29 August 2007

The Case For/Against Mussina: Not All His Fault

Mike Mussina's been stinking up the joint lately, as you probably already know. Monday's 16-0 drubbing at the paws hands of the Detroit Tigers was only the latest exhibit in the case against Mussina's still belonging in a major league rotation. The evidence in that case, it appears, is building up faster than they could pile up bloody gloves and DNA reports in the O.J. case, but Simpson is currently "looking for the real killers" at book signings and golf courses all over the U.S., so maybe Moose still has a chance to avoid the virtual lynching being perpetrated upon him by some of my colleagues in the blogosphere.

The Prosecution:

Exhibit A: Mussina's been teetering on the brink of useless all season. Mussina is no longer the pitcher whose knuckle curve, funky delivery and low-90's heat could win games in a number of different ways. He's now almost 39 years old, and never had an "overpowering" fastball to begin with. His control is still there, at least in terms of avoiding walks (he walked 2.11 batters per 9 IP this year, and his career mark is 2.02), but he's not striking batters out very much. When Mussina first came to the Yankees as a free agent in 2001, he struck out 8.42 batters per nine innings, the second best mark of his career, at age 32. Two years later, it was still as high as 8.18. With his nagging injuries in 2004-05, he was down to a little over 7 per 9 innings, which is still quite good, and he jumped up to 7.84 last year, when he made 32 starts and totaled almost 200 innings.

Mussina, courtesy of Boston.comBut this year? In 2007, he's down to 5.53 K's per nine, well below the MLB average of 6.59 whiffs per game. Unless you've got stellar defense behind you, pinpoint control and/or a cavernous ballpark, none of which is the case for Moose, you can't survive in the majors striking out a batter below the MLB average, at least not for long. (I know, I know: Chien-Ming Wang is 15-6 and he never strikes anyone out. But Wang also never allows a home run. Heck, he hardly ever allows a fly ball, doesn't waste time throwing balls outside the strikezone, and the Yankees score 7 runs per game for him, so he's a special case.)

The handful of times I've seen Mussina pitch, it's seemed to me that when he could locate his breaking stuff, he did OK, but otherwise, he was doomed. You just can't get away with an 85mph fastball if they know your breaking stuff either won't be a strike or will hang. That's a bit of an oversimplification, but it's true. (Someone commented about him on Rob Neyer's blog on ESPN.com that they should trade him to an NL team, that he'd win 18 games in the NL Central. "Over there, 86mph is the new 91." they said. Of course, that's just speculation, so the judge has to throw it out.)

Exhibit B: I haven't once seen him pitch this year and thought that he really looked good. He's only got 11 "Quality Starts" in his 23 games this season, and four of those just barely meet the 6-inning, 3 Earned Runs criteria for that stat, which is little more than a benchmark for mediocrity anyway. If Mussina can't even do that half the time, what business does he have pitching in the majors at all? Let alone making $11 million to do it.

Exhibit C: And this, even though Torre's handled him with kid gloves. He hasn't thrown more than 98 pitches in an outing since June 24th. Even in games where he's been effective, Torre has taken him out a little earlier than you would think for a 17-year veteran with almost 250 career victories. Perhaps Joe is trying to save him for the playoffs, or get the young guys some work, or maybe he just wants Moose to be able to go into the clubhouse knowing that he did something right, so he'll have some confidence on which his psyche can build next time. You wouldn't think that you should have to pamper such a grizzled veteran, but who knows?

How bad is Mussina? At the moment, there are about 101 pitchers in the majors who have pitched at least 120 innings (Moose has 124) this year. Mussina's 5.53 ERA ranks 96th among those 101. He's 8-10 only because the Yankees are, well, the Yankees, and they score 5.6 runs per game when he pitches. On a mediocre team, he'd be 5-13. On a bad team, if he had pitched more, he might be flirting with 20 losses. Yeah, he's been that bad.

The Defense:

However, there is some reason to hope. According to ESPN, Mussina's defense-independent pitching ERA is only 4.14, about 75% of his actual ERA, which is the lowest ratio in the majors (among the 101 pitchers with that many innings). Baseball prospectus indicates that the Yankees' Defensive Efficiency, the rate at which balls in play are turned into outs (or the complement of batting average on balls in play) as a team is .692, which ranks 19th in the majors. They were 3rd last year. In other words, opposing teams have hit .308 against the Yankees when they've put the ball in play, i.e. on pitches that don't end in walks, homers, whiffs, hit batsmen, etc., notably worse than the MLB average, which is about .300. For an individual player, the difference of .008 points in batting average is almost negligible, fewer than 5 hits over the course of a season if you get 600 at-bats, less than one per month. For balls in play, which typically are more like 450 at-bats, we're talking about 3.5 hits. But for a whole team, with about 4,500 at-bats that result in a ball in play, that paltry .008 difference in batting average means about 35 more hits per year.

Moose, courtesy of Starwave.com

Unfortunately, it gets even worse for Moose. Opposing batters have hit .348 against him this year when they've put the ball in play, which is the highest opponent balls-in-play average in the majors. (Overall, opponents have hit .313 against him this year, the second highest in the majors among pitchers with at least 120 innings pitched.) And we're not talking about errors here. Those are not the main culprit. The Yankees' team .986 fielding percentage and 70 total errors are both 7th best in the major leagues. Indeed, Mussina's only had two batters reach base on an error all year, and has allowed only three unearned runs, so it's certainly not that. It's just that the balls that Moose allows into play are not getting fielded, either because luck lands them where they ain't, as Wee Willie Keeler used to say, or because the Yankee defenders aren't good enough at getting to where the balls are.

Historically, it seems that Moose has had pretty hittable stuff for quite a while now.

2001 0.295 3.15
2002 0.295 4.05
2003 0.289 3.40
2004 0.317 4.59
2005 0.328 4.41
2006 0.285 3.51
2007 0.348 5.53

Or, shown another way:

Last year's apparent resurgence, that full-run drop in ERA, was mostly due to the fact that his bad luck (and/or porous defense) from the previous few years had reversed itself, at least temporarily. This year's atrocious performance, it seems, is largely attributable to the re-reversal of that trend, so that now it's worse than ever. In short, Mussina's been sabotaged by his defense's inability to do their jobs more than anyone in the majors this year.

Not that it's all their fault. "Luck is the residue of design," according to a man who built World Series contenders in three different cities. You notice how Mussina's ERA changed significantly from 2001 to 2002 to 2003, despite the fact that his BABIP was almost exactly the same? That's because his strikeout rate dropped in 2002, then went back up a bit in 2003. If you noticed on the BABIP list I linked to, among the other pitchers with high BABIP numbers were Scott Kazmir and King Felix Hernandez, who are considered two of the rising young stars of the American League. They both have winning records and ERAs below 4.00, in spite of their high BABIP numbers, because with all those strikeouts, they hardly ever allow a ball in play.

So, what does all this mean for Mussina's chances of staying in the rotation? Frankly, I doubt that Joe Torre has looked at many of the numbers we've just seen. At most, he probably sees that opponents have hit .313 against the Moose and stopped there. Mussina's right when he says,

"I want to keep going out there and figure out what's going on, because I can't believe in three starts that I forgot how to pitch after seventeen years. So I hope he [Torre] has confidence enough in me to keep sending me out there and let me figure this out, but at the same time we've got to win ballgames, and I'll understand if he thinks that we need to do something else." [from Cliff Corcoran at Bronx Banter]

He hasn't forgotten how to pitch, per se, but he has forgotten how (or more accurately, lost the skill) to strike out 7 batters per game, and that, coupled with bad luck and/or bad defense, is enough reason to seriously consider putting someone else in there instead of Moose for his next start. In terms of options, the Yankees have:

Matt DeSalvo: 8-5, 2.82 ERA for Scranton, but almost a walk every other inning, and got hammerred when he was in the majors back in May. Not the answer.

Steven White: 6-4, 3.62 ERA in Tampa and (mostly) Scranton. Doesn't walk so many as DeSalvo, but doesn't strike out a lot of batters either. His best talent is preventing homers (only one every 14 innings or so in the minors) but that probably won't be enough. Has never pitched in the majors.

Jeff Karstens: Looked good in his last two starts (11 IP, 4 ER, 3 BB, 5 K), but has had only three outings after coming back from the broken leg, and didn't strike out a batter in 5 innings last night. Probably needs more time. And maybe a fastball.

Kei Igawa: I know, you don't want to hear it. You wish we'd never spent that $50+ million to get him here, but he's here, and the fact is that he's been decent in AAA the last few times out. He's had three out of four Quality Starts, and more important, he's walked only 3 batters in 25+ innings in those 4 starts, while striking out 24. This may be the answer.

Ian Kennedy: Has blown through three levels of the minors this year, going 12-3 with a combined 1.91 ERA and 163 strikeouts in 146 innings in A, AA and AAA. Only has 34 innings of experience above AA in his career, so you would think that it's probably too early to throw him into the heat of a major league pennant race, but apparently the Yankees don't agree. They'll bring him up to pitch in Mussina's spot on Saturday, at which point, he will not have pitched for a week.

so long, Moose, courtesy of Scout.com

Personally, I would have gone with Joba Chamberlain, who was a very effective starter in the minors before he came up to the majors, but I guess they're trying to keep his 21-year old arm fresh, so they don't want to have him starting and logging lots of innings in the majors.

In the meantime, I guess Moose will get mop-up duty until Torre's confidence is restored or until enough of the other starters suffer injuries that Joe has no choice but to give Mussina his job back.

Oh, how the mighty have fallen.

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15 August 2007

The King is Dead...Long Live the King!

The King Lives!

OK, not really.

Elvis Aaron Presley, the first and only King of Rock and Roll, died 30 years ago today at his home in Memphis, Tennessee. He was 42 years old.

To commemorate this, I have compiled some lists for your perusing pleasure:

Current and Former MLB and Minor League Baseball Players Named Elvis:

Elvis Alayon, OF
Elvis Augusto Andrus, SS
Elvis Alberto Avendano, P
Elvis Ciprian, P
Elvis Leonel Corporan, 3B
Elvis N. Correa, P
Elvis Enrique Cruz, OF
Elvis De la Rosa, C
Elvis DeJesus, P
Elvis Hernandez, P (b. 04/27/1985)
Elvis Hernandez, OF (drafted from Cal. State in 1996)
Elvis Herrera, 2B/3B
Elvis Jimenez, OF (played in low minors in 1994-95)
Elvis Jimenez, P (b. 08/30/1985)
Elvis Lara, 2B
Elvis D. Montilla, P
Elvis Morel, 2B
Elvis Pena, 2B/SS (only Elvis ever to make it to The Show)
Elvis Andres Perez, P
Elvis Polanco, P
Elvis Reyes, P ('Reyes' is Spanish for 'kings'...kind of redundant, isnt it?)
Elvis Romero, P

Also, there was a player named Delvis Lantigua who was in the Yankees organization for a while. I had a little fun with his name in a blog post I wrote a few years ago.

Notable Major-Leaguers Named (or Nick-Named) "King":

King Bailey. Linwood C. Bailey pitched one game in 1895. He gave up 8 runs in 8 innings, went 2-for-4 with an RBI, and got the win.

King Cole, P, 1909-1915. Leonard Leslie Cole went 20-4 and 18-7 with the Cubs in 1910 and 1911, respectively, but never had another decent season after that.

"King" Felix Hernandez, currently the 21-year old anchor of the Seattle Mariners' pitching staff.

Carl Hubbell, "The Meal Ticket" or "King Carl". Hall of Fame pitcher won 253 major league games throwing mostly screwballs, including 20+ wins in five straight seasons and two NL MVP awards. In the 1934 All-Star game, he famously struck out five future Hall of Famers in a row. These were, in reverse order, Joe Cronin, Al Simmons, Jimmie Foxx, Lou Gehrig, and Babe Ruth, the King of Clout.

Charlie Keller, "King Kong", a 5-time All-Star outfielder with the Yankees in the 1930s and '40s, also played with Detroit.

King Kelly. Hall of Famer Michael Joseph Kelly played from 1878-93 and was a player/manager three of those years, winning a pennant in the NL rival Players League in 1890. Was arguably baseball's first "superstar" and scored 120+ runs in five different seasons, only one of which was as many as 125 games. Hit .348 or higher three different times and stole 50+ bases five times.

Frederick Francis "King" Lear, so nicknamed for obvious reasons. Had an unremarkable and brief career as a backup infielder around the end of WWI.

Charles Bernard "King" Lear, ditto, except that he was a pitcher.

Clarence Emmanuel "King" Lehr, again, nicknames for a Shakespearean character, though the spelling is a stretch. Hit .148 in 27 at-bats for the Phillies in 1911, playing OF, 2B and 3B.

Norm (Norman Carl Michael) "King" Lehr pitched four games in relief for the Indians in 1926, without getting a decision, and got the same nickname for the same reason. Apparently the sportswriters at the team were A) not terribly creative with nicknames and 2) really, really starved for someone to name "King" who would stick around for a while, so they dubbed everyone "King" if they could even remotely justify it, just in case.

Jack (John Albert) Morrissey, played infield and outfield for the Reds in 1902-1903, and might have gotten the King tag from his middle name. If he were alive today, his Bermanism would be John "King Albert in the Can" Morrissey, except that nobody under 40 would get that.

Clyde Edward King, Had an unremarkable career as a relief pitcher from 1944-1953, then followed it with a career as a Manager that spanned three decades! Of course, his only full managerial season was 1969, then he managed parts of 1970, '74, '75 and 1982, the last one being with the Yankees.

Jeff (Jeffrey Wayne) King, 1989-1999 had a largely unremarkable career as a corner infielder with the Pirates and Royals, though he did get to play on two playoff teams with the Bucs. Drove in 110+ runs and hit 30 and 28 homers in 1996 and 1997, respectively, but faded quickly after that.

Jim (James Hubert) King, 1955-1967 Hit .240 over 11 years, mostly with the Cubs in the 1950's anf the Washington Senators (Version 2.0) in the 1960's. Talk about born under a bad sign.

Ray King, 1999-2007 Only current major leaguer actually named King. With his 6th team in 9 years and not pitching well for the Nationals, so he may be done soon.

Silver King, 1886-1897 Charles Frederick King had some incredible years in the 1800's in the American Association and the Players League before joining the national League, but he fizzled out quickly. Apparently pitching 600 innings in a season isn't good for your arm. Who knew?

Jim Leyritz, 1990-2000 Baseball-Reference.com says that he was nicknamed "The King" but I don't remember anyone ever calling him that. Parlayed a couple of clutch postseason homers into an 11-year major league career.

Nellie (Nelson Joseph) King, 1954-1957 Had an unremarkable career as a relief pitcher with Pittsburgh, but made a name for himself as a Pirates radio announcer after his retirement from MLB.

Steve (Stephen F.) King, 1871-1872 Hit .396 in 29 games during the inaugural year of the National Association, 1871, then .305 the next year, then retired from baseball and has been writing creepy novels ever since.

Guy Isbel "King Tut" Tutwiler, 1911-1913, also nicknamed for obvious reasons, played briefly in 1911 and 1913 for the Tigers. Most notable thing about his career is that he got to play with Ty Cobb and Sam Crawford.

Larry (Lawrence King) Yount appeared (and I do mean appeared) in one game in 1971, during a situational double pitching change. He then immediately disappeared, without having thrown a pitch, swung a bat, or caught a ball, never to be seen in the majors again. Larry is the brother of Hall of Famer Robin Yount. Interestingly enough, Tommie Aaron, the comparatively talent-less kid brother of Hank Aaron, was used as a pinch hitter for the other team in the same game. Also, pitching for the Braves in that game was Phil Niekro, who is the brother of the Joe Niekro, who of course is the brother of Hall of Famer, er... Phil Niekro. Talk about coincidences.

George King Murray pitched really badly from 1922-1933 for the Yankees, Red Sox, Senators and White Sox. Baseball-reference.com says he was nicknamed "Smiler" and it must have been his happy personality that kept him in the Bigs, as it sure wasn't his pitching. Went 2-9 with a 6.72 ERA for the Sawx in 1924, a year in which the AL ERA was 4.35. Amazingly, two years later, he resurfaced with the Senators, pitched just as badly, though he went 6-3 this time. He pitched only 18 innings the next year, then showed up again for two games with the White Sox in 1933. he had been traded by the Red Sox along with two other players and $50K for future Hall of Famer Herb Pennock, back when the Red Sox served as the Yankees' top farm club, so maybe people thought he was worth something because of that.

Jim (James King) Romano pitched in three games for his hometown Brooklyn Dodgers in 1950, two relief appearances and one start, allowing six runs (4 earned) in 6.3 innings. And that was it.

Charlie ("King" Charles Otto) Schmutz pitched briefly and unremarkably for the Brooklyn Robins in 1914-1915. I'm guessing the King tag comes from the actual King Charles, the many British monarchs of that name, though that's not totally clear. Another desperate attempt by the sportswriters to find their leige. That's only fair, I suppose, given that the guy's real name means "dirt" in Yiddish and German.

Babe (Jay King) Towne caught 13 games (and pinch hit in one more) for the 1906 "Hitless Wonder" White Sox, who beat the cross-town Cubs in the World Series. None of his 10 hits in 36 at-bats went for extra bases, though he also walked seven times. Unfortunately he made four errors in those 13 games. He went 0-for-1 in the World Series and never played in the majors again.

Sol "King Solomon" White is a Hall of Famer who was a pioneer in the early Negro Leagues, a player, manager and executive who established and managed some of the best clubs in the Negro Leagues at the time. An educated man from Ohio, he also wrote the first book on the Negro Leagues, Sol White's History of Colored Baseball, in 1907, which has been republished several times since.

(William Aloysius) Bill "King" Brady, 1912-1912
(James Ward) King Brady, 1905-1912
Both were so-named for a prominent dime novel detective of the 1880's and 1890's, "Old King Brady". The former pitched in only one game, while the latter pitched between one and three games in five different seasons in the majors, but never more than that.

(King Lewis Albert) Lew Brockett, 1907-1911 Presumably named for the King of France from the Shakespearean plays, pitched intermittently for the Yankees back when they were the New York Highlanders, before they were any good.

Clay (Clayton King) Fauver, pitched one game, an 11-hit shutout in 1899, and was never seen in the majors again.

Zaza (Ervin King) Harvey, 1900-1902 Spent some time as an outfielder and pitcher with the Cubs, White Sox and Indians around the turn of the last century, back when the Cubs were the Orphans, the Indians were the Blues and Bronchos, and the White Sox were AL Champions in the pre-World Series era. He once collected six hits in a 9-inning game, but I can't figure out how he got nicknamed "Zaza."

John Gottleib "Big Jack" or "King" Karst played one game at third base for the Brooklyn Robins in 1915, and participated in a double play, but did not bat, and never appeared in the majors again.

(Walter Brockton) "King Bill" Kay played 12 games in the outfield and pinch hit in 13 more (gitting .333 in 60 at-bats) for the Washington Senators, worst team in the AL in 1907.

Guys Named King About Whom I Couldn't Think of Anything Interesting to Write:
Lore (Verne) "King" Bader, 1912-1918
Chick (Charles Gilbert) King, 1954-1959
Curtis Albert King, 1997-1999
Eric Stephen King, 1986-1992
Hal (Harold) King, 1967-1974
Kevin Ray King, 1993-1995
Lee King, 1916-1922
(Edward) Lee King, 1916-1919
Lynn Paul King, 1935-1939
Mart (Marshal Ney) King, 1871-1872
Sam (Samuel Warren) King, 1884-1884

And of course, last but not finally, there was Jim Presley, who played eight years in the majors, mostly with Seattle, as a third baseman. He was the classic "swing hard in case you hit it" type of batter, who mashed 24 or more homers three years in a row, but also struck out 100+ times six years in a row. he hit .247/.290/.420 in over 3,500 major league at-bats, striking out 859 times in 959 games, though he was an All-Star in 1986, when he drove in 107 runs and smacked 27 homers. He's now the hitting coach for the Florida Marlins. Answers.com says his nickname was "Hound Dog", though baseball-reference.com makes no mention of that.

Thank you. Thankyouverymuch.

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14 August 2007

“Scooter” Retrospective: Phil Rizzuto Dies at 89

Phil Rizzuto, erstwhile New York Yankees shortstop and 40-year Yankees radio and TV broadcast announcer, died last night at age 89.

To quote the Scooter, "Well, that kind of puts the damper on even a Yankee win."

Obviously, a lot more people mourned the passing of Pope Paul VI in 1978 (about whom Rizutto uttered that line) than will cry for the Scooter, and rightly so, but in his own niche, he was just as beloved.

Phil Rizzuto, courtesy of National Italian American FoundationPhil Rizzuto's major league playing career started when he was 23 years old. A Brooklyn native, and only 5'6" tall, when he was called up from the minors in 1941, he supposedly had a hard time convincing the guard at Yankee Stadium that he was on the team and should be let inside. When he went to try out for his hometown team in 1937, he was told by then-Dodgers manager Casey Stengel to go and shine shoes for a living, but later became one of Stengel's favorite players when Casey helmed the Yankees in 1949. One story Rizzuto related about Stengel dealt with a death threat he had received in the mail before a series against the Red Sox in September of 1950, the year he won the MVP. The letter supposedly said that he, Hank Bauer, Yogi Berra and Johnny Mize would be shot if they showed up in uniform. When Rizzuto showed the letter to his manager, Casey gave him Billy Martin's uniform to wear, and sent Martin in with Scooter's #10 on his back.

Not surprisingly, Scooter's diminutuve size prevented him from exploiting the game the way most of his peers did in the late 1940's and early 1950's, a time when walks and homers dominated the game, and an average team stole only about 40 bases per season. Scooter frequently stole 15-20 bases all by himself, finishing in the top 6 in the American League eight times in his 13-year playing career. He also ranked in the top 10 in triples three times, another testament to his speed, inspite of his short legs. His brand of slap-hitting, aggressive base-running and self-sacrifice brought a breath of fresh air in an otherwise boring era for baseball. Rizzuto led the AL in sacrifice hits four times and is third on the Yankees' all-time list, and ranks 10th among Yankees with 49 hit-by-pitches. He was widely regarded as one of the best bunters in baseball history, and later would try to impart his knowledge on the subject to Yankee players as a special instructor uring Spring Training, after his own playing career had ended.

A patient hitter with a keen eye (he walked 651 times in his career but only struck out 398 times), Scooter was not a sabermetrician's favorite type of player, but his skills clearly helped the Yankees to the nine American League pennants and eight World Series championships they won with him on the team. The sportswriters of his era recognized this, voting him the AL MVP in 1950. He placed second to Ted Williams in 1949 and got MVP votes six other times, ranking as high as 6th, in 1953. Though he hit only .246 in postseason play, he ranks among the top ten in hits, singles, walks, stolen bases, at-bats, and times on base, mostly because his 52 World Series games rank 6th all-time. He made the All-Star team five times, four of them after WWII, though he was never the same hitter he had looked like before he went into the service.

Much of Scooter's value as a player owed to his prowess as a defensive shortstop. Long before Cal Ripken proved that a man built like a Greek god could play short effectively, Rizutto was the quintessential defense-first, any-offense-is-gravy shortstop that most teams employed. Contemporary Hall-of-Fame shortstops like Pee Wee Reese, Arky Vaughan, Lou Boudreau and Luke Appling were all better offensive players...and were all at least three or four inches taller and weighed 15 or 20 pounds more than the Scooter. That he got as many hits as he did out of his wiry little fram is fairly impressive. And in spite of that, his defense, at its best, could rival many of the best defensive shortstops in history. Baseball Prospectus gives him four seasons with 20+ Fielding Runs Above Average, while Ozzie Smith, widely considered the best defensive shortstop in history, has only six such seasons, despite a much longer playing career.

Rizzuto, like many of his contemporaries, lost much of his career to the Second World War, playing three years (1943-45, his age 25-27 seasons) for the U.S. Navy's baseball team instead of in the American League. Certainly he could have compiled more stats if he had those three seasons in the prime of his career back, but more important, he might have helped the Yankees not to finish 3rd in 1944 and 4th in 1945 as he and his star teammates Joe DiMaggio, Joe Gordon, Charlie Keller, Tommy Henrich, Red Ruffing, Johnny Murphy and others were off contributing to the war effort.

Scooter's playing career ended in 1956, when he was apparently called into the general manager's office to look over the roster and help them decide who on the roster they should cut to make room for the recently acquired Enos Slaughter. After suggesting several names and having each one opposed for one reason or another, it became apparent to Rizzuto that his was the expendable name, and he was let go. Nevertheless, at the insistence of Ballantine Beer, one of the Yankees' biggest sponsors at the time, Scooter was almost immediately hired to do broadcasting, a job he held for about 40 years.

Rizzuto became a fixture on WMCA radio and in the WPIX broadcast booth, working with the likes of Mel Allen, Red Barber, Bill White, Bobby Brown, Bobby Murcer and many others during his long career. He became famous as an almost unabashed homer, more than occasionally lapsing from announcing the Yankee game to actually rooting for them. He famously always referred to his broadcast partners by their last names, as he had his former teammates. (The reason Bill White jokingly gave for why he was leaving the Yankees' booth to become president of the National League in 1989 was that after 18 years of working together, his partner still didn't know his first name!) Fans loved his humor, his "Holy cow!" exclamations during broadcasts, and toward the end of his career, his general lack of ability to follow the game itself. Though it became a challenge to follow the game when even the announcer would admit to lapses of attention (Rizzuto would mark his scorecard "WW" for "Wasn't Watching" whenever he missed a play, which was often), the genuineness and endearing nature of his broadcasts made him the longest-tenured and most loved announcer in Yankees history. His monologue full of baseball/sex-related double entendres, on the recording of Meat Loaf's "Paradise by the Dashboard Light", continually introduces new generations of horny teenagers to his style as they hear the song at parties and on the radio, even if they don't know it's the Scooter.

He retired from broadcasting for the last time (after threating to do so for years) after the 1996 season.

Phil Rizzuto, courtesy of BaseballLibrary.com

Rizzuto was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1994, by the Veterans Committee, after years of waiting, even though he had what most knowledgeable fans consider sub-par numbers. Despite that, and despite the fact that Bill James used him as a frequent illustration in his book Whatever Happened to the Hall of Fame?, James ranked him as the 16th best shortstop in history when his Historical Baseball Abstract was re-published in 2001.

Phil (Fiero Francis) Rizzuto
25 September 1917 – 14 August 2007

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13 August 2007

AL, NL Pennant Races Heating Up...

Who says the Wild Card has ruined the excitement of playoff races?

One of the major criticisms of the three-division/Wild Card system, implemented back in 1994, wa sthat it would ruin some of the great pennant races. That the "Down the stretch they come..." excitement and intrigue of years past would be lost, because there would suddenly be a consolation prize for whomever lost out on the division title. In the 1993 NL West, for example, the Braves edged out the Giants on the last day of the season, winning 104 games to the Giants' 103, so they could have the privilege of choking in the playoffs against the Phillies. The Giants would have been in the playoffs anyway with the three-division format, so how exciting is that, really?

Well, it would have been exciting for the Cardinals. They finished 87-75, and would have won the NL Central, if such an animal had existed at the time. They'd have made the playoffs ahead of the Montreal Expos, despite having seven fewer wins, and they'd have had the Cubs and Astros right on their tail, both within three games at the season's end. That would have been exciting for lots of people around the midwest, don't you think? And the Phillies would have won the NL Wild Card with their 97 wins, not particularly close to the Braves' record, but worrying about the gaining Expos, who finished just three games behind them. So while we would not have had two 100+ win teams vying for one playoff spot, we would have had five teams competing for two playoff spots, which would have kept a lot mor efans interested for a lot longer.

Fast forward to 2007, and I've got some even better examples for you.

American League...

In the AL, you've currently got six teams competing for four playoff spots. The Boston Red Sox, who looked so unstoppable for the first three months of the season, have, well, stopped. Winning, that is. Their closest competition was 11.5 games out as recently as July 5th, but their lead has been whittled down to just 4 games by the end of this weekend. The'll get to beat up on Tampa Bay, the worst team in baseball, for six of the next nine contests on their schedule, and indeed, the remaining 44 games on their schedule include only 16 against teams with winning records. If you discount Toronto, which just barely has a winning record at 59-57 right now, that's only 10 games against "good" teams the rest of the season. The Yankees, by contrast, have 27 of their remaining 45 games against winning teams, so their road looks much tougher, at least on paper. I doubt that even the Red Sox could mess this up. The will win the AL East.

That leaves five teams for three remaining spots, and the field is wide open at this point. The LAnahfornia Angels have a 3.5 game lead over Seattle at the moment, but they've got a stretch of 17 straight games against teams that currently have winning records, and the Mariners' schedule is comparatively soft for the next few weeks, so that lead could slim down even more. In a virtual tie with Seattle for the AL Wild Card at the moment are the Yankees, of course, with the Cleveland Indians only 1.5 games behind. The Tribe, however, is only 1/2 game behind the Detroit Tigers for the AL Central Division lead, which I'm sure they'd much rather have anyway.

My best guess is that the Angels and Sawx will hold onto their respective division leads, that the Yankees will cool off a bit but will probably still win the Wild Card. Seattle may have a 65-50 record right now, but their runs scored and allowed suggest a more pedestrian 59-56 team, and I expect them to start playing like that again soon. Cleveland and Detroit are both trying their darndest, it seems, to let each other take over the AL Central lead. The Tigers are just 13-18 since the All-Star break, with a 5.71 team ERA, but the Indians are right on the Tigers' tail as they tumble, 13-17 since the break, with a .698 team OPS and a .252 batting average in that stretch. One of them, however, is going to have to win it, as the Twins (58-59, 7 games out) don't look like they're equipped to make a run this season. Look for the Tribe to take advantage of the relatively soft schedule they have for the rest of the year and overtake the Tigers to win the Central.

National League...

If the pennant races are hot in the AL, then they're positively on fire in the Senior Circuit. All three divisions are contested by no more than three games, and the NL East has three teams within 3.5 of the lead. Concurrently, there are six teams within three games of the NL WIld Card lead, which means that there are nine teams vying for four playoff berths. That's more than half of the teams in the National League still in contention with a month and a half left of the season. You odn't hear anybody lamenting the Wild Card system this year, do you? They're all too busy checkin gthe box scores.

To begin with, the NL East has been led by New York virtually all season, but the Metropolitans are losing ground to the Phillies quickly, mostly because the latter are starting to play like I said they would. The Atlanta Braves, despite a terrible season by Andruw Jones, an injury to Edgar Renteria, a couple of no-names at the back of their rotation and a half dozen pitchers on the DL, are only a half-game behind the Phillies, 1.5 out of the NL Wild Card race.

In the Central, the Milwaukee Brewers finally took Tom Hanks' advice, stopped crying poor, and started playing good baseball. They built up an 8.5 game lead as recently as June 23rd, but have watched it ebb away ever since. They're 12th in the majors in runs scored, and 14th in ERA, and their runs scored and allowed suggest a 59-59 team instead of their actual 62-51 record, so I fully expect them to wilt in the heat of the race, though they'll probably finish with a record at or just above the break-even mark. The Cubbies, despite losing records in both April and May, went 34-20 over the next two months before cooling off again in August. They're only 1.5 games behind the Brew Crew at the moment, and if their pitching can keep them in contention until Alfonso Soriano and Aramis Ramirez are healthy, they should be able to take the Central title. The defending world champs are currently 7 games out, with a record 5 games under .500, so they're not likely to turn things around this late in the season.

The wild, NL West has four of its five teams within 6 games of the division lead, and any and all of those could win the Wild Card as well. The Diamondbacks sit atop the division as I write this, with a 67-52 record, but they've actually allowed more runs (523) than they've scored (502), owing their status as division leaders to a luck-and-relief-pitching-induced, 26-16 record in 1-run games, so I don't think they'll stay there. The bullpen is composed mostly of rookies who have yet to see opponents ofr a second or third time and veterans playing way over their heads, so it's just a matter of time before things fall apart out there in Arizona. The Dodgers are 6 games out, with a 60-57 record, and one of the best pitchers in baseball in Brad Penny, but their offense is going to have to turn it up a notch if they're going to make a run.

The other two temas, the San Diego Padres and Colorado Rockies, are three games and five games behind 'Zona, respectively, but the old Yogi-ism could not be better applied than to these two. That is, if you'll forgive my paraphrase, "You can't compare the two. Their similarities are different."

The Colorado Rockies play in the best hitter's park in the history of recorded baseball, Coors Field, and their offense takes advantage of it. Their 602 runs scored overall are second only to the Phillies in the NL (In the AL, only Detroit, Boston and New York have scored more runs.), and nobody in the NL has scored more runs at home than the Rockies, which helps to explain their 35-23 record at Coors Field. The team has six players with at least 10 homers and every regular his hitting at least .279. Unfortunately, they're dreadful on the road, scoring less than 4.5 runs per game, and dropping to 26-33. Amazingly, their pitching is somehow consistent, with a 4.48 ERA at home, and a 4.34 mark on the road.

San Diego, by contrast, has four guys with double-digit homers, but nobody who's likely to join them before the season is out. The Padres play in one of the best pitchers' parks in the majors, and it shows. Brian Giles is hitting .298, but with only 7 homers and 31 RBIs in 77 games. No other regular is hitting more than .269, and half the lineup is hitting .240 or worse right now. They're last in the NL in batting average and OBP, 13th out of 16 NL teams in slugging, and 11th in Runs Scored. On the other side of the equation, though, lies their pitching, and this is how San Dego has stayed in contention all season. Thier 3.54 collective ERA is easily first in the NL, best in the major leagues, actually, and almost half a run better than the Mets, their closest Senior Circuit competition. Not surprisingly, the Padres have a winning record at home, 32-26, but they've also played decently when away from Petco, 31-28. Both teams have half of their remaining schedule in their home parks and half on the road.

So my guesses for the NL are that the Mets will hold on to the East, the Brewers will fade adn give way to the Cubs, who will take the Central, and the Snakes will cool off, allowing the Padres in to take the West for a third straight year. The D-Backs' youth and inexperience and the Rockies' inability to win on the road will keep them both out, and the Dodgers' age and inability to hit for power will kill their chances, though Penny could win the Cy Young Award. The Phillies will win the NL wild card...

...and then lose to the Cubs in the playoffs.

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