baseball. That's a good foundation to build upon. The starting rotation should improve through sheer inertia . . . and by "sheer intertia," yes, I'm referring to Braden Looper. Last year Jason Marquis and Mark Mulder combined for a 6.40 ERA in 289 innings. If the Cards merely find someone to give them replacement-level performance out of the same innings in 2007, they'll save 30 runs. If they do better than replacement, they could save 50 runs. I think you'll see the Cardinals back in the top 4 in NL run prevention this year.
Jeff: I don't know, Larry, I think Walt Jocketty better have something up his sleeve. If everything breaks right, a rotation of Chris Carpenter, Kip Wells, Adam Wainwright, Anthony Reyes, and Looper could be fine, but I wouldn't bet a spare nickel on everything breaking right. Wells will be the difference-maker: he's a nice gamble at $4 million, but note that the other $4 million injury-rehab gambles are being slotted into other rotations as #5 starters. If the Cards are going to top last year's win total, they'll need another solid starter, and however optimistic you want to be about Mulder (I'm not very), that guy will have to come from outside the organization.
Sully: I am sensitive to the lack of depth point, Jeff, but I think the rotation is fine and agree with Larry that the defense remains very strong. I am really high on Wainwright and think he is poised to build off of his ridiculous post-season relief run and become a very good starter. Of course the rotation's gain is the bullpen's loss and that's where I question St. Louis's run prevention unit.
Rich: As I mentioned, there isn't much relief when it comes to the bullpens in the NL Central and the Cardinals are going to be in big trouble if Jason Isringhausen doesn't come through for them. The Redbirds have a bunch of arms down there, some of whom are decent situational guys, but they might come up a bit light in the eighth and ninth innings with the uncertainty surrounding Izzy and Looper and Wainwright now in the rotation.
Larry: Offensively, there's little margin for error for the Cards. If Albert Pujols, Scott Rolen, and Jim Edmonds all don't stay healthy - and in Edmonds' case, "healthy" means 500 plate appearances - things could go south in a hurry. I think Chris Duncan will regress to the mean but still remain above average - OPS in the .825 range. Ultimately, the Cardinal lineup will probably need a midseason transfusion. Jocketty has about $10 million in payroll slack, and I have a feeling he's going to be spending it on a corner outfielder sometime in July.
Sully: I have some real concerns about this Cards offense. I don't see Rolen and Edmonds staying consistently healthy and when you take a look at that offense after the main triumverate, I mean wow. It's gonna really suck wind.
Jeff: It's hard to be too negative about an offense anchored by Pujols and Rolen, but there aren't a lot of other bright spots. Especially for as long as Edmonds and Juan Encarnacion are out (or in the lineup, and hurting), there are only two real threats in the lineup. The Cards scored more runs than anybody else in the division last year, and may do so again on the strength of Prince Albert's contribution, but it would take Braden-Looper-is-my-5th-starter style optimism to figure on an improvement from last year's 4.85 runs per game.
Rich: The offense should be about the same as last year, maybe a tad better. Pujols went on the DL for the first time in his career and missed 18 games. Edmonds and David Eckstein both went down for more than a month in the second half. Duncan didn't join the club until late May and only appeared in 90 contests. Other than Rafael Belliard, who will be replaced by Adam Kennedy, everybody is back. It seems to me that the offense should be just fine.
Sully: Are we as mixed on Houston's offense as we are with St. Louis?
Rich: The Astros had the lowest batting average and the second lowest slugging average in the NL last year. As great as Berkman is, he's not going to improve upon his outstanding season in 2006. Carlos Lee will add a boost - maybe even a big boost - and Morgan Ensberg might bounce back a little bit. But the rest of the lineup is pretty pathetic. I'm not buying into Jason Lane and his five home runs this spring. And don't tell me about Luke Scott. He will be known as Luke the Fluke before the summer is out.
Larry: At least they have now committed to Chris Burke; he should help. Obviously, so will El Caballo. With Brad Ausmus and Adam Everett bringing up the rear they're never gonna lead the league in runs scored, but I can see them putting 40 or 50 more runs on the board this year over last.
Sully: The only hope for this offense is an injection of Hunter Pence at some point this season. He raked all Spring Training and appears ready to contribute in a big way. As for the rest of the offense, as others have mentioned, it's Berkman, Lee, Ensberg and then not a whole lot to get excited about.
Jeff: I am with you guys here, and actually see Houston's offense much like I do St. Louis's. Carlos Lee and Lance Berkman aren't quite the equals of Pujols and Rolen, but they're darn good. Unfortunately, the catcher, shortstop, and second baseman have to bat, too. I love Craig Biggio, but at the moment, what I love most about him is his ability to keep the Astros far out of the race; most painful for Houston is that there are at least two guys in the lineup likely to contribute less than Biggio.
Rich: The trio of Roy Oswalt, Pettitte, and Clemens was Houston's strength the past few years. If Houston gets off to a slow start, as I suspect, then it might be more difficult than ever to entice The Rocket to join the team. A 40-year-old Woody Williams no longer pitching in the safety of Petco Park could be a disaster waiting to happen in Minute Maid. 150 innings with an ERA in the neighborhood of 4.50 is all I would expect from Williams. And if that is Houston's #3, well, it won't matter how well Oswalt or even Jason Jennings perform this year.
Jeff: It doesn't matter how many Jason Jennings's you add, you're going to get worse if you lose Andy Pettitte and, most likely, Roger Clemens. The bullpen remains strong, and may even be better than last year's version, but the rotation is weak as is, and is completely unprepared for a single injury. Sure, there are warm bodies to take the mound, but none of them are going to make the fans in Houston very happy. Troy Patton may get an audition, but he's no Yovani Gallardo or Homer Bailey; he probably won't contribute until '08.
Larry: Like the Cardinals, the Astros don't get enough credit for their defense; as long as their pitchers just keep the walks and home runs in check, the team should keep runs off the board reasonably well. Should Clemens come back, the Astros rotation will be as good as any in the division - but without that rather large equalizer, it looks pretty shabby. Williams doesn't seem like a good fit for the park, and any rotation in which Wandy Rodriguez holds tenure needs help.
Sully: I don't think defense can help this rotation. Oswalt is fantastic of course, but there is so little there after him that it is hard to portend anything but a lot of opposing players crossing the plate, especially at that ballpark.
Like the Cards and 'Stros, the Reds are another top-heavy team. On the run-prevention side, Bronson Arroyo and Aaron Harang constitute a nice 1-2 and Homer Bailey is awfully promising but it gets pretty grim after that.
Jeff: It's easy to get excited about a near-future triumverate of Arroyo, Harang, and Bailey, but in the meantime, there'll be a triumverate of Eric Milton, Kyle Lohse, and someone else equally uninspiring. The back end of the rotation may be better than it was last year (if only because it's hard to be worse), but Arroyo may find it hard to replicate last year's success against a league more familiar with his offerings. In deference to my many friends who inexplicably root for the Reds, I'm not going to bring up the bullpen.
Rich: Adjusted for Cincinnati's ballpark, the Reds (106 ERA+) actually had one of the best pitching staffs in the league last year. Other than throwing lots of strikes, I'm not quite sure how they pulled that off. But Arroyo is unlikely to repeat and Harang can't get too much better than what he showed last year. And who are all these relief pitchers Wayne Krivsky acquired? Quantity, yes. Quality...uhh, no.
Larry: When he added Arroyo last spring, it looked like Krivsky had a plan: convert surplus bats into stable arms. And at midseason, when "The Trade" went down, it seemed like part of a larger pattern of transactions; I was willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. It was the acquisitions after The Trade - the 87 DFA'd pitchers Krivsky picked up - that changed my opinion of him. Now it looks like he's just throwing darts at the wall. I think it's the worst pitching staff in the division; Arroyo and Harang can pitch for anyone, but beyond them I don't see anybody I'd want on my team. The atrocious defense obviously doesn't help.
Sully: Is the team any better offensively though? I love Adam Dunn and all, and I guess Edwin Encarnacion is ok if the low-obp/decent slug type is your thing but I don't see this club putting up a whole lot of runs. It's never good when the loss of Rich Aurilia represents a genuine hit to your productivity outlook.
Jeff: I am so underwhelmed by Krivsky. His stopgap approach to first base makes sense with Joey Votto on the way, but is there some shortstop uberprospect I'm not aware of? How about an outfielder who they're willing to grant some playing time? Griffey in right field could be league-average or worse; Ryan Freel in center every day is almost a contradiction in terms: Cinci will always be one spectacular catch/injury away from Josh Hamilton, starter. Or something else equally unappealing.
Rich: Home runs and walks. Walks and home runs. The Reds were second in the league in both categories in 2006. Sounds like a bunch of Adam Dunns in that lineup. But the truth of the matter is that there isn't a whole lot beyond Dunn. You can stick a fork in Griffey. He was a great player but is now in the decline phase of his career. I think he may fall hard, and I wonder if Jerry Narron will have the guts to bench him. David Ross will not come close to matching his output last year. He murdered lefties, yet it says here that opposing teams will figure him out and his production will plummet in '07. On the positive side of the ledger, I happen to like Encarnacion and Brandon Phillips, two youngsters who provide some upside.
Larry: Jeff Conine, Bubba Crosby, Alex Gonzalez . . . 'nuff said. I'd rather talk about the Milwaukee Brewers, a far more interesting club than the Reds. They boast an impressive starting staff with Ben Sheets, Dave Bush and Chris Capuano being the best frontline trio in the division, and maybe the league. I don't know why Carlos Villanueva isn't in the rotation - he'd be a #3 on a lot of staffs. Claudio Vargas and Jeff Suppan aren't very good, but they're considerably better than the average team's #4/#5 starters. Assuming the bullpen holds it together this year and Sheets remains healthy, the Brewers staff should be the class of the Central.
Sully: I agree with the crux of your point here, Larry, but I would stop short of best front three in the NL. I think Philly and Arizona trump them in that regard. Nonetheless it's a very good staff with some impressive young arms ready to contribute. I think the defense may leave a bit to be desired.
Rich: Boy, Sully, you're really hot to trot for Arizona's starters. Unless Randy Johnson miraculously turns into the Big Unit of old, I don't see all that much to get excited about beyond Brandon Webb. If Sheets is healthy and throws 200 innings, I believe Milwaukee's rotation will be among the best in the league. Sheets, Capuano, Bush, and Suppan form a solid foursome, and I would be pretty comfortable with Vargas or Villanueva as my fifth starter, especially knowing that Yovani Gallardo might be good to go this summer.
Jeff: Especially after this week's acquisition of Elmer Dessens, no team in baseball has a deeper group of ready-now starting pitchers. That's necessary with Sheets's injury history, but even with the possibility that Sheets doesn't make 30 starts, it gives the Crew a layer of insurance it didn't have in 2006. The defense is still probably below average, but a full season from J.J. Hardy at short and Bill Hall in center ought to improve those two important spots.
Rich: Did you say Elmer Dessens? He's 35 now and hasn't started more than 10 games since 2003. I think he is nothing more than a mediocre middle reliever. Elmer might be more valuable to the team than Brady Clark but that's not saying much.
Larry: I think this offense looks plenty good on paper; lotta balance, no serious holes. They appear primed for a major step forward, but I thought the same thing last April and the Crew only improved by 4 runs over the previous season.
Sully: Prince Fielder, Hall and Rickie Weeks make for a fine offensive core and the filler has potential. Johnny Estrada, J.J. Hardy and Corey Koskie - remind me why Ryan Braus is down again? - may drag the O down a bit but I think overall it looks solid. Corey Hart and Geoff Jenkins will be the wildcards, and if either one should falter, the serviceable Kevin Mench waits in the wings.
Jeff: Their offense depends on the continued development of Hardy and Hart, but Milwaukee has a good chance of having above-average hitters at seven of eight defensive positions. If Braun convinces the club he can pick it at third base (or, as is more likely, that he'll hit so well it doesn't matter), that could be eight of eight. Unlike most of the other teams in the division, the Brewers don't have one main offensive stud, but they aren't hamstrung by the likes of Brad Ausmus or Jack Wilson, either.
Sully: It really is amazing how simply eliminating terrible offensive players really goes a long way.
Rich: Like its pitching, Milwaukee's offense is more solid than anything else. I'm not crazy about the third basemen the Brewers are going to throw out there, but every team has a weakness or two. Speaking of weaknesses, how do we see Pittsburgh this year?
Jeff: Losing Mike Gonzalez is going to hurt. Unlike most teams who trade an established closer, the Pirates don't have a youngster chomping at the bit to claim the job; they've got Salomon Torres and a bunch of guys you probably don't want in the game when your team has a one- or two-run lead. The rotation is equally uninspiring; this could be Ian Snell's year, but it's more likely that he'll settle in as a mid-rotation guy, just Zach Duke is seeming to do. This isn't a bad starting five, and it's a heck of a unit when measured against its cost, but it isn't going to put Pittsburgh in the running for anything but fourth place.
Larry: Call me crazy, but I like their staff a lot. When Zach Duke is only the third-best pre-arb pitcher on your staff, you've got some talent to work with. Too bad Dave Littlefield is what he is . . . there's material to be excited about here.
Sully: Yeah, I think I am more with Larry here than Jeff. Duke is solid, and Snell, Tom Gorzellany and Paul Maholm all figure to keep the Bucs in a lot of games. Jeff is dead on with respect to the bullpen concerns, however. Damaso Marte and Matt Capps have live arms, but there is little to get excited about after that. All in all, I think this Pirates pitching staff will hold up ok though.
Rich: Other than Snell, this staff doesn't miss a lot of bats. The lefties all pitch to contact and can be effective if they throw strikes and keep the ball in the yard. Snell could be a sleeper this year. How many people realize that he struck out more than one batter per inning in the second half? I like him and wouldn't be at all surprised if he lopped off at least half a run off his ERA in 2007.
Jeff: The Pirates have yet another top-heavy offense, only theirs isn't as good as St. Louis's or Houston's. Jason Bay can hang with the best of them, but it would take a best-case scenario from Freddy Sanchez or Adam LaRoche to create a 1-2 bunch as good as, say, Berkman and El Caballo. Like the rotation, some of the other position players are very productive relative to their cost, but the Pirates have one too many holes filled with average or worse guys making the minimum. Those players are important for any team, but Dave Littlefield is going to find his group of former C+ prospects taking him all the way to 70 wins again this year.
Larry: LaRoche helps, I guess. Bay can hit. But I don't see where the runs will come from.
Sully: Too harsh, fellas. Ronny Paulino and Xavier Nady are both decent players and as you mention, Bay, Sanchez and LaRoche are solid, too. This is by no means a great lineup but combined with the fair pitching, I see the Bucs as more of a 75-80-win club than a 70-win one.
Rich: Maybe 75 but I would be surprised if the Pirates won 80. They are a good bet to improve upon their 67 victories, but I still think they will be closer to last than first.
Sully: Onto the Cubbies. We waited this long to get to them because they finished in dead last in 2006 but many have them as the NL Central faves going into 2007. Did Jim Hendry simply do the drunken sailor thing in the last year of his contract or did he make some real improvements? The truth probably lies somewhere in between but what of these Cubs in 2007?
Larry: Neither Ted Lilly nor Jason Marquis seems like a good fit for the ballpark, and neither Alfonso Soriano nor Cliff Floyd seems like a good fit for the positions they'll be asked to play. Rich Hill seems like a pivotal guy; if he throws as well as he did in the second half last season, I think the Cubs will have enough pitching to make a serious run at it.
Jeff: The Cubs are certainly going to be the most improved team in the division this year, and that will in large part be due to the changes in their rotation. On the other hand, they're likely to get 30 starts from Jason Marquis. Marquis, Lilly, and Carlos Zambrano are known quantities; what will make or break the Cubs comes from the other two spots in the rotation. Rich Hill could become a solid #2 or #3, but it's foolish to raise expectations too high for a guy with only 20 major league starts under his belt. And, of course, there's always the Mark Prior factor: the range of plausible outcomes for him ranges from Cy Young contention down to zero innings for the big-league squad.
Rich: Yes, Marquis is a known quantity. That's the good news, I guess. But I suspect that we will never again see the pitcher who put together back-to-back ERAs of 3.71 and 4.13 in 2004 and 2005. Sure, Marquis is unlikely to be as bad as he was in 2006 (6.02) - I mean, if he is, he won't remain in the rotation all year - but his peripherals lead me to believe that he will be more of a liability than an asset. With respect to Prior, I'm betting on the "don'ts." As a USC grad, I'm rooting for him. However, other than his name, I just can't see any reason for optimism at this point.
Sully: I think the Rich Hill factor that Larry points out really will make or break this team's chances. If he pitches like he did in his first bunch of Big Club starts, the Cubs will plod. If he is average, the Cubs will have a shot at the division. If he does his September 2006 Randy-Johnson-circa-1997 routine, the Central is all Cubbies.
Jeff: The Cubs offense is the exact opposite of Pittsburgh's: where the Pirates have a bad offense that is nonetheless productive relative to its cost, the Cubs ought to have a good offense that is too expensive. Soriano, of course, will be a huge improvement, even if the Cubs will be paying him too much in 2012. A full season from Derrek Lee may be even more important to Chicago's chances than the addition of Soriano. There's no doubt that the offense will drastically outperform last year's; the concern is that, somehow, the Cubs will need to gain about 20 wins to give themselves a shot at the title. If Soriano, Lee, and Aramis Ramirez all live up to reasonable projections, that puts 20 wins in sight, but it's a tall order no matter how many changes you make.
Sully: All good points, Jeff, and I just have one additional item to add. Michael Barrett has very quietly been a top-flight catcher for multiple seasons now. Outside of Brian McCann and maybe Josh Bard, there is not another catcher in the NL I would prefer.
Rich: I'll take Russ Martin, thank you. But your main point is well taken. Barrett is underrated offensively, and he helps elongate Chicago's top-heavy lineup. I'll take the unders on Jacque Jones hitting .285 and 27 HR this year. The former Trojan does have one advantage though: the Cubs are going to overdose on right-handed pitchers, and ol' Jacque has been known to hit them pretty well.
Larry: They're gonna score a lot of runs, obviously - best offense in the division. Their on-base skills are still a little thin, but it could be a 215-HR offense. Lou Piniella seems likely (more so than Dusty Baker) to find enough at-bats for Matt Murton.
Sully: What will be the biggest surprise in the NL Central in 2007?
Jeff: It's perfectly correct to forecast a three-team race among the Cardinals, Brewers, and Cubs, all hovering around 85 wins, but that won't happen. Something will go massively wrong for one of those three teams (as with the Brewers or Red Sox last year), and one of those teams is going to finish below .500.
Rich: Craig Biggio won't get his 3,000 hit until September. Management will grow tired of Biggio's lack of production, call up Hunter Pence, and switch Burke to second base before the All-Star game. Biggio will ride the pine for a couple of months, then get one last shot in September after the Astros have been given up for dead.
Sully: I say Ronny Paulino joins the MLB elite catcher ranks. He's 26, coming off a decent year last season and raking this Spring.
Larry: The Pirates will stay on the fringes of the race for most of the year.
Rich: Who do you guys see as the main MVP, CYA and ROY candidates in the Central? I see Albert Pujols as the odds-on favorite to win the MVP, but I can see the writers going Justin Morneau on us and voting for Alfonso Soriano if the Cubs win the division. There are a number of quality Cy Young candidates in this division, headed by Carpenter, Oswalt, Sheets, and Zambrano. Forced to choose among this foursome, I will go with Carpenter. There are a number of prospects who are on the verge of the big leagues but nobody who is likely to be in the starting lineup on Opening Day. With that in mind, put me down for my man Pence.
Jeff: Pujols ought to win the MVP, though once Bill Hall proves he's a Gold-Glove center fielder, he'll get his share of votes. If Sheets is healthy - especially if he's pitching for a team that gives him more run support than he got in 2004 and 2005 - he's my pick for CYA, though when you factor in Sheets's injury problems, the safest bet is probably Oswalt. There are plenty of aces to choose from: I wouldn't be shocked if Carpenter or Harang took home the prize, either. The Jackie Robinson Award will go to Yovani Gallardo, who will go Jered Weaver on the league after a mid-May callup. On that score, I brook no argument.
Larry: The usual suspects: Pujols, Berkman, and Derrek Lee for MVP, with Soriano, Rolen, Aramis Ramirez and maybe El Caballo on a second tier. For the Cy Young: Carpenter, Oswalt, Zambrano, Harang, Sheets. Rookie of the Year . . . I don't see any strong contenders for this season, to be honest. Ask me again in 2008, I might have a different answer.
Sully: I don't have a whole lot to add to this one other than to say I think Berkman may have a sniff at the MVP award if he goes bananas and Pujols stumbles. What about order of finish? I really believe this is Milwaukee's year to make the jump from promising club, to legitimate contender. They're there. Milwaukee, Chicago, St. Louis, Pittsburgh, Houston, Cincinnati.
Jeff: I'm on record elsewhere giving first place to the Cardinals based on my trust in Walt Jocketty, but the last month has changed my position: 1. Brewers 2. Cubs 3. Cardinals 4. Reds 5. Astros 6. Pirates.
Larry: St. Louis, Milwaukee, Chicago, Houston, Pittsburgh, and Cincinnati.
Rich: I second Larry's picks. If I'm wrong, I believe the Brew Crew leapfrogs the Cardinals. The Cubs have an outside chance, but I'm more skeptical than not.
MLB.com's Gameday application is a blessing for people trying to follow out of market games. It's easy to use and clearly presents play-by-play information about the game. That's why I was excited when Enhanced Gameday debuted during the 2006 playoffs. Enhanced Gameday keeps the basic aspects of Gameday and adds detailed Type/Location/Velocity information about each pitch. I'm not entirely sure how the application works, but the basic idea is that high-speed cameras and motion-capture software track every pitch and determine various data points for each pitch.
If you're motivated to sift through the XML, you can do tons of neat things with this data. Joel Zumaya was my motivation to sift through the XML. Like many other people during the playoffs, I was captivated by Zumaya's ability to throw baseballs harder than anyone I had ever seen. According to Gameday, there were 23 pitches thrown faster than 100 MPH in the playoffs, and Zumaya threw 15 of them. (Amazingly, Justin Verlander threw the other eight.) The Guitar Hero's fastest pitch left his hand at almost 105 MPH and his average velocity during the playoffs was 96.6 MPH.
Obviously Zumaya can throw hard, but where were those pitches going? This graph shows where he threw all of his pitches, with each pitch colored by speed, along with an estimated strike-zone. The angle for this graph is from the catcher's perspective, similar to here. From this graph you can clearly see Zumaya's reliance on his fastball and that he struggled to consistently throw it for strikes.
Zumaya appeared to have a one pitch plan when he was attacking hitters, but what about someone who can't just rely on speed to retire hitters? How did Kenny Rogers go after batters? Here are velocity graphs for Rogers, split up by batter handedness. Rogers threw 87 pitches to left-handed batters and 162 to righties. He appeared to pound the outside part of the plate when facing both types of hitters and seemed focused on not coming inside and over the plate to righties. He also threw different off-speed pitches on the outside part of the plate, depending on the handedness of the batter. Lefties got a slower off-speed pitch, which consistently missed the strike-zone, as if he were tantalizing the hitter to chase a ball. Righties faced an off-speed pitch that was closer to the strike-zone. While these graphs are interesting, they aren't showing anything new.
Information pinpointing the release points of pitchers is also included in the XML files. To my knowledge, accurate information regarding release points has never been available to the public. This graph shows the release point for Barry Zito, compared with all other pitchers who appeared in the 2006 playoffs. Zito's bizarre BABIP patterns have been discussed at Inside the Book and Catfish Stew. Perhaps one reason for these weird splits is Zito's release point, which is closer to that of a right-hander than a left-hander. Chad Bradford's inclusion on the graph emphasizes how different he is from a "normal" pitcher. Even Cla Meredith, who has the second lowest release point, is more than two feet higher than Bradford.
Here are the release points for four individual pitchers. Besides Zito, another interesting thing on this graph is the two distinct release points for Mike Mussina. Rogers and Chris Carpenter both had pitches where they changed their release point, but Mussina appears to have two deliberate release points. The release points for Mussina changed depending on the type of pitch that he threw.
In order to classify what pitches Mussina threw, you need the horizontal and vertical "break" values given for every pitch. According to the Enhanced Gameday blog, break is defined as "the measurement of the distance between the location of the actual pitch thrown over the plate, and the calculated location of a ball thrown by the pitcher in the same way, with no spin." No measurement scale is given, but every pitch has a "fingerprint" consisting of its speed and two breaks, which identifies how the pitch spun through the air en-route to home plate. These fingerprints can be used to identify pitch types. Not every fastball will be exactly 89 MPH, with exact breaks, but all fastballs from a pitcher are going to have similar speeds and breaks, which are different compared to the speed and breaks for a curveball from that pitcher.
This graph shows the horizontal and vertical breaks vs. speed. The blue dots show the horizontal break for every pitch, while the red dots represent the vertical break. Each pitch has two dots, and from the graph, you can pick out clusters of Mussina's pitches.
Here's the same graph, but with each type of pitch colored differently. Mussina has four pitches, two of which, B and C, he threw exclusively from his higher arm slot. The second graph is a close up of Mussina's release points, colored by the pitch type.
Once the pitches are classified, you can examine the "stuff" of a pitcher, and how he uses each pitch. I only have data for 75 pitches from Mussina, so I'm going to use Kenny Rogers again. I have data about 249 pitches for Rogers and he threw four types of pitches, shown in the graph.
Rogers threw pitch A 68 times, and was able to have the batter swing and miss 11 times (16%), the highest percent of any of his pitches. Granted this is too small a sample to really mean anything, but pitch A could be Rogers' strikeout pitch. With a full season of data, you could establish not only which pitcher is the best at creating swings and misses (or ground balls or poorly hit balls or whatever), but which pitch they are using to get those results.
The biggest problem with the data currently is that it is incomplete. For whatever reason, Gameday didn't have data for every playoff game, either missing the game completely or just missing certain innings in the game. The recording of data did get more reliable as the playoffs progressed. Hopefully that is fixed for the 2007 season.
The other problem is that there is only one month worth of data. There just isn't enough information from this trial run to make any definitive statements. Mussina made only one start in the playoffs, so the dual release points could have just been a coincidence. Barry Zito could have been struggling with his delivery in his starts, so his release point might actually resemble that of a typical lefthander. This analysis is just scratching the surface of what Gameday has to offer. With more than a month of data, you could better visualize how pitchers approach left-handed hitters compared to right-handed hitters, see which pitcher has the most movement on his pitches, see which pitch is the hardest to make contact with or hit hard or hit in the air, and possibly even expand the analysis to hitters as well.
Here's the link to the XML from Kenny Rogers' start vs. the Yankees in the ALDS. The web directory is organized intuitively, and with a little poking around, you can find the XML files for any playoff game. There's a lot more information contained in these XML files that I didn't use in any of the graphs in this article because I wasn't able to figure out what it meant. If you have any ideas about what parts of this information may mean, I'd love to hear from you.
Joe P. Sheehan graduated from Oberlin College last May. A 22-year-old Red Sox fan, Joe would like to work for a MLB team. He played baseball at Oberlin and has followed the game for as long as he can remember. He is not to be confused with the Joe Sheehan of Baseball Prospectus.
On Valentine's Day I asked readers "Who Do You Love" by going through the odds for each team to win the World Series. I chimed in on who I thought looked cheap and who looked expensive, and then readers contributed their two cents as well. Well World Series odds are fun and all but not as fun as the Over/Under win total figures.
Many would argue that the crux of Sabermetrics is that you can predict a team's win total by analyzing a team's ability to score and prevent runs. Virtually all other research aimed at determining what contributes to a baseball club's winning efforts, on both an individual and team-wide level, is derived from this finding. Sabermetric projection mechanisms with these principles at their core offer a neat opportunity for the enterprising individual to take advantage of Vegas over/under win totals.
Now, projections are never fool-proof and are often downright inaccurate. Just ask Tigers fans from last season. But I happen to believe that the astute fan has the opportunity to stick one to Vegas on these (hey, it makes up for football season). So without further ado, let me try my hand at each MLB team. I will offer up my prediction (over or under) and then briefly account for why I believe the arbitrage opportunity exists. And yeah, I will be on the record here so just as I stated back on Valentine's Day, feel free to check back and ridicule me if it turns out I am just dead wrong on a lot of these.
Arizona - Over 77.5 (-120) Under 77.5 (-110)
What is Vegas missing here?
That the Snakes are by and large average or better at every position on the field and boast one of the very strongest pitching staffs in all of baseball. They still might be a year away from championship contention but this is easily a .500 club. I mean they were an 80-win team last year based on their Pythag total. This might be the easiest money on the board.
Atlanta - Over 81.5 (-115) Under 81.5 (-115)
What is Vegas missing here?
Probably not a whole lot but we are talking about a club that led the NL in OPS+ last season and played more like an 85-win team based on their run differential. 81.5 is in the ballpark but I like them for a few more wins than that.
Chicago Cubs - Over 85.5 (-115) Under 85.5 (-115)
What is Vegas missing here?
Again, probably not a whole lot. I don't have a lot of conviction in this one. 85.5 may be the exact appropriate figure for the Cubbies.
Cincinnati - Over 76.5 (-115) Under 76.5 (-115)
What is Vegas missing here?
That Cincinnati's back of the rotation is brutal. That their infield can't hit at all. That the Reds are too dependent on Ken Griffey Jr. I don't know, I think the Reds win more like 70-75 games.
Colorado - Over 74.5 (-130) Under 74.5 (Even)
What is Vegas missing here?
That Todd Helton, Matt Holliday, Garret Atkins, Troy Tulowitzki and Chris Iannetta constitute a nice offensive core. That Aaron Cook, Jeff Francis and Rodrigo Lopez are all reasonably decent. That Brian Fuentes and other live arms like Ramon Ramirez and Manuel Corpas make their bullpen pretty darn good. They're not great, but they'll win north of 75 games.
Florida - Over 78.5 (-125) Under 78.5 (-105)
What is Vegas missing here?
Probably not a whole lot - 78.5 sounds fine. I don't feel too strongly about this one but my thinking goes like this: they were an 80-win Pythag team in 2006 and got some stellar play from guys that I think are pretty decent candidates to take a little step back this year. Namely, Dan Uggla and Hanley Ramirez.
Houston - Over 78.5 (-115) Under 78.5 (-115)
What is Vegas missing here?
Here's another team I don't feel like I have a great grasp on. But only once since 1995 have they won fewer than 80 games and something tells me they will scrap another competitive club together this season.
Los Angeles Dodgers - Over 88.5 (-130) Under 88.5 (Even)
What is Vegas missing here?
Probably that Juan Pierre and Luis Gonzalez suck. All bets are off if Grady Little plays his best this season.
Milwaukee - Over 81.5 (-115) Under 81.5 (-115)
This is a perception number. The Brewers are the Brewers - how could they win more than 81 games? Well look at their roster. Star power at the top, plenty of solid filler and some truly promising youngsters. This looks more like an 85-win team to me than an 81-win one.
New York Mets - Over 88 (-115) Under 88 (-115)
What is Vegas missing here?
That Carlos Beltran and Paul Lo Duca will not replicate their outlier 2006 seasons. That the starting pitching is bad. I would have the Mets closer to 85 wins.
Philadelphia - Over 88.5 (-115) Under 88.5 (-115)
What is Vegas missing here?
88.5 actually sounds about right to me. I am going over just because I happen to really like the makeup of the team. The lineup will rake, the rotation is rock solid and I think one way or another they will piece together a solid enough bullpen.
Pittsburgh - Over 71.5 (Even) Under 71.5 (-130)
What is Vegas missing here?
They are pretty close to average or above at just about every position and their rotation, with guys like Ian Snell, Zach Duke, Tom Gorzelanny and Paul Maholm, has a shot at being average in its own right. Average or just below average equals 75-80 wins, not 71.
San Diego - Over 84 (-125) Under 84 (-105)
What is Vegas missing here?
I think 84 would sound just about right if you didn't know just how good Kevin Kouzmanoff was. In Akron and Buffalo respectively last season Kouzmanoff posted OPS's of 1.109 and 1.022 as a member of the Indians organization. Now he comes over in the Josh Barfield deal and I think he is ready to contribute in a big way right off the bat. I am calling 88 wins for the Pads.
San Francisco - Over 81.5 (-115) Under 81.5 (-115)
What is Vegas missing here?
They're just not a very good team. Have a look at the roster and in the comments section let me know how they get over .500. Is Matt Morris taking them there? Pedro Feliz?
St. Louis - Over 84.5 (-110) Under 84.5 (-120)
What is Vegas missing here?
That the Cards are relying on a lineup that is both injury-prone and thin even when healthy.
Washington - Over 66.5 (-110) Under 66.5 (-120)
What is Vegas missing here?
Baltimore - Over 73.5 (-115) Under 73.5 (-115)
What is Vegas missing here?
Not much - that figure looks just about right. My problem with the O's is that I think this may be the year where some of their middling supporting cast like Melvin Mora, Jay Gibbons and Kevin Millar all fall off the table and contribute next to nothing. They do have some exciting arms in their rotation, however.
Boston - Over 90.5 (-115) Under 90.5 (-115)
What is Vegas missing here?
This is the 2003 Sox all over again and that squad won 95 games. Boston has a lineup that won't quit, superb starting pitching and a bullpen that will keep the opposition in plenty of games they have no business winning. It's a volatile combo, but one that I think gets them over the 90-win hump.
Chicago White Sox - Over 86.5 (-115) Under 86.5 (-115)
What is Vegas missing here?
A lot. In fact, along with Arizona, this may be the easiest money on the board. Their left field, center field and shortstop offensive output will be a joke and the starting pitching is not good enough to win with only Jim Thome, Jermaine Dye and Paul Konerko carrying the offensive load.
Cleveland - Over 84.5 (-115) Under 84.5 (-115)
What is Vegas missing here?
Probably just the concept of Pythagorean Win-Loss records. Cleveland was a lot better than their record indicated last season and I don't see much reason to expect them to regress.
Detroit - Over 87.5 (-130) Under 87.5 (Even)
What is Vegas missing here?
That a lot of things went really right for Detroit last season. They are a good team, but 87.5 looks a little to lofty for my blood. A tough one, but I call it under by a smidge.
Kansas City - Over 67.5 (-125) Under 67.5 (-105)
What is Vegas missing here?
Nothing. I like the line and wouldn't touch it. But only slightly better-than-expected performance from Alex Gordon could push them by a win or two over the 67-win mark.
Los Angeles Angels - Over 89.5 (-125) Under 89.5 (-105)
What is Vegas missing here?
That the Halos can't hit. At all. But they're pitching is so good that the 89.5 is not out of the picture. Call it 87.
Minnesota - Over 83.5 (-115) Under 83.5 (-115)
What is Vegas missing here?
That this bullpen is so good that the starters won't need to do all that much and that this team can actually hit a little bit now. 86 wins.
New York Yankees - Over 97 (-115) Under 97 (-115)
What is Vegas missing here?
The Yanks are excellent, but 97 wins is a whole lot of wins. With Chien-Ming Wang banged up and taking into account their reliance on Carl Pavano, I see New York's starting pitching as enough of a question to feel confident about an under-97 call.
Oakland - Over 84.5 (-110) Under 84.5 (-120)
What is Vegas missing here?
That Oakland lost its best hitter and best pitcher from last season and is depending on too many unproven or injury-prone players to get to the 85-win mark.
Seattle - Over 75.5 (-115) Under 75.5 (-115)
What is Vegas missing here?
I don't love how this team is assembled but I will call a King Felix breakout, a little bit of a Jarrod Washburn bounceback, and a decent enough lineup to get the win total up into the high-70's.
Tampa Bay - Over 67 (-130) Under 67 (Even)
What is Vegas missing here?
That Tampa Bay has a bunch of really good baseball players in their system and that this is the year they start to make some legitimate noise. The starting pitching leaves plenty to be desired but there is enough punch in that lineup to push their win total to around 75.
Texas - Over 81.5 (Even) Under 81.5 (-130)
What is Vegas missing here?
That Texas was an 86-win Pythag team last season, Oakland got worse and there is not much reason to think Texas will regress. Yes they lose Gary Matthews, Jr. and Mark DeRosa, but Brandon McCarthy helps and more can be expected from the likes of Mark Teixeira, Ian Kinsler and Gerald Laird.
Toronto - Over 86.5 (-110) Under 86.5 (-120)
What is Vegas missing here?
That Royce Clayton is a joke, Reed Johnson and Lyle Overbay are coming back to earth and the back end of the rotation is just brutal.
OK, I went through what I think Vegas is missing with these lines and told you who I like and dislike in relation to the odds this season.
Now you tell me what I am missing.
Florida's Rookie Hitters: Can They Avoid the Sophomore Slump?
Although the Marlins' young pitching received the bulk of the attention in 2006, they received some solid (and not-so-solid) performances from a collection of rookie players, led by Rule 5 pick Dan Uggla, who was stolen from Arizona, and Rookie of the Year Hanley Ramirez. Other players to see significant playing time in Florida in 2006 included Reggie Abercrombie, Mike Jacobs, Josh Willingham and Jeremy Hermida.
If the Marlins hope to contend again in 2007, they will need repeat performances from Ramirez, Uggla and Willingham. They will also need Abercrombie, Jacobs and Hermida - arguably the most talented of all the young hitters - to improve significantly.
AVG OBA SLG BB% K% GB% BABIP HR/AB
Dan Uggla .282 .339 .480 7.3 20.1 41.0 .315 27/611
Hanley Ramirez .292 .353 .480 8.1 20.2 43.8 .344 17/633
Mike Jacobs .262 .325 .473 8.8 22.4 39.6 .299 20/469
Josh Willingham .277 .356 .496 9.7 21.7 42.9 .308 26/502
Jeremy Hermida .251 .332 .368 9.7 22.8 44.8 .310 5/307
Reggie Abercrombie .212 .271 .333 6.6 30.6 54.1 .285 5/255
R/R | 5'11'' 200 | Born: 3/80 | Drafted: 11th - 2001 - college
Teams knew Uggla had offensive potential. But teams, such as his former employer in Arizona, did not think Uggla had the defensive skills to be a regular in the major leagues. Oops. Uggla proved to not only be an above-average offensive second baseman, but he was adequate at his position as well. Was Uggla's rookie season a fluke? Well, he hit .307/.365/.510 in the first half and .256/.311/.449 in the second half. He should be an above-average offensive force at second base during his career but I sense a sophomore slump.
2007 Forecast: .255/.322/.450
Career Comp: Charlie Irwin
R/R | 6'3'' 195 | Born: 12/83 | Drafted: NDF - 2000 - NA
Ramirez has always been oozing with potential. While in the minors with the Red Sox, he would flash tools that screamed "Star!" but never on a consistent basis. As such, Boston saw fit to include him in the deal for starter Josh Beckett. Ramirez had one of those odd debuts where his major league numbers far exceeded his best minor league season:
AVG OBA SLG R SB BB/9 K/9
2006: .292 .353 .480 119 51 8.1% 20.2%
2005: .310 .364 .389 33 12 6.5% 14.8% (A+)
2005: .310 .360 .512 26 12 7.2% 18.7% (AA)
There have been questions in the past about Ramirez' attitude and he may end up being one of those players who plays better in the spotlight with all the perks that come from being a big leaguer.
2007 Forecast: .302/.346/.477
Career Comp: Jimmy Rollins
R/R | 6'3'' 220 | Born: 7/80 | Drafted: 23rd - 1999 - high school
Abercrombie saw significant time in the outfield for the Marlins in 2006, but the team wishes he had not. The Marlins spent this past off-season scouring for an inexperienced, veteran center-fielder, which is no surprise considering Abercrombie's less-than-stellar numbers. He hit .285 when he managed to put the ball in play, but he has shown little aptitude for making consistent contact. The team was so desperate that they signed Alex Sanchez (feel free to Google his checkered past) to a minor league deal. Eric Reed was another player the Marlins had hopes for in center field, but he has struggled with injuries and was left to rot on the bench early in the season and never got on track with the bat. Abercrombie should spend a good portion of the season in Triple-A.
2007 Forecast: .188/.235/.310
Career Comp: NA
L/R | 6'2'' 200 | Born: 10/80 | Drafted: 38th - 1999 - junior college
Jacobs bust onto the scene in 2005 for the Mets by slugging 11 homers in 100 at-bats (9.8 HR%). Not surprisingly (hello Kevin Maas, Mitch Einertson), he was unable to duplicate those numbers in 2006 (3.8 HR%). One thing Jacobs needs to do is hit left-handers, especially if he wants to avoid the dreaded platoon.
Vs Right: .281 .345 .514
Vs Left: .182 .234 .295
The former catcher has the potential to be an average first baseman and his 2006 numbers were encouraging, but he will need to take another step forward in 2007. He has the potential to turn some of his 37 doubles into homers.
2007 Forecast: .248/.315/.455
Career Comp: Josh Phelps
L/R | 6'4'' 200 | Born: 1/84 | Drafted: 1st - 2002 - high school
As mentioned above, of all rookies on the team in 2006, Hermida appeared to be the one player poised to have an impact season. He was originally a first round pick in 2002 out of high school and flew through the minor leagues. Hermida displayed an outstanding eye in the minors, walking 111 times in 118 games in 2005. That skill did not show up nearly as consistently in the majors in 2006 but there is no reason to think it won't develop at that level. Hermida committed eight errors in 86 games in right field. I expect him to be significantly more successful in 2007 than Atlanta's Jeff Francoeur, whom he grew up playing against.
2007 Forecast: .282/.360/.477
Career Comp: NA
R/R | 6'1'' 200 | Born: 2/79 | Drafted: 17th - 2000 - college
This former catcher has been knocking on the major league door for a few seasons and finally got the chance to prove himself last season. Willingham's versatility is a big plus, although he patrolled the outfield for most of last season. He has the potential to be a solid No. 5 hitter and was third on the team in homers last year. Willingham is also the oldest of the Marlins' youthful hitters and recently turned 28 despite his inexperience. As such, his ceiling probably isn't much higher than it was in 2006.
2007 Forecast: .265/.336/.470
Career Comp: Brant Brown
*Career comps courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com.
Nephews and Sun
PEORIA - My nephew Brett and I drove from Long Beach to Arizona on Thursday afternoon. The purpose was twofold: to visit my brother Gary and his family in Phoenix and attend a few spring training games in and around the area.
We were fortunate in that Gary's son Troy was playing in an ice hockey tournament over the weekend at a rink that was next door to the spring training complex of the San Diego Padres and Seattle Mariners in Peoria. The schedules were such that we were able to watch hockey, baseball, and hockey without missing a beat (or even a two-minute minor).
On Friday afternoon, we attended the Angels-Mariners game. Gary arrived in Peoria about an hour before us and was able to buy tickets on the morning of the game in the fifth row behind Seattle's on-deck circle. We could not have asked for a better location to watch a dream matchup between John Lackey and Felix Hernandez. The home team Mariners took the field first and the most startling observation was seeing the slimmed-down Hernandez loosening up on the mound.
King Felix, who was named Seattle's Opening Day starter by manager Mike Hargrove after his outing, reported to camp at 226 pounds (down from 246 last season). It's quite an honor for a pitcher who won't turn 21 until after the season starts. Hernandez, in fact, will join Dwight Gooden and Fernando Valenzuela as the only 20-year-olds to start an opener in the last 26 years.
Hernandez and Lackey were both getting their work in that afternoon against their division rivals, throwing mostly fastballs and concentrating more on mechanics and command than the results (which, in the case of the latter, were not good). Felix spun a few curves that he left up in the zone but struck out Vladimir Guerrero looking on a nice bender to end the first inning. He punched out four Angels and induced nine groundouts (including five comebackers), three flyouts, and an infield pop fly, and catcher Rene Rivera threw out Casey Kotchman trying to steal on what appeared to be a broken hit and run play. I timed Rivera's throw from home to second in 1.89 seconds, which is right about where he needs to be.
Lackey, who was working noticeably faster, has a compact, fluid motion that is among the best in the game. He was basically throwing batting practice and his line showed it: 10 hits and 9 earned runs in just four innings. He mixed in a few changeups but rarely threw any breaking balls and the Mariners jacked a couple of his low-90s fastballs out of the yard. Jose Guillen hit a two-run shot in the first inning and Adrian Beltre launched a two-run blast in the fourth. We also saw Angels rookie Nick Gorneault take Aaron Small deep to lead off the top of the ninth inning.
Brandon Morrow, Seattle's first-round pick out of the University of California in 2006, retired the Angels in order in the seventh on eight pitches. The 22-year-old righthander, sporting the number 85 on the back of his jersey, is trying to earn a spot in the bullpen with only 16 innings of professional experience under his belt. Morrow threw strikes and got Mike Napoli, Maicer Izturis, and Erick Aybar to loft easy flyball outs that were handled by Jeremy Reed in center and Mike Morse in left.
Ichiro handled DH duties and led off. He ran a 4.19 to first on a fielder's choice, pulling up the last couple of steps. Reggie Willits had the fastest time of the day, running a 4.08 on a 6-3 groundout. Box Score.
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SURPRISE - On the heels of the afternoon baseball game and a second hockey match, Brett and I drove to Surprise to catch an evening tilt between the Brewers and the home team Rangers, who share the beautiful ballpark with the Kansas City Royals. Tip of the day: Don't make the same mistake as us by logically assuming that the most direct route between the two sites would also be the fastest. We crawled along the eight-mile drive on Bell Road for 45 minutes and got to the ballpark just in time to hear (and not see) Sammy Sosa's grand slam in the home half of the first inning. Oh well, I'm glad it wasn't HR #600 (although, if that were the case, I would at least have the ticket stub as a souvenir).
Our tardiness also caused us to miss Eric Gagne, who started and pitched the top of the first only. The former Cy Young Award winner allowed a hit and a walk while striking out two. Despite arriving late, we were able to secure two tickets between home and third in the top row of the field boxes. We sat next to four guys from California who were paying more attention to their Blackberrys tracking the Sweet Sixteen games that were in progress, including USC's loss to North Carolina in which the Trojans apparently ran out of gas late in the second half.
In between Sosa's home run in the first and Tony Graffanino's bomb in the ninth (which took place as we were sloshing across the wet soccer fields that had been turned into overflow parking lots for the night), we witnessed four baggers by Damian Miller, Rickie Weeks, and Johnny Estrada off Bruce Chen. But Chen wasn't the worst southpaw that evening. Zach Jackson, a first-round draft choice by Toronto in 2004 and later part of a package (along with Dave Bush and Gabe Gross) that sent Lyle Overbay from the Brewers to the Blue Jays, looked like he couldn't get anybody out that game or any other game. The 6-5, 220-pound lefty was far from impressive, and it looks as if he will spend the majority of 2007 in Triple-A Nashville once again.
Bill Hall played center field and struck out three times. It will be interesting to see if Hall can duplicate his 35-HR season while switching positions. A good athlete, the 27-year-old should have no problem handling the defensive chores, but I can't help but wonder whether 2006 was a career year for him at the plate. Hall and Prince Fielder will need to supply the power if the Brewers are hopeful of supplanting the Cardinals as the NL Central champs.
Hank Blalock, who went 0-for-2 with a strikeout and two walks, was taking his usual rips on every swing, seemingly going for the downs on every pitch. A lot has been said and written about his inability to hit on the road and his second half woes going back to the 2003 All-Star game when he took his now teammate Gagne deep for a two-out, two-run HR to lead the American League to a 7-6 victory in the midsummer classic. I believe part of his problem is his approach at the plate and maintain Hank would be better served if he didn't try to pull everything and jack every pitch out of the park.
* * *
PHOENIX - Our third and final spring training game was a Saturday afternoon clash between the Colorado Rockies and the Angels. Our luck for picking up great tickets continued as we bought a pair in the second row behind the Angels dugout from a scalper an hour-and-a-half before the sold-out event. It wasn't much of a game, but the seats made it all quite bearable.
Jeff Francis outdueled Kelvim Escobar, who left in the third inning after straining his back reaching for a groundball single off the bat of Steve Finley. Mike Scioscia and pitching coach Mike Butcher visited the mound and, after watching Escobar throw a couple of warmups, took the big righthander out as much for precautionary reasons as anything else. He is not expected to miss a regular season start.
The most impressive player was Ryan Spilborghs, who slugged a home run well beyond the wall in left-center field and made a long, running catch in right center and a strong throw to first base trying to double up Shea Hillenbrand. Spilborghs is competing with John Mabry and Alexis Gomez for the final spot on the Rockies bench. Spilborghs wasn't the only player who hit a home run in Phoenix that day. My nephew Casey hit a "don't stop running until you make it around the bases" home run in his T-ball game that morning. He plays for the Yankees and wears #7 on his back. Funny, I thought they retired that number.
Angels relievers Chris Resop and Kevin Jepsen got ripped, allowing a combined 8 hits, 4 walks, 1 HBP, and 9 runs in 2 innings. Several fans around us, apparently thinking they were attending the World Series finale, booed Resop and Jepsen to the point that I wanted to turn around and tell them to zip it up. If anything, I felt embarrassed for the pitchers who were obviously struggling to throw strikes and get batters out. Jepsen has never pitched beyond Single-A and is probably heading to Double-A Arkansas in a couple of weeks. Box Score.
* * *
LONG BEACH - I recently learned that Norm Larker died on March 12 at the age of 76. Larker became the third member of the 1959 Los Angeles Dodgers World Series Championship club to pass away during the off-season. Relief pitchers Larry Sherry (December 17) and Clem Labine (March 2) predeceased Larker.
Larker was one of several Dodgers who lived in Long Beach or Lakewood. The Larkers built a new house in Lakewood Country Club, adjacent to Lakewood Village in Long Beach (which is where I was born and raised). Times were different in the late-1950s and 1960s. Dad would carpool with many of the local players such as Larker, Ed Roebuck, and Gino Cimoli, as well as the late trainer Bill Buhler, to and from the airport. My parents would also invite players and their wives to the house for a game of bridge.
The Larkers had four sons - Duane, Wayne, Blaine and Shane - who played baseball at about the same time as my brothers and me. My younger brother Gary and Blaine were Pony League teammates, and it wasn't unusual to see Norm at Heartwell Park watching their games back in the mid-1970s. Blaine was on the Cal State Fullerton team that won the College World Series in 1984. Larker was joined on the All-Tournament team by Barry Bonds.
Norm was second in the National League in batting average in 1960. He missed out on the batting title by one hit. The lefthanded-hitting Larker need to go 2-for-3 in the final game to surpass Dick Groat, who had finished the year at .325. Larker walked in the first inning, grounded out to second in the third, beat out a higher bouncer to first in the fifth on a play that was ruled a hit by the official scorekeeper, and flied out to left in the seventh. He was in the on-deck circle when Maury Wills hit a sacrifice fly in the bottom of the ninth to score Bob Lillis (my favorite player at the time) with the winning run in a 4-3 victory over the visiting Cubs.
Larker was named the Long Beach Independent, Press-Telegram Most Valuable Player in 1960. He was chosen as Dodger of the Day by my Dad 13 times, one more than fellow Lakewood resident Stan Williams and two more than Don Drysdale and Wills. The photo of Larker and Dad is from The 1961 Dodger Family pamphlet by Union Oil Company of California.
Larker played six years in the majors, including four with the Dodgers. He was selected by the Houston Colt .45s in the expansion draft in October 1961 and was traded to the Milwaukee Braves in 1962 and sold to the San Francisco Giants in 1963. Larker finished his career as a professional ballplayer with the Toei Flyers in Japan. He will be missed by all of us in the Dodger Family.
Two on Two: NL East Preview
It's time to move on to the National League now and we kick things off in the East. Kind enough to have joined us for the chat are Dave Studeman of The Hardball Times and Chris Needham, who writes the Washington Nationals blog, aptly named for 2007 at least, Capitol Punishment. Dave had some personal matters to tend to during our chat so he did not finish up with us. Listed below are our American League Two on Two chats.
Sully: The National League East, like the American League Central, will be competitive and deep. The division features some of the best individual talent in baseball. What excites you guys most about the NL East in 2007?
Dave: The great young players in the division. You've got three third basemen (Ryan Zimmerman, David Wright and Miguel Cabrera) who could have careers that rank among the ten or twenty best all-time at their position; three great young shortstops (Jose Reyes, Jimmy Rollins and Hanley Ramirez - the three R's) who have all the tools. Plus the best young slugger in the game (Ryan Howard), the best all-around young second baseman (Chase Utley) and the best all-around player, period (Carlos Beltran). Brian McCann could have a tremendous catching career. I've probably missed a few (don't the Marlins have some good young kids?). So it will be fun to watch each one of these guys in 2007, seeing which ones step forward, which ones continue apace and/or which ones lose some career momentum.
Rich: I agree. There is a lot of star power in the division. As Dave pointed out, many of the best players in all of baseball are congregated in the NL East. The Phillies, Braves, and Mets can flat out hit. These teams finished 1-2-3 in the league in runs scored last year. All three clubs slugged at least 200 home runs. Even though four of the five ballparks favor pitchers, this division seems like it is right up the alley for those who like offense.
Sully: Remarkably, according to their park-adjusted OPS+ figures, every team in the division was above average offensively. The Nats pulled up the rear with a 101 figure while Atlanta, New York, Philadelphia and Florida ranked 1 through 4 in the NL.
Chris:And although most every team has some questions marks in their staffs, some of these guys can throw the ball. The frontline starters of the five teams really excite me -- John Smoltz, Tom Glavine, Dontrelle Willis, John Patterson and Freddy Garcia eating innings for Philly to go along with Cole Hamels and Brett Myers. These guys can hold their own with any other division's combo. It's a division with some strong closers too, and a few teams look like they could have lights-out pens.
Rich: Another side story, in my opinion, is that the worst team in the majors just so happens to reside in the division. This is a three-team race with a fourth heading in the right direction but possibly due for some consolidation after last year's huge strides and a fifth that has almost no chance of losing fewer than 100 games.
Dave: Oof. As we used to say in Chemistry class: Viscous, Rich. Viscous. Seems to me that the Nats' (relative) success, like every team in this division, will hinge on its pitching. Doesn't it seem as though every team has MAJOR question marks in its pitching staff?
Sully: Washington's going to be awful this season. The starting rotation they are planning to go with is the worst I can remember heading into a season. Rich wrote about it a few weeks back so I won't delve any further but it's bad. Tim Redding didn't pitch in the Big Leagues last season and in limited time in 2004 and 2005 he sported a 75 and 37 ERA+ respectively in each season. As for the rest of the division, the Mets and Braves look like they have strong bullpens and questionable starting. Vice versa for the Phils. Florida looks mediocre in both departments.
Chris: The Nats are just taking stathead orthodoxy to its illogical extreme. Why spend $55 million on Gil Meche when you can get Joel Hanrahan for $2.99? At least they'll have a solid pen (at least until they trade Chad Cordero to Boston).
Rich: Speaking of money, the Mets have been known to thrown some coin in the direction of free agents. However, this year's additions don't measure up to the past couple of years. Moises Alou seems like a good fit to me but did Omar Minaya do enough in the off-season to enable New York to defend its NL East title?
Dave: I think Omar did the same thing Kenny Williams did this offseason: he refused to pay the going market price for good pitching (either in money or talent). I can't say I blame him at all. Regarding Alou, I thought that was a terrific move: get someone who can conceivably contribute well for a year or two (at a decent price) while waiting
for their young outfielders to mature. Omar got very lucky last year with many of his lesser signings (Jose Valentin, Endy Chavez, Pedro Feliciano, etc.). He's hoping to strike similar gold again in the pitching department.
Sully: We know New York's offensive core will be fantastic. David Wright, Jose Reyes, Carlos Delgado, Carlos Beltran and Moises Alou are all known quantities. I do have some concerns after these five, however. I question whether Jose Valentin can replicate his 2006. Valentin is very good when things are going well for him but being a low-obp type, he can also be just terribly debilitating for an offense when he is off. Paul Lo Duca is another player that appears to be in for some regression. He is 35 now and coming off one of his best seasons. Also, the sooner Lastings Millesge supplants Shawn Green, the better for the Mets and their faithful.
Chris:That's assuming that the Milledge the Mets faithful get is the one they've managed to put on a pedestal over the last year or so. He held his own for being such a young kid last year, but he would still need to take a step or two forward to be much of an improvement over Green. Offensively, I love the Alou signing. He murdered the ball last year in a pretty tough pitcher's park. But the calendar flips over to 40 for him. He's missed a bunch of games with injuries ever since the millennium rolled over. And I worry about his defense, especially with Green flopping around in right. Those guys are going to burn out Carlos Beltran's hammies by mid-May.
Rich: Every team has a few weaknesses. But I'm not overly concerned about the sixth, seventh, and eighth best hitters or their corner outfield defense. Those seem rather minor compared to the starting pitching. Unlike Chris, I don't think of Glavine as an ace. At 41, he remains a solid pitcher but more like Jamie Moyer than not. Unless Oliver Perez finds his 2004 form and Mike Pelfrey pitches like the ace he was at Wichita State, I'm at a loss for how the starters are even going to give the team league average results.
Chris: 200 Innings of 115 ERA+ is pretty close to an ace these days. This might finally be the year he falls off the cliff as almost everyone has predicted him to do for the last 10 years. But your overall point is right. It's the other four starters who are going to make or break the season. El Duque is one of my favorite pitchers to watch, but as Mets fans saw in the playoffs, he comes with huge durability concerns. It's pretty scary that they're even screwing around with the idea of Chan Ho Park, a pitcher who hasn't had a good year since 2001. But with as strong as that pen is, maybe Willie Randolph is taking a page out of the 1996 Yankees playbook: nurse the starter through five, and let the bullpen shut down the other team.
Sully: I will be honest, I think the Mets are in for a real step back this season. Like Rich, I just don't think a chamionship aspirant club can come with a rotation as thin as this one. The offense is formidable, and will be called upon to carry this team on its shoulders but I don't see it being enough to repeat as division champs. What am I missing with this club, Dave?
Dave: Hope! Seriously, the Mets' rotation ERA was 4.67 last year, league average. I think it won't be much worse than that this year. Glavine, El Duque and Maine are all capable of ERA's under 4.67; Oliver Perez is looking great, and Mike Pelfrey should be an established major league starter by the end of the year with Philip Humber perhaps contributing by the end of the year, too.
The real difference for the Mets is in the bullpen, where they had a 3.25 ERA last year thanks to great efforts by a lot of relievers. They won't do nearly that well in the pen this year, especially if Sanchez keeps showing up late. Also, some of the spare parts, like Valentin and Chavez, won't contribute as much. For those two reasons, I think Jimmy Rollins is right: the Phillies are the team to beat in the East.
Chris: I think that Dave is right when it comes to how well the front three starters will pitch. It's just a matter of how often. As strange as it sounds, Oliver Perez really does seem to be the linchpin of that staff. He had a 4.40 ERA after September, which looks good only in comparison to the 7.29 he had prior to that. If Rick Peterson really has fixed him (and his 13/3 K/BB ratio in spring is a sign that he might've), they'll have a solid innings-eating 3 or 4 in the middle of the rotation, which is more valuable than it seems.
Rich: Who'da thunk that the Phillies would be the team with the superior starting rotation? Philadelphia goes six deep. The bullpen isn't nearly as strong but perhaps Pat Gillick can flip Jon Lieber and/or a youngster like Scott Mathieson for another arm to bridge the gap between those starters and Tom Gordon. This is a team that could have the best balance in the division. But is this club good enough to close last year's 12-game gap with the Mets?
Sully: For starters, it is more like a 5-game gap than 12 according to New York's and Philly's 2006 Pythagorean records. And yes, as I wrote about a month ago, I do think it is enough. Philadelphia got some astoundingly horrendous starting pitching from the likes of Gavin Floyd, Randy Wolf and Ryan Madson last season. Freddy Garcia basically takes all of these innings. Further, this was the best team in the division after the All-Star Break last year. The team posted a 2nd-half .831 OPS (tops in the NL, 2nd in the Bigs) and 4.36 ERA, a very respectable figure given their offense-friendly digs. With the addition of Garcia, and to a lesser extent Wes Helms, I see the momentum carrying over.
Dave: There are lots of parallels between the teams. Rolllins/Reyes, Utley/Wright, Howard and Burrell vs. Beltran and Delgado. On offense they're virtually equal, and their fielding skills are relatively similar. The big difference is the starting
rotation, which should be one of the best in the league this year (and the best in the division). Of course, I thought the Philly starting rotation would be strong last year too, but it was almost the worst in the league.
Chris: The depth of that rotation is scary. They should be able to weather any inevitable injuries that pop up without taking a beating at the back of the rotation.
It has the potential, too, to be a dominant rotation. The few times I saw Cole Hamels last year, I came away impressed. Brett Myers is probably underrated because of how much a hitter's park that is -- an ERA under 4 there isn't half bad. If those two emerge and Garcia does what he does every year, it's likely one of the two or three best rotations in the league, even if the park will disguise much of that.
Rich: One of the things I really like about the Phillies is that the team's three best players are all right at their peak. During the off-season, Howard turned 27 and Rollins and Utley both turned 28. Although all three are coming off outstanding years, I wouldn't look for any of them to regress much, if at all, in 2007. The oldest starter is Rod Barajas and he is only 31. This team is primed to win right now.
Sully: Indeed they are, Rich, and you did not even mention the pitching staff. Hamels is just 23, Myers 25 and Garcia, the prototype innings eating horse, is 32. I am a big believer in these Phillies. While Shane Victorino might not be an adequate fill-in for David Dellucci's production, some of that could be made up for at third base. Phils 3rd Basemen hit for a .684 OPS in 2006, worse than everyone in baseball except for San Diego. They bring in Wes Helms, a career .268/.331/.447 hitter who is coming off a .329/.390/.575 season. No matter where he slots in on the production spectrum between those two endpoints, he will represent a major uptick for Philly over and above what they got out of the hot corner in 2006.
Dave: The biggest question mark for the Phillies is their bullpen, particularly with Tom Gordon showing some injury concerns. I also don't see Geoff Geary having the same kind of year. Maybe Ryan Madson is a partial answer, but who knows? How do you guys think the Philly pen will fall out?
Chris: That's the million dollar question. It's a shame they dumped Ed Wade. I'm sure he'd throw a few million dollars at a few supposed answers. Geary has been a pretty underrated pitcher the last two years or so, but that 91 IP from last year scares me. He's not really an overpowering pitcher, but he had great control last year (1.97 BB/9) and he kept the ball in the park. That's two thirds of the battle.
I think the more interesting case is Madson. He's been disastrous as a starter, but a pretty valuable arm in the pen, even last year. It looks like the shorter outings, as you'd suspect, give him just a little more juice on his pitches, upping his effectiveness.
They've got a lot of arms at the back of the rotation. It's going to be up to Charlie Manuel to sort through them to round out the staff - something I don't think he's particularly known for.
Sully: Atlanta has been thought of as a pitching-first ballclub during the last 16 years or so but they led the National League with a 110 OPS+ last season. Will the lineup continue to mash, and what do you guys think of Atlanta's strategy to prioritize bullpen quality this off-season?
Rich: As you noted, Sully, the Braves had the best OPS+ but also the second-lowest ERA+ in the NL last year. The offense looks good once again. However, there are a few question marks. Chipper Jones turns 35 next month and hasn't played more than 110 games since 2004. First base and left field are OK but nothing special. Kelly Johnson should provide decent offense as a second baseman, provided he can handle the job defensively. Andruw Jones is Andruw Jones. Brian McCann is the real deal. Jeff Francoeur could be a superstar if . . .
Chris: ... I guess the answer I'm supposed to say is "he walks more," but if he hits .300 like he did in his first crack at the league (a huge if), it won't much matter. At the very least, he needs to improve his pitch recognition. Even Vlad Guerrero walks 50 times a year.
Rich: As far as the bullpen goes, yes, I like the moves John Schuerholz made this winter. Rafael Soriano and Mike Gonzalez will lend plenty of support to Bob Wickman, who was lights out with Atlanta last year. It looks like Detroit's bullpen with two power pitchers setting up a veteran closer. The fact the Braves also wrangled Brent Lillibridge out of the Pirates in that deal for Adam LaRoche was pure genius on the part of one of the game's best GMs.
Sully: I am looking forward to watching Brian McCann this season. It's not so much that he figures to be a superstar someday, he is one already. Have a look at the following OPS+ figures for a smattering of catchers that played full-time in their 22-year old season. He's got a way to go, but for now it sure looks like McCann has the potential to be a player of historic significance.
OPS+ in their 22-year old season
Brian McCann 146
Johnny Bench 145
Bill Dickey 118
Ivan Rodriguez 117
Yogi Berra 115
Mickey Cochrane 108
Joe Mauer 108
Gabby Hartnett 107
Rich: While on the subject of young players, let's turn our attention to the Florida Marlins. The team was still in the hunt for the playoffs as late as early September last year, winning 78 games or five to ten more than most pundits predicted before the season began. This franchise has been known to get good, really good, in a hurry then trading players off and rebuilding. What does the future have in store for the Marlins?
Sully: The Marlins are an interesting club. They feature some real star power in Miguel Cabrera, Hanley Ramirez and Dontrelle Willis but I see them as a little too top-heavy to threaten in the ultra-competitive NL East. Pretending Alex Sanchez is an everyday Major League center fielder is criminal, and the back end of the rotation, though talented, is not quite there yet. The rest of the roster is filled with serviceable types that won't make or break anything. Guys like Josh Willingham, Dan Uggla and Mike Jacobs are solid but not difference makers. Jeremy Hermida is another one. He will have a fantastic MLB career, but he is not the stud the Marlins need him to be yet. These are the types of guys you fill out a championship caliber roster with. The Marlins are depending too heavily on them.
Chris: It's amazing how many of those filler guys had great years last year. Willingham slugged .500. Wes Helms (Wes Helms!?) slugged .575. They picked Joe Borchard off the waiver wire and he put up an OPS over .800 against righties. They're going to need to get a bit lucky again with the fringes of their roster to duplicate the success they've had. And that's even before we consider the arm problems cropping up on their pitching staff.
Dave: The Marlins have some great young players, and they do have some holes, as Chris says. To me, the biggest hole is in their bullpen. Of course, some of their young arms could help fill in that hole, but their weaknesses are serious enough to keep them listed behind the Braves, in my eyes.
Sully: What about the Nats? To me, this team looks just awful. With Nick Johnson looking like he is out for a while and the pitching staff being just brutal, I don't see much hope for these guys.
Chris: Earlier, someone said that the Nats pitching could be historically bad. I guess that that's possible, but it's also ignoring how pitiful last year's rotation was. Ramon Ortiz (he of the 5.57 ERA in a pitcher's park) was the team's "ace". Only one regular starter (Mike O'Connor) had an ERA under 5. So as bad as things could be this year, they probably can't get much worse, especially if John Patterson stays healthy and if Shawn Hill and his sinker live up to their modest PECOTA projections. The bullpen, with Chad Cordero and Jon Rauch anchoring, should be solid. Some pitching improvement should come from the defense. The decision to start Nook Logan in center is a mistake, but it's one that should help the pitchers' bottom lines. When surrounded by Ryan Church, Austin Kearns and Chris Snelling at the corners, lots of flyballs will die in the gaps. Felipe Lopez should be a big improvement over Jose Vidro at second base, as long as the shorter throw keeps some of the yips away.
Rich: With apologies to John Patterson, this pitching staff might be worse than the Tigers in 2003, the Reds in 2004, or the Devil Rays and Royals in 2005 - four of the worst in the post-expansion era on a park-adjusted basis. The Nats are a lock to give up more than 900 runs and could conceivably allow 1,000 or more. Let's not kid ourselves here. Aside from Patterson and closer Chad Cordero, this is, at best, a bunch of "AAAA" quality arms. Opposing hitters will be chomping at the bit to face these pitchers.
Sully: Yeah I am with Rich on this one. And it's never a good thing when you are depending on Nook Logan to rescue your team's hopes. But you make some good points, Chris. Maybe the defense can save some runs here and there on the margins. Offensively, I like some of the parts, like Zimmerman, Kearns, Lopez, Church and if he comes back, Johnson. But it still just doesn't quite fit together.
Chris: With Alfonso Soriano gone and Nick Johnson out, it's going to be a long summer. How many runs they score is going to depend on how long they tolerate automatic outs like Nook Logan and Cristian Guzman when alternatives are in place (Ron Belliard and Ryan Church). It's going to be a terrible team, but I'm not sold that it will be historically awful. Then again, come talk to me in October...if I make it that long.
Rich: By default, offense is the team's strength. Nick Johnson is a superb hitter but is recovering from a broken right leg and may miss the first two months of the season. As such, Austin Kearns, Felipe Lopez, and Ryan Zimmerman will be forced to carry the load. The bottom three hitters (Cristian Guzman, Nook Logan, and the pitcher) will be the worst in all of baseball. I'm sorry, there isn't much to like here.
What do you guys see as the biggest surprise coming out of the NL East this season?
Sully: I'll take Atlanta to finish ahead of the Mets (but behind the Phillies). The bullpen will be lights out and these guys are going to mash again. And as I mentioned earlier, I think the Mets took some steps back this off-season.
Rich: No way, Sully. Pedro Martinez returns in August and is the difference maker down the stretch, lifting the Mets to a division title over the Phillies.
Chris: Does the Nats not being "historically awful" count? And isn't it always a surprise, regardless of how many have them as the division favorite, to pick Philly to win their division?
Sully: What about awards candidates? I would count Beltran, Wright, Reyes, Utley, Howard, McCann and Cabrera amongst the MVP hopefuls. I think Myers and Hamels could contend for a Cy, and I wouldn't count Smoltz out. As for Rookie of the Year, I don't see a real candidate in the East.
Rich: With respect to MVP, there are so many players in this division who could win the award. But given the voters preference for players with high RBI totals on winning teams, I would give the nod to Ryan Howard once again. If the Cy Young comes from the NL East, I would go with John Smoltz or maybe Brett Myers if he benefits from strong run support and wins 20 games. As to the Rookie of the Year, a long, long shot would be Michael Bourn. The reality is that there is little chance the #1 rookie comes out of this division. But I could see a scenario in which Aaron Rowand gets hurt or traded and Bourn steps up and hits .280-.300 with a decent number of walks and a bunch of triples and stolen bases while giving his club a plus defender in center field.
Chris: With the number of individual stars in the division, lots of players could contend for MVP, but the safe money is on Carlos Beltran and Ryan Howard. Jose Reyes and Chase Utley should certainly be in the conversation. I'm not sure if I really see any Cy Young contenders in the division, even if there are some quality pitchers. The Phillies guys are good, but the park hides much of that. If I had to pick, I'd take Old Man Smoltz. Maybe with some better bullpen support, he'd be closer to that "magical" 20-win mark. The tough thing about picking rookies is that the pre-season favorite (see: Hermida, Jeremy) rarely is the post-season one. Scott Thorman will likely have enough ABs to make some noise, but I'm not sure there are any other rookies who've won starting jobs yet. On the other side of the ball, Mike Pelfry has a chance if he cracks the Mets' rotation. And for the Nats, Matt Chico, who came over in the Livan Hernandez deal, looks like he's going to be given every chance to head north.
Sully: OK, prediction time. I have Philadelphia, Atlanta, New York, Florida, Washington.
Rich: I see the Phillies winning their first division crown since 1993, followed by the Mets, Braves, Marlins, and Nationals. I would be shocked if Florida and Washington don't finish fourth and fifth, respectively.
Sully: I like the hedge after your "surprise" call, Rich.
Chris: Phillies, Mets, Braves, BIG GAP, Marlins, Nats. But dumb luck might have a say in the order of those first three.
Sully: Thanks for participating, everyone.
When Titans Clash
On May 28, 1968, the Giants and Cardinals squared off on a Tuesday
evening in St. Louis, with a future Hall of Famer starting for each
club: Bob Gibson for the Cardinals and Gaylord Perry for the Giants.
Despite the early-season date, this matchup could have been considered
key: the Giants were sitting atop the NL standings by a single game,
with the Cardinals right behind them. The Giants had finished in second place three years running and were looking to take the pennant,
for a change. The Cardinals were coming off a World Series
Championship in 1967 and looking to repeat.
Gibson, of course, had his epic year in 1968, posting an ERA of 1.12
while throwing an amazing 13 shutouts. The tall right-hander was
probably the most impressive figure on the field that day, but
let's not forget about the Giants' elder statesman, a guy by the name
of Willie Mays. Mays, at the age of 37, had a fine season himself in
that Year of the Pitcher, finishing 3rd or 4th in the NL in OBP, SLG,
OPS and OPS+. He was also selected to the All-Star team and won a
Gold Glove. He was still a force to be reckoned with, let there be no
doubt about that.
The game was tied at 1-1 in the seventh inning, when Mays strode to
the plate to face Gibson. Gibson had retired the first 15 Giants he
faced, including Mays on a groundout and called strikeout. A home run
by Giants catcher Dick Dietz had tied it in the sixth inning, though, and now there was a runner on first and nobody out. This was a classic confrontation: two future Hall of Famers, the power pitcher versus the slugger. They say good pitching beats good hitting, but not this time: Mays deposited a Gibson fastball into the bleachers, giving the Giants a 3-1 lead, which ended up being the final score.
So, this time Mays got the better of Gibson, but aren't you curious
about how these two immortals fared against each other over the course of their careers? Well, thanks to Retrosheet, we know what happened in Mays v. Gibson. Not to mention Aaron against Koufax, Schmidt versus Seaver, and all the greats who faced off during the Retrosheet years.
I looked at the results of all batter/pitcher matchups for all players
who were voted into the Hall of Fame by the BBWAA since 1972. This puts us squarely in the Retrosheet era, which goes back to 1957
(Retrosheet also has data for NL games of 1954). For players who
played most of their careers in one league, there are enough plate
appearances in individual matchups to make this exercise
interesting. For example, Hank Aaron batted against Don Drysdale 246
times in his career. If I require at least 50 PAs, I find 174 Hall-of-Fame batter/pitcher pairs. Let's have a look at a few of those, shall we?
Willie versus Hoot
We know that Mays got the best of Gibson in the game described
above. But what happened when these two Inner-Circle Hall of Famers
faced off during the rest of their careers? The Retrosheet period covers all of Bob Gibson's big league career (1959-1975). So, (except for a possible missing game here and there), we have a record of all the Gibson-Mays matchups: from their first encounter on September 7, 1959, when the rookie Gibson sent the superstar Mays down on strikes; to their final meeting in August 1971 with Gibson again getting the best of Mays, who flied out to center field.
Here's the career line for these two Titans:
Mays vs. Gibson, career
| AB | H | HR | RBI | SO | BB | AVG | OBP | SLG | OPS |
| 92 | 18 | 3 | 9 | 30 | 17 | 0.196 | 0.321 | 0.304 | 0.625 |
Looks like Gibson really had Willie's number over the years. This was
Mays' worse performance against the Hall of Fame pitchers in my
sample. It's not Gibson's best performance though: he held Tony Perez
to just 7 hits and 2 walks with 28 strikeouts in 64 plate
appearances. That translates to line of .121/.141/.190 for the Hall of
Fame first baseman. Owie!
Tom Terrific faces Michael Jack
Tom Seaver is five years older than Mike Schmidt and the Hall of Fame
pitcher reached the big leagues five years before the greatest third
baseman who ever lived. Still, their time in the National League
together lasted 12 seasons and they faced off many times. Things did
not start off well for Schmidt against Seaver. In their first game
together, on September 4, 1973, the established star Seaver struck out the rookie Schmidt three times. When the two squared off
again nine days later, Schmidt's woes with Seaver continued: in five
trips to the plate, he only managed a sacrifice bunt. Schmidt whiffed
his other four trips to the plate.
Things did not improve all that much over the years, as Seaver
handled the Phillies third baseman fairly easily over their career
Schmidt vs. Seaver, career
| AB | H | HR | RBI | SO | BB | AVG | OBP | SLG | OPS |
| 85 | 16 | 2 | 5 | 35 | 15 | 0.188 | 0.301 | 0.294 | 0.605 |
Does this mean that the old saw is true, that good pitching really
does beat good hitting? Before making any hasty pronouncements, let's
look at our next Hall of Fame couple.
Johnny Bench vs. Steve Carlton
On September 15, 1967, nineteen-year-old Johnny Bench singled off
Steve Carlton, a youngster himself at 22 years, despite pitching in
his third major league season. Lefty did not let that first meeting
rattle him, though, and he retired the young Reds catcher 15 of the
next 17 times they met. But Bench would turn things around against
Carlton and had a pretty good game against the southpaw on July 26,
1970, when he hit three home runs off the four-time Cy Young Award
Bench continued his successful ways against Carlton, ending up with this very nice line against the first ballot Hall-of-Famer:
Bench vs. Carlton, career
| AB | H | HR | RBI | SO | BB | AVG | OBP | SLG | OPS |
| 124 | 37 | 12 | 30 | 20 | 26 | 0.298 | 0.412 | 0.645 | 1.057 |
Willie, again, vs. Spahnie
Everybody knows how Willie Mays struggled when he was first called up
to the big leagues. Mays was destroying Triple-A pitching in
Minneapolis, as his .477 batting average attests, when he was called
to New York. He struggled at the start, though, going 0 for his first
eleven at bats and 1-for-27. I knew about Willie's initial struggles
at the plate early in my life because whenever I was down about my (it
must be admitted) feeble Little League hitting, my dad would remind me
about Willie's 1-for-27 at the start of his career.
What Dad never mentioned, though, was that the hit was a home run, and off a future Hall-of-Famer, to boot. Warren Spahn remembers the blow in Vincent Fay's The Only Game in Town.
Willie Mays got his first base hit off me. Willie Mays got his first
home run off me. Same pitch. So I realized before the rest of the
league that he was going to be a good hitter. And over the years I
think Willie hit more home runs off me than anybody.
Mays ended up with a pretty nice line against Spahn:
Mays vs. Spahn, career
| AB | H | HR | RBI | SO | BB | AVG | OBP | SLG | OPS |
| 158 | 43 | 13 | 32 | 12 | 15 | 0.272 | 0.328 | 0.551 | 0.878 |
Not as good as his career numbers (.302/.384/.557), but not bad
considering the opposing pitcher. Of course, the main period of overlap (1957-1965) falls more in Mays' prime than in Spahn's. By the way, those 13 home runs are the second most by anybody in my sample. Hank Aaron hit 17 home runs off Don Drysdale, although it took him 218
plate appearances to do so. I'll have more on Hammerin' Hank in a
Ernie Banks vs. Sandy Koufax
Both Banks and Koufax had ups and downs in their great careers and I
was curious to see how they matched up. Koufax, as everybody knows,
was plagued by wildness for roughly the first half of his career,
but became one of history's best pitchers in the period 1961-1966. He
retired at age 30 while still at the top of his game. Ernie Banks, one
of the few players in history to win back-to-back MVP awards, did that
in 1958-1959, when Koufax was still a league-average pitcher. Mr. Cub's decline phase started around 1962 or so (he moved from
shortstop to first base that year), just when Koufax was becoming the
best pitcher in the game.
Their first meeting (as recorded by Retrosheet) occurred on April 30,
1957, when the 21-year-old left-hander, pitching in relief, faced the
Cubs slugger in the ninth inning with a runner on first, one out and
the Dodgers down by a run. Banks went down on strikes and Koufax ended
up throwing two innings of scoreless relief, allowing the Dodgers to
come back and win the game in 10 innings. The winning blow? A home run
by shortstop(!) Don Zimmer.
Another memorable matchup between these two first ballot
Hall-Of-Famers occured on September 9, 1965. Koufax faced Banks three
times that game and each time he struck out the Cubs first baseman. Ron Santo also had a tough time against Sandy that day, as did Billy Williams and all the rest of the Chicago hitters, none of whom reached base against the Dodger pitcher. This was, of course, Koufax's celebrated perfect game.
Overall Koufax dominated Banks in their matchups:
Banks vs. Koufax, career
| AB | H | HR | RBI | SO | BB | AVG | OBP | SLG | OPS |
| 127 | 21 | 7 | 18 | 31 | 10 | 0.165 | 0.226 | 0.362 | 0.588 |
I think the best performance by a hitter in these HoF batter-pitcher
matchups has to go to Hank Aaron against Koufax:
Aaron vs. Koufax, career
| AB | H | HR | RBI | SO | BB | AVG | OBP | SLG | OPS |
| 113 | 42 | 7 | 16 | 12 | 13 | 0.372 | 0.437 | 0.664 | 1.100 |
To me, this is an amazing batting line, considering the lower run
scoring environments typical when Aaron and Koufax were facing each
other. Of course, the most impressive thing about Aaron's line is
the quality of the opposing pitcher, Sandy Koufax.
My award for the best pitching performance in a HoF matchup goes to
Catfish Hunter versus Frank Robinson.
Frank Robinson vs. Catfish Hunter, career
| AB | H | HR | RBI | SO | BB | AVG | OBP | SLG | OPS |
| 98 | 15 | 2 | 7 | 17 | 10 | 0.153 | 0.231 | 0.265 | 0.497 |
Hunter was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1987 (his third year on the
ballot) and many consider him to be a marginal candidate at best. I
don't want to get into that discussion here, but rather just note that
he really handled first ballot HoFer Frank Robinson pretty easily,
didn't he? The amazing thing about the above line is the number of
home runs. Robinson hit 586 home runs in his career and Hunter
seemingly surrendered as many (the actual number is 374). Yet,
incredibly, Hunter surrended just two round trippers to Robinson in
over a hundred plate appearances. And he didn't give up much else
either, as you can see from the line above.
Good pitching beats good hitting?
I didn't really set out to answer this question, but after looking at
these Hall-of-Fame matchups, I think I have to agree with Casey Stengel, who said, "Good pitching beats good hitting, and vice versa."
John Walsh is a regular contributor to the Hardball Times. He welcomes comments via email.
More Game than Name
A few weeks back I listed out the players whose name recognition and reputation, in my view, outstrip their actual value on the field. I thought I would follow it up by flipping things around. The following players, while not without flaws of their own, have more game than name.
Catcher: Josh Bard
I know. It was only 263 plate appearances with the Padres but he was just so good. Bard hit .333/.404/.522...as a catcher...in one of the most challenging hitting environments in all of baseball. Bard's utter inability to catch Tim Wakefield's knuckler proved to be the best thing that could have happened to his career. After acquiring Bard along with Coco Crisp and David Riske for Andy Marte, Guillermo Mota and Kelly Shoppach, Boston quickly flipped Bard and reliever Cla Meredith for Doug Mirabelli in one of the most lopsided deals in recent memory. The Pads pantsed Boston. Now the Padres have decided to part ways with future Hall of Famer Mike Piazza so that they can hand the full time reins over to Bard. This season will prove a real test for the backstop.
First Base: - Nick Johnson
I struggle with this one just as I do with a few of my other choices because health is in fact a contributor to one's overall ability to contribute to a winning team's efforts. That said, a guy that is able to get it done when he is on the field is deserving of recognition. Nick Johnson falls into this category. Johnson blossomed in 2003 with the Yanks, posting a 141 OPS+, but only appeared in 96 games due to a hand injury. Since, he has continued to battle injuries and post tremendous numbers, only he has done so toiling in relative obscurity with the Expos/Nationals. But in 2005 Johnson posted a .289/.408/.479 line and followed it up with an impressive .290/.428/.520. When healthy, there are few other first basemen you would want on your club more than Johnson.
Second Base - Ray Durham
Durham did have something of a career year last season so I am reluctant to focus too much on it but it warrants mentioning that he hit .293/.360/.538 while playing 2nd Base in another one of baseball's most challenging parks for offensive production. But go back over Durham's resume. For nine seasons now he has consistently ranked in the upper third-to-quartile of MLB 2nd Basemen. Over the course of his career he has amassed a WARP3 total of 81.1, precisely 8.1 wins shy of everyone's favorite misguided Hall snub, Jim Rice. Durham is still very good, has been for a long time and I don't get the sense fans realize it.
Third Base - Chipper Jones
I understand that many realize Chipper Jones has been an excellent player over the course of his career. But sheesh, take a look at his career numbers. He currrently ranks 14th on the active list with a 142 OPS+ and those ahead of him are largely outfielders, 1st Basemen and designated hitters. Only Mike Piazza and Alex Rodriguez have a more impressive OPS+ number amongst those who did not play those positions. Chipper has struggled to stay on the field consistently over the last few seasons but when he is out there he continues to produce at superstar levels. Barring a late career free-fall, Chipper will be heading to the Hall of Fame.
Shortstop - Carlos Guillen
Since Guillen was dealt for..wait for it...wait for it...Ramon Santiago after the 2003 season, he has had two MVP caliber seasons and an injury-plagued solid one.
AVG OBP SLG
2004: .318 .379 .542
2005: .320 .368 .434 (just 87 games)
2006: .320 .400 .519
Like Bard and Durham, Guillen is another playing a traditionally defensive-oriented position posting impressive figures in a pitcher's park. At 31, Guillen may be headed for the backside of his career but he is still one of the ten best position players in the American League and should be a key component to a hopeful 2007 Tigers bunch.
Outfield - Jason Bay
Since the second he stepped out into the bright lights of the Big League stage, Jason Bay has performed like nothing short of a superstar. It seems almost scary that he is just 28-years old. Here are his numbers since he came onto the scene in 2003:
PA AVG OBP SLG OPS+
2003: 107 .287 .421 .529 148
2004: 472 .282 .358 .550 135
2005: 707 .306 .402 .559 148
2006: 689 .286 .396 .532 136
There is no reason to believe that Bay will slow down. He is a bona fide star and should continue to produce accordingly.
Outfield - Grady Sizemore
You can take Andruw Jones and Carlos Beltran. Take Vernon Wells, Torii Hunter and Johnny Damon too. Sizemore is my guy, the best center fielder in baseball and well on his way to a career of superstardom. I know readers of this site are most likely fully aware of just how good he has been now for two seasons but being only 24-years old and having never appeared in the post-season, Sizemore still has not received his due from the mainstream press. A Division championship and another MVP'ish season should change that this year.
Outfield - Moises Alou
After the 2001 season, Alou signed a three-year deal with the Cubs that looked like it would pay off nicely for Chicago. Alou was a major bust in his first two seasons with the Cubbies, however.
Games AVG OBP SLG OPS+
2002 132 .275 .337 .419 100
2003 151 .280 .357 .462 113
He came through in his contract year at the age of 37, however, posting a .293/.361/.557 line for a 128 OPS+. Obviously, the Giants were there with open arms to snatch up the aging Alou and equally obviously, the statheads were out in force to pan the deal. Although Alou battled injury with the Giants, look at these rate stats he put up. Maybe the Giants had the last laugh.
Games AVG OBP SLG OPS+
2005 123 .321 .400 .518 141
2006 98 .301 .352 .571 132
If the Mets can keep Alou on the field, they will have a nice addition to an already potent lineup. And if not, in Shawn Green and Lastings Milledge, they have decent enough depth so as not to have to rely to heavily on the 40-year old.
Right Handed Pitcher - Aaron Harang
The numbers were tremendous for Harang in 2006. 234.3 innings of 128 ERA+ pitching is really getting it done. Lest you think he was a one year wonder, the peripherals portend more success for Harang going forward. His Batting Average on Balls in Play (BABIP) was a very high .326 and his K/BB ratio of 3.86 was 4th in the National League. This guy misses bats and doesn't put too many men on base via the free pass. With any luck at all on balls in play in 2007, Harang could find himself competing for a Cy Young Award.
Left Handed Pitcher - Erik Bedard
Bedard has frustrated some by not quite fulfilling his tantalizing potential. Whether battling injury problems or shaky control, Bedard has been unable (to date) to mature into the pitcher the O's hoped they might have. I think that changes this year. Bedard has steadily been cutting back on his walks and tossed a career high 196.3 innings last season. His strikeout numbers have always been impressive. Look for Bedard to be one of the better pitchers in the American League in 2007.
So this is my list of faves based on little more than my perception that these guys are better than most think. I would love to know who readers think are the players that do not quite get their due.
Florida's Rookie Hurlers: Can They Avoid the Sophomore Curse?
The Florida Marlins had the lowest payroll in baseball in 2006 and knew they would have to rely heavily on rookies. Expectations were low once the season began and no one in baseball expected the Marlins would actually sniff the Wild Card (on Sept. 12 they were two games out of the lead), let alone avoid a 100-loss season.
Rotation ace Dontrelle Willis and young slugger Miguel Cabrera played pivotal roles as the team's foundation but, as everyone knows, it takes a team - and depth - to field a winning ball club.
Poor pitching is usually the No. 1 symptom of a bad season ahead. Florida entered the season with a lot of unknowns in the rotation, but by the end of the year the team had a rotation that was second-to-none (or very few) in the National League: Willis, Josh Johnson, Scott Olsen, Anibal Sanchez and Ricky Nolasco. All the starters were under the age of 24 and all are loaded with potential.
But the big question is: How good will Johnson, Olsen, Sanchez and Nolasco be in the future? Will the ugly sophomore slump rear its ugly head? How many of these players will end up back in the minors by June? Some of the answers came swiftly and before any spring games officially got underway.
GB% K/9 BB/9 IP H WHIP ERA AVG
Scott Olsen 44.8 8.27 3.74 180.2 160 1.30 4.04 .239
Josh Johnson 35.7 7.62 3.90 157.0 136 1.30 3.10 .235
Anibal Sanchez 44.6 5.67 3.62 114.1 90 1.19 2.83 .218
Ricky Nolasco 38.8 6.36 2.64 140.0 157 1.41 4.82 .285
Yusmeiro Petit 29.3 6.84 3.08 26.1 46 2.09 9.57 .383
Sergio Mitre 51.9 6.80 4.39 41.0 44 1.56 5.71 .276
Renyel Pinto 44.9 10.92 8.19 29.2 20 1.58 3.03 .193
Taylor Tankersley 44.0 10.10 5.71 41.0 33 1.44 2.85 .222
Randy Messenger 38.4 6.71 3.58 60.1 72 1.59 5.67 .297
RHP | 6'7'' 240lbs | Born: 1/84 | Drafted: 4th - 2002 - high school
Johnson showed all the makings of a rotation workhorse in 2006 with his 6'7'' 240lbs frame but he entered spring training in 2007 with elbow pain. Unable to work through 'the usual aches and pains of spring training,' Johnson had his elbow examined and the latest suspicion is nerve damage. If he has nerve transposition surgery, the young righty would likely miss a good portion of the upcoming season, which could deal a huge blow to the Marlins' staff. As a result of the injury, Johnson's future prospects are cloudy. However, Seattle's Chris Reitsma, Atlanta's Oscar Villarreal, Arizona's Brandon Lyon, and San Francisco's Jack Taschner are among those who have successfully returned from the surgery. Johnson was also shutdown late last year with a forearm strain.
2007 Season Forecast: 55 innings
Career Comp: Matt Morris
RHP | 6'0'' 180lbs | Born: 2/84 | Drafted: NDF - 2001 - NA
Sanchez also began spring training with bells and whistles going off as he complained of discomfort in his shoulder. The news on Sanchez appears more promising than with Johnson as the team diagnosed tendinitis and inflammation. Sanchez is currently reported to be about five days behind schedule. Interestingly enough, in 2003, Sanchez had the same surgery Johnson is facing. In total, Sanchez pitched 200 innings, so he was a little overworked in 2006. His previous high for innings pitched was 146 in 2005. Unfortunately, the recent history of rookie pitchers throwing 200 innings is not good. Sanchez has good stuff - as witnessed by his no-hitter against Arizona this past season - but you have to be worried about that shoulder. As well, he had the lowest K/9 of the four rookie hurlers but batters managed only a .218 average against. If batters start taking better swings against him, he could be in trouble. Regardless, he was a nice consolation prize after the Marlins were rebuffed in their efforts to get Jon Lester in the Josh Beckett trade.
2007 Season Forecast: 140 innings
Career Comp: Ben McDonald
LHP | 6'4'' 200lbs | Born: 1/84 | Drafted: 6th - 2002 - high school
Knock on wood, Olsen appears to be the healthiest out of these first three pitchers. The promising lefty won 12 games in 2006 and solidified himself as one of the best young left-handed pitchers in the game. The team was able to keep Olsen's innings pitched under 200 (187). There is some bad news in his history, though, as Olsen missed a chunk of time in 2005 with elbow irritation. A bone spur was found, but he elected to forgo surgery and work through the problem. Regardless, that pointy projectile is still in there. The Marlins are no doubt happy they did not trade Olsen for Joey Gathright last spring. Armed with a mid-90s fastball, a solid slider and a bulldog mentality, Olsen could be a star.
2007 Season Forecast: 195 innings
Career Comp: Melido Perez
RHP | 6'2'' 220lbs | Born: 12/82 | Drafted: 4th - 2001 - high school
Obtained from the Cubs in the Juan Pierre deal prior to the 2006 season, Nolasco had a solid, albeit inconsistent rookie season. This past winter he was tabbed him as the favorite to fill the Marlins' vacated closer's role (Joe Borowski signed with Cleveland as a free agent). However, the injury to Johnson means that Nolasco's services may be needed in the rotation. Nolasco allowed more than 10 hits per nine innings, but he kept his walks at 2.64/9. He survives more on guile than with overpowering stuff and is probably at his best as a No. 4 pitcher. Nolasco may be a little overexposed if he is asked to jump up to the No. 3 slot.
2007 Season Forecast: 160 innings
Career Comp: Danny Haren
With the injury to Johnson - and the inconsistency of young pitchers - Sergio Mitre, Renyel Pinto and Yusmeiro Petit figure to play prominent roles in 2007, whether in the rotation of in the bullpen. Aside from Willis, none of Florida's starting pitchers project to throw 200-plus innings.
RHP | 6'4'' 210lbs | Born: 2/81 | Drafted: 7th - 2001 - college
Mitre has OK stuff, especially if he can keep the ball on the ground. His biggest issue in 2006 was his control as he walked far too many batters. When he gets into trouble, Mitre lacks the ability to strike batters out on a consistent basis. He could potentially succeed in the No. 4 spot in the rotation with better control, although he is probably best-suited for the bullpen.
2007 Season Forecast: 112 innings
LHP | 6'4'' 195lbs | Born: 7/82 | Drafted: NDF - 1999 - NA
Of the three "replacement pitchers," Pinto has the best pure stuff. However, he does not always know where his pitches are going, as witnessed by his BB/9 ratio of 8.19 in the majors in 2006. Until Pinto can harness his control, he should be left in the bullpen. Pinto does well against left-handers, having limited them to a .171 average in 2006. That said, he walked 9.9 lefties per nine innings despite allowing only 5.4 H/9.
2007 Season Forecast: 57 innings
RHP | 6'0'' 180lbs | Born: 11/84 | Drafted: NDF - 2001 - NA
Petit is one of those pitchers that puts up excellent numbers despite average stuff. And that average stuff inevitably catches up with pitchers once they hit the major leagues, which is exactly what happened to Petit in 2006. His ceiling is probably that of a No. 5 starter and middle reliever and should see swing duty in the Marlins' bullpen in 2007.
2007 Season Forecast: 87 innings
The Marlins also received some solid pitching from a pair of young relievers: Randy Messenger and Taylor Tankersley. Tankersley came to the majors with a little more fanfare as a former No. 1 draft pick of the Marlins in 2004 out of the University of Alabama. Messenger was a lesser known 11th round pick out of high school and it took him seven years to navigate through the minor leagues.
LHP | 6'1'' 220lbs | Born: 3/83 | Drafted: 1st - 2004 - college
Tankersley had a solid rookie season and became one of the Marlins' most dependable relievers. One number that stands out is that he walked 7.66 right-handed batters per nine innings pitched, but that also included four intentional walks. Although his delivery is said to be tough on lefties, his 2006 splits do not display any major differences.
AVG/OBA/SLG GO/AO BB/9 K/9 BB/9
Right .222/.368/.300 1.10 7.66 11.31 7.30
Left .236/.295/.400 1.83 2.76 8.27 7.16
2007 Season Forecast: 67.1 innings
RHP | 6'6'' 245lbs | Born: 8/81 | Drafted: 11th - 1999 - high school
Messenger has a big, strong pitcher's body. But the usual rookie inconsistencies were present in 2006 and he walks far too many batters (4.99 BB/9 in his career). Add in the fact he allows about 10 hits per nine innings and Messenger allows far too many batters on base, especially if he hopes to pitch in the eight or ninth innings. His ERA is a little misleading considering Messenger allowed three or more runs in an outing six times. If you take out those six games, he had a pretty good season.
IP H K/BB ER ERA
Six Games 4.0 21 04/06 22 49.50
Altered Season 56.1 51 41/18 16 2.56
2007 Season Forecast: 68.0 innings
Next week I'll take a look at the Marlins' crop of second year hitters.
*Career comps courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com.
Winks and Links
I have been fortunate to join up with some of the best publications of late and wanted to share these contributions with you. The quantity and quality of information is better today than ever.
The Hardball Times 2007 Season Preview is now available. It can be purchased as a printed book or in the format of a PDF file. The Season Preview, which features a beautiful photo of Felix Hernandez on the cover, "contains three-year statistical projections for virtually all major leaguers and many minor leaguers, as well as reviews of every major league team and several general articles."
Editor Dave Studeman asked me to write the team commentary for the Los Angeles Dodgers in the style of the "Team in a Box" format from the Bill James Baseball Books from the early 1990s. My article can be found here.
I also contributed an article in The Hardball Times Baseball Annual 2007. This is a fabulous book with some of the best batted ball information available anywhere. You get 350 pages of commentary, history, analysis, and statistics, including Win Shares and Win Probability Added. My entry was entitled, "2006: The Year of the Rookie." The 4,500-word, six-page essay includes the following paragraph:
Spearheaded by the foursome of Liriano, Papelbon, Verlander, and Weaver, this class of first-year pitchers could be the best since 1984 when Rookies of the Year Dwight Gooden (17-9, 2.60) and Mark Langston (17-10, 3.40) were joined by Roger Clemens (9-4, 4.32), Orel Hershiser (11-8, 2.66), Ron Darling (12-9, 3.81), and Mark Gubicza (10-14, 4.05). Given the unpredictable nature of pitchers, this year's Fab Four could be caught or surpassed in due time by any number of their fellow rookies, including Chad Billingsley, Boof Bonser, Matt Cain, Cole Hamels, Rich Hill, Chuck James, Josh Johnson, Adam Loewen, John Maine, Scott Olsen, Anthony Reyes, Anibal Sanchez, James Shields, and/or Jeremy Sowers.
Team and division commentaries are in demand during spring training. With that in mind, I participated in the Hope and Faith project at Baseball Prospectus by covering the Los Angeles Angels. The title of the article is "How the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim Can Win the World Series" (subscription required). Here is an excerpt:
The pitching staff is tops in the American League. Last year, the team had the third-best ERA (4.04) while tying for first in strikeouts and allowing the fewest home runs in the league. It doesn't take much imagination to envision the Halos surpassing the Twins (especially given the absence of Francisco Liriano and Brad Radke, and the possible inclusion of Ramon Ortiz and Sidney Ponson in this year's Minnesota rotation), and one can make the case that they were better than Detroit in 2006. Sure, the Tigers had a lower ERA, but the Angels put up superior K/9 (7.2 vs. 6.2), BB/9 (2.9 vs. 3.0) and H/9 (8.7 vs. 8.8).
Lackey has emerged as a top-of-the-rotation starter, ranking in the top half dozen in the AL in IP (217.2), ERA (3.56) and K (190). Kelvim Escobar, Ervin Santana, and Jered Weaver round out what could be described as one of the best foursomes in the league. Joe Saunders should be a capable fifth and, speaking of hope and faith, what if Bartolo Colon magically returns to his 2005 Cy Young form upon his return later in the season? (I know, let's set aside for a moment whether or not Colon deserved it.) A bullpen led by K-Rod, Shields, and the newly-acquired Justin Speier means the seventh, eighth and ninth innings are pretty well taken care of most nights.
Brad Wochomurka and I also talked about the Angels' chances on Baseball Prospectus Radio. You can listen to the 10-minute discussion here.
In the meantime, don't forget to pick up Baseball Prospectus 2007 if you haven't already. I have all of the editions going back to 2001.
I also had a (very) small part in the new book, "How Bill James Changed Our View of Baseball." An All-Star cast of contributors (John Dewan, Gary Huckabay, Steve Moyer, Daryl Morey, Rob Neyer, Hal Richman, Alan Schwarz, Ron Shandler, Dave Studeman, John Thorn, and Sam Walker) each wrote a chapter, as did Bill and his wife, Susan McCarthy. My contribution was nothing more than a two-paragraph sidebar on page 40, which included the following opening lines:
I believe Bill James is the most influential person in baseball with respect to how insiders and serious fans think about the game of baseball since Branch Rickey. He challenged long-held consensus viewpoints by researching such issues and presenting indisputable evidence to the contrary in many cases.
The book, edited by Gregory F. Augustine Pierce and published by ACTA Sports, is a breezy, 136-page read. I recommend picking up a copy as it promises to be a worthwhile addition to your library of Bill James books.
Lastly, I would like to point readers to award-winning columnist Joe Posnanski's new blog, The Soul of Baseball. It is a blog dedicated to the memory of John "Buck" O'Neil. Joe wrote "The Soul of Baseball: A Road Trip Through Buck O'Neil's America." The book went on sale earlier this month. You can read an excellent interview with Alex Belth at Bronx Banter and an excerpt here.
I hooked up with Joe last week to discuss the NL West. He asked me 21 questions, mostly about the Dodgers, Padres, Diamondbacks, Rockies, and Giants (in no particular order...all right, that is how I see the division ending up) but also plays word association on a totally separate topic:
OK, let's play a word association game. I'll say a word, and you say the first thing that comes to mind. The word is, hmm, let me think of a good one ... BLYLEVEN.
HALL OF FAMER.
Is Opening Day really just two weeks away?
Spring Training Report: Live in Arizona Days 4-6
I attended my fourth spring training game in Peoria, Arizona to watch the Seattle Mariners and Milwaukee Brewers after spending the previous three games in Surprise. It was the first and last time I will set foot in Peoria's ballpark.
First off, when I ordered the ticket a week ahead of time, I asked for a seat in the shade (we fair-skinned Canadians have to be careful) only to find that my seat was in fact very much in the sun and the narrow roof did not even cover the row I was in. Although there is a small roof on the third base side, the position of the sun during the afternoon ensures that few, if any, seats on that side are in the sun until about 4 p.m. I was able to exchange my ticket for the third base side under the roof (after some grumbling by the ticket window employee who insisted I already had "shade seating"), but I was left wondering why I had not received this in the first place.
Another problem - perhaps a small one - was the fact that the scoreboard did not post the speeds of the pitches. In this day and age of fan interest, I find it hard to understand why all stadiums and baseball broadcasts do not post the speeds.
Speaking of speeding balls, an elderly woman was hit in the side of her face by a foul ball and it looked pretty bad for a few minutes. But paramedics were on the scene within a matter of seconds and the woman was able to walk out with some minor assistance.
The final straw that broke the camel's back was trying to get out of the stadium after the game. The Peoria stadium, unlike most, does not employ traffic coordinators or police officers after the game to direct traffic through the stop lights and onto the busy highway. That is left up to the drivers and it was a mess.
Anyway, back to the game. It was a pitchers' duel for the most part: Ben Sheets versus Jarrod Washburn. Sheets was in mid-season form. He pitched five innings and allowed only two hits. He walked none and struck out two. Of his outs, seven were via the groundball and three were flyballs and two were line drives.
Relievers Ben Hendrickson (1 IP, 1 ER) and Matt Wise (1 IP, 3 ER) struggled. Derrick Turnbow pitched a scoreless, hitless final inning for the Brew Crew.
Washburn struggled early for Seattle, giving up two hits and a run to the first two batters he faced (Rickie Weeks and J.J. Hardy). After that, though, he settled down and ended up allowing only three hits in total over four innings of work. He did not allow a walk and he struck out one. The flyball pitcher recorded five outs via the groundball and five outs via the flyball.
Relievers Julio Mateo, Arthur Rhodes and Jon Huber each worked an inning and did not allow a run. Eric O'Flaherty pitched the final two innings in the game for Seattle and allowed two hits and one run. He recorded three groundball outs, two fly outs and one line drive out.
Offensively for Milwaukee, Weeks went 2-for-3 with a double and a single. His wrist, which has caused him to miss a significant amount of time, looked healthy. Other players who had hits included Hardy (1-for-3), Tony Graffanino (1-for-3), Ryan Braun (1-for-4) and Tony Gwynn (1-for-2). Gwynn also popped out to the pitcher on a horrible bunt attempt. He is going to have to get better at bunting to utilize his speed and detract from his lack of power.
Defensively, Braun's arm looked OK but not great and his range to his left was not that great. Prince Fielder, unfortunately, did not play.
For Seattle, Ichiro Suzuki went 1-for-3 and his defensive replacement Adam Jones went 1-for-1 in centerfield. Jose Vidro, playing DH, was 1-for-3 with an RBI single. His replacement, top catching prospect Jeff Clement, was 1-for-1 and also drove in a run. Kenji Johjima was 1-for-3 with a single. Non-roster player Gookie (Travis) Dawkins came off the bench to replace shortstop Rey Ordonez (1-for-2) and hit a two-run homer.
Overall, Seattle did not instill a lot of confidence in me. Washburn was pretty good but the Milwaukee batters really teed off in the first inning and every ball hit was struck hard. Their depth is also lacking when you look at the likes of Brian LaHair, Tony Torcato and Dawkins. The bullpen was also average at best. Adrian Beltre looked better throwing the ball around warming up between innings than he did during actual game play.
Sheets should be very good for Milwaukee this year if he can stay healthy. Again, though, their bullpen was average at best and their depth is also questionable (Mat Gamel, Michael Rivera, Chris Errecart, etc.). However, I think Milwaukee may surprise some people in the National League Central this season. Seattle will probably disappoint.
* * *
My fifth spring training game was an interesting one for the simple fact that I got to see one of the top 2007/07 free agents: Barry Zito. The bonus was that I also got to see Barry Bonds play for the first time live.
Facing the Kansas City Royals, Zito pitched four innings and did not look particularly sharp. His fastball topped out at 88 mph and he lacked pinpoint command of his off-speed pitches. Zito threw 71 pitches in four innings and only 41 for strikes (58%). That said, the Royals' batters managed only four hits and two runs off Zito and the game ended 7-6 in Kansas City's favor.
First Inning: 22 pitches, 14 strikes (64%) and 16 fastballs; 4/7 first-pitch strikes
Second Inning: 16 pitches, 10 strikes (63%) and 8 fastballs; 2/3 first-pitch strikes
Third Inning: 19 pitches, 10 strikes (53%) and 8 fastballs; 3/4 first-pitch strikes
Fourth Inning: 14 pitches, 7 strikes (50%) and 8 fastballs, 1/3 first-pitch strikes
Zito's 12 Outs:
Five on fastballs
Six on Off-speed pitches
1. Looking at a curveball (73 mph)
2. Swinging at a curveball (74 mph)
3. Looking at a fastball (85 mph)
4. Swinging at a curveball (72 mph)
5. Swinging at a changeup (76 mph)
Right vs Left:
Righties: 3/12 (.250 average)
Lefties: 1/3 (.333 average)
The Giants also brought Vinny Chulk, Ryan Meaux, Osiris Matos and Billy Sadler to the mound with mixed results. Chulk's fastball ranged between 91 and 95 mph but it was fairly straight and hittable.
The Giants fielded their regular season lineup, save for Todd Linden in left field and Mark Sweeney at first base.
Dave Roberts: single, reached on error by shortstop, groundball to first, strikeout.
Omar Vizquel: double play, strikeout, strikeout,
Barry Bonds: strikeout, line drive out to first, line drive homer to right,
Ray Durham: first-pitch homer to left field, homer to left, strikeout,
Rich Aurilia: deep fly to center, strikeout, homer to center, line drive out to left.
Bengie Molina: line drive out to third, pop out to center, fly out to right,
Randy Winn: pop out to first, strikeout, single to left,
Todd Linden: groundball to third, homer to right, reached on error by shortstop, fly out to left.
Mark Sweeney: fly to center, strikeout, strikeout, groundball to first.
Luis Figueroa: 0 for 1, fly to left
Lance Niekro: homer to left
William Bergolla: single, caught stealing
Justin Knoedler: strikeout
Jorge De la Rosa received the start for Kansas City and his battling for a spot in the rotation. The left-hander was OK but not great against San Francisco. In four innings, he allowed three hits and two solo homers. He was relieved by David Riske (one inning, solo homer), Brandon Duckworth (three innings, three solo homers) and Jason Standridge (one perfect inning for the save).
Offensively, top prospect Alex Gordon led the way and should be at third base to start the season, if he continues playing even half as well as he did on this day. Gordon looks like a big leaguer and there is definitely something "different" about him. He went 3-for-4, although one of those hits should have been an error (the fourth questionable scoring play in five games at the Surprise stadium).
Ryan Shealy was 1-for-3 with a double off the wall, which just missed going out. Billy Butler pinch hit for Shealy and grounded into a double play. Mark Teahen was 1-for-3 with a single and a walk. He played right field, paving the way for Gordon to start at third base.
There have been some rumblings in the media that Angel Berroa is close to playing himself out of the starting shortstop position. You could see why on this night. He looked disinterested in the field and showed little at the plate. He struck out looking and grounded to third while batting ninth. He was relieved by Alex Gonzalez in the sixth inning. Gonzalez, the former Jays and Cubs shortstop, looks to be in great shape despite retiring early in 2006. Both Berroa and Gonzalez made errors in the field, although Gonzalez' was relatively difficult as he was racing back and try to make an over-the-shoulder play in shallow left field.
* * *
The San Diego Padres visited the Texas Rangers in Surprise, Arizona on March 16 and came away on the short end of a 4-3 game. Starter Clay Hensley of San Diego out-dueled Jamey Wright, who is looking to make the Rangers as a non-roster player.
Hensley pitched three innings and allowed three hits but no runs. He struggled with his control, walking three and hitting a batter. He also struck out three. Of his other six outs recorded, Hensley induced three groundballs and three fly balls.
He was relieved by Doug Brocail, who also struggled with his control. In two innings of work, Brocail allowed two hits, two runs, walked one and struck out three. His most impressive match-up came when he struck out Sammy Sosa on a 92 mph fastball, after sitting at between 86-88 mph the previous inning.
Cla Meredith, a surprise success in 2006, took over for Brocail and struggled. In one inning, he allowed three hits and two runs. Meredith walked one, struck out none and induced two groundballs and one strikeout. Scott Cassidy had a mixed outing and allowed two hits in one inning but struck out the side and touched 93 mph. Scott Strickland finished the game for San Diego with a perfect inning and struck out one, while inducing two fly outs.
Wright pitched 3.1 innings and allowed four hits, as well as two runs. He walked one and struck out three. The groundball pitcher induced five groundballs and only two fly balls.
Following Wright were Willie Eyre, Frank Francisco, Akinori Otsuka, Joaquin Benoit, Scott Feldman and Ron Mahay. Francisco, returning from Tommy John surgery, touched 96 mph and threw five straight pitches at 95 mph or greater at one point. However, he allowed two hits and one run. Feldman struck out one and induced two groundballs.
Offensively, San Diego started its 'A' lineup for the most part:
Marcus Giles: 1-for-3, single
Brian Giles:1-for-2, double, walk
Adrian Gonzalez: 2-for-4, two singles, RBI, strikeout
Josh Bard: 1-for-3, homer (3-1 fastball), strikeout
Mike Cameron: 1-for-4, double, three strikeouts
Khalil Greene: 1-for-3, single
Russ Branyan: 1-for-2, double, walk
Paul McAnulty: 0-for-3, two strikeouts, HBP
Terrmel Sledge: 1-for-4, RBI single, strikeout
It was interesting to see the Giles brothers bat back-to-back. Brian had some definite juice in his bat, despite his declining power numbers. Gonzalez is relatively slow on the bases but has solid hands at first base. Branyan is one of those players who always looks like he's having fun. He was joking and laughing with all his teammates before the game and signed a number of autographs. Greene is one of those players that just doesn't stand out because he does everything well but is not flashy about it.
Texas also started many of its regulars:
Kenny Lofton: 0-for-4, strikeout
Frank Catalanotto: 1-for-2, walk, single
Ian Kinsler: 1-for-2, walk, single
Sammy Sosa: 1-for-3, single, strikeout
Hank Blalock: 0-for-1, two walks, strikeout
Brad Wilkerson: 0-for-4, strikeout, double play
Jason Botts: 1-for-4, single, two strikeouts
Gerald Laird: 1-for-2, single, strikeout
Matt Kata: 1-for-3, single, strikeout, HBP
Marlon Byrd: 1-for-2, single, two RBI, strikeout
Chris Stewart: 2-for-2, two singles
With Mark DeRosa leaving Texas for Chicago in the off-season, the Rangers have a need for a utility player and have been giving a long look to former Diamonback Kata, who has looked solid in the two games I have seen him play. He played a flawless shortstop, arguably his weakest infield position. Stewart looks like a solid emergency catcher to have at Triple-A, having been obtained from the White Sox earlier this year. During my six games in Arizona, the Texas players appeared to be the least receptive to signing autographs.
One of this Spring's interesting subplots is the transition that Jonathan Papelbon is making from closer to starter. Papelbon was one of the most dominating pitchers coming out of anyone's pen last season and how he adjusts to a starting role will be worth watching. Despite what the northeast media circus would have you believe, however, Papelbon is not the only reliever to have experienced considerable success in 2006 who is making the switch for this coming campaign. Adam Wainwright, whose dominance throughout 2006's postseason helped propel St. Louis to a World Series crown, will also be a starter in 2007.
The two could not have taken more different paths to get to where they are now. Papelbon was Boston's closer all of last season, dominating virtually everytime he was handed the ball until hurting his shoulder on September 1. For his part, Wainwright toiled in relative obscurity (otherwise known as "middle relief") for a club fighting to stay above .500. Still, they were both very effective in 2006.
G IP ER H BB SO WHIP
Papelbon 59 68.3 7 40 13 75 0.77
Wainwright 61 75.0 26 64 22 72 1.15
Just as Papelbon's season crumbled, Wainwright's became interesting. Jason Isringhausen, the longtime St. Louis closer, finally shut it down after his September 6th appearance in Washington. He had battled injuries and ineffectiveness all season long. So for the stretch run, as St. Louis was looking to wrap up a Division crown, it was Wainwright who would be seeing St. Louis's higher leverage innings. He performed well enough to earn Tony LaRussa's confidence and would be entrusted as St. Louis's closer for the postseason.
So while Papelbon's future hung in the balance and many wondered if his shoulder would heal in time for him to start the 2007 season, Wainwright emerged as one of the game's fiercest and most dominant relievers. No matter what happens the rest of the way, Wainwright's place in St. Louis baseball lore is secure. Wainwright threw just under 10 innings for St. Louis in the postseason, allowing no runs, just 9 baserunners while striking out 15. He notched four saves.
This season both Wainwright and Papelbon come to Spring Training ready to take on broader responsibilities for their respective clubs. Neither has started regularly before in the Big Leagues, but something tells me both will acquit themselves just fine in their new roles.
Speaking of relievers turned starters, Braden Looper got pounded today although the Cardinals came from behind to pull out a 9-5 spring training victory over the Atlanta Braves. After retiring the first two hitters, the righthander gave up four runs before getting a third out in the first inning. He pitched three innings and did not allow a run in the second or third.
- Patrick Sullivan, 3/17/2007, 9:33 AM EST
Looper has now started four times this spring. His stats are as follows:
IP H R ER BB SO ERA
14 17 5 5 3 6 3.21
St. Louis pitching coach Dave Duncan believes the 32-year-old Looper, who has appeared in 572 contests without a GS, can be an effective starter. Drafted by the Cardinals in the first round with the third overall pick of the 1996 amateur draft, Looper pitched four games for the Redbirds in 1998 before getting traded (along with Armando Almanza and Pablo Ozuna) to the Florida Marlins for Edgar Renteria. He tossed more than 70 games for the Fish every year from 1999-2003, then signed as a free agent with the New York Mets in January 2004. Braden served as the Mets closer for two years before reuniting with Duncan and Tony LaRussa.
Looper has a career ERA of 3.57 and has never had a year where his ERA+ was worse than the league average. The eight-year veteran relies on a hard sinker and a split-fingered fastball to get more than his fair share of grounders. He tends to give up a lot of hits (617 in 607 1/3 career IP) and will need to keep the ball down to succeed in his new role. The cousin of Aaron Looper, who pitched six games for the Seattle Mariners in 2003, would do well to develop a changeup to improve his effectiveness vs. LHB:
AVG OBP SLG OPS HR PA
vs. RHB .234 .297 .306 .603 16 1506
vs. LHB .306 .372 .464 .836 30 1107
How Wainwright and Looper fare as starters will go a long way in determing the fate of the defending champs in 2007.
- Rich Lederer, 3/17/07, 2:09 p.m. PST
Two on Two: AL West Preview
This week's installment of the Two on Two series features the AL West. Kind enough to join us were Jamey Newberg of The Newberg Report and Jeff Sullivan of Lookout Landing.
AL East Preview
AL Central Preview
Sully: While it seems the Oakland Athletics and Los Angeles Angels separated themselves in the American League West in 2006, a closer look at some of the Adjusted Standings indicates that this division may be a lot more tightly bunched than meets the eye. What are your thoughts on the competitive dynamics in the AL West as we head into 2007?
Rich: The AL West is generally thought of as the weakest division in the league. But how many people know that all four teams outplayed the East last year and all but the Mariners were .500 or better against the Central? This division is deceiving. It's not overly strong at the top but there aren't any pushovers like last year's Devil Rays or Royals either. The West is the only division of the three where every club goes into the season believing it could sit atop the standings at the end of the year. There's a lot to be said about that.
Jamey: And while most people who feel the need to handicap the division in mid-March like Anaheim and Oakland, those also happen to be the two clubs hit hardest by injury so far. The West has more of an up-for-grabs feel to it than any division.
Jeff: I think I've written "the Mariners are the worst team in a weak division" a million times this winter, but it seems like every time I do, I come away even less impressed with the best than I was before. Put simply, neither Oakland nor Anaheim are very good, and there might only be a five- or six-win separation between the top and bottom rosters in the group. That's a tiny, tiny gap, and the sort of thing that makes for a wild September.
Sully: I think I am on the same wavelength as everyone here. What the AL West lacks in quality at the front-end, it makes up for with a complete absence of bad clubs and general competitiveness. The Oakland Athletics are coming off a 93-win season and a trip to the ALCS. But there are some real warning signs with this club. For one, their best pitcher (Barry Zito) and hitter (Frank Thomas) from the 2006 club are gone. Further, their pythagorean record in 2006 suggested they were not as good as their record. To me, this looks like a .500-ish club. How do others feel about Oakland?
Rich: I wouldn't want to under estimate the A's. Like Atlanta, Oakland seems to always defy the naysayers. The franchise has finished first or second for eight years in a row (including four division titles), and it hasn't won fewer than 87 games during this period. Yes, the team loses Zito and Thomas, but a healthy Rich Harden - knock on wood - can make up some of the difference and Mike Piazza hit .283/.342/.501 while wearing the tools of ignorance for San Diego. Net-net, I think the A's are not quite as formidable as they were in 2006, but I don't see them dropping 12 games in the win column either.
Jeff: Every year the A's lose a critical player or two, every year they bounce back, and every year I don't think they'll be able to do it again. So maybe I just suck at pattern recognition, but I think they're going to have a whale of a time replacing everything that got from Thomas and Zito. A hypothetical full season from Harden makes up for some of the Zito loss, but the same doesn't go for the lineup. Piazza just won't be able to approach Thomas's power or on-base ability. He hasn't been that kind of player for a few years, and there's no reason to think he'll suddenly rejuvenate his career at 38. The A's will be relying on a group of players to make up for the loss of one, and that's a difficult situation to be in.
Jamey: We're of course banking down here on the loss of Ron Washington killing Oakland, the addition of Washington gilding Texas, and the departure of Buck Showalter being worth a few games. Can those three things mean a 10-game swing between the A's and Rangers? Nah. But that's the sort of thing Rangers fans - and i'm one of them - hang onto this time each year. Never know.
Sully: Isn't it all about health with these guys? To me the Oakland season comes down to three players; Bobby Crosby, Dan Johnson and Rich Harden. Crosby, even when healthy, was miserable last season, hitting .229/.298/.338. Johnson hit .234/.323/.381, just abominable figures for a first baseman. Harden managed just nine starts. These guys were to be the foundation of Oakland's latest wave of talent that would carry them just as so many others who had come up through the A's system had before them. But at this point, it's hard to believe they can be counted upon for the output Oakland needs them to produce.
Rich: Eric Chavez is another player whose health is an important element here. He played through a number of nagging injuries (forearms, elbows, wrists, and hamstring) last year and his offensive production (.241/.351/.435) suffered despite making only five errors in the field and winning his sixth consecutive Gold Glove. He claims to be healthy this spring and could be primed for a bounce back year at the plate. A .270 batting average with 30 HR is certainly within the parameters of his career norms.
Jeff: I can't foresee any situation where the A's get better this year. In theory that sets the upper limit around 93 wins, but considering they beat their Pythagorean win total by eight, in reality it should be lower than that. It's a decent team, but it's not a great one, or even a particularly good one.
Sully: What about the Angels, Rich? The pitching once again looks fantastic, but is it good enough to carry what appears to be a very weak offense?
Rich: The Angels scored the fourth-lowest number of runs in the AL last year. Only the Mariners and the lowly Devil Rays and Royals plated fewer runners. The good news is that the offense should be a little bit better this year. Mind you, not a lot better. I know Gary Matthews is coming off of a career year, but he could regress and still provide an upgrade over what really amounts to Maicer Izturis. In addition, Howie Kendrick figures to put up considerably better numbers than Adam Kennedy at second base. There is no reason to suspect that Vladimir Guerrero won't be healthy, but the Angels cannot afford to lose him for any length of time. He needs to do his thing and hit .320 with 30 HR for the Angels to be respectable offensively.
Sully: So the Angels were in the market for a Designated Hitter, evaluated their available options, and decided that offering Shea Hillenbrand $6.5 million to handle the role was the right course of action. Shea has always been a low-obp / high-slug type of hitter but what will Angels Stadium do to his power? I don't think .275/.315/.430 is anywhwere out of the question. If Shea logs the majority of the Halos' DH at-bats this season, he has a good chance at being one of the very worst regulars in baseball.
Rich: I'm not going to defend that signing other than to say it was a one-year deal, mostly in response to Juan Rivera breaking his leg in a winter league game. Hey, the guy fits right in with Mickey Hacker's approach. Like most Angels, Hillenbrand has never met a pitch he didn't like. His single-season high in walks is 26. TWENTY-SIX! But who knows, maybe they acquired him for his team chemistry.
Sully: At least they no longer employ Darin Erstad!
Jeff: They might as well. I've had a sneaking suspicion for a little while that Reggie Willits has a lot of Erstad in his blood.
Jamey: The bigger question, to me, is how much Darren Dreifort it is that Jered Weaver's got in him. The health of the Angels' rotation is obviously what gives the rest of the division hope in '07, but that bully is going to keep them around no matter how many days of service Weaver and Colon and Co. rack up on the DL.
Rich: Now, now . . . I don't see any reason to lump Weaver in with Dreifort. Sure, he is dealing with tendinitis in his arm and is behind schedule. But both Weaver and Colon had "encouraging" bullpen sessions on Monday and Thursday and are expected to face hitters soon. Weaver may not make his April 6 start, but he should be starting every fifth game shortly thereafter. Colon is rehabbing his shoulder and is on a different timetable than Weaver. If everything goes according to plan, the Angels are hopeful that he could return to the rotation by late April or early May. However, Joe Saunders is a capable fifth starter so I don't think Bartolo's health figures prominently in the fortunes of the Halos this year. I see him as a potential bonus more than anything else.
Jeff: We know the Angels have the pitching; it's been like that for years. The question, as always, is whether or not they'll get enough offense to contend, and the issue, as always, is that going into the season they don't seem to have very much behind Vlad Guerrero. It sounds silly to say, but I think the Angels are going to depend an awful lot on whatever they can get from first base. If this is the year that Casey Kotchman finally breaks out (and he's having a hell of a spring), he might be enough to put them over the top in this division. If not, though, we could see an awful lot of intentional walks, and in that event they're just not going to score enough runs.
Rich: The AL West is unique in that three of the four home ballparks are known to suppress runs. Ameriquest Field in Arlington is the only park that favors hitters. When adjusted for these factors, the Rangers were actually more adept at preventing runs (102 ERA+) than scoring runs (99 OPS+). Is the pitching underrated or is the offense overrated? Or is it a bit of both?
Jeff: It's both, and it's one of those things that goes hand in hand with playing half your games in an extreme environment. This ballpark has murdered some pitchers while helping some hitters, most notably Mike Young (career OPS 134 points worse on the road), Mark Teixeira (112), and Hank Blalock (194). In one season so far, Ian Kinsler's at 254. Such artificial inflation masks problems at the plate while creating illusions of problems on the mound, and that can make it incredibly difficult to build a solid, balanced roster.
Jamey: I agree, it's a bit of both. Jon Daniels has put the focus squarely on the development and acquisition of arms, and he's fully aware that the lineup is lacking. A return to health from Blalock and Wilkerson, both of whom had dinged shoulders, is a huge key.
Rich: There's gotta be something else besides health that is at the core of Blalock's problems. The guy is a complete enigma to me. He has regressed every year since his first full season in 2003. I don't know if the heat wears Blalock down in the summer but his first half stats have consistently been vastly superior to his second half numbers:
First Half | Second Half
AVG OBP SLG OPS AVG OBP SLG OPS
2003 .323 .375 .524 .899 .272 .319 .520 .839
2004 .303 .369 .572 .941 .240 .338 .406 .744
2005 .285 .346 .479 .825 .236 .283 .375 .658
2006 .287 .352 .443 .795 .237 .289 .346 .635
As Jeff pointed out, Blalock has been a huge beneficiary of playing home games in a hitter friendly ballpark. His road stats are well-below average. Health or no health, he just may be one of the most overrated players in the game.
Sully: The thing I like about the Rangers is that their Pythag suggests they were about an 86-win team in 2006 and I don't think they figure to regress. I understand they lost Gary Matthews and Mark DeRosa, but Blalock cannot get worse, Teixeira did not exactly light the world on fire in 2006, Kinsler is young and improving, I have to think they get something out of Brad Wilkerson this season. And on the run prevention side, they add Brandon McCarthy and Eric Gagne. I think these guys will be in the thick of it.
Jeff: I like the Rangers as a .500 team with upside, but if their season comes down to how much slack Brandon McCarthy's able to pick up as the rotation's #3, then that's a cause for concern. Awesome talent or no, a right-handed extreme fly ball pitcher in a park that rolls over for lefties is a recipe for disaster.
Jamey: One of the things that was lost in the instant analysis of the McCarthy trade was that he was actually less homer-prone in the minor leagues than Danks has been. But there is, as has been pointed out, the righty-lefty difference to take into account. And the way Danks has been dealing in camp, we may be able to measure the deal sooner than a lot of us thought.
Sully: Let's talk about the Mariners. They're not awful, but I have to be honest. Outside of Felix Hernandez and J.J. Putz, there just isn't a whole lot that excites me about this club.
Jeff: That makes two of us. From their steady lineup without any great individual threat to their rotation of a should-be ace and four #5's, the Mariners might be the most average of the league's average teams. An offseason of hope completely went to waste, and the result is a wholly unimpressive roster that hardly resembles that of a competitive team.
And yet, there is reason for optimism, as the team's missing something that dragged it down a year ago: black holes. They got nothing from their DH, nothing from center until Ichiro moved, and worse than nothing from Joel Pineiro. All of those issues have been addressed, and while Jose Vidro and Jeff Weaver have their question marks, there's absolutely zero chance that they're as bad as the people they're replacing. The Mariners got better by dumping their trash, and now they look like a half-decent team capable of playing meaningful September baseball.
Rich: Well, Ichiro is pretty exciting and there are worse hitters than Adrian Beltre, Raul Ibanez, and Richie Sexson. But the overall offense looks about average. I might like it a bit more if the team would learn to take a walk once in a while. In the meantime, the pitching staff looks worse than average to me. Miguel Batista and Horacio Ramirez walked almost as many batters as they struck out. Weaver pitched well in October with the Cardinals but got rocked in the first half as a member of a rival AL West club. Seattle improved nine games last year and won about as many as its run differential would suggest. Bottom line, I just don't see much room for optimism beyond a .500 season.
Jamey: Speaking of Ramirez, I was thrilled to see the M's trade Raffy Soriano. Ramirez doesn't scare me a ton.
Sully: Ramirez may not scare you but he is a 27 year-old with a career 104 ERA+. If he is healthy, he is a guy the M's can feel confident handing the ball to every fifth day. He won't be a world-beater but he will be averag-ish with respect to performance and to the extent he can eat innings, he could very well be useful.
Rich: By the way, nobody was talking about J.J. Putz a year ago. Is there anyone on the horizon who could make a quantum leap in 2007?
Jeff: Nobody was talking about J.J. Putz a year ago because a year ago J.J. Putz didn't have a 90-mph splitter to go with his high-90s fastball. Ask Barry Bonds what it's like to face that repertoire - that one additional pitch turned him from a decent setup guy into a dynamite fireman.
As far as quantum leaps in 2007 are concerned, uh, no, none. At least not on the Mariners. Mark Lowe had a chance before his elbow went on the fritz, and Eric O'Flaherty might blow up (in a good way) if and when he gets the call, but there's no one who even comes close to matching Putz's potential in that regard.
Sully: Who might make the leap in the West? I think Kendrick and Kinsler will be two of the better 2nd Basemen in baseball. I think Felix Hernandez will challenge for a Cy Young Award. And although I would not call it a surprise, one of the most interesting AL West subplots of the season will be to see who gets less out of the DH slot, Shea Hillenbrand and the Halos or Jose Vidro and the M's.
Jeff: At least Vidro doesn't try to hack his way off a sinking ship. I, too, think Kendrick has a lot of Leap potential, and if he has a breakthrough campaign, the division race could be over pretty quick. In addition, I wouldn't be too surprised to see Gerald Laird hovering around a .900 OPS most of the year, while John Lackey finally flirts with a sub-3 ERA. Neither of these improvements would really count as a Putz-type jump, but then, few do.
What about Backwards Leaps? Jered Weaver, anyone? Anyone?
Rich: Boy, I thought we were going to talk about the AL West. But that's OK. I don't mind defending Jered. Heck, I've been doing it for more than three years . . .why stop now? No, the good Weaver is not going to win his first seven starts or rank second in the major leagues in run average again. So, from that standpoint, I guess he is going to take a backwards step in 2007.
Jamey: Texas is in some trouble if some of the young bullpen arms that they're counting on (Littleton, Wilson, maybe Rupe if he doesn't land a rotation spot) if their Cactus League struggles follow them to Arlington. The biggest backward leap concern, though, is Vicente Padilla, with his first taste of real financial security behind him.
Rich: Which players would you attach to the MVP, CYA, or ROY should any of those awards come out of the West this year?
Sully: Vlad is a top-5 MVP candidate from my vantage point, and I think John Lackey, Jered Weaver and Felix Hernandez will all be top-10 AL starters and therefore somewhere in the Cy Young discussion. It's hard to pick out a ROY candidate from this division, though.
Jeff: The most obvious choice for MVP would be Vlad Guerrero. Ichiro's a slight possibility, and Mark Teixeira has a non-zero chance if he really breaks out. In order of odds from greatest to least, the Cy Young could go to Felix, Lackey, Harden, or (really distant) Kelvim Escobar. As for rookies, I really don't see a single one in the division having a significant impact. There's a lot of youth, but pretty much all of it is already established. Wild guess: Jarrod Washburn will not win any hardware.
Jamey: We're not giving Brandon Wood a shot at ROY?
Rich: Well, Wood has only played four games above Double-A. He's had a pretty good spring but is almost certain to start this season at Salt Lake. Wood is a tremendous talent and I can see him joining the Angels in the summer and perhaps having an impact during the stretch run. But the odds are stacked against him and any other rookie from the AL West. Outside of Wood, if there was a surprise choice, I'd look to someone like Adam Jones of Seattle, but he is just 21 years old and is still a pretty raw talent.
Jeff: I don't think Wood's going to have a real pleasant adjustment period. He could and should be pretty good, but I doubt success comes real quick. As for West, there are two issues - one, I don't think he's quite MLB-ready yet, and two, there's no room for him to break into the lineup, which does a number to his ROY chances. If the M's are competing and an outfielder gets hurt, I think they sooner go with Jeremy Reed, so Jones's only real hope for winning the award is that the team stumbles out of the gate, deals Ichiro by May, and immediately sets its focus on the future. And even in that event, I still have trouble seeing him post an OPS too far over .700.
Rich: As far as MVP and Cy Young candidates, I would go with Vladimir Guerrero and Felix Hernandez.
Jamey: Vlad and Haren for me.
Sully: OK, prediction time and I will kick off. I like the Angels over Texas in a close race, and then Oakland a smidge over .500 and Seattle somewhere in the mid-to-high 70's win range.
Jeff: Gun to my head, I'd go Anaheim/Oakland/Texas/Seattle, but it could very easily wind up in the opposite order. There's not much separating any of these teams.
Jamey: Agree with Jeff. Could go any way. I'll say ANA / TEX / OAK / SEA.
Rich: I believe the Angels are the most likely division winner of the four. It's not that they have a great team or anything, but I'm more confident predicting the Angels to win than I am any other team in any other division. I think Oakland and Texas will battle it out for second with neither prevailing as the Wild Card. Seattle will have by far the best record of any last place team in the AL and probably in all of baseball.
Sully: Thanks everybody.
Quantifying Coachers, Part II
"The main quality a great third base coach must have is a fast runner." - Rocky Bridges, California Angels coach
"It's frustrating. Your job is not to get in the way of a rally." - Rich Donnelly, Dodgers third base coach after Game 1 of the 2006 NLDS
Most readers will remember what was perhaps the strangest play of the 2006 postseason and for Dodger fans that memory is not a happy one. With runners on first and second and nobody out in the top of the second inning, Dodgers rookie Russell Martin took an inside out cut at a 2-1 fastball from the Mets John Maine and drove it deep to right field. Jeff Kent, the runner on second, apparently didn't see the ball immediately and got an extremely poor jump while J.D. Drew at first base read that the ball was over the head of right fielder Shawn Green and began motoring for second. With Kent finally underway and Drew close on his heels, Green played the ball perfectly off the wall on one hop, relayed to Jose Valentin who threw a one-hopper to Paul Lo Duca just in time to nip a diving Kent at the plate. In the meantime, Drew had not slowed at all and upon turning around a surprised Lo Duca was able to put down the tag as Drew also attempted a head first slide. The result was a double play which proved huge in a 6-5 Mets win.
After the game Dodgers third base coach Rich Donnelly noted that he didn't want to send Kent but saw that with Drew close behind, he'd likely end up with two runners on third and at that point he was hoping for a botched throw. And for some reason, perhaps their proximity or his attention focused on the lead runner, Donnelly did not or was unable to give the stop sign to Drew.
As you'll recall, in part I we laid the groundwork for measuring the contribution of third base coaches (or "coachers" as they were originally termed in the 1870s) in the dimension of waving runners around. This time we'll revisit that framework to make an adjustment for team quality and then attempt to answer the question of whether there is a repeatable skill involved in this aspect of the game.
We left off with the question of whether it is really fair to assign all of a team's baserunning (even the subset of plays discussed in part I) to the third base coach's influence? Keep in mind that failing to advance as frequently as the average runner in various situations, as well as getting thrown out, will both depress EqHAR with the latter being much more costly than the former. Even so, it could be the case that Joey Cora of the White Sox was saddled with extremely slow runners who didn't advance as often as they should or runners who don't take direction very well and run through his signs or even who simply don't hustle. And Dino Ebel of the Angels may be, and in fact is, blessed with a Chone Figgins who regularly scoots home on singles and doubles and never gets caught (Figgins was not thrown out in 56 opportunities and recorded the highest individual EqHAR at 4.93 in 2006).
Because this metric is dependant on the personnel a coach has to work with, an additional step is warranted that acknowledges that dependency. This step involves comparing the opportunities that coaches can be said to have some control over with ones that they do not. If a team is populated with poor baserunners who have trouble advancing or regularly get thrown out in situations where the coach is a spectator, one might argue that those opportunities should serve as the baseline with which we judge the coach. Table 2 shows the results of this recalculation by including the "non-coach" EqHAR opportunities and then including a final column that is the ratio of the Rate for opportunities the coach has influence over to the Rate for the opportunities for which they do not.
Table 2: Third Base Coaches in 2006 Ordered by Ratio
Team Name Opp Rate Opp OA EqHAR Rate Ratio
TBA Tom Foley 163 1.15 313 12 -6.6 0.80 1.44
PHI Bill Dancy 262 1.15 329 5 -1.2 0.96 1.20
BAL Tom Trebelhorn 296 1.01 400 8 -6.1 0.84 1.20
SFN Gene Glynn 220 0.95 346 6 -4.7 0.84 1.13
CLE Jeff Datz 274 0.99 400 7 -3.4 0.91 1.09
SDN Glenn Hoffman 231 1.00 348 7 -3.2 0.91 1.09
TOR Brian Butterfield 237 0.99 387 9 -2.9 0.92 1.08
NYN Manny Acta 228 1.05 293 4 -0.6 0.98 1.07
MIL Dale Sveum 214 1.01 329 11 -1.7 0.95 1.06
ANA Dino Ebel 238 1.19 373 9 5.2 1.13 1.06
CHA Joey Cora 234 0.86 404 9 -7.5 0.81 1.05
COL Mike Gallego 247 1.03 359 12 -0.8 0.98 1.05
OAK Ron Washington 245 0.89 372 10 -6.0 0.85 1.04
WAS Tony Beasley 239 1.03 314 9 -0.3 0.99 1.04
KCA Luis Silverio 237 1.04 400 13 0.7 1.02 1.02
BOS DeMarlo Hale 248 0.86 424 8 -7.6 0.85 1.01
SEA Carlos Garcia 226 0.97 377 13 -0.2 1.00 0.97
SLN Jose Oquendo 230 0.98 375 9 1.0 1.03 0.95
ARI Carlos Tosca 275 1.01 332 5 2.0 1.07 0.95
DET Gene Lamont 240 1.10 362 3 5.5 1.16 0.95
NYA Larry Bowa 289 0.93 410 3 -0.2 1.00 0.94
PIT Jeff Cox 230 0.98 399 2 1.8 1.04 0.93
LAN Rich Donnelly 260 0.90 370 10 -1.0 0.97 0.92
CIN Mark Berry 217 0.98 315 4 2.4 1.08 0.91
HOU Doug Mansolino 214 1.11 344 1 7.6 1.23 0.91
TEX Steve Smith 234 0.95 410 9 2.5 1.06 0.90
ATL Fredi Gonzalez 231 0.94 362 6 2.5 1.06 0.89
MIN Scott Ullger 222 1.01 452 8 6.6 1.14 0.88
FLO Bobby Meacham 199 1.05 359 5 8.3 1.24 0.84
CHN Chris Speier 199 0.94 350 3 7.2 1.22 0.77
Under this second measure Cora moves from 30th to 11th by virtue of his team racking up a very poor EqHAR of -7.5 and rate of 0.81 in opportunities that Cora had little or no influence over. When comparing the 0.81 rate in his coach-influenced opportunities to 0.86, Cora comes out at 1.05 thereby slightly outperforming his team.
In Table 2 Washington and Gonzalez both look a little better while Speier and Florida's Bobby Meacham fall by virtue of their respective teams performing quite well in non-coach opportunities at 1.24 for the Marlins and 1.22 for the Cubs. And what of the Angels Ebel who came out on top in Table 1 in part I? He slides to 10th since the Angels recorded a very respectable 1.13 rate in non-coach opportunities while Tom Foley of the Devil Rays takes the top spot since his team performed so poorly in other opportunities (-6.6, 0.80) and so well when he was likely involved (5.3, 1.15).
This metric can be expanded to encompass multiple seasons and therefore a larger view. Table 3 shows these metrics for each of the 74 third base coaches employed from the beginning of the 2000 season through 2006.
Table 3: All Third Base Coaches 2000-2006
Name Opp OA EqHAR Rate Opp OA EqHAR Rate Ratio
Billy Hatcher 387 6 5.1 1.06 573 21 -12.3 0.78 1.35
Bill Dancy 527 15 3.4 1.04 737 17 -11.3 0.84 1.23
Michael Cubbage 494 12 4.7 1.05 706 15 -11.1 0.85 1.23
Lance Parish 189 5 0.9 1.02 243 8 -3.7 0.84 1.22
Cookie Rojas 221 5 -0.2 1.00 268 9 -4.6 0.83 1.20
Terry Bevington 439 12 -3.4 0.96 544 11 -9.2 0.82 1.17
Bobby Floyd 173 5 -2.7 0.93 316 8 -6.0 0.81 1.15
Jack Lind 211 2 4.7 1.10 273 10 -0.9 0.96 1.14
Tom Foley 1056 20 14.0 1.07 1609 43 -8.5 0.95 1.13
Dave Myers 986 16 7.7 1.04 1463 35 -10.7 0.92 1.12
Al Pedrique 223 2 5.3 1.11 308 4 -0.3 0.99 1.12
Juan Samuel 626 11 7.3 1.05 976 23 -3.9 0.95 1.11
Wendell Kim 624 20 -14.7 0.88 980 34 -19.5 0.80 1.10
Jeff Datz 274 5 -0.7 0.99 400 7 -3.4 0.91 1.09
John Russell 672 19 -1.5 0.99 1096 24 -10.0 0.91 1.09
Mike Cubbage 244 7 -1.3 0.97 310 8 -2.8 0.91 1.08
Jim Riggleamn 270 7 -2.0 0.96 308 11 -3.5 0.90 1.07
Tom Trebelhorn 1323 32 6.6 1.03 2101 51 -5.9 0.97 1.06
Gene Lamont 1103 28 1.8 1.01 1730 49 -9.2 0.95 1.06
Eddie Rodriquez 475 11 -5.9 0.94 614 16 -6.7 0.89 1.06
Dino Ebel 238 3 10.3 1.19 373 9 5.2 1.13 1.06
Joey Cora 234 9 -7.7 0.86 404 9 -7.5 0.81 1.05
Joel Skinner 1087 27 15.5 1.07 1650 41 2.6 1.01 1.05
Ozzie Guillen 345 10 1.3 1.01 632 19 -2.1 0.97 1.05
John Vukovich 1130 33 -7.4 0.97 1491 41 -11.4 0.93 1.04
Tony Beasley 239 6 1.5 1.03 314 9 -0.3 0.99 1.04
Brian Butterfield 1195 24 6.1 1.03 1827 45 -1.9 0.99 1.04
Tim Flannery 683 18 6.5 1.05 710 20 0.7 1.01 1.04
Manny Acta 1032 17 15.3 1.07 1495 37 4.3 1.03 1.04
Ron Oester 407 11 -1.0 0.99 571 20 -2.4 0.96 1.03
Willie Randolph 976 20 7.4 1.04 1189 33 1.2 1.01 1.03
Ron Washington 1730 45 2.0 1.00 2272 40 -5.0 0.97 1.03
Carlos Tosca 712 13 0.6 1.00 969 17 -1.2 0.99 1.02
Dale Sveum 789 18 -20.9 0.87 1201 26 -18.6 0.85 1.01
Gene Glynn 1594 40 -20.0 0.94 2198 40 -15.1 0.93 1.01
Gary Pettis 379 14 -3.1 0.96 509 14 -2.5 0.95 1.01
DeMarlo Hale 248 5 -7.6 0.86 424 8 -7.6 0.85 1.01
Sonny Jackson 601 20 -16.6 0.86 896 24 -11.8 0.86 1.00
Al Newman 889 24 1.5 1.01 1384 28 1.1 1.01 1.00
Bryan Little 264 4 7.5 1.14 298 5 4.6 1.14 1.00
Luis Silverio 449 9 5.7 1.06 787 19 4.6 1.06 1.00
Mike Gallego 488 8 1.3 1.01 728 19 1.5 1.02 0.99
Dave Huppert 240 4 -0.7 0.99 318 7 -0.2 1.00 0.99
Pete MacKanin 201 5 0.4 1.01 228 8 0.5 1.02 0.99
Steve Smith 1082 21 1.7 1.01 1697 34 6.0 1.03 0.98
Doug Mansolino 867 18 7.6 1.05 1260 20 9.6 1.07 0.97
Jose Oquendo 1616 33 25.9 1.08 2267 49 23.1 1.11 0.97
Carlos Garcia 226 6 -1.5 0.97 377 13 -0.2 1.00 0.97
Tim Raines 204 9 2.9 1.06 335 7 3.2 1.10 0.97
Rob Picciolo 704 11 3.9 1.03 1163 24 6.7 1.07 0.97
Jerry Narron 494 8 7.7 1.06 611 12 6.5 1.10 0.97
Glenn Hoffman 1541 42 -13.5 0.95 2019 47 -2.8 0.99 0.96
Sandy Alomar 487 11 11.7 1.11 683 15 12.6 1.16 0.96
Fredi Gonzalez 1249 25 3.7 1.02 2005 32 14.0 1.06 0.95
Rich Donnelly 1594 48 -4.8 0.99 2176 52 7.4 1.04 0.95
Gary Allenson 366 18 -12.7 0.81 510 19 -8.0 0.85 0.95
Rafael Santana 408 8 0.7 1.01 717 12 6.0 1.08 0.94
Tim Foli 387 13 -1.2 0.99 502 15 2.9 1.05 0.94
Ned Yost 590 21 -8.4 0.93 797 24 0.0 1.00 0.93
Jeff Cox 847 23 -10.1 0.94 1384 22 1.2 1.01 0.93
Ron Roenicke 1538 40 2.9 1.01 1977 34 18.2 1.10 0.92
Ron Gardenhire 511 16 -0.4 1.00 479 13 4.3 1.09 0.92
John Mizerock 478 10 -1.0 0.99 790 13 6.4 1.08 0.91
Jeff Newman 207 4 2.7 1.07 359 3 6.1 1.17 0.91
Trent Jewett 354 10 2.5 1.04 454 10 6.2 1.14 0.91
Larry Bowa 495 10 -8.6 0.91 699 9 2.1 1.03 0.89
Mark Berry 684 18 -10.9 0.92 911 17 3.1 1.03 0.89
Scott Ullger 222 3 0.5 1.01 452 8 6.6 1.14 0.88
Rich Dauer 710 20 0.2 1.00 861 16 12.7 1.15 0.87
Matt Galante 592 19 -8.8 0.93 853 26 7.3 1.08 0.87
Luis Sojo 558 16 -6.3 0.94 718 12 5.8 1.09 0.86
John Sterns 206 10 -7.0 0.85 253 10 -0.4 0.98 0.86
Bobby Meacham 199 4 2.3 1.05 359 5 8.3 1.24 0.84
Chris Speier 860 22 -4.7 0.98 1158 15 24.0 1.22 0.80
Sam Perlozzo 254 5 -4.0 0.92 275 3 6.3 1.22 0.75
Here Billy Hatcher takes the top spot through his work as the Devil Rays third base coach in 2000-2001. Although his rate statistics for the two seasons (1.01, 1.10) were certainly above average, his team in non-coach opportunities registered rates of just 0.75 and 0.82. Speier, as the third base coach for the Brewers in 2000, Diamond Backs in 2001, and the Cubs in 2005-2006 had 22 runners nabbed in 860 opportunities for an EqHAR of -4.7 and rate of 0.98 while otherwise his team was thrown out 15 times and had a rate of 1.22 pushing him to the bottom of the list.
From an absolute perspective Dale Sveum registered the lowest EqHAR at -20.9 during his time with the Red Sox in 2004-2005 and Brewers in 2006 while Gary Allenson with Milwaukee in 2001-2002 had the lowest absolute rate at 0.81. In both cases, however, the poor performance of their teams buoyed their ratings. Cardinals third base coach Jose Oquendo had the highest absolute EqHAR of 25.9 in his seven years with Tony LaRussa while Ebel recorded the highest rate at 1.19 in his single season with the Angels. These absolute numbers indicate that over the course of seven seasons the range in terms of EqHAR is around 55 runs.
In answer to the first question we posed in part I, the act of waving runners around is quantifiable, albeit imperfectly with the limitations already discussed. The quantification in the above analysis passes the test of reasonableness and takes the following form. Third base coaches in the absolute sense seem at most to be able to contribute to just over one additional win or one loss (Sveum with the 2005 Red Sox recorded an EqHAR of -12.6 and Jerry Narron with the Rangers in 2000 was at +10.9) in the course of a season over what would be expected. Over the course of seven seasons that contribution grows to around two and half wins indicating there is a large degree of variability in play. However, judging a coach by that absolute metric is not necessarily equitable since it doesn't take into consideration the personnel the coach is working with. To correct for this a ratio that uses a baseline can be calculated and when that ratio is converted to runs, the range becomes -1.5 to +1.5 wins per season and -3 to +3 wins over the course of seven seasons.
Persisting the Wave
While we've answered the first question in the affirmative, does the difference we see between third base coaches in a single season indicate that there is a disparity in skill between these coaches?
The standard way performance analysts have approached a question like this is to perform year to year comparisons in an effort to see if the effect being measured persists. As it turns out, roughly two-thirds of third base coaches remain in the role the following season with a high of 24 in being retained from during the winter 2003-2004. Using the ratio calculated in the previous section, a correlation coefficient (denoted as r where a value of -1 indicates a perfectly negative linear correlation and a value of 1 indicates a perfectly linear one) can be calculated for each pair of seasons as shown in Table 4.
Table 4: Year to Year Correlations in Ratio for Third Base Coaches
Year Pair Coaches r
2000-2001 19 0.34
2001-2002 20 -0.16
2002-2003 21 -0.10
2003-2004 24 -0.09
2004-2005 21 -0.02
2005-2006 19 0.31
From an overall perspective those 124 pairs can be graphed as shown in Figure 1.
As you can see from the graph in Figure 1 the data doesn't trend in any direction and in fact the correlation coefficient across all pairs of years is just .04. A value so close to zero is evidence that there is in fact no correlation. In other words, knowing a third base coach's ratio in one season gives you no information about what their ratio will be in the next. Further, the data is almost perfectly normally distributed which is additional evidence that there is little or no skill component evident in the data. This can then be interpreted as meaning that there is no discernable third base coaching skill that carries over from year to year and that therefore the answer to our second question is "no."
There may be several reasons for this negative result. Reminiscent of the ongoing debate over clutch hitting, the skill this metric is trying to measure may be much more subtle than the metric can deliver. Instead of a coach being "responsible" for up to +1.5 wins per season, his actual contribution to those wins may be a fractional part of that value and hence the variability component in the numbers we use for correlation swamps the skill component to a large degree. So there may indeed be a skill involved in waving runners around, but that skill is for all intents and purposes unimportant in the big scheme of things. The obvious dependence on his personnel would seem to support this.
Additionally, perhaps the metric is poorly designed and may not capture the skill at all though it exists. It could even be the case that there really is no skill involved in holding and sending runners (or if you prefer, there is no skill difference between coaches at the major league level) and the differential results we see can be chalked up to a combination of personnel (try as we might to disentangle it or due to turnover of the roster) and simple luck driven by anything and everything from the opponents defense to the weather.
Our quest for knowledge about the game is just as often informed by studies that show no effect as those that confirm our intuition. As for the influence of third base coaches in determining when to send and when to hold runners, the most we can say from this study (assuming our metric is relevant) is that if there is a skill involved, it is hard to measure and although the judgment exercised on the field can often make the difference in individual plays, it doesn't manifest itself on the larger scale of seasons.
Dan Fox is an author for Baseball Prospectus where he writes the weekly Schrodinger's Bat column. He also writes about baseball and other topics on his blog Dan Agonistes.
Neal Williams is the president of the Rocky Mountain chapter of the Society for American Baseball Research.
Quantifying Coachers, Part I
"The employment of one of the side who are in to watch the movements of the field and advice the runner accordingly is a quaint device of American acuteness." - quote from an English newspaper during an 1874 tour by American ballplayers as recorded in Sporting News, February 25, 1909
As that quote attests, the idea of on-field coaches has a long history in baseball. Peter Morris, in his excellent book A Game of Inches: The Stories Behind the Innovations that Shaped Baseball Volume I, The Game on the Field, informs us that base coaches (or "coachers" as they called the name deriving from the likeness to a stagecoach driver) were apparently common since rules were in place by 1872 which specified that a baserunner's teammates had to keep a distance of at least 15 feet.
Unlike today, however, it seems the primary job of the coaches was to "disconcert the opposing players - generally the pitcher - not to 'coach' or assist the base-runner" as Sporting News put it in 1893. As a result, the primary qualifications for a coach of that time was a megaphone like voice (yes megaphones were tried in college games in the early 1900s but fortunately never found a foothold in professional baseball) and a cruel disposition. In fact, it was the abusiveness of coachers like Charles Comiskey and Bill Gleason, who would stand on either side of the catcher commenting on everything from his skill as a catcher to his breeding and personal habits, which precipitated a move to first ban coaching altogether but then to restrict coaches to boxes down the line beginning in 1886. In addition to their primary job as unsettlers of the opposition, third base coaches would also attempt to get opposing fielders to mistake them for a runners, a ploy was which was severely hampered following the 1886 rule change.
Be that as it may coaching did eventually come to be taken more seriously with Arlie Latham the first full time coach hired by the Cincinnati Reds in 1900. And Latham was apparently performing the modern function since in July of that season Sporting Life reported that "Manager [Bob] Allen says he is delighted with the coaching of Latham. He says the baserunning of the team has improved 100% after the veteran got on the lines". As is true for advances in other fields Cincinnati's experiment proved to be an early, if successful, trial balloon and it would another decade before the idea took hold. In between there were still calls to ban coaching leading non other than Henry Chadwick in 1904 to denounce coaching as it had "degenerated into a dirty-ball method of annoying the pitcher". Other innovations in the game including increased managerial strategy and signaling finally drove the need to move beyond the "old school of clowns" as Christy Matthewson famously said of this earlier period in Pitching in a Pinch. Not surprisingly it was John McGraw who hired Latham and Duke Farrell as full-time coaches in 1909. By 1912 Sporting Life noted that Latham "does get a percentage of runs across - runs that might not otherwise be made". From there it was generally recognized that coaches paid dividends and although for some time there was apparently a subset of coaches who seemed more preoccupied with rattling the opposition, coaching as a profession gained strength and was here to stay by the early 1920s. Their duties have expanded over time as well. As just one example the first base coach now routinely times the pitcher's delivery to the plate relaying that information to the runner.
|Figure 1: Rangers first base coach Gary Pettis (with a stop watch in his right hand that you can't see but trust me), himself an excellent baserunner, times the pitcher's delivery to the plate with Michael Young on first base in a spring 2007 exhibition game.
It's now been almost 100 years since full time coaches were employed and their performance is routinely scrutinized although not very often quantified. The question then (first suggested to Dan by Rich Lederer of all people) from an analyst's viewpoint is two-fold. First, is the job of coaching quantifiable? In other words, can we create a metric or metrics that measure the success and failure of this component in a reasonable way? And second, if it is measurable, can some coaches be said to be more skilled at this half of their job than their peers? In this article and the one to follow we'll take a crack at answering both questions for third base coaches related to their secondary job (relaying signs being the primary) of directing traffic on the bases.
Equivalent Ground Advancement Runs (EqGAR). Measures the contribution of baserunners above and beyond what would be expected in opportunities they have for advancing on outs made on the ground. For example, advancing from second to third on a ground out to shortstop or getting gunned down at home on a grounder to second.
Equivalent Air Advancement Runs (EqAAR). Measures the contribution of baserunners above and beyond what would be expected in opportunities they have for advancing on fly ball and line drive outs. For example, scoring on sacrifice flies or advancing from first to second on a fly ball to left field. This metric is park adjusted.
Equivalent Stolen Base Runs (EqSBR). Measure the contribution of baserunners in their stolen base attempts and pick offs.
Equivalent Hit Advancement Runs (EqHAR). Measures the contribution of baserunners above and beyond what would be expected in opportunities they have for advancing on singles and doubles. For example, moving from first to third on a single to left field or scoring from first on a double. This metric is park adjusted.
Quantifying the Wave
In the summer of 2006 in a series of six articles published on the Baseball Prospectus web site one of us (Dan) endeavored to more formally quantify baserunning by developing a series of metrics measured in terms of runs. Those metrics are:
When totaled, these give us a fairly complete picture of the contribution made by a player on the bases beyond what would have been expected given their opportunities. And therein lies the rub. The methodology that underlies these metrics isn't a simple totaling of the number of bases gained in these situations but rather an application of changes in the expected number of runs across several dimensions including the base/out situation (the Run Expectancy matrix), handedness of the batter, and the position of the fielder who fielded the ball.
By calculating how often runners typically advance in a whole host of scenarios (for example with a runner on second and nobody out a runner will advance from second to third 43% of the time when the ball is fielded by the shortstop but 97% of the time when handled by the second baseman) and translating those percentages to runs using the Run Expectancy matrix we can credit or debit a runner for each and every opportunity they have on the bases.
Totaling the credit assigned to each opportunity (and not crediting the runner for advancing the minimum number of bases) for players allows us to assign a number of theoretical runs above and beyond what a typical player would have contributed given the same opportunities. Yes, theoretical since these metrics, being based on models like the RE matrix, don't actually measure the precise number of runs contributed by a runner but rather can be thought of as an accounting of the decisions made by runners and coaches, that put their teams in more or less advantageous situations throughout the course of a season. That accounting is performed in terms of runs. As mentioned above we then adjust for park effects where necessary. For example the spacious Coors Field outfield allows for easier advancement than the smaller Fenway Park.
Already many of you can see where this is going. EqHAR, by measuring runner advancement on hits, may be an appropriate methodology to apply to third base coaches since it measures an aspect of the game in which third base coaches are directly involved. Looking more closely, EqHAR is composed of three basic scenarios.
Runner on first, second not occupied, and the batter singles
Runner on first, second not occupied, and the batter doubles
Runner on second, third not occupied, and the batter singles
A third base coach may be active in each of these scenarios but as will be obvious it typically depends on where the ball is hit. When a batter singles or doubles with a runner on first base, the runner typically makes his own decision about whether to advance if the ball is hit to left field or within his field of view in center field. On the other hand he'll usually pick up his third base coach if the ball lands in right field. Likewise when on second base ball hit to the outfield typically results in the runner typically taking matters into his own hands only if the ball is hit to left, but rely on the coach if the ball is hit to center or right. By using these general rules as a guide the analysis can be restricted in this sense to plays that fall only into these categories but also include scenarios when multiple baserunners are on base.
Runner on first and the batter singles and the ball is fielded by the right fielder. Other bases may be occupied.
Runner on first and the batter doubles and the ball is fielded by the right fielder. Other bases may be occupied.
Runner on second and the batter singles and the ball is fielded by the center or right fielder. Other bases may be occupied.
One might argue that these categories are either too restrictive or not restrictive enough and we have sympathy with both arguments.
For example, with the runner on first on a single fielded by the centerfielder there are certainly occasions when the runner picks up the coach. Conversely, with a runner on second and the batter singling to left there are definitely times when the runner knows the ball will be difficult to handle or is running with the pitch and so heads home without consulting the coach. This analysis will not include those events. And these events of course do not include runners attempting to advance on ground ball and fly ball outs nor does it include runners attempting to stretch doubles into triples or triples into inside the park homeruns. The thought was to error on the side of caution and include only those events where it seems the third base coach would be most likely to have influence. Further, these scenarios will include times when runners run right through the stop sign given by their frantic coach only to get thrown out. Through no fault of his own, the coach will be still be debited for plays like these.
Surely this is far from a perfect system but given the granularity of the play by play data available and absent video inspection of each play, this seems like a reasonable approach for a first pass at creating this kind of metric.
The primary advantage to using the methodology described above as opposed to simply counting the number of runners that were thrown out on each coach's watch is that this system also gives appropriate credit when a runner advances successfully. The system also takes into consideration how difficult the advancement event was and gives more credit when a runner takes a base in a higher reward situation. While keeping runners from getting thrown out is clearly a major component of the job, knowing when to take risks based on game situation is a secondary component and one that this metric captures.
Given the above caveats we ran the EqHAR framework for third base coaches for 2006 with the following results.
Table 1: Third Base Coaches 2006 Ordered by Rate
Team Name Opp OA EqHAR Rate
ANA Dino Ebel 238 3 10.3 1.19
PHI Bill Dancy 262 5 7.8 1.15
HOU Doug Mansolino 214 1 5.6 1.11
TBA Tom Foley 163 1 5.3 1.15
DET Gene Lamont 240 5 5.0 1.10
FLO Bobby Meacham 199 4 2.3 1.05
NYN Manny Acta 228 3 2.3 1.05
KCA Luis Silverio 237 4 2.0 1.04
WAS Tony Beasley 239 6 1.5 1.03
COL Mike Gallego 247 3 1.5 1.03
ARI Carlos Tosca 275 6 0.5 1.01
MIN Scott Ullger 222 3 0.5 1.01
BAL Tom Trebelhorn 296 3 0.3 1.01
MIL Dale Sveum 214 5 0.3 1.01
SDN Glenn Hoffman 231 4 -0.2 1.00
TOR Brian Butterfield 237 6 -0.4 0.99
CLE Jeff Datz 274 5 -0.7 0.99
CIN Mark Berry 217 5 -0.8 0.98
SLN Jose Oquendo 230 5 -1.1 0.98
PIT Jeff Cox 230 3 -1.2 0.98
SEA Carlos Garcia 226 6 -1.5 0.97
SFN Gene Glynn 220 3 -2.2 0.95
TEX Steve Smith 234 5 -2.5 0.95
CHN Chris Speier 199 6 -2.9 0.94
ATL Fredi Gonzalez 231 6 -3.3 0.94
NYA Larry Bowa 289 5 -4.1 0.93
OAK Ron Washington 245 7 -4.9 0.89
LAN Rich Donnelly 260 9 -6.0 0.90
BOS DeMarlo Hale 248 5 -7.6 0.86
CHA Joey Cora 234 9 -7.7 0.86
This table includes the number of hit advancement opportunities (Opp), the number of times runners were thrown out advancing (OA), the EqHAR for those opportunities, and a Rate statistic that is the ratio of EqHAR to the expected number of advancement runs given both the quantity and the quality of opportunities along the axes mentioned above. This is important since you'll notice that while Baltimore and Tom Trebelhorn had 296 opportunities, Tom Foley in Tampa Bay had just 163 and all other things being equal, more opportunities means a higher EqHAR.
It should be noted that the coach was assigned all plays for the 2006 season for his team since there is no easily accessible record of when a third base coach was not on the field for his team. For example, although Chris Speier took a several day leave of absence beginning July 20th after being arrested for DUI earlier that week, the opportunities during that time are credited to Speier. Through this analysis the coaches were assigned opportunities based on their team's media guides for the respective seasons.
So under this measure Dino Ebel of the Angels played a part in helping his runners to the tune of just over 10 additional theoretical runs (the second highest of any single season from 2000 through 2006) while Joey Cora was complicit in costing the White Sox the equivalent of almost 8 runs. Intuitively, this range seems to be within the bounds of believability. Interestingly, newly minted managers Ron Washington (-4.9) and Fredi Gonzalez (-3.3) don't come out very well although Manny Acta (+2.3) does.
But is this really a fair gauge of a third base coach's influence? We'll answer that question along with the two we started this article tomorrow.
Dan Fox is an author for Baseball Prospectus where he writes the weekly Schrodinger's Bat column. He also writes about baseball and other topics on his blog Dan Agonistes.
Neal Williams is the president of the Rocky Mountain chapter of the Society for American Baseball Research.
Schrodinger's Bat: Hit the Ground Running
Schrodinger's Bat: An Air of Advancement
Schrodinger's Bat: Advancing in Context
Schrodinger's Bat: Using The House Advantage
Schrodinger's Bat: The Running Man
Schrodinger's Bat: The Whole, the Sum, and the Parts
Spring Training Report: Live in Arizona (Continued)
I attended my second spring training baseball game on March 10 in Surprise, Arizona. Two teams looking to improve upon recent disappointing seasons - the Chicago Cubs and Kansas City Royals - met head-to-head. The Royals came out on top by the score of 6-5, although the Cubs had the tying run in scoring position in the ninth inning with two out. However, 2006 surprise No. 1 draft pick Tyler Colvin bounced back to the pitcher Gabe DeHoyos to end the game.
Interestingly enough, before the game began, one of the ushers at the game actually thought I was a professional scout. "You look just like a scout," she said. That made me feel pretty good. Now, if only the Cubs or Royals agreed...
Anyway, I decided to chart the entire game, including each type of pitch thrown and its speed. The starting pitchers were two lefties: Jorge De la Rosa for Kansas City, who is out of options, and Ted Lilly for Chicago, a major free agent acquisition.
Jorge De la Rosa
IP Pitches Strikes K%
1.0 9 5 56
1.0 23 13 57
1.0 20 12 60
3.0 52 30 58 (TOTALS)
De la Rosa's fastball ranged between 89-92 mph and he touched 94 mph twice, so it's easy to see why the Royals really want him to win a starting gig. In total, he threw 33 fastballs, good for 64 percent. Seven of his 13 first pitches to batters were strikes (54%).
IP Pitches Strikes K%
1.0 8 6 75
1.0 10 7 70
2.0 18 13 72 (TOTALS)
Rosa, a relief prospect, looked solid. His fastball ranged between 89-94 mph and he had solid command of his pitches. He threw a total of 10 fastballs (56%). All six of his first pitches to batters were for strikes. Obviously, getting ahead of batters is always a good sign with young pitchers.
IP Pitches Strikes K%
1.0 6 5 83
1.0 6 5 83 (TOTALs)
Another relief prospect, Cromer had good command of his 89-94 mph fastball when he relieved Rosa in the fifth inning. Rosa threw four fastballs, or 67 percent. Both of his first pitches were strikes.
IP Pitches Strikes K%
1.0 11 8 73
1.0 11 7 64
1.0 15 10 67
3.0 37 25 68 (TOTALS)
Duckworth lost his 40-man rotation spot this past season. The right-hander had an excellent game against the Cubs and 62 percent of his pitches thrown were fastballs (23). Nine of his 12 first pitches were for strikes (75%). Duckworth's fastball was between 86-92 mph and he hit 96 with one pitch.
IP Pitches Strikes K%
0.1 10 7 70
0.1 10 7 70 (TOTALS)
Left-hander Bale, back after two seasons in Japan, faced three batters and allowed a single on a 0-2 pitch and a two-run homer on the first pitch (an 87 mph fastball) to catching prospect Jake Fox. He then induced a groundball out of uber-prospect Felix Pie on a 3-1 pitch. Bale fielded the ball and threw Pie out. However, after the play, Bale called the trainer out and was removed from the game. While on the mound, the trainer appeared to be focusing on Bale's throwing hand. But once in the dugout, the Arizona Republic newspaper reported that the focus shifted to his shoulder. All three of Bale's first pitches were for strikes and 80 percent of his pitches were fastballs. His fastball ranged from 84-91 mph.
IP Pitches Strikes K%
0.2 10 5 50
0.2 10 5 50 (TOTALS)
DeHoyos was an emergency replacement for Bale with one out in the ninth inning. The minor leaguer had a fastball between 85-91 mph. Of his 10 pitches, nine were fastballs (90%). Two of his three first pitches were for strikes (75%).
IP Pitches Strikes K%
1.0 23 14 61
1.0 23 14 61
1.0 7 6 86
3.0 53 34 64 (TOTALS)
Former Blue Jay Lilly started off very slowly in the game. He faced 10 batters in the first two innings, before turning it around in the third inning when he faced only three batters. Lilly only threw 31 fastballs (58%). Ten of his 13 first pitches were for strikes and six of those were fastballs, while the other four were curveballs. In one at-bat against Emil Brown, an extreme fastball hitter, Lilly threw only one heater out of five pitches. Lilly's fastball was between 84-88 mph.
IP Pitches Strikes K%
1.0 17 9 53
1.0 23 11 48
2.0 40 20 50 (TOTALS)
Prior was terrible. His fastball was between 84-89 mph, a far cry from the days of old. The oft-injured starter threw 70 percent of his pitches for strikes (28). Only six of his 13 first pitches were for strikes and he was consistently behind in the count. Prior paid no attention to the runners on base and he looked stiff and uncomfortable on the mound.
IP Pitches Strikes K%
1.0 15 9 60
1.0 11 8 73
1.0 16 11 69
3.0 42 28 67 (TOTALS)
Guzman was easily the most impressive pitcher on this day and his fastball ranged from 87-95 mph. He also touched 99 mph on one occasion. He threw 64 percent of his pitches for strikes (27). Guzman struggled to make a good first pitch to batters. Only six on the 14 batters he faced saw a first-pitch strike 43%).
On the hitting side of things, Chicago did not bring a lot of its regulars down the highway from Mesa, Arizona. Only Mark DeRosa and Jacques Jones figure to see regular play at the beginning of the season. On the other hand, the Royals started seven of their projected starters.
Chicago (Select hitters):
Pitch Count, Result2B Ryan Theriot
2-1 LD to 1B
0-1 single up middle
0-1 infield single to SS
1-0 GB to SS
2-for-4, two singles
2B Mark DeRosa
1-1 GB to SS
0-1 GB to 3B (hit and run, runners advanced)
0-1 double to CF, RBI
RF Jacques Jones
1-0 GB to 2B
0-for-3, two strikeouts
DH Darryl Ward
1-2 pop to CF
0-for-4, three strikeouts
LF Buck Coates
2-0 double to CF, RBI
1-1 GB to 3B
0-0 pop to SS
3-2 GB to 1B
SS Ronny Cedeno
0-0 pop to RF
0-for-3, two strikeouts
CF Felix Pie
1-2 GB to 1B
0-0 GB to 1B, runner to third
3-1 GB to pitcher
RF Tyler Colvin
0-0 LD to LF
1-1 GB to pitcher
2B Eric Patterson
0-0 GB to 1B
C Jake Fox
0-1 double to LF
0-0 two-run homer, 450 feet
2-for-2, two-run homer
Kansas City (Select hitters):
CF David DeJesus
3-2 GB to 2B
0-0 GB to 3B
1-0 one-run home run
2B Esteban German
1-1 LD to SS, reached on error
0-0 LD to RF
1-2 GB to 3B, reached on error
0-0 single to CF
RF Reggie Sanders
1-2 double down third base line
0-1 pop to catcher
DH Mike Sweeney
3-1 LD to SS
1-1 pop to 2B, over-the-shoulder catch by DeRosa
LF Emil Brown
1-2 GB to 2B
0-0 GB to 3B
1-0 pop to CF
1B Ryan Shealy
3-1 single through 3B/SS
3-1 GB to 3B
1-1 single to CF, RBI
2-0 blooper single to CF
3-for-4, two singles, RBI
3B Alex Gonzalez (*former Jay, Cub)
0-1 single to CF
0-0 double off CF wall, two RBI
2-for-3, single, double, two RBI
C John Buck
1-1 GB to SS, moved runner to third base
1-1 foul pop to 1B
SS Andres Blanco
3-2 single to CF, broken bat RBI
1-0 pop to CF
1-1 GB to 2B
1-for-3, single, RBI
RF Shane Costa
1-1 GB to 2B
2-0 single to RF
LF Billy Butler
2-0 GB to 3B
2-2 hit by pitch
CF Mitch Maier
1-2 fly to LF
Gonzalez, looking to make the Royals after retiring early in the 2006 season, was in good baseball shape and had a solid swing. He looked further along than most hitters at this point in the spring. If he continues to play well, don't be surprised if he makes the roster as a bench player.
Sanders' swing looked very slow, which is not surprising considering he is 39.
Shealy looked impressive but has a very thick lower half and could age poorly. Two of his singles were solid line drives, while the third was a blooper over first base. He also displayed solid patience at the plate.
Butler looked like a player who needs a little more minor league seasoning. Nothing about his play stood out.
It was clear that pitchers were avoiding throwing Brown fastballs and he struggled to take good swings on breaking balls.
Ward did not look interested in the game whatsoever. He struck out three times and looked foolish on both fastballs and breaking balls.
Pie definitely carries himself like a big leaguer and "hotdogs" a bit. He looks a lot like Alfonso Soriano with his wiry frame and high socks in centerfield. Pie bumbled an easy bouncing ball in center. He did not hit a ball out of the infield in four at-bats.
Colvin hit one ball on the button, but right at the left-fielder. His second at-bat resulted in a weak bouncer back to the pitcher.
Fox performed well at the plate and could be ready for a back-up gig by 2007. After relieving Blanco, he went 2-for-2 with two very well hit balls for a double and homer.
* * *
The Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim traveled to Surprise, Arizona on March 11 and defeated Texas by the score of 2-0 during spring training action. Non-roster pitcher Jamey Wright received the start for Texas and was opposed by pitcher Dustin Moseley.
Wright, a groundball pitcher, threw three perfect innings, induced three groundballs and struck out two. His fastball touched 93 mph. Prospect Eric Hurley pitched the fourth inning and was wild. His fastball touched 91 mph. Hurley walked two and struck out two. Mike Wood pitched the fifth and sixth inning and his fastball topped out around 88 mph. LHP A.J. Murray and RHP Scott Feldman pitched the final three innings of the game. Murray faced three batters and induced two pop-outs and a groundball. Feldman did not fare as well, allowing the game-winning two-run homer to Angels prospect Erick Aybar. In the ninth inning, he hit a batter, allowed an infield hit (which should have been an error) and a walk.
Moseley was economical with his pitches and worked through the fifth inning. He induced five flyball outs and seven groundball outs. Moseley also struck out one and walked one. His fastball ranged between 86-92 mph. He also showed a good pick-off move. Chris Bootcheck relieved Moseley and pitched the sixth and seventh innings. He allowed one hit, one walk and struck out two. His fastball was 86-93 mph. Minor leaguer Alex Serrano pitched the final two innings of the game. He induced four groundball outs and one flyball out. Serrano allowed one hit, which was erased by a double play, and walked a batter.
As the road team, the Angels fielded few regulars, although catcher Jeff Mathis and infielder Maicer Izturis both started the game in the field. Mathis was 0-for-3 and gave way to Bobby Wilson, while Izturis went 0-for-3 at second base. He showed very quick hands and reactions. His bat also plays better at second base, rather than third base. First base prospect Kendry Morales looked slow and out-of-shape. He struck out, popped out to first base and hit a weak fly ball to center. His only well-hit ball was a line drive to third base in the second inning. Top power prospect Brandon Wood received the start at third base. He went 1-for-3 with a single and a walk. Aybar played a solid shortstop and went 1-for-3 with the game-winning homer and a walk. He also stole a base. Reggie Willits, hoping to win the job as the fourth outfielder, went 1-for-2 with a walk. Prospect Mark Trumbo received one at-bat and was hit by a pitch.
Veteran Kenny Lofton led the offensive attack for Texas but went 0-for-4. Free agent signee Frank Catalanotto also went hitless (0-for-3) as the designated hitter. Michael Young had a good day at the plate and went 3-for-3 with two singles and a double. Non-roster outfielder Sammy Sosa continued his solid play and went 1-for3 with a single. Catcher Gerald Laird hit a single in the third after spending three or four minutes in the dirt when he hit a ball off his foot. He was removed from the game after the inning and was replaced by Guillermo Quiroz, a former top prospect with Toronto who is hoping to win a bench role after his career was waylaid by injuries. He went 1-for-3 and turned around a 93-mph Bootcheck fastball for a double.
Who Needs High Batting Averages?
Confession time: Tony Gwynn is my favorite player of all time. With that said, a roster full of guys with lifetime averages nearly 90 points below Gwynn's gaudy .338 career total could be a serious contender.
Yep, a bunch of .250 (or less) hitters would match up nicely against pennant winners of the past. For those who think of .250 as the bland essence of ho-hum mediocrity, just remember that offense is more than a batting average.
It's no secret that power and on-base percentage (OBP) are important components in scoring runs. A hitter who goes 4-for-12 (.333) with all singles and no walks is less valuable than the 3-for-12 (.250) guy who has a couple of walks and a double or home run among his hits.
Being able to get on base and drive the ball aren't the only skills needed to be a high-value player. Defense is an often underappreciated part of baseball, and the ability to steal runs from the opposition should never be ignored.
So who are the best of baseball's 1-for-4 types? I'll gladly take this 14-man roster of .247 to .252 career hitters. The players chosen are at positions where they have seen a fair amount of action. We're not taking left fielders and turning them into second basemen just to get more offense into the lineup.
Infielders: Because of his glove, Graig Nettles (.248, 390 career home runs) gets the nod at third base over Darrell Evans (.248, .361 OBP, 415 HR). Since Evans also played extensively (856 games) at first base, he becomes the starter over there. Purists who want someone who played exclusively at first could do worse than Don Mincher (.249, 200 HR and 606 walks in 4026 at-bats).
With these two left-handed hitters on the team, a solid righty swinger would be ideal as a backup at the corners. Five-time Gold Glover Doug Rader gets the nod. The Red Rooster's .251 lifetime average and 155 career homers may not look impressive, but keep in mind that Rader spent most of his career in the spacious Astrodome.
In addition to his defense, Rader had seasons of 21, 22 and 25 HR plus four seasons with 83 to 90 RBI during a pitcher's era in an extremely poor hitter's park. Rader and Nettles should also keep everybody loose with their not very sophisticated senses of humor.
Rico Petrocelli (.251) is a capable hitter and reliable shortstop. While his power numbers were boosted by Fenway Park, Petrocelli is well above average in run production at his position. A sprinkling of top 10 finishes in various offensive stats (including three seasons among the walk leaders) means Rico will fit nicely into this team.
Denis Menke (.250, mostly in the low-offense 1960s) will also see a fair amount of action. Since he had extended time at all four infield positions, Menke is an ideal utility player. A right-handed hitter, Menke put up one of the more unusual seasons in baseball history with the Reds in 1973. Going 46-for-241 led to a dreadful .191 BA, but a very impressive 69 walks pushed his OBP to .368.
Underappreciated Dick McAuliffe (.247, 197 career HR) is our second baseman. A lefty swinger, McAuliffe's unusual stance didn't prevent him from seasons of 22, 24 and 25 homers (a big deal in the '60s, especially for a middle infielder). He also had a knack for smacking triples. A selective hitter, McAuliffe's stat line includes a pair of 100-walk seasons (105 in 1967 and 101 in 1970). Hitting around .250 in the modern deadball era combined with power, walks and competent defense makes McAuliffe an easy choice.
De-emphasizing offense for the versatility of a Swiss army knife, Denny Hocking (.251) is the final infielder. The former Twins utilityman played every position but catcher and pitcher in his career. A switch-hitter, the sure-handed Hocking made just three errors in 375 total chances (.992 fielding percentage) while playing seven positions in 136 games both as a starter and defensive replacement in 1999. On this team, Hocking spells McAuliffe, sees a little action at short and provides depth and some late-inning relief in the outfield.
Behind the plate: The ideal pair of catchers is solid defensively, with one right-handed hitter and a lefty. Jim Sundberg (.248) and Darrell Porter (.247, .354 OBP, 188 HR) are a fine duo.
A six-time Gold Glover, Sundberg will bat eighth when he starts, but it would be hard to find a better receiver. Porter provides decent power, walks, and baseball smarts. John Roseboro (.249) is another lefty-hitting catcher who would be welcomed on this team. I wouldn't cry if I had to take the two-time Gold Glover who caught Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale instead of Porter. Ernie Whitt (.249) is a suitable option for Blue Jays fans.
Outfield: Jimmy Wynn (.250, .366 OBP, 291 HRs) is a no-brainer pick. Wynn piled up those numbers in a poor hitter's era while playing nine seasons in the Astrodome. Besides home runs and tons of walks, Wynn was no slouch in centerfield, and he could steal a base. On this team, the Toy Cannon often bats leadoff, and he wouldn't be out of place hitting third, fourth or fifth.
Mike Cameron (.252) is the only active player on the roster. Although his strikeout totals are high, Cameron brings a lot of positives to the team. One of the best defensive outfielders in the game, Cameron's power and speed (254 SB and 69 caught stealing, .786 success ratio) are too enticing to overlook. He plays in right field or center on this team.
While below-average defensively as an infielder, Howard Johnson (.249) can hold down left field on the .250 All-Stars. The switch-hitter's power, run production, patience (four NL top 10 seasons in walks) and base-stealing skills (231 for 308 lifetime, or an even .750) means HoJo could bat leadoff or second as well as farther down in the order.
A capable fourth outfielder can be a valuable asset when injuries and slumps come along. We're keeping up with the Joneses - Mack (.252) or Ruppert (.250) - to fill this slot. Both are left-handed hitters. Mack had more power and walks than Ruppert, who was speedier and played all three outfield positions. It's a toss-up, but I'll take Mack. No offense to Ruppert, who would also be a good fit on this team.
Our fifth outfielder is one of the best in baseball history at chasing down flyballs. Eight-time Gold Glover Paul Blair (.250) is a late-inning defensive specialist for this team, and we'll try to get him some at-bats as an occasional starter.
Manager: At 5'6" and 140 pounds, shortstop Donie Bush (.250, .356 OBP) was definitely a slap hitter during his dead ball era career (1908-23). With just 186 doubles, 74 triples and nine home runs in 7210 at-bats for a measly .300 slugging percentage, Bush's stats look anemic at first glance, but he excelled in making it to first base.
Bush was skilled at getting on ahead of Ty Cobb. He led the American League in walks from 1909 to 1912 and again in 1914. Bush finished second in that department in 1915 and 1918, and he was in the AL's top 10 for 12 consecutive seasons (1909-1920). That run of patient hitting included three seasons with more than 110 BBs (1912, 1914 and 1915). He was among the top 10 in runs scored in 10 different seasons, leading the circuit with 112 in 1917.
A skilled gloveman, Bush wasn't nearly as successful as a manager (497-539, .480) as he was as a player. It's doubtful that anyone could have done much with the lackluster 1930 and 1931 White Sox, who finished in seventh and eighth (last) place under Bush. However, he fared well with Pittsburgh (246-178, .580), winning the NL pennant in 1927.
Announcer: Canadian-born Jack Graney (.250, .354 OBP) was an outfielder for the Indians from 1908 to 1922. A selective hitter, Graney batted leadoff during most of his career. He led the AL in walks in 1917 and 1919 and finished second in that category in 1916.
Even with his lengthy major league career, Graney's main claim to fame was becoming the first ex-player to go behind the microphone as a baseball broadcaster. Graney spent more than 20 years as the radio voice of the Indians. Maybe we'll get Graney on the field for a few games in September.
In addition to a high overall OBP and slugging ability, this is an incredibly versatile lineup. Right-handed hitters and lefty swingers can easily be alternated, and players can be moved up and down the batting order depending on who is pitching.
Team speed is more than adequate, and our 1-for-4 All-Stars have a combined 24 Gold Gloves - 26 if Roseboro replaces Porter. Two-time AL winner Nettles would have a few more in his trophy case if it wasn't for Brooks Robinson. These guys can get on base, smack the ball a long way and flash the leather.
Does anyone do computer simulations of games between teams from different eras? If so, I would welcome hearing from you. To round out the roster, I could put together a pitching staff with a .500 or so cumulative winning percentage to go with the .250 All-Stars and then perhaps you could report your findings back to us.
Spring Training Report: Live in Arizona
I attended my first spring training game on March 7 in Surprise, Arizona. Frankly, I was just happy to be in the warm weather after driving through a blizzard (with zero visibility) to make my flight out of Toronto. Yesterday, there was a 60 degree difference between Arizona and Ontario, thanks to a late winter cold snap. After only three days in Arizona (and 11 to go), I have to say I am in love with the state. If anyone out there is from Arizona and in need of a newspaper editor/reporter or someone in public relations, drop me a line. I will work for baseball tickets.
The game was an entertaining affair between the "home team" Texas Rangers and crowd-favorite Arizona Diamondbacks. The Rangers held off a late surge by the D-backs to win 9-8. Arizona had the winning run at second base with one out, but Texas pitcher Mike Wood induced a fielder's choice from minor league outfielder Rich Thompson and then Wood struck out top outfield prospect Carlos Gonzalez (on three breaking balls in the dirt) to end the game.
Livan Hernandez received the start for the D-backs and was terrible. He dismissed his struggles after the game, saying he was concerned only about getting his work in. However, his wheels completely fell off in the third inning when he allowed six runs and appeared to be laboring. It was evident that Hernandez, who always carries around some extra weight, was not in very good game shape. His fastball was only between 81-85 mph, which is not going to cut it for a big league right-hander. After nine batters came to the plate, Hernandez finally escaped the inning after Texas second baseman Ian Kinsler flew out to left field.
Strangely enough, manager Bob Melvin (possibly the skinniest manager in the majors) let Hernandez come back out in the fourth inning. The veteran pitcher then proceeded to allow the first three runners on base before striking out left fielder Brad Wilkerson on back-to-back change-ups at 50 and 57 mph. The crowd had a good laugh at how far out in front Wilkerson was. He could have swung twice.
Brandon Medders then came in for the D-backs and hit 94 mph with his violent delivery. Bill Murphy was the next hurler and he pitched the fifth and sixth innings and looked excellent. The former Oakland Athletic lefty looks fully recovered from injuries that knocked him off track the past two years. He pitched between 88-91 mph with his fastball and had good movement.
Jeff Bajenaru, a former White Sox prospect, came in to pitch the seventh and struck out three batters, while allowing one base runner. He could have had a perfect inning if not for a double on a lazy flyball by Drew Meyer, which was lost in the sun by former No. 1 overall draft pick Justin Upton.
Former Kansas City Royal D.J. Carrasco pitched the final inning for the D-backs and looked better than he did before heading over to Japan for the 2006 season. He touched 94 mph. Arizona could have great bullpen depth this season if Murphy, Bajenaru and Carrasco begin the year in Triple-A. Worse players will begin the year in the majors with some clubs.
On the Texas side, left-handed John Koronka received the start and is battling for a spot in the rotation. He looked solid and was one of the few pitchers who was able to get breaking balls over for strikes. He did not allow a hit in his three innings of work.
Kameron Loe replaced Koronka in the fourth and pitched OK, but not great. He topped out at 90 mph, but only hit it twice. Francisco Cruceta started the seventh but was not sharp at all, managing to touch 91 mph only once or twice. He quickly lost faith in the fastball after he was torched by the D-back batters but he could not throw his off-speed pitches for strikes. He allowed four runs.
Mexican League pitcher Jose Vargas relieved Cruceta and got the final out in the inning. He then pitched the eighth inning as well and was not overly sharp. He hit 90 mph a couple times and had questionable control. The Dominican had a 1.36 ERA in the Mexican League last year and I'm guessing that's where he'll end up again in 2007.
The aforementioned Wood relieved Vargas in the eighth and also pitched the ninth, where he got into trouble. He worked between 84-89 mph with his fastball.
On the offensive side of things, D-back prospect Chris Carter had a good game, going 2-for-2 with a walk. He hit a pinch-hit triple in the seventh and added an RBI single in the ninth. Upton redeemed himself after his outfield blunder by running out an infield hit in the eighth inning.
Defensively, Chad Tracy made an error at third base, as did his defensive replacement prospect Mark Reynolds. Tracy looked unusually slow.
For Texas, catcher Gerald Laird absolutely crushed a pitch from Hernandez in the third inning, which sailed over the 400-foot sign in center field.
If spring training were to end today, right-fielder Sammy Sosa would have a starting gig on the Rangers. The comeback player hit a mammoth homer in the third inning for three RBI. The ball traveled over the 375-foot sign and cleared the entire park! He also added a double (which should have been an error on the second baseman) and struck out. Wilkerson went 2-for-3 and looks to have recovered from shoulder problems.
I am looking at attending a game on Saturday (Kansas City vs. the Cubs, I believe) and on Sunday (Texas vs. the Angels). I hope to post my observations on both games. If people have questions on specific players, feel free to ask.
Two on Two: AL Central Preview
Last week we kicked off the Two on Two Series with the AL East. This week it's the Central. Joining us are Seth Stohs of the popular Twins blog, Seth Speaks, and Brian Borawski, proprietor of Tiger Blog.
Sully: Thank you Seth and Brian for participating as we preview the ultra-competitive AL Central. We started the series last week with the AL East, a good division for sure but also a division whose reputation can be fueled by the northeast hype machine. Is the Central the best division in baseball?
Seth: The AL Central is head-and-shoulders the best division in baseball. Last year, the division had three teams over 90 wins. The Tigers were one of the feel-good stories of the year last year, and there is no reason that they can't duplicate it this year with the addition of Gary Sheffield. The White Sox had ups and downs but were still over 90 wins. They made a few moves which will likely pay off in the long run. And the Twins overcame so many obstacles to finally win the division on the final day of the season. They have the AL MVP, the AL Cy Young Award winner, the AL Batting Champ, the Minor League Player of the Year, the Executive of the Year, the best bullpen in baseball and a manager that, even with his faults, has the respect of all of his teammates. The Cleveland Indians offense and potentially improved bullpen should put them right in contention. Travis Hafner is as good a hitter as there is in the league. And although the Royals likely won't compete, the addition of Alex Gordon and Billy Butler to the lineup and the continued development of some other players, they could be a little better.
Brian: I think in 2006, you could definitely say that the AL Central was the best division in baseball but once again, I think the AL East may have surpassed the Central. I think the White Sox are probably the favorites in the Central but you could argue that both the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox are better with the Blue Jays being a solid team as well. I will agree that the AL Central is probably the most wide open. I think any of four teams (Sorry Royals fans) could walk away with the division and it may very well come down to which team stays the healthiest (which could concern White Sox fans).
Rich: The AL Central is undoubtedly tough. It goes four deep although I'm not sure I would take any of them over either the Yankees or Red Sox. Now I realize that the ALCS winner came from the Central in each of the past two seasons, but I'm not prepared to annoint this division as the best in baseball or even the American League. Strong, yes. The best? I'm not so sure about that.
Seth: The AL East is solid, no question. The Yankees lineup is devastating. The Red Sox made a couple of big moves in the free agent market. The Blue Jays finally passed the Red Sox a year ago and look to improve. Most people may not know it, because you generally will only hear about the Red Sox and Yankees on SportsCenter, but the AL Central is clearly the best division in baseball.
Sully: As I said last week, I am unprepared to call the better division for 2007. Let's talk about the Twins and their chances to repeat as Division Champs. For the first time in a number of years I think there are some real concerns about their starting rotation. Francisco Liriano is hurt and Brad Radke hung 'em up. Is the dominant bullpen and solid lineup enough to overcome spotty starting pitching?
Seth: Losing Liriano was a huge blow to the Twins last year. Statistically, he was performing even better than Johan Santana, the unanimous AL Cy Young Award winner. Bringing in retreads like Sidney Ponson and Ramon Ortiz certainly does not breathe confidence into any Twins fan. The scary thing for Twins fans is that Carlos Silva and Boof Bonser are far from sure-things, as well. From a talent and 'stuff' standpoint, it probably would be better to go with a complete youth movement, but Terry Ryan will not let that happen. He wisely is more concerned with the psyches of the young pitchers and what is best for them so that the Twins can remain competitive for years to come. That said, Matt Garza, Glen Perkins and Kevin Slowey are very close. Scott Baker has nothing more to prove at Rochester. Don't be surprised if three or even four of these pitchers are in the Twins rotation by June. I think that the Twins 2007 success directly hinges on how quickly they are willing to pull the plug on underperforming veterans. That, and the health of Jason Kubel are, in my opinion, the two big keys to the Twins 2007 season.
Brian: I think the Twins need too many things to go right to be at the top of the AL Central in 2007. They're relying on too many prospects in the rotation and while I think Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau will be good this upcoming season, I also see them coming back down to earth a bit. Still Top 20 in the American League but not Top 10 like they were in 2006.
Sully: Yeah I have a couple of problems with Minnesota. Although Santana is the best in the biz, the rest of the starting pitching is awful. Too many not-there-yets, has-beens and even never-were's. I also question the offense a bit. While Mauer will be fantastic again and Morneau very good as well, the Twins will be awful at left field and third base. Rondell White is 35 and coming off a 66 OPS+ season while Nick Punto's career 77 OPS+ suggests he will be one of the very worst regulars in baseball.
Seth: I can't really argue with you on the concerns at 3B and LF. Nick Punto surprised a lot of people last year with how well he actually played once he became the regular 3B. Yet, it resulted in an OPS+ of just 90. He played terrific defense at the hot corner, but he has almost zero power. I can't see him even performing to his 2006 level again. Fortunately, the Twins make up for the deficiency at 3B with above average performance at Catcher and CF. Bringing in Jeff Cirillo, who mashed lefties last year, could get plenty of action at 3B too. As for White, he got off to such a horrific start last year. Maybe it was the shoulder, but it was so far below what White has been throughout his career. What gets lost is that after the All-Star break, White actually hit .321/.354/.538. He had 19 extra base hits in 156 at bats. He really just needs to find a way to walk more this year. Defensively, injuries have definitely made him a subpar outfielder. I expect to see plenty of Jason Kubel in left field as well this year.
Rich: Although the starting rotation has a few holes this year, the bullpen figures to be one of the best in the biz once again. Joe Nathan is an elite closer and Jesse Crain, Pat Neshek, Dennys Reyes, and Juan Rincon arguably form the top quartet of middle relievers and set-up men in the game. As a whole, Minnesota's relievers led the majors in ERA ( 2.91), OBP (.301), SLG (.359), K/9 (8.13), K/BB (3.28), and SV/OPP (80%). This bullpen is cheap and deep, which is a prerequisite for a middle market team in hopes of playing in October.
Sully: Without a doubt, baseball is back in the Motor City. Still, the Tigers limped to the finish line before heating up again in the post-season and I think that has some people questioning if they ought to be considered legitimate contenders in 2007. Can the Tigers get back to the World Series?
Brian: They can but it's going to be a tough road. They had a lot of things go right last year and they stayed relatively healthy. The Sheffield pickup will be a huge boost in the lineup because he provides a patient, yet great, hitter at the plate that the Tigers lacked last year. They also have a deep rotation and even if a guy like Mike Maroth (the exptect fifth starter) goes down, they have plenty of guys waiting in the wings like Wil Ledezma, Zach Miner and even Andrew Miller who can fill in.
Sully: I am not sure I would characterize Sheffield as a "great" hitter. He hit .284/.355/.502 the second half of 2005 and .298/.355/.450 this past season. He is now 38 and has been bothered by shoulder problems. Other concerns I have for the Tigers offense are at first base and left field. Sean Casey just won't cut it and as long as Craig Monroe is taking playing time from Marcus Thames, Detroit will suffer for offense out of the left field position.
Rich: I believe the Tigers are more likely to pull a Chicago White Sox on us and slip into third than work their way into first. In fact, I'm not even sure Detroit can win 90 games the way the South Siders did last year. This is a solid team with a decent offense and a bunch of good, young arms. However, despite the addition of Sheffield, I see the Tigers hitting fewer home runs and scoring less often than last year.
Seth: Count me in the Justin Verlander-is-the-real-thing camp. I think that he is right up there talent-wise with Jeremy Bonderman and Mark Prior. Let's just hope that he stays healthy. Brian, any concern that the 2007 Tigers pitching staff will return to reality the way the 2006 White Sox staff did? Any concern for a let down?
Brian: Absolutely. I think Kenny Rogers and Verlander will be hard pressed to match their 2006 numbers. Then again, I think this is the year Bonderman finally breaks out and possibly makes a run at Johan Santana and a Cy Young. If anything, it'll be Nate Robertson that's the wild card. If he can put together a good season, that could really help the Tigers to the playoffs again.
Seth: The White Sox scored 127 more runs in 2006 than in 2005. However, their team ERA fell from 3.61 in 2005 to 4.61 in 2006. So, what do we expect from the Ozzie-led White Sox in 2007?
Brian: I see the White Sox bouncing back. I'm still convinced that they were the best team in the Central last year (and probably second best in the American League to the New York Yankees) despite the third place finish. That middle of the lineup (Paul Konerko, Jim Thome, Jermaine Dye and Joe Crede) is just plain wicked. They could use some bullpen help, but that's always something they can pick up at the trade deadline. I know I'll take some heat from my Tiger brethren, but the White Sox are my favorite to walk away with the Central in 2007.
Sully: I think the White Sox are on really shaky ground as a club. The starting pitching features four durable, unremarkable types and a complete black hole in the 5th starter slot. And while the middle of the lineup may be formidable, the rest of the lineup is hugely problematic. Dye, who is 33, coming off of a career year and almost sure to regress, is really the only offensive asset in the outfield. Any combination of Brian Anderson (.290 2006 OBP), Scott Podsednik (.330) and Darin Erstad (.279) alone might kill the team's hopes. All the while, they will play 57 games against Minnesota, Cleveland and Detroit, three teams of genuine quality. An aging core and a dud off-season will cost Chicago in 2007.
Rich: The White Sox had a strange off season. I give Kenny Williams credit for stockpiling young arms, but I'm not sure the team made any strides in improving the rotation this year. Mark Buehrle got rocked last season. His strikeout rate ( 4.32 K/9) fell off the cliff n 2006 and is such that I wouldn't look for him to bounce back in a big way. Maybe he can become another Kenny Rogers. I don't know. But I'd like to see evidence of it first. Jon Garland is another starter who is living on the edge. And what makes anyone think Gavin Floyd is ready to step up?
Brian: I guess I like the pitching staff a bit better than you guys do. Mark Buehrle is playing for a contract so I think we'll see him revert to at least his 2004 form. Jon Garland will ride his solid second half in 2006 into another solid season in 2007 and I've always been a big Javier Vazquez fan. I do agree that trading Brandon McCarthy after dealing Freddy Garcia to the Phillies was a bit odd but he would have been almost as much of a question mark as anyone else the White Sox throw out there. And I'd hardly say that the rest of the lineup is problematic. Tad Iguchi provides a nice table setter for the big bats in the middle and A.J. Pierzynski is a solid hitting catcher. You might also see some more Rob Mackowiak (.365 OBP) if Ryan Anderson can't get it done in centerfield and Darin Erstad has lost a step.
Rich: I don't think it matters at all that Buehrle is in a contract year. I mean, let's be real now. The Cubs will give him a 5 x 11 contract no matter what he does this year.
Seth: I definitely think that the Sox took a step backwards this offseason, although I do think that the moves Ken Williams made will make them strong again in 2008. Getting Gio Gonzalez and John Danks was good, but I agree that the Sox rotation in 2006 takes another step backwards. The offense will be fine though, particularly if they can get Josh Fields and Ryan Sweeney in the lineup quickly. I think that the shortstop situation is another big question mark.
Sully: I think you bring up a great point, Seth. The sooner Fields and Sweeney cut into Erstad's, Anderson's and Podsednik's playing time, the better for the Pale Hose and their fans. Transitioning from a team I am really down on to one I think could turn some heads this year, let's talk about the Cleveland Indians. With a punishing offense, some nice off-season tinkering and better health and development from the starting staff, this could be the Tribe's year in the AL Central.
Brian: The Indians are one of those teams that are hard to get your hands around. I've already shown my hand and said I like the White Sox to win the Central but I keep flip flopping between the Indians and Tigers as to who is better between the two. I like the bullpen moves the Indians made and they should help but the question is, can they help enough. They also lack some depth in the rotation. Once you get past those front three (C.C. Sabathia, Jake Westbrook and Cliff Lee), it gets pretty spotty. There's no doubt this team should score some runs though. You've got a nice mix of seasoned talent with some younger players anchoring some key spots (Andy Marte at third and Josh Barfield at second).
Seth: The Indians had one of the league's most potent offenses last year and the additions of David Dellucci, Josh Barfield and Andy Marte should make them even stronger. I believe Sabathia is ready to take that next step. Jake Westbrook is solid. Cliff Lee still has upside. I think that Jeremy Sowers could be an All-Star. Where the Indians had struggles last year was in their bullpen. So this offseason, the Tribe went out and signed Keith Foulke, Joe Borowski, Roberto Hernandez, Aaron Fultz and some other veterans to minor league contracts. The thought being that, even though these guys may not be great anymore, they also will also get over poor outings right away. They won't have the meltdowns like Fausto Carmona had last year. Even with the retirement of Foulke, the bullpen will be stronger which should mean about five more wins. Combined with an even stronger offense and solid starting pitching, the Indians definitely should be competing all season long.
Rich: I like the Indians. Most sabermetric types know they underperformed their Pythagorean record by 11 games last year. But I also like the fact that the Tribe finished #1 in the majors in Rob Neyer's BeaneCount. As an example of its relevancy, the Yankees, Tigers, and Red Sox placed second, third, and fourth in the AL. This is a good team. Cleveland just needs to learn to play better on the road and win more than its fair share of one-run games. The latter has now been a bugaboo for a couple of years. Despite the changes, I'm not sure if that bullpen is ready for prime time yet. I'm also concerned that the pitchers don't miss more bats. The Indians finished second from the bottom in Ks in 2006. I don't see where this issue was addressed at all, which means the defense needs to come up big this year if Cleveland is going to reach its potential.
Sully: I think it will be interesting to see if Eric Wedge takes advantage of his outfield depth. As it looks now, the Tribe could have two very potent platoons flanking Grady Sizemore in center field. Against right handers, it would be David Dellucci in left and Trot Nixon in right. Here is how they have fared against righties over their career:
AVG OBP SLG
Dellucci: .271 .359 .468
Nixon: .292 .379 .513
And here is what Jason Michaels and Casey Blake have managed against southpaws:
AVG OBP SLG
Michaels: .303 .387 .464
Blake: .253 .335 .487
All four hit significantly better with the platoon advantage. Wedge's resourcefulness will go a long way in determining Cleveland's hopes this season.
Seth: Sully, that makes a lot of sense to you and I, but Casey Blake is slotted in as the team's 1B. Could he play 1B against righties and RF against lefties? Ryan Garko really deserves an opportunity to get some at bats as well. And, will we see more of Victor Martinez at 1B with Kelly Shoppach behind the plate?
Rich: Garko had a boatload of RBI last year (45 in 50 games) so my sense is that the casual fan may overrate him a bit this year. He's already 26. I don't really know what to make of him, but I would be surprised if he is special as a first baseman. Shoppach rusted away a bit on the bench last year, but he didn't really earn more playing time either. I mean, 8 walks and 45 strikeouts in 110 at-bats makes me wonder if he can make the proper adjustments and hit big-league pitchers.
Sully: OK guys, it's that time. What do you got on Kansas City?
Seth: I think Dayton Moore taking over the GM role is a positive for the Royals. I think that they have been very smart with Billy Butler and Alex Gordon. No need to start their arbitration clocks any earlier than necessary. It may not show in record, but I do believe that this team is getting better. Offensively, the addition of those two and the emergence of Mark Teahen as legitimate offensive players is huge. David DeJesus needs to finally step it up though. John Buck is solid. Mark Grudzielanek's injury hurts a little. If only Joey Gathright could steal 1B. The concern is the pitching staff, and they are bad. Seriously, #s 2-5 in that staff make Gil Meche look good! The Royals are trying. They are getting better, but it will take a complete overhaul to get them back to respectability.
Brian: In a weird sort of way, this could be an important year for the Royals. You won't see it in the boxscores, because they'll probably still come close to touching 100 losses, but how guys like Alex Gordon develop could go a long way towards them finally getting out of the cellar. I think we could see a reemergence of David DeJesus in kind of a Freddy Sanchez like way where he finally contends for a batting title and remains healthy. We'll also see how bad (or good if you're an extreme optimist) of a signing Gil Meche was, at least for the money. The team needs to see what it has and they'll find that out in 2007.
Sully: Gordon, Butler and Luke Hochevar are definite up and coming bright spots but this team is still just so far away. As you mentioned, Seth, nothing short of an overhaul will do for Kansas City. I can't see any way this pitching staff gives up less than 900 runs and even though Gordon, DeJesus, Teahen and even Ryan Shealy may produce some, the offense is still only mediocre. I know it sounds like old hat but there really is not a lot of good to say about these guys.
Rich: Look, the Royals have been awful for three years and have only posted one winning record in the last dozen seasons. Although Dayton Moore has a lot of work ahead of him, Kansas City is just a few players short of where Tampa Bay was a couple of years ago. The franchise has the second pick in the amateur draft and should be in a position to land another star player, whether it be Vanderbilt lefthander David Price or Georgia Tech catcher Matt Weiters. It's going to take awhile to turn things around, but the organization appears to be on the right track for the first time since the days of George Brett.
Sully: What do you guys see as being the biggest potential surprise in this division? Could be an individual, a team, anything really. I will go back to my earlier sentiments and say the Chicago White Sox. I think their starting pitching is suspect, their lineup contains too many holes and where they are good on offense, they are old. I have them in fourth place this season and think they will have a hard time eclipsing the .500 mark.
Seth: I don't disagree with you at all on the White Sox. I don't want to sound like a homer, but I think that the Twins will be wise and go with the young pitchers earlier than we think. I think Jason Kubel will become a star. And although I think most will predict that the Tigers, the White Sox or even the Indians to win the division, I think that the Twins will find a way to win their fifth division title in six years. Secondly, despite the fact that Daisuke Matsuzaka has already been given the AL Rookie of the Year, I think that Kevin Slowey will actually win it.
Sully: Just so we have this on the record - and please, no homer apologies. I am a Red Sox fan for crissakes. We have a Kevin Slowey for AL Rookie of the Year call - right here, and on the record.
Seth: You read it here first!! Kevin Slowey, AL Rookie of the Year!
Rich: You gotta love Seth going out on a limb like that. No pedestrian predictions here.
Brian: My biggest surprise isn't much of a surprise but it's the Indians. I have them in third place but I could easily see them vaulting over everyone and winning the division if some of their pitchers catch fire. I also think the key to the team isn't Travis Hafner(although he's a huge part of the offense), but Victor Martinez. I think if the Indians win the division, Martinez will be the guy who ends up as the MVP.
Sully: I don't know if I would call Cleveland challenging for the division a real surprise but Martinez outshining Hafner sure would be.
Rich: Mine is a bit of a stretch, but I'm going to say that Ozzie Guillen gets canned before the All-Star break. His style works great when you're winning, but it wears mighty thin when you're losing. I know it's a longshot, but I think it's within the realm of possibility.
Sully: Guys, do we see any of the major award winners coming from the Central this season? I know Seth is on the record with his Slowey for AL ROY call but what else? Does Santana cruise to another Cy Young? Will Joe Mauer or Travis Hafner get their due? Let's hear your ROY, MVP and Cy Young candidates from the Central.
Brian: While I think it will take an injury from Johan Santana, I really think Jeremy Bonderman is going to put it together this year and could compete for the Cy Young. If the White Sox win the division like I predict, I can also see Jim Thome winning the AL MVP. Alex Gordon could also walk away with the AL ROY if he's as good as the hype.
Rich: Ho hum, Santana for Cy Young. This will be the year of the DH. If Big Papi doesn't win the MVP, I can see Hafner winning the honors with a .310-45-125 type year. Heck, he was close to those numbers last year in just 129 games. But those stats will go a long ways with voters if Hafner leads the Indians into the playoffs. As far as the Rookie of the Year goes, I believe it will be tough to beat out a certain pitcher in Boston but, if not him, then Gordon is one of the next two or three logical choices.
Seth: I am going to stand by my Kevin Slowey pick for AL Rookie of the year despite so many great choices in the AL Central alone. I think that Mauer and Hafner are definitely top MVP choices, but I don't think that the reigning AL MVP should be lost in the discussion either. I would say the darkhorse is Carlos Guillen. And yes, Johan Santana should win his third Cy Young Award this year!
Rich: Before we let you go, we need your predictions as to the standings in the AL Central. Who will take first, second, third, fourth, and fifth place? Bring it on.
Seth: My head says: I'll keep it simple with this answer. I will say: Twins, Indians, Tigers, White Sox, Royals.
Brian: This might be the toughest division to call outside of the Royals finishing in last place. I have White Sox/Tigers/Indians/Twins/Royals in that order. I kept flipping back and forth between the Tigers and Indians at second and third but I think the Gary Sheffield trade and the return of that rotation puts them slightly over the top. Last I picked the White Sox and Indians one and two and they finished three and four so this is really anyone's division if they go out and grab it.
Sully: I will go with Cleveland edging out Minnesota in a tight one, and then Detroit, Chicago and Kansas City.
Rich: I agree with Brian. This is a tough division to call. No one team stands heads and shoulders above the rest. I like the Indians the most, followed by the Tigers, Twins, White Sox, and Royals.
Brian: It could well come down to who's willing to sell their future at the trade deadline. It'd be interesting to see a team like the White Sox turn around and trade John Danks for a guy like Adam Dunn in July. All four teams have some guys in their farm system that could net them a short term gain if they feel they're on the cusp.
Sully: Thanks guys.
After a stellar 2004 season, Seattle 3B Adrian Beltre has somehow lost his belt. Unfortunately, the belt I am referring to has to do with producing long hits instead of holding up long pants. What's intriguing is not that Beltre's production fell off after a career year, but the degree to which his numbers have declined. After what seemed to be an MVP-type season where Beltre put it all together showing his tremendous ability, it seems that 2005 resulted in a return right back to square one - do not pass go, do not collect your $200 (uh, rather collect your $64 million, but I suppose that
is another story).
Age is often a reason for decreased production, but Beltre will turn 28 next month as he enters his ninth full season. With his experience and youth, Beltre should be primed to enter the most productive stretch of his career, so what gives?
Here is a look at Beltre in 2004 and 2006:
2004 uber-Beltre is on the left and a more human 2006 Beltre is on the right. I picked the two clips with the most similarity in regard to camera angle, pitch type/location and result. Again, these are synchronized to contact.
There are a lot of similarities when looking at setup and body position throughout the swings, but there is one major difference that caught my attention. Here is a more directed look:
Beltre's 2006 swing clearly shows that his hands are more visible behind his head as he prepares to unload his swing. The significance of this deals with Beltre's "swing time" - the time it takes him to unload once he has decided to go ahead with his swing.
In all honesty, I could argue that I like his 2006 swing better. If I had to guess which swing would produce more raw power, I would pick the one on the right. The reason is because the actual swing quickness between the two looks very similar, so if the 2006 swing shows the hands traveling a longer distance in the same time, it stands that the 2006 swing should be creating more bat speed.
The 2004 swing, however, shows that Beltre was initiating his shoulder rotation slightly earlier. This coincides with his hands and bat moving sooner to the ball, which indicates a quicker swing. Additionally, Beltre's arms look slightly more extended at contact on the left, which supports the concept that he is starting his swing earlier because the extra time from the quicker swing happens to be filled by the extra extension. If contact was made with the arms in exactly the same position, the difference in quickness would be more apparent.
Here is the best side view I could manage:
This angle also makes it clear that Beltre has to move his barrel a longer distance in 2006. If he could pull this off with all else remaining equal, I do think it could be a big plus, but that does not appear to be the case.
More bat speed does not always equal more power. The small matter of making consistent, hard contact comes into play. Looking at the stride foot of each swing, 2004 Beltre looks to begin his swing slightly later, which may mean that he is getting a better, longer look at the ball. This would allow him to process more information about the oncoming pitch, and the stats say he was producing enough bat speed to put up great power numbers.
Mariners hitting coach Jeff Pentland also seems to agree that a shorter swing correlates to better results from Beltre:
"Instead of swinging harder, we pulled him back and concentrated more on squaring the ball up and hitting it solid," Pentland said.
I have heard some arguments about players performing well in their "walk" year only to see performance decline after signing a lucrative contract, but is this the case with Beltre?
Considering these video clips, it appears that Beltre may actually be trying to do too much after signing that 5-year, $64 million free agent deal with Seattle. Perhaps the departure from his successful ways of 2004 results from dealing with higher expectations by attempting to do more, more, more. If so, Beltre might just need to realize how talented he is, stay within himself and just go about his business.
This realization may have begun during the second half of last season, when Beltre's batting average jumped 31 points and he hit 18 of his 25 home runs.
Referencing that stretch, Beltre said:
"You get frustrated (through the struggles)," Beltre said. "You know you can do better. It gets to be too much. Finally I got to the point where you say, 'whatever.' Then you just go out, see the ball and hit the ball."
Sometimes a slight change in mentality, mechanics (like changing the position of the hands in order to shorten the swing) or a good combination of the two is all it takes to recreate a comfort level of past success. Beltre is a good, young athlete with loads of experience which leads me to believe an explanation is out there and that there is hope that he can produce more closely to what his ability suggests.
More Name than Game
All over the world and in all lines of work superior performers are passed up for inferior ones. Despite best efforts to establish meritocratic workplaces - be they companies, restaurants or sports teams - employers often fail in this endeavor for any number of reasons. Chief among them is the employee who time and again is recognized for his or her efforts based on name recognition and reputation alone. After a productive stretch, that employee's reputation is cemented and therefore becomes bullet proof.
The list that follows seeks to compile those players in Major League Baseball whose names far outstrip their games. Bear in mind it is not necessarily a "most over-rated" list but rather an assemblage of those players at each position who seem to have attained perpetual kid glove treatment and permanent employment.
Catcher: Ivan Rodriguez
Pudge hit .300/.332/.437 last season, good for a 98 OPS+. Amazingly, this was a bounceback season for the backstop. In 2005, he put up a .276/.290/.444 line and over the last two seasons, Rodriguez has walked a total of just 37 times. For some context, Manny Ramirez had notched his 37th walk of just the 2006 season alone before Memorial Day last year. Still in good shape and a solid defensive catcher at the age of 35, I expect Pudge to have a gig for years to come despite his offensive woes.
First Base: Nomar Garciaparra
The same guy, who, as a shortstop, one season hit .357/.418/.603 and seemed a lock to be a future Hall-of-Famer now struggles to put up a mid .800's OPS as a first baseman. Still, anyone capable of showing the promise Nomar did at the end of the 20th century will be afforded opportunity that others will not. So I see Nomar playing 1st Base well into his 30s, his numbers declining steadily as he just tries to stay healthy. In his current form, Nomar is an average first baseman. There is value in that, but not the kind of value Nomar figures to extract from teams on the basis of his name alone.
Second Base: Marcus Giles
Although he is only 29, Giles still made his way onto my list by virtue of the notion that he not only seems to be living off of his performance levels from 2003, but with his acquisition by the San Diego Padres, one gets the sense he is also living off of his brother's name. Giles's 262/.341/.387 line, a 90 OPS+ in 2006, suggests he is not the player many think him to be.
Shortstop: Cesar Izturis
I know there really aren't many informed fans out there that still believe Cesar Izturis is any sort of decent player but the fact that he has a full-time Big League job alone merits his inclusion on this list. The guy with the 68 OPS+ still manages to swindle his way into lineups with alarming regularity, all because of the good name he established for himself early on in his career when he hit at an acceptable enough level to justify regular playing time. At this point, is it not evident that he is a drain on any team?
Third Base: Hank Blalock
It's hard to believe that the once promising third baseman could have fallen so hard but Blalock's .266/.325/.401 season in 2006 made him one of the very worst regulars in all of baseball. Blalock is only 26, but his declining output is real cause for concern. Consider the following trend:
Blalock still seems to have job security, however, because he showed so much promise at a young age. Still, it's hard to see how Blalock merits such treatment.
Left Field: Luis Gonzalez:
Gonzalez will be 40 by the time the 2007 season ends and he is coming off of a .271/.352/.444 season, good enough for merely a 97 OPS+ playing home games at the hitter friendly Chase Field. Well not only was Gonzalez handed a job by Grady Little and the Los Angeles Dodgers, but it was at the expense of younger, better, cheaper talent. Put differently, with one signing the Dodgers got older, worse and more expensive. Not a good combo.
Center Field: Torii Hunter
There is a lot to like about Torii Hunter. He plays a very good center field and seems like a great teammate. He goes all out after every ball. That said, his offensive contributions are badly over blown. Hunter is just OK as a hitter, as evidenced by his career 102 OPS+. Still, the way you hear many talk about him, you would think he is some sort of supreme talent. Hunter is a good player, probably one of his position's 10 best but just you wait until this off-season. Hunter is about to get paid like a superstar, something he is not.
Right Field: Gary Sheffield
The case on Sheff is pretty straightforward. He is 38 years old and two full seasons removed from being anything resembling a superstar contributor. He has endured shoulder problems to boot. Still, the defending American League champs saw fit to acquire Sheffield. Far be it from me to criticize the great Dave Dombroski, but Sheffield is going to disappoint badly in 2007.
Left Handed Pitcher: Jarrod Washburn
Still living off of his reputation forged as a member of the World Series winning Angels, Washburn hasn't been very good at all for some years now. Still, the Mariners saw fit to award Washburn a lucrative deal and subsequently paid for it dearly as Jarrod struggled through his first season in Seattle. Having struck out just 4.96 batters every nine innings in 2006, I don't see much reason to believe the 32 year-old will improve significantly.
Right Handed Pitcher: Jaret Wright
In many ways, Jaret Wright is still living off of his post-season performance from 1997. Save a renaissance of sorts in 2004 with Atlanta, and when he has even been able to make it on the field, Wright has labored anywhere in between mediocre and downright awful. The New York Yankees awarded Wright a lucrative deal after his 2004 season, one of their worst signings of the Cashman era. Now it is on to Baltimore for Wright, where he hopes to recapture some of his 2004 magic with Leo Mazzone. In ten mediocre, injury-plagued seasons, Wright has earned over $23 million.
A big name can earn a player a nice payday. But a big game can earn a team a playoff spot. You can have the names, I'll take the games.
Russian Roulette: The Rule 5 Draft
With the implementation of new rules allowing teams an extra year of development for their prospects, December's Rule 5 draft was expected to be quiet, to say the least. However, 19 players were chosen - the third most in nine years. Under the previous rules, prospects had to be added to their clubs' major league 40-man roster after either three (if 19 or older when signed) or four years (if under the age of 19 when signed) in the minor leagues or they would be subjected to the winter draft. The new rules added another year of leeway for clubs to decide if players were 'worthy' of those coveted spots. As a result, many players that were expected to be available in the Rule 5 draft this past winter were not. Players chosen in the draft must remain on the 25-man major league roster for the entire season or be offered back to their original club for $25,000.
Below is a chart outlining the previous eight Rule 5 drafts, not including the 2006 draft. After that, you will find a more detailed analysis of those drafts in the hopes we can better understand what to expect from the recent 2006 Rule 5 draft class as we approach the 2007 season.
The History (1998-2005):
2005: 12 picks, 3 stuck (25%), Best pick: Dan Uggla
2004: 12 picks, 5 stuck (42%), Best pick: Andy Sisco
2003: 20 picks, 6 stuck (30%), Best pick: Chris Shelton
2002: 28 picks, 11 stuck (39%), Best pick: Luis Ayala
2001: 12 picks, 6 stuck (50%), Best pick: Jorge Sosa
2000: 10 picks, 3 stuck (30%), Best pick: Jay Gibbons
1999: 17 picks, 5 stuck (29%), Best pick: Johan Santana
1998: 13 picks, 4 stuck (21%), Best pick: Scott Sauerbeck
Overall: 35% of picks last the year
Most Common Positions Picked:
C 2 2.0%
1B 1 0.8%
2B 7 6.0%
3B 7 6.0%
SS 5 4.0%
OF 23 18.5%
RHP 52 41.9%
LHP 27 21.8%
Not surprisingly, pitching is the position of interest. Almost 64 per cent of all Rule 5 picks in the last eight years were pitchers. Right-handers made up almost half of all those picked. Catchers and first basemen are not very popular.
Most Successful Positions to Stick:
C 1/2 50%
1B 1/1 100%
2B 4/7 57%
3B 4/7 57%
SS 3/5 60%
OF 5/23 22%
RHP 15/52 29%
LHP 10/27 37%
Position players are not chosen as often as pitchers, but teams have a much better success rate with them, albeit on a much smaller scale. A 37% success rate for left-handers is not bad at all.
Likelihood Players Will Stick (By Level Pick From):
MLB 1/4 25%
AAA 7/33 21%
AA 15/45 33%
A+ 12/25 48%
A 8/16 50%
R 0/1 0%
A-Ball, surprisingly, is the best place to find value for your dollar, with Double-A the next best options. I'm a little surprised Triple-A players don't stick more often, but I guess they would be protected by that point if they were perceived to be any good.
How Originally Acquired:
College: 13 (30%)
High School: 9 (21%)
International: 16 (37%)
Junior College: 5 (11%)
I thought there might be some more division here, with high schoolers being drafted more often in the Rule 5, simply because they take longer to develop.
Chance for a Successful Next Season:
Good: 9 (21%)
OK: 17 (39%)
Poor: 17 (39%)
As seen by the numbers above, Rule 5 picks rarely go on to have successful careers. Even those who succeed in their first MLB season tend to flame out the next year. In most cases, players are returned to the minors for extra seasoning and never return. Admittedly, the Good/OK/Poor ratings are somewhat subjective on my part. Overall, the Rule 5 draft looks like a reasonable way to fill a hole on your bench or in your bullpen for the league minimum.
Warning Signs - Injuries to Pitchers Who Stuck (1998-2004):
RHP - 7/14 (50%)
LHP - 5/9 (55%)
Yikes. If I were a pitcher I don't think I'd like to get taken in the Rule 5 draft. More than 50 per cent of the pitchers taken have suffered a serious arm or shoulder injury within six years of being drafted and usually within two or three. A lot of those pitchers were starters in the minors who were shifted to the 'pen in the majors. How does that compare to the major league average? That I don't know, but it would be an interesting study.
Top 5 Teams to Make Pick:
1. Detroit (9)
2. San Diego (8)
3. Washington/Montreal (8)
4. Colorado (7)
5. Tampa Bay (7)
If I were Washington or Tampa Bay, I'd be gambling with the draft too. It's probably a good way for Colorado to find pitchers, because the certainly don't entice a lot of attractive free agent hurlers. San Diego is gaining a reputation as a reclamation center and finder of hidden talent, so the Rule 5 makes sense for them.
Top 5 Teams to Lose Picks:
1. Cleveland (11)
2. Pittsburgh (10)
3. Los Angeles NL (10)
4. Toronto (8)
5. Seattle (7)
As far as Cleveland and Toronto go, they are two teams that heavily draft college players, which therefore means they only had three years (two-and-a-half really) to decide if a prospect deserves a 40-man roster spot. Drafting college players also tends to develop depth quickly within those systems. Pittsburgh, as a small market team, really should do a better job of identifying their own talent. Seattle, historically, has not been eager to give young players a chance to break into the majors, although that appears to be changing. Los Angeles is simply a gold mine for prospects.
The 2006 Rule 5 Draft:
As discussed earlier, 19 players were chosen in the Rule 5 draft. They ranged in professional baseball experience from A-ball to the Majors. Some players have high ceilings (Joakim Soria) while others are simply role players (Jason Smith), who were drafted to fill holes.
ERA WHIP K/9 BB/9 H/9 IP
Joakim Soria 2.31 | 0.63 | 8.5% | 1.5% | 3.86 | 11.2
Sean White 4.40 | 1.64 | 6.4% | 3.8% | 10.91 | 102.1
Alfredo Simon 6.75 | 1.83 | 6.1% | 3.3% | 13.15 | 52.0
Edward Campusano 1.75 | 1.19 | 11.9% | 2.8% | 7.71 | 25.2
Jared Burton 4.14 | 1.32 | 8.0% | 3.3% | 8.64 | 74.0
Lincoln Holdzkom 1.87 | 1.08 | 8.0% | 2.9% | 6.68 | 33.2
Nick DeBarr 2.74 | 1.13 | 8.0% | 2.2% | 8.00 | 69.0
Kevin Cameron 2.99 | 1.20 | 8.8% | 3.5% | 7.19 | 66.1
Jay Marshall 1.02 | 0.87 | 6.4% | 1.2% | 6.68 | 62.0
Levale Speigner 3.26 | 1.29 | 5.7% | 2.2% | 9.47 | 58.0
Jim Ed Warden 2.90 | 1.08 | 7.2% | 4.4% | 5.34 | 59.0
AVG/OBA/SLG BB% K% HR% BABIP
Ryan Goleski .296/.370/.528 | 9.7% | 23.5% | 4.6% | .359
Josh Hamilton .269/.333/.365 | 8.8% | 21.1% | 0.0% | .350
Jesus Flores .266/.331/.487 | 5.8% | 26.5% | 4.4% | .331
Adam Donachie .191/.325/.309 | 16.7% | 17.5% | 1.8% | .222
Jason Smith .263/.318/.424 | 6.5% | 26.9% | 4.6% | .323
Alejandro Machado .260/.352/.346 | 12.0% | 11.7% | 0.9% | .292
Josh Phelps .308/.366/.532 | 7.3% | 23.8% | 4.6% | .377
Ryan Budde .233/.312/.414 | 9.1% | 22.8% | 3.3% | .276
As we know from the above analysis, about one-third of all players picked in the Rule 5 draft will stick with their new teams throughout the entire season. As such, I will look at the seven (37%) most likely 2006 picks to remain in the majors in 2007.
1. Jason Smith (AAA)
Toronto from Chicago NL
IF | 6/77 | 6'3'' 190lbs
Smith is expected to serve as a utility player for the Jays. He is not your typical Rule 5 pick at the age of 29 and he has 382 career MLB at-bats. The Jays' bench projects to look like this:
C - Jason Phillips
IF - John McDonald
IF - Jason Smith
OF - Matt Stairs
It is a pretty lousy bench - especially for the American League East - but the Jays have chosen to spend their money on a handful of players, rather than spread it around. That, in turn, leads to players like Smith making the roster (and a 39-year-old fourth outfielder who has played only 18 games in the outfield the past two years). Smith is probably the least likely of the seven players to have an impact career, or even be playing in the majors in 2008. He is a stopgap.
2. Ryan Goleski (AA)
Oakland from Cleveland
OF | 3/82 | 6'3'' 225lbs
Goleski made headlines in the fall when it was discovered he was suffering from a wrist injury, which was not disclosed before the Rule 5 draft. There was some speculation that he would miss the beginning of the year, but the latest news has him being ready for the start of the year. An injury to Bobby Kielty could held land Goleski a spot on the bench. The Oakland bench projects to be:
C - Adam Melhuse
IF - Marco Scutaro
IF - Antonio Perez
OF - Ryan Goleski
The A's can get away with a fourth outfielder who cannot play center because they have Milton Bradley, and even the limp-armed Shannon Stewart could play there in a pinch.
3. Edward Campusano (AA)
Milwaukee from Detroit
LHP | 7/82 | 6'4'' 170lbs
One of the best and cheapest ways to find a LOOGY is the Rule 5 draft (Jose Nunez, Scott Sauerbeck, Javier Lopez) and Campusano could succeed in that role. Left-handed batters hit only .208 against him in 2006 (although righties also hit just .187). The Tigers' bullpen projects to include:
CL - Todd Jones
SU - Joel Zumaya
MD - Fernando Rodney
MD - Jose Mesa
LG - Zach Miner
LH - Wilfredo Ledezma
LH - Edward Campusano
Ledezma is more than just a LOOGY, so Campusano could develop into the pitcher who is called in to face the tough left-handed batter late in the game - if he can earn manager Jim Leyland's trust. I have a feeling Campusano could have a successful first half of the season.
4. Lincoln Holdzkom (AA)
Houston from Chicago NL
RHP | 3/82 | 6'4'' 240lbs
This hard-throwing, tattooed, nipple-ringed pitcher has been on the cusp of the majors for a number of years but surgery delayed his arrival. Holdzkom is back to throwing in the mid-90s and is said to have a solid work ethic.
CL - Brad Lidge
SU - Chad Qualls
MD - Dan Wheeler
MD - Lincoln Holdzkom
LG - Wandy Rodriguez
LH - Trever Miller
LH - Scott Sauerbeck
Holdzkom is still relatively raw, but his plus fastball is tough to ignore, especially given the club does not have great depth in the 'pen. He struggled in his first spring training appearance after also pitching poorly in the Arizona Fall League. He needs to show he can pitch under pressure.
5. Joakim Soria (A+)
Kansas City from San Diego
RHP | 5/84 | 6'3'' 180lbs
Soria was one of the most sought-after players in the draft and has a wealth of experience pitching in the Mexican League, which is the equivalent to Triple-A talent. In the 2006 Winter League, Soria threw a perfect game on Dec. 6. The Royals are getting better in terms of pitching talent, but let's be honest... they still have a ways to go and there aren't many players in Soria's way.
CL - Octavio Dotel
SU - David Riske
MD - Ken Ray
MD - Todd Wellemeyer
LG - Joakim Soria
LH - John Bale
LH - Jimmy Gobble
The bullpen will probably not strike fear in the hearts of many batters but there is some upside finally, with Soria perhaps possessing the most (raw) talent.
6. Jesus Flores (A+)
Washington from New York NL
C | 10/84 | 6'1'' 180lbs
As witnessed by the numbers above, there aren't many teams that are willing to take a catcher in the Rule 5 draft. Catchers are the field managers - they direct fielders, keep the pitchers focused, call the pitches (although not always) and control the pace of the game. As such, young and inexperienced catchers just don't cut it most of the time... unless they are bursting with offensive or defensive skills. And teams also do not usually want a young catcher to develop rust sitting on the bench. But the Washington Nationals are no ordinary team. They quite frankly should lose 100 games this year, so why not take a risk on the player with arguably the highest upside in the Rule 5 draft? In fact, they only have two catchers on the 40-man roster: Brian Schneider and Flores. The team's bench projects to include:
C - Jesus Flores
C/OF/1B - Robert Fick
IF - Ronnie Belliard
OF - Dmitri Young
OF - Ryan Church
OK... that is one hard bench to predict, especially given that Washington has 19 batters on their spring invitee list and they could all conceivably win a spot on the roster. I do, however, expect the team to carry three catchers and Fick is the most versatile of the bunch (that also includes Danny Ardoin, Juan Brito and Brandon Harper).
7. Jay Marshall (A+)
Oakland from Chicago AL
LHP | 2/83 | 6'5'' 185lbs
Another LOOGY in the making. Marshall was death against left-handed batters in A-ball for Chicago with a line of .096/.113/.115. Unfortunately, right-handed hitters raked him over the coals to the tune of .313/.358/.426.
CL - Huston Street
SU - Kiko Calero
MD - Jay Marshall
MD - Jay Witasick
LG - Chad Gaudin
LH - Alan Embree
LH - Ron Flores
Justin Duchscherer's injury problems open the door for Marshall to perhaps make the opening day roster if Oakland wants to carry three lefties. Witasick also had problems in 2006 with injuries. Street and Calero should be the two key players in the pen for Oakland. Embree adds stability from a veteran standpoint. If having three lefties is not desirable, then Flores could be on the hot seat after an inconsistent 2006.
Open Chat: 2007 Predictions
I have two questions for our readers today.
1. Which team is the most likely to win 10 more games than it did last year? Why?
2. Conversely, which club is the most likely to lose 10 more games than it did last year? Why?
OK, I guess that is four questions. Double your pleasure, double your fun. No, that is not a subliminal endorsement of the Cubs. (I guess I'm showing my age as it has been 26 years since the Wrigley family sold the Cubs to the Tribune Company.)
Bonus Question: Would Mark Cuban make a good owner for the Cubs?
For reference purposes, here is how it all shook out last year.
AMERICAN LEAGUE EAST
TEAM W L PCT GB
Yankees 97 65 .599 -
Blue Jays 87 75 .537 10
Red Sox 86 76 .531 11
Orioles 70 92 .432 27
Devil Rays 61 101 .377 36
AMERICAN LEAGUE CENTRAL
TEAM W L PCT GB
Twins 96 66 .593 -
Tigers 95 67 .586 1
White Sox 90 72 .556 6
Indians 78 84 .481 18
Royals 62 100 .383 34
AMERICAN LEAGUE WEST
TEAM W L PCT GB
A's 93 69 .574 -
Angels 89 73 .549 4
Rangers 80 82 .494 13
Mariners 78 84 .481 15
NATIONAL LEAGUE EAST
TEAM W L PCT GB
Mets 97 65 .599 -
Phillies 85 77 .525 12
Braves 79 83 .488 18
Marlins 78 84 .481 19
Nationals 71 91 .438 26
NATIONAL LEAGUE CENTRAL
TEAM W L PCT GB
Cardinals 83 78 .516 -
Astros 82 80 .506 1.5
Reds 80 82 .494 3.5
Brewers 75 87 .463 8.5
Pirates 67 95 .414 16.5
Cubs 66 96 .407 17.5
NATIONAL LEAGUE WEST
TEAM W L PCT GB
Padres 88 74 .543 0
Dodgers 88 74 .543 0
Giants 76 85 .472 11.5
Diamondbacks 76 86 .469 12
Rockies 76 86 .469 12
Santo Swindled Again
In what can only be described as a rerun of gross injustice, Ron Santo was again denied his rightful place in the Baseball Hall of Fame by the Veterans Committee.
The great Cubs third baseman - one of the best at his position in the game's history - came five votes short of the required 75 percent for induction. Some might say that Santo failed to meet the traditional Cooperstown standard, but a deeper look at the facts shows that the fault doesn't lie with No. 10.
Overhauled after Bill Mazeroski was elected in 2000, the Veterans Committee has failed to elect anyone - players, executives, managers or umpires - in three ballots since then. Does it mean everyone who was involved with baseball before 1990 is unworthy of Cooperstown? No one would dare make such a preposterous statement.
With 27 ex-players and 15 others on the ballot - many of them good enough to attract a fair number of votes, but not quite Cooperstown worthy - it's no surprise that even a highly-qualified candidate such as Santo is going to find diluted support for enshrinement. Despite the long odds and large size of this year's roster of candidates, Santo's career numbers scream for induction.
In the pitching-dominated 1960s, a 30 home run season meant you were "The Man," a serious power threat for sure. Santo clubbed 30 to 33 long balls every season from 1964 to 1967 and had four other seasons with 25 to 29 homers.
From his first full year in the majors in 1961 through 1971, Santo never had fewer than 83 RBI in a season. That was a huge feat by the standards of the weak-hitting '60s. The 11-year streak includes four 100 RBI campaigns, with a career-high 123 RBI in 1969, the year the Mets overcame a big deficit and passed the Cubs on their way to winning the World Series. The right-handed hitter just missed the century mark three times with 99 RBI in 1963 as well as 98 RBI in 1967 and 1968.
Santo was anything but an undisciplined hacker, as proven by seven consecutive seasons with 86 to 96 walks. In one of the great feats of baseball consistency, Santo's total of 95 walks in 1966 was followed by three seasons with 96 bases on balls from 1967 to 1969.
Batting average? Four seasons at .300 or better and a .277 lifetime mark are well above the standard of the '60s and early '70s. Combine that with his patience at the plate and Santo's career .362 on-base percentage was far superior than average.
So why is Santo continually denied his rightful plaque in Cooperstown? Was it his glove? Once again, No. 10 is anything but ordinary. Five Gold Gloves attest to his skill at third base. While growing up in Chicago, I saw Santo fearlessly snag screaming line drives and one-hoppers on countless occasions. His powerful, accurate arm turned numerous infield hits into outs.
He may have been a notch below Brooks Robinson, but Santo was among the top defensive third basemen of all time. Anyone who values skilled glove work would be very pleased to have Ron Santo at the hot corner. Combine his all-around skills and it's no surprise that Santo was a nine-time All-Star.
Since he played for the usually hapless Cubs, Santo never appeared in the post season. Some speculate that this one blemish in an otherwise sterling career is what has kept Santo out of the Hall, but teammates Ernie Banks, Billy Williams and Fergie Jenkins are in Cooperstown.
Few players were as durable as Santo. Despite playing nothing but day games in Chicago's humid, energy-sapping summers, he appeared in 160 or more games in seven seasons, including every year from 1962 to 1965. Santo played in all 154 games scheduled in 1961 (the last 154-game season) and had other years of 154, 154 and 155 games. In Santo's case, this was truly a spectacular feat.
That's because Santo was a diabetic since his teens. He didn't go public with this serious condition until 1971, playing almost every game without complaint. In recent years, diabetes has cost Santo both of his legs through surgical amputation.
Perhaps Santo is suffering from Blyleven's Disease. The symptoms include being consistently near the top of numerous statistical categories with few No. 1 finishes. Santo led the National League in walks four times (1964, 1966-68) and had three other top five finishes. He topped the National League in OBP in 1964 and 1966 and came in the top 10 five more times.
No one cared or knew about Santo's reign as the leader in walks or OBP in the '60s. This was 20 years before the findings of Bill James gained a wide following. An expert in conjugating medieval Lithuanian verbs would have gotten more acclaim than Santo did for being a selective, high-average hitter.
Santo had three second-place finishes in RBI, plus five more seasons in the top 10. He never led the NL in home runs but had seven seasons in the top 10. It's the second verse, same as the first for the rest of his offensive numbers.
On-base percentage plus slugging (OPS): Second place in 1964 and four more top 10 seasons. Three top 10 years in batting average, five top 10s in slugging percentage, total bases and extra base hits, four top 10s in doubles, and three top 10 finishes in runs scored. If Santo was an Olympian, he would get a hernia from wearing the many silver and bronze medals (plus a few gold ones).
Serious fans appreciate the fact that being elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame is somewhat more difficult that achieving a similar honor in the other major sports. Many HOF voters and baseball die-hards declare than only the very best deserve this ultimate acclaim. They're absolutely right - and that's why Ron Santo belongs in Cooperstown.
At age 68, with his medical history, no one knows how much longer Santo will live or be able to lead a normal life, which includes annual trips to the Hall of Fame inductions. There is something hollow about awarding honors posthumously. Let this great third baseman enjoy the reward he richly deserves while he is still among the living.
For the Record
Former Dodgers relief pitcher Clem Labine passed away on Friday. He was 80. Steve Henson of the Los Angeles Times wrote an excellent obituary, highlighting the career of the man who once appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated.
Based on a link provided by Jon Weisman of Dodger Thoughts, I also read an obit by MLB.com's Ken Gurnick, which included the following tidbit:
At one point, Labine retired future Hall of Famer Stan Musial 49 consecutive times.
Even though Tom Lasorda called Labine "one of the finest pitchers to ever play the game," I didn't think Gurnick's statement passed the smell test. As such, I checked Labine's pitching vs. batting record at Baseball-Reference.com. I scrolled down and learned that Musial was 1-for-13 with 4 BB vs. Labine. I clicked on Stan the Man's name and was directed to a more detailed page. I was reminded that the data only covered 1957-on (which is as far back as Retrosheet, the provider of this information, goes - at least at this point in time).
Given that Labine made his major-league debut in 1950, it was clear that the pitching vs. batting record was incomplete. I sent my friend Dave Smith, the creator of Retrosheet, an email with "Hyperbole?" in the subject title, asking if he could shed some light on this subject. Dave wrote back, "Hyperbole is way too polite a word. I first prepared this report in 1999 when I saw the story for the first time. Here are the numbers. I will contact the MLB site to explain how incorrect the claim is - he didn't even face him 49 times!"
Career results of Stan Musial vs Clem Labine:
AB H 2B 3B HR BB HP SO SF RBI AVG OBP SLG
42 10 1 1 1 6 0 2 0 3 .238 .333 .381
A little investigative work later and the fable was removed from Gurnick's article.
Update: As it turns out, there are a number of sites guilty of perpetuating this myth.
- Rich Lederer, 3/2/07, 8:00 p.m. PST
I'm going to be a guest on Grant Paulsen's Minors and Majors show on XM Satellite Radio on Saturday morning at about 11:30 a.m. ET. If you're an XM subscriber, you can hear it live on MLB Home Plate (XM 175).
- Rich Lederer, 3/2/07, 9:50 p.m. PST
I have to give Kevin Goldstein of Baseball Prospectus some props for going public in his latest Future Shock article and admitting that he was "dead wrong" on Jered Weaver last year. Goldstein wasn't the only one who missed the boat on Weaver, but he is the first to admit his mistake. Under "Players I Was Lower On Than Most" in his Systems Retrospective, Kevin wrote the following:
Los Angeles Angels
Player: Jered Weaver, RHP
What I said: "... hard to project as more than a No. 3 or 4 starter."
What happened: Weaver cruised through Triple-A, and won 11 games in 19 big league starts with a 2.56 ERA, which would have been good enough for the American League lead if he had enough innings. Following one of his early big league starts, a pro scout emailed me with simply, "If that's not a top of the rotation starter, I don't know what is." I was dead wrong, and provided his early-season arm troubles don't become a long-term concern, he'll probably rack up some genuine ERA titles down the road.
- Rich Lederer, 3/3/07, 9:15 a.m. PST
I caught some of the March 1st Colorado Rockies game and of course I was checking out Todd Helton. Looks like the position and loading of the hands is still similar to last year, but physically, he looks like a beast. Hasn't shaved since end of last season, and apparantly he has added back any/all of the weight he lost last year - and it doesn't look like he did it with pizza and ice cream. Not that I have seen much of Helton on TV in the past, but he looked impressive in the close-up they had of him at the beginning of the game. Looks like he is ready to get after it this year.
- Jeff Albert, 3/3/07, 2:55 p.m. CST
During my baseball playing days, I didn't have any real grasp on what made a hitter a valued offensive contributor. I was a back-of-the-baseball-card, triple crown numbers kind of guy. In addition, I took a great deal of pride in the fact that I rarely struck out.
When all else is equal, striking out infrequently is better than the alternative, but rarely is everything equal. I mention all of this in light of Mike Schmidt's recent comments about Adam Dunn and Pat Burrell, during which he referred to the pair as "mediocre" and cited their high number of strikeouts as the reason why.
Pat Burrell is not "mediocre." Adam Dunn is sure as hell not "mediocre." Both strike out a lot, but both also make outs of any kind more rarely than most of their peers. And yet here is what Dunn had to say regarding Schmidt's criticism. From a piece by Jayson Stark of ESPN.com:
"Well, that's a Hall of Fame opinion. I'm not proud of it, either. But I don't need somebody going around saying it when I already know it. I don't need to hear it from people. I think some of these guys forget how hard the game was."
It's nice that Dunn processes criticism and wants to get better but I am surprised that he does not seem to recognize just how good of a hitter he is. And I bet he is not alone in this regard. Perception becomes reality, even to the most accomplished players. I wonder if, say, Bobby Grich and Dwight Evans realize how good they were. Dunn may have struggled in 2006 for Cincinnati but still is a career .245/.380/.513 hitter, Hall of Fame neighborhood numbers if he can sustain them over a long career. There is a tendency by baseball fans, players and media - heck, by humans - to dwell on what an individual cannot do instead of appreciating all of the things a given person does well.
Dunn may strike out a lot and he arguably is falling a bit short of his potential, but he is a very good player. It would be nice if the next time someone points out all of the strikeouts Dunn racks up, that the critic would give equal play to Dunn's ability to draw bases on balls and his impressive yearly HR per AB numbers.
- Patrick Sullivan, 3/3/07, 5:25 PM EST
Two on Two: AL East Preview
We kick off the 2007 Two on Two series today with the American League East. Peter Abraham is the Yankees beat writer for The Journal News and The LoHud Yankees Blog. His blog has become indispensable reading for Yankees fans. He is currently in Tampa covering the team, mixing play-by-play coverage of spring games with insightful behind-the-scenes reports, audio interviews with Joe Torre, and humorous comments. Mike Green writes for one the most popular baseball blogs out there, Batter's Box, which is largely devoted to analysis and coverage of the Toronto Blue Jays.
Rich: Thank you, Pete and Mike, for joining Sully and me today to kick off our baseball previews. We decided to come out of the blocks with the AL East. Given the fact that the AL Central sent two teams into the playoffs and one club to the World Series last year, is it still fair to say that the East is the best division in the American League?
Pete: Well, it's certainly better than the AL West. The Central is more interesting in some ways because of the great young players and the presence of Johan Santana. But the best division is the East. The Yankees and Red Sox are loaded and Toronto is far more of a presence the last two years.
Sully: I pretty much feel the same way as Pete in that the East is way better than the West and the Central and East are neck and neck. But I am going to cop out and stop short of calling the East better and say that it's just about a dead heat. Detroit, Cleveland, Minnesota and Chicago are all good teams.
Mike: I think that the Wild Card is likely to come out of the AL Central again this year. The bottom-dwellers in the AL East should be a fair bit better this year, making 95 wins a challenge for two clubs in the division to accomplish.
Sully: Pete, obviously losing Gary Sheffield and Randy Johnson in and of itself is not good but with the Yanks already laden with oldish talent, stockpiling some decent prospects didn't seem like a bad strategy at all. What were your thoughts on this past off-season for New York? What did you like and dislike?
Pete: Losing Randy Johnson and Gary Sheffield sounds bad from afar but in reality it could be little more than a blip. The Yankees won 97 games with only small contributions from Sheffield. Johnson was more effective than he is often given credit for but the Yankees have enough inventory among their starters to make up for his loss and it will come far, far cheaper. Johnson also taxed the bullpen more than the Yankees expected. This was a case of Brian Cashman selling while he could still get a good return. Cashman added seven players during the winter via trades and six of them were pitchers. It's hard to argue with that. In terms of what I disliked, I'm not sure the money invested in Kei Igawa was wise. For $46 million (including the bid) they could have signed an established MLB pitcher, not a fringy lefty from Japan. But obviously it's hard to judge a pitcher none of us has seen.
Sully: This feels strange but in order of 2006 finish it is now time to address the Jays. Mike, what did J.P Ricciardi do well this off-season and which aspects of the team would you like to have seen addressed a little more thoughtfully?
Mike: The signing of Frank Thomas means that the Jay offence should be able to match, or come close to, the Sox and Yankee offences in potency. On the downside, the Jays needed a middle infielder to accompany Aaron Hill. In signing Royce Clayton to fill the role, Ricciardi is hoping that the 37 year old Clayton can rejuvenate his career after several weak offensive and defensive seasons. Ricciardi did pick up Ray Olmedo from the Cincinnati organization during the off-season; it wouldn't surprise me to see Olmedo take the starting job at some point during the season. The back end of the rotation was an issue for the Jays, as it is for most teams. Ricciardi signed two rehabbing starters, John Thomson and Tomo Ohka, to compete for rotation slots, but the success of the team is more likely to depend on the development of the young pitchers Shaun Marcum, Casey Janssen, Dustin McGowan and Francisco Rosario.
Rich: After eight years of finishing in second place, Boston "slipped" last year and found themselves in third and watching the playoffs on TV. Theo Epstein & Co. made some significant changes during the off-season, upgrading in right field and at shortstop while adding strength to the top of the rotation. Could this be a powerhouse team in 2007?
Sully: Yeah I think the Sox will be back in their normal contending position this season. The Red Sox finished 12th in the AL in OPS from the catcher position, 10th at 2nd Base, 13th at shortstop, 12th in center field and 13th in right field. Boston got 34 combined starts from Matt Clement (6.61 ERA), Kyle Snyder (6.02), Lenny DiNardo (7.85) and Jason Johnson (7.36). Before you even factor in the additions Theo et al made, you would have to think the Sox improve on the basis of better health (Jason Varitek, Coco Crisp) and expected bounceback (Josh Beckett) alone.
Rich: How does everyone see the Orioles and Devil Rays. Can either team be a factor this year or are they just also rans?
Pete: They cannot be factors in terms of winning the division or even contending. But they can be annoying to the contenders. Tampa Bay is doing the right things to be good in 2010 or so. Baltimore I just don't understand. They should have made that trade with Anaheim involving Miguel Tejada. Spending so much on the bullpen is also fraught with risk.
Mike: I think that the Rays and Orioles will both be better than last year. The Rays have about the same odds as the 1967 Red Sox of winning. There is enough talent there to win (they might have the best outfield in baseball, and Scott Kazmir and Jeff Niemann could make a fine top of rotation), but the chance of it all being harnessed in 2007 is very small. Joe Maddon has a very difficult job, handling trying young personalities and integrating them into a cohesive whole. The Orioles' major problem last year was with their pitching staff, as they gave up almost 900 runs. I am a believer in Mazzone magic, and with the development of Adam Loewen and Daniel Cabrera, and the additions of Kris Benson, Danys Baez and Chad Bradford, they could easily chop 80-100 runs off that figure. Still, when a club's upside is 80 wins or so, it is hardly cause for celebration.
Sully: The Rays are absolutely headed in the right direction but are not there yet. Baltimore, on the other hand, I mean who the hell knows? No plan, no farm, no chance for the forseeable future. And it's too bad because Baltimore is a proud franchise with a rich tradition.
Rich: OK, let's drill down and take a closer look at each of the five teams. We'll start with the defending champs. Except for whoever is going to play first base, that lineup looks like it's better than what most of us could put together in a ten-team fantasy baseball league.
Pete: I wrote this last season and I will probably write it again this season but the Yankees could score 1,000 runs. Bobby Abreu is a great fit with his OBP and having Melky Cabrera as a reserve should keep Johnny Damon and Hideki Matsui fresher and more effective. You can go on and on, the lineup is insane. The only weakness, if any, is that it's very left-handed.
Rich: Everybody thinks of a team like the Angels as aggressive on the bases when, in fact, the so-called Bronx Bombers were second in the AL in SB with the highest SB % in the league.
Mike: The Yankee offence is a sabermetrician's dream. They led the league in team OBP by 12 points over Boston last year, and look poised to repeat to me. They have enough power and speed to move baserunners around, but the strength of the club is getting them on.
Sully: Pete, what are the variables that will dictate success or failure for the Yanks this season? Of course health is always an issue but what other factors are out there? When will we see Philip Hughes and how good will he be? Does Robinson Cano stay healthy and break out this season?
Pete: Cano could be their second or third best player before the season is out. He seems in much better condition this spring, which could help him stay healthy. Their only question is starting pitching. But with Hughes on the horizon along with others, they should be OK. They will control Hughes' innings for a few months in Scranton then spring him loose around the All-Star break. Then there is the chance Roger shows up. Do you guys sees Clemens coming back to the AL? I do.
Rich: I still think Houston has the hometown edge but would not be at all surprised if Roger pits the Yankees against the Red Sox and goes to the team with the best combination of salary and wins come Memorial Day, especially if the Astros are not looking like a playoff contender. What's the scoop out of Florida, Pete?
Pete: Roger is working out with Koby at the Houston camp. Meanwhile Randy Hendricks was here in Tampa the other day and Derek Jeter sends text messages to the Rocket all the time. Based on the feel I get from Andy Pettitte, he and Clemens were tired of the lack of run support in Houston and I'm not sure Carlos Lee changes that enough. I'll admit, I hope he comes to the Yankees. He makes great copy.
Sully: You know I am hoping for the storybook homecoming and reconciliation but like Rich, think Houston has the edge.
Pete: Sully (and I grew up near Boston, I know like 16 guys named Sully), do you think the Sox can resist using Jonathan Pabelbon to close? I can't see Joel Piniero being the man for a true contender.
Sully: Well given how good Boston's lineup and starting pitching should be, I think they will have the luxury of figuring out who the closer should be on the go (I see the bullpen getting the ball with a lot of 6-2 type leads). The value proposition of having Papelbon in the rotation is straightforward - better to get 200 innings out of a premium talent that 70. Between Brendan Donnelly, Pineiro, J.C. Romero, Devern Hansack, Mike Timlin, Craig Hansen and Manny Delcarmen, there is a decent chance that by mid-May or so one of these guys will have emerged. But if it is apparent that the back end of the Sox pen is costing them, I think they will move Papelbon back to Closer by June 1.
Mike: Exactly. My money is on Donnelly to be the Sox closer. The club will be better off, as long as Papelbon can post an ERA in the 3.5-3.8 range as a starter. I think he can.
Rich: I'm not quite as sanguine as it relates Donnelly or Boston's bullpen overall. Without Papelbon closing games, I think it is the one weak link of the team. I wouldn't be comfortable handing the ball to any of those aforementioned middle relievers with the game on the line in the eighth or ninth inning on a regular basis. I wonder if either Hansen can grow up in a hurry or Bryce Cox can fly through the minors to give the Red Sox some relief, if you will. In the meantime, I'm concerned that the Boston media will have a field day blaming management for putting Paps in the rotation and not having a legitimate closer to replace him.
Pete: I have not been to Fort Myers yet but I keep hearing stories about Daisuke Matsuzaka's amazing arm strength and endless bullpen sessions. How Boston uses him (every five days or every six) will be a story to watch. He's a fascinating pitcher but you wonder if this is one case where the hype outweighs reality. It seems like every time everybody is sure about something, it's just not the case. Do you guys think he's an ace or merely a very good starter?
Mike: I wish I knew. Using Jay starters as measuring sticks, he is somewhere in the A.J. Burnett - Roy Halladay range. Even at the bottom of the range, where it is probably safest to guess that he will fit, he helps the Sox.
Sully: Wow, lukewarm on Matsuzaka are we? He's 26 and has a track record of dominance at high levels of play. I see no reason to project him to be anything short of a top-10 AL starting pitcher.
Rich: Back in December, I predicted that he would win 14-16 games, with a 3.50-4.00 ERA and 150-180 strikeouts. Call him an ace or a very good pitcher, that's an outstanding pitching line for someone in the AL East.
Mike: Sounds right to me. Speaking of uncertainty and pitchers, what do you think about Burnett? He was a .500 pitcher through his 20s despite having first-rate stuff and decent control, with injuries and emotional issues playing an important part. More of the same, or a blooming into a fully developed effective pitcher?
Rich: I've always liked Burnett. Like you said, Mike, he has great stuff. A 95+ mph fastball and a hammer curve that generate lots of strikeouts and groundballs. My kind of pitcher. With A.J., it's all about his health. If he can give Toronto 200 innings, he will be one of the most productive pitchers in the league and the five-year, $55 million contract he signed after the 2005 season will look like a bargain in today's inflated market for starters.
Sully: I love A.J. as much as the next guy but he has pitched 200 innings twice in six full seasons so I would say that it seems a bit unlikely that he will reach that mark. On the hitting side, Adam Lind seems like a guy that is ready to help immediately. Any chance of him taking Reed Johnson's job?
Mike: Not at the start of the season. The club has made it pretty clear that he will start the season in Syracuse. But, in the event of injury to any of the outfielders or to Thomas, Lind will be up in a flash (although Lind can only play leftfield, Johnson can play all three positions and Alexis Rios could play a very fine defensive centerfield if required). Lind has a sweet swing, and I expect him in Toronto for good by July at the latest.
Rich: It seems to me that Lind is ready to play at the big league level. I don't know what else there is for him to prove in the minors. The guy has hit well at every level and put up a line of .394/.496/.596 at Syracuse last year, then went .367/.415/.600 in a cup of coffee with the Jays in September. Speaking of major league ready prospects, I bet J.P. wishes he had drafted Troy Tulowitzki rather than Ricky Romero with the #6 overall pick in 2005. Toronto could sure use a shortstop.
Mike: That they can. It would have been nice if they had put up more of a fight for Julio Lugo. Bad enough to not get him, but for a divisional rival to get him at a reasonable price really hurts.
Pete: I remember the 2005 Winter Meetings, J.P. was the prom king because of all the money he spent and spent wisely, or so it seemed. It has to start to pay off this season or the ownership in Toronto will want to know why. I think the Jays will have a sense of urgency.
Sully: There are just too many problems with Toronto for me to be a real believer. While Troy Glaus, Thomas and Vernon Wells constitute a nice offensive backbone, the rest of the lineup is filled with mediocrity and really, the shortstop situation is downright inexcusable. The bullpen is excellent but the starting pitching is as thin as the lineup. Halladay and Burnett are an excellent 1-2 but 3 through 5 gets ugly quick for Toronto. So I see Toronto as a little too top heavy to be a real threat.
Rich: Second baseman Aaron Hill and right fielder Alex Rios ranked first in the AL at their respective positions in John Dewan's plus/minus system. The team's outfield defense looks terrific with Johnson, Wells, and Rios. At the same time, Toronto hit 121 HR at home and only 78 on the road. Maybe the strong offense is an illusion and perhaps the team is more about pitching and defense than not.
Mike: The home/road split was partially fluke. Rogers Center is a good home run park, but not that good. Rios has really only had one-half season of star performance, but I like his chances of keeping it up. He changed his approach at the plate, and went from being a groundball hitter and not pulling the ball to a pull fly-ball hitter. Overall, I am a little more positive than Sully about the club (heck, I live here), but I will concede that their perch on second place is tenuous.
Rich: In some ways, I feel sorry for Toronto fans. Competing in the AL East is not easy. The Blue Jays boosted payroll by more than 50% last year and just signed Wells to one of the biggest contracts in baseball history, yet the club still trails the Yankees by over $100 million and the Red Sox by tens of millions in annual compensation. The franchise is betwixt and between. The Jays are not quite good enough to make the playoffs nor so awful as to get one of the top couple of draft picks every year like Tampa Bay.
Sully: Jamie Walker, Danys Baez, Chad Bradford, Jay Payton, Aubrey Huff and Steve Trachsel. That's a lot of change and some of it positive but we are talking about a 70-win team in 2006. The wheels are spinning, but are the O's moving at all?
Rich: That Baez contract was one of the worst signings of the off-season. I don't know what they see in him but it is indicative of a lack of vision on the part of management.
Pete: Here's my question about the O's: who's running the joint? Mike Flanagan ostensibly but Peter Angelos shoots down trades and Jim Duquette seems to be running a lot of things behind the scenes. They need a unified plan and one voice. In a division of strong GMs, Baltimore lacks that.
Rich: I guess it's not much fun to be a current O's fan either. Long gone are the days of Earl Weaver, all those 20-game winners, and that great infield defense. It's been ten years since the team played .500. As Sully said, this was a proud franchise. But it has been stuck in fourth place for a long time and Tampa Bay is going to pass them soon.
Mike: One game I play is to try and imagine a scenario by which each club could win the division. The only way I can get there for the Orioles is for Adam Loewen, Erik Bedard and Daniel Cabrera to turn into Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz overnight. I strain to get Bedard into Glavine's shoes, but no matter how hard I try, I cannot imagine the other two making miraculous transformations in one season. The best case scenario for the O's, to my mind, is that the young arms take a stride forward, but even there, the offensive firepower is not likely to be there in the future when the arms are ready.
Pete: Where do you guys stand on the Devil Rays? I've gotten to know owner Stu Sternberg a bit and he seems to be doing the right things. They've opened academies in Latin America, increased spending on scouting and development and signed some young players to long-term deals. But in this division, it's still a long way up. Are they at long last going in the right direction?
Rich: Absolutely. I'll give the new ownership and management some of the credit but most of it is simply due to the fact that the team has consistently had one of the first picks in the amateur draft and many of these players are now at the point where they should begin to pay dividends. The outfield of Carl Crawford, Rocco Baldelli, and Delmon Young is oozing with talent and athleticism while two of the future infielders in Evan Longoria and Reid Brignac are within a year or two of making their impact felt in Tampa. The Rays also have a a top-of-the-rotation starter in Scott Kazmir plus a number of quality arms in the farm system, but I wouldn't expect pitching to be an area of strength until 2009, at the earliest.
Mike: The key issue for the D-Rays will be the development of their infield defence. The signing of Akinori Iwamura helps significantly. It sounds as though the Rays have decided for now to keep him at third base, where he is a Gold Glove quality fielder. Ben Zobrist is an adequate defensive shortstop, but Jorge Cantu is a liability at second base. For now, the plan seems to be try B.J. Upton there at least part of the time. If that doesn't work, Longoria and Iwamura will be tried in some combination at second and third. The progress of the infield defence will play an important role in the paths of the young pitching prospects, J.P. Howell, Jamie Shields, Andy Sonnanstine and Jason Hammel. I am more optimistic than Rich about the progress of the Ray pitching; I expect Howell and Jeff Niemann to take a step forward in 2007.
Rich: If Niemann can stay healthy, he should be a stud in due time. Howell and Shields are capable big-league starters and both should be in the rotation this year. I'm not that high on Hammel and am unsure about how Sonnanstine's stuff will play in the AL East, but they will both be in the mix for a spot at the back end of the rotation this year and next, respectively. What I really like though are a few guys deeper down in the system. Wade Davis and Jacob McGee were two of the best pitchers in the Low Class A Midwest League and Mitch Talbot, who the Rays stole from the Astros in the Aubrey Huff rent-a-player deal, was exceptional in the Double A Southern League playoffs last year.
Mike: Sonnanstine will probably start the season in triple A. Even if the rotation does improve, as I think it will, the bullpen looks miserable to me. Are there any bright lights there that I am not seeing?
Sully: I like Shawn Camp and Chad Orvella, but I can pretty much take or leave the rest of that pen.
Rich: All right, let's go around the room a few times with some concluding thoughts. If there is an MVP, Cy Young, and/or Rookie of the Year out of this division, who do you see grabbing each of those awards?
Pete: There are certainly multiple candidates out of this division. This will probably come back to haunt me, but A-Rod for MVP and Matsuzaka for Rookie of the Year. The Cy Young probably comes out of the Central but I see big seasons for Wang and Beckett. Wang was close to 21 or 22 wins last season.
Mike: The usual suspects, Jeter, A-Rod, David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez, are again the most likely MVP candidates from the AL East. Instead of one of these four, I'll go on a hunch with two longshot breakout candidates, Carl Crawford and Alex Rios. Matsuzaka for Rookie of the Year makes sense to me, as does Pete's view that the Cy Young winner will come out fo the Central. The best pitcher in the division, and a Cy Young candidate, will once again be Roy Halladay.
Rich: I have a difficult time thinking of Matsuzaka as a rookie but, until the rules are changed, I'm gonna go with him as the ROY. As far as MVP goes, I think this just may be David Ortiz's year. There are a number of Martin Scorseses in this division who could get it based on lifetime achievement, but I sense that Big Papi is going to wear down the voters this time around. Cy Young? If not Santana, then how about Roy Halladay? I could see him winning 16 to 18 games with an ERA in the low 3s. I know that doesn't sound Cy Youngish but those numbers were good enough for Brandon Webb to win it in the NL last year.
Sully: I am not sure I have a lot to add to that. Matsuzaka seems like a great ROY candidate and a dark horse Cy Young winner too. In any order, Ortiz, Manny, Jeter, A-Rod and Tejada are the five best players in the division while Halladay is clearly the best starter. Switching gears a bit, what will be the biggest surprise this year? I am going to go with Boston's bullpen. I'll come off like a homer here but I think new pitching coach John Farrell has enough arms to put together a quality pen, and with the offense and starting pitching as good as it is, they will be able to withstand the inevitable bullpen woes it will take for Terry Francona to figure out everyone's role. But come summer, Boston's bullpen will be a strength.
Pete: The biggest surprise will be the trouble Boston has scoring. Their offense is a house of cards and I don't mean St. Louis. Manny quit on them last season and could do so at any time this season. J.D. Drew's placid personality will be a bad fit in Boston. Coco Crisp and Jason Varitek need bounce-back seasons. I think what we saw of them late season is what they are.
Sully: A house of cards, huh Pete? I would say it is quite a leap to suggest that Manny "could quit at any time." He played less than 150 games for the first time in four seasons in 2006. And Drew's personality could very well be perfect for Boston. He seems more or less emotionless and has never cared about fan pressure. He is a career .333/.474/.600 hitter at Citizens Bank Park and I am pretty sure he has heard a "boo" or two there. Crisp and Varitek may need bounce-back seasons for the Sox offense to click, but they are both tremendous candidates to do just that. And the notion that what we saw late in the season from Boston is what they are now is preposterous. Lugo replaces Alex Gonzalez. Drew replaces Trot Nixon, who was just awful late last season. Manny replaces Kevin Youkilis in left field, who replaces Eric Hinske at first. Crisp and Varitek should be healthy. Think Dustin Pedroia will be a career .191/.258/.303 hitter? Do I need to go on?
Rich: Ahh, just for fun, I'll say either A-Rod or Manny gets traded at the deadline.
Mike: The Tampa Bay Devil Rays. After a 61 win season last year, few people expect them to be competitive this year, but I think that they will be. It will probably mean only about 75 wins due to a weak bullpen, but the AL East goliaths will notice.
Rich: It's time to get out your crystal balls and give us your predictions. Who is going to win the division and in what order do you see the standings come October?
Mike: The Yankees will take the division with 92 wins. That might not sound like much, but for a club in a rebuilding year and cutting payroll, it is really quite impressive. Boston, Toronto, Baltimore and Tampa will follow. The margin between top and bottom will be cut in half from last year's 36 games.
Pete: Until somebody beats them, you have to go with the Yankees. Plus they have what looks like the best team. New York, Toronto, Boston, Tampa Bay, Baltimore.
Sully: Boston leaps two places to win the division, and then it's New York, Toronto, Tampa Bay and Baltimore.
Rich: I believe it will come down to the Yankees and Red Sox. Whichever team does the best job at staying healthy and solving its main weakness (first base and a closer, respectively) will have the edge. If that same club also signs Roger Clemens, good night, turn out the lights, the party is over. Toronto will finish in third by a comfortable margin and Tampa Bay will edge Baltimore for fourth.
The Bull Durham Rant
How often do you find yourself quoting great lines from baseball movies during the course of a typical day?
I do it all the time.
For instance, when a family outing is canceled on account of the weather:
"Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, sometimes it rains."
At a barbecue when the cook is serving me a burger:
"Pick me out a winner, Bobby."
The Jesus people try to hand me literature on my way to SI's Midtown offices:
"Jesus, I like him very much, but he no help with curveball."
One of our writers gets contentious about an edit:
"Don't think, it can only hurt the ballclub."
Upon the delivery of some decidedly untoward news:
"Say it ain't so."
Hearing a banal remark:
"They don't call him the best color man in the game for nothing."
Using my American Express card:
"Don't steal home without it."
Dragging at work and it's not even lunchtime yet:
"Go the distance."
My daughter doesn't want to go to school:
"You'll play Jackson! You'll play!"
Baseball fans are lucky in that we have the widest array of excellent films with rich dialogue to choose from compared to the other sports. Hoops fans have, what, Hoosiers and Hoop Dreams? He Got Game? Does Teen Wolf count? Football has come on in recent years with Remember The Titans and Friday Night Lights, but the pigskin, as well-suited as it is to the tube, falls flat on the silver screen when compared to the horsehide. (Bang the Drum Slowly wins over Brian's Song, and Bad News Bears rocks The Longest Yard.)
Perhaps my single favorite moment from any of the baseball classics is the Crash Davis rant to Annie Savoy in Bull Durham. Just as the sexual tension between the two is about to boil over, Crash's words leave her more vulnerable than she ever thought possible:
"I believe in the soul, the cock, the pussy, the small of a woman's back, the hanging curve ball, high fiber, good scotch, long foreplay, show tunes, and that the novels of Susan Sontag are self-indulgent, overrated crap. I believe that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone, I believe that there oughtta be a constitutional amendment outlawing Astro-turf and the designated hitter, I believe in the 'sweet spot,' voting every election, soft core pornography, chocolate chip cookies, opening your presents on Christmas morning rather than Christmas eve, and I believe in long, slow, deep, soft, wet kisses that last for seven days."
Let's take a closer look at Crash's speech, phrase by phrase:
I believe in the soul, the cock, the pussy, the small of a woman's back ...
The small doesn't do much for me. I'm more of a nape guy myself. And belly buttons. Definitely belly buttons.
the hanging curve ball
Because the alternative is no fun.
Overrated. Do you want to spend all day on the can?
Just gimme a brewski.
From what I hear, most ballplayers would disagree. (As would most people belonging to the Phylum Marrydus Boredasallhellus.)
Horribly addictive. Better to stay away.
The novels of Susan Sontag are self-indulgent, overrated crap.
Can't say I ever came across her during the course of my public school education.
I believe that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone
Costner should know better. He was in JFK.
I believe that there oughtta be a constitutional amendment outlawing astro-turf and the designated hitter
Astro-Turf is five minutes ago. Hello, Field-Turf!. As for the DH, it's grown on me over the years. There is something to be said for a manager having to make the call on pulling his starting pitcher regardless of when the ninth spot is due up next. The same goes for the use of bench players; managers can't just automatically go to them when a double-switch is needed.
I believe in the "sweet spot"
It's only the best sound in the world.
voting every election
I try. I really do.
soft core pornography
Isn't it nice to leave something to the imagination?
chocolate chip cookies
opening your presents on Christmas morning rather than Christmas eve
I prefer eve but my wife has final say on the matter and she's with Crash.
long, slow, deep, soft, wet kisses that last for 7 days
Seven days? It'll have to be during the offseason.
I think, deep down, everybody should have their own Bull Durham rant, a coat of arms for where you stand on divisive issues of your day. Here's mine:
"I believe the Reds should be the first team to play on Opening Day, that Opening Day should be a national holiday and that every MLB team should indeed play on said day. I believe radio is the perfect medium for baseball and love nothing more than a day at the park or the beach with the call of the game humming softly in the background. I believe the game is fine the way it is and tinkering with the rules only makes it worse. I believe I didn't know my head from my ass when I was pulling for the Mets in the '86 Series. I believe I agreed with this guy when he said, "In my day, ballplayers were for shit." I believe RUSH, not Bert Blyleven, is the biggest Hall of Fame snub of all time (sorry, Rich). I believe the last thing MLB needs is a salary cap, that college teams should be provided wooden bats and college football should never institute a playoff. I believe the media need to report the truth about the steroids era without getting on a soap box in the process. I believe Babe Ruth was right when he said, 'The only real game -- I think -- in the world is baseball.'"
Jacob Luft is a baseball editor/writer for SI.com.