18 July 2008

Blanton Traded to Phillies, Prospects to Oakland

In the latest move of desperation to shore up teams' rosters for the stretch drive, and Billy Beane's latest move to rid himself of burdensome (or perhaps soon-to-be-injured) starting pitchers, the Philadelphia Phillies have acquired RHP Joe Blanton from the A's for three minor leaguers.

Blanton's only 5-12 this year with a 4.96 ERA, which is even worse than it sounds when you consider that 70% of his innings this year have been pitched in the hitters' hell of McCavernous Coliseum, and he's managed only a 4.63 ERA there. Baseball-Reference.com's stat neutralizer/adjuster sayshe'd have a 5.91 ERA pitching in last year's conditions in Philly. Run scoring is down a little in both leagues this year, so any adjustments made for that would be all but negligible.

That, of course is in the past. What really matters is whether we can expect Blanton to bounce back to his previously useful LAIM form as he pitches for the Phils this year. He shows no particular tendency to pitch better or worse in the second half, with a second-half ERA only 0.31 lower, much of which can be acocunted for by the rough first half of 2008. Historically, he's gone from 4.05 in April to 5.81 in May, all the way down to 3.29 in June, only to go back up to 4.81 in July. He cruises along at 2.67 in August only to rocket back up to 4.75 in September. He's all over the place, with the only pattern being that there is no pattern.

What he does show is a tremendous reliance upon the miracles of his home park to keep his ERA in check, a full run split from a 3.79 ERA in Oakland to a 4.78 ERA on the road, and this over a significant sample size, over 750 innings total. This does not bode well for him in Philly, where Citizens Bank Park increases run scoring by about 4 or 5% compared to a neutral park, and Oakland is anything but neutral.

His walk rate is up almost a full walk per nine innings from last year, but that's just about his career average, and still well below average. He has not allowed an unusual number of in-play balls to become hits, either, with an opponent .304 batting average on balls in play, just about the league norm. The real problem has been that he's hardly striking anybody out, only 4.39/9 innings, almost a full whiff below his pre-2008 career average, and way below the 5.48 he posted last year.

In short: He's lost something. I don't know what, exactly, but it's real, and it's not likely to come back any time soon. Oakland's front office realized that this, combined with his pending arbitration eligibility, would make him suddenly both expensive and ineffective, something a small market club like the A's cannot afford.

So they got what they could for him, when they could.

LHP Josh Outman (Double-A)

He's 23 years old, 6'1", 180 lbs, and he can throw about 95 mph. And he's left-handed, so he's desirable, even though he walks a batter every other inning. Baseball Prospectus' commentary on him two years ago suggested that the control problems may have been due to his trying to learn to pitch with a more conventional motion*, but this is now his fourth year at that, and it seems like his control is getting worse instead of better.

*In high school and college he used a method developed by his father, Fritz, who wrote a book called Over Powering Pitching, describing a methodology that both increases maximum velocity and lowers injury risk. Obviously, he was sufficiently successful in college that the Phillies drafted him in the 10th round...and then promptly told him to scrap it. He still throws hard and strikes batters out, but his inability to keep the free passes in check will keep him from becoming a useful starting pitcher in the majors, and he may instead be relegated to LOOGy duties. There are worse fates, of course, but it's sad that so many "baseball people" are so closed minded, and that others suffer because of it. I personally would love to see someone using the Outman Methodology, Dr. Mike Marshall's Maxline approach, or some other scientifically-based pitching style make it to (and succeed in) the majors, but it will probably never happen.

With that said, Outman is the top prospect in this deal, and still could have a long career as a lefty out of the pen, if not much more than that. Southpaws who can hit 95 on the gun will get plenty of chances.

2B Adrian Cardenas is only 20, and has hit .303/.365/.430 between Rookie ball and two levels of Single A in the last two plus seasons. He's got a little patience (averaging a walk every ten at-bats or so) and steals bases effectively (48 for 58 in 234 career games) if not often. His modest home run totals may not look like much, but the nine homers he hit last year in Lakewood tied him for second on the team, and his batting average, slugging, OBP and OPS were all in the top 11 or higher in the Florida State League this year before the trade.

Baseball Prospectus called him an "outstanding hitting prospect" in their first comments on him for their 2007 book, and nothing he did last year changed their minds. This year is more of the same, though they anticipated a position change due to his poor defense at second. If he can improve that, he would be the heir apparent to the Keystone in Oakland now, but he's still probably two years away, at best. Still, a very good pickup.

OF Matt Spencer (Single-A) 6'4", 225 lbs, hits and throws lefty. He hit .378/.448/.616 at Arizona State and led the Sun Devils to the 2007 NCAA championship, got picked by the Phillies in the third round of the draft...and quickly turned into a non-prospect. He hit only .263 in the NY-Penn League the rest of 2007, and though he led the team with nine homers (congratu-freakin'-lations) he walked only about once every five games, and his paltry .320 OBP was artificially supported by getting plunked five times.

He's 22 now and should be destroying the unproven talent in the FSL, but instead he's hitting only .249 (including a-buck-ninety-one aganst lefties) and has lost most of his only asset: his power. He's hit only 6 homers all year and is "slugging" .367, which is like Ryan Garko without the cool, barbarian-sounding name. And the major league contract. Basically he's a throw-in.

But make no mistake, the Oaklands got themselves a solid hitting prospect in Cardenas and may have a lefty reliever or more in Outman (not to mention another cool name) plus whatever Spencer does, for a starting pitcher whose best asset was the park in which he'll no longer pitch. Oh, and who's soon eligible to start making millions of dollars just for having been in the majors for the last three years.

How does Beane keep doing this?

Stumble Upon Toolbar

16 July 2008

All Star Game Almost Another Tie, Needs More Incentive

Are they listening?

Hello? Are the All-Star managers listening at all?

"This One Counts."

Or so we're told, and yet the managers continue to utilize their respective rosters as though their main concern is "to avoid stepping on anybody's toes", rather than "to win the damn game". Last night's contest, and epic, tension-filled, 15-inning record-breaker, featured 11 NL pitchers and 12 AL pitchers. Every pitcher on each team was used.

Boston skipper Terry Francona was supposedly checking with J.D. Drew to see if he could pitch in a pinch, though I'm sure nobody expected the second coming of Christy Mathewson. Rockies/NL All-Star manager Clint Hurdle was said to have asked David Wright the same question. I wonder if he regretted not choosing Cardinals' outfielder Rick Ankiel for his roster, who at least has some experience as a pitcher in the majors, disastrous though it may have been.

With the embarrassing 2002 "Kissing your Sister" All-Star Game not all that far off in the rear view mirror, Major League Baseball drives on as though nothing is wrong. The managers were reminded that they're supposed ot be trying to win this thing, which seems to me like reminding an archer that his goal is to hit the target, not just use up all his arrows so he doesn't have to carry that heavy quiver all the way back to the storage shed.

Nevertheless, to sweeten the pot, they decided that awarding home-field advantage in the World Series to the league that wins the All-Star game would be enough. Clearly, it's not. Neither league's manager has been the same in consecutive years since before this rule was instituted in 2002, so it's tough to argue that this incentive has any meaning at all. Clint Hurdle's team is clearly not going to repeat, as they currently sit near the bottom of the sad-sack NL West division. What does he care who gets home field advantage? He'll be watching the World Series from his couch, just like you and me.

Most of the players in the game will not be in the World Series. The Cubs had a record nine All Stars this year, yet they did not encompass even one third of the NL squad, so even if the team with the best record in the league gets to the World Series (which doesn't happen as often as you would hope or expect), well, their representatives can only do so much to assure that they get the advantage come October. If they get there.

Since they started the All Star game in 1933, there have been 11 contests that went into extra innings, out of 78 games played. That's more than 14%, which is about a one-in-seven chance. Given those odds, you'd think the managers would prepare better, leave themselves a little wiggle room. Nope. Instead, they use their starting pitcher for two innings, maybe just one, and rarely use anyone else for more than an inning or two, and then only when they start to sweat about the game going into extra innings.

Don't misunderstand me. I'm not saying that they should play this like a regular game, trying to get six or seven innings out of their starters. That wouldn't be fair to anyone, especially the pitcher, who's not used to facing an entire lineup of world-class players. Three innings is probably enough. But then what's wrong with letting the next guy pitch three innings? Then you can mix and match for the last two, assuming a regular 9-inning contest, and still have three or four pitchers left over in case of a tie after nine.

There has never been a time when this game was managed like a real game, no matter what anyone tells you. Right from the beginning, it was managed like an exhibition. In fact, there have only been two games in All Star history in which one of the starters went more than three innings. One of them was Hall-of-Famer Lefty Gomez, who went six (!) in 1935, a record that still stands.

The other was Spud Chandler, who went four innings in 1942 against a WWII-depleted NL squad. That team featured 2B Jimmy Brown (.256 with 1 homer), Aarky Vaughan (.277 with 2 homers), and SS Eddie Miller, who hit .243 that year with an adjusted OPS of 81, i.e. almost 20% below average. Pete Reiser batted third, with a .310 average, 10 homers and 64 RBIs that year. The backups weren't all that great, either: Billy Herman, Mickey Owen, Pee Wee Reese, Terry Moore, Willard Marshall, and someone named Danny Lithwhiler. Not exactly threatening.

Fun fact: The other five innings of that game were all pitched by Detroit's Al Denton, who went 7-13 on the year. Another fun fact: The Cardinals' Mort Cooper started (and lost) the game, throwing to his brother and St. Louis teammate, Walker. That's the only combo of All-Star brothers who didn't play the same position, and they did it twice (1943, too).

Anyway, back to my point: There is no reason to think that the managers should try to get 6 or 7 innings from an All-Star starting pitcher. It's never happened before, and it shouldn't now. But three or four is hardly unreasonable. As the teams went into extra innings last night, Terry Francona had to look past

  • Joe Saunders (averaging 6.7 IP/start with a 3.20 ERA),
  • Roy Halladay (7.6 IP/GS, 2.71 ERA),
  • Ervin Santana (6.8 IP/GS, 3.34 ERA) and
  • Justin Duchscherer (6.8, 1.82)

Why? Because he had already used them. For one inning each.

Halladay, who had three days of rest and who averages 107 pitches per start, threw nine pitches. Nine.

"Thanks, Roy. Nice effort. No, that's OK, we don't need to win. Go take a shower. Well, even if you didn't get sweaty."

After six years of this home-field-advantage-in-the-World-Series silliness, it's obvious that something has to be done. My proposal is as follows:

Go back to what motivates people: Money.

Back in the day, the players used to really try hard to win this thing for two reasons. One of them was that they had a sense of league pride, something that has essentially disappeared with the advent of free agency. But the other was money. Players got a bonus for winning the All Star game, and since their salaries were not so exorbitant, that bonus actually meant something. Let's get back to that.

Major League Baseball probably already makes a killing at the All Star Game, but they could be making even more. StubHub was selling bleacher tickets for over $1000 apiece yesterday, so imagine what box seats would be worth! Players get bonuses for being selected to the All-Star Game, which are written into their contracts. Let's do away with those, or at least limit them, so that the real money can be doled out to those who actually win the game, not just those who play.

Maybe a $500,000 bonus for each player on the winning team? That's $15 million, but hey, that's pocket change for a $4 billion industry like MLB. If they sell tickets at an average of $500 apiece, that's $27.5 million right there, just for filling Yankee Stadium! And that doesn't include concessions, television rights, advertising, Home-Run Derby revenues, or any of the other things that MLB does to squeeze every last nickel out of the American Consumer.

Better yet, since it's really the manager who's the problem, not the players, give a $5 million bonus to the manager of the team that wins. Maybe an extra mil to each of his coaches. That's an incentive, since most managers don't make anywhere near that much money. Sure, it's kind of mercenary, but heck, these guys are professionals. They're not doing it for free now. Let's motivate them where we know they'll feel it: In the wallet.

Stumble Upon Toolbar

15 July 2008

No "Cheap Seats" In New Yankee Stadium

New York Post columnist Phil Mushnick laments the staggering increase in prices for some of the tickets to the Yankees' and Mets' new digs next year.

Well, not the price increases per se, but the fact that none of the nationally telecast games feature any discussion of said increases.

But what prevents McCarver and other national commentators who work Mets and Yankees games from adding that the cost of tickets to these new parks will price many longtime and even lifetime patrons right out of their seats and even out of the parks?

What prevents them from simply stating, "By the way, the cost of many of the tickets will be staggering"?

The story's out. And it's a sensational story. So why the silence?

Oh, I dunno...maybe because they don't really care? McCarver or Jon Miller or anyone else who does commentary on a baseball game is supposed to be talking about the game. It's only on the FOX post-season broadcasts that anybody pays any attention to who's in the stands, and then it's only to notice celebrities in the stands, to plug the new season of Lost or The Hills or CSI: Ulaanbaatar.

The announcers aren't paying for their tickets. They're not reporters, and probably aren't even aware of what tickets will cost in Yankee Stadium next year. If Phil Mushnick wants to complain about that stuff, he's free to do so. Or, alternatively, he's free to try to get a job as a color commentator on a national network, so he can air his complaints there. But I think he'll find that there's not much tolerance for that kind of thing. people tune in to those broadcasts to watch and listen to the game, and don't much want to hear how much more money it's going to cost to attend such a game next year.

Think about it: The people watching the game on TV are, by definition, not at the game. Most of them won't attend a game all year. They either live too far away, or can't afford the time or the money or both. And those who do attend games probably already know that their prices are going up. They know the new park is going to be smaller, which means that the prices will be that much higher, besides the normal increase you would expect with a new park. They have to choose whether they're going to

A) pony up the money for the kind of seats they usually buy,

2) spend the kind of money they usually spend for lesser quality seats, or

iii) spring for MLB.tv or satellite television.

There really aren't any other options, and that's true for season ticket holders, too. Well, except that if someone who has two box seats this year decides to go for the satellite TV deal instead, he can buy tickets to a game or two through an online broker and then drive to the game in the brand new Lexus he bought with his savings. What a pity.

I don't have much sympathy for people who can afford to spend half my salary on season tickets but can't afford to spend all of it. I do, however, feel that the casual fan is being squeezed out. I am more than a casual fan myself, but due to my distance from the team I follow, I only attend games at Yankee Stadium once or twice a year, and the rest of the time I have to make do with an occasional Phillies game or a minor league game when I'm on the road for work or something.

My mom's a lifelong Yankee fan, now in her, um...well..she reads this blog, so I can't tell you how old she is. But she 's old enough to remember the one time the Yankees lost to Brooklyn in the World Series. Let's just leave it at that. Anyway, I got to take her to her first game ever about ten years ago, when I was right out of college. Back then, I could afford to go to three or four or five games a year.

While I was still in college in 1994, and almost literally dirt poor, I got to take two friends to a game on a Wednesday night, back when "half price nights" for students applied to any seat in the park, not just the seats that you need a Sherpa to reach. We paid about $12.50 each for (half-price) seats in the Main Section, right behind first base. Those seats cost $100 each now, and no discounts are available unless you have seven grand burning a hole in your pocket and you want to buy a full season plan. Oh, and that's for one seat.

Another time I went with one friend and got seats right behind home plate for $25/each, seats that now cost $400/each.

Now I'm married and my wife and I make almost four times as much as I was making then, but we can only afford to take my mom to about one game a year because the tickets are ten times as expensive. I have no delusions about entitlement. There are much greater problems in the world than how many baseball games per year someone like me gets to attend. I wish things were different, that there weren't so many people these days who wanted to go to Yankee games.

But I also understand that there are market forces at work here about which I cannot do anything. The Consumer Price Index in cities in the northeast has risen about 53% since 1993, while ticket prices have gone up, in some cases, 1500%. Sure, part of that is due to the legalized monopoly the baseball owners have, but most of it is just due to demand. The supply has decreased (since the Yankees don't sell those seats out in the black in center field any more) and the demand has increased because the Yankees have been good, so they can afford to charge more money for the same product.

When I travel to other cities, I find that the demand for tickets there is not nearly as high. I was in Los Angeles a few weeks ago and had hoped to go to a Dodgers-LAnahfornia game. Alas, my work schedule wore me out and I had nobody to go to the game with, so I passed up a chance to see a no-hitter in person, even though the other team won the game. Woe is me, right? Well, me and Jered Weaver.

But I looked for tickets, and if I had wanted to, I could have bought two tickets right behind home plate for the Friday night game. Not from a broker/scalper, but from the Dodgers themselves. Granted, those seats were $400/each, so it wasn't all that difficult to turn them down, but still. There was no shortage of tickets still available at face value, from the Dodgers, just days before the interleague rivalry. In New York, tickets for the Subway Series get snatched up within nanoseconds of when they go on sale. Not just the good seats: ALL of them. Brokers are already selling them for ten times their face value within minutes. The demand is simply higher there, and therefore so are the prices.

Rob Neyer commented on Mushnick's article and had this to say:

Yes, baseball teams are businesses. But they're not run like businesses. Owners routinely lose money on purpose. Owners benefit from being parts of a legally sanctioned monopoly that should, by almost any standard, be illegal. Owners buy teams not because they want to make money, but because they like baseball (usually) and because they want to see their names in the newspapers. Baseball owners derive immense benefits -- many of them falling under the heading of psychic income -- from their teams, far different from those enjoyed by the owners of, say, trucking companies and widget factories.

So, don't tell me it's all about the free market, because it's not and shouldn't be. I don't expect the owner of my favorite team to lose money every year, but I do expect him to have a heart. And that includes somehow ensuring that fans who can't afford $70 for one ticket can still occasionally watch a game without needing binoculars.

I'm not an economist, but then neither is Rob. While I think that what he said about teams losing money may have been true years ago, I doubt very seriously that many - if any - of the owners are actually losing money any longer. Thirty five years ago, when George Steinbrenner's group bought the Yankees from CBS, they were paying another network to broadcast their games! Those guys were losing money. Baseball owners didn't know what they had in baseball, how much money there was to be made. Now they do, and they've spent the last ten years or so making up for lost time.

Today's owners are smarter, at least about the business end of things, if not about how to develop talent. Whether they are obviously making money is tough to determine, because rich people can afford to hire expensive, sneaky accountants and attorneys, but it seems to me that in a monopoly like Major League Baseball, which collects something like $4 Billion in revenue per year, some of which is shared even with inept teams like the Royals, it's hard to imagine that owners would not be in it for the money.

Sure, they like owning a baseball team more than they'd probably enjoy owning a mid-range paper supply company, but they get some money from it, too. Probably a lot of money. Many of the teams are owned by groups of people, and many of those people remain predominantly anonymous. They're not in it for the ancillary benefits. They're in it because they like baseball, AND they like making money, not necessarily in that order.

Ticket prices have gotten to the levels they have because that is what the market will bear. Until people start saying "no" a little more, nothing - absolutely nothing - is going to change. Owners have the right to charge whatever the hell they please, and consumers have the right to tell them to take their $400 box seats and put them where the sun don't shine.

And I don't mean in the back of the Loge in right field.

Stumble Upon Toolbar

09 July 2008

Rich Harden-to-Cubs Trade Analysis: Don't Think the A's Got Cheated

Well, that didn't take long.

Despite the patently transparent protestations of Cubs general manager Jim Hendry that he would not ramp up his efforts after the big CC Sabathia deal, the Chicago Nationals have acquired their own pitcher for the stretch drive, getting Rich Harden from the Oakland A's in a 6-man swap. The Cubs get RHPs Harden and Chad Gaudin in exchange for RHP Sean Gallagher, OFs Matt Murton and Eric Patterson, and minor league catcher Josh Donaldson. (It's being incorrectly reported as John Donaldson in some places, which would really be a bad deal for the Athletics, since John Donaldson is either 65 years old, or dead, depending on which one you're talking about.)

Of course, some parties didn't think this could happen, and if Oakland had waited for the kind of package the Tribe got in return for Sabathia, it never would have. But in the end A's GM Billy Beane settled for less than anyone thought it would take to pry Harden away from him.

Make no mistake, though. If we've learned anything about Billy Beane in the last ten years or so, it's that the man is no fool. He got the best deal he thought he could get for Harden, or he wouldn't have traded him. Actually, for Harden and Gaudin.

Rich Harden has talent coming out of his ears. Maybe you remember him coming to the majors in 2003, a fresh-faced 21-year old with a sizzling fastball, a hard curve, a nasty slider...and, it would eventually turn out, a penchant for getting hurt. He struck out ten Devil Rays as a rookie, won 11 games as a sophomore, and looked every bit like the Next Big Thing in Oakland, following in the footsteps of Hudson, Zito and Mulder (not to mention Dave Stewart, Vida Blue, and Catfish), but alas, 'twas not to be. Harden simply could not stay on the mound, and the Oaklands really weren't even counting on him to come back this year, mostly just hoping he'd be healthy enough to trade by the deadline. Who knew they'd be within striking distance of the division lead by the All-Star break?

A foolish GM would think that Harden has suddenly discovered some magical ability to stay healthy, some Fountain of Youth -or at least Health- to which he'd never before had access. Billy Beane is not a foolish GM, so he can clearly not choose the wine in front of you. Jim Hendry may not be a foolish GM either, just one who happens to be holding on to a tenuous grasp of first place with a club desperate for a World Series win, which the Cubs have not had in (all together now...) 100 years.

So he looked to trade harden while the young righty still had some value. And while he was at it, he got rid of Chad Gaudin, a young, short righty who's A) playing over his head and 2) been in the majors for parts of six seasons and is therefore about to become expensive.

For his trouble, Beane got the following:

Josh Donaldson: A 22-year old Single-A catcher who hit .346/.470/.605 last year in 49 games in Boise. (He was 0-for-2 with two walks as a DH in the game I saw there last summer.) Nobody seems to think he's injured or anything, so he should eventually get out of the slump he's currently struggling through (hitting only .217 through 63 games this season) and become the top catching prospect the Cubs thought he would be when they drafted him in the supplemental phase of the first round last season.

Matt Murton: A 26-year old right-handed hitting outfielder with a decent batting eye, who has not yet displayed much power or speed. On a bad team, he might be a starter in centerfield. On a good team, he's a 4th outfielder who can pinch hit because he won't go up there swinging for the fences. On the Cubs, with Soriano and Fukudome on the corners and Reed Johnson playing center, he's taking up a roster spot. Baseball Prospectus 2008 called him "a good bet to be traded".

Eric Patterson: Younger brother of Corey, he's a 25-year old outfielder/secondbaseman who has bounced back and forth between Chicago and AAA Iowa this year, where he's hit .320/.358/.517. He's only hit .237 in the majors, which is why he hasn't stuck, but then if you only played once a week or so, you'd be rusty too. In the minors, he hit for average, took walks, stole bases effectively and even hit a few homers. If the Oaklands (currently playing .247-hitting Mark Ellis at the keystone) decide to give him a chance at the second base job, he could be pretty useful for a few years.

Sean Gallagher: The real jewel of the trade, 22-year old Gallagher is a big righty (6'2", 225-235, depending on your source) who's dominated the minor leagues. Over parts of five seasons, he's gone 27-12 with 482 strikeouts and a 2.71 ERA in 481 innings. He's walked only about 3.5 per nine innings and has allowed an obscenely low 0.49 homers per nine frames.

The numbers are all there, but the scouts don't love him, or haven't, because he didn't have a great fastball and they at least used to think he was a little overweight. One report on MLB.com indicated that he lost 30 pounds this spring, or presumably, coming into the spring, and when you see him now, he looks like he's in fine shape, probably not more than about 205. More important, his fastball now clocks in at 92-93 mph and can hit 95 on occasion. He still has the sharp, 12-to-6 curve, plus a slider and change he can throw for strikes. What he has not yet shown in the majors is stamina, as he's averaged just 5.4 innings per start this season. That should come with time, though, and moving from the Friendly Confines to McCavernous Coliseum should only help his progress into a very good starting pitcher.

In total, the Cubs got two pitchers who can help them get to - and maybe even win - the playoffs this year, but who will be expensive to retain, too expensive for a club with Oakland's modest budget.

The Oaklands got a starting pitcher they can plug in right now, to go along with Justin Duchscherer, Dana Eveland, Greg Smith, and Joe Blanton. The names may not be all that familiar to you, but the four of them have combined for a 3.48 ERA in 434 innings this year, and Blanton, at least, hasn't even pitched up to his capabilities yet. They got a useful third or fourth outfielder, a potential starting secondbaseman and a minor league catcher who has shown the ability to hit like Mike Piazza, at least for a little while in the low minors.

In time, when Harden is either hurt or playing for another team, and oakland is still reaping the benefits of one or more of their acquisitions, I don't think A's fans will still be complaining.

Stumble Upon Toolbar

07 July 2008

Sabathia Deal Helps Both Brewers and Indians

C.C. Sabathia, the reigning American League Cy Young Award winner, has apparently been traded to the Milwaukee Brewers for prospects, according to various sources. The names of the prospects have not been officially announced, as the deal is not officially complete yet, but everyone seems to agree that Double-A outfielder Matt LaPorta is the top name in the group.

With the Tribe looking up at the rest of the AL Central and no hope of re-signing Sabathia during the season, they're folding their cards early in an effort to get a decent return on their trade.

Sabathia gives the Brewers a legitimate ace for their rotation right when they need it most. Forget the lackluster 6-8 record. The Tribe has averaged just 4.41 Runs per game when he pitches and he was inexplicably terrible in April. Since then, however, he has a 2.39 ERA and has walked only 16 batters while striking out 90 in 90 innings. He immediately becomes the #1A pitcher on the Brewers' staff, along side Ben Sheets, just ahead of Manny Parra and way ahead of Dave Bush and Jeff "LAIM" Suppan.

More important, it keeps the likes of Carlos Villanueva and Seth McClung in the bullpen and/or the minor leagues. And that upgrade (from Seth McClung to Cy Young) could get the Brewers to the playoffs for the first time in a quarter of a century. After this year, however, he's anybody's free agent, and the Yankees will likely be trying as hard as anyone to sign him.

For their part, the Indians are rebuilding, and they know it. They don't seem to be getting any major league-ready talent in the trade, though some of it is very close.

LaPorta, according to Baseball Prospectus, had been considered a top power hitter in college but was drafted low after an oblique injury ruined his junior year. Returning to college for his fourth season paid big dividends, as he was drafter #7 overall by Milwaukee last year, and so far he has not disappointed them. He hit .304/.369/.696 in 30 games combined in 2007, split between the Rookie Pioneer League and Low-A West Virginia in the Sally League. This year has been spent entirely at Huntsville where he's hit .291/.404/.584 with 20 homers and 66 RBIs in 82 games to date.

The Southern League is known as a hitters' league, and Huntsville is a hitters' park within that league. Currently, five of the top 9 players in OPS in the Southern League are on the Huntsville team, and two others are in the top 30. That's either a remarkable coincidence, a remarkable assemblage of hitting talent, or a park/league effect. So you'd like to discount those numbers a little.

With that said, however, the Reds' Joey Votto had similar numbers in the Southern League last year and he's already holding his own in a major league lineup. Two years ago Evan Longoria had similar numbers and he's on the AL Final Man ballot with a chance to be an All-Star as a rookie. In 2005, Dan Uggla put up very similar numbers playing for Tennessee, and though few people gave him much of a shot at success in the big leagues, for the exact same reasons, Uggla is an All-Star and currently is one off the MLB lead in homers. So there.

All of that is to say that LaPorta should be a very good hitter when he reaches the majors, perhaps as soon as next year. He's not a good defensive OF ("Ron Kittle-bad" according to BP) but with the Indians' firstbasemen either injured, struggling or both, that may not matter. He was a firstbaseman in college and could easily return to that role. More easily than Travis Hafner could learn to play left field or Ryan Garko could learn to, I dunno... hit.

It appears that AAA southpaw Zach Jackson, and AA RHP Rob Bryson are also part of the deal, along with a PTBNL. Earlier rumors had suggested Single-A 3B Taylor Green, Single-A OF Lorenzo Cain, and Keith Law suggests that Green might be the PTBNL.

Jackson pitched a few games in June and July of 2006 in the majors, after some solid work in Class-A, but he was overmatched and got busted back down to the minors, where he'd been ever since. Though unimpressive and mired in the minors for the rest of 2006 and all of 2007, he did pitch a couple of innings for the Brewers in May of this year. Otherwise he's spent 2008 helping to keep the Pacific Coast League's reputation as a hitter's haven intact. He's 1-5 with a 7.85 ERA and has given up 10 homers in only 57 innings. Hitters' league or not, a homer every 5 or 6 innings would be lousy if you were pitching on the Moon. He's a throw-in.

Bryson, on the other hand, is a real talent. He's only got a 4.25 ERA in Double-A right now, mostly because he's a little wild (22 walks in 53 innings) but he's fanned 73 batters, has only allowed three homers, and has been much better as a reliever (3.96 ERA) than a starter (4.82). He's only 20, so he could still reign in the wildness a bit, but if not, his lack of command will prevent him from becoming a good starting pitcher. However, he has the stuff and the stamina to be an excellent long man out of the bullpen or a top-notch closer.

Green, if he is the fourth player in the deal, gives the Indians a real prospect at the hot corner for the first time since Jim Thome came up in the early 1990's. He's hitting .295/.380/.444 with 10 homers in 302 at-bats, but he's also displayed impressive patience, with 42 walks (2nd in the league) and only 42 strikeouts in that span. His 54 RBIs are also second in the league, and his 10 homers place him 9th. He's not a sure-thing kind of prospect, but he should be a productive major league hitter in a few years. He'll be 22 in November, which means he has plenty of time, and he's a lefty who can hit lefties, with a .344 opponent average this year against southpaws that should help keep him from getting platooned whenever he does arrive.

The Brewers have a press conference scheduled for noon to announce the actual deal.

Stumble Upon Toolbar

01 July 2008

National League Will Win the 2008 All Star Game

OK, so it wasn't "tomorrow" but here's my NL All-Star Ballot, for what it's worth:

First Base: Berkman, L., HOU
Second Base: Uggla, D., FLA
Third Base: Jones, C., ATL
Shortstop: Ramirez, H., FLA
Catcher: McCann, B., ATL
Outfielder: Braun, R., MIL, Burrell, P., PHI, Lee, C., HOU

There are not a lot of votes here that are very difficult to defend. Nevertheless, I'll go through them one at a time.

Lance Berkman leads the entire National League in slugging percentage, OPS, Runs, total bases, extra base hits, times on base, and several sabermetric categories, such as VORP, Adjusted Batting Runs, Runs Created and Batting Wins. He has been, put simply, the best player in baseball up to this point. If he doesn't make the All-Star team, they shouldn't have one.

I assume that Berkman's monster year has netted him the top spot in the vote getting, but now that the balloting is closed, MLB's holding its cards close to the vest and will not divulge the All-Star rosters until Sunday. Honorable mention to Albert Pujols, who's having a great year despite the fact that his elbow might snap in two at any moment, and Adrian Gonzalez, who's somehow managed to hit 21 homers despite playing half of his games in a 1:8 scale replica of the Grand Canyon. Good to see him finally living up to the hype that comes with being a #1 overall draft pick.

Chase Utley has been great, but when you adjust for the effects of their home parks, Dan Uggla has been even better. The two are tied for the MLB lead with 23 homers and are both slugging over .600. Utley's 8-for-8 in stolen base attempts, while Uggla's 4-for-5, and both are decent, if not Gold Glove, fielders. Utley, however, was blowing away all of the competition, leading the major leagues with over 2.6 million votes, last I checked, more than Jeter or A-Rod. He's certainly a solid choice to start the game, and Uggla should have no trouble making the reserve squad.

Chipper Jones is hitting .391. Three-ninety-one. And with power and walks and stuff, too. Unfortunately, a hamstring injury has cooled him off a bit, as he's hit only .244 over his last 16 games, albeit still with lots of walks and a few homers. David Wright is having a decent year, but after generally increasing his percentage numbers across the board for the first three and a half years of his major league career, he's taken a decided step back, and the New York fans have not been voting for him as much as you might expect. Still, he's likely to make it as abackup, but I didn't vote for him because of, well... Three-ninety-one.

Hanley Ramirez was holding onto a slim lead over Miguel Tejada in the voting department, but in terms of stats, there's little comparison. Miggy's .286/.324/.446 line is decent, but his adjusted OPS is only about 3% above average, while Ramirez is 46% better than the norm. Add to that the fact that Hanley is handy on the basepaths (20 steals in 25 attempts, compared to just 6-for-9 by Tejada) and that both players are pretty bad with the leather, and there's no comparison. Jimmy Rollins has been injured and underperformed, but was still within striking distance the last time they let the vote totals see the light of day. Jose Reyes would be an excellent addition to the squad, and should be.

The outfield is all-power, all the time. Ryan Braun, Pat Burrell and Carlos Lee are all in the top 10 in the NL in extra base hits with 42 or more, and though you'd like a little more patience from Lee and (especially) Braun, the threat of three guys who could readily hit one out will loom large over the AL pitchers' heads. Yankee Stadium is not the cavernous righty-killer it once was, and all three of these guys is capable of smashing one into monument park if a pitcher makes a mistake.

Unfortunately, those guys are all left fielders, so if the NL squad wants some defense in center, they'll have to look to Carlos Beltran or someone like Aaron Rowand. (Hey, someone from the Giants has to make it, right? More likely they'll start Alfonso Soriano there, as he was leading NL outfieldrs in votes at last tally. He's mis-cast there, despite his speed, but he'll be OK for a couple of innings, which is as much as these guys play anymore anyway.

Looking at the big picture, despite the fact that the AL is generally considered better than the NL, this may be the year that the NL breaks is consecutive losses streak in the MLB All-Star Game, which started in 1997. There's a lot of really impressive options for filling up the NL bench, and a lot of really great players leading the vote getting (or at least there were, two days ago).

The American League is a different story. The voting has been dominated by Yankees and Red Sox, and this is not always a good thing.

  • Kevin Youkilis was leading AL firstbasemen in votes when I wrote my last article on the subject, despite being demonstrably inferior to Jason Giambi, and arguably Justin Morneau.
  • Dustin Pedroia was leading the AL secondbasemen, and while he's been on a tear of late and is hitting .311 with nine homers, he's clearly inferior to Ian Kinsler, at least this year. Worse yet, Robinson Cano was not far behind, and he's having a horrible season. If somehow Pedroia or Youk should miss the cut, Red Sox and All-Star manager Terry Francona will undoubtedly put them on the team anyway. Brian Roberts would be a much better choice to back up the winner.
  • Derek Jeter was leading the entire American League in votes and will be the AL starting shortstop despite his pedestrian offensive numbers, while Michael Young and Jhonny Peralta will likely miss out. Francona will probably choose his own guy, Julio Lugo, who's hitting .268 with one homer and playing atrocious defense.
  • The catcher's spot was only tenuously held by Joe Mauer, with Jason Varitek right on his heels, and Jorge Posada not far behind. If Mauer holds on to win it, and depending on how the rest of the roster shakes out, Francona may again pick his own man instead of a more productive hitter like Dioner Navarro or A.J. Pierzynski.
  • Though soon-to-be-divorced Alex Rodriguez hald a firm grasp on the starting job at the hot corner, second place was held by Boston's Mike Lowell, who could get tabbed for the backup spot there. Lowell is having a solid season but is not as good as Rays rookie Evan Longoria. More important, if Francona wants some late-inning defense, Scott Rolen might be a better choice. Again, someone from the Blow Jays has to make it, so why not him?
  • In the outfield, though Manny Ramirez doesn't really deserve to be the leading vote-getter, he's certainly no slouch, except, you know, when he's slouching. But be that as it may, he'll do, as will Josh Hamilton. In third place, however, was Ichiro Suzuki, who's an exciting player to watch, but is only about the 8th best outfielder/DH in the AL this year, well behind not just Hamilton and Ramirez, but also Milton Bradley, Grady Sizemore, Carlos Quenton, Johnny Damon, Jermaine Dye, Hideki Matsui and (I hate to admit it) J.D. Drew. Ichiro's speed may come in handy, but not as handy as someone who can do something besides hit singles and win the hearts and minds of every voter in Japan. Again, this probably means that he'll pick Drew and/or Jacoby Ellsbury if Ichiro wins the third spot in the outfield.
  • The DH spot, while being unfairly led by Big Papi and followed by Hideki Matsui, both of whom are injured, should not be a problem. As Papi won't be able to play, Francona can pick anyone he wants, and may even surprise us by going with the smart choice of Aubrey Huff.

All told, these bizarre voting practices, combined with the blatant nepotism usually displayed by the All-Star managers, have really put the AL in a bind. To his credit, the last time he managed an All-Star game, Francona only picked one Red Sock for his reserves (Matt Clement), but then he had four starters that year as well. If he feels that one or more of his players was cheated out of a spot they deserved, he'll likely pick them over someone who might actually be a better option.

Time will tell, but I'm going on the record now as saying that the NL will have home field advantage in the World Series this year.

See? I told you that was a stupid idea.

Stumble Upon Toolbar

American League 2008 All Star Ballot

Tomorrow is the last day for online All Star voting. I know because I get about two dozen emails per day telling me so. (OK, more like one.) I voted today, and thought it might be interesting to discuss why I voted as I did. here's my AL Ballot:

First Base: Giambi, J., NYY
Second Base: Kinsler, I., TEX
Third Base: Rodriguez, A., NYY
Shortstop: Jeter, D., NYY
Catcher: Posada, J., NYY
Outfielder: Damon, J., NYY, Hamilton, J., TEX, Sizemore, G., CLE
Designated Hitter: Huff, A., BAL

I'm a Yankee fan, and I make no apologies for that. With that said, I don't think any of these picks need too much explanation.

Jason Giambi, despite the .263 batting average, leads all AL first basemen in walks, homers, slugging, OPS, OBP and awesome facial hair. In fact, his .398 OBP is almost 20 points higher than that of Kevin Youkilis, the so-called "Greek God of Walks", who leads all AL firstbasemen with 48 Runs scored. Youk also leads the pack with about 1.9 million votes, almost 300,000 more than second-place Justin Morneau. For his part, Morneau leads AL firstbasemen with 63 RBIs. More to the point, if you're trying to actually win the contest, the Giambino and his child-molester/pizza guy moustache have been raking at a .324/.444/.642 clip since early May.

Texas second baseman Ian Kinsler leads not just the Al, not just second basemen, but everyone in MLB with 71 runs scored. He's hitting .321 (5th in the AL) has 20 steals (6th in the AL) and his .532 slugging percentage is 10th. In addition, he leads all AL second basemen in homers, RBIs (50) and OBP (.375), and is one point behind Placido Polanco in batting average and one steal behind Brian Roberts. Granted, his home park helps him, as you can see from the approximately 100-point spread between his home and road batting and OBP numbers, but he actually has hit 10 of his 13 homers on the road. So that's something. Regardless of that, nobody else is even in the same category. Also, I just fleeced someone in my fantasy league out of him, so I have to pull for him.

Third base was practically a no-brainer. Despite missing three weeks with an injury, A-Rod leads all AL hot cornermen in homers, batting average, OBP, SLG, OPS, and Steals. He's two runs off the pace of league leader Alex Gordon (who needed about 75 more at-bats to score those two runs) and is three RBIs behind the pace of Mike Lowell and Evan Longoria. There are also some bizarre rumors about him being "linked to" Madonna, so maybe he and Jose Canseco have more in common than the Juice Man would care to admit. If we notice the reigning MVP wearing a red string bracelet at the All-Star Game, we'll know why. In any case, A-Rod will be there, as he leads all AL players with 2.52 million votes.

Shortstop was one of the tougher decisions. Derek Jeter is clearly having an off-year (for him), hitting only .280 with 4 homers and steals, though that's only 5 points behind Michael Young, and Jeter doesn't have the benefit of playing half his games in a Texas phonebooth. (Young's hitting just .254 on the road.) Jhonny Peralta has a dozen bombs, but the one he hit yesterday was hist first in more than a month. He's also struck out more than any other AL shortstop, and is hitting only .257 with an OBP that barely cracks .300. Plus he spells his name wheirldy. Nobody else has more than half a dozen homers, is hitting more than about .275 or has stolen more than a dozen bases. So, without a clear leader, I went to my fall back. Which is apparently what 2.5 million other voters have done, as Jeter is second only to A-Rod in AL votes.

Catcher was tough, too, since I really like Jorge Posada, but he hasn't played much due to the problems with his throwing shoulder. Despite missing all that time, he has as many homers as Joe Mauer, and his OPS (min 100-at-bats) is second to Mauer as well. I should probably have voted for Mauer instead, who leads the AL with a .323 batting average, is third in OBP with a .410 mark, and has caught 71 of his team's 83 games. Additionally, he leads all AL catchers in runs, RBIs, doubles, walks and OPS.

Incidentally, with about 1.6 million votes, Mauer is the only non-Yankee or Red Sock to be leading a position in the AL voting, and his lead over Jason Varitek (.222 with 7 homers, *yuk*) is only about 150,000 votes, so he could get overtaken if the Red Sox make a mad vote rush in the 11th hour.

The outfield was fun because there are so many good options. I left Milton Bradley off because he's been a little gimpy (I know because he was one of the players I got rid of in the Ian Kinsler trade, which also netted me A-Rod and Dan Haren). We want to win this thing, so I couldn't pick a guy I know is hurt.

I did pick Hamilton because he's leading the majors in RBI's and he's a great story. I picked Damon because, well, he's a Yankee, but also because he's hitting .315 with patience and he's got some speed, and we're a little short on that. Jacoby Ellsbury was looking like a great option a month ago, but he's hit just .176 woth zero homers and one RBI in the last two weeks, and we don't need speed that badly.

Grady Sizemore, despite the .263 average, has 19 homers and 19 steals (in 21 attempts), so he's a threat both at the plate and on the basepaths. J.D Drew is doing very well, or has had a great month, at least, but I'm not convinced he's for real, not after a year and change of mediocrity. Manny Ramirez, who leads all AL outfielders in votes, is having a good year, but not a great one, not for him, and anyway screw Boston.

And speaking of screw Boston, David Ortiz leads all Designated Hitters in votes, despite the facts that

A) He's hitting .252 on the year and
2) He's been on the DL since the end of May.

Maybe that's why he got all those votes? Fans thought it aid DL, not DH?

the number two vote getter, Hideki Matsui, was having a decent year as well before he got hurt, so I couldn't vote for him. Jack Cust has a lot of walks and 13 homers, but is hitting just .234, and ditto for Jim Thome, one of my favorites.

So, instead I voted for Aubrey Huff. He's hitting a respectable .274, leads the AL DH field with 14 homers and 46 RBIs, and we share a birthday, though he's two years younger than me. Just to show you I'm not that biased, though, I did not vote for either David DeJesus, who's injured but was hitting .316, or David Wright, who's having a sold year over in the Senior Circuit.

Tomorrow I'll share my NL ballot...

Stumble Upon Toolbar

Review: Rob Neyer’s Big Book of Baseball Legends

by Rob Neyer

“Because only a good story well told is worth all this effort.”
- Rob Neyer in “Big Book of Baseball Legends”

The latest release from Rob Neyer, Rob Neyer’s Big Book of Baseball Legends: The Truth, the Lies, and Everything Else, follows in several of his traditions, but also explores some new ground. This is the third “Rob Neyer’s Big Book of…Something” though alas, he opted not to go with my suggestion of “Bubblegum” for the subject of his next work. Perhaps that’s still to come.

More important, Rob keeps with his traditions of seemingly endless and in-depth research, sharp, focused writing and an interesting subject matter.

As its title suggests, this book explores some of the legends of baseball history that we may have heard through the years. Babe Ruth’s famous “Called Shot” in the 1932 World Series against the Cubs is perhaps the biggest of them, but many and varied are the legends in this book, and they range from the commonplace to the obscure.

Most of us know about the rivalry between Carlton Fisk and Thurman Munson, about Billy Martin and Reggie Jackson. Maybe you know about how George Steinbrenner foolishly releasing Johnny Callison on a whim, or about Steve Dalkowski scaring the hell out of the Splendid Splinter. Maybe you’ve even heard about how Paul Waner was actually a better hitter when he was a little drunk, or of the impostor who kept Lou Gehrig’s consecutive games streak alive when he was laid up.

But what do you really know? The very nature of “legends” is such that there’s almost always a grain or two of truth wrapped up in a fanciful, entertaining, but largely untrue tale. Rob Neyer (and a guest or two) help to investigate, and in many cases, de-bunk, some of the more famous legends and tall tales from the history of baseball.

Rob doesn't get into legends about misdeeds off the field, sticking instead to the fun stuff, like who hit a game winning homer off of whom on which date, or whether or not an event had the life-changing impact that was claimed by certain players. And these, it turns out, are the best sorts of legends to investigate, because the eventual outcome of any investigation is mostly of academic and human interest, having no impact on either the law or the record books. Well, mostly.

As is always the case with Neyer’s books, this one is eminently readable. Neyer’s prose is always solid, personable and fluid, with well chosen but not overly elegant words, and he makes no effort to impress you with his vocabulary. Some of the best writing in the book actually isn’t Neyer’s, but rather that of Scribbly Tate, who does the remarkably interesting chapter on the so-called impostor who replaced the ailing Iron Man to keep his 2,130-game streak alive. To be fair, though, this is more a credit to Tate’s unique written voice than it is a knock on Neyer, who’s no slouch as a writer himself.

Neyer’s digressions are always interesting and well informed, and he rarely goes of on a Posnaskian tangent, though those can be fun, too. The chapters are brief, usually no more than three to six pages, so the book can be easily read in small chunks whenever you have a moment to spare.

The main strength of the book, painstaking research, is also its one weakness. Or, if not a weakness, perhaps just a downside. The whole point in each chapter is to get at the truth behind the stories told by players, journalists and other baseball people, and that takes time and effort. Some of it could be done with Baseball-reference.com or Retrosheet, while other information had to be sought from the Hall of Fame archives or other out-of-print books.

This is all fine, but in a few cases it seems that the research goes a little too deep, exploring things that are beyond the scope of a particular legend, just to make sure that no stone is left unturned. In a few cases, by the time we get to the bottom of the story, Neyer has nearly forgotten what he was looking up, and so we find him looking for a strikeout when the story referenced a pop-up, or getting the names mixed up a little. These are few and far between, but they’re there.

The other downside to the painstaking research is, well, I’ll just say it: Most of the legends are not true. Almost every referenced story in the book is wrong in one or more detail, and most of them have either gotten various incidents mixed up with each other or are almost complete fabrications. If you’re ultimately looking for the truth, this is not a problem for you, but those of you who really like a good story, and want to keep believing in it, will have some of the wind taken out of your sails. Of course, you get warned about that right in the introduction, so if you’re upset about it, you’ve nobody to blame but yourself.

In all, the book is really a tremendous amount of fun. Neyer has done all the dirty work for us, spending hours and hours poring over the internet, old books, and even (get this) something called "microfiche", which it turns out is how they used to store really old information before Al Gore invented the Internet. All the leg work is already done, so you can relax with the book and a beverage in the comforts of your own home instead of in front of a big, flat screen with crusty old knobs in some dusty old library. Not that there's anything wrong with libraries.

So the next time a friend tries to tell you about how Fred Lynn always hit better against the good teams, or how Billy Martin turned the 1965 Twins into a running machine, or how Lou Boudreau turned Ron Santo from a nondescript catcher into the greatest thirdbaseman of the 1960’s, you can tell them they’re all wet.

And better yet, if you hear or read a story that’s not in this book (and there’s no shortage of those) you have a framework for how to find out whether that one’s true or not, too. Finding out the truth of these matters, it turns out, is almost as interesting as the embellished story itself. Sometimes, even more so.

Stumble Upon Toolbar