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1/30/2008 12:21:00 PM

So long, Johan

Johan Santana
Jim McIsaac/Getty Images
We're just talkin' about the future
Forget about the past
It'll always be with us
It's never gonna die, never gonna die

-- AC/DC, Rock 'N Roll Ain't Noise Pollution

By Aaron Gleeman

The early days of AaronGleeman.com were filled with a "Free Johan Santana!" campaign that urged the Twins to move their young left-handed phenom into the starting rotation. After Santana spent the majority of four years in the bullpen and another half-season at Triple-A, the Twins finally gave him a permanent spot in the rotation to begin the 2004 season. He immediately became the best pitcher in baseball, winning the AL Cy Young by going 20-6 while leading the league with a 2.61 ERA and 265 strikeouts.

In four seasons as a full-time starter Santana went 70-32 with a 2.89 ERA and 983 strikeouts in 912 1/3 innings, winning two ERA titles and three strikeout crowns while capturing a pair of Cy Young awards and deserving a third. It was an amazing metamorphosis. At 21 Santana was a little-known Rule 5 pick who showed some promise, at 23 he was an ace-in-waiting who dominated from the bullpen or rotation, and at 25 he was the best pitcher in baseball.

Now 28, Santana has established himself as both one of the most successful pitchers in Twins history and one of the greatest left-handers of all time. Three weeks into AaronGleeman.com's existence there was an entry that began with this proclamation: "I suspect that many of you aren't very familiar with Mr. Santana, but with the way he's pitched this season that may change very quickly." And now, a little more than five years later, today's entry is about how the Twins traded Mr. Santana to the Mets.

Santana and the Mets still need to work out a long-term contract extension before the trade becomes official, but assuming that happens the Twins will receive outfielder Carlos Gomez and right-handers Deolis Guerra, Kevin Mulvey and Philip Humber. Baseball America's recent breakdown of the Mets' farm system ranked those four players as the team's No. 2, No. 3, No. 4, and No. 7 prospects, but the Twins unfortunately weren't able to get No. 1 prospect Fernando Martinez included in the deal.

Trading the best pitcher in baseball without getting the Mets' top prospect in return is disappointing and without Martinez the package falls short of the deals that were rumored to have been offered from the Yankees and Red Sox. A month ago the Twins were said to be deciding between packages headed by Phil Hughes, Jacoby Ellsbury, and Jon Lester, and earlier this month they were reportedly pushing the Mets to include Martinez. Instead, they end up with none of those four players.

Either the oft-cited rumored offers involving Hughes, Ellsbury, and Lester were never on the table to begin with or general manager Bill Smith waited so long to pull the trigger that the Yankees and Red Sox eventually decided to take them off the table. All of which is what makes evaluating the package that the Twins ended up accepting somewhat tricky. On one hand, it seems fairly clear that the Twins would have been better off making Hughes or Ellsbury the centerpiece of a Santana trade.

Those two players possess the best combination of long-term upside and major-league readiness, so if at any point Smith passed on offers involving Hughes or Ellsbury then he made a big mistake and ultimately had to settle for something significantly less than the best possible package. On the other hand, when judged on its own and not compared to other offers that may or may not have been on the table, the Mets' package is a decent one.

It seems natural that a team should be able to have its pick of elite prospects when trading away baseball's premiere pitcher, but from the Twins' perspective all they were truly shopping was one season of Santana. While that's plenty valuable, getting four solid prospects for one season of any player seems reasonable. Of course, had the Twins kept Santana this season and simply let him walk as a free agent, they also would have gotten a pair of first-round draft picks as compensation.

Given that, what the Twins really gave up was one season of Santana and a pair of draft picks. That complicates things a bit, but four solid prospects still seems like a relatively palatable return given the added cost and uncertainty of draft picks. Still, my suspicion is that the Twins could have done better and perhaps cost themselves a chance to get the maximum return for Santana by attempting to squeeze extra value from teams.

In poker terms, Smith slow-played a big hand and ended up dragging in less than the maximum pot. It's hard to swallow the possibility that the Twins missed out on acquiring Hughes and Melky Cabrera from the Yankees or Ellsbury, Jed Lowrie, and Justin Masterson. Those were very good offers for Santana and without Martinez included the Mets' offer falls short of those standards. However, there's a difference between the Mets' offer not being the best one and the Mets' offer not being a decent one.

Signed out of the Dominican Republic in 2002, Gomez has been rushed through the Mets' system and made his major-league debut as a 21-year-old last season despite logging just 36 games at Triple-A. He predictably struggled and there was little reason to push him so aggressively given his mediocre track record, suggesting that Gomez's development would benefit greatly from some additional time in the minors. Here are his combined numbers between Double-A and Triple-A:

G PA Avg. OBP SLG HR XBH BB SO SB
156 643 .282 .354 .421 9 51 42 120 58

Gomez is already a strong defensive center fielder and an excellent base-stealer with game-changing speed, but his bat leaves a lot to be desired. He's often talked about as a five-tool player, but with just nine homers and a .139 Isolated Power in 643 plate appearances his power has been modest so far. Beyond that, his 120-to-42 strikeout-to-walk ratio shows poor plate discipline and subpar strike-zone control, both of which are concerns for someone who the Twins no doubt view as a leadoff man.

The Twins may be tempted to make Gomez their Opening Day center fielder, but he looks likely to be overmatched in the majors at this point and the team would be better off delaying his arrival by signing someone like Kenny Lofton or Corey Patterson to a one-year deal. Gomez has the talent to be an impact player in time, but he's yet to convert his tools into great on-field performance and is far from a sure thing to ever become an above-average regular, whereas Ellsbury is basically already there.

Even more so than Gomez, Guerra is the high-risk, high-upside part of the package. Signed out of Venezuela for $700,000 in 2005, he's another example of the Mets needlessly rushing their prospects, spending last season at high Single-A as an 18-year-old. Guerra held his own there, posting a 4.01 ERA and 66-to-25 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 89.2 innings, which is plenty impressive for a teenager who was facing much more experienced competition.

Guerra throws hard and at 6-foot-5 there's plenty of room to project even more velocity, but he missed time with a shoulder injury last season and has a long way to go before reaching the majors both in terms of time frame and development. Had he been with the Twins, it's possible that Guerra would have spent last season at rookie ball. He has the highest ceiling among the four players acquired for Santana but also carries by far the most risk.

While Gomez and Guerra are all about projection and development, Mulvey and Humber are close to being MLB-ready and aren't especially far from reaching their relatively modest ceilings. Humber was a dominant pitcher in college, going 35-8 with a 2.80 ERA and 422 strikeouts in 353 innings at Rice University, and the Mets thought that they had a future ace when they took him with the No. 3 overall pick in the 2004 draft.

Humber's heavy college workload caught up to him just 15 starts into his pro career and he underwent Tommy John elbow surgery in 2005. He returned to the mound in the middle of the next season, but left some of his velocity on the operating table and hasn't been the same pitcher since. Once regarded as a potential No. 1 starter, Humber now looks like middle-of-the-rotation material after posting a 4.27 ERA and 120-to-44 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 139 innings at Triple-A as a 24-year-old.

Mulvey was a second-round pick out of Villanova in 2006 and reached Triple-A near the end of last season after posting a 3.02 ERA and 124-to-48 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 173 pro innings. While Humber is a fly-ball pitcher who has had problems keeping the ball in the ballpark post-surgery, Mulvey does a much better job inducing ground balls and has served up a total of just five homers in 173 innings. He also projects as a mid-rotation starter and should be ready by the All-Star break.

In a perfect world Santana would christen the new ballpark with an Opening Day start in 2010 and wear a Twins cap on his Hall of Fame plaque, but for whatever reason his remaining in Minnesota never seemed to be a legitimate option once the trade rumors began swirling. Swapping him for packages led by Hughes or Ellsbury would have put the Twins in a better position for both short- and long-term success, so if either of those deals were passed on then Smith made a major mistake.

With that said, getting Gomez, Guerra, Mulvey, and Humber from the Mets likely beats keeping Santana for one more season and taking a pair of draft picks when he departs as a free agent. A toolsy center fielder who hasn't shown much offensively, a very raw 18-year-old pitcher, and a pair of MLB-ready middle-of-the-rotation starters is no one's idea of a great haul for Santana, but it's not a horrible one considering that Smith may have backed himself into a corner by not jumping on better offers earlier.

The end result of a bad situation handled poorly is a mediocre package of players that has no one excited, but even acquiring Hughes or Ellsbury wouldn't have made losing Santana easy to live with. Trading away one of the best players in franchise history while he's still at the top of his game and with a new ballpark on the way is a horrible thing. The fact that the Twins failed to get the best possible return for him is extremely disappointing, but the Santana trade still has a chance to work out in Minnesota's favor. It just could have been better.

Aaron Gleeman is the author of AaronGleeman.com and writes for Rotoworld.com.

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9/21/2007 08:55:00 AM

Wild Card: Panic Gluttons

By Cliff Corcoran

Panic! In the streets of Boston! Panic! In the streets of Queens! The Yankees are coming! The Phillies are coming! Fire the manager! String up the GM! Sound the alarms! Lock the doors! Hide the kids!

On the morning of May 30, the Red Sox were 36-15 (.706) and had an 11.5-game lead in the AL East, while the Yankees were in fourth place, 14.5 games back and eight games under .500. The Sox then went 17-19 over the remainder of the first half and have since played .561 ball in the second half. The Yankees took two of three in Boston over the first three days of June, went 19-13 over the remainder of the second half, and have since played .682 ball in the second half. In the past month, the Yankees have taken five of six from the Sox and since Sunday have gained four games in the division, closing the gap in the AL East to 1.5 games, and just one in the loss column.

Last Thursday the Mets had a seven-game lead over the Phillies in the NL East. Since then the Phillies have won six of seven, including sweeping a three game series at Shea over the weekend to reduce the Mets' lead to 1.5 games (two in the loss column).

And that's just the half of it. The Diamondbacks have never led the NL West by more than four games this year, and the Padres' 6-3 victory over the Pirates yesterday, their seventh straight, pulled them within a half game of the D'backs, and both teams have been tied in the loss column since Tuesday morning. In the NL Central, the Cubs and Brewers have been no further apart than 2.5 games since July 28, and have woken up tied ten times since then, with the Brewers holding the lead for 19 days, and the Cubs holding the lead for 25 days, including the last three.

It's all terribly exciting. Unfortunately, none of these four sets of rivals has any head-to-head games left. What's more, six of the eight teams mentioned above will wind up in the playoffs, regardless of how their individual races turn out, with both the Yankees and Red Sox virtually guaranteed a postseason berth.

That means the only things left to fight over in the American League are bragging rights and playoff seedings. Of course, that's no small thing, particularly in Boston, where the Red Sox, despite making five playoff appearances in the last ten years and winning the World Series three years ago, have never beaten out Joe Torre's Yankees for a division title. It's no small thing in the Bronx either, as Yankee fans are dreading another first-round exit at the hands of the Angels, who can clinch their division with a win over the Mariners tonight. As for the Indians, the fact that the Yanks and Sox can't play each other in the first round because they're from the same division will force the Cleveland to face one of those two teams against whom they have a combined 2-11 record this year. Thus it's all the more important to them to get home field advantage for at least the division series. The good news for Tribe fans is that the race for home field is wide open, as just one game separates the three division leaders in the standings.

The NL is where the real action is, as six teams are battling for four playoff spots, with the Brewers and Phillies currently on the outside looking in. The Phillies have shown amazing fortitude thus far, despite having a losing record as late as July 19, they've thrust themselves into the NL East race, beating the Mets in their last eight head-to-head contests and winning seven of their last eight games overall, staging late-inning rallies in five of those wins. The Phillies are also just 2.5 games behind the Padres in the Wild Card race (three in the loss column). Of course, with just nine games left, that's likely too large a deficit to overcome, and the Phillies have a 12-year playoff drought to overcome as well, but there's still an outside chance that their surge for the division crown will have a consolation prize.

Six of the Phillies' remaining nine games come against the lowly Nationals, but the middle three see them host the Braves, who hold an 8-7 advantage in their season series. The Mets, however, face nothing but patsies, with six games left against the Marlins, three more against the Nats, and a makeup game against the freefalling Cardinals. Seven of those ten games are at home. Of course, the Mets are 1-3 against the Nats and Fish thus far this week, and they have a better record on the road than at home for the season.

The Padres, however, have a much tougher row to hoe, with three games against the underrated Rockies this weekend followed by seven on the road, which concludes with a four-game set against the Brewers in Milwaukee, so there's still hope for the Wild Card in Philadelphia. Things aren't much easier for the Diamondbacks, who finish with three in Colorado and have three at home against the Dodgers this weekend, two teams against whom Arizona is 13-17 this season.

I addressed the manner in which the remaining schedules for the Cubs and Brewers favor Chicago in my NL Central post on Wednesday. Indeed, the two teams were tied for first place when I wrote that, but the Cubs have since taken a 1.5-game lead. Baseball Prospectus's Postseason Odds, which are determined by simulating the remainder of the schedule a million times and are updated each morning, give the Cubs a 77.5 percent chance of winning the division, leaving the Brewers -- who have only made the postseason twice in franchise history, most recently in 1982 when they won the AL pennant -- with the remaining 22.5 percent. BP's odds also give the Phillies a mere 36.5 percent chance of making the playoffs, with that percentage split almost evenly between winning the NL East and taking the Wild Card, with a less than one percent lean toward the latter.

Over in the AL, the Yankees, who open a four-game series at home tonight against Roy Halladay and the Blue Jays' team that just swept Boston, then hit the road to play the Devil Rays and Orioles, have a mere 17.7 percent chance of overtaking the Red Sox, who open a three-game set in Tampa tonight, have Monday off, then finish with six at home against the A's and Twins. That 17.7 percent is nearly identical to the Phillies odds of overtaking the Mets. Then again, this is baseball. Stranger things have happened.

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9/14/2007 07:18:00 AM

Wild Card: The True Triple Threat

Jake Peavy
Jake Peavy could be the NL's first pitching triple crown winner since Randy Johnson in 2002.
Robert Beck/SI
By Cliff Corcoran

As the pennant races come down to the wire, the other races that are being decided in the final weeks of the season are those for the major awards, notably the MVP and Cy Young races. In the American League, Alex Rodriguez's recent home run barrage and the Yankees' late-season surge have all but locked up the AL MVP for Rodriguez despite the strong run made by the Tigers' Magglio Ordoñez. The AL Cy Young race is still wide open, however, with wins leaders Chien-Ming Wang and Josh Beckett going head-to-head in Fenway on Saturday. The real race, however, is likely between Beckett, Cleveland's C.C. Sabathia, and last year's winner Johan Santana.

In the NL, the MVP derby is wide open. The Marlins' Hanley Ramirez leads the league in VORP. The Mets' David Wright is second. Matt Holliday of the Rockies has had one of the best all-around offensive seasons in the league for a surprise contender. Milwaukee's Prince Fielder has been the league's best slugger for another underdog contender.

The NL Cy Young, however, is clear cut. It belongs to Jake Peavy.

The Padres' righty currently leads the NL in wins, strikeouts and ERA. If he holds on to his leads in all three categories, he will become just the fourth pitcher to win the pitching triple crown in the NL since the retirement of Sandy Koufax (the other three being Steve Carlton in 1972, Dwight Gooden in 1985, and Randy Johnson in 2002, all of whom won that year's Cy Young). In the AL, the pitching triple crown has been won just four times since the end of World War II (by Roger Clemens in his two years with the Blue Jays, in 1997 and 1998; Pedro Martinez in 1999, and Santana last year). Overall, since the creation of the NL in 1876 (including the 10 seasons of the American Association in the late 19th century), the pitching triple crown has been achieved 36 times, 20 in the NL, 15 in the AL, and once in the American Association. By comparison, the hitting triple crown has been won just 15 times over the same period, with Carl Yastrzemski being the last to achieve it, in 1967, and Joe "Ducky" Medwick the last to win it in the NL, all the way back in 1937.

A more apt barometer for hitters is what I'll call "the slash-stat triple crown." The two most important hitting statistics are on-base percentage and slugging percentage, not batting average. The first, OBP, is the rate at which a hitter avoids making outs. Since there is no clock in baseball, an offense's opportunity to score is limited only by the number of outs it makes. Thus, the hitter who reaches base most often is also the hitter who makes an out least often, which in turn gives his team the most opportunities to score. Since every hitter in major-league history with more than 32 plate appearances has made an out in more than half of his plate appearances, it's crucial to be able to advance more than one base at a time; thus the importance of slugging percentage, which measures a batters' ability to hit for extra bases. Throw in the classic batting average, which measures how often a hitter gets a hit, and you get what are commonly known as the slash stats: AVG/OBP/SLG.

In the 131 years of major league baseball, the slash-stat triple crown (leading the league in all three rate stats) has been won 45 times: 23 in the NL, 19 in the AL, and three in the American Association. Rogers Hornsby won the slash-stat triple crown the most, doing so seven times in the 1920s (Hornsby also won the traditional triple crown in 1922 and 1925). Ted Williams won the slash-stat triple crown an AL-best five times (including in both of his traditional triple crown seasons in 1942 and 1947). Honus Wagner and Ty Cobb are the only other men to have won it more than twice, doing so four and three times, respectively. Eleven of the traditional triple crown winners also won the slash-stat triple-crown (the exceptions being Medwick, Mickey Mantle in 1956, Jimmie Fox in 1933, and Hugh Duffy in 1894, all of whom led their leagues in slugging but not in OBP). In the NL, the slash-stat triple crown has been won just four times since Stan Musial did it in 1948, twice by a Colorado Rocky from the pre-humidor era (Larry Walker in 1999 and Todd Helton in 2000) and twice by Barry Bonds (2002 and 2004).

In the AL it has been won just twice since Yastrzemski won both the traditional and slash-stat triple crowns in 1967. Fred Lynn took the crown with .333/.423/.637 rates in his overlooked 1979 season (he was second in home runs with 39 and fourth in RBIs with 122), and George Brett took it with .390/.454/.664 rates in his MVP season the following year (Brett was second in RBIs with 118, but his 29 home runs were a distant ninth).

Although Rodriguez leads the AL comfortably in home runs, RBIs and slugging, there are no hitters in either league who have any hope of either type of triple crown. With that in mind, one could fairly describe Peavy as the most dominant player in the game this season. True, Peavy has gotten an assist from his home park, the most extreme pitchers park in baseball, but he still leads the league in the park-adjusted ERA+ by a fair margin over second-place Brad Penny of the Dodgers and Peavy's closest rival for the Cy Young, third-place Brandon Webb of the Diamondbacks. Peavy also has a 23-strikeout lead over Cincinnati's Aaron Harang and leads the NL in strikeouts per nine innings pitched by more than a K per inning over his teammate Chris Young.

The only threat to Peavy's bid for a pitching triple crown comes in the team-dependent wins column, where he holds a slim one-win lead over Webb, with five more pitchers just a win behind Webb, all of them from contending teams. More tellingly, in his 30 starts this season, Peavy has failed to complete the sixth inning just three times and has allowed more than three earned runs just four times. What's more, he's been even better on the road than he has in his own pitching-friendly stadium, going 9-1 with a 2.13 ERA and holding opposing hitters to a .179/.251/.275 line outside of San Diego. Winning the triple crown would be a historic achievement, but Peavy should win the Cy Young over Webb regardless of who ends up leading the league in wins.

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8/24/2007 09:51:00 AM

Wild Card: AL Contenders

Kevin Youkilis
Kevin Youkilis has cooled considerably after a torrid first half.
Jim Rogash/Getty Images
By Cliff Corcoran

There's been a crisp, cold spell in the Northeast this past week. It smells like playoff baseball. September is almost here, and the pennant races are heating up with half of the teams in the majors within five games of a playoff spot with just five weeks left in the season. With that in mind, here's a quick guide to the contenders in the American League (I'll look at the NL contenders next week):

Boston Red Sox
Status: 5-game lead in the AL East
Record since the All-Star break: 23-17 (.575)
Baseball Prospectus Playoff Odds: Division: 91.5 percent, Playoffs: 98.6 percent

The Red Sox don't have much to worry about other than perhaps home-field advantage in the postseason. They do, however, have six games left against the Yankees. To that end, all the Sox really have to do to seal the division is to beat the Yankees head-to-head. Heck, they don't even have to beat them that badly, just split those six games and the Bombers will be hard pressed to make up the difference against the rest of the league, no matter how easy their September schedule is. To do that, however, the Sox are going to have to sock. The Yankees are pounding the ball against everyone in the second half, scoring 7.17 runs per game and scoring five or more runs in 32 of their 41 games since the break. Meanwhile, the Yankees have allowed fewer than six runs in just two of their 13 losses over that span. The Sox have scored 5.43 runs per game in the second half, so they should be up to the challenge.

Key Player: Kevin Youkilis, who has hit just .209/.320/.314 in the second half after a .328/.419/.502 first half. Since protecting David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez in the order with J.D. Drew didn't work out, the Sox need Youkilis to start getting on base ahead of their two mashers again.

Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim
Status: 1-game lead in the AL West
Record since the ASB: 21-18 (.538)
BP Playoff Odds: Division: 71.1 percent, Wild Card: 12.9 percent, Playoffs: 84 percent

The Angels are just two games behind the Red Sox for the best record in the majors, but their hold on their division is far more tenuous, with seven head-to-head games left against a pesky Mariners team that has defied not only expectation, but explanation. The good news for the Angels, who play .689 ball at home but are 32-34 on the road, is that, with the exception of three games in Seattle starting on Monday, they host all the tough teams remaining on their schedule and play only patsies on the road. They also have an 8-4 record against Seattle this season, though they dropped two of three to the M's at Safeco Field at the end of July.

Key Player: Ervin Santana, who was demoted shortly after the break after going 0-3 with a 12.56 ERA in three July starts, returned with a gem against Boston last Friday but struggled in a loss to Toronto yesterday. The last quality start the Angels have gotten from the fifth spot in the rotation other than Santana's outing against the Red Sox was by the currently disabled Barolo Colon, on June 30.

Cleveland Indians
Status: 2.5-game lead in the AL Central
Record since the ASB: 18-20 (.474)
BP Playoff Odds: Division: 69.1 percent, Wild Card: 2.3 percent, Playoffs: 71.4 percent

The Indians are three games behind Seattle in the loss column and a game behind the Yankees in the win column, which means they can't count on the Wild Card should they lose their grip on the division. The good news is that the Tigers are in freefall. The bad news is that the Tribe isn't doing much better. (Just look at that losing record since the All-Star break.) Cleveland has a soft schedule remaining, with just three head-to-head games against the Tigers, all at home (they just took two of three in Detroit this week), and 16 games against losing teams. Still, it would behoove them to start scoring runs again. The 4.13 runs per game they've scored since the break won't suffice.

Key Player: Travis Hafner has been missing in action since the end of April. Now that everyone else in the lineup is tailing off as well, Pronk needs to go back to being the Central's version of David Ortiz.

Seattle Mariners
Status: 2-game lead in the Wild Card, 1 game behind in the AL West
Record since the ASB: 23-17 (.575)
BP Playoff Odds: Division: 28.5 percent, Wild Card: 22.5 percent, Playoffs: 51 percent

The M's looked like they were finally going to tumble when they went 5-10 coming out of the break, but they've recovered to go 18-7 since. The key victory in that stretch came in the rubber game of their home series against the Angels on Aug. 1 when they recovered from just the second blown save of the season by J.J. Putz to win in 12 innings. The M's are in a great position in the standings, leading the Wild Card and threatening the division, but they have a doozy of a schedule remaining with those seven games against the Angels, five against Cleveland and three each against the Tigers and Yankees. In fact, just nine of the Mariners' remaining 37 games are against teams that currently sport losing records compared to 15 of 35 for both the Angels and Yankees.

Key Player: Putz. The Mariners have only scored four more runs than they've allowed in the second half. That means every lead is precious. If Putz, whose only two blown saves on the season have come in the last month, stumbles, the team will fall.

New York Yankees
Status: 2 games behind for the Wild Card, 5 games behind in the AL East
Record since the ASB: 28-13 (.683)
BP Playoff Odds: Division: 8.5 percent, Wild Card: 50.1 percent, Playoffs 58.6 percent
The Yankees have the best second-half record of any AL contender by far and have scored a staggering 7.17 runs per game since the break, which is good because they've also allowed 5.1 runs per game during that span despite facing a series of cupcakes coming out of the break. Something's got to give, and it could just be the Yankees' playoff hopes. Then again, their remaining schedule isn't that much tougher. They have six games left against Boston and three games left against Seattle. Beyond that and a four-game set that starts tonight in Detroit against the plummeting Tigers, the only "winning" team they face the rest of the way is the 64-63 Blue Jays, though they will have to figure out how to beat the Orioles, against whom they're 4-8 this season and have six games remaining, if they want to keep playing into October.

Key Player: Chien-Ming Wang. The Yankees have enough age-related question marks that they can't afford for a star in his prime such as Wang to perform like he has of late, posting a 6.42 ERA in his past six starts.

Detroit Tigers
Status: 2.5 games behind in the AL Central, 5 games behind for the Wild Card
Record since the ASB: 16-25 (.390)
BP Playoff Odds: Division 27.8 percent, Wild Card: 3.8 percent, Playoffs: 31.6 percent

Things aren't looking good for the defending AL Champs. They just got Joel Zumaya and Andrew Miller back, but Zumaya took the loss to Cleveland yesterday, and Gary Sheffield's out indefinitely with a sore right shoulder. Meanwhile, despite their well-regarded pitching staff, they can't keep runs off the board, allowing 5.98 runs per game since the break. The Tigers have not won a series since sweeping the Twins in Minnesota in mid-July. Since then they're 11-23 (.324) and have allowed 6.5 runs per game. The Tigers probably have the easiest remaining schedule of any of the six contenders listed here, but if they keep playing like that, it won't matter.

Key Players: Justin Verlander, Jeremy Bonderman, and Andrew Miller. Just look at the second-half ERA's of the Tigers' young studs: Verlander (5.83), Bonderman (7.16), and the recently reactivated Miller (6.08). No team can win like that.

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8/17/2007 08:41:00 AM

Wild Card: Top 10 Flashes in the Pan

Mark Fidrych
The Bird set the baseball world on fire in 1976.
Lane Stewart/SI
By Cliff Corcoran

As last week's post about 300-game winners focused on year-after-year excellence, I thought it would be fun to take a look at the other side of the coin this week with a top 10 list of pitchers who were great just once in their careers. There's a bit of number crunching behind the list below, but there's no definitive stat behind it, so I'll spare you the detailed explanation. One thing I will tell you is that I limited my list to pitchers who dominated their leagues in their best seasons. I defined that as pitchers with single-season WARP (Wins Above Replacement Player) totals of 8.0 or better. This eliminated some popular choices such as Steve Stonez, LaMarr Hoyt, Pete Vuckovich, Wally Bunker, the Yankees' Steve Kline, Kent Bottenfield, Pete Schourek, and Jeff Ballard, as none of those pitchers were truly dominant in their best seasons. With that little bit of business out of the way, here are the flukiest flashes-in-the-pan of the past 60 years.

1. Mark Fidrych
The Bird was the ultimate flash-in-the-pan. Breaking into the league in 1976 at 21, Fidrych went 19-9 for a poor Tigers team, completed 24 of his starts, led the league in ERA, picked up the Rookie of the Year award, finished second in the Cy Young Voting, started the All-Star Game for the AL, and even got a first-place MVP vote. Fidrych wasn't just a good pitcher, he was a cultural sensation thanks to his litany of quirky mound habits and the mop of blonde curls that made him the pitching equivalent of Peter Frampton. It was that very same loopiness and boundless enthusiasm that led to a knee injury in the outfield in spring training the next year, and quite possibly some altered mechanics from that injury which resulted in a torn rotator cuff in his ninth start that year. Fidrych won just four games after his 23rd birthday and his rookie season accounts for more than 75 percent of his career WARP total.

2. Herb Score
In 476 2/3 innings over his first two seasons in the major leagues, the Indians' lefty allowed just 320 hits and struck out 508 men (though he also walked 283). Score won the Rookie of the Year award in 1955 while setting the freshman benchmark for strikeouts with 245. He then went 20-9 with the league's second-best ERA as a sophomore. He was back at it in April 1957 when, with one out in the first inning of his fifth start of the season, the Yankees' Gil McDougal hit a line drive that hit Score in the right eye. He was never the same pitcher, in part because of an altered delivery that had been designed to put him in better fielding position after his follow-through, which had the side effect of taking a few ticks off his dominant fastball. After winning just 17 games over his final five seasons, Score was done at 29.

3. Gene Bearden
Southpaw Bearden was one of many players who got a late start to his major-league career because of World War II. As a 27-year-old rookie for the Indians in 1948, the knuckleballer went 20-7 and led the league in ERA. The Tribe finished that season tied with the Red Sox atop the American League and manager Lou Boudreau handed the rookie Bearden the ball for the one-game playoff against Boston. Said Boudreau: “The reason I started Bearden in what was the most important game I was ever involved in was that he was my best pitcher at the time, better than [Bob] Feller, better than [Bob] Lemon." Bearden won that game and twirled a shutout in Game 3 of the World Series against the Boston Braves (the Indians prevailed in six games), but won only eight games the next season, and only 17 over the next four years combined, which comprised the remainder of his career.

4. Randy Jones
A sinkerballer who compensated for low strikeout rates by limiting walks and homers (much like Chien-Ming Wang, only 20 mph slower), the lefty Jones compiled two dominant seasons for the mid-‘70s Padres. While the Pads lost 180 games between 1975 and 1976, Jones went 42-26 and finished 43 of his starts. He came in second in the Cy Young voting in the first of those two years despite winning 20 games and leading the league in ERA, then won the award the following season. Toward the end of the 1976 season, however, Jones suffered nerve damage in his pitching arm. He never posted another winning record and only once was above league-average in ERA. Six years after his Cy Young season, Jones was done.

5. Jim Kern and Mark Eichhorn
Both relievers were old-school stoppers who pitched 140-plus innings in their dominant seasons. Kern, a quirky 6-foot-5 righty known as “The Great Emu," had been an All-Star fireman for the Indians before being traded to the Rangers for Bobby Bonds and Len Barker after the 1978 season. In his first year in Texas, Kern posted a 1.57 ERA in 143 innings while saving 29 games and winning another 13. His five straight years of more than 90 relief innings caught up with him the next year, as did a return throw from his catcher while he was warming up one day, the latter of which resulted in a significant head injury. Injuries shortened his '81 season as well and, after a last gasp split between the Reds and White Sox in '82, he was never the same. Eichhorn relied on a wild side-arming delivery to post a 1.72 ERA in 157 innings while striking out 166, saving 10, and winning 14 for the 1986 Toronto Blue Jays as a 25-year-old rookie. He put together a solid career as a setup man after that, but nothing that came close to that first season.

6. Ralph Branca
Branca's one of the most famous names on this list, but it's instructive that he's remembered for one spectacular failure -- Bobby Thomson's pennant winning homer in 1951 -- than for his own success. Branca, who made his major-league debut for the Brooklyn Dodgers as a teenager during the war, had a couple of decent seasons, but only one that was great. That came in Jackie Robinson's rookie year of 1947, when Branca, just 21, finished third in the NL in ERA and second in wins and strikeouts. Branca's two decent seasons were his follow up and, ironically, 1951. He was shipped out of Brooklyn at age 27 and was out of baseball at the age of 30.

7. Mike Scott
If not for Darryl Strawberry's leadoff double and Ray Knight's RBI single in the top of the 16th inning of the sixth game of the 1986 NLCS, Scott just might have pitched the Astros to their first World Series. Scott dominated the Mets and the rest of the National League in '86 on the strength of an unhittable split-finger fastball that, rumor has it, was aided by the scuff marks of second baseman Bill Doran. That season, Scott became just the eighth man in the integrated era to strike out 300 men in a season and picked up the Cy Young award. Not bad for 31-year-old failed Mets prospect. Scott was good for three more seasons, but he was only great for that one.

8. Ewell Blackwell and Ray Scarborough
OK, I'm cheating a bit to squeeze some favorites in. In his second full season, 24-year-old Ewell “The Whip" Blackwell went 22-8 for the 1947 Cincinnati Reds, completing a league-leading 23 of his 33 starts and falling just 14 ERA points shy of the pitching triple crown while finishing second in the NL MVP voting. He had two more outstanding seasons in 1950 and 1951, but never topped that sophomore year and was washed up by age 30. The next year, in the other league, the 30-year-old Scarborough went 15-8 for a Senators team that only won 56 games thanks to his second-place ERA. Scarborough, who had lost the prime of his career to World War II, was never again as good as league-average.

9. Hank Aguirre andDick Ellsworth
Aguirre was a strong lefty reliever for the Indians and Tigers in his late-20s, but in 1962 Detroit moved the 31-year old into the rotation and he took over the league, posting a 2.16 ERA in 22 starts in addition to his 2.40 mark in 20 relief appearances. In retrospect, more than doubling his career high in innings pitched in a single season was probably a bad idea as it took a return to the 'pen five years later for him to regain his effectiveness. Unfortunately, he was 36 by then. Fellow lefty Ellsworth broke in with the Cubs at the age of 18 and by the time he was 23, the year after Aguirre's big season, he was breaking the spirits of NL batters, posting the league's best adjusted ERA and going 22-10 with 185 strikeouts. Three disappointing years later, he was dealt to the Phillies. By age 32, his career as a league-average hurler was over.

10. Mike Caldwell
Caldwell was a subpar lefty swingman for the Padres, Giants, Cubs, and Brewers for most of the 1970s. In 1978, however, he stuck in the Milwaukee rotation and went 22-9, completing 23 games and finishing second in the Cy Young voting on the strength of a miniscule walk rate (1.66 BB/9) and ERA. He stuck around for six more seasons with the Brewers, but after a decent encore in 1979 his performance steadily declined.

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8/10/2007 12:34:00 PM

Wild Card: Future of 300

By Cliff Corcoran

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.

Age Pitcher Wins Glavine Maddux Clemens Ryan
41     300 340 328 273
31 Tim Hudson 131 153 184 172 151
29 Roy Oswalt 110 124 150 152 122
Barry Zito 110        
28 Mark Buehrle 106 108 131 134 105
Johan Santana 90        
27 Jon Garland 90 85 115 116 91
Josh Beckett 71        
26 C.C. Sabathia 95 73 95 95 69
Carlos Zambrano 78        
Jake Peavy 69        
25 Dontrelle Willis 65 53 75 78 48
24 Jeremy Bonderman 55 33 60 60 29
23 Scott Kazmir 31 23 45 40 19
21 Felix Hernandez 24 2 8 9 6


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.

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8/03/2007 08:21:00 AM

Wild Card: Low on Rocket Fuel?

Roger Clemens
The Yankees are winning again, but Roger Clemens hasn't been much help.
AP
By Cliff Corcoran

On May 6, when Roger Clemens announced to a sold-out Yankee Stadium crowd that he had just signed a deal to return to the Yankees, the team was 13-15 (.464), five-and-a-half games behind the Red Sox in the American League East and in eighth place in the Wild Card race. By the time Clemens took the mound for his first start of the season, a win at home against the Pirates on June 9, the Yankees were 28-31 (.475), 10.5 games behind the Red Sox in the East and in sixth place in the Wild Card race, 5.5 games behind the Tigers.

This morning, after a 13-9 loss to the White Sox on Thursday, the Yankees are 58-50 (.537), eight games behind the Sox in the AL East, but just three games behind the Indians in third place in the Wild Card race. The Yankees have very nearly salvaged their season, going 30-19 (.612) since Clemens joined the team, but how much has Clemens himself actually had to do with that?

Clemens has made 11 starts for the Yankees this season, six of which have been quality starts. The Yankees have won four of those games. The Yankees lost his second start of the season 2-0 to Oliver Perez and the Mets and, on July 7, they lost a game in which Clemens held the Angels to one run over eight innings. Still, five “non-quality” starts in 11 tries is an awfully low ratio for a guy who is being paid a savior’s ransom. Could it be that the Rocket is finally out of fuel?

Actually, yes. After striking out 22 men in his first 17 2/3 innings, Clemens has had a rather alarming power outage, striking out 21 in his past 48 1/3 innings pitched. For some context, outside of his second season, in 1985, which ended early due to a rotator cuff injury, Clemens has never struck out fewer than 7.51 men per nine innings over a full season and his career average is 8.56 K/9. Thus far this year, his mark is 5.86 K/9 and his rate over those last eight starts has been a Chien-Ming Wang-like 3.91 K/9.0 IP

That difference reflects the fact that Clemens has lost a good 5 mph off his fastball since his first stint as a Yankee. In fact, Clemens has a lost a good 5 mph off all of his pitches. When Clemens was a young stud with the Red Sox, he earned his nickname by blowing away hitters with a rising four-seam fastball that would often burst into the upper 90s. For example, in his 20-strikeout game in 1986, Clemens, according to his autobiography published the following year, “basically threw cross-seamers [rising four-seam fastballs] and with-seamers [tailing two-seam fastballs] all night. I think I threw 20 breaking balls all night, and got 14 of the strikeouts on the two fastballs.” The breaking balls he refers to likely included his since-abandoned curveball and the slider that is now his third-best pitch. By the time Clemens joined the dynastic Yankees around the turn of the millennium, his fastball had settled in around 95-96 and he would just as frequently get swinging third strikes with his 91 mph split-finger fastball as with his high heat. Take for example his one-hit shutout of the Mariners in Game 4 of the 2000 ALCS. In that game, Clemens struck out 15 Mariners, seven on fastballs, six on splitters, and two on sliders. All six of the splitter strikeouts (which included two of current teammate Alex Rodriguez) were swinging.

Fast forward to the Roger Clemens who was bounced in the second inning yesterday after allowing eight runs on nine hits (the latter a career high for a single inning) to the scuffling White Sox. It’s an unfair comparison to be sure, comparing two of the best games of one of the best pitchers who ever lived to one of his worst outings, but his repertoire in yesterday’s game was not unlike that which he had shown in his other starts for the Yankees this year. He still throws the fastball, splitter, and slider in that order, but the fastball is now down to 90-91 mph (he did hit 92 three times on the YES Network’s gun yesterday, but the game announcers confirmed my impression that he had not done so very often this year), while his splitter is down in the 86-87 mph. Clemens can no longer blow opposing hitters away; instead he must rely on the still-impressive break on his splitter (which he calls Mr. Splittee), the deception of his slider, and his still-excellent control of his fastball (career walk rate: 2.89 BB/9; 2007 walk rate: 2.45 BB/9). Yesterday he had neither his usual control (his fastball was floating up in the zone), nor much bite on his splitter (only twice in 39 pitches did a batter swing and miss). Lacking those two things, he was unable to get the White Sox out (though a botched double play ball by Robinson Cano with two on and one out in the second didn’t help).

Clemens' struggles are typical of aging pitchers, though they also highlight the reason why, knuckleballers aside, the pitchers with the most longevity tend to be power pitchers. Losing 5 mph off a fastball that topped out in the high 80s or even at 90-91 results in a batting practice fastball. Clemens, however, has lost those 5 mph and still has a low-90s heater while throwing his off-speed pitches in the mid-80s. Mix in an out-pitch breaking ball (his splitter), and you still have an effective major-league pitcher. The same can be said of Curt Schilling and his splitter, Nolan Ryan or Bert Blyleven and their curveballs, or former Yankee Randy Johnson and his slider. The problem Johnson had in New York was that he’d lost the tilt on his slider and the pitch was flattening out in the zone and getting hit (a problem that likely stemmed from the back problems that may have just ended his career). With Clemens, the Yankees are walking a similarly fine line between having a legitimate ace (Clemens with break and location) and a former great who’s past his expiration date.

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7/27/2007 09:32:00 AM

Wild Card: Underachievers, Part II

By Cliff Corcoran

Having revisited my early-season list of overachieving teams last week, it though it would be interesting to check up on my list of underachievers as well. Here's how those seven teams were doing when I dubbed them underachievers back in May and where they stand today:

Team May 11 Pct Place July 27 Pct Place
Yankees 0.485 2 0.535 2
Cubs 0.500 2 0.530 2
Phillies 0.441 4 0.515 3
Blue Jays 0.382 5 0.505 3
Royals 0.314 5 0.436 5
Twins 0.500 4 0.505 3
Nationals 0.265 5 0.426 5

There are no Mariners-like outliers here. In fact, the only team that hasn't gotten meaningfully better is the Twins, who remain a .500 ballclub despite dropping Sidney Ponson from the roster and Ramon Ortiz from their rotation. That lack of improvement is due in part to the underwhelming performances of rotation replacements Scott Baker (5.30 ERA) and Kevin Slowey (5.84). Slowey has since been returned to Triple-A Rochester and replaced in the rotation by Matt Garza, but that move has been counterweighted by the sprained right thumb that has forced right fielder and cleanup hitter Michael Cuddyer to the disabled list, leaving the Twins languishing on the outskirts of contention.

The most compelling of these teams are the Yankees, Cubs, and Phillies. The Yankees are baseball's hottest team having won six of their past seven, 12 of 16 since the All-Star break, and 17 of 23. True, 12 of their past 16 games have come against the last-place Royals and Devil Rays, but they've also taken three of four from those .500 Twins and Blue Jays and two of three from the first-place Angels over those last 23 games. Meanwhile, they haven't been merely defeating those last-place teams, they've been destroying them. Before dropping the series finale to the Royals last night, they had won six in a row by a combined 70-19 score (or an average game score of roughly 12-3).

It remains to be seen if the Yankees will run out of gas by the time they hit the considerable mid-August bump in their schedule that pits them against the Indians, Tigers, Angels, and Red Sox, but it looks like they just might be in range of the Wild Card (currently four games behind Cleveland in the loss column with three head-to-head games remaining) and possibly even the AL East (currently seven behind Boston in the loss column with six head-to-head games remaining) when that part of the schedule comes around. More good news for the Bombers: überprospect Phil Hughes, last seen no-hitting the Rangers through 6 1/3 innings, and slugger Jason Giambi are both on minor league rehab assignments and could be activated from the disabled list in the next week or two.

The Cubs have been nearly as hot as the Yankees, winning 21 of their past 29, including two of three from first-place Milwaukee. They've gained 6.5 games on the Brewers over that stretch and currently stand just two games back in the NL Central and one game behind in the Wild Card race. A huge part of their recent success has been the resurgence of Carlos Zambrano who has gone 8-2 with a 1.56 ERA over his last ten starts after starting the season 5-8 with a 5.62. Ted Lilly has joined the party in July, going 4-0 with a 1.98 on the month. Together, Zambrano and Lilly have 12 of those last 21 wins. That can't keep up, but there are still reasons to be hopeful for Cub fans. Derek Lee only hit six home runs in the first half, but he also hit .330 with a .411 on-base percentage, and power tends to be the last thing to return after the sort of wrist injury he suffered (see Hideki Matsui, who hit eight homers through the end of June and has ten more since). Lee had 26 doubles in the first half and already has three round-trippers since the break despite serving a five-game suspension. It's not a stretch to expect more of those doubles to turn into homers in the second half, which could result in some monster production from Lee down the stretch.

Meanwhile, Baseball Prospectus's Will Carroll has been reporting great things about Kerry Wood's rehab. Wood's injury record is such that it's difficult to have any real optimism about his potential contribution, but word via Carroll is that he's throwing mid-90s and could rejoin the Cubs relief corps as soon as next week.

As for the Phillies, they're doing their usual job of getting close enough to be in the playoff discussion, but staying far enough back not to be a real threat. The Phils are just 2.5 games behind in the Wild Card race, but they have four teams ahead of them, including the Cubs and the Braves, the latter of whom stand between the Phillies and the first place Mets in the NL East. The Phils will be getting Brett Myers back soon, but the team will continue to use him as a closer despite Tom Gordon having preceded his return to action and the fact that Jon Lieber is out for the season, Freddy Garcia could very well be, and Jamie Moyer has posted a 6.26 ERA since mid-May. The Phillies have had the worst pitching in the National League this season, but are getting by on the league's best offense, which has scored more than a half-run per game more than the Rockies’s second-best attack. That took a blow yesterday, however, as Chase Utley's right hand was broken by a pitch in the Phillies' loss to the Nationals. There's little remaining hope for improvement here. Ryan Howard recovered from his poor April to slug .695 with 26 homers and 72 RBIs over the last three months, Utley, Jimmy Rollins, and Aaron Rowand are having career years, and even Pat Burrell, who is getting on base at a career-best .408 clip in an otherwise disappointing season, has caught fire in July, hitting .433/.562/.717. Having already maximized the potential of their offense and exhausted their pitching reinforcements, the Phillies have likely hit their ceiling, even if they were to wise up and put Myers back in the rotation.

That leaves the Cubs and the Yankees to provide us with a thrilling come-from-behind pennant chase. The Cubs have been one of the most curious teams in baseball ever since they dropped a combined $285 million on Alfonso Soriano, Aramis Ramirez, Ted Lilly, Jason Marquis, and Mark DeRosa over the winter and tossed out another $10 million to make Lou Piniella their manager. That they flopped out of the gate, fought in the dugout, and prompted some classic Piniella press conference material only makes their recent surge all the more compelling. The Yankees have been nearly as compelling, as their own early-season struggles have threatened the franchise's streak of 12-straight playoff appearances despite Alex Rodriguez's all-world season and the return of Roger Clemens. Now both are playing their best baseball just in time for the pennant races to heat up. It seems unlikely that either club will make the postseason, but they sure will make things interesting.

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7/20/2007 08:50:00 AM

Wild Card: Baseball's Uber-Overachiever

By Cliff Corcoran

In early May I filled this space with a list of five teams that I thought were overachieving. The following is a chart detailing the records of those five teams then and as of today:

Then & Now
Team WP on May 4 Place WP on July 20 Place
Braves 0.630 1 0.531 2
Brewers 0.643 1 0.568 1
Indians 0.680 1 0.589 2
Mariners 0.522 2 0.576 2
Pirates 0.481 2 0.426 5

I got the Braves, Brewers, Indians, and Pirates right, but the Mariners have not only avoided a correction, they’ve gotten better. Since I declared them overachievers, the Mariners have gone 41-28 (.594) and have only gotten stronger as the season has gone on. The M’s have posted an 18-7 (.720) record over their past 25 games and appear unaffected by manager Mike Hargrove’s surprise resignation; they’ve gone a solid 8-6 under replacement John McLaren, splitting a four-game set with the equally hot Tigers to open the second half.

So what’s the deal with the Mariners? Here’s what I wrote on May 4:

"The Mariners are the only team in the major leagues with a winning record that has failed to outscore its opponents for the year. Richie Sexson (.143/.233/.377) is a candidate for improvement, but the bullpen, particularly closer J.J. Putz (1.38 ERA) and LOOGY George Sherrill (no runs allowed) will have their struggles. Similarly, Jarrod Washburn (2.88 ERA) is due for some correction. Finally, though Felix Hernandez is expected to return next week, the M’s aren’t out of the woods with respect to his elbow problems just yet."

Sexson has indeed improved, though not as much as one might have expected. He’s hit just .217/.322/.407 since May 4. Hernandez has taken each of his turns since returning from the DL in mid-May, but has posted a roughly league average 4.18 ERA over that period, while Washburn has indeed added more than a run to his ERA. What about Putz and Sherrill? Here's our first clue. Prior to May 4, Putz and Sherrill had combined to allow two runs in 20 1/3 innings. That’s a combined 0.89 ERA. Sherrill allowed three runs in one inning to the Yankees the night of my original column, but the two have combined to allow just three more runs since then, good for a combined 1.03 ERA since the morning of May 4.

Of course two relievers alone do not make a contending team, but Putz and Sherrill do appear to have had an unusual influence. Consider Pythagorean record, which translates a teams’ runs scored and allowed into wins and loses. (For those who doubt the usefulness of Pythagorean record, the Indians' Pythagorean winning percentage on May 4 was .583. Compare that to their winning percentages in the chart above.) One reason I pegged the Mariners as overachievers back in May was that they had a winning record despite allowing more runs than they had scored. The Mariners’ runs scored have since surpassed their runs allowed, but not by much. Of the 901 runs scored in Mariners games, just eleven more have been scored by the M’s than by their opponents. That works out to a .512 Pythagorean winning percentage, which falls nearly six wins short of the Mariners’ actual record.

A couple years ago I contributed some research on Pythagorean records to Baseball ProspectusMind Game, a book on the 2004 World Champion Red Sox. My findings were that teams that regularly outperformed their Pythagorean projections did so by "losing big and winning small." That’s actually just common sense. A team that loses more than their share of blowouts but wins an unusual number of close games would have a skewed run differential. Indeed, the Mariners’ average margin of victory has been 3.36 runs, while their average margin of defeat has been 4.28 runs. Having Putz and Sherrill to protect those small leads (more than half of the Mariners’ wins have been by three runs or fewer) has been crucial to the Mariners’ ability to maximize their success thus far this season.

That, however, is only half of the story. Somehow the Mariners, a team that has rotated Jose Vidro, Raul Ibañez, and Jose Guillen in the third spot in its batting order and plays its home games in an extreme pitchers' park, has enjoyed the seventh-best offense in baseball judging by raw runs per game. Consider too that their first baseman has hit .199/.303/.399 on the season, their current three-place hitter, Ibañez, is hitting .264/.314/.408, and his predecessor, Vidro, is slugging just .366. Where’s all that offense coming from?

A lot of it has come from Ichiro Suzuki, who is perpetually overrated, but just happens to be equaling his best season this year. Some of it has come from Guillen and third baseman Adrian Beltre, both of whom have shown some signs of life at the plate this season. And some of it has come behind the plate, where Kenji Johjima has been a league-average hitter (which is impressive for a catcher), and his backup, minor-league veteran Jamie Burke, has been enjoying one of those fluke seasons that every backup catcher seems entitled to at some point (see Bard, Josh). In general, however, it seems the Mariners have squeezed every run they can out of their lineup.

Taking a closer look, the M’s appear to be doing this by simply putting the ball in play. The Mariners have a league-average on-base percentage, but that OBP is comprised of a higher ratio of hits to walks than is typical (the average AL team reaches base 73 percent of the time by hit and 27 percent of the time by walk; the Mariners reach 79 percent of the time by hit and 21 percent of the time by walk). Meanwhile, the M’s have posted the major-league’s lowest strikeout rate. This approach is radically divergent from that of the league’s other top offenses, who typically walk and strike out in bunches. The Mariners’ approach is largely dependent on luck, on the hope that enough balls drop in to sustain success (particularly as the M’s don’t hit many homers either). The M’s team speed certainly won’t help, as Ichiro is responsible for almost exactly half of the team’s steals.

One has to assume that the Mariners' luck will run out later, even if it failed to do so sooner. The M’s are a team that’s been riding two mind-blowing relief seasons, a trio of merely average starting pitchers (Washburn, Hernandez, and Miguel Batista), and a hope-and-pray offense. I still say they’re overachieving. They’re just doing a heck of a job of it.

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6/22/2007 09:43:00 AM

Wild Card: Rookie All-Stars

By Cliff Corcoran

The All-Star voting, which ends at midnight on Wednesday, gives fans an opportunity to pick their favorite established stars, but what about the stars of tomorrow? The following is my All-Star team of the top rookies thus far in 2007.

1B: James Loney, Dodgers, 23 This is not the best way to start, but first base and catcher are the thinnest positions in the 2007 rookie class. There are a fair number of first-sackers playing their first full seasons -- the Braves' Scott Thorman, the Royals' Ryan Shealy, the Indians' Ryan Garko, and, at long last, the Angels' Casey Kotchman, the last of whom is hitting a fantastic .333/.411/.556 after missing most of last year with mononucleosis -- but all of them lost their rookie status last year or before. That leaves Loney, who, despite Nomar Garciaparra's struggles, has started a grand total of three games at first base for the Dodgers, though all of them have been in the past week and a half. The Reds have Joey Votto tearing up the International League, but Scott Hatteberg is holding his own for the big club, so Loney is likely the majors' best hope for the second half.

2B: Dustin Pedroia, Red Sox, 23 There were doubters when the Red Sox announced over the winter that they were going to give the diminutive Pedroia the job. There were doubters when Pedroia was hitting just .172/.294/.224 on May 1. Since then, Pedroia has hit .382/.441/.550. Anyone heard from those doubters?

SS: Troy Tulowitzki, Rockies, 22 Tulowitzki's supposed to be the next big thing at shortstop. Thus far he's been a gold glove-quality defender and a decent on-base man, but Colorado's still waiting on his power. It will come, and not just because he plays his home games in Denver.

3B: Ryan Braun, Brewers, 23 The Brewers needlessly ran Craig Counsell and Tony Graffanino out to the hot corner throughout April and most of May before finally relenting and giving the job to Braun, who was slugging .701 (!) with Triple-A Nashville. Since then, he's hit .305/.346/.537. Incidentally, third base is the deepest rookie position this year. Twenty-eight-year-old Japanese import Akinori Iwamura is hitting .323/.426/.476 for the Devil Rays. Twenty-three-year-old Mark Reynolds has hit .284/.352/.505 for the Diamondbacks and appears to be pushing Chad Tracy back to first base, if not off the team entirely. After hitting just .108 through May 10, the Padres' Kevin Kouzmanoff, 25, has hit .333/.400/.559 since. After an even more notorious slow start, überprospect Alex Gordon, 23, has hit .404/.424/.614 over the last 14 games. Finally, Joe Crede's back injury forced the White Sox to promote their top prospect, 24-year-old Josh Fields. Since picking up his first major league hit in his fourth game, Fields has hit .342/.390/.579 over the last two weeks.

C: Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Braves, 22 Carlos Ruiz is actually starting in Philadelphia, while Saltalamacchia is merely backing up Brian McCann in Atlanta, but Salty has made the most of his opportunities, hitting .319/.365/.464. Sooner or later the Braves will have to choose between McCann, who made the All-Star team and won the Silver Slugger award last year at 22, and Saltalamacchia, who's a year younger and every bit as good, if not better. That, or they could move Salty to first base.

RF: Travis Buck, A's, 23 Buck wasn't even supposed to make the A's out of spring training, but injuries to Mark Kotsay and Dan Johnson opened the door and Buck burst through. Since May 1, he's hit .333/.405/.543 and has played right field so well that, with both Kotsay and Johnson back in action, the A's just designated their intended right fielder, the oft-injured Milton Bradley, for assignment.

CF: Hunter Pence, Astros, 24 There was concern over Pence's ability to play center field, but his defense has been solid thus far. Chris Burke lost the Astros' center-field job after hitting .219/.329/.329 through April 27. Pence took over the next day and hasn't looked back, crushing the ball to a .351/.373/.598 tune, which makes him the most productive center fielder in baseball thus far this year, though he’s still a bit shy of qualifying for the batting title.

LF: Reggie Willits, Angels, 26 Garret Anderson has been no better than a league average hitter for the past three years, but the Angels remained convinced that he was one of their team's stars. That is until Anderson tore a hip flexor in early May and they got an extended look at Willits, who excels at the one thing Anderson struggles with the most: getting on base. Willits has installed himself as the Angels leadoff hitter and leftfielder by hitting .337 with a .435 on-base percentage, playing tremendous defense, and stealing 18 bases in 20 attempts. Anderson, who just went back on the DL last weekend, may have a hard time getting his job back.

Starting Rotation: The true future stars can be found here, but the most successful rookie starters thus far have been:

Jeremy Guthrie, Orioles, 28: The Indians' 2002 first-round pick out of Stanford, Guthrie was plucked off waivers by Baltimore in January, joined the rotation in early May following injuries to Adam Loewen and Jaret Wright, and has a 1.63 ERA and nine quality starts in as many tries since.

Justin Germano, Padres, 24: The Padres drafted Germano in 2000, traded him for Joe Randa at the deadline in 2005, and claimed him off waivers from the Phillies in the middle of spring training this year. Echoing Guthrie, Germano replaced the injured Clay Hensley in the rotation in early May and has turned in seven quality starts in eight tries, going 5-1 along the way.

Chris Sampson, Astros, 29: Sampson has nine quality starts in 13 tries, but his low strikeout rate and inconsistent ground-ball tendencies don’t paint a rosy picture going forward.

Brian Bannister, Royals, 26: Dealt to K.C. from the Mets for Ambiorix Burgos in December, Floyd's kid took Zack Greinke's spot in the Royals' rotation at the end of April, and at the beginning of June he allowed just one unearned run in 22 innings over three starts.

Daisuke Matsuzaka, Red Sox, 26: He's not quite an ace, but he does lead the Sox in strikeouts.

CL: Joakim Soria, Royals, 23 Soria, a Rule 5 pick from the Padres, has actually lost his closer job due to switching DL places with Octavio Dotel, but one assumes that the Royals will flip Dotel by the deadline and reinstall Soria, who was 10 for 13 in save chances and hasn't allowed a home run in nearly 30 innings on the season.

RP: Hideki Okajima, Red Sox, 31: The veteran Japanese lefty has been practically unhittable for the Red Sox, posting a 1.01 ERA and a 0.813 WHIP due to a mere 19 hits allowed in 35 2/3 innings and just one home run, which was hit by the first batter he faced in the major leagues, John Buck of the Royals. Curiously, of his four runs allowed on the season (which have come in four separate appearances), two of them, and his only blown save, have come against the rival Yankees.

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6/15/2007 09:03:00 AM

Wild Card: Imbalance of power

By Cliff Corcoran

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.

Interleague Wins
AL Wins NL Wins AL % NL %
1997 97 117 0.453 0.547
1998 114 110 0.509 0.491
1999 116 135 0.462 0.538
2000 136 115 0.542 0.458
2001 132 120 0.524 0.476
2002 123 129 0.488 0.512
2003 115 137 0.456 0.544
2004 127 125 0.504 0.496
2005 136 116 0.540 0.460
2006 154 98 0.611 0.389
2007* 71 55 0.563 0.437
*through the games of June 14


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.

American League Payrolls
New York Yankees $189,639,045
Boston Red Sox $143,026,214
Los Angeles Angels $109,251,333
Chicago White Sox $108,671,833
Seattle Mariners $106,460,833
Detroit Tigers $95,180,369
Baltimore Orioles $93,554,808
Toronto Blue Jays $81,942,800
Oakland Athletics $79,366,940
Minnesota Twins $71,439,500
Texas Rangers $68,318,675
Kansas City Royals $67,116,500
Cleveland Indians $61,673,267
Tampa Bay Devil Rays $24,123,500
Average $92,840,401.21
National League Payrolls
New York Mets $115,231,663
Los Angeles Dodgers $108,454,524
Chicago Cubs $99,670,332
St. Louis Cardinals $90,286,823
San Francisco Giants $90,219,056
Philadelphia Phillies $89,428,213
Houston Astros $87,759,000
Atlanta Braves $87,290,833
Milwaukee Brewers $70,986,500
Cincinnati Reds $68,904,980
San Diego Padres $58,110,567
Colorado Rockies $54,424,000
Arizona Diamondbacks $52,067,546
Pittsburgh Pirates $38,537,833
Washington Nationals $37,347,500
Florida Marlins $30,507,000
Average $73,701,648


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.

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6/08/2007 11:15:00 AM

Wild Card: A lesson in numbers

By Cliff Corcoran

One of the emerging concerns of the Wild Card portion of this blog has been teams and players that have either exceeded or fallen short of expectations thus far. Today, however, I thought I'd try to provide a clue as to why some of those teams have been underperforming or overperforming by taking a look at the impact of injuries on the 30 major league teams.

The simplest way to do this is to tally all of the days that a team's players have spent on the disabled list. Counting the regular season only (some Opening Day DL assignments were retroactive to March), we are 68 days into the 2007 season. If a team has had one player out all season and another player miss only the minimum on the 15-day DL, they would have lost 83 days to the DL. By this method, the Kansas City Royals lead the majors with 527 days lost to the DL, while the San Francisco Giants have been least affected, losing just 62 days.

This method can be misleading, however. Take the Tigers, for example. They have lost 448 days to the DL, but 134 of them have been days missed by infielder Tony Giarratano, who appeared in just 15 major league games last year, and reliever Edward Campusano, who has never pitched above Double-A. Certainly the 15 days lost by Jeremy Bonderman were far more detrimental to the Tigers than the 134 lost by Giarratano and Campusano.

In order to compensate for this, we can look not at days lost to the DL, but dollars lost (a method popularized by Baseball Prospectus). Giarratano and Campusano, befitting their significance to the team, are earning the major league minimum this year ($380,000), while Bonderman is making $4.5 million.

If we divide those salaries by the 182 calendar days over which the season takes place (because DL minimums also count calendar days, not just game days), and multiply the result by the number of days the player has spent on the DL, we get a more representative $279,790.22 lost for Giarratano and Campusano combined versus $370,879.12 for Bonderman alone.

The formula, so far: { (Salary ÷ 182) x Days on DL }

Applying this method to all 30 teams, we find out that the Mets have lost the most dollars to the DL (more than $9.1 million, more than half of that going to Pedro Martinez), while the Pirates have lost the fewest ($365,453.30, less than the Tigers have lost on Bonderman alone).

Of course, there's some context missing here as well. A million dollars lost to injuries is a lot more harmful to the Marlins, whose total Opening Day payroll was just $30.5 million, than it is to the Mets, whose Opening Day payroll was more than $115 million.

I've thus taken one final step. After pro-rating each team's Opening Day payroll over the first 67 days of the season (68 for the Cards and Mets, who opened a day earlier than the other 28 teams), I divided each team's total dollars lost to the DL by that pro-rated payroll figure to arrive at the approximate percentage of payroll each team has lost to the disabled list thus far in 2007 (I say approximate because team payrolls fluctuate throughout the season).

Disabled List Players' Salaries
Team Dollars Days Players Most Costly Pct $ Lost
Nationals $4,192,870.88 506 12 Nick Johnson 30.5
A's $8,229,793.96 425 12 Loaiza/Kotsay 28.2
Braves $7,806,840.66 382 11 Mike Hampton 24.3
Mets $9,123,829.67 372 9 Pedro Martinez 21.2
Royals $5,055,700.55 527 12 Dotel/Sanders 20.4
Orioles $6,918,021.98 342 8 Kris Benson 20.1
Blue Jays $6,030,973.63 460 11 B.J. Ryan 20.0
Rangers $4,185,027.47 346 10 Millwood/Gagne 16.6
Angels $5,935,590.66 337 10 Anderson/Colon 14.8
Rockies $2,951,631.87 288 9 Rodrigo Lopez 14.7
Tigers $4,919,258.24 448 9 Kenny Rogers 14.0
Dodgers $4,894,527.47 283 8 Jason Schmidt 12.3
Cardinals $3,960,994.51 236 6 Chris Carpenter 11.7
Twins $2,915,109.89 379 11 White/Mauer 11.1
Reds $2,703,901.10 420 11 Eric Milton 10.7
Brewers $2,630,912.09 197 5 Corey Koskie 10.1
Indians $2,295,959.89 157 6 Jake Westbrook 10.1
Phillies $3,190,384.62 212 9 Tom Gordon 9.7
Marlins $1,074,582.42 500 13 Josh Johnson 9.6
Yankees $6,518,247.07 369 11 Carl Pavano 9.3
Devil Rays $817,786.26 183 6 Akinori Iwamura 9.2
Red Sox $4,810,043.96 193 4 Matt Clement 9.1
White Sox $3,001,813.19 137 6 Jim Thome 7.5
Diamondbacks $1,332,975.27 183 7 Jeff DaVanon 7.0
Padres $1,210,934.07 121 4 Brian Giles 5.7
Mariners $2,205,714.29 256 8 Jeff Weaver 5.6
Astros $1,682,280.22 198 4 Jason Jennings 5.2
Cubs $1,504,543.96 271 7 Kerry Wood 4.1
Giants $900,054.95 62 3 Dave Roberts 2.7
Pirates $365,453.30 88 4 John Wasdin 2.6


Using this system we find that the team that's been hit hardest by injuries thus far has been the Washington Nationals, who have lost nearly $4.2 million of their pro-rated $13.7 million salary to the DL. That's 30.5 percent, nearly half of which has gone to Nick Johnson, though the starting rotation has also been hard hit. Given the size of their total payroll, the Mets slip down to fourth overall, with the Royals, who had slipped to eighth in total dollars lost, move back up to fifth. The A's and Braves finish second and third, respectively.

A couple of notes on the resulting list: The Marlins have had the most players hit the DL and are third in the majors in days lost to the DL, but rank 19th by this system. That's less an indication of the system's failures than it is the Marlins' bizarre payroll structure. Some $13.85 million of the Marlins' Opening Day payroll of $30,507,000 was tied up in two players: Miguel Cabrera and Dontrelle Willis, leaving just $16.675 million to be divided among the other 23 men on the roster. Without an injury to either Cabrera or Willis, the Marlins will be hard pressed to break into the top half of this chart.

That the Nationals top the chart should be sufficient indication that the system is not skewed against low-payroll teams, but the Marlins should certainly rank higher. Among the players who have spent time on Florida's DL are the Marlins' intended starting first baseman, right fielder, center fielder, closer, and three of their top six starting pitchers.

The Red Sox DL losses, meanwhile, are related almost entirely to Matt Clement, who is Boston's answer to Carl Pavano. Unlike the Yankees with Pavano, however, the Red Sox proceeded over the off-season on the assumption that they wouldn't get any contribution from Clement in 2007 following his September 2006 shoulder surgery. With that in mind, it almost seems fair to run the Sox's numbers without Clement, which would leave them with just 2.5 percent of their pro-rated payroll lost the DL thus far, just edging out the Pirates as the healthiest team in baseball.

It's not a surprise, then, that Boston has also been the best team in baseball.

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6/01/2007 01:39:00 PM

Wild Card: Yanks down, but not out yet

By Cliff Corcoran

On September 27, 1993 the Yankees beat Rick Sutcliffe and the Orioles 9-1 at Camden Yards in Baltimore behind a strong eight-inning outing by Scott Kamieniecki and a perfect inning of relief by Steve Howe. The Yankee lineup that night included Dion James, Danny Tartabull, Mike Stanley, Mike Gallego and Pat Kelly. That same night, the defending World Champion Toronto Blue Jays beat the Brewers 2-0 at County Stadium in Milwaukee. The Brewers, in Robin Yount's final season, would finish dead last in the American League East. The Blue Jays, meanwhile, clinched their second straight division championship with their win that night.

That was the last time that the New York Yankees were eliminated during the regular season.

The Yankees are a long way from being eliminated in 2007, but for the first time in 14 years, it seems not only possible, but likely that the Yankees will not make it to the postseason. Last year, the Atlanta Braves failed to win their division for the first time since 1990, ending the longest streak of both division titles and playoff appearances in baseball history. This year it looks as though the second-longest streaks of both kind will come to an end in the Bronx.

Two years ago, the Yankees got off to another awful start and many articles such as this one were written about the fact that the dynasty had come to an end. As it turned out, the Yankees managed to keep their streak of division titles going by virtue of a tie-breaker secured on the penultimate day of the season. On June 1, 2005 the Yankees were four games out of first place in the AL East, 2.5 games out of the wild card, and had a .529 winning percentage. Tonight, the Yankees open up a three-game series in Boston trailing the first-place Red Sox by 13.5 games. They are seven games behind the defending AL Champion Tigers in the wild card race, with six other teams filling the space in between, and have a .431 winning percentage. Yankees legend and unofficial team mascot Yogi Berra famously said, "it ain't over 'til it's over," but it's looking awfully over in the Bronx.

Yogi himself didn't see much of this in his days as Yankees catcher. In fact, he saw it just once, in 1959 when the Yankees were six games out with a .452 winning percentage on June 1 and finished the season 15 games behind the Go-Go White Sox with a .513 mark. When Berra was a Yankee coach, the 1978 Bronx Bombers famously came from 14 games back on July 20 to steal the division from the Red Sox in a one-game playoff. On June 1, 1978, however, the Yankees were three games behind Boston with a .630 winning percentage.

In a series of articles on Baseball Prospectus.com in early 2003 and again in an upcoming Baseball Prospectus book on pennant races, Dr. Rany Jazayerli has examined the importance of a team's early-season performance. The result of his research was a series of formulas that allows us to calculate a team's most likely full-season record based on its performance in its first 50 games as well as over the previous three seasons. Using Dr. Jazayerli's formulas we come up with the following for the Yankees, Red Sox, and Tigers:

Team W-L Pct.
BOS 100-62 .617
DET 89-73 .552
NYY 80-82 .497
By these methods, the Yankees can be expected to finish 20 games out in the East and nine games out in the wild card while finishing below .500 for the first time since 1992, when Buck Showalter was in his first year as Yankees manager. Pythagorean record is more optimistic, but even that measure determined by runs scored and allowed would have the Yankees finishing a solid 14 games out of first in the East and three games behind the Tigers in the Wild Card race.

If there's any hope to be had for the Yankees, who just lost Jason Giambi to the disabled list for at least a month with a tear in the plantar fascia in his left foot and announced that prized pitching prospect Phil Hughes suffered a Grade 3 ankle sprain while rehabbing his Grade 2 hamstring tear and will likely not be able to rejoin the team until at least August, it's in the examples from recent history provided by the A's, Marlins, and Astros.

In 2001, the A's came from eight games out on July 7 to win the AL Wild Card. In 2002, those same A's came from nine games behind on June 5 to win the AL West. In 2003, the eventual world champion Marlins came from 9.5 games out on June 19 to win the NL wild card. In 2005, the eventual NL champion Astros came from eight games out on June 29 and 10.5 games out on June 1 to win the NL wild card. Most significantly, none of those four teams had a winning record on June 1, with the Astros posting an especially awful .373 winning percentage over their first 51 games of the 2005 season. The Astros went 70-41 (.631) over final four months of the 2005 season to win the wild card on the very last day of the regular season by a single game over the Philadelphia Phillies. The Astros' record that year was 89-73, identical to the projected record for the Tigers above.

It's worth noting that those Astros featured the pitching tandem of Roger Clemens and Andy Pettitte. It seems extremely unlikely that Clemens and Pettitte could experience such a thrilling comeback twice in four years, but there remain a few lingering reasons for optimism in New York. The first of which is the arrival of Clemens, who will make his first start for the Yankees in Chicago on Monday night. That said, such a comeback by the Yankees would be historic, which only means that, whether they make the postseason or not, the fate of the Yankees will prove to be one of the biggest stories of the 2007 baseball season.

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5/25/2007 10:51:00 AM

Wild Card: Classic Underachievers

By Cliff Corcoran

Since my look at underachieving teams was such a hit, I thought I'd zoom in to take a look at some of the players that have been underachieving thus far. The following are players that have produced at far below their expected levels. In most cases that means they're due to break out, though in some cases their lack of production could represent the dying embers of a long, lustrous career, or the fast fizzling of a brief, but bright, flame. We'll take them by position (as always, the slash stats are AVG/OBP/SLG):

1B Carlos Delgado (.216/.293/.317)
Delgado is a career .281/.388/.551 hitter who hasn't had an OPS below .900 since 1997 when he hit "just" .262/.350/.528. He'll turn 35 next month, but his combination of power and patience is usually the sort of skill set that ages well. He's been a bit better in May (.254/.342/.413), but historically April is actually one of his strongest months (.287/.402/.552 career). Delgado claims he’s not hiding an injury, but he was dropped to sixth in the batting order from his customary cleanup spot on Wednesday.

2B Robinson Cano (.254/.293/.373)
Unlike Delgado, Cano is a historically slow starter, the only problem is there's not much history to base that on. Cano's major league debut was on May 3, 2005, so he's only had one April before this one. Still, he's now a career .270/.299/.381 hitter in April and May compared to .333/.353/.528 over the remainder of the season. With that in mind, he's not so much underperforming as following his established pattern, but he's the brightest star in the second base bunch that also includes Tadahito Iguchi (.217/.313/.333) and batting champ Freddy Sanchez (.286/.316/.342).

SS Michael Young (.240/.284/.385)
Believe it or not, as recently as 2002, Young hit .262/.308/.383 over 573 at-bats as the Rangers' starting second baseman. He was 25 that season and, though he had hit consistently in the minors, at that point he looked like a bust. A closer look at that 2002 season reveals that Young was wildly streaky, posting an OPS above .800 in April, June and August and an OPS below .650 in May, July and September. The next year he smoothed things out, and from 2004 to 2006 he was a perennial All-Star and MVP vote-getter. Indeed, Young appears to be back on track this year, hitting .319/.395/.514 since May 4, which just goes to show how awful he was in April.

3B Scott Rolen (.215/.303/.319)
Unlike Young, Rolen has only gotten worse this May, hitting .169/.301/.220 on the month. The best split one can find on him is his .267/.368/.367 over the past 10 days, but that's still awful for a potential Hall of Famer who's just turned 32. Then again, given Rolen's injury history, it could be that his body is a lot older than 32. If that were true, one would expect to have seen some decrease in his defensive play. The early statistical returns do suggest a reduction in his range at the hot corner, but small sample fielding stats are about as sketchy as you can get, and Rolen has not made a single error all year. Maybe he's still sulking over being benched in the playoffs.

C Jason Kendall (.192/.235/.205)
Far and away the worst performer on this list, Kendall astonishingly appears to be in no danger of losing his job as Mike Piazza has yet to catch an inning for the A's and backup Adam Melhuse was sent down briefly at the end of April to solve a roster crunch. Meanwhile, Moneyball draftee Jeremy Brown was just taken off the 40-man roster to clear room for an extra relief pitcher. Given their laundry list of injuries, Kendall would seem to be low on the A's list of priorities, but for an organization that values its outs as highly as Oakland, his .235 on-base percentage, which is dead last among the 185 qualifiers in the major leagues, can't be sitting (or squatting in this case) well with management. Catching prospect Kurt Suzuki hasn't really found his groove in Triple-A, but he couldn't be worse than this, and, while Kendall is owed $13 million this year, it's the last year of his contract. Kendall hasn't shown any signs of snapping out of his funk. It might be time for the A's to cut him loose.

RF Bobby Abreu (.239/.315/.306)
Getting out of Philadelphia looked like it had done wonders for Abreu at the end of last season, as his .330/.419/.507 performance in pinstripes helped lead the Yankees to another AL East title, but after a solid, if power-free 15-game start to the 2007 season, Abreu has hit a Kendall-like .186/.265/.254 over his past 30 contests. Manager Joe Torre briefly tried to kickstart Abreu by flipping him up to second in the order and even leading him off in a couple of games, but when that failed to take, he dropped Abreu down to sixth. Most alarming for the Yankees was a stretch in which the notoriously finicky Abreu walked just once in 77 plate appearances. He looked to be breaking out of it last weekend with four walks and four hits in three games against the rival Mets and Red Sox, but has reached base just once in the two games since then.

CF Jim Edmonds (.222/.298/.302)
Edmonds missed time last year due to post-concussion syndrome and had shoulder and toe surgery in the offseason, which not only caused him to miss most of spring training but caused his left leg to atrophy as he was in a walking cast for six weeks following the toe surgery. The usual aches and pains have followed him into this season as he's missed a handful of games, but there's some cause for hope as he's hit .308/.364/.410 over his past 11 games. There's still not much power there, but it seems a minor miracle that Edmonds, who turns 37 in about a month, is still playing at all given the way he’s mistreated his body over his 15-year-career.

LF Manny Ramirez (.250/.332/.407)
Historically, April is Manny's worst month, but "worst" in the context of his career means .312/.398/.573. That's why Manny's underachieving line is the best of the nine in my starting lineup, he's set a standard that's nearly impossible to live up to, though he does it, year after year. Manny's least productive since becoming a full-time starter with the Indians in 1995 at age 23 came in 1997: .328/.415/.538. Manny's hitting .301/.352/.506 in May, but even that is way below his established standard. For all the Manny Being Manny cracks, its worth remembering that simply being Manny is an incredible thing.

DH Frank Thomas (.224/.343/.362)
In each of his first eight seasons, Frank Thomas hit over .300, reached base more than 40 percent of the time, and slugged over .500. When he hit .265/.381/.480 at age 30 in 1998 people had the audacity to think he was washed up. He rebounded with two strong seasons, hitting .328/.436/.625 with 43 homers and 143 RBIs in 2000 and finishing second in the MVP voting, but then missed all but 20 games in 2001. Since then, injuries have scattered Thomas's playing time (an average of 150 games the next two seasons, but an average of just 54 games the two seasons after that), but his production has largely held steady. Even when he hit just .219 in a season limited to 34 games in 2006, he still cracked 12 homers and slugged .590. Last year was his third and perhaps most unexpected comeback as he hit .270/.381/.545 for Oakland and finished fourth in the MVP voting in his first season outside of Chicago, but there was no guarantee he could repeat it in Toronto. One of these years he's not going to come back. Five years after that, he'll find a permanent home in Cooperstown.

We'll do a lightning round on the pitchers:

The Starting Five:

The injured Chris Carpenter (7.50 ERA), Carlos Zambrano (5.61 ERA) looking like the last victim of Dusty Baker's disregard for pitch counts just in time for his walk year, Mike Mussina (6.52 ERA) looking washed up once again, groundballer Jake Westbrook (7.90 ERA) who's allowing almost twice as many fly balls as in past years, and teammate Jeremy Sowers (7.90) a top prospect whose low strikeout rate defied explanation and who's now being asked to explain himself.

The next five: Kevin Millwood (6.62) who has struggled with hamstring trouble, Barry Zito (4.70) who everyone and their mother knew was overrated, but still shouldn't have seen his ERA increase that much moving to a pitchers' park in a pitchers' park division in the easier league, Tony Armas Jr. (8.16) who is always hurt but never this terrible, ditto John Patterson (7.47), and Jeff Weaver (14.32, 0-6 in six starts) who is a perpetual disappointment, but never that terrible and is now injured, which he also never is. Dishonorable mention to Brett Tomko (6.28 ERA), who can usually eat innings without doing that much harm, and Dave Bush (5.56 ERA), who looked like a find last year but needs to find something this year.

Closer:

Mariano Rivera (6.32 ERA, 3 saves)
Rivera allowed just two baserunners in his first four appearances this season, but has had just one one-two-three inning in his 13 appearances since. Mo's low save total is largely a byproduct of the Yankees' winning big on the odd occasion that they actually do win, but he has also blown two of his five chances and has an 8.49 ERA over those last 13 appearances. Rivera has gotten off to slow starts before, but now that he's 37 years old one has to wonder if this time there's more to this. Rivera's home run and runs-allowed totals after less than a third of the season don't look out of place next to his full-season totals from the last five years. He has allowed three home runs already, a total he has only surpassed thrice since 1995, with a single-season high of five. He has also allowed 11 runs thus far. He's surpassed 20 just thrice since 1995 as well, topping out at 26 in 2000.

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5/11/2007 09:30:00 AM

Wild Card: Seven Underperforming Teams

Ted Lilly
Ted Lilly, with a 2.78 ERA in 45 1/3 innings, has exceeded even the Cubs' expectations for him during his first year with the team.
Warren Wimmer/WireImage.com
By Cliff Corcoran

Thanks to everyone who participated in our little troll-baiting experiment last week. I stand by those evaluations, even if the Brewers haven’t lost a game since (they have been playing the Pirates and Nationals, you know). The idea, of course, was not to be inflammatory, but to pair last week’s list of overachievers up with a list of five underachieving teams this week. In the interim, however, two underperforming teams I had pegged for this week started winning (albeit against weak competition). Just to tick everyone off, I’ll start with those two criminally neglected ballclubs, but in the interests of fairness, I’ll make it up to you by listing two bonus underachievers at the end.

New York Yankees

Yes, Roger Clemens will make them a better ballclub, but the Yankees were due to improve even before they doled out the largest annual salary in major-league history to a 44-year-old hurler who hasn’t pitched since last September. The Yankees have the best offense in baseball and only recently got two of their top three starters (Chien-Ming Wang, who took a perfect game into the eighth inning last Saturday, and Mike Mussina) back from early-season DL stays. The return of the ultra-efficient Wang especially will help take pressure off the bullpen, where Mariano Rivera is sure to get over what have become his annual early-season hiccups. By early June, when the Yankees round out their rotation with Clemens and top prospect Phil Hughes, whose no-hitter-dashing hamstring tear turned out to be less severe than originally thought, the team could be right back in the thick of the wild-card hunt. That said, the Red Sox may be too strong for the Yankees’ to build on their streak of nine consecutive AL East titles.

Chicago Cubs

The Cubs’ early-season struggles have led to a lot of I-told-you-so articles about how the team’s offseason spending spree was as pointless as the Blue Jays’ the year before. Don’t be so quick to judge. The early returns on Ted Lilly and Jason Marquis have exceeded everyone’s expectations, including GM Jim Hendry’s, and, although they lack gaudy homer totals, Alfonso Soriano and Aramis Ramirez are producing at or above their career norms. Actually, one curious note about the Cubs’ April is the offense’s odd distribution of homers and doubles. In the NL as a whole thus far this season, there have been 2.21 doubles hit for every home run. The Cubs, however, have 3.04 doubles for every home run despite the presence of such elite mashers such as Soriano, Ramirez and Derrek Lee. Taking a closer look, Ramirez is on pace for 40 dingers, but Soriano and Lee are only on pace for 18 and 10, respectively. At the same time, Soriano and Lee are on pace for 72 and 86 doubles each, which suggests that the ball just wasn’t carrying at Wrigley in April. Indeed, the Cubs have slugged .456 on the road, but only .396 at home thus far. That will change as the weather warms up. Of course, that change will also inflate the team ERA, but the Cubs are due for some correction in their luck, much like the next team on this list.

Philadelphia Phillies

A team’s record in one-run games is largely the result of luck and tends to trend back toward .500. The three worst one-run records in baseball right now belong to the New York Yankees (2-6), the Chicago Cubs (2-7), and the Philadelphia Phillies (1-7). Those clubs are also three of only four teams in the majors that have outscored their opponents, but don’t have winning records, another strong indication of an underachieving team. The Phillies, of course, are perennial underachievers, having failed to make the playoffs since 1993 despite winning at least 85 games in five of the last six seasons and finishing second in the NL East in four of those. Thus far this year, their problem has been pitching, particularly the last two spots in a rotation that was supposedly six-deep entering the season. The Phillies have responded to that in their usual boneheaded manner by pulling their supposed ace, Brett Myers, out of the rotation after one strong start and two bad ones and sticking him in the bullpen even before they had a need to replace since injured closer Tom Gordon. Still, Cole Hamels (the team’s true ace), the ageless Jamie Moyer, and the formerly unwanted Jon Lieber have been excellent, and Freddy Garcia showed no ill effects after running into a groundskeeper’s cart while shagging batting practice flies. The MRI on Gordon’s shoulder was negative, and, having had a cortisone shot, he’s resumed throwing. If the Phillies would just dump Adam Eaton and reinstall Myers in the rotation, the natural corrections they’re due to enjoy in their overall fortunes could get them back in their customary bridesmaid position by year's end.

Toronto Blue Jays

The fourth-worst record in one-run games belongs to the Blue Jays (3-8). Unlike the Yankees, Cubs, and Phillies, the Blue Jays may not be much more than a .500 ballclub, but that’s still a big improvement over their current .382. The Jays’ big problem thus far has been injuries, which I wrote about a few weeks ago over on the AL East portion of this blog. Troy Glaus has returned and picked up right where he left off, but catcher and on-base machine Gregg Zaun has taken his place on the DL, rookie Adam Lind has yet to lived up to his billing in place of Reed Johnson, and the bullpen is still struggling to cope with the loss of closer B. J. Ryan, who had Tommy John surgery last week and is out for the year. Then again, much like the Phillies, the Blue Jays’ real problem is the rotation; the Jays have lost nine in a row and allowed an average of eight runs per game over that stretch. No team can continue to play that poorly. Not even the ...

Kansas City Royals

That’s right, the Royals are underachieving. They’re currently on pace to lose 110 games, but I still think they’ll avoid hitting the century mark for the first time since 2003. The primary reason is that the offense is not nearly as bad as it’s shown itself to be in the early going. The Royals are currently dead last in the AL in runs per game, but Alex Gordon, Emil Brown, and Ryan Shealy (who’s been hurt) have contributed virtually nothing thus far and power prospect Billy Butler just arrived on the scene. I’m not saying the Royals are going to slug with the Yankees, but those four should kick into gear sooner or later, and the team could get an extra boost if Mark Grudzielanek is cleared away so that Esteban German can be given the second base job. Remember, everything’s relative. A 95-loss season would be a boon for this franchise.

Minnesota Twins

The first of my two bonus selections, the Twins are the fourth team without a winning record to have outscored its opponents. The Twins can easily upgrade the No. 5 spot in the rotation currently occupied by Sidney Ponson with any of a number of in-house candidates, and are currently without defending batting champion Joe Mauer due to a quadriceps strain. Also, two-time Cy Young award winner Johan Santana does his best work in the second half (2.55 ERA, 45-10 career in the second half vs. 3.74, 37-23 in the first half). Improvement over their current .500 record is almost guaranteed.

Washington Nationals

One thing that some of the more irate commenters failed to appreciate about my Overachievers post last week was that extreme performance of any kind is unlikely to persist. That’s why I tabbed the Braves, Indians, and Brewers as Overacheivers, and that’s why I’m including the dreadful Nats here as my second bonus pick. The Nationals have a .265 winning percentage. That would tie them with the 2003 Detroit Tigers for the sixth-worst winning percentage since 1900 if they were to finish the season at that level. The Nationals have scored just 2.91 runs per game thus far this year. Last year the worst offense in baseball belonged to the Pittsburgh Pirates; they scored 4.27 runs per game. The last time a team scored less than three runs per game over a full season was 35 years ago. This level of futility is unsustainable, particularly when Ryan Zimmerman hasn’t started hitting yet and Nick Johnson is starting to work out with an eye toward returning around the All-Star break.

Cliff Corcoran is the co-author of Bronx Banter.

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5/04/2007 11:13:00 AM

April: The Overachievers

Chipper Jones
The good times are rolling for the Braves, but not for much longer.
AP
By Cliff Corcoran

Two weeks ago, I pinch-hit for my colleague Alex Belth on the AL East beat here at Fungoes and made an off-hand comment that the Baltimore Orioles’ hold on second place was tenuous at best, prompting an onslaught of angry comments. The Orioles have lost nine of their 10 games since that piece appeared and have fallen all the way to last place (apologies will be accepted in the comments area below).

With the Orioles taken care of, I thought I’d try to identify five other teams around the majors that have been playing over their heads thus far. Think of it as something of a Conan O’Brien Hates My Homeland for baseball fans. Here’s what I’ve come up with:

Atlanta Braves
The Braves are back in their customary first-place position in the NL East, but they have several hitters on unsustainable paces. Chipper Jones might be a future Hall of Famer, but he’s not going to slug .692 at age 35 when his career mark is .544, and, though he hasn’t missed a game yet, he’s also not going to stay healthy all season. Kelly Johnson is a good hitter (his career minor-league batting line is .281/.366/.464), but he’s not this good. His hitting .323/.466/.591 while learning a new position is a great story, but reality will come calling sooner or later. Meanwhile, Edgar Renteria is outproducing his 2003 career year. That can’t last either. On the mound, Tim Hudson’s 1.40 ERA and perfect record won’t hold and I’ll be surprised if he’s not sharing the DL with Chipper at some point during the season. On the flip side, other than Craig Wilson, the short side of the team’s first-base platoon, there are no real candidates for improvement, especially now that Ryan Langerhans and his .068 average have been shipped out of town.

Milwaukee Brewers
While I don’t expect the Braves to win their division, the Brewers will probably win theirs, but they won’t win the 104 games for which they’re currently on pace. The only Milwaukee hitter whose performance doesn’t track with his past is shortstop J. J. Hardy (.272/.335/.402 in his minor-league career vs. .306/.369/.550 thus far this season). It’s the Brewers’ pitching that’s unlikely to hold up, particularly Jeff Suppan (2.55 ERA) and closer Francisco Cordero (no runs allowed). Ben Sheets' early struggles might suggest room for improvement, but, for all Sheets’ talent, his inability to stay healthy casts doubt over that potential improvement. Remember, for all the preseason hype, this team only won 75 games last year. Even if they improve on that mark by 20 wins this season, they’ll still fall nine wins short of their current pace.

Cleveland Indians
While I’m at it, I might as well point out that the Cleveland Indians, no matter how good they might be, are not going to win 110 games, as their major league-best .680 winning percentage might suggest. I’ll admit to having doubted the Indians coming into the season. Looking at their roster, however, I can’t see any dramatic overperformance, save perhaps for relief pitchers Rafael Betancourt (1.50 ERA) and Fernando Cabrera (1.23). In fact, second baseman Josh Barfield (.181/.209/.241) and starting pitcher Jake Westbrook (7.90 ERA) are sure to improve. Still, the Tribe’s Pythagorean winning percentage (based on the difference between runs scored and runs allowed) is a mere .583. That would translate to a more realistic 94 wins over a full season. Also, the Indians have yet to face intradivision rivals Detroit or AL East leaders Boston and were swept in their only meeting with the scuffling Yankees. Despite Cleveland’s early lead, the AL Central should prove to be the dogfight we all expected before the season began.

Seattle Mariners
First place teams are easy targets for this sort of thing, so I’ll pick some less obvious victims for these last two spots. The Mariners are the only team in the major leagues with a winning record that has failed to outscore its opponents for the year. Richie Sexson (.143/.233/.377) is a candidate for improvement, but the bullpen, particularly closer J.J. Putz (1.38 ERA) and LOOGY George Sherrill (no runs allowed) will have their struggles. Similarly, Jarrod Washburn (2.88 ERA) is due for some correction. Finally, though Felix Hernandez is expected to return next week, the M’s aren’t out of the woods with respect to his elbow problems just yet.

Pittsburgh Pirates
The Pirates are already a sub-.500 team with the third worst offense in baseball, how could they possibly get worse? Simple, by being forced to play outside the largely pathetic NL Central. Thus far, the Bucs have played just four games against inter-division rivals, losing three of them. There’s a lot more of that to come in the remaining five months of the season, though amazingly they don’t play another game outside of their division until a week from today.

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4/27/2007 10:02:00 AM

The Wild Card: Which Kids are Alright?

Homer Bailey
Coming soon to a ballpark near you: Homer Bailey.
J. Meric/WireImage.com
By Cliff Corcoran

You don’t have to look any further than the money lavished this past offseason on Barry Zito ($126 million), Daisuke Matsuzaka ($103.1 million), Gil Meche ($55 million), Ted Lilly ($40 million), Adam Eaton ($24.5 million), and Jason Marquis ($21 million) to see that starting pitching is the most valuable commodity baseball.

That’s why last year’s crop of young hurlers was so exciting. Rookie Justin Verlander helped lead the Tigers to the World Series and won the American League Rookie of the Year award; Jered Weaver and Francisco Liriano dominated; the Giants’ 21-year-old phenom Matt Cain spent his first full season in the majors; and Cole Hamels invented socks. Then there was Cleveland’s Jeremy Sowers and the Marlins’ trio of 22-year-old starters led by no-hit artist Anibal Sanchez. What the game needed most, it was finally getting: an influx of talented, young, starting pitchers.

This year, Mike Pelfrey and Jason Hirsh, both of whom made their major league debuts in 2006, and the White Sox’s John Danks, who made his debut this season, broke camp as members of the Mets’, Rockies’, and White Sox’s rotations respectively, but the biggest debut of them all happened Thursday night in the Bronx. Twenty-year-old Phil Hughes, rated by both Baseball Prospectus and Baseball America as the top pitching prospect in the minor leagues coming into the 2007, struck out five Blue Jays in 4 1/3 innings in an expectedly rocky but overall impressive debut for a 20-year-old with just three starts above double-A on his resume.

Hughes will likely return to the minors for more seasoning before establishing himself as a permanent part of the Yankee rotation later in the year, but his arrival, as well as the approaching end of April, begs a look at what this year’s crop of young starting pitching talent might yield:

Tim Lincecum, Giants
Drafted out of the University of Washington last June, the 22-year-old Lincecum is known as "Seabiscuit" because of his small stature (5’10" 155 lbs.). Next to Hughes, he is the pitching prospect most likely to make a major impact this season. Lincecum dominated the high-A California League in six starts late last year (48 strikeouts and 25 base runners in 27 2/3 innings) and jumped straight to the triple-A Pacific Coast League this year. In four starts in the hitting-happy PCL, Lincecum has struck out 32 in 25 innings while allowing just 20 base runners and just one run. In San Francisco, fifth starter Russ Ortiz has faired better than expected, but it would seem to be just a matter of time before the bottom drops out. In the meantime, there are some whispers that Lincecum could be called up to help out in the Giants’ bullpen.

Homer Bailey, Reds
Bailey, like Hughes, is a big, hard-throwing, soon-to-be 21-year-old righty who was drafted out of high school in 2004. Also like Hughes, Bailey split 2006 between the high-A Florida State League and Double-A. Unlike Hughes, his organization’s major-league rotation is flourishing, though, like Russ Ortiz, one doesn’t imagine that Kyle Lohse, Eric Milton, and converted reliever Matt Belisle will all be able to maintain their solid early-season performances. Bailey, meanwhile, has had a solid start to his triple-A career with Louisville (1.69 ERA, 0.98 WHIP), but his strikeout rate, which had been consistently more than ten-per-nine innings over the last three levels, has thus far dropped by nearly half.

Yovani Gallardo, Brewers
Gallardo is another 2004 high school draft pick who answers to the same description as Hughes and Bailey. Despite being a few ticks down on most prospect boards, Gallardo has suffered no strikeout deflation over his first four starts in the PCL. After allowing four earned runs in his PCL debut (but still striking out seven in five innings), Gallardo has dominated in his past three outings, allowing just seven hits in 18 innings and striking out 26. He could be the first of the pitchers on this list to make a permanent move into his organization’s major-league rotation, as Ben Sheets’ fragility could create a large enough opening for Gallardo to come up and establish himself.

Matt Garza, Twins
Drafted out of Cal State Fresno in 2005, Garza made nine starts for the Twins last year but the results were poor and, despite a strong spring showing, he landed back in Triple-A Rochester this spring. That doesn’t sound so unfair when talking about a 23-year-old in his third professional season, but the fifth starter the Twins took north instead was Sidney Ponson, the washout who was released by three teams in a 12-month span from September 2005 through August ’06. It should come as no surprise to anyone, least of all the Twins, that Ponson has posted a 8.44 ERA and a 2.06 WHIP over his first four starts. Unfortunately, Garza’s return to Triple-A hasn’t gone as well as his original five starts there last year, and he missed his last turn with neck problems. That might temporarily turn attention to the Red Wings’ finesse righty Kevin Slowey, also a 23-year-old 2005 college draftee, who has dominated in his first three Triple-A starts, local lefty Glen Perkins (who currently resides in the Minnesota bullpen), or 2006 disappointment Scott Baker, who’s heating up with Rochester. Garza, however, remains the name to watch in this organization.

Adam Miller, Indians
This 22-year-old high school product was slowed by elbow concerns in 2005, but got back up to speed at Double-A Akron last year to reestablish himself as one of the top pitching prospects in the game. His early returns from Triple-A Buffalo have been mixed, but the Indians’ rotation has struggled in the early going, and the return of Cliff Lee from the DL may not be enough. Don’t be surprised if Miller rides a hot streak to Cleveland sometime around midseason.

Luke Hochevar, Royals
Hochevar was twice drafted by the Dodgers. Selected out of high school in 2002, he didn’t sign. Selected again out of the University of Tennessee in 2005, he drew out negotiations, twice switched agents, once reneging on a deal in the process, and ultimately failed to sign again. He spent 2006 pitching in the independent American Association until the Royals made him the first overall pick in last year’s draft and signed him to a four-year major league deal worth $5.3 million. Having made just four starts in A-ball last year, he’s essentially beginning his professional career at Double-A Wichita this year and seems to have found his groove in just his third start at that level. In his third and fourth starts of the young season combined, Hochevar has struck out 18 in 14 2/3 innings while walking none and allowing three runs on eight hits. He’s actually a month older than Zack Greinke, and there’s no one blocking his path to the Royals’ rotation.

Jeff Niemann, Devil Rays
Drafted out of Rice in 2004, Niemann didn’t make his pro debut until 2005, quickly shooting up to Double-A, but also having his season cut short by shoulder surgery. After returning in the second half last year, the 6’9", 280-pound 24-year-old is off to a solid, but not overwhelming start with Triple-A Durham. Provided he stays healthy, there’s no reason not to expect him to find a place in the dismal Devil Rays’ rotation later this year.

Philip Humber, Mets
Niemann’s teammate at Rice, Humber was taken one pick earlier in the 2004 draft (third overall to Niemann’s fourth). Like Niemann, Humber didn’t make his pro debut until 2005 only to have that season cut short by Tommy John surgery. After getting back on the horse last year, Humber pitched his way from rookie ball to double-A and topped it off with two hitless innings for the big club in a late-September call-up. This year he’s at Triple-A New Orleans, where he’ll be ready to swap places with struggling fellow rookie Pelfrey. Not that Humber doesn’t have his own issues. Though he’s been strong overall, he gave up four runs in three innings in his second of four starts thus far. Curiously, he struck out six in that outing. In his other three "good" starts combined, he’s struck out just 11 in 18 innings, a rather pedestrian rate given his typical pace of one per inning.

Andrew Miller, Tigers
The sixth overall pick in last year’s draft out of the University of North Carolina, Miller’s contract required him to see some action in the major leagues last year, which he did, handing out ten walks in 10 1/3 relief innings for the Tigers after dominating just five relief innings for their high-A Florida State League team in Lakeland. This year, the 21-year-old lefty is back with the Lakeland Flying Tigers and has thus far alternated impressive and unimpressive starts. His most impressive statistic thus far is his 4.36 groundout-to-flyout ratio. That won’t get him back to the bigs this year on its own, but he’s still a name to watch, especially in this organization, which proved last year that it’s not afraid to skip levels with college pitchers.

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4/20/2007 10:06:00 AM

Wild Card: The Art of the Platoon

By Cliff Corcoran

One of the more alarming trends in roster construction in the past year or so has been the increasing willingness of teams to carry 12, even 13 pitchers on their 25-man roster. The Rangers were one of a few that carried 13 for parts of 2006, and the Orioles fully intended to break camp this year with 13 hurlers and a three-man bench only to have their plans foiled by Ramon Hernandez's oblique injury, which forced them to replace that 13th pitcher with an extra catcher.

One would assume an unintended consequence of these ever-expanding pitching staffs and correspondingly shrinking benches would be a dearth of position-player platoons. Surprisingly, that hasn't been the case. A quick survey of the games played thus far this season reveals that more than half of major-league managers have at least one player on their team whose starts are dependent on the handedness of the opposing starting pitcher.

The practice of platooning -- which, in it's simplest form, is splitting the starts at a given position between a left-handed and a right-handed hitter based on the handedness of opposing starting pitcher, with the opposite-handed hitter drawing the start in each game -- dates back to at least the late 1880s, though it didn't gain full support until Casey Stengel used it to great effect with the dynastic Yankees of the 1950s. Stengel picked up the habit after being platooned himself by his manager and mentor John McGraw during his playing days as a left-handed outfielder for the New York Giants. Stengel's success helped popularize the strategy, which is designed to optimize the offensive production of positions manned by hitters who just can't seem to figure out same-handed hurlers. The continued success of his followers -- including Earl Weaver, whose Orioles won three consecutive AL pennants from 1969 to 1971 while featuring a catching platoon of lefty Elrod Hendricks and righty Andy Etchebarren, and direct Stengel disciple Billy Martin, who managed the Detroit Tigers to the AL East title in 1972 while maintaining platoons at six different positions -- helped make it a commonplace practice.

Still, for all of its advantages, there are three potential problems with platooning:

1) A young hitter that struggles against same-handed pitchers might yet learn to hit them, but never will if he doesn't get to face them;

2) Since the majority of pitchers are right-handed (just 27 percent of all at-bats came against lefty pitching in 2006), the right-handed hitting half of any given platoon runs the risk of growing cold on the bench;

3) Being reduced to part-time roles tends to bruise egos.

That last point seemed to be a problem in Milwaukee this spring when it was announced that veterans Geoff Jenkins, a lefty hitter, and Kevin Mench, a righty, would be platooned in left field so that young prospect Corey Hart would not have to surrender his position in right field. Brewers' skipper Ned Yost has stuck to his guns on the left-field platoon thus far, with Jenkins starting only against righties, but has given into the complaints of Mench, the righty on the short-end of the platoon, by using him in place of fellow righty Hart against the odd right hander in the early going. With Hart heating up, however, Yost may soon have to stick to the plan in right field as well.

Even the best hitters in the game suffer a certain decline in production against same-handed hitters (or in the case of switch hitters, hit better from one side than the other). Barry Bonds, for example, has an OPS 100 points lower against lefties than righties over the course of his 22-year-career. Given that and the risks of stunting a hitter's progress, having his bat go cold, or simply ticking him off, it behooves managers to only platoon players with rather extreme differentials between their abilities to hit left-handed and right-handed hitters. With that in mind, I thought I'd take a look at the 22 pure platoons currently being employed in the major leagues to see which most represent an efficient use of team resources.

To do this I'll use a makeshift stat I'll call "Split" based on a very helpful statistic called GPA or Gross Production Average. GPA, like OPS, is a combination of a hitter's on-base and slugging percentages, but unlike OPS, which simply adds them together, GPA gives appropriate weight to OBP (which, since it's essentially the rate at which a hitter avoids making outs, and outs are the only limit placed on a team's ability to score runs, is by far the most important single offensive statistic in baseball). More skillful number crunchers than I have figured out that weighing OBP 1.8 times as much as slugging results in the best representation of a hitter's actual value. Thus the formula for GPA is GPA = (OBP*1.8 + SLG)/4. The division by four serves the aesthetic purpose of placing the stat on the same scale as batting average, with a .300 GPA being very good, a .200 GPA being very bad, and a .260 GPA being roughly average.

Split, then, will be the difference between a hitter's GPA against opposite-handed pitchers and their GPA against same-handed pitchers. Thus, if righty-hitting Bob Smith has a .280 GPA against lefties and a .240 GPA against righties, his Split is .040. At the same time, if Smith had a reverse split of the same degree (meaning he hits his fellow righties better than lefties), he'd have a -.040 Split.

As the season is still less than 10 percent finished and some teams, such as the Mariners, have faced just one lefty all year, I'll use hitters' career statistics to determine their Splits to avoid small sample issues. Here are the pure platoons currently being employed in major league baseball:

Atlanta Braves
1B: L – Scott Thorman (.044), R – Craig Wilson (.046)
LF: L – Ryan Langerhans (-.013), R – Matt Diaz (.015)
Bobby Cox launched the Braves' dynasty in 1991 with platoons at first, second, shortstop, and left field, but his current left-field scenario is rather pointless. Diaz, the better overall hitter, should be the full-time starter.

Baltimore Orioles
C: L – Paul Bako (.062), R – Alberto Castillo (-.043)
The O's are trying to make the best of a bad situation with Hernandez on the DL and these two scrubs as their backup options, but, despite hitting from different sides of the dish, Bako and Castillo are similarly effective against righties and lefties. Manager Sam Perlozzo would be better off hoping one of them gets hot and sticking with him until Hernandez is activated.

Chicago Cubs
SS: S – Cesar Izturis (-.012), R – Ronny Cedeño (-.033)
LF: L – Cliff Floyd (.024), R – Matt Murton (.045)
RF: L – Jacque Jones (.066), R – Ryan Theriot (.032)/R – Mark DeRosa (.052)
The Cubs have only faced two lefties this year, but the above seems to be the pattern Lou Piniella is following. Izturis and Cedeño are both awful hitters and Lou's platoon only makes things worse. The Floyd-Murton combo in left makes more sense, but the 25-year-old Murton deserves a chance to play every day. The best fit here is the right-field platoon, though it remains to be seen exactly whom Piniella is going to pair up with Jones. Theriot and DeRosa are currently battling over the second base job, but both have experience in the outfield as well. The best solution would be to make the 27-year-old Theriot the everyday starter at second and use veteran utility man DeRosa as the short side of the right-field platoon, enabling him to also fill in elsewhere when needed, as he did last year for the Rangers when he wasn't platooning with Hank Blalock at third base. The only concern is the quality of Theriot's defense at the keystone.

Cincinnati Reds
1B: L – Scott Hatteberg (.034), R – Jeff Conine (.030)
C: S – Javier Valentin (-.048), R – David Ross (.012)
Jerry Narron has used switch-hitter Valentin as the lefty half of his catching platoon for reasons that defy explanation. Valentin's split is so strong and Ross's so small that the Reds would actually be better off inverting their catcher platoon and starting Ross against righties and Valentin against lefties. The early returns show Ross struggling and Valentin excelling, but that's unlikely to continue. Ross should be the everyday catcher.

Cleveland Indians
RF: L – Trot Nixon (.079), R – Casey Blake (.018)
LF: L – David Dellucci (.076), R – Jason Michaels (.035)
The Indians started the season with Nixon in a complex platoon with righty-hitting first baseman Ryan Garko (.039) that had Blake bouncing between right field and first base and playing every day. The only problem with that setup was that Blake was playing everyday at the expense of 26-year-old Garko, whose major league sample isn't large enough to justify limiting him to a platoon just yet.

Colorado Rockies
2B: L – Kaz Matsui (.005), R – Jamey Carroll (.018)
Matsui had an insane split last year (.116). A more beneficial platoon they haven't fully committed to yet would be to split right field between lefty Brad Hawpe (.055) and righty Jeff Baker (.035).

Detroit Tigers
1B: L – Sean Casey (.021), R – Marcus Thames (.004)
Casey isn't the hitter he used to be. Thames, who had a breakout season as well as a slight reverse split (-.015) last year, should be the starter.

Houston Astros
RF: L – Luke Scott (.013), R – Jason Lane (.013)
Phil Garner would be better off riding the hot hand than worrying about handedness here.

Kansas City Royals
LF: L – Mark Teahen (.040), R – Reggie Sanders (0.36)
The Royals have also been working in righty-hitting infielder Esteban German (.017) against lefties, though German should really be starting full time, and just might if Dayton Moore can find a taker for second baseman Mark Grudzielanek.

Los Angeles Dodgers
RF: L – Andre Ethier (.006), R – Brady Clark (.005)
There's no reason for the Dodgers to be platooning Ethier with an inferior hitter such as Clark, even if Clark is just a stand-in for the injured Matt Kemp (who has a strong reverse split anyway, making that version of this platoon even more harmful). This is another symptom of the Dodgers' institutional distrust of their emerging prospects.

Milwaukee Brewers
LF: L – Geoff Jenkins (.053), R – Kevin Mench (.056)
Mench can complain all he wants; this is the most sensible platoon in baseball.

New York Yankees
1B: L – Doug Mientkiewicz (-.006), R – Josh Phelps (.026)
Phelps hits righties as well as Mientkiewicz, who, like Sean Casey, isn't the hitter he used to be anyway. With Chien-Ming Wang, one of the four most extreme groundball pitchers in baseball, returning from the DL, there would be a certain logic to a defensive platoon that would have Minky starting behind Wang and possibly Andy Pettitte, regardless of the opposing pitcher. Failing that, Phelps should be the full-timer here.

Oakland Athletics
RF: L – Travis Buck (NA), S – Bobby Kielty (.038)
Kielty is a switch-hitter in name only. Buck is a 23-year-old rookie who's 2 for 3 against lefties in his major league career and probably deserves a shot at a full-time job.

St. Louis Cardinals
2B: L – Adam Kennedy (.032), R – Aaron Miles (.006)
LF: L – Chris Duncan (.077), R – So Taguchi (-.002)
RF: S – Scott Spiezio (.017), R – Preston Wilson (.003)
Miles may seem like a poor partner for Kennedy, but he does hit lefties better than Kennedy (career .240 GPA to Kennedy's .224). The same is not true of Taguchi and Duncan, but then Duncan's stats are inflated by his small-sample success last year. As for Wilson, his split has become more extreme in recent years (.041 in 2005, .056 in '06), so that right-field platoon makes more sense than the career numbers above would indicate.

San Diego Padres
LF: L – Termel Sledge (.066), S – Jose Cruz Jr. (.022)
Switch-hitter Cruz serves as the right-handed half of this effective platoon.

Other Notable Platoon Players
The Marlins are working righty-hitting outfielder Cody Ross (.096) in against lefties. The Giants are working in outfielder Todd Linden (.037) against lefties and first baseman Ryan Klesko (.072) against righties. The Phillies are doing their best to sit right-hitting third baseman Wes Helms (.037) against righties. The Dodgers are trying to sit switch-hitter Wilson Betemit (.071 in favor of him hitting lefty) against lefties.

Finally, with DeRosa in Chicago, lefty hitting Rangers third baseman Blalock (.074) is playing every day, which, given his career .210 GPA against lefties after four full seasons and overall declining production, is detrimental to the Texas offense. It would behoove the Rangers to approach the Royals about a deal for German.

D'OH!

After praising Zack Greinke and Felix Hernandez as potential Cy Young candidates in last week's Wild Card, the two combined for the following line in their starts this past week: 1 IP, 5 H, 7 R, 4 BB, 1 K, 0-2, 63.00 ERA. Was it something I said?

Cliff Corcoran is the co-author of Bronx Banter.

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4/13/2007 09:56:00 AM

Wild Card: Rising up to the Monster

Zack Greinke
Zack Greinke, above, and Seattle's Felix Hernandez have matched Daisuke Matsuzaka pitch-for-pitch in head-to-head matchups this season.
Leon Halip/WireImage.com
By Cliff Corcoran

One of the sexiest storylines of the past offseason was the mystery surrounding Daisuke Matsuzaka , the 26-year-old ace of the Seibu Lions of the Japanese Pacific League. Who would sign him? How much would they pay? How difficult would his transition be to the major leagues? The answers to the first two ("the Red Sox" and "a lot") came all the way back in mid-December. Now that the baseball season is two weeks old, we have some early returns on the third question ("very well, thank you"), but in a curious twist, the most compelling thing about Matsuzaka’s first two major-league starts has not been the Monster himself, but the man on the mound when Matsuzaka was in the dugout.

Matsuzaka’s first start came in the final game of the Red Sox’s opening series in Kansas City. The opposing pitcher that afternoon was Zack Greinke, who upon his arrival in the majors in 2004 generated a fair amount of hype himself. Greinke put together a strong rookie campaign at 20, earning high marks for his savvy and maturity on the mound, but struggled in his sophomore season and soon found himself out of action due to a debilitating bout with social anxiety disorder. Greinke spent most of 2006 confronting his demons away from the ballpark, but managed to pitch his way back to the majors for a trio of relief outings in a late-September callup. Still, no one expected him to break camp as a member of the Royals’ rotation this spring. He not only did that, but he matched Matsuzaka pitch-for-pitch in his 2007 debut, striking out seven Red Sox, including David Ortiz thrice, and walking just one over seven innings while allowing just one earned run. Greinke was undone by an unearned run in the fifth, taking a hard-luck loss, but picked up right where he left off in his next outing in Toronto, walking none and striking out five in six innings while again allowing just one earned run, this time picking up the win. Johan Santana may have an iron grip on the American League Cy Young award for the immediate future, but if Greinke keeps it up, he should pick up a few votes and walk away with the Comeback Player of the Year award at the tender age of 23.

Matsuzaka’s second start came this past Wednesday in Fenway Park in the second game of the Sox’s three-game series with the Mariners. His Fenway debut was the most eagerly anticipated sporting event of the year in New England, even before the Patriots fell to the Colts in the AFC Championship Game, but Matsuzaka’s thunder was stolen by a pitcher that makes Greinke look like an old man, 21-year-old Felix Hernandez. Like Greinke, Hernandez arrived in the major leagues with the word "phenom" stamped boldly across his forehead. Dubbed "King Felix" before he ever threw a major league pitch, Hernandez lived up to the hype as best a 19-year-old could over 12 starts in his rookie season of 2005, but, much like Greinke, showed a disappointing regression in his sophomore season. Unfair as it might have been, Hernandez, who just reached legal drinking age this past Sunday, had his doubters coming into his second full major league season, but silenced most of them with a stellar Opening Day performance against the A’s in which he struck out 12 men while allowing just three hits and two walks over eight scoreless innings. The rest he shut up on Wednesday, taking a no-hitter into the eighth inning at Fenway and shrugging off a J. D. Drew single to complete a one-hit shutout, again walking just two men along the way. Hernandez’s two starts stand as the top single-game performances of each of the first two weeks of the season. If he keeps this up, Santana’s iron grip on the Cy Young just might be loosening.

Hernandez, Greinke, and Matsuzaka could be three of most exciting pitchers in the American League this season, their performances made all the more compelling by their backstories of age, illness, and roots, respectively. As for Matsuzaka himself, his Fenway debut wasn’t quite as impressive as his 10-K, one-run domination of the Royals in his major league debut, but one wonders if the eight hits, three runs, and mere four strikeouts he registered in that game weren’t yet another effect of the wintry weather that has haunted baseball in the Northeast Corridor over the first two weeks of the season.

One of the quirkier items out of Yankee camp this spring was the fact that New York’s own Japanese import, lefty starter Kei Igawa, took to wearing sunglasses on the mound in day games because, due in part to the glut of domed stadiums in the Japanese Leagues, he hadn’t pitched in daylight in two years and found he was distracted by the glare of the Florida sun. Given that, it doesn’t seem unreasonable to suggest that Igawa and Matsuzaka might have been effected by the cold snap in the Northeast more than your typical major league hurler.

That certainly seemed to be the case in Igawa’s first outing, which was perhaps the worst of a series of awful starts by the Yankee rotation amid the near-freezing temperatures and snow flurries that swept through the Bronx last week (though the cold didn’t seem to bother AL batting leader Akinori Iwamura, who went 3 for 7 in the Bronx with a double and a pair of walks). Curiously, Igawa pitched for the Hanshin Tigers, a team whose home park is an open-air stadium, in the Central League, in which just two of the six stadiums are domes.

Matsuzaka, meanwhile, pitched in the Pacific League, in which three of the six teams, including Matsuzaka’s Seibu Lions, play in domes and one of the remaining three play half of their home games in a dome (that team, the Orix Buffaloes, split their games between the home parks of the two teams that were merged to form them, the Osaka Kintetsu Buffaloes and Ichiro Suzuki’s former team, the Orix BlueWave). It would stand to reason, then, that Matsuzaka would be even more susceptible to the elements than Igawa. That could help explain Matsuzaka’s more pedestrian second start, as I’m not convinced that the free-swinging Mariners are really that much better of an offensive team than the new-look Royals. Of course, if allowing three runs on eight hits and two walks over seven innings is a "pedestrian" start for Matsuzaka, the American League, and Igawa’s Yankees in particular, could be in a whole heap of trouble. Then again, the pitchers are usually ahead of the hitters at this point in the season, Just ask Alex Gordon.

Cliff Corcoran is the co-author of Bronx Banter.

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4/06/2007 10:41:00 AM

Wild Card: Fashion Faux Pas

Chris Young
The D'backs finally ditched the purple, finding inspiration for their new duds from another NL ballclub.
AP
By Cliff Corcoran

If Jerry Seinfeld's right that we baseball fans really just root for laundry, then it only seems appropriate that, after all of the words spilled on new faces in new places (or rather, old faces in new laundry), we spill a few on the laundry itself. This year, the Diamondbacks and Reds have entirely new looks. New designs were sorely needed in both cases, though both could have done better than what they ultimately came up with. The Reds became victims of the dreaded black drop shadow in 1999 and, though they are one of the few teams with some historical claim to black as a team color, the Reds always looked better when they either stuck exclusively to red and white, or used navy instead of black. Their new duds greatly reduce the amount of black in their color scheme, but that blasted drop shadow is still there.

The Diamondbacks were the clear choice for worst uniform in the majors from the moment they entered the league in 1998. (So much for Buck Showalter's reputation as a traditionalist; even a dirt path to the pitchers mound couldn't make up for the Snakes' seemingly endless combinations of purple, teal, gold, and black.) They've finally toned things down, but now they just look like the Astros. Despite the lack of creativity in the D-backs' new design (see also the Washington Nationals), their wholesale color scheme change is actually rather historic.

Many teams have added or deleted third or even fourth colors (such as the Mets, Royals, Rangers, and Reds flirtation with black drop shadows in recent years). Some have completely inverted the significance of their main two colors (see the Angels and Rangers, who went from predominantly blue with red highlights to the reverse, and, in the case of the Rangers, back again). Others have made gradual changes to their color schemes, such as the Padres switching from yellow and brown, to yellow, orange, and brown, to just orange and brown, to orange and blue, to blue and "sand" over the course of a quarter century. Still others have made what amount to changes in tint, the most extreme being the Astros, whose colors had always been based in orange and navy, but who switched to rust and black in 2000. Similarly the White Sox have always used some combination of navy, black and red, though at different times they've reduced their color scheme to just one of the three, the most striking recent examples being their early ‘70s duds, the home versions of which looked exactly like their current home unis but whereas the current versions are entirely black and white, the 1971 to 1975 versions were entirely red and white.

What the Diamondbacks have done, however, is to change their entire color scheme in the course of a single winter, something that has only happened twice before in modern major-league history. The first time was in 1948 when the Pittsburgh Pirates, who had always worn some combination of blue and red, adopted the colors of the Pittsburgh city flag, the black and gold since worn by the city's other two major sports franchises, the NFL's Steelers and NHL's Penguins. The second came in the wake of Charlie O. Finley's 1961 purchase of the Kansas City Athletics. The Athletics too had worn only shades of blue with occasional use of red throughout their history in Philadelphia and Kansas City, but in their third year under Finley they took the field in colors Finley dubbed "kelly green," "Fort Knox gold," and "wedding gown white." Mickey Mantle said the A's, "should have come out of the dugout on tippy-toes, holding hands and singing." The Mick's homophobia aside, that sort of strong reaction was exactly what Finley was going for. His A's didn't just use their green and gold on stripes and text, they wore bright yellow vests and pants with green hats, green undersleeves, and green stirrups. Remember, this was back when uniforms were wool and the last active player to sport a moustache during the regular season was Frenchy Bordagaray in 1936. (Actually, there was a third instance, but the Brooklyn Dodgers' flirtation with green lasted just one season before they returned to their traditional Dodger blue, whereas the other two changes persist to this day, even despite such horrors as this).

What exactly the Diamonbacks are trying to accomplish with their new colors is more difficult to discern. The team's official press release stated that the new colors were "chosen to better represent the personality and beauty of Arizona." I get that. The connection between their new shade of red and the rocks in Sedona is obvious. But when the Pirates and A's made their palette changes, they distinguished themselves in the process. No other major-league team before or since has worn Finley's green and gold or Pittsburgh's green and black. The Diamondbacks, however, look almost exactly like the Astros, who have been wearing "brick red" and black since 2000, supposedly in tribute to the importance of railroads in Houston's history (which only makes sense for a team first named after a gun and then for the city's connection to the space program). Then again, anything that will prevent things like this from happening has got to be considered an improvement. It's just troubling that something so historic could seem so uninspired.

Cliff Corcoran is the co-author of Bronx Banter.

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