Picking Apart the Draft: 2004
There is a perception among baseball fans that the first round of the June Amateur Draft is foolproof – or that it should be foolproof. In a series of upcoming articles I am going to take a look at just how successful teams have been drafting with the first 10 picks of the draft in recent years, starting in 2000 and ending in 2004. Previously, I looked at the drafts from 2000 to 2003.
As we get closer to 2008 while looking back at recent drafts, it gets harder to analyze the picks simply because they have not had as much time to develop. But that doesn’t mean it’s not still fun to try. As such, this will be the fifth and final part of the series. 2004, like 2002, resulted in a poor draft decision with the No. 1 overall pick. The choice to take Matt Bush first overall was a signability decision and an opportunity for good PR by grabbing a local player. But as we know by now, having looked back at four other recent drafts, signability choices rarely work out, and the same can be said for picking players based on public relations. When you have the rare opportunity to choose the best player in the nation, do it right.
The first 10 picks of the 2004 draft broke down like this:
1. San Diego Matt Bush, SS California high school
2. Detroit Justin Verlander, RHP Old Dominion University
3. NY Mets Philip Humber, RHP Rice University
4. Tampa Bay Jeff Niemann, RHP Rice University
5. Milwaukee Mark Rogers, RHP Maine high school
6. Cleveland Jeremy Sowers, LHP Vanderbilt University
7. Cincinnati Homer Bailey, RHP Texas high school
8. Baltimore Wade Townsend, RHP Rice University
9. Colorado Chris Nelson, SS Georgia high school
10. Texas Thomas Diamond, RHP University of New Orleans
Interestingly, only one player (Verlander) from the Top 10 of the 2004 draft has established himself in the majors. It’s still early, though, as I mentioned above. Bailey needs some more polish but he looks promising. Niemann finally earned a reprieve from his injury woes and had the opportunity to make a couple major league starts. Humber and Sowers look like they are going to top out as No. 4 starters, but that is more than can be said for Diamond, Townsend and Rogers.
As for the rest of the first round, Los Angeles (AL) took Jered Weaver 12th overall, Kansas City nabbed Billy Butler at 14, Arizona took Stephen Drew at 15 and New York (AL) got Philip Hughes at 23.
Let’s take another look at the Top 10:
Above, I’ve already put my two cents in about the Padres’ decision to draft Bush. No matter how you slice it, a .219/.294/.276 line over four years is terrible. Luckily for the Padres, Bush had a killer arm and they had the option of moving him to mound. And things looked good in 2007 - in seven game he had a 1.25 ERA, 6.25 H/9, 2.45 BB/9 and 20.00 K/9 - and then he went and blew out his elbow throwing one of his high-90s fastballs. With any luck the Padres will have Bush back at full strength at the beginning of 2009, but he still faces a long road ahead when he’ll be 23 with 7.2 innings of pro experience on the mound.
By far and away the best pick of the draft. Verlander is an absolute stud with a power arm and durability. His biggest obstacle coming out of college was questionable command but that has not been a major issue in his pro career.
Verlander might have the best pure stuff in the draft. He has a tall, upright delivery with a lighting-quick arm, and a fastball that tops out at 99 mph with hard run and sink. He complements it with a curveball that has good late depth and sharp bite, and a deceptive changeup that has fastball arm speed and late fade and sink. Verlander's biggest obstacle is his lack of command as he struggles to repeat his delivery.
He made it to the majors in his first pro season and was a reliable starter by the end of his second. If signability was truly the only thing that kept the Padres from drafting him then they should be ashamed. Verlander even proved he wasn’t a difficult sign, and all about the money, as his family took over negotiations when it looked like his agent could, or would, not get a deal done. Imagine what he could do in Petco Park…
There are three Rice University alums in the Top 10 and Humber was supposed to be the “safest bet” among the three. Well, all three have disappointed mightily, although Humber and Niemann finally both have had a taste of the majors. Humber has gone through surgery since signing and his stuff is not the same as it was in college. As a result, he is now a fourth starter. But the Mets got value out of this pick as he was used to obtain Johan Santana from the Minnesota Twins.
Unlike former Rice teammate Humber, Niemann has been able to avoid the knife but he has still battled through a litany of injuries that have slowed his career advancement to a crawl. He finally made his major league debut this season with Tampa Bay but he only has a short window to establish himself before the likes of Wade Davis, David Price and Jacob McGee begin appearing on the scene. Niemann could end up as a dominating, late-game reliever.
Rogers is yet another promising draft pick who has seen the knife since signing his first pro contract. He was an absolutely dominating prep hurler who has nasty stuff (a pro rate of 11.02 K/9) but he rarely knows where it’s going (career 6.25 BB/9). Rogers had shoulder surgery in 2007 and it remains to be seen how successful he’ll be when he comes back from it.
Sowers looked like he was going to be the steal of the draft. After turning down the Reds as a first rounder out of high school (20th overall), Sowers went sixth overall to Cleveland and make it to the majors in is second pro season after cruising through the minors and rarely facing adversity. In his first 14 pro starts, he posted a 3.57 ERA and allowed 8.66 H/9. The soft-tossing lefty, though, had only 3.57 K/9. The next season, he got tattooed and began to pitch away from contact – never a good sign for a guy like Sowers. His 6.42 ERA and 11.23 H/9 got him sent back to the minors after 13 starts and he has yet to re-surface in the majors on a permanent basis.
Bailey has been the recipient of a significant amount of hype… some of it is deserved, some of it not so much. There is no denying the fact that he has the stuff to be a monster at the major league level, but his control needs work and he is still learning the nuances of pitching. Being passed this spring by phenom Johnny Cueto was probably the best thing that could have happened to Bailey. It will allow the media spotlight to shy away from him a bit and give him some much-needed time at Triple-A to hone his game. So far this season in Triple-A things look very promising. The ERA is superficially nice, but the most impressive thing is the control: four walks in 26.1 innings. On the downside, he continues to be an extreme flyball pitcher (0.76 GO/AO) which can be very dangerous, especially in Cincinnati.
Baltimore failed to sign Townsend out of Rice University, which may have actually been a good thing in the long run… although you really have to hate it when a team throws away a first round pick. Townsend ended up signing with Tampa Bay in the 2005 draft, after again going in the first round, but he blew out his elbow and needed surgery. He’s back pitching but he spent all of last year in A-ball as a 24-year-old. This season, he was pushed to Double-A, skipping over High-A ball, despite posting a 5.08 ERA in 2007, along with 4.65 BB/9 rate. So far this season, Townsend, now a reliever, has a 6.55 ERA in nine games with eight walks in 11 innings. No trio has disappointed this much since the monster that was Wilson/Pulsipher/Isringhausen.
If you consider Bush as a pitcher even though he was a shortstop when drafted, Nelson was the only non-pitcher taken in the first 10 picks. Since signing, he has had two good years and two not-so-good years. It’s hard to know what exactly to expect from Nelson; is he a starter or a utility players? If you look at his line from High-A ball in 2007 - .289/.358/.503 - you would probably be inclined to say starter, but it was his third straight season in A-ball and Modesto is not the worst place to hit. So far this season, Nelson is hitting .250/.269/.361, which is less than inspiring but it has been only 17 games. The jury is still out on Nelson, but it’s safe to saw with Troy Tulowitzki in Colorado, Nelson won’t be the starting shortstop any time soon.
For whatever reason, the Rangers are just snakebitten with pitchers… If you don’t believe me, check out Edinson Volquez in Cincinnati… He would never have done that in Texas. That’s just way to it is, the way it has been, and the way it will probably continue to be. Diamond and his mid-90s fastball started out very well in pro ball and dominated the lower minors. Then he hit a wall in Double-A… then he blew out his elbow. Considering his control issues coming out of college, Diamond’s pro rate of 4.43 BB/9 isn’t all that bad and he also had a nice rate of 10.57 K/9. It might be a good idea to throw Diamond into the back end of the bullpen when he resumes throwing about the time he turns 25.
Thanks for reading our five-part series looking back at the Top 10 picks from the 2000-2004 amateur drafts.
Q&A with Dan Levitt – Ed Barrow: The Bulldog Who Built the Yankees' First Dynasty
A longtime member of the Society for American Baseball Research, Daniel R. Levitt has written three guest columns for Baseball Analysts. I first invited Dan after he and Mark Armour co-authored Paths to Glory: How Great Baseball Teams Got That Way, a winner of The Sporting News-SABR Baseball Research Award.
As a result, I took great interest when Levitt's latest book, Ed Barrow: The Bulldog Who Built the Yankees' First Dynasty, was released two weeks ago. Although Barrow wrote a relatively short autobiography in 1951, Dan's book will undoubtedly go down as the definitive work on one of the most important baseball figures in the first half of the 20th century. It is an extremely well-researched, detailed, and scholarly portrait not only of the larger-than-life Barrow but an inside look at the business of baseball and how the Yankees evolved into a powerhouse franchise.
Published by Nebraska Press, the 427-page book includes an extensive appendix, complete with tables detailing salaries, team payrolls, financial statements, population and attendance comparisons, and transactions of that era. The bibliography also provides a narrative that is more informative than the straightforward listing of resources found in most books. You can check out the table of contents, index, and the first chapter, as well as an outstanding review by Steve Treder at The Hardball Times.
I conducted the following interview with Dan via email over the past several days. It gives additional insight into Barrow and the 50 years he spent in baseball. Pull up a chair and enjoy.
Rich: You and Mark Armour co-authored Paths to Glory: How Great Baseball Teams Got That Way, a book that I bought, enjoyed reading, and have sitting on my shelf in my baseball library here at home. I can't help but think that this book must have had a big influence on your decision to pursue writing a comprehensive biography on Edward Grant Barrow.
Dan: Absolutely. My interest has always focused on team building, and Paths to Glory represented our systematic look at the issue. It was a natural follow up to take a closer look at the one of the most successful dynasties in American sports history. Barrow played the key role in assembling and maintaining it, and – fortunately for my writing career – was probably the most significant baseball executive without a full length biography.
Rich: Ed Barrow did just about everything in the minor and major leagues except play the game. What was his single greatest accomplishment?
Dan: In his fifty years in baseball Barrow had many accomplishments and, of course, several failures. I would say his greatest accomplishment was bringing professional administration to the Yankee front office at a time when few other franchises recognized its necessity. By this I mean he assumed responsibility for executive action (e.g. hiring the best scouts and manager, acquiring the best players, and never losing sight of the longer term) and then willingly delegating to his charges and listening to their advice.
Rich: The image of Barrow and a half dozen Yankees players on the cover of your book is a classic. I don't recall ever seeing it colorized like that and must admit it does wonders for that old photo.
Dan: I really like the cover photo, too. It shows Barrow with six of his star players, five of whom were landed by the Yankees' scouts. Barrow was particularly proud, and rightfully so, of the scouting department he developed and oversaw.
Rich: Your subtitle "The Bulldog Who Built the Yankees' First Dynasty" suggests that the Bronx Bombers have had multiple dynasties. How would you define these dynasties and what was Barrow's role in each of them?
Dan: There is no official definition, of course, but I identify the first Yankees' dynasty as the period from 1921 through the end of WWII in which they won 14 pennants and 10 World Series. Not surprisingly, this era corresponded to Barrow's tenure with the club. In early 1945 the Yankees were sold to a new ownership entity ending Barrow's term at the helm and a long period of stability. The mercurial Larry MacPhail's approach to running a front office was materially different from Barrow's. By the time MacPhail left and George Weiss took over, the post-war bonus-baby era of talent acquisition was in place. In sum, the huge disruption caused to American life by WWII, the dramatic change in Yankee ownership, a change of managers, and the post-war change in talent acquisition and wide-spread expansion of the farm system throughout baseball makes the period around the end of WWII a natural demarcation point.
Within Barrow's "first dynasty" I would suggest there were really three different phases: 1921 - 1923, 1926 - 1928, and 1936 - 1943. Much of Barrow's genius lay is reading the environment correctly so that he could build and then rebuild on the fly. After joining the Yankees, Barrow spent roughly $450,000 to buy up the rest of Boston owner Harry Frazee's best players. This avenue dried up in 1923 when Frazee sold the team – he was out of good players by this time anyway – and other major league teams were not sellers during the roaring twenties. To restock his team in the mid-1920s Barrow assembled a terrific team of scouts and bought top talent from the independent minors. In the 1930s the onset of the Depression led to new rules regarding the ownership of minor league franchises. With these revised, more favorable rules in place, owner Jacob Ruppert demanded Barrow start a farm system. Barrow quickly developed the best minor league organization in the league while his scouts redirected their efforts to nation's best amateurs to stock it.
Rich: How would you compare and contrast Barrow and Branch Rickey, who has been given a lot of credit for creating a competitive advantage for the Cardinals by developing the farm system at or about the same time?
Dan: Rickey's genius was more creative; Barrow's more in the realm of administrative excellence in creating an adaptable, efficient organization.
Rich: The Yankees never won a pennant until Barrow was hired as the club's general manager after the 1920 season. New York won the American League pennant in 1921 and 1922, and then captured its first World Series title in 1923. A cynic might say he piggybacked on Babe Ruth and just happened to be at the right place at the right time. No?
Dan: First of all: no question that one of the best ways to look smart is to take over a team that has the Babe.
That said, the team that won the Yankees first World Series in 1923 was materially different than the one Barrow inherited after the 1920 season. Among the position players, in addition to Ruth, only Bob Meusel and Wally Pipp started for both; among the starting rotation Bob Shawkey was the only one common to both squads. Barrow clearly turned the team over in his first three years at helm, mostly by acquiring the rest of Boston's good players.
Rich: Ed Barrow managed Ruth in 1918 and 1919 when the latter was playing for the Red Sox. It was during this time when Ruth was spending less time as a pitcher and more time as an outfielder. How much influence did Barrow have in converting the Babe from one of the best pitchers in the league to the premier slugger in the game?
Dan: Barrow was the key actor in moving the Babe from pitcher to the field. To appreciate the boldness of this move one needs to first realize that Ruth was an exceptional pitcher: in 1916 he completed the season 23-12 while leading the league with a 1.75 ERA; the next year he finished second in the league in wins with a 24-13 record and seventh in ERA at 2.01. Outfielder Harry Hooper (who also acted as something of a bench coach for Barrow – remember, Barrow was seven years removed from managing and thirteen from managing in the majors) argued that Ruth’s prodigious hitting would make him more valuable as a regular in the field. On May 6, 1918 with first baseman Dick Hoblitzel nursing an injured finger, Barrow started Ruth at first base, his first non-pitching appearance in the field after more than three years in the Majors. Ruth made Barrow and Hooper look like geniuses, going two-for-four with a home run. Over the next several weeks Barrow often used Ruth in the field when he was not pitching, mostly in left field after Hoblitzel returned.
Barrow has rightfully received widespread credit for converting Ruth to the field. Hooper certainly deserves recognition for realizing Ruth’s potential as a regular and pushing for it, but Barrow warrants the bulk of the acclaim. When a decision has a clearly identifiable decision maker who has both the authority and the responsibility to make it, that person deserves most of the credit for a successful outcome and the blame for an unsuccessful one. Had the second-best pitcher in baseball (to Walter Johnson) underperformed in his new role and then returned to the mound at anything less than his previous ability, it would have been Barrow who suffered the condemnation and abuse from the fans, the press, and, perhaps most importantly, his players.
Rich: The careers of Barrow and Ruth are sure intertwined. It would be impossible to write a biography about one and not talk about the other quite extensively. What was the relationship between the two?
Dan: Barrow always appreciated Ruth's talents – for example, even in the deadball era when small-ball was king, Barrow didn't worry about the strikeouts that came with Ruth's power. But he never really warmed to Ruth's personality like others did, notably Yankee owner Jacob Ruppert.
Ruth was immature, self-centered and somewhat naïve in his approach to life, but he could also be quite generous. Furthermore, Ruth had a surprisingly sophisticated appreciation of his celebrity status. The driven, determined Barrow, however, could never get past the immaturity and respect the happy-go-lucky Ruth as an adult.
Rich: I know you wrote about the time Barrow challenged Ruth to a fight. What was that all about?
Dan: In the spring of 1919 Ruth was doing his best to enjoy the nightlife and ignoring training camp rules. Once the season started Barrow assigned coach Dan Howley as his roommate to help restrain him. Despite Howley's proclamation that: "I’ll take care of that guy if I have to put a ring through his nose," Ruth's late night escapades continued. One evening early in the season Barrow decided to catch Ruth at his late-night dalliances. When the hotel porter informed Barrow at 6:00 AM that Ruth had just returned, he went down to Ruth’s room, where the lights were on and he could hear voices. After knocking, Barrow burst into the room and found Ruth in bed smoking a pipe with the covers pulled up to his neck and Howley hiding in the bathroom.
Later that morning at the ballpark while Ruth dressed with his teammates, Barrow locked the door and lambasted his team for their off-field shenanigans, directing his remarks mainly at Ruth. After tolerating the tongue-lashing for some time, Ruth fired back, threatening to punch Barrow in the nose. This was almost certainly the reaction the physical Barrow was agitating for. He ordered the rest of the players to head out to the field after they finished dressing and offered to fight Ruth. Ruth ignored the challenge and ran out to the field with his teammates. Barrow then sent Ruth back to the clubhouse, ordered him to take off his uniform, and suspended him. On the train back to New York, the forlorn Ruth approached Barrow regarding his reinstatement. The manager and his incorrigible star reached an unusual détente: Ruth agreed to leave a note in Barrow's hotel box with the time he returned, and Barrow would not challenge him on it.
Rich: Speaking of time, until Terry Francona's success with the Red Sox in 2004, it was Barrow who last managed Boston to a World Series Championship.
Dan: Barrow assumed Boston's helm in January 1918. That off-season the team made a number of off-season player moves, some before Barrow arrived and some after. Despite not having managed in the major leagues since 1904, he successfully integrated a host of new players into his team. Barrow also benefited from the fact that the Red Sox lost fewer players to WWI and the essential war industries than other top clubs.
The 1918 season itself was full of controversy. Barrow had several well publicized run-ins with Ruth, who even jumped the team at one point. Baseball-wide matters related to World War I brought further discord. American League president Ban Johnson's clumsy response to the government's "work or fight" order, requiring baseball players to either enlist or join an essential war industry, opened the first critical rift between the dictatorial president and his owners.
The confusion and quarrelling carried over into the World Series. Frazee complained about the distribution of games: three in Chicago followed by four in Boston due to wartime travel restrictions. Game five was nearly postponed by a threatened player's strike over a shameful reduction in their World Series shares. In the end Barrow's Red Sox prevailed four games to two despite scoring only six earned runs (nine overall).
Rich: Amazing. After winning the World Series in 1918, the Red Sox struggled with losing records in 1919 and 1920 under the leadership of Barrow. Ruth was sold to the Yankees after the 1919 season so I can understand why Boston lost more games than it won in 1920. But why did the team do so poorly in 1919 after winning it all the year before?
Dan: The Red Sox regressed both offensively and defensively. Despite Barrow recognizing the ability of future Hall of Famer Herb Pennock and inserting him into the rotation, the pitching staff collapsed, falling to seventh in the league in ERA. Key rotation starter Joe Bush missed nearly entire season with shoulder problems, Sam Jones turned in possibly his worst season, and Frazee sold Carl Mays amid a huge uproar in July. On offense, Ruth was the lone bright spot. No other player recorded a slugging percentage above .375. And although home runs were less common in 1919, it is still shocking that the rest of the team combined for only four during the entire season. Maybe even more basically, as players returned to baseball from the armed services and war related industries, other teams, particularly the Chicago White Sox, received a bigger boost than Boston.
Rich: I wanted to ask you what made Barrow give up his uniform and a spot in the dugout for a suit and the title of general manager, but I see from the wonderful photos inside the book that Ed was one of those managers who chose to wear a pair of slacks, a coat, a tie, and a fedora rather than a baseball cap.
Dan: Ever since his days working in and hanging around the Pittsburg sporting scene in the Gay Nineties, Barrow liked to dress well.
Rich: Was Barrow's move as a manager of the Red Sox to general manager of the Yankees more a function of wanting to change roles or teams?
Dan: The decision to move was as much engineered by Boston owner Harry Frazee and the Yankee owners, Jacob Ruppert and Tillinghast L'Hommedieu Huston, as by Barrow. Frazee was in the process of dismantling his team, and no longer needed a high-profile, highly compensated manager. The Yankee owners recognized the importance of professional administration to move beyond the limitations of operating like a small business and brought in Barrow to professionalize the front office.
Barrow certainly would have had mixed feelings about the job change. While he recognized that his days in Boston were numbered as Frazee scaled back the financial commitment and expectations for his team, the move would not have been viewed as a promotion. His title in New York would be "business manager," a role that traditionally involved back office duties (scheduling travel, overseeing stadium operations, managing uniforms, bats and balls, etc.) and not the front office functions associated with player transactions. Barrow, however, lived in New York, and the Yankees offered a generous salary and, more importantly, expanded responsibilities that fell within the purview of a modern general manager – he would in fact be a de facto GM. Barrow prided himself on both his organizational abilities and his player-evaluation skills; the Yankees position offered him the opportunity to employ both.
Rich: Using newly available material from the New York Yankee financial records and previously unexplored financial data from 1951 Congressional hearings, you delved into the economic environment of baseball over the first half of the twentieth century. What was the most enlightening thing you learned about the Yankees?
Dan: Two things stand out. First, the Yankees reinvested their profits in the team while other franchises often distributed theirs out to the team's owners, and second, the Yankees consistently paid the highest salaries.
Rich: Sounds like a winning strategy to me. You covered the fascinating story about the sale of the Yankees to a syndicate of Del Webb, Dan Topping and Larry MacPhail at a war-depressed price in 1945. What was Barrow’s involvement in that deal?
Dan: When Yankee owner Jacob Ruppert died in January 1939, ownership of the Yankees passed to a trust. The trust named Barrow president of the Yankees, and for several years he sat at the pinnacle of his beloved franchise. Estate tax issues quickly materialized, however, and the trust began evaluating sale options for the Yankees. Unfortunately, America's entry into World War II in December 1941 virtually eliminated all non-war related economic activity.
Nevertheless, the estate tax issues could not be postponed indefinitely, and Barrow and the trust continued their search for a buyer. Barrow even approached his friend Tom Yawkey, owner of the Boston Red Sox, to see if there was some way for Yawkey to sell the Red Sox and buy the Yankees. Eventually the sale options were reduced to a single entity: a triumvirate of construction magnate Del Webb, wealthy sportsman Dan Topping, and baseball maverick Larry MacPhail. Barrow and MacPhail had feuded publicly for many years and Barrow hated to see "his" team go to his rival. At one point early in the sale negotiations, Barrow declared that MacPhail would take control of the franchise "over his [Barrow's] dead body." But Barrow could no longer control the process, and in January 1945 the trust sold the Yankee organization to the three for the war-depressed price of only $2.8 million.
Barrow had purchased a ten percent interest in the team back in the early 1920s based on a valuation of $2.5 million that Ruppert had set when he bought out his partner. For the price (and Barrow's interest) to have barely increased after he spent 20 years turning the franchise into one of the gems of American sports galled him immensely.
Rich: I bet. Going back to Barrow's early years, did he really "discover" Honus Wagner?
Dan: Barrow certainly liked to claim he did, but the truth is a little more nuanced. In 1895, Barrow's first year in Organized Baseball, he owned and managed a team in Wheeling, West Virginia, first in the Inter-State League and then the Iron and Oil League. Wagner also played in these leagues, and Barrow would certainly have noticed him, although his older brother, Al, was generally viewed as the bigger star.
When the Iron and Oil League folded after the season, both Barrow and Wagner were technically without a team. For 1896 Barrow bought the Paterson, New Jersey franchise in the Atlantic League. To stock his team Barrow, who lived in Pittsburgh at the time, remembered Wagner, who lived in nearby Carnegie. With a little encouragement from a local promoter, Barrow sought out Wagner and signed him for $125 per month, $25 above the monthly salary limit of $100. A year-and-a-half later Barrow sold Wagner to the major leagues for $2,100, a hefty price for the time. Barrow's claim that he discovered Wagner is something of an overstatement; Wagner had already played in Organized Baseball and other teams were certainly sniffing around. Nevertheless, it was Barrow who most clearly recognized the ability of this free agent and snatched him up for his team.
Rich: Barrow was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1953, six months before his death. What did that honor mean to him?
Dan: Barrow’s ego and self-worth were completely wrapped up in his baseball success. It is impossible to overstate what his election meant to the eighty-five-year-old Barrow. His wife observed that being chosen for the Hall “kept him alive longer than he would have lived otherwise.”
Rich: Well, Barrow lived a long and full life. And you have captured it like no one before and probably no one ever again. Your book is an important and fascinating read for Yankees and Red Sox fans, as well as students of baseball history.
Dan: Thank you. Barrow was at the center of many of the key events of the first half of the twentieth century. Studying his life helps answer two of the overarching baseball questions of the era: how did baseball's competitive economic environment evolve and how did the Yankees come to dominate it.
The first month of the season is almost behind us. We know who has performed well: Chase Utley, Chipper Jones, Pat Burrell, Albert Pujols, Derrek Lee, Hanley Ramirez, Rafael Furcal, Lance Berkman, Nate McLouth, and Manny Ramirez, to name ten hitters; plus Cliff Lee, Ben Sheets, Zack Greinke, Edinson Volquez, Tim Lincecum, and Brandon Webb, as among the half dozen best pitchers in the early going.
But which players have put up the worst numbers during April?
Jayson Nix: .111/.216/.133 with 1 XBH in 51 PA. Nix has gone 0-for-17 since his last hit on April 13. Although the rookie hit .256/.321/.399 over seven minor-league seasons, he repeated AA and AAA along the way to the majors. His numbers were not particularly impressive last year playing in a friendly ballpark (Colorado Springs) and league environment (PCL). There is more reason for skepticism than optimism here.
Tony Pena Jr.: .149/.171/.194 with 2 BB and 16 SO in 71 PA. Pena has never shown a proclivity for hitting. He put up a MiL line of .252/.282/.332 with 102 BB and 528 SO in 2698 plate appearances. He doesn't hit for average, doesn't hit for power, and doesn't walk. Unless Pena is the greatest fielding shortstop in the history of baseball, he simply can't play.
Cody Ross: .149/.160/.213 with 1 BB and 6 SO in 50 PA. Ross put up terrific numbers (.335/.411/.653) last year but did so in only 197 plate appearances. The 27-year-old outfielder has shown an ability to hit for some power in the past but has never hit for much of an average aside from his "breakout" last season. At best, Ross is a fourth or fifth outfielder, depending on whether he plays for a contending team or not.
Wily Mo Pena: .170/.220/.170 with 0 XBH, 3 BB and 15 SO in 50 PA. The Pena name isn't doing too well this season. I have never drunk the WMP Kool-Aid. Sure, Pena can hit for power, but he strikes out way too much for my tastes, especially given his anemic walk rate. His plate discipline and pitch recognition skills are lacking (swung and missed at 31% of strikes over the course of his career vs. a MLB average of 14%), and I would be surprised if he becomes much more than a platoon player.
Tom Gorzelanny: 1-3, 8.46 ERA with 22 BB and 13 SO in 22.1 IP. Gorzelanny has been drilled twice by the Cubs so it may be more team specific than anything else. However, the lefty's K/BB ratio is a bit alarming and should be watched closely over his next few starts.
Kenny Rogers: 1-3, 7.66 ERA with 15 BB and 9 SO in 24.2 IP. The 43-year-old may be at the end of the road unless Jim Leyland wants to convert him to a LOOGY. Righthanded batters are ripping him to the tune of .356/.443/.562. You can only get by so long on guile as opposed to stuff and command.
Jason Jennings: 0-4, 7.46 ERA with 17 BB, 12 SO, and 8 HR in 25.1 IP. The 29-year-old righthander has spent his career pitching in hitter-friendly ballparks (Colorado, Houston, and Texas) but has has gone from a league-average or better pitcher to replacement level or worse since the end of the 2006 season. At his current pace, Jennings will be hoping and praying that a team will sign him to a major-league contract next year.
Among the biggest names, Robinson Cano (.158/.216/.221), Alfonso Soriano (.175/.230/.298), Troy Tulowitzki (.157/.225/.245), Andruw Jones (.159/.266/.256), and Gary Sheffield (.159/.321/.254) are also feeling the summer heat earlier than normal.
I would like to finish with three off-the-field personnel:
J.P. Ricciardi: Signed Frank Thomas to a minimum guaranteed contract of $18 million ($9.12M signing bonus plus $1M salary in 2007 and $8M in 2008), then released him on 4/20/08 after The Big Hurt fulfilled just one year and three weeks of the two-year deal.
Ricciardi worked for but apparently didn't learn much from Billy Beane, who inked Thomas to favorable terms before and after J.P. To wit, Beane got a .270/.381/.545 (140 OPS+) season out of Thomas in 2006 for $3.2M ($500,000 salary plus $2.7M in roster, performance, and award bonuses), received a sandwich round draft pick in 2007 as compensation for losing him via free agency, and swooped in and signed the future Hall of Famer last Thursday for $390,000 (pro-rated share of the MLB minimum) for the remainder of 2008. Buy low, sell high, and buy low a second time. Now that is Moneyball!
Dave Littlefield: The former Pittsburgh GM really qualified as a July 2007 fool, but it bears repeating that Littlefield acquired Matt Morris right before the trading deadline last year and, in so doing, assumed the remaining portion of his contract in full.
Now that Morris has been released, we can tally up his performance (3-8, 7.02 ERA over 16 GS and 84.1 IP) vs. the cost (approximately $14M). Considering the money involved, that deal has to go down as one of the dumbest in baseball history – and not with the benefit of hindsight like so many transactions. This one was a disaster from the get go. It was universally panned and no one did a better job than our own Patrick Sullivan.
While Brian Sabean found a sucker for Matt Morris, he needs to look at himself in the mirror for agreeing to give Barry Zito a seven-year deal worth a minimum of $126 million. It was the largest-ever pitcher contract at signing. The former Cy Young Award winner posted an 11-13 win-loss record and 4.53 ERA with mediocre peripherals in 2007 and has gotten off to a 0-6, 7.53 ERA, 15 BB, 11 SO in 28.2 IP start to the 2008 season.
Let the countdown begin. Seven baseball months down, 35 to go! Or looked at it another way, the Giants have paid Zito about $12-13M thus far and still him more than $110 million.
North Siders Make Outs Less Frequently, Score Runs
Though it's been said many times, many ways, one would find themselves hard-pressed to exemplify the merits of getting on base better than the Chicago Cubs of the last five seasons or so. Season after season, the likes of Derrek Lee, Aramis Ramirez, Moises Alou, Sammy Sosa, Jeromy Burnitz, Jacque Jones, Alfonso Soriano and others have been banging out home runs for the Cubbies and yet, they have never really been among the Senior Circuit's most prolific run scoring teams.
Fans and baseball personnel alike, when acknowledging a quality offensive player, will often say, "that guy can hit." For different individuals, it means different things but it almost surely means that a player can put a nice swing on a baseball. Rarely - hell never - will you hear someone say "that guy can really create runs." And yet, that is all a baseball player is charged with when he has a bat in his hands. His mandate ought to be to do everything he can to help his team put runs on the scoreboard.
Jacque Jones has a gorgeous swing. A classic lefty, to witness Jones catch a fastball flush and yank it out to right field is to enjoy one of the most pure moments there is in baseball. Meanwhile, to watch Derrek Lee take four close pitches for balls while watching one strike go by can often lead to frustration. After all, it's not just chicks. We all dig the long ball.
But long ball has not been a problem for the Cubs, at least not for some of these recent Cubs teams. They have demonstrated proficiency in slugging the baseball, but have time and again fallen short in getting men on base. As a fan, this phenomenon does not necessarily trigger intuitive disappointment. Heading to Wrigley, witnessing a couple of four-baggers and a four run output by the home team makes for an entertaining evening.
What Cubs fans are now learning is that watching the Cubbies hang a bunch of crooked numbers on the board also makes for an enjoyable time at the Friendly Confines. Seven Cubs that log regular playing time have notched on-base percentages of greater than .380 in 2008.
Avoiding outs leads to incremental opportunities for teammates and since most MLB'ers fall within a relatively narrow band of batting average output (say, .225 to .325 or so), more opportunities for other teammates means the law of averages will lead to more hits per game. Moreover, when you do not make an out it means you reach base so that those incremental converted opportunities lead to more players crossing home plate.
To take it a few steps further, strike zone management is critical even within the context of one plate appearance. Recognizing a ball and a strike allows a hitter to put a swing on balls that are tossed in there to be hit while letting pitches outside the zone to pass. Jacque Jones often flails at bad pitches because he must hit from behind in the count. Derrek Lee waits for his pitch and often creams it. The final benefit, one pointed out by John Dewan this week, shows just how helpful making pitchers throw more pitches can be. The more pitches you let go by, the more often you will get your pitch to hit, and the more pitches you see, as the game wears on you get into the dregs of other teams' pitching staffs (read: middle relievers) more quickly.
It would be difficult to overstate just how advantageous it is to field an offensive attack that possesses exceptional pitch recognition. Let's look at how Cubs teams have stacked up over the last five seasons in various critical offensive categories:
SLG OBP RS PA/BB
2004 2 11 7 11.74
2005 2 11 9 13.16
2006 10 16 15 14.67
2007 8 9 8 11.44
2008 5 2 1 8.46
The slug, on-base and run scoring numbers are National League rankings. The PA/BB number is simply their figure in that given season. The 2008 PA/BB number is an obvious outlier, just as their on-base and run scoring rankings are. The Cubs have slugged it in the recent past, but never put runs on the board like they have thus far in 2008.
Dusty Baker, the former Cubs Manager, has been on the record more times than we can seemingly keep track of touting the merits of "being aggressive" and denouncing those that reach base only to "clog" them. Presented with the data above, one has to wonder how even Dusty would explain the formidability of the 2008 edition of the Cubs offense.
These guys must really be able to "hit".
Picking Apart the Draft: 2003
There is a perception among baseball fans that the first round of the June Amateur Draft is foolproof – or that it should be foolproof. In a series of upcoming articles I am going to take a look at just how successful teams have been drafting with the first 10 picks of the draft in recent years, starting in 2000 and ending in 2004. Previously, I looked at the drafts from 2000 to 2002.
I’m not sure exactly what to make of the first 10 picks of the 2003 draft, to be honest. Delmon Young is loaded with potential but his lack of plate discipline is really holding him back. Rickie Weeks, quite frankly, has been a disappointment. Nick Markakis is possibly the best pick from the Top 10, and he’s an All-Star, but not a superstar. There were still a lot of misses: Kyle Sleeth, Tim Stauffer, Ryan Harvey, and possibly Chris Lubanski.
The first 10 picks broke down like this:
1. Tampa Bay Delmon Young, OF California high school
2. Milwaukee Rickie Weeks, 2B Southern University
3. Detroit Kyle Sleeth, RHP Wake Forest University
4. San Diego Tim Stauffer, RHP University of Richmond
5. Kansas City Chris Lubanski, OF Pennsylvania high school
6. Chicago (NL) Ryan Harvey, OF Florida high school
7. Baltimore Nick Markakis, OF Georgia high school
8. Pittsburgh Paul Maholm, LHP Mississippi State University
9. Texas John Danks, LHP Texas high school
10. Colorado Ian Stewart, 3B California high school
The first 10 picks don’t look too bad, but we still only have two potential All-Stars (Young and Markakis), maybe three if Weeks suddenly figures things out, and two solid, but unspectacular, major leaguers in Maholm and Danks. You still have four or five players that may never receive more than a cup of coffee in the majors.
But how was the remainder of the first round? Well the Jays finally made a nice first round pick under J.P. Ricciardi and nabbed Aaron Hill, perhaps one of the top three second basemen in the American League. The Mets got Lastings Milledge (now with Washington), for good or bad. Arizona received Conor Jackson and Carlos Quentin (now with the White Sox), Montreal drafted closer Chad Cordero, St. Louis found Daric Barton (now with Oakland) and the Dodgers stole Chad Billingsley with the 24th pick.
The supplemental first round saw Cleveland take the oft-injured Adam Miller, Boston took the under-appreciated Matt Murton and Seattle found Adam Jones, who helped them secure the services of Erik Bedard.
Let’s take another look at the Top 10:
The Rays had the enviable task of picking the No. 1 player in the draft in 2003, and if the last five years have shown us anything, they made a pretty good decision as Young has out-performed everyone else in the Top 10 not named Markakis.
Baseball America spoke with the Rays organization after it took Young first overall:
“We thought he was one of the best players long before the draft,” Devil Rays general manager Chuck LaMar said. “But we’re in a critical situation, having the No. 1 pick in the country and not winning as many games as we hoped. We made sure we asked all the questions to make sure we got the best player in the country. He was awfully high on our list for a while. We went through everything to see if anyone could unseat Delmon, and the answer was no.”
“He is one of the finest power hitters our scouts have evaluated, not only this year but over the years,” Devil Rays scouting director Cam Bonifay said. “He’s the kind of guy that you don’t get out of your seat and go buy a hot dog when you know he’s coming to the plate. You want to stay there and watch him hit. He lights up your eyes.”
The Rays also used Young to secure what the organization needed most – pitching talent. He was dispatched to Minnesota this past off-season for right-hander Matt Garza, and infielder Jason Bartlett, who adds stability to the infield.
It is not set in stone that Young is going to become a superstar, but the tools are evident. He simply needs time to mature as a hitter and learn the value of patience and waiting for “his pitch.” It’s easy to forget that Young is still only 22 years old. Last season he batted “only” .288/.316/.419 but he drove in 93 batters in a year that he turned 21. He likely has a very bright future.
Weeks was on a lot of teams’ draft boards as the No. 1 player in the nation, narrowly edging Young. In its scouting profile for Weeks before the draft, Baseball America stated:
Weeks has the best tools and is the purest hitter in college baseball. His hands are so quick that he generates amazing bat speed and can turn around any inside fastball.
Those quick wrists are still there but injuries to that very area slowed Weeks early in his pro career. Seemingly healthy now, though, Weeks has yet to turn his potential into reality. Weeks arrived in the majors in 2003, less than half a season after being drafted. However, he remained in the minors (Double-A) for all of 2004. He resurfaced halfway through the 2005 season but batted only .239/.333/.394, a far cry from his .400 college averages. Although he missed time with injuries in 2006, Weeks spent the entire season as Milwaukee’s second baseman and hit a respectable .279/.363/.404, but you expect more from the second overall pick. Weeks showed more patience at the plate in 2007 (.374 OBP), as well as more power (.433 SLG), but he continued to have issues with his batting average (.235 AVG). After playing in the majors for parts of four seasons, Weeks entered 2008 with a batting average a hair under .250. He’ll be playing this season at the age of 25 so there is still time for him to improve, but it’s probably safe to say the Brewers expected a lot more a lot sooner from the second overall pick.
If you read Baseball America’s pre-draft profile on Sleeth, there were warning signs:
“Sleeth's pitching has dropped off slightly since his NCAA record-tying 26-game winning streak ended, but he still has a long track record of success with Wake Forest and Team USA. Not to mention three nasty pitches, a 93-94 mph fastball with life, a low-80s slider that has improved this year and a power curveball… His delivery can get out of whack, and he'll sometimes throw across his body or leave the ball up in the strike zone. Consistency is all that stands between him becoming a frontline starter in the major leagues."
Well, Sleeth never found that consistency and he retired this spring. To be fair, he was beset by injuries from almost the moment he signed his pro contract with Detroit. He began his career in High-A ball in 2004 and pitched well: a 3.31 ERA, 7.94 H/9, 2.38 BB/9 and 8.60 K/9. Sleeth was promoted to Double-A Erie midway through the season and struggled mightily. He posted an ERA of 6.30 with 10.46 H/9, 3.83 BB/9 and 6.41 K/9. He then missed all of 2005 after Tommy John surgery.
The surgery is a lot more successful than it used to be, but it’s not perfect and Sleeth was one of those players that never recovered his velocity. While rehabbing in 2006, he pitched OK in the Gulf Coast League but struggled when he was promoted to High-A ball. He walked 21 batters in 19.2 innings and posted an ERA of 11.90. The next year was more of the same as he walked 40 in 77.2 innings between A-ball and Double-A. His ERA was well over 8.00. After a tough spring in 2008, Sleeth hung up his spikes.
Stauffer was another talented lefty whose career was derailed by injuries. Interestingly, though, he was injured in college. After the Padres selected him fourth overall, he came clean and told them about the injury before he signed his contract. As a result, San Diego signed him to a well-below market value deal. He tried to avoid shoulder surgery, but Stauffer’s stuff never rebounded to what it was in college. He made it to Triple-A in his first pro season, and has pitched in the majors in three separate seasons, but his stuff continues to dwindle. He may have been better off having surgery, missing a year, and hoping for the best. As it stands now, he looks like a Four-A player or major league mop-up reliever.
It was always a little perplexing that the pitching-starved Royals kept drafting raw, toolsy position players with high draft picks. If any team could have benefited from drafting “safe” college pitchers, it would have been that franchise in the early- to mid-2000s. Lubanski was a bit of a surprise pick so early in the draft (although he was ranked by BA as the ninth best player available) but the Royals have been known for taking risks; sometimes it worked (Billy Butler), other times it didn’t (Colt Griffin, Lubanski). To be fair, though, Lubanski is not a lost cause. He’s still only 23, he’s a left-handed batter and he has Triple-A experience. But he was also left unprotected in December’s Rule 5 draft and no one took the risk of drafting him. The 2005 season, in which Lubanski hit .301/.349/.554 (with 28 homers), may have been the worst thing to happen to him in his career, as it set unfair expectations. That season was spent in High Desert, one of the top hitting parks in all of baseball. The problem is that Lubanski probably isn’t a 25-homer guy, nor is he a 20 stolen base guy. That makes him a tweener, and a fourth outfielder at the major league level.
Harvey may have had the most raw power of any player in the 2003 draft. But he may also be the most frustrating. He started his career with two years in short season ball and posted OK, but not great, numbers. He then spent three years in A-ball… never a good sign for any prospect, let alone a top pick. In 2005 at Peoria, Harvey batted .257/.302/.484 and hit 24 homers in 467 at-bats. The Midwest League is not an easy place to hit homers, so the number is impressive. The 24 walks and 137 strikeouts, though, was not good. Regardless, he moved up a small step the next season to High-A ball in Daytona and slammed 20 homers in 475 at-bats but hit .248/.290/.432. Injuries took a chunk out of Harvey’s 2007 season and he repeated High-A ball with poor results as he hit .252/.298/.456 with 11 homers in 224 at-bats. He walked only seven times while striking out 53 times. Entering into 2008, Harvey is still only 23 but he was thrown to the wolves in Double-A despite not really earning the opportunity to move up the ladder. So far the results have not been pretty and he is hitting .216/.268/.395 through 17 games.
The majority of baseball teams that had their eyes on Markakis saw his left arm as being more valuable than his bat, as a two-way player. In fact, in the pre-draft rankings, Baseball America had him listed as a pitcher:
He pitched at 92-94 mph for most of the season, though he sat at 88-90 in May. His slurvy breaking ball is a plus pitch and he has improved his changeup. There's some effort to his delivery, but he has a quick arm and few lefties can match his stuff. He's the second-best draft-and-follow on the market, trailing only Chipola (Fla.) JC's Adam Loewen, and like Loewen he could be an early pick if he were just a power-hitting right fielder.
Chalk one up to Baltimore for making a very wise decision and going against the consensus. Markakis has been a revelation for an organization desperate for some star power. Not only did Markakis succeed as a hitter, he made the switch effortlessly and spent only three seasons in the minors before making his MLB debut. He also did not bat under .283 or have an on-base average under .371 in his career and continues to show improvement every year. Last year, at the age of 23, Markakis slugged 23 homers and drove in 112 runs.
Maholm was a safe college pick – a left-handed starter that didn’t throw hard but was polished and knew how to pitch. He entered pro ball and, for good or bad, nothing has changed. By the end of his second full pro season, Maholm was pitching for Pittsburgh and he posted an ERA of 2.18 in six starts. He struggled in his first full pro season, mainly due to a lack of control by allowing 4.14 BB/9. Maholm rectified that in 2007 as that number dropped to 2.48 BB/9, although his ERA rose from 4.76 to 5.02. Hits have been a problem in the last two years as he has averaged exactly 10.33 each season. At the age of 26, Maholm is what he is: a dependable, back-of-the-rotation starter.
Danks was considered the top prep southpaw at the time of the draft, after passing Andrew Miller as the year wore on. He was hitting 93-94 mph fairly regularly and teams saw him as a potential No. 2 starter. Fast forward to 2008 and Danks looks more like a reliable No. 4 starter, maybe a No. 3 if he can cut down on those hits and walks. In 2007, for the White Sox, he allowed 10.33 H/9 and 3.50 BB/9. He throws more in the 90-92 mph range, albeit with a nice curveball. He has looked much more comfortable in 2008 and has a 3.04 ERA through four starts with much better numbers all around.
It’s funny how quickly we forget what big things were expected from some players, as we can see by this excerpt from Baseball America’s pre-draft scouting report on Stewart:
[Stewart] has exceptional bat speed and more power even than Delmon Young, according to some scouts. Though his swing is flat and lacks tilt, he projects 35-40 homers a year in the big leagues… Stewart's bat compares favorably to two former Trojan left-handed-hitting third base recruits: the A's Eric Chavez and the Padres' Sean Burroughs, both former first-rounders.
Stewart’s numbers looked good in the first two seasons of his pro career, but those numbers were inflated by playing in some very good hitter’s parks. He has never come close to duplicating the 30 homers and 101 RBI he produced in Asheville in 2004. In the last three seasons, he has hit 17, 10 and 15 homers. There also aren’t a lot of scouts that think he can stick at third base on an everyday basis and he lacks the power to be a top option at first base. There was even some talk of moving him to second base, but he lacks the athleticism to succeed at that position. Stewart could end up as a corner utility player or a starter at first base on a lesser MLB team.
Check back next week when we take a look at the 2004 draft’s Top 10 picks
Pitchers Can Be Clutch, Too!
While there's usually much chatter about clutch batting and whether it exists or doesn't exist, it seems as though clutch pitching doesn't get nearly as much attention as it should. If you believe batters step it up a notch when the game is on the line, it'd be only natural that pitchers also know when the game is on the line and would try a little harder in those situations, too.
There are lots of stats to measure how "lucky" a pitcher is, such as batting average on balls in play and left on base percentage. There's also ERA estimators such as FIP, which take into account walks, strikeouts, and home runs and then estimate what a pitcher's ERA should have been. But the problem is, none of these stats take into account how important a situation is in a game and that's where Leverage Index comes in to play.
Leverage Index measures the importance of a particular situation based on the game state (inning, score, runners, outs) of a game. It ranges from 0 to 10.9, with 1 being an average situation and 10.9 being the most important situation possible.
So let's look at which players have had the most and least success in high-leverage situations (LI of 2 or more) the past six years by looking at the difference in FIP between high-leverage situations and all other situations. I chose FIP because ERA doesn't really work for starting pitchers when looking at high-leverage situations and FIP is a better measure of a pitcher's overall skill. To qualify for this study, pitchers must have pitched a minimum of 50 high-leverage innings.
The "Clutch" Starters:
Name (other LI)(high LI) Dif
Brad Penny 4.02 2.78 1.24
Jake Peavy 3.67 2.44 1.23
Chris Carpenter 3.72 2.75 0.97
Jeff Suppan 4.81 3.92 0.88
Jason Marquis 5.21 4.47 0.74
Dontrelle Willis 4.13 3.41 0.73
Jason Johnson 4.69 4.03 0.66
Victor Zambrano 5.30 4.64 0.66
Mike Maroth 5.13 4.48 0.65
Matt Morris 4.36 3.72 0.64
Topping the list is Brad Penny, followed by 2007 Cy Young winner Jake Peavy and then 2005 Cy Young winner Chris Carpenter. These three pitchers over the past five years have done exceptionally well in high-leverage situations. The real difference maker for Peavy is that he's allowed just a single home run in over 69 high-leverage innings.
The "Un-Clutch" Starters:
Name (other LI)(high LI) Dif
Odalis Perez 4.17 5.76 -1.59
Jeff Weaver 4.43 5.93 -1.50
Kyle Lohse 4.66 5.86 -1.19
John Lackey 3.79 4.87 -1.08
Jason Schmidt 3.41 4.42 -1.01
Roy Oswalt 3.34 4.27 -0.93
Jose Contreras 4.46 5.37 -0.90
Jamie Moyer 4.73 5.56 -0.83
Tim Wakefield 4.61 5.39 -0.78
Johan Santana 3.17 3.94 -0.77
I can't say I'm incredibly surprised to see Jeff Weaver near the top of this list, but it's definitely interesting to see the likes of John Lackey, Roy Oswalt, and Johan Santana as "un-clutch." In high-leverage situations Santana has a slightly increased BB/9 and HR/9, Oswalt's K/9 drops nearly 2 points with a slight increase in BB/9, and Lackey's K/9, BB/9, and HR/9 all head about half a point in the wrong direction.
Time to check in on the relievers:
The "Clutch" Relievers:
Name (low LI) (high LI) Dif
Joaquin Benoit 4.60 3.62 0.97
Jason Frasor 4.15 3.22 0.93
Francisco Rodriguez 3.21 2.29 0.93
Jonathan Papelbon 3.06 2.20 0.86
Ryan Madson 4.49 3.78 0.71
J.C. Romero 4.51 3.96 0.55
Chad Bradford 3.67 3.13 0.54
Kyle Farnsworth 4.11 3.60 0.51
Eric Gagne 2.22 1.73 0.49
Todd Jones 4.08 3.60 0.49
I must admit Eric Gagne's FIP in high-leverage situations is rather ridiculous; however, I should note this does not include his 2008 stats. In high-leverage situations, Jon Papelbon strikes out over 1 more batter per 9 innings and walks 1 less per 9 while K-Rod lowers his HR/9 by a considerable amount.
The "Un-Clutch" Relievers:
Name (low LI) (high LI) Dif
Jason Isringhausen 2.97 4.78 -1.80
Justin Speier 3.97 5.56 -1.59
Keith Foulke 3.49 5.03 -1.54
Guillermo Mota 3.70 4.98 -1.28
Jesus Colome 4.65 5.76 -1.11
Jorge Julio 4.40 5.39 -0.99
Fernando Rodney 3.83 4.80 -0.98
Alan Embree 3.50 4.44 -0.95
Billy Wagner 2.60 3.52 -0.93
Cliff Politte 4.36 5.21 -0.85
It's a little surprising to see that Jason Isringhausen who has 212 saves since 2002 is not that great when it counts. In high-leverage situations he walks 3 more batters per 9 innings. Wow. And Keith Foulke appears to have a home run problem in those tight spots along with Billy Wagner.
It's always fun to look back and see who has been clutch, but are the same pitchers clutch every year? Unfortunately not. There's pretty much no correlation from year-to-year when it comes to how pitchers do in high-leverage situations compared to how they do in non-high-leverage situations.
So it looks like the same rule that applies to batters also applies to pitchers: you can tell who has been clutch, but you can't predict who will be clutch.
David Appelman is the creator of FanGraphs.com.
A True Spring Roundtable with Pat Jordan and Alex Belth
After a short and unsuccessful stint as a minor-league baseball pitcher in the late 1950s, Pat Jordan has been an All-Star in the world of freelance journalism for nearly four decades. A magazine writer and author, Jordan has written countless articles for many of the country's leading publications and 11 books, including his critically acclaimed memoir, A False Spring (1975).
Thanks to Alex Belth, The Best Sports Writing of Pat Jordan is now available for all of us to enjoy in one beautifully arranged book. Belth has selected more than two dozen of the author's most compelling portraits from the world of athletics. Spanning more than 30 years, the profiles are divided almost evenly between the famous and the obscure, the successes and the failures, the celebrated and the controversial, or, if you must, the winners and the losers. But all of the stories share one thing in common – Jordan's gift for treating his subjects in a brutally honest and riveting manner rarely seen in the world of sports.
With an uncanny eye and ear for detail, Jordan's literary works are legendary for the level of depth and insight into the lives of professional athletes. While salty at times, his writing is descriptive and provocative. Jordan's hard-hitting prose was recently featured here at Baseball Analysts in a guest column on Roger Clemens on the day of his now infamous 60 Minutes segment. A number of his articles can be found in the Sports Illustrated vault and in the archives of the New York Times. You can also buy original, unpublished and unedited stories of Pat Jordan on his website.
In a nutshell, "Pat Jordan is not just one of America's best sportswriters, but one of its best writers period." Or so says Jim Bouton, author of Ball Four.
I had the pleasure and honor to host a roundtable discussion with Pat and Alex. I am confident that you will find it as enjoyable as I did their wonderful book, The Best Sports Writing of Pat Jordan. Go grab a cup of coffee or light up a cigar in honor of Mr. Jordan and sip or smoke your way through our conversation.
Rich: Let me start off with you, Alex. On the surface, you and Pat have nothing in common other than your love of baseball and writing. Now that is not insignificant by any means. But, my goodness, how in the heck did a new school, soon-to-be 37-year-old liberal New York Yankees fan and resident of the Bronx hook up on a book with an old school, 67-year-old conservative former minor league pitcher-turned-baseball author from the paradise known as Ft. Lauderdale?
Alex: First, I try to avoid talking politics, not only with Pat but with just about everyone else, you included. So that cuts through our differences to start. Actually, when I started my blog, I wanted to run long interviews with sports writers. I thought it would be a great way to drum up some attention for the site. I had read both of Pat's memoirs and loved them, so he was on my short list of guys to contact. And when I called him out of the blue, he sounded happy to hear from me and was more than willing to be candid. Now that I know him, he always sounds miserable to hear from me. Where did I go wrong?
Pat: Actually, Alex was thrilled I was still alive when he called. So was I. He said he wanted to interview me for his blog. I said no problem. What the fuck's a blog? I figured what harm could it do. Blogs, Internet. What do I know? I write on a typewriter. Besides, Alex was one of the few people who read any of my books, and seemed to like them...I must admit for the right reasons. It's always nice when people know what you tried to do in your books. Alex is my ideal reader. If he doesn't like something, I have to think three times about it. Most of the times he's right. Sometimes not, but he has a better batting average than anyone on the Yankees right now. As for his politics, I'm waiting for him to grow up and become a Republican. I bought a new gun just for him.
Alex: I have a gub. So what am I going to do with a gub? The truth of the matter is, all of Patty's close friends are Jewish liberals and he lives in Fort Lauderdale, which is littered with 'em. He can't get away from us. Maybe that's why he has a gub. He's afraid the B'nai Birith is going to come and take his library card.
Pat: What's a gub? Yes, all my friends are young Jewish liberals. The Youngers of Zion. They meet once a year in Ft. Lauderdale to control my life. They force me to get a website, to blog, email, all kinds of loathsome chores. They demand I learn how to use the TV remote. When I was talking to Alex on the phone one night, my wife was cursing loudly at the remote she couldn't figure out. Alex said, “What's she mad at?” I told him. He said, “Jeezs, Fred and Wilma Flintstone." When my computer doesn't work I stand on a chair and drop a rock on it. In the morning Wilma and I go to the quarry to lift rocks. Still, the Youngers of Zion conspire with my wife to drag me outta the 19th century where I'm comfortably ensconced.
Alex: Pat doesn’t type e-mails. He uses a nail, chisel and a large slab of granite.
Rich: Don't mind me guys...just keep chatting away. Besides, I'm busy changing the name of the site and logo from Baseball Analysts to Psycho Analysts!
Alex: Patty was once Cyndi Garvey's analyst. Look where that got him. Pat, tell Rich about the letter she sent you.
Pat: She said I was her favorite shrink...until the story came out.
Alex: And you also got that note from Dave Letterman.
Pat: Yeah, it was the first thing he wrote on his new CBS stationary. He said the Garvey piece was one of the best stories he had read in a long time. This was back when he was doing mornings at CBS, before the Late Night days.
Rich: I'm with Letterman. "Trouble in Paradise" is one of my favorites. I remember reading it in Inside Sports back in 1980. I'm glad Alex included it in your new book. You really burst their bubble with that piece. The All-American couple...right! She went from hitting on you to trying to sue you, if I'm not mistaken.
Pat: Yeah, it turned out to be a nightmare for me because of the lawsuit. That was my first major piece after I had left Sports Illustrated. After I did it, but before the story was published, Cyndi Garvey sent me a hand-written letter thanking me, saying that I was her therapist. Then, when the story came out, the Garveys sued Inside Sports, Newsweek and me. I had to give depositions for months but nothing ever came out of it. They settled before it ever went to court. And then not so long after that, Steven and Cyndi split up. So it caused me a lot of aggravation, but it was a good story and I think it still holds up.
Alex: The published version is excellent but for our collection we actually used Pat’s original manuscript, something we did several times in the book. One of the most enjoyable parts of doing this project is that I discovered that Pat keeps EVERYTHING – notes, interview transcriptions, drafts. I thought it would be interesting to compare his originals with the published versions. I didn’t want to be indulgent about it. I generally hate “Director’s Cuts.” I mean, I come from a film-editing background and there is a good reason why something was left on the cutting-room floor. So Pat and I agreed that we’d only consider using his original manuscripts when the published version altered the original to the point of really changing the flavor of the piece. Pat’s original lede for “Trouble in Paradise” was changed by Newsweek and it didn’t need to be, so we went with the original. Same thing, only in a more dramatic fashion, for Pat’s classic O.J. Simpson profile for The New Yorker.
Rich: You have nine chapters devoted to baseball players, ranging from the famous (Roger Clemens and Tom Seaver) to the obscure (Gregory "Toe" Nash and Pete Rose, Jr.). Let's talk about each of them. For anybody who knows you or your works, it's no secret that you are not particularly fond of the Rocket.
Pat: I didn’t hate him when I did the piece, but he wasn’t one of my favorite guys. I didn’t think he’d send me a bouquet of flowers when he read it, but I didn’t think he’d be furious either. Turns out he was furious, and it also turns out that he never read it. He was told that it was a hatchet job when it really wasn’t.
Rich: On the other hand, I know you and Tom Terrific are good friends. One might even say "The Best of Friends."
Pat: Seaver is a great guy, a lot different from his public image. He’s sharp, funny, a smart ass. The first piece I did on him for SI showed that he wasn’t “Tom Terrific,” the golden boy image he had on him at the time. He was incredibly determined, a very hard worker. He was one of the first baseball players to really get into lifting weights. I followed him throughout his career and because we got along was able to do several pieces on him.
Rich: Besides the Garvey story, I would venture to say that your piece on Steve Carlton ("Thin Mountain Air," which originally appeared in Philadelphia Magazine in 1994) ranks right up there among your best. 329 wins. Four Cy Young Awards. First ballot Hall of Famer. A fitness freak. Arrogant. Stubborn. The Big Silence. Lefty was and is one complex, maybe even crazy animal.
Pat: The only thing I knew about Carlton was that he didn’t like to talk to the press. But when I met him, we started talking about guns and the next thing I know he was talking about black helicopters and the Elders of Zion. He was a nut.
Alex: And, like the Garvey piece, and, to some extent, the recent Jose Canseco essay, the Carlton story was controversial as it was released shortly before Lefty was going to be inducted into Cooperstown.
Pat: After the story came out, everybody started defending Steve. Tim McCarver, Jim Kaat, all these guys who were in the fraternity of ex-athletes. Even though they knew I had written the truth, I was not in the fraternity. I was the outside, outlaw freelance writer living in Florida. The guy you can’t trust. So the papers are running pieces about what a hatchet job I did, poor Steve Carlton. The Today Show comes down to interview me and I knew what they were going to do. They were going to ask me about guns. Now, in Florida, I have a carry permit. Perfectly legal, I carry a 9mm pistol in my bag wherever I go, except court room, athletic contests, post office, airport. It’s just the way it is. It’s a right to carry state. But the minute you mention guns in New York, you are immediately brandished as a right-wing lunatic. Sure enough, the interviewer asks, “Isn’t it true that you told Steve Carlton about a new gun you had bought?” I said, “Oh yes, I have a Czech-CZ-85, 9 mm semi-automatic, I have an East German military pistol, an American Smith and Wesson.” She said, “Well, why do you have so many guns?” And I said, “Well, it’s just like my right to vote. It’s my constitutional right to have guns, no reason why I shouldn’t.” They never ran it. They cut that part out of the interview. And that was the whole point of it all.
Alex: To make you look like a crazy schmuck.
Pat: Hey, if you’ve been in the business as long as I have, and people interview YOU, you know ahead of time where they are going. So they were going to basically demolish me on the air by having me talk about guns in such a way that it would say that I was a right-wing nut. Once I said it was my constitutional right to have a fire arm, that was it. I said it so matter-of-factly. They ran the interview but cut that part out.
Rich: In "Conversations with the Dinosaur," you captured an angry, grouchy Carlton Fisk. Bad hair day for Pudge or is that the way he really is?
Pat: Pudge is a crotchety Yankee.
Rich: A Yankee, huh? That will be news to Red Sox fans!
Pat: I’m originally from Connecticut, so I grew up with those kinds of guys. They're always pissed off, but salt of the earth. I loved that guy. He had a great, cynical, sarcastic sense of humor. Also, he loved his wife, and like any grump was dutifully afraid of her reprimands.
Rich: You wrote a piece for the Los Angeles Times Magazine in 1992 on Whitey Herzog when he was vice president in charge of player personnel for the California Angels. The Rat is older and more schooled than even you, which really makes him really old school. Are you guys more alike or different?
Pat: Actually, the Rat was from a different generation than me, more of my father's generation. We're both old school, but his is harder earned, mine more philosophical. I did not grow up hardscrabble like the Rat. But we were alike in ways that had nothing to do with our generation. We’re both sarcastic and politically incorrect, love ethnic humor. You know, we have old-timey values, we’re patriots, believe in hard work ethic, no whimpering. Stuff like that.
Rich: Whitey missed out on the Hall of Fame by one vote this winter. Do you think he belongs in Cooperstown?
Pat: Hard to say in what category. Certainly not as a player. A manager? A GM? He might fall between the cracks of a guy who was good at many different things but not great at one. You know, a guy wins 300 games, hits 500 home runs, the numbers rule. How do you judge the Rat? Maybe he'll get one of those lifetime-achievement awards Hollywood dolls out to old actors who never won an Oscar.
Rich: Switching gears here. Who in the hell is this "Toe" Nash dude? Sounds like a kicker for the old Cleveland Browns or something.
Pat: I have a researcher out in Kansas City, a good friend of mine, named Mike Sharp. He always tosses off ideas to me and he said, “Why don’t you do Toe Nash?” I had never heard of him. So Mike sent me some clips. SI had done a piece on him, ESPN had done a piece on him – this heroic black man who came out of the sugar cane fields of Louisiana and hits home runs like Babe Ruth and signs with Tampa Bay. So I go out to Louisiana and hit all the stops. I was the only guy to see him in prison. I even tracked down the girl that he was supposed to have raped. And as it turns out, far from being a poor black kid who had been persecuted by the white law enforcement, the story that SI and ESPN had written, he was a criminal, a thug, who had raped a 16-year old girl and had gotten off because he was a ballplayer. I didn’t meet him for a long time because he was in prison. I met everybody around him. His father was the only person who could get me in to see him. So I interviewed him briefly. He was a sullen kid.
Alex: I liked that piece also because it presented a variation from some of the other profiles. That was a reporting-heavy story.
Pat: That was a private satisfaction for me about the story. I talked to everybody. I found the 16-year old girl who had been raped and nobody had spoken with her. Plus, the people there were great. The atmosphere in Louisiana was a lot of fun. I had po boy sandwiches with Craig Berteaux, the probation officer. I still talk to him and his wife over the phone. Loved him. Wonderful civil servant. A guy who really had his clients’ best interests at heart. Tormented about Toe Nash, didn’t know if he should let him loose or what. Didn’t want to ruin his life but he didn’t want to have a thug out there on the streets, either. He was actually tormented about doing the right thing for Toe Nash. And a lot of people were.
Alex: Plus, this story, like the one you did on David Williams, the poker player, and Efrain Reyes, the pool player, are so evocative of a certain kind of world. A world you can still get into. There is a kind of access there that is harder to come by with celebrities.
Pat: That’s why I enjoy these kinds of stories. These days it’s harder and harder to get a prominent athlete to give you access like they did twenty, thirty years ago. Now, you have to go through agents and publicists. The recent story on Sly Stallone which is also in the book is the rare exception. He was a great guy, very candid. Now, Toe Nash was incarcerated so that made him tough to get to, but it’s like what Gay Talese did in “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold.” Sinatra wouldn’t talk to him but he let him hang around, and by doing that, by talking to all of the people around Sinatra, his wives, his cronies, he got a great story. For me, this was “Toe Nash Has a Secret.” He’s not a poor, sympathetic black kid, he’s a thug.
Rich: You wrote an article called "War of the Roses," featuring Pete Rose, Jr. Did the acorn fall far from the oak tree?
Pat: Actually it did, but Pete, Jr. tried to rectify that. He was a much more sensitive person than his father (so was Attila the Hun). The problem was that Pete, Jr. tried so hard to be like his father, and that went against Pete Jr.'s nature, and against all common sense. He essentially worshipped and aspired to be like a man, his father, who was much less of a human being than he was. That's what was sad, and that's what caused Pete jar’s problems later in his life (i.e. arrest and prison), I believe, for steroid distribution. So that now, like father like son, both Roses have served time. It’s all a terrible waste of a kid I think was a good person when I met him.
Rich: In 2001, you met up with Rick Ankiel when he was going through his troubles on the mound. The same thing that happened to Ankiel happened to you in 1961. Tell us about it.
Pat: It’s a long story. Read “A False Spring.” Essentially, we both forgot how to pitch a la Steve Blass, Max von McDaniel and others. It happens to guys who have unlimited success in early career and fall apart at first stumbling block. The whole thing rests on the pressure of success and having to repeat it all your life until it wears you down and you hunt for a way to fail so no one can blame it on you. That’s what happened with me. The burden became so great, I couldn’t do what had come naturally all my life. So you will this curse on yourself and claim it's not your fault. I thought I could help Rick and offered to work with him, but he never took me up on it. I think I could have helped him. He was a good kid then. I hope he still is. I am happy for his success as a hitter now.
Rich: Would you have ever thought back then that Ankiel would be playing center field and batting fourth for the Cardinals? How incredible was that transformation?
Pat: It is incredible, but within reason. Rick was always a great athlete, who started as a pitcher but his other talents were well known to people inside baseball. He wouldn't be the first pitcher to become a big league hitter or vice versa.
Rich: You like to write as much or more about failures as success stories. Does that choice have anything to do with your life?
Pat: Yes. My first thought in life came as I realized I had failed as a pitcher. Why? From there, everything in my life flowed from one question after another, which led me to writing. I've always felt that failures must think more and deeper. Why did I fail? Successes try not to think about their success or it'll screw it up. No one thinks, “Why did I hit 50 home runs?” They just go with the flow. So I've always felt failures were deeper, more introspective and interesting, than successes.
Rich: Pat, I know from talking to Alex that you are a meticulous writer, a "writer's writer" as he called you in the Introduction. I understand you approach writing – on a typewriter no less – the same way you prepared for a game when you were a pitcher.
Pat: I am a Rosetta stone type of writer. I have to hammer everything out, chip by chip. It rarely comes easy to me. I outline extensively. It's like a safety net. I don't always follow my outline, I am open to mystery, but the outline is a guide for me. And my sentences, well, each one is an agony. It doesn't mean they are great, it just means they require a lot of work for me. Ironically, pitching for me was effortless. I picked up a ball at eight and discovered I could throw it faster than anyone else. Maybe if I had my writer's discipline with pitching I would have made the big leagues. But I didn't, thank God. Seaver worked hard on his pitching like I do on my writing, which is why I admired him. Also, after my failure in the game, I was determined never to let something like that happen to me again. Which is why I’m so meticulous in my approach to writing.
Rich: Alex, tell us about what you found in Pat's attic on one of your trips to his home in Florida.
Alex: Well, like I mentioned, Pat really does keep everything. They are organized in folders and stored in big storage bins. When I first went up there I was just looking for sports stories. But, on my second visit to Pat’s, I concentrated on all the other stuff. To be honest, Pat’s probably written more non-sports pieces than sports stuff. It’s a treasure chest of magazine writing – pieces for AARP, Mademoiselle, Time, People, Life, Reader’s Digest, and GQ...Pat did a weekly column for the Tampa Sunday Times for a few years in the mid-eighties. I was just overwhelmed by the evidence of a lifetime’s worth of work. It was very humbling and impressive. And what was fun for Pat is that I dug up stories that he’d long forgotten about.
Pat: Sometimes, my feelings about a story are tied up in the experience I had doing them. For instance, whether or not I liked the subject or if I put in a lot of work doing the research. I don’t go back and re-read old stories. So when Alex came down here, poking his nose in all my stuff, he unearthed pieces I had completely forgotten about. Then, after he read them, I re-read them too, and found that there were some that I remembered loving that weren’t so good, and vice versa.
Rich: I know you're at home, wearing a pair of shorts, a Hawaiian shirt, and flip flops. And I know you are smoking a cigar. Is it a Cuban? Hand rolled or machine made? A Corona, Panatela, Churchill, Robusta, Torpedo, or one of those long-ass Presidentes?
Pat: Cuban? What, are you outta your mind? Cubans cost over 20 bucks a cigar. Mine are retreads, seconds, brand-name defective cigars, like their smoker. Cost a buck-and-a-half from a wholesaler. Most grown in Nicaragua, Honduras, Dominican Republic.
Rich: Turning to the New York grown variety...Alex, I loved the Q&A you did with Pat for the back of the book. Not only was it a fun read but it allowed us to learn more about Pat while bringing so many people and stories current.
Alex: Thanks, that was a lot of fun. Even for Pat, I think it gave him an opportunity to think about things, his career, his creative evolution, in ways that he hadn’t. For me, every since I can remember, I’ve always loved reading about craft, whether it is filmmaking, painting, making records. I love learning about the nuts and bolts process. Pat was easy to interview because he’s got a sense of humor and is honest and has a very detailed, specific way in which he applies his craft. I don’t know how many people would find that interesting, but since I did, I’d like to think there are some writers, or aspiring writers, who happen to pick up the book, who will find it helpful in some way.
Rich: What do you two have in store next?
Alex: Another season of blogging about rooting for the Yankees and living in New York City over at Bronx Banter. And I have a couple of other projects I’ve got my nose in, but I’m going to be cryptic about it. Not because they are so important but because I’m superstitious and don’t want to spoil anything before they’ve come to fruition.
Pat: I don't know. I have a Ricky Williams piece coming out in Playboy in the fall. Meanwhile, I wait for an assignment. I am essentially like the girls that Elliot Spitzer rents from the Emperor’s escort service. Someone rents me for a story, than discards me until someone else rents me. You might say I've been a hooker all my writing career. It's amazing to me that at 67, some people still find me attractive enough, or maybe technically expert enough, to still hire me for a one-night stand. Maybe that's why I go to the gym everyday to stay in shape. I gotta look enticing.
Alex: As Fernando used to say, "It's better to look good than to feel good, dahlink."
Rich: Well, I'm not going to comment on your looks. But The Best Sports Writing of Pat Jordan is very enticing. I can at least vow for that. Congrats to both of you.
News and notes from around the majors...
The Arizona Diamondbacks (14-5) have the most wins and the fewest losses in the majors. The D-Backs are also leading in runs scored per game (6.32) while allowing the fewest runs per game (3.53). The well-balanced club sports two of the league's best starting pitchers and a number of young position players with high ceilings. Arizona has the makings of a good postseason team if it can hold off division rivals Colorado, Los Angeles, and San Diego or sneak its way into the playoffs via the wild card.
The Marlins, out front in the NL East for now with a 12-7 record, is the best bet of them all to regress toward their preseason forecasts as the club has allowed more runs (99) than it has scored (92). Despite losing Miguel Cabrera, Florida is second in the league in home runs with 29. Hanley Ramirez, who just may be the most valuable property in all of baseball, and Mike Jacobs are tied for the team high with six apiece.
On the heels of a four game winning streak, the Chicago Cubs have overtaken the St. Louis Cardinals in the NL Central. The Redbirds have surprised me as much or more than any other club thus far. That said, I still see the Cubs and Brewers battling it out for first place while the Cards will do well to beat out Cincinnati for third place.
Over in the American League, the Boston Red Sox, thanks to winning nine of the last ten, have the best mark at 14-7. With David Ortiz looking like the Big Papi of old rather than an old Big Papi, the Sox are the best balanced team in the AL and once again the club to beat. Could they make it three World Championships in five years?
The cellar-dwelling teams are pretty much as expected except, of course, the Detroit Tigers. However, the Tigers appear to have righted the ship, winning five of the last eight games. The team has played 12 of 20 games on the road so I wouldn't get overly worried about the slow start. Besides, the Cleveland Indians have an almost identical record. Give yourself bonus points if you had the Tigers and Indians with a combined record of 14-25 at this point.
Tampa Bay (8-11) may have disappointed those who predicted that the club was going to break out this year. I still think the Rays will beat out the Orioles and finish the season near .500. Baltimore, off to surprising 11-8 start, has played 13 of its 19 games at home (where it has fashioned a 9-4 record).
On the player front, Chase Utley hit his MLB-leading ninth homer – and sixth in five games – last night. This just may be the year Utley wins the MVP that he would have last year had he not broken his right hand in late July and missed a full month. His stiffest competition may come from Ramirez, Chipper Jones (if he can stay healthy all season), Albert Pujols, and David Wright.
Nate McLouth extended his season-long hitting streak to 19 games, the third-longest streak to start a season by a National Leaguer in the last 35 years (behind Atlanta's Edgar Renteria's 23 straight in 2006 and L.A.'s Steve Garvey's 21 in 1978). I think it is safe to say that the 26-year-old McLouth (.375/.444/.638) looks like the real deal.
Can you say sophomore slumps? Ryan Braun (.237/.253/.395), Troy Tulowitzki (.165/.241/.241 with 0 HR), and Hunter Pence (.229/.257/.329 with 0 HR), the top three vote getters in the NL ROY balloting last year, are all off to poor starts. Braun has whiffed 17 times while only drawing 2 walks in 79 plate appearances. He hit .361 on balls in play last year. While Braun's current BABIP of .263 is likely to improve over time, he needs to make better contact and increase his walk rate in order to fulfill the lofty expectations placed upon him after his outstanding rookie season. The same can be said of Pence, who has struck out 20 times with only 3 BB in 74 PA.
Q&A: Rob Neyer - The Big Book of Baseball Legends
Rob Neyer is no stranger to readers of Baseball Analysts. He has written a guest column for us, participated in roundtable discussions and surveys, and linked to a number of our articles on his ESPN.com website.
A long-time columnist and author, Rob has been writing about baseball since 1990 when he worked for Bill James during all three years of The Baseball Book and the first year of the Player Ratings Book. Neyer has been with ESPN.com since 1996 and is a regular on ESPN Radio and sports talk shows around the country. He has written six baseball books, including one that was just released at the beginning of April.
Rob Neyer's Big Book of Baseball Legends is the latest and greatest in his Big Book series. The subtitle – The Truth, the Lies, and Everything Else – pretty much captures the essence of this fun-to-read and highly entertaining book. Rob combines his baseball knowledge, skepticism, meticulous research skills, sharp wit, and signature writing style to produce an indispensable guide that should be part of every fan's library.
The Table of Contents and excerpts from three chapters (Greg Maddux & Jeff Bagwell, Billy Martin & Jackie Robinson, and Lou Boudreau & Ron Santo) should be enough to whet one's appetite.
After meeting up with Rob for a couple of days a few weeks back when he was in Los Angeles, I had the good fortune to interview him as part of this book review. I hope you enjoy our chat as well as the book.
Rich: The Big Book of Baseball Legends is your sixth book in nine years. You have become almost as prolific in writing books as The Beatles were in producing records during the 1960s. I've got all of The Beatles CDs and all of your books. Both are important parts of my music and baseball libraries. The good news is that we don't have to worry about Rob Neyer breaking up. Or do we?
Rob: I'm absolutely sure that's the first time my name has ever been mentioned in the same breath with the Beatles, and for that I can only thank you, kind sir. And no, I'm not breaking up. But I am taking a break from book-writing until I have an idea that really excites me. Because at the moment I don't have one.
Rich: Baseball Legends is your third in the Big Book series. Baseball Lineups and Baseball Blunders were described as complete guides to the best/worst players and the worst decisions and stupidest moments in baseball history. How would you describe Baseball Legends?
Rob: Well, the subtitle for this book is "The Truth, the Lies, and Everything Else." Which is what we call a "grabber" in the book business. Most of the truths in the book are half-truths and most of the lies are merely well-told tall tales. And my job in the book is determining which are which.
Rich: In the Foreword, Bill James tells a story about a scene in a movie he recalls as Shattered Glass wherein a young reporter rises to the top of his profession in short order by "just making shit up." As it turns out, the scene is actually from Absence of Malice as you so delicately noted upon a bit of research. How perfect was that for the Foreword in a book called Big Book of Baseball Legends?
Rob: Pretty perfect. Somebody else mentioned that in a review, and assumed that I had fact-checked that story and tossed in the correction as a friendly rebuke to Bill, but he actually fact-checked himself and added that coda, which I really enjoyed.
Rich: Speaking of James, you occasionally investigated what Bill has called "tracers" when you worked with him for four years during the early 1990s. Was Baseball Legends percolating in your mind back then?
Rob: Yeah, I think so. In those days I was young and didn't have any original ideas – actually, I still rarely have an original idea – but I knew I wanted to keep writing about baseball. For a while we were planning to continue Bill's biographical encyclopedia, as a stand-alone project. But that sort of petered out, after which I talked to Bill about doing a book of tracers. Nothing happened with that, either. But yeah, the tracers have always been in the back of my mind, because I enjoyed the research so much.
Rich: I have no doubt that the research in this book was a labor of love. Although Bill claims that backtracking anecdotes no longer qualifies as research given the explosion of organized knowledge on the Internet, you obviously spent a lot of time verifying the accuracy of these claims.
Rob: I think Bill overstates his case some. The research is certainly much easier than it was, but I spent many hours poring over microfilm, and entering data from players' day-by-day logs into Excel files. Obviously, Retrosheet makes a researcher's life a million times easier, but their play-by-play data goes back "only" to the mid-1950s and a lot of the stories in the book are from before then. Anyway, the point of the book isn't necessarily the backtracking; it's what the backtracking leads to.
Rich: Of the more than 80 stories in your book, how many would you say are truths and how many are lies?
Rob: First, I should mention that there are more (many more) than 80 stories in the book if you count the sidebars. As you would probably guess, few of the stories in the book are completely true or completely false. I would guess that roughly half of them contain at least some kernel of a fundamental truth that I was able to find. Maybe two-thirds.
Rich: What do you say to those who think you are taking the fun out of the game in your attempts to debunk some of the most classic legends in the history of the sport?
Rob: It's a funny thing … I anticipated a fair number of readers making that criticism, but I haven't actually seen it yet. Also, it was never my intention to debunk anything. I just found baseball stories that I liked, then checked them out and let the chips fall wherever they fell. I was absolutely thrilled when the facts checked out.
Rich: Is it your belief that sportswriters, players, managers, umpires, and owners make up these fables for the hell of it or do you think they really believe them to be true? Or is it possible that many of them have been lost in the translation, if you will, as they are retold over and over by people other than the one who originated the story?
Rob: All of those. But I think what happens most often is that something happens, and years later someone who was there tells the story in good faith but has simply forgotten many of the details. Of course, some of the stories are simply invented out of whole cloth, often for use on the rubber-chicken circuit.
Rich: I can't help but be amused by the fact that a so-called stathead like you loves the stories of the game as much or more than the next guy.
Rob: You're not the only one. But you know, it's funny, most of my sabermetrically inclined friends enjoy a good story at least as much as I do. One of the great things about baseball is that there are so many ways to enjoy it. And fortunately there's no law restricting us to one or two of them.
Rich: Who do you suppose is the greatest "story" teller of them all?
Rob: Oh, I don't know. Whitey Herzog tells a pretty good story.
Rich: Can you share one of his stories with us?
Rob: It's too long to reproduce here, probably, but I love the story Herzog tells about betting Satchel Paige, then his teammate with Miami, that Paige couldn't throw a baseball through a hole just slightly larger than a baseball. And of course Paige did exactly that, and collected on the bet.
Rich: I know you don't want to give away the contents of your book, but can you tell us once and for all if Babe Ruth's home run in the 1932 World Series was really a "called shot?"
Rob: It depends on how you define "called shot," I guess. Did Ruth point toward the center-field bleachers like he does in the movies? No. He certainly did make a defiant gesture, perhaps toward the Cubs' dugout, from where he was taking a great deal of verbal abuse.
Rich: When did the bench jockeying disappear from the game? I mean, you can't call somebody "rabbit ears" if you don't yell at him to begin with.
Rob: Oh, it still happens. Not as much as it used to, I'm sure. But in the heat of battle, nasty things are still yelled from the dugouts.
Rich: I really like your format, starting each chapter off with a quote and then sharing your research with the readers over the next few pages. As always, I think the sidebars add a nice touch, too. All in all, it’s a fun read, a book that one can pick up and begin reading any chapter in any order.
Rob: Thanks. I wish I knew how to write a different sort of book, but I'm glad you enjoy this sort.
Rich: Let's do a lightning round that we will fittingly call Truth or Lie? If it goes well, we'll take it on the road in the hope that FOX will pick it up as its next big hit.
Rob: I'm pretty sure ESPN wouldn't like that. But okay, let’s roll...
Rich: Truth or Lie? You're a blogger now.
Rob: Oh, that's a scary thought. But, yeah. Hard to deny it.
Rich: Truth or Lie? You blog in your boxers in the basement of your parents' home?
Rob: Lie. I wear pajamas. And Mom kicked me out last month.
Rich: Truth or Lie? You only wear flannel shirts?
Rob: Truth. And man, are they itchy. Which is one of the reasons I'm so cranky in my chats.
Rich: Truth or Lie? You have written more words on ESPN.com than anybody?
Rob: Truth, as far as I know. But Henry Abbott's closing the gap fast.
Rich: Truth or Lie? You recently broke the all-time record for the longest chat on ESPN?
Rob: Truth. Twelve hours and one minute. Let's see the Sports Guy top that!
Rich: Truth or Lie? You broke the record working on next-to-no sleep?
Rob: Unfortunately, that's also the truth. I worked until midnight the night before, was up at 4 a.m. to catch a flight, got maybe fifteen minutes of sleep on the plane, and got home with exactly seven minutes to spare before the chat started. And would you believe that after the chat ended, I wrote a blog entry? It really wasn't that bad, except for a 20- or 30-minute spell, maybe seven hours in, when I was hallucinating and it seemed like all the questions were about Derek Jeter's Gold Glove-quality defensive work.
Rich: Truth or Lie? Your wife thinks you are crazy?
Rob: She's not the only one.
Rich: Truth or Lie? You're a card-carrying member of the Baseball Writers Association of America?
Rob: Ha. You know the answer to that one.
Rich: Truth or Lie? You stay up at night hoping, praying, and worrying about the results of the next BBWAA election?
Rob: Truth. Here's another: When I get my BBWAA card I'm retiring the next day, having achieved all that one may achieve in my chosen profession.
Rich: Truth or Lie? You didn't pay any attention to the Final Four this year?
Rob: Lie. I hung on every minute, having been a manic Kansas fan since 1984 when I decided that's where I wanted to go to school. And as a fan of the Royals and the Minnesota Vikings, one of my teams hasn't won a championship since these same Jayhawks won exactly 20 years ago. And as I've said when friends have congratulated me on this year's title, "Thanks. I kicked ass on my couch."
Rich: Truth or Lie? You're a vegetarian?
Rob: Truth. Unless my fondness for Tofurkey disqualifies me.
Rich: Truth or Lie? You're No. 1 hobby is birdwatching?
Rob: If I were to retire tomorrow, I would bird full-time and baseball would be my No. 1 hobby.
Rich: Truth or Lie? You went birding in Los Angeles?
Rob: Truth. Picked up a lifer (Red Knot) just a few miles north of LAX, too.
Rich: And you thought you could only find birds in Portland and Baltimore!
Rob: And St. Louis.
Rich: Ahh, I thought those Cardinals were a religious reference.
Rob: They were, originally. But in 1893 a wave of anti-Catholic sentiment swept across a great swath of the middle Midwest, and the team adopted the color red as its official mascot. In 1894, having realized how stupid it was to have a color as their mascot, management switched to the bird we've known and loved ever since.
Rich: My goodness, you are a treasure chest of baseball knowledge. A walking and talking baseball encyclopedia. No wonder I love your columns and books so much. Thanks, Rob, for taking the time to share your Big Book of Baseball Legends with us.
Rob: My pleasure, Rich, and thanks for letting me hang with you for a while.
You can’t get much further from the majors in full-season professional baseball than the Midwest League. For that reason, the league can sometimes get overlooked, although there are some fascinating players – and teams – to watch.
The Midwest League is hurt by the fact most top college players skip A-ball and move directly to High-A ball in their first full professional seasons, mainly because there is not a huge difference in talent levels between the two levels (compared to the jump from High-A to Double-A or the Triple-A to the Majors). As well, some feel the Midwest League is on pare, or close to it, with the talent level of good NCAA Division 1 colleges.
There seems to be a misconception that the league is populated by 19-20 year olds and that a 21 or 22 year old who dominates in the league is not that impressive because he is beating up on inferior competition… Let’s see if that is true this season.
Standings (with average age):
Lansing 8-5 (21.4)
Dayton 8-5 (22.0)
West Michigan 7-6 (22.4)
Great Lakes 7-6 (21.2)
Fort Wayne 4-10 (21.7)
South Bend 2-12 (22.1)
Kane County 12-1 (22.6)
Clinton 8-3 (20.8)
Quad Cities 7-6 (21.2)
Cedar Rapids 6-7 (21.5)
Burlington 6-7 (21.7)
Peoria 6-8 (20.9)
Wisconsin 4-6 (21.6)
Beloit 5-9 (21.7)
League Average Age = 21.6
That pretty much shows that a player who does well in the Midwest League at the age of 21 or 22 is not beating up on younger competition, for the most part. It also means that impressive numbers by players, such as 19-year-old Gorkys Hernandez of the West Michigan Whitecaps or 19-year-old Travis Snider of the 2007 Lansing Lugnuts, is all the more impressive.
Pitching Staffs by Age:
1. Peoria (21.0)
2. Cedar Rapids (21.1)
3. Quad Cities (21.3)
3. Great Lakes (21.3)
5. Wisconsin (21.4)
5. Clinton (21.4)
7. Beloit (21.6)
8. South Bend (21.9)
9. Burlington (22.0)
9. Fort Wayne (22.0)
11. Lansing (22.4)
11. Dayton (22.4)
13. Kane County (22.5)
14. West Michigan (22.6)
Offences by Age:
1. Clinton (20.3)
2. Lansing (20.5)
3. Peoria (20.8)
4. Quad Cities (21.0)
5. Great Lakes (21.2)
6. Fort Wayne (21.3)
7. Dayton (21.5)
7. Burlington (21.5)
9. Wisconsin (21.8)
10. Beloit (21.8)
11. Cedar Rapids (21.9)
12. West Michigan (22.2)
13. South Bend (22.4)
14. Kane County (22.7)
Now, let’s take a look at some of the team numbers:
The two youngest offences in the league are currently leading in all three triple-slash categories with Clinton (Texas Rangers) at .288/.370/.449 and Lansing (Toronto) at .283/.362/.419. Average-wise, Quad Cities (St. Louis), Great Lakes (LA NL), Burlington (Kansas City) and Wisconsin (Seattle) are all batting below .210. Burlington, Great Lakes and Wisconsin are also all slugging below .300. Ouch. The worst on-base percentage in the league belongs to Great Lakes at .272.
The entire Wisconsin team has one homer in nine games this season. The batters have also struck out 78 times in 263 at-bats. Clinton’s youngsters, on the other hand, have struck out only 68 times in 323 at-bats. The Fort Wayne club is leading the league in stolen bases with 20 in 24 attempts. Beloit (Minnesota) base runners have attempted 28 steals and have been caught 12 times. Dayton (Cincinnati) is leading the league – a league known for not allowing a lot of long balls – with 11 home runs in 12 games. Lansing has scored the most runs in the league at 72 in 12 games, while Wisconsin has scored only 18 in nine games.
And how about some impressive (and not-so-impressive) individuals:
In Clinton, Ian Gac, 22, is batting .378 with five homers and 11 RBI. Derek Holland, a 21-year-old southpaw, has struck out 14 batters over 9.2 innings.
Lansing first baseman Manny Rodriguez is an interesting case. He spent 2006 in A-ball with the Braves, then was signed as a minor league free agent with Toronto before the 2007 season and spent that year in the New York Penn League). Now 23, Rodriguez has seven doubles and two homers in 36 at-bats. He is batting .444 and has a league-leading 14 RBI. He should probably be in the Florida State League. A pair of 19-year-olds and high draft picks from 2007, Kevin Ahrens and Justin Jackson, each have 10 walks in 11 games. Jackson has also stolen five bases in six attempts. Soft-tossing lefty reliever Cody Crowell, 22, has struck out 13 batters in 6.1 innings.
In Kane County (Oakland), 21-year-old Craig Italiano, recovering from a line drive to the forehead last year, has struck out 24 batters (with only four walks) in 14 innings.
Beloit’s Chris Parmelee, a former first round pick, had a nice seven RBI game to tie Rodriguez for the league lead in RBI with 14. He also has four homers.
Keltavious Jones, 22, is as fast as his name is long and he has five steals for Dayton in as many attempts. Third baseman Brandon Waring, 22, continues to hit and is batting .348/.392/.565. The Reds’ 2007 supplemental first round pick Todd Frazier, 22, is batting .341 with five homers. He has also walked 11 times with only nine strikeouts in 41 at-bats.
San Diego had five supplemental first round picks in 2007 and a couple of them are playing for Fort Wayne. Shortstop Drew Cumberland, 19, has seven steals in nine attempts but is hitting only .261. Outfielder Kellen Kulbacki, 22, known for his bat, is hitting only .154.
Shortstop Andrew Romine, 22, is hitting only .171 for Cedar Rapids (LA AL) but he has stolen eight bases in as many attempts. Pitchers Jordan Walden, 20, and Mason Tobin, 20, have found the early goings quite easy. Walden has a 0.75 ERA in 12 innings with eight hits allowed and 10 strikeouts. Tobin has a 0.00 ERA and has allowed six hits and three walks.
South Bend (Arizona), with the second oldest offence in the league, has four regulars batting under .200.
Peoria (Chicago NL) outfielder Dylan Johnston, 21, has struck out 16 times in 32 at-bats. He’s batting .156.
Great Lakes infielder Preston Mattingly is continuing to struggle in pro ball. He is batting only .167 in 48 at-bats with one walk and 14 strikeouts. He hit .210 at Great Lakes in 2007.
Wisconsin’s raw Canadian hurler Phillippe Aumont, 19, Seattle’s No. 1 pick in 2007, has pitched 5.2 innings and has allowed no earned runs, but four unearned runs. He has walked two and struck out eight. Outfielder Eddy Hernandez, 23, has yet to get a hit in 17 at-bats and he has 10 strikeouts.
In Burlington, 2007 second overall draft pick Mike Moustakas, 19, is batting .182 in 33 at-bats. Pitcher Daniel Gutierrez, 21, has a 1.13 ERA in three starts and 16 innings. He has allowed nine hits, seven walks and struck out 21.
Picking Apart the Draft: 2002
There is a perception among baseball fans that the first round of the June Amateur Draft is foolproof – or that it should be foolproof. In a series of upcoming articles I am going to take a look at just how successful teams have been drafting with the first 10 picks of the draft in recent years, starting in 2000 and ending in 2004. Previously, I looked at the drafts in 2000 and 2001.
The top 10 draft picks in the 2002 draft were not as bad as in 2000, nor were they quite as good as in 2001 in terms of star power. We have someone who has already hit 50 homers (Fielder) and someone who projects to be a superstar (Upton), but just hasn’t quite gotten there yet mainly due to his less-than-stellar defence. Both Francis and Greinke have established themselves in the starting rotation for their respective clubs but they look more like No. 3 starters than aces. Interestingly, seven of the Top 10 picks were nabbed out of high school as the prep crop looked a little more impressive than the college crowd.
The first 10 picks broke down like this:
1. Pittsburgh Bryan Bullington, RHP Ball State University
2. Tampa Bay B.J. Upton, SS Virginia high school
3. Cincinnati Chris Gruler, RHP California high school
4. Baltimore Adam Loewen, LHP British Columbia high school
5. Montreal Clint Everts, RHP Texas high school
6. Kansas City Zack Greinke, RHP Florida high school
7. Milwaukee Prince Fielder, 1B Florida high school
8. Detroit Scott Moore, SS California high school
9. Colorado Jeff Francis, LHP University of British Columbia
10. Texas Drew Meyer, SS University of South Carolina
The remainder of the first round, which was probably the deepest talent-wise of the three drafts we’ve looked at so far, also had some hits and misses. The best players drafted outside the top 10 in the first round were: Florida’s Jeremy Hermida (11th), Los Angeles (AL)’s Joe Saunders (12th), San Diego’s Khalil Greene (13th), New York’s Scott Kazmir (15th), Oakland’s Nick Swisher (16th), Philadelphia’s Cole Hamels (17th), Los Angeles (NL)’s James Loney (19th), Cleveland’s Jeremy Guthrie (22nd), Atlanta’s Jeff Francoeur (23rd), Oakland’s Joe Blanton (24th), and San Francisco’s Matt Cain (25th). Yes, a lot of teams found value with the No. 1 picks in 2002. But that also makes the decision to draft players such as Gruler, Everts, Moore and Meyer look that much worse. And yes, I know this was the Moneyball draft, but I am so sick of hearing about it that I’m just going to gloss right over that fact.
Let’s take another look at the Top 10:
As I wrote last week, the Pirates seem to find a way to screw things up. The first overall pick in the draft is the opportunity to take the best overall available player in the nation. Bullington represents one of the worst first overall picks in quite some time… as in Matt Bush bad. Rumors persist that the Pirates scouting director wanted to take Upton, the consensus best player available, but was overruled by management, which was more concerned with the bottom line. A few days before the draft, Bullington told Baseball America he was pretty excited that he might get taken first overall:
"I don't know anything for certain at this point other than I'm under consideration. I'm just flattered that are thinking about using the first pick on me. There are some great players who have gone in that No. 1 spot in the draft. To think I might be in that same company is really something."
A number of the top pitchers chosen in the draft were derailed by injuries and Bullington was no different. Bullington also never showed the velocity on his fastball that he did in college and often worked in the mid- to high-80s. In 2004, he spent the entire year in Double-A and won 12 games in 145 innings. However, he struck out only 100 (6.21 K/9) and allowed 9.93 H/9. Bullington jumped to Triple-A the next season and disaster struck. He battled shoulder issues all season but managed to appear in one major league game that year. However, after the season he underwent surgery for a torn labrum. Bullington missed all of 2006 but reappeared for Triple-A Indianapolis in 2007. He stuff had not improved, though, and he struck out only 5.32 per nine innings. Regardless, the Pirates allowed him to pitch in five major league games. He allowed 24 hits in 17 innings.
In Upton’s pre-draft scouting report, Baseball America had this to say about Upton:
Scouts compare Upton to a young Derek Jeter, right down to the swagger. Upton is further along in his development than Jeter at a comparable age. He's more physically mature than Jeter, who developed his physique in pro ball, and has better power. Upton is just 17 and will play at that age throughout his first professional season. Scouts are curious how he'll handle the pressure of experiencing failure for the first time, since he's rarely failed at any step of his baseball career.
Interestingly, Upton never really struggled in the minors. He sat out the 2002 season while undergoing contract negotiations. As an 18-year-old, he started his career in A-ball and hit .302/.394/.445 and was promoted to High-A ball for the final 29 games of the season and he held his own. The next season he started 2004 in Double-A and batted .327/.407/.471. After only 29 games, he was headed to Triple-A for 69 games. He then got in 45 big league games at the age of 19 in only his second pro season. Upton did struggle a bit - .258/.324/.409 - but he certainly did not embarrass himself. Regardless, he spent most of the next two seasons in the minors to work on his defence as he spent time at third base and in the outfield, where he finally settled. Upton’s first full major league season in 2007 was a success as he hit .300/.386/.508 and he was still only 22 years old.
Gruler improved significantly in his senior season of high school and went from throwing in the high-80s to throwing to the mid- to high-90s. The Reds jumped all over Gruler who had solid mechanics. Regardless, Gruler broke down almost immediately. He made 11 starts in his pro debut in 2002 but pitched only 16 games over the next four years thanks to rotator cuff surgery. Gruler last appeared in professional baseball during the 2006 season.
A good ol’ Canadian boy, Loewen’s career has also been hampered by surgery – for a stress fracture in his left elbow. Unlike Gruler, though, Loewen made it to the majors before being shut down. He has a 4.98 career ERA in the majors and has struck out 7.57 batters per nine innings. Walks have been his nemesis, though, with a ratio of 5.55 BB/9. Loewen has returned from successful surgery and made the Orioles out of spring training in 2008. The southpaw is still loaded with potential and is only 24.
Everts is yet another injury victim from the 2002 draft, which explains why many of you may never have heard of him. Everts was a two-way player in high school and considered possibly the second-best shortstop in the draft (next to Upton). He was also considered almost as promising as teammate Kazmir.
With his switch-hitting ability, plus speed and stellar defensive play, Everts might be the second-best shortstop in the nation after Virginia high schooler B.J. Upton. Yet he'll almost certainly be taken as a pitcher, and one scouting director with an early pick says Everts could be the best arm to come out of the draft… Scouts dream about pitchers with his kind of quick arm action. "He's the sleeper of the whole draft," one scouting director said. "He's going to make someone very happy."
Evert’s calling card on the mound was a killer curveball, which ended up killing his elbow, as he had Tommy John surgery after the 2004 season. It was unfortunate because Evert had adjusted very nicely to pro ball and reached High-A ball in his second season, at the age of 19. Fast forward three years to the end of 2007 and Everts was still in High-A ball and posted a 4.81 ERA. He also walked 56 in 97.1 innings (5.18 BB/9). Perhaps it’s time to try a conversion back to the field?
Greinke has had his ups and downs in his pro career but the talent has always been there. He is one of those players that always had things come easy to him in baseball, thanks in no small part to above-average stuff as well as solid command and control. As a 19-year-old pitcher in High-A ball, Greinke went 11-1 with a 1.14 ERA. He allowed 5.79 H/9 and walked only 1.34 batters per nine innings. Less than a year later, at the age of 20, Greinke was in Kansas City and he posted an ERA of 3.97, allowed fewer than one hit per inning and walked only 26 batters in 145 innings. One of the most impressive things was that Greinke “got it” at an early age; he constantly took 4-5 mph off his fastball to increase the movement and control of his pitches. Then 2005 came along and, along with the Royals’ continued struggles, Greinke posted a 5.80 ERA and lost 17 games. Greinke lost some of his passion for the game the following year and spent some time away from the game before returning but he pitched in only three major league games in 2006. The Greinke of old began to work himself back into shape in 2007 as he split time between the rotation and bullpen. He posted a 3.69 ERA and allowed 122 hits in 122 innings.
Teams knew Fielder could hit. It was apparent very early on in his prep career, if not sooner. But teams also knew Fielder’s body took after his father’s. And it’s never a good thing for a 16-year-old’s body to mimic that of a 40-year-old’s… even if that 40-year-old once hit 50 home runs in the majors. Regardless, the Brewers could not pass on the younger Fielder’s prodigious power and he rewarded them by becoming part of the only father-son combo to each hit 50 homers in the major leagues. Prince accomplished the goal at age 23, besting father Cecil by three years. Prince has done nothing but hit as a pro and there have been no signs that he will struggle any time soon. However, he has one of those sluggers’ bodies that likely won’t age well.
After three minor league seasons in the Tigers’ system, Moore looked like a first round bust. He hit .223/.322/.384 as a 20-year-old third baseman in High-A ball. The next spring he was sent to the Chicago Cubs along with another disappointing youngster for reliever Kyle Farnsworth. Once he escaped Detroit’s minor league system, Moore flourished and hit .281/.358/.485 with 20 homers in a return engagement to High-A ball. He had an equally successful year in Double-A in 2006 and received his first brief taste of the majors. After spending most of 2007 in Triple-A, Moore was used to obtain Steve Trachsel from the Baltimore Orioles. He broke camp in 2008 as a back-up infielder for Baltimore but offers as much – or more – offensive potential as incumbent third baseman Melvin Mora.
The Toronto Blue Jays were salivating at the idea of choosing an advanced college pitcher, who just happened to be Canadian, with the 14th overall pick. It is rumored that they even had a pre-draft deal worked out with the southpaw. However, the Rockies came along, recognized his talent, and scooped him up. By the end of 2004 Francis was in the majors for good and the Jays organization is still waiting for its first round selection, Russ Adams (who has gone from SS to 2B to RF), to leave Triple-A behind him. Francis will likely never be a star, but he is a valuable No. 3 starter. He allows a lot of hits – 691 in 634.2 innings – but throws his fair share of innings (215.1 in 2007) and his walk totals have diminished over time (3.43 BB/9 in 2005 to 3.12 to 2.63). He also increased his strikeout total to 165 last season, not bad for a lefty that works in the upper 80s with his fastball.
Last week I wrote that I get nervous about talking middle infielders with a high pick unless they are “can’t miss” impact bats. Upton was obviously one of those, and Meyer was not. He always had talent, though, and was drafted in the second round out of high school by the Dodgers. In his junior year at South Carolina, Meyer hit an impressive .359/.411/.512 but slugged only six homers and walked 28 times while striking out 57 times in 334 at-bats. Perhaps prophetically, Meyer hit .214 and .192 during two summer seasons with wood bats in the Cape Cod League. He was also ranked 27th in Baseball America’s pre-draft talent rankings and was projected to go in the second half of the first round, not the Top 10. Meyer made it to Double-A in his first full pro season but didn’t hit for power, didn’t walk and struck out too much for a top-of-the-order hitter. To this point he has five big league games to his credit.
Check back next week when we take a look at the 2003 draft’s Top 10 picks
Previewing the Draft (Part Two)
Continuing with our preview of this June's draft, we stay the course by focusing on many of the big-name college prospects, including a trio of potential first rounders out of the No.1-ranked Miami Hurricanes.
Pre-season first-team All-Americans Yonder Alonso (1B), Dennis Raben (RF), and Jemille Weeks (2B) are all projected to go in the top 20 by Baseball America. In addition, third-teamer Blake Tekotte (CF) is a likely second or third round pick according to draft expert Jim Callis. Mark Sobolewski (3B), rated as the top draft-eligible sophomore by Baseball America prior to the season, is a "top five round talent" although Callis believes he won't go that high due to a poor showing on the Cape last summer and signability issues.
When coach Jim Morris makes out the lineup card, he writes down Tekotte, a prototypical lead-off hitter, first; Weeks, a speedy line-drive type, second; Alonso, a pure hitter, third; the power-hitting Raben fourth; and Sobolewski fifth. As a group, this fivesome has put up a .362/.484/.620 line through games on Sunday.
AB H 2B 3B HR BB SO AVG OBP SLG
Tekotte 123 48 6 3 6 25 12 .390 .506 .634
Weeks 119 48 11 3 7 13 18 .403 .463 .723
Alonso 106 38 8 1 8 41 17 .358 .533 .679
Raben 72 19 8 0 4 19 16 .264 .423 .542
Sobolewski 127 45 8 1 3 17 17 .354 .429 .504
Tekotte went 4-for-4 with two home runs and 12 total bases while scoring four runs and driving home seven in a 15-5 victory over Georgia Tech in the second game of a doubleheader on Saturday night. Over the course of the three-game sweep, the 5-foot-11, 180-pounder had nine hits (including 3 HR) in 15 at-bats. Weeks went 7-for-13 and Alonso slugged two homers among his four hits.
Tekotte, Weeks, Alonso, and Raben were all freshmen when I saw the 'Canes play UCLA a couple times in February 2006. Miami won two of three games in that series with Tekotte, Weeks, and Alonso starting all three contests. Raben started twice and appeared as a relief pitcher on Saturday.
Given his pedigree, I was most interested in seeing Weeks play. However, outside of sharing the same last name and playing second base, the brothers are more different than alike. The smaller Jemille is listed at 5-9 and 180 pounds, hits from both sides of the plate, and sports better speed and superior defense while Rickie has more power. Baseball America rates Jemille's speed as a 70 on the 20-80 scouting scale and calls him the "fastest runner" in college baseball. He is the best all-round second baseman in college and will probably be the second middle infielder taken (after Gordon Beckham, a shortstop out of Georgia).
Tekotte, the "third-fastest runner among the top college prospects," led the Cape with 22 steals in 23 attempts last summer. He is 16-for-19 this season. While I missed Tekotte at the Area Code Games in 2004, I saw him make a diving catch in left field with the bases loaded in the fifth inning against UCLA, a play that perhaps was the difference between Miami winning and losing the Sunday finale. Callis told me that the former football player, who tore up his knee during his senior year in high school, "might be the best college center fielder" in the draft.
Alonso, termed "the best all-around hitter in the Cape Cod League last summer" by Baseball America, combines a good, disciplined approach and a short stroke to hit the ball to all fields. He may not have the power desired from a first baseman but could be a "Todd Helton type outside of Coors Field" in terms of offensive production by Callis' way of thinking. Born in Cuba and a U.S. resident since he was nine years old, the 6-2, 215-pound lefthanded hitter was selected in the 15th round of the 2005 MLB Draft by the Minnesota Twins.
Beset by back problems earlier this season, Raben has struggled a bit in his return and may need a strong finish to warrant going in the first round this June. Rated the No. 3 prospect in the Cape by Perfect Game Cross Checker, the 6-foot-3, 220-pound lefthanded slugger has "legitimate power" according to a quote garnered by Baseball America from an NL scouting director.
We will cover at least a half dozen other top college prospects from the east in our next edition of Previewing the Draft before moving westward and then winding up the series with a focus on the best high school prospects in this year's amateur draft.
Previewing the Draft
The motto of Baseball Analysts is "examining the past, present, and future," which means covering everything from baseball history to high school, college, and minor league prospects.
With the amateur draft less than two months away (June 5 and 6), we want to give progress reports throughout the next few days on a number of the top players, starting with a college pitcher who could very well be selected first by the Tampa Bay Rays.
Missouri's Aaron Crow, who entered last night's start versus Texas with a consecutive scoreless innings streak of 42 2/3, allowed five runs in the first frame and nine overall yet still picked up the victory as the Tigers beat the Longhorns by a football score of 31-12 in the opening game of their weekend series at Taylor Stadium. The nine runs allowed by the junior righthander were the first that he had given up in six weeks and the most of his college career.
According to Missouri's Sports Information Director Josh Murray, Crow's streak was the fifth longest in NCAA Division I history. The unofficial record is held by none other than Todd Helton, who hurled 47 2/3 scoreless innings for Tennessee in 1994. Ben McDonald (LSU, 44 2/3, 1989), Pat Venditte (Creighton, 43 2/3, 2007), and Eddie Bane (Arizona State, 43, 1972) also rank ahead of Crow. Kyle Jones of Southern Illinois-Edwardsville pitched a Division II-record 54 consecutive scoreless innings in 2006.
Helton won the Dick Howser Trophy as National Collegiate Baseball Player of the Year and was also honored by Baseball America as its College Player of the Year in 1995. A two-sport athlete, Helton played quarterback for the Volunteers and started several games during his junior season but was replaced by Peyton Manning when he suffered an injury. The rest of the story is history.
Crow, an undrafted pitcher out of Washburn Rural High School in Topeka, Kansas when his fastball peaked in the mid-80s, has worked hard to improve his conditioning, strength, and mechanics since his freshman season when he was a teammate of Max Scherzer, the 11th overall pick in 2006. Now 6-foot-3 and 195 pounds, Crow works in the low- to mid-90s and has reportedly touched 98 on the radar guns. Baseball America has called his heater the "best fastball in college baseball" while noting that he "owns the best slider and arguably the best command as well."
Baseball America ranked Crow as the top prospect in the Cape Cod League last summer when he went 3-1 with a 0.67 ERA and 36 strikeouts in 40 innings while pitching for the Falmouth Commodores. Along with Pedro Alvarez (3B, Vanderbilt), Brian Matusz (LHP, San Diego), and Tim Beckham (SS, Griffin HS, GA), Crow is one of the Fab Four in this year's draft and could go first if Tampa Bay shies away from Alvarez due to questions about his position or bonus demands.
Here are Crow's college stats, including his nine hits, two walks, nine runs outing on Friday:
GS CG SHO IP H R ER BB SO W-L ERA
8 3 3 57 45 13 13 13 71 8-0 2.05
Crow's college teammate Jacob Priday slugged four home runs in that 31-12 rout of Texas last night. He set a Big 12 Conference record and tied for third most in NCAA history while moving within one of the school record with 44 for his career. Priday, who went 5-for-5 with six runs and nine RBI, is hitting .410/.500/.914 on the season. Undrafted in high school and college, Priday was ranked No. 20 among seniors in Baseball America's Top 50 College Prospects by Class. A 6-1, 215-pound outfielder, Priday's future will be dependent on how far his bat takes him.
Kyle Russell, who was profiled on these pages last year, also cranked two home runs in the slugfest last evening. Selected in the fourth round last summer by the St. Louis Cardinals as a draft-eligible sophomore, Russell didn't sign a professional contract and returned to the Forty Acres for his junior season. The left-handed-hitting rightfielder got off to a horrific start this season (.230 with 1 HR in his first 24 games) and has only gone yard five times after leading the NCAA and setting a school record with 28 dingers in 2007. Questions abound as to whether Russell can hit with a wood bat, something he has failed to do during summer leagues in the past.
Teammate Jordan Danks (.344/.472/.547) is hitting for average and extra bases but still has not exhibited the home-run power expected of him when he was a high school star. The brother of Chicago White Sox lefthander John, his stock has slipped a bit but the 6-5, 209-pound outfielder was still rated by Baseball America as the 37th-best junior heading into this season.
Be sure to check back on Monday for additional updates on college propects.
MLB Survivors: Pans and Faves
If they say life imitates (fill in your favorite subject), then maybe it's fair to say that baseball imitates reality TV. Just like in Survivor, the Major League Baseball team that outwits, outplays, and outlasts the competition is the one that will be the last standing in October.
Baltimore, Kansas City, Florida, and St. Louis have won most of the early reward challenges while the Detroit Tigers have been relegated to Exile Island. Can manager Jim Leyland find the hidden immunity idol in the hope of playing it when his club is on the verge of being voted out?
I mean, who thought that the Orioles, Royals, Marlins, and Cardinals would be leading their divisions heading into the second weekend of the season? Or that the Tigers would have the worst record in the majors? Sure, it's early – very early – but the win-loss records of these clubs still qualify as a huge surprise.
Well, maybe if the Tribe and Tigers merged, they might be able to beat Ozzie although I'm not sure if the White Sox manager can repeat the magic of 2005.
Let's take a look at the standings:
EAST W L PCT
Baltimore 6 3 .667
Boston 5 5 .500
NY Yankees 5 5 .500
Toronto 4 5 .444
Tampa Bay 4 5 .444
CENTRAL W L PCT
Kansas City 6 3 .667
Chicago Sox 5 3 .625
Minnesota 4 5 .444
Cleveland 4 5 .444
Detroit 1 8 .111
WEST W L PCT
LA Angels 6 4 .600
Oakland 6 4 .600
Texas 5 4 .556
Seattle 4 6 .400
EAST W L PCT
Florida 6 3 .667
NY Mets 4 4 .500
Philadelphia 4 6 .400
Atlanta 3 6 .333
Washington 3 7 .300
CENTRAL W L PCT
St. Louis 7 3 .700
Chicago Cubs 6 3 .667
Milwaukee 6 3 .667
Cincinnati 6 4 .600
Pittsburgh 3 6 .333
Houston 3 7 .300
WEST W L PCT
Arizona 7 2 .778
San Diego 5 5 .500
LA Dodgers 4 5 .444
Colorado 4 5 .444
San Francisco 4 6 .400
New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox fans may not like it but an outsider could make an argument that it's good for baseball when Tampa Bay and Toronto beat these two powerhouses on the same day, especially early in the season when every team still has high hopes. The Rays and Blue Jays appear to be playing even better than their win-loss totals indicate. Both teams have positive run differentials despite losing records.
Kansas City is tied for the best record in the American League despite the fact that the team has scored the third-fewest number of runs. It follows that the Royals are obviously getting the job done on the run prevention side of the equation. KC has allowed only 24 runs, nine fewer than the next-best team. The team leads the league in ERA, BAA, OPS, WHIP, and SV. What makes everything all the more remarkable is the fact that the Royals have beaten the Tigers and Yankees five out of six with two shutouts. Yes, the same two clubs that feature perhaps the most power-packed lineups in all of baseball – or so we thought just two weeks ago.
Zack Greinke (2-0, 0.60), Brian Bannister (2-0, 1.50), and the bullpen have been outstanding. Five relievers have yet to give up a run covering 15 1/3 innings. Including Hideo Nomo's debut on Thursday, here is how the entire bullpen has performed thus far:
IP H ER HR BB SO ERA W-L SV
25 15 4 4 7 29 1.44 1-0 5
Remarkably, Kansas City has only made one error in nine games and that miscue was by a pitcher (Ron Mahay). The team's defense has converted about 72% of balls in play into outs, good for second in the AL.
Like Kansas City, Oakland has been pitching its way to a fast start, allowing just 33 runs in 10 games. With Rich Harden on the DL, it will be interesting to see if the A's have enough depth in the starting rotation to keep up the pace. While Dana Eveland has put together superb back-to-back outings, it remains to be seen whether the southpaw can stay healthy and give his club 180 quality innings this season.
Over in the National League, Florida is 6-3 even though the competition has outscored the Marlins by nine runs. Atlanta, on the other hand, is 3-6 with a positive run differential. Look for their fortunes to reverse themselves over time. Washington has been a hot and cold team, winning its first three and losing its last seven.
Many pundits thought St. Louis had one of the worst starting rotations in baseball, yet the Cardinals have only given up 30 runs in 10 games. Mind you, this is without Chris Carpenter, who is rehabbing after undergoing Tommy John surgery last year and is not expected back until the second half at the earliest. In the meantime, the Chicago Cubs head into a weekend series in Philadelphia with the second- longest winning streak in baseball.
Arizona has arguably been the best team thus far, both in terms of its 7-2 win-loss record and its 54-27 runs scored and runs allowed mark. The Diamondbacks, in fact, lead the NL in scoring and preventing runs, perhaps an early indicator of the club's prowess. Arizona will host the Colorado Rockies in a three-game set this weekend that pits the top two teams from the West last year. Tonight's matchup involves aces Jeff Francis and Brandon Webb battling one another.
On one hand, the season is less than two weeks old (well, at least for everyone other than Boston or Oakland) so it would be silly to place too much emphasis on the early returns. On the other hand, the standings a year ago ended up telling a pretty good story for almost every team not named the Phillies or Cubs.
Bottom line: Don't get overly confident or despondent based on how your team has performed in April. But, at the same time, let's not be totally dismissive of what has taken place thus far.
OK, it's time to tally up the votes...
Picking Apart the Draft: 2001
There is a perception among baseball fans that the first round of the June Amateur Draft is foolproof – or that it should be foolproof. In this series of articles I am taking a look at just how successful teams have been drafting with the first 10 picks of the draft in recent years, starting in 2000 and ending in 2004. Last week I looked at the 2000 draft.
Unlike the 2000 draft, the 2001 amateur talent smorgasbord was piled high with “can’t miss” talent. The Minnesota Twins held the first pick of the draft and knew they had to make a splash. The club had previously failed to sign first round picks including Travis Lee (1996) and Jason Varitek (1993), but it’s simply not acceptable with the first overall pick. As such, the organization decided against drafting the 2001 draft’s supposed ‘Superman’ Mark Prior and chose instead to ‘settle’ for Minnesota native Joe Mauer.
Baseball America’s post-draft coverage stated:
Besides Prior and Mauer, the Twins also considered Georgia Tech third baseman Mark Teixeira and Middle Tennessee State righthander Dewon Brazelton for the top choice. Minnesota contacted all four players on the day of the draft to see if a predraft agreement might be reached, but ultimately had to make its decision without a deal in place.
"[Mauer]’s a legitimate No.1 pick," Twins scouting director Mike Radcliff said. "I know a number of teams thought he may be the best guy in the draft. We had four guys we thought were legitimate No. 1 picks. We were fortunate in that regard.
"But let's be honest. We've had trouble signing players in our recent history. We are who we are. We have limited resources and we have to deal with it. Joe was the best fit."
I’d say it worked out pretty well for the Twins, wouldn’t you?
The first 10 picks broke down like this:
1. Minnesota Joe Mauer, C Minnesota high school
2. Chicago (NL) Mark Prior, RHP U of Southern California
3. Tampa Bay Dewon Brazelton, RHP Middle Tennessee State U
4. Philadelphia Gavin Floyd, RHP Maryland high school
5. Texas Mark Teixeira, 3B Georgia Tech U
6. Montreal Josh Karp, RHP UCLA
7. Baltimore Chris Smith, LHP Cumberland University
8. Pittsburgh John VanBenschoten, RHP Kent State
9. Kansas City Colt Griffin, RHP Texas high school
10. Houston Chris Burke, SS U of Tennessee
As you can see, there were much better results for teams drafting in the Top 10 of the draft in 2001 than 2000. However, it still wasn’t without its bombs. Three prospects in the Top 10 never made it to the majors. Two more have barely had more than cups of coffee. As well, Burke and Floyd have yet to establish themselves and Prior has been derailed by injuries. Only Teixeira and Mauer have come close to achieving what was projected for them and that means the Top 10 clubs batted a meager .200 with the coveted picks.
If some of those picks did not look bad enough, let’s take a look at some of the players who were available to other clubs later in the round: Casey Kotchman went to the Angels with the 13th pick, Aaron Heilman was snatched by the Mets with the 18th pick, the Athletics took Bobby Crosby with No. 25 and Jeremy Bonderman with No. 26, and the Reds took, but failed to sign, Jeremy Sowers with the 20th pick. Oh, and the Mets grabbed some guy named David Wright in the supplemental first round after he was passed over 37 times.
Let's take another look at the Top 10:
It usually does not bode well when a club takes a first round pick from its home state… Even fans can smell the stench of the public relations department a mile away. But Mauer was – and still is – a special case. There was no question that he was the best prep hitter in the draft and he played a premium position. Mauer, as a major leaguer, has done nothing to tarnish his reputation… He made it to the major leagues in his fourth pro season, and was established in the majors by the age of 22. If he can stay healthy and if he can remain behind the dish for a significant period, Mauer could be looking at a Hall of Fame career.
Heading into the draft, Prior was considered the best college pitcher on the planet with his “free, easy, effortless delivery,” and knockout stuff. Some even called him the best college pitcher of all time. After signing a major league, five-year contract for a minimum of $10.5 million, Prior made his pro debut in 2002 and was in the majors after only nine minor league starts. By the end of 2003, when he went 18-6 and posted an ERA of 2.43 with 10.43 K/9, Prior looked headed for a Hall of Fame career. But injuries began piling up in subsequent seasons and his inning totals went from 211 in 2003 to 118 in 2004, 166 in 2005 to 43 in 2006. He did not pitch in the majors at all in 2007 thanks to injuries and could miss the first half of 2008. Prior is now in a San Diego uniform after signing as a free agent in the off-season leaving the Cubs with little to show for the investment.
Brazelton was supposed to be the answer to the Rays’ pitching woes. He was supposed to be that advanced college arm that could make it to the majors quickly. Well, he did get there quickly, but it turned out that he wasn’t very good. After not pitching in 2001 due to contract negotiations, Brazelton started 2002 in Double-A and pitched well (3.33 ERA in 26 starts, 7.95 H/9). However, he struck out only 6.72 batters per nine innings and allowed 4.13 walks per nine innings, both warning signs. The next season Brazelton was inconsistent and played at four levels. He posted a 6.89 ERA in 10 major league starts. He turned things around somewhat the next season and pitched 120 innings in the majors and posted a 4.77 ERA. However, he posted rates of 3.95 BB/9 and only 4.77 K/9. Not surprisingly the wheels came off entirely in 2005 and he went 1-8 with an ugly ERA of 7.61. Pitching in Petco Park the next season could not save Brazelton’s career and he posted an ERA of 12.00 in nine games. Oh, how the mighty have fallen. The former third pick of the 2001 drafted pitched in the minors in 2007 for both the Royals and the Pirates and neither of the organizations wanted him to stick around.
Floyd is interesting. He was a top high school pitcher who flew through the minors in three seasons and did not posted an ERA above 3.00. However, his K/9 rates dropped as he got closer to the majors, from 7.59 at A-ball to 7.50 at High-A to 7.11 at Double-A to 5.28 at Triple-A. His first taste of the big leagues with the Phillies was OK – a 3.49 ERA in six games but he showed that his control was lacking by walking 16 in 28.1 innings (5.08 BB/9). The next two seasons Floyd rode the shuttle between Philadelphia and Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. During that time, he walked 48 batters in 80.1 major league innings. Frustrated with his inconsistencies and lack of control, Philadelphia shipped Floyd off to the White Sox in the Freddy Garcia trade of December 2006. Floyd split 2007 between Triple-A and the majors again, but was respectable in the majors despite a 1-5 record. In 16 games, including 10 starts, Floyd posted a 5.27 ERA and walked only 19 batters in 70 innings. The 10.93 H/9 and 6.30 K/9 rates are worrisome for the future, though.
In 2000, no one would have been surprised to see Teixeira go first overall. But he had Scott Boras as a representative and everyone knew the Twins were tight-fisted. It also didn’t help that Teixeira missed three months of his junior season to a broken ankle. As a result, he slid to the Rangers at fifth overall and they snapped him up, even though they really, really needed pitching. He sat out the rest of the 2001 season after the draft and finally received a four-year major league contract for $9.5 million. One talent evaluator told Baseball America:
"Those two guys [Teixeira and Prior] are awfully, awfully good, so if they don't make it, we've got to start over in how we evaluate talent. Those two were head and shoulders above everyone else.
"I do think they are worth the most of the talent that was out there. But are they worth $10 million? I don't know about that."
Well, Teixeira has held up his end of the bargain and has been a dominating player at times. He spent one season in the minors and has hit 30 or more homers in four of his five major league seasons. His career line was .286/.371/.539 heading into the 2008 season. Texas certainly received value for its $9.5 million and wisely traded Teixeira when he was deemed too expensive. The organization received five young, talented prospects in return.
Karp was a scout’s dream with three solid pitches – a fastball in the 90-94 mph range, a plus change and a curveball that had the potential to be plus. But he never really dominated in college and tended to have a lot of minor injuries crop up. After signing, he made his debut in 2002 and ascended to Double-A after dominating in seven High-A ball starts. After posting OK numbers there, he repeated Double-A in 2003 and regressed. Regardless, he was promoted to Triple-A the next season and posted a 5.95 ERA. After the season, Montreal traded him to Florida and he spent time in both Double-A and Triple-A in 2005. Later that year, Karp underwent shoulder surgery and never pitched again.
Smith is a perfect example of the difference between pitching in NCAA Division 1 and NAIA. He was a two-way player at Florida State and the team wanted him to focus on his hitting where they thought he had greater value. Smith, who could touch the mid-90s, felt his future was on the mound so he left his “dream school” for Cumberland University in Tennessee where he instantly became one of the top pitchers. His four-pitch mix and solid statistics against lesser talent was good enough to get him drafted in the first 10 picks of the 2001 draft but injuries ensured that he was out of baseball within four years. He never rose above A-ball.
After leading the NCAA Division 1 with 31 bombs (in 225 at-bats), most teams expected VanBenschoten to get drafted as a slugging first baseman. But then the Pirates came along and did what the Pirates do best: They screwed up. Oh, sure, you can’t really blame the Pirates for the right-hander getting hurt and needing surgery, but it’s awful hard to turn your back on an offensive player with five tools that rate as average or better. And many scouts had VanBenschoten’s power as a 75 on the 20-80 scouting scale. That 8.78 ERA in 17 MLB games looks really, really bad. I guess the Pirates can take pride in the fact VanBenschoten has hit only .133/.235/.400 in 15 at-bats at the major league level. But it’s kind of funny to think he has as many MLB homers as wins (1).
If this was an episode of Jeopardy, the question to the above name would be: What is a great reason not to use your first round draft pick on prep right-handers based solely on arm strength? The hard-throwing Texan was, of course, the next Nolan Ryan. In his five-year minor league career, though, Griffin walked 278 batters in 373.2 innings. And interestingly enough, he struck out only 273 batters with that once-blazing fastball. The promise was there, as he allowed only 7.86 hits per nine innings in his career… possibly because it’s hard to hit a fastball around your ears.
Personally, I get nervous when I see middle infielders get taken really high in the draft, unless they are so “can’t miss” that their names are Alex Rodriguez or Troy Tulowitzki. There are just too many Russ Adams and Chris Burkes in the world. In his college career, Burke showed the ability to get on base and run. In his junior year, though, he added power, which caused a few clubs to get a little too giddy (Houston being one of them). Not surprisingly, that aluminum bat power disappeared in pro ball and, after his first two pro seasons, Burke stopped running. That pretty much eliminated one of his main strengths, leaving him as a singles hitter who could take a walk. Once he hit Triple-A and the majors, though, Burke stopped walking leaving him as a guy who could hit singles. Welcome to the bench, Chris.
Check back next week when we take a look at the 2002 draft’s Top 10 picks
The Good Ol' Jays
Last Friday night I had a chance to watch my first full Red Sox game and I have to say, what struck me most was the awesomeness of the retro Blue Jays uniforms the home team sported. What also struck me was just how good the Jays might be this year. Their starting five is pretty close to as good as it gets in the American League and their bullpen has been excellent. Their team ERA is currently 3.69. The lineup has been inconsistent but the pieces are there to mount a steady and consistent offensive attack.
After the game while chatting with a friend who grew up in Toronto, we couldn't help but reminisce about the original Blue Jays that donned the powder blue's. Being born in 1980, I was just coming into a little bit of baseball consciousness and so I was able to reel off a Rance Mulliniks here and an Ernie Whitt there but I didn't have much beyond the standouts and these two. When my pal asserted that Toronto's first playoff team, the 1985 AL East Champion Jays, were a "helluva club" I decided to take a look at trusty B-Ref to see what this team was all about. Sure enough, it was truly one "helluva club".
The lineup was merely above average. Jesse Barfield (.289/.369/.536) was quite good and when he was healthy and in the lineup, so was Mulliniks (.295/.383/.454). The rest ranged from poor to pretty good. The team OPS+ was 103 and they scored 759 runs, good for fourth in the American League.
What made the 1985 Toronto Blue Jays a dominant, 99-win team (and 99-win Pythag team at that) was the finest run prevention unit the American League has seen in the last 30 years. The Blue Jays gave up 588 runs, or just 3.65 per game. They had a team ERA of 3.31 and an an astounding ERA+ figure of 129. Doyle Alexander, Dave Stieb, Jimmy Key and Jim Clancy, as starters, combined for 867.3 innings of 3.09 ERA pitching. The bullpen had a 3.27 ERA.
The Blue Jays defense had every bit as much to do with their spectacular run prevention as the pitchers did. Perhaps more. The Blue Jays yielded the third fewest walks and struck out only the eighth most batters in the American League in 1985 and yet their team ERA and ERA+ were head and shoulders above even the second best team that season. That means a whole lot of batted balls were converted into outs. They easily led the league in team defensive efficiency and it isn't hard to see why. A quick glance at some advanced defensive metrics reveal shortstop Tony Fernandez and right fielder Jesse Barfield to have been first-class defenders that season, while center fielder Lloyd Moseby and second baseman Damaso Garcia appear to have been quite good as well.
To further evidence the effect Toronto's defenders had on their overall run prevention, consider the following numbers comparing Stieb and Key's peripherals in 1985 versus their career, and then looking at their ERA's the same year against their career.
'85 K/BB Career K/BB '85 ERA Career Era
Stieb 1.74 1.61 2.48 3.44
Key 1.70 2.30 3.00 3.51
Stieb (let me digress and say Stieb is absurdly under-rated) had a k/bb number in line with his career totals and yet an ERA almost a full run less than his career figure. Key's k/bb was a lot worse in 1985 than it was for his career and yet his ERA was over a half run better. This is yet another indicator that the defense behind them was outstanding.
The Blue Jays would lose in the ALCS to the eventual champion Kansas City Royals after taking a 3-1 series lead. It seems they have been largely forgotten since, but at the very least they should assume their place amongst the very best non-champion teams. The 1954 Indians, the 2001 Mariners, the 1985 Blue Jays...you catch my drift.
With the pitching staff they feature in 2008, don't be too surprised if these Jays begin to resemble the 1985 ones in more than looks alone.
*photo above by Adrian Wyld - AP
The Week That Was and Is (Part Two)
Continuing on with the week that was and is . . .
Sunday, March 30
We held our Fantasy Baseball Draft at my house a week ago Sunday. Our league dates back to the late 1970s in one form or fashion, and it has to be one of the longest-running fantasy or rotisserie pools in existence. We normally have 15 teams but added a 16th this year to accommodate a charter member who was unable to participate last season. I enjoy fantasy baseball and think it is a much more challenging than fantasy football. More players, more games, and more stats means more skill and less luck than football.
Our pool is similar to most 5x5 leagues except we basically substitute walks in place of stolen bases. We also include "troubles" (2 * doubles + 3 * triples) and subtract blown saves from saves while giving this net saves category only half weighting. We feel as if we have a nice combination of rate and counting stats and believe the best baseball players make for the best fantasy players, at least in our league.
With a total of 16 teams and 28 players per, we drafted 448 pitchers and hitters. We pulled it off in a little over 5 hours, which means we were averaging about one pick every 40 seconds. We have 16 active players (nine hitters, seven starting pitchers, and two relievers) with the remaining 12 on the bench. Changes are allowed on a weekly cycle that runs from Monday through Sunday. No trades or waiver wires are permitted. Instead, we hold three replacement drafts at each of the quarter poles whereby team owners are given the opportunity to choose two new players in a draft format based on the inverse order of standings.
I drew No. 14 out of the hat and ended up with the 13th pick when another owner opted to take the 16th and 17th slots. Alex Rodriguez went first and the usual suspects followed. David Ortiz, who can play 1B in our league, was the best player on the board when my turn came up so I drafted him in the first round, Grady Sizemore on the way back in the second, and Ryan Zimmerman in the third. Johan Santana and Jake Peavy were the only pitchers taken in the opening round but a total of 15 had been selected when I gladly took John Smoltz in the fourth round.
I've learned a number of valuable lessons over the years and try not to think in terms of wanting this guy or that guy. Instead, I let the draft come to me and take what everyone else gives me. With this strategy in mind, I nabbed Carlos Pena in the fifth round even though I doubled up on positions earlier than I would normally prefer. I chose Tim Lincecum in the sixth round before a run on pitchers produced eight consecutive and 11 of 12 spots devoted to starters. I broke the trend by taking Pat Burrell (atta boy, good job yesterday, Pat!) in the seventh round, then added A.J. Burnett and Jeremy Bonderman as my third and fourth SP in the eighth and ninth rounds. I filled out my rotation with Gil Meche in the 13th round and was pleased that Jon Lester was still around in the 15th to provide insurance for my top five.
As the draft wound down, I took a flyer on Chris Carpenter in the hope that he might be able to help me out in August and September plus Chase Headley and Jay Bruce (did you notice that he went yard yesterday?). Headley would have broken camp with the Padres if not for the fact that management didn't want him to make two adjustments simultaneously – one to the big leagues and another to the outfield. I look for him to take over LF by late May and trust Kevin Towers when he says that Headley will "bat in the middle of the order" when he arrives in SD.
Here is my roster:
C: J.R. Towles
1B: Carlos Pena
2B: Brian Roberts
SS: Edgar Renteria
3B: Ryan Zimmerman
OF: Pat Burrell
OF: Grady Sizemore
OF: Jermaine Dye
DH: David Ortiz
SP: John Smoltz
SP: Tim Lincecum
SP: A.J. Burnett
SP: Jeremy Bonderman
SP: Gil Meche
RP: Joakim Soria
RP: Rafael Betancourt
My backups include Yunel Escobar
(2B-SS-3B), Mark DeRosa
(2B-3B-OF), Jeff Keppinger
(SS), Milton Bradley
, Headley, and Bruce (OF), and Yadier Molina
(C). Lester, Paul Maholm
, Orlando Hernandez
, and Carpenter add depth to my starting staff while Rafael Perez
serves as my third reliever.
My team is in fourth place as of this morning. The team that is atop in the standings has A.J. Pierzynski, Derrek Lee, Brandon Phillips, Jimmy Rollins, Chipper Jones, Jason Bay, Vernon Wells, Andruw Jones, and Garret Anderson, plus Jered Weaver, Javier Vazquez, Johnny Cueto, Joe Saunders, and Adam Loewen/Carlos Villanueva with Francisco Liriano and Clayton Kershaw in reserve, and Matt Capps and Brian Wilson in the bullpen.
Monday, March 31
Opening Day. I watched the Dodgers-Giants game on TV in a sports restaurant at lunch with another member of our fantasy league and his father, both of whom are also in the investment management industry. I guess if you're paying a pitcher $126 million, you start him on Opening Day, especially when you're team is at home. Brian Sabean's days in San Francisco may be numbered. Paul DePodesta, in a return to the Bay Area, would make a good replacement as the club's GM.
Rob Neyer returned home to Portland on the first flight out of Los Angeles, then set a record for the longest online chat ever. It started with the first pitch on Monday and didn't stop until after the last pitch had been thrown that evening.
Unable to catch Bill James on 60 Minutes the night before, I recorded and watched it Monday evening. I was glad for Bill because a segment like that on a popular, mainstream program was long overdue. But it was disappointing for the more advanced baseball fans already familiar with his work. We really shouldn't have expected anything differently. Unlike many others, Bill didn't need the 15 minutes of fame that 60 Minutes may have brought him. However, to the extent that such a program makes him more of a household figure and an even bigger icon inside the game, then I think it was well worth the effort. Next stop for James: Cooperstown.
For more on the subject, be sure to read Joe Posnanski's 60 Not So Deep Minutes. If you missed the James piece, you can check it out here or download the video below:
Opening Day also marked former Baseball Analysts colleague Joe S. Sheehan's first day as an intern with the San Diego Padres. I exchanged emails with him yesterday. He told me that the "first week went by in a blur." Between moving into his new apartment and the week-long homestand, Joe "didn't really have a chance to breathe," but he emphasized "that's a good thing." Meanwhile, Jeff Albert, another former Baseball Analysts contributor, enjoyed his first spring training camp as the hitting coach for the St. Louis Cardinals Low-A minor league team (Battavia). Watching Albert Pujols
hit in the batting cage close up was one of his memorable experiences.
Tuesday, April 1
With the baseball season underway, I was able to enjoy MLB EXTRA INNINGS like never before. The SuperFan package adds up to 40 games per week in high definition plus Game Mix and the Strike Zone Channel. DirecTV is now presenting the home and road broadcasts for most games so viewers can actually pick which one they wish to watch. Once you get a taste of HD, you can never go back.
Monday, April 7
Courtesy of my long-time friend Glen (another member of our fantasy baseball pool), I returned to the Bob Uecker seats at Angel Stadium last night, along with my brother Tom and Ken Briggs, another ex-Lakewood High School baseball player. Ken was a 19th round draft pick in 1982 by the Seattle Mariners. After a college career at Pepperdine and Long Beach State, Ken played as high as AA (Chattanooga) in the pros. A center fielder, he enjoyed his best season at Wasau (Midwest League) in 1983 when he hit .259/.328/.441 with 9 HR in 220 AB.
We had a good time scrolling through the list of draftees in 1982, learning that Ken was selected four picks before Bret Saberhagen. Shawon Dunston was the first player drafted that year, while Barry Bonds (39th), Bo Jackson (50th), and Barry Larkin (51st) were all chosen in the second round.
We paused long enough to enjoy Torii Hunter's two game-winning home runs, including a walk-off grand salami in the bottom of the ninth that catapulted the Angels past the Indians 6-4. A good time was had by all, including Tom, who won the Final Four basketball pool by selecting Kansas to win the whole thing.
It's now time to bring on the Masters. (You can read Part One, too.)
The Week That Was and Is
The weeks before and after the start of the baseball season are two of my favorites for a number of reasons:
1. Opening Day: It should be made a national holiday, don't you think? Baseball fans are worthless at work anyway and the non-fans would warmly embrace another three-day weekend.
2. Fantasy Baseball Draft: My friends and I hold it on the Sunday evening that has become the Opening Night of the season. Preparing for it is as much fun as the draft itself.
3. Angels-Dodgers Freeway Series: Sure, these games are nothing more than exhibitions but, hey, they are held in Anaheim and Los Angeles rather than Phoenix and Vero Beach (soon to be Glendale, AZ). I usually go to at least one of these games every year, and this series reminds me that the beginning of the regular season is at hand.
4. NCAA Final Four: My interest in college hoops has waned a bit over the years but there was a time not long ago when I went to four consecutive Final Fours (San Antonio, St. Petersburg, Indianapolis, and Minneapolis). What I remember the most is that Michigan State made it to the finals for the latter three years. [Oh, did I mention that I went to a Tigers-Yankees spring training game in Tampa in 1999? Whatever became of Matt Anderson anyway? Was he really the No. 1 pick overall?]
5. Masters: My favorite golf tournament of the year, by far. I know every hole on the back nine almost as if I were a member, but, unfortunately, I don't have a green jacket in my closet. I watch all four majors on TV and enjoy the Masters about as much as any other single event in the sporting world, including, yes, the World Series.
I guess I could also mention the Long Beach Grand Prix (cough, cough), which takes place this weekend. My office building is in downtown Long Beach. Aargh! Hey, if you like noise, this is the sport for you.
In any event, the week that was and is was made all the more special this year by hanging out with Rob Neyer for a couple of nights. Read on . . .
Thursday, March 27
Via an email exchange, I learned that Rob was going to be in town to cover the Red Sox-Dodgers game at the Coliseum on Saturday evening. With an extra ticket in hand for the Dodgers-Angels exhibiiton at Anaheim Stadium on Thursday, I asked Rob if he would like to join my brother Tom, nephew Brett, and me in the front row behind the Halos dugout. He gladly accepted and the four of us met at my home in Long Beach prior to the game.
Knowing that Rob was working on a story about the Coliseum, I pulled out my Dad's scrapbooks (which include every article he wrote as the Dodgers beat writer for the Long Beach Independent, Press-Telegram from 1958-1968) and spiral-bound stat books. Rob and I leafed through the 1958 clippings. Rob would stop me from time to time and take some notes, one of which he used in an article two days later:
Indeed, in March 1958, the following headline appeared in the Long Beach Press-Telegram: "Knee Fine, Duke Says; Sets Homer Goal at 30." Inside George Lederer's article, Snider said, "I hope I can hit nine or 10 in the Coliseum and another 20 on the road."
After 45 minutes or so, we decided to head for the ballpark in Tom's SUV. We walked down the aisle to our seats just as the game was starting. Rob kept score and I played amateur scout with my stop watch, timing batters from home to first and catchers' throws from home to second. (Trust me, Juan Rivera is s-l-o-w.) The four of us talked baseball throughout the game, as well as in the car to and from the stadium. One of the players we talked about was Howie Kendrick. I said he reminded me of Bill Madlock and Rob concurred. Brett is an avid Angels and Kendrick fan and the two of us made the following bet for dinner: If Kendrick bats over .320, I lose; if Kendrick bats under .320, I win. By my way of thinking, that bet doesn't leave Brett with much room for error. I mean, what is he likely to hit if he does well? .325? .330? Well, as much as I like Howie, I think it's more likely that he hits somewhere between .300 and .320.
Rob made a few observations about Juan Pierre, Andruw Jones, and Brandon Wood in the next day's Friday Filberts. Rob also has Monday Mendozas, Tuesday Taters, and Wednesday Wangdoodles for his link-o-ramas . . . every weekday except Thursday. As we were walking out of the ballpark, I suggested Thursday Throneberrys. I guess it could be Throneberries but that doesn't really work, especially since there were two Throneberrys: Marv and Faye. Rob said he would name it in honor of Faye if he went with it because Marv has already gotten his due.
My brother dropped Rob and me off at the house after the game and the two of us talked baseball while he snacked on strawberries and grapes. Already deprived of sleep, Rob left for his hotel near LAX well after midnight. He spent part of Friday touring the Coliseum, and we hooked up once again on Saturday.
Saturday, March 29
Rob, Tom, and I were three of the record 115,300 fans in attendance (a number that I'm sure will grow to a quarter of a million or so in the years to come). We picked up Rob and drove to the Coliseum without tapping the brakes once on the Harbor Freeway. Traffic and parking were a breeze. However, that was not the case for everyone. A husband and wife sitting directly below Tom and me arrived in the fourth inning because it took them three hours to get from Dodger Stadium to the Coliseum on the "free" shuttle. Worse yet, the couple left in the sixth inning because they didn't want to repeat the mistake going home.
The photo above was taken with my iPhone from our seats on the third base side in Aisle 14, Row 67. It captures the Red Sox defense with left fielder Bobby Kielty positioned in left center, center fielder Coco Crisp in right center, and Jacoby Ellsbury in right. The Dodgers employed a slightly different defense with center fielder Andruw Jones playing directly behind second base and recording a 2-8 putout when Russell Martin threw out Ellsbury stealing second. Shortstops Julio Lugo and Rafael Furcal ran down a couple of hits in the left-field corner (positioned just 201 feet from home plate with a 60-foot high screen vs. the 1958-61 era of 251' and 42').
When Dad was covering the Dodgers, our family seats were in Aisle 13 (one aisle to the right) in the first row behind what was then the press box, which was situated almost on top of the field. Even though I was only 6 years old during the Dodgers last season at the Coliseum, I have some fond memories, including the pre-game activities staged by players against the lowly Philadelphia Phillies (such as milking cows, egg-tossing events, fungo-hitting contests, and catchers throwing balls through a barrel at second base). Dem were the days, my friends. Heck, I even caught my first ball at the Coliseum but had it stolen after the game by another kid who grabbed it out my hand and ran away.
Oh yes, the Red Sox beat the Dodgers 7-4 that night. Kevin Cash, Kevin Youkilis, James Loney, and Blake DeWitt hit home runs. Loney's was a "Moon shot" over the screen in left field. The game was as much about ThinkCure charity with plenty of pomp and circumstance as anything else, but it was fun to be there. For a second opinion, check out Jon Weisman's post at Dodger Thoughts, complete with 18 additional photos ranging from the line for the shuttle to the pre-game festivities to different angles inside the Coliseum.
I will resume my week that was and is tomorrow, including the results of my fantasy baseball draft. See you then.
Baseball Season in Full Swing
In Rich's Monday post, he previewed some of the marquee pitching match ups that help to make Opening Day as fun as it is. On Tuesday I reviewed Monday's action and as part looked at how some of the league's better pitchers fared. It was an interesting exercise I suppose but not necessarily instructive when it comes to informing our perspective on how these teams/aces may fare. Many of the pitchers who looked good will probably continue to look good while the pitchers that laid an egg will probably recover and have fine seasons. Except Barry Zito. I am pretty sure he's just bad now.
The last couple of days may have told us a lot more. Down-rotation starters, some of whom will not be long for a starting gig and some of whom will tip the balance of power in their respective division races, took to the hill. There were some standout performances from pitchers that will need to continue to be effective for their teams to get to where they want to be.
IP H BB SO ERA
Cueto 7.0 1 0 10 1.29
Wolf 6.0 4 2 5 1.50
Thompson 6.2 6 2 6 0.00
Danks 6.2 2 2 2 1.35
Owings 6.2 2 2 9 1.35
Marcum 7.0 3 1 8 3.86
Kuroda 7.0 3 0 4 1.29
Sonnanstine 6.0 6 0 4 6.00
Duchscherer 5.0 4 2 6 1.80
Of the pitchers on this list, only Micah Owings and Hiroki Kuroda toil for teams that anyone reasonably could have considered favorites. They belong, however, because the NL West might be the most competitive division in baseball and every last unexpectedly awesome performance an NL West team can get will be critical. The others above, should their first starts offer any sort of indication of how they pitch throughout 2008, might turn their teams from also-rans into immediate threats to vie for playoff contention.
Patrick Sullivan, 4/5/08, 9:18 a.m. EDT
* * * * * * *
Speaking of starting pitchers, managers Joe Torre and Bruce Bochy made curious decisions last Wednesday night in a NL West tilt between the host Dodgers and Giants. Twenty minutes before a game threatened by rain, Torre decided to go with Hong-Chih Kuo rather than scheduled starter Chad Billingsley. Bochy, in turn, opted to start Merkin Valdez in place of Tim Lincecum.
OK, I can understand those decisions. I mean, why waste Billingsley and Lincecum if the game is going to be called in the first five innings, as was expected? However, both managers turned to their young studs in relief *while* it was raining in the middle innings. Lincecum took over in the fourth and Billingsley in the fifth. The umpires halted the game with one out in the top of the fifth and the score tied 1-1.
The contest was resumed after a 90-minute delay. Billingsley, who faced four batters in one-third of an inning while being charged with one run, yielded to Esteban Loaiza. Lincecum, on the other hand, pitched before *and* after the rain delay. He played long catch before the game, got loose in the bullpen in advance of taking the hill in the fourth, warmed up again prior to resuming play in the fifth, and threw 84 pitches covering four innings during an outing that was spread out over three hours. In the first relief appearance of his career, Lincecum earned the victory while allowing four hits, four walks, and one run. He struck out four, including perhaps the biggest out of the game when Russell Martin took a called third strike with the bases loaded to end the seventh.
The Dodgers not only lost but they burned a start for Billingsley. The Giants picked up a win but did it in an odd way with respect to the handling of Lincecum. Put me in charge and I would have either started the young righthanders or not used them at all.
Rich Lederer, 4/5/08, 11:18 a.m. PDT
* * * * * * *
Staying with this theme, I can't help but be amused by Jered Weaver's performance yesterday (7 - 3 - 0 - 0 - 0 - 6) and the stats he has compiled over his first two starts (13.1 - 11 - 3 - 3 - 2 - 11, 2.03) as compared to the consensus in the analytical community, many of whom have chastised him for not being an ace or resorted to calling him an "innings eater."
Weaver can't win for losing. After he produced outstanding numbers in 2006, some writers and so-called analysts (you know who you are) jumped on the bandwagon while the perma bears scoffed at his results, pointing to his low BABIP as an indicator that the young righthander would not sustain the 2.56 ERA in 2007 and beyond. Duh! I mean, what would we do without such insightful analysis?
For his career, Weaver is now 25-10 with a 3.27 ERA. He has pitched in 49 games covering 297.1 innings while generating a 7.0 K/9 and 2.9 K/BB ratio. Make what you want of his stats. Small sample size. Lucky. Unsustainable. Whatever. All I know is that Weaver was one of the best college pitchers ever, set a consecutive scoreless innings streak as a member of Team USA, dominated minor league hitters, made it to the big leagues less than one year after signing a professional contract, and has excelled at the highest level.
That's a pretty good résumé for a guy who so many thought was nothing more than the second coming of Jeff Weaver.
Rich Lederer, 4/6/08, 07:18 p.m. PDT
Picking Apart the Draft 2000-2004
There is a perception among baseball fans that the first round of the June Amateur Draft is foolproof – or that it should be foolproof. In a series of upcoming articles I am going to take a look at just how successful teams have been drafting with the first 10 picks of the draft in recent years, starting in 2000 and ending in 2004.
The 2000 draft was not a great one – and everyone knew it at the time too. The following excerpt is from Baseball America’s pre-draft coverage prior to the 2000 draft:
This year, the consensus is that there’s no consensus. Scouts say that the gap in talent between the eventual top pick and a mid-first-rounder will be as small as it has ever been.
"It’s the most confusing top group in the 13 years I’ve been scouting," says Twins scouting director Mike Radcliff, who will make the second overall pick on June 5. "That’s not to say there won’t be a bounty of major leaguers down the line, but it’s a rather chaotic, confused mix of talent."
As the draft neared more and more people thought high school catcher Scott Heard might go No. 1 overall to Florida. But in the end it was a high school first baseman by the name of Adrian Gonzalez - which is good since Heard (drafted by the Rangers) never made it to the major leagues. Many at the time considered Gonzalez to be a signability pick to save a little money when there was no clear cut favorite at No. 1 anyway. The Texas organization was also considering players Dane Sardinha and David Espinosa both of whom ended up going to Cincinnati later in the draft.
The first 10 picks broke down like this:
1. Florida Adrian Gonzalez, 1B California high school
2. Minnesota Adam Johnson, RHP Cal State Fullerton
3. Chicago (NL) Luis Montanez, SS Miami high school
4. Kansas City Mike Stodolka, LHP/1B California high school
5. Montreal Justin Wayne, RHP Stanford University
6. Tampa Bay Rocco Baldelli, OF Rhode Island high school
7. Colorado Matt Harrington, RHP California high school
8. Detroit Matt Wheatland, RHP San Diego high school
9. San Diego Mark Phillips, LHP Pennsylvania high school
10. Anaheim Joe Torres, LHP Florida highs school
That is a pretty ugly list and it’s a little hard to believe all those players were considered (at least by some clubs) as some of the Top 10 talent in the nation.
The most notable players taken in the first round, but outside the Top 10, were Philadelphia’s Chase Utley, San Francisco’s Boof Bonser, Anaheim’s Chris Bootcheck, Boston’s Phil Dumatrait, Atlanta’s Adam Wainwright, and Atlanta’s Scott Thorman. Utley, obviously, is a star and Wainwright has a chance to be very good, but beyond that most of the players are average to below-average major league players.
Let's take another look at the Top 10:
Ironically this so-called signability pick ended up being the best pick before Utley was chosen 15th overall. Despite his pedigree, Gonzalez was traded twice (from Florida to Texas to San Diego) and has established himself as an excellent offensive and defensive first baseman. A lack of prototypical power was the original concern with Gonzalez but he has laid that to rest with back-to-back seasons where he slugged more than .500 and hit 30 homers in 2007.
Expected to move quickly as a college pick, Johnson started his career in High-A ball and was in the majors by the end of his first full season in 2001. However, he posted an 8.28 ERA in his first taste of the majors (seven games), had a 5.47 ERA the following year in Triple-A and received his final major league appearance in 2003 after posting a 47.25 ERA in two games. Three years and a stint in independent baseball later, Johnson was out of pro baseball.
Montanez was born in Puerto Rico but played high school baseball in Miami. He started off his pro career very well, hitting .344/.438/.531 as an 18-year-old in Rookie Ball. However, he spent the next three years in A-ball and did not hit above .270. In 2004 Montanez was sent back down to Short Season ball, which pretty much ended any hope of a significant career in the majors. With eight years in professional baseball, Montanez has yet to play a full season in Triple-A. He is, however, still only 26 years old.
Here is your poor man’s Rick Ankiel. Stodolka was a talented two-way player in high school and clubs were split on where he was best-suited. The Royals took a chance on his left-handed arm and made him a full-time pitcher. Oops. In six minor league seasons, Stodolka posted an ERA of 4.94 and spent five of those years below Double-A. When he finally did get a taste of Double-A in 2005, he posted a 5.92 ERA and a record of 4-11. The following year Stodolka stepped back into the batter’s box full-time and now sports a career line of .287/.402/.455. However, there is one caveat: his numbers in 2006 were inflated by playing in one of the best hitting parks in minor league baseball – High Desert. Even so, Stodolka, 26, has shown enough promise that he could eventually become a major league pinch hitter or platoon first baseman/designated hitter.
Wayne sported a nifty 15-4 record with 153 strikeouts in 143 innings in his final season at Stanford University and caught the eye of the Expos. Over the next two seasons, Wayne had impressive numbers and reached the majors at the age of 23. However, that was with the Marlins after he was involved in the Carl Pavano-Cliff Floyd swap of 2002. Once he joined the Fish, Wayne’s career fell apart thanks to injuries and control problems, and he ended his major league career with a 6.13 ERA in 26 games. By 2005 he was playing for Newark in the independent Atlantic League.
Three years ago Baldelli looked to be the steal of the draft. However, as we all know now, his story took a serious turn for the worse recently when he was diagnosed with a medical issue that could jeopardize his career. Baldelli began his career quietly and struggled with his batting average in his first two pro seasons but the Rays continued to move him up through the system. He exploded in 2002 and played at three minor league levels. The next year he was in the majors full-time and only saw the minors again on rehab assignments (during the plethora of injuries that plagued him).
If you haven’t heard the story of Harrington, you’ve probably been living under a rock. He had perhaps the most coveted arm in the draft with a 97 mph fastball and solid breaking ball but his contract demands scared away a lot of teams and made it impossible for Colorado to come do an agreement ($4 million was allegedly turned down along with a guaranteed MLB promotion by 2002). In an effort to gain leverage and avoid having to wait another three years to sign by going to college, Harrington headed to independent baseball which allowed him to be eligible for the 2001 draft. It didn’t work out like it did for other players, such as J.D. Drew. The next year, as Harrington’s stuff began to wane, San Diego took him in the second round but he still did not like the money being offered ($1.2 million) - or his agent didn’t. The next year it was Tampa Bay in the 13th round ($200,000 or less), then Cincinnati in the 24th round and finally the Yankees in the 36th round of 2004. Before the dust settled Harrington played six seasons in independent baseball, lost his mid-90s fastball and has yet to play in the minors for a Major League Baseball team. Because he was not drafted in 2005, Harrington became a free agent and signed with the Chicago Cubs in late 2006. However, he was released by the end of spring training in 2007 and returned to independent baseball.
There isn’t much to say about Wheatland because he didn’t have much of a career, thanks to injuries. Things started off well for the right-hander when he was assigned to the Gulf Coast League shortly after the 2000 draft. He posted a 1.25 ERA in five games and struck out 21 batters, while walking only one, in 21.2 innings. Injuries struck in 2001 though, and he missed all of 2002 and 2003. He was released by Detroit in the spring of 2004 and caught on with Houston but appeared in only 18 games before heading to independent baseball.
Phillips’ first three minor league seasons held a lot of promise as he was a left-hander who could whiff a lot of batters. In 2002 at High-A ball, Phillips struck out 156 in 148.1 innings. But there was a huge red flag as he also walked 94 batters. He was then traded to the Yankees in the spring of 2003 along with Bubba Trammell for Rondell White. Phillips’ control problems continued and he ended up getting hurt. He was never seen again in minor league baseball.
Torres was a talented left-hander who made his pro debut at the age of 17 in the Northwest League. Despite his age, Torres posted a 2.54 ERA in 11 games and struck out 52 in 46 innings. After that, though, injuries became a problem and his strikeouts dropped significantly while his control all but disappeared, including 92 walks in 56 A-ball innings in 2005. In 2006, he posted an 8.04 ERA in 43 A-ball games and his time in the Angels system was at an end. On the positive side, Torres found some success in the White Sox system in 2007 and posted a 3.58 ERA in 32.2 High-A ball innings and allowed 23 hits, 16 walks and 39 strikeouts. He is still only 25.
Check back next week when we take a look at the 2001 draft’s Top 10 picks
Real Fans Love the DH
What do the following have in common? Sandy Koufax, Lefty Grove and Dazzy Vance. Right, they were all truly awful hitters. What about these three? Harmon Killebrew, Ralph Kiner and Hank Greenberg? Right again. They were all mediocre to poor fielders.
Somehow all six managed to get elected to the Hall of Fame.
Let's try another quiz. What connects Wes Ferrell, Don Newcombe and Bucky Walters? Well done, they are among the best-hitting pitchers in history. On the other hand, the similarity among Paul Blair, Roy McMillan and Jerry Grote is that they are among the best fielders at critical defensive positions. Except, in this case, none of the six is in the Hall of Fame with the only one receiving any support being Ferrell.
We can consider the issue another way. Suppose two shortstops are competing for a roster spot. Shortstop A is a brilliant fielder but barely adequate with the bat. Shortstop B is a decent enough fielder and a star with the bat. Is it conceivable a team might choose B over A? On the other hand, Pitcher A is a decent hurler with a great bat while B is a brilliant pitcher with no bat at all. Is there any chance that the team would select A over B for the rotation?
In other words (assuming we answer the questions the same way), while we ascribe practically no value to a pitcher's hitting and never evaluate their effectiveness based on their bats, we insist that they should come to the plate to do that which we do not value. We rhapsodize over a game where the pitcher is a "complete" player, but only care about it when arguing theoretically. In practice, it plays no part in our choices.
There are three categories of reasons why I consider the Designated Hitter the superior form of baseball and the non-DH game as fundamentally dishonest. One concerns baseball strategy. A second has to do with the nature of the game and the third rests on the evolution of the game.
Contrary to commonly accepted belief, the DH increases strategic choices and eliminates one of the more egregious sins of baseball managers. For all the sentiment about how important it is for managers to decide when to use a pinch hitter or make the double switch, that is a vastly overrated strategic decision. In almost every case, the choice is made for the manager; every fan pretty much knows when the manager has to pinch hit in a game. The exceptions are rare. And while not quite so dramatic, the decision to pinch hit for a weak hitting defensive shortstop or center fielder remains in the DH game. As for the double switch, I am genuinely amused by the stress put on the complexity of this move, as if an AL manager moving to the NL needs hours of special courses to understand and utilize the concept.
The same holds for the sacrifice bunt. In most cases, its use is pre-determined by the situation, and we all know exactly when it will happen. The few variations from this standard practice hardly alter the predictability of it in the vast majority of cases. And, of course, there is also the abomination of the one-out sacrifice bunt. Can you imagine it ever being used except in the case of the pitcher at bat? It is the baseball equivalent of the quarterback taking a knee at the end of the game. Its purpose is not to score but to avoid losing. In fact, watching pitchers run to first base or come to bat with no intention of swinging or simply to swing wildly 3 times so as to avoid getting hurt or tired violates the competitive nature of baseball. I know there are exceptions, which is the point. They are exceptions. In most cases, the pitcher's spot is where the pitcher can relax a bit, where there really is no competition. The focus on the eighth-place batter getting on base so as to clear the pitcher's spot from the next inning when you really are trying to score demonstrates the fundamental dishonesty of pitchers coming to the plate.
The above discussion leads us to the real strategies. With the pitcher due up, the #8 hitter will rarely try to steal. The possibilities of hit and run or run and hit are virtually eliminated. The effort of the baserunner to distract the pitcher is pretty much discarded and is even less likely if the pitcher gets on base. With a DH, every spot in the lineup becomes part of the offense and all the strategies remain at the manager's disposal. There is far more suspense and far more interest generated in every at bat. Every at bat is competitive and none can be thrown away. It is honest baseball.
The very nature of baseball demands that pitchers not come to bat. It is incompatible with their function on the field, which is fundamentally different from every other position. Our very language, describing people as players OR pitchers, reflects the basic understanding of this fact. Is there any other position where it is conceivable to call someone with a line of .173/.193/.208 or .194/.234/.287 a good hitter for his position? But that is what we say of Greg Maddux and Warren Spahn, the perpetrators of those rate stats. True, there are outliers, some pitchers even serving occasionally as pinch hitters. Red Ruffing (.269/.306/.389) was one of the truly great hitting pitchers. He slugged 36 home runs or one for every 54 ABs. That is about as good as it gets outside of Wes Ferrell. Don Drysdale sometimes pinch hit, although his career line was only .186/.228/.295. He did, however, hit 29 home runs or one every 40 ABs. Great hitting pitchers are still lousy hitters.
But there is an elephant in the room. George Herman Ruth, the ultimate outlier. He hit and pitched brilliantly and simultaneously. And he demonstrates my point. Even the Babe could not keep it up. In fact, as his hitting prowess developed, he increasingly cut back on his appearances as a pitcher. In his last year in Boston, he pitched just 133.3 innings and had his least impressive results. Once in New York, he gave up pitching altogether, appearing in just 5 more games during his career in rather undistinguished fashion. Had he been able to combine strong pitching with great hitting, it would have made sense to have him do both, appearing as the #3 hitter as a pitcher while playing outfield the other days, but that was never tried once in NY. There may be other reasons for not maximizing his effectiveness as both hitter and pitcher, I suppose, but I think it most likely that it could not be done. In recent years, there have been some efforts to combine the two functions as with Brooks Kieschnick with middling results.
The fact remains that the pitcher's function is so specialized and unique, requires such concentration on particular skills, that it is not reasonable to expect them to divide their attention by focusing on batting to the extent they can become adept at it. I know many pride themselves on working on their hitting and on particular skills like bunting but, no matter the pride, it has to remain a minor component of their efforts. And even more than ever before, such minimal attention to hitting cannot lead to a really usable skill in the majors, the rare (apparent) exception like Micah Owings aside.
Which leads us to the evolution of the game. At its inception, pitching was a different creature from what it has become. The pitcher was in many ways the least important team member at the start, limited to pitching underhand and having to place the ball where the batter wanted. In the early history of the game, specialization was less developed, players moving from position to position regularly, including pitchers. It made sense for the pitcher to hit as he was no different from the other players. In fact, even the greatest stars like Ed Delahanty and Honus Wagner were expected to play infield and outfield. The tradition of specialization evolved, and I wouldn't be surprised if some early 20th century commentators can be found who decried the modern ballplayer who lacked the completeness of earlier stars by playing just one position.
This specialization was particularly spectacular in the case of pitchers. The skills they increasingly needed to succeed precluded them from developing their offensive capabilities. Even the greatest pitchers – Cy Young, Christy Mathewson, Walter Johnson and Mordecai Brown – were terrible hitters. Partly this was because they did it so much less than before, although the great 19th century pitchers were awful hitters, too. Over the years, pitchers got fewer and fewer ABs, fewer opportunities to practice the skill on the field of play. Old Hoss Radbourne got to bat over 300 times in three separate seasons. Mathewson's high was 133 ABs, Tom Seaver's 95, and Maddux never topped 91. Relief pitchers, of course, nearly never come to bat.
We need to recognize that asking pitchers to hit eliminates the essence of the game which is fair competition. We remember the occasions when pitchers get a bit hit or contribute with the bat because it is so rare, and that is not a legitimate argument because what we should want is for every AB to provide the reasonable possibility of real competition. We do not justify a situation because of accidents. We get sentimental about the tradition of baseball in which pitchers hit, but we have to recognize that the game has changed and the urgency of correcting a mistake from the start, including placing pitchers in the lineup, should be corrected to reflect its increasing absurdity.
Were we starting fresh to create the game in 2008, it would make sense to separate the pitcher from all other players. There is no reason to keep it because the people who developed the game in the 1800s made the mistake to include them.
Bob Rittner is a retired history teacher. He plays softball to maintain the illusion of youth and shuffleboard as a hedge against that illusion being smashed.
Two on Two: AL East Preview
We have decided to do our little part to combat the rampant West Coast / Midwest sports bias so prevalent in the mainstream media and give the New York Yankees, Boston Red Sox and the rest of the American League East its due by saving it for last. Today we have Chad Finn of Touching All the Bases, one of the more enjoyable regular reads covering Boston sports and beyond out there on the web (think Simmons w/ self awareness). We also have R.J. Anderson of D-Rays Bay, your source for the best Rays coverage out there. Previous entries can be found below.
Sully: So the Red Sox won their second World Series in four years last season but more to the point for the purposes of this discussion, they won their first division crown since 1995. Is there a new world order in AL East, a blip on the radar and the Yanks once again rise to the top, or might we see other clubs make noise in 2008?
Chad: Well, I wouldn't necessarily call it a changing of the guard, because it will be a major surprise if Boston and New York aren't again punching and counterpunching each other at the top of the standings come August and September. But let's put it this way: their competition will be more capable and legitimate than it has been in years. If certain things right for Toronto - Vernon Wells bounces back, Roy Halladay stays healthy, Alex Rios and Dustin McGowan emerge as bona fide stars, and Scott Rolen somehow manages to avoid hemorrhaging any more body parts - they could really make things uncomfortable for the two superpowers deep into the schedule. And while I know it's trendy to say this, the other team in the division that really intrigues me is the Rays. It feels like he's been around for a decade, but Carl Crawford is only 26, and he's become the cornerstone of the franchise, which is a good thing; his OPS+ has increased each of the last four seasons, and he's the anti-Delmon in the clubhouse, a genuinely good and conscientious kid, the exact right player to be building around. With kids like B.J. Upton and Evan Longoria (when he inevitably arrives in a few weeks) and Carlos Pena intent on proving he was no fluke, Crawford finally has some help in the lineup; there's finally a core of legitimate talent to this team. I can't believe I just overviewed the division without really getting into the Sox and Yankees, but I guess that just tells you that there are some genuinely compelling storylines elsewhere this season.
R.J. This may have been the least active off-season for the AL East in quite a while, outside of Baltimore and Tampa no team was overly active. New York added LaTroy Hawkins, Boston Sean Casey, and Toronto David Eckstein and Rolen, but otherwise the major players in the division did little to get better, although Baltimore managed to get worse so that should help.
Sully: That's an interesting point, R.J. For all the dough the teams in this division tend to throw around, things did cool down this off-season. I can't help but think it is a testament to the strength of the Minor League systems in the AL East.
Marc: If another team besides the Yankees and Red Sox is going to take a serious run at first in the East, this is the year to do it. Both the Red Sox and Yankees are getting old and a number of players had career years last year, such as Mike Lowell. The Blue Jays organization has a shot but the players have to play up to their abilities, something they really haven't done in recent years. They also have to stay healthy. The Rays aren't quite ready yet, but the talented young players are close to being major league ready, so they should be quite fun to watch in a couple years. The Orioles are just a mess.
Sully: Let's talk about the Red Sox and in particular, their pitching staff. What happened to all of that depth people talked about last winter? All of a sudden, the rotation seems a bit thin.
Chad: You tell me if Josh Beckett is going to be healthy, and I'll tell you how good Boston's pitching staff will be. I know, I know, that's a cop-out, but it's the truth. As much depth as the Sox appear to have, everything falls out of whack if Beckett's back acts up or he starts getting blisters again or some other ailment knocks him out of the rotation for an extended period. He might be the single most important player in the division. Without him, they'd be asking Daisuke Matsuzaka to anchor the rotation, with Jon Lester likely sliding up to No. 2, and neither is capable of handling those roles. In the two games in Japan, both reverted to their maddening habits of nibbling against replacement level-and-below-caliber hitters.
R.J.: Beckett’s post-season made him a folk hero in Boston. I’m pretty sure he’ll never have to buy his own beer or go home alone again. Daisuke fell off in September, but in June and July, specifically June looked like he was worth the hype. Tim Wakefield is Tim Wakefield, steady as they come, and you could argue the Red Sox rotation is better without Curt Schilling since it allows the Sox to keep Clay Buchholz and Lester in there.
Marc: With Beckett and Schilling on the disabled list the Red Sox starting staff is human to say the least. Lester is a great story but he was just a No. 4 starter the last two seasons (104 ERA+ last year)… Yes he had a lot to overcome but the team still doesn't know what to expect from him. Matsuzaka is a good pitcher but I'm not convinced he would be able to shoulder the load as the No. 1 guy for an extended period. Wakefield is starting to break down and has been battling shoulder issues. Buchholz is extremely talented but he's young.
The Red Sox have three solid options in the pen: Jonathan Papelbon, Hideki Okajima and Manny Delcarmen but beyond that the pieces are easily interchangeable.
Chad: As for the bullpen, it's more or less the status quo - Okajima should be a little worse, Delcarmen a little better and Papelbon will continue to give us Goose Gossage flashbacks. By the way, it should be said that the pitching staff will miss Coco Crisp in center field if he is indeed traded; Jacoby Ellsbury covers a lot of ground despite a sometimes faulty GPS, but Crisp last season played the best center field seen at Fenway since . . . who, Dom DiMaggio?
Marc: Personally I think the Sox made a mistake resigning Lowell. He's on the wrong side of 30 (34) and they're paying for his career year. Sure he plays outstanding defence but his bat is going to become a drag on the offence, as it was when he was in the latter stages of his Marlins career. Pair him with Julio Lugo, who may or may not rebound, and you have below-average offence on the left-side of the diamond.
Dustin Pedroia is a nice little talent and should get even better this year but he's a sparkplug, not someone that can carry the offence. Kevin Youkilis at first base is an average offensive player at best. There really isn't anyone on the infield that is going to carry to team long-term. Jason Varitek, like Lowell, is going to start to be a drain on the offence sooner rather than later, although he has obvious value behind the dish. Ellsbury should pair with Pedroia to be explosive and ignite the offence but he's not going to be a star.
Of course Manny Ramirez and David Ortiz are going to be the offensive juggernauts but Ramirez started to slip last year. He's probably done being a great player, but he can still be a good player.
Sully: I disagree pretty strongly on Manny, Marc. I think he is poised for some big things in 2008, although that could be the fanboy in me buying into all those Spring Training "best shape of his life" stories. Aside from Manny, in my eyes, Lugo and J.D. Drew will have to be the ones to pick up the slack this season. I think regression candidates abound throughout the lineup for Boston but these three players could make up the year over year slack.
Chad: I see things similarly, Sully. The Red Sox scored 867 runs a season ago, and provided their aging core players stay healthy, they figure to be right around that number again. Lowell, who hit 44 points higher than his career .280 average last season and didn't tail off in the second half for the first time in years, probably will fall off at least a little bit from his .324-21-120 numbers; PECOTA has him at .285-14-79, which seems a little too conservative. Varitek, who will turn 36 April 11, seems unlikely to rank fourth among everyday AL catchers in OPS again this season; he looked like he was swinging a telephone pole this spring. But every downturn by a Sox hitter should be counterbalanced by someone else's improvement. Youkilis seems to add something to his repertoire each season, Drew, who salvaged a wretched season with one postseason swing against Fausto Carmona, is too gifted to post a .270-.373-.423 line again, and Lugo is another who must be put in the category He'll Be Better Because He Can't Be Worse. But the key to it all is one Manuel Aristides Ramirez, aka Manny Being Manny. At age 36, he is coming off the worst season of his 16-year big league career; his 20 homers and 126 OPS+ were his lowest numbers in those categories since he became a full-time player in '94, and his 88 RBIs was his lowest output since he posted the same number in '97. You don't need to be Bill James to realize that a bounce-back year for any slugger in his mid-30s is an unlikely proposition, but there are some factors that are working in Ramirez's favor. He's in phenomenal shape, he's as content in Boston as he has been since he arrived eight years ago, he looked like his old self in the '07 postseason, and perhaps most importantly, he has two option years coming up on his contract that he and his accountant dearly want the Sox to pick up. Ramirez is motivated, and a motivated Manny is historically a ridiculously productive Manny. I won't go as far as Gammons and pick him for the AL MVP, but I do think he'll approach his .321-35-121 numbers of a season ago while proving last year was an aberration and not the onset of a rapid decline.
R.J. And at this point you realize why the Sox did almost nothing to upgrade their team, because minus adding Johan Santana there really wasn’t a way to do so. Ramirez is in the ever mythical contract year and naturally reported in record time in great shape. Ortiz is still going to mash, and don’t be shocked if Lugo bounces back in a big way. I’m not sure I really get the Casey signing unless they just really don’t like Ortiz at first base, which effectively takes him out of road interleague games. Didn’t they try the same experiment with J.T. Snow not too long ago?
Sully: How about the Yanks? What they may lack in that bigtime top of the rotation guy they seem to make up for with depth, youth and live arms up and down the staff.
Marc: The pitching staff makes me very nervous. Andy Pettitte and Mike Mussina are getting old and it's hard to know when they are just going to lose it completely… Mussina certainly showed signs last year that he is nearing the end (87 ERA+ in 2007).
You also have to be a little worried about Chien-Ming Wang who may have leveled off… He just doesn't strikeout enough guys (104 in just under 200 innings) to be a No. 1 or maybe even a No. 2 guy long-term.
Phil Hughes and Ian Kennedy are talented but you just cannot expect young pitchers, who haven't played a full season, to shoulder 200 innings and win 13-15 games. At best you're probably looking at 180 innings, so you need a six starter to pick up the other 40 innings or so for each of them.
For the amount of money the Yankees have invested in the team the bullpen, beyond Mariano Rivera and Joba Chamberlain, is thin. Billy Traber, Jonathan Albaladejo and Ross Ohlendorf really don't belong on a $200 million team.
R.J.: The expectations for Wang and the other veterans in the rotation are set. The more interesting focus will be on Hughes and Kennedy. How big of a leash will either be given if they come out struggling and will it affect their value to the Yankees? I don’t think Cashman is that temperamental, but a new boss and no contact extension in place could push him over the edge to deal one of the youngsters for another piece.
Anther question concerning the young arms is Joe Girardi’s usage of them, in his season with Florida he had something like six young pitchers in the top 60 of Pitcher Abuse Points and look at each of their performances last year, most falling off or getting hurt. That’s concerning to me if I’m a Yankee fan.
Chad: It all comes down to the trio of kid pitchers, and R.J. is right - it's going to be fascinating to see how Girardi handles them. The Yankees are saying all the right things about pitch counts and innings limits, and it's prudent to open with Chamberlain in the bullpen. But Girardi left A LOT of carnage behind in Florida - it can't be coincidence that Anibal Sanchez, Josh Johnson, and Ricky Nolasco broke down the year after Girardi managed them - and with the pressure to win so great in New York, you have to wonder if, say, Hughes will end up throwing 200+ innings should he pitch as well as his talent suggests. As for the rest of the rotation, it's iffy: I'm smart enough to pencil in Wang for 19 wins, but Mussina was throwing slop this spring, and Pettitte will have to endure his various ailments without turning to some of his favorite past remedies, which makes you wonder how effective he can be. It's not going to be an easy season for him, and overall this staff has more questions than answers.
Sully: There's not a lot to say about the Yankees lineup, is there? It's phenomenal, and I think has a chance to get better if Bobby Abreu, Jason Giambi, Hideki Matsui and Johnny Damon can bounce back a bit. These four returning to form could more than make up for regression from A-Rod and/or Jorge Posada.
Chad: As usual, it looks great on paper, and in reality it probably will end up being the second-most-productive lineup in the AL after the run-scoring juggernaut Dave Dombrowski has put together in Detroit. But there are some legitimate questions, mostly have to do with Father Time. Damon (34) and Matsui (33) both slipped noticeably last season. Giambi (37) is a cement-legged shell of what he once was. Abreu (33) slugged just .445 last season, the worst of his career. Posada (36) is unlikely to replicate his .330-20-98 numbers of his '07 contract push. And don't look now, Yankees fans, but Derek Jeter is no kid anymore, either. He turns 34 in June, and his .803 OPS in the second half last season has to be at least a mild concern. On the positive side, Damon and Abreu came into camp in great shape and with renewed motivation, Robinson Cano is going to put up .330-25-110 numbers one of these seasons, and any lineup with Rodriguez as its anchor is going to produce plenty of runs. The Yankees may not match the 968 runs they scored last season, but unless EVERYONE gets old overnight, they'll get pretty close.
R.J.: So all that hoopla just for A-Rod to remain? I’m not shocked, I mean it is New York and the Steinbrenner family, but talk about anti-climatic! The ironic thing is that Rodriguez is one of the only truly dependable bats in the New York lineup. Not that I believe it’s going to happen, but Jeter is about to turn 34; at what point does he slow down, or does he ever? Posada has nearly no chance of repeating last year’s performance, his BABIP was 0.030 points higher than his previous career high, and that was in 2000. Abreu certainly won’t help during the first half, and the list just goes on, really is it so far fetched to see the Yankees below .500 in early July again?
Marc: The offence is going to be good but it does have holes. Where is the average first baseman? Wilson Betemit? No. Shelley Duncan? He's Kevin Maas 2.0. Posada was given an extended contract after a career year but he's 36… I just can't see him being above-average for much longer. Regardless, the Yankees have Cano, Jeter and Rodriguez, all of whom are well above-average offensively. Giambi will be at DH but he is going downhill and slugged only .433 last year.
Damon and Matsui have also lost a step or two. Melky Cabrera is probably a better option than Damon at his point, but Cabrera is also overrated… He's does a bunch of things well but nothing really well with the bat.
Chad: This pitching staff could be the best in the division, or it could be mediocre - there are just so many "ifs" here that need to be sorted out over the long season. Halladay is a perennial Cy Young favorite, but he seems to be a magnet for bizarro injuries, and though it's partially by design, it's at least a little worrisome that he's really not a strikeout pitcher anymore (139 in 225.3 innings a season ago). McGowan is just 25 and has all the makings of a top-of-the-rotation starter, but he and the underrated Shaun Marcum both need to continue making progress. A.J. Burnett is a classic tease, the Ben Sheets of the American League. Who knows what they will get from B.J. Ryan and his reconstructed elbow, and losing Casey Janssen for the year was an under-reported but potentially devastating blow. He was outstanding last season (2.35 ERA, 190 ERA+).
Sully: I am not sure there is much in there I disagree with, Chad. I would just add that I think Toronto has four magnificent arms in the bullpen in Ryan, Jeremy Accardo, Jason Frasor and Scott Downs.
Marc: The Jays may have the best rotation in the league with Halladay, Burnett, McGowan, Marcum and Jesse Litsch. Halladay is a horse, but the Jays need to give him more rest – Manager John Gibbons ran up his pitch counts last year in games when the Jays were up or down by more than four or five runs. There is no excuse for that, especially when the pitcher has shown signs of wearing down in the last couple of years.
Burnett will be motivated this year because he can opt out of his contract with the Jays and seek more money elsewhere, much like JD Drew did a couple years ago. But he didn't look good in the spring because of a ripped fingernail that kept him from throwing the curveball. It's still not 100 percent so it could be a slow start to the season for him.
McGowan can touch the mid- to high-90s and is a lot like a young Halladay. Injuries slowed his climb through the minors but it looks like he's here to stay now and he could be very, very good. Marcum is a great No. 4 starter who strikes out more batters than his stuff might suggest but he has a great change-up and a solid slider. He's a former college closer who is still getting comfortable as a starter. His biggest issue is that he gives up too many homers.
Litsch is another underrated guy. He just gets results despite "average" stuff. Left-handers hit well against him last year but he added a sinking two-seamer in the off-season and really began throwing it well in his last two spring starts. He took a no-hitter into the seventh inning in his last spring start.
Losing Janssen to shoulder surgery hurts a lot in the pen but once Ryan returns from Tommy John Surgery by the end of April, it will allow fill-in closer Accardo to slide back to the set-up role.
R.J: This really comes down to the health of their top three arms, if Halladay, Burnett, and McGowan stay healthy I can see them sneaking into a wild card spot. Accardo will fill in for Ryan for a while, and we’ll how the bullpen shakes out with Downs and Brandon League, but I don’t see much of a reason – barring the injury bug turning into a goddamned cthulhu - to think the Jays are the one legitimate threat to the Yankees and Red Sox finishing first-second, just as they have been for a few seasons now.
I’m a big John McDonald fan, so you can imagine my reaction when I saw they signed David Eckstein. A team that has Marco Scutaro, Russ Adams, Aaron Hill, and McDonald will have the defensively average at best Eckstein playing? That’s sure to hurt the amazing range the Jays had at their disposal up the middle.
Sully: Toronto's offense dragged last season thanks mostly to McDonald, a down year from Wells and major disappointment from Adam Lind, someone I thought would be very good. Shannon Stewart replaces Lind, Eckstein replaces McDonald and you have to think Wells gets better, right?
Chad: In a lot of ways, the offense is in the same boat as the pitching staff - there's a lot of talent, but they need a few breaks to go their way. Wells needs to prove his shoulder is healthy; it's strange to look at his stats and realize a prime-of-career player with truly immense talent hit just .245 with 16 homers, half of his '07 total. Alex Rios turned 27 in February, so all logic suggests this is the season he lives up to his superstar ability. He had a fine 297-.354-.498 season, but he has the skills to do even more than that, and the belief here is that he will starting now. One player I personally expect to have a fantastic season is Aaron Hill, the 26-year-old second baseman. The Bill James Handbook projects a .292-.346-.440 line with 13 homers, while PECOTA has him at .271-.325-.405 with 11 homers. I'm betting those numbers are conservative and he hits above .300 with at least 20 homers. The more you see Hill, the more impressed you are. He really can play.
Marc: The Jays are confident with the left-field platoon of 40-year-old Matt Stairs and the two-time Jay Stewart. But Lind is at Triple-A and had a great spring. He should be the future at that position but that future really should have been now.
Wells and Rios are above-average outfielders and above-average hitters, although Wells suffered through and injury-marred year last season. Don't be surprised if Rios becomes one of the best outfielders in the American League this year… His power numbers have been on the rise the last three years and he is always a threat to hit .300.
Lyle Overbay and Rolen, who is currently out with an injured finger, should be at least league-average on the corners. Hill is one of the top three to five second basemen in the league and should continue to get better. Shortstop is a bit of a black hole with Eckstein and McDonald, neither of whom will hit all that well. Eckstein will, though, add some much-needed intensity and energy.
Frank Thomas is getting older and his bat has slowed considerably. He still tries to pull everything, and he cannot get around on good fastballs. If he starts going the way a little more, his average will improve and he should become a little more reliable. Between Thomas and Stairs, the Jays have too many designated hitters.
R.J.: Wells and (soon) Rios will be getting paid like stars, and that’s because they are, despite a terrible season from Wells, I have to believe he’s going to bounce back. Stairs and Stewart will split time following Reed Johnson’s departure. Rolen, Thomas and Overbay need to remain healthy and if they can this lineup could be quite nasty.
Sully: I don't have much to say on Baltimore other than to their credit, they seem to have finally made a proper diagnosis. The treatment and recovery figure to be long and arduous, but they'll get better.
R.J.: This is the point in the movie where people start crying or dying, one of the two. Jeremy Guthrie was a nice find, but the pink elephant in the room is regression, and it’s not very happy with Mr. Guthrie. Fernando and Daniel Cabrera have live arms, and loads of potential, but will they ever live up to it? The bullpen has some good pieces; Chad Bradford, George Sherrill, Jamie Walker, and even the intriguing Randor Bierd. I’m sure if the Orioles don’t win a lot someone will blame it on their lack of a “true” or “proven” closer, but that’s the least of the team’s worries.
Chad: Where have you gone, Eric Bedard? There's not much to like here. Jeremy Guthrie knows how to pitch - you can definitely see fellow Stanford product Mike Mussina's influence when you watch him - but he had a 5.03 ERA after the All-Star break last season, so he's far from a sure thing. And he's the alleged ace. Yikes. Cabrera is the epitome of the phrase "million-dollar arm, 10-cent head," former No. 4 overall pick Adam Loewen is mildly intriguing if unproven, and when retread Steve Trachsel is your fourth starter, well, you don't really have a fourth starter at all, do you? On the plus side, Sherrill, the new closer acquired in the Bedard deal with Seattle, is capable of handling the job promotion; he had a 0.99 WHIP setting up J.J. Putz last season. And at least the Orioles probably won't give up 30 runs in a single game again. Hey, small steps.
Marc: The Orioles' staff has really taken some injuries hits in the past year-plus, when you consider Loewen, Chris Ray, Troy Patton, Danys Baez and so on.
This year's pitching staff is ugly. Loewen is back from the DL but for how long? He hasn't even pitched a full major league season. Guthrie had a great year but played above his head and could be in for a fall. He's had one full major league season and he's turning 29 in April.
Cabrera has shown no signs consistency whatsoever and is more likely to kill someone with his wild 100 mph heat than harness it. Brian Burres is really just a middle reliever playing the part of a starting pitching. And Trachsel should be allowed no where near a major league staff. He struck out 56 batters in 158 innings last season and walked 76 – 20 more than he struck out and almost one every other inning. That's hardly a 60-win rotation.
It's funny to think how much the Orioles spent "improving" the bullpen two years ago. The only two left standing: Bradford and Walker have been OK but they are not impact players – in fact between the two of them they make one average pitcher. Walker held lefties to a line of .228/.279/.392 in 2007 but was hit harder by righties. Bradford held righties to a line of .238/.277/.301 but was creamed by lefties.
Sully: What about their bats? There's some hope for the future in Nick Markakis and Adam Jones but not much to look forward to after that.
Chad: Free Brian Roberts! Free Brian Roberts! Seriously, beyond Markakis (14 homers and a .939 OPS in the second half last year) and remarkably talented but raw Adam (Don't Call Me Pacman) Jones, there's not much to be inspired about here. To be more blunt: this is just a terribly operated and constructed baseball team. Congratulations again, Mr. Angelos, for turning
one of baseball's model organizations into a punchline. However, I must give them their due for
dumping the decomposing Miguel Tejada the day before the release of the Mitchell Report. That was one shrewd, play-the-Astros-for-suckers move by Andy McPhail, so maybe there's hope for them straightening out this mess yet. At worst, they know there's one team dumber than they are.
Marc: Any time you have Kevin Millar, 36, at first base, you know you're in trouble. He doesn't hit for average, or for much power, and he doesn't have a knack for driving in runs (just 63 in 140 games last year). The other corner man, Melvin Mora, is also 36 and starting to decline both offensively and defensively. Luis Hernandez has been pegged as the shortstop but will be lucky to hit .220 with a .300 slugging average.
Roberts is the only really offensive talent on the infield and the Orioles really should have dealt him when they had the chance. That said, the club could have a nice little nucleus with Roberts, Markakis and Jones. But those three could never make up for the painful lack of pitching, even if all three made the next five All-Star teams.
R.J.: On the positive side and as Chad alluded to, they couldn’t have traded Tejada at a more opportune time, and got a nice coup for him. Jones, Luke Scott and Markakis have the potential to become a very good outfield. And then there’s the infield, Brian Roberts could gain some value, but probably not too much, otherwise Aubrey Huff, Mora, and Millar should be pawned off if possible – they won’t be contributing when this team will be competing anyhow.
Sully: R.J. - I want to stick with you here as we turn our attention to Tampa Bay. Pretty exciting times for the Rays. How's the pitching/defense?
R.J.: The Rays owner Stuart Sternberg recently said the team’s defense is a reason to watch his team, and he’s right. For once the Rays have a solid defensive team all the way around, including the agile Jason Bartlett, Akinori Iwamura, and an outfield that – minus Jonny Gomes/Eric Hinske will be quite fast.
Scott Kazmir’s health is the key factor in the Rays season along with Matt Garza’s development. James Shields should be solid, but after that Edwin Jackson and Jason Hammel have Rays fans praying for Jeff Niemann’s arrival.
Troy Percival, Al Reyes, Dan Wheeler, and Trever Miller give the Rays a veteran bullpen and quite an upgrade over last season’s which ranked amongst the worst ever.
Chad: Provided we don't hear "Scott Kazmir" and "Dr. James Andrews" mentioned in the same breath anytime soon, there are the makings of a terrific young rotation here. Kazmir is obviously the key, and the Rays have been appropriately cautious with the reigning AL strikeout champ's tender left elbow this spring; hopefully, the soreness proves to be nothing serious, because there has always been the fear that the little lefty could turn into his generation's Don Gullett. Shields whiffed five times more batters than he walked last season - think about how impressive a feat that is for a young pitcher - and is a legitimate No. 2, and cocky former Twin Garza has the stuff to make a huge leap forward this season. For the first time in their existence, the Rays can go into a series with the Red Sox or Yankees and, if the rotation is lined up right, actually own the advantage in starting pitching in a three-game set. And I'm curious to see how Percival impacts the Rays' perennially flammable bullpen. He was downright excellent for the Cardinals (0.85 WHIP in 40 innings) after coming out of retirement late last season. He could make a huge difference if that wasn't a mirage.
Marc: Make no mistake, Rays pitching is getting better. But it's still not quite league average. Kazmir, if he's healthy at some point this year, is a great anchor for the staff. Garza was a nice pick-up but he's going to be overexposed as the No. 2 guy in the rotation until Kazmir returns. Shields is a little like Shaun Marcum in Toronto – they both get results above what you might expect based solely on their stuff.
One out of the trio of Hammel, Jackson and Andy Sonnanstine really needs to step it up this year. My bet is that it will be Sonnanstine, who has less stuff but better pitchability over the other two. If they don't, we'll be seeing rookies Jacob McGee, Niemann and Wade Davis before long.
Pervical and Reyes have a lot in common: both have closing experience, both have significant, and worrisome medical histories and both are in their declining years but are expected to stabilize the bullpen. The pen doesn't offer much else beyond that.
Sully: The Rays had a 103 OPS+ last year and figure to get better. What do you guys think about this lineup?
R.J.: Rocco Baldelli’s career is likely over, which leaves the aforementioned Gomes/Hinske platoon in right field. It’s not ideal, however the Rays have the resources – financially and prospects – to possibly make a run at a full time right fielder if they so desire. Dioner Navarro, Willy Aybar (until Longoria comes up), and the right field platoon will decide whether the Rays are a top offense or middle of the pack, and don’t discount Upton and Pena returning to Earth ever so slightly.
Chad: Well, I got into the Rays' offense a little bit in my overview, but let me add this: I'm convinced Pena was no fluke. Remember, this is a guy who was once one of the premier prospects in the game, and even though he never really lived up to the early hype, he did have some fairly productive seasons, posting an OPS+ of at least 106 in every season from 2002 to 2005, and slugging 27 homers in '04 for the Tigers. While he has some damaging flaws - namely, his penchant for striking out - he's always been regarded as a hard worker, and it looks to me like he's one of those super-talented prospects for whom it just took a little bit longer for it all to come together (Brandon Phillips is another). Now, he may not hit 46 home runs again, but he'll hit enough that the Red Sox and Yankees will both continue to lament letting him go during and after the '06 season.
Marc: Pena had an amazing year last year (.627 slugging average) but I doubt he'll come close to repeating it… I can maybe see 30 homers and 100 RBI. His average will probably also go back to around .260 since he is a .252 career hitter.
The club needs to get rookie third baseman Longoria back up to the majors… He showed he belongs in the majors and he'll hit better than Alex Gordon did in KC last year. Bartlett is an under-appreciated player and he should really offer some stability at the shortstop position and as a table-setter in the batting order.
Depth offensively speaking is a bit of an issue. Elliot Johnson has little experience as a utility player and Nathan Haynes is the fourth outfielder… If he starts more than 30 games, the Rays are in trouble. And considering that Cliff Floyd is on the club, the fourth outfielder is almost assured of more starts than that.
Sully: How about AL East surprises? I am cheating a bit after having seen last night's performance but I will take Dice-K for a 20-win, top-5 Cy Young vote season.
Chad: I'll give you three: 1) The Rays will finish at or above .500 for the first time in their history. 2) McGowan will win more games than Halladay. 3) Derek Jeter will actually field a ground ball more than two steps to his left.
R.J.: How emotional the All-Star game will wind up being at Yankee Stadium. A lot of tears will be shed, no doubt.
Marc: I really think people are going to be surprised how old the Red Sox and Yankees are getting. New York has really come on strong in the second half the last couple of years but I think they're going to do the exact opposite this year. Both the veterans and the first-full-year players are going to wear down by August.
Sully: How about awards candidates?
Chad: A-Rod has to be considered the favorite for MVP at the beginning of every season. He'll turn 33 in July - yep, another 30-something Yankee - but his OPS+ of 177 last year was the best of his magnificent career, and with the new contract he should finally have some peace of mind in New York. He'll be a beast again, despite Jose Canseco's pathetic, cartoon-villain efforts to besmirch him. If I can admit my bias as a Sox fan, there'd be some justice in Ortiz finally winning an MVP after finishing in the top five in each of the past five years. And if Toronto ends up in the postseason hunt, you have to figure Rios probably had that breakthrough, Dave Winfield-like .295-35-120 season. As for the other major awards, Beckett's going to win a Cy Young one of these years, so what the heck, let's say it will be this one. And with the influx of young talent in the division, there are numerous legitimate candidates for rookie of the year (Longoria, Ellsbury, Buchholz, Chamberlain). I'll go with Ellsbury, the Brett Butler wannabe whose candidacy will benefit from playing every day for a marquee team.
Marc: I'll go with Ian Kennedy for rookie of the year. He doesn't have the stuff of some of the other young pitchers but he is advanced for his age and knows how to pitch. New York is going to score runs for him so he should have a nice superficial win-loss record which should get him votes for the award.
If Josh Beckett can shake off the back issues and stay healthy for most of the year he is probably the best bet for the CY Young award in the league. Roy Halladay's numbers just aren't sexy enough for the voters.
Carl Crawford is entering his prime and is a very good ballplayer with power and speed. With some protection from BJ Upton and Carlos Pena, I think he be the stealth MVP in 2008.
R.J.: Beckett, Wang, Halladay, and Kazmir seem like the possible Cy Young candidates. Alex Rodriguez is probably a shoo in for a top two finish in MVP voting; depending on what Miguel Cabrera does. Longoria or Jacoby Ellsbury are the most likely Rookie of the Year
Sully: How about the order of finish?
Chad: 1. New York (reverse jinx, my friends) 2. Boston 3. Toronto 4. Tampa Bay 5. Ottawa Lynx 6. Baltimore
R.J.: I won’t go too radical, but: Sox, Jays, Yanks, Rays, Orioles. Just feels right, although how great would it be to see the Rays slide up a few more spots?
Marc: Either Boston or New York is going to get really old, really quickly: Boston | Toronto | New York | Tampa Bay | Baltimore
Sully: I will go Yanks, Sox, Rays, Jays, O's. Thanks to all.
Opening Day Takeaways
So the real mainland Opening Day, call it First Full Slate Day, has come and gone and there was quite a bit for the baseball junkie to take in yesterday. It was Opening Day so we had a number of great pitchers taking to the hill (it's what aces do on Opening Day - they pitch), there were curious personnel choices, yet another Japanese phenom bursting onto the scene, veterans regaining their old form while for other vets the red flags and warning signs became even more ominous.
Brad Ausmus started at catcher for the Astros last night. Yes, this Brad Ausmus, the guy who turns 39 April 14th and has a .241/.326/.311 line to show for the last three seasons. Houston Manager said all the things you might have expected him to:
"The reason why I'm doing it is I want my starting pitcher to be comfortable," Cooper said. "This is a big year for us, and I want to make sure that he is comfortable and slowly kind of work the kid (J.R. Towles) in catching Roy (Oswalt) instead of just dropping the hammer on him, because that's not the right way to do it.
"We're going to slowly work him in. He'll catch the other guys for the most part. He and I have already talked about it. He is just happy to be here and be a part of this team."
I don't love this logic. Towles is 24 years-old and a career .301/.389/.471 hitter in the Minors. He's ready, and gave every indication as such in limited MLB time last season. Playing Ausmus accomplishes nothing. What also accomplishes nothing is pinch hitting for Ausmus with Darin Erstad, one of the few Major League players who is comparably pitiful at the plate (Erstad has hit .248/.310/.335 since 2005). In the top of the 7th last night in a four run game and with a man on first base with one out, Cooper sent Erstad to hit for Ausmus and then put Towles in to catch for the bottom half. It was an implicit endorsement of Erstad's bat over Towles's which, as far as I am concerned, amounts to an early indictment of Cooper's managerial chops.
So here is a quick overview of Kosuke Fukudome's first day on the job for the Cubs: He had three of their five hits, six of their eight total bases, one of their four walks and all three of their RBI. As Larry David would say, prett-ay, prett-ay, prett-ay good.
Here's the rundown on some of the name pitchers who took to the hill yesterday:
IP H BB SO ERA
Santana 7.0 3 2 8 2.57
Peavy 7.0 3 3 4 0.00
Harang 6.0 3 2 6 3.00
Bedard 5.0 3 4 5 1.80
Webb 6.0 3 4 6 3.00
Oswalt 5.1 11 1 6 5.06
Zito 5.0 8 1 1 7.20
Sabathia 5.1 6 3 7 8.44
Myers 5.0 5 2 2 5.40
Penny 6.2 4 2 4 0.00
The Giants are well on their way to the level of suck many of us portended. Yesterday the team hit for a .172/.258/.172 line. Five singles, three walks, no extra base hits.
James Shields threw 27 pitches in the first inning yesterday against Baltimore. He ended his outing after seven having thrown 86. That's what we call settling in.
Jim Thome is a career .240/.342/.415 hitter against left handed pitching so it stood to reason that since he was facing the 6'7" southpaw and defending Cy Young Award winner C.C. Sabathia yesterday, that the opener might not be the best opportunity for him to get off to a great start.
Let's just say Thome is hitting .400/.400/1.600 in 2008 thus far.
How are veteran relievers Tom Gordon, Kerry Wood and Eric Gagne feeling today?
Tomorrow we close out our preview series with the AL East. Be sure to check back. Also, I would love to know what stood out for readers from Opening Day.