|Monday, January 15
January 2001 Archives
By Rob Neyer
MONDAY, JANUARY 31
And you know what else? Those are just the A's. All of the above was gleaned from the STATS Major League Handbook 2001, and I honestly don't understand how any baseball fan can live without one, especially from November through March. Best sawbuck you'll ever spend.
MONDAY, JANUARY 29
Believe it or not, I will be debating in favor of the resolution.
Last year, I devoted more than one column to criticizing Chuck LaMar, who tried to build a team on a shaky foundation composed of over-the-hill sluggers, over-the-hill Floridians, and over-the-hill Floridian sluggers.
Recently, I devoted more than one column to criticizing Ed Wade, who couldn't find anything better to do with $8.3 million than give it to Jose Mesa and Ricky Bottalico.
When I write columns like those, I argue, either explicitly or implicitly, that the general managers in question have behaved stupidly. I suppose that occasionally I might even cross a line that I shouldn't, and imply that the general managers themselves are stupid. That's not right. They certainly do stupid things, but then who among us doesn't?
Ed Wade is not a stupid man. Were he a stupid man, he wouldn't have fleeced the Braves out of Bruce Chen. Were he a stupid man, he wouldn't have fleeced the Devil Rays out of Bobby Abreu. Were he a stupid man, he would not occupy the position that he occupies.
Chuck LaMar is not a stupid man. Were he a stupid man, he wouldn't have just alchemized a 36-year-old closer into a 24-year-old All-Star slugger. Were he a stupid man, he would not occupy the position that he occupies.
I started thinking about all this while reading a book called "Why People Believe Weird Things," written by Michael Shermer. (In a perfect world, Shermer's book would be required reading in every high school in every English-speaking country on the planet.)
While describing the work of social scientist Jay Stuart Snelson, Shermer writes, "According to Snelson, the more knowledge individuals have accumulated, and the more well-founded their theories have become (and remember, we all tend to look for and remember confirmatory evidence, not counterevidence), the greater the confidence in their ideologies. The consequence of this, however, is that we build up an 'immunity' against new ideas that do not corroborate previous ones."
(Revisiting ... Since we baseball fans are knee-high to a grasshopper, we're told by managers and players and writers and broadcasters that this slugger or that one is a "clutch hitter." Of course, there's literally zero objective evidence that any such skill exists. No matter. When Mr. Slugger comes through in the clutch, we file that away as further evidence that (1) Mr. Slugger is a clutch hitter, and (2) of course some players just have a knack for hitting when the chips are down. And when Mr. Slugger strikes out with the bases loaded ... hey, nobody's perfect.)
What's more, intelligent men -- men like Ed Wade and Chuck LaMar -- are actually less likely to consider new ideas than men of less intelligence. I know that sounds like crazy talk, but according to Shermer, a psychologist named David Perkins "conducted an interesting correlational study in which he found a strong positive correlation between intelligence (measured by a standard IQ test) and the ability to give reasons for taking a point of view and defending that position; he also found a strong negative correlation between intelligence and the ability to consider other alternatives. That is, the higher the IQ, the greater the potential for ideological immunity."
Established professionals have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo. So the great majority of the time, their intellectual energies are directed toward defending that status quo, rather than entertaining new ideas.
In a nutshell, that sums up the resistance among "baseball men" to sabermetrics.
Anyway, historians of science call this institutional resistance to new ideas the "Planck Problem," in honor of physicist Max Planck, who observed that for change to occur in science, "An important scientific innovation rarely makes its way by gradually winning over and converting its opponents: it rarely happens that Saul becomes Paul. What does happen is that its opponents gradually die out and that the growing generation is familiarized with the idea from the beginning."
And that's what will happen in baseball. There are, at this very moment, young men working for baseball teams who grew up reading The Baseball Abstract in the 1980s. There are many more young men working for newspapers and web sites who grew up reading The Baseball Abstract in the 1980s. And there are many, many young men growing up right now, who are reading the writings of all those young men who grew up reading The Baseball Abstract in the 1980s.
You get all that? Suffice to say, 20 years from now the paradigm will have shifted: from tools-first-and-performance-second to performance-first-and-tools-second. Mark my words.
And you know, it might not even take that long.
I believe that Billy Beane is the best general manager in baseball. Not necessarily the smartest -- I don't have any idea how Billy Beane's IQ matches up with Ed Wade's -- but the best. Now, Billy's got a really smart fellow working for him, a 27-year-old Harvard grad named Paul DePodesta. In five years, DePodesta will himself be a GM; either Beane will head off for greener pastures in Southern California, leaving the Oakland job for DePodesta, or some smart owner will hire DePodesta away from the Athletics.
If Beane's team locks horns with DePodesta's team in the 2004 World Series, don't you think people would notice? It will, however, take something that dramatic to speed up the pace of change. More likely, it'll take a while. Because the men who currently have the power will not simply go off into the good night, gently.
FRIDAY, JANUARY 26
Like McCracken, I've studied hits allowed per ball in play (though with the small difference that I subtract sacrifice hits from the balls in play).
I agree that this type of hit rate is not as heavily influenced by the pitcher as is commonly believed, but at the same time I am distinctly uncomfortable with McCracken's conclusion: "There is little if any difference among major-league pitchers in their ability to prevent hits on balls hit in the field of play."
My research uses the pitcher data from 1987 to 2000, adjusting each line to the relevant league rates transposed into an average season. I then studied the pitchers with at least 2000 balls in play (249 pitchers met this standard).
Under McCracken's conclusion, there should be little to no difference in the hit rate between Greg and Mike Maddux, but in these huge samples you still find a 16-point gap (.283 vs .299). And I can add that the 2B+3B rate is 24 percent higher for Mike than Greg.
Guys like Pedro Martinez (.271) and Nolan Ryan (.276) are roughly 50 points better than guys like Dave Weathers and Sean Bergman.
Sid Fernandez was the toughest to hit with an adjusted hit rate of .253 versus the norm of .293. Is that chance? (For those who don't know, even though Fernandez had well above average strikeout rates, his velocity was actually slightly below average. Due to an unusual physiology, his natural delivery put his release point in front of his uniform top, making the ball tough to judge and batters hit an unusually high number of harmless flyballs and pop-ups.)
It is damn hard to hit a knuckleball on the nose, and all five knuckleballers in the study ranked in the top 25 percent of the toughest to hit on a ball in play. Is that chance? In fact, when you combine the data on Hough, Springer, Sparks, Wakefield, and Candiotti, you are talking about 20,890 balls in play, and an adjusted hit rate of .273 -- 20 points below the norm. Is that chance? Can we fail to acknowledge that one of the edges to the knuckler is that batters have trouble hitting it sharply when putting it in play?
We know pitchers influence ground-ball rates, and hit rates are higher on ground balls. Break the 249 pitchers into three groups based on their adjusted ground-ball rates, and the fly-ball group is 7.6 points lower than the middle group, and 12 points lower than the ground-ball group.
(I also note that the vast majority of the extra hits against the groundball pitchers are singles. The ground-ball pitchers are allowing fewer 2B+3B than the fly-ball pitchers.)
I think pitchers are successful or not for a variety of reasons, and some reasons apply more to one group than another. Some have additional emphasis on control; some emphasize strikeouts; some groundballs, and yes, some emphasize pitches that are tough to hit sharply enough to get your share of hits on balls in play. I don't think the latter is a primary way for pitchers to distinguish themselves from others, but I do believe it is a more significant factor for some groups than others.
Great stuff, Craig, thanks for sending it along. I'll admit, I had my doubts, too. Wednesday, I noted that Pedro Martinez fluctuated wildly from 1999, when he had one of the highest ABIP (average on balls in play), to 2000, when he had the lowest. But in the interest of science, I entered the stats for each of Pedro's season, and found that his career Batting Average Allowed on Balls in Play is .275. How low is that? It's the lowest I've been able to find among active starting pitchers. Is that chance?
What about closers? I entered the career stats for the four veteran closers who, in my subjective opinion, are in (or close to) their primes, and have some the nastiest stuff around: Mariano Rivera, Trevor Hoffman, Robb Nen and Armando Benitez. As a group, they've faced 8,085 batters in their careers. And their average allowed on balls in play?
That's even lower than Pedro Martinez's career mark. Here are the individual numbers:
BABIP Rivera .260 Hoffman .260 Nen .298 Benitez .248
Nen looks different than his peers, but I suspect that's due to the mercurial nature of his career. In the last six seasons, he's posted three ERA's below 2.00, and three above 3.00. Last year, Nen allowed just a .237 average on balls in play. If the average on balls in play were truly random, it's very unlikely that four closers would combine for 5,971 batters faced and allow just a .256 batting average on balls in play.
But how much difference does all this really make?
It's not easy to find matched pairs of veteran pitchers, because due to the difference in the leagues -- about five points of BABIP -- it's better to look at pitchers who have spent their entire careers in the same league. And in modern baseball, pitchers generally don't spend their entire careers in one league. The best we can do is probably Roger Clemens and Chuck Finley ...
BFP Hits BABIP Clemens 15089 3101 .284 Finley 12334 2755 .294
That 10-point difference is substantial, by the standards of the metric. I entered the 10 active leaders in innings pitched, and their BABIP ranged from .277 (Orel Hershiser) to .294 (Finley). But of course, Hershiser did most of his pitching in the National League, so we might assume that the difference between him and Finley is really closer to 13 points rather than 17. Again, the point being that the difference between Clemens and Finley is substantial.
Anyway, it's not hard to eliminate that 10-point difference between Clemens and Finley. Give Clemens 105 more hits allowed, and he's got a .294 BABIP, too. Clemens has been pitching for 17 seasons, so that works out to about six hits per season. Now, Chuck Finley's enjoyed a fine career, but I think you'd agree that a lot more separates him from Clemens than six hits per season. It's a piece of the puzzle, but a relatively small piece.
And this brings us back to Craig's conclusion. Yes, there probably is a difference between pitchers' abilities to limit hits even after the ball is in play. This difference might well be more pronounced for some types of pitchers. But in terms of what pitchers can control, Batting Average on Balls in Play almost certainly ranks behind strikeouts, walks, and home runs allowed.
Here's another letter on the subject from somebody smarter than I ...
Whether or not McCracken's thesis is true could be fairly easily determined, in this manner ... One can establish the "defensive hit percentage" against any team by taking the hits minus the home runs allowed, and dividing that by balls in play -- Batters Facing Pitcher, minus home runs, strikeouts, walks, hit batsmen, and sacrifice hits and sac flies. (Actually, it is questionable whether we should or should not subtract the sacrifices, but it doesn't make damn-all difference, so let's not focus too much on that.) Anyway, by figuring the percentage above -- the defensive hit percentage -- and applying it to an individual pitcher, we can then isolate what I will call the PICBA; the
PICBA can be easily stated either as a raw total or as a percentage. For example, Tommy John in 1971 could have been expected to allow 211.55 hits other than home runs, given his balls in play. He actually allowed 227. His PICBA is thus 15.45. Dividing that by the 744 balls in play against him, his PICBA percentage is +.021, which is high.
Given that simple method, a good programmer could easily generate PICBA and PICBA percentages for every pitcher in baseball history.
If McCracken is correct, then PICBA will be random. If PICBA is not random, then McCracken is incorrect.
I very strongly suspect that you would find that PICBA is not random, but that it "follows" pitchers. I actually figured this for Tommy John throughout his career. He has a career PICBA of 129.05, which is +.008 -- a fairly high figure if PICBA is random, but not, in itself, clear proof that it is not random.
But while I suspect that PICBA is not random, the research really should be done, for several reasons. First, if McCracken turns out to be correct, this has important consequences, even allowing us, to a certain extent, to predict movements in pitcher's records. (If a pitcher has a very high PICBA, and if PICBA is random, then that pitcher's performance can be expected to improve significantly in the following season.) Beyond that, however -- even assuming that McCracken is wrong -- in the Tommy John study the data does not appear random, but there are patterns in the data that I don't understand. From 1967 through 1970, for example, Tommy John's PICBA was negative every year. From 1971 through 1978, it was positive every year. In 1978, his last year with the Dodgers, his PICBA was very high -- +.029.
With the Yankees, however, John's PICBA was negative every year -- just a few points, but still negative. Why? Once he left the Yankees, his PICBA again was positive every year. Why? Why were the Yankees able to get more outs for Tommy John than they did for other pitchers, when other teams were able to get fewer?
Well, one can suggest several theories. One theory is that John, as a lefty and a ground-ball pitcher, had very high numbers of hard ground balls toward third base, which was at that time was manned by the Incredible Leaping Octopus, Graig Nettles. Another theory is that it may have had to do with composition pitching staff -- in other words, that the team hit percentage was determined by the pitchers on the staff (the exact opposite of McCracken's thesis), and that John bore a particular relationship to that pitching staff. A third theory is that it may have something to do with Yankee Stadium, with the foul territory or the eagerness of opposing teams to get left-handed hitters in the lineup in Yankee Stadium. Another theory is that it might have something to do with pitching patterns which are favored by different teams or different catchers.
And that's why the issue that really should be studied -- because if it isn't random, then what is it? We should be able to gain some understanding of the game of baseball by studying this issue. We might find, for example, that when a team has an outstanding defensive third baseman, the PICBA of left-handers on the staff will be negative, while if a team has a poor defensive third baseman, the PICBA of lefties will be positive. That would be very useful if it turned out to be true.
So thanks to Mr. McCracken for raising the issue in a clear form, and I think it is well worth study.
I think so, too. The problem with baseball research, however, is that there's still no structure. You've got people doing research here, people doing research there; some of it good, some of it not so good. In most sciences -- and yes, sabermetrics is a science -- there's a heavy emphasis on peer review. But in sabermetrics, there's very little peer review, except in an ad hoc way. Thus, research is often duplicated, good research forgotten, etc.
There's hope, though. Eventually, I suspect that some enterprising individual will establish a huge web site devoted to sabermetrics, wherein the great work done over the last three decades will be brought together in a systematic, comprehensive way. That'll be a major step forward. And you know, we're about due for a major step forward, because the last major step forward came in the 1980s, when Bill James wrote his Baseball Abstracts and powerful personal computers became affordable.
WEDNESDAY, JANUARY 24
Most people would, I suspect, name Randy Johnson. Last year he struck out 347 hitters in 249 innings, and permitted only 202 hits. (Kevin Brown's hits-to-innings ratio was actually better, but he didn't come close to Johnson's strikeout rate.)
Who's the least dominating pitcher in the American League?
There are plenty of candidates, but let me toss out John Halama. He's got his virtues, of course, but last year Halama permitted 206 hits in 167 innings (while racking up only 87 strikeouts).
Now, if we looked at the balls hit into play off each pitcher, what do you think we'd expect to find? I'd expect to find that even when the hitters do manage to make contact against Johnson, they're grounding weakly to the shortstop, or lifting cans of corn to the center fielder. And I'd expect to find that when the hitters make contact against Halama, they're ripping line drives left and right.
But that's not the case. Or at least, it wasn't the case last season. In 2000, when hitters actually put the ball in play against Johnson, they hit .326. And when batters put the ball in play against Halama, they hit .327. Crazy, huh?
I got to thinking about this stuff, and running the aforementioned numbers, after reading a wonderful article, written by Voros McCracken, at the Baseball Prospectus Web site. There, I found McCracken's formula for batting average on balls in play: (Hits - Home Runs)/(BFP - HR - Walks - Strikeouts - Hit Batters), where BFP means Batters Faced.
In the course of a long article, McCracken concludes that "major-league pitchers don't appear to have the ability to prevent hits on balls in play."
I need to be very clear about something, because if I'm not, I'll receive hundreds of e-mail messages accusing me of lunacy. Everybody have their thinking caps on? OK, here goes ...
Nobody is suggesting that the number of hits a pitcher allows is irrelevant.
Let me say that again, for the sake of my Inbox ...
Nobody is suggesting that the number of hits a pitcher allows is irrelevant.
Of course it matters how many hits a pitcher allows. Pedro Martinez is a great pitcher because he doesn't give up any hits and he doesn't give up any walks.
No, the point here is that once the ball is put into play (not including home runs), it doesn't much matter who the pitcher was.
In the course of researching this column, I entered stats for all American League ERA qualifiers in 1999 and 2000 into a spreadsheet. Not coincidentally, there were 38 American League pitchers in both seasons who threw at least 162 innings.
I actually entered the 2000 stats first, and found that Pedro Martinez ranked No. 1 in lowest batting average on balls in play. On those rare occasions last season when hitters did manage to put the ball in play -- again, not including home runs -- they batted just .236. That figure was easily the lowest in the league, and substantially lower than the average (.295).
Ah-ha! Just as we'd expect!
And then I checked 1999. In '99, when Pedro posted a 2.07 ERA and won the Cy Young, he ranked No. 34 in batting average on balls in play. In '99, the figure was .323, right between Jim Parque (.322) and Kelvim Escobar (.331). Did Pedro go from hittable in 1999 to unhittable in 2000? Hardly. He was a little unlucky in 1999, and a little lucky in 2000.
Similar case. In 1998, Greg Maddux allowed a .262 batting average on balls in play, one of the lowest in baseball. In 1999, Maddux allowed a .324 batting on balls in play, one of the highest. Did Maddux go from being one of baseball's best pitchers to being one of baseball's worst in the space of one year? Of course he didn't. Did Atlanta's defense go from outstanding to poor in the space of one year? It probably didn't.
In fact, if you remember back to 1999, Maddux often said that his high-for-him ERA (3.57) was simply the result of hits dropping. He was making good pitches (he claimed), but they just weren't going to the right places in the field. And this fits well with what McCracken found ...
There is little correlation between what a pitcher does one year in the stat and what he will do the next. In other words, what Eric Milton's hits per balls in play was in 2000 tells us next to nothing about what it will be in 2001. This is not true in the other significant stats (walks, strikeouts, home runs). Walks and strikeouts correlate very well and homers correlate somewhat well.
I'm not doing justice to McCracken's article, and I strongly recommend that you read it yourself, and come to your own conclusions.
I should also hasten to add that McCracken's ideas are not wholly original. Others have suggested that a pitcher can't be blamed for all the hits he allows. In Ron Shandler's Baseball Forecaster, for example, Shandler writes of "three fundamental skills" used to evaluate a pitcher's performance: Command (strikeout-to-walk ratio), Dominance Rate (strikeouts per nine innings), and Home Run Rate. These are the core components of Shandler's "Base Performance Value" gauge. And what of hits? He writes, "BPV also includes one more skill -- the pitcher's ability to prevent hits. However, since this skill is impacted by the defense's ability to reach and successfully field the balls hit to them, and not entirely a measure of pure pitching skill, its role in the BPV formula is as an adjustment measure."
McCracken's originality comes from the idea that, far beyond the effects of the defense's ability, there's still much variability in the number of batted balls that become hits.
Now, even if you believe all of this, you might be wondering, "How does this affect me, [your name here]?" Well, if you play fantasy baseball, it affects you. And more to the point, if you have a favorite team, it affects you. Because an out-of-whack hits per balls in play tells us something about a pitcher's future. Brian Moehler ranked last in 2000, with a .331 average allowed on balls in play. The entire American League averaged .300. Thus, we might expect Moehler, with better luck, to allow fewer hits next season.
(At the same time, we have to remember other factors are involved. Not only his team's defense, but also the ballpark. With its spacious outfield, Detroit's Comerica Park may well result in slightly more hits per balls in play. Doing half their pitching there, Tiger pitchers allowed a .306 average on balls in play over the entire season.)
Essentially, I'm talking about projections. Everybody does them, even people who say you can't do them. STATS, Inc. and Ron Shandler say you can do them, and they project pitcher performance quite systematically, with varying degrees of success. You and I project pitcher performance non-systematically, by looking at their stats for last year, or the last few years, and saying, "Gee, last year he went 15-10 with a 4.32 ERA and he's only 25, so I think he'll go 16-9 with a 3.97 ERA this year." Of course, we're not that precise, but you know what I mean.
And it seems to me that anyone who wants to project pitcher performance should read McCracken's article, because it'll blow your mind.
MONDAY, JANUARY 22
Canseco can still put on a show in BP with the best of them, but these days he's a one-dimensional player.
Uh, make that two dimensions. Over the last two seasons, Canseco has posted a .511 slugging percentage, and hit 49 home runs in 211 games. His power is, presumably, the one dimension referenced above. But lest anyone think that Canseco's skills end with the long ball.
Canseco's batting average over the last two seasons is just .267 -- hence the perception that he's "one-dimensional" -- but his on-base percentage over that same span is .372, not too shabby at all. Last season, Canseco drew 64 walks in 401 plate appearance, a rate comparable to Frank Thomas'.
These days, it's de rigueur to point to Canseco and say, "See, this is what happens when players bulk up and DH, and the ballparks shrink. Jose Canseco's going to end up with Hall of Fame numbers, for heaven's sake!"
Well, I don't know if I'd vote for him. But when he's been able to stay in the lineup, Canseco has been quite productive, in large part because he's always been a patient hitter. Canseco's career batting average is 52 points lower than Kirby Puckett's ... but his OBP is just eight points lower.
The key player in the deal for the Jays could be Brian Simmons. A promising center fielder, Simmons could enable GM Gord Ash to trade perennially disappointing slugger Jose Cruz for another pitcher.
When I wrote about the trade that sent David Wells to the White Sox, I didn't mention anybody else except Mike Sirotka, who went to the Blue Jays. I didn't mention anybody else because, frankly, I didn't think anybody else was worth mentioning. Kevin Beirne is a 27-year-old right-hander who gives the Jays some options, but isn't likely to ever pitch in an All-Star game. The White Sox and Jays also swapped younger right-handed pitchers, Matt DeWitt going to Chicago and Mike Williams going to Toronto. Neither are projected as quality major leaguers (though of course they could surprise us).
So that leaves Brian Simmons. He was regarded as a pretty good prospect two years ago, and in fact won the center-field job in spring training two years ago. But he got hurt just before Opening Day, Chris Singleton eventually seized the job, and Simmons never really got a chance to play. And then, just prior Opening Day in 2000, Simmons ruptured his Achilles tendon and missed the entire season.
Now he's in Toronto, and he's 27.
Consider this: Simmons is only nine months younger than his ex-White Sox teammate, Mike Cameron. Cameron has played 597 games, hit 63 home runs, and scored 310 runs in the major leagues. Simmons has played 59 games, hit six home runs, and scored 18 runs in the major leagues. For that matter, Simmons is seven months older than "perennially disappointing" Jose Cruz, who has actually been a better player, at least with the bat, than Cameron, and is certainly a better player than Simmons.
Simmons did put together a couple of nice seasons in the minors, way back when, but even then his performance was more about potential than production. At 27, it's highly unlikely that he'll be anything more than a fourth or fifth outfielder.
Should Juan Gonzalez stay healthy -- a big if, considering the precarious condition of his back -- the Indians have essentially replaced the prolific production of Manny Ramirez.
Patently ridiculous. Even with the qualifier. Here's a simple comparison of the two, for the last five seasons:
Gonzalez Ramirez Games 680 717 Runs 469 524 RBI 627 632 OBP .358 .416 Slug .597 .611 OPS 956 1028
You don't replace a guy with an OPS that runs to four digits, not even with a healthy Juan Gonzalez. Yes, Gonzalez was hurt last year, and did half his hitting in a pitcher's park. But the four years before that, he was in The Ballpark in Arlington, which is generally kind to power hitters.
One more thing. Gonzalez is 31 and Ramirez is 28, which means Ramirez is more likely to maintain his five-year performance than Gonzalez.
David Segui is a switch-hitter with power and run-producing capabilities who can play first base and the outfield. The O's will use him at first, where he is a Gold-Glove caliber fielder. Considering that Camden Yards is noted for being a hitter's heaven, look for Segui to put up career numbers in 2001.
When pundits use the term "run producer" -- and I don't think I've ever heard a fan actually use it -- they mean he drives in a lot of runs. Now, since RBI are essentially a function of slugging percentage and runners on base, it's a pretty silly term in the first place.
But the height of silliness is applying it to David Segui. Whatever his skills -- and of course, he does have some -- driving in runs has rarely been one of them. Segui's 34 years old, he's been in the majors for a decade ... and last year was the first in which he drove in more than 84 runs. Last year was the second in which he drove in more than 68 runs. Are those the numbers of a "run producer"?
Of course, there's another problem with the above. As I recently wrote, Camden Yards is not a "hitter's haven," at least not relative to the other parks in the league. But I won't belabor that point again. Suffice to say, in that ballpark and with that lineup, a 34-year-old Segui won't be putting up career nothin'. That was last year.
FRIDAY, JANUARY 19
Within that issue, there was a two-page interview with Selig, conducted by Bob Nightengale. The Lords of Baseball, had just, with a unanimous, 30-0 vote, granted Selig "sweeping powers." Nightengale asked Selig if these new powers were necessary, to which Selig responded, "What I found, as an old history major, was that the erosion of commissioner's power really started in the late '20s, early '30s. But now, in one fell swoop, all the powers were not only restored, but I think one could make a very compelling case, given the difference in times, that there is actually more authority than Kenesaw Mountain Landis."
So what would Commissioner Bud do with that turbo-Landis authority?
Here are a few more passages from that interview:
Nightengale: There seems to be a crying out for interleague play to be changed. What happened to the idea of teams playing different divisions in the other league?
Gosh, he sounded pretty sure of himself, didn't he? However, MLB is not rotating the divisions in 2001. It's the Pirates vs. the Royals once again.
Nightengale: How about realignment? ... When and how many teams will switch leagues?
Gosh, maybe I missed something. Did two or three teams switch leagues this winter?
Nightengale: When will baseball's study on Andro come out?
It was indeed thorough. And the study, conducted by a pair of Harvard professors, concluded that androstenedione "can raise testosterone above normal levels when taking a daily recommended dose." In other words, it's a steroid. Did Commissioner Eager Beaver ban andro? Or do anything at all? Nope. Wait, that's not fair. In the time-honored tradition of men who don't want to get anything done, Selig did commission another study.
Heard anything about that second study lately? Me neither. Strike three.
What did Commissioner Bud accomplish in 2000? Well, he levied a one-month suspension against John Rocker for saying stupid things to a reporter. And he prohibited Pete Rose from taking the field for anniversary celebrations in Philadelphia and Cincinnati. I would argue that both actions are morally indefensible, but whatever you might think of them, you have to agree that they don't amount to an impressive list of administrative feats.
Well, now it's 2001. And it took nearly a year, but the other day, Commissioner Bud finally knocked off our socks with a revolutionary proposal. Actually, three revolutionary proposals.
First, he recommends an annual "competitive balance" draft, whereby the eight teams with the worst records over the last three seasons would all be allowed to draft one player from the rosters of the eight teams with the best records (who would get to protect 25 players). Of course, this is unfair to low-revenue teams that are well-managed (Oakland is everyone's favorite example), but it might help the poorer clubs over the course of a few years. Not much, but a little help is better than none at all.
Second, Selig recommends subjecting all amateur players to the June draft, rather than just those from the U.S., Canada and Puerto Rico.
And third, he wants to eliminate the draft eligibility of college juniors.
These latter two proposals haven't received nearly as much ink as the former, but they actually have greater potential for changing the game. As it stands now, any Cuban defectors (for example) are simply gobbled up by the rich clubs. And taking away the draft eligibility of college juniors might well drive their bonus demands downward, giving the poorer clubs a better chance to sign top college talent.
The owners voted for all three of these proposals (though not unanimously). But hey, what about Selig's "sweeping" and "unprecedented" powers? Why was there a vote at all? As it turns out, Commissioner Bud can't do whatever he wants. Or maybe he can, but doesn't want to. Anyway, the vote was just the first step. Because, as it turns out, over the years the owners have granted great power to the Players Association. As a result, any of these changes have to be approved by the players.
And of course, the players ain't approvin' nothin' until the next round of labor negotiations begins in earnest, probably next winter. And you know what? That'll be two years after Selig was made All-Powerful Philosopher-Historian-King of Baseball. Two years in which he accomplished virtually nothing.
Meanwhile, this week the NFL took an actual step to promote competition. Wednesday, NFL owners agreed to take 40 percent of all gate revenues, put them into a pool, and then divide the money equally among every team. They didn't talk about it (much) beforehand, and it took them all of one day.
By contrast, in the American League, visiting teams get 20 percent of the ticket revenue. In the National League, visiting teams get the grand sum of 81 cents for every ticket sold. OK, so the Yankees don't want to share their local TV revenues. Can't Commissioner Bud, with his vast powers, at least order the Yankees (and everybody else) to share more than 20 percent of the gate revenues?
Hey, I just had a brainstorm! Do you know who Major League Baseball really needs?
Rudolph W. Giuliani.
Yes, he's a jerk with questionable morals, and he doesn't care who knows it. But you gotta admit, the guy does get things done. If you've been to Times Square lately, or just about any New York subway station, you know what I'm talking about. If Giuliani were commish, he would -- please pardon my French -- kick ass and take names later. You think Rudy would let Don Fehr push him around? Fuhgeddabout it.
But if they can't get Giuliani -- and come to think of it, do we really want an FOS (Friend of Steinbrenner) in the Commissioner's Office? -- what about Sandy Alderson? Alderson is the man who finally gave the umpires what they had coming, in large part because he just doesn't give a damn. He simply won't be bullied or browbeaten.
And that, my friends, is precisely why Sandy Alderson will never be Commissioner of Major League Baseball. The owners sure as hell won't give the office to someone they can't push around. They are, I can assure you, quite happy with the creampuff who's filling the job now. When the owners granted Commissioner Bud those "unprecedented powers," they knew damn well that he wouldn't use them.
WEDNESDAY, JANUARY 17
What's a challenge trade? It's when teams swap guys who play the same position. And a few days ago, the Blue Jays and the White Sox swapped left-handed pitchers who -- the trifling matter of victories aside -- have performed quite similarly. Consider the last two seasons:
Wells Sirotka IP 461 406 W-L 37-18 26-23 ERA 4.47 3.90 xERA 4.45 4.52
Yes, I'm throwing a new stat at you today. Before we get to that, though, let's stick with our old friends for a few minutes.
Sirotka's been fairly durable, but nobody gives you innings these days like David Wells gives you innings. Remember when people worried about his conditioning? Well, all he's done over the past two seasons is throw more innings than anybody else in the American League.
Wells also ranks No. 2 in victories over that span (behind Pedro Martinez, naturally).
Seems like the Sox got themselves one hell of a pitcher, right? Yeah, they did. But take a look at the ERA. Wells' 4.47 ain't so hot, even at the turn of the century. So how did he go 37-18 over that span? He got an immense amount of run support from his teammates (about 6.24 runs per nine innings, to be moderately precise). And how did Sirotka go just 26-23, despite an ERA significantly better than Wells'? Actually, Sirotka's been well-supported by his teammates, too. Not as well as Wells, but well. Still, I would attribute Sirotka's inferior record to worse luck and fewer innings.
So Sirotka's got a better ERA, he's eight years younger, and he's a lot cheaper. Jays made out like bandits, right?
Not so fast. Here's where that new statistic -- xERA -- enters the discussion. xERA stands for Expected ERA, a variety of metric that goes by different names and different methods depending on which book you're reading, but generally ends up with the same answer. Expected ERA -- which I lifted from the latest edition of Ron Shandler's Baseball Forecaster -- essentially tries to take the luck out of a pitcher's performance. I know that some of you don't believe in luck, but maybe it'll help if you understand that last season's xERA predicts next season's ERA better than last season's ERA predicts next season's ERA. Got it?
Wells' xERA is virtually the same as his ERA. But Sirotka is different. While his ERA is significantly lower than Wells' ERA, his xERA is slightly higher than Wells' xERA.
Given all that, and keeping in mind that Sirotka's not exactly a kid any more, I figure it's a coin flip. The 30-year-old Sirotka might pitch better than the 38-year-old Wells. Then again, he might not.
Wells gives you the innings, Sirotka saves you a few bucks. So who won the trade? Ask me in September.
That Hall of Fame matter ...
All right, I've put this off long enough. Time for another episode of Calling from Cooperstown, the show in which you, too, can express biased opinions about your favorite players!.
I don't know why you keep perpetuating this myth about Fenway Park. The fact of the matter is that Jim Rice was mostly a line-drive hitter. As Nomar Garciaparra will tell you, Fenway taketh a lot more away than it giveth. I'll bet Jim Rice lost at least twice as many home runs as he gained from Fenway's close wall, and most of those line drives he hit off the wall that would have been home runs anywhere else, ended up being singles, thus lowering his slugging percentage as well. Also, it takes quite a poke to hit the ball out of most other parts of Fenway; even left-center is comparable to most parks (379 feet, I think) and when you add to that The Wall, it becomes much more difficult than most parks. I would think you, of all people, would be one to defy the conventional wisdom on this subject.
Kurt, there are few people on this earth who enjoy defying conventional wisdom more than I do. Unfortunately, I restrict myself to enjoying that wonderful activity only when the conventional wisdom is actually wrong. And in this case, the conventional wisdom is correct ... assuming, of course, that by "conventional wisdom" you mean the idea that Fenway Park is (or was) friendly to hitters.
Fenway taketh a lot more than it giveth? Here are Jim Rice's career home/road splits:
2B 3B HR OBP Slug OPS Fenway 207 44 208 .374 .546 920 Other 166 35 174 .330 .459 789
Over the course of his long career, Jim Rice was approximately 17 percent more effective at home than on the road. Typically, ballplayers do derive an advantage from playing at home, but it's about five percent. Which is, of course, a far sight from 17 percent.
I could still be convinced that Rice belongs in the Hall. But if you want to try, you have to at least acknowledge the possibility that he was aided by his home park.
I'm afraid that the Hall of Fame brings out the worst in, if not everyone, certainly fans and the doddering fools who comprise the Veterans Committee. We'll get to the latter in a few weeks. But here's a great example of the former ...
You said, "I'm close to supporting his candidacy, but I still have concerns about his defensive value and about the advantage he might have received from the Metrodome."
Do you think those Gold Gloves were not earned?? Those leaping catches over the wall throughout his entire career (Game 6 ring a bell?). Would you sell short a guy with a lot of home runs who played the majority of his career in a short park?
Let's not forget something else that should count: Puckett was a true sportsman, and possibly the greatest baseball role model of his time. No foul mouth, no putting of people down, just a great man with a big heart who happened to play the game pretty good. Baseball lost one of its greatest ambassadors when Puckett had to retire. Even when he could have lashed out about being beaned, and cutting his career short because of it, he showed class and no ill will towards the person who perhaps ended his career. Why is it that strictly numbers are looked at when deciding who should be in the Hall of Fame (even though his numbers alone are enough for me)? After all, you keep Pete Rose out because of what he did that wasn't related to his ball playing.
Puckett was a superstar and a class act, and he was even the highest-paid player in baseball for a short while. He deserves to be there. His credentials speak for themselves, and they say a lot.
Now I must get back to work.
I did clean up the spelling and the punctuation, but I left in the silliness about Puckett retiring because he was beaned. It's fairly well known, I think, that Puckett's glaucoma was unrelated to the beaning. And of course, it's the Hall that's keeping Rose out, not me or any other baseball writer. Whatever.
I got a bunch of letters like this -- interestingly, one correspondent argued that Kirby won four Gold Gloves, another six, and still another said it was "like 8" (six is correct) -- and I wish I could be amused by them, rather than saddened. Yet saddened I am. Especially because most of the crazy e-mail came in after the news of Puckett's election hit the wire. When his loyal fans should ahave been celebrating, at least a few were composing angry e-mail to a silly baseball columnist.
But of course, the truth is that many, many baseball fans out there are so incredibly myopic that they are completely incapable of tolerating any sort of analysis that doesn't agree with their own.
Hold a gun to my head and order me to decide, and I'd say that yeah, Kirby does deserve a spot in the Hall of Fame. But you know, the Hall of Fame is sort of like the death penalty: you'd better be damn sure, because once it's done, it's done. We know, now, that Lloyd Waner and Ross Youngs (to name just two of many) don't have any business in Cooperstown. Yet there he is, lowering the standards for everyone else. I had some small questions about Kirby Puckett's defensive value (Gold Gloves notwithstanding), and about the advantage he might have derived from the Metrodome. After all, he wasn't perfect. Kirby's career on-base (.360) and slugging averages (.477) were very good, but frankly they weren't great, not for a Hall of Fame outfielder.
Like I said, I had a couple of small questions. And so, before offering my full endorsement, I wanted another year to think about things, to ask some questions, to conduct a few bits of research, make sure that Puckett deserved at least some of those Gold Gloves. And if you'll allow me to mount my high horse for a moment, it seems to me that the Hall of Fame might be a far better place if the real voters took their task as seriously.
As evidence, I leave you with this:
Votes Tommy John 146 Jim Kaat 139 Bert Blyleven 121
Each of these men pitched for at least 22 seasons, and each won between 283 and 288 games. Yet, somehow, the best of the group finished with the fewest votes.
MONDAY, JANUARY 15
Dave Winfield is, in this writer's humble opinion, a no-brainer. Three thousand, one hundred and ten hits. Four hundred and sixty-five home runs. Those represent what Don Malcolm might call "special circumstances," in the sense that even if his other numbers weren't outstanding -- neither Winfield's career on-base or slugging averages are hugely impressive -- he'd be Cooperstown material. Throw in seven Gold Gloves and a dozen All-Star teams and ... like I said, Winfield's a no-brainer.
If there's been a singular crime perpetrated by the BBWAA in recent years, it's been the continued exclusion of Gary Carter from the rolls of the Hall of Fame. No, Carter's batting stats don't knock your socks off. But (1) he was a catcher (who won three Gold Gloves), and (2) he spent the great majority of his career with teams that played in lousy parks for hitters. I wouldn't want to offend anybody, but Gary Carter might well have been better than Carlton Fisk.
I've devoted the better part of two recent columns to Bert Blyleven, but in case you were on vacation or something, here's the general gist ... Blyleven ranks No. 3 on the all-time strikeout list. If he'd received average support from his teammates in the lineup and the bullpen, he'd have finished with approximately 312 victories rather than "only" 287. And if Blyleven had finished with 312 victories -- or 307, or 300 on the nose -- then he'd already be in the Hall, or at least knocking on the door.
In my mind, the only way Goose Gossage doesn't belong in the Hall is if no reliever belongs in the Hall. Gossage pitched for 22 seasons, and pitched well in 15 or 16 of them. He led his league in saves only three times, but routinely recorded 20-plus saves at a time when that meant something. At this moment, there are only two relievers -- Hoyt Wilhelm and Rollie Fingers -- in the Hall, and Gossage was just as good as Fingers, for longer. The only reason he's not in, I think, is that by the time he became eligible, his saves didn't impress anybody.
And that's it. Four players. That's very low compared to most voters, who typically list one or two obvious choices, plus another six or eight marginals. And of course, those marginals often have a regional bias to them. For example, a bunch of Boston writers probably will list both Jim Rice and Luis Tiant on their ballots this year.
Before I briefly discuss my also-rans, a couple of points. First, I don't believe in all that "first-ballot" foolishness. Grover Cleveland Alexander didn't make it his first try. Neither did Eddie Collins, nor Bill Dickey, nor Joe DiMaggio (Joe DiMaggio?), nor Charlie Gehringer, nor Gabby Hartnett. To name just a few. And that doesn't even consider the long list of players who snuck in through the back door (i.e. the ever-generous Veterans Committee). You're either a Hall of Famer or you're not, and nobody gives a damn whether you were elected your first try (George Brett) or your 21st (Orlando Cepeda).
All that said, here are brief comments on notables that I can't support at this time ...
Kirby Puckett: I spent almost as much time recently on Puckett as I did on Blyleven. I'm close to supporting his candidacy, but I still have concerns about his defensive value and about the advantage he might have received from the Metrodome. These are fairly minor concerns, though, and a year from now I might well be on his side.
Jim Rice: I'm of two minds about Rice. I'm impressed by his .502 career slugging percentage, and his amazing run from 1977 through '79. But he was helped immensely by Fenway Park, he was not a good defensive player, he hit into a ton of double plays, and he did not enjoy a long career by Hall of Fame standards.
Don Mattingly: A great player for a few years, but not as great as people think. And the other years count, too.
Dale Murphy: Ranked as one of baseball's best players over an eight-year span (1980-1987). The problem is that before and after those eight years, he wasn't even good, let alone great. And again, those other 10 years do count.
Bruce Sutter: I'm amused to read that Sutter deserves extra credit because he "pioneered" the split-fingered fastball. All I want to know is, how good was he, and for how long? Sutter was great for about 10 years ... but he only pitched for 12. I could still be convinced to support Sutter, but Gossage is the best reliever of that era.
Jack Morris: You hear a couple of arguments for him, one being that he was "the best pitcher of the 1980s," the other that he was "a great big-game pitcher."
The first of those is true, in an incredibly narrow sense. Morris might have been the best starter whose career spanned the '80s, but he was never the best starter at any one time. He never finished better than fifth in his league in ERA (Blyleven did that five times). As for the postseason, Morris was certainly good, but something short of great. His career postseason numbers were seven wins, four losses, and a 3.80 ERA. Yes, Morris pitched brilliantly in the 1991 World Series. No, three games shouldn't put a guy in the Hall of Fame.
Tommy John: He won 288 games, but pitched forever and spent most of his career with good teams, in good pitcher's eras and/or good pitcher's parks. Much the same can be said of Jim Kaat (who won 283 games in 23 seasons).
Lou Whitaker: I like him, but he was never, not even for a single season, a truly great player. He was a very good player for a long time, and he was better than some second basemen who are in the Hall. But all of those lesser second basemen were elected by the Veterans Committee, and most of them don't belong. Much the same might be said of Dave Concepcion, the biggest difference being that Whitaker was a better hitter than fielder, and Concepcion was a better fielder than hitter.
Steve Garvey: I'm more favorably disposed toward Garvey's candidacy than I was a few years ago.
His defense might have been better than I thought, and his batting stats are fine if you adjust for his many years in Dodger Stadium. Still, given the glut of quality first basemen the last few decades, I still think that Garvey falls a bit short.
Luis Tiant: At his best, Tiant pitched like a Hall of Famer. But he simply mixed in too many so-so seasons, so-so seasons that his supporters are far too willing to ignore.
Tom Henke: Might not get even five percent of the vote, and if he doesn't he'll fall off the ballot. But Henke was a truly fantastic pitcher, every bit as valuable as Bruce Sutter. True, Henke's highs weren't as high as Sutter's, but his lows weren't as low, either. Henke retired while still quite effective, and if he'd hung around for another two or three years, he might actually get some support in the voting. As it is, he'll likely be forgotten. And that's a little sad.
FRIDAY, JANUARY 12
You debunked the myth about Oriole Park: ".... Camden Yards is not a hitter's park. In fact, it's one of the better pitcher's parks in the American League." Yet, you should have addressed an even bigger myth, that Wrigley Field is a hitter's haven. It is not! At least, it is no longer one.
In the 2000 season, Wrigley was the most friendly park to pitchers and least friendly to hitters of all the 16 home parks in the National League. The only park which was close was Pacific Bell.
Wrigley was even tougher on hitters than the stadium made famous as a pitcher's park by Sandy Koufax, Dodger Stadium. Dodger Stadium still is a pitcher's park, just not what it was when the fences were farther back in the '60s.
I don't think Wrigley's dimensions have changed at all in the last decade, so it is interesting to note that Wrigley changed from the most friendly park for hitters in 1990 to the least friendly in 2000. No wonder so many more runs are being scored now in the NL than there were just a decade ago! Not only have many new small parks come in to replace Wrigley as hitter-friendly venues, but homer-happy owners in the older parks have all moved in their fences.
Hope you will mention this in your column,
There were two new National League ballparks last season, one of them (Pac Bell Park) a great pitcher's park, the other (Enron Field) a great hitter's park. They should essentially cancel each other out, which means they simply can't go very far toward explaining what happened at Wrigley Field last season.
That said, Wrigley was so extreme last season -- run production cut by 19 percent -- that the old ballpark apparently favors the pitchers (slightly) even if we look at the last three seasons.
What happened last year? I can think of two obvious possibilities. The first is the weather. As you know if you've ever lived in Chicago, or watched WGN in April, it can get downright nasty on the North Side in the spring months. Historically, though, the favorable winds and the hitter-friendly power alleys have compensated for the harsh conditions. That's not going to happen every year, though.
The second is -- and I know that some of you don't like this word -- randomness. A lot of weird things can happen in a single season. That's why I generally don't bother with one-year samples. In fact, when discussing Camden Yards last week, I listed the composite numbers from 1998 through 2000.
I believe that in 2001, Wrigley will slightly favor the hitters, or perhaps be essentially neutral. Rich's general point is correct, though. While Wrigley once ranked as the NL's best place to hit, now it's just another ballpark, relative to the other National League parks.
It always bothers me to read an assertion like this, based on blown saves, because it involves several faulty assumptions. So I decided to actually look at the box scores from every every Royals game last year, and see what kind of effect Roberto Hernandez could have had on eliminating blown saves ...
The Royals blew 26 saves last year, but were charged with two blown saves in one game, leaving 25 games in which a Royals pitcher blew a save. Of these 25, the Royals actually went on to win nine of them despite the blown save, so we can throw them out. That leaves 16 games, and here's a synopsis of them:
In one, the lead was blown in the sixth inning, before any closer would have appeared. In seven games, the lead was blown in the seventh inning; again, that's before any closer would have appeared. In three games, the lead was blown in the eighth inning; some closers work in the eighth, but many don't. That leaves five games in which the lead was blown in the ninth inning or later, five games in which Roberto Hernandez might well have made a difference last year.
In one of those games, Johnny Damon went 3-for-5 with two runs and four RBI. In another, Damon reached base five times and scored twice. It's safe to say that without Damon in the lineup, the Royals likely wouldn't have been close enough to blow those games.
So, realistically, there were three or four games all season where having Roberto Hernandez instead of Johnny Damon might have made the difference between a win and a loss. Three of four. All season.
There are a few lessons we might learn from Brian's hard work, the least of which is that both Joe Posnanski and Rob Neyer are lazy sportswriters. One of us should have examined every Royals box score before we submitted a column on the subject of Roberto Hernandez and his effect on Kansas City's fortunes. That said, there's a basic difference between us. Joe gives the benefit of the doubt to the conventional wisdom, while I simply doubt the conventional wisdom.
I'm sure that Joe (one of my favorite columnists, by the way) thought, "Well, of course Hernandez would have made the Royals a significantly better team last year. It's possible that I'm wrong, but somebody'd have to show me." Meanwhile, I thought, ?Of course Hernandez wouldn't have made a big difference. I could be wrong, but somebody would have to prove it to me."
As it turns out, I was right. But in a more fundamental sense, I was wrong. I was wrong to report an assumption, when the evidence was available for me (or Joe, or Brian, or you) to actually check. That's an amazing thing, you know. Ten years ago, checking the box score for every Royals game would have meant going to the library, fooling around with cranky microfilm readers, etc. Now it's easy. And so perhaps the next generation of sportswriters will do better than Joe and I did.
WEDNESDAY, JANUARY 10
The Tampa Bay Devil Rays.
Yes, I think that Chuck LaMar, one of my all-time least-favorite baseball executives, did a good thing. Or as Devil Rays manager Larry Rothschild said of Ben Grieve, "We got his bat; that's the important thing right now."
Grieve's put together a somewhat odd career. He's been a major leaguer for three seasons plus a September. His career stats -- .370 on-base percentage, .475 slugging percentage -- also describe, with great precision, what Grieve has done in each of his three full seasons. That's to say, at 25 he's virtually the same hitter, at least statistically, that he was at 22.
In other words, he seems to have "flat-lined."
Does that really happen, though? Or have we seen something of a statistical fluke? When Shawn Green was 25, his career numbers were similar to Ben Grieve's at the same point. But Green broke out when he was 26, and now he's a very wealthy man.
There's something else that nobody seems to be saying. Look at these stats from last season:
Damon Grieve OBP .382 .359 Slug .495 .487 OPS 877 846
While it's apparent that Johnny Damon posted superior on-base and slugging numbers, what's not apparent is that Grieve's numbers are slightly more impressive. Why? Because Kansas City's Kauffman Stadium is one of the American League's better hitter's parks, and Oakland's home park is one of the AL's better pitcher's parks.
Does that mean Grieve was actually more productive than Damon last year? No, it doesn't. Damon stole 46 bases last year, and was caught only nine times. Grieve stole three bases. Damon grounded into seven double plays. Grieve grounded into 32 double plays, most in the majors. All things considered, Damon created more runs for his team last year ... but not by a lot.
I suspect that this situation will reverse itself in 2001. Damon is moving to a pitcher's park in Oakland, Grieve is moving to a decent hitter's park in St. Petersburg. And there's no way that Grieve grounds into 32 double plays again. At this moment, he's a good hitter who might still be great.
So why did Billy Beane dump Ben Grieve?
Frankly, I think Beane simply got tired of watching Grieve. He got tired of watching him misjudge fly balls, he got tired of watching him plod his way around the bases, and he got tired of watching him rap into 4-6-3 double plays. Until you watch a team play every day, you don't understand how tiring such things can become. But unless Damon plays brilliantly and the A's win the 2001 World Series, I think Beane will someday regret this trade.
So the Devil Rays got a cheap young hitter who has All-Star potential. The Athletics got one of the game's best leadoff men (but perhaps only for a season). And what did the Kansas City Royals get?
A 36-year-old closer, a 26-year-old backup catcher, and a 20-year-old shortstop who's at least two years from the majors.
Kansas City Star columnist Joe Posnanski writes of the deal, "Not a good trade. A great trade."
"The last two years, the Royals have blown 56 saves. Do you know what that does to a team? To players? To a manager? To hope?"
No, I don't. Do you, Joe? Does anybody? It's easy to say that morale is destroyed by blown saves, but is it true? I'll tell you what, if I were Royals GM Allard Baird, I would have tried to find out. There are a few thousand grad students out there who could, in the space of a week or two, put together a damn fine study, resulting in at least a fair estimate of how a lousy bullpen affects a team. It's also worth mentioning this: the Royals haven't done a thing to upgrade their rotation. Nobody talks about this, but there's probably a relationship between poor starting pitching and blown saves. Why? Because the worse your starters, the smaller your late-inning leads. And the smaller your late-inning leads, the easier the blown saves.
Posnanski again: "Last year, if the Royals could have just closed the door four more times, they would have finished .500. If they could have closed the door 10 more times, they would have been a playoff contender."
The point being, Hernandez turns the Royals into playoff contenders, because he should transform 10 of those blown saves into actual saves. And you know, he just might.
But does that make the Royals 10 games better? Of course it doesn't. Last season, Johnny Damon was the second-best center fielder in the American League (after Bernie Williams). Doesn't it stand to reason that while the Royals will presumably win some games because of Roberto Hernandez, they'll also lose some games because of Johnny Damon?
Bottom line, the Royals got a little better Monday, in the short-term. In the long-term, Allard Baird didn't do a single thing to improve the franchise's prospects. He did get a decent young minor-league shortstop, but he also traded a decent young minor-league second baseman. This deal only helps the Royals if they can trade Hernandez next summer for a couple of good prospects.
Also, Grieve comes relatively cheap, a shade under $12 million over the next three seasons.
The Devil Rays get a good hitter who might be great in 2003, the earliest point at which they might be competitive.
The Athletics get a good player who will help them in 2001, when they'll be the favorites in their division.
The Royals get an old pitcher who will help them contend for third place.
FRIDAY, JANUARY 8
That's the kind of column that I particularly enjoy writing. If I'm involved in some sort of industrial accident and lose the use of nine of my fingers, and thus can tap out just one column per week with my left pinky, I'll devote that one column to efforts to debunk common-but-incorrect "wisdom."
In baseball, there's a lot of that. Case in point:
Fiction of the highest order, Jim.
From 1998 through 2000, the Baltimore Orioles played 217 games against American League teams at Oriole Park (or, if you prefer, in Camden Yards), and 217 games against American League teams on the road. Here's what happened in those 434 games:
Camden Road Orioles' Runs 1068 1148 Opponents' Runs 1059 1202 Total Runs 2127 2350
I'm trying to make this incredibly simple, because it is.
There were more runs scored in the Orioles' road games than in their home games, by a substantial margin. About nine percent more, to be fairly precise.
Oriole Park at Camden Yards is not a hitter's park. In fact, it's one of the better pitcher's parks in the American League. Over the last three seasons, only the ballparks in Oakland, Seattle and Detroit have apparently favored the pitchers more, and of course the jury's still out on Comerica Park.
(Note: Recent ballpark stats are from the latest STATS Major League Handbook. If you read this column regularly, you'll enjoy the Major League Handbook.)
Now, you might be asking, "OK, smart guy. But if Camden Yards is a pitcher's park, then why do people say it's a hitter's park?"
Two words. "Home" and "run."
Yes, home runs are a big part of the game (and getting bigger every season). But they're not the only part of the game. Yet just as writers and broadcasters enjoy decrying the influence of the home run, they also inflate its effects.
Case in point: Kansas City's Kauffman Stadium, which in my younger days was called Royals Stadium. Before they brought in the fences in the mid-1990s, Royals Stadium was a very tough place for home run hitters ... thus, going back as far as I can remember (1976), it was almost universally described as a "pitcher's park."
What does "pitcher's park" mean to you? To me, it means a ballpark that, because of its architecture or location, generally depresses run production relative to the other parks in the league.
By that measure, Royals Stadium was not a pitcher's park. From 1976 through 1980 (during which time the Royals captured four division titles), there were almost exactly as many runs scored in Royals home games as in Royals road games. Actually, the Royals and their opponents scored a few more runs in Kansas City, so if anything it slightly favored the hitters.
Why didn't anybody get it? Because Royals Stadium seriously depressed home runs, by about 20 percent relative to the American League. And somehow, nobody noticed that it was a good park for batting average, and -- with its large outfield and fast turf -- a great park for doubles and triples.
Those doubles and triples made up for the home runs, but for some reason we never heard about that. No, Royals Stadium was supposedly a pitcher's park, and the club was supposedly built around pitching.
And what about Oriole Park at Camden Yards? From the moment it opened in 1992, the Orioles' new home was billed as a slugger's haven, what with the cozy dimensions in left field and the short porch down the right-field line. And relative to the American League, it was a good home run park. Even that's not true any more, though; over the last three seasons, there have been slightly more homers in Baltimore's American League road games than in their home games.
Meanwhile, Oriole Park severely depresses the frequency of other extra-base hits: doubles down 21 percent, triples down 26 percent.
And that, my friends, goes a long way toward explaining why Oriole Park at Camden Yards plays, not as a hitter's park, but as a pitcher's park. The data is there for everyone to see, and it's been there for everyone to see. At this point, there's simply no excuse for perpetuating the silly notion that Camden Yards is a hitter's park.
Yet this particular silly notion, and others like it, will continue to be perpetuated. A friend of mine tells a story about a production meeting prior to a network baseball broadcast from Baltimore. In this meeting, just a year or two ago, my friend presented a simple set of numbers to an award-winning broadcaster, the set of numbers "proving" that Oriole Park is not a hitter's park.
The broadcaster's reply?
"I don't care what the numbers say."
Friends, welcome to the 21st century.
FRIDAY, JANUARY 5
... Everyone is talking about baseball shutting down after next season. That would be horrible. They lost 19 percent in attendance after the last strike. Only Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa brought the game back with their home run derby in 1998. I sincerely hope the owners do not commit suicide for the game of baseball by shutting down baseball at the end of this coming season.
Feinstein's right, another baseball labor war would be horrible. But everything else he said is laughably absurd.
Nobody ever accused John Feinstein of getting his facts straight -- just ask Bob Knight -- and Feinstein was simply parroting what he's heard and read over the years. What's more, he could have substituted "Cal Ripken in 1995" for McGwire and Sosa in '98, as many have. More than once in the last few years, in response to columns in which I questioned the wisdom of Ripken's continued full-time employment, readers have wondered, how dare I cast aspersions on "the man who saved the game."
Here are the attendance figures for the last seven seasons:
Att/Game Pct Change 1994 31,246 1995 25,022 -19.9 1996 26,480 + 5.8 1997 27,877 + 5.3 1998 29,000 + 4.0 1999 28,888 - 0.4 2000 29,378 + 1.7
Friends, nobody saved the game. Look at the numbers in that chart, and show me some evidence that Ripken saved the game in 1995. Attendance dropped nearly 20 percent in 1995, the season after the strike. The next year, it was up about six percent; significant, but certainly nowhere close to bringing attendance to where it was. In 1997, attendance rose again, at about the same rate. Were fans, two seasons removed from Ripken's record, still giddy with delight?
And then, 1998. McGwire and Sosa. A fascinated nation. Yet attendance increased by just four percent, less than in either of the two previous seasons. Ah, but McGwire and Sosa didn't really get going until halfway through that summer. Perhaps the effects weren't fully felt until 1999, the first full season after their "home run derby."
Nope. As you can see, attendance actually dropped in 1999. Certainly, fans flocked to see McGwire wherever he played, but is there any evidence that he "saved baseball," that he boosted attendance around the country? Not that I can see.
Do I think that McGwire and Sosa, and for that matter Ripken, helped Major League Baseball regain a few fans? Sure, they probably did. But the effect of any one player, or any three players, is negligible no matter how spectacular or admirable they might be. Baseball ain't golf or basketball, no matter how much Bud Selig might wish that it were. And the fact is that in spite of the heroes, attendance in 2000 was still six percent lower than it was in 1994.
As for owners committing suicide, we'll see. But I'll bet you eight dollars that knee-jerking specialists like Feinstein predicted the demise of the game upon the strike in 1981, the strike in 1994, and any number of other supposedly cataclysmic events in baseball's long history.
As we've seen again and again, the game is so strong that even the best efforts of the owners and the players can't kill it. As much as we might like to see some sort of retribution served to the owners and the players, the fact is that they will, in the long run, continue to make their fame and fortune, because we just can't stop watching.
Well, Guthrie's out there no longer. Not that anybody noticed, but Guthrie apparently signed a two-year deal with the Athletics yesterday.
Ho-hum. Just another 35-year-old lefty reliever, right?
Not this time. Guthrie hasn't started a game since 1994 (when he started twice), and he hasn't been in a rotation since 1991 (when he started a dozen games for the Twins). But Oakland GM Billy Beane, iconoclast that he is, hopes that Guthrie can give Omar Olivares a good battle for the job as fifth starter.
And lest anyone think that Guthrie, a southpaw been feasting on left-handed hitters, here are his platoon splits for the last five seasons:
AB OBP Slug vs LHB 435 .335 .384 vs RHB 798 .332 .402
While these numbers are probably a tad misleading -- in the late innings, weaker left-handed hitters are often removed if there's a lefty on the mound -- it's clear that Guthrie has held his own against the right-handed hitters.
That said, I'm a bit skeptical. Guthrie doesn't give up a lot of hits, and his control's pretty good. But what happens to his strikeout rate when he knows he's expected to pitch five or six innings, rather than just one or two. It's an interesting experiment, and I admire Billy Beane for considering it. But I'll be fairly surprised if it works.
WEDNESDAY, JANUARY 3
"Sutton's one advantage over Blyleven is the wins and losses, and this can be almost entirely attributed to one thing: Sutton spent most of his career in a pitcher-friendly ballpark in a pitcher-friendly league. Frankly, this ain't rocket science. Any half-wit baseball writer (i.e. Hall of Fame voter) should be able to understand the difference between the National League and the American League, and the difference between Dodger Stadium and any of the five AL ballparks that Blyleven called home."
Since I'm neither a rocket scientist nor a half-wit baseball writer, perhaps you will forgive me for asking: Why should a pitcher win more games just because he plays in a pitcher-friendly park? Said pitcher should have a lower ERA, but more wins? And, with all due respect, please provide data to support any conjectures about, say, correlations between fast hooks, pitchers' parks, global warming, and the e-mail addresses of reclusive writers.
That was, of course, a slip of my mind. While a pitcher should win a few more games because he plays in a pitcher-friendly park -- with fewer runs scored, he'll be able to stay in the game longer, and pick up more decisions -- the effect is slight. No, the real issue is the quality of the team. And unfortunately, there are too many half-wit baseball writers who don't know the difference between the 1970s Dodgers and the 1970s Twins.
Same subject, better information. Tim Mauro wrote to inform me that, according to the Baseball Prospectus web site, Blyleven ranks as the seventh-unluckiest pitcher in history. "With average offensive and bullpen support," Tim says, "Blyleven would have been 312-225, and thus would have been a lock for the Hall."
This reminds me of something that I'd forgotten, which is that the quality of one's team affects not only the amount of offensive support a pitcher receives, but also the amount of bullpen support. And of course, bad bullpens blow more leads (and victories for the starter) than good bullpens.
One more thing about Blyleven. Any number of observers are perfectly willing to give Kirby Puckett a bit of extra credit for his postseason heroics, yet nobody seems to remember that Bert Blyleven went 5-1 with a 2.73 ERA in six postseason starts. (Thanks to Jim Thomas for the stats.)
By the way, this is not about the Hall of Fame. I honestly don't care all that much about the Hall, which has lost much of its ability to honor players due to a number of poor selections. But the subject involved -- great players, and not-so-great players -- does interest me, and I think it's important for people to know that Bert Blyleven was a great pitcher, just as good as guys like Nolan Ryan and Don Sutton, who are in the Hall of Fame.
On another subject, a number of readers were offended at the following paragraph from a recent column:
But Mattingly's TPR is nowhere near Hall level. The players around Mattingly include Terry Pendleton (11.0), Toby Harrah (11.2), Andy Seminick (11.3) and Lonnie Smith (11.5). True, Total Baseball actually rates Mattingly as a below-average defensive player, and frankly, I don't know whether that's right or wrong. But even if we double Mattinly's TPR based solely on his defense, that still only gets him to 22.4 -- significantly lower than Puckett, and about the same as George Foster and Fred Lynn (two other players who performed brilliantly for a few years, then were average-at-best for the rest of their careers).
"TPR" stands for Total Player Rating, the metric in Total Baseball that is supposed to represent a player's offensive and defensive contributions, in the form of victories relative to a league-average player. Mattingly's 11.2 career TPR means that he was, over the course of his career, 11.2 games better than an average American League first baseman.
Anyway, what steamed a few readers was the reference to Mattingly's defense. I did bend over backwards to account for this; even if you assume that Mattingly was an outstanding first baseman, he still doesn't have the career value we'd like to see in a Hall of Famer. But what about Mattingly's defense? How can Total Baseball possibly rate him as below average, when he won all those Gold Gloves?
Here's how. Total Baseball bases a large percentage of the method for evaluating first-base defense on one statistic: assists.
But there's a large problem with doing that, because for a first baseman, assists are largely an "elective" play. That is, quite often a first baseman has two easy plays on a ground ball. He can jog to the bag himself, or he can flip to the pitcher covering. As it happens, Mattingly generally did not post "good" (i.e. high) assist totals, but that's almost certainly because he simply made the play all by himself rather than bothering with a throw.
Total Baseball's defensive values for first basemen just don't work. In the early 1960s, Bill White and Vic Power were generally considered the best defensive first basemen in, respectively, the National and American Leagues. Marvelous Marv Throneberry and Dick "Dr. Strangeglove" Stuart were considered the worst.
Yet, according to Total Baseball, Throneberry was better than White, and Stuart was better than Power.
Based on the other stats, plus the opinions of the people who saw him play, I believe that Mattingly was indeed a fine defensive player, as good as Bill White, but not quite as good as Vic Power or Keith Hernandez.
That's a compliment.