29 August 2007

The Case For/Against Mussina: Not All His Fault

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

The Prosecution:

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Defense:

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

Moose, courtesy of Starwave.com

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

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

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

Or, shown another way:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

so long, Moose, courtesy of Scout.com

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

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

Oh, how the mighty have fallen.

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15 August 2007

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

The King Lives!

OK, not really.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thank you. Thankyouverymuch.

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14 August 2007

“Scooter” Retrospective: Phil Rizzuto Dies at 89

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Phil Rizzuto, courtesy of BaseballLibrary.com

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

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

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13 August 2007

AL, NL Pennant Races Heating Up...

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

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

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

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

American League...

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

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

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

National League...

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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25 July 2007

Game 101 100: Yankees @ Royals

New York Yankees (53-46) vs. Kansas City Royals (43-56)
Mike Mussina (4-7, 4.97) vs. Gil Meche (7-6, 3.63)
25 July 2007; 8:10 PM @ Kauffman Stadium

Brief Editorial Note: The Yankees currently sit at 53-46, and 53 + 46 = 99, not 100, which means that somehow the game count got off a little, but we're back on track now.

Speaking of "back on track" ...how about them Yankees??!! They've won five in a row, 8 of their last 10, are 11-3 since the All-Star Break and 16-6 in July. In fact, since they hit 7 games below .500 on June 4th, they've gone 29-15, for a 65.9% winning percentage, which is the best in MLB in that span. The offense deserves most of the credit for that success, as they've averaged over 6.3 runs/game for the last six weeks. They've gained three games in the AL Wild Card standings and are only 4.5 games behind Cleveland for the lead there, and have picked up five games in the standings on Boston in the AL East race, which is probably still out of hand, given that they're 7.5 games out with only about two months left to play.

The Royals, for their part, are 22-19 in that same stretch, though I'm not sure I agree with ESPN's Buster Olney that they've turned things around just because they took two out of three from the Tigers over the weekend. Losing by a combined score of 18-6 to the Yankees the last two nights sure put a damper on any hopes they may have been entertaining.

Starting Pitchers:

The Yankees will throw Mike Mussina out there tonight to face the Royals. Moose is only 1-3 on the road this year, though his 4.46 road ERA is considerably better than the 5.40 he's compiled at The House That Moose Didn't Build. Worse yet, he's 0-2 with a 6.48 ERA in July, though that does include two "Quality Starts", (6-innings, three earned runs) against Tampa Bay and Minnesota. His 4.2-inning, 6-run performance against Tampa Bay on Friday night was his worst start since his debut on April 6th (4 IP, 6 ER, hosting Baltimore). In his career against KC he's 15-7, 3.02 in 220+ innings, including 8-2, 3.12 at Kaufmann Stadium, though admittedly Moose was a different pitcher when most of those numbers were compiled. Here's hoping that tonight he's a different pitcher from the one who compiled those lousy numbers against the Devil Rays last week.

The Royals will start Gil Meche tonight, their $55 million man. Olney says that he's "earned every bit of his salary" (about $11 million for this year, just like Moose), though I'm not sure I agree. Meche has been good, but inconsistent this year. He's 4-2 with a 2.97 ERA on the road, but only 3-4, 4.17 at home. Before 2007, he never had a streak of more than four consecutive Quality Starts. This year he had seven Quality Start streak in which he went 2-0, 1.15, but otherwise has been just as mediocre as everybody expected, with a 5-6 record and a 4.97 ERA. With that said, he did make quick work of the reigning AL Champion Detroit Tigers last week, going 7 innings and allowing only 2 runs, so he'll probably make mincemeat out of the Yankee bats tonight and make me look like a fool. He threw a season-high 119 pitches in that start, but that wasn't much more than his average of about 104, so I suppose it's too much to ask that he feels some ill effects from the long outing and can't get out of the fifth inning. Meche has had some success against the Yankees, going 3-2, with a 3.88 ERA, including 2-0, 3.30 vs. the Yanks away from Yankee Stadium.


KC’s bullpen is 14th in the majors with a 3.77 ERA and features six regulars or semi-regulars with relief ERA’s between 2.31 and 3.57, so the Royals don’t have the soft underbelly in their bullpen that most teams have. If anything, you’d imagine that they want to get their starters out of the game as soon as possible, though that’s not a wise long-term strategy.
The Yankees’ bullpen is about as good, with a 3.71 ERA, and more wins, which were vultured from all those short-winded starting pitchers. If Moose falters, there’s every reason to think that the bullpen can keep them in the game and give the offense a chance to bludgeon the Royals into submission.


The Yankees’ offense has been on fire lately, scoring 63 runs in their last five games. Overall, they’re second in the majors with 572 runs scored in 100 games, second only to Detroit (576 runs in 99 games). Alex Rodriguez was the first player in the majors to compile 100 RBIs in 2007, and he continues to lead both leagues in homers (34), RBIs (100), Runs (95), slugging percentage, OPS, Total Bases, Runs Created, touchdowns, and partriges in pear Trees (1). Derek Jeter and Jorge Posada have both been hitting about .335 this season, and have stayed consistent in that. Hideki Matsui has recently turned on the power, with a MLB-leading 9 homers in July, and Robby Cano is hitting .423 since the All-Star Break. Bobby Abreu is on a hot streak as well, hitting .372 in July with 24 RBIs (2nd in MLB in that span), while Melky Cabrera is hitting .345 this month. Andy Phillips, finally given a chance to play when Joe Torre woke up to the fact that he couldn’t keep running Miguel Cairo out there every day, is hitting .338 in 20 July contests. Note that most of those are not likely to continue, but they’ll be nice while they last. The Yanks could still use another bat (like Mark Teixiera or Adam Dunn) to supplant Phillips or the rotating DH in the lineup.

The Royals have hit .285 as a team this month, but nobody has more than two homers in that span, so they’re seemingly no real threat with the long-ball. Rookie Billy Butler is hitting .382 in July, with 20 RBIs, and veteran/journeyman Mark Grudz131@n#7 is hitting .424, albeit with ZERO homers. Esteban “The Good” German is hitting .419 this month, but somehow has driven in only three runs in 14 games.

The Yankees’ winning streak ends at five. Moose stinks up the joint for four innings and change, then gives way to Kyle Farnsworth and Luis Vizcaino, who follow suit. Yanks fall, 10-4.

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24 July 2007

Boise Hawks Game Review

I love the minor leagues.

Sure, it's the 30 major league teams that make all the money and get all the glory, but it's the myriad of minor league teams in hundreds of towns around the U.S. and Canada that have got baseball at its finest, and the Boise Hawks are no exception.

The Game:

I got to attend a game last week in Boise, while I happened to be there on business. The Boise Hawks, Class A Short Season affiliate of the Chicago Cubs, beat the Tri-City Dust Devils, a Colorado Rockies' affiliate. The Wanna-Cubbies wrapped 11 hits, drew four walks and two hit batters to rack up their seven runs without a ball laving the yard, while their opponents hit two homers, but only solo shots, and mustered only three runs on five hits and lost, 7-3. The win kept the Hawks in first place in their division of the Northwest league, but with a 12-15 record, the first place team in this division wasn't even as good as the last place team in the other division in this league.

Boise starting pitcher Arik Hempy allowed only three hits and struck out five in five innings of work, but two of the three hits were homers, as I mentioned. Hempy's delivery had a long stride and his pitching arm drops way back as he strides, giving the batter a long look at the ball in his hand. He's left handed, so he'll het some chances, but I'm guessing that the two homers he surrendered will prove a bad omen for the rest of his career. His relief, 21-year old Dominican native Al Albequerque, was very impressive in earning a save over four innings of work. He allowed only two hits and one unearned run, and though he only fanned one batter, nobody got much of a good swing against him either. He worked quickly, threw strikes, and got batters out, everything you could ask for in a relief pitcher. (You listenin', Kyle Farnsworth?)

Dust Devils' relief pitcher Joseph Williamson showed some promise, some nasty breaking stuff that moved all over the place. Unfortunately, it seems to have moved a little too much, as he managed to allow two runs (one earned) in only 1.1 innings of work. A walk, a hit batter and a wild pitch will do that for you. He may be well served to tone his stuff down a bit to make sure he knows where the ball is going...or he may just have had a bad night. No way to tell this early in the evaluation process, and the season.

The two homers hit by the Dust Devils seem to have been flukes. Both were the first of the year for those players. Brandon Reichert hit for decent average in college, but not really for power, so don't expect a barrage of bombs now. Helder Velazquez is a defensive-minded shortstop who hit only .255 in the Pioneer (Rookie) League last season, with two homers in 40 games. More important, perhaps, is that he swings at everything, walking only three times in 157 at bats last year, while fanning 27 times. This year the K/W ratio is infinite, with 19 strikeouts and zero walks in 109 at-bats over 25 games. With apologies to Ivan Rodriguez, there are not many major leaguers who never, ever walk.

The Team:

This may be baseball at its finest, from a fan's standpoint, but it's hardly baseball at its best or most-skilled. These guys are a long way from the major leagues. Most of them were playing college ball or working out for scouts in Latin America at this time last year, and some of them were just drafted this year, which means that they were playing college ball a couple of months ago at most. Most of the best college players will go straight to High-A or even AA ball, but the Short Season leagues are a good chance for some of them to get used to wooden bats and play a season together without having to step in during the middle of a regular Class A season. Some of these guys were in the Rookie League last year, especially the Latin American non-drafted free agents or playerssigned out of high school, but few if any of them is a "bonus baby" or a primadonna at this level.

Class A short season is half a step below Low-A ball, which is half a step below High-A ball, which is a whole step below AA and obviously two whole steps below AAA. Indeed, the "elder statesman" on the Boise roster, pitcher Oscar Bernard, just turned 24 a couple of weeks ago, and the only reason he's still down here is that he was only just converted from catching to pitching at the end of last season. There are five players on the roster born in 1984, and most of the rest of the roster is only 21 or 22 at most, and some of them are still in their teens.

Only two players, OF Kyler Burke and catcher Josh Donaldson, were first round draft picks, and only four other players were even in the top ten rounds of their respective drafts. Eight other players are non-drafted free agents, mostly from the Dominican Republic, and the rest are low-round draft picks. In total, among the 28 players on the roster, 14 were drafted or signed this year, and six more came aboard in 2006, which means that 85% of the roster is in its first or second year in profession bseball. The Class A Short Season Leagues are a stepping stone to (hopefully) bigger and better things. If you're here for more that two seasons and you don't have an injury or a position change to blame, then you likely won't have much of a career as a baseball player.

These are the kinds of low-risk, low-reward chances that the major league club can afford to take to see if there's any talent worth cultivating here in the high desert.

The History:

And certainly, some desert flowers have blossomed here over the years. When it became a Cubs farm team, Dontrelle Willis, Rich Hill and others came through here. Before that, this was an Angels' farm team and Garret Anderson, John Lackey, Troy Percival, Scot Shields, Jarrod Washburn, K-Rod and others had come through here before they made it to the majors with LAnahfornia. And going back even farther, when Boise hosted an Oakland far team, Brian Kingman (who had been the last guy to lose 20 games in a season before Mike Maroth did it with the Tigers a few years ago) and even Rickey Henderson started his long, Hall of Fame career here in 1976, and is easily the best known player to have spent some part of his career here.

The Experience:

This is where the minor leagues really are at their best. You walk up to the ticket window at game time, pay your money and get a good seat. There literally are no "bad"seats in a park that only holds about 3,000 fans, though there are better seats. When I got to the game, I was notified that I could sit along the first base line for $6, or along the third base line for $10, though the reason for this disparity was not immediately apparent. When I took my seat, I found out why. For Boise, where it sometimes hits 104 degrees Farenheit in the summer months and is frequently still in the mid-90's at game time, the third base side is about 15 degrees cooler, as the first base line is right in the sun, at least until it sets around 8:30. That was worth four bucks, lemme tellya.

Regardless of where you sit in the park, you get a good view over the horizon which consists entirely of the sandy colored mountains in the distance, rising in all directions and keeping much of the worst weather out of the aptly named Sun Valley, where Boise sits. It's quite dry there, so there isn't much vegetation, but what the mountains lack in color they make up for in majesty. Even if they're not purple.

They have your standard beer, soda, chips, dogs, chicken, fries and etc. at the concession stands, but they have some other stuff you can't necessarily get anywhere else. Wanting to savor the local flavor, I asked what "Idaho Nachos" were, and it was explained to me that they're essentially nachos with fries instead of corn chips. What was not explained to me was that they turned an entire 5-lb. bag of Idaho Russet potatoes into seasoned steak fries, piled them on a paper plate, and then layered refried beans, seasoned ground beef, guacamole, salsa, cheese, lettuce, tomatoes, sour cream and a partridge in a pear tree on top. the thing must have weighed ten pounds! I mean, sure, it was tasty, but there was no way I could eat more than seven, maybe eight pounds of that stuff in one sitting! Apparently the residents of Idaho have either never heard of heart disease or they figure it won't catch up to them quickly enough to merit concern. I also had a local beer called Skinny Dip Ale (actually, I had two of them) which was pretty good, much better than a Coors Light or Bud.

And of course, besides the food and the landscape, like all minor league teams, the Hawks put on almost as good a show between innings as they do during them. There were lots of giveaways (T-shirts, towels, ice cream, a fried Snickers, etc.) most of it was either thrown into the stands (not the food, thankfully) or given away to "the fan who makes the most noise". This frequently turned out to be "some random 5 year old that the Usher Girl thought was cute", because the actual winners of these contests could not possibly have been making as much noise as either of the two adolescent boys sitting in my row, not to mention most of the rest of the ballpark.

They also had lots of on-field contests for kids, one of which was the requisite "race the mascot around the bases" in which the mascot is mobbed by a bunch of young fans at third base and the child competitor is supposed to go on to win the race, except that in this case, the 5-year old was wise enough to know a setup when he saw one, and never finished the race. Very funny. They also had a race between three people in giant, puffy costumes representing Fries, a Baked Potato, and a cup of Mashed Potatoes, I think, not unlike the Sausage Race in Milwaukee and other such competitions (in New York, I think it's Sewer Rats). One of the three fell down between second and third base, which was also funny, but only because the person in the costume seemed unscathed afterward.

My one complaint about the experience is that the Boise Hawks gift store did not have any coffee mugs, or travel mugs, nothing like that. I have a collection of mugs representing baseball teams from all over the country, and this was the first time I had actually been to a game and could not get one there. Granted, that's a rather small nit to pick in what otherwise seems to be a fine organization, but, hey, a man's gotta have his priorities, right?

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12 July 2007

Report: Ex-Yankee Henderson to be Mets' New Hitting Coach

New York Newsday reported last night, and today ESPN.com is reporting that Rickey Henderson has been named the New York Mets' new hitting coach. Henderson replaces ex-Yankee hitting coach Rick Down, who served in that capacity for the Mets since November of 2004. Down had been the Yankees' hitting coach from 1993 to 1995 and from 2002 to 2003, and was the Yankees coordinator of minor league instruction in 2004. According to the Mets' official website:

• In 2002, the Yankees hit 223 home runs, second most in the American
League and second highest single season total in franchise history.
• The Yankees led the majors in batting average in each of his first two
seasons as a hitting coach (1993-1994)...In 1994, the team's batting average of
.290 was the highest Yankees' average since 1936 (.300) and the highest in the
majors since Boston hit .302 in 1950.

Down had also served as hitting coach for the Orioles, Dodgers and Red Sox, and was an accomplished minor league manager. Down had an undistinguished, 7-year career as a minor leaguer, but his services as an instructor have been sought after and used by numerous organizations. I guess this proves the old adage that those who can't, teach. And those who can't teach, get fired.

Rickey Henderson, on the other hand, could hardly have had a more distinguished major league career. Twentieth in MLB history with 3055 hits, he holds the all-time career records for stolen bases and runs scored, and he briefly held the #1 spot in career walks before Barry Bonds passed him. He's still #2 on that list, and Frank Thomas is his closest active competitor, and at 39 year sold already, is unlikelty to make up the 600-walk gap before he retires. Rickey's 1406 steals are almost 500 more than Lou Brock, who's #2 on that list, and are almost 800 steals more than kenny Lofton, the closest active player. I think that one's pretty safe, too. Barry Bonds is #2 on the Runs Scored list, and he's only about 100 runs back, so if he stays healthy enough to play a majority of games this year and next, he'll wrest that record away from Rickey as well, but in the mean time, Henderson's still #1.

Henderson also holds the Yankee single-season record for stolen bases, with 93. Actually, he holds the top three spots on that list, and nobody who’s played since World War II is closer than 10th. His 326 steals in Yankee Pinstripes are also a record, though Derek Jeter (with 256 and counting) could one day take that away. Rickey finished third in the 1985 AL MVP vote (behind George Brett and Winner Don Mattingly, the Yankees’ current hitting coach) and ranked in the top 10 six times in his career, including a win in 1990, with AL Champion Oakland. He hit over .300 seven times, though low batting averages toward the end of his career dropped his career average to .279, even though he never lost his eye for the strike zone. His career OBP of .401 ranks 56th all-time, and he drew more than 100 walks in a season seven times.

Clearly, Rickey Henderson was one of the greatest, most exciting players in major league history (just ask him!), but the question remains whether he’ll be any good as a hitting coach. He served as a special instructor with the Mets in Spring Training this year, but he’s never even coached a minor league squad, much less a team of major leaguers, some of whom played with him during his major league career. Mets catcher Paul LoDuca played with Rickey in Los Angeles in 2003, when they were both Dodgers, as did Shawn Green. And way back when dinosaurs roamed the movie screen and In Living Color invaded your living room, Henderson played with a couple of rookies named Shawn Green and Carlos Delgado on the World Champion Toronto Blue Jays. (Not that pitchers work with the hitting coach all that much, but just to be thorough, Aaron Sele was his teammate in Seattle in 2000, and Pedro Martinez was his teammate in Boston in 2002.)

Of course, Rickey allegedly managed to forget teammate John Olerud between 1999 and 2000 (though there is some question as to whether that story is true), so it’s hard to imagine how much of an effect these relationships might have on his ability to effectively instruct the Mets in the ways of the bat, but this is very unusual for someone who played so recently to be named to such a position in the majors so soon, with little or no minor league experience.

The Mets, for their part, are 6th in the NL in team batting average, 5th in OBP and seventh in Slugging percentage and OPS, but only 10th among 16 teams in Runs Scored (21st in the majors). This is mostly because they’re 11th in OPS with runners on base, 13th with RISP and 14th in OPS in “Close and Late” situations among their Senior Circuit competition. In other words, it’s not hitting, but clutch hitting that has been at the root of the Mets’ lack of offense, and as you may know, it’s not really possible to predict (or probably, to teach) hitting in the clutch. Over the course of his long, accomplished career, Rickey was approximately the same hitter in almost every “clutch” situation, but imparting that skill to others, well, let’s just say that Rickey’s got Rickey’s work cut out for Rickey.

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10 July 2007

2007 All-Star Game Preview

The 2007 All-Star Game will be played tonight in San Francisco, at SBCGlobalAT&TPacBellYahoo Park.

The rough year the Yankees are having (42-43) is attested to by the fact that they have "only" three players in the game, despite the fact that two were voted into the starting lineup. This is the fewest All-Stars the Yankees have had since 2003, when they also had three, and they have not had fewer than that since way back in 1993, when only Jimmy Key and Wade Boggs made the team. (Interesting side note: Barry Bonds, Ken Griffey and Ivan Rodriguez were all in the starting lineups of that game as well, and John Smoltz was in the bullpen. Cecil Fielder was on the bench, as his son, Prince, is for this game. Oddly, Darryl Kile, Kirby Puckett and the recently deceased Rod Beck were also in that game. You expect a lot of players to retire in 15 years, but you don't necessarily expect them to still be playing, especially not well enough to be an All-Star. And you certainly don't expect young men in the prime of their lives and careers to be dead within a decade and a half. Strange stuff.)

Anyway, this marks the first time since 1995 that the Yankees have had a losing record as of the All-Star Break. They were 30-36 at this time that year, having played about 20 fewer games than they would normally have played to that point, because of the Strike. Those Yankees, unlike these, had actually played as badly as their record reflected, scoring 331 runs and allowing 356, which projects to about a 31-35 record, almost exactly matching thier actual one. Bu tthe 1995 Yankees had to play insanely well (49-29) the rest of the year just to catch up and snag the first ever MLB Wild Card, just so they could have their hearts broken by the Seattle Mariners in the ALDS.

These Yankees have a Pythagorean record of 49-36, based on their 464 ruins scored and 392 allowed, much better than thier actual record. Most of that discrepancy is because they've gone only 6-14 in 1-Run Games. Just breaking even there would bring them up to 46-39, which would look a lot more respectable. it's possible that their luck will turn around in the second half and they'll win a few more of those, but short of going something like 22-5 in those contests for the rest of the season, I don't see how they can make up the defecit they've got now, currently 8.5 games behind Cleveland in the WC race and 10 games behind Boston in the AL East. Worse yet, they'd have to leap-frog Oakland, Minnesota, and Seattle while fending off Toronto just to get next to the Tribe in the AL consolation prize standings. Probably not gonna happen.

So, let’s look at what might happen tonight.

Starting lineups

Ichiro Suzuki, CF

Derek Jeter, SS

David Ortiz, 1B

Alex Rodriguez, 3B

VladimirGuerrero, RF

Magglio Ordonez, LF

Ivan Rodriguez, C

Placido Polanco, 2B

Dan Haren, P

Jose Reyes, SS

Barry Bonds, LF

Carlos Beltran, CF

Ken Griffey, RF

David Wright, 3B

Prince Fielder, 1B

Russ Martin, C

Chase Utley, 2B

Jake Peavy, P

You can’t really compare lineup spots, given that Tony LaRussa has some odd ideas about where players should bat. (Barry Bonds hasn’t batted #2 in a regular season game in 20 years. Beltran’s hitting 3rd despite the fact that he’s batting only .264, and Prince Fielder, despite leading the NL with 29 homers, is batting 6th. Chase Utley, hitting .325 and leading the NL in doubles, bats 8th. Go figure.)

However, we can compare players by position. First the Yankees, of course. Ironically, both Yankees’ NL counterparts play for the Mets.

Shortstop - Jeter vs. Reyes. Slight edge to Reyes, who has shown an incredible increase in patience (47 walks already this year, after drawing only 53 all of last season) and whose basestealing abilities are the best we’ve seen since Rickey Henderson was in his prime. He can turn a game around all by himself.

Third base - A-Rod vs. Wright. Huge edge to A-Rod, who leads the majors in homers, RBIs, runs, slugging percentage, and leads the AL in OPS. Wright’s darn good, but there’s no comparison.

First Base - Big Papi vs. Little Prince. Slight edge to Ortiz. they actually have nearly identical OPS numbers (158 to 159) but Papi gets a big edge in on-base percentage, while Prince’s 29 homers give him the edge in slugging. I’ll take Ortiz in a clutch spot any time.

Second base - Chase vs. Enrico Polozzo. Let’s see…the current Phillies 2B or the phormer Phillies 2B? Despite the gaudy .335 batting average, Polanco really isn’t that great a hitter. His adjusted OPS is only 17% better than his league, way behind Utley, who’s 51% better. Huge edge to Utley.

Catcher - Pudge vs. Martin. Pudge is the fan favorite, a future Hall of Famer on his firts try, but he’s only been a mediocre hitter the last two and a half years. martin is the future, and as it happens, also the present. Edge to Martin.

Left Field - Bonds vs. Magglio. Slight edge to Bonds, who’s still the most feared hitter on the planet. He’s been intentionally walked 30 times in 301 trips to the plate. Ordonez, despite the gaudy batting average, has been intentionally walked just three times. Not that he’s some kind of slouch. Oh, and Bonds is even better at home, hitting .320 there this year, compared to .269 on the road.

Center Field - Beltran vs. Ichiro. Big Edge to Ichiro, who’s hitting .359 and is one of the best base stealers in the major leagues (23 for 25 this year). Beltran’s hititng just .264 this year, including only .234 in May, .238 in June and .152 (that’s right: a buck-fifty-two) in July.

Right Field - Vlad vs. Junior. Junior’s got a bit more power (23 homers to 14) but otherwise, every advantage is in Guererro’s favor. He hits for a much higher average, can still leg out a double and almost never strikes out. Edge to Vlad.

So, for the starters, that’s one big advantage (Utley), and three slight to modest edges (Bonds, Martin and Reyes) to the NL. The AL gets a BIG edge at third base, center and right field and a slight edge at first base, so overall, the starting lineup advantage goes to the AL, if only by a small margin.

AL Reserves

Victor Martinez, C

Jorge Posada, C

Justin Morneau, 1B

Brian Roberts, 2B

Mike Lowell, 3B

Carlos Guillen, SS

Michael Young, SS

Carl Crawford, OF

Torii Hunter, OF

Manny Ramirez, OF

Alex Rios, OF

Grady Sizemore, OF

NL Reserves

Brian McCann, C

Albert Pujols, 1B

Derrek Lee, 1B

Dmitri Young, 1B

Orlando Hudson, 2B

Freddy Sanchez, 2B

Miguel Cabrera, 3B

J.J. Hardy, SS

Alfonso Soriano, OF

Carlos Lee, OF

Aaron Rowand, OF

Matt Holliday, OF

The benches are very evenly matched on average, each hitting a combined .305/.370/.495, give or take a few points. Each team has seven players with double-digit homers, though the NL’s bench tops out with Miguel Cabrera’s 18, and nobody else on the team has more than 16. The AL squad has three players with 17 or more: Rios, at exactly 17, Hunter with 19, and reigning AL MVP Justin Morneau, who has 24. Both teams average about 22 doubles per player. The AL does have two catchers on the bench, which could come in handy in terms of late-game manuevering, if a pinch hitter is needed. Jorge Posada makes his 5th All-Star team, though he’s only played in two of the four games he’s made.

The big difference is speed, and here, ironically, the AL has a big edge, with five players in double digits in steals, plus Rios with 9, compared to only one among the NL benchwarmers. Alfonso Soriano is 13 of 17 on base swipe attempts this year, though we all know he’s capable of more than that, but nobody else on the bench has more than 6 thefts this year. Their speed is all in the starting lineup. Reyes (46 steals), Wright (18), Beltran (13), and even Martin (16) could run rough-shod over the AL if they can get on base, but the starters tend not to play more than about 5 innings in these contests, so it’s the Junior Circuit’s bench that could use their speed to great advantage at a close spot late in the game.

AL Pitchers

Dan Haren (starter)

Haren’s been unbelievably good this year. Despite playing half his games in pitcher-friendly Oakland, Haren’s been just as good on the road.

Starters: Josh Beckett, John Lackey, Johan Santana*, Justin Verlander, C.C. Sabathia*, Gil Meche
Relievers: Jonathan Papelbon, Francisco Rodriguez, J.J. Putz, Bobby Jenks, Hideki Okajima*

Somebody from Kansas City has to make it. It’s the rule. It’s a stupid rule, but a rule, nonetheless. But that doesn’t mean that Gil Meche has to play. You’ve heard a lot about what a shot in the arm he’s been for the Royals this year and what a great free agent signing it appears he was, but he was 2-1 with a 2.18 ERA in April, and he’s 3-5, 4.24 since, including a combined 5.87 ERA in his last 4 starts. In other words: just as mediocre as we all thought he’d be, and definitely NOT an All-Star. Stay away.

Otherwise, everyone on this list has absolutely filthy stuff, and any one of them could get a strikeout for you in a tight spot. With three lefties in the pen, including two starters, AL Manager Jim Leyland can mix and match all he wants to make sure that Bonds (or Prince, or Chase, or Junior, or McCann…) doesn’t beat him. Okajima’s been unbelievably good, and could win the Rookie of the Year award, but in reality, he’s only here because they hold the voting for the last man on the InterWebs, and those rabid Japanese baseball fans apparently like voting better than sleeping.

NL Pitchers

Jake Peavy (starter)

Ironically, Peavy’s been even better on the road (4-0, 0.94 ERA) than at home (5-3, 3.04), so PetCo’s reputation as a pitcher’s haven hasn’t done much for him this year. Regardless of that, he’s got unbelievable stuff, and can strike out almost anyone he pleases, except that the AL starting lineup isn’t all that whiff-prone, with only A-Rod among the top 75 players in the majors in strikeouts (Ortiz falls in tied for 76th).

Starters: Brad Penny, Cole Hamels*, Ben Sheets, Chris Young, Roy Oswalt, Brandon Webb
Relievers: Trevor Hoffman, Billy Wagner*, Francisco Cordero, Jose Valverde, Takashi Saito,

Penny’s been insanely good so far this year, pretty much everywhere he pitches, but much of Young’s success is due to PetCo (0.82 ERA at home, 3.33 on the road). Penny or Hamels could easily strike out the side if they knew that was the only inning they’d have to pitch, and Webb’s extreme ground ball tendencies (3.18 GB to Fly Ball ratio) make him a great option when you get into a jam and need a double play, especially with Orlando Hudson behind him. (Webb replaced the injured John Smoltz, who was voted in by his colleagues.)

The relievers are #1, #2, #3 and #4 in the NL in Saves this year, and #5 was Brian Fuentes, who was also selected, but got hurt and was replaced by Billy Wagner. How Wagner got in instead of Jason Isringhausen, Tony LaRussa’s own closer, with nearly identical stats this year, is beyond me. Still, a solid bullpen regardless.

So there you have it, my breakdown of each aspect of the game.

My predictions:

AL wins, 4-2. Bonds hits a 2-run jack for the only NL runs, and the SanFans get something to cheer for while the rest of the nation boos loudly. A-Rod drives in Jeter in the third inning with a monster shot off Penny, but still gets no respect, as Justin Morneau comes off the bench to homer off Trevor Hoffman and win the game in the 9th.

Tony LaRussa blames the loss on having had to use “all these youngsters” that the fans and players selected for him, like 29-year old Brad Penny, 31-year old Alfonso Soriano (who makes an error in th 6th), and 39-year old Trevor Hoffman.

Manny Ramirez falls asleep during the game and Bud Selig says something that makes him look geeky and foolish after it.

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02 July 2007

Book Review: The Stark Truth, by Jayson Stark

The Stark Truth: The Most Overrated and Underrated Players in Baseball History
by Jayson Stark
C. 2007, Triumph Books, Chicago, IL
206 p., $24.50 US/$32.50 Canadian

Jayson Stark has won me over.

Not that he's necessarily convinced me that he's right about some of the things he thinks, and not that I automatically believe that anything he says is gospel. But I've decided that I like him, faults and all, if only for the simple fact that he's willing to discuss and defend his position, even with the likes of, well, me. It's that trait that separates Stark from the myriad of journalists who pontificate from their positions of power, safely protected by their editors, publishers, and the fact that they don't have a publicly known email address, spewing whatever they like without thought of reaction, retribution or repurcussions. Stark's very willingness to discuss his views, to debate and disagree without taking (or giving) any of it personally, makes him a fun guy to read and respond to, whether you think he's full of crap or not.

It is in this spirit, the spirit of debate and discussion, that Jayson Stark has written his first book, The Stark Truth: The Most Overrated and Underrated Players in Baseball History. It's a fun little book, easily read in a few sittings over the course of a week or two, if you want, and provides an excellent source for stirring up (what else?) debate. It's not likely to become a classic, like Boys of Summer or Ball Four, but it is a landmark book in that nobody's really ever written something quite like it before. (Christopher "Mad Dog" Russo, of WFAN in NY, wrote a book entitled "The Mad Dog 100: The Hundred Greatest Sports Arguments of All-Time" a few years ago, which was similarly designed to spur debate, but it of course focused on all kinds of arguments in various sports.) Stark's work, focusing on overratedness and underratedness in baseball, makes it unique.

I do wish that he had chosen a title for the book that didn't have his own name in it. It comes off a little presumptuous, but it also starts a dangerous precedent. I mean, how many book titles can you come up with that have "Stark" in the title? Stark Raving Mad, Stark Contrasts, Battle Stark Gallactica...the list soon gets pretty thin. Still, it's tough to come up with something pithy and clever when the subject of the book does not lend itself to being explained in any sort of clever or pithy fashion.

The book seeks to explore and describe, position by position, the most overrated and underrated players of all time. He looks at right- and left-handed starting pitchers, relief pitchers (without regard to handedness), designated hitters, and then each position around the field. Each position is examined first for overratedness, then underratedness, with the #1 player of each type at each position getting three or four pages of type, whereas the #2 through #5 playersgetting only a half page to full page synopsis. The players' key stats are listed for reference, and much of Jayson's writing goes into some of the more in-depth analytical tools, like RSAA, WARP, offensive winning percentage, etc. to help make his points that the players in question are really more or less valuable than general public perception would suggest.

This is where Jayson does very well. He uses these stats, and even introduces of them to the unitiated, to show that he grasps the fact that the traditional stats, like batting average, RBIs, and stolen bases, don't always show a clear picture of a player's value and skill. He makes use of the new-fangled stats to support his points, but for seam-heads and sabermetrics buffs, well, you're going to be disappointed. He doesn't have the room (or at least doesn't take the time) to go into the kind of depth you'd probably like to have to describe, for example, why Babe Ruth was a better pitcher than you probably know, or how it is that Steve Garvey was not nearly as good a firstbaseman as you may have heard. Just a taste of the more sophisticated metrics is all you get, and then it's on to the next player on the list. For most readers, though, that's enough, so you won't really find it a problem. Any more than a sampling of those kinds of numbers can get tedious, especially when you're talking about a book of a few hundred pages rather than a blog post or a 2,000-word column on ESPN.com, so Jayson does well to limit that sort of thing.

In the same vein, one of my issues with his book is that he writes it more or less exactly the way he writes his columns. He uses a lot of truncated, terse sentences, with irreverent little comments and such thrown in liberally. That's just his style. Whatever. But after several dozen pages of that, it get's a little old. In a column or especially a blog post, that kind of stream-of-consciousness writing seems fitting, but in a book, I personally expect a bit more eloquence. Another writing strategy you see a little too much is the use of parenthetical comments (something a good writer should not have to do) and while an occasional set of parentheses can be helpful (for colorvor clarification) having six or seven of them in a paragraph can get a bit annoying (as you can imagine) or at least choppy. Jayson is a good enough writer to compose a tome without such faults, and I hope that his next work will use them more sparingly.

Another aspect of the book that seems somewhat excessive is his feeling that, with every new chapter on the most overrated such-and-such, he needs to reiterate that just because he thinks a player is overrated does not mean that he thinks he sucks, just that he thinks that people may think a little more of him than he deserves. This is a helpful and important distinction to make, but I'm not sure he needed to make it a dozen times or more. I guess he's just a little overly sensitive because of all the belligerent e-mail he gets from easily-offended people who feel the need to CAPITALIZE EVERYTHING and can't spell porperly properly. Hard to blame him.

With that said, I am going to argue a little bit about some of his choices, or at least about some of his arguments on their behalf.

In naming Edgar Martinez the most underrated Designated hitter of all time, Stark has this to say:

"...if Edgar Martinez wasn't the greatest hitter alive during those 13 seasons [1991 to 2003], he was certainly the most dependable great hitter alive."

Well, that isn't remotely true. Barry Bonds racked up almost twice as many homers (575 to 284) and 211 more Win Shares than Edgar in those 13 years. Edgar finished a distant 4th in Win Shares, with 364, well behind Bonds, Jeff Bagwell (415), and Frank Thomas (414), and not much better than Rafael Palmiero (361) and Gary Sheffield (344). While Jayson does acknowledge the fact that certain players did have a few more doubles or a slightly higher OBP than Edgar, he entirely omits the fact that Martinez averaged fewer than 22 homers a year in that span, or that his total of 284 was exactly as many as Robin Ventura, good for only 25th place on that list. Edgar had a lot of hits, and a lot of doubles, but at a time when records for homers were being set everywhere you looked, Martinez somehow misplaced his invitation to that party. In addition, Frank Thomas gets nary a mention in the chapter on the DH, even though he's likely to own many of the career records as a DH by the time he retires. And as far as dependability is concerned, well, Edgar missed an average of almost 28 games per year in that span. Even accounting for the 70+ games lost to the strike of 1994-95, that's still about 360 games not played by "...the most dependable great hitter alive".

Anyway, enough on Edgar. Back to Jayson's book.

If you're a Yankee fan, you may not be pleased with many of Stark's choices, even though he goes out of his way (again, on several occasions) to make it clear that he has nothing against the Yankees in particular. His #1 overrated DH, secondbaseman, shortstop, thirdbaseman and right fielder are all players who played some significant portion of their careers in Yankee pinstripes, and many of those are most likey thought of as overrated because they were Yankees. Even so, you could do a lot worse than to start a team with Steve Sax, Phil Rizutto, Graig Nettles, and Dave Winfield, though I can definitely see his point on Ron Blomberg. In addition, among the #2 through #5 most overrated players in their respective roles we also see David Wells, Tommy John, Dave Righetti, Reggie Jackson, Steve Balboni, Cecil Fielder, Bobby Richardson, Bucky Dent, Mickey Rivers, Darryl Strawberry and Bobby Abreu, Yankees all, at least for a while. However, in fairness to Stark, he also calls several Yankees underrated, including the #1 catcher (Yogi Berra) and #1 reliever (Goose Gossage), and gives a little love to the likes of Chili Davis, Oscar Gamble, Joe Gordon, Tim Raines, Bobby Bonds, and even goes so far as to call Derek Jeter the second most underrated shortstop in history!

Personally, I'm a huge Yankee fan, and I almost crapped my pants when I read that! Derek Jeter? Underrated? Saying that people don't realize how good Jeter really is like saying that most people don't realize how crazy Tom Cruise is, or how hot Jessica Simpson looks coming out of a nightclub. Is it even possible for us to hear any more than we already do about Derek Jeter? I can't imagine how. Maybe if they started getting him to sell watches and perfume and peanut butter and giving him a chance to host SNL once in a while...wait a minuite, too late. OK, so what if he practically had his own personal announcer during Yankee broadcasts on national TV, who would, no matter what he does in the field, fawn over his every move? Oh, wait, Tim McCarver. Never mind.

Well, in spite of my vehement disagreement about this particular issue, I can see Jayson's points for most of the other players he names, and won't quibble with them beyond what I've already said. Stark knows his baseball history, and many of his Lamentations of Underratedness stem from the fact that the general populace has largely forgottten most of the men who played before 1990. Guys like Stan Musial, Yogi Berra and Warren Spahn were extremely well regarded in their day, but because they played so long ago, when thigs like the All-Century Team or the DHL Home-Town Heroes voting come around, they're not given the acclaim they deserve, and Jayson is right to point that out. Granted, the fact that the voting for those things is done mostly, if not entirely, on the InterWebs means that the average age of the voters is about 14, so it's hard to take those kinds of votes too seriously. Nevertheless, the results of those votes are very public events, held during the All-Star Game or the World Series, so maybe it's MLB that needs to re-evaluate how they do these promotions, not so much the average baseball fan who needs to reevaluate his opinions on the great players of the 1950's and 1960's.

Regardless of that, Jayson's book is a worthwhile read. It's just barely over 200 pages, and broken down into lots of easily managed chapters and sub-chapters, so you can find your place without much trouble again if you have to put it down for something. Like to have a fistfight with the guy who's trying to tell you that Nolan Ryan was the Greatest Pitcher Ever when in reality you know, like Jayson, how overrated he was. If you can, just enjoy the book, and the conversations it will generate, and try not to get beat up.

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