"It gets late early around here." - Yogi Berra
May 31, 2002
BASEBALL: Gay Ballplayers and Steroids
Originally posted on Projo.com
Somehow, it's always baseball. My mind came back to this, last week as the papers carried two reports on the same day: Mike Piazza denying he was gay, and Barry Bonds denying he uses steroids. For now, we must take both men at their word, and in Piazza's case in particular there is really no reason to inquire further if that is the answer he wishes to give. But the questions were being asked, and on the steroid issue, they are just getting warmed up. And that's baseball, and it's another reason why, for all the mega-ratings popularity of football, for all the pop culture cache of hoops, this is still America's game. People have higher hopes and expectations for baseball, and they expect it to solve its problems. Let college football wallow in hypocrisy, as it has done for all its existence. (Really, we're just students who like to play a game on Saturday! Nobody's making any money here!) See the NBA's popularity soar without the league having done a single thing about the various shames that have been reported about its players in recent years. But if baseball players are on steroids, sooner or later, people want to know. And they will know, even though nobody in the game really has a strong incentive to blow the whistle. Maybe, as he has threatened, it will break with Jose Canseco. The SI-Ken Caminiti expose means the process has already begun.
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And if there are gay professional athletes out there - and we know too much about human nature to say there are not - people look to baseball to deal with it, to bring someone into the open and test exactly how much the public is willing to accept. The first rumblings started with the whole story about a year ago about a gay writer who hinted, vaguely but tantalizingly, about a ballplayer he had had an affair with who played on the East Coast and wasn't the biggest star on his team (the writer has since scoffed at the suggestion that he was talking about Piazza, who is very obviously the biggest star on his team) and who was thinking of 'coming out.'
There's a long tradition here. Baseball invented the color line, as far as sports were concerned, and baseball broke it; no other athlete did more to change the country than Jackie Robinson (Muhammad Ali fans to the contrary). Baseball started many of pro sports' traditions in honoring and disciplining players and others in the game; baseball was looked to for an example in wartime, and led the response after September 11. Baseball pioneered free agency, player unions and labor disturbances. Baseball grappled with the fixing of the World Series; as Bill James memorably wrote in the 1986 Abstract, "the reaction of the public in the period after the War to End All Wars was, in essence, that it was one thing when the police were corrupt, that it was one thing when juries were bribed and judges kept on retainer, that it was one thing when elections were rigged and politicians let contracts go to the highest briber, but when baseball players started fixing games, well that was just too much; something had to be done about it." James was writing about the Pittsburgh drug trials of the 1980s, and he wrote in the aftermath that nearly everyone in the game who'd used drugs in the late 70s-early 80s had been publicly exposed as such. Meanwhile, Art Rust jr. famously remarked in the 1970s that "if cocaine were helium, the whole NBA would just float away." But the NBA had no messy public reckoning. It's not like they were baseball players, after all.
Of course, the way the Piazza story broke was a particularly shabby episode, with a gossip columnist who knows nothing about sports running an item that was pointed enough to suggest Piazza, the most ostentatiously single Met, but does not appear (from the public reports) to have had much in the way of support from credible sources. This would appear, among other things, to violate the gossip columnists' code of ethics (if there be such a thing): don't make a 'blind item' so specific that everyone knows who you're talking about, unless you've really got the goods. Piazza will be heckled about this for the rest of his career, and there's not a damn thing he can do about it. Whatever you think about the merits of a gay man in baseball coming out publicly, I can't possibly imagine a worse situation than 'outing' the star of a contending team in midseason against his will. A week of the season was consumed by the story, and if there had been more support to it, the whole season would have been overshadowed. Remember, Branch Rickey didn't bring Jackie Robinson to the Dodgers in June, and he didn't bring him against his will, either.
Now the steroid story is the front-page saga, hitting the cover of Sports Illustrated with Ken Caminiti's extremely un-shocking confession that he used steroids in his transformation from a 30-year-old who slugged .390 in 1993 while tying his career highs in homers (13) and doubles to the muscle-bound player who slugged .621, cracked 40 homers and drove in 130 runs in his 1996 MVP campaign. If you were surprised that Caminiti was on steroids, well, there's also some bad news I should give you about pro wrestling.
As with the gay question, there are people throwing around percentages and unproven innuendoes about specific players without a lot of support; in some cases, the same names come up in both debates. On this one, though, the truth should come out, and eventually the dam will break, because it can't hold forever. The SI story will naturally push a lot of people to ask questions they'd shied away from asking before. For my money, the use of steroids doesn't make the homer explosion of the last few years illegitimate any more than the spitball made Ed Walsh's exploits illegitimate or the rampant and varied cheating of the 1894 Baltimore Orioles made them less than true champions - it's just another facet of the competitive conditions of the era. But, like those earlier abuses, it has to be changed. And it's up to the players to change it. The league can police the issue once there's a testing plan in place - but the impetus will have to come from the players themselves, because as long as the owners can only get testing at the bargaining table, they will always have priorities that have more importance to their own interests that they would rather seek as a concession. Can you blame them? At some level, the health of the players is their own business. But sometimes the public has a role, when people need a little outside pressure to resist peer pressures to disregard their own health. You and I can be a part of that, and can give moral support to the 'clean' players who want to re-level the playing field.
The two issues of condemning the use of steroids and accepting (or not accepting) gay players involve very different underlying considerations, and perhaps some day I'll go back to untangle some of those in this space. (I'd probably be crazy to do so on the issue of gay athletes, but that day will come). But for a moment the two got intertwined: the issues are hot at the same time, the media (in all its various forms) is using the same methods to push them towards disclosure. In doing so, all I can say is, please, folks, tread cautiously.
In the steroid debate, those methods, however ugly, may prove a necessary evil; even so, we can hope that reform will come without anyone's reputation getting slimed unfairly. As Bonds argued, false accusations of steroid use don't just hurt the player; they also contribute to the perception that everyone is doing it and that steroids are the road to success. But when innuendoes and unsubstantiated rumors are used to expose or distort people's sexual preferences against their will, well, that's not right. Because who is or isn't gay is at bottom a social/political issue and not a baseball one, and baseball players shouldn't be forced into social/political debates if they don't want to be.
But people will always try. After all, they are baseball players.
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May 14, 2002
BASEBALL: Canseco and the Dick Allen Problem
Originally posted on Projo.com
One of the perennial debates that rages around baseball's milestone numbers -- 300 wins, 500 homers, 3000 hits -- is when the party will be crashed by someone who doesn't belong in the Hall of Fame (right now, other than Pete Rose, everyone in those clubs is in the Hall or on the way), or, more properly, whether they do and should guarantee a ticket to Cooperstown, no questions asked.
We've had close calls -- Tommy John and Bill Buckner come to mind -- but the guys who didn't deserve the honor always came up short. In recent years, the debate has centered on Jose Canseco and Fred McGriff. With Canseco's retirement on Monday, it's time to look at why, in my opinion, he was never a Hall of Fame threat even if he made it to 500. (McGriff is a better HOF candidate than you think, but I'm reserving judgment on him right now).
The occasional case for Canseco as a Hall of Famer has generally been based on his career totals: .266/.515/.353 with 462 homers and 1407 RBI. But his problem can best be explained by first looking at another candidate. It's the Dick Allen problem.
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Dick Allen, you see, was a great hitter. Hank Aaron great. Willie Mays great. Or very close, at least. Despite several lifetimes' worth of distraction and controversy, Allen was a career .292/.534/.378 hitter, with a higher career slugging average than Mel Ott, Mike Schmidt, Ty Cobb, Harry Heilmann, or Edgar Martinez, despite playing in the most pitcher-friendly era in modern history and spending seasons of his prime in some severe pitchers' parks like Dodger Stadium and Busch (for years he was the only man to hit 30 homers in a season at Busch Stadium). By any measure of per-at-bat offensive production, the top howevermany you're looking at winds up being a bunch of Hall of Famers, some guys with extremely short careers, some active players, and Dick Allen. Baseball-reference.com, for example, has a stat called "Adjusted OPS+", which is basically on base plus slugging divided by the league average over a player's career, with some park adjustments. Allen is 20th on the list, ahead of people like Aaron and Joe DiMaggio and Honus Wagner and behind only one eligible non-Hall of Famer, Pete Browning. (Browning played in the American Association in the 1880s, then the weaker of the two major leagues, and was a notoriously bad fielder, finishing his career with 659 RBI and 414 errors, not a ratio we usually associate with immortality). Allen's career totals are respectable: 351 homers, 1119 RBI. Other less productive sluggers have been enshrined without substantially larger totals (Orlando Cepeda and Hack Wilson and Chick Hafey, for example).
For this reason, the statistically-oriented among us tend to be drawn to Allen's Hall of Fame cause. Allen's cause even has a "hook" -- many people feel that he's been unjustly slighted for being a world-class jerk, and relatedly for his gift for creating racially tinged controversies in the racially charged Sixties. Allen was the guy who wore a batting helmet in the field because the Phillies fans threw so much stuff at him, remember. A good sample of the pro-Allen case is this piece by Don Malcolm on the Baseball Primer site. Bill James, one of Allen's leading critics, hasn't really helped the argument by being unusually dismissive of the statistical record in lumping Allen with Hal Chase as a player whose clubhouse influence was so malignant that he may not even have helped his teams win no matter what he did on the field.
There's something to the argument that Allen may be one of those players who was such a polarizing figure that it's an impossible task for him to get a fair shake from the people who saw him play. Even so, while I've been attracted by Allen's cause in the past, I ultimately don't buy it, and the reasons he falls just short are the same as why I don't think Jose Canseco is within shouting distance of being a Hall of Famer. In a nutshell, when I look at a Hall of Famer, the first question I ask is, "how many seasons did this guy have where he was a Hall of Fame quality ballplayer"? And the second is, "how good was he in those years -- just around or above the line, or way above it?" Dick Allen and Jose Canseco had plenty of days when they brought Hall of Fame talent to the ballpark. But they also both missed too much time and had too many other problems to really pile up a large number of Hall of Fame quality seasons. And if you don't have a decent number of those type of seasons -- I tend to think of an 8-10 year peak as the minimum necessary -- you need to either have a truly incredible Koufax-like peak or an equally incredible record of both consistency AND longevity a la Don Sutton (756 career starts, third all time) to belong among the immortals.
The conclusion that Dick Allen was not quite a Hall of Famer came to me one day when I was trying to figure out, in the context of this argument, how Allen had been treated by the MVP voters of his day and whether he had been given a fair shake. Dick Allen only placed in the top 10 in the balloting 3 times, winning the award in 1972, finishing 7th in 1964 and 4th in 1966, and received virtually no votes in any other season. This seemed to me to be a poor performance for a guy who was such a dominating offensive force in his prime years, so I took a season-by-season look, with some help from Retrosheet and the player notes in the old edition of the Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract. The voters were indeed much too hard on Allen. Even so, there just weren't quite enough full "star" years to convince me of his case.
Allen's Rookie of the Year season in 1964 was a legitimately brilliant year with the bat, comparable to Albert Pujols' debut but more valuable given the lower-scoring context. The Phillies improved by 5 games with Allen in the lineup and led the pennant race until a now-infamous late-season collapse, which wasn't any more Dick Allen's fault than anyone else's. Nor can you really blame Allen's "leadership," since he was a 22-year-old rookie. Allen led the league in runs and total bases, was 7th in on base, 5th in batting, 3rd in slugging, yet he finished just 7th in the MVP vote -- what gives? After all, the voters gave the award to Roy Campanella over Monte Irvin in 1951, Maury Wills over Willie Mays in 1962, Jim Rice over Ron Guidry in 1978, and George Bell (who was a huge cause of the Blue Jays' collapse) over Alan Trammell in 1987, so you can't say that the voters are biased against players on teams that choke down the stretch. I'd agree that Allen should probably have placed higher, but he was hardly the best player in the league. Allen was a very unstable glove man at third base, making a staggering 41 errors that season, and you can't plausibly argue that he was better than, say, Willie Mays, who hit 47 homers and finished ahead of Allen. The award went to Ken Boyer, a better fielder who drove in more runs; not a great award, and Allen probably should have been voted ahead of Boyer and Johnny Callison, at least. Give Allen a few points here for ranking lower than he should have, but he wasn't the MVP.
1965 is a somewhat similar story: Allen didn't have an argument to be one of the 4 or 5 best players in the league: he was miles behind Mays and Koufax, and since he was 7th in the league in OPS, didn't drive in or score 100 runs and made 26 errors at third base, he easily deserved to rank below people like Aaron, Willie McCovey, Frank Robinson, Ron Santo, Joe Torre, Clemente and Pete Rose. On the other hand, Allen's 28th place finish seems rather low for a guy who played 161 games for a team with a winning record, batted over .300 with power, drew walks and ran well.
But 1965, when he was 23 years old, would be the last time Dick Allen appeared in more than 155 games. In 1966 he had a monster year with the bat: .317 with 40 homers, 110 RBI, 112 Runs, .632 slugging, .396 OBP. He led the league in slugging and OPS and was among the top 4 in the league in numerous other offensive categories. His team won 87 games. He finished 4th in the MVP balloting. By my reckoning, he should have been second: he was by far the best hitter in the league. I would have voted for Koufax, who threw 323 innings with a league leading 1.73 ERA and won 27 games for a team with a below-average offense (even adjusted for the park). But the voters put Allen behind Roberto Clemente (who had more RBI and a better throwing arm and won the award even as the second-best hitter on his team) and Willie Mays. Why? Well, Allen's team finished behind the Pirates and Giants, and the Phillies were buried in the early going because they went 11-13 in Allen's absence after he dislocated his shoulder in late April -- when Allen returned, the team had dropped from 1.5 back to 6.5 games back and in 6th place. They finished 8 games out. Of course, Mays and Clemente each missed a few games as well, but the voters clearly cut Allen for the damage done by his absence, as well as for a highly publicized and racially tinged fight with Frank Thomas, a veteran outfielder who had hit well for the Phillies down the stretch in 1964 and was released by the team shortly after the altercation. Also, the Phillies tried Allen in left field for 47 games, but his defense there was poor, and he wound up back at third.
Then we get to 1967 . . . in 1967, the Phillies were never really in the race, but there wasn't much of a race: the Cardinals had an 8 game lead by the 5th of August. But 1967 would be the typical Dick Allen season: he hit tremendously well, leading the league in on base percentage (.404) and finishing second in slugging (.566), plus he stole 20 bases in 25 attempts and hit into just 9 double plays. A great player, right? But Allen wasn't among the league leaders in Runs, RBI, or Total Bases for a reason: he missed 40 games, including a 35-game stretch at the end of the season after shredding his hand pushing it through a headlight while moving his car. In his absence the team mostly used weak-hitting utilityman Tony Taylor (.238/.312/.308) at third base. The Phillies were 14-21 after Allen's accident, losing six 1-0 games in that period. The Phillies scored 3.78 runs/game on the season, but just 2.88 after September 1. Unsurprisingly, Allen finished 19th in the MVP voting, mostly behind players who stayed in the lineup (with the exception of catcher Tim McCarver, who missed 24 games and was second in the balloting).
In 1968 Allen had to be moved to the outfield. He was healthier than usual, missing just 10 games and finishing second in slugging and home runs and 5th in RBI. His on base percentage was .352 compared to a league average of .298 (yikes!). His defense in left field was nothing to write home about, he was benched for a time by Gene Mauch, and the Phillies finished 10th, but you would still have counted him among the league's best players just for his bat in a league where bats were hard to come by. Instead, he was ignored: not named on a single ballot, while a variety of hitters with weaker numbers and uncertain defensive credentials drew support (Lou Brock was on the pennant-winning Cardinals, yes, but he was a dreadful fielder and not in Allen's universe as a hitter, and Brock was 6th in the balloting, with teammate Mike Shannon 7th for batting .266 with 15 home runs. Ernie Banks and Tony Perez also drew support for far weaker power numbers and unimpressive glove work).
So, in his first 5 years in the league, Allen had a start: three outstanding seasons among the league's best players, one year as a star, one season of superstar quality but missing a quarter of the schedule. But his durability went downhill from there. In 1969 he missed 44 games; "missed" is one way to say it, but Allen was benched for a month in late June by Bob Skinner (Mauch was gone by now, and Skinner would be gone soon after) for failing to show up for a doubleheader after being late for games on several earlier occasions. By this point he was stationed at first base, and accustomed to his absences, the Phillies had lined up a backup (Deron Johnson) who was an above-league-average hitter, if no Dick Allen. For once the team played well in his absence, although they lost 99 games by season's end. Not surprisingly, Allen was ignored in the MVP race, drawing not a single vote. It's hard to fault the writers for this -- can a guy be MVP when he misses a month of the summer because he didn't care to show up for the games? We're not talking Barry Bonds or Albert Belle here -- there's a world of difference between a guy who's a jerk because he annoys reporters and teammates and a guy who's a jerk because he doesn't bother to play the game.
Allen was traded to the Cardinals in the offseason, as part of the deal that touched off the Curt Flood controversy, with St. Louis looking to fill the void left by the departure of Orlando Cepeda the previous year. Allen was then pressed into service at third base when Mike Shannon's career came to an abrupt halt; he fielded .895, plus he made 2 errors in his 3 appearances in the outfield. He was 8th in slugging and OPS and seventh in homers against the headwind of Busch Stadium and made his fourth All-Star team, but once again not among the league leaders in Runs, RBI or Total Bases thanks to missing 40 games with assorted injuries. Bob Gibson went 23-7 and won the Cy Young Award, but the Cards were falling apart at the seams anyway, finishing 10 games under .500, and Allen was again ignored in the MVP race.
In 1971, it was the Dodgers' turn. The Dodgers got 155 games of good play from Allen, and the team won 89 games and finished second, their best showing since Koufax retired, with Allen leading the team in slugging, on base, homers, and RBI. Allen's only league leaderboard appearances were 10th in OPS and 4th in walks, although baseball-reference.com lists him 5th in "OPS+", which is a park-adjusted figure, behind Hank Aaron, Willie Stargell, Joe Torre and Willie Mays. Despite his usually dreadful defense at multiple positions, Allen belonged in the race -- he was in the lineup more than Aaron or Stargell or the 40-year-old Mays (who finished 19th in the voting) -- and Torre was hardly a Gold Glover, although the OPS stat ignores the fact that Allen hit into more double plays than even the lead-footed Torre. Instead, Allen again got not one vote.
The slightly strike-shortened 1972 season (most teams played 154 games) brought a fresh start in the American League, including a new group of writers. Allen played 148 of them, and responded with his best season, leading the league in homers (37, with only one other player topping 26), RBI (by 13), slugging (by 65 points), OBP, walks, and extra base hits. Chuck Tanner stuck Allen at first base, where he didn't do much damage. The White Sox improved by 8 games, their first winning season in 5 years, and held sole possession of first place as late as August 28 (the latest they'd held the lead since 1964) before fading in September. The writers recognized this -- Dick Allen fell just 3 votes shy of a unanimous MVP selection, the 3 votes going to idiosyncratic choices Joe Rudi, Sparky Lyle and Mickey Lolich.
At this point, at age 30, Allen was still building his Hall of Fame resume. He'd been the undisputed best player in the league once, a legit MVP candidate 4 or other times, but with serious drawbacks regarding his defense and in some cases his durability, and had one very good season and three others cut short by injuries and insubordination.
After that, there wasn't much left. 1973 was classic Dick Allen: he added 250 at bats of superb production to his career totals, but missed half the season with an injury. His team, 27-15 at the end of May and in first place on June 29 (around the time Allen went down), finished in fifth place, 17 games out; forced to replace Allen with light-hitting glove man Tony Muser at first base (Muser had a decent OBP but slugged just .388 to Allen's .612), the offense dropped off from 4.2 runs/game through June to 3.89/game the rest of the way. Allen made the All-Star team but did not finish in the MVP balloting, drawing just one tenth-place vote.
Then there was 1974, Allen's last good year. Again, the numbers look good: he led the league in homers, slugging and OPS and was 7th in RBI. But Allen missed 34 games, including abruptly announcing his retirement in mid-September. The pennant race moment had passed for the White Sox anyway -- they wouldn't contend again until 1977 -- but Allen's absence certainly didn't help. He finished 23d in the MVP voting, behind a host of lesser lights (including Elliott Maddox, who also missed 25 games).
Allen came back with the Phillies in 1975 but hit poorly, .233 with little power. He was more productive despite assorted injuries the following season (.268/.480/.346 in 85 games) but was not a factor in his first postseason. The A's released him early the following season, ending his career at 35.
Allen was one of the best players in baseball in his prime, yes, but -- well, even in his best years there was always a "but" that kept him from being really the best, mainly poor defense. And a guy who played 130 games in a season just 6 times needs to do better than that. Allen's teams were always visibly better when he was in the lineup than they were before he arrived, after he left or when he was hurt -- but the Hall of Fame is about how much a player did to push his teams towards a championship, and in the real world championship teams need guys who show up for the games. Allen's career as a whole averages out to some great stuff -- and the totals aren't bad. Bill James' Win Shares system, for example, ranks Allen as one of the ten best eligible players not in the Hall of Fame in total Win Shares. But I just can't give him the same credit for, say, the 322 games he played in 1967 and 1973-74 as if he had played them in two seasons at 161 a pop; those absences had a real, concrete impact on teams fighting for position in real standings. That context matters. It's not the Hall-of-OPS, after all.
What does all this have to do with Jose Canseco? Well, Canseco's story is much like Dick Allen's, although while Canseco can be a conceited pain in the rear end he's never been half as disruptive as Allen. But while Allen's take at the end of 15 big league seasons leaves him just shy of Cooperstown, Canseco's qualifications are far weaker, with even fewer genuine star-level seasons. Canseco has appeared in even as many as 120 games in a season just six times, in which he's batted .240, .257, .307, .274 (in 131 games, 43 of them as a DH), .266 and .237 (with more than half his games as a DH). Here's Canseco's line for those six years:
That's a fine ballplayer, with one season as the best player in the game, but is that the guts of a Hall of Fame career? Bear in mind that Canseco not only missed 31 games in 1990, he also spent another 43 as a DH, and he played more than half his games at DH in 1998. His on base percentage was below .320 in half of his full seasons, in years when the league average was between .328 and .337. Two of those years, 1987 and 1998 (as well as many of the years when Canseco has been plugging away at 75-115 games a year as a DH/stationary object), were high-scoring seasons. (And we're not even getting into his pitching exploits or the time the fly ball bounced off his head for a home run, which remains the single funniest thing that has ever happened). A typical Canseco year was 1995, when he hit .306/.556/.378 in 102 games as a DH for the division-winning Red Sox; you may remember him as a productive player, but there was a reason he didn't make the All-Star team or finish on the charts in the MVP balloting, because his limitations in the field and durability-wise made him a lot less than a star. Is that a Hall of Famer? Maybe if you have that same season every year for 27 years. Maybe. If you're dependable as clockwork. But the unpredictability of Canseco's career, as with Dick Allen's, has convinced innumerable employers that they can't bank on him as part of the foundation of a winning team. To me, that means something.
Certainly a guy can have injury-shortened seasons or be used as a part-time player, and they can be part of his Hall of Fame case. Look at George Brett, or Ted Williams, or Mickey Mantle, or Joe DiMaggio, or Al Kaline, or Willie McCovey, or Willie Stargell. But those guys all had more of a foundation to build around than Canseco. Reggie Jackson played at least 131 games 12 years in a row (streak broken by the strike) and 16 times overall; Jim Rice 11 times, Stargell 9 times, McCovey 8 times and never with an on base percentage below .350. Billy Williams, with career totals similar to Canseco's, played 150 or more games 12 years in a row, and went 8 years without missing a game. Other than old-time catchers, nearly everyone in the Hall of Fame made it there by playing regularly for a good chunk of time; the exceptions are people like Frank Chance, who's half in as a manager, or Chick Hafey, whose enshrinement can't be justified without reference to the influence of Frankie Frisch over the Veterans' Committee. The only player in the Hall who may have legitimately put himself in on the basis of part-time play was Ted Lyons (I'll save the debate about the "Sunday pitcher" for another time).
But by and large, you don't stitch together a Hall of Fame career out of bits and pieces of seasons. Dick Allen was a great ballplayer -- when he was available. Jose Canseco was sometimes a great ballplayer -- when he was available. A Hall of Famer is a great ballplayer -- period.
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May 3, 2002
BASEBALL: The Reds, The Rangers and The Early Results
Originally posted on Projo.com
Want an early candidate for a team playing over its head? Other than the Red Sox, of course; the Sox have played over anybody's head thus far, as well they should with 18 of their first 24 games against Baltimore, Tampa Bay and Kansas City. Playing close to .700 ball even against the bad teams is impressive, but we'll need more time to evaluate these Sox as the schedule balances out with an impending West Coast swing.
But the rest of the early returns in the AL are fairly close to expectations. The real surprises have been in the NL, with the Braves and Phillies struggling, the Expos and Dodgers surging, and the whole NL Central is topsy-turvy. Everyone knows about the Expos, who are sort of for real but will cool down some when Michael Barrett returns to earth and when/if they get hit with their annual run of pitching injuries (ace Javier Vazquez complained of a sore arm in camp but has gotten stronger as the season has worn on, while the biggest injury risk, Carl Pavano, has not pitched well and thus hasn't been an element of the team's early success). Some of their success may keep up: early hero Lee Stevens may just be on his way to a good year in his mid-30s, Tony Armas Jr. has always had good stuff and Tomo Okha was a solid starter in the minors, and Brad Wilkerson has looked for some time like a guy who could get on base and contribute if he settled down into an everyday job. (One worry: key reliever Matt Herges, who worked hard the past few years in LA, is on pace to appear in 96 games and throw over 100 innings).
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For a team that's drawing some early raves but can't keep it up, I'd take the 17-9 Reds. Through Wednesday, the Reds were the only team in the vaunted NL Central to have outscored their opponents on the season, and only barely at that (108-100). The infield and catcher Jason LaRue aren't hitting at all, which might be a positive in a way (Sean Casey and Aaron Boone could get hot later on, and Barry Larkin and Todd Walker aren't this bad). The team's offense has come largely from young outfielders Adam Dunn, Juan Encarnacion, Ruben Mateo and Austin Kearns, and Ken Griffey is expected back soon. But that could also lead to a logjam, while the health record of the people involved suggests that the Reds would be premature in trying to trade any of them. The bigger problem is the pitching; the rotation really isn't in any better shape than at the start of the season. Jimmy Haynes has been terrible for about the seventh straight season. Joey Hamilton has a good ERA, but has allowed 59 baserunners in 37.1 innings, and you can't win for long doing that; ditto for Chris Reitsma (36 baserunners in 22.1 innings; I'm more optimistic about Reitsma but recall how he tailed off last season). Jose Acevedo was sent back to the minors two weeks ago, and in his place is Jose Rijo, hardly a guy you can bank on for 200 innings (remember all the times Fernando came back with 3-4 good starts and then fell apart). That leaves just Elmer Dessens, who's a solid enough third starter but not likely to post a 1.80 ERA over a full season.
(The Dodgers are too early to call, although I'm skeptical since their success is based almost entirely on pitching and defense and depends on the mercurial Hideo Nomo and the equally wild but unproven Kazuhisa Ishii, neither of whom is likely to keep succeeding if they keep issuing so many walks. Odalis Perez has also been unconscious in the early going with a 1.64 ERA and a 25-3 K/BB ratio, threatening to justify the Sheffield trade. The Pirates, by contrast, are already running out of smoke and mirrors, with most of the non-Giles lineup not hitting and the starting rotation other than rookie Josh Fogg getting shelled).
At this point in the year, the teams you look most skeptically at are the ones that are winning with late rallies, unreal relief pitching and a lot of close games - things that can all turn on you in a heartbeat, and usually do over the long season. The Reds and Pirates fit that bill to perfection, the Expos and Mets to a lesser degree.
On the other side of that coin, there's the Rangers. There has been more than a little unrestrained gloating over the Rangers' disastrous and embarrassing start to 2002. A prime example was this ESPN column by Phil Rogers, but he's hardly the only one. Mike Lupica of the New York Daily News has been piling on Tom Hicks ever since he signed Lupica's nemesis Alex Rodriguez after the 2000 season.
There's a lot of reasons for this. Hicks is a brash, big-spending type who has tried to replicate his NHL experience of pouring big dollars into the free agent market to produce an instant winner, and a lot of the owners don't much care for the threat of salary inflation; writers like Rogers who tend to side with the owners echo this sentiment. Hicks is also close to a certain former Rangers owner now in the White House, and as with George Steinbrenner and Peter Angelos, his outside political activities give some people an added reason to dislike him. Lupica's war of words with A-Rod goes back a ways, and there's enough wrong to go around - A-Rod was treated shabbily by some of the teams he talked to as a free agent (i.e., the Mets), but he shouldn't have tried to paint himself as a martyr for selling out to the highest bidder; Lupica of all people should be the last to criticize a guy for changing jobs. I'm just picking on two writers here, but if you go down the list you find a lot of people with axes to grind against not just Hicks and Rodriguez but also John Hart, Juan Gonzalez, John Rocker, Hideki Irabu, Kenny Rogers, and of course Carl Everett.
But beyond the media's ppig pile, the Rangers haven't actually been that bad in the early going. Sure, the bullpen's been dreadful, and that can be demoralizing as well as undoing all the good work of the rest of the team. But a bullpen is the cheapest and easiest part of a baseball team to fix. Specifically, Texas' starting rotation has been vastly improved over last year, but with the bullpen giving away leads like Halloween candy, there hasn't been a lot of attention paid to the starters. Kenny Rogers, Doug Davis and Ismael Valdes have all pitched well; none of them is going to challenge for a Cy Young award, but all have thrown strikes and generally kept the ball in the park (Davis has had longball problems but his control is exceptional). A return by Chan Ho Park in the next few weeks would greatly stabilize the staff, leaving Dave Burba as the only underperforming starter. They also have Rob Bell on hand, a talented youngster who has lost his way the past few years; if Bell throws well in Park's absence there would be a backup on hand if Burba flames out or Valdes goes down. Even with the bullpen gasping for air, the team's ERA is 4.48, much improved from last season, and tied for fifth in the AL. The Rangers have actually allowed fewer runs than division leaders Seattle and the White Sox. The hand of pitching coach Oscar Acosta, who guided the Cubs to a major league K record last season, is already apparent; only the Yankees have struck out more opposing batters among AL teams.
Then there's the Fat Toad. The naming of Hideki Irabu as the Texas closer of the week drew predictable snickers (including from me), but Irabu has always had the stuff and the control, his problem has been stamina and concentration, which are less likely to be issues in the closer role. Cutting him back to 70 critical innings and two pitches may yet give the Rangers a solid foundation to build the bullpen around. The other people on hand - Todd van Poppel, Francisco Cordero, John Rocker, and Steve Woodard - are also talented guys (all except Woodard have serious fastballs), so it would not be a shock to see this team wind up with a half-decent pitching staff after all is said and done. With this team's offense, that ought to be enough to play .550 ball the rest of the way.
Problem is, that won't be enough. In the wild wild NL West, the division winner may need scarcely more than 90 wins; even fewer may be needed to thread the needle between the aging divisional powers and the uneven upstarts in the NL East. The NL Central is practically upside down today, with the top teams talent-wise struggling, and the White Sox can probably win the appalling AL Central even if they take the second half of the season off. But to make the playoffs over the heads of the Mariners, A's, and the loser of the Yankee-Red Sox race could easily take 95 or more wins; recall that last season's AL Wild Card won 102 games. And the same dynamic may hold for 2003 as well, despite the age and injuries on people like Edgar Martinez, Andy Pettitte, Pedro Martinez, Roger Clemens and Jamie Moyer. The Rangers, if they are genuinely serious about building a championship team, need to do better than build a pitching staff that's sort-of competitive and an offense that's just one of the best in the league; they need to either dominate on offense or get a lot better pitching-wise. The pitching is still a good place to look - since divisional play started in 1969, only four teams have reached the World Series with a pitching staff that finished in the bottom half of the league in ERA, and one of those played in Fenway Park when it was a serious hitter's park (the four teams: the 1975 Red Sox, 1987 Twins, 1992 Blue Jays, and 1997 Indians). But offensively the Rangers also have needs: right now, in fact, they sit in 8th place in the AL in
The problem? Don't look at the $252 million man, who's earning his pay as usual, leading the league in homers and slugging near .700. It still astonishes me that we've become jaded to a shortstop who hits like this. Heck, we Mets fans would kill for a shortsop who slugged .375. Injuries to Ivan Rodriguez and Juan Gonzalez haven't helped, with Bill Haselman providing woeful offense at catcher and Gonzalez' absence forcing the team to stick with both Carl Everett and Gabe Kapler, neither of whom is hitting. (Fortunately, light-hitting Calvin Murray has started well since being acquired to cover for Everett's inability to handle center field). Super-prospect Hank Blalock also proved unready in the extreme to handle an everyday job; he may come around with some patience, but people who expected Blalock to be the next George Brett from day one probably forgot that the original Brett slugged .363 with a .312 on base percentage as a 21-year-old rookie.
I still expect Kapler and Frank Catalanotto to get hot at some point, but the fact is that the Rangers don't have a true leadoff hitter, and when Pudge and Gonzalez are in the middle of the order, neither one gets on base very much. The solution to this mess is as painful as it is obvious: trade Ivan Rodriguez when and if he's healthy again. If you're serious about building a truly excellent team for a period of years, trade Rafael Palmiero too, while he's still a deadly hitter. Trading the 33-year-old Rusty Greer while he's hot wouldn't be a bad idea either. The other options aren't so good: Alex Rodriguez is unlikely to bring back equal value in return, plus he's still only 26 and only a few teams could even afford to talk about him. Juan Gonzalez, like A-Rod, was bought on the open market for money only the Rangers would pay him; he's not going to bring back equal value either, and despite his injury history he's still young enough (unlike Palmiero) to project him as part of the answer for several more years.
Unfortunately, that's the kind of long-range thinking that John Hart hasn't done in years; rather than contemplate planning a long-term attack on the division, Hart traded Carlos Pena before the season in a rerun of his deals of Brian Giles, Sean Casey and Richie Sexson. In fact, given Hart's record, the last thing I'd ask him to do is deal offense for pitching, for fear that he'd unload Blalock for Mike Williams or John Halama or somebody. Which is why, if I'm a Ranger fan, I'd be gritting my teeth and hoping for some wild breaks to go my way - because this team looks unlikely to make the moves it's going to need to get to that next level.
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