29 May 2008

Royals Lose 10th Straight in Epic Fashion

Rob Neyer and Rany Jazayerli and Joe Posnaski are complaining about the Royals losing their 10th straight game last night. Hard to blame them. If I were a Royals fan, I'd be complaining too. Other medium-sized midwestern cities have fielded competitive teams, at least occasionally, in the last 20 years, so why can't the Royals do it?

I don't know, and frankly, that's beyond the scope of this post, which I'm writing mostly so I can get some credit for all the thinking I've done about this, and not just post a comment on Rob Neyer's blog.

Posnaski is always the most fun to read about this stuff. here's his explanation of what happened as an 8-3 lead slipped away:

And then Brendan Harris loops a fly ball to right field that looks like it very well could be the third out. David DeJesus should run that down and … wait a minute. David DeJesus is not in right field. No, that’s, um. Ross Gload in right field. Why is Ross Gload in right field? Oh, right, Hillman pinch-hit for DeJesus the previous inning. So, no, wait … why did Ross Gload pinch-hit for DeJesus? I’m very confused.*

*OK, I just got a call from Royals TV voice extraordinaire and good friend Ryan Lefebvre … apparently, in the seventh inning, DeJesus broke out in hives. Yeah. Hives. Now, this team has biblical plagues descending upon them. Hives. I mean, seriously. I still couldn’t tell you why Gload didn’t go to first, where he’s actually pretty good, and Teahen go to right field, where he’s played all year. Trey Hillman’s explanation is that he didn’t want to switch TWO positions. Whatever that means.

You can't make this stuff up.

Anyway, the problem (at least last night) was that in a tight spot, Royals manager Trey Hillman looked at his bullpen, didn't like his options, but picked one and it didn't work out. And by "didn't work out" I mean "a miracle did NOT happen" because apparently everyone who knows anything about baseball and/or likes the Royals (not that there are many of them...) knew that this was the wrong move.

Here's Joe Posnaski again:
...at this point, the Royals decided to take [Ramon] Ramirez out of the game. Part of me understood — Ramirez had given up four hits in the inning. But part of me cringed because they were pretty soft singles, one probably should have been caught, and Ramirez had struck out two in the inning, and he was quite unlikely to give up a home run to Monroe because of his sinker (Ramirez has not yet given up a home run this year).

Instead, Hillman goes with Joel Peralta, a fly-ball, homer-prone pitcher with control problems, to face Craig Monroe, a hacker who's going to be looking fastball all the way and swinging for the fences. This was so obviously a bad move that it's hard to wonder why Hillman would even think of it, much less do it.

This is not the same thing as trying a squeeze play or a hit-and-run in a place where everyone knows you're going to do a hit and run and you get into a strike-out, throw-out double play. That kind of thing happens, and you deal with it, and move on. But when your manager chooses perhaps the worst of all possible options from his bullpen, and then the inevitable happens, well, you have to wonder.

You can't blame Hillman for not having better options available to him than he has (that's GM Dayton Moore's fault) but you can blame him for not seeing the options he actually has:

- Ramon Ramirez, for just one more out, as Rob Neyer mentioned. Go up there, calm him down. Remind him that they still haven't hit him hard, and that the defense will pick him up. Granted, this is a lie, but it sounds good. Tell him to give you all he's got, as this is the last guy he'll have to face tonight. Let him buck up and try to make you proud. Maybe he'll surprise you.

- Jimmy Gobble. Sure, he'd thrown 33 pitches the night before, but he tossed 2 scoreless innings, which might have given him some confidence, right? In any case, those pitches hardly take a toll on you like having guys on base all the time, or whatever. You only need half a dozen pitches out of him, for crying out loud. Gobble's a lefty though, and an extreme flyball pitcher, so I can understand leaving him in the bullpen. No argument here, not really.

- Ron Mahay. He'd also thrown two innings the night before, but he used only 17 pitches to do it. Craig Monroe is hitting .118 with ZERO homers against lefties this year. Make him prove you wrong. What's the worst that could happen? Monroe gets a homer, wins the game, Mahay gets hurt and his career is over. He's 37 years old, it was gonna happen sooner or later anyway, and he's only Ron-freaking-Mahay!

- Joachim Soria. Sure, 31 pitches the night before, but he pitched very well, and again you're only asking him to get one lousy out. Throwing half a dozen pitches on short rest ONE TIME is not going to kill him.

- Yasuhiko Yabuta. 6.80 ERA, righties hitting .426 off him. Put the bullpen phone down, and slowly step away.

So it seems to me that obviously, short of an in-game trade for Mariano Rivera, Ramirez or Soria or Mahay would have been much better options. Why I can see that and Trey Hillman can't is beyond me.

For the most part, maybe 85 or 90% of the time, a manager's job is probably pretty easy, at least during a game. According to Fangraphs.com, there was a 99.8% chance that the Royals would win that game, with a 5-run lead and two out in the 9th. I mean, you really had to go out of your way to screw this one up, right?

Everyone who watches a significant amount of baseball generally knows what strategies to employ at what time, what kinds of pitchers to use when, and etc. Having more talent on your team can make that easier, but failing to understand the situations you find yourself in ("They're going to be swinging for the fences...maybe I should use a ground-ball pitcher?") is an unforgiveable sin in this business.

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Yankees Beat Baltimore, but Still Struggling

Sometimes things just work out.

Everything went to plan for the Yankees in Baltimore last night. After a couple of demoralizing losses to the Orioles, the good guys managed to salvage a game from the birds and avoid a 3-game sweep, which would have been the Orioles' first over the Yankees since 2005.

In the first game of the series, Darrell Rasner again pitched brilliantly, allowing only one run in six innings, but took the loss anyway when O's starter garrett Olson didn't allow any in seven. The Yankee bullpen (hawkins and veras) gave up 5 more runs in their two combined innings, putting the game out of reach.

In Game 2, Ian Kennedy struggled, as I had suggested he might, allowing 4 runs in three innings, and leaving the game with a pulled lateral muscle. Ross Ohlendorf relieved him, trying to protect an 8-4 lead, and did fine his first inning, but then he allowed a single to Brian Roberts and homers to Melvin Mora, Luke Scott and Kevin Millar in the 5th, which tied the game. He did strike out Nick Markakis, Aubrey Huff and Ramon Hernandez, so technically, he struck out the side.

Don't you hate when announcers say that, when it isn't true? He struck out the side. I mean, can we really say that anytime a pitcher gets three strikeouts in an inning? "Struck out the side" should mean that he struck out the first three batters, not just any three batters that came up that inning. What the hell difference does it make if he struck out the side when he also gave up three homers, allowed four runs to score, blew his cushy lead and put the game in jeopardy? If that's the way we're going to look at it, well Ohlendorf also homered the side, except that doesn't really sound right. And I think they's throw John Sterling off the air if he ever said something as goofy as "Ohlendorf allow-homered the side."

On the other hand...Hey, Sterling, I've got a suggestion for you...

Anyway, a series of relievers for both teams continued to put up goose eggs into the 11th inning, when a 2-out single by Hideki Matsui made it 9-8. But then, disaster struck. Not satisfied with having put the previous night's game out of reach, LaTroy Hawkins came in to protect a 1-run lead in the bottom of the 11th (Mariano had just pitched 2 innings), Hawkins came in and gave up a single and a double to tie the game, then, after two intentional walks to load the bases (not his fault, really) he allowed another single which lost the game.

At least Pettitte pitched well, as he seemingly always does against Baltimore. Indeed, Andy's 24-6 against Baltimore in his career, which is far more wins than he has against any other single team. For that matter, it's more than any active pitcher in the American League has against any other team (Mike Mussina's got 23 wins against Toronto, but nobody else is really even close.) In the NL, Tom Glavine and Greg Maddux also have 24 or more wins against at least one team. Heck, Maddux has that many or more against nine different teams.

Anyway, Pettitte pitched well, Chamberlain followed suit, and Mariano Rivera, a day after he had tossed 31 pitches in two shutout innings, added a near-perfect 9th (A-Rod committed an error on a grounder) for his 13th save of the year. The Yankee offense got a few key hits, with three singles from Johnny Damon, and two doubles each from Hideki Matsui and Melky Cabrera. They also got a single, a homer and two RBIs from Jason Giambi, who has quietly returned to respectability. His batting average has gone from a low of .150 on May 4th to .244, as he has hit .382/.507/.818 with 6 doubles, 6 homers, 11 Runs and 13 RBIs in that span. Not that I expect him to keep it up or anything, but I did think that early-season accounts of his demise were greatly exaggerated. Or at least premature.

Kennedy's placement on the DL before yesterday's game necessarily speeds up the timetable for putting Joba Chamberlain in the rotation. Joba relieved Andy Pettitte in the 7th and threw 28 pitches in 1.1 innings of work, plus another 25 or so in the bullpen before and after his game-work, so he's making progress toward having the necessary stamina to start, but he really should get another week or more of throwing longer stretches in games.

For that matter, I don't really understand the logic of taking him out of last night's game in the 9th. The Yankees had a 2-run lead that that point, and Chamberlain was doing well. he's supposed to be getting more work anyway, and they just had him go back to the bullpen to do some more throwing in the 9th anyway.

Why bother? Why not leave him in, give him another inning of real work, and a chance to protect a lead? He's going to have to get used to pacing himself, and pitching in tight spots as a starter anyway. Mariano was already warmed up, so they could have brought him in if they saw Chamberlain getting himself in trouble. And if not, then he's got 2.1 innings of work, and those other 20+ pitches he threw actually counted for something. Seems silly to me to send a guy who's pitching well, who you want to "stretch out" back to the bullpen to do that while another pitcher comes in to actually try and get batters out, simply because it's the 9th inning and you've got a lead of 3 runs or less.

Overall, it would have been nice to win 2 out of 3 from baltimore, which would have gotten the Yankees over .500 and out of last place. As things stand now, they'ye 26-27, half a game behind the Orioles, and I doubt that they're taking any solace in the fact that they're the best last-place team in the major leagues.

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23 May 2008

Omar Vizquel's Weak Hall of Fame Case

UPDATE: I have taken an updated and more thorough look at Omar Vizquel's Hall of Fame credentials here.

Rob Neyer links to a column by Henry Shulman of the San Francisco Chronicle suggesting that some writers might be thinking of voting Omar Vizquel into the Hall of Fame, once he's eligible. Shulman says he conducted "a small straw poll of hall voters" which probably means he asked two guys while they were sitting in the press box together, covering the same game.

Let's hope so. If not, the Hall of Fame is about to lower its standards a bit.

Shulman says that Vizquel's credentials as the all-time leader in games played at shortstop, plus his 11 Gold Gloves and his 2700+ hits (by the time he's done) should make him a solid Hall candidate. Neyer argues that the fact that the man was never considered a great player, not just defender, should mean that the writers wouldn't even consider voting for him. Sure, he got all those Gold Glove votes, but when it came down to it, he only got any votes for the MVP once, finishing a distant 16th in 1999. This despite anchoring the infield defense of half a dozen playoff teams with the Tribe in the late nineties and early oughts. Also, he's not much of a singer.

Here are the 23 current players whom the Hall considers shortstops, with their Baseball Prospectus career WARP3 totals, which is Wins Above Replacement Position, adjusted for all time, encompassing offense, defense and even pitching.

Shortstop          WARP3
Luis Aparicio 91.2
Luke Appling 127.9
Dave Bancroft 82.2
Ernie Banks 119.9
Lou Boudreau 110.1
Joe Cronin 112.6
George Davis 130.3
Travis Jackson 73.9
Hughie Jennings 76.3
Pop Lloyd ???
Rabbit Maranville 92.9
Pee Wee Reese 105.8
Cal Ripken 173.1
Phil Rizzuto 75.3
Joe Sewell 91.5
Ozzie Smith 132.5
Joe Tinker 81.2
Aarky Vaughan 131.5
Honus Wagner 203.0
Bobby Wallace 112.8
Monte Ward 83.7
Willie Wells ???
Robin Yount 132.0
Average 111.4
Omar Vizquel currently sports a total of 100.3 WARP3.

It should be noted that some of these guys spent significant amounts of their careers at other positions. Ernie Banks actually played more games at first base than he did at short. Yount played almost half his career as an outfielder. Boudreau and Cronin were, in addition to being very good players, managers for a long time, with some degree of success.

Wells and Lloyd were both presumably very good players in the Negro Leagues, but we don't really have any credible numbers for them. Monte Ward was also a pitcher, and a pioneer in the early days of major league baseball. Joe Tinker was elected by a suddenly generous Veterans Committee in 1946, right after a World War, when they were feeling especially nostalgic, apparently.

But even if you throw all of those guys out, the average for the remaining players stays almost exactly the same, 111.3, instead of point four. So don't worry about that.

Vizquel's WARP3 number fits in rather nicely with the career marks of several of these guys. It's more than Rabbit Maranville, Joe Tinker, Joe Sewell, Dave Bancroft, Travis Jackson, Hughie Jennings or Luis Aparicio. It's also more than Rizutto, and almost as much as Pee Wee Reese, but still way less than Aarky Vaughan, Lou Boudreau or Luke Appling, all five of whom lost time to the War.

If you go by the argument of pointing out the existing bar, which is down there somewhere in the neighborhood of Travis Jackson or Phil Rizutto, even accounting for the war, it's obvious that Omar has done more in his career than those guys, despite never being great in a single season. But it's also obvious to most observers that those guys shouldn't be in the Hall in the first place, so that's not a terribly convincing argument.

Even if you want to use the benchmark of where the average is, it would seem that Vizquel would at least reasonably maintain, if not raise the standard of MLB HoF shortstops. Of course, so would Bill Dahlen, and I don't see anyone clamoring for his candidacy.

This type of argument is something of a slippery slope. It's not a bad starting point to only enshrine players whould maintain or even raise the standard of the existing crop at a given position, but that's not enough, in my mind. We ought to want to make the Hall more exclusive, and therefore more impressive, not less.

Sure, we can put Omar Vizquel in. he's better than Travis Jackson, right, even though he doesn't have as cool a first name? Then we've got to let Ron Santo in, too, though, since he's better than George Kell, right? And what about Harold baines, since he has the most games and hits and what-not as a Designated Hitter? Shouldn't he be considered Hall-worthy?

If you think instead about where the bar should be, instead of where it is, I think you have to leave Vizquel out of the Hall. Not everyone in the Hall has to be Honus Wagner or Cal Ripken, but "appreciably better than Gary Gaetti" doesn't seem like such an outlandish requirement to me.

We've had more than 125 years to see what great players look like, and to paraphrase Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, I think we should know them when we see them. Omar Vizquel is not one of them.

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Yankees Rotation Issues Sorting Out; Hitting, Well, Not So Much...

The New York Yankees beat the Baltimore Orioles last night, 2-1 in New York, their second consecutive win after a 4-game losing streak. They're still in last place in the AL East, but they're only a game behind Toronto in next-to-last! More important, they're 5 games behind the Devil Rays, who somehow have the second best record in the American League, and there are still 4,147 games left to play this season, though not all of them by the Yankees and their competition.

The Yankees have scored only 191 Runs to this point, good for 11th in the 14-team Junior Circuit. On a scale of one to ten, that sucks. Worse yet, they're 10th in team ERA, which is also lousy. Granted, with Alex Rodriguez back and Jorge Posasa Jopefully returning soon, they should start hitting like we all know they're capable of, but it's more than just the absence of two of their stars.

Three of their regulars are hitting just barely above the Mendoza Line, with Jason Giambi and Jose Molina both sitting at .205, and Robinson Cano at .207. Morgan Ensberg, who got most of the playing time at third base while A-Rod was on the DL, is hitting .208 with one homer, which is 100% more of them than Molina has hit. Giambi's 8 dingers and 24 walks have helped keep his OPS respectable in spite of the low batting average, but getting a hit, any kind of hit, only once every 5 at-bats is simply unacceptable, even more so for a guy making $21 million this year.

Oh, and I love hate to say "I told you so" but Melky Cabrera is hitting .248 with a .316 OBP and hasn't hit a homer in almost three weeks. He is currently 53rd in OPS among the 71 qualified outfielders, and is, as much as anybody, killing the Yankees. Just as I said he would. So there.

With that said, Giambi, and especially Cano, are bound to improve, and nobody's really even gotten hot yet, so I expect them to hit better from here on out, and not just because A-Rod is back.

The starting rotation, which has been just as big a problem, seems to be taking shape. Chien-Ming Wang (6-2, 3.51), while no longer untouchable, still seems like a solid pitcher, and Andy Pettitte should provide some decent innings for them, thought you'd like to see a little more consistency from him. Mike Mussina had a pretty solid stretch in there where he won five straight decisions, bet he couldn't get anyone out on Tuesday, and the Yankees must be concerned about that. Darrel Rasner has been a breath of fresh air for the rotation, winning each of his three starts in impressive fashion and increasing his pitch count each time out.

The best news from yesterday's game, however, has to be Ian Kennedy's start: 6 IP, 4 hits, 4 walks, 4 strikeouts, and only one run. This from a pitcher who entered the game with an 0-3 record and an 8.48 ERA to his credit. Great news, but before we get too excited, consider the following:

Three of Kennedy's K's were against Nick Markakis:

  • In the first inning, Kenned got two "gift" strikes called, way outside, and then managed to make Markakis swing and miss on an 89-mph fastball right down the middle of the plate. With markakis' power, that could just as easily have been a homer.
  • In the 3rd inning, with the bases loaded, Markakis was pressing to make something happen, and swung at a 2-1 pitch half a foot outside, and then another one a foot outside for strike three. That could have easily been a walk, which would have scored a run, or, with a 3-1 count, Kennedy might have had to come back inside and his 89-mph fastball would not have fooled Markakis again.
  • In the 6th, Markakis watched an 89-mph fastball sail right down the pipe, then fouled one off just above that, then chased one high and out of the zone for strike three. Good pitching by Kennedy there, no doubt.
  • The other strikeout was against Brian Roberts. He threw him two fastballs on the inside corner, then wasted one away, then came back inside for a called third strike. Again, nice work by Kennedy.

In short, only two of his four strikeouts were "legit". The other two were mistakes that he got away with, hardly a dominant performance. With a fastball that rarely cracks 90 mph, Kennedy doesn't have much room for error, and teams like the Red Sox will make him pay for those kinds of mistakes. Let's see how he does in Baltimore next week.

The other glimme rof hope for the rotation is the announcement that Joba Chamberlain is being groomed to join it, perhaps as soon as the All-Star Break. Fans have certainly enjoyed seeing Joba pitching, dominating, out of the bullpen, but the Yankees have said all along that his future is in the rotation, and they appear to be sticking to their word, for once.

Some fans may be a little disappointed by this news, having hoped thay Joba might inherit the closer's role from mariano Rivera, but you shouldn't want him to become a closer. Joba's skill is much more valuable as a starter than as a reliever, assuming that he'll be a good starter. It's much harder to find good starting pitchers, and the 200+ innings they amass help the team considerably more than pitching about 70 innings, even very well and in high-leverage situations.

If you think about it, relief pitching is just an easier job to do. Mariano Rivera, as great as he is, would never have made it as a starter, because he doesn't really have a second pitch, not a consistent one. He can give it his all for one, maybe two innings and get batters out, but by the second time through the lineup, they'll have seen all he's got, plus he'll be starting to tire, and they can sit on that pitch or wait for him to make a mistake. He may be one of the best relievers ever, but he'd flop as a starter. So if you can get 200+ innings with an ERA around 3.50 or so out of Joba every year, that's much more help than pitching 70 innings with an ERA around 2.00.

As for timetable, I'm guessing that they'll have him pitch 2-3 innings a few more times, give him a chance to remember how to pace himself, and force him to work on his other pitches. If Kennedy continues to be reasonably effective, the Yankees will have the luxury of putting Joba in to pitch 3, 4 even 5 innings if they want, in a start in which someone gets knocked out early, OR, they can even start Joba, expecting only 3-4 innings out of him, and then inserting Mussina or Kennedy whenever Joba tires out. More likely, they'll probably send him to AAA for a start or two to make sure he has the necessary stamina in games that don't have as much meaning.

They'll miss his arm in the bullpen, of course, but relief pitching is such a fickle business, that someone like Chris Britton or Ohlendorf or Bruney could just as easily step into that role and thrive. Scott Proctor, you'll recall, was lousy in 2005 (6.04 ERA in 45 innings) before becoming the main man in the bullpen in 2006 (102 innings with a 3.52 ERA). Like Joaquin Andujar said, you can sum up baseball in one word: youneverknow.

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21 May 2008

Mike Piazza Hangs Up Tools of Ignorance

I did some research about four years ago when Mike Piazza broke the all-time record for homers by a catcher, in which I estimated that Ivan Rodriguez, not Mike Piazza, and not Johnny Bench, was probably the most valuable catcher of all time. I'm not a fan of Pudge, and I haven't been since he came up with the Rangers, so I wasn't happy with those results, but that was where they led.

In light of Mike Piazza's retirement from baseball, I thought I would look at that work again and see where he ends up. What follows is an edited version of that column:

In May of 2004, Mike Piazza broke the all-time record for career home runs by a catcher, when he hit #352. That homer surpassed Carlton Fisk's mark, which he set a decade or more ago, but which took him about 800 more games to do than Piazza, so clearly Piazza's the superior hitter of the two. For that matter, Piazza is easily the greatest hitting catcher ever, by virtually any measure you can conjure. Shysterball mentions that his career OPS (on-base plus Slugging percentage) was 15 points higher than his closest serious competition.

Piazza polarizes baseball fans. Lots of purists, old-schoolers especially, think that a catcher must catch, first, and any offense you get out of him is secondary, gravy, as it were. This is why Moe Berg and Bill Bergen had careers. For that matter, this is why Brad Ausmus and The Flailing Molina Brothers have careers.

Seamheads like me will tell you that you can't possibly do enough with the glove, regardless of your position, to make up for being a terrible hitter, and that likewise an average hitter can't do enough defensively to catch up to the overall value of a great hitter.

Four years ago, Rob Neyer argued that the ten best catchers were, all things considered, in order:

                      Games  Caught  OPS+
1. Johnny Bench 2158 1742 127
2. Yogi Berra 2120 1699 126
3. Carlton Fisk 2499 2226 116
4. Bill Dickey 1789 1708 128
5. Gabby Hartnett 1990 1793 126
6. Roy Campanella 1215 1183 123
7. Mike Piazza 1699 1629 142
8. Mickey Cochrane 1482 1451 127
9. Gary Carter 2296 2056 116
10. Ivan Rodriguez 2190 2099 111

You can see fairly easily that one of these guys stands out significantly, and it's Piazza. The question Neyer wrestled with, then, as now, is whether or not Piazza's defensive liabilities take away enough from his hitting to knock him all the way down to #7 on the all-time list.

If you look at Bill James' rankings in his most recent Baseball Abstract, he has Yogi first, then Bench, then Roy Campanella, then Cochrane and Piazza at #5, and Pudge all the way down at 13th. But James' rankings are simultaneously more comprehensive and more subjective than what I'm doing here. James used career Win Shares, WS/season, peak value, and other metrics in the numerical valuations, but he also admits to a subjective element, including postseason contributions, leadership, clutch performances, etc. Also, Pudge was only about halfway through his career when that book came out in 2000, and I'm sure James would put him in the top 5 or so, at least, by now. None of that has any real bearing on my statistical approach, I just thought you might like to see what someone smarter than me thinks. Or, thought, eight years ago.

In Rob Neyer's column in 2004, he mentioned that he would have been happy to take Fisk down a peg or two, and Piazza up a peg or two, if he were inclined to investigate the matter more, which he wasn't at the time. Subsequent responses to emails from his readers dealt more with the lack of Josh Gibson on the list (no, I don't know where he belongs either, but would be interested to hear arguments about him one way or the other) and the difficulty of comparing offense across leagues and eras. Nobody, apparently, wrote in to rally for Piazza's ranking to be higher, and evidently lots of people think that I-Rod belongs a lot higher, if not at the very top. I don't happen to be one of those, or at least I wasn't before I did a little research.

I had planned to try to give Mike Piazza a little more support than he seems to have gotten, and to support Neyer's contention that I-Rod is overrated, but now I'm not so sure. Let me tell you what I did and you can tell me if I'm all wet, OK?

I used Baseball Prospectus DT Cards for the ten players on the list (Josh Gibson is omitted from the discussion, of course). I used their WARP3 numbers, which stands for Wins Above Replacement Position, and includes hitting, pitching and fielding contributions, adjusted for all time. I then (roughly, I admit) prorated those ten players' numbers for the games in their careers they actually caught(GAC). This isn't perfect, but it assures us that players like Yogi don't get extra credit for prolonging their careers by playing the outfield.

I then divided the wins into the games as catcher, and prorated this over 162 games, to level the playing field and to get the numbers into a useful range. And do you know what I found? Of course you don't, or you wouldn't still be reading.

Name                WARP   GAC  WARP/162GAC
10. Ivan Rodriguez 122 2099 9.45
7. Mike Piazza 94 1629 9.37
8. Mickey Cochrane 82 1451 9.16
4. Bill Dickey 96 1708 9.11
1. Johnny Bench 95 1743 8.83
6. Roy Campanella 63 1183 8.63
9. Gary Carter 107 2056 8.43
2. Yogi Berra 88 1699 8.39
5. Gabby Hartnett 87 1793 7.86
3. Carlton Fisk 100 2226 7.28

Four years ago, I found that Ivan Rodriguez appeared to be the best catcher ever. At the time, he had a rate of 9.83 Wins per 162 games at Catcher, which was far above anyone else. Mike Piazza was second, though, not seventh, with a rate of 9.37 W/162.

Well, four years have passed, and interestingly enough, Piazza's rate hasn't changed at all, even though his OPS has come down 14 points, from 156 to 142, and his WARP has gone up from 80 to 95. That's mostly because he's been a part-time player the last four years, and has only caught an additional 200 games. His worst year with the bat was also the only year that he only used the bat, 2007, when he was a lackluster DH with the Oakland A's.

As for Rodriguez, his OPS has come down a bit, from 113 to 111, but he's caught about 400 more games and continues to be a very good defensive catcher, at least according to the metrics used by Baseball Prospectus. Though his rate of Wins above Replacement per season has dropped, as you would expect for an aging player, he still leads the pack in that area, and of course he's now got more WARP in his career than any catcher in history.

I don't even like Ivan Rodriguez. I think he's overrated, both on offense and defense, and arrogant and self-absorbed. But if Baseball Prospectus is right about him, then "pound for pound" as they say on boxing, he's the best.

But, Piazza, despite his uninspired defensive reputation, is a very close second.

Those two are followed by Cochrane, Dickey and then Bench all the way down at #5! Campanella and Carter follow, and then Berra at #8. (As a Yankee fan, I had hoped that Berra would do better, but what can you do?) Hartnett and Fisk round out the top ten.

I don't really know if this means anything or not, but from looking at the DT cards, I can see how Piazza and Ivan Rodriguez gain so much ground. Piazza's offense is SO much better than anyone else's that he can't help but jump way up in the rankings. He's got almost exactly the same number of equivalent runs (EQR) as Bench, but Bench needed about 900 more outs to amass those! As a fielder, Bench was as good as Piazza is bad, with +166 fielding runs above average vs. negative 143 for Piazza. This helps Bench, but you just can't make up for such a tremendous difference in offense with your glove, I think.

This is the same reason that Rico Brogna wasn't as good a firstbaseman as Jason Giambi, or that Pokey Reese is not as good a secondbaseman as Alfonso Soriano. Granted, there's a lot more to the defensive requirements at catcher than there is at first base, but if the methods Baseball Prospectus uses to measure defense and offense are at all reliable, then, we've got to take the numbers seriously, and the numbers say that Piazza has thus far been worth approximately the same number of wins as a catcher, as Bench for his career, in about 100 fewer games as a catcher. Put simply, the bat makes up for the glove.

I-Rod isn't as good a hitter as Bench was, but his defense (amazingly, to me) actually rates better! He's +204 fielding runs above average, and has caught about 350 more games than the First Pudge. Rodriguez has had six seasons of at least +20 Fielding RAA, whereas Bench had only two, at exactly 20, and his overall defensive numbers are hurt by the fact that he was a bad firstbaseman, a bad thirdbaseman and a bad outfielder, but even factoring that out probably doesn't give hime more than a win or two over the course of his career.

Like I said, I don't even like Rodriguez. I originally did this study hoping to prove that Mike Piazza'a offense makes him the Greatest Catcher Ever, despite his defense, but it didn't happen. I found what I found, and even though I didn't necessarily like the result, I've got to be honest with you about it.

Regardless of that, Piazza rates, "pound for pound" as the second greatest catcher in history, right behind Ivan the Terrible at Taking Pitches, and should easily be a first-ballot Hall of Famer when his time comes. If Pudge keeps playing but his defense slips, he could drop down further and that rate of Wins per season as a catcher would fall below the mark that Piazza is now sporting, and with which he's retiring.

But Pudge is still a semi-regular catcher only because he's still a good catcher, if not much of a hitter anymore. Right now he's hitting .264/.307/.386 with one homer and 16 RBIs in 37 games. Last season he became the first player in the American League in over 60 years to qualify for the batting title without walking at least ten times. He's not a good hitter anymore. But just as Piazza's bat made up for his glove, Rodriguez' glove makes up for his bat. When Piazza's bat went south on him, he had no other skills to offer, and had to retire, and eventually, the same will happen to Pudge with his defense.

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20 May 2008

Red Sox Lester Tosses No Hitter...Good Sign for Kansas City???

I'm so tired of hearing about the Red Sox.

First it was beating the Yankees in four straight games after being down 0-3 in the 2004 ALCS.

Then it was winning their first World Series in 86 years.

Then their highly-touted rookie threw a no-hitter while the Yankees' best prospect was touting a 2-3 record and a 5.65 ERA.

Then it was winning another World Series, just three years later. That made them the only multiple-championship team of the new millenium.

And now this.

Not only are the Red Sox in first place. Not only did one of their young pitchers make a successful comeback from cancer last year (he was 4-0 with a 4.57 ERA in 63 innings). But now Jon Lester has thrown a no-hitter.

While the Yankees are in last place.

Granted, it was only against the Royals, who have the worst team OPS and the fewest runs scored in the American League. But still, a no-hitter is a no-hitter. The Royals had not been no-hit since 1973, as Rob Neyer points out. I sure haven't ever tossed one.

Lester's no-no comes in the Red Sox 47th game of the season, and is 73 regular season games since the one that Clay Bucholz threw last September 1st. That seems pretty close to me, so I looked up how frequently no-hitters have happened.

It turns out that they're really not as uncommon as you think. There are literally hundreds of times that teams have been no-hit, 256 of them, in fact, and that doesn't include the games that went into extra innings and got broken up, or official games shortened by rain or darkness, or 8-inning no-no's lost by the away team (like Andy Hawkins in 1990).

Frequently we get to see several no-hitters in the same year. Heck, there were seven in 1990, and then seven more in 1991! Besides those, there hasn't been a year with more than three no-hitters since 1976, but there have been three each in 1977, 1981, 1983, 1993, 1994, 1996, 1999, 2001, and 2007. And both 1981 and 1994 were strike-shortened years, don't forget.

In terms of proximity, that is, how soon a team has someone throw a no-no after a no-no, the Red Sox are far from that record. Before this 73-game span between no-no's the next closest recent span was (get this...) by the Red Sox, between Hideo Nomo's on 4 April 2001 and Derek Lowe's on 27 April 2002.

Back in 1974 and 1975, Nolan Ryan no-hit the Minnesota Twins in the California Angels' 160th game of the season, and then no-hit the Baltimore Orioles in the 49th game of the 1975 season. Ryan also had no-hitters against the Royals and the Tigers, eactly two months apart, in 1973, that one against the Royals being the last time Kansas City was no-hit. (Ironically, the Royals had no-hit the Tigers themselves just twoweeks earlier.) Warren Spahn repeated the feat even quicker, from 16 September 1960 to 28 April 1961, about one month's worth of games.

Back in the 1800's, especially in the old American Association, it was pretty common for the same team to pitch two no hitters in about a week's time. The Louisville Eclipse did it 8 days apart in 1882. The Columbus Buckeyes did it 7 days apart in 1884. The Philadelphia Athletics did it just 5 days apart in 1888.

That, however, is not the quickest repeat no hitter by one pitcher, as that record is held by Johnny Vander Meer, who pitched for the Cincinnati Reds in 1938. He no-hit the Boston Braves on July 11th and then no-hit the Brooklyn Dodgers just 4 days later, on the 15th.

But the quickest repeat of a no-hitter by one team came back in 1917, St. Louis Browns no-hit the Chicago White Sox twice in two days, May 5th and 6th. Granted, there was a double-header on the 6th, and the no-no was in the second game, so no team has ever been no-hit in consecutive games, but still, it's gotta be pretty demoralizing to play three games in two days and only get a hit in one of them. (They lost the other game, too, 8-4.)

Here's the best part: The White Sox won the World Series in 1917.

So, Kansas City fans: Let's hope the Royals get no-hit by Justin Masterson tonight!

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09 May 2008

Cleveland @ Yankees: Musings on Pitch f/x

Technology is pretty darn cool.

I got to see a few moments of the Yankees-Indians game yesterday, and while I'm certainly glad that the Yankees won, well, heck, they're supposed to beat Paul Byrd, so that's not too terribly exciting, is it?

However, in the process I got to see Joba Chamberlain and later Mariano Rivera pitch. With the exception of a double to right field that Bobby "Gold Glove" Abreu mis-played, Rivera was his usual, Automatic self.

During the at-bat of Franklin Guttierez, however, I got a little annoyed whren I saw that Mo's 1-2 fastball, which appeared to be right down Broadway, as they say in New Yawk, was called Ball 2. Disagreeing with the umpires, for good or bad, is nothing new, but then I remembered that with Pitch f/x, we can actually see whether or not they were right. So I wnet online and looked. Here is the image I downloaded from the Guttierez at-bat:

It shows you the trajectory and eventual location of each pitch thrown in the at-bat, and if you're in the module online, you can mouse over each pitch and it will tell you both the release speed and the eventual speed of the pitch as it crossed the plate, plus how much the pitch broke in each direction while en route, and what the result was (i.e. called strike, foul ball, etc.).

Green means "Ball", red means "Strike" and blue means the ball was hit in play somewhere. The numbers in the circles represent the order of the pitches. Here, for example, you can see that Pitch #1 was a ball, knee-high over the middle of the plate, which therefore should have been called a strike. Pitch #3 was a strike (in this case a foul). Pitch #4 was another ball, and this was the one I thought was a strike, though it appears to be right on the inside corner (Guttierez, at 6'2" is tall enough that it the ball was right at his belt, despite what the graphic to the left seems to show). Pitch #5 was in play, a pop-up to Robinson Cano.

And Pitch #2? You can't see #2 because it is literally underneath Pitch #4, in the EXACT SAME LOCATION, only that one was called a strike. Evidently the strikezone gets smaller for home plate umpire Scott Barry as the at-bat goes on. Gonna make you work for it, this guy.

To his credit, Mariano does not let this get to him. Ever the consummate professional, he just smirks, lets it roll off his back, and then throws a third pitch in almost the same spot, inducing Guttierez to pop up on a pitch that was actually off the plate inside, if only by a hair. Rivera's velocity and control appear as good as they've ever been, despite his advancing years.

Contrast this with Mike Mussina, who stared the game for the Yankees. Moose pitched well enough to win, but he did give up three runs in only five innings of work. At the beginning of the game he was throwing in the mid- to low-80's, and the Pitch f/x technology couldn't decide how to categorize his pitches:

As you can see, he's got three pitches at almost exactly the same speed (85-86 mph) with a 7" break and a 14-15" PFX (whatever that means), but two of them are called change-ups and one is a "fast"ball. And it's not that the benchmark for calling something a fastball is 86 mph, either. They called an 84-mph pitch a fastball in the at-bat before this one. Furthermore, pitch #2, at 81-mph looks to me like it's almost exactly the same pitch, with just a little off it, and that one gets called a "slider". Mike Mussina doesn't throw a slider. He has a big overhand curve (what I think used to be known as his knuckle curve, though I don't know if anyone calls it that anymore) and another, little side-arm curveball, with sharper but less pronounced action on it. But not a slider.

Looking at the rest of his outing, I noticed that Pitch f/x frequently calls pitches that seem to have very similar characteristics either sliders or change-ups, and often calls pitches as fast as 85 mph change-ups, and sometimes calls pitches as slow as 83 or 84 mph fastballs, which of course is impossible. At least one of those labels has to be wrong.

While Mussina did manage to dial it up as high as 88 mph once or twice yesterday, most of the time his fastball sits around 84-85 these days, an dof course, that's just the speed at the release point. Wind resistance and spin can slow a pitch down 5-6 mph on its way to the plate, which means that when Mussina throws a fastball at 84 mph, it's really only about 79 mph when it gets to the plate. At the ballpark or on TV, for the sake of the fans, they usually have the radar gun up a few ticks, usually about 2-3 mph, which you can see from almost any game, comparing the Pitch f/x numbers (assuming even those are accurate) and the numbers on the screen. When Joba Chamberlain wa sin to pitch the 8th inning, they were adding as much ad 4-5 mph to his velocity, nearly always calling it 99 mph, while it was really more like 94-97, which is plenty, I think.

Bob Feller

By comparison, here's some video from an old newsreel of Bob Feller pitching, measured at 98.6 mph. But the machine they're using is measuring the speed of the pitch as it crosses the plate, whereas the radar gun readings you typically see on TV and at the ballpark ar at the pitcher's release. Feller must have let it go at around 104 mph!

That's neither here nor there. I just found it interesting.

More important than speed, of course, is location, and as you can see from the Mussina/Carroll at-bat above, all of Moose's pitches were about belt-high, regardless of their speed or type, which is not good. Several of his at-bats look like this, though they're not always this consistent. With that kind of predictability, it's amazing he only gave up four hits.

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05 May 2008

Lehigh Valley IronPigs: Stinking Up the International League Since 2008...

They've got the best name in minor league baseball.

They might also have the worst team.


The Lehigh Valley IronPigs, in their inaugural season as the Philadelphia Phillies AAA affiliate (aPhilly-ate?) currently have a record of just four wins and twenty-eight losses, which easily makes them the worst team in the International League, and for that matter, at the moment, the worst team in all of Minor League Baseball.

How bad is 4-28? Well, their closest competition for the dubious honor of the worst record in baseball comes from south of the border, specifically from the AAA Mexican League Guererros de Oaxaca (Oaxaca Warriors). That team is currently 8-31, in dead last in thier division, or, roughly twice as good as the Iron Pigs (los Piggos de Iron...no, not really).

The IronPigs would have to rattle off 24 consecutive wins just to be able to call themselves "mediocre". That means they would not be allowed to lose another game until almost June.

On opening night, they were stymied for six perfect innings by Kei Igawa, who had a 6.25 ERA in the majors last year, and has a rather pedestrian 4.54 ERA against the rest of the International League this year.

A team this bad does not come around all that often, at least not without some extenuating circumstances. Sure, the 1899 Cleveland Spiders (20-134) might be the worst major league team in history, but they had a good excuse: Their owner bought them specifically so he could siphon off all their decent players to another team he owned. Which is why you're not allowed to do that anymore.

The 1962 Mets were an expansion team playing the year after the majors had just expanded by two teams, so the talent pool was pretty dry at the time. The 1998 Florida Marlins lost 108 games, just one year after winning the World Series, but this was due to their famous fire sale. The 2004 Detroit Tigers lost 119 games, but they were rebuilding and they did play in the World Series just three years later.

Those of course, are only a few examples from the majors. There are a lot more teams in the minors, not to mention all the independent league teams, so I'm sure you could find some examples of pretty bad teams. The Pennsylvania Road Warriors of the Atlantic League, for example, went 23-104 in 2004, worst in the league, mostly because

1) They had to play every game on the road, hence the name, and
B) They sucked.

But the 2008 Lehigh Valley Iron Pigs, despite the new digs and the new name, are not a new team. The Phillies had a AAA team in Ottawa last season, a team that was bad, certainly, but not historically bad. They finished 55-88, last in the Northern Division, 29 games behind the first place Scranton-Wilkes Barre Yankees. The team relocated for the 2008 season, once the new stadium was completed, but most of them seem to have left their talent in Canada.

So far, 14 of the players who were on the team last year have made some, oh, shall we say...contribution? ...to this year's team. But among those 14, only four are 25 or younger and have any real potential to help a major league team someday. These are LHP J.A. Happ, catcher Jason Jamarillo, OF Javon Moran, RHP Joe Bisenius, and among those, only Happ even seems to be hinting that he might end up as something more than a middle reliever or a career backup.

Happ's 2.97 ERA and 42 strikeouts in 39 innings this year belie his 0-4 record, but the fact that he insists on walking a batter every other inning is going to keep him from getting a real shot at the majors anyway. There are also a couple of journeyman, 30-ish relief pitchers who haven't been all that bad this year, though in limited amounts of work.

Brian Mazone, another lefty starter, has three of the team's four wins (along with three losses) and his 3.32 ERA and solid control (only 5 walks in 38 innings) might get him called up to the big leagues some time soon. Already 31 years old, the future is now for Mazone. He's not really a prospect, just a potential stop-gap, and he probably knows that.

Nobody else on the roster is threatening to be good any time soon.

As a team, the IronPigs have a 5.00 ERA, roughly 3/4 of a run higher than the next closest teams, Durham, Columbus and Indianapolis. Pitching coach Rod Nichold played for seven years in the majors, his last in 1995, retiring with an 11-31 record. Like his charges, Nichols walked too many batters and didn't strike out enough, and was washed up by age 31. (At this rate, this will probably prove to be the fate of many of the players on his current team as well.)

If they played in Denver or Colorado Springs, you could chalk that up to the effect of the thin air, but they don't and the hitting is terrible, too.

The team does not have anyone in the top 25 in the International League in Slugging or Batting Average, and their only player anywhere near the league lead in OBP was Val Pascucci, a 29-year old journeyman outfielder, whom they released a few days ago, and who now toils for the Mets' AAA team in New Orleans.

First baseman Andy Tracy (34, a journeyman minor leaguer), leads the team with 5 homers and 16 RBIs, but is only hitting .233, so he hardly looks like a keeper. Another 30-something re-tread, firstbaseman Mike Cervenak, leads the team with 13 runs and is second with three homers. Nobody else has scored more than 7 runs or hit more than 2 homers.

The team is hitting .219 as a whole. Think about that for a second. Julio Franco hit .222 last season with the Mets and Braves, and he just retired. Granted, he is 49 years old now, but if you can't out-play a guy who's almost eligible for AARP, you should get out, dont you think? Players get released outright for hitting .219, and here we've got an entire team that bad. The next closest team is 20 points higher and .239 still sucks.

The IronPigs also have the worst on base percentage and the worst slugging percentage in the league, the fewest walks, fewest doubles, fewest triples, fewest steals, the second fewest homers (by one) and therefore have scored the fewest runs in the International League by a huge margin. Only 79 runs in 32 games, or 2.47/game. The Durham Bulls, the next team up, has scored almost 4 runs per game.

Of course, when you hire Greg Gross as your hitting coach, you're asking for trouble. Gross played for 17 years in the major leagues, and he hit for a decent enough average (.287) with some patience, but he didn't have any power at all. he hit 5 homers in 1977, when he was 24, and then one homer in each of two other seasons. That was it: Seventeen years. Over 4,000 plate appearances. Seven dingers. Seven. That may have worked in the '70s, but it's a different game now. You've got to be able to hit homers once in a while, and their hitting instructor wouldn't know a Home Run from a Home Depot.

So, what does this all mean?

Most teams have their top prospects in AAA, along with a crop of journeymen who have some major league experience, guys who can play in the majors for a few weeks without embarassing themselves, though nobody would expect them to duplicate the star-level production of whomever they're replacing. But the Philadelphia Phillies are basically on their own. If they have an injury to Cole Hamels or Ryan Howard or Pat Burrell, or (God help them) Chase Utley, they're done. There is no help in AAA, so don't come looking. Actually, the way Howard has been hitting, maybe a stint on the DL wouldn't be so terrible for the Phillies. But anyone else, forget it.

It also means that they don't have much (read: anything) from the IronPigs to offer other teams in trade, if they should find that they need a lefty bat off the bench or a short reliever or something for the pennant drive and want to make a trade before the July deadline. That forces them to surrender someone from AA or Single-A to get what they need, which means that they're giving up a younger player, one with more upside.

In the unlikely event that the Lehigh Valley IronPigs continue to lose games at this pace, that is, seven out of every eight contests, they will finish the season with 18 wins and 126 losses. Though it would be a lot of fun to have them to kick around all summer, this probably will not happen. They'll cut loose some of the dreck they've signed, like Oscar Robles and Steve Kline and Kevin Bierne, and as they already have done with Vic Darensbourg and Val Pascucci. They'll find that some of the guys they have in AA right now are worth promoting, and those guys may prove to better the team.

Plus, over 144 games, they're bound to get some breaks here and there. Thy've lost 28 games, but only five of those have really been blow-outs (losing by 6 runs or more, and before you ask, I just came up with that benchmark arbitrarily). They're not always competitive, but they've lost a lot of games by one or two runs, which means that they might have won them with a little luck, or someone coming through in the clutch once in a while.

I'm going to see the Lehigh Valley Catastrophes IronPigs in person this Friday night. Will keep you posted...

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