The Futility Infielder

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

Monday, August 31, 2009


The Mad MVP Scientist

This past week, I toiled in my laboratory attempting to build an MVP predictor (ESPN Insider part 1 / part 2) based upon past results, one that might lend some insight into who would win this year.
As the recent scrum between supporters of the candidacies of Joe Mauer and Mark Teixeira reminds us, nearly every Most Valuable Player award is capable of producing controversy. Not only do the Baseball Writers Association of America voters rarely elect the player who's worth the most wins to his team via some objective formula, they appear to shift the standards from year to year, instead constructing narratives to fit whatever loosely-gathered facts are at hand. Particularly in recent years, defensive value is often minimized or entirely ignored in favor of heavy hitters with big Triple Crown stats, almost invariably from successful teams.

The question is whether the voters' behavior can be predicted. Towards that end, I was tasked with building an MVP predictor in the spirit of a system such as Bill James' Hall of Fame Monitor, one that awards points for various levels of achievement in an attempt to identify who will win, as opposed to who should win. My initial bursts of enthusiasm for the assignment were soon followed by endless hours of cowering in the fetal position before a massive spreadsheet, but in the end I emerged with a system — Jaffe's Ugly MVP Predictor (JUMP) — which correctly identified 14 of the 28 winners during the Wild Card era (1995 onward), and put 27 of those winners among the league's top three in its point totals.

I limited the scope of the system to that post-strike timeframe for three main reasons: none of the 28 winners were pitchers, only one (Alex Rodriguez in 2003) played for a team that finished below .500, and 22 of them played on teams that qualified for the expanded postseason — extremely strong tendencies that could help separate seemingly equal candidates. Instead of focusing on round-numbered benchmarks like James did (a .300 batting average, 100 RBI), I chose to dispense with actual stat totals and rates and focus on league rankings among batting title qualifiers (3.1 plate appearances per game) in 12 key offensive categories...
So anyway, I built a point system which rewarded top 10 placement in 12 categories (a few of which — OBP and hits, among others — turned out to be insignificant in predicting voter behavior), added a very strong team success component which could be worth more than two or three category leads, and then gerrymandered the hell out of the thing to increase the number of successful hits and top threes, the latter a concession to the fact that at some point subjective elements take over for a number of voters. My maneuvers included adding positional bonuses for middle infielders and a penalty for being primarily a DH, a penalty for playing for the Rockies, fractional weighting for a couple of categories — moves which through endless, tedious trial and error increased the system's accuracy bit by bit.

Here's how the actual award winners fared in JUMP, along with the players it flagged as the likely winners in years where they differed from the voting:
Year   AL Winner          Rank    System Winner
1995 Mo Vaughn 3 Albert Belle
1996 Juan Gonzalez 2 Albert Belle
1997 Ken Griffey 1
1998 Juan Gonzalez 1
1999 Ivan Rodriguez 10 Manny Ramirez
2000 Jason Giambi 1
2001 Ichiro Suzuki 2 Bret Boone
2002 Miguel Tejada 2 Alfonso Soriano
2003 Alex Rodriguez 1
2004 Vladimir Guerrero 1
2005 Alex Rodriguez 1
2006 Justin Morneau 3 Derek Jeter
2007 Alex Rodriguez 1
2008 Dustin Pedroia 1

Year NL Winner Rank System Winner

1995 Barry Larkin 3 Dante Bichette
1996 Ken Caminiti 1
1997 Larry Walker 2 Jeff Bagwell
1998 Sammy Sosa 1
1999 Chipper Jones 1
2000 Jeff Kent 3 Barry Bonds
2001 Barry Bonds 3 Sammy Sosa
2002 Barry Bonds 1
2003 Barry Bonds 1
2004 Barry Bonds 3 Albert Pujols
2005 Albert Pujols 1
2006 Ryan Howard 2 Albert Pujols
2007 Jimmy Rollins 3 Matt Holliday
2008 Albert Pujols 2 Ryan Howard
Ivan Rodriguez's 1999 victory — which still chafes my ass a decade on, because Derek Jeter had a monster year (349/.438/.552 with 24 homers, 134 runs and 102 RBI, all career highs) - is the system's big outlier, not to mention the only catcher who won during this era. That bodes poorly for Mauer, who as it is doesn't rank in the top 10 in any counting stat category and plays for a team unlikely to make the playoffs; he ranked just 28th when I ran the numbers on Sunday, and with his team's win to get right back to .500, that only pushes him to 15th. Mind you, this isn't a prediction that Mauer would finish 15th in the voting, or that he deserves to; as Mae West famously said, "Goodness has nothing to do with it." Basically what JUMP is saying is that history tells us that unless Mauer scores in the league's top three, he's got no chance of actually winning the award. Meanwhile, "Golden Boy" Teixeira leads the AL rankings thanks to running first in RBI, second in homers, and sixth in slugging while playing for a playoff bound team.

In all, it was a fun and satisfying project. I've got a few ideas that might increase its accuracy a hair, and I'll revisit the topic if they turn out to be worthwhile.

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Back in the Sausage Factory

As is my custom, every summer I take BP reader inside the sausage factory that is the Hit List. Usually it's done during the All-Star week, but for some reason I waited with this year's model:
It happens every week: a reader sees his favorite team trailing one of its division rivals in the Hit List rankings despite leading in the actual division race and fires off a snarky email or comment questioning the validity of the list, often while attempting to divine the current location of my head, and usually while making reference to last year's division race or postseason results. Well into my fifth season of writing the Hit List, I'm far more amused by such occurrences than I am offended, but the weekly give and take serves as a reminder for the occasional need to explain the list's workings in greater detail. As such, I annually set aside a column called the Hit List Remix to walk readers through the process.

First, a quick refresher course on the Hit List's basics. It's BP's version of the power rankings, created by me back in 2005 and based upon an objective formula which averages a team's actual, first-, second- and third-order winning percentages via the Adjusted Standings. To go into a bit more detail:

• First-order winning percentage is computed (via Pythagenpat, Pythagoras' slightly more sophisticated sibling) using actual runs scored and allowed.

• Second-order winning percentage uses equivalent runs scored and allowed, based on run elements (hits, walks, total bases, stolen bases, etc.) and the scoring environment (park and league adjustments).

• Third-order winning percentage adjusts for the quality of the opponent's hitting and pitching via opposing hitter EqA (OppHEqA) and opposing pitcher EqA (OppPEqA), both of which Clay Davenport recently added to the Adjusted Standings report for those of you curious enough to care.

With the exception of an injection of preseason PECOTA projections during the season's first month, those numbers are all that go into the rankings, which are averaged into what I've called the Hit List Factor (HLF). There are no subjective choices to be made, no additional tweaking to favor the A's or hurt the Phillies or fit into any of the other 28 conspiracy theories our readers might think of offering. No recent hot or cold streaks or head-to-head records are accounted for, either, despite the frustration of readers wondering why their team hasn't vaulted to the top thanks to a 5-2 week against their division rivals. It's all about runs, actual ones and projected ones, because run scoring and run prevention give us the best indication of a team's strength going forward. Using all four percentages is a way for correcting for teams that over- or underperform relative to the various areas examined.
After running through the basics, I took a look at the relative strength of each division and dug deeper into the nuts and bolts of a few races where a team's ranking outdid their division standing such as the Rays being ahead of the Red Sox on the Hit List but behind them in the AL East. The article is free, so take a look.

The Hit List itself was a freebie as well. Once again, the Dodgers and Yankees were 1-2:
[#1 Dodgers] Knuckling Down: An extra-inning loss to the Rockies shaves the Dodgers' division lead to two games, but they rebound to win the series behind a solid debut by Vicente Padilla, recently released by the Rangers. The Dodgers are getting good results from the pitchers they've pulled off the scrapheap; knuckleballer Charlie Haeger combines to shut out the Cubs earlier in the week. For all of their recent rotation woes, they're second in the league in SNLVAR, and while the team is just 14-17 since July 25, they've outscored opponents by 18 runs in that span.

[#2 Yankees] Godzilla and Friends: Hideki Matsui's pair of two-homer games help the Yankees stave off the Red Sox by taking two out of three in Fenway; he drives in seven amid a 20-run deluge in the opener. Matsui's' 23 homers rank second to Mark Teixeira's 31, and with Robinson Cano contributing a pair of shots (and reaching a new career high), the team now has six players with at least 20 blasts, the third time in franchise history (1961, 2004) they've reached that plateau. Jorge Posada (17) and Derek Jeter (16) could help them surpass the 1996 Orioles, 2000 Blue Jays and 2005 Rangers, who had seven reach that mark.

[#22 Mets] Escape From New York: Just two innings into his comeback from Tommy John surgery, Billy Wagner gets traded to the Red Sox for a pair of PTBNLs, making him lucky enough to avoid the soaring body count, not to mention Omar Minaya's continued reign of error. The Mets lose both Johan Santana and Oliver Perez to season-ending surgery, the former due to bone chips in his elbow which have contributed to a 4.02 ERA and a 5.4 K/9 over his last 15 starts, the latter to patellar tendon tendinosis which turned his season into a 6.82 ERA, 7.9 BB/9 nightmare. Jeff Francouer could join the party as well due to a torn thumb ligament; his .305/.331/.500 line since being acquired includes just three unintentional walks in 175 PA.
Tough to believe the nightmare that is this year's Mets. Can't recall a more pungent combination of insult and injury.

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Always with the Catching

Last week's Boston hit, talking about the BP Playoff Odds, the "Secret Sauce," Billy Wagner, the AL Wild Card race, and of course the Red Sox catching situation. Always with the catching...

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Friday, August 28, 2009


Give Me Strength... of Schedule

Lots of links to catch up with, as it was a four-article week for me at Baseball Prospectus, so I'll break it into two posts. First up, I revisited the strength of schedule methodology I used a couple times earlier this year for a two-part look at the contenders' remaining schedules, using the Hit List Factor — the average of each team's actual record and various Pythagorean-based records from our Adjusted Standings report — which I call upon every week for the BP power rankings (more on that next post).

For each team, I computed opponents' strength of schedule, both for the games played through August 24 and for the balance of the schedule beyond that:
Instead of plugging in the Hit List Factor uniformly, we've again applied historically-derived adjustments to account for the home team winning 55 percent of the time, and for the AL winning 58 percent of interleague games. Using the log5 method, this boils down to a 25-point (.025) bonus or tax applied based on whether the opponent is at home or on the road, and a 40-point (.040) one applied for interleague play. To apply some revisionist history to our Big Apple example—indeed, ongoing strength-of-schedule calculations are the definition of revisionist history—when the Yankees (.604) played the Mets (.460) at Yankee Stadium, the latter's adjusted winning percentage was recorded as .460 - .025 - .040 = .395. When they play at Citi Field, it was recorded as .460 + .025 - .040 = .445. From the Mets' point of view, the Yankees were a .669 team (.604 + .025 + .040) in the Bronx and a .619 (.604 - .025 + .040) team in Queens.
Both leagues have eight teams apiece with nominal chances at reaching the postseason. Here's how the AL contenders stack up (BP/ESPN Insider), along with their chances of reaching the postseason from our Playoff Odds report (through Wednesday):
            Leftover Previous  Overall   Playoff
Team Schedule Schedule Schedule Odds
Orioles .542 .516 .521
Blue Jays .532 .508 .513
Royals .521 .497 .503
White Sox .517 .484 .491 13.6%
Rays .517 .498 .502 24.6%
Athletics .510 .517 .515
Rangers .509 .496 .499 34.7%
Mariners .507 .503 .504
Yankees .503 .501 .502 98.7%
Angels .501 .503 .502 79.5%
Red Sox .501 .507 .506 59.2%
Tigers .496 .491 .492 64.1%
Indians .485 .498 .495
Twins .480 .495 .492 22.1%
In the AL, the next five weeks feature the contenders playing each other about half the time; the White Sox play 23 of their remaining 35 games against other contenders, including the one they played against the Yankees tonight. For the Yanks, it's 18 out of 35, including nine of their final 12. The Twins, who have the easiest schedule remaining, play just 16 out of their final 35 against contenders — but they've also got Carl Pavano. Push.

Turning to the NL (BP/ESPN):
            Leftover Previous  Overall   Playoff
Team Schedule Schedule Schedule Odds
Nationals .525 .504 .509
Padres .520 .514 .515
D'backs .515 .503 .506
Mets .508 .509 .509
Brewers .506 .489 .493
Giants .505 .501 .502 12.2%
Astros .499 .493 .494
Reds .496 .493 .493
Pirates .491 .494 .493
Marlins .485 .508 .503 8.8%
Rockies .483 .502 .497 75.7%
Braves .479 .502 .497 9.0%
Phillies .477 .500 .495 93.6%
Cardinals .471 .481 .479 97.3%
Dodgers .467 .505 .496 98.7%
Cubs .460 .494 .487 4.5%
Despite having eight contenders, the Senior Circuit has a lot more stratification, with three teams nearly locks for the playoffs and the Rockies heavily favored for the Wild Card (though as I write this, the Giants' Tim Lincecum is shutting out Colorado while the Rockies' Ubaldo Jimenez yielded a solo homer to Pablo Sandoval). Not only that, but most of the contenders will only play about a third of their remaining games against each other. From that group, the Giants have the toughest schedule by 20 points, and they play 18 out of 34 against contenders, while the Dodgers play just nine.

In all, it definitely looks as though the NL will see a lot of September scoreboard watching interspersed with a handful of meaningful series, while the AL will see a lot more head-to-head action with playoff implications.

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Wednesday, August 26, 2009


More About Bullpens

Hot on the heels of this week's New York magazine appearance discussing the Baseball Prospectus "Secret Sauce," I'm quoted in this week's Philadelphia CityPaper regarding the Phillies' bullpen:
Last October, the Phillies weren't the only World Series competitor with the best bullpen in their league — the Rays' pen paced the AL.

That's not a coincidence.

In today's game, filthy with one-out specialists, one-inning closers and six-inning aces, bullpens matter. Jay Jaffe, one of the authors of Baseball Prospectus, explains that not only do good bullpens improve teams beyond the numbers (he equates a good bullpen to clutch hitting) but they matter more in the post season. "There is," he says, "a significant correlation between having an elite closer and having postseason success." It makes sense. Throughout the regular season last year, Lidge pitched about an inning every three games. In the playoffs, that jumped to two out of three. Pitching like he did in 2008, that gave the Phils a huge lift. Pitching like he has in 2009 would drag them down.
Back in April, I spoke to the article's author, James Beale, about the Phillies' chances of repeating, particularly as it pertained to the pitching staff:
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."
Ahem. Lidge has blown nine saves in 34 attempts and is carrying a 7.33 ERA while ranking as the worst reliever in baseball.


Monday, August 24, 2009


The Secret's in the Sauce

I'm pleased to announce my debut in this week's issue of New York Magazine, with an article about the Baseball Prospectus "Secret Sauce" metric, first introduced by Nate Silver and Dayn Perry in Baseball Between the Numbers in 2006 and discussed at length here. With Nate having moved onto politics, the NY Mag editors were looking for one of his BP colleagues to discuss how the Sauce rankings pertain to this year's Yankees. Here's a taste of the piece, which is part of their August 31 Fall Preview issue and also available on their website:
Silver and co-researcher Dayn Perry tested dozens of variables using over 30 years of data to see which best corresponded with winning playoff games. They found that age and postseason experience had no effect on a team’s chances; surprisingly, they also found no significant correlation between any measure of team offense (including bunting and stealing) and postseason success. What they did find important were three measures of pitching and defense, which they called the "Secret Sauce":

A power pitching staff, as measured by normalized strikeout rate, which adjusts a team’s strikeouts per nine innings to account for differing playing environments. (For example, National League teams have higher strikeout rates than American League teams because weak-hitting pitchers bat in the NL.)

A good closer, measured by Reliever Win Expectancy Added, which tracks the increments by which a pitcher changes his team’s chances of winning. Performances in close games or scoring situations count more than those in blowouts or with the bases empty.

A good defense, as measured by Fielding Runs Above Average, a stat that reflects the number of balls in play that a team’s fielders turn into outs. Traditionally, defenses are judged by the number of errors they make, but the spread between the best and worst teams in that regard amounts to only around 40 errors per year. The spread between the best and worst teams at making plays that turn potential hits into outs is more like 275 a year, which has a greater impact on the number of runs a team allows.

These findings make some sense given the postseason’s structure. More frequent off-days and the threat of elimination compel managers to "shorten" their pitching staffs, using their best starters and relievers almost exclusively. You can’t "shorten" a lineup, though, and the maxim "good pitching beats good hitting" is supported by the numbers; in Silver and Perry’s studies, great pitching teams beat great hitting teams a disproportionate number of times. Meanwhile, the improved pitching thanks to shorter staffs lowers postseason scoring rates by about 10 percent, magnifying the importance of every defensive play.
As it turns out, the Yankees rank first at the moment thanks to their staff's high strikeout rate, an above-average defense, and the continued excellence of Mariano Rivera. Updating the rankings, because the ones published are a few days old:
Rk  TEAM     FRAA  Rk  EqSO9 Rk  WXRL  Rk   SCORE
1 Yankees 33 (3) 6.9 (6) 5.1 (1) 10
2 Dodgers 55 (1) 6.3 (12) 3.9 (6) 19
3 Giants 46 (2) 7.2 (1) 2.0 (20) 23
4 Tigers 20 (6) 6.4 (10) 3.6 (8) 24
5 Red Sox -14 (21) 7.0 (3) 4.7 (2) 26
As you'd expect from anything on a word count, a fair bit of what I had to say in the piece wound up on the cutting room floor, and some of the edges got more rounded off than I might have preferred in a more expansive context. Perhaps the most interesting leftover was this one, showing how the Yankees have ranked over the years:
Year   MLB AL   Result
2009 1 1
2008 10 7
2007 10 5 Lost Division Series
2006 6 3 Lost Division Series
2005 14 7 Lost Division Series
2004 20 9 Lost League Championship Series
2003 12 5 Lost World Series
2002 14 5 Lost Division Series
2001 5 1 Lost World Series
2000 5 3 Won World Series
1999 4 3 Won World Series
1998 3 2 Won World Series
1997 2 1 Lost Division Series
1996 2 1 Won World Series
In the six years where the Yankees ranked among the majors' top five teams, they won the pennant five times and the World Series four times, claiming a total of 14 playoff series. In the seven years they finished outside the majors' top five, they won the pennant once, and only won a total of three playoff series. Rather telling, if you ask me.

Anyway, it was exciting to be asked to write the piece, and I hope it's not the last time I wind up in the glossy pages of the magazine.

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Sunday, August 23, 2009


Why Does Jim Rice Hate America?

I'm not somebody who believes ballplayers either past or present should be held up as role models, but Derek Jeter has long stood as one of the few exceptions in that category. He plays hard, he stays out of trouble, he handles himself with class at all times, and never embarrasses himself or the game. For Jim Rice to characterize Jeter as somebody focused on individual goals and big contracts, as he did the other day in front of a bored audience of Little League World Series participants, qualifies as one of the most ill-informed statements to come out of an ex-jock's mouth all year — which is saying something. The completion of Rice's tedious march to the Hall of Fame — as the most horseshit selection the writers have made in a long, long time — doesn't qualify him to start bashing players of the current generation. At least not without providing an accompanying visual of an incontinent old man yelling at the teenagers doing donuts on his lawn.

The YES Network broadcast team had fun bashing Rice during Friday night's Yankees-Red Sox blowout. Smooth Ken Singleton, whose nature in the booth always seems to be an extension of the joie de vivre of a guy coming off a 2-for-4 night, took serious umbrage at Rice's statements as both a contemporary of Rice and observer of the bulk of Jeter's career. Michael Kay spoke of an old Red Sox yearbook in which Rice was quoted as saying that his favorite thing about playing in the majors was the 1st and 15th days of the month, when he got his paycheck. Awkward.

Rice, never known for his charm with the press, has claimed he was misquoted, but even if he didn't mean to tar Jeter with the same brush he used on Alex Rodriguez and Manny Ramirez, his comments about players in his day being either somehow morally superior or simply better than those of today despite improvements in training and nutrition doesn't ring true. Put a sock in it, dude.

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Friday, August 21, 2009


Friday's Child (Part 2)

One of my favorite musicians is the late, great pop genius Lee Hazlewood. As a singer he brought a wry sense of humor, world-weary view and distinctive baritone to both originals and covers. As a writer, he wrote "These Boots Are Made For Walking" and other hits which turned Nancy Sinatra into a superstar. As a producer, he was genuinely groundbreaking, the man who put the reverb Duane Eddy's guitar and impressed a young Phil Spector with his proto-Wall of Sound.

Though I already owned a handful of his reissues, a couple years ago I tracked down a bunch of his out-of-print albums via the Internet, and I now have about 24 hours worth of his music stuffed into my iTunes. For whatever reason, Hazlewood's whacked-out combination of pop, country, lounge and psychedelia has somehow become one of my soundtracks of choice when I'm under the gun, downright soothing yet delightfully weird. When I get on an airplane or a train, I calm my travel anxieties with his gentle, gorgeous 1970 album Cowboy in Sweden. When I'm stressing out while facing a deadline, I always seem to start my playlist with his 1966 album Friday's Child:

Recently the latter was given a lush re-release on the limited-edition Rhino Handmade label as part of three-albums-and-change set called Strung Out on Something New. Worth seeking out if you're hip to his sound, though probably not for novices. Anyway, that's where the title of this post came from, though it's got historical antecedents as well.

Onto the leftovers from my last post...

• On Wednesday I did a chat at Baseball Prospectus. Here's a taste:
dianagramr (Cubehenge): Good afternoon Jay ... thanks for the chat. Has the cloud of PEDs tarnished or thrown into the question the relevance of election to the HOF? (and yes, I know the exclusion of African-Americans prior to 1947 tarnished the HOF already) Jeter is a HOFer, yes? A-Rod, in the wake of his "confession"? Damon?

JJ: Hi Diana. I think the question of PEDs and the Hall of Fame is an open one that will take at least a decade to tell us anything even remotely conclusive. As hard as it may be to envision the players outed as steroid users via one means or another actually getting in, I have a much harder time envisioning the Hall's relevance without guys like Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Alex Rodriguez and Manny Ramirez.

As for Jeter, he's a lock; this year puts him over the line as far as JAWS is concerned, and he's got the kind of resume writers will love. Damon's going to have to get somewhere on his push for 3,000 hits to have much traction; he's got just two All-Star appearances and scores well below average on the Hall of Fame Monitor and HOF Standards metrics. A-Rod will get there eventually, I think, particularly if he keeps to this new STFU PR strategy.

jromero (seattle): Hi, Jay. I am not sure what you may have written in the past regarding Pete Rose's HOF eligibility, but can you briefly share your take on a.) his worthiness as a player; and b.) your opinion as to whether he should be allowed in (assuming his stats stack up). Thanks!

JJ: Absolutely worthy as a player even if he did overstay his welcome by a few years. His JAWS (106.7/56.2/81.5) is above average at any position in all three categories.

As to whether he should be allowed, he knowingly broke the cardinal rule that's posted in every clubhouse: DO NOT GAMBLE ON BASEBALL. He denied it for years, and when he finally fessed up, it was in the service of making a buck. I haven't seen anything out of him to suggest real remorse or reparations to the game, so really, I see absolutely no compelling reason to reinstate him.

Nick Stone (New York City): Jay, assuming you think that the AL East crown is probably settled, how do you see the wild card battle playing out? Will it be just between Boston and Texas? What are the keys to watch for, outside of Wakefield's return?

JJ: Hello, Nick! At this point in the season I'm having a hard time taking the Rays seriously as Wild Card contenders given their inconsistency on both sides of the ball, so I do think it will come down to the Rangers and Red Sox. Earlier this year I'd have said it would be difficult to imagine the Sox struggling this much for this long given their roster, and that it would be even tougher to envision the Rangers maintaining their hot start given their pitch-to-contact ways. The Sox have had a lot of injuries, not only among the players they knew were health risks to begin but also to the players representing the first line of defense against them, and while I like the deadline moves they've made, particularly Victor Martinez, right now they're a mess. The Rangers have had injury problems as well, and done a very nice job augmenting their team in-season by calling up Derek Holland and Neftali Feliz, and as minor as it is, I like their acquisition of Pudge for the stretch.

I can envision this race coming down to whose young pitching holds up best under pressure -- Buccholz or Holland/Feliz. It's bigger than that, of course, but that's what I'll be watching most closely.

GregLowder (DC): Jay, I think it's impossible to use a specific number to measure HOF worthiness...3000 hits, 500 homers, 300 wins. You can pull a "Curtis Martin" and be effective for several years just due to good health and luck. I think you have to be great for a short period of time, in baseball I put that at 6-8 years, or very good for a long period of time, 12+ years. Do you agree?

JJ: Among actual voters, by which I mean the BBWAA ones, not the VC ones, career length is a much bigger factor than you give it credit for being. With a few exceptions (Rice, Sutter, Brock, Tony Perez) guys who get elected by the writers generally have had good to great peaks AND very good long careers.
• My Toledo radio hit, which discussed the Tigers' acquisition of Aubrey Huff, the Magglio Ordoñez fiasco, waiver deals in general, and the state of various division and Wild Card races.

• My Boston radio hit, which discussed the Red Sox's relatively faded postseason hopes, Jon Papelbon's woes and the perpetual problem of their catching situation, among other things. Fun stuff.

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Friday's Child (Part 1)

Has it been that long since I posted here? Shame on me once again, but I've had my reasons...

• Back on Wednesday I examined the potential Hall of Fame fates of Vlad Guerrero and other contemporary right fielders, including Manny Ramirez, Gary Sheffield, Bobby Abreu, Ichiro Suzuki, Sammy Sosa and Larry Walker. There's not a single cut-and-dried case to be found among these due to steroids, park effects, the Japan factor and the BBWAA's undervaluing of plate discipline.

Here's the JAWS table:
Player             Career  Peak   JAWS    EqA   Ballot/Age
Manny Ramirez 90.2 52.9 71.6 .329 37
Avg. HoF RF 87.2 52.2 69.7 .306
Gary Sheffield 80.1 49.6 64.9 .315 40
Bobby Abreu 70.8 50.7 60.8 .310 35
Sammy Sosa 69.6 49.3 59.5 .292 2013
Vladimir Guerrero 69.3 48.8 59.1 .315 34
Brian Giles 62.7 45.7 54.2 .314 38
Tim Salmon 59.2 46.6 52.9 .303 2012
Larry Walker 63.7 41.9 52.8 .303 2011
Ichiro Suzuki 53.1 48.2 50.7 .297 35
When it's all said and done I think Manny, Vlad, Shef and Ichiro will all be there, but it's going to take a lot of time and a fair bit of ink spilled by the soapbox derby champions before we know the final outcome. After looking over his numbers last night in the service of this week's Hit List, I'm more convinced than ever that Ichiro's likely to make it.

• Today I examined (BP/ESPN Insider) the wonderfully freaky season Mark Reynolds is having, which includes his 223-strikeout pace, all-time top ten seasons for batting average on contact and slugging percentage on contact, the majors' #2 ranking in homers (38), slugging percentage (.595), isolated power (.314) and Hit Tracker's Golden Sledgehammer rankings for longest average home run distance, and the highest rate of home runs per fly ball.
The bottom line is that for all of his freaky and potentially fluky stats, Reynolds is a valuable player, good enough to crack the NL top 20 with a .304 EqA without giving too much back on defense. While some regression is inevitable regarding the extreme aspects of his performance, given that he's just in his age-25 season (he turned 26 on August 3), there's plenty of potential for growth as well. The select company he's keeping suggests we could be looking at player who's going to stick around and rack up some serious home run totals before he's through.
• Today's Hit List has the Dodgers retaking the top spot ahead of the Yankees despite trouble patching together enough warm bodies for a full rotation:
[#1 Dodgers] Our Kingdom For a Starting Pitcher: Chad Billingsley returns in fine form after skipping a start due to hamstring woes, but the Dodger rotation is again thinned when Hiroki Kuroda takes a liner off the noggin. As the team's division lead shrinks, they're at the point of dredging up knuckleballer Charlie Haeger, signing recently released Rangers reject Vicente Padilla, and taxing the bullpen with Jeff Weaver's brief starts, leading one to wonder why Eric Stults (4.86 ERA, .501 SNWP) is still Duking it out in Albuquerque (I know it's the Isotopes now, but I've been following Dodger farmhands in Albuquerque since before Stults—not to mention half the current lineup—was born). At least Randy Wolf is putting on a show, whiffing 10 while finishing a triple short of the cycle; he's 14th in the league in SNLVAR, and perhaps as importantly, seventh in innings pitched.

[#2 Yankees] Hail to the Captain: Derek Jeter passes Luis Aparicio for the most hits by a shortstop with his 2,674th, just one of 16 hits he collects over a seven-game span. He's hitting .331/.395/.471 this season, his best numbers in each category since 2006; the power appears to be a function of his new park (.319/.392/.496 at home), while he's simply hitting 'em where they ain't elsewhere (.343/.398/.449 on the road). His 2,696 total hits are just 25 behind Lou Gehrig for the all-time franchise lead.

[#3 Rays] Paint It Black: Not even a funky new hairstyle can disguise the fact that the Rays' shot at the postseason is slipping away. Even in a winning week, they're making no headway; their Playoff Odds have fallen from about 25 percent to 20 percent in the past seven days, and at 10 1/2 back in the AL East, the Wild Card route is the only one left. One could blame their starting pitching, but their SNWP is tied with the Yankees at .499, two points ahead of the Red Sox. It's the bullpen where they lose ground, but then we always knew last year's trick in that department would be tough to repeat no matter how many arms they stockpiled.

[#4 Red Sox] Sagging: The Sox offense busts out six runs for Clay Buchholz, the first runs they've scored for him across three straight quality starts that lower his ERA to 3.99. Indeed, things are rather uneven in Boston, or perhaps all too even; they're just 22-21 since the beginning of July, having briefly fallen out of the Wild Card lead while losing two out of three in Texas. As you'd expect, there's good and bad news, such as David Ortiz snapping out of a 5-for-44 slump by homering four times in five games to lift his paltry season line to .224/.318/.431, and Tim Wakefield limping through a bullpen session, prolonging his stay on the DL.
More stuff to come in a fresh post.

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Friday, August 14, 2009


Friday on My Mind

Since we last spoke...

• Tuesday's Todd Helton piece generated enough discussion and had enough leftovers that I took a second look at Helton's Hall case, this time in the context of his contemporaries at first base -- much as I did here.

• Along with colleagues Kevin Goldstein, Marc Normandin and John Perrotto, and ESPN Insider's Matt Meyers, I was part of a roundtable (BP/ESPN) on young pitchers who struggle to fulfill expectations, with Clay Buchholz, Homer Bailey and Mike Pelfrey being the prime examples. Here's a taste of the beginning of the piece:
Matt Meyers, ESPN Insider: The one guy I can't figure out is Clay Buchholz. The Red Sox righty burst on the scene with a no-hitter in 2007, but has not been able to sustain any sort of success in the majors. However, his 2.36 ERA and 8.1 K/9 at Triple-A this season show us he has little left to prove in the minors. I'll channel my inner Jerry Seinfeld and ask, "What's the deal with Clay Buchholz?"

John Perrotto: There are some around the Red Sox who believe Buchholz enjoyed the trappings of the immediate stardom that came with throwing a no-hitter in his second career start, and that was a major distraction. You can get by on pure stuff in Triple-A, but it's a different story in the majors.

Marc Normandin: Agreed. Buchholz has great stuff, and he throws a ton of first-pitch strikes. But for some reason, he walks too many hitters (4.9 BB/9 for his MLB career). He needs to sort out the "how" of pitching to go along with his natural talent.

Jay Jaffe: I think it's fair to say that few players in baseball have had as much pressure thrust upon them as Buchholz. Ever since the no-hitter, his name has been floated as the key to so many potential big trades (Johan Santana, Roy Halladay, Felix Hernandez), so every lousy start raises the question of, "What if they'd traded him for X ... "
• Today's Hit List finds the Yankees edging out the Dodgers for the top spot by a single Hit List Factor point, a gap closed by last night's 11-1 win for the Yanks as the Dodgers sat idle. The real fun is further down the list:
[#12 Blue Jays] Talentless: J.P. Ricciardi makes the biggest salary dump in baseball history when he lets Alex Rios go to the White Sox via waivers for nothing but salary relief from the $61 million remaining on his contract through (gulp) 2014. It's a move which obviously saves the Jays a pretty penny, but it's merely the latest embarrassing gaffe in a series which has seen the GM's name become synonymous with awful contracts, not to mention some awkward attempts to evade their full impact. On the field, Marco Scutaro continues to be the exception that proves the rule when it comes to Ricciardi's penchant for buying high; he's hitting .296/.387/.441 and ranking in the top five in both walks and runs while earning a base salary of $1.1 million.

[#13 White Sox] My Final Offer is This: Nothing: The White Sox score themselves a potential long-term solution in center field by claiming Alex Rios on waivers from the Blue Jays and refusing to submit to J.P. Ricciardi's demands of any talent in return to offset the $61 million remaining on his deal. It's a bold and obviously costly move, but his defensive numbers suggest he can cover the middle pasture which more easily justifies the investment in a 28-year-old hitting to a .275 EqA tune in a down year. Add in the fact that Jake Peavy is beginning a rehab assignment, and it's clear the AL Central race is about to get interesting.

[#21 Mets] No Drama: It's a relatively uneventful week for the Mets, with no executive firings or pratfalls, just peace, quiet and losing as befits a team whose Playoff Odds have fallen below 0.2 percent. The team does reward those masochistic enough to still pa attention with another injury setback (Carlos Delgado) and some late-inning heartbreak, as Francisco Rodriguez yields five ninth-inning runs to the Padres in Petco, an occurrence whose extreme unlikelihood breaks the Baseball Prospectus Infinite Improbability Drive.
For some reason, the Jays are often one of the last team's I get to when I'm writing the weekly Hit List, but they move to the front of the line when Ricciardi gets on a roll with his idiotic antics. And for that, I'm very grateful.

Plus, anything that give me an excuse to quote a Godfather movie is all good.

• • •

My Toledo radio hit
, which was rescheduled for Thursday due to a chaotic Wednesday for Norm Wamer and company.

• • • 

My deepest sympathies go out to Can't Stop the Bleeding snarkmeister/Matador Records co-owner Gerard Cosloy, whose Austin, Texas home burned to the ground at 3 AM on Tuesday morning. The cause of the fire is still unknown, but officials estimate it did about half a million dollars worth of damage, and by the looks of it, Cosloy lost everything that was in the house. Fortunately, he himself is safe. He told the Austin American-Statesman "There are a lot of people who have a lot less than I do who deal with a lot worse, but this is pretty bad."

To say I've been a fan of Matador Records since the early Nineties would be an understatement. Along with labels like Sub Pop, Touch and Go and SST, they're one of the definitive indie rock labels. I've got at least a hundred Matador albums in my collection from artists like Guided by Voices, the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, the New Pornographers, Pavement, Pussy Galore, Railroad Jerk, Yo La Tengo and others, and that's without even touching upon how much some of those albums have meant to me over the past two decades.

So it was quite a joy to discover Cosloy was in the blogging game a few years ago, and that he was keeping at least an occasional watch on this site. After years of link-swapping, we finally met through mutual friend Nick Stone as the three of us attended a Yankees game back in June. But even if I'd never met him, I'd feel for him in the same way I felt for two other blogging brethren who found themselves in the same painful circumstance, Christian Ruzich and Larry Mahnken. I'm a bit of a pack rat, to say the least, with several lifetimes worth of stuff in our Brooklyn apartment — books, music, computers, artwork, memorabilia, photos, clothing — that I can't imagine living without, and more of the same in storage. Hell, I'm still smarting over the four CDs that got lost when our rooftop party was interrupted by rain four years ago, and just spent a month mourning the loss of my trusty 1 GB flash drive, only to rediscover it in a piece of luggage. Don't even ask about the stack of football cards left at Skippers Seafood and Chowder House, Salt Lake City, November 1978...

My point is that as with those previous fires, I can only begin to fathom Cosloy's loss, and my heart goes out to him at this time. In lieu of a donation and what's bound to be a hell of a benefit show or two given the bands he can probably summon, I ask that you pick one of his favorite targets -- the Mets, Isaiah Thomas, Phil Mushnick, Phillies fans, etc -- and bash away gleefully until he can get back on his feet.

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Thursday, August 13, 2009


I Believe This Is What the Kids Call 'Pwned'

That Kevin Youkilis wound up on the short end of Tuesday night's brawl may explain why he's the favorite target for payback among Red Sox hitters. Much fun discussing the incident Wednesday night on my ESPN 890 Boston radio hit. Our discussion even provided a chance to cite a favorite precedent:

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Tuesday, August 11, 2009


What the Helton?

Today's Baseball Prospectus/ESPN Insider double dip concerns the Rockies' Todd Helton, and in particular his Hall of Fame chances. If you were quietly minding your business by not thinking about Helton's Cooperstown case, you weren't alone; I was somewhat surprised when I was offered the assignment:
Is Todd Helton bound for the Hall of Fame? On the surface, that's not exactly a burning question, even given the resurgent Rockies first baseman's .323/.400/.505 showing to date. At 35 years of age, under contract through 2011, and approaching no major milestones, it's not as though his moment of reckoning has arrived, though he did recently become the 50th player to reach the 500-doubles milestone. That has to count for something, right?

When it finally arrives, Helton's Cooperstown candidacy will be built upon numbers compiled under what have been arguably the most optimal conditions ever afforded a hitter over an extended period of time. He did his best work in high-altitude Coors Field at a time when scoring rates soared higher than they had been in seventy years. His monster performance of 2000 — 42 homers, 147 RBI, and a .372/.463/.698 line — was produced while playing half his games in a ballpark that increased scoring by 25 percent relative to the league, this in a year when the league average of 5.0 runs per game was higher than any year since 1930 (although it did match 1999's rate). His decline from that lofty peak has been masked by his hitter-friendly park, to the point that his career rate stats are still a sterling .328/.427/.569, numbers he hasn't exceeded since 2004 (save for a .445 OBP in 2005).
The first line of that second graf now has some additional information to back it up. Via's Sean Forman, I've obtained a long-sought leaderboard for B-R's AIR stat, which indexes the combination of park, league and era scoring levels into one number to provide an idea of how favorable or unfavorable the conditions he faced were, scoring-wise, with 100 being average. Helton tops the list:
Player                PA    AIR
Todd Helton 7494 124
Neifi Perez 5365 123
Vinny Castilla 7305 120
Dante Bichette 6777 118
Fresco Thompson 2780 117
Mel Almada 2702 117
Beau Bell 2997 117
Terry Shumpert 2159 117
Larry Walker 7958 117
Garrett Atkins 3002 117
Brad Hawpe 2620 117
Ed Morgan 3205 116
Jack Burns 3900 116
Ski Melillo 5402 116
Earl Averill* 7160 116
Rip Radcliff 4398 116
Quinton McCracken 2700 116
Matt Holliday 3420 116
Don Hurst 3681 115
Dick Porter 2790 115
Max Bishop 5678 115
Odell Hale 4057 115
Moose Solters 3651 115
Joe Vosmik 6007 115
Mike Lansing 4486 115
Rusty Greer 4370 115
Jeff Cirillo 6026 115
Chad Tracy 2493 115
Sammy Hale 3067 114
Gene Robertson 2415 114
Butch Henline 2331 114
Bing Miller 6675 114
Mickey Cochrane* 6055 114
Mule Haas 4749 114
Marv Owen 4147 114
Billy Rogell 5819 114
Bruce Campbell 5337 114
Charlie Gehringer* 10096 114
Eric McNair 4805 114
Luke Sewell 5896 114
Jimmie Foxx* 9599 114
Danny Bautista 2681 114
Darren Bragg 2790 114
Pokey Reese 3082 114
Chris Stynes 2539 114
Jeffrey Hammonds 3354 114
Richard Hidalgo 3884 114
Tony Womack 5299 114
Todd Walker 4991 114
Henry Blanco 2480 114
* Hall of Famer
Eight of the top 11 players on the list spent some amount of their careers with the Rockies. Of the four Hall of Famers who make the list, it's interesting Averill ranks as one of Helton's top 10 comps via Bill James' Similarity Scores method; I listed the three HOFers who are among his top four comps (Johnny Mize, Chuck Klein and Hank Greenberg) but didn't mention Averill in the actual article.

In any event, the older Jamesian metrics (Similarity Scores, Hall of Fame Monitor and Hall of Fame Standards) suggest Helton is a Hall of Famer and provide a chance to (re)introduce JAWS in on the ESPN site. I've written about JAWS for (not once but twice), and former BP colleague Jonah Keri used JAWS for an ESPN piece a few years ago, but this breaks a small bit of new ground for me, which is exciting.
According to JAWS, Helton makes for a decidedly below-average Hall of Fame candidate at present. He entered the year with 54.6 WARP for his career and 46.1 for his peak, for a JAWS of 50.4. He's currently on pace for a season WARP of 4.4, which would not only boost his career total but rank as his seventh-best season, upping his overall JAWS score to 52.6. The average Hall of Fame first baseman, by comparison, scores at 75.8 for career, 48.4 for peak, and 62.1 overall. Just four of the Hall's 18 first basemen score lower than Helton, and three of them—Frank Chance, Jim Bottomley, and George Kelly—were elected by the much more permissive Veterans Committee. Helton needs to defy age and his bad back to produce four more seasons equivalent to this one to reach the career average for Hall first basemen, and even then his peak would rate as slightly below average.

JAWS is a prescription to improve the Hall's rolls via the election of above-average candidates. It is not, however, a predictor of what the voting body will do, as the 2009 balloting clearly illustrates. While Tim Raines (94.3 career/54.9 peak/74.6 overall JAWS) is clearly ahead of the Hall's established standard for left fielders (84.2/.52.5/68.4) in career, peak, and JAWS, but Rock received just 22.6 percent of the vote. On the other hand, Jim Rice (55.1/39.6/47.4) was elected with 76.4 percent on the ballot, a result that has as its foundation the lack of recognition of the influence that hitter-friendly Fenway Park had inflating Rice's statistics (to say nothing of inflating his legend). Indeed, the Hall is littered with hitters who accumulated hefty stats in favorable environments, though many owe their elections not to BBWAA voters but to the cronyism of the VC, which made a habit of grabbing flash-in-the-pan offensive stars from the 1930s, including the aforementioned Klein, whom JAWS ranks as 20th out of the 22 right fielders in the Hall.
I took the assignment thinking Helton really had no chance in Hell at the Hall, and while I remain unconvinced that he belongs — barring an especially productive late-30s run — I did come away with more respect for his accomplishments. Guys with .307 EqAs, excellent plate discipline (1095/862 career K/BB) and defense worth about five runs above average per year don't grow on trees. That doesn't mean we should put them all in the Hall of Fame, however. Consider the contemporary first base/DH types who rank above Helton according to JAWS:
Player           Career  Peak   JAWS
Frank Thomas 105.4 66.4 85.9
Jeff Bagwell 97.2 62.8 80.0
Albert Pujols 78.7 71.9 75.3
Rafael Palmeiro 96.0 52.6 74.3
Jim Thome 84.7 50.6 67.7
Mark McGwire 79.7 52.4 66.1
John Olerud 79.9 50.2 65.1
Will Clark 74.4 50.2 62.3
AVG HOF 1B 75.8 48.4 62.1
Jason Giambi 64.3 50.3 57.3
Fred McGriff 65.6 45.8 55.7
Carlos Delgado 61.3 42.8 52.1
Mark Grace 60.2 41.0 50.6
Todd Helton 54.6 46.1 50.4
Helton's surpassed Grace and has more or less pulled even with Delgado, but it will take one outstanding year or two OK ones to move past McGriff, and yet another one to top Giambi -- and he'd still be shy of the Hall standard. Suffice it to say, he's got his work cut out for him.

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Friday, August 07, 2009


The Lost Tribe and the Usual Suspects

Still trying to catch up on my z's from a fun but draining weekend at SABR where my trade deadline-related work cost me face time with some folks I only get to see once a year, not to mention a handful of missed presentations and a foregone ticket to Camden Yards (when the professional meteorologist you count as a colleague suggests rain will wipe out the game...).

Plenty busy since I've been back as well:

• On Tuesday I examined the Indians' fall from grace (Baseball Prospectus/ESPN Insider):
What's gone wrong in Cleveland? PECOTA's division-winning projection called for a meager 86 wins (around three more than the above method suggests) and a 38 percent chance of making the postseason, casting them as weak favorites over the Tigers. The offense, despite injuries to Travis Hafner and Grady Sizemore, has essentially lived up to expectations; projected to rank fourth in the league in scoring, they actually rank fifth. The pitching, however, ranks dead stinking last instead of the projected seventh.

The responsibility for that showing rests with both the rotation (13th in SNLVAR) and the bullpen (14th in WXRL). Blame Shapiro for assembling the rotation which has put up a 5.95 ERA beyond Lee. While his acquisition of Anthony Reyes was a worthwhile gambit that went sour due to elbow problems culminating in Tommy John surgery, his signing of Carl Pavano has brought plenty of bad (five disaster starts, with more runs than innings pitched) to go with the good (10 quality starts), with a 5.37 ERA and 1.4 homers per nine. Wedge and his staff own a share of the blame for failing to straighten out Fausto Carmona; hoping the sinkerballer would regain his stellar 2007 form after mechanical and injury woes ruined 2008, they suffered a 7.42 ERA over 12 gruesome starts before farming him out in June. The rest of the rotation fillers—Aaron Laffey, Jeremy Sowers, Zach Jackson, David Huff and Scott Lewis—apparently arrived from a big-box store where hittable lefties are sold by the gross; that quintet has given the Tribe 36 starts with a 5.73 ERA and just 4.7 strikeouts per nine.

The bullpen's been worse, a major reason the team is an AL-high 7.7 wins behind their projected third-order record, their Pythagorean record after adjusting for scoring environment, run elements, and quality of opposition. Poor early-season performances by Kerry Wood, Rafael Betancourt (since traded to Colorado), Rafael Perez (since demoted) and Jensen Lewis (recalled this past weekend after a five-week demotion) dug the team an early hole; they were already 4.7 games behind their third-order projection by mid-May. That was around the time the buzzards started circling Wedge, who presided over an uncannily similar debacle last year, when the relievers he rode hard late in 2007 spit the bit. Wedge has now presided over three slow-starting teams in the past four years, and while his overall record stands at 540-537, just two of his seven teams have finished above .500, and they've fallen a cumulative 29 games shy of their Pythagorean projections.

Shapiro will have to answer for his pledge to keep his skipper in place, and ultimately, for the drying up of the team's talent pipeline amid years of unimpressive drafts. From 1997 through 2008, the Indians' organization produced more major league talent than any other AL Central team, according to the Value Production Standings work which Steve Treder presented at the most recent SABR convention. Alas, an increasing proportion of that value, from Manny Ramirez and C.C. Sabathia down through Jeremy Guthrie, was delivered for other teams. As ESPN's Jerry Crasnick pointed out recently, Guthrie has been the most successful of the 19 first-round or supplemental pics on Shapiro's watch, but all of that success has been with the Orioles. Among those on their major league roster, top 2004 pick Sowers and top 2006 pick Huff, are among the glut of low-upside southpaws, while top 2005 pick Trevor Crowe looks like a card-carrying member of the Future Fourth Outfielders of America.
The article, and particularly the draft stuff, generated a lengthy discussion at the Lets Go Tribe! blog.

• Yesterday I previewed the Yankees-Red Sox series (BP/ESPN), exploring how the two teams' in-season upgrades have changed them, particularly since the Red Sox won the first five of their eight straight against the Yanks:
On Thursday evening, the Yankees and Red Sox—once again the AL East's top two teams—kick off a four-game series in the Bronx. Much has been and will continue to be made of the fact that the Yankees are 0-8 against their heated rivals this year. Beyond that lopsided tally, they've been the better of the two ballclubs to date, particularly since Alex Rodriguez returned from the hip surgery which sidelined him for the first month of the season, a period during which the Red Sox beat the Yankees five times in a two-week span. After all, it's the Yankees who lead the division by 2.5 games, the result of them currently having the upper hand in the division's never-ceasing arms race.

Consider the following:
Overall     NYY     BOS
W-L 65-42 62-44
Pct .607 .585
Pyth .567 .586

Since 5/8 NYY BOS

W-L 52-27 44-33
Pct. .658 .571
Pyth .618 .587
...The real turnaround has been in the bullpen, however. Since [Alex] Rodriguez's return — a point that more or less coincides with Alfredo Aceves' recall from Scranton — the relievers have put up a 3.78 Fair Run Average with 8.0 WXRL, the latter mark rating as the second best in the majors. That ugly first month aside, manager Joe Girardi has reasserted his ability to sift through a handful of off-brand relievers to build a bridge to Mariano Rivera, with Phil Hughes (1.8 WXRL) and Aceves (1.3 WXRL) emerging to supplant those aforementioned arsonists as well as injured and ineffective Brian Bruney, joining Phil Coke (1.4 WXRL) among the Yankees' late-game options. After struggling as a starter, Hughes has flat-out dominated in a relief role, with a 1.00 Fair Run Average and a 39/7 K/BB ratio in 30.1 innings. General manager Brian Cashman remains adamant that like Joba Chamberlain, his future lies in the rotation, but for the moment, he stands as one of the Yankee season's saviors. Thanks in large part to their remade relief corps, the Yanks are now 4.3 wins ahead of their first-order Pythagorean projection, second only to the Mariners among AL teams — a margin that's allowed them to leapfrog their division rivals.

As for the Red Sox... After enduring a three-week stretch in which the Sox hit just .224/.314/.386 while averaging a meager 4.2 runs per game and going 9-9, general manager Theo Epstein chose to make a deal to augment his lineup rather than his rotation, so instead of gunning for Roy Halladay, he dealt two pitching prospects for the Indians' Victor Martinez, also acquiring Chris Duncan, Casey Kotchman and (briefly) Adam LaRoche in smaller deals, moves which particularly provide manager Terry Francona with considerable flexibility at catcher, first base and third base. Since Epstein began dealing on July 22, the revamped offense has averaged 6.3 runs per game, highlighted by an 18-run breakout in which Martinez went 5-for-6.
It was quite a joy to watch the Yanks take it to John Smoltz last night (is it just me or did Paul O'Neill keep calling him "Schmaltz"?), not surprisingly a topic of discussion on my weekly radio hit on what's now being dubbed "The Boston Sports Post Game Show" on ESPN 890...

• ... and the Hit List:
[#2 Yankees] Trilogy: Johnny Damon homers in three straight games, including once off Roy Halladay, whom he owns (.356/.426/.533 in 101 PA lifetime), and once off John Smoltz, his first career hit off the 42-year-old. It's hardly the only hit the Yanks collect off of Smoltz; they paste him for nine hits and eight runs in 3.1 innings to gain their first victory over Boston in nine tries this year. As lopsided as their series has been, the Yanks have been the better team since their early meetings thanks to the return of Alex Rodriguez and the revamping of their bullpen. They now lead the AL East by 3.5 games, a swing of eight games in the standings since A-Rod's May 8 return, and they've won 28 out of their last 38.

[#4 Red Sox] In just his second game with the Red Sox, Victor Martinez makes himself at home with a huge day (6 1 5 4) in an 18-10 drubbing of the Orioles, a nearly four-hour epic in which the two teams combine to score in every inning, just the third time that's happened this year. The win keeps the Sox just a half-game behind the Yankees, but Clay Buchholz's ugly performance and the three losses that follow provide a sobering reminder of the pitching upgrades they bypassed at the deadline, as Buchholz, Brad Penny and John Smoltz are torched for 24 hits, seven homers and 20 runs in 13.1 innings. All three have Support-Neutral Winning Percentages well under .500.
Going up state this weekend, so any Yanks-Sox action I catch will be audio-only via my iPhone. Here's hoping the Yanks continue to kick serious ass.

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