February 2009

Defending my stance on Jeter

jeter_375_022707.jpgA COUPLE OF QUICK NOTES AS WE HEAD INTO THE WEEKEND…
First, a few reactions to the comments on retaining Derek Jeter after 2010: as I tried to explain this morning, I’m appreciative of Jeter for all he’s done, but I appreciate winning baseball teams more, and I very much doubt that the Yankees will be able to do so with a 37-year-old shortstop, particularly one who doesn’t play great defense now and has visibly slowed the last couple of years.

Baseball puts fans in a very difficult bind: do you love the team or the player? When the player is 25 and at the peak of his powers, it is very easy to love both. When they’re 35 and gimpy, you have to make a decision. The Yankees, and Yankees fans, have gone through this repeatedly: with Babe Ruth, Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle and many others. At some point, it was time for them to move on so the team could make room for fresh faces that could do more to help them win. The alternative is that the team ceases to try to win and becomes a nostalgia show, perpetuating these players far beyond their usefulness just because it’s hard to let go. If that’s what you want, that’s one thing, but you’re going to see a whole lot of losing, not to mention experience a whole lot of embarrassing discomfort along the lines of what old time Willie Mays fans saw when he joined the Mets in 1972 — not the fleet ballplayer of 1954 who could do anything, but a 42-year-old who looked like a tired old guy. If you want to see Derek Jeter look like that, fine — just keep holding on too tight — and don’t

Specific comments: vrod44, the “you didn’t play the game” insult is as old as dirt and about as logical. Whether I played or not, even if I was Lou Gehrig in a previous life, Jeter is aging. That’s an unavoidable fact, but blame the messenger if you want. Yankee7777, it’s odd that you cite Lou Boudreau given that he stopped hitting after age 30, was a part-time player by 32, and retired at 34. No, he wasn’t fast — he was, in fact, legendarily slow, and as you say he was a great defender nonetheless. Unfortunately, none of that serves your point because by the time he was Jeter’s age, he wasn’t playing anymore. I don’t have time to do it now, but over the weekend I’ll try to figure out which teams won with old shortstops. My guess is it’s a short list. I also disagree with your statement, “Anyone who watches Jeter knows he makes all the plays.” He demonstrably does not. I wrote this in the Baseball Prospectus annual four years ago:

For those of us in the performance analysis biz, Jeter is a difficult problem because any realistic evaluation of his skills, no matter how flattering, seems like a slight when compared to his reputation. In the eyes of true believers, Honus Wagner and Superman combined couldn’t do half the things Jeter does. In truth, he’s terrific at going back on shallow pop-ups and executing the jump throw in the hole. Other aspects of the job — fielding grounders to his left for instance — elude him, and it doesn’t take an MS in scouting or statistics to see it. When watching a Yankees game, simply pay attention to the opposing shortstop. He will routinely get to balls that Jeter cannot. As for the Gold Glove, peel back the foil on the award and you’ll find there’s some tasty chocolate underneath. That’s about what it’s worth, though at least Jeter was better this year. On offense, Jeter walked less than ever before and doubled his previous high in sac bunts, perhaps because he lost confidence after a shockingly poor April. Jeter is a Hall of Famer to be, a key player on a great team, an inspirational leader, a fine hitter…and he gives up a lot of singles with his glove. In light of the rest, why is that last part so difficult to accept?

I stand by what I wrote back in the winter of 2004. Every day you can see balls go past Jeter on the left that most other shortstops easily field, and if he’s ever made a play behind second base it must have been back in the Clinton administration. To this point, for the reasons stated above, that deficiency hasn’t been all that important, because on balance, the combination of offense and defense worked out in the Yankees’ favor. That will be less and less the case over time, and if 2008’s reduced offensive output was not an injury-induced fluke but the beginning of an age-inspired trend (and it was the second season in a row that Jeter’s offense dropped, so arguing about said trend may be a moot point), the day of reckoning is here now.

AND FROM TODAY’S GAME…
The Yankees dropped the decision to the Twins, who came back late against some youngsters who aren’t going to be within hailing distance of this year’s staff. There was still plenty of good stuff: a solid two innings for Ian Kennedy; a 2-for-2 with a double and a stolen base for Brett Gardner (and an 0-for-3 for Melky), a 2-for-3 for Jorge Posada and an identical day for Nick Swisher. Xavier Nady went 0-for-3 with an RBI.

Also of interest was an appearance in left field by Kevin Russo. I get a lot of mail about Russo, who hit .316/.363/.416 in half a season at Double-A Trenton last year. Some out there want to see him as a prospect, but I don’t buy it — as a second baseman, he’s going to have to hit more than that to make it — those numbers don’t really translate to anything impressive — and since he doesn’t play shortstop, his chances to be a utility infielder are not good. Last year he got in an odd bit of utility work at third base and the outfield, and it’s interesting to see the Yankees carrying that forward this spring. If Russo starts the season at Scranton, he could be an injury away from a bench job… It’s not like Cody Ransom has an ironclad lock on a job.

THAT’S A WEEK
I hope to see many of you at the Yogi Berra Museum on Sunday (see below for details). I’ll catch the rest of you here on Monday, unless Brian Cashman goes insane and signs Manny Ramirez tomorrow afternoon. In that case, I’ll be posting — a lot. 

Another day, more stuff happens

hughes_250_022707.jpgTHAT’S JUST THE WAY IT WORKS
Can’t complain about the Yankees’ exhibition showing against the Rays on Thursday, and can’t get overexcited about it given that the Rays brought not their B or C squad but maybe Squad Q, the squad you turn to when all else has failed and the monsters are at the door, but not any time before that.

I was excited to see Phil Hughes’ cutter again, but the Yankees denied me, having the lad work on his other pitches, and two barely hit batsmen aside the results were just fine. Ditto bullpen-bound Phil Coke, who with Damaso Marte should give the Yankees a rare set of matched lefty long men, rather than the more ubiquitous pair o’ LOOGYs. Joe Girardi should keep in mind that “long man” is not equivalent to “infinite man” — he forgot with Marte a couple of times last season.

On the offensive side, it was a very good day for Jorge Posada, with a double and a home run, and that means it was a good day for the Yankees, as a resurgent Posada could be decisive in this year’s race. Again, let’s not get too worked up about the results of one game of DH-work and a home run against Chad Orvella, who looked so good a few years ago and looks so lost now. On the bad news side, Brett Gardner went 0-for-2, but then so did Melky Cabrera so we’ll say that Gardner is still ahead based on Wednesday’s home run.

On the Rays side, Squad Q did supply one clue as to why the former underdogs have a chance to repeat in the form of starting pitcher Wade Davis, a 23-year-old who reached Triple-A last year, putting up a 2.72 ERA in 53 innings. He throws in the 90s, he has a full complement of pitches, and there is currently nowhere to put him. The Rays have so many pitching options that unless they suffer an ’87 Mets-like staff-wide breakdown, they should be able to patch pretty easily should anything go wrong. You saw Davis whiff Mark Teixeira, Alex Rodriguez and Robinson Cano on Thursday, and he’s surplus.

A NOTE OF DEREK JETER APPRECIATION
Jeter didn’t do anything special, but seeing him out there, realizing that he’s in the declining days of his career, made me feel a bit like I’ve taken him for granted at times. The cult surrounding Captain Intangibles is so fervid in its hero worship that it provokes the opposite feeling in the realist sector. It has become fashionable to criticize Jeter’s defense, and such criticisms are accurate and entirely fair. Still, the excellence of Jeter’s career should not be missed in the rush to paint a more accurate picture of him, and we should also not fail to acknowledge the sheer miracle of his existence given what the Yankees had at shortstop between 1950, Phil Rizzuto’s MVP season, and 1996, Jeter’s arrival.

With apologies to Tony Kubek, Bucky Dent and even the Scooter himself, the years where shortstop was something the Yankees dragged limply behind them, even when winning, far outnumbered those when they received the kind of all-around contribution that Jeter is capable of providing at his best. I grew up watching the Yankees try Paul Zuvella, Jeff Moronko, Bobby Meacham, and the occasional hotel clerk at short, while at the same time seeing all-time greats like Alan Trammell and Cal Ripken come through and batter the heck out of them whether at the plate or in the field. It seemed like it would never end. If Tony Fernandez hadn’t become injured in 1996, it never would have ended.

As we again debate Jeter’s defensive abilities and remaining offensive capabilities this year, let us remember the good years. And no, this doesn’t mean that the Yankees should sign Jeter to an extension after his current contract is completed. They shouldn’t.

THE AROUND (AND ABOUT)
? Manny Ramirez rejected what seemed like a fair offer from the Dodgers on Thursday. Yesterday I wrote a story about Joe DiMaggio’s 1938 holdout. One thing I came across, but didn’t use in the story, was one of the top Yankees, either owner Jacob Ruppert or general manager Ed Barrow, saying of DiMaggio (I paraphrase), “His demands are just so ridiculous that we don’t really believe he’s holding out, we think he’s just trying to get out of spring training.” That seemed silly when I read it, especially because the Yankees and the Clipper were only $5,000 apart — for whatever reason, the team had decided it wasn’t going to compromise with DiMaggio no matter what, so they were trying to cast the blame on him. With Ramirez, though, I can almost believe it.

? Remember how I complained about Frankie Cervelli leaving Yankees camp to play in the WBC when he really needs the time with the team? The Royals are going to go through the same thing with Mark Teahen, who is heading out even though he’s trying to revive his career by making the transition to second base. That’s just wrong.

? It’s wonderful that the Tigers have a pitcher in camp named Fu-Te Ni. Globalism has its defects, but it’s wonderful to follow the game in the age of universal baseball.

? One more reminder that on Sunday at 2 p.m. I’ll be appearing with Kevin Goldstein, Christina Kahrl, and Cliff Corcoran for a Q&A/signing at the Yogi Berra Museum in Montclair, New Jersey. Come for the baseball talk, stay in Montclair for the Yogi-ness and the great restaurant scene. That’s my plan. 

Beat out that rhythm on the horse

matsui_250_022509.jpgPeter Abraham, live-blogging today’s game, reported that Nick Swisher batted with the bases loaded, was behind in the count 0-2, and came back to work a walk. I got curious as to how often that actually happened in real games, and which Yankees were the best at rescuing a bad situation with patience and selectivity. Working our way around the diamond:

Career walks after down 0-2:
Jorge Posada, 39 in 906 PA (4.3 percent).
Mark Teixeira, 29 in 619 PA (4.7 percent).
Robinson Cano, 7 in 386 PA (1.8 percent).
Alex Rodriguez, 53 in 1597 PA (3.3 percent).
Derek Jeter, 69 in 1442 PA (4.8 percent).
Johnny Damon, 37 in 1445 PA (2.6 percent).
Melky Cabrera, 4 in 269 PA (1.5 percent).
Nick Swisher, 20 in 405 PA (4.9 percent).
Xavier Nady, 10 in 473 PA (2.1 percent).
Hideki Matsui, 24 in 477 PA (5.0 percent).

I don’t know if this tells us much more than that the most patient hitters on the team are able to carry that patience through even the most difficult situations. Before running down the numbers, I had made a little bet with myself that Jeter would be tops in this category, not because he’s the most patient Yankee, but because of how many times I’ve seen him bear down in such situations. My guess was close, but it’s Matsui that takes the prize. Often you hear that clichéd description “professional hitter” applied to players who are no such thing, but what Matsui does, turning lost times at the plate into something positive, is truly deserving of the appellation. Hobbled Godzilla has only hit .220/.262/.342 in his career when down 0-2, but that’s actually a big accomplishment — no-hitter does well when he has only one pitch to work with; last year the American League as a whole batted .185/.217/.274 after an 0-2 count, so Matsui is well ahead of the pack.

I know you’re wondering about Jeter in such situations. He’s been even better than Matsui, batting .230/.283/.340 after 0-2. Hey, you’ve got to do stuff like that to get to the Hall of Fame.

DON’T BURY THE LEAD(OFF HITTER), STEVE!
In this morning’s entry, I wished that Brett Gardner would hit a triple today. Instead, he led off the game with a home run, pulling the second pitch of the game over the right field fence. Your move, Melky. And Kei Igawa pitched well, too, but we’ll pretend that didn’t happen.

TOMKONOMY
According to Mark Feinsand of the New York Daily News, Brett Tomko is in competition with Dan Giese and Alfredo Aceves for a spot as a long man out of the pen. All three of those guys would probably make spot starts as well, should any be necessary. As I suggested this morning, Tomko really has no case to make here, having been roundly pounded every year since 1997, with the exception of 2004. As a starter last year, his ERA was 6.17. He pitched 16 innings as a reliever and slowed 12 runs, including four homers. In 177.1 career innings out of the pen his ERA is 4.92.

The best choice here might actually be Giese. Aceves seems like a very interesting starter, and I’m all for the Yankees embracing what little youth they chose to bring to camp, but I worry about his low strikeout rate and high home run rate in a bullpen role. He may simply be unsuited. It won’t hurt the Yankees to try, of course. Giese didn’t pitch that much between injuries, but was more or less effective when he did, particularly before his post-injury appearances in September. He got hammered in five innings that last month (we should watch out for any carryover to this spring), but to that point his ERA was 2.58 in 38.1 innings. Giese seems to be comfortable in the swingman role, and as a 31-year-old rookie last year is no doubt just happy to be in the majors.

All of that said, we’re talking about the last man on the staff. Given the quality of the Yankees rotation and their other bullpen options, this should be the last important decision Joe Girardi makes. Last year Giese generally relieved in low-leverage situations, and it seems unlikely that Girardi would have to call on him, or Brett Tomko, to protect too many leads. Still, if healthy, the guy knows how to pitch and deserves to have something of an inside track given his incumbency. Tomko does not know how to pitch, or if he does hasn’t translated that into consistent big league success — if he had, he wouldn’t be pitching for the last spot on the Yankees, he’d be in someone’s rotation. 

Brett Tomko? Why?

tomko_250_022509.jpgI’ve been meaning to comment on the signing of Brett Tomko, and since he’s starting Wednesday’s game against the Blue Jays, now seems like a good time to do so. Tomko was signed to a Minor League deal back on February 13. The right-hander, who will turn 36 on April 7, is … there’s no good way to say this … terrible. His career ERA is 4.68 despite extensive work in friendly parks like San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Diego. Since his last good ERA in 2004 — it was only the second time in his career he’d posted an ERA below league average — he’s gone 22-41 with a 5.07 ERA in 504.1 innings. Starting, relieving, selling peanuts, it hasn’t mattered, he’s been pounded. The only good thing he’s had going on in that time is a slightly above-average walk rate.

Pitchers are variable, and you never know when you might squeeze some unexpected juice out of one that seemed an irredeemable failure. The possibility seems quite remote in this case, and if Tomko wears a Yankees uniform anywhere but Scranton this year something will have gone quite wrong. The Yankees are trying to save their starters from the longer grind of an extended spring season this year, that’s understood, but starting Tomko and then following him with Kei Igawa in the same game seems like cruel and unusual punishment to Yankees fans.

? It’s quite a drag that Frankie Cervelli is heading out of camp to play in the WBC. Due to last spring’s injury, he hardly played last year, and to date has had only a few at-bats above High-A ball. As well as Jorge Posada seems to be doing with his throwing program, the Yankees really need to have a solid alternative to Jose Molina on hand in case the Iron Jorge breaks down (Kevin Cash ain’t it). The best thing that Cervelli can do for both the Yankees and his own career is to stay around, let the coaching staff see a lot of him, and do what he can to improve his batting stroke, because right now there is very little indication that he can hit in the big leagues. But there are hints in his performance and smatterings of patience and doubles power that hint (at least to me) that there is something alive in Cervelli that could blossom if only nurtured the right way. The WBC is probably not the way to do it.

? With all due respect to my friend Rob Neyer, now that the A’s are out of the Fremont business, they shouldn’t move to Portland, they should move to Central New Jersey. Sure, there are territorial issues with the Mets and Yankees, but it’s a big market and there’s room for all. Imagine the rivalry … imagine the traffic. I haven’t done a demographic comp with Portland, but I bet Jersey’s population density and general affluence wins. Also, thanks to the large Indian population in that part of the state, we’d have the only ballclub to serve samosas. I can hear the cry of the vendor now… “Nan! Hot nan! Getcher nan bread and samosas here!” I could go for some of that now, if only it weren’t 3 AM, and even if it is.

? The reminder: Baseball Prospectus writers Kevin Goldstein, Christina Kahrl, Cliff Corcoran, and I will be at the Yogi Berra Museum Sunday at 2 p.m. for our annual roundtable. Come, ask questions, get answers, and admire the sheer Yogi-ness of the edifice.

I’ll be back with an update after the Yankees break the ice on the spring season. Let’s hope Nick Swisher hits two home runs and Brett Gardner hits a triple and makes a running catch. The outcome of the season may depend on these two players having a better spring than their competitors. 

Johnson battling for much more than a roster spot


Johnson-2-23-250.jpg
ONE MORE CYCLOPS
On Sunday, it was reported that Yankees camp attendee Jason Johnson had been treated for ocular cancer. This information may not have seemed of much significance to most of you, because Johnson is a 35-year-old non-roster invitee with a career major league ERA of 4.99, but it caught my eye–my one functioning eye–because I am a survivor of the same disease. We underwent the same treatment at the same hospital with the same doctors.

Like me, Johnson really shouldn’t have this disease. Statistically, ocular melanoma doesn’t strike anyone with regularity, just five or six cases per million people are afflicted each year, and then it seems to go for blue-eyed guys over 50 years of age. I was about 32, and brown-eyed. I don’t know what color Johnson’s eyes are, but he’s obviously a bit young. Further, ocular cancer doesn’t correspond to your diet, how much sun you get, whether you’ve been smoking asbestos or some other controlled substance in your college dorm room, or overly personal relations with your cat. It just happens.

The process is much like skin cancer: the inside of your eye can develop freckles or moles, just like your skin. Sometimes, those freckles or moles turn evil and will kill you if left alone for too long. If you see a mole on the back of your hand start to change shape or color, it’s a simple matter to head for the dermatologist’s office and have it lopped off and biopsied. If you get to it early, that’s usually the end of it–if the doctor gets clean borders when he removed the thing, that particular threat is gone for good. This same process happens in the eye, but you can’t see it, and the process is otherwise asymptomatic–by the time the cancer gets big enough to start messing with your vision, you could be in real trouble. My tumor was considered to be of medium size–it was only 8 millimeters thick. That’s nothing in the real world, but in the eye it’s a big object, and I had no idea it was there.

I caught mine because my eye doctor made a lucky find while looking for something else. Johnson’s doctor caught his under similar circumstances, while working him up for a new set of contact lenses. We’re both very, very lucky. If you catch the tumor while it’s still contained to the eye, your prognosis is much better than if it’s started to climb out of there. That said, even if the disease is contained to the eye, you’re still in trouble, because first, it has to be cured, and second, the longer it was in your body, the more likely it is that it sent off a colony somewhere. Melanoma is a capricious disease–those cells can hide for years or even decades before coming back to kill you, most likely by invading your liver or your lungs. There is no safe harbor–with some cancers, if you’re free of the disease for five years, you can consider yourself cured. With melanoma, you’ll be going for scans of those two body parts for the rest of your life. I do this every six months.

The good news about ocular melanoma is that it generally responds to being irradiated; not too long ago, the “cure” was enucleation, the removal of the eye. You get to keep it now, for what it’s worth. Johnson and I underwent the same procedure. You’re knocked out, the eye is squished aside, and a radioactive plaque is affixed to the tumor site. You then get to stay in-hospital for as many days as the plaque is affixed–you can’t go home because you’re a danger to others. In my case, the tumor reacted the way it should, shrinking rapidly, and sometime later the doctors baked what was left with a laser, just to make sure it was dead, dead, dead. After these procedures, it is very rare that the cancer recurs at the original site. It’s the colonies you have to be afraid of.

In my case, over time the radiation also took the sight in the afflicted eye. I won’t go into five years of medical treatment trying to save my vision, but in essence, the radiation that wasn’t good for the tumor isn’t good for the healthy parts of your eye either. I can’t speculate on Johnson’s outcome because I don’t know where in the eye his tumor was located. Mine was right near the optic nerve, which means that some important hardware got baked along with the cancer. His might have been off to the side somewhere, and perhaps he’ll have fewer complications than I have had, and he’ll get to retain his vision, or some portion of it, for longer than I did. One would hope that he will retain good vision throughout the remainder of his professional baseball career, as a pitcher who was not able to fully gauge the ball coming off the bat would be a sitting duck and just one bad read away from having his head blown off by a line drive.

I feel ungrateful complaining about my partial blindness. It beats being dead, after all, and that’s pretty much the choice I was offered. You’d trade one eye for the rest of your life any day of the week. Still, there’s rarely a day that goes by that I do not notice it in some way, am not inconvenienced by it. There have been some promising things reported about someday using stem cells to revive the optic nerve. I eagerly await the day such miracles are possible. In the meantime, I regret that I get to welcome Jason Johnson to the club, congratulate him on having his tumor discovered in time for treatment, and wish him many future years of healthy living and successful pitching.

Finally, I hope my story, and Johnson’s, encourages the rest of you to go out and get your eyes checked on a regular basis–not by your mall optometrist, but by a real ophthalmologist. This disease can blind you and it can kill you. Twice a year I head to the Wills Eye hospital in Philadelphia for follow-up examination. There’s some physical discomfort involved, but there’s a whole additional level of pain that results from those who often share the waiting room with me–children. I guess Johnson and I aren’t the only ones for whom eye cancer stepped aside of its preferred group to clutch at. This is, as they say, a word to the wise.

Speaking of Johnson yesterday, Joe Girardi said, “I had never heard of anyone having that.” Very few people have heard of ocular cancer, and most people react with shock and surprise when I first tell them about it. Now you know, so no excuses–keep up those eye exams, and tell them the Pinstriped Bible sent you.

Ending the A-Rod debate

arodblog021809.jpgTHE A-ROD FILES (DISCOVERED IN A RARELY OPENED BOTTOM DRAWER)

Judging by the comments and email, my reaction to the A-Rod presser didn’t please anyone. The criticism was about evenly split between those who seemed to think I was too hard on the guy and didn’t give him enough credit for being candid, and those that still think that I’m not hard enough on him because I still argue that his usage almost certainly had little effect on his numbers.

Some days you’re better off just staying in bed. Or maybe I could blog recipes. I don’t imagine that those folks get too much hate mail. “You’re calling for too much sugar! Who likes custard, anyway! Obviously you’ve never cooked in a real restaurant.”

Let’s try to deal with both objections, starting with the first. I would very much like to give Rodriguez the benefit of the doubt here, as I have steadfastly defended him over the years from those so-called fans who want to blame every bad bounce of the ball on him, not to mention the declining economy, global warming, and the continued popularity of “American Idol.” Despite this, I think his performance on Tuesday was ludicrous. I can’t sum up his explanations any better than did Joel Sherman in Wednesday’s New York Post:

So before we even deal with the discrepancy that Rodriguez, according to the Sports Illustrated story, failed a test for two steroids, not just “boli,” let us just sum up A-Rod’s new story: Fitness freak lets untrained relative shoot drugs that the fitness freak cannot fully identify or vouch are safe into his body 36 times, though the fitness freak is not sure he is taking the drugs correctly or if they are having a positive result.

Lewis Carroll’s White Queen could believe as many as six impossible things before breakfast, and you’d have to be her to buy into this mess. It makes very little sense. Nor does the “youthful indiscretion” thread ring true, given that the guy was 25 when he started. Whatever maturity issues the guy was facing, it’s pretty clear he had a fully developed sense of right and wrong or he wouldn’t have tried to hide what he was doing.

As I said yesterday, this has little to do with my estimation of Alex Rodriguez as a ballplayer. I respect his on-field performances and feel they are legitimate. The same goes for Ty Cobb. Had I been around, I would have paid good money to see Cobb play, but I don’t think I would have wanted to be friends with him or have him over for dinner. Heck, given what I’ve read of Babe Ruth’s table manners, I don’t know that I’d want to have dinner with him either. Ted Williams was not easy to get along with. Mickey Mantle was so good he’s actually underrated, but it seems like his personal character left a lot to be desired. These guys are not my idea of great human beings, but they can play on my all-star team anytime.

As for those on the “steroids corrupt all stats” debate, I remain somewhere between agnostic and outright skeptical. I’d be more willing to believe in a placebo effect than I do in a large-scale impact on home run production. If you feel differently, I’m open to your argument, but we need an argument more solid than, “Look at the home runs, man!” I did a radio spot recently, and the host said — I loosely paraphrase — “You puny stathead, I used to play the game, and I look at how Bongs and Ray-Rod can stay back on the ball and still hit it out — that’s unnatural power that can only come from the juice!” And as I struggled to say something more than, “Wait, what?” he repeated, “I played, I know.” Well, great. Let’s say we accept your argument. These guys hit 50 home runs a year. In how many of them did they “stay back” and still hit it out? What is the recurrence of your little anecdote in a given year? Are there any players who can do that naturally? Is it possible that, given that we’re talking about the top one percent of home run hitters in the game, that they can do some things the average player cannot? That you cannot? We’re talking about people’s lives and good names here. We cannot condemn them based on inference, innuendo, anecdote.

All of this searching for a “natural” production baseline is ridiculous given that there is no such thing. The line drawn between fair and unfair substances is completely arbitrary. No player, in any sport, is competing with only the assets that birth gave him. There’s always something else going into the pot, be it aspirin, absinthe, or amphetamines. During his 56-game hitting streak, Joe DiMaggio chain-smoked cigarettes in the dugout to calm his nerves. That gave him an unfair advantage on Wee Willie Keeler.  Heck, genes are unfair and should be banned. Consider Barry Bonds and Jose Cruz, Jr. Bobby Bonds was a very good player. Barry Bonds is better. Jose Cruz was a very good player. Jose Cruz, Jr. is not half the player his old man was. Seems like Barry’s mom brought more to the chromosome hoedown than did Jose Jr.’s mom. Clearly, Barry Bonds is the beneficiary of genetic hypergamy, giving him a competitive advantage unavailable to other players. As such, his records should be stricken from the book. Breeding, intentional or not, makes a mockery of the level playing field.

I’m done. This is over. Let’s move on… at least a couple of yards down the road. At least until the next revelation.

A-Rod and the magic vial

arod_bible_250_021709.jpgI watched the Alex Rodriguez press conference so you wouldn’t have to, and I have to say that you didn’t miss much. Certainly nothing was said that would convert an A-Rod skeptic or critic into a believer or supporter. Rodriguez hit upon a singularly bad turn of phrase when he said, “I’m here to take my medicine.” However, his answers were basically evasive. He repeatedly fell back on the excuse of youth (he was 25) and naivete, wishing several times that he had gone to college instead of being a Major Leaguer at 18.

That’s fine as far as it goes, but his claims of innocence and ignorance are inconsistent with his other answers. Rodriguez explained that he had little knowledge of the substance he was being injected with, didn’t know how to use it, wasn’t really sure what benefit he received from taking it — he said it was supposed to provide “energy” and did confirm that he felt more energetic — and wasn’t even sure that it was a banned substance. Maybe it was, maybe it wasn’t. At the same time, he felt, he said, that he couldn’t reach out for education, because his use had to be secretive.

These two sentiments seem to conflict. Rodriguez was ambivalent about the illegality of his usage, but felt that he had to conceal that usage. That doesn’t exactly scream “innocent mistake.” Say this for Mark McGwire: he had the stuff out on his locker shelf for all to see, because he didn’t think he was doing anything wrong. One doesn’t take pains to conceal what one does not feel the need to conceal. You ever sneak an extra dessert when no one is looking and carefully throw away the wrapper so there’s no evidence? That’s one Twinkie that just disappeared. Could have been anyone who took it, since there’s no evidence to connect you to the crime, whereas, the legit food that came with dinner, you didn’t sneak under the table to eat it. You had it right out there in front of everyone else.

Now, we all conceal certain things out of fear of embarrassment or ridicule. That is only human — we do not share 100 percent of ourselves, even with our closest loved ones. Maybe you don’t want the wife to know about the time you wound up on the observation deck of the Empire State Building without any pants. More likely, you don’t want the wife to know about the time you thought about being on the observation deck of the Empire State Building without any pants, because that might lead to other, more difficult questions, such as, “So what was it about that scenario that appealed to you?” Her perception of you might change, if only she knew what lurked in the unswept corners of the Id. That’s true of her for you as well, and all of us.

This kind of discretion is distinct from concealing something that you know or strongly suspect is criminal and will open you up to some form of official sanction. If A-Rod was the naïf he claims to be, would he have simply taken a random drug for “energy?” One suspects at least a bit of familiarity with the possibilities of such “aids,” just as one suspects a pretty clear understanding of the consequences of dabbling.

There were other inconsistencies, like this apparent need to rehearse his story with the unnamed “cousin” who suddenly became a major character in the story, one who was not mentioned to Peter Gammons or Katie Couric or Torquemada, the Grand Inquisitor. These things hardly seem worth commenting on, except to say that today’s conference was about Rodriguez regaining his credibility, and it doesn’t seem like that happened.

Of course, none of these concerns go to the bottom line, which, as A-Rod correctly pointed out, is that he had his best season in 2007, and there has been a testing regimen in place for a few years now, one that seems to have been successful in nailing quite a few players. There remains little evidence that steroids do much more for ballplayers than build muscle, or that Rodriguez’s numbers were affected in any significant way. He remains one of the best ballplayers in the business and also one of the hardest to like. From the point of view of winning pennants, one out of two ain’t bad. 

Security behind the plate

pudge250_021609.jpgSO, HOW WAS YOUR VALENTINE’S DAY?
My unscientific polling sample of local types was evenly split between couples who believe it’s a cynical holiday manufactured by the greeting-card companies and those who make something of it. I tend to fall into the latter camp, if only because I like an excuse to get my wife a present or two. I don’t buy greeting cards, though. Those are evil, with soul-crushingly banal inscriptions, like:

My Dearest Love
Let me tell you all the ways,
On this special day of days
How you fulfill me in every way
In spite of that disfiguring mark
In the middle of your forehead
That I so easily overlooked when you were 20
But can bug the heck out of me now that we’re older.
Why don’t you get that thing fixed, anyway?
We can finally afford it
Now that we’ve had that bequest from your uncle.
I never thought he would stop kicking
While we held him down
With the fluffy cat pillow
From Wal-Mart.
I guess that’s why I think I love you
Oh, cripes, not “I think,” I mean, “I do.”
Please don’t make a big thing of it.
I wish you wouldn’t cry like that.
You know how I feel better than I do.
You’re always telling me how much I–
Oh, forget it. I can’t talk to you right now.
HAPPY VALENTINES DAY.

On the rare occasions I’m forced to buy a card, I shoot for the blanks and fill in my own inscription. You really don’t want to be going for a lowest common denominator sentiments when expressing yourself to a loved one. That’s lazy, and perhaps, a bit dangerous. No doubt we’ll return to this topic on Mother’s Day and Father’s Day. I was going to crack that on the former the players swing pink bats and on the latter they just hit you with them, but that would make a wider generalization about fathers than would be fair, including to my own, including myself. It’s all comedy folks, it’s just comedy.

RANDOM THOUGHT ON SOUVENIRS AND FEELINGS OF SECURITY
Remember the stuffed Kirby Puckett dolls the Twins used to sell? Think the Yankees might license something similar for CC Sabathia? I know if I were a kid, I wouldn’t be afraid of the dark if I had a stuffed CC in my room. Mr. Scratch comes out of the closet, CC will bean him with a 95-mph fastball. Take that, Ultimate Evil! This tot knows security! You could save thousands in fees to the child psychologist …

PUDGE, AS PLAYERS STRETCH AND PLAY CATCH
You’ve probably seen the latest from Ivan Rodriguez, who is still out there looking for a job. While I don’t believe Pudge has a lot left (PECOTA says .263/.301/.364), the Yankees would be very foolish not to give him another look. If you believe, as many have suggested, that Jorge Posada, even if ready to start the season, will probably sit for a quarter of the games, then you also have to be praying that the AL East race is not a close one. Simply put: if Jose Molina and Kevin Cash play 40 or more games and the race is at all close, the Yankees will lose it.

The more one considers this possibility, the more stunning it is that the Yankees went through the winter without trying to upgrade at the position — Cash doesn’t qualify; in 557 Major League plate appearances, he’s batted .184/.248/.285, a fair representation of his offensive abilities. I characterized it this way in my most recent chat when I was asked about the possibility of Rodriguez returning:

Eli (Brooklyn): Should the Yankees make a run at Pudge Rodriguez or did him running over Joe Girardi’s dog close that avenue?

Steven Goldman: One of the really disturbing things that Yankees fans will see coming out of Spring Training — well, let me correct that. There are two scenarios, both equally disturbing: (1) Posada is healthy enough to catch, but the Yankees feel nervous enough about this durability that they carry both Jose Molina AND Kevin Cash, or (2) Posada isn’t ready to start the season, so the Yankees start the season with Molina and Cash as their catchers. As such, YES! YES, THEY FREAKING SHOULD BRING IN ANYONE BREATHING! YES!

… I actually raised this point on last night’s Hot Stove show on YES, though somewhat inarticulately: Brian Cashman’s biggest gamble last season was not relying on young pitching, but in going to war with an old catcher and assuming his (to that point) incredible durability would carry them through another year. That he has decided to double up on that bet is really disturbing and will reflect very poorly on him should Posada not be ready to go.

I should have said that it will reflect very poorly on him “should Posada not be ready to go, or if he requires substantial rest to stay healthy — and the latter seems to be inevitable.”

SOME THINGS WORTH READING
?    A good MLB.com article on the PECOTA prediction system, which I often site in these here pages and is the backbone of that book I spent the winter editing. How does Bill Pecota feel about inspiring PECOTA? “Hey, any pub is good pub at this point … I definitely didn’t do enough on the field to get people to notice me, so if they’re noticing me now, that’s awesome.” Thank you, Bill. Feel free to come by a book signing. We’ll spot you a copy.

?    Sorry for bringing up bad memories, by Joe Posnanski conducts a thoughtful “steroid symphony.”

Yankees were right to pass on Abreu

abreu_250_021309.jpgWITH A LITTLE HELP FROM MY FRIENDS
A little while ago, I was complaining to my friend and colleague Jay Jaffe that I wanted to get through today’s entry without writing about Alex Rodriguez and steroids. He immediately came back with this question: “At the price the Angels paid, should the Yankees have brought back Bobby Abreu?”

It’s a heck of a question, though one that may be compromised from the outset, because we don’t know if the Yankees could have gotten Abreu to sign at the same price — one year, $5 million. We don’t even know if Abreu’s agent bothered to come back to the Yankees and say, “Give us $5,000,001 and we’re yours” before making their client a Los Angeles Abreu of Anaheim (or is that a Los Angeles Angel of Abreu?).

I’m going to say no. Here’s why: Abreu had a good year for the Yankees at the plate, but his indicators are all pointing in the wrong direction. His home run rate was nothing special, his walk rate was down, and his baserunning and fielding skills aren’t what they used to be, with the resultant give-back on runs severely denting his offensive value. While a one-year deal at a low salary represents a minimum of risk — the Angels are betting that Abreu at least holds his 2008 value for one more season — the danger here is not financial but to the winning effort. With even a smidge of further attrition, Abreu is going to be no fun at all.

Over the last three years, the typical Major League right fielder has hit .277/.347/.451. The PECOTA projection for Abreu for next season, which does not reflect his move to Anaheim (a good thing in this instance) is .282/.368/.436. Thanks to the high on-base percentage, that would be a better than break-even performance, but not one that’s a huge benefit. Nick Swisher should be able to approximate the on-base and slugging percentages while doing a better job of actually catching the ball. The Yankees are already paying him Abreu’s salary plus a little ($5.3 million this year), and there’s little reason to double up.

Now, Jay’s question would be a lot easier to answer if the Yankees only had Xavier Nady to play right field, because even a diminished Abreu is likely to out-hit him, especially in the key area (really the only area) of on-base percentage. PECOTA’s weighted mean projection for Nady is .270/.323/.444, which falls short of even the average right fielder.

Parenthetically, I know I’ve been like a broken record on the Nick Swisher-Nady stuff, but as we head into a Spring Training season in which the Yankees have few big decisions to make, right field stands out as a position where the Yankees can make a choice that will significantly impact the outcome of the season. Johnny Damon is almost certain to regress. The center fielder, whoever he, she, or it proves to be, will not be a major run producer, and maybe not a minor run producer. It will fall to right field to salvage the outfield production.

Sorting out who starts shouldn’t be difficult at all, and is being complicated by a lot of statistical noise from last season. Swisher had a bad year by his standards, Nady a very good one. However, extrapolating from either season is unwise; Swisher is unlikely to have suffered a complete breakdown at age 27, just as Nady is unlikely to have found new strengths at age 30. Even a bad Swisher drew 82 walks and hit a home run every 21 at-bats; even a good Nady drew 39 walks and hit a home run every 22 at-bats. We’re talking about a difference that comes down to a fistful of singles, and we know those tend to come and go for hitters. Throw in that Swisher is the superior defensive player, and this really shouldn’t be a discussion at all.

In summary, to round back to Jay’s question about Abreu, the differences between Abreu and Swisher, if any, will be small enough that had the Yankees been given the opportunity to top the Angels’ offer to the former by some small number of dollars, they would have been correct to demur. Regardless of the resolution to the battle, the Yankees have already gained one victory in saying “Nyet” to their California-bound alumnus: this year’s right fielder may not hit, but he’s certain to catch a few balls at the wall, something we haven’t seen a Yankee do in years. 

Tejada and the terribly blustery day

tejada_250_021209.jpgIt was painful watching Miguel Tejada weep over his guilty plea for lying to Congress, but a little bit satisfying as well — not in the sense of schadenfreude, of taking pleasure in someone else’s suffering, but in anticipation of the deterrent effect that his tears might have on future ballplayers, arrogant enough, as Tejada was, to dismiss the legal jeopardy that might result from participation in the culture of bodybuilding, that has infected Major League clubhouses. That prosecutors nailed Tejada on something as peripheral as perjury, rather than his own usage, actually makes the potential chill even more visceral — concealing the use of another is enough to get you hooked, booked, and cooked. Potentially all players in a clubhouse can be implicated in the use of PEDs by any one player.

There will always be an incentive for certain players to cheat. These players are not the A-Rods or the Bonds, but the kind of guys that Tejada got in trouble for talking steroids with, Adam Piatt. The vast majority of players caught have been, and will continue to be, those for whom a million-dollar payday is just a few home runs away. Those at the top of the game, those who have the talent and the riches but cheat anyway, we’ll never know why they chose to go that route — there is no good answer. A-Rod suggested that it was insecurity after signing a big contract. For Bonds, the reason seems to have been vanity.

Whatever the reason, it wasn’t intelligence. These athletes seem to be in the thrall of an impulsivity that does not consider consequences. “Field of Dreams” had it all wrong — Shoeless Joe didn’t return from the grave to teach some pseudo-hippie in Iowa the value of forgiveness, but the pain of not being forgiven, of having a shadow hang over you for the rest of your life. Jackson made the dumbest decision of his life at 29 years old and had another 32 years to think of it, 32 years in which he was hanging out in Nowhere, South Carolina, instead of attending reunions in Cooperstown, N.Y. One of the most difficult stories from Jackson’s life to think about is the occasion in which Ty Cobb unknowingly wandered into Jackson’s liquor store, and Jackson was, at first, too ashamed to identify himself.

Cobb had reason for regret as well. He too got caught up in a betting scandal, one that continues to dog his reputation to this day, even though he was officially cleared by the Commissioner. He also lived to regret his reputation for violence and rage. Perhaps Jackson and Cobb are beyond caring now, but both were intelligent enough to know that they were historic figures, and the evil that they did would live after them. “Speak well of me after I am dead,” the old saying goes. They knew that was unlikely to be the case, and it pained their final years — so too for Hal Chase, Eddie Cicotte, Carl Mays, and many of the other players who left the game under a cloud. Again, they are dust now, and beyond pain, but they had to live with the pain, too. Tejada, I think, now has had the smallest taste of that.

Alex Rodriguez could play most of another decade, and his Hall of Fame case will not come before the court of opinion for another five years before that, so he will be living with the legacy of his own stupidity and shortsightedness for a minimum of 15 years, but more likely for the rest of his life. As I said at the outset, there will always be some players who will cheat, who will have the incentive to cheat, but of those for whom cheating is simply a choice born out of greed or ego or just the assumed invulnerability of youth, we can only hope that they will watch Tejada’s tears and say, “That could be me.” We can only hope that they watch Rodriguez, the new Ozymandias, struggle to rebuild his reputation (“Look on my works, ye mighty — I shot myself in the ***”) over and over again in the coming years, and say, “Let the cup pass from my lips — I’m not having any.” The consequences are real, beyond money gained or lost, beyond home runs, beyond temporary suspensions by the namby pamby commissioner. The consequences could be legal, could involve loss of assets or jail, but beyond that, it could result in the permanent suspension of your reputation.

MORE BY ME
For those with an ESPN Insider account, I was charged this week with issuing dire warnings about the Red Sox. In my usual history minute spot at BP, I search for those lineups that are supposedly too left-handed.

I am also proud to note that this year’s BP annual, which I co-edited and to which I contributed much writing, has already begun shipping and currently stands at No. 25 on the Amazon bestsellers list. Select BP colleagues and I will be making appearances around the New York area to sign the book and talk baseball, including (but not limited to) March 1 at the Yogi Berra Museum, March 12 at the Barnes & Noble on East 18th Street in Manhattan, and March 26 at the Rutgers University Bookstore in New Brunswick, NJ. Full details and additional dates to follow shortly. I very much hope you’ll come out and chat. If not, I get kind of lonely.

…I also wanted to note, a bit belatedly, that artist Rich Faber has finally got his signed and numbered Gehrig and Mantle prints in (I have one of each, and they look even better in person). If you scroll down, you should also note his “Drama Queen” T-shirt, which has nothing to do with baseball but was a hit with my daughter when I gave her one — and weirdly predictive, but I don’t blame the T-shirt, as little girls are just like that sometimes.