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.
Friday, August 23, 2002
See You On the Other Side
I've reached my pitch count. My past three weeks of work have been high-stress, with long hours, longer streams of four-letter words, and a few days of broken A/C during a heatwave thrown in for good measure. It's a perfect recipe for needing a vacation. Fortunately that's what I'm getting as I head to my parents' home in Salt Lake City and then on a four-day backpacking trip in Wyoming.
I've reached my personal pitch count when it comes to baseball's labor situation as well. Day after day of headlines have taken me on a rollercoaster ride of optimism and pessimism, of sound truth and bald-faced lies, of speculation about the playoff races and a harrowing vision of an October without them. When George Steinbrenner begins to sound like the voice of reason, we're through the looking glass here, people
I'm starting to think Bud Selig's gag rule on owners speaking out about the labor situation was a good idea. The current flaunting of the rule has me gagging every time one of the owners opens his mouth and reveals just how ridiculously stupid the lords of the game can be. Tuesday's New York Times had an article
in which San Diego Padres owner John Moores said he's prepared to shut down the game for an entire season to get a deal favorable to the owners. Never mind the fact that Moores' team is slated to move into a new ballpark in 2004, a ballpark which is supposed to produce the kind of revenue stream a small-market team needs to stay afloat, a ballpark which Moores wrung out of the taxpayers at the 11th hour.
Most ridiculously, Moores is quoted as saying, " I'm not going to be a part of a crazy system where we have to keep raising ticket prices." As if ticket prices won't rise upon moving into a new stadium. Over at a weblog called Mike's Baseball Rants
, the proprietor cites the price gouging which occurred when the Brewers and Pirates recently moved into new ballparks:
Actually what cause the greatest increase in ticket price are new stadiums. Owners believing that a new stadium is enough of an attraction in and of itself to command a higher fare have increased ticket prices: According to CNN, when the Pirates moved into a new stadium in 2001 the "average ticket price soared 82 percent to $21.48 from $11.80" the previous year and the Milwaukee Brewers also the recipient of a new stadium in 2001 "raised prices by more than half to an average of $18.12 from an average of $11.72." Now those teams are complaining of decreased attendance in the new stadium's second year. What do they expect when the gouge the locals as soon as they open the gate?
Moores isn't alone in shoveling manure. Texas Rangers owner Tom Hicks, speaking
about the owners luxury tax proposal, told a Dallas newspaper, "Every team in baseball that has any kind of business sense would try to manage its payroll to stay under that tax threshold. There might be one or two that wouldn't, but that's a decision those teams have to make. Certainly, I can assure you, the Texas Rangers wouldn't be among them. If this system is implemented, the Texas Rangers will be under the threshold."
If ever there were a case for calling bullshit, this is it. This from the man who signed Alex Rodriguez to a 10-year, $252 million dollar contract two winters ago, and who currently has Chan Ho Park at 5 years and $65 million, Juan Gonzalez at 2 years and $24 million, Rusty Greer at 3 years and $21.8 million, Jay Powell at 3 years and $9 million, Jeff Zimmerman at 3 year and $10 million, and an already-picked-up option on Carl Everett for $9.15 million in 2003. Park has been a disaster, with a Boeng-level ERA (7-something). Gonzalez has been a shadow of his former self. Greer is slated for neck and hip surgery and is probably Done. Middle reliever Powell spent the first half of the season on the DL. Closer Zimmerman has undergone Tommy John surgery. A payroll of $131 million for a team 15 games under .500 and 20 games out of first--that's fiscal responsibility for you. As we say around here, have a nice hot cup of Shut the F--- Up, Mr. Hicks.
A Murray Chass article
in Thursday's Times speculates that both Hicks and Moores, along with Steinbrenner, are headed for $1 million fines by Selig for violating the gag rule. Chass cites skeptics who think Steinbrenner will be fined more money for being critical of Selig, and those who think His Rugness put Moores and Hicks up to their comments. But he also notes that those comments may actually have played to the players' union's advantage. On Hicks:
In a memo to agents earlier this week, for example, Donald Fehr, the union executive director, cited Hicks's comments as evidence that what the owners really seek with their proposal for a luxury tax on payrolls is a payroll cap, pure and simple.
If there were any softness in the union ranks on the idea of striking, that kind of talk would not further intimidate players but would reinforce their resolve. Players are competitive by nature, and when someone challenges them with incendiary statements, they respond in kind. As usual, the owners are doing Fehr's work for him.
In other quarters, there are some glints of optimism. ESPN's Tim Kurkijian, never my favorite writer, lists five reasons
why there won't be a strike, focusing on the bad PR of being on strike September 11 and the fact that the two sides are separated by only a relatively small amount of money on the luxury tax (at last count $33 million, according to Chass
Over at Baseball Primer, labor lawyer Eugene Freedman points out
that the owners have already won by getting the players to agree in principle to increased revenue sharing, a stronger salary tax system, a worldwide draft, and steroid testing. Of course, until the ink is dry, ain't nobody won nuthn'. We've seen plenty of instances in the past where acrimony at the negotiating table has scuttled a deal and taken both parties back to square one.
Wednesday night my friends and I took an informal poll of each other over cold beverages at a New York City bar. 100% of us agreed there would be a strike, with 75% believing that the strike would wipe out the postseason. Today, I'm a little more optimistic. Tomorrow will probably crush that optimism. But for the five days after that, I'll be off the grid somewhere in the Wind Rivers mountain range in western Wyoming, taking in fresh air unbefouled by the likes of Selig, Moores, and Hicks. Since I don't return to civilization until August 30, I'm going to let the two sides take it from here without my help. Close the deal or close the doors.
I'll see you on the other side...
Thursday, August 22, 2002
My pal Nick, a.k.a. the Clubhouse Lawyer, called my attention to a study
published in the July-August 2002 American Journal of Sports Medicine regarding youth pitchers and injury. The study found a significant correlation between the number and type of pitches thrown and the rate of elbow and shoulder pain in youth pitchers.
According to the press release (I have not read the actual article), the AJSM followed 467 pitchers ages 9-14 for one season. Data was collected via pre- and post-season questionnaires, postgame interviews concerning injury and performance, and pitch count logs; pitcher videos were used to analyze proper mechanics.
The study found that 15% of all pitching appearances resulted in shoulder or elbow pain (joint pain, not muscle soreness). Curveballs increased the risk of shoulder pain 52%, and sliders increased the risk of elbow pain 86%. Ouch! Intriguingly, the use of a change-up lowered injury risks for both elbow injury (12%) and shoudler injury (29%), though it's not clear from the press release whether that's in combination with breaking pitches or as an alternative. As for pitch counts, the correlation between pitch count and elbow pain was not statistically significant, but "there was a significant relationship between an increased number of game pitches and the risk of shoulder pain." The authors of the study note that the risk of breaking pitches "is magnified for the prepubescent athlete because the growth plates in the elbow and shoulder joints are still open and are more susceptible to stress-related injuries."
These results are interesting for their quantification of injury risks, but not surprising. "[I]ncreased number of game pitches" equals high pitch counts, and high pitch counts are where we presume most pitching-related arm injuries come from--specifically, the accumulation of microtrauma from the repetitive pitching motion. The risk of breaking pitches on young arms is (one would hope, at least) conventional wisdom.
The study obvioiusly has implications at the big-league level, but it's important to note what it does and doesn't show. Nick and I had a lively back-and-forth email session on this, which I'll re-run here.
Jay: Most interesting for the quantification of injury risks, but hardly a surprising result--it's right in line with the conventional wisdom that throwing breaking pitches before the arm is fully developed is a bad idea.
Nick: I think what's most fascinationg about this study, is that it implies that the seeds of destruction (or at least major arm injury) are planted before major league scouts ever lay eyes on a pitcher. Perhaps when drafting pitchers, organizations should do background checks on little league, junior high, and high school pitching history of potential draftees. It would appear from this initial study that poor use of pitchers at the adolescent level has much more to do with major injury risk than overuse at the professional level. I look forward to more studies on the subject.
Jay: Implies is the important word. We can speculate all we want, but we don't know what comes of THESE 9-14 year olds--how many of them are still pitching several years later, whether they sustain injuries or what kind.
In this study, we've got young kids, we've got breaking pitches, we've got pitch counts, and we've got increased injury risks. We don't have a link to whether THEY are at risk for further injury later, or what kind of injury.
I suspect a good many of the ones who get hurt early fall by the wayside before they ever get to high school or college ball, and the ones who make it that far do so because they didn't get hurt in their adolescent years. I don't think you see too many high school or college pitchers who survive consistent abuse. 15 year olds who need rotator cuff or Tommy John surgery don't make comebacks.
Nick: Clearly this is very much an initial study. You'd think the Major League Baseball would have a vested interest in serious medical studies on the links between pitch, type, pitch count, and injury rates in all age groups. What this study suggests, and what clearly needs further in depth study, is the link between abuse of adolescent pitching arms and the likelihood of major injury to adult pitchers. With the amount of money at stake, you'd think MLB would want to more about pitching related injuries than "it's an unnatural stress on the arm, a certain percentage of career ending injuries is to be expected". Then again, look who's running the show.
Jay: You'd think they'd have an interest. But with all of them rocket surgeons piping up on the management side during the current labor situation, it seems pretty clear that the likes of Bud Selig, John Moores, Tom Hicks, Drayton McLane, David Glass, and Jeffrey Loria need Mapquest and a military-precision GPS system to find their own [...] asses. Expecting them to extrapolate the link between adolescent pitching arms and major league contracts is like expecting the family mutt to take over the responsibility of managing your stock portfolio.
Of course, it's tough to dig too deeply into the implications of a study for which I've only read a press release. While the results aren't quite the smoking gun needed to indict current big league managers who abuse the arms of promising young hurlers, they do shed some scientific light on the situation and offer a promising avenue for further research. I've sent away for a copy of the full article, and I'll report back if I glean any further wisdom from it.
Tuesday, August 20, 2002
The Internet is a tough racket to make a buck in, kiddo. I learned it the hard way. Six years ago, I worked for a weasel
whose company churned out guidebooks about websites. Real paper-and-ink books about a medium that was moving so fast it turned our product into Instant Doorstop. But you don't want to hear that story. It gets ugly fast, goes downhill from there, and puts me in a very grouchy mood.
Suffice it to say, my experience taught me one thing: it's a cold day in hell when somebody gets excited about paying for a website. But that's exactly what happened Monday when the online baseball encyclopedia, excuse me, Thee Online Baseball Encyclopedia, baseball-reference.com
, announced it was selling sponsorships of individual pages. The result set off an entertaining feeding frenzy
, as those of us who admire the labor-of-love website and the work put into it by its founder, Sean Forman, opened our wallets without hesitation.
Forman has come up with an ingenious plan to help offset the bandwidth costs of his site, which has served over 80 million pages in two years. For the three of you here with no interest in baseball statistics, those pages contain stats--from the most basic to the most obscure--of every major league player and team. Ever. It's a brilliant site because it's lean and clean. Everything is cross-linked, and it all loads quickly. The 1998 Yankees link to Tim Raines, which links to the 1986 National League leaderboard which links to Fernando Valenzuela, ad infinitum. A guy could spend hours there.
B-Ref is selling hyperlinked text ads on each page for $5 and up, based upon how much traffic that page receives. The most expensive player, Barry Bonds, goes for $290; the most expensive page
, the league directory page, rolls for $385 a month. Babe Ruth: $240 a year. Luis Sojo: $10.
And the feeling of sponsoring the Luis Sojo page: priceless. Having supported B-Ref in the past but still feeling karmically indebted, I put my money where my mouth is upon discovering the sponsorship opportunity
. As Sean graciously rewarded my past work on the site (I designed the Babe Ruth banner and button) with some matching funds, I quickly found myself with a bankroll and a lunch hour to spend it.
I sprung for eight pages in all:
• A few true-blue futility infielders: Sojo
, whom I informally claimed as the 2001 Futility Infielder of the Year), Mario Mendoza
(the man with the Line), and Twins manager Ron Gardenhire
, the first player or ex-player ever to refer to himself as a futility infielder. Gardenhire, by dint of the Twins' success in his rookie year managing, has already clinched the 2002 Futility Infielder of the Year award, unless Fred Stanley rescues a house full of burning kittens, Mickey Klutts stumbles on a cure for cancer, or Enrique Wilson wins World Series MVP.
• A trio of my Wall of Famers
: Tommy Lasorda
, Pedro Guerrero
, and Jay Buhner
(the best ballplaying Jay ever). I've been meaning to write more of these, and I can see sponsoring a few of the less expensive ones as I expand this site.
• Two Yankee favorites: Alfonso Soriano
and David Cone
. One becoming a star, the other on the verge of retirement and enshrinement in the Wall, if not the Hall, of Fame.
A pretty good haul, I'd say. The only player I really wanted that I couldn't get was Jim Bouton, already taken by Don Malcolm of bigbadbaseball.com
. My brain cramped as somebody else on Baseball Primer bragged about sneaking off with the 1969 Seattle Pilots: "THE ONLY ONE!" To quote the immortal (and as yet unclaimed
at $10) Pilots manager Joe Schultz, "Ah, shitfuck."
Plenty of other people were just as swept away; Forman claimed over 180 pages sponsored by 140 users in the first day, including at least one who got out of hand: "I had to cut one guy off earlier," he wrote on the Primer thread. "He clearly had left his senses. I hope you don't all get your credit card bills next month and think, 'What the hell was I thinking?' Please sponsor responsibly."
Many of the sponsorships were obscure obsessions gone vanity plate (Floyd Rayford:
$5); several other webloggers, like me, used theirs to flog their blogs. Baseballblog.com's Aaron Gleeman
(a Twins fan) bemoaned the rising cost of sponsorships (which last 12 months) as pages grew in popularity: "I was hoping I could keep Adam Dunn for a few years. It may turn out to be a small market/large market situation. I won't be able to afford Adam Dunn and Torii Hunter when they start getting more page views, so I will have to let them go. Then Sponsorship Yankees will just grab them up for big bucks."
That's optimism for you. We should all be so lucky that B-Ref thrives enough to cover its costs and repay its founder for the work (and thought) he's put into it. Go buy yourself a player, and support a great site.
Saturday, August 17, 2002
By now you know that the Major League Baseball Players Association finally set a strike date on Friday, giving themselves and the owners two weeks to work out a new Collective Bargaining Agreement. After a rare glimpse of optimism earlier in the week, both sides now sound increasingly pessimistic about bridging their gap, particularly on the revenue sharing and luxury tax issues.
If you've been reading this site with any regularity, you know that I am generally pro-player in this battle, and have been for some time. I remember the 1981 strike, back when I was 11 years old. I'd already read Jim Bouton's Ball Four
a couple of times, and the name Marvin Miller was certainly familiar to me when the players struck. I was disappointed at the timing of the strike, with my beloved Dodgers in first place and Fernandomania sweeping the nation. But I held no blame towards the players. Ball Four
had exposed, to me at least, the routine buggery owners and general managers had used to bully players prior to free agency. Conditions have obviously changed since Bouton's book, but as he noted more recently
, "For a hundred years the owners screwed the players; for twenty-five years the players have screwed the owners - they've got seventy-five years to go."
I don't honestly think today's players look at the situation with that kind of acrimony. But I do share their sense of skepticism with regards to the owners' intentions and to their claims that baseball is hemmorhaging money. I'm not a financial genius, but the work of people such as Doug Pappas
has given me a reasonable understanding of the shenanigans that owners can use to conceal profits in their balance sheets.
So I bear the players no ill will for working to protect the gains they've made over the past quarter-century. I certainly have more respect for their union than the inept NBA players' one which failed so miserably at the bargaining table and in the court of public opinion during the 1998-99 lockout. Yes, I'd be heartbroken if the World Series were cancelled again, but this game is too strong, too rich in history to be destroyed by morons like Bud Selig and Jeffrey Loria. Owners, especially stupid ones, are an eminently replaceable commodity, just like slick-fielding shortstops who can't hit their weight. If this labor war shakes some of the dumber ones out of the game, good effin' riddance. The players are the irreplaceable product, and the minute owners forget that, the absurdity of their position is revealed. Nobody will go to Miller Park to watch the replacement Milwaukee Brewers or PNC Park to watch the replacement Pittsburgh Pirates--the real thing is nightmarish enough.
My observation of the contrasting ways in which teams like the Yankees and the Brewers have run their organizations over the past few years has shaped my views greatly. I grew up hating Steinbrenner for the way he bullied his players (and managers), but since his post-suspension re-emergence, he's managed to curb that tendency. He understands that within the game, nothing makes money like a winning ballclub. So George seeks out new revenue streams, then takes the money and pours it back into the team via player contracts and a strong international scouting presence. My take is that he wishes every other team would do the same. Yes, he'd like taxpayers to build him a better Yankee Stadium, but he knows the team's Bronx address is part of its hallowed heritage, and that his team can compete just fine without more luxury boxes.
But all markets are not created equally. The Oakland A's and the Brewers, to choose two examples, come from much smaller markets, but they've shown that intelligent management (or lack of same) is every bit as important as money in creating a competitive ballclub. It isn't about a shiny new ballpark built at taxpayer expense. It's about creative baseball minds that are open to new ideas on the field and in the front office.
Unlike most baseball writers, I don't claim to have any coherent plan that would solve the ills of the major league game. While I think some improved form of revenue-sharing has to be put into effect, that money MUST be put back into the teams instead of into the owners' pockets. Any revenue-sharing system which penalizes a successful mid-market franchise like the Cleveland Indians in order to prop up the inept large-market Philadelphia Phillies is wrong. Any system that rewards decisions to sign the likes of Neifi Perez to a long term contract at the expense of jettisoning home-grown talent like Jermaine Dye or Johnny Damon is wrong. Any system which makes the Brewers the most profitable team in baseball while fielding such a shoddy ballclub is wrong. And I'm sorry to my fans in Milwaukee to keep harping on their team, but we all know that these aren't Harvey's Wallbangers we're talking about. I want them, as well as fans of every team in in every city, to have pride in their ballclubs.
Enough soapboxing. There are much better writers than myself who are covering this much more eloquently. Bootleg Sports' Dayn Perry has a great starting point
, covering the 5 best and 5 worst articles on major league baseball's economics. Among the best: the aforementioned Pappas (even if you never come back to this site, please read his work), Forbes' Magazine's analysis
of MLB's claimed $500 million in losses, and Bryan Burwell's comparison of Bud Selig to the inept scam artist
from the movie Fargo.
Perry's article on the worst writing about baseball economics
is also worth reading. The execrable, arrogant Mike Lupica, the toadying Phil Rogers, and the Wall Street Journal make the dishonor roll, and with good cause.
Pappas' most recent piece
at Baseball Prospectus is also required reading. It addresses the big stumbling block in the current negotiations, the double-whammy of revenue sharing and the luxury tax. As Pappas notes, the owners' current proposal will not improve competitive balance; it's fundamentally flawed:
"That flaw is requiring all teams to share 50% of all their local revenue, from Dollar One. By creating a 50% marginal tax rate that applies equally to the Yankees and the Kansas City Royals, the owners' revenue sharing plan discourages both clubs from spending money to improve their teams. Discouraging the Yankees is part of the plan, of course, but anything that deters the Royals from reinvesting their revenue-sharing proceeds in better players will only worsen "competitive balance."
Pappas instead suggests a formula for graduated revenue sharing, in which the more money a franchise earns beyond certain thresholds, the more heavily it's taxed. Pappas claims such a system would also correct the problem generated by the split-pool system the players favor: curbing the subsidizing of teams which aren't trying to improve. One can only hope Donald Fehr, Gene Orza, Bud Selig, Robert Dupuy, and the player representatives read this. You definitely should.
I'm going to remain optimistic that the two sides can work this out, but I know that even if the players strike, what comes out of it will ultimately benefit the game. Sooner or later, both sides will blink. Especially the owners, who make up a far more contentious contingency than the players do. From A-Rod to 13-year minor league veteran Alan Zinter
, the players have more in common than do George Steinbrenner and Carl Pohlad, and a solid track record of defending their turf. My money is on them.
Friday, August 16, 2002
What do you do in a wild card race when the most un-clutch
pitcher of his generation, Kenny "The Gambler" Rogers, turns you down"
? You make another move for the stretch drive. You acquire a guy who's 4-9 with a 4.55 ERA and a reputation for being soft, a guy whose last start went walk, walk, walk, HOMER before he even retired a batter. And you book a golf vacation for October 1. The Cincinnati Reds may as well do that after acquiring Shawn Estes from the New York Mets for two prospects with great names (Pedro Feliciano and Elvin Andujar).
Lee Sinins, who runs the daily Around The Majors mailing list, wrote of the trade, "Actually, this is a nice trade for the Reds. They get one of the nicest players in baseball. Estes isn't one of those self centered players who only thinks of himself and his teammates. He helps the competition by consistently giving them more runs (both earned and unearned) than the league average, adjusted to his parks, which have been some of the best pitching parks in the league." Ouch!
A reader named Phil pointed out to me that Claude Osteen was in fact a lefty. So much for my memory--I even found a picture of the baseball card
I was thinking of. Sure enough, he was STILL a lefty. I have traded my fact-checking monkey to the Cincinnati Reds for Pete Rose's sideburns.
Thursday, August 15, 2002
Speaking of the Royals... former correspondant
from the depths of the the AL Central Rany Jazayerli has an excellent study
on Baseball Prospecuts comparing pitchers in a five-man rotation versus those in a four-man rotation.
Rany studied 68 pitchers who made between 37 and 43 starts in a season between 1973 and 1975 (I'll call them the 4-Men), and 68 who made 34 or 35 starts between 1991 and 1993 (the 5-Men). The raw statistical edge between the two groups is split, with the 4-Men featuring a lower ERA and the 5-Men a higher winning percentage. But the big difference is in the number of innings thrown by the 4-Men, an average of 50 more per pitcher. That's 50 innings which under the 5-man rotation would be given from the #1 starter to the #5, a big cost in runs. Furthermore, those extra innings thrown by the 4-Men didn't cause any long-term damage to those pitchers; five years later, they were still throwing MORE innings MORE effectively than their counterparts. As Rany concludes:
Bottom Line: if these numbers suggest anything, it's that pitching in a four-man rotation is less damaging than pitching in a five-man rotation. Now, the difference between the two groups isn't enormous, and neither is the sample size, so I'll concede the point that these differences are not statistically significant. I'm not trying to argue that working on three days' rest is more healthy than working on four days' rest, only that it isn't less healthy. Given the obvious tactical benefits that come from taking innings away from the worst pitchers on your staff and giving them to your best, shouldn't that be enough?
Very interesting stuff. Early on in the piece, Rany imparts some historical perspective to the issue, explaining that the Dodgers were the first to use it--basically because "unlike almost any other organization, they actually had five quality starters. How many teams can boast five starting pitchers whose names are still recognizable a quarter-century later?" The five to which he refers (the Dodgers 1972 rotation) are Don Sutton, Tommy John, Claude Osteen, Bill Singer, and Al Downing.
I thought about that one for a moment, then looked at the Dodger rotation the following season, when Singer was replaced by Andy Messersmith. By my reckoning, that's even more memorable a collection of ballplayers, with three of the five familiar enough to produce knee-jerk associations, the fourth a popular Hall of Famer and one of my personal favorites:
- yielded Hank Aaron's 715th homer
- gave his name to ligament replacement surgery and a statistical family of pitchers
- one of two players in a landmark arbitrator's ruling which created free agency
- Hall of Famer, 324 wins, fought Steve Garvey
Claude Osteen won 196 games in the major leagues; he also lost 195. He made up for this with a 1-2 record in the 1965 and 1966 World Series, putting him eternally at .500. Osteen was something of Sandy Koufax's mirror image, a righty who wore #23 (I remember this from an old baseball card showing an awkwardly-torqued elbow which made me think of the Dodger ace). He was the only non-Hall of Famer of that 1966 rotation which included Koufax, Don Drysdale, and the rookie Sutton--each of whom topped 40 career shutouts. Those four also combined for 893 wins and 704 losses in their respective careers, a .559 winning percentage:
Sutton 324 256
Drysdale 209 166
Osteen 196 195
Koufax 165 87
TOTAL 893 704 (.559 Win Pct.)
Having left the original purpose of this column and gone galloping down some weird tangent, I now give you another rotation to consider in terms of impressive career totals, the 1970 Minnesota Twins:
Jim Kaat 283 237
Jim Perry 215 174
Bert Blyleven 287 250
Luis Tiant 229 172
TOTAL 1014 833 (.549)
Anybody who can find a rotation with more wins, losses or decisions in their collective career wins a prize. Tomorrow, I'll offer up one of those fancy charts on the pitching staff which included 8 men who won 150 or more games in the big leagues. You'll want to get some sleep before then, trust me.
Wednesday, August 14, 2002
Watching tonight's Yanks-Royals game, the Royals just took a 2-1 lead as Mike Sweeney brazenly stole home off of Andy Pettitte. Sweeney, who was just activated at the beginning of the series after missing a month, isn't exactly known for his speed (now 5 SB this year, 35 for his career). But he drove in the tying run with a sharp single down the rightfield line, advanced to second when Raul Mondesi misplayed the ball, and took third on a sac bunt. After Pettitte struck out the next batter, he had rookie Aaron Guiel in a 1-2 hole--a pitch away from being out of the inning.
With the double-whammy of having his back to the baserunner AND pitching from the stretch (that ought to be in the dictionary under "futility," right next to underthrowing into double coverage and locking the barn door after the horse has escaped), Pettitte obviously had no idea Sweeney would run. Thus Sweeney got a terrific jump, getting past halfway down the line before Pettitte delivered the ball to Posada, and beat the Yankee catcher to the plate.
I've seen a few steals of home in my time, even recently--the Mets' Roger Cedeno off of Ted Lilly earlier this year, Raul Mondesi off of Randy Keisler last year. Most of the other ones were on the front end of delayed double steals, or missed suicide squeezes that miraculously survived. Rarely have I seen one which was as bold as that Sweeney's, or as flat-out exciting. Even in the dog days of August, playing for one of the worst teams in the league, somebody's battling, and playing heads-up baseball. Unique moments like that are what keep me watching.
Tuesday, August 13, 2002
Clearing the Bases, Sweating Profusely
It's a hot August night in New York City, following a long, hot day. Hot enough that a power transformer went down near my office, causing a fire that blew off two manhole covers
, one less than 50 feet from my window. At this point I can't string more than about three sentences on the same topic, so here's a notes piece.
• Did somebody say hot?
Bernie Williams is en fuego. Both the New York Times
and the Daily News
had articles today on how the Yankee centerfielder is streaking despite two ailing shoulders which require daily treatment. Bernie's numbers for July (.368 AVG/.427 OBP/.557 SLG) and August (.357/.413/.476) have long since erased the memory of his early-season struggles, bringing him up to .324/.411/.487 on the year. Though his power numbers have suffered (he's on pace for only 22 homers), the enigmatic Williams seems content to concentrate on putting the ball in play and hitting the gaps. Given that he's got the 3rd best OBP in the league, nobody's complaining except the Jeter-haters, and they don't count anyway. As I write this, tonight's ballgame is in the fifth inning and Bernie's got a 2-run homer and a 2-run double. Did I say en fuego?
• Retracto Ad Absurdum.
Every man has his price, including Nelson Doubleday, apparently. After raising quite a ruckus last week, Doubleday has reportedly
agreed to sell his half of the New York Mets to co-owner Fred Wilpon. Back in June, Wilpon had filed suit against Doubleday for failing to live up to an agreement to sell his half once the team was apprased. Last week Doubleday countersued, claming that the appraisal was biased, and that the Commissioner's office was "in cahoots" with Wilpon to artificially devalue the franchise.
According to the agreement, Doubleday will get $135 million for his share of the team, actually a smaller amount than the one set by appraiser Robert Starkey, once debt was subtracted. But Doubleday will receive $100 million up front, rather than an earlier-agreed-upon 20 percent of the sale price, with the rest to be paid over five years. Doubleday will also get $20-40 million if the Mets move into a new ballpark, based on how soon that actually happens. So for his squawking, Nelson got his hands on the loot sooner rather than later, and all it cost him was a public statement along the lines of what came out of the Commissioner's office churned out on Doubleday's behalf:
I am pleased this is behind us.While I was not happy with the results of the appraisal, I deeply regret and apologize for the conclusions many drew from the papers that were filed last week by my lawyers.
I did not in any way mean to impugn the integrity of the commissioner, who has been a longtime friend and will continue to remain one, or anyone from his office. Nor did I intend the counterclaim to get in the way of the ongoing collective-bargaining process. That was not my intent or goal. If it did, I apologize to the commissioner and to Don Fehr if it in any way had a negative effect on bargaining.
• Dateless wonder.
The news on the labor front--with the players again declining to set a strike date
, is cause for some optimism. Consider all of my fingers crossed (this makes it very difficult to type, but if Bernie can gut it out with his bum shoulders, I'll carry on).
If you need a simple primer on the labor situation, Murray Chass of the Times has a decent Q & A
, ideal for breaking down the issues into bite-size chunks. Chass points out, as Allen Barra did a couple of weeks ago, that "the players have not asked for anything new of real significance. The players are trying to hold on to the substantial economic gains they have made since the advent of free agency in 1976." More chillingly, he notes that the players and owners have never negotiated a new Collective Bargaining Agreement without a work stoppage, with the players going on strike five times and the owners locking out the players three times. A worthwhile opportunity to get your basics straight.
• Say It Ain't So, Joe!
I was saddened to read that Baseball Prospectus's Joe Sheehan has cryptically decided to hang it up
. I don't know Joe personally so I can't speculate as to the reasoning or the timing, but leaving midseason and without advance warning does seem somewhat odd.
Over the past few years, I've enjoyed Joe's insightful work in the published annual Prospectus, in his Daily Prospectus columns, and his occasional contributions to ESPN. Like Rob Neyer of ESPN, on any given day Sheehan could take on the game from a variety of angles, sometimes going straight for the numbers, other times speaking of the headlines, his own observations at the ballpark, or occasionally climbing atop his soapbox. Suffice it to say he's taught me a lot (Lesson #476: When you can't pull anything else off, a notes column will do).
Because Joe's a Yankees fan in a field which often has its share of anti-Yankee bias (especially among his BP colleagues), Joe's been a great ally to have when it came to Yank-related arguments, espeically at playoff time. But more than anything else, his work has been an essential staple of my lunch hours and late nights, and I will miss not having it around. I can only hope Joe finds some other outlet for his fine writing; here's wishing him all the best.
Monday, August 12, 2002
Notes on a Weekend
On Sunday, in and around the several other things I was doing, I watched Mike Mussina trudge his way through six ugly innings against the Oakland A's. He allowed 11 hits and 4 runs, including an upper-deck 2-run home run to Terrence Long, but the Yanks rung up 8 on Mark Mulder, the A's fine young pitcher, and Moose got the W.
YES broadcasters Jim Kaat, Michael Kay, and Paul O'Neill spent a lot of time talking about Mussina's woes. Kaat, who pitched in the bigs for about 74 years (oh, only 25?) talked about the way different players are willing to listen to advice from their coaches and implied that Mussina isn't the most coachable ballplayer. Kitty spoke of his own receptiveness to coaches and how it came out of the fact that as someone who wasn't a hard thrower, he was always looking for whatever extra edge he could get. I gather he thinks Mussina's being too stubborn to listen to anybody else's help in working his way out of this.
Kaat dismissed any notions about Mussina's velocity being down despite the fact that other folks, from analysts to casual fans, are making the same observation. Then he started talking about how radar guns and baseball statistics are overrated. Sometime's Kitty's got great insights, but when he starts telling the statistics to shut up, I get nervous.
Not that this needs to become the Travails of Mike Mussina Weblog, but still on that note...
After my second whack at examining Mussina's troubles, John Perricone, who produces the excellent Only Baseball Matters
weblog, called my attention to another analysis
by a nascent weblogger named Aaron Gleeman. Aaron points out three things that may be causing Moose to struggle: his declining strikeout rate, the Yankees' defense, and his penchant for the gopher ball. Because Moose isn't striking out as many batters as before, more balls are being put in play. The Yankee defense is nothing special (they rank 10th in the AL in Defensive Efficiency
--a Bill James stat which tells us what percentage of the time a defense converts a ball in play into an out. More on that in a moment), and so more balls in play means more hits. Hence, more troubles for Moose.
Over at Baseball Musings
, David Pinto points out how the Yanks' Defensive Efficiency has been dropping as the season goes on. The formula for Defensive Efficiency is:
(Batters Faced Pitching - Hits - Walks - Strikeouts - Hit By Pitch) ÷ (Batters Faced Pitching - Home Runs - Walks - Strikeouts - Hit By Pitch)
DERs tend to be around .700; they are, essentially, the inverse of the batting average on balls in play. Here are the Yankee DERs by month, according to Pinto:
Wow. By comparison, the worst DER in all of baseball is Cleveland's .681. The Yanks' July .647 means that batters hit .353 on balls in play. That sure isn't helping Mussina or the Yanks' tired bullpen; it's surprisng that Andy Pettitte is surviving, let alone flourishing, in that environment, given how he relies on ground balls. And it's further evidence that the Yanks D is nothing to brag about.
• • • • •
Terrence Long seemed to be everywhere the past few days. First he robbed Manny Ramirez of a game-winning homer in Boston on Wednesday. Then on Friday, he made a crucial assist to nail the go-ahead run at the plate against the Yanks in the 8th, and a great sliding bellyflop catch on a Ron Coomer bloop in the 15th. Today he crashed into the wall catching a long drive (he held on), and nearly took a homer away from Shane Spencer. Long doesn't have a great reputation as a centerfielder--recall his misplay in the 2000 ALDS Game 5 led to a six-run first inning--but he had a hell of a week, and it was pretty fun to watch.
Friday, August 09, 2002
Coming to Jeter's Defense... Or Not
I've been getting a bit more response from my readers lately, both in the comments feature of this blog (found at the end of each post, where it usually says "Comments "), via email
, and through other people's weblogs. One of my readers, John C., has offered some lengthy comments relating to the Yankees lately. John commented on the Rob Neyer element of my previous post about Mike Mussina, and in writing a reply, I went over the gizmo's length of 2500 characters, so I'm dragging this into the fairway to craft an even lengthier reply. But first, here's what John wrote:
All props to Rob Neyer for his sabermetric efforts but, really, is this the first wrong-headed thing he's uttered about the Yankees, whom he admits he loathes? Remember that halfway through last season he called Alfonso Soriano the biggest bust of the AL rookie class [he's been curiously silent about Sori this season ;-) ] based on nothing but his own bias against everything pinstriped. Remember that he's the standard bearer of the belief that Derek Jeter is "the worst fielding shortstop in baseball." When Michael Kay asked Neyer how many actual games he had seen Jeter play, he first admitted that he barely sees a handful of Yankee regular season games a year, then, of course, pointed to stats like range factor and zone rating that he himself at times has questionned. Kay's point was that "range", "hands", and "arm strength" could not be determined by simply reading a series of numbers that didn't account for the type of pitching staff (fly ball/strikeout vs. ground ball/contact) and the strengths and weaknesses of the infielders around him (which affect positioning, DP opportunities, etc.). Neyer sneered at Kay and actually alluded to this interview in a column the next week as an example of how the New York media was biased. As with Bill James, his mentor and one-time employer, Neyer suffers too deeply the failures of the Royals against the Yankees in his formative fan years. And that's something you couldn't glean from any stats.
No, John, this wouldn't be the first time Neyer was wrong about the Yanks, and yes, he's been slow to give Soriano his due, but let's remember that Soriano's glaring weakness, namely BALL FOUR, lowers his On Base Percentage considerably (right now it's a rather pedestrian .334 despite a .306 batting average) and keeps him from being a truly devastating offensive force the way Alex Rodriguez or Jason Giambi are.
I don't think the Neyer vs. Kay matchup is as one-sided as John makes it out to be, particularly if the topic is Derek Jeter's defense. And before we go down this road, let's just acknowledge that if Neyer is biased, then Kay, a Yankee employee who rubs most non-Yankee fans the wrong way, is even more so. Now, those of us who watch our team 100+ times a year (as I do, and perhaps you do too) have a tendency to believe "our guy is the best" if we see the great plays he makes over the course of all of those games. But when we look at the stats, we find that isn't always the case.
So long as we're on the subject... on Saturday, NY Times writer Tyler Kepner, who covers the Yankee beat, touted Jeter for the Gold Glove
. This would be a laughable suggestion if it weren't so appalling. It IS a topic that Neyer has addressed before
, and more than once
Jeter isn't, by any objective measure, a great shortstop. In fact, most of the data we have says he's Not Good. Jeter makes a lot of spectacular plays, and he makes them at times when everybody seems to be watching (playoffs, etc). He's got tons of anecdotal evidence on his side. Michael Kay thinks he's great, Tim McCarver thinks he's great, and several millions of viewers who listen to them think he's great. Joe Torre, George Steinbrenner, and every female in the tri-state area between the ages of 5 and 35 give him a hearty thumbs up as well, along with the occasional shreik when he comes to bat (really, it's not pretty when George does this). But by any statistical measure, he is nothing special defensively. While no one fielding stat is definitive, and all of them contain biases, Jeter tends to be at or near the bottom by just about every measure.
Here is a chart showing Jeter's ranking in 2001 and 2002 among other AL shortstops in four major statistical categories: Fielding Percentage, Range Factor (total chances per 9 innings), Zone Rating (percentage of balls fielded by a player in his typical defensive "zone," as measured by STATS, Inc.), and Double Plays.
FPCT RF ZR DP
2002 (13) 8T 13 13 13
2001 (10) 6 10 10 10
The number in parentheses after the year is the number of qualifying shortstops in that particular season (those playing in 2/3 of their team's games). So Jeter is dead last out of 13 in three of the categories, and below average in the other one. The picture is the same in 2001--dead last out of the 10 qualifiers in 3 out of 4 categories.
Now, even these stats have their biases, as John noted. They don't account for the type of pitching staff Jeter's playing behind (groundball/flyball/strikeout tendencies), or the strengths and weaknesses of his surrounding fielders. Examining the second consideration first, here's an expanded version of that chart which includes Jeter's neighbors in each of the past two seasons, again with the number of qualifiers in parentheses:
FPCT RF ZR DP PCT
Jeter 2002 (13) 9 13 13 13 15
Jeter 2001 (10) 6 10 10 10 20
Ventura 2002 (12) 11 2 2 6T 64
Brosius 2001 (8) 8 6 4 4T 42
Soriano 2002 (8) 6 8 4 8 31
Soriano 2001 (9) 9 8 7 3 36
If we were to award points based on a reverse ranking order (so that placing 1st out of 13 would get 13 points, and 13th would get 1; ties split the points between the two spots), and then compute the percentage of points each of these seasons has "earned" out of the total possible score... well, we'd have a very crude system that didn't tell us a whole hell of a lot, but what it would say is that of these six player-seasons, only Robin Ventura's 2002 looks to be above average.
But that's a pretty crude system which doesn't take into account the biases we've discussed, nor does it prioritize any of these rankings, or distinguish between very small differences and very large ones (Jeter is two successful chances away from an exact tie with David Eckstein for 8th place in fielding percentage; he's also 30 points worse in Zone Rating than any other shortstop). It's not quite garbage, but I won't get rich by selling these rankings either.
So let's take a look at a system that DOES take those biases into account, namely Bill James' Win Shares system. Now, Win Shares was introduced to the public less than a year ago, and it's far from perfect. But Bill James has spent the past 25 years studying stuff like this, and his system is vastly superior to what I have to offer. James uses a 4-category weighted system (40-30-20-10) which starts from the team's defensive performance and works down to each position and each player's performance. It accounts for strikeouts, for flyballs/groundballs, for lefty/righty pitching balance, for park effects--you name it, and it's in there somewhere.
The four categories James uses to evaluate shortstops are Assists vs. Expected Assists (40 percent), Double Plays vs. Expected Double Plays (30 percent), Error Percentage (20 percent), and Putouts as a Percentage of Team (10 percent).
I don't have a category-by-category breakdown for Jeter's numbers, but in the Win Shares book (which covers through 2001), we can compare Jeter versus hundreds of other shortstops throughout history. The currency which James uses to rank is Fielding Win Shares per 1000 innings, which he then converts to a letter grade. Derek Jeter averages 4.11 FWS per 1000 innings, a low total; a D+ in fact. For some not-so-random comparisons, Joe Tinker is at 7.28 (the highest), Phil Rizzuto at 7.14, Ozzie Smith at 6.42, Rey Ordonez 6.32, Cal Ripken Jr. at 5.69, Nomar Garciaparra at 5.16, Alex Rodriguez at 4.77, and Jose Offerman at 2.85.
Looking at it another way... Jeter ranks 103rd in career innings at shortstop. Of the 102 players above him, only two have lower rates of Fielding Win Shares per 1000 innings. Of the 290 shortstops who make the 3000 inning cut to appear on the list (the equivalent of just over 2 full seasons playing every inning), only 50 had rates lower than Jeter. By any of these measures, Jeter is well below average.
Again, I'm not claming James' system is perfect, but Jeter's performance doesn't look too pretty through that lens. It corroborates the data we already have, as well as other sophisticated measures (Baseball Prospectus puts him at -28 runs below average in 2001 and -27 in 2000, for example). No amount of anti-Yankee bias on the part of Bill James or Rob Neyer will explain that away.
Jeter has a strong arm which allows him to make some spectacular throws, and he's a heady player, which puts him in the right place at the right time for plays like The Play against Oakland in Game Three of the ALDS. But really, he doesn't have much range. He's slow to react to grounders, particularly to his left, though he has improved considerably this season compared to last, probably thanks to being healthier. That doesn't mean he's not an extremely valuable player; anytime you can get that kind of production out of a middle infielder it's a big plus, and anytime you get that combination of leadership, smarts, and durability from a ballplayer, it's an even bigger plus. But the list of Jeter's best qualities doesn't start with his defense, and while I Heart Derek, I won't argue that he's a good-fielding shortstop. Maybe not "the worst fielding shortstop in baseball," but nobody worthy of a Gold Glove either.
Postscript:Though I beat him to the punch by a few hours (not that it matters, because he's likely NOT reading this), Rob Neyer gives his take on the NY Times Gold Glove piece today, and his conclusion is the same: not great. Neyer also notes that it was John Sterling and not Michael Kay (Sterling's radio partner for the last few years) who tried to humiliate Neyer on the air. Though he's a homer, I'll defend Kay to a degree because the man can actually write very coherently. I won't waste my breath defending Sterling though. Even his "Theeeeeeeeeeeeeee Yankees win!" radio call grates on my nerves, and that's about all that distinguishes him.
Wednesday, August 07, 2002
Man Bites Dog: Jay Links Post
I generally stay away from referencing the New York Post because I find their tabloid mentality and the politics behind it so reprehensible. But two articles today got my attention.
The first one
is about Mets co-owner Nelson Doubleday's accusations that baseball cooks its books to hide profits. Doubleday is attempting to sell his half of the team to co-owner Fred Wilpon based on a provision of their longstanding partnership in which one party can buy out the other at a value determined by an appraiser. The hitch is that the valuation placed on the franchise--by a crony of Commissioner Bud Selig--is out of line other estimates of the team's worth (previous offers for the team, Forbes Magazine's estimate
, and the price the Boston Red Sox fetched when sold over the winter, for example). The story is being widely covered, but it was the Post's back-page headline, "END IS NEAR FOR SELIG" which reeled me in. Man, that tabloid shit is STRONG.
In the Post article, Tom Keegan speculates--perhaps a bit breathlessly--that this controversy couild spell the end of Selig's reign. He writes:
Driving one more nail - no, not a nail, this one is a spike aced with arsenic - into the coffin of Selig's reign as commissioner, an outgoing member of the Old Boy Network let the whole world know that, guess what, the owners do cook their books.
In what has the appearance of an old boy leaving the Old Boy Network and thereby feeling as if he can finally tell the truth, Mets co-owner Nelson Doubleday fingered baseball yesterday in papers filed Tuesday in federal court for Doubleday's lawsuit against co-owner Fed Wilpon.
Doubleday maintains the commissioner was "in cahoots" with Wilpon and Arthur Andersen accountant Robert Starkey to "manufacture phantom operating losses" in baseball's books.
While this might get ugly, it just as easily could disappear like smoke if Doubleday is able to wring another $50 to $100 million out of Wilpon for his half of the team. Far more promising, in my opinion, is the RICO suit
brought by the former Montreal Expos owners, because Selig is actually a defendant in that case. But either way, and even with the fantasy that a deal with the Players' Association might arrive in time to avert a strike, a few more vultures are circling around Bud.
A sharp writer named Dan Lewis, who keeps a sports blog of his own, dlewis.net
, as well as writing for various other online publications, does a nice, quick dissection of the Doubleday matter
as well as related economic issues surrounding the game. Lewis runs down "The Seven Deadly Disputes"
at the heart of baseball's labor war. The 60/40 rule (in which a team's asset-to-debt ratio may not exceed that arbitrary balance), he writes, "is 100% a salary cap." Add this man to your reading list.
• • • • •
The second Post piece
is about the still-struggling Mike Mussina and the Yanks' pitching woes as a whole. On Tuesday, Moose allowed a career-worst 14 hits to the Kansas City Royals, who have the league's lowest batting average. Joel Sherman summarizes Mussina's futility:
In his last 19 starts, which stretches to late April, Mussina has pitched to a 5.48 ERA. Since June 1, the AL is hitting .315 off him. Over his superb career, Mussina always has possessed the moxie and arsenal to escape jams. But the Royals were 7-for-15 with men on base against him, and for the season his average against in those spots is .311 and worse (.324) with runners in scoring position.
This data meshes nicely with the situational OPS breakdowns I ranted about
a few days ago. Here is a revised version showing Mussina's OPS (On Base Percentage + Slugging Percentage) allowed with no baserunners (0), runners on base (1+) and runners in scoring position (RISP):
0 1+ RISP
Before last night 648 893 930
Last night vs. KC 933 1118 1000
After last night 656 914 934
It takes a lot of work for a single outing to raise an OPS 21 points; Mussina's performance last night was really that bad. Upon examining these numbers after his Texas start, I suggested that Mussina's ridiculous stretch move (a.k.a. the Goddamn Drinking Bird) may be part of his problem, as the move may be inhibiting the control or velocity of his pitches. But in examining last night's outcome, a few other possibilites have reared their heads:
• Mussina could be tipping his pitches.
This possiblity was suggested to Mussina after last night's outing, but he dismissed it, at least publicly. However, as NY Times writer Jack Curry
notes, "Mussina said batters were hitting different pitches while he was ahead in the count, which sounds like a description for tipping pitches. To that, Mussina said: 'I should just tell them what's coming then. Maybe that will make it easier on me.'"
• Baserunners could be stealing Jorge Posada's signs.
Similar to the tipped pitch theory, this also meshes with Moose's woes with men on base. Either way, the Yanks ought to be checking their video for clues.
• Mussina could be hiding an injury.
While Moose is considerably easier to communicate with and more forthcoming than Orlando Hernandez (the master of the concealed injury), he may have nagging minor injuries which are contributing to his woes. Recall that El Duque's seemingly minor toe problems contributed to his considerably more major pitching woes last season.
Noting a lack of velocity on Mussina's fastball and crispness on his breaking pitches, ESPN's Rob Neyer
suggests that Moose is suffering from a lack of arm strength, and what he calls "the Yankees' laissez faire attitude toward the health of their pitchers' arms." While Neyer may be onto something about the arm strength, the latter accusation is absolutely unfounded given the Yanks' conservative approach to injuries. The organization has uniformly addressed injuries to Pettitte, Hernandez, Rivera, Clemens, Hitchcock, ad infinitum
with the focus on making sure they were ready for the postseason. Not to get all indignant, but for Neyer to suggest otherwise shows that he's not paying very close attention. Still, he does have a point when he writes, "With luck, there's nothing wrong with Moose that a two-week vacation in Tampa can't cure."
• Sometimes, he just sucks.
Slumps happen, and overthinking or pressing to shake them often tends to make matters worse. Mussina has conceded that he has a tendency to overanalyze his mechanics, but struggling like this is uncharted territory for him. All the more reason why the Tampa Cure might be in order, especially with Roger Clemens coming off of the disabled list.
Hopefully, Mussina and the Yankee organization can get to the bottom of this mystery before too long. And maybe Brian Cashman should talk to David Cone after all.
Last Friday night may qualify as the most surreal night I've ever had at a ballpark, even though it was one of the more short-lived. My co-worker Lillie had organized a trip to see the Brooklyn Cyclones play at Keyspan Park, a colorful little ballpark nestled in the middle of Coney Island's amusement rides. The Class A Cyclones, whom I visited
during their inaugural season last summer, are sold beyond capacity this season, with only bleachers and standing-room tickets available on game day. Fortunately, Lillie had a friend willing to go out of his way and swing by Coney Island to pick up ten tickets at $5 a pop.
Now, group expeditions are always a dicey proposition at ballparks; the more people you have, the harder it is to get everybody to the same spot at the same time, especially when coming from the city an hour away during rush hour. Our plan to meet a half-hour before game time fell by the wayside. But nine out of our ten managed to find their way to the bleacher entrance of Keyspan Park as the National Anthem was being played, and we entered the stadium together.
Though Keyspan is oversold, it's not necessarily full to capacity, as on any given night entire rows of season-ticket holders may not show up. So as the top half of the first played out, we found our way from the bleachers down to the first-base side of the infield, staking out the better part of a row in section 14
As the game began, the weather was questionable, with a rainstorm reportedly heading towards the park. A glance at the sky as we settled into our seats answered the question, as a black, arced cloud of doom loomed to the east. Uh-oh.
With the chaos of the rush-hour trip to the ballpark behind us and a potential storm ahead, the first thing on my mind was a quick bite to eat--a bite and a beer, actually. My girlfriend Andra took care of the beer portion, getting stuck in a long line in the process. By the time she was back, ominous gusts of wind--strong enough to blow one's cap off--were swirling, and the occasional thunderclap shook the stadium. I headed off to get a couple of hot dogs, but frustrated by getting stuck in the same concessions line as Andra had, I bailed out. Instead, I hurriedly scored a pair of Italian sausages at a less-crowded cart and returned to my seat. I quickly had to get up again to find condiments and napkins, neither of which was easy to find. The napkins were inconveniently being dispensed from stupid wall-mounted contraptions as if they were Kleenex; one good yank to pull a few out on them produced a wrinkled mess unfit for presentation to another human being.
If it sounds like I watched very little baseball up to this point, that's a correct impression. Our large group, late arrival, and lack of familiarity with the ballplayers had taken the option of keeping score out of my hands. Once that happens, my attention (not to mention my feet) tends to wander. But I began to tune in once the sausage returned my blood-sugar level to a more comfortable point. A close play at first base in which a Cyclones batter was called out had several fans in our section jawing back to the umpire. As the man in blue listened to the chatter coming from the Cyclones' bench, some of these armchair umps imagined he was paying attention to their complaint, resulting in an ever more boisterous display.
Play progressed very quickly; it seemed as if every batter swung at the first or second pitch with one eye on the forecast. Through this, the Brooklyn starter kept throwing zeroes up on the scoreboard. After six quick innings, he still hadn't allowed a hit. Unfortunately, the Cyclones had managed only two hits themselves up to that point, and the game was still scoreless. Meanwhile, the thunder clapped ever louder, and the sky grew blacker.
So there I am, in the middle of a no-hitter to which I've barely paid attention. I'm still hungry. I can't sit still. I don't have a scorecard. Hell, I don't even know the pitcher's name (Jason Scobie, as I soon learned). And I've got too many people to talk to while this is going on. I'm thinking to myself, "What sorry-assed excuse for a baseball fan have I become? Better I head to the kiddie pool beyond the outfield wall of the Arizona Diamondbacks mallpark than be caught without a scorecard at a no-hitter." Oh, the guilt.
In the bottom of the sixth inning, Oneonta brought in a new pitcher (Ross Koenig), who got one out, then hit the second batter, leftfielder Jonathan Slack, in the arm with a pitch. To the crowd's delight, Slack stole second base, then advanced to third on a wild pitch. With two outs, second baseman Joe Jianetti blooped a soft single, scoring Slack for the game's first run.
Scobie took the mound for the seventh, retiring the first batter. At that point, Lillie leaned over to me and broke the spell by uttering the dreaded words "no-hitter." Sure enough the next batter, Tigers third baseman Robert Watson, lined a double off of the leftfield wall. The appreciative Brooklyn crowd gave him an ovation, but several parents, with their eye on the weather, began decamping once their shot at history over. Lillie winced, and I shook my head. So much for our luck.
The top of the seventh ended with a series of violent thunderclaps, after which the umpires conferred and called the game. Momentarily, the sky erupted and the rain began to fall. As the groundskeepers unrolled the tarp, it was clear our baseball was done for the night. With the aid of a borrowed umbrella, we made the subway stop without getting too soaked. Our ride back to the city on the lead car of the F train was punctuated by flashes of lightning and the sight of rain pouring in through the train's front door. All in all, a surreal experience.
Tuesday, August 06, 2002
Whether or not you're a basketball fan, if you're a lover of the language of sports, you should note the passing of Chick Hearn, the Los Angeles Lakers' longtime play-by-play man. Hearn, who died on Tuesday at the age of 85, spent 42 years calling Lakers game (including an incredible 3,338 consecutive games), and even if you never got to hear him broadcast, you've heard his work.
Hearn's language added color not just to the sport of basketball, but to sports culture in general; terms he's credited with creating or popularizing include "slam dunk," "air ball," and "no harm, no foul." Several other phrases of his have also stuck: "Caught with his hand in the cookie jar," "He faked him into the popcorn machine," and my personal favorite, ""You can put this one in the refrigerator. The door's closed, the light's out, the eggs are cooling, the butter's getting hard and the Jell-O is jiggling.'" ESPN's obituary
does a nice job of running down several "Chickisms" as well as the highlights of the man's career. The world of sports will miss him.
The Twins Geek
(John Bonnes) pointed me and the rest of his readers in the direction of this article
at Sports Central, comparing Minnesota Twins owner Carl Pohlad to that tent-fingered embodiment of animated evil, Montgomery Burns. "Who else could represent everything Pohlad stands for?," writes Ryan Noonan. "Mr. Burns is an old, bald, filthy-rich business tycoon who seems to take pleasure in other people's misery. He lives in a cavernous mansion by himself and would probably sell his mother if it meant he could make $2 on the deal. Except for maybe the cavernous mansion, if that doesn't describe Pohlad, I don't know what does." Excccccellent.
But so long as I'm riffing on the Simpsons, even that news isn't quite as excellent as the fact that my favorite show has inspired the naming of a minor-league franchise. The AAA team which will play in Albuquerque next season will be called the Isotopes
, taking its name from an episode
in which the Duff Beer Corporation, owners of the Springfield Isotopes, schemes to move the team to Albuquerque until Homer foils his plan.
Real-life Albuqueque was left without a franchise following the 2000 season, when the Los Angeles Dodgers ended their long working agreement with the city's team, the Dukes. The Pacific Coast League franchise moved to Portland, becoming the Beavers, but they still hold the legal rights to the name "Dukes." Meanwhile, the PCL's Calgary Cannons are moving to Albuquerque, and while traditionalists wanted to resurrect the Dukes name (even given the estimated $15,000 cost of buying back the rights), imagination--and perhaps a whiff of the green stuff--has won out. The 'Topes have secured the rights to trademark
the name, though they haven't worked out anything with Fox regarding the use of Simpsons characters.
Meanwhile, the Dodgers' new working agreement is with a Las Vegas franchise called the 51s
, after Area 51
, the top-secret military facility associated with UFO tales and conspiracy theories. The 51s even have one of those alien heads (a schwa, as I believe it's called) as their cap logo. Given that Fox owns the Dodgers, this is all starting to make sense. New teams, new uniforms, new marketing opportunities... the truth is out there.
Monday, August 05, 2002
David Cone has had an interesting season on the fringe, but then David Cone has always kept things interesting--whether he's at the top of his game or the bottom. The New York Observer, that strange pink media-focused weekly, caught up with Cone in a front-page feature
last week, discussing his whereabouts and his position on the game's current labor issues.
Recall that the articulate Cone was one of the most visible players in the game during the last labor war; his role as an American League player representative had him on TV every time there was news about the 1994-1995 strike. Cone, who is still close to Donald Fehr, the head of the Players' Union, offered glints of optimism about the present situation: "There is not as much rhetoric as there was the last time. I still think the framework is there for a deal."
After his well-chronicled, disastrous 2000 season with the Yanks (4-14, 6.91 ERA, and the subject of a Roger Angell book
), Cone salvaged some dignity with a strong comeback with the Boston Red Sox last year. At his best, Ol' Coney was still capable of holding up his end of a tantalizing pitchers' duel, as he did against the Yankees and Mike Mussina
when the latter came within one strike of a perfect game on September 2. For the season, Cone went 9-7 with a 4.31 ERA, helping to keep the Sox in the race in Pedro Martinez's absence before the inmates overran the asylum.
With the market for fragile 38-year-old pitchers a fickle one, the Sox chose not to re-sign Cone, who then spurned overtures from the Kansas City Royals and the Texas Rangers to wait for a call that never came from the Yankees. Still, he kept showing up--in Tampa, where he threw to stay in shape, and in the bleachers of both Fenway and Yankee Stadium
, where he watched games among the variouis bleacher creatures.
Though Boss Steinbrenner hasn't seen fit to offer Cone a contract to pitch, he has let Cone get his feet wet in a new endeavor, as a game analyst on YES. Cone worked a game each round of the Subway Series between the Yankees and the Mets, and now he's literally plying his trade in the minors, doing a few Staten Island Yankees games. I tuned in to hear his work Monday night, and while he's definitely not polished yet, he shows potential. His voice is pleasant if a little flat, and he uses a few too many um's and uh's, but his observations on pitching are delivered with confidence and enthusiasm, and he's never been short of charisma or candor. Once again, he reiterated his optimism on the labor front, offering hard-won observations from his time on the front lines as well as more general insights about his playing days.
Cone's being given every chance to succeed in his new role, but he still hasn't ruled out another trip to spring training--to put on the pinstripes one more time and retire a Yankee, if nothing else. The bets are in that he's thrown his last pitch in a regular season game (and if that's the case, I was lucky enough
to see it), but rest assured he'll be sticking around the game in some capacity. Which is good, because baseball at whatever level--a strike, a season from hell, a five-error Class A game, or a World Series gem--is always more interesting with him around.
Saturday, August 03, 2002
Mike Mussina got shelled against the Texas Rangers the other night, giving up 7 runs and 11 hits in only 3 innings. Most embarrassingly, Mussina tied a major-league record by allowing six doubles in one inning. A guy could get whiplash watching all of those balls fly over his head.
The Rangers appear to have Moose's number; he's allowed them 18 runs in 13 innings over three starts in pinstripes. In fact a year ago Friday, I ditched work
to catch a day game, only to watch Mussina get rocked by Texas before I'd even broken a sweat.
The Rangers won't be around in October, but they're not Mussina's only problem. He hasn't been nearly the same pitcher this year as he was last season, when he outpitched teammate Roger Clemens, whose gaudy 20-3 record netted an unprecedented 6th Cy Young Award. Mussina's ERA was 0.36 runs lower (3.15 to Clemens' 3.51), he showed drastically better control (5.09 K/W ratio for Moose vs. 2.96 for Rocket) and he allowed significantly fewer baserunners per inning (1.07 vs 1.26). But Clemens got the better run support, and ended up with the better record and the hardware.
Run support anomalies tend to even out over time, and this year Moose has gotten his share, enabling him to a 13-5 record, compared to 17-11 last year. But Moose's ERA is 1.68 runs higher this season than last, and only 12 out of 22 starts have been Quality Starts (3 earned runs in 6 innings or better). Five of those non-Quality Starts qualify as Disaster Starts (a term coined by ESPN's Jim Baker meaning those in which the pitcher allows as many or more runs than innings pitched). Interestingly enough, in 34 starts last year, Moose posted the same totals of non-Quality and Disaster Starts, 10 and 5 respectively.
So his hits per inning are up (9.07 per 9 IP vs. 7.95 last year), his strikeouts are down (7.04 vs 8.42), and he's already allowed more homers than he did last year (1.37 per 9 IP vs. 0.79 per 9 last season. Just what the hell is going on?
Anyone who's watched Mussina pitch knows that he has one of the more, um, distinctive stretch moves in the game. At the beginning of his windup, he bows like an overly servile butler. Or as I'm prone to calling it after a couple of beers, a Goddamn Drinking Bird, after that novelty-store staple
. Mussina's move looks ridiculous, and I don't see how he can generate any power with it. While he's obviously had success with it in the past, anybody examing his mechanics would surmise that he's wasting a lot of energy and losing his power there.
Actually, I think I'm onto something. Here are OPS (On Base Percentage + Slugging Percentage) breakdowns for the Yankee starters, with no runners on (0), runners on (1+), and runners in scoring position (RISP).
0 1+ RISP
Clemens 588 772 763
Hernandez 570 656 679
Lilly 696 611 554 (incl. 2 OAK starts)
Mussina 648 893 930
Pettitte 711 776 714
Wells 682 714 697
Moose's OPS with runners on or in scoring position are 117 points higher than any other splits here, and they're the only ones above 800. His splits last year aren't quite as drastic (590 OPS with none on, 707 with runners on, 767 with runners in scoring position), so maybe this is a just random blip.
Whatever the reason, Mussina hasn't pitched well with runners on base. If I were Yankee pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre, I'd check video of his pitching from the stretch this season versus last. And I'd suggest Mussina kill that Goddamn Drinking Bird.
Thursday, August 01, 2002
Nobody hates sharing their first name with a fundamentally unsound ballplayer toiling in the same city more than I do. So I let out a good whoop when the Mets finally, mercifully pulled the trigger on a deal which sent Jay Payton to Colorado on Wednesday.
I never understood why the Mets made so much fuss about Payton. Despite his minor-league hitting prowess
(Payton tore up A, AA, and AAA pitching his first three years as a pro), he's been an extremely mediocre major-league hitter. And whatever skill he's shown as an above-average centerfielder is undone by his baserunning antics, which stand out on a team with two headless chickens in the outfield and on the basepaths in Roger Cedeno and Timo Perez. I may as well watch Little League.
Week after week, month after month, I read about how Jay Payton was the sticking point in some blockbuster deal the Mets had going for Junior Griffey or Gary Sheffield or Babe... well, maybe not Babe Ruth. Those deals never materialized, of course. If a reluctance to part with Payton really is what did them in, then Mets GM Steve Phillips should be sentenced to watch his overpaid, underwhelming ballclub for an eternity, or at least the length of Mo Vaughn's contract.
Injuries and a million elbow surgeries delayed Payton's big-league career until 27, an age when ballplayers tend to peak statistically. Three years down the road, Payton hasn't advanced very much; we've already seen his upside. A red-hot July did enough to camouflage his decline that it made sense to deal him. That he netted only a middle- to back-of-the-rotation starter in John Thomson (who's decent enough, but so fragile that he's apparently in the Under the Knife
Hall of Fame next to Moises Alou and Ken Griffey, Jr.) shouldn't surprise anybody besides Phillips, Rockies GM Dan O'Dowd, and Jay Payton's mother, all of whom have higher opinions of their Jay than I do.
Here are some stats for Payton:
AVG OBP SLG PA
2000 .291 .331 .447 529
2001 .255 .298 .371 386
2002 (pre-July) .259 .311 .383 216
2002 (July) .351 .402 .500 81
2002 (total) .284 .336 .415 297
Looking at these, who do you think the real Jay Payton is, the mediocrity who put in 1000+ plate appearances over 2 1/2 years, hitting a thin .273/.316/.407, or the guy who tore up the NL in July once the Mets had flatlined themselves out of Wild Card contention? Caveat emptor.
ESPN's Rob Neyer has a good piece
about the general lousiness of the Mets' outfield, and points out that in Payton, the Mets traded their most productive outfielder. I say that if Payton's the best you've got, you might as well pack in some dynamite, blow shit up and start over. I'd shiver at the prospect of Perez taking over centerfield if I didn't have good money to bet on the "over" for collisions with Cedeno. *That* will be fun to watch.
• • • • •
This page has taken quite a jump recently in terms of traffic, enough to make July the busiest in this site's short history, and 50% busier than the previoius six months' average. I know that my coverage of the All-Star Game Weekend had something to do with it, but a bit of networking with my fellow webloggers helped as well. I'd like to give big thank-you shout-outs to David Pinto's Baseball Musings
, Geoff Young's Ducksnorts
, John Bonnes' TwinsGeek.com
, John Perricone's Only Baseball Matters
, and of course Pete Sommers' Baseball News Blog
, all of which have brought this site to their readers' attention recently. These are some really smart weblogs, and I encourage anyone reading this to check them out.
Subscribe to Posts [Atom]