The On Deck Circle

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Archive for the tag “Baltimore Orioles”

Best Pitchers of the 21st-Century: Part 3

This is the third and final installment of this series.  If you are just discovering this series, and you want to go back and take a look at prior posts, here’s the link to Part 1 (which also discusses the criteria I used compile this list) and Part 2, which lists players #11-#20.

Now, on to pitchers #21-#25:

English: Mike Mussina

English: Mike Mussina (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

21)  Mike Mussina – Yes, here’s another one whom we might not think of as, strictly-speaking, a 21st-century pitcher.  Yet about 43% of Mussina’s career WAR value occurred from 2001 until his retirement after the 2008 season.

Mussina’s career fits neatly into almost two halves.  He spent the first ten years of his career, through the year 2000, with the Baltimore Orioles.  They were generally his best years.

During that span, he finished in the top ten in Cy Young voting five times.  In his tenure with the Yankees (2001-2008), he managed to make the top five in voting just once (with a 6th-place showing in his final season as well.)

As an Oriole, Mussina was often a borderline-great pitcher who compiled an ERA+ of 130 in ten years.  As a member of the Yankees, Mussina was still a very good pitcher who compiled an ERA+ of 114, and a WHIP of 1.212, in his final eight years.

As a Yankee, in the 21st-century, Mussina compiled a WAR of 35.2, and a won-lost record of 123-72 (.631), with an ERA of 3.88.  He made 249 starts with the Yankees, tossed 1,553 innings, and struck out 1,278 batters.

His WAR ranks 10th-best all-time for a Yankees pitcher, and his 1,278 K’s rank sixth-best ever for a Yankee starter.

Mussina’s 4.01 strikeout to walk ratio is the best in the entire history of New York Yankees starting pitchers.

Although Mussina led the A.L. in wins with 19 in 1995 (and he also won 19 games in 1996), the first and only time in his entire career that he won 20 games was in the final season of his career, in 2008, when he posted a 20-9 record, in a league-leading 34 starts, for New York’s A.L. franchise.  Lest you think those 20-wins were primarily about run support, his ERA was 3.37, and his ERA+ was 131.

It’s good to go out on top, and that’s what Mussina did after the 2008 season.  He certainly enjoyed a Hall of Fame-worthy career, and he definitely belongs on the list of best pitchers of the 21st-century.

Dan Haren

Dan Haren (Photo credit: on2wheelz)

22)  Dan Haren – Haren has been about as solid as they come over the past decade.  He has won 129 of 316 starts, and boasts a fine WHIP of 1.186.

Over a seven-year period, 2005-11, he averaged 34 starts per season, leading the league in that category three times, and pitching over 200 innings in each of those seven seasons.

From 2007-09, inclusive, he posted a fantastic ERA+ of around 140.  He made three-consecutive All-Star teams, and finished 5th in Cy Young voting in 2009 while pitching for Arizona.

An excellent control pitcher, Haren has walked more than 50 batters in just three of his eleven seasons.  At the same time, he has been an above-average strikeout pitcher, fanning at least 192 batters five times, and over 200 three times.

Though Haren’s past couple of years have been somewhat below his historic standards of effectiveness, a move to the Dodgers and to the N.L. West could help Haren post a nice comeback season in 2014.

cain

cain (Photo credit: artolog)

23)  Matt Cain – Similar to Haren in that he has not received the press he should have for the many fine seasons he’s enjoyed pitching for the Giants.  Still just 29-years old, Cain has already been a veteran of parts of nine MLB seasons.  One of the unluckiest of pitchers, Cain has received little run support throughout his career, and usually ranks among the leaders in no-decisions for that reason.

Cain’s career record of 93-88 does not accurately reflect how well he has usually pitched since 2oo5.  From 2009-11, for example, Cain won just 39 of 99 starts, and was left with 30 no-decisions.  His record during that period was 39-30, but with proper run support, it could have been closer to 50-25.

Still, Cain has received moderate attention in Cy Young voting in three of his seasons, and he’s  been named to three All-Star teams in his career.

A veteran of eight post-season starts, he has demonstrated poise and effectiveness on that stage, going 4-2 with a 2.10 ERA in 51 innings.

Cain certainly has the potential to accomplish much more in has career, which may just now have reached roughly its midpoint.

Josh Beckett

Josh Beckett (Photo credit: Keith Allison)

24)  Josh Beckett – I saw Beckett pitch twice while he was a Portland Sea Dog (AA-Portland, ME) back in the summer of 2001, in the Eastern League.  He was absolutely dominant on both occasions.  He made 13 starts for Portland, posting an 8-1 record, a 1.82 ERA, and 102 strikeouts and only 19 walks in 74 innings.  At age 21, he pitched like a man among boys.

Beckett had been the Marlins 1st-round pick in the 1999 Amateur Draft (2nd pick overall), and rapidly progressed through the Marlin’s system.  After Portland, Beckett later that season made his debut for the Marlins, making four starts near the end of the year.  In those four starts, he struck out 24 batters in 24 innings, resulting in a 1.50 ERA.

For the next four years in Florida, Beckett’s strikeout rate hovered around one per inning.  But he never stayed quite healthy enough to put it all together.  There were always some sort of blisters to contend with, or one ailment or another that suppressed his starts and innings pitched each season.  It wasn’t until he got traded to Boston in the deal for Hanley Ramirez just before the ’06 season that Beckett finally reached the 200 inning pitched level.

But before we get to his Boston years, let’s back up a bit to the 2003 World Series.  Beckett’s performance in that series provided the Marlins with a competitive edge vs. the Yankees.  The 23-year old Beckett made two starts against the Yankees in that World Series.

In 16 innings, he struck out 19 Yankees, gave up just eight hits, only two earned runs, and posted a 1.10 ERA, along with an 0.796 WHIP.  He shut out the Yanks in Game 6, the final game of the Series, defeating Andy Pettitte 2-0.  For his performance, he was named the World Series MVP.

Josh Beckett then spent his next seven seasons, the prime of his career, pitching for the Boston Red Sox. It was a mixed bag.  At times, Beckett demonstrated the incredible promise he flashed in the minors, and from time-to-time with the Marlins.  At other times, he seemed uninterested, unmotivated, and uninspired.  In alternate seasons, Beckett was either among the better pitchers in the A.L., or one of the biggest disappointments.

In 2007, 2009, and 2011, Beckett posted WAR’s of 6.5, 5.1, and 5.8.  In ’07, he won 20 games and finished second in the Cy Young voting for the A.L.  In ’11, he again finished in the top ten in voting.  In each of those three seasons, he made the All-Star team.

In ’06, ’08, ’10, and ’12, however, he posted WAR’s of 2.7, 3.3, -1.0 and 0.2.  What’s more, in perhaps only one season in his career, 2007, out of 13 seasons, could he be said to have pitched and acted like the ace of his staff.  He generally seemed satisfied to get in his 30 starts per year, not push it to the max, and coast when he was able to.

Finally labeled (fairly or not) an out-of-shape clubhouse cancer, he was shipped off to the Dodgers near the end of the dismal (for the entire Red Sox team) 2012 season.  Apparently, management felt that Beckett (and another pitcher or two) eating fried chicken and drinking beer during games did not set a professional tone in the clubhouse.

Stories regarding Beckett simply not taking the game seriously enough even occurred back in his younger days in Florida.  Manager Jack McKeon used to literally lock the door leading from the dugout to the clubhouse because Beckett and one or two others would simply disappear off the bench during games, go into the clubhouse and start drinking beers during the game.

McKeon actually instituted a hall-pass system for the use of the bathroom during games.  Apparently, he expected Beckett to pay attention during the games even on his “off-days” so he could actually learn something by watching the other team’s hitters.

From his earliest days in Portland, Maine in the minors up until last season, Beckett has always been the Texas stud who has gotten by with his hard stuff, dominating on pure talent and adrenaline in short spurts.  But he’s never appeared to take his craft seriously enough to reach the high level of success predicted for him, or the talent God gave him.

Now, at age 34, whatever Beckett has left in the tank should carry him through another couple of seasons in the Majors.

Bartolo Colon

Bartolo Colon (Photo credit: Keith Allison)

25)  Bartolo Colon – As probably already know, the Mets acquired the portly 40-year old pitcher as a free agent this past off-season.  What you may not know is that Colon has a chance to surpass 200 career victories this coming year.  Currently, he has 189 wins in his 16-year career.

Actually, 138 of those wins occurred in our current century.  Colon threw his first pitch in the Majors at age 24 in 1997.  As recently as last season, he led the A.L. in shutouts with three, while winning 18 games and posting a 2.65 ERA in 30 starts.  The big question is, of course, (especially for Mets fans) how much does he have left in the tank?

To a certain extent, a great deal of Colon’s success will depend on the defense behind him.  He throws strikes (just 29 walks in 190 innings last season), so he won’t beat himself with the free pass.  Not at all a strikeout pitcher, he averaged just 5.5 / 9 innings last season, down from his career high of over 10 / 9 innings in the year 2000 as a member of the Cleveland Indians.

With the Mets outfield defense vastly improved over this time last season (assuming they start the terrific Juan Lagares in center-field on Opening Day), and considering that Citi-Field is basically yet another pitchers park (as is Oakland, where he pitched last season), and figuring in that this season he gets to pitch against the others teams’ pitchers for the first time since he spent a half-season with the Expos about a dozen years ago, there is room for optimism here.

The Mets may have caught lightning in a bottle here with this three-time All Star (who won a Cy Young award for the Angels in 2005), or they may discover to their horror that the carriage has turned back into a pumpkin.  But Colon surprised many with his improbable comeback which began in 2012.  Perhaps he can continue to do it on a larger stage in New York City.

Briefly, Those Who Did Not Make the List:

Barry Zito – Zito has made over 400 starts this century, and only three pitchers have tossed more than his 2,477 innings.  He also has a WAR of 30.5.  So why did he not make the list?  Well, his career ERA of 4.07 is one reason.  Another is his 1.339 WHIP, higher than any of the 25 pitchers who did make the list.  Also, despite the advantage of pitching his home games in favorable parks, his ERA+ is just 105, a little more than a replacement-level pitcher.

Finally, if you remove his fantastic 2002 season in which he won the A.L. Cy Young award, his career record stands at just 142-138, despite pitching for mostly good teams. This is not to say that Zito has not provided the Giants with any real value, just not nearly as much value as they paid for when they signed him to a contract for over one-hundred million dollars.

Tim Lincecum – Despite two Cy Young awards and four quality seasons, Lincecum did not make my list because his career WAR stands at 23.3 after seven seasons.  Consider that Clayton Kershaw has a WAR of 32.2 after just six seasons.  They’ve each won a pair of Cy Young awards, but the difference is that Kershaw has never had a bad year.  Lincecum has now suffered through two very poor years in a row.

Basically, if Lincecum had even just decent seasons in 2012 and ’13, garnering an additional 3.5 WAR per year, for example, he would have made the list and would have probably been slotted in right behind Kershaw.  But two terrible years, during which he produced a combined -2.3 WAR, cost Lincecum anywhere from 7.0 to 10.0 WAR, a significant drop in production.  In fact, few pitchers in baseball history have ever gone from being so very good to so very bad so quickly, unless they were injured.

As far as we know, Lincecum has not been suffering from any serious arm injuries.  He pitched nearly 200 innings last season, and his strikeout rate is still very solid, if not quite where it was a few years ago.  In short, I have no idea why Lincecum’s career has so suddenly all but imploded.  But whatever the reason, it certainly cost him a place on this list.  I do hope, however, that he finds a way to reverse his recent misfortunes, because The Freak at his best is not only good for the Giants, it’s good for baseball.

Randy Johnson – Johnson was a still a great pitcher in the early first couple of seasons of this century and, like Lincecum, actually won a pair of Cy Young awards while some of us still hadn’t quite grasped that the 1900′s were gone for good.  But eight of Johnson’s best eleven seasons occurred in the 20th-century, and Johnson’s last five seasons in the Majors did not add much to his legacy.

Don’t get me wrong, you can certainly make a case that R.J. belongs on this list, and I wouldn’t blame you if you did.  But in compiling this list, I chose to emphasize pitchers whose accomplishments this century would continue to be overlooked if I added nearly every pitcher who began his career back in the ’80′s, but who remained effective through ’01 or ’02.  Therefore, I decided to evaluate each pitcher on a case-by-case basis.  Since over 60% of R.J.’s effectiveness occurred in the last century, I chose to leave him off this list.  You may disagree with my reasoning, and that’s fine.

Roger Clemens –  See:  Johnson, Randy above.

Yovani Gallardo – Despite four consecutive seasons of over 200 strikeouts, and double-digit wins five times, Gallardo annually posts rather low WAR’s.  I was surprised when looking at his career stats that after seven years, his career WAR stands at an oddly unimpressive 13.3.  In fact, he’s never produced a single-season WAR that’s reached even 3.0 in his entire career.

Gallardo, as far as I can tell, lives for the high pitch count, which limits his overall innings pitched, and produces some big innings for the opposition.  For even though Gallardo has struck out nearly a thousand batters over the past five years, his career WHIP is 1.304, which indicates simply too many runners getting to first base, regardless of his live arm and numerous strikeouts.  His career home run rate of around one per nine innings also reduces his overall effectiveness.  And it isn’t simply the home runs that are the problem, it’s that there always seem to be runners on base when they occur.

Gallardo’s career ERA+ of 109 through age 27 either indicates a to-this-point under-achiever, or a he-is-what-he-is preview of his next seven years.  It’s not that Gallardo has been a bad pitcher.  It’s just that he’s sometimes mistaken for an ace, when, in fact, he’s been more of a #3 starter for his entire career. What comes next, entering his age 28 season, will go a long way towards clarifying his probable future.

Well, that’s all I’ve got for you on this topic.  Agree or disagree, I hope it was worth your while to read it.

 
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Major League Teams – Best to Worst, By Run Differential

One way to list the 30 MLB teams from best to worst is by using run differential, that is, the difference between how many runs a team has scored minus the number of runs they’ve surrendered.  Although it’s still very early in the year, you will notice some real surprises on this list.

1)  Boston Red Sox   +34

2)  Atlanta Braves    +33

2)  Cincinnati Reds    +33

4)  Texas Rangers     +29

5)  Colorado Rockies  +28

6)  St. Louis Cardinals +23

7)  New York Mets      +18

8)  Oakland A’s            +17

9)  Arizona Diamondbacks   +15

10) Baltimore Orioles   +11

10) Kansas City Royals  +11

10) New York Yankees  +11

13) San Francisco Giants +8

14) Detroit Tigers             +6

15) Pittsburgh Pirates      +1

16) Tampa Bay Rays       -3

17) Milwaukee Brewers  -5

18) Cleveland Indians     -6

19) Chicago White Sox    -7

20) Minnesota Twins     -7

21) L. A. Angels              -10

22) Washington Nationals -15

23) Philadelphia Phillies   -17

24) Chicago Cubs             -18

24) L. A. Dodgers            -18

26) San Diego Padres      -28

27) Seattle Mariners      -29

28) Toronto Blue Jays    -29

29) Houston Astros          -40

30) Miami Marlins            -46

Starting at the top, certainly the Red Sox, Rockies, Mets and, to a certain extent, the Diamondbacks have to be counted as pleasant surprises.  Though many people had the Braves picked to at least win the Wild Card in their division, they have been playing perhaps even better than expected.  The A’s are the little engine that can, and does, always find a way to win.  Notice, too, that the expected collapse of either the Yankees and / or the Orioles hasn’t occurred to this point.  And the Rangers don’t appear to miss Josh Hamilton very much yet, either.

On the negative side of the ledger, Don Mattingly’s days as Dodgers’ manager may be short-lived if he can’t turn his team around before the All-Star break.  Like the Dodgers, the Blue Jays have gone all in this year, but have realized the same lack of success.  The Astros and the Marlins were both expected to be terrible, and they are working hard to deliver on that promise.

What’s with the Angels?  Although Pujols is playing well, they are seriously under-performing to date.

The Washington Nationals slow start, however, must rate as the most stunning in all of baseball to this point.  Many people picked them to win the N.L. pennant this year, but (with the exception of Bryce Harper) they are playing like a team that is trying not to lose, rather than as a confident team playing good baseball.  I think they will turn it around.

Another team that I think will play much better as the season progresses is the Tampa Bay Rays.  Currently, they are a mediocre 16th overall, but I have little doubt they will finish the season among the top half-dozen teams in baseball.

As a Mets fan, I would like the see the Mets finish among the top seven teams at the end of the season, but, barring some peculiarly astute, timely trade,  I see little chance of that happening.

Wouldn’t it be nice to see the Pirates finish at or above .500 this year?  I think they are capable of doing so.

Which teams do you think will improve, or implode, over the course of the rest of the season?

Baseball Standings 2012: The Good, The Bad, and the Lucky

Now that the 2012 baseball season is around one-quarter over, I thought it might be a good time to take a break from the normal fare of this blog, and check in with what’s been happening around the Majors.

It is common in the late winter and early spring to prognosticate about what will happen in the up-coming baseball season.  Baseball magazines and blogs are rife with predictions.  Inevitably, many of those predictions soon look pretty foolish.  I’m as guilty as the next guy as far as these predictions are concerned.

But sometimes, baseball surprises us much more than usual.

Take for example, the early success of the Baltimore Orioles who currently sport a gaudy 28-17 record.  They have a simply remarkable record of 15-6 on the road.

Did you see this coming?  I doubt anyone else, including Orioles management on down to the lowliest clubhouse attendant, did either.

But how much of any particular teams success or failure at this point is simply pure dumb luck?  Which teams are either underachieving or overachieving?  And which teams are playing about as well as they should be?

One easy way to measure the difference between how a team is actually performing (its won-loss record) is to compare that team’s performance with its run differential.  Run differential simply measures how many runs a team has scored vs. how many they have surrendered.  The Giants, for example, have scored 184 runs this season, and they have given up 181.  Thus their run differential is +3.

You would expect a team with a +3 run differential to be about one game over .500.  The Giants, in fact, are three games over .500 (24-21), so it can be deduced that they’ve overachieved a little bit.

Now, let’s look at the rest of the teams.  In the left-hand column is a list of teams, from best to worst, based on their winning percentage.  In the right-hand column is a list of each team’s run differential, also rated from best to worst.  It is interesting to note which teams are either underachieving or overachieving at this point.

1)  Dodgers – .682                                            1)  Rangers  +79

2)  Orioles – .622                                              2)  Cardinals  +64

3)  Rangers –  .600                                           3)  Dodgers  +44

3)  Rays –  .600                                                 4)  Blue Jays  +35

5)  Indians – .591                                               5)  Braves  +32

5)  Nationals – .591                                            6)  Nationals  +19

7)  Reds – .568                                                   7)  Red Sox  +17

8)  Braves – .565                                                8)  Orioles  +14

9)  Cardinals – .556                                            8)  Rays  +14

10)  Blue Jays – .533                                         10) Houston  +12

10)  Giants – .533                                               11) White Sox  +11

10)  Marlins – .533                                             12) Reds  +8

10)  Mets – .533                                                  13)  Yankees  +7

14)  Yankees – .523                                            14)  Phillies +4

15)  White Sox – .511                                          15) Giants +3

16)  Phillies – .500                                              16) Cleveland +1

16)  Red Sox – .500                                             17) Angels -2

18)  Oakland – .489                                             18) Marlins -6

19)  Houston –  .477                                             19) Detroit -10

20)  Angels – .457                                                 19) Seattle -10

21)  Detroit – .455                                                 21) Arizona -14

21)  Pirates – .455                                                 22) Oakland -20

23)  Seattle – .447                                                 23) Kansas City -22

24)  Arizona – .444                                                24) Colorado -27

25)  Milwaukee – .409                                          25) Milwaukee -29

26)  Kansas City – .395                                         26) Pirates -34

27)  Colorado – .372                                               27) Mets -35

28)  San Diego – .370                                             28) San Diego -37

29)  Cubs – .341                                                      29) Cubs -46

29)  Twins – .341                                                    30) Twins -72

Starting at the bottom, no matter how you cut it, it’s going to be a long year for the Padres, Cubs, and Twins.  Unfortunately for the Brewers, their run differential matches their record, so there’s not much reason to expect a big turnaround there.  It’s time to start selling off some of their most tradeable parts.

As for the Mets, they better not start printing playoff tickets just yet.  Their run differential is that of a sub-.500 team.  They’ve been playing with a lot of heart, but over the course of a 162 game season, talent usually trumps heart.

Houston is a big surprise to me, not because they are a sub-.500 team, but because their run differential suggests they should be playing better than .500 baseball.

The Cardinals already appear to be playoff bound, but their run differential suggests that the best may be yet to come for them.

The Red Sox, who have recently been playing better baseball, actually have a better run differential than the division-leading Orioles.  Expect the Red Sox to close ground on Baltimore over the next several weeks, even if the slightly overachieving Orioles continue to play good baseball.

The Yankees are a decent team, but are a long way from being a 95 win team.  At this point, they more closely resemble an 84-win team.  It’ll certainly be interesting to see how that new reality plays out in New York.

If the White Sox can figure out how to win at home, their run differential shows that they can yet win their division this year, but Cleveland is not at all a bad team.

The Phillies, like the Yankees may be, in fact, a mediocre team masquerading as division contenders.  On the other hand, the Braves and the Nationals appear to be for real.

Comparing the two columns above, what did you notice?

Soundtrack for Baseball: April, 2012

There are many different ways to summarize the first month of the year.  You can parse endless stats, compose paragraphs of the sweetest prose, or just make yet another damned list.

I decided to change things up around here.  You know, wake the neighbors, scandalize the community, turn the volume up to 11, things like that.

In other words, I have created a video-soundtrack, via Youtube, for what I very subjectively consider to be the most significant story-lines in baseball for the first month of the season.  I hope you enjoy it.  And, as it says on the back of the Rolling Stones L.P. “Let it Bleed,”  play it loud!

To begin with, let’s honor Robin Ventura’s Chicago White Sox, under whose steady hand the South-Siders are keeping their collective heads at or above .500.  More to the point, the White Sox currently enjoy the best run differential, +3, in their division.

So let’s celebrate with a rousing version of “Sweet Home Chicago,” brought to you by an unbelievable All-Star cast of blues musicians.  Guaranteed to get you up and rocking, even if you aren’t a White Sox fan.

On the other hand, Chicago still has to answer for the Cubs, who finished the month of April with an extremely dismal 8-15 record.  Sure, they have a few interesting players.  Starlin Castro is a star in the making, and my kids love Darwin Barney, but let’s face it, this is a team going nowhere.

The song I’ve decided to dedicate to the Cubs for their April performance is a classic of the 1970′s, a song that when I first heard it as a kid of around 8 years old, I was fascinated and mesmerized.  Unfortunately, the same can’t be said (except in a negative sense) about the Cubbies so far this year.

So listen, if you will, to the most original Rock song ever, “The Night Chicago Died,” by a band called Paper Lace.

Are you still with me?  Good.  Now let’s turn to a player who may be the most underrated star in the game, Joey Votto.  Votto currently sports a .939 OPS and an OPS+ of a cool 158.  He also leads the N.L. in doubles with ten, and in walks with 20.

Did I say walks?  Perhaps he should show the rest of the league how to Walk This Way, as Run DMC does with Aerosmith, in one of my favorite Rock songs and videos.  Again, if you missed the original announcement, PLAY IT LOUD!

Poor Bobby Valentine.  Hasn’t Managed a Major League baseball team in years, then gets shanghaied into taking the helm of a Red Sox team more in need of a psychoanalyst than a manager.  He found out just how quickly the Red Sox fans, media and even the players could turn on someone who had the temerity to, you know, speak honestly and candidly, (if not very wisely) about, just perhaps, the lack of focus of one semi-star (Kevin Youkilis) player.

Boston currently sits in last place in the always tough A.L. East.  Although it’s not too late to turn this season around for a talented team like the Red Sox, one has to wonder if Bobby V. will still even be around at the end of the year to take credit if a turn-around does occur.  Bobby V. must be confused now, and thinking something along the lines of, Should I Stay or Should I Go?

Mick Jones, Joe Strummer and the boys in The Clash just happened to be wondering the same thing back in 1982.  Here’s how that sounded.  (Incidentally, I was at the show at Shea Stadium where this live footage was shot.)

Speaking of managers who put their foot their foot in their mouth this past month, it’s hard to top Ozzie Guillen’s mega-stupid comment (in Miami, no less), that he admired Cuban dictator Fidel Castro.  That’s a little like Mayor Bloomberg of New York City saying to a throng of Orthodox Jews in Brooklyn that he kind of admired Adolf Hitler.

But Ozzie has made a career of allowing his mouth to function at 45 RPM’s while his brain spins around (when it functions at all) at about 33 RPM’s.  He likes to impress people, I guess, but not everyone is amused by a Big Shot.  Just ask Billy Joel.

On the other hand, the news out of Baltimore is positive for the first time in many years.  The Orioles finished April with a record of 14-9, just one game out of first place.  Manager Buck Showalter has his kids playing fundamentally sound baseball, outfielder Adam Jones is off to a strong start, catcher Matt Wieters is displaying the multiple skills scouts raved about a few years back, and the pitching is holding its own.

Wouldn’t it be nice if this could last the whole year?  Wouldn’t it be nice if they were in a weaker division, say, the A.L. Central?  Wouldn’t it be nice to hear the Beach Boys about now?

If you don’t love this song, your U.S. citizenship will be revoked.  Please proceed to the line to the left marked, “Un-Americans.”  Thank you. Waterboarding begins at Noon.

Then there’s Albert Pujols, formerly the best player in the game.  Is it too soon to say that Sir Albert may never again be the best player in baseball?  How is it possible that he didn’t hit a single home run in April?  Is it the pressure of his huge new multi-year contract?  The change of leagues and ballparks?  Is age prematurely setting in?

The Angels and Albert Pujols himself must be wondering if somehow, he made a wrong turn somewhere out in the California desert, and left his talent behind in some long-forgotten hotel along the way.  ‘Cause, you know, the heat of the California wastelands can cause hallucinations and create mirages.  Perhaps that’s what happened.

If Albert’s nightmare season continues, the lyrics of “Hotel California” might come to seem benign by comparison.  Here’s hoping it doesn’t come to that.

Has there been a less fortunate pitcher in all of baseball over the past half-dozen years than Matt Cain of the Giants?  Through 207 career starts dating back to 2005, Cain has a career ERA of 3.33, an ERA+ of 125, and a 1.183 career WHIP.  Somehow, though, his career record stands at 70 wins and 74 losses.

This April, it was more of the same.  In four starts, he has recorded a 2.37 ERA, and has just one win to show for his efforts, and it took a complete game shutout to earn that win.

Matt Cain displays a stoic demeanor, but internally, he must be a “Man of Constant Sorrow.”  Wouldn’t you be?  Hot Damn, it’s the Soggy Bottom Boys!

Speaking of people who must be ready to stick forks in their eyes so they don’t have to watch what’s going on down on the field anymore, how would you like to be a Royals fan?  Not only are the Royals an A.L worst (tied with the Twins) 6-16, they have yet to win a game at home!  That’s right, folks, no Royals fan this year has yet witnessed their team triumph over the opposition on their home turf.  The Royals are 0-10 at home.

Now this was a team featuring a youth movement of talented young players like Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas, among others.  How did it all go so wrong?  It’s like washing your car, changing the oil, rotating the tires, then ending up with a Flat Tire.

What’s that like?  Just ask Joe Fletcher and the Wrong Reasons.

Well, folks, there are an endless number of story-lines to choose from, but we don’t have time for them all.  I’d be interested to hear your story-line / songs that you would have added to this soundtrack.  I hope you enjoyed at least some of it.

Maybe we’ll do it again at the end of May.  Thanks again for reading, er, listening.

Best Forgotten Baseball Seasons: Part 17 – The Pittsburgh Pirates

Three Rivers Stadium

Image via Wikipedia

Let’s subtitle this post, “Mad Dog and the Candy Man.”

It’s been a while, of course, since the Pittsburgh professional baseball franchise has sniffed respectability.  But there was a time a few decades ago when the Pirates were a team to be feared.

In the decade that lasted from 1970-79, the Pirates won their division six times, finished 2nd three times, and finished as low as third only once.  They won two World Series Championships during that era, both times defeating the Orioles in seven games (1971, 1979.)

One of the most famous Pirates teams of the last 30+ years was the 1979, WE ARE FAM-A-LEE  version.  With their horrendous yellow and black uniforms, they looked like an ornery swarm of wasps darting around Three Rivers Stadium.  But this highly talented team, which featured N.L. Co-MVP Willie Stargell*, howitzer-armed right fielder Dave Parker, and submarine closer Kent Tekulve, defeated the heavily favored Baltimore Orioles in the Fall Classic.

Two of the key members on this team were pitcher John (The Candy Man) Candelaria and third baseman Bill (Mad Dog) Madlock.

Let’s take Madlock first.

Madlock was obtained in a timely trade with the Giants in June, 1979.  He had already won two batting titles while playing for the Cubs before he ended up with the Giants, and would win two more during his tenure with the Pirates.  At the time of the trade, Madlock was hitting only .261 for San Francisco, but after joining Pittsburgh, he hit .328 for the remainder of the season.  His hot bat was one of the reasons why the Pirates won the N.L. Pennant and World Series.

But the purpose of this post is not to review and analyze the Pirates ’79 franchise.  It is to examine the Best Forgotten Baseball Season for both Bill Madlock and John Candelaria, each of whom just happened to be members of the ’79 team.

Bill Madlock’s Best Forgotten Season for the Pirates was 1982.

Madlock was a stocky, 5’11″, 180 pound, 32-year old third baseman, coming off the strike-shortened 1981 season in which he had won this third batting title with a .341 average. Two years later, in ’83, he would win his 4th and final batting title.

So why not choose either ’81 or ’83?  In 1981, due to the strike, Madlock only played in 82 games and garnered 279 at bats.  Despite putting up excellent stats, Madlock played what amounted to a half season.  Therefore, I have ruled out the ’81 season as legitimate in this context.

How about 1983, when Madlock won his fourth batting title?  Because other than winning the title, most of his numbers were actually inferior to his 1982 statistics.

Specifically, Madlock batted .319 in ’82, second best in the league, and just four points lower than he would hit the following season.  But in ’82, Madlock reached career highs in home runs (19), RBI’s (95), Runs Scored (92), and Total Bases (277).  He also compiled his second highest hit total (181) and doubles total (33).

Madlock also enjoyed career highs in Intentional Walks (16) and Sacrifice Flies (13).  His 154 games played tied his career high, and he also topped 600 plate appearances for only the second time in his career.  His WAR was 5.9, also a career high.

Finally, Madlock also finished in the top ten in the N.L. in OPS (.856) and in Runs Created (103).

For his accomplishments, Madlock finished in eleventh place in the N.L. MVP voting in 1982.

Interestingly, Bill Madlock, despite four batting titles in a 15-year career, barely topped 2,000 career hits (2,008.)  He is also the only player in baseball history to win as many as four batting crowns while scoring fewer than one thousand runs in his career (920.)

But Madlock was certainly a key, underrated cog in the formidable Pirates teams of the late ’70′s and early ’80′s, as was his teammate, John Candelaria.

John Candelaria was a big, left-handed pitcher (6’7″, 205 lbs.) from New York City when he first broke in with the Pirates at age 21 in 1975.  The following season, Candelaria established himself in the rotation with a 16-7 record, 220 innings pitched, 11 complete games and four shutouts.  His ERA was a solid 3.15.

Best of all, he knew how to throw strikes, surrendering just 60 walks in his first full professional season.  The following season, however, the Candy Man really broke out.

1977 was John Candelaria’s Best Forgotten Baseball Season.

In ’77, on a Pirates team that finished in 2nd place to the Phillies in the N.L. East, Candelaria posted an excellent 20-5 record, resulting in a league best winning percentage of .800.  He also led the N.L. in ERA at 2.34, and in ERA+ at 169. His WHIP (1.071) was second best in the league.

Interestingly, he also served up the most home runs of any N.L. pitcher (29).  But because he walked just 50 batters all season, he greatly limited the damage that could have resulted from all of those homers.  In fact, his 2 walks per nine innings represented the best mark in the league.

But John Candelaria’s career trajectory pointed gradually downward for the remainder of his career.  Although he had several more productive seasons, including a 14-9 record with a 3.22 ERA for the ’79 team,  only once did he win as many as 15 games in a single season after 1977.

Nevertheless, he did post nine more double-digit win seasons after 1977, resulting in a modest career win-loss record of 177-122.  Candelaria enjoyed a long career, beginning when he was just 21 and ending nearly two decades later when he was 39-years old.

In the first ten seasons of Candelaria’s career, all spent with the Pirates, he finished only one season with a losing record.

Candelaria, like Madlock, was not a superstar.  But their accomplishments were instrumental in enabling the Pirates to enjoy one of the greatest runs in team history.

* Keith Hernandez of the Cardinals was the other N.L. Co-MVP in 1979.


Best Forgotten Baseball Seasons: Part 13 – The Baltimore Orioles

The Orioles, at their best, have always been a franchise of blue-collar guys who earn their money.  Never a town of glitz and glamor, it is also a town, though, that has produced its share of characters.

John Waters, perhaps the strangest American film-maker of all time, hails from Baltimore.  Edgar Allen Poe also called Baltimore home while penning some of the most memorable horror tales ever told.

Babe Ruth, of course, was also born and raised in Baltimore, where he got his socio-economic start working in his father’s saloon.

It is hard to imagine Ruth ever having become a star playing in Baltimore.  Boston was a better place for him to ply his trade while his personality and huge appetite for life evolved into gargantuan proportions until only New York could (barely) contain him.

Back in the 1960′s and 1970′s, though, the Orioles were the American League’s version of Baseball Team as Foundry, producing from a rock-solid work ethic amidst the rough, industrial backdrop that was Baltimore, a series of competitive teams that seemingly always challenged for a title.

In most regards, 1976 was a typical Baltimore Orioles season.  They finished in second place in the competitive A.L. East to the New York Yankees with a solid 88-74 record.  Their defense was, as always, outstanding.  Jim Palmer was their ace.  Brooks Robinson, though clearly near the end of his career, was mentoring a young Doug DeCinces at third base.

Meanwhile, their assembly line lineup included no-nonsense types such as Lee May, Ken Singleton, Paul Blair, Bobby Grich, and… Reggie Jackson.

Did he say Reggie Jackson?

Yes, that Reggie Jackson.

Virtually all of you will remember Reggie as Mr. October while playing for the Yankees in the late ’70′s, or, if you go back a little further, as the cocky young black man on a team composed primarily of strange, mustachioed white guys.  In his last years, he was still piling up Hall of Fame numbers, mostly as a DH for the Angels.

But for one season, 1976, Reggie Jackson was a working-class stiff plying his trade in Mr. Weaver’s factory better known as Memorial Stadium.

1976 was Reggie Jackson’s, of the Orioles, Best Forgotten Season.

At first glance, his statistics that season do not look necessarily all that impressive.  Certainly, he had a couple of better seasons in Oakland, and would surpass all expectations in his Yankee years.  But Reggie Jackson was a key cog in the ’76 Orioles swing-shift.

Reggie hit 27 home runs, which, although not an eye-popping number these days, was good for second place in the A.L. in 1976.  He also drove in 91 runs, despite missing about 25 games with injuries.

His .277 batting average was fairly typical for him, but he led the league in slugging percentage at .502.  His .853 OPS ranked third in the league, and his OPS+ of 155 was the best in the A.L.

Atypically for Reggie, he was also a heady, successful base-stealer that year, swiping 28 bases in just 35 attempts.  His Power-Speed Rating, as defined by Baseball-Reference.com, was 27.5, again the best in the league.

Reggie also finished in the top ten in WAR, RBI’s and Extra Base Hits, again, despite missing nearly a month due to injury.

Interestingly, although he played in 15 All Star Games in his career, he did not make the A.L. All Star Team in ’76, quite possibly one reason why he was anxious to leave Baltimore for New York City’s Broadway atmosphere.

Finally, Reggie even led A.L. right fielders in Range Factor at 2.29.

Still, despite all that productivity, he only finished 16th in A.L. MVP voting in ’76.

Worst of all, there was no Reggie Bar, no loudly cheering fans for whom to doff a cap, and no glamorous night-life to speak of.  Reggie paid his union dues, punched his time card, cleaned out his locker, and said his goodbyes to a city that, like Babe Ruth before him, just could not contain his personality indefinitely.

After the previous season, pitchers Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally, who had played for one season without having signed a contract with their respective teams,  filed suit before a three-man committee protesting Baseball’s infamous Reserve Clause, a rule which bound a player to his team for as long as that team demanded his services.

In a historic decision, the panel, voted, 2-1 to overturn the Reserve Clause, thereby creating the forerunner of baseball’s current free-agent system.

The Yankees signed free agent Reggie Jackson for a salary in excess of three million dollars.

In 1977, minus Reggie Jackson, the Orioles would improve their record to 97-64, but would again finish in second place to the New York Yankees, Reggie Jackson’s New York Yankees.

Reggie Jackson would become a very wealthy, famous man due to his success in New York City.

But in 1976 at least, Reggie Jackson labored in a working class American city called Baltimore.

Best Forgotten Baseball Seasons: Part 8 – The Cincinnati Reds

Baseball scouts are always searching for the proverbial five-tool athlete.

This highly sought-after ballplayer is someone who possesses five different abilities important to success in the Major Leagues.  They are:  1)  Running (fast, presumably),  2) Throwing  3) Fielding  4) Hitting for Average (apparently as opposed to simply getting on base), and  5) Hitting for Power.

To begin with, is there a difference between a “tool” and a “skill?”  I believe there is.  To my way of thinking, a “tool” is an innate, God-given physical ability that you are born with, something that cannot be taught.  Running fast is just such a “tool.”  Some guys are just faster than others.  End of story.

Throwing, like running, is also a “tool.”  Sure, a guy can be taught to throw straighter and more efficiently, but his arm strength is what it is.  Johnny Damon’s arm was never going to become Dave Parker’s arm, no matter how much training Damon might receive.

Likewise, hitting for power is primarily, although not only, the result of an individual’s physical strength (setting aside the issue of steroids for now.)  Denny Doyle, Freddie Patek and Dave Magadan just weren’t ever going to be big-time home run threats.

Even fielding, to a certain extent, fits in to the conventional wisdom inherent in the five-tool philosophy.  A speedy outfielder can race into the left-center field gap to steal a sure extra-base hit away from an incredulous batter.

But fielding, like hitting for average is also a “skill”, something that a person can be taught to do reasonably well, assuming average physical strength and motor skills.

Therefore, whereas Andruw Jones was a physically gifted outfielder whose defensive “skills” were built upon the bedrock of his physical “tools,” Keith Hernandez was merely (and therefore, just as impressively) a defensive whiz whose skill as a first baseman had much less to do with physical prowess than it did with the far more mundane reality of hard work and tireless drill.

Hitting for average is a skill.  Not every physically gifted athlete, regardless of the “tools” in their arsenal, is going to learn to become a .300 hitter, let alone a .330 hitter.  Yes, a pro athlete is more likely to hit .300 than an average guy off the street because his secondary physical abilities (bat-speed, ability to beat out an infield hit, etc.) are, by definition, likely to be stronger.

But a five-tool athlete is actually, at most, a three and a half tool athlete.

And this doesn’t even begin to address the contemporary statistical reality that hitting for average now most definitely (except, perhaps, in the eyes of some scouts) takes a back seat to a player’s ability to reach base via hit or walk.  Perhaps “Ability to Control the Strike Zone” will one day become the mythological Sixth Tool.

All of which leads me, believe it or not, to the 1987 Cincinnati Reds.

Specifically, I have in mind a player that possessed four of the five so-called tools.  He never hit for much of an average, but boy, could Eric Davis play some baseball.

Eric Davis’ 1987 season is one of the Best Forgotten Baseball Seasons of any Reds player.

The 25-year old Reds center fielder could run (50 steals in 56 attempts), field (led N.L. in Range Factor – 3.13, and put outs – 378), throw (N.L. best 10 assists), and hit for power (37 home runs in just 474 at bats.)

Davis also scored 120 runs, drove in an even 100, drew 84 walks, slugged .593, and had an OPS of .991.  His OPS+ was 155, which means he was about 50% better than a league-average ballplayer, adjusting for ballpark and era.

He accomplished this despite playing in just 129 games and accumulating 562 plate appearances.  But staying healthy was one skill Davis didn’t possess.  He never managed to play as many as 140 games in a single season in his seventeen-year career.

Hitting for average was still, in 1987, considered a very important indicator of a player’s overall talent.  But hitting for average was never a strong aspect of Davis’ overall game.

Davis hit .293 in ’87.  Not a bad mark, but not Tony Gwynn, either.  It was his best batting average until he hit a surprising .327 in 1998 at the age of 36.  But 1998 is to 1987 what 1927 was to 1918.  The Age of the Hitter was in full swing, eclipsing the hitting highlights of the previous decade.

In 1987, Davis played in the All-Star Game, won a Gold Glove, a Silver Slugger, and finished in the top ten in M.V.P. award voting in the N.L.  And on August 2nd, he reached the 30 homer / 30 steal mark quicker than any player in history.

Over a two-year period, 1986-87, Eric Davis was the best power-speed player in baseball.  He belted 64 homers and stole an outstanding 130 bases, while scoring 217 runs.

In a game in May, 1997, while playing for the Baltimore Orioles, Eric Davis returned to the dugout after having just scored a run, and doubled-over in severe pain.

A week later, after several inconclusive diagnoses, it was discovered that Eric Davis had colon cancer.  He was 35-years old.  Most people thought that, even if Davis did manage to beat cancer, he would never again play Major League Baseball.

Davis shocked virtually everyone the following season by returning to play baseball for the Orioles.  In fact, he had one of his finest overall seasons since his ’87 campaign with the Reds, batting a career high .327 with 28 home runs and 89 RBI’s.  His heart and his bravery won over the loyalty of his Orioles fans, and he became an inspiration to others who suffered from the same disease.

Today, Davis, who retired at age 39 after the 2001 season, speaks at ballparks and at other public functions about the importance of screening for colon cancer.  He is, of course, under no obligation to do so, but believes it is his duty as a cancer survivor to help others avoid this life-threatening illness.

Although Davis, a .269 career hitter, was, according to the conventional wisdom, missing a “tool” in his arsenal, he more than made up for it with an even bigger and more important tool, his heart.

And, in the end, this is the tool most worth having.

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