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Wild Card: Imbalance of power
As of this morning, exactly half of this year's interleague games have been played and, for the third year in a row, the American League is dominating the competition. The AL has a .563 winning percentage this year, and over the past three seasons has posted a .573 winning percentage. Over the 10 1/2-year history of interleague play, the AL has a 1321-1257 (.512) advantage. The AL has also won the past nine All-Star games that actually had a winner and, thanks in large part to the late-90s Yankees, 10 of the past 15 World Series.
One would certainly believe that the AL has dominated major league baseball for the past decade or so. A closer look at the history of interleague play, however, challenges that belief. The National League was actually the dominant league in the initial season of interleague play, posting a .547 winning percentage in 1997. After a fairly even 1998 (114-110 AL), the senior circuit dominated again in 1999, posting a .538 winning percentage and running its three-year mark to .525. The AL took the upper hand in 2000 and 2001 and, after the first half-decade of interleague, the two leagues were essentially dead even, with the NL holding a two-game advantage, 597-595. That volley continued over the next four seasons, the NL taking the overall series in 2002 and 2003 and the AL eking out a two-game advantage in 2004 before beginning their current run of dominance in 2005.
Over these past three seasons, however, the imbalance of power has become real and meaningful. Last year, the AL wiped the floor with the NL to the tune of a .611 winning percentage, a higher winning percentage over 252 games than any single team in either league was able to post over 162 games during the season. Baseball Prospectus estimated that the difference between the two leagues last year was equivalent to 25 points of OPS or ERA for an individual player. In other words, simply switching leagues would cause the average player to lose or gain 25 points of OPS or a quarter of a run of ERA due to the relative level of competition in the two leagues (in both cases a move from the more difficult AL to the "easy" NL would improve the player's numbers). That's a staggering discrepancy in the level of play in the two leagues, and one that appears to have persisted this year judging by the early returns from interleague. The AL's .563 mark half-way through this year's interleague action may be considerably lower than its .611 winning percentage of a year ago, but, if it holds up, it would stand as the second highest winning percentage by either league in interleague’s eleven-year history.
Why the discrepancy? That's a difficult question to answer, but we can get some hints by following the money. The average Opening Day payroll in the AL this year was $92,840,401.21, while in the NL it was $73,701,648.13. That's a difference of more than $19 million. Even if you remove the Yankees and Red Sox, the other 12 teams in the AL still had an average Opening Day payroll nearly $7 million higher than the average NL team this year. Despite having two fewer teams, the AL has five clubs that had an Opening Day payroll of $100 million or more while the NL has just two. On the flip side, the AL has just one team that had an Opening Day payroll below $60 million this year, while the NL has a whopping six.
Last year, when the AL was even more dominant in interleague play, the payroll discrepancy was far less. In fact, if one were to eliminate the extreme outliers in the Bronx and Miami, the average NL team actually outspent its AL counterpart in 2006. In 2005, when the AL's current streak of dominance began, there was even less discrepancy between the average payrolls in the two leagues.
What this tells us is that the AL isn't better because its teams are spending more money, but rather its teams are spending more money because they're better. It's not as if the AL has been importing the NL's biggest stars. Outside of Andy Pettitte, J. D. Drew, and Roger Clemens, the last of whom wasn't even on anyone's Opening Day payroll this year, no other major stars left the easy league for the tough one over the winter, while Barry Zito and Randy Johnson headed in the opposite direction. Reaching back a bit further, for every Vlad Guerrero or Jim Thome that's headed to the AL in recent years, there's been a Carlos Beltran or Carlos Delgado that's headed to the NL. Instead, it seems that the increasing AL salaries have more to do with the rising cost of maturing in-house talent (think Vernon Wells, Johan Santana, Carl Crawford, Mark Teixiera, Jeremy Bonderman, John Garland, and the contracts the Indians have given Grady Sizemore, Victor Martinez, Travis Hafner, and C.C. Sabathia among others) than the cost of importing talent from the rival league.
On the flip side of the coin, the Marlins, Diamondbacks, Brewers, and Rockies have a combined .448 winning percentage in interleague play this year (a close match with the NL's overall .437 mark), but all four are young teams that could see a considerable increase in both cost and quality in the coming seasons given the players already on hand an in their sytems. As is always the case in baseball, things will even out in time, but for now the American League is enjoying the most dominant stretch in the decade-long history of interleague play, even if that stretch isn't as long as some might think.
Labels: Wild Card
NL East: A Mets' mess?
Perhaps Mets fans should start keeping their thumb-worn copies of A Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy next to their televisions, as a constant reminder of Douglas Adams' famous mantra: DON'T PANIC.
Just as the crosstown Yanks have awakened from a slumber that consumed their first two months of the season, June is shaping up to be a mensis horribilis for Flushing's finest. They've lost 10 of 12 this month, dropping all four series they've played so far -- and they appear to be struggling in all facets of the game simultaneously.
After an April in which they ranked third in the majors in runs (132, or 5.5/game), third in OPS (.809) and first in ERA (2.96), in June the Mets through yesterday stood 25th in runs (37, or 3.4/game), 25th in OPS (.667), and 26th in ERA (5.05).
The nadir, they must hope, came Tuesday night, when Dodgers starter Hong-Chi Kuo -- he of the one career previous hit -- slugged a mammoth blast off John Maine (which was, in fact, L.A.'s third homer in three Maine pitches), and flipped his bat away, Manny-style, as if he was disgusted that Maine would deign to throw him -- Hong-Chi Kuo! -- such junk.
Here's the thing, though, Mets fans: Your boys remain in great shape. Despite their struggles, they still have a two game lead in the tough NL East, and at 36-28 are one game off of having the best record in the league. They also remain the most talented and well-rounded team in the NL.
The staff is still, by-and-large, performing well. Remove the back-to-back stinkers Tom Glavine and Oliver Perez threw last weekend against the Tigers, who are the hottest offensive team in the league right now, and the club's June ERA would stand at 3.55. A rejuvenated El Duque (2.38 ERA on the season, 3.09 in June) has been pitching like he's a lad of 46 again. Maine, despite getting KO'd (or is it Kuo'd?) on Tuesday night, allowed only two earned runs in each of his two previous June starts; and Jorge Sosa's been the best of the bunch recently, surrendering just one earned run in earning the Mets' only two June wins before suffering through a pair of bad innings against the Dodgers last night.
The even-better news for Mets pitchers is that by late summer, Sosa may be spearheading the team's relief corps; all that Pedro Martinez, who threw 50 pitches off the mound in Port St. Lucie on Tuesday, will be asked to do when he returns is pitch like the best fourth starter in the NL, which shouldn't be a terribly difficult task.
The Mets' offensive woes have been slightly more pernicious. It must be noted that through yesterday the outfield combination of Carlos Gomez, Ben Johnson, Endy Chavez and David Newhan (who have hit three homers between them in 2007), had twice as many June at-bats as did the Opening Day starting trio of Carlos Beltran, Shawn Green and Moises Alou. (For more on Alou's possible return, see the links below). But the Mets' real bugaboo -- and this has been a season-long issue -- has been their situational hitting. As a team, New York is hitting only .250 with runners in scoring position, and the worst offenders have been the sluggers the Mets count on most to get those big hits: David Wright (.217 with RISP), Carlos Delgado (.197), and Beltran (.237).
That the Mets still rank 12th in runs scored overall with their three RBI leaders struggling so badly with men on second and/or third speaks to just how talented an offensive ball club they actually are. It would be foolish to think that that talented triumverate will continue to scuffle so badly in the clutch; after all, in the previous three seasons combined Wright hit .325 with RISP, Delgado .296 and Beltran .293.
Manager Willie Randolph, stoic in both the best and worst of times, is aware that all he has to do is wait for his three giants, and his team at large, to wake up. They've got too much talent not to. "It's what I know about winning baseball and the season, it ebbs and flows," Randolph said the other day.
Right now, the Mets' fortunes are at a definite ebb. Before you know it, they'll be flowing once more.
Labels: NL East
AL West: Sailing the high seas
When cooking up a winning ballclub, starting pitching is the essential ingredient -- at least, that's the general belief. Mariners fans may disagree. Seattle boasts a respectable 35-27 mark, yet it holds the second-worst starter ERA in the majors (5.55). The Mariners have taken nine of 12 games in July, even though the rotation has racked up just four quality starts in the month.
While the Mariners have struggled to get any type of consistency in the starting rotation, they've excelled in some key areas.
First and foremost, Seattle has been red hot at the plate, boasting baseball's second-highest batting average (.286) and batting average with runners in scoring position (.296). Another reason for the Mariners' offensive success is the fact that they plain put the ball in play, as Seattle easily has the lowest strikeout total (292) in either league. In a surprise to nobody, the catalyst of the lineup is leadoff man Ichiro Suzuki. After a slow start in April, Ichiro's hitting .355 in the last month-and-a-half. But Ichiro isn't the only one swinging a hot bat; unheralded catcher Kenji Johjima's quietly hitting .330, while shortstop Yuniesky Betancourt just ended a 20-game hitting streak.
The Mariners have also formed a reliable bullpen chock-full of live arms. Besides boasting the best bullpen record in baseball (13-3), the Mariners rank fifth in bullpen ERA (3.35). J.J. Putz has steadily developed into one of the game's most dominant closers and Brandon Morrow is enjoying a remarkable rookie year as Putz's setup man. Also, lefty George Sherrill has proven highly effective in middle relief. Fireballer Mark Lowe could return from the 60-day DL before the All-Star break to boot.
Recently, no team has been more clutch than Seattle. Wednesday night's loss snapped a five-game winning streak in which the Mariners won every game in their last at-bat.
Behind its efficient offense, shutdown 'pen and late-game savvy, Seattle has leapfrogged Oakland into second place in the A.L. West, and Mariners faithful are talking about a pennant race for the first time in years.
At the end of the day, though, that horrendous rotation is still extremely disconcerting. Since the turn of the millennium, only two teams have made the playoffs with a starter ERA ranked below 20th (the Indians finished 26th in 2001 and the Yankees finished 21st in 2005), and each of those teams boasted a more potent offense than this Mariners installment.
After Jarrod Washburn and Felix Hernandez, Seattle's rotation takes a nosedive. Gil Meche and his 3.16 ERA would be nice to have, but Seattle let Meche walk in free agency.
Mariners GM Bill Bavasi has made some questionable moves in the past (trading Freddy Garcia for peanuts, signing Adrian Beltre and Richie Sexson to gargantuan deals, etc.), but he must get back in the saddle and acquire another arm. Seattle's playoff hopes hang in the balance.
Labels: AL West
NL Central: Hope for Cards
So, how many wins is it gonna take to win the NL Comedy Central? Will 83 -- what the Cardinals needed last year to parlay into a world championship -- do the trick? Or will this putrid division produce the first team to show up at the postseason party with a losing record? "I just don't see any team pulling away from the others," says an NL exec. "I could see the Pirates easily still hanging around in August and September."
How rancid is the NL Central these days? A look how the division's "top" three teams fared on Tuesday night: the first-place Brewers continued their astonishing swoon -– the DiMeo crime family has had a better month -- as they were no-hit by Justin Verlander; the Cardinals were beat around by formidable AL juggernaut Kansas City; and the Cubs lost to the Mariners after 13 agonizing innings at Wrigley, where Sweet Lou has become so glum that he's making it a habit to hide out from reporters after losses.
Walt Jocketty, G.M. of the Cardinals and Midas of the midseason trade, knows his club still has a very realistic shot, even despite how poorly they've played, and he's shopping for a starting pitcher . Will Mark Buehrle, a free agent after this season, make an early arrival in St. Louis? Viva El Birdos tells us that it's rare for a pitcher of his ilk to move at the trade deadline.
Labels: NL Central
AL Central: Don't leave it to the fans
If I were named baseball commissioner, there is one order of business that I'd attend to on my very first day, before breakfast, before my morning cup of coffee, before I even rolled out of bed:
I would scrap fan voting for the All-Star game.
This is America, land of democracy, and undoubtedly multiple Founding Fathers just rolled around in their graves despite having no clue who Magglio Ordoñez is, what an All-Star Game is or what a baseball looks like. Don't get me wrong, I'm all for enfranchising people when it comes to political elections, but for votes that are really important -- like baseball All-Star games -- we need a new system.
If all the All-Star game is intended to be is an opportunity for fans to see their favorite players on the field together, then I suppose the current balloting system works. But if we truly wanted to reward on-field performance, with the year's best players, then the fans are clueless.
Deserving players have always been left out of the starting lineup for more popular names -- usually for players who don pinstripes or red socks everyday -- and this year's voting for the American League starters is no exception. The updated vote tallies are due out early this evening, and we can only hope a few errors have been corrected.
Why this tragedy means so much to the Fungoes is that two AL Central players (and two Tigers, even) are the most blatant victims. Ordoñez is leading the league in average (.367), doubles (30), extra-base hits (43) and OPS (1.108) and ranks second in RBIs (56) and on-base percentage (.439), yet if the voting were to end today, he wouldn't be an All-Star starter. He's currently fifth in voting (394,892) and, though he keeps good company with Vladimir Guerrero, Manny Ramirez, Ichiro Suzuki, and Torii Hunter all ahead of him, Ordoñez is easily having the best season of the bunch.
With apologies to Alex Rodriguez, Ordoñez is the clubhouse leader for AL MVP, and he can't best a sub-par performance from Manny Ramirez? I enjoy Manny's eccentricities as much as anyone, and the man is a surefire first-ballot Hall of Famer, but he is not one of the three best outfielders in the league this year and doesn't deserve most of the 600,463 votes he has. A .291 average with eight homers and 33 RBIs just won't cut it.
There's an even more egregious offense taking place in the second-base voting. Robinson Cano is leading? Seriously? Who is voting for this man? Most Yankee fans are down on his play this year, yet, judging by his AL-leading 389,265 votes, they still appear to be punching his chad on the ballot. They have all seemingly forgetten Cano's numbers this year: a .269 average, three homers and 29 RBIs. They don't seem to mind that Placido Polanco has a batting average (.348) that's 40 points higher than Cano's on-base percentage (.308) but trails Cano by more than 8,000 votes. Polanco has 85 hits through Detroit's 62 games, which has him on pace for 222 for the season, and he’s been a vital part of that offense. Hitting in the two-hole, he's part of the reason Ordoñez and Gary Sheffield have combined for 99 RBIs (Polanco has scored 44 runs).
That said, while Detroit fans seem oblivious to the plights of Polanco and Ordoñez, they're stuffing the ballot box for leading vote-getter Ivan Rodriguez, who ought to be no higher than third in the catcher standings. But Pudge is a bigger star than, say, Victor Martinez (.325, 12 HR, 54 RBIs) or Jorge Posada (.358, 7, 40), both of whom are having better years than Rodriguez (.298, 6, 34), and so, Pudge is undoubtedly the beneficiary of votes from other fan bases. In fact, it's very likely most Boston fans don't want to see Posada behind the plate for the All-Star game and can't justify voting for Jason Varitek, so Pudge seems like a decent alternative.
Now, I open it up to you -- any other voting injustices in the early AL results? Who else from the Central deserves a starting nod?
Labels: AL Central
NL West: Not just for emergencies
It was the once-a-decade event that haunts managers' psyches.
Save your backup catcher until the last possible moment, we're told, because you don't want to see him to get hurt and end up scrambling for an emergency backstop.
Friday night in San Francisco scrambled the Giants like their morning eggs. They took out their starting catcher in the fifth inning and lost their backup catcher to injury in the 10th, compounding the problem by having no position players left on the bench, thus forcing infielder Pedro Feliz behind the plate (along with outfielder Randy Winn to third base and pitcher Noah Lowry into the outfield).
Emergency catchers in major-league games are rarer than no-hitters, triple plays and cycles, but managers still manage in fear of them most of the time. It was almost as shocking to see Giants skipper Bruce Bochy throw caution to the wind as it was to see the wind blow it back in his face.
"Back in the 19th century, pretty much everybody was an emergency catcher because the catcher didn't wear a glove, the catcher didn't wear much protective equipment aside from a mask and there was not unlimited substitution," said Bob Timmermann, keeper of the clever historical and observational baseball site The Griddle. "So sometimes a catcher would get a broken finger and there was no one to replace him, or the manager/team captain would think that his bat was still important so they'd stick him in the outfield somewhere and move someone else behind the plate."
Timmermann went on to say that of course, often "this didn't work out well and you would see teams giving up lots of passed balls," noting that Alex Gardner, who caught one game for Washington of the AA in 1884, is credited by the Sporting News with a major-league record 12 in one game.
In the past 50 years, however, the number of emergency catchers used in a major-league game has been slight. Occasionally, injury isn't even an issue -- the catchers-of-the-last-resort were just the result of a manager going for broke trying to rally his losing team by pinch-hitting for his last catcher and succeeding. Pinch-hitting legend Manny Mota, for example, caught the only game of his career on July 13, 1964 in such a situation, though Timmermann said that Mota regularly warmed up pitchers. After a passed ball in the top of the 11th, Mota nearly won the game with a double in the bottom of the 11th, only to contribute to a 12th-inning loss with a second passed ball.
Injuries certainly play a part. One of the treasured memories of my baseball childhood came in April 1980, when injuries to regular Dodger catchers Steve Yeager and Joe Ferguson forced utilityman Derrell Thomas into the eighth position of his career. Thomas ended up catching in five games in a row, including three complete games in which the Dodgers won two, before Los Angeles finally called up Mike Scioscia to make his major-league debut. Meeting Thomas for the first time in the Dodger Stadium press box last summer, I reveled in the opportunity to bond with him over this memory.
Still, the most famous emergency catcher in baseball history is probably Lenn Sakata, who made his debut behind the plate in the 10th inning of a tie game against Toronto in August 1983. In the Blue Jays' explicable eagerness to run on Sakata, they somewhat inexplicably took such reckless leads that Orioles pitcher Tippy Martinez picked off three runners in a row. Sakata then hit a three-run homer in the bottom of the 10th to win the game.
I'll admit I always look forward to seeing an emergency catcher just for the novel excitement or exciting novelty of it, but that's not the reason that it burns me to see managers keep their backup catcher out of a game when they could benefit from using him. You really can't let yourself forget that needing an emergency catcher is the baseball equivalent of getting hit by lightning (don't hold me to the math -- it's just a metaphor).
In retrospect, Bochy's decision to remove starting catcher Bengie Molina in a fifth-inning double-switch might seem reckless. But, at the time, the Giants had already fallen into last place in the NL West, eight games behind Bochy's former team, the San Diego Padres. If Bochy felt that removing Molina gave him a better chance to win the game, there's no way he should have let fear of injury to backup batteryman Eliezer Alfonzo forestall him.
Managers should keep the same go-for-broke attitude in mind. The chances your last catcher getting hurt are slim, and the worst thing that will happen as a result is probably going to be a great story to tell.
After sleeping off (Friday) night's travesty of a ballgame, I'm now a little more even tempered. This team has worn me out and the third month of the season isn't even half over yet. With an utter lack of execution in key spots, teams are making the Giants pay for mistakes, while young ballclubs like the Padres, Dodgers, and D-Backs continue to roll. At the same time, with all this age and rickety behavior on behalf of the Giants, they still manage to have one of the best starting rotations in baseball, which spells good years to come in the future.
"You'll have to excuse me if I see the glass still as half empty," Donohue wrote Friday. "The Rockies have had stretches in each of the past few seasons where they've gotten within hailing distance of .500. This year and the last, these warm patches have been driven predominantly by a sudden spike of effectivness in starting pitching. No matter what the engine, if it's any time after the start of summer vacation, it's a tease until proven otherwise with this club. An interleague series in Baltimore might afford the team the opportunity to reach that magical break-even point for an ephemeral day or two (in fact, it got Colorado to 31-32) before the Rockies have to move on to Boston and face reality: They're still not very good."
In the past two weeks, the Dodgers have called up youngsters Hong-Chih Kuo, Matt Kemp and James Loney in an effort to jumpstart a team that fell from first place to third.
Labels: NL West
AL East: Cheated
There are all kinds of ways of feeling cheated. Some you just have to live with, like when you go to the Caribbean on vacation and have to fork over $10 for a tube of toothpaste at a local pharmacy, or like when you pay top dollar too see a Broadway play only to find out that the lead is being played by an understudy. Then there is the kind that is seemingly more personal, like when baseball fans are robbed of the pleasure of rooting for the all-time home run record to be broken because of Barry Bonds' link to performance-enhancing drugs.* A sucker is born every minute, and yet nobody likes being conned, as millions of viewers were last night with the final episode of The Sopranos.
Another way of feeling cheated -- albeit in a less acute fashion -- is having to watch interleague play rob us of natural league rivalries. The Yankees only play the defending AL champion Tigers twice this year, but New York plays both Pittsburgh and Colorado. Stop the presses. Look, I understand why interleague games are profitable and why they are here to stay, but this is ridiculous. Divisions aren't even lined up specifically to play each other -- now it's just a hodge-podge of random match-ups (Blue Jays vs. Dodgers, Orioles vs. Rockies) -- and all at the expense of league games. The only reason why there isn't more of an uproar about it is because fans have been knocked unconscious by all the excitement.
Barring a sudden midseason surge, Mike Flanagan and Jim Duquette are going to be right back where they were last July, when several teams made offers for Tejada. This time, however, they may be able to make the case to owner Peter Angelos that the club will be in a better position to make good on the Tejada timetable without Tejada.
* I recently wrote a column about which players are the most -- and least -- fun to watch. I got a lot of mail about the piece. The biggest complaint was that I didn't include Ryan Freel on the list of players who are fun to watch. The second biggest knock was that I put Junior Griffey on the list of players who are the least fun to watch. My reasoning was not because Griffey isn't appealing but because he's been injured so often since he's been with the Reds, and that it's hard to watch a great player so diminished. But upon further review, I have to say that I was wrong about Griffey, especially in light of Bonds breaking Aaron's record and Sammy Sosa hitting his 600th home run. Junior is 37-years-old and has 578 home runs. He has never been linked to performance-enhancing drugs. There is every to reason to believe that he'll reach 600, and more. His swing is still as sweet as ever. I was wrong; Junior's FORP is just fine.
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)