Monthly archives: February 2004
Yankee Preview Sunday: Roundtable Discussion
The Flip Side
Part One, Side B
BB: Jason Giambi hasn't been embraced by New Yorkers in spite of two impressive offensive campaigns in pinstripes. Has the criticism been unfair? How much pressure do you think Giambi is facing going into the 2004 season? Does he get a pass now that Rodriguez and Sheffield are here to help? Short of the Yanks winning a championship, what will it take for him to be accepted by Yankee fans?
BB: Who will have the better season: Pettitte or Vasquez? Clemens or Brown.
BB: Will Mike Mussina win 20 games? If not, will he at least win 15 games again? How close is Mussina to being a Hall of Famer?
BB: Do you see Jose Contreras as the x-factor in the Yankees starting rotation?
BB: How do you think Bernie Williams will adapt to being a designated hitter? Will Kenny Lofton's presence distract him or inspire him? How close is Williams to being a Hall of Famer? What does he need to do to qualify?
BB: Theo Epstein and Billy Beane are the two most celebrated general managers in the game right now. Is there any doubt that Brian Cashman belongs in their company?
BB: The Yankees have a gruff edge this season with the additions of Kevin Brown, Sheffield and Kenny Lofton. Some observers look at this team as a far cry from the Paul O'Neil Yankees. Will the new attitude help or hurt the team?
BB: From a writer's viewpoint, is this the most interesting Yankee team since the Bronx Zoo days of the late seventies?
BB: What are you looking forward to about the 2004 Yankees? And what are you dreading about them?
BB: Do you think the Yankees will get into a bench-clearing brawl during the regular season?
Tune in on Monday when a second group of writers tackle the same set of questions.
Yankee Preview Sunday: Roundtable Discussion
Seven Up: All Together Now
Part One, Side One
When I was growing up I remember feeling that it was very important to be right about things. Opinions mostly. In family discussions and conversations, being right seemed to equate being heard, feeling recognized. As an adult, I don’t feel the burning need to be right anymore. I’m much more interested in learning something I don't know. That is why I get so much out of what other people have to say. I find listening and paying attention to be one of the most stimulating aspects of following baseball—or just about anything else for that matter. It helps that baseball attracts good talkers.
So I asked an eclectic group of baseball writers to answer a dump truck load of questions I had about the upcoming Yankee season. I purposefully chose a diverse group—from professionals to bloggers—so that the reader would get a balanced feel for what some of the best baseball minds have to say about the Yanks.
A note on how the forum was conducted. The questions were e-mailed to the participants. When I received the responses—from fourteen guests in all—I recognized that I would need to run this in two parts on two consecutive days. As it is, it's looooong. Hope you don't have anything to do for a while. But hey, the whole purpose of Yankee Preview week is to offer a feast of insight and opinion to all the insatiable Yankee junkies like me out there. The worst it should be is too long.
Regardless, I tried to keep things brisk, and conversational. I have edited portions of the answers at my own discretion in order to keep the length manageable. In no way have I tried to misrepresent any of the contributor’s original intent. Further, I am grateful for all of the time and effort each guest put into answering the questions. I hope you enjoy what they have to say and that it stimulates even further discussion.
Cast of Characters:
(In Alphabetical Order)
Larry Mahnken: Replacement Level Yankees Weblog
Tim Marchman: The New York Sun
Buster Olney: ESPN
Alan Schwarz: Baseball America, ESPN
Joe Sheehan: Baseball Prospectus
Joel Sherman: The New York Post
Glenn Stout: Baseball Historian
Bronx Banter: Will Joe Torre be fired during the 2004 season? If so, when? If he is canned, who will replace him? Will Torre ever manage the Red Sox?
BB: The arrival of Alex Rodriguez brings with it plenty of potential for controversy. The biggest issue of course is who should play shortstop? Though the Yankees don't have any intentions of moving Jeter right now, who do you think should play shortstop for the Yankees
BB: Some baseball observers are more offended that A Rod--the better defensive player, and perhaps the best shortstop since Honus Wagner--will be asked to move positions than they are that he's joined the Yankees. Jeter is famous as a team-first player. Do you think he would ever consider moving positions, ala Chipper Jones, if it helps the team? If he doesn't, how could that change his image? In addition, what position do you think would best suit Jeter's talents?
BB: There has been a wide gap in the perception of Jeter's defense. Now that the Yankees have a superior defensive option on their roster, will the perception of Jeter's defensive reputation change?
BB: How much better is the Yankees bullpen this season than it was in 2003?
BB: Will the Yankees sign Mariano to a contract extension before the end of the 2004 season? And should they?
End of Side One. Turn the record over, or scroll back to the top...
Yankee Preview Saturday: Mariano Rivera
"C" is For Closers: Enter Sandman
By Chris DeRosa
After the 1999 World Series, Yankee closer and series MVP Mariano Rivera said that he would give it four more years and then return to his native Panama to be an evangelical minister of a church he was building there. Going into 2004, I’d say that on the balance, New York fans should be happy that great pitchers don’t always follow through on their retirement plans.
The Yankees too should be happy, and about as optimistic as possible about a 34 year-old relief ace who has paid visits to the disabled list in each of the last two seasons. Shoulder and groin injuries limited Rivera to only 46 innings in 2002 and cost him last April. After struggling a bit in May, things seemed to click for him and he tore through June and July throwing about as well as ever. August, however, was one of the worst extended stretches of Rivera’s career:
There were a couple of good ones in there too, but the Yankee bullpen was in agony. The team had gone into Boston in late July and opened the series with a win to take a 3.5 game lead in the AL East. From there, they went 9-9, with seven of the losses charged to the bullpen. Armando Benitez, Al Osuna, Sterling Hitchcock, Jesse Orosco and Chris Hammond surrounded Rivera’s bad stretch with memorable meltdowns of their own. Six poor performances in eleven August outings – ouch. Was he losing it?
He wasn’t. A light workload for the rest of August helped him bounce back and have a good September. In the end, it was a fine season. He worked 70.2 innings and allowed only 61 hits and 3 homers. He set career-best marks in walks allowed (10) and ERA (1.66). Considering the number of games Rivera missed on the DL (in 1998, 2002, and 2003), Joe Torre worked him at a harder pace than he had in any season since he became the closer in 1997:
Year Games “Available” Batters Faced BF/GA 1996 162 425 2.62 1997 162 301 1.86 1998 149 246 1.65 1999 162 268 1.65 2000 162 311 1.92 2001 162 310 1.91 2002 105 187 1.78 2003 137 277 2.02
His fine totals notwithstanding, Rivera did react entirely well to this quickening of pace. Here are the records of the 12 relief aces with at least 30 saves last year when pitching on no days’ rest:
Unrested Closer ERA IP H Run ER HR BB K John Smoltz 0.41 22.0 11 2 1 0 3 23 Troy Percival 0.75 12.0 2 1 1 1 4 12 Keith Foulke 1.11 24.3 15 3 3 2 9 20 Billy Wagner 1.35 26.7 17 4 4 1 11 31 Eric Gagne 1.82 29.7 17 6 6 0 6 54 Eddie Guardado 3.18 17.0 15 6 6 1 3 17 Uegeth Urbina 3.46 26.0 21 10 10 2 13 31 Tim Worrell 3.46 26.0 24 10 10 3 5 20 Mariano Rivera 3.48 20.7 29 9 8 2 1 19 Jorge Julio 3.52 15.3 13 6 6 1 3 17 Joe Borowski 4.86 16.7 13 9 9 2 4 18 Rocky Biddle 4.91 25.7 30 15 14 3 9 19
Among the elite closers, John Smoltz, Keith Foulke, Billy Wagner, and Eric Gagne were all called upon without rest as often as Rivera, but were their normally deadly selves. Mariano was a lot more vulnerable when he had to work in consecutive games, allowed 29 hits in 20.7 innings. His 1.66 ERA is also a little deceptive. Just looking at how many RBIs a closer gave up can be a quick and dirty corrective counterweight to his ERA when you want to know what kind of year the guy had in the pinches:
30-Save Closers BF RBI RBI/BF Eric Gagne 306 10 .033 Billy Wagner 335 17 .051 John Smoltz 244 16 .066 Keith Foulke 338 25 .074 Joe Borowski 280 25 .089 Eddie Guaradado 260 24 .092 Troy Percival 206 20 .097 Mariano Rivera 277 30 .108 Uegeth Urbina 316 36 .114 Jorge Julio 273 36 .132 Rocky Biddle 330 44 .133 Tim Worrell 335 45 .134
Mo was as hard on lefties as ever, but right-handed hitters got better swings than usual (.283/.336/.398). None of which is to say Rivera didn’t have a very good year and isn’t a good bat to have another one in 2004. Certainly his October performance gave no cause for alarm. Rivera threw 16.7 innings and allowed only one run, which dropped his lifetime postseason ERA to 0.75.
Against Minnesota, Rivera notched a pair of no-hit, no-walk two-inning saves. In the Game 3 frenzy in Fenway, he set down six straight Boston batters to protect the Yankees’ 4-3 lead. After the game, Roger Clemens marveled at his apparent serenity, “You take your worst… you take your two favorite superheroes, and I’ll put Mo up against both of them. He could take on anyone.”
Game 5 of the ALCS was another 2-inning save. Boston touched him for a run in the 8th when Todd Walker tripled and scored on a ground out. Game 7, of course, was perhaps the greatest outing of his career. With the game tied at 5 and the pennant on the line, Rivera shut out Boston’s superb lineup for three innings. Though Aaron Boone’s homer ended the game, it was Mariano whom the Yankees lifted onto their shoulders, in what seemed in that unclear moment like a fitting inversion of what he had done for them.
From Starter to Reliever
Single players, much less relief aces, don’t really carry teams, but Rivera pitched in all four wins against Boston and made as good a choice as any as Series MVP. He hurled eight innings with one run on five hits and no walks. The sight of Mo collapsed on the Yankee Stadium mound (a strange one in so much as a pinstriped player was still circling the bases) seemed to close a circle from the beginning of the Yankees’ current run:
ip h r er bb k dec. 4 Oct 1995 3.1 2 0 0 0 5 W 16 Oct 2003 3.0 2 0 0 0 2 W
In game 2 of the 1995 ALDS against Seattle, Mariano also pitched three scoreless innings and got the win on an extra-inning homer. The game was tied with two outs in the top of the 12th when Ken Griffey Jr. homered off Yankee relief ace John Wetteland. Edgar Martinez followed with a single. Rivera struck out Jay Buhner, and then just went on throwing strike after zooming strike for three innings.
Though Rivera’s 67 innings made him the 8th most heavily used pitcher on the team that year, one imagines that Buck Showalter could not have been too happy to turn to a rookie with a 5.51 ERA in that situation. He had already used the two relievers he most counted on to preserve leads (Wetteland and Bob Wickman), and Mariano hadn’t fared well in two regular season starts against Seattle.
At that point Rivera was still penciled in as a future starting pitcher. Many fine relief aces are failed starters. In ten starts, Rivera pitched 50 innings, going 3-3 with a 5.94 ERA. In nine relief outings (most of them in September), he held opponents to 8 hits in 17 innings (2-0, 4.24 ERA). It seems foolish at this point to debate the Yankees’ evaluation that his stuff was better suited to relief, but if you look at it, you can’t really say that he was a thoroughly failed starter.
About two-thirds of Rivera’s appearances were starts in his mostly successful five years in the Yankees’ minor league system. He debuted on May 23rd, losing to the Angels. Jim Edmonds tagged him for a three-run homer, the first of 11 long balls Rivera would give up in his rookie season. He won his next start, a 5.1 inning stint against Oakland, but lost a rematch with the A’s when he gave up a grand slam to Geronimo Berroa and a 2-run shot to Ruben Sierra. Edgar Martinez blasted a three-run homer in the first inning of his next start, which put him out of the Yankee rotation for three weeks [In the late 90s, Edgar the Hammer hit Rivera almost at will, which is something not too many other hitters can say. Even after going 0-4 in 2003, he’s 9-15 off Mo lifetime with five extra base hits and two walks].
Rivera seemed to be getting his bearings as a starter upon his return in July. On Independence Day, he had his best start, holding Chicago to 2 hits in 8 innings and striking out 11 batters. For the month, he went 2-0 in four starts, pitching 25 innings with a 2.52 ERA. Nevertheless, he started only two more games.
Steinbrenner and Showalter broke up over the loss of the Yankees’ first playoff series since 1981. The new regime did not immediately pronounce Rivera a reliever in 1996. Their first instinct was to try to teach him a change-up. “To be a starter, he has to have a change,” Torre told The Daily News on April 24th. Although Rivera had “a closer’s velocity,” the manager told the Bergen Record the same day, he would rely on Jeff Nelson and Wickman to set up Wetteland, meaning that even with the ’96 season underway, the Yankees intended to groom Rivera in long relief for an eventual starting role.
Of course Rivera seized the set up role and had arguably his best season, pitching 107.7 innings with 130 strikeouts and only one home run allowed. The 1996 season was the first full-length season of the mid-90s slugging era (the league ERA was 5.00), so not many starting pitchers compiled traditional-looking Cy Young candidacy stats. Rivera finished third in the voting and the Yankees let John Wetteland walk in order to make him the closer.
Of course the other big change for Mariano in 1997 was that he began to rely heavily on the cut fastball, as opposed to mostly four-seamers with the occasional slider mixed in.
Spare us the Cutter
In 2002, ESPN.com ran a poll, based on a Jayson Stark column , in which fans could vote for the most devastating pitch in baseball. Mariano Rivera’s cut fastball finished second to Randy Johnson’s “fastball-slider combination,” which I guess means it actually finished first.
Andy Pettitte became famous for his cutter before Mariano did for his. Pettitte also became famous for being a heart-throb before Derek Jeter did, but we tend to forget these things. People used to talk about how Pettitte’s cutter sailed in right-handed batters and tied them in knots. But comparing Pettitte’s cutter to Rivera’s is like comparing a butter knife to Excalibur. New York fans have seen pitchers like Pettitte and Al Leiter make fine use of the pitch, but they lose a lot of velocity when they cut their fastballs. Their cutters seem to arch in there and break down. Rivera’s has been likened to a 94-mph breaking pitch. It burrows in on lefties like a wood-seeking missile, but is almost as fast as his four-seamer and betrays little downward drip.
It is one of those pitches that is so effective as to require an origin story. He didn’t always throw it, at least, not on purpose. I taped the ESPN Classic version of that 1995 ALDS Game 2. He was a different pitcher then, but not radically so. He worked up in the zone more, but he worked about as quickly then as now. His motion may be slightly more streamlined now, but there were no awkward edges that had to be sanded down. At one point he threw a buzz-saw pitch outside that the announcer described first as a slider, then, after the replay, he said perhaps it was actually a “good cut fastball.” His fastball was jumping so much they didn’t know what the kid was throwing.
Before the 2001 World Series, Rivera told Adrian Wojnarowksi of The Bergen Record that he discovered the cutter by accident playing catch with Ramiro Mendoza. Two years earlier, he explained to Tom Verducci of Sports Illustrated, “I didn’t do anything. It was natural.” He started using it in games, and the rest was history. “It was just from God.”
By God, I’m pretty sure he didn’t mean Mel Stottlemyre. But I don’t know. If you had told me in 1997 that the Yankees’ brilliant set-up man with the exploding mid-90s heater was going to see his strikeouts plummet from 10.9 per nine innings to 8.5 and 5.3 over the next two years, throwing cut fastballs to conserve pitches, I would have said, “That idiot Stottlemyre is trying to ruin Mariano the same way he ruined Gooden!” OK, actually, I did say that.
Dwight Gooden is cursed to be remembered as two separate men, “Dwight Gooden” and “the young Dwight Gooden.” When you talk about Sandy Koufax’s stuff, or Steve Carlton’s, you don’t feel compelled to specify, “the mature Koufax,” or “Carlton in his prime, not with the White Sox.” But with Gooden, the separation between 1985 and 1986 was so striking visually that it seems to demand this distinction. Looking back at it now, when it is apparent that 1986 was actually one of Gooden’s best seasons, someone who wasn’t following at the time might be surprised to learn that for much of the year, Mets fans were wondering when he was going to get back on track.
NL hitters tacked more than a run onto his ERA, and his strikeouts fell from 8.7 per game to 7.2. Few observers were content just to say, “Shut up, people, he can’t have a 1.53 ERA every year.” Maybe we were imagining it, but it sure seemed like his fastball just didn’t have the same hop to it. Some said hitters had learned to lay off his high heat. Tim McCarver said the umps had taken the high strike away from him (Yankee fans may recall that the same year, Rickey Henderson said the umps had taken the high ball away from him).
Others, however, drew a direct line between Gooden’s drop-off and the reports that in spring training, Mets pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre had convinced him to stop going for strikeouts and save his arm by putting more balls in play. There was mention of the cut fastball in Dwight Gooden’s arsenal going back to 1984, but it took on a whole new life in the spring of ’86. During Gooden’s late July slump, Stottlemyre admitted to the New York Times that “I have downplayed the strikeouts with him for the simple reason that he doesn’t need to strike out 10 batters to have a strong game. The important thing is[,] put zeroes on the scoreboard. I probably made too great an emphasis with him on getting ground balls, and not enough on getting pop-ups.”
Not everyone thought this was the best approach for a young pitcher with a world class fastball. The Times reported Cardinal manager Whitey Herzog saying in July of 1987 of his rival’s pitchers, “They’re 22, and somebody tries to teach them to pitch like a guy who’s 30. Gooden’s that way. In spring training last year, all you heard about was his new cut fastball and his two speeds of curveballs. You got a guy who can throw 94 miles and hour, let him throw. He starts cutting the fastball, taking something off it, he loses the fastball he once had. And he’ll never get it back.”
Bill James, who has demonstrated several times that power pitchers last longer than finesse pitchers, was just as blunt in the 1987 Baseball Abstract. Noting that the pitching coach himself was a ground ball pitcher who had his last good year at 31, the analyst wrote: “… if Mel Stottlemyre wants Dwight Gooden to last as long as possible, he’d better stop this crap about throwing ground balls and tell him to concentrate on striking out as many batters as he can.”
After returning from Smithers in 1987, Gooden himself announced that he was junking his cut fastball. “It was a matter of him cutting his pitches even when he didn’t want to,” Stottlemyre told the Bergen Record on June 7, “There is a carry-over from the cut fastball to the regular fastball.” Gooden’s drug suspension buried the story of his attempted conversion to a put-it-in-play type pitcher. People needed no reason besides drugs for his inability to get back to his 1985 level. Indeed, it is impossible now to separate the factors that may have prevented him from having a Hall of Fame career. Did he mess himself up with drugs? Had Stottlemyre monkeyed around with the rarest of talents? Or was it simply that he just pitched way too many innings between 18 and 21 years of age? By the time Rivera was enjoying his first great season, teammate Dwight Gooden was hanging on as a finesse pitcher. Rivera reminded him of himself “a long time ago.”
Mel Stottlemyre must have had the same thought, because there is an alternate version of Rivera’s cutter discovery story. The same reports that have Stottlemyre teaching him a change-up in 1996 have him teaching Rivera the cutter as well. A fuller explanation from Tom Haudricourt in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (October 5, 1999):
Does this happen on other teams? Does the Boston pitching coach say, “We’re concerned about Pedro striking out so many hitters.” Are there people in the Marlins camp telling Josh Beckett, “Let them hit the ball, son. We want more grounders out of you.”
Did Stottlemyre really repeat his dubious Gooden experiment with another golden arm? I don’t know, but if he did, you could consider it something of a vindication. Rivera managed a remarkable transformation in which he dropped a lot strikeouts and yet remained a power pitcher (the strikeouts have actually been creeping back up in recent years). Maybe Rivera’s low-K style has helped him stay as sharp as he has through age 34. And Torre was not wrong when he noted that his ace gets out of his share of innings in under ten pitches, and this increases his availability for multiple inning stints.
Is This the Way to Cooperstown?
In fact, I think Torre should have left Rivera in Game 4 of the 1997 ALDS after Sandy Alomar Jr. took him deep. Alomar’s shot only tied the score and he was throwing fine. They yanked him out of there to save him for Game 5, but Game 5 never came for Mariano. Blowing the Yankees’ chance to clinch the Division Series interrupted Rivera’s assembly of his postseason legend. Despite an excellent season in 1998, USA Today ranked the Yankee juggernaut’s relief ace only seventh among the eight playoff closers. Trevor Hoffman, Mike Jackson, and Tom Gordon had had their best seasons, Rod Beck had 51 saves, John Wetteland had… seniority, I guess. At least the writer liked Mo better than Kerry Lightenberg. Even after the series, Larry Dierker was less than effusive in his series commentary for The Sporting News: “[Rivera] reminds me a lot of Billy Wagner from our team, but he has better control. I don’t see him having much command of the breaking pitch, though.”
Didn’t need no stinking breaking pitch, Larry. It took two postseasons to overwhelm the Alomar homer and make Rivera’s rep as a bat-breaking October demigod. He won the World Series MVP award in 1999. In Game 3 of the 2000 ALCS, he broke the record for consecutive scoreless innings in postseason play. Cool record – once belonged to Whitey Ford and Babe Ruth.
[Disclaimer: As with any postseason record, Bob Costas and assorted other guardians of the integrity of the national pastime would like you to know that previous record holders did all of that wonderful pitching in World Series games – not in these despicable little playoff games that don’t even count for anything. Of course, we can’t have the few children who are interested in baseball growing up thinking that Mariano Rivera, pitching against these sub-World Series performers like Manny Ramirez, Jim Thome, and Jason Giambi, was doing anything remotely similar to Whitey Ford facing clubs like the mighty 1960 Pirates].
The end of the 2001 World Series (1B, throwing error, comebacker, 2B, HB, bloop, OK?) was, of course, the worst thing ever to happen. Interestingly, it was right after the series that I first started hearing people talking about Rivera as a Hall of Famer. You know you are doing pretty well when you blow Game 7 of the World Series and touch off a Hall of Fame debate about yourself.
Hall of Fame talk surrounding a player can have a variety of meanings. If it is about a guy starting out, like Albert Pujols, the question is, will he sustain it? For someone on the way out, like Fred McGriff, the question is did he meet the standard, did he hit enough homers or whatever? Stumping for Rivera in mid-career is asking for validation about either a) the centrality of the closer to a championship team, or b) the centrality of the postseason to the whole baseball experience.
It would be reasonable to think that the Hall of Fame ought to enshrine pitchers basically in order of the wins they contributed to their teams by saving runs over the course of their careers, with slight adjustments for peak performance, postseason play, leadership, having invented the curveball or whatnot. That is more or less the sabermetrician’s basic player greatness model, right?
On that scale, Rivera has a long way to go; impossibly long actually. For example, Baseball Prospectus, after attempting to adjust for park and era, estimates chic sabr-candidate Bert Blyleven saved 1408 runs over what a replacement level pitcher might have (PRAR). They have Mariano Rivera worth only 477 runs above replacement so far. Win Shares has Blyleven leading Rivera 339 to 128. Even with the new efforts to give more credit to pitchers in high-leverage situations, closers just aren’t going to climb Raw Greatness Mountain.
So to make a Hall of Fame case for Rivera, you first have to think that relievers get to compete in their own category. If you do, then Rivera is a contender. Mike at Mike’s Baseball Rants has undertaken a major study of relief pitchers to try to determine the value of the runs they’ve saved as adjusted for the efficiency of their use pattern. Despite being in the somewhat inefficient “closer” pattern, Rivera holds his own against the stoppers and firemen of yore. Mike’s system ranks Rivera as the third greatest relief pitcher of all time, behind Hoyt Wilhelm and Rich Gossage (although as an active pitcher, his ranking may suffer through the end of his career).
And that’s without the postseason record. In his January 20th piece, “Closed Out of Cooperstown,” Tom Verducci came down in favor of the de facto one-per-decade Hall of Fame reliever standard, which is reasonable enough. After likening Rivera to a place-kicker and Troy Percival, he does admit, “Of course Rivera has been knighted as The Greatest Postseason Reliever in History.”
The passive construction of this sentence fails to do justice to the achievement. Rivera wasn’t just handed this title by some sort of lazy sportswriter peerage. To say that he is the “greatest postseason reliever” is granting him nothing beyond the obvious. The real question is whether he is in fact simply the greatest postseason player of all time.
I’m not sure you could ever reconcile postseason performance quality and opportunity to everyone’s satisfaction, but Rivera has an awfully impressive combination of quality of play and playing time logged. It’s not a slam dunk. Babe Ruth’s teams won seven championships, and he could have been World Series MVP four or five times. I’m just saying Rivera has to be in the argument with Ruth, Bob Gibson, and not too many others. If he’s the greatest postseason player of all time, with a substantial specialist’s career, I think that makes a pretty decent case.
Buster Olney, in an interview with Bronx Banter, said “I think a lot of the players on the other teams believe that Rivera is essentially the difference between the Yankees winning two championships and winning four or five. Because the Yankees had what other teams didn’t have: a closer who would not lose in the ninth inning.”
I don’t want to overrate the closer’s role in particular but from 1995-2003, the Yankees played .602 ball in the regular season, and .653 ball in the playoffs. There were two Yankee players in this run who really stepped up their games in postseason: Orlando Hernandez and Mariano Rivera. To say Rivera would not lose in the ninth inning perhaps takes you into the clutch ability debate. The baseball intelligentsia cannot abide fans who pop the clutch for Jeter, Pettitte, or Tino (hey, has Jason Giambi gotten any credit for hitting two homers off Pedro in Game 7 yet?) because they know performance in small samples is not predictive.
This point is lost on the Church of Clutch, because to them, calling someone a clutch player is not really a prediction anyway, but more like an appreciation of past favors. It is on this level that Rivera’s postseason numbers are relevant. Not that he would not lose, but that for a crucial stretch of games he did not, not often anyway. Our modern baseball experience is big and little dynasties dominating small divisions and racking up tons of postseason games. There are guys like John Smoltz, Bernie Williams, and Mariano who might not quite stack up as traditional Hall of Famers, but have been our October fixtures for a decade, annually contesting baseball’s most important games. Nobody has been better in those games than Mo. If you want the Hall of Fame to reflect that, I won’t argue the point.
Chris DeRosa lives in Oakhurst, NJ and had the absurdly good luck to be at both the ’95 ALDS Game 2 and the ’03 ALCS Game 7 to see Mo pitch. You can reach him at email@example.com
Spring Training Edition
By Bruce Markusen February 26, 2004
What’s On Second?
Now that “The Trade” has become official and all interested parties have had a chance to chime in on the merits of Alfonso Soriano vs. Alex Rodriguez (and it is amazing how a few Sabermetricians are now saying that onetime whipping post Soriano isn’t really that far from the godlike A-Rod on the value scale), it’s time for the Yankees to begin their spring training search for a new All-Star second baseman. Or at least one who can pick up a ground ball. Right now, the list of candidates features four participants, but that could change based on a trade or a waiver wire pickup during the spring. Let’s start with the pivotmen currently training with the Yankees down in Tampa.
In House Candidates:
Erick Almonte: He’s probably the longest of long shots to win the second base derby, given his non-roster status and lack of experience at the position. Almonte has struggled at shortstop, so he might be better suited for the other side of the diamond in the long run. I’d expect that he’ll start the season as the Opening Day second baseman for the Columbus Clippers.
Homer Bush: Also a non-roster invite, Bush is working against long odds, especially since he didn’t play in the major leagues in 2003. Offensively, Bush will never compile even a decent on-base percentage since he likes to swing early in the count. On the plus side, Joe Torre remembers the impact that Bush had as a reserve in 1998, when he became a late-inning intimidator with his game-changing speed on the bases. Bush has lost a step or two since then and is no longer a feared basestealer, but he’s still an above-average defender at second base with plus range and the capability of turning the double play. The 31-year-old Bush could emerge as a sleeper in the second-base sweepstakes, particularly if general manager Brian Cashman fails to swing a deal for help outside of the organization.
Miguel Cairo: Of the four in-house candidates, Cairo is probably the weakest hitter; he won’t hit for a high average, doesn’t draw a lot of walks, and has no power. Yet, he’ll probably catch Torre’s attention with his fielding around the bag, where he’s more comfortable than either Bush or Enrique Wilson. Once a favorite of Tony LaRussa in St. Louis, Cairo has good range and soft hands, and turns the double play well. Unlike Bush, Cairo has a fallback option of making the team as a backup player; he possesses enough versatility to play third base, shortstop, or the outfield, whereas Bush can only play second or third.
Enrique Wilson: Despite several unproductive seasons as a Bronx utilityman, Wilson has managed to gain favor with both Torre and Cashman. They like his professionalism and upbeat attitude, which helps them overlook his severe lack of offensive output in pinstripes. Wilson really hasn’t hit since his days in Cleveland, and he’s not as capable a defender as either Bush or Cairo. Yet, Wilson is almost certain to make the team and has already been installed as the pre-season second-base favorite by Torre.
While the list of in-house contenders is relatively short—and somewhat nondescript—the possibilities on the trade market offer a far wider range of options. The name of Jose Vidro has been mentioned by a number of writers, but the Expos’ infielder would likely cost too much in terms of prospects. More to the point, he really doesn’t answer the Yankees’ primary need of better infield defense; their priority should be in finding a second baseman with as much range as possible. Vidro, who is no better than average in the field and was bothered by a strained knee in 2003, is a great offensive player, but the Yankees already have a lineup that runs eight deep.
Putting Vidro aside, here are the players the Yankees will realistically consider from other organizations.
Out-House (So To Speak) Candidates:
Alex Cora (Dodgers): Rated strictly on defensive ability, Cora ranks as the best available second baseman on the trade market. He’s also an extremely weak hitter, making him a kind of modern-day Mark Belanger among middle infielders. If the Dodgers had better hitters around him, they could live with Cora for another summer, but their overall offensive ineptitude makes him a liability. If the Yankees can come up with a young hitter as the bait, they’ll likely be in a better position to put Cora in pinstripes. Unfortunately, the Yankees are lacking in offensive prospects, unless the Dodgers would reconsider the abilities of outfielder Bubba Crosby, whom they traded away for Robin Ventura last summer. In reality, that’s not likely to happen.
Jerry Hairston Jr. (Orioles): The son of the former White Sox outfielder is very much available; the Orioles have Brian Roberts to play second base and would love nothing better than to trade Hairston for pitching help. The Yankees might be a match, since they have the likes of Jorge DePaula, Scott Proctor, or Bret Prinz to offer. While the 27-year-old Hairston brings nothing special to the offensive table (he’s a .270 hitter with plus speed), he has forged a reputation as a solid defender with good quickness in turning the double play. The Yankees, however, will want to take an updated look at Hairston this spring, just to make sure that he’s fully recovered from the broken foot that cost him nearly four months of the 2003 season.
Mark Loretta (Padres): The Yankees passed on an opportunity to trade for Loretta last season, when their primary infield need was at third base. Now the Yankees are considering Loretta for the other side of the infield, where he has plenty of experience and sure hands, if not tremendous range. With a glut of second base prospects (led by California League MVP Josh Barfield), the Padres might still be interested in trading Loretta, but the asking price has gone up after a career season that saw him hit .314 with 13 home runs. The Padres will likely ask for one of the Yankees’ few remaining minor league gems (translated, that’s Dioner Navarro or Eric Duncan), a request that Cashman will almost certainly turn down for the 32-year-old Loretta.
Frank Menechino (A’s): A onetime starter, the overachieving Menechino has hit a roadblock in Oakland, where Mark Ellis figures to play second base until he becomes eligible for free agency. Although Menechino hit under .200 last year, he still compiled a respectable .364 on-base percentage, a testament to the kind of plate patience that Billy Beane and Co. love. Defensively, the native New Yorker is best described as steady and solid, while possessing only adequate range. Given his age (33) and his lack of versatility, he’s more than available on the trade market; that said, Beane won’t just give him away, not when he knows the Yankees have a major need at the position.
Luis Rivas (Twins): After Alex Cora, the 24-year-old Rivas is the best defender among those second basemen who are realistic trade targets for New York. Rivas has good range (though less than Cora), but has a cannon arm which makes him deadly on double plays and choppers hit up the middle. The bad news? He’s a poor hitter who’ll struggle to get out of the .250 range and won’t take many walks—in other words, a suitable ninth-place hitter in the potent Yankee order. The Twins might be willing to move Rivas for some inexpensive bullpen help, which could come in the form of Proctor or Prinz.
Junior Spivey (Brewers): Of all the potentially realistic trade candidates for the Yankees, Spivey appears to be the best all-around talent. He’s a poor-man’s Alfonso Soriano, what with his combination of power and speed, and his tendencies as an impatient mistake hitter who swings too often and too hard. Defensively, Spivey is also similar in style to Soriano, with stiff hands and awkwardness in turning double plays, but he has more range than the former Yankee second baseman. So why are the Brewers willing to trade him? For one, he is scheduled to make $2.3 million in 2004, a pittance for a pinstriped player but an exorbitant sum for a member of the Brew Crew. Secondly, Milwaukee has a glut of veterans at the position, including fellow ex-Diamondback Craig Counsell and holdover Keith Ginter, with stud prospect Rickie Weeks waiting in the minor league wings. If the Brewers are willing to take some combination of DePaula, Prinz, Proctor, and rehabbing minor league hurler Danny Borrell, and don’t insist on Navarro or Duncan, the Yankees might be able to squeeze out a deal with baseball’s troubled franchise.
At least two other second basemen have been mentioned in trade rumors, but neither seems like a realistic possibility for the Yankees. Cincinnati’s talented D’Angelo Jimenez might be considered a lighter version of Jose Vidro; he’s a good, patient hitter with some pop. Unfortunately, he carries some heavy defensive baggage at second base (it’s hard to believe he was once projected as a major league shortstop). And then there’s Toronto’s Orlando Hudson, a youngster with a high ceiling, but I can’t see J.P. Ricciardi making a deal that would help his divisional rivals in any way.
I started collecting baseball cards in the spring of 1972; this Jim “Mudcat” Grant Topps card (No. 111 in the set) was one of the very first I picked up at my local Gillard’s Stationary Store in Bronxville, New York. Even though I didn’t know anything about Grant as a player (he could have been the batting coach for all I knew, and I certainly didn’t know about the “Mudcat” moniker), I loved that card almost immediately—partly because of the green and white Oakland uniform and partly because of those funky oh-so-1970s mutton-chop sideburns. Simply put, Mudcat owned the biggest and best groomed sideburns in the big leagues.
Little did I realize that this would be the last Topps card issued for Grant as an active player. I had no idea that Grant had already been released by the A’s during the winter. I never thought that would have happened, considering the fairly impressive statistics on the back of Grant’s card.
After a mid-season trade to the A’s, Grant had finished out the 1971 season in the Bay Area. Grant had pitched effectively in middle relief for manager Dick Williams, posting an earned run average of 1.98 in 15 appearances. Although Mudcat appeared to have plenty of life left in his 36-year-old arm, the A’s released him after the season, primarily because Charlie Finley didn’t want to foot the bill on the right-hander’s expensive contract. As a seven-year-old baseball fan, I didn’t understand how money could alter a front office’s opinion of a player. Either a guy could play—or he couldn’t.
In what remains a mystery to me to this day, no other major league team would give Mudcat a spot on its 25-man roster. Several teams seemed needy of relief help (including the Red Sox, Angels, Royals, and Cubs) but only one team—the non-contending Indians—gave him as much as a non-roster spring training invite. Settling for what amounted to a glorified tryout, Grant failed to make the Indians’ staff in the spring and received a not-so-generous offer of a demotion to Triple-A Portland. Grant decided to continue his career by pitching briefly in the minor leagues, all the while hoping that a major league team would come calling. When no one showed interest, Mudcat grew discouraged, prompting what seemed like an unfair and premature retirement. Mudcat thus ended his career with a record of 145 wins, 119 losses, a respectable ERA of 3.63, and 53 saves.
Instead of leaving the game completely, the outgoing Grant opted for a job as a broadcaster with the Indians. During a seven-year tenure with Cleveland, Grant doubled as the team’s community director and delivered about 200 speeches per year. After a short broadcasting stint with the A’s, Grant removed himself temporarily from baseball circles, becoming a special marketing director for the Anheuser-Busch Company in the Cleveland area. Grant also worked for the speakers’ bureau of the NBA’s Cleveland Cavaliers. Grant returned to the national pastime in 1984, when he was chosen as an assistant venue director for baseball at the Summer Olympic Games in Los Angeles.
About a month after the Olympics ended, Grant ran into former playing great Hank Aaron, who was serving as the Atlanta Braves’ Director of Player Personnel. Aaron offered Grant a position as pitching coach in Atlanta’s minor league system. Grant quickly accepted the offer. Six years later, Grant began operating a nationwide program called “Slug-Out Illiteracy, Slug-Out Drugs” in Los Angeles, where he encouraged former players to put forth an anti-drug message during baseball instructional clinics. And as part of his efforts to help former players who have hit hard times, Grant has faithfully served as a board member of the Major League Baseball Players Alumni Association.
All the while, the personable Grant has continued to pursue one of his life-long loves: singing. Mudcat, who began his professional music career at the age of 30 with a group called “Mudcat and the Kittens,” still tours on occasion and performs his song-and-dance act at nightclubs. “I’m a pretty good singer,” Grant told Sports Collectors Digest in 1995. “I was taught by some of the best, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Nancy Wilson, Bobby Darren, O.C. Smith.”
Now Grant’s hoping to get some of the best young African-American baseball talent interested in playing a sport that has become all too foreign to them. Grant, who recently visited the Hall of Fame to participate in a Legends Series event celebrating Black History Month, is currently working on a project called the “12 Black Aces.” The effort celebrates the dozen African Americans who have had 20-win seasons in the major leagues. Grant hopes the project, which is headlined by a book that is currently in progress, will help resurrect the interest that young African Americans have in the National Pastime… In our next column, I’ll provide a partial transcript of the interview I conducted with Grant and his former Pirate teammate Al Oliver, who visited the Hall on February 14.
The Nickname Game
SABR member and researcher extraordinaire Maxwell Kates recently compiled a list of unofficial team nicknames for SABR’s on-line exchange. While all current-day teams have official nicknames, there’s always been a tendency to give some clubs more colorful names, as a way of paying tribute to unique characteristics or personalities within the teams’ dynamics. Using Kates’ list as a drawing board, here are 10 of the most colorful names that have been given to teams over the years, either by fans, the media, or by the players themselves.
“Murderers’ Row:” 1927-1928 New York Yankees
“The Gas House Gang:” 1934-1939 St. Louis Cardinals
“Whiz Kids:” 1950 Philadelphia Phillies:
“Big Red Machine:” 1969-1976 Cincinnati Reds
“Riders of the Lonesome Pine:” 1981 Detroit Tigers
“Harvey’s Wallbangers:” 1982-1983 Milwaukee Brewers
Andy Seminick (Died on February 22 in Melbourne, Florida; age 83; cancer): Seminick was the last surviving everyday member of the 1950 Philadelphia Phillies’ “Whiz Kids,” who stunned the baseball world by capturing the National League pennant over seemingly superior competition. Regarded by many as the spiritual leader of the Whiz Kids, the rough-and-tumble catcher batted .288 with 24 home runs in 1950. It was arguably the best season of Seminick’s 15-year career, as he matched lifetime highs in home runs and RBIs, and achieved a personal best in batting average that summer. Respected for his toughness, Seminick played in the 1950 World Series despite a badly injured ankle. For his career, Seminick hit 164 home runs, making him one of the most powerful hitting catchers of the late forties and early fifties. After his playing days, the hard-nosed Seminick became highly successful as a minor league manager in the Phillies’ organization. Considered outstanding in the area of player development, Seminick managed the likes of Mike Schmidt, Ferguson Jenkins, Alex Johnson, and Bob Boone, all of whom eventually became stars in the major leagues. In particular, Seminick helped Boone make a difficult transition from third base to catcher at Double-A Reading in 1971, paving the way for the young Phillies farmhand to make the big leagues only one year later.
Charlie Fox (Died on February 16 in Stanford, California; age 82; complications from pneumonia): A former player and manager in the major leagues, “Irish” was best known for his tenure as manager of the San Francisco Giants in the early 1970s. After replacing Clyde King midway through the 1970 season, Fox led the Giants to the National League West title in 1971, forging a record of 90-72. The Giants’ performance under his leadership earned Fox National League Manager of the Year honors. Although favored by some to advance to that fall’s World Series, the Giants lost the Championship Series to the Pittsburgh Pirates, falling three games to one. Fox remained the manager of the Giants through the 1974 season, compiling a record of 348-327 in the Bay Area. He later managed the Montreal Expos and Chicago Cubs on an interim basis, and also served as the Expos’ general manager from 1976 to 1978. Fox most recently worked as a scout for the Houston Astros from 1990 to 1993 before retiring… As a player, Fox batted .429 in three games for the New York Giants in 1942, but saw his catching career interrupted when he entered the Navy to serve in World War II.
Lawrence Ritter (Died on February 15 in New York City; age 81; series of strokes): One of the most respected authors of the baseball genre, Ritter wrote the highly-acclaimed book, The Glory of Their Times, a compilation of oral histories of players from the early 20th century. Ritter spent four years traveling and interviewing subjects with a tape recorder. Among those he interviewed were Ty Cobb and Honus Wagner, two of the five inaugural members of the Hall of Fame. A devoted and popular member of SABR, Ritter also wrote several other lesser-known but still respected books on baseball, including Lost Ballparks and Leagues Apart: The Men and Times of the Negro Leagues.
Ted Tappe (Died on February 13 in Wenatchee, Washington; age 73): Although Tappe had a relatively nondescript three-year career in the major leagues, he did gain notoriety when he homered in his first big league at-bat. Making his debut for the Cincinnati Reds on September 14, 1950, the left-handed hitting outfielder came to the plate as a pinch-hitter and hit a home run against Brooklyn’s Erv Palica. It was one of five home runs that Tappe would hit in only 58 career at-bats.
Adriana Orsulak (Died on February 9 in Timonium, Maryland; age 39; brain cancer): Drawing praise for the courage she displayed in battling cancer for many years, the wife of former major league outfielder Joe Orsulak finally succumbed to the disease in early February. Adriana Orsulak first met her husband in Venezuela in 1983; they eventually married and had two children. Joe Orsulak played for the Pittsburgh Pirates, Baltimore Orioles, New York Mets, and Florida Marlins during a 13-year career in the major leagues.
Juan Armenteros (Died on October 8, 2003 in Miami, Florida; age unknown; bladder cancer): Playing in the Negro Leagues in the years after Jackie Robinson integrated the major leagues, Armenteros was a member of the Kansas City Monarchs from1953 to 1955. A native of Cuba, he also played for the Havana Cuban Giants and for Cuba’s Artes Officio baseball team.
Cooperstown Confidential writer Bruce Markusen is the author of three books on baseball, including A Baseball Dynasty: Charlie Finley’s Swingin’ A’s, which is available at www.amazon.com and at Borders Books. A fourth book, The Kid: The Life of Ted Williams (Greenwood Press) is scheduled for release this spring.
Yankee Preview Friday: Jorge Posada
By Jay Jaffe
The area directly behind home plate in Yankee Stadium has played host to a pretty fair collection of ballplayers. Two Hall of Famers, Bill Dickey and Yogi Berra, have donned the tools of intelligence for the Yankees, and four men -- Dickey, Berra, Elston Howard and Thurman Munson -- have won a total of five MVP awards (three by Berra), five Gold Gloves (three by Munson) and made an astounding 42 All-Star teams. Not coincidentally, the uniform numbers of those four men have all been retired by the Yankees. Into the large cleats of these bronzed Bombers steps Jorge Posada, a man with four All-Star appearances already under his belt, not to mention a healthy third-place showing in the 2003 MVP vote. With relatively little fanfare, Posada has shown himself not only a solid, worthy heir to the men who've manned that hallowed spot of dirt, but also one of the league's most valuable players and arguably the best catcher in baseball.
Along with Bernie Williams, Derek Jeter, and Mariano Rivera, Posada remains one of the shrinking core of homegrown Yankees who ushered in their recent dynasty, "Joe Torre's guys." He's the junior member of that quartet, playing only nine major-league games prior to 1997 while the other three figured prominently in the team's 1996 championship, their first under Torre. But he's become part of the old guard, a leader in the clubhouse as well as on the field, his fiery demeanor channeled to better use than simply goading Orlando "El Duque" Hernandez onto the same page. Following the Yanks' early ouster from the 2002 playoffs, Posada emerged as a vocal critic of his teammates' uninspired play, echoing Derek Jeter's it-don't-mean-a-thing-if-we-don't-get-that-ring sentiments, and in Jeter's absence last year, he assumed even more of a leadership role. The hothead in him still emerges from time to time; recall his heated exchange with Pedro Martinez as all hell broke loose in last year's ALCS Game Three.
The Yankees drafted the Puerto Rican Posada in the 24th round in 1990 out of Calhoun (Alabama) Community College, but it was as a second baseman, not as a catcher. Looking at his physique today, those thunder-thighs supporting that skinny upper body, it's difficult to imagine him fielding grounders or pivoting on the double play, which may be why after his first season in the minors the Yanks converted him to a backstop. Given that he led his league in either passed balls or errors in 1993 and 1994, some would argue that he wasn't stopping much of anything. But Posada's hitting skills, particularly his abilities to control the strike zone and to hit for power from both sides of the plate, were apparent as far back as 1992, when he hit .277 AVG/.389 OBP/.472 SLG for Greenville (A). He spent three years in AAA Columbus, struggling in 1994 (.240/.308/.406) but winning International League All-Star honors in both 1995 (.255/.355/.435) and 1996 (.271/.405/.460) and earning brief cups of coffee in the Bronx in the latter years. He even made the postseason roster in 1995, scoring a run as a pinch-runner in the Division series against Seattle.
In part due to his defensive struggles and to Torre's taste for defense-first catchers, the Yankees brought Posada along slowly once he stuck on the roster for good in 1997. Jorge appeared in only 60 games that season while Girardi remained the regular, but the roles were reversed during 1998, and he's held the job ever since. Since Girardi's departure following the 1999 season, Posada has become even more of a mainstay in the Yankee lineup, catching 130 or more games in each of the past four years, hitting .278/.389/.497 and averaging 25 HR and 95 in that span. Most teams would do well to have such a solid contributor at any position, let alone catcher. For the Yanks, such production from their homegrown up-the-middle players has been as much a given in the Torre era as a formidable rotation.
Prior to last season, Posada's best year with the bat came in 2000, when he hit .287/.417/.527 with 28 homers and 107 walks. His raw averages and totals in 2003 were slightly off that mark, .281/.405/.518 with 30 homers and 93 walks, but relative to the league, he was a better hitter; his adjusted OPS of 146 (seventh in the league) blew away his 2000 mark of 134. Notably, he cut down his strikeouts considerably last year, whiffing only 110 times after averaging 142 in the previous three seasons. Oh, and he also tied Yogi for the Yankee record for home runs by a catcher in a single season while topping 100 RBI for the first time. Not too shabby.
One factor which may have played a part in Posada's great season was the improved health of his son, Jorge Posada IV. The youngest Posada, now four, suffers from craniosynostosis, which causes the bones of the skull to fuse before the brain has stopped growing. He's endured three major surgeries to correct the problem, including a ten-hour ordeal a year ago this week. The sight of young Jorge squirting onto the field during the player introductions of each of the last two All-Star Games has added a heartwarming touch to the games, and it's not too hard to envision how his improved health has been a boon to his father.
Was Jorge the Yankees' MVP last season? In a year which saw Derek Jeter miss six weeks with a dislocated shoulder, Bernie Williams undergo knee surgery, Jason Giambi struggle with eye and knee problems, and Nick Johnson break his hand, Posada's got a pretty solid case. He may not have the speed and flash of Alfonso Soriano, but his plate discipline makes him a much more valuable hitter. Looking at two valuation metrics which consider both offense and defense, Baseball Prospectus' Wins Above Replacement and Bill James' Win Shares (as calculated at BaseballGraphs.com, Posada tied for the team lead with Soriano in one and edged Giambi in the other:
WARP3 WS WSAA Posada 9.2 27.75 13.0 Soriano 9.2 27.38 8.6 Mussina 8.7 18.62 7.3 Giambi 8.5 27.68 12.6 Clemens 8.0 15.47 4.5 Rivera 7.2 17.49 9.7 Wells 6.5 14.46 3.4 Pettitte 5.7 14.62 1.6 Matsui 4.8 18.89 1.2 Johnson 4.8 14.49 5.6 Williams 4.5 13.13 -0.1 Jeter 4.2 17.81 4.4
The third column is Win Shares Above Average, an attempt to reconcile one of the major flaws with James' Win Shares, namely the lack of an opportunity baseline (the methodology for WSAA is here). While I'm more partial to systems which measure from a replacement level than from average, the WSAA adjustment is striking. Not only does Posada shoot to the top of the Yanks, he's got the fourth-highest total in the A.L. All of this confirms Posada's legitimacy as an MVP candidate last season (he finished third; I made the case here that he should win the award).
Is Posada the best catcher in the game? Win Shares and WARP3 support that conclusion emphatically. Here are the Top 10 catchers over the last three seasons (Win Shares 2002 data from Baseball Truth; WSAA isn't available yet for years prior to 2003):
WARP3 WS Posada 23.0 73 Rodriguez 21.7 52 Lo Duca 19.6 66 Lopez 16.2 53 Pierzynski 15.0 54 Piazza 15.0 51 Hernandez 14.2 44 Kendall 14.1 42 Varitek 13.4 47 Santiago 10.6 38
The key here is durability. Aside from L.A.'s Paul Lo Duca and Minnesota's A.J. Pierzynski, all of the would-be heavyweight contenders for the Best Catcher title besides Posada have missed a significant chunk of time or ruined a season due to serious injury. Pudge's back, Piazza's groin, Kendall's ankle, Lopez's knee, and Varitek's elbow have given way, while Posada's ability to remain healthy, despite nagging injuries and arthroscopic shoulder surgery after the 2001 season, has made him the most valuable catcher in baseball as much as his bat has.
As for his glove, that's not his strongest suit. Posada has thrown out only about 30 percent of opposing base stealers over the course of his career, which is solid but unexceptional. Last season he ranked 19th out of 29 qualifying catchers at throwing runners out. He also led the major leagues in passed balls, despite the relatively well-publicized return (as these things go) of catching instructor Gary Tuck after a few years' absence. Looking at the advanced metrics, Posada places almost exactly average on the Prospectus fielding scale, fourth in total fielding Win Shares (7.53) for an AL catcher, and sixth the league in terms of Win Shares per 1000 innings (6.47, leaders based on 500 innings played minimum). It's worth noting that Pudge, long with the reputation for being the best defensive catcher, has fallen off considerably; his WS/1000 is pretty anemic (3.75), and he's only 9 Fielding Runs Above Average over the past two seasons according to BP.
For all of his defensive woes, Posada is certainly an asset, and it helps that the Yankee staff speaks highly of his game-calling instincts and his ability to frame pitches (though his tendency to argue balls and strikes with the umpires while hitting doesn't win him many favors). It helps even more, of course, that the Yanks have had an excellent rotation to begin with. But with three new starters joining the staff in Javier Vazquez, Kevin Brown, and Jon Leiber, Posada will face some real challenges this year. The sparks might fly between him and the ornery Brown, and he'll have to keep Contreras focused and working on pace. He'll probably mesh quite well with fellow Puerto Rican Vazquez, which should ease his transition to the Bronx, but how he'll fare in working with new relievers Tom Gordon and Paul Quantrill is pure conjecture.
Baserunning is another shortcoming in Posada's game; despite his less than stocky build, he's a slow runner if not exceptionally so for a catcher. Fortunately, he knows this, attempting only 24 steals (9 successfully) in his entire big-league career and hitting only five triples. Since he hits the ball in the air a fair amount, he manages to avoid grounding into double plays, yet another small edge to his game.
Posada signed a five-year, $51 million contract in February of 2002, and while it's small potatoes compared to what Jeter, Giambi, Alex Rodriguez, or Mike Mussina make, that contract does carry with it some risk. Catchers age more rapidly than other ballplayers, and few of them are productive into their late 30s. Posada is 32, and will be pulling down $9 million, $12 million, and $13.5 million (including bonuses) for the rest of the contract, not exactly chump change. The Yankees hold a $12 million team option for 2007 with a $4 million buyout, while Posada can void his contract after this season. Given the slowing growth of player contracts and Posada's attachment to winning, that has about as much chance of happening as the beatification of George Steinbrenner.
The fact that Posada converted to catching at a relatively late age means he's got considerably less mileage on his body than most 32-year-old catchers, and his history of durability bodes well. But based on his age and body type, Baseball Prospectus' PECOTA prediction system sees a bit of decline immediately ahead for Posada; its weighted mean forecast calls for a .261/.368/.460 line with 20 homers. Posada should surpass those numbers if he remains healthy, but lady luck will have her say; one nagging hand injury can hamper a catcher's hitting for the entire season, and one freak injury can alter the expectations for the rest of his career. Just ask Jason Kendall.
Assuming he stays relatively healthy, does Posada have a chance at becoming the all-time greatest Yankee catcher? Almost certainly, no. His late start means he won't rack up the career totals of the exceptionally durable Berra and Dickey, both of whom were established stars by their mid-20s and remained productive into their late 30s.
Earlier this winter, using Baseball Prospectus' Wins Above Replacement metrics, I took a look at the hitters on the 2004 Hall of Fame ballot and compared them with the enshrinees at each position. My method was to balance career length (using total Wins Above Replacement, WARP3) and peak (best five consecutive season WARP3 total, abbreviated W5C) by averaging the two figures together to get what I called the Weighted WARP score (WPWT). The results were published in articles on BP this past January, but since no catchers were on the ballot, that section was omitted. Applying my methodology to the aforementioned Yankee catchers (denoted by Y in the chart below), the Hall of Fame catchers (H), Posada's top contemporaries (C), and some interesting historical also-rans (N) gives an interesting snapshot of where he fits in and where he might end up.
WARP3 W5C WPWT H Gary Carter 119.8 49.9 84.9 H Johnny Bench 118.0 50.4 84.2 H Yogi Berra 109.9 45.1 77.5 H Carlton Fisk 111.6 39.8 75.7 C Ivan Rodriguez 98.3 47.0 72.7 H Bill Dickey 101.0 42.4 71.7 N Joe Torre 99.7 40.5 70.1 H Gabby Hartnett 95.8 36.7 66.3 N Ted Simmons 94.3 38.2 66.3 C Mike Piazza 84.2 45.5 64.9 H Mickey Cochrane 83.9 45.2 64.6 N Lance Parrish 87.1 33.3 60.2 H Buck Ewing 79.7 33.9 56.8 N Bill Freehan 75.0 35.5 55.3 N Gene Tenace 71.4 38.5 55.0 Y Thurman Munson 68.9 38.1 53.5 N Darrell Porter 75.5 31.6 53.6 H Roy Campanella 64.8 42.0 53.4 N Jim Sundberg 68.2 33.6 50.9 H Ernie Lombardi 71.6 29.3 50.5 N Wally Schang 68.3 25.7 47.0 H Rick Ferrell 64.9 28.9 46.9 Y Elston Howard 58.6 34.3 46.5 N Bob Boone 67.8 22.8 45.3 H Ray Schalk 57.8 25.7 41.8 C Jason Kendall 48.7 34.0 41.3 H Roger Bresnahan 53.7 26.6 40.2 Y Jorge Posada 43.4 36.3 39.9
The lower ranks of Hall of Fame catchers represent the nadir of the Veterans Committee's selections; the Committee elected Ferrell when the thought they were voting for his brother, pitcher Wes Ferrell, while Bresnahan got the nod in part because he pioneered the use of shin guards. More worthy catchers such as Torre (who switched positions), Simmons, Parrish, Freehan, Tenace and Porter had careers superior to that lower echelon. Posada is just beginning to dent this chart, but it's important to note that since he's only been a regular for four years, his peak score is low; the 2004 season will essentially count double, and another season on the order of the one he just had, say a 9.0 WARP, will move him past Ferrell and Howard, among others. Three solid seasons, not exactly a given, would push him past Munson and into the third slot among Yankee catchers, but he'd need about seven good seasons to pass Dickey. He won't make that, but three more good seasons and a typical, gradual decline phase would put him between Ewing and Cochrane, which is Flavor Country where the Hall of Fame is concerned. Even there he won't be a lock, especially because Rodriguez has a pretty good shot at winding up #1 on this chart -- three solid seasons will do it -- and Piazza will continue to climb, albeit less rapidly. Given that it took six ballots for Carter to reach Cooperstown, it's a safe bet that Posada will have to wait for his ship to come in even if it's due, because his contemporaries will overshadow him. The bottom line is that there's far more uncertainty about him getting to that point than there is about him attaining his just reward once he does.
The 2004 season should be another exciting but tense one for Yankee fans, as their star-studded lineup tries to meet the unbelievably lofty expectations that have been set. Posada might just be at the intersection of two of the most interesting questions about the team, namely, "How will this revamped rotation fare?" and, "With all these stars and superstars, who are the true leaders of this team?" Expect Posada to continue asserting his authority even in the presence of A-Rod, backing Jeter in whatever subtle power struggle may emerge between the two men on the left side of the infield, and continuing to be one of Torre's guys in gauging the mood of the team. Posada is definitely part of the Yankees' old guard now, comfortably filling the big shoes of those who came before him.
Jay Jaffe is the sole owner and proprietor of The Futility Infielder, one of the longest-running and best baseball websites on the Internet.
Awww, man. The AP is reporting that Bernie Williams will have surgery today to have his appendix removed. This sudden turn of events means that Kenny Lofton will likely start the season as the Yankees' starting center fielder. Shoot, I feel for Bernie. I was hoping that he would be able to get a full season in this year. Maybe he'll only miss a few weeks of the regular season. Still, he'll be behind everyone. Williams played well early last year, but has traditionally been a slow starter. This won't help any. Drag.
Speaking of leadoff hitters, have you seen Johnny Damon, Boston's answer to Captain Caveman? (Damon also looks a bit like the little kid with the deadly boomerang in "The Road Warrior.") Most modern athletes are accused of being dull and guarded, but Damon is a flake with some real chutzpah. The anti-Yankee is sure to keep things lively in Boston this year (as if they needed any help in that department).
Lickshot: Michael Lewis Bites Back
Here is Lewis' reaction to Tracy Ringolsby's brusque dismissal of the book. For Ringolsby:
So put that in your pipe and smoke it.
Yankee Preview Thursday: Alex Rodriguez
By Cliff Corcoran
When my gracious host, Alex Belth, first asked me to contribute a guest column to his spring training preview, he assigned me a profile of then Yankee second baseman Alfonso Soriano. I cranked out about 3,000 words and was in the home stretch when, on the day after Valentine’s Day, Soriano was shipped to the Texas Rangers in exchange for Alex Rodriguez. Despite having spent the preceding week vigorously gathering evidence with which to defend the then 26-year-old Soriano against his critics, I was no less delighted at the news of the trade. The Yankees had just picked up the best all-around player in the majors and a man who is challenging for the title of the best shortstop in the history of the game. Well, that was my initial reaction.
As the trade sank in, official word came down that Rodriguez would be moving to third base, and I began to picture Miguel Cairo as the Yankees starting second baseman, I began to think about A-Rod’s place in history a bit more deeply, as well as his ranking among the best active players in the game. The three primary questions I had were:
1) How exactly does Rodriguez measure up against the greatest shortstops in history, and how would this status change should his move to third be permanent?
2) If his move to third base is permanent, how would A-Rod measure up against the game’s greatest third basemen, should he continue to produce at his established levels with the typical decline of a player of his skill level?
3) Where exactly does Alex Rodriguez rank among the top hitters in the game today, and when speed and defense are taken into account, how much further would he move up the list of the games greatest players?
So let’s try to answer these questions.
First let’s take a look at how Rodriguez measures up against the game’s greatest shortstops. It’s widely acknowledged that if A-Rod has any competition for the title of the greatest shortstop ever, that competition comes in the form of one John Peter “Honus” Wagner. As Wagner played the entirety of his career in the dead-ball era (he retired in 1917 at age 43) the comparison between the two men is almost impossible to make based on counting stats alone. Even traditional rate stats fail us, as a large part of Rodriguez’s value is derived from his slugging, which by definition is difficult to compare to that of a player from the dead-ball era. As a result we’re forced to turn to some slightly more advanced metrics. Namely OPS+ (adjusted on-base percentage plus slugging, which adjusts for park factors and is expressed in comparison to a league average of 100) from Baseball-Reference.com, and four stats from Lee Sinins’ Sabermetric Baseball Encyclopedia: RCAA (runs created against average, the difference between the runs created totals for the given player and a league average player based on outs), RCAP (runs created against position, same deal but measured only against players at the same defensive position), OWP (offensive winning percentage, the projected winning percentage of a team composed of a league average defense and pitching staff and an offense comprised of clones of the given player) and RC/G (runs created per game, simply the number of runs scored per game by an offense consisting solely of clones of the given player—note that this is not an adjusted stat).
As Rodriguez has played in less than half as many games in his career as Wagner, let’s first take a look at the non-cumulative measures: ):
Wagner takes a convincing lead here. When you remember that we’re including Honus’s entire career, including his final four significantly sub-par seasons, you’ve got to think that Honus has this one pretty easy. Indeed, adding in defense only helps the Flying Dutchman. Rodriguez may have a pair of Gold Gloves, but Wagner was known as a spectacular fielder. Indeed, using Clay Davenport’s Rate2 fielding stat (which also adjusts for league and era and is expressed against a norm of 100), Wagner comes in with a career average of 105, admittedly not quite up to his reputation, against A-Rod’s 103 (curiously, Rodriguez’s Rate2 has risen and fallen in perfect synch with his offensive production in every one of his ten seasons).
Shifting our focus to the basepaths, A-Rod has swiped 177 bases in his career and has a 40/40 season under his belt, but Wagner stole 723 career bases, good for tenth on the all-time list, and averaged 42 steals per 162 games played. Looks like Wagner steals this one, but compare each players totals against the league average and you find out that Wagner stole 177 percent as many bases as a league average player (regardless of position), while Rodriguez has stolen almost exactly twice the league average. Still, even the most hardened number cruncher has to be impressed by 723 career steals. That, combined with the fact that Rodriguez’s steal rate is bound to slow as he ages, makes this a wash at best for A-Rod.
Just to be fair, let’s take a look at peak value. Four our purposes, let’s define “peak” as a player’s best four consecutive seasons. For A-Rod that means his most recent four seasons, 2000-2003 (ages 24-27). For Wagner it’s 1905-1908 (ages 31-34).
Since we’re comparing similar service time, let’s put the counting stats back in there. We’ll also include the number of outs used by each player and the league average RC/G during each four-year period:
Baseball-Reference doesn’t let you isolate portions of a hitter’s career, but A-Rod’s OPS+s for this period are 167, 164, 152, 148 (not a great trend for Yankee fans, by the way, as it indicates that Rodriguez has indeed peaked), while Wagner’s are 174, 168, 187 and 205. No contest.
So Honus Wagner still has a very firm grip on the title of Greatest Shortstop Ever. Can we at least say that Rodriguez is the runner up?
After using our adjusted metrics to try to pin down the greatest 15 single seasons and 15 highest career values by a shortstop, Rodriguez’s only serious competition for second best shortstop appears to be Arky Vaughan. Vaughan’s 1935 season is locked in an epic battle with Wagner’s 1908 season for the greatest ever by a shortstop, and he is the only shortstop other than Wagner and Rodriguez to rank in the top five in career RCAA, RCAP, OWP and RC/G by a shortstop.
Let’s go back to our career rate stats for Alex and Arky:
Man, that’s close. Both players created almost exactly 157 percent of their league’s average runs per game, while Arky has the OWP lead and A-Rod has the OPS+ lead.
Before we dig deeper into the hitting stats, let’s expand our view. Vaughan stole 118 bases over his 14-year career, 184 percent of the league average, but 59 fewer than A-Rod has already swiped in ten seasons. As for his glove work, Vaughan beats A-Rod by the same margin as Wagner, 105 to 103. I’ll call that a wash.
Rodriguez and Vaughan match up nicely because, while Wagner got off to a late start and was one of the best 30-something players in the history of the game, both Arky and A-Rod were sensations in their 20s. Vaughn hit the ground running with a .318/.375/.412 season in 497 at-bats at age 20. Rodriguez was an unimpressive part-timer at age 18 and 19 before delivering a monster season as the Mariner’s starting shortstop at age 20 (.358/.414/.631 in 601 ABs). Even better for our study of the 28-year-old Rodriguez, Vaughan’s career also started early and pretty much came to an end once he turned 30. A sensation with the 1930s Pittsburgh Pirates of Pie Traynor and the Waner brothers, Vaughan was traded to Brooklyn in December 1941, just months before turning 30. After two solid, but below standard seasons for the Dodgers, Vaughan disappeared from baseball for three seasons after a fight with manager Leo Durocher. He returned to the Dodgers as a backup outfielder and third baseman for two seasons after Durocher was replaced in 1947, playing a total of 129 games and retiring after the 1948 season.
With that in mind, let’s compare A-Rod’s eight full seasons (age 20-27) to Vaughan’s first eight seasons (same ages):
Things are starting to lean toward Vaughan here, but it’s still pretty close. Let’s see what happens when we boil this down to four seasons like we did against Wagner. We’ll use the same four seasons for A-Rod (2000-2003, ages 24-27) against Vaughan’s peak of 1933-36 (ages 21-24):
That breaks the tie. Vaughan takes a clear-cut lead when you consider that he spent four more productive seasons as shortstop (well, one was essentially league average) during his career than A-Rod has thus far. The OPS+ numbers for each players four peak seasons give a lift to A-Rod (146, 149, 190, 148 for Vaughan, 167, 164, 152, 148 for A-Rod), but if A-Rod’s move to third is indeed permanent, I’d have to list him third on the all-time shortstop list behind Arky Vaughan and well behind his Pirates predecessor Honus Wagner. Besides, “Honus” (a.k.a. “The Flying Dutchman”) and “Arky” (given name Joseph Floyd) beat “A-Rod” hands down in the nickname category. That’s gotta count for something.
In case you’re wondering, I don’t think Alex is in much danger of being surpassed by his contemporaries. Among active shortstops, Nomar Garciaparra represents the biggest threat to Rodriguez’s historic status, but Garciaparra is two years older than A-Rod, thus already on the wrong side of 30, and has two fewer full seasons under his belt. Nomar was essentially A-Rod’s equal up through the 2000 season, but a wrist injury wiped out all but 21 games of his 2001 campaign and in his two full seasons since returning it has become clear that Garciaparra is not the hitter he was before. For anyone needing evidence this chart should suffice (since we’re comparing players in the same league and era I’ve thrown the traditional rate stats back in there):
Meanwhile, Derek Jeter’s defensive struggles (career Rate2 of 89) suggest that, while he might put up career numbers to challenge A-Rod’s brief but more brilliant stay at short, they most likely won’t all come as a shortstop. Even if Rodriguez sticks at third, Jeter will most likely have to move into the outfield some time in the next five years if not sooner. If the two switch positions the discussion becomes moot as A-Rod will only add to his accomplishments at short.
Q: How exactly does Rodriguez measure up against the greatest shortstops in history, and how would this status change should his move to third be permanent?
A: Rodriguez ranks third behind Honus Wagner and Arky Vaughan, where he’ll stay if the move to third is permanent. Should he remain at shortstop, or return to shortstop while still a productive offensive player, he stands a very good chance of passing Vaughan, but no chance of catching Wagner.
Here are my projected Greatest Shortstop Ever rankings . . .
. . . if Rodriguez becomes the Yankees permanent shortstop:
1. Honus Wagner
. . . if Rodriguez becomes the Yankees permanent third baseman:
1. Honus Wagner
Considering his rate of production and the fact that he’s still just 28, it stands to reason that, should Alex Rodriguez spend the remainder of his career at third base, he’ll finish his career among the elite third basemen of all time. It’s all conjecture, but I thought it would be fun to try to figure out where he might rank should his move to third be permanent.
Alex Rodriguez’s combination of skill level, work ethic and general health (in terms of injury avoidance and overall fitness) suggest that he is the sort of player who can be expected to continue to produce in his 30s and remain active into his early 40s. The upcoming season will be his age-28 season. Assuming he plays through his age-40 season like his idol and fellow shortstop-turned-third-baseman Cal Ripken, that means he has thirteen seasons ahead of him and ten behind. Assuming typical bell-curve of production and placing the peak on this offseason (Rodriguez seems to have actually peaked in 2000 at age 24 but his decline since then as been so gradual that I think we can allow this), I believe it’s fair to expect him to be able to essentially replicate his previous ten seasons—which include a gradual start (.609 OPS in 65 games over his first two seasons) that should mirror his eventual decline phase—over the next thirteen. I’m also going to assume that Rodriguez, an above average shortstop (career Rate2 of 103), will become a slightly above average third baseman. Cal Ripken (career Rate2 of 106 at shortstop and 104 at third base) again sets a solid precedent for this assumption. What these assumptions allow me to do is to use his current career stats (rate stats taken with a grain of salt) to compare him to the Greatest Third Basemen of All-Time.
Who exactly are the Greatest Third Basemen of All-Time? Well after pouring over it for a couple of days I’ve come up with a list that looks something like this:
Rodriguez would have had a battle on his hands to break into the top four of this list had he spent his entire career at third base. Switching position mid-stream, Schmidt, Mathews, Boggs and Brett are completely out of his reach. At the same time, should A-Rod prove our assumptions correct about his production over the next thirteen seasons at the hot corner, he would easily outpace all of the players I’ve ranked below Stan Hack.
As for Hack, Santo and Baker (sounds like a gag law firm), these three are pretty well clustered together. Without any real statistics to work from on A-Rod’s part, I’m willing to say that he’s likely to rank just about anywhere among them should he fulfill our predictions about the second half of his career. To pass Baker, Rodriguez would have to maintain his current level of play through most of his 30s in order to counter his eventual decline. He’s got a bit more leeway with Santo and Hack. If I had to make a guess, I’d say that Rodriguez would finish seventh, just behind Santo.
While we’re on the topic of all-time third basemen, I think it’s relevant to point out that while Ernie Banks and Robin Yount—both of whom Rodriguez already out-ranks based on their shortstop seasons alone—are by far the most famous part-time shortstops, third base has been the long-term home of a number of transient stars who played more games at other positions. The most notable of these, along with their primary positions and games played at third, are: DH Paul Molitor – 791 games, 1B Harmon Killebrew – also 791 games, SS Cal Ripken – 675 games, OF/1B Pete Rose – 634 games, DH Edgar Martinez – 563 games, and C/1B Joe Torre – 515 games. Chipper Jones seemed to be destined to rank in the top-ten at the position at age 29, but, after 1008 games of horrendous defense at the hot corner (career Rate2 of 86), the Braves moved him to left field in 2002. Meanwhile, some of the position’s most productive hitters have had very brief careers, for example Al Rosen - 1044 games, and nineteenth-century stars Denny Lyons – 1121 games, John McGraw – 1099 games, and Bill Joyce - 904 games. Meanwhile, one of the best seasons ever by a third baseman was Hall of Famer Mel Ott’s 1938 campaign (.311/.442/.583, 118 walks against just 47 strikeouts). Ott played 256 career games at third and 2167 in right field. 1938 was his only season as a full-time third baseman.
In other words, the history of third basemen is littered with notable players who have spent less time at the hot corner than Rodriguez will should his position switch become permanent. I think it’s safe to say that A-Rod would out-rank all of these short-termers and part-timers based on their third-base seasons alone.
As for contemporary third basemen who might challenge A-Rod’s ranking, it’s still too early to tell where Eric Chavez’s career will go. The same is true for Troy Glaus—though based on current trends I’d say Chavez has a much better chance of crashing our top seven. Scott Rolen, on the other hand, has made considerable progress toward inclusion on our list. Just three month’s Rodriguez’s senior, Rolen’s 2003 season was his best yet. Should Rolen stay healthy and productive through his 30s he has a very good chance to crack into Hack, Santo and Baker territory. Although he’s most likely peaking right now, should Rolen’s 30s prove more productive than his 20s, he could easily pass Baker to become the fifth best third baseman of all time. While Rodriguez, clearly the best active shortstop in baseball, would instantly surpass Rolen to become the best active third baseman in baseball should he move to third base—although Rolen’s defense makes it closer than you might think—it is quite conceivable that the two players could converge over the next decade with Rolen maintaining his lead on the all-time third basemen list based on his stronger career value at the position.
Q: If his move to third base is permanent, how would A-Rod measure up against the game’s greatest third basemen, should he continue to produce at his established levels with the typical decline of a player of his skill level?
A: A-Rod would rank no higher than fifth on the list of all-time third basemen. Given our assumptions I envision something along these lines:
1. Mike Schmidt
All of this proves two things. First of all, those claiming that Alex Rodriguez is anything close to the greatest shortstop of all time are flat wrong. Honus Wagner’s got him beat by a long shot. What’s more, those decrying his move to third as a crime against history, depriving Rodriguez of a chance to pass Wanger, are again wrong. Alex has no chance of catching the Flying Dutchman. The move may strand him behind Arky Vaughan, but it could also enhance his historic status as he will have the chance to rank among the ten greatest players at two skill positions. Rather, it’s Derek Jeter who stands to lose the most in the eyes of history by moving to third base. Where as Alex would lose just one spot on the all-time best shortstops list and likely crack into the list of the top-ten all-time best third basemen, Derek would drop out of the top-five all-time best shortstops and could get shutout of the all-time third basemen’s top-ten altogether.
Incidentally, I find it interesting that three of the nine players listed above, Baker, Boggs and now Rodriguez, came to the Yankees while still productive, but after their peaks. Baker, a World’s Champion with the Philadelphia Athletics, played along side Babe Ruth in the Yankees’ first two World Series, losing both. Boggs, a member of the cursed 1986 Red Sox, won his only World Series with the Yankees in 1996.
Having evaluated Alex Rodriguez’s place in history, let’s take a look at his place in the game today.
Alex Rodriguez is routinely described as “The Best Player in Baseball” because of his fully rounded game which combines power, average, patience, speed and above average defense on the far right side of the defensive spectrum (1B-LF-RF-3B-CF-2B-SS-C). Assuming that “player” here means “non-pitcher,” let’s evaluate this statement by first taking a look at a list of the best hitters in the discussion and then adding speed and defense to the game to see how it effects our hierarchy.
Since we’re concerned with finding the best player in the game right now, I’m going to look only at the last three seasons, 2001, 2002 and 2003. This works nicely because it corrects against fluke seasons by adding in two others. It also coincides neatly with A-Rod’s three seasons in Texas, Barry Bonds’ three seasons as the modern day Babe Ruth, and Albert Pujols’ entire major league career.
Looking at the top fifteen finishers in OWP (minimum 1200 plate appearances) and RCAA over these three seasons we get a list of fourteen players. They are, in alphabetical order: Lance Berkman, Barry Bonds, Carlos Delgado, Jim Edmonds, Jason Giambi, Brian Giles, Todd Helton, Chipper Jones, Albert Pujols, Manny Ramirez, Alex Rodriguez, Gary Sheffield, Sammy Sosa, and Jim Thome.
One name that’s notably absent from that list is Vladimir Guerrero. Guerrero ranks thirteenth in the majors in OPS over the past three seasons, but failed to crack the top 20 in OWP or RCAA. Certainly the time he missed in 2003 with a bad back hurt his runs created numbers, but his OPS+ in 2001 was also lower than any of A-Rod’s OPS+ totals during this three year span. Could it be that Vlad has gone from being the most underrated player in baseball to the most overrated? That’s probably overstating things, but a quick look at his Rate2 numbers show that Vlad is a below average right fielder for his career with a Rate2 of 97. The fact that A-Rod has put up better offensive numbers than Guerrero over the past three seasons, plays better defense much further to the right of the defensive spectrum, and is also a base-stealing threat makes Guerrero irrelevant to this discussion. A-Rod, who is just one year older than Guerrero, is clearly the better all-around player.
Back to our list of fourteen.
The top spot is easy. Barry Bonds, whom I identified as the third best hitter in the history of the game on the BRB last week, has had his three best seasons over the past three years, including the top two OPS+ totals in the history of the sport in 2001 and 2002. His 2003 campaign saw him fall off to the ninth best OPS+ total of all time. No contest.
Next up, let’s take a look at the five players who have posted single-season OPS+ totals of 190 or more during one of the last three years. They are: Jason Giambi, Albert Pujols, Manny Ramirez, Sammy Sosa and Jim Thome. Giambi, Ramirez and Thome are all about the same age (32/33), Sosa is 35, Pujols is supposedly a decade younger (24). Sosa’s numbers have dropped considerably in each of the last two years. That, combined with his age and the fact that he has the lowest OBP and RC/G as compared to the league of this group, puts him at the bottom of the bunch and tentative sixth on our list.
Giambi has also seen a general decline across this three year period, but his drop has not been as precipitous as Sosa’s. What’s more, he has the highest OBP, RC/G as compared to the league, OWP and RCAA of this group. Still, with the drop in his numbers and his offseason knee surgery, I’m hesitant to hand him second place outright. Pujols is the youngest in the group and had by far the best season among our thirteen hitters not named Barry Bonds in 2003. He also has the lowest OBP, OWP, RCAA and RC/G as compared to the league of any of the players in this group of five not named Sammy Sosa. Manny Ramirez and Jim Thome, meanwhile are deadlocked:
Their OPS+s over this span are 162, 190 and 160 for Ramirez, 169, 191, 151 for Thome. For me the tie is broken by Thome’s superior secondary rate stats: .335 isolated slugging (slugging minus batting average), .549 secondary average (total bases minus hits, plus walks and net stolen bases, all divided by at-bats) and .674 bases per plate appearance to .286/.450/.644 for Ramirez. Having broken that tie, I’m going to let Giambi’s superior overall numbers and .441 OBP do the talking and keep him in the second spot and play doubting Thomas over Pujols’ ability to keep doing what he’s been doing and rank him fifth:
1. Barry Bonds
Things only get tougher from here as the next eight players clump together, the primary differences between their offensive numbers being attributable to park factors. I’ll spare you the number crunching, but after pouring over their various stats I wound up sorting them, in almost the exact order of their OWPs (which is actually what happened with the top six as well):
7. Brian Giles
For those of you alarmed by A-Rod’s thirteenth-place ranking let me first say that these eight players are essentially all tied. Also, A-Rod has been the beneficiary of the second highest park factor (a three-year average of 107.33) among these fourteen players (Todd Helton’s 118.33 being the highest). Let me also point out that A-Rod is the only one of our fourteen hitters to post a three-year OBP below .400 and that only three of them (Sosa, Jones and Berkman) had a lower OPS+ than Rodriguez in 2003. Brian Giles had an identical OPS+ to Rodriguez in 2003 and all four of the players whose OPS+ was equal to or less than A-Rod’s in 2003 had an OPS+ equal to or greater than his in 2002.
So to answer part one of our final question:
Q: Where exactly does Alex Rodriguez rank among the top hitters in the game today?
A: The numbers for these players are all so close that I wouldn’t feel comfortable saying anything more specific than A-Rod is somewhere between the eleventh and fourteenth best hitter in the major leagues.
With that in mind, let’s bring baserunning and defense into the picture. A-Rod is the only player among our fourteen hitters who plays a position to the right of center field on the defensive spectrum. A move to third base would shift him to the left of only one man, centerfielder Jim Edmonds. What’s more, I have difficulty rationalizing the fact that Rodriguez could be considered a “worse” player simply by changing positions. He’s still the same player with the same abilities and he should be playing short, as opposed to men like Brian Giles and Lance Berkman, who probably shouldn’t be playing center field. Thus, I will consider A-Rod a shortstop for our purposes here.
Before we move on to compare A-Rod to the thirteen best hitters to his left on the defensive spectrum, let’s compare him so the best hitter to his right. Mike Piazza edges out Jorge Posada as the best hitting catcher over the past three years, but Piazza was slowed by injuries last year, is turning 35, and should be moving to first base this season because of his inferior defense behind the plate. So let’s compare Rodriguez to the best-hitting catcher entering 2004, Jorge Posada (who, by the way, is the fourth current Yankee to enter into this discussion, five if you count Jeter back in the shortstop discussion).
A-Rod has a considerable park advantage (107.33 to 98 for Posada), but even when that’s corrected for, there is really no contest here. Just look at the two player’s OPS+ numbers (which correct for park factors):
A-Rod: 164, 152, 148
Pretty close last year, but A-Rod smokes Jorge in the previous two. Add to that the fact that Jorge is a dead average defensive catcher (career Rate2 of 100; seasonal totals of 98, 100 and 102 over the last three years) and Rodriguez an above average shortstop, that Posada runs like . . . well, like a catcher, while Alex steals about 15 bases per year, and I feel comfortable saying that Rodriguez is a better player than Jorge Posada.
Back to our list of fourteen. Lance Berkman offers little beyond his bat, which I’ve actually ranked below A-Rod’s to begin with. Carlos Delgado has become a decent first baseman, but never could run. Chipper Jones seems to have lost the ability to steal bases. He’s gone 19 for 33 over the last three seasons, that’s a 58 percent success rate, and was just 2 for 4 in 2003. He was also so bad a third baseman that the Braves moved him into the outfield without having a decent replacement on hand to fill his spot in the infield. Those three are eliminated out of hand.
Things get a bit tougher beyond that. Brian Giles can steal a base, but at a lower success rate than Rodriguez. He’s also just average defensively. Rodriguez takes that one. Jim Edmonds is a spectacular center fielder. I would go as far as to say that Edmonds is of nearly equal defensive value to Rodriguez. Unfortunately, he is injury prone—in part as a result of the abandon with which he plays his position—and offers very little on the base paths, so A-Rod squeaks by him. Todd Helton is an even better first baseman than Edmonds is a center fielder, but he’s a first-baseman. He also offers nothing in terms of base stealing ability. Advantage A-Rod once again. Gary Sheffield, according to the numbers, is both an above average right fielder and has similar base stealing ability to A-Rod’s—he had the second highest power/speed number in the NL in 2003 with a 24.6, a nearly identical figure to A-Rod’s 25. All things being equal at the plate and on the bases, A-Rod wins this one on the basis of his defensive position only.
As players, I would rank the seven men Rodriguez has just passed in this order: Jim Edmonds, Gary Sheffield, Todd Helton, Brian Giles, Carlos Delgado, Chipper Jones, Lance Berkman.
Having moved A-Rod past the seven players who are essentially his equals at the plate, we now must compare him to the six who are clearly his superiors with the bat. The first on this list is Sammy Sosa. Sosa hasn’t been a useful basestealer since 1996 and is a below average right fielder. That combined with the strong downward trend of his offensive numbers and his recent 35th birthday are enough for me to rank A-Rod ahead of him.
Next up is Albert Pujols. Pujols is an interesting case as he’s spent time at all four corner outfield and infield positions in his young career. Looking at his Rate2s, he’s an average outfielder at best but an above average first and third baseman. What’s more, his best fielding stats are those that he put up at third base, where he posted a 116 Rate2 in 96 games over his first two seasons. Of course, the reason Pujols is an unexceptional outfielder is his lack of speed (8 for 16 career on the basepaths), and he won’t be playing third again any time soon because of the torn elbow ligament in his throwing arm that he suffered last season. With all of that in mind, the question becomes, is Pujols’ offensive lead on Rodriguez enough to compensate for his more one-dimensional game? The same question needs to be asked for Manny Ramirez, Jim Thome and Jason Giambi.
But not for Barry Bonds. Although he’s a left fielder, Bonds, spectacular in his youth in Pittsburgh, remains an above average defender. He also remains a basestealing threat, having swiped 29 of 34, an excellent 85 percent success rate, over the past three seasons. But even if Barry didn’t have those extra dimensions to his game, his offensive production is enough to fend off A-Rod’s multi-dimensional ability all by itself. A-Rod’s relationship to Bonds is much like his relationship to Honus Wagner, there’s really no contest. Even at 39 years old, Barry Bonds is far and away the Best Player in Baseball.
So where does A-Rod rank behind Bonds? I’d put him ahead of Manny, just because Manny will be Manny and A-Rod won’t. But I simply can’t find a way (or more to the point, I don’t trust defense metrics enough) to break the tie between Rodriguez and the remaining trio of Thome, Giambi and Pujols. Until Giambi’s knee proves to have significantly reduced his production, Thome shows similar signs of age, or Pujols either comes down to earth, ages seven years overnight or—I can’t even fathom it—ratchets his game up another notch, I’m going to have to call this one even.
Q: When speed and defense are taken into account, how much further would Alex Rodriguez move up the list of the games greatest players?
About ten spots, from being the eleventh-to-fourteenth best hitter in the game, to being one of the Four Best Players in Baseball Not Named Barry Bonds.
So what does this all mean? Well, to begin with, the Yankees are an incredibly talented team. The heart of their order features three of the ten best players in baseball, including two of the top five. And that doesn’t even count the best-hitting catcher in the game, the historic level of production they get from their shortstop, or Bernie Williams. Never mind the three aces in their starting rotation, their Hall-of-Fame closer, or their all-star middle relief corps.
But to trace my motivation for this analysis, it means that when people, myself included, call Alex Rodriguez “The Best Player in Baseball,” or say that he’s in a virtual tie with Honus Wagner as the best shortstop in the game’s history, they’re really doing a significant injustice to Wagner and Barry Bonds.
Beyond that, though, they’re not far off.
Cliff Corcoran runs the stellar Yankee-based site, Clifford's Big Red Blog; in addition, he's a frequent contributor to the "comments" section here at Bronx Banter. You can contact Cliff at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Hail, Hail, the Gang's All Here
Pedro Martinez and Nomar Garciaparra are at Red Sox camp and are in the papers today. Martinez is sporting an (unintentionally) amusing hair style which looks like it requires a steady diet of activator--Cookie Head Jenkins, eat your heart out. Prince Pedro was his usual, uncompromising self, while Garciaparra admits that the Alex Rodriguez trade talk over the winter was troubling.
Meanwhile, at Yankee camp, a jolly George Steinbrenner respects the Red Sox team, but can't seem to get Theo Epstein's name right:
Wrapping up, the Yankees have finally signed Travis Lee, and in light of Jon Lieber's aching groin, may be looking for an extra starting pitcher. In addition, Joe Torre and Mariano Rivera ponder their future in pinstripes.
Yankee Preview Wednesday: Bernie Williams and Derek Jeter
The Odd Couple
By Richard Lederer and Alex Belth
With Andy Pettitte leaving New York to pitch for the Houston Astros, only four Yankees remain from the 1996 Championship team: Bernie Williams, Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera and Jorge Posada, all products of the Yankee farm system. Although it may seem as if the Yankees are a candidate for the TV show “Extreme Makeover”, no other team can claim a quartet of players who have been together longer.
Rivera has been an ace closer and one of the greatest postseason pitchers of all-time. Posada is among the premier catchers in the game and arguably the Yankees’ best since Yogi Berra. Williams and Jeter have been the two most valuable everyday players during the Joe Torre Era, yet they are rarely paired like Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig or Thurman Munson and Reggie Jackson, let alone Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio. Perhaps the reason why Williams and Jeter have not been linked to the same degree as Bagwell and Biggio is because they have not developed a catchy nickname like the Killer B’s. Regardless, they will be associated together even less now that Alex Rodriguez has joined the team. It’s going to be all about DJ and Alex; Bernie Williams will be by himself in the corner strumming his guitar. Over time, the connection between Jeter and Williams is likely to lose even more relevance.
But Williams and Jeter—along with Rivera—symbolize the current Yankee run. Williams is a product of the transition period during the early nineties and the championship years of the late nineties. Jeter is symbolic of the Yankee Dynasty under Joe Torre. Both players have been serious-minded professionals in the quiet Yankee tradition of Gehrig, Roy White, Willie Randolph and Don Mattingly as opposed to flashy stars like Hal Chase, Ruth, and Jackson. And yet they are entirely different players. Williams looks like a wandering gazelle in the outfield—grounded, but perhaps lost in a daydream—while Jeter is the stalking cheetah or a preening peacock in the infield. In that sense, Williams is the typical outfield personality and Jeter is the ultimate infielder.
Jeter is a major star, a sex symbol. Williams looks like a bookworm and is a family man. Jeter is Spiderman and Bernie is Peter Parker. Jeter is the cool extrovert and Williams is the thoughtful introvert. Jeter does little things that get noticed while Williams is easy to overlook. Recall the infamous Jeffrey Maier game against the Orioles in the 1996 ALCS which made the rookie Jeter a household name. It was Williams’ home run in extra innings that actually won the game for the Yanks, but who remembers that? Many of us just remember that’s the night that some lucky kid made another lucky kid a star.
Since his rookie year in 1996, Jeter has been a relentless and driven competitor. For Yankee fans, his enthusiasm has been contagious. Jeter smirks. He smiles. He engages the fans while he’s on the on-deck circle. No matter how tense the situation, he looks like he is having a good time out there. Watching Jeter, you feel invited along to enjoy in his fun. (If you hate the Yankees, it makes it easier to despise Jeter.) Jeter is a natural. It’s as if he were built to be a ballplayer--mentally, physically and emotionally. Jeter personifies Tom Boswell’s description of “a gamer.”
Jeter has an edge, too. He’s just careful to keep it in check, but it’s definitely there. It was evident in Jeter’s unforgiving treatment of Toronto catcher Ken Huckaby last season, as it will likely crop up again in relation to Alex Rodriguez and who should play shortstop. But it is this edge, Jeter’s icy arrogance that has gotten him this far. And it serves him well on the field. Leo Durocher once asked:
Jeter has not only been a "heads-up” player from the get go, but he has also been a realiable one, participating in 148 or more games every year except 2003 (when he suffered a dislocated left shoulder on Opening Day). Only Garrett Anderson, Chipper Jones, and Rafael Palmeiro have had more seasons of 148 or more games since Jeter’s rookie year in 1996.
Although Jeter’s defense leaves a lot to be desired (placing at or near the bottom of his peers in almost every advanced metric), he has been one of the three best offensive shortstops in baseball over the course of his career. Since 1996, Jeter ranks first among shortstops in on-base percentage (.390), third in slugging (.462), and third in OPS (.853). Derek is fifth on the all-time Yankees list (500 games or more) with a .317 batting average, behind only Ruth (.349), Gehrig (.340), Earle Combs (.325), and Joe DiMaggio (.325).
The Yankee shortstop had a career year in 1999, leading the league in hits (219) and times on base (322), placing second in runs scored (134), and fourth in total bases (346). In the area of rate stats, Jeter finished second in batting average (.349), third in on-base percentage (.438), fifth in OPS (.989), and second in OPS+ (161). He was clearly the team’s best player, playing an important defensive position and ranking at or near the top in every offensive category. Jeter, in fact, became the first shortstop in club history to hit 20 home runs in a season in 1999.
Jeter’s reputation may have peaked the following year, becoming the first player in Yankee history to be named Most Valuable Player of the All-Star game and capping off another magnificent season by capturing MVP honors in the World Series. Derek led the Bronx Bombers to their fourth World Championship in his first five seasons, batting .409 with two home runs in the five-game subway series with the Mets. That year, Jeter became the third Yankee to compile three consecutive 200-hit seasons, joining Gehrig (1927-1929) and Mattingly (1984-1986). He also reached the 1,000 hit mark at a younger age than any Yankee not named Mickey Mantle.
Jeter is generally thought of as a “clutch” hitter, a player who elevates his game during the postseason when the stakes are highest. Does the perception match the reality?
In comparison, here are Bernie Williams’ regular vs. postseason rate stats:
Jeter’s numbers are freakishly close, and while Williams trails Jeter in postseason batting average, he nudges him out in OBP and SLG. What’s truly remarkable about Jeter isn’t that he is such a clutch hitter after all; rather, it’s that he is so consistent. (Rob Neyer made the point that neither Williams nor Jeter are necessarily clutch performers, but that Rivera is most certainly Mr. Clutch.) Derek is a steady ballplayer who plays at a high level during the regular season and the postseason. The simple fact that he performs on Broadway rather than some community playhouse theater is what brings Jeter the notoriety and the favorable critical reviews. He is the biggest star the Yankees have had since Reggie and probably the most beloved since Mantle. But according to baseball historian Glenn Stout, the author of Yankee Cenutry, Jeter is more like DiMaggio:
Jeter is not an icon at this point, but the DiMaggio analogy is apt. It’s hard to blame sportswriters for being duly impressed. Furthermore, Stout hits on what people love and others hate about Derek Jeter. You can’t judge him entirely with quantitative analysis. His value is more far-reaching than that. The irony is that Bernie Williams is often under-appreciated because he lacks the same qualities that make Jeter famous. But his numbers more than compensate for his demur disposition; perhaps that explains why he’s popular with sabermetricians. In fact, when compared directly with Derek Jeter, here is what Bernie’s career averages (per 162 games) look like:
And if you compare their average seasons since the start of the Yankees championship years in 1996, Williams looks even better:
If this is the case, then why has Williams been overlooked? Is it that he just doesn’t have the personality of a big star? In a recent telephone interview, television analyst Tim McCarver said:
Williams is somewhat like Roy White, a player who, according to Glenn Stout, “by himself couldn’t really turn the team around, but who got better and whose talent was more appreciated when surrounded by better players. Like Bernie, when White was young there was a lot of bitching about what he wasn’t rather than what he was.” Bill James has another take on why Williams is underrated in “One Hundred Years: The New York Yankees”:
If you think about it, it’s remarkable that Bernie Williams is the senior-ranking member of the Yankees. Only Barry Larkin (18 years), Edgar Martinez (17), Craig Biggio (16), and Frank Thomas (14) have been with their current teams for more consecutive seasons than Williams. Bernie’s unassuming, quiet nature is not the kind that traditionally lasts in George Steinbrenner’s universe for long. But when George served his second suspension from the game—from July 30, 1990 to March 1, 1993—Williams was allowed to develop. Williams was the beneficiary of Gene Michael’s plan to build the Yankees through their farm system. It wasn’t a smooth ride—Mel Hall used to terrorize the young Williams in the locker room—but eventually the Yankees’ patience paid off. Williams proved to be a late-bloomer and fulfilled the early promise the organization showed in him.
Unlike Jeter, Williams never possessed a natural instinct for the game. Long-legged and graceful, Williams was nevertheless awkward on the basepaths. His soft, round face, his doe eyes, further create an impression of passivity. But like Tim Duncan in basketball, Williams’ looks are deceiving: he is a driven, intense performer. He just so happens to be a flake and a bit of an artiste, too.
A talented musician, Williams seems to have mastered the game by breaking down each task, each skill into a lesson. Watching him play the outfield, or up at bat is a pleasure because Williams looks like he’s playing a private game, one that is separate from the game at hand. It’s almost as if Williams plays the game like he’s practicing scales on the guitar: it’s all practice and repetition. Williams is a musician playing baseball. But the writer Pat Jordan observed:
And Bernie has played baseball very well. Williams enjoyed his peak production from 1997-1999, a period in which he was one of the top offensive performers in the game. The Yankee centerfielder placed among the top four in batting average and the top seven in on-base percentage and adjusted OPS each year. He maintained a high level of play through 2002 before faltering to age and injuries in 2003.
Since 1991, Bernie ranks second among center fielders in OBP (.390), fourth in SLG (.492), and third in OPS (.882). Over the course of his career, Williams has vaulted into the all-time top ten Yankees rankings in hits (1,950), doubles (372), home runs (241), and RBI (1,062). Only Gehrig (14 times), Ruth (11), and DiMaggio (8) have had more seasons with both 100 R and 100 RBI than Williams (5).
Williams was a good defensive outfielder throughout the early part of his career, and he received four consecutive Gold Glove awards from 1997-2000. His below-average arm—which was never any good—and increasingly limited range have reduced him to a less than acceptable alternative in center field for a championship-caliber team.
Williams and Jeter have each been among the top 20 players in baseball during their careers. From a statistical standpoint, Williams ranks behind only Ken Griffey Jr. in terms of center fielders. By the same token, Jeter rates second or third among active shortstops--behind only his good friend and new teammate Alex Rodriguez and perhaps Nomar Garciaparra of the Red Sox.
With Williams expected to alternate between the outfield and designated hitter this year and A-Rod switching to third base, Bernie and Derek may no longer be compared to the same peers as they have been throughout their illustrative careers.
Williams, who turns 36 in September, is coming off the least productive season since his rookie year and is in dire need of putting up some big numbers once again should he wish to be taken seriously by Hall of Fame voters upon his retirement. Unfortunately, Williams is likely to fall short of accumulating the counting stats (such as 3000 hits and 500 home runs) voters like to see and is at risk of falling below the magical .300 threshold in career batting average should he fail to make a strong comeback before his current contract expires following the 2005 season. He has walked too much in his career to get 3,000 hits and he has never been a home run hitter. Bernie’s greatest talent—that he does so many things well—could ironically come back to haunt him when it comes time for voters to evaluate his career. As it stands now, Williams is a borderline candidate unless he makes something of the rest of his career.
However, Williams’ value takes on a different dimension when viewed from a sabermetric standpoint against his positional peers. Using a stat created by Lee Sinins of the Sabermetric Baseball Encyclopedia, Williams ranks 11th in Runs Created Above Average and 7th in Runs Created Above Position among all center fielders since 1900.
RUNS CREATED ABOVE AVERAGE
RUNS CREATED ABOVE POSITION
Every player who is eligible for the HOF on both lists has already been inducted. It would only be fitting if Williams could follow in the giant footsteps of these all-time greats and be immortalized with a plaque in Cooperstown, alongside Yankee legends Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle. Make no mistake about it, Williams is not in the class of DiMaggio and Mantle, but he compares very favorably to all but seven center fielders in the history of baseball.
Jeter, who won’t turn 30 until June, still has several seasons of baseball in him. Whether he stays at shortstop or ends up converting to another position at some point, Jeter is likely to remain a Yankee through the expiration of his contract in 2010. An additional seven years of productivity in pinstripes could elevate Jeter above everyone in Yankee lore other than Ruth, Gehrig, DiMaggio, Berra, and Mantle.
Jeter already ranks 9th and 11th among shortstops in Runs Created Above Average and Runs Created Above Position, respectively. Should he remain at SS, he stands an excellent chance of climbing into the top five in RCAA and at least in the top half dozen in RCAP before his career is finished.
RUNS CREATED ABOVE AVERAGE
RUNS CREATED ABOVE POSITION
Interestingly, Alan Trammell is the only shortstop on either of the two lists above who is eligible for the HOF and yet still on the outside looking in. Trammell, who appears to be a deserving candidate in his own right, is likely to slip outside the top ten in RCAP once Jeter and Garciaparra pass him (which could take place over the course of the next two or three years in both cases).
The 2004 season will be an important one for both Bernie Williams and Derek Jeter. For Williams, it could decide whether or not he has a chance to make the Hall of Fame. With his arthritic shoulders and his bad knee a continuing concern, Williams could conceivably be out of the game in two years when his contract is up in New York. Would Bernie consider playing anywhere else but New York, or would he simply be content to walk away from the game at that point? The irony is that Jeter may be the one who ends up replacing Williams in center field, perhaps not this year or even next year but a distinct possibility in 2006.
Jeter’s immediate future is equally as intriguing. It would have been even if A-Rod hadn’t been traded to the Yankees. Now, it’s the best soap opera in town. Jeter is well on his way to the Hall of Fame, but, after a charmed start to his career, DJ is the target of criticism more than ever before. The scrutiny revolves around Jeter’s defense—the one aspect of his game that sabermetricians take exception with. Now that Rodriguez is on the Yankees, mainstream writers have already found new enlightenment in the sabermetric argument. How will Jeter handle the decline in his skills? He is known as the ultimate team player. Will his reputation change if he makes like Cal Ripken and lets pride get in the way of eventually doing what is best for the team?
While there are a lot of question marks surrounding what the future holds for this odd couple, their past accomplishments are undeniable. Bernie Williams and Derek Jeter have already cemented their place in Yankee history as two of the greatest players of this championship era.
Richard Lederer is the sole owner and proprietor of Rich's Weekend Baseball BEAT, and Alex Belth is your host right here at Bronx Banter.
I've spoken with several baseball writers recently, and all of them agree that the BALCO affair is going to get ugly this season. If and when players are named—and I have no idea who those players would be—this will be the biggest scandal in a generation (or as one person put it, it will be the Pete Rose fiasco plus the 1984 drug trials put together). I've already got a knot in my stomach just thinking about it. Talk about a way to ruin a season. Oy.
In other Yankee news, Jon Lieber had to cut short a session due to a sore groin.
Yankee Preview Tuesday: Jason Giambi
Walk On: In Defense of Giambi
By Steven Goldman
Take one look at Jason Giambi. Shirtless, if you can achieve it. The fellow’s got so many tats that he looks like a biker version of the Sistine Chapel. Michelangelo’s mural as done by Harley-Davidson: that’s a pretty good analogy for Giambi the ballplayer — the sacred and the profane all wrapped up in one big pile o’ muscles, said muscles come by honestly or not.
Considering the man’s achievements, not to mention his bulk, you’d figure he could hold his own without needing defending of any kind by third-party armchair columnist types. This ain’t Jason Giambi: Singin’ with the Dixie Chicks, or Jason Giambi’s Passion (there’s the sacred and the profane again), or even Jason Giambi: Enterprising Young Man of Halliburton. Still, some of the more misguided camp followers seem less than pleased with the Man Who Would Not Be Tino.
Catalog all the things Giambi is not and you make the old Sears doorstop look like an anorexic Reader’s Digest. He is not as swift as Mercury, or even, well, grandma. If baseball was a fair game, he’d be allowed to take the bullpen car from first to third. Not that there are bullpen cars anymore; they were crowded out by all the LOOGYs, for what they’re worth. Buddy Groom or a Volvo: who you gonna trust?
Giambi is not slick with the leather. He strikes out more than your divorced older brother Scott does at the local happy hour gender mix. Last season he didn’t hit lefties any better than John Ashcroft hits righties. In all likelihood, he does not appreciate the avant-jazz stylings of Ornette Coleman and is more of a Candy Dulfer-dude. These things are important to discerning NYC baseball fans, because… well, just because. These are the profane parts of “sacred and,” the flaws in Giambi’s game.
Alarm clock: time to go cold turkey on these lesser matters because they don’t count for much. The difference between a good glove and an average glove (Giambi isn’t Dick Stuart — he’s serviceable) is minute. Speed has been deemphasized in our home run-happy era— no need to run rabbit run when you can trot around the bases because even the bat boy has 25-homer power. Speed isn’t exactly irrelevant, but it’s a whole lot less important to the scoring of runs than the average cat might think.
What is important, when you strip away all the different ways one can model offense on his tablet PC while still wearing pajamas, is getting on base. That’s all there is. When Michael Stipe sang, “You are the everything,” he was referring to getting on base. Huckleberry Finn is the great American novel about getting on base. Picasso’s Guernica is about getting on base (take that, Picasso’s Guernica!).
Every baseball game has its 27-out battle with mortality: score one more than the other guy in those 27 and you win, one less, you lose (and sometimes it rains). Players who do the most to push off the inevitable end are the ones to build your offense around. Jason “The Only” Giambi accomplishes this as well as anyone in baseball today because he has the humility to take a walk. Other ballplayers are too good to let a pitcher throw four wide ones. Not Giambi, who learned his devoirs from Mark McGwire and knows that to each batter he faces a pitcher will make some pitches with murderous efficiency, some with suicidal ineptitude. During his two seasons in the Bronx, Giambi has taken 238 walks; the average American Leaguer has taken 99. His Yanks OBP is .423, .090 above the average AL player. In both 2002 and 2003 he ranked third among AL leaders in on-base percentage. Among active players he ranks sixth (behind Barry Bonds, Frank Thomas, Todd Helton, Edgar Martinez, and Brian Giles, ahead of Manny Ramirez, Jim Thome, and Jeff Bagwell). In 2003 he led the AL in walks drawn. In 2002 he was second to Thome. Though Giambi lacks what Casey Stengel called “effeminate appeal,” the cosmetic invitingness of a Tino Martinez, he possesses the central skill of winning ballplayers.
Moving along past the bearded lady, General Tom Thumb, and Picasso’s Guernica, we come to the next most important component of offense, moving runners, also known as power. Though he turned in the worst batting average of his career, Giambi still popped 41 home runs, the same number he did the year before. Note that since Reggie Jackson hit 41 homers in 1980, exactly two Yankees have hit 40 or more home runs in season — the aforementioned Tino in his fluke 1997 season, and Giambi, who has done it twice. His Yankees slugging percentage of .563 ranks fourth in franchise history (1,000 plate appearance division).
RBIs don’t really mean much, being contextual and all, but if you’re one of those primitive, RBI-lovin’ types, the Only Giambi had 229 of ‘em over the last two years. What else do you want from the guy? Blood? Maybe you don’t like strikeouts. Sure, Giambi led the American League in strikeouts last year. Get over it. A strikeout is just another kind of out. The guy hit into nine double plays all year. One-hundred and fifty-five ballplayers hit into more doubles than did Giambi-Rod (in honor of the Yankees’ new, media-ready superstar, the entirety of this year’s roster will be –Rod). That’s because when he made an out he had the decency to keep it to himself.
This is your first baseman. He’s not a gazelle. He’s not Hal Chase, in the most positive sense that you can mean Hal Chase. What he is, River City, is a pure hitter, more in the mold of Babe Ruth or Mickey Mantle than any hitter the Yankees have had in a long, long time. Learn to appreciate him, because he will do more to put the Yankees in the playoffs than the next two Doug Mientkiewicz types combined.
Giambi’s defense rests. Further, deponent sayeth not.
Steven Goldman has the honor of being the longtime writer of the Pinstriped Bible column for www.yesnetwork.com, is proud to be an Author of the Baseball Prospectus, and is gratified that Forging Genius, his book on Casey Stengel’s early managerial career, will be published by Brassey’s this summer. Your knocks, kicks, bouquets, brickbats, and appreciative wolf whistles welcomed at email@example.com.
Yankee Preview: Monday
By Ben Jacobs
In the grand scheme of things, Mike Mussina is a lucky man. He has an ability that an employer is willing to pay millions of dollars for the services of, and he enjoys using that ability in the manner in which his employer asks.
So, it's hard to feel too bad for Mussina. However, in the baseball world, his luck hasn't really been good and the public's perception of him hasn't really been fair.
Mussina is generally a reserved guy who avoids talking to the media whenever possible, which means the only way he draws attention to himself is with his performance on the field. That performance has consistently been very good throughout his career, but it hasn't really captured the attention of most fans.
The reason is simple: while he's always been good and often been great, he's never been the best. He's finished in the top six in Cy Young award voting eight times, but he's never actually won the award. He's finished in the top 10 in ERA nine times, but he's never led the league. He's finished in the top 10 in wins eight times, but he's never won 20 games.
That last item is probably the most damning. There is a special aura attached to winning 20 games in a season. Once you do so, you're forever a "former 20-game winner." Mussina has never done so, but it's not really his fault. You see, Mussina isn't just some pitcher who's never won 20 games in a season. He's the best pitcher who's never won 20 games in a season.
In 13 seasons, Mussina has a career record of 199-110 with a 3.53 ERA, 1.16 WHIP, 2126 strikeouts (7.17 K/9IP), 597 walks (2.01 BB/9IP) and 278 homers allowed (0.94 HR/9IP) in 2668.2 innings. For his career, the average batter facing him has hit .247 with a .288 OBP and a .391 SLG (.679 OPS).
So, Mussina has obviously been a very good pitcher. In fact, his career ERA+ of 129 is tied for 38th among all pitchers who have pitched enough (1,000 innings and 100 decisions) to be listed on the leaderboards at Baseball-Reference.com. That he's never been able to win 20 games in a season isn't his fault.
Mussina has won 19 games twice, 18 games three other times and 17 games two more times. In fact, with better timing, he wouldn't even have needed better luck to join the 20-win club.
In the strike-shortened 1994 season, Mussina went 16-5 in 24 starts. Had the season not ended 50 games early, Mussina could have made 10-12 extra starts and would have had a good chance of getting those four extra wins. In the strike-shortened 1995 season, Mussina went 19-9 in 32 starts. Had the season not started 18 games late, Mussina would have made three or four more starts and likely would have won at least 20 games.
Had the strike never happened, or at least happened at some other time, it's almost certain that Mussina would have won 20 games in at least one of those two seasons.
Now to answer the question of whether or not he really is the best pitcher who has never won 20 games, as I said he is. The answer to that particular question might not be yes. There is one pitcher who could currently be considered a better pitcher and who never won 20 games.
According to Baseball-Reference, there are nine pitchers with a better career ERA+ than Mussina who have never won 20 games in a season. None of those pitchers, however, were primarily starters. Five of them (Dan Quisenberry, John Franco, Bruce Sutter, Lee Smith and Kent Tekulve) never made a single start and two others (Doug Jones and Jesse Orosco) made just four career starts. Of those seven pitchers, only Tekulve (1436.1 innings) pitched more than 1300 innings in his career. One of the other two pitchers was John Hiller, who made 43 career starts but pitched just 1242 innings.
Since none of them came close to pitching as many innings as Mussina has, I'd have a lot of trouble calling any of them a better pitcher than Mussina. That leaves just Hoyt Wilhelm.
Wilhelm made 52 starts in his career and pitched 2254.1 innings. He finished with a 146 career ERA+.
In 21 seasons, he went 143-122 with 227 saves and a 2.52 ERA, 1.12 WHIP, 1610 strikeouts (6.43 K/9IP), 778 walks (3.11 BB/9IP) and 150 homers allowed (0.60 HR/9IP). He won 15 games twice (once strictly as a reliever and once when he made 27 starts in 1959) and 11 or 12 games three other times.
He pitched about 400 fewer innings than Mussina has, but his ERA+ is much better and he probably pitched more "crucial" innings than Mussina has.
Quite frankly, however, I don't care whether or not Hoyt Wilhelm was a better pitcher than Mike Mussina is because, while it would answer the question, it wouldn't answer the interesting question.
It's not interesting to learn that Wilhelm never won 20 games in a season because you wouldn't have expected him to ever win 20 games in a season. So, let's modify the question so that it's interesting.
Is Mike Mussina the best pitcher who has primarily been a starter in his career to not win 20 games in a season?
The answer to that question is definitely yes.
Of all the pitchers with a career ERA+ of at least 125 who have made at least 100 starts in their career, only two have never won 20 games in a season. One is Mussina and the other is Max Lanier. Lanier pitched from 1938-1953, mostly with the Cardinals, and went 108-82 with a 3.01 ERA (125 ERA+), 821 strikeouts, 611 walks and 65 home runs allowed in 1619.1 innings.
You'll notice that I didn't provide as many statistics for Lanier as for Mussina and Wilhelm. That's because you don't need as many statistics to see that Lanier wasn't nearly as good a pitcher as Mussina has been. Especially if you consider that Lanier's best seasons (including his career-high 17 wins in 1944) came while many of the best baseball players were serving in World War II.
If you look at all the pitchers who have an ERA+ better than 120, the list of players with at least 100 starts who never won 20 games in a season has four additions -- Kevin Appier, Jimmy Key, Dave Stieb and Johnny Rigney. Rigney only played for eight years, making 132 starts and pitching 1186.1 innings, so he can be eliminated from the discussion immediately.
Appier, who won 18 games with the Royals in 1993, just had a horrible season, but he's had a pretty nice career. He has a 121 career ERA+ and he's 169-136 with a 3.72 ERA, 1.29 WHIP, 1992 strikeouts (6.92 K/9IP), 930 walks (3.23 BB/9IP) and 232 homers allowed (0.81 HR/9IP) in 2591.1 innings.
As you can probably tell, he's not as good a pitcher as Mussina. He's pitched fewer innings with a higher ERA, higher WHIP, lower K/9IP and higher BB/9IP. The only thing he's done better than Mussina is keep batters from hitting home runs.
Key, like Mussina, may have been robbed of a shot at a 20-win season by the last strike. Key had 17 wins for the Yankees when the season was canceled in 1994 and he probably would have gotten 10 or so more starts that season. As it is, his career high in wins was 18 in 1993.
Key went 186-117 with a 3.51 ERA (122 ERA+), 1.23 WHIP, 1538 strikeouts (5.34 K/9IP), 668 walks (2.32 BB/9IP) and 254 homers allowed (0.88 HR/9IP) in 2591.2 innings. Like Appier, Key is clearly not as good as Mussina. He pitched fewer innings and, although his ERA was about the same as Mussina's is, Key retired before the offenses really started going crazy (hence his worse ERA+). Hey also didn't strike out nearly as many batters as Mussina and walked more.
Stieb won 18 games twice and 17 games three times. For his career, he was 176-137 with a 3.44 ERA (122 ERA+), 1.25 WHIP, 1669 strikeouts (5.19 K/9IP), 1034 walks (3.21 BB/9IP) and 225 homers allowed (0.70 HR/9IP).
This might be a lot closer if Stieb had retired after the 1991 season, but he pitched 169 bad innings (5.11 ERA in his final three seasons) after that. Had he retired, he still would have pitched more innings (2726.1) than Mussina has so far, his career ERA would be 3.33 and his ERA+ would be at least somewhat closer to Mussina's.
Instead, Stieb has a better ERA, but worse ERA+ (thanks to the recent offensive increase) and had many fewer strikeouts and many more walks. He did allow home runs much less frequently, but that can probably be partly attributed to the seasons in which he pitched as well.
So, it seems pretty clear that Mussina is, in fact, the best starting pitcher (however you want to define that) who has never won 20 games in a season.
Fortunately for him, he has at least a few more years to try and pass that mantle on to somebody else. In fact, he could very well win 20 games this season.
Mussina is still a very good pitcher from whom you can expect at least 200 innings and an ERA in the low 3.00's, and he has a very good offense behind him. It's not like he "doesn't know how to win" or something either. He has 52 wins since joining the Yankees, with at least 17 wins in each season.
The only pitchers with more wins the last three years than Mussina are Mark Mulder, Jamie Moyer, Barry Zito and Curt Schilling. Mussina obviously doesn't have any of the18 20-win seasons that have happened in the last three years, but no pitcher besides Mussina has won at least 17 games in each of the last three seasons.
The fact of the matter is that wins are an overrated way to measure a starting pitcher. Fans shouldn't harp on the fact that Mussina's never won 20 games and they certainly shouldn't say that he pitches just well enough to lose in big games. Instead, they should enjoy watching a future Hall-of-Famer, because that's exactly what Mussina is.
In fact, Mussina is a lot like a former teammate of his who is also underrated, and for the same exact reason. Mussina and Rafael Palmeiro are both future Hall-of-Famers, but neither has ever been the very best at his job. They've both merely been among the best at their jobs for a very long time.
When trying to figure out whether or not a player deserves to be in the Hall of Fame or not, two of the things you should look at are his black ink and his gray ink. Black ink measures how many times the player has led his league in various stats while gray ink measures how many times the player has finished in the top 10 in those categories.
Mussina's black ink count is 11, while 40 is average for a Hall-of-Fame pitcher. However, his gray ink is 210, while 185 is average for a Hall-of-Famer. Similarly, Palmeiro's black ink count is eight, while 27 is average for a Hall-of-Fame hitter. However, his gray ink is 181, while 144 is average for a Hall-of-Famer.
There are two types of Hall-of-Famers once you get past the very best of the best: those who were exceptional but not for as long as you'd like and those who were at the top of their game for a long time but were never truly exceptional. Mussina and Palmeiro are both the second type, but do not doubt that they will belong in the Hall of Fame when they call it quits.
Actually, it might not be a bad thing for Mussina's legacy if he never wins 20 games. He could go down in history as the first major-league starting pitcher in the Hall of Fame who never won 20 games in a season. Right now, the only Hall-of-Famers without at least one 20-win season are relievers Wilhelm and Rollie Fingers and Negro Leaguer Hilton Smith.
If I were a Yankees fan, and I'm not, I'd rather have Mussina than a legendary Yankee hurler who was noted as a winner. The difference is that Mussina has consistently been very good, while Allie Reynolds had one very good year (1951) and one amazing year (1952).
In that amazing year, Reynolds went 20-8 with a 2.06 ERA in the regular season and 2-1 with a 1.77 ERA in New York's World Series victory over Brooklyn. It was a truly great season for Reynolds, and he finished second in the MVP voting.
But would you rather have a pitcher who comes in and knocks your socks off for a year or two or a pitcher who you can count on to help carry your team each and every season? I know which one I'd rather have, and Mussina falls in that category.
If you still don't agree with me, consider the following. After Mussina's outstanding 1992 season as a 23-year-old, Washington Post columnist Thomas Boswell wondered whether Mussina's career would end up more like Mike Boddicker's or Jim Palmer's. Eleven years later, we have more information about the answer to that question.
Palmer finished his career with a 268-152 record and a 2.86 ERA in 3,948 innings. That gives him a .638 winning percentage and a 125 ERA+. To refresh your memory, Mussina's 199-110 record gives him a .644 winning percentage and his 3.52 ERA gives him a 129 ERA+. For the record, Boddicker finished 134-116 with an ERA+ of 107 in 2,123.2 innings. To say that Mussina has passed him by would be an understatement.
Aside from pitching six more seasons and almost 1,300 more innings, Palmer also differed from Mussina in that he was a three-time Cy Young award winner and an eight-time 20-game winner. Palmer's 313 win shares are also almost 100 more than Mussina's 215.
Still, if Mussina can finish his career with as many seasons pitched as Palmer (19), he could end up with more wins, more win shares and a better ERA+. I'm not saying Mussina's as good as Palmer was, but Bill James ranked Palmer as the 17th-best pitcher in history in the New Bill James Historical Abstract.
The fact the two pitchers are at all comparable should tell you something.
Yankee Preview Week
I wanted to do something fun to preview the 2004 Yankee season, but for a long time, I didn't know how to go about it. Writing a preview-analysis or coming up with a series of predictions are the obvious routes, but I'm not an analyst and no prognosticator. Besides, there are good writers out there who will do a terrific job with that kind of stuff anyhow. Instead, I've enlisted a few of my favorite writers to help me profile different Yankee players. Ben Jacobs, Rich Lederer, Bronx Banter correspondent Christopher DeRosa, Cliff Corcoran, Jay Jaffe and Steven Goldman are all pitching in. Each day this week, there will be an original piece here at Bronx Banter. (Lucky me=lucky us.) Then on Sunday, we'll tie the room together with a Roundtable Discussion, previewing the coming season with a group of experts. I'm sure I'll find some time to link-up the latest articles from spring training too. In the meanwhile, I hope you enjoy. Like Robert DeNiro said to Paul Sorvino and Ray Liotta in "Good Fellas," "It's gunna be a good summer."
Frozen Ropes and Deconstruction
Next, Bonner tells a great story about how he taught himself how to play the guitar when he was a teenager, and writes about how he is thankful that music isn't evaluated in the same fashion that baseball is:
I feel simpatico with Bonner's feelings about the humility that comes with learning an instrument—or any of the fine arts for that matter—but I have to disagree with him here. Go ahead and read some Jazz criticism. Unless you are talking about Nat Hentoff, you'll find it to be significantly more dispassionate and academic than anything you see on Baseball Prospectus. I'm sure some of the more worldly Rock and Roll fans out there would be able to point out some pretty dry Rock criticism as well.
Your Lips Keep Moving, But All I Hear is Blah, Blah, Blah
I'm off early this morning to help my brother move, but I thought I'd leave you with some links to the morning papers before I bolt. Hope everyone has a great weekend. Bronx Banter will be running a week-long Yankee Preview next week; I'll be back tomorrow with more details...Meanwhile, here's the skinny:
Jack Curry has an early report on Curt Schilling at Red Sox camp—so does Dan Shaughnessy—and Tyler Kepner checks in on Jon Lieber at Yankee camp. Speaking of pitching, Ken Davidoff profiles Kevin Brown in Newsday, and John Harper covers all of the Yankee starting pitchers in The Daily News. Mariano Rivera has again expressed his desire to remain a Yankee when his contract expires at the end of the 2004 season. And lastly, our man at The Post, Joel Sherman, speculates that the Yankees may have been able to pull-off the Alex Rodriguez deal without trading Alfonso Soriano, while the Yankee captain, Derek Jeter has some candid comments for Michael Morrissey.
Only the Lonely
Baseball is a lonely game. But for Yankee pichter Jose Contreras, the loneliness he has experienced since leaving his family behind in Cuba has been nothing short of devastating. The Yankee starters lined-up for the first time in spring training, and there are several stories on the soporific Cuban in the local papers today. Contreras told Tyler Kepner in The Times:
The Yankees are interested in bringing another Cuban pitcher, Orlando "El Duque" Hernandez to the Yankees, ostensibly to help ease Contreras' mind as well as to serve as a spot-starter. But El Duque, who received political support in getting his family to the States, is remaining true to his obstinate form, and turned down the Yankees' initial offer. Hernandez is being pursued by several teams, including--would you believe?--the Boston Red Sox.
Step Right Up
Gary Sheffield has never been shy about talking to the media. (Expect him to grace the backpages of the New York tabloids on a regular basis this year.) A day after his name was once again linked to the Balco affair, Sheffield told reporters:
So long as he hits as well as he flaps his gums--which is highly likely--I think Yankee fans will tolerate whatever this future Hall of Famer has to say to the media.
Stop Making Sense
Everbody Loves the Sunshine
Andrew Zimbalist has an article in The New York Sun (subscription required) today about the economics of the Rodriguez trade:
Not only that, but Rodriguez is going to make the Yankees a good deal of money to boot:
Tim Marchman also has his latest column in The Sun today. Marchman praises the Dodgers for hiring Paul DePodesta. And while he's duly impressed with rational thinkers like DePodesta, Marchman points out that you might not necessarily want to hang out with them:
In order to get the best of both worlds, the answer seems obvious enough. You've got to go down to Florida and have a beer with Earl Weaver.
The Dynamic Duo
Puff, Puff, Pass
You Could Look It Up
Aaron Gleeman had a good piece yesterday about Paul DePodesta, the new general manager of the L.A. Dodgers. Actually, Gleeman's column was a scathing critique of Bill Plaschke--a journalist for The Los Angeles Times--who wrote an uniformed and snide article about DePodesta the other day. The most valuable aspect of Gleeman's article is a link he provided to an article Branch Rickey wrote for Life magazine in 1954 about baseaball statistics. Thank you, Mr. Gleeman.
Bringing a Knife to a Gun Fight
As Bill Madden writes this morning:
Or as Dan Shaughnessy opines:
Joel Sherman adds:
Bud Selig later spoke with both owners and told them to behave themselves like big boys. Joe Torre, a genuine grown up, was having himself a fine day in Florida. Still high off the Rodriguez trade, Torre has had several good conversations with his boss over the past couple of days and there is even a possibility that he will want to continue managing the Yankees after his contract runs out at the end of the season.
All in the Family
In "Annie Hall" Woody Allen quotes the old Groucho Marx line, "I would never want to belong to any kind of club that would have someone like me as a member." (I'm paraphrasing.) Any self-respecting, self-loathing individual loves that line. The self-hater in me wishes I could say that about the All-Baseball team, which now has a new-look as well as some new writers (the writers aren't new to blogging, just new to the fold here at All-Baseball): Jon Weisman (Dodger Thoughts), Bryan Smith (Wait Til Next Year), Peter White (Mariner Musings), and Rich Lederer (Rich's Weekend Baseball BEAT). But I can't. I do want to belong to this club, and I'm proud to be associated with such a crop of lively talent.
I know I mostly write about the Yankees, but I do like to cover other stories around the league sometimes as well. But instead of stressing out about not having the time to cover the Paul DePodesta story or the Greg Maddux signing, I suggest you go right to the Dodger and Cubs sources here at All-Baseball and let the experts take you through it.
Ken Rosenthal has an entertaining column up today in which he blasts...well, just about everybody. But he says his best for Alex Rodriguez. Bob Klapisch weighs in on the Rodriguez circus, and so does John Henry, owner of the Red Sox. Anyone got a tissue for Mr. Henry?
Opening Day at the Bronx Zoo
Jack Curry reports that Joe Torre may consider sticking around after his contract expires at the end of this year:
The Yankee front office didn't include Torre in the Rodriguez deal. The manager was informed of the trade last Friday night:
Naturally, the "Who's on Third?" controversy was a hot topic too. And it will remain one for a long time. Yesterday, Joe Sheehan of Baseball Prospectus suggested that Rodriguez won't play 160 games at third this season, but I'm not so sure. While moving Jeter may make the best baseball sense, I don't think you can underestimate the human element here. It's easy to say that Jeter simply needs to get over himself and relinquish his position, but as Jamey Newberg mentioned to me in an Instant Message this morning, playing shortstop is like being a quarterback. It's a tough spot to walk away from. I think Jeter is smart enough to do what is right in the long run. It just may take some time.
Mike Vaccaro points out that it would behoove Jeter to move:
Steven Goldman adds:
Still, so long as Joe Torre is the skipper, Jeter and Bernie Williams--who got some support from George Steinbrenner yesterday---will receive the benefit of the doubt. Right or wrong, that's just the way it is.
In addition to the events at the Stadium, it turns out that Alfonso Soriano is not really 26, but 28. The Yankees were informed of this last summer and the Rangers knew about it before the deal was done. According to Brian Cashman:
Gary Sheffield also made the papers this morning, in relation to the Balco affair, which has conveniently been bumped off the backpages in recent days.
Hey Good Lookin'
Rodriguez tells Tom Verducci that moving to third is not going to be an issue:
Like I said, smooth. Then again, what is he going to say? That he's the straw that stirs the drink and that Jeter only stirs bad? Oh, that's a different era, excuse me.
Where does this leave Soriano? Early reports out of Texas have him moving from the infield out to center. Soriano could have great success hitting in Arlington, but both David Pinto and Lee Sinins are skeptical. In his ATM report today, Sinins writes:
It will be interesting to see if Sori's best years were in the Bronx. What do you think?
Let's Get This Party Started Right
Alex Rodriguez will be announced as the newest member of the Yankees today at a noon press conference in the Bronx. It is a sweet moment for Yankee fans, a glorious day for Washington Heights, and a sickening affair for Red Sox, and Mets fans. There are some baseball fans who are even more upset by the fact that Rodriguez--who is widely considered to be the second greatest shortstop in baseball history--will move positions and not Derek Jeter. But for now, like it or not, Jeter will remain the Yankees' shortstop. (I don't think sabermetricians necessarily hate Jeter personally--although some might, of course--they just hate the perception many fans and mainstream media types have of Jeter's defense.) Jeter needs to stay healthy though. One trip to the DL and he could be the modern-day Wally Pipp.
Jeter and Torre will be in New York for the A Rod press conference today, while pitchers and catchers report to camp in Tampa. (Gary Sheffield and Bernie Williams have already reported).
I'll be back later this afternoon with more. The schmaltz should be pretty thick today. But before I forget, make a point to check out George Vecsey's nice piece in The Times today on Lawrence Ritter, the baseball historian who passed away on Sunday in his Upper West Side apartment.
Yeah, You Get Props Over Here
One of my favorite parts of following baseball is reading about baseball. I love the high-end analysis as well as the "hulluva-good-story" tabloid kind of writing. I find that I can learn things from both of them. It doesn't always bother me to read lousy writing. Mainly, I like the regularity of it all. And the Internet keeps a baseball junkie more regular than your daily dose of Flax seed oil. In New York, we're spoiled. There aren't too many days in the year when the Yankees don't make the any of the local or national papers.
And when a deal like this goes down, it's like Christmas and my birthday all rolled into one. Sure, there is a lot of pedestrian writing out there, but there is also a lot of remarkable writing too. I think Tyler Kepner has done an admirable and thorough job for the Times. And witness Jay Jaffe's expert break-down of the Rodriguez-Soriano trade. Jay kicks off the props parade by citing a prescient comment made by Joe Sheehan on BP Radio last a few weeks back. Sheehan said:
Jaffe touches on each point of the trade with insight and wit. I especially like his tribute to 'Lil Sori:
You know, I've been so punch-drunk by the thought of A Rod coming to town that I haven't thought much about Soriano at all. I was focused on what we were getting, not who he were losing. But I'm sure it will hit me. I do like Soriano. I felt badly when Yankee fans turned on him so quickly last fall. He did have a brilliant Yankee career, and I hope he continues to get better. He's more than a fighting chance hitting in Texas.
Jaffe placed ESPN's coverage of the deal in the "Under More Irony" department:
As a reader pointed out in the comments section of the previous article, Gammons was active reporting the story for ESPN Television over the weekend. (I didn't see any of it.) But ESPN didn't lead the industry with the scoop on this one. George King was the first one to it in The Post I believe, and John Heyman at Newsday took it from there. I was home this afternoon and caught several reports from Gammons on ESPN News, and it got me to thinking that for better or for worse, that's what Gammons is now. He's a TV personality, ESPN's Baseball Top Correspondent. And he's excellent at it. I find him comforting, and easy to watch. He's aged just fine over the years.
The criticism directed at Gammons print work is legitimate, but to me, his sins are forgivable. I don't need Gammons to be a great writer to enjoy him. So long as he's going to be great on TV, it doesn't really matter how sketchy his writing is. There are enough other good writers to concentrate on without it being too big a deal anyhow.
Gammons spoke on TV talking about how hard this must be to take for Mets fans. I haven't talked to any of my Met fans friends yet except my cousin Gabe, and this is the kind of a deal that he just hates, so he's probably not representative of the average Mets fan. Joel Sherman thinks it exposes the Mets has second-rate hacks. But not all Mets fans are sulking. Just ask my friend Steve Keane.
Can't wait what Tim Marchman and Steven Goldman have to say. Goldman was dreaming about A Rod from jump this off-season. Speaking of which, Goldman has joined Baseball Prospectus and will write a weekly column "You Could Look it Up." The first one is on the house. And so is an excellent Baseball Prospectus Roundtable on the A Rod Deal (The good people at BP are running a Spring Training Special). You could link it up.
When my grandfather died in the spring of 1994, my mother flew my brother, sister and me to Belgium for the funeral. We arrived on Good Friday and returned on Easter Sunday. The entire time we were there I was hyper-aware that I would remember much of what would happen during those couple of days, right down to the small, seemingly innocuous details. It was an emotionally-heightened experience, and my sense memory picked up and retained almost everything.
I had a similar, though far less upsetting, experience this past weekend. On Friday, Emily had an examination under anesthesia, and for the first time in our relationship, I was the only one at the hospital with her. Em's mother now lives in Vermont, but has always been Emily's primary advocate and caretaker; she has been there for all of her daughter's medical experiences. Without discounting the comfort and support that Emily's mom brings to the table, we thought it would be a good step for our relationship to go at this procedure by ourselves. Not just at the hospital but at home, as Em recovered. (I'm happy to say that things went as well as could be expected, Emily was great, and we both appreciate all of the notes of support that were sent our way.)
Yeah, I was a little spooked by the fact that Emily was going to be in the hospital on Friday the 13th, but to be honest, I'm far more superstitious when it comes to sports than I am in real life. (How about the fact that A Rod may wear the number 13 as a Yankee?)
Anyhow, the point is, this weekend was meaningful for Emily and me in a deeply personal way. But throw in what will soon be known in Boston as "The Valentine's Day Massacre," and by yesterday afternoon, I couldn't shut up to Emily about how we'll remember this weekend for the rest of our lives. We certainly won't be alone.
(Sadly, yesterday was also memorable because Lawrence Ritter, author of one of the most important baseball books of all, "The Glory of Their Times," passed away at his home in New York.)
Bud Selig is expected to approve the trade later today, and the Yankees are set to land the best player in the game not named Barry Bonds. This is what those in the business call Bofo, babe. It is as glamorous a trade as you'll ever see. But don't be fooled into thinking it's utterly one-sided. The Yankees didn't trade Erick Almonte and a bag of balls for Rodriguez, they traded a 25-year old All-Star in Alfonso Soriano. The deal makes sense for both teams, but it's not as if the Red Sox don't stand a chance now. Yes, the story fits all nice and snug in the continuing saga of the rivalry, but just how many wins did the Yankees gain here? According to Bill James' Win Shares system, a scant few. Maybe three. And hey, as Tony Massarotti correctly points out in The Boston Herald, the Yankees still need to go out and win on the field. Think there will be any pressure on them?
But as far as pure theater goes, this is a classic. (Just think how much sweeter it will be for Boston should they beat the Yankees now. At least they can remain comfortable with their "underdog" status a little while longer.) I think it's safe to say that Aaron Boone will now get his own special chapter in Yankee-Red Sox history. Not only does he beat the Sox with a game-winning home run in Game 7 of the 2003 ALCS, but his freak basketball injury this winter sets the stage for the Yankees to snag Rodriguez. This after the Red Sox were unable to swing a deal for A Rod earlier in the Hot Stove campaign. (Newsday is reporting today that Boston tried in vain in make a last-ditch effort over the weekend!)
One of the most stunning developments in the deal is just how financially reasonable it is for the Yankees. Tyler Kepner covers this angle thoroughly in The Times and Gordon Edes explains why the Red Sox valued finances more than acquiring Rodriguez in The Globe. The combination of the Yankees' bankroll (not to mention good fortune) and another team's desperation wins again. I think it's important to note just when this trade happened--on the eve of spring training. The Yankees also swung big deals late in the winter for Chuck Knoblauch (February 6, 1998) and Roger Clemens (February 18, 1999) too.
Also this morning, Murray Chass writes about how the Yankees continue to show the Red Sox (and everybody else) how to win, while Jack Curry profiles the history of Rodriguez's relationship with Yankee-captain, Derek Jeter.
Much of the early debate about the deal involves who should play shortstop. Yesterday I sided with those who think that moving Jeter and not Rodriguez to third was the right thing to do. But there were some good points made in the comments section of yesterday's entry about the difficulties of playing third base.
As Tim Kurkjian noted in his latest column over at ESPN:
Joel Sherman thinks that Rodriguez is a better fit at third too:
Sherman brings up Robin Yount when talking about Jeter's future, and intimates that perhaps Rodriguez will eventually play short anyhow:
Regardless of who you think should play where, one thing is for certain: Jeter and Rodriguez are an irresistable storyline. While there is much being made about the ugly personalities of the new Yankees like Lofton, Brown and Sheffield, nothing tops the focus that Rodriguez and Jeter will command. Talk about a soap opera. Grown men will follow these two around all season hoping for fireworks, a cat fight. When I attended the Winter Meetings last December I thought the whole affair felt like a seventh-grade dance, except there were no girls. Well, Jeter and Rodriguez aren't just girls, they are Divas.
Of course there is a natural rivalry between the two players, but I think they are too smart to become Thurman vs. Reggie. I expect them to turn their competitiveness into a positive, which is a scary thought for the rest of the league. (Madison Avenue, you haven't seen nothing yet.)
There will be a lot less heat on guys like Gary Sheffield and Jason Giambi with Rodriguez here. (And what about the quiet man, Bernie Williams? Remember him, the senior member of the team? He could have a sleeper year.) Whether you believe that the new guys will destroy the fabric of the clubhouse or whether you think they'll revitalize the team, you can bet this Yankee team will be covered more closely than any Yankee team since the Bronx Zoo Era. I haven't even mentioned the attention Don Mattingly (and to a far lesser extent, Roy White) will get for joining the coaching staff. And what about the massive attention that Hideki Matsui gets from the Japanese media?
This Yankee team is more star-studed and chock-full-of-nuts than a Dean Martin Celebrity Roast. (Fragile as Joe Torre's position seems to be, he's no Billy Martin. Torre's calm is more needed than ever, and it's unlikely that he'd make any situation worse: he's no meshuggener.) As Kurkjian commented, there will be no rest for the New York Press corps in 2004:
The mainstream media won't be alone of course (As a side note, has anyone else noticed that Peter Gammons has not been part of the media coverage over the weekend? What gives there?). There has been a steady growth of new baseball blogs over the past two years, and I can only imagine that several more Yankee and Red Sox blogs will appear before now and Opening Day. Hopefully, we'll have some great new additions. For starters, Jamey Newburg, Larry Mahnken and my man Cliff C wrote terrific articles on the trade yesterday (Aaron Gleeman and Ed Cossette weigh in with their two cents today). The 2004 Yankees are a writer's wet dream. With each twist and turn, writers will be able to enjoy their own Gloria Swanson moments as they rush to their computers and say, "Mr. DeMille, I'm ready for my close-up."
It's Getting Hot in Here
According to the Associated Press, the Yankees and Rangers have agreed to terms on "the trade," and the Player's Association has given their blessing as well. Now, all that is left is for Bud Selig to sign off on the trade that will bring Alex Rodriguez to the Yankees. He is expected to do so either later today or tomorrow.
Apparently, Texas will pay $67 million of the remaining $179 million on A Rod's contract. This is how the contract breaks down:
This must be a a tough day in Boston. Just ask Red Sox pitcher, Derek Lowe:
I should note that both The Daily News and The New York Post ran graphics today comparing Jeter to Rodriguez, using advanced metrics like Range Factor and Zone Rating. The results are what the sabermetric community has known for a long time now: the two aren't even close as defensive players. There has been a wide gap in the public perception of Jeter's defense: many mainstream analysts and casual fans believe that Jeter is a good defensive shortstop, while sabermetricians and the more astute fan know that Jeter is a poor defender. There was no telling how long this gap in perception would continue, but now, A Rod's arrival in the Bronx just may force the issue. If so, I think that is great.
Again, I think that many baseball fans will be like Rich Lederer, and feel cheated if Rodriguez is asked to move from his natural position at shortstop. Jeter, who is known as a team-player, will not look good if he is ultimately hurting his team. But is Joe Torre going to ask him to move? Or will Boss George do the dirty work himself? It is a sensitive issue, as big egos are involved here, but I think after a reasonable amount of time, Jeter will do what is best for the team. (I certainly hope he does.) Whether that is in spring training or even this year, I can't say. But I do know that the first couple of ground balls that easily skip past Jeter into center field will be hard for Jeter apologists to defend. Forget the excuses, the Yankees now have a significantly better option on their roster. Jeter's flaws will become more apparent then ever before. And come oh, the middle of April, they will be tabloid fodder.
If only every team could have such problems.
I Had the Strangest Dream Last Night
I spoke with Rich Lederer for close to two hours last night. I asked if this made him hate the Yankees more, and he said that it didn't. What he did find upsetting as a baseball fan was the prospect of Rodriguez—the greatest shortstop not named Wagner—moving to third in the prime of his career.
Last November, Steven Goldman asked the question:
Now that the chance is a reality, there is already talk about who should play short, Rodriguez or Jeter. Jack Curry notes that Rodriguez is the better defender:
Ken Rosenthal adds:
Let the debate begin. A cold front hit New York last night, but man, it feels hotter than July in the Bronx.
When I first heard the rumor today that Alex Rodriguez might be coming to New York for Alfonso Soriano and a package of players, I thought it was just that: a rumor. A doity, stinkin' rumor. Yet another in a long line of A Rod rumors. Will Carroll e-mailed me about it and I spoke with him later in the day, but I still didn't think it was much more than a nice fantasy. Now Newsday says the trade will happen and Tom Verducci concurs, saying that the trade isn't yet official but the deal is done: Alfonso Soriano and a minor league pitcher to be named later for Rodriguez. There are still financial issues that need to be settled.
Part of me still doesn't believe it. Couldn't be. I feel numb.
Thank you, Aaron Boone. Thank you forever. Evidently, Rodriguez is willing to play third. While that is sure to cause some debate, as A Rod is clearly a better defensive shortstop than Jeter is, ultimately it is what you'd call a good problem if you are the Yankees. Now, if the Yankees can acquire a slick fielding second baseman, perhaps Jeter's defensive flaws won't be such an issue.
Man, talk about Boffo. How do you think Yankee-haters all over the world are feeling now? Ah, the hatred will reach a fever-pitch in 2004, but the Yankees will sell em out with regularity on the road.
When I first read about the story this morning Emily—whose procedure yesterday went as smoothly as we could have expected—asked me what it means.
"Well, I don't think it's really going to happen, but if it does, it means that my dick will be hard for two months."
"Oh, I'll make sure to send A Rod a thank you note."
Looking After My Bulldog
I won't be available to post on Friday the 13th on the count of I'm going to spend most of the day at New York Hospital with Emily, who has an examination under anesthesia first thing in the a.m. Good thing I'm only superstitious about important things like baseball games. It's not an operation, just an exploratory exam. Still, she'll be knocked out something good. Those of you who have been reading the old Banter here for a minute know that Em had a major surgery last spring, which made nine since 1996. She originally suffered from Crohns; her current problems remain somewhat of a mystery, but they stem from complications that occured during her initial procedure if you can believe it.
Anyhow, Emily is a more than a trooper. She's down right inspirational. I don't know that I've ever met anyone as brave or willing to do the work she needs to do to get better. She may appear dainty, but let me tell you: the goil is tough. She's a bulldog, for cryin' out loud.
I'm sure everything will work out OK tomorrow. We're hoping that the doctors will have some concrete answers this time round. We'll be back in the Bronx for a chill weekend. I'm happily playing the role of caretaker—got a nice Valentine's Day planned and all. I'm sure I'll find the time to check in with a post—or at least an update on Em's situation—over the weekend.
In the meanwhile, I know most of the Yankee fans who stop by here are familiar with The Futility Infielder as well as Replacement Level Yankees Weblog, NYYFans.com and Clifford's Big Red Blog. But do yourself a favor and peep the new Yankee buttas: The Greatest Game, Yankees, Mets and the Rest, and The Midnight Hour. Tell 'em I sent you.
Hot Stove Edition
By Bruce Markusen
Patches and tributes aside, Clines was an intriguing player for the Pirates during his early major league career. A champion high jumper in high school and one of the fastest players in the Bucs’ organization, Clines earned the nickname “Roadrunner.” After making his debut by hitting over .400 in a 1970 September call-up, Clines became a key contributor to the team’s 1971 World Championship cause, successfully platooning with Al Oliver in center field. In 1972, Clines’ playing time increased under new manager Bill Virdon. The speedy outfielder platooned with Vic Davalillo in left field, responded with a .334 average in 311 at-bats, and appeared headed for stardom. After a strong start in 1973, Virdon installed Clines as the Pirates’ everyday right fielder, replacing a struggling Manny Sanguillen. Soon after, Clines tore ligaments in his right ankle, forcing him to the sidelines. When he returned, he struggled at the plate and once again became a victim of the numbers game in the Pirates’ outfield. Clines complained regularly to Pirate management about his sporadic playing time.
Despite a series of trade rumors, Clines remained with the Pirates in 1974 and experienced the most difficult season of his career. Off the field, he dealt with the tragedy of his father’s death. On the field, Clines batted a career-low .225. A wave of young outfielders coming up through the Bucs’ minor league system—headlined by Dave Parker and Richie Zisk—forced Clines to watch more games from the bench. After the season, the Pirates traded Clines to the New York Mets for backup catcher Duffy Dyer. Clines responded to the trade gleefully—and with bitterness toward the Bucs. “I’m happy to be gone from the Pirates,” Clines told the New York Times. “They made up their minds a long time ago that I didn’t fit into their plans, and there was never a thing I could do to change their minds.”
Unfortunately, Clines’ playing time in New York did not increase. In 1975, Clines went to the plate only 203 times and batted just .227. After the season, the Mets dealt Clines to Texas, where he eventually became the Rangers’ regular left fielder. Despite playing fairly well for Texas, the Rangers traded him to the Chicago Cubs for left-handed reliever Darold Knowles. In 1977, Clines batted .293 as a utility outfielder for the Cubs, but slumped to .258 in 1978. Clines again complained about a lack of game action, but manager Herman Franks explained that he considered Clines the “heart of the club.” In an interview with The Sporting News, Clines replied to Frank’s curious assessment with a classic response. “If I’m the heart,” said Clines, “then his heart is having a seizure.”
Early in the 1979 season, the Cubs placed Clines on waivers, effectively ending a career that had once seemed so promising. Instead of becoming a star outfielder and Gold Glove center fielder as some had predicted, Clines settled for a journeyman career as a good situational hitter and No. 4 outfielder.
Some of the stardom that eluded Clines as a player would finally occur during his coaching career. Clines elected to remain with the Cubs’ organization as a coach before joining the Houston Astros as a minor league hitting instructor and then earning a promotion to a major league coaching position in 1988. Clines later worked as a coach for the Seattle Mariners and Milwaukee Brewers. After the ‘96 season, the San Francisco Giants named Clines their major league hitting instructor, where he enjoyed a number of successes, including the rare ability to strike a positive chord with team superstar Barry Bonds. Clines also drew heavy praise from many of the Giants veteran hitters, including Jeff Kent. In 2003, Clines moved on from the Bay Area, following friend and manager Dusty Baker to the Chicago Cubs.
Yet, Clines’ major league resume is not complete. He longs to manage a major league team, a dream that rightly should have been fulfilled years ago. What else does Clines have to do to convince a general manager that he’s the right man for the job? He’s intelligent, well-spoken, and a student of hitting, and has plenty of postseason experience as both a player and coach. In perhaps his strongest attribute, he can obviously relate to players, as evidenced by his ability to coexist with the sometimes difficult Bonds in San Francisco. Along those lines, he has shown a remarkable capacity to adapt from one hitter to the next, working with some on their mechanics and with others on their mental approach. Hopefully, a big league team looking for a field manager in the next two to three years will see fit to give Clines his first chance at a top job in the dugout. The Roadrunner deserves it.
The Nickname Game
Hub Kittle (Died on February 10 in Yakima, Washington; age 86): A longtime pitching guru for several major league organizations, Kittle was probably best known as the pitching coach of the 1982 World Champion St. Louis Cardinals. Under his tutelage, the careers of such Cardinals pitchers as Joaquin Andujar and Todd Worrell blossomed. Kittle also worked as pitching coach for the Houston Astros from 1971 to 1975, where he worked with talented youngsters like J.R. Richard, and most recently served as a special assignment pitching coach for the Seattle Mariners. Prior to his career in coaching, Kittle pitched in parts of six different decades, launching his career with the Los Angeles Angles of the Pacific Coast League in 1936.
Jim Russo (Died on February 9 in Wildwood Missouri; age 81; lengthy illness): Regarded as one of the most astute scouts in the history of the game, Russo forged a legendary career with the Baltimore Orioles. As a scout of amateur talent, he signed top prospects like Boog Powell, Dave Johnson, Dave McNally, and Hall of Famer Jim Palmer, all of whom became stars in Baltimore. In his later years with the organization, Russo served as a “superscout,” compiling extensive reports of future Orioles opponents in the postseason. In 1966, Russo assembled the scouting report that helped the Orioles sweep the Los Angeles Dodgers in the World Series. Russo also offered the Orioles’ front office input on potential trades; in one of his strongest claims to fame, he recommended that the Orioles acquire future Hall of Famer Frank Robinson from the Cincinnati Reds in a 1966 deal for Milt Pappas, Dick Simpson, and Jack Baldschun.
Richard Dennis Powell (Died on February 3 in Glenwood, Maryland; age 92; cancer): Powell served as the business and general manager for the Baltimore Elite Giants, one of the premier teams in the old Negro Leagues and onetime home for future major league stars like Joe Black and Roy Campanella. Believed to be one of the last surviving executives from the Negro Leagues, Powell helped oversee Elite Giants teams that won Negro National League titles in 1939 and 1949. He was also credited with convincing team owner “Smiling” Tom Wilson to move the franchise from Washington to Baltimore in 1938.
Joel Rubenstein (Died on February 1 in Newport Beach, California; age 67; complications from cancer): Rubenstein served as a top aide to Peter Ueberroth during his term as baseball commissioner and as part of the Los Angeles Olympic Organizing Committee. After joining the Commissioner’s Office as executive vice president for marketing in 1984, Rubenstein helped form the Baseball Assistance Team (known as BAT), which raises money for former major leaguers in need of financial and medical assistance. Rubenstein made his last public appearance at this year’s BAT dinner, which was held on January 27 in New York City. At the dinner, Rubenstein was honored for his dedication to the BAT organization.
Ernest Burke (Died on January 31 in Baltimore, Maryland; age 79; complications from kidney cancer): Burke played as both a pitcher and outfielder for the Baltimore Elite Giants of the Negro Leagues. His four-year career with Baltimore followed a rather historic tour of duty in the war; he was one of the first black Marines to serve in World War II. Burke later played in the Canadian Provincial League, where he batted .308 in his best season north of the border while splitting time between the outfield and third base. That same season, Burke also posted a 15-3 record as a pitcher. After his playing days, Burke remained connected to the game by frequently signing autographs and selling Negro Leagues memorabilia at trading card shows.
Curtis Johnson Sr. (Died on January 27; age 71; heart attack): Johnson played two seasons in the Negro Leagues during the 1950s. After his playing days, he enjoyed a successful career in politics, working as a councilman and police juror, among other positions.
V.J. Lovero (Died on January 12 in Newport Beach, California; age 44; complications from pneumonia and lung cancer): A photographer for the Anaheim Angels, Lovero died four years after he had been told by doctors that he had only six months to live. Despite being diagnosed with lung cancer, Lovero continued to pursue his career and followed the Angels during their World Championship run in 2002. In addition to covering the Angels, Lovero also worked as a photojournalist for Sports Illustrated and for the NHL’s Anaheim Mighty Ducks. Lovero’s photographs appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated 39 times. In addition, his work appeared in a set of Upper Deck baseball cards issues in 1996. He earned one of the biggest breaks in his career in 1982, when he shot photographs of Hall of Famer and former Angel Rod Carew for a public relations firm. Shortly thereafter, Lovero began working as a freelance photographer for the Angels.
And Another Thing
Cooperstown Confidential writer Bruce Markusen is the author of three books on baseball, including A Baseball Dynasty: Charlie Finley’s Swingin’ A’s, which is available at www.amazon.com and at Borders Books. A fourth book, The Kid: The Life of Ted Williams, published by Greenwood Press, is scheduled for release this spring.
Editor's Note: Cooperstown Confidential will be appearing here at Bronx Banter throughout the 2004 season.
Hooray for Hollyrock
I've Been Wanting to Do This to Ron Cey For Years
My friend Adam sent me the following link and called it "the greatest thing in the history of the Internet."
Here is what you do:
Click the mouse to drop the penguin off his glacial ledge.
Click again to swing your bat.
Enjoy. Yeah, I ripped it. Hope you weren't planning on getting any work done for a few hours.
There will be a lot of fleshy third basemen available soon.
Back to the Lab
At the same time, deep in the heart of Florida, Jose Reyes and Kaz Matsui---the Mets' new double play duo---are working out for the first time together.
Meanwhile, the Yankees are talking with Scott Boras about signing first baseman Travis Lee to a minor league deal.
Six days until pitchers and catchers report for the Yankees; eight days for the Mets.
Ciepley doesn't see the discrimination that the first openly gay ballplayer will face from homophobic fans and teammates as the worst of his potential troubles:
Great stuff from Ciepley. If you haven't already, make Ball Talk one of your regular stops in blogland, regardless of whether or not you is Queer or a Cubs fan.
Watch That Man
When Rivera signed the four-year deal in 2001, he mentioned that he would leave baseball when the contract ran out, and turn his attention to Religion. Also, Rivera was reportedly upset with the Yankees for letting Andy Pettitte walk last fall. But for now, he would like to stay in New York. But for how long?
You could argue that the Yankees could do without Rivera after 2004, but my guess is that most Yankee fans would rather see Rivera in New York for another couple of years. Part of me would rather see Rivera retire or move on instead of watching him decline in New York, but again, Rivera was terrific last year, and perhaps he'll still be very good for another couple of seasons. The other part of me--the protective part--wants Rivera to be a life-long Yankee, regardless of the results from here on out. I think most Yankee fans will be happy taking their chances with Mo: case closed.
You know, the first time I ever contacted Aaron was when he wrote something about hating Stephon Marbury last winter. Mostly, Aaron would not forgive Marbury for forcing a trade to the Nets. I couldn't hardly blame Gleeman for being bitter. Built like a hockey puck, Marbury is powerful, has hops for days, and has a keen basketball mind. As much as I understood Marbury's reasoning for wanting to play closer to home at the time, I knew he would have to live with the consequences of leaving an absoluetly great situation in Minnie. After all, part of why he left was because his ego couldn't stand being the number two guy to Garnett.
A short while ago, Marbury was traded to New York, and he has made the Knicks worth watching again. The Brooklyn native is one of top three or four point guards in the NBA, and is the best guard the Knicks have had since Clyde Frazier. I've followed Marbury since he was a senior at Lincoln High and am a big fan, as well as one of his toughtest critics. I loved it when he was paired with Garnett on the Timberwolves, and was even happier when I could watch most of his games after he came to New Jersey. Like the man he replaced on the Nets, Sam Cassell—currently making T-Wolves fans forget they ever knew Stephon— Marbury developed a reputation as a shoot-first point guard. Some of the criticism was unfair, but some of it was true. In big spots, Marbury would tend to lose confidence in his teammates and consequently force the action too much, taking his fair share of lousy shots along the way.
It wasn't until Marbury was traded to the Suns that he finally became an All-Star. (If he had played with the likes of a healthy Kenyon Martin, and Kerry Kittles, not to mention Richard Jefferson in New Jersey, chances are he would have been an All-Star as well.) Now he's back in New York, the place he's always wanted to be. In the the place to be: MSG.
So far, so good. Although he still can dribble the ball too much and take some questionable shots, Marbury is a nifty passer who does in fact make his teammates better. I also think he recognizes the importance of this moment in his career. He's not a dumb guy. If he blows it with the Knicks, it would likely bury his career. But if he does well here, it'll be a life-long dream come true.
Marbury's older brothers—Spoon, Sky and Jou-Jou—were all schoolyard talents in Brooklyn, but they never made it through college. From an early age, the family's expectations rested on Steph's durable shoulders. He was built to be the savior of the Marbury family. Now, he's the Knicks' savior.
In Darcy Frey's fine book about basketball players at Lincoln High school, "The Last Shot," the young Marbury comes across as a shrewd operator. Marbury enters the first scene of the book a seventh grader riding a Big Wheel onto the basketball court; it ends after his freshman year at Lincoln. But from the start, Marbury was expected to be the next great point guard to come out of Brooklyn, out of New York.
A cynical kid, Stephon was somebody who was going to take full advantage of his situation. He learned from his brothers' failure. He learned to ask: "What's in it for me?" Marbury's father refused to talk with Frey unless Frey paid him.
Toward the end of the book, Frey, a white journalist, gives a ride to three of the main characters after a practice. Along the way, they convince him into buying them McDonalds. Marbury's father wasn't the only parent who didn't agree to speak with Frey. Another boy's mother had declined to comment too. When Frey asked the kids why they thought both parents had refused to talk with him, Stephon offered the following advice:
It was the wise-beyond-his years sensibility that drew me to Marbury. I don't know that it makes him more likable but it makes him more interesting, and sympathetic. It also has helped me forgive Marbury of his more selfish moments on the court. He's still got room to grow—I remain one of his toughest critics—but he's just about in the prime of his career now and is a terribly exciting performer. He's made it this far, how much better can be get? While the Knicks are still not a very good team, at least they are fun to watch again. And Marbury makes them matter once more.
The $64,000 Question
Personally, I started getting suspicious when George burst out crying after the Yankees beat the Red Sox last summer.
After the Fire (The Fire Still Burns)
The SoSH-Curt Schilling "Off-the-Record" affair got even hotter this weekend, as Jay Jaffe did his best Howard Beale-meets- the-Tonga Kid impression and body-slammed his way into the debate. Jaffe had three seperate posts: Buzzing the Tower, It Takes a Jihad of Sox Fans, and Final Thoughts on Beating a Hornet's Nest with a Baseball Bat. Larry Mahnken weighed in on the topic too over at his Replacement Level Yankees Blog.
At the very least, these articles inspired some good conversation. Yeah, there was some mud-slinging and name-calling—some of it funny, some of it crude—but both sides also stated their cases with civility too (Boston Dirt Dogs and various members of SoSH clarified their position on several of the threads). Tempers do tend to flare when discussion turns to such things as ethics, censorship, respect and common courtesy, espcially when baseball fans are involved. The fact that we are stuck in February, tantalizingly close to the start of spring training, most likely helped everyone get all wound up as well. Hey, there are two sides to the story, and everyone has a right to their opinion. I just think it's cool that people care enough to get heated about it (or care enough to say, "Alright already, I think everyone is getting carried away here.") It's going to be a good season.
It sure won't be a dull one.
Start Spreadin' the News
The Red Sox are going to win the World Serious this year. Oh, haven't you heard? With each passing year, we hear this more and more. The beauty part is the Red Sox are getting better and better every year, so it is not a completely ridiculous boast. There is no doubt that Boston will (deservedly) be picked by many experts to at least make it to the Serious (they just resigned Trot Nixon to a three-year deal). So, something has got to give, no?
They will have to win it one year, won't they? Some Yankee fans bank on the fact that they haven't won it in so long, it means that they'll never get over the hump now. I feel that because it's been so long, they have to turn it around eventually. They have to win it just once, right? Unless you believe in things like curses, of course they do. Tyler Kepner has a good piece in The Times today about the mounting expectations New England has for its first baseball championship since WWI in light of the Patriots second title in three years. The enthusiasm isn't restricted to Boston's often fanatical rooters either. It is now being generated by their owners too:
A bit of self-importance you say? What would you Yankee fans know about that?
Henry concludes that if and when the Sox win it all:
I wonder what Chicago fans would have to say about that? I'm sure they would probably roll their eyes and say, 'That's Boston thinking it's better than everyone again.' Are Red Sox fans more special than White Sox fans or Cubbie fans? You tell me. Are they even more special than Yankee fans? Are the Sox a more important team once they've finally won a championship again, or does their carefully constructed myth go, thhhhpppt in the night? I don't think they are better or worse than anyone else. But Sox fans are certainly unique, and display a brand of devotion to their team which may be unrivaled.
Will the celebration in Boston be something memorable if and when the Sox win a championship? There is no question about that. However, some Red Sox fans will try and convince you that their one championship will be more meaningful than all of the Yankees' championships put together. It's a natural enough rationale if you are looking at it from a Red Sox point of view. But tell me, would you rather have watched your team won four times in the last eight years or just once? Will Red Sox fans be satisfied enough after they've won a Serious so that they won't want them to win again the following year?
Still, Red Sox, like their Chicago brethern, will experience something much different than what Yankee fans feel when their team wins. New York fans expect the Yankees to win, while Red Sox fans (and Cubs and White Sox fans) expect their team to lose. When Boston to finally wins it, it will seem like something extraordinary for their fans. Rightfully so. Yankee fans won't be able to relate. The feeling Sox fans will own will be sweet and different from anything Yankee fans know. But to say that it is better (or worse for that matter) is grandiose-thinking at its finest. After all, Sox fans will never know what it is like to feel what Yankee fans do either.
As a Yankee fan I love to hate Boston and root againt them during the year. (They are as easy to hate as I'm sure the Yankees are for Sox fans.) But I'd be lying if I didn't admit that I'm not curious to witness what a championship would do to Red Sox Nation, and how it would effect the Myth of the Sox as the long-suffering Good Guys. I hope it doesn't happen this year or next year, but if you combine my natural sense of superstition with the fact that the Red Sox are simply a good team, I won't be surprised when it does happen.
To be sure, there will be plenty more on this issue to come (the Dirt Dogs have already come out swinging). For starters, head over and see the terrific post Edward Cossette has up today at Bambino's Curse.
Kick in the Door
A federal judge ruled in favor of Maurice Clarett yesterday, stating that the NFL's policy prohibiting young players from entering the draft violates anti-trust laws. The NFL will appeal the decision but it's likely to stand. I'm not especially fond of Mike Lupica's work anymore--though I grew up on the stuff--but I think he hits the nail on the head this morning. Curt Flood's name is sure to be mentioned in relation to this case. If anyone catches an especially interesting Flood analogy, I'd appreciate it if you could e-mail the link to me.
The Schilling Rules
Apparently, Eric is more invested in protecting his newfound relationship with Schilling than he is in journalistic ethics himself. I think he's way out of line accusing Pinto--one of the most respected and conscientious bloggers on the Net---of being unethical. But while I certainly don't agree with him, I understand Eric's position. I can only imagine how much traffic Schilling brings to Sons of Sam Horn. However, if Curt Schilling believes that what he posts on the Internet should be considered "off-the-record," well then either he is stunningly naive, or even more arrogant than I previously imagined.
Back in Black
Sure enough, Burks had a difficult time with the Sox. For a black player, that was nothing new. When Rice was let go, Burks felt isolated, and frustrated. Like many a young black center fielder who possessed both speed and power, Burks was expected to be the next Willie Mays. (Bryant explores this phenomenon in further detail.) But he was just Ellis Burks. To make matters worse, his manager Joe Morgan questioned his conditioning and effort. Bryant continues:
I wonder if the current Red Sox ownership is trying to kill two birds with one stone in bringing Burks back to Boston. First, they get a viable right-handed bat off the bench. Next, they prove that the new Red Sox are different from Boston regimes of the past. And they get to prove it by bringing back a clubhouse guy who had it rough as a young player in Boston. The circle is complete. It should be interesting to see what Burks' impressions of the city and the team will be all these years later.
On the Money
Managers and general managers have come and gone with regularity during the Steinbrenner Era in New York. But Brian Cashman and Joe Torre are special. If Torre gets fired this season--or if he chooses to leave at the end of the year--there will be much written about what a huge loss it will be for the Yankees. (There will be fantastic wailing for weeks.) And to a large extent, I think it will be a big loss. But instead of moaning about how George could have let it happen, how he could let his ego get in the way of a great thing, we should take that time to stand back in amazement that Torre lasted as long as he has in the first place. (I understand that George didn't have much of a cherce, what with Torre winning four World Championships, but still, this is Steinbrenner we are talking about.)
Brian Cashman hasn't been sainted by Yankee fans and the New York media in the same way that Torre has, but he's been a marvel in his own right. (When he finally does leave New York, he won't have a tough time finding work.) Cashman was at a Hot Stove event in New York last night and had some candid things to say about where the Yankees stand going into the 2004 season. Tom Singer of mlb.com was there and filed this report.
When asked about the Red Sox being the favorites to win the East, Cashman replied:
What about the notion that the Yankees can spend money 'til the cows come home?
From New York, straight talk. Peace to Repoz for the link.
Back in Town
Third's a Crowd
The Yankees are collecting decent-hitting third basemen who aren't any great shakes with the leather like they are going out of style. They have already invited Tyler Houston to spring training and according to the AP, now have a deal in place to land Mike Lamb from the Rangers for minor league pitcher Jose Garcia. Hey, maybe Mattingly can get in a couple of games at the hot corner too.
I've heard it through the grapevine that the Yankees have also invited Joe Girardi to camp too. Evidently, if the 39-year old offensively-challenged catcher doesn't make the team---which is highly likely---he has a job waiting for him the YES Network broadcast booth. I've heard this story from several people (including Rob in the comments section of yesterday's post), but I didn't find any mention of it in the papers this morning. (If anyone comes across a link, let me know.)
Either way, it'll be great to have Joe G back. Built like a hockey puck, Girardi is hardly effete, but he seemed to have an almost maternal presence when he was the starting catcher for the Yankees. (I'll always remember how he protectively pulled David Cone down before the pile-on crashed over them after the final out of Cone's perfect game.) Girardi looks like a distant cousin of Yogi Berra's, but for some reason he reminds me of Chico Marx. Attsa fine.
Meanwhile, in the latest chapter of The Pinstriped Bible, Steven Goldman addresses Curt Schilling's recent critique of Rob Neyer. Schilling is not alone in thinking that performance analysts like Neyer--who are removed from the daily grind of the clubhouse beat--aren't exactly astute judges of just how good players really are. Goldman thinks this line of thinking is false:
It seems to me that Neyer is willing to publicly admit when a prediction doesn't come true, or when he is flat-out wrong about something. That he does it in a self-depricating and conversational style makes him all the more appealing. Regardless, it's a lot more than you can say for your average, self-important newspaper columnist.
While you are at it, welcome Steve Bonner---longtime reader of Baseball Musings and Bronx Banter---to the blogging universe, and check out his new site, "The Midnight Hour." He starts things off on the good foot by considering what we can expect from Jason Giambi this year.
Henson was a boffo Steinbrenner signing that went bust. I'm sure everybody involved is relieved that it's over. Like Joe Sheehan and others, David Pinto thinks the Yankees may want to take a chance on minor-leaguer Brian Myrow:
Myrow? Why not? What have the Yankees got to lose by giving him a shot during spring training?
Dis N Dot
1. The Super Bowl proved to be an entertaining affair yesterday. Congrats to the Pats. (How long before the "Yankees Suck" chant begins, or has it already started?) You think Tom Brady will run for public office when his playing days are over? I think he might be the most suitable-looking Boston star since Carlton Fisk.
2. Speaking of the ol' pigskin, it appears as if the Yankees and Drew Henson are close to parting ways. According to ESPN:
Let me join the inevitable chorus of Yankee fans when I say, "Well, it's about time."
3. Buck O'Neil and Don Zimmer were featured players in Gordon Edes' "Notes" column yesterday. You'll like what Popeye had to say about his run-in with Pedro Martinez in Game Three of last year's ALCS:
4. Peter Gammons previews the AL East in his latest column and argues that the Blue Jays could make things tough for the Yanks and Sox:
In case anyone missed the comment section from my Sunday Post, here is a tidbit that should please Yankee fans:
But Jayson Stark thinks there is reason for concern:
Hmmm. Lots to be worried about with Giambi, but since I love his game so much, I gotta remain hopeful.
5. Finally, Rich Lederer has an good piece on future Hall of Famer Gary Sheffield over at Rich's Weekend Baseball BEAT.
In all, I hope there is a little something for everyone this morning, whether you are hung-over but have somehow managed to trudge in to work, or if you took the day for yourself and are molding-out at home. Hey y'all: fifteen days 'til pitchers and catchers.
ROB NEYER'S LUCKY DAY
About the Toaster
Baseball Toaster was unplugged on February 4, 2009.
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