"It gets late early around here." - Yogi Berra
October 26, 2001
BASEBALL: Notes Before The 2001 World Series
Originally posted on Projo.com
A few thoughts as we come to the end of the second extended break in this bizarre baseball autumn . . .
+Yankees in five. Yeah, I've given up picking against them. No, I don't have a rational explanation, I just think they aren't going back to the desert once they get to the Bronx - unless Curt Schilling can do to this Yankee team what Mickey Lolich did to Bob Gibson's aura of unbeatability in 1968. Arizona's offense has two flaws that go badly together: a lack of guys who get on base and a lack of team speed (other than the frightening Tony Womack). Yet, they finished third in the NL in runs scored, and scored more runs than the Yankees did even with the DH. In any normal year, you would look at that and just give Luis Gonzalez the MVP award in a walk.
+Looking at the numbers, one of the huge factors in the Yankees' improvement this season as compared to last has been Andy Pettitte's command of the new strike zone. Pettitte cut his walks in half this year, and had his best season since 1997. Curt Schilling, obviously, has also shown he knows how to take maximum advantage of the higher zone.
+Imagine how miserable Mariner fans must be right now, after expecting some vindication for the disappointments of the nineties. Win 116 games, have the media on your bandwagon all year - and then all of a sudden it's just another Yankee year, for the 38th time in the past 81 AL seasons. It would have been your dream year; now it will be just another pennant that Yankee fans won't even remember 5 years from now except as part of a blur, anymore than they remember the difference between the 1950 team that squashed the Phillies' first pennant winner after emerging from 31 losing seasons in 32 years, and the 1951 team that crushed the Bobby Thompson Miracle Giants. The Mariners won't be forgotten, but like the 1954 Indians they will always be a footnote in the discussion of all-time great teams (unless, like the 1906 Cubs, they can reel off a few World Championships after this one, which I doubt).
While the 116 wins may have been a bit of a fluke, the Mariners' "Pythagorean record" (i.e., the number of games they would be expected to win based on their runs scored and allowed) was 109-53, still a staggering mark. Another of their secrets, besides those I examined back in July, was health: while Edgar got hurt, their other top 4 hitters (Boone, Olerud, Ichiro and Cameron) nearly never came out of the lineup. Only 3 bench players got more than 100 at bats, and of their top 12 hitters only one (backup catcher Tom Lampkin) was really awful.
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+I had a wager at the All-Star Break over whether Roberto Alomar would finish with a higher OPS than Bret Boone. I won, but narrowly. Boone got over The Hump: that point in the season when most of the guys having seasons above their head start dropping off badly, but a few survive. What's odd is that guys who clear The Hump usually wind up just getting hotter as the season goes along, as if they've broken so far through their own expectations of what the limits on their performance are that they just keep expecting more. What often then happens is the guy stays hot in the postseason (if his team makes it), stays hot early the next year (confounding the experts), then gets hurt and comes back as the same old guy. Think of Hubie Brooks 1985-1987 for a perfect example of this arc. Another reminder that while baseball in general is a game of probabilities created by talent, it's also a game of confidence and continuous adjustments.
+Irony: after hearing all year how losing the superstars didn't hurt the M's one bit, if the Big Unit manages to lead Arizona to a title and A-Rod and/or Griffey get rings some day, people will go back to asking about Seattle "what might have been?"
+If the Yankees win it all, where will they have the parade?
+Power hitters, generally, are patient hitters, and hitters who develop more patience or more power often develop the other as well (such as Sammy Sosa, Mike Cameron and Luis Gonzalez). Hitters who hit for both average and power tend, overwhelmingly, to be patient hitters who draw a lot of walks. But if you look historically at the high-average power hitters who draw very few walks, you notice a pattern: nearly all of them are righthanded hitters. Al Simmons is the prototype of this type of hitter. Other examples: Nomar, Juan Gonzalez, Roberto Clemente, Kirby Puckett, Joe DiMaggio (when he was younger), Andre Dawson, Ivan Rodriguez, Steve Garvey, George Bell. There are some lefties of this type: Don Mattingly and George Brett in their youth, Al Oliver, Cecil Cooper. But it's mostly righthanders. I wonder why.
+That Bagwell/Biggio, Malone/Stockton comparison is just way too easy. The Jazz, however, never scapegoated Jerry Sloan.
+The Yankee radio announcers made fun of the Mariners for having Julio Cruz throw out a first ball instead of somebody like Whitey Ford or Yogi Berra.
+Here's what I want to know: runner on third, one out, tie game, bottom of the ninth inning of the deciding game of the series . . . if you're calling for a suicide squeeze, aren't you just admitting you don't have faith in the batter to even put the ball in play? Isn't that a pathetic comment on an everyday player?
+It was very, very funny when the Yankees got all exercised over Barry Zito pitching inside. We know none of Joe Torre's pitchers would ever throw high and tight.
+Where are all those people who were ready to crown Ichiro the best player in baseball two weeks ago?
+Mariano Rivera's Hall of Fame argument is going to be very, very interesting. We are going to need some perspective, though; Goose, Quiz and Sutter all had this mystique once too, and if the current postseason alignment had existed in the 80s they would have pitched in the playoffs a lot more often. But Rivera should be the first player to go on the ballot who will likely be elected almost entirely on the basis of his postseason performance. On the other hand, Edgar Martinez' Hall of Fame candidacy was ended this week.
Martinez, though unquestionably a Hall of Fame quality hitter, entered 2000 with nine, count 'em, nine strikes against him: (1) he's a DH and no career DH has ever made the Hall; (2) his career has been short; (3) his teams had consistently underachieved; (4) his best years came in a hitter's era; (5) he had played his whole career in a hitters' park; (6) he is extremely slow on the basepaths; (7) he had never had a huge RBI year; (8) he had never won the MVP; and (9) he has a reputation for being injury-prone.
In two years, he made a lot of progress. The fact that Martinez has kept on trucking into his late 30s and survived the move to SafeCo has helped with (2) and eliminated (5). The Mariners did better than expected in 2000 and busted out with the 116 wins this year when most people picked them to finish out of contention, so (3) looked like it was gone. His 145 RBI in 2000 knocked out (7).
But with an injury-riddled second half followed by a spectacular flameout by the Mariners in the playoffs when the whole world was watching, Martinez lost the battle, lost his chance to have the kind of clutch mystique that separates borderline Hall of Famers from guys who top out at 10% of the vote. Twenty years from now, Martinez will have a devoted following among statheads, but the press will have forgotten him.
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October 19, 2001
BASEBALL: GOTTA GET TO MO
Originally posted on Projo.com
Well, they’re doing it again. The Hated Yankees knocked off the A’s, stifling yet another threat to their title defense. Now, they’ve got the hammer ready to fall on the Mariners. I can’t say I’ve enjoyed this – it’s like having sand poured down your throat watching it – but one of the things I love about baseball is watching a story develop, watching history unfold, if you will, and seeing where it seems to be headed.
Maybe the mind plays tricks on us, and there are always twists you can’t anticipate, but the whole “team of destiny” thing doesn’t come from nowhere. Baseball is a game in which talent creates probabilities, and the team with the odds on its side usually wins out in the end. But sports is also an emotional business, a confidence game. Emotions are volatile, particularly when magnified by all the things sports does to magnify them – the roaring crowd, the lack of time to reflect or seek a moment’s peace, the fact that everything rides on just a few at bats, the inevitable stretch of days and years ahead rehashing split-second decisions. Sometimes, that confidence can be fragile as emotions run high.
All this is to say that part of the fun of tight September races and the postseason – and the maddening part, to analysts of the game – is putting aside the logic and the probabilities and getting on the emotional roller-coaster. And waiting for that storyline you see playing in your head to play out.
Here’s what I see: the single biggest advantage these Yankees have had over the past few years in the postseason is the bullpen: Rivera and Stanton, Nelson, Mendoza – but mostly Rivera.
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I’m not terribly impressed with Rivera’s value in the regular season, not because he’s not great – in fact, he’s been as consistently dominant as any reliever except Eckersley and Sutter – but because there’s only so valuable a guy can be throwing 70-75 innings a year. He threw 80.2 innings this year, his highest total since 1996.
But the postseason is different, and Joe Torre deserves credit for using Rivera in a way that demonstrates an understanding that the rules of baseball have changed dramatically since 1994, and that the postseason is almost literally a different game. Put simply, using Rivera as a specialist, one-inning-save-opportunity-only closer has kept him fresh enough to become a different pitcher in the postseason. Only in the age of the wild card can a manager afford to ration one of his best pitchers this way, but the long postseason requires fresh arms. Let’s look at Rivera’s career postseason numbers through last night, projected to a 162-game schedule (the Yankees have played 73 postseason games in his career):
Wow. Eck’s effectiveness at Goose’s workload. Rivera in the postseason has been a different pitcher not so much because he’s been better (although he has) but because he’s pitched so much that he’s been a humongous factor. A guy who throws 155.2 innings in 100 appearances, all with the game on the line, and has an 0.77 ERA – that would be a reliever worthy of the MVP award in the regular season.
So, what’s my story? Here it goes. Maybe the Yanks get old, fall apart, and fail to make the postseason. But until they do . . . nobody beats them until they beat Rivera. FOX has been all over this, noting that the Yankees over their history are 153-1 when leading after 8 innings in the postseason, an improbable stat even when you consider how relatively few baseball games are decided in the last inning. Sometimes you have to beat the champ at his strength to knock him off. The Mets came tantalizingly close in Game 2 last year, and of course the difference in the Yanks’ lone postseason loss of the last 5 years was Rivera’s lone blown save, the homer by Sandy Alomar in Game 4 of the 1997 ALDS. Until somebody else does it, the Yankees keep rolling.
I couldn’t let pass without comment Rob Neyer’s column on October 16, claiming that the Maddux-Randy Johnson pitching matchup was the first time in more than 35 years – since the 1963 matchup of Koufax and Whitey Ford – since pitchers who “might be described as the best of their generation” hooked up in the postseason. Now, Neyer can draw his lines where he likes, I suppose. He can ignore Catfish pitching against Tom Seaver; I’d agree that Catfish isn’t in the best-pitchers-ever class he’s trying to look at. He can even throw out Dwight Gooden’s 1986 matchups against Nolan Ryan and Roger Clemens, I suppose, although at the time nobody doubted that Gooden was the best pitcher in baseball. (Ryan wasn’t really in that class, but Game 5 of the 1986 NLCS was as good a pitcher’s duel as you will ever see, with Gooden allowing just 1 run in 10 IP and Ryan surviving a broken ankle in the second inning to strike out 12 and allowing just an uncharacteristically dinky home run to Darryl Strawberry). It’s fair enough to say that Gooden’s greatness didn’t last long enough, but those games sure looked like ones for the record books to the people watching them.
But was Neyer watching in 1999? Game 3, ALCS? Or a half-season of injury later, has he already forgotten Pedro Martinez? Sure, as with Gooden-Clemens, Martinez-Clemens was a bust as a pitchers’ duel, but what Pedro has done since 1997 is so unprecedented in the history of the game that, like Koufax, he would have earned himself a place among the true immortals even if he retired tomorrow.
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