21 December 2009

The December 20th All-Birthday Team, 2009 Version

I have posted this column in some form several times over the years, but thanks to the fact that time marches on, I can actually improve my December 20th All-Birthday Team by incorporating some recent seasons from players who share that date. Let's see how much better my team looks as 2009 draws to a close...

Baseball-Reference.com is a wonderful website. They've got stats for every major leaguer who's ever played, plus managers and notable personalities from the Hall of Fame, like Negro Leaguers, Executives and even some umpires. They've got the pages for players, teams, franchises and leagues throughout history, even short-lived entities like the Players' League and the American Association. They've got an Oracle of Baseball, which will give you a Six-Degrees of Kevin Bacon type of connection between any two players in history, say, Kevin Barker and Count Sensenderfer, for example.

But one of the coolest things they have is the Birthday Page, wherein you can find every major league player in history who shares your birthday. Given that my birthday was just yesterday, I thought I would share with you my All-Birthday Team. These are (in my estimation) the best seasons from players born on December 20th, compiled into a team, so that I have sufficient innings and plate appearances to play a 162-game schedule.

Note: OPS+ and ERA+ are the league and park adjusted OPS (On-Base Plus Slugging) and ERA for that season, so you have an idea of what the numbers really mean in context. The .349 batting average Spud Davis put up in 1933, during the offense-crazed Depression Years, does not mean nearly as much as the .352 Cecil Cooper hit in 1980, a relatively down offensive time. Their adjusted OPS numbers (55% better than average compared to "only" 34% better) help to compensate for that. Anywho, this is what I came up with:

Starting Lineup PA Avg OBP SLG R HR RBI SB OPS+
C G. Hartnett (1930) 578 .339 .404 .630 84 37 122 0 144
1B C. Cooper (1980) 678 .352 .387 .539 96 25 122 17 155
2B J. Williams (1899) 689 .355 .417 .532 126 9 116 26 159
3B D. Wright (2007*) 711 .325 .416 .546 113 30 107 34 150
OF O. Gamble (1977) 470 .297 .386 .588 75 31 83 1 162
OF H. Stovey (1889) 634 .308 .393 .525 152 19 119 63 161
OF D. DeJesus (2008*) 577 .307 .366 .452 70 12 73 11 118
DH A. Huff (2003) 706 .311 .367 .555 91 34 107 2 139
*David Of Jesus had his best year in 2008, according to adjusted OPS, so we've replaced 2007's campaign with it, even though it's about 130 plate appearances shorter. We've haven't got a great bench, but the pitching will be much improved with this iteration, so I think we can compensate for the lost plate appearances with defensive substitutions. More on this later. Also, in case you're curious, Aubrey Huff's 2008 performance (.304/32/108) was almost exactly as good as his 2003, but we got a few more games and plate appearances from 2003, not to mention a slightly higher adjusted OPS, so I decided to stick with what I had.

This is a pretty darn good team. Or at least a starting lineup.

I'll probably hit 2B Jimmy Williams, not to be confused with Jimy (one-M) Williams, erstwhile manager of the Red Sox and Astros, as he has the highest OBP. Though it may seem like he didn't hit for power, those nine homers tied him for 3rd in the NL in 1899, Williams' rookie season.

Harry Stovey will hit in the #2 spot, as he gets on base and has plenty of speed, with 63 steals, which were good for 10th in the American Association in 1889, tied with Hall of Famer Bid McPhee and Tommy "Foghorn" Tucker, but well behind league leader "Sliding" Billy Hamilton's 111 base swipes. Unfortunately Hamilton was born in February, so he can't help us. (Stovey also led the 1889 AA in Slugging %, Homers, Total Bases, Extra Base Hits, Runs, RBI and was among the league leaders in several other categories that year, one of the last for the American Association, which folded after 1891.

Cecil Cooper will bat third, keeping the precious little speed we've got together. Hall of Fame catcher Gabby Hartnett bats cleanup. No argument there, I trust. DH Aubrey Huff and 3B David Wright bat 5th and 6th, respectively, giving us a right-left-right stagger in the heart of the lineup. (This way the June 26th team can't bring in Mike Myers to shut us down in a big inning.)

Oscar Gamble and his Afro hit #7, even though he actually has the highest adjusted OPS on the team. Unfortunately he only got 470 plate appearances, and I don't want to have Jim Norris or Jack Manning batting cleanup 200 times, you know? David DeJesus hits 8th and whomever we get to play short will bat last. Alternatively, if we end up in the NL, Huff plays the outfield in place of DeJesus, who goes back to the bench. Speaking of which...

    Bench                PA   Avg   OBP   SLG    R   HR  RBI   SB  OPS+  
C B. Rickey (1906) 226 .284 .345 .393 22 3 24 4 135
IF P. Baumann (1915) 260 .292 .380 .388 30 2 28 9 130
IF A. Ojeda (2009*) 309 .246 .340 .345 38 1 16 3 76
OF J. Norris (1977) 517 .270 .360 .364 59 2 37 26 101
OF J. Manning (1876) 295 .264 .281 .330 52 2 25 0 101

*Augie Ojeda's season has been replaced with his most recent work. He still can't really "hit", but he manages to eek out a double once in a while, walks more often than he whiffs (32 to 28) and can play second, third or short, as needed. He's got a couple of hundred extra plate appearances in 2009 than he did in 2007, which compensates for the playing time missed by DeJesus. Sort of.

This isn't a terrible bench, as Manning and Norris both had reasonably productive seasons as outfielders, with Norris likely serving as a pinch runner for Hartnett or Huff if we need to eek out a late run. Paddy Baumann played a lot of 2B and 3B in his career as a backup, and hit pretty well in 1915, if not the rest of his life. Augie Ojeda, the only below-average hitter on the team, only makes it because he has exactly the same birthday as me.

Branch Rickey will become the first Player/Manager/General Manager in history, making trades from the bench. And speaking of trades...

    Trade bait         PA    Avg   OBP   SLG   R  HR  RBI  SB  OPS+
C B. Henline (1922) 481 .316 .380 .479 57 14 64 2 112
C S. Davis (1933) 540 .349 .395 .473 51 9 65 2 134
IF F. Merkle (1911) 604 .283 .342 .431 80 12 84 49 113

December 20th is blessed with an abundance of catching talent, but no shortstops worth their weight in lead. Not only do we have Hartnett and Rickey, but Butch Henline and Spud Davis were both good or very good at some point in their careers, and there's always a team that needs catching. Maybe I can get the July 23rd Team to trade me Pee Wee Reese or Nomar Garciaparra for Spud Davis. Heck, they could have Henline straight-up for a 1924 vintage Hod Ford. At least I'd have something worth running out there every day. Somebody has to bat 9th, right?

More likely I'll just have to press Merkle into service as the shortstop. He was generally described as an agile firstbaseman and was not a hulk of a man, though at six feet, 190 lbs, he was a bit large for his day. Hopefully he doesn't make any bonehead plays there.

I was tempted to put Snooks Dowd on the team because he attended Lehigh University, like me, and because a team with a Spud, a Branch, a Gabby, an Augie, a Butch and a Paddy could use a Snooks as well, if only to make it entertaining to watch them lose. But alas, Snooks had only three hits in 18 career plate appearances, and would therefore be a waste of a roster spot.

The pitching was not quite as easy to fill out, and whomever we don't trade for shortstop help is going to have to net us a solid reliever or two.

       Rotation            W   L  Sv  ERA     IP     BB   SO  ERA+
SP G. Pipgras (1928) 24 13 3 3.38 300.7 103 139 111
SP J. DeLeon (1989) 16 12 0 3.05 244.7 80 201 119
SP J. Shields (2008*) 14 8 0 3.56 215.0 40 160 124
SP B. Laskey (1982) 13 12 0 3.14 189.3 43 88 115
SP J. Manning (1876) 18 5 5 2.14 197.3 32 24 105

*James Shields was just slightly better in 2008 than he had been in 2007, including tying for the AL lead with two shutouts, so we've updated his line. He also pitched reasonably well in the playoffs, though he went 0-2.

Yes, that's the same Jack Manning who's also a backup outfielder, and I made a point to pick a season in which he was worthwhile as both a hitter and a pitcher.

George Pipgras had his best season in 1928, leading the AL in starts, Wins, Innings, Hits allowed and batters faced. Pipgras was one of many players who were traded to the Yankees from the Red Sox in those days and who promptly became, if not a star, then at least a very useful regular. Naturally, when his usefulness was all but expended, the Yankees sold him back to Boston for a hundred grand.

Jose DeLeon -well, if it weren't for bad luck, he'd have none at all. He started his career with the Pirates, four years after they won the World Series, and led the NL with 19 losses in 1985. He's traded to the White Sox in 1986 - three years after their last division title - and endures the rest of a 90-loss season with future Hall of Famers Steve Carlton, Tom Seaver, and Carlton Fisk, who are, alas, no longer great. Teammates Ozzie Guillen and Kenny Williams will have to wait to be Field Manager and General Manager, respectively, before they will see a championship.

DeLeon is traded to the Cardinals before the 1988 season, three years after their last pennant, and pitches well in a couple of lackluster seasons before again losing an NL-leading 19 games (of the Cards' 92 losses) in 1990. When he's released in 1992, it's the last-place Phillies who pick him up, of course. But before he can go to the World Series with the Phils in 1993, they trade him back to the Pale Hose, for reclamation project and former teammate Bobby Thigpen. He pitches well for the White Sox in a losing effort in the ALCS in 1993, and pitches even better in 1994, but misses the playoffs because of the Strike.

He falls apart in 1995, and is exiled to Montreal, a year after they were leading their division, and pitches a handful of poor innings before his major league career ends. Obviously, we used his best work, but with his luck, his very presence on this team could doom the rest of us to failure.

I don't know much about Bill Laskey, except that his rookie year was his best work - really his only good season - so I used that.

       Bullpen              W   L  Sv  ERA     IP     BB   SO  ERA+
SP P. Moskau (1980) 9 7 2 4.01 152.7 41 94 89
RP M. Valdes (1997) 4 4 2 3.13 95.0 39 54 135
RP V. Colbert (1971) 7 6 2 3.97 142.7 71 74 97
SP/RP D. Pfister (1962) 4 14 1 4.54 196.3 106 123 92
SP/RP C. Narveson (2009*) 2 0 0 3.83 47.0 16 46 105

*Narveson is a new addition, after a decent season as a swing man for the Brewers this year. He's a lefty, but not a LOOGy, as he had a bizarre reverse split, allowing a .313 opposing batting average to lefties, but holding righties to only .224. In any case, he's still pretty useful in a limited role, and we've got the roster space.

In truth, these guys are all swing men or long relievers. There isn't a single guy born on December 20th who's got more than a handful of saves in any season of his career. Maybe I can get the November 28th team to part with Dave Righetti, since they have Robb Nen, after all. With Wes Westrum and Heinie Peitz (poor kid...) on the team, they don't really need catching, but Fred Merkle could do a nice job at first base for them.

Well, enough with this exercise in silliness, but if you've got a birthday team that
can beat mine, or better yet, if you have a shortstop or a closer to offer, let me know.

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15 October 2009

2009 ALCS Preview: Yankees vs. Angels

The Yankees easily dispatched the Minnesota Twins last week, but they've got their work cut out for them in facing the LAnahfornia Angels of WhereEver in the American league Championship Series.

Compare/Contrast with the Minnesota Twins:

The Angels finished a close second to the Yankees in run scoring this year, with 5.45 runs per game, compared to 5.65 for the Yankees. Minnesota had scored 5.01 runs per game, but they did so in a pitchers' park, while both LAnahfornia and New York played their home games in hitters' parks, so Minnesota actually had a slightly better adjusted OPS than the Angels, 109 compared to 104. The Yankees' 119 OPS+ easily led all of MLB.

Of course, the fact that Justin Morneau was unavailable for the postseason after having provided 30 homers and 100 RBIs toward the Twins' offense during the season probably puts the Angels roughly on par with the Twins for our purposes. The Angels stole a lot more bases, but otherwise, the net result was about the same.

In terms of pitching, it would seem that the Twins and Angels were very similar as well, given that both teams allowed about 4.7 runs per game (4.69 for the Twins), and had ERAs that were very close (4.50 for the Angels, 4.45 for Minnesota). Again, however, the ballparks skew these numbers, so that the Twins's adjusted ERA+ was only 92, well below the league average, while the Angels were a tick above average, at 102.

Starting Pitching:


The Angels and Yankees' starters overall had composite ERAs very close to each other, 4.44 for the Angels, 4.48 for New York, but those overall numbers ignore the fact that this Angels' pitching staff is not the same one that started the year. Gone are Sean O'Sullivan, Shane Loux, Trevor Bell, Anthony Ortega and Dustin Moseley, who combined for a 6.51 ERA in 26 starts this year. Sixteen of those 26 starts went to two pitchers (Bell and O'Sullivan) who had never pitched above High-A ball before the start of the 2009 season, and it showed.

And though he isn't "gone", Ervin Santana and his 5.03 ERA are banished to the bullpen and replaced in the rotation by lefty import Scott Kazmir, who has generally pitched well against the Yankees (2.67 ERA in 87 career innings). Kazmir compiled a 1.73 ERA in six late season starts for the Angels, though he got knocked around by the Red Sox in his lone postseason start this year, and is not known for his stamina.


Everyone knows that the Yankees plan to use a three-man rotation for the ALCS, with CC Sabathia, AJ Burnett and Andy Pettitte the three named men. Joba Chamberlain is relegated to bullpen duty, where he has excelled throughout his major league career, though he's done little of that kind of work in 2009. If all goes to plan, the only one who will need to pitch on short rest is CC Sabathia, and if he falters, Joba should be able to step up and blow it by the Angels' hitters for a couple of innings to bridge the gap to the usual bullpen suspects.

The Yankees struggled to find an effective 5th starter all year, which skews the team's starter ERA way up, mostly due to Chien-Ming Wang and Sergio Mitre, who won't pitch against LAnahfornia.

The composite stats for the starters who are expected to pitch in this series are as follows:

Team     W   L   ERA  ERA+   G    IP   WHIP    H/9   HR/9   BB/9   SO/9
Angels 53 32 4.22 109 117 721.2 1.33 9.04 1.10 2.96 6.63
Yanks 46 25 3.83 117 99 631.2 1.30 8.30 0.90 3.42 7.70

The Yankees' numbers here are for just three starters, but they do have a notable edge in most areas, except walks per nine. (If you use only Scott Kazmir's work as an Angel the teams are almost dead even, but then why would we want to throw out his deeds in the first two-thirds of the season simply because he didn't have a big "A" on his hat when he compiled them?)

Overall you'd have to say the Yankees have an edge here, if only a slight one, which may be negated by the fact that CC will have to pitch on short rest.


If the Yankees can get to Kazmir (or any of the Angels' starters) early, their hitters should be able to feast on their relatively soft bullpen, which was 23rd among the 30 MLB teams in ERA, while the Yankees bullpen compiled a 3.91 ERA that was good for 13th in MLB. These, again, are numbers skewed by pitchers who are not on the ALCS rosters. The relevant pitchers' composite numbers are:

Team     W   L   ERA   SV   IP    ERA+  WHIP   H/9   HR/9   BB/9   SO/9
Angels 37 21 4.12 50 509.1 116 1.34 8.61 0.99 3.48 7.12
Yanks 39 20 3.81 51 552.2 117 1.25 7.95 1.14 3.27 8.62

Here the Yankees have advantages in almost every category> The difference in homers allowed is probably mostly due to the New Yankee Stadium's bizarre performance early in the year, but in all honesty, I did not check on that.

These numbers include Joba's stats for the Yankees and those of Ervin Santana for the Angels, each of whom should be considerably better when restricted to relief duties. It's worth noting that Santana has made only three relief appearances in his four-year major league career, plus two in the postseason, with mixed results, but there's no reason to think he can't adjust to the role.

Overall I'd have to give the edge to the Yankees' bullpen, who are more likely to get a key strikeout in a big spot and do a slightly better job of keeping guys off base.


I don't have to tell you that the Yankees led the major leagues in run scoring this season, not to mention homers, OBP, Slugging, OPS and OPS+. The Angels were not far behind the Yankees in runs scored, but they accomplished this, as they seemingly always do, more with timely hitting than with sheer brute strength, like the Yankees.

The Yankees got men on base better than any team in baseball and just took their chances at getting timely hitting. The Angels did a decent job of getting men on base (they were 3rd in MLB in on base percentage, thanks mostly to Bobby Abreu and Chone Figgins, who nearly doubled his walk rate this year). But then the Angels hit .297 with runners in scoring position, compared to just .272 for the Yankees. Whether that pace is maintainable is anybody's guess, but in any case, the Angels know how to score runs.

Neither team really has any holes in its lineup, either. The Yankees famously got 20+ homers from seven different players, with another 18 from Derek Jeter and more than a dozen from melky Cabrera. Every starter on both teams hit at least .270 except Nick Swisher, who was 2nd in the AL with 97 walks, providing for a respectable .371 OBP. The Yankees have both speed and power on the bench, too, as Brett Gardner and his 26 steals and Eric Hinske's .512 slugging percentage will attest.

Everyone in the Angels' lineup hit between .287 and .306 except Mike Napoli, who hit .272 and smacked 20 homers in only 114 games. Despite all the talk you've heard about how Abreu made the team more patient this year, nobody besides him and Chone Figgins really likes to walk much. They've got some power, but Vlad Guerrero isn't the threat he once was and Kendry Morales is the only player in their lineup with more than 25 homers. As a team, they were just 8th in homers, though they were 4th in slugging percentage. The Angels can bring in Macier Isturis off their bench, who hit .300 and stole a baker's dozen worth of bases, but the bench gets pretty thin after that.

Again, the advantage seems to be with New York, but a few timely hits by the Angels could negate a lot of patience and brute strength on the part of the bronx Bombers.


The Yankees split the 10 games they played against the Angels this year, but their 5-5 record belies how badly the Yankees played in many of those games.

      R  2B  3B  HR  SB  CS   BA    OBP   SLG  OPS  BAbip
ANA 65 18 5 9 17 7 .315 .386 .473 859 .363
NYY 55 15 1 15 9 0 .272 .355 .456 811 .291

Other than hitting more homers than the Angels, the Yankees were out-hit in just about every respect. Both teams walked and struck out at about the same rates, but the Angels hit more singles, doubles and triples, hit for a higher average, and stole a lot more bases. Of course, getting caught seven times in 24 tries essentially negated the value of the 17 bases they stole, at least on paper.

In reality, it wasn't quite so cut and dried. The conventional wisdom is that the Angels' speed and Jorge Posada's sub-par arm will allow LAnahfornia to run all over the Yankees, but I'm not so sure about this. Looking back at the season series, I see little indication that the Angels are truly great base stealers. In fact, when you look at all 25 times they tried a steal, they actually succeeded in scoring a meaningful run just one time.


Let me explain:

Among those seven times caught stealing (plus one pick-off of Torii Hunter, courtesy of Andy Pettitte's infamous move to first) five of them resulted in the third out of an inning. Three of those eight times (including the pick-off) came in games that were decided by one run. The Angels may have run themselves right out of three wins.

Even among the 17 successful steals, only five of them clearly helped the Angels. The rest of the steals either resulted in a runner being stranded on 2nd or third, or the runner scoring on a homer, which would have occurred regardless of the base the runner had been on at the time. And of the five that "helped", only one occurred in a game decided by fewer than three runs.

You see, the running game is not nearly so important as some would have you think. For one thing, steals are not always successful. When a base stealer fails, or even if a runner gets picked off, you lose both a baserunner and an out, which compromises anything that might have been done that inning. Even when a rally isn't killed by getting caught stealing, it can certainly be suppressed somewhat. And even when a steal is both successful and results in a run, it is not always a run that's needed to win.

So even if the Angels do manage to wreak havoc on the basepaths - and with all the rain in New York this weekend, it's hard to imagine that - it won't necessarily lead to victory. So what else have they got going for them?

Well, overall, in the ten games they played against New York, they hit quite a bit better, as I mentioned. The most glaring difference is that the Angels hit .363 - more than 70 points higher than the Yankees - when they put the ball in play, easily the highest BABIP mark by any Yankee opponent this year, and considerably better than the Angels' season mark of .322. Given that the league averaged .300 this year, it's possible that we could see some regression to the mean, but a short playoff series doesn't always allow for the time needed for such regressions.

The Yankees allowed a 6.28 ERA to the Angels in their ten games this year, and though an optimist might point out that a lot of the runs they allowed were given up by the likes of Mark Melancon, Brian Bruney and Jose Veras, players who are not on the Yankees' ALCS roster. The pitchers who might pitch in the Series, however, combined to allow the Angels a still unimpressive 5.89 ERA. Not a good sign.

Meanwhile, the Angels' pitchers allowed a 5.28 ERA against the 2009 Yankees in the regular season, but when you eliminate the runs allowed by Anthony Ortega, Justin Speier and others who aren't on the postseason roster, that number comes down to a more respectable 4.52, which is pretty darn good when you consider that the Yankees averaged 5.65 runs per game overall.

In short, looking at the teams' overall numbers seems to show an advantage for the Yankees at almost every turn. Looking at just their head-to-head stats, the Angels appear to be better, but those were only 10 games out of 162, so I'm not willing to lend them so much credence.

My best guess is that the Yankees win it in 6, with at least four of the games being decided by two runs or fewer. It's going to be a great series.

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07 October 2009

Commentary on the Yankees-Twins 2009 ALDS Game 1

The Twins won their division in dramatic fashion last night, as I had hoped they would, since the Yankees have owned the Minnesota Twins for the last several years. As I wrote after the Yanks swept the Twins in May:

Amazingly, the Yankees have dominated the Twins in this millennium, winning 40 out of 58 contests in the regular season, plus six of eight in the postseason, for an overall record of 46-20 since 2001. This is the second best winning percentage they have against any team in the AL in that span, behind only the dismal Kansas City Royals.
My theory on that was essentially that the Yankees have tended to be very good at hitting homers, while the Twins have not been particularly good at preventing them. The same was true this year, as the Yankees led the major leagues in hitting homers, while the Twins allowed the second most in the AL, and the 5th most in the majors. That's a combination that could lead to some fireworks, as we've already seen in tonight's game, with homers by Derek Jeter and Hideki Matsui, though admittedly neither of the runners who were on base for those got there by a walk.

When it comes to run prevention, the Twins manage to maintain respectability by allowing very few walks and playing good defense, and 2009 was no different. They allowed the fewest walks, the fewest errors and the fewest unearned runs in the American League this year. So sure, they allow homers, but they don't give away outs or baserunners, so the homers don't hurt so much. Unfortunately for them, the Yankees' hitters led the majors in walks, so keeping them off the bases isn't so easy.

Generally, I'm of the opinion that Ron Gardenhire is a heck of a manager. His team seems to outperform its run differential just about every year, and he seems to get surprisingly good performances out of teams that consist of one or two stars and a bunch of guys that most people have never heard of.

But I had to wonder in the 5th inning, with Jeter on second base and two out, what he was thinking. He had first base open and needed only one out to escape the inning still down by only one run, and Alex Rodriguez coming up, followed by Hideki Matsui. "Matsui" as you may already know, is a Japanese word thet roughly translates to "grounder to second", something that he had already done twice in the game. "Brian Duensing" may not be the best known or sexiest name a Game One starter could have, but he's got a fastball with some movement, and that movement had already induced Matsui to produce two of his patented ground ball outs.

Meanwhile, Alex Rodriguez is still, you know, Alex Rodriguez. You know: 3-time AL MVP, a batting title, five home run titles, more home runs than Mickey Mantle or Mike Schmidt, etc. Ok, so he hasn't gotten a postseason hit with runners in scoring position since Game 3 in the 2004 ALCS. That's, like, 18 at-bats, spread out over four seasons. Which is nothing.

Much more important, I would think, is the fact that he's had an OBP well above .400 with runners in scoring position in each of the last five regular seasons. Covering more than a thousand plate appearances. Nevertheless, Gardenhire, even after going out to the mound to talk to Duensing and Mauer, decided to pitch to A-Rod, and Rodriguex hit an RBI single to right.

The smart move would have been to intentionally walk him and try to get Matsui to ground out a third time, though with that said, Matsui hit a two-run homer to dead center off Felipe Liriano, so maybe it wouldn't have made any difference at all, but it still surprises me that Gardy would have chosen to let A-Rod hit in that spot rather than let his finesse lefty face the grounder-prone Matsui instead.

Since the Twins never did score another run and it looks like they're about to win, 7-2, it may not have mattered at all, but perhaps if Gardenhire has been listening to all the anti-hype about A-Rod, he'll take that stuff a little less seriously for the rest of the series.

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02 October 2009

Marlins' Super Prospect Mike Stanton Not So Super

Hey, remember Mike Stanton?

No, not that one. He's retired now.

I mean Mike Stanton 2.0, or, wait, 3.0.

Mike Stanton extreme.

I mentioned him in my blog post about Baseball America's top 20 prospects:

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.

To be fair, Branyan has managed to "last in the big leagues" in some respect, for a dozen seasons, even if he has hit only .234 in them. The real irony here is that I wrote those words in early March, just before Russel Branyan started having the best season of his career. It's also worth noting that though Branyan hit .322/.424/.621 through the mariners' first 50 games, he hit just .201/.293/.449 in the next 66 games, a performance much closer to his career numbers.

Back pain landed Branyan on the DL a month ago and he probably won't play in the Mariners' handful of remaining games. In any case it remains to be seen whether those 50 games were a fluke or an indicator of Branyan's real talent level, but the preponderance of evidence is with the former.

I stand by my Branyan/Stanton analogy, and here's why:

Name Year Age Lvl G AVG OBP SLG OPS
Russ 1995 19 A 76 .256 .326 .534 860
Russ 1996 20 A 130 .268 .355 .575 930
Mike 2008 18 A 125 .293 .381 .611 992

Russ 1997 21 A+ 83 .290 .398 .663 1061
Mike 2009 19 A+ 50 .294 .390 .578 968

Russ 1997 21 AA 41 .234 .369 .526 895
Mike 2009 19 AA 79 .231 .311 .455 766

I omitted their rookie league numbers because Stanton only played eight games there, compared to 55 for Branyan, but the rate stats were very similar there as well.

Branyan repeated AA, but played only 44 games there, presumably because of an injury, and he hit .294/.417/.693. I assume that Stanton will start next year at AA as well, as he does not yet seem to have mastered the level, despite the accolades of American League scouts and Baseball America beat writers:

He’s going to be a franchise player,” said an American League scout. “I think he has a chance to be a five-tool guy who hits 40 home runs in the big leagues.”

It’s 80 power on the 20-80 scouting scale, a rarity for any player, even moreso for a 19-year-old. And there are few players with 80 power who can match Stanton’s athletic ability. Even at 6-foot-5, 240 pounds, he has a tick above-average speed.

Personally, I have my doubts about Stanton as a major leaguer, at least as a great one. He's surely no 5-tool prospect. The facts that he hasn't stolen many bases (7-for-12 in his minor league career) or hit many triples (8 of them in over 1000 minor league at-bats) suggest that describing his speed as, "a tick above average" may be overly generous. The fact that he only attempts a steal about once every 23 games suggests that even Stanton does not think much of Stanton's speed.

Stanton's defense is questionable as well. He made 10 errors in 125 games in right field this year, suggesting that the fielding tool may be lacking as well. In the majors, only Justin Upton made more than 10 errors in right field, and Upton's got the wheels to compensate for the occasional miscue.

Stanton did make 10 assists, which might mean he's got a good arm, but if he can't get to anything, what difference will that make? Generally guys who end up being 5-tool players in the majors are 5-tool players in the minors, and so far, Stanton has shown perhaps two of those: hitting for power and (maybe) a strong arm. Scouts have a tendency to fall in love with athletic-looking prospects, regardless of their real skills. Just ask Billy Beane.

Hitting for average? Well, not so much. He hit .231 in over 300 plate appearances in the Southern League. I'll grant that he was one of the youngest players in that league, but .231 is not good. Nor is striking out 144 times in 129 games. He had reduced his strikeout rate a bit early in the season, facing high-A level pitching, but then reverted to form upon his promotion to AA. this years one strikout per 3.02 at-bats at AA is almost exactly the same as his one-per-3.05 at-bats at A-ball last year.

The whiffs don't necessarily kill you. Heck, Mark Reynolds misses the mark more often than a blind meteorologist, and he's still employed. But even Reynolds struck out about 25% less than Stanton does when he was in the bushes. Scouts and coaches chalk it up to youthful exuberance, lack of experience, which might or might not be the case. My guess is that this is how Stanton has always hit, and he'll need ot adjust if he wants to hit major league breaking pitches. At 19, he's got time, but Marlins fans should be happy if they ever see him display three tools in the big leagues, let alone five.

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30 September 2009

A Royals' Disaster: Don't Blame Kyle Farnsworth...Blame Trey Hillman

The Yankees won their 102nd game of the season last night and will easily have the best record in baseball this year, for whatever that's worth. They sent the Royals reeling to their 94th loss of the year, which is no small feat considering that they've got the best pitcher (Zach Grienke) and one of the best closers in the league, as Joe Posnanski points out.

On the plus side, the athletic trainer who may or may not be to blame for many of the Royals' woes over the past two decades is finally retiring, so things may be looking up. But that was little consolation last night.

Unfortunately for the Royals, both Greinke and Soria had just pitched on Sunday, and the latter of those threw 46 pitches, making him "not available" for Tuesday night's game, according to Royals Manager Trey Hillman. “He’s just a little sore and needed another day,” said Hillman, according to Bob Dutton of the KC Star.

In his absence, journeyman choke artist reliever Kyle Farnsworth coughed up the lead and lost the game, though in his defense, it's not like he really got hit hard. After striking out Brett Gardner, he gave up an infield single to second base by the Yankees' 3rd string catcher, Francisco Cervelli, who has spent most of the season in AA and AAA.

Next came the only solid hit he gave up all night, a single to pinch-hitter Eric Hinske, on a 2-1 pitch, which moved Cervelli to third base. The good news was that Farnsworth retired the next batter, Robinson Cano, despite going to 3-0 on him first. The bad news was that it was a sacrifice fly that tied the game and blew the Save for what would have been rookie Anthony Lerew's first career win in the majors.

With Johnny Damon at bat, Hinske then decided that since it had been exactly one year and one day since he had attempted to steal a base in the majors, he was due. So he ran and not only made it to second, but went to third on catcher John Buck's throwing error. Damon was then walked to get to the rookie, Juan Miranda, which makes some sense, especially when you consider that Miranda's career strikeout rate in the minors is about once every four at-bats.

Unfortunately for Farnsworth and the Royals, Miranda did not strike out. He put the ball in play, which bounced off the pitcher's shoe into foul territory and allowed the winning run to score.

These were not the Mighty Yankees beating up on the Lowly Royals. These were two back-up outfielders, a 3rd-string catcher and a 4th string firstbaseman who stepped in something lucky on the way to the ballpark yesterday. An infield single. Another single. A sac fly, and the game was tied. A steal. A throwing error. An intentional walk. Another infield single, and the game was over before the Royals knew what hit them. Joe Morgan would be so proud.

You can blame Farnsworth for not throwing enough strikes, or for not getting enough fly balls, though with the reputation of New Yankee Stadium, you can see why he might want to keep the ball on the ground. But infield singles happen sometimes, and so do throwing errors, and neither of those things was really Farnsworth's fault.

They were Hillman's fault.

How? Because he didn't bring in in his best reliever to nail down a close game against a very, very good team. Hillman said that he couldn't bring in Soria because he had thrown a lot of pitches two nights before, but was that necessarily true?

Curious, I wondered whether Hillman typically gave his relievers two or more days of rest after throwing that many pitches, so I looked it up. it turns out that there have been 26 times this season in which a Royals reliever has thrown 40 or more pitches in an outing. This is no great surprise, as relievers often rack up significant pitch counts in an outing.

The real question is how often Hillman tends to give such relievers two or more days of rest between uses, and the answer to that is, "Usually, but not always." There have been six occasions on which Hillman has chosen to use a reliever who threw 40+ pitches with just one day of rest. Those pitchers were

Yasuhiko Yabuta
Carlos Rosa
Victor Marte
Ron Mahay
Jamey Wright
Sidney Ponson

The results were not encouraging.

In those six high-pitch count, low-rest outings, these Royals relievers provided little relief at all, allowing nine runs on 12 hits (including three homers) in just 5.2 innings, for a nifty 14.31 ERA. Hillman almost certainly did not know this, at least not with this degree of detail, as I doubt he would take the time to pore over the stats and box scores as I did.

However, Hillman undoubtedly must have known that his bullpen has not generally done very well when he's tried to push the usage envelope like this, especially since the last time it happened was less than a week ago. Yabuta was brought in to pitch on 26 September after having thrown 53 pitches just two days before, and he promptly allowed four runs to score while retiring only one batter. Hillman hasn't called upon him since.

Joakim Soria, however, is no Sidney Ponson or Ron Mahay.

Those six pitchers have a combined record of 6-14 with a 6.03 ERA with the Royals this year, and none of them is the kind of top-flight pitcher that deserves to be handled with kid gloves, as Soria is. So you have to ask whether these guys pitched poorly in those outings because they needed more rest, or simply because they needed more talent, something even the intrepid Trey Hillman cannot provide.

Wright and Ponson are 30-something journeymen, and lousy ones at that, both with career ERAs over 5.00. Mahay is a veteran LOOGy, and while not a bad one overall, he was bad enough while in Kansas City (4.79 ERA) that they released him, whereupon the Twins picked him up and he immediately started getting batters out again. Of course. On the other hand, that 4.79 is almost exactly the same as the team's 4.74 composite ERA, so maybe Hillman jst didn't like him or something.

The other three, Rosa, Marte and Yabuta, are all technically rookies, but Yabuta is 36 and pitched professionally for more than a decade in his native Japan. At 28, Marte isn't young either, and he pitched for a few years in Japan before the Royals acquired him.

Even Carlos Rosa, though not yet 25, is no spring chicken in baseball terms, having pitched professionally since he was 17. He had Tommy John surgery and missed all of the 2005 season, and his minor league track record is spotty, but he could top out as a back of the rotation starter, but no more.

But Soria is not a jourrneyman LOOGY or a veteran re-tread or anything of the sort. He's a 25-year old flame-throwing closer who's saved 88 of the team's otherwise pathetic 208 wins in the last three seasons, and who is still under the team's control (subject to arbitration) for the next three seasons. He's a hugely valuable commodity, and you don't throw caution to the wind with someone like that, not in a completely meaningless game in late September.

Soria has never pitched with just one day of rest after throwing 40 or more pitches in his three-year major league career. For that matter, he'd only thrown 40+ pitches once before, on September 1st, earning a 2-inning Save against the Oaklands, but then did not pitch again until the 5th. He has thrown 35+ pitches and some back on only one day of rest a few times in his career, and with some success, but there's a big difference between 35 pitches and 46 of them, I would imagine.

So you can't blame Hillman for keeping him out of the game, especially if Soria himself said that he was still a little sore. But that doesn't mean we can't ask the question of why it was necessary for him to throw 46 pitches two days ago in the first place.

In that game, Greinke had allowed one run on seven hits and two walks while striking out eight in seven innings of work. At that pooint, he had thrown just 97 pitches, and had fanned Denard Span and Orlando Cabrera, neither of whom is especially prone to strike out, to finish the 7th.

Greinke has averaged 106 pitches per start this year, and that number would be higher if not for a couple of artificially shortened games. He's thrown 110+ pitches 13 times this year and had not thrown even 100 pitches in over two weeks, so his arm presumably could have handled another inning.

In any case, with a 4-1 lead in the eighth inning, Hillman could have called on Marte or Rosa or Dusty Hughes or Roman Colon or maybe even Farnsworth, though he had thrown a dozen pitches the night before and it says here that Farnsworth is lousy on short rest. But whether Hillman wanted to stick with Greinke or bring in one of those other guys to protect a three-run lead in the eighth is not the point.

The point is that the one thing he should not have done was to ask his best reliever to get six outs to protect a big lead in a meaningless game. Not because he couldn't do it. He could and most certainly did. But because it would most likely make him unavailable the next day, and perhaps the day after that. Which is exactly what happened.

Even if Hillman didn't expect Soria to need 46 pitches to get out of the game, he might have guessed that Soria would use at least 25 or 30, and that this would make him off-limits for the next day's game. As it happened, Soria wasn't exactly sharp, as he hadn't pitched in five days, and he allowed four hits and plunked a batter in those two innings, though he escaped without allowing a run.

And because Soria spent two innings protecting a three-run lead against the Twins, who have averaged just 1.42 runs per game in the 7th inning or later this season, he was unavailable to protect a one-run lead against the Yankees. The same Yankees who not only lead all of MLB in run scoring overall, and have the best home record in MLB, but who have averaged over two runs per game in the late innings this year, have come from behind like a jillion times already this season.

Nah, we won't need our closer against those guys.

Maybe things wouldn't have ended any differently. After all, it was mostly bad luck and some bad fielding that did the Royals in, and that could happen to anybody. OK, so Farnsworth somehow attracts this kind of bad karma more than other pitchers, but still. Soria might not have been any luckier.

But Soria is a much better pitcher than Farnsworth, and given the right circumstances, he likely would have retired the Yankees, especially the 3rd and 4th stringers, with little trouble. We'll never know, of course, because on Sunday Hillman inexplicably used his bullpen like it was the 7th game of the World Series.

Thanks for #102, Trey.

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10 August 2009

Kansas City's Royal Spectacle

Rob Neyer (mercifully back from vacation this week) mentioned today how the Kansas City Royals are seeing a significant increase in attendance this year, this despite fielding perhaps the worst team in the American League, and easily one of the worst three or four in major league baseball.

The reasons for this, as he says, are fairly obvious:

So what's going on? It's not rocket science. The Royals are essentially playing in a new ballpark, and the people want to see it. The Nationals' attendance went up nearly 400,000 in their first season in Nationals Park; this season it's going to drop roughly 500,000. And roughly the same thing will happen to the Royals' attendance next season.
He's right of course. There was some hope in Kansas City in May, when the Royals still had a winning record and their ace was on the cover of Sports Illustrated, but that's all gone now. The Royals weren't good enough for long enough to really do anything to help the attendance, which usually takes most of a year to increase due to team quality.

So I'm not writing to argue with Rob, but to mention a few things I noticed when I got to attend a game at Kauffman Stadium in May. First of all, even if I hadn't known who was pitching that night, all I had to do was look around the ballpark.

Zach Greinke allowed a run in the first and was all but untouchable for the rest of the game. His complete game beat the Tigers (and their surprising ace, Edwin Jackson) easily, though he hasn't been nearly so untouchable since. He was 8-1 with a 0.84 ERA when that game ended, but he's gone just 3-6 with a 3.84 ERA in the mean time. And he still might be the best pitcher in baseball, overall.

As far as the ballpark, I can see why people would go. It was already a nice park, as I understand it, but it's truly an impressive sight now. The famous fountains in the outfield are now even broader and taller, and the already ridiculously large JumboTron in the outfield has been replaced with an even more ridiculously large High Definition version.

The advancement of technology is a wonderful thing, generally making life better for all who come in contact with it, with the noted exception of those on the receiving end of advances in military equipment.

Speaking of bombardment (see what I did there?) I think the scoreboard in center field is a bit too much.

For one thing, it's about the size of Pangea, but even worse than the size itself is that because the new high definition capabilities allow the team to put more information on the screen, the people who run things feel compelled to use every last pixel of it.

Don't misunderstand me. I'm an engineer. A numbers guy. A details guy. I'm all for giving fans more than the standard AVG/HR/RBI and a picture of the batter. And while I don't exactly see the point in those random statistics they put up there before each at-bat, presumably to encourage the batter*, who almost definitely does not take the time to read them, I don't really mind them either.

* I once attended an Interleague game in Philadelphia against the Yankees and I laughed when Rico Brogna came to the plate and his blurb said, "Rico is 5th in the National League with 223 at-bats." He was supposed to be their cleanup hitter, but entered the game with a .256/.314/.404 line that suggested he hadn't been cleaning up much of anything. I remarked how funny I thought it was when the best thing they could come up with to say about him amounted to, "Well, he sure goes up to the plate a lot!" and the snark had barely escaped my big mouth when Brogna uncorked on an Andy Pettitte pitch and hit a 2-run homer high off the right field foul pole.

Anyway, at Kansas City they put EVERYTHING on the board at once:
  • A picture of the batter, usually trying to look menacing.
  • Some silly stat (see above).
  • His AVG/HR/RBI numbers (of course)
  • Totals for at-bats and Hits (which are now redundant), doubles, triples and steals
  • His OBP, Slugging and OPS (yay!), which in subsequent at-bats are replaced by...
  • His career numbers for whatever particular situation he happens to find himself
  • His height, weight, and handedness both for hitting and throwing, even though these last two are obvious if you're actually watching the game
  • His birth date (OK...?)
  • His birthplace, apparently in case there are people who cheer more loudly for those born in Petosky, Michigan than say, Los Angeles or Puerto Rico. Later in the game, these last three get replaced by...
  • His record for each previous at-bat
  • The hitting team's lineup, including their batting averages, positions and uniform numbers
  • The name and number of the pitcher
  • The pitch speed
  • The defensive alignment
  • The three batters due up for the other team, with their AVG/HR/RBI numbers
  • The line score, including runners left on base
  • The last hitter's accomplishment(s)
  • The ball/strike/outs count
  • and last but not least, the official game time.

This is, obviously, fairly overwhelming. And in the case above, apparently the sixty-nine (I counted) different numbers and stats they already had on the board were not sufficiently overwhelming for the Royals' tastes. In an effort to either impress the masses or perhaps to confuse and scare the opposition, they for some reason decided that Jose Guillen needed MORE numbers on the screen with him, so they stuck a "6540132" in the graphic behind him.

Does anybody have any idea what this is? Is it Guillen's phone number? If, so what's the area code? Should we use his OBP for that? What if he goes into a slump? Wait, never mind. Technically that's impossible for Guillen.

Maybe that's how much they still owed him from his 2009 salary? His height in millimeters? his weight in dynes? Maybe it's supposed to look like a prison number, and they're trying to scare the Tigers' pitchers into letting him hit, lest they should get shivved by inmate #6540132. If so, it worked, as Guillen went 2-for-4 with a homer.

Anyway, other than the inmate numbers, many of these things also appear somewhere in most ballparks, but almost nobody else has a scoreboard big enough to handle all of it at the same time. The one in the New Yankee Stadium might do it, but I haven't been there yet, so I can't attest to how well they use theirs. But subtle is not the Yankees' style, so I'm guessing that theirs is even worse.

Regardless, the profusion of information on the socreboard in KC is clearly too much. For one thing, you can't possibly take in all of that before each at-bat, and you shouldn't want to. Going to a baseball game is supposed to be about watching the athletic competition and smelling the grass and the dirt and the hot dogs and peanuts and cheering on your team, not constantly having your eyes drawn back to the scoreboard, even if you don't care what Jose Guillen's career numbers are against right-handed pitchers on Tuesday nights with runners on 2nd and 3rd.

Another problem with it is that if there's some kind of technical glitch, all you get is a huge, blue Royals logo. And that bright blue light coming off the enormous screen casts a pallor over everyone and everything in the park, so that the fans in the seats all look like they're extras in a Tim Burton movie.

A screen like this would be great if it were just used for some of those things. Some of the relevant numbers, a picture, the score...that's all fine. You could show replays of significant events of the game, and perhaps even replays of controversial ones. Major League Baseball specifically does not do this last thing because it would inevitably lead to rampant umpire lynchings.

But still, it would be nice to see, on a 200-foot HD screen, no less, exactly where that last pitch crossed the plate (if at all), or whether that ball was fair or foul, or if the runner was really tagged out. In theory, doing this should save umpires about as much grief as it would cause, but in reality it's more likely that umpires would just end up calling every close play for the home team to avoid the aformentioned lynchings. Hard to blame them.

So that's not going to happen any time soon. But whatever they do, they've got to find a way to make the screen a little less scary.

On the other hand, as bad as the Royals have been - they're 25-57 since their high-water mark of 18-11 on May 7th - maybe the fans need to be distracted from what's happening on the field as much as possible.

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07 August 2009

Chad Gaudin? Seriously?

Golly, why didn't I think of that?

The Yankees have struggled to find an effective 5th starter all year. The top four pitchers in the rotation have all been reasonably healthy and effective, compiling a solid 38-20 record and a 3.99 ERA. CC, A.J., Pettitte and Joba have done their jobs. None of them is perfect, but they all do a solid job of giving the Yankees a chance to win, most of the time.

But the 5th spot in the rotation has been a disaster. Those pitchers have combined for a 5-8 record and an 8.20 ERA. They've averaged just 79 pitches and just over four innings per start, with only two Quality Starts in 21 outings.

Chien-Ming Wang should have filled that role. Lots of teams would love to have a #5 starter who twice won 19 games in a season, and not a decade ago, but just two seasons ago. But he was hurt and then lousy and then hurt again and then not quite as lousy but then even more hurt and eventually lost for the season.

Phil Hughes was attempted as an interim, and he had his struggles, but also had flashes of brilliance, including six- and an eight-shutout inning outings in April and May. And of course Hughes is supposed to become a starter over the long term, but he made the mistake of becoming a very good relief pitcher. Now Joe Girardi either lacks the creativity or the guts to risk making him a starter and presumably weaken the team at two positions.

On the other hand, how you could do worse than a starting "pitcher" with an 8.20 ERA is beyond me.

Oh, wait. Never mind.

In a pinch they tried Alfredo Aceves, but only for one start. He wasn't very good, and they didn't do that agian. Instead they gave the ball to Sergio Mitre, a one-time starter for the Cubs and Marlins who had not pitched in the majors since 2007, but who was mowing them down in the International League.

He was not very good either, but he wasn't completely awful, and they won the game, so they gave him another start. This time he was worse. Fewer innings, more earned runs, but again the Yankees won. His third start, against the White Sox, was a 3-inning, 5-run affair that the Yankees lost, but this did not get him sent back to Scranton either. They gave him another start, and, true to form, he sucked, but the Yankees won anyway.

To date, Mitre has pitched more than five innings just once, has allowed 38 base runners and 15 earned runs in 18 innings, and by all rights should have used up whatever slack he had in his leash. But the obvious answer, or so I thought, Phil Hughes, has not been groomed to replace him. Hughes hasn't thrown more than 40 pitches in any of his relief outings, and he usually doesn't throw more than 30, so Girardi is clearly still not intending to use Hughes as a starter.

It turns out that the obvious answer, according to the Yankee Brass, was Chad Gaudin.

I can't believe I didn't think of it before. I mean, here I was, thinking that maybe the answer was the 23-year old hotshot with the 95 mph fastball, knee-buckling curve and perfect mechanics. Or that maybe the answer was the AAA pitcher on our own who's being paid millions of dollars to make fools out of International league batters. But never in a million years would I have guessed that the answer was a journeyman pitcher who can't keep his ERA under 5.00 despite pitching in the worst hitter's park in the majors.

Gaudin has been with the Padres this season, and the Yankees will make his sixth different organization in his seven-year major league career. Joel Sherman thinks he'll either replace Mitre in the rotation (yes, please!) or help to limit Joba Chamberlain's innings down the stretch (BOO!). In either case, even if he posts an ERA of 6.27 (as baseball-reference.com's league and park adjustments suggest) he'll be better than the guys they've been throwing out there, if only nominally better.

I'm looking at Gaudin's record and I'm trying to find something good to say about him. The best I've come up with so far is, "He doesn't have that ridiculous goatee anymore," which is admittedly pretty pathetic.

Nothing in his numbers is even remotely as interesting as his facial hair used to be, and nothing is very encouraging either. He's your standard 3-pitch guy - fastball, slider, change - none of which is very remarkable. His fastball averages about 90 mph, his chamge up 85, his slider 80, according to Fangraphs.com.

He's managed to strike out a batter per inning this season, but that's a rate well above his career mark and unlikely to continue, especially since he moving to the much tougher AL East. He's walked nearly five batters per nine innings this year, a little more than his usual rate, but has only allowed seven homers in 105 innings. Petco Park surely has helped with that, as only two of those seven were surrendered at home.

Other than the lack of homers, though, he's been horribly unlucky pitching in San Diego, allowing a .441 BABIP in 40 innings there, so perhaps that bad luck will even out in new York. Even if it does, he's more likely to give up home runs in the New Yankee Stadium, so he's not likely to be much better than anyone else we've seen in that role this year, but perhaps he won't be any worse.

With that said, it may not matter much. If the Yankees use their off days wisely - and they have plenty of them over the last two months of the season - they'll only have seven more starts to give to Mitre/Gaudin/Whatever.

The difference between the kinds of performances they've gotten in this rotation spot and a replacement level starter is probably about negative one win over those remaining seven games. Slotting in Phil Hughes as the #5 starter is probably worth one or two wins above replacement level, so that's a +3 difference, though a little of that may be lost in the bullpen.

This assumes that they use the off days to skip the 5th starter in the rotation, which is what you should do, instead of giving everybody an extra day off, which is what managers actually do most of the time.

The Yankees have enough offense to win some of those games anyway, and with the expanded rosters in September, will have some extra pitching, too, but they don't have a lot of room for error. The Red Sox are 3.5 games back, but that's hardly an insurmountable lead, especially in early August. And two games behind them are the defending AL champion Tampa Bay Rays, who are far from dead.

Furthermore, the Red Sox will not continue to make the mistake of running John Smoltz out there every five days. He's made eight outings in a month and a half and, despite his two wins, has yet to pitch a Quality Start in any of them. He had a couple of short outings in which he somehow allowed only one run, but usually it was something like five innings and fove or six runs, and this despite having been given relatively easy assignments.

Before facing the Yankees last night, Smoltz had faced only one decent offensive team, the Texas Rangers, and had given up six runs in 5.2 innings against them. His other six starts had come against the Orioles (3), A's and Royal, who are 11th, 12th and 14th in the AL in runs per game, and the Washington National, who are a decent hitting team by NL standards, but would be ranked 4th from the bottom in the AL.

The best thing you could say about his 37 innings of work before last night's game against New York was that he had only walked five batters. This is like saying that one nice thing about the Ford Pinto is that even though they sold two million of them, they only killed 27 people. Of course, Smoltz walked four batters in 3.1 innings last night, so there goes that.

Anyway, the Red Sox are bound to send Smoltz to the bullpen. He's held opponents to a .228 batting average in the first two innings, but they've hit .397(!) after that. Clearly, he can still pitch, just not more than two innings at a time. The Red Sox are too smart not to realize this.

And when they do, and they give his starts to Michael Bowden or Junichi Tazawa or Tim Wakefield (when he comes off the DL), the Red Sox will be a better team. Not a lot better, but better. Smoltz has been worth about a win below replacement in his eight starts, so assuming that he doesn't get any better for his last seven or eight starts, the difference between him and some replacement-level schmo is about one win.

But if the Red Sox make a move and the Yankees don't, or if the Yankees's move (Gaudin) doesn't work out and the Red Sox move does, then one win might be all it will take to wrest the division from the hands of the Evil Empire.

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03 August 2009

Ichiro's Cooperstown Chances Still Unclear

Sean Smith at the Hardball Times has a lengthy article about Ichiro Suzuki's chances of being voted into Cooperstown and/or the Japanese baseball hall of fame and he does some interesting analysis and makes a few interesting points, though I have a few problems with his conclusions and his paths to them.

He looks at Ichiro's value overall, not just his hitting stats, and compares his Wins Above Replacement (WAR) to those of other mid-range current and probable future Hall of Famers as well as (for reasons he does not explain) to Tony Oliva. He finds that for the eight full seasons that Ichiro has played stateside, his WAR value is comparable to (among others) the likes of Duke Snider, Richie Ashburn, Sosa, Reggie, Vlad, Manny Ramirez, and Clemente, who are all between 40 and 55 WAR. Ichiro has about 45.

That's fine, and instructive even, as it suggests to us that Ichiro's skills as a baserunner and defender help to offset his almost complete lack of power. Smith admits that defense and baserunning are difficult to measure and acknowledges that there is some disagreement in the field about just how good Ichiro is in these areas (especially defense) but concludes aftr a brief survey that he's probably pretty darn good, and I generally concur.

The problems with this are twofold:

The first issue is that the baseball writers who get to vote for Hall of Famers wouldn't know a WAR if is walked right up to them on the street and sang Low Rider. In any given year, Ichiro may have been just as good as any number of Hall of Famers, but the writers don't know that, and most of them aren't going to bother to find out.

They look at batting average and hit totals and awards and what they remember from highlight reels and then they vote based on whatever their gut says they should vote. Here's hoping none of the writers eats some bad sushi the night he decides to fill out his ballot.

Of course this may be more of a help to Ichiro than a detriment. The BBWAA's affinity for shiny objects plays right into Ichiro's hands:

  • He has a gaudy .333 career batting average, which trails only Ted Williams, Tony Gwynn and Albert Pujols for players since World War II.
  • He's been an All-Star and won a Gold Glove every season he's been in the league.
  • He's never hit below .300, had fewer than 200 hits, 100 runs, or 30 steals in a season.
  • He's never missed more than five games in a season, and usually doesn't miss more than one or two.
  • He's led the American League in intentional walks three times, which is ironic when you consider that when he does get a hit, over 80% of the time, it's just a single anyway.
  • He's won two batting titles and may very well take home a third this year.
  • He has led the league in hits six times (including this year) and holds the all-time MLB record for hits in a season.
  • He's one of only two players in history to win the MVP and the Rookie of the Year awards in the same season.
These are all big plusses in the eyes of the voters, most of whom also voted for those awards, or who pay little attention to anything beyond the raw numbers.

The other, and more significant problem for Ichiro is that unlike Manny Ramirez and Dave Winfield and Duke and Ashburn and Reggie, those eight years constitute the whole of his major league career. Ichiro may have been just about as valuable from 2001-08 as Tony Gwynn was from 1984-91, but Gwynn had another 12 years in the majors and another 1,591 hits on top of what he did in those eight seasons, whereas Ichiro has only his charming smile.

So career longevity is a problem. Smith rightly mentions that Ichiro is still playing and showing little sign of slowing down, though that's always true right up until it's not. We we can easily see him playing five more years and collecting another 1,000 hits which would make him a shoe-in for Cooperstown, but everyone thought Dwight Gooden and Don Mattingly and Dale Murphy were sure-fire hall of famers when they were in their prime, too, and they never got there for one reason or another.

If Ichiro doesn't manage to keep playing, if he gets hurt in a year or two and finishes with something like 2,100 career hits and hardly any homers, suddenly he's a much less compelling Cooperstown candidate. And if he loses some of his speed as he ages and plays three or four more years as a .285 hitter with no power who gets caught stealing too often and can't run anything down in the outfield, well, then we've got a problem.

But Smith avoids that line of thinking almost entirely, and instead goes backwards, not forward, looking at Ichiro's career in Japan and trying to translate it to the U.S. major leagues. He figures that the baseball writers won't "punish" Ichiro for the fact that he was born in Japan, and plays the woulda-coulda-shoulda game to demonstrate that Ichiro would already be a first ballot hall of famer if he'd been born in Florida.

He concludes that Ichiro would have hit .338 over the course of seven seasons here, with similar power (or lack thereof) to what he has shown. This would add another 1,200+ hits to his total, bringing it up to almost 3,200 (and counting!), and all but end the debate about his merits as a hall of famer.

Smith's done the analysis looking at players moving each direction across the Pacific Ocean and presumably has very good reasons for using the numbers he does for those translations, but I think that simply cramming the numbers through a translation algorithm misses something of the human and historical element, and I'll explain why.

In 1994, Ichiro hit .385 for the Orix Blue Wave, with 41 doubles, 13 homers, 29 steals, and nearly as many walks as strikeouts. This, all at the age of 20. Smith has Ichiro hitting .363 for the Seattle mariners with six homers, using his standard translations. He even consoles us that we should not worry about him being so young, as the Mariners had given an everyday job as an outfielder to Ken Griffey Jr. when he was just 19, and to A-Rod a few years later when he was 20. Of course, he ignores the fact that the Mariners jerked Edgar Martinez around until he was 27, but we'll let that go.

Instead, we'll look at the rarity of the suggested accomplishment in itself. Anybody have any idea how rare it is for a 20-year old to hit .360 in the major leagues? Right. it's never happened. In fact, only two players in history age 20 or younger have even hit as much as .330 in a qualified major league season. Those are two very special cases, and neither was officially a rookie, as Ichiro would have been.

Ty Cobb hit .350 in 1907, but he already had a full season's worth of at-bats (over parts of two years) under his belt before that season started. Cobb was maybe the best hitter who ever lived, and the talent level he faced was not what it is now. The other was Alex Rodriguez in 1996, who had 65 games of major league experience before that campaign, also spanning parts of two seasons, and may have had some artificial help, like many in the major leagues did at the time. Anybody else who's come close to a batting average like that had a lot more seasoning in the majors than Ichiro would have in 1994, just two years after graduating high school.

The danger here is assuming that since the Japanese think of their leagues as "major" they must be, and that is clearly not the case. Players who are marginal or worse in the U.S. go to Japan and thrive. Alex Cora, Tuffy Rhodes, Greg Wells, Charlie Manuel - all bench players in the American major leagues who became stars in Japan.

Players who are superstars there, like Hideki Matsui, Kazuo Matsui, and Hideki Irabu, come here and find that they are merely good, if that. Some succeed for a while, though never as much as they did in Japan, and then flame out (like Hideo Nomo), or never really find a way to make it work here at all (like Kei Igawa). If Igawa is any kind of example, the Japanese majors must be somewhere around the level of AAA or maybe a bit lower. I'm not saying that Ichiro could not have done well in the US in his early 20's, I'm just saying that he would not have hit .363.

With that said, it's worth noting that the baseball writers have made exceptions in the past for players who, for reasons beyond their control, did not debut in the major leagues until later in life. The most obvious example lies in the Negro Leagues, in which black stars played until the late 1940's. Those players who got a shot at the majors late in life, even if they had only half a career or less at the major league level, were still taken seriously and given some credit for what they did do, and presumably, what they could have done, if given a chance.

Jackie Robinson, for example, did not debut in the majors until he was 27, and played only 10 seasons. He was elected anyway, based on a combination of his major league accomplishments and his Negro League experience, though the records on those are sketchy at best. Satchel Paige was elected almost entirely on his reputation in the Negro League, as were several others.

This example isn't wholly useful, however, because the Negro Leagues (for the most part) also took place in the United States, and so the voters could legitimately include the accomplishments of Robinson and Paige and Monte Irvin in the Negro Leagues as they evaluated the players' records for the National baseball Hall of Fame, per the voting rules.

Ichiro's previous accomplishments took place not just in a different league, but in a different nation, and therefore should not be considered when evaluating the player's merits for the National baseball Hall of Fame.

Sean Smith's article then goes on to address what the Japanese voters might do for their own hall of fame, and concludes that Ichiro has a pretty good shot there, too. I won't get into that because frankly, I don't much care. It's their hall of fame, they can do what they want with it.

You see, it is, in fact the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, as in this nation, the United States, not Japan or the world, but the U.S. That's why Sadaharu Oh is not already in the Hall, and that's why the baseball writers will not (and technically cannot) give extra credit for Ichiro's exploits overseas.

But as I mentioned, they may nod need to do that anyway. If he keeps going at anything close to his current pace, he'll collect 3,000 hits sometime in his early 40's and nobody will have to wonder if the BBWAA will ever elect him. The only thing we'll have to wonder about then is whether he might have passed 4,256 if he'd been born here, and of course we'll never know that either.

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28 July 2009

Giants Trade for Ryan Garko

Well, you can't say the Giants aren't trying.

Yesterday, as reigning Cy Young Award winner Tim Lincecum made perhaps the best start of his young career, the Giants front office was completing a trade for the Cleveland Indians' Ryan Garko, a 28-year old firstbaseman who bats right handed and has a 906 career OPS against left handed pitching (960 this year). The trade allows the Tribe to give rejuvenated prospect Andy Marte a long look at first base for the rest of the year.

The Indians get 21-year old LHP Scott Barnes, who was ranked by Baseball America as the Giants' 9th best prospect this year. Nothing he's done since then has tarnished that reputation, as he's fanned 99 batters in 98 innings in High A ball this season, going 12-3 with a 2.85 ERA for San Jose.

Garko's eligible for arbitration after this year and is expected to be a part of the team in 2010, but then as Rob Neyer points out, so was A.J. Pierzynski. In talking up the trade, Giants GM Brian Sabean had this to say about Garko:

"Professional hitter, really punishes left-handed pitching. [The trade] complements what we're trying to do to develop Ishikawa. The timing was right. He can drive in a run. He can hit a three-run homer."
I know what Sabean's trying to say here, and though it's hitting below the belt a bit, I would just like to point out the following: Ryan Garko has hit a three run homer twice already this year. Travis Ishikawa has done it three times. So there.

"Professional Hitter" usually means "a firstbaseman who hits like a shortstop" (CF: Greg Colbrunn) but Garko's better than that. Baseball Reference says that the 750 OPS he posted in Cleveland last year (his worst in the majors) would have been more like 771 playing in San Francisco, and that's just a park factor and league run scoring adjustment, not a league quality adjustment.

If there were a way to factor that in, Garko might have posted something like an 800 ops, which isn't very good for a first baseman, but it's better than most of the "hitters" on the Giants' current roster. His current line of .285/.362/.464 would be more like .296/.373/.473 in SF, according to baseball reference's adjustments. Since the Giants have 4th worst OPS in the majors against LHP, I can see where they feel like Garko can help. Unfortunately, they also have the 2nd worst OPS in the majors against right handed pitching, of which there is a great deal more, and Garko doesn't do much for them there.

Garko is a somewhat better hitter than Ishikawa, it seems, if only because he has more experience in the majors. But Ishikawa debuted in the majors two years before Garko did, landed a starting job two years before Garko did, and his season at AAA blows Garko's best out of the water. Garko posted an 882 OPS in Buffalo in 2005, compared to Ishikawa's 1107 OPS in Fresno last year. Both players were 24 years old in those years, though it's worth noting that garko regressed the next year in AAA while Ishikawa is holding his own in the majors this year.

So over the long haul, Ishikawa is probably going to be the better player and the better value, as he's almost three years younger, apparently more talented, and significantly less expensive than Garko. But for now, the Giants get a platoon partner who can mash lefties and doesn't embarass himself against righties, while Ishikawa...well...he gets the shaft. For now.

Regarding the pitching prospect the Giants sent to Cleveland, Sabean said,

"The pitcher we gave up is probably going to pitch in the big leagues. I think it was good for both clubs."
Again, not to pick nits, but lots of guys have "pitched in the big leagues". He means that they expect Barnes to have some success in the majors, but of course his sentence would still be true if they thought it would take ten years for Barnes to make it to the Show and that he would immediately wash out.

Barnes was picked in the 8th round of last year's amatuer draft after spending three years pitching for St. Johns in New York. Against the Big East competition, he went a combined 17-7 with a 3.39 ERA and 263 strikeouts in 250 innings. He also walked quite a few batters, 114 of them, but almost never allowed a homer -only about one every 25 innings - no small feat in a league with aluminum bats, which kept his ERA down.

The Giants took it easy with him, giving him a couple of relief outings in Rookie ball Class A Short Season before sending him to the Sally League (single A) for the rest of the year. He compiled a 2.06 ERA and 63 strikeouts in 44 innings of work at the three levels. This year he's been nearly as good at High-A San Jose, and even more encouraging is the fact that he's cut his walk rate down from over 4/9IP in college to just a shade under 2.5/9IP in High A.

Sounds like a pretty good prospect, right? I couldn't figure why the Giants would give up a prospect as good as Barnes for Ryan Garko. But then a scouting report I read said that he only throws in the high 80's, and guys like that, even lefties, take a long time to learn to pitch in the majors, if they ever do at all, so that kind of explains it. Right?

Wrong. Two other scouting reports suggest that he throws consistently in the low 90's, with improved mechanics, that he's developing his curve and has a change up that's already near MLB quality. So what gives?

I don't know. I'd like to look at the fact that Sabean once traded next to nothing for the likes of Ellis Burks, Robb Nen, Jeff Kent, Jason Schmidt and Livan Hernandez (when they were good) and think that he knows what he's doing, but I have my doubts.

Sabean was also on the losing end of the White Flag Trade in 1997, gave up Joe Nathan, Francisco Liriano and a #1 draft pick for one year of A.J. Pierzynski, spent big money on Barry Zito, and seemingly has a soft spot for aging veteran free agents. Some of those work out (Moises Alou) but most do not (Edgar Renteria, Dustin Hermanson, Brett Tomko).

Sabean finally seemed to have figured that out and started developing his own players in the last few years, but then he goes and does something like this, and it makes me wonder. If Garko hits well and the Giants get into the playoffs, nobody will mind if Scott Barnes turns out to be a pretty good major league pitcher a couple of years from now.

The Giants are one game behind the Rockies in the NL Wild Card race, and almost half (26 of 63) of their remaining games will be against Colorado, Los Angeles, Philadelphia or Chicago, the best teams in the Senior Circuit, so they've got their work cut out for them. Garko might only be worth one or two wins more than Ishikawa over the rest of the season, but that just might make a difference in a race this close.

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23 July 2009

Free Phil Hughes!

I detailed a few weeks ago, when Chien Ming Wang went back on the DL, how I thought that Joe Girardi had dropped the ball with regard to managing his bullpen. I explained how I thought Girardi could have used Phil Hughes more liberally, for longer outings, to keep him closer to being ready for a job as a starting pitcher, should the need arise.

At the time, Alfredo Aceves was being called upon as a spot starter, though without any intention of him being the long-term solution. Aceves gave up four runs (three earned) in 3.1 innings and promptly returned to the bullpen. The Yankees won that game, as they seemingly always do against Minnesota, so nobody got too bent out of shape about the poor start.

The next time the Yankees needed a #5 starter, they called upon AAA re-tread Sergio Mitre, who's 28 years old and whose last good season was, well, never. He spent four years bouncing up and down from AAA to the majors with the Cubs and later the Marlins from 2003-2006, never pitching more than 60 innings and never posting an ERA below 5.37. His best year came in 2007 when he pitched 149 innings with a 4.65 ERA and went 5-8.

Hardly awe inspiring. He then missed all of 2008 following Tommy John surgery and has pitched well in the minors this year, but is nobody's idea of a long-term rotation solution for a team trying to win a World Series. Well, maybe his own, but nobody else's.

True to form, Mitre pitched 5.2 innings and gave up four runs (three earned), but he got the win, which of course is the point. It's possible that he's going to improve as he gets more experience, that he might even be a better pitcher than he was before the surgery, not that this is saying much, but of course it's more likely that he'll continue to pitch 5 innings and give up four runs more often than not, which is not acceptable.

In the meantime, Girardi still hasn't figured out that the solution to his problem is right there, under his nose, in the Yankee bullpen: Phil Hughes.

Following Wang's return to the DL on July 6th, Hughes was used for just 12 pitches on the 8th, 19 pitches on the 9th, and then 26 pitches on the 12th, just before the All-Star break. After the break, Hughes pitched two innings on July 17th, throwing 40 pitches in relief of A.J. Burnett against the Tigers, and got the Win.

At this point Hughes seemed to be on track to become a starter again. He had increased his pitch count in each of his last four outings, and was now up to a little less than half of what would be expected of him as a starter. But then Girardi inexplicably pulled back the reins.

Two days later, he brought Hughes into the 8th inning of a 2-1 game against Detroit and allowed him to retire the side before bringing in Mariano Rivera for the Save, even though Mo had pitched two days in a row already. That's OK for Rivera, who's certainly capable of that, but there's no reason that Mo has to get the Save, is there? Other than tradition?

Hughes has been as good as Mariano Rivera or any other reliever in baseball for the past two months, having allowed only two runs in 22 innings of work, including 28 strikeouts and five walks. He was perfectly capable of Saving that game for Joba Chamberlain. Still, I can understand Girardi's thought process here a little, as Joba has only one Win at home this year, and he wanted to make sure he did everything by the book, lest the lead be blown and Joba take yet another hit in the press (and another shot to his ego) for not getting the job done at New Yankee Stadium.

On the 21st, when Mitre started and went less than 6 innings, Hughes would have been the logical choice to relieve, had he not just pitched an inning two days earlier. With three days' rest in between his 40-pitch outing and this one, he might have been able to throw the last three innings and work his pitch count up to 50 or 60. Instead, since Hughes had tossed an inning on the 19th, Girardi brought in Aceves, Coke and Mariano Rivera, who did their jobs admirably, I must admit.

But the usage of Hughes last night was truly inexplicable and inexcusable.

With the Yankees riding a five-game winning streak and staked to a four-run lead against the lowly Baltimore Orioles, Hughes came in to relieve Burnett yet again. A.J. had allowed only two runs in seven innings, but was over the 100-pitch mark and not likely to finish the game, so Hughes was the logical choice.

He made quick work of the Birds in the 8th, allowing only a single to Gregg Zaun (whose homepage is incongruously awesome, by the way) but promptly erasing said awesome backup catcher on a double play. Nifty work - 16 pitches - piece of cake, right? Four run lead, non-Save situation, so you leave him in, right?

Wrong. Apparently, if you're Joe Girardi, you send Hughes to the showers and you bring in Brian "Feast or Famine" Bruney, who entered the game with a 4.86 ERA for the season and who had allowed six earned runs in his last seven outings. Bruney struck out the first two batters he faced, then allowed homers to the next two, suddenly making the four-run lead a two run lead, and making the game a Save situation, which necessitated bringing in Mariano Rivera to get the final out, which he did.

This, it seemed to me, was an obvious chance to continue grooming Hughes for a life as a starter. he could have pitched an extra inning, and even if he got into a little trouble, there was some wiggle room with a four run lead and the best closer on the planet in the bullpen.

With the Yankees currently sitting in first place, there's no question that Girardi has a good team, probably good enough to make the postseason as they are. There's little question that he knows how to do in-game strategy. Heck, it isn't rocket science:

1) Use expensive and talented hitters to get a lead
2) Use inexpensive but talented relievers to protect lead
3) Use expensive and talented closer to finish game.

The trouble of course comes not with the in-game issues, as any eight year old could follow the above instructions to manage this team. the problem is that part of a manager's job is to keep winning all season, to keep his players playing well, and to manage their strengths and weaknesses. Keeping Phil Hughes locked up in the Yankee bullpen, using him only for an inning at a time when he so clearly is capable of much more than that, suggests that Girardi can't do that second thing, and it will cost the Yankees in the long run.

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