The Futility Infielder

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

Wednesday, September 29, 2004


Bicoastal Disorder

I'm still suffering the aftereffects of a weekend surrendered to what I'm now calling Bicoastal Disorder -- an attempt to root two teams on opposite coasts through their blood rivalries in series with postseason implications. I watched all three Yankees-Red Sox games on TV and either watched or listened to parts of all three Dodgers-Giants games on This meant that though I did spent part of Saturday in Yom Kippur services, there's a reasonable chance that Shawn Green did a better job at observing the holiday than I did. But atonement is a wonderful thing; I'm quite certain that catching the games falls well below charging my neighbor usurous interest, and I'll just have to remember to add my transgressions onto next year's tab.

Since the weekend, I've continued my West Coast night watch as the Dodgers have twice rallied to beat the Rockies in their final at-bat. On Monday they came from down 7-5 to win on a Milton Bradley single, and then last night they rallied from a 4-0 defecit thanks to Rox closer Shawn Chacon (1-9, 7.11 ERA) walking four straight batters. The wins were their 50th and 51st come-from-behind efforts and the 23rd and 24th times they've won in their final at-bat. As the Dodgers close in on their first division title in nine years, I'm one very happy camper.

As I've been pressed for time with a forthcoming project and then a trip out of town, what follows are a few notes from each of those weekend contests. Some of this may have already reached its sell-date, but what the hell, this is a special time for me and I'm determined to preserve it for my edification if nobody else's.

Friday night, Boston: After Pedro Martinez got pounded last Sunday in Yankee Stadium, it was a safe bet that he'd pitch better in Boston. And he did, for seven innings of a tight, see-saw ballgame that bore much more resemblance to the other tense contests of this season and last than to the two routs which the Yanks hung on the Sox last weekend. In the third inning, The Yanks scrapped for two runs on a hit-by-pitch, a single, two steals, an error, and two infield grounders, but the Sox answered right back with a two-run Manny jack off of Mike Mussina, then took the lead on a Trot Nixon solo shot in the fourth. The Yanks tied it again in the sixth on a Hideki Matsui walk, a Bernie Williams double, and a Ruben Sierra sac fly, but the Sox went ahead in the seventh when Johnny Damon homered off of Tom Gordon.

At this point -- 4-3 Sox after seven innings, with Pedro having thrown 101 pitches, and with the bones of the last Sox manager to tempt fate against the Yanks in such a situation strewn along the road to the World Series, it seemed academic that Boston manager Terry Francona would call upon a new pitcher. But the Red Sox have a knack for reminding us all that those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it, and so Martinez took the hill again. As a Yankee fan, I was licking my chops and tenting my fingers like Monty Burns: "Excellent."

When Matsui golfed Martinez's second pitch of the eighth into the bullpen in right-centerfield, Francona showed his steely resolve... or stubbornly refused to admit he was wrong in sending Martinez back out. Pedro stayed in. Bernie Williams doubled. Still, Pedro stayed in. Jorge Posada struck out, but then Sierra drove in Bernie with a single to give the Yanks a 5-4 lead. Finally, Francona went to his bullpen to escape the inning. The Yanks added another run on a Matsui double in the ninth off of Mike Timlin. Mariano Rivera, riding a two-game streak of futility against the Sox, walked Nixon to open the ninth, but his pinch-runner, Gabe Kapler (also playing on Yom Kippur, tsk-tsk), was erased in a double-play. Orlando Cabrera doubled, but Bill Mueller grounded back to Mo, and with that, the Yanks pulled to a 5.5 game lead, perhaps putting a stranglehold on the AL East flag.

Martinez was a reporter's dream after the game, coming up with several gems, the best of which was this one: "What can I say? I just tip my hat and call the Yankees my daddy." Some, including Harvey Araton of the New York Times, said it sounded like the pitcher was cozying up to the Yankees' boss:
Now he's speaking the language of Papa George Steinbrenner, who fancies himself the boldest of all ballpark paternalists, head of a household that lavishes more riches on baseball brats than anyone in American team sports.

If Pedro is calling the Yankees daddy, he may as well move on down to the Bronx when his contract expires after this season and take his place in the Steinbrenner family business.
Pedro in pinstripes? I'm not even going to waste my breath on that one until after the season. If the Sox haven't re-signed him by then, we'll have something to discuss.

The Yanks' rightfielder wasn't biting at Araton's line of reasoning:
Gary Sheffield said he suspected Martínez of dramatic role-play, of setting the scene for October.

"I think it's just a better story if he beats us," Sheffield said. "That's my thought."
Don't give him any ideas, Gary.

Friday Night, San Francisco: If Shawn Green's decision to play Friday and sit Saturday caused anybody a headache, it was the Giants, who came into the game trailing L.A. in the NL West by a game and a half, and a half-game behind the Cubs in the Wild Card standings. Green smashed a game-tying two run homer in the fourth inning off of Kirk Reuter. His shot got starter Odalis Perez, who had allowed second-inning solo homers to both Barry Bonds (# 702) and Yorvit Torrealba, off the hook.

Two batters after Green, second baseman Jose Hernandez added a solo homer off of Reuter. Meanwhile, Perez settled down and allowed only one other hit through eight innings. He'd thrown only 92 pitches, but in a one-run game, manager Jim Tracy went to the best closer in the NL if not the game, Eric Gagne.

The goggled one had thrown two adventurous innings the night before, and it showed. He got two quick groundouts, one on diving stop by shortstop Cesar Izturis, but then he walked Pedro Feliz on four pitches. Next up was Barry Bonds, representing the game-winning run, so the decision to walk him was academic. Things got a bit tense when Gagne walked J.T. Snow on four pitches as well to load the bases. Torrealba then caused just about every hyperventilating Dodger fan even more respiratory distress by lining a shot to leftfield. But it was right at Jayson Werth, who held the ball to preserve the win. Whew!

Saturday afternoon, San Francisco: The Dodgers got off to a rolling start, taking the lead in the first on an Adrian Beltre two-run double. But by the bottom of the second, the Giants had tied things up, first on a Ray Durham homer, then on a Michael Tucker double and a single by pitcher Brad Hennessey (who?). Alex Cora gave the Dodgers the lead again with a two-run homer, and a Jose Lima single chased Hennessey.

But Lima, who was pitching with a broken thumb, couldn't make it out of the bottom of the fourth. The Giants strung together three hits and a sac fly to get two runs, the big blow a double from Durham. They took the lead in the fifth on a Tucker sacrifice fly, but the Dodgers came back with a Milton Bradley homer. More fun than a barrel of monkeys for Dodger fans. Aggravation for Giants fans.

The 5-5 tie went into the eighth. The Giants loaded the bases against Yhency Brazoban on a single, a sacrifice and two walks. Brazoban had allowed a mere three runs in his 29 major-league innings up to this point, the rookie instantly becoming a stellar cog in the Dodger bullpen. But by the time Pedro Feliz came to bat, he had already thrown 32 pitches to get three outs; by comparison, he'd tossed only 29 in two innings on Thursday. Brazoban was still bringin' it when he faced Feliz, but his 97 MPH fastball left the field even more quickly, a game-breaking grand slam for the Giants. In the immortal words of Seattle Pilots manager and Ball Four icon Joe Schultz, "Ah, shitfuck."

Saturday evening, Boston: Even with the Yankees having removed some of the weekend's suspense, this started out as another nail-biter, though not a pretty one. Hideki Matsui started the scoring off with a homer off of Tim Wakefield in the second. Wakefield, who beat the Yanks twice in last year's Championship Series before throwing a fateful pitch to Aaron Boone, didn't have his best knuckler working for him on this night. Jorge Posada smoked a pair of two-run doubles off of him, one to take a 3-1 lead in the fourth, the second to tie the game at 5 in the sixth.

Meanwhile, the Sox battered the hapless Javier Vazquez, who is in danger of losing his spot in the postseason rotation. The YES announcers spent much time calling attention to the way Vazquez's front shoulder continues to fly open, messing with his command and control. Vazquez says he just wants to pitch, he doesn't want to worry about his mechanics. Earth to Javy: 6.61, 7.43, 6.51 -- those are your ERAs by month in the second half. Start worrying about your mechanics, or pick up your golf clubs before the weekend.

Having already yielded a run in the second, Vazquez gave up a two-run homer to catcher Doug Mirabelli in the fourth, then coughed up four hits and two runs in the fifth before Joe Torre gave him the hook. How bad is he? Well, by comparison, Tanyon Sturtze looks like a world-beater. That's bad.

The 5-5 tie lasted until the bottom of the eighth. With one out, Johnny Damon singled off of Paul Quantrill, another pitcher over whom Sturtze now towers. Mark Bellhorn walked, Manny Ramirez doubled in Damon, and then David Ortiz was intentionally walked. C. J. Shitkowski (oops, Nitkowski) arrived, and all hell broke loose. He gave up a two-run ground-rule double to Jason Varitek, plunked Trot Nixon, and was relieved by Scott Proctor, who... well, by this time I was fast-forwarding the TiVo, but the record shows four more runs scored.

The day's tally: my two teams took 5-5- ties into the eighth and were outscored 11-0 in that inning. Note to self: might rethink next year's atonement/baseball hierarchy.

Sunday afternoon, Boston: Until the day before, Joe Torre had sounded pretty lukewarm about the prospect of Kevin Brown starting this game. Brown had the pins in his self-inflicted broken hand removed on Friday, though as to whether the doctors were able to perform a sorely needed head-in-ass-ectomy on the pitcher, no reports were forthcoming.

But Brown's throwing on Friday had satisfied Torre, and so he got the ball on Sunday. And got more misery for his trouble, lasting only two-thirds of an inning as the Sox put several dents in the outfield walls at his expense. The injury-prone Brown may well beg out of his next start due to whiplash after watching some of those shots go by. I couldn't help jeer him from my spot on the couch; one of my houseplants died due to the toxic spew of invective I lavished on Brown. I now find him nearly as impossible to root for as I do Curt Schilling, his opposite number on the day.

Esteban Loazia came in and poured his own special blend of gasoline onto the fire, and once he allowed three runs in the second inning, I shifted into TiVo overdrive. Loiza departed at 9-2 in the sixth. Steve Karsay, rumored to be battling for a postseason roster spot but with curiously little work to show for it --as in none in a whole week -- arrived to make matters worse with a run-scoring wild pitch and then a sac fly. Next pitcher, please!

The eighth inning brought some silliness to the whole affair. Earlier in the game, Kenny Lofton had taken issue with the footwork of Boston first baseman Doug Mienkiewicz as he'd grounded out. A less charitable ballplayer would have simply spiked Minky and done some serious damage to his Achilles tendon, while a less fortunate one would have tripped over the first baseman's heel and taken a potentially injurious spill. Either way, Lofton had reason to offer an elbow as he went by. The two exchanged heated words as the third inning ended.

With the game's outcome now academic, Pedro Astacio had come in to pitch for the Sox. Astacio is a reclamation project trying to come back from a torn labrum and carrying a 12.27 ERA. With nothing to offer but trouble, he threw inside to Lofton and then threw one two feet behind him, at which point home plate ump Jim Wolf warned both benches. But crew chief Tim McClelland wasnt satisfied with that measure, and as if to say, "We're not putting up with any of this shit today," simply tossed Astacio. Terry Adams came on to hurry up with the business of walking Lofton. Two batters later he faced Andy Phillips, who was making his major-league debut. Phillips is no prospect; he's 27, but he hit an impressive .318/.388/.569 with 26 homers while playing all three infield bags (mostly first). In a more just world, he'd get a shot at a Scott Spiezio-type utility job. Torre gave playing time to Phillips' Columbus teammates Felix Escalona and Dioner Navarro, but outside of their families, I don't think anybody else noticed.

Sunday evening, San Francisco:Yet another back-and-forth battle. I tuned in just in time to miss Barry Bonds' game-tying homer in the third off of Jeff Weaver (oh, the irony of him pitching the same day as his opposite number on the Yanks). Nervously I paced around in front of my computer as the Dodgers added runs in the fourth, fifth, sixth, and seventh innings while Weaver danced in and out of trouble. Alex Cora drove in the run in the fourth with a single and homered in the sixth, matching his tally for the day before. Thanks to an effective platoon with Jose Hernandez, Dodger second basemen have hit .285/.378/.452 with 20 jacks, perhaps the finest testament to the job Jim Tracy has done this season.

Weaver departed in the seventh having provided the Dodgers with a rarity -- a quality start. Though not spectacular, he's been doing that all year; meanwhile only six out of the previous 15 Dodger starters had even lasted five innings, never mind the run counts.

The Giants put one over on the Dodger relievers thanks to a Cora error, but they got it back in the ninth when Marquis Grisson misplayed a Milton Bradley fly ball into a three-base error, scoring Shawn Green. Bradley was erased at home when Cora failed to get down a squeeze bunt, but the three run lead was enough -- just barely -- for Gagne. After he got two quick outs, Bonds reached on an infield single and J.T. Snow walked, bringing Deivi Cruz to the plate as the tying run. But Cruz went down swinging, Gagne and I pumped our fists, and the Dodgers had their first September series win over the Giants in the Jim Tracy era, putting them 2.5 up on the Giants going into the season's final week. It ain't over yet, but first place is a nice place to be right now.

Friday, September 24, 2004


Going Coastal

My cup runneth over. Even as the Yankees' magic number to clinch the AL East has dwindled to six and the Bombers prepare for their series in Fenway, my baseball attention has turned to a race on the other coast. The Los Angeles Dodgers, who have been in first place for months and who held a six-game lead as recently as September 11, have suddenly found themselves squeezed by their archrivals, the San Francisco Giants (a.k.a. Bonds and Schmidt and the Rest Is...). By winning 9 out of 10 while the Dodgers lost 7 out of 10, the Giants moved to within a half-game of the Dodgers going into Thursday's games, the narrowest of margins.

Even with the two teams slated to play six games over the season's final two weekends, this wouldn't be cause for more than the usual extraordinary concern. But while the Dodgers have battled gamely all year, injuries to their starting rotation -- the latest being Brad Penny's swan song for the season -- have put them in a real bind, and they may well run out of pitchers before they run out of season. Like some bungee jumper standing on a precipice with an indeterminate amount of rope, the results could end in "SPLAT!"

With all that in mind, I stayed up well into the wee hours of Friday morning awaiting the West Coast returns. Through the magic of, I caught the second half of the Dodgers-Padres game as narrated by the greatest broadcaster in the history of professional sports, Vin Scully. The other day, I jotted something down regarding Scully over at the Will Carroll Presents blog, where Carroll understudy Scott Long started a lengthy discussion about not liking the voice of the Dodgers. Here's what I wrote:
I still get a thrill when I hear Scully call a game, one that takes me back to being nine years old and riding around in the car with my dad. With a patient turn of the knob, he could magically summon the Dodgers from a thousand miles away. Static, static, static... what the hell was he doing? Then all of the sudden I'd hear Vin coming in clear as a bell talking about Davey Lopes leading off of first base or something, and it was like a free ice cream cone had appeared in my hand.
Even now that I can summon Scully's voice from the ether myself, the thrill of hearing him describe a tense ballgame from a far coast is one I still cherish, and if the Dodgers have done nothing else during manager Jim Tracy's tenure, they've played meaningful games well into September and given me a reason to tune in again.

On Thursday, the Dodgers had sailed out to a 5-0 lead by beating up on Brian Lawrence, spot-starting for the Padres in place of the illin' David Wells. Cesar Izturis, the Dodger shortstop, started the scoring with a solo homer in the fourth and then drove in another run via a sacrifice fly. Time was where one might die laughing at the thought of a productive offensive game from Izturis; he was a HACKING MASS All-Star with OPS numbers of .556 and .597 in the past two years. But his bat, while still nowhere near Jeteresque, is now much improved, and he's hit .293/.334/.387, good for a .721 OPS. Harnessing his speed has been a huge factor in improving his game; among his 185 hits are nine triples, and he's also stolen 25 bases in 34 attempts.

The Dodgers added two more runs in the top of the fifth off of reliever Ricky Stone, but Kaz Ishii, the erratic L.A. starter, couldn't keep it together. He walked four men in the fifth before Tracy gave him the hook. All four runs eventually scored -- oh, those bases on balls! -- and the damage would have been even worse had leftfielder Jayson Werth not thrown out Ryan Klesko at home to end the inning. I had tuned in just in time to see the replay and to hear Scully say that with Ishii's departure, this was the eighth time in 13 games that the Dodger starter had failed to go five innings. Gulp.

Oddly enough, Klesko returned Werth's favor in the next half-inning... sort of. After Werth walked, Steve Finley lashed a two-out double to deep rightfield, but Klesko came up throwing and the ball beat the runner home. Home plate ump Ed Montague called Werth out to end the inning, but replays showed that Padres catcher Ramon Hernandez completely missed the tag. Even up three runs, it was a tough break for the Dodgers.

Yhency Brazoban, the babyfaced killer out of the Dodger bullpen, took over in the bottom of the sixth and quieted the Padres, but not without getting a major break. Speedy Kerry Robinson had beaten out a high chopper for an infield single to lead off the inning. Jay Payton then lined a shot up the middle, but Izturis had moved over to cover second base on the double play and found himself in the right place at exactly the right time. The ball came right to him, he stepped on the bag for the force, and threw out Payton before he'd even gotten halfway up the line.

The Dodgers threatened in the seventh thanks to two walks, but Robin Ventura, pinch-hitting for catcher Brent Mayne, struck out looking at what should have been ball four. Ventura didn't appear to argue with Montague, he just walked away exasperated. But when Montague wouldn't give Brazoban the same call in the bottom of the inning, Ventura began squawking from the bench. Montague ejected him, at which point Rockin' Robin decided to get his money's worth, charging onto the field and requiring restraint from coach Jim Riggleman. Somewhere Milton Bradley was taking notes.

Ventura's outburst came after Brazoban had gone 3-0 on Phil Nevin, having already walked Brian Giles. He recovered to retire Nevin on a fly ball, then got Rich Aurilia to ground into a double play to end the inning.

The Dodgers went on to pad their lead in the top of the ninth with a pair of runs, but Eric Gagne, who'd come on in the eighth (and even batted) ran into trouble. Terrence Long and Jay Payton -- two of the most fundamentally flawed ballplayers ever to bat back-to-back, for my money -- both singled. A sac fly scored Long, and then another single and sac fly scored Payton. But the Padres ran out of outs and baserunners, and Gagne rang up Aurilia to end the game.

As if that hadn't been enough excitement, the Giants-Astros game simultaneously became very interesting. Behind Jason Schmidt, the Giants had taken a 3-0 lead into the seventh. The Astros chipped away with a run in the seventh and then another in the eighth, chasing Schmidt in the process. Dustin Hermanson came on to save the game for the Giants in in the ninth, but allowed two singles before Lance Berkman hit a wind-assisted three-run homer to give the 'Stros the lead. Hermanson then hit Jeff Kent with a pitch, drawing an ejection for himself and for manager Felipe Alou (apparently hostilities had already taken place and both benches had been warned). Houston scored two more times to rub a bit of sand in the Giants faces while keeping their own Wild Card hopes alive. Mmmm good stuff.

• • •

The big news concerning the Dodgers on Friday is Shawn Green's compromising position. The Dodger first baseman/outfielder, who is Jewish, will sit out one game in observance of Yom Kippur but not both. The holiday technically begins at sundown on Friday night and runs until sundown on Saturday, meaning two games will be played in that span this year.

Looking back to the relatively recent past, Green played on Yom Kippur in 2002, sat in 2001 (breaking a streak of 415 consecutive games), didn't need to decide as his season was over by the time the holiday rolled around in 2003, 2000, and 1998, and his team had an off-day in 1999.

Said Green, "I'm not orthodox. I am Jewish and I respect the customs, and I feel like this is the most consistent way for me to celebrate the holiday." Looking at his track record, the split decision isn't inconsistent. As a less-than-fully-observant Jew as well as a Dodger fan, I can certainly live with it. He's no Sandy Koufax -- recall that the lefthander declined to pitch the 1965 World Series opener against the Minnesota Twins in observance of Yom Kippur, the holiest Jewish holiday -- but he's trying to stand on principle while balancing the needs of his team at a time when they need him, and if that's not a mensch, I don't know what is.

Today Lee Sinins, who writes the invaluable Around the Majors newsletter, criticized Green's decision in his typically blunt fashion, "It's the equivalent of deciding that a religious holiday only applies to one game of a doubleheader." Lee rides a pretty high horse when it comes to fun stuff like no-hitters and insists on telling us what a crappy ballplayer somebody was the instant that death takes him away ("[Ken] Brett had a 3.93 career ERA, compared to his league average of 3.66, and -34 RSAA in 349 games with 10 teams from 1967-81 (except 1968). He ranked in the top 10 in the AL in worst RSAA twice," he wrote the day after Brett died of cancer at the age of 55). So I'll say this: put a sock in it, Sinins, and go watch your Mets instead of pontificating about how holy somebody else should be.

Wednesday, September 22, 2004


Good Night

I had a fun night at the ballpark on Tuesday, even if the Yankees' series with the Toronto Blue Jays has felt like pure anticlimax after the weekend's bouts with the Red Sox. Gorgeous, warm weather, especially for mid-September, made for a real treat, especially when considering the source of my tickets -- trade-ins from that double-rain-delayed May 11 game with the Angels, the one where Gary Sheffield knocked in the winning run at 1:23 AM as I sat, dry and secure on my couch, beer in hand.

Subway woes caused me to miss the top half of the first inning; apparently spot starter Esteban Loaiza struck out the side looking, though he allowed a single to Vernon Wells in the process. Just as my brother and I were settling into our seats, Jays' centerfielder Wells gave the crowd a rare reason to cheer a visiting player when he robbed Alex Rodriguez of a home run to deep centerfield. And I do mean robbed. Wells dug his foot in the padded wall, elevating and reaching over to pluck the ball back into the field of play, much to the crowd's amazement, and after watching the replay and shaking their heads in disbelief, they rewarded his effort with a sincere ovation.

A-Rod had taken Jays' starter Roy Halladay, pitching for the first time in two months due to shoulder woes, deep. Sheffield followed by taking him even deeper, walloping a towering homer into the upper leftfield deck. His 36th shot of the year came a mere two days after having two cortisone shots in his ailing left shoulder. He's earned those "M-V-P!" chants the hard way.

Loaiza got into extreme trouble in the second, loading the bases with nobody out via two walks and a single and going to three balls on nearly every hitter he faced. The Jays put two runs over, one on a sacrifice fly, the other on a walk, the third that Loaiza issued in the inning, much to the dismay of the crowd. Same shit, different day for the man with the 8.51 ERA since being traded for Jose Contreras.

But the Bronx Bombers got that lead right back. Jorge Posada stroked a one-out single, and then Jason Giambi, hitless since July 11 (0-for-32) and looking somewhat lost at the plate since returning from his litany of injuries, illnesses and alien probings, socked a 2-2 Halladay pitch into the left-centerfield net. The crowd erupted, giving Giambi a lengthy standing ovation until he obliged with a curtain call. It was good to see Big G get some love for a change.

Surprisingly enough, Loaiza cruised after that, retiring the side in order in the third, fourth, and fifth. The Yanks backed him with another run in the fifth on a double by John Olerud and then a single by Derek Jeter to go to 4-2. Loaiza got one out in the sixth before Joe Torre, intent on ending his struggling starter's night on a high note, pulled him. Not that the arrival of Felix Heredia, who came on in relief, was guaranteed to keep the good vibes rolling. But "The Run Fairy" as he's known in some circles, retired Carlos Delgado on a fly ball and struck out Eric Hinske.

I won a wager in the seventh at Paul Quantrill's expense. Quantrill had allowed four hits and two runs in one-third of an inning on Monday night, continuing his second-half slide (a 6.62 ERA since the All-Star Break). As the struggling reliever came on, I turned to my brother and said, "He's not going to get out of this inning. He'll get two men on and Torre will have to pull him." Bryan comically peeled off a dollar and said, "I'll take that action." When Alexis Rios reached on an infield single to second base, he let out a groan -- "That wasn't his fault!" -- and another when the next grounder didn't turn into a double play. He eased up as Quantrill struck out Eric Crozier, but resumed his complaining as Zaun walked. That was all for Quantrill, as Tom Gordon came on and I pocketed my dollar.

With the bases loaded and nobody out in the eighth, Giambi added a sac fly, netting more applause for the insurance run, his third ribbie of the night. Mariano Rivera looked a bit shaky in the ninth, yielding a run to cut the score to 5-3. The crowd seemed more interested in Baltimore taking a 2-1 lead on the Red Sox -- despite 14 Curt Schilling strikeouts -- than they did in the Jays narrowing the score. As it was, the Yanks held out but the Orioles did not, and though the Sox remained 4.5 games behind, the Bombers' magic number to clinch the AL East is now eight games. Yes indeed, kids, it's countdown time.

Tuesday, September 21, 2004


Not-So-Lost Weekend

What a difference a weekend makes. On Friday night, the Red Sox shocked the Yankees by scoring two runs in the ninth inning off of Mariano Rivera, closing to within 2.5 games of the AL East lead. With the hard-charging Sox, who'd come into the Bronx all cowboy'd up, beating on Rivera for the second time in the two teams' last three ballgames, the momentum was all with Boston, the threat of change atop the division palpable.

The Sox entered the weekend having won or broken even in nine straight series, at recent points winning 10 straight and 22 out of 25. They held an 8-5 edge on the Yanks in their head-to-head matchups, and were still riding the "message" sent from Jason Varitek's fist to Alex Rodriguez's mouth in that unforgettable July 24 brawl. They had gone 37-13 (.740) since that day. And while the Yankees had been playing good ball (31-18, a .632 pace since the two teams last met), they had allowed a 10.5 game lead to melt away in a month, showing themselves vulnerable not only in the rotation but also the bullpen. Rivera, the surest thing ever to wear pinstripes, had just been stunned again. Things didn't look good.

But by the end of the weekend, the Yankees had emphatically reasserted their claim on the AL East title with back-to-back, double-digit drubbings of the Sox. The division lead, while not iron-clad, stood at 4.5 games at the end of Sunday. Barring a complete collapse by the Bombers, the only real shot the Sox have at the division title is to sweep the Yankees next week at Fenway. Not that it matters entirely; these two teams will be playing in October whichever way the wind blows. But still, when these two teams meet for a key September series, it's a good ol' fashioned grudge match worth watching.

I got a late start myself. On Friday night, I caught just a few pitches from Orlando Hernandez in between rain delays. Sitting in a bar with a couple of non-fan friends, occasionally glancing up at a close-captioned TV, the game still seemed eminently winnable with El Duque trailing only 1-0. Once Tanyon Sturtze materialized from underneath the Yankee Stadium tarp ("Children, avert your eyes! The beast with the 6.47 ERA has arisen!"), I changed my tune. "Get 'em tomorrow, boys," I muttered, pondering the bubbles in my beer.

I left the bar as the Yanks tied the score on a groundout, reaching home just in time to settle into my familiar groove on the couch before leaping out of it as John Olerud drilled a long homer off of Bronson Arroyo, the Sox cornrowed punk of a starter. The next batter, Miguel Cairo, hit what he believed to be a home run, but Manny Ramirez robbed him at the wall even as Cairo continued to trot around the bases, somewhat comically. A smiling Manny pointed at the Yankee dugout with both hands to say, "Gotcha!"

Even with the Yanks up 2-1 in the fifth, I was braced for disappointment with Sturtze in the game, and when he gave up a leadoff walk to David Ortiz and then a single to Trot Nixon I figured the Grim Forksman had come a-pokin'. But Jason "Suckerpunch" Varitek, who looked absolutely, laughably horrendous all weekend (0-for-10, 8 K), struck out and then Kevin Millar hit a checked-swing slow-roller which Sturtze snagged. He whirled and threw to second base to start a 1-4-3 double play, escaping the inning and receiving a thunderous ovation from the Bronx crowd. He drew an even bigger O when he departed in the seventh after striking out the first two hitters. Three-and-two-thirds innings, one hit, five Ks -- an admirable proxy for El Duque on this particular night.

The ninth was slow-motion agony. Rivera walked Trot Nixon, who yielded to Dave Roberts, perhaps the fastest man in baseball. Roberts stole second as Varitek struck out, Millar was clipped by a pitch, and then Orlando Cabrera smacked a game-tying hit. Rivera rebounded to strike out Kevin Youklis, but Kenny Lofton, playing too far over in left-center, let Johnny Damon's blooper bounce in front of him, scoring Millar's pinch-runner, Gabe Kapler. Ugh. The Yanks proceeded looked awful against the Sox closer, especially Jason Giambi, who had no business flailing in such a situation. Foulke it...

If there was supposed to be a carryover effect the next day, it was more of a hangover for the Red Sox. They looked as though they'd left their best efforts on the barstool celebrating the night before. Derek Lowe, resurgent since the Sox traded Nomar Garciaparra and shored up their infield defense (5.52 ERA before the trade, 3.60 ERA since), started for the Sox and found trouble instantly. He walked Derek Jeter, loaded the bases with one out, and the Yanks just kept the line moving in the Nine-Eight Style, as we like to say around here. Nothing but singles, walks, twigs, nuts, berries, and bad decisions by the Sox newly-vaunted infield defense were needed to uncork a huge rally. Already trailing 3-0 and with men on first and third, Lowe made a boneheaded play as he fielded an Olerud grounder and threw to third base. The trouble was that he had no force there, only Bernie Williams scampering back; all hands safe, bases loaded. Then another grounder to Doug Mientkiewicz, who tried to start a 3-6-1 double-play. Olerud tumbled into second like Walter Sobchack rolling out of a moving car, Cabrera's throw was wide, and two more runs scored to make it 5-0 Yanks.

Lowe's nightmare continued, as he again walked Jeter to start the inning. Almost mercifully, A-Rod lined one off of his shin, giving Sox manager Terry Francona an easy excuse to pull his starter and bring in a reliever. But Terry Adams, left with a cleanup-in-aisle-nine mess, continued to get dinked into oblivion. Four singles, two of them in the infield, a steal, a wild pitch, a hit batsman, four more runs. In two innings of play, the Yanks were up 9-0 without hitting anything for extra bases.

They finally took care of that with a Bernie Williams homer in the fourth, and then a three-run A-Rod blast in the fifth. By then, the real intrigue in the ballpark had become Yankee starter Jon Lieber's pursuit of a no-hitter. Some salt for those wounds? When Francona sent five new fielders -- including the weak-hitting Pokey Reese and Ricky Gutierrez -- into the ballgame in the sixth, the odds had to improve in Lieber's favor.

Alas, it was not to be. With two outs in the seventh -- as far as Lieber had ever been with a no-no -- David Ortiz turned on a change-up, smashing it deep to left-center to take away both the no-hitter and the shutout. That'll happen. Lieber continued to shut down the Sox, though he eventually got into a jam attempting to complete the game. A very uninspiring Paul Quantrill couldn't close things out, leaving Scott Proctor to mop up. Still, the 14-4 win was a hearty rebuke to anybody who'd counted the Yanks out.

And if one ten-run victory against your closest rival is nice, two of them in a row are even nicer. On a crisp, sunny Sunday Mike Mussina was sharp from the get-go, and Pedro Martinez was not, and the Yanks, who usually let him run up his pitch count and wait him out, were hacking early. Gary Sheffield, counting down the hours until his long-awaited cortisone shots, launched a two-run homer off of Pedro in the first inning on the first pitch he saw, bringing up those "M-V-P!" chants. The Sox threatened in the second with men on first and second, but Alex Rodriguez speared a hot Orlando Cabrera liner and dove to third base for the force, the defensive play of the game.

Derek Jeter, also on a first pitch, added a solo blast in the third, his 22nd of the season. Jeter has been on a tear in September (.417/.476/.750) and he's done an admirable job of rebounding from that early-season slump. But I bristle when I hear YES announcer Michael Kay, who leads the league in hot air, say time and time again that Jeter is having the best season of his career. Apparently 1999, when Jeter hit .349/.438/.552 with 24 homers and 102 RBI, is too distant a memory, but eighty points of OBP and another 80 of SLG ought to be enough for Kay to cram in his pie hole.

Boston scratched out a run in the fifth on a Cabrera double, a groundout and a Johnny Damon infield single, cutting the score to 3-1. In the top of the sixth, the cruising Moose got into his worst jam of the day, men on first and third with two outs, but he got Cabrera to hit a comebacker, one of three times Mussina ended the inning in such fashion. In the bottom of the inning, the Yanks broke out the Whup-Ass on Pedro. Bernie Williams led off with a walk, and then Jorge Posada, Pedro's arch-nemesis dating back to last year's ALCS if not longer, dinked one just over the leftfield wall, a shot hardly emphatic except in its cost to the Sox: two more runs, making the score 5-1.

Then the real fun started, as the Yanks bled Pedro on a day he clearly didn't have his best stuff. A John Olerud walk, a Ruben Sierra double aided by Manny Ramirez's failed attempt at a sliding catch, and then a Miguel Cairo liner down the first base line tacked two more runs onto Martinez's bill and sent him to the showers, serenaded by a classic Bronx cheer. Cairo would come around to score, the eighth run charged to Pedro on the day. The Yanks plated three more runs on the Sox relievers, making the final 11-1. "You kids run along back to Fenway now for your little tea party," they seemed to be saying.

• • •

These two teams have now played 16 games in 2004, with the Sox holding a 9-7 edge. Smothered in hype yet nonetheless memorable, each series has had a distinct aftertaste, with one team coming away distinctly more pumped-up than the other. Recall their respective sweeps of each other in the season's first half, and now their more recent "message games" amid defending home turf just when it appeared they had flatlined.

But make no mistake: the Yanks and Sox are two very evenly-matched teams whose offenses and defenses are both volatile. On any given day, each of them is quite capable of hanging a ten-spot on their opponent or throwing their own cringe-worthy effort into the mix. The key for both teams will remain who can avoid the latter more often.

The most impressive thing coming out of the series is this: a Yankee pitching staff that has seen some shaky days lately held the hottest and best-hitting team in the American League to eight runs over three games, and three of those runs came during garbage time on Saturday. They scored 27 themselves on the weekend, continuing their own hot hitting, and held a 25-5 edge after rising off the mat from Friday night's knockdown.

I said this about ten days ago: "...going forward into the division race and the postseason, for my money the single most important indicator as to how the Yanks will fare is the performance of Mike Mussina." Mussina has been electric since then, notching two more wins and allowing one run in 15 innings while striking out 19. And while his previous triumphs had been over those twin terrors of the AL, Tampa Bay and Kansas City, beating Boston is something worth noting. Ladies and gentlemen, the Moose is loose: four runs in 30 innings, 33 Ks against only 2 walks and 17 hits. Expect him to get the ball to open the playoffs.

On the other side of the weekend's matchup, the Sox have now lost 14 of the last 20 games against the Yanks in which Pedro has started. On Sunday, YES ran a graphic comparing how well Yankee starters have matched up against him since June 4, 2000, and I jotted the numbers down:
       W-L  ERA   IP     K   HR  Bullpen

Pedro 5-6 2.93 122.2 161 10 1-7, 4.53 ERA
Yanks 7-5 2.95 122.0 112 6 6-1, 2.88 ERA
As I've said before, I think the Pedro mystique, insofar as Martinez being some kind of Yankee killer, is as dead as the Bambino. For all of his bluster and machismo -- and is there a more transparent display of fear than his puffy-chestedness when it comes to the Yanks? -- his decreased stamina (no more than 7.1 innings against them since '01) usually spells his doom. He's slipped a bit, as evidence by that 3.69 ERA he's now carrying, his highest since his days in Montreal, but he's still a great pitcher sometimes. Those times just don't seem to come when the pinstripes are in the same area code.

And he appears to be leaking brain fluid. Get a load of this headline: "Martinez says: 'YES Network wants me to die'. He's starting to sound like Grandpa Abe Simpson: "Michael Kay broke my teeth. The nurses are stealing my money. This thing on my neck is getting bigger." According to the article, the Jheri-curled diva is in a huff because the Yankee announcer speculated about what might be ailing him:
Pedro Martinez already had a complex about people thinking he is the most hated man in New York.

Now, after hearing that commentators on the Yankees' YES Network reported that an ailing back may have contributed to yesterday's awful performance, he seems to have developed a complex about them, too.

"YES Network wants me to die," he said.

But despite the imminent threat posed by the sports network, Martinez isn't worried.

... Martinez said he has been struggling with his command for about three starts now --he allowed five walks in his previous start -- and although it is improving, he has work to do before he faces the Yankees again, probably Friday night at Fenway Park. But he also made sure to mention the blustery conditions.

"The wind played a big factor on those (home run) balls," he said. "It was windy and dry and then you don't get a couple of calls you want. I imagine it will take some more work."

Oh, and the YES announcers who surmised back trouble? Martinez seemed surprised about it, but he never denied he was hurting. He simply told reporters, "Go ask them."
With sharp observations -- his statement that New York loves to hate him is the only thing he got right all weekend -- and witty retorts like that, it's no wonder Martinez is so revered here in the Big Apple. Hey Pedro, why don't you go wake the Bambino... or better yet, just re-sign with Boston so that lovely hatred can continue.

Saturday, September 18, 2004


Gary Sheffield, Reconsidered -- Part III

(Continued from Part I and Part II)...

Like the silencing of a car alarm, the Dodgers' trade of Gary Sheffield to the Atlanta Braves on January 15, 2002 came as a relief to all parties involved. Sheffield's final year in LA had been a noisy and turbulent one, his outstanding numbers (.311/.417/.583 with 36 homers and 100 RBI) notwithstanding. Despite his three years achieving historical levels of productivity, with him on board, the Dodgers had missed the playoffs every time.

From a team scrapping in vain for the postseason, Sheffield was shipped to one which had winning the division down cold. The Braves had won seven consecutive NL East titles and, excluding the '94 strike, had topped their division ten straight times under manager Bobby Cox. But by the end of 2001, the team was showing some cracks. They had won the East with a relatively unimpressive 88-74 record, seven fewer wins than the year before and 15 fewer than in 1999. Their vaunted pitching staff, led by the duo of Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine (with a rehabilitating John Smoltz shifting to the closer role), was still strong enough to allow the fewest runs in the NL for the tenth consecutive year. But the Braves offense had sunk to 13th out of 16 in runs scored.

Chipper Jones (.330/.427/.605 with 38 homers and 102 RBI) was the monster at the center of the lineup, but the dropoff from him to the next-best hitters, Andruw Jones (.251/.312/.461), Javy Lopez (.267/.322/.425) and the departed Brian Jordan (.295/.334/.496), was considerable. The Braves needed Sheffield's big bat in their lineup. Toronto Sun writer Bob Elliot hailed the deal as the team's "boldest trade for a bat since the franchise moved from Milwaukee 36 years ago," a list that included the likes of Orlando Cepeda, Davey Johnson, Dick Allen, and Fred McGriff.

Sheffield, of course, welcomed the deal with open arms, saying he had "left the negative stuff behind." He waived his right to demand a trade after one season -- a right available to every player traded during a multi-year contract -- and the Braves agreed not to pick up his $11 million option for 2004. He began training with Barry Bonds, who "introduce[d] him to the training and diet regimens that have altered Bonds' career," according to a Baseball Digest article (more on that topic soon enough). His contact with Bonds motivated him towards a new sense of professionalism and made him more philosophical:
"I just played this game because I played it," Sheffield said. "It wasn't something that really motivated me to say, 'I really want to be a baseball player.' I understand that now."
Gary Sheffield was ready to shut up and play ball.

Sheffield got off to a roaring start in 2002, homering in his first three games as a Brave and driving in seven runs. But he was hit on the wrist during the season's second week and soon after, his production plummeted. Playing only two games in a two-week span, he endured an 0-for-29 slump that brought his batting average down to the Mendoza Line. After a month of hitting in the cleanup spot behind Chipper Jones, Cox flip-flopped the two sluggers, but through the end of May, his production still lagged; he was hitting only .250/.337/.395 with six homers. But a two-homer, five-RBI performance on June 1 heralded the return of his whooping stick, and over the next three months, he put up numbers that were straight from the Gary Sheffield Catalog of Pitcher Punishment: .330/.431/.591 with 18 homers and 58 RBI.

Sheffield was rolling along until late in August, he sprained his left thumb during batting practice and missed nine games, returning the night after his son, Jaden Amir, was born. He hit only one homer during the season's final three weeks, but finished with a solid .307/.404/.512, though his 25 homers and 84 RBI were the numbers of a man who played in only 135 games, his lowest since 1998. Still, his bat was a big boost to the Braves, who won 101 games. Their offense, while still a few hairs below league-average, was eighth in the NL, improving by 0.15 runs relative to the league.

But his 2002 postseason was a frustrating one, and his most memorable moments were dubious ones. He homered in the first game of the Divisional Series against the Giants, but he also grounded into a double-play to end the ballgame while representing the tying run. In the bottom of the ninth in the fifth and deciding game, with the tying run on first base and nobody out, he struck out again, just before Chipper grounded into a series-ending DP. The homer represented his only hit of the series, though he walked seven times. The Braves actually outscored the Giants, 26-24, but they lost the series in part because Dusty Baker wouldn't let Gary Sheffield beat them.

If the 2002 season had frustrated him, then apparently Sheffield decided to take it out on the pitchers he faced in 2003. In his long-awaited walk year, at the age of 34, he put up a vintage campaign: .330/.419/.604 with 39 homers and career-highs in runs (126) and RBI (132). He stayed healthy, playing in 155 games, and consistent, his OPS hovering between .956 and 1.100 in every month. Again the Braves rolled to 101 wins, this time with the NL's most potent offense. The Braves scored 5.6 runs per game, 0.99 runs above the league average. Sheffield finished third in the MVP voting, his best showing for the award since 1992.

But again, his postseason, and that of the Braves, was a disappointment, as they failed to make it out of the first round. The Chicago Cubs held Sheffield to two paltry singles and one RBI in 14 at-bats. Worse, Mark Prior hit Sheffield on the left hand in Game Three of the series. He stayed in the ballgame, but the hand was so swollen he missed Game Four. With Darren Bragg going 0-for-5 in his place, the Braves forced a fifth game and Sheffield returned, but his RBI single was the only run they managed off of Kerry Wood. The series was fairly close -- the first four games decided by two runs each -- and practically any swing of Sheffield's potent bat could have made a difference. But he was 1-for-7 with men on base, 1-for-4 with runners in scoring position, and injury or no, his lack of production was a major factor in the Braves' loss.

At the close of the season, Sheffield finally had his long-awaited free-agency. At one point he had held the game's largest contract, but his 6-year, $61 million deal (signed in April '97) had been surpassed by more than two dozen larger ones during its lifespan (this list may be incomplete):
           Date  Yrs  $mil.   AAV

ARodriguez 12/00 10 252 25.2
MRamirez 12/00 8 160 20.0
Jeter 2/01 10 189 18.9
Bonds 1/02 5 90 18.0
Sosa 3/01 4 72 18.0
Giambi 12/01 7 120 17.1
Bagwell 12/00 5 85 17.0
Delgado 10/00 4 68 17.0
Helton 3/01 9 141.5 15.7
Hampton 12/00 8 121 15.1
CJones 8/00 6 90 15.0
Brown 12/98 7 105 15.0
Mussina 11/00 6 88.5 14.8
Thome 12/02 6 85 14.2
Green 11/99 6 84 14.0
MVaughn 11/98 6 80 13.3
Park 12/01 5 65 13.0
Belle 12/98 5 65 13.0
Griffey 2/00 9 116.5 12.9
PMartinez 12/97 7 90 12.9
BWilliams 11/98 7 87.5 12.5
AJones 11/01 6 75 12.5
Walker 3/99 6 75 12.5
Piazza 11/98 7 81 11.6
Rolen 9/02 8 90 11.3
While the 35-year-old slugger could not have been expected to sign a five-year-deal, under normal market conditions, he could rightfully have expected a contract whose average annual value (AAV) placed him in the upper half of those above. But the market over which he had salivated for so long had dried up considerably, and those high-dollar contracts were no longer available. Whether due to a sluggish economy, Moneyball-type rationalism, the 2002 Collective Bargaining Agreement, collusion, or uncharacteristic discipline on the part of the owners, the winter of 2003-2004, like the one before it, contained little of the feeding frenzy of years past.

It didn't help Sheffield that the winter's marquee free agent played the same position as he did: right field. Vladimir Guerrero had been the most hotly anticipated free agent since Alex Rodriguez. At seven years younger than Sheffield, he combined similar production with the possibility that, at age 28, he still had some prime years left. But he also had durability questions, namely a bad back which cost him 50 games in 2003. A comparison between the two hitters' average performances over the last three years shows alarming similarity (guess which is which):
     G   PA   AVG  OBP  SLG  HR  RBI   

A 144 616 .324 .408 .581 33 99
B 144 625 .316 .418 .569 33 105
Player A is Guerrero, Player B is Sheffield, and the only surefire way you could have told the two players' lines apart would have been if I'd included stolen bases; over the three-year-span Vlad averaged 29 with 14 caught stealing while Sheffield averaged 13 with 3 CS. Sheffield's performance might have been a hair more valuable, not only because the OBP is more valuable than the SLG, but also because one year of Dodger Stadium production is included in there, while Guerrero's line includes some games in the Hiram Bithorn bandbox in Puerto Rico as well as Olympic Stadium, both of which favor hitters considerably. But rarely do two free agents with such similar stats hit the market at the same time.

Predictably, Guerrero was the one who drew more interest. To varying degrees the Marlins, Dodgers, Mets, and Orioles chased him, but it was the Angels who came away with the prize, signing Guerrero for five years and $70 million, an average of $14 mil per year. But by that time, Gary Sheffield had already gotten himself a deal that was nearly as good.

In mid-November, with his team still smarting from its World Series loss, Yankee GM Brian Cashman contacted Sheffield. The Man from Tampa, George Steinbrenner, knew what he wanted, and after a season watching and then banishing the petulant Raul Mondesi and replacing him with the likes of Karim Garcia, David Dellucci, and Juan Rivera (all of whom hit a combined .256/.317/.465 with 28 HR and 84 RBI), what he wanted was Tampa native Sheffield. The Dwight Gooden connection -- he's Sheffield's uncle and currently on the Yankee payroll as an advisor -- was said to be a factor. The only other team even rumored to want Sheffield was the Braves, but in the end, they hardly put up a fight to keep him.

Perhaps the Boss' interest scared other suitors away, or the chase for Guerrero distracted other teams, or GMs held long memories of the noise level of Sheffield's tenure in L.A., or an alleged blackball attempt by the Prince of Darkness, Scott Boras, had an impact. Sheffield had fired Boras, who never even got to negotiate a contract for him, in May 2003, and decided to represent himself, sparing himself Boras' five percent agent fee and abrasive, antagonistic negotiation style. Boras, predictably, was not amused, and filed suit this summer, alleging that Sheffield owed him the fee on his Yankee contract.

Even without an agent and without competition from other teams, the negotiations didn't go quite as smoothly as one would have expected. Initial reports had Sheffield agreeing to a three-year, $39 million handshake deal, but Sheffield was later rumored to have reneged by asking for $42 million, a higher interest rate on deferred payments, and a larger buyout in his option year of 2007. Briefly, it was speculated that this snag would cause the Yanks to drop their pursuit of Sheffield in favor of Guerrero, but Sheffield backed down on his demands. He signed a deal which nets him $12 million per year for 2004-2006 plus a club option for 2007 which would pay him either $12 million or a $3 million buyout. At long last Gary Sheffield would be in pinstripes.

Sheffield first made waves as a Yankee in late January, when in the wake of Aaron Boone's injury, he volunteered to return to third base, a position he hadn't played since fielding .899 there in 1993. The Yankees said "no, thanks," and instead traded for Alex Rodriguez, but GM Brian Cashman was impressed with the gesture: "It's awesome that he stepped up, but it's not being considered at this time... He sees the team has a need and he volunteers to plug it. A terrific message."

Less flattering was Sheffield's name surfacing in connection with the Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative investigation. In December, Sheffield was among the ballplayers who testified before a federal grand jury that indicted BALCO owner Victor Conte and three other men, including Greg Anderson, Barry Bonds' personal weight trainer, on charges of distributing illegal performance-enhancing drugs. Conte is said to have supplied the names of more than 30 athletes to whom he had allegedly given steroids, including a previously undetectable substance called THG ("the clear") as well as testosterone gel ("the cream"), human growth hormone, and other substances. Conte has denied furnishing names or admitting to any illegal activity.

Bonds, Sheffield, Jason Giambi, Benito Santiago, Marvin Benard, and Randy Velarde were the major-league ballplayers named as allegedly receiving the drugs. Like Bonds and the others named, Sheffield has publicly denied taking steroids. In a statement, his attorney said, "Gary Sheffield has never knowingly ingested a steroid... and Gary Sheffield has never knowingly applied an anabolic steroid cream to his body." According to various New York Times reports, Sheffield has acknowledged ordering vitamins from BALCO and sending them mail.

The BALCO case is still pending, and while its repercussions have led to baseball attempting to revamp its drug policy, according to the San Francisco Chronicle article which broke the story of Conte's alleged naming of names, the athletes are not its target:
But even as it promised to get tough on steroids, the government took unusual steps to turn the focus away from the elite athletes suspected of using the illegal substances that BALCO allegedly supplied. Early on, the government said it was not interested in prosecuting athletes for using steroids, instead granting them immunity when they were called to testify before the grand jury.

The government also has deleted from public court files the names of every athlete who allegedly obtained illegal performance-enhancing drugs from BALCO.
BALCO aside, Sheffield continued to impress the Yankee brass before the season opened. In the first week of exhibition games, he injured his right thumb, in which he'd torn a ligament last summer to no huge detriment (he hit .327/17/62 according to The San Diego Union Tribune. Initial reports had him slated for surgery and missing up to three months, but doctors eventually cleared him to play. George Steinbrenner called him "one tough cookie" and publicly applauded his courage.

Sheffield got off to a relatively lukewarm start in pinstripes, hitting just one home run in the month of April and standing at .286/.406/.400 as the month closed. But he continued to battle, and at 1:23 AM on May 12 he got his first big hit as a Yankee, a two-out tenth-inning double which sent the Anaheim Angels to defeat in a rain-soaked game, snapping the Angels' nine-game winning streak in the process.

He was still sputtering late in May, hitting only .265/.380/.383 for the season. But some Baltimore Oriole pitching cured his ailments, as he enjoyed a 4-for-5 day with a homer and 6 RBI on May 26. He reeled off an 11-game hitting streak which raised his OPS 125 points, driving in 16 runs in the process, and since then he's been the one in the catalog. From June through August -- half a season -- he smacked 28 homers and drove in 70 runs while hitting .307/.428/.625, helping the Yankees offset the flagging production and eventual absence of the ailing Jason Giambi and the curious lack of production from Alex Rodriguez in RBI situations. Though those two players have drawn more attention and coverage, it's Sheffield who has been carrying the Yankees on his back, his violent swing putting The Fear into opponents as he rips one timely hit after another. As ESPN's Bill Simmons, a die-hard Red Sox fan (as if there were any other kind), put it a couple of weeks ago:
Sheffield's stats (.297, 33 HRs, 98 RBI, .969 OPS) don't capture the 28 homers he has belted since June 1 -- most of them enormous -- or the incalculable number of clutch hits, or the feeling of dread watching your team pitch to him in late innings. I'm not kidding about this -- in my lifetime, the Yankees have NEVER had a more terrifying hitter, even with that wispy mustache that makes him look like a sax player from the 1940s. Gary Sheffield puts the fear of God into me.
All the while, Sheffield has been playing through both bursitis and a muscle tear in his left shoulder. "The trapezius muscle in Gary Sheffield's left shoulder sometimes separates from the bone," reported the New York Daily News via renowned orthopedic surgeon Dr. Frank Jobe in mid-August. Still, he refuses to sit or to take refuge in the DH role for very long. His shoulder woes have limited him to catching the ball just above waist level when he plays right field, and he's foregone scheduled cortisone shots simply because he doesn't want to miss any key games (including this weekend's series against the Red Sox). Gary Sheffield is as tough as they come.

That combination of toughness and productivity has won him fans in the Bronx and beyond, with Yankee fans chanting "M-V-P!" as they've cheered him. Is he the Yankees' MVP this year? It's a fairly open-and-shut case. He leads the Yankees in homers (34), RBI (113), Slugging Percentage (.548), and OPS (.950) and is one point behind Jorge Posada for the team lead in OBP (.402). Turning to the advanced metrics, he leads the team in Win Shares (30) and Win Shares Above Average (14) (through September 16), Value Over Replacement Player (64.2 runs) and its per-game equivalent, Marginal Lineup Value (.305), Equivalent Runs and Equivalent Average.

Related to that last pair of metrics, defense puts Alex Rodriguez ahead of him in Wins Above Replacement Level (WARP3, 8.8 for Sheffield, 10.4 for A-Rod), but you'd be hard pressed to find anyone who's followed the team this year who would actually place A-Rod above Sheffield on their ballot. The difference is timing; Sheffield has been much better in clutch situations:
               RISP      SP2-out     C & L  

Sheffield .447 .562 .450 .587 .460 .676
Rodriguez .337 .413 .297 .431 .354 .423
Respectively, those groupings are Runners In Scoring Position, Runners In Scoring Position with 2 Outs, and Close and Late (7th inning or later with the team ahead by one, tied or with the potential tying run on base, at bat, or on deck). It's all Sheffield in these categories, and among AL players with over 50 at-bats (an admittedly arbitrary cutoff), he's the tops in the latter, OPS-wise.

Does Sheffield have a case for AL MVP? Yes, but not an overwhelming one from a quantitative standpoint. His Win Share total leads the AL, followed by teammates A-Rod (27) and Hideki Matsui (26), then Johan Santana, Manny Ramirez and Carlos Guillen with 25, and Miguel Tejada, Vladimir Guerrero, and Ichiro Suzuki with 24. Taking that field as the nominees and picking up a few others who rank high in other advanced metrics, here they are:
            WS   VORP  MLVR   WARP  EQA   

Sheffield 30 64.2 .305 8.8 .326
ARodriguez 27 58.7 .218 10.4 .316
Matsui 26 49.4 .233 7.5 .316
Santana 25 78.0 --- 10.2 ---
Ramirez 25 67.0 .390 8.3 .333
Guillen 25 70.3 .283 11.4 .320
Tejada 24 62.4 .190 10.5 .300
Guerrero 24 70.6 .319 * .323 * report out of date
Ichiro 24 70.7 .270 * .316 * report out of date
Mora 21 72.2 .424 8.2 .338
Hafner 21 71.7 .402 7.7 .339
Ortiz 20 64.1 .297 7.0 .319
IRodriguez 20 63.1 .300 9.1 .321
Schilling 19 64.8 --- 9.7 ---
There's no clear-cut winner here, especially if you're of the prejudices, as I am, that the MVP should come from a contender, and that you should have all the data in front of you when making a decision. Defense takes a bite out of some candidacies, not only those who play less demanding positions (such as Sheffield and Manny Ramirez) but also the ones who don't play the more demanding ones well (such as Melvin Mora). And even the most minor injuries cut into the counting stats a bit.

Sheffield's lead in Win Shares is attributable at least in part to his clutch performance; the Runs Created formula within has adjustments for hitting with runners in scoring position and home runs with runners on base. In the other metrics, he's excellent but not the leader or even in the top three. From a gut standpoint, I'd like to call him the MVP, but quantitatively he's got plenty of competition, and in any event, with six games against the Red Sox on tap and the AL East hanging in the balance -- even if a playoff spot doesn't appear to be -- I think it's still too early to call the race. But from the conventional-wisdom standpoint applied by the mainstream press, he has a very clear shot at winning the award for the first time.

Is Sheffield a Hall of Famer? With 413 homers and counting, eight All-Star appearances, a batting title, and a World Series ring, with perhaps more to come, he's got a nice collection of hardware, one that would be especially enhanced by an MVP trophy but is pretty solid without it. The Bill James Hall of Fame Standards Test which rewards points for career accomplishments (one point for each 150 hits above 1500, one point for each .025 of slugging percentage above .300, etc.), puts him at 48.9 coming into the season, where the average Hall of Famer (circa 1995, in his book The Politics of Glory) is at 50. Another Bill James metric, the Hall of Fame Monitor, which rewards seasonal and career accomplishments (3 points for each season of 100 RBI's or 100 runs, 8 points for each MVP award and 3 for each AllStar Game, etc.) puts him at 103.0 where a likely Hall of Famer is above 100.

More interestingly, his case looks very strong from a sabermetric standpoint. Back in January, I evaluated the 2004 Hall of Fame ballot for Baseball Prospectus using a new standards perspective based on Wins Above Replacement. I calculated the WARP3 career and peak (five consecutive year) averages for each position, creating a score which weighted those two numbers equally (it's a simple average of the two) and then comparing those on the ballot to the standards. Here are the relevant numbers for Sheffield as well as those of the Hall of Famers at each outfield position and the three positions combined.

7 18 766 -30 108.2 44.4 76.3 41.0
8 17 730 -18 112.7 47.9 80.3 42.5
9 22 787 -3 114.7 44.3 79.5 38.6
789 57 763 -16 112.1 45.4 78.7 40.5
Shef 857 -63 110.0 45.0 77.5 40.9
POS is the scorecard notation of a player's primary position (7 = leftfield, 789 = outfield; # is the number of players in each group; BRAR is Batting Runs Above Replacement, FRAA is Fielding Runs Above Average (a bit less unwieldy for this purpose), PEAK is the five-consecutive-season WARP3 peak. PKPCT is the percentage of a player's career value resulting from his peak. WPW the weighted metric, which essentially double-credits a player's best five-year run in considering his career.

As of this moment, Sheffield is merely a few whiskers below the positional averages for rightfielders and for all outfielders. His hitting is well above average, his fielding a bit below -- those days in the infield do take a bite, but they do so for plenty of other Hall of Famers as well. The ten Hall of Fame outfielders with scores in his vicinity are Dave Winfield (84.9), Paul Waner (84.1), Reggie Jackson (82.8), Billy Williams (82.8) Richie Ashburn (78.1), Sam Crawford (76.5), Duke Snider (76.4), Jesse Burkett (74.3), Billy Hamilton (73.3), Willie Stargell (72.7) -- not top-shelf Hall of Famers, but no slouches either. Another season of even 5.0 WARP would put him above 80.0 and in the upper half of that group.

What's most interesting about this is that his five year peak is 2000-2004, his Age 31-35 seasons. The main reason for that is simply health; he'd never enjoyed anything remotely close to five healthy seasons in a row before. His best season, 1992 (11.4), and third-best season, 1996 (9.9), aren't included in his peak, but that's the case for many of the Hall of Famers.

In any event, one more solid season will enhance his candidacy. It will also most likely vault him past the Dave Kingman Line (442 homers), which until Fred McGriff (493) or Jose Canseco (462) become eligible for the Hall of Fame will stand as the highest total of homers anybody has hit without being enshrined. The BALCO case may have an impact on his Hall chances, but voters, fans, and officials will likely have to reckon with placing Bonds' high-profile achievements in context before Sheffield becomes eligible.

All in due time. Right now, Sheffield's got his work cut out helping the Yankees stave off the Red Sox for the AL East title and erasing the bitter taste of his last two Octobers. As the end of the season approaches, he's in a bit of a slump, with only one homer through the first half of September and a .305/.353/.441 line. He's still getting big hits; that homer, on September 12, put the Yanks ahead of the Orioles to stay in a wild-and-wooly, come-from-behind win. But the shoulder, not to mention a late-August ankle sprain, is taking its toll on his hitting. Earlier this week he waved off cortisone shots until after this weekend's series, choosing to play in "constant pain" (his words) over watching his teammates from the bench when they need him the most.

Gary Sheffield has come a long way since those hot-headed days in Milwaukee. Though he's continued to generate controversy at nearly every stage of his career, his outbursts have rarely been without provocation. As he's aged, his temper has cooled, his level of maturity has visibly increased, he's stayed healthier, and his bat has remained lethal. Rather quietly for such a controversial player, he's made his mark as one of the game's best hitters, destroying the ball in even the most inhospitable environments. He's won honors and he continues to contend for them. He's helped a team win a World Championship, he's fighting to do so again, and he'll have at least a couple more opportunities beyond this year.

Sheffield's coming to the Yankees fits in with a certain definable career arc. In recent years, talented but star-crossed players, from Darryl Strawberry and Dwight Gooden to David Cone, Roger Clemens and Ruben Sierra, have found their way to the Yankees seeking redemption for transgressions both real and perceived. With the benefit of years of often harsh lessons, they subsume their egos in the name of playing for a winner. That the winner is the winningest team in the history of baseball, playing in a stadium steeped in tradition, in the glare of the country?s top media market, is part of the point. Older and wiser, they strive to show the world that they can stand up to life in the pinstriped crucible. If they can make it there, they can make it anywhere: words to a song, and the key to the Yankees? seductive myth, one that Gary Sheffield has bought, lock, stock, and bat barrel. Thus far, he's done everything in his power to hold up his end of the bargain.

Wednesday, September 15, 2004


Quant-ity, not Quality

The Yankees spent mightily this past offseason to revamp their bullpen, and despite a pair of left-handed bumps in the road, the first half of the season appeared to vindicate their decisions. Mariano Rivera was his usual stellar self, and newcomers Tom Gordon and Paul Quantrill gave the Yankees the reliable pair of setup man they had lacked in 2003.

But injuries to front-line starters Kevin Brown and Mike Mussina and ineffectiveness on the part of their replacements as well as Jose Contreras (and to a lesser extent Mussina) placed a heavy burden on the bullpen. Prior to the All-Star break, the starters were averaging 0.65 fewer innings than they did all of last season, a difference that projects to 105.2 innings over the course of a season -- more than the workload of one extra top-notch reliever.
           GS    IP   IP/GS

Vazquez 18 118.2 6.6
Lieber 13 83.0 6.4
Brown 13 80.2 6.2
Mussina 18 107.1 6.0
Contreras 14 68.2 4.9
Others 10 45.0 4.5
TOTAL 86 506.1 5.9
2003 163 1066.0 6.5
The failures of southpaws Gabe White (traded in June) and Felix Heredia (finally demoted in August) to pitch effectively and absorb some of those innings, and the glacial speed of Steve Karsay's rehabilitation left the Quantrill-Gordon-Rivera triumverate gasping for breath at the break, despite -- or perhaps because of -- their fine performances:
            G   IP    ERA   PG   PIP

Rivera 42 45.1 0.99 79 85.1
Gordon 44 50.2 1.78 83 95.1
Quantrill 47 56.0 3.05 89 105.1
Total 133 152.0 2.01 250 286.1
Those last two columns are the pace, in games and innings, which the relievers were on as of the ASB. Since the break, the starters' shortfall has held steady, though its distribution has changed, with Javier Vazquez the suddenly ineffective one and Orlando Hernandez the staff savior:
           GS    IP   IP/GS

Contreras 4 27.0 6.8
Lieber 11 72.1 6.6
Brown 7 45.2 6.5
Mussina 6 38.1 6.4
Hernandez 11 67.1 6.1
Vazquez 10 54.1 5.4
Others 10 40.1 4.0
TOTAL 59 345.1 5.9
Yankee dollars may buy depth, but that depth seldom goes to seven starters, and if the team should be criticized for its craptacularity in the spot-starter-lurking-in-AAA department, then imagine where they'd be without the foresight to sign El Duque (answer: looking up at the Red Sox and fighting for the Wild Card, most likely).

The continued burden has taken its toll on the bullpen's Big Three. Since the break:
            G   IP    ERA

Rivera 25 26.1 3.08
Gordon 27 29.1 3.38
Quantrill 32 33.1 6.48
TOTAL 84 89.0 4.45
Quantrill's next appearance will be his 80th, setting a franchise record, but it rings hollow given his lack of effectiveness. He tweaked his knee in a collision with Alex Rodriguez on Opening Day, and while he appeared to have overcome that, the numbers tell the story of a pitcher falling apart. His ERAs by month: 3.14 (March/April), 5.51, 1.04, 3.44, 6.19, 10.29. His most recent appearance, which broke Mike Stanton's club record, came in Tuesday night's drubbing by the Kansas City Royals and was one of the ugliest. Entering a lost-cause game in which the Yanks already trailed 12-3, he faced four batters, retiring only one and giving up two hits and a walk, and was charged with three of the five runs the Royals tacked on in the seventh. Fugly.

Quantrill has a reputation as a workhorse -- his next appearance will make him the first pitcher ever to string four 80-appearance seasons in a row, but the Yankee brass' capitulation to his gung-ho refusal to take a 15-day rest is yet one more thing that will likely come back to haunt them in the postseason, if not sooner. And as for their ability to straighten him out before the playoffs? I've been beating that joke -- which involves Jeff Bridges and some Creedence tapes -- and the numbers behind it like a rented fifth starter lately, so I'll just say "Mel is hell" and leave it at that.

• • •

On the subject of Yankee pitching woes, a few of my pals have weighed in as well recently. In his latest Pinstriped Bible, Steven Goldman is his usual pithy self concerning the staff's back end:
If at any time Bret Prinz, C.J. Nitkowski, Tanyon Sturtze, Felix Heredia, or, for that matter, Paul Quantrill appear in a Yankees postseason game, something will have gone terribly wrong. As Abraham Lincoln said, if this is tea, please bring me some coffee, but if this is coffee, please bring me some tea. If this is Tanyon Sturtze, please bring me some Bret Prinz. If this is Bret Prinz, please bring me some rope and a sturdy rafter beam.
Elsewhere, pitching-wise, Goldman checks in on the Duke of Deception and the man who got away, Yhency Brazoban.

Meanwhile, Alex Belth recently chatted with author and former minor-league pitcher Pat Jordan (A False Spring, A Nice Tuesday). Barricaded inside his Florida home for the hurricanes, Jordan appears to be a more astute observer of Javier Vazquez than the men on the bench:
Vazquez is throwing across his body, like many left-handers do. He’s following through towards third base and not first base. When a righty follows through, his left leg and left shoulder should be pulling toward a left-handed batter, which generates power with his right arm. When a righty follows through towards a right-handed batter, all his power is spent and he’s just flinging the ball with his arm... If a pitcher has proper balance he can stand in that one-legged Flamingo pose all day. Vazquez can’t because his body is already leaning toward third base or a right handed batter, and he’s rushing to throw the ball before he falls to his right.
Typically, Jordan minces no words with regards to the Yankee braintrust's inability to right their pitchers: "The only reason Bill Connors is not the Yanks pitching coach is because he’s too fat, not the proper Yankee image. I’ve forgotten more about pitching that Stottlemeyre will ever know." Ouch.

Finally, Baseball Prospectus' Will Carroll weighs in with a report that the much-maligned Yankee pitching coach is good for something these days:
Thanks to all who pointed out that Kevin Brown used Mel Stottlemyre as his glove over the weekend. Wait, that sounded wrong. During Brown's throwing session, Stottlemyre caught the ball from the catcher and handed it to Brown. Until Brown can catch the return throw and credibly field his position, the Yankees can't put him on the mound. His arm will be ready the second his glove hand is, which, according to sources, could be two weeks away."
That might be the most help he's given a Yankee starter all year...

Monday, September 13, 2004


Oh, Those Bases on Balls!

Sometimes I'll slap my forehead when I read about a ballgame that I've missed and easily could have watched. And then there are times I thank my lucky stars that the game slipped my mind.

The numbers say Sunday's Yankee game was well qualified to fit the latter category, and the numbers don't lie: ten Oriole pitchers (a major league record), 14 walks issued by the O's staff, 17 Yanks left on base (four of them loaded), five minutes short of four hours, and a partridge in a pear tree. Dear Lord, thank you for sparing me from watching this, though you'll excuse me for peeking at Gary Sheffield's plate appearances (a game-tying single and two tiebreaking RBI, the last one a decisive homer in the ninth) in an clip.

I watched a lot of baseball with my late grandfather when I was young, and from those fond memories, I remember nothing so vividly as his refrain, "Oh, those bases on balls!" whenever a walk would come back to haunt a team. The phrase is one which my dad and my brother love to mimic as well, and it's one small way we keep his memory alive. The phrase is most famous, perhaps, as the dying words of manager George Stallings, who piloted the Miracle Braves to a World Championship in 1914, having risen from the last place at 26-40 on the fourth of July. From The Baseball Library:
Stallings was extremely superstitious; scraps of paper or peanut shells around the dugout drove him to distraction. He hated bases on balls. An apocryphal story says that on his deathbed, he was asked what had caused his bad heart. Supposedly, he groaned, "Oh, those bases on balls!" and turned to the wall.
Even though Stallings also managed the Yankees (or actually the Highlanders) in 1909-1910, he had to be turning over in his grave on Sunday afternoon, and for that matter, the same could nearly be said of Oriole manager Lee Mazzilli, whose job is anything but secure. From a rooting standpoint, an ugly win is still a win, but that doesn't mean I want to spend four hours watching it.

Saturday, September 11, 2004


Throw Another Log on the Fire?

Is it too late to add Javier Vazquez to the pile of Yankee starting pitchers who have gone sour under Mel Stottlemyre's not-so-watchful eye? All signs point to "no". The biggest trade the Yankees made over the winter, one designed to inject some fresh blood into their pitching staff, appears to have flopped. Not that it worked out so well for the other guys (whom I'll get to momentarily). It may be the result of several years of heavy usage (902.2 innings over the last four seasons) catching up with him or even an undiagnosed injury rather than anything he's changed since coming to the Yanks, but right now, he stinks like a carcass rotting in the desert sun.

Since the All-Star break, Vazquez has put up a 7.95 ERA over 10 starts, and on Friday he was bombed for the second time in three starts (the first being that 22-0 debacle) and failed to make it out of the third inning. His ERA for the season now sits at an ugly 4.94, but even more worrisome are his other trends.

Vazquez's strikeout rate has declined sharply, from 9.4 per 9 innings last year to 6.8 this year, well below his career mark of 7.87 coming into 2004. Even more troubling, it's continuing to drop, down to 6.1 since the break. His walk rate has risen slightly over last year, from 2.22 to 2.55. His real problem, like that of Carl Spackler is gophers: 1.5 per nine innings, up from 1.1 last year. He hasn't been especially unlucky on balls in play; the batting average on balls in play against him has been a reasonable .276.

Using the quick-and-dirty Fielding Independent Pitching formula ((13*HR + 3*BB - 2*K)/IP + 3.20) to approximate what his ERA should be based on those peripherals, we can see how these negative trends pile up for Javy:
         2002  2003  2004

ERA 3.91 3.24 4.94
FIP ERA 3.86 3.43 4.70
OK, so he's been a little unlucky overall this year according to FIP, whereas he was a bit lucky last year (though his BABIP of .285 was again quite reasonable). The evening out of his luck is hinting that his past two seasons are a bit closer together in quality than they might appear, with a 1.27 run difference in FIP ERA as opposed to a 1.7 run difference in actual ERA. Still, rising gophers and falling K rates do not project well for a pitcher who the Yanks signed for four years and $45 million beyond this season. Like the detectives in the Big Lebowski looking for The Dude's Creedence tapes, one can only hope that Mel Stottlemyre has more than a whole department trying to solve Vazquez's woes.

If you want to talk about luck, however, or the lack of same, look no further than how the Expos fared in the Vazquez deal. Coming off of a .284/.422/.472 performance in 2003 (his Age 24 season), Nick Johnson looked for all intents and purposes like a stud in the making. But back woes kept him out for the season's first seven weeks, he came back to hit a meager .251/.359/.398 with seven homers and 33 RBI, and his year ended ended three weeks ago, when he fractured his cheekbone on a ball that took a bad hop. In light of his mediocre performance, arbitration-eligible status and the Expos ridiculous ownership situation, Will Carroll has suggested that Johnson may be a non-tender candidate. Hmmmm... meanwhile the other position player the Yanks gave up, outfielder Juan Rivera, has put up a .286/.341/.422 line that's essentially below par as well, somewhere between the 40th and 50th percentiles of his PECOTA projection, though with a slightly different shape of his performance (more OBP, less SLG).

Speaking of Carroll, I did dig up something I wrote back when the Vazquez deal went down:
The concern is his usage. He was second only to Kerry Wood in Pitcher Abuse Points this season. I spoke to Will Carroll about him last night and he says that Vazquez is a guy who doesn't have a great build for a pitcher and that he tends to develop minor injuries (such as a calf strain or a blister) or fatigue and requires occasional extra rest, but that the good news is that he responds well. Will writes today that Vazquez is a "bright yellow light," which is a bit alarming, but adds that the Yanks know how to deal with fragile pitchers. Furthermore:
Over the last four seasons, he has been able to pitch over 200 innings with effectiveness. Given he started that streak at age 22, one could look at Vazquez's history as a ticking time bomb or as proof that we have a new member of the Abuse Sponge Club (Livan Hernandez, Proprietor). Vazquez is also the poster child for V-Loss. After any long rest, his velocity and movement on his fastball recover quickly, pointing to fatigue, not injury, as the culprit in his occasional lapses.
As Will notes, the Yanks won't push him as hard as the Expos did. While Vazquez threw 231 innings for the Expos, no Yankee starter threw more than Mussina's 215 -- roughly an inning less for every two starts. The Yanks have more incentive to protect such a valuable commodity -- both for the postseason and for a longer-term deal, should they choose to pursue one. And since the deal wasn't contingent on the two parties agreeng to an extension, the Yanks have a chance to wait and see what develops. The trade will look like a disaster if Vazquez comes up lame in 2004, but it will look even worse if they sign him to a $40 million deal and he develops rotator cuff or elbow trouble a year down the road.
Vazquez is nowhere near as high up on this year's Pitcher Abuse Point charts -- 59th, in fact -- but the bottom line is that the Yanks had better hope what hes showing right now is fatigue or they're going to be up the creek very soon. Here's hoping they can get him ironed out over the next few weeks.

• • •

I won't let this day pass without noting the tragic events which happened three years ago, but neither do I wish to dwell on them for very long. I don't keep this space to write about my politics and I know you don't come hear to read about them either (so caveat emptor when it comes to the rest of today's entry). The current presidential campaign has politicized September 11 in an absolutely abhorrent manner; returning to NYC after the Republican National Convention I feel as though my fair city had been submerged under a billion gallons of raw sewage while I was away, and the stench will continue to linger as the election approaches.

I can't help but feel that so long as the current regime is in office and continues to infuriate the rest of the world with its bullying and isolationist policies, our country's risk of being attacked will remain much higher than if we put George W. Bush out on his ear in November. If you though September 11 was a scary thing to watch on TV, just know that it was that much more terrifying and heartbreaking for it to happen in the city you call home. I don't ever want to go through that again, but I have zero confidence that Bush and his henchmen are making the world a safer place where such a tragedy can be prevented.

Enough politics. It's with great sadness that I reflect on the men and women who lost their lives that fateful day and their grieving families as well. I'm truly a lucky guy, and despite the cynicism apparent in the two paragraphs above, I count my blessings every single day.

Thursday, September 09, 2004


Just a Quick Hit

Travel, rain, and the initial stages of wedding planning (definitely not my favorite kind of spreadsheet) have made my week nearly a total a loss from the blogging standpoint. Rest assured that I'll be getting back to the good stuff soon enough. I did get to see the end of Wednesday night's Dodger game, with Steve Finley's walk-off double sending his old mates to defeat. All smiles here.

Thought for the day as I check in on the afternoon Yankees game: going forward into the division race and the postseason, for my money the single most important indicator as to how the Yanks will fare is the performance of Mike Mussina. He's had a horrible season, with his 5.15 ERA a run and a half above his career mark of 3.61, an elbow injury that kept him on the shelf for six weeks, and a whole lot of whining about the Yanks opener in Japan. But if he can get right -- and he looks to be onto his second solid start in a row, albeit another one against the dregs of the AL East -- then the Yanks have four solid-to-good starters no matter what Ol' Knucklehead's status is. Moose, El Duque, Javier Vazquez, Jon Leiber may not have the ring(s) of Clemens, Pettitte, Cone, and Wells, but that quartet will likely have to do.

I'd kill to have Boomer back, though...

Sunday, September 05, 2004


Paranoia Self-Destroyer

While I was bushwhacking my way through the flora of the Wind Rivers range in Wyoming (as opposed to the bushwhacking I might have been doing back in New York City), good ol' Will Carroll invoked a recent conversation of ours to lead off one of his Under the Knife columns at Baseball Prospectus:
It was just a couple weeks ago, sitting in Mickey Mantle's restaurant, that my pal Jay Jaffe said that there was no such thing as a paranoid Yankees fan. Paranoid Yankees owner? Maybe.

I'm sure Jay will want to reconsider that statement as the Sox continue to surge and the Yanks continue to... well, choke is a strong word for September, isn't it? Teams slump and surge throughout the season, and the timing of those swells is what makes a season exciting. I'm not writing off the Yankees, and I'm not yet ready to give Theo Epstein an apology for all the things I said about that trade, but baseball analysis (if you can call what I do "analysis") is humbling. Even the smartest and the best miss things and stare at the opaque window of front offices and clubhouses blankly.
Returning to civilization, I was greeted with the news that the Yankees had just suffered a loss of epic proportions, a 22-0 drubbing by the Indians that was the worst in franchise history. Furthermore, the team's once-insurmountable 10.5 game lead over the Red Sox had shrunk to a mere 3.5 and has since dropped to 2.5, an especially narrow margin with six Sox games still to be played this month.

Paranoid? As a black sheep in the Yankee fold, I won't attempt to back up that claim, not with my pal Alex Belth a mere one click away. My thoughts on the Yanks these days tend less towards paranoia and more to a bracing for the worst, which in this case means a one-and-done postseason scenario for the Yanks à la 2002.

That situation became just a bit more likely when the pitching staff's putative ace, Kevin Brown, lost an argument with a clubhouse wall the other night, turning his non-pitching left hand into a maraca during an over-the-line exhibition of his gung-ho perfectionism. While Brown admitted "stupidity" and promised to make his next start, the Yankee team doctors ruled otherwise and inserted two pins into his broken hand, shelving him for a minimum of three weeks and perhaps the season. His teammates, to whom he issued a hollow apology, might think of inserting a few more objects into his various body parts, and the Yankee brass was even less amused:
You just can't do this, there's no doubt about it. You've got to keep your emotions in check," general manager Brian Cashman said. "It's a major issue that we shouldn't be dealing with. It's a problem."

Cashman and Yankees manger Joe Torre were visibly annoyed. Cashman said Brown could be disciplined or fined. Torre said he spoke to Brown and expressed his disappointment.

"Certainly uncalled for and unnecessary," Torre said. "There's more to this game than one person. We rely on him a great deal. It's not something that's helping the team, obviously."

After the game, the Yankees began reviewing Brown's contract to determine whether a self-inflicted injury could void the guarantee language, one baseball official said on the condition of anonymity. No determination had been made, the official said.

Brown is earning $15 million this season and is due $15 million next year, the final season of his $105 million, seven-year deal.
All of this has set up a scenario which likely finds both Yankee haters and fans on the same side of an issue for once, eagerly awaiting an eruption from Mount Steinbrenner. If ever a player deserved to be ripped a new asshole in public by the team's bombastic owner before being nailed to a cross and left to the vultures (how do you really feel, Jay?), it is Brown. Spitting the bit? If that isn't a description of a team leader abdicating his responsibilities through a selfishly childish act, I don't know what is.

Injury-prone 39-year-old aces are one thing, injury-prone 39-year-old faux aces with documented tendencies towards self-mutilation another entirely, and if Brown indeed cannot pitch for the rest of the season, expect his punishment to make Aaron Boone's seem light by comparison. On that condition, the Yankees would likely press to have his salary forfeited for the rest of the season, and may further attempt to free up that $15 million of 2005 money for a less, er, destructive pitcher. Only the certainty that swallowing some salary and banishing him to, say, Pittsburgh would mean a turnaround trade to some other contender in the Yankee path might prevent that scenario from playing out.

Will Brown's stupidity cost the Yanks the AL East crown? Like Steven Goldman and other smart folks, I tend to think that strength of remaining schedule will save them. But in any event, the conclusion that the Yankees have in fact lost the Jeff Weaver-plus-two-for-Brown trade with the Dodgers is inescapable, especially now that Yhency Brazoban has shown strong signs that the Guillermo Mota element of the team's controversial deadline trade wasn't crack-addled:
           IP    ERA   HR/9  K/9  K/w  WHIP  VORP

Brown 126.1 3.99 1.0 5.7 2.4 1.25 27.2
Weaver 188.2 3.72 0.6 6.5 2.5 1.26 39.7
Brazoban 18.0 1.00 0.5 9.0 6.0 0.83 8.9
That's a 21.4-run advantage for the Dodgers, a shift of about two wins, and actually even more than that that when one considers the sub-replacement level dreck the Yanks have thrown out there in his place. As to it benefitting the Dodgers, I didn't say I was entirely unhappy with the deal, did I? But how a converted outfielder who was expected to be A-ball pitching fodder in the Yankee chain (Brazoban) has instead become L.A.'s version of K-Rod is no small indictment of the pinstriped organization's minor-league system. Furthermore, Weaver has now become the latest data point in what should be an Office Space-esque conversation with Yankee pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre, as in "What would you say ya do here?"

Whether it's the multiple myeloma or the championship rings, Stottlemyre has become the sacred cow of the Yankee organization during the Joe Torre regime. Deep starting rotations, quality relievers and oodles of cash can make any pitching coach look pretty smart, and ol' Mel is no exception. But when it comes to ironing out a pitcher gone awry, Stottlemyre has shown a serious lack of fix-it aptitude that shouldn't just be chalked up to a particular hurler's resemblance to Ed Whitson. Consider this admittedly selective list:
                Years   IP   ERA   Car. ERA*

Kenny Rogers 96-97 324 5.11 4.13
David Cone 00 155 6.91 3.27
Denny Neagle 00 91 5.81 4.16
S. Hitchcock 01-03 140 5.84 4.68
Jeff Weaver 02-03 237 5.35 4.20
Jose Contreras 03-04 167 4.10 3.92
Esteban Loaiza 04 28 8.46 4.60
* besides listed seasons
These pitchers, all of them at least proven middle-rotation starters elsewhere, spent the listed years in pinstripes showing a puzzling and out-of-character ineffectiveness that Stottlemyre could do no more to solve than he could build that perpetual motion machine which Don Zimmer was said to be cooking up a few years ago. Injuries -- reported ones, at least -- played only minor parts in these dramas, except perhaps in Hitchcock's case. Many of the pitchers were acquired mid-season, perhaps creating a mitigating discomfort factor. And it's arguable whether Hitchcock and Neagle ever found their pre-Yankee form after leaving New York.

But then again, this list ignores then 2001 World Series meltdown of Andy Pettitte, who was widely reported -- most notably by ESPN Radio's Rick Suttcliffe -- to be tipping his pitches, and it downplays a similar problem by Contreras against the Red Sox (13.95 ERA as a Yank). It also ignores legions of ineffective and perhaps washed-up relievers (Tony Fossas, Jay Witasick, Juan Acevedo, Chris Hammond, et al) who were given only a handful of innings to show their stuff -- or lack of same -- in the Bronx.

Now, I don't claim to be able to comparatively analyze a pitcher's mechanics via videotape and spot the flaws, but then again, I'm not drawing a generous six-figure salary from Boss Steinbrenner either. Stottlemyre, on the other hand, is getting paid to do things like spot a tipped pitch or a dropped elbow, yet he's shown either a lack of ability or interest in doing just that, many times over. If George Steinbrenner wants to find a scapegoat for the Yankee staff's ailments beyond Kevin Brown, he could do worse than to consider whether his pitching coach is still doing his job.


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