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Wild Card: The 500 HR Club in perspective
Frank Thomas became the 21st man to hit 500 career home runs on Thursday when he smacked a three-run bomb off Carlos Silva in the first-inning of the Blue Jays-Twins game. On June 20 Sammy Sosa became just the fifth man to hit 600 home runs when he hit a fifth-inning solo shot off Jason Marquis. Barry Bonds is currently six homers short of Hank Aaron's all-time record. Alex Rodriguez is eight shy of 500, Ken Griffey Jr. is 16 shy of 600, and Jim Thome (18), Manny Ramirez (19), and Gary Sheffield (27) are all likely to join the 500-homer club no later than next year, which would expand the group's membership by 25 percent in the past two seasons. To many, this onslaught has robbed these milestones of some of their significance, but it is not unprecedented.
Babe Ruth became the first man to reach 500 home runs in 1929. Over the next 35 years, just three others joined him: Jimmy Foxx, Mel Ott, and Ted Williams. The next six years, however, saw seven men hit their 500th homer, nearly tripling the club's membership from 1965 to '71. What's more, while Ruth remained the only man to reach either 600 homers entering the 1969 season, both Willie Mays and Aaron reached that plateau by 1971 and Aaron reached 700 in 1973, breaking Ruth's career mark the year after that.
From 1971 to '98, however, just four more men hit their 500th home run (Willie McCovey, Reggie Jackson, Mike Schmidt, and Eddie Murray). Thus, in the first 60 seasons of its existence, 15 men joined the 500-home run club, but seven of them did so in a six-year span, while just eight others joined in the remaining 54 seasons. Should Rodriguez, Thome, Ramirez, and Sheffield all make it by next season, there will be 25 men in the club in its 70th season, with 10 of them having joined in the nine years since Mark McGwire hit No. 500 in 1999. That's a huge influx, but it's not unprecedented.
In fact, it could be that what we’re seeing now is something closer to a return to the norm. My theory is that it's not the '60s and the most recent decade that are the outliers, but the '70s and '80s, which really only produced three members (McCovey hit 313 of his 521 career homers prior to 1970).
Looking at the history of the 500-home run club, it's important to remember that the first four members began their careers while the major leagues were segregated, and that seven of the next 11 players to reach the milestone were African American. It's no stretch to assume that segregation is responsible for suppressing membership during the club's first three decades while hitters such as Josh Gibson were restricted to the Negro leagues. Indeed, of the 10 most recent members of the 500 club, four are African American and four more are Latino.
Looking forward, there are four players who have a good chance of hitting their 500th homer in the next five years or so, and a fifth who has an outside shot. Carlos Delgado has 418 homers roughly halfway through his age-35 season. By comparison, Sheffield had 415 homers at the end of his age-35 season, missed most of 2006 with a wrist injury, and is still on pace to reach 500 with ease. Chipper Jones has 370 homers at the same age. Bill James' Favorite Toy says that Jones has a 33 percent shot of reaching 500, though it doesn't completely account for his increasing injury issues. Still, he's in the discussion. Chipper's teammate Andruw Jones has 354 homers and is five years younger, giving him a fantastic shot, while Vlad Guerrero is just a year older than Andruw and just two homers behind him.
At their current pace, all four of those men could join the club by 2011, while Albert Pujols, who's currently at 266 dingers, could join the club by 2012 at the age of 32, putting him just six months behind A-Rod’s record pace. In addition to those five, Miguel Cabrera, with his 121 career dingers at age 24, looks like a solid candidate. At his current pace, Cabrera could hit his 500th sometime around 2018 when he'll be 35, though certainly a lot could go wrong between now and then.
Setting aside Cabrera, who will likely be the leader of another generation of 500-homer hitters (Prince Fielder could be next in line), and assuming that the four most likely players from the previous paragraph make it (sorry, Chipper), the 500 home run club will stand at 29 men by the end of the 2012 season. Three of those 29 played prior to integration, nine of them hit the majority of their homers in the '50s and '60s (Williams and McCovey fit that description along with the seven who joined from 1965 to '71), and 14 of those men will have hit the majority of their home runs in the '90s and '00s. That increase from nine to 14 is easily explained by the increased influence of Latino players since the 1960s as, while none of the first 17 men to hit 500 home runs were Latino (save for the half-Mexican Williams), as many as eight of the next 12 will be.
What's left is a dry spell from the '70s and '80s. Perhaps, rather than devaluing the home run output of the players who are reaching these milestones now, we should be developing a new appreciation for the achievements of Jackson, Schmidt, Murray, and that era’s near-misses such as Willie Stargell (296 of his 475 homers after 1969), Dave Winfield (357 of 465 prior to 1990), and Carl Yastrzemski (250 of 452 after 1969).
A.L. West: The Charles Dickens division
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness ...
Charles Dickens opens his classic novel A Tale of Two Cities with this brilliant description of the conditions in England and France just prior to the French Revolution. And almost 150 years later, Chuck's acclaimed words are still as relevant as ever ... in the AL West.
Just take a quick look at the standings: It's "the best of times" for the Angels, who boast the most wins in the American League (and all of baseball, for that matter), and the worst of times for the Rangers, who own the least wins in the Junior Circuit.
So, the question must be asked: Does baseball's smallest division possess both the best and worst team in the game today?
Although they just lost three straight to the Royals, the Angels are most definitely enjoying a "season of Light." With a glowing 49-30 record, this team could win 100 games for the first time in franchise history. Surprisingly, the strength of this squad has been its offense. Before the start of this season, skeptics claimed Vladimir Guerrero needed more support for the Halos' offense to click, but 79 games into the season, L.A.'s stats tell a different story. The Angels are second in the majors in average (.291) and fourth in runs (400) and doubles (158). As usual, Mike Scioscia's bunch is both aggressive (leading the AL in steals with 74) and efficient at plain putting the ball in play (boasting the fifth lowest strikeout total in baseball).
Guerrero's the unquestioned leader of the offense (and a bona fide MVP candidate), but the Angels have also been blessed by huge contributions from Orlando Cabrera, Gary Matthews Jr. and lately Chone Figgins. To boot, budding youngsters Reggie Willits and Casey Kotchman have infused the lineup with enviable depth. Paced by John Lackey and Kelvim Escobar, the starting rotation has performed admirably, ranking third in the AL with a 3.88 ERA. On the other hand, the bullpen just hasn't been as dominant as usual, partly due to Justin Speier's extended stay on the DL for an intestinal infection. Though Francisco Rodriguez is still lights out.
The Angels rampaged through interleague play -- tying Detroit for the best mark (14-4) in baseball -- but L.A.'s record against AL powers leaves something to be desired. While these are very small sample sizes, they must be addressed in judging the MLB's best team. The Halos are 3-3 against the Indians and 2-3 against the Tigers. LA's played three games against Boston, dropping all three by a combined score of 25-3. (Granted, the games all took place in Fenway Park during a mid-April series.) The Angels do have a few holes in their resume, but nothing like one AL West counterpart ...
For the Rangers, "season of Darkness" doesn't quite capture the horrendousness of the '07 campaign, especially when it comes to starting pitching. Texas easily possesses the worst rotation in baseball, with a starter ERA (6.61) that is over a full point higher than any other team's mark. And this is futility by committee -- no Texas pitcher with over five starts owns an ERA below 5.90. The 'pen isn't bad, but relievers rarely take over a game with a lead. Defensively, the Rangers have committed the most errors in the American League (63). Public beef between new manager Ron Washington and some of his players just adds to the team's overwhelming woes.
To their credit, the Rangers' have produced the third-most runs in baseball (407). And Texas actually had a winning record in June (13-10)
At the end of the day, Los Angeles may not be the best team in baseball and Texas may not be the worst, but this 'Tale of Two Cities" sure brings some intrigue to an undersized division that rarely receives national attention.
Labels: AL West
NL Central: An embarrassment of riches
Yovani Gallardo is making life difficult for the Brewers. The 21-year-old pitching prospect has done nothing but impress in his two starts since being called up from Triple-A Nashville. What's the problem? Left-hander Chris Capuano's return from the disabled list is imminent and the Brewers find themselves with six qualified, worthy starters for five rotation spots.
Gallardo was dominating this season with Nashville and continued his success after joining the parent club. In his highly-anticipated debut, he allowed three runs and four hits in 6 1/3 innings against the Giants. He followed up that start with a seven-inning gem against the Royals in which he allowed just one run and five hits while striking out eight.
Capuano was scheduled to test his strained left groin in a simulated game this morning and to rejoin the rotation July 2 or 3 in Pittsburgh. When he returns, the Brewers will have five experienced starters in Capuano, Ben Sheets, Dave Bush, Jeff Suppan and Claudio Vargas.
Bush was available out of the bullpen early this week and is waiting to hear if he or Vargas will start on Sunday against the Cubs. Bush is 5-6 with a 5.17 ERA this season, but won his last two starts, allowing just three runs in 13.1 innings. He told reporters he is starting to feel like he did last season, when he was 12-11 with a 4.41 ERA, 166 strikeouts and only 38 walks. After his fast start, Suppan is 3-5 with a 6.96 ERA in his last nine starts. And despite the fact that he is 6-1, Vargas has not pitched past the sixth inning in any of his starts this season.
Still, it seems likely Gallardo will move to the bullpen after his next start, which will be against the Cubs on Friday.
"Look across the board: Benny is going to start. 'Cappy' is going to start. 'Soup' is going to start. Claudio is 6-1, and we've won most of his starts [11 of 13]," pitching coach Mike Maddux told reporters earlier this week. "Bush has been throwing the ball excellent the last few times. 'Bushy' is an innings-eater, and he has thrown up more [scoreless innings] than anybody else."
Manager Ned Yost, Maddux and general manager Doug Melvin all spoke on June 25 about the benefits of sending Gallardo to the 'pen.
"There is some conventional wisdom behind the fact that if we go ahead and keep Gallardo up here and use him as a long [reliever], limit his innings through July and August, if anything happens, we've got a quality starter ready to step in that's in great shape," Yost said. "His innings won't be way up, and he'll be strong and ready to pitch until the very end."
The Brewers would also prefer to limit Gallardo's innings to avoid overworking him this season and suffering the consequences next season.
Gallardo could bolster an already strong Brewers bullpen, but pitching him in long relief posses potential problems. Overworking Gallardo is a risk, but so is having him go stale in the bullpen where he may not get enough innings or face enough batters. Getting rusty because of too few innings could be the bigger risk for a player who is still developing and needs regular work. He could get that regular work back in the minors, but it would be borderline criminal to send Gallardo back down if he continues to pitch as well as he has.
It's a problem, but it's one most teams would love to have.
Labels: NL Central
AL Central: A three-team race
The Tigers roared through interleague play, winning eight of their last nine to take first place in the American League Central.
The Indians struggled mightily against the National League, losing a series to always woeful Washington and to suddenly woeful Atlanta.
The White Sox have lost 22 of 28, with general manager Kenny Williams promising that "change is going to happen," insinuating that a fire sale is imminent.
And the Royals still have that vote for a seventh-inning stretch song.
All kidding about Kansas City aside -- it does boast both Arthur Bryant's and Gates barbecue, after all -- it's the Twins, plodding along in third place with a 5-5 record in their last 10, who are the division's most interesting team.
Minnesota has certainly not been devoid of headlines. Reigning MVP first baseman Justin Morneau violently collided with Marlins catcher Miguel Olivo on Saturday. Morneau suffered a bruised lung, spat out blood and spent three days in a Florida hospital. Don't worry, though, he reportedly could play by Thursday.
Manager Ron Gardenhire offered catcher Joe Mauer a reprieve from playing behind the plate in the hot Florida sun to fill in for Morneau at first. Mauer's fantastic response? "Uhhhh. Uh, I'd rather catch." So he did. And then hit two home runs.
The timing is a little peculiar, but Mauer even gained ink in the New York Times this week, just a perspective piece of how Mauer could have played quarterback at Florida State and could be entering his second season of the NFL right now.
Then there's the not-so-little matter of Johan Santana. The familiar refrain this spring of "What's wrong with Johan" was sung all month. A traditionally slow starter to the season, he's 20-16 in his career in April and May but, entering this season, was a blistering 16-4 with a 2.76 ERA in June. Whispers of problems grew louder when he lost his first two starts of the month and received a no decision in his third, even though he yielded a very respectable seven earned runs in 20 innings during that stretch. The problem, you see, is that he wasn't dominating.
His last two starts, however, squelched that crazy talk. Santana needed just 92 pitches and one strikeout to toss a complete-game shutout over the Mets and then pitched another gem (6 IP, 1 ER, 8 K) against Florida. He also pounded a pair of extra-base hits in those wins.
Here's the bottom line: As noted Minnesota blogger Aaron Gleeman pointed out yesterday at the end of this post, the Twins were 38-35 record through 73 games -- the exact same record they were at the same juncture of last season. The difference is the play at the top: Minnesota is now only 6.5 games behind division leader Detroit, rather than the 11 games they trailed a season ago. The Twins lost last night to fall to 38-36 but remain only 6.5 back.
Because of that, the Twins need to think long and hard about Torii Hunter. Though I understand that "on pace" are famous last words, Minnesota's center fielder is on pace for the best offensive season of his career, with a .306 BA, .353 OBP, 15 HR and 57 RBIs and still seven games until the season’s midpoint.
In his contract year and likely to play elsewhere after the season, Hunter could command a huge premium at the trading deadline. And while the Twins have done well in the past trading more established players for young talent – most famously, the preposterous 2003 trade of A.J. Pierzynski to the Giants for Joe Nathan, Francisco Liriano and Boof Bonser -- they'd be best served holding onto Hunter. As the Star-Tribune's Joe Christiansen argues, this is the time to get miserly owner Carl Pohlad to dip into his considerable savings and splurge on an extension for Hunter.
After all, Santana is dominating again and Minnesota is within striking distance of the top with half a season to play -- the Twins are right where they want to be.
(And, before I go for this week, I'd be remiss not to weigh-in on the eternal debate: 1. Arthur Bryant's. 2. Gates.)
Labels: AL Central
NL West: Midseason All-Stars
The pandering for All-Star Game votes has gotten a little out of control in parts of the country, don't you think? Just last week on the radio, Dodgers announcers Rick Monday and Jerry Reuss let us know about an official organizational bribe to get people to vote for the local boys -- coupons and discounts and such, with more of it coming your way the more you stuffed the ballot box. My current apathy toward voting (the opposite of how I felt a decade ago) is on the verge of turning into a boycott.
Nevertheless, I have been curious who the best players in the division closest to home have been this year. I thought it might be fun to see what an All-Star team just from the NL West would look like. Here's what I came up with:
Catcher: While playing in 71 of the Dodgers' 75 games -- almost unreal for a backstop -- Russell Martin of the Dodgers has been consistently above average as a hitter. Only the slightest dip has begun to register in June, but Martin has still produced an Equivalent Average of .293 according to Baseball Prospectus (where .260 is the norm). Martin is also on pace to steal a remarkable 28 bases in 32 attempts, while throwing out a third of those attempting to steal against him.
First base: In a close call with Colorado's Todd Helton, we'll give the slightest edge to Adrian Gonzalez of San Diego, mainly because the Padre has been mostly going it alone as a major offensive threat in his team's lineup. Certainly, a case could be made for Helton, who has a .443 on-base percentage and a .326 EQA. But when you factor in park effects, Gonzalez has been just about as productive, with a .317 EQA and a .512 slugging percentage playing in San Diego's offensively challenged Petco Park. For a team that relies on pitching, Gonzalez is the man that keeps the offense from disappearing.
Second base: Arizona's Orlando Hudson gets the nod over the Dodgers' Jeff Kent here. Hudson, with an on-base percentage of .383 and a slugging percentage of .469, has had the superior offensive season (a .300 EQA compared to Kent's .284). Defensively, Kent is still giving it his best shot at age 39, but it's hard to place him in Hudson's class.
Shortstop: Not the NL West's strongest category, especially with Rafael Furcal of the Dodgers dropping off offensively and Stephen Drew (Arizona) and Omar Vizquel (San Francisco) disappearing. Khalil Greene of San Diego has come on after a slow start with a June OPS of .898, but I'm giving Troy Tulowitzki of Colorado the midseason prize. The 22-year-old has an OPS+ of 95 while playing solid defense.
Third base: If Mark Reynolds (120 OPS+) and Chad Tracy (131) of Arizona were one person, this position would be a slam dunk. Each has turned in a nice offensive performance, with Reynolds a pleasant surprise filling in while Tracy missed four weeks worth of games. Arguably, Garret Atkins (85 OPS+) should get the honors here by default just from surviving the entire season at the position without being a total disaster, but even though Tracy has been playing some first base since his return from the disabled list, we'll pencil him in at the hot corner.
Left field: While Matt Holliday of the Rockies has positioned himself as a potential MVP candidate for the division (.399 on-base percentage, .599 slugging percentage, 154 OPS+), there isn't much avoiding the fact that Barry Bonds wins here. Even though the longtime Giant has had home-run droughts this year, pitchers still fear him more than perhaps any other hitter in the NL West. His on-base percentage is .500, his slugging percentage is .586 and he has 15 homers -- two more than Holliday. Bonds' OPS+ is 189. While Bonds' intentional walk total might go down if he batted in Colorado's lineup and his defense reveals his age, Bonds remains the division's scariest left fielder.
Center field: Always a top defensive center fielder, Mike Cameron of San Diego is holding his own offensively as well (although his best competition in the division, Willy Taveras of Colorado, isn't much to text home about). Cameron (104 OPS+) has an on-base percentage of .322 and a slugging percentage of .428 -- not impressive on the surface, but again, remember how San Diego's home park favors pitching.
Right field: The Rockies' Brad Hawpe is the easy choice here -- which is nice, because I've slighted the other big Colorado hitters, Helton and Holliday. The Third H has a 134 OPS+ (.383 on-base percentage, .532 slugging percentage). His stats don't match Holliday's, but there's no Bonds competing against him in right field; the best alternative is Andre Ethier of the Dodgers (102 OPS+). One of the annual leaders in outfield assists over the past couple of years, racking up 16 last season, Hawpe is on pace for nine this year. I can't confirm this, but I suspect word has spread not to test his arm.
Starting pitcher: The battle between Jake Peavy of the Padres and Brad Penny of the Dodgers have been neck-and-neck all season, but provisionally, we'll leave it to Peaver. That's true even though Brad Penny slipped ahead of Peavy in park-adjusted ERA, according to Baseball-Reference.com, 205 to 187, after Peavy allowed three runs in a five-inning start against the Boston Red Sox on Sunday -- Peavy's shortest outing of the season. In fact, Peavy even trails teammate Chris Young in ERA now, 2.14 to 2.08. But Peavy has been the dominant starter in the division if not the league, striking out 113 batters in 105 innings while allowing 116 baserunners and just one home run. Penny just misses out in this battle of the superb.
Set-up man: Heath Bell of the Padres began the season with one run allowed in his first 20 2/3 innings. His idea of a slump has been for his ERA since that time to be 2.49. For the year, he has struck out 47 in 42 1/3 innings while allowing 38 baserunners, and has stranded 12 of 16 inherited runners. In 35 appearances, he has one blown save and one loss.
Closer: The Dodgers' Takashi Saito is still working in the shadow of Padres closer Trevor Hoffman -- and still outpitching him. While Hoffman has had another fine season, Saito has actually done the unthinkable -- make Los Angeles fans not miss Eric Gagne. In 31 innings, Saito has struck out 40 and walked three. He has allowed 26 baserunners and five runs for a 1.45 ERA, converting 20 of 21 save opportunities.
Labels: NL West
AL East: Getting Late Early
The Yankees left for the West Coast early last week as the hottest team in baseball, having won 11 of their past 12 games. Now, six games into a nine-game road trip, New York is 1-5—swept by the Rockies and losers twice against the hapless Giants over the weekend in San Francisco. Since last Monday, the Bombers have lost three games in the standings to the piping-hot Red Sox, and now trail Boston by 11.5. Seth Mnookin thinks that for the remainder of the season the Red Sox should worry about almost anyone but New York.
What's wrong with the Yankees, asks Tyler Kepner in the New York Times. George King has an answer in the Post: the Yankees are a bad team. Peter Abraham has some ideas for how New York can fix things, including this:
"Get Joe Torre to retire: Right now. Everybody knows he's not coming back barring some sudden run to the World Series. So have Joe announce that he's retiring at the end of the season and see what happens. Create a little tension and drama, maybe it'll motivate the players. Then, if they suddenly do go on some magical run, create a story that Big Stein begged his man to come back for one more year. If they lose, you've lost nothing. Joe gets his graceful exit and either Mattingly or Girardi takes over."
Saturday's loss to the Giants was a low-point. Leading 4-1 in the sixth inning with their ace Chien-Ming Wang on the hill, the Yankees looked poised for a victory. But Wang, and then the bullpen, faltered. New York would have been cooked if not for Alex Rodriguez's solo blast in the ninth, which pushed the game into extra innings. Rodriguez doubled two innings later and the Yankees had the bases loaded with just one out, but Hideki Matsui struck out on three pitches and Robinson Cano grounded out. Scott Proctor gave up a bloop hit in the 13th which proved to be the game-winner.
Rodriguez, who reached base 12 times in 16 at bats against the Giants (including 9 hits), was pretty much the whole show for the Yankees over the weekend. He's been one of the few consistent players on a team whose performance has fluctuated wildly. One day, the offense clicks, the next day, good hitters like Bobby Abreu give up at bats, swinging at bad pitches in hitter's counts.
Even veteran pitchers like Mike Mussina and Andy Pettitte are struggling with the mental aspect of the game. Mussina gave up RBI hits to the number 8 hitter twice -- once against the Rockies and then against the Giants. After the first one in Colorado, he chalked it up to "National League inexperience," Mussina said. "I didn't think about who was on deck, I wasn't paying any attention to it. I would have pitched a little differently if I had thought about it. After 17 years, you're going to learn a few things about this game and that's one of them."
Two nights later, after giving up six runs, Andy Pettitte told reporters, "To tell you the truth, I don’t really know what happened," Pettitte said. "I haven't done that in a long time. I quit pitching. I didn't use both sides of the plate like I was doing the whole game, and kind of got real one-dimensional, trying to throw my heater and my cutter in on almost every pitch. Man, you can't let that happen, and I did, and it cost us in a big way tonight."
Mussina wasn't paying attention to the fact that he was pitching to the number 8 hitter? I thought he went to Stanford. Why didn't his catcher help him out there? Pettitte admits that he quit pitching? What gives with this team? What gives is that they are 36-37 and it is getting late early.
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)