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Wild Card: Future of 300
When Tom Glavine earned the 300th win of his career this past Sunday in Chicago, there was a great deal of pontificating going on in the press and on the blogs about whether or not another pitcher would ever reach the 300-win milestone. The YES Network’s Al Leiter, Glavine’s former rotation mate with the Mets and a pitcher who won 162 games over a 19-year-career, is among those who are utterly convinced that Glavine will be the last man to reach the 300-win mark. He’s wrong.
If there’s one thing baseball teaches us, it’s to never say never. Consider Lou Gehrig’s consecutive game streak. That looked like the most untouchable record in the game until Cal Ripken sailed past it, outdistancing Gehrig’s mark by nearly 25 percent. Joe DiMaggio’s 56 game hitting streak will fall one day, and one of these years someone is going to hit .400 again. The only records and milestones that seem truly untouchable are the pitching records from the deadball era and 19th century. We won’t see Cy Young’s 511 wins threatened until a new era arrives in which pitchers once again start 50-plus games a year, which could be as close to never as we’ll get. That said, Roger Clemens is just 21 wins behind Grover Cleveland Alexander’s and Christy Mathewson’s third-place total of 373 wins, a mark which Warren Spahn missed by just 10 wins. Greg Maddux, who is three years younger than Clemens, is 33 wins short of Alexander and Mathewson. If two men who spent their entire careers pitching in five-man rotations can threaten to surpass 373 wins, whose to say that there’s not a school kid somewhere who might become the next 400-game winner, particularly as advanced analysis pushes for the return of the four-man rotation?
Most of the bloviating about Glavine being the last 300-game winner has focused on the other men toward the top of the active career wins list. Randy Johnson is just 16 wins away, but two back surgeries in a 12-month span may have just ended his Hall of Fame career. Mike Mussina is 54 wins short and has experienced a considerable decline in effectiveness over the past four seasons. After Moose, things look even bleaker. Of course, that’s an extremely shortsighted way to look at a milestone that has been reached just three times since Nolan Ryan joined the 300-win club in 1990.
When Ryan reached the mark, there was much of the same speculation. At that time the active wins leaders after Ryan were 39-year-old Bert Blyleven (279), 41-year-olds Jerry Reuss, who retired at the end of the 1990 season with 220 wins, and Rick Reuschel (213), 36-year-old Frank Tanana (203), and 35-year-old Jack Morris (191). Looking at that list, the prospects for another 300-game winner seem even more dire then than they are now. In 1990, the best hopes, aside from Blyleven, who seemed to sneak up on every one only to fall short of the mark after missing the entire 1991 season due to injury, were youngsters, specifically Roger Clemens and Dwight Gooden. Clemens was at his peak age of 27 in 1990 and was putting the finishing touches on his third 20-win season when Ryan picked up 300. In fact, the night before Ryan’s milestone win, Clemens picked up the 109th victory of his career. Gooden, who was two years Clemens’ junior, earned his 109th win the night before that. Gooden would win just 85 more games before retiring short of 200. Clemens would go on to win 350 and beyond. As for Maddux and Glavine, both were 24 in 1990, and, though that made them only a year younger than Gooden, Maddux had less than half as many victories, compiling 52 for the Cubs to that point, while Glavine had won just 29 for a Braves team that had never won as many as 70 games in Glavine’s four years with the team.
The lesson here is that the search for the next 300-game winner needn’t begin with the rickety vets atop the active wins list, but should focus instead on the young studs who are both among the best pitchers in the game and who have compiled a good number of wins at a young age. The chart below lists 13 pitchers under the age of 30 (and one slightly over) who are either ahead of or within range of Glavine’s win total at the same age and compares their win totals them to Glavine’s, Maddux’s, Clemens’ and Ryan’s at the same age. I’ve also included the 300-game winners’ age 41 total at the top to illustrate the accelerated paces of Maddux and Clemens and the fact that Ryan’s pace slowed considerably between the ages of 31 and 41 due to the poor support he received while with the Astros. Ryan won 12 or fewer games in seven of his nine seasons in Houston including a mere eight wins in his otherwise Cy Young-worth 1987 season. Just as Hank Aaron told Barry Bonds on Tuesday night, accomplishing any of baseball’s hallowed milestones requires “skill, longevity, and determination." Skill alone is not enough.
Looking at this chart it doesn’t seem unreasonable to expect at least one and perhaps two or three of these pitchers to reach 300 wins. First, let’s trim away some of the chaff. Hudson is enjoying a renaissance of sorts this season and is on pace for 18 wins with the Braves, but he’s 22 wins behind Glavine’s pace despite having pitched on strong teams throughout his career. On the surface, Hudson feels like a good comparison to Glavine, but he may be more like Mussina without the strikeouts. Hudson’s former teammate Zito is simply not the elite pitcher he was in his early 20s. Zito is here largely as a result of the 47 games he won by age 24. I have similar doubts about Buehrle, Garland, and Willis, all fine pitchers, but outside of his 2005 season, Garland has been league average throughout his career, while Willis has displayed alarming inconsistency. Of that group, Buehrle seems like the only true contender for a run at 300, though his ugly 2006 season for a good White Sox team put added doubt in many minds.
Then there are the pitchers with sketchy injury histories, such as Beckett and Kazmir, who have just two 30-start seasons between them. That Beckett has made this list despite his history of injuries and is now in the middle of a second (mostly) healthy season as a member of the perennial playoff-contending Boston Red Sox bodes well for his chances to improve in the near future. The same can be said for Santana, who didn’t become a full-time starter until his age-25 season, and has won 67 games in the 3 2/3 seasons since then. On the flip side, Felix Hernandez could be a victim of too much, too soon, having broken into the leagues at 19, like Gooden, and having already broken down once this season with elbow problems.
The most compelling cases are Oswalt, who despite a reputation for fragility has failed to make 30 starts just once in his career, that coming four years ago in 2003, the youngster Bonderman, who has been handled very carefully by a Detroit franchise that has turned itself into a winner just in time for Bonderman to emerge as the team’s ace (if only Justin Verlander, who has half as many wins at the same age, would cooperate), and the three age-26 pitchers, Sabathia, Zambrano, and Peavy. Though trailing the other two, Peavy pitches for a perennial contender in the most extreme pitchers’ park in baseball and, in his best seasons, of which this is one, has been the best pitcher in the league. That said, there’s some concern is that his home park could undermine his win total by inhibiting his run support the same way the Astrodome inhibited Ryan’s run support in the 1980s. The biggest concern about Zambrano, who despite his volatile nature has been a model of season-to-season consistency, is that Dusty Baker’s workload chickens will come home to roost and peck away Big Z’s shoulder the same way they did Mark Prior’s and Kerry Woods’. Which leaves Sabathia, who is not only on the best pace of any of the pitchers on the above chart other than 21-year-old King Felix, but has been handled expertly by the extremely well-run Cleveland Indians franchise and has been exhibiting steady improvement throughout his seven-year career as a result.
Not included on that chart are the top prospects. Whose to say that the Yankees’ Phil Hughes, who is already in the big league rotation at age 21, or the Red Sox’s Clay Buchholz, who could join Boston’s starting five next year at age 23, won’t ride their respective franchises’ ability to put together consistent winners all the way to 300 wins? Or that small-bodied Tim Lincecum won’t follow Oswalt up the career wins list? Or that Andrew Miller doesn’t give the Tigers their third potential 300-game winner? Of course, only a few if any of the pitchers I’ve discussed above will actually reach that milestone, but that’s why it’s considered such an achievement.
If it happened more often, it would lose it’s significance. Tom Glavine doesn’t need to be the last 300-game winner for his 300th win to be viewed as a tremendous achievement. Which is good, because he won’t be.
Labels: Wild Card
AL West: What's up with Big Sexy?
Gone are the days when we marveled at Richie Sexson's 6-foot-8 stature and the mammoth blasts that it produced (like in this tremendous commercial). Nowadays, Mariners fans are amazed when their first baseman simply makes contact. It wasn't supposed to be like this. Not for Big Sexy.
Back in December 2004, Sexson, a Washington native, inked a four-year, $50 million deal with Seattle, supposedly giving the Mariners the big bopper they'd been missing since the departure of Ken Griffey Jr.. The signing triggered instant adulation: "Any time you had a hitter with numbers like Richie has produced, it helps to legitimize your lineup," then-manager Mike Hargrove told reporters. "Richie is a proven middle-of-the-order hitter and one of the better power and production hitters of the last four years."
Fast forward to Seattle's most recent homestand, though, and little love remains for Big Sexy in the Starbuck City. Against Boston last Friday, Sexson went 0-for-4 with three strikeouts. In what has become customary inside the (un)friendly confines of Safeco Field, thousands of fans directed passionate boos toward their first baseman. A large group even sarcastically cheered after Sexson hit a foul ball. "When they cheer you when you hit a foul ball," Seattle manager John McLaren said to MLB.com, "it's a humbling experience."
In fairness to Mariners faithful, they have every reason to be distraught with the play of their native son. Sexson, who owns a .264 career batting clip and averaged 36 homers and 112 RBIs over his first seven full seasons, has completely fallen apart. Simply put, he's the worst everyday first baseman in the bigs this year.
With more strikeouts (82) than hits (72) this season, Sexson possesses the lowest average of all qualified major leaguers (.200) and lowest on-base percentage of all qualified first basemen (.298). Even though he's belted 17 homers, Sexson easily owns the worst slugging percentage (.389) of all everyday first basemen. His .687 OPS is unheard of in today's game; since the turn of the millennium, no regular first baseman has finished below the .700 mark.
Sexson is making a cool $15.5 million this season. This makes him the wealthiest player in Seattle and the 10th-highest paid player in all of baseball.
Richie's Mendoza-line hitting is harming much more than his personal pride. Trailing the Angels by just three games, Seattle's in the midst of its first pennant race since 2003. Ben Broussard and his .295 batting average have started three of the last six games at first base. This could be a left-right platoon or -- as many Mariners fans hope -- a gradual changing of the guard altogether. Though it's extremely difficult to believe the latter; Sexson's due an additional $14 million in 2008 and no team can shell out that much dough on a pinch hitter.
Labels: AL West
NL East: Viva La Revolucion
Paul Lo Duca spent half an hour last Sunday convincing manager Willie Randolph that his strained hamstring, which had caused him to miss the previous six games, felt well enough to catch Tom Glavine's latest attempt at 300 wins. Randolph finally relented, and Lo Duca was behind the plate for the entirety of Glavine's milestone. I must wonder, however, if Randolph's reticence stemmed from something more than concern for Lo Duca's health. Consider the stats lines for the Mets' top two backstops this season:
Paul Lo Duca: .266 avg., .308 OBP, 5 HR, 32 RBI, 19 XBH, 36 R
Ramon Castro: .290 avg., .333 OBP, 9 HR, 27 RBI, 15 XBH, 19 R
Then consider that the 31-year-old Castro has put up those numbers in 37 percent of the number of Lo Duca's at-bats -- 124 to 334. Lo Duca is on track for 528 at-bats this year; were Castro to see that many, he projects out to hit 38 home runs with 115 RBI. Lo Duca, meanwhile, is on pace for 8 and 51.
This is quite clearly something of a specious exercise for a number of reasons, not least of which is that as a backup catcher Castro gets plenty of rest and usually plays when the odds are stacked in his favor. In his ninth season, Castro has already set a career high in homers, and he's never hit better than .244 in a year in which he's had more than 100 plate appearances. It's unreasonable to think that Castro's power numbers would equal those of an in-his-prime Mike Piazza (whose stats at age 31 -- 38 HR, 113 RBI -- were almost identical to those I've just projected for Castro). But the fact that Castro would have a meaty leg up on Lo Duca if he performed at even half of his current pace over a full season is certainly food for thought.
Castro has some knocks against him, the most significant being that he's gunned down a pathetic two of 25 base-stealers this year, for an .080 success rate -- tied for the worst in baseball among players who've had more than eight chances. (A digression, as I peruse the leaderboard: Is it really possible that Jason Kendall, who threw out around 20 percent of base-stealers as an Athletic this year, has nailed none of the 24 gentlemen who have tried to steal off him since he became a Cub? Is ivy Kendall's Kryptonite or something?) Plus, Lo Duca's a clubhouse leader -- his puckish "Captain Red Ass" alter ego led to a mildly controversial SI cover last July -- and he's Brooklyn-born, to boot.
Still, Lo Duca's not exactly Pudge Rodriguez circa 2001 when it comes to stopping potential base-swipers -– his .266 success rate is firmly middle-of-the-pack -- and his offensive decline overshadows whatever defensive advantage he may hold over Castro. While it's doubtful that Castro will unseat Lo Duca this season -- although he probably should -- Lo Duca will become a free agent come autumn and Castro (who's also in his walk year) has done more than enough with his bat to give himself a real shot at becoming the catcher the Mets re-sign to start in 2008. Lo Duca's desperation to catch Glavine's 300th win may have resulted from the knowledge that his career in New York likely won't include many more highlights. I say: Viva La Revolucion.
Labels: NL East
NL Central: Life without Soriano
Yes, it's been ridiculously hot and humid the last few days in the Windy City -- I went to steamy Wrigley Field on Sunday for Tom Glavine's 300th, and I wondered if I'd instead landed in Laos. The Chi-town faithful, however, need to chill. The loss of Alfonso Soriano for the next month or so is gonna hurt, of course. And yes, that the Northsiders have scored a total of three runs since Soriano pulled up lame on Sunday is not a good start for the offense.
But, Soriano's absence is not going to cost Chicago the NL Central crown. To blame Chicago's immediate struggles to score runs -- as well as the team's overall inevitable cooling off -- on Soriano is pretty ridiculous. The Cubs simply aren't a Sori-centric ballclub -— if they suffer a power outage in the next few weeks, then it will be the fault of Aramis Ramirez, Derrek Lee, and the rest of the Cubs hitters, and if the losses do start mounting over the next few weeks, it will probably be because of their leaky bullpen.
"I would be more concerned if the Brewers looked better," says a National League assistant GM, "but they aren't going to run away with this. The Cubs will be there in the end."
Adds a scout, "They having plenty of offense in that lineup. I wouldn't be worried about their offense. I'd be worried about their bullpen. Ryan Dempster has been awful. They need a closer, that's what they need."
The Cubs, who still have the best record in the NL since June 3 and lead the entire league in run differential, will spend the next two weeks playing teams with losing records.
Labels: NL Central
AL Central: Low tide
It's not quite time to panic, but if you're a Tigers fan, it's probably worth elevating your alert level to orange, for several reasons.
A 2-9 record in their last 11 games. Second place in the AL Central. Disabled list stints for Kenny Rogers, Andrew Miller and Joel Zumaya. A season-ending stimulant suspension for Neifi Perez. A four-game (and counting) absence of Gary Sheffield, who seems to have alternating shoulder woes. A manager admitting that his team is in "chaos".
And, most troubling of all, a scant half-game lead for the wild card.
This was to be the year of the AL Central. With four expected contenders for the division title and with the Yankees' horrible start, the Central seemed poised to be a major player in the postseason. It seemed especially the case once the Indians and Tigers emerged as frontrunners and weren't going to fall victim to the unbalanced schedule, losing too many games in the division while teams like the Angels and Red Sox beat up on weaker division opponents. But now, the Yankees have hit their stride and are finally playing like what you'd expect from a roughly $200 million payroll, so the Tigers certainly can't bank on a collapse in the Bronx.
The Tigers are in the midst of a very important stretch. It's odd to call games against Tampa Bay and Oakland "must wins," but Detroit needs to regain its stride against these two sub-.500 teams before it plays the worst stretch that schedule makers have ever perpetrated on a team. The Tigers got off to a good start with a seventh-inning comeback win last night, and have seven more games against the Devil Rays and Athletics in which they need to keep pace.
Then, the Tigers' next four series go like this: Indians-Yankees-Indians-Yankees. That's right, Detroit plays 13 consecutive games against Cleveland and New York. No wonder Jim Leyland is talking about being ready for the ship to sink.
Last year was somewhat of a fairy tale for the Tigers. If they want an encore, it's got to start now.
Labels: AL Central
NL West: D'backs take the reins
Whoever wins the National League West may end up making "winning ugly" hip again.
If the Arizona Diamondbacks are any indication, for example, there's nothing like a good blowout loss to propel your team to the top. Since July 17, the Diamondbacks have gone 14-4 -- and they've been outscored by two runs. Their four defeats have been by the scores of 10-1, 6-2, 14-0 and 11-0, a total pummeling of 41-3.
That's some pretty big yang to go with Arizona's yin, even if the yangs have been few and far between lately.
Essentially saving their runs for when they have best been able to use them, the Diamondbacks have become the third team to rule the NL West this season, taking leads of 1 1/2 games over the Padres and four games over the Dodgers, whom Arizona swept in Los Angeles this weekend. Colorado continues to lurk on the outskirts of the race, 5 1/2 games back.
The NL West has been the top division in the National League this season, with its teams entering play Monday a collective 16 games over .500. But the group seems to be about as fit as a run-over fiddle these days. All four contending teams face significant issues in their starting rotations:
San Diego, which could get Young back sooner than later to rejoin Jake Peavy at the head of the rotation, perhaps should still be considered the favorite in the NL West. However, it's interesting to consider that, if you stipulate that the Rockies had the least to lose when it came to pitching, that they have the most to gain from the wave of problems everyone is having.
If the NL West race becomes a battle of offenses against a majority of starting pitchers who appear to be throwing something close to batting practice each time they take the mound, would it be so strange for outfielders Matt Holliday and Brad Hawpe to help Colorado get its turn at the lead?
Probably, one should continue to bet against the Rockies being on top come October, but no team in the NL West is invulnerable.
Labels: NL West
AL East: Fading Boss
The worst kept secret in New York is that George Steinbrenner is no longer the man, let alone The Boss, he used to be. There have been rumors and whispers for a few years now that Steinbrenner is sick -- that he has dementia. He rarely appears in public these days and almost all of his communication is handled by his publicist, Howard Rubenstein.
But what is perhaps most surprising about this story is how the New York media has avoided reporting it head-on. Richard Sandomir has tackled it in the New York Times, but many other reporters have only hinted at Steinbrenner's failing health. This all changed late last week when Franz Lidz's profile of Steinbrenner for Portfolio.com was released. Lidz, practicing a form of sabotage journalism that would make Mike Wallace proud, visited Steinbrenner's home and found the Boss a shell of his former self:
It's 2 in the afternoon, and George Steinbrenner is wearing slippers, silk pajamas, and a terry-cloth robe -- all Yankee blue. A diamond-encrusted World Series ring nearly as big as a Ritz cracker obscures his wedding ring.
The reaction to Lidz's piece -- much of which is based on a 20-year old interview with the owner's son -- has been mixed. Some feel that this a case of the chicken coming home to roost. That Steinbrenner, who loved the spotlight for so long, is now getting what he deserves. He bullied and harassed people in the papers for years. He is still, after all, a public figure. He is still officially the owner of the Yankees. Some, on the other hand, feel that Steinbrenner should be left alone now, that he should be treated with some dignity.
Mike Lupica, a longtime Steinbrenner antagonist -- and the man who dubbed the Yankee owner The Boss --is one of those people. In 1987, Lupica coined the phrase Georged:
"GEORGE (jogj), v., GEORGED, GEORGING. 1: To insult, verbally abuse, taunt members of the New York Yankees in the newspapers. 2: To threaten with demotion to the minor leagues, usually Columbus of the International League; or threaten with trade to another major league team. 3: To actually bully Yankees to the point where they are unable to perform at previous levels of baseball skill, specifically, levels exhibited before becoming Yankees. USAGE: Exclusively relating to the principal owner of the Yankees, George Steinbrenner; i.e./ to be Georged by Mr. Steinbrenner."
Yesterday, Lupica wrote:
"He still wants to be that guy -- The Boss," a baseball executive, one who has tangled with Steinbrenner and goes back a ways with him, said on Friday. "So he's not. So what? Why does it matter? If you're talking about sports owners -- and I don't care whether you've loved him or not, whether you hate the Yankees or not -- it would be like asking Ali to still be Ali.'
Lupica shows some feeling for Steinbrenner. The Bronx Zoo truly is dead.
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)