Lack of Zack

I’m still getting my head around the Royals dealing Zack Greinke and Yuniesky Betancourt to Milwaukee for Alcides Escobar, Lorenzo Cain and two pitching prospects, Jeremy Jeffress and Jake Odorizzi.
From Greinke’s perspective, the deal is great news; he escapes the Sisyphean despair of the Royals (losing out, in the process, on the joys of playing with Jeff Francouer), joins a team that at least for now (pending the end of Prince Fielder’s contract after the 2011 season) has some offense and another quality starter in Yovanni Gallardo, but Greinke also avoids testing his mental and emotional health – an issue in the past – against the pressures of a big market. It’s obvious that the losing and hopelessness got to Greinke.
For the Royals, Escobar and Cain are both likely to improve the everyday lineup/defense, but Cain’s .291/.366/.415 career line in the minors, combined with just adequate base stealing ability, and Escobar’s disastrous .235/.288/.326 sophmore season in Milwaukee following a .293/.333/.377 career in the minors, suggests that neither should be regarded as a coming star; Cain will have an uphill battle to fill the shoes of David DeJesus, and it remains questionable if Escobar will ever be a league-average hitter. More here, here and here on how the pieces fit together.
From a business perspective, the deal is great news for Milwaukee, where ticket sales have spiked since the trade, but make you wonder how on earth the Royals are supposed to convince any fans to show up after dumping the team’s lone major star a year removed from his Cy Young season. Honestly, this may be the last straw in convincing anybody who still doubted it that this franchise needs a completely fresh start, including – much as it pains me to imagine it – leaving KC.
But what’s interesting to me most of all is what Greinke is really going to do now that he’s in a new league and away from the train wreck of the Royals. Is he really the superstar we saw in 2009, or the simply good pitcher (more suited to be a #2 starter) of 2007, 2008 and 2010? Greinke’s 2009 was spectacular, and it was the product of great pitching, not great defense. His BABIP the past four years has been steady – .317, .309, .307, .309 (unlike his 2004 rookie campaign, when a .269 BABIP made him look closer to ready than he was, fooling the Baseball Prospectus into projecting him as an immediate Cy Young candidate). If you use the crudest fielding-independent pitching measure (((BB+(4*HR))/K)*9), Greinke’s 3.53 mark for 2009 is the 13th best among ERA qualifiers since 1977. That’s even more impressive when you look at the other guys in the top 15 – Pedro Martinez (four times), Greg Maddux (3), Randy Johnson (3), Roger Clemens (2), Kevin Brown (1) and Dwight Gooden (1, in 1984, not 1985).
But was it nonetheless something of a fluke for it all to come together like that? Greinke in 2009 averaged 0.4 HR, 2.0 BB and 9.5 K per 9 innings, compared to a steady average for 2007-08 and 2010 of 0.8 HR, 2.4 BB and 7.8 K, very good numbers but nothing like his historic 2009. Brown’s 1998 may be a good parallel – at age 33 he averaged a career-best 9.0 K/9, matched his career-best 0.3 HR/9, and had his second-best rate of 1.7 BB/9. As with Greinke, those numbers don’t totally stick out – Brown had averaged 0.3 HR/9, 1.9 BB/9 and 7.0 K/9 the prior two years (including a slightly fluky 1.89 ERA in 1996), and would average 0.7 HR, 2.2 BB and 8.1 K the following three. He just never again pitched quite as well as he did that one year. That’s my guess here – Greinke may have a better ERA than he did in 2010, and the move to the NL may help as well, but I’m skeptical that he can be a guy who consistently strikes out above a batter per inning, let alone with such perfect control and low HR rates.

Bert Belongs (the Saga Continues)

I’ve been a Bert Blyleven fan going way back, and since we’re in Hall of Fame voting season, time to rehash here my prior writings on behalf of his Cooperstown case:
My first Blyleven Hall of Fame column, from TEN years ago.
Blyleven was MUCH better than many Hall of Fame pitchers.
On whether to choose Blyleven or Koufax, if you could pick one at age 19 & hold their whole careers.
How Blyleven outlasted most of the other top phenoms.
In his wins, Blyleven was as good as all but a few of the best, and much better than Jack Morris.
-Blyleven places well on my list of High Quality Starts.
More fun facts:
A graphic comparing Blyleven to the median Hall of Fame starting pitcher.
A chart of pitchers with a career ERA+ of 112 or better and 4000+ innings pitched. Note that everybody on the list – other than recent 300-game winners who are Hall-bound (Clemens, Maddux, Glavine and Randy Johnson) – is in the Hall but Blyleven.
-Blyleven’s the only eligible pitcher with 10 seasons of 200+ IP and an ERA+ of 120. Number 2 is Mullane & Hippo Vaughn with 7.
-Blyleven threw as many shutouts as Greg Maddux & Tom Glavine. Combined.
-So, you think Blyleven didn’t win enough. Let’s see you try to go 19-7 for the 1984 Cleveland Indians.
-14 eligible pitchers with 230+ wins are not in the Hall of Fame. Oddly, this includes all five European-born pitchers to win 100+ games. Those 5: Blyleven (287), Tony Mullane (284), Jim McCormick (265), Jack Quinn (247), Tommy Bond (234). (It’s safe to say Jack Quinn will never lose the distinction of being the winningest pitcher born in Austria-Hungary.)

Hot Stove Roundup (NL East)

Thus far, the Mets have been playing it cautious, as befits a team in their position. The latest moves are a mixed bag: new backup catcher Ronny Paulino is probably a downgrade from Henry Blanco defensively, but Blanco’s age and decaying bat made it important to bring in a younger backup who can hit a little (Paulino batted a weak but not completely punchless .265/.323/.384 his last two years in Florida) and step in to play every day in case anything happens to Josh Thole. Paulino made more sense than bringing in Russell Martin, who still needs another shot to play every day but shouldn’t be taking time from Thole.
The other latest signing, DJ Carrasco, is a righthanded reliever with no particular strengths; either Alderson sees something that’s not in his numbers, or he’s just stockpiling arms.
Pedro Feliciano, who declined arbitration, will be a tougher call. Feliciano is undoubtedly valuable; over the past five years he’s averaged 82 regular season appearances a year with a 3.09 ERA (ERA+ of 136), averaging 0.7 HR/9, 3.8 BB/9 and 8.4 K/9. He was a bit off this season, his K rate down slightly to 8.0 but his HR rate also down to 0.1 (just 1 HR in 62.2 IP), but mainly scuffling with his control (4.3 BB/9, 3.4 if you leave out intentional passes). I’m not worried enough to want to dump him, but at age 34 and having averaged 89 appearances a year the last three years, there’s enough mileage on Feliciano that he becomes a much less reliable investment if you have to outbid somebody who wants to throw a whole lot of money at him for a 3 or 4 year deal.
Then there’s the rumor that the Mets may be shopping Carlos Beltran to Boston (presumably this would not end with him sharing an outfield with Mike Cameron again). This is a classic In Alderson We Trust deal – I’d be terrified if Omar Minaya was shopping Beltran when his market value is at its lowest ebb, but I’m not as worried that Alderson will get fleeced, and while I like Beltran and expect his bat back in 2011, he really is less valuable to the Mets if he’s not back to his old self as a center fielder, his relationship with the organization isn’t the best, and his contract’s only got one year left anyway. Dealing him could open some more flexibility in the outfield.
(UPDATE: Scott Boras on Beltran: “His plan right now is to be a New York Met. He has a no-trade clause. If anything were brought to him I think it would depend on what the situation were.” I think we can all translate what that means, given the source).
I know I tend to be biased against guys like Jayson Werth, a guy who was basically an unheralded backup outfielder until he seized an everyday job in August 2007 at age 28; there’s no doubting he’s been a star-caliber player the past three years and no rational reason why Werth can’t follow the Raul Ibanez career path. But still, giving the man $126 million over 7 seasons from age 32-38 seems like madness. His road batting line the last three seasons is .270/.374/.481, making him 35th in the big leagues in slugging on the road over that period (minimum 600 PA) but 20th in OBP. That’s a valuable commodity right now, combined with solid defense and baserunning, but the Nationals are a rebuilding team with more corner outfielders coming down the pike, and the odds that Werth will be anything but an albatross at that price by the fourth year of the deal, when he’s a 35 year old first baseman, seems slim. Worse yet, while it appears the deal may have been made in part to mollify Ryan Zimmerman, who was bent out of shape about the departure of Adam Dunn, but when Zimmerman’s deal is up in 2014, will the Werth contract let the Nationals spend the money they’ll need to keep him?
You can’t argue with the price of Dan Uggla (a sold-high Omar Infante and Mike Dunn), for a second baseman who came into the league as a prime power bat and added patience, hitting .264/.361/.493. I’d be more jealous of the Mets missing out on that deal, but it will still cost the Braves a lot of money to sign Uggla to a long-term deal and he may not really be a viable second baseman in his thirties (he’ll be 31 next season). That’s less of an issue for the Braves, since they’re moving Martin Prado to the outfield but could move him back if he gets healthy and Uggla’s glove fails.
If Javier Vazquez can’t make it in Florida, he can’t make it anywhere. His $7 million price tag is a risk for a guy who saw his velocity fall off last season at age 34, at least for a team as budget-conscious as the Marlins, but Vazquez is durable and a fly ball pitcher who should eat innings and could bounce back somewhat.
By contrast, if Vazquez is well-suited to a spacious park, John Buck, the Marlins’ new free agent catcher, is not; the value of Buck’s .271/.309/.487 batting line in 639 plate appearances the past two seasons is almost entirely derived from his 28 homers and 37 doubles, while his 166/29 K/BB ratio is a constant threat to send his average back to the .220s.
Lowered expectations would seem to be the theme of the Marlins’ deals generally, as toolsy 24 year old underachiever Cameron Maybin was packed off to San Diego for Edward Mujica and Ryan Webb, two decent bullpen arms with no similar upside projections, and Andrew Miller and his 5.84 career ERA to the Red Sox for Dustin Richardson. Maybin and Miller may have reached their natural need-a-new-team stage in Florida, but that’s two fewer guys with any hope for sudden improvement on a roster that could use some hope.
(Nothing really to add on the Phillies thus far besides the departure of Werth)

A Tale of Two Shortstops

2009 was the best of times and the worst of times for New York’s star shortstops, Derek Jeter and Jose Reyes. Jeter had one of the best seasons of his storied career, batting .334/.406/.465 in 716 plate appearances (OPS+: 125, his second-highest since 2000) while stealing 30 bases in 35 attempts (only his fourth career 30-steal season, and first since 2002), batted .344/.432/.563 in the posteason as the Hated Yankees won their first World Championship since 2000, and even had a resurgent year in the field; while his raw range factors remained poor, he set a new career-best .986 fielding percentage and, using the Bill James Fielding Bible ratings, had a positive plus/minus (+6) and positive runs saved (+5) for the first time since the Fielding Bible started compiling its ratings in 2005 (over the prior four years his average +/- rating, the number of outs he made compared to an average shortstop fielding a similar number and mix of balls in play, had been -25). By Fangraphs’ Ultimate Zone Rating his range was positive for the first time since 2002. He finished third in the MVP voting. Fangraphs lists his Wins Above Replacement as 7.1, the second-best of his career.
Jose Reyes, by contrast, suffered a calf injury and then a season-ending torn hamstring as a part of the Book of Job-like disaster befalling the 2009 Mets. Reyes, who had averaged 158 games and 741 plate appearances the previous four seasons, appeared in just 36 games and was unavailable to start the 2010 season.
2010 was a bit of a snap back year for both, but with both ending below where they’d been entering 2009. For Jeter, age 36 proved a lot more unforgiving than 35. While leading the league in plate appearances (with 739), he batted .270/.340/.370 (OPS+ of 90, career lows in all four of those categories), and didn’t bat above .300 or slug above .400 in any month after April; in 536 plate appearances from May 3 to September 10, Jeter batted an anemic .245/.318/.336, and he salvaged his batting average with a late-season hot streak only by slapping the ball without authority (.342/.436/.392 from September 12 to the end of the season, followed by .250/.286/.375 in the playoffs). Away from hitter-friendly Yankee Stadium, Jeter batted .246/.317/.317 on the season.
Jeter’s fielding regressed as well. He’s getting more sure-handed – he set another career-best .989 fielding percentage and the +/- system rates him as +8 on balls hit right at him, his second best of the 2005-10 stretch – but his range is nonexistent, -17 overall due to a complete inability to cover ground to his right or left, and -13 runs saved. His raw range factor was the second-lowest of his career. UZR has him back in the negatives again, albeit not at the colossally incompetent levels of his 1999-2001 or 2005-07 seasons. Overall, Fangraphs rates his Wins Above Replacement (WAR) at 2.5, the lowest of his career. As with the excellence of Jeter’s 2009, the various sophisticated stats are pretty much in agreement that Jeter was down across the board and had the worst year of his career.
As for Reyes, superficially, 2010 was a rebound year. After a delayed start to the season – he missed the first four games finishing up an abbreviated spring training and came back rusty, batting .210/.256/.280 through May 19 (the season’s one-quarter mark), and missed time on four other occasions – Reyes batted .310/.346/.485 in 435 plate appearances the rest of the way, cleared 600 plate appearances (603 in 133 games) and finished at a respectable-looking .282/.321/.428.
Yet there were still signs that Reyes wasn’t all the way back. While he hit with authority, he abandoned the patience he’d learned; from 2006-09 he’d drawn 54 walks per 600 plate appearances for a .355 OBP; in 2010, that dropped to 31. Perhaps he was just being aggressive to re-establish himself with the bat, but it’s a bad sign for a leadoff man. He stole 30 basis, after averaging 64 steals a year before the leg injuries. While he returned with the same strong arm and his raw defensive stats were largely unchanged, the Fielding Bible rated him as just a hair below an average defensive SS in 2010 (a +/- of -1 and -1 runs saved) and also in 2008 (-2, and -2 runs saved), compared to excellent seasons in 2006-07 (+16 and +13, and +12 and +10 runs saved). Fangraphs UZR sees an even more dramatic trend, with Reyes falling from a highly-rated SS in 2007 to around average in 2008 and well below in 2010. While Citi Field is not a hitter’s haven like the new Yankee Stadium, Reyes, too, is dependent on the home park’s spacious power alleys, batting .291/.338/.453 at home, .273/.302/.403 away. Overall, Reyes rated in Fangraphs’ view at 2.8 WAR compared to an average of 5.7 per year from 2006-08.
Which brings both New York teams to the question of what to do about their fan-favorite but now likely overrated shortstops, Jeter a free agent heading into his age 37 season, Reyes with one more year on his contract heading into his age 28 season. On the Yankee side, the team has looked at their declining, aging shortstop and – in light of his years of service, fan sentiment and the fact that he’s 94 hits from becoming the first guy to get 3,000 in a Yankee uniform – reportedly offered him the extremely generous salary of $15 million a year for three years, ending at age 39. Jeter’s response? He wants 6 years at $150 million, which means he’d be making $25 million a year through age 42, although supposedly he’s flexible on the number of years and willing to consider an offer in the $22 million a year range. That would still make him just the sixth player in Major League Baseball earning more than $20 million per year, three of whom (Alex Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira and CC Sabatha) are his fellow Yankees (the other two are Joe Mauer and the injured Johan Santana. Albert Pujols makes $16 million a year, Hanley Ramirez’ contract will average $14.25 million a year from 2011-14).
As for Reyes, who will make $11 million next season, the Mets are reportedly shopping him around but not that likely to deal him this offseason unless they get a great package back with 3-4 players in it.
Meanwhile, if I can take the liberty of putting a third shortstop deal into the mix, the Rockies have just locked up Troy Tulowitzki for the next ten seasons. Tulowitzki is reportedly inking an extension variously reported as 7-years for $134 million or 6 years for $119 million – in either case, around $19 million a year – presumably depending how you count his current contract, which already runs through 2014; either way the extended deal runs through 2020, when he’ll be 35. Tom Tango finds the dollar figure to be an eerily accurate valuation.
Tulo is doing everything Reyes and Jeter haven’t; as a 25-year-old whose team always seems to win only when he’s healthy and hitting and a natural leader, Tulowitzki had his second straight monster year with the bat this year, and also the glove; the Fielding Bible rates him at +11 and +16 the last two seasons (8 and 12 runs saved), the latter figures despite his one weakness, injuries (he missed 40 games in 2010, 61 in 2008). A far cry from his monster 2007 season with the glove (+35), but impressive nonetheless. (UZR rates him a very good SS in 2010, closer to average in 2009). Tulowitzki’s obviously worth the money right now and just entering his prime, and with his strong arm he’s a good bet to age well defensively, but the injuries are a huge risk for a contract that long.
To put the Yankees’ and Mets’ options and dilemmas in context, consider: only six shortstops with at least 400 plate appearances had an above-league-average year with the bat in 2010, by OPS+ (Tulowitzki, Rafael Furcal, Hanley, Stephen Drew, Reyes, and Jamey Carroll). Of those, Tulowitzki’s now locked-up long term, Furcal is 32 and injury-prone, and Carroll is a 36 year old utilityman. If you go out to guys with 500 or more plate appearances over 2009-10, it’s 11 shortstops – the same group (excluding Carroll), Jeter, Jason Bartlett, Juan Uribe, Asdrubal Cabrera, Marco Scutaro and Miguel Tejada. But Bartlett’s had just one above-average season in 7 years in the big leagues, Scutaro one in nine seasons (and is under contract with the Red Sox for next season, when he’ll be 35), Tejada is 37 and slowing down severely, Uribe and his .300 career OBP and career OPS+ of 85 just signed a 3-year, $21 million deal with the Dodgers…basically, unless you can get Stephen Drew from the Diamondbacks or pry loose a not-yet-established youngster like Starlin Castro, Ian Desmond or Elvis Andrus, your pickings for filling an open shortstop hole are going to be very slim.
In that context, the usual question – Does it make sense for the Yankees to re-sign Jeter at all? – takes on a different cast. A-Rod’s hip injury eliminated the chance that he could slide over to short, so (1) the Yankees will need to fill the shortstop job and (2) if they do re-sign Jeter, he’ll remain at the position no matter how badly he fields it. But it’s still worth recalling that giving Jeter playing time at all could be a bad bet. You know how many shortstops age 37 and up have had an OPS+ of 100 or better in a season of 400+ plate appearances, in the game’s entire history? Ten, of the 42 seasons in which somebody’s given that much playing time to a shortstop that age, 22 of which were by Hall of Famers. And eight of those ten were the same two guys, Honus Wagner (who was the only player of his generation to lift weights, and thus had a leg up on the aging process in ways Jeter can’t, plus he was a better hitter than Jeter) and Luke Appling, who was more of a slap hitter. The odds of Jeter, coming off a rough year, bouncing back substantially in 2011 aren’t great; the odds of him being an above-average hitter for the next three years, let alone six, are poor. Add that to a substandard and declining fielder and only the critical lack of options – and the non-baseball value of Jeter at the box office – justifies bringing him back at any price, and that only barely. Which makes his desire to be one of baseball’s highest-paid properties not just wrong but hilarious.
One reason this spectacle has collided so badly with Jeter’s image is that Jeter, for all his career, has been lauded as the pinnacle of unselfishness, but it’s easy to be unselfish when you are never, ever asked to give up anything – not money or fame, not glory or good press, not the team captaincy or his position afield. Only now is Jeter in a position where he should do what’s best for the team – accept a short-term deal for reasonable money – rather than insist, for reasons that can only be adequately explained by an ego-driven desire to be paid like A-Rod, that he be compensated like a superstar rather than a declining commodity with his head barely above replacement level.
(I’m leaving aside here the other consideration: Jeter’s contract helps set the scale for other players. Arguably, it’s in the Yankees interest to ridiculously overpay their players to drive up the cost of competition, but at some point they are still a profit-making business, moreso I suspect with George gone.).
In years gone by, the Yankees could have used the traditional route for showing respect to an aging team leader with declining skills and made him a player-manager. But the organization hasn’t had a player/manager since hiring Miller Huggins in 1917, and neither of the last two guys hired for the job fresh off their playing days (Yogi and Bob Shawkey) lasted more than a year, even though Yogi won the pennant. Jeter’s not gonna unseat Joe Girardi, so he has to be paid purely as a player.
As for the Mets, dealing Reyes now may well be the best way to capitalize on his value in a time of scarcity. But it’s a painful decision; Reyes and Wright are the homegrown face of the franchise, popular in the community. And more importantly, unless they can get one of the other good young shortstops, they run the risk of opening a hole of their own that can’t be plugged (the internal options are of questionable value as shortstops, and the only thing worse than Ruben Tejada in the lineup is two Ruben Tejadas in the lineup).
The wild card, given that it looks like a deal of Reyes is unlikely, is what effect the rumors will have on him. Reyes is an emotional, upbeat player, but the flip side of that is that he’s been known at times to get in a funk and not have his head in the game. I tend to think that rap is somewhat overstated, but the reality is that just like Beltran’s Olerud-like expressionlessness, Reyes’ highs and lows are part of his emotional skillset just as much as his speed and sometimes balky hamstrings are part of his physical skillset. People are what they are. My guess is that management has leaked word that they’re shopping Reyes in part because they are hoping he’ll respond well entering his walk year – not just with a good work ethic (which he’s always had) but a renewed focus on plate discipline and work on his defensive positioning.
The Yankees seem likely to put a resolution on Jeter’s contract status sooner rather than later, with more meetings in the past 24 hours. The Reyes situation may linger much longer, and only when the games are played will we see how he reacts.

Meet The New Boss

I can’t say I’m any sort of excited over Terry Collins taking over as Mets manager. Collins’ record as manager of the Astros and Angels, and even of the Orix Buffaloes in Japan, was that of a somewhat Buck-Showalter-like high pressure, do-it-my-way manager who helped build a contender out of a talented but scuffling team (in the Angels case, one rebounding from the trauma of 1995), but then suffered clubhouse strife, saw the team decay in his hands, and was replaced by a guy who got them over the hump. His last U.S. managing job, either in the majors or minors, was in 1999 (he’s managed in Japan and the Chinese WBC team since then and worked as a minor league organizational guy with the Dodgers and Mets). As ESPN’s Mark Simon points out, one of Collins’ trademarks as a major league manager was his teams’ September pennant race collapses, absolutely the last thing Mets fans want to hear. Collins was thought to be a frontrunner for the job throughout the interview process, and is plugged in with the Alderson/Beane crowd that now runs the organization, having been Paul DePodesta’s apparent choice to take over as Dodgers manager until DePodesta – now with the Mets – was fired as GM.
So, let’s summarize:
-Not a new guy from outside the organization
-Never won anything, and his teams improved after he left
-Poor September pennant race showings
-Difficulty relating to players
What could go wrong?
I trust Sandy Alderson’s judgment in building rosters, and when you bring in a big name GM who knows what he’s doing in the regard, the manager is less critical and it’s important that he be in tune with the program, which Collins apparently is. That said, given the history of Alderson’s comments about managers as “middle managers” and the shortcomings of the post-LaRussa A’s in the postseason, I do wish that Alderson had learned from his time in the Marine Corps that middle managers still have an important role to play as emotional leaders, especially when managing young men. Marine NCOs are not less vital as teachers and motivators of young men just because the chain of command tells them where to go and what to do.
All that said, the conventional wisdom outlined above assumes that Collins, now 61, has neither matured nor learned from his earlier shortcomings and his decade to ponder what he got wrong. In fact, managers can and do grow over time. There are a number of managers who didn’t really get it done until their second or third job – Casey Stengel, Joe Torre, Bobby Cox, Whitey Herzog, Bobby Valentine…the most recent and perhaps more apt examples would be Terry Francona and Joe Girardi. Francona in particular really seemed like a guy who grasped the job of leading his players better the second time around. Some of those guys were always good managers and just needed the horses, but others really did need to learn and mature into the job. Perhaps the most optimistic parallel would be from the world of football: Bill Belichick was a flop his first go-round with the Browns for reasons somewhat similar to Collins’ earlier frustrations, but obviously he was better prepared to be the head coach when he went to New England.
It may also help that Collins knows the Mets’ system inside and out and will, I assume, be eager to deploy those youngsters in the system who have impressed him. The Mets are, barring a real stroke of luck, not likely to be significant contenders in 2011, but this is not a complete rebuilding job either assuming the team holds its core of under-30 players and plays its cards right, the franchise may well be a contender again by 2012. Let’s hope that by then Collins is able to avoid yet another replay of 2006-08.

Alderson Gets The Band Back Together

On the whole, excellent news to see the Mets’ hiring of Sandy Alderson, the A’s GM from 1983 to 1997, as the new GM. The decision came down to Alderson and recently-sacked Arizona GM Josh Byrnes, but Alderson’s experience (also including stints as CEO of the Padres and in the MLB front office) won the day:

[T]he 40-year-old Byrnes impressed with his intelligence and enthusiasm. He would not have made it to the second round of interviews if not for his five years of experience as GM of the Arizona Diamondbacks, but he could not approximate Alderson’s stature as a GM. People close to the situation say that Byrnes and White Sox assistant GM Rick Hahn – another impressive candidate who lacked the type of experience the Mets were seeking – very much wanted the Mets job.

I carefully followed the mentions of Hahn; while I don’t know Rick especially well, I went to law school with him (Alderson is also a HLS grad) and he was in my first fantasy basketball league (as I recall, he didn’t win the league, but I believe he finished well above my 9th or 10th place debacle). He’s been second in command to Kenny Williams with the White Sox and should get a GM job sooner or later.
I can’t argue with the selection of Alderson. Maybe at 63 he’s not as much of a long-term investment as Byrnes, who also seems like a sharp guy, but his stature in the game should give him the most important thing a GM in this organization needs, the autonomy to run the team his way without micromanagement from Jeff Wilpon. And now it seems he’s trying to put the old Moneyball band back together (other than Billy Beane), reaching out to Paul DePodesta and JP Ricciardi. While it’s debatable whether either of those guys’ track records as GMs warrant another shot at the top job, they were clearly both valuable parts of the team in Oakland, and Beane has missed what they brought to the table, especially in locating and developing prospects.
With Alderson, for the first time since the days of Frank Cashen I really have faith in the Mets management.

Ralph Kiner: An Appreciation

Before another baseball season goes by, it is time to appreciate Ralph Kiner, baseball announcer, on the occasion of today, his 88th birthday.
Oh, yes, I know the popular perception: Kiner was a Hall of Fame slugger, sure (averaged 37 homers, 102 RBI, 97 Runs, 101 walks and a .279/.398/.548 batting line for a 10-year career marooned among horrible teammates; that batting line holds up well under slightly more advanced analysis) and a World War II veteran (mainly as a stateside Naval aviator trainee), but he’s sort of a comic figure as an announcer, notorious for his malapropisms. He spent years calling Curt Ford “Curt Flood,” Barry Bonds “Bobby Bonds,” referred to Cory Lidle as an ancestor of steamboat inventor Robert Fulton (he was a descendant) and declared, of Benito Santiago, “Santiago is Spanish for San Francisco.” And he’d start stories and stop them abruptly, like when he announced without ever finishing the tale that “Biff Pocoroba’s father was a spy.” And those are just the ones I heard with my own ears. He was a member of the original Mets broadcasting crew in 1962, and for their first seventeen seasons the Mets’ only announcers were Kiner, Bob Murphy and Lindsey Nelson; Murphy and Nelson, now both deceased, are in the Hall of Fame’s broadcasters wing, Kiner is unlikely to join them there. These days, he shows up maybe once a week for an inning or three.
All that’s true; I’m not here to tell you that Ralph Kiner should be considered the equal of Bob Murphy, a professional announcer and incurable optimist who was truly the voice of Mets fandom for more than four decades of Happy Recaps. But I am here to tell you that Ralph has given Mets fans a lot over his 49 seasons in the booth, and we should appreciate that for what it is before he’s gone.
The first thing that’s valuable about Ralph is simply how much the man has seen. He’s been a part of every major event in Mets history until the past few years, and that’s not easily replaced, not even by live-and-breathe-Mets diehards like Howie Rose. But it goes deeper: Ralph has seen an enormous amount of baseball history. He could do things like break down Eric Davis’ swing in comparison to the swings of Jimmie Foxx and Rogers Hornsby. He learned the craft of hitting from Hank Greenberg, his mentor his second season in Pittsburgh, and knew the swings and approaches of the great hitters of the Thirties and Forties and everybody since. He’d break into a broadcast with a discussion of how he’d asked the greatest hitters alive, at a Hall of Fame event, what pitch was the toughest for them to hit, and recount in detail their answers. He also spent years talking about the nightmares he got from facing Ewell Blackwell, the fireballing sidearmer who took the NL by storm in 1947. Ralph didn’t tell you how much he knew about the game, he just let it seep out.
For a while in the late 80s, the Mets had a feature, mainly focused on trivia questions, called “Ask Tim & Ralph.” Questions would come in from viewers that would be posed to Kiner and broadcast partnerTim McCarver. It was generally assumed that McCarver, the author of “Baseball for Brain Surgeons” and the know-it-all’s know-it-all, would rack up a humiliating margin of victory over Kiner, and a running tally was kept. But a funny thing happened: McCarver was terrible, to the point where I once saw him miss a question to which the answer was Tim McCarver. Whereas Ralph wasn’t any sort of trivia whiz, but he remembered the things he’d seen happen or remembered from when they happened, and after so many decades in the game that was quite a lot of stuff, enough to give him a much more respectable showing. Eventually, the feature was discontinued.
Kiner’s perspective is also somewhat unique. He was a union activist as a player; along with Robin Roberts and others, he was one of the prime movers in the early 50s for getting the players a pension plan. But he was also management, having worked as a GM in the Pacific Coast League in the late 50s (the team was the San Diego Padres, then a minor league affiliate of the Indians; Greenberg was the Indians GM at the time). He’s stayed active in the Hall of Fame, and thus stayed in touch with his connections among the game’s immortals.
The one thing Ralph has always cared about, and on which he has strong opinions, is hitting a baseball. Before the sabermetric revolution, Kiner was – perhaps in part out of partisanship for his own kind of hitter – an advocate for the school of thought that an offense is built around power hitters who wait for their pitch and drive it. He hated seeing home run hitters asked to bunt, consistent with his mantra from the 50s that “home run hitters drive Cadillacs, singles hitters drive Fords,” or “the Cadillacs are down at the end of the bat.” (This is probably his most famous line, although Kiner is sometimes credited with the line that “two thirds of the earth’s surface is covered by water and the other third is covered by Gary Maddox”; I’m not sure who coined that one but he did love to use it). Probably nothing in several decades of broadcasting upset him as much as the Walt Hriniak school of hitting; Ralph would go on and on about how Hriniak’s approach, in which the hitter’s hand flies off the bat during the follow-through, was death to power hitting. (Frank Thomas ultimately proved it was possible to be a great power hitter with a sort of modified Hriniak stance, but Thomas was the exception; many other of his disciples fell apart after a year or two). At least in his prime as an announcer, Ralph rarely missed a home run call, having hit so many himself.
Ralph’s other longstanding job – I believe this is what won him an Emmy some years ago – was Kiner’s Korner, the post-game interview show. You can catch up on some clips and interviews with SNY’s Ted Berg here, here and here; in the last clip he talks about how Bing Crosby, a part-time owner of the Pirates when Ralph played there, once fixed him up on a date with a young Liz Taylor. Kiner’s Korner had its rough moments in the early years, like his famous interview with an uncommunicative Clarence “Choo Choo” Coleman:

Perhaps most famous was an interview on Kiner’s Korner, the Mets post-game show. Host Ralph Kiner asked Choo Choo “What’s your wife’s name and what’s she like?” Choo Choo replied “My wife’s name is Mrs. Coleman and she likes me, bub.” Another time Kiner asked Clarence how he had gotten the name Choo Choo. “I don’t know, Ralph.” was the answer.

But for the most part, the show was easygoing, conventional interviews, and of course in my childhood in the 70s it had a fantastically cheesy set. (You can read more viewer reminisces here). Most everybody in the game was comfortable around Ralph. Here’s Howie Rose (I transcribed this from a broadcast in 2008):

The closest I have ever seen Ralph come to getting angry in the years I have sat beside him in the booth – he smokes these cigars, and let me tell you, you can tell from the smell they are not cheap – was when somebody came into the booth in San Diego, and said, “Mr. Kiner, I’m sorry, it’s a state ordinance that you have to put out that cigar.” And Ralph turned around and said, “you know, this used to be a great state.”

Happy Birthday, Ralph.


Yankee fans probably shouldn’t spit on Cliff Lee’s wife if they want to sign him in the offseason (for fun, if you know a Hated Yankees fan and a Phillies phan, goad them into wagering on who will sign Lee. Both groups of fans have clearly already penciled him into their 2011 rotations). Of course, Lee could just sign with the Mets; everybody spits on the Mets.
Which gives me all the excuse I need to link to this.

The Absent Past

One of the interesting subplots in the Giants-Phillies series is the subplot that isn’t: the teams’ historic rivalry. They don’t have one, not even some dusty forgotten past to resurrect. They’ve been in different divisions since 1969 and never faced each other in October, narrowly missing in 1993 when the 103-win Giants lost the last true pennant race to the Braves. And before that, despite being in the same league since 1883, they never managed to stage a memorable pennant chase. 2010 is only the third time they’ve both won 90 games in the same season, the others being 1993 and 1964. Between 1883 and 1968, they finished 1-2 in the league only twice, in 1913 (Giants 101 wins, Phillies 88) and 1917 (Giants 98 wins, Phillies 87), neither of which was a close race. Granted, the Giants in 1950 and 1964 were the third wheel in classic Phillies pennant races, but what’s remembered is the Phils beating the Dodgers and Cardinals. For a really memorable rivalry, the best you can do is the Phillies’ Harry Coveleski playing spoiler against McGraw’s Giants in the legendary 1908 pennant race against the Cubs.
So, this one’s been a long, long time coming.

Walk It Off

Fascinating chart from collecting all the walk-off hits in postseason history. A few notes:
-There were only 3 walk-off hits in the first 20 World Series (1903, 1905-23). First one? A Jimmy Sheckard single off Chief Bender, Game 4, 1910.
-There have only been two walkoff hits while trailing in a winner-take-all game: Francisco Cabrera off Stan Belinda in Game 7 of the 1992 NLCS, and Edgar Martinez off Jack McDowell in Game 5 of the 1995 ALDS. Edgar’s came in the 11th inning – I’d forgotten quite how dramatic that series was.
-The only player with 3 walkoff postseason hits is not that surprising: David Ortiz. The others with 2: Goose Goslin, Paul Blair, Bernie Williams, and Alfonso Soriano.
-Only pitchers to allow 2 postseason walkoff hits: Alejandro Pena, Dan Miceli, Dennis Eckersley, Jack Bentley, Jeff Reardon, Roberto Hernandez, Ron Perranoski, Steve Kline, Tom Niedenfeur, Tug McGraw.

Wagnerian Tragedy

When the Braves were eliminated from the NLDS, Aaron Gleeman took a look back at the remarkable career of Billy Wagner – which appears to be over – and I highly recommend it. A few additional facts:
-Wagner got better as he got older – his ERA over the last 8 seasons of his career, from age 31-38? 1.99. Among pitchers who pitched from age 31-38 and threw at least 100 innings, Wagner’s ERA is the best, followed by Mariano Rivera (2.02), Three Finger Brown (2.19), Cy Young (2.21), and Eddie Plank (2.21). By ERA+, Wagner at 218 is second to Rivera (221), followed by Randy Johnson (178), Kevin Brown (158), Lefty Grove (156) and Trevor Hoffman (152). After his return from injury in 2009, Wagner averaged 13.8 K/9, 4.9 H/9 and a 1.48 ERA in his last 85 regular season innings.
-Perspective on Wagner’s career ERA+ of 187 (i.e., 87% better than the league average, when adjusted for park effects): Rivera’s the only other pitcher with a career ERA+ of 155 or better to throw 600 or more career innings (1150 to Wagner’s 903; the only guys to throw more innings than Wagner with an ERA+ above 150 are Pedro Martinez and early 19th century pitcher Jim Devlin, and Devlin was banned from baseball for throwing games at age 28).
Wagner has thus earned his place very high on the list of the greatest of modern closers. How great? Let’s compare him to Rivera, per 162 games over the years 1996-2010 (both pitched briefly in the 1995 regular season):

Pitcher W-L SV G IP ERA H/9 HR/9 BB/9 K/9
Rivera 5-3 37 64 72.1 2.03 6.78 0.42 1.97 8.31
Wagner 3-3 28 57 60.1 2.31 5.99 0.82 2.99 11.92

As Bill James once said, if you can stand next to Babe Ruth and not look ridiculous, you’re doing awfully well, and while Wagner’s performance and times lost to injury leave him a little short of Rivera, on the whole he hasn’t been that far short. (I should run the full comparison to other top modern closers when I have a few more minutes to spare). A side note: Wagner was exclusively a starter in the minors, posting solid but unspectacular numbers; Rivera, in his first pro season, in 1990 at age 20 in rookie ball in the Gulf Coast League, he posted an 0.17 ERA and allowed just 17 hits in 52 innings, mostly in relief; his MLB career got a late start because the Yankees then spent the next five years trying to turn him into a starting pitcher, with mostly success in the minors but not in 10 starts at the major league level.
But of course, what separates the two men is October, and a more dramatic contrast, you could not devise. Wagner’s teams appeared in 31 postseason games over his career, Rivera (entering tonight) 148. Here’s how they stack up, projecting their postseason records to 162 game schedules, although perhaps the simplest summary is that Rivera has allowed fewer homers (2) and earned runs (11) in 137.2 career postseason innings than Wagner (3 HR, 13 ER) in 11.2 career postseason innings:

Pitcher W-L SV G IP ERA H/9 HR/9 BB/9 K/9
Rivera 9-1 46 101 150.2 0.72 5.56 0.13 1.37 7.13
Wagner 5-5 16 73 61 10.03 16.20 2.31 1.54 10.03

In Rivera’s case, he’s raised his game in October to a level nobody else has ever matched, not just in quality but in carrying a workload essentially double what he does in the regular season; more than 10% of his career innings have come in the postseason. No other player in MLB history comes close to having as much of his value tied up in postseason games as Rivera, and it’s hard to express how much better it makes your team to have a guy who throws the equivalent of 150 high-leverage innings with an 0.72 ERA against playoff teams.
Wagner suffers by that comparison, but he also suffers terribly by his own standards – especially the home runs (as you can see, his K rate was just fine in the postseason and his control significantly improved) – as well as the fact that his teams made it out of the LDS just once in seven tries, only to see Wagner get tagged by a game-winning So Taguchi homer in Game Two of the 2006 NLCS, get kicked around again in Game Six and watch from the sidelines as Aaron Heilman coughed up Yadier Molina’s series-deciding homer in the ninth inning of Game Seven. Even as small as the sample size of 11.2 innings is, it hangs over the memory of Wagner’s career. Which is why, as Rivera will and should waltz into Cooperstown, Wagner will likely get only a handful of votes, as grand a career as he had.

For All The Marbles has a fascinating chart of the pitchers who have started the most Game Seven-style do-or-die postseason games. Bob Gibson’s still the only guy to start and win two of them (although he lost Game 7 in 1968). Roger Clemens has started the most (5), but it’s kind of sad to see Jaret Wright tied for second. John Smoltz has the best ERA in deciding games (0.81); Blue Moon Odom is a deceptive second at 0.96, deceptive because he threw 5 innings in one start and 4.1 innings in the other. Ron Darling gets the honor of the worst Game Seven starter of all time (he got chased early in the 1986 World Series and clobbered in the 1988 NLCS, although in the latter case his fielders bore a lot of the blame; Darling didn’t allow a walk, homer or flyball double in that game), followed by Andy Pettitte, who would seem to be slated to start Game Seven if the ALCS goes that far.

Cox Out

Bobby Cox’s managerial career ended with yet another disappointing exit from the postseason and the usual flurry of questions about his tactical decisions in October, a perennial topic dating back to the 1985 ALCS, when Dick Howser went righty-lefty-righty to expose Cox’s platoon system, usher in a new age of relief specialists and, ultimately, deal the death blow to extensive up-and-down the lineup platoons. But by this point, nobody questions the overall record of the Dean Smith of baseball managers; like Dean Smith, maybe Cox only won the one championship but his teams were well-oiled contenders year in and year out against generation after generation of adversary.
(UPDATE: Yeah, I forgot that Dean Smith won two titles. I think the comparison is still apt.)
A quick list of just some of the players who played for Bobby Cox, a list that includes managers, front office guys, broadcasters, authors, Hall of Famers (current and future), NFL stars, MVPs, Cy Young winners, Rookies of the Year, druggies, racists, eccentrics, the deceased, the overachieving, the disappointing…Cox has seen it all:
Cito Gaston, Jim Bouton, Phil Niekro, Bob Horner, Al Hrabosky, Mike Lum, Chris Chambliss, Gaylord Perry, Buck Martinez, Dale Murray, Dave Stieb, Mickey Klutts, Al Oliver, Cliff Johnson, Cecil Fielder, Willie Aikens, Luis Leal, Lonnie Smith, Doug Sisk, Dale Murphy, Steve Avery, Marvin Freeman, Deion Sanders, Danny Heep, Vinny Castilla, Rick Mahler, Juan Berenguer, Jeff Reardon, Bill Pecota, Lonnie Smith, John Rocker, Steve Bedrosian, Fred McGriff, Jay Howell, Roberto Kelly, Mike Bielecki, Gregg Olson, Mike Sharperson, Mike Devereaux, Jason Schmidt, Luis Polonia, Rowland Office, Jeff Burroughs, Randall Simon, Paul Byrd, Ozzie Guillen, Dennis Martinez, Gerald Williams, Norm Charlton, Javy Lopez, Bret Boone, Reggie Sanders, Brian Jordan, BJ Surhoff, Scott Kamieniecki, Dave Martinez, Julio Franco, Steve Karsay, Bernard Gilkey, Gary Sheffield, Jaret Wright, Roberto Hernandez, Mike Hampton, Garth Iorg, JD Drew, Raul Mondesi, Todd Pratt, Rick Ankiel, Chipper Jones, Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, John Smoltz and Jason Heyward.

Rays vs Rangers

More notes:
-Carlos Pena (.196/.325/.407, with 28 HR, 84 RBI on 95 hits, and 87 BB) has to be the first guy in the post-1920 era (i.e., when home runs became a significant part of offenses, rather than random curiosities) to lead a playoff team in homers while batting below .200. In fact, Mark McGwire in 2001 is the only other guy to hit 20 or more homers with a sub-.200 batting average for a playoff team, hitting 29 of them in 299 at bats, but that team had 37 homers from Albert Pujols, 30 from Jim Edmonds and 27 from JD Drew.
(Off topic of the Rays, but Mark Reynolds this season became the first player to hit 30 homers while batting below .200 (.198, 32 HR), and with 211 Ks was a major contributor to the D-Backs’ ludicrous 1,529 strikeouts, 132 more than the prior record and 170 per lineup slot – the first team in MLB history to strike out more than once per lineup spot per game).
-The Rays are an unusual offensive team: third in the majors in runs despite being 8th in the AL in OPS, including 6th in OBP, and 8th in slugging and sixth in homers. But don’t declare them a superior contact-hitting team: they finished 13th in the AL in batting average and first in strikeouts (the OBP was made up only by leading the league in walks), and they ran themselves into the fifth-most caught stealings in the AL. They didn’t do it by bunting runners over, having a below-MLB average number of sac hits. How’d they do it? An MLB-best 172 steals helped (White Sox were second with 160), as did an MLB-best 57 sac flies (not an easy accomplishment when you lead the league in Ks and are in the middle of the pack in baserunners). But maybe the most staggering number: a MLB-low 92 GIDP, 32 below the MLB average; Carlos Pena, despite not being especially fast, hit into just two double plays all year, the fruits of a lot of strikeouts and fly balls. I’d be interested to see how many MLB teams have put more than 2,000 men on base – more than 1,500 of them on first – and hit into less than 100 double plays (the Cardinals did it in 1985). The team batting line of .266 /.368/.422 with men in scoring position undoubtedly helped too, compared to .275/.338/.431 with a man on first and .230/.313/.386 with the bases empty. Good baserunning and clutch hitting may be cliches that are rarely the keys to success, but for this team, that’s the answer. Carl Crawford scored 47.2% of the times he was on base, fourth-best in the majors among players with 300 or more plate appearances (behind Tyler Colvin, Drew Stubbs and Cameron Maybin), and Sean Rodriguez scored 46% of the time. Crawford was also one of the Rays who was best with men in scoring position, as you can see here: he hit .359/.400/.538 with RISP; Matt Joyce hit .288/.444/.576, Pena hit .239/.411/.415, BJ Upton .234/.368/.402, Ben Zobrist .276/.358/.408. Neither Crawford nor Pena hit into a double play with men in scoring position all year. The team’s propensity to draw walks with men in scoring position was definitely a contributor to its ability to concentrate a lot of runs out of a relatively few baserunners. The downside is, running the bases audaciously and hitting in the clutch are hard things to replicate in the postseason (Bill James looked at this historically in explaining the failure of the 1985 Cardinals, and subsequent teams like the 1987 Cards and the 2001 Mariners have reinforced the point).
This insanely detailed look at the evolution of David Price’s pitch selection and location is fascinating and helps show the development of a stud starter.
-James Shields is one of those rare pitchers who seems to constantly struggle to get a break on balls in play despite good K/BB numbers and not-terrible HR rates. He managed career-best K numbers this year (187 K, 8.3 per 9 IP with a still-good 2.3 BB/9 and 1.5 HR/9, his career worst but usually survivable with a great K/BB ratio), but saw his opposing BABIP soar from .287 in 2007-08 to .311 in 2009 and .344 this year, even as the Rays had the second-best team defense on balls in play in the AL. And while his numbers were spoiled by the notorious 6 homer outing against the Jays August 7, his ERA – 2.99 through May 25 (BABIP .315, 5.07 K/BB) – was 6.01 over the 15 games before that fiasco (BABIP .327, 3.44 K/BB), and 5.88 in the ten starts after it (BABIP .407 3.47 K/BB), so it wasn’t just one game, and his troubles with balls in play escalated as the season wore on. You can’t be optimistic that, whatever the causes, that tailspin will get worked out overnight.
-Few things illustrate the current success of the Rays and the historical suffering of even good Rangers teams – recall, Texas is the only MLB team that’s never won a playoff series – than Joaquin Benoit’s 1.34 ERA with Tampa after posting a career 4.79 ERA in eight seasons in Texas. And Benoit didn’t even learn a knuckleball the way RA Dickey did (5.72 ERA in Texas, 2.84 with Mets). As much as getting Rafael Soriano healthy at last, Benoit was a huge factor in this season’s Tampa pen.
-In fact, the Rangers have only ever won one game in the postseason. Click here to see who the winning pitcher was.
-Vlad Guerrero rallied to hit .311/.351/.491 after September 1 following an ice-cold July and August, so his solid numbers this year weren’t entirely the product of his early surge. He still hit far better at home than on the road. (Needless to say, both Vlad and Josh Hamilton need to be healthy and productive for this team to take out Tampa).
-People beat up on Elvis Andrus for having no power (15 doubles, 3 triples, no homers in 674 PA), but nobody should be surprised by this. Andrus is 21 and batted .257/.338/.343 in A ball in 2007, .295/.350/.367 in the Texas League in 2008. He’s a fine fielder and baserunner and led the league in sac hits, but it’s impressive that he’s able to hit enough (.342 OBP) to avoid being a complete offensive liability. Maybe he’ll be a decent hitter when he’s 25 (his most-similar player according to is Alan Trammell), but for now, he is what he is.
-The Rangers actually do have a solid if unheralded rotation entering the postseason, with Cliff Lee’s 3.98 ERA since joining the team actually the fourth-best behind CJ Wilson, Colby Lewis and Tommy Hunter.
This series is tougher to predict. I see Tampa falling down somewhere along the lines, but not against the Rangers.

Phillies vs Reds

For the first of the divisional series – the NLDS matchup between the Phillies and Reds – you can’t fight the conventional wisdom that the Phillies have a heavy advantage from their starting three of Roy Halladay, Roy Oswalt and Cole Hamels. A couple thoughts and observations:
-Who ever thought these Phillies would enter a postseason series as the offensive underdogs, but relying on their pitching?
-I’m not gonna do a full analysis here, but Joey Votto has to be MVP, right? This is the textbook MVP season. Votto’s team made the playoffs for the first time in 15 years. Votto plays the same position in the same division as the best player in baseball (Albert Pujols), and Votto’s team beat Pujols’ team in part because Votto had a better year (not that Pujols had that much of an off-year, leading the league in HR and RBI). You go toe to toe with the king and knock him off to give your team a surprise title, that’s an MVP. (And while Votto plays in a good hitters’ park, he also batted .349/.452/.641 on the road). That’s even before you consider Votto’s resume of clutch hitting, which while it may not be a year-to-year predictable talent is certainly a factor in awards for who helped the most in the games actually played this year. Votto hit .390/.486/.695 with a man on first, .369/.491/.638 with runners in scoring position, .370/.453/.685 in the late innings of close games, .375/.438/.806 in the 8th inning, .436/.522/.667 in the 9th inning, and .357/.438/.857 in extra innings.
-Sign of the times: the Reds scored 790 runs in 2010 and led the NL in scoring. In 2000, the average NL team scored 811 runs.
-Related note: only two Phillies topped 20 home runs this year.
-Bad timing: Since 1981, the Reds have finished first 5 times and second 7 times, but this will be just their third playoff appearance in that span; they got nothing from having the best record in the NL West in 1981 and the NL Central in 1994, and lost a 1-game playoff to Al Leiter and the Mets in 1999, the closest they’ve come to the Wild Card.
-Jay Bruce has defied predictions of imminent superstardom, but don’t count him out just yet; he’s still just 23 and has slugged .453, .470 and .493 his first three seasons, with this year’s .281/.353/.493 line being the first time he’s made contact and gotten on base enough to translate that power into being a productive regular. Only 5 of the 58 walks he drew in 573 plate appearances were intentional. Maybe he’ll never be Adam Dunn with the bat, but steady growth is all Bruce needs to mature into a star.
-I’m not sure there’s a more quietly underappreciated player in the game than Bronson Arroyo. No, he shouldn’t be a #1 starter for a playoff team (as he was until the return of Ednison Volquez), but even as a slightly built pitcher, Arroyo’s managed at least 32 starts and 200 innings six years running, and has averaged a 13-11 record, a 4.06 ERA (ERA+ of 110, adjusting for unfriendly parks), 210 innings, 33 starts, and 142 strikeouts to 60 walks over a 7-year period. That kind of durability and consistency is hard to replace.
-It seemed almost impossible for Roy Oswalt to avoid his first losing record this season, but a 7-1 mark with a 1.74 ERA with Philly did the trick. Oswalt finished with his best K rate since his rookie year. Talk about a guy who’s glad to get back to a competitive team.
-Carlos Ruiz, through age 29: .242/.329/.359 (OPS+: 77). This season, age 31: .302/.400/.447. Ryan Madson, age 25-27: 6.9 K/9 (7.3 as a reliever). Age 28-29: 9.8 K/9. Ruiz is probably a fluke, but historically, that’s how teams stay on top – somebody steps up.
-Traditionally, teams built around youth up the middle and at key defensive slots. But the Reds have 35-year-old Orlando Cabrera, well past his prime with the bat, at short and 34-year-old Ramon Hernandez behind the plate; also 35 year old Scott Rolen at third. The Phillies have used 34-year-old Placido Polanco at third, and to fill in at second. Raul Ibanez is the only other player in either lineup over 32.

Fun Facts

-Dave Rader in 1973 became the first player since intentional walks started being tabulated to have more intentional walks (23) than striekouts (22). The only other guy to do it: Barry Bonds 2002, 03 & 04 (3-yr tot: 249 IBB, 146 K).
-Hack Wilson in 156 home games in 1929-30 drove in 215 runs. His whole batting line: .383/.466/.753, 222 Hits, 105 Walks, 215 RBI, 150 R, 437 Total Bases, 58 HR.
-Speaking of home/road splits, Dazzy Vance from 1922 (when he returned to the majors and started his run of greatness; home/road splits aren’t available before 1920) to the end of his career had a record of 109-62 (.637) with a 2.79 ERA, 7.2 K/9 and a 2.95 K/BB ratio at home, compared to 88-74 (.543) with a 3.71 ERA, 5.1 K/9 and a 1.97 K/BB ratio on the road. Which gives some credence to the theory of his contemporaries that Vance gained an advantage from pitching at Ebbets Field on days when the women in apartments behind the outfield would hang out their white laundry; Vance would bleach the sleeve of his pitching arm, so batters couldn’t pick up the ball at all. Of course, even 5.1 K/9 was something like double the league average for his prime years.

Balls In Play

So, currently has the numbers for batting average on balls in play (BABIP) for all pitchers since 1950. Some interesting stuff digging through those numbers. First of all, the variances over entire careers are pretty substantial, enough to make you question the Voros McCracken thesis that BABIP has nothing to do with the pitcher. Granted, that thesis has been modified a good deal since it was first introduced, and it still remains ground-breakingly useful, if only because BABIP varies from year to year for individual pitchers so much more than other elements of pitching success or failure. And granted, that’s before you consider the differences in eras, park effects and the defenses pitchers pitched in front of.
Speaking of which, while the lowest career BABIP among pitchers with 3000 or more innings pitched is Andy Messersmith (.243), the highest is Andy Pettite at .312, and Chuck Finley is the only other guy at or above .300 (.300 on the nose). What could account for Pettitte’s historically poor defensive support? Well, among other things, he’s the only guy on the list to have thrown 2500 or so innings with Derek Jeter at shortstop. Mike Mussina’s BABIP as a Yankee: .307. Roger Clemens’: .300. (Mariano Rivera: .263. The lesson, as always, is that Rivera’s inhuman). Granted, BABIP have been up around the league in the past 15 years or so (Rick Reuschel was the worst until recently), but it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the Yankees’ poor defense, especially up the middle, has hurt Pettitte (though not as much as their offense and bullpen have helped him).
A few other notes:
The lowest BABIP season since 1950, among pitchers with enough innings to qualify for the ERA title: Dave McNally, 1968 (.203), which should not be surprising. The highest: Kevin Millwood, 2008 (.358), which is why he was such a great candidate to bounce back in 2009 (this year’s another story). Also an unsurprising entry near the top is Jeff Robinson, who had the one really fluky year in 1988. Interestingly, the 6th lowest: Don Larsen 1956 (.216). And one guy who had generally worse (except for 1985-86) BABIP than the league: Dwight Gooden.

Ground Uncovered

Amazin Avenue has a look at Joaquin Arias’ defensive stats:

The first thing that jumps out from initial analysis is that Arias has been called a shortstop by some pundits. He’s probably not a shortstop in the major leagues. Total Zone has him as a -12 shortstop over 150 games, and that’s in Triple-A. Perhaps he can move over and play in a pinch, but the Rangers have only used him there for 32 innings in his big league career, which has spanned around 475 innings. No shortstop here.
But the Mets have a need at second base with Luis Castillo letting balls through the five hole and Ruben Tejada swinging a limp noodle, so he could still be useful at that position. And a -10 shortstop can actually still be a scratch defender at second base, so defense shouldn’t keep him off the field. His -7.7 UZR/150 only comes in 390 innings and is usually more reliable after three seasons of data – I think he can better that number with regular work.

The Immortal Edmonds?

Aaron Gleeman notes that Jim Edmonds is talking about hanging it up, and that Edmonds really should get more serious consideration for the Hall of Fame:

I’m fairly certain Edmonds won’t come close to getting the votes necessary for the Hall of Fame, but he has a very good case and is perhaps one of the most underrated players of this era. He’s an eight-time Gold Glove winner with 391 career homers and a .902 lifetime OPS that ranks 10th all time among center fielders. Few people seem to recognize it, but Edmonds is likely one of the dozen best center fielders in baseball history.

I didn’t rate Edmonds when I ran my look at similar players after the 2005 season and don’t have time to do a full run of those numbers now, but I’d agree that he deserves a look; his issue is durability. If you isolate his 11-year prime from 1995-2005, you get an excellent hitter (.293/.388/.554, 141 OPS+) and fielder over enough years to make the core of a Hall of Fame career; quality-wise, my guess is he stacks up pretty well in the company of Earl Averill, Bernie Williams, Kirby Puckett, Larry Doby and Earle Combs, four of whom are already in Cooperstown on the basis of 9-10 year primes. But then look at their plate appearances per 162 scheduled games: 699 for Averill, 649 for Bernie, 678 for Puckett, 630 for Doby, 682 for Combs; Edmonds, at 560, is more in the league with Reggie Smith, Jimmy Wynn and Fred Lynn, all of whom were also Cooperstown-quality talents. The plate appearances largely reflect a lost 1999 season, although he also missed extensive time in 1996 and played fewer than 145 games in 1997, 2002, 2003 and 2005, notching 600 plate appearances only five times in a 17-year career. Edmonds’ per-162 line for 1995-2005, age 25-35: 135 games, 560 PA, 94 Runs, 88 RBI, 30 HR, only 8 GDP. Fairly or not, he’s also lacking the extensive postseason heroics of guys like Bernie and Puckett, although his .274/.361/.513 line in the postseason, two pennants and a World Series ring (all with the Cardinals) aren’t too shabby.
I’ll need to look at his candidacy more closely down the line, but the lost time chips away at his credentials in a fairly substantial way. I know I’ve belabored this point, but far too much statistical analysis overlooks the value of in-season durability. Edmonds deserves a look and maybe on further reflection he belongs in, but he’s going to be a borderline candidate, in my view.

V-F Day

Amazingly, the Mets managed not only to unload Jeff Francouer yesterday (were the Rangers looking at their lineup and thinking, “we really need a guy who makes more outs”?), but also to get an actual Major League baseball player in return, Joaquin Arias. In seriousness, the theory behind the deal seems to be to use Francouer as a platoon player:

About $897K remains on Francoeur’s contract, but the Mets will pay most of that. The 26-year-old is hitting just .236/.293/.369 in 443 plate appearances, so he was a non-tender candidate on the Mets and remains one on the Rangers.
Like most right-handed hitters, Francoeur has markedly better numbers against left-handed pitching, both for his career (.820 OPS) and in 2010 (.767 OPS). David Murphy struggles against left-handers, so the Rangers needed a right-handed complement to Murphy, especially given Nelson Cruz’s hamstring and Josh Hamilton’s knee.

This sounds good, until you look a little closer. Francouer’s line against lefties this season is .280/.351/.410, but his OBP drops to .321 if you exclude his intentional walks (5 of his 11 walks in 114 plate appearances against lefties have been intentional). He crushed lefties to the tune of .344/.356/.521 last season, but was helpless against them in 2008 (.210/.273/.307). In other words, the one thing he’s being hired to do, he doesn’t even do all that reliably (I will miss his throwing arm, though, which is genuinely marvelous).
As for Arias, he’s also a limited player (as Dr. Manhattan pointed out to me, the Rangers must regret choosing Arias over Robinson Cano to include in the A-Rod/Soriano deal), but cheaper, a year younger than Francouer (25 to Frenchy’s 26) and one of more immediate use to the Mets. His career batting line is .286/.322/.379 over 242 major league plate appearances (.291/.314/.393 away from Texas), .285/.317/.378 over nine minor league seasons, and he’s stolen 28 bases per 162 games in the minors. That’s not a great offensive asset, but a guy who can play second and short, hit .280 and steal some bases is at least worth something. Of more concern is the quality of his defense, which is likely why he was available and makes questionable whether he could take over Luis Castillo’s job if Castillo is gone next year and Ruben Tejada continues to be miles from ready to hit major league pitching.
While I’m not over-optimistic about Arias, Francouer is addition by subtraction and a sign the team is serious about making some changes and not marrying its mistakes. Baby steps.
(H/T for the photo)
UPDATED for a great line: “if you praise Jeff Francoeur and Alex Cora for their grittiness, while bashing Jose Reyes, you lose the right to complain about the team not winning.”

Late Hits

It seems like the past year or two we suddenly have fewer guys having big years with the bat after age 35. How true is that?
Here’s one back of the envelope look: players age 35 and up having an OPS+ of 140 or higher (minimum 300 plate appearances, which isn’t that much). 140 is a pretty high bar to cover only really outstanding seasons, and of course it’s not the same as looking at who improved after age 35, which I did in this post on Barry Bonds’ unprecedented improvement after 35. But it’s another cut on the data to add to the picture.
Let’s look first by decade at the number of players having such seasons:
1870s: 1
1880s: 7
1890s: 4
1900s: 3
1885 is the only season in the first four decades with more than one player qualifying. Not surprising that it starts out low – seasons were shorter before the mid-1880s, life expectancies were much shorter, and since professional baseball only began in 1869, you’d expect there to be few guys in their late 30s in the 1870s but a few of the founding generation hanging on a decade later.
1910s: 8
1920s: 14
Bill James has noted the spike in veterans in the 1920s and early 1930s as a symptom of the game’s upswing in prosperity motivating more guys to work harder at staying in the game longer. And so we see 3 in 1911, 2 in 1912, only two more in the 1913-21 period, but then 3 in 1923, 3 in 1924, and 5 in 1925 before guys like Cobb and Speaker got too old.
1930s: 10
2 each in 1930, 1931 & 1932. Babe Ruth turned 35 in 1930.
1940s: 11
The war: 3 in 1944, 2 in 1945, then 2 in 1948.
1950s: 15
A steady 2 a year in 1950, 1952, 1954, 1956, 1957, 1958. Ted Williams turned 35 in 1954, Stan Musial in 1956.
1960s: 6
You’d expect a bunch more than that with expansion, but the expanded strike zone among other things may have worked against older hitters. Only season with 2 was 1968 (Mays & Mantle).
1970s: 20
Boom. 2 in 1970, 6 in 1971, 2 in 1972, 3 in 1973, 2 each in 1974, 1975 & 1976, then just one between 1977-79. The 6 in 1971 remains the all-time high: Aaron, Mays, Frank Robinson, Clemente, Kaline and Norm Cash. Cash is the only one who looks out of place, but his career OPS+ was 139.
1980s: 16
None in the strike season, but 5 in 1982, 2 each in 1983, 1984, 1987 & 1988.
1990s: 13
2000s: 32
Just one between 1989-92, 5 between 1993 and 1996 (including 2 in 1995), but then we start to see the uptick: 3 in 1998, 4 in 1999, 5 in 2000, 4 in 2001, 3 in 2002, 4 in 2003, 5 in 2004, 1 in 2005, 3 in 2006, 4 in 2007, before petering out to 2 in 2008, 1 in 2009, and just one (Scott Rolen) at last check this year, although the season’s not over yet (Jim Thome, who’s already counted here for 2006 & 2007, is at a 160 OPS+ in 257 plate appearances and is playing pretty regularly).
Do we attribute all that to steroids? Certainly weight training and sports medicine are helping players age better, plus we had waves of expansion in 1993 and 1998, plus historically we seem to get more veteran hitters taking flight during good offensive times than bad. But the sharp uptick in the 1998-2007 period (35 guys in a decade) followed by the recent dropoff doesn’t seem like it can be explained entirely by one or two outlying hitters or those other factors.
I’m not offering this as a systematic study of the issue, just another way of quantifying what we’ve all observed.

You Like Pizza, Don’t You?

Matthew Artus at Always Amazin’ has a funny-yet-sad-because-it’s-true look at a focus group conducted by the Mets to gauge fan perceptions of the park, the organization, etc.:

The consultant asked if the group felt it important to know the team’s overall strategy, which induced responses that the fans would really like to just be under the impression that the team has any kind of meaningful strategy to execute.
On the day after the Mets players admitted to struggling with the agony of defeat and a lost season, the consultant successfully brought the frustrations of the Mets fan base to the surface. The group described the Mets as “pathetic,” “hopeless,” and “embarrassing.” They struggled to justify paying the prices asked by the ticket office to see the debacle currently sporting the orange and blue. They worried about raising their kids as Mets fans for fear of introducing them to this kind of heartbreak.

Read the whole thing. Meanwhile, Joe Kernan of the Post argues that the Wilpons understand the need for an overhaul and lays out a plan that makes a good deal of sense, including hiring Kevin Towers as GM and – perhaps more significantly – adding a head of baseball operations between the Wilpons and the GM. Given that a lot of the organization’s problems are believed to emanate from Jeff Wilpon’s involvement, that may well be advisable, but it’s always hard for owners to get the message that they and their families are part of the problem.
I don’t dislike Jerry Manuel as much as a lot of people do, and even Omar Minaya has his virtues (eg, the scrap heap claim of RA Dickey), but both of them obviously need to go, and the housecleaning equally obviously needs to go further to the dysfunctional nature of the organization, its tendency to get into disputes like the current effort to dock K-Rod’s pay or the offseason battle with Carlos Beltran over his surgery. This is a shabbily run organization, and there’s no reason it has to be.

That Man

If you read only one thing this summer, make sure it’s Joe Posnanski’s feature in the latest Sports Illustrated (the magazine, not on the web as far as I can tell), on Stan Musial, the player, the man, most of all the sportsman in a sense we have too few of, and always have.
Statistically, there are too many amazing Musial numbers to recount; one of my favorites is that he finished in the top 5 in the league in batting average 17 times (top 5 in OPS 15 times, top ten 17 times). Musial was a great singles hitter (lifetime .331 average) and home run hitter (475 career homers left him sixth on the all-time list and second in NL history when he retired), but was even better known for his doubles and triples (Musial’s third on the career doubles list with 725, and with 177 triples he’s the only player to break in since 1925 to top 140; Lou Gehrig at 163 and Al Simmons at 149 are the only other lively-ball era players to approach that level and both started their careers two decades earlier). Here’s Musial’s average season over the 14-year period (not counting 1945, when he was in the Navy) from age 22 (1943) to 36 (1957), prorated to 162 team games played: 158 games, 706 plate appearances, 117 Runs, 111 RBI, 208 hits, 43 doubles, 12 triples, 28 homers, 90 walks, 34 K, 356 total bases, 13 GIDP, 5 steals in 7 tries, and a batting line of .341/.428/.585 (169 OPS+). His average season, for a decade and a half.
UPDATE from the comments: here’s the web version.

High Quality Starts, Part II

Following up on my earlier post on High Quality Starts, here’s the rest of the post: a look at HQS as a percentage of starts, as well as a percentage of wins (unsurprisingly, for good pitchers these constitute an outsize component of wins).
Now, read this chart with caution. First of all, guys who spent a lot of years in relief will have relief wins – Kenny Rogers is last on the list with HQS representing just 37.9% of his wins, and while that accurately reflects that Rogers generally needed help to win, it’s a little exaggerated by his time as a reliever. Then again, Sandy Koufax tops the list with 73.3% of his wins being HQS, despite having worked heavily in relief for much of the late 1950s.
Second, here is where you really see the differences in era – Koufax and Rogers are pretty much at the far poles here, but there’s a very large difference between the Sixties and the 00s, between Dodger Stadium and Arlington.
Third, bear in mind that some guys here – e.g., Pete Alexander – pitched parts of their careers before 1920 (1920 was the last year of Alexander’s prime).
That said, I tip my hat to the guy who topped even Koufax for percentage of his starts that were HQS: Jim Palmer, who came the closest to notching a HQS in half his career starts. And the guy who was the first real surprise among the immortals atop the list, Mel Stottlemyre. Maddux rated lower than I’d expected, but he did start a huge number of games, many of them late in his career after he’d stopped really being Greg Maddux.
Note the list of 200-game winners who turned in a High Quality Start in less than a third of their career starts: Jamie Moyer, Jesse Haines, David Wells, Herb Pennock (not counting the 61 starts Pennock made before 1920), Bobo Newsom, Andy Pettitte, Red Ruffing, Mel Harder, Burleigh Grimes, Ted Lyons, Waite Hoyt, Charlie Hough, Charlie Root, Jim Kaat, Chuck Finley, Joe Niekro and Jerry Reuss. Mostly this is a list of bad Hall of Famers, but other than Kaat (who has no business in a Hall discussion despite a high career win total), Niekro and Reuss, they’re also all from high-scoring eras. I’ll have to revisit later the question of Pettitte as a deserving Hall of Famer.
(Tommy John and Bert Blyleven both come in the 36% area).
Chart below the fold.

Continue reading High Quality Starts, Part II

High Quality Starts

We all know the definition of a “quality start”: 6 or more innings, 3 earned runs or less. While the run scoring environments and expectations about pitcher workloads have changed over the years, a pitcher who throws a quality start – even the bare minimum 3-in-6 – at least has given his team, in most circumstances, a fighting chance to win. now has pitcher-game data going back to 1920, and I thought it would be interesting to raise the bar to high quality starts: games where the starter had earned a win with ordinary offensive and bullpen support. I picked 7 innings, 2 runs (earned or otherwise) or less. Throughout the lively ball era, that’s generally been a good day’s work for a starter, and we assume that a starter who does that will almost always take home a W, or has been the victim of hard luck if he doesn’t.
Through Wednesday’s action, 188 pitchers have thrown 100 or more High Quality Starts since 1920; 22 of those have thrown 200 HQS, 10 have thrown 250, and only two have thrown as many as 300 High Quality Starts. A full chart is below the fold. Some of the breakdowns may surprise you. The two pitchers to throw 300 High Quality Starts? #2 is unsurprising, Roger Clemens with 308. #1? Don Sutton, 310 of them. Sure, he was never dominant, he pitched in an ideal pitcher’s park in a great time for pitchers, and he had a cheesy perm, but 310 times he went to the hill and earned a win, more than any other modern pitcher. If that doesn’t explain for you why he’s in the Hall of Fame, I’m not sure what will.
Only three eligible pitchers have thrown 200 or more HQS and are not in the Hall of Fame: Tommy John (257), Bert Blyleven (248) and Frank Tanana (204); Clemens, Maddux, Randy Johnson, Glavine, and Mussina aren’t eligible yet. Honestly, I had expected the breakdowns here to feature Blyleven more prominently as a hard-luck guy, but he doesn’t especially stick out. Still, 248 HQS is a heckuva credential. I’m marginally more impressed with John’s Hall of Fame case from looking at these breakdowns, but still not sold on him. Dizzy Dean, whose career is sort of the mile marker for the shortest career you can have as a Hall of Fame starting pitcher, notched exactly 100 HQS, winning 91 of them out of his 230 career starts and 150 career wins (12 of Dean’s career wins were in relief).
The largest number of wins from HQS? Warren Spahn, 249. Spahn is, not coincidentally, the only man in that time period to throw 200 complete games in which he allowed 2 runs or less, a staggering 266 of them, in which he went 242-24. You hang on that long in a well-pitched game, sooner or later either Hank Aaron or Eddie Mathews is going to bail you out.
The pitcher with the largest number of High Quality Starts in which he didn’t earn a win? Greg Maddux, with 92, followed by Sutton (89), Nolan Ryan (82), Tom Seaver (78), John (76), and Clemens (74). If you pencil in a W for each of the times Maddux threw a HQS and got jobbed, you get 447 career wins. (Clemens would sit at 428, Sutton at 413, Spahn and Ryan at 406 each. Walter Johnson would have 433 and Grover Alexander 399 just if you added their HQS without a win from 1920 on).
The most losses in HQS? Robin Roberts with 45, followed by Ryan (41), Seaver and Gaylord Perry (40 each).
The pitcher most likely to notch a W when throwing a HQS? Lefty Gomez (93.5%), which makes sense when you have Lou Gehrig, Bill Dickey and either Babe Ruth or Joe DiMaggio hitting behind you; most of the top 10 is from the 1930s. Least likely? Slow-working Steve Trachsel (60.8%), followed by Ron Darling. The average pitcher among this sample won 75.4% of his HQS.
Most likely to lose a HQS? Dolf Luque (28.2%; Luque, the pride of Havana and my high school Spanish teacher’s favorite pitcher, was 76-31 with an 0.98 ERA in 110 HQS); least likely, Tim Hudson (2.8%). The average was 11.9%. Hudson’s record in his HQS? 142 starts, 104 wins, 4 losses, 34 no decisions. Probably the biggest factor for Hudson was just that a lot of his HQS came in the really high scoring early part of the last decade, but also it may help that even at his best, Hudson – when he was surrounded by Zito & Mulder – was rarely a guy that either team would rejigger their rotation around, so I suspect he never faced a disproportionate number of aces the way a Maddux or a Randy Johnson or a Koufax or a Seaver or a Whitey Ford (especially Ford) did. Note that the top 10 least likely to lose a HQS include David Wells, Gomez, Ron Guidry, Mike Mussina, CC Sabathia, and Eddie Lopat. I think you can see a trend. But #3 is Mike Hampton.
Most likely to get a no decision? Darling (24.8%), who of course was famous for this with the Mets (that’s how Roger McDowell won 14 games in 1986 and Jesse Orosco 8). Least likely? Bob Lemon (0.7%), followed by Gomez and his teammate Red Ruffing. Perhaps not coincidentally, Lemon and Ruffing were both excellent hitting pitchers. The average? 12.7%.
The average for the sample is 8.41 IP per HQS, and a complete game in 57.3% of those; the latter in particular has declined sharply over time. Four early pitchers (Bucky Walters, George Uhle, Lefty Grove and Ted Lyons) averaged over 9 innings per HQS, while Johan Santana at 7.49 is the only pitcher below 7.5, and he’d be at 7.5 if you included yesterday. Uhle, a 1920s workhorse, also tops the field by completing 98% of his HQS; Santana at 9% is the only guy below 14%.
The best ERA in his HQS? Juan Marichal, 0.87. Worst? Brad Radke, 1.46. I didn’t run an average but it’s probably around 1.10.
Seven pitchers have thrown 10 or more HQS in the postseason since 1903: John Smoltz (14), Tom Glavine (14), Curt Schilling (13), Greg Maddux (13), Andy Pettitte (12), Orel Hershiser (10), and Whitey Ford (10). It says something about the modern postseason that Smoltz, Glavine and Maddux each have just one World Series ring to show for all those outstanding postseason starts.
I’ll have a followup post looking further at HQS numbers. The full chart is below the fold.

Continue reading High Quality Starts

Frenchy Must Go

OK, this is perhaps the most obvious post I’ve ever written, but it needs to be said: Jeff Francouer must go. The Mets have sufficiently faded from the division and Wild Card races – they’re not out of either race yet, but they’re in miracle-comeback territory – that it’s no longer worth pretending that they are playing for 2010. Which means it’s time to get rid of Jeff Francouer by any available means.
Not that Francouer is an asset in the short run, either. But he’s the most visible symbol of the futility of a Mets lineup that, based on today’s stats, has yet to field a lineup this season in which everyone in slots 1-8 had a slugging and on base percentage above .300. A .300/.300 line should be the barest minumum competence for any major league “hitter,” yet the Mets have given extensive playing time to four batters with sub-.300 OBPs (Francouer, Rod Barajas, the just-released Alex Cora and Ruben Tejada) and three so punchless they can’t slug .300 (Luis Castillo, Cora and Tejada). If you’re keeping score at home, that’s a catcher, three middle infielders…and an everyday right fielder who is slugging .385 and has hit .255/.300/.390 over 1668 plate appearances over the 2008, 2009 and 2010 seasons, with more GIDP than HR over that period. Among players with 1600 or more plate appearances over that stretch, only Kevin Kouzmanoff and Billy Butler have scored fewer runs.
I’ve been a Francouer skeptic ever since he arrived in the NL in 2005 due to his total lack of plate patience, but early on, his talent was undeniable; he hit .300/.336/.549 in half a season as a 21-year-old, and after stumbling his first full season, batted .293/.338/.444 at age 23, cracking 40 doubles and doubling his walk rate.
How far has Francouer fallen? Here’s the 10-most-comparable players’ rest-of-career lines for him, from ages 22-25 – note the revival of hope at the end of last season, which undoubtedly will vanish this year:
22 (2006): .273/.350/.461 (120 OPS+)
23 (2007): .279/.357/.452 (116)
24 (2008): .273/.344/.436 (111)
25 (2009): .276/.355/.458 (118)
Even as late as early this season, I held a sliver of hope that, like Jose Guillen, the 26-year-old onetime first round draft pick who batted .311/.338/.498 after leaving Atlanta last season might put together a 1-3 year prime where he had just enough discipline at the plate for his talents to briefly shine through in his physical prime.
Not to be. Francouer has never learned, and still says he’s just not comfortable taking pitches early in the count, which means he never sees strikes. Unlike last season and April of this year, he’s not even hitting at Citi Field anymore, .222/.267/.375 on the season. He’s still dangerous against lefthanders – .318/.379/.471 in 95 plate appearances this season, .300/.344/.485 career – and still has the great throwing arm, but at $4 million a year and eligible for arbitration, he’s far too expensive to keep around just in a Tatis-style role. And starting a corner OF who hits .217/.266/.357 against righthanded pitching should be grounds for immediate termination.
I don’t expect the Mets can get anything useful for Francouer, and perhaps they would have to eat so much of his salary it would hardly be worth it, but they’re stuck paying him as is, so the only benefit to not trading him is the joy of watching him make outs. Yes, it may sound churlish to say that when he’s hit three game-winning homers in a week, but sell high if you can, and if not, just cut the cord.

Ozzie Guillen Has Half A Point

Ozzie Guillen, known for his penchant for speaking first and maybe thinking later, contends that Japanese players are treated better than Latin players:

Guillen said it’s unfair that Japanese players are assigned translators when they come to the U.S. to play pro ball, but Latinos are not.
“Very bad. I say, why do we have Japanese interpreters and we don’t have a Spanish one. I always say that. Why do they have that privilege and we don’t?” Guillen said Sunday before Chicago played the Oakland Athletics. “Don’t take this wrong, but they take advantage of us. We bring a Japanese player and they are very good and they bring all these privileges to them. We bring a Dominican kid … go to the minor leagues, good luck. Good luck. And it’s always going to be like that. It’s never going to change. But that’s the way it is.”
Guillen, who is from Venezuela, said when he went to see his son, Oney, in class-A, the team had a translator for a Korean prospect who “made more money than the players.”
“And we had 17 Latinos and you know who the interpreter was? Oney. Why is that? Because we have Latino coaches? Because here he is? Why? I don’t have the answer,” Guillen said. “We’re in the United States, we don’t have to bring any coaches that speak Spanish to help anybody. You choose to come to this country and you better speak English.”

We can all sympathize with Ozzie’s concern over matters of language. Language is a sensitive issue, because people who can’t talk to each other can’t do much else. It’s not somehow irrational or racist to be concerned about that. But this is a classic case of noticing a difference but misunderstanding why it exists. As is often the case, when you see such things, the law is at work behind it.
There are three different systems for developing you players:
(1) American players are, from an early stage, the property of American Major League teams. An exemption from antitrust law allows the teams to collude to assign players to the organization that drafts them, at cost to the players’ liberty but benefitting the competitive balance of the league. Players drafted as teens have two choices: sign with one team, or go to college. (The ability to go to college is a more realistic prospect for some players than others, depending on their educational abilities and financial needs, among others.) This system makes American players cheaper to develop than they would be otherwise, plus of course American players have no additional layer of problems adjusting to living in the US, so while it restricts the liberty of the individual, it also benefits American players as a group.
(2) Latin American players are not subject to these rules – Latin players can sign with whatever team they want. They have greater freedom than American players to negotiate their own deals, and the best ones can have multiple teams competing for their services. The flip side is that, coming as many of them do from poor backgrounds, they tend to sign young and few go to college. Signing young keeps them competitive, cost-wise with American players who may be more well-established (less risky) but lack the same ability to negotiate their services on the open market.
(3) Japanese players are subject to a similar system to the U.S. system within Japan – for the first several years of their careers they are owned by a Japanese league team. To come to the U.S., such players must be purchased from their Japanese team, and they arrive in mid-career, as established players. (I believe a similar system is involved in purchasing Korean players, although they generally arrive younger).
What does this all mean? It means that teams invest a lot of money in the top Japanese players, but as you may have noticed, there are a lot less of them than there are Latin players. (Notice Ozzie’s example: a team with 17 Latin players and one Korean). Latin players, being cheaper to acquire at an earlier stage of their development, are more numerous but less valued than the cream of the Japanese crop – but if you’re a less talented Japanese player, you may simply never get the chance to play in the U.S. The Japanese player who never appears on our shores is invisible in this debate.
I’m not saying there’s nothing else to Ozzie’s point but the economics – there’s also undoubtedly a cultural sense that it’s easier to either learn English or get by without it if you come here from a nearby Latin country than from Asia, especially given the critical mass of Latinos already on the roster of almost any team in organized baseball. It’s easy to see why Latin players may find it frustrating to not get the same special treatment as the rarer Japanese prospect, but I’d suggest that most of them would far rather play in the U.S., closer to home and with the company of many other Latino players who share some of their cultural background and outlook, than play in Japan, where there may be nobody else in the organization who speaks their language and where the cultural norms may be far more different from, say, Venezuela than playing on a team in Arizona or Florida.
But in any language, money talks.

No No-No

With Matt Garza giving Rays fans a no-hitter last night, it’s high time I re-ran this list – the Mets, now in their 49th season in the National League, have still never had a no-hitter, but they’ve had plenty of pitchers who did:
Pitchers Who Threw No-Hitters After Leaving The Mets:
Nolan Ryan (seven times, including for every other franchise he pitched for)
Tom Seaver
Mike Scott
Dwight Gooden
David Cone
Hideo Nomo
*Octavio Dotel (1 inning in combined no-hitter)
Pitchers Who Threw No-Hitters Before Coming To The Mets:
Warren Spahn (twice, albeit long before he was a Met)
Don Cardwell
Dock Ellis
John Candelaria
Bret Saberhagen
Kenny Rogers
Al Leiter
Hideo Nomo (got ’em on both ends)
Scott Erickson
**Pedro Martinez (9 perfect innings, but allowed hit in tenth; no longer officially counted as a no-hitter)
*Alejandro Pena (1 inning in combined no-hitter)
*Billy Wagner (1 inning in combined no-hitter – same one as Dotel)
If you count Pedro and leave out the relievers, that’s 15 pitchers, 23 no-hitters, and one heck of a trivia question.


George Steinbrenner has died, at age 80, of a massive heart attack. The Boss’ timing was perfect to the end: a week after his 80th birthday on July 4th, on the morning of the All-Star Game (with the baseball media all gathered in one place with nothing much to write about), which Joe Girardi will manage as the skipper of the defending champs (the 7th in the 37 years of Steinbrenner’s tenure), just days after the passing of public address announcer Bob Sheppard at age 99 (Sheppard being one of the last links to the old, pre-George Yankees, having been the PA announcer since Mickey Mantle’s rookie year, 1951), and less than a week removed from the LeBron James spectacle, which in its own way was the logical endpoint of a culture of free agency that George did as much to create in pro sports as anyone.
Steinbrenner’s personality and legacy will be described as “complicated,” which is sort of true although the pieces are easy enough to stitch together into a coherent whole with some effort. My all-time favorite line was from Luis Polonia in 1989: “Steinbrenner is only interested in one thing, and I don’t know what it is.” At times, when the Yankees weren’t winning, it seemed that way. Nobody cared about winning more than Steinbrenner, and that of course was his greatest virtue as an owner; the Yankees made a lot of money under George, but he never saw the money as something to pocket separate and apart from winning, and as a fan there are few things you want more in your team owner. His signature move was signing Goose Gossage to be his closer immediately after Sparky Lyle won the Cy Young Award, an act of colossal baseball gluttony that turned out to be visionary; Sparky’s arm gave out and he went, in Graig Nettles’ words, “from Cy Young to Syonara in one year,” while the Goose went on to have the prime of his Hall of Fame career in pinstripes.
But he cared about other things too, and even with winning, sometimes he cared too much. He was the only baseball owner you could turn into a Seinfeld character with minimal alteration. Until his old age and infirmities mellowed him, he meddled incessantly, firing managers like Lewis Carroll’s Red Queen, bullying his players in public (recall him calling Jim Beattie “gutless” on the occasion of summarily demoting him to AA), breaking the rules and the law to dig dirt on Dave Winfield and help Richard Nixon get re-elected. He created an impossible atmosphere for developing young players – especially pitchers, catchers, shortstops who can take more time to learn their craft – and it’s no accident that the two great Yankees teams of his tenure were built during his absences (the suspensions in the mid-70s over his conviction and in the early 90s over the Winfield affair), or that the second Yankees dynasty thrived because it never needed to replace its catcher, shortstop or closer again in George’s lifetime.
There was also his love of the back page, even his beer commercials with Billy and Reggie, and of course his obsession with topping anything that would get publicity for the Mets, even in periods when the Mets were in deplorable shape. But while George thrived on publicity and controversy and abused his subordinates, he was also long on forgiveness and charity. Many famous grudges were held against Steinbrenner, most famously Yogi Berra (the Yankees of the late 80s, like the Mets of the late 70s and the Yankees of the late 60s, endured the lost decade that is one’s penance for firing Yogi), but other than Winfield, who George perhaps hated the more because he remained under guaranteed contract, Steinbrenner was not a man to hold grudges; you could be fired today and rehired tomorrow. He loved giving second and third chances to guys with problems (Billy Martin, Steve Howe, Darry Strawberry, Dwight Gooden).
It’s too late, in a sense, to object to the changes Steinbrenner wrought on the game; he was a force for change, and shaped how those changes in the game occurred and were perceived. Steinbrenner was the ideal man for his franchise (while the Yankees lost the aura of classy professionalism they’d had in the 50s, they were always first and foremost about domination), and his adopted city’s tabloid culture (he could never have stayed in Cleveland). Love him or hate him, he was the kind of villain who made sports fun to follow and fun to write about, and the Yankees, yes, a fun team to hate. His controversies will pass; his monuments will be with us for some time.

Howard’s Patience

One of the things that can be deceptive about walk rates is if a player – especially a slugger – has dramatic changes in his intentional walk rates year to year. So with Ryan Howard, who averaged 36 IBB per year in 2006-07, but fell off to 17 in 2008, 8 in 2009, and 6 in half a season this year. (Vlad Guerrero has had similar patterns). Here’s Howard’s walks per 600 plate appearances if you subtract IBB from both:
2005: 44
2006: 64
2007: 70
2008: 56
2009: 58
2010: 35
The pattern in Howard’s total walk rates suggested he walked a lot in 2006 and 2007 and had big falloffs in 2008 and 2009, but as you can see, while Howard’s non-intentional walk rate peaked in 2007, the trend from 2006 to 2009 was mostly consistent. Whereas this year, he really has fallen off dramatically, albeit covering that in his OBP by hitting .296.

To The Utley

Want a measure of how valuable Chase Utley has been to the Phillies? Utley had had a 900 OPS and OPS+ of 125 or better, in 600 or more plate appearances, each of the past five consecutive years. Here’s the list of guys to have a 125 OPS+ or better in three or more seasons total, in at least 500 PA, playing at least half their games at 2B, by number of seasons:
Eddie Collins
Nap Lajoie
Joe Morgan
Rogers Hornsby
Charlie Gehringer
Ryne Sandberg
Larry Doyle
Chase Utley
Jeff Kent
Craig Biggio
Roberto Alomar
Lou Whitaker
Jackie Robinson
Tony Lazzeri
Billy Herman
Bobby Grich
Joe Gordon
Bobby Doerr
Cupid Childs
Rod Carew
Frankie Frisch
Tom Daly
(Plus 19 guys who did it twice, including Hall of Famers Johnny Evers and Bid McPhee as well as two active players, Robinson Cano and Alfonso Soriano)
Doyle’s the only one of the 6-years-and-up guys not in the Hall of Fame, and he was a bad glove man who played in the dead ball era. Utley could easily join that group if he returns healthy from his current injury without missing too much time. If you look at raw numbers of seasons of 900 OPS or better, the list is even narrower:
Bret Boone
Chuck Knoblauch
Buddy Myer

And Now I’m Back, From Outer Banks

So, we just got back last night from a week plus vacation, mainly in Duck, in North Carolina’s Outer Banks. Apologies for not setting up a guest blogger this time, I had anticipated doing a little blogging from vacation but we had the worst possible WiFi setup – I had internet access only up an observation tower on our rental house, and atop the tower it was too sunny to see the laptop screen by day and too dark to see the keys at night. (Also, I ended up doing more work on vacation than anticipated; it’s been that kind of year). So, I was able to use Twitter from my Blackberry, but no blogging. Hopefully, regular blogging will return shortly.
We did get a chance, on the way out of town, to check out Kitty Hawk, where the second set* of Wright Brothers chose for their spot to make aviation history, and you only have to fly a kite in the Outer Banks to see why they picked the spot – the wind conditions are perfect for effortless flight. Of course, my 4-year-old was able to walk the distance of the first flight in almost the time it took the Wright Brothers to get there by airplane. The first flight wasn’t that fast. But it is striking that it’s one of the very few great moments in scientific and technological history that was captured for posterity in photographs. And of course, as befitted (befat?) men of that era, everyone involved wore neckties, topcoats and top hats.
On the trip back, we caught the July 4 Mets-Nationals game at Nationals Park. It’s a nice place for a ballgame, with scarcely a bad seat in the house, notwithstanding that it was hot enough there Monday to melt the One Ring. I wouldn’t say it’s quite as attractive a venue as Citizens Bank or Citi Field, but it’s very wide-open, and when Craig Stammen is pitching (he’s in the rotation the day after Strasburg), you can have any seat in the house. We sat in the field-level right field seats (Section 135L), which were awesome until the heat became unbearable, then backed up to the covered seats at the top of the section.

Continue reading And Now I’m Back, From Outer Banks

Laid So Low

The Orioles are now 17 1/2 games out of fourth place. Eventually, the Blue Jays will drop some steam – until recently, the AL East had the four highest-scoring teams in MLB, but Toronto’s fallen off to 8th now and sports an AL-worst .309 team OBP (then again, last year’s hitting stars, Adam Lind and Aaron Hill, are both below .300, and could offset a lot if they start hitting) – but the strength of that division has to come out of someone’s hide, and the Orioles have drawn the short straw.

SPOTUS Takes K Street

Stephen Strasburg’s debut could hardly have gone better, even taking account of the fact that he was facing the second-worst offensive team in the majors (only the Astros have scored slightly fewer runs per game than the Pirates). He looked like Danny Almonte blowing through overmatched Little Leaguers out there, and at times like Sidd Finch. Quick rundown of his run at the record book:
-14 Ks in a major league debut is one short of the record of 15 by Karl Spooner in 1954 and JR Richard in 1971. (Bob Feller struck out 15 in his first start, but he’d made relief appearances before that).
-Strasburg set a MLB record for fewest pitches required (94) to 14 Ks.
-Strasburg broke Johnny Cueto’s two-year-old record for most Ks in a MLB debut (10) without issuing a walk. At least as far as I could find from, 7 rookie pitchers have struck out 14 or more batters in a game without a walk: Kerry Wood (20), Dwight Gooden (16, twice in the same month), Mark Prior (16), Roger Clemens (15), Gary Nolan (15) and now Strasburg (14). Bill James ran an analysis in the 1985 Abstract concluding that the chances of Clemens (4.32 rookie ERA) being a really good pitcher were high just on that one game alone, i.e., that random chance would have a very low probability of allowing a poor pitcher to strike out that many guys in one game with no walks.
On the downside, JR Richard threw his last game at 30, Spooner at 24, Prior at 25 (1-6, 7.21 ERA), Nolan at 29 (4-4, 6.09 ERA), Gooden from age 29 on was 40-31 with a 4.99 ERA, and Wood since age 28 has been 13-16 with a 4.04 ERA (with 58 saves) almost exclusively as a reliever. That’s a lot of falling short of potential that only Clemens, in that group, reached (the jury’s still out on Johnny Cueto and his 4.55 career ERA). The greater challenge for Strasburg, as with all young pitchers, will be staying healthy.
In short, in one start, Strasburg has amply demonstrated that he has the talent to be the real deal. Now, the hard part: I’d like to see him do it again.

Strasmas Eve

Speaking of Posnanski, he has the definitive take on Stephen Strasburg: Strasburg is Christmas morning. (Tom Bridge offers up a Night Before Strasmas)
It’s unlikely that Strasburg will be as revolutionary from the outset as Bob Feller. Between the dawn of the 4-ball-3-strike era in 1889 and 1935, only six pitchers struck out at least 8 batters per 9 innings in a season of 25 or more innings. Three of those six (28-year-old Norwegian-born Jimmy Wiggs with 37 K and 29 BB in 41.1 IP in 1905, 22-year-old Marty O’Toole with 34 K and 20 BB in 38 IP in 1911, and 25-year-old Roy Parmalee with 23 K and 14 BB in 25.1 IP in 1932) were essentially short-season flukes by wild pitchers who were never able to duplicate those strikeout rates over anything like a full season of innings. One was 26-year-old “won’t you come home” Bill Bailey, whose career 4.2 K/9 rate more than doubled to 9.16 in 128.2 IP in the Federal League’s inaugural 1914 season, but dropped to 4.9 the next year and never topped 3.1 again. The other two, at 8.39 and 8.20, were the peak seasons of baseball’s true strikeout master to that point, Rube Waddell, at the peak of his powers at age 26-27.
Feller, age 17, struck out 76 batters in 62 innings in the American League, over 11 men per 9 innings. While allowing just one home run. His ERA was 3.34, although he walked 6.8 men per 9. His numbers after joining the rotation August 23 were even more staggering: 8 starts, a 2.67 ERA, 41 hits allowed, 70 K (11.67 per 9). This, in a league where the average pitcher struck out 3.3 men per 9, walked 4, had a 5.04 ERA and the average hitter batted .289/.363/.421. Feller made the cover of Time Magazine in April of the next year, before an Opening Day start in which he fanned 11 men in 6 innings (Feller made just two more appearances, in relief, before joining the rotation on July 4; he had to finish high school first). In his second season, in 148.2 IP, Feller struck out 150 men at age 18, becoming as a teen the only man after 1889 outside the Federal League to clear a strikeout per inning for more than 100 innings. In those first two seasons, he was a strikeout-inducing force such as the game had not seen. Feller’s K rate settled down a bit after that, but in 1891.2 innings between age 17 and 27 (interrupted by joining the Navy for World War II, where he saw combat as a gun captain on the USS Alabama, and punctuated by a 1946 barnstorming tour facing a Satchel Paige-led Negro League team a year before the color line broke), he struck out 1640 batters and allowed just 71 home runs, posting a 2.96 ERA. Feller’s 7.8 K/9 over that 11-year span dominated the majors; only two other pitchers with 1000 innings pitched over those years struck out more than 5.71 per 9 (Hal Newhouser at 6.26, Johnny Vander Meer at 6.06, and Newhouser racked up some of his biggest K numbers during the war). Feller, a physical marvel at 17, was the starting pitcher in the Cooperstown Classic old-timers game last year at 90, and plans to pitch again this year at 91.
It’s also unlikely that Strasburg will be as dominant a phenom as Dwight Gooden. Gooden’s then-record 11.39 K/9 as a 19-year-old in 1984 was just a warmup; his 1.53 ERA in 1985’s 24-4 season was, relative to the league (ERA+ of 229), the 7th-best ERA to that point in a season of 200+ innings (it’s 11th now, with the addition of two better seasons apiece by Greg Maddux and Pedro Martinez), and is still the only ERA+ of 200 or better in a 200-inning season by a pitcher under age 22. And in raw terms, as I noted last week, if you include unearned runs he had the 4th fewest runs allowed per inning of all time, at 1.66 runs/9. At his peak, over 50 starts stretching from August 11, 1984 through May 6, 1986, Gooden was 37-5 with a 1.38 ERA (1.51 if you count unearned runs), completed half his starts and threw shutouts in almost a quarter, averaged 8.1 innings per start, 9.2 K per 9, 2.0 BB, and 0.38 HR.
Since 1900, the ten winningest pitchers through age 21, ERA+ of 120 or better (Feller & Gooden are still comfortably 1-2 if you include guys with lesser ERAs; Amos Rusie and Kid Nichols join if you go back to 1890):
1. Bob Feller: 82-41 (.667), 3.19 ERA (140 ERA+), 973 K (7.92 per 9)
2. Dwight Gooden: 58-19 (.753), 2.28 ERA (155 ERA+), 744 K (8.99 per 9)
3. Smoky Joe Wood: 47-38 (.553), 1.98 ERA (144 ERA+), 475 K (6.52 per 9)
4. Babe Ruth: 43-21 (.672), 2.11 ERA (132 ERA+), 285 K (4.55 per 9)
4T Bert Blyleven: 43-41 (.512), 2.86 ERA (122 ERA+), 587 K (7.24 per 9)
6. Fernando Valenzuela: 34-20 (.630), 2.62 ERA (132 ERA+), 395 K (7.18 per 9)
7. Don Drysdale: 34-27 (.557), 3.27 ERA (126 ERA+), 334 K (5.65 per 9)
7T Christy Mathewson: 34-37 (.479), 2.42 ERA (129 ERA+), 400 K (5.50 per 9)
9. Frank Tanana: 32-30 (.516), 2.88 ERA (120 ERA+), 471 K (7.67 per 9)
9T Walter Johnson: 32-48 (.400), 1.94 ERA (122 ERA+), 395 K (5.36 per 9)
Pretty good company, if you can reach it. But Strasburg doesn’t need to be as revolutionary as Feller or as dominant as Gooden or as great over as long a career as Paige or Walter Johnson to deliver on enough of the hype to satisfy. There’s still plenty of room in between to dream.

Class of 06-07

Joe Posnanski uses the occasion of the Jeff Suppan release to look back at the disastrous free agent class of 2006-07, baseball’s equivalent of the subprime mortgage bubble. I wish I’d updated my own analysis in midstream of that free agent class. Patrick Sullivan has argued that JD Drew’s at-first-glance-obscene contract is actually a bargain compared to the rest of his peers, and while I still think you wouldn’t sign Drew for the same money today, he’s right in light of the market conditions of that insane offseason.

Home Sweet Home

I’ve hit a few times on the Mets’ bizarre run of dominance (22-9) at Citi Field. Some of the causes are explicable – Reyes, Pelfrey playing well at home – some are surprising (Jason Bay adjusting his game to a park where he struggles to hit home runs), and some are just freaky coincidence. Here’s a few of the latter:
-Fernando Nieve hasn’t allowed a run in 14 innings at home this year, compared to a 13.50 road ERA (18 runs in 12 innings). Nieve’s career ERA at Citi Field: 1.13.
-Mets pitchers are batting .213/.226/.246 with 3 Runs, 4 RBI, 5 Sac Hits and 0 GIDP in 62 plate appearances at home this season.
-Fernando Tatis at home: .389/.476/.611.

The Kid Bids Adieu

The Galarraga controversy almost obscured yesterday’s bigger news, the retirement of Ken Griffey jr. It was overdue by at least a month. One example: I had looked late last week at the ten players with the highest and lowest number of bases per hit in MLB with at least 100 plate appearances. You don’t really want to be on either of these lists – a good hitter should have plenty of singles to go with the extra base hits – but the guys on the low list are almost all punchless slap hitters. The results?
Top 10: Jose Bautista, Paul Konerko, Nelson Cruz, Andruw Jones, Kelly Johnson, Mark Reynolds, Adam Dunn, David Ortiz, Aaron Hill, Seth Smith.
Bottom 10: Cesar Izturis, Jamey Carroll, Ryan Theriot, Ken Griffey, Juan Pierre, Elvis Andrus, Luis Castillo, Julio Borbon, Jason Kendall, Lou Marson.
Plus, he was batting .183; this is why Griffey was slugging .204. If his career was a horse, we would have shot it. He should have hung it up after 2009, when he batted .214 but was still mildly useful and hit well at home; returning made him a four-decade player, but did nothing else for anyone and resulted in the ignominious controversy over Griffey allegedly taking a nap when he was needed for pinch-hitting duties.
Anyway, memories of Griffey’s 2010 can hopefully now be erased, and we can remember a guy who played the game with grace, joy, hard work and a world of talent. I’ve looked systematically before at Griffey’s place among the Hall of Fame slugging outfielders/first basemen who had around a decade-long prime (I counted Griffey from age 20-30), and ranked him offensively a bit below Albert Belle, Paul Waner, Duke Snider, Jim Thome, Bill Terry, Fred McGriff, Sammy Sosa, and Dick Allen – granting that several of those guys are rated on 9 seasons to Griffey’s 11, with only Waner (12) and Allen (11) matching the length of Griffey’s prime, even with Billy Williams (who was a lesser hitter but more durable) and a bit ahead of Al Simmons, Chuck Klein, Joe Medwick, Earl Averill, Minnie Minoso and Goose Goslin. Griffey would have ranked higher except that his spectacular 1994 season, when he slugged .674 and was on pace to challenge Roger Maris, was confined to a short schedule, and he missed half the 1995 season with a broken hand.
Griffey’s career went in stages. In 1989, he was a promising rookie, batting .264/.329/.420, impressive enough for a teenager in that era. In 1990-92, from age 20-22, he was truly The Kid: playing alongside his dad for the first two of those seasons, he hit his peak as a glove man (he won the Gold Glove every year of the 1990s) and hitter for average, but his power hadn’t come in all the way yet, batting .311/.376/.513 (146 OPS+), averaging 36 doubles, 24 homers and 94 RBI per year. From 1993-2000, covering age 23-30 and including his first year in Cincinnati, he was a monster: adjusting for the shortened 1994-95 schedules, his average season was .294/.387/.606 (152 OPS+), 46 HR, 112 R, 122 RBI, 15 SB, and 82 BB. Griffey was mostly durable aside from the 1995 injury, leading the league in homers four times and surpassing 700 plate appearances three years in a row and 600 plate appearances every non-strike-shortened season between 1990 and 2000. He did benefit from a home-field advantage at the Kingdome, slugging .605 there for his career (.555 at Cinergy Field in his later years in Cincinnati); between 1991 and 2000, Griffey hit .312/.401/.636 at home, 4th in the majors in slugging at home, but .287/.371/.547 on the road, 11th in the majors in slugging on the road (number one? Mike Piazza, at .350/.414/.616).
Griffey was often referred to, even by me, as the best player in baseball in those years. He was near the top, and contra Bill James he was better than Craig Biggio, but he wasn’t #1 even when you give him a leg up for his amazing glovework. Let’s take a back of the envelope look. For the 1993-2000 period, there were many comparable hitters. If you rank them by OPS, there were 21 guys with a 900 or better OPS over those years and more than 4000 plate appearances. We can drop seven of those guys from direct comparison, as they had fewer than 4400 plate appearances to Griffey’s 4896: Manny Ramirez, Thome, Gary Sheffield, Andres Galarraga, Juan Gonzalez, Chipper Jones, David Justice (McGwire falls even further short). Six more were below a 950 OPS to Griffey’s 993, and thus also not directly comparable: Mo Vaughn, Rafael Palmeiro, Tim Salmon, Sosa, Bernie Williams and John Olerud. Thus, our direct comparisons:
Barry Bonds .303/.439/.626 (1065 OPS, 4885 PA, 180 OPS+)
Frank Thomas .320/.437/.590 (1027, 5147 PA, 166 OPS+)
Jeff Bagwell .311/.428/.583 (1011 OPS, 5172 PA, 164 OPS+)
Edgar Martinez .325/.441/.562 (1003 OPS, 4445 PA, 158 OPS+)
Ken Griffey .294/.387/.606 (993 OPS, 4896 PA, 152 OPS+)
Mike Piazza .330/.394/.584 (978 OPS, 4546 PA, 157 OPS+)
Albert Belle .305/.385/.587 (972 OPS, 5266 PA, 150 OPS+)
Bonds, clearly, was the game’s best player in that stretch; Griffey’s .387 OBP was good, of course, but not in the same class with Bonds, Thomas, Bagwell or Edgar, and Bonds was also an excellent fielder and baserunner. At the other end, Belle was a slightly lesser hitter and not a comparable glove man to Griffey, so he clearly rates slightly below the Kid during that period (my column rated him higher with the bat, but it included Belle’s 1991-92 and not 2000, although the other big difference was the edge Belle gets for durability).
The other four are closer calls. I’d rate Piazza ahead of Griffey, especially given his superior road numbers; Piazza being a passable catcher with the same bat was more valuable than Griffey being a great center fielder. I’d put Griffey ahead of Edgar, who missed a good deal more time and had zero defensive value. And when push comes to shove, I’d rather have Thomas and Bagwell’s superior on-base skills than Griffey’s better glove and speed, although it’s close.
After 2000, Griffey became an overpaid half-time player; even with the hometown discount he accepted to go home to Cincinnati, his contract killed the small-market Reds, while the Mariners – perennially disappointing in the postseason in the Griffey era – won an AL-record and MLB-tying record 116 games in 2001 without him, albeit ending in another postseason bust. He was still good, batting .277/.363/.533 (129 OPS+) from age 31-35, but averaged just 89 games a year.
In 2006-07, Griffey got a bit healthier, but his skills started eroding, despite a valiant comeback effort in 2007; he batted .266/.348/.492 (110 OPS+) over those years, averaging 126 games a year. Then the power went; at age 38-39, drifting through three teams, he hit .234/.340/.418 (99 OPS+). This year, reduced to .184/.250/.204 (28 OPS+) in 108 plate appearances, he was cooked.
Griffey could be whiny and self-centered a bit, and his smile hid more turbulence than you might guess (he attempted suicide semi-seriously in high school), but on the whole he was a joy to watch and a fun prankster to have in a clubhouse, took tons of batting practice, and is generally regarded as one of the few sluggers of his era who is above suspicion of steroids. We may never see another Willie Mays, but Griffey was a pretty good facsimile for the modern fan, finishing with 630 homers. It was a great ride.

Past Imperfect

A few thoughts on last night’s fiasco in Detroit, in which – if you missed it – Armando Galarraga missed a perfect game against the Indians when umpire Jim Joyce completely blew a call at first base (it wasn’t even close) on what would have been the 27th out; Galarraga then calmly recorded another out and the game ended:
-I don’t ever remember hearing Jim Joyce’s name before, although he’s been in the league for years. That, as well as his forthright admission that he blew the call, speaks well of him. Sometimes, even good umps make bad calls.
-Galarraga handled the whole situation with incredible class and grace, not even arguing the call and making a show of forgiving Joyce for the whole thing. (And if don’t you think the umps around the league will remember that….)
-This will probably lead to MLB adopting the instant replay for more plays than just disputed home run calls. I’m not thrilled at the prospect of more game delays, but fixing really egregious errors when they happen is for the best.
-On the other hand, retroactively awarding Galarraga the out on the bad call, as so many sportswriters are now demanding, would be an awful idea. The Tigers didn’t protest the game (I don’t think, offhand, that a protest can be pursued by the winning team or on a safe/out call on the bases), so the one precedent (the 1983 pine tar game, when the league reversed an on-field decision to strip a home run from George Brett, requiring the game to be replayed from that point) doesn’t provide any support. And doing so just to preserve one player’s individual accomplishment is antithetical to the point of team sports, in which we celebrate individual achievements that are reached within the flow of the game. It’s not as if the league ordinarily does anything about blown calls even when they decide pennant races or postseason serieses. Galarraga will be remembered as the guy who earned the distinction, and in a way that’s close enough. Like Harvey Haddix, he’ll go down in history in a way that Roy Halladay and Dallas Braden won’t.
-Three perfect games in a month: amazing. Scoring’s down a bit, but not nearly enough to account for that.
-I gotta add this: I definitely picked the right week to have just activated Galarraga on my fantasy team.

Throwing Zeros

If the season ended today, Ubaldo Jimenez would qualify for the ERA title with an 0.78 ERA. Pitching in Coors Field. Only three men in baseball history have thrown more innings in a season than Jimenez has already thrown (80.1) and finished with an ERA below 1.00: Dutch Leonard (0.96 ERA in 224.2 IP in 1914), Hall of Famer Tim Keefe (0.86 ERA in 105 innings as a rookie in 1880), and the immortal Ferdie Schupp (0.90 ERA in 140.1 innings as a swing man in 1916; more on the 1916 Giants here).
That’s impressive, even with the caveat that one bad outing could double his ERA in a hurry. But even more impressive is the fact that Jimenez hasn’t allowed an unearned run this season. Which puts him on pace for an even more exclusive club: if the season ended today, he’d be the only man ever to qualify for an ERA title allowing less than 1 run per 9 innings. Indeed, Rob Murphy in 1986 (50.1 IP, 0.72 ERA, no unearned runs) holds the current record for most innings in a season with a RA (ERA, but including unearned runs) below 1.00.
Here’s the complete list of guys who qualified for an ERA title with an RA below 2.00, including at present both Jimenez and Jaime Garcia:

Player Year Age ERA RA IP H/9 HR/9 BB/9 K/9
Ubaldo Jimenez 2010 26 0.78 0.78 80.3 5.15 0.11 2.91 7.84
Dutch Leonard 1914 22 0.96 1.36 224.7 5.57 0.12 2.40 7.05
Bob Gibson 1968 32 1.12 1.45 304.7 5.85 0.32 1.83 7.92
Walter Johnson 1913 25 1.14 1.46 346.0 6.03 0.23 0.99 6.32
Dwight Gooden 1985 20 1.53 1.66 276.7 6.44 0.42 2.24 8.72
Greg Maddux 1995 29 1.63 1.67 209.7 6.31 0.34 0.99 7.77
Jaime Garcia 2010 23 1.32 1.76 61.3 6.75 0.15 3.96 7.48
Dean Chance 1964 23 1.65 1.81 278.3 6.27 0.23 2.78 6.69
Mordecai Brown 1906 29 1.04 1.82 277.3 6.43 0.03 1.98 4.67
Pedro Martinez 2000 28 1.74 1.82 217.0 5.31 0.71 1.33 11.78
Carl Lundgren 1907 27 1.17 1.83 207.0 5.65 0.00 4.00 3.65
Smoky Joe Wood 1915 25 1.49 1.83 157.3 6.86 0.06 2.52 3.60
Mordecai Brown 1908 31 1.47 1.84 312.3 6.17 0.03 1.41 3.54
Luis Tiant 1968 27 1.60 1.85 258.3 5.30 0.56 2.54 9.20
Fred Toney 1915 26 1.58 1.86 222.7 6.47 0.04 2.95 4.37
Christy Mathewson 1909 28 1.14 1.86 275.3 6.28 0.07 1.18 4.87
Jack Coombs 1910 27 1.30 1.89 353.0 6.32 0.00 2.93 5.71
Tom Seaver 1971 26 1.76 1.92 286.3 6.60 0.57 1.92 9.08
Doc White 1906 27 1.52 1.93 219.3 6.57 0.08 1.56 3.90
Pete Alexander 1919 32 1.72 1.95 235.0 6.89 0.11 1.46 4.63
Christy Mathewson 1908 27 1.43 1.96 390.7 6.47 0.12 0.97 5.97
Walter Johnson 1918 30 1.27 1.96 326.0 6.65 0.06 1.93 4.47
Greg Maddux 1994 28 1.56 1.96 202.0 6.68 0.18 1.38 6.95
Sandy Koufax 1963 27 1.88 1.97 311.0 6.19 0.52 1.68 8.86
Mordecai Brown 1907 30 1.39 1.97 233.0 6.95 0.08 1.55 4.13
Eddie Cicotte 1917 33 1.53 1.97 346.7 6.39 0.05 1.82 3.89
Sandy Koufax 1964 28 1.74 1.98 223.0 6.22 0.52 2.14 9.00

When you look at the RA column, it really underlines how historically amazing Leonard, Gibson and Walter Johnson were in their peak seasons. (Henry Thomas, in his excellent bio of Johnson, notes that Johnson got beat up the last day of the season in what was then a common practice of playing essentially a ‘joke’ game with guys playing out of position and whatnot). Gooden and Maddux, too. And of course, Pedro in 2000 and Maddux in 1994-95 are especially impressive when you consider the context they pitched in. (Fun facts about Pedro in 2000: one, the league allowed 5.28 runs/game; two, he had an 0.99 ERA through June 14; three, he was only 6-5 at home despite a 1.84 home ERA; four, 23 of the 44 runs scored off him were on home runs – he allowed 9.95 runs/9 on homers and 0.87 runs/9 otherwise). But if by some stroke of good fortune Jimenez was able to keep this up all year, he’d go straight to the head of the class for the best-pitched season ever (setting aside the debate over how heavily to weight workloads compared to a guy like Johnson).