The On Deck Circle

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Archive for the tag “Ryan Braun”

The Baseball Hall of Fame: A Qualitative Analysis, Part 6

When last we reviewed the inductees into the baseball Hall of Fame, we observed that during the decade of the 1980’s, Hall of Fame voters did a reasonably nice job with their choices.  Certainly, compared to the 1970’s and to some other previous decades we’ve looked at before, the 1980’s was something approaching a Golden Age for the Hall of Fame.

And a Golden Age for the HOF is what we’ve been looking for all along.  Has the baseball Hall of Fame, as some writers and fans seem to believe, ever enjoyed an era when only the best of the best were inducted?

In Parts 1-5 in this series, what we have found is that in virtually every decade outside of the 1930’s, the voters have made some highly questionable –in some cases just plain terrible– choices for the Hall of Fame.

Yet the decade of the 1980’s, in which only a couple of really poor choices were made, offers reason for hope that HOF voting is finally on its way to reaching that much spoken of, yet mysteriously elusive, Golden Age.

So let’s now turn to the 1990’s and see if the voters continued to build on this momentum, or if, instead, they reverted to form.  And once again, BBWAA is the Baseball Writers Association of America, while the V.C. is the Veteran’s Committee, a motley assortment of scruffy little elves who live in the bowels of the Hall of Fame.

Major League Baseball player Joe Morgan of the...

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1990:  BBWAA – Joe Morgan, Jim Palmer

Despite the fact that former 10 time All-Star and two-time N.L. MVP  second baseman Joe Morgan often embarrasses himself every time he opens his mouth as an announcer, he was one of top three greatest  second baseman of all time.  Ironically, despite his own egregious examples of ignorance regarding modern baseball statistics, it is precisely sabermetrics that holds Morgan’s career in highest regard.

Morgan’s career WAR of 103.5 is 20th best all-time among position players.  His career OPS+ of 132 rates him as high as Tony Gwynn and Al Simmons.  Otherwise, Morgan was just a career .271 hitter who never reached 200 hits, 40 doubles, or 300 total bases in a season.

So you see, Joe, sabermetrics are your best friend, if you would just stop talking long enough to allow the oxygen to enter your brain.

Jim Palmer was the ace of the Orioles pitching staffs once upon a time, but I remember him better, perhaps unfairly so, as the man who modeled underwear in magazines.  My own favorite pitcher of the era, Tom Seaver, modeled three-piece suits while pretending to throw fastballs (tacky, I admit, but at least he kept his pants on.)

1991:  BBWAA – Rod Carew, Ferguson Jenkins, Gaylord Perry  V.C.  Tony Lazzeri 

Busy year for The Hall.  Carew, Jenkins and Perry are all laudable choices.  Carew was one of the finest natural hitters of all-time.  He was voted onto every All-Star team from 1967-1984.  Carew won seven batting titles.  Strangely, despite all the times he reached base, only once did he top 100 runs scored in a season.

Jenkins, perhaps the greatest Canadian-born player in Major League history, reached 20 wins in a season seven times.  His career WAR of 81.3 is 20th best all-time among pitchers.

Perry topped 300 wins while leading the league in wins three times with three different teams.  He won two Cy Young awards (one in each league), and is 10th on the career WAR list for pitchers at 96.3.  One of the last of the spit-ball pitchers, it is interesting to me that MLB picks the rules it chooses to either ignore or enforce, apparently based on no particular guidelines other than will this be bad for P.R.?

English: 1933 Goudey card of Tony Lazzeri of t...

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Tony Lazzeri was a slugging second baseman for the Yankees in the 1920’s and ’30’s.  His huge RBI totals have led many to believe that he is one of the all-time greats at his position.  Between 1926-36, he topped 100 RBI seven times, and reached a .300 batting average five times.

His overall game, however, was simply good, but not great.  His career OPS+ of 120, and career WAR of 48.3 reveal a player who was, and remains generally overrated, though certainly not merely average.  A flawed, if somewhat defensible choice for The Hall.

1992:  BBWAA – Rollie Fingers, Tom Seaver  V.A.  Hal Newhouser 

Are you old enough to remember when the Rolaids Relief Pitcher of the Year was a new award?  Do you remember when closers were called “fireman?”  Do you remember when these “fireman” used to regularly pitch over 100 innings per season?

Enter Rollie Fingers.  The Rolaids Relief award was created in 1976, and Fingers then went on to win the award four times, as well as a Cy Young and A.L. MVP award in 1981 for the Brewers.  He topped 100 innings in a season eleven times, and made five All-Star games.  He was most famous, of course, for his handlebar mustache while pitching for the great A’s teams of the 1970’s.

Some have argued that Fingers was a bit overrated, and that his reputation far exceeded his statistical excellence.  My response to that is, I’d like to care, but these are closers we are talking about, a position that just doesn’t interest me.  The “Save” stat is one of the most bogus of any major sport.  Therefore, if we have to put relief pitchers in The Hall, I’ll take the one with the best mustache.

Tom Seaver:  A reasonable argument can be made that Tom Seaver was the greatest pitcher of all time.

Hal Newhouser won consecutive MVP awards while pitching for the Detroit Tigers in 1944-45.  Incredibly, he also finished second in MVP voting in 1946.  Over a five-year period, 1944-48, he led the league in wins four times, averaging 25 wins per season during those four years.  His WAR of 56.3 (better than Whitey Ford) and his career ERA+ of 130 are HOF worthy.

English: Reggie Jackson signs with the New Yor...

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1993:  BBWAA – Reggie Jackson

Mr. October was one of the most conceited, brash, exciting and controversial baseball players ever.  In a way few other athletes have ever been able to do (Muhammad Ali comes to mind), Reggie Jackson could regularly back up his words with his performance.  Sure, he struck out a ton, but first in Oakland, then especially in New York City, Reggie defined the meaning of the word Super-Star.

If Reggie Jackson is not a Hall of Famer, then no one is.

1994:  BBWAA – Steve Carlton, V.C.  Phil Rizzuto

Steve Carlton had a running feud with the press.  Phil Rizzuto became a member of the press after he retired from baseball.  Carlton got into The Hall despite his poor relationship with the media. Rizzuto got into The Hall primarily because he worked in the media.  Carlton was a great pitcher who belongs in The Hall.  Phil Rizzuto was a decent shortstop who had one great year but who clearly does not belong in the HOF.  The BBWAA got it right, the V.C. got it wrong.

1995:  BBWAA – Mike Schmidt  V.C.  Richie Ashburn, Vic Willis

Eight-time Home Run champ, three-time N.L. MVP, ten time Gold Glove winner Mike Schmidt was the greatest third baseman in MLB history.  What I’ve never understood is how Pie Traynor of the old 1920’s and ’30’s Pirates was widely considered the best third baseman in history until Schmidt came along.  Anyone ever hear of a guy named Eddie Mathews?

Richie Ashburn played center field for the Phillies in the late ’40’s and into the ’50’s before finishing his career with the Cubs and the ’62 Mets.  Although he hit with very little power, he was an on-base machine, played hard, and was a Gold Glove caliber outfielder.  He knew what his job was, and he always did it well.  Solid choice for the HOF.

English: Portrait of former MLB pitcher Vic Wi...

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Vic Willis played in the National League the last two years of the 19th century, then 11 more in the 20th century.  He topped 20 wins eight times in 13 years, but he never led the league in wins.  He did, however, lead the league in losses twice, reaching a high of 29 losses for the terrible Boston Beaneaters in 1905.  His 249-205 record does not scream Hall of Famer, nor does his ERA+ of 118.  Still, he is at least a half-way defensible choice, if not an obvious one.

But what the hell was he doing wearing a catcher’s mask in this picture?  Looks a little creepy, doesn’t he?

1996:  V.C.  Jim Bunning

As a U.S. Senator from Kentucky, Jim Bunning was not one of my favorite people. As a pitcher, though, Jim Bunning probably does belong in the HOF.

Career record: 224-184, ERA 3.27, ERA+ 114, WAR: 60.1.

1997:  BBWAA – Phil Niekro  V.C.  Nellie Fox

The knuckleball is one goofy pitch, but if you are the best knuckleballer of all time (96.3 WAR), you gotta belong in The Hall.  Niekro topped 300 wins over the course of a quarter century of baseball.  He led the league in complete games and innings pitched four times each, and in wins twice.  Pitching for some horrific Braves teams, he also led the league in losses for four straight years, 1977-80.

For whatever reason, there were a lot of pitchers who came up in the late 1960’s and pitched well into the ’80’s, tossing an enormous amount of innings along the way:  Seaver, Carlton, Blyleven, Perry, Niekro, John, Kaat, Sutton, Ryan, etc.

I’m not sure why that is, but I have a hunch that, as the Great Depression and World War II wound down, the average caloric intake and overall nutritional improvement (more protein, for example), in the diet of the youth of that era played an underrated role in the size, strength and stamina of these future Major League pitchers.  Knuckleballs and spitballs aside, this was one durable generation.

English: Chicago White Sox second baseman . Le...

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Nellie Fox had a girl’s name (sounds like a leading lady from the silent film era), but he played one helluva second base.  Fox just missed election by the BBWAA (74.7 percent) in his last year on the ballot in 1985, so give credit to the V.C. for correcting that oversight.

Fox led his league in assists six times, and, beginning in 1952, he led the league in putouts ten consecutive years.  His career d WAR: 10.0, is among the top ten all-time among second basemen, and he won three Gold Gloves.  Made every All-Star team from 1951-63.  Despite over 10,000 plate appearances, he never struck out as many as 20 times in one season.  Won A.L. MVP honors in 1959 for the Go-Go White Sox.  There’s enough there for induction into the HOF.

1998:  BBWAA – Don Sutton  V.C.  George Davis

Don Sutton snuck up on us.  In his first decade as a Dodgers pitcher, he was recognized as one of the most consistently good pitchers in the N.L., but few people would have guessed that one day, he would make the Hall of Fame.

In his 23-year career, Sutton never led the league in wins, win-loss percentage, or strikeouts.  He led the league in ERA just once.  He never won a Cy Young award (although five times he finished in the top five.)  But only Cy Young and Nolan Ryan started more games than Sutton, only six pitchers in history threw more innings, and Sutton stands at #7 on the all-time strikeout list with 3,574, two places ahead of Walter Johnson.

Sutton compiled a 324-256 record, despite enjoying just one 20-win season.  Sutton was never the best pitcher in the league, but, cumulatively, he was one of the best starting pitchers who ever lived.

English: George Davis, Major League Baseball H...

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George Davis broke in as a 19-year old outfielder with a terrible Cleveland Spiders team (44-88) in 1890.  Eventually, he shifted to third base, then shortstop (the reverse of the usual pattern) and got traded to the Giants, where he wound down the 19th century.  He finished out his career in the early aught’s of the 20th century with the White Sox.

Along the way, he amassed 2,665 hits, 1,545 runs scored, 619 stolen bases, and an OPS+ of 121.  His career WAR was an outstanding 90.7.  He was the best player in the A.L. in 1905.

He also might just be the finest baseball player in history that almost no one has ever heard of.

1999:  BBWAA – George Brett, Nolan Ryan, Robin Yount  V.C.  Orlando Cepeda

Are you kidding me?  This group has to go down as one of the finest in the history of the Hall of Fame.

The first thing that comes to mind about George Brett is how, when Yankees manager Billy Martin protested that Brett’s bat had too much pine tar on it in a game at Yankee Stadium on July 24, 1983, the umpire ruled that the home run Brett just hit in the top of the ninth to put the Royals ahead was null and void.  Brett came storming out of the dugout like a wild man.

The umpire’s decision was later overruled by the A.L. President, the game was resumed, and the Royals later won the game three weeks later.

Brett also made an improbable run at becoming the first hitter to bat .400 since Ted Williams in 1941 when he finished with a .390 average in 1980.  Brett hit at least .300 eleven times, winning three batting titles along the way (his last in 1990 when he was already 37-years old.)  Brett ranks 6th on the career doubles list with an astounding total of 665, and he lashed 3,154 hits in his career. An obvious HOF’er.

How great was Nolan Ryan?  His 5,714 strikeouts are a record that I can’t ever see being broken.  He surpassed the great Walter Johnson’s once hallowed career strikeout total by over 2,000 strikeouts!  Ryan led his league in strikeouts a ridiculous eleven times, threw a record seven no-hitters and is tied with Bob Feller for the most one-hitters with 12.

Ryan’s 6.6 hits / 9 innings is the lowest (therefore, the best) rate in baseball history.  No one, including Sandy Koufax, was harder to hit.  Ryan also won 324 games in his career.  His 61 shutouts are tied with Tom Seaver for seventh place in baseball history.

Yet Ryan never won a Cy Young award.  He also never led the league in wins, but he did once lead the league in losses.  His career walk total, 2,795, is 50% higher than any other starting pitcher in baseball history.    In fact, he walked more batters in his career than Walter Johnson and Cy Young combined.

Ryan’s 292 career losses are the third most ever, and his .526 won-loss percentage is rather low by HOF standards.  His career ERA+ of 112 is the same as Derek Lowe, Juan Guzman and the immortal Ice Box Chamberlain.  Ryan’s career WAR of 84.8, is 16th best among pitchers.

Although it is somewhat difficult to gauge exactly where Ryan rates among the game’s greatest pitchers because he is so unique, I think it is safe to say he does not belong in the top ten.  Placing him in the middle or lower half of the top 20 sounds about right.

English: Major League Baseball Hall of Famer R...

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Robin Yount is the greatest player in Milwaukee Brewers team history.  Just an 18-year old kid when he came up in 1974, he played his entire 20-year career with the Brewers.  He was their starting shortstop through 1984, then at age 29 he moved into the outfield.

Yount is the Brewer’s all-time leader in at bats (11,008), hits (3,142), runs scored (1,632), doubles (583), triples (126), home runs (yes, home runs, 251), RBI (1,406), total bases (4,730), and WAR (76.9).  He also won two A.L. MVP awards.  He obviously belongs in the HOF.

Orlando (Baby Bull) Cepeda, the V.C.’s HOF offering for 1999, had one of the greatest starts to his career of any ballplayer in history.  Beginning at age 20 in 1958, Cepeda drove in at least 96 runs in each of his first seven years for the S.F. Giants, averaging nearly 32 homers per year while regularly batting over .300.  Yet he enjoyed only a couple of excellent years after that run, and he was essentially done as a ballplayer by age 33.

Cepeda was voted Rookie of the Year in 1958, and he won the 1967 N.L. MVP award.  His career WAR, 46.8, is a bit on the low side.  But during his peak years in his 20’s, he was one of the best players in the National League.  While his induction into the HOF can be viewed as questionable, it was not wholly undeserved.

The 1990’s, then, were the best overall decade for the HOF since the 1930’s.  Fully 83% of the players elected during this decade were very solid choices, and only one, Phil Rizzuto, was obviously a poor choice.

If, then, you are looking for the Golden Age of the Hall of Fame, the recent 1990’s might be your era.

Next time, in Part 7 of this series, we’ll look at HOF elections during the first decade of the 21st century.  Then we’ll see if we can draw any conclusions as we sift through the final overall numbers of Hall membership.

See the links below if you want to take a look at any of the first five installments of this series.

My Picks for the All-Star Game – 2010

Being a member of the Baseball Bloggers Alliance (BBA), we have been asked by this organization to post a list of our picks for this year’s All-Star game.  Those members who post primarily about one team will submit picks for the league in which their favored team plays.  So a Mets blogger will, for example, post their N.L. All Star picks.

Unencumbered by such limitations, I chose to list my picks for each league, with accompanying commentary.

So here they are.  I’ll be curious to hear what you think.  Feel free to let me know if you agree or disagree with my picks, and why.

National League:

1B  Albert Pujols –  This has not been his finest season to date, but he is still the best player in baseball until someone else proves otherwise.

2B  Chase Utley – Brandon Phillips has better numbers so far, but Utley will pull away in the second half.

SS  Hanley Ramirez – I had been planning on picking Troy Tulowitzki, but he just went on the D.L. for the next six weeks.

3B  Scott Rolen – This was a tough call because Ryan Zimmerman is having a nice season, and David Wright, despite his huge strikeout numbers, has been productive.  But Rolen is crushing the ball in a way we haven’t seen from him in years.

C  Yadier Molina – N.L. players at this position are not having an outstanding year in ’10, but this Molina brother is the best choice.

OF Ryan Braun – Got off to a great start in April; has been merely good since then.

OF  Andrew McCutchen – Yes, this Pirate really does deserve to go to the All-Star game.

OF Andre Ethier – Just keeps getting better and better each season.

Starting Pitcher:  Ubaldo Jimenez – Simply off to one of the best starts to a season we have ever seen.

American League:

1B  Justin Morneau – In my Pre-Season Picks blog post, I stated that if any currently active player was to win the Triple Crown, it would be Miguel Cabrera.  Ironically, even though Cabrera is having a fine season, Justin Morneau is posting Triple Crown worthy stats.

2B  Robinson Cano – Having one of the best seasons by any second baseman in history.

SS  Derek Jeter – No A.L. shortstop is having a great season, but Jeter has earned this honor, regardless.

3B  Evan Longoria – With a strong second half, has a chance to win A.L. MVP Award.

C  Joe Mauer –  You were expecting, perhaps, Kelly Shoppach?

OF  Josh Hamilton – I was wrong.  I thought he would be a bust.   And I’m glad I was wrong.

OF  Vernon Wells – Very nice, and certainly unexpected, comeback year.

OF  Alex Rios – Finally putting forth the monster season long predicted.

DH  Vlad Guerrerro – Perhaps the most unappreciated super-star in the history of baseball.

SP  Jon Lester – David Price got off to the better start, but Lester could win the Cy Young this year.

If you feel I left out any obvious candidates, please let me know.

Next post:  Wednesday, June 23rd:  Best Forgotten Baseball Seasons: Part 6 – The Brooklyn / L.A. Dodgers.

Baseball 2010: An Old-Timer’s Game

It has often been said that baseball is a young man’s game.

And truth be told, major league baseball is in a transition period now, with many of the game’s stars of the ’90’s and the early part of this century giving way to a whole new crop of young and talented players.

Over the past couple of years or so, we have witnessed the retirements (or the virtual retirements) of Greg Maddux, Roger Clemens, Tom Glavine, Frank Thomas, Randy Johnson, NOMAR!, Jeff Kent, Gary Sheffield, and Pedro Martinez, to name a few.

Meanwhile, other former stars, such as Ken Griffey, Jr., David Ortiz, and Manny Ramirez are clearly close to the end of the line.

In their place we have seen an enormous influx of exciting new players who are still just 27-years old or younger.  This group represents the vanguard of a new, (hopefully) post-steroids generation.  This list includes several young players who will some day end up in the Hall of Fame.

Most of these names are already very familiar to you:  Joe Mauer, Hanley Ramirez, Ryan Braun, Justin Verlander, Tim Lincecum, Miguel Cabrera, Justin Upton, Matt Kemp, Clayton Kershaw, Zach Greinke, Prince Fielder, Dustin Pedroia, Evan Longoria, Felix Hernandez, Ryan Zimmerman, and David Wright.

Even younger players such as Stephen Strasburg, Jason Heyward, Brian Matusz, Matt Wieters, and Ike Davis are also on the way, or have arrived within the past year.

Yet there is a group of graying players for whom Father Time seems to have given a free pass, at least as of this writing.  These players, all at least 36-years old  (which is like 65, in baseball years), show no signs of slowing down.

Actually, in some cases, they did show signs of slowing down, but appear to have caught a second wind.  Several of them are either obvious future Hall of Famers, or should, at the very least, merit some consideration regarding their Hall worthiness.

So here they are:

1)  Jorge Posada: Through tonight’s game against Baltimore, Jorge has produced some impressive numbers.  He is hitting .316 with five homers and 12 RBI, while slugging over .600.  At age 38, he keeps himself in excellent shape, and the Yankees are committed to giving him extra rest throughout the season.  For these reasons, I believe Posada will continue to produce at a high level throughout this season.

Posada has played in parts of 15 seasons, and, aside from a few World Series rings, he has put up some nice numbers in his career.  He has hit 248 career homers, driven in 976 runs, hit 346 doubles, has a career batting average of just under .280, with a .380 on base average.

He is 7th all-time on the Yankees career doubles list, ahead of Mickey Mantle, Yogi Berra and Bill Dickey.  He is also 8th on the Yankees career home run list, just three behind Graig Nettles for 7th place.

Posada also has five Silver Sluggers to his credit, has played in five All-Star games (with a sixth all but assured this year), and he has finished in the top ten in MVP voting twice.

A serious argument could be made that Posada just might belong in the Hall of Fame.

For now, he will have to remain content hitting the stitching off of baseballs.

2)  Mariano Rivera: “Mo” has not allowed an earned run so far this season.  He is a perfect 6 for 6 in save opportunities.  His WHIP is 0.57.  He is now 40 years old, pitching just like he did back when he was 30.  An obvious Hall-of-Famer, there really isn’t any reason to spend time rehashing his career numbers.  The only question is, will his greatness ever end?

3)  Andy Pettitte: (No, I didn’t intend this to be Yankee night, but here we are.)

Believe it or not, he is off to the best start of his 16-year career.  Through his first four starts, he is 3-0, with 22 strikeouts in 28 innings.  His ERA is 1.29, and his WHIP is 1.07.  Clearly, the soon-to-be 38 year old Pettitte isn’t just hanging around waiting for the playoffs to begin.

That’s when he really excels.

Pettitte now has a career record of 232-135, a .632 win-loss percentage.  He has finished in the top 10 in Cy Young award voting five times.  And he has 18 career post-season victories.  At this point, his resume probably isn’t quite that of a Hall-of-Famer.  But if he continues to pitch this well for another 2-3 years, we’ll have to take another look.

4)  Jim Edmonds: Now playing for the Brewers, Edmonds was actually out of major league baseball last season.  But he earned his way onto the team this spring, and I’m sure the Brewers are happy he did.

So far this season, Edmonds (now approaching 40 years old), has hit better than .300, including a .340 batting average against right-handed pitching.  He has slugged almost .500, and he has scored 10 runs.  As part of a platoon, he gets most of the playing time, and he has made the most of it.

Edmonds would get my vote for the Hall of Fame as well.  His defense in center field alone would merit some consideration (eight Gold Gloves and several circus catches.)  But he also has 383 career home runs, 421 doubles, over 1200 runs scored, and nearly 1200 RBI’s.  Only a few center-fielders in history have combined his defensive prowess with his offensive statistics.

5)  Ivan (Pudge) Rodriguez: Although recently side-lined with a back problem, when Pudge has played this season, he has been excellent.  In 56 at bats for the Washington Nationals, he is hitting a mere .410 with 23 hits, including 7 doubles and 10 runs scored.

Not bad for a 38-year old catcher who happens to be a life-time .300 hitter with over 300 home runs, 13 Gold Gloves, and 14 All-Star game appearances.  A first-ballot Hall-of-Famer, to be sure.

6)  Jamie Moyer: Pitching for the Phillies, the 47-year old (!) Moyer is off to a 2-1 start, with a respectable 1.278 WHIP.  He has fanned 11 in 18 innings.

Although Moyer now has 260 career wins, he is in the Tommy John-Jim Kaat class of pitchers.  That is to say, he has put together a fine career, but falls just short of belonging in The Hall.

7)  Ichiro Suzuki: Perhaps because of his physique and his unique style of play, it’s easy to forget that Ichiro, now at age 36, is not that young anymore.  But he is off to his usual start this season, hitting around .310 with six stolen bases and 13 runs scored.  Ichiro is in such great physical condition that, although he is slowing down a bit, he should remain a productive, above-average player for another couple of years.

Although I listed Ichiro as an overrated player in a prior blog-post, I still believe he will, and should be, elected to the Hall of Fame someday.

Each of these seven players not only continues to be highly productive, but they provide an invaluable link between the younger players, and all those who came before.  It’s how baseball’s greatness is continually perpetuated from one generation to the next.

If there are other worthy performers who you believe should be included on my list, please let me know.

And, as always, thanks for reading.

A Delicate Imbalancing Act

It is the conventional wisdom among many fans and sports-writers these days that baseball suffers from a serious case of competitive imbalance.

The rich teams like the Yankees (always the Yankees) enjoy an unfair competitive edge over their disadvantaged competitors  due to the monstrously large size of their media-market.

A few other teams, notably the Mets, Red Sox, Dodgers, Angels and perhaps the Cubbies also get to bid on the high-profile free agents, leaving the small-market teams gazing woefully in the window like so many Dickensian street-urchins.

Things have gotten so bad, so the logic goes, that only a salary-cap can save baseball from itself.

The on-line blogosphere, Twitter, and all of the other domains frequented by the chattering masses, constantly sling arrow after arrow at this paper tiger, trying, ostensibly out of a sense of fairness, to slay this ravenous beast before it ruthlessly devours yet another season.

And yet, the reality is that the competitive balance between baseball’s thirty teams is as strong as it’s ever been, and is much stronger than it has often been.

Since the year 2001, eight different teams have won the World Series in nine seasons of competition.  Only the decade from 1978-87, when ten different teams won the World Series, featured a greater diversity of championship teams.

Moreover, although free agent signings have played a part in the overall formula of putting together a championship baseball team, a significant proportion of the star players on these teams have either come up through the team’s farm systems, or they were acquired in astute trades.

Let’s use the 2006 champion St. Louis Cardinals as an example.  Only two significant players on that team, Chris Carpenter and Jason Isringhausen, were obtained via free agency.  The combined cost of these two players, however, was a nominal three million dollars.  One would think that even teams like the Royals and the Pirates could have afforded one or both of those players.

The total team payroll for the Cardinals that championship season was a relatively modest 88 million dollars.

The 2005 Chicago White Sox are another example of how a franchise can build a championship baseball team without leading the league in spending.  The entire payroll for this team was about 75 million dollars, and the only significant free-agent the White Sox added that season was Jose Contreras, who ended up with a reasonably productive fifteen victories.

And although last season’s Yankees won the World Series after purchasing both Mark Teixeira and C.C. Sabathia, they also had farm system products Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, Andy Pettitte, Jorge Posada, Robinson Cano, and Phil Hughes to thank as well for their 27th World Series Championship.

That’s far more talent than the Royals and Pirates have produced from their farm systems combined over the past decade.

While it’s true that the Yankees broke the bank last season with a payroll in excess of 200 million dollars, it is also true that their example has been an anomaly over the past decade.  Most teams, like the Mets, for example, who have relied primarily on free agent signings (Johan Santana, Carlos Beltran, K-Rod) to bring a world championship home, have failed miserably.

Conversely, most teams that have won, or have simply played in the World Series over the past decade, have been in the middle or upper-middle tier of spenders.  A couple have even been near the bottom of the payroll list.

Now the argument at this point becomes, of course, that small market teams  just can’t generate enough revenue to compete with even the medium market teams.  Well, there are three basic flaws with that argument:

Flaw #1:  Each franchise is owned by a millionaire, or a group of millionaires, who have to decide how important it is for them to field a championship ball-club.  The truth is (as we have just witnessed with the penny-pinching Marlins signing of Josh Johnson to a long-term contract) that the money IS ALWAYS there, if ownership decides to open their collective checkbook.  Meanwhile, what is the excuse for poor scouting, player development, and lack of sound judgment when making trades?

Flaw #2:  The second argument that advocates of competitive reform make is that baseball is a business, and you can’t expect the owners of small market teams to throw good money after bad in a vain attempt at catching the Yankees, the Red Sox, the Mets, etc.

Yet in what other realm of the American business world do owners of small franchises EXPECT and, stunningly, RECEIVE, gifts of cash from their bigger competitors to “level” the playing field.  The owners of these small baseball franchises then generally pocket the cash, fail to improve their product-line, then expect that baseball will come up with even more creative ways to allow them to enjoy a profit without being held to even a minimum standard of improvement.

Flaw 3:  Teams like the Royals, Brewers, Pirates, Reds, A’s, etc, are NOT directly competing with the Yankees, Red Sox, Dodgers, or Angels.  These small market teams are more accurately competing directly with the other teams in their own division for a shot at the playoffs.

The Brewers, for example, simply have to play just slightly better than the Reds, Pirates, Astros and Cubs for a shot at the playoffs.  And once in the playoffs, as several Cinderella teams have showed over the years, anything can happen.  The team with the best record during the regular season does not always win.

This is why when I read respectable sports-writers make arguments that, for example, the Brewers should trade 26-year old Prince Fielder now for maximum value so they can obtain blue-chip prospects, the lack of logic in that argument leaves me dumbfounded.

Here’s why.

The Brewers, with Fielder and Braun in the middle of their lineup, and several other at least league-average players, have a legitimate chance of competing for the top spot in their division.  Isn’t that the reason franchises field teams in the first place?  Isn’t that why fans come out to the park to see their team?  Isn’t that why (perhaps ironically) the Brewers signed free-agent Randy Wolf?

Moreover, if the Brewers did put Fielder on the open-market and obtained a couple of blue-chip prospects in return (who might be only a couple of years younger than Fielder), wouldn’t they just end up with the same dilemma a couple of years from now regarding whether or not to keep these new young players?

Would you then turn around and trade them as well for prospects?  What’s the point of making trades for young talent in the first place if you don’t plan on keeping them around long enough to help your team make a run at the playoffs?

This is called a prospect-fetish; its danger is that it masquerades as a sensible solution to the apparent dilemmas posed by direct competition.

Let’s stop for a minute and ask another question.  Why do some people assume that what is in the best interests of small market teams is naturally in the best interests of Major League Baseball?

Those who advocate for a salary cap, for example, base their arguments on the presumption that because this salary cap would, in effect, “hurt” the Yankees chances of future success, then small market teams can only benefit.  And if this new system allows small market teams greater access to top-tier talent, they can only be more competitive as a result.

But I ask once again,  how is this zero-sum game philosophy (your loss is automatically my win) in the best interests of BASEBALL?

This is not a rhetorical question.  Here’s why.

Guess which teams benefit the most when the World Champion Yankees or Red Sox come to town?  It is the small market teams (who refuse, or, out of sheer incompetency, are unable, to field a quality team) that benefit the most.

Attendance is always higher in Kansas City, or in any of the smaller markets, when the Yankees or Red Sox come to town.  In other words, EVERYONE WINS when these high quality teams come for a visit.   Revenues go up for both the Royals AND the Yankees.

Does baseball really want to consider putting a system in place that could, in effect, kill the goose that lays the golden eggs?

There is one solution to this so-called competitive imbalance that was once used extensively as a means by which a team would seek to enhance its bottom line.

Move the franchise.

Take a look at how many teams moved from one city to another in search of greener pastures throughout the 20th century.  The Dodgers, Giants, Braves (twice), A’s (twice), and the Senators, are just some of the teams that moved primarily for financial reasons.  Some cities gained teams; others lost them, and some of those who lost teams later gained new franchises.

There are thirty major league franchises, yet several teams play in American cities that don’t rank anywhere near the top thirty in terms of population.  Kansas City, Oakland, Cincinnati and Pittsburgh rank, respectively, 35th, 44th, 56th and 60th in population.

Meanwhile, Charlotte, NC ranks 18th, Las Vegas ranks 28th, and Tucson, AZ ranks 32nd.  Raleigh, NC, Mesa, AZ and several other cities are moving up fast.  These cities also have the advantage of being in the sun-belt, a more natural setting in which to play baseball.

Change is difficult, but baseball is a business. And if it is in the best interests of both the teams themselves and of Major League Baseball for a franchise to move, then sentimental posturing, aided and abetted by inefficient and ultimately pointless systems like revenue-sharing, shouldn’t stand in the way.

Ultimately, then, the Pirates,  assuming they commit themselves to top-notch scouting and player-development, might someday be able to afford to sign that free-agent who could turn out to be the last piece in their franchises’ championship puzzle.

Only it may happen in Charlotte instead of Pittsburgh.

But, hey, Pittsburgh, you would still have the Steelers.

Fantasy Baseball Part II: Strategies and Tips

So let’s get right to the point.  There are a number of ways to win a fantasy baseball championship. But there are infinitely more ways to lose.  In fantasy baseball, as in war, the side that makes the fewest mistakes usually wins.

Thus, putting together a successful fantasy baseball season is less about who makes the most creative, clever decisions.  It is primarily about minimizing risks, and seizing obvious opportunities when they present themselves.

As I stated in my last post, I’ve been involved in a fantasy baseball league since the early ’90’s.  No, this doesn’t make me an expert, and I certainly don’t pretend to have a monopoly on fantasy baseball wisdom.  I can only share my own experiences that have allowed me to enjoy my fair share of success, but also, an impressive record of futility.

The strategies and tactics I’m going to share with you occur to me from time-to-time, but I don’t follow each and every one of them religiously.  There have been, however,  some self-imposed rules that I once considered inviolable that I have since discarded.

For example, for many years, Rule #1 was Never Draft Rockies Pitchers.  The thin mountain air of Coors Field meant high ERA’s and generally low strikeout totals for pitchers unlucky enough to call Coors home.

This season, for the first time, there are at least two or three pitchers on the Rockies that I would be happy to own.  Perhaps at the end of this season, if none of those pitchers live up to expectations, I’ll reinstate my old rule number #1.

So here, without further preamble, are some of my guidelines for the 2010 fantasy baseball season:

1)  Never draft a pitcher in the first round. This doesn’t mean that I don’t think any starting pitchers are worth drafting with your #1 pick.  In fact, if I have the 9th overall pick in our ten team league, and Tim Lincecum is still on the board, he would be very difficult to pass up.  But the reality is, pitchers are seldom as reliable and predictable as hitters, and you cannot afford to make a mistake with your first choice.

2)  Beware of career years outside the norm. Do you really believe Marco Scutaro will score 100 runs again?  Do you really believe Raul Ibanez will set yet another career high in slugging percentage at age 37?  How much are you willing to bet that Mike Cuddyer will match the 32 homers and 94 RBI’s he tallied last year?  All of these players are past 30 years old.  Buyer, beware.

3)  Ignore win totals. There is no strategy that will get you into more trouble than looking at a pitcher’s win total from one season and using this total to project the following season’s numbers.  For example, in 1976, Jerry Koosman finished the season with a record of 21-10, and he was runner-up to Randy Jones for the N.L. Cy Young award.

Now, if anyone other than Bill James had been playing fantasy baseball in the Spring of ’77, they would have drafted Koosman, largely based on his win-loss record, in perhaps the second round.  So what happened in 1977?  Did Koosman pitch poorly and finish with a losing record?

Well, no, and yes.  He actually pitched quite well, leading the league with 7.6 K’s per nine innings.  But the Mets as a team were terrible in ’77, offering Koosman no support at all, and he finished with a remarkably terrible record of 8-20.

That’s right, he lost 20 games the year after he won 20 games while pitching only slightly less effectively himself.  Pitchers are simply never a sure thing (see Rule #1.)

So how does one go about choosing pitchers to draft?  It’s not that hard, actually, and I have found year after year that I can begin the season with a mediocre looking staff only to have other owners in my league jealously eye-balling my rotation by the All-Star break. This brings us to item #4.

4)  Draft pitchers with high strike-out rates and low WHIPs. Dominance in the form of high K rates eventually reveals itself on the ball-field in the form of wins.  This does not contradict what I stated about how win totals aren’t important.  But if you start with wins as your base-line to project success, as opposed to high K rates and low WHIPs, you are far more likely to end up disappointed with the end results.

Let me illustrate this strategy using two examples of starting pitchers who will be drafted this spring:  Matt Garza and Scott Feldman.  Feldman, a 27 year old pitcher for the Rangers, finished last season with a promising record of 17-8 with a reasonably good WHIP of 1.28.

Garza, on the other hand, a 26 year old hurler with the Twins, finished the season with an 8-12 record despite an even slightly better WHIP of 1.26.  Who would you rather have, the 17 game winner, or the 8 game winner?

If you chose Feldman, the bigger winner, good luck to you.

Here’s why.  Feldman managed to strike out only 113 batters in just under 190 innings last season.  Garza K’d 189 in 203 innings.  That’s 76 more K’s for Garza in only about 13 more innings.  Fewer K’s mean more balls in play.  More balls in play lead eventually to many more hits, opportunities for errors by the defense, and bigger innings by the opposing offense.

Strikeout pitchers with reasonably low walk totals get themselves out of many more jams, with less damage done, than contact pitchers.  There are just far more opportunities for dominance by a strikeout pitcher than for a contact pitcher, and far more opportunities to fail for a contact pitcher, who, in Feldman’s case, also happens to pitch in one of the best hitter’s parks in baseball.  Which leads me directly to item #5

5)  Draft the Ball-Park: Look, obviously, when you are talking about great players such as Albert Pujols or a pitcher like Roy Halladay, ball-park factors are largely incidental.  Put them on any of the planets in our Solar System, and they’ll find ways to succeed.  But for many of the mere mortals out there, the ballpark they call home for 81 games during the season can make a big difference in the level of success they achieve.

In general, I like to find talented young hitters who have shown ability but still haven’t had the right opportunity, put them in a hitter’s park like Philadelphia or Texas, and you have a recipe for success.  Two players who, going into last season, fit that description exactly were Nelson Cruz of Texas and the Phillies Jayson Werth.

Neither player had previously enjoyed a full-time job with their clubs, but both men had shown solid slugging abilities in part-time or platoon stints.  Each of them blossomed into extremely valuable commodities last season as they took advantage of playing regularly in hitter-friendly parks to amass impressive numbers.  (You can look up their numbers on your own; no need to reprint them here.)

For pitchers, this strategy works just as well, but in reverse, of course.  Find young arms that have shown some talent, check to see if they pitch in pitcher-friendly ball-parks, and you will probably find a diamond in the rough (the still very young Clayton Kershaw of the Dodgers comes to mind.)

TIP Alert! About a half dozen of the best pitcher’s parks in the country are in both league’s Western Divisions.

6)  Beware of catchers: Look, there’s a reason why Bill James in his book, “The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract” ranks Darrell Porter as the 18th best catcher of all time.  There just haven’t been all that many great catchers, folks.  Currently, Mike Napoli (yes, Mike Napoli) of the Angels is a top five A.L. catcher.  And Chris Iannetta of Colorado, along with his .228 batting average (in Colorado, or God’s sake?) is top ten in the N.L.

This past season, one participant in our league decided to try to corner the market on catchers, thus garnering for himself a clear competitive edge at one position.  He drafted Jorge Posada, Russell Martin, and Geovani Soto.  Soto had been named N.L. Rookie of the Year the season before with the Cubs, and Martin (Dodgers), seemed to be among the leaders of a class of solid young N.L. catchers

For those of you who followed baseball at all last season, you know Soto was a disaster, and Martin appears to be following along the career track of Jason Kendall, and empty singles hitter with a little speed.

So, needless to say, that strategy backfired.  And why shouldn’t it?  Again,  there have been fewer than fifteen great catchers in the entire history of major league baseball.

Therefore, if you don’t end up with a once-in-a-lifetime talent like Joe Mauer (a sure first-rounder) don’t panic.  There are worse fates in fantasy baseball than to end up with Yadier Molina as your starting catcher.

7)  Avoid aging players in their decline: This is especially true at deep positions like first base.  Someone will certainly draft either Lance Berkman, age 34, or Derrek Lee, age 35, over Joey Votto, age 26 due to reputation and resume.  But neither of the two veterans offer anything like the potential upside offered by Votto.

At best, Berkman and Lee will accomplish something close to what they usually offer in their average seasons.  Votto hasn’t had anything like his best season yet.

It is not a foolish gamble to bet on a player like Votto whose OPS is already extremely impressive, who plays in a good hitters park and who can only get better.

TIP AlertAvoid with extreme prejudice!

Other players / positions who fit the aging, yet still productive bill are:  Miguel Tejada at shortstop, Chipper Jones and Michael Young at third base, Benjie Molina (catcher), Raul Ibanez, Carlos Lee, Vernon Wells and Vlad Guerrerro (OF) and the following pitchers:  Carlos Zambrano, Roy Oswalt, Joe Blanton, Andy Pettitte, Mark Buehrle and closers, Francisco Cordero, Bobby Jenks, and Fernando Rodney.

8)  Beware of Over-Hyped Rookies: (Especially Pitchers) Anyone out there remember all the hype surrounding young PHEENOM David Price last season?  The next Dwight Gooden, and all that?  To be fair, most people probably drafted Price rather conservatively last season, but even those people were almost certainly extremely disappointed with his final season totals:  10-7, 4.42 ERA, 1.35 WHIP, only 128 innings pitched.

Generally speaking, it takes most young talents a couple of years or so before they really begin demonstrating their can’t-miss talent on a regular basis.  King Felix Hernandez had been hyped to the extreme for about three years before it all came together for him last season.

Sure, there are some rookies who jump right into the Big Leagues hitting line drives all over the place (Ryan Braun), or fanning ten batters in a game (Tim Lincecum)  and never look back.  But they are few and far between, and if you build a fantasy strategy based in part on acquiring as much rookie talent as you can, you are taking an unnecessary gamble.

TIP Alert! Neither Stephen Strasburg nor Madison Bumgarner will win the Cy Young Award this season.

And finally,

Strategy #9) Draft Power at the corners: Whenever I’ve had a successful fantasy baseball season, it’s often been in part because I’ve had legitimate sluggers at first and third base.  It’s not difficult at all to draft power at first base, and if you don’t, you’re sunk.  Third base can be a little more tricky sometimes because this position isn’t always as deep as it appears to be this season.

There are lots of good hitters at third base, but not necessarily a lot of big sluggers at this position.  One player I know everyone will be watching closely is the Mets star David Wright.  Last season he hit an unbelievably low ten home runs.  That’s Mark Teahen terrritory, folks.

Everyone expects Wright to rebound in 2010, perhaps doubling his homer total to twenty, or even twenty-five.  And, if he does hit 20-25 homers, lots of people will think they’ve landed a bargain if they draft Wright in the fourth or fifth round.

But think of it this way.  Evan Longoria, A-Rod, and Mark Reynolds are almost certain to hit about twice as many homers as Wright, even if Wright doubles last season’s total.  Are you willing to concede that much run production at such an important offensive position if you don’t have to?

Moreover, several other third basemen will hit about the same amount of homers as Wright, but will be drafted much lower.  Sure, Wright also brings stolen bases to the table, but I’ve never found in my league that stolen bases win championships.  Power does.  A three-run homer trumps a double-steal any day.

Now What?

Once Draft Day finally arrives, I’m quite sure that I will do what everyone else does, adjust to the circumstances of the draft.  And every draft is different.  Like a general on a battlefield, once the shooting starts, you might as well roll the battle-plans around a half dozen cigars and drop them on the battlefield, for all the good they’ll do you.

Still, a general without a plan is more likely to freeze up in a key moment, a potentially decisive situation, precisely because he wasn’t as prepared as he should have been beforehand.  I hope the tips and strategies I’ve shared with you will offer you some tactical advantage over your adversaries in your 2010 fantasy baseball season.

If you have questions or comments about the strategies and tips I’ve shared, or would like to share some of your own, by all means, please let me know.

Next blog post:  A.L. / N.L. Fantasy Baseball Player Rating Guide


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