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I’ve finally broken the twin streaks of posting these on the 10th of the month and writing about the 10th of a month. This time around, the randomizer gave us Tax Day in the Year of the Pitcher, April 15, 1968.
1968 was a fascinating year, but April 15 was a Monday, which, like now, was probably the slowest baseball day of the week. Only six games were played, and five of them were kind of unspectacular. Let’s get to that one huge, glaring exception right away, huh?
- The Astros beat the Mets 1-0 in 24 innings. About 35% of the innings played in all of MLB on this day are played between the two relatively recent expansion squads. 23 year old Tom Seaver starts and goes 10 for the Metropolitans, permitting only two hits and no walks, and at one point retiring 25 batters in a row, but I guess he didn’t pitch well enough to win, as Don Wilson gives up five hits and three walks but holds the Mets scoreless through nine.
The Mets threaten in a few innings, but can’t get anything through; the Astros get a man on third with one out in the second (on a double and a Seaver wild pitch), but then see him erased on a fielder’s choice groundout and don’t get another baserunner until the 10th. There’s a lot of back and forth in extras, but nobody can get a run across until the 24th. In the bottom of that inning, with Les Rohr pitching, Norm Miller singles. Rohr then balks with Jimmy Wynn batting, so Wynn is then intentionally walked. After a weak Rusty Staub groundout advances both runners, pinch hitter John Bateman is also intentionally walked, bringing up Bob Aspromonte, who blew the Astros’ previous best chance in the 2nd. Here, he hits a grounder to short. Utilityman Al Weis boots it, and the longest shutout win in history is over. Some contemporary accounts reprinted here.
- Just a couple more things about that amazing game–Tommie Agee and Ron Swaboda both go 0-f0r-10. Both teams finish an identical 11-for-79, a .139 batting average. Pitchers issue a total of twelve walks, six of them intentional. One of the only hitters to have what you might call a good day is Hector Torres, a career .218/.260/.281 hitter, who had three singles in eight at-bats. There are 35 strikeouts, and Seaver records only three of them.
- The Twins beat the Orioles 6-3. Carew and Oliva collect two hits apiece, and Bob Allison has two doubles and a triple. Dick Boswell goes the distance to get the win, permitting four hits and six walks while striking out seven (too bad they don’t have pitch counts available). The Twins go to 5-0 on the year, but go 74-83 the rest of the way and finish 24 games behind Detroit. One telling sign of the times: Bob Allison, a fading star in his last full year at just 33, had a productive season batting 5th in a pretty powerful lineup in front of three pretty great hitters (though they were rarely all healthy at the same time this season), cracks out 22 home runs…and ends up with 52 RBI.
- Bob Gibson has arguably the “worst” game of his incredible season, permitting three earned on five hits and three walks (striking out five) in seven innings of work. The Cards come back to win it in 10 innings, 4-3, Joe Hoerner facing one batter to earn credit for the “win.” Gibson gives up 3 or more earned seven times in 1968, but after this, his second start of the season, doesn’t go less than 8 innings in any other start all season (he’d also gone 7 in his first start on April 10).
- The A’s beat the Yankees, 6-3. I mention this only because a 22 year old named Reggie Jackson, who hits his second home run of the season, was batting second in the A’s order. He batted second for the first 32 games, 8th (!) for a while, then 5th or 6th for a while, then moved back to second for most of the rest of the season, starting a total of 69 games there. Almost nobody these days (or then, I would think) would bat a guy who strikes out as often as Reggie in the #2 slot, but it’s a pretty good spot to put him. Of course, the following year, 1969, is the one in which Reggie had 37 homers at the break, and 47 for the year. He started that year batting second too, but was very quickly moved to the third slot, and spent the next 18 years or so batting third or fourth somewhere.
- Billy Brewer is born. Lefty reliever in the mid to late nineties, and one of the great baseball names of all time.
So Derek Jeter has been in the news quite a bit lately. He is, after all, the most recent proud owner of a Viagra Milestone Moment. Yesterday, Craig was excoriated by legions of barely literate Yankee fans* in the comments to the NBC blog for suggesting that maybe seven separate stories by one newspaper surrounding the tying (not even setting, tying) of a single franchise record by a single player was overkill.
* I’m not making a generalization about Yankee fans at all, just talking about those particular Yankee fans, and I’m not exaggerating. Go read those comments and discover for yourself.
Also yesterday, Jason at IIATMS put up what I think is a really nice piece on what Jeter means to him as a fan. And I think that’s great. Jason expresses exactly what one should feel about a great player that’s played for your own team for 14 years.
I’ve been a pretty harsh Jeter-basher over the years (only mentioned him once on this blog, but it wasn’t friendly), but none of that has anything to do with how Yankee fans feel about him. And really, none of it has anything to do with Jeter himself; while I feel he’s showboated and behaved overtly selfishly more than the greatest leader in baseball history should, guys who play hard are fun, and he seems like a pretty solid character overall.
Rather, my problem has been with how the national media has taken all that love and all that character and rolled it together into this larger-than-life, iconic hero for the whole baseball nation. It obscures his weaknesses–which have been real and numerous–and takes a lot of attention away from other players who (if only momentarily) have been better. Kirby Puckett and Tony Gwynn were heroes to their own fans, and that’s a wonderful thing. And they were great players. But they weren’t the kind of players who should have dominated all coverage of the sport. I believe that essentially, Jeter is basically what would’ve happened if Puckett or Gwynn or Cal Ripken, Jr. had played his entire career with the Yankees instead. And that can get awfully annoying to the rest of us.
But let me change gears completely: I think it’s time for us — and by “us” I mean sabermetric types who are fans of teams other than the Yankees — to back the hell off and give Jeter his due. No, to this point, he arguably hasn’t been markedly greater than Barry Larkin or Alan Trammell, both of whom will have a hard time getting into the Hall, while Jeter will waltz in on the first ballot if he retires tomorrow. But those guys should be in the Hall, and the unfortunate fact that they haven’t gotten the attention they deserve isn’t a great reason to deprive Jeter of the credit he has earned.
Furthermore, you can’t really look at Jeter and compare him to those other guys and say “and he hasn’t even had his decline phase yet!” anymore. Yes, the decline phase is coming eventually, but Jeter is 35 years old. At 35, Trammell was no longer a full-time player, and immediately became a very bad half-time player for his final three seasons starting with age 36. Larkin had already declined significantly and was in his last year as a useful player. Jeter, meanwhile, is having one of the best seasons of his career.
And then there’s that defense. I remain thoroughly convinced that Jeter has never been even an average shortstop, and I think Bill James was probably more or less right when he wrote that he was one of the worst regular shortstops we’ve ever seen who was allowed to stay at the position for more than a year or so. Moreover, it still kind of pisses me off that they moved A-Rod to third for him, when A-Rod was obviously the superior shortstop. But. UZR and plus/minus aren’t available before 2002, and I don’t trust any other defensive stats. Even the new measures are subject to wild fluctuations from year to year that can’t just be explained away by players having good years or bad years. But by UZR, Jeter has had two awful years, one bad year, and four more or less average years since 2002, and now this year he’s been above zero, and actually very good (+5.1). I’m not prepared to believe that a guy who can look that good at age 35, and average so many other times, is as awful as we once thought.
Another common stathead criticism of Jeter is that (in a given year) he’s not even the best player on his own team, and I guess I get that when you’re trying to combat all the Jeter love, but it also strikes me as a little silly–the fact that Bernie Williams is having a great year or A-Rod is A-Rod shouldn’t take away from Jeter’s greatness any more than Nick Punto and Delmon Young being bad at baseball should take away from Mauer’s MVP candidacy. And at any rate, now — at an age when most middle infielders, even the best of them, are in serious decline or retired — Jeter unquestionably is the best player on his team, and that team is the best team in the game right now. So that doesn’t work anymore either.
Finally, there’s his consistency. Jeter has been one of the two or three best shortstops in the American League every single year for at least the last twelve and possibly more, and that’s really something when you’re playing at the same time as A-Rod and Nomah and Miggy. That’s more than one can say for Trammell or Larkin, both of whom fluctuated quite a bit over their careers (and Larkin was always hurt). Jeter could justifiably have won two MVPs, and would be in line for a third deserving MVP this season if not for Mauer.
No, Jeter is not one of the three or four best Yankees of all time. It’s profoundly silly to compare him favorably to Ruth, Mantle, Gehrig or DiMaggio. But he’s a great, great player, certainly among the greatest of our current time, and it’s time to stop begrudging Yankee fans their right to enjoy that. And maybe to start enjoying it just a little bit ourselves? I can’t believe I just said that.
Totally cool to keep ripping on ESPN and Tim McCarver, though. I mean, everybody has a breaking point.
So, theirs is the one failure that has surprised me most in 2009. At 70-67, the Cubs haven’t been awful, but I (and almost everyone else) thought they’d run away with the NL Central, and instead they’ve let the Cardinals run away with it. The Cubbies are now about 11 games behind in the division and eight games (and five teams) out of the Wildcard, with just 28 to play. So the streak without a championship will certainly run to 101 seasons; any chance it ends there?
2010 Cubs now under contract, with 2009 WAR
C: Geovany Soto (1.1)
1B: Derrek Lee (4.0)
2B: Mike Fontenot (0.2)
3B: Aramis Ramirez (1.7)
SS: Ryan Theriot (2.3)
LF: Alfonso Soriano (-0.7)
CF: Kosuke Fukudome (2.5)
RF: Milton Bradley (1.7)
It would be kind of gratifying to blame this season on GM Jim Hendry’s predictably terrible offseason moves — chief among them his baffling decision to pick up mediocre “closer” Kevin Gregg and his severe overpayment of problem child Milton Bradley — but take a look at this. This is the difference between the following players’ 2008 and 2009 WARs:
Add those 13 wins to the Cubs’ total right now and they’re 83-54, about two games ahead of the Cards (and that’s assuming, probably falsely, that none of those extra wins come against the Cards).
Now, that oversimplifies things. Rookie Jake Fox came in and relieved some of the pressure from losing Ramirez to injury with a solid bat (though WAR says he’s given most of it back on defense), and Lee has been much better than expected. And it’s not like Gregg hasn’t cost them a win or so, and Marmol’s complete loss of the strike zone, and Dempster and Harden not being quite as good as they would’ve hoped…but really, make whatever little adjustments you want, and still, if you give those four guys listed above their 2008 numbers back (and none of them were outlandish numbers, really), you’ve got a real race for the division.
So here’s where I normally do the three things they need to MAKE happen and the three things they need to HAVE happen…but I don’t think that works here, for a few reasons:
First, there aren’t a lot of moves to be made for this team. They might bring Harden back and kick Marshall back out of the rotation, or they might sign another starter, and they could certainly stand to improve that bullpen, but outside the pen, everyone on the list above has been a quality full-time major league starter at his listed position sometime in the last two seasons. That’s not to say that you can’t improve one of those positions, but it’s just hard to see how it would go down. Most of these guys are well paid, few would be terribly attractive targets to teams looking to dump talent, and the Cubs’ prospect list is pretty thin at the top. I’m sure Hendry wants to do something anyway, but I’m not convinced that anything he might do is likely to actually help this squad.
Second, and maybe more importantly, I’m not sure they’ll be permitted to make any moves at this point. Assuming the sale of the team is even finalized by the time for moves to be made, who knows how much the owners will want to spend? They’ve already got more than $10 million each (and in some cases, much more) committed to Lee, Bradley, Dempster, Fukudome, Soriano, Ramirez and Zambrano for 2010. Now, the Cubs and Wrigley Field may look to you and me like bottomless bowls of money (in the sense of the bottomless cup of coffee you might get at a diner), but we also know that millionaires and billionaires get to be millionaires and billionaires by not looking at the world that way. There’s definitely a limit to what the Cubs will (and in a business sense should) spend, and I think there’s a good chance they’re already pretty close to that limit for 2010. Also, a lot of these guys’ contracts are expiring in 2010 or ’11, and while that may mean that 2010 is when you really go for it, it also means that it might be a bad time to sign a big free agent to a long-term contract; it’s hard to believe with a team like the Cubs, but you might be looking at a rebuilding situation in a year or two.
Of course there are still potential trades out there. Josh proposes that the Cubs trade Soriano and Bradley for Vernon Wells, which would trade two bad contracts for one and free up some payroll in the short term. Even if the Jays would do that, though (and I can’t think of a reason they would), if I’m the Cubs, I’m saying no to that one. In all likelihood, the Jays are getting the two best players in a three-player deal, and Bradley’s contract isn’t that bad (he’s still a valuable player despite all the bad press, and has a chance to be a very valuable one again in 2010).
So I’d pretty much stand pat and hope for the best. With four starters with FIPs right around 4.00, they’ve got one of the best rotations in baseball (Randy Wells’ minor league record suggests he’s not really that guy, but even if not, Sean Marshall isn’t that much of a dropoff). Bring Harden back (4.30 FIP in 2008, but 3.58 career), and it gets even better. I don’t see much else for them to do right now than to count on some combination of bouncebacks by A-Ram, Soriano, Soto and Fontenot, improvements by Fukudome and Bradley, or another big step forward by Jake Fox to provide offense behind that pitching staff. And improve the bullpen, naturally, but scoring runs is the big thing.
One idea, though: trade Milton Bradley to some AL team for prospects. He’s okay in the field, but he arguably has more value to a team that can DH him to keep his bat in the lineup. Then, move Fukudome back to RF and pick up a good one-year center fielder…someone like free-agent-to-be Mike Cameron. Fukudome is a plus defender in the corners and an average defender in center, while Bradley is merely an average defender in the corner. Cameron will be 37, but has long been one of the best outfield defenders in teh game and can still cover plenty of ground out there. He’s still got a pretty solid bat, and has the kind of gap power that Wrigley could turn into homer power (small sample, but he has a career .577 SLG there). It would improve their defense without sacrificing much, or possibly any, offense (unless Bradley bounces back into 2008 form).
I’d be reluctant to do that, because the bad press and low power output have made Bradley pretty undesirable right now. They’d get very little for him, and may end up having to pay a large portion of his salary (which, depending on the team’s budget, might put even Cameron out of their range). It’s a lot of work and a lot of risk for a pretty marginal improvement.
The Cardinals are almost guaranteed to come back to earth in 2010, barring a big surprise move or two in the offseason (more on that at some point, I’m sure); there’s no reason to think A-Ram will get hurt again; and Soriano and Soto almost couldn’t help but get better. So while the bad news is that I don’t see a lot of ways for them to get better for 2010, the good news is that I think the team as currently constituted (plus some cheap bullpen help and maybe Harden) has a very good chance to compete.
I’d like to say I’m working on something big for tomorrow, but while I’m hoping to have something big for tomorrow, the truth is I haven’t started it yet, having spent the last three days in (or driving to and from) Minnesota. Back to it on Wednesday morning….
Mike, who sure seems like he should have a more Italian middle name than “Joseph,” is 41 today.
I don’t really have anything new to tell you about a guy like Piazza, but lookit (also just seeing how/if this new BBREF feature works):
Report Created on Baseball-Reference.com
[There we go! Took a few tries.]
So…yeah. A lot of people are saying Mauer’s having the best year by a catcher ever, and maybe he is when you factor in defense and such, but it’s pretty hard to compete with that.
Piazza outhit Larry Walker by OPS+, had only four points less of batting average and six fewer RBI…and Larry Walker was a RF who played in the best hitters’ environment in history, Piazza a catcher (technically) in a pitcher’s park (which doesn’t factor into the OPS+, of course, but the HR and RBI). The Dodgers even finished ahead of the Rockies in the standings. Where does this rank among the worst MVP snubs of all time? Would Mauer 2009 be worse?
I meant to do this weeks ago, but of course, just as they said they would, the Twins released the combined fans-and-experts’ All-Metrodome Team selections about a month ago.
In four posts this spring, I named my own All-Metrodome Team. So how’d I do?
Here’s the “real” All-Metrodome Team, with asterisks next to selections that were also mine:
C Joe Mauer*
1B Kent Hrbek* AND Justin Morneau*^
2B Chuck Knoblauch*
3B Gary Gaetti*
SS Greg Gagne*
OF Tom Brunansky
OF Dan Gladden
OF Torii Hunter*
OF Kirby Puckett*
DH Paul Molitor
SP Bert Blyleven
SP Johan Santana*
SP Frank Viola*
SP Brad Radke*
RP Joe Nathan*
RP Rick Aguilera*
MGR Tom Kelly*
^ I cheated and put Morneau at DH; they cheated and put Morneau as a second 1B.
Not bad, right? 18 names, and the super-awesome panel of Twins experts and I agree on 14 of them (78%).
But: I only picked 15 names. Because the ballot only allowed for 15 names, so I went ahead and stayed within the rules (except Morneau, and only because the DH picks were ridiculous). Our panel did not; they added for PR reasons, I have to assume, Morneau, Blyleven, and Gladden, because all three currently have roles with the team and they didn’t want to offend them or the viewers/listeners (given that, though, it’s a shock that they didn’t pick both Tom Kelly and Ron Gardenhire).
So here’s where they were dumb:
1. Leaving Shane Mack off. It’s not any kind of surprise–I acknowledged when I made my pick that most people wouldn’t agree with me–but just take a look at it, and he’s a no-brainer. He played just five seasons with the Twins, but was an integral part of the 1991 World Series team, and played phenomenal defense at all three outfield positions while putting up a 130 OPS+. I knew they’d leave him off, but to name four outfielders, out of twelve on the ballot, and still leave him off? Terrible.
2. Dan Gladden. What? I mean, I know he’s a radio broadcaster now (a terrible one, by the way), I know he’s a World Series hero and one of the few to play in both Series, and I know…well, that’s all I know. Gladden played five seasons with the Twins (hey, the same number as Mack, and with a whopping 300 more plate appearances!) and posted a 90 OPS+. Great outfield defense, but no better than Mack’s–his defense simply made him about an average player, while Mack’s made him one of the better players in the league. There’s no contest. Not only that, but Jacque Jones, Michael Cuddyer and Matt Lawton were all better choices than Gladden as well.
3. Tom Brunansky. He was fine–and my first runner-up, so I guess if I’m gonna pick four he’s in–but not even close to Mack.
4. Paul Molitor. I get it–Hall of Famer, St. Paul native, was a coach for a while, and the other choices were David Ortiz, Chili Davis, Roy Smalley and Dave Winfield. But he played only three seasons with the Twins, and only in the first was he actually a competent DH. If you’re going to cheat and throw Morneau in anyway, why not do what I did and throw him in at DH?
5. Bert Blyleven. Obviously one of the Twins’ two greatest pitchers of all time. His Metrodome-era career, though? Three and a half seasons with approximately a 100 ERA+ and the (at the time) two highest HR-allowed seasons in history. If he’s not in your employ, there’s no need to expand the team to add him at all.
Honestly, though? It’s a lot better than I thought they would do. Hrbek’s on the team, Gaetti over
Morneau Koskie [EDIT: heh, all you Canadians look the same to me] [EDIT AGAIN: I actually picked Koskie over Gaetti, but noted that it was basically a toss-up, so whatever], and they got all three of the correct pitchers along with Blyleven. I was pleasantly surprised.
Ryan Howard is a good hitter. A very, very good hitter. He has a .921 2009 OPS and a .961 career OPS (142 OPS+). Howard’s splits look like this:
vs. RHP, career: .307/.409/.561 (1.071)
vs. LHP, career: .224/.308/.446 (.754)
Against righties, Howard is every bit the monster he’s reputed to be. Against lefties, he’s a well below-average first baseman. But wait, there’s more:
vs. LHP, 2008-09: .212/.290/.406 (.696)
vs. LHP, 2009: .198/.284/.348 (.632)
Every club’s AAA squad has a right-handed hitter who could probably play a passable first base and put up a .700 OPS against left-handed pitching.
Of course, you can’t platoon Howard. You should, but you can’t. His overall numbers and his resultant reputation are just too good. He’s not going to lead the NL in homers and RBIs every year by platooning. Also, in his (almost deserved) MVP year of 2006, he did put up a .923 OPS against lefties (which is pretty much the whole difference between MVP-quality Howard and the last couple years’ pretty-decent-first-baseman Howard).
But consider another case. Tonight, the Twins were facing White Sox southpaw John Danks. They started Jason Kubel at DH and in his customary #5 slot in the order, and they started Delmon Young in left field and in the #8 slot. Forget for a moment that it’s crazy to play either of these guys in the field, and just consider this (vs.LHP/vs.RHP):
Kubel’s splits, career: .667/.844, 2009: .622/1.010
Young’s splits, career: .805/.697, 2009: .861/.578.
Kubel, looking at his total line, has always been a good hitter, and has been one of the 15 or so best hitters in the league in 2009, with a 140 OPS+ and .387 wOBA. Young, on the other hand, has been as disastrous as ever, with a 78 OPS+ and .288 wOBA. Yet: Kubel is just as helpless against lefties now as he’s always been, or even more so–the only difference is that he’s crushing righties rather than just holding his own against them. No matter how lovely his overall numbers are (and add a .300 average, 22 homers and 77 RBI to that OPS), Kubel has no business ever serving as the designated hitter against a left-handed pitcher. Ever. Delmon Young is Kubel’s perfect platoon partner, and DH vs. LHP may be the only role for which Young is actually suited.
There’s another great reason to platoon, too. Say you’re playing a team with a southpaw starter but a shortage of lefties in the ‘pen, or a right-handed closer that you know they’re going to use in the ninth. How awesome is it to have the luxury of using Ryan Howard or Jason Kubel (or your righty thumper if the situation is reversed) at exactly the right time, rather than just hoping his turn in the order comes up when you need it to?
So here’s my idea, for some future really, really ballsy manager and/or GM:
We need to stop thinking of “hitting” as a skill. Rather, there’s hitting vs. LHP and there’s hitting vs. RHP, and they’re totally separate skills, and your ability to do one doesn’t make it a whole lot more or less likely that you can do the other.
So Ryan Howard has been awesome, and has put up some awesome stats, but he hasn’t somehow earned the right to keep sucking against LHP by virtue of being awesome against RHP, any more than Tim Lincecum has earned the right to start in center field by virtue of being an awesome pitcher.
This kind of thinking would lead to a lot more platoons in more extreme situations (and there are a lot of them), and teams would properly value right-handed hitters whose numbers look bad because they hit against RHP 70% of the time, but who are highly valuable as the less-used half of a lefty/righty platoon. But even more commonly, it would change the way managers set batting orders and rest players. Almost every player (as we all know, but which I don’t think people pay enough attention to) has a significant split in favor of opposite-handed pitchers. For instance, Mauer is a Hall of Fame .951 career vs. LHP and a merely pretty-good-for-a-catcher .762 vs. LHP, and while he deserves to start most games against both, he’s probably not a #3 hitter against lefties, and he should never get a day of rest when a righty is on the mound unless the team has faced six righties in a row. Even Roberto Alomar, a switch-hitter and future Hall of Famer, probably batted high in the order far too often against LHP, against whom he had an OBP 50 points lower than he had against RHP (.337/.386).
It’s not a big deal on a case-by-case basis (except in extreme cases like Howard and Kubel), but a manager who really looked at these things, roster spot by roster spot, and utilized significant platoon advantages whenever possible — in setting the lineup and order and actually using platoons where appropriate, not merely pinch-hitting at the end of the game — might pick up an extra win or two over the course of the season. And DHing Kubel against lefties just has to stop.