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.

Saturday, November 27, 2004


Remaking the Yankees for 2005, Part II: The Market for Righty Starters

When we last left the Yankees, they had only three starters under contract for 2005: Mike Mussina, Javier Vazquez, and Kevin Brown. I wrote that I thought it likely either or both Vazquez or Brown could be traded. As I began writing this piece, I was convinced Vazquez would likely be wearing pinstripes next season -- either the midnight blue ones of the wealthy team in the Bronx or the purple ones of that bankrupt team in the desert, as the key component in a deal for Randy Johnson. Relatively young, with a track record of success (at least until his second-half collapse), a clean bill of health, and an upside that may yet place him among the game's elite pitchers, Vazquez would appear to be a desirable commodity for a team trading its ace.

But beyond the fact that Javy's owed $36 million on his contract, ESPN's Peter Gammons has offered up a couple of compelling reasons why a trade involving Vazquez wouldn't make sense for the D-Backs. First, as a player traded in the middle of a multi-year contract, Vazquez would have the right to demand a trade at the end of next season. Second, the Snakes' new CEO, Jeff Moorad, is a former agent who Vazquez fired two years ago. I'll buy that line of thinking, especially the first reason, but I'm getting off the bus at Gammo offering up the possibility that the Yanks could substitute Tom Gordon and Kenny Lofton, both dealable to other clubs in exchange for young talent. There's no way in hell they get away with perhaps the game's best pitcher for the price of a top setup man and a lame-duck backup centerfielder. Somebody had better check Gammons' medication.

On the topic of Brown, while the Yankee brass may desire to toss him in the first ditch that offers them salary relief, that clearly won't be easy, given that he's got a no-trade contract. More than any fine or punishment they could have levied, the Yanks would have done well to strongarm Brown into waiving that clause back when he decided to spar with a clubhouse wall. As is is, they have a distinct lack of leverage in holding a $15 million dollar no-trade contract on a surly gimp, and it may take until springtime to make him somebody else's problem.

So whether it's two starters or three, or four, let's just say that the Yanks are in the market in a big way, and with four years since their last World Championship, they're looking to make a splash. A potential Johnson deal would be one way to do it, signing Pedro Martinez away from their heated rivals would be another, and luring Roger Clemens out of yet another retirement to haul his Texas-sized derriere back up to New York... well, that ain't gonna happen.

But the incredible thing is that if we look at all of the pitchers on the free-agent market and rank them by DIPS ERA (dERA), which has been shown to correlate better with the following season's ERA than the pitcher's actual ERA, there's the Rocket, seventh Cy Young Award under his arm, facing the sunset of his incredible career, and yet still at the top of the list. That's in part because of his strikeout rate, which is still better than one batter per inning. Strikeout rate is the best predictor of a pitcher's longevity and future success. Strikeouts don't become hits, they almost never become baserunners, and they never go over the fence; they take the element of chance out of the equation, and that helps to keep runs off the board.

Johnson, who we may as well include on our free-agent list since he's likely to depart Arizona once somebody antes up, rates even higher than Clemens does, not only because his K rate is higher by 1.5 per nine innings, but also because of his astounding control -- more than six times as many walks per strikeouts. Throw that in with a low homer rate and you've got a pitcher who's still dominant and may well be into his mid-40s. Were it not for the BBWAA's obsession with won-loss records, Johnson, who went 16-14 for a team that lost 111 games, would have tied Clemens by winning his sixth Cy Young Award earlier this month.

But besides those two, there aren't too many strikeout pitchers on the market. Of the 31 free agent starters who threw more than nine innings last year, only nine of them averaged more than seven strikeouts per nine innings -- a number not too far above the league averages of 6.45 in the AL and 6.74 in the NL. Toss in the fact that at least three of those pitchers in the sevens have some issues -- we'll get to 'em -- and it's reasonable to say that while this market is deep, it's hardly spectacular.

Along with the 31 plus Johnson, I'm also going to list the relevant stats for Oakland's big three of Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder and Barry Zito, because the conventional wisdom is that GM Billy Beane will make a trade involving at least one of these hurlers, and if there's a deal to be made, you can guess that the Yankees might be interested. So here are the 35 in all:
Team Pitcher       W  L   IP  ERA   WHIP  K/9   K/W   HR/9  BABIP  dERA

ARI R. Johnson* 16 14 246 2.60 0.90 10.62 6.59 0.66 .264 2.42 trade rumors
HOU R. Clemens 18 4 214 2.98 1.16 9.15 2.76 0.63 .275 3.18
ATL J. Wright 15 8 186 3.28 1.28 7.68 2.27 0.53 .292 3.39
OAK T. Hudson 12 6 189 3.53 1.26 4.91 2.34 0.38 .297 3.58 trade rumors
FLA C. Pavano 18 8 222 3.00 1.17 5.63 2.84 0.65 .282 3.60
CHC G. Rusch* 6 2 130 3.47 1.23 6.25 2.73 0.69 .287 3.65 signed CHC
BOS P. Martinez 16 9 217 3.90 1.17 9.41 3.72 1.08 .291 3.70
MIN B. Radke 11 8 220 3.48 1.16 5.86 5.50 0.94 .293 3.70
PHI K. Millwood 9 6 141 4.85 1.46 7.98 2.45 0.89 .327 3.75
NYY J. Lieber 14 8 177 4.33 1.32 5.20 5.67 1.02 .323 3.77
NYM K. Benson 12 12 200 4.31 1.31 6.02 2.20 0.67 .295 3.87 signed NYM
CHC M. Clement 9 13 181 3.68 1.28 9.45 2.47 1.14 .279 3.95
NYY O. Hernandez 8 2 85 3.30 1.29 8.93 2.33 0.96 .284 3.98
STL C. Carpenter 15 5 182 3.46 1.14 7.52 4.00 1.19 .277 4.00
SDN D. Wells* 12 8 196 3.73 1.14 4.65 5.05 1.06 .274 4.16
STL W. Williams 11 8 190 4.18 1.32 6.22 2.26 0.95 .286 4.18
LAN O. Perez* 7 6 196 3.25 1.14 5.87 2.91 1.19 .263 4.21
ATL P. Byrd 8 7 114 3.94 1.24 6.22 4.16 1.42 .288 4.25
CHC R. Dempster 1 1 21 3.92 1.40 7.84 1.38 0.44 .254 4.27
BOS D. Lowe 14 12 183 5.42 1.61 5.17 1.48 0.74 .327 4.40
OAK B. Zito* 11 11 213 4.48 1.39 6.89 2.01 1.18 .291 4.53 trade rumors
OAK M. Mulder* 17 8 226 4.43 1.36 5.58 1.69 1.00 .286 4.67 trade rumors
CIN P. Wilson 11 6 184 4.36 1.39 5.73 1.86 1.27 .284 4.67
ATL R. Ortiz 15 9 205 4.13 1.51 6.29 1.28 1.01 .282 4.77
LAN J. Lima 13 5 170 4.07 1.24 4.91 2.74 1.74 .268 4.89
NYY E. Loaiza 10 7 183 5.70 1.57 5.75 1.65 1.57 .311 4.91
COL J. Wright 2 3 79 4.12 1.61 4.69 0.91 0.92 .277 4.96
NYM A. Leiter* 10 8 174 3.21 1.35 6.06 1.21 0.83 .240 4.98
STL M. Morris 15 10 202 4.72 1.29 5.84 2.34 1.56 .273 5.08
PHI E. Milton* 14 6 201 4.75 1.35 7.21 2.15 1.93 .263 5.18
ANA A. Sele 9 4 132 5.05 1.62 3.48 1.00 1.09 .313 5.26
COL S. Estes* 15 8 202 5.84 1.62 5.21 1.11 1.34 .301 5.46
FLA I. Valdez 14 9 170 5.19 1.48 3.55 1.37 1.75 .282 5.84
LAN H. Nomo 4 11 84 8.25 1.75 5.79 1.29 2.04 .314 6.03
TOR P. Hentgen 2 9 80 6.95 1.64 3.70 0.79 1.79 .266 6.36
Of the righthanders on this list, the biggest name, of course, is Pedro Martinez. The longtime ace of the Red Sox is hitting the market following the expiration of a seven-year, $90 million deal which saw him not only net two Cy Youngs and a World Championship while in Boston, but also establish himself as one of the greatest pitchers of all time. Over the first six years in Boston, Martinez's ERA+ was an astounding 210, meaning that his ERA was less than half of the adjusted league average. But last year, although he threw the most innings he had in four seasons, his line was considerably more ordinary. He allowed 26 homers, one more than he had in the previous three seasons combined. On the other hand, while his strikeout rate has steadily eroded from a high of 12.57 per nine innings, it's still above one hitter per inning. The same thing can be said about his control; his K/W rate was a criminally insane 8.88 back in 1999 (313 K to 37 walks) and it's now "down" to 3.72.

Those are still numbers that most of the 32 pitchers on this list who have fewer Cy Youngs than him would give their throwing arms for. They perfectly illustrate the reason why power pitchers last longer, career-wise, than finesse pitchers -- they have much more margin for error, much further to fall before they become "average". Pedro Martinez may no longer be one of the game's elite pitchers, but he's still pretty damn good.

That said, Martinez has long had questions about his health, particularly his shoulder. His inability to pitch late into ballgames is well-documented, though he did last a half-inning longer per start in '04 than the previous season, and his splits don't show the same dramatic falloff that made Grady Little's decision to stay with him in the seventh game of the 2003 ALCS so infamously lunkheaded in retrospect. Consider:
#   1-15  16-30  31-45  46-60  61-75  76-90  91-105  106-120

PA 111 127 123 126 123 127 100 43
OPS 1.017 .470 .714 .695 .733 .744 .533 .621
It looks as though Martinez has a tendency to find trouble instantly but gain strength as the game continues, and the Sox clearly were a bit more cautious in cutting him off if he wasn't sailing along past the 90-pitch mark.

Beyond that, Pedro has a flair for the dramatic, both on and off the field, to say the least. The Red Sox tended to let him play by his own rules, especially regarding travel to the Domincan Republic around the All-Star Break, slack that Martinez seems loathe to acknowledge in his public comments regarding negotiations. The Sox initially offered him a two-year deal worth $25.5 million, with a $13-million option for a third year and $2 million in performance bonuses. Pedro took his show on the road, meeting with George Steinbrenner in a move that many have speculated was done less out of desire to join forces than to help for both parties to gain leverage -- Martinez with the Sox, the Yanks with the Diamondbacks in a possible Johnson deal. Since then, reports have emerged that the Yanks have offered a four-year deal worth $50 million but that Pedro's seeking $60 million, money he likely won't get out of the Yanks, to say nothing of the Sox.

Is Pedro a good fit for the Yankees? I detest him, frankly, and so do over 70 percent of the New York Post readers who responded to a poll on the matter last week, not that I'm eager to lump myself in with that crowd. But putting the emotional issues aside, I still think he's a high risk, especially long-term. The man can still pitch, though I doubt he'll garner the late-career Cy Youngs that Clemens and Johnson have because of his physical makeup -- he's smaller (nearly a foot shorter than Johnson) and has always been less durable than either of them. There would likely be friction as he tries to fit in with the Yanks -- moreso than when Clemens came over.

But there's an added value in taking him away from the Red Sox, not only on the level of psychology but simply because it requires Boston to come up with another frontline pitcher. On that note, I'd rather see the Yanks overpay a bit for a two-year deal, even if it means coming close to to the astronomical, archaic salary he drew in 2004 ($17.5 million). I'd be extremely nervous if they go three our four years, because I doubt Pedro's shelf life as an elite pitcher will last much longer than that. That said, I think he's likely to use his Yankee leverage to extract a bigger deal out of Boston at the 11th hour, keeping that little corner of the universe intact for awhile longer.

Among the rest of the righties, the name which is generating the most buzz is Carl Pavano -- ironically, the key player in the deal which sent Pedro from Montreal to Boston in the first place. Coming off of a fabulous 2003 postseason in which he helped the Marlins beat the Yankees in the World Series, Pavano had a breakout year in 2004, setting career highs in innings, strikeouts, and wins. His K rate is rather pedestrian, especially for a big guy (6'5", 240 lbs). Instead he's a groundballer with good control who avoids the long ball, and he's very efficient, averaging only 3.47 pitches per batter, good for ninth among qualifiers (162 innings; Yankee pitcher Jon Lieber was third with 3.40). That efficiency helped him eat innings, an average of 7.17 per start, worth noting for a team that overused its bullpen because it couldn't get length out of its rotation.

Injuries have kept Pavano from throwing a lot of innings historically, but he's got a clean bill of health at the moment, and on the verge of turning 29, he's got only two years of 200+ innings under his belt, something that might be considered a positive after Javy Vazquez's struggles. He's going to be hotly pursued, with the Sox, who drafted him, appearing to make the most noise. Given that he's from Connecticut and has been exposed to the game's top East Coast rivalry, it wouldn't be surprising to see him end up on whichever of the rivals doesn't sign Pedro.

Matt Clement, 30, has been overlooked amid a Cubs rotation that featured Mark Prior, Kerry Wood and Carlos Zambrano, but he fit right in among that high K-rate bunch. He's a bit gopher-prone, but his control has improved considerably over the last few years. He suffered a second-half meltdown by trying to pitch through a sore shoulder and yielded a 6.10 ERA over the final two months of the season; his workload was enough of a concern that he got a yellow light from Will Carroll. All of that plus the fact that his 9-13 record doesn't look too impressive (he was one of the unluckiest pitchers in the majors in that regard) will keep his market value down and likely scare a team like the Yanks away. I'm told that he shaved that nasty pubic beard he was sporting, but even growing it in the first place is another strike against him. Toronto seems poised to snare him, and they can have him.

Of the tier of younger pitchers reaching free agency, the one I'm most intrigued by -- almost in spite of myself -- is Jaret Wright. For a kid who started a seventh game of the World Series at 21 (Cleveland,1997), his career certainly hasn't panned out as expected. After promising beginnings, arm troubles cost him the better part of three seasons, and he wound up in the bullpen as a last-ditch effort. An 8.37 ERA in 47.1 innings in San Diego in 2003 looked like the end, but the Braves, particularly coach Leo Mazzone, saw something they liked in him -- a high-90s fastball -- claimed him off waivers, instructed him to keep the ball down, and he threw 13 innings of late-season relief, allowing two runs and striking out a man per inning. This year they put him in the rotation and he finally put together a season of the caliber that's made him a first-round draft pick, with a good K rate, reasonably good control, and an extremely low HR rate -- figures that add up to the lowest dERA of any starter on the market without a Hall of Fame pedigree. But despite of the fact that the Braves literally resurrected his career, he seems to be pricing his way out of Atlanta. Can he repeat his performance elsewhere? With his reputedly lousy mechanics, can he stay healthy? If the Yanks had a better pitching coach -- a Rick Peterson, a Dave Duncan, hell, a Leo Mazzone, I'd recommend they take a shot. As it is, I think more solid bets abound.

Also in the less-than-solid bet camp, but with a much longer track record, is Kevin Millwood, who turns 30 in December. Once a mainstay of the Braves' rotation, he was traded to Philly in a much-ridiculed deal which sent catcher Johnny Estrada in the other direction. One All-Star catcher versus $21 million of league-average pitching later, it's the Braves who are laughing. At first glance Millwood's numbers look fairly enticing -- high strikeout rate, reasonable control and HR rates (especially for the new Citizens Bank Ballpark, a homer haven). But his ERA was over a run higher than his dERA due to a high hit rate on balls in play (.327), in part because he gave up a high rate of line drives, leaving hitters a lot more smackable pitches. That's not good. Worse, he was limited to a mere six innings pitched after July due to a sprained ligament and tendon in his right elbow, eliciting a well-earned red light from Will Carroll. The Yankees don't need this kind of trouble.

Finally, among the righthanders who might plausibly be on the Yanks' radar, Tim Hudson. The lanky A's hurler is in the final year of a deal which will pay him $6 million, and like Jason Giambi and Miguel Tejada before him, Oakland GM Billy Beane isn't sure he can sign him. With youngsters Rich Harden and Joe Blanton emerging, Beane can afford to take a shot at trading one of his big three of Hudson, Zito and Mulder, and since the former is in his walk year, dealing him makes a certain kind of sense, especially since the A's seem poised to take on a big chunk of salary with the impending Jason Kendall deal. After three years of 235+ inning workhorse pitching with an ERA+ of 147 (spell that A-C-E), Hudson had a bit of a rough season in 2004, missing about seven weeks due to an oblique muscle strain. He was still pretty good, though a bad September roughed up his ERA a bit. But his strikeout rate -- never his strong suit -- fell off considerably, and his control suffered a bit too as he compensated his mechanics to deal with his injury.

As always, it will be most interesting to see how Beane plays this hand. The Yanks don't have the ingredients to pursue a direct deal with Oakland, because it's inconceivable the A's would take on Javy Vazquez and his contract, and even if NY ate most of Kevin Brown's salary, he's unlikely to approve a deal to a west-coast team. The most tradeable Yankee hitter at this point, Jorge Posada, plays a position the A's are on the verge of filling, and the Yankee farm system is in dreadful shape from a major league-ready standpoint. The bottom line is that it would take a third team, one likely interested in Vazquez, to get a deal done, and that would still leave the Yanks eating a considerable chunk of salary. I wouldn't put it past Beane to wrangle such a trade, but I simply don't see it happening.

Since this piece is approaching epic-length, I'm going to hold off on the lefty portion until my next post, in which I'll also run through a few possible scenarios to see how this all maps out for the Yanks.

• • •

A couple of technical notes: the DIPS ERAs used in this article were generated via Voros McCracken's DIPS 2.0 recipe except that actual numbers for batters faced were used instead of estimates. Strikeout and walk data within that formula was not park-adjusted, but the homer data was, according to this method. Since I have now done this for three years in a row, I used a three-year Park HR factor, weighted 3-2-1 for 2004-2003-2002. The only exceptions were for Cincinnati, which is only two years old so I used a 3-2 weighting; and for Philadelphia and San Diego, which opened last year, and for which I calculated as two parts 2004, one part neutral.

Also, I am grateful to Larry Mahnken of the fine Replacement Level Yankees Weblog and The Hardball Times for some assistance in the data-gathering phase of this endeavor. Thanks, Larry.

Thursday, November 25, 2004


Happy Turkey To You

Happy Thanksgiving, everybody!

Tuesday, November 23, 2004


Dodgers and Giants and Twins -- Oh My!

I've been keeping some exciting news under my hat for the past two weeks. The night before I left for Seattle, I received an email from Joe Sheehan of Baseball Prospectus inviting me to join the Prospectus Triple Play rotation, writing a trio of team-themed teasers on a monthly basis. And while the Yankees were already spoken for, Joe even offered up a platter of teams that included the Dodgers. How could I say no?

For those unfamiliar, the Prospectus Triple Plays are free features, quick bullet-pointed hits that acquaint readers with BP's excellent suite of advanced metrics and lead them into the more heavy-hitting premium content. Along with the Dodgers, who are near and dear to my heart, my trifecta includes the Giants, the Dodgers' archrivals in the NL West, and the Twins, who've played the Yankees in the past two postseasons. The Dodgers have Paul DePodesta as their GM, and I'm fascinated by watching him apply some of the Moneyball tricks he learned in Oakland to a team with a larger budget. The Twins feature an impressive crop of young talent which is managed in ways that tend to confound the folks who thought Moneyball was the best thing since sliced bread, and the Giants, who... have Barry Bonds, who's sure to generate an endless stream of eye-popping stats as he closes in on Babe Ruth and Hank Aaron. There's really not a dud in the bunch -- though I need to brush up on the 24 guys besides Barry.

Anyway, I'm pleased to announce that my first Triple Play is up today. Though it runs without my byline, readers of this space will no doubt recognize me harping on about Yhency Brazoban's inclusion in the Jeff Weaver/Kevin Brown trade and my strategic use of the strikethru tag. Little ol' me, with a regular (albeit once a month) paying (a bit o' scratch) gig. How 'bout that?

• • •

Also on BP today, albeit in the premium section, is a good, solid refutation of Buster Olney's Productive Outs nonsense that we had so much fun with last spring. I had hoped a BP writer who could do play-by-play data analysis was willing to filet this particular sacred cow, and somebody finally has, with enough steak for everybody. Anthony Passaretti examined play-by-play data from 1999-2002 and quantified the incremental gains and losses -- "the little things" -- via the appropriate Expected Run Matrix.

The top team of that period, Passaretti found, was the 2002 World Champion Anaheim Angels, who added 23.2 runs above average by advancing runners on productive outs. The second-place team was the 2001 Seattle Mariners, who won a record 116 games; they improved their situation by 21.7 runs. Among the teams on the other end of the spectrum are the 2000 World Champion Yankees, who cost themselves 15.5 runs due to a lack of productive outs. And while the top 10 teams posted a better winning percentage than the bottom 10 teams, across all four years the correlation between runs from productive outs and winning percentage was a mere 0.16, "not even close to being significant," as Passaretti writes.

The meager magnitudes of those run totals should make one pause for a moment. A good general rule of thumb in sabermetrics is that a shift in 10 runs from one column to the other is worth one win. So the gain from those Angel runs is just over two wins, which ain't chickenfeed, but the 10th place team on that list, the 2002 Expos, is at 10.4 runs, roughly one win. The bottom 10 range from -19.5 runs (the 2000 Indians, who just missed a Wild Card spot by half a game) to -12.4 (the 2000 Tigers). That leaves 100 teams from those four years in the range of about plus or minus one win. It's a big deal if you're the 2000 Indians, sure, but hardly worth the commotion Olney set off.

Passaretti also quantified individual players' performance, publishing the top and bottom five for each of the four years. The highest total was Matt Lawton, with +8.8 runs in 1999, the lowest Dante Bichette, with -8.9 in 2001 -- close to one win in either direction, but most of the guys in those quintets are at about 5-7 runs, about a half-win. Johnny Damon made the top five in two of the four years, while Brad Ausmus made the bottom five in two of those years ("And you didn't think Ausmus could look any worse," quips the author). Oh, and the sainted Derek Jeter, who "does all the little things" as the McCarvers and Kays of the world are wont to remind us ad infinitum, shows up at -6.6 runs in 2001 and -5.4 runs total across the four years.

Passaretti then hammered one more nail into the case by analyzing whether productive outs are a repeatable skill. For each player with 50 or more opportunities, he checked their adjusted run performance with no outs and compared it to their performance with one out -- e.g., how well they advanced the runners in either case. His finding was a correlation of .01, which translates back into Enlgish as nuthin'.

So while we now have a better understanding of the number of runs at stake in those productive out arguments, we also know those numbers really don't add up to a hell of a lot in the end. Of course, it's still more likely that a particular productive out in some ballgame in June will catch the attention of the Olneys and Harold Reynoldses and John Kruks of the baseball world before that article will, but it'll be nice to have those numbers handy the next time one of those Flat Earth Society clowns crosses your path.

Monday, November 22, 2004


Fit to Be Thai'd

It has very little to do with baseball other than the usual cast of NYC-based blogging suspects and a good portion of our evening's chatter. But Alex Belth has a writeup of a group dinner expedition he and I made to Queens on Saturday along with our significant others as well as my pal Nick and Cub Reporter/foodie Alex Ciepley. So wowed and satisfied by the authentic Thai food at Sripraphai were we that even trekking back in the rain, we all kept saying to each other, "This is why I love New York City." At one point on our 7-train ride back to Manhattan we looked over at Ciepley, who was gazing up from the menu and off into the distance, completely lost in reverie. Good food, good folks, good times.

If you're anywhere near the area, Sripraphai is definitely worth the trek.

Saturday, November 20, 2004


Shouldering the Burden, One Year Later

Friday marked an anniversary of sorts: it's been one year since I had surgery to repair the torn labrum of my right shoulder. The operation itself was relatively minor -- an hour-long arthroscopic procedure that required four small incisions to repair a hole the size of a quarter and left me with two plastic anchors implanted, two scars the size of dimes and two more the size of pencil erasers. But the upheaval it created was considerable; to say that it was a life-changing experience would be an understatement.

I injured my shoulder back in June 2003 in a backyard incident of competitive tomfoolery so idiotic it brought to mind my late grandfather's phrase, "I must have rocks in my head." Though the diagnosis -- a SLAP tear -- took about a month, I knew very quickly that I had done something terribly wrong because throwing a baseball even 20 feet -- which I attempted to do a couple hours later, for diagnostic purposes -- was nearly impossible. I spent about three months rehabbing the injury via physical therapy before my doctors and I reached the conclusion that surgery would be necessary to restore my accustomed level of function. My shoulder felt as though the wind had been knocked out of it, and though I couldn't pinpoint a particularly sore area, getting through a day pain-free was like trying to cover for an unfilled cavity.

I eased a considerable amount of my anxiety by making the impending procedure fodder for this column, researching SLAP repair and learning of its high success rate -- from a non-athletic standpoint. Thanks to Will Carroll's "Medhead Manifesto" piece (written with his father, an orthopedic surgeon) in Baseball Prospectus 2003, I got a very thorough explanation of the injury's ramifications as they pertained to baseball, and I quizzed Will about the surgery in the days leading up. He assured me that the operation would be "as minimal as it goes," though my days of blowing fastballs by hitters (yeah, riiiiight) were a thing of the past.

So under the knife I went.

For the first four weeks afterwards, I was required to wear a sling, a rather strange fashion accessory that granted me a certain amount of notoriety and recognizability -- kind of like an eye patch. During the first week, I was unable brush my teeth, shave, or feed myself with my right hand, and the slightest wrong movement could send jolts of blinding pain through my body. In order to keep the swelling down, several times a day I had to hook up to an cooler big enough to hold a six-pack that circulated icewater through a pad over my shoulder. The Iceman cometh, indeed.

The care that I got from my gal Andra during that first week -- which included her preparing a Thanksgiving meal for five, including her mother -- was incredible. In those foggy days after the operation she reminded me to take my meds (which included the now-banned Vioxx), kept the freezer stocked with ice, communicated my status to my doctor and my parents, ran my errands, rotated my Monty Python's Flying Circus DVDs, and even gave up our bed to sleep on our futon while I slumbered on a mountain of pillows she'd assembled. For the first time I could recall, I was able to sleep on my back, though I've since discovered that was the Vicodin doing the talking.

Andra and I had been living together for about seven months when I had my surgery, and we had just passed our three-year anniversary. Somewhere amid her expert caretaking, I recognized beyond any shadow of a doubt that I had to marry this woman, though it took me a few months to actually get down to business.

Gradually, I was able to begin functioning again. Sustained work was still out of the question, but once I could sit comfortably in my desk chair, I began my one-handed hunt-and-pecking, something that was uniquely suited to preparing my DIPS 2003 spreadsheet. The one-handedness was frustrating, though; the speed with which I could record my thoughts brought to mind an image of pedaling a bicycle with one leg. It was another week before I could lift my elbow (still in its sling) high enough to allow my right hand to join in the typing fun.

My time in the sling coincided with my trip to baseball's Winter Meetings in New Orleans. While my fashion accessory granted me ample material for discussion, it was always awkward when I had to "bring in the lefty" to shake hands with the writers I met. For months afterwards, it seemed as though each Baseball Prospectus writer who passed through New York City remarked that they hardly recognized me without the sling.

Still prohibited from any physical activity regarding my shoulder, over the Christmas holiday I was doomed to watch record snowfalls in Salt Lake City and its surrounding canyons while my dad and brother raved about the knee- or even waist-deep powder at Snowbird. I did, however, manage to make something productive of my non-skiing time, doing the arduous research -- spreadsheets again -- for my first two articles for Baseball Prospectus on the 2004 Hall of Fame ballot.

It wasn't until after the new year that I could toss the sling aside and begin physical therapy. My PT regime would require two or three visits a week for four months, a commitment that felt like taking on a part-time job. As a bit of a gym rat even through my injury, I was humbled at the outset when faced with how much muscle mass, strength, and coordination I'd lost -- not only from that month of inactivity but from several months of babying the injured wing.

It was tough going in the beginning. One exercise had me lying on my stomach and lifting a two-pound dumbell from the six o'clock to nine o'clock positions, and even that was a bitch. Even lifting such meager weights, I overdid it early on, developed some swelling, and had to shut things down for about a week, much to my frustration. I caught a real break when the lesser of the two therapists I was working with -- more aggressive, less communicative -- was transferred to another facility, leaving me in the care of the man who had been recommended as "the shoulder guy" by Andra's physical therapist (she had knee problems awhile back).

Late in April, after three and a half months of sweating out my rehab, a moment I'd been dreaming of for nearly a year came around: I was able to toss a baseball again. On a sunny, 70-degree Saturday which seemed divinely devised, I headed to nearby Tompkins Square Park with Andra, pal Nick and my trusty old mitt. Throughout our little game of catch, I was very self-conscious of my mechanics, and couldn't throw very far or for very long, but even with the discomfort it felt like surgery for the soul. Two weeks later, I shed the PT and resumed my workouts at the gym.

Not that it's been roses since then. I resumed my normal workout regime -- the kind of major/minor muscle group routine any idiot with a gym membership will be only too happy to tell you about. And while I regained my strength to about 90-95%, late in August I tweaked my shoulder during a declined bench-press. A week of pain, swelling, disrupted sleep, and the only-too-familiar feeling that I described as "loose meat" left me sure I had torn something. Perhaps even moreso than before, I spent a lot of spare time contemplating just how quickly an athletic career can end in the blink of an eye due to a wrong movement or a bad decision.

Much to my relief, my doctor finally diagnosed me with only biceps tendonitis due to overuse and told me to back off my workouts a bit. Whew! Still, my gym visits are considerably less regular than before, and I'm resigned not to push myself beyond about 90% of my presurgical levels for awhile.

But beyond the physical stuff, the most interesting development with the shoulder came with my writing. Carroll liked my original piece on the injury so much -- and his medical advisor, Dr. James Andrews, concurred -- that he asked permission to use it in his book, Saving the Pitcher. So there I am between hard covers, giving a three-page anatomy lesson. In the words of the late broadcasting giant Mel Allen, "How 'bout that?"

More than that, my labrum-related writing has brought a steady stream of readers to this site. Many of them are parents of baseball-playing teenagers who have suffered the injury, and they ask questions about what their kids can expect in the way of pain and functionality. Unfortunately, the picture isn't pretty from a ballplaying standpoint. Perhaps it was my own heightened sensitivity to the matter, but the torn labrum became 2004's chic injury. Carroll wrote an April Fool's Day piece for BP lampooning the lack of medical advances in treating the injury -- something about injecting a soy-lentil protein matrix into the shoulder of oft-injured major league pitcher/human cannonball Jose Rijo.

Later, Carroll wrote a serious in-depth piece for Slate on why the torn labrum had become, in his words "baseball's most fearsome injury." Simply put, the reason is that there's no magic bullet, no Tommy John surgery equivalent or conventional rehab protocol that has been shown to return players to their previous levels of ability. The roster of players who suffered labrum injuries in the last year or so -- Robb Nen, Shawn Green, Richie Sexson, Carl Everett, Mark Ellis, Juan Encarnacion, Jung Bong, Adam Loewen, J.J. Hardy, and Angel Guzman, to name a few -- is a list full of shot seasons and dashed hopes, with Green's return perhaps the best-case scenario.

As I've said before, I'm glad that my career doesn't require me to throw or hit a 90-mile-an-hour fastball to put food on the table. I wouldn't wish what I went through on anybody, but a year later, I look back satisfied that I've played the hand I was dealt as well as I could have.

Wednesday, November 17, 2004


Remaking the Yankees for 2005, Part I: Assessing the Rotation

In what's become an annual tradition around these parts, I'll once again examine the Yankees' roster options as they retool following an unhappy October ending. In this installment, I'll look at the team's starting pitching; in the next, I'll evaluate the free agent pool and trade options.

The Yankees have made no secret of the foundation for their success during the Joe Torre era. Operating on the assumption that you can never be too rich or have too much starting pitching, they've spent top dollar on their rotation to buy not only quality but depth, insuring themselves against the likelihood that a key hurler might spend a few weeks on the shelf and setting up a relatively pleasant conundrum come October as to which of their heralded quintet is bullpen-bound.

The winter of 2003-2004 presented the Yankees with a rather drastic challenge where their rotation was concerned. First, Roger Clemens, who had kept Yankee fans on an emotional rollercoaster through the entire season, first in pursuit of his 300th win and then through a very strange October, retired as expected. Then Andy Pettitte, hot off a 21-win campaign and a stellar postseason, departed as a free agent for the Houston Astros, where he eventually lured Clemens out of retirement so successfully that the Rocket garnered a record seventh Cy Young award. Then David Wells, a free agent whose balky back had let the team down at the worst possible moment, reneged on a verbal agreement and signed with the San Diego Padres. In losing the trio, the Yanks saw over 630 quality innings and 53 wins walk out the door.

Not that they had anything to be ashamed of in doing so, mind you. Whether taken at face value or read against the Rocket's revisionist desire to pitch closer to home, Clemens' retirement meant the Yanks had zero chance to retain his services for 2004. Pettitte had shown himself to be a true stopper during the Yanks' playoff run, but management's concern about the long-term viability of his elbow steered them to finish a solid second in the bidding war against the Astros, and they watched with no small measure of relief as Dandy Andy was limited to 83 innings. Wells, at 40, was coming off of his second back surgery in three years, and his penchant for controversy during his second tour of duty in pinstripes -- the reneged deal with the Diamondbacks, the revelations in his book, the diner incident which left him without his two front teeth, and the instant karma for his remark about conditioning on the eve of his World Series start -- added up to another page that desperately needed turning. When he signed with the Padres in a fashion similar to that which led him back to the Yanks, it made a certain kind of sense.

Brian Cashman and company did their best to live up to the challenge of rebuilding their front-line rotation. They traded their most promising young hitter, Nick Johnson, to Montreal in a deal which brought them the highly regarded Javier Vazquez, a pitcher who looked for all the world like the next Yankee ace. They traded the frustratingly erratic Jeff Weaver and a minor-league live arm for Kevin Brown, expecting him to take over Clemens' role as the staff's elder statesman. They patched in Jon Lieber, whom they'd signed to an extremely creative two-year deal which included his Tommy John rehab on the front end. Along with holdovers Mike Mussina and Jose Contreras, they looked to have the deepest rotation in the league, especially with Orlando Hernandez rehabbing in the wings.

But the Yanks' best laid plans broke down when their starters did. Brown suffered a litany of injuries, from a bad back to an intestinal parasite to a self-inflicted broken hand. Vazquez pitched his way to the All-Star Game, then promptly fell apart in the second half with a 6.92 ERA. Mussina spent the first half of the season bent out of shape over the team's trip to Japan and eventually missed six weeks with elbow trouble. Contreras was such a bust that the Yanks cut bait on him at the trading deadline, acquiring 2003 All-Star Esteban Loaiza from the White Sox in trade. He pitched, for all intents and purposes, as though Contreras never left and was relegated to the bullpen a month of being acquired. Only Lieber, who put up a strong second half after missing the first month and suffering through a rocky May and June, and El Duque, who improbably won his first eight decisions after being recalled following the All-Star Break, kept the staff afloat.

The deficiencies among the starters were not easy to mask, even with a major-league record 61 come-from-behind wins and 101 victories overall. This Yankee rotation simply paled in comparison to its predecessors:
        IP    ERA   K/9   WHIP  K/W   HR/9

2004 942.3 4.82 6.55 1.36 2.55 1.27
2003 1066.0 4.02 6.91 1.25 3.52 0.91
2002 1024.7 3.97 7.32 1.24 3.07 0.97
The 2004 rotation pitched 123.7 fewer innings than the year before, about the workload of two solid relievers, or over an extra two outs per game. Their collective ERA jumped by four-fifths of a run. Their strikeouts fell off a bit, which was bad enough, but their walk rate shot up over 30 percent, which was worse, and homers rose by 40 percent, which was horrible. The result was a domino effect on the bullpen, one that saw the team's top three relievers, Mariano Rivera, Tom Gordon, and Paul Quantrill, combine for 240 appearances and buckle in the postseason. That is a topic for another day, however.

Here are the stats of the starting pitchers who finished the season wearing pinstripes:
Pitcher    W  L    IP    ERA  WHIP  K/9   K/W   HR/9  BABIP  dERA

Vazquez 14 10 198.0 4.91 1.29 6.82 2.50 1.50 .272 4.72
Lieber 14 8 176.7 4.33 1.32 5.20 5.67 1.02 .323 3.77
Mussina 12 9 164.7 4.59 1.32 7.21 3.30 1.20 .311 3.97
Brown 10 6 132.0 4.09 1.27 5.66 2.37 0.95 .282 4.09
Hernandez 8 2 84.7 3.30 1.29 8.93 2.33 0.96 .284 3.98
Loaiza 10 7 183.0 5.70 1.57 5.75 1.65 1.57 .311 4.91
As with previous seasons, I'm going to use batting average on balls in play (BABIP) and Defense Independent Pitching Statistic ERA (dERA) to complement the usual rate and counting stats. The gist of it is this:
Pitchers have less influence over the outcome of balls in play than we give them credit for, and we can do a better job of evaluating a pitcher's future performance by concentrating on the defense-independent things he does -- strike batters out, walk them, plunk them, and give up homers -- than we can by considering the effects of the defense playing behind him in converting batted balls into outs.

Defense Independent Pitching Statistics work from the assumption that since controlling the outcome of balls in play isn't a replicable skill -- one year's numbers don't have much correlation with the next year -- we can substitute a slightly adjusted league-average peformance in that department. With that in place, we then work from his K, BB, HBP and HR rates to reconstruct the pitcher's stat line to yield a DIPS ERA (dERA) that actually correlates better with a pitcher's future ERA than the actual ERA does.
If that sounds familiar, it's because I just cut'n'pasted the explanation from last year's rundown. Basically, what it comes down to is that dERA helps us to find which pitchers have all of their oars moving in the right direction. See here for my clearinghouse of DIPS-related links.

As the Yanks retool for 2005, the only sure bet to be wearing pinstripes from this group is Mussina. The Moose, who is signed through 2006 (with a club option for '07) had arguably the worst season of his career in '04, throwing for his fewest innings since his 1991 rookie season and finishing with his lowest ERA+ of his career (98, a couple hairs below league average, in other words). His strikeouts dropped by about one whole K per nine innings, and his walks and homers both increased by 30 percent. Were it not for the fact that he pitched well in September (3-1, 2.14 ERA in 42 innings) and October (1-1, 3.68 ERA in 19.2 postseason innings), there might be more cause for alarm. As it is, his spot in the rotation is set in stone, for better or for worse. Who else winds up there is anybody's guess at this point.

Brown, who couldn't make it out of the second inning in three of his five post-punch starts (all against Boston), is owed $15 million for the final year of his contract, and he's got a no-trade clause to boot. He is clearly damaged goods on both the physical and mental fronts, and a pariah in pinstripes. His strikeout rate dropped precipitously in 2004, a falloff of 2.23 per nine innings, though that reportedly had something to do with pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre's desire to see the fragile hurler put more faith in his defense. His 132 innings last year were about at his average over the previous three seasons, making him an unlikely bet to bounce back to the level of a 200-inning workhorse. He'll be 40 by Opening Day, and the Yanks would be better off paying a good chunk of that hefty salary for him to pitch elsewhere. The Phillies and the Braves have both expressed some degree of interest, though the Yanks would likely get little salary relief or player compensation from either in return. The latter makes more geographic sense because of its proximity to his Macon, Georgia home. Yankee fans would just as soon he go straight to hell.

The Yanks thought they were getting the Javier Vazquez they'd seen in the catalog, the workhorse who'd averaged 225 innings a year over the past four seasons, with an ERA 26 percent better than the adjusted league average. So sure of themselves were they that not only did they send their most tradeable talent to Montreal for him, they signed him to a four-year, $45 million contract after the trade. He won 10 games by the All-Star break, posting a 3.57 ERA in the process. But he was a complete disaster in the second half, with mechanical difficulties (opening his front shoulder too soon in his windup, messing with his command and control), gopher problems (33 homers allowed) and an ERA in Boeing territory (7.25 including the postseason). Tellingly, he told reporters he just wanted to pitch, he didn't want to worry about his mechanics. Fatigue may have been a factor in his troubles, though injury likely was not -- an MRI done following the Yanks' elimination cleared that possibility. A failure to communicate with Stottlemyre might have played a part as well, though given the penchant for pitchers to fall apart on the pitching coach's watch, that's more an indictment of Mel than of Javy.

The 28-year-old Vazquez still has three years and $36 mil on his contract, but notably, he lacks a no-trade clause. As such, his name continues to surface when the subject of trading for Randy Johnson is broached. My thumbnail hunch is that if the Yanks can get away with Vazquez as the only true talent included in that deal (throw in all of the Dioner Navarros and Robinson Canos you can eat), they should pull the trigger. That's not a likelihood, given the likely competition for the Big Unit's services, but with a no-trade, it's Johnson's hammer to wield. But such a deal would free up more salary beyond 2005, giving the Yanks considerably more flexibility down the road. He may bounce back in 2005, but his indicators -- a 38 percent drop in strikeout rate, a 23 percent rise in walk rate, a high dERA -- don't paint a particularly promising picture.

Thanks to his fine command and control, Lieber, who turns 35 in April, actually projects the best out of the 2004 Yankee starters, a good bet to continue building on his strong second half (a 3.94 ERA after the break, with a rise in K rate to 4.12 to 6.15). He yielded the highest BABIP of any potentially returning Yankee starter, something which will likely improve for him next year as well. But the Yanks declined their $8 million option on him last week, and they're said to be looking to sign him to a two-year deal worth $5 or $6 million per year -- a smart play by salary cap luxury tax standards, but one that exposes the possibility that other teams, particularly the Red Sox, may also be interested in his services.

Hernandez was the unlikely savior of the Yankee rotation during the second half, a prodigal son returned from the double-barreled oblivion of Montreal and rotator cuff surgery. With a fastball topping out at 82 MPH during spring workouts, the likelihood that El Duque would be baffling hitters later in the summer, let alone into October, must have seemed remote. But the ageless (believed to be 39, but who knows?) Cuban defector mustered everything from guile to moxie to a 50 MPH eephus curve to make that a reality, and for a stretch of about two months, he was the team's best pittcher. Alas, a tired shoulder finally slowed him down. He threw only eight innings after September 22; arguably, if he'd been able to coax one more frame out of that ancient body in Game Four against the Red Sox, the Yanks' unthinkable collapse might have been averted.

The good news is that when he pitched, Duque pitched very well. His strikeout rate was by far the highest among Yankee starters and he kept the ball in the ballpark. On the other hand, his control was less than amazing, and he averaged under six innings per start -- as much a precautionary measure as an indication of his durability. The tired shoulder isn't much to worry about in the grand scheme of things; it's a common occurrence among pitchers whose workloads increase and a protection against more serious fatigue-related breakdown. He'd be an ideal back-of-the-rotation starter if the Yanks bring him back, and last year's feel-good saga makes that a likelihood while remaining in the realm of financial viability.

Esteban Loaiza finished second in the Cy Young voting in 2003 on the heels of a career year which saw him go 21-9 with a 2.90 ERA and start the All-Star game. Take that year away from him and you've got a pitcher who's been five percent below the adjusted league average in ERA over the course of his 10-year career. The exact nature of the aliens inhabiting his body during that magical 2003 campagin are unknown, but whatever they were, they were as absent from the Bronx as they were from the south side of Chicago. Beyond the $14 million in salary relief he represented, he did little right after the trade, save for some emergency innings in the playoffs (1 run in 8.1 innings). Godspeed, Mr. Loaiza, and may those aliens find you a willing vessel yet again.

So the Yanks currently find themselves with three starters under contract -- Mussina, Brown, and Vazquez -- with the likelihood that either or both of the latter two might be traded. Moose and the Four Question Marks? Things probably aren't that dire, given that Vazquez would likely be part of a deal for the Big Unit. But even if Lieber and Hernandez come back, the Yanks are still at least one and more likely two starters away from filling out their 2005 rotation, and unlike last year, they're bound to tap at least one left-handed pitcher. I'll look at their options for those slots in my next installment.

Monday, November 15, 2004


The Blogging Bug and How to Squash It

When it comes to the end of the baseball season, nothing hits home for finality, as far as I'm concerned, than when moves its MLB link off of the top of its navbar. As soon as the World Series becomes old news, the behemoth brushes Hot Stove diehards to the margins while football and basketball take get their cracks at dominating the nation's sports consciousness. The baseball sections of many a paper's website become bare cupboards rife with 404 errors and devoid of even the crumbs which can fuel a rumor worth getting excited about.

It's three months until Pitchers and Catchers, and piles of snow will fall before then, turning into guttersludge that's as gray as our collective mood unless we're wearing red socks or residing in red states. What would you give to be waiting out a pitching change right now?

This seemingly barren landscape is one which bloggers such as myself have turned into fertile ground over the past few years. Those of us who spend the entire year thinking about baseball often use this time to plot a course for our favorite teams, assess trades and free-agent signings, and ruminate about aspects of the game which may slip between the cracks during the hustle and bustle of the 162-game slate and the mad dash of October. Ask bloggers about the offseason and you'll find a surprising number of folks admitting that they enjoy writing more during this less hectic time, whether it's to resume their relationships with the rest of the world (particularly those neglected wives and girlfriends), to dig into longer projects, or simply to recharge their batteries.

But this offseason has seen a couple of high-profile bloggers go even further than that. The leading bloggers of the two World Series teams have retired their respective sites within a couple of weeks of the big dance. The day after the Red Sox long-awaited victory, Edward Cossette announced the close of Bambino's Curse, one of the few blogs to predate this one, proclaiming "Mission Accomplished (For Real)!" Cossette told his readers:
My work here is done.

This will be the final, regular post to the Bambino's Curse weblog. The site, however, and all the archives will remain online forever, as a small testament and recollection of what it was like to be a fan before the Red Sox won their first World Series since 1918. (Like anyone wants to relive that!)

And I will resurface somewhere, somehow, and in some form in the future (like Dr. Who after a regeneration). Indeed, I just this morning bought a couple of domains that I may use for the new endeavor.
With somewhat less theater, Brian Gunn of Redbird Nation hung up his cleats last week as well, telling readers, "As you can guess, keeping Redbird Nation fresh and lively is a huge time and energy commitment, and the sacrifices I'd have to make to come back for a third year are too great."

Jon Weisman of Dodger Thoughts has written a thoughtful feature-length piece on this changing of the guard and the turnover rate among bloggers. One of Gunn's responses to a Wesiman question succinctly captures many of the perks and pitfalls of being a blogger:
"One of the virtues of blogs is that they’re essentially limitless - you can write as much or as little as you want, any time of the day or night. But this can also be a trap. Because you have no deadlines, you feel like you’re always on the clock. Because you have no editor or space limitations, you feel like you can always be writing more. The form practically begs you to be more expansive. Throw in the fact that bloggers tend to have compulsive personalities (actually that’s not a fact at all - more of a casual observation), and you end up with a lot of folks who have problems establishing boundaries with their blogging. Or at least that’s true in my case."
I can certainly identify with that "on the clock" feeling. Here I am, just returned from a long weekend 3,000 miles away, having wrenched my back dragging my luggage through Sea-Tac airport immediately before sitting on a plane for five hours. And the first productive thing I can do beyond feeding myself, sorting my mail, and gobbling anti-inflammatories is to write a blog entry.

Ironically, the contrasting statement which follows Gunn's is one from yours truly; my post-travel actions to the contrary, I simply don't see myself as quite as compulsive as some:
"I’m not manic about posting every day," Jaffe said. "My general feeling is that unless I can put together at least four or five interesting paragraphs on a topic, I’ll leave it for somebody else to cover until I can weigh in. If that means posting two or three times a week as opposed to five or six, so be it."
Okay, enough with the meta-whatever of me quoting myself. Weisman's questions did provoke a bit of soul searching as to why I continue this endeavor after three and a half years and what keeps me going. I guess the best answer I can give beyond what you'll find in that piece -- stuff about connecting with my readers and with other bloggers and wanting to eventually make some money from my writing -- is something that missed the cut. Namely, that from the start I conceptualized the Futility Infielder as something beyond a blog and that I see it as an unfolding narrative which goes both forwards and backwards in time, sure to yield enough material to mine in both directions. Hence the Wall of Fame, the Game Reports, and lengthier features.

Thanks to a great deal from I currently own the FI domain through 2012 -- beyond the length of Alex Rodriguez's 10-year deal, albeit for considerably less cash -- and while I'm not sure of the twists and turns the road between here and there will take, this site is as permanent as anything I can conceptualize. So while I'll tip my cap to Cossette and Gunn on jobs well done and wish them well in their future endeavors, I guess I'm here to say that you won't get rid of me that easily.

Wednesday, November 10, 2004


Return of the Prodigal Son?

While I've been spending a lot of time focusing on the Yankees -- even recording a Baseball Prospectus Radio roundtable with the usual suspects (Belth, Corcoran, Goldman) to air this weekend -- the Dodger fan in me perked up his ears at the hot rumor of a Shawn Green-for-Mike Piazza deal. Both the New York Times and the LA Times report that Dodgers GM Paul DePodesta and Mets GM Omar Minaya have had preliminary discussions of such a swap at the General Managers meetings currently taking place in Florida.

A few years ago this might have been hailed as a blockbuster. But at this point the deal -- which may well never come to pass due to both players having no-trade clauses -- amounts to an even-money challenge trade involving two fairly similar stars on the decline. Both players have overcome the obstacles of hitting in the pitcher-friendly Dodger Stadium to hit 40 homers multiple times, but are unlikely to do so again. Both saw considerable time at first base last year due to injury concerns. Both are in the final years of deals which pay them $16 million.

Over the past couple of years, Green, 32, has seen his production slide considerably thanks to a torn labrum in his right (non-throwing) shoulder. Instead of being repaired during surgery following last season, the cartilage was removed, leaving an unappetizing bone-on-bone situation in his shoulder which has likely inhibited his function and caused some pain. He hit .266/.352/.459 with 28 homers and 86 RBI in 2004, similar numbers to the year before, only two years removed from a pair of monster seasons which saw him hit 91 homers and drive in 239 runs. His stats did improve considerably as the year went on; he was at .253/.335/.399 with 10 homers before the All-Star Break, .281/.371/.529 with 18 homers after, a big help for the Dodgers down the stretch as they won the NL West.

Piazza, of course, made his star with the Dodgers, clawing his way up from a 62nd-round nepotism-fueled draft choice to become the 1993 NL Rookie of the Year and one of the most prodigious hitters in Dodger history. His best season came in 1997, when he hit a whopping .362/.431/.638 with 40 homers and 124 RBI. But a contract dispute with the new Fox regime led to a shocking trade which brought the Dodgers Gary Sheffield and sent Piazza on a circuitous route to the Mets. After nearly five superstar-caliber years in Flushing, the 36-year-old has missed 127 games over the past two seasons thanks to wrist, knee, and groin injuries. The latter cost him about 3 months of the 2003 campaign, not to mention a chance to play in his 11th straight All-Star Game.

Piazza is unequivocally the greatest hitting catcher of all time, but these injury-riddled seasons have been aswirl in controversy due to the Mets hamfisted attempt to move him to first base, usually informing the media of their plans prior to telling him. He hit .266/.362/.444 with 20 homers last year while playing first 68 times and catching only 50. Like just about every other Met, he had an abysmal second half, hitting an anemic .200/.305/.310 and 4 homers after the break following a very Piazza-like .297/.388/.506 16-homer first half. His stats were especially bad when he played first base (.229/.324/.383), but they looked quite vintage behind the plate (.331/.419/.552).

As hitters, the two players' performances were essentially equal last year. Green hit for a .280 EQA and was 35 runs above replacement level (BRAR), while Piazza hit for a .279 EQA and was 27 runs above replacement. The difference has everything to do with playing time, with Green playing in 157 games and Piazza only 129.

Defensively, neither was any great shakes according to Baseball Prospecus' fielding numbers. Piazza, who's never been a very good catcher defensively, was 12 runs below average overall, most of that attributable to his time behind the plate, where he was -9 runs in only 50 "games" (some of those being fragmentary). His Rate2 stat for that position shows him at 79, meaning he was 21 runs below average per 100 games, far below his career mark of 92, or eight runs below average. At first base, his Rate2 was 95, again nothing to write home about. Green was even worse at first, where he played 111 games and was 11 runs below average, a Rate2 of 90. In 52 games in rightfield he put up a 94 rate, still far below his career average of 103. He had only two assists out there after averaging about eight a year over the course of his career.

All things considered, I like this trade from the Dodgers' standpoint. It is far easier to find a first baseman or rightfielder who can put up an .800 OPS/.280 EQA than it is to find a catcher who can do so; in fact, the Dodgers have on their roster the neglected Hee Seop Choi, who despite a miserable 62 at-bat post-trade trial in which he hit .161/.289/.242, still put up a .370 OBP and .449 SLG on the year, a .288 EQA. The average EQA among all first basemen last year was .279, while rightfielders were at .272. Catchers, on the other hand, came in at .248.

While the difference in the two players' ages is a concern -- banking on a 36-year-old catcher is a risky business -- I also think that they're further apart in ability than last year's stats indicate. Shawn Green is at best an All-Star, while Mike Piazza is a Hall of Famer. Despite Piazza's defensive lapses and his inability to control the running game (he's been stolen on at a 76 percent clip over the course of his career and allowed 0.85 steals per game), he's clearly more comfortable behind the plate and unlikely to take his fielding woes up to bat with him. He's also likely to be much happier playing for a team that has a shot at returning to the postseason, and one with enough sense not to jerk him around in public. Used judiciously and given only the occasional game at first base to keep his bat in the lineup, he should be considerably more productive, and that's without even mentioning the prodigal son factor. Let's face it, this trade would heal some wounds in Dodger history.

But that doesn't mean it's going to happen. Green, who is from Southern California and playing for a contending team, is more likely to veto the deal than Piazza, who is carrying a ton of baggage thanks to the way the Mets brass has treated him and is faced with a rebuilding season in Shea Stadium. It's tough to blame Piazza for wanting to go, but it's just as tough, if not tougher to blame Green for not wanting to do so.

Saturday, November 06, 2004


Overspending is not an Option

Anybody wishing to argue that the spend-happy New York Yankees have an unlimited payroll would do well to consider the mounting evidence against that notion. Last week the team declined its 2006 option on reliever Paul Quantrill (for $3.6 million), though he's still under contract for '05 ($3 mil). They also cut loose on first baseman Travis Lee ($3 mil), who was limited to 19 at-bats before going on the DL with a torn labrum.

But Friday's news brought the biggest blow against the notion of the empire's supposedly unlimited coffers. Brian Cashman and company declined their $8 million option on starter Jon Lieber who went 14-8 with a 4.33 ERA in the regular season and 1-1, 3.43 in the postseason, showing himself to be one of only two reliable Yankee starters in September and October.

The Yanks have said they'd like to retain Lieber and will offer him a two-year deal with an average annual value of $5-6 million. Such a move would save them additional dollars in luxury tax assessments. According to the latest Collective Bargaining Agreeement, the portion of 2005 team payroll over $128 million (calculated according to the average annual value of each contract, not actual dollars) will be subject to the luxury tax, and as three-time offenders for going over that threshold, the Yanks will pay a whopping 40 percent tariff. If one estimates the team's 2005 payroll around $200 million, that's a $30 million icing on the cake. Assuming they can re-sign Leiber to a deal worth $2 mil less per year -- anything but a given even in this relatively deep market for free-agent starters -- they'll save themselves as much as another $1.6 million over the next two years.

That may seem like chump change, but clearly there is some belt-tightening going on in the Bronx. Friday also brought the news that YES anchor Fred Hickman will depart after being asked to take a pay cut. Hickman will become an anchor for ESPN's SportsCenter, a gig that doesn't carry nearly the prestige it once did. According to the Daily News, other YES contracts up include Suzyn Waldman, Bobby Murcer and Ken Singleton, with the latter also a target for cuts: "A source said YES brass is already 'playing hardball' with Singleton," writes Bob Raissman. It will be a sad day if and when they let the smooth Singleton go.

The hot stove financial news did bring one hilarious moment yesterday, when agent Scott Boras declared that centerfielder Carlos Beltran, the prize of this year's free-agent crop, is seeking a 10-year contract. While Beltran is a fine player who will command top dollar even in a relatively down market, this one is a side-splitter. The trend since the 2002 CBA is away from such long-term contracts in the first place, especially given that insurers won't touch anything longer than a three-year deal.

It's questionable how Boras' unrealistic demands will have an impact on the Yanks' pursuit of Beltran. While they've shown a willingness to hand out epic-length deals (Derek Jeter's 10-year, $191 million pact and Jason Giambi's 7-year, $120 albatross, not to mention the $112 million they're taking up on Alex Rodriguez's contract) those were all signed prior to the aforementioned CBA. They've got major long-term tsuris already, with over $320 million committed from 2006-2010 and the punitive measure of the luxury tax, which will hit them for another 40 percent in 2006 (there is no provision for a 2007 tax, though it's likely that will be retroactively applied via the next CBA). Beltran won't get ten years anywhere unless he stabs Boras to death, a verdict which would probably be ruled justifiable homicide anyway. But even if he ends up commanding something on the order of six years at $14 million (as the New York Post's George King predicts), such a deal carries those hidden costs for the Yanks beyond what a competitor might pay. It also further inhibits the team's long-term financial flexibility, not to mention what it does in the short term, which is to likely send the eight-figure salary of either Bernie Williams or Jason Giambi to the bench on days when Giambi can't play the field, as I've already discussed elsewhere.

Taken as a whole, the declined options, which save the Yanks $13.7 million, could be read as a proactive attempt to limit the impact of a Beltran contract to a strict dollar-for-dollar increase. It's only money, but don't get the idea that even the richest of the rich aren't watching where every dollar goes.

Thursday, November 04, 2004


WARNING: Political Content Ahead

I try very hard to steer clear of any head-on political content in this blog. An astute reader could certainly cobble together a good idea of where I stand based on the views I've aired regarding, say, stadium finance, gays in baseball, and the politicization of the Hall of Fame. But I started writing about baseball in order to get away from writing about politics and the culture wars, desiring to find a common bond among people who might otherwise disagree and seeing a need to shed the stridency which ran rampant through much of my writing and drained the joy I took from the endeavor. That desire has served me well for the past three and a half years, allowing me to build up a nice little audience and make a fulfilling sidelight out of this site.

Despite my better impulses, I cannot let Tuesday's results pass without comment, if only because I know that I won't be able to write about the relatively trivial matters of baseball which capture my fancy until I vent my spleen. Feel free to disregard this post, or to vote with your feet either before or after I've aired my views, but don't expect a knock-down, drag-out exchange in the comments thread. Debating politics via this blog is a far more futile endeavor than the major league career of Enrique Wilson, and I've no intention of wasting further energy once I fire off this volley. Sad to say, it's just as unlikely you'll change my mind at this juncture as that I'll change yours.

I'm absolutely devastated, disgusted, and revulsed not only by the thought of four more years under George W. Bush but also by the incredible polarization of this country. While I certainly believe that reasonable minds can disagree on a wide range of policy issues, I simply don't understand how anybody could look at the facts and think that we are safer today after four years under Bush, when 9/11 and the Iraqi debacle are direct results of the man's brazen ignorance and incompetence, and the U.S. is viewed with contempt by the enlightened democratic countries that should be our allies.

I used to joke that I lived in New York City to get away from the crazy fundamentalists populating the rest of the country. Now, it's no laughing matter. I feel far more endangered by what those zealots can produce via electoral politics -- especially with regards to this band of certified thugs who have just "won" and will do ever more to put Americans in harm's way -- than anything I might face on the darkest, most dangerous streets of New York City.

Right now, writing about the first flicker of the hot stove flame feels like a hapless attempt at a coping strategy. As I've said before under similarly bleak circumstances, I would give anything to be yawning through a pitching change right now. I would watch a Red Sox victory parade and like it, paint my face and wear Jheri Curl while eating a vat of Boston Baked Beans, if it guaranteed a different electoral result.

On that note, as the possibility of a Kerry presidency had dawned, I had imagined scribbling a short post about how such a victory was better -- exponentially better -- than winning four straight World Series. Now, staring at this most bitter and brutal defeat, I feel as though my team has lost, its stadium has been razed, and its players have been fed to the lions in front of a hostile Coliseum crowd. We do live in two different Americas, and I'm less optimistic with each passing day that the gap will ever be bridged.

• • •

Obligatory baseball content for those of you who have read this far without being completely repulsed...

I partook in yet another two-part Yankee-themed roundtable on Bronx Banter with assorted professional and amateur hooligans. The first part dealt with the Yanks' collapse and the character issue which guest writer Chris DeRosa so eloquently addressed the other day. The second part pondered the future of the Yanks-Sox rivalry and how the victory might impact both the Boston front office and the team's devoted fan base.

Since that was written, there have been either one or two changes on the Yankee coaching staff, depending upon which sources you believe. Bench coach Willie Randolph will get his long-awaited chance to manage, and he'll do so in fine fashion. He'll take the helm for the Mets, the team he followed as a youth, and in doing so become the first African-American manager of a New York City baseball team. A perennial candidate who's probably interviewed for a dozen jobs over the years, Randolph might have been better served by managing for a year or two in the minors. Then again, even winning at that level hasn't helped open doors for former Yankee coach Chris Chambliss.

The Mets are a mess right now, having made some dubious contractual decisions over the past several years and in sore need of sweeping such graybearded clubhouse lawyers as Al Leiter and John Franco aside (whaaat, you mean there isn't a market for mobbed-up 44-year-old lefty relievers with 5+ ERAs?). Shortstop Jose Reyes and third baseman David Wright represent a promising pair of talented young ballplayers, but the Mets squandered a good chunk of their future by trading pitcher Scott Kazmir to Tampa Bay with all of the get-rich-quick panic of a team in a pennant race, which the Mets clearly were not. Here's hoping that Randolph gets a fair shot at turning the team around before the irrational expectations of the Wilpon family get the better of the organization yet again.

The piece of Yankee coaching news that's up in the air is whether pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre will return, a topic I've spoken out against. On Wednesday, the New York Times reported -- based on "a person who spoke to one of Stottlemyre's colleagues" -- that he'd decided to step down. Today that story was contradicted in the Daily News, which said that Mel has yet to make up his mind. Waiting in limbo is Columbus (AAA) pitching coach Neil Allen, who pitched for manager Joe Torre as a Met, and who appears to have done some nice work with pitchers that the organization's upper echelon is nonetheless afraid to hand the ball to.

For all of the drums I and other Yankee bloggers have banged over the years, here's a real non-sequitur: Derek Jeter, winner of the AL Gold Glove Award at shortstop. Though his accumulated reputation in the media and among fans directly contradicts any numerical evidence of such fielding prowess, Jeter's 2004 stats nonetheless support the conclusion that he played considerably better defense this year than in the past (a 27-run swing according to his Baseball Prospectus Fielding Runs Above Replacement figure). With the shifting of Alex Rodriguez both out of the competition and directly to Jeter's direct right, a tandem of better second basemen on his left, and the near-complete turnover of the Yankee starting rotation from a strikeout-heavy gang to one that put the ball in play, explanations for that improvement abound. BP's Clay Davenport tracks the improvement within his system, while Mike "Baseball Ranter" Carminati explores the more traditional fielding measures. Both reach a similar conclusion: though his previous performance was awful, he didn't have a bad year with the glove, and worse choices abound even among this year's awards.

Not the least worthy candidate to win an election this week, in other words...

Monday, November 01, 2004



Part two of the Yankee post-mortem to which I contributed is up at This portion deals more with the Yanks' off-season priorities, who should be on the way out (I hold that Kevin Brown and Mel Stottlemyre should be, no surprise to any regular readers), how much they can spend, as well as the omnipresent (but nonetheless overestimated) Steinbrenner factor.

One of the lengthier sections of our roundtable concerns what to do with Bernie Williams. With the team targeting centerfielder Carlos Beltran, Williams' days patrolling the middle range of the Bronx outfield would seem to be numbered. Coming off of an off year (.262 /.360/.435 with 22 homers and 70 RBI) that still represented a slight improvement on 2003 (.263/.367/.411), his decline as a hitter is indisputable, and it's clear that he's lost a step or two on defense as well. Much as I've enjoyed Bernie, my unsentimental gut feeling is that the Yanks should use his solid postseason to get value for him while they still can, even though they'll end up eating a good chunk of the $15.5 million he's owed for next year and the following year's buyout.

With Jason Giambi a poor bet to survive a full season playing first base, the alternative is having either Williams or Giambi sit on days that G can't play the field -- unless Bernie learns to play first himself (not a great shot, as Cliff Corcoran argues). Even for a team as wealthy as the Yanks, keeping one eight-figure salary on the bench that many times a year is a waste of resources. And while Williams had a better season than Giambi and bears a bona fide pinstriped pedigree, he's 36, fragile, unable to throw worth a damn, and unlikely to reach 30 homers, 100 RBI, and a .400 OBP again. A healthy Giambi, who will be 34, is still a better bet to return to some semblance of the productivity which saw him average 41 homers a year over the past four prior to 2004. His contract is an albatross that will cost the Yanks at least $65 million from 2006-2008 (and actually more, because the average annual value raises the Yanks' luxury tax liability), but he's only making $11 million next year, and they need to squeeze value out of his pact while they can.

Also on the Yankee topic, fellow roundtable participant Alex Belth Bronx Banter guest columnist Chris DeRosa has a fine piece about the "C" word, character, as it pertains to the 2004 Yankees and the Buster Olney-driven comparisons to the dynasty which came within one out of four straight World Championships. A sampling:
So as Yankee fans, we must endure the insults graceless winner Curt Schilling tossed at Alex Rodriguez. We must live with Bob Klapisch’s postmortem, in which he wrote, “…the images of the Yankees’ lack of heart were everywhere…” in game 7. These are just the wages of fandom; you take the lows with the highs.

...[W]riters’ observations about the Yankees’ alleged character problem lack credibility when you know from experience that they were perfectly ready to write it the other way. If Mariano Rivera, whom we generally agree is not a gutless loser, has a better inning in game 4, then the Yankees would have been gritty pros, and the Red Sox would have been underachievers who talk too much. The sports media present a world in which only one team in thirty has heart, and they’ll let you know which one it is right after the last out of the World Series.
DeRosa's fine post goes hand in hand with what I was saying the other day about streakiness -- the arbitrary labels we hang on players and events over these small samples of games is just silly, and the failure of such formerly clutch gods as Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera in this year's playoffs only serves to illustrate that point. The Yankees didn't lose because they choked or lacked character, they lost because a damn good Red Sox team beat them. Narratives about hungry clutch heroes may sell papers, but they're evidence of collective mental laziness on the part of writers and fans who need fairy tales to make sense of the world.


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