The On Deck Circle

Baseball History, Commentary and Analysis

Archive for the tag “Cubs”

2010 Baseball Season: Observations and Analysis

Yes, the 2010 Major League baseball season is only two weeks old, but it isn’t too early to share some observations about what has transpired between the foul lines up to this point.

There have been the usual surprisingly hot starts, and the annual April disappointments.  But the real question is, which of these trends are for real, and which are merely April aberrations?

So let’s see if we can read the tea leaves of early April, and draw some reasonable conclusions.

Since the Yankees won the World Series last season, why not begin with them?

Well, my friends, whether you love them or hate them, this year’s Yankees, who already have a 9-3 record, appear play-off bound once again.

The quartet of Pettitte, Jeter, Posada and Rivera show no signs of slowing down.  And don’t look now, but lead-off man Brett Gardner has seven stolen bases and a .333 batting average.  Meanwhile, C.C. Sabathia again looks like he’ll finish in the top five in Cy Young voting by season’s end.

First baseman Mark Teixeira is off to his usual slow start, but he’ll end up posting his typical, highly productive numbers.

One Yankee, however, appears to be in for a long, miserable year at Yankee Stadium.  Javier Vazquez has already been booed mercilessly this year at home, and unless he can quickly turn around his poor start, the Yankees may be forced to figure out a way to pitch him only on the road as early as Memorial Day.

I wrote about the possibility of this happening to Vazquez in “A Tale of Two Pitchers,” in my December 23, 2009 blog-post.

Across town, however, the Mets appear to be a team on which either the hitters will let the pitchers down, or the pitchers just won’t show up, on any particular night.  At this point, it appears reasonable to suggest that the Mets might be closer to the Nationals in the standings come September than they will be to either the Marlins or the Braves.

The good news, perhaps, is that the Mike Jacobs fiasco has apparently ended in Queens.  First base prospect Ike Davis is set to be called up to The Show as early as today.

On the other hand, Jason Bay, a player who I devoted an entire blog-post to, “Keeping the Wolves at Bay” (December 31, 2009), has been awful.  Bay has yet to hit a homer, has two RBI, and is “hitting” .222.  In Saturday night’s 20 inning win over the Cardinals, Bay went 0-7 with four strikeouts.

It won’t be long until Mets fans begin booing him mercilessly at Citi Field.

Here are several other random observations and conclusions I’ve drawn to date:

Matt Garza already needs to be considered the front-runner for the A.L. Cy Young award.  He is 3-0 with a nearly invisible 0.75 ERA.  Yes, he is for real, and yes, it wasn’t difficult to see this coming.  Although he won only eight games last season, his peripheral numbers were excellent.

As I’ve said before, a pitcher’s win total is the last thing you should look at when trying to predict future success.

Meanwhile, over in Washington, Pudge Rodriguez is apparently not quite finished playing baseball.  He is hitting .444 with a .639 slugging average, and his presence seems to be buoying the mostly young Nats, who are off to a respectable 6-6 start.

When Pudge retires, he should be a first ballot Hall-of-Famer.

Vlad Guerrerro also isn’t quite done, enjoying something of a resurgence in Texas.  As I write this, he is batting about .378.  Truth be told, though, virtually all of his hits have been singles.  Don’t expect much of his old power to return, and his base-running skills have long since eroded.

But is Vlad Guerrerro, perhaps, the most under-appreciated Super Star this sport has ever seen?

Yes, Baltimore (2-11) and Houston (3-9) really are this bad.

Which brings me to…

Carlos Lee.  The man is toast.  He has had a nice run over the past decade, but he is less than a shadow of his old self.  In fact, he would have difficulty even casting a shadow in down-town Los Angeles these days.

Lee’s batting average is currently hovering around .100.  If played in the A.L., a manager might use a pitcher to DH for his spot in the lineup.

Carlos Lee’s slugging average is the lowest I’ve ever seen, .104.  Yes, it’s early in the year.  But let’s face it, only a team as bad as Houston would continue to play him on a regular basis.

And speaking of finished, another slow start would seem to indicate that Big Papa himself, David Ortiz, is all but done in Boston.  And don’t look for a second half surge like the one he displayed last season.

Don’t look now, but the Giants are a surprising 8-4.  Pitching, of course, is the main reason why they are playing so well.  All four front-line starters have contributed, with Barry Zito posting an early season 1.86 ERA, and Jonathon O. Sanchez showing excellent strikeout ability (17 K’s in 12 innings.)

The Dodgers young outfield duo of Matt Kemp and Andre Ethier are good, very good.  Both are slugging in excess of .600.

The top five players in the A.L. are Joe Mauer, Miguel Cabrera, Dustin Pedroia, Evan Longoria, and Shin-Soo Choo.

Baseball’s best kept secret is Shin-Soo Choo, the Cleveland Indian’s outfielder from South Korea.  His current numbers:  .350 batting average, .500 on-base average, .725 slugging percentage.  Last season, he was a 20-20 man while sporting a .300 average, very good defense, and nice base-running skills.

Choo’s teammate, Grady Sizemore, garners far more publicity, but Choo is the more complete player.

Brian Matusz, the Orioles rookie pitcher, is poised to win the A.L. Rookie of the Year award.  At 2-0, he has both of Baltimore’s wins, and his ERA is a respectable 4.34.

Atlanta outfielder Jason Heyward is a man-child who will easily win the N.L. Rookie of the Year award.  His line so far: .302, .423, .581, and he already has 15 RBI’s.

His teammate, Martin Prado, is off to an unbelievable start, hitting .426 with an astounding .500 on base average.  Even during the no-hitter that Rockies pitcher Ubaldo Jimenez tossed against the Braves on Saturday night, Prado managed to reach base twice on bases on balls.

Last year’s N.L. Rookie of the Year, Casey Mcgehee of the Brewers, appears not to have been a one-year wonder.  He is currently batting .400 with a .778 slugging percentage.

File this under – What a Difference a Year Makes.

Last season, Jason Marquis finished with a 15-13 record and an ERA of 4.04 while pitching for the Rockies.  This season, pitching for the Nationals, he is 0-3 with an ERA of 20.52.

Perhaps he should have stayed in that new-found pitcher’s paradise, Coor’s Field.

File this under – Give Credit Where Credit is Due.

I have been highly critical of Mets outfielder Jeff Francoer over the past year.  He doesn’t walk nearly enough, and he swings at just about anything not thrown over to first base on a pick-off move.  He has also been a lousy base-stealer.

Yet this season, lo and behold, “Frenchy,” as his admirer’s call him, is hitting .364 with an on-base average of .444 (suggesting new-found patience at the plate), and he threw out Cardinals base-runner Ryan Ludwick at the plate in tonight’s game.

Although I don’t expect these numbers to hold up over the course of the season, if he doubles his walk rate from a year ago, he’ll be a useful major league regular.

The Cubbies, meanwhile, are spinning their wheels already with a 5-7 record.  Let’s face it.  This is a very expensive, very mediocre team.  By mid-season, if not earlier, the Cubs should begin the process of dismantling their roster piece by piece.  This franchise desperately need an infusion of younger, cheaper players with upside.

How about the Red Sox, the team that I picked to win the 2010 World Series?

Well, a 4-8 start may very soon lead to much grumbling (if it hasn’t started already), that the BoSox off-season strategy of placing a new emphasis on pitching and defense seems to have backfired.

Yet the reality is that they have had a couple of key injuries (Ellsbury and Cameron), their starting pitching has been decent, and once V-Mart, Youkilis, Ellsbury and Pedroia all get hot as the year progresses,  I still think their offense will be fine.

With one caveat:  David Ortiz should be benched sooner than later.

Remember that last season, the Yankees began the year with a slew of injuries.  But by about the second weak of May, they began to click on all cylinders and never looked back.

The Red Sox can still do the same this season, although the Tampa Bay Rays should be making both the Red Sox and the Yankees nervous this season.

The Rays have gotten off to a 9-3 start, and they are a young, talented club.  If the Sox fall too far back early on, it will be much more difficult to catch two teams than it would be to catch only one.

Finally, congratulations to the Minnesota Twins on their beautiful new ball-park in downtown Minneapolis.  Remember, this was a franchise that nearly became extinct a few years ago when baseball was considering contraction.

Now, however,  watching the Twins begin the 2010 season with a 9-4 record, locking up catcher Joe Mauer to a long-term contract, and finally getting out of the Baggie Dome, the future of this franchise looks very bright indeed.

Next time:

Underrated / Overrated:  Baseball, and Other Stuff – Part 2

Under the Radar, Part 4: Soldiering on in Chicago

This is the fourth installment of a periodic series I call “Under the Radar.”

In this series, I take a closer look at players who have enjoyed their fair share of success as major league baseball players, but who are not usually associated with baseball’s biggest stars, players such as Derek Jeter, A-Rod, or Albert Pujols.

These players have toiled, in effect, Under the Radar.

Yes, it is true that in their own baseball towns, they may enjoy a loyal, even affectionate fan-base.  They may even represent their team in the All-Star Game.  Yet somehow they manage to remain out of the gossip columns while being productive, though not flashy,  players for their respective teams.

In this edition of Under the Radar, I will take a closer look at a pair of first baseman who have soldiered on in Chicago for the past several years.

Specifically, I will be examining the careers of Derrek Lee of the Cubs, and Paul Konerko of the White Sox.

Once I began to take a closer look at the career statistics of these two players, it became strikingly clear how similar their respective careers have been.

To begin with, both players are 34-years old.  Both players bat and throw right-handed.  Both players made their professional debuts in the National League in 1997.  Therefore, they have each played thirteen seasons in the major leagues.

Both Derrek Lee and Paul Konerko are with their third major league organizations.  Lee began his career as a member of the Padres, played for the Marlins for six seasons, and is now about to enter his seventh season with the Cubs.

Konerko came up as a catcher in the Dodgers organization, played briefly with the Reds and has been a member of the White Sox since 1999.

Even many of their career statistics are strikingly similar:

Konerko has played in 1700 games.  Lee has played in 1681 games.

Konerko has logged 6893 plate appearances.  Lee has 6860.

Konerko has 1690 hits.  Lee has 1701 hits.

Konerko has 326 homers.  Lee has hit 293 home runs.

Konerko has compiled 2991 total bases.  Lee has 3016 total bases, a difference of a scant 25 bases spread out over 13 seasons.

Konerko has produced 1601 runs in his career (Runs + RBI’s – Homers.)

Lee has produced 1592 runs in his career.

And, in case you have forgotten, both players have one World Series Championship ring to their credit.  Lee won his while playing with the Marlins in 2003.  Konerko won his World Championship ring just a couple of years later in 2005.

But, as you would expect, there are some differences as well.  Beginning with the obvious, Derrek Lee is a black man playing in Chicago’s North End, a predominantly white, Central and Eastern European-leaning culture.

Paul Konerko is a white man who plays in Chicago’s predominantly black South-Side.

It should be noted here that both players have enjoyed overwhelmingly positive experiences in Chicago, despite the color of their skin, and the ballparks they play in.

As far as their baseball skills are concerned, Derrek Lee has been the better defensive player of the two.  Lee has three Gold Gloves to his credit; Konerko has none.  Konerko was, however, a defensive upgrade over Frank Thomas who became a full-time D.H. once Konerko arrived.

Lee has also been the better base-runner of the two.  Lee has stolen 101 bases in his career, although he has also been caught 44 times.  Meanwhile, Konerko has only attempted 10 stolen bases in his entire career!  But he has been successful eight times.

Lee also has 28 triples to Konerko’s seven.

Although both players have been significant run producers, Lee has been better at scoring runs, while Konerko has been a little better at driving runs in.

Specifically, Lee has scored 90 or more runs in seven different seasons, while driving in 90+ runs in five seasons.

Konerko, on the other hand, has topped 90 runs scored three times, but he has driven in 90 or more runs seven times, topping 100 RBI’s four times.

Konerko has played in three All-Star Games; Lee has played in two.

Lee has finished in the top 10 in N.L. MVP voting twice; Konerko has finished in his league’s top ten once.

In 2005, the year Konerko won his World Series ring with the White Sox, Lee enjoyed the best season of his career.  He led the N.L. in hits (199), doubles (50), home runs (46) slugging percentage (.662) and total bases (393.)

Konerko, on the other hand, has never led his league in any category in any season, except Grounding Into Double Plays (28 in 2003.)

Lee’s career OPS (On Base plus Slugging) is .873.

Konerko’s career OPS is .843.

Overall, then, it wouldn’t be inaccurate to say that Derrek Lee has been a slightly better player than Paul Konerko over the past 13 seasons.

Are either of these players potential Hall of Fame candidates?  Probably not.  Although both have had very productive careers, the expectations  for Hall-of-Fame enshrinement tend to be greater for first basemen than for perhaps any other position.

After all, this is the position played by Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx, Willie McCovey, Hank Greenberg, Harmon Killebrew and Eddie Murray.

By the time each of them retires, Derrek Lee and Paul Konerko will probably finish their careers in the second tier of first basemen, a level that includes Will Clark, Don Mattingly, Keith Hernandez and Fred McGriff.

Finally, it is interesting to note, however, that if you look up both players’ career statistics at Baseball-Reference.Com, you will discover, historically speaking, whose careers both players most closely match.

To this point in his career, Derrek Lee’s career most closely matches that of Kent Hrbek, Fred McGriff, Tim Salmon… and Paul Konerko.

To this point in his career, Paul Konerko’s career most closely matches that of Kent Hrbek, Fred McGriff, Boog Powell… and Derrek Lee.

On either side of the Windy City, then, the people of Chicago have been treated to solid, consistent, and extremely similar careers by each team’s respective middle-of-the-order, run-producing first baseman contemporaneously.

Can any other baseball town in America count itself so lucky?

Under the Radar: Part 2

This is the second installment of  a series of blog posts called “Under the Radar.”   This series is a periodic examination of the careers of currently active players who have achieved success in their major league careers, but who are certainly not household names.

In the first part of this series, I took a look at the careers of Roy Oswalt and Carlos Beltran.  Both have the numbers to be considered Hall of Fame candidates, depending on how they perform over the next half a dozen years or so.  But as I write this, news has just come in that Beltran is expected to miss the first month or two of the 2010 season due to on-going knee problems.

In this blog post, we will take a look at two highly productive players who have been overshadowed at their respective positions by higher profile players such as Chipper Jones and Mariano Rivera.  Specifically, we will take a look today at the careers of Joe Nathan, relief pitcher for the Twins, and Aramis Ramirez, the Chicago Cubs third baseman.

Let’s begin with Joe Nathan.  If you have played Fantasy Baseball over the past several years, you are part of a sub-culture that has come to greatly appreciate Joe Nathan’s contributions to baseball.  Outside of Fantasy Baseball and Minnesota, however, not a lot of people have any idea who Joe Nathan is.

This is unfortunate, because for the past half dozen years or so, Joe Nathan has been one of the most dominant PITCHERS (not just closers) in baseball history.  How can I make such a bold statement?  Let’s take a look at the statistics:

Since taking over as the Twins closer in 2004, Nathan has saved 246 games, an average of 41 per season, the most over that time span.  His career save percentage is just a bit under 90%, the same as Mariano Rivera who is universally considered the best closer of all-time.

Nathan has averaged well over a strikeout per inning in his career (9.4 K’s per nine innings.)  His career ERA is 2.75, and he has logged four seasons with an ERA under 2.00 over the past six seasons.

Nathan has been named to four All-Star teams, and he has finished in the top five in Cy Young voting twice.

But perhaps the most amazing statistic about Joe Nathan is that he has allowed an average of only 6.5 hits per nine innings throughout his nine year career during which he has logged 685 innings pitched.  How phenomenal is that statistic?

It ties Nathan with Nolan Ryan for the fewest hits per nine innings in major league baseball history.  That’s pretty amazing.

So why is it that Mariano Rivera garners all of the accolades, while Joe Nathan just pitches outstanding baseball?  Well, for one reason, Rivera pitches in the media capital of the world.  Nathan pitches in a place that usually leads the nation in lowest temperatures recorded in the continental United States.

Actually, the biggest difference between these two great pitchers is post-season performance.  Rivera is simply the greatest post-season closer of all-time, having logged 39 saves while posting an 8-1 record, an ERA of 0.74, and a ridiculous WHIP of .0773.

Joe Nathan has pitched eight innings in the post-season, giving up seven earned runs for an ERA of 7.88.

Still, over the past several seasons, if you had picked Joe Nathan over Mariano Rivera for your Fantasy Baseball team, you would not have noticed any significant difference between the two.

And since Joe Nathan appears to be a healthy 35 years old, he should have a few more dominating years ahead of him.

The other player that I think is a good addition to my squadron of under-appreciated players is Cubs third-sacker Aramis Ramirez.

Ramirez will be 32 years old this June, and has been in the majors for twelve seasons.  Few third basemen have ever been more consistent, especially with the bat.

Ramirez has hit 264 homers, and he has driven in 946 runs.  That means that this season, at age 32, he has a chance to surpass one thousand RBI’s, and perhaps hit his 300th home run.  He has also scored 732 runs, has hit 317 doubles, and has over 1,500 hits to his credit.

He is also capable of hitting for a respectable batting average, as his .286 career mark reveals.  His career slugging percentage of .503 is better than Hall-of-Fame third basemen Wade Boggs, George Brett, Pie Traynor, Brooks Robinson and Ken Boyer.

Aramis Ramirez has played in two All-Star games, and he has finished in the top ten in MVP voting twice in his career.

His most impressive statistic, however, is his six 100+ RBI seasons over the past nine years.  He already has more 100 RBI seasons than Eddie Matthews, and as many as Ron Santo and Brooks Robinson combined.  Also, Ramirez’s .847 career OPS is higher than HOF’er Pie Traynor, and nearly as high as HOF’ers George Brett and Wade Boggs.

In fact, there are only about four or five third basemen in history who clearly have better numbers:  Mike Schmidt, Chipper Jones, Eddie Matthews (many more homers) George Brett and Wade Boggs.  Ramirez is closing in on the next tier of third basemen that includes Ken Boyer, Stan Hack, Ron Santo and Darrell Evans.

The third base position has always been historically weaker than most people imagine.  One would think that, just like first base and outfield, there would be numerous players who accumulated impressive statistics over the years.  But, in reality, it has been one of the weakest hitting positions on the diamond, more comparable to shortstop than to first base.

For this reason alone, we might find ourselves one day taking a second look at his career totals to decide whether or not a serious argument can be made that Aramis Ramirez belongs in the Hall of Fame.

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