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Meet Mr. April
The Yankees already had a Mr. May. Now they have a Mr. April.
Alex Rodriguez, the Yankees' poster boy for the perils of excess, has appeased his myriad of critics -- well, for now -- with a boffo opening month. You'd have to have been buried under the snow in Cleveland since Opening Day to not know what A-Rod has been doing to the American League. He leads the majors in home runs (10), RBIs (26) and making YES play-by-play man Michael Kay jump for joy with walkoff home runs. He's the first player in AL history to reach double-digits in homers in his team's first 14 games, and first to hit two walkoffs this early since Philadelphia's Pat Burrell had two in the first nine games in 2002.
Since arriving in the Bronx in 2004, A-Rod has been known more for the whipping he's taken in the stands and in the press than for the hurt he's applied on opposing pitchers, which has been considerable. He hit 36 home runs with 106 RBIs in 2004 and slugged .516 against the Red Sox in the ALCS. Yet, somehow, he was pegged as one of the main reasons for the team's collapse from a 3-0 lead in the series. He won the MVP award in 2005 but batted .133 -- with six walks -- in a five-game Division Series loss to the Angels. The woes carried into 2006, when he slumped badly at times yet drove in 121 runs before fizzling out again in the first round (.071 against Detroit).
That set the stage for what was a bizarre spring training for A-Rod, during which the daily accountings of his various moods on a variety of topics (i.e. Derek Jeter, Yankees fans, his contract, etc.) read like so much bad theater in the daily New York tabloids. Now Rodriguez appears to have won a reprieve from his critics just in time for the first series of the season against the Red Sox ... or has he?
The cynic would say he's just setting himself up for another round of skewering if he fails to produce similarly spectacular results in the postseason. You don't have to be clairvoyant to know what the headlines and columnists will say when he tapers off -- nobody can keep this up, even A-Rod -- later in the season, perhaps in the thick of a heated pennant race or another first-round matchup against a young, hungry, pitching-heavy club such as the Angels and Tigers of the past couple of seasons. Unfairly or not, he'll be given the Mr. April tag in much the same way Dave Winfield was hit with "Mr. May" more than two decades ago.
Fenway Frustration: The Outside Looking In
I hit the big 3-0 this week, and to honor the occasion, my parents offered to take me to Fenway Park to see Sunday night's Red Sox-Yankees game. The only catch was finding the tickets, which I knew would be an expensive challenge in baseball-crazy Boston. But with three days, the Internet and my dad's credit card, I felt up to the challenge.
My first stop was Stubhub.com, an online marketplace for tickets, where I discovered that the cheapest seats in the house were not even seats, but Standing Room Only at $81 a pop. That's right, $243 (plus fees) to stand in the upper bowels of Fenway Park for nine innings. No thanks. If nothing else, I was going to celebrate my 30th birthday on my rear-end, not my feet. The next option was the 14th row of the bleachers for a mere $111 each -– over $325 to sit well-over 400 feet from home plate. I think I'll pass.
So I went to eBay, Craig's List and several other "reputable" ticket agencies, but it was all the same -– about $350 for three tickets ... in the bleachers. Even mediocre seats that were close to the field –- about 13 rows back in the loge -– were $250 each. This was absurd, and soon enough I told my parents to forget it and buy me the MLB Extra Innings Package (at $179) instead and keep the rest for themselves. If I couldn't see that one game live, I could at least catch thousands on TV for a fraction of the price.
If only we grew up in Kansas City or Milwaukee or Tampa, where buying tickets to a baseball game doesn't require a second mortgage, I'd be able to see my favorite team play in person. In fact, the 2006 Team Marketing Report, which tracks the cost of attendance for a family of four (including four tickets; four small sodas; two small beers; four hot dogs; two programs; parking; and two hats), revealed that the cheapest ticket in the majors is in Kansas City, where a night with the Royals costs $120.35 per game. But I don't want to see the Royals ... I want to see the Sox. And according to the TMR, that'll cost my family $287.84, assuming we can get tickets at face value -- a difficult task since every game has been sold out since 2003.
What does this all mean? It's a point beaten to death in Boston, but the true Red Sox fans -– not the women with pink hats and the guys who leave the ballpark in the seventh inning -– are getting priced out and Fenway has taken the tenor of an elite Connecticut Country Club as opposed to a familiar neighborhood bar.
The new owners can preach the beauty of the ballpark all they want, but all the recent "improvements" to Fenway -– new seats above the Green Monster and along the right-field roof, expanding the luxury boxes, renovating the .406 Club -- aren't doing much for the Average Joe ... unless Joe can come up with $200 each for those tickets or somehow score a seat in the luxury box. Meanwhile, the dilapidated grandstand remains a living hell for anyone over 5-foot-9 and the sight lines from right field cause thousands of stiff necks because the seats are pointed toward the outfield, not home plate.
Tourists can flock to Fenway in droves and purists can talk about how great the old ballpark is for the sport of baseball, but after 30 years in Boston, I've officially been priced out from seeing my own team. Sadly, my cheapest option for seeing them play is to catch them in Kansas City. At least the fans there don't wear pink hats.
Wild Card: The Art of the Platoon
One of the more alarming trends in roster construction in the past year or so has been the increasing willingness of teams to carry 12, even 13 pitchers on their 25-man roster. The Rangers were one of a few that carried 13 for parts of 2006, and the Orioles fully intended to break camp this year with 13 hurlers and a three-man bench only to have their plans foiled by Ramon Hernandez's oblique injury, which forced them to replace that 13th pitcher with an extra catcher.
One would assume an unintended consequence of these ever-expanding pitching staffs and correspondingly shrinking benches would be a dearth of position-player platoons. Surprisingly, that hasn't been the case. A quick survey of the games played thus far this season reveals that more than half of major-league managers have at least one player on their team whose starts are dependent on the handedness of the opposing starting pitcher.
The practice of platooning -- which, in it's simplest form, is splitting the starts at a given position between a left-handed and a right-handed hitter based on the handedness of opposing starting pitcher, with the opposite-handed hitter drawing the start in each game -- dates back to at least the late 1880s, though it didn't gain full support until Casey Stengel used it to great effect with the dynastic Yankees of the 1950s. Stengel picked up the habit after being platooned himself by his manager and mentor John McGraw during his playing days as a left-handed outfielder for the New York Giants. Stengel's success helped popularize the strategy, which is designed to optimize the offensive production of positions manned by hitters who just can't seem to figure out same-handed hurlers. The continued success of his followers -- including Earl Weaver, whose Orioles won three consecutive AL pennants from 1969 to 1971 while featuring a catching platoon of lefty Elrod Hendricks and righty Andy Etchebarren, and direct Stengel disciple Billy Martin, who managed the Detroit Tigers to the AL East title in 1972 while maintaining platoons at six different positions -- helped make it a commonplace practice.
Still, for all of its advantages, there are three potential problems with platooning:
1) A young hitter that struggles against same-handed pitchers might yet learn to hit them, but never will if he doesn't get to face them;
2) Since the majority of pitchers are right-handed (just 27 percent of all at-bats came against lefty pitching in 2006), the right-handed hitting half of any given platoon runs the risk of growing cold on the bench;
3) Being reduced to part-time roles tends to bruise egos.
That last point seemed to be a problem in Milwaukee this spring when it was announced that veterans Geoff Jenkins, a lefty hitter, and Kevin Mench, a righty, would be platooned in left field so that young prospect Corey Hart would not have to surrender his position in right field. Brewers' skipper Ned Yost has stuck to his guns on the left-field platoon thus far, with Jenkins starting only against righties, but has given into the complaints of Mench, the righty on the short-end of the platoon, by using him in place of fellow righty Hart against the odd right hander in the early going. With Hart heating up, however, Yost may soon have to stick to the plan in right field as well.
Even the best hitters in the game suffer a certain decline in production against same-handed hitters (or in the case of switch hitters, hit better from one side than the other). Barry Bonds, for example, has an OPS 100 points lower against lefties than righties over the course of his 22-year-career. Given that and the risks of stunting a hitter's progress, having his bat go cold, or simply ticking him off, it behooves managers to only platoon players with rather extreme differentials between their abilities to hit left-handed and right-handed hitters. With that in mind, I thought I'd take a look at the 22 pure platoons currently being employed in the major leagues to see which most represent an efficient use of team resources.
To do this I'll use a makeshift stat I'll call "Split" based on a very helpful statistic called GPA or Gross Production Average. GPA, like OPS, is a combination of a hitter's on-base and slugging percentages, but unlike OPS, which simply adds them together, GPA gives appropriate weight to OBP (which, since it's essentially the rate at which a hitter avoids making outs, and outs are the only limit placed on a team's ability to score runs, is by far the most important single offensive statistic in baseball). More skillful number crunchers than I have figured out that weighing OBP 1.8 times as much as slugging results in the best representation of a hitter's actual value. Thus the formula for GPA is GPA = (OBP*1.8 + SLG)/4. The division by four serves the aesthetic purpose of placing the stat on the same scale as batting average, with a .300 GPA being very good, a .200 GPA being very bad, and a .260 GPA being roughly average.
Split, then, will be the difference between a hitter's GPA against opposite-handed pitchers and their GPA against same-handed pitchers. Thus, if righty-hitting Bob Smith has a .280 GPA against lefties and a .240 GPA against righties, his Split is .040. At the same time, if Smith had a reverse split of the same degree (meaning he hits his fellow righties better than lefties), he'd have a -.040 Split.
As the season is still less than 10 percent finished and some teams, such as the Mariners, have faced just one lefty all year, I'll use hitters' career statistics to determine their Splits to avoid small sample issues. Here are the pure platoons currently being employed in major league baseball:
1B: L – Scott Thorman (.044), R – Craig Wilson (.046)
LF: L – Ryan Langerhans (-.013), R – Matt Diaz (.015)
Bobby Cox launched the Braves' dynasty in 1991 with platoons at first, second, shortstop, and left field, but his current left-field scenario is rather pointless. Diaz, the better overall hitter, should be the full-time starter.
C: L – Paul Bako (.062), R – Alberto Castillo (-.043)
The O's are trying to make the best of a bad situation with Hernandez on the DL and these two scrubs as their backup options, but, despite hitting from different sides of the dish, Bako and Castillo are similarly effective against righties and lefties. Manager Sam Perlozzo would be better off hoping one of them gets hot and sticking with him until Hernandez is activated.
SS: S – Cesar Izturis (-.012), R – Ronny Cedeño (-.033)
LF: L – Cliff Floyd (.024), R – Matt Murton (.045)
RF: L – Jacque Jones (.066), R – Ryan Theriot (.032)/R – Mark DeRosa (.052)
The Cubs have only faced two lefties this year, but the above seems to be the pattern Lou Piniella is following. Izturis and Cedeño are both awful hitters and Lou's platoon only makes things worse. The Floyd-Murton combo in left makes more sense, but the 25-year-old Murton deserves a chance to play every day. The best fit here is the right-field platoon, though it remains to be seen exactly whom Piniella is going to pair up with Jones. Theriot and DeRosa are currently battling over the second base job, but both have experience in the outfield as well. The best solution would be to make the 27-year-old Theriot the everyday starter at second and use veteran utility man DeRosa as the short side of the right-field platoon, enabling him to also fill in elsewhere when needed, as he did last year for the Rangers when he wasn't platooning with Hank Blalock at third base. The only concern is the quality of Theriot's defense at the keystone.
1B: L – Scott Hatteberg (.034), R – Jeff Conine (.030)
C: S – Javier Valentin (-.048), R – David Ross (.012)
Jerry Narron has used switch-hitter Valentin as the lefty half of his catching platoon for reasons that defy explanation. Valentin's split is so strong and Ross's so small that the Reds would actually be better off inverting their catcher platoon and starting Ross against righties and Valentin against lefties. The early returns show Ross struggling and Valentin excelling, but that's unlikely to continue. Ross should be the everyday catcher.
RF: L – Trot Nixon (.079), R – Casey Blake (.018)
LF: L – David Dellucci (.076), R – Jason Michaels (.035)
The Indians started the season with Nixon in a complex platoon with righty-hitting first baseman Ryan Garko (.039) that had Blake bouncing between right field and first base and playing every day. The only problem with that setup was that Blake was playing everyday at the expense of 26-year-old Garko, whose major league sample isn't large enough to justify limiting him to a platoon just yet.
2B: L – Kaz Matsui (.005), R – Jamey Carroll (.018)
Matsui had an insane split last year (.116). A more beneficial platoon they haven't fully committed to yet would be to split right field between lefty Brad Hawpe (.055) and righty Jeff Baker (.035).
1B: L – Sean Casey (.021), R – Marcus Thames (.004)
Casey isn't the hitter he used to be. Thames, who had a breakout season as well as a slight reverse split (-.015) last year, should be the starter.
RF: L – Luke Scott (.013), R – Jason Lane (.013)
Phil Garner would be better off riding the hot hand than worrying about handedness here.
Kansas City Royals
LF: L – Mark Teahen (.040), R – Reggie Sanders (0.36)
The Royals have also been working in righty-hitting infielder Esteban German (.017) against lefties, though German should really be starting full time, and just might if Dayton Moore can find a taker for second baseman Mark Grudzielanek.
Los Angeles Dodgers
RF: L – Andre Ethier (.006), R – Brady Clark (.005)
There's no reason for the Dodgers to be platooning Ethier with an inferior hitter such as Clark, even if Clark is just a stand-in for the injured Matt Kemp (who has a strong reverse split anyway, making that version of this platoon even more harmful). This is another symptom of the Dodgers' institutional distrust of their emerging prospects.
LF: L – Geoff Jenkins (.053), R – Kevin Mench (.056)
Mench can complain all he wants; this is the most sensible platoon in baseball.
New York Yankees
1B: L – Doug Mientkiewicz (-.006), R – Josh Phelps (.026)
Phelps hits righties as well as Mientkiewicz, who, like Sean Casey, isn't the hitter he used to be anyway. With Chien-Ming Wang, one of the four most extreme groundball pitchers in baseball, returning from the DL, there would be a certain logic to a defensive platoon that would have Minky starting behind Wang and possibly Andy Pettitte, regardless of the opposing pitcher. Failing that, Phelps should be the full-timer here.
RF: L – Travis Buck (NA), S – Bobby Kielty (.038)
Kielty is a switch-hitter in name only. Buck is a 23-year-old rookie who's 2 for 3 against lefties in his major league career and probably deserves a shot at a full-time job.
St. Louis Cardinals
2B: L – Adam Kennedy (.032), R – Aaron Miles (.006)
LF: L – Chris Duncan (.077), R – So Taguchi (-.002)
RF: S – Scott Spiezio (.017), R – Preston Wilson (.003)
Miles may seem like a poor partner for Kennedy, but he does hit lefties better than Kennedy (career .240 GPA to Kennedy's .224). The same is not true of Taguchi and Duncan, but then Duncan's stats are inflated by his small-sample success last year. As for Wilson, his split has become more extreme in recent years (.041 in 2005, .056 in '06), so that right-field platoon makes more sense than the career numbers above would indicate.
San Diego Padres
LF: L – Termel Sledge (.066), S – Jose Cruz Jr. (.022)
Switch-hitter Cruz serves as the right-handed half of this effective platoon.
Other Notable Platoon Players
The Marlins are working righty-hitting outfielder Cody Ross (.096) in against lefties. The Giants are working in outfielder Todd Linden (.037) against lefties and first baseman Ryan Klesko (.072) against righties. The Phillies are doing their best to sit right-hitting third baseman Wes Helms (.037) against righties. The Dodgers are trying to sit switch-hitter Wilson Betemit (.071 in favor of him hitting lefty) against lefties.
Finally, with DeRosa in Chicago, lefty hitting Rangers third baseman Blalock (.074) is playing every day, which, given his career .210 GPA against lefties after four full seasons and overall declining production, is detrimental to the Texas offense. It would behoove the Rangers to approach the Royals about a deal for German.
D'OH!After praising Zack Greinke and Felix Hernandez as potential Cy Young candidates in last week's Wild Card, the two combined for the following line in their starts this past week: 1 IP, 5 H, 7 R, 4 BB, 1 K, 0-2, 63.00 ERA. Was it something I said?
Cliff Corcoran is the co-author of Bronx Banter.
Labels: Wild Card
NL East: Have Bat, Will Travel
Three guesses as to which team currently leads the majors in OPS. (Yes, I'm aware this is an NL East blog, so the cleverest of my readers might have already given themselves a one in five shot. Humor me.) The mighty Yankees? Nope. The powerful Indians? Negative. The suddenly loaded Devil Rays? Try again.
The answer, surprisingly, is your 2007 Florida Marlins. The Marlins' team OPS is an MLB-best .808, and they also ranked first in batting average until they managed only three hits (while allowing 17) against the then-second place Mets last night.
Last season, Marlins hitters finished 16th in OPS (.768) and 20th in batting average (.264). What explains the team's sudden early-season offensive surge? Here are five factors. 1. Miguel Cabrera's leap into superstardom: Cabrera has shown signs that he's ready to become a perennial Pujols-ian MVP candidate. While he's unquestionably been a star for three years now (averaging .318, 31 homers, and 114 RBI over that span), in 2007 he's on pace for career highs in homers (46), RBI (150), and OPS (1.083). And Florida lives or dies by Cabrera's bat. He's hitting .550 in Marlins wins and .194 in losses, and has driven in at least at least one run in every victory. Did I mention that he only turned 24 yesterday?
2. Hanley Ramirez's selectivity: Ramirez has so far demonstrated that he views sophomore slumps in the same way that blue-haired Floridians view late dinners and fast driving. The 2006 NL Rookie of the Year has shown a newfound discipline at the plate: while his strikeout to walk ratio was 2.29:1 last year, this season he's walked five times and struck out only six. He's also hitting .372 with a .449 OBP (last year he finished at .292 and .353). If he continues to get on base at anything approaching that clip, and works through a sore hamstring, he could steal 70 bases.
3. The supporting cast's maturation: First baseman Mike Jacobs was the preseason pick of many to win last year's NL ROY but hit .262; so far in '07 he's upped his average by 51 points (to .313) and his OPS by 144 (to .942). Every regular starter except catcher Miguel Olivo and second baseman Dan Uggla has an OBP above .320, and the team's tied for the major-league lead with 54 extra-base hits (including seven from Jacobs and six each from Uggla and outfielder Josh Willingham).
4. The weather: While most of the rest of baseball's hitters have had to struggle with snow, rain and cold, the Marlins have played only three games north of Atlanta -– and only one of those was played in temperatures chillier than 72 degrees. And, of course, those three games came against ...
5. The Washington Nationals: Florida's hitting stats are still a bit inflated from their opening series against the lowly Nats, in which the team scored 25 runs and amassed 35 hits. But they've also faced Tim Hudson, Roy Oswalt and, last night, an inspired John Maine. Can the Marlins continue to mash at their current pace? Likely not. But they should rank as a top-10 offensive team when all is said and done; and, in a relatively tame NL, that should be enough to keep them in the Wild Card chase all season long.
If they're hitting so well, why are the Marlins only 6-8? Much of the blame falls on one man. The Adventures of Jorge Julio sounds like it could be a Garcia Marquez novel; unfortunately for Florida, Julio's adventures been all too real. His ERA stands at 19.06 after he allowed six runs (five earned) and five hits in one inning against the Astros on Tuesday. Now he's on the DL with a "strained calf." Sounds like he's headed for more than a little solitude.
Labels: NL East
AL West: NorCal vs. SoCal
On Friday night, Yankees-Red Sox takes center stage for the first time this season. As the preeminent clash in our nation's pastime (and by most accounts, all of American sports), Yanks-Sawx receives more hype than every other MLB rivalry combined. (In a surprise to no one, every matchup of the three-game set will be seen on national TV.)
But far from the glitz and glamour of Yankees-Sox, two AL West teams have recently bolstered a rivalry that could challenge Boston-New York in competitive balance, if not overall significance. Over the past five years, no season series has packed more excitement than A's-Angels.
Since 2002, the AL West crown has made its home in either Oakland or Anaheim (A's in '02, '03 and '06; Angels in '04 and '05). The teams have faced off 103 times in that time, and after Oakland's two-game sweep this week, the A's hold a slight 53-50 advantage. An inordinate amount of these games have hinged on a single play, too, with 21 of the last 43 showdowns being decided by one run. As Mike Piazza said following his first game in the rivalry (which he won with a ninth-inning home run) two weeks ago, "If these games are going to be like this, I'm going to need a lot of antacid on the bench."
Both teams have succeeded recently behind their strong pitching. But like any other great rivalry, A's-Angels flourishes behind the teams' inherent differences. These discrepancies can be broken up into three main subjects -- front office approach, playing style and fanfare.
Front office approach: Especially since Arte Moreno bought the team in 2003, the Angels have shown little monetary restraint. They annually lead the AL West in spending, and this season rank fifth in baseball with a $108,704,524 payroll. On the other hand, the A's have always worked on a reduced budget under GM Billy Beane. Although this year's A's boast the highest payroll in franchise history ($79,938,369), it's still in the lower half of the MLB.
Playing style: The A's and Angels employ two vastly different offensive strategies. With Beane's reliance on Moneyball philosophies, the A's rarely utilize small-ball tactics like the steal, hit-and-run or sacrifice bunt. The Angels couldn't be more opposite. Manager Mike Scioscia's teams run wild -- every player steals bags, including catcher Mike Napoli.
Fanfare: Anyone that has lived in California or known a California native is privy to the fact that the Golden State is a state divided. NorCal prides itself on a down-to-earth, hippy demeanor, smog-free air, the Silicon Valley, wine, the beauty of Yosemite and Tahoe, Hyphy and old money. SoCal natives dig their laid back disposition, sunshine, Hollywood, gnarly waves, fish tacos, beautiful people, G-funk and new money. But when these two sides collide on in the world of sports, they share a passionate hatred of each other.
The A's hold a 4-2 advantage in the '07 campaign and sit atop the division standings. Thirteen regular-season games remain between the two teams this season, and it's safe to say their outcomes will have a broad affect on the AL West race.
• On Wednesday, "King" Felix Hernandez left his third start of the season after just 24 pitches with elbow tightness. Needless to say, the vagueness of the injury has Mariners fans inching closer and closer to the edge of the Space Needle. In The (Tacoma) News Tribune, Dave Boling provided a telling description of the scene at Safeco Field: "As Hernandez left the game, Mariners manager Mike Hargrove had the look of a man who'd been kidney punched, the crowd of more than 20,000 sat in stunned silence, and a passing train chose that moment to blow its ominous whistle."
• Tuesday marked the latest in a season the Mariners had been in first place since Aug., 24, 2003.
• Having hit a combined .316 over the past four seasons, Texas shortstop Michael Young is off to a slow start, currently posting a .175 average. In March, the Mariners locked up Young through 2013 with a five-year, $80 million extension. The folks at U.S.S. Mariner claim that this contract makes Young the fourth-least tradeable player in baseball.
• Texas' Sammy Sosa returned to Chicago to play the White Sox on Tuesday, and was greeted by large-scale booing from the South Side crowd. But Sosa quieted the Sox faithful in the eighth inning. Chicago manager Ozzie Guillen chose to intentionally walk Mark Teixeira with two outs in the inning and take his chances with Sosa. And Sosa made him pay, launching a three-run home run off of Mike MacDougal that gave Texas an 8-1 lead. After the game, Guillen had no regrets about choosing to face Sosa over Teixeira, saying "I will walk Teixeira tomorrow and pitch to Sammy Sosa every day this year. I'm not scared of Sammy. He had a ball right in the middle of the plate."
Labels: AL West
NL Central: Has Pie Arrived?
The Felix Pie Era in Chicago has begun.
Or has it?
On Tuesday afternoon at wind-swept Wrigley Field, phenom Felix Pie, a sinewy 21-year-old Dominican who wears a wood and lace bracelet inscribed with the words Divino Nino (Divine Child), took the field for the first time in a Cubs uniform and spared no time in showcasing why scouts have been drooling over his potential for years. Filling in for injured (and badly struggling) Alfonso Soriano, Chicago's most prized prospect notched his first major-league hit -- an opposite-field double to the gap in left -- off Greg Maddux in the fifth inning to drive in the Cubs' second run of the game. One out later, he scored the tying run. In the 10th he gunned down the potential go-ahead run at the plate with a spectacular throw from medium shallow depth. Bleed Cubbie Blue says that if you happened to tune into the game on Tax Day, you witnessed something pretty special .
So what happens to Pie -- Baseball America's top ranked Cubs prospect the past two years -- when Chicago's $136 million center fielder is healed? The Cubs won't yet say, but they'd be making a mistake if they send Pie back down to Triple-A Iowa, where he's shown vast improvement in the only kink in his game: his plate discipline. Pie is a maestro with the glove, and Chicago is below average defensively in all three of its outfield positions.
The Cubs have been admirably patient in their handling of this ridiculously talented youngster. They're understandably cautious, unwilling to rush him to The Show as they did with Corey Patterson, who arrived at Wrigley prematurely, at 21. But Patterson had only 230 games in the minors under his belt and Pie has played 498. His time has come.
Phil Rogers agrees, saying that Chicago should move Soriano back to left when his hamstring heals. He says that Jacque Jones must probably go, and that Jim Hendry's signing of the outfielder to a three-year deal last year was one of the worst moves he's ever made.
The Cubs, meanwhile, keep losing, and already Sweet Lou is starting to sour, though Ken Griffey Jr. says the Northsiders haven't seen anything yet.
A rival NL general manager says the Cubs, despite their lackluster start, will contend. "They're going to score runs all year with that lineup," he says, "and once [Carlos] Zambrano settles down, the rotation should be fine. Ted Lilly and Rich Hill already look like they're going to have pretty nice years."
Around the division:
Labels: NL Central
AL Central: Left Out
South Side Sox presents these numbers without comment:
I, of course, do feel compelled to make a few comments. And chief among them is, "The White Sox can't hit left-handed pitching."
Those numbers reflect the last 14 starts by Minnesota's Johan Santana and the last seven starts by Cleveland's C.C. Sabathia against Chicago -– including a 3-0 record in 2007. And, just to clarify, that is indeed a 16-2 record with 20 quality starts. Admittedly, Santana is the best pitcher in baseball, and Sabathia is one of the league's few other bona fide aces, but Chicago's poor hitting numbers aren't confined just to these two premier lefty hurlers.
Thanks to the batter vs. pitcher stats made available by mlb.com, we can see that the ChiSox have had inordinate struggles against all lefties. In 2006 their left-handed hitters hit a woeful .149 against all of Detroit's southpaws (13-of-87) with one home run and two RBIs. That includes a .074 clip in five Kenny Rogers starts and a .194 average in four Nate Robertson starts. Again, those are above-average pitchers, but that's the daily reality when you play in the AL Central, a division I think has the best concentration of lefty starters in baseball. But, rejoice White Sox fans, at least the South Siders teed off on poor ol' Cliff Lee in their 49 at-bats his six starts for Cleveland -– a .224 average! Break out the Silver Sluggers!
Actually, never mind -- the rest of the league's lefties hit .276 against Lee.
It should be noted that Chicago's righties fared so sufficiently well against Robertson and Lee that the two managed just a combined 2-5 against the White Sox last year. (Rogers, however, was 3-1 with a 0.82 ERA.) But the White Sox, who last year featured three regular lefty bats in A.J. Pierzynski, Scott Podsednik and Jim Thome, added another lefty-swinging starter in Darin Erstad and retain supersub -– and lefty stick -– Rob Mackowiak.
In other words, right-handed outfielder Brian Anderson has now managed to hurt the Sox offense whether he's in the lineup -– he batted .225 in 365 at-bats last year -– or on the bench; his demotion to the bench this year means more lefty vs. lefty ABs.
"What happened to B.A., that's his fault," the ever-quotable Ozzie Guillen told Chicago reporters this week. "We gave him the opportunity last year."
It may be Anderson's fault, but it's Chicago's problem. On paper, having four left-handed hitters sounds like good balance, but it's not a lineup made for the AL Central. The Indians and Tigers both have three lefty starters; the Royals have two and the Twins, in the absence of injured Francisco Liriano, have only Santana.
Eight of the White Sox' first 11 games have been against division rivals, and they've sputtered out to a 5-6 record with an AL-low 38 runs despite the resurgence of Podsednik, who is batting .303. Four games have been against lefties -– the three wins by Sabathia and Santana -– and one start by Jeremy Sowers. The White Sox beat the Indians 4-3 in that game but needed a walk-off hit batsman to do so after scratching Sowers for just one hit and two runs in six innings.
Obviously the season is in its infancy and heavy hitters Jermaine Dye and Paul Konerko will awake from extended hibernation to provide some potent pop and hide some of Chicago's deficiencies in the lineup. But the question for the White Sox isn't when their proven sluggers will come around, it's who's going to help hit lefty pitching? Right now Anderson and Pablo Ozuna are their best big-league options.
How soon can Josh Fields get to the South Side? And can he play the outfield?
Labels: AL Central
NL West: Here's to Mrs. Robinson
Rachel Robinson was married to Jackie Robinson for 26 years. She has been a widow for nearly 35.
So much was written about Jackie over the past several days, I fear that people might be suffering from Robinson fatigue by the time this piece hits your browser. And yet, I'm finding that one more thought lingers ...
On Sunday night, sitting in the stands at Dodger Stadium with my wife of nearly seven years and my stir-crazy 2- and 4-year old children as Rachel spoke to the crowd and the national television audience, wondering whether I'd be able to keep things under control at least until the first pitch was to be thrown, I listened carefully to Rachel's words but kept returning to the same question: How has she done it? How has she kept it all together?
Practically a newlywed during Jackie's first season in the majors, Rachel endured, along with no small amount of loneliness as the only black baseball wife in the majors, the grief and fear that underscored his pioneering career -- a tension destined to either break their partnership or bond it tighter. Clearly, the latter happened. As Jackie's baseball life transcended, so did their marriage.
Jackie retired after the 1956 season. Sixteen years later -- a snapshot in the life of the 84-year-old Rachel -- Jackie passed away at age 53. His death came a year after an automobile accident killed the Robinsons' oldest son, Jack Jr.
Thirty-five years ago, the finely crafted structure of Rachel's life shattered.
Yet instead of retreating into her grief, Rachel remained in the public eye. She founded the Jackie Robinson Foundation, which provides academic scholarships for minority children. She carried on Jackie's essence, combining it with her own, and helped ensure that those of us who weren't fortunate enough to see Jackie play or witness his courage firsthand could have as strong a sense of it as possible.
Don Newcombe and Vin Scully can tell us what Jackie Robinson was like, and it's a precious thing to hear them bear witness. But Rachel shows us. At the exhausting end of an exhausting day of an exhausting life, Rachel gave us a speech Sunday brimming with optimism about the future while admonishing us not to forget the hard-earned lessons of the past, and we intuitively realize that if Jackie had one-tenth of Rachel's character, he truly was a man to be in awe of. And rumor has it that Jackie might even be Rachel's equal ...
Eleanor Gehrig was probably the most famous baseball wife of the first half of the 20th century, immortalized when her husband Lou died from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (a stature only enhanced when the angelic Teresa Wright portrayed her in The Pride of the Yankees.) Rachel Robinson, it would seem, has transcended her to become the most famous baseball wife of all time. Rachel's fame is truly deserved, though there isn't a lot of competition. The list of well-known baseball wives ends shortly after that.
But the importance of these women throughout baseball history can't be underestimated. They have had to be supportive of their husbands while going it alone for long stretches of time, raising children single-handedly in many cases. For most of baseball history, material rewards were few. For all of baseball history, they have had to battle the anxiety of their husbands cheating on them while on the road. While realizing that not every baseball wife has earned the right to have Teresa Wright play her, watching Rachel Robinson on Sunday made it clear to me how much thanks baseball and its fans owe to baseball wives for making our heroes stronger. In Popeye terms, they're the spinach.
There's no Baseball Wives Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, though it sure wouldn't hurt to have, say, a resource spotlighting some of the great wives of the past. But right now, I suppose, the Baseball Wives Hall of Fame exists right inside Rachel Robinson, who embodies how important they are in this sport's history. I honestly don't think it's overstating the case to call Rachel a national treasure.
D'backs' promising start
Staff ace Brandon Webb has a 5.21 ERA, and Randy Johnson hasn't thrown a pitch yet. Nevertheless, the Arizona Diamondbacks aren't disappointing anyone who pegged their youthful core as NL West-leading material. After taking two of three games from Colorado over the weekend, Arizona is off to a 9-4 start, including eight wins in its past 10 games.
Yet for all the focus on youth, the guys leading the offense for the Diamondbacks are relative fogies compared to their much-heralded kids: 29-year-old second baseman Orlando Hudson, who had an EQA of .350 through Saturday's games, and 31-year-old outfielder Eric Byrnes, who was at .303. Meanwhile, 25-and-unders Stephen Drew and Conor Jackson were around .250, and 24-year-old Carlos Quentin hasn't even gotten off the disabled list to play yet, though 27-year-old Chad Tracy (.289) bridges the gap a bit.
Mostly, Arizona has thrived thanks to capable starting pitching from people of all ages: 24-year-old Micah Owings (1.59 ERA), 31-year-old Doug Davis (1.64 before Sunday's game, 3.37 after allowing 13 baserunners in five innings but still getting a win) and 32-ish-year-old Livan Hernandez (1.80). A team can make or break its season on how well it does when its ballyhooed players are producing less than the ballywho are. Playing .692 ball while getting nondescript results from Webb, Johnson, Drew, Jackson and Quentin bodes well for the Diamondbacks' season-long competitiveness -- though of course, two weeks are just a small window into the season.
In an early matchup of perhaps the two most popular choices to win the division, Arizona will host the Los Angeles Dodgers (just a half-game back in the standings at 8-4) tonight and Tuesday. The Dodgers have been a story of extremes these first two weeks, with fine performances offensively by Luis Gonzalez (.320 EQA), Russell Martin (.324) and surprising Wilson Valdez (.327) overshadowing chalk-scraping starts by Juan Pierre (.178) and Wilson Betemit (.067).
Pitching has been the Dodgers' strongest suit: starters Brad Penny, Derek Lowe, Randy Wolf and Brett Tomko are averaging 6 1/3 innings per start and a 2.72 ERA, and the bullpen has thrown 38 2/3 innings at a 2.58 ERA. The biggest worry is free-agent signee Jason Schmidt, who has mostly resembled a batting practice pitcher in posting a 7.36 ERA over three starts totaling 11 innings.
Labels: NL West
AL East: Pitchers have their say
We all know that teams in the East can hit, but this past week, the division's top pitchers made their presence felt as well. Josh Beckett is off to a hot start, and after getting pounded on Opening Day, Curt Schilling has rebounded nicely. Erik Bedard has thrown consecutive good games, and Scott Kazmir outdueled Johan Santana late last week, handing the perennial Cy Young candidate his first loss at the Metrodome since August 1, 2005.
The most hyped game on the week featured "King" Felix Hernandez and Daisuke Matsuzaka at Fenway Park, with the matchup between Ichiro and Matsuzaka getting most of the ink. Mike Lowell later told reporters:
"I didn't want Ichiro to hit me the ball because you couldn't even see the ball there were so many flashbulbs going off. I was thinking, I hope he hits me a ground ball because if he hits a line drive right at me, I'm seeing stars. But it was pretty cool. We had two of the best players in Japan facing off against each other. That's not something you see every day."
In the end, it was Hernandez who stole the show. Matsuzaka pitched well enough, allowing three runs off eight hits and a walk, over seven innings, but Hernandez was a load, carrying a no-hitter into the eighth inning. The Fenway Faithful may have gone home disappointed, but it's likely that they will not forget what they saw any time soon.
The best pitching performance of the week came on Friday night when Roy Halladay allowed a single run in 10 innings, leading the Blue Jays to a 2-1 win against the Tigers. Staked to a 1-0 lead (Alex Rios led off the game for the Jays with a home run), Halladay gave up a dinger to Magglio Ordonez in the top of the second, and then scattered four hits over the next eight innings. According to the AP:
"Halladay just had a bowling ball working out there today," Detroit's Sean Casey said. "There was late movement on everything. His sinker was late in the zone, his cutter was late in the zone. The curveball was heavy. Everything was so late. You'd go to swing and boom, that's when it would start moving. You'd go to center it and it was a ground ball. You'd roll over it or blow your bat up."
Jeremy Bonderman was almost Halladay's equal, allowing just the one run over nine innings. Rios' sac fly against Fernando Rodney in the 10th was the difference. There is a terrific analysis of the game at The Detroit Tigers Weblog.
B.J. Ryan flew to Alabama on Sunday to visit Dr. James Andrews. Ryan will have an MRI on his sore left elbow and the Jays will be waiting with bated breath for the results. General manager J.P. Ricciardi told the Toronto Sun, "He's not a complainer. You never see him in the training room. So when he says something, it just alerts you a little bit more." Asked if his closer might be facing a season-ending Tommy John surgery, Ricciardi was fatalistic. "I prepare myself for the worst -- but I don't think that's the case," he said. "The preliminary is not that, but if it is, whaddya gonna do? Call the league up and say we don't want to play anymore?"
Will Caroll, the injury guru at Baseball Prospectus, told me:
"Ryan's mechanics have always been so bad that it's been a matter if not when he'd get hurt, but he'd gone so long without an injury that he was starting to look like one of those guys that make us look stupid. He's big, 'country strong,' but even that only goes so far. If the Jays are sending him to Andrews, that's either a really bad sign (something horribly wrong) or that they're trying to convince him that there's nothing that wrong [Burnett a couple of years ago]. I think it's the latter. But I wonder if it's a cascade from his spring back injury.
Labels: AL East
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