STATEMENT OF BELIEFS
Thursday my family will celebrate Thanksgiving. I’m not going.
On Friday there is a pre-party for my 20th high school reunion. I’m not going.
On Saturday, my high school reunion itself takes place. I’m not going.
If you want to find me, I’m here at the Pinstriped Bible.
A BAKER’S DOZEN OF HOT STOVE THOUGHTS
1. Five veteran outfield free agents who would should be avoided if the Yankees don’t come to terms with Johnny Damon (hint: there are more than five, but this is just a selection):
(a) Garret Anderson: Overrated in his prime, but an offensive and defensive millstone for four of the last five years.
(b) Marlon Byrd: rates before coming to the Rangers: .263/.327/.373. Overall rates as a Ranger: .295/.352/.468. Rates at home as a Ranger: .309/.375/.522. Rates away from the Rangers’ comfy ballpark: .281/.328/.414.
(c) Randy Winn: Signing a 36-year-old corner outfielder coming off of a .262/.318/.353 season is never wise, especially when the player’s central offensive skill is hitting for average.
(d) Jermaine Dye: Old, defensively challenged, never a great on-base guy, and bats from the wrong side of the plate.
(e) Mike Cameron: Was still very good last year, but he turns 37 in January.
2. One of the most intriguing teams to track this winter is the Marlins. Even after dealing Jeremy Hermida to the Red Sox, they have 11 arbitration-eligible players, and if the Marlins hate anything it’s players getting raises. Any of them could be non-tender candidates, which is to say instant free agents, on December 12. All of them could be dealt at some point between now and then, including ace Josh Johnson, hard-throwing lefty reliever Matt Lindstrom, outfielder Cody Ross, and infielder Dan Uggla. The Yankees would probably have interest in the two pitchers mentioned, and Ross wouldn’t be a bad catch either given the team’s shallow outfield collection.
3. Something I think about every year at this time: I want to see MLB commercials during the Thanksgiving football games. I want to see shots of Derek Jeter standing next to his Christmas tree in a flannel bathrobe, taking practice cuts with a bat over the words, “Spring Training is just around the corner.” Right after the Superbowl-winning quarterback says “I’m going to Disney World!” I want to see another spot with Albert Pujols and Joe Mauer saying they’re going to Disney World too — on the way to camp.
4. It was reported yesterday that Andy Pettitte will take his time figuring out what he wants to do with his life. If you’re the Yankees, how long do you give Pettitte before you move on? He’s a great pitcher and a great Yankee, but you can’t just hold a spot for him until all the Halladays are over.
5. I don’t think there’s anything the Mets can do this winter to be a contender next year, not because they don’t have the money to make real moves — although maybe they don’t — but because they don’t have the kind of braintrust that will allow them to rebuild quickly, the Minor League depth isn’t there to make trades or enjoy impact promotions, and the free agent market is weak. If healthy, David Wright, Jose Reyes, Carlos Beltran, Johan Santana, and Francisco Rodriguez make for a very nice core, but they’re not enough.
6. The Orioles are roughly in the same position the Braves were in circa 1990, and need to do what the Braves did — shore up their defense. The development of their young pitching staff depends on it.
7. Joe Torre has always preferred glove-first catchers — Jorge Posada was an anomaly for him, one he embraced reluctantly. That’s why it’s ironic that Russell Martin’s bat has died on Torre’s watch. The Dodgers have to fix Russell, or deal him to someone who can. Unfortunately, the Dodgers prospect who should be pressing Russell for playing time, Carlos Santana, is now the property of the Cleveland Indians.
8. I understand that one good way to avoid a dry turkey on Thanksgiving is to brine it before cooking. I would like to try that technique on the people who come to Thanksgiving dinner. On a related note, I think I would enjoy Thanksgiving more if the traditional holiday dish was fajitas.
9. How many years will Marco Scutaro get for the best (read: fluke) season of his career, and which team will reap the disappointing returns?
10. Britt Burns was named pitching coordinator for the Astros on Monday. I still wonder how the 1980s might have been different for the Yankees had Burns, who was acquired in December, 1985 for Joe Cowley, Ron Hassey, and a couple of never-to-develop minor leaguers, hadn’t had his career ended by a degenerative hip problem.
11. The really is nothing funnier than singing sheep, at least not to me, right here, right now.
12. If the Red Sox do manage to trade Mike Lowell and pick up Adrian Gonzalez (sliding Kevin Youkilis over to third), that by itself won’t be enough.
13. Contrary to popular superstition, it is not bad luck to feign illness at Thanksgiving time. If more people feigned illness at this time of year, countless uncomfortable and frankly painful family gatherings could be avoided. If you are still uncomfortable feigning illness to avoid Thanksgiving, you can try hiding in a box.
JETER HYPE OVERSTATED
The AL Most Valuable Player vote is in and it’s Joe Mauer. No surprise there, but the frequent mutterings down the stretch that Derek Jeter would receive a kind of John Wayne-“True Grit” career achievement MVP award proved to be pure fantasy. Mauer received 27 of 28 first-place votes, the remaining first-place ballot going, somewhat inexplicably, to Miguel Cabrera of the Tigers. Jeter did not receive a single first-place vote, and his own teammate, Mark Teixeira, out-polled him in second-place votes, 15-9, third-place votes, 6-5, and fourth-place votes, 4-3. Total points for the top three finishers: Mauer, 387; Teixeira, 225; Jeter 193.
Mauer had a historic year at catcher, even having missed the first month, and there should be nothing remotely controversial in his winning the award. What is more interesting is the way the rest of the votes fell, and the apparent perception that Teixeira, a first baseman having a very good but by no means great season. Jeter had a season that ranks among the top 25 by a shortstop in the past 60 years. Both were integral to the success the Yankees experienced this season, but there’s a huge difference between a shortstop contributing at the level that Jeter did and a first baseman doing what Teixeira did.
In the end, I suppose it doesn’t matter — Jeter has been robbed in previous awards voting. He wasn’t robbed this time. This is more a cri de coeur against misapprehensions about the replacement value of a great shortstop season versus a good season by a first baseman. Before anyone jumps on me for saying Teixeira’s season was “good,” not “great,” it’s not meant as an insult. It’s just that the hitting standards at first base are so ridiculously high that to call Teixeira’s season great would be ludicrous given the existence of Albert Pujols.
In the end, we should probably be thankful that Jeter did not get a career-achievement MVP award. That John Wayne got an award for “True Grit” doesn’t change the fact that he didn’t even get nominated for “The Searchers” (indeed, “The Searchers” was not nominated for a darned thing), “Red River,” or even his gritty sergeant with a heart of gold in “The Sands of Iwo Jima” (he was nominated but lost to Broderick Crawford chewing up the drapes in “All the King’s Men”). Henry Fonda getting a deathbed for “On Golden Pond” doesn’t forgive the lack of notice for “Young Mr. Lincoln,” “The Grapes of Wrath” (nominated but lost to Jimmy Stewart for “The Philadelphia Story”), or “Fort Apache,” among others. Cary Grant’s honorary award doesn’t make up for the lack of recognition for “His Girl Friday” or “Only Angels Have Wings,” to name just two. These are apologies, not awards that carry the power of in-the-moment recognition.
As I said, Mauer deserved the award, but there is a certain sadness that Jeter, one of the most-celebrated players of his day, will never get an MVP award despite playing excellently on five World Series winners. It’s a strange discordance that he was both the best and someone else was always perceived to be better — apparently including Miguel flippin’ Cabrera, who went out on a drinking binge and brawled with his wife during the Tigers’ last series against the Twins. Tigers’ GM Dave Dombrowski had to go pick him up at the police station. That vote is not only an insult to Jeter, it’s an insult to Teixeira, Kevin Youkilis, Ben Zobrist, and every other candidate for the award — not to mention that everything I said about the replacement value of a first baseman versus more demanding positions goes double for Cabrera, a mediocre fielder. Cabrera is a heck of a hitter and carried the weak Tigers offense, but yipes, if you truly thought he was a better or more important player than Mauer, Jeter, Teixeira, Zobrist, Youkilis… You either weren’t paying attention and you don’t understand the game… And don’t even get me started on fifth-place finisher Kendry Morales, who wasn’t one of the 20-most valuable players in the league. It’s pretty hard to be most valuable when you have a .355 OBP, but home runs and RBIs still forgive so much. How can Morales have been more valuable than Evan Longoria, or Alex Rodriguez, who propelled the Yankees out of a terrible rut when he came off of the disabled list?
Ah, forget it. I’m going off to watch “The Ox-Bow Incident.” Do not disturb.
On my own and on the road at dinner hour this evening, I stopped at
a National Sandwich Chain. Upon reaching the counter, I was greeted by
a fresh-scrubbed American male of the youthful college variety. “How
may I help you?” he asked rabidly. I jumped back.
“I would like the turkey sandwich,” I said, “but hold the bacon, please.”
“Well,” he said, obsequiousness giving way to consternation, “That’s a
problem. See, the sandwiches, they’re premade in, I think, Eastern
Europe, and we just stick them in a panini press to heat them up. So if
you don’t want the bacon, you need to give us permission to go in and
“Break ‘er open.”
“That sounds invasive. How about you just give it to me as is and I’ll pull of the bacon myself.”
“Why don’t you want it?”
“Why don’t you want the bacon?”
“It’s just not my thing.”
“Just personal taste, or…”
“It’s part cultural, part nutritional, it’s — I’m not discussing this with you. Can I just have the sandwich?”
“You don’t want us to remove the bacon? Because we can just excavate that sucker –“
“You don’t want the sandwich?”
“I do want the sandwich. I don’t want you to touch it anymore than is strictly necessary. I will remove the bacon myself.”
“You see this button?” He pointed to the register. “It’s the bacon button. I’m going to press it.”
“Okay. You do that.”
“It’s a shame to let it go to waste.”
“Then make your sandwiches fresh and don’ t have them shipped over the Silk Road with the ingredients soldered in.”
He ignored me. “Well, that’s done. Now … What would you like to drink?”
I steeled myself for a debate about the merits of diet vs. regular. The
rest is a blank. I might have blacked out from the stress. I
half-suspect that I’m not really writing this. I’m still there, trying
to get a little poultry and two slices of bread and failing miserably.
The AL Gold Gloves
I’ve never tasted a Gold Glove, but I bet they have that same chewy consistency and flavor as a Cadbury Easter egg. I normally get frustrated with
pundits that pompously pout about awards, crying that they’re so
watered down as to be ludicrous, because while it’s mostly true that
(a) the awards validate their recipients in the eyes of the mainstream,
and it’s important to keep speaking up for quality players when the
awards pass them by, and (b) this is the lame, corrupted world that we
live in, so engage with it already.
The need to joust with the Gold Gloves is particularly acute, since so
much perception of defense seems to be based on how many times the
hometown announcer shouts, “Great play!” There’s more to it than that,
and while zone-based rating systems aren’t foolproof, they take some
of the subjectivity out of defensive appraisals by providing us facts
that at their most basic level show how many balls were hit towards a
fielder and how many he picked up. If you don’t cope with these figures
when ranking defensive players, you’re left with cases made on the
basis of “I thought he looked pretty good.” Your friend Barney could
say that about his wife, and he wouldn’t be any more right or any more
wrong than someone who held a contradictory opinion (Sorry, Barney, but
we’ve gotta be straight with you about this).
That said, in this sense, the Gold Glove award voters didn’t
necessarily err in giving Derek Jeter his chocolate-y citation, number
four. Jeter was at his best this year, and made his usual quotient of
heady plays. But the days of “past a diving Jeter” have hardly
vanished. Jeter deserves credit for somehow improving his fielding at about the time that most shortstops are being banished to other
positions or retiring, and if he wasn’t the best defensive shortstop in
the league, he gave a championship club what it needed. This was also
not a great year for defensive shortstops in the American League, and
while Elvis Andrus of the Rangers probably deserved a shot at the
award, he made 22 errors in 145 games — the second most in the
league. He’ll trim that down as he gets older and the Cadbury Gloves
will come his way.
The big oversight, which everyone with two nostrils has pointed out, is
the omission of Mariners center fielder Franklin Gutierrez from the
awards. Gutierrez has been the best outfielder in the league for a few
years now, and having gotten away from Cleveland he finally got to show
what he could do in the central pasture. It’s not clear how the voters
missed this, given that you don’t need the stats (which support
Gutierrez) to prove his excellence. It was there on the field and in
the nightly highlight reels. This might be the biggest miscarriage of
justice in these awards since Rafael Palmiero was given one for being
the best-fielding DH.
A quick to the mats with reader comments: Defending Branch (Who Doesn’t Need it)
Keep the team intact. Replace the parts when they weaken. And with all
respect to Mr. Rickey, his teams were wonderful, but they were not
World Series Winners, literally or metaphorically. Ultimately, they
were the Pittsburgh Pirates. So, to sum up, let us not, even in print,
be so all knowing and arrogant that we wish to destroy the unit that we
Barry, you’ve been misinformed. It is true that Branch Rickey was
General Manager of the Pirates from 1951 to 1955 and couldn’t do much
with them. However, the Buccos were a very small part of his career.
The two teams for which he did the bulk of his work, the Cardinals and
the Dodgers, were crazy successful. Rickey ran the Cardinals from 1919
through 1942. In that time, the Cards won six pennants and four World
Series. In two of those series the Cardinals defeated the Yankees. In
the immediate aftermath of Rickey’s departure, the team he built added
another three pennants and two more championships. The Dodgers
franchise he took over had had some recent success, but had been
derailed by the War and needed to be rebuilt, and rebuilt cheaply,
because as much as the Dodgers were beloved in Brooklyn they were not
that successful in the revenue department. The necessity, combined
with Rickey’s strong morality, created the conditions in which the
color line could be broken. Rickey remained in Brooklyn through 1950,
winning two pennants. He also deserves a large share of the credit for the
other pennants won by the Dodgers in the 1950s, as well as the 1955
championship. Let us also throw in his last job, as the power behind
the throne for the World Series-winning 1964 Cardinals, another team
that beat the Yankees.
The word genius is tossed around far too lightly, but Rickey was a
baseball genius, and was responsible for as many pennants as any
executive not named Ed Barrow or George Weiss. If his advise was to get
rid of a guy too early rather than too late, we have to heed what he
said. The issue is not whether or not Rickey was correct, because he
was; the issue is whether or not the Yankees can find the replacements
that allow them to pass on their soon-to-be old timers.
THIS QUOTE COSTS ONLY FIVE CENTS
The Yankees clubs for which Lefty Gomez pitched (1930-1942) went to seven World Series and won the first six. Thus, when the Yankees dropped the 1942 World Series to the Cardinals, he was less than excited to have “just” won a pennant. “The Yankees’ victory celebration,” he said after the fifth and final game, “will be held at Horn & Hardart. Don’t forget to bring your nickels.” Despite all the rings, Gomez never got a tickertape parade, so perhaps he had cause to be jaded. On the other hand, Derek Jeter will never get to eat at an automat, so you win some, you lose some.
COFFEE JOE’S NEW NUMBER
My pal Colonel Lindbergh suggests that “Coffee Joe” Girardi should perhaps now be called “Champagne Joe,” but I think not — it sounds too much like “champagne chicken.” Besides, “Champagne Joe” describes some toff who appears on “Lifestyles of the Rich and Indolent,” not a manager who is often thinking not two steps ahead of the opposition, but 42 steps with a half-twist to the right (in the Olympic thinking event, Girardi gets high marks for difficulty of routine). Perhaps he should be called “Calculator Joe,” and were this the 1920s or 30s, when sportswriters were all about bestowing nicknames like “The Little Napoleon” and “The Tall Tactician,” perhaps he would be.
In any case, I am sticking with my Girardi nom de baseball, even though Girardi is not going to be sticking with his uniform number, trading up from No. 27 to No. 28 to symbolize the quest for the next championship. Fortunately for Joe and his motivational techniques, No. 28 is not one of the many numbers the Yankees have nailed to the wall, though one very prominent Yankee, a Cy Young winner, did have a long hold on the digits.
Courtesy of the book, “Now Batting, Number…” by Jack Looney, select Yankees who have worn No. 28: outfielder Myril Hoag (1931, 1934-1935), pitcher Atley “Swampy” Donald (1938-1945), pitchers Tommy Byrne (1948-1951) and Art Ditmar (1957-1961), famously busted outfield prospect Steve Whitaker (1966-1967), relief ace Sparky Lyle (1972-1978), first basemen Bob Watson (1979-1980) and Steve Balboni (1983), southpaw Al Leiter (1988-1989), future pitching coach Dave Eiland (1991), pitcher Scott Kamieniecki (1993-1996), outfielder Chad Curtis (1997-1999), and DH David Justice (2000-2001). The current holder is Shelley Duncan.
Perhaps the Yankees could bring Sparky in for the ceremonial change of jerseys. He did a lot for the team and deserves the nod.
BEFORE THE PARADE PASSES BY, A TO-DO LIST
In no particular order, and without going into detail just yet, just a few of the matters that Brian Cashman and pals will have to grapple with in the coming days. Let me know if I missed anything:
? Derek Jeter is going into the last year of his contract. Do the Yankees try to offer an extension now, so as not to have the matter be a distraction throughout 2010? How will baseball’s post-downturn economic realities — for the most part, players are not getting $20 million a pop any more — affect negotiations?
? Mariano Rivera is also going into his walk year and expressed a wish for an extension in the giddy, celebratory moments after the World Series. He had a great season and was a key factor in the postseason, but he turns 40 in about three weeks. As with Jeter, the lack of a contract post-2010 might be a distraction.
? What roles will Joba Chamberlain and Phil Hughes have next year? Will they be starters? Relievers? Swing men?
? Does outfielder Austin Jackson, who hit .300 at Triple-A (but with only four home runs) have a role to play on next year’s club?
? How to approach aging but important free agents Johnny Damon, Hideki Matsui and Andy Pettitte?
? How about lesser free agents like Xavier Nady, Jerry Hairston, Jose Molina and Eric Hinske?
? Are any members of a weak free agent class worth bidding on? If Damon or Matsui departs, do the Yankees want to take a shot at Jason Bay or Matt Holliday? Instead of trusting in Joba or Hughes again, do they want to bolster the back of the rotation with a veteran starter like John Lackey?
? Do they offer Chien-Ming Wang a contract and thus get tied into an arbitration situation with an injured player?
? What about other arbitration eligible types like Chad Gaudin, Melky Cabrera and Brian Bruney?
? Do they pick up the club option on Sergio Mitre?
? Coffee Joe is also going into the last year of his contract. Does the World Series win earn him an extension as well?
Man, do the Yankees have a lot to talk about, and so do we. If I’m Cashman, I don’t linger at the parade. I get right back to the office and start working this stuff out. After all, yesterday the Red Sox picked up outfielder Jeremy Hermida (career .276/.359/.456 outside of Florida, and still only 26 next year), so the opposition is already hard at work trying to knock the Yankees off their perch.
My friend and colleague Stephanie Bee suggested that I write up World Series Game 2 as follows:
1. Mo was a bit over-used
2. Jeter shouldn’t have bunted
3. Burnett was brilliant
4. Umps still [expletive]
That seems like a fair rundown to me, though while my temptation is to cavil about numbers two and four, it’s probably best to stick with one and three. Actually, four is just a fact of life, and will be until Major League Baseball accepts that replay in baseball games need not be the Supreme Court hearing that is replay in the NFL and opts for having the most accurate baseball game possible, we’re going to have to live with cloddish umps. There are fewer things happening at once in most baseball replays than in football. Balls are caught or not, fair or foul. It’s not “did the wide receiver have his toes in bounds as he was/was not juggling the ball and did it cross the plane of the goal line or didn’t it?” One replay umpire stationed off the field could have overturned Ryan Howard’s non-catch in 10 seconds.
As for Jeter’s non-bunt, although the Old Captain is top-20 in double play percentage (17 percent of his chances, worst on the Yankees) giving away outs, as opposed to gambling on the better than 80 percent chance that a very good hitter WON’T hit into one, is not good managing. It was a poor decision by Joe Girardi which Jeter doubled down on by bunting foul with two strikes.
Those two items dispensed with, on to the better stuff. On A.J. Burnett’s loss/no-decision days this summer, he walked 4.8 batters per nine innings. When he won, it was only 3.4. Therein lies the sign of a happy curveball or an unhappy curveball. On Thursday night, the curveball was happy, and thereby were the Phillies made unhappy.
It’s the most basic of all human relationships. If only Burnett could be the pitcher he was Thursday night a tad more often, and had had more health — well, never mind. If your grandmother had wheels she’d be a wagon, and if Burnett had health and consistency he wouldn’t be what he is, and that’s plenty good in six starts out of 10. You just have to hope that the other four don’t come at important times.
With the help of umpire Jeff Nelson’s roomy strike zone, Burnett walked just two and struck out nine. In the game’s Nelson umpired this year, the number of strikeouts were average or even a bit below, so it’s puzzling that he gave the pitchers so much room off the plate. Still, he was consistent in having a wide zone for both teams, but for a pitcher like Burnett that little bit of generosity goes a long way. I’m not trying to diminish what Burnett did — he saved the World Series from getting out of hand — but the confluence of umpire and pitcher could not have been more perfectly timed.
During the YES postgame, one of the Yankees’ players (Jeter, I believe) was asked how it felt to know that Girardi had the “confidence” to use Mariano Rivera for two full innings. The choice of term was ironic, as Girardi was really expressing a lack of confidence in any of his other relievers. Insomuch as Game 2 was a must win, it wasn’t a bad call, but you have to question how long Rivera can keep this up. He threw 39 pitches, another high for the year, and though Girardi said in his postgame press conference that he didn’t ask Rivera to do this all year precisely so he could do it now, I’m not sure that that reasoning makes very much sense.
You’re talking about a 40-year-old guy who averaged 16 pitches per appearance this year more than doubling up his pitch counts. Given the lack of an off day between Games 3 through 5, can you really expect him to keep that up? Moreover, can you expect Rivera, a one-trick pony — it’s a wonderful trick, but it’s still just one — to keep fooling the Phillies at that rate of exposure? Andy Pettitte averaged 102 pitches per start this year and his 6.1 innings in each of his ALCS starts were the deepest into a game he’s pitched since August, plus there’s pinch-hitting for pitchers to consider in the National League park.
All of this means that Girardi is going to have to confront his bullpen problems as soon as Saturday. Rivera won’t be able to carry the whole load in Game 3, and maybe not in any of the games in Philadelphia. We will see if anyone else stands up to shoulder his burden.
My stat of choice is again VORP, which answers the musical question, “How many runs above the theoretical journeyman Triple-A player did the player contribute?” VORP does not include defense, but we’ll talk about that.
Remember that this is just a ballpark estimate. On any given day, Player B can be better than Player A, even if Player A is the best player overall.
RYAN HOWARD (47.7 VORP, 9th among 1Bs) vs. MARK TEIXEIRA (54.7, 5th)
Let’s begin with the obvious. A switch-hitter, Teixeira is a career .281/.371/.547 hitter against right-handed pitchers and a career .309/.394/.537 hitter against left-handed pitchers. A left-handed hitter, Howard is a career .307/.409/.661 hitter against right-handed pitchers. That’s not a typo: he slugs a Ruthian .661 against righties, with a home run every 10 at-bats. Left-handed pitchers are a different story. He’s a career .226/.310/.444 hitter against them, striking out about 40 percent of the time, with a home run every 18 at-bats. This year was worse than the norm, with Howard slumping to .207/.298/.356 against left-handers, hitting just six homers in 222 at-bats against them (while slugging .691 against righties).
Some would say that this makes Howard a platoon player who has been overextended into a regular role. I would argue that in most years his home run rate against southpaws still works out to 30 over a full season, so he would still be worth playing against the majority of southpaws. Still, Howard’s potency can be greatly reduced by employing left-handed pitchers against him, and he’s the one player where Joe Girardi can enjoy his Coffee Joe propensities to their fullest extent. With the exception of Mariano Rivera, there is no time after, say, the fifth inning that Howard should be allowed to face a right-hander.
Howard gets a bad rap on defense, but he’s not Dick Stuart out there. He’s also not Teixeira, but there’s some decent ground in between those two extremes. One interesting difference between the two is that playing in the National League, Howard had to do a lot more throwing than Teixeira, fielding 21 bunts to Teixeira’s five. Despite showing great range off the bag, Teixeira somehow did less throwing this year than at any other time in his career. Still, the quality of Teixeira’s defense shows in where he threw the ball. Though he had only 49 assists, 29 of them were on plays away from first base, whereas Howard, though he had 95 assists, had only 26 plays away from first base.
There aren’t many better hitters against right-handed pitching than Howard. Teixeira, assuming he can finally dig out of his postseason slump, is the more versatile offensive and defensive package. This is an EDGE: YANKEES, but if the Yankees aren’t careful about how they handle Howard, this could easily go the other way.
CHASE UTLEY (61.7, 1st) vs. ROBINSON CANO (50.3, 3rd)
Though he’s been a four-time All-Star, Utley is one of the game’s great unsung players, an MVP-quality player on a great team that has never won an MVP award, or even come close. He hits for average, for power, takes a goodly number of walks, pumps his on-base percentage with 25 HBPs a year and is also one of the best baserunners in the game. A left-handed hitter, lefty pitchers only slow him down a little, and his offense isn’t a product of Citizens Bank Park. On the flipside, offseason hip surgery — he had A-Rod’s problem, but went through the whole surgery rather than the partial treatment Rodriguez successfully pursued — may have dragged his defense down from superb to merely above average.
Cano had his best year in the Majors save for a glaring problem hitting with men on. Cano can fire off line drives almost at will, leading to his strong batting averages, but he forgets himself in important situations, widening his already generous strike zone. This leads to swings with less than his usual authority. It has been a career-long problem. To Cano’s credit, after a tough start to the postseason, he came up with some important hits in the last three games of the ALCS. Cano has vastly improved as a fielder over the years, but lapses of concentration are still an occasional problem. Charlie Manuel would do well to remember that southpaw relievers don’t trouble Cano too much. EDGE: PHILLIES.
PEDRO FELIZ (3.5, 29th) vs. ALEX RODRIGUEZ (52.3, 4th)
Due to a hot start to the season, Feliz hit about as well as he’s capable of these days and even drew the second-highest walk total of his career, but he’s still a glove man who gave his team very little with the bat. He hit .323 in April, then gradually cooled, or maybe it’s better to say he melted, then evaporated, hitting just .225/.254/.367 over the final two months. The Phillies can buy out the last $5 million of Feliz’s contract for $500,000, and given that he’ll turn 35 next year and hasn’t come close to even average production since 2004, they might give it some serious thought if they can identify an alternative. Feliz is a career .252/.288/.417 hitter against right-handers. Normally sort of competent against lefties, he slumped to .208/.278/.385 against them. Feliz has been a poor postseason hitter in his career, and although he did hit a triple and a home run against the Dodgers, it seems unlikely he’ll turn into Jeff Mathis in this series. As for Alex Rodriguez and his recent accomplishments, I think you know about them.
JIMMY ROLLINS (19.3, 10th) vs. DEREK JETER (72.8, 2nd)
“J-Roll” gets treated like a star player, but he’s not one. Because he’s a durable leadoff hitter who never walks, he bats more than anyone else (including, in 2007, more often than anyone in history). Because he hits the ball with authority in those many at-bats, he piles up high totals in the counting stats, lots of hits, doubles, and triples. It pays to remember that all those extra-base hits are diffused through that crazy number of plate appearances, and that at his best he’s below average at getting on base. This year he hit the ball in the air more, but he’s not really a power hitter and the change dropped his batting average to .250. Since batting average makes up most of his on-base percentage, his OBP dropped to a miserable .296, especially crippling for a leadoff hitter. Rollins did come on a bit in the second half, hitting .272/.306/.495, but these numbers shine only in comparison to his pathetic .229/.287/.355 first half. He posted a .266 OBP against lefties this year, but that hasn’t always been his pattern — i.e. Coffee Joe shouldn’t decide Rollins merits the Chone Figgins treatment. Parenthetically, did Figgins play his way out of the Yankees’ rumored plans with his 3-for-23 during the 30 Days of ALCS? Let’s hope so.
Rollins has won two Gold Gloves, but he’s not going to remind you of Ozzie Smith — he’s okay, not great. Add in that he has not hit at all this postseason (and didn’t hit much in the last two either) and the guy playing opposite him is an annual Fall hero who is coming off a great year, one he’s continued into the postseason, and (bonus) is currently at his best with the glove and you have an EDGE: YANKEES.
Catchers, outfield, managers, Game 1 and 2 starters and a prediction.
Without taking anything for granted (we all remember 2004), it seems as if we’re on the way to a Yankees-Phillies World Series. While I’m sure that some will be sorry that we won’t get JOE TORRE STRIKES BACK headlines, I’m happy that we likely won’t have to rehash all that stuff, or subject any of the people involved to the indignity of it all.
After all, Torre is no traitor — the organization chose to go in a different direction (this is the politest way of summarizing the events that led to Torre’s departure) and he helped direct the club to its most sustained run of success since the 1970s, if not the dynasty years of the 1950s and ’60s. While I was critical of his work in the later years of his tenure, an organization needs change and that can leave personnel who once seemed integral in the dust trying to keep up. When that happens, and it has happened to great leaders (Winston Churchill comes to mind), it does nothing to invalidate all the positive contributions that came before. Things change, we know that; not everyone is adaptable, and even those that are adaptable will eventually reach the point at which they are no longer flexible.
As I said, we won’t have to deal with that. Instead, what we should have to deal with, if things go the way they should, is the defending champs trying to achieve something like mini-dynasty status — pull the Yankees out of the equation and there haven’t been too many repeat winners in baseball history — against a Yankees team that, in many ways, really hasn’t been here before. Holdovers from the last Yankees World Series team include Jorge Posada, Derek Jeter, Hideki Matsui, Andy Pettitte, and Mariano Rivera. That’s just five players out of 25. The rest are virginal, at least in a Yankees uniform (Burnett was on the 2003 Marlins but was hurt; Johnny Damon was with the 2004 Red Sox). Though the Yankees are a highly compensated, veteran team, and shouldn’t be rated the underdog in any matchup, they are undoubtedly the upstarts in a confrontation with the Phillies.
The Phillies would also make the most legitimate competition for this Yankees team. The Dodgers are comparatively light on offense (on one of the NLCS broadcasts, Buck Martinez called them the best offense in the National League, not sure where that came from) and their pitching staff has fallen into disarray in October. The Phillies have a team that was built to play in Yankee Stadium II, loaded with left-handed and switch-hitters who can take aim at the short porch in right field, as well as a rotation stocked with lefties who can keep Yankees hitters away from it. Sure, their bullpen is a mess, has been a mess, will be a mess, but that pile of southpaws on both sides of the ball covers a multitude of reliever sins.
All this, however, is premature. For today we wait while the NLCS tries to resolve itself. Perhaps this speculation is premature. It’s difficult not to jump ahead, given the dominance of Tuesday night’s performance by CC Sabathia.
ALL IS FORGIVEN
Given the umpiring throughout the postseason, and particularly in last night’s game (an embarrassment, though the ball-strike calls were shockingly good), it seems to me that Don Denkinger has less and less to feel bad about. Sure, he helped give away a World Series game, but it was just one play. His professional descendants are mucking up inning after inning. Baseball games continually interrupted by instant replay is a horrifying notion, but something has to change.
MORE OF ME AND OTHER PEOPLE
Baseball Prospectus is holding another roundtable chat tonight around Game 5 of the NLCS. I should be there, assuming this kidney stone I’m still dealing with doesn’t send me off to cower in a corner somewhere. For more info or to submit a question, here there be linkage. Hope to see you then. Desperately.
FIRST WONDERFUL SURPRISE OF THE DAY
My first kidney stone attack in 4.3 years. I am a happy, happy, happy guy right now.
SECOND WONDERFUL SURPRISE OF THE DAY
It turns out that I can write this entry while curled into a fetal position and begging my wife to kill me.
THIRD WONDERFUL SURPRISE OF THE DAY
The Yankees dropped Eric Hinske from the ALCS roster and added Freddy Guzman. The Yankees now have three non-bats on the bench in Jose Molina, Francisco Cervelli, and Guzman, and arguably another in Jerry Hairston. It’s wonderful that Girardi can pinch-run for the catchers and never run out of spare tires, but who the heck is going to hit for these guys if they get into a 1-1 tie in the tenth? Hinske can play four positions, and though he doesn’t man any of them brilliantly, that versatility is an asset in itself, even before you account for the fact that he’s the only guy reserve who can come off the bench and hit a home run. If baseball teams had larger rosters, you could stash a track and field guy at the end of your bench, but as things stand now you pay a definite price for the luxury of being able to win the broad jump event but not the home run derby.
ANGELS-YANKEES HEAD TO HEAD, PART II
THIRD BASE: CHONE FIGGINS (37.8 VORP, 8th) vs. ALEX RODRIGUEZ (52.3, 4th)
A-Rod was actually the most productive third baseman in baseball on a per-game basis. That whole hip thing hurt his totals. We have apples and oranges here, a singles hitter who has learned to take a walk (Figgins’ walks and on-base percentage are career highs) and an apparently mellow slugger who had a terrifically productive year despite a bad leg. The further A-Rod was from his surgery, the better he was, hitting .310/.394/.518 in the second half. He had a more relaxed approach, seemingly trying for fewer home runs. Rodriguez also ran the bases surprisingly well for a man who was supposed to be, as Peter Cook famously put it, a unidexter.
Small sample caveats about, but it may be safe to call Figgins a poor postseason player. He’s participated in six October series over the years and is a career .182 hitter in 29 games. He actually went 0-for-12 against Boston. Note also that Figgins can be neutralized by southpaws. He hit only .246/.325/305 against left-handers, which is consistent with his career-long predilections. EDGE: YANKEES
SHORTSTOP: ERICK AYBAR (30.5, 13th) vs. DEREK JETER (72.8, 2nd)
Aybar is an interesting player, a singles hitter with great speed who isn’t allowed to run much because he’s so bad at it. A switch-hitter, his left-handed stroke is pretty much all singles, as is his right-handed stroke, only he gets a few more of them from that side of the plate. You don’t need me to tell you that Captain Jeter is a more rounded player and then some. EDGE: YANKEES
CATCHER: MIKE NAPOLI (24.8, 5th) and JEFF MATHIS (-9.2, 107th) vs. JORGE POSADA (35.8, 3rd)
Napoli is a fine, almost Posada-esque hitter who creamed lefties this year (.330/.417/.606). If he’s not in the lineup against Sabathia, officially deduct two genius points from Mike Scioscia. That he might not be in the lineup is because Mathis plays quite often due to various real or perceived defensive deficiencies on Napoli’s part. The problem is that neither player throws well, so you’re pretty much down to handling of pitchers, and Napoli would have to receive like an octuple-amputee octopus with a raging substance abuse problem to justify sacrificing the amount of offense that comes with dragging Mathis into the lineup. Mathis is a career .200/.277/.320 hitter and was worse than that this year. Oddly enough, Jose Molina is almost exactly the same hitter, .235/.277.332 for his career, so if Scioscia happens to time a Mathis start with A.J. Burnett’s game, it will be like both teams decided to forego the catcher’s spot and play an eight-man lineup. If Napoli or Posada is playing when the other one is not, the imbalance between the two positions is huge. Otherwise, Posada is the better all-around hitter, especially in Yankee Stadium, but Napoli has some advantages too, like striking out and hitting enough fly balls to rarely hit into a double play. Overall we’ll call this EDGE: YANKEES, but not a huge one.
We’ll wrap this up with the outfield and the first three starters in part three.
TONIGHT, TONIGHT, TONIGHT
I’ll be participating in a BP roundtable during the first game of the NLCS. All are welcome. Information is available here.
WHADDYA KNOW, THERE’S BASEBALL TODAY…
…And unless the game never ends, Iowa Baseball Confederacy-style, the Yankees might even have a playoff opponent before it’s too late.
Meanwhile, the conclusion of the PB awards ballot. Check out Part I here.
AL CY YOUNG AWARD
1. Zack Greinke, Kansas City Royals
2. Felix Hernandez, Seattle Mariners
3. Roy Halladay, Toronto Blue Jays
4. CC Sabathia, New York Yankees
5. Justin Verlander, Detroit Tigers
Jon Lester and Mariano Rivera rank just out of my top five. If Greinke wins, that will be three Cy Young awards and five winning seasons for the Royals since 1989. His 16-8 record doesn’t seem like much until you consider that he received only about four runs of support per start and that his .667 winning percentage towers over the team. Adjusted for time and place, his 2.16 ERA against a league average of 4.75 is top 40 all-time.
What’s most impressive to me is the weak contact batters made against him when they weren’t striking out (9.5 times per nine innings); though Greinke is a fly ball pitcher, he allowed just 11 home runs in 229.1 innings, which is a number out of 1909, not 2009. Parenthetically, Andy Pettitte allowed only seven home runs in 240.1 innings in 1997, something I don’t recall hearing a peep about at the time.
Hernandez had a terrific season, the combination of a still-young pitcher maturing and a Mariners defense that was best in the league at turning balls in play into outs. Halladay was his usual excellent self, his only failing being not approaching Greinke’s level of dominance. The Jays have been on a treadmill for his entire career; let’s hope he has something left to give to a real team. Sabathia had a 3.83 ERA after his first 22 starts, a 2.52 ERA in his final 12, even with the embarrassing October 2 blowout by the Rays. The stretch-drive CC is an award winner; the guy who was around before that was just very good. You can say something similar about Verlander, except that he was unhittable at midseason and after that he was still very good, but not quite at the same level (3.90 ERA in August-September).
NL CY YOUNG AWARD
1. Tim Lincecum, San Francisco Giants
2. Chris Carpenter, St. Louis Cardinals
3. Adam Wainwright, St. Louis Cardinals
4. Matt Cain, San Francisco Giants
5. Jair Jurrjens, Atlanta Braves
The differences in quality among Lincecum, Carpenter, and Wainwright are so small as to be insignificant, and you could pick any of the three and the other two would have no kick coming. Carpenter boggles the mind — twice in his career he’s disappeared for more than a year and come back to pitch well. Carpenter was important to a division winner, while Lincecum helped the Giants make an unlikely, pitching-based run at contention. I’m giving the kid the edge, but I’m open to arguments that see it another way.
AL MVP AWARD
1. Joe Mauer, Minnesota Twins
2. Derek Jeter, New York Yankees
3. Ben Zobrist, Tampa Bay Rays
4. Mark Teixeira, New York Yankees
5. Miguel Cabrera, Detroit Tigers
Sentimentally, I’d quite like to see Jeter pick up this award in the way that John Wayne got one for “True Grit,” or Henry Fonda did for “On Golden Pond.” Unfortunately, the magnitude of Mauer’s season dwarfs such considerations. Though he missed 25 games, the season he did have (is having, through tonight) was essentially the best in the American League by a catcher in over 50 years (only Mike Piazza’s 1997 slides past it). Mauer’s impact was not only historical; by tonight, the Twins might be on their way to the postseason, something that would not have come close to happening had Mauer not been so good.
Jeter had one of the top five seasons of his career and was a better defensive player than he was in his offensive prime. Zobrist had what will probably prove to be a forgotten great season of 2009, hitting like a right fielder while also playing the middle infield. Teixeira had a big offensive season, though not a special one by the standards of his position, and his defense was a key to the Yankees’ success this season; the Yankees tied for second in the league in defensive efficiency, and Teixeira’s vanquishing of the Jason Giambi clank was a big part of that. Just as without Mauer there would be no Twins tonight, without Cabrera there would be no Tigers. Extending this list to include a top 10 would see Jason Bartlett, Evan Longoria, and Kevin Youkilis added.
1. Albert Pujols, St. Louis Cardinals
2. Hanley Ramirez, Florida Marlins
3. Troy Tulowitzki, Colorado Rockies
4. Chase Utley, Philadelphia Phillies
5. Prince Fielder, Milwaukee Brewers
Pujols is the easiest No. 1 here, even with some weird power outages during the season. Ramirez’s season wouldn’t look out of place on the back of Honus Wagner’s baseball card. Tuluwitzki rebounded from a slow start to bat .325/.402/.616 from June to the end of the season, helping to propel the Rockies’ unlikely comeback. Utley had his usual fine season in helping the Phillies defend their pennant, and missed little time despite hip surgery. Fielder had bigger slugging seasons than any of the three middle infielders I listed ahead of him, but the middle infielders reap a huge positional bonus from me, one so huge that it’s bigger than Fielder himself. My top 10 would also include Ryan Braun, Pablo Sandoval, Adrian Gonzalez, Ryan Zimmerman, and Derek Lee.
Head to head rankings of the Yankees against whoever the heck they’re playing already. If we don’t know soon, I may just substitute the 1949 A’s or 1980 Indians… Johnny Damon ’09 better than Miguel Dilone ’80? The mind reels…
TRACI AND LOU: A MEDITATION ON LIFE, DEATH, AND RECORDS
With the relentless focus on Derek Jeter and Lou Gehrig these past few weeks, the Iron Horse has been on my mind quite a bit. As I explained a few entries back, Jeter deserves to have his wonderful career and accomplishments celebrated, but it was difficult to feel complete enthusiasm regarding the passing of one of Gehrig’s records. We can try to be purely unemotional about things and say that baseball careers end for all kinds of reasons, injury being one of them, and a disabling illness or untimely death is just another form of career-ending injury. We can say that, but inside we know that it’s not true. A ballplayer’s record is supposed to end when he proves himself unable to play at the same high levels of his youth, or when he’s ready to go on to other things, or both. He’s supposed to play out the string, not have the string cut as if the three Fates had pulled out their sharpened scissors. As has often been remarked, baseball is one of the few games without a clock. Death is the imposition of time on a game that is supposed to be untimed.
Ty Cobb was a .323 hitter when he retired at the age of 41, but his legs had started to go and so to himself he wasn’t the same Ty Cobb. He also had a hugely successful investment portfolio to manage, and so he moved on. Ted Williams slugged .645 the year he quit, but he was ready to devote more time to fishing. Mike Mussina won 20 games for the first time and went off to watch his kids grow up. Alternatively, Babe Ruth went out fat, lame, and sniffling, but at least he got to give it one more try. All of these players went out on their own terms. So too did every player waived out of the Majors after a .119 season, an 0-for-30, or a 8.11 ERA in 50 innings. They got to take those 30 turns at the plate. They got to pitch the 50 innings. That’s self-determination.
Gehrig never got the chance to end his career because his body quit on him at high speed, not the languorous, creeping way it does for the truly lucky among us. His song didn’t end; the needle was pulled off the record, and if Jeter’s going past him provokes mixed feelings, it is because he gets to impose an alien ending on an unfinished story. No one really passes Gehrig, because Gehrig never finished; he was only interrupted.
None of this is meant to take anything away from Derek Jeter, may all praise his name and sing his deeds. Jeter just happens to be playing through a valley where someone else was struck by lightning, and I can’t help but smell the ozone lingering in the air. I’m not angry at Jeter, I’m sore at an unfair universe, a universe that builds up so many mountains and monuments and then knocks them all over, some suddenly, painfully, without symmetry or justice, and often without apparent meaning. It’s left for us to infer meaning, and life as a course in creative writing can be bewildering and unsatisfying. Gehrig tried his hand at this himself, in his famous Farewell. “Fans, for the past two weeks you have been reading about the bad break I got. Yet today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of this earth.” I was about to write, “Lou Gehrig was a liar,” but he wasn’t. I think he meant it. I think he meant to reassure us and reassure himself. That doesn’t get at what I’ve always felt when I’ve heard those wonderful words. This is it: He was a great man to say what he said. We were saps to believe him for a second. He had great fans, great friends, a loving family, and shared a storied history with all of them. He was, in all these things, greatly blessed — and none of that changes the fact that he got a raw deal. It was a clever non-sequitur, a changing of the subject, and just about everyone who has ever heard that speech is dumb enough to fall for it. If instead of saying what he had said, Gehrig had just stated, “You’ve been reading about a bad break I got. No, really, everything’s okay. It’s no big deal.” no one would have believed him.
Last November I first told you about my friends Rich Faber and Traci Wagner and Traci’s battle with malignant melanoma, a disease I know from personal experience. I am greatly sorry to report that on the morning of September 10, Traci died of the disease. She leaves behind Rich, devoted husband, who dedicated the last year to caring for her, and a son, Jason, on the verge of turning three, whose youth will, I hope, spare him some of the pain of this moment.
Traci was 42, and she had a lot left to do, from inconsequential things — like seeing how the Yankees make out in this year’s playoffs (she was a dedicated fan, with a particular fondness for Jeter, Mariano Rivera, Andy Pettitte, and Tino Martinez) — to the serious and important, like raising her son and seeing out the years with her husband. As with Lou Gehrig, her record will never be surpassed. Other lives will go on in parallel, but no one will ever do what she did in the way that she did it. Others may live more days, see more than she got to see in her time on Earth, accomplish things that one who is struggling to stay alive day by day is not permitted the time or endurance to attempt, but there will never be another Traci — not a greater Traci, nor a lesser Traci, nor an equivalent Traci. A wife, a mother, a friend can never be surpassed. Everything after is different, even if there is somehow more of it, even if somehow we go on.
That takes nothing away from those who live on, who come after, but let us also not deprive the dead of their due.
Lou Gehrig had no children; it must have made it easier for him to say what he did. In Alan Jay Lerner’s autobiography, he tells of his father’s declining health, and how he was forced to undergo many painful and debilitating medical procedures to stay alive. “How can you go through all this, Dad?” Lerner asked. “Because I want to see what happens to you,” the senior Lerner replied. When I was first diagnosed with cancer, I didn’t cry until I saw my daughter, because just as I would not have her taken from me, I would not have me taken from her, not until I had a better idea of how it all turns out. She was only three at the time. There would be so much more to see. We erect sand castles of families and homes and children and 2,130 games played in a row. We should get to finish building them in the fullness of time. I wanted more. I want Gehrig to have had more. I want Traci to have had more. It’s all of one thing to me, life and death and records.
When I first told you about Rich and Traci — and this is particularly current given the politics of the moment — I talked about how financially debilitating Traci’s battle against cancer had been, in spite of their health insurance, which treated them with typical capriciousness. I asked you to check out his Web site; Rich is a professional, Harvey Award-nominated illustrator, and with his love of baseball, ballplayers have often been his subjects. As noted in his blog, some of these pieces are for sale. Rich also takes commissions. I urge you to drop Rich a line and purchase one; Traci’s battle may be done, but Rich has another ongoing fight to provide for his son’s education as a single parent. I have two of his pieces up in my living room, and they look great; you’ll not only be helping Rich out, you’ll be doing your wall a favor.
If you’re not into bas
eball art or happy walls, there is a Paypal donation button on the sidebar of Rich’s blog; anything you give will go towards Jason’s education.
I struggle to leave you with happier words at the conclusion of this bleak entry. I have watched loved ones come and go. I’ve nearly watched me come and go once or twice. In a song about cancer, Lou Reed sang, “There’s a bit of magic in everything, and some loss to even things out.” I think that’s the best, most uplifting thought I have at the moment. Life is an accumulation of events, not separate threads. It is wonderful to be here and terrible to leave, and yet we are always in the process of leaving. Yet, each time we do, what we leave behind us represents a unique, unalterable tale — in the words we say, the songs and stories we write, in those we loved who remember us, and the children we bring into the world, who carry within them our part of those who have gone in their very genes. Others may write other stories, sing louder songs, or make more hits on the ballfield, but never better, only different. As Albert Einstein said, nothing is created or destroyed. It’s all still here. That’s the magic. So let us not say goodbye to Lou, or even Lou’s record, for Lou is still here, and nor will we say goodbye to Traci, for she too will remain.