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.

Thursday, June 30, 2005


Shef to 29 GMs: F--- Off

Apologies to those of you who believe this is a family blog which should be free of the kind of language used in the above headline. Silly, silly people. If you don't know me after four years of this, you're not paying attention. The above was the back-page headline I imagined a more gutsy tabloid editor would use in describing Yankee rightfielder Gary Sheffield's response to rumors that he might be traded in the wake of the latest attempt to revive the Bronx Bummers' season. And if said tabloid editor won't run it, I will.

But first, a little context. It rained on Wednesday night, washing away the evening's Yanks-O's game and making Joe Torre's decision to tap Mike Stanton over Mariano Rivera on Tuesday look all the more foolish. Stanton, of course, had a one-pitch outing that resulted in a walk-off homer by Brian Roberts. As disquieting as that decision and the Yankees recent performance has been, the news reports -- or shall we say rumors -- that emerged in the wake of Tuesday's defeat were even moreso. With the Yankee brass gathered down in Tampa for a skull session (vision of George Steinbrenner as DeNiro's Capone taking skull a little too literally), the local papers had the Yanks mulling all kinds of options.

The first, and juciest, revolved around Sheffield, with the Yanks trading him to the Mets for Mike Cameron and Miguel Cairo, according to the New York Post. The move would give the Yanks a quality centerfielder; quite frankly, Cameron should have been wearing pinstripes after 2003 instead of Kenny Lofton, but the team had yet to face the reality of Bernie Williams' decline. But trading Sheffield would leave a gaping hole in the Yank lineup, as Shef is currently hitting .300/.396/.502. Additionally, with the emergence of Robinson Cano, who's hitting a surprisingly useful .284/.311/.464, Cairo's utility to the Yanks would be considerably diminished. He had a surprisingly fine season as the Yanks second baseman once Enrique Wilson was kicked to the curb, but both he and the Yanks missed the boat for his return in the offseason, and it's just as well.

Shef has barked about his contract structure, but after Tuesday's game he said hell no, he won't go if traded:
"I'm not going anywhere," said Sheffield, who is signed through 2006. "If I have to go somewhere, I won't go. If they said, 'Wouldn't you want to get paid?' I'd say, 'I've got plenty of money.' I'm not playing nowhere else. I can promise you that."
Yesterday, Sheffield backed off that statement, but in true Shef fashion, dialed things up a notch at the same time. In a New York Times article titled, "Sheffield Warns 29 Teams: You Don't Want Me," he told reporters:
"I would never sit out," Sheffield said. "I would go play for them. It doesn't mean I'm going to be happy playing there. And if I'm unhappy, you don't want me on your team. It's just that simple. I'll make that known to anyone... I'll ask for everything. Everything. You're going to inconvenience me, I'm going to inconvenience every situation there is."
Which is where I envisioned a competing editor of one of the city's less dignified rags running the above headline. Decency may prevent them from doing so, but like Shef, I'm less inclined to mince words.

Fortunately, my favorite Yankee isn't going anywhere. The Yankee brass assured Sheffield he was untouchable. "I just wanted to let him know that we turned down any inquiry about him," Joe Torre told reporters. "We said, 'No thank you.' I wanted to give him what Cash gave me." Whew.

There are those who will point to Sheffield's comments as being in line with the rest of his controversial career, and they may have a point. But the man is considerably more complex than some simple knee-jerk response to being traded, as I discovered in a lengthy three-part series I wrote for this site late last summer (Part I, Part II, Part III). Here's the conclusion:
Gary Sheffield has come a long way since those hot-headed days in Milwaukee. Though he's continued to generate controversy at nearly every stage of his career, his outbursts have rarely been without provocation. As he's aged, his temper has cooled, his level of maturity has visibly increased, he's stayed healthier, and his bat has remained lethal. Rather quietly for such a controversial player, he's made his mark as one of the game's best hitters, destroying the ball in even the most inhospitable environments. He's won honors and he continues to contend for them. He's helped a team win a World Championship, he's fighting to do so again, and he'll have at least a couple more opportunities beyond this year.

Sheffield's coming to the Yankees fits in with a certain definable career arc. In recent years, talented but star-crossed players, from Darryl Strawberry and Dwight Gooden to David Cone, Roger Clemens and Ruben Sierra, have found their way to the Yankees seeking redemption for transgressions both real and perceived. With the benefit of years of often harsh lessons, they subsume their egos in the name of playing for a winner. That the winner is the winningest team in the history of baseball, playing in a stadium steeped in tradition, in the glare of the country's top media market, is part of the point. Older and wiser, they strive to show the world that they can stand up to life in the pinstriped crucible. If they can make it there, they can make it anywhere: words to a song, and the key to the Yankees' seductive myth, one that Gary Sheffield has bought, lock, stock, and bat barrel. Thus far, he's done everything in his power to hold up his end of the bargain.
Beyond Sheffield, other rumors abound. Newsday reported that the Yanks might tap the Marlins for a centerfielder in either Juan Pierre or Juan Encarnacion. Both are execrable hitters who more closely resemble Tony Womack, the root of so many evils regarding the current lineup, than anything else. But George Steinbrenner been enamored of Pierre's speed-and-bunting style (not substance) since he helped beat the Yanks in the 2003 World Series; as Derek Jacques and I agreed a couple of weeks ago, they'll be paying for Pierre until they're literally paying Pierre. Newsday version has Paul Quantrill as the rotten carrot being dangled in the case of the latter deal, while the pricetag on the former is likely to be out of reach unless the Yanks start offering whatever B-grade prospects they've got, such as centerfielder Melky Cabrera, who was promoted from Double A to Triple A.

Today's Palm Beach Post has an even more salacious rumor which reads like a combo plate of the Marlins and Mets rumors: Sheffield to his old team for Encarnacion and starter A.J. Burnett. As attractive as acquiring Burnett might be (he's put up a 3.14 ERA, an 8.13 K/9 and 2.82 K/BB ratio), I'm not even going to sweat that one in light of Torre and Cashman's comments. Other centerfield-related rumors include Oakland's Mark Kotsay and Seattle's Randy Winn. Here's a handy clip-and-save guide to these guys:
                  ----Current----    -----------Career----------
Cameron 32 .297 .396 .535 .250 .342 .443 102
Pierre 27 .257 .303 .337 .306 .356 .376 98
Encarnacion 29 .271 .347 .457 .265 .314 .441 96
Kotsay 29 .281 .339 .401 .286 .343 .423 108
Winn 31 .276 .348 .374 .283 .344 .407 101
As you can see, each has his plusses and minuses. Cameron is probably the superior one of the group, and he's been hitting well above his career levels this year, but he also missed five weeks with a wrist injury, and of course, he's the oldest of the bunch. Kotsay's the superior fielder, but don't think Billy Beane doesn't know this; his price will likely be prohibitively high. He's also got a history of back problems. Encarnacion's got the most pop, but in a hacktastic way that brings to mind Ruben Sierra Lite, which isn't what the doctor ordere with the low-OBP Sierra Genuine Draft, Cano, and Woemack all contributing higher than normal out-making abilities to the lineup.

But while centerfield remains unresolved, it looks as though the Yanks are about to get decisive with their bullpen. ESPN and many other sources report that both Quantrill (6.75 ERA) and Stanton (7.07 ERA) have been issued the proverbial blindfold and cigarette, with Jason Anderson (who made the Yanks Opening Day roster in 2003 but was shipped to the Mets in the Armando Benitez deal), Colter Bean (who's got a funky sidearm motion), and Scott Proctor, all righties, in the mix for their roster slots. All three have been blowing hitters away in Columbus to various degrees:
          IP  ERA    K/9   K/W  
Anderson 47 2.85 7.99 3.82
Bean 40 3.15 11.03 2.58
Proctor 35 4.15 11.94 4.18
The team's commitment to youth might be laudable if Mel Stottlemyre's track record with young pitchers were more sterling, but beware that the Yanks might also simply be auditioning these players for other scouts as they look ahead to a difference-making deal in centerfield or the rotation.

If there's one certainty in all of this, it's that the organization, from the Boss on down, appears committed to keeping rookie starter Chien-Ming Wang as well as Cano. Reports Newsday's Shaun Powell:
The best news to emerge from Tampa is that not even Steinbrenner is desperate enough to trade Chien-Ming Wang or Robinson Cano, two prospects who came from nowhere to give the Yankees what they haven't had in years: cheap talent with upside.

Both are in direct contrast to the overload of mega-million-dollar names on the roster who are either tapped out or burned out. You can even make the case that the Yankees are being bummed out by the veterans and bailed out by Wang and Cano. Too many established stars aren't living up to their reputations and paychecks; that's why the Yankees are still staring up at the Red Sox and Orioles in the division. If the state of the Yankees isn't disappointing enough, imagine where they'd be if not for those two?

Wang is arguably their most reliable starting pitcher after Mike Mussina. Cano is making strides and giving life to perhaps the most unstable infield position of the Joe Torre era. And they're not swelling up the payroll. This makes them more valuable to the Yankees as keepers, not trade bait.

Brian Cashman didn't need to do a heavy sell job on Steinbrenner regarding Cano and Wang, which means The Boss finally understands he can't swap every promising prospect who comes along for an old player with an expiration date. This means Cano and Wang will not meet the same fate as others who came up through the system and were dumped as soon as they showed the slightest bit of skill... Nick Johnson, for instance.
As Cliff Corcoran notes at Bronx Banter, Wang's got the highest percentage of Quality Starts (six or more innings, three or fewer earned runs) of any Yankee starter at 70 percent, well above the team average of 48.1 percent. Hearing that he's in pinstripes to stay is good news, but I'll believe when the clock strikes midnight on July 31 and the trading deadline passes. Until then, no matter what they're saying, anything can happen in such a volatile situation.

Wednesday, June 29, 2005


That Sinking Feeling

The new Prospectus Hit List went up at Baseball Prospectus yesterday, with the St. Louis Cardinals barely edging the Chicago White Sox for the top spot. The Cards are the sole representative of the NL among the top nine teams, a byproduct of the completion of an interleague segment which saw the AL soundly whup the NL 136-116 (.540 winning percentage) or 133-101 (.568) if one excludes the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, who though they have shown they can beat the Yankees, barely qualify as major league. In fact, the average ranking of each division, which Jim Baker included in his latest Prospectus Matchups column, closely mirrors interleague results:
Div      Avg Rnk  Int W-L   Pct
AL Cent 11.6 53-37 .589
AL West 13.0 41-31 .569
AL East 14.0 42-48 .467 (39-33, .541 w/o Tampa)
NL East 14.4 41-37 .526
NL Cent 17.7 43-44 .494
NL West 23.2 32-55 .368
Though they're only a game above .500, Yanks hold the #9 spot, but don't be too fooled: the numbers underlying the list put them much closer to #17 (the Mets, ironically) than to the #5 Orioles. Here's what I wrote about them:
Now starring in Back! Or Not! a musical based on this team's ability to mount only the occasional gallant rally -- setting off new rounds of tea-leaf reading in which the question, "Is this the turning point?" is endlessly invoked -- as opposed to the more mundane ones that sustain the real business of winning. Don't be fooled by the intermittent dramatics; these Yanks may be too rich, but they're also too thin (Kevin Reese? Russ Johnson?), they don't have enough pitching (Sean Henn?), and to paraphrase Bob Dylan, they ain't goin' nowhere.
Since writing that, the Yanks have split a pair with the Orioles, with both games being decided in the late innings. Last night's was a particularly sickening affair in which Joe Torre was once again burned for improperly using his bullpen.

The Yanks led 4-1 at one point on the strength of homers by Hideki Matsui and Robinson Cano, but Chien-Ming Wang gave up a two-run blast to Rafael Palmeiro in the 6th to cut the lead to 4-3. Tough to fault the kid, as he gave the Yanks seven strong frames, scattering seven hits and walking no one. The homer was Palmeiro's 563rd, tying him with Reggie Jackson for ninth place on the all-time list -- and man, isn't that a strange contrast between the hot-dog-with-extra-mustard superstar Jackson and the comparatively nondescript Raffy, who if he gets 10 more hits could qualify for both the 3,000 Hit Club and the Federal Witness Protection program.

Tom Gordon came on in relief of Wang, promptly issuing a leadoff walk to Brian Roberts and then throwing wildly on a sac bunt, an error which led to the tying run. That damage done (gee thanks, Flash) Gordon did manage to blank the O's in his second frame to send the game to extra innings.

With the O's at home and able to end the game with one swing of the bat, the situation called for extreme care; per a Win Expectancy chart, the home team could be expected to win 63.4 percent of the time in a tied, no-out, home half of a potentially final inning. Torre had his ace closer, Mariano Rivera, he of the 0.91 ERA, available. Mo had worked single innings the previoius two nights, barely breaking a sweat by throwing only 23 pitches combined. But with the switch-hitting Roberts coming up, Torre decided to get cute, reaching in his bag of shit tricks to pull out Mike Stanton, he of the 6.43 ERA in a grand total of 14 innings. One poorly located sinker later, the O's had broken their six-game losing streak with a walk-off homer.

As I listened to the game, Stanton's entry conjured up two bad memories: the pivotal Game Four of the 2003 World Series, in which Torre tapped Jeff Weaver to pitch the 11th and 12th innings instead of Chris Hammond, with Alex Gonzalez belting a walk-off homer, and a 2001 contest in which Stanton himself surrendered a walk-off homer to Jason Giambi. In both of those instances, Torre played the platoon matchup rigidly. In the World Series, he chose the beleaguered righty Weaver, who hadn't pitched in four weeks, while ignoring the fact that the lefty Hammond had a reverse platoon split: a .648 OPS allowed against righties in '03 compared to .797 against lefties. In 2001, he chose Stanton, a lefty with a reverse platoon differential (.646 vs. righties, .774 vs. lefties), over Rivera, who hadn't pitched in three days.

Here, Torre threw the platoon concept out the window and chose to go after the natural righty Roberts (who was hitting .402/.460/.675 from the left side) with Stanton, which is great if you've got a time machine. It's not 2001 anymore, and Stanton isn't getting anybody out these days. The take home message is that the gap in abilities, particularly between Mo and anyone else, is a much more important than some small-sample platoon advantage. When you've got the best, you go with it, particularly when the manager himself is saying, "Every game from here on out has to have a message attached to it." As Leo Durocher said, "You don't save a pitcher for tomorrow. Tomorrow it may rain."

Chances of showers for tonight's game in Baltimore: 50% according to Grrrrr.

Friday, June 24, 2005


License to Deal: an Excerpt

ESPN Insider columnist Jerry Crasnick has been generating a good amount of buzz with his new book, License to Deal: A Season on the Run with a Maverick Baseball Agent, a book that's been described as "Moneyball with agents instead of a front office." In the book, Crasnick provides a telling glimpse into the history and the realities of the cutthroat world of representing ballplayers through the lens of Matt Sosnick, an up-and-coming agent who represents Florida Marlins sensation Dontrelle Willis, among others.

I haven't had a chance to read the whole book, but the excerpts have been fairly engrossing, and I'm pleased to offer one here myself. Enjoy!

• • •
License to Deal
Published by Rodale; June 2005; $24.95US/$35.95CAN; 1-59486-024-6
Copyright © 2005 Jerry Crasnick

Arn Tellem, a devout fantasy baseball player who runs the basketball and baseball groups for SFX, was once described by Oakland general manager Billy Beane as having the intelligence of Alan Dershowitz coupled with the neurotic behavior of Woody Allen. He’s a profound man as well. It was Tellem, after all, who observed that the average Jewish boy realizes by age 13 -- the time of his bar mitzvah -- that he stands a better chance of owning an NBA team than of playing for one.

Arn Tellem also believes that The Godfather is a wonderful how-to video for aspiring agents, an observation that resonates with Matt Sosnick, even though he's too conflicted to do more than fantasize about ambushing one of his rivals at a causeway tollbooth.

“I can’t decide whether I want to kill myself or my competitors first,” Matt says. As life decisions go, it’s a lot tougher than choosing between the traditional burr walnut and the gray-stained maple veneer for the interior of his Jaguar.

Sometimes it’s hard to know where you stand, given the shifting nature of alliances in the agent game. Several years ago, Matt became aware that Scott Boras’s group was hawking Jerome Williams and Tony Torcato, two San Francisco minor leaguers represented by the Levinson brothers’ agency in New York. So he called the brothers with a heads-up, and Sam Levinson thanked him for the courtesy. Not long after that, the Levinsons took Mets outfielder Jeff Duncan from Sosnick-Cobbe, while claiming, naturally, that it was strictly Duncan’s initiative.

Other veteran agents have taken turns providing counsel to a kid with ambition. Tommy Tanzer, who represents Steve Finley, John Burkett, and others, encouraged Matt in the early going, and Joe Bick, a former Cleveland Indians front-office man who now runs a successful agency in Cincinnati, listened patiently when Sosnick was frustrated by several client defections and needed somewhere to turn.

“He had some issues that were bothering him, and he asked me for opinions on how he should handle it,” Bick says. “He seemed like a nice enough guy, so I tried to give him my thoughts.”

The fraternity usually isn’t this collegial. Talk to almost any agent, and he’ll quickly point out that he works longer hours and has higher standards and a more devoted client base than the competition. The agent will recoil with horror at the slightest negative commentary about his own business practices, while gladly pointing out that Agent B has the emotional and moral depth of your average protozoan.

Professional wrestlers are more inclined to say nice things about each other. Tony Attanasio, who’s represented big leaguers since the early 1970s, appeared on a talk radio show several years ago when the host stumped him with a question: If you had a son about to enter pro ball, which agent would you choose to represent him?

“Once I got past Ron Shapiro and Barry Axelrod, I couldn’t think of anybody,” Attanasio says.

Furthermore, if you had a dollar for every agent who said, “You know, I was the real basis for the movie Jerry Maguire,” you wouldn’t have to invest in a 529 plan to fund your kids' college tuition.

Given the tendency for agents to undercut each other and players to change allegiances so cavalierly, it’s no wonder that insecurity abounds in the profession. At the All-Star Game, where baseball’s best and highest-paid players congregate, agents walk around with their heads on a swivel to make sure rivals aren’t sampling the merchandise. A Major League Baseball official recalls an All-Star tour of Japan several years ago, when agent Adam Katz was so hyper about competitors stalking Sammy Sosa, “You wanted to shoot him with an animal tranquilizer.”

When Paul Cobbe was doing his early research, he came across a profile of David Falk, the king-making agent who represented NBA pillar Michael Jordan. Falk seemingly couldn’t ask for more, but when the interviewer asked him to identify his biggest regret, Falk didn’t hesitate. He said it was difficult for him to get over losing out on Grant Hill.

It struck Paul as odd that an agent could represent the greatest player in basketball history, yet feel such remorse over not representing one who was merely very good. The anecdote showed Paul that for the big boys, maybe it wasn’t just about money after all.


Matt has never operated under the illusion that he would find many friends or mentors in the agent business. For most of his life, he’s regarded his father as his best friend and sagest counsel. Ron Sosnick is a gentle, big-hearted man who ingrained a sense of industriousness and obligation in his son. On the rare occasions when he showed anger, it was prompted by lapses in judgment or the abdication of responsibility.

Late in Matt’s senior year at USC, he called his father and said that he was dropping accounting and wouldn’t be graduating until the following semester. Ron Sosnick got as mad as his constitution allowed. “Here’s what you’re going to do,” Ron told his son. “You’re going back to USC and pay the tuition out of your pocket and you’re going to graduate, and I don’t even want to talk about it anymore.”

Ron also believed that his boy should spend a year on his own before joining the company business, so Matt took a job selling fax machines for Lanier and wowing his customers with personal service. He knew that all the machines were basically the same, so customers would be inclined to buy from the salesman they liked the most. He took them to concerts and tended to their needs, and they overlooked the fact that his fax machine expertise began and ended with knowing how to plug one into the wall.

Matt’s next step was running his uncle Howard’s company, a Silicon Valley electronics firm called Allied Electronic Recovery that recycled used computer parts. He hated the job, felt antsy and bored, and knew he was destined for something more.

An escape route was ultimately provided by his mother, the novelist. Victoria Zackheim was living in France in the late 1990s when she befriended the brother of David Morway, a sports agent living in Utah. Victoria believed there was something cosmic about the link, and she passed along a phone number to her son under the assumption that he’d feel similarly.

Within days, Matt made an appointment with Morway and traveled to Utah, where he heard a tale that was both cautionary and uplifting. David Morway had graduated from law school and worked in the San Diego Padres’ front office in the mid-1980s before taking a blind leap into athlete representation. He built a client roster that included Junior Seau in football and Tony Clark and Esteban Loaiza in baseball, and he handled marketing deals for a number of golfers and volleyball players.

Morway gave Sosnick what he calls his “10-cent speech” on the hazards of the industry. He talked about client stealing and the risks inherent in the business model. If you sold pens for a living, Morway told Matt, you could recover from a bad stretch by working harder and selling more pens. If you were an agent and crapped out on the draft, you had to wait a whole year to try again. The only alternative was luring players from established agents, and good luck doing that.

The agent business was also an emotional grind. Agents, no matter how accomplished, had to kiss athletes’ asses all the time. It was degrading when you made phone call after phone call on behalf of a player and still couldn’t find him a job. And just try feeling like a hotshot when you were talking to the general manager and one of your players happened by and asked, “Have you picked up my dry cleaning?”

Morway’s speech should have deterred Matt, but it only served to invigorate him. Determined to become a baseball agent, Matt rushed out and recruited his first client, a San Francisco–born infielder named Lou Lucca who’d been drafted by Florida in the 32nd round in 1992 and kicked around the minors for 6 years. When Matt spirited Lucca away from Reich, Katz & Landis, the firm’s agents didn’t care, because they barely noticed.

David Morway has since left the agent business and is now a high-ranking official with the National Basketball Association’s Indiana Pacers, and Matt calls him regularly with updates.

“I’ve had tons of people do what Matt did,” Morway says. “I just try to give them an honest feeling about what they should expect -- the risks and ramifications. He was the one guy who came back for more. He went after it and did it. That’s the amazing thing. He actually did it.”

Wednesday, June 22, 2005


Blue Turns to Rage

With the wife out on a dinner date with a friend last night, I was dining bachelor-style, just me and the TV, and my frutti di mare pasta made three. Belching and scratching with impunity, I naturally flipped over to the Yankee game, where Randy Johnson was facing the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. The Rays had beaten the Yanks the night before, ending their six-game winning streak, but with Johnson having grooved through his last two starts, I -- like most people -- figured he'd have his way with them.

Two batters into my meal, I was watching Damon Hollins circling the bases after swatting a two-run homer, the first runs of the game. Damn. I thought I was watching a replay of the ball's flight over the leftfield wall when Jim Kaat exclaimed "back to back" as Kevin Cash had deposited Johnson's next pitch -- another slider that didn't slide -- in a nearly identical spot, 3-0 Rays. Three straight hits followed, including a triple by the speedy Carl Crawford, and the Rays had extended their lead to 5-0. Shrimp was practically coming out of my nose.

I watched the Yanks get a run back in the bottom of the inning thanks to a seeing-eye ground-rule double by Jason Giambi, but when Johnny Gomes poked a two-run homer in the top of the third, I turned away in disgust. This was going to be one of those nights; as Derek Jacques put it today, "The Big Unit was getting smacked around like Zed's Gimp." Muttering under my breath, I puttered around the apartment with the game in the background, but when Scott Proctor, fresh off the turnip truck, came on to relieve Johnson in the fourth and gave up a hit and a walk, I decided to flip over to the Brewers-Cubs game in hopes of catching rookies Prince Fielder and Rickie Weeks (alas they were hitless on the night).

By the time I learned about the Yanks' rally -- from down 10-2, they clawed back to 11-7 by the eighth (Gary Sheffield reports that when they'd cut the lead to five in the third, "I saw the guys on the bench running to the bat rack...") then dropped 13 runs on the hapless Rays to make the final score 20-11 -- it was via a flurry incredulous emails. First Joe Sheehan responded to some kvetching about the possibility of the Yanks acquiring Juan Pierre by telling me the Yanks were up seven runs. Then my brother chimed in from the west coast, marveling at an eighth-inning game log that included back-to-back-to-back homers by Gary Sheffield, Alex Rodriguez, and Hideki Matsui. Soon Nick Stone was invoking one of our favorite baseball lines (first heard via an article in the Brown Alumni Monthly by a professor named Jim Blight, who in the late Sixties had a brief minor-league pitching career that included suffering through a slugfest with an unsympathetic manager) that must have echoed Lou Piniella's words to Travis Harper, who gave up nine runs and four homers in two-thrids of an inning: "If you think I'm wasting another pitcher on this game, think again."

Piniella's hesitation wasn't exactlly Nero fiddling while Rome burned -- more like a drunken hobo ranting through a raging tire fire in Gary, Indiana, given the state of the Rays pitching and of Sweet Lou's increasinly short temper -- but even watching the rerun, it's unsettling. As Nick further opined, his leaving of Harper to suffer such an indignity was evidence of Piniella's general dislike of pitchers, and even Sheehan admitted that he'd never wanted to see a pitcher drill someone like he did Harper. Had I been Harper (and if you've ever seen my arsenal of junk, you'd realize that there's little separating us), I simply would have argued balls and strikes with the ump until I was put out of my misery.

The mayhem had ended by the time I checked in, but I did spend considerable time ogling the box score, one of the sickest you'll ever see. D Jeter ss 6 5 5 2... G Sheffield RF 6 3 4 7... H Matsui DH 5 4 4 2... B Williams CF 4 1 2 5, and that's just the Yanks, who rapped out 23 hits, while the Rays racked up 18. It's like somebody tallied up a beer-league softball match. For the blow-by-blow, check Cliff Corcoran's meticulous account over at Bronx Banter.

One more note from watching the replay on YES: Bernie Williams' glare into the Tampa dugout after smacking a bases-loaded triple following Jason Giambi's intentional walk which put the Yanks ahead was priceless. The ol' graybeard appeared to be telling Piniella, "It's June, bitch. Nobody gets me out in June." And indeed, checking the guy's track record, he's right: .335/.421/.580 in that month over the course of his career, his highest OPS of any month: .787, .881, 1.001, .805, .896, .842. I used to joke, "It's not a significant sample size until Bernie Williams is hitting .300," and though he's unlikely to push his stats up to where they once were, it's nice to see those vital signs climbing.

• • •

Alas, the Yanks' rally hardly put me in a festive mood. A four-word email from Will Carroll, subject: Gagne, had me cursing a Dodger blue streak: "Tommy John, scheduled asap." Aw, shit. Game over, indeed.

As I've said before, I'm livid over Gagne's stupidity in contributing to this injury, first by throwing through his early-spring knee sprain, then by reaching back for those missing MPH. In the Hit List, I suggested throwing the book -- Carroll's Saving the Pitcher -- at the lunkheaded closer.

But I'm equally angry at the Dodger management, coaches and training staff for failing to protect Gagne from himself. Gagne's a professional athlete whose hypercompetitive instincts are to try to get back to the dominant form he had ASAP, while lacking the roadmap for how to do so. The team is supposed to protect its investment -- in this case a two-year, $19 million deal going forward -- by forcing him to override that instinct, to proactively impart some perspective and prescribe a proper routine to prevent him from throwing when his body is less than 100 percent. They fucked up royally -- I can't put it anymore bluntly than that -- by not doing so, and now they've thrown about $10 million down a hole (Gagne figures to be back by next May, but the All-Star Break is a more conservative estimate). For once, L.A. Times columnist Bill Plaschke was right about something. Blind chicken, meet corn; corn, blind chicken:
When taking the mound for his first game this spring, baseball's toughest pitcher didn't swagger, he limped.

Why didn't I scream about the limp?

When throwing his first pitch to an opposing hitter this spring, baseball's most fearless pitcher didn't fling, he lobbed.

Why didn't I rail about the lob?

After Eric Gagne's first appearance in late March, in the quiet of the Vero Beach clubhouse, I approached him with the intention of writing a column.

He was altering his mechanics to compensate for an injured knee. He should stop pitching immediately or risk damaging his arm.

I had seen it a dozen times before. It was Baseball 101. The story was clear.

But Gagne talked me out of it.

He talked the Dodger organization out of it.

"I know my body, my arm is fine, my mechanics are the same, I would never do anything to hurt myself, it was a normal first day," he said at the time.
Plascke invokes the chilling fates of Orel Hershiser and Fernando Valenzuela, two Dodgers greats who carried the team to World Championships as they passed through Tommy Lasorda's patented Arm Mangler. He then dredges up the Paul Lo Duca trade, which sent setup man Guillermo Mota to the Marlins as well, but I'll part ways with his opinion while noting that young Yhency Brazoban, now the Dodger closer, has handily outerperformed Mota since the trade:
            IP   ERA   K/9   K/W   HR/9  BABIP  VORP  Salary
Brazoban 61.2 3.50 7.88 2.16 0.58 .268 14.2 $0.32M
Mota 53.2 5.37 7.88 2.24 1.01 .300 2.1 $2.60M
Mota did a stint on the DL with elbow inflammation early in May and then came back too quickly; he's been getting lit both before and after. It wouldn't be a shocker at all if he winds up in Gagne's boat. But while the Dodgers made an astute move in dumping Mota and anointing Brazoban, they've undone that good work by failing -- miserably so -- to take care of their blue-chip asset in Gagne. Paul DePodesta's regime is going to take some heat for this one, and rightly so. Will Carroll often writes about smart teams gaining an edge in their ability to keep their players healthy and on the field. For all of their ballyhooed brainpower, the Dodgers look incredibly stupid here. Honeymoon over.

• • •

While I was busy sulking about Gagne last night, Neil deMause gave me even more cause to fret about the new Yankee Stadium. Over at his Field of Schemes site, deMause offers up an overlay comparing the upper decks of the current and proposed stadia. At Saturday's ballgame, Derek Jacques and I spent time bemoaning the fact that the very seats in which we were sitting, in the lower part of the upper deck, would be the ones earmarked for extinction, and judging by deMause's diagram, that's exactly the case:
As you can see, the main changes from the existing stadium would be: Eliminating the middle loge deck entirely to make room for luxury suites, and replacing some of these seats with new rows at the back of the two-level lower deck; and shifting the entire upper deck about 30 feet further back from the field, while lopping off the top few rows. While the resulting stadium would be shorter than the current stadium, it would also have about 12% fewer seats, meaning the 50,000th ticket sold would still be at about the same height. And with the upper deck pushed back from the field, the worst seat in the new smaller-capacity building would be just as far from the action as the worst seat in the current 57,000-seat stadium.
Damn, damn, damn.

• • •

Though it won't be available until September, I'm pleased to announce that the long-awaited Baseball Prospectus book on the Red Sox, to which I contributed two chapters, is now available for pre-order via Barnes and Noble's website. Mind Game: How the Boston Red Sox Got Smart and Finally Won a World Series by Steven Goldman and the Baseball Prospectus Team of Experts, is on sale for the low, low price $11.65. Step right up and buy yourself a copy.

I'm even more pleased to note that my chapter on David Ortiz is prominently featured in the blurb:
The Red Sox finally did it. By making decisions that other clubs would not have made and using talent that other clubs ignored or lacked the statistical understanding to perceive, the new, focused Red Sox management built a championship team that overcame 86 years of baseball history. And along the way, argue the writers of MIND GAME, created a blueprint for winning baseball.

Savvy, insightful, statistically brilliant, and filled with the thudding sound of the sacred cows of received baseball wisdom biting the dust, Mind Game relives one of modern baseball's greatest success stories while revolutionizing the fan's understanding of how baseball games are really won and lost. Created by Steven Goldman and the writers and analysts at Baseball Prospectus--the preeminent annual on the inside game of baseball, with 91,000 copies in print, and Web site,, that receives 5 million hits a month--Mind Game explains why the unenlightened Twins gave up on David Ortiz; what led the Sox to understand Johnny Damon's true value and give him the ideal place in the batting order; how Boston actually gained by having Keith Foulke as a closer vs. Mariano Rivera; and what would likely have happened if the Boston-A-Rod trade went through. (Hint: even worse for the Yankees.) And as the suspense ratchets up before the historic seven-game AL playoff, readers will never look at baseball the same way again, learning that leadoff hitters don't need to be fast and RBIs are not the rock solid barometer of an offensive player's contribution. And all that stealing and bunting? Forget it! Just wait for a three-run homer.

As for the curse of the Bambino? Hogwash! The real curse behind Boston's 86-year drought was its decades of bigoted, inept ownership and management.
Finally, something from the night -- other than my sweetheart coming home to rescue me from my bachelorhood -- that put a smile on my face. Awww yeaaaaah!

Tuesday, June 21, 2005


50 Greatest Hits

Like clockwork, the Prospectus Hit List is up at BP today, and it now features team logos for those of you who like them purdy pictures. This week finds the Orioles reclaiming the top spot from the Cardinals, with the White Sox not too far behind. The Yankees, thanks to their six-game winning streak, moved up eight spots to #9, thus winning the Platinum Pole Vault award (as opposed to the Golden Anvil award, which they won two weeks ago). The Dodgers, who went a dismal 0-6 on the week, fall three spots down to #21. Like the Yankees a couple of weeks ago, the Dodgers earned the ignominious distinction of being swept by the Royals, who are now 12-7 since Buddy Bell took over. Yuck.

I caught the double-whammy of my two teams losing one-run games last night. With rookie Sean Henn waking seven men, four of them in the unendurable second inning, they Yanks fell behind the Devil Rays 4-0 while George Stallings ("Oh, those bases on balls...") spun in his grave. Worse, Casey Freakin' Fossum no-hit the Yankees until the red-hot Hideki Matsui doubled in the fifth. Best known as one of the players traded for Curt Schilling, Fossum went 4-15 with a 6.66 last year for the Diamondbacks. Naturally, those sterling credentials qualified him for a stint in Tampa, but he's done okay for the Rays, and this was clearly his night.

By the time it was 5-0, I surrendered to the TiVo, letting it switch channels to record some teen show for my wife (she's a junkie for that stuff). As such I missed the Yanks' four-run rally in the eighth (including a Godzilla three-run homer; that guy should sprain his ankle all the time), turning back to see their futile attempt to tie the game against Danny Baez. It didn't happen, and like that, the six-game streak ende with a whimper.

Later I flipped over to the Dodgers-Padres game, where Jake Peavy and Brad Penny were locked in a thrilling 1-0 pitchers' duel. Unfortunately, my boys were on the short end. But even with Peavy dominating (he had 13 Ks on the night, a career high), the Dodgers had their chances. When I tuned in with one out in the sixth, Penny was pulling into second with a double; alas, he died at third. A leadoff walk by J.D. Drew in the seventh turned into a double play one batter later, a two-base error on Phil Nevin to lead off the eighth went for naught, and though the Dodgers put two men on with two out against closer Trevor Hoffman, this just wasn't their night.

Now with a seven-game losing streak, the mood out of L.A. has to be pretty bleak, especially with Eric Gagne's terminal stupidity putting himself out of action. The Dodgers have lost over 400 days to the DL thus far, and though they're a scrappy, likeable bunch, they're stretched far too thin. Yhency Brazoban, who did an admirable job covering for Gagne at the start of the year, is still technically a rookie and only a recent convert to the mound. He gave up four ninth-inning runs to the White Sox on Saturday, capped by a walk-off A.J. Pierzynski homer. Duaner Sanchez, who's only in his second full season, is now the team's top setup man; he let Sunday's game slip away to the Sox as well, though to be fair a fluky defensive play culminating in a bad call at first base provided the gasoline. That's the way losing streaks go.

But it's the offense that's really killing the Dodgers, particularly the loss of Milton Bradley. As I pointed out on the Hit List, the Dodgers are 7-12 and averaging only 3.79 runs per game since the centerfielder went down with a torn ligament in his finger; after last night that's now 7-13 and 3.60. Joe Sheehan actually picks up the topic of the sermon I'd composed in my head last night to discus the team's woes from there:
The Dodgers simply haven't been able to replace Bradley's bat. Consider that last night against Jake Peavy, as nasty a right-hander as there is in baseball, Jim Tracy had Jason Repko batting second, Olmedo Saenz in the five spot, and Jayson Werth batting sixth. Repko is barely a major leaguer, and he sports a .308 OBP (albeit with a "backwards" OBP split in a small sample). Saenz and Werth are platoon players, capable of contributing by smashing left-handers, but out of their element when asked to play a significant role against righties. Tracy's few remaining left-handed options, Jason Grabowski and Oscar Robles, have been awful and have little hope of improving. Like Repko, each is a marginal major leaguer.

When you have to play those three guys in your top six lineup spots against Jake Peavy, you're asking to be shut out. Add into this mix the horror show that third base has been for most of the season, Hee Seop Choi's devolution into a Two True Outcomes player, and the return of Cesar Izturis to his own body (2-for-his-last-46), and you have an offense that quickly went from championship caliber to being shut down by Jose Lima for eight innings. The Dodgers need Ledee, Bradley and Jose Valentin back from the DL if they're going to keep their season together.

...While I give lots of credit to Paul DePodesta for assembling a bench using cheap, even free, talent, one of the reasons you do that is so that you can easily get rid of players who you're wrong about. After a season and a half, it's pretty clear that Jason Grabowski isn't going to hit the way he did in the A's system. Robles might have been a good player in the Mexican League, but he's barely able to get the ball out of the infield in the majors. [Scott] Erickson should never have been employed, and is just a waste of roster space right now. Jayson Werth has a nice little run last year, but he needs a platoon partner. A month from now, we may be saying similar things about Antonio Perez and Mike Edwards, both of whom have gaudy stat lines driven by high batting averages, and who have temporarily solved the third-base problems.
That's about the size of it. Where manager Jim Tracy has been successful in the past is in putting his players in positions in which they can succeed; in other words, knowing the difference between a role player and a regular. He doesn't have quite the luxury of protecting those role players right now. The Dodgers desperately need Bradley and company to get healthy so that the lesser lights don't outstrip their limitations.

Fortunately, the NL West-leading Padres don't appear to be going anywhere fast; they were 5-12 coming into the series after a torrid 22-6 May. While they pack a stronger 1-2 punch at the top of the rotation in Peavy and Adam Eaton, the Dodgers have a more rounded group, at least when healthy and with Erickson stationed someplace where he can do no damage, like Norway. Stay tuned.

• • •

Hitting the books, I've had a nice time perusing Cecilia Tan's The 50 Greatest Yankee Games, a volume that's sure to start more arguments than it settles. With nearly 16,000 games spread over more than a century to choose from, selecting 50 is no easy task, especially coming from a history that includes 39 pennant winners, 26 World Champions, and so many marquee names. Babe Ruth is here, and so are Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, Reggie Jackson, and Derek Jeter, but lesser heroes such as George Mogridge, "Sad Sam" Jones, Bobby Murcer, Bucky Dent, and Jim Abbott get their time in the spotlight as well.

Tan's select 50 span almost exactly 99 years, from Jack Chesbro's heroics on October 10, 1904 to Aaron Boone's pennant-winning shot of October 16, 2003, which isn't to say that the Yanks come out on top in every game. Among the ranks are such notoriously bitter defeats as the 1947 World Series game in which Bill Bevens came within one out of a no-hitter, Game Seven of the 1960 World Series, in which Bill Mazeroski hit a walk-off homer, the 1983 game best remembered as the George Brett Pine Tar incident, and Game Five of the 1995 Divisional Series in which the Seattle Mariners' eliminated the Yanks. Even the Chesbro selection is a defeat; the hurler's ninth-inning wild pitch cost the Highlanders* the pennant against (of course) Boston. Tan is obviously a Yankee fan, but she's shrewd enough to recognize when history trumps pinstriped glory; along those lines, Game Seven of the 2001 World Series (the "Last Night of the Yankee Dynasty," as Buster Olney called it) stands as a rather glaring omission.

In this highly subjective task, Tan tries to strike a reasonable balance between individual accomplishments and team greatness, though that balance comes at the expense of mere garden-variety see-saw thrillers (such as this comeback against the Indians and the nine-run ninth inining against the A's in '98, personal favorites that were among my recommendations when Tan solicited them). No-hitters, even the lost ones, abound: Mogridge, Jones, Monte Pearson, a pair for Allie Reynolds, Don Larsen, Dave Righetti, Andy Hawkins, Abbott, Dwight Gooden, David Wells and David Cone. The hitters are here as well: Ruth calling his shot (or not), Gehrig hitting four homers, Mantle nearly hitting one onto River Avenue, Reggie hitting the trifecta against the Dodgers, Dave Winfield and Don Mattingly battling for a batting title down to the last day of the season, Jim Leyritz restoring hope in the 1996 World Series, and a handful of guys hitting for the cycle.

Defense get a bit of short shrift, however. While Billy Martin's World Series-saving catch of a Jackie Robinson popup in 1952 and Derek Jeter's now-legendary play against the A's in the 2001 Divisional Series are here, I'd have saved room for Graig Nettles's acrobatics in the 1978 World Series, particularly in Game Three, when he made several diving stops to cover for a less-than-sharp Ron Guidry. Tan relegated that one to her "Other" 50, but as a Dodger fan first and foremost, that memory still feels like an icicle jab to the heart a quarter-century later.

Tan's done a great deal of research for this book, drawing not only from familiar accounts but also interviews with about 30 former Yankees, including oldtimers like Yogi Berra, Jim Bouton, Jerry Coleman, and Whitey Ford. If her delving into Yankee history isn't on the level of Steven Goldman's (spoiled we are by high standards, no?), she's nonetheless able to inject new insight into some of these oft-told tales, and her book serves as a pretty solid thumbnail sketch of Yankee history via this subjective sample. I only wish she'd had the space to include the box score from each game. Let's face it; no matter how famous or obscure an old ballgame is, that wonderfully concise package of numbers adds so many dimensions to the retelling of these tales that to omit it is virtually an injustice.

Oh, and about that asterisk (*) above. Officially, the Yankees were known as the Highlanders from 1903 through 1912. Tan notes in that Chesbro chapter that headline writers and sportswriters were already calling them the Yankees by that season, and does so herself throughout the chapter. Since that was the first time I've heard of the informal interchangibility of the two names going so far back, it sent up a flag. My initial attempts at researching this met with no more authoritative confirmation of this than a Wikipedia entry; the venerable Mr. Goldman, an authority on all thinks Yankee, was not available for comment. However, in pulling out The New Bill James Historical Abstract, I came across the Patsy Dougherty entry on page 698. Dougherty, a Boston outfielder, was traded to New York early in '04, and James reports that the headline "DOUGHERTY NOW A YANKEE" was the first known instance of the team being called such in print. So there you have it.

Monday, June 20, 2005


Saturday in the Park

I had a blast at Yankee Stadium on Saturday in the company of fellow Baseball Prospectus author and Yankee fan Derek Jacques. The two of us were all smiles as we watched the Yanks spank the Cubs 8-1 for their fifth straight win.

Facing a free-swinging lineup that featured Neifi Perez and Corey Patterson battting 1-2 (thank you, Dusty), Chien Ming Wang had an easy time, allowing only five hits and striking out five over eight innings. Wang barely had to break a sweat; he threw only 88 pitches and looked like a man who's got no business ever going back to Triple-A. The rookie made only one mistake; the first pitch of the sixth inning to #9 hitter Jason Dubois landed about 400 feet away from home plate. Still, if there's ever a time to groove one...

That homer cut the Yanks' lead to 3-1, but the Bombers loaded the bases for Derek Jeter in the bottom of the inning and Jeter, who'd never hit a grand slam during his decade in the majors, finally got the monkey off of his back, depositing a Joe Borowski pitch over the left-centerfield wall as pandemonium broke out. The Yankee captain drew a curtain call after the hit, got a standing O when he went out to shortstop to start the seventh and another one when he came to bat in the eighth, after which he earned yet another curtain call with a homer to right center off of Cliff Bartosh. What a lovefest.

We spent the game sitting next to an endearing boyfriend-girlfriend scoring team; he was keeping track of the Yanks, she the Cubs, but they were clearly rooting for the home team; her derisive taunts of "Jer-O-Meeee" Burnitz made it quite clear where she stood. The duo reminded me of that old joke -- variously attributed to Dizzy Dean and Curt Gowdy -- about the lovely couple at the ballpark in which he kissed her on the strikes and she kissed him on the... eh, never mind. With Derek and I both armed with scorecards as well, the four of us made quite a sight, diligently keeping track pitch-by-pitch and helping each other fill in the rare missed play.

Derek brought his digital camera with him, and he's posted a handful of pictures as well as a writeup of the game at The Weblog That Derek Built. Check it out.

Sunday, June 19, 2005


Happy Father's Day

Just a quick note to wish all of the dads out there, including my own, a Happy Father's Day. Like many of us, I came to baseball through my dad, who served up hittable whiffle-ball offerings in our backyard, told us tales of Reggie Jackson, and taught us to root for the Dodgers. Someday I hope to have kids of my own to do the same for, and having just gotten married, I suppose I'm a step or two closer to that, which is rather mind-blowing. While Andra and I aren't quite ready to pursue that route, the biological clock is ticking: I'd better hope that my surgically repaired shoulder holds out long enough.

I've got a couple of father-related FI favorites to offer up in honor of today. The first is my profile of Reggie, whose exploits provided my family with a benchmark for over a decade:
When I played catch with Dad, occasionally he'd toss me one that would sting my hand or glance off of my glove. If I complained about the location of the throw, he'd shout, "Don't hit 'em so hard, Reggie!" The lesson: be tough, don't complain, and don't expect any opponent to cut you slack.
The second piece is a rumination on Barry Bonds and his father, Bobby Bonds (who had just passed away), Boys of Summer author Roger Kahn and his father (a central theme of that amazing book), and my bond with my own father:
Whether we grow up to be ballplayers or writers or brain surgeons, as children we come to the game via our fathers (and sometimes our mothers) -- somebody who throws us fat whiffle-ball pitches in the backyard, who explains why the glove goes on the opposite hand from the one we throw with, who takes us to the ballpark for the first time and patiently endures our barrage of questions as we struggled to reconcile the stadium game with our own narrow backyard experience, who teaches us how to read a box score and how to fill out a scorecard. Ideally baseball isn't the only vehicle for our bonding, but it's a sure one, with a built-in mechanism for measuring the passage of years and our own growth.
I'm a lucky guy to have such a great father, and our bond goes far beyond baseball. On the day of my wedding last month, Dad added just one more amazing memory and piece of sage advice to a repository rich in both. After weeks of unflappability and calm, I had suddenly (and understandably) grown very nervous and fidgety on the morning of the wedding, struggling to kill time all day long in the company of my friends. About an hour before I went to get dressed for my big moment, Dad took me aside and said, "It's a big day, but don't forget to stop and smell the roses. Take it all in and have fun tonight." By the time the ceremony started, my nervousness had dissipated, and I was calm and relaxed enough to enjoy every moment of my wedding and the revelry that followed. Thanks, Dad.

On the topic of Father's Day, be sure to check out Joe Lederer's surprise tribute to his father, Rich Lederer, over at Baseball Analysts.

Thursday, June 16, 2005


Clearing the Bases -- Von Hayes Special

In which five topics are combined into one epically cumbersome entry, commemorating one of baseball history's more ridiculous trades...

The past week has seen not one but two announcements of new ballpark's for New York City's teams. First NYC mayor Michael Bloomberg drafted a proposed Shea Stadium replacement (ETA: 2009) to pinch-hit for the defeated Jets stadium (a real West Side Story) in a revised 2012 Olympic bid. Then on Wednesday the Yankees unveiled their plans for The House That George Built.

I'm elated to see the West Side stadium and with it the misguided and doomed attempt at securing the Olympics crash and burn. The $2.2 billion price tag on a stadium that would be used for its main purpose some eight times a year was outrageous, particularly with a cost to the taxpayers at some $600 million to over $1 billion, depending upon who's counting. I also have a strong desire to keep New York state free of the scourge of pro football; the current NFL blackout rules are bad enough that I'm forced to endure the plodding of two teams that have chosen the Meadowlands as their addresses if I want to watch football on any given Sunday. Go back to Jersey.

By contrast, I'm supportive of the much more justifiable prospect of a new ballpark to replace Shea, a not-particularly-pleasant place to see a game even if you're wearing blue and orange. In fact, my first choice would be to see the Mets get a new park along the lines of that Ebbets-esque contraption that was being pushed before September 11, with the Yankees double-bunking while the current Casa Bambino receives a much more aesthetically generous upgrade than the last time around. On that topic, the intrepid Neil deMause, who covers the stadium game via his Field of Schemes book and website as well as at Baseball Prospectus and beyond, had this to say via email on the topic of just such a renovation: "No reason they can't still do that. In fact, they could probably even do a phased-construction thing at Yankee Stadium over a couple of winters - that's what Save Fenway Park's architects had proposed for Fenway before John Henry & Co. found religion."

But while you can color me lukewarm at the proposition of a new Bronx ballpark for reasons I'll get to below, I have to admire the relatively savvy manner with which the Yanks have gone about this enterprise. As the New York Times' Richard Sandomir wrote recently:
In the coming weeks, the Yankees will call a news conference to unveil plans to build a ballpark in the Bronx that they will finance without public money for construction or discourtesy to egos and agendas in the State Legislature.

The $800 million stadium plan has been nurtured for years without any public fulminations from the team's principal owner, George Steinbrenner, who spent time in decades past threatening to move to Manhattan or New Jersey.

The stadium will rise on parkland that is far from the vitriolic political debate between developing the Far West Side of Manhattan and redeveloping post-Sept. 11 Lower Manhattan - a trap that has ensnared advocates of the proposed $2.2 billion Jets/Olympic stadium over the West Side rail yards.

In many ways, the process of creating the new Yankees ballpark will be the antithesis of the Jets' project- suddenly moribund after being spurned Monday by Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver in a vote of a potent state panel - which was the centerpiece of New York City's now close-to-impossible quest to be host to the 2012 Summer Games.

The Yankees' project has no urgent deadline (like July 6, when the International Olympic Committee is to make its host city decision); no land dispute over Macomb's Dam Park and no need to build atop a concrete platform (which the Jets' plan called for); no lengthy history of endemic opposition (like Westway); no semantic tap dancing over whether it is a stadium or a convention center (which the Jets perpetuated); and no reason for Cablevision to vehemently campaign against it (as it did to the Jets' stadium).

It's clear that the Yankees read and reacted to the trends in stadium financing against huge public subsidies that offer little in return to municipalities with better things to spend their money on. There will be about $300 million in government aid, much of it from the state to build garages, but the state will get the parking revenue.
My main beef with the new park isn't in the way it's being paid for; in this George Steinbrenner has proceeded in a manner which shames his peers (save for the Giants' Peter Magowan, whose park is privately financed) and sticks it to them at the same time. Nor is it with replacing the most hallowed venue in professional sports. This is one case where anybody wishing to nominate the admittedly superior aesthetics of Fenway or Wrigley as trumping the historical value of the Bronx park can count da ringzz, beeyatch; they can't claim a venue which plays host to a lineage that runs through Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, Reggie Jackson and Derek Jeter. Nor is it the prospect that the new park will be, as a Times architectural critic put it, "the worst of two worlds. It is neither a compelling design that speaks to its age, nor does it do justice to the memory of the past... the result is more suited to Las Vegas than to the Bronx."

No, it comes down to what it means for the fans like me in the cheap(er) seats; there will be significantly fewer of those in the new park. From a capacity of about 57,545 in the current model (down from as high as 82,000 according to, the new stadium will have somewhere between 50,800 and 54,000, with 30,000 in the lower deck and 20,000 in the upper ones, a revers of the current configuration. "Field level" seats carry a cachet that equals higher prices, and the increased number of luxury boxes necessitates the elevation and recession of the upper deck, making it much further away from the players à la Shea. I love the Tier Box seating (lower part of the upper deck) in the current configuration; I much prefer the birds-eye view of the field to the distorted ground-floor one and though I've never caught a foul ball, would mourn the lost opportunity to spill my $8 beer and send my scorecard flying in the futile pursuit of one.

• • •

Speaking of the Yankees, pigs are flying past my window as they -- for two games against a team that's approached .500 after an abysmal first six weeks -- appear to be clicking on all cylinders: Mike Mussina twirling a gem, Hideki Matsui returning to his 2004 form, streak-threatening sprained ankle and all, Bernie Williams throwing out baserunners, Jason Giambi crushing pitches a long, long way, Andy Phillips drawing the ticket out of Columbus to replace Rey Sanchez on the roster instead of Fellix Escalona, Kevin Brown turning into a pumpkin.

I had the ballgame on last night when Brown came up lame, and though the initial guesstimate (later confirmed) was back spasms, YES analyst Jim Kaat suspected an elbow injury based on Brown's reaction. When Will Carroll inquired what happened via the BP mailing list, I admitted that I was "rooting for elbow. Add him to the [Tommy John] pile so he can *&%# off from my world forever." This drew a scolding reaction from one of my listmates, and while I'm not in the habit of rooting for injuries (baaaaad karma), I doubt there's a Yankee fan who feels any differently. In fact, I doubt you could find a Yankee fan who would piss on Brown if he were on fire, unless said urine had a high enough nitrogen content to increase the flames. The clubhouse wall punch combined with his taking the ball for Game Seven of last year's ALCS when he was physically unfit to do so have dug Brown a hole out of which he'll likely never climb while wearing pinstripes. In this road-to-nowhere season, I'd just as soon watch (or not watch) Your Name Here from Columbus fill his rotation spot until Jaret Wright returns.

Speaking of Wright, yes, I had him pegged to do well this season, and it looks as though I may be dining on crow at some point; let's just hope it tastes like chicken. It's worth noting Wright's trip to the DL is almost certain to be manipulated to the point that the injury clause buyout kicks in, saving the team $3 million. Whoopee!

• • •

Speaking of Tommy John surgery and bad karma, it should be pointed out I said this after already fretting privately that Dodger closer Eric Gagne's injury would need a second go-round of the procedure. Per Will Carroll, there's a glint of a glint of optimism that what's being termed a second-degree sprain (a/k/a a partial tear of the Ulnar Collateral Ligament, as opposed to a third-degree, complete tear) may be surmountable in six-to-eight weeks.

If Gagne does undergo surgery, I hope they can transplant some common sense into his thick skull, as his recent arm woes were triggered by two absolute no-no's that have me wondering how vapor-locked the closer is upstairs: pitching before his early-spring knee sprain had fully healed, altering his mechanics and leading to his late-spring elbow injury, and then the other day, reaching back for a few lost MPH on his fastball after Dodger pitching coach Jim Colborn mentioned that he'd lost some zip. Grrrr.

In my fantasy league, they laughed at me when I bypassed Gagne and chose Brad Lidge with the 11th pick, then grabbed Yhency Brazoban much later. Guess who's running away with the league lead?

• • •

One of the great advantages of being part of Baseball Prospectus is the sheer volume of data to which one has access. With a few exceptions, the BP suite of advanced statistics (Value Over Replacement Player, Pitcher Abuse Points, Reliever Expected Wins Above Replacement Level, Run Expectancy tables, etc.), is uniformly available back to 1972 thanks to the play-by-play data they own.

But actually being able to control the flow of that data is another matter entirely; it's something of a bottleneck because relatively few of the writers are database-savvy, leading to many late-night data queries such as "Looking for list of all the MLB hitters who've put up an EqA higher than .341 in the last 10 years" that while easy enough to fulfull, require the cooperation of multiple individuals.

Fortunately, BP has recently taking steps to resolve this problem, offering access and some level of instruction in SQL, the language of BP's databases, to us neophytes. Fifteen minutes of unsupervised poking around, and I had come up with a list of the worst Defensive Efficiency Ratios since 1972. Here they are:
Year   Team   DER
1999 TBA .6617
1997 OAK .6629
1999 COL .6633
1994 COL .6643
2005 COL .6648
1996 BOS .6666
1993 COL .6674
1996 HOU .6683
2005 NYA .6685
2000 TEX .6689
1997 COL .6691
1998 TEX .6697
2005 CIN .6700
1986 SEA .6704
1999 TEX .6708
1996 DET .6717
1994 SEA .6717
2001 CLE .6718
1995 PIT .6728
2000 PIT .6732
The current Yanks were once on pace for the worst DER of the post-'72 ERA, and as recently as a couple of nights ago were as high on this list as #5. It's worth note that two other teams from this year make the list, the Reds and the Rockies, who have seven of the bottom 21 slots on this list. That probably points to the necessity of park-adjusting these figures, something that's been attempted by BP's James Click but not applied across recent history.

As if on cue, Click -- a clutch god with the numbers to whom I owe countless thanks -- rolled out an article on the Yankee DER today, and accounts for the Rox field-driven futility as well:
Looking at the last 34 years (because we lack Reached On Error totals for earlier years), the worst defensive teams, adjusted for their park, are:
Team   Year      DE      LgDE      PF       PADE
---- ---- ---- ---- ------ ----
SEA 1986 .6704 .7012 1.0189 -5.29
CIN 2005 .6712 .6955 1.0381 -5.22
OAK 1979 .6800 .7029 1.0388 -5.10
SDN 1972 .6978 .7154 1.0410 -4.43
FLO 1998 .6737 .6902 1.0426 -4.42
DET 1989 .6909 .7053 1.0474 -4.31
HOU 1996 .6683 .6872 1.0318 -4.27
SDN 1974 .6862 .7056 1.0276 -4.07
NYA 2005 .6674 .6955 .9947 -4.06
SDN 2002 .6784 .6969 1.0279 -3.99
SDN 1997 .6752 .6883 1.0434 -3.99
NYA 1984 .6830 .6999 1.0320 -3.95
CHN 1987 .6765 .6981 1.0165 -3.89
CHN 2002 .6864 .6969 1.0490 -3.86
CHN 1981 .6859 .7097 1.0070 -3.68
(DE is the normal DE for the team including ROE, LgDE is the league average DE for that year, and PF is the team's DE Park Factor.)

PADE is a percentage, so a PADE of -4.06 as the Yanks have means they turn 4.06% fewer balls into outs than a league average defense in their park. Note that suddenly the Rockies fail to appear on the list at all while the '86 Mariners--doomed by an Alvin Davis/Ken Phelps platoon at first and Harold Reynolds at second--now suddenly top the list of the worst defensive teams of the last 34 years.
So it would appear that the Reds, not the Yankees, are the team giving closest chase to what I will call the Concrete Glove. None of which exonerates the Bronx Bumblers, by which I mean the ones who didn't sign Carlos Beltran.

• • •

Several months back, when I was culling through my referral logs to see where my site's traffic was coming from (a necessary part of maintaining a website but an incredibly nerdy thing to write about), I noticed I was getting hits via a blog called Can't Stop the Bleeding. Checking the link, I realized CSTB was the site of none other than Gerard Cosloy, head honcho of Matador Records, an independent label whose music I've spent the better part of the last 15 years listening to via bands like the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, Railroad Jerk, Pavement, Yo La Tengo, Guided by Voices, the Fall, and more (and yes I'm living in the past since their current roster includes hip bands like Interpol and Belle and Sebastian for which a ten-foot pole is not enough to keep me away). It's no stretch to say I probably have my hands on 100 Matador releases within my sub-500 square-foot Manhattan apartment, and if you added up the number of times I've seen the label's bands play live, you'd approach a similar number. So I was tickled to see that a link to Futility Infielder was featured prominently "above the fold," as they say.

Calling CSTB a baseball blog is flattery, however; whatever the sport, it specializes in the offbeat, the crime beat and the look-who-got-beat (usually the Mets, apparently Cosloy's favorite team). CSTB best approaches its true calling as a scandal sheet for the sports world. Cosloy's acerbic sense of humor is not for everybody, particularly the politically correct. Nonetheless, he most definitely does not suffer fools gladly. Here's his report of a recent trip to Wrigley Field, where he encountered one of FI's least favorite ballplayers, the vocally homophobic relief pitcher Todd Jones:
Florida reliever Todd Jones has long been CSTB’s journalistic hero. His old as-told-to columns for The Sporting News showed yours truly that if a big, burly dude like Todd wasn’t ashamed of flaunting his learning disabilities and backwards sexual politics in public, I’d have to get a lot bigger and burlier I wanted to manage the same thing.

Tonight while on a fact finding mission at Chicago’s Wrigley Field, I had the opportunity to observe Jones up close and personal. While sitting alongside the Marlins bullpen, I spied Todd bringing autographed baseballs to a couple of heavily made up / perfumed individuals sitting a few seats to my right. I’ve long heard that signing autographs during the game was forbidden (or so Red Sox backup catcher Bob Montgomery claimed many years ago), and as much as I’d like to credit Todd for being a nice guy, I hate to break it to him that both of these girls had penises. What’s more, since we’re in Illinois, I’m pretty sure they weren’t married to each other.
File under "Rednecks Duped by Drag Queens"... In a similar vein, Cosloy calls attention to the quizzical ramblings of White Sox outfielder Carl Everett (another FI anti-fave), whose views include advocating the demolition of Wrigley Field as well as the sadly all-too-common homophobia, which is apparently especially in vogue among relief pitchers (see Queer Eye-unfriendly Mike Timlin -- formerly thought to be a beacon of tolerance -- and the otherwises admirably gritty Cal Eldred, whose recent brush with death hasn't shaken his own prejudices). Anyway, CSTB is an entertaining read, guaranteed to amuse and outrage. Check it out.


Five topics? Hell, I'll throw in a sixth for free. Perusing that Von Hayes trade, I noticed that not only was everyone's favorite 47-year-old bat wizard, Julio Franco, sent to Cleveland as part of the package, but so were Manny Trillo, a staple of my birthday bretheren Xmas All-Star team, and Jay Baller, whom I used in the title of my historical rundown of ballplayers with our shared first name. Funny how that works out.

Tuesday, June 14, 2005


No Fool's Rushin

It's that time of week again; the Prospectus Hit List is signed, sealed, and delivered. There's a new bird ruling the roost this time around, with the St. Louis Cardinals taking over the top spot from the Baltimore Orioles, who dropped to fourth, and the Twins and White Sox in between those two.

This was the tightest battle for the top spot in the half-dozen of PHLs I've written, with the top four teams completely shuffling themselves between Sunday and Monday. Interleague play wrought no small amount of havoc all the way around. The O's stumbled against the Reds (last week's #28) and the Pirates (who have shaken off the derision I heaped upon them earlier this season to approach .500). The Twins lost a dramatic series to the Dodgers, one which saw Hee Seop Choi hit six homers, including a walk-off on Friday night and a hat-trick's worth on Sunday (see Jon Weisman for some great insight into Choi's ups and downs). Last week's #4, the Rangers, lost five out of six to the Phillies and the Braves. Put two teams that don't see each other but once every few years, and stuff happens.

The Yankees, of course, continued to careen down the lost highway, dropping two of three to the Brewers and then two of three to the Cardinals, finishing their road trip at an unsightly 3-9 and overall having lost 11 of 14. They're now #17 on the Hit List. Friday night's three-error debacle prompted Joe Torre to give his squad both barrels:
Furious after a performance he called the low point of the Yankees' dismal season, Torre tore into his players in a meeting after the game. In comments to members of the news media after a brutal 8-1 loss to the St. Louis Cardinals, Torre did not hold back.

"I'm just not happy," he said after the Yankees collected three errors and just six hits. "It was an ugly game. We didn't play hard enough. We didn't do anything to help ourselves win. It was an embarrassing, embarrassing game."

Derek Jeter and others said they had never seen Torre as upset as he was after the game. Though he later modified his answer, Jeter seemed as disgusted as Torre at what he had seen. "It seems like we don't care," Jeter said.

Asked if the message would be heard in the clubhouse, the third-base coach, Luis Sojo, who won four World Series rings under Torre, said, "It'd better be, because he never talks like that. I've been here 10 years, and I've never seen him talking like that."
As if on cue, Randy Johnson finally delivered a gem on Saturday, shutting out the league's most potent offense and striking out seven in seven innings (hmmm, maybe he's just a National League pitcher?). But by Sunday, the Yanks were back to the business of sucking like an Electrolux. Scott Seabol, a former 88th round pick who spent seven years in the Yankees' system while drawing a lone at-bat in 2001 -- think of him as the poor man's Clay Bellinger and wince -- socked a two-run pinch-homer off of Tanyon Sturtze to key a four-run rally. Guh.

While George Steinbrenner declared that Joe Torre's job is safe the other day, how many Yankee skippers have heard that line before? How many who heard that are even alive to tell the tale? Not Billy Martin, Bob Lemon, or Dick Howser, to be sure, and one imagines a psych-ward's worth of interims who've been institutionalized as well. Like the ringmaster of a particularly decrepit traveling circus, GM Brian Cashman made the road trip to all four cities and though he's got "a lot of things going on behind the scenes," there are few Band-Aids available. Sure, the Yankees might move Tony Womack either to centerfield or (fingers crossed) a city more worthy of his baseball talents such as Moose Jaw, and futilityman Rey Sanchez has a pair of bulging disks in his neck, necessitating a roster move, but then what? Per Cliff Corcoran, we're just flogging the should-have-signed-Carlos-Beltran horse again, and that's about the deadest nag in the stable.

• • •

With the Yankee broadcast turned to low volume in the background, I'm finally digging into Steve Goldman's Forging Genius, and I've got a pile of other books to discuss as well (if you're an author or publisher who's sent one along, apologies for the delay; nothing personal, just a wedding and a honeymoon and the need to keep paying the bills ahead of you in the batting order). Though my scrawlings here have been kind of irregular, I'm going to try to get through one or two books in each of my posts.

Today's honor -- a book I bought rather than one sent in solicitation of a review -- goes to one of my favorite writers, Steve Rushin, who does the "Air and Space" column for Sports Illustrated. Stellar photography aside, he's really the only reason I keep resubscribing to the mag. Rushin's first book, Road Swing, saw him spend a year driving all over the country to sample every meat of our country's sporting stew (both literally and figuratively), with gut-busting results. Honestly, the only other writer who makes me laugh out loud on as consistent a basis is David Sedaris. If I'm reading either of them in public, I tend to giggle so maniacally that I get worried looks from strangers, and I thank multiple dieties that I've still got control of my bladder as I wipe away the tears. No joke.

Rushin's new book, The Caddy Was A Reindeer and Other Tales of Extreme Recreation, is a collection of columns and features done for SI, but it finds the author treading similar ground to Road Swing with no less hysterical results. Travel-writing dominates the collection, which is named for and more or less bookended by a pair of stories in which Rushin goes to the Arctic Circle in search of the northernmost golf courses in the world:
I had first heard of ice golf two summers earlier, while traveling under the midnight sun in northern Scandinavia. "You must return in the winter," implored the deskman at the Strand Hotel in Helsinki, "when we play ice golf on frozen lakes and snow, in freezing temperatures, with balls that are purple."

"Yes, well, I imagine they would be," I stammered...
Golf, the great leveler of presidents and palookas, forms the backdrop for a couple other stories and functions a metaphor throughout the book, as Rushin fully explores some of mankind's more futile sporting pursuits and our attempts to salvage dignity and build character through the adversity induced by them: "When I asked my caddie at Old Head what the course record was, he said, 'Safe.'"

In doing so, Rushin's travels take him all over the globe -- the Tour de France, the World Cup, pub darts in England, a flurry of pre-Olympic activity in Nagano, a volcano crater in Bali (site of an 18-hole course), the Nurburgring road in Germany (the closed track where many car commercials are filmed), and in pursuit of competitive eaters, rollercoaster buffs, and tailgaters extraordinaire. Rushin's a big kid at heart, one in awe of the world's sporting wonders, but he's a sensitive one as well, with a sympathetic ear for those whose out-of-leftfield sporting pursuits bring them a sense of identity, and a willingness to lose his lunch finding out what they go through.

Which isn't to say that the author avoids the big four North American sports. There's a a meditation on the secret language of Red Sox fans, a sympathetic profile of former Reds and Tigers manager Sparky Anderson, plenty of basketball (including a touching account of his courtship of WNBA star Rebecca Lobo, now his wife), and at the center of the book, a fascinating 58-page meditation, written for SI's 40th anniversary issue, that delves into the rise of such modern-day wonders as Monday Night Football and the career of Roone Arledge (a pet topic of mine), the Astrodome, and a profile of the men behind those garish rival startup leagues of the Seventies, the World Hockey Association and the World Football League.

How great is this book? I can give it no higher praise than to say that it was the only one I took time out from my honeymoon to read. I had saved it for just such a special occasion, and it more than lived up to the honor. Don't miss the an excerpt of Caddie at Amazon and check out an archive or two of Rushin's columns (some of them subscription-only) at if you haven't had the chance to sample his work.

Wednesday, June 08, 2005


Lost Night

It was a lost night of watching baseball on Tuesday. Saw the last five innings of the Yanks losing to the Milwaukee Brewers for the second straight night. Ben Sheets stymied the Yanks on two hits through seven innings, but the game remained close because Carl Pavano made only one mistake, a pitch Brewers shortstop Bill Hall hit over the wall in the second for a two-run blast.

As they did the night before, the Yanks had a shot at tying the game against closer Derek Turnbow. Jorge Posada singled with one out, then Robinson Cano doubled--Geoff Jenkins nearly making a diving catch but losing the ball upon impact with the ground--to send Posada to third. Alas, Bernie Williams grounded out, scoring a run but bringing the Yanks down to their final out. Derek Jeter, who made the final out on Monday, did so again as he meekly slapped Turnbow's first pitch right back to him. Sheesh, so much for Mr. Clutch. That's 1-7 on the road trip, their ninth loss in 10 games, and according to the Daily News, 0-22 when scoring three runs or less, and on a 0-for-25 skid with the bases loaded. Expect blood in the streets soon.

Flipped over to the Dodger game, where they were leading the Tigers 4-2 in the top of the sixth. Rookie Derek Thompson had pitched five solid innings before Scott Erickson, whose futility I pointed out yesterday, came on in relief. Pudge Rodriguez jacked Erickson's second pitch over the right-centerfield wall to trim the lead to 4-3. That's the 12th homer Erickson has allowed in 42.2 innings. Thanks, Scott. Maddeningly, Jim Tracy allowed Erickson to put runners on first and second before bringing on rookie Franquelis Osoria, fresh off the turnip truck from Las Vegas to make his major-league debut. Osoria gave up a sac bunt to Nook Logan (great name), and then a run on a groundout, thus taking Erickson's ERA to an appropriately airplane-esque 7.17.

With the score tied, Chris Spurling, a former Yankee farmhand currently sporting a sub-2.00 ERA, came on in relief for the Tigers and retired the side on six pitches, yielding three infield grounders. Weak. Duaner Sanchez came on for the Dodgers, and on his second pitch, rookie shortstop Tony Giarratano, who had come on to replace Carlos Guillen when the latter strained his hamstring, hit one out for his first major-league homer. Sanchez apparently liked the feeling so much he went 2-0 on Dmitri Young before the Meathook crushed one about 500 feet to make the score 6-4. A Rondell White double, a Pudge single, and a groundout (finally an out!) yielded another run, and then a Logan single stretched the score to 8-4. Nice relief pitching, guys. Save for a measly walk, L.A. could do nothing against a trio of hard throwing Tigers -- Kyle Farnsworth, Ugie Urbina, and Troy Percival -- and that was that. Phhhht.

Watching these desultory performances, I took some time to fire back answers to five questions 6-4-2 blogger Rob McMillan sent along regarding my two suffering teams. Since I'd written an epic Hit List over the past two days and covered both teams more extensively as well, I had plenty of answers on the tip of my tongue. You can read the exchange here.

• • •

That epic Hit List generated this response from one of my readers:
HOW AM I SUPPOSED TO READ ALL THIS?!?! You're killing me, Smalls!

--TG in SF
TG, I'm glad you asked. I'll share with you a simple way to get through such a long article.

First hire a pair of monkeys to write abstracts of each team summary (you can buy some here, but be sure to get a receipt if you'd like to return them once you've read the article). Get a proboscis monkey for the NL, and maybe something smaller for the AL such as a white capuchin or a spider monkey (trust me, from an aesthetic standpoint, this will work). Most monkeys have an innate understanding of sabermetrics; it's almost uncanny how much more well-developed it is compared to the average beat writer.

Monkeys are overqualified when it comes to printing out their work, so pawn that task off on a chicken that can peck at the keyboard until the job is done. You may have to sprinkle a bit of corn on the keyboard, but don't worry, it will wash off.

Once the chicken has printed the abstracts as well as the original article, her work is done. So if you haven't eaten, by all means feel free to dispose of the chicken the way nature intended (there are plenty of recipes to choose from). When you're done, climb in your car and head towards the nearest interstate. If you don't have a car you can buy one here; sadly, in this case public transportation is not an option.

While driving, pick up the first hitchhiker you see; you may have to drive awhile to find one but the outskirts of town are a popular spot. When you finally get a hitchhiker, have him (or her) read you the abstracts and, if you'd like to hear more about the particular team, the full entry. Most hitchhikers can be quickly trained to do this.

Voilà! A simple way to read lengthy articles that can be applied almost universally to any piece of baseball analysis (I've not tested it on other subjects). Oh, and once you're done, be sure to feed the papers to a goat--it's important to recycle.

Note: no animals were harmed in the writing of this entry. Lunch, however, was another matter...

Tuesday, June 07, 2005


Back to Baseball (Dodger Edition)

The latest Prospectus Hit List, my first in four weeks, is up today. It's a meaty one, as I fell prey to the temptation to give season-to-date evaluations at the one-third mark while reacquainting myself with all the teams, giving myself about twice as much work as normal. Only the patient hard work of the men behind the scenes enabled the piece to go up on time. Thanks to Ben Murphy for keeping the Hit List warm in my absence.

Topping the Hit List are the Orioles for the fourth week in a row thanks to the dynamic keystone duo of Miguel Tejada and Brian Roberts, not to mention a staff that's improved by about 3/4 of a run over last year thanks in part to pitching coach Ray Miller. Even the nomadic Bruce Chen, on his eight major-league team just shy of his 27th birthday, is outperforming every Yankee starter. Meanwhile the Yankees, currently in Milwaukee on a 12-game road trip from hell (or to hell, which is where their season has gone), are 16th. Yesterday my mother-in-law, a Milwaukee resident, left me a message that she was going to the ballgame. She said she'd try not to boo Gary Sheffield (she likely doesn't remember the youthful Shef's sins as a Brewer so much as she recalls the reaction when he came to town with the Dodgers, a game of which we attended), but if others around her started doing so, she might not be able to resist. Funny woman. As for the Dodgers, this seems like a good opportunity to catch up with them in greater detail as I did the Yanks the other day, so here goes...

No team got out to a hotter start this season than the Dodgers, who matched their best start in club history when they reached 12-2, and topped the Prospectus Hit List for the weeks of April 17 and April 24. That they did so without Eric Gagne and with a makeshift bullpen was part of their charm, and with Jeff Kent hitting like a house on fire, the early returns on crow -- as in eating it at GM Paul DePodesta's expense -- looked quite promising. Ridiculous rallies -- from down 5-0 in the first and 8-3 in the fourth to the Giants on April 12, from down 6-0 in the third to the Brewers a week later made the team seem like a logical extension of last year's division-winning comeback kids.

They soon leveled off, but when I left for my wedding, the Dodgers were two games ahead of the Diamondbacks, with a record of 20-12. Hee Seop Choi was on a tear and Yhency Brazoban, the converted former outfielder who was a throw-in in the Kevin Brown-Jeff Weaver swap with the Yankees, was 10-for-11 in save opportunities in the Goggled One's absence. Since then, however, the Dodger season has taken a turn. They've gone 10-15 since that point, dropping to third in the NL West, four games behind the Padres, who tore through May at a 22-6 pace, and a half-game behind the Snakes. This week's Hit List has them dwelling at #20.

What's gone wrong? Mainly, it's been injuries. The team has sent 13 players to the DL, with eight currently residing there: starters Wilson Alvarez (his second stint) and Odalis Perez, swingman Elmer Dessens and reliever Darren Dreifort (who wasn't expected back all season, as per his miserable history), catcher Paul Bako, third baseman Jose Valentin, and outfielders Milton Bradley and Jason Grabowski. Others who've spent time there include starter Brad Penny, closer Gagne, leftfielder Jayson Werth, and infielder Antonio Perez.

The injuries have hit the rotation the hardest, with no fewer than nine pitchers making starts this year. As I said on the Hit List, the high profile gambles on Penny and Derek Lowe have paid off thus far; Lowe's been a horse, averaging 6.6 innings per start to the tune of a 3.35 ERA and a K/BB ratio of 3.47. Penny's averaged over six innings per start with a 3.67 ERA. But Odalis Perez was erratic before heading to the DL with shoulder soreness, Jeff Weaver's been his usual maddening self (a 5.65 ERA and only five quality starts out of 12), and the five hole has been a disaster, with Scott Erickson and Alvarez combining for an 8.10 ERA and 15 homers in 46.2 innings. Erickson, who last had a servicable season in 1999, is particularly cooked, walking two batters for every one he's struck out. Other than the fact that he's got "the good face" there's no earthly reason he's clogging a roster spot. Rookie southpaw Derek Thompson, straight from Double-A Jacksonville, has given the Dodgers two serviceable starts, and Rule V rookie D.J. Houlton has pitched in with a good one as well. Meanwhile, former top prospect--and make no mistake, that's former--Edwin Jackson is currently sporting an 8.08 ERA in Triple-A Las Vegas, with only one more strikeout than walk. Eeesh.

Even with the return of their ace closer, the bullpen has fallen on hard times. Alvarez was successful in relief, Brazoban and Duaner Sanchez have had good seasons thus far, but Giovanni Carerra, who's appeared in 26 games thus far, has been overexposed, and several of the human interest stories--sidearmer Steve Schmoll, Japanese League vet Buddy Carlyle--who rounded out the pen have been blown clear to Las Vegas. One who hasn't is Houlton, who's put the Dodgers in a tough spot. The scouts like him, and PECOTA thinks he's ready, projecting him for a 4.71 ERA. But his overall performance, featuring a 6.04 ERA and about four walks per nine innings, doesn't really merit a spot on the roster, yet the team's hands are tied; they'd have to send him back to Houston rather than down to Vegas.

The pitching hasn't been particularly helped by the defense; the team's Defensive Efficiency Ratio of .691 puts them 11th in the NL, two points below the league average. With a strikeout rate that's only 9th-best in the league, that translates into a lot of additional base hits. Shortstop Cesar Izturis (105 Rate2, or five runs above average per 100 games according to Baseball Prospectus's fielding numbers), second basmean Jeff Kent (104 Rate2) and centerfielder Bradley (116 Rate2) have played well at key positions, but everywhere else, the Dodgers are giving runs away, particularly at third base (about which, more momentarily).

On the hitting side, the team has run hot (.276/.358/.450 and 5.48 runs per game in April) and cold (.260/.327/.389 and 4.29 runs per game in May), though as a whole they're averaging 4.89 runs per game, second-best in the NL. Kent went as frigid in May (200/.241/.330) as he was red-hot in April (.333/.457/.643), but fortunately, he appears to be back on a tear, 12 for 19 with three homers, three doubles and 10 RBI, eight of them in the last two games. He's at .288/.371/.534 overall, with 12 homers and 48 RBI (leading the team by 20 and third in the NL behind Derek Lee's 53), great numbers for a second-sacker.

Fellow free-agent signee J. D. Drew, who endured an 0-for-25 start, is up to .276/.403/.500, and Bradley was at .298/.345/.511 before a finger sprain sent him to the DL and Drew over to center, where he'd originally hoped to play when signed. Leftfield has been a problem, with Werth having returned only about two weeks ago. Substitute Rickey Ledee got off to a hot start, but has since cooled off, and Jason Repko hasn't really shown much; as a whole, Dodger leftfielders are hitting .252/.314/.394.

Choi enjoyed a nice hot streak that appeared to quiet the doubters for a few moments, but he's in the throes of a miserable 3-for-39 slump since May 18 and down to .245/.327/.417 overall. Fortunately, professional hitter Olmeido Saenz has filled in particularly well (.323/.396/.635) and has driven in 27 runs in 96 at-bats. Elsewhere Jason Phillips, acquired from the Mets for headache Kaz Ishii just before Opening Day, has shorn up the catching, and Cesar Izturis has turned into a bona fide leadoff dynamo (.321/.366/.396 and a league-leading 28 multi-hit games) as well as a dazzling shortstop.

Third base appeared to be headed for disaster, as Jose Valentin snapped both a 27-at-bat hitless streak and some knee ligaments in the same game. Neither aged Japanese import Norihoro Nakamura nor minor-league journeyman Mike Edwards could handle the hot corner, and even with hot-hitting Antonio Perez (.387/.472 /.516) now manning the bag, the Dodgers are living dangerously. As a team, their third-base defense has been 19 runs bellow average per 100 games, Perez himself 17 below. Yikes.

Manager Jim Tracy has done a very good job of mixing and matching his bench players under the circumstances, indlucing finding at-bats for the red-hot Saenz. He's gotten exceptionally good performances from the pinch-hitters, who are batting .272/.330/.370, which is excellent by the lowly standards of pinch-hitters. Ledee is 6-for-11 in that role, Edwards 4-for-5.

As a whole, the Dodgers have shown that when they get hot, they can be the best team in the league. With the Giants meandering without Barry Bonds and looking to have worse troubles with ace Jason Schimdt, the Padres cooling off after their hot May and lacking much of a rotation beyond Jake Peavy and Adam Eaton, and the Diamondbacks using smoke and mirrors (a -37 run differential despite their 30-27 record), the division is still ripe for the picking. But they'll need some better luck in the health department and some help from DePodesta if they're going to win it.


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