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.

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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.

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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.

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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...

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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.

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08 June 2008

The Greatest Game: The Yankees, the Red Sox and the Playoff of ’78 by Richard Bradley

“It felt not just like a singular moment, but a fragile one, a rare convergence of tradition and rivalry and timelessness that would not be easily, if ever, re-created.”

- Richard Bradley in The Greatest Game

You know the story: The Yankees storm back from 14.5 games down in July to overtake the Red Sox in September, only to end up tied at the end of the season, forcing a one-game playoff at Fenway Park. The unlikeliest of players hits a home run to put the Yankees on top to stay, and then they sweep through the ALCS and the World Series to become MLB world champions for the second consecutive year.

This might have been the shortest book ever written. I mean, Peter Gammons and Murray Chass probably summed it all up in about 1000 words the next day, right? But don't bet against Bradley. Thirty years later, with most baseball fans (especially those of the Yanks and Sox) having heard the story hundreds of times, Richard Bradley managed to find more. A lot more. He has put together a book that tells you not just about the game, but about the histories of the teams, the circumstances and events leading up to the game itself and background on many of the personalities involved.

And what personalities they were. George Steinbrenner. Mike Torrez and Ron Guidry, Reggie Jackson and Carl Yastrzemski, Bill “Spaceman” Lee and Goose Gossage, Billy Martin and Don Zimmer, Thurman Munson and Carlton Fisk, George Scott, Mickey Rivers, and of course, Bucky (F-ing) Dent. There are fewer characters at a Loony Tunes convention, and Bradley does each of them justice, in their turns.

The book gives some background, but then goes into the game itself, following pitch-by-pitch, an inning at a time, discussing personalities and histories of each of the players as they come to bat. In the alternate chapters, he goes into more detail on some of the more prominent people involved in the game, so the reader can have a better sense of the meaning and experience of the game from various perspectives. It’s an approach that works very well, as you really do find yourself identifying with each of these people, in turn, but the story of the game itself retains its tension, even though you already know how it turns out before you ever pick up the book.

Bradley’s prose is excellent, as you should expect from someone who has written a bestselling biography of JFK, has written for some of the best known periodicals in the country, and is a former executive editor of George magazine. About Billy Martin, he says,

“Martin carried that me-against-the-world attitude, a combustible mix of courage and insecurity, pride and fear, into his play on the baseball diamond.”

About the Reggie Jackson chocolate bar fiasco, he writes, “…and Reggie! Bars were raining from the sky like some high-calorie biblical plague.”

Describing the aging, out-of-shape Bob “Beetle” Bailey: “…Bailey’s stomach pressed enthusiastically against his uniform.”

The writing is very good, tight but descriptive, expressive without being verbose, and a pleasure to read.

If there is a problem with the book, and really, there aren’t many, it’s that Bradley mixes up a few of the minor, baseball related details. He’s written often and well before, but never about baseball, and it shows, though just barely. He gets a statistic wrong here and there (baseball fans are notoriously sensitive to this sort of thing), mixes up right and left field at least once, and gets a few other details wrong.

He mentions that the regular season tie in 1978 was the first such occurrence since 1948, but that’s only true for the Junior Circuit. He did not realize that since the National League’s by-laws were different, the regular season ties that happened in 1962, 1959 and 1951 (ending in Bobby Thompson’s famous “Shot Heard ‘Round the World”) were resolved by 3-game series between the two tied teams, rather than the American League’s one-game playoff.

Still, such qualms are relatively minor for such an otherwise excellent book. Bradley’s composed a volume that should be of interest to not just fans of the Yankees or Red Sox, but of MLB and history in general. OK, so maybe just baseball.

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29 May 2008

Royals Lose 10th Straight in Epic Fashion

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

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

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

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

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

You can't make this stuff up.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Yankees Beat Baltimore, but Still Struggling

Sometimes things just work out.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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23 May 2008

Omar Vizquel's Weak Hall of Fame Case

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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21 May 2008

Mike Piazza Hangs Up Tools of Ignorance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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20 May 2008

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

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

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

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

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

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

And now this.

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

While the Yankees are in last place.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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09 May 2008

Cleveland @ Yankees: Musings on Pitch f/x

Technology is pretty darn cool.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bob Feller

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

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

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

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05 May 2008

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

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

They might also have the worst team.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, what does this all mean?

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

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

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

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

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

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