Thursday, May 31, 2012

Tiger Troubles

The off-season for the Tigers meant paying the big bucks for Prince Fielder. They paid a whopping 214 million dollars for a nine-year contract.  That should have assured a berth in the new playoff scenario come October. It appears that without a huge change in their fortunes, the Tigers will not be there when they need to be. I know it is still early, but they have fallen on weak hitting and worse pitching. Both are on a par with each other. The team OPS+ is 101 and ERA+ is 98. For a whopping 99.5 combined. Below average and so they are. Not what Jim Leyland wanted.

And that’s where they are sitting: a third place and a record of 23/27, .460. At the start of the season I predicted that the Tigers would, in fact, take the AL Central. 
As in the East, surprise has been the name of the game. With Indians and White Sox back and forth for first in the Central, I would suggest that the AL Central is more about the Tigers’ failures than the others’ success.

The year started great with the Tigers taking the first series against the Red Sox – they just lost 3 to the Red Sox, very average. Twenty games in, they were 10/10. At thirty, 15/15. At forty, 19/21 and now at fifty games 23/27. A slow slip from .500 ball to .460.

The money-man, Prince Fielder, has not produced as advertised.  He is way off pace to compile his HR average of 37 per year. He is on pace for 28. As for RBI, the same story applies.  He is another ten RBI lower than his average. So, for his first year of a nine-year deal, he has not shown the pop they ere expecting with the loss of Victor Martinez, whose numbers for last year were: RBI – 103, BA – .330 and OPS+ – 137. Fielder will have to step up to match his own or even Martinez’s record. 

Having gotten rid of Branden Inge, Ryan Rayburn is still not an offensive producer. His BA is .146 and Inge is now way up to .216 from a very lowly .100.

Added to this list of underachievers are Jhonny Peralta, Brennan Boesch, and the social commentator, Delmon Young. This makes five of the starting line-up below their own average performance. Alex Avila and Miguel Cabrera are at their usual pace. Austin Jackson is way above his pace and, at just three years in the majors, he has somewhat eased the pain of the loss of Curtis Granderson.  For the Tigers’ sake, I hope that Jackson is in fine form after a stint on the 15 day DL.

Batting average is not the only criteria for who is a plus on the team. For pitchers and batters, I like the ERA+ and OPS+. What’s not factored in is the percentage of BB and SO to each other. For pitchers a high number is good when you divide the number of SO by the BB. For Justin Verlander, the number is 4.86 for the best Tiger. Verlander is best in others categories as well. For example ERA – 2.14, ERA+ -188, WHIP – .802 and SO/BB at 4.86. He is still the best on the team.  The team strikes over balls is 3.01. Better than the Jays with a mere 1.77 – way too many walks.

Jose Valverde is below par this year. His WHIP is 1.655 with only nine saves. His ERA+ is 90. The pitchers have given up 53 HR this year with 452 hits and 227 earned runs.

For the hitter, it is BB divided by SO and again the higher the number the better. For Austin Jackson the number is .689, followed by Jhonny Peralta – .653 and Miguel Cabrera at .576. Below average is Prince Fielder at .483. Meaning more than twice as many SO as BB.

As for OPS+, Austin Jackson is at 163 but Rayburn is a very lowly 16. That’s right, sixteen! It would be better to send him down than have this in the starting line-up.  Another blow is that Jackson is on the DL for a few days. As the Tigers’ best offensive player, it is indeed a disaster. 

While the pitching has been decent this season, it is the hitting that has let the team down. The Tigers have lost ten of the eighteen one-run games they have played. Five of the eight wins were early in the season. The Tigers swept the first series of the year against the Red Sox and had not won a series until April 18 against the Royals. Now they have just swept the Twins and got swept by the Red Sox. Looking at the innings played, the Tigers score runs in bunches. They get to a pitcher, and then cannot seem to carry that momentum forward.

Michael Ilitch and Dave Dombrowoski will have to make some moves. They need to fill spots at second base, DH, right field and maybe catcher. All these positions are below average and some, way under. They will have to make changes, and soon, to get them back where they should be. You cannot blame Fielder for all the problems. He is having a slow start but so have Pujols and Bautista.

Now that Doug Fister – 0/3 – is on the DL again, the Tigers are in an even more precarious position. Can Phil Coke fill the gap?

This just in, the Tigers sent Rayburn down to the Mud Hens. But what will happen in the long run? I hope that’s not the only move they make.

The Tigers will have to play .821 ball, from here on in, to have a chance at a play-off birth this year. Whew!!


Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Can You Hobble Into the Hall of Fame?

As usual, Josh Hamilton leads the American League in several categories - including injuries. He has already won one MVP Award and he is looking for another MBUP (Most Banged Up Player) Award. 

And it's not just that he gets hurt on the field, he just plain has bad luck. Or is it all just bad luck? In April 2011 third base coach Dave Anderson sent him home on a shallow popup with league home run leader Nelson Cruz on deck. Hamilton has damaged legs so he slid head first and broke his arm in two places. Ironically he was DHing to lessen the chance of injury at the time. In Spring Training this year he played left instead of center to reduce the chance of injury. (See below.)

General Manager Jon Daniels prefers to avoid labeling Hamilton injury prone. "You're looking at an extremely athletic man - 6 foot 4, 240 pounds, with the way he runs and aggressive style ... you don't see that in guys that size." Note that in the situation described above Hamilton had not wanted to go home but followed his coach's orders anyway - and was out eight weeks. 

Hamilton has been hurt so many times that the Rangers' press guide has a special section for him called "Other Injuries" which lists - take a deep breath - infected root canal ... right knee soreness ... patella tendinitis ... cortisone injection of the knee ... Synvisc shot for the knee ...  lower back stiffness.

Hamilton won the 2010 AL MVP Award in spite of missing most of the last month with fractured ribs, the result of falling into a wall in Minnesota. The year before he he missed almost half the season after crashing into a wall in Toronto. At right he is taking on a wall at an All-Star game.

This season ... well he is having another great year. He leads the majors with 20 home runs, 53 runs batted in, a .753 Slugging Percentage, and a 1.175 OPS. BUT ... he's been out twice already, with back spasms at the end of April and now a bad cold. Even before the season began he'd had surgery to repair almost completely detached adductor muscles on his inner left thigh, a very rare condition - especially among baseball players. (It had been reported as just a sports hernia or a groin pull during the World Series, in which he was almost hitless.) His lower back problems, pinched nerve for example, probably stem from a serious car accident in 2001. 

In Spring Training he jammed his right heel fielding a double hit down the line. One wonders to what degree Hamilton's on-going problems with alcoholism and substance abuse affect his health and durability. He has been almost clean and sober since adopting religion in 2005, though there have been two notable slips - 2009 (pictured at left) and 2012. His urine is tested three times each week.

Hamilton is on his way to a possible Triple Crown. You would think the Rangers would be anxious to lock him into a long term contract. But Ranger CEO Nolan Ryan is far from chomping at the bit - no doubt due to the risk of locking in a player who has played 150 games only once in his career. The Rangers haven't exchanged numbers with Hamilton or his agent. A complacent Ryan says negotiating now would be a distraction. Good excuse. He seems quite ready to let Hamilton test the free agent market. 

What would you do - armchair owners/General Managers? Would you roll the dice and pay big bucks ( a lot of Hamiltons) for Hamilton? There'd be a hue and cry if he left Texas, but I'm not sure I would sign him for megamillions.

And, are you willing to bet a few more bucks that Hamilton will make it to the Hall? At 31, his career average is .313, but he has fewer than 140 home runs and 500 RBI. In spite of the numbers he puts up when he's in the lineup, how many more games will he play?

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

How Bout Dem Dodgers

If your winning percentage is .600 or better, you're having a terrific season. When it's near .700 you're on fire.  John and I have both written about the surprising Orioles, but the Dodgers, at .698, are the best team in baseball. Winning 19 of your 23 home games helps of course. And they're doing it in spite of a rash of injuries, Matt Kemp's being potentially the most damaging. Isotopes have really contributed. No, that's not some bizarre scientific theory of mine, Albuquerque Isotope call ups have ably filled in for missing starters, the latest hero being Ivan de Jesus Jr., who knocked in three late runs last night.

Kemp is/was the second best hitter in either league with a .359 average, 12 home runs, and 28 RBI in just 34 games. He's second in slugging with a .726 average, just behind Josh Hamilton's .758, and second in OPS at a whopping 1.173, just behind Hamilton's 1.186. (Okay, I guess I should mention that David Wright is batting .403 - but he doesn't hit for power like Kemp and Hamilton.) 


Kemp's been out for a week and it hasn't mattered. LA keeps on winning. They've won their last six straight without him, including last night's come from behind win over Arizona.. "I'm overwhelmed with joy," says Kemp. "I'm really proud of the way they're playing. Five guys disabled, four starters. I don't know what other teams could do with that. Everybody has stepped up. It's just amazing how everybody is doing something to help us win. It's exciting to watch." Kemp is expected back next week.

Joining Kemp on the DL have been third baseman Juan Uribe, infielder Jerry Hairston, who was hitting .315, and second baseman Mark Ellis, who was hitting .327. Think second base is a safe position to play? Well Ellis nearly had his leg amputated a day after the Cardinals' Tyler Greene upended him trying to break up a double play. Ellis was rushed to hospital after showing up the next day with severe swelling in his left leg. He was having a fine year (.273).  Healthy so far is catcher A.J. Ellis, who hit over .300 in three of his last four years in Triple-A. He's finally starting and is ninth in the NL with a .327 average.

Kemp's not the only Dodger outfielder having a great year. Tony Gwynn, whose dad could hit a bit, is having his best year yet, batting .292. Andre Ethier, who has had a rather mercurial career including arguments with management, has 9 home runs and a league-leading 40 runs batted in. He's hitting .321 and has a .965 OPS. Ethier is proving that last year (just 11 home runs) is history. His wOBA had fallen from .382 in 2008, good for tenth place among major league outfielders, to just .343 last year, which just got him into the top 30.

What is wOBA you ask. Weighted On Base Percentage is designed to evaluate a player's overall offensive performance. It is based on the concept that not all plate events are created equal. It seeks to be an even more accurate indicator of the value of a plate appearance than on base percentage or OPS. After all, a single is better than a walk - since it has a greater potential for moving runners along - and a home run, well it can clear the bases.

An average wOBA is .320. A .370 wOBA is great. Its formula changes slightly from year to year. The 2011 formula was
                        wOBA = (0.69  X BB) + 0.72 X HBP + 0.89 X 1B + 1.26 X 2B + 1.60 X 3B + 2.08 X HR + 0.25 X SB - 0.25 X CS) / PA

The Dodgers can only hope that Ethier doesn't go down like he did last year. He was .379/.442/.744 after 33 games when he injured his pinky finger and then hit .260 the rest of the way. Bobby Abreu, their fourth outfielder, is rebounding after very sub-par seasons (.255, .253 with only 8 home runs) his last two years in Lala Land. He's hitting .292.

But Kemp and Ethier aside, as you may have guessed it's pitching that's doing it for the Dodgers - a trio of lefty starters - Clayton Kershaw, Ted Lilly, and Chris Capuano. Only Atlanta's Brandon Beachy has a better record than Kershaw and Lilly. Kershaw's success is not a big surprise. In 2008 he was the youngest player in the majors. In 2009 he was 8-8, 2.79. In 2010 he was the 13-10, 2.91 and last year he was 21-5 with 248 strikeouts and a 2.28 ERA, winning the pitching Triple Crown and the Cy Young.

A surprise, though he had a couple of pretty good years with the Cubs, is Lilly, who was 12-14 last year but  is 5-0, 1.70 so far this year. I know Rick and other Blue Jay fans will remember his days in Toronto. What is different this year? Well, he's decided he needs to get ahead of right-handed hitters. He's fifth in the majors throwing a first pitch strike 68% of the time - and he's managing to do it with a variety of pitches. Righties are hitting just .163 when Lilly is on the mound. Over the past 9 years they have averaged 22 home runs off him. So far this year just one.

In spite of going 18-12 for Milwaukee in 2005, Chris Capuano was below .500 lifetime entering 2012. He was 11-12, 4.55 last year but he's 6-1, 2.25 this year. If the Dodgers, who are already seven games ahead of second place San Francisco in the West, start winning on the road too look out. And if Kershaw, Lilly, and Capuano keep this up they're going to send me scrambling through the history books to see if any other team has had three league-leading lefty starters.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

What to do about miserable umpiring?

Seems as if last week’s posting was prophetic in a way. As John pointed out to me the other day: what is it with these people named Brett? Last week, it was the classic video of George Brett’s response to being called out in the infamous Pine Tar Game. Not to be outdone, this week we had Brett Lawrie’s meltdown during a ninth-inning at bat where the umpire made not one, but two very bad strike calls against the Blue Jays’ star rookie. Here’s the coverage from MLB.com:



Okay, these talking heads are toeing the party line here. They work for Major League Baseball, so I would expect them to speak this way. Yes, Lawrie was completely out of line. Yes, he should not have fired his helmet, but it’s what’s not said that I find curious. Listen to it again. One of the heads say something about the two called strikes not being strikes, but then the whole thing is dropped to focus on the fact that Lawrie’s gonna get it from MLB. They’re making it sound as if he will be suspended for a long time. Completely forgotten from the ensuing discussion is the fact that MLB’s umpire made two horrendous calls. Lawrie had good reason to go ballistic (but firing his helmet like that was a stupid thing to do).

I can see where MLB is coming from. It has to be strictly hands-off of umpires, or the game could descent into anarchy. Case in point: some hare-brained knucklehead threw a glass of beer at Miller as he exited the field at the game’s end. But, as in my diatribe against a bad call in a Pirates game last fall, the real problem here begins and ends with the umpire and his agenda. The men in black should always strive to remain unseen. Miller didn’t do that here.

Bill Miller is not a good umpire. I could also show you a clip of an horrendous call on a play at third base last season in an A’s/Mariners game. First, here’s a computer analysis of of the Lawrie at bat. What you are seeing is where the balls were thrown from the umpire’s vantage point:



You’ll notice that pitch #5 if way off the plate. Miller called this a strike. Even with Molina behind the plate (with the reputation of being the best pitch framer in the business, Miller should have seen that this was not a strike. Lawrie, on the delayed call, starts down to first base, then Miller calls it a strike. Lawrie stalks back to the plate.

Here’s where it gets really interesting. The rookie has now shown up the veteran umpire. It’s the last pitch that is really disgusting. Miller calls Lawrie out on another ball and it’s my feeling that what you’re seeing is a bad umpire teaching the rook a lesson: don’t show me up, son, or this is what will happen. If Miller had more quickly called the fifth pitch a strike, he still would have been horribly wrong, but Lawrie, who assumed that it was clearly a ball and he had a walk, wouldn’t have started off for first base.

Now Miller had made a really bad call, compounded it by delaying it as well, but then he proceeds to blow another call, and I believe it was intentional. Miller should face some consequences. Will he? Possibly, but we’ll never know because MLB doesn’t talk about these things. The next night, Miller was at third base (Lawrie was still playing because he was appealing his 4-game suspension), and the rookie apologized to the umpire. What I would really like to know is if Miller apologized in return? He had to have seen replays by then, and if there was no vindictiveness on his part, he certainly should have acknowledged it to the rookie. My bet is that he didn’t.

Okay, now the flip side of coin. In yesterday’s Jays game against the Mets, a call was missed in the ninth inning on a throw to second by Bautista. It was a brilliant play and the Mets’ runner Baxter, trying to turn a single into a double and put his team into position to tie the game, got thrown out at second. The throw was amazing, the catch was amazing, but Escobar’s, the Jays’ shortstop, swipe tag clearly missed the sliding Met.The second base umpire was shielded on the play.

My team came out on top in this encounter, but I am still unhappy. Why? Because the Mets’ manager came out to argue the call and suggested that the umpire should ask for some help from the other umpires. This is sometimes done. The first base umpire would have clearly seen that the tag never touched the sliding Baxter. Brian Knight’s response was, “I can’t do that.”

Why the hell couldn’t he do that?

MLB really does have to do something about umpiring. Is it just me, or does it seem to be getting worse?

 -=-=-=-=-=-=-=-
Some additional reading and viewing on the subject:


From the Toronto Star

From the Vancouver Sun

And from that A’s/Mariners game:

Thursday, May 17, 2012

42

What’s in a number? For over twenty years now Bill James and the sabermetric types have shown how numbers create statistics that can give fans and teams more information on which to base their assumptions of how a player/team is or can do in real games. The reference to 42 is the number from the Hitch Hikers Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams. It is a cult classic with lots of outrageous characters and ideas. When the robot Deep Thought is sent to find the meaning of life the universe and everything. He does as he is told. It takes 7.5 million years, but after all the myriad facts gathered and tremendous computations involved, Deep Thought returns with the answer -- 42. Of course this is the answer, but it is as meaningless as the question. It is impossible to have one single all encompassing number to track down greatness and plug in success.

Will has spoken of the ERA+ and I used the OPS+ last week. I think that these numbers indicate how a player or team is doing relative to others regardless of the different parks played in. One hundred is the average mark for both measurements. They are good ways to compare all players of all time periods. Also, I think these are the best numbers for comparing all teams from both sides of the bat.

The AL East is still jammed up with all the teams scrambling for first and the unlikely Orioles tied with the Rays. So why are they ahead and Red Sox down in fifth? I am looking at whole team numbers. All teams have stars and this year it’s Josh Hamilton and Derek Jeter for career years and personal bests. But it is a team that wins or loses and managers who make lines ups and decisions on pitching. The way the ERA+ falls in the AL East is Orioles- 119, Jays -118, Yankees - 106, Rays- 100 followed by the Sox at 90 --remember 100 is average. The OPS+ is Yankees and Sox -- 115, Rays -- 114, Orioles -- 110 and the Jays -- 88. If you combine these numbers and take an average you get a rough approximation of who is in first, Orioles -- 114.5, Yankees-- 110.5, Rays -- 107, Jays -- 103 and Sox stuck at 102.5. Not actually the way it is, but fairly close for now. Just thinking out loud here.

Maybe we need more numbers, but which ones? All these teams are above average. In the AL Central it is a different matter. In the AL Central I have figured out the same scenario. The current standings are Indians, Tigers, Sox, Royals and Twins. Using my approach all the Central teams are below average. The combined average for ERA+ and OPS+ is as follows: Sox -- 99.5, Indians -- 98.5, Tigers -- 97.5, Royals -- 96, and the Twinkies at 81.
Considering other numbers, the Orioles are out in front in several categories, HRs against -- 40, WHIP -- 1.260, ERA -- 3.49 as well as OPS+. These numbers in combination would suggest their success to date.

One category not discussed is BB and SO. The Sox and the Jays have the worst record with a percentage of 1.98 and 1.78 respectively. Pretty bad since all the other AL East teams are considerably better at striking out batters.

So, which of the numbers are the best to use, which give enough practical information to the fans and the GM and managers? The Sabermetric numbers are starting to be used on a more consistent basis. However, I point out that the miracle of the 2002 Athletics has not materialized in long-term success for them. It did not work out for the Jays either when they had Billy Bean officiant, JP Riccardi. Now that Bill James himself, is in place in Boston, the Sox are in the basement.

The game of baseball is, like all sports, a horse race. You cannot predetermine a win. You can have an educated guess, but happily, all the numbers just do not add up to a certainty of success.

Please tell me which numbers you favor and which give the best information. I like the + numbers as more information is added in. Baseball is a team sport made up of hundreds individual stats. But they all have to boil-down to a number that can lead to a successful campaign or they are useless.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Where'd These Guys Come From?

What's up with the Orioles? Isn't it supposed to be the Yankees, Rays, Red Sox or perhaps Blue Jays showing the way in the AL East? Well the Rays are doing pretty well and the Yankees and Jays are hangin' in there, but the surprise of the year so far has been the O's. 

In 2009 they finished last and lost almost 100 games (98). In 2010 they finished last and lost almost as many games (96). Last year, under Buck Showalter, they still finished last, but they didn't lose quite so many games (93). Do they have enough talent to keep on getting better? Maybe.

Matt Wieters, their Gold Glove, switch-hitting, 6 foot 5 inch catcher from Goose Creek, South Carolina, was the 5th overall draft pick in 2007. He was Baseball America's Minor League Player of the Year in 2008. In March of '09 he was the Sports Illustrated coverboy as a top prospect - a catcher who can hit. In 2010, his first year in the bigs, Wieters hit 11 homers. Last year he hit 22. He already has 8 this season to go with an .897 Slugging Average.

Shortstop J.J. Hardy may not have great range, but hits a lot of home runs for a shortstop - 26 in 2007 and 24 in 2008 with the Brewers. He hit 30 last year and he has nine already this year. 

In his first three years with the O's center fielder Adam Jones averaged 20 home runs. This year he already has 11. The Orioles have three of the top ten home run leaders in the league at this point.

Third baseman Mark Reynolds still led the league but he did not strike out 200 times last year (196) after years of 204, 223, and 211 K's. Ouch. But in his best year - in Arizona - he had 44 home runs and 103 RBI and he hit 37 homers in 2011, his first year in Baltimore. He has just two this year and guess what - he's still strikin' out a lot - 36 times in 89 at bats! What if he starts making contact? 

How about their pitching? Well, six foot six Jason Hammell was 27-30 in the past three years in Colorado with an ERA over 4.50, but he's 4-2 this year with a 2.68 ERA. Not much was expected of Brian Matusz (1-9, 10.68 ERA in 2011) and he is 2-4, 5.50 this year. Jake Arrieta, who was 10-8 last season, has disappointed so far just 2-4, 5.15. 

The big star has been leftie Wei-Yin Chen. He's 4-1 with a 2.45 ERA. In 2009 Chen had the lowest ERA (1.54) since 1968 in the Nippon Professional League's Central League. Last night he outpitched C.C. Sabathia, allowing the potent Yankee lineup just four hits in seven innings. 

Are these Orioles the same team we have come to know and expect in last place? Sabathia had lost only twice in 24 starts against the O's. He lost to them last night. A fluke? Well, Baltimore pitchers have now held the Yanks to two or fewer runs in four of their last five meetings.

It helps that their bullpen has been great. They are a combined 8-2. Closer Jim Johnson, who had just nine saves last year, got his 12th in 12 chances in '12 last night. And Pedro Strop (3-1) has finished seven of the Orioles' games. His ERA is just 1.29.

So is Baltimore for real? The Blue Jays thought they had their hands full worrying about passing the Yankees, Rays, and Red Sox. Now everybody's got to worry about the O's too.

Okay, you know I always have to say something about the old days. And I try to give Rick and our readers a bit of trivia to take to the local watering hole. So here goes. I mentioned that Matt Wieters, the Oriole catcher, was a switch hitter ... name five well-known catchers who have been switch hitters. Stop reading. Flip through the memory files.

How'd you do? According to the Encyclopedia of Baseball Catchers, there have been 82 switch hitters behind the plate. I came up with four of these well-known six ... Todd Hundley, Alan Ashby, Butch Wynegar, Ted Simmons, Jason Varitek, and of course Jorge Posada. Now you're ready to head to the bar.



Saturday, May 12, 2012

On the trail of the lonesome pine...

One thing I really enjoy is talking baseball with other fans who love the game as much as I do. It’s especially fine when the person happens to be an old timer – which is sort of what I’m getting to be.

A few years ago, I met a real old timer who had seen Dodger games many times back when the team was still The Brooklyn Dodgers. This man saw Jackie Robinson hit a home run and steal home. He told me all about “The Boys of Summer” and that was just exceptionally cool. Even at 92, his memory was crystal clear and he really brought that long-gone ballpark and that amazing team to life for me. It’s was an amazing experience.

One of my clearest personal memories is an event I shared with John. No, we weren’t at the ballpark. It was on TV. I’d dropped by John’s house so we could play a little catch, maybe shag some fungoes, since we were playing softball regularly in those days.

Walking into John’s livingroom, a ball game was on: the Yankees hosting the Royals. Back then the Royals had a potent lineup, centered around their all-star third baseman, George Brett. Top of the ninth and the Royals down by a run, Goose Gossage was on the mound and UL Washington was standing on first base as Brett strode to the plate.

Brett never used batting gloves and to get a more secure grip on his bats, he used pine tar to make the handle sticky. As bats were used, more and more pine tar got on them. Yankees manager, Billy Martin (or Greg Nettles, as some stories go), had noticed that – and the fact that it was illegal – but kept the observation to himself for use at a strategic time. July 24, 1983 gave him that strategic opportunity.

I’ll let the following video tell the next part of the story. Bear in mind that John and I were watching this fascinating and memorable event unfold on TV:



I will never forget seeing Brett, eyes bulging, a look of complete craziness on his face as he rushed out of the visitor’s dugout that afternoon. John mumbled, “Holy crap!” and we just silently watched as the circus arrived in town. What a memory of one of the oddest incidents in the history of the game.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Save Us All

Well, Tuesday night the Jays closer, Francisco Cordero, blew his third save attempt. That makes seven out of eleven blown saves so far this season for the Jays. That’s 64%, pretty bad. The other leaders at blown saves are Sergio Santos with two and Darren Oliver and Casey Janssen with one each.

The Jays managed to go ahead in the ninth, up 3-2. Cordero got burned on an inside pitch to Cliff Pennington who hit a single, scoring Michael Taylor. The big one came with the “heavy hitter” Brandon Inge – .137 – on a breaking ball served over the plate for a grand slam. Inge was released by the Tigers for lack of offense. Goes to show, you cannot relax when even a weak hitter like Inge can stroke one out of the park. Cordero was not sharp and said as much after the game. How long do we have to wait for the return of Santos? Hopefully not long. Cordero and Santos have actually made two saves apiece. Cordero, with the grand slam last night, now has an ERA of 9.53. Santos was at 9.00. These ERA are not closer numbers. The best ERA is from Darren Oliver, but he has pitched only 20 innings. Late breaking note: Cordero is out as closer and Janssen is in.

So why, 30 games into the season, have the Jays had 11 save opportunities? The starters have done their bit with good starts and lots of innings. The bullpen – which gave so much last year until they burned out – has not been effective at all this year. The whole of the pitching staff have given up 42 HR, most in the league. Still, the real truth is the offense has been completely below average.

The big bats of last year have gone cold. Why, I have no idea. The Jays have plenty of people coaching the problem, but wow. The team is hitting just .238 with an OPS+ of just 91. The Orioles have BA of .254 and OPS+ of 109. The pitching is almost the same in WHIP, Jays – 1.254 and Orioles – 1.247

On the leader boards, the Jays don’t show up but with a couple of exceptions: Kelly Johnson with runs scored at 21 and the “Big E” Encarnacion number three in HR – 9 and RBI at 25.

Everyone has an idea on why Bautista is not hitting. But all the ideas have been tried. He is just too angry with himself right now. Anger will not help the mental state of each at-bat. Until last night, he was arguing every call on every pitch. The umpires simply will not put up with that attitude. They will not give him the calls they gave last year when you challenge them like that. You have to swing at good pitches, not the bad, and they will sometimes reciprocate when it’s close. I have said that with Bautista things will improve, but he has now had 137 at bats and not much is happening.

For both Bautista and Lind, the last 100 games is not a pretty sight. Both are well below .200. Adam Lind may be on the way out. His big year of 2009 has not materialized into consistent hitting since then. One reason the Tigers released Inge is because he cannot hit consistently. So… who would we get? Lyle Overbay (44 at bats) is hitting .289 with an OBP of .474 as a utility Diamondback. Just kidding.

Only two players have a positive OPS+, Kelly Johnson – 137 – and Edwin Encarnacion – 137. Both are surprises, especially Johnson. Most of the offense to date has rested on this pair. The shocking thing is that the Jays are still only 3 back of the miracle Orioles. If we had the saves and Lind and Bautista hitting for average maybe this could have been the year. Hopefully it’s not too late.

With so many players at the Mendoza line, I wonder if there really is some other problem going on. Has the positive clubhouse mentality broken down? Are there cliques that have formed? Something is going on outside of the lines and maybe now is the time to address it. John Farrell must get in the mix.

By the way, thanks to Will for his use of ERA+. It is a great number to use and that’s why I choose OPS+ for today’s blog.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

What a relief! Pun Intended

Thanks Mariano. It's bad enough to have a Red Sox player be the all-time leader in something. If it were a great guy like Carl Yastrzemski you wouldn't mind, but a guy like Pedro Martinez, yecch. Well, most fans know that Mariano Rivera, who will be out for a while after injuring himself shagging flies, is the all-time leader in saves, but few know that he has surpassed Pedro Martinez as the leader in career Adjusted ERA, or ERA+. 

The ERA+ is a pitcher's ERA adjusted for the parks he pitched in and the league's ERA. It is based at 100. If the average ERA in the league is 4.00 and a pitcher is pitching in a park that favors hitters and his ERA is 4.00, his ERA will be over 100. If the average ERA in a park is 3.00 and he is pitching in a park that favors pitchers and his ERA is 3.00 the pitcher's ERA will be below 100. 

The beauty of the ERA+ for me is that pitchers can be compared across different eras, the same way that hitters can be compared using OPS. Bob Gibson's ERA of 1.12 in 1968 was the best in the modern era – the lowest since Dutch Leonard's 0.96 ERA 54 years before. Gibson ended up just 22-9 though. I don't know if it's possible to determine, but I'm guessing that Gibson had the lowest 2-month ERA ever in '68. In 92 innings in June and July he gave up 2 runs for a 0.20 ERA. 

But in 1968 major league hitters batted .237. In 1930 the major league AVERAGE was .296. The league's ERA in 1968 was was just 2.99. How times change.

Martinez, who certainly has to be rated among the best starters of all time, had the second best season ERA+ (291) in 2000. (See below for the best.) Then we drop a bit to Dutch Leonard's 279 in 1914, then to  Greg Maddux in 1994 with 271 and 262 the very next year.

Martinez had a career ERA+ of 154, which leads Jim Devlin at 151, Lefty Grove at 148, Hoyt Wilhelm, Smoky Joe Wood, and Walter Johnson at 147, Dan Quisenberry at 146, and Ed Walsh at 145.

The career ERA+ leaders among active players (after Rivera) are Johan Santana (142), Roy Halladay (137), Tim Linecum (133), Felix Hernandez, and Jered Weaver (130).

If you are thinking that Gibson should have done better than a 22-9 record with an ERA of 1.12 consider that Tim Keefe was just 6-6 with the Troy Tojans in 1880 in spite of the best season ERA+ ever - a whopping 295. 

And Walter Johnson, who was famous for losing 1-0 games, was  just 25-17 with the 1910 Senators in spite of a sparkling 1.36 ERA.  He did better in 1913 when he had the sixth best ERA+ of all time (one ahead of Gibson's 258 ERA+ in '68). The Big Train was 36-7 in 1913. His ERA was 1.14. 

Baseball history fans talk about how great Bob Feller and others would have been if they hadn't gone to war at the height of their careers. Or what if Ted Williams had played in Yankee Stadium and Joe Dimaggio had played in Fenway? Well, what if Walter Johnson had pitched for anybody but the Senators. He might have won as many games as Cy Young.

More about Tim Keefe, Jim Devlin, Smoky Joe Wood and other great hurlers is in future installments. Mariano, I know you're 42, but heal quickly. In a game that is now all about the closer you have been the greatest. Rick talked about his regular season achievements but Rivera has also been among the greatest ever in the World Series – not that the Yankees seem headed there this year even if Mariano can come back.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

A giant leaves the big stage

First of all, apologies for not posting yesterday, but I was out of town on a book promotion visit to Genrecon in Sarnia. An added benefit was that I got to see one of our faithful readers, Ellen Dark – and of course, we talked some baseball. Always great to see you, Ellen!
-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-

On Thursday, one of the giants of the current game (as opposed to one of the Giants) suffered what might be a career-ending injury. I’m sure you know I’m referring to Mariano Rivera, closer par excellence of the New York Yankees, the all-time saves leader (608), known affectionately – or unaffectionately – in some circles as The Sandman. You don’t have a fifteen-year career as a closer for one of baseball’s elite teams if you aren’t something incredibly special. Usually, when Mo came into a game it was all over for the opposing team. With a lifetime ERA of 2.21 and WHIP of 0.998 for his 18 seasons in the majors, you can see why everyone thought it was lights out. He also recorded the lowest ERA ever (0.70) and the most saves in one season (42).

The astonishing thing is that the Panamanian Rivera was able to accumulate this stunning resumé with basically just one pitch: a cutter unlike anyone has ever thrown. Still able pump it in in the mid-90s, every batter to face him knew what we coming and yet still they could seldom get much out of him. When someone beat Rivera it was big news and he kept it up season after season. It could be argued that Mo’s cutter is the most famous pitch since Satchel Paige’s ne plus ultra fastball, Long Tom.

While all of these stats are pretty amazing, I’d like to focus on is this extraordinary athlete’s less-obvious qualities. In a position that has more than its share of showboaters (I’m talking about you, Jonathan Papelbon, but there have been others), Rivera always conducted himself with class and dignity. If you want a current absolutely certain inductee to Cooperstown, Mariano Rivera is that man. Everyone respects him, and I’ll bet nearly every ballplayer who ever played with him or stood in the box against him admires the way he always conducted his business: calmly, methodically and with dignity. And that’s a fine legacy. No one will ever say about Rivera, “Sure, he was the greatest closer, but boy, was he an ‘a-hole’”.

One thing Mo loved doing and considered part of his training was to shag fly balls during patting practice. He was doing just that on Thursday before a game against the Royals. Always grinning while he joshed with teammates and anyone around, it was easy to see that he just loved being on the field, doing something that every kid in every sandlot on the planet enjoys doing. Drifting back to snag a just another fly ball, he caught a cleat on the edge of the warning track. You can tell from the video that it must have been incredibly painful. This is not a man who is outwardly demonstrative, even in the thick of battle. Everyone present knew his season certainly and possibly his career is done. Rivera has said he doesn’t want to end like this and that he will be back, and I would not count him out, but the fact of the matter is that he was already seriously thinking of retirement and his age is 42. An injury this large could well pull the plug on him, regardless of his determination.

I don’t think it’s too dramatic to say that not since the death of Thurman Munson have the Yankees suffered such a catastrophic loss. They may well not miss a beat getting someone to fill in for Rivera (probably David Robertson), but no matter what happens, no one will easily be able to fill this man’s shoes.

Here’s wishing him well, no matter what happens. It will no doubt be a great while before we see his like again.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Yu Hoo! The Jays Win 2

It has been a big series for the Jays. With the table set pretty much for 2012, it was time to finally play the best team in baseball and see how this Jays team settled in. Well, Yu Darvish did exactly as predicted, beating the Jays with five different pitches thrown at will, causing big and bad swings from the Jays lumber yard. It is great that Edwin Encarnacion tagged the Whirling Darvish and went yard. It was the first time in Darvish’s budding MLB career.
Over the next two games the Jays’ very dead bats came alive and cashed in 19 runs to the Rangers 13. Whew, just enough. When you play the Rangers you need all the runs you can get. As of today they still have the best record in baseball. Kelly Johnson and Edwin Encarnacion have really been the highlights of, not only this series, but the year so far. Johnson, who came here as an Aaron Hill look-a-like, has really blossomed at lead off. And of course, my favorite position player, Encarnacion, is not playing in the field and has found his niche at DH – 9hr and 24 RBI. I am glad he did. With no throwing and no catching the big E has come alive. He is starting this year where he finished up last year. The starting pitching has been excellent so far, with a combined 10 wins of the 14 recorded.
The other hits were very timely in this series. Brett Lawrie’s walk-off HR is a harbinger of things, we hope, to come. Even Jose Bautista is slowly picking up the pace. His frustration at himself is evident to even the most casual observer and I am sure it will soon pass. I am excited for this rally. It feels very good to beat the best. Well, the job is far from done. Look at the standings in the AL East. It is completely jammed up. The current top four are within 3.5 games. Even the Red Sox might possibly come alive and really complicate the division. They are only 5.5 back, and it’s early.
The AL East will remain as close as this for the entire season. Different teams will lead for a while, a real dog’s breakfast. The Jays will have to be consistent, like they have not been recently. When one player breaks down another will have to step up. They have. As I have said before, this is a scrappy bunch. I like John Farrell’s handling of this team. They are responding. Do we have enough? I don’t think so. Alex Anthopoulos will have to correct some of the weaknesses and it will be a painful task. We need another strong arm and another bat. Where to get them and what do you trade away? Are we ready to make those moves this year? I think every year is the year to go for it. I understand that a tremendous cost goes with that concept. But I remember “Stand” Pat, who made the biggest trade in – maybe – baseball history on December 5,1990. Will Anthopoulos surprise us this year? Will he become “Angling” Alex? Probably not. Next year, always next year!

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Comparing Franchises

On Sunday night I noted Todd Helton's pinch-hit grand slam (in a losing cause) against the Mets and reflected on how the career .322 hitter is generally overlooked due to his playing half his games at hitter-friendly Coors Field. It's true – he's a great hitter at home (.353, 214 HRs, 800 RBI) and just a good hitter on the road (.290, 137, 524). Is that a fluke? No. Carlos Gonzales is .330, 54, 184 at Coors and just .264, 27, 98 on the road! Jay Payton is an example of a player who was mediocre with a bat except for the two years he played in Colorado – .339 and .322 at home and .267, .281 on the road. One last example – Garrett Atkins – .321 at Coors, .251 lifetime elsewhere.

Anyway, I got thinking about how Derek Jeter was breaking Yankee team records and decided to see how Helton rates among Rockie record holders. (Very few players have spent most, much less all, of their careers in Colorado.) Well, Larry Walker (right) holds the Colorado records for batting average (.334), Slugging Average, OPS, and On Base Percentage, and Eric Young is their top career base stealer, but Helton holds just about every other offensive record – games, hits, runs, singles, doubles, home runs, extra base hits, RBIs, walks, strikeouts, runs created, and sacrifice flies.

And then I noticed a truly depressing number – most career wins. The team record holder is Aaron Cook (left)– - with a measly 72 wins. That says a lot about the franchise. Compare that to other MLB franchise leaders starting with the 'original' franchises. Here are the all-time leaders in the National league. Reds – Eppa Rixley – 179, Cubs – Charley Root – 201, Pirates – Wilbur Cooper – 201, Dodgers – Don Sutton 233,  Cards – Bob Gibson – 251, Braves – Warren Spahn – 356, and the NL team wins champ – the Giants – Christy Mathewson – 372.

The AL 'original' team leaders are Red Sox - Roger Clemens and Cy Young - 192 (but Cy won 286 games with the Spiders, Perfectos, and Cardinals), Tigers - Hooks (good curveball) Dauss (right) - 222, Yankees - Whitey Ford - 236, White Sox - Ted Lyons - 260, Indians - Bob Feller - 266, A's - Ed Plank - 284, Orioles - Jim Palmer - 286, and the guy ain't nobody gonna catch ... Senators - Walter Johnson - 417 (Jim Kaat's a few back with 190).

Now, to be fair, let's compare Cook's 72 wins to the top winners among the new or newish teams.  Rays - James Shields 72.  (He tied Cook, but the Rockies started in '93 and the Rays in '98), Brewers - Jim Slaton - 117, Rangers - Charlie Hough - 139,  Astros - Joe Niekro - 144, Mariners - Jamie Moyer - 145,  Royals - Paul Splitorff - 166,  Toronto - Dave Stieb - 175,  Mets - Tom Seaver - 198.

I got to thinking about all-time franchise lineups. I'll pick an 'original' franchise - the Tigers (for John). Here's my lineup. C- Mickey Cochrane 1B - Hank Greenfield, 2B - Charlie Gehringer, 3B - George Kell, SS - Alan Trammell, OF - Ty Cobb, Sam Crawford, Harry Heilmann, Al Kaline, DH - Norm Cash, Starting Pitchers - Hal Newhouser, Tommy Bridges, Denny McLain, Hooks Dausss, Mickey Lolich, Relievers -Todd Jones, John Hiller.

Okay, their starting pitching isn't great, but that's quite a batting order. Cobb, Heilmann, Crawford, Greenberg, Gehringer, Cochrane, Cash, Kell, Trammell. (Sorry Al, you're warmin' the bench with Harvey Kuenn, Kirk Gibson, and Cecil Fielder.

Now let's look at a newer franchise, the Astros. Here they are .. C - Alan Ashby, 1B - Jeff Bagwell, 2B - Craig Biggio, 3B - Doug Rader, SS - Dickie Thon (left), OF - Jimmie Wynn, Cesar Cedeno, Terry Puhl, Lance Berkmann, Bob Watson. Starting pitchers Larry Dierker, J. R. Richard, Mike Scott, Joe Niekro, and Nolan Ryan. Relief pitchers -  Billy Wagner, Dave Smith. Certainly nothing like the Tigers is it. 

Here's my all-time Colorado Rockies team. Hold onto your hats. C - Joe Girardi, 1B -  Todd Helton  2B - Cliff Barnes, 3B - Vinny Castilla,  SS - Troy Tulowitzki (right), OF - Larry Walker, Dante Bichette, Matt Holliday  SP - Mike Hampton, Aaron Cook, Jeff Francis, Ubaldo Jimenez, Jason Jennings, RP - Jose Jimenez, Brian Fuentes, Jerry Dipotot. I'm not sure that group is good enough to beat the lineup of any other team in any given year much less their all-time team!

Anyway, here is your interesting fact from the past. Louis Birbauer, who played for the Philadelphia Athletics, was the best second baseman in the American Association.  He jumped to the Players League in 1890 and played alongside shortstop John Montgomery Ward, the league's founder. When the league folded the next year it was assumed that he would return to the Athletics due to the reserve clause. But the Athletics had somehow left him off their list and an arbitrator declared him a free agent. In a move that was described as "piratical", he was stolen by the Pittsburgh Alleghenies, who were soon named for their treachery. The Pirates have kept their name longer than any other club. The Phillies would have the record, but were known as the Blue Jays in 1944-45. Perhaps Rick can impress the gang at the bar with that bit of baseball lore.