Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Whatever Happened to the Twins of Tomorrow?

June ends tomorrow, and the Minnesota Twins will probably finish the month out of first place, but within a game of both the White Sox and Tigers for the AL Central lead. It’s been a precipitous drop for the club, who ended May with a 4.5 game lead on the Tigers and an 8.5 game lead on the White Sox. Since then, the Sox have been going like gangbusters, and the Tigers have been incredibly strong, while the Twins have scuffled (particularly during Interleague Play). Currently at 10-15 with two games to play, the Twins will finish with their first month below .500 since May of last year, when they went 14-16. And if they lose their last two games, they will finish with their worst record since August of 2001.

So as the Twins sit out of first for the first time since the second day of the season, it’s a good time to ask what has gone wrong, and whether the Twins can fix it.

Hitting

The Twins’ offensive attack, through its first two months, was very impressive. The club was averaging just under 5 runs per game (251 runs in 51 games), and had and an OPS+ of 107. Since then, however, they’ve fallen off a cliff. Through 25 games this month, the Twins have scored 99 runs and their team OPS (.702) is 8 percent below the league average. Their patience is gone. Through May 31, the Twins had walked in 11 percent of their plate appearances, but that has fallen to 7 percent in June. Where did it go? As you’d probably guess, it suffered tremendously because of injuries to both Orlando Hudson and JJ Hardy,
who were replaced by impatient hitters like Matt Tolbert, Danny Valencia, and Trevor Plouffe (Tolbert and Plouffe being founding members of the IBTMI).. Also, when the Twins played in National League parks, they lost one or more of their most patient hitters in Jim Thome and Jason Kubel. They are also struggling to get extra singles because they’re not making contact. Surprisingly, the Twins’ strikeout rate has shot up in June, from 14.5 percent to 17 percent. The lack of contact means that, even with a decent .300 BABIP, there are fewer singles dropping in.

Pitching and defense

The good news is that most of the Minnesota pitchers’ underlying stats are solid. The team’s walk, strikeout, and WHIP have all held relatively steady or improved over the first two months of the year. The bad news, however, is that as the weather has warmed up, Twins pitchers have struggled to keep the ball in the ballpark. After allowing 44 homers through 458.2 innings in their first two months, Twins pitchers surrendered 32 in June, an increase of more than a third. The main culprit in this increase has been the Twins’ supposed ace. Scott Baker gave up 8 homers in 29.2 innings, after giving up 7 in the first two months. Nick Blackburn has also allowed 6 in just 18.1 frames. The rest of the increase can be attributed to the Twins’ pen. Alex Burnett surrendered his first two homers of his career in June, Brian Duensing gave up two after surrendering one in his first two months. And Jeff Manship, Jon Rauch, Matt Guerrier, Ron Mahay, and Jose Mijares each chipped in one apiece. The Twins’ vaunted defense also let them down in June, as they helped the opposition score seven unearned runs, after allowing just five during April and May. After making just 12 errors through the end of May, they made 16 last month.

Going Forward

In short, the Twins are really struggling right now on both sides of the ball. Joe Mauer is struggling, as are Denard Span and Michael Cuddyer. Justin Morneau has returned to earth after his amazing start. And with Hudson out, the Twins went most of the month with offensive sink holes Tolbert and Plouffe hitting in the number two spot. This, combined with Span’s struggles, meant that the Twins often had no one on base for Mauer and Morneau. And with Blackburn and Baker (and Kevin Slowey) really struggling, an increased burden is being placed on bullpen, who are beginning to show cracks.

That said, Baker and Slowey have been nothing if not consistently solid in their careers. Blackburn has always lived dangerously, and his implosion may be a sign that his luck has finally run out, but his spot is easily replaced via trade or promotion from AAA. Likewise, Denard Span is a good bet to turn things around, as is Cuddyer. If Joe Mauer isn’t too beat from catching 36 of the 44 games the team’s played since his heel injury, he too will rebound. Orlando Hudson’s return means that Plouffe and/or Tolbert (or Harris) won’t haunt the lineup with their ineptitude, and the eventual return of JJ Hardy (who is about to start a rehab assignment) will push the other back to the bench where they belong. In short, it’s likely that the June blip is just that, and that the Twins should return to their winning ways shortly. They may not be the second best team in the American League (as Twins fans were envisioning after May), but they still should be able to cruise past the Tigers and White Sox, who can’t stay this hot forever.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Creative Writing (of Baseball History)

The Common Man was going to put up a nickname review today, but frankly can’t be bothered to be creative. Instead, he'll just be snarky. Class, let’s all enjoy Larry Dierker’s take on baseball’s early history.

Larry Dierker was a hell of a young pitcher for the old Colt .45s, current Astros. He was probably abused (1250 innings through age 23, 305 innings as a 22 year old in 1969). And by all accounts, he was a pretty good manager too, finishing first in the NL Central in four of his only five seasons at the helm. Dierker has also been a special columnist for MLB.com for several years now.

Alas, one thing Dierker is not is a historian. On a recent flight to Hawaii, Dierker was reading The Man Who Invented Baseball by Sports Illustrated writer Harold Peterson, a 1973 biography of Alexander Cartwright. Impressed by Cartwright and the book, Dierker shared the following,
“The sporting-club games [of the New York Knickerbockers] continued through the fall and resumed in the summer of 1846, when the Knickerbockers played the first recorded game against another sporting club…on June 19 in Hoboken. Several prominent gentlemen from the early days of the sport, Albert Spaulding [sic] and John Montgomery Ward, also took part in the action.”
The trouble, of course, is that Spalding wasn’t born until 1850, and Ward not until 1860, making their participation highly difficult (unless they were good friends of H.G. Wells).

Later, Dierker writes,
“In 1888, the White Sox went on a world tour and played the Cubs in Honolulu, never knowing that the founder of the sport was living there. Until that time, the inventor of baseball was thought to be Abner Doubleday….That version of the origins of the sport was based largely on the eyewitness testimony of Abner Graves.”
Alas, there’s trouble here too. Indeed, Spalding did organize a goodwill International tour in 1888, which did stop in Hawaii. However, the teams could not play there, as they arrived late, were prohibited from playing on a Sunday, and had to leave immediately for New Zealand. Also, the Chicago team that Spalding brought along was the White Stockings, forerunners of the Cubs. Against them, he pitted a team of “All Americans” that included Ward, Ned Hanon, and George Wright. Finally, nothing whatsoever was known about Doubleday in 1888. The Mills commission, which received Graves’ letter attributing the sport’s invention to Doubleday, wasn’t established until 1905. In 1888, the origins of baseball were shrouded in mystery, though American owners and players felt sure that there were no connections to Britain’s game of Rounders.

Dierker’s assertions call to question whether he was actually paying attention to what he was reading on his long flight to Oahu, or whether Peterson’s book is simply hopelessly incompetent. Indeed, there is little known about Peterson’s out-of-print book online, save for a positive review on SI.com, which claims, “Peterson…provides an extraordinary analysis of baseball's distant origins, tracing the game back not to cricket but to a Scandinavian game even older than om el mahag, a ball-and-bat diversion of Africa's Berbers dating from 3,000 to 6,000 years before the birth of Christ. He unearths later variations that cropped up in France, Germany and elsewhere, eventually to reach their exquisite culmination on that spring day in Cartwright's marvelous invention.” Certainly, it’s hard to believe that SI.com would lend its support to a writer who is so misinformed as to think that John Ward and Al Spalding could have attended a game in 1846. If any of you have actually read the book, feel free to fill us in.

Maybe the Astros abused more than just Dierker’s arm back in ’69. Or maybe some overhead luggage shifted during the flight and conked him on the noggin. Dierker, by the way, has written two books on his own, including the now ironically titled, This Ain't Brain Surgery (no, apparently it's not) pictured to your right. The mind reels at what inaccuracies could potentially be contained within (or invented, given the right amount of chemical stimulation).

As it is, at least Dierker will get to accomplish his closing wish, “If I can establish that Alick’s grave is still there [in Honolulu], I will likely allow enough time to stop by and place a lei on it myself.” A quick Googling, which is really all Dierker and his factcheckers at MLB.com should have done to see if he was even in the ballpark for some of his ridiculous assertions, suggests that, indeed, the site is in good shape.


At this rate, however, Dierker will probably end up in the wrong cemetery and declare the whole thing a snipe hunt. Have fun, Larry!

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Random Thursday: 1995 American League Central

Oh Thursdays, your randomness is so beguiling. Today, The Common Man will give in to you. And so, using BR.com’s “random” feature, TCM jumps from the 1921 batting register that got us talking about Austin McHenry to the 1995 American League Standings, where TCM was staring right at the mighty Indians of the mid-nineties, at the height of their power, in the only season in which they won 100 games and reached the World Series.

Sitting atop the American League Central with a 100-44 record, these Indians stand out like a sore thumb both because of their excellent performance and the terribleness of the rest of the division, all of whom finished below .500. The Indians lorded over their division, beating up in particular on the second place Royals, against whom they finished 11-1. Cleveland also won double digit games against the Orioles, Tigers, and Blue Jays, and skunked the A’s 7-0. They only were below .500 against the Angels, but were limited to just 5 games against the Halos because of the strike. When the abbreviated regular season ended, the Indians were 30 games up on their nearest rival, the largest lead any team has ever had.

That led, of course, is due as much to the Indians’ success as it is to the failure of everyone else in the division. Cleveland had become a player development machine, churning out prospects like Carlos Baerga, Jim Thome, Albert Belle, Sandy Alomar, Charles Nagy, Chad Ogea, and Julian Tavarez, and Manny Ramirez. Jeromy Burnitz and Brian Giles were buried at AAA. They acquired other teams’ projects on the cheap, like Paul Sorrento of the Twins, Omar Vizquel of the Mariners, Jose Mesa of the Orioles, and Kenny Lofton of the Astros, and made them into rousing successes. And they augmented their club with strong veterans, such as Eddie Murray, Dennis Martinez, Orel Hershiser, and Tony Pena (though the less said about Dave Winfield, the better). This team was loaded, and from top to bottom may have been one of the most complete offensive teams of all time.

Meanwhile, the Royals thought they were still playing in 1987, with Vince Coleman, Greg Gagne, Wally Joyner, and Gary Gaetti in the lineup. Gaetti slugged 35 homers in a huge comeback year, but no one else on the team hit more than 14. Designated hitter and 1994 Rookie of the Year Bob Hamlin went from a 146 OPS+ to a 53. The offense finished dead last in the American League in runs per game. They would get worse and worse as the ‘90s ground on, wasting the prime years of Kevin Appier paying exorbitantly for Jeff King, Jose Offerman, Jay Bell, Bip Roberts, and Tom Goodwin.

The White Sox were a year removed from a run of success at or near the top of the AL Central and West under Jeff Torborg and Gene Lamont, and were in 1st place when the ’94 seasons was stopped. So they must have had high hopes coming out of the strike. Alas, a number of players took steps back. Frank Thomas’s OPS+ fell back from 211(!) to 179, because no one can maintain a .487 OBP and a .729 SLG from year to year. Ron Karkovice began to fall back. Ozzie Guillen went from terrible (71 OPS+) to abysmal (56). The DH spot was downgraded from Julio Franco (136 OPS+) to a rotating cast that had a 109 OPS+. Thomas was part of this group, but that moved Dave Martinez to 1B. But a lot of the damage came from the pitching staff, where Jack McDowell was sent to the Yankees and not adequately replaced (McDowell’s spot was filled by a rotating cast of Brian Keyser, Dave Righetti, Mike Sirotka, Luis Andujar, James Baldwin, and Mike Bertotti. Jason Bere also took a huge step back, foretelling the shoulder problems that would eventually derail his promising career. After two straight years with 12 wins, and a combined ERA of 3.64, Bere went 8-15 with a 7.19 ERA. He would combine to make 11 starts over the next two seasons with a 6.75 ERA. And Chicago’s relievers went from having a 4.10 ERA to a 4.85. The club would bounce back in ’96, and hover around .500 before recovering its swagger under Jerry Manuel.

The Brewers should have been essentially a .500 ballclub, as they were outscored by just 7 runs. But playing in an extreme hitters’ park (County Stadium’s one-year Park Factor was 109) masked a team with some troubling offensive problems. John Jaha and BJ Surhoff provided above average production, but played premium offensive positions. Kevin Seitzer and Jeff Cirillo also provided acceptable offense, and some positional flexibility. But none of the other Milwaukee hitters managed more than 1.5 WAR, according to BR.com. Greg Vaughn, who led the team with a $4.9 million salary, was limited to DH for the year and actually finished below replacement level. Two years later, the Brewers moved out of the American League altogether.

Finally, the Minnesota Twins were enjoying the depths of their decade of cheapness and obscurity. Rather than wait out the strike, Shane Mack took off for Japan and was replaced by Rookie of the Year Marty Cordova. Kent Hrbek decided he didn’t want to stay in shape anymore (or the shape he had chosen to stay in was more circular than is optimal for a ballplayer) and retired, replaced on the field not by heir apparent David McCarty (the 3rd overall pick in 1991), but by something called Scott Stahoviak. McCarty fell out of favor with Tom Kelly and was dealt to the Reds for a non-prospect. Kirby Puckett had been shifted to RF and was replaced by Rich Becker, and would end his career later that season after being hit in the face by a Dennis Martinez fastball.

But the pitching. Oh God, the pitching. Twenty-two year old rookie Brad Radke led the staff with 181 innings and a 5.32 ERA. Kevin Tapani made 20 starts before mercifully being traded to the Dodgers for Ron Coomer and players who were inexplicably more terrible than Ron Coomer. Scott Erickson sulked through 15 games (with a 5.95 ERA) before he was traded to the Orioles (where he would magically go 9-4 with a 3.89 ERA the rest of the year) for Scott Klingenbeck.and Kimera Bartee. Rick Aguilera was dealt to Boston for Frankie Rodriguez because it was clear the team didn’t need anyone special to close games. Aside from Radke and Tapani, by the way, no one on the club pitched more than 100 innings. Mike Trombley made 28 starts, but only had 97 IP, and with a 5.62 ERA, it’s good he didn’t hang around. Rodriguez’s ERA was 5.38. Jose Parra, acquired for Tapani, had a 7.59 ERA. Failed prospect Pat Mahomes finished the year with a 6.37 ERA in 94 innings. Eddie Guardado’s ERA was 5.12. Klingenbeck posted an 8.57 mark. Greg Harris allowed 35 runs in 32 innings, and LaTroy Hawkins allowed 29 in 27. Among players with more than 30 IP, only Rich Robertson and Mark Guthrie (who was traded with Tapani) posted a mark better than the league average. It was, in a word, excrutiating. The Twins allowed 6.2 runs per game in 1995, the first of just four teams since 1940 that have allowed more than 6 runs per game (the others being the ’96 Tigers, ’99 Rockies, and (whatta you know) the ’94 Twins).

And so, the Indians were allowed to run roughshod over the AL Central, dominating it like no other division or league has been dominated before. The ’95 Indians made a mockery of competitive balance, and stand as a strong reminder of what a smart front office can do: run circles around bad organizations.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Beer Leaguers: Berghoff Sundown Dark and Denard Span

On Friday, The Common Man was walking through the booze section of his local supermarket, when he spied a cheap beer with a sharp looking label. At less than a dollar per bottle, The Common Man was pretty sure that he was about to get hosed, particularly as he had not heard anything exciting about this brew, but figured to try it anyway. And that, dear friends, is the moment that Berghoff Sundown Dark entered TCM’s life. The six pack is long gone now, the bottles tossed into the recycling bin. But the flavor and the crispness are still with The Common Man. The Sundown Dark comes on full and malty, with a sweet dark taste, perhaps with a hint of molasses. It is rich and satisfying, particularly out of the bottle, but not overpowering. The Common Man was genuinely surprised by how much he liked it. And he wants more.

Similarly, when the Twins promoted Denard Span in 2008, The Common Man wasn’t sure what to make of him. Span had been taken in the first round of the 2004 draft, and was projected to move as a Kenny Lofton-esque leadoff hitter. He did not project to hit for power, but looked like a baseball player at 6’, 200 lbs. After some high-OBP, low SLG success in the low minors, Span seemed to stall at AA in 2006. Despite struggling at New Britain, Span was promoted the next year to AAA Rochester, where his walk rate continued to suffer, and his strikeout rate ramped up. Plus, the Twins’ supposed leadoff man of the future had been caught 14 times in 39 attempts to steal. It was looking more and more like Denard Span was going to wash out.

When Michael Cuddyer suffered a hand injury, Span made his debut in rightfield. His performance was not encouraging. Through April 24, he was hitting .258/.324/.258 and the Twins were scuffling out of the gate. Span was sent down, where something clicked. He not only rediscovered his hitting stroke (batting .340 in 156 ABs), but found his batting eye (26 BB in 184 PAs) and power as well (.481 SLG). When Cuddyer went down again at the end of June, Span was recalled and continued his hot hitting. From June 30 on, Denard Span played in every single game and hit .297/.393/.449 and stole 15 bases in 22 attempts. On July 22, Span became the team’s leadoff hitter, and hasn’t given it up since.

When Span was called up, The Common Man didn’t know what to make of him. TCM remembers Aaron Gleeman’s frustration both with Span’s lack of development and at the decision to call him up and start him in rightfield, and TCM remember agreeing with him. Hell, Gleeman didn’t even include Span in his list of the Twins’ top 40 prospects before 2008. And indeed, Span looked lost when he first got to the major leagues. But in the two years since his coming out party, Span has been terrific, posting a strong batting average, a good walk rate, and adequate speed on the bases. This year, while his batting average has suffered, he has maintained his solid BB rate, sees just as many pitches per at bat, and has stolen 14 bags while only being caught once.

In addition, Denard Span plays baseball hard. It’s common for announcers and pundits to praise “hard-nosed” and “gritty” players like Nick Punto (who is, oh hey, white!), but they rarely mention Span, who worked hard to make himself into a productive hitter, hustles on the field and on the bases, and plays with a strong competitive instinct. While that kind of attitude may or may not help the team in a measurable way, it’s endearing to a fanbase that has come to appreciate their leadoff man.


Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau may be the golden boys in the Twin Cities these days. They certainly look good, and play well, and cost the team a pretty penny. But the modest, engaging, and inexpensive ($750,000 this year, 5 years/$16.5 million with a club option) young center fielder is quickly becoming a new favorite around town. He certainly surprised The Common Man, even more so than a certain dark brown ale that TCM is craving right now.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Mirror Image

Wife week seems to have morphed into Jamie Moyer Appreciation Week.

The other day, The Common Man wrote a short post on The Daily Something about Jamie Moyer’s longevity, in which TCM claimed that Moyer is not Hall of Fame material. This prompted the following comment from the blog’s purveyor and good friend,
“He's not a Hall of Famer...but it's always important (to me) to note that if he's not, neither is Jack Morris. Nearly identical IP and ERA+, and Moyer now has almost as many strikeouts and many fewer walks. To believe Morris is a Hall of Famer, you have to believe that one really good World Series game is all it would take to propel Jamie Moyer there.”

Touche, Bill. As Bill points out, the difference between Moyer and Morris is an eyelash at this point (that eyelash being a 10 inning shutout and that they throw with opposite hands). Compare the following chart:


Relative to their leagues, the two players are pretty similar on a superficial level. That said, Moyer has more innings, much better control, and a higher WAR than Morris, according to BaseballReference.com. And while Morris made his bones in the World Series (4-2, 2.96), his overall playoff record (7-4, 3.80, 0.9 HR/9, 3.1 BB/9, 6.2 K/9, and 2.0 K/BB) is much more in line with his overall numbers. And those ALCS starts count too. Plus, it’s not like Moyer has been a slouch in the postseason (3-3, 4.14 ERA with a lower HR/9 and BB/9 and a higher K/9 and K/BB). In fact, if we remove one disastrous start for Moyer against the Dodgers in 2008 (when he gave up 6 runs in 1.1 innings), Moyer’s postseason ERA is 2.93. The main difference between the two hurlers in the postseason seems to be innings pitched, where Morris has more than twice the experience in October. So, while Morris does get some extra credit for his postseason heroics, it’s probably not enough to substantially separate himself from Moyer, if we’re looking at their careers objectively.

So what do we make of this? Morris was never an elite pitcher in the American League, just a good pitcher for a long time. Similarly, Jamie Moyer was probably never an elite pitcher in either league (only one all star appearance, a few high finishes in Cy Young voting but never top 3). The two are each the second most similar pitcher to one another according to Bill James’ similarity scores (amazingly, the most similar pitcher to each of them is Dennis Martinez). Given the general qualifications of Hall of Fame pitchers, neither really passes the bar.

That said, The Common Man has recently become more of a “Big Hall” kind of guy, and can envision a Hall of Fame that welcomes both the twirler of the greatest game in World Series history and the pitching with the biggest post-30 career turnaround ever. After all, we all enjoyed the careers of both Morris and Moyer, and TCM sees nothing wrong with reliving those memories when we browse the plaques in the Cooperstown Hall of Fame Gallery.

So The Common Man revises his earlier statement. Moyer for the Hall! And Moyer! And Santo! But all of them have to line up behind Blyleven.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Methuseli

As The Common Man explored on The Daily Something the other day, the inimitable Junkballin’ Jamie Moyer pitched a wonderful game against the New York Yankees, becoming the oldest pitcher to ever beat the ballclub. That said, as Craig points out on Hardball Talk,
“Jamie Moyer is the oldest pitcher to ever beat the Yankees! -- is another of those silly, ‘we're only talking about it because it's a New York team’ things. Moyer is the oldest pitcher to beat a whole bunch of teams, I'd imagine, and we generally don't care. But because he's facing New York, which means that there are a bunch more writers covering it, all of whom are looking for an angle, we get factoids disguised as records like this one.”


True, Craig. So true. Which, of course, gives The Common Man his own angle, for which he is greatly appreciative. So here is a list of the oldest pitchers to beat each Major League franchise since 1900:




You’ll notice a couple things. First of all, Craig’s right, Moyer is the oldest pitcher to beat the Yankees, Padres, Brewers, Braves, Mets, Astros, Diamondbacks, Marlins, Reds, Rays, and Nationals. Indeed, that’s more than a third of the teams in the MLB. Also, you’ll note that the list is dominated by only a few names. This makes sense, obviously, since very few pitchers tend to make it into their forties to begin with, let alone their late 40s. And as these players tend to remain effective in their 40s (otherwise they would not be pitching), they tend to beat a lot of their opponents. The list is also dominated by pitchers with a gimmick. Hoyt Wilhelm, who pitched until his was 49, had the greatest knuckleball of all time. Phil Niekro, who retired at 48, is right behind him. Charlie Hough, who barely cracks the list, also threw a knuckler. Jack Quinn was the last man allowed to throw a spitball, after the pitch was outlawed. And, of course, Moyer throws slower than most 14 year olds, but combines excellent control with a yard full of junk.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

The Downside of a Democracy

Wife Week continues here at The Common Man.com today. The starters for the annual All Star Game have been voted on by fans since 1970. While this has, presumably, increased the fan interest in the game, and become an annual tradition, it has also led to terrible selections, such as Jimmy Rollins, who currently leads NL shortstops despite only playing in 11 games this year. Such is the problem, and the wonderful thing, about democracy. Everybody has a vote, no matter how ill informed. And many choose to exercise it, and we get Alvin Greene running for Senate in South Carlina. On Monday, TCM mentioned that his disinterested wife’s All Star ballot was a sight to behold. So last night, TCM asked his wife to recall why she punched holes next to the names she did at the Twins game this past weekend. What follows are her choice, followed by her reasoning, followed by TCM’s choice and analysis of her pick.

National League


First Base: Albert Pujols (.309/.425/.559, 15 HR, 49 RBI, 2.6 WAR)
I chose him because his name sounds like “Poo holes.” Like “Anus.” And I’ve always loved his name.

(TCM’s take: A good pick right off the bat. While the reasoning is (ahem) interesting to say the least, The Uncommon Wife’s choice could not have been better. Pujols is the best player in the National League and is almost certainly going to be considered one of the greatest players who ever lived when his career is done.)

Second Base: Martin Prado (.333/.375/.464, 92 hits, 18 doubles, 6 HR, 47 runs, 1.6 WAR)
Because that’s just one letter away from Prada, which is a hell of a pair of shoes.

(TCM’s take: Not a bad choice, given the excellent season that Prado has had thusfar. That said, Chase Utley has been the best in the league for the last five years, and is having another strong (though down, so far) season for the Phillies. Utley’s defense is much better than Prado’s).

Shortstop: Hanley Ramirez (.290/.374/.492, 10 HR, 12 SB, 1.7 WAR)
He was the only dude there not named “Escobar” or “Cabrera.”

(TCM’s take: Hanley’s been the best non-Pujols player in the NL for the past two years, and is having another good season. Troy Tulowitzki is having a better year (2.3 WAR), but TCM has no problem rewarding Hanley for his past success.)

Third Base: David Freese (.309/.374/.435, 1.6 WAR)
I like Seattle. He’s a good player. I like him, he’s got some chops. He’s got a good arm on him. Can hit a little bit. And I hope the All Star Game is somewhere nice so he can get out of Seattle, where it rains all the time.

(TCM’s take: TCM loves the clich├ęs here, as well as The Uncommon Wife’s belief that STL is baseball’s abbreviation for Seattle. This is a very good year for 3B in the National League. Freese is having a good Spring, and looks to be a productive player for the near future. That said, the trio of Scott Rolen, Ryan Zimmerman, and David Wright are far and away better than Freese. In particular, despite the earlier concerns about Wright from the always level-headed New York media, Wright’s 2010 is right in line with the rest of his career. He already has more homers than he had in all of last year, and he leads the NL in RBI (50). His 2.9 WAR has also already eclipsed last year’s mark. Plus, he’s swiped 11 bags so far.

Catcher: Miguel Olivo (.311/.379/.534, 8 HR, 2.0 WAR)
I think he’s a good catcher. If there’s any man I’d like to see squat behind the plate, it’s Olivo. Besides, look at his batting thingy this year, it’s .318 (now .311). That’s pretty good for a catcher, right? Right?

(TCM’s take: Amazingly, Olivo has been the best catcher in the NL this year. He hasn’t played as much as Yadier Molina, Brian McCann, or Geovany Soto (all of whom would be justifiable picks in the abstract), but Olivo’s great start makes him the right guy here.)

Outfield

Jason Heyward (.268/.389/.486, 10 HR, 36 runs, 43 RBI, 1.7 WAR, 34 kitties saved from trees, 13 evil geniuses bent on world domination defeated, 1 resurrection from the dead (Troy Glaus))
Justin Upton (.242/.317/.425, 10 HR, 3 RBI, 1.0 WAR)
Raul Ibanez (.250/.342/.395, 4 HR, 28 RBI, -0.1 WAR)

Because nobody really gives a shit what happens in the outfield. All they have to do is go way up in the air.

(TCM’s take: Huh. That’s some reasoning. At least Heyward is a good choice, what with his Jesus-esque qualities. That said, Colby Rasmus (2.2 WAR) and Ryan Ludwick (2.0 WAR) are both having excellent seasons for the Cardinals (better than Holliday), and walking contradiction Angel Pagan (2.3 WAR) is also excelling for the Mets. The most valuable outfielder in the NL so far, however, according to WAR, has been Andrew McCutchen (2.8) of the Pirates. TCM would probably go with McCutchen, Heyward, and Rasmus.)


American League

First Base: Miguel Cabrera (.330/.410/.652, 19 homers, 56 RBI, 45 runs, 18 doubles, 2.7 WAR)
C’mon, the dude deserves to be thrown a bone. And since I discriminated against the Cabrera’s on the NL side, I thought I’d throw one in here.

(TCM’s take: Actually, if it weren’t for Justin Morneau and his .455 OBP and 4.2 WAR, Cabrera would be a very defensible choice. Miggy leads the AL in homers, RBI, and slugging percentage. That said, Morneau’s been out of this world.)

Second Base: Scott Sizemore (.336/.403/.473 (for AAA Toledo), .206/.297/.289, -0.3 in the majors)
That’s the baddest ass name in baseball.

(TCM’s take: Scott Sizemore will be happy to know that someone outside of his immediate family voted for him. Frankly, that’s the problem with making out these All Star ballots so far in advance. Sizemore has played his way back into the minors, and he still gets votes from Tigers fans and The Uncommon Wife. Robinson Cano, with his .368/.414/.609, and 4.2 WAR is the right choice here in what’s shaping up to be a career year.)

Shortstop: Alexei Ramirez (.261/.297/.399, 0.8 WAR)
I didn’t pick Jeter, I’m not that much of a douche. I think he runs really fast, and throws really fast, and gets to the ball really fast. He seems scrappy to me.

(TCM’s take: It’s a bad year for shortstops in the AL. Jeter’s performance is, indeed, way down. The best, so far, has been Alex Gonzalez, whose 13 homers screams fluke. Gonzalez has never had a season with a WAR above 1.9. He’s a 2.2 right now.)

Third Base: Alex Rodriguez (.290/.361/.482, 8 HR, 43 RBI, 2.0 WAR)
He’s freaking ARod. The dude boned Madonna. He gets on the ballot, like, forever. If you say no to ARod, that’s like saying no to Madonna. And no one says no to Madonna

(TCM’s take: Madonna or no, ARod continues to slide. His slugging percentage has fallen in each of the last three seasons, and you have to wonder whether the hip injury sapped some of his power. He’s still a very very good player, but nowhere near the class of Evan Longoria, who is still just 24 years old and has a 3.3 WAR.)

Catcher: Joe Mauer (.316/.393/.445, 35 runs, 19 doubles, 2.0 WAR)
He’s Joe Freaking Mauer. He hits the ball a lot, he runs a lot, to can always count on him to bring the ball home. I would have his babies. Besides, he’s The Boy’s favorite player.

(TCM’s take: Joe’s well off of last year’s pace, probably thanks to being overworked and to having to play in a new, power-sapping ballpark. That said, he’s still the best catcher in the American League. And TCM would totally have his babies too.)

Designated Hitter: Hideki Matsui (.265/.340/.435, 9 HR, 39 RBI, 0.4 WAR
He’s a good hitter. I think I thought that I like the Angels, and I’m not giving them enough love.

TCM’s take: Matsui has been largely a disappointment for the Angels this year, though he’s made a habit of alternating good years with injury-prone ones in recent years. Perhaps just staying on the field is helpful. However, despite contributing anything with the glove, Vladamir Guerrero has more than quadrupled Matsui’s production, with a 1.7 WAR. Vlad’s having a terrific year at the plate, reminding us that at 35, he may still have some lightning in that bat.)

Outfield

Ichiro (.341/.395/.434, 29 runs, 19 SBs, 1.6 WAR)
Who doesn’t want to be able to yell “ICHIROOOOOOOOOOO!”

Torii Hunter (.285/.356/.502, 10 homers, 38 runs, 45 RBI, 0.9 WAR)
I like how he shakes his little butt.

Michael Cuddyer (.281/.344/.455, 36 runs, 0.1 WAR)

He hit the ball really well when he were watching him.

(TCM’s take: Kid you not, the three leaders in the AL in WAR are Ben Zobrist, Brett Gardner, and David DeJesus. Shin-Soo Choo and Alexis Rios are also having really strong years. Gun to his head, TCM takes Ichiro, Choo, and Gardner.)

In all, considering her general disinterest and haphazardness, The Uncommon Wife didn't do too bad. Six of her seventeen picks are dead on, and another four are at least defensible. Maybe hanging around The Common Man is good for her. Or maybe she's picked up a lot from other sources.

Monday, June 14, 2010

A Fan's Guide to Attending a Ballgame with Your Disinterested Partner

If you follow The Common Man on teh Twitterz, you may have noticed that he and The Uncommon Wife joined good friends Bill of The Daily Something and his lovely and delightful (and highly pregnant) better half at Target Field for the Saturday tilt between the Twins and Braves. It was a stressful game, won when Brooks Conrad executed a perfect squeeze bunt down the third base line that Jose Mijares (and his Rich Garces-esque frame) had no chance to field.


The Twins squandered extra chances to score in their belief that, because they were playing a National League team, they needed to play NL style ball. With Denard “The Nard-Dog” Span on first with no outs in both the 6th and 8th innings, Trevor Plouffe (a less manly name has yet to be applied to any member of the male species), was asked to sacrifice him over. In the 6th, Joe Mauer followed with a double that would have allowed Span to score anyway; then, following an intentional walk to Morneau, the Twins ran themselves out of the inning with a strike-out/throw-out double play, in which the catcher was caught as the lead runner trying to steal 3B. Ugh. Two innings later, Gardy was outmaneuvered again when, after Plouffe’s bunt, Joe Mauer was intentionally walked, Morneau flew out to RF, Cuddyer walked, and Kubel struck out. That’s three outs the Twins gave away with runners on base in a game that ended up being decided by a run. Ugh.

Anyway, this post is not about the game itself, but about the experience of being at the game with a woman (The Uncommon Wife) who doesn’t really care about baseball that much. Call it: your guide to the ballpark with an unenthusiastic partner. Here are some easy dos and don’ts:

Do: make sure your partner has their own hat. This is particularly important on a drizzly day like this past Saturday, or if you’re sitting out in the sun. When your partner’s hair gets too messy or they are getting too much sun, they will usurp your own cap. This will invariably occur in the late innings, when you’re trying to coax a rally out of your hometown nine with a rally cap. Two problems here: 1) this leaves you exposed with hat hair. 2) the rally will fizzle (probably because your manager calls for a sacrifice bunt, and you couldn’t stop him with the amplified brain waves created by your now stolen and refurbished rally cap.

Don’t: let your partner get ahold of your scorecard. Even if they know how to keep score, if your partner is bored, you might come back to this (Click to embiggen. TCM makes no apologies for his non-standard manner of scoring; it's how he was taught by his grandfather and it makes sense to him.):


You’ll note that the umpire for that night’s game was Scotch and there is a “rally whale” (which apparently eats the rally shark) that stretches from the first inning to the fifth. There’s a sad face because the Twins lost. One player is label a “speedy motherfucker” with a circle representing “how his legs looked as he ran around the bases.” Finally, there is a landmine below the list of Twins coaches (more on that below).

Do: encourage your partner to bring a friend, which will allow you to concentrate on the game and your next snarky comments about how, because of injury, the Twins now have the four most redundant players in the majors to mix and match in the infield: Nick Punto, Trevor Plouffe, Brendan Harris, and Matt Tolbert. Gardenhire must be absolutely basking in the good-field/no-hit middle infield goodness.



Don’t: give your partner your wallet when they get up to go to the restroom. They may come back with the monstrous combination of a glass of scotch and a package of cotton candy. Worse, they could make you try the combination. “The sugar melts into the scotch and makes it sweet! It’s the perfect combination!”



Do: find out as much as you can about your partner’s ideas for “improving” the game. For example, The Uncommon Wife wants there to be an alligator pit between the catcher and the umpire. She feels like this will lead to fewer arguments, and more peril. In fact, she is consistently in favor of more peril in baseball. She would like one of the aforementioned landmines to be placed in one stadium every season, just to up the danger of the game. These are generally hilarious, especially those ideas that your partner will believe in most fervently.

Don’t: come back from the concession stand with ice cream when you’ve been asked to get another scotch. Just don’t. (Sorry, dear, but it was after the 7th inning! Stop hitting TCM with your purse, ok?)

Do: make sure your partner fills out an All Star ballot. The Uncommon Wife volunteered to fill one out, and will be here on Wednesday to defend explain her vote.

Don’t: sit directly underneath the organist. Baseball is better with a real organ, don’t get The Common Man wrong, and it’s awesome that TCM and company were sitting directly below her. But that woman doesn’t need any additional questions like, “Do you know how to play ‘Alejandro?’” or “I need some ‘Baby Elephant Walk,’ stat!” It’s bad enough she has to sit in the “pub” (aka a glass box with cement floors and a bar).

Do: have fun

and

Don’t: get too bent out of shape. Baseball is supposed to be a good time, and we all enjoy it in different ways. Some people like inventing convoluted scenarios in which Delmon Young stumbles over a landmine while trying catch a fly ball (really, it wouldn’t hurt too much, given his defense).
Some begrudgingly appreciate seeing a perfectly executed squeeze play. But at $30-50 for a decent seat, just relax and take it all in. And try not to mix cotton candy in your scotch.

Friday, June 11, 2010

What's the Biggest Debut in Washington Baseball History?

As The Common Man mentioned earlier, it’s Washington Week on this site, in honor of Stephen Strasburg’s big debut. And in watching that debut, it’s fun to dream about Strasburg becoming the face of Washington baseball for the 21st century. But, as The Common Man alluded to earlier, this was hardly the first big debut of a premier pitching talent in Washington’s history.


First and foremost, of course, is The Big Train, Walter Johnson, the premier player in Washington baseball’s annals. His 417 wins are second all time, and his 110 shutouts are 20 more than the nearest competitor (Pete Alexander). He was the most dominating pitcher in the Major Leagues from 1910-1924. He won two MVPs, despite not being eligible for several after winning in 1913 (because players couldn’t win twice). And his strikeout record stood for more than 50 years. On him, Clark Griffith built his pennant winners in the 1920s, even though Johnson was in his 30s.

If you believe the legends, Walter was a thunderbolt from a blue sky when he arrived in 1907. According to 1962’s The Greatest in Baseball,
“As a boy growing up on a isolated farm in Humboldt, Kansas, Walter Johnson had little chance to play baseball. He was almost 20 when a traveling salesman saw him pitch in a sandlot game. The excited drummer dispatched urgent letters to all the major-league clubs, extolling the virtues of the unknown sandlot pitcher….Eventually the Washington Senators…picked up pitcher Walter Johnson for the price of a $9 railroad ticket.”
That story, as you’d probably expect, is a bunch of hooey.

Yes, Johnson was born on and lived at a farm in Kansas, but moved to Los Angeles with his family in 1902. At 16, he began playing ball on a sandlot, but quickly graduated to a semipro outfit for a local oil company, according to Charles Carey of SABR’s Baseball Biography Project. From there, he got a brief trial with Tacoma in the Northwest League, before settling in with another semipro club in Idaho. News of Johnson’s success was broadcast throughout the baseball world, including an apparent consecutive scoreless inning streak of 77. Washington sent a scout to check Johnson out, and he convinced Johnson to come back East as a member of the Senators. He was well regarded enough that the Los Angeles Times did a story on his signing on July 21, 1907.

Johnson got his first start on August 2, 1907 against the Detroit Tigers. According to the box score the next day, Johnson went 8 innings and gave up 6 hits, including a homerun to Sam Crawford. He walked one and struck out three. Davy Jones relates, in The Glory of Their Times, that
“Being the lead-off man…resulted in my holding the unique distinction of being the first man to ever face Walter Johnson in a major-league game….Boy, could that guy ever fire that ball! He had those long arms, absolutely the longest arms I ever saw. They were like whips, that what they were. He’d just whip that ball in there.”
Sam Crawford remembered that day as well, saying
“Did you know that I was playing with Detroit the day Walter Johnson pitched his first major-league game? His very first. In fact, I beat him. I’m not being egotistical, you know, but it’s a fact. I hit a home run off him and we beat him—I believe the score was 3-2.”
Crawford’s almost right. Indeed, he homered, and probably did so off of Johnson. But the Tigers pulled this game out in the bottom of the 9th, after Johnson had left the game. Instead, Tom Hughes gave up the final run on four hits, and was hung with the loss. But by now we’re used to inaccuracies in GOTT, and as far as they go, this isn’t too egregious.

Despite the loss (or no-decision, as it were), people were impressed. Tigers pitcher Bill Donovan called him “the best raw pitcher I have ever seen.” Ty Cobb reported that Johnson’s fastball, “made me flinch” and “hissed with danger.” The press picked up on it too. On the 18th, the Reading Eagle wrote,
“Johnson is only 19 years old, but is strong and husky, and has already shown remarkable ability. He has an exceptionally steady head for a youngster , and has a bunch of benders that prove very puzzling [sic] to batsmen….Johnson made good in the box from the very start, but was weak at the bat. He blanked the Tigers in six of the eight innings he pitched….With the Tigers as competitors, that’s going some. [Manager Joe] Cantillon was greatly pleased with Johnson’s showing and will retain him whether or not he holds his present form, in the belief that ultimately he will be a great pitcher.”

Indeed, Johnson was Strasburg 80 years before Strasburg was even born. But there’s one problem, Johnson’s first start came on the road in Detroit.


To find another Hall of Famer who debuted in Washington, we have to fast forward to 1930, when the Yankees came to town. This debut, however, did not generate any fanfare. On April 29, the Yanks jumped out to a 7-0 lead over Senators ace Bump Hadley, and looked poised to run away with the game. In the bottom of the third, however, Washington came roaring back against former Senator Tom Zachary. Zachary, after cruising through the first six batters of the game, couldn’t even record an out in the third frame, and gave way to Roy Sherid after being tagged for five runs. Sherid couldn’t retire anybody either, giving up two more hits before being replaced by rookie Californian Vernon Gomez.

Lefty Gomez had been a 20 year old star in the Pacific Coast League in 1929, winning 18 games for the San Francisco Seals, and was purchased by the Yankees for $45,000. On the way back north after Spring Training, Gomez apparently shut out the Little Rock Travelers in an exhibition, while also getting two hits. Impressed, the Yankees added him to the big league roster.

Against a strong Senators lineup, however, Gomez wasn’t very effective. He allowed Sherid’s runners to score and before the inning was out, it was tied. Gomez would pitch four innings in all, giving up two more runs on four hits and 2 walks. By the end of the contest, the Senators were on top 11-8, and Gomez was hung with the loss. The game recaps that TCM has located from the next day don’t mention him at all, focusing instead on the offensive onslaught of the Senators, who had just won their 8th straight game. On the year, Gomez would go 2-5 with a 5.55 ERA in 60 innings, and walked more batters than he struck out (28 to 22). According to an AP report, he was demoted to the St. Paul Saints in late July, where he acquitted himself nicely (8-4, 4.08 in 86 innings). He’d be back in the majors in 1931, and would win 21 games.



Nine years later, the equally anonymous Early Wynn came to Washington to pitch for the home team. Wynn had been signed, at 17, by the Senators, who had watched him develop into a strong pitcher by 1939. He won 15 games for Charlotte that year, with a 3.96 ERA in 243 innings. He was called up on September 12th, but had trouble impressing reporters, who wrote,
“Early, nowadays is performing for the Washington Senators…in one of those noble experiments which Clark Griffith conducts each fall with a double motive—hoping that he can convince the Washington fans that he is bringing up new players and really ‘building for next year,’ and hoping he can take the minds of the said fans off the sorry spectacle annually presented by the Senators.”
Ouch.

The prelude to Wynn’s start was actually more exciting than the start itself. On September 12, the White Sox and Senators were playing a tight contest, and were up 2-1 against Sox pitcher Thornton Lee. That’s when things got interesting, according to the Associated Press,
“With Johnny Welaj on first base, Taft Wright hit a pop fly to left. Gerald Walker of the White Sox caught the ball, then dropped it, picked it up and threw to shortstop Eric McNair, who tagged out Welaj. The umpires ruled that Walker had held the ball long enough to make a put-out and upheld the Sox’ claim to a double play.”

Senators manager Bucky Harris argued and played the rest of the contest under protest. The Sox would score 2 in the eighth and hang on 3-2. Afterward called AL President Will Harridge. After hearing Harris, Harridge upheld the protest (an interesting precedent, given the umpire was undoubtedly making a judgment call; would this have helped the Tigers in the Galarraga game?) , declared the game itself forfeit, and ordered the teams to play a doubleheader the next day.

In the first game the next day, Ted Lyons and Ken Chase battled in an epic pitchers’ duel that entered the 11th inning tied at 1-1. In the top of the 11th, the Sox pushed across two runs, and hung on to win. Both hurlers went the whole way. In the nightcap, again, both pitchers went the whole way, but the game was called after eight innings, presumably because of rain or darkness (no game accounts TCM has found indicate anything about this, but given that the attendance is listed at 500, something was off. Wynn walked Ollie Bejma to lead off the game, and the Sox scored two on follow-up hits by Mike Kreevich and Gee Walker. Wynn would settle down, giving up six hits and five walks in his eight frames, which led to four runs (three earned). He didn’t strike out a batter. The Senators would go down 4-2, handing Wynn his first of 244 losses.

The next day, game recaps were more interested in the winning pitchers and the upheld protests than a raw emergency starter from Alabama. They also enjoyed mocking the Senators’ losing streak, which had just stretched to 6 games (7 counting the wiped out game), and the fact that their protest was for naught.

For what it’s worth, Wynn’s next start was more exciting, but for the wrong reasons. Wynn struggled on the mound, giving up 11 hits and 6 runs over 6.1 innings, but was especially notable at the bat. John Strothard writes sarcastically, for the Daytona Beach Morning Journal,
“Yesterday, the ex-Florida State league hurler came through to cover himself with glory and stuff. The Senators, playing Cleveland, had men on first and second with none out. Early, trying to bunt, hit a pop fly….Ken Keltner…grabbed the pop and dropped it. Keltner threw to Lou Boudreau at second. Boudreau touched Mickey Vernon who was off the bag for out one. Boudreau threw to Oscar Grimes at first and Grimes tagged Al Evans, who had started for second. That was out No. 2. Grimes, moving and thinking quickly, leaped to first base to put out Wynn, apparently confused by the whole business, had trotted toward first base, bat still in hand.”
It was the first triple play in the American League in 1939. Somehow Wynn weaseled his way into one more start, in which he gave up five runs in six innings. On the year, he had walked 10 batters in 20.1 innings, while striking out just 1, and given up 15 runs. Obviously, Washington fans were uninspired, and Wynn was returned to Charlotte the next year, where he stayed until 1941.



“Major League” baseball was played in Washington from 1884-1972 (with years off in 1885, 1890, and 1900). And it has been back in the city since 2005. That’s 94 seasons. In all that time, based on what I’ve looked at, only two Hall of Fame pitchers have ever debuted in Washington, and neither was even close to as overwhelming as Strasburg’s. That’s a pretty remarkable drought.

One caveat. This could change as early as next year, if Bert Blyleven finally, deservingly, gets his place in Cooperstown. Blyleven was a much-hyped, 19-year old rookie when he made his debut with the Twins on June 5 of 1970 at RFK Stadium. Facing Frank Howard and the rest of the Senators, Blyleven was masterful, pitching seven innings, giving up one run, and striking out seven with his big curveball. Both managers were effusive after the game. The Twins’ Bill Rigney told reporters, “What can I say about him. He’s the best looking prospect I’ve seen. I’ve got to rate him with all the real young players that I’ve ever looked at. He’s just beautiful.” The Sens’ Ted Williams agreed, “He looked exceptionally good out there. He was outstanding. He’s the most mature 19-year-old I’ve seen in a long time.” Howard, who had to stand in against the youngster, also praised him, “He’s got a fine arm. He’s everything they’d say he was. He knows how to pitch. It’s hard to say anything based on one game, but he looks like he’s got a great future. Somebody’s taught him a lot about pitching.”

Even though it’s unlikely, The Common Man hopes that Strasburg’s career turns out to be as brilliant as the Dutchman’s. And actually, Strasburg’s debut with the historically bad Nationals may cost him some wins, just like pitching for middling franchises in Minnesota, Texas, and Cleveland cost Blyleven over the course of his career. By the time Strasburg’s retired, maybe we’ll be past caring so much about Wins, and both guys will have plaques in Cooperstown. We can dream, right?