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 27, 2004
Getting the Hell Out of Dodge
Just a quick note to thank everybody for their responses to the Gary Sheffield series thus far. It's been a blast to write, and I've learned a ton while researching his career, challenging my own thinking on his various controversies as well as that of others. As I'm leaving town today for my annual trip to Wind Rivers, Wyoming and Salt Lake City, Utah -- I'll go a long way to avoid the Republican National Convention -- I won't get a chance until I return after Labor Day to finish a third installment that lives up to the standards of the other two, but rest assured that will come in due time.
I'm just a tad disappointed that nobody pointed out the irony of me juxtaposing a piece in which I tear down
the sainted Derek Jeter
with one in which I celebrate Sheffield, who to hear some people tell it qualifies as History's Greatest Monster
. Of course, if you listen to enough Sox fans and stathead hardliners (or hardheaded statliners?), it's Jeter who qualifies for that tag thanks to his crummy defense and his Yankee pedigree. Oh well...
Those of you who are hungering for more Shef should check out this odd piece
from the New York Times
documenting his trip to the Little League World Series as an 11-year-old in 1980. Times
writer Jack Curry had a chance to sit down with Sheffield and watch video of the championship game in which Sheffield's Belmont Heights, Tampa team fell to Taiwan, 4-3. Oddly enough, little Shef -- who was not yet wagging his bat in that signature menacing fashion -- was a catcher in those days; also on the team was Derek (Operation Shutdown) Bell.
Those looking for evidence of Sheffield's moodiness will note that, according to the story, Sheffield was denied a return trip to the Series because he'd been suspended over a disagreement with a coach during an argument:
He also lamented how he forfeited a chance to play in the World Series when Belmont Heights returned a year later because he was suspended for raising a bat to his coach during a disagreement. He tried to get reinstated, then tried to switch to a different league, but both efforts failed.
"It took years for me to get over that," Sheffield said. "It's like, 'How can you do that to a 12-year-old kid?' I made a mistake, but I paid the biggest price you could ever pay for it."
...Interestingly, Sheffield said his experience in the year he was suspended molded him, too, because it made him tougher and hesitant to trust people. That feisty individualism could help explain why he was considered irascible as a young player, something he does not dispute.
Sheffield's regular-season team in Belmont Heights was in first place in 1981 and had a pivotal game against Bell's second-place team. When the coach told Sheffield that he was not pitching, he said he grabbed a bat.
Though Sheffield emphasized that he never swung it at anyone, the damage was done. He was suspended and was ineligible for the all-star team that eventually lost to Taiwan again.
And you thought it was just the Brewers' management that messed him up...
Anyway, I might get a chance to post a quick hit or two when I get back to SLC in the middle of next week, so look for me then.
Wednesday, August 25, 2004
Gary Sheffield, Reconsidered -- Part II
Continued from Part I
Unlike the upstart Marlins, who had begun the process of dismantling their team once they'd won a championship, the Dodgers still carried a perennial expectation of success when Gary Sheffield arrived. The team had been leading the NL West when the 1994 strike hit, they won the division in 1995, then won the Wild Card in 1996. But they'd failed to register even a single victory in their two postseasons, and had narrowly lost the 1997 division title to the Giants. Amid all of this, massive changes were afoot in the organization. Longtime manager Tommy Lasorda had stepped down after a heart attack late in the 1996 season and was replaced by Bill Russell, and early in 1997, Peter O'Malley announced the Dodgers were for sale after 47 years of the O'Malley family's control.
The franchise's buyer, Rupert Murdoch's Fox Group, was approved early in 1998, and instantly inherited a vexing headache, namely the contract status of Mike Piazza. In January 1997, Piazza's agent had gone to the Dodgers looking for a six-year, $60 million contract. O'Malley felt it improper to make such a hefty investment with the team having just gone on the market, and the two sides settled on a two-year, $15 million deal. But prior to the '98 season, with a year still left on his contract, Piazza and agent Dan Lozano turned up the pressure on the team despite the fact that the sale to the Fox Group was still not approved. Now seeking a seven-year, $100 million deal, Lozano gave the Dodgers a February 15 deadline for a contract, threatening that Piazza would test free-agency if his contract wasn't extended. The new owners weren't even approved until March 19, and when the season began with no extension in place, Piazza complained to the press -- after an Opening Day loss.
The Fox officals were not amused. Likewise, Dodger fans turned on Piazza. They began booing their superstar, who was coming off a .362/.431/.638 year with 40 homers and 120 RBI, arguably the single best season for a hitter in L.A. Dodger history. The Dodgers made their final offer, 6 years, $80 million -- the biggest in baseball history -- which Piazza rejected.
Five weeks later, on May 15, the blockbuster deal with the Marlins went down: Piazza and Todd Zeile for Gary Sheffield, Charles Johnson, Jim Eisenreich, Bobby Bonilla and Manuel Barrios. One other kink in the deal signalled that this was not business as usual for the Dodgers; GM Fred Claire was cut out of the loop and the trade was negotiated by Fox higher-ups Bob Graziano (O'Malley's successor as Dodger president) and Chase Carey. Another five weeks later, both Claire and Russell were fired. The Dodgers, who as a model of stability had seen Walter Alston and Tommy Lasorda hold down the managerial seat for a combined 42-and-a-half seasons, had dismissed their next manager two years later. Welcome to Los Angeles, Mr. Sheffield.
From four solid years of contender status, the Dodgers descended into mediocrity in 1998. The rotation was decimated by a rotator-cuff injury to ace Ramon Martinez and the ineffectiveness and subsequent trade of Hideo Nomo. The lineup suffered from subpar hitting by Piazza pre-trade (.282/.329/.497) and Johnson, Bonilla and Eisenreich post-trade, as well as the underachievement of past Rookies of the Year Eric Karros, Todd Hollandsworth and Raul Mondesi and the poor performance of 18-year-old Adrian Beltre. But Sheffield, who was shifted from rightfield to left, hit like a house afire upon arriving, scorching opponents in the notoriously tough pitchers' park to a .316/.444/.535 tune in 90 games as a Dodgers. Unfortunately, his season ended a month early, when he severely sprained his left ankle in a rundown.
The Dodgers made a lot of noise in the 1999 offseason, hiring a pair of brash leaders in GM Kevin Malone and manager Davey Johnson, and shocking the baseball world by signing ace pitcher Kevin Brown -- who had just anchored two pennant-winners back-to-back, including the World Champion Marlins -- to the largest contract in the game's history, a seven-year, $105 million deal: Piazza money. One year into their ownership tenure, the Fox Group had sent a loud and clear message: we can
pay huge dollars, but we won't be bullied into doing so.
But if 1998 had been a disappointment for the Dodgers on the field, then 1999 was downright dreadful, as the team slumped to 77-85. Pitching was the culprit (ain't it always?) as the staff's 4.45 ERA was the first full season over 4.00 since the team's days in the L.A. Coliseum. The offense did boast a trio of 30-homer hitters in Sheffield, Karros, and Mondesi, and the latter was a single RBI short of joining the other two in the Dodgers' 30-HR/100-RBI club, up to that point something done only twelve times by eight different players since Dodger Stadium opened in 1962 (Adrian Beltre
will likely join the club this year). But Sheffield was the class of this hitting trio once rate stats are considered:
AVG HR RBI OBP SLG EQA
Sheffield .301 34 101 .407 .523 .316
Karros .304 34 112 .362 .550 .302
Mondesi .253 33 99 .332 .483 .279
Mondesi ($9 million) was making almost as much as Sheffield (a hair under $10 mil) in the second year of a 4-year, $36 million deal. But he was increasingly disgruntled during the '99 season, and amid an expletive-laced tirade, demanded to be traded in mid-August. That demand was fulfilled in the offseason, when Mondesi was shipped to Toronto
for Shawn Green, who was coming off a .309/42/123 season. Upon being traded, Green agreed to a 6-year, $84 million contract, the sport's fourth-largest deal behind those of Brown, Piazza (7 year/$91 mil), and Bernie Williams (7/$87.5 mil).
But despite Green's big contract and what would by most standards be considered a solid 2000 season, his hitting couldn't hold a candle to that of Sheffield, who set career highs in homers and slugging percentage:
AVG HR RBI OBP SLG EQA
Sheffield .325 43 109 .438 .643 .332
Green .269 24 99 .367 .472 .290
The Dodgers had improved by nine games in Johnson's second year, smacking a franchise-record 211 homers but finishing a distant 11 games behind the Giants in the NL West. Not surprisingly, Fox cancelled the Davey Johnson Show at the end of the season.
At this point, Gary Sheffield had proven himself to be not only the best hitter on the current Dodger team but one of the best in its storied L.A. history. Only five players have topped .300/.400/.500 since Dodger Stadium opened in 1962, a total of nine times (Wally Moon did it in 1961, the team's final year at the Los Angeles Coliseum, a very different hitting environment). To provide some perspective on those elite hitters' value relative to each other given their respective park and league run environments -- scoring in 1999 was 23 percent higher than in 1985, for example -- I have ranked these seasons by Equivalent Average, which takes those factors into account:
YEAR AVG OBA SLG EQA
Mike Piazza 1997 .362 .431 .638 .357
Pedro Guerrero 1985 .320 .422 .577 .350
Gary Sheffield 2000 .325 .438 .643 .347
Gary Sheffield 2001 .311 .417 .583 .338
Mike Piazza 1996 .336 .422 .563 .337
Reggie Smith 1977 .307 .427 .576 .337
Eddie Murray 1990 .330 .414 .520 .334
Pedro Guerrero 1987 .338 .416 .539 .332
Gary Sheffield 1999 .301 .407 .523 .316
So Gary Sheffield was coming off of the third-best season in L.A. Dodger history by this measure (it's also the third-best by OPS+, though by OPS it's the best). He was three years into a six-year contract that had once been the biggest in the game's history, but had since been surpassed by a wide margin as salaries continued to escalate. Two of those bigger contracts had been handed out by the Fox Group to Sheffield's teammates. In December, Fox had also given a dubious contract to below-average, injury-addled pitcher Darren Dreifort. At five years and $55 million, it was higher in annual value than Sheffield's deal, yet Dreifort had not only never made an All-Star team, he'd had only one season of over 100 innings pitched in which he posted better than a league-average ERA.
Gary Sheffield was not a happy camper. In February 2001, he began agitating for a contract extension, one that would make him "a career Dodger." Dodger chairman Bob Daly and team president Bob Graziano (but neither Sheffield's agent, Jim Neader, nor GM Kevin Malone) came to his L.A.-area home to talk to him about that request. Daly told Sheffield that the Dodgers had lost $25 million in 2000 and couldn't grant his extension, feeling that there was a risk involved. Sheffield went postal
"A risk? Come on, they're paying Brownie (Kevin Brown) $15 million a year until he's 41," Sheffield was quoted as saying. "They just gave [Darren] Dreifort $55 million when he's only won 39 games in his career and had arm surgery. They gave Shawn Green $13 million a year. And how about Carlos Perez -- paying him $6 million a year?
"And you talk about risk, that I'm a risk? That's an insult. ... I'm getting less than Dreifort? I'm getting just $3 million more than Carlos Perez? It's not my fault they signed Perez to that stupid contract. It's not my fault they gave Eric Karros a no-trade clause when he's got no value. It's not my fault they gave Greenie all that money.
"They give out all of these dumb contracts, and when it comes to me -- nothing. And I'm even willing to defer a lot of the money for that. They were saying how they lost $25 million. I almost laughed in their face."
From the vantage point of 2004, Sheffield -- who later claimed he was misquoted
-- was right on every point
of that tirade:
• Perez went 7-18 with a 6.28 ERA over the course of his three-year, $15.6 million Dodger contract and is remembered best for taking a bat to a water cooler in frustration and for allegedly threatening to shoot a stewardess
. Dodger fans and management would have done better to wish that Sheffield had taken that bat to him.
• Dreifort missed parts off 2001, 2003, and now 2004, not to mention all of 2002, with major injuries that involved surgery, and never winning more than four games and pitching about 200 innings of below-average baseball during the contract's first four years.
• Green enjoyed fantastic 2001 and 2002 seasons (a combined 91 homers and 239 RBI) before a shoulder injury began sapping his power, his slugging percentage falling from the high .500s to the mid .400s.
• Due to injuries Brown made only 29 starts and pitched 179.1 innings in 2001-2002. His absences in both years may well have cost the Dodgers the Wild Card.
• Karros had been a relative bargain and a productive player during a four-year, $20 million contract that ran from 1997-2000, but the three-year, $24 million extension he signed in February 2000 found the Dodgers catching a falling knife. Once he'd signed the contract, Karros went from .304/.362/.550 to .250/.321/.459, though his 30+ homers and 100+ RBI in both seasons disguised the decline. Under the new deal, he became a shadow of his former self -- "the undead Eric Karros
," as I referred to him -- dropping to .235/.303/.388 with 15 homers and 63 RBI, and rebounding only slightly the following year.
• And as for the $25 million loss, the ability of such a corporate monolith to obfuscate its finances is exactly
why the Fox Group got into baseball in the first place. In the first five years of ownership
, a team can depreciate half of its purchase price as player contracts, creating an artificial loss that disguises profits. With the Dodgers having gone for $311 million, that left $31.1 million a year to be written off each year from the start.
Back to the tirade and the contracts which drew Sheffield's ire. We can actually quantify their efficiency using marginal dollars (dollars above the minimum salary) per marginal win (Win Above Replacement Level
) to see exactly how the Dodgers did with those pacts compared to the Sheffield contract, which of course they inherited from the Marlins. All dollar figures are in millions, and only seasons in Dodger blue were considered:
YEARS WARP $ $/W
Perez (1999-2001) -0.7 15.0 N/A
Dreifort (2000-2003) 5.8 29.9 5.2
Brown (1999-2003) 26.8 73.9 2.8
Karros (2001-2002) 7.1 15.0 2.1
Green (2000-2003) 34.3 51.1 1.5
total 73.3 184.9 2.5
Sheffield (1999-2001) 25.7 27.9 1.1
Gary Sheffield cost the Dodgers $1.09 million per win above replacement level for his three full seasons in Dodger blue, a dramatically more efficient contract than any of the other five players, for whom the Dodgers paid $2.52 million per win above replacement. That figure that will only get worse once two more expensive years of Dreifort ($24 mil for '04-'05) and Green ($32 mil for '04-'05) are added to the books. The Dodgers handed out plenty of disastrous contracts during Sheffield's time there; extending Sheffield for a couple of years for the green they were paying Brown (average $15 mil) or Green ($14 mil) would have looked like a stroke of genius by comparison. They should have shown him the money.
They didn't do that, however. Malone shopped Sheffield to the Mets
(for Piazza, ironically); the interest levels of the Yankees
and Braves were also gauged, as were those of most other teams. When a deal couldn't be consummated, Sheffield reported to spring training, though not before bringing a three-ring media circus to Vero Beach. At one point he stated he'd be bothered if he were still a Dodger by Opening Day, at another turn he painted the issue as a matter of respect
instead of money, but by March 10, he had rescinded his trade demand.
The 2001 season marked the first under new manager Jim Tracy, and on Opening Day, Sheffield gave him a present for his troubles in the form of a solo homer to key a 1-0 win
over the Milwaukee Brewers. The Dodger Stadium capacity crowd who booed his first three at-bats gave him a curtain call
after his homer, and after the game, Sheffield remarked, "I hope all is forgiven... I'm not upset. I understand the fans' reaction, no matter what it may be. The bottom line is we need the fan support to get to the World Series."
Sheffield was off to a strong start in April when controversy again reared its head, but this time he was only involved peripherally. At a ballgame on April 14, a Padres fan heckled Sheffield, and GM Kevin Malone apparently challenged the fan
to a fight. Within a week, Malone, who had already exhibited a tendency towards hoof-in-mouth disease, was forced to resign
, with Dave Wallace taking the interim GM spot until the end of the season.
Sheffield had another excellent year with the bat, hitting .311/.417/.583 to go with his 36 homers and 100 RBI. Under Tracy and despite a host of injuries that would have derailed most clubs, the Dodgers hung tough in a three-team race in the NL West. Accompanying Sheffield's strong was Green's 49-homer, 125-RBI year, and a surprise .320/.374/.543/25-homer season from journeyman catcher Paul Lo Duca. But Kevin Brown was limited to 19 starts, and beyond a solid season from Chan Ho Park, the Dodgers were left to patch together a rotation that seemed like a Who's Who of Journeyman Pitchers. The Dodgers were one game out of first place on September 7, but a 3-11 slide doomed their chances.
Compared to the stormy way in which it started, Sheffield's season had gone more or less without incident, though some of his Dodger teammates felt they had to tread lightly
around him in the clubhouse. But over the winter, Sheffield got wind that the Dodgers had offered him to Oakland. The L.A. Daily News reported a potential deal
in which Sheffield and Luke Prokopec would be swapped for Billy Koch and Jermaine Dye. But when Prokopec was traded to Toronto for Paul Quantrill and Cesar Izturis, the Oakland deal was off. The talks upset Sheffield, and when new GM Dan Evans, who had taken over after the World Series, denied that he'd tried to trade him to Oakland, Sheffield said he had "lost trust" in the organization.
The final straw had been reached. Two weeks later, on January 15, Sheffield was traded
to the Atlanta Braves for Brian Jordan, Odalis Perez, and minor leaguer Andy Brown, bringing an end to a stormy era. Just as they had with Mike Piazza before him, the Dodgers, who were making a habit out of handing out money to the wrong people, alienated one of the best hitters in franchise history and were forced into making a deal.
Like most Dodger fans, I was thoroughly frustrated by Sheffield's tenure in Dodger blue. He conformed to some of the worst stereotypes of the self-absorbed superstar -- use of the media to express his dissatisfaction with management, should-I-stay-or-should-I-go flip-flops, third-person references, and respect-not-money characterizations of his battles all rubbed me the wrong way. In hindsight, I realize that I hardly had the opportunity to see the man play or appreciate his on-field skills during those three-plus years; he mostly popped up on my radar when he was popping off to the press. And for all of his media savvy, he clearly never realized just how difficult it was for a superstar, especially a black one with a checkered past, to go up against a media behemoth known for just about everything but their self-described "fair and balanced
" reportage. When Gary Sheffield got mad, he got loud, and when he got loud, he played right into the Fox Group's hands. Not for nothing did every incident make headlines somewhere. In short, Sheffield was spun out of Los Angeles.
To Be Continued
A special thanks to Rich Lederer of Rich's Weekend Baseball Beat for research assistance with this piece.
Tuesday, August 24, 2004
Derek Jeter Lite
Alex Belth already shed a clump of hair
over this yesterday, but Sunday's Yankee loss -- capping a sweep by the Angels in which the Bronx Bummers scored just four runs -- contained yet another rally-hampering sacrifice bunt from Derek Jeter. In the bottom of the third with nobody out, the Yanks were up 1-0, with Bernie Williams on second, having just laced a double down the rightfield line on a picture perfect hit-and-run. Jeter laid down his 13th sac bunt of the year to move Williams over to third. Gary Sheffield, the only Yankee swinging the bat with any authority during this now 5-out-of-6 losing skid, tore a double down the leftfield line to drive in the run and put the Yanks up 2-0. It was the last hit they would get until the eighth, when Brendan Donnelly gave up a solo shot to Sheffield.
As Alex pointed out via this Joel Sherman
quote in the NY Post
, Jeter's adopted some amnesia towards this maddening tendency to bunt:
Why would Derek Jeter, struggling again on offense, sacrifice with Bernie Williams on second, one run already in and no outs in the third? Jeter said because he felt the team needed to build toward another run and that Kelvim Escobar’s 95 mph fastball tails into righties, and he did not feel he could shoot the ball to right field. But he also disputed he has sacrificed more this season, though the 12 [actually 13] he has are one more than he had produced in the three previous seasons combined.
Call it frustration, call it heresy, call it my true-blue Dodger blood finally returning to my brain after being cut off by a Fox Group tourniquet for five years. I sometimes find myself loathing the ballplayer which Derek Jeter seems intent on becoming. His slump earlier this year was tough enough to live through, but those things happen. It's his sudden loss of plate discipline and his morphing into Derek Jeter Lite that's truly galling. If he insists on quacking like a '70s-model shortstop on the flip side of his meager defensive abilities, then I'm done defending this particular duck to the player-haters.
Through Sunday, Jeter had played in more or less the same number of games and drawn the same number of plate appearances as in last year's injury-marred season, but he's fallen a long way without the convenient excuse of a major boo-boo:
Year PA OUT AVG OBP SLG ISO BB/PA SO/BB
2003 542 345 .324 .393 .450 .126 .079 2.05
2004 550 392 .272 .326 .429 .157 .049 3.07
career 356 .313 .384 .459 .146 .093 1.78
The change in shape of his performance between this year and last is striking. He's lost 67 points of on-base percentage but only 21 points of slugging; his isolated power (SLG-AVG) is actually up, thanks to 15 homers, compared to 10 last year. But his walk rate has dropped nearly 40 percent. He's also seeing fewer pitches per plate appearance (3.54) than ever in his career (3.76, never lower than 3.68). In short, he's gone hacktastic.
But at the same time there are those annoying bunts. Jeter has never had more than 8 in a single season (1997) and from 1998-2003 had only 20. Thirteen this year? Jeebus Cripes, that's Bucky Dent territory. Craptastic hitter (but architect of champions
) Gene "Stick" Michael (.229/.288/.284) never reached double digits, for crying out loud.
As Baseball Prospectus' James Click neatly summarized
awhile back, "One of the most striking discoveries of much of the statistical research done in baseball over the last 20 years is that outs are more valuable than bases." Using a run-expectancy matrix -- something every player and manager would have tattooed on the inside of their forearm, if it were my team (we'll do temporary ones that wash off during the offseason if that's an issue) -- Jeter's bunt on Sunday cost the team an expected .145 runs, not as bad as a typical no-out, first-to-second sacrifice (.213 runs), but still, a net negative.
Which isn't to say that there are times one shouldn't bunt, but that makes a difference on who's hitting and what the objective is -- whether you're playing for one run or to maxmize scoring. In a three-part series, Click did some serious
math and calculated the breakeven point for a sacrifice bunt given certain base-out situations and those two objectives. Just cherry-picking the numbers
, in the situation on Sunday, the breakeven point for a hitter -- below which it makes sense to sacrifice, above which it does not -- is .249/.305/.363 if the team is trying to max out, and .364/.450/.646 if they're playing for one run. In other words, if the Yanks were playing for only one run (something that may make sense late in the game, either tied or one run down), having even Gary Sheffield or A-Rod (neither of whom is actually that good a hitter, though both have approached those gaudy numbers in their careers) bunt in that situation would have been the correct percentage play.
But given the point in the ballgame where the bunt occurred -- third inning, one run ahead, and with the meat of the lineup coming up -- playing for one run is a cockamamie idea in the first place, and for all of Derek Jeter's supposed smarts, this is a lunkheaded move. The Yanks should have been playing for a big inning, and deep down we all know that Jeter is better than some .249/.305/.363 Neifi Perez clone.
At least for now.
• • •
With social obligations -- including a stint hosting Baseball Prospectus' Chris Kahrl and another one putting up my future brother-in-law, Adam -- occupying my last six nights, I haven't had a chance to follow up my Gary Sheffield piece
yet. But I've been chipping away at it during my spare hours until it's evolved into the Zeno's Paradox
of blog entries. In other words, Part II of what is now projected as a three-part piece will be up, probably tonight.
Wednesday, August 18, 2004
Clearing the Bases
Those of you looking for the follow-up to Monday’s Gary Sheffield piece
will have to wait until later this week, as I've got multiple out-of-towners paying me visits over the next several days. I don’t know if it's just the August blahs, that lots of my regular readership is on vacation, or that my new toothpaste isn’t working, but I'm a bit surprised the piece didn't get more of a response beyond a few positive words -- not that I'm complain about those. Sheffield is a polarizing player, and I expected, if not a riot from Harvey’s Wallbangers Local 1982, then at least a few people who remember his Brewer days to rebut some of what I've said so far. Like most writers, I'm far more concerned that my words will be ignored than that they'll be challenged, and I welcome your feedback either via email
(which appears to be working again) or in the comments window.
I've heard from more than one person that the comments windows are slow to load, which is why they don’t see as much use as they could. If you're having trouble, please
shoot me an email or use my comment page
, noting what browser and connection speed you’re using. I'm not married to the current configuration and have considered switching to a more comment-friendly system such as the Movable-Type-based blogs at all-baseball.com
. But I can't hear you if you don't speak up.
• • •
Chris Kahrl's Transaction Analysis column made a regular Baseball Prospectus reader out of me several years ago, so I was tickled pink when Kahrl not only gave me my first mention
in a TA column last week but also seemed to have me in mind in an another pithy comment: "...some people get silly about knuckleballers and sidearmers and scrubby scrappy middle infielders, but my weak spot is always going to be for catchers and who's catching where."
Let's see... knucleballers
? scrubby scrappy middle infielders
? Oh, my!
One baseball obsession of mine -- perhaps the oldest one, at that -- which Chris missed is pitchers’ hitting. Ever since Steve Carlton went long
in the 1978 NLCS and the broadcast ran a graphic during his next at-bat showing that his career postseason batting average to that point was .375, I've been hooked. I remember being really excited when I realized that my copy of All-Pro Baseball Stars 1979
, which contained stats for all batters with over 100 at-bats, included entries for J.R. Richard (.178/ 1 HR/10 RBI in 101 AB) and Phil Niekro (.225/0 HR/10 RBI in 120 AB). No, I wasn't the most popular kid in school.
Kahrl's BP mate Rany Jazayerli shares the pitcher-hitting bug. This week, he's revisited a five-year-old piece
and broken it into two parts (alas, both are premium pieces). The first, "Chasing Ron Herbel"
examines those approaching the ineptitude of a man who went 6-for-206 in his big-league career. Current A’s starter Mark Redman is at the bottom of the barrel with his 2-for-75 lifetime performance and .027/.039/.027 line -- that's the lowest OPS in history for anybody with more than 70 plate appearances. Jazayerli reserves a special honorable mention spot for the recently-retired Mike Thurman, whose .031 average (that’s 4-for-131, with 0 RBI) is the second-lowest (behind Herbal’s .029) of any hitter with more than 100 PA.
At the other end of Jazayerli's spectrum are those who are "Chasing Wes Ferrell"
, a list that includes the Cardinals' Jason Isringhausen, "the best-hitting closer in baseball, which is the most useless superlative you'll read all day," as Rany writes. Izzy’s .208/.248/.327 line wouldn’t seem to be of much use to most managers, but then most managers aren't Tony LaRussa, a man who lies awake at night concocting schemes to bat the pitcher eighth, carry four catchers, shoehorn seven pitching changes into a single inning, and rescue puppies from mistreatment at the hands of opposing third-base coaches during the seventh-inning stretch. Mark my words, LaRussa will find a way to pinch-hit Izzy even if it costs him a ballgame, dammit!
At the top of Jazayerli's list is the sport’s only legitimate two-way player, Brooks Kieschnick, who’s hit .300/.359/.533 in his two seasons with the Brewers while posting a 4.73 ERA. Running just behind him are two pitchers with more than a little Coors effect in them, Mike Hampton (who hit .344/.354/.516 in Colorado two years ago and spanked seven homers the year before that), and Jason Jennings, who’s actually a better hitter on the road (.260/.292/.390) than at home, better even than Rox 3B Vinny Castilla has been this year (.202/.265/.448).
Those of you further obsessed with pitcher hitting -- or too light in the wallet to shell out for BP Premium -- are encouraged to check out the fine work of Studes at The Hardball Times. Similarly fixated on Kieschnick, Studes takes a historical look
at pitchers-as-pinch-hitters, offering up names such as Ferrell, Dode Criss, Red Lucas, Red Ruffing, and George Uhle as exemplars of this lost role. Studes also provides a handy graph based on Win Shares which clearly illustrates the overall declind of pitcher hitting. The high-water mark was in the 1910s, when pitchers averaged 78 Batting Win Shares per season, while the nadir came in the '80s, when skinny ties, cocaine and Reaganomics reduced the annual yield to 16 Win Shares per season. Good stuff.
• • •
Those of you who read my anti-Productive Outs screed
back in May know that I'm no great fan of Buster Olney's analytical skills. Olney did a far better job as a New York Times
beat reporter covering the Yankees from 1998 through 2001, and he's got a new book out about that period called The Last Night of the Yankee Dynasty
. I'm inherently suspicious of beat writers who cash in with books about the teams they covered, not because I resent anybody making a buck, but because beat writers have a tendency to lord their inner-sanctum access over the rest of us, skimping on critical analysis and shutting out new ideas while rehashing old stories and settling scores.
I haven't bought Olney’s book yet, so I can't say whether his fits into that mold, but I will say that I found myself thoroughly engrossed by an excerpt
ran this past weekend called "The Uneasy Steinbrenner-Cashman Alliance." General Manager Brian Cashman might have the toughest job in the world, attempting to satisfy the ever-unsatisifiable Yankee owner, and Olney paints a compelling portrait of how a man might cope with such a Herculean task. Cashman perpetually appears as though he hasn't slept in days, hasn't exercised any muscle beyond those used for dialing a phone in weeks, and hasn't seen the sun in months. Quite simply, he looks like a sickly 98-pound weakling, easy prey for that 800-lb gorilla of an owner.
But Cashman, who’s worked in the Yankee organization full-time since '89, knows a thing or two about how to fight the Boss' fire with fire. That he's survived nearly seven seasons in the GM chair is nothing short of miraculous, and while detractors who trumpet Billy Beane and Theo Epstein as the best of the new breed like to point to the Yanks' monetary advantage, there's no denying that the man has a skill set which makes him uniquely suited to succeed where so many others have failed.
Oh, on the Productive Outs tip, Baseball Prospectus' Dayn Perry noted today
, "At this writing, Alex Sanchez, So Taguchi and Brandon Inge lead the majors in productive-outs percentage, the regrettable and largely useless product of idle hands and consistent decline at ESPN.com. When the answer is Alex Sanchez, are you really asking the right question?" Sic 'em, Dawg...
• • •
Speaking of my sidearming subject
from a few months back, Carlos Gomez (a.k.a. Chad Bradford Wannabe), I'm saddened to report that I recently discovered that he’d been released by the New Jersey Jackals of the Northeast League. In our last correspondence back in May, Gomez told me that he'd made a mechanical adjustment that helped him throw harder, but that he'd hurt his knee during the Jackals' spring training. Nevertheless he was determned to continue throwing (somewhere, Will Carroll is cringing).
I haven’t heard from him since (though I did send him an email recently), so I don't know for sure whether the knee injury was the cause of his woes. But I know that he opened the season on the DL, and then when he came back and pitched was largely ineffective
. His ERA in 11 games was 6.75, and he walked 14, hit 3 and threw 2 wild pitches in 13.1 innings, numbers which are nobody's ticket out of indy-league ball. I had looked forward to trekking out to Jersey to watch him pitch and perhaps even meet him in person while filing an update to that BP piece. Drag city.
Carlos, if you're reading this, here's hoping that your arm and the rest of your body is healthy, and that you’re able to catch on with another team to chase that dream. We're pulling for you, man.
• • •
Combing through my site stats, I discovered that I am apparently the top Google result for the query "red sox ingame porno
". I can't even fathom the disappointment felt by whoever ran that search when they hit my page...
Labels: Carlos Gomez
Monday, August 16, 2004
Gary Sheffield, Reconsidered -- Part I
"There aren't five hitters I'd rather see swing the bat than Gary Sheffield, but there aren't five ballplayers I'd less rather root for..."
Back in December, as his handshake agreement with George Steinbrenner appeared to unravel, I wrote those words
about Gary Sheffield, along with several others even less favorable. I stand by the first part of that statement. Sheffield in the batter's box, bat twitching back and forth as he waits for the pitch, is pure menace, a tiger waiting to pounce. His violent swing is the tiger's ruthless attack on its hapless prey, dismemberment in a single bound. Foul balls scream down the third-base line, threatening mayhem to coaches, ballboys and spectators. Liners speed at fielders so quickly that they're too stunned to do more than keep the ball in the infield, bobbling it for an error or simply shaking their stinging hands while he takes first base unchallenged. Home runs leave the playing field without a moment's doubt as to whether they're long enough. Balls off of Gary Sheffield's bat are unequivocal.
Sheffield's ferocious swing, tremendous plate discipline and physical toughness have positioned him as the fulcrum of a Yankee offense that for all its talent has been scrambling to live up to this season's lofty expectations. Derek Jeter's slump, Bernie Williams' appendectomy, Jason Giambi's illnesses and Alex Rodriguez's subpar situational hitting have all dragged the Yankee lineup down ant one point or another, but it's been Sheffield, hitting .295/.404/.532 wth 27 homers and a team-high 85 RBI, who's picked them up.
As for the second part of that statement above, it's as gone as a Shef homer. Watching him play on a daily basis has forced me to re-evaluate everything I know about Gary Sheffield. The bottom line is that the guy can play for my team any day, and despite the occasional off-the-cuff remark that has generated controversy, he's been a model citizen since donning the pinstripes and a pleasure to follow. In this two-part article, I decided to stroll through Sheffield's past, examining the highs and lows of his career, placing some of his more notorious incidents in context and looking for patterns which might provide insight into this complex ballplayer.
Sheffield came to the Yankees with 379 career homers, a .299/.401/.527 line, seven All-Star appearances, a batting title and a World Series ring under his belt. He also arrived carrying more baggage than the overhead bin of a DC-10, baggage that included:
• a troubling admission that as the 19-year-old shortstop of the Milwaukee Brewers, he deliberately made errors to force his way out of town
• a gunshot wound
in his non-throwing shoulder which apparently resulted from a failed car-jacking in 1995
• three-and-a-half seasons of being a both a devastating hitter and a bona fide pain in the ass for the Los Angeles Dodgers, agitating
for either a huge contract extension or a trade
that he had received performance-enhancing substances from the Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative (BALCO)
• questions about his durability such that he'd averaged only 136 games a year over the past 12 seasons (a period that includes the '94-'95 work stoppage) and has only topped 150 games three times
Add it up and you've got one of the most notorious players of... well, of my lifetime, at least. "An urban legend in his own mind," wrote Bill James in the New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract
. Names like Dick Allen and Albert Belle come to mind in terms of both level of talent and perceived villainy. Oddly enough, those two hitters pop up on his Similarity Scores
As a 17-year-old shortstop, Sheffield was picked by the Milwaukee Brewers in the first round of the 1986 draft, the sixth pick overall behind Jeff King (Pirates), Greg Swindell (Indians), Matt Williams (Giants), Kevin Brown (Rangers), and Kent Mercker (Braves). The nephew of 1984 NL Rookie of the Year Dwight Gooden, Sheffield hit the minors with a high degree of hype. But he lived up to it. In his first taste of pro ball at Helena in 1986, he hit a whopping .365 AVG/.413 OBP/.640 SLG in 57 games, clubbing 15 homers, driving in 71 runs and winning both the Pioneer League's Player of the Year award and Baseball America's Short-Season Player of the Year award. All of this before his 18th birthday.
At Stockton in 1987, he hit .277/.388/.448 with 17 homers and 103 RBI, making both the California League and Baseball America All-Star teams. He tore up AA El Paso in '88, hitting .314/.386/.591 with 19 homers in 77 games before being promoted to AAA Denver; it wasn't just high altitude helped him rack up a .344/.407/.561 line. Shef was Baseball America's Double A Player of the Year and was in Milwaukee by September. The Brewers wasted no time in handing him the starting shortstop role, playing him in 24 games, where he hit a very modest .238/.295/.400 with 4 homers.
Sheffield's official rookie season as a Brewer was something of a dud, however. In 95 games he hit .247/.303/.337 with 5 homers, only one more than he'd managed in his cup of coffee. Worse, he was sent down to the minors for "indifferent fielding"
while insisting that his foot was hurt. It wasn't until he was back in Denver that he was diagnosed with a broken foot. When he returned to the Brewers two months later, they shifted him to third base.
It's important to note that Sheffield had not been an unqualified success at shortstop. In 94 games, he showed range that was a bit below average -- roughly one play every four games. Baseball Prospectus
' more advanced statistics show him even worse off -- 13 runs below average in his tenure there. The main reason is his low number of double plays: according to Retrosheet.org
, Sheffield participated in 40 DPs in 596 innings, or 0.6 per nine innings. The other Brewer shortstops, mainly Bill Spiers, turned 69 DP in 836.1 innings. 0.74 per nine innings -- a 23 percent improvement on Sheffield. None of which is to say that the Brewers handled the situation well if they tried to punish their highly-touted teen-aged rookie for what was actually an injury and
made him switch positions mid-season. Hardly the finest hour of Bud Selig's minions.
Sheffield's 1990 season was a big improvement on the offensive side: .294/.350/.421 with 10 homers and 67 RBI, not to mention 25 stolen bases. He struggled at third base, making 25 errors in 125 games, but showed improvement in that department as the season went on, making only eight of those errors after the All-Star break. But he was not a happy camper at third base, and he carried that frustration with him to the plate in 1991. Sheffield hit a ghastly .194/.277/.320 in 50 games before wrist and shoulder injuries mercifully ended his season. Somewhere during his nightmarish Milwaukee tenure, the Brewers further antagonized Sheffield by subjecting him to not-so-random drug tests
, a byproduct of his relationship with Gooden.
By the beginning of next season, after alleging that Selig had gone back on offering a long-term deal, Sheffield's Milwaukee headaches -- and Milwaukee's Sheffield headaches -- ended, and he was traded to the Padres for Ricky Bones, Jose Valentin, and Matt Mieske. It was during this acrimony that Sheffield's remarks
about intentional errors surfaced. Sheffield told Bob Nightengale of the Los Angeles Times
The Brewers brought out the hate in me. I was a crazy man... I hated everything about the place. If the official scorer gave me an error, I didn't think was an error, I’d say, 'OK, here’s a real error,' and I'd throw the next ball into the stands on purpose.'"
Sheffield later recanted that statement, telling Nightengale, "What I said was out of frustration. They want to take something and run with it. Why would a player purposely make mistakes? I'd never do anything to hurt the team. You get paid to play."
In a June 15, 1992 Sports Illustrated
article by Peter King, Sheffield painted a more nuanced picture of his time in Milwaukee:
"I thought I'd always be known as one of those guys people talked about, like, 'He could have been something, if only he'd done things the right way,'" Sheffield says. "I was basically all alone in Milwaukee -- 20, 21, 22 years old, and I had no one to talk to. There were a lot of selfish players there, caught up in themselves. They couldn't help the younger guy. I didn't want to beg for it, so I just stayed away from them. Finally it got to the point where I didn't want to play anymore. I didn't want to work at it. The fun was totally out of the game. All I wanted to do was go through the motions. I started thinking, All I want to do is be an average player. I didn't want to be a great player anymore. It was killing me."
I'm obliged to mention that I was pointed to the Nightengale quote
by a poster named AJM on Baseball Think Factory. Another BTF poster named RB in NYC used Retrosheet to research the times Sheffield made two errors in one game as a Brewer, which would fit with his version of the story. Here's what he found:
(1) April 23rd, 1989: Sheffield made an error in the second inning, then in the 5th, although the nature of the errors are unclear. He also handled a SB chance cleanly in the 4th.
(2) June 20th, '89: Sheffield made an error in the 6th, apparently on a relay throw. In the 10th, he made an error on a groundball, although the ball did not go into the stands (as the batter only reached first)
(3) May 15th, 1990: Sheffield made an error in the 2nd inning, then made another in the 8th, but he had already executed a run down sucessfully
(4) April 8, 1991 (Note: Not at County Stadium all others are): Sheffield made an error in the third, but handled his next groundball chance cleanly. Sheffield then made an error in the ninth.
In the first instance, the error in the fifth inning appears to be a throwing error after the batter more ensured himself of an infield hit. According to the play-by-play, with two outs and Alan Trammell on second, Matt Nokes singled to shortstop and Trammell "scored (unearned) (error by Sheffield)." Interesting.
In the second case, the first error was actually in the 7th inning. The "relay" part makes sense because the error followed a single to leftfield. The error in the tenth merely says "Seitzer reached on an error by Sheffield"; there's nothing that says whether it was a muffed ground ball, a dropped pop-up, or a throw that got by the first baseman but stayed on the field of play. That's pretty standard for Retrosheet, however, and both errors in the other two games suffer from the same lack of detail.
Without the benefit of videotape or a peek into his psyche, none of this is enough to either clear Sheffield of wrongdoing or damn him into the fiery pit of hell, of course. Aside from his own words, no one has come forth with any evidence to show that Sheffield intentionally made errors. But it is interesting to note that the last game came on Opening Day 1991, and one way or another Sheffield erred on his first chance of the season while playing a position he was less than enamored with. But suffice it to say that for his Milwaukee tenure, Sheffield was in a situation where he was young and foolish, the object of high expectations but with little support from his employer to ensure that those expectations were met.
In any event, once traded, Sheffield enjoyed a breakout year with the bat in 1992: .330/.385/.580 with 33 homers and 100 RBI. He won the batting title, was second in slugging percentage and OPS, third in homers and extra base hits, fifth in RBI, and sixth in on-base percentage, made his first All-Star team, and finished third in the NL MVP voting behind Barry Bonds and Terry Pendleton. All of this while continuing to play third. His defense was very solid that year; he made only 16 errors and was 9 runs above average according to BP.
But the honeymoon in San Diego was short-lived. Motivated by payroll concerns, on June 24, 1993 the Padres traded Sheffield to the Florida Marlins in a five-player deal which sent Trevor Hoffman to San Diego. In that split season, his offensive numbers were down but still respectable: .294/.361/.476 with 20 HR and 73 RBI. But his defense was atrocious: an .899 fielding percentage at third base, with 34 errors in 133 games, 12 runs below average.
Sheffield re-signed with Florida after the 1993 season to a 4-year, $22.45 million deal. The Marlins made him the game's highest-paid third baseman and the 10th-highest paid player overall, but as a concession to keeping him at third, they included a clause in his contract allowing him to play basketball. Somewhere Aaron Boone is slapping his forehead.
Sheffield's 1994 and '95 seasons in Florida were limited by injuries as well as the player strike. When he played, just 150 games over two seasons, he was brilliant, swatting 43 homers and driving in 124 runs while hitting .295/.402/.585. Despite the clause in his contract, the Marlins shifted him to rightfield, though he was not an espeicially good one at the outset (-13 runs for the two years). He bruised his left rotator cuff diving for a ball in May '94 and did two more-or-less back-to-back stints on the DL. In 1995 he missed nearly three months after tearing the ligaments in his left thumb while diving into second base. Initial reports had him gone for the season, but he returned in September and smoked 10 homers with 27 RBI in a 20-game span during the season's final month. That tear (the hitting, not the ligaments) foreshadowed Sheffield's 1996, a monster campaign in which he played 161 games, his career high and hit .314/.465/.624 with 42 homers, 120 RBI, and 142 walks. The gunshot wound, sustained the previous October, was superficial and had no negative impact on his season.
Just prior to the '97 season, he signed a 6-year, $61 million extension with the Marlins, the largest ever at the time. In that context, Sheffield's 1997 season was a disappointment, at least as far as individual numbers go. He sprained his left thumb in May and did a stint on the DL, and suffered from hamstring woes later in the season. For the year he hit only .250/.424/.446 with 21 homers and 71 RBI, and his walks (121) outnumbered his base hits (110). But for the first time in his career, Sheffield was playing on a winning team; aside from his cup-of-coffee season, Sheffield's teams had never won more than 83 games. The '97 Marlins won 92 games and the NL Wild Card spot, and Sheffield, who'd hit .324/.430/.592 in September, entered the postseason in a groove. He destroyed the Giants in the Divisional Series, (.556/.714/1.000) as the Marlins swept San Francisco, then helped them beat the Braves and the Indians to cap an unlikely run to a World Championship. Sheffield homered in all three postseason series and drew 20 walks, hitting .320/.521/.500.
Marlins owner Wayne Huizenga had built his championship team on some expensive contracts, signing Alex Fernandez (5 years/$35 milion), Moises Alou (5/$25 mil) and Bobby Bonilla (4/$23.3 mil) as free agents prior to '97, while re-signing Sheffield. Kevin Brown had signed prior to '96, as had Devon White. Immediately after winning the Series, Huizenga began gutting the Fish, trading Alou, White, Jeff Conine, and Robb Nen by Thanksgiving, Brown the next month, and Al Leiter in January. But Huizenga saved his biggest blockbuster until six weeks into the '98 season. In a deal that shocked the baseball world, on May 14, 1998 he traded Sheffield, Bonilla, catcher Charles Johnson, and two other players to the Dodgers for Mike Piazza and Todd Zeile. Gary Shefield's world was turned upside down, and so was that of the Dodgers.
To Be Continued
Saturday, August 14, 2004
Them Eggheads Have Screwed Me Again
My email forwarding doesn't seem to be working (grrrr) so until further notice, please use firstname.lastname@example.org
. If you've sent me something since 6 PM Friday, I'd appreciate it as well if you would resend it to that address.
Methinks I'm going to be in the market for a new web host soon.
Thursday, August 12, 2004
As I wrote in my review
of The Numbers Game
the other day, much of Alan Schwarz’s book revolves around Bill James. He not only pops up in conjunction with nearly every development in the statistical landscape of the past 30 years, but Schwarz often references him in discussing the work of his precursors, from Henry Chadwick to Earnshaw Cook.
Many of us came to Bill James’ work once his Baseball Abstract
series, which began as a homemade 68-page Xerox-and-staple labor in 1977, was picked up by Ballantine Books on the heels of Daniel Okrent’s May 25, 1981 profile in Sports Illustrated
, a profile that changed the course of more than a few lives. The first edition I lay eyes on was the Ballantine debut 1982 version, which I borrowed for an extended spell from my friend and frequent baseball card-trading partner, Will M.
Will was two years older than I, skinny as a stringbean, and a bit hyperactive. His mom, who had an endless supply of patience, actually let us play ball in the front hallway of their house, where we’d create buzzer-beating basketball heroics using one of those rubber mini-basketballs. Unfortunately, in the heat of the moment, Will, who provided Bermanesque play-by-play commentary as we played, was prone to a bit of a bladder-control problem that he was in total denial about. Occasionally after we had taken turns doing something like re-enacting Darryl Dawkins’ backboard-smashing antics, I'd look down to find that he’d peed his pants. Will’s mom would discreetly break our games up by saying that he had to help her clean up before dinner or something like that.
Will and I had a feud sometime during the ‘82 baseball season having to do with the Cincinnati Reds, of whom he was a fan, and the Dodgers. Recall that in the strike-torn ‘81 season, the Dodgers had been awarded the first-half NL West title, the Houston Astros won the second half, and the Reds, who finished with the best combined record in the West, had missed out on the playoffs. We had been re-enacting a hypothetical Reds-Dodgers playoff when Will, as a card-carrying total spazz, had gone off the friggin’ ranch and even tussled with my little brother, who occasionally joined us. Something about back-to-back inside-the-park homers by Joe Morgan and Pete Rose, combined with an injury, as narrated by Will, to Fernando Valenzuela. Total bullshit for which the Jaffe boys had no reason to stand. We outta...
The upshot was that during the extended period in which we weren’t speaking to one another, I kept Will’s ‘82 Abstract and never purchased that one myself. But I copied down the Runs Created formula and a few others for safe-keeping, and used to calculate the numbers for my favorite players using the stats in The Sporting News
. I bought the ‘83 Abstract
and kept going through ‘87, along the way learning how to program James’ formulas into VisiCalc spreadsheets on our Apple II+. I even created a Brock2 spreadsheet, which projected entire careers. Great fun.
I’ve still never had a chance to peruse the pre-’82 Abstracts
, but Rich Lederer of Rich’s Weekend Baseball Beat
has been doing a 12-part series on them that I’ve been itching to mention. Rich does
have the early Abstracts
(some of them are reprints) and has dusted them off to take a highly enlightening stroll down memory lane called, appropriately enough, "Abstracts from the Abstracts". So far he's done all of the pre-Ballantine ones: 1977
, and 1981
. He's even included shots of their very primitive (literally
) covers. While James himself might disavow some of his comments there in the same way many of us cringe at our old yearbook photos, Rich has highlighted many nuggets which trace James' evolution and make for a fascinating archaelogical dig. Don't miss this stuff.
One more thing: Lederer also deserves a tip of the cap because the great piece
he wrote arguiging Bert Blyleven's case for the Hall of Fame is one of a half-dozen linked from Blyleven's own website
. Damn, that's cool.
Monday, August 09, 2004
In last year's smash hit Moneyball
, author Michael Lewis wove a compelling narrative about how a statistically-oriented revolution that took hold in the early '80s among baseball followers had finally penetrated the front offices of a major-league team, the Oakland A's. In doing so, he brought a stereotypically nerdy take on the game, called sabermetrics (defined by Bill James as "the search for objective truth about baseball") to a mass audience. The book polarized
the world inside baseball, but fans of all stripes ate it up.
In a new book, The Numbers Game: Baseball's Lifelong Fascination with Statistics
, author Alan Schwarz has capitalized on Lewis' success, not only revealing the roots of that statistical revolution (which is really more of an evolution), but also illuminating how the game's growth in popularity over the past 150 years has been thoroughly intertwined with the development of numbers to describe the action. Schwarz profiles dozens of obscure but important roleplayers within the movement, a few mentioned in passing within Moneyball
, but many unfamiliar to even the most diehard fans. In doing so, he's created an essential book for any baseball library, one that simultaneously makes for breezy summer reading and holds up as an essential piece of research.
After a brief introduction to the primitive box score as it existed in the 1850s (listing "hands lost" or outs, and runs for each player on both sides), Schwarz begins his exploration with Henry Chadwick, the game's statistical forefather. A Britsh-born cricket reporter for the New York Clipper
, Chadwick was drawn to the way box scores (which had developed a bit by the late 1850s) could illustrate the skills of the players and offer a means for analyzing their play. Chadwick, who desired a complete record of what happened on the field for every contest, invented the nine-by-nine grid within which observers could note the results for each batter using a system of letters and numbers. Thus recorded, the action could be distilled into an elaborate box score which provided positives (fielding plays) and negatives (batting outs), a perfect form of double-entry bookkeeping that survives to this day.
Schwarz traces the evolution of baseball's rules and the manner in which Chadwick, who had a moralizing streak a mile wide, would devise new statistics to reward the manner of play which he deemed worthy. Chadwick calculated stats such as batting average and fielding percentage, added up total bases and fielding chances per game (which James reintroduced as Range Factor nearly a century later), and figured whole hosts of other numbers. From there the author goes on to detail the introduction of other crucial stats such as Runs Batted In and Earned Run Average and the men who championed them. He also reveals how tangled the game's record-keeping was back in those days, with sources constantly disagreeing about season totals, and numerical chicanery obscuring batting titles and other records. A new niche arose to keep track of year-by-year records of individual players and teams, along with lists of noteworthy accomplishments. As World War I came along, Al Munro Elias and his brother Walter became the game's first official third-party record keepers, creating an organization whose relationship with baseball survives to this day.
In his rapidly-moving tale, Schwarz surveys the various personalities who strove to expand understanding of the game. He introduces F.C. Lane, a proto-sabermetrician who attempted to quantify the run-value contributions of hitters by calling attention to their extra-base hits, revealing batting average as merely window-dressing compared to power hitting. He brings us Allan Roth, who presented himself to Brooklyn Dodger GM Branch Rickey as a whiz who could give the Mahatma an edge with his detailed breakdowns of situational hitting splits -- how a hitter performed at home or on the road, in day games or night games, against lefties or righties, in all manner of count, baserunner, and out situations -- and became the first full-time statistician employed by a big-league team. Working as Rickey's right-hand man, Roth not only helped call attention to the importance of on-base percentage (see this seminal 1954 Life magazine article
, "Goodby to Some Old Baseball Ideas"), he also armed neophyte broadcaster Vin Scully with such tidbits as Gil Hodges' 0-for-20 performance against Johnny Antonelli and prepared statistical notes for the press prior to each ballgame. I have my own fondness for this one-man bureau; when I became fascinated by stats as kid, my father would tell me that I should aspire to be "the next Allan Roth."
In the early 1950s, a new way of delivering stats to fans began when they were included on the back of Topps baseball cards. Schwarz tells that tale as well as the one of the kid, Hal Richman, who invented the tabletop Strat-O-Matic baseball game. From there he shifts gears to focus on a handful of scientists who turned their attention to baseball in their spare time, bringing with them a rigorous approach and a zeal for large-scale studies. One was George Lindsay, an officer in the Canadian army who, when he wasn't trying to figure out Cold War-era aerial defense maneuvers explored the truly important questions. Scoring over 1,000 games with the aid of his retired father and tabulating the totals in his spare time, Lindsey explored platoon advantages and created the first base-out matrix, which said, for example, that an average of 2.3 runs could be expected to score in a situation with no outs and the bases loaded, and allowed analysts to quantify the advantages (or disadvantages) of the stolen base and the sacrifice bunt (the Lindsay portion of the book is excerpted at Baseball America
, where Schwarz is a regular columnist). Another such scientist was Earnshaw Cook, an aristocratic Baltimore metallurgist who wrote a dense statistical tome called Percentage Baseball
that prefigures Bill James' Baseball Abstract
work -- complete with a formula to estimate the probability of scoring a run that washes out to something similar to James' Runs Created approach (the Cook portion is excerpted at ESPN.com
, where Schwarz contributes weekly articles). Yet another pair were brothers Harlan and Eldon Mills, former World War II combat pilots who rented time on an IBM mainframe and, based on data from the Elias Bureau for which they paid dearly, ran thousands of simulations for each possible inning-base-out situation to quantify the values of each event and its impact on winning.
If you're a fan familiar with the sabermetric smorgasbord available on the web, some of this should ring a bell. Contemporary statheads have explored exactly the same turf -- base-out matrices
, win expectancy
, linear run estimators
-- many of them without any awareness of these protosabermetricians who slaved away for hundreds of hours to do the same work. In the '50s and '60s, not only was such work considered frivolous by the masses, but the means to collect and process the data was beyond the realm of all but a select few. Today anybody with a spreadsheet can run numbers on an entire league of players, and anybody facile enough with a database can mine the game's history from his or her desktop.
My favorite portion of The Numbers Game
concerns the production of MacMillan Publishing Company's first edition of The Baseball Encyclopedia
, published in 1969. It's fitting the book debuted that year, because for the way Schwarz portrays it, the achievement was no less significant than putting a man on the moon. Led by David Neft, a devoted staff of researchers scoured microfilm archives across the country, reconstructing thousands upon thousands of run-scoring innings from long-forgotten ballgames not only to iron out discrepancies in record-keeping, but also to tally stats such as RBI and ERA which didn't become official until the '20s. The hefty tome was the first book to be entirely typeset on computer, and tested how well the machines could manipulate and store large amounts of data. A tongue-in-cheek ad, sadly suppressed, presented The Baseball Encyclopedia
next to the King James Bible, declaring the massive, 2,338-page behemoth "VOLUME TWO."
Inevitably, a considerable chunk of the book revolves around Bill James, who brought a new mode of inquisitiveness to the game and created new tools to examine a broad variety of questions. James pops up not only as the creator of the Abstract
series (Schwarz runs down the man's ten most significant statistical discoveries) but in several other places -- climbing the bestseller list, fighting the Elias Bureau for the right to obtain the detailed proprietary data it kept, creating a network (called Project Scoresheet) as an alternative means to collect that data, arbitrating a dispute between the volunteer-based Project Scoresheet and the proprietary STATS, Inc data house, and eventually ascending to the front office of the Boston Red Sox. Schwarz casts James as the hero in confrontations with some of the book's less savory characters, such as Seymour Siwoff, the modern-day head of Elias, and John Dewan, whose conflict of interest fueled the STATS-Scoresheet split and who later cut STATS co-founder Dick Cramer out of the company.
Schwarz goes on to sketch out the myriad ways in which the statistical landscape changed post-James. A fledgeling national newspaper called USA Today
capitalized on the zeal for more statistics by revamping the traditional box score. A writer named Daniel Okrent, who had introduced Bill James to the masses in a 1981 Sports Illustrated
profile, created a game called Rotisserie Baseball in which participants "bought" players in an auction and placed based on the actual stats accumulated by players in various categories. STATS Inc. created a piece of stat-crunching software, programmed by Cramer, called Edge 1.000, which the Oakland A's and several other teams bought in the mid-Eighties. STATS programmer Pete Palmer joined forces with several members of the Society for Baseball Research (SABR) to create a more accurate baseball encyclopedia after Major League Baseball refused to recognize discrepancies in Ty Cobb's hit total and other anomalies; that book became Total Baseball
. A national Public Radio correspondant named Eric Walker wrote a small book which Oakland A's legal counsel Sandy Alderson happened across; the book extolled the virutes of on-base percentage and challenged much of baseball's conventional wisdom. When Alderson became GM, he hired Walker as a consultant and began implementing his ideas. This, as much as Bill James, was the root of the Moneyball
movement, a fact that Walker himself, who felt slighted by the brevity with which Lewis dealt with his role in A's evolution, has sought to illuminate
. And then of course, there's the Internet, with its capacity not only for up-to-the-minute stats (often via STATS) but also the goal of preserving every box score and game event from baseball's lush history via Retrosheet
, and soon even more unique data coming from Major League Baseball's website.
Schwarz has done an admirable job in tracing the evolution of our statistical obsession with baseball and in saluting the noble efforts of oft-forgotten men who helped shape the way we view the game today. He reveals that our fascination with the game's numbers is itself nothing new, and that it's our means of producing, digesting, and storing ever-more-granular data where the real evolution lies. Though the author keeps a brisk pace, occasionally some of his transitions between topics seem forced, and at times the books chapters feel a bit too serialized -- as though a reader might encounter them weeks or months apart and need reminding of who's who all over again. But really, those are minor quibbles compared to the book's overwhelming strengths. If you eat box scores for breakfast, The Numbers Game
is for you.
Sunday, August 08, 2004
Post-Pickle Update (Claussen & Co.)
In the hectic week and a half since my latest Baseball Prospectus piece
, a look at the prospects the Yankees have traded over the past decade, several of them have popped up in the news. Having already mentally dog-eared their profiles and accomplishments, I figured I'd share what I've found.
The first up is none other than the pitcher who gave the piece its name, Brandon Claussen, who was recalled in late July by the Cincinnati Reds. His promotion from AAA Louisville marked the first time he'd been back to the big leagues since the start which put him in the national spotlight last summer. In his Reds debut
on July 20, Claussen pitched seven strong innings against the Milwaukee Brewers and got his second major-league win.
But his three starts since then have been a mixed bag. He was bombed
by the red-hot Pittsburgh Pirates on July 25, failing to make it out of the fourth inning after being staked to a 5-1 lead. Worst of all, he gave up a three-run, game-tying homer to Tike Redman, who's currently carrying a .662 OPS for the year. Claussen pitched better on July 31 against the Houston Astros
, allowing only one earned run and three hits and five walks (!) in 5.1 innings. But the Reds offense was completely shut out at the hands of Darren Oliver -- who replaced the scratched Andy Pettitte -- and three other pitchers. The game remained close until the ninth inning, when former Yankee reliever Gabe White did an especially brutal job of self-immolation, turning a 2-0 lead into an 8-0 rout. Friday saw Claussen's high-altitude baptism
at Coors Field, where he gave up five earned runs in six innings against the Colorado Rockies and squandered the 4-0 lead the Reds had given him before even throwing a pitch. That'll happen in Denver.
In his four starts, Claussen now stands at 1-2 with a 4.98 ERA. He's struck out only 11 batters (4.57 per 9) while walking 10. He's also allowed three unearned runs. Has his defense screwed him? Not especially: he's allowed a .268 batting average on balls in play, which is well below average. Furthermore, using a stat called Fielding Independent Pitching [a quick-and-dirty DIPS approximation that goes (13*HR + 3*BB - 2*K)/IP + 3.20 (a league factor)] he's at 5.37.
All in all, Claussen is a young pitcher struggling with the ability to locate his fastball in his first real taste of the big leagues, and he's doing so against decidedly less-than-stellar competition -- the four teams he's faced came into his starts with a combined winning percentage of .478. While he likely would have fared better than many of the replacement starters the Yanks have used over the course of the season -- Donovan Osborne (14.21 ERA as a starter), Tanyon Sturtze (5.00), Alex Graman (30.00). Brad Halsey (7.23), Jorge DePaula (7.50) -- it's anything but a given that at this juncture he'd be able to hold down a spot in a Yankee rotation that wasn't so decimated by injuries.
Speaking of decimated by injuries, Claussen's Cincy teammate and fellow former Yankee prospect Wily Mo Pena's been coming up big in the face of extended absences of Ken Griffey Jr. and Austin Kearns. Last year, the 21-year-old outfielder struggled mightily in his first extended taste of the bigs, hitting only .218/.283/.358 with 5 homers in 181 plate appearances. Pena also struck out 53 times (29.3 percent) against only 12 walks, a scary 4.4 K/W ratio.
This year, Pena's improved to .260/.319/.512 with 17 homers in 258 PA. He's still striking out a ton (79 times, 29.8 percent) and walking very litte (17 times), but that kind of power makes his bat an overall plus. Most impressively, Pena shredded NL pitching during July to the tune of .269/.346/.591 with 9 homers while striking out only 22 percent of the time and posting a 2.9 K/W ratio.
This past week, Baseball Prospectus' Nate Silver, the inventor of the PECOTA player prediction system, took a detailed look
at Pena's improvement and the way his system had foreseen it (it's a premium article). Coming into the season, Pena's weighted mean projection was .271/.340/.509 for a .284 EQA; Wily Mo is at .283. Writes Silver:
Prior to this season, the name "Wily Mo Pena" conjured up an image of a young, chubby ballplayer with terrible plate discipline and a goofy name, someone had been a "prospect" for seemingly forever (a friend of mine drafted him in a Scoresheet Baseball league way back in 1999), and who was only in the big leagues as the result of an ill-advised contract that had been conceived years ago. It's easy to be dismissive of this sort of player; it seems like there are hundreds of them who have come and gone over the years. At one time or another, we've all been fooled by a big performance in a hitters' park by a player repeating the Southern League, or a hot run by an old rookie during a September cup of coffee.
But PECOTA saw some things that it liked in Wily Mo Pena, some strengths lurking amidst all the negatives. Let me talk a little bit about those strengths; why did PECOTA like Pena so much better than any rational observer might have?
The first factor Silver points out is Pena's isolated power, which is slugging percentage minus batting average (SLG - AVG). As fellow BP author Dayn Perry has pointed out, isolated power, or ISO, is an important indicator of a prospect's hitting potential
. Silver reminds that isolated power is a much more reliable metric than slugging average is in representing power proudction. The reason for that is the old bugaboo that clouds evaluation of pitchers, namely balls in play. Batting average on balls in play fluctuates for hitters as well as pitchers, though not as widely.
Silver looks at Pena's Equivalent Isolated Power, meaning it's been normalized to the major-league level in a manner similar to Equivalent Average, taking into account park and league factors as well as the level of competition. League-average EqISO is .170, a level Pena topped as a 19-year-old in A-ball in 2001. He fell off a bit in 2002, with only a .147 EqISO, but last year was at .173 in his combined minor- and major-league at-bats. Concludes Silver, "A player who demonstrates an ability to hit for a major-league average level of power at the age of 21 has a very good chance to have a solid major-league career, unless he has absolutely nothing else going for him... power ability continues to develop rapidly throughout a player's early twenties in a way that the other statistical categories do not."
In addition to his athleticism (which in PECOTA is quantified by speed indicators as well as body size) and the positive effects of his home ballpark, the other major factor Silver points to is Pena's strikeouts. Surprisingly enough, a positive relationship exists between strikeout rate and power production -- the higher the strikeout rate, the more power is expected to develop, up to a point. As Silver puts it,
...the best way to think about it is not as a negative -- how often does this guy fail to make contact? -- but rather as a positive: what does this guy do when he does make contact? Pena, in an otherwise very poor season with the Reds last year, hit .321 and slugged .527 when he didn't strike out. Compare that to Nomar Garciaparra, who hit .332 and slugged .578 when not striking out, or Brian Giles (.339/.583). Pena's numbers aren't quite as good, but the differences aren't nearly as profound as the pre-strikeout figures are.
You know whose numbers Pena's line calls to mind? Those of another ex-Yankee with tons of power and a bad K/W ratio, Alfonso Soriano (.282/.327/.476 this season). Sori's career K/W ratio is 3.8, better than Pena's 4.9 but still nothing to brag about. If you look at Pena's career line (.243/.303/.450 with 23 HR in 457 PA), it's not too difficult to project backwards and imagine a young Sori in the bigs instead of in the low minors.
But really, that's not even close. Taking into account the fact that Sori turned out to be two years older than his listed age -- a fact publicized only when he was trded to Texas for Alex Rodriguez -- we find that at 22 Sori was in limbo between a year spent struggling in the Japanese minor leagues
(hitting .214 with no homers in 131 at-bats; no strikeout, walk or XBH data available) and his first taste of organized ball in North America. At AA Norwich as a 23-year-old, Sori hit .252/.292/.421; he also struggled in 82 AAA at-bats and hit his first major-league homer during a brief cup of coffee in the Bronx. Sori's major-league rookie season, 2001, was actually at age 25, when he hit .268/.304/.432 with 18 homers and a sub-par .255 EqA. Pena at 21 is miles
ahead of that curve, and while he lack's Soriano's speed and defensive ability (two not insignificant details), his ceiling should be even higher.
Last up is Yhency Brazoban, a 24-year-old Dominican outfielder-turned-pitcher traded to the Dodgers in the Kevin Brown deal. Brazoban didn't start pitching until 2002 and had put up a 5.34 ERA in 64 minor-league innings up to that point, showing a high-90s fastball and striking out 8.5 men per nine innings last year. He started this season at AA Jacksonville and put up impressive numbers, posting a 2.65 ERA in 51 innings, striking out 10.8 men per nine innings with a very good 2.8 K/W ratio and saving 13 games. The Dodgers brought him up to AAA Las Vegas, a hitter's haven, and Brazoban was nothing short of sensational. In 10 games, he pitched 12.1 innings and allowed only 3 runs (2.19 ERA) while striking out 17 and walking only 1.
Along with the controverisal trade of Dodger setup man Guillermo Mota (himself a converted shortstop, ironically), those eye-popping numbers earned him a promotion to the Show last week. The man responsible for promoting him GM Paul DePodesta admitted
, "It was hard to ignore that he got better at Triple-A," and told Peter Gammons
, "We have wanted to get him to the major leagues for a while... He could be an important part of our bullpen down the stretch."
Thus far, Brazoban has appeared in three games for the Dodgers, pitched three innings, and allowed one run while hitting 97 MPH on the radar gun. Manager Jim Tracy was impressed with his debut
, in which he retired the side in order: "I was very encouraged by a young man who pitched his first inning in the major leagues and did nothing but pound the strike zone... Even when he missed, he didn't miss by much. We will look for more opportunities for this guy."
As I look at the numbers and read the gushing praise, the guy Brazoban calls to mind in terms of being a late-season, lights-out sleeper out of the bullpen is Francisco Rodriguez, the surprise star of the Anaheim Angels 2002 World Championship run. "K-Rod" had only 5.2 major-league innings under his belt when he entered the postseason, but by the end of October he'd made an indelible mark. Brazoban may be more exposed than that come October, but the notion of a K-Rod-esque October surprise should send chills down your spine if you're a Dodger fan -- and, in a different way, if you're a Yankee fan as well. At the very least, the Dodger fan in me takes some comfort in the fact that DePodesta and Co. obviously have enough confidence
in young Yhency to have dealt Mota, and any inning he pitches is one that Darren Dreifort, Mota's nominal replacement as righty setup man, won't.
One final note on the Claussen piece. Several people pointed out in various places that while the overall data on traded Yankee prospects was interesting, it lacked a context for comparison, namely how other teams fared during that time span or similar ones. I couldn't agree more, but the limitations of gathering the data manually made such a task impractical -- I spent 20-25 hours just to gather the Yankee info. But my methodology is right there on the table for anyone to pick up upon, so I invite any aspiring researchers to pick their favorite teams, crank up their spreadsheets and browsers, and go for it.
Saturday, August 07, 2004
Glove on the Rocks
On Saturday afternon I went over to Tompkins Square Park for a leisurely game of catch with Nick and Andra (a fiancée with a live arm). Leisurely, that is, if you consider the shrill blare of a hardcore band playing an outdoor show elsewhere in the park to be none too disrupitve. Suffice it to say we could have had a better soundtrack than one with a lead singer who sounded like a dog barking into a microphone.
A few minutes into our session, a zinger from Nick (who may be the next lefty option out of the Yankee pen if C.J. Nitkowski
's religious awakening
doesn't include a miracle out pitch) literally went right through my glove. I looked down to discover that the laces on the middle run of its web had broken. In the words of Tanner Boyle
Now this glove, a Rawlings RBG80 "Greg Luzinski" model, dates back to my Little League days (yes, that's it
in my old photo). Only the second glove I've ever owned, it was big on me when it was brand-new circa 1980, back when Luzinski ("The worst outfielder I ever saw, bar none," according to Bill James) was still "playing" the field. But 22 years later it fits my hand perfectly... like a glove, you might say. Replacing it is virtually unthinkable, despite -- or rather, because of -- the wear it's endured over the years, which includes a bit of sweat-induced peeling on the interior heel. I haven't done jack to maintain the mitt since I went out for my high school's freshman team, due in equal parts to idleness (it lay dormant for well over a decade until I retrieved it from my childhood bedroom in Salt Lake City in the summer of '98), laziness, and superstition -- I'm too worried I may do more harm than good with some hamfisted attempt at maintenance. Just pound the leather a few times and let's go, damn it!
I finished the afternoon's game with my damaged mitt, one ball squriting through the hole in the web but the rest compensated for by catching the ball in the pocket (ouch) or the upper web. But it's clear I'm going to need to send it to a glove doctor not only for a new lace but some long-overdue TLC. I've skimmed through several web sites and consulted Noah Lieberman's definitive tome, Glove Affairs
, and I have some options. What I'd like to know is if any readers have experience in getting their gloves repaired and can recommend somebody, especially if it's a New York-area local so that I could save on shipping. I figure this could run $50-75 all in if I spring for a whole set of laces and perhaps a fix on that peeling, a price that still beats buying a new one.
A little help? Please drop a line in the comments.
Thursday, August 05, 2004
Before I get back to the business of baseball, I'd like to thank everybody who responded to Monday's post
. Whether it's my New York-area pals who've had the chance to meet Andra or just well-wishing readers offering a tip of the cap, it does mean a lot to me.
In the past week, the only thing that's even come close to wiping the smile off of my face -- a week that includes attendance at Tuesday night's Yankee drubbing
, where the pitching staff weren't the only ones getting bombed -- has been the infernal Connecticut traffic we faced on our way up to Northampton, MA on Friday. Lord help me, you'd think a state that had nothing to offer but an asphalt conduit between New York and Massachusetts could get something right, but Connecticut fails at even that lowly task, sort of like Felix Heredia in his one-batter-per-day regimen.
Thanks as well to everyone who entered my trading-deadline
contest. Including emailed entries, 22 people responded, most of them offering names that weren't ridiculous, if not necessarily enticing (Jeff Conine? Arthur Rhodes?). Two names came up twice, those of disAstros second baseman Jeff Kent and L's -- I mean M's -- closer Eddie Guardado. Alas, Brian Cashman and company surprised us all with one name that wasn't on anybody's entry, that of Esteban Loaiza, to whom we''ll return shortly. Given that nobody claimed the prize I offered, that there's anticipated to be a fair amount of post-deadline trading as August 31 nears, and that a certain incompetent lefty still dwells in the Yankee pen, I'm going to keep the contest open until the end of the month. If you've already entered, consider your entry still valid unless you revise it. If you haven't entered, you still can, either via email or a comment window.
By now nearly everybody else has weighed in on the plethora of deadline deals which came down, so I won't go too overboard in adding my two cents. But with deals that affect not only the two teams dear to me but also their chief rivals, I can't let it all pass unnoticed.
First, to the Yankees. I would have loved, loved, LOVED to see Randy Johnson in pinstripes for whatever protein-like goo the Yanks could have scraped out of their farm system. Robinson Cano
? Too gooey -- take him. Dioner Navarro? Not gooey enough -- take him too. Eric Duncan
? Ain't ever gonna play third for the Yanks in this lifetime -- take him. Having put in some 30 hours in July evaluating the Yankees' track record
in dealing prospects, I feel reasonably assured that whatever they could have given up wouldn't have made much difference even a few years down the road. Randy Johnson, on the other hand, is a difference-maker, a pitcher perfectly capable of carrying a team to a World Championship.
But he's not coming to the party, and perhaps it's just as well. The Arizona Diamondbacks apparently weren't dumb enough to fall for the low-grade prospects the Yanks were offering, a reaction which should serve as something of a wake-up call for the organization. It's all well and good to cultivate resources which have market value to others -- this is a FARM system, after all -- but quality control is sorely needed. The Yanks must draft better (they haven't had a first-round pick make an impact in the majors since Eric Milton in 1996, and that wasn't even in pinstripes), and they must balance their penchant for signing Type A free agents -- the kind who require compensation in the form of a first-round draft pick -- with a habit of in-season pickups of other people's Type A free agents if only so they can watch them leave at the end of the year. Voilà -- no unsightly talent drain!
The trade of Jose Contreras for Loaiza
is a mild upgrade at worst and a significant one at best. No, Loazia will never be confused with the Big Unit, especially not with a 6.04 ERA over the past two months. But what he will do is eat innings, something the Yankee staff has sorely needed in he wake of their musical rookie/cast-off starter program. Contreras, like Hideki Irabu and Jeff Weaver before him, was an incredibly frustrating enigma who neither Joe Torre nor Mel Stottlemyre had a hope of solving. While wishing the man nothing but the best -- the combination of culture shock and separation from one's family is as unenviable as any you might encounter while making $8 million a year -- I'm incredibly relieved that I will never, EVER have to get behind his pitching again. He made the Granny Goodens
the Yanks have cycled through seem like Dr. K by comparison, and I would rather eat dung beetles fresh off the manure pile than watch Contreras fiddle and filibuster with men on base.
On the subject of the Big Unit, I'm far more disappointed that he didn't get traded to the Dodgers than to the Yankees. As best I can tell from the various reports I read, Surly McMullet apparently dragged his feet too long to suit the Snakes, first declining to waive
his no-trade clause for a deal to L.A., then agreeing, only to have the Diamondbacks decide not to accommodate him. Whether that was to punish his intractability or to avoid sending him to a division rival is unclear, but amid all the verbage, one snippet does stand out. It's from Selena "Yellow Fever" Roberts of the New York Times
, so it probably isn't worth the paper it was printed on, but nevertheless:
In the past week, that Seattle episode was apparently the seed of a warning shot during a conversation between Johnson's agent, Barry Meister, and Arizona General Manager Joe Garagiola Jr., according to an article that appeared Tuesday in The Star-Ledger of Newark.
"If you don't trade him to the Yankees, you're going to have one unhappy player," Meister reportedly said.
"And how would I tell the difference?" Garagiola Jr. responded.
If it's true that the Diamondbacks decided not to trade Johnson only to punish him, then they've created every bit the headache for themselves that the Red Sox did with Nomar Garciaparra, dissolving their leverage and setting the stage for an ugly war of words come winter.
And speaking of Nomar... wow, what a barbecue. In the grand tradition of Roger Clemens and Mo Vaughn, the Sox front office ran off yet another superstar before his time and made like Ramiro Mendoza coming out of the bullpen to clean up the problem. The slugging shortstop's Achilles heel may have been the Achilles heel of the team, so to speak, but to emerge from that three-way deal with anything less than a starter suitable to replace Derek Lowe -- Matt "Pubic Beard" Clement was the name tossed around -- is nothing short of Wild Card suicide. Orlando Cabrera? Doug Mientkiewicz? The Sox entered the weekend 7.5 games behind the Yanks, not to mention a game down in the Wild Card race. At this writing they've fallen a game further in the AL East, lost their favorite punching bag (Contreras was 0-5 with a 13.50 ERA in 20 innings against the Sox, including the postseason) and seen the narrow talent gap between the two teams widen considerably.
What's more, the "He Said, She Said"
game that's going on between their exiled star and the front office has gone to DefCon-4. While from where I sit the Sox's fragile equilibrium of unhappiness is a beautiful thing
, I can't help but feel as though this is the first sign that the Henry/Lucchino/Epstein management group is running out of rope. Baseball Prospectus' Chris Kahrl put it best:
Let's not beat around the bush: For the second year in the row, Theo Epstein has caved in to the mob. Hordes of bleating extras culled from the sets of Cheers or Bob Newhart or from the pages of The Shadow Over Innsmouth really ought to be ignored, but not here. Maybe Nomar started it, maybe the guys with the pitchforks and torches did, but after last year's capitulation over bullpen management and this year's craven trade-down to give the ballclub the appearance of owning some leather, I think it's safe to say that concerns that Boston was going to mount a challenge to the Yankees were wildly overanticipated. If the fans had wanted leather, the Sox would have been better off hosting Bondage and Dominance Night at the ballpark.
...The question these pickups inspire is whether or not the Red Sox are really going to be able to keep up in the Wild Card chase in a season already choking on the Yankees' dust. To me, it looks like these deals put them behind whichever two teams don't win the AL West. Although I doubt that failing to make the playoffs would derail the putative sabermetric magic kingdom, if it's followed by a slow start next year, and given the already-demonstrated willingness to submit to mob rule, the Red Sox's competitiveness might be nothing more than a latter-day resurrection of those '30s Red Sox teams, laden with All-Stars and ambition and a whole lot of nothin'.
Back in November, Nomar was thought to be worth trading for Magglio Ordonez. Now the best the Sox can get for him is two glove men whose bats have termites. I'll let the Sox fans who read this blog tell me what they think of that one.
Turning to the Dodgers, my head is going one way and my heart the other. The wholesale changes they've wrought, trading catcher Paul Lo Duca, setup man Guillermo Mota, outfielders Dave Roberts and Juan Encarnacion and prospects in three deals, turning over one-fifth of their roster, certainly would have been easier to swallow with Randy Johnson taking the ball every fifth day. Lo Duca was one of my favorite players and widely known as the team's "Heart and Soul," but I can clearly see his limitations -- he's 32, his offensive value is almost completely tied to batting average (.288 career) rather than power (.431) or an ability to get on base (.344), and he has shown an overwhelming tendency over his career to wear down over the course of the season:
AVG OBP SLG OPS
Pre All-Star .313 .368 .471 .840
Post All-Star .256 .313 .379 .692
Roberts was another favorite, a jackrabbit type who got on base at a so-so clip (.343 prior to the trade) and stole bases extremely well (33/34), the type of player who has more value in L.A.'s low-scoring environment than in most other places. But he's 32 as well, and it's very clear that he's not going to wake up tomorrow and morph into the second coming of Rickey Henderson.
Mota was yet another favorite, a hard-throwing, intimidating, reliable setup man who had really only put it together in the past year and a half. But this year his strikeout rate has fallen, his walk rate has nearly doubled, and the Dodgers have been riding him fairly hard (as BP points out
, over the last two years, Mota's pitched 168 innings, more than any setup man in the game.
For all of that, those three players were at the peak of their trade value but about to get a whole lot more expensive (via arbitration or free-agency) and what they brought back in return gives the Dodgers more flexibility to build the team GM Paul DePodesta's way. Additionally, trading Encarnacion, a crapfest of a hitter with his .235/.290/.415 "bat," his balky shoulder, and his 2-year, $8 mil contract is addition by subtraction. I'm not 100% sold on new first baseman Hee Seop Choi -- his platoon differential is 300 points of OPS, .915 vs. righties, .608 vs. leftie -- but he's a very promising player who could be the cornerstone of the infield for a few years. Finley has postive value both offensively and defensively, though not as much as he used to. He's also got a certain tactical value just in keeping him from the other N.L. West contenders. Starter Brad Penny is a very solid addition to a rotation that has been making do with the smoke and mirrors of Jose Freakin' Lima, Wilson Alvarez, Kaz Ishii (more BB than K) and Jeff Weaver.
It's difficult, because the guys traded, especially Lo Duca, are the some of the ones who really kept me going during the darkness of the latter-day Fox years. But I have a lot of trust in DePodesta's vision, not only as it pertains to the short-term goal of making a playoff run in 2004 but also the long-term goal of building a team that can dominate the division. This team may not only win the West this year, but may really become something special once that vision is allowed to play out.
Jon Weisman of Dodger Thoughts
has, as you might guess, had some great coverage
of these Dodger doings. Jon asks the questions
, "Would you rather try to win with a true-blue Dodger, even if your chances of winning might be less than if you acquire outsiders? ... Will a pennant or World Series title be as sweet without Lo Duca?" (Manager Jim Tracy answered that question by taking over Lo Duca's uniform number
in his honor.)
While there's so much more to talk about with these deadline acquisitions, I'll cut off this epic post except to mention one more item. Jon Weisman's also got a post-deadline pickup
for his team -- a son born on Wednesday. Congrats to you and your wife, Jon!
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