The On Deck Circle

Baseball History, Commentary and Analysis

Archive for the tag “Andy Pettitte”

Soundtrack for Baseball: May, 2012

Back by popular demand, today I offer you Part 2 of my monthly series,  Soundtrack for Baseball.”  Here’s the link to Part 1 if you missed it, or if you want to go back and have another listen.

A lot has happened in baseball over the past month, and I hope this video soundtrack captures just a bit of the flavor of this season up through the first week of June.

As a Mets fan, I have to say that the first couple of months of the 2012 baseball season have been more fun than I can remember having in years.  At the beginning of the year, my only hope was that the Mets would just play competitive baseball, and lose fewer than 90 games.  As of this writing, the Mets are in a three-way tie for first place in the tough N.L. East, an amazing eight games over .500.

Perhaps even more surprisingly, Johan Santana became the first Mets pitcher in the half-century history of this franchise to throw a no-hitter.

Yes, it’s been a truly magical year thus far at Citi Field.  Hopefully this magic bubble won’t burst during the dog days of August.  The question is, do you believe in magic?  Back in 1969, when the Amazin’ Miracle Mets won their first World Series, Jay and the Americans had a hit single with “This Magic Moment.”

One of the teams keeping up with the Mets is the Florida Marlins, who are apparently attempting to steal their way to a pennant.  Generally, I think stolen bases are overrated as a strategic weapon, and most teams that run a lot seldom go on to become World Champions (yes, there have been some exceptions.)

The Marlins have stolen 62 bases as a team this year; no other team has reached 50.  Emilio Bonifacio leads the Marlins, and the Majors with 20 steals.  Maybe the Marlins will run into a pennant with their speedy legs.  I’m guessing Marlins fans hope their favorite team stays hot, even if it means they’ll have to leg their way into the playoffs.   Hmm, hot legs.  Why does that sound familiar?  Maybe Rod Stewart can help us out.

If, incidentally, some future anthropologist decides to mine Rock n’ Roll for a glimpse into the psyche of late-20th century Western Civilization, he could do worse than to display this video as Exhibit A.  Please excuse the damned commercial that might pop up.

Has anyone noticed what a great year Carlos Gonzalez is having for the otherwise winning-impaired Colorado Rockies? (23-30.)  It took me by surprise that this 26-year old star is having a big year, leading the N.L. in total bases (128), slugging percentage (.634), and runs scored (45) through 50 games.  After an off-year last season, Gonzalez is reasserting himself as one of the top young players in the game.

I wonder what Gonzalez hears in his head when he’s rounding second base, digging for third, and being waved around to score.  Is he thinking just one word, HOME?  How exactly does that sound in his head?  Perhaps something like this:

Back on May 2nd, I picked up this story on CBS This Morning about Roger Clemens’ old friend and teammate, Andy Pettitte, testifying against his former mentor in the trial to decide if Clemens has committed perjury regarding the use of HGH and other banned substances.

One has to consider these drugs a kind of high for athletes who are addicted to success from which they don’t ever want to come down.  Most of us will never know the kind of fame and fortune that was Clemens good fortune at one time, so it is perhaps impossible for us to ever know what it was like to be faced with the end of a brilliant career.  What then?  The broadcast booth.  Endless rounds of golf for the next 35 years?

But worse, how must it feel when your former best friend testifies against you in open court, in front of thousands of witnesses.  One can only guess that Clemens must be feeling that he hopes Pettitte will never let him down again.  Or perhaps it is Pettitte who feels let down by Clemens alleged behavior.  Either way, here’s a song by Depeche Mode called “Never Let Me Down Again” that captures the sinister nature of a friendship turned sour.

But long before the ugly, inevitable breakdowns of age, there is the limitless potential of youth.  For most young people, especially for those who have been marked at an early age for greatness, there is  a tendency to cockiness, a natural inclination to eschew nuance and moderation in favor of the simple and the bold.

Such has been the start of the Washington Nationals’ young star outfielder Bryce Harper.  When Phillies pitcher Cole Hamels pointlessly plunked Harper in the back, the completely unimpressed Harper later stole home off Hamels.  Take that, old man!  (Hamels is 28, nine years older than Harper.)  Harper is part of a new generation of young talent (Angels outfielder Mike Trout is 20) that is ready to very quickly make their collective mark on Major League baseball.

For my money, no song has ever quite captured the brash, emotional intensity of the teenage male the way The Who’s song “5:15” did on the highly underrated album “Quadrophenia.”  Play it loud, and picture Bryce Harper stealing home, or slugging a fastball out of the park.

When Kerry Wood announced his retirement on May 18th after a 14-year Major League career, I think many of us immediately remembered the then 20-year old Wood’s fifth career start when he struck out 20 Houston Astros in a one-hit pitching performance that, at the time, seemed to herald a long, dominating career.

In a way it did, though not exactly as we expected.

Wood struck out the last batter he ever faced in the Majors, the White Sox’s Dayan Viciedo, then left the field to a standing ovation.  After 14 years in the Majors, Wood ranks second all-time in strikeouts per nine innings (10.317.)  Only Randy Johnson averaged more strikeouts per nine innings.

Yet Kerry Wood finished his career with a record of only 86-75, and he spent most of his career either on the Disabled List or pitching in relief.  The complete game shutout Wood tossed against the Astros as a 20-year old was one of only eleven complete games and just five shutouts he would throw in his entire career.  Wood led the N.L. in strikeouts in 2003 with 266 — one of four 200 K seasons in his career — then was essentially finished as a starting pitcher at age 26.

But boy, in his glory days, he could throw that speed-ball by you (and that curve ball, too.)  Just 34-years old now, Wood should have plenty of years left to tell boring stories of his glory days to his kids and grandchildren.  And maybe he’ll think of himself whenever he hears this Bruce Springsteen classic called, appropriately enough, “Glory Days.”

That’s all for tonight, folks.  Hope you enjoyed this particular playlist.  We’ll probably do it again in about a month.

Happy Endings: The Art of Going Out On Top

Andy Pettitte

Andy Pettitte (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Once it was announced that Andy Pettitte was going to come out of retirement to pitch yet another season for the Yankees, the first thing I thought was, why bother?  What does he have left to prove?  He has 240 regular season wins to his credit, plus another 19 playoff game wins.  Pettitte will turn 40-years old in June.  Why take the risk of potentially embarrassing himself in front of his fans?

Meanwhile, Chipper Jones is heading the other way, recently announcing that 2o12 will be his final season in the Majors.  When he was healthy enough to play, Chipper (who turns 40 in April) put up some decent numbers last season.  Again, though, one has to wonder why it is even necessary to attempt one more season.  Like Pettitte, Jones has had a long and distinguished career, so why risk going out with a sub-par performance?

This led me to consider how few players in baseball history have retired at or near the top of their game.  After examining the final seasons of many of baseball’s best players, the answer is damn few.

If Pettitte had decided to stay retired, his final performance in 2010, an 11-3 record in 21 starts with a 3.28 ERA (and an ERA+ of 132), would actually qualify as one of the finest final season performances by any pitcher in baseball history.

Chipper Jones of the Atlanta Braves

Chipper Jones of the Atlanta Braves (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Similarly, if Chipper Jones had retired after last season when he swatted 33 doubles to go along with his 18 homers, 70 RBI and OPS+ of 123, he could have held his head high.

This is not to say that Chipper or Pettitte will perform terribly in 2012, but baseball’s long history of final performances is one long, ugly indictment of playing one season too many.

Having said that, here are eight random final season performances that were actually quite impressive.  In some cases, the player was forced into retirement due to physical reasons.  In other cases, the player had become so controversial that no team would sign him, regardless of his ability to remain productive.

Albert Belle

Albert Belle (Photo credit: Keith Fujimoto)

1)  Albert (Joey) Belle – You remember him best, perhaps, as the infamous sociopath who tried to run over some kids with his car on Halloween night.  You might also remember that Belle was one hell of a hitter during his career.  As far as I can tell, Belle is the only player in history to drive in at least 95 runs in every one of his full seasons in the Majors, including 103 in 2000, his final season.

In 2000, Belle cranked 37 doubles to go with 23 homers and a .281 batting average for the Orioles.  His OPS was .817.  While not one of his greatest years, it was far superior to the average final season of most Major League sluggers.  He retired at the age of 33.

Photograph shows Eddie (Edward Stewart) Plank,...

Photograph shows Eddie (Edward Stewart) Plank, pitcher for the Philadelphia Athletics, head-and-shoulders portrait, facing slightly right. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

2)  Eddie Plank – “Gettysburg”  Eddie Plank, unlike the vast majority of highly successful pitchers, Plank did just fine in his last season in the Majors.  Although his record in his final season in 1917 (pitching for the St. Louis Browns) was just  5-6, he posted a sparkling 1.79 ERA in 131 innings.  His ERA+ was an outstanding 147.  Clearly, this 41-year old future HOF’er had something left in the tank.  But he wisely decided to call it quits after that final season.

3)  Reggie Smith –  One of the most underrated players in baseball history, and one of the top 50 players not in the Hall of Fame, Smith enjoyed his final hurrah in 1982 at the age of 37 while playing for the San Francisco Giants.  Entering ’82, Smith was just four homers shy of 300 for his career.  He ended up slugging 18 while playing his home games in Candlestick Park, a notoriously difficult park for hitters.

Smith’s triple slash line in ’82:  .284 / .364 / .470, with an OPS+ of 134, were remarkably similar to his overall career numbers:  .287 / .366 / .489, OPS+ of 137.  In other words, Smith was about as productive in his final season as he had been in any previous average year.  That’s not at all a bad way to go out.

4)  Tony Gwynn– Even in his final season at age 41, was anyone really surprised that Gwynn batted .324?  Granted, he played in just 71 games in 2001, but his OPS+ during those plate appearance, 127, was pretty close to his career OPS+ of 132.  Gwynn was essentially the same professional hitter at age 41 as he had been much earlier in his career.

Jackie Robinson swinging a bat in Dodgers unif...

Jackie Robinson swinging a bat in Dodgers uniform, 1954. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

5)  Jackie Robinson –  Given the relentless abuse heaped upon him day after day, year after year, it’s a wonder he played as long as he did.

Robinson was already 28-years old when he debuted in the Majors in 1947.  He played a solid decade before retiring after the 1956 season at the age of 37.  During this decade, he was a career .311 hitter who scored at least 99 runs in each of his first seven seasons.  His career OPS+ was an excellent 131.

In his final season, despite playing in just 117 games, Robinson drew 60 walks while striking out just 32 times, posting a .382 on-base percentage.  He posted an outstanding dWAR of 1.9, and a respectable overall WAR of 4.6, third best on the 1st place Dodgers.  He also finished 16th in MVP voting, not a bad way to end a legendary career.

Will Clark preparing to bat during seventh inn...

Will Clark preparing to bat during seventh inning of 12 August 1992 game between San Francisco Giants and Houston Astros, at Candlestick Park in San Francisco. Game boxscore (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

6)  Will Clark – Will “The Thrill” Clark was one of my favorite players of the late 1980’s into the early ’90’s.  He played with intensity, had a beautiful left-handed line-drive swing, and was nimble around first base.  His career OPS+ of 137 is the same as the aforementioned Reggie Smith, and is better than those of Hall of Famers Bill Terry, George Brett, Al Kaline, and Paul Waner.

His final season in the year 2000 did nothing to blemish his fine career.  In splitting his season between Baltimore and St. Louis, Clark posted a fine triple slash line of .318 / .419 / .546 and an OPS+ of 144 in 507 plate appearances.  His overall WAR was a respectable 4.1.  Retiring at the age of 36, Clark certainly went out at the top of his game.

7)  Mike Mussina –  That rarest of rare pitchers, Mussina decided to retire after winning 20 games for the first time in his career (at age 39) while pitching for the New York Yankees in 2008.  As far as I know, no health issues would have prevented him from returning for yet another season at the age of 40.  Clearly, he decided he’d had enough.

Those 20 victories pushed his career total to 270, and probable induction into the Hall of Fame when he becomes eligible.

Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher and Hall of Famer ...

Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher and Hall of Famer in a 1961 issue of Baseball Digest. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

8)  Sandy Koufax – Koufax and Mussina are the only two pitchers since 1920 who retired after posting 20-win seasons.  Mussina did it out of choice.  Koufax was forced into retirement due to chronic pain in his elbow.

It’s interesting to speculate how much longer Koufax would have pitched had he not suffered from this lingering pain.  Would he have eventually bounced around like Steve Carlton in his final years, trying to recapture lost glory?  And if he had tried to pitch while declining in effectiveness year after year, would his legendary reputation have become diminished over time?

Regardless, Koufax’s final season in 1966 at age 30, pitching for the L.A. Dodgers, was the single finest final performance in baseball history.  En route to his third Cy Young award over four seasons, Koufax posted a 27-9 record, a 1.73 ERA (which led the league for the fifth straight year), 27 complete games in 41 starts (both of which led the league), 317 strikeouts, and a ridiculous ERA+ of 190.  His WAR was 10.8, matching his career high set in 1963.

I think Neil Young had it correct when he said it’s better to burn out than to fade away.

Regarding Chipper Jones and Andy Pettitte, it remains to be seen if their final seasons will match those listed above, or if their respective final seasons were one year too many.

Underrated / Overrated: Baseball and Other Stuff – Part III

fairytale of new york

Image by late night movie via Flickr

Back in March, and again in April, I did a couple of posts that I had intended to turn into a regular series called “Underrated / Overrated – Baseball and Other Stuff.”

For better or worse, other blog-post topics relegated this idea to the bench for several months.

But I am here today to tell you that we are back in business.

The idea was to combine in each post people and things in baseball that are either overrated / underrated along with something or someone from the wider world outside of baseball that is overrated / underrated.

Thus, the prior pair of posts went something like this:

Overrated:  Field of Dreams

Underrated:  Eight Men Out

Overrated:  The Revolutionary War

Underrated:  The French and Indian War

Overrated:  David Wright

Underrated:  Ryan Zimmerman

And so on and so forth.

The first two posts in this series were well-received and have generated continuous traffic to my website during the course of this year.  Apparently, people like to measure their likes and dislikes against those of others.  It’s always prime fodder for a debate.

So here begins the third chapter in Underrated / Overrated – Baseball and Other Stuff. Hope you enjoy it.

Overrated:  Abbott and Costello “Who’s On First” is the best schtick they ever performed.  For many years, I got a kick out of this one.  Then one day, it just stopped being funny.  And it occurred to me, hey, maybe these guys just aren’t that funny after all.

Underrated:  Elvis Costello – One of the most consistently creative talents in Rock music for over 30 years now.  You don’t think he can still knock you down and stomp all over you?  Listen to this 30-second clip from a song called “Needle Time” from an excellent album called “Delivery Man.”  Buy it.  Download it.  Play it loud.  You WON’T be able to sit still.

Overrated:  Lou Brock – His 75% career success rate as a base-stealer is decent, but unspectacular.  He stole 939 bases in his career, but he was thrown out over 300 times.  That’s 300 needless outs he made, possibly costing his team run-scoring opportunities.  In fact, he led the N.L. in  caught stealing seven times.  He also struck out at least a hundred times in a season nine times.  His career OPS (.753) and OPS+ (109) are decidedly unspectacular.  Career WAR:  39.1

Underrated:  Tim Raines His career stolen base success rate was an excellent 84%.  The Rock stole over 800 bases in his career, but was caught just 146 times.  He never once lead the league in times caught stealing.  He also never struck out even 90 times in any one season.  His career OPS (.810) and OPS+ (123) are obviously better than Brock’s marks.  Career WAR:  64.6

Overrated:  Friday Nights – Every one gets home from work tired and cranky after a long week.  You rush around on the way home getting last-minute errands done, the traffic is heavy, and you still don’t even know what you’re going to do about dinner.  You badly want to relax and unwind, but the kids are fighting and the dog needs to go out for a walk.  And, oh fuck, it just started raining out.

Underrated:  Sunday Mornings – There is a fleeting moment early Sunday mornings when you are drinking your coffee, reading your newspaper (or a baseball blog), and the kids are miraculously quiet.  Maybe you’ll go to the park later.  Maybe you’ll sort through some old baseball magazines in the garage.  You might even wash and wax the car.  You feel nearly whole and human again, before the Monday morning American grind pulverizes you for another week.

Overrated Christmas Song:  The Little Drummer Boy – Not even David Bowie and Bing Crosby could rescue this damned slow death-march of a song.  Cloying, boring and melodramatic all at the same time,  like a Russian poet standing in front of a Tsarist firing squad, the end can’t come soon enough.

Underrated Christmas Song:  Fairytale of New York (The Pogues) – The most cynical,  unusual, and unabashedly romantic Christmas song you’ll ever hear.  Pogues front-man Shane McGowan‘s duet with the late Kirsty MacColl is one for the ages.  If you’ve ever been to NYC with someone you love at Christmastime, you’ll be able to feel the cold, the wind, and the delicious warmth of possibility in this one.  Hold your cursor over the above pic, and join us at the bar.

Overrated: The Babe Ruth Yankees – The Yankees won four World Championships in the fifteen seasons Ruth wore pinstripes:  1923, ’27, ’28, and ’32.  Good, certainly, but by way of contrast, Mickey Mantle’s Yanks won seven world series.  But I would never call The Mick’s Yanks underrated, so…

Underrated:  The Joe Rudi / Sal Bando Oakland A’s – This team won three consecutive World Series:  1972-74, but they also had to win the A.L. Championship series each time.  Ruth’s Yanks never had to go through that extra round of playoffs.  Also, Ruth’s teams played before baseball was integrated, so the degree of competition was watered down in his era.  Finally, there were more teams competing for the World Championship in the 1970’s (24), than there were in Ruth’s day (16.)

Overrated:  New Year’s Eve – The shrimp ring has gotten rather soggy and warm by the time that damn crystal ball finally descends into the throng of frozen drunks in Times Square.  There are about four cops and 12 security cameras for every poor bastard who just paid eight dollars for a glass of sparkling wine at the bar in lobby of the local three-star hotel .  Meanwhile, you are already half asleep on the couch, zoning in and out of the Dick Clark Pantomime Zombie show.

Underrated:  Labor Day – No, this is NOT a day that was intended to celebrate all Americans who happen to be employed.  It was specifically intended to recognize the legacy of Organized Labor, meaning the trade unions.  There was a time when working class Americans were overwhelmingly Democrats, and the Labor Unions ensured these men and women a livable wage for a hard days work.  The American working class can trace its hard, precipitous decline to the undermining of Labor Unions which began in the early ’80’s, and has continued unabated on a downward trajectory ever since.  Both major political parties are to blame.

Overrated:  Andy Pettitte‘s Playoff Performances – In his career, Pettitte has posted a 19-10 record in the playoffs, with a 3.83 ERA, and a 1.304 WHIP.  In 265 innings, he has surrendered 271 hits, has struck out 173 batters, and has averaged 5.9 K’s per nine innings.  Solid performance, but not as good as…

Underrated:  John Smoltz‘s Playoff Performances – In his career, Smoltz has posted a 15-4 record in the playoffs, with a 2.67 ERA, and a 1.144 WHIP.  In 209 innings, he has surrendered just 172 hits while striking out 199 batters.  He has averaged 8.6 K’s per nine innings.  He also has four saves to his credit.  Few pitchers in history can match those playoff numbers.

Overrated:  Climate-Controlled Offices – You get to breath recycled air all day.  The hum of the machinery supplies the white noise that is the dull, mind-numbing soundtrack of corporate America.

Underrated:  Screens – You get to enjoy the fresh air while keeping the bugs out.  Great invention.

Overrated:  Willie Stargell – Everyone loves Pops Stargell.  I love Pops Stargell.  Here are Stargell’s career numbers:

475 home runs, 1,540 RBI, 2,232 hits, .282 batting average, .889 OPS, 1,195 runs scored, two home run titles, five 100 RBI seasons.  Career WAR:  57.5. First ballot Hall of Famer, 1988.  Fine, his numbers merit HOF induction.  But how are they substantially different from, say…

Underrated:  Fred McGriff – It is becoming increasingly apparent that Crime Dog will have to pay for a ticket to the Hall out of his own pocket if he wants to get in the door.  Yet, here are his career numbers:

493 home runs, 1,550 RBI, 2,490 hits, .284 batting average, .886 OPS, 1,349 runs scored, two home run titles, eight 100 RBI seasons.  Career WAR:  50.5. I suppose Stargell was a little better than McGriff overall, but not by much.  So where’s the love for Fred McGriff?

Overrated:  Grace Slick – Former lead “singer” for Jefferson Airplane / Starship.  Bellowed out her vocals like a foghorn in heat.  Stoned baby-boomers mistook her cat-wailing for aggressive sexiness.  As artistically satisfying as listening to a domestic disturbance in the kitchen of your neighbors apartment.

Underrated:  Chrissie Hynde – The Pretenders lead singer / songwriter set the standard for confident, strong-yet-vulnerable sexiness among female Rock stars.  Her band, the Pretenders, exemplified the energy of the post-punk New Wave sound of the early ’80’s, the most underrated period in Rock n’ Roll history.  Several of Hynde’s songs have become classics of Album Oriented Rock (AOR) radio.  And they are as listenable today as they were a generation ago.

Well, my friends, that completes the third edition of Underrated / Overrated.  I hope you found it entertaining.  I look forward to reading your comments.  Thanks for having a look, Bill

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