Tuesday, November 30, 2010

3 Questions: San Diego Padres

By The Common Man

Continuing with the 3 Questions series here at The Platoon Advantage, the San Diego Padres are under the microscope today. As always, you can find a complete list of the 3 Questions that we’ve covered so far here.

Question 1: Was 2010 a fluke?

On one level, this question doesn’t matter very much. 2010 happened and the Padres were, unexpectedly, very competitive. The construction of this team was brilliantly executed by current GM Jed Hoyer and former GM Kevin Towers around a central philosophy of maximizing the run suppressing environment of PetCo Park through exceptional defense. The 2010 Padres were a terrific reminder that defense remains an undervalued and readily available commodity, and their success speaks well of the Padres brass’ ability to construct successful clubs in the future.

On the other hand, the question above is not just academic. Because if 2010 was a fluke the Padres’ management team needs to adjust their approach to this offseason. Is this a club that just needs to be strengthened around the margins, or should the Padres continue to look to fundamentally remake their club? Is this a team that is still rebuilding, or are they ready-made to compete? The Common Man leans more toward the former answer, but understands that the Padres will need to be in a continual process of rebuilding and renewal as their players (ahem, Adrian Gonzalez, ahem) get too expensive for the club to hold onto.

Question 2: How long can you hold Adrian Gonzalez?

Speaking of Gonzalez, San Diego’s remarkable success has created an impossible decision for the Pads. The slugging 1B, who has emerged as one of the best hitters in the National League, was not supposed to be with the club this year. Supposedly, when the Padres fell out of contention, they were going to unload him for a bevy of prospects that would form the central cast of the next great Padres team. Of course, as we’ve learned, a funny thing happened on the way to the forum.

When the Padres stayed competitive, Gonzalez stayed on the Padres as virtually their sole source of offense. And if the team wants to contend in 2011, Adrian Gonzalez is indispensible. But if they keep him until the end of the year, Gonzalez is prepared to walk away via free agency, leaving the Padres holding only a couple of compensatory draft picks. Those are valuable, but not nearly as valuable as the prospects the Pads would get back in a trade. It’s a dilemma worthy of Solomon himself. If the Pads deal Gonzalez, they essentially forfeit 2011. But if they keep him, they severely damage their ability to compete in 2012 and beyond.

Question 3: How do you improve the offense without sacrificing defense?

It’s not all about the defense. The Pads sported the second best K/9 and K/BB ratio in the National League, after all. But a large portion of their success at keeping runs off the board stemmed from the team’s ability to catch the ball. They turned in the second best defensive efficiency rating in the National League (.701) thanks to a fly ball oriented staff, a park that suppressed homers, and some outfielders who cover a lot of ground.

The trouble is that those outfielders don’t tend to hit all that much, even given their hitting environment. Tony Gwynn Jr., whose defense in CF was otherworldly, managed just .204/.304/.287, a 68 OPS+ that was not out of line with the rest of his career. Will Venable has emerged as a decent offensive player in RF, but his lack of on-base skills and power seriously limits his upside as a player. Chase Headley has been seen as a good prospect, but hit just .264/.327/.375 last year at 26 years old, so there’s not a lot of room for growth.

Fortunately, the Marlins are available to help solve part of that problem. Despite not having an in-house replacement, Florida was moved to act when San Diego offered up two whole relievers for Cameron Maybin, a former top prospect with good defensive skills, who still has significant upside and a strong minor league track record. But the team still needs to fill holes at SS and 2B, while hoping that Ryan Ludwick figures out where he misplaced his bats after being acquired from the Cardinals if they’re going to keep pace with the Giants, Dodgers, and Rockies again.

SweetSpot Roundup 11/30

Austin's Astros 290 Blog: Where will Berkman go now that Wade and McLane passed?
Austin has Lance Berkman picking out curtains on the North Side of Chicago.

Capitol Avenue Times (Braves): Elephant in the Room, Chipper Jones
"The reasons people think Chipper Jones should retire fall into two categories: uninformed and irrational."

Disciples of Uecker (Brewers): Brewers sign OF Brandon Boggs
An uninspiring acquisition signals the end of Joe Inglett Era.  Long live Brandon Boggs.

The View From the Bleachers (Cubs): Why not, it's Thanksgiving!
Believe it or not, there are reasons to be thankful you're a Cubs fan.

Dodger Thoughts: In starting rotation, sometimes questions beat answers
Could a settled starting rotation actually be a bad thing?

Bay City Ball (Giants): Huff Re-Signs
Chris likes the Huff signing, even though "paying free agents for what they did in the past, and not what they are likely to do in the future is fools gamble. And it goes without saying that Huff has had a weird progression to his career at times."

Mets Today: 2010 Analysis, Jesus Feliciano
Breaking down the Mets' 31 year old rookie outfielder.  Did you blink?  Aw, you missed him.

Nationals Baseball: No Vazquez, No surprise
Harper seems frustrated that the Nats are stuck in neutral this offseason.

Ducksnorts (Padres): I Almost Prayed in Albuquerque, It's Not a Problem for Me
Geoff introduces you to the Arizona League (not to be confused with the Arizona Fall League) on his trip to Cooperstown.

Crashburn Alley (Phillies): Phillies Best Ever, By Position
For a team that's been one of the worst franchises in baseball history, the Phillies have had a ton of truly great players.  Chase Utley is the latest in a long line.

Redleg Nation: How valuable is...Francisco Cordero
How much is CoCo Codero worth?  Not nearly as much as he's made with the Reds, one of the teams in baseball who can least afford to pay the contract they signed him to.

The B-List Indians Blog: Ordering a Short Stack in the AL West
Steve doesn't see a lot of good trade partners for the Indians in the AL West.

Pro Ball NW (Mariners): Rule 5 Possibilities 1, Low Hanging Fruit
The M's have lots of room on both their 25 man and 40 man rosters.  Jon runs through some likely candidates to fill those through the Rule 5 draft.

Weaver's Tantrum (Orioles): Throwing Pie
Felix Pie channels his inner Weaver.  Pie should buy his 1B coach dinner.

Baseball Time in Arlington (Rangers): Rangers Sign Yorvit Torrealba to two-year, $6.25 million deal
"There's a definite element of risk here, but Torrealba's record indicates that the Rangers are pretty likely to extract above-replacement level production out of him, and that over a span of 350-400 plate appearances he can furnish at least one win above replacement with the potential for something even more substantial."

Fire Brand of the American League (Red Sox):  Should the Red Sox Exceed the Luxury Tax Threshold?
Fire Brand wants you to vote.  Obviously, most of you are going to vote yes.  But, then, it's not your money, is it?

Royals Authority: No News Is Good News...For Now
"I saw a tweet or a comment somewhere along the lines that ‘only losing teams seem to have a need for an innings eater’ and I could not agree more."

The Daily Fungo (Tigers): Martinez is official, but more to come, right?
Mike's got a crazy idea los Tigres might go after Hanley Ramirez.  Good luck.

Ghost Runner on First (Blue Jays): Think Along with Your Favorite Hurler
Drew's learned how to make pivot tables, and the results are glorious.

Nick's Twins Blog: Monday Notes
The Giants need a SS, and the Twins could use a 1B-RF-DH prospect.  The Giants wouldn't be dumb enough to deal Brandon Belt, would they?  Nah, probably not.

Sox Machine (White Sox): RIP Enrico Pollazzo Joaquin, and Logic
Regardless of what Phil Rogers tells you, don't expect to grace the South Side's home clubhouse anytime soon.

It's About the Money, Stupid (Yankees): Does the Uribe signing give Jeter's side the "other suitor" they need?
"I know the team wants to hold the line on salaries and there’s a very big part of me that applauds this attempt.  However, to choose Jeter as that guy to stick it to strikes me as misguided and disappointing." Seems to me, it's not the Yankees "sticking it" to anybody, but Jeter choosing to extort as much out of the Bombers as he possibly can (which is his right, but is likely not a winning strategy given his lack of leverage).

Monday, November 29, 2010

Hunting Submarines

By The Common Man

Rob has an interesting question up in today’s Mendozas about Ted Abernathy, the submarine-style former Cincinnati Reds and Kansas City Royals relief ace, pointing out “His 1.70 ERA in his last season is the lowest in history for a pitcher with at least 50 innings. I wish I knew why the Royals released him after that season, and why nobody else picked him up. Because even at 40, he could still pitch.” Well, The Common Man is a sucker for a lot of things. A mysterious player disappearance is one of them. Submarine right handed relievers are another. And digging through newspaper archives is a third. The trifecta in hand, TCM went digging.

Abernathy was a huge prospect when he broke camp with the Washington Senators in 1955. He was fresh out of the army, but had shown tremendous promise in the Senators’ minor league system in the years before that. Alas, things went poorly in the nation’s capitol. Abernathy had a lot of trouble finding the plate (this actually was a problem for Abernathy throughout his career, as he would walk 4.6 batters/9 innings), and posted huge ERAs. From 1955-1957, Abernathy pitched in 71 games, starting 34 of them. He posted an ERA of 6.02 with an 8-22 record, and was walking almost as many batters as he was striking out. He never started another game again.

Likely, the high number of minor league innings, and huge number of pitches his wildness required him to throw, are what ruined his shoulder in 1957. Abernathy needed significant surgery, and he made a strategic decision to drop his arm angle from three-quarters to sidearm or submarine. He bounced around the minors for the next few seasons and got his last real shot in 1963, at 30 years old, for the Cleveland Indians.

Abernathy made the most of it. As a ground ball specialist, he shined out of the bullpen. In 59 innings, he struck out 47 and posted a 2.88 ERA. He won seven games and saved 12. He quickly became one o fthe most valuable relief aces in baseball. For the Cubs in 1965 he threw 136 innings, saved 31 games, and had a 2.57 ERA. In 1967, he saved 28 for the Reds in 106 innings with a 1.27 ERA. In 1970, the struggling Royals fired manager Charlie Metro and replaced him with pitching coach Bob Lemon, who had worked with Abernathy in Cleveland. Less than a month later, Abernathy was acquired from St. Louis and solidified the back of Kansas City’s bullpen.

In two and a half seasons, Abernathy appeared in 144 games, winning 16 and saving 40, with an ERA of 2.31 in 195 innings. In 1971, the Royals were surprising contenders in the AL West, winning 85 games and finishing second in the division behind the A’s. Abernathy saved 23 games in 63 appearances and 81 innings. His 1972 season, as Rob pointed out, was particularly impressive. While his K/9 fell, he also posted his lowest BB/9 of his career and continued to generate ground balls. His 1.70 ERA didn’t account for the four unearned runs he allowed in 58 innings, but he still had an excellent year.

The team, however, dropped below .500 again, winning 76 games and finishing 4th. Lemon was fired, replaced by rookie manager Jack McKeon (who was just 41 years old). In his press conference, team owner Ewing Kauffman announced “I want a younger manager…[and] I did not want to lose Jack McKeon from our organization. Four months later, in early February of 1973, the Royals released the 40 year old Abernathy. Royals GM Cedric Tallis told reporters that Abernathy “did an outstanding job. But at this point, we feel Ken Wright and some other younger pitchers are ready to move into the picture. We feel that making the move now, Abernathy will have a better chance of landing with another team. He is one of the finest individuals we have ever had.” Wright had finished 1972 with a 0.96 ERA in 47 innings for McKeon in AAA Omaha.

No one came calling. Abernathy signed on with the independent Wilson Pennants of the Carolina League, where he had a 3.86 ERA in 35 innings. The 1973 Royals were again competitive, finishing in 2nd place with 88 wins. They finished 10th in the American League in runs allowed, and the bullpen finished with a 4.26 ERA (the league bullpen ERA was 3.65). Ken Wright, the pitcher Tallis specifically mentioned as a replacement for Abernathy, went 6-5 with a 4.91 ERA in 81 innings. Among the club’s relievers, only 23 year old rookie Doug Bird finished with an ERA below 4.00 (Bird was 4-4 with a 2.99 ERA in 102 innings, and saved 20 games).

TCM couldn’t find any additional information about the end of Abernathy’s career. Based on circumstantial evidence, it seems likely that Abernathy was just Lemon’s guy. And at almost 40, was probably seen as a leader in the clubhouse. As a young manager coming in, McKeon may have felt uncomfortable with a team leader, who presumably had been loyal to his predecessor, who was almost the same age as he was. Indeed, the oldest player on the ’73 squad was 36 year old reliever Joe Hoerner, who was purchased mid-season from the Braves. Either McKeon felt more comfortable with “his guys,” or the front office made a concerted effort to “go younger” throughout the organization. It may have been a wasted opportunity, as a stronger bullpen could have helped the Royals compete event closer with the A’s.

Sadly, we can’t ask the best source about what happened that winter in Kansas City. Abernathy returned home to North Carolina and seemingly never worked in baseball again. He passed away in 2004 from complications of Alzheimer’s Disease.

3 Questions: Minnesota Twins

By Bill
Growing up in Shoreview, Minnesota in the late 1980s, my favorite baseball player was Kirby Puckett, but as a lanky lefty who always ended up the first baseman on my little league teams, I idolized Kent Hrbek.  I wore the number 14 whenever I could. I tried to copy his weird open-stanced swing, with disastrous results. I cheered as Hrbek and the Twins won the World Series in 1987 and 1991 and I thought: some day, if I work really hard and get just a little bit lucky...I will have my own sort of public journal on a giant networked web of computers -- a world-wide web log, if you will -- and on that blog, I will discuss three questions facing this very team for the coming season.

And here we are!

1. Who plays up the middle?
In Francisco Liriano and Nick Blackburn, the Twins have two starting pitchers who depend pretty heavily (Blackburn almost exclusively) on the ground ball.  If they bring Carl Pavano back, that's one more.  They've been rumored to be interested in Brandon Webb, who's exactly like Blackburn except a good pitcher (and huge injury risk).  Add to that that they're stuck with a pretty terrible defensive outfield and need all the outs from the infield that they can possibly get, and defensive skill at the second base and shortstop positions becomes awfully important, considerably more so than for your average team (and of course it's always important).

The Twins have offered arbitration to Orlando Hudson, but that's just to get the sandwich pick from his Type-B status; there's almost no chance he's coming back.  Their middle infield as it stands right now consists of Alexi Casilla at second and J.J. Hardy at short.  Casilla is a bit of an enigma; with the bat, he has basically the equivalent of one full pretty decent year (with a .316 wOBA in 98 games in 2008 and a .327 in 69 games in 2010) and one unbelievably awful one (.244 in 56 games in 2007, .260 in 80 games in 2009).  In the field, though, he's had generally poor ratings by every advanced metric, though he looked average at 2B in most of them in fairly limited time in 2010.  From personal observation (to be taken with plenty of salt), he's just never been a competent second baseman; he makes a lot of flashy plays, but only because his reaction time is so slow that he turns routine plays into fantastic ones by not moving his feet soon enough or quickly enough.

Hardy is less problematic.  He's nothing like the 25-homer-a-year guy he was in 2007 and 2008, even before accounting for Target Field, but his .268/.320/.394 in 2010 was more than respectable for a shortstop, and his glove has always been world-class.  When healthy, he's one of the best shortstops in the American League (arguably the best, with Jeter apparently feeling his age).  At $7 or $8 million for 2011, he's a great asset for any contending team.  Unfortunately, the Twins don't seem to see it that way; there are rumors (corroborated by the likes of Ron Gardenhire) that the team is unhappy with his work ethic and wants a shortstop with more foot speed.  There was a lot of talk that the Twins might actually not even tender him a contract, but apparently they're not that insane.  They still very well might trade him (the return for which, given his underappreciated skill set, is unlikely to be a even a meaningful fraction of his actual value).

And then there's the wildcard: the Twins surprised a lot of people by being the winning bidders for negotiation rights to Tsuyoshi Nishioka, a 26 year old who hit .346 with a .423 OBP in Japan last season.  He was a shortstop over there, but the rumor is that he'll be a second baseman over here, and that the Twins will almost certainly successfully sign him.

No telling what to expect with Nishioka, of course, though in a still terribly tiny sample, high-average Japanese players have seemed to transition more successfully than power hitters to the American game.  Anyway, he has excellent range, and if he can hit just a little bit, a middle infield of Nihioka and Hardy seems just about perfect.  Casilla and Nishioka, though, less so.  Some have speculated that under that arrangement, Nishioka could play second and Casilla short, which seems to me like a recipe for disaster (Casilla playing short, that is, for which I believe he lacks the range, arm and instincts).  So the fate of the middle infield is easily the team's biggest question mark right now; it could be one of the major strengths of this team, but there are also a lot of ways they could really screw it up.

2. What's up with that Morneau guy?
Justin Morneau has become the butt of quite a few jokes around the Twin Cities and elsewhere for missing the last half of 2010 with a concussion, which (the jokes, not the missed time) is just all kinds of ridiculous.  TCM has written about this before (most notably here), but: concussions are really serious business.  If some other sports organizations care less about their players and those players' current and future health and lives and want to ride their players into the ground, that doesn't say anything at all about Morneau or the wisdom of keeping him out for so many games for what looked, to our almost uniformly uneducated eyes, like a rather mild collison.  We expect a lot of professional athletes, and I suppose we should, but I for one draw the line at knowingly risking serious brain damage.

Anyway, Morneau has to be considered a question mark.  He's feeling hopeful and expects to be cleared for game action in January, but he's been hopeful before, and one could read between the lines and get the idea that things still aren't quite right.  Morneau had his best season last season, even in just half the games, with 5.3 WAR (per FanGraphs), a full win better than 2006, when he was voted the MVP for some reason.  He's at least a very, very good hitter, and has probably become the best defensive first baseman in the league.  The 2010 Twins didn't miss him too much thanks to the second-half performance of Jim Thome (who otherwise would've been spending a lot more time on the bench), but they'll need him in 2011.

3. Who pitches?
The current rotation, going by who the Twins have currently under contract or control, is Liriano (who the Twins should sign to an extension before his 19-8, 2.60 ERA, 250-strikeout 2011 season puts him out of their price range), Scott Baker, Blackburn, Kevin Slowey and Brian Duensing.  It is not particularly likely that any of those back four will be a good full-time pitcher in 2011: Baker and Slowey because they've been injury risks, Blackburn because he's simply not very good, and Duensing because he's still in the "too early to tell" category.  There's not a lot of money available, but they won't want their hopes of another division title to hang on those four.  Pavano is highly unlikely; after two good years with the Twins and Cleveland, there's almost certainly somebody willing to pay him more money for more years than the Twins will want to.  Webb at a reasonable price would be a good gamble, in my mind (and Nick's).  But whatever it is, they're going to want to add somebody from outside the organization to try to replace Pavano.

And then the bullpen: Jon Rauch, Brian Fuentes and Matt Guerrier were not offered arbitration, and are gone.  Jesse Crain was offered arbitration, but after an excellent 2010 that may have convinced some teams that he can be a closer (not that I think they'd be wrong), he's probably a goner, too.  They'll bring Matt Capps back, and Jose Mijares, for better or worse, will still be around, but after that the bullpen is a huge question mark.  I'm not a big fan of spending on free agent relievers, and in-house options like Jeff Manship and Anthony Slama may well fit the bill.  But the Twins' pitching is going to look quite different in 2011, and that has to be a bit of a concern right now.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

25 Reasons To Be Thankful

By The Common Man

It’s an old, hackneyed gimmick, but TCM’s going to use it anyway. Here’s what The Common Man is thankful for this holiday season:

1) Above all else, for the game itself. What better way to spend your free time than at a ballpark? Or watching on TV? Or reading about? What a glorious pastime for us.

2) That despite the deaths of Dave Niehaus and Ernie Harwell, we still have the mellow, melodic tones of Vin Scully to connect us to baseball’s glorious past. Tune in for every Dodger game you can, people, for this man is a national treasure and one of the truly great human beings ever connected to the game. Also, Jon Miller’s a hell of a play-by-play guy, who’s going back to what he does best.

3) For another year of Royals and Pirates jokes. Admit it, these basically write themselves. Someday, the Royals, at least, are going to claw their way back to respectability, and TCM is going to have to find someone else to mock. The Indians, probably.

4) For the swings of Albert Pujols and Joe Mauer, which are poetry to watch.

5) Likewise, the speed of Carl Crawford and Brett Gardner.

6) The right arm of Roy Halladay and the left arm of Cliff Lee. Forever in peace may they wave.

7) For radar guns that go above 105 MPH so we can truly appreciate Ardolis Chapman, who may just be the fastest pitcher of all time.

8) For responsible medical care for Justin Morneau, Jason Bay, David Wright, and other players who suffer from concussions. No one’s career and life should be put in jeopardy so that their team can win a ballgame. Get well soon, boys.

9) For Dr. James Andrews, who repairs the great pitchers and gets them back on the field so we can marvel at them.

10) For the Molinas. Because that’s hilarious.

11) For Tim Lincecum and Brian Wilson, with whom a ballgame could never get boring.

12) For each day we get closer to expanded umpire oversight and review, and to solving the scourge of shattered bats.

13) For tremendous sites like Hardballtalk.com, which pump out story after story with incredibly insightful analysis.

14) For Rob Neyer and Aaron Gleeman, who served as early models for how smart baseball analysis could be done on the Internet.

15) For the SweetSpot Network, which has allowed Bill and TCM to connect with dozens of other excellent bloggers, and helped us reach more eyes.

16) For Satchel Paige, Jackie Robinson, Larry Doby, and other pioneers who made this game stronger and more fair.

17) That Stan Musial (who just turned 90), Willie Mays, Bob Feller, and Hank Aaron are all still with us and can tell their stories.

18) For the ludicrous contract demands of Derek Jeter. That’s even funnier than the Molinas.

19) For the knuckleball, and those who throw it.

20) For Bull Durham, which TCM just decided to watch tonight.

21) For all of the new ways we have to learn about the game, Pitch F/X, fielding metrics, heatmaps, and WAR.

22) For mustaches both awesome and ridiculous.

23) For T-Ball, which TCM can’t wait for The Boy to start in the Spring.

24) For just 2 months and 17 days before pitchers and catchers report.

25) And, of course, for you readers. Thank you for making The Platoon Advantage an unqualified success. Tell your friends, your neighbors, your neighbors’ friends and your friends’ neighbors all about us and The SweetSpot Network. Please check back often. Please follow Bill and TCM on Twitter and on Facebook. And please keep the comments coming. We have done and continue to do this strictly as amateurs, in our spare time, because we want to reach fellow fans and talk baseball. It’s especially gratifying to know when you’re paying attention. Happy Thanksgiving to you and all your loved ones. See you on Monday!

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

3 Questions: Atlanta Braves

The 3 Questions series keeps plugging along. By the way, click here to see a complete set of links to the teams that have been covered thus far. Today, the Atlanta Braves are in the crosshairs.

Question 1: Will Chipper be back and will he be Chipper?

The answer to the first part of that question seems to be a resounding yes. Reports are that Chipper has been cleared to start swinging a bat and it looks more and more like he’ll be able to come back by the start of the season. But even before his injury last year, Chipper Jones was showing his age. In 2009, he played a full season and slugged .430 with just 18 homers. In 2010, he had 10 homers in 381 PAs, and slugged .426. His on base percentage was still an excellent .385 for those two years, but there’s little doubt that, at age 39, his bat will be even slower in 2011.

Fortunately, the Braves have positioned themselves well to absorb another injury or a total collapse by their future Hall of Famer, by trading for Dan Uggla. Uggla is slated to play 2B, which frees up Martin Prado to play either LF or 3B, depending on where he’s needed. It was a canny acquisition by GM Frank Wren, and one that gives the Braves a terrific amount of flexibility as they challenge the Phillies.

Question 2: What difference will Fredi make?

Fredi Gonzalez is stepping into the manager position as the hand-picked successor to Bobby Cox. Gonzalez had two surprisingly good years for the under-funded Marlins before getting the unanticipated boot by Scrooge McLoria, and is a longtime favorite of former manager Bobby Cox, for whom Gonzalez served as a longtime 3B coach.

The Braves have succeeded for decades now in part because of Bobby Cox’s ability to build a strong team and inspire loyalty among his best players. His limitations were largely in building a bench and in-game tactics. If Fredi Gonzalez can take the best of Bobby and combine it with some tactical acumen, the results could be scintillating. If he can keep the team on the same plane as Cox, it will still be a success. Some folks are less than optimistic, however.

Question 3: Is Freddie Freeman ready?

Last year, Keith Law saw him as a John Olerud-type with good defense, patience, and doubles power and ranked him the 67th ranked prospect in baseball. Baseball America had him at 87, and Kevin Goldstein was the high water mark at 51. But the Braves pushed the youngster anyway. As a 20 year old, Freeman hit a terrific .319/.378/.521 in a full season at AAA Gwinnett, and earned a September call-up.

Freeman has no real competition in front of him this year, unless Derrek Lee is offered arbitration (which is unlikely) and accepts. With the job virtually locked down, the only question is what kind of offense the Braves can get out of Freeman. Atlanta 1B hit a combined .248/.346/.422 in 2010. According to Fangraphs, Bill James has Freeman projected to hit.282/.335/.446, which the Braves would probably take and be glad for. Ultimately, Freeman offers a lot of room for growth, but a big rookie year would help solidify a Braves lineup that has several question marks on offense. The Braves are certainly open to letting young players contribute, and don’t figure to stand in the way. Freeman will get plenty of rope this Spring.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

3 Questions: Tampa Bay Rays

By Bill

I really like the Rays.  They were a lot of fun to root for in 2008, once the Twins were eliminated, and again this year, though that didn't last nearly as long.  They might have been the best team in the majors, for all the good that did them, which is really something coming from an area the average citizen of which is only dimly aware that big-league baseball continues to be played after March.

But all good things that aren't backed by unlimited funds must come to an end, and there are a lot of changes in store for the Rays.  Things to think about this offseason:

1. Who's Still Around?
Everybody knows that Carl Crawford is as good as gone.  Carlos Pena too, probably, although he'd be quite a lot cheaper to retain after a .196/.325/.407 2010.  Relievers Rafael Soriano and Grant Balfour are probably gone, and Joaquin Benoit already is.  But there are rumors (or maybe more like facts) that the Rays have been playing with money they didn't really have for a while now, and that there will have to be significant cost-cutting measures soon.  Jason Bartlett, Matt Garza, James Shields and B.J. Upton are all rumored to be on the block. All but Shields are in the late stages of their arbitration years, when players start to get pricey even though they're still essentially indentured servants.  Shields is in the last guaranteed year of a contract that also contains three pretty reasonable club options for 2012-14, which might make him close to the most attractive one of the bunch to some teams, even after his disastrous 2010 season.

Not all that is going to happen, of course.  It's hard to see them moving Upton so soon after losing Crawford, and if they trade Garza, they probably won't trade Shields (and vice versa).  But this might well end up being the one team that changes most from the end of 2010 to the first pitch of 2011.  Not very often that that team is also the best team from the year before, but there you have it. 

2. How Does that Infield End Up Looking?
B.J. Upton, if he's not traded, will play center, Desmond Jennings will slide nicely into that Carl Crawford LF-who's-really-a-CF role, and Matt Joyce has right (possibly in a platoon with Justin Ruggiano, a righty with a career .860 minor league OPS).  DH is more or less an open question, but the infield situation is...shaky.

You know who will play third, of course, and short is a simple question of whether they decide to keep Bartlett, in which case he'll play there, or not, in which case Reid Brignac will (and judging by 2010 and the direction in which Bartlett's career appears to be trending, I'm not sure that's not an improvement).  But the right side is a bit hard to figure out.  If Pena leaves, they've got just two players on the roster who spent more than 20 innings there last season: Ben Zobrist and Dan Johnson.  Johnson's pretty much DH-only at this point, but it seems like a terrible waste of Zobrist's talents to make him the first baseman.  He doesn't really hit enough to play there unless he reverts back to 2009 form, and his glove is just wasted there.

Zobrist is a plus defender at almost any position, and with the outfield apparently pretty full, he'd be a great fit at second.  At second, though, the Rays have Sean Rodriguez, probably an above-average overall starting second baseman, plus switch-hitting minor leaguer Elliot Johnson, who put up an impressive 2010 at AAA Durham and could step in if Rodriguez continues to look helpless against righties (Rays Indez likes them for a platoon, but that seems rather extreme to me for what was probably a small-sample-size blip in lefty/righty splits for Rodriguez).  So Zobrist is pretty much relegated to first base, which really devalues a good asset.  In a perfect world, I think, they'd either (A) trade Zobrist for a legitimate first baseman of comparable overall value, or (B) bring back Pena (or some other capable first baseman) and get Zobrist 600 plate appearances flitting around the diamond as needed, primarily 2B and RF.  But the perfect trade partner isn't always (or even usually) out there, and the Rays don't seem to have the money for option B. So you're probably looking at Zobrist-Rodriguez-Longoria-Bartlett/Brignac.  Which wouldn't be the worst thing in the world, but it sure seems like it could be better.

3. Can They Compete Anyway?
I think so.  This team will miss Crawford, as any team would, but with Jennings, they're as well-positioned to replace him as they could possibly be.  He has a lot of the same skills (more patience, probably a little less power), and might be able to cover even more ground in the field.  Pena hadn't been giving them much anyway, and they'll still have at least five good starting pitchers out of their current six (David Price, Shields, Garza, Jeff Niemann, Wade Davis and Jeremy Hellickson) to go with very good defense and, in Longoria, possibly the best player in the American League.  They'd have to see slight bounce-backs from Upton, Zobrist and Shields and a modest improvement from Brignac to offset the losses of Crawford and a big part of the 2010 bullpen, but none of that seems like too much to ask.  And it would help if they could recapture some of that 2008 magic and find a cheap-as-free reliever or two off the scrap heap who can put up a 2.00 ERA in 60 innings or so.

Anyway, competing in the AL East is an awfully hard thing to do, and there will come a time, very possibly soon, when the Rays just won't be able to do it anymore for a while.  But barring a big, sudden firesale, I just don't think that time is 2011.

Addendum: our SweetSpot Network Rays blogger, Mark, who obviously knows a lot more about all this than I do, has written a little response over at his site, The Ray Area. Go check his site out (now and on a regular basis in the future)!

SweetSpot Roundup 11/23

The View from the Bleachers (Cubs): GirlieView (11/22/2010) 
Cubs and, well, other notes from Lizzie.

Redleg Nation: The Reds and Free Agency
There's some good stuff on here about Joey Votto, as you might guess, but this is really interesting.  Care to guess the year when the Reds signed their first free agent?  If you aren't named Larry Bittner and haven't read this post yet, you're probably off by a couple years.

Dodger Thoughts: Ex-Dodgers Delwyn Young, Andy LaRoche are castaways
On the two Pirate casualties with a Dodger connection (you know, I still think someone could find a bargain in Andy LaRoche).  Also, a third Pirate castaway, potential Dodger Zach Duke, and two new adds to the Dodgers' 40-man.

Disciples of Uecker (Brewers): SweetSpot Awards: NL MVP
We got the first two right, and I like the rest of our results a lot better than BBWAA's.  Notably, there's no Ryan Howard at all.

Mets Today: 2010 Analysis: David Wright
2010 was the first year when the mountain of criticism the superstar gets was almost kind of warranted.  Joe wonders what was wrong, and what it means for '11.

Crashburn Alley (Phillies): Phillies' Bullpen Strengthened with Contreras
You have to appreciate a guy like Jose Contreras. Looks like he's about sixty-five years old, and he's carved out a nice little second career for himself.

Ducksnorts (Padres): I Almost Prayed in Albuquerque: A Crow Left of the Murder
Part five of the nine-part series covering the first day of his journey from San Diego to Tony Gwynn's Cooperstown inauguration.

Fungoes (Cardinals): 2010 AL and NL Sabermetric MVPs
I really like that our Cards blog concludes that "Joey Votto deserves it, hands down," but I don't know that I get the concept of just adding WAR and WPA.  Seems pretty arbitrary.  Like OPS.

Nationals Baseball: Bryce Update
Recapping how Bryce Harper fared in the Arizona Fall League.  There are some warning signs, but the guy was 17 when the league started.  I'd think that "well, he didn't immediately fall on his face every time he stepped on the field" would have to be considered a roaring success.

The B-List Indians Blog: Snipe Hunting in the NL Central
Steve looks at possible trade acquisitions in the NL Central.

Pro Ball NW (Mariners): 40-Man Roster Set For Rule 5 Draft
Conor breaks down the players the M's protected in the upcoming Rule 5 draft with his regular precision and thoroughness.

Baseball Time in Arlington (Rangers): Getting Less Bang For Your Buck
Are the Rangers going to overpay for Cliff Lee?  And if they lose him, will they overpay for a bunch of other guys?

The Ray Area: The Stadium Debate Begins Anew
Mark is surprised to find out that the Cubs have a stadium problem, and public funding problem too, and wonders if they'll also look to move to Charlotte.

Fire Brand of the American League (Red Sox): Luis Exposito's Place as Catcher of the Future
"Exposito, who hit .260/.339/.416 in 473 ABs for Portland, may already be the best catcher in the Sox’ organization despite never having played a game above AA."  And he was just added to the 40 man roster.  He'll be 24 in 2011.

Royals Authority: 2010 Positional Review, Shortstop
"I admit, there is something nice about a regular contributor at shortstop who can hit for some power and who can play every day."  This is the nicest thing ever written by a smart person about Yuniesky Betancourt. 

The Daily Fungo (Tigers): Disco Demolition Night
Mike looks back at perhaps the most disasterous promotion in the history of professional sports.  With video!

Nick's Twins Blog: Ready to Get Tangled in Webb?
Ah, PUNS!  Are the Twins chasing Brandon Webb?  Nick approves: "This appears to be one of those decreasingly rare instances in which I find myself on the same wavelength as the Twins brass. Webb is shaping up to be a guy worth taking a flier on, but only under the right circumstances."

Sox Machine (White Sox): Escobar rewarded for job well done
Eduardo Escobar turns a strong AFL campaign into a 40 man roster spot in advance of the Rule 5 draft.

It's About the Money, Stupid (Yankees): Behold, thy name is leverage
Jason goes all FJM on Derek Jeter's agent, Casey Close.  Also, Brien makes fun of Murray Chass.  That's something we can all get behind!

And today on The Platoon Advantage: Bill continues our Three Questions series with a look at the transitioning Tampa Bay Rays.

Monday, November 22, 2010

3 Questions: Cincinnati Reds

By The Common Man

The Reds didn’t exactly come out of nowhere to compete in 2010. Indeed, their success was rooted in cagey drafting and buy-low acquisitions from the past several years. GM Walt Jocketty was clearly building a contending team. The surprise was that everything came together so nicely for the Reds in 2010, catapulting them to the NL Central title against a weak field. As the team regroups from a disappointing showing in the Division Series, what questions face them this offseason?

Question 1: Can the pitching stay healthy?

The biggest surprise out of Cincinnati in 2010 was the performance of the team’s young pitchers. The pair of 22 year olds, Ardolis Chapman, who has a 105 MPH fastball, and Mike Leake, who skipped the minors altogether, may have gotten most of the press, but the Reds got strong contributions from The Karate Kid Johnny Cueto (24 yrs, 12-7, 3.64) and Travis Wood (23 yrs, 5-4, 3.51). Homer Bailey (24 yrs, 4-3, 4.46) and Edinson Volquez (26 yrs, 4-3, 4.31) also showed signs of coming around/back. With the returning Bronson Arroyo (17-10, 3.88), the Reds have a young and potentially strong staff.

The question, as always, with young pitchers, is whether they can stay healthy. Leake faltered and looked fatigued down the stretch last year. Bailey has battled both injury and ineffectiveness. Cueto’s strikeout rate has fallen in each of his three seasons. Volquez is still finding his way after Tommy John surgery. And frankly, nobody knows whether Chapman’s arm can keep throwing this hard before it explodes. With former ace Aaron Harang out on the market, the Reds will have to hope their pitching stays healthy and effective if they want to compete. The Reds have been linked to Brandon Webb, which represents a high-upside possibility to provide depth; but he doesn’t aleve the injury concerns, he just creates more.

Question 2: Who plays SS?

In this case, “I don’t care” is the wrong answer. Orlando Cabrera was barely above replacement level last year, but is a free agent and is unlikely to be back. Paul Janish had a nice season as a backup infielder (.260/.338/.385), but probably represented the absolute apex of his abilities. The Reds would do well to look outside the organization for a solution. Jason Bartlett, Marco Scutaro, and JJ Hardy are said to be available via trade. And Tsuyoshi Nishioka is being posted by his Japanese League team. Nishioka will probably be too rich, but Bartlett and Hardy figure to be good “buy low” options. Scutaro may be a good pickup if the Red Sox will kick in money. Free agent options like Edgar Renteria and Juan Uribe are less inspiring.

Question 3: How do you build on 2010 success?

The Reds definitely don’t want to be thought of as a flash in the pan. Given their young talent, there’s a good chance that they’ll remain at or near the top of the NL Central heap in 2011. However, given their budgetary limitations, the club needs to continue to make good decisions moving forward. For one thing, they need to get Jay Bruce and Joey Votto locked in to long term deals that buy out their arbitration years and at least a season of free agency. They need to stop spending $12 million on a closer (Francisco Cordero).

They also need to be realistic, and not fall in love with Scott Rolen at 3B, because the man is going to be 36 and has an injury history that reads like Finnegan’s Wake (long and painful). They need to continue to make good, team-friendly decisions like bringing back Ramon Hernandez on a one-year contract and keep buying low on guys like Johnny Gomes, Laynce Nix, Bronson Arroyo, Scott Rolen, and Brandon Phillips.

And they need to use Ardolis Chapman to his full potential. It’s ok, in the short term, to use Chapman as a reliever. For one thing, the Reds have starters enough to cover the rotation. For another, it’s a good way to break the young man in. It’s also still unclear what Chapman’s long-term future is given how hard he throws. And finally, that 105 MPH fastball is a devastating weapon out of the bullpen. But Chapman is not, and should not be viewed as, a LOOGY. Nor is he a one-inning pitcher. Chapman’s history as a starter and his eye-popping ability would make him ideal for a multi-inning “relief ace” role, like Ryan Madson used to have for the Phillies, Ramiro Mendoza for the Yankees, or Duane Ward for the Blue Jays. That would be a tremendous weapon the Reds could use to shorten ball games and escape jams.

Friday, November 19, 2010

3 Questions: New York Yankees

By Bill

We're doing three questions facing each of the thirty teams this offseason, playoff teams first, and so now we come to the Yankees.  I don't like this any more than you do (quite possibly much less), but nothing to be done about it:

1. Who's going to pitch?
This is actually shaping up to be, I think, the biggest question the Yankees have faced in quite some time.  Right now, the starting rotation just doesn't look very good at all behind C.C. Sabathia.  I have to assume Andy Pettitte is coming back, but he's a huge injury risk and probably isn't quite as good anymore as he looked last year.  Phil Hughes still probably has room to grow, but despite the 18 wins and All-Star appearance and all that, was really just about average last year.  A.J. Burnett, of course, was dreadful.  They need to add a pitcher, and I don't think Zack Greinke is coming through that door (though anything's possible).

This is a team that needs Cliff Lee a lot more than I was giving them credit for.  And I think they'll get him; when the Yankees want somebody, they do tend to get him, and they're really going to want Lee.  But as I wrote last week, we really have no idea what the Rangers are willing or able to do right now, and even the Yankees have limits.  If they don't get Lee, or trade for Greinke or something equally unexpected, this is going to be a pretty damn ugly rotation behind Captain Cheeseburger.  There just aren't many other options out there.  They'd almost have to actively dislike their fans to bring Carl Pavano back, and none of the other free agents are really Yankee quality.

2. Who's the Catcher? 
This is the problem with old catchers. Now 39, Jorge Posada is clearly nearing the end of his excellent, Hall-of-Fame-worthy-in-my-opinion career.  He's not healthy enough to catch every day anymore and he's not any good when he does, and judging by his 2010, he might have finally gotten to the point where he can't really hit enough to be a suitable DH anymore (at least not up to the Yankees' standards).  Meanwhile, the team's top prospect, Jesus Montero, is a catcher, but is he really?  Reviews on his defense are hopelessly conflicting; most people seem to think he's significantly improved, but it's not clear whether he can actually handle the job (but as Zach pointed out in this space just two days ago, we don't want to get too fixated on that).  The other options are Francisco Cervelli and Austin Romine, who don't seem to be all that great at either offense or defense (Romine is considered a prospect, but he sure looks like he's a ways away from contributing).

The story right now, as IIATMS tells us, is that Montero, Romine and Cervelli will "compete for the two primary jobs," with Posada sticking around as presumably a part-C-part-DH.

Cervelli isn't very good, Romine doesn't seem very good yet, and Montero certainly isn't going to be kept in the majors as a backup.  I don't know that carrying three catchers is ever a good idea, but there you have it.  I expect that Montero gets the job unless he looks really lost on either O or D in Spring Training, with Cervelli as the backup and Posada seeing less time than he'd probably like.  If Montero isn't ready, though, I think Cervelli is the de facto starter, with Montero in AAA and Posada seeing more time than the team would probably like.   

3. Oh yeah, Jeter
Look, I really don't think this is a big deal.  A, because he's absolutely 100% for sure going to come back, and two, because I'm concerned with the team's success in 2011, not Yankee mystique or history or legacy or any of that crap, and the truth is that the Yankees might well be a better team if they just let Jeter walk (not least because another AL team might just be giving away a currently-better shortstop)He's not a passable shortstop anymore, Gold Glove voters be damned, and if (in accord with his 2010 stats) he's also just a slightly-above-average hitter for a shortstop now, I question whether he's helping the team at all, let alone worth $15 million a year or so.

They'll bring him back.  They'll spend a ton of money, orders of magnitude more than he's worth, and they won't even feel it.  But before then, we'll be bombarded with stories about how they're playing hardball with him and how contentious the talks are.  Yeah, have fun with that.

SweetSpot Roundup 11/19

Bill here, flying solo for one more Roundup. I've just decided that I'm going to describe and/or respond to each post in exactly eight words.

Capitol Avenue Club (Braves): What Now?
Uggla's a good start, but Braves need more.

The View from the Bleachers (Cubs): In the News: Who's On First?
Cubs have no first baseman.  Teams need those.

Redleg Nation: How Valuable Is...Homer Bailey?
I don't know, how valuable is Homer Bailey?

Dodger Thoughts: Pride, Teamwork and the Tooth Fairy
Excellent, thoughtful essay.  Just gotta read this one.

Disciples of Uecker (Brewers): SweetSpot Awards: AL Cy Young Award
I can't remember how I voted after Felix.

Mets Today: Wally Knows Postgame Meetings
With video.  These guys really want Wally Backman.

Crashburn Alley (Phillies): Narrowing Down the Options, and the Variance
Possible responses to big move by division rival.

Ducksnorts (Padres): I Almost Prayed in Albuquerque: Twin Cinema
Part four of the fascinating nine-part series.

Fungoes (Cardinals): With Westbrook, Cardinals choose to upgrade rotation, not second base
Not as exciting as Uggla, but Westbrook helps.

Nationals Baseball: Don't get comfortable, Josh
Time to trade Josh Willingham before he combusts?

Fire Brand of the American League (Red Sox): The Day the Red Sox Passed on Dan Uggla
No Uggla; I don't think they'll miss him.

Sox Machine (White Sox): Buck deal improves Pierzynski's prospects
Good offseason to be a subpar starting catcher.

The B-List Indians Blog: Beating the Bushes in the N.L. East
Continuing the search for a hidden 3B gem.

The Daily Fungo (Tigers): Would a Second Wild Card Have Helped any Recent Tigers Clubs?
Yes, one.  Please, please don't let this happen.

Royals Authority: Chasing Upton
Daydreaming about fleecing the D-Backs.  But who isn't?

Nick's Twins Blog: No Longer a Bridesmaid
Gardy finally won Manager of the Year.  Hooray!

It's About the Monkey, Stupid (Yankees): Wins are dead, long live the King!
Pro-Felix Yankees fans make my heart happy.

Pro Ball NW (Mariners): Felix "El Cy" Hernandez
Connor's little celebration appreciating Felix's Cy Young win.

The Ray Area: What makes a Manager the Manager of the Year?
Mark wonders what it's all about.  Good question.

Baseball Time in Arlington (Rangers): On Regression and Appreciation
Appreciate the 2010 magic; don't expect a repeat.

Ghostrunner on First (Blue Jays): Addressing Speed, Quickly
Some thoughts on the Jays acquiring Rajai Davis.

And on the Platoon Advantage today:
Three Questions about your 2011 New York Yankees.

Yep, counting "Pro-Felix" as two words. Deal.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

(Not So) Random Thursday: November 18, 1997

We've spoiled you rotten already with Jeff and Zach, but we've got yet another great guest post today. This one comes from our friend and podcast partner Lar, from the fabulous Wezen-Ball. Enjoy!

In the illustrious tradition of The Common Man and the Platoon Advantage, I had every intention of doing a “Random Thursday” post today. After all, TCM always makes those Random Thursday posts so interesting to read even on the most bland of subjects, and I thought it might be fun to try my hand at it.
But then I got the wise idea to look for something interesting that happened on November 18 in the past, and now you’re stuck reading about November 18, 1997, one of the busiest days in Major League transactions in the last 20 years, and one with far-reaching impact. Let’s just pretend I arrived at the topic randomly, eh? The end of the 1997 season, as you recall, was interesting. The Florida Marlins had just won the World Series in only their fifth year of existence. It was the infamous “bought” World Series that ended in a firesale.
The end of the 1997 season was also the beginning of two new franchises: the Tampa Bay Devil Rays and the Arizona Diamondbacks. With their debuts ahead of them in April 1998, the expansion clubs had only six months to pull together a big league roster. The first step? The Expansion Draft, which just happened to take place on November 18.
I won’t go deep into the Expansion Draft itself because that alone could take all day.There were definitely a few notable players selected, though.
The Devil Rays chose first overall, giving picks #2 and #3 to the Diamondbacks. That first overall pick was lefty Tony Saunders, with Arizona quickly following up with Brian Anderson and Jeff Suppan. Tampa Bay did pretty well with their next three picks, netting Quinton McCracken, Bobby Abreu, and Miguel Cairo. Dmitri Young came over with their eighth selection. Arizona didn’t do quite as well in the first round, with their most notable selections being Cory Lidle, Karim Garcia, and Tony Batista (chosen with the last pick of the first round).
In the other two rounds, Tampa Bay ended up nabbing Randy Winn and Brooks Kieschnick, both in the third round. Arizona came away with Omar Daal (second round) and Russ Springer (third round). Obviously, there just wasn’t that much talent available that November.
But the seven-hour expansion draft was far from the most exciting thing to happen that day. As AP writer Ben Walker said:

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

On catcher defense: Where's the tipping point?

For the second in our series of guest posts here at The Platoon Advantage, we are lucky to have Zach Sanders, who writes at too many places to count, including some of our favorites like Fangraphs.com, BaseballDailyDigest.com, and rotohardball.com.  Plus, Zach runs our fantasy football league.  In light of our discussion yesterday of Buster Posey's value, Zach's offering here seems very timely.

Even though we don’t have a perfect measure of what a catcher brings to the table defensively, that doesn’t mean that we don’t factor it in when evaluating a backstop. However, we don’t need to over exaggerate things just because the defensive player in question is a catcher.

Teams get all excited when they have a good defensive catcher, and many teams focus on finding a backstop who isn’t going to cost them games behind the plate. For that matter, they probably should, because finding a good offensive catcher is hard to do. But, if teams do find a catcher who can get it done in the batters box, they should probably play him, because offense and defense should be weighed equally.

Take Mike Napoli for example. Mike Napoli is a very good hitter, never having a wRC+ below 110. Yet, if not for injuries at multiple positions, who knows how often Napoli would have even seen the field? There must be a darn good reason, because Mike Scioscia’s a genius, right? Well, Scioscia didn’t like Napoli on the defensive end, and apparently couldn’t give less of a crap about what he does for the team offensively.

In 2009, Napoli was a 3-win player if we don’t factor in defense. Even if he was a very bad defensive player, say 10-runs (1 win) below average bad (which he was), he would still be a solid everyday player. Jeff Mathis, on the other hand, is a replacement level player player before a defensive adjustment. He would have to be the best defensive catcher in all of baseball to make playing him over Napoli worth your time. To drive the nail in even further, in the small sample that was 2010, Napoli was actually rated a better defensive catcher than Mathis.

Catchers are just like any other player. They play defense, and we place a value on it. That doesn’t mean we need to go crazy just because they touch the ball on every pitch. Yes, I am ignoring their ability to call games and handle pitching staffs, but we still don’t have much evidence that they have a big impact in that department. Even if we did, would a player like Mathis have a 10+ run advantage? I sincerely doubt it.

Big thanks to Matt Klaassen for 2009 catcher defense numbers.

Guest Post: My First Game, Annotated

Due to The Common Man's continued absence, posting around here was going to be lighter than usual.  But as usual, some of the best friends of the blog we have stepped up and offered their services in filling in.  Today is the first of those guest writers, the terrific Jeff Polman of Play That Funky Baseball, where, with the help of some of the best writers on the internet, Jeff is replaying the 1977 season using the addictive game Strat-o-Matic Baseball. Here, Jeff recounts the first Major League game he attended, and recreates the wonder and excitement that we all felt as little boys and girls when we initially saw the greatest game in the world played live by giants and titans.  Take it away, Jeff!

The opening memory was the Sign: Welcome to the Mass Pike, forest green, bigger than any road marker in town, adorned with a pilgrim's hat and an arrow sticking through it. Springfield, Massachusetts may have been ninety miles west of Boston, but to me and my older brother, it felt like nine thousand. It was a Thursday, May 30, 1963, I was eight years old, and our dad was taking us to Fenway Park for the first time.

Why are we not in school on a Thursday? It must be the official Memorial Day. Actually, retrosheet.org informs me that nearly all the games played that day are day games, and that doubleheaders occur at the Polo Grounds (Cubs-Mets), Forbes Field (Phillies-Pirates), and Comiskey Park (Indians-White Sox), so it’s fair to assume this is the case.

Until then, any live baseball experience we enjoyed had been at Pynchon Park, a rickety wooden yard perched on the east side of the Connecticut River, watching the Springfield Giants of the double-A Eastern League grapple with the Elmira Pioneers, Charleston Indians and Binghamton Triplets. Following a departure pattern set by Matty Alou, Juan Marichal and Tom Haller, 21-year-old third baseman Jim Ray Hart was a big Springfield star a year ago*, but had moved on to Tacoma in the Pacific Coast League. where he would slug his way down to San Francisco, and there had been scant excitement that season at Pynchon Park. Box seats at Fenway to see the surprising fourth place Sox play the World Champion Yankees? We couldn't even get to sleep the night before.

*.929 OPS

Going into the day's action, the Orioles are the actual league surprise. At 30-16, the Birds of Brooks Robinson, Powell, Aparicio, Gentile and a staff of Barber, Roberts and Pappas, have a three-game lead on the Yanks and four and a half on Chicago, with Boston tied at 22-18, five games back and tied with the Kansas City A's. Through the first two months Baltimore has a +33 run differential, but the Yanks and White Sox are at +43 and the race is sure to get tighter.

We picked up my dad's business friend who got us the tickets in some nameless suburb of Boston. He climbed into our car with his two sons. Their name was Porter. I never saw these people again in my life or even knew what became of them, but because it was on This Day, I remembered their name being Porter.

Ralph Terry is scheduled to face Earl Wilson. Terry has won his last two starts easily, a 10-4 romp against the L.A. Angels on the 19th and a 5-1 victory in Washington on the 25th, throwing complete games each time, and after the previous night's rainout, here he is again after four days of rest. Wilson was hammered for Killebrew, Allison, and Battey homers back on the 20th and lost a 6-5 game, then went only four and a third at Tiger Stadium on the 25th in a 5-2 loss. Both pitchers will surely be aided here by the era's ignorance of on-base percentage. Ralph Houk puts Clete Boyer and Bobby Richardson (.295 and .294 OBP for the year) at the top of the Yankee lineup while Johnny Pesky features Chuck Schilling and Gary Geiger (.291 and .327) atop his.

We parked our Catalina in a pig pile of cars, a small, hopelessly clogged lot in a seemingly industrial part of the city. "Where's Fenway?" I chirped, because all I could see through the droves of baseball fan pedestrians was a couple of low brick buildings that looked like tool factories.

The tool factory right in front of us with a crop of leafy trees was Fenway Park. My heart pounded. We inched through the gate, dropped down a concrete ramp and straight into a gloomy grotto of food stands, program hawkers and cigar smoke. Slogged our way to another, narrower ramp moving up...

...and stopped in our tracks to behold our first flash of major league green. Our Magnavox TV and standings page in the Springfield Republican had offered us nothing but black-and-white baseball, so the sight of the lush grass and monstrous left field edifice under a blue, early summer sky, the navy caps and red trim on Boston's home whites, were a true revelation.

Our seats were amazing, lower first base boxes behind the Red Sox on-deck circle, and it struck me how shockingly close the stands were to the field, certainly a lot closer than at Pynchon Park. We all got Fenway Franks but Porter's kids were never satisfied, and their father was out of his seat constantly to fetch them popcorn, ice cream and god knows what else throughout the game. Our dad, never one to spend a dime needlessly, still talks about this today.

Clete Boyer, the first major leaguer we ever saw bat, then grounded out to third, Malzone to Stuart, and the game began…

Mickey Mantle, coming off a very productive, injury-marred season in 1962, leads baseball with a 1.117 OPS on this day in 1963. After a scoreless first, Wilson fools him with a called third strike to begin the second.

They booed the Mick and Roger Maris pretty equally, but after Mantle whiffed, Maris bashed one over the bullpens in right-center, the first homer we ever saw. I guess we could’ve done worse.

And then we went to work on Terry. Dick Stuart bombed one over the Monster after a Lu Clinton single. Russ Nixon got plunked and Eddie Bressoud hit one out. 4-1 Sox! Was it always this easy?

Terry is undoubtedly talked to, because after Bressoud's homer he retires the next 14 Red Sox until Clinton singles with two outs in the 6th. New York, meanwhile, battles back, a single run on a force play in the 4th, before a walk and three singles in the 6th tie the game and finish Wilson for the day. Jack Lamabe replaces him, but has troubles of his own in the 7th. Dick Radatz, Boston's best reliever, is summoned for the high-leverage situation, something rarely seen today, and summarily walks Maris to force in the go-ahead run. By contrast, Ralph Terry never leaves the mound for the Yankees.

We were down 5-4 in the last of the 9th. Terry had already gotten Stuart and Nixon out, and it was up to Eddie Bressoud. We were out of our seats screaming. The Porter kids were finishing their second boxes of popcorn. Terry looked in, wound, and Bressoud smacked one high and deep toward the Monster...

...and it was GONE! Tie game! No wonder I became a baseball addict!

Arnold Earley had taken over for Radatz in the 8th, and bats for himself after Bressoud's homer. Pesky's plan doesn’t work. Elston Howard doubles and Phil Linz singles to start the 10th, before Boyer hits a one-out sac fly to make it 6-5. If pitch counts are being used by anyone, they certainly aren't being published, and I imagine Terry is well over 100 by this point, but he still takes the ball for the last of the 10th. (Houk burned through four relievers in their last game, an 11-6 loss at Fenway two days ago, so I'm sure that’s a factor here.)

Schilling flew out to left and Geiger grounded to Pepitone, so Carl Yastrzemski was our last hope. Their best hitter was 0-for-4 so far, not looking good at all, and my dad had us up and walking toward the exit tunnel as he stepped into the box. My brother and I came down with mild polio at that moment, slowed to a near-crawl, and managed to be right behind the backstop screen when Yaz took a mighty cut and missed a Terry fastball for strike three.

The ride home was much faster, as it always seemed to be. Maybe we leafed through our Street and Smith’s baseball annual or Classics Illustrated comic books. We probably stopped at one of the many Mass Pike Howard Johnsons for dinner, but I don't remember what I ate. Forevermore, my strongest memory was the fresh air and color of a major league game.

I have occasional discussions with various friends about our favorite moments from Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. Usually it’s a battle scene or Gollum’s schizophrenic soliloquy, but for me it’s always a different one. The Two Towers opens with a harrowing plummet down a mountain shaft between Gandalf and the Balrog, the creature’s fiery whip and Gandalf’s staff and sword snapping and clanging at each other in an adrenalin rush. Suddenly Jackson pulls the camera way back, and all we see is the distant flame of their battle as they drop into a humongous, water-filled cave. It is this perfect balance between intense detail and the broader, epic view that makes Jackson’s film so marvelous. Similarly, it is the perfect balance between baseball’s statistical minutiae and its unforgettable vividness that makes it the best game on this planet. If I’ve learned one thing, it’s that baseball stats and wonder go together like a hot dog and mustard.

Jeff Polman’s eccentric historical replay blogs can be found at http://1924andyouarethere.blogspot.com/ and http://funkyball.wordpress.com/. Snarky quips can be found at https://twitter.com/funkyball77