31 May 2005

Rochester Baseball Review

There comes a time in every man's life...and, and unlike Casey Stengel, I haven't had too many of them. However, despite being only 30, I still can grasp the value of a vacation, especially when my wife impresses it upon me with such vigor as she is capable of displaying when the need arises. Well, after three years of marriage without a vacation of our own since our honeymoon, the need arose. So my wife and I made some plans. We chose to stay at a spot called, fittingly enough, "The Chosen Spot", a modest but very accommodating Bed & Breakfast in Canandaigua, NY, which actually means "the chosen spot" in the Seneca tongue.

And so it came to be that I had the opportunity to visit Frontier Field, home of the Rochester Red Wings, AKA "The Twins of Tomorrow," not because they're planning to clone the entire roster tomorrow, but because the Red Wings are the Minnesota Twins' AAA franchise. The Red Wings were hosting the Buffalo Bisons, top farm club for the Cleveland Indians, in the first of a three-game, Memorial Day weekend series on Friday night, and the wife and I decided to attend. (Actually, I mostly decided to attend, and the wife acquiesced. Turns out she's pretty accommodating, too.) So we hopped in the car and headed off to Rochester, meandering through towns like "Victor" and "Hopewell", over rolling hills and past fields ("Centerfield", actually, another town) along routes so obscure that the local authorities only bother to label their numbers once in a while.

This commute, as you might imagine, was markedly different from the commutes to Philadelphia or New York to see the respective major league teams of those cities. Sure, I-78 in New Jersey has rolling hills, too, but appreciating the scenery as you zip by at 85 mph while swerving to avoid someone in a '73 Impala who's putting along at (how dare he?) the 65 mph speed limit is about as easy as trying to hit a major league fastball while enjoying the sunset. Needless to say, the 40-minute drive to Rochester left us both in a much better condition to see a baseball game.

Furthermore, buying front-row seats, right on the third base line, for $9.50 apiece sure puts you in a good mood as well. We even recieved a complementary "megaphone" also known as "a conically shaped piece of red plastic" from the local newspaper, which we proceeded to use throughout the game, mostly to converse with each other during its louder moments, but also to yell silly things at the players. And each other. OK, mostly each other.

If the concessions followed the same pricing scale, I reasoned, compared to game at Yankee Stadium, hot dogs should cost about 80 cents each, but apparently the concessions folks haven't been told that this is only a minor league town. Still, a Diet Coke for $3 is better than a Diet Coke for $4.50, and paying $5 for a fresh-grilled sausage and peppers (and peppers) and onions (and onions, and onions...) sandwich sure beats paying $8 for the privilege of consuming a cold sandwich, half the size, at Yankee Stadium. My wife and I both ate and were more than satisfied for less than $20 total. Better than a poke in the eye with a sharp stick, as they say.

Oh yes, the game. We did get to the game just a little late, but not too late to be shown to our seats (by a gracious, elderly usher who even wiped them off for us) just in time for Red Wings' 2B Augie Ojeda's first at-bat of the game in the bottom of the first. Ojeda, you probably don't know, has had a largely undistinguished major league career as a reserve middle infielder for parts of several seasons with the Twins and Cubs. But Augie has the special distinction of having been born on my birthday, December 20th, and unlike Branch Rickey, Aubrey Huff and my mom, Ojeda was born on December 20, 1974, the same year as I was. How’s that for kismet?

One of the more noteworthy Red Wings players to see time in the majors was leadoff man/CF Jason Tyner, he of the impressive college batting average and the 6'1', 170-lb frame that couldn't generate power if the Hoover Dam were attached to it. Tyner hit .385 with 49 steals in 64 games his senior year at Texas A&M, but did not homer in 278 at-bats that year, even with the benefit of an aluminum bat. The Mets took him in the first round of the 1998 draft anyway, but now, eight years later, he has exactly one home run in over 3000 major and minor league at-bats, and has to be considered a flop. Other Red Wings who have been in the majors included Todd Dunwwody, who played right field and SS Jason Bartlett, who got a cup of coffee with the Twins last year and broke camp as the starting shortstop with Minnesota this season but got sent back down after hitting only .242 through mid-May.

The Buffalo Bisons also featured several former (and perhaps future) major leaguers, including DH Jeff Liefer, 3B Mike Kinkade, 1B Andy Abad, OF Ernie Young (who's not, anymore), CF Darnell McDonald, SP Francisco Cruceta and SS Brandon Phillips, who may still be the shortstop of the future for the Cleveland Indians, but hitting .203 in the International League is not a good way to solidify your position as a prospect. Just so you know. Liefer, McDonald, and 2B Jake Gautreau were all 1st round picks at some point in history.

But the real story was Juan Gonzalez. That’s right, the Juan Gonzalez. "Juan-Gone." "Gonzo." "Igor." Sir. Call him whatever you want, but he's still a two-time AL MVP, with 434 career major league homers, over 1400 RBI, over 1000 runs scored and almost 2000 hits. Unfortunately, he hasn't had a healthy, productive major league season since 2001. The Indians, in dire need of some production out of right field, activated Gonzalez this week in hopes that even at age 35 he might be able to do any better than the paltry .203 Casey Blake was hitting in that role. Gonzalez though, took a page out of the Frank Thomas Guide to Health & Rehabilitation, promptly re-injured his hamstring and was placed back on the DL. Oops.

But enough with the name dropping, you probably want to know what happened at the game, right? Well, just pretend you do.

Red Wings' starting pitcher Dave Gassner surrendered 5 runs in seven innings of work, including homers to Mike Kinkade and Brandon Phillips, and the Bisons led 5-1 heading into the bottom of the seventh. With the home team down by four runs, and things looking bleak, the 8,500 or so fans in attendance started to let them hear it, leading my wife to observe,

"Boy, people are really mad about this."

Which was the funniest thing I had heard all day. My wife, not being a baseball fan, per se, often comes up with observations at games that would never occur to me. Sometimes she's wrong, as when she says, "This guy sucks!" if the batter happens to swing and miss at a pitch. "That's only strike one, honey," I reassure her, before whomever it is proceeds to bounce into an inning-ending double play, thereby reinforcing her initial judgment. But this time she was right-on. It just wouldn't have dawned on me to think about it, as I'm so accustomed to hearing fans boo at games that I didn't even notice. I do live near Philadelphia, you know.

The seventh inning stretch was fun, as it always is. A children's choir led us in singing "God Bless America" although without the spiffy intro that Ronin Tynin does at Yankee Stadium ("When the moon is in the seventh house, and Jupiter aligns with Mars..."). Then we all sang "Take Me Out To the Ballgame" and I must say that I was pleased to find that it was not followed up with what Jay Jaffe, my colleague at The Futility Infielder, once called "the sonic horror of 'Cotton-Eyed Joe'."

Getting back to the game, Cruceta tired in the seventh, giving up 4 runs on five hits, as my favorite player who's exactly my age, Augie Ojeda, scored the tying run. Ojeda also made a diving stop to start a 4-6-3 double play in the eighth to get reliever Willie Eyre out of a bases-loaded jam, and had two hits in four at-bats to bump his average over the Mendoza line. Phillips had flashed some leather earlier in the game as well, making a diving stop of a grounder deep in the hole, but unable to hold onto the ball to make the play. This actually made my wife laugh out loud, as the image of a grown man trying to throw a ball forward and have it pop out of his hand and land on the ground behind him is apparently an amusing sight, at least to her. I suppose, if you take all the external ramifications out of the picture (i.e. the score of the game, the player's salary and career aspirations, etc.) it is a pretty funny image. Yet another observation that eluded me.

To be fair to her, later in the game my wife got so upset at seeing Bisons' left-fielder Ernie Young tumble and fall as he ran after and missed a bloop fly ball that she nearly started to cry. Not because he missed the ball, but because it looked like he had hurt himself. So it's not that she laughs at others' pain. Just their mistakes. Or something. She felt better after she saw that he got up and returned to his post in left field, apparently unscathed. The gentleman one section over from us who got hit with a screaming foul ball and had to be taken from the stadium on a stretcher was not so fortunate, and Sunny (appropriately) did not so quickly recover from that sadness. But she did take care to keep an eye on the ball during the game herself.

Anywho, with the game tied at 5-5 after the seventh inning, the Red Wings came back up in the eighth, and a kid named Josh Rabe (pronounced "ray-bee") came to the plate with nobody on base. We had been making fun of Yankees' announcer John Sterling most of the night, trying to think of awful and not particularly clever catch phrases to use for significant feats by various players, I suggested that if this guy hit a homer, they could call it a "Rabe shot". Stupid, I know, but no worse than "...AN A-BOMB...FROM A-ROD!!!" And naturally, Rabe did just that, belting a solo shot to put the good guys up, 6-5, which was the score by which they won. Red Wings' closer Travis (more kismet!) Bowyer pitched a perfect ninth for his 11th save of the season, and Rochester had itself a win.

Following the game, I was able to procure a Red Wings' ceramic coffee mug for my baseball mug collection, and a tee shirt for myself and one for my wife, and then they even had fireworks, surprisingly good ones for a minor league ballpark in a small city. Traffic on the way home wasn't bad either, and we were able to get back to The Chosen Spot before 11:30. And if you're tired of the high prices, hectic travel and impersonal feel of major league stadiums, you could do worse than to make a place like Rochester your chosen spot for some entertaining and affordable baseball.

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24 May 2005

Subway Train Wreck Series Review

What a weekend.

We had the opening of Star Wars Episode III, almost 30 years after Episode IV debuted in 1977. We had the Preakness Stakes, in which the Kentucky Derby winner was not the favorite for the first time in forever, and with another surprise winner. We had that big showdown in the U.S. Senate, where the President's judicial nominees have apparently been blocked by a Democratic senator named Phillip Buster. What state is he from?

Not to be outdone, Major League Baseball held its first weekend of Interleague Play, with most of the regional rivalries taking place, including that classic Washington-Toronto Series we'd all been anticipating. These games generally tend to be the most popular, best attended games of the season for many teams, and the New York Yankees/Jamaica Mets rivalry is no exception. Unfortunately, in retrospect, much of the Subway Series looked too much like a train wreck.

Friday night's game saw some hopeful signs for the Yankees. Kevin Brown, despite getting into trouble a few times, managed to succeed in not failing once again, pitching only five innings but allowing no earned runs in that span. He did allow an unearned run, or rather Derek Jeter's two errors in the fourth inning allowed them. No Gold Glove this year, Derek.

Though he had walked four baters already, Brown had only thrown 90 pitches when his spot in the batting order came up in the top of the sixth, so he was lifted for pinch hitter Ruben Sierra, who had just come off the DL. Sierra, like Robinson Cano before him, was lucky enough to hit the ball right at a member of the Mets' porous infield defense. Sierra, however, hit his ball right at the normally sure-handed Doug Mientkiewicz, whereas Cano had been fortunate enough to hit a grounder to consistently inconsistent Mets' 2B Kazuo Matui, who's working hard this year to prove that he can suck equally regardless of which side of the keystone they want to station him.

Nevertheless, both plays resulted in errors, and runs scored for the Yankees, leaving the score at 3-1 Evil Empire, where it stayed until the Resistance struck back in the seventh. The Mets had another opportunity to score in the eighth, when Tony Womack returned the favor to Mientkiewicz by misjudging a fly ball to left and allowing him to get on base. Womack gets a little slack, since he's playing out of position in left field so someone who can hit can start at 2B, but with over 150 career games in the outfield, that excuse seems pretty thin. More sloppy play by the Mets infield helped the Yanks tack on two insurance runs in the ninth, and that's how it ended, 5-2, Visitors. Five errors, thirteen walks, but only seven runs. Not the neatest of affairs.

Saturday's game should have been closer than the 7-1 Mets victory it became, what with Randy Johnson on the mound and the most prolific offense in the majors at the plate. Alas, the Yankees couldn't do anything with Mets' starter Kris Benson (career: 49-54, 4.26 ERA) or Mets relievers, 36-year old rookie Dae-Sung Koo, 40 year old Roberto Hernandez or Braden Looper and his 4.41 ERA in 2005. In fact, not only did Koo strike out all three batters he faced, he also got his first major league hit off Johnson, an RBI double over Bernie "Can You Throw This For Me?" Williams' head, and then scored from second base on a sacrifice bunt by Jose Reyes. Jackie Robinson he's not, but jackie would have been proud.

Johnson, for his part, seemed something less than the 5-time Cy Young Award winner for whom the Yankees mortgaged their future in the off season. He allowed 12 hits and four runs in less than seven innings of work, while striking out five and walking none. Yankees' catcher Jorge Posada maintains that Johnson's relative ineffectiveness is simply due to growing pains in their relationship, difficulty in calling and shaking off signals, and the like. But unless Johnson is somehow confusing the sign for "98-mph, up and in" with the sign for "91-mph, belt-high, middle of plate" I don't buy that excuse.

Want some evidence that Johnson isn't quite right? After the sacrifice by Reyes, Miguel Cairo hit a home run off Johnson, and Cairo has never hit more than 5 bombs in any season of his 10-year career. To his credit, Cairo had owned Johnson coming into the game, with eight hits in 19 career at-bats against him (.421). However, only one of those was for extra bases, a double in April of 1996, Cairo's second major league game, and in the early part of an injury-plagued season for the Big Unit. Johnson would make three more starts after that one in 1996, none more than 5 innings, before spending three months rehabbing an injury.

Correlation? Sure. Causality? Who knows? I'm not saying that Johnson is headed for the DL again, but Randy's clearly not as spry as he used to be. Robert Adair explains in The Physics of Baseball that the elasticity of a pitcher's arm is as important a factor as strength, if not more so, for determining how hard he can throw. Like everyone else, the elasticity of tendons and cartilige tends to decrease with age, so if I were Randy, I'd be buying up as much collagen supplement as I could get my big, lanky hands on.

Sunday's rubber match between the teams wasn't quite the catastrophe that Friday's game had been. The defenses combined for only three errors instead of five, and the starting pitchers combined for only two walks and two earned runs in 14 total innings. But this time the left side of the Mets' infield threw (or bobbled) the game away, as Jose Reyes and David Wright both committed critical errors in the eighth inning. Both players recorded their sixth errors of the season on Sunday, and Reyes tacked on his seventh on Monday against the Braves, meaning that the left side of the Mets' infield is currently on a pace to commit a Jeter-esque 47 errors. No wonder Tom Glavine can't get anybody out.

But the Yanks won 2 of three, enough to keep their overall record above .500, 2.5 games behind the Red Sox, tied with Toronto for 3rd place in the AL East. It was not, however, enough to prevent WABC-NY AM talk show host, Guardian Angels' founder, Mets-hater and lover of his own voice, Curtis Sliwa from having to wear a Mets hat and jersey Monday morning, the result losing a bet that the Bronx Bombers would sweep.

See kids? That's what you get for betting.

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07 May 2005

The Moose is Loose!

Mike Mussina gave the New York Yankees exactly what they needed Saturday afternoon: a rest.

No, not a day off. They still had to play. But the offense didn't have to score 12 runs to win. Joe Torre and/or Mel Stottlemyre didn't have to walk out to the mound every other inning to make a pitching change. The bullpen didn't have to pitch perfect ball for four innings just to give them a chance at a 'W'. And the players didn't have to retreat to the clubhouse after the game only to be accosted by an army of reporters asking them exactly how ashamed they are to be the worst team ever to make $200 million.

Moose Posted by Hello

Everybody (except Moose, of course) got a nice little respite from the problems that have ailed them for the last month and change. Which is convenient because Kevin Brown is pitching tomorrow. Hopefully past, say, the third inning. But let's not think about that now.

Mussina had something of an "off" year for him in 2004, failing to pitch at least 200 innings in a non-strike year for the first time since 1993. Technically, his 164 innings were enough to qualify for the ERA title, but, well, let's just say that his 4.59 ERA (his highest since 1996) wasn't. He missed more than a month with some injury or another, and wasn't so great when he did pitch. Until today, 2005 wasn't looking like a particularly memorable campaign either, but a 4-hit shutout will help make almost anyone's stats look a little better.

This marked the first complete game shutout the Yankees have pitched since August 17, 2003, also by Mussina. But that shutout, 3 hits, no walks, 9 strikeouts in 121 pitches, seems like a wholly different animal from today's event. Mussina allowed only 4 hits today, but he walked two batters as well and only struck out three, hardly blowing anyone away. While I didn't hear a lot of the broadcast, it seems from the discussion I did hear between the Yankee commentators that Mussina's velocity had been up a bit, which is just about the only place it can go from the paltry 86 mph he'd been getting on his heater.

As a Yankee fan, I certainly love the fact that Mussina seems to be coming around. Including today's start, this makes three outings in a row in which he's pitched seven innings or more, and he's allowed only two runs in his last two starts, totaling 16 innings. Not to take too much away from him, but it must be said that these two starts came against the Tampa Bay Devil Rays and the Oakland Athletics. The Athletics currently sit #27 of the 30 MLB teams in total runs scored, and the D-Rays have averaged 7.33 runs per game against the Yankees, while scoring just over four per game against the rest of the field, so don't read too much into two good starts.

Something else that should at least be considered is the fact that Moose had to throw 131 pitches to get the shutout, whereas Torre could easily have replaced him with Mike Stanton or Tom Gordon when he got into some trouble in the ninth. Those 131 pitches were the most he'd thrown since August 6th of 2002, a 7-inning, 14-hit, 5-run losing performance against Kansas City. His next start? Six innings, eleven hits, four runs.

If this outing eventually proves to be the precursor to injury and/or more inneffectiveness for Mussina, Torre's gonna have a lot of 'splainin to do. Is it really necessary to risk injury to a star pitcher's arm for a minor statistical accomplishment that didn't even have anything to do with the win, especially against another bad team in early May?

After this weekend, The Boss won't be nearly as distracted by his horse being the favorite in the Kentucky Derby, though if this game isn't a harbinger of better times for the Bronx Bombers, Torre may finally have the free time he's always wanted to attend the Kentucky Derby in person.

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03 May 2005

Do the Yankee Shuffle

My mom is worried.

Two days ago, after hearing all about the woes of the New York Yankees on sports talk radio on my way to work, and the alleged plan to cure said woes, I received an email from said Maternal Yankee Fan describing the myriad of lineup and roster changes as well as her own panic over the state of said team. Said mom was not wrong to worry, though said Yankees may be. At the least, the Yankees may be overreacting to an otherwise appropriately worrisome issue.

On the other hand, the Bronx Bombers have done nothing in the last two days to assuage those fears. In fact, "bomb" is exactly what they did yesterday, losing 11-4 at Tampa. As I write this, the team is down 10-8 to those same Tampa Bay Devil Rays, a team that had lost eight straight games coming into Tuesday night. Strike that, 11-8. The same team that currently sports a 9-18 record, good for (wait for it...) 28th best in the majors! Yep, KC and Colorado are jealous. Wait, that 11-8 is a final score.

In an effort to shake things up, the Yankees released Steve "Ow, My Elbow" Karsay, who had pitched a grand total of 12.2 innings in 2004 and 2005, all for the low, low price of six million dollars. Per year. If he clears waivers (and gosh, I can't imagine why the other 29 teams wouldn't want a guy who makes roughly $1 million per inning pitched...) Texas may pick him up, with the Yankees paying the sunken cost of Karsay's contract. As it works out, that's still only about half of what the Rangers are paying Alex Rodriguez to play for the Yankees, so maybe that wouldn't be so terrible.

Karsay's release made room for AAA 2B Robinson Cano, who hit well at AA Trenton in 2004, but struggled a little upon his promotion to Columbus. This year he was hitting much better at Columbus, and has gone 3 for 8 in his first two games with New York, though he made a costly error tonight. Of course, Cano has gotten eight at-bats as a secondbaseman because the regular second baseman, Tony Womack, is playing left field. Interestingly, the Baseball Prospectus projections for these two players in 2005 are:

Womack: .261/.303/.353
Cano: .255/.298/.389

Nearly identical, don't you think? Except they're not, because the 22-year old Cano makes the major league minimum, and has some "upside", whereas the 35-year old Womack has nowhere to go but down from his 2004 career year, and makes $2 million for each of the next two seasons.

Anywho, Womack is playing left because Hideki Matsui, currently hitting only .243 himself, mired in an 8-for-53 slump and homerless since April 8th, is playing center field. And center field, as you know, is avilable because Bernie Williams and his .247 batting average, .312 slugging percentage and gimpy throwing elbow are riding the pine. If this truly is the end of the line for Bernie as a starter, he deserves a better epilogue than I can compose in the short few minutes I have available right now. However, I am not yet convinced that we have seen the end of Bernie's starting days in CF. A little time, a little health, and maybe Williams returns to continue to build on his legacy as, far and away, um...the third or maybe fourth best centerfielder in Yankees history. You could do worse.

Until he's healthy, Bernie will serve only as a part-time DH, one of about six guys who help fill that role for the Yankees these days. Jason Giambi is the usual DH, but the "H" may be a bit of an overstatement in his case. Giambi's apparently got his batting eye, with a .394 OBP, but is "hitting" only .208, has only 6 RBI and hasn't homered since April 19th. Giambi was signed to his seven-year megadeal as a recent MVP firstbaseman, but after a season of injuries, infections and inklings of inappropriate usage of controlled substances, Jason's been reduced to a full-time DH, and a lousy one at that. The Yankees actually went out and signed re-tread Tino Martinez, a fan favorite and erstwhile hero of the Yankee franchise, but a firstbaseman whose best offensive years are far behind him, and whose most valuable asset is his glove, which is a little like carrying a relief pitcher because he knows a lot of good card games to play on those long road trips.

Rookie Andy Phillips hit .318 with 26 homers at AAA Columbus last season, but is off to a .160 start with the big club this year, after an 0-for-5, 5 strikeout performance on Tuesday night. If 0-for-4 with 4 K's is the "Golden Sombrero", what the heck did Phillips do last night? On the other hand, here's another interesting projection comparison from Baseball Prospectus:

Tino: .267/.350/.444
Andy: .263/.326/.456

Yet again, almost identical statistical projections, but 37-year old Tino is costing them almost $3 million this year, while Phillips, in his prime as a hitter at age 28, will make the MLB minimum. Not a good use of resources.

Amazingly enough, despite the offensive woes of several key players, The Yankees currently rank 4th in the majors in runs scored, behind only Boston, Baltimore and Texas, since Jeter, A-Rod, Sheffield and others are hitting reasonably well.

The real problem has been the pitching. The Yankees' 5.08 team ERA is better than only Tampa Bay in the AL, and the Reds and the Rockies (who both have a pretty good excuse given their home ballparks) in the NL. Randy Johnson's got a slight groin injury that might turn into a much bigger problem, and he was the "good" starter at 2-2 with a 3.74 ERA. Carl Pavano and Mike Mussina have not been great, but at least have given their team a chance to win once in while, which is more than Kevin Brown (8.25 ERA) and Jaret Wright (9.25!) could say. Wright's on the DL with a bum shoulder, and Brown ought to be on the DL, as in "Don't Let" him pitch anymore. Rookie Chein-Ming Wang pitched pretty well on Saturday against the Blue Jays, but AA starter Sean Henn didn't impress anyone tonight, giving up 5 earned runs in fewer than three innings. I guess he'll be going back to roost in the 'pen in Trenton.

Worse yet, they don't have a lot of options in the minors to replace these guys if they get hurt and/or continue to suck. Pete Munro? Wayne Franklin? Not gonna happen. These Yankees are in it for the long haul, because the franchise isn't equipped to replace them, and their contracts make them untradeable. They may be mediocre, they may be bad, they may just be working out the kinks on the way to another division title, but don't expect the roster to turn over much more from here on out. So keep worrying, Mom.

Ladies and gentlemen...your New York Yankees.

Like them or not.

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