"It gets late early around here." - Yogi Berra
August 31, 2001
BASEBALL: Hating Barry Bonds, Scoring Rey Ordonez and the 1962 MVP Race
Originally posted on Projo.com
Happiness is a 3-game series at Shea Stadium where even Rey Ordonez gets a game-winning hit and Barry Bonds doesn't homer. But then Bonds has to go and spoil it in the fourth game . . .
Sports is entertainment, and entertainment needs good guys, heroes. But it also helps to have villains. And Barry Bonds, like John Rocker, hasn't just blundered into the villain role; he's embraced it so thoroughly it might as well have been scripted for him by the WWF.
Bonds' improbable late-career assault on the home run record -- a record he never challenged until Mark McGwire raised the bar -- has provoked a new round of that all-American sport, Barry Bonds hating. Rick Reilly of SI, who never met a moral high horse he didn't mount, led the way with a series of Jeff Kent quotes slamming Bonds as a selfish, me-first guy who surrounds himself with a staff of acolytes and won't give his teammates the time of day, let alone a seat in his comfy chair and a gander at his big screen TV. (Never mind that Kent has never been well-liked anywhere he's played, and that none of his teammates is exactly hard up for cash to buy a recliner and a TV at home). Bob Klapisch piled on with innuendo that Bonds uses steroids and/or corks his bat -- fair enough charges if Klapisch has a good faith basis for levelling them, but he wouldn't phrase them the way he does if he did. Klapisch should think back to when Bobby Bonilla called him names one time, and remember that this is not always a great strategy. As much fun as we have maligning Bonds, a little fairness and objectivity wouldn't be a bad thing, for the sake of the readers, if not the man himself.
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Bonds' defenders, such as they are, usually argue that Bonds-hating is (1) an irrational phenomenon stoked by reporters who malign any player who's not nice to reporters, (2) driven by people who don't understand the stats and therefore assume that Bonds isn't as good a player as, say, Tony Gwynn, (3) an unfair penalty for his failures, and his teams' failures, in the postseason, or (4) racist. I don't buy any of this, either. First of all, it's not just the media that dislikes the guy; he's feuded with too many teammates for that, and a lot of fans disliked the guy even when he was a young player in a city with few reporters. Second, you can find plenty of sophisticated people who appreciate Bonds' accomplishments but still don't like him. I voted for the guy for the All-Century team myself, and I still can't stand him. Third, there's something to that, but to a lot of the critics, Bonds' failures in October (like his low RBI counts before 1990) have always been more of a club to beat him with than a reason for getting on his back, the same as it was with Michael Jordan in the 80s. And on the race thing, it may be true that the fact that Bonds is black has made it harder for white fans and media to reach out to bridge the gulf he has created -- but who created it in the first place? Most of the people who hate Barry Bonds also hate Roger Clemens, and for most of the same reasons, and they don't get any whiter than Roger Clemens. They're two of a kind, except that Bonds never had a year when he wasn't in shape and played badly. The race argument might carry some weight with, say, Gary Sheffield, but not Bonds; there's just too much history there to say he's just misunderstood.
Bonds has never given any of us -- fans, the press, teammates, anybody -- any reason not to hate the guy. It's not just the aloofness; Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio were aloof, too. And it's not just the high opinion of himself, either; this is America, after all, and most people are pretty forgiving of big egos if you can back it up. The great ones always have that confidence. Part of it is a combination of the two, but there's always more, what comes out one way or another as a determination to antagonize people. Personally I can't even remember all the details of why I loathe Barry Bonds and root against him under all circumstances, but I can tell you it goes back to the late 1980s and a series of pot shots Bonds took at the Mets (particularly Dwight Gooden), just as Rocker and Chipper Jones did in later years. Bonds doesn't shoot his mouth off like that anymore, but the bad odor of those days lingers.
We can all play armchair psychiatrist, which is also unfair but it's fun . . . what I wonder is if Bonds' apparent complete disinterest in connecting with the fans, teammates, media, etc. isn't in part a reaction to his father's experience. You will recall that, like Bobo Newsom in the 1930s, Bobby Bonds was, by the time Barry was an impressionable teenager, synonymous with the well-traveled, oft-traded player. (How quaint it seems today to think of guys who get traded every year as an unusual phenomenon; these days we have guys like Mike Morgan, who makes Odysseus look like a stay-at-home). He was also, as I recall, the focus of various controversies (now largely forgotten) on a series of fractious teams, including Steinbrenner's Yankees (before they'd won anything) and the Garry Templeton/Ted Simmons/George Hendrick Cardinals, one of the all time bad-chemistry teams. Somewhere along the line, Barry must have picked up the ideas that (1) lots of people get by in baseball without getting along, and (2) it's not a good idea to get too attached to one team or one city or the people in them, because you never know where you'll be next year.
What's a shame is that, from all reports, Bonds isn't such a bad guy away from the game -- he's never been in any kind of trouble. Baseball Weekly did a very sympathetic profile a few years ago on him as a family man, a religious man. And he's a guy who works hard at his craft and has never had a serious off year. But he's just too happy to play the villain.
Where will Bonds be next season? The Yankees are rumored to be interested, and part of me would like to see Bonds a Yankee, since he would slide perfectly into the Reggie/Rickey role and he and Clemens are such a perfectly matched set. Bonds' father went to the Bronx as his next stop after San Francisco. On the other hand, he's still that good, and would put the Yankees in the drivers' seat for a few more years.
There's also been talk about the Mets, and some Mets (including Piazza) have leaped with uncharacteristic energy to Bonds' defense. Now, it might be a rational decision to sign Bonds, good as he is right now, and bad as the Mets' outfield is. But just watch: if they offer him anywhere near the $20-25 million per year range, it will prove they were wrong last winter, when they could have signed Alex Rodriguez for that. Unless, of course, you believed all of Steve Phillips' malarkey about not wanting to sign A-Rod because it would disrupt the team concept. After all, Barry Bonds is the ultimate team player, isn't he?
A good organization can admit error, of course, but signing Bonds -- even if it makes sense -- is clearly not as good an idea as signing A-Rod would have been. Bonds will be four years older next season than A-Rod will be at the end of his 10-year contract with Texas (at which point maybe the Mets will talk to him). And even putting aside age, it's a lot easier to find good hitters -- not Bonds, but useful bats -- in left field than shorstop. Meanwhile, the Mets continue to employ arguably the worst hitting everyday player in the history of baseball at short (well, he's not really in Bill Bergen's league, but who else is even close?).
How bad is Rey Ordonez? The Baseball Almanac credits Leo Cardenas with the fewest runs scored in a full season, just 25 in nearly 600 plate appearances in 1972. (Cardenas never played every day again). The NL record listed is 32, for Mickey Doolan in 1913. (POSTSCRIPT ADDED JULY 2003: Cardenas still holds the record for fewest runs by a player with 450 or more at bats in a season; click here for the list of players with 450 or more at bats and 32 or fewer runs scored). Now, I'm not sure what the definition of "full season" is, but through Wednesday's action Ordonez had appeared in 122 of the Mets' 133 games, almost all as a starter, and was on pace to fall about 10 plate appearances short of qualifying for the batting title. How many runs had he scored?
19. And that's with a hot streak, scoring 4 times in the Mets' last 4 games. A pace for 23, a new major league record for un-productivity if he gets enough playing time to "qualify" for it. (Rodriguez, albeit batting higher in the order, is tied for the major league lead with 113 runs scored, is third in the AL in RBI with 114, and leads the AL in total bases by a wide margin).
But remember one thing. The average AL team in 1972, the year Cardenas set the record, scored just 3.47 runs per game. The average NL team in 1913, when Doolan played, scored just 4.15 runs per game. The NL has seen the average go as low as 3.33 per game, in 1908. This year, in which Rey Ordonez may set a new standard for light-hitting regulars, the average NL team is scoring 4.76 runs per game. Runs are plenty easy to come by. Just not if you employ Rey Ordonez.
One final question: is it possible that Ichiro will win an MVP award this season, and Bonds won't? Particularly since Bonds is approaching the point Rogers Hornsby reached in the 1920s, where the National League abolished the MVP award in part because nobody wanted to keep giving awards to Hornsby.
Anything's possible. Consider, just as one example, the 1962 NL MVP race, listed in order of the balloting:
(I left out Don Drysdale, who won 25 games and finished 5th in the balloting). One of these things is not like the others . . . What game were these guys watching? I mean, I know Wills was a shortstop and a pretty good one, and in a close call we have to give a little latitude to the MVP voters who watched them play, but ignoring a gap of 30-40 homers and nearly 100 RBI? Frank Robinson (whose team won 98 games) got totally screwed; Robinson even scored more runs than Wills and got on base a lot more, and nobody ever played the game harder than Frank Robinson. Mays could have won the award too, since he was a comparable hitter, his team won the pennant race at the wire, and he played center field like, well, like Willie Mays. I wonder how many writers, if you asked them today, would admit thinking that Maury Wills was more valuable than Willie Mays or Frank Robinson or Henry Aaron in their primes.
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August 24, 2001
BASEBALL: Was Jimy Williams A Rational Manager?
Originally posted on Projo.com
My first reaction to the Jimy Williams firing was, has anybody ever fired a manager in August in the middle of a pennant race? Let alone, done so and win? Other teams have rallied to win around the halfway mark, but it looked from the published reports (such as Jayson Stark’s column) like the answer was no. Not so fast. In 1981, the strike season, Dick Williams left the Expos – I believe he was fired, if I remember right -- with just 27 games left in the second half of the spilt season. The perennial runner-up Expos had finished third in the season’s first half, and stood just 14-12 in the second half with the season winding down. New manager Jim Fanning guided the Expos to a 16-11 mark, taking the second half title, and eventually winning the divisional series over the defending World Champion Phillies and coming within a Rick Monday home run of the World Series.
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Is – was – Jimy Williams a rational manager? Not having watched the Red Sox on a day-to-day basis, I can’t offer a better answer to that question. But there was plenty of evidence from the moves he made over the years, particularly his starting lineups and in-game substitutions, to suggest that he was not. Not that the decisions were stupid or misdirected or based on bad ideas, necessarily, although you could always find someone to argue with any particular decision, and some of them were way out there. Rather, the problem was simply that you could not possibly come up with a theory of who should play when, in advance, that would ever explain the things he did. If there was thought at all behind any of this, it had to be thought that was as changeable as the weather. Thus, from everything the public had to go on, Williams was literally irrational or non-rational in his decisionmaking, going by hunches or the seat of his pants.
If (as Art has suggested) there was more to his thought process than that, we never heard it, never got the Jimy decoder ring. In fact, his public statements were often either laughable, obviously wrong or completely inscrutable. And his record in Toronto was very much the same; after the Jays’ disastrous collapse in the 1987 pennant race, Bill James argued that Williams’ inability to settle on a second baseman had doomed the Jays, because the constantly auditioning infielders (with a washed-up Garth Iorg in the Mike Lansing role) had collectively performed far worse than any one of them could have individually. (This was before George Bell played the Carl Everett role of disgruntled star who fatally undermines Jimy in the clubhouse).
One specific charge was that Jimy jerked players around in the batting order apparently without rhyme or reason. Did he do it, like Tony LaRussa, on the basis of a carefully guarded array of scouting reports, situational stats and "inside" insights? Did he do it, as Bill Simmons has suggested, because his decisions were dictated to him by Mr. Weebles, a microscopic man who lives in his mouth? We will probably never know. But we can do one thing: look at the evidence. If players are going to rotate through the batting order like the Cubs’ old “College of Coaches,” based on information or hunches that they will hit better here than there, the proof should be in the pudding.
Let’s look at the Sox hitters’ performance at the top of the batting order (slots 1-4), the middle (5-6) and the bottom (7-9), this year and in prior years under Jimy. (This includes a few games under Kerrigan this year but not enough to affect the sample). I’ll also note some other splits where relevant. Let’s assume that a manager who shuffles his lineup regularly is looking to move guys up top in situations where they should hit well, and down when they shouldn’t.
Let’s start with the least favorite player among the Jimy-bashers. Lewis is on the roster mostly because he can field (though not spectacularly as in his heyday with the Giants) and hit lefthanders. From 1998-2000 his on base percentage was a respectable .351 against LHP, a dismal .318 against RHP (with no power against either one). Lewis’ playing time has declined this year mostly because he’s been limited to that role, with 64% of his at bats vs. lefties as opposed to 31% in 1998-2000. He’s hit .282 vs. lefties as opposed to .200 vs. RHP, but has drawn so few walks (with the usual lack of power) that he’s been equally useless against both.
Lewis has mostly hit first or ninth, too few appearances (mostly pinch-hitting/running) in other lineup slots to draw any conclusions. Here’s the breakdown for 2001 (batting/slugging/obp and (plate appearances)):
1-4: .225/.375/.244 (41)
Even at the bottom of the order Lewis isn’t that useful. From a standpoint of picking your spots, Jimy’s handling of Lewis rates as a complete disaster: he’s been far less effective when thrust into a more prominent role in the order.
For 1998-2000, Lewis spent about two-thirds of his time at the top, mostly leading off:
1-4: .249/.325/.323 (932)
You would expect that Lewis’ numbers would be better at the top, since as he’s gotten older he’s led off less (in 1998 he was used almost exclusively as a leadoff man), but instead they’ve been about even. In Jimy’s defense, that may be because he’s hit better as a platoon player. Either way, we have to score the overall handling of Lewis as unusccessful.
In 2001, Varitek mostly hit sixth. The breakdown:
1-4: .250/.250/.333 (9)
That 7-9 line is too small to take too seriously, and mostly resulted from a May hot streak, but clearly if Jimy was trying to move Varitek down in the lineup when he had the least confidence in him, the strategy was not a success.
1-4: .225/.441/.271 (118)
Varitek has clearly hit better when he’s been at the bottom of the order. There’s no way to call this one a success.
Hatteberg has mostly been platooned, as he continues to fail against lefthanded pitchers, batting just .178 compared to .273 vs. RHP, with a severe dropoff in walks against lefties. He’s been one of the main juggling-act guys, hitting second about half the time but also sixth, eighth and ninth. Here’s 2001:
1-4: .294/.402/.374 (115)
Hatteberg’s 0-for-8 batting seventh, so the real story here is that he’s succeeded more at the top of the order than the bottom, though not dramatically, while struggling in the middle.
1-4: .192/.308/.276 (29)
Almost exactly the opposite pattern, except for the part about hitting better in the 8-9 holes than 7. I’d rate Hatteberg’s handling a success, though – he’s generally hit best where he’s been used most, and this season at least he’s done his best work when expected to produce at the top of the order.
1-4: .253/.342/.323 (449)
What is hidden here is that Offerman has been great this season batting second (.329/.500/.392) but dreadful in the leadoff slot. 1999-2000:
1-4: .278/.404/.378 (1192)
In 2000, the 1-2 pattern was the same; in brief action at the 2 slot in 1999, Offerman hit .191. Offerman is a top of the order guy if he’s worth playing at all, but maybe he’s better off at #2. Or maybe splits like that are just random chance. Either way, his handling in the lineup has been at best a wash.
1-4: .313/.500/.313 (16)
Bichette hasn’t been moved around much, but the few times he’s been moved up or down it’s worked as expected. He’s also faced an increasing proportion of lefthanded pitchers, and he’s hit far better against lefties than righties since leaving Colorado. Dante may be happier playing regularly, but I’d rate his use by Jimy Williams a success.
Obviously the relationship with Carl Everett won’t be on Jimy’s resume. But has he placed him well in the lineup?
1-4: .291/.515/.335 (319)
Obviously this has been injury rehab related. In 2000:
1-4: .284/.498/.355 (290)
If memory serves me correctly, Everett moved up from fifth to third in the lineup after his hot start, so this shows little.
Another controversial figure in the Williams analysis. Since only Manny and Nomar get on base more than Nixon and he has the least power of the three, he’s a logical leadoff man, but Williams split his time evenly between the 1-2-3 holes.
1-4: .280/.503/.375 (419)
Nixon’s had a .381 OBP as a #2 hitter and .405 in the 3 hole, but .323 batting leadoff. A Jimy critic could point to that as evidence either that (1) he picked the wrong spots to lead off Nixon or (2) he allowed Nixon’s intermittent poor showings as a leadoff man to override the logic behind just sticking him there full time; after all, he’d hit well as a leadoff man in prior years.
The decision to platoon Nixon on a continuing basis is one I don’t really agree with, but he’s been so awful against lefthanded pitching that you obviously can’t start using him against them in the middle of a pennant race.
1-4: .287/.484/.379 (456)
Nixon, overall, shows up here as a success. Yes, you can argue that Jimy should have lived with some ups and downs to turn him into an everyday player, the way Paul O’Neill and Andy Van Slyke did after they broke out of the platoon mode. But in the short run, Jimy succeeded at his goal of maximizing Nixon’s value in the lineup by the shuffling and platooning.
1-4: .000/.000/.000 (3)
Clearly, the Hillenbrand-batting-sixth experiment was a case of falling in love with a hot-starting rookie. Thumbs down.
1-4: .231/.231/.286 (14)
Like a lot of the Red Sox, Daubach’s hit best at the positions in the lineup he plays the most, sixth and eighth. Mixed bag here – he’s been more patient and productive in the middle of the order, but a lot more power at the bottom.
1-4: .273/.506/.333 (715)
Pretty even here comparing top to bottom. Daubach is another guy who has really had to be platooned. I’d have to rate Daubach a modest success.
2001 stats only.
1-4: .348/.543/.375 (48)
Call it blind luck or small sample sizes if you will, but Lansing’s usage pattern has to be called a success (once you assume he should be playing at all, that is).
Another guy who can’t hit lefthanded pitching, O’Leary has hit righthanders well enough this year (with the benefit of reduced playing time against lefties) to justify the roster spot. 2001:
1-4: .000/.000/.000 (3)
1-4: .250/.250/.400 (5)
Looks like Jimy did a decent job of picking the spots where O’Leary was at least less likely to hit for average. Then again, in 2001, as in 1998-2000, O’Leary hit much better batting sixth than fifth. The fact that O’Leary has the team’s most plate appearances over the 1998-2001 period says more than you want to know about recent Red Sox history. I’d declare him a modest success, but barely.
Stynes is a natural platoon player – he murders lefthanded pitching – but circumstances have pushed him into a larger role in Boston.
1-4: .272/.404/.313 (160)
Aside from a freakish 22 at bats hitting sixth, there’s not much to choose from here.
Manny has yet to bat anywhere but cleanup. Some things, no manager can screw up. But score a victory for Jimy in sticking to his promise to at least not jerk Ramirez around. Nomar has been moved around some, but only within the top 4 lineup slots, and without much effect on his hitting. Has been most effective batting cleanup before 2001.
There’s six players here who rate as a success, if mildly, as opposed to three significant failures. That’s not bad; if you want to look solely at the short-term impact of picking spots, Jimy Williams didn’t do a bad job, a fact that is reflected in the team’s W-L record. And of course, some of the juggling act was driven by injuries. More importantly, what has really benefited the team is the use of a lot of platooning arrangements – even if never quite officially acknowledged as such – that have reduced the roles of players trying to do things they can’t.
None of this is to say that all the juggling was good for morale – it wasn’t. The loss of Williams’ authority over the players, alone, made it necessary to let him go. And the team’s long-term interests may have been better served by letting Nixon in particular experience the necessary growing pains to become an everyday player. And just because Chris Stynes hits well at the top of the order by his own standards doesn’t mean that he belongs there. And the criticism specifically directed to Williams’ love affair with Darren Lewis was certainly justified. But at least give the man the benefit of the doubt that, given the players he had to work with, he tried to keep everyone involved and, at least on the offensive side, didn’t do such a bad job on the whole of picking where and when to do that.
Before I leave this topic, I can’t let one pro-Jimy argument pass without comment. The Duquette critics among the press have generally responded that if anyone has alienated the players, it’s Duquette. But that is completely beside the point. The general manager’s personal interactions with the players aren’t really all that regular or important, at least to the day-to-day functioning of the team, although it can matter in re-signing free agents. Motivating players and commanding their respect is the manager’s job; in many ways, it is the most important part of his job. He is paid, first and foremost, to be a leader of men. Duquette could make roster moves on an old typewriter from a shack in the Montana wilderness, but if he has a manager worthy of the title, the players will play.
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August 17, 2001
BASEBALL: The 2001 AL Pennant Race Outlook
Originally posted on Projo.com
At the three-quarters mark, with scarcely more than 40 games left on the schedule and major roster overhauls unlikely, the pennant races are now set: barring injury, teams will either win with who and what they have, or they will lose. What lies ahead for the new man at the Red Sox helm?
Let’s look at how the AL contenders stack up by position grouping similar positions together. (I’m being generous in considering the Angels as a "contender," but stretching the definition out to the White Sox seemed a bit too far, plus trying to evaluate how good the White Sox new starting rotation really is made my head hurt) I’m rating the players on one simple standard: who would you rather have on the roster from now through October? Thus, I’m not interested in what Bret Boone or Nomar has done so far this year, except insofar as it shows where they are headed. Nonetheless, this year’s performance so far does bear some serious weight in that discussion.
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1. Jorge Posada, Yankees
ESPN.com ranks the 77 qualifiers by “offensive winning percentage,” (i.e., what would a team’s record be with an average pitching staff and a lineup of 9 guys who hit like this). Of the 16 players below .450, 10 play for one of the top six contenders; only the Angels have avoided employing at least one true offensive sinkhole. Then again, 14 of the top 19 are on the same 6 teams, but no Angel ranks higher than #27. From the bottom up, the list runs: Luis Rivas, Kenny Lofton, Carlos Guillen, Hernandez, Jose Offerman, David Bell, Omar Vizquel, Chuck Knoblauch, Johnny Damon (!), and Torii Hunter.
1. Jason Giambi, 1B, A’s
1. Roberto Alomar, 2B, Indians
1. Manny Ramirez, Red Sox
That's a staggering difference; for 67 games, Damon hit like Rey Ordonez, and he was batting 4-5 times a game at the top of the order. It's a wonder the A's are still in the race at all. They had replaced Ben Grieve, who hit .279/.487.359 and driven in 104 runs, with a complete offensive sinkhole and gave him all the at bats he needed to ruin the offense. Only the collapse of the Royals and Grieve's nightmare season in Tampa Bay were any consolation to those of us who saw the Damon deal as a heist that made the A's the favorites to capture the AL crown.
One interesting thing about Damon's resurgence is that he has been walking less since he started hitting again. Perhaps, one wonders, Damon was putting too much pressure on himself to fit in with the A's philosophy of patience at the plate. This is normally a good thing, but it is harder than you think for a 27-year-old ballplayer to change his spots at the major league level, and maybe Damon is one guy who's just better off playing the game his way, which means staying aggressive at the plate. In fact, Damon walked less in last season's second-half turnaround as well, which may undercut the idea that the new environment was the cause of his struggles, but supports the notion that freer swinging suits his style.
1. Mariano Rivera, Yankees
1. Mariners – Jeff Nelson, Arthur Rhodes, Jose Paniagua
OTHER: BENCH/BULLPEN DEPTH/MANAGER/TEAM EXPERIENCE
I’m just awarding an extra point here to the Mariners, who have depth and experience, and the Yankees, who have no depth but have Joe Torre and the confidence of 4 rings behind them, and subtracting a point for Minnesota, which despite Tom Kelly’s 2 rings has little depth, no momentum, and nearly nobody who’s been there and done that. Everyone else was too much the mixed bag to declare a real advantage. I will NOT discuss the departure of Jimy Williams at this stage.
I scored 1 point for each difference at each position. Last year when I did this I gave less credit for closers, but closers matter more in tight head-to-head matchups, of which there will be many down the stretch between the contenders. I awarded extra points where indicated. Here’s the final tally:
That’s not the final answer: schedule strength will also be a factor down the stretch (see Sean McAdam’s analysis), as of course will who has pole position in the standings. All an exercise like this does for us, really, is force us to focus on how we evaluate the talent stacking up by position.
Clearly, the Mariners are going to win the West, and it says here that their talent makes them competitive with the A’s and Yankees but certainly not dominant. For the Yankees – well, the big three starters are everything, and if El Duque comes back at some point and returns to form, or if Justice or Shane Spencer starts to step it up at bat, they could be deadly once again. The A’s, up and down the lineup, still look like the strongest team to me, as they did before the season, but I may be underestimating here the hazards posed by Oakland’s bullpen.
The big surprise was how badly the Indians fared in this scoring system, reflecting the dismal state of their starting rotation. Maybe the White Sox aren’t out of this race yet after all.
For Boston, though, look position by position and you’ll see the cumulative impact of too many injuries. The Sox have to catch either the Yankees or the A’s, but unless they can dominate the head to head matchup with the Yanks – and those 7 games in September are more than enough to even the scales, but only if the Sox win 5 or 6 times – the road is all up hill from here.
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August 10, 2001
BASEBALL: Best-Hitting Catchers Ever
Originally posted on Projo.com
I?m writing from vacation this week, so forgive me if I digress from the pennant races . . . I?ve come across this question a lot lately: where do Mike Piazza and Ivan Rodriguez rank, really, among the best-hitting catchers of all time? It is so widely said that Piazza is the best-hitting catcher of all time that nobody even bothers, it seems, to look behind the spectacular numbers and ask how he stacks up when you take account of the high-scoring context of the past decade. And there are many who argue that Rodriguez, with the fastest gun in the West, is on his way to being the best catcher ever, period; is he?
There?s a number of ways to skin this particular cat, and I won?t try to go through them all here. For example, my personal view is that, when rating players in general and catchers in particular, we need to zero in on the block of seasons that constitute their productive years, and not judge, say, Mickey Cochrane or Roy Campanella or Thurman Munson ahead of Gary Carter just because the violent ends of their careers prevented them from hanging on as subpar part-time players way past their prime. Eddie Epstein and Rob Neyer take a useful look at the ?big four? catchers (Cochrane, Bench, Berra, and Campanella) from this perspective in their book ?Baseball Dynasties.?
For a quick measurement, I took a look at the historical ?player cards? database on the Baseball Prospectus site to compare the all-time and active catchers by EqA and see what came up. (Scroll to the bottom here for an explanation of EqA and my thoughts on the player cards). Unfortunately, the answer I got back was one that just didn?t seem right ? the number 2 hitting catcher of all time, for example, came up as Gene Tenace. Now, Tenace was indeed a fine hitter; he hit for power and drew tons of walks in an extreme pitcher?s park in a pitcher?s era. Joe Rudi?s batting averages notwithstanding, Tenace was probably the third-best hitter on the ?mustache gang? A?s, behind Reggie and Bando. But I?m suspicious of relying on a formula to conclude that he was really better than Yogi Berra.
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There was a recurring theme, however: the guys who just didn?t seem to fit had mostly shorter careers or had done a lot of work at other positions. So, I narrowed my search to players who (1) had caught more than 1000 games in their careers, not a terribly demanding standard but what you would expect as the minimum for, say, the Hall of Fame to take you in as a catcher (for the math-impaired, this is 100 games a year for 10 years); and (2) had caught in at least half of their career games. It didn?t seem right to include guys who rolled up big batting years at first base next to somebody like Cochrane, who was behind the plate in all but 31 career appearances.
Once I applied this criteria, I was amazed how many of the impostors dropped away ? Tenace (.310 EqA, 892 games caught), Joe Torre (.298, 903, one MVP award won as a third baseman), Mickey Tettleton (.296, 872), Darren Daulton (.284, 965), Ed Bailey (.281, 907), Mike Stanley (.293, 751), and Chris Hoiles (.293, 819). You will sometimes see the statistically inclined argue that Tenace or Torre belongs in Cooperstown when you compare their hitting stats to other catchers; don?t believe it. (Torre will go in anyway when his managing and playing careers are considered together). Also dropping by the wayside were active catchers like Jason Kendall (.298 entering 2001), Jorge Posada (.291), and Javy Lopez (.280), and old-timers like Buck Ewing (.301, 636), Roger Bresnahan (.301, 958), Johnny Bassler (.283, 756), Bubbles Hargrave (.291, 747) and Chief Meyers (.287, 887).
That leaves us with the list, the hard core, the guys who took 1000 games of pounding behind the plate and kept on hitting. With Rodriguez coming in at .279 entering 2001, I cut the list off just above him; I?m pretty sure I got everyone above .280. I list career EqA, games caught, and games the player appeared in but didn?t get behind the plate, which includes pinch hitting appearances:
*- Campanella was already 26 and a veteran everyday catcher when he followed Jackie Robinson across the color line in 1948. In the case of ties, lacking the ability to run multiple decimal places, I?ve just ranked the longer careers first.
For the record, the other catchers in the Hall of Fame came in at .254 (Ray Schalk), .266 (Rick Ferrell), .249 (Al Lopez, really in as a manager), .240 (Wilbert Robinson, same), and unavailable but probably ahead of Piazza if he could have been measured (Josh Gibson).
This list is pretty much the usual suspects, in roughly the order you would expect, and does give an idea how far Piazza stands ahead of the others at this point ?far enough that the inevitable decline in his numbers as he ages will likely still leave him atop the list. By contrast, even if Rodriguez raises his career EqA ? entirely possible, since he?s far better now than when he was younger ? he will still probably fall far enough short of the really elite all time catchers that he won?t be able to bridge the gap by even a generous assessment of his defense. For this season, through August 2, Piazza was second among catchers at .314, Rodriguez third at .303 (Jorge Posada was first). Check here for daily updates.
There were four real surprises on the list, but three of them (Haller, Cooper and Clements) had the shortest careers other than Piazza and Campy. Clements surprised me only because he was the only 19th century catcher to catch enough games to qualify ? he?s best known for holding the single season batting record for catchers (.394 in 1895) and for being either the only or the last catcher (I forget which) to throw left-handed. But the biggest surprise was Darrell Porter, who batted .247 with 188 career homers and only drove in more than 70 runs in a season twice. He really only had the one year (1979) when he was a major star. What?s with that? Porter drew a lot of walks and hit into very few double plays, and the EqA formula puts a high premium on not making outs, but his ranking appears to be mainly a reflection of how scarce runs were in the times and places he played in ? Milwaukee in the early 70s, KC in the late 70s, St. Louis in the 80s.
Conversely, given the high-scoring era he played in, I was a bit surprised to see Dickey so high. Also, this and similar methods seem to support the Hall of Fame candidacies of Carter, Freehan, Schang, and Munson, particularly in light of the fact that all were key players on championship teams (Schang most of all, catching 32 World Series games for 6 pennant winners and 3 World Champs with the A?s, Red Sox and Yankees between 1913 and 1923) and, in Carter?s case, the tremendous length of his career. You can also see the knock here against Ted Simmons, a wonderful hitter but a worse fielder than even Piazza and a guy who spent a lot of time at other positions.
So there?s your answer, by one method. Mike Piazza really is the best hitting catcher ever, or at least the best to play in the major leagues. And Ivan Rodriguez isn?t that close ? but he?s also moving into some very good company.
For reviewing offensive productivity, two of the top measures are the Bill James/STATS, Inc. Runs Created formula (which is designed to express how many runs per game a lineup of nine of this guy would score), and the EqA method used by the Baseball Prospectus, which is a similar measurement but is translated into a batting average-like scale, so that .300 is a good EqA. Both are complicated formulas mainly dedicated to measuring the relationship between bases and outs, giving slightly more weight to singles than walks, for example, and including miscellaneous stats like GIDP and HBP. Both have been designed by study of team records, so that a team whose offense creates, say, 5.5 runs/game will almost always score close to that. There are devotees of both and I won?t enter the debate here, although EqA has the advantage (for quick and dirty comparisons) of being adjusted for park effects.
The BP player cards (which have been temporarily out of service lately due to server trouble) have some other fascinating, if controversial, features, like a ?translated? stats measurement designed to project what a player?s numbers would be equivalent to in 1990s terms. That can be tough to do accurately ? translating overall doubles/triples/homers power numbers from the dead ball era into modern homer totals is dicey, since unlike triples in 1907, almost nobody legs out homers these days. But that?s an unavoidable dilemma ? it?s better than treating the difference between 2 HR a year and 3 as if it made a difference. The idea that Honus Wagner would hit 700 homers today isn?t at all unreasonable, for example; Wagner was a much more dominant power hitter, in his day, than Alex Rodriguez is.
They are also soon coming out with translated pitcher cards ? I?ve tried a similar idea myself in a system I aired on the BSG site a few times, and while I?m sure the BP system will be more matehmatically sophisticated than my pen-and-calculator computations, I can only hope that they also use one of the central features of my system: adjusting pitcher workloads and numbers of decisions per start to reflect changes in the role of starting pitchers over time. Remember: how much a pitcher pitches is at least as important as how well. Without that adjustment, you just can?t compare how good Cy Young was in his prime, relative to the other starters of his day, to a guy like Robin Roberts, who pitched a lot less in raw numbers than Young but carried a much heavier workload relative to his competitors than any other pitcher in history except maybe John Clarkson.
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August 3, 2001
BASEBALL: Nomar v. Joe D, Giambi v. Gehrig, 2001 Sox/Mets/Yanks Deals
Originally posted on Projo.com
This week we round up some semi-random observations on a few of the deadline deals and developments. . .
THE RED SOX
Let’s start with the Red Sox:
Player A is Nomar, 2001, projected from his 1998-2000 “established performance level” (((three times 2000 totals) + (two times 1999 totals) + (1998 totals))/6) over the 59 games remaining on the schedule starting with his return on Sunday.
Player B is Joe DiMaggio, 1949, the year he missed the first half of the season
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(Looking over my preseason preview of the Sox reminded me of another funny thing – remember in the offseason, when they got Manny, and Jimy said he wanted to make sure to set the order for the middle of the lineup and keep it that way because it was important to the players to get used to batting in the same place every night? Has anything changed from last year’s chaos? Jimy still uses more different lineups in a week than Don Zimmer did in his entire managing career).
Nomar’s return should, mercifully, put a final end to Mike Lansing as an everyday player, anywhere – ironically, after Lansing’s first good month with the bat in years. (Am I the only one who thinks Lansing looks like the guy who plays the psychiatrist on “Law & Order”?)
The Urbina trade has all the makings of really bad Red Sox karma – stop and think a minute about picking up a guy the Yankees backed away from when he failed his physical – and he hasn’t pitched great, and there’s a chance that Ohka could become a steady third starter in Montreal. That said, it’s definitely a deal the Red Sox had to make – Ohka just wasn’t going to work the bugs out in the middle of a pennant race, and nobody among Garces, Beck and Pichardo is exactly the second coming of Mike Marshall (or even Bob Stanley) when it comes to durability. And Urbina has looked just fine every time I’ve seen him. (Fun fact: in 1998, Urbina saved 7 games against the Mets).
(A hallmark of bad organizations is imitating surface characteristics of good ones while missing the hard work of assembling talent – like when Charlie Finley tried to move the fences in Kansas City to Yankee Stadium dimensions and load up on lefthanded pitching and power, thinking that you could do those things and just magically become the Yankees. Do the Expos, in importing Ohka to join Irabu and Yoshii, think they are learning a big secret from Seattle? Will they sign Shinjo in the offseason?)
Will Rich Rundles be the Bagwell of this deal? Hey, when you trade a corner infielder who’s a year from the majors, you have a decent idea what you’re giving up. Just like the Yankees knew what they were risking in dealing an everyday shortstop for a middle reliever. When you deal a 20-year-old pitcher in A ball, you’re trading a lottery ticket. Sometimes, if the other guy hits the lottery, you look stupid. Sometimes all you did was waste a buck.
Plus, Derek Lowe has resumed his 1987 Roger McDowell impersonation. McDowell, who was a very similar type of pitcher to Lowe, averaged 69 games, 127.2 IP and a 2.93 ERA in 1985-86, and worked his arm off in the 1986 postseason (14.1 innings, including 5 scoreless innings in Game 6 of the NLCS). After hernia surgery in the spring of 1987 he came back with a 4.16 ERA, allowing 95 hits in 88.2 IP, and allowed a back-breaking homer to Terry Pendleton in September. He was only 26 but was never quite the same. Urbina may not really be closer material anymore – he didn’t look it in his Sox debut - but if Lowe is going to implode, better to have someone else to turn to.
(Yet another tangent . . . that Pendleton home run game brings to mind another controversy earlier this season: bunting to break up a no-hitter. The Mets entered that game, the first of a 3-game set, trailing the Cards by 1 game if I remember right, and Ron Darling had a no-hitter and a 3-0 lead through 6 innings. Vince Coleman dropped a bunt down the first base line – and the no-hitter was gone, and so was Darling, who tore ligaments in his thumb trying to field it and missed the rest of the season. That started the Cards’ rally that culminated in Pendleton’s ninth inning homer; they shelled Gooden the next day, and the pennant race was done. I hated Coleman for that at the time – but that’s what you do in a pennant race, and no less so just because it’s not September yet).
The Sterling Hitchcock deal was pretty cheap, and bringing in another starter made sense because the Kiesler elves (Randy Kiesler, Ted Lilly and Adrian Hernandez) are very much not ready for prime time. Lilly has shown the most promise, but pitching in a pennant race in the Bronx is a gauntlet few young starters are equipped to handle. It looks like Lilly will be the one to stay in the rotation, with Hitch bumping Kiesler, but two of those guys at once was straining the Yankee bullpen.
Not a bad deal. But remember that there’s still a risk – even considering the lack of good alternatives – in giving a job to Hitchcock. Remember, this is a guy who had a 4.69 career ERA before he got hurt, and his two good years were in San Diego, one of the NL’s best pitchers’ parks. Maybe he’ll recapture the magic of the 1998 postseason, when he was NLCS MVP, but for now, don’t expect big things. The main hope is that he can pitch just enough better than Kiesler to give the bullpen some rest.
As is their habit, the Yanks made the deals they wanted ahead of the deadline. Acquiring Mark Wohlers already looks like a mistake; the league was hitting .291 against him in Cincinnati, and he’s been awful in the Bronx. Witasick’s been slightly better, but has given up a ton of hits and still looks frighteningly like the pitcher who had ERAs above 5.50 for his first five straight seasons entering 2001. D’Angelo Jimenez went 14-for-75 in July, so the Yankees haven’t gotten bad press on this one, but if Jimenez can recapture his pre-injury form this could really wind up looking bad.
Even the acquisition of Enrique Wilson has gone badly thus far. I loved the move at the time – the Yanks got a 25-year-old middle infielder who entered this season as a lifetime .283 hitter, in exchange for next to nothing – but Wilson has been completely helpless at the plate.
I’ve reserved judgment on the Yanks thus far this year on the assumption that, as so often proves true, the team they had on the field would not be the one they took into October. But they have basically chosen to stand pat and tinker just around the edges, which means they will have to get production the rest of the way from at least 4 of O’Neill, Tino, Brosius, Justice, Knoblauch and Soriano. Several of those guys have reached back lately to past glory (and Soriano has even taken a few pitches, a sign of the value of having good influences around), and it’s always dangerous to count out a veteran team with multiple championships behind it. But is the talent level still up to par? I’ll take a closer look in the next few weeks.
The Lawton deal, from the Twins’ perspective, I don’t quite understand. On the field, 2001, this is a fairly even trade: both Lawton and Reed are productive but not quite All-Star caliber players; Lawton’s younger, but Reed’s having a better year and, as I’ve explored in past columns, he has something extra on the ball late in the season: for his career, in the regular season, he has struck out 6.28 batters per 9 innings after September 1, compared to 5.47 the rest of the year (through 2000), and in the postseason the past two years that jumped to 7.94. But this is a team that’s already got an unimpressive-looking offense (granted, they are fifth in the AL in runs and sixth in pitching) and in particular a shortage of outfielders who can hit, and trading their most reliable hitter (Lawton’s really the only guy on the team who’s established himself as a consistent offensive force for more than just this year) for another starting pitcher seems risky. The deal probably leaves the Twins with the worst hitting outfield in baseball; Hunter, Jones and Allen are even worse at the plate than the pre-Lawton Mets crew of Agbayani, Payton and Shinjo.
Maybe the Twins felt that they were better off staying in more games rather than throwing them away at the back of the rotation, but the back of the rotation can be buried in October, as anyone can remember from 1987. What this deal really means is that the Twins think that getting to the postseason is so important they are willing to sacrifice their odds of winning once they get there.
Also, Reed makes almost $8 million a year and is signed for 2 more years; that’s not big money by Mets standards, but compared to the Twins’ payroll it’s a longer term commitment than I had expected. Plus, Reed (like Lawton, but for different reasons) was extremely unhappy with the move. The Twins’ other deal, for Todd Jones, makes some sense given their need for insurance for their Russian Roulette-playing closer, LaTroy Hawkins. The “proven closer” tag is overrated; with the exception of a few guys who are just too psyched out by the pressure, nearly anyone who can pitch can learn to close games. But pitchers who have done both closing and setup work will all tell you that there is a real mental adjustment to be made, and there’s something to be said for the idea that it’s harder to adjust to closing for the first time in August in the middle of a pennant race. You can’t fault the Twins (or the Red Sox for that matter) for
Mike Lupica calls Lawton "a lefthanded Tsuyoshi Shinjo," which is like calling the late-80s Lenny Dykstra a young Joe Orsulak, or comparing Bernie Williams to Garret Anderson. Lawton may not have the name recognition, but he’s a very good hitter; as of the deal he had a better OBP than Ichiro, Jeter or Bernie, and the Mets desperately need a guy who gets on base. The Mets should use him as a leadoff man, although Valentine’s still tinkering with where to put him.
What’s odd from the Mets’ perspective is the win-now aspect: Lawton’s not old, but at 29 he’s probably got more good years behind him than ahead, and he’s only signed through next year. Baseball-reference.com lists the ten most similar players to Lawton through age 28, starting with ex-Met Kevin Bass and also including Bernard Gilkey, and the ten all had highly similar career totals at the same age.
Eight of the ten had their last good year by age 29, the two exceptions being Larry Hisle, who had 2 great seasons at 30 and 31 (driving in 119 and 115 runs) before abruptly washing out, and Jackie Jensen, who won the MVP at 30 and had his career cut short at 32 in part by a fear of airplanes.
Trading Wendell and Cook to the Phillies for Bruce Chen and Adam Walker looks like a great idea for the Mets, since Chen has a great arm and Walker’s hot start at AA suggests a guy who may be a real prospect (albeit one with a history of injuries, a familiar song for Mets pitching prospects the past decade or so).
Chris Kahrl of the Baseball Prospectus noted some weeks back that the main reason the Phillies had soured on Chen was his failure to adequately prepare for his starts by reviewing scouting reports. Ironically, the Mets just dealt to Philly their go-to guy on drilling the pitchers with advance scouting, Todd Pratt. The attitude/desire question does move Chen from “coming star” status to “talented project,” but he’s still a chance worth taking. He's a better bet than Glendon Rusch was when the Mets picked him up.
I’ll miss Wendell – this really does cut the guts out of the Mets pen in a way that can’t be replaced this season – but in the long run, young, cheap starting pitchers are worth a whole lot more than old, expensive middle relievers. And the deal does make you wonder what the Phillies got when they spent a fortune on free agent relievers in the offseason and dealt another starting pitcher (Paul Byrd) to Kansas City for Jose Santiago. Meanwhile, the starting rotation has come unglued, and so has Bowa. Oh well, when the Phillies are hoisting their 2001 wild-card-runnerup banner they will look back on this deal as a key move .
THE JERMAINE DYE DEAL
Maybe I’m giving away my conclusion in the caption, but notice how the press accounts always identify the Royals’ trades by the guy they give up, not the one they get?
This is definitely a win-now deal for Oakland; Dye could join the parade to greener pastures in the not-too-distant future if he ever starts hitting again.
But there’s good reason to play for today. Let’s do another player comparison:
Player A: Jason Giambi (2000-01)
This is yet another reason for Billy Beane to ignore the fact that his team is 20 games out of first place, swallow hard and bet the ranch on the 2001 Wild Card. Now, these weren’t Gehrig’s best years, and of course he had 13 straight seasons like this, not 2. But that’s the point: it’s a very rare thing in baseball to get a guy who can hit like Lou Gehrig in his prime in the middle of your lineup, and rarer still when it’s a guy who was just another solid hitter the first five years of his career. Even if the A’s re-sign Giambi, it’s as likely as not that he’ll go back to being just another .300/.500/.400 guy by 2002 or 2003, and Oakland will have lost a tiny window of having a guy put together back-to-back seasons in the rarefied air of Gehrig, Foxx and Greenberg.
The bizarre thing about the Royals trading for Neifi Perez – who’s basically a younger version of Rey Sanchez once you get him out of Coors Field – is that it puts the lie to their argument that the Damon deal was really all about Angel Berroa, the “shorstop of the future” they got from Oakland in that trade. If you really made the deal to get a shortstop of the future, why’d you trade another outfielder for yet another young shortstop? To fill a hole for 2001 – when you’re in last place? For 2002, which you open without Dye and Damon? At last check, Berroa is hitting .269 at AA Witchita, where he’s hit 3 homers and drawn 6 walks. Oh, but he is really good at getting hit by pitches . . .
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