"It gets late early around here." - Yogi Berra
September 13, 2000
POLITICS: Why we are where we are (September 13, 2000)
This is a slightly edited-for-publication version an admittedly overwrought email I wrote to friends during the lowest ebb of George W. Bush's 2000 campaign. For perspective, it's an interesting look back:
[D]o you have any idea what the Bush campaign is thinking? I mean, this has been a brillantly run campaign -- up to a point -- but it is really starting to seem that the people in charge (maybe the candidate himself) don't understand what their real assets are. Let's review a little history that we all recall:
In the primaries, those of us who supported McCain were told that Bush was preferable because he would sell the conservative agenda, just with a happier face than in the days of Newt. When McCain failed to trumpet his own conservative themes -- attacking the cultural-conservative base when he should have been pressing the fact that he had a more conservative record than Bush on school choice and Social Security reform -- I was left with no choice but to believe Bush.
I may not agreee with every particular but the platform is a thing of beauty, and when he gives speeches on its central themes -- we can all recite the priority list of Education, Tax Cuts, Social Security Reform, Medicare Reform, and Rebuilding the Armed Forces -- the candidate himself explains them extremely persuasively. In Texas, Bush zeroed in on his core issues and wouldn't be led astray or goaded into going negative.
Read More Â»
1. In the primaries, Bush zeroed in on his core issues, tossing out the occasional bone on stuff like campaign finance reform, and he used enough negative attacks to get his opponent's goat. He consistently lost on the character and personality fronts, coming off as Steve Forbes with a twang, but won on the issues.
2. In the spring and summer, he used a basic strategy that was easily visible:
+Stay on the core issues and flesh out the details
+Throw a bone to the media on other issues just enough to look interested
+Use negative personal attacks on Gore as a there-you-go-again shield, not a sword
3. At the convention, Bush-Cheney kept the focus on the economic-conservative issues -- building a positive case for the agenda rather than attacking on cultural issues -- and laid out the broad brush idea that character, integrity and leadershipo were lacking in this Administration and needed to be restored. The "risky scheme" attack line that was Gore's staple all summer was decisively disabled.
At this point, Bush was sitting pretty, but waiting to see how Gore would respond. My sense, and the sense of a great many conservatives, was that Bush had just a few tasks left:
+Stay zeroed in on the core issues
+Start to draw together the central theme of the platform: empowering individual choices as opposed to Washington bureaucracy
+Respond successfully to whatever new Al Gore emerged at the Convention
+Prepare for debates
4. The Democratic convention brought out some vulnerabilities Bush missed -- the Ted Kennedy/Jesse Jackson appearances in favor of old-time liberalism, Bill Clinton's thinly veiled call for a return to Great Society liberalism -- but the key points were:
+Lieberman, and the infamous kiss, helped remind people that Gore isn't a corrupt guy in his private life
+Gore promised to make the campaign about using Washington to curb abuses by "powerful forces" such as big corporations
+Gore let the whole world know what we knew already: the Democrats would make healthcare the central issue of their campaign
You can add in a fourth factor, which I (living on the East Coast) had not even known about until I read it online this week: Gore was running harsh negative ads attacking Bush all summer in critcial markets, ads which the national media chose to ignore because they don't air in NY, LA, or DC. Apparently Bush didn't even respond, a la Bob Dole.
This left Bush with a few basic goals:
+Stay zeroed in on the core issues
+Draw a sharp contrast, now that Gore could less afford to be a moving target, between Bush's core theme of individual empowerment and Gore's core theme of centralizing more power under Al Gore
+Keep using Gore's dishonesty as a shield
+Point out Gore's ties, on policy issues, to the Mondale-Dukakis-Ted Kennedy Democrats: his record as the biggest-spending congressman of his era, his current promises of a trillion and more in new spending and one-size-fits-all Washington mandates, and his promise to appoint Supreme Court justices like the most liberal, out-of-touch, soft-on-crime meddling judges ever to sit the bench.
+Come up with a good Medicare/drug bill in response to Gore, and explain why it fit Bush's general themes and why Gore's fit with his theme of more power for Al Gore
+Start running ad blitzes in key markets on Bush's core themes and on Gore's liberal record and liberal promises
5. Bush did the last of these well in his launch speech, but otherwise we have seen everything from Bush but what he needs to be talking about. He's running attack ads on character -- those should be Bush's defense lines. He's getting caught up talking about meta-politics issues (the tenor of ads, the timing of debates) that have no relevance. He's announcing new spending initiatives and the like when he should be talking about nothing but his core issues and how they differ from Gore's record and proposals on the issues. When Gore makes a proposal, Bush doesn't say it's a bad idea -- he says I'll do the same but the only difference is I have leadership to get it done and he doesn't.
Here's a classic example of missing an opportunity -- have you seen Bush's new slogan -- "Real Plans for Real People"? What genius dreams this crap up? Who exactly is the target audience that's supposed to say, "Oh, now you're talking to me" People don't need to be told they are real, and only a politician far removed from the fray would even use the phrase "real people." It's such an elitist term, implying that the speaker admits to not being one of them. My slogan, if I was running this? "Giving Power Back To People." Succinct, has enough alliteration to keep whoever in the campaign loves that stuff happy, is the Bush philosophy -- or at least the Bush platform's philosophy -- in a nutshell, and rebuts the Gore theme ("I'm for the people, not the powerful") perfectly becuase Gore's real theme is taking power from any and all institutions that would be bulwarks against federal hegemony (DeToqueville, anyone?) and giving that power to Al Gore.
Bush is supposedly surrounded by bright, conservative people including the architects of the platform and of his Texas victories. Yet you keep seeing these anonymous quotes suggesting that Bush's people think this is a campaign about character (ie, they want to model Bush after the Dole '96 campaign). They just don't seem to believe that the American people will be with them on the issues if they lead them there. I believe that and I think most rank and file Republicans do too. Newt Gingrich believed it, and in 1994 at least that made all the difference. The greatest GOP victories of recent history all depended on (1) laying out a simple, easy-to-follow agenda (1980, 1994) and (2) attacking the other side, not personally but on the overall policy themes (1984, 1988).
Everyone has bad stretches, and the media isn't helping (surprise surprise). But the solutions to Bush's problems are not only remarkably simple, they are the ways he got to where he was in mid-August; the only element he needed to add (besides keep doing what he does) is to slam Gore as a LIBERAL and explain in a few basic particulars why. Nearly everyone I meet and nearly all the commentators in the conservative press seem to understand what Bush needs to do. Even many liberal commentators have caught on.
Persuading people is not rocket science; it's what we as lawyers do for a living, and it's frustrating to see someone miss such obvious points. You win political campaigns in two ways: controlling the agenda, so the other side has to talk about your issues on your terms, and controlling the turnout. The specter of a Clinton third term should help a lot on the latter, and there are indications that groups like the NRA will too. But on the former, we are so close to winning -- if only Bush would go there, by sticking doggedly to his core themes and arguing that Gore is too liberal, and running ads that stay on that message. Why is this happening?
Â« Close It
September 8, 2000
BASEBALL: Mets-Braves and NL Pennant race wrapup
Originally posted on the Boston Sports Guy website
Sadly, albeit temporarily, it’s time for me to go; in my day job as a lawyer I’m working on a trial starting October 2, and while you can never predict how long these things will take, it will be after the baseball season before I’ve got the free time to write again. Rather than depress you with a column on the AL Wild Card race, I’ll depress myself with a look at the team I’ve followed most closely: the Mets.
I'm a die-hard fan, going back to the dark days of the late seventies, and I hate to panic over a two week slump. But the reasons for the Mets' decline are serious; I have a bad feeling about this one.
In mid-August, the Mets had the best record in baseball. On August 18, they were 73-49, a 97-win pace. On August 25 they thumped Randy Johnson 13-3. As recently as August 30, they stood tied with the Braves in first place. Their record from August 19-September 11, however, is 8-13. Their record from August 29-September 11 is 3-9. Any way you slice it, the team is slumping and getting worse.
The Braves, over the same period, have not played real well either, but not nearly as woefully as the Mets. They are 10-13 since August 18, but 5-3 since September 2. They appear to be righting the ship.
With the Diamondbacks sinking faster than expected under the weight of a brutal schedule and a limp Unit, neither of these teams needs to panic – as long as they play modestly well, they will both be back in the saddle for the postseason. The Braves have the toughest schedule, though not by a huge margin, and with six games head-to-head the division race is hardly over.
But the signs for the Mets are very bad. For the fourth year in a row, the Mets have followed the same pattern. Start the season with a bunch of holes in the rotation and lineup, and struggle from the gate. Jettison the non-performers (usually at least one starting pitcher and a centerfielder), rebuild with relief help and middle-of-the-road veterans at the trading deadline, and get blazing hot in June, July and into late August/early September. Then, the sinking starts...
While the Mets’ starting rotation – particularly Mike Hampton and Glendon Rusch – has been brilliant even during the downswing, the offense, defense and bullpen have all been in a tailspin. Which are causes for alarm, and which are just passing? Let's break it down...
Read More Â»
Problem #1 -- As Rob Neyer has been harping on about for weeks, the Mets were somewhat over their heads at a 96-97 win pace. The “Pythagorean” projection, a Bill James method for figuring out how many games a team should win with a certain number of runs scored and allowed (the formula is W%= (Runs squared)/((Runs squared)+(Runs Allowed squared))), said the Mets were really more like an 88-win team, and still says they should be 75-67 rather than 81-62.
Each of the Mets’ top 4 starters has started at least 26 times, combining for an outstanding 3.62 ERA. Bobby Jones has started 23 times with a 5.40 ERA, bringing the total to 3.89. But the other eleven games have been started by five pitchers (Mahomes, Dennis Springer, Bill Pulsipher, Bobby Bad Jones, and Grant Roberts) with the following horrific results:
Many innings of mop-up work were required in those eleven games, including a good deal of the work for Rich Rodriguez (7.97 ERA, plus an extra 2 unearned runs per nine innings, in 35 innings of work) and the not-quite-Mayne-like appearance of Derrek Bell (1 inning, 5 runs). Throw in the fact that Hampton started the season in an uncharacteristic funk, beginning with a 9-walk outing in Japan, and Jones was recovering from injury and completely ineffective in the early going, and you have a stronger team for the stretch run than the numbers indicate because of the high number of blowouts.
Problem #2 -- At one point about a month ago, I checked the tables for “Offensive Winning Percentage” on ESPN.com and discovered that, assuming you count guys like Furcal and Agbayani as regulars, every player in the Mets’ everyday lineup and every player in the Braves’ everyday lineup except for Keith Lockhart had an offensive winning percentage (i.e., the record a team would post with average pitching and defense and nine of this guy in the lineup) over .520. It would have been everyone if I had counted Quilvio Veras. That suggests that both New York and Atlanta had very well-balanced lineups; as Rob Neyer and Eddie Epstein noted in their book “Baseball Dynasties,” very few of the all-time great teams could field an above-average offensive player at every position. The Mets have not been so impressive of late. Specifically...
Problem #3 -- Mike Piazza, the center of the Mets offense, has looked like Gary Carter circa 1989 the past few weeks:
Ouch. Piazza may be wearing down, despite Bobby Valentine’s efforts to keep him fresh. If Piazza hobbles into the postseason like he did last year, it is quite impossible for the Mets to go far. Piazza’s troubles, however, are recent and may be a passing slump when you consider...
Problem #4 -- Four Mets veterans have skidded badly since the All-Star Break:
What do these players have in common? Well, at the break, Bell was 31, Ventura 32, and Zeile and Bordick 34 – and Bell and Zeile had just 3 days off apiece in the first half, Ventura 2, and Bordick none.
It’s always easy to blame the manager, in retrospect. Bordick wasn’t even on the Mets at the time, while Bell arrived with a rep as a guy who needs to play every day to be happy. But all four of these guys are seriously fatigued. Ventura probably needs to be platooned in the future to avoid this sort of thing. Add in Jay Payton, who has dropped off less dramatically in his first healthy full season in memory, and suddenly you have the offense that has scored just 39 runs in 15 games (2.6 a game).
To make matters worse, the Mets no longer have a John Olerud; Olerud could always be counted on for two things (not necessarily exclusive of each other): he got hot whenever the rest of the team was cold, and he owns Greg Maddux. Valentine’s latest brainstorm, making a near-regular of slap-hitting rookie Timoniel Perez, has not done much to solve this.
(I’m ignoring, for now, the general, sharp and puzzling decline in offense in the NL as a whole in the second half, but it may be that some of it is the result of aging hitters wearing out and breaking down, from Mark McGwire on down).
So those have been the big problems. Emotionally, the team suffered a particular blow on September 6. With Jones on the mound, on the last day of a road trip, Valentine tried to get back-to-back days off for several of his stars and steal a win with the bench, playing a lineup without Piazza, Edgardo Alfonzo, Zeile, and Ventura. It almost worked; Matt Franco hit a 3-run homer in the first, and the team led 8-5 entering the bottom of the eighth. Then in comes Turk Wendell, and he doesn’t have it . . . and in comes John Franco, who has been imploding in September since he was a teammate of Pete Rose and Dave Parker... then in comes Armando Benitez, who had surrendered a hit in just 4 of his previous 23 appearances, and Benitez gives up a grand slam to Benito Santiago. Reds win, 11-6, and Valentine wound up pulling most of the regulars off the bench to pinch hit. So much for two days off and a happy flight home.
The bullpen’s struggles should mostly recover; Benitez will be fine despite a few ill-timed taters of late, Wendell and Rick White are horses who never stay in a funk for long, and Franco had some solid outings in last year’s postseason after his usual September. The guys who worry me are Dennis Cook and Pat Mahomes, both of whom have been spectacularly ineffective all season.
What can be done? Personally, I’d like to see more of Benny Agbayani (who has been a hit as a very nontraditional leadoff man) in left and Bubba Trammell in right, given Bell’s futility of late. Bell can get unbelievably hot at times, but when he’s cold he’s as automatic an out as Rey Ordonez. Otherwise, not much; if the veterans are burnt out you can only do so much to rest them and hope for the best.
What's going on with the Braves? No longer the terrifying monolith of two years ago, Atlanta is showing signs of serious fatigue and injuries in some spots: Brian Jordan, as he was last season, has been hobbled by injury to the tune of a dreadful 589 OPS in the second half (compared to 842 before), and alleged teenager Rafael Furcal has posted just a .302 slugging average over the past month as his playing time has advanced to everyday status. Javy Lopez hasn’t been the same, posting an on-base percentage well below the league average and hitting .208 the past six weeks. Even Chipper Jones has lost 74 points off last year’s slugging average, 49 off last year’s on base percentage. The pitching is not as deep without Smoltz: Millwood, Ashby and Burkett are a combined 22-31 with a 4.72 ERA.
That's a lot for the return of Galarraga alone to overcome, but in light of the Coors Field fiasco a few weeks back I had to note this incredible stat I ran across on CNNSI’s website: Galarraga has been hit by a pitch in the late innings of close games seven times this season.
Given their pitching woes, the Bruce Chen-for-Andy Ashby deal should haunt the Braves. Chen was pitching much better than Ashby before the trade and has pitched much better since the trade, plus he’s younger, cheaper, and hasn’t blamed any problems on an inability to handle hostile crowds. Ashby’s masterpiece against the Mets before the break kept the Braves off the ropes after the Mets’ huge comeback June 30 and their toasting of Maddux the next day, but Ashby has contributed little since then while Chen has posted a 3.07 ERA and struck out 60 in 70.1 innings with the Phillies.
With Mark McGwire’s status in doubt, many writers are boarding the Giants’ bandwagon. If the playoffs started today, I’d be right there with them; the Giants have few weaknesses and are clearly the best-hitting team in the game, like the Indians of years past. Still, if there's one thing the Yankees, the 1995 Braves and the 1997 Marlins have shown the past few years, it’s that the key to winning in the long haul of a three-tiered playoff system in a season is a good starting rotation that goes three or four deep in quality. The Mets have that; the Braves and Cards don’t. And I still think of San Francisco’s pitching, while steady, as unspectacular. They may win one round or two, but sooner or later someone with a steadier rotation is likely to take them down.
If the season ended today, the Mets would go to Pac Bell while the Cardinals would go to Turner Field – and that’s the likely matchup, except in the unlikely events that (1) the D-Backs catch the Mets, (2) the Mets catch the Braves, or (3) the Cards catch the Giants.
Let's look at the matchups & my predictions:
GIANTS-BRAVES: In the shorter best-of-five series, the Mets’ superior pitching depth might not matter, but their frontline quality (Leiter and Hampton) would. If the Mets get their offense firing on a few more cylinders, they could take San Francisco the way they did in beating them three out of four in mid-August. But I’d still put my money on the Giants, especially with the Mets hitting the way they are at the moment. Giants in five. Ugh.
CARDS-BRAVES: A harder one to peg; the personnel has turned over tremendously since the Braves shellacked the Cards in a memorable 1996 Divisional Series. While not on par with the other contenders, Darryl Kile and Rick Ankiel have been a solid 1-2 punch this season. It will be interesting to see if LaRussa acknowledges Ankiel’s ascendancy by working the rotation to get him up front. But the Cards have been basically just killing time since mid-July, Edmonds has slowed down and McGwire will be coming out of mothballs. Flipping the switch will be tough. Braves in four.
NLCS: Can Barry Bonds slay the Ghost of Brave Octobers Past? Actually, I don’t suspect that postseason woes eight years ago will weigh much on Bonds’ focus in this one. I really think the Mets match up better with the Giants than the Braves do. Now I’ve underestimated Atlanta before, but they wobbled badly in last year’s NLCS before rolling over to play dead in the World Series – and that was with Smoltz and a far more effective Millwood and Rocker. This one will be tough. Giants in six.
My AL and World Series picks? Please, I’m depressed enough as it is.
Could the Giants do better and win it all? Could the Mets surprise me and recover? For all the wailing and gnashing of teeth the past few years, NFL-like parity is (temporarily) closer than it's been since 1982-83 in baseball and the postseason could well be tighter than it's been in a long time.
That's why Dan Duquette has been scambling so hard in Boston, even if it means taking on big salaries and players in the early stages of rigor mortis; everyone smells the rare opportunity to knock off the big boys while they are shaky. This offseason, Turner and Steinbrenner will have long shopping lists, and a labor war looms after that. This will be the best shot the Mets or other teams like them get.
See you after the season.
QUOTE OF THE WEEK
ANSWER TO LAST WEEK’S TRIVIA QUESTION
Â« Close It
September 1, 2000
BASEBALL: NL West Matchup (Giants v. Diamondbacks)
Originally posted on the Boston Sports Guy website
The National League West race has to be the most under-reported story of the baseball season, at least here on the East Coast. You would never know from the local media -- with the exception of the “Mike and the Mad Dog” show on WFAN radio, and only because Chris “Mad Dog” Russo is a San Francisco Giants fan -- that the NL West has the best composite record of any division in baseball (winning percentage of .526 through Saturday night. Or that, as Peter Gammons reported this week, every division in baseball has a winning record except the NL Central). Or that the West had 4 contending teams for the first half of the season. Even with the Rockies dead and the Dodgers only theoretically alive, the West promises a fierce two-team race down the stretch, with Arizona trailing the Giants by only 3 games.
Read More Â»
The D-Backs have a brutal schedule ahead of them, with only two losing teams – one of them the near-.500 Marlins – left on the schedule and six games remaining against Atlanta. There are a lot of tough road games ahead, and Arizona has struggled on the road. The Giants, by contrast, won’t see another team with a winning record until they meet up with the D-Backs on September 21. The Snakes will have to earn their spurs.
The race still ought to be decided in the season’s final eleven days, as the Giants and Diamondbacks play eight times (including a September 23 doubleheader) in that stretch. The Giants, again, have two advantages – five of the eight games are at Pac Bell, and they have a day off September 25 to travel from San Francisco to LA, while Arizona plays an early afternoon game in Colorado.
(As an aside, this look at the schedule told me I was wrong last week about Todd Helton’s path through the Big Unit – if he pitches every fifth day from here out he will face the Giants September 24 and 29 and miss the Rockies. The tough part is that, unless he relieves in between, I can’t see how Buck Showalter can get Johnson three starts against the Giants).
With that in mind, let‘s look at the two remaining contenders, one on one.
On a team level, the numbers suggest that the close position of these two teams in the standings is an illusion. Arizona is second in the league in fewest runs allowed to the Giants’ fourth, but the Giants are second in scoring (trailing only the Rockies) to Arizona’s eighth. The actual numbers are even more glaring: Arizona has allowed seven fewer runs but scored 98 fewer. Bill James developed a rough but generally effective “Pythagorean Method” for figuring out how many games a team should win with a certain number of runs scored and allowed; the formula is W%= (Runs squared)/((Runs squared)+(Runs Allowed squared)). The method says Arizona’s winning percentage should be .537 – an 87-win team over the full season. It says the Giants’ winning percentage should be .601 – a 97-win team over a full season. Now, the fact that the race is tighter than that means that the Giants have lost a few more close ones (including 3 of 4 in a pressure-packed series a few weeks back at Shea Stadium), and those are games they can’t get back. But it certainly does not bode well for Arizona as the schedule turns harsher for the Snakes.
Let’s move on to the players. Grading them by position:
Each team has had a time-sharing arrangement between two righthanded hitting catchers – one who hits well and one who doesn’t. Miller, the best hitter of the four, is also the best at gunning down opposing baserunners (a 40% clip this season and 32% last year), and he has been grabbing a steadily larger share of the playing time over the past two months. Estalella has come from nowhere to post even better numbers with the bat thus far than Miller. Stinnett does not do anything particularly well.
It may not look it from the numbers, but first base is a weak link for each team, moreso with Eurebiel Durazo’s injury. Snow is having one of his best years ever at the plate, and he’s always been a good glove man. But he has done little with the bat besides draw walks lately (.253 with 2 homers over the past month), and given his sickly offensive numbers in recent years that may be a truer measure of what we can expect from him the rest of the way.
Colbrunn won’t be latching on with the Braves for the stretch run this year, having been given the everyday job. He traditionally hits very well against lefties, and has done so this year, in a platoon setup (only a true platoon player can bat more often against lefthanded pitching than against righties, and Colbrunn does this nearly every year). His .338 batting average, though, has come from exceptional numbers in about 100 at bats against right handed pitching – a trend that is highly unlikely to keep up with Colbrunn facing an everyday job for the first time in years.
Hard as I still find it to believe, I have to tip my hat to Jeff Kent – he’s been the best in baseball at his position this season, following up on two well-above-average years, and will probably finish in the top 5 in the NL MVP balloting. He’s even improved his defense since his Met days.
An important point, here: early on, I thought Kent’s sudden leap forward at age 32 was a Pac Bell illusion – but it turns out that, thus far at least, Pac Bell has actually been a pitchers’ park. For whatever reason, through Sunday, the Giants and their opponents had scored 565 runs and hit 132 homers in 63 games at Pac Bell, compared to 779 runs and 174 homers in 65 Giants road games.
Jay Bell has finally come on a bit with the bat, but he is unlikely to repeat his out-of-character 1999 season. He has slowed to a creep in the field, covering less ground than any other everyday second baseman by almost any measure. Even Mike Lansing and Chuck Knoblauch make more plays than Bell, who started his career in Cleveland splitting infield time with Julio Franco, Tony Bernazard and Cory Snyder. Bell is a big part of why I still don’t trust the D-Backs’ defense.
Is Rich Aurillia the NL’s best shortstop? Well, made you think about it, anyway. Aurillia is a middle-of-the-pack defensive shortstop, a solid hitter in a field of people like Alex Gonzalez (.233 OBP, .320 slugging), consistent and in his prime. Nobody, not Bordick, Furcal or even Barry Larkin, is SIGNIFICANTLY better, and that’s why he stands out as a plus despite numbers that would be unremarkable in the Nom-Rod dominated AL.
Womack was so bad in last year’s postseason – automatic out, errors at every position he tried – that it was hard to believe he wasn’t on the Mets’ payroll. Swede Risberg did more to help his team win than Womack. He has stunk again this year; his on base percentage is about the same as Joe Girardi’s batting average. His glovework has reputedly improved, and his offense is less offensive coming from a shortstop, but when your pennant chances are slipping away for lack of offense and you’ve got a guy in the lineup whose on base percentage is closer to your pitching staff’s than to the league average, do you lead him off every single night?
Repeat after me: Matt Williams has hit six home runs this season. Matt Williams has hit six home runs this season. It’s incredible, in light of that production, that Arizona is in this thing at all. Williams still doesn’t look right, but far stranger things have happened than Williams slugging .600 in September; if he bounces back like that this is a new race. Like Bell, Williams will be 35 after the season, and has to be regarded as nearly finished as an everyday player.
Guys like Matt Williams, last season, win you pennants. Guys like Bill Mueller keep you from losing them. Mueller is nothing special, but how much more secure would, say, Seattle be if they had Bill Mueller instead of David Bell?
Bautista is a fine outfielder and has hit well thus far, batting .342 the past two months as an everyday player. Like Colbrunn, I suspect that he is unsuited for everyday use in the long run, but he’s in his prime and finally getting his first real chance; never underestimate the value of hunger in a short stretch of season, particularly in Dominican ballplayers who came from nothing. Because Bautista has been kicking around since the tail end of the Whitaker-Trammell era in Detroit, it’s easy to forget that he’s only 28.
(I imagine most Red Sox fans get the same warm fuzzy feeling about Burks that I get about Kent.)
Again, the AL contenders could take some lessons from San Francisco’s ability to find average players – in their prime and mostly home-grown – to surround its stars. Benard should not be a leadoff hitter, though.
The 35-year-old Finley is as good as ever; like former teammates Ken Caminiti and Brady Anderson, he has benefited tremendously from bulking up in his 30s. When I think of the offensive explosion of the mid-1990s, those are the guys I think of, along with a few others like Bell and BJ Surhoff: the guys who spent years hitting .265 with 8 homers a year and suddenly became 30-homer men. It’s not hard to see why, fairly or not, these guys are easy targets when the talk shifts from juiced balls to juiced ballplayers.
What’s gotten into Luis Gonzalez? For eight years he was the classic player who’s good enough to hold a job but not actually a good player, and then at age 31 he explodes on the league. You could have had 10-to-1 odds among knowledgeable fans against Gonzalez repeating anything resembling last season, with its Ken Landreaux-like streaks, but here he sits in late August on the doorstep of 100 Runs and 100 RBI, slugging over .560 with an on base percentage over .400.
Not much more to tell you about Bonds, who has cooled off to just a slightly above-average Barry Bonds year. One reason I’ve always resented Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens is that they became the players Darryl Strawberry and Dwight Gooden were supposed to be. Through age 26, Bonds had 142 homers and 453 RBI in six seasons; he had led the league in a major category once, slugging percentage. At the same age, Straw had 186 homers and 548 RBI in seven seasons; he had two league leads, slugging once and homers once (by a margin of nine). Gooden was greater, younger, than Clemens in the first blush of greatness, 58-19 at an age when Clemens was still in the minors (Gooden was drafted by the Mets the year after they unsuccessfully drafted Clemens).
Yet Bonds and Clemens went on to such greatness that each (more convincingly in Bonds’ case) can make an argument as the greatest at his position; Cooperstown is not even worthy of debate at this point. Meanwhile, injuries (even more than drugs) have taken away Strawberry’s chance at the Hall of Fame and reduced Gooden’s to a long shot (though he’s still 82 games over .500, more than twice as far as Nolan Ryan).
Ironically, though, Bonds and Clemens have one thing in common that Gooden and Strawberry don’t – both failed, on a personal and team level, in the postseason. Bonds’ teams have still never won a postseason series; Clemens was mediocre in the 1986 ALCS and little more than an aging bit player in last year’s Yankee run. Gooden and Strawberry, by contrast, both played crucial roles in the 1986 NLCS and were rewarded with World Series rings at a young age (Gooden, 21, Strawberry, 24). One wonders if those early failures helped keep alive the competitive fires that Gooden and Strawberry have often lacked.
Neither of these teams has much coming off the bench, but at least the Giants have a few useful guys. Ramon Martinez has been great, while Calvin Murray has been a big disappointment.
These two guys, together with Curt Schilling, present a fascinating case study in pitcher workloads. The annual Baseball Prospectus book presents a “Most Abused Pitcher” award every year to the guy who, by their measure, has absorbed the heaviest workload for his age. Hernandez has won the award each of the three years it has been awarded, by large margins, and his effectiveness declined each season. I believe he was leading again this year at midseason. But probabilities and likely results can be predicted; human beings can’t, and Hernandez has defied expectations this season by not only avoiding injury but growing stronger as the season wears on, posting an ERA well below 2 in his last six starts. He’s clearly the type of pitcher, like most Latin American pitchers, whose personality responds well to being a workhorse. What has surprised this season is how well his arm has done the same.
Hernandez had another distinction last year, going 0-5 against the Mets; Robin Ventura must have driven in about 10 runs against him.
Johnson has thrown more innings the past two seasons than anyone, and except for the back injury he’s been carrying a heavy workload since 1990. It’s not like he’s Maddux, churning out 75-pitch complete games, and with a steady diet of sliders he’s no Nolan Ryan, saving the strain by throwing mostly fastballs. Yet, except for his disastrous Octobers, Johnson has shown no signs of strain into his late 30s, and the Diamondbacks – with a short window of opportunity and a lot of money invested – have wisely refused to worry about Johnson’s future. That’s why his recent struggles (1 win in his last six starts) have people in Phoenix worried now – if the Big Unit wears out again in October, the ‘Backs are going nowhere. And you never know when he’s just a few more sliders away from "1984 Steve Carlton" territory.
Schilling, like Livan Hernandez, looked for all the world like damaged goods earlier this year, posting an ERA over 8 in his first several starts after overexerting himself on his return from the DL. I was terrified that the Mets would get him and find him washed up, and I still think he’s got more in common now with Ramon Martinez and Bret Saberhagen than with Randy Johnson in the durability department. His strikeouts are down some, but he has prospered (like surgically repaired teammate Greg Swindell, a former teammate of Phil Niekro) with pinpoint control.
Estes, like several of the Giants hurlers, has battled injuries and ineffectiveness in recent years and come out, not on top, but just happy to still be in the game. I have him at #2 here because of his record, but he’s still not all the way back, allowing more than a hit an inning and walking almost as many batters as he strikes out. You would not want to pitch Estes against Schilling, Al Leiter, or Tom Glavine in a playoff game.
Ortiz, like Hernandez, has come on tremendously in the past month or two despite premature reports of his demise. He’s still too wild (over 5 walks per 9 innings in the last month) and I wouldn’t bet on his long-term prospects, but the hot streak arrived at the right time. Anderson, a guy who has shown steady growth and has had some memorable moments in past postseasons, has been slumping lately.
Reynoso has been up and down this season, and even when he’s pitching great he has never been the most durable guy or one to go deep into games. Reuter held the staff together in the early going but has faltered in recent weeks Don’t forget to factor in Pac Bell’s pro-pitcher bias in evaluating these guys, too.
One thing you can say for the Giants’ rotation is that it has been very stable; besides slotting in Nathan for Mark Gardner, Dusty Baker has had to do precious little tinkering. The D-Backs have not been so fortunate.
Nen has regained his old form and then some; he and Kim both meet the modern benchmark for marquee closers with well more than twice as many strikeouts as hits allowed. In fact, last I checked, Kim was at almost 3-to-1 and Nen had more saves than hits allowed. Why closers have been getting more dominant, while all other types of pitchers have been getting hammered the past few years, is an interesting question but one for another day, as is Kim’s place in the small world of fireballing sidearmers. Showalter still has faith in Kim and says that his demotion to the minors was more a matter of getting the homesick 21-year-old a breather from the big league grind than concern over his pitching.
Dan Plesac came up through the Brewers system with Teddy Higuera. In a good year, he could throw almost 50 innings. For this, you can play Tony Womack at short instead of Tony Batista! And for Matt Mantei (Todd Pratt’s favorite pitcher), you need only give up the best pitching prospect in your farm system! I don't get it.
Then there’s Mike Morgan, who has posted a losing record with nine different franchises . . . still, Arizona’s bullpen was huge last season and is still rock-solid. The Giants, by contrast, have given Dusty Baker ample cause to try to get his starters to Nen no matter what the long-term cost.
If we run grades on a 1-10 scale (A+=10 and F+0), and score all the positions equally (unlike in my AL roundup, since these teams will need their fifth starters and closers to step up in the September showdown), we get Giants 95, Diamondbacks 91. A four-point swing, and a four-game margin of victory for San Francisco sounds just about right.
These Giants remind me a lot of last year’s Mets, with a deep but wobbly pitching staff, a great closer, a few huge bats and a lineup with no real weaknesses. Like the Mets they have a few pieces of the great Florida fire sale hanging around (who doesn’t?) Their offense is deeper thanks to the lack of an Ordonez, and unlike the Mets their best players aren’t banged up to the point of uselessness. The key will be the pitching; unlike the Mets, the Giants’ staff can’t make up in veteran experience what it lacks in gaudy ERAs. They will be tough in October, but I suspect that the pitching will break down sooner or later.
QUOTE OF THE WEEK
-- Adam Kennedy, on learning that George Sisler held the single-season hits record.
ANSWER TO LAST WEEK’S TRIVIA QUESTION
Â« Close It
BASEBALL: RAPID RESPONSE TO THE BICHETTE DEAL
Let's take a quick look at this deal. Short term, it's not a terrible move if Bichette is used properly. I know I said that about Mike Lansing and Ed Sprague, but part of the proper use of Bichette is to eat Lansing's playing time with Offerman and Merloni holding down the infield. If he plays at the expense of Trot Nixon or the revived Troy O'Leary, the Sox are in beeeg trouble.
Astonishingly, some people thought Bichette was a "disappointment" in Cincinnati because he didn't hit there the way he did at Coors. That's like being surprised that you are not as tall sitting down as standing up. I was pleasantly surprised that Bichette managed to pull off an on base percentage over .350 and a slugging percentage over .450 in Cincinnati, numbers better than his road stats in recent years. His avg/slg/obp this season is 295/466/353, above the league average but not far above.
Bichette was slightly below average in on base and slugging among NL outfielders, so he can still hit some and can help if he's grabbing at bats from Lansing (195/218/255 the past month) or Brogna (200/333/294 the past month, still not hitting as well with the Sox as Mike Stanley with the A's). Offerman has also been weak lately, but I still think he is a better hitter than that and somebody has to play second. With the Sox twelfth in the league in scoring (producing just 4.5 runs per game since the All-Star break compared to 5.24 before), a guy who's a just-above-league-average hitter, even to DH, can help. The main offensive downside is that Bichette was leading the NL with 18 GIDP. Despite the presence of so many slow, over-30 righthanded hitters on the roster, the Sox had been best in the AL at avoiding double plays (just 96 so far; Bichette would be 20% of the team total), probably because there have been so few baserunners since those guys all arrived. Of course, this assumes that Jimy knows not to try Bichette in the field, where he is at best a stationary object, his feared throwing arm long a thing of the past.
As I've noted with Duquette's earlier deals, what makes this stink is (1) the appearance that Dan Duquette thinks these guys are good ballplayers and (2) the salary, since Bichette brings a fat $6.5 million price tag (he makes as much money as Jeff Bagwell does in 2001) that will drag the Sox budget like Jacob Marley's chains next season, to say nothing of dragging around Bichette himself at age 37. Also, while one of the guys they traded sounds like a stiff, the other one (Chris Reitsma) is reportedly stuck in AA only because he was hurt the last two years; his numbers between A and AA this season (an ERA around 3 and a K/BB ratio of about 3-to-1) suggest a guy who might turn out to be a good pitcher. He's still just 22.
All these guys are pieces, spare parts, that may help the Red Sox get to the playoffs -- but why spend the money on that? Pedro or no Pedro, this is not a World Championship team, not with all these holes and Nixon not ready for his close up. And this was already a team that could get in. For the small benefit of slightly improving the odds of a first-round or maybe ALCS exit, the Sox coughed up a decent pitching prospect and swallowed a big salary. That's a bad deal.