The Futility Infielder

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

Friday, June 23, 2006

 

Flipping Channels

It's been a busy couple of weeks here at Futility Central as I try to wrap up a major design project as well as keep up with my usual Baseball Prospectus writing flow before heading out of town. I leave on Tuesday for Seattle, where I'm spending a week centered around the annual SABR convention.

This will be my first one; I entertained the notion of going in years past, but with this one taking place in a city where my brother, two sets of aunts and uncles, and my wife's best friend and her family are all in the area, it made sense to turn it into a full-on vacation. The fact that Jim Bouton is the keynote speaker only adds to the reasons to go; it was on the same night I met Bouton five and a half years ago that the gal who's now my wife first staked her claim on my heart. Anyway, if any of you are going to SABR, I hope we can meet up. Look for the guy wearing the replica Pilots #56 jersey (Bouton's uni circa Ball Four). Email me for further details.

From Seattle, I'm headed down to Los Angeles, where, for the first time in my 36+ years, I'll finally get to attend a game in Dodger Stadium -- two in fact, courtesy of Dodger Thoughts' Jon Weisman, who's been clutch with the tickets. The Dodgers are playing the Giants, which means I'm packing my leather lung to scream tasteless epithets at Barry Bonds as women and children cower in fear. It may be L.A., but I'll show him the Bronx (just kidding, Jon -- I'll be on my bestest behavior).

So anyway, it's been ages since I rapped at ya, going all the way back to last Wednesday, just before I headed up to the Yankees-Indians game, where I missed the signature moment of Randy Johnson's ejection while making a beer run. Johnson came inside against nemesis Eduardo Perez a half-inning after Jorge Posada was plunked by Jason Johnson. He didn't hit him, but since both benches had apparently been warned, the Big Unit and Joe Torre got to take a powder. I heard the roar of the crowd as I was purchasing beers; by the time I got to the field, players, coaches, and umps were milling around on the field, sorting things out, and the crowd was chanting "Randy! Randy!" as if they were finally on the disappointing (5.32 ERA) Johnson's side. As I noted in this week's Hit List, the Yanks have been out-plunked by 14 hitters, the second-largest margin in the majors. With the lineup already decimated by injuries to Hideki Matsui and Gary Sheffield, and Derek Jeter having missed several games due to being hit on the hand, the Big Ugly finally stepped up to protect his teams. No beef there.

A few other moments stand out from the Yanks' 6-1 win. First was the dramatic contrast in treatments by the official scorer on potential hit/error rulings for Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez. In the fourth, with Jeter at third, Jason Giambi on second and none out, A-Rod grounded to shortstop Jhonny Peralta. He looked to have beaten the throw, which was a bit high, but first baseman Ben Broussard bobbled it. Jeter scored easily. "Watch, they'll screw him," I said to my friend Nick about the decision on whether Rodriguez, in the midst of a 6-for-40 slump, would get a hit. Nope.

Jeter, on the other hand, reached on ball Broussard bobbled in the seventh. "How much you want to bet that's a hit? It's the Jeter Rules," I said to Nick. Sho' nuf, that's the way the official scorer saw it too. I've heard from numerous sources -- those in the press boxes, and those who work for teams -- that the Yankee official scorers are regarded as among the worst in the majors, and here was vivid proof. Pure horseshit.

Also, Andy Phillips seemed to be around a few big plays. In the third he hit a ball into the right-center gap, but Cleveland centerfielder Grady Sizemore laid out for it and made a beautiful diving catch to take away a sure double. In the sixth, Phillips exacted some revenge with a two-run homer to expand the lead to 6-3 shortly after Posada was hit. And in the ninth, Phillips dove over the rail, into the stands to nab Victor Martinez's pop foul ball for the final out -- one of the best game-ending defensive plays I've ever seen.

Johnson, of course, drew a five-game suspension for his efforts. That paled in comparison to his opposite number, Jason Johnson. Ineffective since being signed as a free agent this past winter (the loss took him to 3-7 with a 6.00 ERA), Johnson was designated for assignment following his next start, where he surrendered six runs (three earned) to the hapless (28th in this week's Hit List) Chicago Cubs. The Tribe subsequently traded him to Boston for a bucket of tobacco spit said to have been produced by Luis Tiant, if I'm not mistaken. Given the Red Sox's back-end problems, this could work out nicely for the Yanks.

• • •

Anyway, the aforementioned Hit List found the Tigers back on top, the Yanks third, and the Dodgers ninth. The latter are the subject of a piece I wrote (PDF here) for today's New York Sun about the influx of rookies that's arrived ahead of schedule to keep the team in the thick of the NL West race:
In early May they recalled Andre Ethier (acquired from Oakland for the controversial Bradley) to man their decimated outfield and Russell Martin to fill in for injured catcher Dioner Navarro (who, at 22, was starting his first full season). Both quickly made impacts. Ethier homered in his second big-league game, and a day later Martin stroked an RBI double in his debut, setting off a streak in which the Dodgers won 16 of 18 with him catching.

A week after Ethier's homer, a knee injury to Mueller forced the recall of Willy Aybar, who spent most of last season in Triple-A before hitting a torrid .326 AVG/.448 OBA/.453 SLG as a September call-up. This year, Aybar picked up where he left off, hitting safely in 20 of 21 games. By the end of May, the Dodgers promoted another outfielder, Matt Kemp; within a week of arriving, he'd homered in his first three games at Dodger Stadium, and through his first 18, had gone yard seven times.

The bullpen, where the once-elite Gagne has been sidelined again, has also been shored up by rookies. Gasthrowing, 288-pound Jonathan Broxton has become one of manager Grady Little's key setup men, while 36-year old Japanese League veteran (technically a stateside rookie) Takashi Saito is now closing due to Baez's struggles.

Even the rotation has gotten a shot in the arm, with Chad Billingsley, considered the system's crown jewel, debuting on June 15 with a 5.1-inning start in which he he allowed two runs while dazzling the Padres with a 96 mph fastball and a curve thrown for strikes when behind in the count.

The rookies are a big reason why the Dodgers are even contending in the NL West. Collectively, only the surging Marlins - amid a fire sale-induced youth movement that's seen as many as seven rookies playing at once - have gotten more production out of their freshman class. According to Baseball Prospectus's Value Over Replacement Player (VORP) metric - which measures a player's offensive or pitching contribution in runs relative to that of a freely available minor-leaguer or benchwarmer - Marlins rookies have accounted for a collective VORP of 106.4 runs, split about evenly between pitchers (57.3) and hitters (49.1). Dodger rookies have totaled 51.0 VORP (33.2 for hitters, 17.8 for pitchers), albeit in considerably fewer plate appearances and innings; only four other teams have topped 30.
The piece was accompanied by a table showing the contributions of the aforementioned rookies:



While I'm dishing out the numbers, here's the complete chart of the team-by-team rookie VORP totals referenced in the article; pitchers' hitting was not included in the offense totals, and a bug in BP's stat reports required me to add about a dozen rookies who recently debuted to the ones the database flagged. Numbers through Wednesday night, when I stayed up late to watch Chad Billingsley's start against the Mariners, hoping he'd live up to his debut and keep his VORP in the black. Billingsley had a so-so night. The M's fouled off numerous pitches, elevating the kid's pitch count; they walked four times and struck out only once but managed only two runs. The first came on a delayed double steal; Richie Sexson whiffed on a beautiful curve ball, but Russell Martin was completely buffaloed by Raul Ibanez bolting from first base, forgetting that Adrian Beltre was scampering off of third. Rookie mistakes. The second run was also odd. Mariners catcher Kenji Johjima hooked a ball down the leftfield line; the announcers (a Seattle crew, not Vin Scully) and cameramen thought it was a foul ball and cut away, only to be surprised when the ump signalled for an equally surprised Johjima to circle the bases for a solo homer. Raw deal. Anyway, the data:
Team   Hit  Pitch  Total
FLO 49.1 57.3 106.4
LAN 33.2 17.8 51.0
DET -4.8 54.7 49.9
PIT 10.7 27.2 37.9
TEX 10.5 24.7 35.2
MIN 4.1 27.5 31.6
WAS 4.0 22.1 26.1
SDN 7.0 16.8 23.8
MIL 21.3 2.3 23.6
BOS -2.3 24.6 22.3
SLN -2.1 23.5 21.4
ATL 10.8 5.5 16.3
COL 1.4 13.7 15.1
ANA 3.8 9.2 13.0
HOU 0.0 12.8 12.8
TBA 0.0 12.2 12.2
ARI 2.6 8.8 11.4
TOR -1.3 12.2 10.9
BAL -12.2 20.8 8.6
KCA 2.0 6.6 8.6
NYN -5.9 10.6 4.7
SFN -3.0 7.5 4.5
CLE 0.1 4.2 4.3
CIN 1.4 1.7 3.1
OAK 0.0 2.2 2.2
NYA -1.0 3.1 2.1
CHN 1.1 -1.6 -0.5
CHA -8.2 6.6 -1.6
PHI -3.5 0.5 -3.0
SEA 1.3 -4.7 -3.4
Notice that the Yanks have fallen below replacement level in the hitting department. Our new best friend Melky Cabrera fell on hard times in the form of an 0-for-14 slump, and is down to hitting .254/.355/.328 even after a couple of key hits in the Yanks last two wins over the Phillies. His VORP stands at -2.4; Phillips' is at -1.0 due to a putrid .278 OBP which offsets his marginally useful .431 SLG.

• • •

Weird night for flipping channels. I just missed Roger Clemens' season debut against the Twins and rookie sensation Francisco Liriano, tuning in right as Justin Morneau greeted perpetually craptastic Houston reliever Russ Springer with a 439-foot solo shot on his third pitch in relief of Clemens. So I turned over to the White Sox-Cardinals game, where rookie Anthony Reyes had taken a no-hitter into the seventh inning against a Sox team that had rolled up 33 runs in its previous two games against the Cards. Jim Thome came to the plate just as I arrived and on the first pitch he saw -- BOOM! -- 428 feet (you must check out the awesome Hit Tracker site, which logs the distance and conditions for every homer, and links to MLB.com video). Bye-bye no-hitter, bye-bye shutout, bye-bye baseball. That was the only hit the Sox got, and it was enough for a 1-0 victory behind some pretty spiffy pitching by Freddy Garcia.

But I didn't stick around to watch much more of that, instead heading over to the Dodgers-M's game with Felix Hernandez on the hill for the latter. After a sensational debut as a 19-year-old (!) last year (2.67 ERA and 77 K's in 84.1 innings), "The King" has struggled this year to the tune of a 5.10 ERA. The Hardball Times' David Cameron pointed out a few weks ago that Hernandez has had some rocky beginnings due to a tendency to come out of the gate throwing nothing but fastballs; even with his 95-97 MPH heaters, he's been getting raked.

That wasn't the problem last night, but getting strike one was. Hernandez threw first-pitch strikes to the first four hitters, struck out J.D. Drew, Jeff Kent and Russell Martin in the second, and held the Dodgers scoreless through four innings as the the Mariners took a 2-0 lead. But he started falling behind hitters by the fifth and sixth; actually, after the first four, he'd thrown first-pitch strikes to just five out of 12 entering the fifth. The Dodgers rapped out three singles in the fifth, on 2-2, 2-0, and 1-0 pitches, then put together three more runs in the sixth courtesy of singles on 1-1, 0-0, 3-1, 1-1, and 1-0 pitches. In all, Hernandez managed just 13 first-pitch strikes to 29 hitters (counting Cesar Izturis, who was at the plate on an inning-ending caught stealing in the fourth and subsequently led off the fifth). That's not enough to get the job done. I wasn't keeping close track, but the guys at U.S.S. Mariner counted only two changeups in the fifth and sixth, and the aforementioned Felixologist, Mr. Cameron, logged this for how the Dodgers reached base:
Ethier, E-5, Fastball
Izturis, Single, Fastball
Lowe, Single, Fastball
Etheir, Single, Curveball
Martin, Single, Fastball
Furcal, Single, Fastball
Drew, Single, Fastball
Etheir, Single, Fastball
Izturis, Single, Fastball
Martin, Single, Curveball
Furcal, Single, Fastball

Can you spot the trend?
Cameron also noted that according to the TV radar guns, Hernandez never threw harder than 94 after the fourth. "He was sitting 93-94 in the 5th and 6th. Last year, he was consistently 96-98 even late in games. He rarely, if ever, hits 97 or 98 anymore."

It goes to show that just like the pretty girls at that age, young pitchers will break your heart.

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