31 October 2008

Trade Analysis: Royals Get 1B Mike Jacobs for RHP Leo Nunez

The Kansas City Royals think they've plugged one of the many big holes in their lineup with the acquisition of 1B Mike Jacobs for relief pitcher Leo Nunez, but have they?

The Royals got the 4th worst OPS out of their firstbasemen in the whole of Major League Baseball this year. The three below them (Oakland, San Francisco and Seattle) were all rebuilding teams playing in severe pitchers' parks, so if you adjust for park context, the Royals are probably last, or very close to it.

So almost anything is an improvement, right? I mean, it's not tough to do better than the likes of Ross Gload and Mark Teahen, you would think. The trouble, however, is that of the handful of young players the Royals have who might be worth keeping, three of them (Billy Butler, Ryan Shealy and Kila Ka'aihue) also play first base. There's always the DH of course, since Royals' Designated Hitters in 2008 were nothing special, either (9th out of 14 AL teams in OPS). Except that's still only two lineup spots for four players. This means one of three things:

1) The Royals intend to trade one or more of their prospects.

This is possible, as there are probably several teams who would be interested in someone like Billy Butler or Kila Ka'aihue, a young hitter with patience and pop who would be forced to play for the MLB minimum for the next few years. This would be a smart thing to do, which is why it's probably not in the Royals' plans. Not as smart as, say, not trading for Jacobs in the first place, but smarter than doing nothing, in light of the now-existing circumstances.

2) The Royals don't think they're ready, and plan to let those guys get more seasoning at AAA Omaha and/or on the bench.

This would be a smart thing to do if either of them had anything left to prove in the minors. But they don't, or at least Butler doesn't. Butler's career minor league line is .336/.416/.561 in almost 400 games. The man can flat-out hit, even if he can't field, but that's why we have the DH. Ka'aihue hit approximately .315/.450/.630 combined at AA and AAA this year, an impressive line indeed, but only 33 of his 771 career minor league games are at AAA. (He didn't embarrass himself in 21 MLB at-bats either.) He'll be 25 at the end of March, so the Royals may feel like they have a little time to see if he's the real deal.

For the record, Shealy's got impressive minor league numbers, too, throughout his career, but most of those were put up in hitters' parks in the Colorado farm system, and he's often been old for his leagues. He's going to be 29 next year, so it's not like they'd be totally off their rockers if they didn't look at him as an everyday starter at first base.

3) The Royals plan to "mix and match", go with the "hot hand" and generally "ruin the careers" of all four players, plus Jose Guillen's, just to be fair.

Now that sounds like the Kansas City Royals we all know and love!

Jacobs hit 32 homers and drove in 92 for the Marlins this year, both career highs, as were his 67 runs scored. Unfortunately, his 119 strikeouts were also a career high, and his .247 batting average and .299 OBP were both career lows. Jacobs wouldn't be a bad pickup if the Royals didn't already have three decent possibilities of the position he plays, or if they had a lineup full of patient hitters who can be on base in front of an all-or-nothing guy like Jacobs. But the Royals front office can never just cave in a rebuild completely, and Jacobs comes with the "Proven Veteran" tag tattooed on the back of his neck, so, here he is.

Oh, and he's about to get expensive, which is why the Marlins were shopping him. After making the MLB minimum for the last three years and change, Jacobs is eligible for salary arbitration, and will probably draw something like $4 to $6 million, especially after hitting 32 homers. The Royals are, like many of the bottom-feeders in MLB, flush with revenue sharing money, but they don't know how to spend it.

Three years ago they were picking up guys like Scott Elarton and Mark Redman and Reggie Sanders and Mark Grudzielanek, supposedly to help the youngsters develop in a more stable environment. Of those, only Grudz remains, and his contract is now, up, but the Royals don't have anyone else qualified to play second base.

Well, Alberto Callaspo might be worth a long look, but scouting reports suggest that he'll be hard pressed as an every day player. Shortstop Mike Aviles looks like a late bloomer who may have a few decent years in him, and Alex Gordon should continue to develop. If they can let Butler DH every day and if Jacobs continues to be at least mediocre (or better yet, if he flops and Ka'aihue thrives...) the infield and DH spots might be OK.

The trouble is that the entire remainder of the lineup is filled with professional Out-Makers. John Buck has been the Royals' regular catcher for almost five years, and has yet to post an adjusted OPS higher than 90 in any season. This year, at age 27, when he should have been having his best season, he hit .224 with nine homers. His back-up, Miguel Olivo, hit 12 in 25 fewer games. The Royals' catching corps ranked 21st in OPS among the 30 MLB teams.

And the outfield is even worse. Mark Teahen got a little of his "power" back, hitting 15 homers, but lost 30 points in batting average, so his slugging percentage was basically unchanged. Jose Guillen, despite the 97 RBIs, had his worst full year in a decade, with an OPS of 91, an OPB of .300 and just 66 runs scored. David DeJesus was pretty good, but he can't carry a team, especially not one that insists on giving Joey Gathright 300 chances to prove he still can't hit. Overall, Royals outfielders ranked 20th (RF), 23rd (LF) and 29th (CF) in OPS in 2008, and among those, only Teahen has any real chance of improving. DeJesus is likely to get a little worse, and Guillen is what he is: An aging, below-average hitter and fielder making $12 mil for each of the next two years, whether he improves or not.

And I haven't even gotten into the pitching. Zach Greinke looks like he's back and Gil Meche was solid once again, but it remains to be seen whether Luke Hochevar and/or Kyle Davies will develop, or if Brian Bannister can get back to the form that made him look so promising in 2007. They've got a decent closer and a couple of worthwhile relief pitchers, but not much else, and little help coming from AAA. (Carlos Rosa is the closest thing to a real prospect still down there, and he needs to prove himself at AAA a little more.)

Now would be a great time to take a chance and trade Meche, who, after two solid years, looks like a consistent, LAIM-plus, but who probably won't be worth the $35 million they still owe him for the next three years. The team should be trading away expensive players who won't likely help them toward a championship, instead of acquiring them. Lots of teams could use a guy like Meche, or what they think Meche will be, and the Royals could probably get a pretty good outfielder in return.

Leo Nunez, the pitcher they gave up for Jacobs, was a starter in the minors but his thin frame (6'1", 160) scares scouts. Still, lots of skinny guys have turned out to be pretty good, and he ought to get a chance. it's not that they couldn't afford to give him up, just that there were more pressing needs than an "established veteran" (read: "proven mediocrity") for first base.

All of this is to say that while the Royals have some needs, and could afford to trade away a pitching prospect, they have lots of needs more pressing than yet another firstbaseman/DH.

If there's an upside to this, it's that Jacobs had an abnormally low BABIP this year, just .260, where the MLB average is around .300 or so. If he comes back to the norm in 2009, he could see a 20-30 point improvement in his batting average, and the Royals will look like geniuses! You heard it here first, folks.

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30 October 2008

Phillies Win 2008 World Series, Just Like I Didn't Not Expect they Wouldn't

See? Didn't I tell you that you shouldn't not bet money on the Phillies!

Congratulations to the Philadelphia Phillies, who won only the second World Championship of their long, generally disappointing existence last night, as they beat the Tampa Bay Rays 4-3, and four games to one in the Series. And though I picked the Rays to win the Series (knowing that in doing so, they wouldn't) a few of the points I made in that column proved to be prescient.



The Rays did not manage to contain Ryan Howard, who homered three times and drove in six, both marks leading the team. Chase Utley, while hitting only .167 overall, also walked five times, stole three bases and homered twice, including the first run of the Series in game 1, giving the Phils a lead they never relinquished. Victorino's bat returned to more normal levels, and he was basically a non-factor.

Jayson Werth's bat did not continue its slumber, hitting .444/.583/.778 with a homer, three doubles and four runs scored, plus three successful steals. Personally, he'd have gotten the MVP award for the series, if I'd had any say in it. Cole Hamels got it instead, pitching well twice, as I had expected, and the bullpen (2-0, 2 Saves, 5 Holds and a 1.54 ERA in about a dozen innings) was great.

To my great surprise, however, Pat Burrell went utterly cold (hitting .071) while Carlos Ruiz and Pedro Feliz, both hit pretty well, though Feliz hit only singles and did not score a run. Matt Stairs hardly played, as Manuel chose Greg Dobbs as his DH in Game 2, and Games 6 and 7 never happened, at least not in reality. (In TravisMind FantasyLand, Stairs was the DH in both Games 6 and 7. So there.)



To my even greater surprise, Brett Myers, Jamie Moyer and Joe Blanton all pitched well in their starts, though Myers took a tough loss. The three of them combined for a 3.72 ERA in 19 innings. Also, Brad Lidge did a decidedly un-Philly-like job of not cracking under the pressure, Saving two games and keeping his perfect record intact. (As a side note, I found it rather amusing when he was interviewed afterwards, talking about what great fans they have in Philly. Wait til you blow a Save, there, Brad. You'll see.)

For their part, the Tampa Bay Rays starting pitchers did reasonably well. Their 4.21 World Series ERA was only a quarter of a run higher than their in-season ERA of 3.95, but that's to be expected with tougher competition. The real problem was that they averaged only a little over five innings per start. Nobody got past the 6th inning, and two of their five starts lasted only four frames. (James Shields, who got the sole Rays win, pitched 5.2 shutout innings in Game 2.)

The Phillies just wore them down, waiting for their pitches, and drawing 17 walks in 26 innings, and forcing each pitcher's count upwards of 100 early, so that the Rays had no chance of saving their bullpen. This, of course, put a lot more strain on the Rays bullpen than might otherwise have been desirable, which is exactly what Philadelphia wanted. Textbook Moneyball strategy, right there. The Tampa Bay relievers' ERA in this series, 4.96, was about a run and a half higher than it had been in the regular season, as they allowed 4 homers in 16 innings, and JP Howell took two of the four losses. Dan Wheeler, who had been very good in the regular season, also struggled.

But the Rays' real problem was their lack of hitting. Forget the ugly ERAs for a moment. Ten of Philly's 24 runs (and 8 of 21 Earned Runs) were scored in Game 3. The other four contests were each won by one run. A little more output from some of the Rays hitters, and this Series goes to six or seven games, at least. (Not "at least" seven games, like they'd play eight or nine. I mean they could have at least pushed the Series to seven games, and maybe even won it.)



The biggest culprits here are, of course, Evan Longoria and Carlos Pena, the heart of the Rays' lineup, their #3 and #4 hitters. These two combined to go 3-for-37, scoring one run between them. Carl Crawford (2 homers, 4 runs) did his part. Dioner Navarro did more than his part, hitting .353, even though he allowed seven of eight steals. Akinori Iwamura was only a little worse than usual, and BJ Upton, though he hit only .250, managed to steal four bases and score three runs. Jason Bartlett hit only .214, which looks pretty bad until you realize: it's Jason Bartlett. Nobody expects him to hit.

Despite the game tying homer last night, Rocco Baldelli didn't do much either, and Ben Zobrist's bat was quiet as well, but those were part time players. Pena and Longoria were the big guys expected to contribute and they both came up small. When looking back on this Series, there is no greater reason for the Rays; defeat than that.



Well, that, and the fact that I picked them to win.

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23 October 2008

2008 World Series (Almost) Preview: Phillies vs. Rays

This is an exciting time to be a fan of a beleaguered franchise. Not only are two of the most pathetic teams in history playing in the World Series this year, but inevitably, one of them must win it. The handful of fans remaining in Kansas City waits with baited breath.

The Phillies, the losing-est team in major league baseball, nay, in sports history, with one lonely World Championship in their 125 years of existence, and that almost 30 years ago now, will represent the Senior Circuit. In the other corner, with the worst winning percentage of any team in baseball history,and appropriately enough, representing the so-called Junior Circuit, a team barely a decade old. In their first 10 years, the Rays finished last nine times, and second to last once, before winning 97 games and their division in 2008.

I'm pretty decent at predictions over the whole season, but these playoff series always seem to elude me.

  • In 2005, though I picked some of the playoff series correctly, I picked the Astros to beat Chicago in the World Series, which of course did not actually, you know, happen.

  • In 2006 I picked all four of the Division Series exactly wrong, then picked the Tigers to beat the Cardinals. Oops.

  • In 2007, I didn't make any predictions, but the playoffs happened anyway.

  • And this year I picked the Dodgers to beat the Phillies in seven games and the Red Sox to take out the Rays (in 5 games!), so it's clear that I'm no good at picking winners.

If anything, I'm good at picking the team that won't win, kind of like women with driving directions. But I don't want to ruin the surprise, so you'll have to keep reading if you don't want to not find out who you shouldn't not bet on.

As for what you might expect, well...

Offense:

The Phillies seem to be a slightly better offensive team than Tampa Bay. Philadelphia wasn't quite as good as I had predicted before the season, but they were close. They ranked 9th in the majors in runs scored, 7th in OPS, compared to the Rays at 10th and 13th, respectively. That disparity is even greater when you consider thet the Rays got to use a DH in most of their games, while the Phillies did not. Interestingly, however, the fact that The Trop is a slight pitcher's park while The Vault is a hitter's park mostly negates all that, and they both wind up with a team adjusted OPS of 103.

Key components of the offense for the Phillies are:

1B Ryan Howard, who led the majors in homers and RBIs, but was also 8th in the NL with 475 outs made, including 199 whiffs for the second year in a row. In the playoffs so far he's been mostly stymied, hitting only .258 with two extra base hits (doubles) and three RBIs in 9 games. For the Rays to win, they'll likely have to continue to keep Howard's bat in check.

2B Chase Utley, who drove in 100+ runs for the 4th straight year in 2008, and has hit some in the playoffs as well, with a homer, 5 runs and 5 RBIs, despite the .250 batting average. He's a perennial MVP candidate, and can hardly be overestimated. The Dodgers learned this the hard way, when he hit .353/.522/.647 against them in the NLCS.

LF Pat Burrell, who has averaged 31 homers, 99 RBIs and 103 walks for the past four seasons. He, too, has been key in the playoffs, hitting .300 with 3 homers and 7 RBIs in nine games.

SS Jimmy Rollins. The Phillies' leadoff man and reigning NL MVP hit .375 in the NLDS, but only .143 in the series against Los Angeles, though he did coincidentally hit leadoff homers in the clinching games of both series. He's still a threat to hit for power, steal bases, and/or record a rap song.

CF Shane Victorino, who is a decent player who's gotten hot in the playoffs. Normally a .290/.350/.430 player with speed, Victorino has been the biggest story of the Phillies' postseason so far, with two homers, three doubles, a triple and 11 (!) RBIs in only nine games to date, plus three steals in three attempts. He's not this good, folks, and won't likely keep it up for another week, especially if his exploits in the earlier series start to swell his ego.

Jayson Werth, though he's been mostly quiet in the playoffs, is still a force to be reckoned with as well, especially against lefties, against whom he hit .303/.368/.652 this year. Tampa's Game 1 starter and three of their key relievers are all southpaws, so watch out.

Fortunately for the Rays, the Phillies also employ Pedro Feliz and Carlos Ruiz, who have both hit around the Mendoza Line in the playoffs so far, and neither of whom is really much better than that.

Though he wouldn't admit it beforehand, Charlie Manuel will probably usually use Matt Stairs as his DH. Stairs isn't much against lefties, and so likely won't start Game 1 (only three homers in the last four seasons, total). Sadly, Geoff Jenkins, So Taguchi and Greg Dobbs are all just as bad or worse, so they'll probably use backup catcher Chris Coste against Scott Kazmir and just take their chances that Carlos Ruiz doesn't get beaned or something.

Tampa Bay, though generally devoid of any superstars, has a lot of solid, versatile role-players. At first glance, it would seem that the only real power threats are Carlos Pena and Evan Longoria, but Ben Zobrist slugged .505 in limited playing time this year and B.J. Upton (4 homers and 11 RBIs against the Red Sox, plus 3 more homers against the White Ones) obviously cannot be ignored either. Whatever knocked his homer total down from 24 to nine this year does not seem to be a problem anymore.



More important, perhaps, a healthy Carl Crawford (hitting .302 with six steals in six tries in the postseason) in the middle of the lineup strengthens the whole team. Catcher Dioner Navarro hit .295 in the regular season and .400 against the Pale Hose, but went cold against the Red Sox.

The rest of the lineup is filled out by solid but (talent-wise) largely undistinguishable role players. Akinori Iwamura and Rocco Baldelli are better than they've played so far in the postseason, though Baldelli is basically a singles hitter at this point in his career, who's no longer a threat to steal. Gabe Gross and Cliff Floyd both have a little pop in their bats, if not much else, and Jason Bartlett can amke contact and steal an occasional base. They've got a little power, a little speed, some guys who hit for average...in other words, no obvious or clear-cut strengths, nor weaknesses.

Pitching:

The Phillies' 3.88 ERA was 4th in the NL, 6th in MLB, almost exactly the same as the 3.82 posted by Tampa, which was 2nd in the majors. This is a slightly more impressive number given that they play in the DH-using American League, but again that is mitigated by the fact that they play in a pitcher's park and the Phillies play in a phonebooth. Their adjusted ERA?

Phils: 115
Rays: 114

Again, like the teams' offenses, remarkably evenly matched.

The differences are in where their strengths lie. The Phillies have a decent starting staff, overall, but they had a 4.23 ERA as starters, only 13th in MLB, and there's a lot of weight on Hamels' performance even to bring those numbers to where they are. The rest of the rotation gets pretty mediocre after him.

Their real strength is in their bullpen, where the team's 3.19 ERA was the second best in MLB. Brad Lidge still has not blown a Save all year, and Ryan Madson (3.05 ERA in 83 innings), and LHP J.C. Romero (2.75 in 59 Innings) have been very good. Amazingly, so have Chad Durbin (2.87 in 88 innings) and Clay Condrey (3.26 in 69 IP). This bullpen is so good that they could leave Rudy Seanez (5-4, 3.53 ERA in 43 innings) entirely off the postseason roster.

Keep in mind, however, that Lidge is overdue for an implosion, and this would be a very Philadelphia-esque time for him to decide he needs to ruin his spotless 2008 record.

I'm just sayin'.



The Tampa Bay bullpen's 3.55 ERA ranked 5th in MLB, so they're not exactly chopped liver either, but the 3.95 starters' ERA was the 6th best in MLB, and the second best in the tougher American League. They have a very balanced starting rotation, with five guys who won at least 11 games, but none with more than 14. The most crucial aspect of their starting corps was its health, as only nine starts went to someone other than their nominal starting five. Scott Kazmir's got the most talent, with a team-best 3.49 ERA and more than a strikeout per inning, but there's really nobody bad on the staff. Edwin Jackson (14-11, 4.42 ERA in 183 innings) is the odd man out, since they only need four starters for the playoffs, and most teams would love to have someone like that.

Tampa Bay's bullpen, headed up by Grant Balfour, JP Howell, Dan Wheeler and rookie phenomenon David Price, makes up in talent what it lacks in name recognition. Erstwhile closer Troy Percival is the worst pitcher in the bunch, and he's saved over 350 games in his career.

Getting back to the Phillies, Game 2 starter Brett Myers has plenty of talent, but his performance has been erratic this year. (By the way, Brett: Harry Shearer called: he wants his eyebrows back.) He won Game 2 of the NLDS, pitching 7 innings and allowing only two runs, beating C.C. Sabathia, no less, but then got hit hard by the Dodgers, allowing five runs in five innings (including ten baserunners and a wild pitch) in the NLCS, though he got the win anyway because Clay Billingsley suddenly forgot how to get anybody out.

The rest of the Phillies' rotation is very sketchy.

Jamie Moyer is probably really excited to be in the World Series, since his last opportunity at the feat was ruined when John McGraw and the Giants refused to play his Boston Americans in 1904.

Jamie Moyer in his Boston Americans uniform, looking quite dapper!

Despite winning 16 games this year, Jamie Moyer is still 4,239 years old and probably hasn't got much left in the tank. This year he was much better on the road (10-3, 2.92 ERA) than he was in Philadelphia (6-4, 4.61) but unfortunately, he draws the Game 3 start at Citizen's Bank Park. He's allowed eight runs in 5.1 total innings over two outings in this postseason, and I don't see how the Phillies can expect much from him in Game 3, especially since he's opposed by Matt Garza, who allowed only 2 runs while fanning 14 Red Sox in 13 innings during his two starts in the ALCS.

The Phils' #4 starter, Joe Blanton, is basically a LAIM, but he's got a 6.05 career ERA against the Rays in about 42 career innings, most of which were accumulated before 2008, when the Rays were the Devil Rays, and also sucked. He's been a mixed bag this postseason, pitching brilliantly for 6 innings against the Brewers (one run, 7 K's, no walks) but then allowing 11 baserunners and three runs in 5 innings against the Dodgers.

Blanton's competition is Andy Sonnastine, who won 13 games in the regular season, including a 4-0, 2.97 record against the National League (2 games against Florida, and then Pittsburg, St. Louis and the Cubs). He's not a great pitcher, but he's got good control, and has pitched well enough to garner two wins in the postseason so far.

So, my prediction is... (and it should be noted that I'm finishing this on Thursday morning, after the Phillies have already won Game 1):

Moyer and Myers won't survive the 6th, maybe even the 5th innings of their respective starts, thoug Myers will probably last the longer of the two. Tampa wins those games more or less easily. The Blanton-Sonnastine start will be closer, and Tampa could still pull it out, but I'll give that game to the Phillies. Hamels wins again in Game 6, and then Garza stymies the Phillies in Game 7 (as Jamie Moyer surrenders six runs in three innings, and is then taken up to heaven in a white chariot).

The Rays win it in seven.

There you go, folks! Place your bets on the Phillies now!

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15 October 2008

An Open Letter To the Philadelphia Phillies: Time Running Out

The Philadelphia Phillies have one last chance tonight.

It's Game 5 of a Best of 7 series, and tey're up 3-1, which means that if they win tonight, they go of the World Series against whomever wins the Rays-Sox series in the Junior Circuit. That would be their first World Series berth since 1993, when they lost to the Toronto Blue Jays in six games. So this is it:

They have to lose tonight.

I mean, this is Philadelphia. The City of Brotherly BOOOO!!! What will the city have to complain about if their team goes to the World Series? I mean, sure, they could wait for them to lose the championship to the AL pennant winner in a couple of weeks, and things might get back to normal pretty quickly, but really, why wait?

The Phillies have a chance to blow it tonight and assure themselves of a few more days of solid derision by thier fans and local radio personalities. They will still need, naturally, to lose two more games, and at home, no less, for Philadelphia to retain its identity as one of the nastiest places to be a professional athlete.

These 2008 Phillies are playing with Destiny here, and the Destiny of the sports fans of Philadelphia can be summed up in one word: Disappointment.

Sure, the Phillies won ther division last year, but then were promptly swept out of the playoffs by the surprising NL Wild Card Rockies. They hit .172 as a team in those three games, and amassed a 5.54 ERA, and this against a team that didn't even win its own division! It was embarassing! That's what I'm talking about!

Where's that Defeatist Philly Spirit? This team's already won one playoff series, sweeping the Milwaukee Brewers out in the NLDS in three games, and here they're on the brink of winning a second one! What in the wild, wild world of sports is a-goin' on around here?

The Philadelphia Eagles have got this down-pat. They haven't won an NFL championship since 1960, and have hardly even gotten close since the NFL merged with the AFL! Sure, they've been in the playoffs lots of times, but the NFL lets just about anybody int he playoffs, don't they? And the Eagles always manage to snatch defeat from the jaws of seemigly certain victory every time.

Not that anybody pays any attention to hockey anymore, but I've heard that the Flyers have a pretty solid reputation for choking as well. They won a couple of Stanley Cups before the Carter Administration, but they've choked magnificiently two dozen times since then. They get into the playoffs all the time but heck, they have 26 divisions in hockey and there are only 28 teams, so that's no great accomplishment. Way to go, guys!

But these Phillies are coming dangerously close to screwing things up royally in Philadelphia. Think about it: The Boston Red Sox had a long history of choking at the most opportune of moments, and in some cases, the most dramatic of epic failures. They managed to shed that cloak four years ago by winning a World Series and won another one last year and then what happened? Financial crisis! The housing market, the stock market and the food market around the corner from my house are all in a shambles! Coincidence? I don't think so.

The Dodgers, of course, are not helping here. After having had the best pitching staff in the National League and one of the best rotations in baseball, they've gotten exactly one Quality Start in this series. Chad Billingsley was one of the best pitchers in the majors, and he's now allowed 10 runs in five total innings over two starts. Derek Lowe hasn't been awful, but neither has he escaped the 6th inning in either of his starts.

Joe Torre has been particularly quick with the hook, not just with starters but also with his relievers, which may or may not be some of the reason the Dodgers are coughing it up. The hitters, especially Manny Ramirez, are doing what they can, but the Dodgers' pitchers keep giving up runs - 5 more of them tonight! - and the Dodgers' hitters can't be expected to do everything themselves. The Phillies' pitchers have got to get it done, now! My suggestion is that this would be the perfect time for Brad Lidge to finally cough up a Save, or even a non-Save.

Time is short. Let's get going and lose thins thing!

UPDATE @ 11:35PM: Crap.

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09 October 2008

2008 National League Championship Series Preview

Tonight the Los Angeles Dodgers (84-78) and the Philadelphia Phillies (92-70) will face off in their best of seven series to decide the National league's representative in the World Series.

By rights, the Dodgers should not even be in this series. Throughout the Chicago Cubs schedule in the regular season, they were a vastly better team, with the best run differential in MLB, the best offense and the best record in the National League. Whether it was their lack of playoff experience, poor managing, overconfidence, or a livestock curse, the Cubs fell apart in almost every conceivable manner.

They made four errors in one game, and six in the three-game series, despite having had the second best defense in MLB, as measured by FRAA, a Baseball Prospectus stat. Their league-leading offense hit .240 with one home run. The pitching staff, which had the second best adjusted ERA in baseball, posted a 5.19 ERA in the three games, and only one of their three starters escaped the 5th inning. "Anything can happen in a short series." And it sure as hell did to the Cubs.

I give credit to the Dodgers, to a degree. They won their games. They capitalized on the mistakes the Cubs made. Of course, if they hadn't, the Cubs were going to make another one the next inning, anyway, but they didn't know that, even if the Cubs' fans did.



I mentioned in my column previewing the 2008 ALCS that Baseball Prospectus' Secret Sauce calculation can be a useful tool, but of course one-third of that is the closer's performance. In the case of the Rays, though they did not use Troy Percival in the ALDS, they could still use him in the ALCS, while Los Angeles almost definitely will not include Takashi Saito. Even if they do, it's unlikely, given how well Jonathan Broxton has thrown, to expect that Saito would again be made closer after not pitching for two months.



Using Broxton's number improves the Dodgers' Secret Sauce rank by three, bringing them into a virtual tie with the Phillies anyway, 41-40, with the Dodgers being fairly evenly ranked in the three components (14th in defense, 12th in K-rate, 15th in closer strength). The Phils, by contrast, are 22nd in K-rate, 17th in fielding, but make up for those by having the best closer in baseball, Brad Lidge. That 5-place gap in fielding should be taken with a grain of salt, though, as it represents a difference of only 5 runs over the course of the season, which works out to about 1/5th of one run over the course of a seven game series. Basically negligible.

So Secret Sauce is out for this one. What else can we use?

The Bill James playoff prediction system, which is a calculation based solely on the two teams' winning percentages in the regular season, gives the Phillies a 55% chance of winning this series, slightly better than tossing a coin. Coolstandings.com has that number as well, presumably because they used the same calculation I did. That's not much help either.

Over the regular season, the Phillies were second in the NL in runs scored (tied with the Mets, with 799, WAY less than the 1000 runs some were predicting before the season started). They were third in OPS, and second in slugging percentage to the Cubbies, who had a slightly larger park effect for offense. The Phillies walked fairly often, 5th in the NL, and led the NL (second in the majors) with 214 home runs. They also stole 136 bases, 4th in MLB, and had the best stealing success rate (84%) in baseball.



The bad news for Philly is that the Dodgers do not walk batters and do not allow home runs or steals. They were 2nd in the NL in fewest walks allowed (7th in MLB) trailing only Arizona in that respect. More important, they allowed the fewest homers in MLB, by far, only 123 in 162 games, and as I mentioned, only one to the Cubs' vaunted offense in the NLDS. And lest you think that this was just an effect of playing in Chavez Ravine, the Dodgers allowed the 6th fewest homers in road games in MLB as well.


Los Angeles also kept baserunners in check pretty well, allowing only 82 successful steals all season, 5th best among the 16 National League teams. The Phillies, my Phriends, are out of tools.

Now we're going to have to start looking at actual players. Sheesh.

The Dodgers are going to have to score runs themselves, not just prevent them, if they want to win this thing. Though they scored just 700 runs this season, 7th worst in MLB, this is partially due to their home park favoring pitchers, suppressing run scoring by almost 16%, according to ESPN.com. Additionally, it's worth noting that the advent of MannyB in Dodger Blue has increased the team's runs scored by almost half a run per game. They averaged 4.63 R/G in the 54 games with MannyB, compared to just 4.17 without him.



In August the Phillies and Dodgers met eight times, and split the games evenly, each sweeping the other at home. The Dodgers won their four games by one or two runs each, outscoring the Phillies 22-16. But then, Philadelphia demolished the Dodgers, scoring 27 runs and allowing only five in the 4-game set. The clobbered both wily old veteran Greg Maddux and studly youngster Clayton Kershaw in the first two games, then chipped away at the bullpen in the other two games.

Again, there's a problem here for the Phillies: Greg Maddux won't be starting against them in the NLCS. Kershaw may, but not until Game 4. They'll have to face Derek Lowe, who's 4-1 with a 3.02 ERA in his career against Philadelphia, and who has held current Phillies to a .220 batting average. In Game one, Lowe opposes Cole Hamels, no slouch himself with a 2.57 ERA in 14 career innings against Philadelphia.

Friday's match up pits Chad Billingsley against Brett Myers. Both pitched well their last time out, but Brett Myers has been so flaky as a starter this year, I wouldn't be surprised if he just imploded. In fact, I fully expect he will. Billingsley has been much more consistent, and his ability to strike out a batter an inning should play well against the Phightin' Phils, who phought their way to 1117 whiffs this season 12th most in the majors.



Sunday's game matches Hiroki Kuroda, one of the unluckiest pitchers in the majors this year, against 57-year old Jamie Moyer, who was one of the luckiest. The 93-year old Moyer lasted just four innings against Milwaukee in the NLDS, and while he's seemed ageless at times this year, he's really 235, and the reality is that he's got to be reaching the end. Which makes sense, given that he's almost a thousand years old. The Dodgers should be able to get to Moy-thuselah without much trouble.

After that, it's uncertain who will start for the Dodgers, though the Phillies seem set. They should go with Joe BlandOne Blanton, who went 9-12 with a 4.69 ERA, the very definition and epitome of LAIM. Fifth starter Kyle Kendrick, who, on a scale of one to ten, was lousy this year, was left off the NLCS roster, so he's not an option, and you wouldn't want him anyway. Cole Hamels has never started on 3-days rest in his major league career, so I doubt they'd go that route.



The Dodgers could start Derek Lowe on three-days rest, or they could go with Kershaw. this may depend on how many pitches Lowe has to throw in Game One, on how well Kershaw looks throwing on the side, how desperate the Dodgers are if they're down 3-0 or 2-1, or perhaps something else to which we won't be privy. As a Yankee fan, I remember Lowe starting against us on 3-days' rest in the 2004 ALCS all too well, and if I'm a Philly Phan, it scares the crap out of me.

There are a couple of X-factors here. One of them is that Joe Torre's got a lot more playoff experience than Charlie Manuel, who was just 2-6 in eight playoff games before 2008. Torre's probably got the stinging defeat of the 2004 ALCS in his mind, not to mention three first-round exits from the playoffs before this year. Psychologically, he'd probably like nothing better than to get another shot at Terry Francona and the Red Sox, this time in the World Series.

And speaking of psychology, it's worth noting that Brad Lidge has not blown a Save all season. A friend of mine who's an avid Phillies Phan told me in September that he was actually hoping that Lidge would have a bad outing or two in September, to get it out of the way and take the pressure off, but of course this never happened.

Lidge went 41-for-41, and now everyone is waiting for the other shoe to drop. Lidge doesn't have the long history of Philly collapses in his blood, but he's probbaly not unaware of them either, and it seems to me he's got some history of choking on his own anyway. The Dodgers are not a good enough team offensively to just blow the Phillies out and keep Lidge in the bullpen, so his ability to keep from imploding could prove crucial.

My best guess is that the Dodgers pull it out, 4 to 3.

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08 October 2008

2008 American League Championship Series Preview

American League Championship Series (ALCS)

The Boston Red Sox (95-67) will meet the Tampa Bay Rays (97-65) Friday night for the first of a best-of-seven series to decide the Junior Circuit pennant winner. Despite the fact that the Red Sox finished two games behind the Rays in the AL East, the odds are considered to be slightly in the Red Sox favor, for a number of reasons.

First of all, the Red Sox finished best in the American League in Run Differential, scoring 151 more runs than they allowed over the course of the season. Tampa Bay was only +103, and therefore would have been expected to win only 92 games rather than 97, based on the Pythagenport expectations. It's worth noting, however, that the best run differential in MLB belonged to the Chicago Cubs, who were swept by the lowly Dodgers. Things can happen.

The Rays have the best Relative Power Index, an indication of how well they did and how strong their opponents were, but they just barely edge out the Red Sox, so that's probably a moot point. Besides that, nobody on the Tampa team is an MVP or Cy Young candidate, so there's really nobody that you'd have to single out as an opponent to focus on beating.

Baseball Prospectus' Secret Sauce would suggest that the Red Sox, ranking 1st overall, should win this series, as the rays ranked just 6th in the majors, slightly ahead of the (ick) Royals. Secret Sauce is a metric that incorporates teams' adjusted strikeout rate, defense and the strength of their closer into a single number, which is the sum of the ranks of those three, so lower = better. Boston's total of 16 (6th in defense, 1st in K rate, 9th in closer strength) is the lowest in MLB, while Tampa (1+10+21, respectively) didn't rate nearly as well.

It's an interesting thought, though somewhat limited in its usefulness, as you might expect. You see, Secret Sauce adds up dissimilar items into a single number, without giving priority to one or the other. While it makes sense that teams that play good defense, strike out more batters and have a good closer will win more in October than other teams, the Secret Sauce number doesn't acknowledge the impact of these separate skills. having the best closer in the league, for example, doesn't do you much good if you never have a late lead to protect, as the Dodgers found out in 2004.

Last year's World Series winner, the Red Sox, ranked first overall in Secret Sauce, and by a healthy margin. Meanwhile, the NL representative in the October Dance, the Rockies, ranked 20th overall, but first in fielding. That defense, perhaps, got them all the way to the World Series, but wasn't enough against a team that could hit and field and pitch like the Red Sox. Since 1993, only three teams that have led MLB in Secret Sauce wound up winning the World Series, but two of them were the Red Sox, in 2004 and 2007. The other was Arizona in 2001, and it's worth mentioning that the 1998 and 1999 Yankees finished a very close second each time.

At least one if not both World Series teams has been ranked in the top four in Secret Sauce every year since 1988 except 2003 and 2006, that is, nearly 90% of the time, and Boston's the only team left from that quartet.

Tampa Bay won 10 of 18 contests between the two teams in 2008, but curiously enough, both teams showed significant home field advantages in the season series. In their nine games at The Trop, the Rays went 8-1 against Boston, scoring a total of 42 runs and allowing 33. By comparison, Boston went 7-2 at Fenway Park against the upstart Rays, and they dominated in those contests, 54-25.

Thanks to their record, the Rays have home field advantage in this series, but that's only one game's difference. Therefore, I think, if the Red Sox can win one game in St. Petersburg, the series will never make it back there. They'll finish off the Rays in Boston, 4-1.

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02 October 2008

2008 National League Awards

Well, this will be too late to preempt the NL and AL Comeback Player of the Year awards.

If you're interested, you can read my pick for the American league here.

The NL award went to the Phillies' Brad Lidge, who went 41-for-41 in Save opportunities while posting a 1.95 ERA in 69 innings. This came a year after blowing 8 Saves in 27 chances with the Astros last year, so it's seen as a major turnaround, I guess. I disagree. I think Lidge's real turnaround was from 2006 to 2007. He went 1-5 with a 5.28 ERA that year, even though he did save 32 games.



Christian Guzman, who hit .316 in 579 ABs after playing only 46 games last year, or Jorge Cantu would have been better choices. Cantu hit .277/29/95 with 41 doubles and 92 Runs after hitting a combined .252 with one homer in 52 games for Tampa and Cincy in 2007. Now that's a comeback! Ryan Dempster would have been a better choice, too, for going 17-6 with a 2.96 ERA in 200+ IP after several years of relieving, and not always well. Cantu would have been my pick, though.

Now on to the ones they haven't already named...

NL Most Valuable Player

An Albert Pujols love poem to the National League might read as follows:

How do I lead thee? Let me count the ways.
I lead thee in the depth and breadth and height
My bat can reach, to hit balls out of sight!
For though I seconded in the Batting Race,
I lead thee in Runs Created, Times on Base.
I lead in OPS,
by sun and candle-light.
I lead thee in
VORP, without much of a fight;
I lead thee in Total Bases and Slugging,
I lead thee in Walks Intentional, just for fun,
I lead thee in Percent, Offensive Winning,
In RCAA, Adjusted Batting Runs,
In Batting Wins, though
by threads my elbow's hanging.
I lead thee in WARP,
the best I've ever done.
I shall but lead next year in everything.

Albert Pujols is, far and away, the best player in the National League, and it's not even close. Besides the stuff I could rhyme, he alse led the league in EqA, RC/27 Outs, BB/AB, K/W, Fielding Percentage, Range Factor, Zone Rating, RZR and Double Plays Turned (for his position). In case you were wondering.



Discussions of Ryan Howard (because he leads in Homers and RBI) are laughable. The man also made 475 Outs, more than all but half a dozen men in the Senior Circuit. Chipper Jones was nearly as good as Pujols, with the bat if not the glove, but he played 20 fewer games. David Wright and Lance Berkman both had great years, but they're on a whole different plane from Pujols. Nobody else is even worth discussing, and for that matter, neither are these guys, but somebody's going to ask, so I figured I'd get this out of the way.


NL Cy Young Award

There are three main candidates for this award: Tim Lincecum, Johan Santana and Brandon Webb. Santana leads the NL in innings pitched (by 7 over Cole Hamels) and ERA (by 0.09 over Lincecum). Lincecum leads in strikeouts, by 59(!) over Santana and Edinson Volquez, as well as Adjusted ERA (164 to 163 over Santana), K/9IP, and Hits/9IP. Also Wild Pitches, which admittedly does not help his case, but I thought I should mention it.



He should lead in winning percentage, too, but they don't count innings for that, just decisions, so his 18-5 record is just barely edged out by Adam Wainright's 11-3, even though he tossed only 132 innings. Amazingly, C.C. Sabathia tossed 130 innings and went 11-2, but he's not listed there, so I guess the cutoff is 14 decisions. Sabathia, despite pitching only half the season in the NL, leads it in complete games (7) and shutouts (3 - tied with Ben Sheets). He also leads the majors with 253 innings, though he can't lead either league.

There's been some talk of C.C. getting the award, like Rick Sutcliffe did in 1984 when he was traded to the Cubs in mid season and won 16 games for them, but he went 16-1 in 150 innings, much gaudier than 11-2. And besides, that was an awful decision. Rick Rhoden and Dwight Gooden were both much more valuable than Sutcliffe had been that year. So were Rick Mahler and Larry McWilliams, for that matter. Let's not repeat the mistake.

Webb leads in Wins, with 22, four more than Lincecum, his next closest rival. Sadly, many of the BBWAA voters still pay too much attention to this stat. There's just no precedent for a guy leading the league with 20+ wins, without anyone else close to him, and not winning the CYA, unless it goes to a reliever or something, and, with all due respect to Brad Lidge, there's nobody in the NL who's a viable candidate for that.

Bartolo Colon won it in 2005 with a 21-8 record, despite the fact that it was a demonstrably inferior performance to that of Johan Santana, who went 16-7, just like this year. Roger Clemens over Roy Oswalt in 2004 isn't quite the same, as there was only a 2-win difference, plus a 6-Loss difference. Webb's 22-7 looks a lot better than 20-10.



My vote would be for Lincecum, partially because in allowing fewer hits and striking out more batters, he did a lot more of his own laundry than Santana, but Santana would hardly be an undeserving candidate. If a precedent can be set to give the award to the best pitcher instead of the guy with the most W's next to his name, this is the year. My guess is that Webb wins his second CYA by a nose.


Rookie of the Year

There are quite a few candidates for this one, too. Cubs' catcher Geovany Soto is the most likely candidate, a rookie catcher who helped the team to the playoffs, hitting 23 homers and driving in 86 while playing impressive defense. He finished the season with an NL-rookie-leading 39.4 VORP and 7.0 WARP.

The Reds' Joey Votto is the only other hitter in the discussion, as he led the NL rookie field in all four of the 3-digit stats, AVG, OBP, SLG, and OPS, hitting .297/.368/.506/.874 with 24 homers, which also led all rookies. He also led in games played (151) hits, and at-bats. His 6.6 WARP was pretty close to Soto's, as was his 34 VORP.

Atlanta's pitcher Jair Jurrjens deserves some mention, as his 188 IP, 13 Wins and 3.68 ERA led all NL rookies. Hiroki Kuroda was nearly as good, but won't get much attention because of his modest 9-10 record. No other rookie won more than 9 games or saved more than 7, so there's really nobody else to discuss.



My vote would be Soto, Votto, Jurrjens, in that order, and I suspect that for once the BBWAA will agree with me.

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30 September 2008

2008 American League Awards

With the MLB regular season (almost) over, now, it's finally time to talk about the season's awards. Whatever happens in the White Sox/Tigers make-up game today is not going to have an effect on any of this.

First, the big ones...

American League Most Valuable Player -

Who should win it:
Based on the most comprehensive, unbiased statistical analysis available to us, the best player in the league (who is, by definition, the most valuable) in 2008 has been, unfortunately, Dustin Pedroia, the Red Sox secondbaseman. Besides that, Pedroia leads the league in some of the obvious stuff, too, like Hits, Doubles, and Runs scored, not to mention being second in batting (.326), and third in Singles, Plate appearances, times on base, and at-bats per strikeout.



These stats may seem a bit obscure, but they're one of the reasons that he's likely to win the award: He was always playing, and hardly ever striking out, and therefore most of the voters won't remember times when he came up in a big spot and whiffed to end the game, or something like that. This is of course a silly reason to vote for him, but for once the perception actually matches the reality, so even if the BBWAA vote for him for the wrong reasons, it will be for the right man.

It's worth noting that the best hitter, perhaps even the best player in terms of quality, by a slight margin, has actually been Alex Rodriguez, with a VORP of 65.6, and a WARP of 8.9. Unfortunately, A-Rod missed more than 20 games with an injury, and it's tough to make up for that. The team went jut 9-15 in the games he didn't play, though that wasn't all his fault. Having him around for those three weeks or so might not have made the Yankees a playoff team, but it could have made A-Rod a clear MVP again, with about 10.2 WARP, assuming similar performance.

Following A-Rod on the VORP list are Grady Sizemore at 62.7 and Pedroia at 62.4. Both Pedroia and Sizemore played the whole year and hit very well, but where Sizemore's defense actually robs him of some value (he's -12 Fielding Runs according to Baseball Prospectus), Pedroia's value is added to by his work at the keystone, a +6 FRAA, which makes him a total of 9.8 WARP, or Wins Above Replacement Player (for his position), tops in the Junior Circuit.

It should be noted that Twins catcher Joe Mauer, despite missing about 20 games (which is pretty good for a catcher), finished a very close second, at 9.2 WARP. He should get his fair share of votes too, especially if he gets a key hit in today's one-game playoff or something. I still expect that Pedroia will win it, but I think it will be close.



The X-factor here, perhaps, is that Mauer may lose the MVP race if the Twins' beat writers don't agree on him and instead vote for Morneau (.302/23/129) and all his pretty RBI. The same thing happened to A-Rod in 1996 when he was a teammate of Ken Griffey. Cliff Lee should draw a few votes, too, for leading the league in wins and ERA, even though he had an easier time of it than Roy Halladay.

Close, but no Cigar: Sizemore, Josh Hamilton, Jermaine Dye, Kevin Youkilis, Miguel Cabrera

Felled by their Injuries: Ian Kinsler, Milton Bradley, Carlos Quentin


American League Cy Young Award

With respect to Mike Mussina's first 20-win season and Dice-K's 18-2 record, and K-Rod's 62 Saves, there are really only two serious contenders for the AL Cy Young Award, Cliff Lee and Roy Halladay, and they're probably closer than you think.

Lee leads in ERA by about two-tenths of a point, 2.54 to 2.78, and in adjusted ERA 175 to 155 (with Dice-K in between at 158). Lee also leads in Wins, 22 to 20, and winning percentage, but those numbers have a lot to do with his defense, run support and bullpen help, so Lee shouldn't get as much credit for the Wins and Losses as he actually will. Halladay has a significant lead in innings pitched, 246 to 223, and strikeouts, 206 to 170, meaning that he's done more of his own dirty work, so to speak.

The innings difference doesn't look as sexy as that 22-3 record, but it would be difficult to overstate the effect that absorbing those innings has on the team. I've seen it discussed in terms of looking at the net difference between the two pitchers, i.e. Halladay pitched 22.7 more innings, but he gave up 13 more earned runs, so that's like adding 23 innings of a pitcher with a 5.15 ERA.



But of course, Halladay did not just pitch two and a half additional, sub-mediocre games than Lee did. He made two more starts, and he averaged slightly more innings per start, 7.38 to 7.20, plus he pitched 2.1 shutout innings and got credited with a Hold in his one relief appearance, something for which Lee was never called. Making more starts takes pressure off the rotation, and therefore the manager, to put a #5 guy in there, and his league-leading nine complete games (Lee had 4) took a lot of pressure off the bullpen.

Whether you buy my argument that Halladay has been just as good or better, considering his competition both on the mound and with the bat, is basically irrelevant. Lee is going to win the award going away, with Halladay and perhaps Frankie Rodriguez, Mussina and Dice-K far behind him.

Oh, and in case you're wondering, K-Rod's record of Sticking Around Til the End of 62 Games that Weren't Total Blowouts has already gotten more attention than it deserves, and he'll get more votes than he deserves for it, but he won't win it. We can thank Cliff Lee for that.


Rookie of the Year:

For a while there it looked like Tampa Bay's Evan Longoria would win the thing easily, but he got hurt and missed some time, and in his absence, a few others had a chance to make some noise. Alexei Ramirez of the White Sox set a rookie record by hitting four grand slams this year, and will get some votes, but his lackluster .315 OBP (thanks to walking unintentionally only once every ten games or so) and ineffectiveness on the basepaths (13 for 22 in steals) plus his awful defense at second base (-12 FRAA) should keep him out of serious discussions for the RoY.



Boston's Jacoby Ellsbury led the AL with 50 steals, and led AL rookies with 98 runs scored, but he slowed down after the All Star break, and didn't hit for power or hit for much of anything away from Fenway Park, so he won't get it either.

Kansas City's shortstop Mike Aviles turned some heads by hitting .325 in about two-thirds of a season, but I just don't think he played enough to get serious consideration.


What about pitchers? They can win this award, too, you know.


Detroit's Armando Galaragga won 13 games, pitching 179 innings with an impressive 3.73 ERA that ranks 15th in the AL. (NOTE: His insanely low .239 BABIP likely means that he's in for a rude awakening next year when Lady Luck catches up to him.)



Joba Chamberlain was even more valuable, in terms of VORP, but due to injuries he pitched only 100 innings and will generally be viewed as a disappointment, at least for this season. LAnahfornia's Jose Arredondo went 10-2 with a 1.62 ERA in 61 relief innings, but he probably won't get much support. Glen Perkins of Minnesota went 12-4, but then a decade ago El Duque did that too, with a better ERA, and he finished 4th in the voting.


Oakland's Brad Zeigler started his career with a record 38 consecutive scoreless innings, and ended the season as the A's closer, but nobody ever heard of giving an award to a guy who went 3-0 with 11 saves, even if he did post a Bob-Gibson-esque 1.06 ERA in 59 innings, so that's not gonna happen. Besides, he might not have been the best rookie reliever in his own bullpen, as Joey Devine finished the year with a 0.59 ERA in 45 innings.

So we're back to Longoria, which is where we should be. Not only did he lead all AL rookies in homers, RBI, slugging and OPS, but he led the field in VORP and WARP as well, by a healthy margin, thanks to his excellent defense.

My votes would go for Longoria, Galaragga and Aviles, in that order.

Comeback Player of the Year

I almost forgot it, but the award nobody wants to win has got to be won by somebody. Mike Mussina is an excellent candidate, pitching 200m innings, winning 20 games and finishing 5th in the AL in ERA, a year after posting a 5.15 ERA in 152 innings. Along those lines, Zach Greinke would be a good story, too, given his struggles since his promising rookie campaign five years ago and the 13 wins and 200 innings he posted this year. A.J. Burnett won 18 games after two injury plagued seasons.

There's no shortage of hitters with impressive credentials, either. Milton Bradley, despite a few minor injuries, came back to hit .321 with 22 homers a year after playing in only 61 games. Jason Giambi has 32 homers and 96 RBI a year after hitting just .236 with 14 homers. But the best hitter vying for this honor is probably Aubrey Huff, who, besides sharing my brithday, hit .304/32/108 (also 48 doubles and 96 runs) after bouncing around between three teams in two years and hitting just .280 with 15 homers last year.

But if they don't give this award to CLiff Lee, then there's no point in having it. Lee had previously won 18 games once and 14 games two other times, but he dropped to just 5-8 with a 6.29 ERA last year. If that's not a "comeback", I don't know how you would define it.

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28 September 2008

Remembering Yankee Stadium: An Oral and Narrative History of the House That Ruth Built, 1923-2008, by Harvey Frommer

Remembering Yankee Stadium: An Oral and Narrative History of the House That Ruth Built, 1923-2008, by Harvey Frommer

Harvey Frommer has outdone himself this time.


The Ivy League professor and celebrated and accomplished author of such works as Rickey and Robinson, Growing Up Baseball and A Yankee Century was humble enough to admit he could not tell the story of Yankee Stadium all by himself. An edifice of this magnitude, an icon of this importance, and a history this varied would require several voices to weave the tapestry of its lifetime. Frommer knew that the story of Yankee Stadium would best be told by the people who lived it, and not just by the writers and players, but by fans, hot dog and ticket vendors, broadcasters, coaches, executives, and even bloggers, though sadly none of my stories appear in the book.


Don't get me wrong: I had my chance. Frommer solicited help from anyone who would offer it, including anyone on his email list, and I could have submitted something. Alas, the book is probably better without my self-absorbed, incoherent rambling anyway. That's why I have a blog!


Remembering that I'm supposed to be writing a book review...Remembering Yankee Stadium is truly a wonderful book. For one thing, it's huge, an inch thick and 10" x 11" hardcover, with lots of photographs, many of which span both pages, meaning that they're almost two feet across when the book is opened flat. Some of these are team photos, or panoramic views of crowds in the stands, or of crowds out of the stands, rushing the field after a playoff victory. One shows Reggie connecting for his third homer of that 1977 World Series game, but the best is a full, 2-page shot of Mickey Mantle's follow-through on a home run swing. Simply classic.


There are lots of smaller photos as well, of course, from Ruth and Gehrig and Muesel to DiMaggio and Gordon and Heinrich to Martin and Mantle and Maris and Ford to Nettles and Chambliss and Reggie and Gator and Donnie Baseball and Bernie and Rocket and Pettitte and Moose and Jeter and A-Rod. Some of the famous and/or controversial plays are detailed four images on a page, showing the play in question as it unfolded. World Series programs and tickets are shown, including ones that have been blown up to make the inside front and back covers, not to mention all of the "inside" shots from the clubhouse and behind the scenes.

But my favorite from the whole book is on page 87, and it's this one:



It's from the archives at Cooperstown, in the chapter on the 1950's, and it's a full-page image looking southwest across Yankee Stadium to the Polo Grounds. The one in Frommer's book has about an inch and a half rip in the photo on the far right, on the edge of the page, traversing the road behind the left field grandstand, with another wrinkle below that, and another small, jagged tear along the third base line. The photo is reproduced so clearly that it will actually look like that page in the book is ripped.


Seeing those imperfections and knowing that this one came from the Hall of Fame makes me wonder who took it, and when, and who's had it for the last 50 or 60 years. Where did that tear come from? Was this in a shoebox in some reporter's closet, forgotten for 30 years? Did somebody's kid rip it accidentally, or did it happen in transit? Did Harvey do it? Was Cooperstown pissed? These kinds of questions come up, not just with this photo, but with nearly every one of those old photos and ticket stubs and programs, and that's most of the fun of paging through this book: Pondering who else has seen these images, who helped to create them and what they were thinking at the time.


And if those were not enough, the stories that have come from more than three quarters of a century in perhaps the most famous sports venue in history, as told by the people who lived them, make this book that much better. Frommer weaves the hundreds of stories shared by dozens of people into his own narrative of the history of the ballpark, to give you a personal feel for a myriad of moments throughout the history of this storied franchise and its famed home.


There are stories from Bobby Richardson and Brooks Robinson, Rollie Fingers and Whitey Ford, Jon Miller and Bob Wolff, Michael Dukakis and Rudy Guliani, Jim Bouton, Roger Kahn, Ralph Houk, Frank Howard, Don Larsen, Phil Rizzuto, Rod Carew, Bill Lee, Dick Groat and Monte Irvin, just to name a few. There are dozens of others, including some you've never heard of, because they're just fans, like you and me. All these varied viewpoints help to paint a broad, detailed, multidimensional picture of this hallowed ground and the men and women who've walked and run on it. For Frommer, the master painter, this must be considered his masterpiece.

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25 September 2008

Detroit Tigers' Todd Jones Surprises Everyone: Not Actually Already Retired

Todd Jones announced on Wednesday that he will be retiring at the end of the year. Even considering that I had assumed he was already retired, this kind of surprised me, since it seemed to me that Jones is exactly the sort of pitcher who would keep pitching forever, since he might be useful as a mop-up man throwing junk even after his fastball had deserted him. Jones always relied more on his sinker anyway.


He doesn't need the gig, of course, having drawn over $37 million in salary in his 16-year career. He also writes for the Sporting News, and will apparently continue to do so, though as Rob Neyer points out, I'm not really sure why anyone would care, once he's no longer playing.

Jones was drafted in the first round (27th overall) by the Houston Astros in 1989. That was a seriously talented first round draft, with eleven players who spent at least 8 seasons in the majors. Among them, Frank Thomas is easily the best, but Mo Vaughn won an MVP award, Charles Johnson was (for a while) an effective hitter with the best catcher's arm in the league, and Cal Eldred and Ben MacDonald were both dozen-game winners on several occasions. Also out of the later rounds of that draft (i.e. after Jones): Phil Nevin, Shane Reynolds, Denny Neagle, Ryan Klesko, J.T. Snow, and arguably the best player in LAnahfornia history, Tim Salmon. Oh, and futue Hall of Famers Jeff Bagwell, Jim Thome, Jeff Kent and Trevor Hoffman, though he was drafted as a shortstop. Talk about a deep draft.

So anyway: Jones. He wasn't as good as any of those guys. For one thing, he was a relief pitcher. He made 982 appearances in his MLB career, but only one start. He was a starter in the minors, like almost everyone who gets drafted to pitch, but not a very good one, and therefore not for long. His career record at all levels in the minors was 27-24, 4.15 ERA, which makes him that rarest of commodities, the pitcher with a lower ERA in the majors (3.97) than in the minors. After three years of starting at Single-and Double-A, Jones had a career record of 23-22 and a 4.13 ERA, so they turned him into a relief pitcher while promoting him to AAA, and he...

...was mediocre.

4-2, 4.44, 31 walks in 49 innings. Surprisingly, that was good enough for the 1993 Astros to call him up, and he was a lot better than you'd think, though I imagine that a lot of the apparent improvement in his numbers had to do with moving from the hitter-friendly PCL to the pitcher friendly Astrodome. Let me check...

...yep: 1.42 ERA at home, 4.91 on the road.

But he stuck around for 15 more seasons, and didn't always have the inward-blowing air conditioning in the AstroDome to thank for his success. In 1996 he was swapped to Detroit in a 9-player trade, which wasn't all that unusual, since the father and son who served as General Managers of each team used to make a trade like that about once a week, or so it seemed. In Detroit he became the full-time closer and racked up about 30 saves a season for four and a half years. He led the AL in Saves and therefore won the Rolaids Relief Man of the Year award in Y2K, and was even an All-Star in 2000, finishing (brace yourself...) 5th in the AL Cy Young voting that year.

Of course, that was the second straight year that Pedro Martinez won the award unanimously, so 5th place was a very distant 5th. The 3 points he amassed mean that Detroit's two beat writers probably put him on their ballots last and second to last, respectively. Still, 5th in the Cy Young voting! Woo hoo! Oh, wait, that's the Indians.

Anyway, Jones was traded to Minnesota in 2001 for the stretch drive and became a setup man, a role in which he served for five different teams over the next three and a half years. In Florida in 2005, he again became a closer, saving 40 games with a 2.10 ERA for the Marlins, which could be argued to be his best season, though I would suggest that 1995 may deserve that honor. Yes, a slightly higher ERA, but he also pitched almost 100 innings of effective relief, and this in a strike-shortened year.

With the closer tag firmly affixed to his back, Jones returned to the Tigers and racked up 75 saves over the 2006-07 seasons, plus another 18 this year before giving way to injuries. His ERA this year is an unimpressive 4.97, but in truth the 3.94 he put up in 2006 and the 4.26 he had last year weren't great either. The standard for a good relief pitcher is to post an ERA at least a run below the league average, and Jones was just a hair better than average each of those two years, as he frequently was.

A typical season for him was 65 innings with an ERA around 4.00 and 30 saves. He'd walk just under a batter every other inning, with about a 2:1 K/W ratio. In other words, he was basically an average closer, but one who managed to stick around doing it for a decade and a half. Give him those three and a half years he speint setting someone else up and he's got 400+ saves, but then he wasn't very good in those seasons, so maybe that's asking too much.


He hasn't gotten a lot of respect as a reliever over his career, mostly because he's always made things a little too exciting in the 9th inning. A few excerpts from Baseball Prospectus' comments about him over the years:

1997: "He’s going to scuffle for a while."
1999: "...he doesn’t merit his role [as closer] - or the salary that
comes with it."
2000: "...he’s really no better than Turk Wendell or Tim Crabtree, and he’s
not likely to get any better."
2001: "...Jones wasn’t appreciably better than he'd been in previous
seasons."
2002: "his peripheral numbers are getting scary; declining strikeout rates
and increasing hit totals are not good trends."
2005: "Another element in the Phillies' master plan to counteract the
injuries to their starting pitchers by acquiring as many washed-up middle
relievers as possible."
2006: "Given his age, he`s a very shaky bet to repeat."
2007: "...second-worst pitcher ever to reach that [300 save] mark...he
skirts the edge and could implode any minute now."
The irony here, of course, is that Jones managed to stick around for so long in spite of his inability to really impress anyone with his stuff. The truth is that you don't need to post a 1.39 ERA to be an effective closer, even though it's nice to look at those low numbers when folks like Mariano Rivera and Trevor Hoffman and Dennis Eckersly put them up.

But really, if you're staked to a two or three-run lead, you can give up a run or two every time out, and as long as you get three outs before giving up three runs, you can make millions of dollars a year. Jones parlayed that modest skill into a 16-year career as a pitcher and a gig as a writer for the Sporting News, two things I'll likely never get to do. More power to him.


In the end, he finishes with 319 saves, with an 81% success rate, an adjusted ERA 11% better than his leagues, and a 58-63 record.





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24 September 2008

Fred Merkle's B0ner, 100 Years Hence...

Yesterday marked the 100th anniversary of "Merkle's Boner", which while perhaps sounding a bit like the title of a stag film, was actually one of the more famous plays in baseball's first century, but sadly was not caught on film.




The Chicago Cubs and the New York Giants were coming neck-and-neck down the stretch in the final weeks of the season. Playing each other in a crucial game, tied at 1-1, Fred Merkle, the 19-year old firstbaseman for the Giants (though only trade-fodder for my All-Birthday Team) was on first when the apparent winning run was driven in from third on a single.





At the time, it was commonplace for fans to rush the ballfield after a dramatic win. Heck, with no walls in the outfield, half of them were standing on it already. Fearing for his safety, Merkle went straight to the dugout, but the Cubs realized that technically he was supposed to tag second in order for the run to count, since there were two out. When Chicago secondbaseman Johnny Evers noticed that Merkle had missed second, he signaled for the ball, stepped on second base, and umpire Hank O'Day called Merkle out, leaving the game tied, but impossible to play with all those fans on the field.








At the end of the season, with the two teams tied for the pennant, the Cubs won a one-game playoff, and eventually the World Series (their last postseason series victory of any kind, it should be noted). Ed Sherman's got a fairly concise piece on it over at ESPN.com.



SABR's Dead-Ball Era committee newsletter has a whole issue with various perspectives on Merkle's infamous play($?), including a comic strip! There's also a wonderful novel called The Celebrant, which I read a few years ago, by Eric Rolfe Greenberg, which follows Christy Mathewson's life, but which includes his fictionalized take on this famous game from 1908. In the book, one of the main characters, a Giants fan, actually catches the game ball and keeps it, which means that the one Evers uses to tag second base is not the right one, and that Merkle is not out. Technically, the game remains unfinished. Great book.


Merkle's career stats look pretty modest, mostly because he played in the Dead Ball era, and partially because he was a firstbaseman and our conception of what firstbasemen do has changed so much in a century. But Merkle was talented. He was the youngest player in the National League not once but twice, at ages 18 and 19, and he could hit. Not Mark McGwire kind of hitting, but a line-drive/contact type hitter who was also a nimble fielder and a good baserunner.
Put him in the National League today and he's a poor man's John Olerud, with less power but with 30-40 steals.


He was among the league leaders in homers, doubles, triples, steals, slugging percentage and batting average at various points in his career, though he never led the NL in any of them. Bill James ranks him #84 on his list of the 100 greatest firstbasemen in the most recent edition of the Baseball Abstract, just behind Wally Pipp, another underrated and now somewhat infamous firstbaseman. (Pipp famously sat out a game with a headache and lost his job to Lou Gehrig, who would not miss a day of work for 13 years.)


In any case, it seems that while the rules technically were enforced in calling Merkle out, that rule had generally not been enforced historically (including a similar play ruled exactly the opposite way by Hank O'Day just two weeks earlier) so it seems clear that Merkle does not deserve all of the blame, though perhaps he does deserve some.


It would be a fitting tribute, or perhaps just poetic justice, for the Cubs to lose the World Series on a technicality this year. That'll show 'em.

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Fred Merkle's B0ner, 100 Years Hence...

Yesterday marked the 100th anniversary of "Merkle's Boner", which while perhaps sounding a bit like the title of a stag film, was actually one of the more famous plays in baseball's first century, but sadly was not caught on film.




The Cubs and Giants were coming neck-and-neck down the stretch in the final weeks of the season. Playing each other in a crucial game, tied at 1-1, Fred Merkle, the 19-year old firstbaseman for the Giants (though only trade-fodder for my All-Birthday Team) was on first when the apparent winning run was driven in from third on a single.





At the time, it was commonplace for fans to rush the ballfield after a dramatic win. Heck, with no walls in the outfield, half of them were standing on it already. Fearing for his safety, Merkle went straight to the dugout, but the Cubs realized that technically he was supposed to tag second in order for the run to count, since there were two out. When Chicago secondbaseman Johnny Evers noticed that Merkle had missed second, he signaled for the ball, stepped on second base, and umpire Hank O'Day called Merkle out, leaving the game tied, but impossible to play with all those fans on the field.








At the end of the season, with the two teams tied for the pennant, the Cubs won a one-game playoff, and eventually the World Series (their last postseason series victory of any kind, it should be noted). Ed Sherman's got a fairly concise piece on it over at ESPN.com.



SABR's Dead-Ball Era committee newsletter has a whole issue with various perspectives on Merkle's infamous play($?), including a comic strip! There's also a wonderful novel called The Celebrant, which I read a few years ago, by Eric Rolfe Greenberg, which follows Christy Mathewson's life, but which includes his fictionalized take on this famous game from 1908. In the book, one of the main characters, a Giants fan, actually catches the game ball and keeps it, which means that the one Evers uses to tag second base is not the right one, and that Merkle is not out. Technically, the game remains unfinished. Great book.


Merkle's career stats look pretty modest, mostly because he played in the Dead Ball era, and partially because he was a firstbaseman and our conception of what firstbasemen do has changed so much in a century. But Merkle was talented. He was the youngest player in the National League not once but twice, at ages 18 and 19, and he could hit. Not Mark McGwire kind of hitting, but a line-drive/contact type hitter who was also a nimble fielder and a good baserunner.
Put him in the National League today and he's a poor man's John Olerud, with less power but with 30-40 steals.


He was among the league leaders in homers, doubles, triples, steals, slugging percentage and batting average at various points in his career, though he never led the NL in any of them. Bill James ranks him #84 on his list of the 100 greatest firstbasemen in the most recent edition of the Baseball Abstract, just behind Wally Pipp, another underrated and now somewhat infamous firstbaseman. (Pipp famously sat out a game with a headache and lost his job to Lou Gehrig, who would not miss a day of work for 13 years.)


In any case, it seems that while the rules technically were enforced in calling Merkle out, that rule had generally not been enforced historically (including a similar play ruled exactly the opposite way by Hank O'Day just two weeks earlier) so it seems clear that Merkle does not deserve all of the blame, though perhaps he does deserve some.


It would be a fitting tribute, or perhaps just poetic justice, for the Cubs to lose the World Series on a technicality this year. That'll show 'em.

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23 September 2008

Mark Reynolds Strikeout Record Watch...

The Arizona thirdbaseman made his 33rd error yesterday and struck out two more times, raising his season total to 198. The record for a season is 199, set last year by Ryan Howard.

#.  Name           (Age) Total Year
1.  Ryan Howard*    (27)  199  2007
2. Mark Reynolds (24) 198 2008
3. Adam Dunn* (24) 195 2004
3. Ryan Howard* (28) 195 2008
5. Adam Dunn* (26) 194 2006
6. Jack Cust* (29) 190 2008
7. Bobby Bonds (24) 189 1970
8. Jose Hernandez (32) 188 2002
9. Bobby Bonds (23) 187 1969
9. Preston Wilson (25) 187 2000
11. Rob Deer (26) 186 1987
12. Jose Hernandez (31) 185 2001
12. Pete Incaviglia (22) 185 1986
12. Jim Thome* (30) 185 2001
15. Cecil Fielder (26) 182 1990
15. Jim Thome* (32) 182 2003
17. Ryan Howard* (26) 181 2006
17. Mo Vaughn* (32) 181 2000
19. Mike Schmidt+ (25) 180 1975
20. Rob Deer (25) 179 1986
Ryan Howard and Jack Cust are not far off the mark either...

This list, as you can see, consists of

1) Bobby Bonds
2) Rob Deer
3) Mike Schmidt
4) Pete Incavilia
5) Guys who've played in the 1990's and 2000's.

So it's players who were anomalies in the 1970's and 1980's, and then a bunch of players, and pretty good ones, too, who are playing now or have played recently. Obvioulsy, the game is changing.

Several years ago, when it looked like Jose Hernandez would break Bobby Bonds' long-standing record, his manager benched him toward the end of the year to keep his name out of the record books, and I blasted him for it, as did others. As far as I can tell, nobody else has been benched for that reason, but I could be wrong there.




I had thought that there was a general prejudice against the strikeout and this dubious record, but it seems that Jerry Royster, trying to salvage what would become the worst finish in Brewers' history, is the only one. Of course, he was replaced by Ned Yost the next spring, so that didn't work. Managers appear to recognize now that if a hitter can smack 30 homers, drive in or score 100 runs, but he has to strikeout 200 times to do it, you'd better let him.








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