The Futility Infielder
A Baseball Journal by Jay Jaffe
I'm a baseball fan living in New York City. In between long tirades about the New York Yankees and the national pastime in general, I'm a graphic designer.
Friday, April 29, 2005
I've made the case a couple
in the past that Yankee pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre has reached his sell-by date in the Bronx. It's become a topic of frequent conversation among my Yankee-fan friends and fellow writers, and the idea is gaining some momentum in the mainstream.
The other day Alex Belth
pointed author Allen Barra, who was in the process of writing this piece on Stottlemyre
for the New York Sun
(subscription required), in my direction for some support. I've had the pleasure of meeting Barra on a couple of occasions, and he of course has popped up here a number of times as a contributor to a wide variety of publications from this blog's infancy
to this past week
, so I was flattered for him to ask my opinion on the matter. I chatted with Barra and forwarded him some of my writing on the topic and he ended up quoting me in the piece -- another nice little clip for the files. Here's Barra:
There are a few pitching coaches whose staffs are consistently under the weather, and, considering his team's natural advantages in wealth and resources, many would argue that Mel Stottlemyre is one of them.
From his 1984 season with the Mets, through April of this year, any positive effect that Stottlemyre has had on his pitchers is difficult to trace. He's hindered by a penchant for forcing pitchers away from their best power pitch and toward a second pitch that puts more strain on their arms, as well as an inability to correct a troubled pitcher's mechanics.
Stottlemyre is one of the best-liked men in the Yankees organization, a respected former pitcher with a link to old Yankee royalty and a man who has shown courage in the face of adversity and personal illness. As a pitching coach, though, he is the sacred cow of the Yankees organization, the Teflon man to whom no failure sticks.
This year's poor start for the Yankee staff aside, this is familiar territory, so much so that I've got a handy clip-and-save chart that I've circulated a few times. It shows a number of successful pitchers who went to seed on Stottlemyre's watch, updated through the end of the 2004 season:
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
Esteban Loaiza 04 42 8.50 4.60
Javy Vazquez 04 198 4.91 4.12
* besides listed seasons
Hitchcock and the place-setting that might be reserved for Jaret Wright aside, there aren't really any health issues here, these are serious collapses of previously effective pitchers. Furthermore, whether it's incompetence on the part of the team's player development system or simply an acknowledgment of the organization's $trengths and weaknesses, the Yanks have almost completely avoided the business of developing pitchers since Stottlemyre's arrival. Both Andy Pettitte and Mariano Rivera arrived in the majors in 1995, the year before the Torre-Stottlemyre regime did, and while they went on to flourish under Stottlemyre, the only other Yankee product to do so has been Ramiro Mendoza. Every other pitcher of lasting note during Stottlemyre's tenure arrived in the Bronx a finished product
, for better or for worse (the italicized parts are what Barra quoted). Many of them did fare for the worse, and when they did, Stottlemyre was powerless to pull them together. Meanwhile, traded Yankee prospects such as Jake Westbrook, Zack Day, Ted Lilly, and Damaso Marte have been effective and inexpensive (if not always healthy) contributors elsewhere, and after shaky starts, Weaver and Vazquez have shown signs of ironing themselves out in their new environs.
Barra delves back into Stottlemyre's tenure with the Mets (1984-1993) when he did have some success with youngsters, most notably Dwight Gooden. I don't agree with the way he tries to blame Gooden's demise on Stottlemyre, however. Though drug problems limited his innings and doubtless took their toll on him, Gooden was a spectacular-to-merely-good pitcher for the entirety of Stottlemyre's tenure, rather than a trainwreck on the order of Javy Vazquez or Jeff Weaver. That said, Barra does offer a compelling account for Stotttlemyre's negative impact on Doc via some quotes from Jeff Pearlman, author of The Bad Guys Won
"Mel had this stubborn insistence that Doc had to develop a third pitch, a breaking ball, to make him more effective," Pearlman told me." 'He's striking out too many batters' was his attitude. He didn't seem to understand that the breaking pitches put a lot of strain on a very young arm. You could see the difference right after the '85 season. He was a great pitcher in '86, but he struck out fewer hitters, gave up more hits and more walks, and his ERA climbed sharply."
..."Mel had this thing about strikeouts," said Ed Hearn, the Mets' backup catcher in 1986. "He wanted Ron [Darling] to throw more breaking stuff. He did, and he was never quite as good afterward as he was in '86."
..."Mel just wasn't very good with mechanics," said a former Mets reliever who asked not be named. "If you had a problem with your delivery or if you were trying to work things out after being hurt, you were pretty much on your own."
Those paragraphs should turn the stomachs of Yankee fans, who have seen the team's strikeout rate plummet dramatically over the past few years, shifting the burden onto a shaky defense whose ability to convert balls in play into outs isn't so hot. Observe:
K/9 (rk) DER (rk) ERA (rk)
1998 6.67 (5) .713 (1) 3.82 (1)
1999 6.95 (3) .699 (3) 4.13 (2)
2000 6.57 (3) .693 (4) 4.76 (6)
2001 7.85 (1) .684 (10) 4.02 (3)
2002 7.04 (2) .690 (9) 3.87 (4)
2003 6.89 (2) .682 (13) 4.02 (3)
2004 6.60 (6) .688 (7) 4.69 (6)
2005 6.25 (7) .646 (14) 4.80 (10)
The numbers in parentheses are the team's AL ranking in that category. The pattern that this data shows is that when the Yanks have had a top-notch strikeout staff, they've been able to overcome subpar defense to remain one of the top pitching teams in the league. When they had less of a strikeout-oriented staff, they were fortunate enough to have had excellent defense (man, was that
a long time ago...). Now, they have neither, and the team's ERA is suffering for it. If indeed Stottlemyre is emphasizing more of a put-it-in-play approach -- and such a notion surfaced often last year in reference to Kevin Brown -- it's a misguided emphasis that's going to end in tears.
As for the injury and mechanics elements of that above quote, consider that among the starting rotation alone, Brown, the disabled Wright and the decreasingly effective Mike Mussina will all require direction and TLC that Stottlemyre just can't deliver. Once again, a bulk of innings will be shifted to the bullpen (which logged 105 more innings in 2004 than it did in 2003, about the workload of one and a half good relievers), testing a unit whose cast numbers seven -- including the rarely healthy Steve Karsay, the enigmatic Tanyon Sturtze (whose positive ledger rests on a 20-inning spree spread out between last September and early April that may well qualify as an out-of-body experience), the shellshocked Tom Gordon (who hasn't looked the same since David Ortiz got through with him), and the overcooked Mike Stanton -- but appears to be about a mile wide and an inch deep.
The Yanks had the opportunity to nudge Stottlemyre into retirement last fall, but perhaps more out of humanity -- this is a multiple myeloma survivor we're talking about -- than rationality, they stubbornly refused to so, though they did position Columbus pitching coach Neil Allen as the heir apparent by promoting him to big-league bullpen coach. But the bottom line is that Yankee fans ought to assume the crash position. When this pitching staff goes over the cliff, don't expect Mel Stottlemyre to be the one to pull it up to safety.
Wednesday, April 27, 2005
I've seen a lot in the ten years I've been going to ballgames in the Bronx. Everything from the historic (the 1999 World Series clincher, and a few other Fall Classics) to the spectacular (another Derek Jeter throw from deep in the hole, an improbable late-inning rally
) to the heartwarming (the ovation Luis Sojo received upon his return
to the Yanks in 2000) to the forgettable (the bombing
of Mike Jerzembeck) to the bizzare (a Hasidic Jew falling out of the leftfield stands and onto the playing field). With all of the success the Yankees have had over that timespan, at times I run the risk of feeling a bit jaded.Tuesday night
was not one of those nights.
As my pal Nick and I sized up our seats upon entering the playing area -- Tier Box MVP, upper deck between home plate and the Yankees' on-deck circle, a great view -- we recounted one of those memorable games at the Stadium. Bartolo Colon, the Angels' starter on this night but then pitching for the Indians, took a no-hitter
into the eighth inning before settling for a one-hit shutout, the closest I've ever been to a no-no among several close calls
Looking at the stat sheet as the pregame festivities began (something about Randy Johnson and Derek Jeter receiving the Montgomery Burns Award for Outstanding Achievement in the Field of Excellence
), I noted that the one Yankee who'd had significant success against Colon was Alex Rodriguez, 13-for-37 with three homers in his career. With this morsel of information in mind, Nick picked apart Joe Torre's decision to bat Rodriguez fifth in the lineup, down from his usual number two slot.
Yes, officer, I swear this conversation took place.
By the time Rodriguez came up to face Colon in the first inning, the Yanks had two men aboard; Jeter had drawn a leadoff walk, and Hideki Matsui eked a two-out pass as well. Rodriguez went to 2-2 against Colon, then absolutely crushed a ball to left-center for a three-run homer and the obligatory curtain call, a great start to the night. As if he could perhaps will the ball back, Colon stood facing the departure point of the blast for a good thirty seconds before turning around and accepting a new ball from catcher Jose Molina. Meanwhile, Nick and I shared a laugh about the reputed dying words of former Boston Braves manager George Stallings
: "Oh, those bases on balls."
Though the Angels had clawed for a pair of runs off of Carl Pavano in the top of the third, the Yankee crowd was still basking in the glow of that three-run jack when Rodriguez came to bat in the bottom half of the inning. Again, Colon had issued a walk to precede the at-bat, this time to Gary Sheffield, while somewhere Stallings rolled over in his grave. On Colon's second pitch to Rodriguez, the Yankee third baseman drilled another shot, this time to leftfield. No doubt about it, a two-run homer and another curtain call. Given Rodriguez's early-season struggles as well as those of the team, it had to feel good.
Rodriguez is a supremely talented player, but he arrived in the Bronx last year carrying more baggage than even most great players can bear, and the Samsonite continues to multiply: the Quarter Billion Dollar Man, averaging 52 homers a year from the comfort of last place in the AL West while his former team rolled to a record-setting regular season the first year he was gone... nearly a Red Sock but for financial complications amid a ridiculously public trade negotiation
, enduring a slow start in pinstripes and some early-season failures in the clutch, then the infamous slap in the ALCS Game Six, followed by a winter of having to listen to the sorest winners in baseball history -- guys who couldn't carry his jockstrap if they were cycling on steroids -- badmouth him about not being a "true" Yankee... give me a fucking break.
It all sold papers, many of them by a company
with a vested interest in the Yanks' chief rivals.... hmmm. As if Rodriguez's selflessly yielding his position upon being traded to the Yankees, picking up a new one and playing stellar defense, wasn't worth something. As if putting up stats that once the desert air was let out of them weren't too dissimilar from his previous accomplishments, hitting "only" 36 homers to a .286/.375/.512 tune, wasn't worth something. As if his one-out double, gutsy steal of third base, and heads-up jaunt home on a wild pitch to score the series-winning run against the Twins in the AL Divisional Series wasn't proof that the man can come through in the clutch.
It's easy to take the excellence of a superstar like Rodriguez for granted, especially when he's not shooting exploding fireworks out of his butt while helping little old ladies from burning buildings, hitting 600-foot home runs and diving into the stands to save babies from devouring lead paint. Note the cynicism
with which his actual heroism
in Boston was viewed. Perhaps that's why it's so refreshing to be not-so-subtly reminded of the man's superstardom with a tour de force
performance to such as the one he was already putting up after two at-bats on Tueesday night. On a good day -- and this was shaping up to be a very good day so far -- Alex Rodriguez just might be the best ballplayer in the world.
"I think Rodriguez's name is tattooed on Colon's butt at this point," I announced as curtain call number two died down. "He owns the guy." Indeed, everybody seemed to own Colon, who was laboring against practically every batter; A-Rod's homer came on his 58th pitch of the night, and it was getting late early for him. He walked Jason Giambi after a nine-pitch struggle, but escaped the inning when Jorge Posada went down looking at strike three.
Colon's defense let him down in the fourth. Second baseman Chone Figgins mishandled a hot shot by Andy Phillips (drawing his second starting assignment in a row and having just missed a home run in his previous at-bat), and after Derek Jeter singled two batters later, Figgins made another error on a fielder's choice that could have ended the inning with a double-play but instead allowed a run. One out later, Matsui drew another walk, setting the table, and the stage, for Rodriguez.
"What if he hits a grand slam?" Nick asked. "If he hits a grand slam, I'm going home," I laughed. "I'll have seen everything." That was utter bullshit; if he hit a third, we both knew I'd be staying to the bitter end in search of number four.
Colon had thrown 94 pitches by the time he faced A-Rod for the third time, but when he fell behind 3-1 in the count, he mustered every last reserve of oomph and blew a 97 mph heater by Rodriguez. I reminded Nick that Colon was one of the few pitchers who could actually dial it up to triple-digits as Rodriguez fouled one off to run up a full count.
The next pitch will probably be replayed so long as A-Rod's in pinstripes. Rodriguez drove one to deep centerfield, just to the left of the 408 foot sign as the crowd's roar reached a crescendo. "Go! Go! Hoooly shit!" I heard myself shouting. Nick was even more unhinged. "Oh my God! Oh my God! Oh my God! Oh my God!" he shrieked, jumping up and down and flailing his arms. It was a sight to behold, and we were hardly the only ones struggling to keep it together. The pandemonium in the stadium hadn't died down by the time I finished shading in all of them pretty little diamonds on my scorecard. Three homers and nine RBI on the night, and it was only the fourth inning. That was it for Colon, of course, and as he departed, I couldn't help but feel we'd exacted a bit of vengeance for that evening nearly five years ago. So long, sucker!
With the Yanks now holding a 10-2 lead, the only real suspense was whether Rodriguez could do it again. As Giambi flew out to end the inning, I began counting by threes on my scorecard, then relayed my findings: he'd have one at-bat, of course, but to get a second one, the Yanks would need to put five baserunners on. They got two in the next inning, but one was erased by a double play. The plot thickened.
Around this time, I put in a call to Alex Belth
, to whom I'd offered the ticket Nick had used. "You shoulda been here, man," I told him as he answered the phone, and I could tell the wheels were turning as he tried to place who it was. "Oh, you fucking... you don't think that I'm not thinking that..." he began, off on a very blue streak. I let him vent, then we had a good laugh and he filled me in on the perspective for the home viewers, reliving the fateful at-bat. He'd missed the third curtain call, as it coincided with the pitching change, but I assured him that the Yankee Stadium crowd had shown the love, even chanting "A-Rod! A-Rod! A-Rod!"
A-Rod got his fourth chance an inning later, coming up with one out and men on first and second. We'd been hoping it would be with nobody on, giving him a shot at what I termed a royal flush -- homering with nobody, one, two, and three on base. "If he homers, I'm gonna go streaking in a conga line," one of the two guys behind me said to a fellow fan. "Count me in," I declared, sure that this threat was even more idle than the last one.Also Sprach Zarathustra
(the 2001: A Space Odyssey
theme) preceded the at-bat, and the crowd gave Rodriguez a standing ovation as he stepped into the box. He didn't homer, but down 0-2 in the count, he lined one sharply up the middle for an RBI, his tenth on the night. No shame there, and an impressive save of an at-bat to boot. When Giambi walked immediately following (the generous Angels' staff handed out seven passes on the night), it clinched one more chance for a fourth home run, though throngs of fans made their way towards the exit, unwilling to wait it out in this 12-3 laugher.
He didn't get it, of course, lining out to centerfield to lead off the bottom of the eighth and receiving yet another standing ovation from a thinning but nonetheless grateful crowd. From there the only suspense was whether rookie reliever Colter Bean, who'd pitched a shaky but effective 1-2-3 eighth inning as his major-league debut, would return for the ninth. He did, allowing a run and prompting considerable activity in the Yankee pen, but the young sidearmer survived walking the first two hitters to strike out two of the final three to cap things off.
Rodriguez became the first Yankee to drive in 10 runs or more in Yankee Stadium, and only the 11th major-leaguer to do so anywhere, a single RBI off of fellow Yankee Tony Lazzeri's AL record and two off of the major league record, held by Jim Bottomley, circa 1924, and Mark Whiten, circa 1993. His three-homer night, not to mention his box score line (5 3 4 10) was something I've never seen, sweeping aside any trace of ennui I had brought to the Bronx and giving me yet another set of special memories. Damn, I love this game.
Tuesday, April 26, 2005
• This week's Prospectus Hit List
has the Dodgers holding onto the top spot, with the Marlins a close second and the White Sox, who ran the table at 7-0 last week, in a surprising third place. I have to admit that I'm really enjoying the process of compiling these, though they are a lot of work and at this point in the season, very volatile. Since the rankings are driven by run differentials (runs scored and runs against), even a day's play can mean the difference between several spots. Case in point: on Sunday morning, the Mets were as high as fourth, and the Nationals 21st. By the end of the day, when the Nats beat the Mets 11-4, the Mets fell to eighth and the Nats rose to 13th. The biggest jump for the week belonged to the Cardinals, who rose from 24th to fifth, more or less swapping spots with the Blue Jays, who fell from fourth to 23rd. I'm going to have to come up with some special notation for teams like that -- maybe an anvil and a rocket.
• I'm headed up to Yankee Stadium tonight to see the Yanks take on the Honky Tonk Angels of Bakersfield, or something like that. While the Yanks haven't exactly been a pleasure to watch thus far, their current situation with injuries to Jaret Wright (torn scar tissue) and Ruben Sierra (torn biceps) has finally opened up opportunities for the few meager prospects they hold. Andy Phillips drew the start at first base on Sunday and responded with an RBI double and a three-run homer which drew him a curtain call and delivered the coup de grâce
to the Rangers. Sidearming reliever Colter Bean was recalled to take Wright's place on the roster until Chien-Ming Wang arrives to start on Saturday.
As risky as this might be for the listless Yankees, who at 8-11 hold an identical record at this point to last year's 101-win team, frankly, it shouldn't hurt them all that much. Wright's been a disaster thus far, with an ERA of 9.15, while Sierra, though slugging a robust .692, was only getting on base to the tune of .296 -- all seven of his hits were for extra bases, an unsustainable ratio. They could do worse than cultivate their organizational depth this early in the year.
Phillips is a 28-year-old with some pop; PECOTA
projects him at a weighted mean performance of .263/.326/.456, and he can play either second base or first. He homered on the first major-league pitch he saw in a game against the Red Sox last year, and is now batting .333/.333/1.000 over the course of his 14 at-bats in the show.
The 28-year-old Bean, though not a heat-thrower, struck out an eye-popping 109 hitter in 82.2 innings last year at Triple-A Columbus, while walking only 23 and posting a 2.29 ERA. For the Yanks to ignore a performance like that by not giving him at least a shot in the big-league pen is inexcusable. PECOTA
agrees, projecting him at a 3.50 ERA with better than a strikeout per inning; in other words, this guy has big-leaguer written all over him.
Free Wang! The 25-year-old product of Taiwan put up a 3.50 ERA in 149.1 innings split between Double-A Trenton and Triple-A Columbus, striking out 7.5 per nine innings with a 3.7 K/BB ratio and only nine homers allowed. He also pitched for the Taiwanese Olympic team, beating the eventual silver medalists, the Australians. The word
is that he's got a 92 MPH fastball that can hit 96 at times, as well as a slider, changeup, and "devastating" splitter. PECOTA
has him slated for a 4.68 ERA which given the rotation's current struggles (a cumulative 5.32 ERA), doesn't look too bad right now.
The best thing about this move, in my view, is that it makes the team a lot more watchable. Though there's plenty of unpredictability and even occasioanl grief to be had along the way since, as Joe Sheehan put it, there's no such thing as a pitching prospect, it's exponentially more fun to watch young players develop then to watch overpaid aged mediocrities fill space in the lineup. At the very worst, the nearly bone-dry Yankee system can spotlight a few potential bargaining chips for the trading deadline, and at best, this grizzled $200 million behemoth has some cheap and talented solutions at its disposal.
Cliff Corcoran has a lot more to say about the injured bodies
and their able replacements
over at Bronx Banter.
• One of the first posts
I did for this blog concerned good-hitting pitchers, and at the top of the list was Earl Wilson, who hit seven homers in 1966 and 1968 (the Year of the Pitcher) and topped five homers four times en route to 35 round trippers in 740 at-bats for his career, second only to Wes Ferrell's 38 jacks. Sadly, Wilson passed away
recently at the age of 70. In tribute to Wilson, you could do worse than peruse his career line
and remember a time when men were men and pitchers didn't hit like little girls.
Sunday, April 24, 2005
In a very favorable review
of The Juice
in the Denver Post
, Will Carroll dropped my name in an interview with columnist Mike Klis, showering me with hyperbole:
Although Carroll's readers will be far more educated on steroids, the book's sale receipts will probably show America would rather be entertained. While [Jose] Canseco made the sensational claim that Jason Giambi is "the most obvious juicer in the game," Carroll wonders how anyone can look at the substance-abusing brothers of those two players - Ozzie Canseco and Jeremy Giambi - and believe steroids have a significant impact on baseball performance.
After connecting his research of steroids with the home run boom from 1996-2001, Carroll returns to the theory espoused before the BALCO scandal broke in 2003 - the No. 1 factor was a juiced baseball, followed by hitter-favorable ballparks, bat composition, nutritional/strength training enhancement and then, steroids.
"Jay Jaffee [sic], who I think is the premier statistician in the game, the one thing he keeps pointing to is the ball," Carroll said. "Every time somebody wants to look at the ball, they clam up. They won't let you test it, they won't let you look at the factory. I'm not saying steroids don't help, but there are so many other things."
While I certainly appreciate the mention and the kind words from Will (and the misspelling recalls all the elementary school-era snappy answers to stupid questions
of whether I'm related to MAD
magazine's Al Jaffee
), I will be the first to say that any claim of "premier statistician" is more than a tad overblown. For what it's worth, Will recalls "one of" being part of the original quote.
Lest anyone require clarification, the stat-crunchers who form the backbone of Baseball Prospectus -- Clay Davenport, Keith Woolner, Nate Silver and James Click -- are far more adroit and creative than I am, to say nothing of folks outside of BP from Bill James to Voros McCracken to Tangotiger to Mitchel Lichtman, many of whom get paid by actual teams for their statistical acumen. If I am anything in this conversation, it is an adept user of the fine tools created by those people and others, one who tries very hard to translate complex concepts like DIPS
and PECOTA to a broader audience. Those men are the A-Rods, Derek Jeters, Miguel Tejadas and Vlad Guerreros of the field (we'll avoid tainting anybody with a Barry Bonds comparison), while on a good day I'm closer to Melvin Mora
or Chone Figgins
-- a versatile contributor of increasing profile if not a heavy hitter. Still, there are worse things to be called, and to shift the focus back onto the book, it's nice to see it generating positive press already.
• • •
Speaking of Davenport, he draws a mention in Sunday's New York Times Magazine piece
author Michael Lewis about the influence of power hitting on evaluating a prospect's chances, and the way that steroids has clouded analysts ability to do so:
Of course, there's now some sketchy evidence that steroids have contributed mightily to the power surge. Clay Davenport, who studies minor-league players for the Web site Baseball Prospectus, has found that three of the four players with the most remarkable midcareer power surges in the last two decades are now famously linked to steroid use: Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire and Jason Giambi. (Giambi has gone from hitting 10 home runs in his entire college career to hitting 43 home runs off major-league pitching in a single season.) Ron Shandler, who has worked as a statistical analyst for the St. Louis Cardinals and publishes Baseball Forecaster, an annual survey of major- and minor-league players for fantasy leaguers, expresses his suspicions another way: he flags players who acquire power the same season that they've come back from vacation 20 pounds or more heavier. For instance, Shandler has noted that last season Adrian Beltre, in his final year with the Dodgers before becoming a free agent, reportedly showed up 20 pounds heavier than the year before. Beltre, whose career up to that point had been a story of unfulfilled promise, blasted 48 home runs, 25 more than he had ever hit in a single season -- for which he was rewarded, by the Seattle Mariners, with a new five-year, $64 million contract. (When a Tacoma, Wash., reporter asked if he had used steroids, Beltre laughed in denial.)
...But the ambiguity of steroids' effects may have, in an odd way, increased their grip on the game. Unable to parse the statistics and separate natural power from steroid power, the people who evaluate baseball players for a living have no choice but to ignore the distinction. They've come to view the increase in the number of young players without power who become older players with power as a new eternal truth about the game. "Good hitters become power hitters, power hitters don't become good hitters" has become a kind of cliche for baseball's more statistically minded general managers. Power is now understood as less an innate gift than a gettable skill -- more like speaking French than being 6-foot-3. Which is to say that steroids may have changed not only the way the game is played but also the way the game is understood. They have given birth to a big, beefy idea from whose side-effects no player is immune.
Now here is where a premier statistician, one with a full command of the history of major league baseball at his fingertips in the form of a database, could weigh in with a discussion of power development in prospects. Perhaps it would be something as simple as a graph plotting isolated power (SLG - AVG) against age to show that there is indeed a natural developmental curve with regards to how power develops. I'll eagerly await Davenport, Silver, or another heavy hitter doing so.
Suffice it to say that since Lewis' last two Times
mag pieces turned into books (Moneyball
and the forthcoming Coach
) it's a safe assumption that this piece, which catches up with a pair of players taken in Oakland's now-infamous 2002 draft, is part of the forthcoming Moneyball
sequel, and an even safer one to say that it's essential reading. Go!
Saturday, April 23, 2005
The Futility Infielder Book Rodeo Continues
I'm doing a bit of housekeeping around FI.com, promoting The Juice
on the home page
(and I'd appreciate it if you use that link to purchase a copy, as I get a small referral fee that helps pay the bills around here), and contemplating even bigger design changes to the site. From the traffic stats, it seems that an increasing share of my audience is viewing this site on monitors that will accommodate a wider page size (and therefore less scrolling), so that's at the top of the list. Should I happen to kick up any dust in the process that renders this site missing in action or askew in its presentation, rest assured that it's merely a temporary glitch that will be ironed out.
I also wanted to follow up the The Juice
-related link with a couple of other pertinent book mentions. First off, my pal Steven Goldman's book on Casey Stengel, Forging Genius
, is now headed for a May 6 ship date, It's been receiving some very positive reviews lately. Allen Barra has written glowingly of it here
, and here
. Says Barra, a fine author in his own right:
"Forging Genius" isn't so much a biography as a study of how three-quarters of a century of baseball wisdom came to be encapsulated in one of the game's classic eccentrics. "Is this serious? Are they really going to put a clown in to run the Yankee operation?" asked a New York sportswriter when told that Stengel had been chosen to manage the Yankees in 1948. That's how Stengel was regarded by those who had not studied his minor-league record carefully or who hadn't paid sufficient attention to how he got the most out of a ragtag collection of misfits with the Brooklyn Dodgers.
The combination of Stengel's unorthodox behavior -- on a tour of England, Casey, dressed in full baseball uniform, stepped right up to shake hands with King George V -- and bold tactics took even veteran baseball writers by surprise. Taking his leave from McGraw, he perfected "platooning" -- pitting right-handed hitters against left-handed pitchers and vice versa, employing relief specialists and using veteran role players to supplement young starters.
"Because I can make people laugh," he once said, "some of them think I'm a damn fool. ... But as a player, coach and manager, I have been around baseball for some thirty-five years ... I've learned a lot and picked up a few ideas of my own." And along the way, he did more than any other manager to create the modern game.
Steven Goldman has looked over a well-traveled road and found in it new directions. "Forging Genius" is that rarest of baseball books: respectful toward tradition and irreverent to perceived wisdom. The greatest of American sportswriters, Red Smith, once wrote that it was necessary to reintroduce Stengel to readers "at least once a decade." Goldman's "Forging Genius" ought to do for at least a century.
Meanwhile, Salon's King Kaufman had some kind words
as well, calling it "Best book about a baseball manager this year," not that there's much competition besides Buzz Bissinger's Tony LaRussa book, Three Nights in August
, which frames itself
as an anti-Moneyball
screed while hailing the "genius" responsible for twelve-man pitching staffs and third LOOGYs. Not exactly coming soon to a bookshelf near me, at least on my dollar.
Back to Goldman, a recent Pinstriped Blog
entry (scroll to Thursday, April 21) amusingly describes his travails editing the forthcoming Baseball Prospectus book on the Red Sox, Mind Game
, to which I contributed two chapters:
"Mind Game" ... started out last winter as a quick six- or eight-week project with eight chapters and just a few writers, then mushroomed into a magnum opus of more than 25 chapters and a cast of thousands. It has had the gestation period of a blue whale without the second trimester euphoria. I have watched suckling babes age and wither during the construction of this intended bauble. Mighty trees have fallen. Epochs of fashion and morals have passed. I was young and sprightly when I began, now I am stooped and mumble.
....With a month of convalescence somewhere like Baden-Baden (Who am I kidding? I'll never go to Germany) I might even live to see it published later this summer. I even think that it just might turn out to be a swell book about a team that took a rational approach to team building, even if it did reach out of its mother's womb and try to strangle Daddy on the way to the delivery room. It certainly reads faster than we put it together, and that's a good thing. We've crammed it full of tasty goodness, like literary foie gras.
As much as the next man, I wish Mind Game
was already on the shelves, but its delays have been caused by the need to keep BP's customers happy with the timely delivery of the annual book
as well as regular web content, not to mention keeping the staff, and particularly cleanup hitter Goldman, sane. Additionally, the virtue of its late publication is that it aspires to be a measured, nonpartisan, timeless evaluation of Sox history and the arc of the Henry/Epstein regime rather than a quick reaction to the marketplace such as the slew of King/Shaughnessy/Montville tomes -- not that those don't hold their virtues for diehard Sox fans, I'm sure.
I've got review copies of a couple of Yankee-related baseball books in my pile. Continuing with the book theme, I'll hit those sometime in the next several days, and continue to discuss the Carroll and Goldman books as I lay hands on my own copies.
Wednesday, April 20, 2005
As the games on the field begin captivating our attention, we've hit a brief lull in the steroids furor, at least where baseball is concerned (football
is another story). So far three players -- Alex Sanchez, Jorge Piedra, and now Agustin Montero -- have been suspended due to positive tests. None fit the profile of the musclebound slugger that drives the mainstream media bloodlust on this issue; not even Sanchez, the most well-known of the three, could hardly be considered a household name. Collectively the results have been greeted with a giant yawn
But that doesn't mean I haven't been thinking about steroids. In particular, a recent email exchange with a friend gave me the desire to clarify my position on a couple of issues, even at the risk of wandering into quicksand at a time when I'd rather write about something else. The charge my friend made, echoed in comments by a couple of readers recently
, is that the sabermetric community is somehow out to disprove the impact of steroids and would rather place the blame anywhere but on the players who used them. Having written a chapter for a forthcoming book -- Will Carroll's The Juice: The Real Story of Baseball's Drug Problems
, which hits the streets later this month -- somewhat along those lines, that charge hits close to home, hence my motivation to consider it.
Inasmuch as sabermetrics as defined is the search for objective truth about baseball, I think it's only fitting that wild claims as to the impact of steroids on baseball are greeted with some skepticism. We don't have the kind of double-blind testing that would give us a more definitive picture, but we know they have some physical effects with regards to strength and speed, and that some of those effects may aid in baseball-specific tasks of increasing power, bat speed, and even foot speed.
What we most definitely don't know beyond a handful of players implicated via leaked BALCO testimony and others who have come forward is who's doing or has done them. We can guess, we can point to circumstantial evidence such as Jose Canseco's allegations, Mark McGwire's marble-mouthed Congressional appearance, and the fact that power-spiking Rafael Palmeiro wound up as a Viagra pitchman, we can theorize that it's the skinny middle infielders who are the most likely dopers because it makes a certain kind of sense, but really, that's all pretty shoddy. If we're going to hold the game to high standards in cleaning itself up, we need to keep our own standards high as well.
I am uncomfortable with the idea of ballplayers using steroids, yes. And I do believe that the millions of dollars they make as athletes/public personalities/entertainers gives them some obligation to live up to standards as role models whether they want to be such or not. Any player that doesn't want to be a role model should give back the licensing money they receive from MLB Properties, should forego all endorsement opportunities, and should demand that their contracts be negotiated without consideration to those revenue streams' effect on a team's bottom line. Of course, there isn't a chance in hell that's going to happen.
That said, I'm uncomfortable that ballplayers suspected of using steroids are somehow less entitled to due process and rules of evidence than other citizens. I'm equally uncomfortable with the tendencies of the mainstream media and many fans to attempt to convict players on sight and innuendo. With the tiny soapbox I have, I feel an obligation to counter that urge to grab the nearest pitchfork and torch. We didn't have testing until 2003, and we're never going to have much proof with regards to the culprits prior to that. We do have testing now, and the testing appears to be having an impact: a decrease in the number of positives from 96 in 2003 (6.7 percent of major league players) down to 12 in 2004 (1.1 percent). Of course, those positives don't include anyone who may be using the latest generation of undetectable designer steroids or human growth hormone, which requires a blood test to detect. It's a start.
While I think the penalties are too lax (30 or even 60 days for a first offense would be a lot better than 10), I feel even more strongly that we've just got to move on with the new program without encouraging assclowns like John McCain, Henry Waxman, and Christopher Shays to grandstand. If anything, we should be asking Congress tough questions such as why a dietary supplement called DHEA, which converts to a steroid in the bloodstream, ISN'T classified as a controlled substance
and in fact enjoys a special exemption thanks to a bit of pork-barrel legislation on the part of the esteemed senator from my home state, Borin' Orrin Hatch. As the linked New York Times
article asks, why hasn't Congress finished the job of writing zero-tolerance to steroids into federal law?
Further, I do think -- and I believe many other statheads feel this way -- that we ought to attempt to evaluate the statistical evidence with regards to various steroid allegations with the same kind of care we use when evaluating any other sabermetric question. For example, one thing that the media constantly harp on is that ballparks are smaller, which is aiding the rise in homer rates. In fact (and I've mentioned
this already) with the wave of building since the early 1990s -- which has seen 18 new parks created -- the average outfield fence is further away than before, though seating capacities are typically smaller (Jacobs Field's 43,000 or whatever versus Municipal Stadium's 70,000). Now, that may actually work in favor of "these guys must be juiced because they have to hit it further" but at the very least, somebody needs to do the work rather than making unsubstantiated claims and pulling random numbers out of their ass. I've tried to do some of that in my chapter in The Juice
, for which I'm currently trying to arrange an excerpt.
Speaking of Juice
excerpts, there's one in the current issue of Sports Illustrated
(the April 25 issue with Shaquille O'Neal and Amare Stoudamire on the cover; the link is available online to subscribers). It's from the chapter on Carroll's meeting
with the creator of THG, the undetectable steroid at the center of the BALCO scandal. The chapter itself is jaw dropping, dynamite stuff, almost cinematic in its vivid description of the tension around this covert meeting with a man who wished to retain his anonymity. The excerpt is a merely an hors d'oeuvre
, but it should do the job of whetting the appetite:
I asked how he created THG. He explained that it is a substance that is chemically similar to Gestrinone (an infertility drug) and Trenbolone (an anabolic steroid), and that it had been around since the late 1990s. While Dr. X wasn't the first to make it, he refined the process and was one of the few who could produce and distribute the substance. He'd get Gestrinone by sending women to a fertility specialist "who'd write the pass [prescription], and we'd pay cash. Doctors love that, man. We'd spend a couple hundred, spin it [mix the components] and sell it for a couple thousand.
He said there was a lot of cheap "gear" (the term insiders use for steroids) on the market, made for "pathetic losers looking not to have sand kicked in their faces. The world-class athletes who use my stuff can afford good gear" -- the kind impossible to detect.
...The leagues, he said, were overmatched. The metaphor I'd heard was that tests were like looking through mug shots; if the shot wasn't already in the book, you couldn't identify the perpetrator. "Exactly!" he said. "If the NFL wants to test for every known steroid, that's more than 100 tests per player -- 32 teams, 53 players, 100 tests; and they aren't cheap. And that's for known substances. I know there's 10 they don't know about."
Ten currently undetectable steroids -- that's a chiller. Are they being used by baseball players? I don't know, and most likely, neither do you. We can hope that these drugs haven't filtered in, and we can hope that the current testing programs prevent most of those players who would dope from doing so. Most importantly, we can hope that MLB, perhaps even with the help of our
government, puts serious money into researching better methods to test for these drugs. Until then, they're sure to lose this cat-and-mouse game, forever three steps behind the Dr. X's of the world.
I'm eagerly awaiting the arrival of my Juice
copy. I've discussed several parts of the book with Will, but I've only read the Creator chapter and my own, and I look forward to learning more. We've all
got plenty to learn about steroids, and I'm pretty certain that Carroll's book is going to be a giant step in that direction.
Tuesday, April 19, 2005
I've got two freebies up on Baseball Prospectus today: my latest Triple Play
of Dodger, Giant, and Twin nuggets, and this week's Prospectus Hit List
. Oddly enough, according to the Colonel's Supersecret Ranking Recipe (derived from several measurements in Baseball Prospectus' Adjusted Standings
through the close of play on Sunday), the Dodgers are in the top spot thanks to their scorching 9-2 (now 10-2) start. The Yankees are at the other end of the spectrum, ranking 27th this week, ahead of only the Pirates, Royals and Rockies, and with nowhere to go but up.
I have to admit that having watched several Dodger games, I'm developing a serious mancrush on Jeff Kent, who's hitting .370/.482/.739 (I devoted a segment of the PTP to his Hall of Fame chances). He's not the only Dodger who's making me swoon; even Jeff Weaver and Derek Lowe, both of whom twirled shutouts this weekend, have it going on as well. Meanwhile, Mad Bad Milton Bradley is hitting .362/.392/.702, with four homers in his past four games (two on Sunday) and looking like a man finally able to harness his inner demons to inflict punishment on the rest of the league, à la
Gary Sheffield (though without the menacing bat waggle).
The team's hot start is matched only by the 1955 and 1981 squads, both of which won the World Series, and while it's too early to start making plans for October, it's nice to contemplate how many mainstream media flacks might be munching crow if this team can deliver on its early promise (SI.com's John Donovan sets the table here
). I'm going to enjoy keeping a close eye on this team.
This weekend, the New York Daily News
broke the story
that the Yankees are near an agreement with local officials that would give the Bombers a new home in the Bronx -- just north of the current stadium -- in time for Opening Day 2009. The new ballpark will hearken back to the original House that Ruth Built, according to the News
• The stadium will be comprised of two separate structures: one, the exterior wall, constructed to replicate the original Yankee Stadium, built in 1923, and the other the interior stadium itself, rising over the top of the exterior. From the outside the structures will look like one building, almost identical in materials and design to the original stadium. There will be a "great hall" between the exterior wall and the interior structure, featuring five to six times more retail square footage than the current stadium.
• The signature frieze, the lattice work that once rimmed the original stadium roof and was recreated in the outfield of the current stadium, will be added to the new stadium's roof. The frieze (commonly but incorrectly known as "the facade") was painted white during the 1960s, as it now appears above the outfield. But the new stadium will return to the original copper.
Of course it sounds wonderful, but what's the price tag? It's actually not too bad for the taxpayers, as stadium deals go:
• the stadium itself is funded by the team to the tune of $800 million
• the city and state will pitch in $300 million for a new commuter rail stop, waterfront parkland, and better parking facilities, which they will control, "a cash cow for taxpayers," according to the article.
In keeping with the trend of new parks that's swept the majors over the past two decades, the new stadium will have a smaller seating capacity (50,800) than the one it's replacing (57,748), with plenty of luxury suites (50 to 60) for corporate clientele. That smaller capacity is sure to drive up demand for a team whose attendance set a team record last year with 3,775,292 spectators, probably pulling the team's ticket price much closer to that of the Red Sox, the majors' most expensive ticket by a wide margin.
Neil deMause, who's co-written the definitive book on stadium building (Field of Schemes
) and keeps abreast of developments in that department with a blog of the same name
as well as occasional articles for Baseball Prospectus, notes that while the current park features 30,000 seats in the upper deck and 20,00 below, the new stadium will reverse that:
Since it's nearly impossible to fit 30,000 seats on a single deck without resorting to Woodrow Wilson-era seat widths, presumably this counts all the luxury and club-seat levels as "lower-deck" -- which means the cheap seats in the upper deck would effectively be cut by more than a third.
Furthermore, deMause frets that the close-to-the-action upper decks -- where I sit, and my favorite view of the park -- will doubtless be more distant in the new venue. Hmmmmm...
In one of his BP articles, deMause pointed out
that with the $800 million the Yankees are kicking in, the team is exploiting a major loophole in MLB rules:
According to Article XXIV, Section a(5) of the 2002 collective bargaining agreement, teams must make revenue-sharing payments on all baseball revenue, but can deduct "the 'Stadium Operations Expenses' of each Club, as reported on an annual basis in the Club's FIQ [Financial Information Questionnaire]."
That's all it says. But according to baseball sources, teams have been quietly allowed to count stadium construction debt as "stadium operations expenses," thus claiming it as a deduction against revenue sharing.
A few moments with a calculator -- and a copy of Andrew Zimbalist's May the Best Team Win, which lays out the details of the new revenue-sharing plan starting on page 99 -- reveals the impact of this clause on George Steinbrenner's stadium plans. The Yankees currently pay a marginal revenue-sharing rate of about 39% of local revenue. (Low-revenue teams, interestingly, pay an even higher marginal rate, which may help explain why teams like the Twins are seemingly so disinterested in such aspects of the business as, oh, selling tickets.) Taking a deduction for $40 million a year in stadium bond payments would thus earn the Yankees a $15.6 million-a-year write-off on their annual revenue-sharing obligations. Over time, about $300 million of the House That George Built would be paid for by the other 29 teams.
In other words, the Yanks would be able to reap the benefits of the revenue-sharing money -- $48.8 million for 2003, over $60 million last year -- that they've been kicking in to the other teams.
I have to admit mixed feelings about the proposed park. On the one hand, the little kid inside of me would love to see the new park, and I applaud the team's desire to create something which connects fully with the team's rich history. On the other hand, I'll be sad to see the current stadium, which is as hallowed a parcel of land as any in the world of sports, with a connection to Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, Yogi Berra, Whitey Ford, Reggie Jackson and other Yankee greats, fall by the wayside. I'm fearful that the smaller capacity will drive up costs to customers and make the crowds more exclusive and less diverse. The stereotyping of Yankee fans as some faceless corporate class simply isn't true; go to any game and sit somewhere besides the field boxes and you'll get a rainbow of people that's as colorful as on any city subway car.
Furthermore, I'm wary of the trend that has turned baseball's stadiums into mallparks. The current Yankee Stadium, which was renovated in 1974-75, is somewhat spartan in its facilities by comparison to the Jacobs Fields and Camden Yardses. If you're there, you're there to sit on your ass and watch a damn ballgame, not to wander the concourses on a shopping spree or, God forbid, take a dip in some centerfield wading pool like you can at Bank One Ballpark in Phoenix. While the post-renovation park lacks the grandeur of the original, it's refreshingly bullshit-free compared to most other venues.
One thing I detest about Milwaukee's Miller Park, which I've visited several times, is the way pumped-in sound surrounds you anywhere you sit. While Yankee Stadium hasn't been able to avoid the canned music craze that's swept ballparks over the past two decades, at least all of the sound comes from that pillar of speakers in centerfield. The antiquated sonic delivery system makes p.a. announcer Bob Sheppard's booming voice sound like the proclamation of a deity from high on the mount: "Now batting, Der-ek... Je-Ter!"
In any event, the plan's nuts and bolts have yet to receive a public airing, something that will happen once the team and the city complete their "memo of understanding" and free the details from the exclusive control of the Yankee PR machine. The team claims that there's "no significant opposition" to the plan, but you can bet a few wrenches will be thrown into the works before too long.
• • •
On the subject of Yankee dollars, the latest Forbes,com annual evaluation of MLB's finances
-- essential reading -- has been up for a couple of weeks. Forbes' independent audits value
the Yankee franchise at a whopping $950 million, nearly 70 percent more than the number two team, the Boston Red Sox. That value is up 14 percent over last year, outpacing the "huge rally" which baseball finances had this past year. According to Forbes:
• attendance was up 8 percent last year
• sponsorship revenue rose 13 percent
• the average operating income of teams was $4.4 million, the first time in three years it's been in the black and the highest since Forbes started tracking team finances seven years ago.
Forbes points out the way that Yankee and Red Sox dollars are driving the game's economy
The Yankees and Red Sox are often maligned by the other owners for bloated payrolls. Rivals should pay homage instead: The two teams contributed 39% of the $261 million transferred to low-revenue teams as part of baseball's revenue-sharing plan. Also, attendance was higher (Yankees, 34%; Red Sox, 18%) when these teams visited other cities. The Yankees and Red Sox accounted for 47% of the merchandise revenues shared among all teams. While the rest of the league earned $180 million, the Yankees and Red Sox lost a combined $48 million last year. But so what? The owners use their teams largely as loss leaders for their sports channels.
On a side note, I do believe they've reversed the data in the columns following that paragraph, because the Yanks paid more in revenue sharing and luxury tax (a combined $85 mil) than the Sox ($45 mil) and produced a higher road attendance.
Anyway, there are plenty of nuggets to be found amid Forbes' report, and I can't recommend checking it out enough. If you're a consumer of major league baseball, you ought to be an educated one, period.
Sunday, April 17, 2005
Celebrating Jackie Robinson
Friday was Jackie Robinson Day, the 58th anniversary
of Robinson crossing baseball's color line, a move which profoundly affected the course of the rest of the century not only with regards to baseball but to civil rights in this country.
The Los Angeles Dodgers paid tribute at Friday night's game
, though they made something of a hash of it. 6-4-2 blogger Rob McMillan has an excellent post
on his night at Dodger Stadium, celebrating Jackie but taking the team to task for rather half-assed festivities:
Bill James wrote, "Hero worship for Jackie Robinson is virtually an industry". He's broadly right, but there's more to it than mere commerce; the charged rivers of emotion surrounding him bring it nearly to the level of a priestly order, fueled in part by baseball's need for a saint among its all-too-clayfooted modern practitioners. Every few years, when baseball reaches back to recollect something good about the game, when it needs a Field of Dreams to atone for the less-than-heroics on the field, it rattles through the dusty attic of its own memory and pulls out Robinson.
Do not cast me into the cynics' camp. Knowing what he accomplished, the strides he made by putting cleats, sweat, and deeds into the words "all men are created equal", it's hard, at times, to avoid breaking into tears. Robinson was bigger than baseball, and Branch Rickey knew it. The platform Jackie had and the herculean self-restraint it required of him (can anyone imagine, say, a Gary Sheffield under those same circumstances?) led to his transformation into a kind of Ghandi figure, a cross between Washington and St. Francis, a man whose moral dimensions leap to the mythic. When Douglas Adams wrote that the ultimate answer to the ultimate question was 42 (Robinson's now-retired Dodgers number), he was closer to truth than he knew.
...Yet for all its high moments and the concerted effort to remind everyone of history and the Dodgers' place in it, the video montage on Dodgervision was an inexcusable disappointment. Sure, a few stills and a couple bits of old Jackie footage came on the screen, but... does anybody think Jackie made it possible for Cal Ripken to make it in the majors? Pictures of almost everyone, anyone besides Jack Roosevelt Robinson flashed on the display. During the ceremonies, they mentioned an exciting play Jackie made coming to home plate, barely missing Yogi Berra's tag; surely they had some archival footage of that? But no, it was one big general baseball-fest, with plenty of modern players -- not a few of them white -- mixed in with old stills of Jackie. Why not, at least, focus on the Dodgers, and in particular, African-American Dodgers? Jim Gilliam, Johnny Roseboro, Don Newcombe, Tommy Davis, Maury Wills... there's a good start right there. All those guys were All-Stars in their day; it's flabbergasting that the Dodgers didn't create something better than that flabby, slapdash presentation. What could have been a highlight reel moment instead turned as bland as a MasterCard ad.
Ouch. As one 6-4-2 reader points out, the Dodgers even made a mess of the team's attire for the evening. The players wore replica jerseys that said "Brooklyn" across the front, an anachronism since A) they never wore Brooklyn on their home jersey; and B) they stopped wearing Brooklyn on their road jerseys in 1945, two years before Robinson's arrival. Oops.
While Robinson's courage, perseverance and role in changing the course of American history are justifiably celebrated, too often it's forgotten what an absolute hell of a ballplayer he was. The man hit .311/.409/.474 for his career, with outstanding defense at multiple positions (15 runs above average per 100 games at third base, according to Baseball Prospectus' numbers
), and it's no coincidence the Dodgers dominated the National League during his career, with six pennants in ten years. Though Robinson didn't reach the majors until age 28 -- missing nearly half a career -- the Jaffe WARP Score system (JAWS)
shows him at 69.9 WARP, only about 4 wins lower than the 74.1 WARP average for all hitters. That's because his five consecutive year peak is fantastic 55.0 WARP, a figure good enough for 35th all-time, but within three wins of 20th on a closely-clustered list.
Former teammate Duke Snider said
that Robinson was "[T]he greatest competitor I've ever seen. I've seen him beat a team with his bat, his ball, his glove, his feet and, in a game in Chicago one time, with his mouth." Rival Ralph Kiner called Robinson"[T]he best athlete ever to play Major League Baseball." Manager Charlie Dressen exclaimed, "Give me five players like (Jackie) Robinson and a pitcher and I'll beat any nine-man team in baseball." GM Branch Rickey declared, "There was never a man in the game who could put mind and muscle together quicker and with better judgment than (Jackie) Robinson."
Scribe Red Smith remembered him as "[T]he unconquerable doing the impossible." Wrote Roger Kahn in The Boys of Summer
, "Robinson could hit and bunt and steal and run. He had intimidating skills, and he burned with a dark fire. He wanted passionately to win... He bore the burden of a pioneer and the weight made him stronger. If one can be certain of anything in baseball, it is that we shall not look upon his like again."
Perhaps those accolades aren't as important as the higher-minded ones about the changes he wrought on this country (AL president Dr. Gene Budig: "He led America by example. He reminded our people of what was right and he reminded them of what was wrong. I think it can be safely said today that Jackie Robinson made the United States a better nation."). But such observations, along with his playing record, are absolutely nothing to sneeze at. They don't overshadow the magnitude of his accomplishments on and off the field, they complete the picture. As we celebrate Robinson's arrival and what it meant to baseball and this country, his absolute talent as a ballplayer is well worth remembering.
Friday, April 15, 2005
As might have been predicted back when the American League schedule was first released, the Yankees had a rough four days up in Boston this week. While they tried to roll through it with their dignity intact, in the end, they came up short.
The Yanks lost two out of three to the Sox, but the results of the games will hardly be remembered for what took place around them. Monday's game was preceded by a moment Sox fans have waited for (what was that number again?) 86 years: the presentation of World Series rings to their players and the raising of a World Championship banner. That the festivities were done with the Yankees in the house, of course, made it all the sweeter for Sox fans.
While there had been hemming and hawing from the Yankee side that due to the timing of the ceremony, most players would likely be inside the clubhouse changing from batting practice garb to game uniforms, in the end the Yankees did the classy
thing. They stood on the top step of their dugout and watched respectfully. Manager Joe Torre tipped his cap to Sox manager Terry Francona, closer Mariano Rivera absorbed the Boston crowd's sarcastic ovation with a smile and a wave. As captain Derek Jeter later explained
, "I'm probably a little jealous, but they deserve it... You have respect for what they accomplished, because you know how hard it is to do." Even the Sox idiots were appreciative and gracious. Said Johnny Damon, "I don't know how they did it for all that time, but that shows they're all about class over there... For them to respect everything we did means a lot.''
Would that the rest of the series had gone as well for the Yanks. In the afterthought of a ballgame
on Monday, they rolled over for the Sox, losing 8-1. Once again Tim Wakefield's knuckelball was a riddle the Yank hitters couldn't solve, and they managed only five hits and an unearned run while looking flatter than ginger ale I couldn't stomach after puking that afternoon.
The Yanks followed that off day with a day off, then returned for their one shining moment
of the week, outlasting Curt Schilling in his return from the DL. In classic form, the Yanks wore down Schilling, whose stigmata wounds had finally healed, taking him deep into counts and fouling off 11 two-strike pitches in the first three innings alone. Leadoff hitter -- yes, it's come to that
-- Tony Womack drew the sole walk issued by Schilling, but that walk came amid a rally that put the Yanks ahead, foreshadowing the rusty Boston ace's hard luck on the night.
Schilling had thrown 94 pitches through five frames, not an unusually high amount except for his fresh-from-rehab status. But when Francona sent him out for the sixth inning, the Yankees busted out the whupping sticks. Following a one-out single by Jorge Posada, Jason Giambi crushed a 2-1 slider that didn't slide for a two-run homer to rightfield to give the Yanks a 4-2 lead. Francona stuck with Schilling, and two batters later Bernie Williams made him pay for that decision with a solo homer, Bernie's first on the year. Batting ninth for the first time in a decade, Williams finally pumped some life into his batting average, racking up three hits including a double and a late single from the other side of the plate off of sidearming southpaw Mike Myers.
Yankee starter Jaret Wright was shaky, especially during an interminable third inning in which he struggled with his command, walking three. A fine Derek Jeter play on an Edgar Renteria grounder -- moving to his right, charging a soft-roller on the infield grass and firing to first on the run -- enabled him to escape a bases-loaded jam. Following Wright was Tanyon Sturtze, who has apparently usurped Paul Quantrill's role as the first righty out of the pen. His cut fastball mojo working, Sturtze tossed two scoreless frames at the Sox, allowing only one hit in his fifth appearance of the season (Quantrill, by comparison, seems headed for a milk carton near you; he has only two appearances after racking up a whopping 86 last year, his fourth season above 80 in a row). Refreshingly, the Yanks capped the game with a save from Mariano Rivera, who received another derisive ovation from the Fenway faithful but shut them up and the Sox hitters down to break his string of four "consecutive" "blown
" saves against them.
With that feather in their caps, the Yanks had to like their chances in the rubber match
, with Randy Johnson going to the hill against Bronson Arroyo. But the Big Unit was the Big Ugly, yielding a two-run homer to Jay Payton in the second (probably getting back at me for my smack-talk
last week, the fantastically untalented Payton was). Renteria, who's looked like a $40 million bomb thus far this season, followed by crushing a hanging slider for a two-run jack over the Monster in the third.
But the Yanks came right back against Arroyo, who appeared to have little of his usual frustrating arsenal at his disposal. A single and three walks, the last to Gary Sheffield with the bases loaded -- leading to the ejection of Sox hitting coach Ron Jackson, who went postal -- netted one run, Hideki Matsui singled in two more to tie the score at four, and then Alex Rodriguez, the latest lightning rod in this rivalry, blooped an RBI single to rightfield to put the Yanks up 5-4.
The lead didn't last long, as Johnson grooved a pitch to Jason Varitek that got lost on Landsdowne Street a mere two batters later. That was Johnson's last mistake of the night, as he gritted his way through the seventh without allowing another run.
The bottom of the eighth inning will forever be consigned to the uglier pages of lore in this rivalry, and not just for Tom Gordon's shaky performance. Gordon yielded a leadoff single to Johnny Damon on an 0-2 pitch, then gave up an RBI double to Renteria. He sandwiched an intentional walk of nemesis David Ortiz between two flyouts, then fell behind Varitek 2-1. On the fourth pitch of the at-bat, Varitek lined a ball down the righfield line. It caromed around the corner and when Sheffield attempted to field the ball, he was apparently grazed by a Sox mook -- recall that the wall in rightield is less than four feet high in some parts. In mid-play, Sheffield came up with the ball, lunged at said mook, sending beer a-spilling, before firing the ball back to the infield. Two runs scored as Varitek took third, as Sheffield turned back to the crowd. He threatened a punch but didn't throw it as Fenway security quickly leapt in. The Yankee bench cleared, play was delayed, and chaos reigned for several minutes. Explained Sheffield
of the play:
"I just felt something hit me in the mouth... It felt like a hand hit me in the mouth, but I have to look at the tape.
"I don't know if it punched me or not, but it felt like it. I thought my lip was busted. I continued with the play, then I thought about it and didn't react. It could have been worse if I didn't hold my composure. I almost snapped. I thought about the consequences."
Sheffield's mid-play reaction was, alas, somewhat 'Blauch-headed
, though the umpires should have ruled the play a ground-rule double for fan interference, preventing Ortiz from scoring. Sheff did manage to exercise some restraint in the post-play confrontation, later invoking the negative memory of Ron Artest
, the Indiana Pacer who gave the entire sporting world a black eye when he retaliated against a Detroit Pistons fan last November, drawing a suspension for the balance of the season.
It was an ugly incident all the way around. The Yanks already have a legacy of tangling with Fenway fanatics; recall the altercation in the 2003 American League Championship Series involving Jeff Nelson, Karim Garcia and a partisan groundskeeper. Bosox fans have made an increasingly routine habit of interfering with balls down the rightfield line; the night before they prevented the speedy Womack from trying for a triple, though if memory serves, souvenir hungry kleptos-in-training also grabbed at Sox hits. Yankee fans can hardly take a high road in terms of fan interference, as one needs only remember Jeffrey Maier's grab of a Derek Jeter fly ball in Game One of the 1996 ALCS
against the Orioles.
But it was the fan's contact with Sheffield, whether inadvertent or not, which escalated the situation. Sheff looked ready to crack skulls and skip the name-taking, and really, who could blame him? Not even the Sox players. "I can understand why he got mad," said Johnny Damon
. "He did a good job of restraining himself." It will be interesting to see whether Major League Baseball mandates tougher security, particularly closer to the field of play, for the next round of matchups -- perhaps to the point of keeping those close-to-the-field seats empty -- but given Bag Job
Bud's closeness with Sox owner John Henry, Yankee fans shouldn't hold their collective breath.
Nonetheless, the damage was done, and the Yanks had a three-run hole for themselves to dig out of in the ninth. They made a tantalizing effort, with Sheffield -- funny how that worked out -- narrowly missing a home run off the Green Monster to lead off the inning against Keith Foulke, who'd already thrown 18 pitches in working the eighth inning. Matsui followed with a walk to bring the tying run to the plate with no outs in the form of A-Rod, but the Yankee third baseman continued his tormented legacy of clutch woes by flying out. Posada popped out and Giambi worked a walk before Torre called on his favorite low-OBP pinch hitter, freeswinging Ruben Sierra, to hit for rookie Andy Phillips. After drawing a ball, Sierra popped up Foulke's second pitch into foul territory. It almost escaped the field of play, but a hustling Varitek ran it down to seal the victory and chase the Yanks out of town.
The two teams have now split the pair of season-opening series, and really, is that any surprise? This is a heavyweight matchup that will likely go the distance, and anybody thinking it will be decided on a frigid April night has less sense than the Sox fan who took on Sheffield. The fracas in rightfield will continue to elevate the rhetoric, hype, and scrutiny for this matchup beyond the tolerance of all but the face-painted
set, and that's no surprise either. But let's hope that the fans' part in the playing of these games has drawn to a close with this early-season exchange. This rivalry is intense enough, these teams well-matched enough, these games important enough, that there's just no need for such bush-league bullshit, either at Fenway or Yankee Stadium.
As for the Yanks, nine games into the season, they're still searching for a groove. They've lost two series out of three and have been outscored on the season. The facelifted starting staff holds a mediocre 5.13 ERA and is averaging only 5.3 innings per start (even allowing for Carl Pavano's liner-aided departure they're under 6.0). Most ominously, the pitching staff yas yielded a scorching .342 batting average on balls in play, or a woeful .658 Defensive Efficiency Rate, if you prefer to look at the half-empty glass from another angle. It's a small sample size with a high percentage of games in Fenway, but those numbers don't say nice things about the team's defense, particularly underscoring the fact that they should have nabbed the nimble Carlos Beltran when they had the chance. That's a dead horse that will continue to be worth flogging. Stay tuned.
Wednesday, April 13, 2005
The Whirlwind Week That Was
Whew! It's been a whirlwind week here at Futility Central, a week that's seen me:
• attend my first ballgame of the year, last Wednesday's Yankees-Red Sox matchup, a/k/a Mariano's Meltdown
• drive up to Boston to be a guest speaker at Tufts University's class on baseball stats
• celebrate this site's four-year anniversary
• get in my first game of catch for the year
• leave the Mets' home opener in the sixth inning with flu-like symptoms and wind up in the Beth Israel emergency room system for the better part of the next day
• publish my second Prospectus Hit List feature at BP, now with an enhanced design and Pythagenport-based rankings
That's a pretty full seven days. Fortunately, I made copious notes along the way, so just to recap a few thoughts here before they become completely irrelevant...
• First, the anniversary. It's tough to believe that much time has passed since I penned this tribute to Willie Stargell
and registered a domain name that had been rolling around in my head for a few weeks. Tougher still to fathom that the work I've done here would put me on TV
or in a college course syllabus
. I want to thank everybody -- family, friends, fellow bloggers, writers and readers -- who has helped me with advice, encouraged me to keep going, or showed up to read what I have to say day after day. Building and running this site has changed my life in ways I never imagined it would, and for that I'm eternally grateful.
• The weather couldn't have been more perfect for my first ballgame
of the season, a Yanks-Red Sox matchup to boot. As the Yanks clawed back from a 2-0 deficit to take a 3-2 lead in the bottom of the eighth before summoning Mariano Rivera, the completion of a perfect afternoon was within reach.
By now the outcome -- five runs by the Sox, resulting in Rivera's second blown save in as many days and, technically speaking, fourth in as many appearances against Boston -- has been picked apart, so I won't belabor it too much. But it was hell to sit through, as Rivera threw 38 pitches (20 of them balls) before departing. He'd have gotten out of his bases-loaded, one-out jam had it not been for Alex Rodriguez's error on an easy grounder that could have either generated a forceout at home plate or a game-ending double-play. But the ball was bobbled, all hands were safe, and from there the wheels fell off, resulting in a round of sky-is-falling pronouncements from all corners.
As bad as the performance was, perspective is sorely needed. Rivera didn't throw during the offseason, and had been bothered by bursitis in his elbow during spring training. He's obviously not in his usual midseason form, but that hardly means the end is nigh. Baseball Prospectus' Joe Sheehan
had a very reasonable take:
Let's not kid ourselves. This is being blown out of proportion in part because Rivera was facing the Red Sox. Had he blown back-to-back saves against the Devil Rays in June -- or to the A's and Rangers in August, as he did back in 2003 -- there wouldn't be headlines like "Time to panic in the Bronx?" or lines like "Has he lost it?" working their way into coverage. Because Rivera's failures this week came against the Red Sox, six months after he was credited with two blown saves against them in the ALCS, there's a rush to pass some kind of judgment based on a vanishingly small sample of events.
First of all, the "four straight blown saves" is overstating the case. It was two games last year and two games this year, and drawing a line connecting to the two is horribly misleading. Moreover, Rivera hadn't even pitched poorly until yesterday.
Sheehan runs down the four games, noting particularly that his second blown save of the ALCS was hardly a fair designation:
[D]inging Rivera with a "blown save" in this [Game Five] situation doesn't remotely reflect his performance. He came in with the tying run on third, another guy on first, no one out. The Yankees were playing the infield back. Rivera faced seven batters and retired six, the other reaching on an infield hit. The "blown save" designation comes from the fact that the first out he got was on a fly ball that was deep enough to score the tying run. He pitched wonderfully, and lumping this in as a failure ignores the difficulty of the situation into which he entered.
...Save yesterday's outing, Rivera hadn't pitched poorly, and in fact, had pitched very well in at least one of the games, blown save or no. The common thread isn't failure by Rivera; it's that the Yankees asked him to protect four one-run leads. Certainly in the ALCS, the Yankees' failure to capitalize on late-game situations was as much a factor in their losses as anything Rivera did.
For what it's worth, the run expectancy
in that two-on, no out situation is 1.854 runs, meaning that Rivera actually did an above-average job in keeping the Sox from taking the lead.
Enough about Rivera... the best moment at the Stadium came in the bottom of the fifth. With their team leading 2-0, a sizable contingent of Red Sox fans was especially vocal in the upper deck behind home plate. Some Sox-jersey-wearing chowdahead was waving a large red sign at a section of Yank fans as he paraded up and down the aisle. Finally one Yankee partisan snatched the sign away, crumpling it up to the crowd's delight. A scuffle ensued and security was summoned.
Right as that was happening, Yankee first baseman Tino Martinez solved the riddle of Tim Wakefield's knuckleball and drilled a floater over the rightfield wall to tie the game. Standing to celebrate Martinez's first home run since returning to the Bronx, the home crowd was riled up, jeering the pair or Sox fans escorted away by security and bestowing a hearty ovation on the departing Yankee mooks just after showering Tino with love.
Alas, that Martinez blast was the third and final Yankee hit off of Wakefield for the afternoon. Only the wildness by Sox reliever Mike Timlin -- who hit Derek Jeter with a pitch that laid the Yankee captain out and walked two other batters as well -- aided the Yanks taking the lead before it all crumbled apart in the ninth. Still, the outcome was disappointing only in the context that it prevented a season-opening sweep by the Yanks over the Sox, and it served notice that these two teams may well be continuing their back-and-forth scrapfest through the rest of their 16 -- or perhaps 23 -- remaining matchups.
• On Thursday, I put the pedal to the metal and drove four hours into the heart of Red Sox country to drop in on Tufts University's course on baseball stats (The Analysis of Baseball: Statistics and Sabermetrics
), where after discovering
a few weeks ago that my DIPS page
was on the syllabus, I'd been invited as a guest speaker. According to that syllabus,
This course will teach Tufts students the fundamentals of Sabermetrics, the analysis of baseball through objective evidence. It will cover the important concepts in statistics needed to perform sabermetric research and analysis. Students will design and implement their own sabermetric research study. We will discuss baseball not through conventional wisdom and consensus, but by searching for the truth of baseball performance using baseball statistics. Hitting performance, pitching performance, defensive performance will all be analyzed and better understood by looking at and analyzing current and historical data from baseball.
Renowned books such as the New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract
dot the syllabus, as do several Baseball Prospectus articles including Nate Silver's introduction to PECOTA in BP2003
Prior to the class I spent an hour and a half talking baseball and Napoleon Dynamite
with professor Andy Andres over Mexican food (Andres had the dang quesadilla
). According to Andres, the Tufts class is the first of its kind, and this is the second semester he's taught it. While he holds a Ph. D in Nutritional Biochemistry and Physiology and his main gig is teaching an introductory biology course at Boston University, Andres has his baseball-stat cred as an analyst for Ron Shandler's BaseballHQ
fantasy website. With his background, he's particularly well-versed in the physiological effects of steroids, and so we spent a good deal of time discussing Will Carroll's forthcoming book, The Juice
We made our way over to the classroom via the softball field, where we were joined by assistants Morgan Melchiorre and David Tybor, the former a cigar-smoking Mets fan and the latter a wiry White Sox supporter. The trio of instructors are teammates on Jumbo's Peanut Surprise
in the university's softball league, with Melchiorre the team's big basher (.826 AVG, 1.826 SLG, if the stats page
is to be believed). As the class assembled, it was discovered that one of its participants had chosen to remain at practice rather than come to the lecture. Busted!
The class consisted of 16 students, four of them women. After a round of introductions and some baseball banter, we began with each student discussing the topic of his or her class project. The range of topics wouldn't seem out of place on a typical week's worth of Baseball Prospectus:
• An analysis of free agent market efficiency, comparing the 2000-2002 and 2003-2004 classes in search of variables which best determined player salary
• A look at whether power or finesse pitchers have more effect on batting average on balls in play (BABIP)
• Questec-related park effects on strikeout, walk and home run rates
• A search for the existence of "clutch pitching" in closers
• Weather effects on Boston pitchers' performances
• A study of Fenway's park effects on lefty and righty hitters and pitchers
• A search for the stolen-base break-even point using data from the last ten years
• An examination of the hitting stats of middle infielders over the past several years, in seach of clues as to the impact of steroids
Following that, we engaged in nearly an hour of freewheeling discussion covering steroids, DIPS, JAWS, Ultimate Zone Rating, and a multitude of other sabermetric concepts, with some of the aforementioned projects working their way back to the discussion. Yankee-Red Sox comparisons came up often, peppered with commentary on the Mets and White Sox as well. We discussed the impact of park effects -- particuarly Fenway Park -- on pitchers as varied as Derek Lowe and David Wells. The students were enthusiastic both in discussing their own work and in inquiring about the state of sabermetrics in general. All in all, it felt very similar to the Prospectus Bookstore events I participated in recently -- an inquisitive audience asking intelligent questions.
After my time was up, we were joined by a second guest speaker: Zack Scott, a baseball operations assistant for the Boston Red Sox. Scott, in his late 20s, gave the students a glimpse into life in a particularly progressive -- and very successful -- front office. He emphasized that the Sox strive to get as full a picture from both qualitative and quantitative analyses as possible, that they favor players who control the strike zone both as hitters and pitchers, and that GM Theo Epstein isn't shy about seeking out the multitude of voices within that office. Scott described how, as a humble intern last summer, he was asked by Epstein to debate the "pro" merits of trading Nomar Garciaparra to the Cubs in a 2-for-2 deal that, while it didn't materialize, led to the big four-way deal soon afterwards. In one of his more candid comments, he admitted that any Pedro Martinez fastball thrown in Fenway was bumped up to a minimum 87 MPH reading on the stadium's scoreboard.
One of the students in the class, Jessica Genninger, doubled her participation by reporting
on the class for the Tufts Daily
. She gave a thorough airing of Scott's comments, so I'll skip over most of them in favor of her report for the sake of brevity.
A recurring theme of Scott's segment was roster construction, and towards the end of his spot he and I compared the makeup of the Sox bench, which stresses skills complementary to the starters (better speed, better defense, more contact oriented, better dollar value) to that of the Yankees (um, proven veteranitude, worldseriesability, sitnexttoJoeness, and shutupandplayballitude?). From where I sit, and I'm not alone in this regard, the Sox biggest edge on the Yankees comes in the composition and usage of those bottom spots of the rosters. That said, I had a fun time picking apart his team's acquisition of Jay Payton, whose strike zone judgment and general scarecrow-headed play would seem to fall outside the team's modus operandi.
Though the class' energy seemed to flag a bit during his presentation, Scott was witty and informative while maintaining a general air of humility, an impression that he sustained when the class broke and the instructors took us for dinner and drinks. I had to depart early to make my way to a friend's place in Providence, but I had a blast BSing with him as well as the course's instructors. Thanks to all of them for making my trip up to "enemy territory" worth my while.
• As to the general picture of my health, the surgically-repaired shoulder
and still-needing-medical-attention glove
both held up fine during my game of catch. The rest of my body had a rather unfortunate 24 hours during which nearly all of my bodily fluids came up for discussion. After my night of feverish sleep, Andra decided to take me to the ER under the fear of appendicits or kidney stones, and while both of those were eventually ruled out -- probably just a virus -- I now have a better understanding of the miracle of intravenous rehydration and medication delivery. I feel a hell of a lot better this morning than I did 24 hours ago, and once again I'm reminded what a lucky guy I am to have such a caring gal in my life. With our wedding just over one month away, it's full steam ahead.
Oh and man, what better way to convalesce on the couch than with the soothing sounds of Vin Scully calling yesterday afternoon's come-from-behind Dodgers victory
in their home opener against the hated Giants? My stated goal from my hospital bed was to be home in time for the 4 PM EST game, and let me tell you, my $150 Extra Innings TV package was worth it just for the joy it brought me yesterday. Down 5-0 in the first thanks to Jeff Weaver's lack of anything resembling stuff, and then down 8-3 in the third, the Dodgers clawed their way back thanks to shoddy defense -- four errors, three on Giants outfielders including one Pedro Feliz misplay that recalled Barry Bonds' crucial error in Game Six of the 2002 World Series, ha-ha, and one on the game's final play -- and rang up four runs on closer Armando Benitez. Good for what ails, I tell ya.
Tuesday, April 05, 2005
Clearing the Bases -- Protracted Opening Day Edition
Still catching up on my reading from having been gone this weekend...
• Dodger Thoughts blogger supreme Jon Weisman scored a real coup with this interview
of Dodger GM Paul DePodesta. The young GM has spent the better part of his tenure walking around with a target on his back because mainstream media types, particularly some of the more witless Los Angeles Times
hacks can't be bothered to move past their knee jerk anti-Moneyball
While DePo has made some head-scratching decisions that haven't been popular with fans -- trading Paul Lo Duca, leting Adrian Beltre depart as a free agent after a monster season, signing Derek Lowe -- he's showing an ability to combine the analytical perspective he honed as an assistant GM in Oakland under Billy Beane with the strengths of the Dodgers' resources -- an excellent player development system and scouting department, an open-minded manager, and deeper coffers than he had as an A. He's taken a lot of flak for his approach, but last season the Dodgers reached the postseason for the first time since 1996 and won their first playoff game since the 1988 clincher, shedding some rather large monkeys from their back. For whatever it's worth, the Dodgers are the Baseball Prospectus staff pick
to win the NL West.
Cherrypicking a few choice quotes from Weisman's DePo discussion...
On the stats vs. scouts divide:
"I don't think all of us have to be versed in objective and subjective analysis, but we at least have to appreciate that both exist and will be pieces of the puzzle. Our professional scouts have asked me, are there (particular) statistics you want me to look at? I said, 'No, we can do that in the office. Your job is to add texture to those numbers.'"
On losing Adrian Beltre and signing J.D. Drew:
"Our biggest fear was being left standing without a chair when the music stopped."
On evaluating the organization's top prospects:
"We're trying to predict the performance of human beings in special situations... We're never going to be right about that. We're going to try to build a decision-making process where we're right more often than we're wrong. We know we're not going to be right all the time.
On being linked with Moneyball
"I was small enough in the book that it hasn't affected me at all... But people who, for whatever reason, were offended by the book or what it posits, definitely would like to see the people in the book fail – that became pretty clear through the course of last year. It hasn't necessarily changed my day-to-day."
Excellent work from Weisman, and kudos to DePodesta for granting the most astute man covering the Dodgers some quality time.
• Speaking of the Dodgers, one of the more controversial decisions made by DePodesta and company was letting starting pitcher Jose Lima, who won their lone playoff game in flamboyant fashion, depart for free agency. While the decision may have been difficult from a sentimental standpoint, the analytical red flags were all there: his 4.07 ERA was nothing special in the context of the pitcher-favoring Dodger Stadium, his success was founded on a low .268 batting average on balls in play, his homer rate was a ghastly 1.7 per nine innings, while his K rate of 4.9 per nine was well below league average.
Lima's Opening Day start
in Royal blue appeared to validate that decision. He was bombed for five runs in three innings by the Detroit Tigers, yielding three homers, two by Dmitri Young, who scored a rare Opening Day hat-trick, and one by Brandon Inge. Lima Time was not a good time yesterday.
• From the Controversial Departure/Bombed on Opening Day files, here's the line of former Yankee Javier Vazquez in his debut for the Diamondbacks
: 1.2 IP, 10 H, 7 R, 7 ER, 0 BB, 2 K, 37.80 ERA, L, 0-1. Wow, turn off the ugly. While I somehow ended up with Vazquez on my fantasy team, it wouldn't surprise me one bit if a few more outings like this elicit revelations that something is amiss in his shouler or elbow.
• MLB's revised steroid policy has claimed its first victim
, but it's hardly the marquee name one would have expected. Former Tiger centerfielder Alex Sanchez, now with Tampa Bay, received a 10-day suspension for testing positive, a result Sanchez claims was produced by use of over-the-counter supplements. Aided by whatever juice he was on, the 5'10", 180-pound Sanchez walloped two homers last year and slugged .364. We're still waiting for congressional blowhards such as Henry Waxman, Christopher Shays and John McCain to pass a bill requiring him to be burned at the stake, with all four of his lifetime homers expunged from the record books.
Baseball Prospectus' Nate Silver weighed in
with an excellent look at some of the numbers behind the power surge of the last two decades, testing what he called the Steroid Gap Theory:
Suppose that the predominant media opinion on the subject of steroids is correct: a substantial number of players are using steroids, and steroid use results in substantial and bifurcating improvements to player performance. We will call this the Steroid Gap Theory. What would we expect the corresponding impact on the game's competitive ecology to look like?
It might be the case that offensive levels would rise, if more hitters than pitchers were using steroids, or if the benefits of steroid use were more profound for hitters than they were for pitchers. But this would not be the distinguishing mark of steroid use; offensive levels cycle upward and downward all the time, and they have since the very origin of the game. Rather, the distinguishing mark would be that variance in player performance would increase. If some players, be they hitters or pitchers, were gaining a new and substantial competitive advantage, while others were remaining in place, then we'd expect a greater amount of differentiation between the best-performing players and the worst-performing players....
Silver compared the standard deviations in home run rates between two eras, 1961-1992 (exlcuding the '81 strike season) and 1996-2004 (excluding the transitional '93 season as well as the strike-marred '94 and '95 campaigns). His findings ought to surprise the mainstream wags who posit that steroids are solely the province of the musclebound big bashers:
As it happens, not only has the increase in the standard deviation failed to keep a proportionate pace with the increase in home run rates, but it has actually decelerated. That is, while offensive output has increased substantially, the playing field has become comparatively more level. Last season, for example, about 19.3 home runs were hit per 650 plate appearances in the National League, with a standard deviation of 11.9. Compare that to 1970, when just 15.6 home runs were hit per 650 PA -- about a 20 percent decrease from contemporary levels -- but the standard deviation was actually a bit higher, at 12.3.
This is far from a perfect experiment. But at the very least, it is highly problematic for the Steroid Gap Theory. If just a substantial minority were benefiting from steroid use, and the benefit were predictably and markedly positive, then we'd expect the differentiation between the haves and the have-nots to have increased. That differentiation has in fact increased on an absolute level, but it has decreased relative to what we would expect given the overall environmental improvements that all hitters are benefiting from, be those in the form of expansion, a lively ball, a smaller park, the birth of Jimmy Haynes, or what have you.
Silver's findings mesh neatly with the work I did in contributing a chapter to Will Carroll's forthcoming book, The Juice: The Real Story of Baseball's Drug Problems
, which hits the shelves in a couple of weeks. In my work, which analyzed the unprecedented home run rates of the 1993-2004 era, I concluded that while steroids might be playing a part in the increased number of longballs, other factors such as expansion, new ballparks and especially changes in the ball itself are more likely culprits given the broad shape of the trends. One point I'd like to emphasize is that while seating capacities in the 18 new ballparks introduced since 1990 are less than in the previous generation of parks, outfield fence distances themselves are generally further
than they were before:
NL LF LCF CF RCF RF
1990 331.3 375.8 402.6 375.8 331.0
2004 333.0 375.5 404.5 379.6 332.5
change +1.8 -0.3 +1.9 +3.8 +1.5
AL LF LCF CF RCF RF
1990 327.1 378.1 406.1 374.9 323.1
2004 328.7 377.9 403.3 374.6 324.4
change +1.6 -0.1 -2.9 -0.3 +1.3
At some point in the not-too-distant future, I'll hopefully be able to excerpt my chapter into a piece summarizing my findings in more detail.
• My steroids chapter will be one of the topics of discussion when I head up to Tufts University later this week as a guest speaker for a class called The Analysis of Baseball: Statistics and Sabermetrics
which features my DIPS summary page
on its syllabus
. That's just one weird and unexpected place my work has taken me; by the end of this week, I may well have another to report.
• Arn Tellem certainly isn't George Steinbrenner's favorite agent thanks to the gag order Tellem placed on his client, Jason Giambi, with regards to addressing steroids-related questions. In a classic case of misdirected anger, the Boss lashed out at Tellem
back in February, likely still smarting from the revelation
that the Yanks assented to Tellem's request to omit the word "steroids" from the language of Giambi's seven-year, $120 million contract.
For whatever sentiments that Steinbrenner and Tellem deserve each other are worth, Tellem weighed in with a thoughtful back-page article in this Sunday's New York Times
regarding the recent Congressional and mainstream media grandstanding over steroids:
To politicians and the sports commentariat, baseball - pure, beatific, transcendent - is a kind of national sacrament, a near-holy aspect of our moral fiber. It is a ritual affirmation of an eternal America, a yearly renewal of life and humanity. As James Earl Jones's character mused in "Field of Dreams," "It reminds us all of what was good and could be again."
The game's self-appointed moral avatars act as if "Field of Dreams" were a documentary. In fact, a recent cover of Sports Illustrated featured the "Field of Dreams" field inset with an excerpt from the most self-righteous essay in baseball history: "What am I going to do with this scrapbook full of memories and the stories I used to tell? Another summer full of moments will soon begin, the biggest home run record of all ripe to fall. What will we do, each of us, now that we know?"
By manufacturing emotion and outrage, the sporting press resembles sports talk radio, a medium in which designated hotheads make outrageous comments solely to draw attention to themselves. The designated hitters of the print media portray themselves as honest referees, but see gray in only one shade. Never mind that back when McGwire was suspected of taking steroids, the major leagues had not yet banned the drug. Never mind that he was a team player who stayed out of trouble and remained fan-friendly. Never mind that he started a foundation and gave $3 million to help abused children. Some of the same writers who in 1998 were praising Mark McGwire for saving baseball now call him a disgrace. Today's athlete can be a hero or a villain, but nothing in between.
...I don't deny that sports figures can have an outsize effect on an impressionable child. Nor do I diminish the sorrow of families whose children have died after aping the actions of their favorite athletes. But if fingers must be pointed, shouldn't they also be directed at those parents who live through their children's athletic careers, force-feeding them pie-in-the-sky expectations? Or coaches who pressure young people to get faster and stronger and win at all costs? Aren't they the real role models?
In that aforementioned SI cover article, writer Gary Smith wistfully recalls 1998, "The Summer of Longballs and Love" as he terms it; your barf bag is located in the seat pocket directly in front of you. It's writers such as Smith who built the pedestals on which sluggers such as McGwire, Sammy Sosa, and Barry Bonds were placed, and watching them knock those pedestals down in such a self-serving manner is particularly gag-worthy. Smith, who has written perceptively
on the role of sports in American culture, certainly knows better, so here's a big Bronx cheer to him.
But the much more troubling point that Tellem raises is that while players such as McGwire make convenient villains in this tale, it's the parents and coaches of the susceptible kids who should be the real targets of public ire. More than anyone, they, not the players, have a direct impact on those kids day-to-day lives. They, not the McGwires and Bondses of the world, should bear the brunt of responsibility for the use of steroids at the high school and college levels rather than assuming the roles of unwitting victimhood. Those relatively anonymous men and women don't make the sexy headlines, don't end up as the targets of congressional investigations or grandstanding front-page articles in mainstream magazines, but if the steroid problem is going to be solved, they'll have to step up to the plate along with the big names.
• In my recent BP article
, I made reference to the Yankees' increased ticket prices for 2005 but wasn't able to provide an exact percentage by which they rose. Since that article was published, Team Marketing Report has released its annual figures
, which show that the average Yankee ticket price has risen to $27.34 -- a 10 percent bump over the previous year's figure of $24.86. Given that their average price
only rose 60 cents from 2001-2004, the Yanks can hardly be singled out for passing the increased cost of their on-field product to their customers.
By the way, the most expensive tickets in the major leagues still belong to the Red Sox, whose average price went up 9.3 percent to $44.56. The gap between the Sox and the Yanks has increased over the past five seasons; in 2001, Sox tix cost $34.86, 44 percent higher than the Yanks. Now, they're a whopping 63 percent higher than their AL East rivals. Of course, given that the Sox have one more World Championship to celebrate than the Yanks in that span, I doubt anybody in New England will complain.
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