23 February 2009

25 Random Baseball Things

Last week, Shyster Ball started a trend and a bunch of other bloggers has followed suit, so I figured I wouldn't be the worst copycat if I did my own 25 Random Baseball Things. Generally, when I get tagged in a note on FaceBook, I just ignore it because really, who cares? You may feel that way, too, and if so, well, you're entitled. You may stop reading whenever you like.

1. My mom is the reason I'm a baseball fan. My father left before I was three years old and wasn't much for sports anyway, as I understand it, unless they involved horses. Baseball being woefully equine devoid, I don't think he would have instilled the same love of the game, or at least of the Yankees, in me that my mom did.

2. She's no athlete, but my mom did her best to help me become one, or at least to prove that I was not, though that was never her design. When there were no kids around with whom to play catch, she would stand on the porch and toss baseballs to me, and would even throw a pop-up when I asked. Once I let a high pop get past my mitt and it hit me in the throat, giving me some trouble breathing for a few minutes. I kept better track of the ball after that.

3. I did not get to play in Little League. My family was pretty poor when I was a kid, my mom raising three kids by herself, on welfare for several years before my kid brother was in school full time and she could get a job. Sponsors may buy you uniforms, but cleats and gloves are (I think) your own dime, and we didn't have many of those to spare. I wasn't Omar Vizquel, using a milk carton to snatch grounders off a rocky field, but I did try using a welder's glove to catch once. Not sure where I found a welder's glove.

4. I did play a form of baseball in the apartment complex where I grew up. I lived in these rickety, old garden apartments in Lodi, NJ, commonly referred to as "Wrights Village" or simply "The Village", which had courtyards, some of which were useful for playing wifleball, stickball, and etc. The sidewalks in the courtyards formed quasi-diamonds, though they were hardly square. According to Google maps, it was about 30 feet from home to first, but more than 50 feet from first to second. A lot of us got tagged out trying for second.

5. We rarely had enough people to play a real game, and rarely had a hardball with which to play, so usually it was three or four on one, as we took turns at bat, using tennis balls and a wifle bat with newspaper stuffed down the end to give it weight. There was no need for a left or center fielder, as the buildings were only 40 feet away over there, and anyway, if you hit a fly ball to left, you had a pretty good chance of breaking a window, so we tried to avoid that. Anything over the roof was a homer, just like in the big leagues.

6. One way we made up for the lack of players was to use shopping carts as catchers. There was a supermarket around the corner from my house, and a lot of poor people without cars in the neighborhood, so there were always shopping carts laying around. We'd prop one up about 5 feet behind the home plate corner. The cart itself and the crossbar underneath served as a strike zone.

The long, shallow carts were a pitcher's best friend: For an 8 or 10 year old batter, the strike zone was two and a half feet wide and might have gone from his waist to six inches above his head...but it was official. If you got the ball in that box, it was a strike. Period. If not, you had to go back to the parking lot and find it under a car or (God forbid) in the sewer drain, so there was a lot of incentive to throw strikes. Nobody ever walked.

7. There were not many boys my age in that neighborhood, so I usually played against my brother and his friends, three years my junior. One of them, a hefty little bugger named Chris, played Little League and was considered a pretty good hitter. Though I was nothing special as a pitcher, with three years on him and at 25 feet away, even my modest "stuff" was hard to hit. I was padding my ego as I zipped "fast"balls by him into the cart one day, but he was clearly getting mad as he kept missing, so I took a little off the next one...and he hit it into the street, 200 feet away. Twenty years later, that still pisses me off.

8. I was interviewed once for a local TV station's 6 o'clock news, where they were filming "man on the street" types of clips for the sports portion, getting people's thoughts on the Yankees, who were constantly revamping their roster. For whatever reason, they thought that a 10-year old boy in front of the K-Mart in Lodi would make for a good clip, so they filmed me talking about how the Yankees seemed to be getting rid of all their good players for a bunch of "has-beens and never-will-be's", which I thought was clever. We watched that obscure cable TV station's news broadcast for days trying to see if I would be on TV, but to no avail. I don't think they ever used the clip.

9. I remember very little from my first big league game. I went with a group from the Lodi Boys and Girls Club to a Yankee game against the Blue Jays, probably around July of 1985 or 1986, and the Yankees lost. We sat in the bleachers and I got sunburned.

When I got home, I told my mom how I'd gotten to shake Ron Guidry's hand, since the bleachers are above the bullpen. I had an inexplicable propensity for making stuff up at the time, and this lie was one of the biggest. I guess I liked the attention. My mom believed me, too, I think. (By contrast, when I told my 3rd grade class that I had shot a bear at the age of 3, while living in Kentucky - a story lifted directly from the Davy Crockett legend - nobody bought it.)

10. I met Lou Pienella in the Nordstrom in the Garden State Plaza in Paramus, NJ when I was in high school. My mom recognized him and sent me over to get his autograph, and he was cool about it and shook my hand, too. (My mom was there to witness it, this time.) I told him that she and I were big Yankees fans. At the time, he was managing the Reds.

11. In high school, we played softball in gym class sometimes. I was skinny (6'5", 165 lbs in 11th and 12th grades) and so I didn't have much to offer offensively, but I knew my limits, and tried to slap hits over the second baseman's head to get on base. It rarely worked. Apparently you need some muscle for that, too.

Defensively, they put me in left field, where non-athletes always go, but here, my smarts paid dividends where my feeble frame could not. There was a guy named Pete in our class, nearly as tall as me but with 50 additional pounds of muscle. (And, now that I think of it, a lot of acne...maybe Alex Rodriguez's cousin injected him too?) Anyway, whenever Pete came to the plate, the cosmic elements of the slow pitches, his huge frame, his righty swing and his big ego would inextricably converge and he would smash the ball in to deep, deep, left field.

And I would be waiting under it, and catch it, every time. He got mad, and even remarked to me how frustrated he was about that, but strangely he never tried a different approach.

12. There was an old guy who used to hang out near a corner store a few blocks form my high school. A friend and I walked past him all the time, and tried to avoid talking to him because he would often monopolize us for several minutes and delay our plans to go do nothing for the rest of the afternoon. Anyway, the guy professed to be a catcher who had once played against Babe Ruth. He'd say, in his New Jersey accent, "You see deez fingaz?" and he'd show us his gnarly hands and make us guess which position he played, which was much easier after we got it right he first time.

As a cynical high school student, I didn't believe him of course, but knowing what I now know about barnstorming, I realize that this man was probably suffering from a gnome, or small dwarf living in his stomach. And that he was probably telling the truth, after a fashion.

13. I didn't get to another major league game until the summer of 1994. In July, a college mentor of mine took me to a Yankees-Mariners game. We got to sit right behind home plate, one section up, and Jimmy Key and his 12-1 record were starting for the best team in the AL against Dave Fleming and a 34-44 Seattle team, so I figured we had this one in the bag.

As it happened, Key gave up six runs in four innings and we lost, 12-6, though Bernie Williams hit a homer. The blow out wound up being a good thing, sort of, as a lot of people left and we got to sit right up against the backstop for the last few innings. Though I didn't realize it at the time, Goose Gossage pitched the last inning of that game for Seattle, one of the last of his now Hall of Fame career. Ken Griffey got five hits that day. I hated Ken Griffey.

14. I didn't get to another game for just over a year, as The Strike hit about a month later. July 12th, 1995, the day after the All-Star Game, saw the Yankees playing a bizarre one-game "series" against the Royals, presumably an artifact of the oddly truncated Strike Season.

The struggling Yankees started a rookie named Andy Pettitte against Chris Haney. This was a Wednesday night, back when 1/2 price Student Nights could get you half price to any seat in the house, not just the nose-bleeds, and we took full advantage. Two friends and I spent $12.50 apiece for Main Box seats behind first base, where Don Mattingly, my childhood hero and still my favorite player, was bound to be. It was Sock Night, both for us and the Yankees. We got free pairs of socks with the Yankees logo, and the Yankees socked nine runs on 11 hits and seven walks.

The first Yankee win I'd ever seen in person was the last game of the year for Chris Haney, who was terrible (and presumably injured) and did not pitch again that year. His relief, (oddly enough, Dave Fleming again) did no better in one of the last games of his career. Pettitte pitched the best game of his young career, allowing one run in 8.1 innings, and instantly became my favorite pitcher. Mop-up man Scott Bankhead got the last two outs uneventfully, pitched three more games in his career and then was gone from MLB.

15. The next game I attended was August 13th 1995, the day Mickey Mantle died, though I didn't know it until we got to the ballpark. Three friends and I drove in and listened to a music tape instead of the radio, so we didn't hear the news, but when we got there, the park was eerily quiet, despite the fact that it was packed. About 20,000 extra fans showed up that day, almost 46,000 total, compared to a normal Sunday home attendance of about 27,000.

There was no music on the loudspeaker, but the JumboTron said "#7...With Us Forever" and it was obvious. They had a video tribute to him and a moment of silence at the beginning of the game, and then the Yankees paid Mickey the greatest tribute of all: They went out and beat the best team in the AL.

Those Indians had Kenny Lofton, Carlos Baerga, Albert Belle, and Eddie Murray. Jim Thome hit 6th and and Manny Ramirez hit 7th, they were so good. David Cone, who had been with the team for just two weeks, knew the gravity of the situation, and he shut them down. Cone threw 129 pitches, earned a complete game, and surrendered only one run on a solo homer to Belle in the 6th. (Sadly, he was terrible for about three weeks after that, but winning a big game like that buys you a lot of slack.)

16. The next summer, I actually went to a baseball game about 7,000 miles from my home before I went to one 10 miles away in New York. A friend from college allowed me to join him for a week and a half in Japan with his parents, who were living there at the time, and they were gracious enough to get tickets to a baseball game. I didn't care who was playing, just that I got to see a game in Japan. We saw the Nippon Ham Fighters play the Chiba Lotte Marines at the Tokyo Dome, aka, the Big Egg, where the Yankees and Tampa would someday play the first official Major League game outside North America.

Both the game and the park were pretty nondescript, but it was fun watching the two teams' fans take turns rooting for them, whenever they were batting. (In Japan, opponents' fans are generally quiet while the other team is batting.) I don't remember who won, only that an American ex-Met named Eric Hillman started the game, and that my friend's mom "caught" a foul ball when it wedged between her back and her seat. Oddly, a stadium attendant collected the ball and gave her a voucher in return, which was good for a Nippon Ham Fighters' mascot key chain. She was nice enough to give me the key chain as a souvenir, which I gave to my mom. Not sure if she ever used it, and I can't say as I blame her, given how strange the mascot for that team is:

17. I didn't own a decent baseball glove until college. I had one as a kid, but it got lost, and I didn't have one I could wear as an adult until I bought a cheap, "pleather" glove in the summer of 1995. I was working as a security guard in a discount department store in South Hackensack, NJ, the kind of place where any self-respecting shoplifter wouldn't be caught dead, and one of the department managers got a sample glove from a vendor, which he sold to me for $5 or $10, I think.

It was so cheap that later that year, playing catch with my roommate in the quad at college, the baseball literally ripped right through the web of the glove. I can barely throw 65 mph. I asked for a real glove for Christmas and my grandparents sprung for a nice first baseman's mitt, which I still use.

18. The first baseman's mitt, along with several other gloves, a dozen baseballs and softballs, two bats, a catcher's mitt and mask, and size 15 cleats are in a bag in the trunk of my car, just in case a baseball game breaks out somewhere. I need to be prepared.

19. One of the gloves in that bag was acquired at my bachelor party. My best man arranged a softball game, and after the game, there was an extra mitt in my bag. There were about 20 of us playing that day, but nobody ever claimed it. Most of the baseballs are official Patriot League balls, which I get during the winters at the ballfield on Lehigh's campus. They have practices in the late winter/early spring, but sometimes it snows and they can't always find all the batting practice balls in the snowdrifts. But my dog can.

20. The best game I ever attended was a Yankees-Red Sox game in September of 1996. The Yankees trailed 6-1, 8-4 and 11-7 at different points in the game and left 20 men on base before finally winning 12-11 on a bases-loaded, 2-out, bottom of the 10th single by His Clutchness, which literally sent the Stadium rocking. My friends and I were in Row Y of the Tier Reserved section. There is no Row Z. We could actually feel the Tier bouncing as they played Gary Glitter and everyone jumped up and down to it. In 2007, I took my mom to a divisional playoff game, and they won, but even that was not as exciting a game.

21. The only time I've been to a Yankee game in my life without a glove was 11 September 1999. Nomar Garciaparra hit two home runs, and the second of them came right to me. I sprained a finger trying to catch it, to no avail. The Yankees lunch cooler freebies they gave out might have served as a makeshift glove if I could have thought that fast, but alas, 'twas not to be. When I got home, I taped SportsCenter so I could see myself on TV. That, too, was disappointing. But I always bring my glove, now.

22. I got to see the walk-off grand slam by Alex Rodriguez against the Orioles in April a couple of years ago. The rest of the game, in truth, was kind of a drag. My wife actually fell asleep for a couple innings, but woke up in time to enjoy the drama. You can read about that experience here.

23. I got to see a walk-off homer by Barry Bonds at AT&T park in 2004, one of three places I've seen him (Citizens Bank Park and Dodger Stadium are the other two). You can read more about that here.

24. I have a collection of MLB team ceramic coffee mugs, which must be purchased in the city where the team plays. I still need the two Florida teams, San Diego, Oakland and Baltimore. I had Oakland and Baltimore mugs at one point, but the glued-on, die-cast metal logos tend to come off in the dishwasher.

I also have mugs from minor/independent league teams in Trenton, Newark, Camden, Rochester, and Huntsville, all places where I've gotten to see a game. I saw a game in Boise a few years ago, but they had no mugs, so I got a shotglass. The minor league mugs have to be from teams I've visited and watched in person, while the MLB mugs can come from a friend passing through the airport (as my Cardinals mug did, for example).

25. I have seen a minor league game in seven different cities, but an MLB game in only nine ballparks: Yankee Stadium, Shea, Camden Yards, Veterans Stadium, Citizens Bank Park, PNC, AT&T, Dodger Stadium, Jacobs Field, and Chase Field. I'm a little embarrassed to admit that I've been to three of the five NL West parks, and to professional games in Idaho, Alabama, Japan and South Korea, but never to Fenway.

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10 February 2009

A-Roid, the Fallout From the Alex Rodriguez Apology

I had been away from blogging for a few weeks as my wife and I were finalizing the adoption of our son, but there's nothing like the biggest name in baseball on the biggest team being implicated in yet another scandal to bring one back to the fore.

As you've no doubt heard by now, Alex Rodriguez had a rough week. First he had to deal with the overblown allegations from Joe Torre's book about how his teammates referred to him as "A-Fraud" (though Torre maintains that they did so in jest). Then Madonna dumps him for some Brazilian model/boy-toy. And then someone leaks his name in connection with a failed drug test from 2003.

Regarding the Leak:

We knew that a bunch of guys had failed tests in 2003, back when MLB and the Players' Union were just "surveying" to help decide whether they needed a full-blown drug testing program, mostly to keep congress of their backs. According to the Mitchell Report,

"1,369 tests were conducted in 2003, and 96 of those tests were positive for steroids. Although 13 of the 96 positives were disputed by the Players Association, the disputes were never resolved because the positive rate was above the 5% threshold under either calculation. " (p. 55)
That 96 is not the 104 number we've heard thrown around this week, but it's close enough. As I've said in the past, if the players were aware that they were to be tested, were often tipped off as to when the tests would occur and they still couldn't avoid the 5% threshold, then how many of them were really using? It's a heck of a lot more than 5-7%, I'll tell you that.

The names of those who tested positive in 2003 were never supposed to be made public, as they were supposedly only for survey purposes, and some people think heads should roll for the failure to destroy that information in a timely fashion. Shysterball thinks that someone in the US prosecutor's office leaked the info to somehow put pressure on the judge in the Barry Bonds case, or something, which doesn't totally make sense to me, but then he's a lawyer and I'm not.

In any case, we'll probably never know the identities of the other 100 or so names on that list, nor should we. They were supposed to be anonymous, and nobody gave a damn about them until now. Certainly, justice would be served if A-Rod had some company in that spotlight, as he's clearly only about 1% of the guilty parties from that group. But the Players' Union is not in the habit of surrendering anything they haven't already lost, and for now, they haven't lost those other 100 or so names, so you can't have them. So there.

A-Rod's "Apology":

In some ways, his decision to come out and admit that he used steroids seems kind of refreshing. After all, at this point, these were just rumors, and to date Alex Rodriguez is the only baseball player who has come out and admitted to more than that of which he was accused.

Jason Giambi apologized for, well, nothing in particular. Rafael Palmiero and Barry Bonds and others have denied any wrongdoing in spite of the preponderance to the contrary. Andy Pettitte apologized, but admitted to only using HGH once or twice, and then only to heal faster, not to gain some kind of edge (as though getting back on the playing field sooner is not some kind of edge?). Nobody else of any significance has yet admitted to or apologized for several years of PED usage when the only evidence against them was one failed test.

So it's nice to see someone step up and be a man, for once. But on the other hand, how big a man is he? His confession entails using only from 2001-2003, before there was a testing policy in the major leagues, indeed, before there was any mutually agreed upon prohibition on performance enhancing drugs at all.

This is like admitting that you once hunted and shot a leopard in 1968, before they were on the endangered species list. It may not have been a nice thing to do, but it wasn't illegal, and you obviously did it on purpose and were therefore clearly not sorry for it at the time. But now that everyone knows and it's a bad PR move to have been a leopard hunter once upon a time, well, now you're sorry.

Additionally, it seems that A-Rod's confession is probably scripted and incomplete, at best. Rob Neyer points out some of the faults with it, including where he thinks A-Rod loses the script and where he gives a somewhat less than definitive response as to when he used PEDs. He definitely gives the impression that he's being less than forthright here.

It's a very convenient confession, don't you think? It explains his steroid use as a response to the intense pressure he felt upon signing what was then the largest contract in sports history. That's a lot of pressure, and it makes sense, and we can all imagine ourselves doing the same thing, right? breaking some implied but essentially nonexistent rules to help ourselves get better at what we do, thereby justifying the huge contract and saving off the boos and jeers? I can relate to that.

It also isolates his steroid use to his three seasons as a Texas Ranger, which means he has to piss off only one location to make his apology (albeit one that uses the death penalty somewhat liberally...I'm just sayin'). Specifically, it isolates his drug use to three seasons in which his team won absolutely nothing, finishing in 4th place all three years. The only things tainted by his admission were the awards he personally won during those three years, and of course he has more where they came from. He can deal with that.

But the good people of the greater Northwest can rest easy knowing that Rodriguez really was as talented as he seemed when he played for the mariners from 1994-2000. The good people of New York can have some assurance that the two MVP awards he's won in Yankee Pinstripes are legit. And the whole of the baseball-watching world can take some solace in the "fact" that he's not using anything anymore.

Or is he?

Let me ask you this: If A-Rod was not using steroids in Seattle, but he was in Texas, wouldn't you expect to see some evidence of that? He left Seattle when he was 25 at an age where he should have been entering his natural peak, typically 26-28 or so. But his slugging, batting average, OBP and OPS were almost totally consistent between his last year in Seattle and his three years in Texas. Take a look:

2000 25 .316 .420 .606 1.026
2001 26 .318 .399 .622 1.021
2002 27 .300 .392 .623 1.015
2003 28 .298 .396 .600 .996
Avg. .308 .402 .613 1.015
Std Dev .010 .013 .012 .013
This is a man with admittedly incredible talent,

  • entering the natural prime of his career,
  • leaving a severe pitcher's park (Safeco Field)
  • going to the best hitter's park in the American League (The Ballpark at Arlington)
  • AND he supposedly starts using steroids
    • And his batting average increases 0.002? Right.

      He loses 21 points of OBP. OK, whatever. He gains it back with 16 points of Slugging, which is basically the difference between Arlington and Safeco for 2001. The next year he holds steady with the slugging but loses a few points of batting average and OBP. In 2003, the year when he turned 28, and also the year in which we already know he was cheating, he again loses a couple of points of batting average and drops 23 points of slugging.

      I don't mean to make too much of the individual statistics here. These are all well within the normal range of what you would expect for a great player entering his prime. But that's the problem. You would have expected to see a big jump in his performance, or at least in his stats, when he went to Texas. But instead of skyrocketing, he plateaued. With all those factors working in his favor, there are really only two logical explanations for this:

      1) He stopped working so hard, but the ballpark and the 'roids compensated for this.

      B) He didn't just start using PEDs when he went to Texas.

      You can guess where I'm putting my money. For the record, by all account Alex Rodriguez works as hard or harder than anybody out there, and always has. Nobody has ever accused him of laziness or a lackadaisical attitude. So that ain't it.

      I don't know when he started using PED's, but it wasn't in 2001. Maybe it was 1998, when he was coming off a sub-par season and admitted HGH user David Segui joined the Mariners. Others implicated in (or at least smeared by) the Mitchell Report who also played with Rodriguez in Seattle include Josias Manzanillo, Glenallen Hill and David Bell, his double play partner in 1998, 1999 and 2000.

      Maybe it was 1999, when he missed 30+ games due to knee surgery, and he wanted to get back in shape fast. Maybe it was 2000, when his adjusted OPS jumped from 134 to 162 after an injury plagues 1999 season. In any case, other than it own, apparently well-crafted confession, there's little evidence to suggest his PED usage started when he went to the Rangers.

      A-Rod's Legacy:

      As big a story as this is right now, frankly, I doubt it will mean much in the long run. You see, the more we learn about the PED Era, the more guilty parties there seem to be, and the more people there were using, the less seriously we can consider the pundits who believe that all the juicers' records should be expunged, or at least ignored.

      If juiced-up pitchers were facing juiced up hitters, almost all the time, should we penalize them both? Shouldn't the better players still get credit for their accomplishments? You can argue that Barry Bonds wasn't Better than hank Aaron, if you want, but there's no question that Barry Bonds was better than anybody else who played during his career.

      Over time, the list of players who have been caught will only grow, and the amount of innuendo and rumor linking others to the PED Era will call everyone into question. A-Rod, Bonds, Palmiero, Roger Clemens, Mark McGwire, Juan Gonzalez, Miguel Tejada, Gary Sheffield, Jason Giambi, Ken Caminiti, Ivan Rodriguez, Andy Pettitte, Jose Canseco, Mo Vaughn...the list of connected players is ridiculously long, and there are bound to be others.

      Even - and I hate to say it - Albert Pujols may someday find his name sullied by this scandal. It was his trainer, you'll recall, who sold Jason Grimsley his HGH. And of course, there's no shortage of nobodies on the list either. Mike Judd, Adam Piatt, Tim Laker, Ryan Jorgensen, Stephen Randolph, Bart Miadich, and a couple of hundred more.

      Literally nobody is safe from the speculation, and that means that virtually everybody could have been using PED's in the late 1990's and early 2000's. Perhaps it's time we started asking not who was using, but who wasn't?

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      19 January 2009

      Adopt a Sea Kitten!

      This really doesn't relate to either baseball or my Ethiopian Adoption blog, but what the heck...

      Some friends last week informed us of a wacky, new ad campaign being run by some organization called PETA (Please Eat the Tasty Animals, I think) to try to convince everyone to refer to fish as "Sea Kittens".

      The idea here is that fish have kind of a bad image, and that people would not eat them if they thought of them as being cute and cuddly like kittens, though it must be said that no fish has ever missed the litterbox and left his business on the bathroom floor, thankyouverymuch.

      Far and away the best part of this ad campaign is the fact that you can create your own Sea Kitten, and even email it to friends or put it on your MySpace page. There are four different kinds of fish you can start with, and lots of clothes and accessories to put on or near your sea kitten, including a suit jacket, a ball of string and a unicorn horn.

      Most of these of course do little more than obscure the obviously scaly, wet, non-cuddly nature of the fish, the cartoon of which has already been made unrealistically cute with things like eyelashes and pouty lips.

      Here's my attempt:

      Also you can name your Sea Kitten.

      This is, as far as I can tell, the most you can possibly get on one Sea Kitten without him sinking to the bottom of the ocean and, well, not drowning. He has cat ears, a mohawk, a leather jacket, an elephant's nose,a fu manchu, Lennon specs, swimmies, and a ball of string, litterbox and water dish.

      How the light blue water manages not to seep out into the regular, dark blue water is not clear. Perhaps it's water made with deuterium, i.e. radioactive "heavy water", in which case you should probably not eat this fish anyway. Also I hear the jacket is kind of tough.

      In any case, Sunny and I thought that this premise could perhaps be built upon, that we might be able to think of other animals, normally thought of as edible, and give them names that evoked much cuter images. This might make people less prone to kill them, cut them into fillets, dip them in whisked egg and milk, coat them with seasoned breadcrumbs and then saute them in olive oil until golden brown. Mmmmmm...., er, I mean no, bad Travis. Sea Kittens. Sorry.

      So we came up with a list of potential alternative names that might make up the next PETA ad campaign:

      Old Name     New Name
      Chickens Pecking Bunnies
      Cows Milk Puppies
      Shrimp Tiny Sea Ferrets
      Lobster Giant Sea Cockroach Hamster
      Lamb Lamb

      The theory kind of breaks down at the end there. I mean, what the heck can you do to make a lamb cuter than it already is?

      They're innocent, fluffy little things that live on farms and drink milk and have big, black eyes and are generally as dumb as a bag full of hammers.

      You don't even have to turn them into some kind of caricature to make them cute and adorable. Heck, one of the most famous puppet characters in history is a lamb! And yet even that character is named not after some cutesy aspect of the lamb's personality, not after its big eyes or soft fur, but after a dish you can make from the lamb after it's killed.

      People know this. They are already aware of how cute lambs can be before they order them, and yet they do so anyway. And if that kind of cuteness cannot keep the cute, fluffy image above from turning into, well this:

      Then fish (and cows and chickens, and especially lobsters) have little hope.

      Nevertheless, it can be fun to try to think of other options that might work. Anybody have a suggestion (or an improvement) for the list?

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      13 January 2009

      Cooperstown Comes Calling for Rickey, Rice

      What in the wide, wide world of sports is a'goin' on around here?

      I'm out of the country on business for one week, and I come back to find that instead of being a member of the Atlanta Braves, as he almost always has been, John Smoltz is now a Red Sock. Pat Burrell is a Ray, Trevor Hoffman is a Brewer, and Twins owner Carl Pohlad is an Angel (if you believe his son, anyway). Can't I leave you people alone for one minute?!!?

      All of that would normally be news if it weren't for the fact that the Hall of Fame vote was announced yesterday. Rickey Henderson got in on Rickey's first attempt, just as Rickey figured Rickey would. Rickey never doubted that Rickey would get in, only how much of the vote Rickey would get. Rickey's credentials speak for themselves, whether you like the traditional or the sabermetric numbers, though Rickey sometimes does the favor for them.

      He's the all-time career leader in Runs and Stolen Bases, leadoff home runs (along with a bunch of other records for leadoff men, I'm sure), second in walks and 4th in times on base and plate appearances. He's 9th in career Runs Created, behind Barry Bonds, Babe Ruth, Stan Musial, Hank Aaron, Ty Cobb, Ted Williams, Willie Mays, Lou Gehrig and Pete Rose. Yeah, he was that good.

      Alas, Rickey didn't come particularly close to getting 100% of the vote, something nobody's ever done. (Tom Seaver and Nolan Ryan each got 98.8% in their first years of eligibility, and nobody's ever gotten closer.) Rickey received 94.8% of the vote, 28 votes shy of perfection.

      Jim Rice also got the call, in his 15th and final chance on the BBWAA ballot, with 76.4% of the vote, an increase of 20 votes from last year. This was expected, as no hitter had ever gotten so close as Rice did in the 2008 vote (72.2%) without getting elected soon after. If the BBWAA allowed only 14 years of eligibility, Jim Rice and his alleged "fear-inspiring" attributes might still be on the outside, looking in. Rice became the third player to be elected in his last opportunity, along with Ralph Kiner and Red Ruffing.

      By the numbers, Jim Rice is the 7th "Jim" in the Hall but only the 3rd "Rice", along with Sam and Del. He's the 9th hall of fame player to have played primarily with the Red Sox, thoough several others have spent significant time in a Red Sox uniform as well. He's the 20th(!) player listed primarily as a left fielder, including two other Red Sox, Yaz and the Spendid Splinter. Someday, I'm sure, Manny Ramirez will join them, but that's it.

      Seriously, BBWAA folks, I think we have enough left fielders, and definitely enough Red Sox left fielders. We have to draw the line somewhere before Troy O'Leary.

      Anyway, I'm among the many who don't happen to think that Rice belongs there, but I won't rehash all of that. (I've got some new stuff to hash.) You can read my thoughts on Rice here and here. Mostly I think his impressive numbers at Fenway Park skew the appearance of his value upward, making him look like a much better hitter than he really was. Neutralizing his stats gives him a .290/.343/.489 career line instead of .298/.352/.502, but that doesn't really matter, as the folks who vote for him are going more on gut instinct and anecdotal evidence than they are on, you know, facts.

      My problem with Jim Rice's election is not that it opens the door for Andre Dawson and Dale Murphy and Harold Baines. Someday I'll do a study to see how well we can predict Hall of Fame voting trends, but it looks to me right now like Dawson's train is all but unstoppable, and that he'll be in by 2011 or 2012. The other two are clearly going nowhere.

      My problem is that Rice's selection opens the door for Andres Galarraga and Larry Walker, two players who also got a lot of help from their home parks. The former has (superficially) very similar career numbers to Rice, as Bill James' Similarity Index rates the Big Cat as Rice's 2nd closest comp, with an 893 score. His closest comp, Orlando Cepeda, is already in Cooperstown, though I never thought he deserved election either. Rice's 282 Win Shares are a few more than the 252 than Galarraga had, and Baseball Prospectus' WARP, tells a similar story, 73 to 66.

      Galarraga won a couple of Gold Gloves and also stole 10+ bases six times, while Rice stole 10 only once, and never even got into a discussion about the Gold Gloves unless someone thought he should try his hand at amatuer boxing. Each won two Silver Sliggers. Rice was in the top 10 in MVP voting six times, with one win, while Galarraga was in the top 10 seven times topping out at 6th in 1996 and 1998. The similarities are almost eerie.

      I'm not saying that Galarraga will receive or even deserves enshrinement in Cooperstown, but a case can be made for him, in light of Rice's presence there. Indeed, the Hall of Fame's own story about next year's class mentions Roberto Alomar, Edgar Martinez, Barry Larkin and Fred McGriff, but not Galarraga, and rightly so. Galaragga is NOT a Hall of Famer, nor will he be.

      But here's the rub: Larry Walker had 308 Win Shares and almost 93 WARP in his career, far outclassing them both. Walker's career line of .313/.400/.565 is vastly better than Rice's, and even after adjusting it for league and park, it comes out to .299/.384/.539, which is a heckuva lot better than Rice's unadjusted line. Rice had about 1,000 more plate appearances for his career than Walker because, despite the abrupt end of Rice's career, Walker could never resist a leg injury he hadn't already tried, but even with that, he had 440 Adjusted Batting Runs, 61st all-time, while Rice doesn't even crack the top 100.

      Add to this the fact that Larry Walker was a 7-time Gold Glove right fielder who also stole 230 bases at a high success rate, and I don't see how you leave Larry Walker out, and yet I suspect that he will get little support when he enters the balloting in 2011. During his own 17-year career, Walker had only the 14th most Win Shares, and everybody in front of him on the list amassed several more either before 1989 or after 2005. John Olerud had almost exactly the same number of Win Shares during the same 17 years.

      Larry Walker, despite his obvious talents, was rarely considered among the best players of his generation because everyone knew how much help he got from Coors Field. Like Rice, Walker won one MVP Award (albeit one that should have gone to Mike Piazza), but he only finished in the top 10 in the MVP voting two other times, and only once in Colorado (1995, when he was 7th).

      Walker's MVP finishes while in Colorado:

      Year   MVP    BA/HR/RBI  Other Qualifications
      1995 7th .306/36/101 96 Runs, 16 Stolen Bases, 13 OF assists
      1997 1st .366/49/130 143 Runs, 46 Doubles, Gold Glove, 33 SB
      1998 17th .363/23/ 67 113 Runs, 46 2B, GG, 14 SB
      1999 10th .379/37/115 108 Runs, GG, 11 SB
      2001 24th .350/38/123 107 Runs, 35 2B, GG, 14 SB
      2002 20th .338/26/104 95 Runs, 40 2B, GG

      To be fair, he also had a 5th and an 11th place showing in Montreal before going to Colorado, but if a man can hit like that and not even crack the top 15 or 20 in the MVP vote, I don't think the baseball writers take him too seriously.

      And yet Walker was demonstrably a much better player than Jim Rice. Oh, excuse me: Hall of Famer Jim Rice. But Rice played for winning teams, in an era when nobody thought about park effects, so the baseball writers eventually convinced themselves that he belonged in Cooperstown, while Walker probably never will.

      Some contend that the election of Rice won't lower the standards of the hall, but I think that's exactly what will happen. Perhaps Dave Parker and Albert Belle won't get in, but others might. Electing Dennis Eckersly, primarily for his prowess as a reliever, led to Bruce Sutter, which made it easier for Goose Gossage to get in.

      The Veterans' Committee's selection of Bill Mazeroski made them give Joe Gordon a second look, even though he never got more than 30% of the vote from the writers. Same thing happened when Phil Rizzuto was brought into the fold: Suddenly George Davis belonged in there, too. Putting Jim Bunning and Hal Newhauser in meant that Don Sutton and Phil Niekro had to be elected.

      The writers' election of Tony Perez and the Veterans' selection of Orlando Cepeda and Larry Doby made it easier for Rice (and soon Dawson) to get in, and they speculate that Henderson's election might help Tim Raines, which would actually be a good thing. This a very slippery slope here, people, and while the writers may not simply choose to elect anyone who ever played a few seasons in Colorado just because Jim Rice is in there, we have to at least wonder how his election will effect the candidacies of other marginally qualified players.

      A few other notes about this year's ballot:

      * Each of the top five players on the ballot after Rickey and Rice picked up between two and five votes since last year, even though the entry of a sure-fire hall of famer onto the ballot usually signals a drop in votes for the marginal candidates. Tommy John got 32% in his last shot.

      * Tim Raines lost 10 votes since last year, though admittedly, some of those might have been due to the four fewer voters this year. Apparently the presence of the Greatest Leadoff Man in History diminished Raines' case a little bit.

      * Mark McGwire lost 10 votes as well, after having gotten exactly 128 in his first two years of voting. Apparently people have their minds made up about him, and nothing has much happened to sway them in his favor.

      * Dave, Donnie, and Dale have all hit a plateau around 12-15% after losing much of their initial support, which hovered around 25% of the voters. Hitters who came onto the ballot in the mid to late 1990's suddenly didn't look so great during the Steroid Era, and nobody's really changed their minds about them much.
      * Harold Baines is hanging on for dear life, with just 5.9% of the vote.

      * Mark Grace, who had the most hits in the 1990's (and a dozen more Win Shares than Jim Rice, by the way), got only 4.1% of the vote and will not be on the ballot next year. You hear that, Jack Morris?

      * David Cone, who was about as good a pitcher as hall of famers Jim Bunning, Don Drysdale, Juan Marichal, and Whitey Ford, got only 3.9% of the votes and won't be back next year.

      * The Great LOOGy Hope for the Hall of Fame, Jesse Orosco, got one vote, and that was from his mom, who's probably senile anyway. I guess we have to wait for Mike Myers now.

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      30 December 2008

      Let the Yankees Spend Their Own Money

      The Yankees have long been the favorite targets of rival fans, rival team owners and media pundits for a very long time. In the early 1970's we were told that free agency would ruin baseball, mostly because it was thought that nobody could afford to pay players what they were actually worth, essentially. Even George Steinbrenner himself said,

      "I am dead set against free agency. It can ruin baseball."

      As it turned out, though, teams like the Yankees could afford to pay the going price for (presumably) the best available players, while other teams sometimes had to struggle to get by. Free agency was the best thing to happen to the Yankees since Mickey Mantle. King George was smart enough to realize this, so afterwards he kept quiet about the issue, while others lambasted him for spending so much money on free agents like Catfish Hunter, Goose Gossage, Reggie Jackson, Dave Winfield, and Rickey Henderson, among others.

      Not that it worked. I mean sure, the Yankees used free agency to supplement a pretty decent team in the late 1970's and they won two World Series for their efforts, but then they went 18 years before they won another one, and went 14 years without even making the playoffs, despite the perennially high payrolls.

      Efforts to sign big-name, superstar free agents were often unsuccessful and sometimes disastrous. Ed Whitson, Jack Clark, Terry Mulholland, Kenny Rogers and Danny Tartabull come to mind, among others. Even if they performed, it wasn't up to par with the fans' and writers' expectations, and so they were quickly dispatched to the far reaches of the major leagues, usually for pennies on the dollar.

      When they did start winning World Series, they did so with teams predominantly composed of home-grown players (Jeter, Pettitte, Mariano Rivera, Jorge Posada, Bernie Williams, Ramiro Mendoza) and the products of shrewd trades (John Wetteland, David Cone, Paul O'Neill, Tino Martinez, Jeff Nelson, Tim Raines, Scott Brosius, Roger Clemens, David Justice). Granted, many of those trades (like the ones for Clemens and Chuck Knoblauch) only happened because the Yankees could most easily afford to meet their salary demands, but still, the Yankees were shrewd to make them.

      Not that free agents played no role, but when they did, those players were often complementary (Darryl Strawberry, Orlando Hernandez) rather than stars. For what it's worth, in their four most recent championship seasons, any Yankee MVP or Cy Young votes usually went to either home-grown players or those acquired in trade. Only David Wells, a journeyman southpaw who who had signed as a free agent before the 1998 season, bucked this trend by getting a smattering of votes for each in that year, and the Yankees were as surprised as anyone when he briefly blossomed into a star.

      But this new crop of free agents is expected to carry the team.

      The recent signings of Mark Teixeira (8 years, $180 million), CC Sabathia (7 years, $161 million) and A.J. Burnett (5 years, $82.5 million) has spurred a lot of bitterness in the baseball writing community, at least amonth those who are not Yankee fans. Phil Sheridan of the Philadelphia Inquirer says that the Yankees' free spending ways, in the midst of poor economy, is
      "...the most egregious display of financial irresponsibility in the history of sports."

      Which is ridiculous. That title obviously belongs to the $55 million contract the Dodgers gave to Darren Dreifort. Or perhaps the $65 million Chan Ho Park got from the Rangers. No, wait, Russ Ortiz. Or maybe Barry Zito or Mike Hampton. Or whatever we spend to train the Olympic curling team. At least Burnett, Sabathia and Teixeira are actually good players, and stand a decent chance of continuing to be good for a few years.

      The San Francisco Examiner's Bob Franz thought the Yankees were ruining baseball, and that was before they signed Teixeira. He too cites the lousy economy, as well as the fact that the Yankees' new ballpark is partially being paid for by taxpayer money. (Well, the infrastructure improvements are, anyway, but let's not be too picky.)

      Bill Bradley of the Sacramento Bee thinks these signings show the sport's need for a salary cap, and Brewers' GM Mark Attanasio agrees. This notion comes out every time something like this happens, and there's never been any real progress on the matter. Nor will there be, if the MLB players' union remains as strong as it has been for the last three decades.

      Phil Rogers points out that the Yankees have spent about $130 million more on their free agents this winter than the other 29 teams have spent combined, which is interesting. Still, though, it's not as staggering as he would have you believe, since there was nobody anywhere near as good as the Yankees' three signees to whom the other 29 teams might pay that kind of cash. Rogers also correctly notes that if nothing else, these free agent signings make 2009 an all-or-nothing year for the Yankees, and especially field manager Joe Girardi.

      Todd Jones of the Sporting News suggests that the Yankees can't buy themselves a championship, and though he mixes metaphors inappropriately and mis-quotes some stats (Burnett won 18 games last year, not 17), his point is taken.

      The problem with most of these arguments is that they confuse the lagging economy and government bailouts of big businesses with what the Yankees spend and how they decide to spend it. While baseball may not be "recession proof", the Yankees still find themselves with a lot of advantges going into 2009:
      • They're still the most recognizable brand in sports
      • They still play in the largest market in the country
      • They still have their own cable TV network
      • They have a brand new sadium opening this spring
      • They won 89 games in 2008, enough to have won two of the six divisions in baseball
      • and they had about $70 million coming off the annual payroll.
      Add to this the facts that they missed the playoffs for the first time in a decade and a half, and that the talent coming up from the minor leagues is not yet poised for stardom, and the reasons the Yankees should not spend lavishly on free agents become difficult to explain. Why should they wait and hope like other teams when their window is now, and they can take advantage of it with just another piece or two (or three) in the puzzle.

      They're not asking Uncle Sam to foot the bill for Sabathia and Teixeira and Burnett and A-Rod and Jeter. They're not laying people off like Ford and GM, and then turning around and asking for more money for themselves. They're not using taxpayer dollars to offset the expenses of golden parachutes offered to their departing executives. They've managed their own business well, and can spend the profits however they please.

      The Yankees have their own money. They're not asking for handouts. They're selling a product, and their fans don't show any signs of reluctance to buy it. They've made lots of money in the past and they expect to continue that trend. And if the failing economy starts to hurt them at the gate, they'll be the ones forced to pony up the dough for these big contracts, not us.

      And lest you assume that the Yankees will raise ticket and concession prices to recoup their losses, please understand that it doesn't work that way. Basic economics states that the prices are regulated by supply and demand, and in this case the supply is set at 52,325, so it's just demand. If the demand goes down, the price will go down, not up. If attendance starts dropping, they'll be forced to lower ticket prices to make up in volume what the've lost in margin.

      One of the few reasonable voices out there, Will Carroll points out that the Yankees really aren't spending money they don't have. They had room in the "budget" with the departures of Jason Giambi, Mike Mussina, Carl Pavano, Bobby Abreu, and (we assume) Andy Pettitte, and they took advantage of that fact.

      Even with the 2009 salaries and signing bonuses of these three players, plus another $10 million or so in raises to current players like A-Rod, Robinson Cano, Nick Swisher, Chien-Ming Wang, Xavier Nady and the Melk Man (who failed to deliver), the Bronx Bombers still find themselves about $20 million shy of last year's historically large payroll.
      You see, the Yankees keep themselves in check. It's only because they overspend on free agents that they are not even more successful. The pressure of playing in New York requires them to overpay for free agents, and that means that when a signing proves to be a bust, it's that much more spectacular and tragic.

      That, in turn, makes them a little more wary next time around, or ties up their payroll in costly albatrosses like Carl Pavano, so that when a Carlos Beltran or Johan Santana hits the market, they can't always snatch him up. Granted, often they can, but just as often they end up eating about half the contract when the player ages prematurely or, as in the case of Jason Giambi, stops taking steroids and gets and intestinal parasite.

      Some teams may have to wait and hope for victory. Royals fans may remain delusional on the issue. The Oaklands and Tampas can play Moneyball and the Minnesotas can play little-ball and the Brewers can try to catch lightning in a bottle, but the Yankees were already spending a lot of money on their team, even before the $423.5 million they promised to A.J., C.C. and Mark and if they wanted to have anything to show for it next year, the only way was to spend even more.

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      13 December 2008

      CC Sabathia, AJ Burnett and Melky's Impending Departure

      Wow, that was a busy week.

      As predicted, the Yankees wound up signing CC Sabathia, for a contract within about 0.6% of the total amount I estimated a couple of weeks ago, albeit for one less year than I thought. The signing came as little surprise to anyone, excepting perhaps Los Angeles GM Ned Colletti, who apparently had an imaginary encounter in which Sabathia professed to want to play for him. When push came to shove, apparently it was about the money, stupid, as Jason Rosenberg will tell you.

      Also as expected, it's the largest total and largest average value for any pitcher's contract in history. The unexpected thing is that there's a player option to get out of the contract after just three years, after which the Yankees will have spent "only" $69 million on him, and after which he will be 32 and perhaps starting to (or about to) decline.

      That's where the real issue lies, though. While some people have posited that the opt-out clause is actually a good thing for the Yankees, as CC will undoubtedly decide to take it so he can get more money and move closer to his home in southern California. That's only true however, if he's been both healthy and good for the first three years of this contract.

      If either of those eventualities does not occur, especially in the third year, the Yankees will almost certainly be "stuck" with Sabathia for the next four seasons. Can you really imagine a pitcher who just went, say, 5-8 with a 4.93 ERA in 87 innings opting out of a four-year, $92 million contract? I don't think so.

      In any case, there is every reason for the Yankees and their fans to be excited about what CC means for 2009: A legitimate, #1 ace pitcher to anchor the rotation.

      And speaking of those...

      The Yankees also signed A.J. Burnett this week. Burnett, coming off career highs in innings, wins, strikeouts, technically has nowhere to go but down from here, but there is some reason for hope, despite my previous protestations (begging, really) against this signing. The biggest reason to look on the bright side is that Burnett's BABIP was .318 last year, well above the MLB average of .300, but don't make too much of that. We're only talking about eleven hits here, if he reverts to the average.

      Burnett gets $82.5 million over five years, which as I pointed out previously, is four more years than he's ever stayed healthy at a stretch. I hope, and fully expect, that the Yankees would not so cavalierly spend money on such a high risk, and must therefore know something I don't about Burnett's prospects for continued health. Of course, I thought that when they signed Carl Pavano and Jaret Wright, too, and those hopes turned out to be misguided, at best.

      Six years ago, I worried about Burnett's health and how Jeff Torborg's abuse of his arm might have harmed him in the long run, and apparently I was on to something. Burnett had Tommy John surgery the following April and missed most of the 2003 and 2004 seasons, plus parts of the 2006 season due to TJ-related scar tissue problems. His track record is the very definition of "spotty".

      But when he's good, he's really good, a workhorse who not only eats innings but misses bats, striking out enough batters to take a substantial part of the load off the Yankees' porous infield defense. He's a number one starter the Yankees will never have to sue as such since Sabathia will (hopefully) always serve that purpose.

      I find it interesting that Burnett has received a lot of criticism for his apparent unwillingness to pitch when he's anything less than 100% healthy, this from some of the same people who criticize managers for over working pitchers. It seems a bit disingenuous to me to say that Burnett should be willing to pitch even if he doesn't feel great about it, when they also criticize the culture that discourages pitchers from voicing such concerns, and retroactively villainizes managers who send pitchers out there with known ailments that eventually lead to things like ligament replacement and rotator cuff surgery.

      I don't know whether Burnett could pitch through those maladies, and just chooses not to, but I know I'd rather have him at 100% for 28 starts a year than at 75% for every start through JUly and then not at all for the rest of the season.

      The other notable Yankee news this week was the rumor that they're planning on trading Melky Cabrera to Milwaukee for Mike Cameron. This would give the Yankees a stable, if aging and expensive, centerfielder in place of Melky Cabrera, who had a terrible year in 2008 and eventually got sent back to AAA.

      Though his terrible batting line was largely due to his .271 BABIP, well below the MLB average, the caveat here is that even if he'd hit .300 when he put the ball in play, he'd have only amassed ten more hits. That would have brought him up to a .277 batting average instead of .249, and would have given him only the 5th worst OPS among regular MLB centerfielders, instead of the third worst. Oh, goodie.

      If the Yankees had taken my advice in the spring and traded Melky before the season really got underway, they might have gotten more in return for him than a 36 year old centerfielder with a .250 career batting average who might make almost $11 million in 2009, if he meets all his incentives. Cameron's not all bad, as he's got some power and takes enough walks to make up for the low batting avergae.

      As it is, though, they're selling low on Melky, but if he's not likely to get any better, they might as well get something for him now. The market for centerfielders who play mediocre defense, don't steal bases and hit .275 with no power isn't likely to be much better when Melky hits his arbitration years.

      There are rumors that the Yankees aren't done, either with free agents or trades, as they're still trying to reel in Andy Pettitte with a much more modest contract than he got last time around, something more in the $10 million range for a year or two. That would give them a rotation of Sabathia, Burnett, Chien-Ming Wang, Andy Pettitte and Joba Chamberlain, with Phil Hughes and Ian Kennedy relegated to Scranton until such time as somebody gets hurt again. I'm not sure they need Pettitte, frankly, as I still think Hughes and/or Kennedy can prove useful, but then they never listen to me.

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      03 December 2008

      Harold Baines for the Hall of Fame?

      It amazes me that I'm even writing this.

      It seems to me that if you've got a player whose main job, nay, ONLY job for most of his career was to hit, he ought to have some damn impressive stats if you're going to talk about putting him in the Hall of Fame. Harold Baines won a Silver Slugger and was a six-time All-Star, but Darryl Strawberry made eight All Star teams, Frank McCormick nine, and Steve Garvey ten. Bill Freehan went to 11(!) All Star Games, and when he came up for election, he got two lousy votes and promptly fell off the ballot.

      A Designated Hitter ought to amass 200 or more hits at least once. A run producer should pile up 100+ RBIs more than three times in 22 seasons, or score 100 runs, even 90 runs, at least once. A great slugger ought to lead the league in slugging more than once, or hit 30 homers at least once, or at least be among the league leaders occasionally.

      Harold Baines did none of these things, and yet there are still folks out there who think he belongs in Cooperstown, along side Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio and Carl Yastrzemski and Dave Winfield.

      Scott Merkin, a White Sox beat writer for MLB, is one of them. He's got a column on the MLB website calling for the longtime Pale Hose wearer to get some serious consideration for Cooperstown. To make his case for Baines, Merkin interviewed such non-partisan folks as White Sox GM (and former Baines teammate) Kenny Williams, White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf, White Sox color commentator Ken "Hawk" Harrelson, and Harold Baines himself. Way to keep it neutral there, Scotty.

      I have never thought of Baines as a Hall of Famer, and usually just glaze over his candidacy with a few sentences between discussions of more serious candidates. Apparently few of the BBWAA voters have either, only about 28 of them, out of the 540 or so who get to vote. This is important because their opinions, unlike mine, actually matter. Merkin and others like him will need to change the minds of almost 400 of the BBWAA writers, which is unlikely.

      A few tidbits from Merkin:

      Clutch hitting for Baines [...] led to an amazing 1,628 RBIs despite only topping the 100-RBI plateau in 1982 (105) and 1985 (113) with the White Sox, and with Baltimore and Cleveland in 1999 (103). Baines turned 40 before the 1999 campaign.
      It's a model for consistent excellence on Baines' part, accomplished the right way through dedication on and off the field, without any questionable shortcuts.

      First of all, being 28th all-time at something does not constitute "amazing" in my book. A-Rod is right on his heels, and will pass him before the end of May next year. Jim Thome and Carlos Delgado are about 140 RBIs back, and could both pass him in the next two years, without necessarily even being much good. Chipper Jones is about 250 back, and could pass him inside of three years easily. Any two of those four will push Baines out of the top 30, and thus his best case for Cooperstown will weaken quite a bit.

      Also, it's hard for me to agree with "consistent excellence" as an appropriate term to describe someone who hit, on average, .289 with 22 homers per 162 games. (His actual average per season was about 17.5 homers, because he rarely played more than around 145 games in a season.) More like "typical goodness" which sounds a lot less compelling.

      Sure, I'll give him three snaps in Z formation for not using steroids, but then do we even know that for sure? He played almost half his career in the so-called steroids era, and suffered little apparent drop off in skills as he went into his late 30's, when most players slow down.

      Baines hit the second most homers of his career at age 40, in 1999, the height of the PED era, and also had the third highest slugging percentage and RBI totals of his career that year, then fell off the table, hitting just .254 with 11 homers in Y2K. If players as mundane as Jason Grimsley and Ricky Bones and Hal Morris and David Justice and dozens of others were all using, is it so hard to believe that Baines could have, too?

      Even assuming that he was clean, was he the amazing clutch hitter that Merkin makes him out to be? White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf and GM Kenny Williams think so, but then if you asked any owner and/or GM about a longtime fan favorite on the Cooperstown ballot, they'd probably say something nice like this. But is there any (non-anecdotal) evidence?

      Baines hit .289/.356/.465 in his career overall, and while he did hit .313/.387/.427 as a pinch hitter (presumably a clutch situation, most of the time), his "Close & Late" numbers (.284/.360/.474) and other clutch stats hover right around his career marks. In short, there's no evidence that he was any more clutch than anybody else.

      Baines' hit total of 2866, 40th all-time, is his other main argument. It's as close as any eligible player has gotten to 3,000 hits without getting elected, and two-thirds of the next 30 players on the list are either in the hall or will be someday. That 3,000 mark has always seemed like a lock, and White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf blames himself for Baines' inability to get there:

      "What really has bothered me for a long time is that if we hadn't traded him, he would have his 3,000 hits and he would be a lock for the Hall of Fame. We traded him twice and into bad situations where he was a platoon player. If he stayed with us, he would have gone over 3,000 hits. If he doesn't get in, it would really bug me. I talk to him about it, and he just shrugs it off."

      Should Reinsdorf blame himself for the fact that Harold Baines elicits so little support for election to the baseball Hall of Fame? Besides the fact that 3,000 hits is by no means an automatic ticket to the Coop, given how bland Baines' other numbers look, is it actually possible that Baines would have gotten more playing time and therefore more hits if he'd stayed in Chicago? Let's see:

      In 1989, he was traded to Texas on July 29th, and he played in only 50 of the Rangers' remaining 62 games, but not because he was a platoon player. He got five sporadic days off, but then missed seven consecutive games in September, after being pinch hit for in the 6th inning of the last game before the missed week. We have to presume an injury here, and if so, we cannot presume health if he'd stayed in Chicago.

      So at best maybe he gets five more games. But does he really? The White Sox had not played him every day either, as he appeared in only 96 of the team's 102 games up to that point, a day off every 17 games. In Texas, not counting the alleged injury, he sat about once every 11 games. So that gives him less than two more games, if he sits once every 17 instead of once every 11. Hitting .321 (his White Sox BA that year) in those two games would give him maybe three more hits. Woo hoo, only 131 to go!

      But his performance slipped a bit too when he went to Texas, his batting average dropping from .321 to .285. There's no saying why this was, but let's just pretend that Harold was sad when the ChiSox traded him, and didn't hit as well because of it, and that he would have continued to hit .321 in the remaining 52 games in 1989, instead of .285 in 50 games. How many more hits would that have gotten him? That would give him 58 hits in 188 at-bats instead of 49 hits in 172 at-bats, his actual numbers in Texas. So we've got a total of nine additional hits. Down to 125.

      The next year he split between Texas and Oakland, hitting .284 with 118 hits in 415 at-bats. Baseball Reference says that if he'd spent the whole year with Chicago, he'd have had 115 hits in 412 at-bats, three less than his actual total.

      But let's also assume that he'd have gotten more than the 135 games they gave him in Texas and Oakland, too. Some of that was due to normal days off, but others may have been injury-related, like when he missed three games in May after playing all of a doubleheader, or when he missed nine games in July, after a game started in which he only got one at-bat, and had only a two-inning appearance in right field in the middle. He played only 103 games of 129 with Texas before the trade to Oakland, where he actually did play every day (and hit only .266).

      We can't give him the 12 or so he presumably missed due to some ailment, so we'll give him seven days off (one every 17 games, like in 1989 with Chicago), plus the 12 due to boo-boos, which leaves him with 143 games played instead of only 135. With four plate appearances per game, he gets 32 more plate appearances at most, but he did walk some, so that takes away about four plate appearances. Hitting a 1990-Comiskey adjusted .279 in 440 at-bats instead of the .284 in 415 at-bats he actually compiled gives him 123 hits that year instead of 118. That's five more hits, and we're down to 120.

      You see where this is going? I've written over 1,600 words, and we've managed to find 14 hits for him. At this rate, I'll have written a novella about Harold Baines before we get him 3,000 (real and imaginary) hits. But let's keep it up...

      I'm not going to make adjustments for the five years in between Baines' first and second stints with the White Sox. He spent two seasons in Oakland and three in Baltimore, never playing more than 141 games in a a season. Let us presume that this was because he was a 30-something DH with bad knees and not because his managers didn't care about getting him into the Hall of Fame.

      If that's the case, there's little reason to think that he would have played more often in Chicago than he did in Baltimore and Oakland. Furthermore, adjusting for ballparks (via Baseball Reference) shows that Baines would have had fewer hits, not more, playing half his games in Comiskey, a slight pitcher's park. We'll leave well enough alone there.

      Anyway, the second trade Reinsdorf was talking about happened in late July 1997, two days before the famed White Flag Trade. Baines had played 93 of the team's 103 games to that point. When he went to Baltimore, he was in a platoon, mostly with righty Geronimo Berroa, who hit .277/.366/.426 after Baines' arrival. Baines, for his part, hit .291/.356/.418 for Baltimore, playing 44 of the team's remaining 59 games, but his OPS was 120 points lower against lefties than righties that year, so it seems the platoon was justified.

      Reinsdorf would have you believe that Baines would not have been platooned in Chicago, but with 1B/DH Frank Thomas hitting .347 that year, I find that hard to believe. Thomas hit .344 against righties that year, and therefore did not need to be platooned, but if they only used Baines as a DH against righties and played Thomas at first those days, Baines still would have gotten less playing time, not more.

      Even if we believe Jerry's argument and we give Baines nine more games (6 games off in the remaining 59) and about nine more hits (using the same .300 batting average and the same ratio of at-bats to games played). Now he only needs 111 for the Hall to come calling.

      The next year he was platooned again, this time with Joe Carter and Eric Davis, mostly, but he also missed about 32 games from late June to early August due to an injury, so at best he might have played 117 games that year (with the normal game off every ten days) instead of the 104 he actually played. This exercise typically picks us up about one hit per game, so we'll give him 13 more hits, and now he "only" needs 98 more, and they're obviously not going to be found.

      By this point in his career, Baines was a part-time player, and deservedly so. He wasn't getting to play as much because most clubs, including the White Sox, had better options at DH than a 38-year old who couldn't hit lefties and didn't have much power. Reinsdorf is just flat-out wrong.

      Another quote from Reinsdorf:
      "He's going to have a tough time [getting HoF votes] because for a good part of his career he was a designated hitter and a lot of writers won't vote for a DH,"

      No, writers will vote for a DH if he's good enough, as they did for Reggie Jackson, and as they will for Edgar Martinez and Frank Thomas. It's not because Baines was a DH, it's because he wasn't a great DH.

      Merkin also argues for Baines, if you can believe this, based on his defense(!):

      Many people will forget Baines' natural ability as an outfielder during the early portion of his career, finishing with 10 assists for three straight seasons from 1981 to 1983 and with 15 assists in 1986. But Baines did not play the field from 1993 through his retirement in 2001.

      Assists are not the best measure of an oufielder's defense, but they are a measure. In this case, Baines' 15 assists were not in the top 30 among outfielders between 1980 and 1986, the last year he played the field regularly. The 10 assists he had in other years probably would not be among the top 100 marks in those seven seasons, and he never won a Gold Glove. That's not everything, but it tells you that he was never considered one of the three best defensive outfielders in the league when he played.

      Surprisingly, according to Baseball Prospectus he was a pretty decent outfielder, good for between 11 and 17 FRAA (Fielding Runs Above Average) each year from 1983 to '86. That's not fantastic, but it is pretty good. Still, you can't give him credit for what he might have done with good knees without throwing everything else off, so we have to evaluate him based on what he actually did, which was DH.

      And as a DH, he just doesn't measure up. It's not Reinsdorf's fault. It's not the voters' fault. Baines just wasn't great enough. Being "pretty good" for 22 years should not be, and will not be, enough for Cooperstown.

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      01 December 2008

      Problems in Projecting C.C. Sabathia: The $140 Million Question

      Rob Neyer and Anthony McCarron have weighed in on the large-looming presence that is CC Sabathia, and the even larger one that will be his next contract, well north of the $100 million mark. Neyer followed that up with some comments on a Sports Illustrated article discussing Sabathia's size and other attributes as well.

      I discussed CC a bit last week, but did not go into too much detail. Hopefully I'll remedy that oversight here.

      Ben Reiter of SI thinks that CC's as good a bet as anyone to be a very good pitcher for the next several years, in spite of his size. McCarron things that this is a big risk, but one the Yankees have to take, and I mostly agree with that, though I don't necessarily think that comparing him only to other $100 million pitchers is fair, exactly. For one thing, the $100 million is just a convenient benchmark. If you brought it down to, say, $85 million, still a hell of a lot of money, you'd have the likes of Mike Mussina and Carlos Zambrano, neither of whom can be considered a bust, at least not yet.

      And if you look at average annual value, the list gets even bigger. Andy Pettitte and Jake Peavy both made more money per year than Brown or Hampton, but then so did Roger Clemens and Jason Schmidt, and those didn't go so well. Roy Oswalt and Mark Buehrle and Roy Halladay aren't far off that mark, either, and their clubs are all pretty happy with them, but then there's also John Smoltz and Chris Carpenter, so...we just don't know. Spending money is a risk, and the more you spend, the bigger the risk. This is not news.

      But among the few things we can say with confidence about CC Sabathia, there is this: He is not Barry Zito. Or Kevin Brown. Or Mike Hampton. Unfortunately, neither is he Johan Santana.

      Still, for the sake of argument, it might be helpful to look at the warning signs associated with these other huge contracts, to see if they "should have known better", or something.

      Rob Neyer had reasons that three of the previous four megadeals should have been avoided, but I find a few problems with his arguments:

      "[Kevin] Brown had been up and down, durability-wise, and was well into his 30s
      when the Dodgers signed him (and it should be said that he did pitch brilliantly
      for two years)."

      Granted, he was 35 when he signed, and should have been considered an injury risk for that reason alone, but "up and down"? He missed a month in 1995 with a dislocated finger, and missed some time in September of 1989 and 1990, but had been a veritable workhorse every year from 1991 to 1998, averaging well over 200 innings per 162 games.

      The Dodgers got three very good (if non-consecutive) years and two injury-plagued ones from Brown, and then they traded him for two good years of Jeff Weaver (his last two good ones, it would turn out) plus two other pitchers. That's about as good as they could have hoped, given the fact that they were dumb enough to sign a 35-year old pitcher through his 40th birthday.

      Another one of Neyer's retrospective assessments:

      "Zito was a disaster waiting to happen, his performance obviously slipping long before the Giants signed him. "

      Have to disagree there, too, to some degree. There may have been some advanced metrics to suggest the impending drop in performance, but his slipping performance was hardly "obvious". At the time of the signing, Zito was a 28-year old lefty who had averaged 16 wins, 220 innings and a much better than average ERA for the previous 6 years. Those aren't the only important numbers, naturally, but you can hardly make a case for an obvious drop in skills.

      Even if you just looked at the previous 2-3 years, he was still a durable, better than average lefty starter, which is a rare commodity. Of course, $18 million a year is too much to pay for that commodity, but there was little reason to think that Zito would turn out to be as bad as he's been the last two seasons.

      "And Hampton was a very good pitcher who was thrown into an extreme environment."

      Not sure about this one either. If anything, he was a so-so pitcher who had thrived in one extreme environment, and was therefore highly overrated. Hampton had been helped significantly by the severe pitchers' parks in Houston when he was with the Astros and in New York. His career ERA split after the 2000 season was 2.88/4.09, in over 1,200 innings of total work, meaning that away from those pitchers' havens, he was basically a little better than average.

      Not only was he removed from that extreme environment, but he was forced to pitch half his games in an even more extreme environment, one with the exact opposite properties of those that had masked his mediocrity. That revealed his weaknesses, and severely so. Colorado to their credit, unloaded him after two seasons, and got some value in return.

      Sabathia is none of these things. Unlike Brown, he's not almost 35. Unlike Hampton, his success does not come from the parks he's called home. Unlike Zito, he doesn't have rising walk rates and dropping strikeout rates and his best season was last year, not five seasons ago.

      He doesn't have control problems. He doesn't have obviously problematic mechanics. He doesn't just "get by" with a decent fastball and a whole lot of junk. By all accounts, he's not a self-absorbed jerk, or a hot-head, or a primadonna, or a clubhouse cancer, or anything of that ilk. He doesn't appear to wilt in the heat of a pennant race or the playoffs. In short, there's really nothing wrong with him, except...

      His size. Unlike Neyer's assessment, though, this is not the elephant in the room nobody talks about. For one thing, everybody's talking about it, and for another, can't we come up with a less loaded analogy than that for a fat guy? "Sabathia's weight is the gauche, pink drapes in the room everyone's ignoring!" Nah, now we're upsetting a different demographic. Sorry, fat guys.

      He's listed at 6'7", 290 lbs, which means he's probably well over 300 lbs these days. There's never been any pitcher his size who's been successful for any length of time. Heck, there's really never been anybody his size in MLB. A mediocre relief pitcher named Jumbo Brown, who pitched before World War II, was listed at 295 lbs, but he was gone after his age 34 season, perhaps to fight the war, and never even pitched more than 90 innings in a year.

      A handful of other pitchers are listed as being over 250, but most of them (Jeff Juden, Jeff Nelson, Chris Young, maybe Tim Stoddard) are very tall and a different body type from CC. Others, like Dennys Reyes and Bartolo Colon, are much shorter and fatter, whereas CC is more thick than fat.

      And the ones who might be comparable physically, like Bobby Jenks or Chris Britton, don't have the same workload put on them because they pitch only in relief. There's a big difference between throwing 800 pitches a year and 3,500, and we have no idea how Sabathia's knees (and back, and arm...) will hold up under that strain. Either that or they don't have enough of a MLB track record to say anything about them, like Colter Bean or Humberto Sanchez. There just isn't a reasonable comparison for CC anywhere.

      And because of this, the others in the exclusive $100M club, Mike Hampton, Kevin Brown, Barry Zito and Johan Santana, are almost nothing like Sabathia, except perhaps that three of the four are lefties. The pitching styles, and perhaps most important, body types, are very different from CC's. This is what makes it so difficult to project Sabathia's performance going forward.

      Baseball Prospectus, an organization that makes a living at telling you what baseball players are likely to do, says that CC's "Similarity Index" (incorporating body type and performance) is 5, where anything less than 20 is "historically unusual". That "5" means basically that they don't have any idea at all.

      For comparison, coming into 2008, Andy Pettitte was a 41, Roy Halladay a 43, Matt Morris a 56, Cole Hamels a 48. Those guys were reasonably common, and more or less performed as you might have expected them to perform. (Much better than that, in Halladay's case.)

      Jamie Moyer and Kenny Rogers were both in single digits, like CC, and while Rogers basically pitched as badly as BP expected, Moyer was much, much better than anticipated, and nobody exactly knows why. Randy Johnson's Similarity Index is a zero, meaning that there's really nobody even remotely like him for comparison's sake, and CC's not much better so take anything you see about what he might do with a grain or two of salt.

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      25 November 2008

      Red Sox Pursuing Junichi Tazawa

      The Boston Red Sox are pursuing yet another Japanese pitcher. No surprise there. But the background of the pitcher in question raises some real questions, and that's where things do get a little interesting.

      Twenty-two year old right hander Junichi Tazawa was reportedly offered a contract by the Red Sox for something in the neighborhood of $6 million, though the number of years, and how much of that counts as a signing bonus are as yet unknown. Some reports suggest the contract offer could be as little as $3 million, so we'll have to wait and see.

      Boston's already got two prominent Japanese pitchers on its major league roster, Daisuke Matsuzaka and reliever Hideki Okajima, and this supposedly will help them to sign Tanazawa, but I don't buy that. Seattle has Ichiro Suzuki, who is still, apparently, worshipped like Babe Ruth in Japan, catcher Kenji Jojima, and their new manager is of Japanese descent as well.

      The Yankees have Hideki Matsui and (if he ever gets out of AAA...) Kei Igawa, though it seems that they're taking the high road and refusing to enter the bidding, a foolish decision, if you ask me. The Dodgers have Hiroki Kuroda and Takashi Saito, (plus three Koreans, if you don't mind lumping the Asians together).

      Several other teams have at least one Japanese player, including the defending AL champion Tampa Bay Rays and the defending World Champion Philadelphia Phillies. Why wouldn't he want to play for one of them? Even Detroit, apparently as incapable of producing good baseball players stateside as they are at producing good cars, has sent an envoy to scout Tazawa in hopes of signing him. If you can't beat 'em, join em, right? No word on whether the Tigers expect Congress to pay Tazawa's contract.

      Here's the thing, though: Tazawa has never pitched professionally, so you may not even see him in the majors this year, no matter whose contract he signs. ESPN's Keith Law ranks Tazawa just 25th among his top 50 free agents, and not even the top Japanese pitcher. That honor goes to 33-year old Koji Uehara, a righty finesse pitcher with lots of experience but some injury history the last two years. Given the right environment, he could be a decent 4th or 5th starter right now, whereas Tazawa will need to prove himself in the minors for a while first.

      Tazawa pitched for Nippon Oil in Japan's corporate league, which is a much bigger deal than it sounds. Japan, like many Asian countries, has an economy dominated by large corporations, and these companies have tens of thousands of employees from which to choose. It might be comparable to the talent level you'd get in a league of NCAA I-AA schools or something like that. Most of the time it's not worth paying them much attention, but every once in a while a Jim Bunning or Bob Gibson or Eddie Plank comes out of a school like that, so you can't just write them off.

      We forget that this was exactly how a lot of the great players were found during the first 50-75 years of organized baseball in this country. Back in the late 1800's and early 1900's, there was no farm system to speak of, and the so-called minor leagues were not nearly as expansive as they are now, plus they paid peanuts. One hundred and thirty years ago, you couldn't make a living at baseball yet, unless you were one of the very best. But if you were good enough, you could get hired by a steel mill or a mining operation or an insurance company to work in some cushy job by day and serve as the company baseball team's ringer on weekends. Philadelphia Athletics and Detroit All-Star Pinky Higgins was discovered this way.

      Of course, those were companies with a few hundred employees, maybe a few thousand at the most. Nippon Oil has something like 13,000 employees. Japan Central Railway has over 15,000. Honda has over 150,000. That's a much bigger talent pool than Providence Consolidated Insurance or Indian Valley Tin Company or whatever, and those companies put a lot of money into these teams.

      Look at this video of Tazawa pitching against the Japan Railway team in this year's playoffs, and look at the size of the stadiums, how many fans are there, the quality of the equipment, etc. Heck, the fact that it's broadcast in HD ought to tell you something about how seriously these corporate leagues are taken over there.

      Then, as now, if you were good enough, some scout might get word of you and sign you to give up the pretense of a day job and play baseball full-time, in the majors, which was what you wanted to do in the first place, right? So the notion of a player dominating a corporate league and eventually making it in the majors is not as far-fetched as it might appear at first glance.

      Not that Tazawa was necessarily hired by Nippon Oil for that purpose, but regardless of that, the fact is that the young man has some talent. He can throw in the low-90's and has a serviceable splitter and curve. Initial reports had indicated that he could reach 97 mph, but those kinds of stories are almost always inflated. Keith Law says he throws 88-92 mph, which is good enough if he's got decent off-speed stuff, but not so good that they'd be likely to put him in a major league rotation right away.

      InterWebs scouting reports differ significantly on his talent level, with some saying that he's got good movement on his fastball, while others say it's pretty straight. The latter looks about right to me, and while it's true that he's got a curve and a splitter, I don't see the slider that one report suggests, just an off speed pitch, probably the split. That's plenty, I think, if he's got control of three pitches. No need to attribute a 4th pitch to him.

      Specifically, he'll need to demonstrate that he can get his stuff over for strikes when the umpires aren't as generous as those in the video. One report suggested than this year with Nippon Oil, he walked only six batters in 54 innings, with a 1.00 ERA, which is like Greg Maddux vintage 1995 control. Nobody is that good (well, except Maddux...) not against an appropriate level of competition, which Tazawa has clearly not yet seen.

      He could eventually be a pretty decent starter, but he'll have a rude awakening when he gets to AA or AAA and meets a bunch of guys who have faced major league pitching and aren't fooled by his big, looping curve and straight, low-90s fastball. Still, a few million dollars for a 22-year old with this much upside is a pretty decent investment, and the Red Sox could get a lot for their money.

      Just not this year.

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