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Wild Card: Yanks down, but not out yet
On September 27, 1993 the Yankees beat Rick Sutcliffe and the Orioles 9-1 at Camden Yards in Baltimore behind a strong eight-inning outing by Scott Kamieniecki and a perfect inning of relief by Steve Howe. The Yankee lineup that night included Dion James, Danny Tartabull, Mike Stanley, Mike Gallego and Pat Kelly. That same night, the defending World Champion Toronto Blue Jays beat the Brewers 2-0 at County Stadium in Milwaukee. The Brewers, in Robin Yount's final season, would finish dead last in the American League East. The Blue Jays, meanwhile, clinched their second straight division championship with their win that night.
That was the last time that the New York Yankees were eliminated during the regular season.
The Yankees are a long way from being eliminated in 2007, but for the first time in 14 years, it seems not only possible, but likely that the Yankees will not make it to the postseason. Last year, the Atlanta Braves failed to win their division for the first time since 1990, ending the longest streak of both division titles and playoff appearances in baseball history. This year it looks as though the second-longest streaks of both kind will come to an end in the Bronx.
Two years ago, the Yankees got off to another awful start and many articles such as this one were written about the fact that the dynasty had come to an end. As it turned out, the Yankees managed to keep their streak of division titles going by virtue of a tie-breaker secured on the penultimate day of the season. On June 1, 2005 the Yankees were four games out of first place in the AL East, 2.5 games out of the wild card, and had a .529 winning percentage. Tonight, the Yankees open up a three-game series in Boston trailing the first-place Red Sox by 13.5 games. They are seven games behind the defending AL Champion Tigers in the wild card race, with six other teams filling the space in between, and have a .431 winning percentage. Yankees legend and unofficial team mascot Yogi Berra famously said, "it ain't over 'til it's over," but it's looking awfully over in the Bronx.
Yogi himself didn't see much of this in his days as Yankees catcher. In fact, he saw it just once, in 1959 when the Yankees were six games out with a .452 winning percentage on June 1 and finished the season 15 games behind the Go-Go White Sox with a .513 mark. When Berra was a Yankee coach, the 1978 Bronx Bombers famously came from 14 games back on July 20 to steal the division from the Red Sox in a one-game playoff. On June 1, 1978, however, the Yankees were three games behind Boston with a .630 winning percentage.
In a series of articles on Baseball Prospectus.com in early 2003 and again in an upcoming Baseball Prospectus book on pennant races, Dr. Rany Jazayerli has examined the importance of a team's early-season performance. The result of his research was a series of formulas that allows us to calculate a team's most likely full-season record based on its performance in its first 50 games as well as over the previous three seasons. Using Dr. Jazayerli's formulas we come up with the following for the Yankees, Red Sox, and Tigers:
Team W-L Pct. BOS 100-62 .617 DET 89-73 .552 NYY 80-82 .497By these methods, the Yankees can be expected to finish 20 games out in the East and nine games out in the wild card while finishing below .500 for the first time since 1992, when Buck Showalter was in his first year as Yankees manager. Pythagorean record is more optimistic, but even that measure determined by runs scored and allowed would have the Yankees finishing a solid 14 games out of first in the East and three games behind the Tigers in the Wild Card race.
If there's any hope to be had for the Yankees, who just lost Jason Giambi to the disabled list for at least a month with a tear in the plantar fascia in his left foot and announced that prized pitching prospect Phil Hughes suffered a Grade 3 ankle sprain while rehabbing his Grade 2 hamstring tear and will likely not be able to rejoin the team until at least August, it's in the examples from recent history provided by the A's, Marlins, and Astros.
In 2001, the A's came from eight games out on July 7 to win the AL Wild Card. In 2002, those same A's came from nine games behind on June 5 to win the AL West. In 2003, the eventual world champion Marlins came from 9.5 games out on June 19 to win the NL wild card. In 2005, the eventual NL champion Astros came from eight games out on June 29 and 10.5 games out on June 1 to win the NL wild card. Most significantly, none of those four teams had a winning record on June 1, with the Astros posting an especially awful .373 winning percentage over their first 51 games of the 2005 season. The Astros went 70-41 (.631) over final four months of the 2005 season to win the wild card on the very last day of the regular season by a single game over the Philadelphia Phillies. The Astros' record that year was 89-73, identical to the projected record for the Tigers above.
It's worth noting that those Astros featured the pitching tandem of Roger Clemens and Andy Pettitte. It seems extremely unlikely that Clemens and Pettitte could experience such a thrilling comeback twice in four years, but there remain a few lingering reasons for optimism in New York. The first of which is the arrival of Clemens, who will make his first start for the Yankees in Chicago on Monday night. That said, such a comeback by the Yankees would be historic, which only means that, whether they make the postseason or not, the fate of the Yankees will prove to be one of the biggest stories of the 2007 baseball season.
Labels: Wild Card
NL East: Hall of Famers?
For all of the preternaturally talented hitters who reside in the National League East, the division contains only one who, based on numbers alone, can right now start making notes for his Hall of Fame induction speech. No other division, according to baseball-reference.com's Hall of Fame Monitor, boasts fewer than three: the NL West has five (Barry Bonds, Todd Helton, Nomar Garciaparra, Omar Vizquel, and Jeff Kent); the AL East has four (Alex Rodriguez, Derek Jeter, Frank Thomas and Manny Ramirez), as does the AL West (Mike Piazza, Sammy Sosa, Vladimir Guerrero and Ichiro); and the AL Central (Ivan Rodriguez, Gary Sheffield and Jim Thome) and the NL Central (Ken Griffey Jr., Albert Pujols and Craig Biggio) feature three apiece. In the NL East, though, only Braves slugger Chipper Jones makes the cut.
Of course, the NL East features at least a half-dozen hitters (including Miguel Cabrera, Hanley Ramirez, Jose Reyes, David Wright, Carlos Beltran and Ryan Howard, and even Brian McCann and Ryan Zimmerman) who could, should they continue to rake at their current pace for another decade or so, end up in Cooperstown; but in most of those cases, it's way too early -– even laughably early -– for that sort of thinking.
With all due respect to Moises Alou, only two of the division's veteran hitters currently stand right on the cusp of Hall of Fame stature: Andruw Jones of the Braves and Carlos Delgado of the Mets. Here's a rundown of the candidacies of each, as well as my prediction as to which will make it and which won't:
Andruw Jones, 30 years old
Career stats: 12 seasons, .265 avg., 350 HR, 1057 RBI, .345 OBP
I recently lost a bet with a friend about Jones's career home run total; I put him at just under 300. In fact, he's somewhat quietly been one of the more consistent power hitters in baseball for the past nine seasons, hitting 29 bombs or more in eight of those. His batting average will hurt him with voters, as will the fact that he's had only one truly dominant season (2005, when he hit 51 homers, drove in 128 runs, and finished second in the MVP voting). That he's been regarded as the best center fielder in baseball for a decade will surely help.
Carlos Delgado, 35 years old
Career stats: 15 seasons, .281 avg., 414 HR, 1319 RBI, .388 OBP
Delgado's hit 30 homers or more in 10 straight seasons, but he's never hit more than 44, and even after his two-dinger day on Tuesday is on pace for only 23 this year. For all his consistency, he's made only two All-Star games (2000 and 2003, when he finished second in the AL MVP voting). His defense can charitably be described as average at best.
Verdict: While both rank with the best sluggers of their generation, Jones will likely be the one to reach the Hall. Jones had both the skill and good fortune to become a big leaguer at 19, giving him a significant head start on Delgado, who didn't play on a full-time basis until he was 24. While Delgado should easily reach 500 home runs, that number won't ensure automatic induction into the Hall by the time he retires. Jones, at his current pace, could reach 500 by the time he's 34, and has a real shot at 600 or more. Combine that power with his defensive excellence, and Jones should soon rank with his teammate Chipper as a Cooperstown shoo-in.
• Even better than Delgado's two homers in Tuesday's 12 inning Mets/Giants thriller? Everyone's favorite ESPN sideline reporter worked the game -– at least, whoever made this video thinks it was better.
• The big problem with the Nats plan to add "one or two free agents in the $5 million to $7 million range" next season is that free agents who cost that much are rarely any good, writes Chris Needham at Capitol Punishment.
• Fun interview by our boys at Baseball Prospectus with old Marlins manager "Trader" Jack McKeon.
• Talking Chop has a rundown of the web presences of various Brave players –- the most interesting part being that Pete Orr actually has a regularly-updated fan site.
• The Phillies will apparently give anyone a shot in their attempt to address their pitching woes.
Labels: NL East
AL West: King Felix vs. Dream Weaver
As I noted in an earlier post, the AL West is chalk full of talented young arms. In said post, I ranked the division's top 10 pitchers with a birth date in the Reagan Administration (1981-89). At the time, my most difficult decision was who to rank higher between Felix Hernandez and Jered Weaver. While King Felix boasts endless potential with his once-in-a-generation arsenal of pitches, Weaver is coming off a fabulous rookie season in which he posted an ERA (2.56) almost two full points lower than Hernandez's 2006 mark (4.52). Weaver also beat Hernandez in both of their '06 showdowns. Still, in the end, I bought into the hype and slotted "King Felix" above "Dream Weaver."
On Wednesday, the pitchers faced off for the first time this season, and I found myself with the perfect chance to revisit the question of superiority. I DVR'd the game in order to give myself ample time to break down each pitcher's brilliance.
Unfortunately, neither pitcher showed up with "A" stuff -- not even close. Hernandez took the loss by giving up seven earned runs on nine hits (including three homers) in six innings. Weaver managed to pitch just 4.2 innings, yielding five earned runs on nine hits.
My late-night film session ended up being a clinic on how not to pitch at the major league level.
Each hurler committed three cardinal sins in pitching:
1. Early emotions
Weaver: Jeff Weaver, Jered's brother, has always been known to wear his emotions on his sleeve -- a dangerous trait for any pitcher. After giving up a run in the first, Jered ferociously slapped his glove and was visibly upset as he walked off the mound. Though this was nothing compared to his counterpart's outburst ...
Hernandez: After giving up four runs in the first, Hernandez threw a violent tantrum at the far end of the dugout, repeatedly slamming his glove on the bench before pitching coach Rafael Chavez came over to settle him down.
2. Failing to locate the fastball
Weaver: Throughout his rookie season, Weaver spotted his fastball with pinpoint accuracy. On Wednesday, though, the right-hander was all over the place with his heater, throwing off his approach to every hitter.
Hernandez: He may have one of the most electric arms in the American League, but nobody can consistently get away with elevating fastballs. Gary Matthews Jr. and Vlad Guerrero each turned letters-high fastballs into three-run bombs.
3. Walking the leadoff
Weaver: In the fourth inning, Weaver got ahead of leadoff Ben Broussard 0-2, but ended up walking him. Sure enough, the Mariners went on to score two runs in the inning.
Hernandez: Felix walked Reggie Willits to start off the fifth, and the Angels proceeded to score three runs in the inning.
With a pair of performances like this, it's hard to argue for either pitcher's supremacy. For now, I'll continue to be a slave to hype and rank Hernandez a bit ahead of Weaver.
Labels: AL West
NL Central: Don't Forget The Kid
In case you haven't noticed, there's another megastar inching toward a magic home run number -- one that you can root for. Quietly, Ken Griffey, Jr. -- remember him? -- is having a splendid season, and with 600 home runs on the horizon, the Kid last week moved ahead of Harmon Killebrew with his 574th career homer when he stroked his 11th of the year at the Great American Ball Park. Up next: Mark McGwire, ranked seventh on the all-time career home run list, at 583.
"He's 37 and not the same Junior, obviously," says a National League exec, "but he hasn't looked this good in a while. He's got pop and he gets on base [Griffey ranks in the NL top 10 in walks and OBP]. It's still an immense pleasure to watch him."
His Reds are playing dreadful baseball, but Junior could still emerge as one of baseball's most fascinating players in the next few weeks: some baseball execs I've spoken to recently say that the right fielder will likely be made available by Cincy's Wayne Krivsky. Griffey has a no-trade clause, yes, but he'd surely welcome a one-way ticket to a contending team. Let the speculation begin. The Red Sox, perhaps?
Labels: NL Central
NL West: Streakin'
Colorado has won six in a row. Arizona has won five in a row. San Diego has won six out of seven.
San Francisco would have been undefeated last week if not for the Rockies. The Los Angeles Dodgers took four out of six from the top two teams in the National League Central, and almost had to hide its face in shame.
There might not be a World Series favorite in the bunch, but the NL West will enter June in the midst a hotly contested race, with three teams within a game of each other and on at least a 91-win pace, and two others not exactly going meekly.
The Padres moved into a tie with the Dodgers for first place at 29-21 thanks to a stretch in which it allowed 2.1 runs per game. The Diamondbacks (30-23) took the opposite path to come within a half-game of the leaders, scoring 40 runs in their past five games and 66 in their past 10.
Meanwhile, the Dodgers needed two eighth-inning rallies to avoid getting swept by the Cubs and for the week added three one-run victories to their NL-best 11-4 record in that category. (Right behind them in one-run games is Arizona at 14-6.)
It's that narrow margin of victory with which Los Angeles and Arizona are generally sneaking by that might make San Diego a slim favorite with two-thirds of the season remaining to win the NL West. The Padres are 9-10 in one-run games and 20-11 in all others, suggesting a team that is very rarely out of it on a given night. Of course, the recent resurgence of the Diamondbacks' offense also bodes well for them.
The Dodgers, for their part, still look like they will live and die with their pitching, which nonetheless remains in flux, with Brett Tomko falling out of the starting rotation and Mark Hendrickson perhaps right behind him, while the young Chad Billingsley and Hong-Chih Kuo and the rehabilitating Jason Schmidt work toward replacing them.
With the Dodgers and Padres trading series against the sub-.500 Washington Nationals and Pittsburgh Pirates this week, you might think that the pressure is off, but the likelihood is that every loss will seem like an unfortunate stumble. Arizona started off the week with a bigger test playing the Philadelphia Phillies, but took the first game Monday, 5-4.
On the verge of falling out of the race before sweeping San Francisco last week, Colorado will continue trying to reestablish its relevance. The Rockies (24-27) play series against the NL Central's bottom two teams, St. Louis and Cincinnati, giving the team a good chance of reaching .500 and moving out of the NL West cellar. The Giants (24-25) play the Phillies after a series with the NL’s best, the New York Mets.
The NL West surprised some in 2006 by providing the league’s wild-card team. With a collective 136-117 record, including 42-19 against the NL Central, don’t be surprised if it happens again this year, at the end of a down-to-the-wire pennant race.
Labels: NL West
AL East: What to do with Dukes?
Six years ago, a prominent baseball columnist wrote a column about Toe Nash, the Tampa Bay Devil Rays prospect from Louisiana, "The Babe from the land of Sonny Boy Williamson." But Nash wasn't the second-coming of Babe Ruth or Satchel Paige; he was a thug. He played alongside future big leaguers, Carl Crawford and Josh Hamilton in an instructional league but he never made it close to the majors. Instead, he ended up in jail.
It was hard not to recall Nash as the Devil Rays now have another talented -- and even more accomplished -- but deeply troubled young player to deal with in Elijah Dukes. In April, Dukes, who has five children from four different mothers, threatened his wife NiShea Gilbert. According to the St. Petersburg Times, Dukes left her the following voice message:
"Hey, dawg. It's on, dawg. You dead, dawg. I ain't even bulls-------. Your kids too, dawg. It don't even matter to me who is in the car with you. N-----, all I know is, n-----, when I see your m-----f------- a-- riding, dawg, it's on. As a matter of fact, I'm coming to your m-----f------ house."
The following day, New York Sun baseball writer Tim Marchman wrote:
If the Devil Rays truly want to disavow this, they have to release Dukes and forfeit the benefit of his immense talent; to do much of anything else would be to say that his ability to hit a baseball outweighs his monstrous behavior.
Here is more about Dukes' volatile relationship with Gilbert, and here is Joey Johnson's lengthy profile of Dukes in Sunday's Tampa Tribune. Stuart Steinbreg, the Devil Rays' principal owner said that he wanted Dukes released when he first heard the news. According to MLB.com:
"My immediate reaction [would have been] unprintable," Sternberg said. "Dukes' punishment wouldn't be called a suspension. It would be called, you know, 'You're fired.'"
Dukes was benched by D-Ray manager Joe Maddon last Wednesday and Thursday; he returned on Friday night and hit a home run in a Tampa loss. Then, last night, Dukes had the game-winning hit against the Tigers. Gary Sheffield has some words of advice for Dukes, who isn't going anywhere just yet. The Rays did, however, demote Jonny Gomes to make room for Akinori Iwamura.
What I'm really eager to see is how his older body will react from staying away from the game for a longer period of time. I know he has done this the last two seasons, but again he is one year older and will be facing better hitters… I'm not saying that this was a bad signing for the Yankees; I am saying that there may be room for concern. Clemens may come back and prove once again that he can be dominant, but I would just like to give it time before he is anointed the savior of the season.
"Everyone is disgusted and they don't want to spend money," said Abdul Traore, surrounded by discounted Yankees gear at his Jeans Plus store on E. 161st St. by the Stadium. "When the Yankees win, people show up. When they lose, everybody is just mad."
Labels: AL East
AL Central: Instant Carmona
Today, we start with a flashback, and I caution those of you with weak stomachs to look away, as we revisit some horrible rookie carnage.
July 30, 2006: In a 3-3 eighth inning gridlock with the Mariners, Cleveland calls on 22-year old Fausto Carmona to face Richie Sexson with a man on. Having proven himself a reliable reliever, with 11 consecutive scoreless appearances, Carmona seems like a logical choice, and he promptly strikes out Sexson.
Then Carmona goes back out for the top of the ninth. Coincidentally, he would leave the game just before Sexson returned to the batter’s box, as the eight interceding hitters had inflicted enough damage: three hits, two walks, four runs (all earned) and an eventual loss for Carmona.
July 31, 2006: In Boston, the Indians sport an 8-6 lead entering the home half of the ninth. With Alex Cora, Kevin Youkilis and Mark Loretta due up, it seemed like a relatively harmless way for Carmona to notch his first big-league save and regain some confidence. Well, Cora singled, Youkilis walked, Loretta popped up and then David Ortiz strode to the plate and did what Big Papi does best -- walkoff home run.
Aug. 2, 2006: It’s the series finale with the Red Sox, and this time Cleveland takes a one-run lead into the ninth. Eric Wedge goes to the bullpen and, yes, it’s our poor protagonist, Mr. Carmona. This time the young right-hander starts with two strikeouts, quickly retiring Wily Mo Pena and Coco Crisp.
Sure, he hits Doug Mirabelli with a pitch, but Carmona seems to be in command. He’ll settle down, right? Oops, well he hit Alex Gonzalez as well. No big deal, he just needs to get Youkilis. Oh wait, he walked him to load the bases. At least Carmona got Loretta out two nights before, so ... nevermind, he just gave up a two-run double off the Monster. Game over. Carmona has now lost in three straight appearances, including two blown saves.
Aug. 5, 2006: The third time’s always the charm, right? Taking a 3-2 lead into the ninth, Wedge sends Carmona to the hill. It’s obvious where this one’s going. A single-strikeout-force out sequence brings Ivan Rodriguez to the plate with one on and two out. Wait for it, wait for it ... and, yep, a walk-off homer -- Carmona has now lost in four straight appearances, including three blown saves.
How Carmona had any even a shred of confidence left after what I presume to be the worst week of his baseball life, I will never know. Smartly, Wedge didn’t pitch him again until five days later when the Indians had a 14-2 lead. Carmona pitched two scoreless innings then but was still very shaky the rest of the season. He returned to the rotation for four starts, actually throwing well in three of them but he’d still finish the year 1-10 with a 5.42 ERA, 1.59 WHIP and those three blown saves in his only opportunities.
Yet the native of Santo Domingo, D.R., has done the unthinkable. Living a normal life free of shell shock would have been miraculous in itself, but Carmona has become Cleveland’s most reliable pitcher and is the surprising answer to the trivia question, What Cleveland Indians starter has gone at least six innings and allowed no more than three earned runs in each of his last eight starts?
C.C. Sabathia has been terrific this season but lasted only five innings against Seattle two starts ago and yielded six runs at Oakland on May 11. Paul Byrd has been great -- 5-1 with a 3.81 ERA -- but he’s given up at least four runs twice in his last three outings. And save your breath before even suggesting Jeremy Sowers (1-4, 6.29), Jake Westbrook (1-2, 7.90) or Cliff Lee (2-2, 5.86).
Cleveland’s had three reliable starters in its first-place start, and the best of the bunch has been Carmona. His strikeouts numbers are down from last year -- 3.32 K/9 this year, 6.99 K/9 in 2006 -- but that’s a sign of him not over-throwing and challenging hitters more, as his BB/9 has improved, from 3.74 to 2.45.
Of course, for now the only statistic of Carmona’s the Indians care about is his wins: six and counting.
Labels: AL Central
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)