Baseball Crank
"It gets late early around here." - Yogi Berra
March 30, 2001
BASEBALL: 2001 Preview

Originally posted on the Boston Sports Guy website

I originally planned on a more elaborate preseason spread, with projected records and league leaders, but work intervened and this column doesn’t pay the rent. Here are the standings as I see them:

NL EAST
1. Braves
2. Mets
3. Phillies
4. Marlins
5. Expos

The Mets and Braves might not be helped by the unbalanced schedule; the Mets were just 27-23 last season against the NL East, but 34-16 against the Central; the Braves were 27-24 last season against their divisional rivals but 32-13 against the West. In fact, the Marlins had the best record in intra-division play (28-22).

If you’re wondering, the teams with the best records within their divisions were: Marlins (.560), Cardinals (.597), Dodgers (.588), Blue Jays (.571), White Sox (.592), and A’s (.579). Teams that overachieved against their division rivals: Royals, Orioles, Phillies, Astros. Underachievers: Yankees (.510), Red Sox (.469), Indians (.412, worst in the Central Division and one of the worst home-division records in baseball), Mariners, Cubs (.339 against a weak division), Giants and Rockies. Take all that for whatever it’s worth.

Anyway, the Braves, like the Yankees, have seen their well-balanced juggernaut unravel and are increasingly dependent on a few superstars and veteran starting pitching -- still a tough mix to beat. With injuries attacking their rotation and catching, a desperate situation at first base and potentially bad outfield corners (although Brian Jordan may rebound), the Braves are ripe for pickin’. But I don’t see it happening.

One piece of good news on the Mets: they plan to use Benny Agbayani in the leadoff spot more often than not. Bobby V can do some strange things, but he deserves credit for not just going with the knee-jerk move of leading off the small, speedy Timo all the time and instead picking a 225-pound home run hitter to lead off because he gets on base.

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Posted by Baseball Crank at 11:29 AM | Baseball Columns | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)
March 20, 2001
BASEBALL: Crank's Top Twenty - 2001

Originally posted on the Boston Sports Guy website

I’m starting what will hopefully be an annual feature here: my preseason ranking of the twenty best players to have in 2001. I’m not looking long-term; these are the guys to have on your team this year. I’m looking at the stats and past performance only for what they say about this sesason’s performance. And this isn’t a rotisserie exercise, otherwise Mariano Rivera would be on the list. Here are the top twenty players that any major league GM should and would want:

1. PEDRO MARTINEZ
Durability is a big part of what makes you the best in the business, so when you compare Pedro to the best ever in their primes, Lefty Grove or Walter Johnson might get the nod overall. But if I had to take one pitcher to win a single game for me -- out of anyone, ever -- I’d take Pedro Martinez, right now, today. That has to be worth a lot. As I pointed out in my AL MVP column, Pedro’s impact is far deeper than any everyday player, in the neighborhood of 40-50 runs a year compared to the next best AL starter (even if he only starts about 30 games). If you don’t think Pedro’s the best player in baseball, you must have a very dim view of the value of pitching.

2. ALEX RODRIGUEZ
He showed real improvement in plate discipline last season, although I think his capacity for improvement has probably peaked at age 25; not everyone keeps getting better in their late 20s, and plenty of great players had their best year by 25. His defense may be overextended trying to cover ground between rest-home candidates Randy Velarde and Ken Caminiti. His base-stealing days are probably behind him. A-Rod is a smart guy and well-liked by teammates in Seattle; if he wants to stay that way he should leave the whining to sportswriters and the Jeter-bashing to analysts.

3. VLADIMIR GUERRERO
Slugged .664 last season and cut his errors in half, and he’s just 25 ... not the most patient hitter, but has time to grow in that department and does everything else well. Needs to learn that baseball has things called a “pennant race” and a “postseason” before he gets too set in his ways ... the three most-similar players through age 24: Willie Mays, Joe DiMaggio, Hank Aaron.

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Posted by Baseball Crank at 11:55 AM | Baseball Columns | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)
March 13, 2001
BASEBALL: Fixing Baseball's Economic Problems

It’s hard to imagine that anyone in their right minds enjoys writing – or reading – about the economics of baseball. Frankly, even though it can be fun to poke some humor at the big numbers, I don’t give two hoots whether Alex Rodriguez makes $252 million or $252 a month. Nor do I care whether George Steinbrenner makes more money from his baseball team than Jeffrey Loria and David Glass put together. And, I suspect, neither do you. The game on the field – and, for that matter, the financial disputes off it – would be exactly the same if you took every dollar figure in baseball and cut it by 95%.

Nonetheless, it seems you can’t scan the newspapers for a single day without seeing dollar signs, salary disputes and sky-is-falling warnings about the game’s fiscal health. Reporters report this stuff and columnists write about it because (1) they need something to talk about; (2) their sources are obsessed with this issue, which is pretty much the same reason why political reporters wind up wasting so much space on polls instead of ideas – you tend to assume that whatever matters to the people you spend all day with must be important to just everyone; and (3) journalists generally tend to be armchair socialists who love to rail against economic inequality.

All of this can have a rather corrosive effect on any fan’s attempt to just enjoy the competition on the field; we would all be better off if more journalists remembered former Chief Justice Earl Warren’s dictum that “I always turn to the sports pages first, which records people's accomplishments. The front page has nothing but man's failures.”

Nonetheless, economic issues DO affect the game on the field; increasingly, they have affected the way we look at the game. It’s worth taking a closer examination at some of the ideas being mooted about by baseball’s powers-that-be to see if the cures are likely to work – or are as bad as or worse than the disease. I profess no great expertise in baseball finance, and unlike professional sportswriters I don’t feel compelled to pretend otherwise, so I’ll mostly stick to generalities here. If you get the big picture right – fixing the incentive structure, that is – the details can usually be worked out anyway.

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Posted by Baseball Crank at 11:45 AM | Baseball Columns | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)
March 2, 2001
BASEBALL: REMEMBERING EDDIE MATHEWS

Originally posted on the Boston Sports Guy website.

Eddie Mathews died last week. Although it wasn't quite ignored by the media, Mathews' passing was given only a cursory writeup in many corners and widely overshadowed by the spectacular death of Dale Earnhardt. Sports Illustrated ran only a brief note on how Mathews was the magazine's first-ever cover picture, in 1954. The New York Times buried a small obituary for Mathews under a much longer one for "sex expert" William Masters. ESPN.com couldn't even find space on its baseball page for a decent tribute, leaving it to the indecipherable Ralph Wiley to give him a decent sendoff. CBS Sportsline did a better job with this "Behind the Numbers" profile and career retrospective.

But Mathews deserved better. In 130 years of organized major league baseball, thousands of men have played Mathews' position, and only one - Mike Schmidt - played it better. That's more than you could say about Joe DiMaggio, or Roberto Clemente, or Sandy Koufax, or Whitey Ford. Mathews was one of baseball's giants, only the second third baseman (after Frank "Home Run" Baker) who could have been considered one of the game's superstars. It still astonishes me that it took Mathews five tries to get elected to the Hall of Fame.

I've been busy this week, so I don't have the time here either to do Mathews justice. But it's fitting to compare him to some of the other, more prominent contenders for the title of "second greatest third baseman of all time." (Schmidt is regarded now, by acclamation, as the best at the position, and since I have no quarrel with that assessment I'll leave him out of the discussion). I?ll stick to the most famous ones, although I feel comfortable as well that Mathews was a greater player than Baker, Jimmy Collins, or John McGraw.

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Posted by Baseball Crank at 11:06 AM | Baseball Columns | Comments (8) | TrackBack (0)