Saturday, October 29, 2011

And it all comes to a close

Well, I was wrong about the World Series. I honestly thought that my comments would jinx the rest of the games. I’m happy to be able to say that I was completely wrong. This was baseball worth watching. And the worst played game was one of the most exciting I’ve ever seen.

Some personal observations:

I honestly thought that Texas would win it after they came back from game 3, the one I like to think of as The Albert Pujols Show. It demonstrated a lot of backbone on their part. In game 6, by the 6th inning, I thought the series was about over. Was I ever wrong! It’s not often that such a sloppily played game (by both sides) can turn out to be this exciting. Even though I’m not a fan of either team in particular, it was almost unbearable to watch. More than once I thought of two punch-drunk fighters staggering around the ring trying to knock the other out. It’s hard to imagine that the Cards managed to come back not once, not twice, but three times in those last 3 innings. As soon as the game ended, I knew I wouldn’t have wanted to be in that Texas clubhouse. Three blown saves in 1 game. That’s really gotta hurt. How many times were they within one strike of winning? Last night must have been even worse.

Up until game 6, we had some of the best defensive baseball I’ve seen in a long time (see last week’s blog for my choice of the best of the best). How many times were players picked off or thrown out by Napoli and Molina? I wonder if it’s a record for one series. Those are always exciting plays.

I wonder if the use of the bullpen by the two managers is the shape of things to come in regular season games? Once it got past the 5th inning, you could count on at least 8 pitching changes to be made before the game was over. That’s a lot of extra advertising time for Fox. Bet they were happy about Washington’s and LaRussa’s bullpen strategies.

In listening to the ESPN radio broadcast last night, Dan Schulman and Orel Hershiser were talking about the length of this series’ games. One thing they brought up was Fox’s insistence on adding 18 extra minutes to the game through between-inning commercials. Huh? I’m sorry but if MLB needs cash that badly, maybe they should hold a bake sale or host a telethon or something and not make us sit around for that much extra time while Fox makes money off their advertisers. The game doesn’t need this. Between relief pitchers warming up, the general slowness of the game and then the 18 minutes, that makes for one draggy game. I found myself drumming my fingers impatiently several times.

As much as I feel very sorry for Texas, there was a feeling of inevitability about this year’s playoffs – actually the last month of the season. Those Cards started playing great ball in September and peaked at just the right time as they rolled over one team after another. Texas wasn’t beaten by much, and if the pitching had been just a tiny amount better, one pitch better even, they would be getting ready for a victory parade through Dallas this week, instead of having to spend the winter tasting their own bitter bile. I wanted better for Ron Washington, one of the great guys in the game by all accounts.

So, on to the off-season and what promises to be a very interesting time of trades and free agent signings. Wonder who will make the upgrade of the year for 2012?

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Another Rainout

Well, here I am all ready to watch game six of the World Series. This series has been most interesting and exciting. As Rick posted Saturday there have been some great plays and on both sides of the bat. The last game had some of the most bizarre pitching changes I have ever seen (especially from Tony LaRussa). But…. again, tonight, the weather is playing a major part in the festivities.

The post season is again too late in the year. Even though the season started a bit early, here we are fighting cold, rainstorms and delayed play. All the players’ routines, workouts and preparations are delayed. Fans have to rearrange schedules. The World Series does not come along to your team every year. You want to be there for every game you can.

In ballparks that can be covered, like Rogers Centre and Tropicana Field, games are not delayed, not canceled for weather related issues. It still amazes me that since 1989 more clubs have not opted for some kind of domed stadium. At least clubs playing in extreme climates like the Southwestern and Northeastern parts of the US. Regions that can, at the beginning or end of the season, be too hot or too cold. The arguments will be that baseball should be played outside. I am in agreement except when the weather is too extreme. Close the lid. I’d rather see a game than sit through a long rain delay or cancellation.

At the Rogers Centre, it is a push button operation. After twenty-two years, the dome still closes quickly and silently when needed. It’s quite a marvel. Rain or shine, a game happens. During the WS in 1992 and 1993, weather delays could have produced different outcomes for the Jays. I remember how cold it was outside, but inside the temperature was warm enough to have a proper game. The Jays prevailed and all the postseason home games were played without interference of the weather. The games were won by the skills of the players and managers, not the weather.

Major League Baseball has deemed that in postseason play a game delay would be postponed only, and be resumed later. This adds for a continuity of play. In the past, you started the game over. Now the game and the statistics are contiguous. I think this is an improvement.

If you have ever been to Wrigley on a somewhat blustery and rainy day you can appreciate how much like a sieve that place is. Sure, it a very storied park, but very uncomfortable. Some recent stadiums have come up with different ideas on how to keep the elements out. The Astro’s Minute Maid Park has a retractable lid and grass. Looks good too, with red brick and a train in left field. (I know Rick would like that). The Brewer’s Miller Park most unique feature is its fan-shaped movable roof. It, too, has grass. I know cement is bad for the players and the Jays certainly have a better field with the new turf after replacing the old. But it is still cement. I think it is possible to have grass in most lidded parks. It just takes a different lighting situation and a good drainage system.

Games have always delayed and canceled due to rain or snow. Opening day for the Jays was delayed but played after the field was shoveled. Too cold. As of today, 21 World Series games have been delayed, only one for cold in 1903. Rain check anyone?
In today’s game, or what will now be Thursday’s game, the pitching situation will be much different with an extra day of rest for starters and especially the bullpens, who have done the bulk of the work to date. The managers are pleased. Fans, who intended to see this game, not so much. The strategies will be different with the players not on the same schedule as planned. As Will has said, baseball is not a cold weather sport. When needed, a covered park is the best thing going. Bravo to the Astros, Brewers and Jays for having state of the art parks that assure the show will go on.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

What Records Can Pujols Break?

When Albert Pujols banged five hits including three home runs in Game 3 of the Series he sent media statisticians scrambling for the record books. It was quite a performance, though his bat has been silent in the other games. Pujols had two home runs and ten RBIs in the Division and League Championship Series.

The Cardinal slugger is arguably the best hitter in baseball. He holds the distinction of having the highest lifetime batting average (.328) among current players. He's number 30 all-time and one of the very few in the top 100 who did not finish his career before 1940. (Ichiro Suzuki is up there too, just four spots back.) Farther down the list you'll find two other stars in this year's Series. Matt Holliday, stands an impressive 67th with a .315 career mark and Michael Young ranks 139th at .304.

Whether Pujols, Young, or Holliday set any other post-season single game records, it is highly unlikely that they or any other player will reach the career World Series records accumulated by New York Yankees such as Yogi Berra. It just ain't gonna happen.

Unless his team goes on an amazing streak - which is pretty unlikely with the number of teams there are now - there is no way that any current player can reach the World Series often enough to compete with Berra, Mickey Mantle, and their teammates.

With a lot of luck a player might last twenty years. Let's look at how often teams have made it to the Series in the last twenty years. The Yankees got there an impressive seven times. The Atlanta Braves made it five times, the Cardinals and the Phillies three times each. No other team has made it more than twice.

So let's see what kind of numbers recent Yankees have put up in those seven appearances. Derek Jeter, leading off or hitting second in just about every game over seven Series, has 156 at bats, 32 runs, 50 hits. Yogi Berra played in twice as many Series - an almost unbelievable 14. He had 259 at bats. That's half of a regular season. He scored 41 runs, had 71 hits -both records - and 39 RBIs. Mickey has him by one there. The only hitting records not held by Yankees are batting average, sacrifices, sacrifice flies (Joe Carter), and triples.

As for pitching records, over the Yankees' recent run Andy Pettitte started 13 games and won five. But Whitey Ford started 22 and won 10 - though he also lost 8. Ford pitched 146 Series innings (again, roughly half a season) and leads with 94 strikeouts - though he also leads in walks.

The only records Ford doesn't own are complete games and shutouts. Christy Mathewson had ten and four respectively. Mathewson's ERA was 0.97, one of the best, he had the fewest walks per game, and his WHIP is second best all-time. And talk about how playoff games have changed ... Christy averaged more than nine innings per start! As for top relievers, the leader is again a Yankee, but a current one. Mariano Rivera leads in appearances (24 games) and has a record 11 saves.

The only way a current player can be compared to the Yankees who dominated baseball for so long is to use division and league championship records. The recent Yankees again have an edge, making the playoffs year after year, but other teams have made it to the post-season fairly regularly too.

Counting playoff series Bernie Williams had 18 homers, equal to Reggie Jackson, but Williams had 80 RBIs while Mr. October had only 48. Manny Ramirez has posted some impressive numbers. In 111 postseason games he has a .937 OPS and hit a record 29 home runs (partly because he has the third most at bats) along with 78 RBIs.

Carlos Beltran has been a terrific playoff performer with 11 homers in just 82 at bats. His .817 slugging percentage and his 1.302 OPS are the best in playoff history. How does Pujols rank? In 56 games he has a .322 average, a 1.009 OPS, and 13 home runs.

Derek Jeter has the most games played, hits, runs, total bases, and is near the top in home runs. And he's played more than an entire season in the post-season, an amazing 637 plate appearances.

Lou Gehrig, "the Iron Horse", had 10 home runs, 30 runs, and had 35 RBIs - in just 34 games. His average was .361, his OBP .477.

Then there's the Babe. He had a 1.211 OPS and hit .326 with 15 World Series home runs - second only to Mantle who played in a lot more Series. Oh, and Ruth also has the third best ERA among pitchers with more than 30 innings. Talk about your all round player! He had 4 stolen bases too. Don't think of the Babe as always being the fat guy you see in newsreels, all of which were recorded in his last couple of seasons. He was a speedy fielder and runner for most of his career.

As for post-season pitchers, Andy Pettitte had 249 innings, 18 wins, 164 strikeouts - which would add up to a pretty good season. Tom Glavine is right up there with 218 innings, 14 wins, and a much better ERA - 3.42to Pettitte's 3.68. Speaking of ERA, Rivera's 0.83 (30 IP minimum) is going to be tough to beat. In case you're wondering, Koufax had a 0.95 ERA. Teammate John Smoltz excelled in the playoffs with 15 wins, a 2.67 ERA and 199 strikeouts. Then there's Curt Schilling, hard to forget his gutsy performances, with 11 wins and a 2.23 ERA.

In relief, well of course it's back to Mariano Rivera ... 88 appearances, an all-time best .772 WHIP, 39 saves, and an all-time best 0.74 ERA. Sounds like one of his seasons.

Of course if baseball expands the playoff format there will be more opportunities for post-season records.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

It doesn’t get much better than this

Is it just me or has the 2011 World Series been much more exciting than those in the recent past? Two hard-nosed, talented teams are duking it out, toe to toe and not giving an inch. Sure, there are good games in the Series nearly every year. These are always really good teams that are usually playing at the top of their game, so what would you expect? But then there are also games and Series that leave a lot to be desired with sloppy play or one-sided blowouts or just uninspired baseball. My feeling is that the Rangers and Cardinals want this so bad they can taste it – and it’s showing in the way they’re playing.

Some of each team’s great players are definitely not having good series this year. Hamilton is obviously hurt, and admitted that if this were the normal season, he’d be on the disabled list. Pujols is struggling, too. But that’s to be expected. It’s the end of a long season and people get pretty beat up in six months of hard playing. And some players just hit a slump at exactly the wrong time.

But there are also some players on both teams that have been nothing short of amazing. Case in point: the Rangers’ Elvis Andrus. Have you seen the absolutely jaw-dropping double play he started last night, that I feel ultimately changed the course of the game in the Rangers’ favor. Here it is:

Is that not amazing? Some are comparing it to the incredible catch made by Willie Mays in the 1954 World Series. Look at it below:

Pretty good. Right? Which do you think is better? Mays made a huge play. His throw back to the infield certainly was skyed, but he makes an almost impossible catch and then stops on a dime to make it. The Andrus play from Thursdays game has a lot more subtlety about it. There’s finesse there. The fact that he obviously caught Kinsler, his second baseman, napping and out of the play makes the tail end of this double play even more amazing.

Like I said off the top, if you want to see some great baseball, I get the feeling that this series might be it.

Now watch the next 4 games be complete blowouts...

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Blue Jays and Big Names in the Series

The Texas Rangers, who lost the 2010 Series to the Giants, are very much a home-grown team. Among their position players only third baseman Adrian Beltre and catcher Mike Napoli have played elsewhere.

On their pitching staff, only starter Mike Adams, whom they picked up from San Diego, and relievers Colby Lewis and Darren Oliver have played for other squads. And Lewis and Oliver both started out as Rangers.

The Cardinals are quite a different story. Among their position players four have played elsewhere: right fielder Lance Berkman for several years with the Astros, left fielder Matt Holliday with the Rockies, second baseman Nick Punto with the Twins, and shortstop Rafael Furcal, who started with Atlanta and then moved over to the Dodgers.

The only starting pitcher who has played exclusively with the Cards is Jaimie Garcia. Edwin Jackson has thrown for four different teams and veteran Arthur Rhodes played for six clubs before St. Louis. Kyle Lohse came over from Minnesota four years ago.

And now we come to the Blue Jay connection, the most obvious being starter Chris Carpenter, who pitched in Toronto his first six seasons. Octavia Dotel has been with six different teams, the most recent the Blue Jays, and Mark Rzepczynski played his first two years in Toronto.

Cardinal manager Tony La Russa says the July 27 acquisition of 'spare parts' Dotel, Jackson (via the White Sox), and Rzepczynski for star center fielder Colby Rasmus was a major factor in the Cardinals making the playoffs. At the time the trade seemed tilted in the Cardinals' favour, though Rasmus had not done as well in his sophomore year as he had in his 23-home run rookie year. Now, with Rasmus having managed just three home runs and five RBIs and a paltry .173 batting average in 133 at bats for Toronto, the trade is looking pretty good for St. Louis.

"I'll tell you if that trade had not been made, I believe we probably would have been an under .500 club," Cardinals manager Tony La Russa said on Tuesday. "That's how important it was to us. We were just getting so thin, it would have been hard to finish."

Instead it was the Braves who bungled their way to the finish line, in part because of a lack of pitching depth, Meanwhile the Cards clawed their way back from a 10½ -game deficit on Aug. 25 in the wildcard race.

Jackson was a Blue Jay for just a few minutes, picked up from the White Sox for reliever Jason Frasor and pitching prospect Zach Stewart. With St. Louis, Jackson went 5-2 in twelve starts. He got one win in the Division Series but got knocked around by the Brewers in the NLCS.

Rzepczynski, a sophomore lefty may have been the toughest player for the Jays to give up. In 28 games, he posted a 3.97 ERA, logging 22 innings, often facing the opposition's best left-handed bats. He gave up three runs in one inning pitched in the Division Series but just one hit and one run while striking out four in five appearances against the Brew Crew. Initially shocked by the trade, he is apparently delighted now. "It's a lifelong dream for me to be in the World Series," he said. "I didn't think I was going to be where I am today, but I can't ask for anything more."

Rzepczynski was given the option of making the Blue Jays roster out of spring training as a reliever or continuing to start for Triple-A Las Vegas. He chose the bullpen and it's turned out to be a good move for him. "If I was still a starter, who knows what would have happened, and for me right now, relieving works".

The 37-year-old Dotel never really had a role in Toronto - he pitched just 29 innings over the first four months of the season but he's fit in nicely for the Cards, pitching 24 innings in August and September and posting a 3-3 mark with an ERA of 3.28.

On the last day of the season, Jays manager John Farrell said one thing he would have changed from the season was the way he handled the team's closing situation with Frank Francisco, Jon Rauch, and Dotel, something Dotel says affected him negatively.

"It hurt me over there, I'm not going to lie to you," said Dotel, set for his first World Series appearance in 13 seasons and 12 teams. "Farrell, I understand his situation, his first year as a manager, he's kind of learning the game, trying to do his best, but at the same time, when you start managing for the first time, there are a lot of things (on paper) you can see about this guy, about this guy and this guy and it kind of hurt the way he used us."

"I'm glad I came through and do my best for this team, I'm glad where I am right now." So are the Cardinals. The Blue Jays just hope the other end works out for them down the road.

And in conclusion, another feature of the Series is that it features two players who are on the list of players with the hardest names to spell in baseball. Of course I refer to Mark Rzepczynski and Albert Pujols. Here is my team of current players with impossible names to spell.

C Jarrod Saltalamacchia of the Red Sox
C A. J. Pierzynski of the White Sox
1B Kila Ka'aihue of the Athletics
2B Mark Grudzielanek of the Indians
3B Wilson Betemit of the Tigers
SS Emilio Bonifacio of the Marlins
IF Tsuyoshi Nishioka of the Indians
RF Kusuke Fukudome of the Indians
CF Ezequiel Carrera of the Indians
LF Bronson Kiheimahanaomauiakeo Sardinha of the Yankees
DH Albert Pujols of the Cardinals
Starter Daisuke Matsuzaka of the Red Sox
Starter Justin Duchscherer of the Orioles
Starter Jair Jurrjens of the Braves
Starter Mark Buehrle of the White Sox
Relief Mark Rzepczynsk of the Cards
Relief Scott Schoeneweis of the Red Sox
Relief Jeff Samardzija of the Cubs

And if I have misspelled any of those names ... don't write in.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

There is No Joy in the Motor City

There is no joy in the Motor City today for the mighty Tigers have lost. The storybook year for the Tigers has come to an end. With the 15-5 drubbing they received from the Rangers, the hope for a World Series appearance is over.

The Tigers went 20 and 5 to end the season and took the Yankees 3-2 in the ALDS with what looked like an unstoppable force. Justin Verlander was great and Jose Valverde was perfect. Going into the series with the Rangers, the Tigers looked to be strong from both sides of the plate. And they were strong until game 6.

Game six was the undoing of a great season. It happens, but not quite so dramatically. All the previous games in the series were very tight. Extra innings won the day for the Rangers each time with a home run by Nelson Cruz. Of course the famous no-out grand slam, served up by Ryan Perry, in game 2 will be remembered as a first. And again of course, Nelson Cruz put the bite on again in game 4 to seal the deal. Each of these home runs were pitches in the wheel-house and just asking to be hit. Jose Valverde lost just once this season, and that in his last appearance. He still had a great year.

The situation with the Tigers was that the pitching let them down. Jason Verlander and Doug Fister were strong but other starters had more than enough to handle with the Ranger hitters (all of whom contributed in game 6). Tiger relievers were simply out matched by Ranger hitting. It is interesting to note that Tiger starters Verlander and Fister won games, no starter for the Rangers won a game at all. The relievers did the damage and Alexi Orgando won two from the bullpen.

Game 6 showed a number of problems. In the infamous third inning, the relievers just could not, for example, get a pitch low and away for a strike. Rick Porcello, after the game, complained about a call from the home plate umpire. He might have been right this time, but it did not make up for the walks and hits already given up. Most of the Rangers hits, again, were pitches right in the wheel-house. As far as hitting was concerned, the Tigers did themselves proud. They did hit against Ranger pitching. The Rangers, however, had a field day with Tiger pitching. Ranger hitters got 8 walks, only 4 strikeouts, 17 hits and a BA of .415. The Tigers had no walks, 8 strikeouts and a BA 0f .286 (normally in a playoff series not a bad day).

Walks and errors will kill your chances, as they always seem to score runs. The third inning was also awful in the field. Austin Jackson booted a ball, allowing a hit and everyone was safe. Next came the strange play of Delmon Young who, himself, booted a missed catch and then made an awful throw to home, missing the action allowing 2 runs to score. This is where it really fell apart. If he had made that play, just maybe, the Tigers could have gotten out of the third with one run scored and the inning over.

Jim Leyland has done a good job with this team. It has only two players from the ill-fated 2006 team remaining: Justin Verlander and Brandon Inge. To have this team rise like they did at just the right time was a marvel. In game 6, the collapse was sudden and complete. I guess, all winter, Tiger fans will wonder why Nelson Cruz was not intentionally walked.

My hat is off to the Rangers. They won big. Now, on to the World Series!

Saturday, October 15, 2011

End-of-season report card on Jays

I thought I’d let the dust settle for a few weeks to give you my overview on the 2011 season for the Jays. Larry Toman, our official bench guy this year did a great job with his mid-season report card on the team. A lot happened between then and the end of the September. I’m going to borrow Larry’s formatting for consistency.

STARTING PITCHING: How many starting pitchers did the Jays trot out this season? I wouldn’t be surprised if it was somewhere north of 15. While many will point their fingers at the bullpen for the reason the team didn’t do better, I’m more inclined to look in the direction of the starting pitching. With 2010 behind us, it was thought the starting 5 would be a real strength of the 2011 team. Sadly, this wasn’t so. Too many of the young pitchers crashed and burned for a variety of reasons, mostly due to inexperience. Still a number of positive things filtered through the clutter. We now know we have a legitimate ace in Ricky Romero who could have easily won 20 games with a bit better luck – and a better bullpen. Henderson Alvarez was a very impressive call-up late in the season. Will the Jays bring in an inning-eating veteran in the off-season? It might be a smart move, but you could also make a case for standing pat and seeing what happens in spring training. With Dustin McGowan now back and throwing with authority (if not the best accuracy at this point), the Jays could have caught lightning in a bottle. Brandon Morrow might figure out how to be consistent.

Bright lights: Ricky Romero, Henderson Alvarez, Dustin McGowan.

Question marks: Brett Cecil and Kyle Drabek. And will the real Brandon Morrow please stand up?

RELIEVERS: Okay, the Jays did sort of shoot themselves in the foot here during the season, trading away Rzepczynski and Jason Frasor for some center field help, but there were big question marks before that happened. Rauch was probably a flyer the Jays took on and it really never worked out. Good move to get rid of Dotel. Shawn Camp sort of swooned late, and once he got back from the DL, Casey Jannsen was terrific. It turned out to be a mistake to try to make Villanueva a starter. He’s probably better out of the pen in the long run. Great move to have Litsch move to the pen. He looked good. Will the real Frank Francisco please stand up? He was just not good early on and then looked great towards season’s end. The Jays have to get a real closer. Francisco may be the answer – if he can continue right on from where he left off, not take half a season to warm up. Maybe they’ll try to get Frasor back. Perez might turn out to be bait.

Bright lights: Casey Jannsen, Jesse Litsch and possibly Villanueva.

Question marks: Camp, Rauch, Francisco and Perez.

BATTING: Wasn’t this an up and down year for the team? At times they were just awesome, unstoppable, a force of nature. Other times, it was more like a Punch and Judy show. Bautista was “as advertised” until that damn homerun derby at the All-Star game. After that he seemed to come down to earth. My big question is will Adam Lind have the stamina to be an everyday first baseman and keep his hitting up? Don’t you all wish that we’d had Brett Lawrie all season? With Encarnacion at third, how could Lawrie have been any worse? Patterson and Rivera are thankfully now gone. Eric Thames has made it difficult for the Jays to stay hot about Travis Snider. What is up with him anyway? Escobar was a real plus at the plate. It is nice to contemplate going with him leading off again, followed by Thames, then Lawrie with Bautista cleaning up. Maybe Lind could bat fifth. If Rasmus does what he seems to be capable of and Arencibia picks up where he left off (and improves his average), the Jays could have a very potent lineup in 2012.

Bright lights: Bautista, Yunel Escobar, Lawrie and Thames.

Question marks: Edwin Encarnacion, second base, Lind and Rajai Davis.

FIELDING: The Jays’ outfield was screwed up through most of the season. Snider bombed, Patterson bombed, Rivera bombed, and Rajai Davis proved he can run the infield, but not patrol center field. We won’t talk about Dr. Strangearm at third base.

But shortly after Larry’s report card, there was a sea change in what the Jays brought to the defensive part of the game. People were moved out and some interesting replacements brought in. Colby Rasmus is a legit center fielder. Thames, God bless him, is working hard to improve his fielding and it shows. We’ve now got the best right fielder in the game back in right field. On the infield, Lind proved he can play first base well, Escobar is dazzling at short, and I think Lawrie is going to really open up some eyes with his second season at the hot corner. Second base is a big question mark. Johnson is smooth turning the double play, but will he be back? Behind the plate, Arencibia did well and should continue to improve. The Jays do need to get their bench strength up, though. Who’s going to back up Arencibia? Will we get Johnny Mac back from Arizona or go with McCoy? Will the real Travis Snider show up next year?

Bright lights: Bautista, Lawrie, Escobar and Rasmus.

Question marks: Thames, Snider and Davis.

The Jays certainly have a lot of young players to use as trade bait and I expect them to use that strength to bring in some veterans to fill the team’s holes, but even if they decide to stand pat, there are a lot of things to be excited about: Lawrie for a full season, Arencibia being able to concentrate more on hitting, Bautista being the superstar for the entire season and some potentially excellent starting pitching. If the team is going to improve from outside, it would be best to concentrate on the bullpen.

The pieces are definitely falling into place.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

This Guy Can Hit

I guess this guy can't hit a curveball or he'd be in the Majors.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Money Ball

Rick and I went to see the new movie Moneyball this week. For those of you who do not know its story, here is a short synopsis: Bill Beane, the Athletics GM, is forced to go out and gather a competitive Athletics team on the year following an ALCS appearance. When asking for more money to secure his big name players, Beane is told by Stephen Schott, the new A’s owner, that no more money is forthcoming. Jason Giambi, Johnny Damon and Jason Isringhausen are now too expensive to sign. They are gone. He has to find a way to be competitive with the same money. The focus of the movie is all about how to win in an unfair game.

To win, Billy Beane turns his attention to a new and little used set of statistics called Sabermetrics (Society of American Baseball Research), to find undervalued players who can get on base. This system was developed and promoted by Bill James and others. Large market teams, like the Yankees and the Red Sox, can just buy the players they want. Small market teams claim they cannot compete with that kind of cash needed to buy big name free agents. What Billy Beane does is to find others who can contribute to the team for less money. He finds undervalued, but solid, players who can get on base by walk or hit (OBP) and make the opposing pitcher use lots of pitches to do it. For pitchers, Beane looks for those who throw first pitch strikes and have a low WHIP (Walk and Hits per Inning Pitched). It’s not so much about saving money as spending what you have where you need it. All of us who follow baseball closely now rely on these types of stats. Pitchers with a low WHIP are effective and hitters with a high OBP are going to get on a lot, ninety feet at a time. With certainty, so Beane says, "We try to create a situation where we're the casino. It's like how an actuary would set insurance rates. Predictability, predictability, predictability.” It’s boring, but apparently effective.

In the movie, the Athletics have just lost in the ALDS to the Yankees in 2001. Beane steals a guy from the Indians who is the fictitious Peter Brand. Brand, in the movie, is the stats guru. In reality, the character is Paul DePodesta, who actually played baseball in school and indeed did graduate from Harvard with an economics degree. He was already with the Athletics in 1999. The Brand character is the one who has the ready information on each player that Beane chooses. The move to sabermetrics creates conflict with everyone on the staff who has traditional baseball values in mind. This new style of scouting players is totally different than the traditional way. These conflicts get to the heart of the matter in the movie and heads roll as the plans Beane has are not put into action as he wanted by the unbelievers. But things change and the famous 20-game win streak (after a very poor start) is the highlight of this drama.

The Athletics have yet to win a World Series using sabermetrics. They have a positive win/loss record but have not been over .500 since 2006. It could be said that increased use of sabermetrics by other clubs has significantly reduced the number of undervalued players out there. If everyone is doing the same thing, well, then you have to do something else. I wonder what will figure in the statistics next? What will it take to equalize all the money to make the game fair?

This premise for a movie is pretty dry (dealing with statistics) and could have been. With Brad Pitt and a good script, the movie has plenty of drama and the time just flies by as this true story unfolds. There was lots of real baseball talk and action. It was fun to watch and relevant to baseball today. Go see it!

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

They Were a Big Hit ... and then they didn't hit

This article is about the best starts and biggest disappointments in baseball history – among position players, not pitchers - see my previous blog posting for them.

Bill James created “the Clint Hartung Award” for amazing rookie flops. There is a good reason for that. The “Hondo Hurricane” was signed for big money by the New York Giants and was a spring training phenom in 1947, promoted as having superstar ability either as a pitcher or a hitter. Playing on military teams from 1942 to '45 he was 25-0 and hit .567. Respected sportswriter Tom Meany said of him, "Rather than stop at the Polo Grounds they should have taken him straight to Cooperstown."

In his first season he managed a 9–7 pitching record and hit .306. In 1948 his stats declined to 8-8 and .179; and in '49 he was 9 – 11 and hit just .190. His career (4 years) E.R.A. was 5.02, his fielding was never good, and reportedly he was unable to hit curveballs. Other than that he was terrific.

Walt Dropo of the Red Sox was the 1950 Rookie of the Year. He batted .322, hit 34 dingers, and drove in 144 runs. The next two years were less spectacular – 11, 57, .239 and 6, 27, .265.

Tom Tresh was destined to be the successor of Joe Dimaggio and Mickey Mantle in center field for the Yankees. Through age 27, the friendly, good-looking Tresh had won the Rookie of the Year Award (1962) and a Gold Glove, earned a top-ten MVP finish, and was on two All-Star teams. His OPS+ that year was 134. Following that, it was 122, then 103, then 89, then 79 and out. And it would be a long wait until Ron Blomberg.

Curt Blefary was the A.L. Rookie of the Year at age 21. He was 6th in the league in OPS+ in both his first and second seasons. From ages 22 through 24, his OPS+ went from 142 to 122 to 89. By the age of 26 he was no longer a regular and was traded four times in a three-and-a-half-year period, bowing out at the age of 29.

Lee Thomas hit 24 home runs in his rookie season. The next year, 1962, he hit 26 dingers, drove in 104 runs and hit..290. He was voted to the All-Star team. In 1963 though, he hit only 9 home runs, and the next year managed just 2. Thomas was traded to the Red Sox, where he rebounded somewhat, hitting 13 homers and then 22. And then he fell flat yet again, managing just ten home runs over his last four exasperating seasons.

It would be hard to fall faster than Cleveland's Joe Charbonneau. He was one of the all-time classic flops, going from media-darling Rookie of the Year to futility and minor league obscurity in just two years. His numbers from 1981 to 1983 were 23, 87, .284; 4, 18, .210; and finally 2, 9, .214. Ouch.

Merv Rettenmund played his way his way into a talent-laden Baltimore outfield (Frank Robinson, Paul Blair, Don Buford) with great performances in 1970 and 1971 (18 homers and .322 and then 11 homers and .318). But he collapsed (6 HRs and a .233 average) and was a mediocre utility man the rest of his career.

Earl Williams started big with 33 home runs for the Braves in '71 and then slowly faded away with totals of 28, 22, 14. 11, 9, and 8. He never knocked in as many as the 97 runs he did his first and second seasons and wound up with a .247 lifetime average.

The NL rookie of the Year in 1989 was Cubbie Jerome Walton. He hit .293 with 23 doubles. Then he hit .263, then .219, then .127. No wonder he spent his last six years with five different teams.

The 2004 AL Rookie of the Year was Bobby Crosby. Remember him and his 22 home runs – and his 145 strikeouts? He mostly just struck out after that – his best home run total after 2004 was 9.

In doing my research for this blog I came across something extraordinary – a season that featured a plethora of talented rookies. I used them to put together a lineup that I think would fare well against the rookies of any other season. The year was 1964 and here are its top rookies:

C - Jerry Grote 1B - Richie Allen 2B – Dick Green 3B – Jim Ray Hart SS – Bert Campaneris

OF - Tony Conigliaro OF - Alex Johnson OF - Tony Oliva OF – Jesus Alou DH – Don Buford

Pitching Staff - Luis Tiant, Mel Stottlemyre, Tommy John, Denny McLain, Mike Cuellar, Rick Wise.

Not too shabby.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

You’ve just gotta believe...

Can anyone believe that the 2011 season could have ended in a more exciting way? How many ball fans went to bed on Wednesday night thinking that the Braves might prevail against the Phillies, that the Sox had the Orioles in just the right place, and the Yankees had the Rays in a stranglehold at 7-0? The only thing that had been decided in the Wild Card race by late evening was that the Cards were still in the race since they’d drawn the Astros for the final series and crushed them – not a difficult thing to do this season.

When the last of the evening’s games ended, though, the Braves had given away the tying run in the 9th inning and lost it in the 14th, the Sox ace closer had coughed up the tying and go-ahead runs to the Orioles with 2 outs in the bottom of the 9th, and holy cow, the Yankees let the Rays back into the game with 6 runs in the bottom of the 8th (including bases-loaded walks?!), and a game-tying homer from a Ray pinch hitter who hadn’t hit a big fly since April and whose average was well-below the Mendoza line. In the 12th, Evan Longoria won it with a walk-off homer.

What the heck happened?

Arguably the most exciting wrap-up to a season ever, that’s all. Three of the four critical games were tense, nail-biting affairs, two went to extra innings, one included a lengthy rain delay and one was about as improbable as it gets.

It’s the last I’d like to comment on. What in heaven’s name was Joe Girardi thinking? I kept wondering whether he’d gone back to his office to enjoy a few hands of canasta with his brain trust while his players fiddled. Was he trying to get revenge against the hated Red Sox by coughing up the game? Did he not care how the game ended? Or was he being a petulant baby because he didn’t like the playoff schedule this year? Regardless, he left a pitcher on the mound who obviously didn’t have it that night to let the Rays climb right back into the game. His later comments showed that he didn’t want to use his primo closer and back-end pitchers because he wanted them adequately rested for the first ALDS game on Friday. Huh? For the Yankees, it was a bush league way to play this very important game. It was almost as if he wanted to lose.

I was going to root for the Tigers to win the AL this year. I like the team a lot. After thinking about game 162 for the Yankees, though, I am more inclined to root for the Rays. Wouldn’t it be sweet justice for them to prevail against the Rangers, face the Bronx Bombers for the AL crown – and then whip their butts to take the prize? That would be sweet revenge for Girardi and his managerial el-foldo in Wednesday night’s game in Tampa.

Does anyone else feel that the Yankees could have won this game if Joe Girardi had wanted to?