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Wild Card: How Will They Manage Without Them?
On June 18, the Orioles’ Sam Perlozzo became the first manager to lose his job this season. Two weeks later, Cincinnati’s Jerry Narron became the second. That same day Mike Hargrove stepped down as the manager of the Mariners, expressing a need to spend more time with his family. All of this got me to wondering about the effects of mid-season managerial changes.
The Mariners’ situation is unique. After three losing seasons (two of them under Hargrove), the team finds itself only 2.5 games out in the wild card race. Managers rarely step down in the midst of a contending season. Sure, Billy Martin resigned from the defending—and eventual—world champion Yankees in 1978, but the team was in third place, 10 games out, at the time, and Martin was forced out. Paul Richards resigned from the Orioles at the end of August in 1961, when the team was sporting a .578 winning percentage, but that was the year of the M&M Yankees and Richards’s Orioles were in third place, 11 games out. Meanwhile, the expansion Colt .45s had invited Richards to become their first-ever general manager. By contrast, Hargrove stunned the M’s by tendering his resignation in the middle of the playoff hunt. As general manager Bill Bavasi said, “It caught me off guard . . . I tried to talk him out of it. . . . This is not something that we were prepared for, that we wanted.”
Perlozzo and Narron, on the other hand, were piloting last-place teams that could hardly be said to be underperforming given their underwhelming rosters. I’ve been critical of Perlozzo’s inability to get top effort from his charges in the past, but there’s only so much he and Narron could have done with what they had. Reds GM Wayne Krivsky admitted as much when announcing Narron’s firing, saying “It comes down now to the performance of the team. I share in that . . . My job is to acquire talent, bring in talent, and he does what he can with what he has available to him.” Later, however, team owner Bob Castellini added, “We are still out there with an effort to put a contender on the field. . . . Have we given up on the season and putting a contender on the field? No. Is it reasonable to say we can overcome a 16-17-game deficit? The division isn't the strongest, but there would be a high probability that wouldn't pan out. That doesn't mean we're not going to attempt to put a contender on the field from now [through] the rest of the year.”
What are the chances that the Reds, who had .378 winning percentage and were 15.5 games out of the wild card and 17 games behind in the NL Central when Narron was fired, could suddenly turn into a playoff team as a result of a mid-season managerial change? Essentially none. In baseball’s modern era, no team with a losing record has ever fired its manager more than 70 games into the season and rallied to make the postseason. Remove the split-season playoff rules of the 1981 strike season and no losing team in the modern history of major league baseball has ever fired its manager more than 62 games into the season and rallied to make the postseason. The 2007 Orioles and Reds fired their managers after 69 and 82 games, respectively.
As if that weren’t discouraging enough, only four teams since 1900 have fired a manager with a losing record during the season and gone on to make the postseason, all of them coming after the arrival of divisional play (see chart, below). Prior to divisional play, the 1932 Cubs were the pennant winners that had the worst record at the point at which they fired their manager mid-season. Those Cubs had a .535 winning percentage after 99 games when they fired 36-year-old player-manager Rogers Hornsby (who was hitting .224/.357/.310 two years after a gruesome knee injury essentially ruined his career). The Cubs replaced Hornsby with first baseman Charlie Grimm, who not only hit a roughly league average .307/.349/.425, but led the team on a 37-18 (.673) run, taking them from five games behind in second place to a first place finish four games ahead of the Pirates and a World Series date with the Yankees, who swept the Cubs in a Series made famous by Babe Ruth’s called shot.
As for the Mariners, regardless of their postseason fates, it’s almost unprecedented for a team with a record as good as their .577 mark under Hargrove to change managers while still in contention. Indeed, only one playoff team has ever switched managers midseason with a record better than the .577 mark Seattle boasted when Hargrove resigned, and that team did so under very bizarre circumstances.
In the bifurcated 1981 strike season, Gene Michael led the Yankees to the first-half AL East title on the strength of a .607 winning percentage. When Michael’s charges started the second half with a 6-10 record, however, owner George Steinbrenner, who was then at his manager-devouring worst, meddled and hounded Michael to such a degree that Michael invited his own firing. Although the Yankees rebounded with an 8-2 stretch under Michael, Steinbrenner happily complied, replacing Michael with Bob Lemon, who had led the 1978 Yankees’ comeback after Billy Martin’s resignation. This time, however, Lemon stumbled to a paltry 11-14 record the rest of the way and, though he got the team through two rounds of playoffs and into the World Series, sweeping a grudge match against Martin's A’s along the way, Lemon oversaw a brutal World Series choke that ushered in a decade and a half of frustration and futility in the Bronx.
One wonders if Hargrove’s departure will have a similarly harmful effect on the fortunes of the overachieving Mariners. The M’s have started out 1-3 under replacement skipper John McLaren. As McLaren himself confessed after that lone win "We needed a win as a team. We went through a shock, me included, when Grover stepped down." As well they should have. That sort of thing just doesn’t happen.
NL East: Short Stopped
This season the National League East features four All-Star shortstops. Unfortunately, it appears that only one of them -- Jose Reyes -- will play in Tuesday's All-Star Game in San Francisco.
Philadelphia's Jimmy Rollins, Florida's Hanley Ramirez, and Atlanta's Edgar Renteria were all snubbed by manager Tony La Russa when he put together his portion of the NL team's reserve roster. Renteria's having a season on par with that of the American League's starter, Derek Jeter, but in an NL shortstop pool as deep and talented as this year’s, he never really had a shot at making the team despite hitting .321 with 10 home runs and 41 RBIs, so we can cut him out of the discussion from the start.
I firmly believe, however, that La Russa made a terrible error -- bordering on the absurd -- in omitting both Rollins and Ramirez after the Fan and Player Ballots were complete. In fact, I would argue that both men deserve to be on the team over the fine shortstop that the players chose to back up Reyes at short, Milwaukee's J.J. Hardy.
Hardy's having a career year, hitting .283 with 18 home runs, 52 RBIs and an .856 OPS -- even if he's managed only three homers and driven in just six runs since June 1. But Rollins and Ramirez hold the top two spots in the league in runs scored, with 69 and 66, respectively, while Hardy has managed 48. Despite the fact that both Rollins and Ramirez most often bat leadoff, Rollins has only three fewer home runs than Hardy and two fewer RBIs, and Ramirez tops Hardy in OPS by more than 30 points (.889 to .856) and in batting average by nearly 40 (.320 to .283).
Then there's the matter of speed: both Ramirez (25 steals) and Rollins (15) have literally infinity times more stolen bases than Hardy, who has totaled zero. Ramirez and Rollins are two of the very best, most disruptive offensive forces in the game today; Hardy's a guy who had a hot two months.
Even though the players made his situation a bit more difficult by selecting Hardy as Reyes' first backup, La Russa could (and should) have easily carried Hardy, Rollins and Ramirez on the team. It's almost inexplicable that La Russa chose Aaron Rowand -- a player from Rollins' own club -- as a seventh outfielder over Rollins as a third shortstop, or that he picked Freddy Sanchez, whose main credential seems to be that he led the NL in batting average last season, as a third third baseman over Ramirez. (And if La Russa was looking for a player to represent the Pirates, he should have gone with starting pitchers Tom Gorzelanny or Ian Snell over the ridiculous three closers he ended up choosing, bringing the staff's total up to six.).
A manager selecting his All-Star Game reserve roster should start with a group of core players who absolutely must be included, position and other considerations be damned. That La Russa failed to select Rollins or Ramirez, or, for that matter, San Diego's Chris Young, who leads the league in ERA (2.00) but will be forced to try to win the fan vote to make the "Final Vote" as the 25th man, might speak to why the Cardinals are 38-43 in the NL Central this season.
Labels: NL East
AL West: Putz Pwns
The AL West boasts two legitimate candidates to start next Tuesday's All-Star Game in Oakland's Dan Haren and Los Angeles' John Lackey, but neither one has been the most dominant hurler in the division. No, that title has to go to Mariners closer J.J. Putz, and Wednesday night served as yet another example why.
After baffling the Kansas City lineup for eight shutout innings, Seattle's Jarrod Washburn yielded a base hit and a walk to open up the bottom of the ninth, forcing new manager John McLaren to make a call to the bullpen. Enter Putz (pronounced "puts," as in, "puts it on a shelf"). As the Mariners' closer warmed up, TV cameras concentrated on the blissful Washburn, who was high-fiving teammates throughout the dugout, not the least bit concerned about a potential Royals rally. And for good reason. Just two pitches and two groundballs later, Putz earned his 26th consecutive save (dating back to last year) and Washburn could officially begin celebrating.
In his first full year as Seattle's closer, Putz has quickly become one of baseball's most imposing pitchers. The 6-foot-5, 250-pounder has converted all 24 of his save opportunities this season (making him the only opening-day closer without a blown save), posting a 0.90 ERA, 0.57 WHIP and .125 batting average against (right-handed hitters are hitting just .098 against him). The 30-year-old consistently pounds the strike zone with high-90s gas and a biting split-finger fastball. In 40 innings, he has struck out 43 hitters, while walking just seven. At his current pace, Putz will challenge Kazuhiro Sasaki's Seattle record for most saves in a season (45 in 2001).
Putz made his first All-Star Game Sunday and was named June's AL Pitcher of the Month. During the month, Putz earned 11 saves with a 0.59 ERA and 19 strikeouts to three walks.
J.J.'s last blown save occurred on Sept. 27, his first year in the closing role. Putz replaced "Everyday" Eddie Guardado as Seattle's closer in May of 2006 and finished the season with 36 saves (in 43 opportunities), a 2.30 ERA and 104 strikeouts to just 13 walks.
For the majority of his 14-month tenure as Seattle's closer, Putz's accomplishments have been largely overlooked. But recently, folks around the league have started to recognize the brilliance of Joseph Jason.
"Man, that closer," San Francisco slugger Barry Bonds said. "He throws 98 MPH then he drops that split on you. See you later."
The Mariners signed Putz to a three-year, $13.1 million contract prior to this season. At this point, this deal's obviously a steal. As we all know, there's no sure thing when it comes to closers, but Putz's resilient arm and durable frame should instill confidence in the Mariners faithful.
Labels: AL West
NL Central: Cubs answer the bell
At the start of the season, hopes were high in the North Side of Chicago. The Cubs had inked Alfonso Soriano to a long-term deal, Derrek Lee was healthy and primed to return to his All-Star form and a winning manager was at the helm.
By the end of April, however, postseason prospects seemed bleak. The team had its first losing April since 2002 and finished the month in last place in the weak NL Central. Soriano drove in only one run the entire month. Staff ace Carlos Zambrano was also struggling. Still, the preseason expectations did not seem unfounded. The Cubs knew they should be winning and were confident they would turn it around.
Now, midway through the season, they finally have. After finishing June with a 17-11 record and winning 10 of 11 games, the Cubs are 42-40 and in second place, 5.5 games back of the division-leading Brewers. One month after a players-only clubhouse meeting, the Cubs have started playing the kind of baseball they expected to play. For Soriano, memories of a horrendous April in which he struggled mightily at the plate and knocked in just one run must seem far away. After moving back to left field from center, he was selected to his sixth-straight All-Star team and named the NL Player of the Month after hitting .336 with an NL-leading 11 home runs in June.
The Cubs helped their cause by sweeping their cross-town rivals June 22-24 and by taking two of three from the Brewers last weekend, but the Brewers will not be easy to catch. And an NL Central wild-card berth is no sure thing this season. The Cubs are only 4.5 games back in the wild-card standings, but they’re behind three very good teams: the Dodgers, Diamondbacks and Braves.
"There's a lot of belief that we were capable of being even better than we are now," said starter Ted Lilly, who is 7-4 this season and was one of the few bright spots for the Cubs in April and May. "We're playing some pretty good baseball right now, and I don't think there's any letup. I don't think there can be any letup if we're going to take over this division."
The Cubs have a chance to pad their record a little more before the All-Star break, as they will face Washington two more times and Pittsburgh three. And yet, despite that, their confidence and All-Star seasons from Soriano and Lee (and potentially Zambrano, who is one of five players eligible for the Final Vote spot on the NL roster), the path to the postseason contains some challenges and roadblocks.
Jacque Jones' offensive woes continue, and it is increasingly apparent the Cubs want to end his tenure with the team. But trading Jones, who is hitting .227 and has a shockingly low on-base percentage of .288 this season, has proven difficult. Trades with Minnesota and Florida were both nixed, reportedly due to the large amount of cash the Cubs included in the deal and Bud Selig's ensuing hesitancy to allow the Cubs' next owner to incur any more debt. The Cubs are currently using a shortened 11-man pitching staff because the inability to trade Jones has hurt their roster flexibility. Jones is not the only outfielder slumping at the plate. Fans were excited when top-prospect Felix Pie made his debut on April 17, but he has struggled as much as Jones, hitting .219 in 45 games. Lou Piniella met with Jones and Pie before the team's July 3 game in the hopes of getting the two outfielders back on track offensively.
Despite his early inconsistencies, Zambrano has been the team's most reliable starter. Lilly pitched well early, but he has only three wins in his past eight starts. Jason Marquis also started hot, but has not won since his complete-game victory against the Pirates on May 9. Rich Hill has one win in his past 10 starts. Closer Ryan Dempster is on the disabled list retroactive to June 23, but should be fine after the All-Star break if not sooner.
Still, the team's ERA is nearly a run lower than it was last season (3.94 compared to 4.74). And lately, when there has been slack to pick up, Lee, Soriano, Aramis Ramirez and Zambrano have done so. But as Lilly said, the Cubs can't afford to let up, because it isn't likely the teams ahead of them will.
Labels: NL Central
AL Central: The Big Borowski
That's about the time I'm guessing it took Chicago's Alex Cintron to tag up and score from third on a meaningless sacrifice fly in the ninth inning of the White Sox-Indians season opener.
And those are the only four seconds Joe Borowski has sported an ERA of less than 5.00 this season.
In that first appearance of the season, the Big Borowski allowed the first two runners to reach, leading to Gustavo Molina's sac fly. From the time the ball nestled in the glove of left fielder David Delucci to the moment Cintron crossed home plate, Cleveland's closer had a sparkling 0.00 earned-run average.
Since then, scientific notation has almost been needed to track his ERA. It was over 10.00 for a week in April, though he notched saves in all three of his opportunities during that time. It wasn't lowered below 6.00 until June 28, though that came on the heels of 10 straight converted saves. It's now 5.68, with Borowski recently pitching four straight days and tallying three saves and a win.
Though his ERA and WHIP (1.55) are both second-worst (to Todd Jones) among the 18 closers who have at least 15 saves, Borowski's 24 saves are tied for third-best in the majors and match Cleveland's save output from all of 2006. He's only blown two all season (but a third he lost after entering with a lead of more than three runs).
Not bad for the team's fourth-best reliever.
While Borowski has largely succeeded in the closer's primary role of not losing ballgames for the Indians, manager Eric Wedge should consider thinking outside the classic roles of his bullpen. In Aaron Fultz and Rafael Perez, Cleveland has two exceptional lefties, and in Rafael Betancourt has been a remarkably reliable setup man. In 33 outings and 35.2 innings, Betancourt has yet to allow more than one run in any appearance (1.26 ERA) and has yielded only three walks and one home run this season.
But as the folks at IndiansInk.net point out, Wedge is often too rigid about how he uses his relievers. Betancourt is his generally only his eighth-inning reliever, and that nearly cost Cleveland last night. Granted, Borowski was unavailable, Fultz is on the disabled list and Wedge wanted to use Betancourt as late in the game as possible, but the Devil Rays trailed only by one run with the bases loaded and just one out. Though Perez bailed out Wedge, it seemed like a natural time for Betancourt and his steady control.
The Big Borowski insists that he's in great shape and will hold up this season, but he is 36 years old. It's hard to argue with Cleveland's success this season -- entering tonight's series opener in Detroit, the Indians sport a five-game winning and a two-game divisional lead -- but Wedge might be best served being a little more flexible with how he uses his 'pen.
Labels: AL Central
AL East: All-Stars and All-Flops
The following players from the AL East have made the All-Star team: David Ortiz, Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez, Mike Lowell, Brian Roberts, Carl Crawford, Jorge Posada, Alex Rios, Josh Beckett and Jonathan Papelbon. Here are my position-by-position picks for the best and worst the AL East has had to offer so far:
C: Jorge Posada
1B: Carlos Pena
2B: B.J. Upton
SS: Derek Jeter
3B: Alex Rodriguez
OF: Manny Ramirez
OF: Carl Crawford
OF: Alex Rios
DH: David Ortiz
SP: Josh Beckett
SP: Erik Bedard
SP: James Shields
Set Up: Hideki Okajima
Closer: Jonathan Paplebon
C: Dioner Navarro
1B: Yankees (Doug Mientkiewcz, Miguel Cairo)
2B: Robinson Cano
SS: Julio Lugo
3B: Melvin Mora
OF: Johnny Damon
OF: J.D. Drew
OF: Bobby Abreu
DH: Jason Giambi
SP: Edwin Jackson
SP: Kei Igawa
SP: Jae Seo
Set Up: Kyle Farnsworth
Closer: Chris Ray
Labels: AL East
NL West: Heroes today, gone tomorrow
The past week in the NL West saw the departure of a minor folk hero, a dispiriting losing streak by one team, a matchup of two of the NL's best starters and two outstanding efforts by young pitchers who hope to become two of the NL's best starters in time.
On Friday the Los Angeles Dodgers designated Marlon Anderson for assignment to make room for relief pitcher Chin-Hui Tsao. Anderson was acquired by the Dodgers last season on Aug. 31 from Washington and surprisingly became the team's best hitter during its drive to capture the NL wild card. In 25 games and 64 at-bats, Anderson batted .375 and slugged .813 with seven home runs, including the fourth in a series of four consecutive home runs hit off of Padres pitching in the ninth inning to tie a game at 9-9. The Dodgers would go on to win 11-10 over San Diego in 10 innings back on Sept. 18, 2006, a game which has almost achieved mythic proportions.
But in 2007, Anderson missed much of spring training recovering from right elbow surgery and when he was activated he was still not healthy and needed another operation on the elbow. The emergence of younger players such as James Loney, Matt Kemp and Tony Abreu made it hard for the Dodgers to find any playing time for a guy who still is prominently featured in several different highlight montages on the Dodger Stadium video board. And so, Anderson is now waiting for a call from another team looking for a left-handed hitting utilityman.
Anderson joins a list of former Dodgers who had one brief period of glory in a year the Dodgers made it to the postseason and then exited from the stage.
1959 -- Chuck Essegian was a trade deadline acquisition (back when it was on June 15) from the Cardinals and batted .304 in 24 games. In the World Series against the White Sox, Essegian hit two pinch-hit home runs. Essegian stuck with the Dodgers for the entire 1960 season but played in just 52 games and batted .215. The Dodgers sold him to Baltimore in the offseason.
1963 -- Dick Nen was a September call-up and got into his first game on Sept. 18 with the Dodgers' lead in the NL over the Cardinals down to just three games. St. Louis led 5-4 in the top of the ninth when Nen homered off of Ron Taylor to tie the game, which the Dodgers ended up winning 6-5 in 13 innings. Nen spent 1964 in the minors and was traded to Washington in the offseason as part of a seven-player trade, with Frank Howard and Claude Osteen being the principal players in the deal.
1977 -- Mike Garman came to the Dodgers from the Cubs along with Rick Monday in exchange for Bill Buckner, Ivan DeJesus and a minor leaguer. Garman appeared in 49 games with a 2.37 ERA and had 12 saves and also picked up a save in the Dodgers' improbable comeback win over the Phillies in Game 3 of the NLCS. The next year, Garman pitched in just 16 1/3 innings for the Dodgers before he was dealt to Montreal for Larry Landreth and Gerry Hannahs. Arm problems ended his career after the 1979 season.
1988 -- Brian Holton turned in an outstanding year out of the bullpen, going 7-3 with a 1.70 ERA as a long man. However, with closer Jay Howell suspended for two games of the NLCS after having pine tar found on his glove, Holton was moved into the closer's role in Game 5 and picked up a save. After the season ended, Holton was traded along with Juan Bell to Baltimore for Eddie Murray.
2004 -- Steve Finley was acquired in a trade deadline deal from Arizona and hit a game-winning, division-clinching grand slam against the Giants capping off a comeback from a 3-0 deficit in the ninth inning in Game 161 of the season. Finley left as a free agent to sign with the Angels when the season ended.
All of this is just a reminder of how baseball's heroes are often people who are just passing through and happen to be in the right place at the right time.
After sweeping the New York Yankees at home from June 19-21, the Colorado Rockies went on the road just 3 1/2 games out of first, although in fourth place. Colorado then proceeded to lose eight straight to the Blue Jays, Cubs, and Astros. And four of the losses were blown saves by Brian Fuentes. And three of those blown saves had come after Troy Tulowitzki had hit a home run that had given the Rockies a lead in the final inning. Bad Altitude's Mark T. R. Donohue seemed to take the losing streak in stride, then he started to worry, then he got angry, and then he finally decided to give up.
The Rockies appeared to get back on track with a 5-0 win on Saturday in Houston, but lost again on Sunday, 12-0, with Fuentes giving up two runs in mopup duty in the eighth. Fuentes may be looking at a new role when the team returns home to face the Mets and Phillies. Fuentes did make the NL All-Star team, along with teammate Matt Holliday. The Rockies are still in fourth place, but are now eight games out.
The Rockies eight-game slide matches the Giants for the longest losing streak in the NL West this season. The Giants lost eight straight from June 13-22.
Prior to facing each other Saturday night at Dodger Stadium, Brad Penny and Jake Peavy had remarkably similar pitching lines. Penny had thrown 2/3 more innings than Peavy (105 2/3 to 105), given up just nine more hits (91 to 82), given up one more home run (2 to 1), and surrendered one fewer earned run (24 to 25) and two fewer walks (28 to 30). Penny entered the game with an ERA of 2.04 and Peavy was at 2.14. The only major difference was in strikeouts where Peavy had 113 to Penny's 70.
Both pitchers went seven innings and both gave up one earned run. Peavy allowed his second homer of the year to match Penny's total. Penny struck out seven, while Peavy struck out six. Penny finished the game with an ERA of 2.00 and Peavy at 2.09. The Padres won the game 3-1 in 12 innings. Tony La Russa should have both pitchers available to choose from as an All-Star Game starter for the NL as both are scheduled to pitch again on Thursday and should be rested for next Tuesday's All-Star Game in San Francisco. The Dodgers are 14-3 in games that Penny starts and the Padres are 13-4 in games started by Peavy.
And Peavy's teammate Chris Young is not far behind Penny and Peavy. Young has an ERA of 2.14 and has given up just three home runs with 90 strikeouts and just 36 walks. And Young didn't even make the NL All-Star team, but is one of the candidates in the "Final Vote" election.
Two much heralded young pitchers turned in outstanding performances on Sunday. Giants rookie Tim Lincecum threw seven shutout innings against Arizona, striking out 12 and giving up three hits with no walks. The Giants won the game 13-0. The loss left Jim McLennan of AZ Snakepit concerned about the Diamondbacks' recent offensive woes.
Down in Los Angeles, second year pitcher Chad Billingsley had the best start of his brief career, throwing seven shutout innings against the Padres as the Dodgers avoided a sweep with a 5-0 win. Billingsley struck out nine, walked none, and gave up just three hits.
Labels: NL West
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)