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Wild Card: For the Record
A week ago Tuesday, Barry Bonds hit a solo home run off Tom Glavine for the only Giants' run in a 4-1 loss to the Mets. That home run put him exactly 10 behind Hank Aaron's career home run record of 755. Since then, Bonds has gone just 2 for 16 (a single and a double), but walked nine times. Still, it's all but inevitable that Bonds, who entered the season 21 homers shy of Aaron, will break the record this season.
The thought of the surly, unlikable Bonds, who allegedly used illicit means to reach this position, breaking the record the gentlemanly Aaron claimed in the face of intense racial hatred conjures up a wide variety of unpleasant reactions in nearly every baseball fan. Most fans, consciously or not, still think of Roger Maris' 61 home runs, not Bonds' 73, as the single-season record. I don't have the time, space, or energy to get into the legitimacy of Bonds's accomplishments right now, but it seems as though the closer Bonds comes to Hank's 755, the more the mind races for ways to defang, if not outright undermine his accomplishment.
This got me thinking about the nature of sports records in general. When Maris was bearing down on Babe Ruth's single-season mark of 60 home runs in 1961, there was a similar recoiling by baseball purists who hadn't anticipated Ruth's homer marks ever being broken, and certainly not by a flash-in-the-pan such as Maris. As Maris neared the record, then-Commissioner Ford Frick, who was once Ruth's ghostwriter, famously declared that Maris, who was chasing Ruth in the first year of expansion, for which the season had been extended from 154 games to 162, would have to break Ruth's record by the Yankees' 154th game or have his mark listed separately as the "162-game record" (no, Virginia, there never was an asterisk, now go tell Billy Crystal). Maris had just 58 homers after 154 games and thus his record, which is now considered the "pure" record, was listed separately until Fricks' asterisk was abandoned in 1991.
History (and Crystal) vilified Frick for that decision, but here's the thing: Statistically speaking, Frick was right. Ruth hit 60 home runs in a 154-game season and Maris hit 58 in the Yankees' first 154 games, then, given an extra eight games, hit three more. But the record is for the most home runs in a season, and the man who hit the most home runs in a single season as of October 1961 was Maris. It didn't matter that he had more chances than Ruth, the fact was no man had ever hit 61 home runs in a single season of any length. It had never been done. That's what a record is: Something that's never been done. When Mark McGwire hit 70 in 1998, that had never been done, and if say you weren't as awed by McGwire's total as he was by himself, you're probably lying.
Bonds broke McGwire's single-season record in 2001 and, though by then the baseball world had become jaded by allegations of steroid use and by the onslaught of 60-plus home run seasons (Bonds' was the fifth in four years and Sammy Sosa would make it six that same year), no one had ever hit 73 home runs in a single baseball season before Bonds did it that year, and no one has done it since. That's the definition of a record.
I remember watching the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul when I was a kid and seeing Ben Johnson run 100 meters in 9.79 seconds. No man had ever been recorded traversing that distance in so short a time. Three days later, it was revealed that Johnson had tested positive for the steroid Stanozolol. Johnson was stripped of his gold medal in light of his positive test, which I understood, but he was also stripped of his world record, which I didn't. I understood that he had cheated, but the simple fact was that no man had ever been clocked running 100 meters in less time. How could the Olympic Committee pretend that had never happened? It's one thing to disqualify a boxer from a fight, or a player or team from a game, but a sheer physical accomplishment like that could never be disqualified in my mind.
So sometime in the next month or two, Barry Bonds will hit his 756th career home run, and there will be much pulling of hair, gnashing of teeth, rending of garments, and crunching of numbers, but the simple fact will be that no man has ever hit 756 regular season home runs in the major leagues, ever, and that, despite the taint and dishonor that Bonds may bring along with him to that summit, is a record.
Cliff Corcoran is the co-author of Bronx Banter.
NL East: Interleague Daze
Interleague play's just a day away! Are you psyched? Are you sitting on your couch, eagerly watching the seconds tick away on the Studio 60-style countdown clock you've installed above your TV, checking and rechecking your DVR to make sure it's set to record every glorious minute of action that will occur when the team you support faces -– get this -– a team that you do not support that doesn't even play in the same league?
If the prospect of watching Byung-Hyun Kim (1-2, 10.50 ERA) and the Marlins clash with Edwin Jackson (0-5, 6.82) and the Devil Rays -– in an intrastate rivalry game, no less! -– doesn't exactly fill you with Ralphie-on-Christmas-Morning anticipation, you're not alone. This week, Braves star Chipper Jones took the commissioner's office to task for the current interleague structure, in which teams must play their often tenuously defined "rivals" six times a season. Now, Chipper's not the most beloved guy in baseball -- in fact, he tied for eighth in a poll that appears in this week's SI asking 464 major leaguers to name the "least friendly" player in the game -– but I doubt any player would disagree with his point here. "I don't think there's any question it's not fair, but I don't think major league baseball is concerned with fair," he told reporters. "If you play the top teams in the American League and everybody else doesn't, it's pretty unfair."
It is indeed unfair that the Braves must play half a dozen games against the mighty Red Sox (the Braves, you see, used to call Boston home ... until 1953), and that the Mets will play a six-pack against the usually-mighty Yankees, while the Phillies get the Blue Jays and Royals.
The Braves, in fact, will play the Red Sox (6), Indians (3), and Tigers (3), who, unfortunately for them, currently boast the top three records in the AL. Think that brutal schedule might impact them in their NL East and Wild Card races?
Even worse than the inequity, though, is this: Interleague play, now in its eleventh season, has lost its juice. In New York this week, Yankees fans aren't buzzing about this weekend's showdown with the Mets in Flushing; they're talking about Monday, when the Sox come into town for a three-game set that will go a long way towards making or breaking the Yanks' season. The Mets are also looking to Monday, when they'll travel to Atlanta to face the Braves, whom they're leading by half a game atop the NL East standings.
Interleague play has become little more than an oddity -– one that produces more dud matchups (Rockies-Orioles, anyone?) than intriguing ones. If baseball is serious about keeping the tradition alive, so that fans can continue to watch stars from the other league whom they might not normally get a chance to see (which I believe is less of an issue than it once was, in these heady days of mlb.tv, the Extra Innings package and our multitude of Internets) it should really commit to the format and schedule each team to play a three game set against every team from their opposing league, and vice versa. This would still leave 123 in-league games for NL teams, and 117 for AL teams, and would ensure that no fan base misses out on the far greater joy of making the playoffs because their team had to face Big Papi six times while their divisional competition got to tee off on Tomo Ohka.
Even better, Bud Selig's office should realize that while the interleague experiment was fresh and fun for awhile, those days are over; it should seriously consider abandoning the idea all together. Because the inconvenient truth for Major League Baseball is that the current iteration of interleague play has become worse than unfair. It's become boring.
Labels: NL East
AL West: Mad About Vlad
At-bat for at-bat, nobody's more entertaining than Vladimir Guerrero.
Not only does Big Daddy Vladdy annually manufacture some of the gaudiest hitting stats in the game, but he does so while employing a free-swinging approach that defies all conventional hitting wisdom. Vlad's hyper-aggressive dominance makes for must-see TV every time he steps up to the plate (his at-bats alone make the $160 MLB Extra Innings package worthwhile).
Simply put, Vlad Guerrero is, bar-none, the most exciting hitter in the world.
But you already know this. One thing you may not know is that Vlad is also the best all-around right-handed hitter of his era.
Currently hitting .341 with nine home runs, 33 RBIs and an AL-high .455 on-base percentage, Vladdy's well on his way on his way to another stellar season in a Hall of Fame career. Guerrero holds a lifetime .325 batting average with a .391 on-base percentage and .584 slugging percentage. He has compiled 347 homers, 1,085 RBIs, 972 runs and a ridiculously low 688 strikeouts.
Now, I understand that these absurd numbers alone aren't going to convince some folks that Vlad's truly the best all-around right-handed hitter of his era. To prove that point, I must address the three players that most closely challenge Guerrero for said title: Albert Pujols, Alex Rodriguez and Manny Ramirez.
Vlad vs. Pujols: Over his short career, Pujols boasts a higher batting average (.329), on-base percentage (.416) and slugging percentage (.620). But the key word in that sentence is "short." While Pujols is in just his 7th season in the bigs, Vlad has kept up his averages for 11 strong. Longevity is essential to this title. Albert, who has struggled a bit this season, must continue at this pace for at least a decade before he thinks about supplanting Vlad The Impaler.
Vlad vs. A-Rod: No question about it, A-Rod is a more prolific home run hitter. (With 479 jacks at the age of 31, he's en route to becoming the home run king.) But I specifically stated that Vlad is the top "all-around" right-handed batter. Juxtaposed with with A-Rod, Vlad sweeps the three biggest categories in hitting, easily cleaning up in average (.325 to .306) and holding a slight edge in on-base percentage (.391 to .386) and slugging percentage (.584 to .576). Vlad is also more proven in the clutch, with a .323 average with runners in scoring position to A-Rod's .304 mark. Also, like anyone else, I'm a believer that good hitters simply put the ball in play. While A-Rod has struck out every 4.8 at-bats over his career, Vlad only fans every 8.1 at-bats.
Vlad vs. Manny: Manny is definitely Vlad's toughest competition. This matchup is basically a toss-up, but I do think Vlad reigns supreme as an all-around threat at the plate. There may only be a .12 discrepancy between the career averages of Vlad (.325) and Manny (.313), but that's a world of difference. (Think: averaging 25 points in basketball vs. averaging 19.) Vlad has never struck out 100 times in a season, but Manny has done so 10 times (including 147 in 2001). To Manny's credit, he holds advantages in on-base percentage (.410 to .391), slugging percentage (.596 to .584) and hitting with runners in scoring position (.330). But throughout his career, Manny has enjoyed a luxury Vlad can only dream of: lineup support. As an Indian, Manny played on some of the most ridiculous offensive teams in recent memory, and during his days in Boston, he's enjoyed the company of Nomar Garciaparra and David Ortiz. Playing on underwhelming Expos and Angels lineups every year, Vlad has always been the lone big bopper. While Manny has played alongside 17 100-RBI players, Vlad has been graced with just one (Jose Guillen had 104 RBIs in 2004.) Like I said before, this Manny-Vlad matchup is extremely tight, but how close would it be if they swapped career lineups?
Labels: AL West
AL Central: The Hitless Wonders
When there's as much media competition as there is in the Chicago market, it's not uncommon for baseball beat reporters to find a unique angle to set their story apart. So when the Tribune, Sun-Times and Daily Herald all key in on the White Sox hitting woes on the same day, well, that's telling you how bad things are on the South Side.
I guess an 11-1 loss to the Royals will do that to you.
The Sox mustered only three hits, and it wasn't even at the hands of the estimable Gil Meche, who threw seven scoreless innings last night in Oakland to lower his ERA to 1.91. Don't forget, the Fungoes have been on the Meche bandwagon since Opening Day. Even with Jon Heyman on board, there's still plenty of room.
In no small part because of that decisive defeat, the White Sox have scored fewer runs (131) than any American League team including, yes, the lowly Royals (149), prompting manager Ozzie Guillen to tell reporters, "Without throwing anyone under the bus, it's time to get better at-bats. It's a shame, and it's a little embarrassing."
Wait, did the ever-quotable Guillen say he won't throw anyone under the bus??? Maybe that's an even better example of how bad things are for the Sox sluggers -- their manager isn't his normal flippant self and seems genuinely concerned. I would be, too, if my team was batting .220, with a sub-.300 on-base percentage, a paltry 82 extra-base hits and an incomprehensibly low .659 OPS.
Of course, it should be noted that Rob Mackowiak threw himself under the bus over the weekend. Referring to his .188 batting average, lowest among regular players, he said, "It's very frustrating. You don't like yourself very much."
Still, Chicago has somehow managed a winning record of 18-16 despite scoring just 3.9 runs per game. That's obviously because of the pitching staff. Jose Contreras, Mark Buerhle, Jon Garland and Javier Vazquez all sport ERAs under 4.00, with fifth starter Jon Danks not too far behind at 4.33. Haven't we seen this before? Two years ago, with Freddy Garcia in place of Vazquez, the Sox rode their starting pitchers to a World Series championship. Toss in reliable closer Bobby Jenks and the suddenly dominant setup man David Aardsma (1.31 ERA and 26 K in 20.2 IP), and the Sox have a staff that'll keep them in every game.
The reinforcements are coming: Jim Thome is rehabbing in Triple-A and Scott Podsednik claims he's "getting close." In the meantime, the questions du jour: Are Paul Konerko, Jermaine Dye, Joe Crede and Tadahito Iguchi getting close to hitting above .210? Or is GM Kenny Williams getting close to finding help elsewhere? That pitching staff deserves better.
Chicago has won six of its past eight, taking series from the Angels, Twins and Royals, but the team never scored more than six runs in that stretch and never allowed more than four runs in any of those wins. Excuse their two lopsided losses -- to the Royals on Sunday and 12-5 to the Indians on Opening Day -- and the Sox have yielded only 119 runs in their other 32 games. That's 3.7 runs allowed per game, which is both exceptional and necessary when, to repeat myself, they're only scoring 3.9 runs per game.
I have no doubt that the Sox lineup will come around, and tonight might be a good time to start with the potent Yankees offense in town for a three-game home set.
Labels: AL Central
NL West: Helton Back in Fine Form
By the time baseball gets its first .400 hitter since Ted Williams in 1941, batting average could be so devalued as a statistic that people might have to be reminded to care. Whether it's due to on-base percentage or a much more advanced stat, batting average loses more than a few campers from its tent every summer.
On the other hand, there was someone out there Saturday batting .397, and you can tell me if you noticed who it was: Todd Helton.
The veritable identity of the Colorado Rockies endured a career-worst season in 2006, although most players would take on a big ol' bear for a shot at the numbers he had: .302 batting average, .404 on-base percentage and .476 slugging percentage (with a park-adjusted OPS+ of 119; 100 is average). As solid as those numbers are, they're not the kind he's been getting megabucks for, and rumors flew during the offseason, that before the 2007 season, Colorado would try to unload his contract (which has nearly $90 million in guaranteed pay remaninig) to the Los Angeles Angels or Boston Red Sox.
Instead, the 33-year-old Helton returned to Denver -- and has put up a monster performance for the first fifth of the season. Although his average slipped to .383 by the end of the weekend, it wasn't an empty .383. His on-base percentage is .497 (trailing only Barry Bonds in the National League) and his slugging percentage is .563. Between April 12 and May 11, Helton batted .451 with an OBP of .557 and slugging percentage of .670.
That's quite a rebound. The only area where Helton hasn't been extraordinary is home runs. After hitting 49 in 2001 and more than 30 each year from 2002-04, Helton slipped to 20 two years ago and 15 last season. This season, he is on pace to hit 19. He is also easily on track to exceed last season's doubles total of 40.
Even in the humidor era, the first thing anyone's going to check with a Colorado hitter is his home/road splits -- and in Helton's case, he is enjoying home cooking like a prisoner who just got home to mama: a .420 batting average and .559 on-base percentage. On the road, his batting average is a meager -- I mean, aren't we talking downright embarrassing -- .359.
Helton's batting average on balls in play this season is an out-of-this-world .395, a level so unusual and hard to maintain that his stats are due to take a tumble.
Meanwhile, Helton's got someone breathing down his neck in the batting race -- his teammate, Matt Holliday, who is batting .364 -- with a .636 slugging percentage, no less.
So, even if batting average doesn't have the cachet it used to, who knows? Maybe Helton and Holliday could give us a fun run at .400 for a little while this season. After all, that number still has some magic left in it.
Despite Helton and Holliday's heroics, Colorado is the only sub-.500 team in the NL West. The Rockies' main problem this year is that their pitching isn't as deep as they might have hoped, at home or on the road. Jeff Francis, who excelled with a 116 ERA+ (100 is average) in 2006, has dropped all the way down to 84. Aaron Cook and Josh Fogg have also backslid. As a team, the Rockies' ERA+ is at 88 in 2007 compared to 103 in '06.
The staff misses Jason Jennings, who posted a 127 ERA+ last season before being traded to Houston. The good news is that Jason Hirsh has been Colorado's top starter (104), the bad news is that still represents a decline from Jennings (who, it's worth noting, hasn't pitched in a game since April 8 because of tendonitis). In addition, the bullpen lacks depth behind closer Brian Fuentes.
The Rockies are hardly dead and buried, but they have got to get their pitching turned around to stay in the competitive division race.
Labels: NL West
AL East: Knuckling Down
For the past decade, the Red Sox have played especially well at the start of the season. After an exciting, if improbable, win yesterday over the Orioles at Fenway Park bumped their record to 25-11, Boston increased its lead over the O's and Yankees to eight games. This isn't even their best start in recent years, though it is close -- they were 25-9 in 2002. Boston's offense has been sensational for over a week now; quite frankly, everything is clicking for the whole team right now.
"If the Red Sox keep playing the way they are," Johnny Damon said yesterday after the Yankees lost 2-1 in Seattle, "nobody is going to catch them."
Surely, the Sox are playing over their heads to a degree, but there is nothing flukey about their pitching. Josh Beckett, who had his first blister scare of the season yesterday, is 7-0; future Hall of Famer Curt Schilling has pitched very well; Daisuke Matsuzaka has been inconsistent but has shown flashes of brilliance. Jonathan Paplebon is one of the elite closers in baseball. And so, once again, it's been easy to overlook the unique contributions of Tim Wakefield, who has been with the Red Sox longer than any current player.
Last week, Wakefield outpitched Roy Halladay, lowering his ERA to a league-leading 1.79 in the process. Wakefield is the only true knuckleball pitcher left in the game, which makes him a precious commodity. Yet the Red Sox are paying him at the bargain-basement rate of $4 million a year, proving that, seniority be damned, knuckleballers still don't get much respect.
Still, thinking about how good Wakefield has been brought to mind great knucklers from the past. Of Hall of Famer Hoyt Wilhelm, Roger Angell once wrote, "He delivers a pitch with approximately the same effort as a man tossing a pair of socks into a laundry hamper."
Minor-league-pitcher turned major-league writer Pat Jordan once wrote that the knuckleball is "a curious and irrational pitch with more than a little madness tied up with it. A pitcher does not really throw a knuckleball; he surrenders it to the elements as it were some wild, unattainable bird he is glad to be rid of. Once unleashed, the pitch has a will of its own ... Pitchers must ask themselves: is it worth the effort? Not many say yes. It takes a strong-willed, well-disciplined man to throw a knuckleball. A man not given easily to despair and defeat."
The legendary Phil Neikro was one of those men (as is Wakefield). Neikro toiled in the minor leagues for eight long seasons learning to master the pitch. In a 1970 profile in True magazine, Neikro told a writer:
"Damn, but my life is tied up with that pitch. Sometimes I can't even separate the two. It's as if the pitch and my life are one and the same thing. You know what I mean? I owe everything to that pitch. Everything."
Neikro went on to win 300 games in the major leagues. His knuckler was so nasty that Pete Rose once said of it, "Trying to hit that thing is a miserable way to make a living." Once, after striking out four times against Neikro, the slugger Dick Allen nonchalantly said, "I never worry about it. I just take my three swings and go sit on the bench. I'm afraid if I even think about hitting it, I'll mess up my swing for life."
Wakefield will never win 300 games, but he's a joy to watch, the pride of the Red Sox. Oh, in case you missed it, be sure to check out Ben McGrath’s 2004 New Yorker profile on Wakefield.
"It's the pride factor and the responsibility factor; his biggest problem right now in his mind is letting people down," [manager, Joe] Torre said. "I think he'd have an easier time snapping out of this thing if we had been winning a lot more."
Labels: AL East
AL East blog (Monday)
NL West blog (Monday)
AL Central blog (Tuesday)
NL Central blog (Wednesday)
AL West blog (Thursday)
NL East blog (Thursday)
Wild Card (Friday)