The On Deck Circle

Baseball History, Commentary and Analysis

Archive for the tag “Bryce Harper”

Heart of a Tiger: Book Review

What images come to mind at the mention of the name, Ty Cobb?  Do you picture a snarling, angry man, sliding into third base, spikes high?  A racist racing into the crowd to beat up a defenseless invalid?  A man to be feared, perhaps grudgingly respected, but almost always despised?  Now ask yourself, where does that picture come from?

In the book, “Heart of a Tiger:  Growing Up With My Grandfather, Ty Cobb,” we are introduced to not an entirely different Ty Cobb than we’ve become used to hearing about, but to a much more fully developed account of a human life.  This is not, as you might think at first blush, a biography bordering on hagiography.  In fact, strictly speaking, it’s not truly a biography at all.  It is a moving account, by turns harrowing, tender and stark, of a deeply forged relationship between a man entering his twilight years, and his grandchildren.  Specifically, it is a narrative about how Ty Cobb, for all practical purposes, saves the lives of his three grandchildren from the destructive emotional and physical abuse they suffer at the hands of their parents.

Herschel Cobb, the author of this 279 page tale, is the middle child of three, and the son of Ty Cobb’s own son, also named Hershel Cobb.  Ty Cobb’s relationship with his son, Hershel, and with his daughter-in-law was fraught with tension, suspicion and animosity.  Little Hershel, the author, was his father’s favorite target for physical abuse on a pathological level that needs to be read to be believed, and his mother was, if anything, even more cruel and terrifying.

Herschel and his siblings, Susan and Kit, were fortunate, however, to spend part of several summers at their granddaddy’s cabin at Lake Tahoe.  In the 1950’s and early ’60’s, it became a refuge for three weeks per year away from the terror and neglect they experienced  when they weren’t lucky enough to be at school.  It is in this milieu that little Hersch’s relationship with his grandfather is forged.

Ty Cobb was clearly looking for a second chance in his life to nurture and experience the love that he failed to both give and receive as a young man.  Clearly tortured by his past, his determination to become a better man is evident throughout the tales recounted by his forever grateful grandson.  While this may not excuse the sins of his past, it does suggest that Cobb was not the one-dimensional sociopath that has come down to us in history.

Al Stump, who wrote a sensationalized portrait of Ty Cobb that was supposedly the “unvarnished truth” about Cobb is revealed by Herschel Cobb (who met Stump as a young teen) as a shady, creepy fraud who Herschel once caught stealing autographed photos directly out of Cobb’s personal study.  Yet, it is largely the Cobb that Stump more or less invented that has become the Cobb we believe to be the true man.  Such is history.

This is not strictly speaking a baseball book, but Cobb is clearly proud of his accomplishments on the baseball diamond, and he is generous later in life with the money he received both due to his professional accomplishments as well as his wise investments in Coca-Cola as well as in other firms.  Nor do we experience through Hersch’s book an obvious racist or unreconstructed Southerner.  The reason for this is clear:  Hersch only writes about what he experienced first-hand with his grandfather.  The specifics of this tale are not often easy to read, but they are poignant and precise, and present a much fuller account of Cobb, Sr. than we are likely to find anywhere else.

Ty Cobb safe at third after making a triple, 8...

Ty Cobb safe at third after making a triple, 8/16/[19]24. 1 negative (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

For the baseball fan, though, there are moments in the book that will satisfy, such as Cobb’s version of how he viewed base-running, his relationship with Babe Ruth, the players he thought were the best whom he ever played against, and which players were his friends or foes.  Cobb’s memories of these players and events are ultimately enlightening and plausible.

Cobb clearly missed the game as he grew older, and was obviously happy to reunite on occasion with those few players he remained close to until the end of his life.  While there were clearly many players who hated him (which he does not try to deny), what comes across is how his hyper-competitiveness contributed to how and why his foes on the field targeted him in the first place.

Not unlike a young Bryce Harper, Cobb was a very young man when he broke into the Majors at age 18 in 1905, and was viewed by the veteran’s (often not nearly as talented as Cobb was) as a cocky upstart who needed to be put in his place.  When Cobb fought back (as Harper has on occasion) many were quick to judge him (in the press as well as among his peers) as a brash, arrogant youth who didn’t respect the game or his peers.  As far as Cobb was concerned, he was out there to win ballgames, not friends.

Which brings us full circle back to Herschel Cobb’s story.  As Hersch (as his grandfather calls him throughout the book) grows from a young boy to a young man, Cobb, Sr. sees something of himself in this particular grandchild.  But the life lessons that Ty Cobb teaches Hersch by word and example go well beyond sports and baseball.  They are lessons of trust, humility, inner-strength and love.  In the end, Cobb needs his grandchildren as much as they needed him.  As a result, they all get a second chance to experience a better quality of life than any of them otherwise would have.

When all is said and done, who among us wouldn’t appreciate a second chance to right the wrongs, to rectify our past, if given the chance?  That Ty Cobb took this opportunity and made the most of it, creating a happy and safe environment for three innocent children experiencing suffering beyond comprehension, is ultimately a final legacy that should be respected, in a tale that needed to be told.

If you read only one book about Ty Cobb in your life, this is the one for you.

American League Baseball Predictions – 2013

This is the time of year when many of us baseball bloggers get carried away with what we think we know, and proceed to make fools of ourselves by attempting to predict the future of the impending baseball season.  The great thing about these sorts of predictions, of course, is that no one ever goes back to check them out.  Did you predict, for example, that the Red Sox would win the World Series last season under new manager Bobby Valentine?  See?  No one remembers you made that hideous prediction, so you don’t have to hide your head in shame.

Bryce Harper

Bryce Harper (Photo credit: L. Richard Martin, Jr.)

Having said that, it is cool when you turn out to be right.  For example, around three years ago, I predicted on this site that if anyone was to ever win the Triple-Crown again, it would be Miguel Cabrera (seriously, I did.)  Last spring, I correctly predicted that David Price would win the A.L. Cy Young award, and that the Nationals Bryce Harper would be N.L. Rookie of the Year.  Incidentally, here’s what I said about the Red Sox new manager Bobby Valentine: “Bobby V. is too much of a lightning rod for this to be a smooth year in Boston.”

In fairness, I do have to admit that I thought the Phillies would win the N.L. East (they finished right at .500) and that the Rays would win the A.L. East (they won 90 games, but finished 3rd.)  I also picked the A’ for last in the A.L. West, so of course they won their division.  For N.L. Cy Young, I picked the Brewers Yovani Gallardo.  He did win 16 games and led the league with 33 starts, and he did strike out 204 batters in 204 innings (his 4th straight 200-K season), but his ERA was a rather high 3.66 and his WHIP was 1.304.  In other words, he wasn’t really all that close to winning the Cy Young award.

Now, with little in the way of insightful analysis, here are my predictions for 2013.

American League

East

1)  Tampa Bay – Still the best pitching and most overall talent of the bunch.  Longoria will win MVP award.

2)  Toronto – Made a big splash in the off-season, but that doesn’t always portend a division title.

3)  Baltimore – Could be for real after-all.  Over-achieved last year, but Yanks & BoSox are ripe for the picking.

4)  New York – Older and more obsolete than last month’s Apple product, and more expensive as well.

5)  Boston – Forensic examiners are still trying to piece together last year’s car-wreck.  Lester becomes Steve Avery.

Central 

1)  Detroit – Verlander and Scherzer K nearly 500 guys between them.  V-Mart is back.  Another division title.

2)  Kansas City –  Acquisition James Shields adds credibility, and young hitters step up and rake = 2 game over .500.

3)  White Sox – Konerko & Co. can pound the ball, but team is full of inconsistent players = 2 games under .500.

4)  Cleveland – Went out and got Michael Bourn (The Bourne Futility), but this is still a 76 win team.

5)  Minnesota – Mauer turns 30 in April.  His knees turn 38.  Scott Diamond is the de facto ace of the staff. ‘Nuff said.

West

1)  Anaheim – Trout, Pujols, and Hamilton, oh my!  Trout is great again, and this time, all the pieces fit = 93 wins.

2)  Texas – G.M. Nolan Ryan finally gives up on manager Ron Washington this year as Rangers win fewer than 90.

3)  A’s – Nice year last year.  Solid group of young pitchers, and a sound organization = 85 wins.  Poverty sucks.

4)  Seattle – Like the ugliest kid in the class, Seattle is now thrilled that a new uglier kid, Houston, has just moved in.

5)  Houston – Remember the glory days of Bagwell, Biggio, & Berkman, or Wynn, Richard & Cedeno?  Ancient history.

The Angels go to the World Series, and lose in seven games.

Next up, my National League Predictions for 2013.

Baseball’s Surprising Stats: Jackie Robinson

What is the most exciting play in baseball?  Is it the walk-off home run in the bottom of the ninth?  How about a bases-loaded triple?  For that matter, how about a triple play?

Certainly, one of baseball’s most exciting plays is stealing home plate.

Now, although there are different “kinds” of steals — straight steals, double steals, busted suicide squeeze plays — for the sake of brevity, this article will not differentiate between the various types.

When Washington outfielder Bryce Harper stole home off of Philadelphia lefty Cole Hamels a couple of months ago, it was noteworthy not only because Hamels had plunked Harper in the back to apparently send him some sort of message (guess THAT didn’t work), but also because the straight-steal of home (as opposed to being on the front end of a double-steal), is such a rarity these days, (notwithstanding the fact that the Padres Everth Cabrera stole home just two days ago against the Dodgers.)

There was a time, however, when stealing home was an important tactical weapon in the arsenal of most baseball teams.  Certainly, it requires the guts of a cat burglar and the stealth of a ninja.  Or, at the very least, a pitcher half-asleep on the mound.

Jackie Robinson often comes to mind when I think of a player stealing home.  Perhaps his most famous steal of home occurred in the 1955 World Series against the Yankees in Game One.  Yankee catcher Yogi Berra went ballistic when Robinson was ruled safe at home by the home plate umpire.  Berra maintains to this day that Robinson really was out.

This was also the only World Series the Dodgers ever won in Brooklyn, and it was Robinson’s only steal of home in a World Series.

Recalling this exciting event led me to ask an obvious question, “How many times did Jackie Robinson steal home in his career?

Of course, stealing home was going on in baseball long before Jackie Robinson came along.  The first unrecorded steal of home must have taken place in the 19th century.  We do know that Honus Wagner stole home twice on June 20, 1901.

Interestingly, the Dodgers own Pete Reiser set the modern N.L. single-season record for steals of home plate with an amazing seven in 1946, the year before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier.  (Ty Cobb holds the single-season record with eight steals of home in 1912.)

Jackie Robinson, it turns out, stole home a whopping 19 times in his career, against approximately 12 times caught stealing.  Before 1950, “caught stealing” as a statistical category was not consistently recorded, so we can’t be sure exactly how many times Robinson was caught stealing home.  For four of Robinson’s ten seasons, therefore, we have incomplete data from which to draw accurate conclusions regarding his overall success rate.

Shane Tourtellotte of the Hardball Times, in an interesting and provocative article published on March 2nd of this year, posits the interesting hypotheses that Robinson’s 19 successful steals of home (20, if you count the one in the ’55 Series), were worth more in run-producing, game-winning value than all of his other steals combined.

So, did Jackie Robinson steal home more than any other player in history over the course of his career?  Not by a long shot.  As far as we know, 38 players have stolen home base at least ten times in their careers.  Here’s a list of the top 20: (Statistics courtesy of Baseball-Almanace.com)

1)  Ty Cobb – 54

2)  Max Carey – 33

3)  George Burns – 28

4)  Honus Wagner – 27

5)  Sherry Magee – 23

5)  Frank Schulte – 23

7)  Johnny Evers – 21

8)  George Sisler – 20

9)  Frankie Frisch – 19

9)  Jackie Robinson – 19

11) Jim Shekard – 18

11) Tris Speaker – 18

11) Joe Tinker – 18

14) Rod Carew – 17

14) Eddie Collins – 17

14) Larry Doyle – 17

17) Tommy Leach – 16

18) Ben Chapman – 15

18) Fred Clarke – 15

18) Lou Gehrig – 15

I was surprised that, although Robinson’s 19 steals of home are impressive, they are not nearly the greatest total of all time.  Ty Cobb’s record of 54 career steals of home is a record that I can’t imagine ever being broken.  The most recently active player with at least ten career steals of home plate is Paul Molitor, who retired 14-years ago at age 41.

The biggest surprise to me on the list I posted above is Lou Gehrig.  Who knew Gehrig stole home just four fewer times in his career than Jackie Robinson?  In truth, if Gehrig had one flaw as a baseball player, it was as a base stealer.  In his career, Gehrig stole 102 bases, but was also thrown out 100 times.

Among baseball statisticians, anything less than a 70% success rate means you should have stayed put.  A 50% success rate indicates an actual loss of overall run production, due to the opportunities squandered where a base runner who had stayed put might have been driven home by his teammates.  (See Tourtellotte’s article for more on this as well.)

Anyway, if you have Babe Ruth and Tony Lazzeri around you in the lineup, is there really any reason to try to steal home?

Speaking of Babe Ruth, it may also come as a surprise to you that The Bambino actually stole home ten times in his career, most, presumably, on the front end of double-steals.

Strategies and game conditions have, of course, changed a great deal over the past hundred years.  For many reasons too numerous to discuss in this post, the steal of home hasn’t been a significant part of the National Pastime for decades.

Nevertheless, when it does occur, it brings us back to a time when daring base runners challenged pitchers to a duel unlike any other in sports:  I can run faster than you can throw.  It is a challenge that links us to baseball’s historic past, even as the game continues to evolve on into the future.

Related articles

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.

Position Players’ WAR Analysis: The First Five Years

A couple of months ago, I did a post on Pitching WAR Analysis:  The First Seven Years. I chose seven as the magic number because this often represents the entire first half of many pitchers’ careers, and because it sometimes takes pitchers several years to fully harness their talent.

Ty Cobb safe at third after making a triple, 8...

Ty Cobb safe at third after making a triple, 8/16/[19]24. 1 negative : glass ; 4 x 5 in. or smaller. This is a cropped version of File:Ty Cobb sliding2.jpg (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Now we turn to Position Players’ War.  This time I chose to focus only on the first five years of various players’ careers.  I am of the opinion that although many hitters develop slowly, hitters often arrive a bit more fully formed than pitchers.

Also, with the recent call-up of Nationals outielder Bryce Harper, of whom many people are already predicting a Hall of Fame career, it is instructive to look at other players in their extreme youth to gauge whether or not it is useful to begin making those sorts of predictions so soon.

The list of 50 players that follows is not by any means meant to be some sort of comprehensive overview of baseball history.  It is merely a snapshot of 50 players who went on to have significant, if not necessarily Hall of Fame worthy, careers.

New York Yankees centerfielder and Hall of Famer .

New York Yankees centerfielder and Hall of Famer . (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I think you will be, as I was, surprised where some of these players rank in the early part of their respective careers.  I left out Babe Ruth, by the way, because he tends to skew all lists in a way that makes almost all other players appear to be irrelevant pretenders.

1)  Ted Williams – 43.3

2)  Eddie Collins – 42.7

3)  Ty Cobb – 42.2

4)  Mickey Mantle – 38.3

5)  Willie Mays – 38.1

6)  Alex Rodriguez – 37.4

7)  Tris Speaker – 37.0

8)  Lou Gehrig – 36.5

9)  Don Mattingly – 36.0

10) Stan Musial – 35.8

11) Albert Pujols – 35.0

11) Mike Schmidt – 35.0

13) Wade Boggs – 34.1

14) Cal Ripkin – 33.7

15) Rogers Hornsby – 33.6

16) Nomar Garciaparra – 33.2

17) Jimmie Foxx – 32.8

18) Joe Jackson – 32.7

18) Jackie Robinson – 32.7

20) Joe DiMaggio – 32.6

21) Johnny Bench – 31.0

21) Barry Bonds – 31.0

23) Dick Allen – 30.4

24) Bobby Bonds – 30.2

24) Frank Thomas – 30.2

26) Johnny Mize – 29.4

26) Dave Parker – 29.4

28) Ralph Kiner – 29.0

29) Andruw Jones – 28.8

30) Ken Griffey, Jr. – 28.7

31) Vada Pinson – 28.6

32) Hank Aaron – 28.3

33) Frank Robinson – 28.0

34) Sal Bando – 27.8

35) Reggie Jackson – 27.2

36) Duke Snider – 27.1

36) Honus Wagner – 27.1

38) Derek Jeter – 27.0

39) Jim Fregosi – 26.9

39) Al Kaline – 26.9

41) Cesar Cedeno – 26.6

42) George Brett – 26.3

43) Freddy Lynn – 25.1

44) Tony Oliva – 24.9

45) Bobby Murcer – 24.7

46) Chipper Jones – 24.6

47) Reggie Smith – 23.8

48) Jim Rice – 22.7

49) Robin Yount – 11.9

50) Roberto Clemente – 9.2

No real surprises among the top five, though a lot of people forget how good Eddie Collins was.  I like that Mantle and Mays are listed so closely together, since they’ve always been linked so closely in the imaginations of baseball fans.

[Eddie Collins, Philadelphia, AL (baseball)] (LOC)

[Eddie Collins, Philadelphia, AL (baseball)] (LOC) (Photo credit: The Library of Congress)

A-Rod’s listed WAR was compiled entirely in Seattle through his age 24 season.  It is highly unlikely he was using PED’s at that point.  Whether we like him or not, he has always been a legitimately great baseball player.

Clearly, Don Mattingly was on his way to being the next Lou Gehrig before his back problems struck.  Pujols sandwiched between Musial and Schmidt just feels right.  Who was the best Cardinals player ever?  I’ll take Musial by a hair over Pujols.

Look at the infielders listed 13-16.  Nomar was right there with Boggs, Ripkin and Hornsby through his age 28 season, then a wrist injury after his age 29 season reduced him to a shell of his former self.  After his age 28 season, he would accumulate just 9.0 additional WAR over the rest of his career.

Joe Jackson and Jackie Robinson, tied for 18th, are certainly two of the top five written about baseball players of the 20th century.  Robinson arrived, fully formed, in the Majors at age 28.  Therefore, it is highly likely that he would have accumulated significant additional WAR for his career had he broken in at a more typical 22 or 23 years of age.

Joe Jackson, on the other hand, certainly lost some additional career WAR at the end of his career.  Banned from baseball at age 32, his final season in 1920 (not 1919, as some people believe), was one of his finest.  There’s no reason to think  he wouldn’t have added significantly to his career WAR total had he played an additional 3-5 years.

Interesting how close Barry and his father, Bobby, were through their first five seasons.

Look at how close Dave Parker was to Johnny Mize.  Parker could have been great if he’d taken the game more seriously in the early ’80’s.

An image of Major League Baseball Hall of Fame...

An image of Major League Baseball Hall of Fame first baseman Johnny Mize. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If you had to pick either Andruw Jones or Ken Griffey, Jr. through their first five seasons, as you can see, it would have been a legitimate toss-up.

If you had to pick between Vada Pinson, Hank Aaron or Frank Robinson after just five seasons of each of their careers, are you sure you would have picked Aaron?  Pinson was a special player through age 26, then merely a decent player after that.

Look at Sal Bando!  He comes in ahead of his flashier teammate Reggie Jackson, and also ahead of fellow third basemen George Brett and Chipper Jones over their five initial seasons.

Back in the 1950’s, it was common to hear people speak of Willie, Mickey and The Duke.  But as you can see through their first five seasons (and this holds true for the most part over the rest of their careers,) although Duke Snider was a very fine ballplayer, he was never really in the same class as his fellow New York center fielders.

Would you have guessed that, through their first five seasons, shortstops Honus Wagner, Derek Jeter and Jim Fregosi were just about equally valuable?

They were each highly productive players from the beginning of their careers.  Wagner is probably one of the top ten players of all-time.  Jeter, of course, has enjoyed a Hall of Fame caliber career.  Fregosi, on the other hand, was pretty much done as a useful player at age 28, after which, of course, the Mets decided to trade away Nolan Ryan to obtain him.  Nice job, guys.

Once upon a time, Cesar Cedeno was a very fine baseball player.

When I was a kid, I thought Freddy Lynn was the greatest thing since Shake a Pudd’n.

Before the Red Sox had Jim Rice, there was Reggie Smith.  I am convinced that if they had kept Smith, he would have gone on into the Hall of Fame.  He was a better all around player than Rice, and he hit into fewer double plays.

O.K., so what’s up with Robin Yount and Roberto Clemente?  Their combined WAR for their first five years each adds up to just barely over 20.0.  Were they overrated?  How did they each manage to recover from such inauspicious debuts to go on to Hall of Fame careers?

Yount broke into the Majors at age 18, clearly before he was ready.  He spent the better part of the 1970’s just learning his craft.  But for the next five seasons, beginning in 1980, he accumulated another 34.7 WAR and won an MVP award.  Those were his age 24-28 seasons.  He won another MVP award in 1989, and finished his career with a HOF worthy 72.0 WAR.

As for Clemente, he, too, just wasn’t quite ready when he was brought up at age 20.  By age 26, however, he was ready to dominate, and dominate he did, winning a Gold Glove each of the next dozen seasons, winning an MVP award (and a World Series ring in ’71), and he finished his career with an outstanding 91 WAR.  Clearly, he was a late bloomer.

So, will Bryce Harper, only 19-years old, follow the career path of a Yount or a Clemente, or will he, alternatively, be the next Ty Cobb or Mickey Mantle?  A third possibility, which none of us hope for, is the Cesar Cedeno / Vada Pinson / Nomar Garciaparra career path.

Generally speaking, if he can accumulate at least 35 WAR in his first five years, he is probably on his way to a HOF career.  So let’s check back in after the 2016 season, and we’ll see how Harper’s career is progressing.

I’ll be waiting here, so don’t be late.

Harper, Trout, and the Early ’90’s

I read last night that Bryce Harper and Mike Trout were both being called up to their respective Major League franchises for their 2012 debuts.  For Harper, this will be his first cup of coffee in the Majors.  Whether he sticks this year or not remains to be seen.

Mike Trout

Mike Trout (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

For Mike Trout, he is returning to the Majors after a brief trial run last season during which he batted .220 with five home runs, 16 RBI and an OPS+ of 88.  Not really all that bad for a young kid.

And that may be the point we are forgetting here.  Yes, we know they are young.  But let’s really try to put into perspective how young they are.

Mike Trout was born on August 7, 1991.  Bryce Harper was born October 16, 1992.  Let’s take a look at what was going on in the world in each of those years.

In 1991, the year Trout was born:

1)  Operation Desert Storm was launched by Bush I vs. Iraq.

2)  Boris Yeltsin becomes Russia’s first popularly elected President.

3)  Apartheid in South Africa is officially dismantled.

4)  The internet is first made available to unrestricted commercial use.

5)  The Balkan War begins when Slovenia and Croatia declare independence from Yugoslavia.

6)  Lead singer Freddie Mercury of the Rock band Queen dies of AIDS.

7)  A former postal worker kills four people in the post office where he used to work in Ridgewood, N.J., resulting in the first use of the phrase, “Going Postal.”

8)  Serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer is arrested in his apartment in Milwaukee.

9)  Heavyweight boxer Mike Tyson is arrested and charged with rape.

10)  The Twins defeat the Braves, 4 games to 3, in the World Series.  Jack Morris pitches a ten-inning complete game in the Series Game 7 clincher.

In 1992, the year Harper was born:

Bryce Harper

Bryce Harper (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

1)  Prince Charles and Princess Diana separate.

2)  Bill Clinton is elected President of the U.S.A.

3)  The Nicotene patch is introduced to help stop smoking.

4)  America’s largest shopping mall, The Mall of America, opens in Minnesota.

5)  In a triumph of the public sector over the private sector, Mafia boss John Gotti is sentenced to life in prison.

6)  The first McDonald’s restaurant opens in China.

7)  Rioting breaks out in Los Angeles following the acquittal of four police officers in the Rodney King trial.

8)  The NAFTA Treaty, between the U.S., Canada and Mexico, is signed.

9)  The F.D.A. urges stopping the use of silicone gel breast implants.  The high water mark of the big-busted beach bimbo comes to an end.

10)  The Toronto Blue Jays defeat the Atlanta Braves in a six game World Series.

I don’t know about you, but most of these events don’t feel like they took place two decades ago.  I suppose two decades from now, if we’re still around, we’ll be able to evaluate the careers of Mike Trout and Bryce Harper.  Here’s wishing both young men the best of luck.

Baseball Predictions – 2012

As the calender turns to March, it is that time of year again when we force ourselves to turn away from the latest U.S. Women’s soccer headlines (“U.S. Starts Algarve Cup By Defeating Denmark!”), and turn, instead, towards the rising sun of Spring Training, and a new baseball season.

Which means it’s time for my 2012 baseball predictions.

You know the drill.  I predict, you shake your head sadly, we all forget about it a day later and move on with our lives.  So let’s get on with it.

American League 

East

1)  Tampa Bay

2)  Boston

3)  New York

4)  Toronto

5)  Baltimore

This is the year Tampa Bay begins to take charge in the East.  The pitching, the youth, the coherent plan emanating out of the front office.  It’s a good time to be a Rays fan.

Boston is still a very good team, but I don’t think they’ve gotten last season’s collapse out of their collective heads.  They wasted unbelievable seasons by Ellsbury and A-Gone, Beckett is a head-case, Lester let the team down in the end, and Bobby V. is too much of a lightning rod for this to be a smooth year in Boston.

With the retirement of Posada and the jettisoning of Burnett onto Planet Pittsburgh, The Yankees are going through a kind of youth movement by attrition.  Pineda was a nice pickup, but with two statues on the left side of the infield, a mediocre defensive outfield, and a team that is being heavily courted by the A.A.R.P, the Yankees have to hit a wall, and my money says it happens this year.

Toronto is like the girl on the fringe of her group that you should hit on because she’s the one most likely to say yes.  Not a threat to the others, but just interesting enough to keep your eye on.

Baltimore is the girl whom your best-friends wife insists has a nice personality.  Keep moving; nothing to see.

English: Miguel Cabrera at Dodger Stadium.

Image via Wikipedia

Central

1)  Detroit

2)  Cleveland

3)  Kansas City

4)  Chicago

5)  Minnesota

Not so comfortable with my three middle picks, but confident that Detroit and Minnesota will be the bookends.  I like where K.C. is headed, but I think Cleveland is, for the time being, a step ahead of them.

Robin Ventura will restore order in the White Sox clubhouse, and they could be better than I suspect, but there are just so many unanswered questions on this team right now that it is almost impossible to predict how they’ll finish.  So let me go ahead and foolishly say they’ll win 79 games.

Minnesota, even if Mauer and Morneau are reasonably healthy, is a bad team in a nice park.

West

1)  Angels

2)  Texas

3)  Seattle

4)  Oakland

If we’re going ahead this year with two Wild Card teams, and as of this writing it looks like we are, then one of the Wild Card teams will be either the Angels or the Rangers.  The other could be either Boston, or even, in a surprise, Cleveland.

Both the Angels and the Rangers have established themselves as the Dreadnoughts of the Western Division.  It should be a heavy-weight slug-fest of epic proportions, you know, like the ones we used to get excited about between the Red Sox and the Yankees.  I have to give a slight edge to Pujols and the Angels.

The Mariners, with Ichiro batting third, finish third by default because Oakland will basically field a Four-A baseball team (again) this season.

A.L.  MVP – Albert Pujols

Cy Young – David Price  

Rookie of the Year – Brett Lawrie  

National League

Bryce Harper

Image via Wikipedia

East

1)  Phillies

2)  Atlanta

3)  Nationals

4)  Florida

5)  New York

It all begins with the pitching, and I think the Phillies will find a way to score enough runs to support their legendary pitching staff.  Their window may not be open for much longer, but they should be able to hold off the competition in their own division.

The Braves have excellent young pitching, but there are some players on that team (Hanson, Jones, Jurrjens, and others) that are good friends with the D.L, and I’m not sure their lineup is sufficient to score enough runs to keep their pitchers from blowing out their arms.  Jason Heyward’s performance will go a long way in determining the overall success of this team.

I really like the Nats.  I think they are only a year or two away from being serious contenders.  I was even tempted to pick them to finish in second place in the N.L. East, but I chose the safe pick instead.  Harper will play at some point, and, for the Nats, the earlier the better.  Strasburg and the two Zimmerman boys (Jordan and Ryan) along with Harper will offer a plethora of choices for Nats fans to cheer about.

It is much anticipated that the Marlins, with all the changes they’ve made (not the least of which is their brand new stadium) will perhaps challenge for the top of the division this year, and perhaps they will.  I think Mike (Giancarlo, please) Stanton will lead the league in home runs.  But I also think  the rest of their best players are all too injury prone to lead this team out of mediocrity.  They’ll win more than they’ll lose, but they won’t see more than 85 wins this year.

The Mets won’t compete until around 2014, but I do like their G.M. and his associates, and Terry Collins was a good boy in Year #1.  Reyes was more exciting than he was highly productive, and I think they’ll be able to replace the runs they lost when he booked town, bogus batting title in tow.  But their pitching is probably the worst in the division, and until a couple of their young pitching prospects develop, and until current ownership is towed out to sea and buried in a lead-lined container, the immediate future looks bleak.

Central

1)  Brewers

2)  Reds

3)  Cardinals

4)  Cubs

5)  Pirates

6)  Astros

I had a hard time picking the winner here, but I like the Brewers starting pitching, and Braun will be back for a full year after-all, so I think they have enough to keep the wolves at bay for 2012.  The Reds are just too enigmatic to predict (though Votto is great)  and, yes, the Cardinals have been weakened by the losses of Pujols, LaRussa and Duncan.  Even with the return of Wainwright, I just don’t see enough pitching there to grab the division.

The Cubs, Astros and Pirates are each in various stages of rebuilding (or, in the Pirates case, re-re-re-rebuilding.)  The Cubs seem to be in the best position to turn things around the quickest of this group, but not this year.

West

1)  Diamondbacks

2)  Giants

3)  Rockies

4)  Dodgers

5)  Padres

The Diamondbacks are for real, and no other team in this division has enough balance to challenge them this year.  Justin Upton could win the MVP award this season.  They are not a GREAT team, but they are perfectly capable of repeating in this mediocre division.

I considered picking the Rockies to finish third, but Tulowitzki is due to carry this team into the playoffs (and, with a second Wild Card, he still might.)

I love the Giants top three pitchers:  Lincecum, Cain, and Bumgarner, but this team reminds me a little of the Mets in the early-to-mid ’70’s, excellent starting pitching with a well-below average offense.  They should win 80-something ballgames, but until they locate another serious bat, their fans will be treated to a lot of 3-2 pitching duels.

Even the magic of Kemp and Kershaw couldn’t lift the Dodgers out of mediocrity last year, and I don’t expect things to change much this year.  Another proud franchise undermined by horrid ownership.

The Padres play in lovely San Diego, so even if they suck, their fans will enjoy the day at the park.

N.L. MVP – Joey Votto  

Cy Young – Yovani Gallardo

Rookie of the Year – Bryce Harper

Post Navigation