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.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009


Young Guns, Old Clip

Last week's WWZN Young Guns radio hit, discussing Russ Ortiz's short-lived lead over namesake David in the 2009 home run rankings, the possibility of the Blue Jays remaining factors in the AL East, the sudden power outbursts of Mark Teixeira and Alex Rodriguez, and other fun stuff. The segment was recorded via iPhone while I was out in front of the Jeollado sushi restaurant in the East Village, so apologies if the sound is less than studio quality.

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Saturday, May 23, 2009


Joy in Mudonna-Ville

Greetings from Minneapolis, where I'm spending about a week centered around my wife's cousin Julie's wedding. Our trip kicked off in fine fashion on Friday, as within an hour of arriving at the airport, we were kicking back at a St. Paul Saints game, drinking beer and eating bratwursts. Awww yeah!

The Saints, an independent team in the independent American Association, won behind a couple of long home runs, but I didn't actually pay too close attention to the game, even failing to notice former big-leaguer Kerry Ligtenberg closed the door with the save. In addition to my own beverage and pork consumption, I was busy shelling peanuts and otherwise playing with five-year-old Kate and two-year-old Jackie, the daughters of our hosts, who also had a one-month-old infant son in tow. This was the kids' first baseball game, and while they weren't overly interested in the proceedings, they were thoroughly sugared up and entertained by the between-innings shenanigans, particularly the mascot Mudonna, a bright pink pig who alternately scared and fascinated my new buddy, Jackie, who understandably had trouble figuring out exactly what she was looking at: "Where pink bear go now? Where pink bear go now?"

I'd read about the Saints years ago in Neal Karlen's excellent Slouching Towards Fargo, a book that chronicled life in the independent Northern League during the mid-90s. The Saints, owned even to this day by a group that includes actor Bill Murray as well as baseball's Barnumesque scion, Mike Veeck, featured Darryl Strawberry on his way back to the majors as well as Jack Morris on his way out of baseball, along with a whole bunch of other characters just happy to be playing ball anywhere for a living. Anyway, more than a decade after reading Fargo, I was glad to finally get a chance to attend one of their games, a particularly welcome antidote to Epic Fail Stadium in the Bronx. Tomorrow, I'll pay a visit to the Metrodome (another first) for a Twins-Brewers game, but I'll be hard-pressed to top the fun I had here.

• • •

This week at Baseball Prospectus, I wrote a "Pair Up in Threes" piece about a trio of teams whose overall showings were in marked contrast to the performance of their rotations. Both the Red Sox and Phillies continue to contend despite abysmal 6.00+ ERA showings from their starters, while the Diamondbacks are deep into the second division despite strong showings from their starters even with Brandon Webb sidelined. Here's part of what I wrote about the D-Bags:
What's Happened: After lasting just four innings on Opening Day, Webb was pushed to the Disabled List due to bursitis in his shoulder. He was expected only to miss a few weeks, but since suffering a setback in late April, he's been limited to playing catch and won't be back until sometime in June. While Yusmeiro Petit has pitched poorly in his place (8.03 ERA, -0.2 SNLVAR, .367 SNWP), Haren leads the league in SNLVAR, [Doug] Davis is 11th, and [Max] Scherzer is 26th.

Alas, Webb's absence has been the least of the club's problems; right now this may be the unhappiest team in the majors. Manager Bob Melvin was fired on May 8 with the team a disappointing 12-17, 8½ games out of first. They've gone just 2-6 under replacement A.J. Hinch, whose lack of managerial experience has drawn fire from the media as well as departed pitching coach Bryan Price. Last Friday, upon pulling Davis for a pinch-hitter, the pitcher — who had thrown just 80 pitches but trailed by a run in the seventh — confronted his new skipper in full view of the TV cameras, never a good sign.

The real problem isn't a lack of respect for the manager's authoritah, it's a snake-bitten offense that's scraping together just 3.9 runs per game, which ranks 15th in the league; their .236 EqA is the NL's worst. Three lineup regulars (Chad Tracy, Conor Jackson, and Chris B. Young) are below the Mendoza Line, and Stephen Drew and Eric Byrnes aren't much above it. As well as Haren and Davis have pitched, both rank in the league's bottom 10 in run support, well under three runs per game; Haren is second-to-last at 2.3. Meanwhile, the bullpen's been pretty lousy (12th in the league in WXRL and 13th in Fair Run Average), but most of the damage has been done in lower-leverage situations. Closer Chad Qualls and set-up men Tony Pena and Juan Gutierrez, the only relievers with Leverage scores above 1.00, are all in the black, WXRL-wise, while the mop-and-bucket patrol has sloshed kerosene around during their aisle nine cleanups.

What Will Fix It: Even if Webb returns at full strength, the Diamondbacks have dug themselves a huge hole. The PECOTA-based version of our Playoff Odds Report puts their chances at reaching the postseason at just 9.3 percent, down from 45.0 percent to start the year. The suspension of Manny Ramirez won't do very much to bring the Dodgers back to the pack; in fact, the Diamondbacks have lost three games in the standings since then. If they don't start scoring runs soon, it's going to be a long summer in the Arizona heat.
As for the Hit List, the Dodgers continue to hold onto the top spot, the Brewers are third despite some bad news, and Yankees are 10th. Here's a taste:
[#1 Dodgers] Life Without Manny: Clayton Kershaw no-hits the Marlins for seven innings; he's allowed just six runs and 13 hits and zero homers over his last four starts, and batters are hitting just .205/.313/.333 against him overall. The Dodger rotation has picked up the slack since Manny's suspension via a 2.81 ERA and just three homers in 80 innings despite the presence of both Jeff Weaver and Official Hit List Whipping Boy Eric Milton, two pitchers who survived the fly-ball pitcher's hell of Albuquerque to return to the majors.

[#3 Brewers] Weeks, Months, Year: Amid a seven-game winning streak, the Brewers incur a loss of a different sort, as Rickie Weeks suffers a torn tendon sheath in his left wrist, ending his season at a point when he was hitting .272/.340/.517 while tied for the team high with nine homers. Given that the injury is in the opposite wrist as his 2006 season-ender, this only perpetuates the concern that he'll never be durable enough for full-time duty; he's topped 100 games only twice in five years. For the moment, the Brewers will patch from within via Craig Counsell, Casey McGehee, Hernan Irribaren, and perhaps Alcides Escobar.

[#21 Astros] Ortiz Finally Homers! Russ Ortiz beats Big Papi to the punch by a day with a two-run shot, his first homer since 2003. With a 5.81 ERA and a 21/22 K/BB rate, he ought to consider a career move, as he hit .252/.301/.403 with four homers in 2002-2003, numbers that outdo more than one current Astros lineup regular. On the other side of the coin, Wandy Rodriguez allows his first home run since last August 10, a span of 88 1/3 innings. He's second in the league in ERA and fourth in SNLVAR; the Astros are 7-2 in his starts.

[#23 Marlins] Crouching Tiger, Rotting Fish: Andrew Miller returns from the disabled list and notches his first win in 11 months, but it's the Marlins' only victory in an eight-game span. The Miguel Cabrera/Dontrelle Willis deal hasn't turned out well for the Fish thus far, as Miller's put up a 5.88 ERA in 124 innings, Cameron Maybin's been sent back to Triple-A after a .202/.280/.310 start, and Mike Rabelo, Burke Badenhop, and Eulogio de la Cruz have all been below replacement level as well.
That last entry came out of an on-air conversation with WLQR-Toledo radio host Norm Wamer during my weekly spot, while the Ortiz one was something I made light of during my WWZN-Boston spot on the Young Guns (audio link hopefully forthcoming).

Meanwhile, I've got one more article in the pipeline, an ESPN Insider/BP piece related to Randy Johnson's pursuit of his 300th win that will be held until he finally reaches the milestone. I hope it happens soon — he took a no-decision on Friday night, keeping him at 298 — because I gots to get paid.

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Friday, May 15, 2009



For my money, last year's biggest story in baseball was the way the Tampa Bay Rays' turnaround was triggered by a record-setting improvement in their Defensive Efficiency. Of course, it certainly helped to have a stockpile of young talent, a shrewd GM and an innovative manager, but none of them would have likely gotten such a dramatic reversal so quickly without that defensive improvement -- a development that Baseball Prospectus' PECOTA forecasting system foresaw.

Over the winter a few teams took a page from the Rays' book, one of them being a team that's suddenly surprising people:
Don't look now, but the Rangers are leading the American League West. Coming off four straight sub-.500 seasons, projected for just 70 wins and the #29 spot on the preseason Hit List, they're out of the gate at 19-14 clip, with the fifth-best run differential in the majors. With the A's, Angels and Mariners stumbling and bumbling, the Rangers are starting to look like plausible contenders in a division where 84 wins may be enough. Our PECOTA-based Playoff Odds report estimates they have around a 23 percent shot at the flag, more than double their chances as of Opening Day but still roughly half of the Angels' estimate.

...Though the pitchers have gone backwards in two of the three key categories, they're surviving thanks to the Rangers' defense, which after ranking dead last in Defensive Efficiency in 2008 has improved by 45 points and now leads the AL. The shift of Young to third base to accommodate the arrival of the slick-fielding Andrus — a pair of decisions I criticized in this space, much to the dismay of our Rangerly readers — is bearing fruit.

More than that, it's following the template of one of last year's top story lines, the record-setting defensive turnaround of the Rays, a point that certainly factored into the decision to skip [Elvis] Andrus from Double-A to the majors even at the tender age of 20. In fact, the Rangers were one of three teams who elected to try replicating the Rays' recipe, patching a porous defense with a defensively sound shortstop regardless of his offensive limitations.

...If the Rangers' 45-point DE improvement were to hold, it would rank as the third-best turnaround ever, behind the Rays and the 1980 A's (Billyball comes to Oakland) and ahead of the 1991 Braves, who kicked off a dynasty. That would translate into about 100 runs saved based on Ben Lindbergh's math, and perhaps more, given the inflated value of each hit in the Rangers' offensive environment. In all likelihood, that would probably spell a postseason berth.
As noted in the excerpt, I was critical of the decision to promote Andrus during a season where it didn't look as though the Rangers could win much. But since then, the AL West favorite Angels, who won 100 games last year, took several hits in the pitching department, losing both Ervin Santana and John Lackey for the first month of the season, and suffering the tragic loss of Nick Adenhart. The A's, who were predicted to win the division in BP's preseason projections, have fizzled and already look a bit green around the gills.

I got my first extended look at Andrus on Wednesday night against the Mariners, who led the West until recently. The kid made a couple of really nice plays, including a spin-and-fire move behind second place which the Rangers' announcers called his best one of the year. He also had a couple of hits, including a game-tying RBI triple in the sixth. The kid wasn't expected to hit much (PECOTA .248/.301/.334), but he's shown better contact skills and more gap power than the system gave him credit for, and his speed has helped him take advantage of that. I can see why Rangers fans were excited enough to rush him to the majors, and why they're excited about their team's chances after years of futility. I'm not incredibly optimistic they can pull it off, particularly with the Angels surging while getting Santana and Lackey back this week, but suddenly I've got another team to keep an eye out for on the Extra Innings package.

• • •

Meanwhile, this week's Hit List is still topped by the Dodgers, who've seen Juan Pierre go 12-for-25 with five doubles since you-know-who was suspended. Sampling a few entries of interest:
[#3 Mets] Tossing the Bad Apple: The Mets reel off seven straight wins to take over first place in the NL East, yielding just 20 runs in that span. The streak is part of a larger stretch of nine straight quality starts for the previously beleaguered rotation, one that coincides exactly with Oliver Perez's exile. The offense takes a hit as Carlos Delgado is sidelined by hip woes just as he's heating up (.423/.516/.654 in May), but replacement Fernando Tatis (.328/.385/.517) has been no slouch.

[#5 Brewers] Prince and the New Power Generation: Rickie Weeks homers in three straight games, while Prince Fielder bashes a trio of homers in a three-game sweep of the Marlins, two of them go-ahead shots. Fielder's hitting .341/.472/.659 ths month, one of five Brewers—along with Weeks, Ryan Braun, J.J. Hardy, and Craig Counsell (!)—who are slugging above .600 in May. The Brewers are tied for the league lead in homers, and they're a major league-best 18-6 since their 3-8 start, helping them grab a share of the NL Central lead.

[#12 Tigers] D-Train and E-Jax: Dontrelle Willis returns to the majors in shaky fashion (4.2 8 4 4 2 0), but the real story in the rotation is their three shutouts in a four-game span, including a two-hitter by Justin Verlander and a combined seven-hitter spearheaded by Edwin Jackson. Jackson appears to have finally turned the corner. He's got the rotation's best ERA (2.60), his 3.18 K/BB ratio is more than double his career rate, and he's still getting excellent double play support for such an extreme flyballer.

[#15 Yankees] Alex Rodriguez drills a three-run homer on the first regular-season pitch he sees, but he goes just 3-for-21 amid a stretch that sees Jorge Posada hit the DL and Derek Jeter and Hidkei Matsui both miss time due to nagging injuries. The Yanks need A-Rod to hit like the guy in the catalog, and they need Mark Teixeira (.203/.333/.424) to heat up as well. He's getting his walks and homers (four of the latter in a seven-game span), but his .193 BABIP is the lowest among the league's 105 batting title qualifiers.
Finally, I've been to each of the two new NYC ballparks twice over the past couple of weeks, and I'm quite sure I'm getting the short end of the stick with my current arrangement. CitiField, though it's definitely overplaying the Brooklyn Dodgers angle at the expense of Mets history, and though it has some particularly hideous signage, particularly around their gigantotron video, has an intimacy that lends it an energy which has been sorely lacking at the new Yankee Stadium. Additionally, the refreshment prices are much more reasonable, and the management hasn't embarrassed itself on a daily basis with odious pronouncements from Lonn Trost and Randy Levine about ingenious new ways to beat the peasants back from the playing field or otherwise separate them from their cash.

New name for the park in the Bronx, as noted in the Hit and Run article: Epic Fail Stadium. Use it.

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Tuesday, May 12, 2009


Can't Get No Relief

For today's installment of "Pair Up in Threes," I examine a trio of American League contenders whose bullpens have been extraordinarily awful thus far, the Yankees, the Indians and the Angels. For each team, I ran down their stats and rankings in two key BP metrics, Reliever Expected Wins Added (WXRL) and Fair Run Average (FRA). I also discussed their recent histories coming into the year ("The Setup"), their troubles thus far ("The Fall") and outlined some potential solutions which may or may not be in progress ("The Fix?"). Here's some of what I had to say abuot the Yanks:
The Fall: The Yankees' staff as a whole is allowing an MLB-worst 6.23 runs per game, and while the rotation has had its problems — particularly with Chien-Ming Wang — the bullpen has been even worse. Injuries have been a major problem, as [Brian] Bruney and [Damaso] Marte, expected to be Rivera's top set-up men, are both on the DL, the former with a strained flexor mass, the latter with shoulder tendonitis. Worse, Rivera has been battling arm-strength issues and experiencing discomfort in his surgically repaired shoulder. While his 18/1 K/BB ratio is impeccable, he's yielded four homers in his past six outings, as many as he allowed in 2007 or 2008, and more than he yielded in eight other seasons; last week he surrendered back-to-back shots for the first time in 863 career games.

Indeed, homers have been the staff's downfall; their 2.0 HR/9 rate is dead stinking last in the majors. The new Yankee Stadium, where an MLB-high 3.62 homers per game are flying out of the park, is a particularly poor match for a corps whose holdovers aside from Rivera are decidedly fly ball-oriented:
Pitcher                  IP     WXRL    FRA      GB%
Jonathan Albaladejo 16.0 -0.046 5.62 53.7%
Edwar Ramirez 15.0 0.193 6.22 37.5%
Jose Veras 15.0 -0.209 6.24 34.1%
Phil Coke 13.2 -0.021 4.19 33.3%
Mariano Rivera 12.1 0.652 4.73 41.2%
Brian Bruney 8.0 0.611 1.88 40.0%
Damaso Marte 5.1 -0.099 17.17 35.0%
David Robertson 4.2 -0.044 7.42 36.4%
With their primary trio failing to fire on all cylinders, the less experienced members have been called upon to shoulder a larger workload, and in doing so, they've looked like small-sample flashes in the pan whose 2008 performances were flukes. Veras and Ramirez have combined to walk 21 hitters in 30 innings, and the latter has yielded five homers.

The Fix? Predictably, the bullpen's disarray has renewed calls to move Chamberlain back to the set-up role in which he flourished in 2007 and early 2008, particularly given his early struggles as a starter and the recent return of Phil Hughes. But with Chamberlain heating up — 23/7 K/BB in 18 2/3 innings over his last three starts, as opposed to 11/10 in 16 innings over his first three — and Hughes getting cuffed in two of his three starts, the Yankees need for a Jobaful rotation is clear; he's third on the team in SNLVAR, and tops among the starters in strikeout rate.

That still leaves the team muddling through without Bruney and Marte, neither of whom is likely to be back much before the end of the month, if then. Power arm Mark Melancon debuted a few weeks ago, and he showed good stuff in a couple of outings while failing to find the plate in two others; he was sent back down to Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre to make room for the return of Alex Rodriguez, but he'll likely be back soon. Mexican League refugee Alfredo Aceves, who made two relief appearances and four starts for the 2008 Yanks, has been recalled to fulfill a long-relief role; he could find a home in the later innings if Wang or Hughes or whomever can establish a habit of getting through five innings (those two are 1-for-6 in that category). Would the team consider moving the latter to a relief role assuming Wang returns close to full strength? If not, they may be left to twiddle their thumbs while shuffling through an assortment of Brett Tomkos and hoping the likes of Veras, Ramirez, and Albaladejo can find the strike zone sooner or later.
Seriously, I think I'm going to slap the next pundit who suggests Joba would pitch better in relief, particularly if they cite his win total as evidence.

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The Dodger 100

And now for a welcome break from the steroids hubbub, I've got a couple books which recently landed in my in-box to plug this week. The first, which has actually been sitting on my desk for a few weeks, is Jon Weisman's 100 Things Dodger Fans Should Know & Do Before They Die, a 300-page paperback (Triumph Books, $14.95 list, $10.17 at Amazon) ideal for summer reading. If you've been reading this site or following the baseball blogosphere for any length of time, you know that Jon is the keeper of Dodger Thoughts, the top blog covering the boys in blue, and one of the best baseball blogs around.

He's also somebody I count as a friend, so I won't pretend to offer an objective review here (full disclosure: this site is generously included in his bibliography). Instead I'll note that even for a grizzled Dodger know-it-all such as myself, this book has plenty to offer. Leaning mostly on the key events and personalities (the Know, as opposed to the Do), Jon's selected 100 of the most important in the team's history across their Brooklyn and Los Angeles residencies and offered three or four well-researched pages on each. Not all of the players he profiles are Hall of Famers like Sandy Koufax (#3) and Duke Snider (#28); cult favorites like Pedro Guerrero (#40), Wes Parker (#64) and Manny Mota (#71) get their entries, as does the Fernandomania phenomenon (#7). Not all of the highlights are warm and fuzzy, either — hey, this is Dodger history we're talking, full of reckoning with what it means to wait 'til next year, so the painful endings to the 1980 and 1982 seasons (#42 and #48) are recounted, as is Mickey Owen's dropped third strike from the 1941 World Series (#54) and Al Campanis' disastrous Nightline appearance from 1987 (#39).

If I have a criticism of the book, it's that the Brooklyn side of things gets a bit of short shrift, with very little on longtime mananger Wilbert Robinson ("Uncle Robbie"), Dazzy Vance and Babe Herman. While Zack Wheat (#58) and Burleigh Grimes (#74) get to stretch their legs out, those three larger-than-life personalities — who helped define the Daffy Dodgers of the Twenties and Thirties — are all squashed into one entry, tenement style at #81. They're an essential, colorful part of Dodger history, because their antics, such as the time Herman, Vance and another baserunner all wound up at third base (briefly recounted here), made the team's evolution into National League powerhouse all the more surprising.

That still leaves plenty to cheer about, starting with the authority with which Jon stakes out his top two spots: Jackie Robinson and Vin Scully. By Jon's reckoning, the former still provides the best reason to celebrate the Dodgers and their history, and the latter is the strongest existing link to that history given his 60 years of service for the club. I was particularly struck by the combination of those choices when I sat down to watch the April 15 Dodgers game, the one where young Clayton Kershaw whiffed 13 Giants on the 62nd anniversary of Robinson's breaking of the color barrier. Though the event was noted with considerably less fanfare than on its decennial anniversaries, Scully interwove details from Robinson's debut with his account of the action at hand, providing both historical gravitas — particularly during his usual "this date in history" spot at the top of the sixth inning — with enthusiasm for the moment he was watching. Such a delicious combination, and so well suited to the top two spots of this book.

Here's how Jon starts the Robinson entry:
From beginning to end, we root for greatness.

We root for our team to do well. We root for our team to create and leave lasting memories, from a dazzling defensive play in a spring training game to the final World Series-clinching out. With every pitch in a baseball game, we're seeking a connection to something special, a fastball right to our nervous system.

In a world that can bring frustration on a daily basis, we root as an investment towards bragging rights, which are not as mundane as that expression makes them sound. If our team succeeds, if our guys succeed, that's something we can feel good about today, maybe tomorrow, maybe forever.

The pinnacle of what we can root for is Jackie Robinson.

Robinson is a seminal figure — a great player whose importance transcended his team, transcended his sport, transcended all sports. We don't do myths anymore the way the Greeks did — too much reality confronts us in the modern age. But Robinson's story, born in the 20th century and passed on with emphasis into the 21st, is as legendary as any to come from the sports world.

And Robinson was a Dodger. If you're a Dodgers fan, his fable belongs to you. There's really no greater story in sports to share. For many, particularly in 1947 when he made his major league debut, Robinson was a reason to become a Dodger fan. For those who were born or made Dodgers fans independent of Robinson, he is the reward for years of suffering and the epitome of years of success.
If that's not reason to pick up a copy and dig into the other 99 entries in this book, I don't know what is. Perhaps two entries a day will help the time between now and Manny Ramirez's return pass more quickly.

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Friday, May 08, 2009


Mo' Manny, Mo' A-Rod

Baseball Musings' David Pinto picks up the link from my last post and wonders if teams will stand pat in the face of the Dodgers losing Manny Ramirez for 50 games:
The Diamondbacks fired their manager, so does a change of field leadership improve the team? Do the Giants try to trade for a bat to help their fine pitching staff win with a good ERA? If you think the Dodgers are going to run away with the division, maybe you don’t make moves to try to catch them. With Manny out, however, there’s an opening to catch them by improving your team.
I'm skeptical that this will trigger any big moves unless either of those teams close the gap significantly, because both are relatively budget conscious these days. The Diamondbacks spent the winter bracing for hard economic times, laying off around 30 front office employees and letting expensive free agents such as Adam Dunn, Orlando Hudson and Randy Johnson depart; they then turned around and signed Jon Garland for nearly the same price as the Big Unit. For all of their belt-tightening, their payroll rose by abut $7.3 million over last year; they ranked 20th in Opening Day payroll at $73.5 million.

The notoriously tight-fisted Giants, on the other hand, increased their payroll from $76.6 to $82.6 million (13th) this winter in an effort to break their two-year streak of 90+ losses. They made $37.25 million in salary commitments, the NL West's largest outlay and the eighth-largest in the game, though admittedly that's a rounding error relative to the Yankees' $441 million worth of commitments. Aside from a few untouchable blue-chippers, including giggleworthy pitcher Madison Bumgarner (yes, really) they don't have a lot to deal in a midseason prospects-for-veterans swap.

Both teams probably have some wiggle room to add salary if they're truly contenders, but recently we've seen a shift in the way teams value prospects in general. Even if either one pulls the trigger, the Dodgers have far more resources — prospects as well as mony — and more leeway, as they cut salary from $118.6 million to $100.4 million while still signing making an NL-high $105.9 million in commitments via free agents Hudson, Ramirez, Casey Blake, Rafael Furcal, Randy Wolf et al. Certainly, I don't think you'll see either of their competitors go to the whip early and trade for a CC Sabathia or an Adam Dunn until they make up considerable ground on the Mannyless Dodgers.

• • •

Here's this week's Hit List. That's my fourth article at BP in the last three days, breaking last week's record of four in four. Mixing things up from my usual selection, here are the Yankees as well as a couple of the more interesting entries:
[#13 Braves] You're a Dull Boy, Frenchy: After supposedly finding the religion of plate discipline over the winter, Jeff Francoeur is back to his old ways, drawing just four walks in 118 PA, and getting on base at a .305 OBP clip that's actually seven points below his career rate. "If on-base percentage is so important, then why don't they put it up on the scoreboard?" he muses, indicating that yes, there are questions so dumb they shouldn't be asked.

[#14 Angels] Nap Time At Last: Just three days shy of three full years in the majors, Mike Napoli finally gets a start at DH—three of them, in fact — and responds by going 8-for-11 with 13 total bases. You'd think such a move would have been glaringly obvious by now given the presence of a defensively superior catcher and the absence of Vlad Guerrero, the lone Angel with a higher OPS since Napoli hit Anaheim back in 2006. Alas, old-schooler Mike Scioscia labors under the notion that there are only two positions for a backstop: a-squattin' and a-sittin'. Napoli's hitting .328/.444/.642, just two points of batting average shy of leading the team in all three triple-slash categories.

[#19 Yankees] The Yanks lose five straight and fall to 3-10 within the AL East after defeats by Boston and Tampa Bay, and they lose Jorge Posada to the disabled list due to a hamstring strain along the way. The good news is that Alex Rodriguez will rejoin the lineup on Friday; in his absence, Yankee third basemen have hit .202/.248/.283. The bad news is that he can't do anything about the MLB-worst 6.3 runs per game the pitching staff is allowing.
Also at BP, in addition to my Manny math is my two-part series (National and American Leagues) on which April results are meaningful as far as the playoff races are concerned. From the AL piece:
In the East, history suggests that we ignore Toronto's hot start at our peril; 18-10 teams with three straight seasons above .500 tend to keep the good times rolling. On the other hand, particularly with three teams forecast to win at least 94 games, the PECOTA-based odds suggest a deck still stacked heavily against the Blue Jays, and last week I identified a handful of reasons they might regress. Forecast to have the league's lowest-scoring offense, they're suddenly and improbably the highest-scoring unit, fueled by an infield that's hitting a combined .303/.380/.479, with Aaron Hill (.360/.404/.552) and Marco Scutaro (.262/.400/.458) both particularly over their heads. Their rotation has been decimated by injuries, and it's possible that three starters who helped them post the league's top ERA last year — Dustin McGowan and Shaun Marcum, both rehabbing from off-season arm surgeries, as well as departed free agent A.J. Burnett — won't throw a single pitch for them this year. Through the end of April they had played the league's second-easiest schedule (.474, based on PECOTA-projections), but they'll face the AL's second-hardest (.513) overall. Not helping the Jays is the fact that the indicators suggest that neither the Yankees nor Rays have scuffled enough to rule them out, and both have substantial upgrades waiting in the wings — the former in the form of Alex Rodriguez, the latter via David Price, the game's top pitching prospect.
If you like the ESPN Insider flavor better, you've got your AL and NL versions too.

• • •

Thanks to Manny, A-Rod's latest controversy is old, old news. I don't feel particularly inclined to weigh in to great extent except to note that it seems clear the worm has turned for Selena Roberts, author of the dumpster-diving exposé which has rocked the baseball world with revelations that Rodriguez only tips 15 percent at Hooters. Where her discovery that the slugger tested positive during the supposedly anonymous 2004 survey testing was a legitimate (if rather unsavory) journalistic coup, her latest allegations reek of smear tactics and innuendo, serving to remind the world of her own tarnished past and her execrable writing style.

Before you close your mental drawer on the situation, here are a few must-read links:

• The Kansas City Star's Jason Whitlock reminds readers of Roberts' infamous handling of the Duke lacrosse rape allegations:
She claimed that the players’ unwillingness to confess to or snitch about a rape (that did not happen) was the equivalent of drug dealers and gang members promoting antisnitching campaigns.

When since-disgraced district attorney Mike Nifong whipped up a media posse to rain justice on the drunken, male college students, Roberts jumped on the fastest, most influential horse, using her New York Times column to convict the players and the culture of privilege that created them.

Proven inaccurate, Roberts never wrote a retraction for the columns that contributed to the public lynching of Reade Seligmann, Colin Finnerty and David Evans.
In a follow-up column at Fox Sports, Whitlock continues his attack: "By refusing to acknowledge her mistakes in the Duke case, she creates the impression that her agenda trumps the truth." Ahem.

• Steve Goldman weighs in with an excellent Pinstriped Bible:
I don't trust Roberts' judgment, I don't trust her understanding of baseball, and I don't trust her motives in writing a book about Alex Rodriguez that surely would not exist were it not intended to be a hit piece. If Rodriguez was juicing in high school or kindergarten, it goes to character, not performance, and we have had countless reasons to know that he's not Mother Theresa in the clubhouse or off the field. Neither were Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth, Ted Williams, Mickey Mantle, et al. Cobb's reward was to die friendless, Ruth and Mantle died young, the causes of their cancer probably not unrelated to their youthful carousing, and Williams' own son had him decapitated and stuck in a freezer.

...If Rodriguez used steroids in high school, that tells us a little more about Rodriguez the man but nothing of substance about Rodriguez the ballplayer. If he used HGH as a Yankees, well, HGH seems to help athletes with recovery time and healing, not performance. So does aspirin. Move on. Xavier Nady is having platelets shot into his elbow. The dividing line between these two therapies is entirely arbitrary.

As for Roberts' allegations of Rodriguez tipping pitches as a Ranger, they had best be better sourced than her work on the Duke case. According to, "Roberts said that over the course of a couple years, some people with the Rangers began to detect a pattern whereby Rodriguez would appear to be giving away pitch type and location to hitters, always middle infielders who would then be able to repay him in kind when he was at the plate, with his body movement."

It is extraordinary to think that "some people" would notice this and not alert management as to the practice. Unless there is videotape evidence, or Roberts' sources are willing to come forward and explain why they sat on their knowledge that Rodriguez was damaging his own pitchers, this must be dismissed as the worst kind of hearsay. That Roberts knows relatively little about baseball must be considered here -- her credulity and our skepticism must be of equal proportion.

• Of all people, it's noted blogger/blog-hater Murray Chass who offers the definitive takedown of Roberts:
In general, Roberts makes far too many serious allegations about Rodriguez to hide them behind anonymous quotes. Rodriguez deserves more, but more importantly readers deserve more. There is far too much in this attack book for Roberts to expect readers to take it on faith that her anonymous sources are real and they can be trusted.

The use of anonymous sources has come under increasing criticism from readers of all types of publications. Having used them frequently in my decades as a reporter and columnist, I am aware of the problems they pose. Reporters have to establish their credibility with their use of unidentified sources for readers to accept them.

Roberts and I were once colleagues at The New York Times, and I can’t say she established that credibility. She also didn’t strike me as being a top-flight reporter. As a result, I don’t feel I can trust her book full of anonymous sources. Even if every single A-Rod transgression she reports is accurate, it’s too easy for her to write one former teammate said this and another player said that.

...Roberts belies her understanding of baseball with an observation she makes in trying to offer an example of A-Rod on steroids. Citing the game in August 2002 in which he hit three home runs, she writes that his “performance set off the steroid alarms,” explaining, “In the dog days of the season, when players are wilting, A-Rod had fresh legs and a fresher bat.”

And she quotes an unnamed “Ranger teammate” as saying, “It’s that stuff that makes you say no (bleeping) way.”

No way? Both Roberts and the teammate should consult The Elias Book of Baseball Records,” pages 359 through 362. The list of players who hit three or more home runs shows that 76 players other than Rodriguez hit three or more home runs in August.

Gil Hodges slugged four for the Brooklyn Dodgers Aug. 31, 1950. Hall of Famer Jim Rice hit three in a game twice, both games being played Aug. 29. Other Hall of Famers who hit three in an August game were Ralph Kiner, Larry Doby, Ernie Banks, Roberto Clemente, Frank Robinson and Eddie Murray (twice).

It has never been suggested that any of those players used steroids.
Yeah, ouch.

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Oh, Manny

I didn't have much time for surprise yesterday when the news hit that Manny Ramirez had drawn a 50-game suspension for violating Major League Baseball's drug policy. Before I could untangle my own emotions, catch my breath, dig into this week's Hit List or get the full breadth of the rapidly evolving story, I'd been assigned a piece for Baseball Prospectus and ESPN Insider examining the cost on the field to the Dodgers, one that specifically re-evaluated a "reality check" piece I'd just published for the two sites examining the NL's first month.

Here's a taste:
Just as looked as though the Dodgers might run away with the National League West, they were hit with a bombshell on Thursday, namely Manny Ramirez's 50-game suspension for violating Major League Baseball's drug policy. Leaving the specifics of his violation to the reporters except to note that he won't be eligible to return until July 3, the question is whether his absence will put the division in play. The answer — sorry, Diamondbacks fans and Manny haters — is probably not.

Despite haggling with the Dodgers over his contract into early March and suffering a hamstring strain during his second week of spring training, Ramirez had picked up where he left off last year, hitting .348/.492/.641 and leading the NL in OBP and walks. His performance has helped power the Dodgers to the majors' best record (21-8), run differential (+55) and Equivalent Average (.286), not to mention a modern major league record 13-0 start at home. The team currently leads the Giants by 6.5 game and the Diamondbacks by 8.5 games.

At the outset of the season, our PECOTA projections pegged the Dodgers as a 93-win team with a 47.8 percent chance of winning the division and a 9.4 percent chance of taking the Wild Card, with the Diamondbacks at 88 wins, 34.7 percent, and 10.3 percent, respectively. Updating today's "Reality Check" piece to include Wednesday night's results and their ramifications in the PECOTA-based version of our Playoff Odds report, the Dodgers are projected to win 100 games (a .619 winning percentage), with an 84.1 percent chance of winning the division and a 4.7 percent chance of taking the Wild Card, while Arizona is projected to win 84 games (a .521 winning percentage), with 10.7 and 12.1 percent shots at the division and Wild Card. In other words, the Dodgers have widened the gap considerably on their closest rivals. The Giants, meanwhile, are still projected for just a 78-wn season, with a 3.4 percent shot at the division and 4.6 percent chance at the Wild Card.
After running through the Marginal Lineup Value Rate-based cost in runs of the Dodgers' three in-house candidates to replace him — Juan Pierre, rookie Xavier Paul, and third baseman Blake DeWitt, who would force Casey Blake to the outfield — I suggested another means of calculation:
As an alternative way to gauge the impact of Ramirez's absence, suppose we segment the Dodgers' season into three unequal parts, namely the 29 games they've already played, the 50 games they'll be without Ramirez, and the 83 games they'll have left once he returns. For the first segment we pencil in the team's actual scoring rates to date, and for the latter two segments, we use the team's PECOTA-projected scoring rates, applying the worst-case "Manny Hit" (-0.568 runs per game) for the course of his suspension:
Segment     RS     RA
First 29 5.55 3.66 Actual
Next 50 4.49 4.39 PECOTA minus 0.568 r/g offense
Final 83 5.06 4.39 PECOTA
Overall 4.98 4.26
Using Pythagenpat, that's a .573 winning percentage and a 93-win pace, or right where we pegged the Dodgers at the outset of the year. While this math is effectively saying that the cost of losing Ramirez may be enough to undo the extra advantage they've gained with their quick bolt from the gate, that still leaves the Diamondbacks having to find about 10 wins to overtake the Dodgers.

The bottom line is that Ramirez's absence likely won't cost the boys in blue the NL West flag. It could tighten the race, but the only real certainty is that it will be less colorful.
Before the day ended, I wound up doing radio hits for ESPN's Austin affiliate as well as my regular WWZN Boston spot, and this morning, like clockwork, I'm making the rounds on the Fox News Radio network. Catch me yakking with your local drive time host:

WJNO West Palm Beach, FL
0710AM ET

WSYR Syracuse, NY
0735AM ET

WTVN Columbus, OH
0742AM ET

WGIR Manchester, NH
0750AM ET

KTRH Houston, TX
0805AM ET

WOAI San Antonio, TX
0840AM ET

KCOL Fort Collins, CO
0935AM ET

KOGO San Diego, CA
1007AM ET

Back later with more.

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Friday, May 01, 2009


Let's Go Streaking!

I'm riding a hitting streak — four straight days of publishing at Baseball Prospectus, a first for me:

• Tuesday's Hit and Run explored April home run rates and found they were nothing remarkable within the context of the past decade and a half:
Excluding the strike-affected 1994-1995 years, the 2009 season ranks seventh out of 14 seasons no matter which rate you use. Within that context, it's a run-of-the mill post-strike season. What's throwing observers is that 2008 featured the lowest home run rate of that period, and 2007 the second-lowest. The 7.7 percent increase over the previous year, were it to hold, would be the largest climb since 1998-1999 (9.3 percent), just edging out the 2005-2006 increase (7.4 percent).

Of course, we're still dealing with a relatively small sample size here—10.6 percent of the schedule, to be exact—as we haven't even finished the April schedule in a season where Opening Day arrived late because of the World Baseball Classic. The question is whether a change observed in the cruelest month will continue to manifest itself over the course of the year. All signs point to yes:
Year    April   Change   Season   Change
1996 1.150 n/a 1.094 n/a
1997 0.944 -17.9% 1.024 -6.4%
1998 0.976 3.4% 1.041 1.7%
1999 1.143 17.1% 1.138 9.3%
2000 1.281 12.1% 1.172 3.0%
2001 1.168 -8.8% 1.124 -4.1%
2002 0.953 -18.4% 1.043 -7.2%
2003 1.047 9.9% 1.071 2.7%
2004 1.087 3.8% 1.123 4.9%
2005 0.947 -12.9% 1.032 -8.1%
2006 1.154 21.9% 1.109 7.5%
2007 0.920 -20.3% 1.020 -8.0%
2008 0.896 -2.6% 1.005 -1.5%
2009 1.082 20.8% 1.082 7.7%
Since the post-strike 1995 season didn't start until April 25, we're confined to using 1996 as a cutoff, but the effect is clear: the small samples of April (and March) games can produce swings on the order of 20 percent, and while the magnitudes of such year-to-year changes aren't sustained over the course of the season, without fail during this era, an increase or decrease in April home runs portends an annual change in the same direction. It's a nearly bulletproof assertion to say that we'll see more home runs hit in 2009 than 2008.
As to why, what's interesting is that in the absence of any contemporary steroid scandals (A-Rod is sooo 2003), it's ballparks and balls that are being discussed as the mechanism, which shouldn't surprise anyone who read the chapter I wrote for Will Carroll's The Juice or my follow-up.

• Wednesday's work, which was featured in abbreviated form at ESPN as well as at greater length on BP, examined the positional concentration of young talent. While we don't have the equivalent of the shortstop trinity, it's a heady time for young catchers and center fielders.

• Thursday's Hit and Run introduced what I'm planning to make a recurring feature, an analysis of a trio of teams called "Pair Up in Threes." Thanks to Nick Stone for offering the Yogi-ism as a title after my initial suggestion was rebuffed. This time around, I looked at the three teams playing the furthest over their heads relative to our preseason PECOTA projections - the Pirates, Blue Jays and Cardinals. Here's the Bucs:
Record: 11-9
Current Hit List Factor: .549
Projection: .400
Difference: +.149

Why They're Flying High: The Pirates are allowing the league's fewest runs per game (3.70) after finishing dead last in that category last year, and new pitching coach Joe Kerrigan is receiving a good deal of the credit. Where Paul Maholm was the only Bucs starter to finish the season with an ERA below 4.80 last year—a figure that essentially matches that unit's projection—four of the Pirates' five starters are below that mark this year, led by Zach Duke (2.43). Kerrigan's use of video led Duke to review the form he exhibited in his stellar 2005 rookie campaign, prompting a tweak in his delivery, and the coach's knack for preparation and use of statistics have helped the young hurlers improve their situational pitching. Where they were among the worst in the league in batting average allowed after getting ahead 0-1 (.251 AVG, T-15th) or 0-2 (.194, T-14th) last year, they're now among the best (.214, 3rd on the former; .138, tied for first on the latter).

Why That May Not Last: The Pirates lead the majors with a .738 Defensive Efficiency after finishing 28th at .675 last year. That 63-point improvement is not only the largest jump of any team, it would top the 2008 Rays' record-setting turnaround of 54 points. But where the Rays notably upgraded the left side of their infield via Jason Bartlett and Evan Longoria while shifting B.J. Upton and Akinori Iwamura to positions for which they were better suited, the 2009 Pirates are returning three-quarters of their regular infield, with Andy LaRoche swapping out for Jose Bautista at the hot corner. The outfield has seen some shuffling, but neither Eric Hinkse nor Craig Monroe, the two new faces in the mix, are known for their work with the leather.

Additionally, the staff's strikeout rate (5.4 per nine) is the worst in the league, with Maholm and Ross Ohlendorf whiffing less than four per nine, and Ian Snell's staff-leading 6.1 still lagging a full K behind the league average. Their strikeout-to-walk ratio (1.29) is also last, and ERA indicators such as their 4.76 FIP and 5.52 QERA suggest that when a correction arrives, it won't be pretty.

Glimmer of Hope: Perhaps because of Kerrigan's help, the pitchers are serving up fewer meatballs than before; the staff's Line Drive rate has fallen from 19.2 percent to 16.7, the fifth-largest drop in the majors. Whether you're using the simple LD% +.12 to estimate batting average on balls in play, or Brian Cartwright's more advanced .15*FB%+.24*GB%+.73*LD%, both formulas herald BABIP drops of more than 20 points, so it's possible that some of the early-season improvement in that department is real enough to stick.
The topic and format will change every week, perhaps being based on a trend, a problem or a bit of history as opposed to a statistical ranking, and it should increase the frequency with which I publish there given that I don't have to grind my gears to come up with a whole new topic every time.

• Today's Hit List, again topped by the Dodgers:
Nine-O? It's only Seven-O: Roughed up on a road trip, the Dodgers return to, uh, Dodgertown 90090 to complete their first undefeated April at home (7-0) since 1947. Chad Billingsley ranks in the league's top 10 in ERA, strikeout rate, fewest hits per nine and SNLVAR after reeling off his fifth straight quality start but the rest of the rotation is looking rather rickety. The team has otherwise gotten just four quality starts out of 18, three of them from Randy Wolf, and Clayton Kershaw's been bombed (two starts, nine innings, 15 runs) since his 13-strikeout performance.
Back in a bit with the latest on you-know-who. With the day-long lag between posting and actually publishing (gee, thanks, Blogger), I've lost my appetite to go into much detail on the Alex Rodriguez situation - most of what I have to say about it (or really, about Selena Roberts' muckracking and spotty credibility) has already been better said by Craig Calcaterra at ShysterBall -- it's a must-read.

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