Covering the Front and Back Pages of the Newspaper
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.
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