The Futility Infielder

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

Friday, April 24, 2009


Minor Things, Major Things

Earlier this week, I had an epic-length free piece on Baseball Prospectus about the sudden flood of historical minor league data available online via the recently upgraded
While I'm hardly an authority on the topic, I've always had a soft spot for minor league baseball, probably because my formative years were spent in minor league towns. I grew up attending ballgames in Salt Lake City, Utah, a city with a rich history as a minor league outpost dating back to the old Pacific Coast League and its 200-game seasons. During my childhood and adolescence it played host to the Triple-A affiliates for the Angels and Mariners in the modern-day PCL, and I got my fill of stars like Dickie Thon and Phil Bradley, high-altitude boppers like Ike Hampton, and future flops like Al Chambers. Additionally, every summer I would visit my grandparents in in Walla Walla, Washington, the site of the Padres' Low-A Northwest League affiliate, where I watched Tony Gwynn and John Kruk take their first steps toward major league stardom.

As such, I'm hooked on the recent addition of the SABR Minor League Database to the already amazing collection of data at This awe-inspiring mother lode provides access to the minor league records of over 175,000 players from over 4,000 leagues (majors, minors, and foreign). While a great deal of the data currently on B-R is incomplete, and some of it is redundant with the minor league data on The Baseball Cube, like Retrosheet this statistical horn of plenty holds the promise of delivering ever more down the road. As it is, it's still a treasure trove, particularly when its information is integrated with other sources, be they Retrosheet, the wiki-based Baseball Reference Bullpen, or trusty old books, magazines, and newspapers.
My meandering journey through the new/old stats takes us past not only Hall of Famers but celebrities from other walks of life:
With the anniversary of Jackie Robinson's breaking of the major league color barrier having recently passed, it's worth examining the pioneers of pro baseball's integration as they played on some of the most important minor league teams in baseball history. The 1946 Montreal Royals featured Robinson the year before his promotion to Brooklyn; he hit .349 and slugged .462 in 124 games while leading the Royals to the International League championship. Also on that team at various points in the season—in part to provide Robinson with a black roommate—were a pair of pioneering Negro League pitchers whom Dodger GM Branch Rickey signed but who never made the majors, John Wright and Roy Partlow. Wright, a star with the Homestead Grays, lasted only six weeks with the club and pitched just twice before being demoted to nearby Trois Rivieres of the Class C Canadian-American League. He was immediately replaced by Partlow, a 35-year-old Negro Leaguer from the Philadelphia Stars. Partlow spent two months with the team, pitching in 10 games but compiling a gaudy 5.59 ERA before joining Wright at Trois Rivieres, where he went 10-1 with a 3.22 ERA in 14 games. He resurfaced a few years later in the Quebec-based Provincial League, which at times was an independent league and others an affiliated one.

Concurrent with Robinson, Wright and Partlow's Canadian adventures, Roy Campanella and Don Newcombe were playing for the Nashua Dodgers of the New Hampshire League. Managed by future Dodger skipper Walter Alston, Campanella hit .290 with 13 homers and a .477 slugging percentage, while Newcombe went 14-4 with a 2.21 ERA and helped his cause by batting .311. Campy spent 1947 with the Montreal Royals and the early part of 1948 with the St. Paul Saints before joining the Dodgers. Newcombe took a slower path to the majors, much to his chagrin; he returned to Nashua in 1947 and spent 1948 and part of 1949 in Montreal before getting the call. As for Alston, whose major league playing career consisted of a lone at-bat with the 1936 Cardinals, the details of his 13-season minor league career are here too; he hit .295 and collected 1,344 hits while beating the bushes in such long-forgotten circuits as the East Dixie League, Middle-Atlantic League, Western League and Interstate League.

...No list of bush-league authors would be complete without including screenwriter/director Ron Shelton of Bull Durham fame. He's got not one but two pages on the site, apparently due to a database quirk that hasn't been corrected. Drafted by the Orioles in the 39th round in 1966, he spent parts of two seasons as a pitcher, going 4-6 with a 4.23 ERA in 25 appearances before shifting to the infield. Switching his throwing arm from left to right, he spent four more years in the Orioles' chain, primarily as a second baseman. He climbed as high as Triple-A Rochester, where he played with Bobby Grich, Don Baylor, Terry Crowley, Johnny Oates and future Orioles' pitching coach and manager (but never major league pitcher) Ray Miller, among others. Shelton only hit .251 and slugged .315 during his minor league career, though he did steal 32 bases once.

Meanwhile, Shelton's muse, the real Crash Davis has his own page, too. Lawrence Columbus Davis was a North Carolina native who starred at Duke University and went on to spend parts of three years with some dreadful Philadelphia A's squads, hitting .230/.289/.279 in 148 games as an infielder. Drafted into the Navy during World War II, he spent his first year stationed at Norfolk, Virginia, where he played on a team with Dom DiMaggio and Pee Wee Reese. After being discharged, he played for seven seasons (1946-1952) in the minors, five of them in the Class B Carolina League and one (1948) with the real Durham Bulls, who were affiliated with the Tigers. Davis, a second baseman, hit .317 and slugged .476 while clubbing 10 homers and a league record 50 doubles for the Bulls. Shelton came across his name when thumbing through an old Carolina League record book for inspiration, and the rest is history. Davis even turned a brief cameo as Sam Crawford in Shelton's movie Cobb.
Fun stuff, and like I said, free. The roll call of other players featured in the piece: Lou Gehrig, Lefty Grove, Art Rooney, George Halas, John Elway Sammy Baugh, Zane Grey, Pat Jordan, Eliot Asinof, Rocky Perone and friends, Bert Convy, Kurt Russell, Scott Patterson, Randy "Macho Man" Savage, Scott Boras, and Mario Cuomo. One of these days I'll write a sequel with those long-threatened memories of Ike Hampton, but until then, this will have to do.

As an aside, writing the piece led me to watch Bull Durham again - I've had a shrinkwrapped DVD sitting in my collection for at least two years and it was high time to bust it out. The movie never fails to make me smile, and I've been particularly cracking up over this scene because it seemed to answer the rhetorical question posed in a recent BP headline:


Anyhoo... elsewhere on BP, here's this week's Hit List, still topped by the Dodgers, and here's my contribution to a staff piece I participated in for BP and ESPN about "What We've Learned" in the first three weeks of the season, even given the normal small-sample caveats:
While I don't want to get too worked up as to the degree to which it will be true because of the impact of warm weather on a couple weeks of games, it certainly looks like this will be a year in which home runs increase. By itself, that's not terribly interesting given the fluctuations we've seen over the past decade and a half, but it finally seems likely that whatever spike occurs won't be blamed as steroid related.

I've been carping for years — since contributing a chapter to Will Carroll's The Juice: the Real Story of Baseball's Drug Problems that it's the ball that's juiced. Such a mechanism more easily explains the various peaks and valleys we've seen over recent years, and the continuous introduction of new ballparks has been a contributing factor as well. It appears as though both of those components are on display thus far, and by the end of the year we might actually have learned something about fluctuating offense levels that has nothing to do with speculation about who's sticking needles into their butts.
I'll be examining that topic more closely in an upcoming Hit and Run.

Update: Oh, and my latest radio appearance on Boston's WWZN "Young Guns" show.

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Friday, April 17, 2009


Here's to You, Mrs. Olbermann

One more loss to add to the list of those who have passed in the last week: Marie Olbermann, mother of former ESPN anchor and current MSNBC Countdown Keith Olbermann. In an episode whose roots connect directly with the genesis of my web site, Mrs. Olbermann was struck in the face by an errant Chuck Knoblauch throw back in the summer of 2000, exemplifying the Little Bastard's descent into fielding hell while turning her into an overnight celebrity. She was no stranger to the ballpark, either, according to her son:
My mother was one of the best-known baseball fans in this country. She attended Yankees [games] from 1934 through 2004, and she watched or listened to every one she didn't go to, up until last month. My guess is, she went to at least 1500 of them, most in Box 47E in the suddenly "old" Yankee Stadium.

...[T]rust me: Mom loved being famous in the ballparks.

Even if that fame had to be achieved in the way it was, on June 17th, 2000, when the sudden, and growing, inability of the ill-fortuned second baseman Chuck Knoblauch to make any kind of throw, easy or hard, to first base, culminated in him picking up a squib off the bat of Greg Norton of the White Sox and throwing it not back towards first, but, instead, off the roof of the Yankees' dugout where it picked up a little reverse english and smacked my mother right in the bridge of her glasses.

Chuck was in the middle of losing his beloved father at that time and though I thought I "got" what that meant to him, I didn't really understand it until today as I wrote this, and struggled to find the right keys, let alone the right words.

In any event, for three days in 2000, Mom was on one or both of the covers, of The New York Post and The New York Daily News and Newsday. She was somewhere in every newspaper in America.

And all this happened, while I was the host of the Game of the Week, for Fox. Literally sitting in a studio in Los Angeles, watching a bank of monitors with a different game on every monitor and recognizing instantly what must have happened (based on a lifetime of knowing the camera angles in the ballpark in which I grew up). I said, maybe too matter-of-factly, "that probably hit my mother." The crew laughed and I repeated it. More laughs. Then the next shot was of an older woman being led up the aisle towards an aid station - my mother.

I actually got to do a highlight cut-in for the broadcast by Joe Buck and Tim McCarver of a game at Dodger Stadium, and said, as I remember it: "Chuck Knoblauch's throwing problem is getting personal. He picks up Greg Norton's grounder, bounces it off the dugout roof and hits... my mother. I've talked to Mom, she's fine, she'll be back out there tomorrow. Joe? Tim?"

Olbermann credits his mom with being the one who stimulated his passion for baseball, not to mention providing the ham for his media persona. It's a funny and touching piece, well worth reading. My condolences to the Olbermann family, and to the reclusive Knoblauch, who'd probably just as soon not be reminded of the whole episode one more time.

• • •

Speaking of the new Yankee Stadium and its crosstown counterpart, I've got brief bits on both ballparks — admittedly little of which may be new for those following my recent coverage of them — for BP and ESPN Insider.

Enough about those. The Dodgers top the week's Hit List for the first time in nearly four years:
Dodger Dog: Orlando Hudson hits for the cycle, becoming the first Dodger to do so since Wes Parker in 1970, and helping the team beat Randy Johnson in LA for the first time in the Big Unit's 22-year career. The O-Dog is hitting .366/.435/.659. Meanwhile, Clayton Kershaw (7 1 1 1 1 13) one-ups Chad Billingsley (7 5 1 1 0 11) against the hapless Giants' lineup as the rotation holds opposing hitters to a .195 batting average through the first 10 games.
I missed Billingsley's performance but Kershaw's was dazzling; effortlessly and consistently, he kept dropping that big curveball — "Public Enemy Number One," as Vin Scully calls it — in there for a strike against the Giants. More on that game — tangentially at least — in an upcoming post.

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Wednesday, April 15, 2009


Here's to You, Mr. Robinson

Today marks the 62nd anniversary of one of the great days in American history, the day that Jackie Robinson broke baseball's color barrier by taking the field for the Brooklyn Dodgers. While Commissioner Bud Selig has reached the reductio ad absurdum in attempting to honor Robinson by mandating that every player wear number 42 in his honor today, it's nonetheless worth pausing a moment to reflect upon Robinson's courage in battling racism and the impact his bold success had on this country. From the integration of the military to the Civil Rights movement to the election of Barack Obama to the United States presidency, Robinson's actions changed the course of this country's history in ways that are still being felt.

Though it's just a five-minute walk from here, I didn't make it over to the plaque at 215 Montague Street, the location of the Dodgers' old headquarters where Branch Rickey signed Robinson to his first contract. I'll share the photo of it instead, and pay my respects as I often do, by watching Chapter Six of Ken Burns' Baseball tonight.

• • •

Today at Baseball Prospectus and ESPN Insider, I've got an article on strength of schedule which uses BP's PECOTA-based Projected Standings and adjusts for the home field advantage (stay-at-homes win at a .550 clip) and the AL's advantage over the NL in interleague play (the Junior Circuit wins at a .580 clip). I won't give away the whole butcher shop by running the numbers for all 30 teams, but here are the opponents' winning percentages for the AL East clubs, as well as a couple points from the article related to the full-season numbers and the monthly and half-season splits:
Team      Opp W%
Orioles .514
Blue Jays .513
Red Sox .504
Yankees .501
Rays .500
Among contenders within the same division, full-season strength of schedule effects are overstated in the grand scheme of things. Only in the NL Central do the top two teams have more than three points (.003, or half a game over the course of 162 games) of scheduling difference between them; the nine-point advantage in that division equals roughly a game and a half over the course of the season. In the AL East, the difference between the Red Sox and Rays' schedules is four points, roughly two-thirds of a game. The AL Central's top trio are separated by three points, and the top pairs in both Wests are effectively even. The NL East's top trio, who have the toughest schedules of any contenders, are separated by just two points. Like heart surgery, those distinctions aren't minor if they pertain to your chances, but in the big picture, injuries, reliever leverage, and players dramatically over- or under-producing relative to expectations will go further to shape the final standings.

...As far as September/October schedules go — this year the season ends on October 4 — the Yankees have a slight advantage in the AL East at .507, compared to the Rays at .510 and the Red Sox at .512. Note that the Rays host the Yanks for the season's final three games, while the Sox host the Indians. In the AL West, the A's (.475) have a large advantage over the Angels (.495). In the NL East, the Phillies (.479) get the favorable draw relative to the Mets (.491) and Braves (.493), and in the NL West, the lights are with the Dodgers (.463) instead of the Diamondbacks (.496).
Meanwhile, it's worth noting that because they play the top-rated Yankees six times as well as the Red Sox and Rays three apiece, the Mets wind up with the toughest interleague schedule (.611 with all the adjustments).

Elsewhere at BP, intern Ben Lindbergh, whom I had the pleasure of hanging out with in Washington, DC recently, takes the baton on an old book chapter and column concept of mine, the Replacement Level Killers, focusing on players whose ungodly awful performances may have kept their teams from the playoffs or at least contention. No Yankees make the first team, but Jose Molina, Melky Cabrera and a herd of pinstriped fifth starters -- Sidney Ponson, Darrell Rasner, Phil Hughes, Ian Kennedy, et al -- earn Dishonorable Mentions for their 2008 performances. As well they should have. Young Mr. Lindbergh, whom colleague Steven Goldman refers to as "Colonel," has been doing strong work on catcher fatigue and defensive efficiency of late, and may have the inside track on Matt Wieters for Rookie of the Year.

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Tuesday, April 14, 2009


Losing Streak: Three in a Row

A senseless tragedy, the passing of a legend, and a bittersweet reminder of a Bird that flew too high -- it's been a miserable week for baseball mortality. I was barely 15 minutes into my chat on Baseball Prospectus on Monday afternoon when a chorus of readers posted to inform me of the passing of Harry Kalas, the longtime Phillies announcer, winner of the Ford C. Frick Award (for the broadcasters wing of the Hall of Fame), voice of NFL Films, and one of the great voices in the history of sports, period. You didn't even have to know who he was to recognize that gravelly, booming, authoritative voice. It is the voice of history chiseling words in stone for all eternity. Words like, "Outta here!" for his signature home run call, or "Swing and a long drive, there it is, number 500! The career 500th home run for Michael Jack Schmidt!" for his most famous one.

As NFL Films president Steve Sabol, who worked closely with Kalas since 1975, wrote, "In many ways, Harry is the narrator of our memories. His voice lives on not only on film, but inside the heads of everyone who has watched and listened to NFL Films." In a video clip, Sabol further elaborated on Kalas' style: "There was no shtik with Harry. It was just a blend of crisp articulation, resonance and vocal dexterity. He could read the ingredients on a shampoo bottle and and make it dramatic or funny or poignant."

Kalas' last major hurrah, of course, was calling the final out of the Phillies' World Series victory last October:
One strike away; nothing-and-two, the count to Hinske. Fans on the their feet; rally towels are being waved. Brad Lidge stretches. The 0-2 pitch — swing and a miss, struck him out! The Philadelphia Phillies are 2008 World Champions of baseball! Brad Lidge does it again, and stays perfect for the 2008 season! 48-for-48 in save opportunities, and watch the city celebrate! Don't let the 48-hour wait diminish the euphoria of this moment, and the celebration. And it has been 28 years since the Phillies have enjoyed a World Championship; 25 years in this city with a team that has enjoyed a World Championship, and the fans are ready to celebrate. What a night!
Kalas was actually deprived of a similar opportunity to call the Phils' 1980 World Series clincher, as the network agreements in place at the time prevented local broadcasters from calling the games. He did record a narration of that final out after the fact, and thanks in part to his popularity, the rule was amended the following year. Not even stuffy old Major League Baseball could resist that voice.

Several years ago, I was flipping through ESPN Classic and I came across an NFL Films-produced documentary called "Bush Leagues to Bright Lights," devoted to pitcher Erskine Thomason, who pitched one inning for the 1974 Phillies. Narrated by Kalas, it followed the 25-year-old righty from spring training through his late season callup, but the footage of his lone appearance had to be staged, because the film crew showed up late and swapped in stock footage from a game filmed the next day. Still, Kalas' voice made it worth catching. has a handful of clips of Kalas, including his call of the final out of the 2008 World Series. ESPN has a clip of Schmidt talking about what Kalas' call of that famous homer meant to him. NFL Films has a brief tribute, and Baseball Prospectus Radio has a 2003 interview he did with Will Carroll.

• • •

Last week saw 22-year-old Angels pitcher Nick Adenhart die in a car crash just hours after he'd thrown six shutout innings against the A's, his first success at the major league level. Though I never actually saw Adenhart pitch -- he made just four big-league appearances -- I followed his progress closely over the last couple of years, reading about him numerous times in BP colleague Kevin Goldstein's columns and writing about him for the Fantasy Baseball Index and in particular, the Index's weekly spring updates. Adenhart had come into the 2008 season as the Angels' top prospect, but an ugly 9-13, 5.76 ERA season at Salt Lake City (my hometown, and a rough place for any pitcher who's trying to get his stuff together) caused his stock to dip. Thanks to the combination of a strong spring and injuries to John Lackey and Ervin Santana, Adenhart broke camp in the rotation, and he gave every indication he was ready to fulfill his promise. For death to come calling as it did -- particularly via a hit-and-run DUI which killed two of his fellow passengers -- was a cruel, heartbreaking blow.

ESPN's Jerry Crasnick chronicles Adenhart's journey to the majors. BP has a poignant guest post by Shane Demmitt, an Angels' employee with a special bond to the fallen pitcher. The Rev of Halos Heaven has a touching piece that begins by recalling former Angels outfielder Lyman Bostock, who died in 1978 -- the first ballplayer death I ever confronted:
In 1978, Lyman Bostock was murdered, a few days before the end of the 1978 baseball season. He had only been with the Angels that season, but the pain for this fan was as real as if he had lived in our house... because in a way he had...

All the moments in which he had excelled had occurred in our house, the television light filling the room, the sound of the radio as much a part of a summer night as the cacophony of your brothers and sisters bursting through the front door just back from a late day at the beach.

These players we will never know are family, we know the illusion of them better than we know some of our own kin. We still tell stories about the time they did this great feat or that terrible blunder as if those curveballs and errors happened in the backyard.

So we had another guest in our house last night, he had just joined the family and we were excited to have him. These kids are so fantastic to have over in the living room, the game taking all of our attention except for a dinner break while they keep playing. It is always a quick run back to see how they are doing.

But a tragedy means he will never be back at our house, at your house, across the homes of this sprawling, tangled neighborhood, this nation, the world even as this sport we love grows in our hearts and imagination. He had an open invitation from every fan in every home, and that invite was a manifestation of the love and hope and competitive drive in each of us. We are sports fans because it allows us to spend time with the absolute best in their prime.
• • • 

Just hours after the news of Kalas' death broke, word came that Mark "The Bird" Fidrych, the 1976 American League Rookie of the Year, died in a farm accident at the age of 54. Fidrych's antics on the mound, which included talking to the baseball, were the stuff of legend, but arm injuries prevented him from even pitching in as many games over the rest of his career as he did in his fabled rookie season.

I'm too young to remember that magical season firsthand, but by all accounts, Fidrych was every bit the sensation that Fernando Valenzuela or Dwight Gooden were during their rookie campaigns. At the tender age of 21, he went 19-9 with a league-best 2.34 ERA and 24 complete games for the Tigers, and even started the All-Star Game. My sole memory of Fidrych as a player, alas, was on the downslope of his career, a brief outing in 1979. Shown on an NBC "Game of the Week" -- this 1979 outing appears to fit the bill -- it marked the first time I ever heard the phrase "pitch count," as Fidrych was coming off the disabled list or up from the minors and was to be monitored closely and pulled after 50 pitches. Oh, the irony.

Cardboard Gods' Josh Wilker, who's a couple years older than me, remembered Fidrych as "the all time single season leader in joy." Wilker actually launched his site back in 2006 with an entry on Fidrych's 1980 card, and less than two months ago revisited the subject via a 1979 card:
I chose the first baseball card to ever feature on this site by reaching blindly into my unsorted box of old baseball cards. Amazingly, I pulled out the card I might have chosen if I had a lifetime to think about the choice: my one and only Mark Fidrych card. I tried to write about how happy he made me when I was eight years old, in 1976, and about how his card from 1980, the year I edged unwillingly from boyhood to something else altogether, seemed to suggest the feeling that the fleeting joy he'd authored over the course of one beautiful summer had slipped from his fingers for good.

...His lifetime ERA of 2.47 and his age (he was still just 24), gave the back of the card, despite the shrinking yearly stats, a small but undeniable aura of hope.

But the front of the card photo pushes that hope into something closer to desperation. Here is a guy just trying to hang on, banished to the far edge of the field, the screen thrown up to guard him from foul balls seemingly as flimsy and haphazardly placed as the sparse mustache on his face. You can see Fidrych breathing, his furred lips pursed, forcing the breath out instead of letting it come and go naturally, doubts tumbling in his mind.

Imagine being forced to leave it all behind. You'll cling to the margins. You'll try to throw a few pitches without wincing, a few pitches that might allow you to move back across that white chalk line, back into the only world you ever loved.
My condolences to those of you touched by the passings of Adenhart, Fidrych and Kalas. Excuse me now, I'm going to go pour myself a stiff drink and cry for awhile.

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Thursday, April 09, 2009


The Ocho

Thursday found me at the News Corporation building for lunch with Rupert Murdoch (not really) and an appearance on the streaming webcast "The Strategy Room" (yes, really). Given the number of media hits I've done in the service of promoting Baseball Prospectus 2009 over the past several weeks, I figured this would be a typically short promote-the-book spot where BP colleague Steve Goldman and I breezed through the usual topics -- the book itself, PECOTA, the division races, the local nines, Alex Rodriguez and steroids, and the day's headlines, which unfortunately included the tragic death of Angels pitching prospect Nick Adenhart. Not exactly territory to go on auto-pilot, but well within my comfort zone.

But no.

"The Strategy Room" turned out to be a frenetic hour-long roundtable discussion in which Steve and I were joined by host Brian Kilmeade as well as humorist (that's what the chyron said) Geno Bisconte and one Richard "Big Daddy" Salgado, an insurance and estate planner for athletes (over the last five years, his company "has insured twenty-five 1st Round picks for disability and career ending insurance," according to his website). As members of this motley crew, we were expected to hold court not only on baseball but also football, golf, and other sports (surprisingly little if any basketball was discussed), and for an entire hour at that.

The show was a bit of a free-for-all. While Kilmeade pitched us topics -- giving the BPers first crack at the baseball questions, Big Daddy the football questions -- we did have to compete for air time as we rolled through CC Sabathia, Joba Chamberlain, Jose Canseco, Joe Girardi, Ben Roethlisberger, Mr. and Mrs. Kurt Warner, Plaxico Burress, Tiger Woods, Jon Daly, the Greg Norman-Chris Evert power couple, and other topics. Seated between the high-energy Bisconte, whose gleeful mugging for the camera, tweaking of the host, and on-camera sending of text messages suggested he was a veteran of this setup, and the imposing but genial Salgado, a mountain of a man, on my left, I was in danger of disappearing into the woodwork. In this four-minute clip centered around the Yankees' slow start (0-2!!!) and the possibility that Girardi might be fired, you can see my similarly slow start. I struggle to get a word in edgewise until finally seeing the opening and running to daylight.

By the end of the hour, I had loosened up and might have even strained my jaw from laughing. It turned out to be ridiculous fun, even if I was a little out of my element, and I wish there were more clips to share. Instead you get screenshots:

Anyway, it made for an enjoyable afternoon, but not until I was back home later in the evening, signing off from recording a segment with Mike Ferrin of XM's "MLB Home Plate," did I realize the day's significance: eight years ago I laid the cornerstone for this site with a clumsy but heartfelt piece on the passing of Willie Stargell. When I started out jotting down reminiscences of my childhood baseball heroes and opinions on the action of the day, who knew that years later I'd reach the point where being on TV, radio, newsstands and in books and even bookstores -- to say nothing of multiple times per week on Baseball Prospectus and occasionally on -- while talking about or writing about baseball would become almost routine? It's not all about anymore, it's about being lucky enough to occupy this niche with so many other writers I admire and friends that I've made.

Every time I pass this milepost I'm reminded of what a fantastic ride it's been, and how much fun it continues to be. I'm deeply grateful to all you for sharing it with me.

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I'll Show You the Bronx

In recent years, my wife has developed a passion for architecture, and in particular New York City architecture. She's taken a pair of classes taught by architecture historian Barry Lewis at the New School over the past couple of years, along the way assimilating more information on the entire discipline than I ever have. Having attended the Yankees' recent stadium-opening exhibition against the Cubs (she was with a childhood friend who used to work for the team, while I was in the bleachers), she's been on an extended rant about the architecture of the new park, a rant whose vitriol surprises even me.

She'd get a kick out of Mark Lamster calling bullshit on the coverage the new stadium has received in the design press. Lamster, in addition to weighing in on the eternally partisan scrap that is the AL East at YanksFanSoxFan, is a true Renaissance man. He's the author of a terrific book about the most ambitious baseball barnstorming expedition of all time, Spalding's World Tour and a forthcoming book on 17th century painter Peter Paul Rubens (mmmmm, Reubens...). He's also an editor-at-large at Princeton Architectural Press. In a piece for ID magazine, he takes some of the architects of the puffery surrounding the stadium to task:
The problems with these new ballparks go far beyond mere questions of style; they strike at the essence of what it means to create good design.

The new Yankee Stadium, for instance, is costing American taxpayers several hundred million dollars and the local community a cherished park. In exchange, we're getting a stadium with fewer seats, a dramatically higher percentage of which will be at luxury price levels. Gone is one of New York's great public spaces: the vast upper deck of the much-maligned old stadium, which was rebuilt in the 1970s. Perhaps that building was not an architectural showplace, but when it was packed with fans for a big game, there was no more electric place in the city.

Sadly, as is so often the case in the public discourse on architecture, the debate about this new ballpark and its cousin in Queens defaulted to questions of superficial formalism. The New York Times critic Nicolai Ouroussoff set the tone in his initial critique of the Bronx park, panned for its "faux historical" envelope. Destruction of the standing building, however, was not at issue. "There are those, no doubt, who will complain about the loss of the site of some of the most memorable moments in the history of sports," he wrote. "I am not one of them."

I am, but perhaps that's not the point either. New York has lost one of its great public spaces, the experience of the average fan has been compromised, and the community has been asked to pay astronomical sums for a work of (mediocre) architecture. Aren't these the real design issues at stake?
In a blog entry, Lamster further elaborates on the Times article, noting that Ourossouff "does not mention any of the controversy surrounding the stadium's financing, its appropriation of public land, or the fact that the average ticket is 76 percent more expensive than last year, according to a recent study," and taking issue with The New Yorker's recent take as well. Smart stuff.


Tuesday, April 07, 2009


Happy Opening Day

A belated Happy Opening Day to you all. I've spent much of the past 48 hours half-watching games while I worked against my deadlines, a less-than-entirely satisfying endeavor offset by the fact that at least I was watching real baseball. Sunday night's Braves-Phillies contest, Monday's Mets-Reds, Yankees-Orioles and Dodgers-Padres tilts offered their novelties (touted Braves phenom Jordan Schafer homering in his first major league at-bat, CC Sabathia and Mark Teixeira in pinstripes, a Cesar Izturus home run, Manny Ramirez with even longer dreadlocks, and the Reds' diminutive hurler Danny Herrera, who's listed as 5'7" but looks "barely bigger than a roasting chicken," as my BP colleague John Perrotto quipped) and familiar pleasures (Derek Lowe putting up zeroes, Johan Santana working out of jams, Michael Kay's exaggerated home run calls, Vin Scully smooth like butter).

At Baseball Prospectus we've got the staff picks of a dozen contributors, myself included. Here are mine:
AL Standings

AL East AL Central AL West
Rays Indians Angels
Yankees * Tigers Athletics
Red Sox White Sox Rangers
Orioles Twins Mariners
Blue Jays Royals

1. Evan Longoria
2. Mark Teixeira
3. Dustin Pedroia

AL Cy Young
1. CC Sabathia
2. Zack Greinke
3. John Danks

1. Matt Wieters
2. David Price
3. Rick Porcello

NL Standings

NL East NL Central NL West
Mets Cubs Dodgers
Braves * Brewers Diamondbacks
Phillies Reds Rockies
Marlins Cardinals Giants
Nationals Pirates Padres
1. Albert Pujols
2. Manny Ramirez
3. Hanley Ramirez

NL Cy Young
1. Tim Lincecum
2. Brandon Webb
3. Chad Billingsley

1. Cameron Maybin
2. Colby Rasmus
3. Jordan Schafer
Interestingly enough, the staff consensus is that it will be the Rays left on the outside looking in come October as far as the AL East is concerned; I was one of only two ballots out of 12 that predicted them for first place.

Also up at BP yesterday was the always-controversial preseason version of the Prospectus Hit List, derived from our PECOTA Projected Standings. The Yankees top the list, while the Dodgers rank fifth and the Brewers 12th:
1. Yankees (99-63, .606 Hit List Factor, 800 Runs Scored/635 Runs Allowed)
A $441 million spending spree brought the Yankees the winter's biggest haul, but their self-loving $300 million slugger—a former steroid user, in case you hadn't heard—starts the year on the DL as the team moves into its charmless $1.3 million new ballpark, the House That Ruthlessness Built. This is the third consecutive year the Yanks top the preseason Hit List, but money guarantees nothing in the top-heavy AL East.

5. Dodgers (93-69, .568, 820/710)
Fresh off their first NLCS appearance in 20 years, the Dodgers pared payroll significantly while raising expectations as the spring has progressed. Since our initial PECOTA-driven projections, the NL West race has swung 12 games, thanks largely to the signings of Orlando Hudson and Manny Ramirez. The offense projects to have the league's second-best OBP, not to mention fewer corners for Joe Torre to back himself into, while young studs Chad Billingsley, Clayton Kershaw and Jonathan Broxton forecast to be part of the league's top run prevention unit.

12. Brewers (83-79, .515, 778/754)
After tasting Oktoberfest suds for the first time in 26 years, the Brewers kept their mugs on the table as CC Sabathia and Ben Sheets departed. Yovani Gallardo should help offset that loss, though he'll be capped around 150 innings, and Braden Looper, their most prominent offseason acquisition(!), is nobody to pick up that slack. Nonetheless, with six productive regulars between ages 25 and 29, the Crew retain a respectable outside shot at the Wild Card if not the division.
Both articles are free, and there's plenty to argue with, as usual. But it's also worth remembering that our PECOTA-based system tops the field in accuracy as far as these things go. It's had the smallest average error (RSME) in three of the past four years (barely missing in the fourth) and over every multi-year range since 2005. As you can see from comparing my predictions to the Hit List, I don't necessarily believe that every single placement on the list is as accurate as the next, but -- for those who need a late pass on this topic -- what's presented on the list is what's being produced by our complicated formulas and systems, without any manual intervention; where I differ significantly is noted in the accompanying analysis. We at BP are not hive-minded robots; we're allowed to think critically about what our tools are telling us and to bring more information to the table than what even our most sophisticated models can incorporate. As my guru, Homer Simpson, would say, "Blame me if you must, but don't ever speak ill of the program!"

So what I'd really like to see is the snippy critics of the Phillies', Marlins' and Rangers' rankings -- a few teams whose fan bases have been especially vocal of their placements -- step up to the plate and lay down their own predictions so we can compare notes in October. How many games are those teams going to win, and where are the corresponding losses going to come from? Which Rangers' starters are going to break a 5.00 ERA in a significant number of innings so the team can avoid allowing 900 runs, punk? Inquiring minds want to know.

• • •

Over at Field of Schemes, Neil deMause has an excellent roundup of several first impressions of the new Yankee Stadium, both from professionals (the Post's Joel Sherman: "a fake place designed to manipulate my emotions and get into my wallet") and bloggers (New Stadium Insider: "The Grandstand evokes memories of Shea Stadium - don't count on a baseball, fair or foul, ever reaching there"). Generally negative, with the exception of Lisa Olson's ecstatic take on the cupholders. WTF?

Hearty congratulations to Cardboard Gods' Josh Wilker, the man who unlocks existential secrets from the shoeboxes full of old baseball cards which clutter his mind. According to this New York Times piece, he recently got a well-deserved contract to write a literary memoir. Count me in for a copy.

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Saturday, April 04, 2009


Mall Rats in Sensurround

With the preseason Hit List and the final Fantasy Baseball Index Spring Update both raging out of control on my front burners, I don't have time for a full writeup of last night's trip to the new Yankee Stadium for the unofficial opening game against the Cubs. I will say that it feels as though the team put some idealized hybrid of Yankee Stadiums I and II on a steroid regimen, then stuck it in the middle of Times Square. Pure sensory overload -- bright flashing lights with sound surrounding you from every angle, and a ginormous scoreboard video dominating the action on the field even when you're sitting in the bleachers, as my friend Julie and I were.

It's a mallpark, and an absurdly expensive one at that. All the bells and whistles in the world could do nothing to alleviate the ambivalence I feel about the venue. To my mind, the Yankees need a new park more than ever.

As big and bold as the scoreboard is, it offers a dearth of real information; nowhere did the names of the pitchers appear, so because we arrived in the middle of the first inning due to subway havoc -- just in time to see Derek Jeter step into the box -- I went the entire evening without figuring out who actually started for the Cubs (it was Ted Lilly). In fact, I had a hard time paying attention at all, in part because it was an exhibition wrapped in a spectacle and in part because sitting in the bleachers makes one feel as though anything that happens in the infield is a distant rumor even under the best of circumstances. The new bleachers do have a steeper pitch to them, which at least makes seeing the outfield a bit easier.

Undoubtedly the highlight of the game came when Robinson Cano smacked a home run in the third inning, the first in the new park's history. It landed three rows in front of us, and soon afterward, stadium security came down to ask the gentleman who recovered the ball if he'd be willing to make a deal. He and his female companion left with them while their friends looked on with concern, but they came back a couple of innings later still clutching the ball: no deal.

As it turns out, Julie and I wound up visible on the brief NY1 highlight loop featuring the home run:

You can see me stand to applaud at the end of the clip here, for whatever that's worth.

Alex Belth weighs in with a more substantial take on attending the game, while Neil deMause has a pair of articles regarding the stadium's opening and the impressions gleaned from attending Thursday's workout, one at the Village Voice and the other at Baseball Prospectus.

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Thursday, April 02, 2009


Clearing the Bases -- Multimedia Edition

TV, radio, print, web... I ain't kidding about the multi:

• As I've said for years, I recognize only one six o'clock, and it's not the one with the milkman. The people involved with promoting Baseball Prospectus 2009 see things differently, however, and so it was that I had a car waiting at 5:50 AM this morning to take me to the WPIX studio in midtown Manhattan for a brief television appearance to promote this year's annual:

I've watched the segment enough times to be hypercritical about my bit: the camera caught me looking at the monitor at the beginning... I stumbled over an answer or two, though I worked my way out of those jams... my body language could have been better, though the arrangement of the chairs didn't help... humidity emphasizes the fact that I need a damn haircut, and while wearing contacts eliminates the glare my glasses produce, you can see every missing hour of sleep in my eyes ("The eyes, Chico, they never lie...").

At least I had the presence to keep smiling and was smart enough to wear a suit; I didn't know whether or not I'd be behind a desk, as in some other TV appearances. And while I'm patting myself on the back, my decision to start the Tivo recording at 6:55 AM instead of 7:00 was prophetic, as they actually chose to squeeze us in just before the top of the hour. Anyway, as a friend reminded me, I probably never expected that when I started this site nearly eight years ago that some day I'd be calling a New York manager out for bullshit busywork on a local network TV show. He's right, of course. Pretty cool.

• If you live within earshot of my Wednesday afternoon radio hit on "The Front Row" on 1470 WLQR in Toledo, please note that my time slot has shifted from 4:10 Eastern (3:10 Central) to 5:35 Eastern (4:35 Central). The segment, which alas isn't streamed, now runs for about 20 minutes instead of 15 so that we can ramble a bit more. Doing this hit with host Norm Wamer is one of the high points of my week, and I'm delighted to have an opportunity to expand just a bit more.

• The Philadelphia CityPaper interviewed me for their Phillies preview:
Another structural change could be more subtle. In 2008, Cole Hamels materialized as a true Major League ace, but stressed his body far past its previous limits in doing so. Last year, including the playoffs, Hamels pitched 72 more innings than he ever had in any previous season. The central question surrounding the Boy Wonder is whether the heavy load sustained during last season's joyride to championship glory will take its toll this season. This is less a question of motivation — Hamels' work ethic is lauded throughout the organization — and more of health. Still. Last season Hamels predicted that if he could get through just one season injury-free, all the questions about his fragility would expire. Well, he did and they haven't. Already this spring, questions have arisen about whether Hamels' increased workload will lead to increased time on the sideline, decreased effectiveness or worse.

The fears aren't unfounded: The extra work is catching up with the young ace. Two weeks ago, Hamels felt tightness in his pitching elbow and was examined by the team physician. The tightness turned out to be simple inflammation, likely the result of normal wear and tear. This sounds reassuring until you remember that normal wear and tear usually develops toward the end of a long season, not at the beginning of one. Jay Jaffe, one of the authors of the annual Baseball Prospectus tome, explains, "Over a three-year period any given pitcher has something like a 50 percent chance of getting hurt." According to him, for Hamels, a stint or two on the DL would be "pretty par for the course." If he's right, the Phillies, compared to last year, just got quite a bit worse.

Speaking of dangerous trends, the Phillies' bullpen is also unlikely to have the type of season it pulled together in 2008. Behind closer Brad Lidge and his perfect 48-48 in save opportunities, the Phillies not only won every game they were leading after eight innings, but were also ranked by BP as having statistically the best bullpen in baseball. Part of that was skill, but a bigger part was good timing. Lidge, Ryan Madson, J.C. Romero, Chad Durbin and Clay Condrey, the Phillies' first five arms out of the bullpen, all had ERAs well below their career averages. Out of the group, Madson (3.94 to 3.05) was the only one within a full run of his career mark. Regression is likely. "Historically," Jaffe warns, "relievers just haven't held up."
• Proving that I'm nothing if not consistent, I make similar points about the defending World Champions in today's ESPN Insider/BP stroll through the National League version of the PECOTA Projected Standings:
One real pleasure that we get in working with the PECOTA projection system comes when we move beyond the individual player forecasts to the team level. Every year, once we release the first batch of projections, our staff compiles depth charts and calibrates the playing time at each position for each team. Our system adjusts for strength of schedule, team defense, and reliever leverage, and we update these on a daily basis throughout the exhibition season based upon camp reports, expert injury analysis, our own intuition, and input from readers who keep a close eye on their hometown nine.

The result is our Projected Standings, and it's often where we generate the most controversy. Two years ago, we drew fire for forecasting just 72 wins for the White Sox, who wound up winning exactly that many. Last year, we raised eyebrows with our assertion that the Rays would finish well above .500 for the first time in history. While we don't always hit the bull's-eye so directly, the standings are an area where we stand tall.

Our projections for this year's National League standings aren't likely to receive much brotherly love from Philadelphia, the home of the defending World Champions. That's because PECOTA sees the Phillies finishing with 87 wins, second to the Mets in the NL East and a game short of the Wild Card. Their offense is slated to match last year's number three ranking in scoring, but the pitching is poised for a major drop, from third in runs allowed to 10th. It's not that the staff hasn't seen upgrades; a full year of Joe Blanton and a more or less league-average expectation from fifth-starter candidates Chan Ho Park and J.A. Happ make for a stronger back end of the rotation. Their problems begin with the improbability of Cole Hamels matching last year's 3.09 ERA over a career-high 227 innings (plus another 35 in the postseason); we've got him down for 3.65 and 180, and note that he's already paid a visit to the doctor. The system also sees considerable regression for bullpen studs Brad Lidge and Ryan Madson. If there's room for optimism, it's that 46-year-old freak of nature Jamie Moyer practically broke PECOTA, and our 5.16 ERA forecast is based upon a dearth of comparable players.

As PECOTA sees it, the NL East race should see the twice-brokenhearted Mets christen their new ballpark with a 92-win season and a long-awaited division flag. While they could have done more to patch their rotation and their outfield corners, the bullpen makeover — starring Francisco Rodriguez and J.J. Putz — squarely addresses last year's biggest flaw, and David Wright, Jose Reyes, and Carlos Beltran forecast as the league's third-, fourth-, and fifth-most valuable hitters according to WARP. Also in the hunt for October are the Braves, who not only feature three players who forecast as the league's best or second-best at their positions (Chipper Jones, Brian McCann, and Kelly Johnson), but can boast adding the Derek Lowe-Javier Vazquez tandem to their rotation, the strongest duo of pitchers added by a team last winter this side of the Yankees' CC Sabathia and A.J. Burnett.
Bitch if you must about the way the PECOTA projections see your favorite team, but the system is the clear leader of the pack at this sort of thing.

• Perhaps as karmic payback for all my squawking, a friend bestowed upon me a pair of tickets for Friday night's Yankees-Cubs exhibition, technically the first game in the new ballpark. I'll be in the bleachers beholding the dawn of this brave new world, no doubt missing the ballpark we've left behind, bemoaning the outrageous prices for piss-quality beer and reveling in the grief the Yankees are catching as they continue their efforts at social stratification.

• Speaking of the new ballpark, the photos from the Sliding Into Home blog show a new Monument Park that's completely soulless. I'm not much of a Joni Mitchell fan, but her opening line from "Big Yellow Taxi" sums up the situation perfectly: "They paved paradise / And put up a parking lot."

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Back, Back, Back

Call off the search party. It's been nearly three weeks since I posted, and in that span I've been swallowed up whole by the Baseball Prospectus 2009 book tour and the Fantasy Baseball Index Spring Update deadlines, a brutal schedule around which I've salted 10 radio hits and two TV appearances as well as a few BP articles. Hitting the highlights:

• Spent two nights in Washington, DC for one exhilarating and exhausting day of promotional work that began with a 9 AM TV spot on the local Fox affiliate, WTTG for the Fox 5 Morning Show. From there it was onto XM Studios, where Steven Goldman and I did a half hour interview with former general manager Jim Duquette for "MLB Home Plate." Duquette was a class act, engaging and open-minded, and he didn't miss the opportunity for a moment of self-deprecation regarding the infamous Scott Kazmir-Victor Zambrano trade for which he'll be remembered. He told that during his time in the front office, his teams had underlings digesting BP articles so the FOTs could glean whatever insights were to be had from the research end of things, and he gladly kept chatting with us for several minutes after the segment was done. An impressively good egg, all told -- so much so that I'll take an indefinite moratorium from bashing that trade.

After that and a quick bite, it was onto Georgetown University, where Steve and I lectured to a small class called "Sports Personalities of the 20th Century," featuring our BP intern Ben Lindbergh. We talked about BP, Bill James, sabermetrics, Moneyball, steroids, Babe Ruth, Jackie Robinson, and more. Then it was off to give another talk for the Georgetown Lecture Fund, and finally onto Politics and Prose, the great DC independent bookstore, where BP's annual events are legendary, as we pack the house with about a hundred people, the store serves refreshments, and we sign and sell more copies of the book than anywhere else. I heart our New York area readers, but they can't bring it like our DC ones can.

• Alas, no other promo stop could live up to the DC one. In Philadelphia we were the victim of an overzealous event coordinator who whisked us off the podium after less than an hour, which isn't how we roll. Apparently, she'd double-booked events. Rutgers featured a small audience that inlcuded the Goldman family as ringers both in the audience and behind the podium, but we were joined by the always-entertaining Allen Barra, who is promoting his new book, Yogi Berra: Eternal Yankee. Also, one reader brought us custom-decorated Rice Krispies treats:

• Writing, you say? I've squeezed in the last two installments of the "Outside Help" series at BP on the AL Central and the AL East. Here's what I had to say about the Yankees:
Some shocking stats via ESPN's Free Agent Tracker:
  • Of the $1.16 billion spent on free agent contracts this winter (not including minor league deals), roughly 38 percent of that was spent by the Yankees.
  • The $441 million they committed is more than the next five highest-spending teams (the Dodgers, Braves, Cubs, Mets and Phillies) combined.
  • That $441 million is also more than the bottom 26 teams combined.
Luckily for the Yankees, that money actually bought real talent. Sabathia has the highest PECOTA weighted mean WARP forecast of any pitcher in baseball, while Burnett ranks among the top 25, and third behind his new teammate and Francisco Rodriguez among the winter's hired hands. Teixeira has the highest forecast of any free agent hitter and the 19th-highest forecast among all hitters. While the commitments are long, in Sabathia and Teixeira the Yankees paid for players who are entering their age 28 and age 29 seasons, respectively, a welcome strategy given the general tendency to sign free agents well into their 30s.

Not surprisingly given the expenditures, no team brought in more outside talent than the Yanks did, and none netted more once last year's departures are considered (and yes, I've excluded retired players such as Mike Mussina across the board throughout this series). And while the Yanks have taken on a ton of salary, they shed so many big contracts that their Opening Day payroll should wind up a few million dollars shy of last year's $209 million barring a late-spring trade to cover for Alex Rodriguez's injury. Even given that situation, a sub-optimal playing time arrangement in right field (Xavier Nady over Swisher) and the mothballing of Philip Hughes and Ian Kennedy, PECOTA is extremely enthusiastic about the remade Yankees, forecasting them for an MLB-high 100 wins.
Back soon with more stuff.

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