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, August 11, 2006

 

Clearing the Bases -- Junk Drawer Edition

From the junk drawer of my mind...

• The Dodger DVD contest is still on; thus far one of the three sets remains unclaimed, and can still be won for answering this:

Everybody remembers Bob Lemon's decision to pinch-hit for former Dodger Tommy John in Game Six of the '81 Series, but what other dubious decision did he make in that series regarding John?

• Alex Belth invited me out to Shea Stadium for Wednesday night's Mets-Padres tilt, and we were treated to quite a scene. Pedro Martinez was totally in control of the Padres, with one exception. Mike Piazza, playing in his first series at Shea since departing in the offseason, homered twice off of Pedro, who gave up just one other hit in 7.1 innings. Piazza received a standing ovation from the crowd prior to his first at-bat; he even stepped out of the box to doff his helmet before striking out.

As he came up for his second at-bat in the fourth inning, Alex and I were headed to gather some refreshments, but we stopped behind home plate when we realized who was up. On the third pitch of the at-bat, Piazza drilled one to rightfield. Alex had his hand on my shoulder and was jumping up and down like a little kid as soon as the ball left the bat. The Mets still led 4-1, and perhaps with that score not seeming threatening, the crowd not only gave Piazza another standing O, but even a curtain call -- as a visiting player. I've never seen that before.

Piazza came up again in the sixth, and this time he drilled Pedro's first pitch over the leftfield wall to cut the score to 4-2. The applause and reaction was considerably less enthusiastic, except where Alex was concerned; again he was jumping up and down as he grabbed my shoulder, like a sugared-up kid. Just before he came up for his final at-bat, with the score 4-3 and two men on, manager Willie Randolph pulled Martinez and replaced him with Aaron Heilman. Piazza, now being booed, nearly jerked Heilman's first pitch out, instead sending a ball to the left-centerfield warning track as the crowd of about 50,000 held its collective breath.

In the end, the Mets preserved that slim margin. Belth -- like any good writer rooting for the story as much as any particular team -- wrote up the game for Baseball Prospectus:
Still, for one night, Piazza was the Prince of the City again. He admitted to being nervous before Tuesday’s night’s game, but seemed completely at ease last night. He appeared genuinely humble, smiling easily, at the reception he got. Piazza was clearly touched, if slightly uneasy with all the attention.

"Being on the home field,” he told Jay Greenberg of the New York Post after the game, "the last thing I want to do is show up the other team, but the bottom line is that this game is nothing without the fans. So when they ask you to go, you hope [the Mets] understand. I had so much history with those fans." It was a virtual Love-In, with one joyous moment after another, and it was endearing to see the locals show their appreciation so effusively.
I'm still shocked that an AL team like the Angels, Blue Jays, or Twins didn't sign the free agent Piazza to DH and catch occasionally; had the Twins reached out for him instead of the vulture-pecked remains of Rondell White, they'd probably be in the catbird seat vis-à-vis the Wild Card):
         AVG   OBP   SLG  HR RBI
Angels .275 .334 .462 19 69
Twins .284 .336 .389 5 46
Piazza .299 .355 .542 18 51
Consider that Piazza plays in the very pitcher-friendly PetCo Park and has about 100 less at-bats than those two teams' DH slots, and that the Twins' stats are distorted by a 23-for-46 (.500) showing from Joe Mauer on his off days from squatting. Even with Mauer, the OPS of Twins' DHs is 13th out of 14 AL teams. Consider that Piazza signed a one-year, $2 million deal with incentives that will still keep it under $3 mil, and that next year he's got a mutual option of $8 mil with a $0.75 mil buyout. There are a lot of teams that slept through that while making much worse signings.

• Oh, and thanks to the Mets sweeping the Pads in three games, the Dodgers have retaken first place in the NL West for the first time since June 26. Woohoo!

• Belth, Joe Sheehan, and Steve Goldman each make cameo appearances in Eric Neel's fine ESPN piece on America's hatred of Alex Rodriguez, a topic I can't really find the breath to waste on:
"He's held to an impossibly high standard," [Yankee broadcaster Michael] Kay says. "I really believe they expect him to get a hit every time up. The guy gets his temperature taken every single at-bat."

And he's found wanting. Every single time. Every single time he collects a check. Every single time Jeter makes a play or Papi goes deep. And every single time he takes his shirt off in the park. It's all fair game.

What's often lost in this game is the fact the guy is ridiculously good. Once-in-a-generation good. "He can only be compared with some of the best infielders in baseball history," Baseball Prospectus' Joe Sheehan says. "We're talking about someone who's already one of the top 25 players ever, and who will probably end up as one of the 10 best."

Will we ever come around to him? A world championship ring or some dramatic October heroics would go a long way, no doubt. We've seen big-time transformations in the past. Before winning his first Wimbledon, Andre Agassi was an image-conscious punk. Until the Bulls beat the Lakers in '91, Michael Jordan was a me-first highlight reel who didn't make the players around him better. Not until his Masters victory in 2004 did Phil Mickelson begin to shed his reputation as an empty talent who couldn't handle the big moment. Before his back-to-back Super Bowl titles, John Elway was a gunslinger who couldn't truly lead.

But although a ring would put A-Rod in a familiar category, the more interesting, and more likely scenario (the Yankees are an aging, pitching-weak team) is that things continue on the track they're on now. He's only 31, and we've had Bonds and Clemens to concentrate on these past 10 years, but if A-Rod stays healthy and productive in the years to come, it will become increasingly clear that he is hands-down the best player in the game, and is very likely the best all-around player any of us will ever have the privilege to see in person. Even without a title. Even with what we think is a sensitive heart. Even with what we perceive to be a scripted tongue.
I'm going to skip all of the emotion-based BS surrounding this and simply note the following AL Third Basemen Team Aggregate Stats from ESPN:
RK  TEAM         HR   RBI   BA    OBP   SLG  OPS
1 NY Yankees 23 81 .290 .390 .501 .891
2 Chicago Sox 25 80 .297 .338 .529 .867
3 Kansas City 15 69 .292 .366 .494 .860
4 Toronto 28 88 .256 .355 .498 .853
5 Tampa Bay 18 68 .300 .350 .493 .843
6 Boston 17 60 .285 .342 .491 .833
7 Texas 16 80 .303 .365 .465 .829
8 Detroit 21 63 .256 .313 .478 .791
9 Baltimore 12 65 .286 .355 .407 .763
10 Seattle 13 54 .258 .327 .425 .751
11 Minnesota 7 49 .263 .345 .396 .741
12 LA Angels 12 46 .261 .321 .404 .725
13 Oakland 17 58 .222 .331 .390 .722
14 Cleveland 6 46 .239 .304 .342 .645
In other words, even in a down year, Alex Rodriguez and your mother have combined for the top OPS among AL third basemen by a good 24 points, and they're among the league leaders in HR and RBI. Also:
NAME            TEAM   MLVr   VORP
Troy Glaus TOR 0.193 29.6
Alex Rodriguez NYA 0.166 27.6
Joe Crede CHA 0.194 25.3
Mark Teahen KCA 0.129 17.4
Nick Punto MIN 0.103 16.9
Mike Lowell BOS 0.056 12.6
Melvin Mora BAL 0.007 11.7
Aubrey Huff TBA 0.066 8.9
A-Rod's prodction via VORP, while still below his usual standards, is still second-best among AL third basemen, though admittedly, it's just third according to the per-game Marginal Lineup Value Rate, the number of runs per game a player adds to an otherwise league-average lineup. For the grief Rodriguez is receiving, mainly due to his performances in clutch situations, you'd think he was selling poisoned milk to schoolchildren. The numbers don't match up to the salary at the moment, but they're hardly shameful.

• Speaking of emotion-based arguments, more than a week after the trading deadline, people are still talking about Yankee GM Brian Cashman's beatdown of WFAN mouth Chris "Mad Dog" Russo. Cashman nearly does for Russo what Jon Stewart did for Crossfire: humiliate a total asshole in front of his own audience in devastating fashion and practically raze the whole enterprise.

Cash calls the rabid Russo on his dismissal of Chien-Ming Wang, defends his acquisitions of Bobby Abreu, Kyle Farnsworth, Cory Lidle and other players Russo trashes by calling on good ol' facts and stats (such as the poor performance of the team's fifth starters) instead of the emotional "I-just-know" bullshit that Russo traffics. When Russo tries to harangue Cashman over the fact that Abreu's teams have never won anything, Cashman plays the sainted Don Mattingly card, reminding Russo that his teams never won anything either, and that whatever feelgood stories (Melky Cabrera, Bernie Williams) are swept aside by the deadline moves, the championship is what the Yanks are playing for, dumbass. I can't imagine Russo actually giving the Yanks a pass, as he says they would have received, without those moves. Somewhere in the future he'd be ranting about how, injuries or no, a $200 million payroll doesn't excuse not winning.

I've said it before: guys like Russo are the polar opposite of the type of analysis Baseball Prospectus -- or any reality-based stathead anywhere, really -- strives for. A total pleasure to hear him have his ass handed to him. Do not miss hearing this gem (scroll down to July 31).

• Speaking of must-hears and Michael Kay, check out Yankee play-by-play blowhard going off on some caller on his radio show who criticized him for using the words "perfect game" while one was in progress, violating "baseball etiquette." Kay goes thermonuclear and loses all sense of proportion, invoking slavery, the Nazis (hellooooo, Godwin's Law), and his own uncertainty about the existence of God (followed by some serious dead air). Amazing.

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