26 March 2009

2009 Phillies Preview...in Iambic Pentameter (sort of)

The Phillies won themselves a World Series,
Beat the Tampa Bay Rays with rel'tive ease!
A championship! And long-awaited!
City of Brotherly Love, elated!
But now they face a new season: Oh-Nine,
Their foes take aim, they'll have no easy time
Repeating as Darlings of October...
Will their season end before it's over?

Starting Pitching:

The team's hopes start with Hamels, their big ace
The Series MVP, the Phranchise Phace,
Two hundred innings plus, this year he'll give
And each time out, he'll keep the hope alive.
A nasty change-up from his arm, sinister
Will make opponents hear, "Sit down, Mister!"
At only twenty-five and not abused,
His arm for 20 wins could well be used.

Brett Myers gets the nod as starter, second,
For thirty starts again, he should be beckoned.
He's better than his middling ERAs
But needs to prove it, get back to the days
In '05, '06, under four he stayed
And he still can, he's only twenty eight.
A breakout season they need, not a LAIM
Fifteen-plus wins, he's no one left to blame.
If he can't do it now, he never will
A few more years, and he's over the hill.

Blanton's number three, an innings-eater
His slider, curve and low 90's heater
Provide six innings, quite reliable.
Mechanics make him inviolable.
Perhaps not much to watch, not exciting
Won't miss bats, without a slider, biting,
But more than earns his modest salary
(Though he should maybe watch the calories!)

Fourth is Jamie Moyer, ancient of days
Who helped the Phils to beat the Tampa Rays.
Sixteen games he won through the long season
Though some thought him done, and with good reason.
For two years more the Phillies, they signed him
And though his best seasons are behind him
He might give just enough to be useful
Though I doubt it, if I must be truthful.

The Number five spot, quite likely revolving:
(Kendrick's not much good, and not evolving.)
Chan Ho Park could start sometimes, but it seems
His ERA, helped by Chavez Ravine
Will likely blow up this year in The Vault.
The minors seem bare, though not Ruben's fault,
Won't help much, unless someone surprises.
The same poor pitching, in many guises.


Closers can't remain perfect, as Brad Lidge
Was in '08. He'll drop off, just a smidge,
But should remain a thoroughbred stopper
Helping the Phillies remain on top, or
Barring that, at least he'll fan his share of
Batters, for Phillies Phans to cheer thereof.
But if Philly's season hopes, they Phalter
It won't be his fault, he's like Gibraltar.

After Brad Lidge, rounding out the bullpen:
Madson, Condrey, Chan Ho, Eyre and Durbin,
Some quality arms, some who are re-treads.
"Condrey and Durbin," say some cooler heads,
"Should regress some from last year's performance.
Low ERAs, with little conformance
To anything they had done before this!"
By not pointing this out, I'd be remiss.

But Madson is a solid reliever,
With two good seasons, he's made believers
In Philly and beyond. Hitters hate him
And his slow change-up, "Bland ultimatum!"
They'd rather be challenged with smoking heat
But it's off-speed stuff he uses to beat
Them, and more of the same you'll see this year
He's both young and quite good, so have no fear!

Scott Eyre is the Phillies' only southpaw
Due to Romero's run-in with the law
From tainted powder, 6-Oxo Extreme
(Of pitching 'fore June, he can only dream),
But once he returns the Phils are stronger,
Though in contention, perhaps no longer
They'll be if the starters cannot maintain
Their '08 levels and be more than LAIM.

And those who don't start should pitch some innings,
Out of the bullpen, vulture some winnings,
Though Park and Kendrick and Happ aren't much,
To coax outs from them will take a soft touch.

If there's more relief help, it's hard to see.
Majewski, Zagurski, Dave Borowski?
All washed-up and lousy they were last year
Such dreck in the majors? No! Please not here!

Offensive Starters:

As for the offense, begins the order:
Number 11, a man much shorter
Than many of his peers, though they can't boast
Of an MVP, to him, they must toast.

But from that height, he seems to have fallen,
Though still a great shortstop, Jimmy Rollins.
His glove is no slouch, he's earned two Gold ones,
And backs up his words (he utters bold ones!)

His bat, more than adequate, it should yield
A hundred-plus runs, if he stays on-field,
Hit a few homers, could walk more often
But don't expect vintage Kenny Lofton.

The two-hole, also manned by a shorty,
With O-B-P's well over .340:
Shane Victorino, "Flyin' Hawaiian"
His small stature, his talent belyin'.

Decent BA, a handful of homers,
Good defense (among center field roamers),
Excellent speed (he'll steal 30 bases),
Still in his prime, just 28, he is.

Second baseman, Utley, the third batter,
Should this year 40-plus doubles, scatter,
And hit 30 taters. Runs he'll drive in,
And score some himself, plus make some divin'

Stops up the middle. Perhaps a Gold Glove?
Alas, last year's voters showed him no love
Though vastly better he was than Brandon,
(The voting gets increasingly random.)

Regardless, Chase is the best keystoner
In MLB. At that, he's a loner,
An MVP threat, without any peer,
But Philly will need more than him this year.

Cleanup man? First baseman, Ryan Howard
Last year with much undue praise was showered
For driving in runs and hitting some jacks.
Such people ignored the cost of those hacks:

Almost 200 whiffs, low O-B-P...
His VORP, on his own team, ranked #3!
Still he had value, not a bad player,
But much like Casey, per Ernest Thayer.

Likely to improve on .251,
But not the best fielder under the sun,
Defense atrocious and legs immobile,
But more power than erstwhile Chernobyl!

Raul Ibanez bats fifth, plays left field,
(Philly to Burrell's demands would not yield.)
Out goes The Bat they thought not a keeper,
And in comes Raul: Older, not cheaper.

Still can't play defense, walks much less often,
Hits more singles, (the blow, this should soften)
But little difference in their net effects
Should there be this year, unless one gets wrecked

With injuries, or else early, ages.
Smart cash is on Raul, say the sages,
To start his decline phase, slow attrition.
By June, for Pat, Phils' Phans could be wishin'!

Next we have Werth, him, finally healthy,
Had a career year, made himself wealthy,
But can he build on last year's good numbers?
Or will his bat instead choose to slumber?

The more common problem for him has been
That his wrist ailment, to heal wasn't keen,
But with a full year in '08, he proved
That he's OK now, beyond this he's moved.

A great hitter, like Manny, 'gainst lefties
But batting left, his numbers aren't hefty,
Now he must try to hit righty pitching
Or maybe just when he hits, not switching.

The next, um... "hitter" is Pedro Feliz
Who seems to make outs with relative ease.
Suppos'd to stabilize the Corner, Hot,
But hitting .250 is all he's got.

Despite his weak bat, swings for the fences,
No need to walk, he makes no pretenses,
Still plays good defense, but won't steal a base,
OPS so low, how's he show his face?

Better thirdbasemen? Twenty, easily,
Or more, but Philly's minors got measly
Production from theirs, so help's not coming.
City of Brotherly Love? Soon bumming.

Last in the lineup is the day's catcher,
Often Ruiz, whose bat is no match for
Chris Coste, not that his lumber's so awesome,
But at least his bat isn't still playing possum.
Ruiz, now 30, has slim potential
To help the Phillies' run differential.
Nor does Lou Marson, or Ron Paulino.
Eight's a black hole for the Phils, as we know.

The Bench:

The Phillies back-ups, they should do just fine,
Long as they're usually riding the pine.
Not a bad bunch here, some players, decent
But none whose star was bright very recent.

Jenkins, fifth outfielder and pinch hitter,
May be tempted to feel rather bitter,
Signed with the Phillies to be a starter
But found hitting righties last year harder
His one skill gone and injuries nagging
Geoff found his at-bat count sort of lagging.
A different approach he seems to have found,
And hopes for a 2009 rebound.

Stairs has experience, hitting, eating
Now 41, his career's depleting.
A timely bomb made him Philly's hero,
But this year he'll post too many zeroes.
Still hits a homer or walks on occasion
But where can he fit in their equation?
Just a DH in the League, National
They'd cut him loose if they were rational.

The mid-infield back-ups, Bruntlett and Giles
Like pre-owned cars, with no shortage of miles.
Both about 30, with little upside,
Bruntlett, all over, can field the horsehide,
And run just a bit, in case they have need.
Giles once had some pop, and a bit of speed,
And could bounce back, getting out of this rut...
(Monkeys could also fly out of my butt!)

More likely someone like Cairo, Miguel
Or Pablo Ozuna will get to tell
His wife he won the job in Spring Training.
Giles seems to have no more miles remaining.

Main corner back-up, Greg Dobbs they will ring
To spell Feliz from all his out-making.
Not much for defense, Dobbs won't be used long,
But his bat makes up for all his glove's wrongs.

Finally, putting these things together
You will all likely want to know whether
The Phillies will win. What are their chances
Of returning to October Dances?

The Phillies will have trouble reprising.
New York Mets, no slouch, and the Fish, rising,
Make stiff competition, as do the Braves
Though none of these teams will draw critics' raves.

Injuries could, the Phillies, sabotage.
Last year they had few, they're due a barrage,
And with some key players, like Cole and Chase
High injury risks, the Phils could, the race
Concede by August, dig too great a hole
To climb out from, as these hurts take their toll.

Too many key players with sudden peaks
Last year aren't likely to keep up those streaks,
Or stave off aging, they're due to endure
Declines in their 40's, they will, for sure,
Show signs of slipping, and with that, the team
Will need much luck to stay up in the stream.
The odds will catch up with the Phils this year
Eighty five wins is the safe bet, I fear.

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25 March 2009

Curt Schilling Not Cooperstown-Bound

Curt Schilling announced his retirement yesterday, which immediately begs the question of whether he belongs in the Hall of Fame.


There, now that the suspense is gone, let me explain.

There are really only two arguments for Curt Schilling going to the Hall of Fame. These are, in the order of their importance:

  • He helped end an 86-year World Series drought in Boston, and helped win two other championships as well, amassing an overall postseason record of 11-2 with a 2.23 ERA in 133 innings. Without this, we wouldn't even need to address this question.
  • When he was healthy, he was one of the best pitchers in the game, winning 20+ games three times and fanning 290+ batters four times.

Taking the second part first, Schilling has been quite good in the postseason. His 133 innings, 11 wins, 120 strikeouts, and .846 winning percentage are all among the top 10 all time for career postseason performance. Ten of the 12 postseason series in which he was involved were won by his team, including three of four World Series.

In my mind, however, this should only be a tie breaker, not an argument unto itself. Dave Stewart and Orlando Hernandez were also great in the playoffs, but the rest of their careers don't measure up. Greg Maddux was so great in the regular season that nobody will care about his 11-14 record in the playoffs when it comes time to vote for him. Schilling will get a few extra votes for helping his teams to win three World Series, but I'm not sure that will do it for him.

And that's it, really, because nothing else holds up for very long. The more closely you look at his career accomplishments, the less impressive they seem.

His 216 career wins rank just 80th all-time, far fewer than most of the pitchers in the Hall already. In terms of his competition, that total is also way lower than not just future locks for Cooperstown like Randy Johnson (295), Greg Maddux (355), and Tom Glavine (305), but also borderline cases like Mike Mussina (270) and definitive 'no's like Jamie Moyer (246) and David Wells (239). And these are his contemporaries. Older guys like Jim Kaat (283), Tommy John (288) and Bert Blyleven (287) have been shut-out with much more significant career totals, and in some ways, better cases for the Hall.

Or, if you'd prefer to compare him to current Hall of Famers, it's no great chore to find some to whom Schilling compares favorably. Herb Pennock, for example, went 240-162 with only a 106 adjusted ERA and two 20-win seasons. Hal Newhouser won only 207 games and averaged 100+ walks a year for a decade, whereas Schilling, eventually, had impeccable control. Rube Marquard won only 201 games and rarely led his league in anything. Jesse Haines has a very similar record (210-158) but only a 108 adjusted ERA. There are others, but you see where this argument could go: "Because Player X is in the Hall of Fame, Schilling should be, too."

The trouble with this is twofold:

1) Some of those pitchers are so-called special cases, who lost time due to WWII, or pitched in an extreme era, or otherwise were somehow worth more than the apparent sum of their ERA and Win totals.

B) This approach waters down the talent level, turning the Hall of Fame into the Hall of Pretty Darn Good.

Just because Haines and Pennock (and Jim Bunning, and Ted Lyons and Eppa Rixey and...) are in Cooperstown doesn't mean that they belong there. Writers make mistakes, and it doesn't help things to compound those mistakes by adding more players of this caliber to what was supposed to be a shrine to the best of the best.

So if we can't justify his enshrinement based on him being better than several existing Cooperstown residents, we're left looking at Schilling's own accomplishments, and how they compare to his competition in his own career. Was he one of the best pitchers in his own era?

Yes, sometimes.

For example, his career winning percentage of .597 is quite good, but not even as good as contemporaries like Andy Pettitte, Mark Mulder and Roy Oswalt. Or even Bartolo Colon and Freddy Garcia, for that matter. Granted, Schilling pitched for a lot of bad teams early in his career, which skews that number a bit, but he hasn't pitched for a losing team since the Phillies in Y2K, so that certainly helps.

Not a fan of Wins and Losses? Think they're archaic and a poor measure of a pitcher's worth? Well, generally I agree with you, so let's see what else we can come up with...

Earned run average is much better, as it doesn't rely on the hitters, like Wins. Schilling's career ERA is 3.46, which is pretty good, especially in this day and age. That ranks 11th among current major leaguers, behind Pedro Martinez, John Smoltz, Johnson and Maddux, but also behind (believe it or not...) Roberto Hernandez and nearly tied with Tim Hudson and Carlos Zambrano.

His adjusted ERA of 127 (i.e. 27% better than the leagues in which he pitched) also ranks 11th among current major leaguers, though just 46th all-time. If you remove the players who were predominantly relievers (Mariano Rivera, Hoyt Wilhelm, Doug Jones?!?) and the pitchers who thrived in the Dead Ball Era (Smoky Joe Wood, Addie Joss, Rube Waddell, etc.) Schilling ranks around 20th to 22nd all-time, depending on whether you want to include the likes of Walter Johnson and Pete Alexander, players whose careers straddled the lines of the Dead Ball Era.

That's still pretty good, but only about as good as Kevin Brown and Sal Maglie (both 127), and not nearly as good as Harry Brecheen (133) or Spud Chandler (132), who admittedly had shorter careers. Contemporaries like Randy Johnson (137), Pedro Martinez (154) and Greg Maddux (132) blow Schilling away in this regard. Younger pitchers like Oswalt, Johan Santana, Brandon Webb and Roy Halladay are all better than Schilling at relative run prevention, though these have a while to pitch yet and will inevitably drop off over time.

Schilling's career strikeout total, 3,116, is also a point in his favor, as only 16 men in history have struck out more than 3,000 batters, and he is 15th among them. John Smoltz is likely to pass him in 2009 if he can pitch even half the season, but then nobody is likely to bump him down for several years, at best.

Of the 14 men ahead of him, 12 are either in Cooperstown already or are likely to be. The other two are Bert Blyleven, who could still pick up another 12% of the voters in the next three years, and Roger Clemens, who was considered a lock for the Hall before his name got rightfully tied to the steroid scandal. Personally, I'd vote for him anyway, but the BBWAA probably won't.

Though that's just one thing, it's a big one. Even if you believe that strikeouts are boring and fascist, you have to admit that they're effective. When the baseball writers see him on their ballots, they'll certainly see that Schilling took care of his own business more often than all but about 15 guys in history. That is pretty impressive.

But is it enough? Sure, Schilling eventually developed impeccable control as well, leading his league in WHIP and in Walks per nine innings twice each. He also led in K/W ratio five times, and his career rate is the best of anyone since the 1800's (Tommy Bond), at which time it took between six and nine balls to walk a batter, depending on the year. That is, Schilling has the best ratio of strikeouts to walks of any pitcher who's tossed at least 1000 innings since they invented the 6-pitches-or-fewer walk.

On the other hand, Schilling never led his league in ERA (real or adjusted) or shutouts, or strikeout rate, some of the signs of dominance you see frequently from Hall of Fame pitchers. He was often a workhorse, during the infrequent healthy stretches, leading the league in starts three times, in Wins and Innings pitched twice each, and in complete games four times. But herein lies the trouble. Schilling amassed 3,261 innings in his major league career, good for 95th place all time, but fewer than Kenny Rogers, or John Smoltz.

It's also way fewer than Mike Mussina, Randy Johnson, Maddux, Glavine or Clemens, his primary competition for enshrinement in Cooperstown. As it happens, it's also far fewer innings than those pitched by Dennis Martinez, Charlie Hough, Jack Morris, and Frank Tanana, none of whom is likely to ever be in the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown unless they buy a family pass.

Despite pitching for 21 years, he averaged just 155 innings per season, if you include 2008, when he had an $8 million contract from the Boston Red Sox but did not throw a pitch. For comparison's sake, Smoltz averaged 162 innings per year, and that includes the missed Y2K season and four years where he intentionally pitched only in relief (and was excellent at it). David Wells averaged 164 innings per year. Jamie Moyer? 170 IP/year. The Big Unit? 192. Mike Mussina averaged almost 198 innings. Maddux and Glavine and Clemens are all over 200.

You get the point, I think: Schilling was great on certain occasions when he was healthy enough to pitch every 5th day, but such times were infrequent. He had five or six seasons (1997, 1998, 2001, 2002 and 2004, probably 1992) when he was among the five to ten best pitchers in baseball, though you'd be hard pressed to say he was ever the best, even in those years. He had five other years in which he pitched fairly regularly, and with decent success.

And then he had ten years lost all or partly to his either lack of focus (as was the case early in his career) or, more often, to injuries. Edgar Martinez will suffer from the same problem: great peak value, but not enough time when he was fully healthy.

Not that the injuries are necessarily his fault, but neither should we simply ignore them and give him credit for what he might have done if healthy. Don Mattingly and Orel Hershiser and Albert Belle don't get credit for lost time, and neither should Schilling. If I had to give odds, I'd say 8-5 he probably will eventually get in. I just don't think he should.

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24 March 2009

Curt Schilling Retirement Retrospective

Curt Schilling has unofficially announced his retirement from Major League Baseball, following a 20-year career in which he went 216-146 with a 3.46 ERA that was about 27% better than the average of the leagues in which he pitched. He was named to six All-Star teams, and pitched in three of them, starting the 1999 and 2002 contests. He was the MVP of the 1993 NLCS and the co-MVP of the 2001 World Series.

He won several of the minor awards that MLB started handing out recently, like the Babe Ruth Award and the Hutch Award, but never won a Cy Young award or a regular season MVP. He finished 2nd in the CYA voting three times and 4th once, which gives him the highest award shares total of anyone who's never actually won it, for whatever that's worth.

Schilling was probably at least as famous for his outspoken nature as he was for his pitching prowess, making himself a regular fixture of talk radio call-in shows wherever he pitched and eventually blogging as well. Whether you liked him, whether you agreed with him or not, you had to give him credit for having a personality in a game that seems largely devoid of interesting characters these days.

He started out as a 2nd round draft pick of the Red Sox in 1986, when he was 19, but Boston would give up on him before he was 21. They saw his strikeouts dropping and his walks rising, took a look at the personality associated with those disturbing trends, and figured they could spare him. During the stretch drive in 1988 they traded him to Baltimore with Brady Anderson for Mike Boddicker, who helped the Sawx win two division titles in three years.

Though Schilling did well, winning 13 games for Baltimore's then-affiliate AAA Rochester as a 22 year old, Schilling was not yet ready for prime time, having pitched only a handful of mostly forgettable games in the majors when Baltimore sent him to Houston with Steve Finley and Pete Harnisch for Glenn Davis. He was 24, and already with his third different franchise.

It was allegedly in Houston that Schilling's career got the kick in the pants it needed, from none other than Roger Clemens. While Schilling was goofing off in the weight room at the Astrodome, the Rocket lectured the arrogant kid with the earrings and blue hair about how to approach the game better, and to his credit, Schilling took it to heart.

Though there was no obvious or immediate improvement while bouncing back and forth from AAA to the majors in 1991, Schilling re-focused himself. When the Phillies traded Jason Grimsley for him the following April, he finally put it all together, winning 14 games and pitching 226 innings with a 2.35 ERA that trailed only three others in the Senior Circuit.

The following year he won 16 more games and pitched 235 innings for the worst-to-first Phillies, who lost the World Series to the Toronto Blue Jays. Not that you can blame him for that, as he threw 147 pitches in a complete game shutout in Game 5, which may be why...

...he developed a bone spur in his elbow and a knee injury that limited him to just 82 MLB innings (plus 14 in the minors, during rehab) in 1994. The following year he had his season truncated in August when he needed shoulder surgery to repair a torn labrum, which also cost him the first several weeks of the 1996 season.

Like many pitchers who undergo such procedures, Schilling returned throwing harder than he had when he was young, as he had to be more disciplined to perform the rigorous work of rehabilitation. Though he went only 9-10, he struck out 183 batters, 10th in the NL, with a strikeout rate that was 5th among qualified pitchers.

In 1997 he led the NL with 319 strikeouts and was among the league leaders in several other categories, including ERA (8th), Wins (5th), WHIP (4th), Complete Games and Innings Pitched (3rd), K/W, shutouts and strikeout rate (2nd). On a personal note, I saw him fan 16 Yankees at Veterans Stadium on Labor Day that year, including the second, and so-far, last, Golden Sombrero of young Derek Jeter's career. When they asked him after the game what he thought of Schilling's fastball, he responded, "You're asking the wrong guy. I didn't even see it."

Schilling was just as good, if not better in 1998, but the Phillies stunk even more than usual, so he went 15-14 in a season that might have won more acclaim for him if it had been with a team that didn't lose 87 games. He went 15-6 for the 1999 Phillies, but again had a season (ahem...) cut short when he needed arthroscopic surgery on his pitching shoulder in August, and was not his usual dominant self upon his return in September.

Frustrated and unconvinced of the Phillies' long-term plans, Schilling sought a trade and got one to Arizona in the middle of Y2K. The following year the Diamondbacks became the fastest franchise in history to win a World Series, in just the 4th year of their existence, as they beat the Yankees in an emotional, exciting seven-game series.

The next year the Diamondbacks again won their division but were swept out of the playoffs by the Cardinals, despite Schilling's seven strong innings in his lone postseason start. He pitched fairly well again in 2003, but not often enough as an assortment of injuries limited him to just 168 innings, this after racking up over 250 in each of the previous two seasons.

That winter, Arizona, wanting to rebuild, actively shopped Schilling. Though he had expressed a desire to pitch either for the Yankees or the Phillies, it was Boston who eventually nabbed him, playing to his ego and talking him into joining the team, to take a run at history. They even somehow managed to work a million dollar bonus into the contract if he helped to deliver a World Series championship and end the Curse of the Bambino in 2004, despite the fact that such bonuses are not allowed per the MLB collective bargaining agreement.

Theo Epstein flew to Arizona and stayed the Thanksgiving holiday with the Schillings, playing to Schilling's well-known penchant for using the tools of the Information Age to inform his pitching approach, his desire to be a aprt of history, and even going so far as to describe what his and his wife's charity work might look like in Boston.

Meanwhile, Epstein had already worked out a deal with Arizona's owners, who , after asking the moon and stars of the Yankees, inexplicably let Schilling go for the frankly ridiculous sum total of pitchers Casey Fossum, Brandon Lyon, and Jorge de la Rosa, and minor league outfielder Michael Goss.

  • Fossum has been with three different teams since, and is 26-41 with a 5.90 ERA in 552 innings in the intervening years.
  • Lyon missed all of 2004 and half of 2005 with injuries, and is 11-15 with 42 Saves in 58 chances and a 4.04 ERA, since returning. He's expected to be the Tigers' closer this year, despite the 4.70 ERA he posted in 2008, which lost him the closer's job in Arizona.
  • De La Rosa never pitched for the Diamondbacks, and didn't do much for Milwaukee, Kansas City or Colorado either, amassing a 25-31 record and a 5.55 ERA in 404 innings over five seasons.
  • Michael Goss never got but a handful of at-bats above Single-A, and has been trying to stay afloat in the independent leagues since 2005.
It was, in short, a horrendous trade for the Diamondbacks, though a great one for Schilling and Boston. Schilling won 21 games and finished 2nd in the Cy Young Voting to Johan Santana, and helped lead Boston to their first World Series title in 86 years. Perhaps best of all, they came back from an 0-3 deficit to the Yankees in the ALCS to win the series, with Schilling famously pitching through an ankle injury that required him to change his bloody sock every few innings.

The following year, injuries again limited his contribution to the team, as he pitched only 93 innings and won eight games. His lack of availability in the playoffs helped lead to the Red Sox first round exit at the hands of the eventual World Champion White Sox, who had not won it all since 1917. So, in a way, Schilling helped to end two such streaks. Maybe the Pale Hose owe him a million bucks, too?

Healthy again in 2006, Schilling won 15 games and led the team with a 3.97 ERA, but Josh Beckett had trouble adjusting to the American League, and their teammates faltered, dropping to 6th in the AL in Runs and 11th in ERA. The Red Sox did not even finish 2nd in their division for the first time since 1997.

But the 2007 team came back with a vengeance, leading the AL in wins and ERA, finishing 3rd in runs scored, winning their first division title since 1995, and winning a second World Series in four years. Schilling missed more time due to injuries, pitching only 151 innings in the regular season and winning nine games, but he was healthy enough to go 3-0 with a 3.00 ERA in four postseason starts en route to his third World Series ring.

He re-signed with Boston for 2008, but his shoulder flared up again in spring training that year, and he would not throw another major league pitch. Now 42, he has decided to hang up his spikes, though probably not his laptop or cell phone.

Schilling likes the limelight too much to simply fade into obscurity.

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04 March 2009

Commentary on Baseball America's Top 20 Prospects

Baseball America has its annual list of the top 100 prospects out, and though you have to pony up a few bucks to read the in-depth analysis of each player, you can get a taste for free. Just like with drug dealers and the folks who make baby formula. BA has the relevant basic info and some "key number" for all 100 of them on the list, and some of these are somewhat amusing.

For example, one of the few prospects the Yankees have on the list is 23-year old pitcher Andrew Brackman, ranked #92. His key number?
0: Number of official professional innings he has pitched since signing with the Yankees in 2007.

The 6'11" righty underwent Tommy John surgery last year and missed all of the normal 2008 seasons, though BA doesn't mention that he played Hawaiian Winter ball. Not that he was any good there, posting a 5.56 ERA in 34 innings, but still, it's "pro" ball, right? His work in high school was impressive enough for the Yankees to give him a $4.5 million cash advance, but we'll see what he can do as he comes back.

In any case, I don't want to go through the entire 100, but I thought a few comments about the top 20 might be in order, since some of these guys will be in the majors pretty soon.

#1 Matt Wieters Catcher, Baltimore Orioles
His on-base plus slugging percentage in 2008 between two minor league levels.
Opening Day Age: 22

ETA: 2009

Wieters looks every bit like the real deal, a player with so much talent that even the inept Baltimore organization cannot screw him up. He hit .355 with power and patience at two levels last year, with more walks than strikeouts. He'll start the year in AAA, which is a big jump from high A and AA, where he spent 2008, but there's every reason to believe he'll be in the majors by June or July. His big frame (6'4", 225) makes it an open question whether his knees will allow him to remain a catcher over the long term, but for now, he's as good as they come.

The Orioles' likely catching corps includes some combination of Greg Zaun and Chad Moeller, aged 37 and 34, respectively, who both hit in the .230's last season, and aren't likely to improve on that much. They've also got a bunch of younger guys - some only slightly younger - who can't hit either, so it's just a matter of time before Wieters gets a shot.

#2 David Price LHP, Tampa Bay Rays
: Strikeouts, in 110 minor league innings, between three levels last season.
Opening Day Age: 23
ETA: 2009

Price has also struck out 20 batters in 19.2 innings at the major league level, including eight whiffs in 5.2 innings in the playoffs. He's a 6'6" lefty who throws a sharp slider, a cutter and a fastball that hovers between 92 and 96 mph. He's expected to replace Edwin Jackson in the rotation, and though there will be some growing pains as he learns to pitch to major league hitters, he should be very, very good.

#3 Colby Rasmus OF, St. Louis Cardinals
: Year he led Russell County High to Alabama and national championships, when he also was a first-round pick.

Opening Day Age: 22
ETA: 2009

Wow, a high school national champion three years ago? That sure told us a lot, huh? Rasmus is a toolsy outfield prospect who has shown tremendous power potential (29 homers as a 20-year old in AA in 2007, for example) but who struggled a bit last year upon a promotion to AAA. He still walked at the same rate, which is encouraging, but his homers and doubles dropped to about half their previous rate, despite the fact that power comes cheap in the Pacific Coast League. Keith Law says he was injured, and Law usually knows what he's talking about, so I can't be too tough on Rasmus' sub-par season.

In any case, as one of the youngest players in a league of seasoned veterans trying to get back to the Show, he didn't embarrass himself. The Cards will want him to prove himself in AAA before giving him a call-up to the majors, I presume, but with Tony LaRussa's penchant for utility players and his leeriness of youngsters, Colby's best bet will be to either learn to play multiple positions or to invest in a fake mustache.

#4 Tommy Hanson RHP, Atlanta Braves
: Strikeouts in just 29 innings in the Arizona Fall League, when he became the first pitcher to win the league MVP award.
Opening Day Age: 22
ETA: 2009

The AFL is a pretty small sample size and the level of competition is only around that of Double A, but hits are very cheap in the thin, desert air. Forty-one players hit .290 or better for the season, in a league of just six teams. Four of them hit over .400, so Hanson's 49 K's and 0.63 ERA are very impressive.

He hasn't pitched above AA yet, so the Braves should give him a little seasoning at Richmond before calling him up. Only 22, and in the system of a team that's not expected to compete this year, he's got some time to make sure he's ready.

#5 Jason Heyward OF, Atlanta Braves
14: Overall pick in the 2007 draft where the Braves nabbed Heyward, who wasn't expected to fall that far.
Opening Day Age: 19
ETA: 2010

14: Another meaningless number for a Braves farmhand. Who cares where he was drafted?

Heyward was very impressive in his first extended chance in pro ball, hitting .323/.388/.483 in 120 games at low-A Rome last year before a brief and forgettable call-up to High-A Myrtle Beach. He won't turn 20 until August, so he's got time, and the Braves will likely start him at High-A and then bump him up to Mississippi if he stays the course.

His plate discipline is already pretty good, with 49 walks in 120 games last year, but he'll have to guard against the temptation to try to hit everything out
of the park, as high school standouts who jump right to the minors often do. My one concern with him is that the scouting videos on MLB.com show a kind of long swing, one that can be exploited by pitchers with a good slider, especially lefties, and there are lots of those in the majors and high minors.

#6 Travis Snider OF, Toronto Blue Jays
: Minor league homers in 305 career games.
Opening Day Age: 21
ETA: 2009

A short, stocky guy with a quick, power stroke, Snider is expected to play right field for Toronto this year after he held his own in a September call-up (.301/.338/.466 in 24 games). He probably won't hit for much average, as guys who strike out more than once a game in the minors rarely do in the majors, but he should hit some homers.

Baseball Prospectus compared him to Brian Giles in their comments last year, but Giles struck out about 1/3 less often than Snider by this point in his career, and walked more. he had the bat control thing down first, and developed the power later on (when, coincidentally, everyone was developing power, if you know what I mean). Snider to me looks more like Pete Incaviglia, who had power but struck out a ton and never walked all that much.

Anybody want to guess how many guys in history who were under six feet tall but over 240 lbs have hit 20 homers in a major l
eague season? None. For that matter, nobody listed as 5'11" and over 215 has ever done that. Snider could be the first, but don't expect him to have a long career.

#7 Brett Anderson LHP, Oakland Athletics
: Strikeouts per nine innings he compiled in 2008 between two levels.
Opening Day Age: 21
ETA: 2009

The big southpaw (6'4", 215) isn't a classic power lefty, but he has impressive control for such a young kid, keeping walks and homers in check while fanning more than a batter an inning throughout his two year minor league career. Unfortunately, the only video of him on MLB.com is of a pick off, so I don't know what his delivery looks like, but his stats suggest real talent. His lack of a Grade A fastball will probably limit his ceiling to the role of a #3 or #4 starter, but that's still a pretty valuable commodity.

#8 Cameron Maybin OF, Florida Marlins
8/18/07: Date when he hit his first big league homer—off Roger Clemens.
Opening Day Age: 22
ETA: 2009

I remember watching that game, the second of Maybin's career, and it scared the crap out of me, a kid that good. In the mean time, he's mostly been in the minors, where's he's hit for average (.298 in his career), modest power (36 homers in 300 games) and stolen bases successfully and often (73 for 93 in his career). He takes a few walks, with 161 of them in 300 games, but also strikes out a lot, the result of his lanky frame and his youth, I suppose.

He projects as a superstar, 5-tool centerfielder, but I'm not sure that will start this year. He's got the tools, but not the skills to keep from flailing away at big league sliders and curveballs. The Marlins plan to start him in centerfield this year, and there's an argument to be made for that. He's had some success in Double A, and other Marlins have successfully made the jump from AA to the majors (Dan Uggla, Hanley Ramirez, Jeremy Hermida).

Plus, it's not like there's a lot of pressure to succeed in Florida. Though they had a winning record in 2008, the team's perennially rebuilding, it seems, and they have the lowest average attendance in the majors by a large margin. Nobody will mind if he strikes out 175 times, because nobody will see him.

#9 Madison Bumgarner LHP, San Francisco Giants
1.46: His minor league-best ERA last season at low Class A Augusta.
Opening Day Age: 19

ETA: 2010

Against their better judgment, the Giants seem to have acquired themselves a prospect!

Other than having a girl's first name, Bumgarner has a lot going for him. He went 15-3 in the Sally League as an 18 year old, and it was no smoke-and-mirrors job. He fanned 164 batters in 142 innings while allowing only 21 walks and three homers. Granted, Augusta is a pitcher's park in a pitcher-friendly league, but it's not that friendly.

The book on Bumgarner is that he only started throwing offspeed stuff recently, so he's mostly been surviving (thriving, really) on his excellent fastball, which touches the mid to low 90's, with late movement, and has the potential to get into the high 90's as his frame fills out. Even if it never does, improving the quality of his slurve and changeup should be plenty to keep hitters off balance.

My one concern with him, other than his extreme youth - and it's more of a longevity concern than one of pitching quality - is that his mechanics look a little, well, untidy. His pitching arm lags way behind him, pointing straight out to left field (see below), with a big, looping motion as he swings it up into position to deliver the ball.

Besides the possibility that this might lead to him tipping his pitches, it also places a lot of pressure on the shoulder, especially the rotator cuff, to have to whip the whole arm forward like that. He also has a rather short stride for such a tall pitcher, and probably strains his elbow and shoulder more than is really necessary because his legs don't generate as much power as they should.

Bumgarner is still very young, and a long way from the majors (I would give him at least another year on Baseball America's ETA, given that he's never pitched above low-A ball) but I would hate to see all that talent wasted by a carelessness about his mechanics. Pitchers with that kind of poise and control, coming out of high school, no less, are a very rare commodity, and the Giants need to make sure they're careful with this one.

#10 Neftali Feliz RHP, Texas Rangers
: Home runs allowed last season in 127 innings.
Opening Day Age: 20

ETA: 2009

There is an appalling lack of players with good, obscure, Biblical names in the major leagues. Sure, you get lots of Marks and Peters and Johns, an occasional Jonah, or Jacob or Benjamin, but how often do you get a good Zebulun or Neftali (Naphtali)?

Feliz is still only 20, but he dominated both the Midwest League (Single A) and the Texas League (AA) last year, with a 2.69 ERA and 153 strikeouts in 127 innings. The Baseball Cube and MLB.com both list him as 6'3", 180 lbs, so he's a little on the skinny side, but then so are lots of pitchers, especially ones that are not yet allowed to drink legally.

His Achilles heel is the number of walks he gives up, which tends to be rather a lot. He's averaged four walks per nine innings throughout his minor league career, the kind of number that keeps some prospects from ever getting an extended look in the majors. He seemed to be getting that under control at Clinton this year, where he allowed only 28 walks in 82 innings, but then he reverted to his old form when he skipped High A ball and went to Double A, walking 23 in only 45 innings.

This isn't an insurmountable problem by any stretch. Young pitchers with blazing fastballs often are more prone to allowing walks, knowing that they can probably strike the next guy out. With a full season at AAA expected, or maybe even some more time at AA first, he should have plenty of opportunities to work on his control.

#11 Trevor Cahill RHP, Oakland Athletics
2.25: ERA for Team USA in two Olympic starts last season en route to a bronze medal
Opening Day Age: 21

ETA: 2009

I'm not sure why his performance against a bunch of green amateurs and washed up pros, in two lousy starts, should matter. If you want to quote an impressive number, point to Cahill's 2.19 ERA in 37 innings in Double A this year, or his 22-9 career record in the minors overall, or the 264 K's in 239 career innings. Granted, his strikeouts dropped and his walks rose when he went from High A to AA in 2008, but the kid was only 20, and Midland is a hitter's park in a hitter's league, so that's forgivable.

John Sickels commented on him last year:
However, the lack of a big-time massive plus velocity heater causes some to project him as more of a Jeff Suppan control, inning-eating type than a true future ace. Others point out that not every great pitcher has great velocity, and Cahill's intelligence and guile are huge assets. The sabermetric case points to the combination of strikeouts and ground balls as a big positive.

Hey, you could do a lot worse than to grow up to be Jeff Suppan, you know? He's made over $32 million in his lackluster career, which also happens to include a World Series ring, thankyouverymuch. I know he's the prototypical LAIM, about as boring a pitcher as you can imagine, but the fact of the matter is that the man has been in the majors for 14 years, has flawless mechanics, and the lack of injuries to prove it. He's averaged 33 starts, 12 wins and a 4.49 ERA for the past decade. Most prospects don't grow up to be as good as Jeff Suppan, so don't knock him.

The analogy with Suppan isn't perfect. For one thing, Cahill is a little behind Suppan's pace - by this age, Suppan was already getting his feet wet in AAA - and he walks a few more batters, but he also allows fewer hits, fewer homers, and gets more strikeouts, which are all indicators of long-term success.

The fact that his nasty (if not super-fast) sinking fastball generates so many groundballs also bodes well for him, but he needs to work on his control and his secondary and tertiary pitches to keep major league hitters honest. He'll probably be 23 or 24 before he has a regular job in the majors.

#12 Pedro Alvarez 3B, Pittsburgh Pirates
9/24: Date he signed with the Pirates—more than a month after the Aug. 15 deadline—after the union's grievance on his behalf.
Opening Day Age: 22

ETA: 2009

Alvarez, you may recall, was embroiled in a controversy over his signing with the Pirates last summer and fall, but there's no controversy over his talent. He hit .349/.455/.658 in two and a half seasons at Vanderbilt, helping to lead them to an SEC championship. A broken hamate bone delayed the start of his third season in 2008, but he healed well enough to post great numbers again and the Bucs took him with the #2 overall pick last year.

He'll probably start 2009 around A or high-A ball, as he missed any chance at a pro debut with the holdout squabble last year, but he could move up through the ranks quickly with his complete hitter's package of patience, power and hitting for average. Baseball America's ETA of 2009 seems a little overly optimistic to me, given that he's never played pro ball at any level just yet. Heck, Mark Teixeira had even better numbers coming out of Georgia Tech in 2001, and he didn't make his MLB debut until 2003.

#13 Mike Moustakas 3B, Kansas City Royals
1992: The last time a teenager led the Midwest League in homers, before he did it with 22 in 2008.
Opening Day Age: 20

ETA: 2010

Wow, 1992, eh? Anyone want to hazard a guess who that was? What future superstar led the 1992 Midwest league in home runs? What wunderkind posted such numbers, a harbinger of eventual major league greatness? Was it Jim Thome? Manny Ramirez? Chipper Jones? Nope, not even close! It was the one, the only, the Immortal...

Steve Gibralter.

Yes, that's right, the same Steve Gibralter who got exactly five at-bats at the major leagues, and almost got a hit in more than one of them. Almost. Gibralter did lead the Midwest League with 19 homers at age 19, but then hit .237 at AA. He improved at AA the next year and hit well enough at AAA in 1995 that he was eventually ranked as the Reds' #2 prospect (behind Pokey Reese, if you can believe that) in 1996.

But over the long haul, his inability to hit for anything other than power - and modest power, at that - kept him mired in the minors and led him inextricably to a life as a real estate agent. He was out of baseball by age 28.

Since 1992, Midwest League Home Run title has gone to such non-legendary players as:

Joe Biasucci, Matt Raleigh, Jesse Ibarra, Larry Barnes, Joe Frietas, Bucky Jacobsen, Aaron McNeal, Austin Kearns, Samone Peters, Jason Stokes, Jason Drobiak, Brian Dopirak, Ryan Harvey, Jordan Renz, Juan Francisco, and Moustakas.

Among them, only Kearns has had a MLB career of any length, and even that career is generally seen as a disappointment compared to his potential. To find a Midwest League HR champ who had a good MLB career, you have to go back more than 20 years, to 1987: Greg Vaughn at age 20. But Vaughn hit .305/.425/.593 with 33 homers and 102 walks, not .272 with 22 bombs and 43 walks.

Talk to me when Moustakas posts a .500 slugging percentage. Or .470, even. His reputation rests mostly on his impressive work in high school, where he set a California prep school record with 24 homers, while hitting .577 his senior year. The operative phrase in that sentence was "high school". His pro performance doesn't come close to that. That doesn't make him a non-prospect, just not one I would rate the 13th best in the country.

#14 Buster Posey C, San Francisco Giants
.879: Division I-best slugging percentage for Florida State last spring, when he won BA's College Player of the Year award.
Opening Day Age: 22

ETA: 2010

Posey always hit for average in college (Florida State), but suddenly last season he started hitting for power, too, with a .463/.566/.879 line that looks more like stats compiled in a video game than in the competitive ACC. He's only been a catcher for two years, so you can forgive him if he's not the most polished receiver, but even if he proves unable to make it to the majors as a backstop, a bat like that should carry him at almost any position.

He has only a handful of pro at-bats, hitting for average and with patience in Rookie Ball, Class A Short Season and then in the Hawaiian Winter League. His power has so far not been seen, as he has only one homer, nine doubles and a triple in 111 at-bats among those three, low levels, but that may come back. He did lead his HWB team with a .338 batting average, but the power deficit may be due to adjusting to wooden bats, an issue with many college players. Whether the power ever comes back or not, he's still a great prospect, though not one you should expect to see with a regular MLB job for another couple of years.

#15 Dexter Fowler OF, Colorado Rockies
14: Round in which he was drafted; he signed for $925,000, turning down a Miami scholarship.

Opening Day Age: 23
ETA: 2009

Fowler's lanky frame (6'5", 189 lbs) doesn't generate much power yet, but he hit .335 in the Texas league last year, and his career OBP in the minors is almost 100 points higher than his .299 batting average, a sign of good patience. He's got some speed, as he's stolen 100 bases in 334 minor league games, but his instincts may not be that great, as he's also been caught 48 times.

He'll likely start the season at AAA Colorado Springs, where his numbers will get some help from the thin mountain air (even more than they got from the Texas League) and he may even hit some homers. If Carlos Gonzalez continues to disappoint and Scott Podsednik continues to be, well, Scott Podsednik, Fowler could be playing regularly in Denver by June. Whether he deserves it or not.

#16 Mike Stanton OF, Florida Marlins
.988: OPS away from Greensboro's cozy NewBridge Bank Park; it was .996 at home.
Opening Day Age: 19
ETA: 2010

Unlike his long-lived but largely un-exciting namesake pitcher, the hitter Mike Stanton is extreme in almost every respect. He's extremely young, having just turned 19 in November. He's extremely tall, 6'5" to be precise, with 210 lbs of muscle on his frame. He swings extremely hard, it seems, as evidenced by his 153 whiffs in 125 games, and also his having led the Sally League in homers (39), slugging (.611) and total bases (286). He also got hit by 11 pitches, not far off the league lead of 17, which suggests that he positions himself extremely close to the plate.

But lest you think he's just a hacker, he also walked 58 times in 468 at-bats for a respectable .389 OBP, very impressive for an 18-year old in his first long look in pro ball. His defense seems a little sketchy at first glance (five errors and only six assists in 107 games last season at Greensboro), but he'll probably be fine in left or right field.

The Marlins may skip High A ball and move him all the way up to AA to start the 2009 season, though it may be worth it to send him to the pitcher-friendly Florida State League (High A ball) first, to see how he does. The main thing will be trying to keep the strikeouts in check. Right now his stats look an awful lot like those of Russell Branyan at this age, so if he can't tone down the extreme nature of his game just a bit, he'll never last in the big leagues.

#17 Lars Anderson 1B, Boston Red Sox
.404: Career OBP in 252 career minor league games. Opening Day Age: 22 ETA: 2009

Does anybody else think of Metallica every time they hear the name "Lars"? Maybe that's just me...

As though the Red Sox needed another one of these, Anderson is a DH waiting to happen. He's already a firstbaseman, at the bottom of the defensive spectrum, and he isn't much to look at there, but with a bat like his, that might not matter.

An extremely patient hitter, Lars has walked more than once every six at-bats throughout his two years and three different teams. He doesn't show any real power yet, as most of the handful of homers he has hit are due to the hitter's parks he frequented in Lancaster (CA) and Portland (Maine). Kevin Youkilis got the same criticisms at this stage in his career, and he turned out OK.

The Sawx could bump Anderson up to AAA - he's certainly ready - but they had a lot of 1B/DH types there last year, and the majors are obviously blocked by Big Papi and Youk, so they may give him a little more time in AA just to keep him playing every day. In any case, whether it's with Boston or not, you should see him in the majors by the end of the year, with a regular job perhaps by 2011.

#18 Logan Morrison 1B, Florida Marlins 29: RBIs in 25 games he played in the AFL while hitting .404. Opening Day Age: 21 ETA: 2010

Amazingly, that .404 mark was only 3rd best in the AFL, behind Eric Young Jr (.430) and Jason Donald (.407). Hits are cheap in the AFL, as I mentioned in the Tommy Hanson comments, but he also hit .332 in the Florida State League, which tends to favor pitchers. Morrison never hit for much average before 2008, so I'll be interested to see whether he can keep it up (literally) with a promotion to Double-A. his decent walk rate and declining strikeout rate suggest that he can.

In the Southern League, Morrison will be a boy among men, most of whom are 24 or 25, many older than that. Many organizations' top prospects are at this level, as are a lot of major league pitchers on rehab assignments. This is a big jump for a 21 year old to make, and will be a good test of his status as a top prospect.

#19 Alcides Escobar SS, Milwaukee Brewers
5.44: His range factor last season—best among shortstops in BA's Prospect Handbook, and another way to say he's an elite defender.
Opening Day Age: 22
ETA: 2009

The only prospect in the top 20 based predominantly on his defense, Escobar's place on this list may not last long. He led the Southern League in At-Bats and Hits, and missed the batting title by 0.001 to Huntsville teammate 3B Mat Gamel.

He's shown improvement upon a second tour at a level twice in the last two years now, hitting .257 in High A ball in 2006, then .325 in part of 2007. His promotion to AA Huntsville in 2007 saw him hit only a modest .283, but his 2008 encore brought a .328 average. That may mean it will take two seasons for him to master AAA, and then two more for the majors, or it may mean nothing. He hit only .224 in the Venezeulan Winter Leagues, so his ability to keep hitting for a decent average is hardly a foregone conclusion.

Escobar has some speed, having stolen 20-30 bases several times, with decent-but-not-spectacular success rates. He swiped 34-of-42 this year at AA, which is quite good. On the other hand, you can't steal first base, and Escobar only walks about once every five games, so unless he hits well over .300, he's basically an out machine. He has absolutely no power either, with only 15 homers in over 2,100 minor league at-bats, and his rail thin frame (6'1", 155 lbs) isn't likely to develop it any time soon.

In short, Escobar could grow up to be a Gold Glove caliber shortstop who hits .300ish and steals bases with aplomb - Omar Vizquel without the walks, if you will. More likely he'll hit just enough to keep himself in the #7 or #8 hole in the lineup, or end up as a late inning pinch-runner/defensive sub. In any case, I have a hard time believing that there are only 18 prospects in the game better than him.

#20 Gordon Beckham SS, Chicago White Sox
28: Home runs he hit for Georgia last season, tied for the NCAA Division I lead.
Opening Day Age: 22
ETA: 2009

A young shortstop prospect with three years of college experience in which he showed improvements each year, Beckham was the 8th overall pick in last year's draft. The ChiSox put him at Single A Kannapolis, and he adjusted well enough to wooden bats, hitting .310/.365/.500 in about three weeks' worth of games. If the power spike and the patience (54 walks, 30 strikeouts) he showed in his last year at the University of Georgia are real, he could be a very good player, especially if he can stay at short.

The Sox don't have another shortstop prospect around that level, so they could either put him back in A ball or bump him to High A to start the 2009 season, but how the gurus at Baseball America imagine he'll make it to the Show by the end of 2009 is beyond me. For one thing, Alexei Ramirez is eminently capable of holding the short-fort in Chicago for the time being.

For another, Beckham has exactly 14 games of professional experience, all in single A, so there are three levels between him and the majors. Mastering High-A, AA and AAA in a single season is all but unheard of, so you South Side fans shouldn't get you hopes up until at least June of next year.

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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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