30 April 2007

MVN.com RoundTable Discussion, 30 April 2007

Question #1:
If you were starting a team from scratch and had to pick one player and one pitcher to build around, who would they be? There’s only one stipulation: No MVPs or Cy Young award winners are allowed.

There are lots of remarkably good players who have never won a Cy Young or an MVP award, so this should be easy, right? But we want a guy we can build a team around, which means that five or six years from now, we need him to still be very productive.

Derek Jeter should have won last year’s AL MVP Award, but Jeter’s going to be 33 years old in a few months, not exactly the kind of young player around which you can build a dynasty, at least not any more. Travis Hafner, an excellent hitter (with an excellent name!) is 30 years old, and doesn’t play defense anymore, so he’s not really the type we’re looking for here. Ditto for David Ortiz, who’s fat and slow, in addition to not being named Travis. Strike three, go sit down, Papi.

What we need is someone who excels at several phases of the game, hitting, fielding and baserunning, and who is young, probably not more than 25 or 26.

Miguel Cabrera is an incredible hitter, having raised his batting average, OBP and slugging percentages since he entered the NL at age 20, back in 2003. He’s only an adequate defensive third baseman, though, and doesn’t steal bases, so we’ll pass on him.

Grady Sizemore plays center field pretty well, hits for a decent average, and is improving his patience, power and base stealing technique, so you could do worse than to start with him. Joe Mauer and Brian McCann, the best young catchers in their leagues, seem like excellent players, but as catchers, are not likely to play more than 140 games a season very often. They may be natural choices for team captains, and good hitting catchers are tough to find, so I wouldn’t fault you if you took one of them, but I’m going to let them go too.

Most general managers would sell their own children into slavery if they could get just one young player who looks like the kind of building block we’re talking about here. The Mets have two. Jose Reyes, with blazing speed, a quick bat, improving patience and developing power despite his diminutive size, looks like a perennial All-Star, and if the Mets win another division title, he could very well win the NL MVP award this year.

Okay, so he’s a lousy defensive shortstop. But just a few feet to his right, we have David. David Wright, like Reyes, is only 24, plays on the left side of the Mets infield, and should be a perennial All-Star and MVP candidate. Unlike Reyes, however, Wright’s got the right stuff when it comes to defense, with FRAA numbers comfortably above average in each of the last two seasons. His batting average and slugging percentages have increased each of the three years he’s been in the majors, and his base stealing is getting better.

Furthermore, Wright seems to have the charisma to handle the New York Star Maker machine, the down-home country charm to win the hearts of fans and the bat and glove to quiet any nay-sayers. So, Wright’s my man.

As for pitching, that one’s easy. The best pitcher in the majors who’s never won a Cy Young Award is Roy Oswalt. He’s gone 101-48 in his career to this point, twice winning 20 games and once winning 19, with 220+ innings in four of the past five seasons, and has placed in the top five in the Cy Young race four times.

His win-loss record wasn’t quite as gaudy last year due to lousy bullpen support (he took the loss in five quality starts and got a no-decision in seven others), but in terms of meaningful statistics, he’s posted almost exactly the same season every year since 2004, and that season just happens to be excellent. He’s not terribly young, at 29, but aging patterns for pitchers aren’t as clear-cut as they are for hitters.

Most of the best pitchers are nearly as good at 34 as they were at 29, some better. I’ll take the next five years of whatever Roy Oswalt has to offer over anyone else in the majors who doesn’t already have some hardware on his mantle.
Question #2:
Is a 162-game schedule too long, too short or just right? If you were commissioner, how many games would each team play? Would you stick with the unbalanced schedule?

I may not be the best person to ask about this, as I would probably have the teams scheduled for doubleheaders every day from April to October if I got my way. I really like watching baseball. It's like pizza or sex: even when it's bad, it's good. With that said, though I think 162 games is about all the market (and the players) can really tolerate, so let's not mess with it.

There is no way to maintain a balanced schedule if you’re only going to do partial interleague play, and I don’t think anyone is advocating for complete interleague play, which would essentially dissolve the two leagues into one. However, the combination of interleague play and an unbalanced intraleague schedule creates several problems, especially with teams from different divisions vying for the same wild card berth, as they may have faced significantly different competition.

The Braves, for example, must have ticked off someone in the scheduling office, because in addition to having to fend off the reigning NL East Champion Mets, the upstart Marlins and the Phillies, they have three interleague games apiece against Minnesota, Detroit and Cleveland, plus six games against the Red Sox.

Meanwhile the Padres, in addition to padding their numbers in numerous games against the Rockies, D-Backs and what will probably be a pretty sub-par Giants team, find their interleague matchups to be much more attractive: Three games each against Tampa Bay, Baltimore and Boston, and six against Seattle. Among those, only the Red Sox had a winning record last year.

So while it’s impossible to eliminate the unbalanced schedule without also eliminating interleague play, there ought to be some more thought given to how these games are allotted, and how to keep sub-par teams from getting into the playoffs by padding their records against so many weak teams.

Read responses from other MVN.com writers...

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27 April 2007

Oasis Media Blitz

Spreading the word about a new worship service at First Presbyterian Church in Bethlehem, PA, starting on Arril 28th at 6PM. That's me doing the Chris Farley thing in the beginning and showing off the cards and posters, and my wife next to me, saying that we'll hand these out to "anyone we see". For the record, she promptly chickened out when faced with actual "anyone"s, but did very well at convincing shop owners to put the posters up in their windows in downtown Bethlehem.

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26 April 2007

Phil Hughes Major League Debut Tonight at Yankee Stadium

The New York Yankees’ #1 pitching prospect, in fact, the top pitching prospect in all of baseball according to Baseball America, Baseball Digest, MILB.com, and Baseball Prospectus, among others, will make his major league debut tonight against the Toronto Blue Jays. Hughes was the Yankees’ best prospect a year ago, and nothing has changed except that he showed that he could get both Single-A and AA batters out with remarkable aplomb. This year, he struggled a bit in the spring and at the beginning of the AAA season, giving up 7 runs in 10 innings over his first two starts, but then shut out
Syracuse for six innings, striking out ten, allowing only two hits and no walks.

With that said, it should be noted that the Yankees’ move has more to do with the desperation of the major league coaching staff to find somebody, anybody, who can keep the team in the game for more than five or six innings. Indeed, as a team, the Yankees rank dead-last in the major leagues with only five Quality Starts (6+ innings, 3 or fewer earned runs). The Colorado Rockies, that legendary model of pitching prowess, have 13. Granted, the Yankees did just get tricksy “ace” Chien-Ming Wang back, and Mike Mussina is slated to come back next week, assuming his AA rehab start goes well, but even when healthy, most of the starters haven’t exactly pitched well. Kei Igawa has only one Quality Start in four outings, and so far only Andy Pettitte has been reasonably reliable.

The Yankees had a plan. They intended to use Pettitte, Wang, Moose, Pavano and Igawa as their five starters, with Jeff Karstens as a back-up #5 starter, if Pavano broke down. Unfortunately, all of those except Pettitte, have either spent time on the DL this year, or are on it now, so they that plan isn’t working. And given that the AAA starter with the most “experience” in the majors is Darrel Rasner (4 starts, 7 relief appearances, 4.23 ERA in 27.2 total innings), the Yankee Brass figured that they might as well go with the guy who has the most upside. So while this is a move of desperation, it’s only desperate in that it’s a few months ahead of schedule, and not a year or two ahead of schedule, like Chase Wright was. As you may recall, with only two starts above High-A ball in his professional career, Chase Wright was called upon to pitch in the majors, and he won his first major league start. After that, however, he surrendered four consecutive homers to the Boston Red Sox, and Chase Wright was chased right back to Double-A

For his part, Phil Hughes looks like the real deal, though it should be noted that he is more handsome than Evander. He’s got excellent mechanics, throws a consistent 91-93 mph fastball that touches 96 on occasion and moves, plus a 12-to-6 curve and a slider, both considered above average, and a good change-up. Essentially, at age 20, he has the complete arsenal it takes many pitchers until age 27 or 28 to master, and most never do. Whether he can use them effectively against major league batters is another story, and Page One begins tonight at 7PM.

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25 April 2007

A-Rod’s Homer Surge Explained (no, really!)

I had an epiphany today.

Not to discredit Alex Rodriguez for his remarkable exploits with the bat this month, but maybe there's a reason he's done so well. Maybe the Yankees have just faced lousy teams and/or lousy pitchers, and so his incredible outburst isn't quite as incredible as we think. Fortunately, STATS, Inc and their customers keep batter-vs-pitcher stats for everybody in the game, so I could easily look up his numbers against various pitchers this season and see how he, and the pitchers, have done.

I found that there were 13 pitchers who served up his 14 homers (Curt Schilling gave up two), five relievers and eight starters. The five relievers were, in the order that you should know their names:

Chris Ray, Joe Borowski, Al "Gamma" Reyes, Tom "I Wanna Do the" Mastny, and "Good King" Juan Salas.

The Starters were Curt Schilling (2), Jake Westbrook, Casey "Playing" Fossum, Steve Trachsel, Boof Bonser, Joe Blanton, Eric Bedard and Sidney Ponson.

Sorry for the Bermanisms. I couldn't help myself.

Last year, those relievers combined to pitch 224 innings. They went a combined 11-10 with 77 saves (69 of those by Ray and Borowski), a 3.21 ERA and 1.19 WHIP. Pretty decent numbers. This year, in 46 innings, they're 4-3 with 21 saves, and a 4.50 ERA, a considerable drop off. Most of that, however, is fueled by Borowski's apparently desperate efforts to lose his job as the Cleveland Closer, allowing 10 runs in 9 innings. The rest of them have allowed only 13 runs in 35 innings, pretty respectable.

But the real story is the starters. Those eight guys combined for a 4.54 ERA and a 1.44 WHIP last year in almost 1300 total innings. Five of them "won" at least 15 games last year, but Trachsel (15-7) and Blanton (16-12) were below-average innings munchers (BAIM?) in 2006, with ERAs of almost 5.00.

This year, most of that group has dropped off considerably. They're now just 11-10 with a 6.06 ERA and a 1.46 WHIP in 180 innings. And in this case, unlike Borowski and the relievers, it's not just one guy skewing the sample. Bedard and Bonser both have ERAs over 6.00, Fossum's is almost 7.00, and Ponson and Westbrook have both allowed more than nine runs per nine innings! No wonder A-Rod can hit these guys...so can everyone else.

Lumping all 13 pitchers together, they've got a 5.74 ERA in 226 innings, which is plenty ugly, though skewed by A-Rod's abuse of them. But even if you remove his contributions, you've still got a 4.64 ERA and a 1.31 WHIP in 215 innings or so, not very good, especially considering that the AL composite ERA is 4.37.

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24 April 2007

A-Rod’s Non-Turning Point, and Whither the Yankee Power?


Alex Rodriguez has blown the doors off the American League this year, leading the majors in just about every relevant offensive statistic, including a record-tying 14 homers in April. With six games left to play, it's quite likely that he'll break the record, set just last year by Albert Pujols. His 14 bombs have lapped the competition, as the next closest players in the major leagues (2B Ian Kinsler of the Texas Rangers and SS Jimmy Rollins of the Phillies) have only seven each. His 34 RBI are 12 more than the next closest player in MLB, Jeff Francoeur, and twice as many as the #2 guy in the AL, teammate Jason Giambi. His 26 runs scored are 5 more than Rollins and Hanley Ramirez, the next closest major leaguers, and 8 more than teammate Bobby Abreu, the closest competition in the Junior Circuit. he also leads the AL in Hits (30) and leads the majors in batting average (.400) slugging (1.053) and OPS (1.507).

Unfortunately for the Yankees and their fans, the rest of the team is not exactly aiding the cause. While A-Rod smokes everything he sees, to the tune of .400/.453/1.053, most of the rest of the offense looks more like smoke and mirrors, with a modest .271/.341/.376 line. While the BA and OBP numbers are at least respectable, that slugging average would rank the Yankees #22 out of 30 MLB teams if not for the heroics of Alex the Great. As it is, with him they're 4th, but I doubt that any other team counts on such a high percentage of its offense as the Yankees have counted on A-Rod. Bronx Bombers? More like the Bronx B-B Guns. Posada's been fine all year, Jason Giambi is coming around and Abreu and Jeter seem pretty good, despite the lack of power, but Melky Cabrera and especially Doug Mientkiewicz are killing them at the bottom of the lineup. Hideki Matsui was struggling before he got hurt, and now that he's back, his ineffective replacement, Kevin Thompson has been sent back to Scranton. With Godzilla's return, the Melk Man will be delivered back to the bench and pinch hitting/running duties. Back-ups Miguel Cairo and Wil Nieves have gone 0-for-19 with one walk. Rodriguez is bound to cool off at some point, and if the rest of the Yankees don't step up by the time that happens, the fans in the Bronx could be in for a long season.


As for A-Rod, it seems there are as many explanations for his hot streak as there are experts to espouse them. I'm hearing a lot about how A-Rod's season was "turned around" by his walk-off grand slam against Baltimore on April 7th, but the notion seems laughable to me. First of all, I don't think it's fair to label anything that happens in the fourth game of the season as a "turning point". A turning point implies that you've started going somewhere already, and with less than 2% of the season's schedule played, I harldy think that's appropriate. Secondly, A-Rod was doing pretty well already, even before he hit that grand slam off Chris Ray in the bottom of the 9th on April 7th.

Before that homer, he was hitting .353/.389/.882, with two homers, three doubles and five RBIs in (almost) four games. After that homer, he's been better, to be sure, but not that much better. Since that day, he's hit .404/.460/1.053, with 11 homers, four doubles, and 25 RBIs. The really interesting thing here, though, is that if he had just continued at the pace he'd been at through the first four games or so, he would still be having an excellent, super-MVP-type season.

              AB   R    H    2B   HR  RBI  BB   SO  SB   TB   AVG   OBP   SLG    OPS 
Pre-GS Pace 75 26 27 13 9 22 4 13 4 67 .360 .392 .893 1.286
Pre-GS Proj 675 234 243 117 81 198 36 117 36 603 .360 .392 .893 1.286
Actual Pace 75 26 30 7 14 34 7 19 1 79 .400 .453 1.053 1.507
Actual Proj 675 234 270 63 126 306 63 171 9 711 .400 .453 1.053 1.505

Before he ever hit that salami on the seventh of April, A-Rod was "on a pace to" hit 81 homers, score 234 runs and drive in 198 runs, all of which would be all-time records, as you probably know. Of course, the pace he's on since then is even better, but it's not exactly like he was dragging his feet for the first few games aof the year. For that matter, he had already hit a homer that very day, in the first inning, while the Yankees were down, 1-0. The interesting thing about seeing the numbers this way is that, in addition to the hits (about one more per ten at-bats), most of the improvement comes from a few of the doubles turning into homers.

Before that grand slam, A-Rod was "on a pace to" hit 117 doubles and 81 homers, or 198 extra base hits, while his actual pace at this point is for 126 homers but "only" 63 doubles, which would be 189 extra base hits. People who believe in silly things like "turning points" in a four-game old season will probably say that this is an inidcator of him swinging harder because of the added confidence after he hit that walk off shot, and therefore hitting the ball farther, leading to more homers and fewer doubles. Those people also believe in things like "momentum" in a baseball season and "staying within yourself", whatever that means. In reality, this is probably little more than a very hot 75-at-bat sample in what will hopefully be a third MVP season for A-Rod and a 27th World Championship for the Yankees. But the latter of those will only happen if someone else on the roster starts to hit a homer once in a while.

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22 April 2007

MVN.com RoundTable #4

Question #1:
In today's game, would more fans rather see an 11-10 slugfest or a 1-0 pitcher's duel? Does that represent a shift in culture from the past, and if so, where do you place the blame? Does your personal preference differ from that of the masses? (Are high-powered offenses more exciting than dominant pitching?)

As a general rule, it seems that most fans would prefer to see a slugfest. Homers and doubles and stolen bases and run scoring are all a lot of fun to watch, and you can't blame fans for enjoying the action in a game that consists largely of waiting for something to happen. There are a lot of people who get paid a lot of money to know what the public wants, marketing experts and the like, who all seem pretty convinced that offense, and home runs in particular, are what the public wants to see. They don't have a Strike-Out Derby at the All-Star Game, do they? I don't think that's a shift from the past so much as it's a recognition and exploitation of of a trend in major league baseball.

With that said, I think almost anyone who's seen a pitching duel, particularly when one of the pitchers flirts with a no-hitter or some similar feat, would say that such a game can be extremely exciting, and not just for experienced fans of the game. Even a novice can appreciate a tense game for what it is, and enjoy the moment despite the low score. When it comes right down to it, really the tension is what makes the game exciting, not the scoring or lack thereof.

Two of the most exciting games I've ever attended in person were at the opposite ends of the offensive spectrum. The first was back in September of 1996, a Yankees-Red Sox game in the Bronx, during the stretch drive. Neither starting pitcher survived the fifth inning, and the two teams used 15 total pitchers. There were four steals, and 34 hits, including five homers (four by the Yankees) and 18 total walks, plus three hit batters. The lead changed hands only twice. The Yanks went up 1-0 in the third, but were down 6-1 going into the bottom of the fifth. They never gave up, though, and kept chipping away, even as the Red Sox attempted to pull away. Though they left 20 men on base over the course of the game, the Yankees eventually won it, 12-11, on a bases loaded-single by eventual AL Rookie of the Year Derek Jeter in the 10th inning.

The other game, a pitchers' duel between Roger Clemens and Eric Milton (remember when he used to be able to take part in pitchers' duels?), was just as exciting, though for different reasons, of course. It was August 16th, 1999, the first baseball game I ever took my future wife to (though we weren't even dating yet at the time). There were no homers. For that matter, there were only seven total hits, and two walks, by both teams combined. Clemens and Milton matched zeroes for eight innings, until an error, a hit and a sacrifice would plate two runs for the Yankees in the ninth inning, and the game would end that way, 2-0. Another great game, exciting because it could have gone either way, just like that 12-11 slugfest I saw in 1996. Personally, whether it's the hitters or the pitchers doing the best work, I just like to see a well-played game. Scoring or not, just give me a pitcher who works quickly, spare me the walks and errors, and let the game unfold.

Question #2:
When he finally hangs up his spikes, what will Alex Rodriguez' legacy be? Does he deserve to discussed in the same breath with the all-time greats? Would a few strong (or weak) seasons change your mind, or has he already cemented his place in baseball history?

Alex Rodriguez is already one of the dozen greatest players in history. He's already got two MVP awards, and he should have at least two others. In 1996, his first full season, he hit .358 with 36 homers, 123 RBIs, 15 steals, and a MLB-best 141 runs scored, but he was edged oout for the Award by Juan Gonzalez because even the two beat writers in Seattle did not recognize his greatness for what it was at the time. He should have won it in 1998, when he became the first (and so far, only) infielder to his 40 homes and steal 40 bases in a season. In addition to the 42 homers and 46 steals, he had 124 RBIs, 123 runs, and a league-leading 213 hits (.310 average). But it was deja vu all over again, as Juan Gone walked away with his second MVP award.

In the year 2000, his last in Seattle, he finally started walking more, taking 100 free passes that year, to go with his 41 hoomers, 15 steals, 132 RBIs and 134 runs. He finished third that year, behind Jason Giambi and Frank Thomas, though at least this wasn't robbery like to two that went to Gonzalez. During his three seasons in Texas, he averaged better than .300/.390/.600, with over 50 homers, 125 runs, 130 RBIs, 14 steals, plus he won two Gold Gloves as a shortstop in that span. However, the rest of the Rangers kinda sucked at the time, and he left Texas with only one MVP Award. He won another one in his second season as a Yankee, and may be on track for a third this year. There's an exellent chance that he will finish this season with 500+ homers, and if so, it will make him the youngest player ever to accomplish that feat. At age 32, he could easily play another ten seasons and finish his career with more records than Wolfman Jack, but even if he retired tomorrow, he deserves to be a first-ballot Hall of Famer.

Read others' responses to these questions on MVN.com's RoundTable Page...

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20 April 2007

Jeter Closest Thing to Jackie Robinson in Today’s Game

Baseball celebrated the 60th anniversary of Jackie Robinson's first game in the major leagues on Sunday with a bizarre numbers game, in which 2,347,629 different players were all allowed to wear Robinson's retired #42 that day. Interestingly enough, all box scores also were altered, so that every position on the field was considered "second base". Not surprisingly, official scorers recorded a record number of "4-unassisted" double plays.

OK, not really.

Another way to celebrate the greatness and unique nature of someone like Jackie Robinson is to try to compare him to some of the modern game's great players. More accurately, you can discuss how difficult it is to find a comparable player in today's game, and instead describe an amalgam of some of the best skills from several of today's players, as Rob Neyer has. He suggests that Robinson would hit with Miguel Cabrera's batting avearge and patience, if not quite so much power, but would play defense at the Keystone with the acumen of Orlando Hudson or Pokey Reese, and would steal bases as well as Chone Figgins. Diamond Mind Baseball simulated his 1951 season in today's game, and in 2006, they suggested Jackie would have hit roughly .354/.439/.565, with 53 doubles, 23 homers, 138 runs and 120 RBI's, and would steal 46 bases as well.

Real Jackie 153 548 113 33 19 88 79 27 25 8 9 .338 .425 .527 .953
DM Jackie 159 607 138 53 23 120 82 86 46 16 17 .354 .439 .565 1.004

Holy crap. Jackie wouldn't just be great, he'd be the best player in the league. Of course, how he manages to get 70 more plate appearances while playing only six more games, I haven't figured out yet, but those numbers sure look cool, don't they?

Anyway, for the sake of context, last year, Ryan Howard won the NL MVP award, and with his stellar campaign, Baseball Prospectus says he garnered 9.5 Wins Above Replacement Position (WARP), a very good number. Albert Pujols was almost half again as good, with 13.1, mostly because he made fewer outs than Howard and played much better defense. And Jackie? Well, numbers like the ones Diamond Mind generated would give him about 15 WARP3 (adjusted for all time). Nobody else in baseball was particularly close to that number in 2006. In fact, only some of the most stellar seasons of all-time have ever approached that number. Some of the best seasons of Barry Bonds, Rogers Hornsby and Ted Williams have surpassed that, but the best efforts of Ty Cobb, Willie Mays, Hank Aaron and Mickey Mantle never did. Was Jackie Robinson really better than those guys?

Obviously, we're arguing something we can never really know, not without a Way-Back Machine or a Delorean with a flux-capacitor in it, but is it reasonable to expect that Jackie Robinson would be able to not just compete with today's players, but to dominate them? At the risk of being branded a racist or something worse, I'm going to suggest that Jackie Robinson would not be so great today.

For me, at times like this, I always go back to the well: Baseball Prospectus. Their Davenport Translations for Robinson's 1951 season aren't quite as generous (14.1 WARP). It should be noted that BP's adjustments are for all-time, though, not just to the 2006 NL, so that should have some effect as well, though I can't say what.

Real Jackie 548 113 33 19 88 79 27 25 8 .338 .425 .527 .953
BP.com Jackie 543 104 41 27 89 74 41 40 10 .335 .426 .575 1.001

He gets a few more homers, but not as many walks, steals or doubles as Diamond Mind was ready to give him. One of the major differences between Diamond Mind and BP is the strikeout totals, 41 for BP, compared to 86 for Diamond Mind. Given that Jackie's actual K total in 1951 was 27, and that strikeouts are issued about twice as frequently now (6.7/game in 2006) as they were in 1951 (3.8/game), I see no reason to believe that Jackie would have only whiffed 41 times. Eighty-six may be a little high, but not much. In fact, adjusting for the differences in the league rates for other stats, as well as the fact that there were eight more games played per team in 2006, we can get a rough idea of how Jackie's stats from the summer of '51 would translate to the 2006 NL:

Real Jackie 548 113 33 19 88 79 27 25 8 .338 .425 .527 .953
TMN-adjusted 580 120 46 27 101 79 50 43 9 .344 .434 .578 1.012

On a cursory basis, it seems to me that the homer total is probably a little high, and the strikeouts are probably a bit low. very few players in today's game can slug .575 or better without more than 50 strikeouts. Pitchers just throw too damn hard these days. Not like back in the old days, when everybody sucked.

Of course, this is just my rough means of adjusting from the 1951 NL to the 2006 NL, and does not take into account the effect of the home park or a myriad of other factors. Baseball-reference.com, however, can do this. In fact, if you're a subscriber, they can take anybody's stats for thier career and adjust them for any year, any league and any park in that league. When I did this for Robinson, I found that his stats for 1951 translate very well to the 2006 NL, but not as well as Diamond Mind or Rob Neyer would have suggested. Here's what they came up with:

Real Jackie 548 113 33 19 88 79 27 25 8 .338 .425 .527 .953
Bball-ref.com 570 116 35 20 96 85 28 27 8 .347 .441 .539 .980

Baseball-Reference explains the algorithm they use here, but if you don't want to read it all, I can summarize by saying that they take the change in league run scoring and use that to back-calculate everything else. I used the changes in rates of the individual stats (2B, 3B, HR, SB, RBI, etc) and then got my percentage numbers form those changes, which explains why Jackie gets more homers, doubles, strikeouts and steals in my adjustment (because the league HR, 2B, and K rates have grown more than the overall run-scoring rate) than in that of www.Baseball-reference.com. Today's all-or nothing, swing-for the fences kind of game lends itself to those things, and to ignore that seems silly to me.

In addition, players and teams steal bases a heck of a lot more nowadays than they did in Jackie's day. His 25 steals in 1951 ranked 3rd in the NL, 4th in MLB, and there were guys in the top ten in each league that stole only 10 or 11 bags. Between 1929 and 1960, nobody in the National League stole more than 40 bases in a season, with the league leader usually in the 25-35 range. Last year alone, half a dozen players in the NL stole 41 or more, and five more players in the Junior Circuit stole at least 40. There's simply no way that Jackie Robinson, in today's game, would steal only 27 bases.

The one place where BR does have me is on park adjustment, because I did not make one, but since Dodger Stadium was essentially neutral last year (park factor of .997 according to Baseball Prospectus, 102 according to Baseball Reference), that wouldn't have much effect anyway. In any case, as you might expect, I feel most comfortable with the numbers I generated myself, however flawed they may be, but that's only half of the story. The other half is to ask who compares well with Jackie in today's game. While there is admittedly nobody with Robinson's combination of bat control, speed, defensive prowess and moderate power, we have a fairly close comparison playing in the major leagues today, and as it happens, he too is an ethnic, middle infielder playing for a team in New York. You guessed it:

Miguel Cairo.

No, not really.

Actually, I'm talking about Derek Jeter. Let me show you:
               G    AB   R    H   2B  3B  HR  RBI  BB   SO  SB  CS   AVG   OBP   SLG   OPS 
TMN's Jackie 162 580 120 199 46 5 27 101 79 50 40 8 .344 .434 .578 1.012
Real Jeter 154 623 118 214 39 3 14 97 69 102 34 5 .343 .417 .483 .900

No question, it would seem that Jackie has a considerable edge in power, with seven more doubles and 13 more homers despite getting 43 fewer at-bats. Jackie's strikeouts are also dwarfed by Jeter's, with more than double the translated amount, but studies have been shown to essentially indicate that an out is an out, so that matters a lot less than you would think. Besides, as I mentioned earlier, I think my translated numbers wind up with the homers too high and the strikeouts too low, but that's more of a "hunch" than anything else. Jackie also steals a handful more bases, but gets caught a few more times, so that's a net wash. Their percentage numbers, other than slugging average, are eerily similar, as both players hit for very high batting averages and walk a decent amount, but not excessively. Runs scored and driven in are within a few ticks either way as well, despite the difference in plate appearances. Miguel Cabrera's batting numbers would have been even closer in some cases, especially in the power numbers, (50 doubles and 26 homers), but he struck out even more than Jeter, and hardly steals any bases at all. Besides, who watches the Marlins? Are we even certain that this so called "Miguel Cabrera" exists? I didn't think so.

Which leaves us with Jeter. He's an excellent hitter for average, with decent patience, great baserunning ability, and moderate power, very much like Jackie. Jeter's also won three Gold Gloves as a Shortstop, though his having earned them is a very debatable premise. Baseball Prospectus inidcates that Jeter's defense at short last year was +7 FRAA (Fielding Runs Above Average), while Jackie was +26 as a secondbaseman in 1951. That's a big disparity too, even bigger if you, like me, don't happen to be a believe in Jeter as a good shortstop, but however it is that BP measures this stuff, they at least got a number comfortably above average for Jeter last year. He may not be excellent, like Robinson was, but "good" may not be too much of a stretch. Jackie even appears on Jeter's list of comporable players (7th) according to Baseball Prospectus, though even that is a modest comparison at best (only a 23% similarity score).

Baseball-reference.com uses Bill James' formula for similarity scores, a very different one, but they have some odd comparables for Jackie:

1. George Grantham

2. Denny Lyons

3. Edgardo Alfonzo

4. Freddie Lindstrom

5. Jeff Cirillo

6. Mike Greenwell

7. Irish Meusel

8. Joe Randa

9. Gregg Jefferies

10. Bruce Campbell

George Grantham? The 'Fonz? Jeff Cirillo? If this guy was one of the all-time greats, why is his list of supposedly "comparable" players riddled with flame-outs like Gregg Jeffries and mediocrities like Joe Randa? Bizarre, isn't it? The toruble here is that Bill James' formula uses career stats, and because Jackie's official major league career didn't get started until he was 28, and because he preferred to hang up his spikes at 38 than to play for the cross-town rival Giants, Robinson's only got about half a career worth of stats. If not for segregation, Jackie could have been in the majors at least two years earlier, though probably not much more than that, because of World War II. And if not for his pride, he might have played another two or three years, into his early 40's. Even as a spot-starter and bench player, Jackie could have padded his stats a bit, at least enough to knock Joe Randa off the list, don't you think?

But we can't do much about that right now. Robinson's legacy, such as it is, will have to be enough. But we can thank him for the privilege of watching Derek Jeter (and other non-whites) play today. He's a worthy successor.

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16 April 2007

MVN Round Table: Jackie Robinson's #42 and Hank Aaron's 755

Question #1:What’s your take on Major League Baseball’s ceremonies surrounding the anniversary of Jackie Robinson’s breaking of the color barrier? Did baseball get it right?

MLB does all sorts of wacky things with uniform promotions. They have All-Star jerseys that the players don’t even wear except for one day during the home run contest, for no better reason than that it gives them something else to sell to their loyal fans. They have “Turn Back the Clock” nights at various stadiums around the country and even (God help us) “Turn Ahead the Clock Night” every once in a while. (Those nights take us to a future in which everyone has really poor eyesight and/or no sense of taste, in case you were wondering.) Anything for a buck, right?

Un-retiring the only universally retired number in sports for one night is kinda cool, but I like Rob Neyer’s idea of rewarding players of certain caliber and talent with an annotated #42 instead. It keeps the memory and the meaning of who Jackie Robinson was and what he embodied alive much better than a plaque on the wall of a stadium, which can be too easily ignored, just like the Japanese advertisements in left field at Yankee Stadium, or the 302 foot marker near the Pesky Pole in Fenway, which probably isn’t more than 295 feet from home plate.

But letting anyone and everyone wear the number (including whole teams) to mark the 60th anniversary of Robinson’s first major-league game just seemed patently silly. If you want to remember Jackie, then remember him. Have a touching video tribute on the JumboTron, or give out some kind of #42 trinket to the fans, or get someone who’s not on the team, someone working for real, racial reconciliation in that city, to come out wearing #42 and throw out the ceremonial first pitch.

Better yet, you could have (dare I say it?) an actual moment of actual silence during the actual game, which would be otherwise filled with all kinds of senseless and obnoxious noise between innings. That would have been a better way to remember Jackie, and more important, all those great black players who preceded him, but never got a chance to play on baseball’s biggest stage.

Question #2:Hank Aaron announced publicly that he wouldn’t be celebrating if (and when) Barry Bonds breaks his all-time home run record. Should Aaron and MLB make an effort to honor Bonds’ accomplishments, however tarnished they may be?

Despite his obvious connection with Major League Baseball, Aaron is not employed by or otherwise affiliated with the league, and so lumping the two of them together seems inappropriate. Aaron worked hard to get his record, no doubt, and he has every right to refuse to celebrate if that record’s broken. He doesn’t need the steroid controversy as an excuse. Just general disappointment about getting knocked off the top of the list would suffice.

The Boston.com story doesn’t contain any indication that Aaron is bitter, or jaded, or upset about the allegedly tarnished nature of Bond’s pursuit of his record. Just that he’s old and has better things to do than be there for someone else’s photo-op. Hank, go play golf that weekend, if you want. You earned it.

MLB, however, is a different story entirely. Bud Selig is as connected to MLB as anyone can possibly be, and he was visibly present when Mark McGwire broke Roger Maris’ record in 1998, and then when Bonds broke that in 2001. It seems very likely, in retrospect, that the owners (and Selig himself) knew as much about the prevalence of performance enhancing drugs in MLB locker rooms then as they do now.

The only difference is that now the public knows about it, too, so being there makes Selig look like he’s condoning the use of those substances. But not being there makes him look like a hypocrite, because nobody with half a brain believes that he first learned about the use of steroids in baseball when he bought a copy of Juiced at the Milwaukee Airport for something to read on the plane. Until there’s some kind of real, concrete evidence to suggest that Bonds was or is cheating, Selig ought to be there when it happens.

Read other responses to these questions at the MVN Round Table Discussion blog...

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11 April 2007

Yankees First Week Full of Ups and Downs

It's been a rough week for the New York Yankees.

Only 3-3 after a win last night against Minnesota, the Bronx Bombers have bombed in a number of ways through their first six games.

Last Monday, while playing a rare Opening Day in New York, the Yankees were forced to start the disappointing Carl Pavano, who had not pitched in the majors in nearly two years. Pavano looked decent through the first four innings, but then things unravelled in the fifth. He surrendered four runs in that inning, including the first career homer of Tampa Bay super-phenom Elijah Dukes, in his first major league at-bat, no less, and could not get out of the inning. Fortunately for Pavano, he was let off the hook by the Yankees bullpen and offense, which provided 4.2 innings of scoreless relief and six more runs (including an 8th inning jack by Alex Rodriguez), and they won the game, 9-5.

After one of MLB's many inexplicable April off-days on Tuesday, and a rain-out on Wednesday, the Yankees and Devil Rays met again on Thursday. This time it was Andy Pettitte who could not get out of the 5th inning. First Carl Crawford reached base on an infield single to first base, which is only possible if the batter's really fast (Crawford is) and/or if the firstbaseman screws something up (he did). A bunt back to Pettitte by Ben Zobrist should have been an out, but he was credited with a single, and then Crawford went to third when Doug Mientkiewicz made an error. Replaced by Scott Proctor, Pettitte was on the hook for both runs, and Proctor, the Yanks' best reliever last year, seemed like the best choice to keep the game in hand. He struck out Johnny Gomes, and allowed a sacrifice fly to Ty Wigginton, which made it 4-3, with two outs, and things might not be so bad, right? Wrong. A wild pitch allowed Zobrist to score, tying the game, and then an error by supposedly Gold Glove shortstop Derek Jeter allowed Delmon Young to reach base. Only a great play by Posada managed to get the Yankees out of the inning when the overanxious Young tried to steal and was thrown out at second.

The rest of the game was not much better for the bullpen. Proctor allowed Dukes his second homer in as many games, then singles to 3B Akinori Iwamura and catcher Josh Paul, and LOOGy Mike Myers could not get his one out without allowing and RBI single to Crawford, who ended the inning getting thrown out trying to steal second base, after Zobrist grounded out to third. if not for the youthful recklessness of the Devil rays on the basepaths, the Yanks' day could have been much worse. As it was, they only lost 7-6, but a loss is a loss.

Friday night's game against Baltimore was no better, as this time Mike Mussina allowed six runs in four plus innings and took the loss, which dropped his record against his former team to 9-6 with a 4.51 ERA. Moose, who's become notorious for blaming everything and everyone but himself when he loses, owned up to his failure for once:

"It was just bad. I could say it was the cold, I could say it was the time off -- it was bad. It was a struggle from the very first pitch. I really didn't give us a chance. We count on our rotation a lot, and it's going to make or break our season. For most of the 80-some pitches I threw, I didn't know where the ball was going."

This much was apparent to Yankees manager Joe Torree, too, as Moose was relieved by Sean henn to start the 5th, though he had thrown only 84 pitches. Henn, for his part, was excellent, throwing three scoreless innings to keep the Yankees in the game, but the offense couldn't put anything together against the parade of mostly faceless Oriole pitchers. Mike Myers (two outs) and Scott Proctor (four) bounced back nicely from the rough game on Thursday, providing two more innings of nearly perfect relief, but the offense couldn't string enough hits and walks together to get closer than 6-4, where the game ended.

But then came Saturday...

With the Yankees' brandy-spanking new Japanese pitcher, Kei Igawa, taking the mount for his first major league start, and the perennial also-ran Orioles as the opponent, 50,000+ Yankee fans certainly hoped for big things as they made their way to the Stadium on an unseasonably cold April morning. Boston's far-eastern import, Daisuke Matsuzaka, had made his debut just two days before, and he fanned ten Kansas City Royals in seven innings, so naturally much (too much) was expected of Igawa on Saturday afternoon. Unfortunately, he delivered little other than walks and gopherballs, frequently looking like he was afraid to even throw the ball as he paced about the mound and took his (and everyone else's) time delivering pitch after mediocre pitch. With him pitching the top halves of the innings and Steve "Cryogenically Frozen Molasses" Trachsel pitching the bottoms, it's a wonder they ever got to the fifth inning. When flame-throwing Brian Bruney relieved Igawa in the 6th, I figured at least his 98-mph chees would help speed things up, even if his routing on the mound was no quicker.

Trent Nelson, Director of the Advanced Scouting/Nepotism Department at Boy of Summer Industries, indicated that most of Igawa's fastballs topped out at a Jamie-Moyer-esque 87 mph, which is OK if you have a killer changeup and can locate your slider, but Igawa didn't and couldn't, so he got hammered. He ended his day by surrendering seven runs in five innings, including a homer by Nick Markakis in the first, a bases-loaded walk to tie the game in the second, a plunking of Corey Patterson in the third (not easy to do considering how small Patterson is) and a homer to Melvin Mora in the 4th. Igawa managed to get through the 5th without much trouble, but by then the damage was done, with the Orioles up, 7-3. A-Rod's 2-run jack in the first and Jorge Posada's RBI single in the third offerred little consolation on a day when yet another Yankee Starter could not get past the 5th inning.

After the game, Igawa would deny that he was nervous, or that the cold (39 deg F at gametime with a constant 10-15 mph wind) affected him, or that he was in any way less than healthy. Those of you who are paying attention realize that this almost leaves only one possibility for his ineffectiveness: He's no good. Of course, it's a little early for that, but somebody had to say it. For the record, Igawa also indicated that he had been notorious for starting slowly while in Japan, and that by the way, he's not Daisuke Matsuzaka.

Fortunately for Igawa and the rest of the Yankees, the bullpen appears to be very good this year, and they contributed four scoreless innings of relief to allow the vaunted Yankee offense to do its job. And that they did. Melky Cabrera's single ended Trachsel's day in the seventh, and after he walked (slowly) back to the dugout, LOOGy John Parrish got Robinson Cano to end the inning and strand Melky at first. With two All-Star right-handed batters coming up in Jeter and A-Rod, former Tampa closer Danys Baez was brought in to start the eighth. He got Jeter to fly out, and then appeared to hit Bobby Abreu oin the foot, but an appeal by Orioles manager Sam Perlozzo sent him back to the batter's box when it was ruled that he swung at the pitch. Nevertheless, Abreu worked a walk, and then so did A-Rod. With Jason Giambi coming up, a conference at the mound seemed a harbinger of a pitching change, but Perlozzo inexplicably left Baez in to face Giambi, and Giambi made them pay, homering on the second pitch he saw, and putting the game within one run for the hometown team. The Injured Johnny Damon pinch-hit for Miguel Cairo, who had been playing left field for The Injured Hideki Matsui, and got an emotional, standing ovation, but not much else. He struck out and Posada grounded out to end the threat.

With the game only one run down, Mariano Rivera came in to work the ninth inning, which I thought at the time was perhaps a sign that Torre was learning to use his best reliever in any close spot, not just with a lead. Alas, it turns out that they had warmed up Mo because he needed the work, and he was going to pitch the ninth regardless of the score. But a guy can dream, can't he? In any case, Mo mowed them down in the 9th, allowing only a bloop single by Markakis, but retiring the side. That set the stage for the ninth, which was looking bleak at first.

Speaking of bleak at first, Doug Mientkiewicz led off the ninth and lined out, followed by a strikeout by Cabrera. The Melk Man apparently does not deliver on Saturdays. Two outs already against Chris Ray, the Orioles best reliever, who had blown only five saves all of last year? No ray of hope was apparent, but then, Robinson Cano singled, and Jeter walked, and the Stadium was alive again. Bobby Abreu got hit by a pitch (for real, this time), which loaded the bases for Alex Rodriguez, the Goat of the Yankees failed 2006 season, so frequently criticized for failing in circumstances exactly like these. But A-Rod had hit 4/10 off Ray in his career, including a homer and two doubles, so he was not about to let this chance pass him by. Down to his last strike, Rodriguez crushed a 1-2 pitch to center field, clearing the bases, and giving the Yankees their most dramatic win in a long while, 10-7. A-Rod's two homers and six RBI got him the ovations that had mostly eluded him since his 2005 MVP season, and it was, appropriately enough, Derek Jeter who shoved him out of the dugout to take another tip his cap to the appreciative (if not warm) crowd.

Though A-Rod hit his 4th homer of the season Sunday, the Yankees lost the game 6-4 (and the three-game series), when Darrel Rasner did his best Carl Pavano impression, allowing 5 runs in 4.1 innings. But redemption was not far off. Pavano actually did an impressive imitation of a major league pitcher on Monday against the Twins, allowing only two runs in seven innings en route to his first major league win since May of 2005, and A-Rod's homer, his 5th this season, did not go to waste this time. Then Andy Pettitte came back on Tuesday, two days after a relief appearance for Rasner, to shut out the Twinkies for six innings. (I'm telling you, he needs to be a little tired for that sinker to work properly. He would be a perfect candidate for a four man rotation, if anybody ever tries it again.) Rodriguez homered again in the first inning, the fourth consecutive game in which he's gone yard, and the fifth homer in that span.

Look for the streak to contiinue tonight, as Ramon Ortiz starts for the Twins. A-Rod has hit 8 homers off Ortiz, the most off any active pitcher (tied with David Wells and Bartolo Colon...must be a fat guy thing). Similarly, those eight homers are the most Ortiz has allowed to anyone, two more than Carlos Delgado, though it took Delgado only 36 at-bats for those, and A-Rod needed 48. Mike Mussina will try to redeem himself from his lousy first outing, as Pettitte and Pavano did. He's been Cy Young against Minnesota over the course of his career, 20-5 with a 3.17 ERA in 201 innings. Having already outscored the Twins 18-3 in their first two games, the Yankees can look to sweep tonight, and thank the stars that they managed to miss Johan Santana this time through the Twin Cities.

In any case, it's been a week of sad depressions and ecstatic highs for the Yankees, but as Nuke LaLoosh would say,

"Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, sometimes...it rains. Think about that for a while"

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06 April 2007

2007 Philadelphia Phillies Preview

Jimmy Rollins says that the Philadelphia Phillies are the team to beat in the National League’s Eastern division. Is he right? Well, sure. But then, the Mets, Marlins, Nationals and the Braves are also the teams to beat, since they all have the same record before official play begins on Sunday night. That, of course, is not what Rollins meant. He meant that the Phillies would in fact be the front-runners in 2007, that at least on paper (or, in electrons, since you’re reading this on the Internet), they Phightin’ Phils had the best shot of the bunch. I would argue that the Mets, coming off a 97-win season, probably deserve that title more that anyone else, and that with a dozen straight division titles before the 2006 season, the Braves and their history probably give them a more appropriate claim to being the “team to beat” if the Mets should falter.

History is not on the Phillies’ side, or at least it wasn’t in the 1900’s. It was once famously said about the Chicago Cubs, “Any team can have a bad century”, but when you look at the numbers, this is much more true of the Philadelphias than it is of Chicago. Baseball-reference.com’s schedule breaker-outer shows that, of the teams that played the whole century (i.e. not the expansion franchises of the ’70s or the ’90s, the Phillies had the worst record by far. Their 8379 losses in the 1900’s were about 300 more than the next closest team, the Washington Senators/Minnesota Twins, and the Cubs were actually (slightly) above average, winning 50.5% of their games. Percentage-wise, they were just ahead of Seattle and Florida, and slightly behind the Padres, who all played considerably fewer games with comparable levels of ineptitude. But this century, the Phillies are actually doing OK, and I mean that in the strictest sense of the word: Their .526 winning percentage from 2001-2006 was 13th among the 30 MLB teams, coincidentally, just between Seattle and Florida. They’ve won at least 80 but no more than 88 games every season this century, continually frustrating their fans as they seem perennially poised to take ove the NL East and yet, frequently at the last minute, somehow managing to wrest defeat from the jaws of otherwise certain victory.

But that’s all in the past now, and as I write this, the Phillies are tied for first place, just like every other team in MLB. So what happens from here?

Read more about the Phighitn' Phils' chances in '07 on my MVN.com blog...

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