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, May 30, 2003


Will He Stick Around?

As the Yanks gather for their organizational meetings this week, they're doing so without Vice President Gene Michael. As much as Joe Torre, Brian Cashman, or any other Yankee exec, "Stick" is the architect of the recent Yankee run. Long before Billy Beane was reinventing the wheel, Michael was emphasizing on-base percentage as the key to building an offense. As Jack Curry writes in Thursday's New York Times:
Michael was Beane before Beane, the celebrated general manager of the A's, was anything more than a low-level scout a dozen years ago. While Michael did not succeed with a modest payroll, as Beane has done, he was a pioneer in stressing the importance of on-base percentage to improve the Yankees, an approach Beane has adopted and been lionized for in Oakland.

Before Michael became general manager of the Yankees for the second time, in 1991, they finished last in the American League in on-base percentage. Michael noticed that awful statistic and obsessed over it, preaching patience and adding players who he felt were selective at the plate. By 1993 the Yankees were second in the league in on-base percentage. By 1994 they were first. This approach was the model the Yankees followed in winning four World Series titles in five seasons, starting in 1996.

"It took other teams eight years to catch on," said Michael, whose nickname is Stick. "I think they finally caught on to what we were doing in 1998."
Actually, they were third-to-last in '91, but only 3 points out of last. Anyway, the reason Michael's being left out in the cold is that he's currently negotiating for a long-term contract extension; his current contract expires October 31. Should he decide to leave, the Stick would be a hot commodity; there isn't an organization in the game that wouldn't benefit from his wisdom. Last year George Steinbrenner denied the Red Sox permission to speak to him about their GM opening, and the Mets are rumored to be interested in him once they give Steve Phillips the Old Yeller. The Boss's maneuver is a hedge against the possibility that Michael, who's spent 33 years in the Yankee organization as a player, coach, manager, GM and scout, may decide after the season to test his mettle elsewhere. But Steinbrenner, despite his precautions, told the Times that Michael's contract would be completed soon.

Still, this decision may run deeper than Michael merely wanting to stay with the Yanks and them wanting him to return. Stick is 65, and the window for him to run a team from the GM post may close if he gets a long-term contract. One way or another, this is a free-agent situation worth keeping an eye on.

Wednesday, May 28, 2003


Blog Duo Nix Bronx Jinx

Well, that worked. Bronx Banter's Alex Belth and I attended Tuedsay night's Yankees-Red Sox game and watched the Bombers return to form, winning 11-3. The two of us were also in the house the last time the Yanks won at home, on May 14 vs. Anaheim. Since then it's been 8 straight losses in the House o' Ruth, a streak which justifiably has mad King George frothing and sharpening his guillotine, as you'd expect. Alex and I are going to have to go to more games if we're going to keep the Yanks on track, I guess.

I've got a longer writeup of the game in store [it's now up here], but for now, check out what Alex has to say of the ballgame, and read his interview with Allen Barra. Allen's off base when he busts out the rusty old Juan Samuel comparisons for Alfonso Soriano, and a bit hyperbolic in other spots, but he's on the same page as the rest of us griping about the Yanks.

• • •

Speaking of hyperbolic griping about the Yanks, Larry Mahnken gets off a good one at Derek Jeter's expense (see May 26 entry):
After Jeter was injured on Opening Day, the Yankees went 25-11 until his return. Since his return, they have been 3-11. I think you can guess where I'm going here.

We must kill Derek Jeter.

Hey, I like the guy, but it's obvious that his presence on this team has ruined their rythym, and that the mere thought of his imminent return sent waves of panic through the team, as they went 3-5 in the games before his return. Bernie Williams and Nick Johnson were so eager to get away from his awful presence that they injured themselves in the days following his activation. Even the ball dreads him, as shown by it's proclivity for avoiding his glove. There can be no other explanation for his inablity to get to balls hit in his area, as he is clearly an excellent defensive shortstop, as evidenced by that play two years ago where he was out of position.
Elsewhere Larry refers to the Yankee relievers as "a bullpen that makes Baby Jesus cry." If I were drinking beer at this early hour, it would be coming out of my nose right now...

Friday, May 23, 2003


On Closer Examination

Robert Tagorda, who writes a blog called Priorities & Frivolities, has an interesting comparison between Braves closer John Smoltz and Dodger closer Eric Gagne. Smoltz is being celebrated for the Braves having won a whopping 72 straight games in which he's appeared, dating back to last June 3. It's an impressive stat, to be sure, but it's also one which reminds us just how rigidly defined the job of a closer is. In a more rational universe a team's best reliever would be called upon in all kinds of situations, not just when the team's ahead, and not just for the last three outs. Bill James did a study in the New Bill James Historical Abstract in which he concluded that the optimal times to use your relief ace were:
• two innings in a game when the game is tied
• two innings in a game when you have a one-run lead
• one inning at a time in other games when the game is close at the end and the relief ace hasn't been used for a day or two.
Anyway, we're nowhere near that kind of usage pattern for the modern-day closer, but that's a problem for another day. Tagorda was simply interested in pointing out that if we're talking dominant one-inning closers, Gagne has the numbers over Smoltz. The bespectacled one is limiting opponents to a microscopic .339 OPS (.191 OBP/.141 SLG) compared to Smoltz at .574 (.265 OBP/.309 SLG). This isn't exactly a fluke; last year Gagne held opponents to a .535 OPS (.232 OBP/.302 SLG). Tagorda's eye-popping numbers also show Gagne to be more efficient than Smoltz, and more valuable in terms of saves in 1-run games. Good stuff that I wish I had more time to dig into.

That Dodger staff is putting up some astounding numbers; they're on pace to allow fewer than 500 runs, which hasn't been done over a 162-game season since the Year of the Pitcher, 1968. Baseball Prospectus' Joe Sheehan has a good piece about how the Dodger pitchers and hitters are faring this season.

Thursday, May 22, 2003



With the Yankee offense already hobbled by the loss of Nick Johnson and a subpar performance from Jason Giambi, the team received more bad news on Thursday. Centerfielder Bernie Williams has torn catrtilege in his left knee and will likely undergo arthroscopic surgery and miss 4-6 weeks. Williams had really been struggling the past few days; 0-for-21 to be exact, putting a capper on a dismal .197 AVG/.567 OPS month of May.

Juan Rivera will be recalled from AAA, slotting into leftfield while Matsui moves over to centerfield (you were expecting Charles Gipson to hold onto the job?). Rivera was hitting .327/.371/.420 at Columbus. The 24-year-old is walking more frequently than last season (once per 14.5 PA in 2003, compared to once per 18.4 last year) but showing very little power thus far. Still, except for his golf cart avoidance skills, Rivera looked ready for the majors last season, even starting in the Yanks short-lived postseason. So like the Almonte/Jeter situation, the Yanks get a chance for a long look at the future -- even if that future only means the July 31 trading deadline.

Williams' injury also gives the Yanks an opportunity to see how well Matsui handles center; with the Yanks already 13th in the league in Defensive Efficiency (converting balls in play into outs), this might stir thoughts down the road of reorganizing the outfield to compensate for Bernie having already lost a step.

But those minor silver linings aside, this is another blow for the Yanks. This team started out hot enough to withstand the loss of one of their offensive cogs in Jeter. But with Williams joining Johnson on ice as the rest of the lineup slowly cools off, they'll struggle for runs unless the likes of Giambi, Matsui and Rivera pick up the slack. The Yanks better hope that happens, or they'll be shopping for a bat (preferably a lefty one) to go with that bullpen helper soon enough.

Wednesday, May 21, 2003


From the Penthouse to the Bullpen

My girlfriend and I threw a rooftop housewarming party last night, so it was just as well that I missed the second game of the Yankees-Red Sox series. Partying with your friends while admiring the Manhattan skyline definitely beats watching the Yankee bullpen cough up five runs. Then again, coughing up five beers to the porcelain god would beat that sorry performance -- not that I had any problem keeping mine down, thanks.

Suffice it to say that there are a lot of frustrated fans pulling their hair out over these two teams' respective bullpens. Through last night's ballgame, both pens have the same bad ERA (5.29), though the Sox relievers have thrown nearly 50% more innings (146.1 to 100.1). More is definitely less here, and the Yanks can thank their starters for eating up the innings -- almost one more per game than the Sox (6.7 to 5.8).

Baseball Prospectus uses a method to rate relievers called Adjusted Runs Prevented, which is based on how many runs can be expected to score given the base/out situation when a reliever enters or departs. The BP numbers show the Yanks pen at -11.7 runs and the Sox at -19.8, about a full game worse. The worst offender on the Sox is the turncoat, Ramiro Mendoza, coming in at -7.9 runs (some would say he's still working for George Steinbrenner), while the worst Yank is Juan Acevedo at -7.8.

The two pens are constructed very differently, however. The Yanks adhere to a traditional hierarchy, with closer Mariano Rivera at the top of the food chain, a couple of servicable setup men, and several guys who apparently bathe in kerosene. The Sox, as you've read a thousand times, eschew the traditional notion of the closer, though confusion exists between Grady Little's and Theo Epstein's offices as to just what the hell that means. "Closer by committee" is the only-partially-correct shorthand; the Sox strategy is to *try* to deploy their best relievers in their highest-leverage situations. Their main problem is identifying just who their best relievers are, with the smart-assed answer being "None of the Above."

The AL East may well be decided on the relative strength of these two bullpens, not only in their performance but also in the front-office trade-deadline machinations which will bolster these sorry squadrons.

I've got plenty more to say about two pens, particularly the Yanks one (though some of it's unprintable), but I've got a full night of viewing ahead, with Roger Clemens gunning for 299 in Fenway (where he hasn't won since April 14, 2001) and a screening of Bad News Bears. Does it get any better?

Monday, May 19, 2003


Blog, Blog, Blog

I'm sitting here watching the first game of the season between the Yanks and the Red Sox. As David Wells grunts through without his best stuff on the eve of his 40th birthday, I'm doing a little bit of site maintenance, and I wanted to call attention to a few new blogs out there.

The first,, comes from Baseball Prospectus' Greg Spira. Greg's created a handy blog devoted to tracking reviews and excerpts of new and notable baseball books "from Amazin' to Zim." Greg knows his books. As Baseball Primer's Sean Forman testified: "I've visited Greg Spira's apartment, and I can attest that the guy is a serious fan of baseball books. They are in his closets, his kitchen cabinets, stacked on the floor and even in some bookcases."

I can relate; I'm dangerous when the new titles flood the market in the spring. But with my new, smaller apartment, shared domestic space, and financial austerity plan, I've had to resist the urge to buy every 300-page tome that vaguely interests me. I did purchase Rob Neyer's Big Book of Baseball Lineups because I love books that lend themselves to browsing, I can't shut up about the latest Roger Angell book, and it's all I can do to put Moneyball down to watch a ballgame, write a blog entry, or go to work. I've got an itch to pick up Michael Shapiro's The Last Good Season, except I know it will be weeks before I even start it. Ditto dropping science with the late great Stephen Jay Gould. And I still haven't really put a dent in Baseball: A Literary Anthology, which a friend gave me as a parting gift when I left my job in February...

Anyway, if you've gotten enough of the new stuff, Greg's got another portion of his site called Buying Baseball Books: A Guide. Hold onto your wallet here, folks, because he tells you not only where to get the best prices for new books but also the places to look for those hard-to-find ones. Personally, I'm big on for remainders and Advanced Book Exchange for out-of-print stuff.

Moving on... is a blog devoted to aggregating as many baseball blogs as its proprietor can find (78 at last count). The site uses RSS feeds to generate brief excerpts of the blogs, and among your options, you can view blogs by team (there's at least one for each team now) or by today's entries. Pretty sweet.

Finally, on the Yankee front, Larry Mahnken's Replacement Level Yankees Weblog has a great name and an endearingly self-deprecating tone (check out the excerpts from Baseball Primer on the left). Larry's got a great list of blog links and an Alfonso Soriano Wager Watch, comparing Sori's walk rate over the past two seasons.

Speaking of the Yankees, it's 5-1 in the seventh with two on and two out, and Boomer's done. Time to go sweat this one out with the bullpen...

Sunday, May 18, 2003


A Bronx Tail-Off (Part I)

A week ago, I sat down to write a lengthy evaluation of the Yankees as they approached the quarter mark of their season. At the time, the team had just lost its second series of the season, both to the Oakland A's. But aside from a leaky bullpen, the Yanks appeared genuinely solid, if not invincible, and the highly-anticipated return of Derek Jeter looked to solidify their standing.

A week later, things look less rosy for the Yanks. The team is now in the throes of a 4-9 skid which has seen them lose three consecutive series to AL West teams. A few offensive outbursts have disguised a sputtering offense, while Joe Torre has revealed just how little he trusts his bullpen by leaving his starters to sink on their own several times. Jeter returned to the lineup and quickly locked in at the plate, but his replacement in the #2 spot in the order, Nick Johnson, was lost for 4-6 weeks with a broken bone in his hand. The team got more bad news about Steve Karsay, who is likely done for the year without appearing in a game, and Juan Acevedo continues to pitch like a man better suited to going before a firing squad. It's been a rough week in the Bronx.

But with the effects of the team's torrid 18-3 start largely neutralized, now is a better time for a clear-eyed assessment of the 2003 Yankees. In this first installment, we'll start with the basics and cover the offense. All statistics and records in this piece are through Saturday's game.

The Yanks are 27-15, holding a slim one-game lead over the Red Sox in the AL East. With the recent slide, they've squandered their claim to the game's best winning percentage. Through Saturday, they're now in a 3-way tie for the second-best record in baseball, 2.5 games behind the surprisingly resilient Atlanta Braves. A .643 clip projects to 104 victories, but we all know the Yankees hunt even bigger game(s) than that.

The Yanks have scored 250 runs, an excellent 5.95 a game, third-best in the majors (the Blue Jays lead at 6.02, followed by the Red Sox at 6.00). They've allowed 175 runs, an average of 4.17 per game, seventh-best in the majors (the Dodgers lead at 3.09, followed by the A's at 3.45). Their 3.82 ERA is also seventh. The Yankees' expected winning percentage based on their runs scored and allowed (the simple Pythagorean method) is .671, best in baseball and a full game better than their actual winning percentage. They're 5-3 in one-run games, which confirms that luck isn't a big part of their record. Despite the past week's indignities, the numbers still say they're a very good team.

Here are some basic statistics for the Yankee hitters as of Saturday. Before I begin my player-by-player evaluation, it is worth noting that these stats are still at the mercy of one very good or bad week which can drastically color the perception of a player's season thus far.
NAME        HR  BI   BA  OBP  SLG  OPS

J. Posada 10 31 .244 .351 .558 .909
J. Flaherty 0 2 .258 .303 .323 .626

J. Giambi 8 23 .207 .335 .380 .715
N. Johnson 5 18 .308 .455 .517 .971

A. Soriano 12 32 .306 .378 .554 .932

D. Jeter 0 1 .391 .440 .522 .962
E. Almonte 1 11 .272 .337 .370 .706
E. Wilson 1 3 .189 .211 .324 .535

R. Ventura 7 20 .296 .352 .513 .865
T. Zeile 4 12 .190 .278 .380 .658

H. Matsui 3 29 .269 .317 .383 .700
B. Williams 7 30 .314 .427 .503 .930
R. Mondesi 8 23 .325 .403 .591 .994
B. Trammell 0 4 .296 .367 .444 .811
Jorge Posada (C): With Ivan Rodriguez now sleeping with the Fish in the NL, Posada is unquestionably the top-hitting catcher in the AL. He's off to a strong start and leads all major-league catchers in homers and RBI, and he's third in OPS behind Mike Piazza and MIke Lieberthal, with a homer and RBI production that nearly equals those two combined (10/31 compared to 11/33). Offensively, a few of his statistics might raise an eyebrow. He's walking only once per 9.4 plate appearances, considerably less frequent than his career rate (1 per 7.6 PA). He's also seeing fewer pitches, 3.62 per PA compared to 3.93 for his career. And he's hitting fewer ground balls and many more fly balls than he usually does (0.74 grounders per fly, compared to 1.2 G/F for his career). These anomalies are all bucking trends which have been very consistent since Posada became a regular in 1998; taken together they suggest that he may be falling into some bad habits. Worth keeping an eye on.

Where Posada's shown improvement is in his defense. While he still leads the league in passed balls, he's committed only one error thus far (compared to 12 last year). Most impressively, he's recovered from the shoulder troubles which sapped his arm strength the past two seasons, throwing out 11 of 27 baserunners (41%) after catching only 29% last season.

John Flaherty (C): Though Joe Torre once again proved his ability to choose the lesser of any two backup catchers if given the chance (yes, Joe, Tom Pagnozzi is still retired), he's shown a commitment to resting Posada more regularly; Jorge's caught in 81% of Yankee games, down from 85% last season. Flaherty won't make anybody forget Joe Girardi, though. but he won't have anybody pining for Chris Turner either. Even in only 26 ABs, he's only one point off of his career OPS (669). The Yanks have lost his last four starts, though. For this they whacked Chris Widger?

Jason Giambi (DH-1B): If there's one area besides the bullpen that the Yanks could use major improvement, it's Giambi's bat. His numbers are uncharacteristically low (one double? one measly, stinkin' double?), and though he's still drawing his walks, his K/W ratio is definitely declining (1.5 strikeouts per walk this season, compared to 1.0 last year and 0.6 the season before). B-Pro's Will Carroll says that Giambi's admitted his knee's hurting: "The official word is patellar tendinitis, but Giambi is being told it's non-surgical at this point. Even so, like J.D. Drew last season, Giambi would likely be able to play through the season regardless." Add to that an eye infection that's been dogging him for a couple of weeks and which caused him to miss last weekend's games against the A's, and you've got all the makings for a frustrating seven weeks. It certainly doesn't help with G telling the world, "I'm okay on fastballs, because that's what I see. But anybody with any good off-speed pitches is going to be able to handle me."

Giambi's been spending more time at DH this season than he did last season, ostensibly because Joe Torre desired to protect his slugger from cold-weather hamstring and back difficulties while jump-starting Nick Johnson. Like most regulars, Giambi dislikes DHing, and his productivity has traditionally suffered in the slot (200 OPS points lower from 2000-2002). But he's drastically reversed this trend this season, and now that his injury has been revealed, it make some sense. Here's a chart showing Giambi and Johnson's OPS breakdowns by position, along with the percentage of a player's PAs in that slot:
2002       1B          DH

Giambi 1.135 (58%) .886 (42%)
Johnson .691 (53%) .837 (44%)

2003 1B DH
Giambi .595 (42%) .823 (56%)
Johnson 1.014 (68%) .868 (31%)
While it would seem appropriate to write Giambi a one-way ticket to DH for at least the rest of the season, Johnson's injury (a stress fracture in the third metacarpal of his right hand, for those scoring at home) nixes that plan. It's worth noting that Big G's defensive stats this season are actually better than Johnson's. Getting 37% of the team's playing time at first base, he's yet to make an error (Johnson has one) and his Zone Rating is .957 compared to Johnson's .795. The obvious explanation for his puzzling stats as a first baseman? He's channeling J.T. Snow, of course.

Nick Johnson (1B-DH): The early part of this season showed exactly why Brian Cashman fended off a thousand trades designed to pry Johnson from the Yanks: he can flat-out hit. He can walk, too; Johnson recently tied the club record with a base on balls in 17 consecutive games and was on pace for a whopping 137 this season before the injury. His power has come along nicely as well. He's been a perfect fit for the #2 spot, even more perfect (ssssh) than the man he replaced there. It's tough to watch a guy with a .455 OBP get kicked to the bottom of the lineup, but it's even tougher watching him get kicked to the DL.

One thing that's very different for Johnson this season is that he's standing further off the plate, with one of the results being that he's yet to get hit by a pitch after being plunked 12 times last year. Given how much more valuable he's becoming, that's not an unwelcome development, but as this week has shown, bones break due to other causes too.

Alfonso Soriano (2B): Recent slump notwithstanding, this freak of nature has defied his critics and continues to grow as a hitter. His 12 homers are tied for third in the league, and he's in the top 10 in four major categories. But what's most impressive is his improved plate discipline. He's walked 16 times, compared to only 23 last year, and though five of those are intentional, that doesn't obscure the gains he's made. His strikeout-to-unintentional walk ratio is 3.5, compared to 7.1 last year, and his overall K/W is 2.4, compared to 6.8. His .378 OBP is a vast improvement on last year's .332 (he was above .400 until a week ago), and he's on pace for 62 walks to go with his 147 strikeouts (compared to 157 last year). None of this has compromised his ability to crush bad balls outside the strike zone. You can tell those Juan Samuel comparisons to shut up.

Defensively, Sori's seems more comfortable pivoting on the double-play, and he's made only 2 errors. But while his Range Factor is steady with last year's, his Zone Rating is down considerably (.772 from .813); in other words, he's getting to a lower percentage of balls in his area. The Yankees defense as a whole relects this; their Defensive Efficiency rating is down to .688, 13th in a 14-team league and 23 points below the league average (last year .708, 8th in the league and 3 points below league average). We'll return to this subject later.

Derek Jeter (SS): They survived without him, doing well enough that sooner or later somebody will whisper Ewing Theory. But an unsettled score with the Boss and a desire to prove himself fully fit might foretell an even more focused Jeter than usual. With his hitting this past week, so far so good. Nick Johnson's bat covered for Jeter's absence almost perfectly; now the Yanks need Jeter to return the favor.

Erik Almonte (SS): Gotta hand it to him -- the kid acquitted himself reasonably well with the stick during Jeter's absence. That .706 OPS won't win any awards, but it does suggest he can handle major league pitching better than the Reys and the Enriques of the world. We're only talking about 100 PAs or so, but he hit significantly better on the road than in Yankee Stadium, suggesting either that nerves might have played a part or that his optimal future lies beyond the Bronx -- or perhaps both:
      PA  AVG    OBP   SLG   OPS   K/W

Home 41 .237 .293 .289 .582 7.0
Road 60 .296 .367 .426 .793 1.5
Nine errors, a .922 fielding percentage, and a .663 ZR won't make anybody forget Jeter's glove, nor do they inspire much confidence in Almonte's ability to handle third base. But with Drew Henson still looking like a quarterback trying to play third, the Yanks have little to lose by sending Almonte back to Columbus to experiment with the hot corner. But even if he continues full-time at short, at the very least the Yanks have given themselves another potential body for a trade come July.

Enrique Wilson (SS): You might assume I'd champion the cause of just about any futility infielder whose butt warps the planks of the Yankee bench. But you know the old saying, when you ASSUME it makes an ASS out of U and ME. Enrique, on the subject of derrieres, took one look at Luis Sojo and decided that junk in the trunk must be the secret to longevity in a futilityman. Increasingly, the only thing every Yankee fan in the range of YES knows about Wilson is that this guy couldn't hit his ass with a paddle, let alone major-league pitching. The Yanks were 100% correct not to let Wilson anywhere near the regular shortstop job in Jeter's absence, now the question is just, what is he still doing here?

Robin Ventura (3B): A hot (1.187 OPS) week has put Ventura's season back on track, but here's yet another example of a Yankee with a falling walk rate: one per 12.5 PAs this year, compared to one per 6.2 last season and per 7.7 for his career. The net result is a batting average that's 49 points higher than last season, but an OBP that's 16 points lower -- another chin-scratcher.

Torre has almost completely shielded lefty-hitting Ventura from lefthanders -- only 13 PAs thus far. He didn't do spectacularly against them last season (.218/.310/.475/.785 in 115 PA), and he's got a career 73-point dropoff in OPS against southpaws. But Torre's handling of Ventura has more to do with preventing him from wearing down late in the season. Over the past three years, he's fallen off the cliff after the All-Star break to the tune of 140 OPS points.

Todd Zeile (3B-1B): This Joe Torre favorite is ostensibly Ventura's platoon partner at third; he's got a 95-point OPS advantage against lefties over the past three seasons, and it's even more pronounced in his limited PAs this season: .820 vs lefties, .546 vs. righties. Unfortunately, Torre continues to find him opportunities against righties which further everyone's misery.

But where the third-base platoon's broken down has been Zeile's ability to play the field: 5 errors and an .886 fielding percentage in 17 games, though his Zone Rating is virtually identical to Ventura's and his Range Factor and double-play rates actually higher. Insert sample-size caveat here. Over the next 4-6 weeks, Zeile will be picking up some time at first base and DH, provided his bat warms up. The Yanks could probably do better elsewhere, but you know how Torre loves Zeile's bland brand of Proven Veteran-ness.

Hideki Matsui (LF): "RBIs aside, he's hitting like Chad Curtis," observed Steven Goldman, who writes the fantastic Pinstriped Bible column for the YES website. With a .702 OPS, that almost sums it up. A 4-for-33 slump towards the end of April is still skewing his stats a bit; take that away and he's at .302/.349/.443. Matsui's struggling especially against lefties (.631 OPS), in the daytime (.564 OPS) and with nobody on base (.587 OPS).

Much was made this spring of how little Matsui strikes out, but with 25 in 189 PA, he's looking ordinary in that department, suggesting the pitchers may have gotten a book on him pretty quickly, and now it's up to Matsui to adjust. It's too early to give up on him, but those 25-homer projections look like a pipe dream. The Yanks and Matsui would likely benefit from moving him lower in the batting order, where the expectations aren't quite so high. In the field, Matsui's generally looked good, but he's had a few lapses which may be due to communication barriers between him and Bernie Williams as much as anything else.

Bernie Williams (CF): Though his May's been a chilly one (.706 OPS), Bernie's scalding April has left him ahead of where he was last year at this time, and far healthier too. He's fifth in the league in On Base Percentage, and generally looks as if he's about to run off another carbon copy of his typically excellent season (that;s eight straight, by the way). The biggest aberration in Bernie's stats appears to be improved plate discipline; he's got 2.1 walks per strikeout, compared to 0.9 for his career. Defensively, his Range Factor and Zone Rating numbers are better than last year, and he's yet to make an error. The Yanks have plenty to worry about right now, but this guy ain't the problem.

Raul Mondesi (RF): Along with Nick Johnson, Mondesi's been the biggest surprise with the bat for the Yanks. Considerably more fit than last year, he's hitting better than he ever has in his career. Hell, he's mashing to the tune of a .994 OPS. Most refreshingly, he's showing plate discipline, with an OBP about 70 points above his career average and a 0.5 pitches more per plate appearance. With Giambi and Matsui struggling, Torre ought to think about moving Mondesi up in the order; right now it would be no shame to bat him cleanup between Williams and Posada. That would have sounded ridiculous last summer, but it should be considered a measure of Mondy's improved approach as well as the team's circumstances. Defensively, he's still a treat to watch, reducing doubles off the wall to long singles with that cannon of an arm. Rock and Rauuuuuul!

Bubba Trammell (DH): Bubba's the forgotten man on the Yankee bench due to a confluence of several circumstances, namely Johnson's emergence, Mondesi's resurgence, Giambi's woes, and Torre's Zeile for veterans he can trust. Trammell was expected to pick up some playing time against lefties at DH and in the outfield to spell Mondesi, but thus far he's played only 9 games and gotten a paltry 30 PAs. His lack of a glove isn't helping Torre find room for him; Joe had enough trouble giving time to another lefty-masher who could catch the ball: Shane Spencer. If he hasn't completely rusted, he ought to start taking at-bats from Zeile as the latter's weaknesses gets increased exposure in Johnson's absence.

Next installment: pitching and fielding.

Saturday, May 17, 2003


Futility Infielder Merchandise

As I've hinted in a few recent posts, I am now pleased to offer a line of Futility Infielder merchandise via CafePress is an innovative site which handles the production, sale, and delivery of merchandise based upon designs I've created. Each item is made to order, and all items come with a 30-day money-back guarantee.

Currently my line of merchandise includes:
• four short-sleeve T-shirts (two men's, two women's)
• baseball jersey (available in three sleeve colors)
• coffee mug
• beer stein
• sticker

The link above, as well as the one in the navigation bar at left, will take you to a new department I've created on this site showing images of the products I've designed. By clicking the following link, you will be taken to The Futility Infielder Online Shop at, where you can acutally purchase the items. I appreciate your support. Thanks for shopping!

Friday, May 16, 2003


Oh, What a Feeling to Be Sele-ing and Zeile-ing

Whew, that's more like it! I swapped emails with Alex Belth prior to last night's Yanks game, which we both attended. Alex sounded ready to throw himself under the D Train if the Yanks couldn't crack Angels starter Aaron Sele. See, the Bombers positively own Sele; in addition to a career 5-10 record and a 4.76 ERA against them in the regular season, he's 0-5, 5.00 against them in four playoff series.

After losing four out of five games and two straight series to AL West teams, Sele was the perfect prescription for the Yankees' ailments, and they beat him like a rented BP pitcher. The fun started with Alfonso Soriano homering on Sele's second pitch and a three-run first inning, and it just kept going. The Yanks pounded Sele for 9 hits and 8 runs in 2.2 innings, and continued teeing off on Scott Shields. The score was 10-1 after four loooong innings, by which time the Bombers had gone through the batting order three times. Things were moving so slowly that when the 9:30 curfew arrived for the beer concessionaires, it was only the fifth inning. Angels manager Mike Scioscia began packing it in shortly afterwards, making four substitutions and a position switch following the sixth. It was that kind of night.

On a chilly evening which featured lots delays riding the pine, Jeff Weaver pitched about as well as could be expected, scuffling into the seventh and allowing only two earned runs. The real star of the show was Todd Zeile, who batted ninth and played first base while Nick Johnson sat with more of his mysterious hand jive. Zeile had a picture-perfect hit-and-run ON A PITCHOUT in the second, a two-run homer in the third, and a somersault over the Yankee dugout railing to catch a Brad Fullmer pop foul in the sixth (this with a 10-2 lead). Zeile's homer, the 237th of his career, was somewhat historic. It tied him with Gus Zernial for first among major-leaguers whose names begin with the letter Z. Hey, when you're last in the alphabet, you deserve a little celebration now and then.

The other big star of the night was Derek Jeter, who had three hits, including two wall-banging doubles and his first RBI of the season. Jeter looks locked in at the plate, and his average is still .500 (7-for-14) on the season. Raul Mondesi stood out as well, with two walks, two hits, two runs, and two nice defensive plays, a great warning-track grab of Bengie Molina's fly ball in the second and a perfect rebound-and-throw to hold Adam Kennedy to a long single off the right-centerfield wall in the seventh.

One amusing moment from the stands: four old codgers directly behind me took note of Jason Giambi's batting average, which is finally above .200. One of them used the term "Mendoza Line," prompting much discussion among the four as to what exactly that meant. Another surmised that the Mendoza Line meant .150, but he had no idea to whom it referred. A third said it had something to do with World War I, possibly conflating it with the Maginot Line. The irony of the situation is that I was wearing my official Futility Infielder Baseball Jersey, which features the slogan "The website from South of the Mendoza Line" on the back. I didn't want to seem like a smartass, so I resisted entering the conversation. But had the weather been warm enough for me to remove my jacket, perhaps I could have saved them from the ignominy of not being able to correctly spot the Mendoza Line. Such lofty goals are what the Futility Infielder aspires to, after all.

And with that, I suppose I've unleashed the Futility Infielder CafePress Store. Feel free to browse around, and look for more details about it here this weekend.

Wednesday, May 14, 2003


Setting the Table

I wasted Tuesday night watching the Yanks roll over to the Anaheim Angels in Derek Jeter's return. The Angels waited out Mike Mussina, spoiling his good pitches, forcing him to labor, and then they broke the game open, winning 10-3. An uncomfortable flashback to the Halos treatment of the Bombers in last year's AL Divisional Series, or as Yogi says, déjà vu all over again.

Though the Yanks trailed all the way, the game was a close one until the top of the seventh, when things turned ugly. Leading 4-2, the Angels opened up the inning with a David Eckstein double off of Sterling Hitchcock. Adam Kennedy then laid down a sacrifice bunt to the first base side, but instead of taking the easy out, Nick Johnson threw to third base. But the throw was too late to get Eckstein, and all hands were safe.

This play drove me crazy, and it still does. It ALWAYS friggin' does. It's a bad play because the defense is acting out of desperation instead of making the smart move and taking the out. The consequence of failing to get that lead runner is that it sets up a big inning; first and third with no outs instead of third with one out.

There's a way to quantify this, using a Run Expectancy table. A Run Expectancy table tells you how often a run scores from that point on, given each of the 24 possible base-out combinations. Bill James introduced the concept to the masses in his 1987 Baseball Abstract, based on work done by Gary Skoog. Recently Baseball Primer contributer Tangotiger published one based on 1999-2002 play-by-play data, which I will reproduce below:
RE 99-02  0 Out   1 Out   2 Out 

Empty 0.555 0.297 0.117
1st 0.953 0.573 0.251
2nd 1.189 0.725 0.344
3rd 1.482 0.983 0.387
1st_2nd 1.573 0.971 0.466
1st_3rd 1.904 1.243 0.538
2nd_3rd 2.052 1.467 0.634
Loaded 2.417 1.650 0.815
What this is saying is that at the start of 1000 innings (0 on, 0 out), teams can be expected to score 555 runs. With a runner on 1st and 0 outs, that expectation rises to 953 runs per 1000 innings; with 1 out and nobody on, that expectation falls to 297 runs per 1000 innings. Pretty neat, huh? If I were a manager, I'd tattoo this data on my inner forearm.

We can use this matrix to examine the situation the Yankees faced on Tuesday night. Following Eckstein's double, the Angels had a man on 2nd and 0 outs, an expected yield of 1.189 runs. A successful sacrifice bunt would have actually lowered the run expectancy to 0.983 (man on 3rd, 1 out). A bunt with all hands safe would have left men on 1st and 3rd with no outs, an expected yield of 1.904 runs. A great defensive play to nail the lead runner would have left a man on 1st with 1 out, a run expectancy of 0.573. In fact, the Angels scored two runs in the inning, breaking the game open.

The lower run expectancy after the bunt illustrates why the sacrifice bunt has fallen out of favor among statheads. True, there is a time and a place for everything and these are just averages which don't take into account a runner's speed, a particular hitter's bunting skill, or whether the next guy up is Barry Bonds. But these averages have their uses for testing a few theories. Let's look at the Yanks' options on Kennedy's bunt. They could have played it as a sacrifice and almost certainly gotten Kennedy at first while Eckstein advanced, with a slight possiblity Kennedy would somehow end up safe -- maybe Soriano didn't reach the bag in time, maybe Johnson bobbled the ball while picking it up, maybe Kennedy morphed into Rickey Henderson on his way down the line, whatever. Let's assume that 90% of the time, Kennedy's out and 10% of the time he's safe. We can quantify all of this:

Initial State:
2nd, 0 out: 1.189 RE

Sacrifice Scenario:
90% chance (3rd, 1 out) + 10% chance (1st & 3rd, 0 out)
0.9 * 0.983 + 0.1 * 1.904 = 1.078 RE

Again this confirms that on average the Yanks would have lowered the Angels' run expectancy by taking the easy out. In fact, using a little 7th grade algebra, the hitter would have to be safe 23% of the time in order to raise the run expectancy from this sacrifice. Do you know many guys who can bunt .230?

Now let's look at what I'll call the Cutdown Scenario. Suppose it's a 50-50 shot as to whether the defense get the lead runner. This gives us the following:

Cutdown Scenario:
50% chance (1st, 1 out) + 50% chance (1st & 3rd, 0 out)
0.5 * 0.573 + 0.5 * 1.904 = 1.239 RE

Even with a 50% chance of getting the lead runner, the run expectancy is higher than the intial state. Back to Mr. Richards' 7th grade algebra class, we have a break-even point of about 54%. Now, I don't have numbers that tell me how often the defense cuts down a lead runner in a sacrifice situation, but I can tell you, it ain't 54%, hoss. Especially not with a speedy little guy like Eckstein. We've all got too many fist-sized clumps of hair lying around and too many blogged rants like this for that to be the case.

I'll admit that my analysis is an oversimplification; I could have included the possiblity the fielder throws the bunted ball into the stands for a two-base error, but then we'd be piling too many assumptions on top of each other. But even with this simple analysis, there's no escaping the conclusion that the Yankees made a stupid play Tuesday night, and it broke the game open.

• • •

Well, in the timespan I've been working on an as-promised in-depth look at the Yanks, they've lost two in a row to the Angels in less-than-impressive fashion. Since I'm headed to the ballpark Thursday, that analysis is going to need a bit of retooling before it gets posted, probably this weekend.

Monday, May 12, 2003


Gabba Gabba A's

This spring's hottest baseball book is Michael Lewis' Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game. Lewis, author of the bestseller Liar's Poker, chronicles Oakland A's GM Billy Beane and the unconventional inner workings of the A's front office. Lengthy excerpts in the New York Times Magazine and the current (May 12) issue of Sports Illustrated have generated some serious buzz among baseball fans, especially the statheads, not to mention lots of controversy within the game. Advance press has focused on Beane's less-than-flattering opinions of former manager Art Howe and rival GMs Kenny Williams (White Sox) and Steve Phillips (Mets), among others.

I've been itching to get my hands on a copy of the book, so after two fruitless trips to the local megastore, I just ordered my own copy online. I'm going to hold off on delving too deeply here until I've actually read more of the book, but I do think it's one that will have a huge impact inside the game.

With Beane in the spotlight, this piece from the zine Chin Music was unearthed via Baseball Primer. It turns out Beane is quite the punk rock fan, so Chin Music arranged an interview between the A's GM and punk rock legend Johnny Ramone which took place last summer. Beane was positively gushing upon meeting Ramone:
BB: Johnny, they might have given you a heads up that I might turn into a crazy fan here and just gush for a few minutes. But I went out and got the "Rocket To Russia" 8-track when I was 16. And I got into the Ramones, the Dead Boys and everybody else for the same reason that you started playing it. I got so sick of hearing "Kashmir" and "Roundabout" by Yes and all these synthesizers on the radio. So when I first heard you I went, "Oh my God!" It was like I was enlightened! So I said, "Johnny's just gonna have to put up with me for a few minutes because I'm gonna turn into like some crazy Trekkie guy here."
Elsewhere Beane reveals that he paid a visit to CBGB's during the A's-Yankees Division Series in 2001(posing for a photo in front of the venerable club while wearing a suit and tie) and that he's been turning some of his players onto the old school via books such as Legs McNeil's classic oral history of punk, Please Kill Me! It's not every day you find a GM conversant in the music of the New York Dolls, the Clash, and the Sex Pistols, but that's just one more way Billy Beane is breaking the mold.

Sunday, May 11, 2003


Clearing the Bases Several Times Over

For the first time since leaving my job in late February, I've been freelancing on a regular basis, with a former colleague whose current clients include the The Cal Ripken, Sr. Foundation, for whom I've been designing a newsletter. So between work and getting adjusted to my new "roommate," this has been another busy week which found me a day or two behind all but the top baseball headlines. I've had a lot rattling around the junk-drawer of my mind, however. Here goes...

• Saturday was a landmark day for my new apartment, as our futon frame finally arrived. This is a big deal; in New York City, we call this a couch. After a month of lying on a mattress on the floor to watch TV, at long last I can return my seat to its upright position and type on my laptop while watching a ballgame, a situation which bodes well for more posts here.

• All hail TiVo! If you're a baseball fan who follows a team on a day-in, day-out basis, you need this, if for no other reason than to avoid watching the same ads 1000 times over the course of a season while your manager exhibits classic obsessive-compulsive behavior in playing the platoon advantage with his relievers. Condensing a 3-hour game into half the time without missing an out reaps additional benefits too, such as social interaction with other members of the human species.

After living with a gadget-freak roommate who turned me on to the wonders of the digital video recorder (not to mention the wireless home network), I bought one for myself when I moved. Actually, the purchase was the first move-related thing I did after signing the lease. There's simply no going back once you've experienced TiVo; any television without one feels like it's broken.

The Yankees mid-week West Coast swing, with all of those 10 PM games, was a perfect application for TiVo's magic. I could whiz through a ballgame in the wee hours or simply put it all off until the next day. Friday found me pounding my fists on the table over my morning coffee as I watched Thursday night's Yanks-Mariners game, where the Yanks put up a 10-spot on their nemesis, Freddy Garcia, and routed the Mariners 16-5. The Seattle lefty, who typically owns the Yanks (4-1 with a 2.63 ERA in 37.1 career innings prior to Thursday) looked listless and lost during that endless third inning, a far cry from his usual Yankee-whooping self. It's always fun to rack one up on those nemesis guys, but here's hoping Garcia's healthy, at least.

• Garcia's arm may be sound, but over at the U.S.S. Mariner blog Derek Zumsteg says that his problem is more a question of commitment and lifestyle: "Well, here's what's up. Freddy's known as a party dude, a nightclub-hanging-out guy with a reputation for enjoying the women his fame attracts. I have no personal knowledge of any of this, I only know that he does get spotted at clubs a lot. He's also got issues with his work ethic, preparation, and his tendency to come unraveled easily."

Zumsteg -- who from the looks of his recent articles on maximizing beer and baseball, knows a party dude when he sees one -- goes on to take the local Seattle writers to task for not delving too deeply into their allegations along those lines. But unless Derek wants to see scandal-sheet trash along the lines of the New York Post's coverage of the Mets current debacles (Haircutgate and Positionswitchgate), he should be careful what he wishes for.

Just prior to Thursday's meltdown, the Seattle Times had an article on the M's quality young arms, including the 26-year-old Garcia, and 24-year-olds Gil Meche and Joel Piniero. Though they haven't reached Zito-Hudson-Mulder status, that trio -- in the company of the ageless Jamie Moyer -- could yet return the M's to the postseason. Meche was particularly impressive against the Yanks in a game I attended back on April 29. He shut them out for 7.2 innings and allowed runners on second or third only three times, way back when the writers were still yammering about these Yanks possibly topping 116 wins. That got my attention.

Speaking of Zumsteg and TiVo, the writer had a good Baseball Prospectus piece last week on his own experience with the device. In particular, he noted the discrepancies over different second-base umpires' standards for calling a runner safe or out on a stolen base and a tendency to rewatch injuries. It's an impulse to which I can relate; I think we all saw Derek Jeter's shoulder dislocate about 100 times.

• Jeter's return is slated for Tuesday, which is good reason for any Yankee fan to smile. But it's been a fascinating time to watch the Yanks in his absence, especially to see Nick Johnson's emergence into the hitter for whom Brian Cashman fended off a thousand advances. Johnson's hitting .319/.469/.531 and averaging nearly a walk a game from Jeter's customary #2 spot in the order, and the Yankee offense hasn't missed too many beats. I'm waaaaay overdue for an in-depth look at the Yankees, so I'll get to it in the next couple of days.

• None of my blogging brethren have been as busy lately as Alex Belth. The Bronx Banter boy's got a two-piece Rob Neyer interview up at his site, and the first part of what looks to be an equally satisfying one with Roger Angell at Baseball Prospectus. Here's one exchange from the latter:
BP: When did you first write about baseball?

Angell: In '62. I had written some sports pieces, I had written a piece about the New York Rangers. I was a hockey fan; I was a sports fan. I did a couple of other things. And I had written a baseball piece for "Holiday," sort of a generic baseball piece. I said if you want I could go down to spring training. I certainly did not have it in mind to write a lot about baseball. The thing was, (my editor) didn't want sentimental writing about sports and he didn't want tough guy writing about sports, which were the choices back then. You were either weepy, or you were tough. The first year I went to spring training I found the newborn Mets in St. Petersburg. This is 40 years ago. I didn't think of myself as a sports writer so I didn't dare go in the clubhouse or sit in the press box. I sat with the fans. And I realized that the stuff that's ignored and never gets reported on is the fans. Nobody ever wrote about the fans. So I wrote about the fans, and I've continued to do so. I've continued to write in a form that allows me to write in the first person. And that allows me to say I am a fan of this team, or react to things as a fan as well as a baseball writer that now knows something about the game.

The Mets were just a great fan story when they arrived. They played in the Polo Grounds and they were one of the worst and most entertaining teams that ever played. And that was a terrific story. And New York was used to the Yankees, winning all the time. Somebody said they had become like General Motors. And here was a team that was just terrible, but large numbers of people turned out to cheer them on, and if they won a game there was wild excitement. So I wrote that. They were something like anti-matter to the New York Yankees. I remember sitting there at the Polo Grounds, and there was a guy sitting near me in the stands blowing this mournful horn. TWUUUHH-TRUUUHP. And I wrote that there is more Met than Yankee in all of us, because losing is much more common than winning. When I heard that horn blowing I realized that horn was blowing for me. In some way, I began to settle into the kind of writing that I would do later on. They call me a "baseball essayist," or a "baseball poet laureate," and I hate that. I'm not trying to write baseball essays, and I'm certainly not trying to be poetic. I try to avoid it. I've been able to find myself and baseball a natural fit, and everybody wants to write about himself. That's why we do it (laughs).
Good stuff again from Belth, with whom I'll be attending a Yanks game in the near future.

• To borrow a line from South Park, "Jesus Tap-Dancing Christ!" Because he apparently misses having a rag-armed starter like Livan Hernandez around, Chicago Cubs manager Dusty Baker allowed Kerry Wood to throw an astounding 141 pitches in only seven innings Saturday. Baseball Primer's Don Malcom lights the barbecue for the pitch-count police, but he also breaks down some play-by-play data from the game and points out the way Baker painted himself into a corner:
Wood labored in the third inning, and he really had trouble getting first-pitch strikes from the third through the fifth (just five of fifteen). He pitched well in the sixth, however, and this is where the "pitch count police" will argue that he should have been removed. To do that in a way that created a tactical advantage, Baker would have needed to make a double switch in the seventh, most likely replacing #5 hitter Hee Seop Choi with a pitcher, and inserting Eric Karros into the #9 slot.

Baker decided to try to get Wood through another inning, though. And opposing pitcher Woody Williams, who'd worked Wood for a walk in the third, just kept foulding off pitches, winding up with an 11-pitch at-bat before grounding out. Wood fanned two in the inning, using "only" nine pitches on his K's, but the other two batters (Williams and Fernando Vina, who was hit by pitch) used up 19.
Color me skeptical that Dusty will emerge from his tenure with the Cubs with great reputation intact. I'm guessing he blows out at least one of those prized arms sooner or later on the road to nowhere, and that his predilection for playing vets over youngsters squanders some of the Cubs' prized talent.

• Speaking of pitcher abuse, ding-dong, the witch is dead! The Florida Marlins fired manager Jeff Torborg and pitching coach Brad Arnsberg, and while the stated reasons may have more to do with their turbid 16-22 start than the rash of pitcher injuries induced by the Tor-bore, there's no denying that the latter was a factor. Mark Redman's bum thumb, A.J. Burnett's T.J'ed elbow, and now Josh Beckett 's sprained elbow put three of the team's starters on the DL, while a fourth, Michael Tejara, hurt himself on a play Saturday. Bad luck, some of it was, but it all adds up to good riddance to a manager who finished under .500 in 9 of 11 seasons, yet showed a hell of a lot of intransigence over silly little things like pitch counts for somebody so, um, loserly. I'm already of the opinion that the Fish can Rot, and while Torborg's dismissal is no credit to the Loria/Samson/Beinfest brainlesstrust, if it protects somebody's arm somewhere, I'm for it.

• Back to those Mets. With the sharks swimming around Steve Phillips in three shifts a day, it's no wonder such a minor and probably apocryphal incident as a sub-Mendoza futility infielder's haircut turned into such back-page tabloid fodder. But that particular circus doesn't excuse the botched job they did on suggesting Mike Piazza ready himself for first base. The New York Times' George Vescey nailed it:
The Mets' front office has a severe case of bone spurs of the thought process. In addition to all the gruesome things happening on the field and in the sick bay, the Mets have ticked off their best player, Mike Piazza.

They are a national example of how not to run a sports team: dawdle, and duck an inevitable decision. Then, when backed into an unfortunate corner by injuries, embarrass your big guy in public. This has all the feel of one of those epic Metsian meltdown seasons.
Rule #1 in New York City sports (and just about everywhere else) is that if you really want to create a negative spectacle of your team, piss off your players by telling them what to do through the media. Ugly.

I didn't get a chance to respond to a reader who commented on my recent Phillips piece: "What does throwing phillips overboard do for the team right now?"

The answer at this point ought to be as obvious as a 2 x 4 to the forehead. A drowning GM in New York City is just cheap meat for the media. The resulting feeding frenzy magnifies every stupid little thing that happens to the team, and some of those moments go on to live in infamy. It's good for laugh so long as it's not your ox being gored, but from the standpoint of the organization and its $120 million payroll, being the butt of this town's jokes is the worst possible position it could occupy.

If there's a silver lining to the Mets woes, it may be the possibility that Mo Vaughn is truly cooked. Lee Sinins had this to say in one of his daily newsletters this week:
X-rays and a MRI on Mets 1B Mo Vaughn's knee surgery showed he has "more significant osteoarthritis," fluid buildup, 10-12 bone spurs and even surgery may be not be able to cure the problem.

I spoke to BP's Will Carroll about Vaughn and Will says that, medically, this isn't season ending. Will confirms that Vaughn won't be able to return from the DL and regain a spot in the everyday lineup, but will able to play as long as he gets regular rest.

But, there can easily be more going on here than just medical considerations. The Mets have an insurance policy on Vaughn that will pay 75% of his $17,166,167 salary, but not a penny until he's out for 90 days.

It may only be a matter of time before management decides it's time to rip this team apart. When they come to that realization, they have to know that it will be almost impossible to trade him. So, having him be out for the season, letting them collect on the insurance may become a very tempting option.
Without wishing to further kick Vaughn now that he's down, it's worth noting that Mo's making the rounds to several doctors, something might be more of a CYA maneuver on the part of the team than a genuine effort to salvage his season. From the Mets standpoint, paying "only" $7 million to have Vaughn's ample butt clogging up a spot on the 40-man roster through 2004 (which he'd have to do for insurance purposes, á la Albert Belle) certainly appears more palatable than paying $29 mil to watch a once-fearsome slugger sink the hopes of the team.

Ideally, Vaughn's injury should give an opportunity for Tony Clark, one of the team's few productive hitters, to show he can still play. A bit of rest for Piazza and then the chance to let him get his feet wet SLOWLY at first -- once a week, while Clark buys them time -- would make more sense than the trainwreck the Mets have orchestrated this past week.

If anything can top off such a trainwreck, it's the vision induced by this quote from Vaughn about Rey Sanchez's haircut: "If we're in first place, nobody cares. You could be getting a full body shave."

• It's good to see Rafael Palmeiro finally getting some good wood on the ball. Okay, that was just tasteless, but it stopped you from thinking about completely hairless disabled sluggers for a moment, didn't it?

• In the category of Betcha Didn't Know: George Vescey is the "with" in Loretta Lynn's autobiography, Coal Miner's Daughter Damn, that was probably a better paycheck than he's seen for any of his sportswriting.

• One final note: later this week, I'll be rolling out a line of Futility Infielder merchandise -- shirts and mugs -- via Weeks of battle-testing have left me quite excited about all of this, and though I'm a little nervous to see how it will be received, I'm satisfied that at least *I'm* enjoying the stuff. So long as you're not dribbling it down the front of a Futility Infielder t-shirt, drinking coffee out of a Futility Infielder coffee mug really makes those ten-run rallies a pleasure.

Tuesday, May 06, 2003


Duelling Chopsticks over the AL Central

Once in a while, either to provide an outlet for a tense disagreement or merely to keep ourselves entertained, my pal Nick and I make an impulsive bet with a sushi dinner riding on the outcome. Past wagers that have left him crying wasabi tears include picking the Jets to come from behind in the AFC championship game and Gerald Williams to get his first hit of the season before Albert Castillo. Past bets I've picked up the tab for include choosing Bobby Valentine to get fired before Ray Miller -- a bet I was eventually glad to lose after rethinking Bobby V's entertainment value.

As this season started, Nick seemed pretty certain that the Minnesota Twins wouldn't repeat as champions of the AL Central. I begged to difffer, pointing to the presence of the Indians, Tigers, and Royals as the division's obvious patsies and figuring that the White Sox hadn't done enough to close the 13.5 game gap that separated the two teams last year. Nick pointed to Twins manager Ron Gardnehire's tendency to let his team's greatest strength -- its depth -- go to waste by keeping the wrong man on the bench and underutilizing two of his potentially most productive players, pitcher Johan Santana and outfielder Bobby Kielty. I pointed to the gaudy, jewel-encrusted Futility Infielder of the Year belt that Gardenhire brandishes and told Nick, "Your edamame wears combat boots," or words to that effect. Now it's duelling chopsticks over the AL Central, with me defending the Twins' honor and Nick taking the rest of the field.

Early returns in the AL Central project me to be the one eating the rainbow roll of remorse, but not because of the White Sox. It's the Royals who have surprised everybody by seizing control of the Central with a 9-0 start that ran to 16-3 before cooling off (they're now 20-10). Hell, most people, had they bothered to figure, would have projected the Royals to win their 20th game around June 1st, and then only if George Brett came back to bat cleanup. The Twins, meanwhile, are in second place, playing at an unimpressive .500 clip (15-15). No regular besides Kielty or Corey Koskie has an OPS over .800, and the team's top three starters, Brad Radke, Joe Mays, and Rick Reed, have combined for a 5.81 ERA, a 6-11 record, and no shortage of aches and pains.

But Twins Geek John Bonnes points out that the Twins' performance thus far has been distorted by the games they've played against the Yankees. In those seven games, which still make up about a quarter of the Twins schedule, they're 0-7 and have been outscored 49-13. For starters, as Bonnes notes, four members of the Yankees vaunted rotation just OWN the Twins hitters. Here are the career OPS figures posted by the active Twins against each, according to Bonnes:
Pitcher          OPS

David Wells .562
Roger Clemens .434
Mike Mussina .487
Andy Pettitte .576
That'll cause some problems. Moreover, the Twins stats thus far are still heavily influenced by their futility against the Yanks:
                 OPS                    OPS

2003 Overall .703 2002 Overall .772
vs NYY .524 vs NYY .612
vs Others .761 vs Others .779
So while their offense is still slightly down, it's not down by as much once that pinstriped lump in their mattress is accounted for, and as Bonnes concludes, it's too early to hit the panic button. Against the rest of the teams, the Twins are 15-8, and the good news for them is that they're done with the Yankees until at least October. Can they repeat with another AL Central title? Here's hoping they roll to it.

Monday, May 05, 2003


Up in Arms

In one of my pieces last week, I touched on the topic of pitch counts. An earlier version of that piece which was sacrificed to the fickle and vengeful diety that lives inside my computer contained a reference to the new poster child for pitcher abuse, A.J. Burnett, who placed second in the 2002 PAP^3 standings at the tender age of 25. Like that draft, Burnett's elbow has officially gone kablooey. The Florida Marlins pitcher, already serving his second stint of the season on the DL (and his third since last August), was found to have completely torn his ulnar collateral ligament. He underwent Tommy John surgery on Tuesday and, well, you know the drill. Just forward any mail for "the real" A.J. Burnett to the middle of next year, please.

Unfortunately, Burnett's injury isn't in the least bit shocking -- it's like a car crash in slow motion. The Marlins, under manager Jeff Torborg, rode him extremely hard last year, unable to resist the temptation of a fine young pitcher coming into his own. Burnett tied for second in the majors with seven complete games and led the league with five shutouts -- piddling totals compared with the workhorses of yesteryear, perhaps, but still a lot by today's standards. Using the PAP^3 metrics, nine of his 29 starts were Category IV (122-132 pitches), where the risk of short-term decline is "significant." No wonder that he broke down in August, going on the DL with elbow trouble after a span of exceptionally heavy usage (five starts, 41 innings, and average of 119 piches per start) and was limited to 13.1 innings after August 18.

Then, more elbow trouble this spring, followed by some five-inning outings with high pitch counts and decreased velocity, and now the congregation will read from the Book of Jobe. But what's interesting is that the response to Burnett's injury has been anything but the usual "those young pitchers will break your heart" script. Baseball Prospectus injury guru Will Carroll started the round of finger-pointing at Torborg and pitching coach Brad Arnsberg, and was soon joined by several Baseball Tonight personalities, including Harold Reynolds, Peter Gammons, and Bobby Valentine.

From there, things got even more serious. Burnett stood by Torborg and his staff, and alleged that the Marlins' upper management knew more about his elbow woes than they let on to Torborg -- particularly that he had a bone spur in his elbow. Marlins GM Larry Beinfest and team physician Dr. Dan Kanell quickly moved to defend themselves and control the damage.

Aaron Gleeman has some strong words about the situation over at his blog:
There is just no way a reasonable person can look at how A.J. Burnett has been handled over the past 12-15 months and come to a conclusion that in any way suggests the Florida Marlins "were trying to protect the kid from the first day." Not only is Jeff Torborg an idiot that abuses his pitchers and then is confused when they come up injured, he is an idiot that then lies about it in such a way that is nothing if not blatant.
Aaron's continuing coverage of the situation is both excellent and extensive, so I won't go into much more detail here and instead suggest you read more of what he has to say on the topic.

Instead I'll take this opportunity to respond to a thoughtful comment on my pitcher abuse piece last week. Here it is again, from reader George Southrey:
I guess the question about pitch counts and a pitcher's longterm health is this: In today's free agent financial world, why would you want to protect a pitcher unless you had a longterm interest in him? Strictly from a business perspective, if you knew you could not afford to re-sign a Kerry Wood, why not pitch him until his arm falls off if he's winning? Why should you care about his arm strength 3 years from now if he's on another team?

I know that sounds callous, but there's no reason for financially-strapped teams to 'manage' young pitchers' innings for the sake of their careers unless you will be the beneficiary of those careers.

That's one of the sad facts of the current "Haves-Have Nots" baseball structure.
George, first off, the Cubs are definitely NOT have-nots. They're the eighth most valuable franchise according to the recent Forbes Magazine estimate (worth $335 million, up 17% from the year before, which was the biggest gain in the game) and had the fifth-highest operating profit last year post revenue-sharing ($11.9 mil). Hell, they've been marking up tickets 3300 percent and if they're losing money anywhere, it's only through creative accounting. If they want to sign Kerry Wood when he's a free agent, they should have no problem. Shed no tears for the Tribune Company's poverty.

But back to the issue at hand. I think the main reason a team would want to protect its pitchers is that they've ALREADY invested a huge amount of money, time, instruction, and roster space to a pitcher by the time he reaches the ability of, say, an A.J. Burnett. Their interest has already been long-term. Burnett has slept with the Fish since February 1998 (he came over in a trade for Al Leiter), but it wasn't until 2001 that he solidified a spot in the team's rotation. I don't know exactly how much service time he has in days on a major-league roster, but he appears to have two or three more seasons before he's a free agent. In this day when insurance companies won't touch contracts longer than three years, Burnett's remaining time with the Marlins IS long term.

Now, just when he's finally put it together and become one of the league's top starters, the Marlins are losing Burnett for a huge chunk of the remaining time they have him cheap (he's only making $367,000 this season). For a team determined to keep costs down while remaining nominally competitive, that's a blow. Assuming Burnett's theirs through 2005, the Marlins would have done better to wait a couple more years before beating him like a rented mule. All those complete games and shutouts really do is add to his asking price anyway. How many arbitration cases these days hinge on the number of shutouts a 25-year-old pitcher threw?

Look at this issue from beyond just one arm. If an organization developed a reputation as burning through its young pitchers, what happens when the team's next #1 draft choice won't sign with them? What happens when agents won't steer their clients towards them? If the Cubs burn through Kerry Wood, what happens when Mark Prior decides he doesn't want to be the next patient in Dr. James Andrews' waiting room and starts taking himself out of games? The Cubs are gonna have some 'splaining to do.

Look beyond the unenlightened have-nots. By all accounts, no team has a more proactive approach to pitcher developoment than the Oakland A's, who were still pinching pennies the last time I checked. They're not burning through their young arms, they're working to correct delivery flaws and prevent injuries in addition to keeping their eyes on the pitch counts. Keeping pitchers healthy is how teams in the have-not position can gain an edge -- after all, wouldn't you expect the big-money teams to be the ones most willing and able to go through disposable starters?

To summarize: In the abstract, I don't think that the strategy George suggests could survive. And if we're talking "Haves or the Have Nots" in the A.J. Burnett instance, it's knowledge, not money, that the Marlins are lacking. From the top on down, the Fish are one of the most inept, two-bit, fly-by-night operations around. Jeffrey Loria and David Samson ran the Expos into the ground, then received the chance to do it all over again in the Florida sun thanks to Bud Selig's bag job of a franchise transfer trifecta. Jeff Torborg will never win any awards for managerial enlightenment either. Hey, he's never won anything else.

By the way, if it seems like I'm mentioning B-Pro's Will Carroll a lot around these parts, it's true. Along with Jonah Keri's excellent series of interviews (including the Dr. Frank Jobe and Rick Peterson ones linked above), Carroll's columns are the most interesting stuff on the site, and his work is nearly worth the price of a subscription itself. They're day-to-day essential stuff that also touches the Big Picture on a regular basis while expanding our knowledge of the game and how the bodies of the men who play it really work.

Friday, May 02, 2003


Shea Goodbye, Steve

Here is the starting lineup of a baseball team:
   AGE   AVG   OPS  HR  RBI  

C 29 .328 .960 32 111
1B 30 .337 .993 40 115
2B 30 .282 .765 14 56
SS 30 .285 .686 2 30
3B 32 .251 .785 20 67
LF 25 .282 .818 22 90
CF 23 .242 .644 2 17
RF 29 .263 .838 38 125

SP 32 20-6 2.47
SP 32 17-6 2.47
SP 35 20-7 3.55
SP 27 15-8 4.46
SP 28 13-14 6.23
If you were the GM who assembled this lineup, you'd be sitting pretty. A starting eight which accounts for 170 homers and has four players with over 90 RBI would make a potent offense, even if a couple of youngsters at the glove positions were easy outs. That rotation looks sharp as well, with a pair of 20-game winners and an 85-41 record, even if the fifth starter needs asbestos pants.

This team actually exists... sort of. They're the 2003 New York Mets. But those statistics aren't current; they're five years old and the players, as you might expect, have aged just as much. Therein lies the problem with these Mets. It's as if GM Steve Phillips is saying, "Sure, it's not 1998 now, but who knows what year it will be in August?"

[Those numbers above, in order, belong to Mike Piazza, Mo Vaughn, Roberto Alomar, Rey Sanchez, Jay Bell, Cliff Floyd, Roger Cedeno, Jeromy Burnitz, Tom Glavine, Al Leiter, David Cone, Steve Trachsel, and Pedro Astacio. Bell's not really the starting 3B, but Ty Wigginton was in Class A Pittsfield that season. Astacio spent '98 in Coors, hence the inflated ERA.]

The vultures are already circling around Shea Stadium. The team is 11-17, last in the NL East, batting a collective .230 with a .664 OPS, scoring only 3.8 runs per game while allowing 5.3. Vaughn and his $15 million salary are being outplayed by non-roster invitee Tony Clark, who leads the team with 4 homers despite only 32 at bats. Vaughn's been anemic at the plate (.197 AVG, 3 HR, 15 RBI and a .668 OPS), even worse in the field (5 errors and the range of a sedated hippopotamus), and now he's hinting that he'd rather retire than wallow around for the $29 million he's due over the next two seasons (yeah, surrre). Piazza's been slowed by a four-game suspension and now a bum knee. Burnitz got off to a hot start, then broke his hand. Cliff Floyd needs surgery on his Achilles tendon. Cedeno has been a travesty in centerfield, and Timo Perez and Tsuyoshi Shinjo aren't helping much. Roberto Alomar has officially joined the undead. Astacio and Cone are on the DL and have been pretty lousy when they've pitched, save for Cone's triumphant first start. Trachsel's been equally lousy. And the closer... talk about needing asbestos pants.

Phillips could use some asbestos pants himself, because he's the one on the hot seat for assembling this cast of expensive zombies. He painted himself into this corner, one expensive contract at a time, after the 2001 season, beaten like a rented mule by the game's other GMs. His charges performed so poorly that he couldn't unload their large contracts this past winter. Sooner or later, owner Fred Wilpon has to give him the bullet, it's just a matter of time.

The Mets may save a bit of face and level their stats off once they fall completely out of contention (see Mo Vaughn's split statistics last year). But you can kiss Phillips goodbye. Just don't let him slip you any tongue.

• • •

I'm headed to Shea next Tuesday to see the Mets take on the Dodgers. My friend Lillie mailed me my tickets, which arrived today. In order to conceal them from those greedy little postal workers, and also to give me a laugh, she wrapped them in a coupon for, which sells T-shirts that say "Trade Benitez," "Blame Benitez," and now "Cedeño Cücks". If you want to start pointing the finger early, you can even get $2 off your order with the code APRILSHEA.

• • •

Despite all of my recent hyperbole, I don't really advocate throwing things at players on the field (though I'll cop to "not discouaging it" and would probably shell out for a Fans Gone Wild videotape if a low-budget infomercial pops up in the next fifteen minutes). With Carl Everett and Sean Burroughs hit by errant cell phones in the space of a recent week, Village Voice writer Paul Lukas brings us a brief history of players wearing their batting helmets for protection in the field. Not surprisingly, Branch Rickey's got his hand in there -- at one point his intent was for all fielders to wear them, but then John Olerud got into a time machine and told the '53 Pittsburgh Pirates they were biting his style.

Lukas, author of the hilarious zine Beer Frame: The Journal of Inconspicuous Consumption (the best of which was collected in a book called Inconspicuous Consumption), writes a regular column for the Voice called "Uni Watch" focusing on fashion trends in sports uniforms. The aforementioined article has links to several of his pieces, including a good one on Stargell Stars and helmet merit stickers.

• • •

Oh, and my regular email address, seems to be working again. I got this one Wednesday night from somebody calling himself Bubba:
So Jay Jaffe is intolerant of intolerance. That in a word, is golden.
Though I think he meant that as a slur, Bubba summed up my position quite succinclty. Few things provoke my ire more than intolerance, and while I don't seek to make this column an outlet for my politics (been there, done that), I do feel compelled to stand up for what I think is right and speak out against what I feel is wrong. And I should point out that despite my aforementioned hyperbole, nowhere did I say anything about how Todd Jones should be fined, punished, or told what he could or couldn't say. His views -- however repugnant I might find them -- enjoy the same protection as any other American's. And the rest of us are free to show our displeasure at what he said. That right IS golden.

I did make one factual error in my Jones piece which I should correct: Marietta, Georgia is in fact a suburb of Atlanta, not a small town, as I implied.


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