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.

Monday, June 30, 2008


Chatter Up!

Extended weekend for me, with a pair of notable arrivals -- an out-of-town friend of nearly 20 years and the first-born son of my frequent FI foil, Nick -- which occupied my time, so I didn't get to see much baseball. A few glimpses of a portly, pinstriped Sidney Ponson here, a gander at one of the most eye-popping box scores I've ever seen there, and that was about it.

A performance that has been compared to Kirk Gibson circa 1988 enabled Friday's Hit List to be completed amid the mayhem, which also included a stop by one of my all-time favorite bands, Devo (whose "Uncontrollable Urge" would be my first choice for at-bat music if I ever played in the major leagues, as sacrilegious a topic as that may be for purists).

Anyway, that's all old news. What's new is that I'll be part of an extended Baseball Prospectus posse administering the usual savage sabermetric beatdowns at a Pizza Feed at Foley's Pub and Restaurant on 18 West 33rd Street in Manhattan. Fellow BP colleagues Will Carroll, Joe Sheehan, Steven Goldman, and Derek Jacques are on the bill, along with the Fantasy 411 folks, Will Leitch, and more surprise guests, each more surprising than the last. The chatter will be better than the pizza, I promise.

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Tuesday, June 24, 2008


Serendipitous Sunday

When the rain started pouring at Yankee Stadium during the top of the sixth inning of Sunday's Yanks-Reds tilt, I felt like I'd already gotten my money's worth. In addition to surviving what the late Hunter S. Thompson would have termed a king-hell hangover (wrought by my wife's birthday party the night before) and some early questioning by a garrulous out-of-towner from Deer Park, Texas named Digger who was sitting next to me (and working on the next day's king-hell hangover), I had been congratulating myself for the foresight to pick this game out on the calendar six months ago to fill out my flex plan schedule. The taut 1-0 pitcher's duel to that point had featured plenty of drama involving the players I'd hoped to see amid this otherwise random Sunday interleague contest.

See, I had spent a good portion of the offseason reading, writing and talking about the Reds' fine crop of young prospects. Center fielder Jay Bruce was the consensus pick as the top prospect in all of baseball via Baseball America, Baseball Prospectus and John Sickels. First baseman Joey Votto had already demonstrated his combination of power and plate discipline during a late-season cup of coffee last September. Right-handed starter Edinson Volquez, though technically not a rookie, had been the focus of one of the more interesting swaps of the winter, being traded from Texas for 2007 rookie sensation Josh Hamilton.

But the one who really fascinated me, almost to an irrational extent, was Johnny Cueto, an undersized 22-year-old Dominican righty who had climbed all the way from High-A to Triple-A last year. All winter and spring, prospect cognoscenti suggested he was already a better pitcher than the team's overhyped Nuke LaLoosh prototype, Homer Bailey. Mid-90s fastball, plus slider and changeup, clean mechanics, impeccable makeup (something Bailey clearly lacks) -- sign me up. "Cueto is the ace of that staff. Right now," said one major league scout during spring training, and when the kid struck out 10 and walked none in seven innings of one-hit ball in his major-league debut, it seemed he might be onto something. Since then the usual young-pitcher growing pains have set in, as he struggled with his release point and his control, with his ERA skirting 6.00 before a run of mostly quality starts.

By the time Sunday's game rolled around, the Reds' young arms had already demonstrated their considerable firepower in this series. Volquez, the NL leader in ERA, strikeouts, and fewest hits per nine, pitched seven strong innings on Friday night and earned his 10th win of the year. He held the Yankees to two runs while striking out five, the most impressive of which was a second-inning battle with Jason Giambi in which he'd fallen behind 3-0 and then busted three straight pitches inside, a changeup sandwiched around two fastballs that the eagle-eyed Giambi could only look at before wandering back to the dugout. On Saturday the Yanks were shut out, principally by one Darryl Thompson, an unsung 22-year-old who worked in and out of trouble to spin five scoreless frames in his major league debut in front of 54,509 fans at Yankee Stadium.

Given young talent like that, it's tough to believe the Reds came into the series 33-41 on the year, but as Yankee fans well know, young pitchers can break your heart, particularly when the contingency plans you've got behind them are journeymen of ill repute. Not that the Yanks haven't been getting decent showings out of Darrell Rasner (whom I watched scratch and claw his way through five innings on Wednesday night at the Stadium) and Dan Giese (who had impressed in his first major-league start on Saturday), but that's a rough way for a ballclub to survive, let alone thrive.

The Yanks came into Sunday desperate to prevent a sweep, and luckily they had Andy Pettitte -- with a career record of 74-37 after Yankee losses -- going for them. Already riding a 13-inning scoreless streak, Pettitte retired nine of the first ten Cincy hitters, yielding only a two-out single to Votto in the second inning. He found trouble in the fourth courtesy of Robinson Cano, who with one out flubbed a sure inning-ending double-play grounder hit by Brandon Phillips; miraculously, it wasn't scored an error. After loading the bases by walking weak-hitting shortstop Paul Janish -- stuck in the fifth spot as he'd entered in the third inning for third baseman Edwin Encarnacion, forced to depart after an impressive leaping grab of a Cano liner aggravated his lower back -- Pettitte was able to buckle down and strike out both Votto and Bruce, the latter on a tense eight-pitch at-bat that had the crowd on its feet for several minutes.

Cueto was similarly stingy against the Yankee lineup, striking out six hitters in the first four innings while yielding just two hits. Things began to unravel for the kid in the fifth, when Giambi singled sharply to center and then Jorge Posada doubled into the right field corner. Cano atoned for his fielding miscue by pounding a pitch deep to the warning track in right-center, plating the run on the sac fly. That set off an extra cheer; the game was now official, an important consideration as black clouds swirled ominously beyond the not-too-distant horizon of the Yankee Stadium roof.

Soon enough, the rain began to fall, accompanied by thunder, lightning, and darkness only partially illuminated by the stadium lights. Luckily my intrepid co-conspirator Nick had thought to bring a pair of plastic ponchos in his bag; in fact, he'd been holding one in each hand for the better part of an inning, as if ready to pounce on the opportunity to stay dry. Poised as we were, we fumbled with the ponchos amid gusts of high wind which apparently gave Pettitte trouble on the mound as well.

The top of the sixth inning felt like some surreal Weather Channel footage. Amid the downpour and the thunder, camera flashes accompanying Ken Griffey Jr.'s at-bat made it seem as though the stadium had been overtaken by an electrical storm. Fans headed for the concourses in droves, but with our ponchos and an umbrella, we waited out the frame, which was helped along by Janish popping up a bunt to Posada. As soon as Votto struck out to end the inning, the grounds crew took over, covering the plate and the mound, and finally the entire infield. Nick and I didn't have far to go from our seats -- last row, aisle of Section 629 -- but the bottleneck created by the crowd slowed our efforts to take refuge on the crowded upper concourse.

The narrow concourse was jam-packed, but we found a pocket near an elevator, away from the throngs pushing their way towards the concessions stand and the bathrooms. Soon enough, I noticed three 40-ish men standing about five feet away, two of whom looked strikingly familiar. I watched them converse with each other, caught a snippet of conversation that included the phrase "Fenway Park," and noted that two of them were carrying hefty, industrial-strength scorebooks. I had little doubt that I was making any mistakes in identity when I called out a name. "Rob?"

Sure enough, it was Rob Neyer, the ESPN columnist whose work back in the late '90s did a lot to rekindle my interest in the stathead side of baseball, to say nothing of the thousands of folks to whom he introduced such concepts I don't know Rob all that well, but we've corresponded several times (as recently as a couple weeks ago over his linking my Eliot Asinof piece), and I had the honor of hanging out with him a couple times back in 2006, once in New York when he was here to promote his Big Book of Baseball Blunders, and then a few months later at the SABR convention in Seattle. Accompanying him were Mark Armour, editor of that year's convention-related publication Rain Check, co-author of the award-winning Paths to Glory: How Great Baseball Teams Got That Way and good-natured sparring partner, and Baseball Prospectus alum Jeff Bower, the only one of the trio I'd never met.

So Nick and I spent the better part of the rain delay talking baseball with these three Northwesterners, who were in the midst of an enviable road trip that included ballgames at Fenway Park, Yankee Stadium and Shea Stadium, a trip to Cooperstown and finally a haul from upstate New York to Cleveland for this year's SABR convention. Writing projects, scorebooks, recent news, ballpark comparisons, BP alumni, travel itineraries... our conversation wasn't exactly wide-ranging or deeply philosophical, but as ways to pass a rain delay, you could do a hell of a lot worse.

Just as we were reduced to standing around ribbing Rob for eating a hideous CinnaPretzel, the rain subsided and the sun poked out. Game on. I suggested to our ad hoc posse that the families in our section were likely to have hightailed back to suburbia and that they should come join us, since our seats were a few sections closer. Soon enough we were joined by my BP colleague and fellow blogger Derek Jacques, who had been marooned in the infamous Section 36 in high left field for most of the game. Can't leave a guy stranded out there while better seats and good company could be had inland.

Play resumed with both starting pitchers having departed, and the Yankees soon gained the upper hand against Gary Majewski, who sandwiched a pair of outs between singles to Derek Jeter and Hideki Matsui. Former Kansas City lefty Jeremy Affeldt came on in relief, eliciting a groan from Rob, a long-suffering Royals fan who no doubt had less-than-fond memories of the pitcher's days as the franchise's Next Big Thing. Affeldt quickly yielded a long drive to deep left field off the bat of the notoriously pull-happy Giambi, scoring both runs, and Giambi himself came home on a double to deep right center by Jorge Posada, running the score to 4-0. Affeldt escaped the frame but got into trouble again in the seventh before departed with two on and one out. His voice dripping with a combination of sarcasm and comtempt, Rob called out, "Nice outing, Jeremy."

Between half-innings we watch the grounds crew perform their familiar "Y-M-C-A" routine, old hat to us Yankee Stadium vets, but something of a mild curiosity to the out-of-towners, who nonetheless appreciated the irony of a paean to anonymous gay sex being piped to 4+ million people per year at Yankee Stadium (Pete Abraham recently passed along a great Spin Magazine article about the history of the song).

It was my turn to groan in the next half-inning. Edwar Ramirez had tossed a 1-2-3 seventh for the Yanks, but he gave way to Kyle Farnsworth, nobody's favorite Yankee reliever. Though Farnsworth -- Marmaduke, as Alex Belth calls him -- got two relatively quick out, he yielded a home run to Ken Griffey, Jr., the 601st of Griffey's career and the 10th of Farnsworth's 34-inning season. The solo shot just cleared the wall in right field, and it drew a warm ovation from the remaining crowd. After all, it's not every day somebody gets to witness first-hand a home run that ranks so high up on the all-time list. My personal personal "high score" was seeing Barry Bonds' 720th homer on July 7, 2006 at Dodger Stadium (c'mon A-Rod, hurry the hell up!). Bonds' name came into the discussion among our group and Nick pointed to the right field area where he'd seen Bonds reach on a towering home run on June 8, 2002, the 588th of his career.

Two pitches later, Phillips hit a sharp comebacker that Farnsworth instinctively tried to barehand. After deflecting it to Alex Rodriguez, who was too late to make the play, Farnsworth was tended to by the Yankee trainers; he departed and reportedly needed three stitches in the webbing of his fingers. Ah, go pet your gopher, Kyle. Given that the home run he surrendered had created a save situation, Automatic Joe Girardi pressed the button and called upon Mariano Rivera to get a rare four-out save. Rivera quickly got pinch-hitter Javier Valentin to ground out to end the eighth.

Between innings, the bane of my existence, "Cotton-Eyed Joe," reared its ugly head. "This is the worst part of Yankee Stadium," I explained to our guests apologetically, prompting Rob to ask if there was any part of the stadium that was nice. I started into my spiel about the spartan stadium, and pointed out a few of my favorite features, such as the black batter's eye and rare homers that had reached it, and the way one could see the history of Yankee Stadium by looking out at the three left field wall boundaries -- the back, encompassing the flagpole within the playing field's original dimensions, the middle one where the retired numbers are, representing the post-renovation dimensions from the seventies and eighties, and finally the current fences. That drew a grudging nod.

Our eyes remained on Valentin in the bottom of the inning as the 32-year-old backup catcher made his major-league debut at third base. Jeff Keppinger, who had been activated from the disabled list only that day, had started at shortstop, shifted to third when Encarnacion exited, and then back to short because Valentin had pinch-hit for Janish. That alone made for an entertaining curiosity for the three of us who were keeping score, and it became all the more relevant when Valentin found himself positioned in the vicinity of shortstop when with two outs the infield put on its familiar shift for Giambi. While we hoped the suddenly spray-hitting G-man would test Valentin's infielding skills, Giambi instead pulled one over the head of Votto for a single, his third hit of a very well-rounded day that also included a hit-by-pitch and a steal as well as two runs and two RBI. Giambi's departure for pinch-runner Wilson Betemit drew a conversation on scorebook conventions for noting pinch-runners (seriously, we're great at cocktail parties). Personally, I circle the dot at the end of my single slash, a method I probably improvised the first time I set eyes on Homer Bush. Rob makes notes in the corners of each box. Jeff has a space where the inning each player entered the game can be noted. Your mileage may vary, as they say.

Posada struck out to end the eighth, and Jeff set the line at a 12-pitch inning for Rivera. That estimate appeared quite low once Votto and Bruce both singled, the former on Mo's first pitch, the latter after a seven-pitch at-bat. "You'll see. Corey Patterson's going to hit into a triple play," said Jeff. Patterson at least appeared poised to ground into the obligatory double play, but Jeter was late in getting the ball out of his glove and settled for the force.

That brought up Adam Dunn as a pinch-hitter. Mired in a 6-for-54 slump, Dunn had gotten the day off from Dusty Baker, the end to a tumultuous week in which he been in the headlines for no good reason, as Toronto GM and official Hit List whipping boy J.P. Ricciardi made some bizarre, disparaging comments about Dunn on a radio show, saying that the slugger, who's bashed 40 or more homers for four straight years, "doesn't really like baseball that much" and "doesn't have a passion to play the game," among other bright things. This just in: even batting .219, Dunn's 875 OPS (.384 OBP, .491 SLG) is 39 points higher than the top Blue Jay, and despite being "a lifetime .230-.240 hitter" (.247, actually) has a career OPS of 898, 22nd among active players. Such astute talent evaluation explains why Ricciardi's Blue Jays are in the seventh year of leading the league in Going Fuck-All Nowhere, and why Ricciardi, after canning manager John Gibbons last week, will likely be looking for work come October. Schmuck.

That said, Rivera struck Dunn out looking, which prompted merciless leatherlung Nick to shout out, "If you loved baseball, you'd have swung at that pitch!" Yeah, we'll show you the Bronx! The game ended when Rivera retired Norris Hopper on a groundout, jogging the ball over to first base himself, which earned the approval of our out-of-town guests. As "New York, New York" rained down, we debated whether it was in fact a melancholy song; the Liza Minelli version, sure, but I've never thought that about the Sinatra version, certainly not after getting to sing it with 55,000 of my new best friends when I was present for the 1999 World Series clincher. Anyway, at least it's not creepy, the way "Sweet Caroline," -- played at Fenway Park and originally inspired by seven-year-old Caroline Kennedy -- is, as someone pointed out.

On that note, our full, rich day at the ballpark ended. A win, some great plays on both sides, and an extra side of serendipity that allowed me to share a bit of a game and a ballpark with friends old and new. Can't beat that with a fungo bat.

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George Carlin, RIP (Not Fucking Safe For Work)

I grew up in Salt Lake City, Utah, largely among Mormon kids for whom swearing was taboo. From a young age I learned that bad words could get you into a little bit of trouble, but I never had my mouth washed out with soap or anything so dramatic. At worst I was lectured by my best friend's mom at age six or seven when said friend repeated a word I'd thrown out during an incident a few days earlier, calling an older kid "fuckface." Who knows where the hell I got that one?

Even then I knew how tremendously liberating curse words were, and that feeling only grew when I moved across town a few years later, into a more heterogeneous but also more clique-based scene. In the fourth and fifth grades, nearly every recess at school featured a football game pitting the Mormon kids against the non-Mormon ones (with one charitable, athletically-endowed exception to even things out). By then, my grandfather had already provided me with a copy of Ball Four, with its infamously bold use of swear words, including the innovatively recombinant "shitfuck," my all-time favorite. Socially isolated from the pretty kids, swearing became a weapon, a tool to mark turf. You could call a Mormon kid who was hassling you (and brother, I had plenty of hassle) a fucker or a shithead or an asshole, and chances are you wouldn't be called that back. Sure, you might get popped in the face with a fist, but you'd still have the satisfaction of landing a blow, too. For a scrawny scrapper like me, that would have to do.

So as somebody who has employed more than a few of the infamous Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television in my starting rotation since I was in short pants, I am unable to find a more appropriate combination of words to express my condolences regarding to the passing of the great comedian George Carlin than the man's words himself. Shitfuck just won't do here.

So please, enjoy the title link above (the original "Seven Words" routine from his 1972 album Class Clown) and this 1978 update from George Carlin Again. Safe for work? Are you fucking kidding me? Let it all hang out:

Alex Belth has some good shit as well. Check it out.

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Friday, June 20, 2008


Hitting the Trifecta

Three pieces of Prospectus-flavored content to note here, an average of one for each manager fired this week (Willie Randolph, Seattle's John McLaren, and Toronto's John Gibbons). With apologies to Bill Bavasi...

• First off, here's the transcript from Tuesday's chat as well as a few slices:
Dan (windowless office): Should we ignore the Hit List while interleague play is going on? It's making a hash of the standings...will it make a hash of the List as well?

JJ: Good question. The past few years have seen a considerable advantage for the AL when it comes to interleague play, and those results have shown up in the AL's dominance of the Hit List. This year the NL looked much stronger early on, but the AL now holds a 48-40 record in interleague play, and they've actually got four of the top six spots on the most recent Hit List. Just as I've been skeptical about the early season scoring dip, I've retained a good deal of skepticism when it comes to those who say the balance of power has shifted to the NL. I see the interleague results as more of a correction than anything else.

johnpark99 (Boston): Jay, for a while now, your Hit Lists have had the A's ranked significantly higher than the Angels, even though the Angels have the division lead. What is the right interpretation of your rankings? Do you mean to say that you expect the A's will take the division by season's end, or do you simply mean to say that you think the A's are a better team than the Angels despite their records?

JJ: Ah, the eternal A's-Angels battle on the Hit List has provided me with plenty of material for columns. Right now what you're seeing on the Hit List and the adjusted standings is all based on the fact that the A's have outscored their opponents by 55 runs -- nearly one per game -- while the Angels have been outscored by two runs. The latter owns the largest discrepancy between their predicted record and their actual one at 7.7 games.

In other words, the Angels have been more lucky than good, and that's not necessarily the kind of thing you can bank on over time. That doesn't mean that I necessarily think the A's will take the division, because I don't expect the Angels' offense to keep underachieving to the extent that it has, but I do think the gap between the two teams is closer than the standings make it appear.

B. Bavasi (Seattle): Any jobs for me at BP?

JJ: Sure, Bill! Given your height you should be an ace at cleaning the leaves out of our office's rain gutter. We haven't been able to convince anyone else to go up there ever since Steven Goldman fell off the roof.

David (NJ): We know the way it was handled was wrong but were the Mets right in firing Willie Randolph?

JJ: Well, as botched a job as it was, I don't entirely disagree with the decision to dismiss Randolph. As Rob Neyer pointed out at ESPN, there's a good argument to make that he's not the right manager at the right time for this club, even given its flimsy construction.

Managers aren't solely tacticians. They're leaders of men (some very boyish men at times). Different managers have different styles, but some seem to be better at protecting their teams by placing themselves in the line of fire and drawing the attention away from the struggles of their clubs. Ozzie Guillen is a good example of this now, as batsh*t crazy as he may seem, there's a method to his madness. Joe Torre does the same thing while exuding an aura of pure calm. Bobby Valentine, Casey Stengel, Leo Durocher, Tommy Lasorda - the styles can vary but that function is an important one.

Randolph didn't handle that aspect of the job very well. The Mets have carried a very negative aura around them since last year's collapse, and not even the acquisition of Johan Santana could erase that. At some point Randolph should have just said strong words to the effect of "Don't connect this club to last year's mess, it's a new day and we've moved on so you should too." Instead he played the race card and in doing so started the countdown on his own sell-by date.
Lots of Dodgers and Yankees questions in there, and A's and Mariners as well. Check it out.

• As for the Hit List, I took aim at the aforementioned notion of the shifting balance of power between the two leagues right in this week's title: "AL 75, NL 51." The Junior Circuit won 27 out of 38 games in the three days since that chat, and now occupies five of the top seven spots on the list, with the Red Sox taking over the top spot and the Yankees moving up to number seven. Excerpt a few of the more interesting entries:
Blue Jays (#11) Where's Shea Hillenbrand to Tell Us the Ship Is Sinking Now That We Really Need Him? With five losses in a row and 13 in their last 17, the Jays fall below .500 and into the AL East basement as the the cracks in their facade of sanity start to show. A.J. Burnett stirs up controversy by suggesting he'd welcome a trade to the Cubs -- who could possibly want out of this mess? -- and GM J.P. Ricciardi trashes Adam Dunn on a radio call-in show. Yeah, when you rank 13th in a 14-team league in SLG, with every position save for catcher and right field slugging under .400, you wouldn't want anything to do with a slugger like Dunn.

Brewers (#13) Stop and Smell the Box Score: Let us pause from any rational evaluation of the Brewers' ups and downs to simply appreciate the wonders of a single game containing a no-hit bid by David Bush (5.73 ERA entering the game) that ends after a hit by Lyle Overbay, the man he was traded for in 2005, and also includes an inside-the-park homer by Prince Fielder (the man who replaced Overbay), Russell Branyan's 10th homer in 20 games since being recalled, and a two-out, ninth-inning grand slam by Joe Inglett that caps a six-run rally and turns a rout into a squeaker. I mean, seriously, who writes this stuff?

Giants (#22) Following an 0-5, 7.61 ERA start and a brief exile to the bullpen, Barry Zito looked as though he was making progress towards thinking about possibly pondering the idea of maybe getting it together at a date to be named later. That was because he posted a 3.49 ERA in May, struck out more hitters than he walked, and even stuck around long enough in a ballgame to collect a win. But just when you thought Zito might settle into a comfortable mediocrity, he's back to his old ways: a 9.00 ERA in just 17 innings over four starts in June, not to mention an 8/17 K/BB ratio. Yes, Mr. Sabean, that $18 million club option in 2014 is starting to look like a real bargain.

Mariners (#29) Two Down, One to Go: the Mariners fire GM Bill Bavasi, architect of what may well be the first 100-loss team with a payroll above $100 million. Never the sharpest tool in the GM shed, Bavasi erred drastically by fundamentally misjudging last year's club; though they finished 88-74 they were outscored by 17 runs, and hardly just a blockbuster away from a run at the AL West flag. Not content to stop there, the team cans manager John McLaren, on whose watch they went 66-88, and they may be poised to ditch designated albatross Richie Sexson, who's hitting just .220/.294/.380 and hasn't homered since May 24.
Fun stuff, no? Though Gibbons' firing didn't happen in time to make this week's list, the appearance of arch-nemesis Hillenbrand suggests I was feeling the bad vibes coming from Toronto. And while I'm scratching my head wondering why Riccardi hasn't been fired as well, from a Hit List standpoint he is truly the gift that keeps on giving.

• Up and down the Hit List I made reference to the 2008 Replacement Level Killers, the subject of this week's Prospectus Hit and Run. Picking up on an idea I first used for It Ain't Over 'Til It's Over and then applied to last year's most egregious offenders, I took a look at the players whose lousy play and whose teams' complacency or lack of a suitable alternative threatens their shot at the playoffs. The starting nine, using Value Over Replacement Player (VORP) and Wins Above Replacement Player (WARP), the former to get a more accurate sense of hitting contributions and the latter to better account for defense:
C: J.R. Towles (-7.6 VORP, 0.4 WARP) and Brad Ausmus (-5.8 VORP, 0.1 WARP), Astros
1B: Daric Barton (-2.7 VORP, 1.0 WARP), Athletics
2B: Adam Kennedy (-2.3 VORP, 0.4 WARP) and Aaron Miles (-0.4 VORP, 0.4 WARP), Cardinals
SS: Chin-Lung Hu (-9.7 VORP, -1.0 WARP) and Angel Berroa (-1.4 VORP, -0.1 WARP), Dodgers
3B: Mike Lamb (-11.6 VORP, -0.3 WARP), Twins
LF: Garret Anderson (-1.4 VORP, 0.3 VORP), Angels
CF: Andruw Jones (-8.3 VORP, 0.1 WARP), Dodgers
RF: Jeff Francoeur (-1.0 VORP, 0.5 WARP), Braves
DH: Travis Hafner (0.2 VORP, 0.2 WARP), Indians
Given center field's particular relevance around these parts, I'll fill that one in:
CF: Andruw Jones (-8.3 VORP, 0.1 WARP), Dodgers
In his free agent walk year, Jones played through a hyperextended elbow and wound up with a spot on the 2007 Killers. Nonetheless, the Dodgers figured the 31-year-old would rebound, and signed him to a two-year, $36 million deal, one that appeared to force Juan Pierre into richly-deserved (and richly compensated) fourth-outfielderdom. Then Jones showed up to camp looking rather plump, and he performed so miserably that when a torn meniscus forced him to undergo surgery, Pierre's return to the lineup--shifting to left field, with Matt Kemp in center--came as a relief. Not that Pierre has been producing (2.5 VORP, 1.1 WARP), but at least Dodger fans have been spared the daily drama of reading Joe Torre's lineup.

Dishonorable Mention: Melky Cabrera (2.5 VORP, 0.5 WARP), Yankees. Cabrera's ascension into a full-time role last year helped shore up an aging, porous Yankee outfield while pushing Johnny Damon over to left and Hideki Matsui into limbo. The 23-year-old Melkman looked as though his long-awaited power surge had finally arrived when he got off to a .299/.370/.494 start in April, but since then he's lost his way at the plate, hitting just .229/.278/.312. His defense (-4 FRAA) has been a step down as well, Tuesday night's stellar catch notwithstanding.
Anyway, the point of the whole exercise is that there's still time for teams to address these issues, but sometimes that simply means letting a veteran play through their struggles. Sooner or later, though, a reckoning has to come; for the Yankees that may mean moving Johnny Damon back to center field and Hideki Matsui back into left.

For the Dodgers that may mean biting the big Juan for the rest of the year while remaining optimistic about the fact that their biggest problem, injuries, clearly points back to their GM. As I noted in the chat, the Dodgers lead the majors with the most dollars and highest percentage of payroll lost to the DL, and the guys who are filling it up -- Jones, Rafael Furcal, Nomar Garciaparra and Jason Schmidt -- are Stupid Flanders' marquee free agent signings. It's tough to think he's going to dodge the bullet if the Dodgers finish at .500 or below because of all that. Furthermore, if I'm Frank McCourt, the minute that the Mariners or some other team calls to ask permission to interview assistant GM/scouting guru Logan White, I put the caller on hold, fire Colletti and promote him to GM myself. No reason the Dodgers should lose their best and brightest homegrown front office talent anymore than they should their players.

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Tuesday, June 17, 2008


Bug Bites and Backbiting (updated)

Quick note: I'll be chatting today at Baseball Prospectus at 3 PM Eastern. Stop by and drop off a question if you've got one.

Injuries are an inevitable part of baseball. Last Friday's Hit List noted the absences of the likes of big-name players like Alfonso Soriano, David Ortiz, Albert Pujols, John Smoltz, Rafael Furcal and J.J. Putz not to mention numerous other aches and pains and the the impacts on their teams as they try to work around them. Since writing that column, the Yankees, who have already spent most of this season running at well under 100 percent efficiency, have suffered a potentially crippling blow as the injury bug has bitten again. While running the bases in a blowout against the Astros, Chien-Ming Wang sprained the Listfranc ligament and tore a tendon in his foot, an injury that will keep him in a walking boot for six weeks and likely shelve him until September, as he'll need another four weeks to get his arm back to full strength.

Even that timeframe may be optimistic. Will Carroll suggests he'll be out 90 days in all, which would push his return into mid-September:
No one knows feet like Dr. Philip Kwong of Kerlan-Jobe, so I'll just let him tell you about Wang: "It is unusual to have both a Lisfranc ligament sprain and partial tear peroneal longus together, and longer time will be needed for recovery (8-12 weeks if no significant instability occurs at the Lisfranc joints). The combined injuries represent greater rotational stress than would be experienced for each injury alone. Prognosis and time line for recovery will depend on the exact amount of ligament/tendon tear sustained and on the amount of tissue remaining to provide stability. Healing is the formation of scar tissue and not regrowth of the normal ligament or tendon tissue; consequently, future problems such as arthritis can occur at Lisfranc's joints or reinjury of the peroneal longus tendon." So as I'd expected, the additional damage beyond the Lisfranc is likely to add to the time Wang is out. It leaves very little wiggle time for him to come back and throw meaningful innings, not unless the Yankees are right and Wang comes back at the extreme low end of expectations. I think the Yankees' record is going to dictate how this is eventually handled.
The pinstriped rotation has been a mess all year long, as youngsters Ian Kennedy and Philip Hughes have battled injuries and ineffectiveness while vets like Wang and Andy Pettitte have struggled to maintain consistency. As I wrote last week, they ranked 11th in Baseball Prospectus' key pitching stat, Support Neutral Lineup Adjusted Value Above Replacement (SNLVAR, denominated in wins), which measures a pitcher's impact independent of the run support he receives from his offense and the job his relievers do. They've since climbed to 10th at 4.5 wins, but Wang's injury has cost them their most valuable starter:
Pitcher          SNLVAR
Chien-Ming Wang 2.0
Mike Mussina 1.3
Darrell Rasner 1.1
Andy Pettitte 0.7
Joba Chamberlain 0.4
Brian Bruney 0.2
Kei Igawa -0.3
Philip Hughes -0.3
Ian Kennedy -0.4
Mussina's gaudy 10-4 record has been a pleasant surprise, but Wang's ability to go deeper into ballgames (6.33 per start, compared to 5.42 for the Moose) made him the more valuable commodity, even given the slump that he appeared to have pulled out of prior to getting hurt.

When the injury initially happened, speculation centered around the idea that the Yankees would trade for defending Cy Young winner and pending free agent C.C. Sabathia, perhaps even offering slumping second baseman Robinson Cano, but as the New York Times' Tyler Kepner explains, that's an unlikely scenario. And if Yankee GM Brian Cashman balked at surrendering Cano as part of a package for Johan Santana over the winter, he's unlikely to have changed his mind for the next-best pitcher to reach the market:
I do not believe the Indians will insist on second baseman Robinson Cano, even though they lack a solid second baseman. In this market, the value of a talented everyday player signed to a reasonable four-year contract is much greater than a pitcher – any pitcher — who is 18 or so starts from an expensive free agency.

...Cashman will surely consider the downside of a Sabathia deal: he trades valued young players, Sabathia proves to be a bad fit in New York, and the Yankees let him walk after the season. The upside there is that the Yankees would get two high draft picks in return, replacing some of the talent they would lose in the trade.

Another potential downside is this: the Yankees sign Sabathia to a rich contract extension (six or seven years, $19 million or so per year) and he breaks down physically like Mike Hampton or Kevin Brown, or turns into a 2-10 pitcher like Barry Zito. Cashman understands the horrible track record of pitchers who sign $100 million deals.
Of course, Cashman can't do anything without a willing trade partner, and at this point there are none. As the GM explains, "There is no trade market at the moment... I’m not optimistic that something can get done on that front. We have to try and plug this gap internally and that’s not going to be easy." Pete Abraham did a nice job of elaborating on the team's short and long-term options, which include a still-rehabbing Kennedy, current Yankee reliever and recent callup Dan Giese, Triple-A prospect Dan McCutchen, the Devil You Know (Kei Igawa and Jeff Karstens), and the Devil You Don't Know, injury-prone starters from elsewhere such as Oakland's Rich Harden, who could cost a king's ransom in prospects, San Diego's Randy Wolf and free agent Freddy Garcia, who missed most of last year with a variety of shoulder issues -- hardly what the Yanks need more of.

Anyway, it's a mess, but at least the Yankees are playing decent baseball. They're four games above .500 for the first time all year, and 17-9 since Alex Rodriguez's return from the DL, as A-Rod has hit .366/.470/.710 with eight homers in that span. They're 5.5 games behind Boston in the AL East, and 3.5 in back of Tampa Bay in the Wild Card chase (!), with the A's 1.5 games ahead of them as well. In recent years they've come back from bigger deficits, but this one is going to be a real challenge both on the field and in the front office.

Things could be worse. They could be the Mets, who ended nine months of speculation by firing manager Willie Randolph, pitching coach Rick Peterson and first-base coach Tom Nieto in the wee hours of Tuesday morning. The team is 34-35 and has been beset by injuries and depth problems that are the responsibility of GM Omar Minaya, not Randolph. Reliance on aging, expensive, fragile players such as Moises Alou (limited to 54 plate appearances this year), Pedro Martinez (20.1 innings) and Orlando Hernandez (bupkus) has cost them dearly, as has cleaning out their prospect coffers to acquire Santana. The slow decline of Carlos Delgado (.242.321/.407) hasn't helped, nor has the loss of productive Ryan Church due to a concussion or the recent struggles of the bullpen. As noted in the Hit List:
Can't Get No Relief: The misery contineus for the Mets, whose brief respite from a five-game losing streak is overshadowed by the second of three straight blown saves by Billy Wagner. He's not the only arsonist in a bullpen that's fallen to 13th in the league in WXRL. Despite a 2.34 ERA and six innings per start from the Mets rotation this week, the relievers allow 19 earned runs in 23 innings and take five out of the six losses.
Worse than their current woes, the team has been unable to shake the memory of last year's historic, ugly collapse, their 5-12 record after September 11 and 1-6 record during the final week. Randolph didn't deserve to carry the weight of that collapse alone, though he didn't help his cause when he played the race card a few weeks ago, suggesting that the media was covering him differently than the would a white manager.

Though the racial angle may have been overstated, there does seem to be truth to the fact that the bullseye was squarely on Randolph. As Joe Sheehan writes:
Randolph, like any manager, bears responsibility for his team’s performance, but when you look at what he actually does, what he has had to work with and the performance of the roster core, it’s difficult to argue that he is the problem. A quarter of his payroll has no-showed; that’s hard to overcome.

I am not arguing that Minaya needs to be fired, either. I am saying that firing Randolph doesn’t change anything for this Mets team on the field, and what it does for them off the field reeks of letting the media make decisions for you. The best argument for firing Randolph is that the constant coverage of his job status was a distraction for the players. However, that has nothing to do with Randolph or the players-it has to do with a voracious media filling column inches and air time, a group that entered the 2008 season with its sights set on Randolph. The amount of time spent questioning Randolph’s ability, versus the amount focused on the absences of Alou and Martinez, or the collapse of Delgado, or the execrable bench, is a bad joke. There’s no analysis of baseball or the Mets or any thought process at all; it’s just creating a story and then beating it until something happens.

This isn’t quite the Dodgers of 2004-05, whose general manager, Paul DePodesta, was the target of media criticism from the day he was hired and who was let go largely because the Dodgers owner had no plan other than to pander to that media. (How’s that working for you, Frank?) No, this is something a bit less blatant, but no less insidious. Randolph is out of a job today because a storyline was created, the Mets weren’t savvy enough to get out in front of it, and the situation snowballed. Omar Minaya may have made the phone call, but it was the media that made this transaction.
As Buster Olney writes, the Mets could have hardly done a worse job at handling this, :
Even the writers of "The Sopranos" could not have invented a more recklessly handled hit. The process really started after last season's collapse, when Minaya -- who came to the Mets having been promised full autonomy and, for more than a year, has had all the power of a marionette -- first regressed into lawyer-speak. "Willie is the manager," Minaya said over and over, as if repeating the phrase would somehow give the crafted but flimsy words backbone and fool anyone into thinking that Randolph wasn't one really bad day away from being fired.

When the Mets sputtered in April, the backstabbing began, with Randolph being undermined along the way. Words of Randolph's honest player evaluations in those staff meetings somehow made their way to the ears of players. That left the manager in a brutal position of trying to draw performance out of veterans who heard that behind closed doors the manager wasn't so sure if they had the right stuff anymore. Some on-field staff members doubted whether they could trust the front office.

And when the losing continued, the front-office leaks to the newspapers became rivers of rip-jobs, the leakers inoculated by the fact that they fired first. It's better to blame the manager and his coaches, after all, than to take responsibility. But even after Randolph's demise became a fait accompli, which was sometime in the last days of May, the decision-makers stopped focusing on the change itself and started becoming concerned about properly scripting his firing.
Ugh. Makes Joe Torre's departure look like a tea party by comparison. Just remember, Yankee fans, it could always be worse.

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Thursday, June 12, 2008


List It In Case You Missed It

Friday's Hit List featured my two teams personifying mediocrity, ranked at the middle of the pack at #15 (Yankees) and #16 (Dodgers). Neither has been a whole lot of fun to watch lately.

The Dodgers have been minus Rafael Furcal for about a month now. They were 18-14 with him, as he got off to a red-hot .366/.448/.597 start, but since he suffered a back injury, they've gone 13-19 while being reduced to trading for Angel Freaking Berroa, a former Rookie of the Year for the Royals whose career subsequently fell off the table; he lost his job after hitting .234/.259/.333 for a team that lost 100 games. That causal link apparently evaded Dodger GM Ned Colletti, but then that's no surprise.

The Yankees, though their offense is now intact following the return of Jorge Posada, have watched Andy Pettitte and Chien-Ming Wang show signs of collapse, though the latter may have reversed an ugly four-start trend Tuesday night when he got four double plays in 7.1 innings of work. They've also been shuffling through bullpen options to figure out who can fill the void left by Joba Chamberlain, which means the void ultimately left by Jeff Nelson after his 2000 departure. Kyle Farnsworth ain't that guy, and as Yankee fans have been left to ponder whether journeymen Edwar Ramirez or Jose Veras are, Mariano Rivera's shown signs of mortality by yielding two critical home runs to Royals hitters in three days.

In this week's Prospectus Hit and Run, I took a look at some of BP's advanced pitching metrics and didn't much like what they said about the Yanks:
Last year I introduced the Combo Platter, the combined win expectancy-based rankings of teams' starters (via SNLVAR) and relievers (via WXRL). For the uninitiated, SNLVAR (Support Neutral Lineup-adjusted Value Above Replacement) tracks a starting pitcher's cumulative win expectancy based on the runs allowed (earned and unearned), innings pitched, and the base-out situation when he leaves the game. It looks at a starter's performance independent of the run support he receives from his offense and the job done by the relievers who follow him. See Derek Jacques' recent Toolbox article for more on the subject. WXRL (Win Expectation above Replacement, Lineup-adjusted) does for relievers what SNLVAR does for starters, accounting for runs, innings, and the base-out situations when a reliever enters and departs.

Since the two figures are based on the same win-expectancy framework and expressed in the same currency, they can be combined. In Baseball Prospectus 2008, each pitcher's actual stat lines and PECOTAs include a category called SN/WX, which covers both without distinguishing where a pitcher does his work. Our sortables don't actually sum the two categories, but one can add them up in a spreadsheet in half the time it takes Jose Molina to run to first base if so desired. What I like about this report is that it shows which teams have both ends of their pitching staff in synch, and which are working at cross purposes. All stats through Monday:
Team     IPs   FRAs  SNLVAR  IPr    FRAr  WXRL   Total
ANA 406.0 4.05 7.9 166.0 4.25 5.8 13.7
OAK 383.2 3.99 8.2 184.1 3.29 5.1 13.3
CHA 403.1 3.92 8.2 169.0 3.20 4.6 12.8
TBA 375.1 4.54 7.3 190.1 3.45 5.4 12.7
TOR 423.0 3.89 9.4 173.0 3.49 2.8 12.2
CLE 394.2 4.04 9.4 171.1 5.03 1.7 11.1
BOS 394.1 4.21 7.4 188.2 4.60 2.4 9.8
BAL 361.2 4.88 5.3 199.1 3.79 3.5 8.8
MIN 364.0 5.58 2.9 210.2 4.35 4.3 7.2
KCA 379.2 5.18 3.5 186.0 4.07 3.2 6.7
NYA 344.0 5.38 3.2 223.0 3.95 3.5 6.7
SEA 365.0 5.45 3.5 197.2 4.52 0.4 3.9
DET 364.1 5.23 2.4 190.2 5.25 0.5 2.9
TEX 349.1 5.78 1.4 235.0 6.01 0.8 2.2
...Meanwhile, another interesting trend is taking shape in the AL East, where the Rays can legitimately claim the best pitching performance in the division. While you're lacing up your ice skates for a stroll around the Lake of Fire, note that their starters are neck-and-neck with Boston's thanks to the acquisition of Matt Garza and the continued development, high walk rate and all, of Edwin Jackson, who is 15th in the league in SNLVAR. Furthermore, their bullpen has bounced back from a grisly sub-replacement level showing last year to rank second in the league, with J.P. Howell, Dan Wheeler, and Troy Percival all in the top 20. Those relative no-names have combined to outperform Mariano Rivera and company as well as Jonathan Papelbon and friends.

Boston's bullpen has been a mixed bag in front of Papelbon, with Hideki Okajima still top-notch but Mike Timlin clearly on his last legs and Manny Delcarmen struggling to live up to expectations. They've gotten good work out of the rotation, including some particularly inspiring patchwork from Justin Masterson, who has accumulated 0.9 SNLVAR in four starts while filling in for Josh Beckett and Daisuke Matsuzaka. The Yankees aren't working too well at either end, with a combined win expectancy that's tied with the Royals, never a good sign when it comes to a team's playoff aspirations. Their rotation is a disaster beyond Chien-Ming Wang, Mike Mussina, and Darrell Rasner; those three have accumulated 3.8 SNLVAR, while the rest of the pack (including Andy Pettitte, Philip Hughes, and Ian Kennedy) has been a half-win below replacement level. Furthermore, the Yankee rotation is only a few whiskers ahead of the Rangers in terms of innings pitched per start at 5.375, about 0.4 innings per start behind the next team. That gap alone is the equivalent of 65 innings per year, the job description of one more quality reliever the Yanks don't have, and yet another illustration of why moving Joba Chamberlain to the rotation makes sense. The going has been slow so far for Chamberlain's conversion (6 2/3 innings in two starts) but once he builds up the stamina to go at least 100 pitches, he should be able to help the team get deeper into ballgames.
I will say that I did enjoy watching Veras last night against Oakland. The guy can Bring It in the mid-90s, and he's currently sporting a 15/5 K/BB ratio in 17 innings, the kind of numbers that an eighth-inning guy needs to put up. At 28, he's no spring chicken, but the Yankees are clearly hoping the kid can pick up some of the slack. I'll drink to that.

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Wednesday, June 11, 2008


Eliot Asinof (1919-2008) and the Mystery of Rocky Perone

The obituaries have been all too full of familiar names in recent weeks, men whose life's work brought me a great deal of joy, countless hours of entertainment, and plenty of food for thought. Since Memorial Day alone, we've lost director Sydney Pollack, actor Harvey Korman, musician Bo Diddley, and sports broadcaster Jim McKay. Today's bad news is the passing of writer Eliot Asinof. He was 88.

A former minor-league ballplayer, Asinof's best-known work was about the national pastime. He's most famous for Eight Men Out, the story of the Black Sox scandal which involved the fixing of the 1919 World Series. I'll cop to never having read the book, but I've seen the movie version several times. Asinof and director John Sayles took what appeared to be a black-and-white (sox) crime and morality tale about the throwing of ballgames and turned it into a much more thorough critique of the forces which created the scandal: power, capitalist inequity and the working conditions of Reserve Clause-era ballplayers. Sox owner Charles Comiskey should have been the first guy to take the fall.

What follows here is a piece I've had on the back burner for ages, with roots that date back to my own childhood. It's written about one of Asinof's lesser-known works, so obscure that it's never been anthologized. Today it seems only fitting to dust off this roundabout tale.

• • •

When I was nine, I got my first subscription to Sports Illustrated, having discovered its existence in the library of my elementary school when we moved across the Salt Lake City valley in the the fall of 1978. For the next decade, I read the magazine religiously, so much so that I still remember specific articles and covers -- right down to the blurbs -- nearly 30 years later.

What a treat, then, that has made available a massive amount of its archives via the SI Vault, which went online a couple months ago (the covers, many of them icons in their day, had been online for awhile already). Sadly, the great photography hasn't made the transition, but there's still a bounty of riches to be had.

Over the years I've tracked down a small handful of SI back issues with pieces that meant something to my childhood. This Nolan Ryan one ("How Close It Was!"), occasioned by the near miss of what would have been his record-setting fifth no-hitter in the summer of 1979, was one. Tracking down that issue revealed a hidden gem in that week's television column, noting the planned launch of a 24-hour cable TV sports network:
Last winter Getty Oil paid $10 million for a majority interest in a hitherto unknown and practically non-functioning little cable TV company in Plainville, Conn. called The Entertainment and Sports Programming Network, Inc., or, more informally, ESPN. Indeed, Getty's decision to underwrite the firm seems to have had more than a few overtones of extrasensory perception and supernatural insight: ESPN may become the biggest thing in TV sports since Monday Night Football and nighttime World Series games.

ESPN plans to launch the nation's first 24-hour sports network by Dec. 1, a nonstop telethon that will ultimately result in 8,760 hours of annual programming—every single possible hour, and seven times as many hours of sports as the three major networks combined now air in an average year. ESPN will present a mind-boggling (and, perhaps, numbing) flow of games, matches and contests, ranging from live tennis from Monaco shown at 3 a.m. to taped NCAA football games on view from 8 a.m. to midnight on most autumn weekends to a mixed bag of volleyball, water polo, fencing, crew, etc., etc.

As 23-year-old ESPN vice-president Scott Rasmussen puts it, "What we're creating here is a network for sports junkies. This is not programming for soft-core sports fans who like to watch an NFL game, then switch to the news. This is a network for people who like to watch a college football game, then a wrestling match, a gymnastics meet and a soccer game, followed by an hour-long talk show—on sports."
Cool as that was, my favorite find was another 1979 issue which I hunted down only after solving a long-standing mystery thanks to The Baseball Index, SABR's bibliography resource available via

I had remembered the subject of a feature story a man who faked his identity and wormed his way onto the San Diego Padres under the assumed name of Rocky Perone. As it turns out, the story was written by the great Eliot Asinof, author of the seminal Eight Men Out. Though I've seen John Sayles' movie version a handful of times, I've never read the original book, and in truth only own one Asinof book, his first one, Man on Spikes, a novel about a bush leaguer who takes 16 years to make it to the majors. Not far off from the plot of "The Secret Life of Rocky Perone":
It was the greatest feeling in the world — or maybe the worst. Five years ago, there I was in a San Diego uniform about to take a pregame workout with the Padres. Warming up on the sidelines were the champion Cincinnati Reds — Pete Rose, Joe Morgan, Johnny Bench, those guys. This was the big time. This was where I belonged. Nobody ever wanted to be anywhere more than I wanted to be in this spot.

The trouble was, it wasn't me. Or, to be more exact, nobody knew it was me. The guy on the field was known as Rocky Perone, supposedly a 21-year-old rookie from Sydney, Australia. At least, that's who the Padres thought they had signed. Actually, my name is Richard Pohle, and I'm from Lisbon Falls, Maine. And my age, by God, was 36!

Except for Satchel Paige, I probably was the oldest rookie ever signed to a professional baseball contract. But look, at 36 I was desperate. I had to do something. I wasn't some rinky-dink from Pipe Dream City. Over the years, I'd proved myself repeatedly. I had to prove myself again just to be here. I'd had to show them something. The hoax about my age was just a device to get the scouts to look at me, to really look at me. Can anyone picture a scout giving a tryout to an American shortstop who is 36?

God knows the number of places I'd gone for tryouts, how many times I'd hitched to spring-training camps, traveling from Maine to Florida or from California to Florida, and how close I'd come to making it years ago. The trouble with scouts is that they seldom believe what they see. What they want to see is some big rangy kid with a sensational high school rep, a .575 hitter with power, someone destined for a big bonus, someone about whom the scout can tell the front office what it wants to hear. But who was Richard Pohle? Just some dumb kid from Maine, a little guy who was already 18 and no one had ever heard of him. They can really cut a man down. Year after year, I kept coming back for another shot, and then I would end up playing ball in Canada, Mexico, Japan, Cape Cod. It seemed like I was never more than a month or two away from the opening of a season. I even went to England, Sweden and Australia. Name places where anyone plays decent ball, and I've been there.
I had always assumed that Perone, like the protagonist in Man on Spikes (which, to be truthful, I've never read for more than a handful of pages) was a fictional character, particularly because the story is written in the first person. The fact that Perone's game action came not with the Padres but with their minor-league affiliate in Walla Walla -- where my grandparents lived and where I spent a good portion of that summer, ironically enough -- meant that he left no major league stats behind and further strengthened that supposition.

A bit of investigation thanks to the Vault set me straight. The Vault includes both digitized thumbnails of each page of the magazine -- so you can see the ads, yippee! -- as well as the ancillary stuff that makes up each issue, including their weekly letters to the editor column, "The 19th Hole." The issue two weeks after the Perone story was published contained five letters in response, including this one:

I remember Dick Pohle from a baseball school we both attended in Cocoa, Fla. in 1957. He impressed me then with his tremendous desire and love for the game. It would be nice if a greater number of the more gifted athletes in the big leagues had some of that burning desire. God bless Dick Pohle. He's beautiful!

A few minutes in Google led me to an excerpt of a book called When Towns Had Teams mentioning Dick Pohle as one of Lisbon, Maine's better players in the early 1960s. Soon after discovering that, I came across Harold Parrot's often-hilarious account of front office shenanigans, The Lords of Baseball, which devotes a brief passage to the Perone saga in discussing the ineptitude of the mid-Seventies Padre front office, and in particular that of Peter Bavasi (son of Buzzie) and his attempt to bring psychological testing to the realm of player development:
Peter Bavasi often quit his job and went home in frustration, too, but his mother would get him on the phone and talk sense, and get him back to his charts and tests. The whole outfit seemed ready for the psychiatrist's couch.

Not long after that Rocky Perrone [sic] appeared.

The Oglivie-Bavasi mind-reader must have given Rocky a fine personality rating; that, along with creams and facials to take out his age lines and a hair piece to cover his bald head, fooled all the Padre experts. They rated Rocky as a hot prospect at shortstop, and he actually got to play in one game to win a bet he had with the bartender. Then he confessed he was a thirty-eight-year-old busher who had bee knocking around semipro sandlotws since the Dodgers fled Brooklyn.
Further drilling in Google yielded a homepage for Richard Pohle, who's apparently now a baseball instructor in California:
Rich Pohle has been featured in Sports Illustrated, SPORT Magazine, the Los Angeles Times, New York Times, Portland Press Herald, San Francisco Examiner and San Francisco Chronicle. He has worked as a scout for the Los Angeles Dodgers, Atlanta Braves, Kansas City Royals and San Francisco Giants. Pohle's reputation brings players from all over the country to train under him. He is also available to travel to any location throughout the United States for special consultation sessions and seminars. Pohle (pronounced POE-Lee) has played and coached baseball all over the world, including Australia, Germany, England, Sweden, Mexico, Canada, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. If you want to play professional baseball, Rich can help you in the pursuit of your dream. If your goal is to play college ball, he can also help open that door. Rich will teach you the Pro way - hitting, catching, pitching, infield play and base running.
Pohle's site features a photo of his son Richie, who spent two years in the Phillies and Mariners systems and last year played in the independent Golden Baseball League; he has a stat page at the Baseball Cube. An older version of the site (which has been changed since I began working on this piece) pictured Pohle pupils D.J. Houlton (a former Dodger now playing in Japan) and Phil Seibel (a Red Sox farmhand) -- both of whom I've covered in Baseball Prospectus annuals -- as well as a picture of the original Sports Illustrated article's opening page, and links to the SI article and to a couple of newspaper pieces about him.

The newspaper pieces themselves are missing in action since the site's recent update, but the story gets better. As it turns out, Pohle helped a few other over-age players get contracts under false pretenses, including a 38-year old reliever who signed with the Royals and a pair of players who signed with the Giants. "Flimflam man who gently hoodwinked the Giants," reads the headline of a 1983 San Francisco Examiner piece on Pohle's site. From the article, scanned from the original newsprint:
The San Francisco Giants' front office never knew it. Hardly anybody did. But baseball's perennial flimflam man, Richard Pohle, orchestrated one of baseball's most elaborate and long-running stings, and the club was snookered.
Between that article, one from the Portland Press Herald, and Pohle's own bio it's revealed that baseball lifers like Phoenix Giants manager Rocky Bridges, longtime Giants scout Jack Schwarz, Padres minor league director Mike Port and Padres scout Jim Marshall were conned by the assumed identities of Pohle or his proteges, among whom five such ballplayers are named:

• Barry Stace, the aforementioned reliever, a 38-year-old lefty who was purportedly the first Australian to play baseball in the U.S. He's not listed on the Baseball Cube site (their minor league stats only go back to 1978), but a Midwest League page confirms his presence at Waterloo in 1973, albeit with no birthdate given.

• Tom Rowan, the most successful of the bunch. At 24, he evolved into 21-year-old Tom Anthony and lasted four years (1977-1980) in the Giants system, starring at Class-A Great Falls of the Pioneer League, where he hit .333, drove in 62 runs in 63 games and tied for the league lead in triples. He made it as high as Double-A Shreveport; his Baseball Cube page is here, though it omits the Pioneer League numbers; the Cube's stats for Great Falls begin in 1978, though the franchise was founded in 1969.

• Mark Worley, who at 31 became 21-year-old Nick James and served as Rowan/Anthony's teammate. He hit just .227 at Great Falls in 1977 and drew his release after the season.

• Joe Parga, who at 26 became 22-year-old Jose Hernandez and hit .286 in his first year in the Angels' organization. I couldn't find him at the Baseball Cube, so it's quite possible he never rose above short-season ball.

• Rick Brown, whose age and alias aren't given but who apparently rose from Rookie ball to Double-A in the Braves system according to the Press Herald piece.

Pohle himself went 1-for-1 with a walk and a steal in his sole game with the Walla Walla Padres, but he got another shot in the Northwest League. In 1980, at the age of 42, playing as Richard Perone, he appeared in a game for a Salem club that knew what it was getting, a performance that earned him his own Baseball Cube page.

Anyway, in Asinof's hands, the tale of Rocky Perone is a gripping and entertaining saga, one that I hope is enriched by this bit of back story. You probably don't have time to read Eight Men Out on your lunch hour today, but you could do worse than to check out "The Secret Life of Rocky Perone" (PDF version scanned from original magazine here).

Update: Alex Belth has a lengthy tribute to Asinof including excerpts and fresh quotes from other great writers here.

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Thursday, June 05, 2008


Minor Things

As somebody who grew up in a city with a minor-league team instead of a major-league one, and who frequented another city even further down the minor-league ladder, I always maintained a mental bookmark list of players I'd seen who made it to The Show, and some who came close with no cigar. This week produced a pair of blasts from the past related to a couple of those players.

Skimming Kevin Goldstein's rundown of the Top 50 Talents in today's amateur draft, I came across a name I recognized -- or rather, half recognized. Wichita State third baseman Conor Gillaspie has a last name that sent me straight to Google, where I confirmed that he's the son of one Mark Gillaspie whom I saw play for the Walla Walla Padres back in 1981.

Gillaspie the elder was the right fielder in a pretty fair Walla Walla outfield that featured John Kruk in left and Tony Gwynn in center, both of whom obviously went on to greater fame. An 11th-round pick out of Mississippi State, where he made the College World Series All-Tournament team, Gillaspie was switch-hitter who showed good power and an excellent batting eye, but if memory serves me a quarter century later, he had an odd style, a high leg kick to start his swing that caused him to wind up with his foot in the bucket. To the extent that I remember this, it's because it was the subject of a brief pointer from my grandfather, who took my brother and me to see the Padres a few times every year when we'd visit.

Despite his funky style, Gillaspie batted .262/.415/.502 in 69 games, tying with Gwynn for the Walla Walla lead in homers with 12. He continued to hit as he climbed the ladder, most notably via a .333/.455/.581 showing for Double-A Beaumont of the Texas League in 1983, but instead of being promoted to Triple-A the next year, he repeated the level to diminishing returns (.274/.426/.465). Thereafter he bounced around through the systems of the Cubs, Brewers and Royals, as well as a repeat engagement with the Padres, but he never made it higher than Triple-A, finally hanging it up after the 1988 season with a lifetime minor-league line of .287/.421/.503. It's unclear exactly what stopped him from taking that last step, but his defensive numbers, which include a whopping 29 errors between 1982 and 1983, not to mention several years with more errors than assists, suggest he may have been lacking with the leather, and I can only imagine some scout deciding that leg kick was kinda horseshit and would never fly in the majors. Still, given how well the guy could hit, you'd figure he'd have gotten a break somewhere.

Anyway, his son Conor Gillespie ranks 32nd on Goldstien's list. Here's what Kevin has to say:
What He Is: One of the best college bats who isn’t limited to first base.
What He’s Not: A pure power hitter, because while strong, his level swing and contact-oriented approach limits his pop.
In A Perfect World He Becomes: A guy who gives you a solid average, good OBP, decent-at-best power; Ryan Zimmerman with nowhere near the defensive chops?
Backup Plan: Lefty backup bat at both infield corners.
Open Issues: Not the most fluid defender; may want more money than he’s worth.
The talent rankings are separate from Goldstein's views of the order that those players will be picked, where money and team needs factor into the equation, but a ranking like Gillaspie's suggests he could be picked by the end of the supplemental phase of the first round. Other prospect experts like John Sickels and Keith Law have him going in the first round as well; the latter, who calls him "a classic plays-like-his-hair's-on-fire gamer type," suggests he may go as high as #22 (Mets). I generally don't get too wrapped up in the fates of individual draftees, but I'll certainly be interested to see where the younger Gillaspie is headed.

Meanwhile, this week's newswires carried the story of former major leaguer Willie Mays Aikens, who was just released from federal prison after serving 14 years for selling crack cocaine to an undercover cop. It's a sad story I've covered before, but now it appears to be taking a turn for the better.

Aikens had the distinction of being the first minor-league ballplayer I followed who made it big in the majors. Named for Willie Mays when he was born shortly after the 1954 World Series, Aikens was a lumbering slugger who played at Salt Lake City in 1977 and 1978. He enjoyed an excellent rookie season with the Angels in 1979, when he hit .280/.376/.493 with 21 homers, but the Angels under GM Buzzie Bavasi were in the midst of an anti-youth movement that saw them trade away their top young talent in an effort to win a championship for owner Gene Autry. Aikens was sent to Kansas City in a five-player deal, with outfielder Al Cowens the centerpiece of the return.

Aikens enjoyed a solid first year with the Royals, hitting 20 homers and driving in 98 runs and then finding stardom in that year's World Series against the Phillies. He slugged two home runs in a losing cause in Game One, singled in the winning run in the 10th inning of Game Three, then matched his two-homer feat in Game Four, helping the Royals to even the Series at two games apiece and becoming the first player with two multi-homer games in the same World Series. He came into the series known as Willie Aikens, but with his success, the announcers made much of his middle name, helping to carve him a place in the national consciousness. "Willie Mays Aikens" just rolls off the tongue, so you can see why the writers of the movie Major League might come up with a character named Willie Mays Hayes. If, like I am, you're old enough to remember Aikens and you want to feel older, consider that the gap between Mays' 1954 catch and that 1980 World Series is shorter than the one between the 1980 World Series and today.

Unfortunately for Aikens, he got into big-time trouble with drugs a few years later. Along with Vida Blue, Jerry Martin, and Willie Wilson, he was one of four Royals who were arrested for attempting to purchase cocaine, pled guilty, and drew three-month jail sentences as well as year-long suspensions from baseball by commissioner Bowie Kuhn. Those four thus became the first active major leaguers to serve time in prison.Aikens' suspension was eventually reduced, and while he returned to the majors, he didn't find much more success.

Aikens' downward spiral continued until he was arrested for selling crack to an undercover cop in 1994. He was sentenced to 20 years in the big house; under the federal mandatory sentencing guidelines, his sentence was longer because the guidelines distinguished between crack and powdered cocaine. According to a 2003 article by Mike Fish, the 2.2 ounces of crack Aikens sold the undercover cop drew as heavy a sentence as if he'd sold 15 pounds in powdered form.

Last year, those federal sentencing guidelines were reconsidered on the grounds that the distinction between crack and powdered cocaine created inequitable punishments -- crack convictions were on average three or four years longer than powdered cocaine convictions -- which carried an element of racial disparity in the sentencing and constituted cruel and unusual punishment. The less severe guidelines were applied retroactively, with Aikens one of the beneficiaries.

Now that he's been released, Aikens hopes to get a job somewhere in baseball, perhaps in scouting, after he spends three or four months in a halfway house. For his sake, I hope he's able to take advantage of this reprieve and turn his life around. We could use a few good reasons to say "Willie Mays Aikens" again.

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Wednesday, June 04, 2008


Joba's New Job / Scoring the Drop

I was pretty excited when over the weekend I learned that I'd have to bypass seeing one of my favorite bands, the Waco Brothers, because I held tickets to Tuesday night's Yankees game, a matchup between the Blue Jays and Yanks that would pit Joba Chamberlain in his long-awaited first major-league start, against Toronto ace Roy Halladay.

Alas, the game was something of a dud despite a heavy concentration of brand new "Joba Rules" t-shirts and pinstriped number 62 jerseys in the stands. Chamberlain, who came in scheduled for a very limited 65-70 pitch range, jacked it up to 101 MPH on the stadium's hot radar gun (98 according to YES, I think) but struggled with his control and blew more than half his pitch allotment in the first inning. He walked Shannon Stewart, left fielder on the All-"You're Still Here?" team, to open the game, and Stewart came around to score without benefit of a hit thanks to a balk, a passed ball, and an infield grounder. That was bad enough, but he then proceeded to load the bases via a Scott Rolen single and two more walks to Lyle Overbay and Matt Stairs. He whiffed Rod Barajas to end the inning but he'd used 38 bullets when it was all said and done.

The Yanks touched up Doc Halladay for two in the bottom of the inning. Johnny Damon smoked a leadoff triple to right-center, and while the failures of Derek Jeter and Bobby Abreu to bring him home had Yankee fans tearing their hair out, Alex Rodriguez took one for the team and then Hideki Matsui followed with a sharp single. A-Rod scampered home when Jason Giambi followed with a single to left center, exactly through where shortstop David Eckstin's neighborhood had the Little Gerbil not shifted to the other side of the bag.

Chamberlain was somewhat more efficient in the second, as he retired the Jays 1-2-3, but he still needed 16 pitches to do so. His night came to an early end after he walked Alex Rios on four pitches with one out in the third. He totaled 62 pitches and struck out three to compensate for the four walks, but the book on him wasn't closed yet. Dan Giese, who'd been recalled from Scranton to make his Yankees debut, came on in relief and could only watch as Jose Molina made a horrible throw into right-center on Rios' attempted steal, sending him to third. Giese then gave up a groundball that tied the score, the run charged to Joba's room.

The Jays added another run in the fourth via a Barajas double, a Brad Wilkerson single, and an Eckstein sac fly, and while Giese kept things close, the remainder of the Yankee bullpen blew the game open in the seventh when Jose Veras, Edwar Ramirez, and LaTroy Hawkins conspired to surrender six runs on four hits, four walks and a sac fly, running the score to 9-2. It was ugly, my friends; the only solution to getting through it was a considerable cash outlay for more beer in celebration of the end of the Democratic primary season. Even so, we departed the moment our cups were empty in the eighth inning. Meh.

• • •

In this week's Prospectus Hit and Run, I've got a rather contrarian take on the early-season scoring drop that has some of my colleagues atwitter. Joe Sheehan went on a big but inconclusive dig through the April numbers a few weeks back, and while AL scoring levels have continued to plummet -- they're down half a run from last year overall, from 4.90 per game to 4.40 -- there doesn't seem to be much rhyme or reason. His look was at least data driven, which is more than I can say for the mainstream pundits who suggest that increased drug testing is the reason for the drop:
Changes in the drug policy are perhaps the most frequently invoked, and in fact, the two-month dip we've seen in the AL would make for the most dramatic drop in the drug-testing era if it held out over the full season. But baseball's drug policy has evolved gradually without exhibiting a consistent effect on scoring. Consider:
Year    NL     AL    Key Policy Changes
2000 5.00 5.30
2001 4.70 4.86
2002 4.45 4.81
2003 4.61 4.86 Survey testing
2004 4.64 5.01 Treatment for first offense
2005 4.45 4.76 10-day suspension for first offense, precursors banned
2006 4.76 4.97 50-game suspension for first offense
2007 4.71 4.90 Amphetamines banned
2008 4.60 4.41 More frequent in-season and offseason testing
Where's the pattern? Regarding the current year, one can't even invoke the effects of the new policy, which basically doubled the number of in-season and off-season tests. It wasn't ratified until less than two weeks ago. Some may say that expectations of enhanced testing in the wake of the Mitchell Report are what's driving the drop, but that's pure speculation.

Having studied the matter for the past few years, I'm not a big believer in PED-based explanations; I tend to favor the ball-doctoring theory to explain the scoring and power fluctuations throughout the entire post-1993 era. The magnetic resonance images (MRIs) from Universal Medical Systems show a synthetic rubber ring that's unaccounted for in MLB's ball specifications, not to mention other anomalies that suggest wider disparities in the balls used than MLB should be allowing. Furthermore, MLB's own studies confirm such disparities--the use of out-of-tolerance balls--as well as finding that the flight distances of balls at the extreme ends of official tolerances could differ by as much as 49 feet despite being struck under the same conditions.

While Joe Sheehan used fly ball rates to dismiss the possibility that ball changes might be factoring into what we've seen this year, the decrease in total bases per hit--what Eric Walker calls Power Factor--from recent historical levels of about 1.60 to 1.56 last year and 1.53 this year suggests this explanation may still be in play. However convenient it may be, until we have more data under our belts, not to mention new scans of 2008 balls that can be compared to last year's models, it's premature to haul the ball-doctoring explanation out to explain this year's results. (In a brief conversation with UMS president David Zavagno, I was told that such scans are forthcoming; I'm planning a lengthier discussion with him in the near future.)

...Having basically lobbed more spitballs than Gaylord Perry on Old-Timer's Day in this article, I'm not going to send you away with any firm conclusions, because I don't think there are any to be drawn. Scoring has fluctuated considerably during Bud Selig's reign, a time of nearly constant change in the game. The crush of coverage that's developed during that time via electronic media, 24-hour news cycles and the blogosphere can lead to a rush of attempts to explain the game's current trends and anomalies, often -- particularly when it comes to those high-profile talking heads -- twisted to fit a preconceived narrative rather than backed by hard data. By October, the larger sample sizes will likely steer us back to scoring levels more in line with recent history. While it may not be a catchy answer to say, "Let's see where the data is at the end of the year," before we firm up our theories about this scoring drop, it's the right one.
I'm looking forward to interviewing Zavagno sometime in the not-too-distant future. We'd spoken before prior to yesterday, and while I don't buy everything he says, he has produced some compelling visual evidence while raising very good points about MLB's testing of baseballs. Ours should make for a fun conversation.

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Monday, June 02, 2008


Miller Time II

I had to dash out town on Friday -- down to Delaware for my brother-in-law's wedding -- before I could get the link to the Hit List up here, but of more interest three days later is the full transcript of the interview I did with Marvin Miller for last week's feature. Here's a taste:
Jay Jaffe: Why did you make the announcement now? The Hall of Fame isn't going to hold another election for about 18 months at least.

Marvin Miller: You're making it sound like it's premature, when actually you have to remember that, unlike players who are not eligible until they've been retired for five years, executives under their rules are eligible when they turn 65. In other words, back in 1982, I first became eligible and for the next 20 years I was never even on the ballot for the Hall of Fame Veterans Committee. Two decades, 20 years.

Then they abolished that Veterans Committee which had kind of been scandal-ridden in the sense that the only way they could elect anybody was to engage in vote trading. You support my guy and I'll support your guy, and out the window went merit. So they abolished that committee and that was understandable. Then they created a new one, this time composed of all of the living members of the Hall of Fame. For the first time I was put on a ballot in 2003, and my vote was far short of the 75 percent needed, and that was OK. Then they decided that they wouldn't hold another one for four years without explaining why.

... One of the reasons I haven't done this before is that I kept getting talked out of withdrawing my name. People who meant well kept saying, "They'll come around," when I knew that was never gonna happen. And I blame myself in a sense for not having withdrawn my name a long time ago, because one thing a trade union leader learns to do is how to count votes in advance. Whenever I took one look at what I was faced with, it was obvious to me it was not gonna happen.

Besides which, as I began to do more research on the Hall, it seemed a lot less desirable a place to be than a lot of people think. I was struck by the fact, for example, that when Reggie Jackson four years ago, with nobody asking him, publicly announced that he had voted for nobody.

My first thought was, look, that's his privilege, that's OK. But what he doesn't seem to understand when he says the Hall should be just for players is that it's not. The first commissioner, Judge Landis, is in the Hall of Fame, and if he [Landis] had lived long enough, not only would Reggie Jackson not be in the Hall of Fame, he never would have had even one at-bat in the major leagues, because Landis campaigned far and wide among the owners against breaking the color line. As a matter of fact, when one of the owners at the time, Bill Veeck, insisted he was going to sign African-Americans, Landis threatened him with outright suspension. In addition, as you may know, some of the early people inducted in the Hall were members of the Ku Klux Klan.
The whole thing is now up at BP, and it's free, so do check it out.



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