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What's in a number?
This whole flap over 42 began so innocently, with Ken Griffey Jr. just trying to show a little respect and a little love for a man who changed baseball, forced America to take its first steps out of the civil rights stone age and made it possible for people like Griffey -- and, literally, millions of others -- to have the kind of life that they lead today. That's all it was supposed to be.
But now it's not just the Reds outfielder wearing No. 42 on Sunday in honor of Jackie Robinson. It's Griffey and more than 100 other players, including every member of the Astros, Brewers, Cardinals, Dodgers, Phillies and Pirates. It'll be a veritable convention of 42s on Sunday, a roundup of Robinson clones. On some fields, you won't be able to tell the players apart with a scorecard.
Garret Anderson, the Angels outfielder who knows more than a little bit about Robinson and his struggles in breaking baseball's color barrier 60 years ago , won't be wearing No. 42. He says he's not worthy. And now some people, like the Twins' Torii Hunter, wonder if all this bandwagon jumping doesn't dilute the whole purpose of Griffey's initial gesture.
"I think we're killing the meaning," Hunter told USA Today. "It should be special wearing Jackie's number, not just because it looks cool."
For one, special day a year, I don't think it's a big deal if everybody wears No. 42. In fact, that'd be something -- everyone with 42 on his back, a unanimous show around baseball for someone who left a unique and enduring impression not only on the game, but on the country.
But that's me. What do you think? Too many 42s? Not enough? And do you have a better way to celebrate Robinson's legacy?
Wild Card: Rising up to the Monster
One of the sexiest storylines of the past offseason was the mystery surrounding Daisuke Matsuzaka , the 26-year-old ace of the Seibu Lions of the Japanese Pacific League. Who would sign him? How much would they pay? How difficult would his transition be to the major leagues? The answers to the first two ("the Red Sox" and "a lot") came all the way back in mid-December. Now that the baseball season is two weeks old, we have some early returns on the third question ("very well, thank you"), but in a curious twist, the most compelling thing about Matsuzaka’s first two major-league starts has not been the Monster himself, but the man on the mound when Matsuzaka was in the dugout.
Matsuzaka’s first start came in the final game of the Red Sox’s opening series in Kansas City. The opposing pitcher that afternoon was Zack Greinke, who upon his arrival in the majors in 2004 generated a fair amount of hype himself. Greinke put together a strong rookie campaign at 20, earning high marks for his savvy and maturity on the mound, but struggled in his sophomore season and soon found himself out of action due to a debilitating bout with social anxiety disorder. Greinke spent most of 2006 confronting his demons away from the ballpark, but managed to pitch his way back to the majors for a trio of relief outings in a late-September callup. Still, no one expected him to break camp as a member of the Royals’ rotation this spring. He not only did that, but he matched Matsuzaka pitch-for-pitch in his 2007 debut, striking out seven Red Sox, including David Ortiz thrice, and walking just one over seven innings while allowing just one earned run. Greinke was undone by an unearned run in the fifth, taking a hard-luck loss, but picked up right where he left off in his next outing in Toronto, walking none and striking out five in six innings while again allowing just one earned run, this time picking up the win. Johan Santana may have an iron grip on the American League Cy Young award for the immediate future, but if Greinke keeps it up, he should pick up a few votes and walk away with the Comeback Player of the Year award at the tender age of 23.
Matsuzaka’s second start came this past Wednesday in Fenway Park in the second game of the Sox’s three-game series with the Mariners. His Fenway debut was the most eagerly anticipated sporting event of the year in New England, even before the Patriots fell to the Colts in the AFC Championship Game, but Matsuzaka’s thunder was stolen by a pitcher that makes Greinke look like an old man, 21-year-old Felix Hernandez. Like Greinke, Hernandez arrived in the major leagues with the word "phenom" stamped boldly across his forehead. Dubbed "King Felix" before he ever threw a major league pitch, Hernandez lived up to the hype as best a 19-year-old could over 12 starts in his rookie season of 2005, but, much like Greinke, showed a disappointing regression in his sophomore season. Unfair as it might have been, Hernandez, who just reached legal drinking age this past Sunday, had his doubters coming into his second full major league season, but silenced most of them with a stellar Opening Day performance against the A’s in which he struck out 12 men while allowing just three hits and two walks over eight scoreless innings. The rest he shut up on Wednesday, taking a no-hitter into the eighth inning at Fenway and shrugging off a J. D. Drew single to complete a one-hit shutout, again walking just two men along the way. Hernandez’s two starts stand as the top single-game performances of each of the first two weeks of the season. If he keeps this up, Santana’s iron grip on the Cy Young just might be loosening.
Hernandez, Greinke, and Matsuzaka could be three of most exciting pitchers in the American League this season, their performances made all the more compelling by their backstories of age, illness, and roots, respectively. As for Matsuzaka himself, his Fenway debut wasn’t quite as impressive as his 10-K, one-run domination of the Royals in his major league debut, but one wonders if the eight hits, three runs, and mere four strikeouts he registered in that game weren’t yet another effect of the wintry weather that has haunted baseball in the Northeast Corridor over the first two weeks of the season.
One of the quirkier items out of Yankee camp this spring was the fact that New York’s own Japanese import, lefty starter Kei Igawa, took to wearing sunglasses on the mound in day games because, due in part to the glut of domed stadiums in the Japanese Leagues, he hadn’t pitched in daylight in two years and found he was distracted by the glare of the Florida sun. Given that, it doesn’t seem unreasonable to suggest that Igawa and Matsuzaka might have been effected by the cold snap in the Northeast more than your typical major league hurler.
That certainly seemed to be the case in Igawa’s first outing, which was perhaps the worst of a series of awful starts by the Yankee rotation amid the near-freezing temperatures and snow flurries that swept through the Bronx last week (though the cold didn’t seem to bother AL batting leader Akinori Iwamura, who went 3 for 7 in the Bronx with a double and a pair of walks). Curiously, Igawa pitched for the Hanshin Tigers, a team whose home park is an open-air stadium, in the Central League, in which just two of the six stadiums are domes.
Matsuzaka, meanwhile, pitched in the Pacific League, in which three of the six teams, including Matsuzaka’s Seibu Lions, play in domes and one of the remaining three play half of their home games in a dome (that team, the Orix Buffaloes, split their games between the home parks of the two teams that were merged to form them, the Osaka Kintetsu Buffaloes and Ichiro Suzuki’s former team, the Orix BlueWave). It would stand to reason, then, that Matsuzaka would be even more susceptible to the elements than Igawa. That could help explain Matsuzaka’s more pedestrian second start, as I’m not convinced that the free-swinging Mariners are really that much better of an offensive team than the new-look Royals. Of course, if allowing three runs on eight hits and two walks over seven innings is a "pedestrian" start for Matsuzaka, the American League, and Igawa’s Yankees in particular, could be in a whole heap of trouble. Then again, the pitchers are usually ahead of the hitters at this point in the season, Just ask Alex Gordon.
Cliff Corcoran is the co-author of Bronx Banter.
Labels: Wild Card
NL East: Storm cloud in Braves' sunny start
When I sat down with Braves GM John Schuerholz a month ago in his Disney World spring training office, it took him fewer than 60 seconds to mention his projected No. 3 starter as central to Atlanta's fortunes in 2007. "Pitching is always the key issue for me," he said, "and inside that story is the rehabilitation of Mike Hampton. If he can regain his spot in our rotation as a solid three starter behind [John] Smoltz and [Tim] Hudson, everything else will take care of itself."
At the time, the 34-year-old appeared to be recovering well from the Tommy John surgery he underwent two Septembers ago, and while Schuerholz couldn't expect to have at his disposal the Hampton of '99 (when he went 22-4 with a 2.90 ERA for Houston and finished second in the Cy Young voting to Randy Johnson), he knew he wouldn't be saddled with the Hampton of '02 (7-15, 6.15 ERA with Colorado) either. The Braves modestly hoped that Hampton would continue to do what he did in 2003 and '04, when he combined for a 32-20 record with a 3.96 ERA, and would provide a steady, veteran, left-handed bridge to the youngsters in the bottom of the rotation. "We think Mike's going to be fine," Schuerholz told me. "I'm not Nostradamus here, but I think he'll be back near the start of the season and almost at full form."
Schuerholz may be many things -- the architect of 14 straight division titles, a possible future member of the Hall of Fame -- but prophet he is indeed not. A few days after our meeting, Hampton strained an oblique taking batting practice; a month later, he discovered he had a torn tendon in his pitching elbow. The result was that the Braves were left not with the Hampton of '99, or '02, or '03 to '05, but with the Hampton of '06 -- that is, the one unable pitch for them.
The Braves have been forced to replace Hampton with another veteran lefty, Mark Redman -- who had a 5.71 ERA last year in Kansas City, and is so far responsible for Atlanta's only loss, allowing five earned runs to the Mets last Friday. The good news, of course, is that Atlanta's an MLB-best 7-1, thanks largely to the team's other four starters (Smoltz, Hudson, Chuck James, and Kyle Davies), who have allowed only nine earned runs in 43 2/3 innings thus far. That quartet should be enough to keep the team in contention all year. (I have them nipping the Phillies for the NL Wild Card). The bad news is that the Braves now have a question mark starting every fifth day. If Redman continues to scuffle, I'd expect to see Lance Cormier take his place. In all likelihood, however, Schuerholz has some unexpected work to do.
Labels: NL East
AL West: Santana's Main Competition
When it comes to the AL Cy Young Award, the conversation starts and ends with a certain southpaw from the Twin Cities -- and rightfully so. Since 2003, no hurler has been nearly as dominant as Twins ace Johan Santana.
As evidenced by the 2005 season, though, when Bartolo Colon won the AL Cy Young award, Johan's mere presence isn't always enough to sway voters. So if not Santana, then who?
Some will look to dominant-but-fragile Roy Halladay, or perhaps one of the league's overwhelming closers. And after his one-hit shutout of the Red Sox on Wednesday night, Felix Hernandez suddenly has a bandwagon all to his own. But I'm looking squarely at one darkhorse candidate who may be the most underappreciated pitcher in baseball: Los Angeles' John Lackey.
Lackey is coming off a solid season in which he posted a 3.56 ERA with 190 strikeouts and 23 quality starts (the second-highest total in the AL to Santana). Lackey also enjoyed a stretch of 30 2/3 consecutive scoreless innings. Lackey kicked a tradition of starting slow last season, and he's flourishing out the gates once again. Through his first two starts, Lackey is 2-0 with a 0.75 ERA.
Unseating Johan in the Cy Young hierarchy is about as easy as hitting one of his changeups, but here are three reasons why I believe that Lackey, who is just hitting his prime at age 28, could be the man to steal the Cy away from Santana in '07:
1. Durability: The imposing Texan gets the most out of his 6-foot-6, 245-pound frame. Since his first full season in the bigs in 2003, Lackey has averaged just over 207 innings pitched per season and has never missed a start due to injury. Lackey's on the hill every five days. Period.
2. 'Pen support: Leave the game with a lead, and a win is guaranteed. With a stellar bullpen that includes mainstays Francisco Rodriguez, Scot Shields and newcomer Justin Speier, Lackey won't lose many Ws after hitting the showers.
3. Sex appeal: Like any other award, the Cy Young is in large part a popularity contest. And Lackey definitely has the stuff to fire up the masses. Lackey's impetuous personality on the mound parallels his aggressive approach to pitching. Lackey gets right after hitters with an overpowering arsenal and he's compiled 389 Ks over the last two seasons. He's the unquestioned ace of what should be a bona fide pennant contender.
But the most impressive part about the start is that Felix dominated without consistently locating his fastball. Many pitchers will tell you that the best pitch in baseball is a well-placed fastball, and Felix just didn't have it for much of the night, especially early in the count, forcing him to work from behind. Though mindboggling velocity gives him leeway on location, if Felix can learn to place his heater, he'll battle Johan for the strikeout crown.
One other thing I noticed was Hernandez constantly shaking off second-year catcher Kenji Johjima. Those two need to get on the same page for the phenom to max out his talent.
Labels: AL West
NL Central: Redbirds in Trouble
I'll admit it: when it comes to the oft-overachieving St. Louis Cardinals, my prognostications are about as spot-on as my American Idol picks. (I've been predicting Phil Stacey's demise for weeks now -- tonight's the night, right?) So when I say that the Cardinals have no shot to win the division if Chris Carpenter is shelved for most of this season, take it with a grain of salt. But I'll say it anyway: The Cardinals have no shot to win the division if Chris Carpenter is out for a significant period of time, which, according to Will Carroll at Baseball Prospectus, very possibly could be the case. Kip Wells and Braden Looper were lights-out in their first starts, Adam Wainwright is going to have a breakout season, and Anthony Reyes has star potential, but as pointed out by Viva El Birdos, there aren't many teams that are as reliant on their No. 1 starter as are the Redbirds.
"I would say Carpenter's the most important pitcher in our league," says a rival NL executive. "I think he's the most consistent, the most proven, the best out there [in the NL]. While [pitching coach Dave] Duncan will get the most out of his starters, they're just not nearly the same team without Carpenter because, as we've seen already, I think they're going to have some trouble scoring runs. [Jim] Edmonds looks like he shouldn't be out there playing right now with all his injuries, and everyone else besides [Albert] Pujols and [Scott] Rolen doesn't scare anyone. They always seem to find ways to win games, but this is definitely their weakest team in a while, especially without their ace."
St. Louis' Bernie Miklasz says that while the team is struggling, Tony La Russa is "badly shaken by his arrest on suspicion of DUI" and "feeling his way through a difficult personal period."
The move will only intensify trade rumors surrounding Lidge. Teams most desperate for a closer? The Devil Rays, Marlins, Reds and Phillies.
Labels: NL Central
FanGraphs: Better than a Box Score
The Mets' home opener against the Phillies was a nail-biter up until the Mets' seven-run explosion in the bottom of the eighth. If you were to take a look at a regular box score, you might dismiss the game as a blowout, but a single glance at a Win Probability graph and it couldn't be clearer that this was a very exciting game:
Through the use of historical play-by-play data and some additional math, Win Probability tells us a team's chances of winning at any point in the game. The main chart tracks the Win Probability as the game progresses, play-by-play. The lower chart tracks something called Leverage Index, which is the potential importance of each play. The higher the Leverage Index is, the more important the play.
So let's take a look at some of the more exciting moments of the game from a Win Probability perspective:
From that point on, the Mets steamrolled their way to victory, ending the eighth with a six-run lead. They had a 99.7 percent chance to win at that point and the game was effectively over.
While I'm sure you found my play-by-play account utterly riveting, the graph does an excellent job of showing the entire game flow, not just the score. The score alone would not have told you the Phillies blew a great opportunity in the fourth, nor would it have told you Geoff Geary's wild pitch more or less sealed the Mets' victory.
But that's not all Win Probability is good for. You can calculate which players were the most valuable or least valuable to their team over the course of the game. This is done by determining the difference in the Win Probability at the start of the play and the end of the play, and then attributing it to the batter and pitcher. This is called Win Probability Added (WPA). (Click here for the WPA-enhanced box score.)
Using WPA we know that Geary pretty much blew the game for the Phillies by decreasing their chances of winning by 50 percent while Howard did all he could to get the Phillies to win, increasing their chances by 32 percent. No pitcher on the Mets was particularly effective, but Carlos Delgado and Jose Reyes were the real heroes, increasing the Mets chances of winning by 32 percent and 27 percent, respectively.
To see more Win Probability or learn more about it, here are a few places to get you started:
David Appelman is the creator of FanGraphs.com.
Baseball Beat: Greatest Living Hitter?
In 1969, when Major League Baseball celebrated the 100th anniversary of professional baseball, Joe DiMaggio was voted the "Greatest Living Player." Rightly or wrongly, the Yankee Clipper maintained that title until his death in 1999. In fact, Joe D. became so obsessed with it, he demanded to be announced as the "Greatest Living Player" when appearing in public.
Everybody knew that DiMaggio wasn't the greatest player of all time. Even he acknowledged that Babe Ruth had earned that distinction long ago. Whether DiMaggio was or wasn't the greatest living player at any point -- he wasn't -- is another matter altogether. As generous as Ted Williams was in proclaiming DiMaggio as "the greatest baseball player of our time," Williams always felt as if he was "a better hitter than Joe," and very few baseball historians would disagree with that assessment.
With the passing of DiMaggio and Williams, which player or players now deserve to be called the Greatest Living Player and the Greatest Living Hitter? The former would encompass hitting, fielding, and baserunning, while the latter would be about hitting prowess and nothing else.
Although these questions could be argued ad infinitum, what do the numbers tell us? For the purposes of today's article, we are going to hone in on the Greatest Living Hitter debate.
Two metrics -- Runs Created Above Average (RCAA) and Adjusted OPS (OPS+) -- do a great job in telling the story. RCAA and OPS+ measure the two most important hitting skills: the ability to get on base and to hit for power. Furthermore, the first is a counting stat and the second is a rate stat, which means that our study will incorporate both quantity and quality.
RCAA was created by Lee Sinins, the man behind the Complete Baseball Encyclopedia. It is the difference between a player's runs created (which, in its simplest definition, is OBP x Total Bases) and the total for an average player who used the same amount of his team's outs, adjusted for ballpark factors.
OPS+ was developed by Sean Forman of Baseball-Reference.com. It is On-Base Plus Slugging measured against the league average and adjusted for ballpark factors. An OPS+ over 100 is better than average, less than 100 is below average. An OPS+ of 150 means that the player had an OPS of 50 percent above the league average, adjusted for park effects.
Let's take a look at the all-time leaders in these categories (all stats through 2006):
Bonds far outdistances four other baseball icons and has nearly doubled the total of Thomas, the next active player on the list. Musial wins the consolation prize as the Greatest Living (and Retired) Hitter.
Bonds once again beats out the competition. Eight of the top ten RCAA leaders also find themselves in the top ten in OPS+. Pujols jumps from 71st place in RCAA to second in OPS+, while Musial slips to fifth, Mays tied for seventh, Aaron ninth, and Robinson 10th.
Bonds, a seven-time MVP, also has the three highest single-season OPS+ marks (275 in 2002, 262 in 2001, and 260 in 2004), as well as the best yearly RCAA (169 in 2001). No other living player ranks in the top 15 in either stat. The fact that Bonds accomplished these single-season feats in three different years is a testament to his greatness.
If you don't like RCAA or OPS+, then consider the following: Bonds ranks first in single-season OBP (.609 in 2004), SLG (.863, 2001), OPS (1.421, 2004), HR (73, 2001), and BB (232, 2004), not just among living players but all players -- dead or alive. Among the breathing, Bonds ranks first in career OBP (.443), OPS (1.051), and walks (2,427), and second in SLG (.608) and HR (734). Pujols places first among all living players and fourth among all players in SLG (.628), while Aaron maintains a tenuous lead over Bonds in career HR with 755. To Hank's credit, he also ranks first in career total bases (6,856).
In creating a list of the top 10 greatest living hitters, I have relied heavily on RCAA and OPS+. Both metrics played important, if unequal, roles in this process. As it turns out, the rankings for RCAA and OPS+ were not altogether different, adding to the desired goal of determining the greatest living hitters as objectively as possible. When the two measures clashed, I valued the counting stat (RCAA) over the rate stat (OPS+). Had I weighed the latter over the former, McGwire would rank as the third best hitter among all living players (behind only Bonds and Pujols). However, McGwire had a shorter career than Musial, Aaron, Mays, and Robinson. The difference between his superior OPS+ and their OPS+ is much closer than the disparity between his inferior RCAA and their RCAAs. As such, I believe Musial, Aaron, Mays and Robinson deserve to be ranked ahead of McGwire.
With that, I present the top ten greatest living hitters:
Martinez's name may surprise some but remember we're talking about greatest hitters rather than players.
Henderson's RCAA (763) and Allen's OPS+ (156) deserve a mention but the former's rate stats and the latter's career totals don't measure up to the others. George Brett (593, 135), Joe Morgan (663, 132), Ken Griffey Jr. (570, 141), and Alex Rodriguez (554, 145) rank in the top 20 among the greatest living hitters.
What about Wade Boggs, Rod Carew, Tony Gwynn, and Pete Rose? This foursome won 23 batting titles and averaged 3,365 career hits, yet they also combined for fewer home runs (505) than Bonds, Aaron, Mays, Robinson, McGwire, Schmidt, and McCovey.
One could argue that Pujols deserves to rank somewhere in the top 10. However, with just six seasons under his belt, it is a bit early to compare him to the likes of Bonds, Musial, Aaron, Mays, and Robinson, all of whom had careers lasting over 20 years.
As for Bonds, sure, he benefited by playing in one of the best offensive eras ever. But he also played the vast majority of his home games in parks more friendly toward pitchers than hitters. In any event, RCAA and OPS+ adjust for both era and ballpark effects. As such, Bonds is neither helped nor hurt by his environment.
Love him or hate him, Barry Bonds is the Greatest Living Hitter. Period.
Rich Lederer is the co-founder and lead writer for Baseball Analysts. He welcomes your comments via email.
AL Central: At Home on the Road?
For Milwaukee fans who have longed for the return of the designated hitter, receiving this week's Angels "at" Indians series is like Christmas, replete with the forecast of snow and the gift of American League baseball.
For fans of Major League, it's a thrilling reunion of the Indians with Milwaukee, where the movie's baseball scenes were filmed.
For everyone else, it's just a horror show. The Indians are robbed of three games of normal gate receipts; their players are robbed of three nights of home-field advantage; and the Angels' are robbed of three days of sightseeing in Cleveland. (OK, so not everyone is suffering equally. Plus, the Angels hadn't even left Los Angeles when the venue change was announced.)
It's really just the fine folks of Cleveland who have had it rough. Because Friday night's contest against Seattle was halted a strike short of an official game, the Indians will now be playing their "home" opener in Milwaukee.
"This is the weirdest of the weird," said Bob DiBiasio, Indians vice president of public relations.
This is coming from a man who witnessed the oddity of Sept. 25, 2000, when the Indians hosted the White Sox in the afternoon and the Twins that same night. But this April snowstorm wiped out a single game Friday and then three straight days of attempted doubleheaders. It also wiped out a level playing field in fantasy leagues with weekly head-to-head matchups; if you own stars like Travis Hafner, Grady Sizemore, Ichiro or Felix Hernandez, I hope someone talked you down from that ledge.
With Major League Baseball facilitating the discussion, the Angels and Indians worked to find an alternate site for their three-game series -– night games today and tomorrow and a matinee on Thursday -– when Jacobs Field was deemed unplayable. Anaheim, Houston and Milwaukee emerged as viable options. The Indians were willing to play the games in the Angels' digs in sunny SoCal and even offered to count them as Cleveland home dates, rather than swap home series (the two are scheduled to play in L.A. May 8-10 and Sept. 6-9), but future travel itineraries and competitive advantage concerns negated that possibility.
"Milwaukee is more desirable because we go to Boston on Friday, and there's a jump there in time," said Angels V.P. of communications Tim Mead. "It gets the players more acclimated to the schedule. On a neutral site it takes away the concern that someone had three additional games at home. It satisfies and alleviates concerns and integrity issues."
As it is already, the Red Sox moved up their normal Patriots' Day start on Monday from 11 a.m. to 10, which certainly can't help any West Coast team plagued by lingering jet lag.
With a seven-hour drive looming -– in inclement weather, no less -– the Indians don't expect many of their fans to make the trip to Milwaukee. Cincinnati's Great American Ballpark appeared to be available and only four hours from Cleveland, but that apparently was not discussed (Miller and Minute Maid parks both have retractable roofs). Cincy's daily high temperatures are expected to be in the 50s all week, so why not make it a series of day games and at least play in-state? For the $10 general admission tickets being sold for the series, I'd bet a good number of Clevelanders would skip work and make the trip.
Instead, we have this. Tucked in the press release announcing the return of AL baseball to Milwaukee was this telling statement: "Seating will be limited to the Field and (if needed) Loge Levels only."
In other words, "your voice might echo in the dome and, for the first time ever, Milwaukee might resemble Tampa Bay."
Even Bob Uecker ought to be able to get a good seat for this series.
If you're expecting such a meager crowd anyway, why limit yourself to other major league stadiums? Minor league and college parks, however, were not considered.
The best field seats at Miller Park normally cost $42 a pop, meaning for the next three days Milwaukee fans can sit in the same section for less than a quarter of the price with the fringe benefit of not having to watch the Brewers. How revenue from these games will be divided between the Brewers and Indians has not yet been decided, but Cleveland seems unconcerned with that at this point.
"The primary, immediate objective is to get our guys on the field and competing," DiBiasio said.
What a week this has been for the Indians, who started by taking two games on the road in Chicago only for the weekend to spurn unmitigated disaster. As God Hates Cleveland Sports points out about Friday night, Paul Byrd's near five inning no-hitter and the Indians' near victory don't count while Victor Martinez's strained quad does count, likely with a trip to the disabled list. Also, if anything could stop Sizemore's blistering hot start (6-14 with home runs in all three games), it's probably a blizzard.
In other words, if God were charged with hating Cleveland sports, I'd hate to be His defense attorney.
Labels: AL Central
NL West: Inauspicious Debuts
Last in the alphabet but first in salary among 2006-07 free agents, Barry Zito entered the sixth inning of his second start as a San Francisco Giant with a 3.60 ERA.
Three of the next four batters hit grounders on the infield. The fifth batter of the inning was a major leaguer whose roster status is so tenuous that every game might be his last. Then came a journeyman who isn't even the most famous major leaguer with his own name.
But by the time the inning was over, the Los Angeles Dodgers had carved up the $18 million-a-year Zito much the same way area code surgeons once carved up Los Angeles -- leaving an enormous chunk of 8.18 as his ERA.
Trailing only 2-1, Zito allowed infield singles by Jeff Kent and Matt Kemp to sandwich a clean shot to left-center by Luis Gonzalez. Wilson Valdez (career OPS entering the game of .548) tripled, and infielder Ramon Martinez, known by fans of both Arrested Development and the former Dodgers pitcher Ramon Martinez as Lucille II, hit a sacrifice fly.
Just like that, Zito was down 6-1 on the way to a 10-4 loss. He wasn't exactly hammered -- but that didn't mean he wasn't looking for ways to improve after he took two of the Giants' five losses in six games this past opening week, allowing 18 baserunners in 11 innings. He told Becky Regan of MLB.com that he felt he had a problem with his release point and needs just to make "a couple small adjustments."
He's not the only one. It was that kind of up-and-down week for big-name pitchers on new teams in the National League West.
Perhaps the most clearcut success for an NL West starting pitcher in his debut with his team was Jason Hirsh, who struck out eight and allowed one run over 6 2/3 innings to defeat San Diego on Friday.
If I might segue for a moment, Hirsh's performance was one of three quality starts the Rockies made in San Diego this past weekend, but Colorado lost two. Josh Fogg allowed two runs in 6 1/3 innings Saturday, but the Padres won in the bottom of the ninth. And Sunday, Aaron Cook outdid them all, sailing through nine innings with only a Jose Cruz Jr. homer as a blemish, but Kevin Kouzmanoff's 10th-inning RBI single off LaTroy Hawkins sent Colorado to defeat.
And if I might segue the segue, Kouzmanoff epitomized the challenge managers face with inexperienced ballplayers at the outset of the season. The offseason acquisition from Cleveland had begun the year 2 for 17 when manager Bud Black rested him Friday. Kouzmanoff eventually fell to 2 for 20, but Black still did not deny him the pressure at-bat Sunday.
And then there's the story of the Dodgers' Valdez, the 28-year-old scrub poised to go on waivers the minute starting shortstop Rafael Furcal returns from the disabled list. In his first two starts as a Dodger, Valdez got six hits and 12 assists, not to mention a game-ending putout as an emergency left fielder Wednesday. If nothing else, Valdez has given the Dodgers even more patience in granting Furcal all the time he needs to recover from his troublesome ankle sprain.
If only to wrap the threads of this piece together, it's worth pointing out that the next big pitcher to enter the NL West might not be on anyone's major league roster right now: Tim Lincecum. The San Francisco farmhand struck out eight in five innings in his AAA Fresno debut Saturday, soothing Nick Cannata-Bowman of Giants Cove with the thought that "in the midst of what's been a less than optimistic week, seeing the next Roy Oswalt succeed right off the bat gives some hope for the season."
Jon Weisman is an SI.com columnist and founder of Dodger Thoughts.
Labels: NL West
AL East: A-Rod to the Rescue
The Yankees barely survived the chilly conditions in New York during the first week of the season with a 2-3 record, and they fared that well largely due to the contributions of the man that Yankee fans love to hate: Alex Rodriguez. The Bombers have looked old so far, and not just because of injuries to Johnny Damon (strained calves) and Hideki Matsui (hamstring).
The fielding has been awful. Derek Jeter has won three straight Gold Gloves, but even the most ardent Jeter supporters would concede his reputation had something to do with that. Still, after being a subpar shortstop for many years, Jeter has actually improved over the past three seasons. Is age catching up to him? Jeter's range, particularly to his left, is limited, but his errors this season have come on throws. On Saturday, Melvin Mora stole second base because neither Jeter or Robinson Cano covered the bag. Limited range, even poor throws are one thing, but when was the last time you saw Jeter commit a mental error?
The starting pitching has been even worse. Through five games no Yankees pitcher has worked into the sixth inning, and only Kei Igawa made it through the fifth. Starters have allowed five, four, six, seven and five runs, respectively. The Bombers are fortunate that the bullpen was restocked over the winter. They are getting plenty of work early -— even Andy Pettitte threw an inning of relief on Sunday, his throw day, for good measure.
In spite of all this ugliness, the loudest boos at Yankee Stadium were reserved for A-Rod. On Wednesday night against the Rays, Rodriguez came to the plate in the bottom of the eighth inning, the Yanks trailing by a run. There were two out and the bases were loaded. Brian Stokes had just gotten Jeter and Bobby Abreu to tap back to the mound weakly. Now, he left a pitch out over the plate to Rodriguez, who got under it and popped it up. Rodriguez was showered with boos.
This is not an old story, of course. Rodriguez is booed in New York, because, well, New Yorkers like to boo. He's also booed because so much is expected of him. He is the Big Ticket star with the Hall of Fame talent and the salary to match. Like Jeter, the next time he doesn't hustle down the line trying to beat out a ground ball will be the first. Like Paul O'Neill, he berates himself mercilessly after he's made an out.
Rodriguez is the biggest star the Yankees have had since Reggie Jackson and Dave Winfield in the early 1980s. Rodriguez may display some of Jackson's insecurities -— he really wants to be liked, has to feel needed -— but is probably more similar to Winfield, who George Steinbrenner once dubbed "Mr. May." No matter how good a player Rodriguez is -— and going into his fourth year at the hot corner, it's safe to say he's the best offensive third baseman in Yankee history -— the prevailing sentiment in New York is that he can't deliver in the clutch.
Which isn't entirely true. Rodriguez has had plenty of big hits for the Yankees. Just not enough. He's also failed plenty in tense situations late in ball games. All of which makes him the most dramatic Yankee to follow. His at-bats, especially in the Bronx, are charged with a kind expectation and energy that brings Reggie's heyday in the Bronx Zoo to mind.
Rodriguez's game-winning grand slam against Chris Ray and Orioles on Saturday afternoon is just the kind of Reggie moment Rodriguez has been dying for. He was down in the count, 1-2, and many fans were likely preparing for the worst. The Yankees only needed a single to at least tie, and probably win, the game. But Rodriguez did them one better, he hit one in the center-field black, on a similar pitch to the one he missed against Stokes days earlier. Which is what Yankee fans want. They want headlines. Rodriguez homered in his first at-bat on Sunday too, this time to right-center field, a sure sign that he is feeling good. Even more to the point, the Yankees need Rodriguez now more than ever. Without him, they could still be looking for their first win.
Curt Schilling and Erik Bedard rebounded after their Opening Day duds, with nice performances on Sunday. The Red Sox were led by David Ortiz (go figure), and Jonathan Papelbon. Boston's offense was held-in-check over the weekend in Texas. The story of the week for Sox was the sterling debut of Daisuke Matsuzaka, which left viewers delighted, grasping for comparisons. Matsuzaka has five or six B-plus or A pitches, and looks to be one of the most entertaining performers in the game. He might not be as great as Pedro Martinez was in his prime, but he carries himself in the same kind of regal manner.
Roy Halladay also earned his first win of the season yesterday, as the Jays took two of three in Tampa. The Big Hurt hit his first homer for the Jays over the weekend, but Mike Rutsey writes that outfielder Alex Rios is falling back into old habits.
Finally, the Devil Rays came back against B.J. Ryan on Friday night to beat the Jays in the Tampa home opener. The win featured contributions from the youngsters -- Delmon Young and B.J. Upton. Earlier in the week, Elijah Dukes hit a frozen-rope home run at Yankee Stadium that would have done Gary Sheffield, Jim Rice and Winfield proud.
Alex Belth is an SI.com columnist and the founder of Bronx Banter.
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