29 August 2005

Jaret Wright: The Wrong Stuff

That THUD you heard Saturday afternoon was the other shoe dropping for Jaret Wright.

Wright was making only his third start since returning from nearly four months on the disabled list. Yet, already the AM sports talk radio crowd is ready to crown him the #2 starter in the Yankees’ postseason rotation, which is still over a month away, as you know, and as they should know too. Nevertheless, every weekday morning, without fail, the relative merits of various Yankee starting pitchers are discussed and a new, daily decision is made regarding who should get to start for the Bronx Bombers in the postseason.

“Aaron Small is 4-0…Shawn Chacon has been their best pitcher…Randy Johnson gives up too many homers…Leiter’a a seasoned veteran…Mussina’s too inconsistent…and etc.”

Never mind that Chacon, Small and Wright have pitched well for only a handful of starts, after having largely inconsistent or unimpressive careers before that. Never mind that nobody knows whether or not the Yankees will even make the playoffs, much less have six healthy starters from which to choose, come October.

Well, if there was any question about whether Jaret Wright has “returned to form”, let the record state now: The answer is ‘yes’. Unfortunately that “form” is that of a relatively hard-throwing pitcher with control and confidence problems, not the 15-game winning workhorse the Yankees thought they paid for when they signed him to a three-year, $21 million contract in the off season.

Jaret Wright has been lucky since he came off the DL, plain and simple. I’ll show you:

8/15/2005: Wright faced the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, who, despite playing better since the All-Star break, are not a good-hitting team. They don’t have a guy with a .300 batting average or a .385 OBP in the lineup, and have only two players slugging over .500, one of them for only half the season. They do score a little better at home than on the road, but that just makes them mediocre, not good.

…In the second inning of that game, he got a pop-out from Aubrey Huff, but then hit Johnny Gomes with a pitch, who promptly stole second base. He then walked Travis Lee, who despite having an excellent first name can’t hit his way out of a paper bag. In the process, Wright threw eight straight balls (including the one that plunked Gomes), before he got Alex Gonzales to line out and induced a pop up from the inexplicably anxious Toby Hall, who had no business swinging at the first pitch he saw.

…In the fifth inning, he allowed a leadoff double to Gonzalez, who went to third on a wild pitch and scored on a single by Hall. A double play got him out of that jam, but then he hit Julio Lugo with a pitch, and lucked out when he got caught stealing. (For the record, Lugo is an excellent base stealer, but should not have been going on a 1-0 pitch, against a clearly-struggling pitcher, with his team down by two runs in the fifth inning.)

…in the seventh inning, he hit Gomes with another pitch and allowed a single before Tanyon Sturtze relieved him, after throwing only 79 pitches, and got out of that jam. So while he allowed only two earned runs in six innings and change, he also threw a wild pitch and hit four batters. Not exactly what you’d call dominance.

8/22/2005 Wright starts against Toronto, walks the bases loaded in the first inning, throwing 27 pitches in the process, but get out of it without allowing a run. Afterwards he settled down and was mostly pretty good against a team that hits pretty well on the road, allowing only four hits (no walks, one wild pitch) in his remaining six shutout innings, which were only possible because of the luck he had in the first.

8/27/2005 The luck runs out. Well, not for the Yankees, who almost miraculously overcome a four-run deficit in the ninth inning to win, but definitely for our man Jaret. Wright got into trouble immediately against the worst-hitting team in the American League. But with two on and nobody out, he got three straight outs to eliminate the threat.

…In the fifth inning, with the bases loaded and two out, he allowed a double and two singles to score three runs, then another run to score on a wild pitch, putting the Yanks down, 5-3. He had thrown 109 pitches and would not come out for the sixth inning. Even in the innings in which he did not allow a hit or walk, he went to 2-0 or 3-1 to a lot of batters, many of whom would be riding the bench or waiting in AAA if under contract with a good team. He threw a first-pitch ball to 14 of the 24 batters he faced. Even a team as bad as Kansas City would not let him get away with that.

Again, fortunately for Wright, and even more so for the Yankees, they happen to have one of the best offensive teams in baseball and they happened to be facing the worst pitching staff in the major leagues. And without their closer, Mike "Mac the Ninth" MacDougal available Saturday, the Royals' fate was left in the hands of Jeremy Affelt and Shawn Camp. Affelt did his job as a pitcher well enough, striking out Bernie Williams and inducing a double play grounder that should have ended the game as a 7-3 victory for the Royals, if he had not made a bad throw to second base. But alas, favor smiled upon the arrogant and overpaid, as the Yankees took advantage of the defensive mishap to push five runs over the plate and win the game, 8-7.

Having been at the game myself on Saturday, I can say without question that this was one of the most boring contests I had ever personally witnessed, until the ninth inning. Many of the 54,452 fans in attendance got up and left in the eighth inning, to beat the traffic, presuming that the Yanks had little or no chance to overcome such a steep obstacle as a 4-run lead by a team against whom you had gotten only four hits in eight innings.

My mom and wife and I though, stayed, and toughed it out, and were therefore rewarded with one of the more exciting and dramatic come-from-behind wins in recent Yankees history, if not all time. I would like to be able to say that we did this because we are all such die-hard fans and that we never gave up hope that our boys could pull it out and win one for the Gipper, or at least for Gary Cooper. But the reality is that I live over two hours away and that my mom and I, who actually consider ourselves baseball fans (unlike my wife, who slept through most of the first seven innings) only get to one Yankee game a year, and we weren't about to leave early from it. I'm so cheap that I was actually hoping that the ninth inning might end in a tie so we could get some free baseball, "extra innings" and thereby stretch out baseball dollars a bit further. "Let's see, $150 for nine innings averages out to about $17 per innings, so if the game goes into the tenth..."

In the end, even though the game wasn't a bargain, we certainly got more than we bargained for, and I wouldn't have traded such a comeback for a 22-2 drubbing any day.

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23 August 2005

How the West Was Lost

Eleven years and eleven days ago, the Lords of Baseball missed an opportunity to do something about the debacle that is this year's National League West.

I know that doesn't make a lot of sense, but stick with me here. On August 12th, 1994, the Major League Baseball Players' Association went on strike. In response, the owners locked the players out for what would eventually become the longest strike in professional baseball history, and in doing so, they locked themselves away from addressing an issue that could have been dealt with in the very first season of three-division/wild-card play: What happens if a "Division Winner" isn't even, well, a winner? What do you do if a division is so weak that the best team in it doesn't even have a winning record?

Of course, as you know, there were no official "Division Winners announced for the strike-shortened 1994 season. ESPN's Rob Neyer has argued that this is an injustice to those teams that held the lead when the strike occurred. Every other award for players and teams was given: Cy Young Awards, MVPs, Silver Sluggers, Gold Gloves, and etc. Why not Division winners? For one thing, it would screw up the "XX consecutive division titles" mantra of both Atlanta Braves fans and enemies all over the world. Of course they couldn't possibly have known at the time that the Braves would reel off another ten (maybe eleven?) straight division titles after the 1994 season, so it's hard to imagine that this had anything to do with the decision not to name 1994 division champions.

Another possibility for this decision may have to do with Montreal. The Expos had the best record in baseball at the time the strike hit, 74-40, a healthy six-game lead on the Braves. However, even then, and even with their success, the Expos ownership was trying to find a way to get out of Montreal, and hanging a name like "Division Champion" on a team sure has a way of making it seem like such a move is unnecessary, you know? I can't say with any certainty that there was some sort of conspiracy here. Again, the owners and those in charge of MLB, including Acting-Commissioner-For-Life Bud Selig, couldn't have known exactly what a laughingstock the Expos franchise would eventually become. Nor could they have known just how severely the owners would screw up the situation before resolving it, if indeed moving the team to a city that has already lost two other franchises can be called a "resolution'. Still, it's worth considering the possibility that MLB had a vested interest in making sure that Montreal did not officially "win" its division, if only because it would make it that much harder to move the franchise later.

The most likely reason that MLB did not announce 1994 Division Champions is the most obvious, least subversive, and possibly the worst reason of all: Laziness. They had a big issue to address with the Texas Rangers, a bad team that "won" its division despite a losing record, and rather than deal with that issue by creating a rule stating that a team has to have a winning record to get into the playoffs or something like that, they simply brushed it off. They considered it a fluke, and joked, "When will that ever happen again?"

The answer to that question, of course, is "ten years later", in the 2005 NL West.

A quick perusal of the 1994 AL Division standings will show you that the Yankees led the East, the White Sox led the Central, and the Texas Rangers, with a 52-62 record, led the West. The Rangers held that lead very tenuously, with only a one-game margin over Oakland and two games over Seattle. Texas had played only 2-7 in August, so that bad stretch represented half of their sub-.500 deficit alone, and a decent finish to the month might have brought them back to respectability. But Oakland had also had a rough time in the dog days of summer, going 4-7 in August after two consecutive winning months, and Texas couldn't capitalize on Oakland's poor play. Seattle was red-hot in August of '94, with a 9-1 record, but that followed a seven-game losing streak, so it's hard to imagine that they would have put a run together. California had barely won 40% of its games, and would have been in last place in five of six divisions in major league baseball, so despite their relatively small 5.5 game deficit, they could not have been considered contenders in any sense of the word.

So it was Texas who was "winning" the American League West when disaster struck and thoughtless greed robbed us of lots and lots of baseball games, as well as pennants and pennant winners. The Rangers had a decent but flawed offense, with perennial All-Stars Ivan Rodriguez, Juan Gonzalez, Jose Canseco, and other role players helping them score the 5th most runs in the American League. The pitching, however, was another story entirely, perhaps even another genre of story, though I can't decide whether it would be considered comedy or tragedy.

Kevin Brown and Kenny Rogers, both solid starters with roughly league-average ERAs, with a combined record of 18-17 and an ERA of almost 5.00, "anchored" the rotation, the rest of which was a mess. In their desperation, the Rangers turned to a lot of youngsters and rookies. Someone named Hector Fajardo (23) went 5-7 with a 6.91 ERA and 23-year old rookie Rick (s)Helling took a lot of them, as his 5.88 ERA, would attest. Rookie John Dettmer (24) posted an ERA half a run better than the AL average in nine starts, but somehow went 0-6. Steve Dryer (24) compiled a 5.71 ERA in his five games. Roger Pavlik (26) amazingly managed to stay in the rotation for 11 starts despite a 7.69 ERA. Brian Bohannon (25) posted a 7.23 ERA in five starts and six relief appearances, and was permitted to leave as a free agent after the '94 season despite his status as a former first-round pick for Texas.

They got starts from re-treads Rick Reed (5.94 ERA), Bruce Hurst (7.11), Jack Armstrong (3.60 in only two games), and even Tim Leary (8.14), who was dead at the time, I think. Leary, Dreyer, Hurst, and Armstrong never again pitched in the majors after 1994, and Fajardo and Dettmer were done after cups of coffee 1995. Rick Reed was desperate enough to cross the picket lines in 1995, and eventually fashioned himself a career as a "poor man's Greg Maddux", but could do little to help the '94 Rangers.

In the bullpen, closer Tom Henke was OK, and Darren Oliver was a decent reliever as a rookie, but Matt Whiteside, Cris Carpenter and Jay Howell all had ERAs over 5.00 while carrying the bulk of the bullpen workload, and 40-year old Rick Honeycutt was hardly the LOOGY the Rangers thought they were getting when they signed him in the off season. His ERA skyrocketed from 2.81 in 42 innings in 1993 to 7.20 in 25 innings in 1994. Not surprisingly, the Rangers allowed him to return to Oakland as a free agent after the season.

All of this is just a long-winded way of showing that the 1994 Texas Rangers, with the second to worst team ERA in the AL, were not a good team in any respect. Their decent offense and horrendous pitching put them in a category not unlike, well, this year's Texas Rangers. The 2005 version of the team is currently ranked 11th in team ERA and third in runs scored, which makes them slightly better than their ancestors of eleven seasons ago in both respects. But this year's team is 58-66, and rightfully sits well out of contention for anything, 13.5 games behind Anaheim for the AL West division lead and 11 games behind the Yankees and Indians for the Wild Card lead.

But the 2005 Padres? San Diego has not been above .500 since August 12th, eleven years to the day that the aforementioned strike began, when they were 58-57. They have not been more than two games over .500 since July 22, when they were in the midst of losing eight in a row and 12 of 13. It's not as though they've just had bad luck or lost a lot of close games. (In fact they're 22-12 in 1-run games.) But their expected win-loss record based on the runs they've scored and allowed is 58-66, three games worse than their actual record. So in a backwards sort of way, the Padres have actually been lucky, or at least fortunate.

They've also been lucky that all of their competition for the NL West division title has gone down the tubes. Barry Bonds has been hurt all season, and Jason Schmidt has not been himself when he has been healthy enough to pitch, so the Giants have not been above .500 since May 25th, when they were 23-22. The Dodgers have had numerous injuries as well, and have not see the mediocrity mark since mid-June. Arizona has improved tremendously since 2004, but is still five games behind the lackluster Padres. With a mediocre offense and terrible pitching, the Diamondbacks don't appear to have enough venom in their sac to really hurt anyone down the stretch, much less to win the division.

So it's up to San Diego, a team that can't win consistently. A team that would most appropriately be described as mediocre, at best. A team that might finish the regular season with a losing record and still win the World Series. Back when divisional play started in 1969, this was the argument of some of the old-school types who wanted to maintain the tradition of having only one team from each league get into the playoffs, which would guarantee that the League Champions would not have losing records. Similarly, when the three-division format was proposed for 1994, it was argued that the chances of a losing team entering the playoffs would be increased, and indeed they were.

That very first year, a bad Texas team was in fact winning its division when the strike hit in mid-August. And that team was not one or two games under .500 like the Padres are right now, but ten games under .500, and unlikely to improve much down the stretch. Of course, MLB had some pretty big problems on its hands already, namely how to get the players and owners to agree on a new Collective Bargaining Agreement, and consequently, how to get the players to in fact play. To their credit, they resolved that issue, though it took them more than half a year to do so.

But they missed an opportunity to address the issue of a losing team winning its division. They could have, and certainly should have instituted a rule stating that if a team finishes atop its division without at least a .500 record, that team would not make the playoffs and would be replaced by the team with the best record that was not otherwise going to make the playoffs, either by winning its division or the Wild Card. It seems a little silly, I suppose, to say that a team can play an entire season, finish it with the best record among its divisional rivals, and not make the playoffs, but doesn't it seem even more silly to say that a team that lost more games than it won should get into the playoffs due to geography rather than baseball prowess, while teams with winning records watch the playoffs from home?

And if so, it would certainly be beyond silly, perhaps ridiculous, if that team were to happen to get hot in October and win the World Series. It's not out of the realm of possibility, either. Since the three-division format started, four of the ten World Series victories have gone to Wild Card teams, teams that did not win their own division, and two other Wild Card teams have gotten into the World Series. All it would take is to hot pitchers and a little luck, and we could be blessed with the first ever World Champion Loser.

We've got six weeks to see whether my suspicions are realized, but mark my words: if the Padres win the NL West with a losing record, there will be outrage among baseball fans, and not just the old-school and purists either. And if San Diego should catch lightning in a bottle for two weeks and end up winning the World Series, the Commissioner and his cronies will be forced to finally address the issue, lest they become irrelevant and baseball become, well, hockey.

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02 August 2005

Palmeiro Caught Red-Handed

What else can go wrong for the Orioles?

Still reeling from an 8-18 July that helped their half-game division lead turn into an eight game deficit and a fourth place standing a month later, Baltimore had something else to cry about on Sunday.

Orioles DH/1B and presumably first-ballot Hall of Famer Rafael Palmeiro was suspended yesterday for testing positive for one of the banned substances in MLB's new drug policy. Palmeiro did not indicate in his press conference that he failed the test due to cough syrup or diet pills, so we are left to presume that it was some kind of steroid for which his ten-day suspension was levied.

Palmeiro had denied, before the United States Congress and the literally millions of baseball fans who had tuned into see the hearings or watched them replayed on SportsCenter like so many fielding bloopers, ever having used steroids. He defiantly pointed his finger at the committee and stated emphatically that he had never used steroids. That story had changed only slightly yesterday, to say that he had never intentionally used steroids.

This does not leave us with many viable possibilities.

1) Palmeiro is telling the truth. He had not ever used steroids previously and did not do so on purpose this year. The steroids got into his body because they were in his Ovaltine and he didn't realize it. He's really sorry and he's switching to Qwik.

B) Palmeiro is stupid, but honest. He had never previously used steroids at all, but this year, knowing that there was a new testing policy and that there had already been several players suspended for testing positive for something they bought at a GNC nutrition store, he used some kind of supplement that was banned without thoroughly researching it.

iii) Palmeiro is really stupid, and lying. He had never previously used steroids, when they never did any testing and they weren't banned, but he decided to start taking them this year, under a newly-formed, much more rigorous, random testing policy, knowing that he could now actually get in trouble for it.

IV) Palmeiro is lying now, and he lied to Congress in March. But he's smart. He used steroids before, and he kept using them, or changed his dosage or patterns in hopes of avoiding detection. He figured that even if he got caught he would only lose 10 days (not even ten games) the first time, and probably wouldn't get tested again this season.

That last one seems to make the most sense.

Palmeiro was forced to appear before Congress because he was subpoenaed, and he was subpoenaed because he was accused, in Jose Canseco's book Juiced, of using steroids. Indeed, Canseco attests to having injected Palmeiro with steroids and Human Growth Hormone personally, as well as to showing Raffy how to do this himself.

In this particular case, the numbers seem to bear out Jose's testimony. Canseco was traded on 31 August 1992 was traded by the Oakland Athletics to the Texas Rangers for Ruben Sierra, Jeff Russell, Bobby Witt, and cash, according to BaseballReference.com. Before the trade, Palmeiro had hit a pedestrian .259/.333/.402, with 15 homers and 20 doubles in 513 at-bats, striking out 72 times compared to 57 walks. After the trade, Raffy ripped up the American League to the tune of .316/.409/.611, with 7 homers and 7 doubles in only 95 at-bats, and now walking more than he struck out.

Certainly, this is not definitive proof that Palmeiro started regularly visiting the the Canseco Clinic, as Jose had said. Steroids are supposed to take a few weeks to start to have an effect, and box score data from Retrosheet.org seems to indicate that Palmeiro was hitting better and for more power within a few days of Canseco's arrival in Texas. But it is evidence.

That was not even the best month of Palmeiro's career, as he had hit .390/.456/.710 with eight homers in 100 at-bats in July 1991, without the help of steroids or at least without the help of Jose Canseco.

It could be argued, I suppose, that it was not Canseco's presence behind Palmeiro in the locker room stall, injecting nasty concoctions into Raffy's rump that made the difference, but rather Jose's presence behind Palmeiro in the lineup, injecting fear into opposing pitchers and affording Palmeiro some protection he did not have the rest of the season. This theory also breaks down though, as Palmeiro only hit in front of Canseco 12 times in the Rangers' remaining 27 games, and did not hit appreciably better with Canseco behind him than he did with the likes of Juan Gonzalez, Dean Palmer or Ivan Rodriguez following him in the batting order.

The real evidence, though, comes after the 1992 season. To that point in his career, Palmeiro had been a good-average, little-power hitter, despite starting his career in one of the better hitters' parks in baseball, Wrigley Field. After having never previously hit more than 26 homers in a season, he suddenly hit 37 in 1993. After having totaled 28 stolen bases and being caught 17 times in almost 900 career games to that point, Raffy swiped 22 of 25 in '93. He had 95 homers in 3270 career at-bats at the end of the 1992 season, and a career .457 slugging percentage. His most comparable players by age were:

Age    Player
26 Al Oliver
27 Darin Erstad
28 John Olerud

Decent players, who hit for average but not power. Nobody will be petitioning the Veterans Committee to let any of them into Cooperstown if they're not elected in their first 15 years of eligibility, you know?

But from 1993 until now? Holy cow. After reaching an age at which most players tend to plateau for about four or five years, Palmeiro kept climbing the mountain. He has hit 474 homers and slugged .542 since the start of the 1993 season, and is still padding his stats and helping his team to win. His comparable players since that age include Billy Williams, Orlando Cepeda, Jeff Bagwell and Eddie Murray, all current or future Cooperstown cronies.

Palmeiro has worked his way into an elite group of players. He's one of only four guys in baseball history to amass 3,000 hits and 500 homers, and with 584 doubles and counting, he stands a good chance to soon be one of only two players with 600 doubles to boot, along with Hammerin' Hank.

Whether or not steroids helped him to do that, he still belongs in the Hall of Fame when he's eligible. There were no rules against steroids in baseball until recently, and even with the acknowledgement that steroids were a major factor in his success, he still had to do what he did. There are literally thousands of baseball players who had access to the same chemicals made available to Palmeiro who did not do what he did. That doesn't mean that we necessarily give him the same respect we would give to Hank Aaron or Willie Mays, but he gets a little more than Lenny Harris, don't you think?

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