Archive for June, 2009

Running wild?

June 30, 2009

I had big hopes for today (something about Mo Rivera and closers, most likely), but work has dashed them. I don’t even really have time to be writing this.

But here’s your ten-cent thought for the day: in 2008, the average MLB team stole 93 bases. In 2009, the Rays have already stolen 121 (just 31 shy of their 2008 MLB-leading total), and the average team is on pace to steal 105. That’s about an 11% increase, and they’re doing it more successfully (75% in 2009, 73% in 2008).

So it’s definitely a difference, but not a huge, game-changing sort of difference just yet. Last year’s MLB individual leader in steals (Willy Taveras) had 36 through June 29; this year, Carl Crawford has 40. Three stole 50 and four more 40 last year; this year, we’re on pace to see five steal fifty, but only two or three more look like good bets to get to 40. And so on.

So it’s true what they say, speed is coming back into the game and all that. But it’s coming back in slowly, if you will. At a snail’s pace.

It’s not the kind of difference you really observe from a single day at the ballpark. I just feel like I’ve heard it talked about to a degree that goes well beyond what an 11% difference justifies.

Happy Birthday…

June 29, 2009

Harmon Killebrew!

Killer turns 73 today, and still looks like he could hit a baseball about 500 feet.

I never saw Killebrew play, but I grew up hearing stories, and I’ve gotten to meet him in person several times at fanfest types of things. He’s always come off as one of the true good guys. Maybe too good and soft-spoken for his own good; if he’d acted out a little, maybe more people would’ve remembered him.

Killebrew has the second-lowest batting average of any position player in the Hall of Fame (excluding those inducted as managers), at .256, three points ahead of Ray Schalk (who (a) was a catcher and (b) has no business in the Hall). He has the fifth-most HR, but he’s not in the top 20 in OBP, SLG, R or RBI. That’s the sixties for you; neutralized by baseball-reference to an environment where the average team scores 770 runs per season (which is about where the current AL is), his line is a much more HOF-like .270/.393/.535, and with 620 rather than 573 HR.

Five Twins have ever led the league (or tied for the lead) in home runs, and Harmon Killebrew is all five of them. Two Senators ever led the AL in home runs, and Killer was one of them, too…as a 23 year old in 1959, in his first full season, and really his only full season with the Senators (he only got into 124 games in 1960, and they were in Minneapolis the following April).

Most people will tell you that Killebrew was the model for the batter in the MLB logo. And it looks a lot like Killebrew’s stance and profile — in particular, the figure holds his hands low and close to his shoulder as the pitch comes in, kind of a Killebrew trademark. But MLB and the logo’s creator have flatly denied that the logo was based on Killer or on anyone else in particular.

Killebrew made appearances with the Senators as early as age 17. This was because his large contract for the time (for a whopping $50,000) triggered baseball’s short-lived Bonus Rule: for a few periods from 1947 until the amateur draft kicked in in 1965, amateurs who signed for more than a certain amount (at least initially, $4,000) had to be kept on the 40-man roster for two full seasons. From his age-18 season through his age-22 season, Killebrew played 113 games in the majors and posted an 85 OPS+.

Killebrew, helped to a large extent by his magnificent name, has probably the best-looking autograph I’ve ever seen.

Know how people complained that the HR Derby Era (posthumously renamed the steroid era) was going to change everything, because 500 HR always meant automatic induction to the Hall, and now it wouldn’t anymore? Well, consider that Killebrew retired relatively recently (1975), and at that time, his 573 homers put him second all-time to Babe Ruth (and thus first among all right-handed hitters) in the history of the American League…and it still took him four years of eligibility to get in. Nothing about how it “used to be” is ever as simple as people think.

Links of the Week or So

June 28, 2009

I can’t find a whole lot worth talking about right now, so how about reading stuff from people who can?

  • Frequent commenter tHeMARksMiTh always does great work and has had, I think, a particularly great week, but I thought his writeup on the career of Hank Greenberg was the highlight.
  • Non-Baseball Division: Bethany over at one of my favorite sites in the whole series of tubes, The “Blog” of “Unnecessary” Quotation Marks, finally got around to posting something I had sent her way back sometime before this blog even began. Turns out it had been posted on that site before, but that’s hardly my problem. I thought this submission was a better one anyway, but that one didn’t make the cut (or just skipped her attention) somehow. Oh well.
  • Ron Rollins wrote about agents in Japanese baseball, and pretty much everything there is something really interesting that I didn’t know. You might guess from my Strasburg rant that I’m not really behind the idea that baseball agents are “the devil” (well, maybe Boras), but it’s an interesting topic.
  • Obligatory Dave Cameron Article Division: this week, Dave points out that Juan Pierre hasn’t been doing such a good Manny impression lately. I think that what I like about Cameron’s stuff (when I’m not disagreeing with him completely, which has been happening more often lately) is that he’s really good at pointing out flaws in the common wisdom that, once he’s pointed them out, seem like the kind of things we all should have noticed already. I mean, you knew he wasn’t going to keep hitting .400, but why haven’t we already heard that he’s been that bad for the last month or so?
  • Know how the other day I wondered how often one starting pitcher in a game was twice the age of the other? Well, lar at wezen-ball went to the trouble of figuring it out.
  • Joe Mauer has, inevitably, slowed down; he’s stopped homering, which is the worrisome part, but his batting average has also dropped below .400. David Pinto says his odds of hitting .400 (as of Saturday morning, I suppose) are 1 in 275 or 1 in 1235, depending on…something. I honestly don’t understand it at all. But it’s Mauer, so it’s interesting.
  • This seriously stretches the definition of “week or so,” but the most recent post on Recondite Baseball has info on one of my favorite topics, the Three True Outcomes. No surprise that Dunn shows up at the top of the list, though he’s keeping the spot warm for when Jack Cust hits 3000 PA. I haven’t talked about Recondite Baseball, and I don’t even remember how I came across it, but the one or two posts Theron makes over there a month are always worth reading.

That’s about all I’ve got I’m sure there’ll be something to say tomorrow.

A Tale of Two Aces

June 26, 2009

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, and all that crap.

Sometimes, the final score of a game not only doesn’t tell the whole story, it totally misses the whole point of that story. And sometimes, when the danged score totally drops the ball like that, GameDay’s got its back.

Chris Carpenter was, as he’s been whenever healthy since first setting foot in St. Louis in 2004, outstanding yesterday. After hitting Alex Cora to start the game, Carpenter retired the next nine hitters, and made it look easy. If you flip through the GameDay link, you’ll see nothing but 92-MPH sinking fastballs at the knees; sharp sliders exactly hitting the low-outside corner against RH hitters or riding in on the hands of LH hitters; and two-strike curveballs suddenly diving into the dirt. For those first three innings, it was like a video game; every pitch he threw (except that first time to Cora) went exactly where you would assume he would’ve wanted it in that situation. He turned human after that, but only a little, still hitting his spots with all his pitches with alarming regularity.

On the other hand, Carp’s opponent yesterday was none other than probably the best pitcher of the ‘aughts (I figure it’s got to be him or Randy Johnson, right?), Johan Santana. And what is wrong with that guy? Through the first two innings, Santana threw 17 strikes and 16 balls. He wasn’t striking out anybody. His GameDay log shows fastballs left over the middle of the plate, and his usually-awesome changeup (which should generally be down in the zone) left well up and away to most hitters. He was all over the place, especially early. He loaded the bases in the second with Albert Pujols coming up, and gave him a 93-MPH fastball right in Albert’s wheelhouse that Pujols came just a few feet short of converting into four runs.

The story is also told by how the pitchers fared against each other: in his first two at-bats, Carpenter singled on the first pitch and then drew a walk. Santana struck out on three pitches and then popped out to very shallow right.

For the day, Carpenter pitched 7 innings; threw only 82 pitches (he was pulled for a pinch hitter; just another persuasive argument in favor of the DH rule), but 64 of them (78%) for strikes; allowed four hits, three singles and a double; and walked none while striking out five. He did hit the one batter.

Santana also threw 7 innings, but required 110 pitches, 74 of them strikes (67%, a huge improvement given his 50/50 start). He allowed 7 hits, one of them a double. He walked three and struck out only three.

But here’s the catch: all four of the hits Carpenter allowed came in the fourth inning. They led to three runs. Ignore that little HBP to lead off the game, and Carpenter authored six perfect innings and one clunker (though it’s not as though he was hit terribly hard even in that inning). Meanwhile, what with the Pujols near-grand slam and all, Santana stranded eight runners on base, permitting only two runs. The Mets bullpen held on (barely, with some nerve-racking wildness by K-Rod), giving Santana the “win” and Carpenter the “loss.”

And today, you’ll probably read about how Santana might be back on track after picking up the win in St. Louis. But that just doesn’t tell the story of this game at all. These are two guys who are going in opposite directions.

In Santana’s last 7 starts before yesterday, he had gone 43 innings, given up 10 HR and posted a 5.82 ERA, striking out 37 and walking 14; that’s 3 fewer innings, 1 more walk, 23 fewer strikeouts and 8 more HR than he put up over his first seven starts. This one will make his ERA over that stretch look a lot better, and it’s nice that he managed not to allow a HR for the first time in eight appearances…but there’s not a lot to feel hopeful about here. This isn’t the Santana of those first seven starts, and you have to start wondering if something is a little wrong with the guy.

Meanwhile, in his entire nine-start, injury-shortened season, Carpenter has been consistently fantastic, with a 1.53 ERA, 43 strikeouts against just 9 walks, and just 3 HR in 58 2/3 innings. Yesterday, he took his second “loss” in his last three starts, and allowed exactly three earned runs for the third time in his last four. But make no mistake: Carpenter has shown conclusively that, injuries and all, he’s still a truly great pitcher. And the “L” by his name in the boxscore and the one unlucky inning don’t change the fact that, in this particular matchup of former Cy Young Award winners on this particular day, he was the better pitcher, and it wasn’t even remotely close.

On June 24, 2001…

June 25, 2009

Of course, the nature of this blog means that June 24 was yesterday. But I’m writing this on June 24, so that’s good enough for me. Anyway, eight years ago yesterday

– Cristian Guzman, enjoying his one good season, had an unlikely 6 RBI, with a double and a homer, as the Twins trounced the Tigers 14-5. They came close to shocking Cleveland and taking the Division Title that year…but 2002 would be their year. By which time neither Guzman nor Keir Dullea was any help at all.

– Barry Bonds went 0-for-4 with a walk, which left him sitting on 39 HR, and on pace for 84.

– John Rocker got his first save with Cleveland after being traded from the Braves; the 26 year old had just four more saves left in him after that. I wonder if he’s the only (nearly-)star-quality MLB player whose career was actually derailed by stupidity? Not, like, a debilitating accident caused by his stupidity; just plain ol’ stupidity, in and of itself?

– The Mariners won to run their record to a ridiculous 55-19. They were leading the Angels by 18.5 games. It’s a travesty that that team didn’t even make the series. Probably one of the three best teams ever assembled…and with essentially no star power.

– I noticed none of these things. I was busy getting married to my best friend and a wonderful person who has kept me sane and happy and healthy for eight wonderful years. So forgive me for kind of a nothing post, but we’ve been celebrating, and I’d just like to appreciate that and marvel at the fact that it was already eight whole years ago. Also, just looking at a random day (random to the baseball world, that is, not to me…) can be fun.

Jamie Moyer could be almost your whole team’s dad

June 24, 2009

I don’t think baseball-reference or retrosheet can do this yet (I could be wrong), but I’d really like to know how often one starting pitcher in a game has been twice the (seasonal) age of the opposing starting pitcher. I bet you could find a bunch of them just by looking at the last few years of the likes of Moyer, Ryan and Johnson and the first few of Feller and Newhouser. But anyway…I’d like to know, but not enough to actually go looking.

Regardless, it happened on Tuesday night, and it was bad news for the young guy, with 23 year old David Price and the Rays falling to 46 year old Jamie Moyer and the Phillies by a score of 10-1.

Now, Price didn’t pitch that badly (though he pitched plenty badly), and Moyer probably didn’t pitch that well (though I’d like to see anyone in his peer group do better). Price suffered from some terrible defense behind him…but did give up 5 “earned” runs (he surrendered all 10 total runs), and his K/BB/HR ratio was an ugly 1.0 (he racked up two of each in just over four innings). Moyer needed 101 pitches to get through six, and walked three, but he did double up on the younger’s strikeouts, with 4, and he allowed only the one run to score.

Price throws a 94 MPH fastball and a sharp 86 MPH slider; Moyer hasn’t thrown any of his pitches 86 in probably 15 years, and his fastball averages 82.

Now, Moyer’s 6 IP, 1 ER lowered his ERA for the season to just barely below 6, so let’s not get too carried away. But that 5.97 ERA is good for (approximately) a 74 ERA+, which is 10th all time for a player 46 and older (minimum 70 IP). And of the seasons ahead of his, two are by Hoyt Wilhelm, two by Jack Quinn, and two by Phil Niekro, and one by Brian Dowling in 1901, which should hardly count. So you could argue that Moyer is the 6th-best 46 year old pitcher of all time. Also, only Niekro (and Dowling) was a full-time starter by that age; if Moyer tops 138.2 innings this year (also a Niekro number, at age 48), he’ll have thrown the most innings in a season by a dude 46 or older, aside from Phil Niekro, in the last 108 years.

And he doesn’t even throw a knuckleball! Now, I’m pretty sick of the Phils, but you gotta love Jamie Moyer.

Oh, what the holy hell is this

June 23, 2009

Some utter rot from MLB.com:

Frankly, you can’t go wrong with Jimmy Rollins of the Phillies or Hanley Ramirez of the Marlins. And that’s what makes picking a starting shortstop to represent the National League so tough.”

He’s talking about this Hanley Ramirez. And this Jimmy Rollins. The first (and it’s pretty clear any way you want to look at it, but see e.g. this) is quite easily the best shortstop in the National League, and the other, so far in ’09, has been the worst. The first is in the discussion for the distinction of “best player in the National League who is not playing first base for the Cardinals,” while the other has never really been as great as his reputation, and seems to have lost it entirely (as middle infielders sometimes do) at age 30.

I mean, the actual news part of the article is good news — Hanley finally surpassed J-Roll again in the All-Star voting after two weeks of Phillies-Phan-led insanity. But they should really stop pretending that MLB.com isn’t beholden to MLB and its clubs for its editorial content. In fact, they should get rid of individual bylines altogether: a “By the Philadelphia Phillies PR Department” line rather than “By Alden Gonzalez/MLB.com” would’ve made this a little more palatable.

You Don’t Mess with the Zobrist

June 22, 2009

“Part of the payoff for Aubrey Huff, [Ben] Zobrist is less the Shortstop of the Future then [sic] the shortstop of right now. Too old to be considered a high-ceiling prospect, he’s still a solid player with great command of the strike zone. He doesn’t have much power to speak of, but if he can catch the ball and get on base, he’ll be plenty serviceable for the time being.”
Baseball Prospectus 2007

“While he’s made it pretty clear that he’s [sic] doesn’t deserve a starting shortstop job, Zobrist is still a fundamentally sound defender with good on-base skills who will likely fill Josh Wilson’s bench spot next year, but do it better.”
Baseball Prospectus 2008

“Zobrist’s miserable 2007 was the reason the Rays acquired Jason Barlett [sic] in the first place, but . . . Zobrist refashioned himself as a future super-sub able to play six positions. . . . Expecting him to deliver a home run every 16.5 at-bats again is a bit of a pipe dream, but he’s one of the more valuable reserve players around, one who can give a team reason not to panic if a starter is forced to the disabled list.”
Baseball Prospectus 2009

A switch-hitter, he stands out the most for his ability to handle the bat, but all his tools except for power are average. The Astros often compared him to former standout utilityman Bill Spiers, and Zobrist projects more in that role than as a regular.”
— Jim Callis, Baseball America, July 12, 2006

Even if you didn’t understand a word Baseball Prospectus was saying about Ben Zobrist, you can pretty much tell what they thought of him by the fact that they put a typo in his writeup every single year. That’s pretty amazing. But anyway.

If you go by traditional qualifying rules (that is, you don’t give Mauer hitless at-bats for the number of plate appearances by which he fails to qualify — if you do that, he’s still leading the world in every category ever imagined), the guy those quotes are talking about came into Sunday leading the American League in OPS and OPS+, sitting 4th in OBP and 1st in SLG. He isn’t homering every 16.5 at-bats; he’s doing it every 12.4. He barely has enough plate appearances to qualify (he’s played in all but 8 of the Rays’ games, but has frequently been used in that “supersub” role, limiting his ABs), but is still in the top ten in counting categories like Runs Created, Adjusted Batting Runs and Adjusted Batting Wins, and his 33 extra-base hits are five short of the league lead. If not for Mauer, Zobrist would be the story of the year among AL hitters. He’s also played six positions (everything but first base, catcher and pitcher) and handled them all pretty well.

But the quotes above were all totally defensible at the time. Zobrist’s overall minor league numbers looked pretty good, but he never hit more than seven home runs in a minor league season, and never slugged .500 in the minors (despite being on the old side of almost every level at which he played) until doing it for the 20 games he spent in AAA in 2008. When BP said he had “made it pretty clear” he didn’t deserve a starting job, they were referring to Zobrist’s 2007 season, which I would bet is one of the worst hitting lines a position player has ever put up in > 100 AB: .155/.184/.206, good for a 4 (yes, four) OPS+. That followed a 48 OPS+ in 2006, so looking at the first 303 plate appearances of his Major League career (.200/.234/.275, 33 OPS+), and noting that he was already 26, you could very understandably conclude that he wasn’t ever going to hit enough to play in the big leagues.

Looking at his 447 PA since then (again, through Saturday), you’d have to conclude that this guy was an MVP candidate: .276/.374/.581, 145 OPS+, 27 HR, 72 RBI, 11/2 SB/CS. In 2006, he’s a AAAA player; in 2007, he might not even be that; in 2008, he’s a very serviceable supersub; in 2009, he’s probably the second-best player in the AL. He was never a notable prospect, and he turned 28 a month ago.

This doesn’t happen, does it? And how does this happen? Is he really one of the best players in the league allasudden, or is he (as ZIPs seems to think) due for a dropoff back to his 2008 level (which is still excellent) or lower (not so much)?

I think he’s come too far along these last two years to be a total fluke. But very few players can keep up the pace he’s on right now beyond a single year, if they can make it last that long (see Bradley, Milton), and I doubt Zobrist is suddenly one of those very few players. But if back to earth for Zobrist is a 120-130 OPS+? That’s still one of the best ten or twelve players in the league. Not a bad haul for half a season of Aubrey Huff three years ago.

What do you think?

Happy Birthday…

June 20, 2009

Dickie Thon!

Richard William Thon turns 51 today. He was born in South Bend, Indiana where his father was graduating from Notre Dame, but spent almost his entire childhood in Puerto Rico, from which he was signed by the Angels as an amateur free agent at age 16. Up and down with the Angels starting in 1979 at age 21, he was an Astro by the time he started to come into his own, in 1982. That year, he hit 10 triples and stole 37 bases in 45 tries. His overall line of .276/.327/.397 isn’t going to turn many heads, but for the Astrodome in 1982, that was awfully solid, good for a 110 OPS+. 1983, then, was like a dream: .286/.341/.457 (127 OPS+), 20 homers, 34 steals (though in 50 tries this time). He made the All-Star team, and finished 7th in the MVP voting.

Maybe another young shortstop over in the AL was doing even more impressive things at an even younger age, but at just 25, Thon looked like a star. Wikipedia even claims that some considered him a future Hall of Famer (and cites Bill James’ original Historical Baseball Abstract, which I wish I could find right now, as the source of that), and two pretty good seasons at ages 24 and 25 don’t seem to me likely to lead you down that particular path, but he looked poised for a long and successful career.

Then: April 8, 1984.

A fractured orbital bone sounds like a terribly unpleasant thing. You can read about it here, but probably shouldn’t do so while having lunch or anything. It can lead to serious vision problems…which is what Thon got when he was struck in the face with a Mike Torrez fastball on that day. His depth perception was shot.

The New York Times archives are full of references to Thon’s determination to return to the playing field…and his repeated setbacks. Thon never got back into the game in 1984, and while he played in the Winter Leagues at home in Puerto Rico that winter, he got only 84 games in in ’85. And frankly, he was terrible when he did play. He was a tiny bit worse in 106 games in ’86, and played 32 awful games in ’87, walking away from the team in July (presumably to undergo the eye surgery he had talked about wanting in March of that year) and acknowledging that his career might be over, as many writers seemed to be assuming it was. He’d just turned 29.

But it wasn’t over. He signed with the Padres, and did pretty well, putting up roughly average offensive numbers (which are, of course, better than average for a shortstop) as a part-time starter. From there he went to Philly, where he reminded the game of what it might have missed out on seeing a decade or so of, hitting .271/.321/.434 (117 OPS+) with 15 homers. The speed was gone, but otherwise he looked much more like the promising young All-Star he had been than the mediocre backup infielder he had since become.

That performance earned him two more full years with the Phillies (then half-time gigs for the Rangers and Brewers after that), but he was done. He ended with a solid career, above-average numbers for a shortstop in nearly 5000 PA. But of course there’s no telling what might have been.

You just have to admire a guy like Thon, though. Taking a fastball to the face would ruin (and has ruined) a lot of hitters. So would the continued setbacks and blurred vision and repeated trips to the minors or DL just a few years after finishing 7th in the MVP voting.

Even better? Thon was hit in the head with a pitch in 1987 — less than three years after the Torrez incident — while on a minor league rehab assignment. He missed five games. I’m pretty sure that if the first blindingly fast flying object to hit me in the head didn’t get to me, nerves-wise, the second one would.

So no, I don’t think it’s particularly likely that he was working on a Hall of Fame career when it happened. But he was an exciting player, and a damn good one. And his perseverence in coming back time and again after the incident(s), culminating in his second very good season in 1989, is the kind of thing Disney will (and [gulp] probably should) make a movie about someday. Next time you’re up against something that seems too arduous, think of Dickie.

So happy birthday, Mr. Thon. Hope you’re seeing OK these days.

Insert Your Own Corny Pirate-y Pun Here

June 19, 2009

Well, the Twins played three with the Pirates this week as part of the ongoing abomination that is interleague play.

Which can really only mean one thing: for the first time in, at least, weeks, I noticed the Pirates.

And hey: they don’t stink right now! They dropped two of three to the Twins, but they took two of three from the Tigers right before that and came into the Twins series at 30-33, or closer to .500 than many Pirates fans can even remember (not true at all–actually, they had about the same record at this time last year, and then everything fell apart–but it’s kind of fun to write). They have a positive run differential (+4), suggesting they might’ve played even better than that. How did that happen?

Well, Freddy Sanchez has been great; the high batting average and doubles power are back, and he’s held his own at second base. Shortstop Jack Wilson can’t hit, but more than makes up for it with his glove; ditto Nyjer Morgan, easily the most exciting 85-OPS+ left fielder in the league. Zach Duke is back looking like the ace of the pitching staff again. McLouth was doing a fine job in center, but so far McCutchen has been just as good.

Other than that, though? Really hard to say. Brandon Moss looks good in the field, but has been an even worse hitter than Morgan at the other OF corner. The LaRoche brothers have been fine, but certainly no better than average at their respective positions (but it’s nice to see Andy getting a legit chance to show he can play). After Duke, the pitching staff has been awful (it seems like every year, one of Duke, Snell, Gorzelanny and Maholm is pretty decent, and the others take a year off–though to be fair, Maholm has been at least an average starter, and even has Duke beat in FIP). They don’t have anybody that you’d really think will get a lot better anytime soon.

So anyway, I came into this hoping to be able to say “look out for the Pirates!” or something like that. But…no. They’re only six games out at this writing, but with four teams in front of them, each of whom is probably legitimately a much better team than they are. This year’s out. And you have to think there’ll be some more selling off before this season’s over; Adam LaRoche is a good bet to go, and they don’t exactly have another league-average 1B ready to step in. Jack Wilson’s probably gone too. Freddy Sanchez might stay around forever…but he’s already 31, and probably not actually this good.

And it’s hard to see them getting too much better in the near future. The Reds are up-and-comers. The Brewers will be pretty good for a couple more years, probably, and the Cubs have the resources to be good just about every year if they want to, and the Cardinals…well, the Cards have Pujols.

After McCutchen and Pedro Alvarez, there’s not much on the way. Jose Tabata might still be pretty good some day…but that day is at least three years off. They took a “signability pick” college catcher with the #4 pick in last week’s draft. It’s hard to see them getting enough for LaRoche and whoever else they might get rid of to suddenly become a real contender in a year or two.

Come to think of it, it sucks being a Pirate fan. Maybe more than anything else in baseball. But hey, right now, they don’t stink!