14 May 2010

Texas Rangers Showing Promise against the Oakland A's

I had the distinct privilege to see a Texas Rangers' game in person Wednesday night.

The AmeriQuest Rangers Field BallPark at Arlington, or whatever it's called these days, is really a heckuva nice place to watch a game. It opened in 1994, which means that this is its 17th year, and frankly, it still looks brand-spanking new. The Rangers and their fans have done a great job of keeping the place in pristine shape, and there's no reason to think that this Texas baseball cathedral should ever be as decrepit ans outdated as, say, Yankee Stadium used to be. On the other hand, I'd be willing to wager a BetUS bonus code that another 60 years might put a few cracks in the facade, both literally and figuratively.

I understand that there are all sorts of cool things to do in the ballpark, such as a huge baseball museum, a walk of fame, a picnic area and other stuff, but I missed all of that, since I got there right as the game was starting. I sat in the box seats between first base and the right field foul pole, and found that I had a pretty good view of just about everything, a comfortable seat, and a cool breeze for most of the game.

In the last three innings or so, the cool breeze gave way to some fairly impressive swirling winds, presumably caused in some part by the steady, straight winds coming directly into the ballpark from the outfield, keeping the pennants as straight and stiff as writing tablets for a solid hour. How tiny little Eric Patterson managed to hot a home run into that is beyond my understanding of the laws of physics.

Unfortunately for the Oaklands, that was their only run. The Rangers, though they took a few innings to find their stroke, managed 10 of them, including five homers of their own, mostly before the winds started. Josh Hamilton and Vlad Guerrero hit back to back homers off starting pitcher Gio Gonzales and (not much) relief pitcher Chad Gaudin.

Yes, that Chad Gaudin. Fortunately for Yankee fans, the Yankee brass were not fooled by Gaudin's two months of smoke-and-mirrors pitching in Pinstripes toward the end of last season, perhaps thanks to the info they found at Pinnacle Sportsbook Review, and they let him go as a free agent. For his part, though he had not been good this year, Gaudin was at least striking out about a batter per inning in 2010.

Entering a game with an ERA of 6.23 and making it worse is no easy feat, but don’t tell Chad that. No siree. After giving up that homer to Vlad, Gaudin allowed two more homers, also back to back, in the next inning, making this the first time in his major league career he’d ever surrendered three homers in a so-called “relief” appearance. One of those was to catcher Max Ramirez, only the second of his brief major league career, and the other was to Michael Young. No, the Yankees don’t miss this guy.

The Rangers, cheered on by 26,682 of their fans, managed to take over first place in their division by a game, this after a tough, extra-innings loss to the Oaklands the night before. The loudest and most obnoxious of these fans happened to be sitting about 15 feet in front of me, the realization of which initially annoyed me – how do I always manage to find these people? – but later gave me an appreciation for the fact that baseball games are meant to be enjoyed, and that this man was doing little more than enjoying himself. A lot.

Having seen more games in New York and Philadelphia than anywhere else, I’m no stranger to obnoxious fans. But this guy was not like those. Primarily, he was sober. He may have had a beer or two, but clearly was not drunk, as evidenced by the fact that every time, and seriously, I mean EVERY time the organist played something on the loudspeaker, this guy got up and danced to it, or ran in place, or mimicked playing the organ himself, or whatever.

I briefly even considered sitting next to him myself, if only to save me from the dead-fish middle aged woman on my right and the two hipsters on my left who were too cool or jaded or apathetic to bother talking to me.

After the third inning I went to get something to eat and decided to take full advantage of Wednesday Dollar Dog Night, buying three of the generic pink tubes of nondescript ground up what-not. And a beer. Some dark, local brew that was pretty solid.

The dogs, I’m convinced, must be brought in especially for dollar dog night, as I can’t imagine that a major league baseball team that once spent $55 million on Chan Ho Park would be able to sleep at night charging $3.50 for hot dogs that clearly where not worth the effort to remove small pieces of bone, or gristle, or, for all I know, polycarbonate from them before turning them into franks. Seriously, all three of them had something in them that I was forced to remove from my teeth and examine further, a texture consummate not with food but with perhaps sand or a rough polishing compound.

Upon my return I took a different seat and ended up near some friendlier fans, and closer to the loud one, who by then had recruited at least two other young men and a boy of about eight to remove their shirts and sing and chant and dance around the aisles with him. At least until the Fun Police showed up in the form of a Rangers security guard. At one point, during the 7th inning stretch, as two of them were square dancing in the aisle, he ordered them back to their seats, which was lamentably understandable, as concrete stairs are not exactly the safest environment to go running around in circles.

But later, when they were doing nothing more than cheering and chanting and yelling and pumping their fists, the same curmudgeonly member of the F.P. came back and ordered them to sit down and (I assume) stop having so much fun. This is a baseball game, dammit, not an Irish wake. Now sit down and think about what you’ve done, mister.

And then, to make sure they complied with the official F.P. Decree Against Having Fun at Baseball Games, he sat down right behind them. This was possible because, of course, there was nobody behind them. For, like, five or six rows. Which means that they were blocking the view of exactly nobody, were not drunk, were not throwing anything or hitting anybody or picking fights. At worst, they could be accused of yelling too loud. At a ballgame. Fanatics, indeed.

They did, at one point, encourage the crowd to boo a fan wearing an Oakland jersey, which isn't unusual. What was unusual was that the guy wore a garish yellow replica jersey that said "RUDI 26" on the back, which means that this particular fan was old-school and knew his stuff, and didn't particularly care that few people would remember or appreciate his favorite player. I imagine that someone showing up where the Red Sox are the visiting wearing a George Scott jersey might be similarly regarded, and similarly underappreciated.

But besides the cheap-ass hot dogs – which I can hardly complain about because, as everyone knows, you get what you pay for – and the F.P., there wasn’t much wrong with the Rangers or their ballpark on this night. Well, they for some reason forgot to set off the fireworks when Ramirez hit his homer, even though they did so for all of the other Rangers’ bombs, the fifth and last of which came smoking off the bat of rookie firstbaseman Justin Smoak.

A Wave got started late in the blowout game, and though I’ve been at dozens of games where this was attempted with some success, none of which ever made it around the ballpark more than three times, the origins of the movement had never previously occurred to me. There’s probably some Official Story as to when and where the Wave first started, and who thought of it, but whomever is responsible could thank one and one thing only: boredom.

There are few things less exciting than a game that’s way out of reach, even if yours is the team that’s winning. And of course there’s little to do, if you don’t want to leave early, other than start some kind of chant, except that only maybe a hundred people can hear even the loudest voice in the midst of a large ballpark, even a relatively quiet one. Even if you got a chant started, who would know? And how long would it last? Only til the next batter struck out or got on base or whatever. But the Wave? Sheer, simple genius.

All it takes is standing up and sitting down, throwing your arms up in the air in sequence with 27,000 others, and maybe a loud “Oh!” or “Hey!” when you do so. It could go on like that for an entire inning or more. And everybody can do it. Everybody knows exactly what to do and when, and there’s no worry that your initial chant of “Julio Borbon, Julio! [clap, clap-clap] will sound on TV like “Here we go, Morons, here we go!” [clap, clap-clap]. Or vice-versa.

Anyway, the Rangers.

Additionally, they managed to get prized pitching prospect Derek Holland a Win in his first major league appearance of his sophomore season. Holland had been pretty terrible in his rookie year, amassing an 8-13 record and a Gaudin-esque ERA of 6.12. But on this night, after having torn up the PCL for a month, Holland was very good, striking out seven and walking only one in six scoreless innings.

He was followed up by Darren O’Day, for whom both the obnoxious fans and, when he got out of the inning, the public address system, sang a chant of “O-DAY o-dayo-dayo-DAY, o-DAY, OH-oh DAY!!!” Doug Mathis pitched the last two innings for Texas, allowing the homer by Patterson, but little else, despite the fact that he only threw strikes about half the time.

Not that it should be so difficult to dominate a team like the Oakland A’s. Their cleanup hitter had a slugging percentage of about .350 coming into the game, and two thirds of the lineup was hitting about .250 or worse, generally without any power either. Heck, even their designated “hitter”, Josh Donaldson, was hitting .071 coming into the game, and his 0-for-4 dropped him down even further into the abyss.

I saw Donaldson a few years ago, when he was a hot hitting catching prospect in the Cubs' class A short season team in Boise. He was sent to the A's in the Rich Harden trade almost exactly a year after I saw him play. Back then I'd have put a few bucks down on him to pan out as a solid major leaguer, especially if I had a bookmaker bonus code. He's cooled down quite a bit since that hot season in the high Idaho desert, but still shows glimpses of the keen batting eye and doubles power he displayed last season in AA, such as last night, when he singled in the tying run in the 4th inning. Maybe he's better when he catches.

Catcher Landon Powell looked promising as he laced a ball into the left-centerfield gap and then dragged his lumbering, 6’1”, 260 lb frame around the infield, stretching a double into a double, as they say. He singled again later, less dramatically, but other than he and Daric Barton, nobody else on the team got on base more than once.

I expect the A's to more or less disappear from contention as the year wears on, that's my second half betting advice. Unless something truly special happens, like the King of Bradenia hurling another dozen or so perfectos, they just don’t have the bats to keep in the race. The Rangers may have both the bats and the pitching, if Holland is the real thing. But the Texas heat has caused many a Rangers team to fade over the course of the year, and this one is not above that fate.

At least the ballpark is still nice.

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27 April 2010

What's Wrong With Javy Vazquez?

There are probably fewer things more frustrating to a sports fan than watching an expensive, recently imported veteran player repeatedly fail in his efforts to help the team. The more prior success he's had, the more money he's making, the more you had to give up to get him...well, that all just makes it worse.

And then there's Javy Vazquez.

Vazquez had all of those things against him:

  • He was probably one of the five best pitchers in the Senior Circuit last year,
  • He's guaranteed $23 million combined this year and next, and
  • The Yankees traded their young centerfielder, inexplicable fan favorite Melky Cabrera, plus two pitching prospects and half a million dollars to get him.

In addition, Vazquez had the ghost of his former, unsuccessful stint in the Big Apple looming over his head. Despite high hopes for him last time he came to New York, and an impressive first half, Javy Vazquez left New York in ignominy having walked five batters and surrendered two home runs to some bearded, homeless hippie, making the Yankees the first team in over a hundred years of professional baseball playoffs to ever lose a series they had led three games to none.

Granted, Kevin Brown gave up five runs all by his lonesome, and the Yankees only scored three all day, so it's not like Vazquez really made things much worse, but his efforts out there put the game ostensibly out of reach, and that's what everyone remembers.

Still, in the intervening time, he's been nothing if not consistent. Heck, "consistency" is Vazquez' calling card. He's the only pitcher in baseball who's provided his teams with at least 32 starts, 190 innings and double digit wins every season since Y2K, the very definition of LAIM. Granted, his ERA has fluctuated by more than two whole runs from year to year, but the innings are there and he's occasionally been something close to brilliant.

This is, perhaps, what many Yankees fans thought they were getting when the Vazquez trade was completed this winter, but the Yankees had no right to expect that. They've now bought high twice on Javier Vazquez - he set personal career bests in ERA, adjusted ERA, and virtually every rate stat last year - but at least this time they didn't give up the kinds of prospects you usually have to surrender for an ace.

They only really need him to be a good #4 (or perhaps #3) starter, since the heavy lifting is supposed to be done by CC Sabathia and A.J. Burnett, and perhaps Andy Pettitte or Phil Hughes, if he comes into his own. The trouble is that Vazquez has been, in three of his four starts, anyway, God-awful. In the other one he was just bad.

There is some hope in that Vazquez seemingly has hit into some poor luck so far this year. He is still striking batters out at just about his career rate, a little over eight batters per nine innings. Also, his BABIP (batting average on balls in play, something over which pitchers have little if any control) is .345 this year, compared to a career average of .302 and a major league average that is perennially about the same as that. Both of these facts are encouraging, but that's about all the encouragement you can get out of his performance so far this year.

Still though, he's only had 58 at-bats where the ball has been put in play this year, so the difference between .345 and .302 is generously speaking, three hits. That, my friends, is not the difference between Vazquez's current 9.00 ERA and the expert projections, which generally put him in the range of about 3.50 to 3.75 or so.

What's more worrying is that much of the stuff he can control is also way off his career rates. He's allowed five homers in only 20 innings of work, after taking more than twice as long to allow his 5th homer last season. He's also walked a good number of batters - 11 of them in only 20 innings - so that both his homer and walk rates are more than double their 2009 levels.

He has faced pretty stiff competition - two games against the defending NL West champion LAnahfornia Angels, one against the first place Tampa Bay Rays and one against the upstart Oakland A's, also in first place right now. Still, though, part of a pitcher's job, especially on the Yankees, is to be able to beat teams they might face in the playoffs, and so far Javy has shown little ability to do that.

The change to the generally higher quality batters of the American League probably isn't helping either. KFFL.com reports that Vazquez' record against the NL since 2008 is 16-10 with a 3.28 ERA, but that against the Junior Circuit he's just 12-19, 4.71. Even that, however, is a far cry from how terrible he's been to this point in 2010.

The most troubling part is that there seems to be a real, tangible reason for the lack of success so far this year. According to FanGraphs, Vazquez' fastball is almost two and a half miles per hour slower this year than last, an average of 88.8 mph, compared to 91.1 last year, and 91.3 mph in his career.

He's only pitched 20 inning so far this year, but he's thrown just about 400 pitches, and about half of them have been fastballs, so we have a decent idea of what he can do. The percentages of each pitch thrown (slider, curve and changeup) are about the same as usual, so it doesn't seem like he's favoring one of his offspeed pitches to compensate for what he's lost on his fastball, just that his fastball isn't what it used to be.

I don't think it's simply that he's still building arm strength, as he had about 19 innings of official work in spring training, about the same as Sabathia, and Burnett both of whom are generally pitching well. And their fastballs are within 0.9 mph of last year's averages.

Joe Girardi says that Javy's issues are mechanical, that he "gets under the ball", whatever that means. You would imagine that a guy who has thrown nearly 35,000 pitches in major league games in the last decade, more than anybody this side of Livan Hernandez, would have a pretty good idea of his mechanics by now. But still, maybe there's something to that. Maybe there's a way to tell if Vazquez is messing up his delivery somehow.

If he were "getting under the ball" you would imagine it would show up somewhere. Or if "getting under the ball" were so terrible for a pitcher, you would imagine it would be tough to pitch a complete game against a major league team and allow them only one run on three hits, while striking out seven and walking one right? Yes, even the Nationals.

For what it's worth, the game charts for this past Sunday's lousy start against the Angels do not show any appreciable difference in release point when compared with a start from late last year, a one-run complete game against the Washington Nationals.

20 April 2010, Javy Vazquez vs. Angels

25 September 2009, Javy Vazquez vs. Nationals

One potential explanation to consider is that Vazquez is having trouble with his two-seam fastball. The main page of FanGraphs lumps his fastballs all together, but when you go to the Pitch f/x pages, they separate his regular four-seam from a supposed two-seam fastball, which he only started throwing last year (4.6% of the time). This year he's throwing it 10.8% of the time, more than twice as often as he did in 2009.

Here's where it gets really sketchy and speculative, because we don't know much about this alleged two-seam fastball, including whether it even exists (more on this later).

It's possible that...
  • ...having lost his feel for the pitch, he's trying to throw it more to regain that feel.
  • ...having lost confidence in his "stuff", he feels a need to throw the 2-seamer more often to keep batters honest.
  • ...he's experimenting with a new grip on the two-seamer and hasn't quite got it yet.
But it's just as possible that what Pitch f/x thinks is a two-seam fastball is just his normal fastball, with a couple of mph lost. The Pitch f/x technology can't always tell what the type of pitch is. It just makes an assessment of the pitch based on velocity and movement, but isn't always correct, as we found while trying to sort out Chien-Ming Wang's problems last year.

In any case, while I think four starts is a little too soon to start giving up on Vazquez - he has, after all, had similarly poor streaks in the past, but has always bounced back - the drop in velocity is somewhat troubling. Part of Joe Girardi's job is to keep the peace and to protect his players, so naturally, he's not going to lay into his pitcher whenever the beat writers are looking for an explanation. Naturally, he's going to say it's a mechanical glitch and that they're working on it and that he'll be fine.

But if there's something wrong, like really, physically wrong with Vazquez already, of if the mechanical glitch that's causing the drop in velocity is also causing stress on his arm that could lead to an injury, well, then we've got a real problem. My best guess is that within the next two or three starts, if we don't see some real improvement, Vazquez may end up on the disabled list for the first time in his career.

UPDATE: Curt Schilling (of course) has an opinion on the matter too. Silly me, it's not his fastball slowing down or a possible injury. It's Vazquez not being "equipped" to get outs in the American League. My bad.

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23 April 2010

An Open Letter to Oakland A's Pitcher Dallas Braden

Dear Mr. Braden,

Congratulations on beating the Yankees Thursday afternoon and ending their winning streak at six games.

Now shut up.

You sound like a fool.

When you yelled at Alex Rodriguez for taking a shortcut (not a "detour") across the diamond, back to first base after a long foul ball by Robinson Cano in the top of the 6th inning yesterday, well, you intimidated exactly nobody. Alex Rodriguez was already the best player in the major leagues when you were still growing hair in awkward places of your anatomy. He doesn't care what you think.

The Yankees don't care what you think. The fans don't really care what you think. Frankly, I doubt that your teammates are buying this crap about how you own the mound, but they're contractually obligated to back you up even if you start pontificating about how aliens from the planet Snorg are responsible for everything from the Kennedy assassination to the fact that the cost of postage stamps seems to rise every 20 minutes. (Whoops, there they go again! Damn Snorgians!)

Nobody has ever heard of this rule before except you. Well, not nobody, exactly, but nobody seems to take it quite as seriously as you do. I have seen lots of quotes from you about how A-Rod should go out to the bullpen if he wants to run across a pitcher's mound. You do understand that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line, right? Rodriguez was trying to save time, as he doesn't want to piss off another umpiring crew. Well, maybe not.

You also argued that you, "don’t go over there and run laps at third base." You are an American League pitcher. You almost never have any reason to be at third base, so the point is moot. You also said,

"I don’t care if I’m Cy Young or the 25th man on the roster, if I’ve got the ball in my hand and I’m on that mound, that’s my mound."

Fair enough. The rules should be the same for everybody, but of course this rule is largely new to many of us. ESPN's Baseball Tonight crew, including Rick Sutcliffe, who spent 18 seasons in the major leagues and won a Cy Young award before you were potty trained, and has spent much of the last 15 years as either a major league coach or a TV commentator, had never heard of it. You'd think a guy like that would know, right?

Or maybe there's something about this issue in writing somewhere. I have a book, given to me for Christmas, called The Code: Baseball's Unwritten Rules and its Ignore-At-Your-Own-Risk Code of Conduct. It's not a very good book, honestly. Most of what I've read so far has been a lot of anecdotes about how hitters shouldn't show up pitchers and pitchers shouldn't show up hitters and you have to pitch inside but don't hit a batter in the head and expect to get hit if one of their guys got hit and blah, blah, blah. Seriously, it goes on and on like that for almost 300 pages.

But nowhere in those pages does it say a single word about how nobody is allowed on the pitcher's mound during an inning or during a game. Other than, you know, the dozens of people from both teams who come out there during mound conferences and pitching changes, plus the umpires and the grounds crew and what not. But definitely NOT Alex Rodriguez, under any circumstances.

When asked where you picked up this particular tidbit of baseball etiquette, you mentioned American Legion Ball, and that your coach told you that, as the pitcher, you are (I am not making this up) "the center of the universe" when you're out there on the mound. Do you have any idea how ridiculous that sounds? Everybody knows that Rickey Henderson is the center of the universe. Duh.

Seriously, though, we all know you need to be a little arrogant to make it in your business. Nice Guys Finish Last and all that. But even if you actually think you're the center of the universe, you don't say so out loud. You sound like an idiot.

My two year old son is just now learning that he's not the center of the universe, and it's a painful lesson at times. You should have figured it out a long time ago, and that silly tantrum you threw on the way back to the dugout just reinforced the fact that you need to grow up. If your mommy was watching, she would have given you a timeout, mister.

The only argument I've heard that actually makes much sense of this bizarre incident was Rob Neyer's as he rightly pointed out that when you were cursing at Rodriguez on national television, the mound was, in fact, NOT yours. Not any longer. The inning was over, and the mound therefore belonged to CC Sabathia. Apparently, CC Sabathia is the center of the universe, and given the gravitational pull a guy that size must have, that's not so hard to believe.

But you, with your 17 career wins, are most certainly not it.

Mostly, I get that you think your team deserves a little more respect. You guys did, in fact, finish last (nice guys or not) in 2009, so if saying stuff like this helps get your teammates fired up, then so be it:
“Maybe it doesn’t come across his mind to do that to the Oakland A’s, but maybe it does enter his mind to not do it against the Boston Red Sox, or to not do it against another team. So what I did was, I aided him with that. I don’t throw 95, so the point might not get across from me, but any kind of disrespect like that…it’s got to be handled."

But you know what really works? You know what will really inspire your teammates?


Build on that 3-0 record you've compiled so far this year. Help the Oaklands to a division title and, oh, I dunno, maybe a playoff series victory for once. That, and only that, will get you and your teammates the respect that your fragile little ego apparently needs.

In the mean time: Shut up and pitch.

Yours truly,

Travis M. Nelson,
The Boy of Summer

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19 April 2010

Yankees Winning a Team Effort

Well, it's fun being a Yankee fan these days.

The Yankees are currently 9-3, sitting atop the American League East division (albeit tied with the Tampa Bay Rays), with a nice five-game lead over the despised Red Sox and their small fiefdom. Their 69 runs scored and +25 run differential are both best in the AL, though not the best in baseball. Over in the Senior Circuit, the Phillies have scored a whopping 78 runs and both they and the Giants (??!?!) have a slightly better differential than the Yanks, though both are "only" 8-4.

The Yankees have not had a start this good since 2003, when they went 18-3 in the first three weeks of the season and finished the year with 103 wins and an American League pennant. Given that six of the team's next nine games come against the last-place Baltimore Orioles (2-11) and the other three are at home against the last place White Sox (4-9), achieving that 18-3 mark doesn't seem so far out of reach. Not that your April record wins you anything, unless your MLB betting regimen goes month-to-month.

The Yanks aren't exactly hitting on all cylinders, but those who are hitting are doing so well enough to more than make up for those who are struggling. Mark Teixeira, for example, is a notoriously slow starter, and is hitting only .114 at the moment. Indeed, his career .239 batting average in April is about 40 points lower than in any other month. however, he did hit his first homer of the season yesterday, so perhaps that's a harbinger of better days.

Nick Johnson has struggled, too the tune of a .158 batting average, though his league-leading 14 walks give him a more than respectable .404 OBP. But Jeter and Posada are both hitting about .380 and have three homers to their credit. Robinson Cano leads the team with four bombs and his hitting .340 in his own right. He had a hit in every game before Saturday's contest against the Rangers. New CF Curtis Granderson is hitting .311 with a couple of homers and four steals in four tries, and Alex Rodriguez had a .938 OPS, thanks largely to his team leading five doubles.

Nick Swisher's hitting only .200 at the moment, though he generally...well, Swisher doesn't generally do anything, except hit 20+ homers. In the five more or less full years he's been in the majors, he's only had one season in which his final OPS differed by less than 90 points from the previous seasons. Sure, he'll probably end up around .250 with 25 homers and an OPS around .825 or so, but he could just as easily hit .220 as .260, for all we know.

The real oddity is Brett Gardner. I had my doubts about him last year, and frankly the odds were and still are against him becoming a good everyday player, but he's certainly done his job so far this year. He's played in 10 of the team's 12 games, hitting .333, scoring nine runs and stealing seven bases.

His current "pace" would have him scoring 144 runs and stealing 112 bases despite never hitting the ball hard enough to get an extra base under his own power. Since the record for runs scored without an extra base hit is just 29 - and that was only accomplished by a former sprinter who was recruited as a designated base stealer by wacko A's owner Charlie Finley in the 1970's - well, I wouldn't bet on anything like that happening. More likely, Gardner will finish with something like a .280 batting average and 80 runs scored, with 40 or 50 steals at a high success rate. If he continues to slap singles, take walks and steal bases, he'll certainly earn his pay.

One of the biggest surprises so far this year has been the resurgence of Andy Pettitte. At 38 years old, you could hardly have expected him to improve on the level he's set for himself the last three years. That's about 15 Wins and an ERA slightly over 4.00, which is solid, if not Hall of fame material. But he's got a 1.35 ERA in a team leading 20 innings, having just quieted the Rangers' formidable bats for eight innings on Sunday. He's due to regress, of course, but if he can somehow win another 15 games this year, he would move into the top 50 in career wins. While the chance to tie Amos Rusie and Iron Man Joe McGinnity may not sell a lot of baseball tickets, it sure would like nice on his resume, don't you think?

Not that CC Sabathia and A.J. Burnett have been slouching, mind you. Both are 2-0, like Pettitte, and both have an ERA comfortably under 3.00, though not as low as Andy's. Phil Hughes was far from sharp in his only start, walking five batters in as many innings, but at least he managed a Win.

Javy Vazquez has been awful in his two starts, surrendering 12 earned runs (14 total) in eleven innings. Granted, it a little early to start booing him, but at some point the guy who finished 4th in the 2009 NL Cy Young voting had better start pitching like the 15-game winner the Yankees thought they were getting when they dumped off traded Melky Cabrera to the Braves.

The bullpen has had its ups and downs, but the like the starting lineup, the good parts (Mariano Rivera, Joba Chamberlain, Damaso Marte) have more than compensated for the bad (David Robertson, Alfredo Aceves). Sergio Mitre has defied all the odds simply by getting through about two innings of work without allowing a run. Don't bet on that to continue.

Chan Ho Park has had his ups and downs, including a well-documented case of the runs, which he had and then allowed to the Red Sox on Opening Day. He deserves credit for taking the blame himself and not putting Joe Girardi in an awkward position (why would he use a pitcher who was weak and dehydrated from the flu? On opening day? Against the Red Sox?) but of course good character doesn't get that home run ball back.

In any case, though there a few guys over-performing, there are also several who have yet to hit their stride, and there's little reason to think that the Yankees can't continue to wreak havoc on the American League.

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30 March 2010

Press Release: Meet the SWB Yankees!!


The Scranton-Wilkes Barre Yankees just released about 50 tickets for the Meet the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Yankees Dinner on April 7 at PNC Field in Scranton.

There will be a private batting practice session at 3:45 followed by cocktails and light fare in the stadium restaurant. This will be followed by an autograph session with the 2010 Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Yankees. They have added a silent auction this year with some game worn jerseys, fan experiences and NYY signed baseballs.

Tickets are $75 with proceeds benefiting the Kids Night Out Program that provides game tickets to needy children and groups. For tickets, call the SWB Yankees office at 570-969-2255 and ask for Kelly Byron.

Last year’s dinner was attended by Phil Hughes, Alfredo Aceves, David Robertson and Austin Jackson. It’s a great opportunity to meet the future stars of the Yankees and MLB.

Official Link here.


With that said, it's worth noting that there really are not a lot of "future stars of the Yankees and MLB" on this team, not that we can see at this point. Juan Miranda is probably the best bet, of all the baseball betting you could do, and he projects as a platoon DH, which isn't much. I mean, sure, he could turn into the next Travis Hafner, but that's a wager than no online sportsbook would give you.

The only SWB players on Baseball America's Top 10 prospects list fort the Yankees is RHP Zach McAllister, who hasn't yet thrown a pitch above AA, but could eventually turn into a solid back of the rotation starter. Mark Melancon makes the top-11 list for Baseball Prospectus, and projects as a set up man, at best. In short: No stars. All the Yankees' best prospects are in the low minors right now, or in a couple of cases, Double-A.

Still, you could potentially meet coaches (and former MLB journeymen Butch Wynegar, Scott Aldred or Aaron Ledesma, as well as manager Dave Miley, who never made it to the Show as a player, but managed the Cincinnati Reds for almost 300 games. You could meet Kei Igawa, who actually WAS a star in Japan, even though he's ind of lousy on this side of the Pacific.

And if nothing else, you can have a fun day/evening at the ballpark, and contribute to a good cause. Which is worth something.

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11 March 2010

Commentary on Baseball America's top 20 Prospects: #16 - #20

#16. Starlin Castro, SS, Cubs
Opening Day Age: 20
ETA: 2011

It's tempting to compare Castro to Alcides Escobar, given that they're both Latin American, NL Central shortstop prospects, tall with wiry frames (6'1", 160 lbs) and known for their defense. Escobar is already 23, though, and has a starting job on a major league contender, whereas Castro won't be 20 years old for two more weeks, and will be given more time to develop as his major league team rebuilds.

The difference, however, is that while Escobar is expected to be a speedy, punch-and-judy hitter who wins Gold Gloves, Castro for some reason is expected to turn into Alfonso Soriano. As he has hit about .300 everywhere he's played professionally, and they're listed as the same size, I guess I can see that, but Soriano hit for power in the minors.

Castro seemingly has no power at all, having never hit more than three homers in any season in the minors, and none at all in over 110 AA at-bats last season. He hit one in the AFL, to go with his .376 batting average, but as you're probably tired of hearing by now, everyone hits in the AFL, so take that with a grain of salt.

I suppose it's possible, since he's so young, that he'll eventually develop some power, but more likely he'll become a hack and slash, or at best a line drive hitter who swings at everything and makes up for some of that with his speed and his glove. There's nothing wrong with that, per se, but when you're expecting Soriano and you end up with Royce Clayton, people are bound to be disappointed.

He does have some speed (47 stolen bases in his 3-year career) but perhaps not great instincts, given that he's gotten caught as often as once in two or three tries as some stops in the minors. If the speed is there, it will at least help him with his defense, even if it's not an asset on the major league basepaths.

Personally, I think it's a little early to dub this guy on of the best prospects in the game, as so far he's only shown glimpses of the player the scouts expect him to become. So much can happen between age 19 and reaching the majors, and so much that's expected can fail to happen, that anyone without shock the world talent at this age should be grasped loosely.

#17 Martin Perez, LHP, Rangers
Opening Day Age: 19

ETA: Mid-2011

Perez has a low-90's fastball an above average change-up and perhaps a major league quality curveball despite the fact that he won't be 19 years old for almost another month. After embarrassing players in the high-A Sally League for most of the year (105 strikeouts in 93 innings, 2.31 ERA), Perez got roughed up a little in AA. But don't let that "1-3, 5.57" next to his name on the stats sites fool you.

First of all, it was only 21 innings. Secondly, it was more due to bad luck (a .374 BABIP) than bad pitching. According to FanGraphs, his FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching, a metric that takes luck and defense out of the equation and scales it to look like an ERA) at Double-A was only 3.82. That's still well above the 2.46 he'd posted in Single-A, but also perfectly acceptable for an 18-year old at the second highest rung of the minors.

The Rangers will perhaps let him spend all of 2010 at that level to allow him to learn how to pitch a little more, but he could be in the majors by the middle of next year if everything goes well. At which time he'll still be just barely 20 years old.

Other than his youth, there's not much going against Perez. He's got good control (fewer than 3.5 walks per nine innings in the minors), good mechanics and two quality breaking pitches to go with a solid fastball. Baseball Prospectus called him "the best left-handed pitching prospect in baseball", and no, they did not forget about Madison Bumgarner and Brian Matusz.

The Rangers are the only team with three players in the top 20 this year. Though they haven't sniffed the playoffs in over a decade, that could change soon.

#18 Jeremy Hellickson, RHP, Rays
Opening Day Age: 22
ETA: Mid-2010

Hellickson's got unbelievable command and control, walking barely two hitters per nine innings in the minors while striking out almost ten. His fastball is only 90-92 at best, but he's got such command of it, and its movement, that it may not matter. He's also got a very good curve and a major league quality changeup that produce a lot of swings and misses.

There are two things he does not have, however:

1) Anything left to prove in the minors, or

B) Anywhere to pitch in the majors.

Which is a problem.

Given that the Rays already have a young, talented starting rotation, they have little choice but to start Hellickson out in AAA again, which is not completely awful given that he is just 22 and that he's pitched only nine games at that level. Command guys who don't have overpowering stuff tend to take a while to develop as major leaguers anyway.

#19 Aaron Hicks, OF, Twins
Opening Day Age: 20
ETA: Mid-2011

This first round draft pick out of high school impressed everyone by hitting .318/.409/.491 as an 18-year old in the 2008 rookie league, and he acquitted himself well in single-A in 2009, even though he only hit .251 there. Like Perez, he was victimized more by bad luck (only a .307 BABIP) more than poor performance, and his numbers should bounce back this year. He's a switch hitter with patience, speed and a cannon arm that threw mid-90's gas as a prep school pitcher, but with some work to do before he can get to the majors.

He's projected as a five tool player, though after getting caught eight times in 18 tries last season at Single-A, it appears that he needs to learn how to better utilize his natural speed if he's going to be a base stealing threat. Watching his swing, he reminds me of another switch hitting centerfielder, Carlos Beltran, though to be fair, it's pretty much a textbook swing.

#20 Logan Morrison, 1B, Marlins
Opening Day Age: 22

ETA: 2010

Though not the blue chip prospect he was after hitting .332 in 2008 in a pitcher's league, Morrison is still hanging on to his spot in the top 20. And this despite suffering through a wrist injury that limited him to only 82 games and eight homers in 2009. His pedestrian .277 batting average belies his skills at getting on base, which are more clearly evidenced by his .411 OBP. He hit 24 homers at A-ball in 2007, but hasn't shown that kind of power since, even though his body and his swing suggest that he should be a slugger.

Perhaps the wrist injury forced him to be more patient or perhaps he's just maturing as a hitter, but 21-year olds who walk more than they strike out are few and far between. Still, Morrison has shown the ability to hit for average, power or on-base percentage at different stops throughout his minor league career, but never more than one of those skills at a time. If he's healthy this year - and that's a big "if" since he's only 1-for-14 in spring training as I write this - he'll need to put together at least two of those three to stay at the top of prospect lists.

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10 March 2010

Commentary on Baseball America's top 20 Prospects: #11 - #15

#11. Dustin Ackley, OF/1B/2B, Mariners
Opening Day Age: 22
ETA: 2011

After hitting over .400 in each of his three years at UNC, Ackley got a six million dollar signing bonus as the #2 pick in last year's draft. And don't think the batting average is the only thing he's got going for him. He also got on base almost 50% of the time, slugged almost .650, walked almost twice as often as he struck out and stole 43 bases at a 75% success rate.

Due to arm problems, including a Tommy John surgery, he only played first base in college. Normally, a bat like his could play anywhere he wanted, but the Mariners are apparently moving him to second base, and it seems to be going well. At 6'1", 185 lbs, Ackley's not the lumbering physical specimen that you would expect from a slugging firstbaseman with numbers like his, and the Mariners seem to think he had the physical agility to play the keystone in the majors. Or more likely, they don't think he'll develop the kind of power expected of a first baseman or left fielder.

He played second base in the Arizona Fall League and apparently did well enough, in addition to hitting .315/.414/.425 in 20 games. Everyone hits in the AFL, so take that with a grain of salt, but at least the switch to wooden bats didn't cripple him. Note that his power output was considerably less, though that was what I said about Buster Posey after last year's AFL and he turned out OK.

Ackley projects more of a Derek Jeter type, perhaps with less propensity to strike out, with only modest power but with speed, average and patience to more than compensate. I'm always leery of dubbing someone one of the best prospects in baseball before he's faced any real competition, but if Ackley starts out at High-A ball and progresses as they expect, he could be in the majors by the middle or end of next year.

#12. Alcides Escobar, SS, Brewers
Opening Day Age: 23
ETA: 2010

One of several players to repeat on this year's top 20 (along with Heyward, Posey, Bumgarner, Feliz, Alvarez and Stanton), Alcides is again the only one of the score predominantly here for his glove and not his bat. Escobar's defense is very, very good, with incredible range and instincts and a great arm, but he's also got speed to burn and a decent line-drive type of swing. He doesn't have much patience or any power and at 6'1", 155 lbs isn't likely to develop the latter - but then neither did Ozzie Smith, and he had an OK career.

The future is now for Escobar, who will be the Brewers' everyday shortstop after they traded JJ hardy away in the off season. Because both his range and his speed on the bases depend so much on his speed, he'll be more susceptible than most to any sort of leg injury, but if he develops as expected, he's a perennial Gold Glove middle infielder who can hit for a respectable average and steal 30+ bases.

#13. Justin Smoak, 1B, Rangers
Opening Day Age: 23
ETA: Mid-2010

This is the body you expect to see with Dustin Ackley's numbers, except that Smoak has the numbers too, or at least he did in AA. After mashing the ball for three years in the SEC, Texas made him the #11 overall pick in the 2008 draft, and he's moved up quickly through the ranks. Though he hasn't shown much of the power he had in college, he has shown some, and his body (6'4", 220) and approach suggest that the homers will come.

He stalled a bit in the second half of last season, after his promotion to AAA, though how much of that was difficulty adjusting to the highest level of the minors (well, short of the National League, anyway) and how much had to do with an oblique strain is anybody's guess. Given that he hit nine homers in nine World Cup games in the fall, he's probably not favoring that oblique anymore, I would say.

#14. Madison Bumgarner, LHP, Giants
Opening Day Age: 20
ETA: Mid-2010

After posting a 15-3 record with a 1.46 ERA in Single A as an 18 year old, there was really nowhere for Bumgarner to go but down, statistically speaking. he did, but not very far. He posted a combined record of 12-2 at High-A and AA with an ERA comfortably under 2.00, but his strikeout rate dropped dramatically, from about 10.4 per nine innings last year to about six per nine this year in AA, before fanning ten batters in ten frames at the major league level.

Most sources seem to agree that the drop in strikeout rate coincided with a drop in velocity, continual over the year, which could be a harbinger of problems. Indeed, I said in my prospects article last year that his mechanics, particularly the long, sweeping arm action, concerned me, and perhaps this is a sign of a shoulder injury beginning to rear its ugly head. Or, it might just be because he threw too often and too vigorously between starts, as he and the Giants seem to think. That, of course, begs the questions of

1) Why it wasn't an issue in 2008, if he had the same training regimen, or

B) Why he bothered to change his regimen in 2009, if everything was going so well in 2008.

So far this spring, his velocity is still down a bit, so we have to wait and see. With his control and his long, left handed delivery, he can still be a good starter in the majors, but to be great he's going to need those extra few mph on the heater.

#15. Domonic Brown, OF, Phillies
Opening Day Age: 22
ETA: 2011

Phillies fans, this is the reason that Cliff Lee is no longer on your team.

Well, that's not precisely true, but essentially GM Ruben Amaro figured that Brown was not enough of a prospect to tide the farm system over without getting a little help. So after practically emptying the cupboards to get Roy Halladay, he sent Lee to Seattle for more prospects, including another toolsy outfielder, Tyson Gillies.

Brown's big frame had some projecting him for eventual 30-homer major league power, but he's shown little evidence of that in the minors so far. He did hit 11 homers in 238 at bats at High-A last year, but then smacked only three in almost 150 at bats at AA. He's got great speed, but it comes from his long stride rather than quick movement, so he gets caught stealing a little more than you would like. Overall he's been caught about 28% of the time, though in some stints it's been as much as 35%, which hurts the team. Not as much as thinking, but still.

His body type and statistical profile remind me a lot of Bernie Williams for some reason, though I think he's probably got less patience and a better arm. Bernie took a while to develop, and wasn't really an impact player until age 26 or so, and I see a similar path for Brown. He's still working on the patience and power, but all the tools are there for success. Given the Phillies' crowded major league outfield, he should have time to master both AA and AAA before he gets much exposure in the Show. Best case scenarios have him in the majors in the middle of next year, though I would guess a September 2011 call up is more likely.

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04 March 2010

Commentary on Baseball America's top 20 Prospects: #6 - #10

#6. Desmond Jennings, OF, Rays
Opening Day Age: 23
ETA: Mid-2010

This is why the Rays are in no hurry to shell out tens of millions of dollars to Carl Crawford. After hitting well enough (.316/.395/.486) in AA to win Southern League MVP, Jennings went to AAA for a month or so and hit even better (.325/.419/.491). He's got tremendous speed (52 for 59 in steals and 10 triples in 2010) and that helps make him a potentially elite defensive center fielder as well. He also has the plate discipline, at 23, that Crawford is just starting to develop at age 27.

He hasn't shown a lot of power yet, but his 6'2" frame could probably carry more muscle than the 180 lbs he currently sports. Even if he never bulks up much, a lead off hitter who can smack a dozen homers and steal 40 or 50 bases while getting on base 40% of the time and playing excellent defense in center is a huge asset for any team.

Not that he's going to produce like that right out of the gate, but it shouldn't be but a year or two before Jennings is one of the best young players in the game. Technically, Jennings is "blocked" by Matt Joyce at the moment, but on a scale of one to ten, Joyce is not that good. Jennings should be in the majors by mid summer.

#7. Buster Posey, C, Giants
Opening Day Age: 23
ETA: Mid-2010

In my column on last year's top prospects, I had two, tentative criticisms of Posey, both of which he answered with aplomb in 2010. One was that his having recently been converted to catcher made him something less than a stellar backstop, but then he went out and caught 45% of would-be base stealers at two levels in 2010, so I can't say that anymore.

The other was that his power, displayed only in his last year at Florida State, had not yet emerged as a pro. Well, after hitting 18 homers and 31 doubles between High-A and AAA, with a slugging percentage well over .500, I can't say that anymore either.

While Posey's seemingly got little to prove in the Minors, the Giants are not known for their bravado in promoting prospects, especially when they've got a comfortable - if not especially good - major league option. Having re-signed Bengie Molina for the year, Posey will likely get some more seasoning in AAA, but assuming that he continues to hit the cover off the ball, he should be up in the majors for good by the end of May.

Long term, he's likely to soon become the best catcher in the game, but in the short time he'll just be jockeying for playing time. If the Giants fall out of contention, he'll probably get more playing time in the majors, so they can help him develop, bu tif they can somehow stay within earshot of a playoff berth, look for them to give Molina the bulk of the playing time while Posey wiles away on the bench or in AAA.

Ironic, isn't it? The more they need him, the less playing time their best catching option will get.

#8. Pedro Alvarez, 3B, Pirates
Opening Day Age: 23
ETA: Mid-2010

You've got to give Alvarez (and agent Scott Boras) credit: They may have made a big stink about his signing last year, but it was with good reason. When he finally got to play, Alvarez struggled a bit in High-A ball, hitting only .247 although still with impressive power, making some wonder if the Pirates had made a mistake.

Nevertheless, upon his promotion to AA, Alvarez raked at a .333/.419/.590 clip, having one of the best second halves in all of professional baseball. He's expected to start the year in AAA, and given that Andy LaRoche is the only thing between him and a major league job, we should see him in the majors by June or July. He's too big and too slow to be a third baseman for long, but then the Pirates aren't exactly stocked with great hitting first basemen either, so he should get his chances to play once he's there.

#9. Neftali Feliz, RHP, Rangers
Opening Day Age: 21
ETA: 2010

Another questionable inclusion on a prospect list, after having spent two months on the Rangers' roster and pitching 31 stellar innings, but at least he's not within 5 innings of the "rookie" limit. Feliz has a 100 mph fastball that moves and a solid slurve, plus a change up that is still developing. His trouble as a reliever has always been walks (with a rate of almost 4 per nine innings in the minors) but in the majors last year he pitched only in relief, where he could rely mostly on the fastball, and it worked.

The Rangers, understandably, want him to start, but right now their projected starting five has an average age of about 25, with Rich Harden as the most seasoned veteran, at 28, so there's no hurry. In any case, he'll have a hard time succeeding if he can't get the walks down. One saving grace - and it's something he'll need, pitching half his games in Arlington - is that his stuff is so filthy it's almost impossible to hit it solid, which is why he's allowed only seven homers in 276 minor league innings.

Make no mistake: Despite all the hype about the three-digit fastball, Feliz is still a work in progress. But that work can be done at the major league level.

#10. Carlos Santana, C, Indians
Opening Day Age: 23
ETA: 2010

Santana spent all of 2009 at AA Akron, where he hit for decent average (.290) in addition to remarkable power (55 extra base bits) and patience (90 walks). He's not a great defensive catcher, having caught only 30% of base stealers at AA, but unlike Montero, he is serviceable. He hits with power to all fields, swings at few bad pitches (as evidenced by his having struck out only 83 times in 535 at-bats) and generally makes life difficult for pitcher wherever he goes.

He's behind Lou Marson and grizzled veteran Mike Redmond on the Tribe's depth chart, but if Pronk or Russel Branyan get hurt, they could conceivably call Santana up to DH or play first base. With the Tribe trying to rebuild, there's really no hurry, and Santana hasn't even been to AAA yet.

His bat is good enough that he could be an adequate MLB first baseman right now, or at least that's what Bill James' projection says. CHONE is a lot more conservative, while PECOTA's more modest, but closer to James. the one real issue is playing time. Unless something really bizarre happens, Santana isn't likely to see much MLB action before he gets a chance to master AAA, which means late 2010 at the earliest.

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Commentary on Baseball America's top 20 Prospects: #1 - #5

A year ago I looked at the top 20 prospects from Baseball America's annual Top-100 list, so I figured that now would be a good time, with Spring Training beginning, to do a similar thing.

I'll break it up into four posts this time. here are prospects #1 through #5:

#1. Jason Heyward, OF, Braves
Opening Day Age: 20
ETA: 2010

Nobody doesn't like Jason Heyward. He's the #1 position player prospect on everybody's list, and with good reason, as there seem to be no weaknesses to his game. Scouts like his tools and his athleticism. Stats geeks like his ability to take walks, hit for power without striking out a ton, and steal bases without getting caught. braves fans like him because, frankly, their outfield has been kind of a drag since Andruw Jones was in his heyday. Everybody else's fans may not like him, but have to concede his talents.

He's hit for average and for power, with patience, at every professional level where he's been tried, with a composite .318/.391/.508 line across five levels (mostly single and double A). He doesn't steal a ton of bases, but when he attempts one, he's usually successful (26 for 31).

He's played mostly right field in the minors, where his cannon arm has racked up 22 assists in only 190 games, but he's reportedly got the speed to play center if needed, too. If there's a chink in his armor - and really, it's just a scratch, at worst - it's simply his youth and inexperience, as he has only 3 official games above AA, though he also hit .300/.364/.475 in 24 spring training games last year, for what they're worth.

Expectations are that the Braves will give him every shot to win a job as their everyday right fielder right out of spring training, but even if they send him back to AAA for a while, he'll probably be back up to stay by the end of May. This guys gonna be a lot of fun to watch. I'm glad he's not in the Yankees' division.

#2. Stephen Strasburg, RHP, Nationals
Opening Day Age: 21
ETA: Mid-2010

Speaking of fun-to-watch-prospects-not-in-the-AL East...

Strasburg is quite possibly the most hyped prospect in a very, very long time, perhaps ever. In baseball circles, he's already a household name in spite of the fact that he has yet to throw an inning of pro ball. Well, he tossed 19 innings in the AFL, amassing 23 strikeouts and a 4-1 record despite a 4.26 ERA, inflated by one bad outing (of five). That's not exactly top notch competition, but the AFL is known for the high level of offense, and Strasburg generally acquitted himself well there.

The man has a perfect pitcher's build (6'4", 220 lbs), good mechanics, a 100-mph fastball that he throws regularly with pinpoint control at 95-98 mph, a knee buckling curve and an above average change-up, despite being only 21. He has no chinks in his armor. The only things than can stop him now are some form of Steve Blass Disease, or an injury. And those are no small things, as there have been countless "can't miss" prospects who somehow did, simply because they couldn't stay healthy or forgot how to pitch.

#3. Mike Stanton, OF, Marlins
Opening Day Age: 20
ETA: Mid-2010

I remain unconvinced on Mike Stanton as an uber-prospect. After mashing up the Sally League as an 18 year old in 2008, he was promoted to High A Jupiter in the Florida State League, and maintained most of his rate stats in 50 games there. In fact he was named an FSL All-Star and was leasing the League in homers when he got promoted to AA Jacksonville.

Here is where he kind of fell apart.

Sure, the power is still there - his .224 Isolated Power was exactly the same number David Ortiz had last year in the majors - but he hit only .231 and struck out in a third of his at-bats. he did hit well in the Arizona Fall League, but in only six games before being shut down with a sore back.

He's still only 20, but he'll have to learn to hit the kind of breaking stuff they throw in AA and AAA before he can even get to the majors, much less be an effective major leaguer. I expect that the Marlins will start him in AA again and advance him quickly if he seems to have made the necessary adjustments.

I still think his closest comparison is Russel Branyan, and you could certainly do worse, but when everyone expects Reggie Jackson or Dave Winfield and they get stuck with Branyan, well, folks will be disappointed.

I think Baseball America's ETA of mid-2010 is a bit ambitious, given that he needs to master not one but two minor league levels before he would get called up, and that the Marlins have a perfectly acceptable (and relatively young) outfield trio of Cody Ross, Chris Coughlin and Cameron Maybin. September is more likely, if that.

#4. Jesus Montero, C, Yankees
Opening Day Age: 20
ETA: 2011

Montero, like Stanton, was born in November of 1989, though a few weeks later than Stanton. And like Stanton he was tearing up the FSL last year, though he got promoted to AA too soon to take his rightful place on the All-Star team. Unlike Stanton, however, he did not falter at the higher level, hitting a robust .317/.370/.539 in 44 games in the Eastern League, a total decreased by the broken finger he sustained in . Kevin Goldstein of Baseball Prospectus reports that Montero hit an astounding .400/.457/.718 away from Trenton, which is evidently a severe pitcher's park. So, you know, that's pretty good.

Unfortunately, Montero's too big and clumsy to be a catcher in the majors. The Yankees are doing what they can to help him improve, but the word is out that he can't catch base stealers, who attempted 108 steals against him in only 59 games in 2009, and were rewarded with an 80% success rate.

He's a first baseman or DH waiting to happen, and as good as he is, the Yankees have no place to put him either now or in the forseeable future. That means he's trade bait if the Yankees decide they need a starting pitcher or if the Gardner/Winn platoon in left field falters. Whoever gets him, and wherever he plays, he's going to mash.

#5. Brian Matusz, LHP, Orioles
Opening Day Age: 23
ETA: 2010

This is a little sketchy, including Matusz on the list of prospects for 2010, given that he pitched 44.2 innings and won five games for the Orioles in 2009, but whatever. Matusz skipped AAA entirely, and won't likely go back down to the minors unless he shows some problems in the majors this year. His repertoire is a low-90's fastball, slider, curve and change, which sounds kind of pedestrian until you consider that all four of them are above average pitches, and that he's only 23 and has fewer than 50 innings of seasoning above AA.

His minor league numbers, limited though they are, portend a mid-rotation starter with impressive control (he struck out 121 and walked only 32 in 113 innings in A and AA ball). His build (6'5", 200 lbs) suggests that he can handle the workload, and his mechanics are solid. He's left handed too, so he'll get lots of chances even if he falters a little.

Prospects #6 through #10 will follow tomorrow...

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28 February 2010

Book Review - Satchel: The Life and Times of an American Legend, by Larry Tye

"History binds Josh [Gibson] and Satchel at the hip as the two towering figures of the Negro Leagues, but nature left them as mismatched as yin and yang. Josh was a hitter who mashed pitches, Satchel a pitcher who undid batters. Josh's power emanated from his huge arms and torso, Satchel's from his string-bean legs. The differences, however, went deeper. Josh steered clear of the limelight. Satchel lived in and monopolized it. Josh was eaten up by the limits of his ravaged knees and his Jim Crow world, consoling himself with booze, which had been legalized, and opiates, which had not. Satchel learned to cope and triumph. Josh was a player's player with a bench full of friends. Satchel played to the crowd, which made his teammates admire more than love him."

- Satchel, by Larry Tye, p 73

King Arthur. Davy Crockett. Paul Bunyan.

There are individuals throughout history who so inspire us that their legends grow well beyond their actual stature, becoming so entangled in the stories of their lives that it becomes difficult, if not impossible, to determine where the man ends and the lore begins. Such is the case with Leroy “Satchel” Paige, about whom Larry Tye has penned a new biography, simply entitled, “Satchel”.

For a man who may have been seen in person by more spectators than anyone else in history, there was precious little written about Satchel Paige, at least little that can be called 'reliable', anyway. Perhaps the task of unraveling the mystery surrounding the man appeared so daunting to so many. Perhaps many felt that clearing up those mysteries would take something away from the man himself. Tye has managed to do the former without sacrificing the latter, though it took him two years to accomplish it.

Having pored over every available reference on his subject, Tye sifted and sorted and deciphered all of the available information on Satchel and weaved it into not only a coherent whole, but a telling, endearing and interesting story as well. It’s well written without being pretentious or excessively verbose, making for a very accessible and easily read narrative that flows well. Tye provides sufficient background on people and places without boring you and without feeling the need to inform the reader of every possible nuance about a given individual or situation, and most important, without making the reader feel that he's gotten off track.

He manages to point out and discuss the various social injustices of Satchel’s day without sounding condescending or sanctimonious, something too many who have written about the Negro Leagues seem to feel is their duty. This makes it possible for the reader to enjoy the narrative for what it is, to appreciate the charming, nostalgic aspects, to react with distaste when he discusses racial slights and slurs, but not to become so overburdened with guilt that the reading becomes less than enjoyable. Indeed, few would read such a book if they had to fear being scolded for long-past wrongs they never committed on every other page.

Tye begins at the beginning, which is not as easy at is sounds in the case of Satchel Paige, whose birth name was Leroy Page and whose birth date was virtually anybody’s guess. I won’t ruin the surprise, except to say that part of Satchel’s mystery included the fact that throughout most of his professional life, nobody knew exactly how old he was. The birth date mystery was such a part of his legend that there was even a Trivial Pursuit card that included three possible birthdates as the clue to "Satchel Paige".

Tye describes Leroy’s difficult youth in Mobile, Alabama, one of many children in a very poor family, beholden to an alcoholic father who died young. Leroy had trouble with authority even then and spent a third of his youth in a reform school, which helped shape him into both the man and the ballplayer he would eventually become. Upon his release, he almost immediately took up with a local semipro team, was given his famous moniker (though there are even more stories as to how he became Satchel than there are potential birth dates, it seems) and as he realized that his skills could take him much farther, he began to hone them.

Trips through the minors of Black Ball in the 1920’s took him all over the South, to Mexico, the Caribbean, and eventually to Pittsburgh, to the Black major leagues, where he would become a star. Not that he stayed there long. Contracts in the Negro Leagues were looked at as something to do until something better came along, and for the likes of Satchel Paige, it frequently did. He hopped around North America, playing in Pittsburgh, certainly, but also in North Dakota, California, Colorado, and Kansas City, as he felt inclined.

Effa Manley bought his rights twice for the Newark Eagles, though he never suited up for them. He also went back to the Caribbean, playing in the Dominican Republic, Cuba and Puerto Rico, and even Venezuela, where he was nearly killed by natives, if you believe his story. It was probably Satchel, not Babe Ruth (or, as James Hirsch would have you believe, Willie Mays) who was baseball's first true international superstar, and this before he ever suited up for the major leagues.

But believing Satchel’s stories is exactly what makes writing his biography so difficult. There are lots of stories that have trickled down from Satchel Paige and other stars of the Negro leagues, and many of them, if they are true at all, are only slightly so. But they’ve been told and retold so many times that few know the difference anymore.

Part of the charm of the Negro leagues, it seems, was that in an industry that either did not have the money or did not have the interest in recording every event meticulously, the history became entangled with the tall tales, and everyone was basically OK with that. The men who played there lived their lives and spun their fables, never with malice in mind, and they made for good stories and good story tellers, which was what people wanted anyway. Why bother to point out that Satchel never really struck out Babe Ruth in a barnstorming game at Yankee Stadium? He could have, everyone knew, and that was all that counted.

Along the way, Tye describes interactions and exploits with some of the greats of both black and white baseball, Josh Gibson, Buck O’Neil, Double Duty Radcliffe, Oscar Robertson, and Cool Papa Bell, to name a few, but also Bob Feller, Dizzy Dean, Lou Gehrig, Stan Musial, and many of the barnstorming stars of Major League Baseball.

Satchel eventually made it to the major leagues, the first pitcher to break the color barrier. He had been more than a bit irked by the fact that Branch Rickey did not come calling for him, rather than Jackie Robinson, who had played barely one year in the Negro Leagues, whereas Satchel had paid his dues for almost two decades. But Satchel, besides being over 40 years old, was never one to honor a contract or turn the other cheek, so Rickey deemed that he was something less than an ideal candidate for his grand experiment.

Instead, Indians' owner Bill Veeck took a chance on Satchel and made him the American League's first black pitcher. Satchel, at 41, became the oldest "rookie" in major league history, and four years later, its oldest All Star, and then in 1965, he became the oldest pitcher in MLB history, throwing three scoreless innings for the Kansas City Athletics against the Boston Red Sox, at the age of 58. The Los Angeles Times story on the game called it, "A gimmick, yes. A joke, no."

Veeck and Paige would enjoy a life long relationship, and Paige could thank Veeck for giving him second and third chances when he wore out his welcome with previous employers, as he seemingly always did. Veeck brought Paige in to pitch for the St. Louis Browns and then later on for the Miami Marlins, a minor league team for whom Satchel pitched in his 50's.

Because he'd never saved any of his money and didn't have the kinds of sponsorship opportunities afforded to either today's athletes or white stars of Satchel's heyday, Paige never did stop pitching, really. He just kept going, barnstorming in places like Alaska, North Dakota, California, and Missouri, just to make ends meet. Even after he was finally inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1971, Satchel kept on making appearances and pitching. He was paid as a consultant when a film was made about his life, but otherwise, he rarely had the luxury of not pitching if he didn't feel like it.

As far as Tye's book goes, it is a joy to read. It's his first baseball book, I believe, and he gets a few of the minute details wrong, such as referring to Joe DiMaggio as "Jumpin' Joe" or indicating that the number of games in the baseball season was 151, rather than 154, but these are minor and forgivable offenses. Tye gets the main and plain things very right, and goes above and beyond the call of duty in writing this book (as attested to by the fact that he has almost 80 pages of notes and bibliography).

Satchel Paige was the kind of interesting, incredible, lovable, frustrating, talented but flawed character that we all wish we could have known or could have been. The stories of his life, such as they are shared in Tye's book, fill out the holes in the legend probably more than Paige would have wished, but no less than his legend deserves.

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12 February 2010

Big Re-Hash: Frank Thomas Retires - Now What About the Hall of Fame?

Most of this material was penned almost four years ago, but since Frank Thomas announced his retirement today, I thought it might be worthwhile to freshen this up a bit.

There's been some discussion and debate over the last few years about whether Frank Thomas really belongs in the Hall of Fame. Based mostly on the fact that the second half of his MLB career constituted such a severe drop off from the level he established in the first half, many have said that he'[s only a marginal candidate.

This is poppycock.

Frank Thomas Posted by Hello

This is about the silliest thing I've heard all week. I could understand if they were saying that Frank Thomas, moderately productive outfielder of several 1950s and '60s National League teams, didn't belong in the Hall of Fame. That Frank Thomas hit .266 in 16 seasons, never hitting .300 in any of them, finishing in the top ten of the MVP ballot only once (4th in 1958), and never leading his league in anything but games played, hit-by-pitch and sacrifice flies (once each). That Frank Thomas certainly doesn't belong in Cooperstown.

But this one? The Big Hurt? The 1B/DH who has terrorized American league pitchers for the last decade and a half? Let's look at his credentials, along with someone else's, shall we?

Name      AB     R    H     2B   HR   RBI
Hurt 10074 1494 2468 495 521 1704
Splint 9791 1798 2654 525 521 1839

Hurt .301 .419 .555 974 156
Splint .344 .482 .642 1116 191

The 'Hurt' line is, of course, Frank Thomas' career. The second line is that of the Splendid Splinter, Ted Williams. Four years ago I compared these two, up to a similar point in their careers, and now it turns out that they will both complete their careers with exactly 521 home runs. I'll be issuing lottery predictions for 2014, later tonight, thank you.

In all seriousness, though, are they the same? Of course not. Nobody was as good as Ted Williams, in his generation or any other, save perhaps Ruth and Bonds. But are they close? You're damn right they are. Williams had a few more of just about everything, but not a lot more of anything. He struck out a lot less, but so did everyone else at the time. Pitchers throw harder now, and relief pitchers are trained to get the strikeout, with Thomas having to face them much more often than Williams did.

The second set of stats, their averages, shows a much greater difference between them, but it also shows something else. That last statistic is park and league-adjusted OPS (On-base plus Slugging), a rough but effective measure of a hitter's prowess. Ted Williams ranks second all time, behind only the Babe. Thomas is tied for 19th, with 13 of the 20 guys who are either tied or ahead of him already in the Hall.

Among the other seven, four are not eligible for Cooperstown because they didn't play at least ten seasons (Dave Orr), are banned from baseball for gambling issues (Shoeless Joe Jackson) or have not yet been retired for five years (Albert Pujols and Barry Bonds).

Bonds' case is a little sketchy, given that of Mark McGwire, who's also ahead of Thomas on the OPS+ list, but who has failed to garner more than about a third of the votes he needs in his first three seasons on the ballot. But based on numbers alone, both Bonds and McGwire are no-doubt Hall of Famers.

The sixth is Dick Allen, who was a heckuva hitter, but who played only a dozen full seasons and who was basically washed up by age 35. Also, as I understand it, he was kind of a jerk to the sportswriters, but then they didn't exactly hold that against Ted Williams.

The last is Pete Browning, who played almost half of his ~1,200 game career in the 1880s American Association, beating up on sub-standard pitching while all the best players were in the National League.

Thomas is one of only 14 players to hit over .300/.400/.500 in a career of over 2,000 games. Almost all of the rest are in Cooperstown or will be some time soon. Here's that list:

Already in the Hall of Fame:
Cobb, Ty
Foxx, Jimmie
Gehrig, Lou
Heilmann, Harry
Hornsby, Rogers
Musial, Stan
Ott, Mel
Ruth, Babe
Speaker, Tris
Williams, Ted

Still active or recently retired (years played):

Thomas, Frank (19)
Martinez, Edgar (18)
Ramirez, Manny (17)
Jones, Chipper (16)

Edgar Martinez, despite playing one fewer season than Thomas, played in only 267 fewer games, and did not hit for nearly as much power ("only" 309 homers). He got about 36% of the BBWAA vote in his first year on the ballot, which bodes well for his candidacy overall.

Ramirez and Jones, both excellent players, aren't likely to improve upon their current career averages being already 37 years old, but are having Cooperstown-worthy careers.

So that's 10 Hall of Famers, one potential Hall of Famer in Edgar, two guys who should be enshrined eventually if they follow normal career paths (and if the voters don't hold Manny's PED suspension against him). Pretty good company, I think.

Let's look at where Thomas falls in history:
Stat:   R  2B  XBH  HR  RBI  BB  TB  TOB  OBP  SLG  OPS
Rank: 68 55 26 18 22 9 37 28 21 25 15

Overall, he's got to be one of the two dozen or so best hitters in history, and maybe only beneath Jimmy Foxx and Joe DiMaggio among right-handed hitters, both of whom have less playing time on their resumes than Thomas does. Even without giving him credit for time he's spent injured, his numbers are clearly Hall-Worthy.

Bill James listed him as the tenth best firstbaseman ever back in the 2000 edition of his Historical Baseball Abstract, and since then he's had two and a half productive seasons, and one and a half seasons lost to injury. That still adds to his career value, in my mind.

Criticisms of Thomas as a Hall of Famer center around the argument that because Thomas was injured so much the last several years, and because he didn't maintain the pace he started in the early 1990s, and "didn't do anything in the playoffs", his Hall of Fame credentials are somehow weak. While certainly the first two of those things are true, should they really cause us not to vote for Thomas when he becomes eligible for Cooperstown?

From 1991 to 1998, Thomas racked up eight consecutive seasons with at least 100 runs, 100 walks and 100 RBI. No, he didn't maintain that pace, but since no one had ever put together more than four such seasons consecutively before, why should we expect it from him? (Jeff Bagwell later had six.) And that streak includes not one but two strike-shortened seasons, making it all the more impressive.

Thomas made five All-Star Games in that span, and won two MVP Awards, in 1993 and 1994. He's also finished in the top ten in the MVP voting seven other times, finishing 4th at the age of 38, and 15th one other time. Only a dozen players in history have amassed more MVP shares than Thomas, and they're all in the Hall, except Bonds, Pujols and Alex Rodriguez. Those guys all won at least three MVPs and are not yet eligible because they're either still active or too recently retired ot have come up for the vote.

For that matter, 12 of the next 13 players on that list after Thomas are also in the Hall, and the 13th is Pete Rose. (I guess 13 isn't his lucky number.) Only three of the next 25 or so elligible players have not been elected, and Thomas is obviously far above them. In short, anyone considered so frequently and so seriously as the MVP of his league is by definition a Hall of Famer.

Thomas was one of the greatest hitters in history over the course of his career, though as Rob Neyer points out, "only" about the 45th greatest player, given what a lousy defender and baserunner he proved to be. But still, 45th out of something like a bajillion players? That's pretty rarefied air. But if he isn't elected to the Hall of Fame when his time comes? That would really be a Big Hurt.

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02 February 2010

Is Ryan Howard the Greatest Slugger in Phillies History?

Metro is a newspaper given out for free in some of the larger cities in the northeast. It's a short paper, intentionally so as it's usually read on on public transportation, and therefore rarely gets more than half an hour of attention from any one reader. Most of its stories lack any real depth of insight and given the youth of most of its staff, any real perspective on life. I usually don't bother with it, but as I happened to have nothing better to read on the train on the way to work (and really, how much Tetris Mania can one man play on his phone?) I decided to peruse the rag.

What I found both shocked and appalled me.

Angelo Cataldi is a talking head on Philadelphia's WIP radio, and he fills a few inches of space in the sports columns for Metro on occasion. Among his offerings today is a brief column entitled "Which Phillie is Werth it?", addressing the need for Philadelphia Phillies' GM Reuben Amaro, Jr. to decide whether he will sign OF Jayson Werth after the 2010 season ends and he becomes a free agent, or save his money and wait for 2011 to re-sign 1B Ryan Howard.

Cataldi unfortunately doesn't conclude anything, but remarks that his radio show callers apparently preferred Werth, though he does not indicate whether it was presented to them as an either/or decision or a both/and. This was not the shocking or appalling part.

Buried in the middle of this largely pointless column is this little gem of revisionist history:

"[Ryan] Howard is a superstar.

Already, he is the best power hitter the Phillies have ever had — and don’t forget that a fellow named Mike Schmidt once played here."


That's a huge statement to just throw into the middle of a couple of paragraphs on impending free agency, don't you think? Is Ryan Howard really "the best power hitter the Phillies have ever had"? Can you seriously dismiss Mike Schmidt so easily?

By the end of his age 29 season, Schmidt had three National League HR titles (to Howard's two) and had led the NL in slugging percentage once already, something Howard has never done. While he had not yet won an MVP award at this age, Schmidt would go on to win three of them, as many as anybody had ever won before Barry Bonds and his friendly, neighborhood steroid dealer came along.

Howard has one MVP already, but probably won't ever win another. For that matter, even the one he has probably should have gone to Albert Pujols, who was a slightly better hitter and a much better fielder at the same position in 2006. But most of the BBWAA writers like home runs and RBIs the way monkeys like shiny objects, so, Howard has an MVP award. Congrats.

At this age, Schmidt had more of everything - more home runs, doubles, triples, RBIs, runs scored, hits, a LOT more walks - and all of that in an era when power hitting was not such a cheap commodity. Much of that difference is because Schmidt was talented enough to get into the lineup two years earlier than Howard did, though it helped that he wasn't being blocked by Jim Thome, as Howard was. Schmidt was also talented enough to stick around for another ten years after his age 29 season, a lot longer than the generously-proportioned Howard probably will.

Schmidt would go on to lead his league in home runs eight times, more than anybody in history not named "Babe Ruth". He led the NL in slugging and OPS five times each, in adjusted OPS six times, in walks and RBIs four times each, in OBP and total bases three times each, in intentional walks twice and even once in runs scored.

By contrast, Howard has those two HR titles, three RBI crowns (which depend largely on how many baserunners happen to get on base in front of you), and one time leading the NL in total bases. That's it.

And as far as his accomplishments as a Phillie, Howard has amassed only 222 career home runs. Don't you think he should set his sights on Pat Burrell (251) before he takes aim at Mike Schmidt (548)?

Howard does have a slightly higher career slugging percentage (.586) than Schmidt (.527), but then when you adjust for the eras and ballparks in which they played, Schmidt has the higher career OPS+, 147 to 142. Put Mike Schmidt's bat in Philadelphia in the 2000's and he would hit almost 650 homers, according to baseball-reference.com's era translator. If Howard plays ten more years, as Schmidt did, his rate stats are bound to drop off a bit.

It seems to me that sports fans, as a rule, tend toward one or the other extreme when comparing current players to those of eras past. Either they think that the players of yesteryear were much better than today's players, an error rooted mostly in nostalgia and the fact that they were like eight years old when they first saw those guys play*, or they assume that today's players are much better, an error rooted in misunderstanding the ways in which the game has changed over the years. I would have guessed that Cataldi would be prone to the former, given that he's almost 60 years old, but alas, he seems to have lost the perspective that all his years should have afforded him.

*Sort of like when you recall those great, big cookies your grandma used to make when you were a kid, but then you see them as an adult and they're about the size of a silver dollar, it turns out. Or maybe that's just me.

Don't get me wrong here. Ryan Howard is a great player, and the Phillies would be fools not to re-sign him when his contract is up. He's had a pretty nice run, but he's had roughly one-third of Mike Schmidt's career so far. Let's not relegate the greatest third baseman who ever lived, a first-ballot Hall of Famer, and the best and most prolific slugger in Philadelphia history to second fiddle just yet.

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