The Futility Infielder

A Baseball Journal by Jay Jaffe I'm a baseball fan living in New York City. In between long tirades about the New York Yankees and the national pastime in general, I'm a graphic designer.

Wednesday, March 27, 2002


Getting Off Base

While Pirates manager Lloyd McClendenon provided a highly entertaining exception last year, the old adage "you can't steal first base" is as true as it ever was. If not even truer--for if sabermetrics has taught us anything, it's the importance of getting on base to make an offense go. It doesn't take a propellerhead to figure out that baseball is at its heart a very simple game: score more runs than your opponent, and make your allotted 27 outs last as long as possible in order to do so. A disciplined hitter drawing a walk beats a slap-hitter showing off his speed as he grounds out to short--every time.

As sabermetrics has brought the fruits of its labor to the public attention, the past few years have seen an emphasis on On Base Percentage in baseball management circles, most notably with the Yankees (prior to last year's model, at least) and the Oakland A's. And while evidence that those inside and outside the game are catching on abounds (though if it's "a fad," as this article states, then so is gravity), the talk coming out of the mouths of some managers and players in recent days is surprisingly unenlightened.

Exhibit A Dodger manager Jim Tracy named Cesar Itzuris his new shortstop, a reasonable choice given his options (Alex Cora, the poor manager's Rey Ordoñez?). Itzuris is four years younger than Cora, and a better hitter, though not by that much (his minor league OBP is a lousy .294). Whatever englightenment Tracy showed in choosing Itzuris, he threatened to undo it in one fell swoop in telling the LA Times that his new shortstop will "bring some energy, some speed, and the potential to create more run-scoring opportunities to the top of the lineup." Tracy is apparently "tinkering with" the idea of batting Itzuris leadoff, though a more likely scenario has him hitting second--with one of the Dodgers appalling centerfield options, Dave Roberts (30 years old, career OBP .292 in 165 major league at-bats) leading off.

Tracy had a mixed track record in his first season at the Dodger helm. He kept a team with a decimated pitching staff in the pennant race until the final week of the season, but he bore a fair share of responsibility for a wheezing offense. He worked through leadoff options both unconventionally great (Paul Lo Duca, .374 OPB) and unimaginably awful (the $8.4 million, two-headed, sub-.300 OBP vortex of suck that is Tom Goodwin and Marquis Grissom), and shot himself in the foot more often than not. If he refuses to learn from his mistakes, it's going to be a long season in Chavez Ravine. [Late breaking news: Rob Neyer writes about the Dodgers' on-base problems in his column today.]

Exhibit B Phillies manager Larry Bowa has come under fire in this space for attempting to tinker with the approach of his nephew, Yankees DH/1B prospect Nick Johnson. In four minor league seasons, Johnson's OBP has ranged between a spended .398 and a jaw-dropping .525. The idea of the impatient slap hitter Bowa advising Johnson got this writer's eyes rolling.

On his own team, Bowa jettisoned Doug Glanville and his appalling .285 OBP from the leadofff spot late last season in favor of Jimmy Rollins's .323 OBP (though to be fair, Rollins was at .346 in the #1 spot, compared to .303 at #2). Still, Glanville remains undeterred by his lack of success. "I know it's important to get on base,'' says Glanville. "But there's also what you do when you get on. There are a lot of intangibles. It's not about walking; I know that. You have to be disciplined within the strike zone. It' s not about knowing the strike zone, it's about knowing your strike zone. Why take a pitch you can handle because you're trying to walk?'' For an Ivy League graduate, Glanville could use refresher course.

Exhibit C None other than Joe Torre seems to have caught this here fever goin' 'round. Early this spring, Derek Jeter and his .392 career OBP seemed slated--and perfectly so--for the leadoff spot to replace the departed Chuck Knoblauch. But Torre told reporters the other day that Alfonso Soriano might get the nod instead. "The way Soriano's swinging the bat right now, don't be surprised if he leads off," said Torre, admitting that he wasn't completely married to the idea: "That could change. I haven't totally made up my mind, but right now, it sure looks good with those two guys getting on base at the top of the order, with the guys we have in the middle."

As a rookie, Soriano showed flashes of brilliance from spring training through Game 7 of the World Series. Nonetheless, he demonstrated plate discipline which left much to be desired: he didn't draw his first walk until April 29, and finished with a .304 OBP and a strikeout to walk ratio of over 5 to 1. Compared to Jeter, Soriano gets on base roughly one fewer time per ten at bats--that's once every other game! While he's smoking the ball this spring to the tune of .310, he has a grand total of 2 walks in 84 at bats, for an OBP of .326. That simply won't cut it at the top of the Yankee lineup, not when Jeter, Bernie Williams, and Nick Johnson (if he lives up to his reputation) can provide OBPs in the neigborhood of .380-400.

Just what in the hell is going on here? I don't even pretend to know. Certainly, in the case of the Yankees, they are attempting to get more at bats for a hitter who may or may not be the next Vladimir Guerrero. But the lesson of the way the Yank offense's struggles mirrored Chuck Knoblauch's declining OBP should be fresh in Joe Torre's mind, and no amount of base stealing will make up for that. Soriano set a Yankee rookie record with 43 steals; unfortunately, he was thown out 14 times, nettting the Yanks 3.26 according to the Extrapolated Runs formula; Jeter's 27/30 running resulted in a net gain of 3.9 runs by comparison.

At least one team has it right. The Oakland A's, retooling their offense with their stud Jason Giambi's departure to the Yanks, have apparently settled on Jason's brother Jeremy as their leadoff hitter. Though Little G doesn't fit the classic profile of the speedy base-stealer we imagine when we think "leadoff hitter," he shares his brother's plate discipline--a .391 OBP, miles better than last year's leadoff, Johnny Damon (.324) or his most obvious replacement, Terrence Long (.335).

Oh well, the spring folly that this obviously is will make itself abundantly clear to Joe Torre in due time--I give it a few weeks, tops. I'm less optimistic about some of Torre's peers. Speed is a wonderful thing in a ballplayer, because it comes into play both offensively and defensively, but in this high-offense era, a stolen base simply isn't worth as much as it is when runs are scarce, and any manager with visions of stealing runs with an undisciplined hitter in the 1 spot is likely to be sorely disappointed.

A great deal of what any manager says to the press during spring training can be tossed out the window as soon as it hits the papers (most of the rest of it can be tossed by Opening Day). Lord knows, watching the skippers get their cliches in shape ("We're going to run more this year," "We're going to concentrate on the fundamentals," etc.) is half the fun of springtime. But sooner, rather than later, these theories will get played out on the ballfield, where the physics of baseball will take their hold. And the truth will be abundantly clear once again.

Sunday, March 24, 2002


Exhibition Season Among the Dinosaurs

Last weekend, I paid a visit to the Baseball As America exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History here in NYC. The just-opened exhibit is a traveling show featuring over 500 artifacts from the National Baseball Hall of Fame's collection. It's organized around seven themes which examine the game's symbolism and its connection to the broader American culture. Baseball as American history--if not quite as natural as the dinosaur bones elsewhere in the museum, then not quite as creepy as the ancient people dioramas, either.

This is the first time the Hall of Fame has sent its treasures on such a barnstorming tour, an effort designed to bring these relics to a wider audience. According to one report, 12 million people have visited the Hall of Fame in its 63 years, but this exhibit, which will travel the country for the next three years, is expected to bring in 4 or 5 million people. As such, I went to the museum expecting Portable Hall of Fame Lite, a breezy but obvious parade of some famous gloves, bats, balls, and photos celebrating the Babe, the Mick, Connie Mack, and Big Mac. But I found a much different exhibit than I expected, and came away impressed on several counts.

Baseball As America offers as much a confrontation with baseball's myths and legends as it does a celebration of them. In displaying the Doubleday baseball (a crumbling four-piece ball whose stitching has long since given up the ghost), for example, the curators accurately locate General Doubleday's place in the game's creation myth rather than its actual origins. Evidence of the good, the bad, and the ugly aspects of the game's history is all here in artifacts which run the gamut from the famous (FDR's Green Light Letter) to the infamous (midget pinch-hitter Eddie Gaedel's 1/8 uniform), from the sublime (the Honus Wagner T-206 card) to the mundane (a shoebox full of cards "not thrown away by someone's mother," as the display notes), from the shockingly racist (a cast-iron 19th century toy called "Darktown Battery") to the completely silly (the Reggie Bar).

Most impressive was the solid critical examination the exhibit gave to issues of race and gender. The "Ideals and Injustices" segment takes up the color line issue in a variety of ways beyond the expected Negro League photographs and memorabilia. An arrangement of baseball cards juxtaposes those of Jackie Robinson, Larry Doby, and Minnie Minoso with those of Elston Howard, the first black Yankee (1956, nine years after the Dodgers brought up Robinson), and Pumpsie Green, the first black on the last team to integrate, the Red Sox (1959). An installation features Robinson's uniform alongside the transcript of a speech he gave at the 1972 World Series, exclaiming that he'll be "more pleased and more proud when I look at that third base coaching line one day and see a black face managing in baseball." The issue of blacks in management comes up again nearby, in a photo of Frank Robinson holding a newspaper announcing his hiring as manager of the Cleveland Indians.

As if to illustrate that even that event heralded only minor progress in the country's views on race, another installation contrasts two letters to Hank Aaron during his all-time home run record chase. One is from an admiring fan who had named his child Aaron Henry, the other is a crudely-written anonymous piece of hate mail calling him Aaron a "dirty OLD Niggerman". Not exactly the kind of memorabilia one can just vapidly cruise past.

And speaking of the Cleveland Indians, Native American issues get their space here as well. There's an installation highlighting the old practice of nicknaming "Chief" any player with Native American blood, such as Charles A. Bender and John T. Myers (not to mention Indian Bob Johnson), and a cartoon lampooning the use of Native American mascots. There's also a series of displays devoted to the female presence in the game, from shots of turn-of-the-century pitcher Alta Weiss to uniforms from the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League (the basis of the movie A League of Their Own), to photos of and artifacts from women players, umpires, broadcasters, and owners.

One of the recurring themes across several installations was the way that war-time baseball binds a community together in the face of adversity and uncertainty. There's a striking photo of a GI ballfield in Morocco, circa 1943, bearing a sign that says "Yankee Stadium". Another photo shows soldiers playing ball on a field in Europe, their rifles propped up in foul territory while explosions from military engineers detonating land mines blacken the sky overhead. As the exhibition recognizes, the war-time bond also extended to those in captivity. There's a Civil War-era lithograph showing Union POWs playing ball in a Confederate prison, an irregularly-shaped bat carved from a tree limb used by Americans confined in World War II Germany, and a wooden home plate from a Japanese internment camp in the U.S.--yet another illumnination of a darker corner of this country's history.

Not everything was quite so confrontational. The "Invention and Ingenuity" section was fascinating as well as interactive. Alongside an explication of the Navier-Stokes Equation (which explains, mathematically, why a curveball curves) are several baseballs mounted so as to allow visitors to try the grips for various pitches and see the way the ball rotates as it leaves their hands. The lumber also gets its fair shake--visitors can pick up various bats and feel for themselves the trend towards smaller, lighter sticks. Some of the game's more ingenious inventions (the first padded catcher's mitt, Steve Yeager's throat protector) are here, alongside the sillier ones (Charlie O. Finley's orange baseball and a drawing for a device that looks like a multiple-rodent trap affixed to a catcher's chest).

The "Enterprise and Opportunity" section is chock-full of colorful products endorsed by or depticting players--the ubiquitous Wheaties boxes, the aforementioned Reggie Bar, a can of BroccaPop (a soda endorsed by Lou Brock), Ted Williams fishing tackle, Babe Ruth underwear (ewww), and old-school bobblehead dolls. This portion of the exhibit also deals with the business side of baseball, showing old player contracts, a photo of early luxury boxes in Cincinnati's Palace of the Fans ballpark, Curt Flood's letter to Commissioner Bowie Kuhn (cc'ed to Marvin Miller) challenging the Reserve Clause, and a hardbound portfolio for the marketing of free-agent Alex Rodriguez.

Some of my other favorite pieces from around the exhibit:

• a parlor baseball game with a spinner (c.1878) in which four different-colored rings, divided into 48 sections each, describe the outcomes for the batter and runners at each base.

• a photo of barnstorming ballplayers, including Albert Spalding, climbing all over the Sphinx in Egypt (c. 1889).

• the hand-written manuscript for "Take Me Out to the Ball Game," by Jack Norworth (c. 1908).

• an elaborate scrapbook put together by two fans named Alan and David Jackman, containing newspaper cutouts and drawings of players, dozens to a page (c. 1912).

• a ball signed by 10 U.S. Presidents (Taft, Harding, Coolidge, Hoover, F. Roosevelt, Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, L. Johnson, and Nixon).

• the Presidential Box Seat from Washington, D.C.'s Griffith Stadium--though how it contained the enormous derriere of President Taft is left unexplained.

• a giant scoreboard from a Pennsylvania hotel used to recreate the action--lineups, the count, runners on base, location of a hit ball--of a World Series game for the benefit of a gathered public (c. 1927).

• a 1951 photo of rookie Willie Mays playing stickball with Harlem youth Dressed in street clothes, his forearm muscles taut as he strides into his swing, the young Mays already looks like a specimen to be carved into baseball's equivalent of Mount Rushmore.

• a hot-dog basket from the Harry M. Stevens company (c. 1940s).

• Harry Caray's enormous eyeglasses.

• an Andy Warhol painting of Tom Seaver (1985)--it's tough to imagine the hip, enigmatic pop artist taking an interest in sports, let alone a player as square as Seaver (though I'll allow that New Yorkers in 1969 probably felt differently about Tom Terrific).

• For all that I took in, I discovered later that there was one portion of the exhibit that I missed. The downstairs food court at the AMNH is serving a lineup of hot dogs from ballparks and cities around the country, from Dodger Dogs to Chicago Red Hots to Fenway Franks to Milwaukee Brats to a half-dozen other regional variations. Roll over, Harry Stevens, and tell Oscar Mayer the news.

Having paid a visit to the Hall of Fame about 18 months ago, I couldn't help but compare Baseball as America with its older stay-at-home sibling. To someone who's already seen the Hall, this offered a fresh perspective, one less rooted in the nuts and bolts of the game's development or its heroes (though they are here) than in the larger trends which shaped the game and were shaped by it. And while nothing can quite duplicate the sense of history one gets from being in the hallowed Hall--there are no plaques here, for one thing, and the sensory overload isn't nearly as great--this certainly will suffice for a large group of people who may never get to Cooperstown. More hopefully, it will entice them to make the effort to visit upstate New York. Any baseball fan in the New York City area owes him or herself a visit to this exhibit, and anyone lucky enough to find themselves in one of the tour's future cities should do so as well when it passes through.

Friday, March 22, 2002


Introducing "The Clubhouse Lawyer"

The Futility Infielder is no longer just the sound of one man yapping. Today I'd like to introduce you to Nick Stone, who will be contributing his own column to this site on an occasional basis and perhaps collaborating in other areas as well. More than just a great friend who lives around the corner, Nick's been a big part of my baseball experience since moving to New York City. We've spent countless hours talking ball and taking in ballgames over the past six years, from the seats of Yankee Stadium, Wrigley Field and the now-departed Tiger Stadium back to barstools in some of the lowest dives in the East Village.

It's not much of a stretch to say that if we hadn't become friends, I never would have started this web site. Because in Nick, I found somebody whose head receives the same telepathic baseball channel as I do. The one which always has its receiver watching a ballgame in some parallel dimension, and so makes "The funny thing about those Yankees in 1949..." seem like a perfectly acceptable social greeting. Somebody just as crazy about baseball as I am.

Which is not to say that Nick's opinions are my own. He and I can clear a room when we get to arguing about an issue we don't see eye to eye on, especially once we break out the folding metal chairs or the flaming emails. I'll be clearing a space for Nick's column (tentatively titled "The Clubhouse Lawyer") elsewhere on this site in the near future. But before his first contribution to this site, a post-mortem on the Dan Duquette era in Boston, totally dries out on the back burner, I wanted to post it here. So without further ado, I give you the first installment of "The Clubhouse Lawyer".

In his March 1 column, ESPN 's Rob Neyer, whose work I've enjoyed for years, wrote a piece suggesting that on the whole, Dan Duquette didn't do a bad job as GM in Boston. Neyer went on to suggest that Duquette deserves another chance in another city, and would be a welcome addition in Kansas City.

Frankly, that's a poor comparison. To say that Duquette has done a better job than Allard Baird would be akin to saying I could write a better novel than a monkey armed with a typewriter. To be honest, if I were a long-suffering Royals fan like Rob, I probably would have abandoned baseball for Jai-alai years ago. To say that Duquette has done a better job than the two most incompetent people in his field (Allard Baird in Kansas City and Cam Bonifay (formerly of Pittsburgh) would be the equivalent of calling a player worthy of the Hall of Fame because he has better numbers than the least accomplished members of the hall. The fraternity of General Managers is similar to the Hall of Fame in that at any given time, their are people in both who simply don't belong, and being better than them does not necessarily qualify one for membership (A point that Neyer and his mentor Bill James have made many times).

A General Manager's job is made up of two parts; the evaluation and procuring of talent, and the creation of a harmonious environment where everyone, from futility infielders to superstars, bullpen coach to manager focuses on winning, with a minimum of distractions. In the former category, Duquette's record was spotty at best. In the latter category it was downright atrocious.

Duquette clearly hit paydirt by trading for and re-signing Pedro Martinez. Regardless of his injury problems, when healthy (which has been often enough) Martinez has almost singlehandedly made a contender out of the Sox. The wisdom of Duquette's other big free agent signing, Manny Ramirez, has yet to be determined. Ramirez is fairly young and extremely talented. What remains to be seen is whether his injury prone body can hold up over the life of the contract. An even greater concern is whether his fragile, moody, and childlike psyche can withstand the rigors of the toughest local media and fan base in baseball. Let's not forget this is the same town that booed Ted Williams. From the raging alcoholic Dave Egan in the 1940s, to Bob Ryan today, Boston has had a long tradition of writers determined to find fault in anyone and anything.

Duquette's two most controversial decisions were letting two legendary homegrown free agent walk; Mo Vaughn and Roger Clemens. Clemens has had three 20-win Cy Young seasons since his departure, although its probably fair to say that it his unceremonious dumping lit a fire under him. I do think his poor '96 was an aberration, but I don't think he would have done quite as well had he stayed in Boston. Mo Vaughn has failed poorly in California, although his injury plagued '99 season was a result of a freak accident that was ballpark-specific. Still, signing heavy-set 30-year olds to long-term contracts has never been a wise strategy.

Duquette's major mistake was that level of animosity that his poor handling of the situation engendered in both players helped create the perception that "no one wants to play here" (a now famous off-the-cuff remark that Nomar made during last September's meltdown). These guys were both homegrown MVPs after all, not fly-by-night Jack Clark-type guns-for-hire [I think Nick just set the AL record for mixed metaphors in an electronic medium-ed.]. Wherever he ends up next, Duquette will also have a hard time signing big name free-agent pitchers, unless he can explain his attempts to bully Pedro into pitching with a partially torn rotator cuff even after the Sox had fallen far from contention. To question Martinez's heart after he singlehandedly brought the Sox back from the brink during the '99 ALDS vs. Cleveland simply defies belief.

Duquette's greatest gaffe as a "manager of people" had to be the handling of the Jimy Williams/Carl Everett rift. Duquette 's willingness to take a chance on clubhouse cancer like Carl "we beat the kids" Everett was already a questionable decision. When the Williams/Everett rift exploded, Duquette had two choices; support his manager, or tacitly support Everett and fire Wlliams. By siding with Everett, he turned Williams into a lame duck, whom he inexplicably kept around for another year. If the general manager doesn't recognize the chain of command, why should any of the players? The fostering of a harmonious clubhouse environment is as important as any part of a general manager's job. Rule number #1; if a player has a public dust-up with the manager, you support the manager or fire him. If you side with the player AND keep around the manager, you clearly lack the basic interpersonal skills required of a general manager.

Duquette saved the Sox tens of millions of dollars by not re-signing Clemens and Vaughn, which is crucial considering that the Sox will always have less revenue to work with than the Yankees. Unfortunately, his tenure was filled with spendthrift gambles that one would expect of a team with almost unlimited amounts of money and finite amounts of sense, like the Dodgers. How about $25M over 3 years for José Offerman? Then there's my personal favorite; picking up over $19M for a year and a half by taking in over-the-hill malcontents Mike Lansing and Dante Bichette, in order to get Rolando Arrojo for 1.625M per, who's been a decent middle reliever.

Duquette pulled off a great deal early on, trading veteran Heathcliff Slocumb and getting major contributors Derek Lowe and Jason Varitek in return. One would think that he'd try to repeat that formula, but most of his time in Boston he's been more interested in trading away inexpensive young talent and collecting rickety veterans like Mark Portugal and Pete Schourek. While Duquette certainly hasn't traded away anyone who's blossomed into a star (yet), one wonders why someone with limited financial resources would place more of an emphasis on overpriced veterans rather than developing prospects. Brian Rose and Tomo Okha, while not exactly setting the world on fire, both showed enough promise at various points to merit more attention than they got. It's no secret that scouting and player development have been thoroughly neglected during the Duquette era.

The cruelest irony (well, not for me, I'm a Yankees fan) of all is that Duquette fired the one manager who was best suited to organizing this motley assortment of ill-fitting parts into a winning team. Jimy Williams is blessed with a Stengel-like ruthlessness; he will pinch hit and juggle lineups without any regard for players' feelings, concerning himself only with creating the best opportunity to win. With a team long on role players and short on everyday players, he didn't have a choice. Unfortunately, Williams is distinctly un-Stengel-like in his ability (or lack thereof) to charm and cajole the media and his players into going along with his plans. Then again, who's going to listen to you when your own GM is too busy listening to some guy who doesn't believe in dinosaurs?--Nick Stone

Tuesday, March 19, 2002


All Yankees All the Time? Just Say YES

Tuesday marked the debut of the Yankees Entertainment and Sports network, the cash cow that George Steinbrenner plans to milk to cover all the eight-figure annual salaries he's accumulated. YES isn't quite all Yankees, all the time. The New Jersey Nets, Columbus Clippers, Staten Island Yankees, and Manchester United soccer team all figure into the programming as well--not to mention the New Jersey Gladiators of the Arena Football League, in case you need your fix. But the Yankees are undoubtedly the star attraction.

YES will televise 130 regular season games and rerun another 20 local broadcasts, also producing a one-hour pregame and a 30-minute postgame show per telecast. The network's other pinstriped programming will include a weekly magazine show, airings of famous games from throughout Yankee history (David Wells' perfect game and the no-hitters of Dave Righetti and Jim Abbott are on tap the first week) and something called Yankeeography, the network's "signature biography series." Those of you reading this who are not Yankee fans can be excused for gagging at the thought of yet another fawning profile of Derek Jeter; me, I think I'll find something better to do at 7 PM on Friday when it airs.

It all feels more than a little excessive, but then most Steinbrenner productions do. At least until the moment when you realize that, by George, you ARE hungry for a Yanks-Reds preseason game. I reached said moment at approximately 8:12 PM EST on Tuesday night while waiting for my sushi take-out to arrive. And so, with my cable package and rooting interests putting me squarely in the demographic crosshairs, I decided to get a first look at both the team and the channel. It's a tough job, but somebody's got to do it.

From the first glance, the channel appears to be a refreshing upgrade from the Madison Square Garden network, where for the past several years the Yankee coverage has been mired in a sea of dated graphics and tired production. Maybe it's my cable system, but the quality of signal just seems better than its predecessor--volume at the same level as the other channels, lighting looking as if it was supplied by something besides a backup generator, Al Trautwig and Marv Albert legally prohibited from appearing. The graphics are attractive and occasionally elegant (especially the player stat lines), though the game status bug in the upper left corner is a bit clunky. The visual effects are relatively tasteful, and the sound effects accompanying all of this are mercifully muted (and good riddance to--CLANK! CRASH! CLUNK!--Fox as the Yanks' broadcast partner).

The Yanks brought several familiar faces and voices over from MSG and Fox to YES. Play-by-play Michael Kay has moved from radio broadcasts and postgames to the TV booth. He's a bit of a homer, though less gratingly so than his former partner, John "Theeeeeeeeeee Yankees Win! " Sterling, and for all his faults he's probably closest to the team's pulse than any of the other announcers. Ken Singleton, who did smooth and subdued play-by-play on MSG, moves into a role as a game analyst. The excellent Jim Kaat and not-so-excellent Bobby Murcer will also serve as analysts, with Murcer also working the pre- and post-games. Freshly-retired Paul O'Neill is slated to work a small handful of pre-/post-games, hopefully without smashing any helmets or water coolers. Former CNN/SI anchor Fred Hickman will be the studio host as he searches for a middle ground somewhere between the extremes of the undead Bill Daughtry and the back-from-the-dead Marv Albert. Fox know-it-all Tim McCarver is gone, a welcome departure from where I sit. Only the presense of Suzyn Waldman as pre-/post-game reporter and occasional play-by-play is cause for worry--her voice can cut through tin, and the camera doth not flatter her, either.

I watched about four innings of the debut broadcast. Kay and Kaat did a solid job and seemed to establish a rapport when Kay asked Kaat about his famous slide-step move to hold runners on first. Befitting their experience around this team, the duo exhibited a strong familiarity with the Yankee roster well beyond the regulars, touching on several of the battles for spots on the Yankee bench (which I'll discuss more in the coming days).

I tuned in around the time that most of the Yank regulars were taking their last at bat, and so got a glimpse of new faces like Jason Giambi, Robin Ventura and John Vander Wal, as well as youngsters like Drew Henson, Eric Almonte, and Juan Rivera. The big news in tonight's game was David Wells' performance, five strong innings with all of his pitches working, as he struck out 4 and walked none. Boomer is indeed slimmed down, and with his strong spring, he's squarely in the starting rotation, leaving the fates of Orlando Hernandez and Sterling Hitchcock still to be determined. "I'm ready. I'm throwing everything right where I want to throw it," Wells told Waldman in a postgame interview. Derek Jeter was the offensive star, with a homer among his three or four hits from the leadoff spot. Only the team's fielding looked suspect; Wells apparently dropped a throw at first base before I tuned in, second baseman Alfonso Soriano threw one past Giambi at first base (though Jorge Posada nailed the runner at second), and outfielder Vander Wal misplayed a fly ball into a double. But for the most part, the Yanks looked ready to go, right down to Mariano Rivera closing out the ninth inning and striking out the last batter. It don't mean a thing, but it's sure nice to look at again.

Even if YES weren't any good, I'd probably find myself watching it over 100 times in the coming season--a championship-caliber ballclub will do that. It's too early to say whether the new network itself is of the same caliber, but it definitely looks a damn sight better than what came before.

Wednesday, March 13, 2002


Nearly Four Years Later...

At long last, my epic piece on attending the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City is complete--three pages and 28 photos worth. I managed to beat my self-imposed deadline--the 2006 Winter Games in Turino--by at least a few days. And with this out of the way, I'll be able to focus a little bit more on baseball. Enjoy!

Friday, March 08, 2002


The Artful Martone

This is going to sound weird coming from a Yanks fan, but most readers of this space know I'm not exactly a typical Yanks fan (Mattingly sucks! There, THAT got your attention...). But I'm glad to see that the best Red Sox beat writer is apparently back on the job. Art Martone of the Providence Journal-Bulletin isn't a name that rings as many bells as some of the more infamous Boston press personalities whom I'm fond of slandering (speaking of which, I saw Bob Ryan at a Salt Lake City bar during the Olympics. Insert punchline here). But he's the one I read when I want a smart take on what's happening with the Sox.

First off, Martone tends to be less of a sensationalist than some of his New England peers. He doesn't sound like a homer or a crony of the Sox front office (then again, Dan Duquette did alienate just about every Boston writer). Most readers of this column know I enjoy a little Sox-related schadenfreude now and then, but I do like to keep my facts straight, too. And Martone doesn't seem to have lost his objectivity yet.

Second, Martone is one of the few daily newspaper guys who understands sabermetrics and uses it in his writing, and as such I feel compelled to support him even though he's covering "the enemy". It would be nice, once in awhile, to read a New York Times or Daily News beat reporter who cited Baseball Prospectus or understood the concept of OPS or Offensive Winning Percentage when talking about Tino Martinez's season, instead of approaching everything as a graduate of the Proven Veterans Know How To Win School of Journalism.

Martone stopped keeping his Notebook shortly after the Sox ship hit the iceberg last summer, and in my own mind, I wondered if Dan Duquette had him "disappeared," or if poor Art had checked himself into an institution. As it turns out, Martone went from vacation to 9/11 aftermath to an employee buyout which left the ProJo short-staffed, and he had bigger fish to fry than the dismal Sox. Joe Kerrigan's dismissal has brought Martone back out of the woodwork (not to mention full circle), hopefully to stay. In his second piece since his return, he adds up the Sox projections in the STATS 2002 Major League Handbook, runs them through the Pythagorean Method, notes that those STATS numbers project the Sox for a 103-win season, and then dissects what that could mean. Yes, I scoff at that 103-win notion, but that's not Art making the prediction.

Anyway, here's wishing Martone an interesting season in covering the Sox.

Thursday, March 07, 2002


A Season in the Homer Bush League

I just completed one of my annual rites of spring, the purchase of my ESPN Fantasy Baseball team. My Mendoza Line Drivers will be out to defend their title in the Homer Bush League IV.

This is the sixth season I've competed, and the seventh team, and my experiences have run the gamut. I won during my first season in an NL-only league, and finished as low as 9th (in a 10-team league). Some years, the best thing about playing is naming the team, such as the case for the Dock Ellis Islanders or the Homer Bush Leaguers (sub-par precursors to my current franchise).

I don't take myself to be an especially good owner, though I obviously follow the season very closely. My best trait is knowing when to stick with the hand I'm dealt. Last season I won my league without making a single trade or using my waiver slot. Then again, with a pitching staff that included Roger Clemens Eric Milton, Jason Isringhausen, Ramiro Mendoza, Mike Stanton, Steve Karsay and Latroy Hawkins (1st Half), and hitters like Jim Thome, Miguel Tejada, Troy Glaus, Tino Martinez, Carl Everett, Shannon Stewart and Ellis Burks, it didn't take a moron to see that I had a good thing going from the outset.

Which isn't to say that I don't know when to strike. My NL win back in '97 was thanks in part to my accepting an offer to trade Tony Gwynn for Barry Bonds, and a late pickup of Otis Nixon off waivers to replace the traded Rickey Henderson.

Anyway, I've generally made it a point not to go off too much in this space about my fantasy teams, but I wanted to extend an open invitation to my readers to join me this year. It's the Homer Bush League IV (not to be confused with the inaccurately named "Real Homer Bush League 3," which by definition is a blatant fraud). It's a 10-team AL-only league with 5x5 scoring (Wins, Saves, K's, ERA, WHIP for pitchers, R, RBI, HR, SB, AVG for hitters) and a multi-list draft which runs on March 31 (I'm of the opinion that nothing wrecks a season like a draft run long before the final trades and injuries of the spring).

The league is public, so it's on a first-come, first-served basis, and you don't need a password to join. I hope some of you readers do so--the more people we know, the more active and fun the league will be. So come and get it.

Wednesday, March 06, 2002


We Have Comments!

I'm trying out a new comment system, the third one I've tried. This one is called YACCS and it looks promising because it allows me some administrative control. Let's see if it works.

Monday, March 04, 2002


Stay The Hell Away From Our Hitter

Sunday's New York Times Sports section carried a piece on the Yankees prized rookie first baseman/DH Nick Johnson. Johnson is the latest Yankee prospect to have the "can't miss" label hung around his neck, which, given the organization's recent track record of home-grown ballplayers, bodes fairly well--Derek Jeter, Jorge Posada, Bernie Williams, and Alfonso Soriano are all recent graduates of the same system. What makes the 23-year old Johnson such a prized prospect isn't merely his raw talent, it's his precocious plate discipline. Here are Johnson's On-Base Percentages in each of his minor-league seasons, along with his age and the league level (his complete record is here):
2001  23  AAA  .407

2000 22 --- ---
1999 21 AA .525
1998 20 A .466
1997 19 A .398
1996 18 R .422
Johnson missed the 2000 season with a mysterious wrist injury and had a bit of trouble regaining his form last season, but he joined the big club when Tino Martinez tweaked a hamstring and stayed up during September. He didn't embarrass himself in his cup of coffee, but he didn't distinguish himself too much either, hitting .194/.308/.313 in 67 AB.

Still, with his patience and even moderate power, he probably should have made the playofff roster in place of one of the Yanks' many futilitymen. Recall Luis Sojo's at-bat against Randy Johnson in Game 2 of the World Series, in which the overmatched Michelin Man in Pinstripes grounded into an inning-ending double-play, killing the closest thing to a rally the Yanks ever mounted against the Big Unit. While a lefty-lefty matchup wouldn't have been ideal in this situation, a hitter with Johnson's patience might have stood a better chance. But alas...

The Times article focuses on Johnson's relationship to Larry Bowa, former Phillies shortstop and current manager, about whom I rarely have a kind word to say. Bowa is Johnson's uncle, and both players were taught the game by Larry's father, the late Paul Bowa, a minor-league infielder in the Cardinals chain during the late 1930s and early '40s, and later a minor-league manager.

Larry Bowa is one of those wonderful My Way or the Highway types whose bluster and insistence upon ripping his own players in the press starts to grate on the casual baseball fan after the first three game losing streak. Bowa managed to guide the Phils to a third-place finish last season, five games above .500 despite the kind of histrionics more appropriate in a last-place ballclub--most notably, alienating Scott Rolen, the Phils' star third baseman. Rolen is Derek Jeter without the marketing or the championship-caliber team around him, and he'll be richly rewarded when he signs a long-term contract ABP (Anywhere But Philly) following the season. But I digress...

Towards the end of the Times article, writer Tyler Kepner states that Johnson and his uncle talk two to three times a week, in which Bowa dispenses hitting advice to his nephew. "Walking frequently has served Johnson well in the minors; he led his league in on-base percentage four times in the last six years," says the article. "But Bowa has warned Johnson that major league pitchers can make hitters look foolish if they take too many strikes, and Johnson seems to be listening."

WHOA! The idea that anyone--least of all Bowa, an impatient slap hitter and an even more impatient and slappier(?) manager--should be tinkering with this kid's approach at the plate caused me to involuntarily flush my sinuses with hot black coffee first thing in the morning--a stiff awakening I heartily recommend against. Bowa was a slick defensive shortstop, good enough to win a couple of Gold Gloves, but he was a lousy hitter (.260 AVG/.300 OBP/.320 SLG). He took a walk about once every five games and had absolutely zero power (15 HR in over 8900 plate appearances). His offensive philosophy--why be patient at the plate when you can ground out on any old pitch--reflects the kind of baseball wisdom which keeps a speedster like Doug Glanville (.285 OBP) in the leadoff spot during a pennant race, the kind of thinking that's become outmoded since Bowa's playing days ended 17 years ago. Though apparently some teams didn't get the memo.

Before anybody starts quibbling that Bowa's offensive performance (the one with the bat, not the one with the mouth) took place in a much different context than today, I'd just like to point out that thanks to the aid of a new feature on which computes league averages for a player's career, we can see that Bowa's performance relative to the leagues he played in was still fairly dismal:
          AVG   OBP   SLG  OPS+

Bowa .260 .300 .320 71
League .276 .335 .393
OPS+ is, essentially, a park-adjusted ratio of the player's OPS to the league OPS--in this case, not a good one. Here is another light-hitting middle-infielder of some renown, this one still active (well, sort of):
          AVG   OBP   SLG  OPS+

XXXX .261 .298 .353 71
League .269 .340 .421
Our mystery guest has a bit more power than Bowa, but essentially the same performance rates. His identity? None other than Luis Sojo. Not to pick on Looie at all (which I'm now doing for the second time in one piece), but if I saw him standing around the batting cage with Nick Johnson, I would pray that the two of them were talking about the weather, cooking, snake-charming, or sky-diving... anything but hitting.

Anyway, what's really relevant isn't what Sojo can hit, or how Bowa can run the Phils into the ground, it's what Johnson will do. To that end, I took a look at a few projections:

ProtospectWatch, a new website devoted to player projections, has him at .253 AVG/.355 OBP/.411 SLG with 14 HRs in 400 ABs, which seems low but not out of the question if the kid has trouble adjusting to major-league pitching. And for whatever its worth, the site also ranks him 5th on their Top 301 Prospects List.

•ESPN's John Sickels puts Johnson in the Rookie of the Year race, noting, "He seems a safe bet to hit .275-.285, with an on-base percentage near .400 and 15-20 home runs. If Johnson shows normal development, he'll rank among the best first basemen in the league within three years."

• The 2002 Baseball Prospectus projects Johnson at .275 AVG/.398 OBP/.467 SLG with 18 HRs in about 400 ABs, and predicts, "He'll likely end up as a cross between John Olerud and Barry Bonds," which I take to mean having Olerud's skill set as a high-average, medium-power, good-fielding first baseman, but with Bonds-type discipline at the plate, rather than having Barry's power and speed. "I think most Yankee fans can live with that, even if it takes him a few years to get there," writes the Prospectus, and this Yanks fan would agree.

Just so long as that route doesn't take him through the Larry Bowa School of Hitting.


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