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September 22, 2004

Teams: A Critical Guide

Rare Dick Weik Mention Edition

by Steven Goldman

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ARIZONA DIAMONDBACKS

Actually had a winning week, including taking three from the Rockies and one from the Cards, and you can't blame Tony La Russa for his refusal to celebrate a division title coming off a loss to this near-historically bad aggregation--winning just two more games will save the Zirconbacks from finishing below the black magic .300 mark and joining the ranks of the most futile teams of all time. Refusing to trade Randy Johnson doomed them to go through eternity as merely miserable. Yes, this team can't even implode correctly.

There are a couple of interesting novelty pitchers in the bullpen. Randy Choate has now thrown 137 innings in his career and allowed just five home runs (one in 45.2 innings this year). This is one of the stingiest records for that many innings over the last 30 years or so, and especially impressive given the homer-happy seas in which he swims. It suggests that if Choate could improve his control just a bit he might someday survive a full season in the majors. His story is similar to that of another lefty reliever, Kevin Saucier, who pitched for the Phillies and Tigers from 1978-1982. Saucier was generally effective despite constantly struggling with his control. Like Choate, he was parsimonious with the round-trippers, allowing just seven in 203.2 career innings. Unfortunately, his control went from "bad but borderline acceptable" to "Rick Ankiel." Sparky Anderson released him in spring training, 1983, and Saucier retired out of fear that his loss of control "would cause me to kill somebody." He was just 25. "It's really a lot of pressure when you don't know where the ball is going," he said. "The money in baseball is good, but I wanted to keep my sanity." Reportedly, Saucier went home to Florida and opened up a pizzeria.

Speaking of lefties with no control, Stephen Randolph has walked 8.41 batters per nine innings this year over the course of 76 innings. Walking 8.49 per nine got Steve Blass a disease named after him, but in fairness to Randolph he's about twice as effective as Blass was. Should he finish over 8.22, he would displace the Yankees' Tommy Byrne, 1949 as the 10-walkiest pitcher of all time, 70-plus innings division. Number one is out of reach, forever in the hands of the forgotten Dick Weik of the 1949 Senators, who passed 103 batters in 95 innings (9.76). There must have been something in the water in '49, perhaps some funky fallout from A-bomb tests. GRADE: B-

ATLANTA BRAVES

Went 4-4 in a long week, losing three of five to the Mets. What a drag to get killed by something that was already dead. In the old "Axis and Allies" board game, when armies faced off, defenders that had just been killed got to take a "casualty shot" before they were removed from the board. That sinking PT boat could get off one last volley and scrag your battleship. Think of "Lord of the Rings" and Gandalf knocking the balrog into the abyss only to have it lash out at the last moment and take him with it. It hardly seems fair. Few people know this bit of Tolkien-lore, but balrogs love to sing show tunes. You don't hear it in "The Two Towers" because it's masked by Ian McKellan's voiceover, but as the two tumble off into infinity, the balrog is screaming, "Oh ho the Wells Fargo wagon is a coming now..."

J.D. Drew went 10-for-20 on the week with eight walks for a .643 OBP. It's hard to imagine where the Braves would be without him--knowing this weak division, probably right where they are--and since he may not be back next year, where they'll be then--knowing this weak division, probably right where they are. Note that Russ Ortiz went 0-2 with an ERA of 6.94. Russ, Russ...This is not a good time! GRADE: C-

CHICAGO CUBS

Did what they had to do, going 6-1 against weak divisional sisters Cincinnati and Pittsburgh to keep their stake in the wild-card race. Out-homered their opponents 19-4, including four for the previously somnolent Sammy Sosa, and more than doubled up on runs scored, 50-24. You could call this dominance, or you could call this simply meeting their obligations as a contender. This is how most winning teams make their bones, destroying the guys you would expect them to. Give them an extra cookie for getting an important contribution from Glendon Rusch, a pitcher with ability who was lost in the land of the Lotus Eaters for too many seasons. GRADE: A

CINCINNATI REDS

The Phillies played possum, presenting these pretenders with a pair of pickled penguins... It's not getting much attention, but Adam Dunn's unwilling quest to shatter Bobby Bonds' single-season record for batter strikeouts of 189 (1970) is going to be close enough that Dave Miley is going to have to think about whether he joins the wussy Jeff Torborgs and Al Pedriques of the world and actively interferes with pursuit of a milestone for no good reason. With 12 games to go, Dunn trails Bonds by 14. It will be tight, but four of the Reds' remaining games come against Cubs flamethrowers. Prior, Wood, do your stuff, lads! GRADE: C-

COLORADO ROCKIES

Lost three of four to the Zirconbacks. How do you do that? MacArthur did a better job defending the Philippines in 1941, and all of his planes were destroyed while still on the ground… Joe Kennedy had two good starts, winning both of them. His line: 12.0/9/2/9/13, ERA 1.50. He's made it just about all the way through the season without being destroyed by the presumed psychological burdens of pitching with the CRockies. Surprise: he's not a groundball pitcher. Surprise: he's not a strikeout pitcher. Whatever he is, it will be fascinating to see if he can do it again next year; Pedro Astacio was the first, last, and only starter to solve this job two years in a row. GRADE: F

FLORIDA MARLINS

Went just .500 last week and all but gone from the NL wild card race. As has been the story throughout the season, they lack the power to support the pitching if it so much as sneezes an extra run. Now they have stopped running, which is a good thing; though it was supposed to be their signature, they don't do it successfully enough for it to be useful... My thought on Alex Gonzalez is that he's not much of a ballplayer, but if you gave him four partners he could make a fine law firm. GRADE: D

HOUSTON ASTROS

Kept the heat on the Cubs with a 5-1 week. Their difficultly level was higher than that of the Ursines as they faced the Cards and took two of three. With the exception of Jeff Kent and Lance Berkman, they did not hit at all. Zero. Nothing. Twenty-two tallies in six games. The aggregate line was .216/.284/.340. What saved them was some truly exemplary pitching: just 15 runs allowed, including two starts from Roger Clemens that may have sewn up his 117th Cy Young Award. With Jason Schmidt's September running about as smoothly as the mine train ride at Disneyland, Clemens seems to be the last man standing among the starters. Our VORP department reports that National League pitchers are currently ranked comme ca:

1. Randy Johnson: 66.1
2. Ben Sheets: 60.5
3. Roger Clemens: 57.5
4. Carl Pavano: 56.2
5. Carlos Zambrano: 55.6
6. Jason Schmidt: 54.5
7. Livan Hernandez: 48.8
8. Jake Peavy: 48.3
9. Roy Oswalt: 48.0
10. Oliver Perez: 44.6

Johnson and Sheets have been grand but lack the wins and the pennant race impact to attract those magpie-like voters. Clemens may win 20, has helped keep his team in the wild-card race, and has the sentimental attraction of having hopped down off the wall at Cooperstown and gotten back into harness. As for closers, Eric Gagne got his last year and Armando Benitez is not winning a Cy Young award. Barring a major breakdown or a huge surge from Schmidt, it won't even be close. GRADE: A

LOS ANGELES DODGERS

To put into perspective what an unusual season Steve Finley (VORP 23.4) is having, the list of modern (post-1900) center fielders 39 or older who have had useful seasons while still playing center field on something like a full-time basis has previously been limited to five guys: Willie Mays (twice), Johnny Cooney (twice), Tris Speaker, Dummy Hoy, and Jimmy Ryan. The last two joined the list in 1901 and 1902, respectively, when baseball was a less competitive game. Our Davenportly fielding stats say Finley is a shade below average in center at this stage of his career; his power makes up for it.

Sometimes the universe gives you a chance to relive a situation and get it right if you can just recognize it. Eric Gagne is having exactly the career with the Dodgers that John Wetteland would have had if Tommy Lasorda hadn't been too dumb to realize what he possessed... Went 3-4 against the Padres and the Rockies, the Fathers taking three out of four. The Dodgers neither hit nor pitched, allowing 42 runs against 32 of their own. If they make the playoffs--and with six games against the Giants remaining and the starting rotation flailing about, that is far from assured--TEAMS expects their over-achieving bottoms to bleed Dodger blue. GRADE: C-

MILWAUKEE BREWERS

Failed to win one this week as the Astros and Giants proved to be too hot to handle. They actually pitched quite well, posting a 3.00 ERA on the week, but flatlined at the plate, scoring just seven runs in six games, hitting one ball out of the park. Translated to the deadball era, this would be .03315 runs a week, leading to a season total of .7293 runs. What a threat they would have been to Three-Finger Brown.

Ben Sheets' present strikeout/walk ratio of 8.17 would rank as the sixth-best season of all time, 175-plus innings division. His walks-per-nine, 1.21, while excellent, wouldn't rank in the top 70 seasons, same 175-inning cut-off, due to the presence of control masters like Christy Mathewson, Bret Saberhagen, Cy Young, and Greg Maddux. He's been outstanding, though, any way you slice it. GRADE: F

MONTREAL EXPOS

Like Gene Kelly's Don Lockwood, continuing to uphold their dignity. Battled the opposition to a draw at 4-4, powered by Tony Batista's four home runs and .389/.450/.833 week. Back when Batista was traded from Arizona to Toronto in exchange for Dan Plesac in 1999, I had a good-natured debate with Yankees GM Brian Cashman about whether his team should have taken a stab at the then-25 year-old infielder. He had hit 18 home runs in just 293 at-bats the previous season and it seemed as if he might prove to have more life in his bat than did Scott Brosius, who was on his way to posting a .250 EqA. Cashman said he thought Batista was a utility player. The rest of that season, Batista played every day and batted .277/.330/.518, so I walked around feeling a bit smug. Taking the longer view, Cashman was right and I was wrong, mostly due to Batista's control of the strike zone going steadily, stubbornly, backwards. With his power, a .330 OBP would make him a solid player, but he's never come close to .330 again. Every once in a while, though, he can put together a couple of weeks like this one, and fool you.

Other Expos of which to beware included Jamey Carroll, .476/.560/.524, crossing the plate seven times in six games, and Terrmel Sledge, who thrice tripled. Marlins, Phillies, your left fielders need work. GRADE: B+

NEW YORK METS

Finally fired their manager, sort of. It seemed as if they left him to dangle, hoping he would quit in a huff (or failing that, quit in an hour and a huff, as Groucho Marx might have said), saving them two years of salary. No such luck. Art Howe was as poor a tactical thinker as you'll see in baseball, but he's not stupid. In fact, he seems like a sincere fellow who was hired for all the wrong reasons. It is true, as Bill James first suggested, that teams tend to alternate managerial personalities, following high-pressure types (Billy Martin, Bobby Valentine) with low-pressure types (Bob Lemon, Howe). This may work if you're planning on having a lot of year-to-year continuity in the roster, but the Mets haven't had that.

It also helps if you win--Manager Pollyanna Sunshine is a ball to play for on a winner, because the team's successes help hide the fact that he doesn't know what he's doing and is in fact a big goofball. On a loser, even the players notice the wrong guy bunting in the incorrect situation, the wrong reliever being called in from the pen. Manager Sunshine gets a disproportionate share of the blame both for his mistakes and his unfortunate tendency to say, "Don't worry, we'll get 'em tomorrow," when everyone but him knows there isn't a hope in hell of getting 'em tomorrow or any other day. Players may not enjoy working for the intense types over the long term, but at moments like these they would rather hear some autocratic type come in and say, "This is how we'll get out of this. So and so is now our closer. Bob is our new first baseman. Ralph, you're batting cleanup. Morimoto, you're the second baseman. If you don't like it, I can lose without you" than another day of "If we just believe in ourselves we can pull this out." The Mets have put off a necessary rebuilding movement for years, and it was pure hubris for them to think that getting a manager, any manager, would make up for their lack of talent, offense, depth. John McGraw, Joe McCarthy, Casey Stengel would have been frustrated by this team. The Mets will spend the winter trying to fish Lou Piniella away from the Devil Rays, proving that they haven't learned anything at all. GRADE: F

PHILADELPHIA PHILLIES

There has been only one 30-30 season in Phillies history, authored by Bobby Abreu. He'll have the second as well, provided he hits just one more home run. Does 30-30 have the same cachet as it did back in the 1980s when we thought stolen bases mattered? I think not... The Phillies were 2-4 this week, yielding two of three to the Reds and the Expos. As a team, posted a K/BB ratio of 1.4, which helped keep the opposition in the game despite not hitting very well overall. Like the Mets, this is a team that needs to think carefully about changing managers because somehow the whole has been less than the sum of the parts. See you next year, fellows. GRADE: F

PITTSBURGH PIRATES

Didn't pitch, didn't hit, didn't win. Oldest story in the book, and 'nuff said. GRADE: D-

ST. LOUIS CARDINALS

Reggie Sanders has played for seven teams in seven years, and given his record this year, there's a good chance at an eighth, signed or not. One wonders if he ever cursed baseball, as did Edward Everett Hale's Man Without a Country. If his next team plays on a boat, you'll know. Wait a minute--isn't that the Expos?

Split six games, leading to a grumpy manager. You can't exactly blame him, because the Cards got some of the best pitching of their season... You don't hear much about Jim Edmonds as a Hall of Fame candidate, but he's going to be there someday. At age 34 he's got over 300 home runs, which puts him sixth on the career list for center fielders, behind only Willie Mays, Ken Griffey, Jr., Mickey Mantle, Duke Snider, and Joe DiMaggio. The latter two will likely fall next season. This will be Edmonds' second consecutive season with a slugging percentage over .600, and then there are those six Gold Gloves. Perhaps he'll go in right after Bernie Williams does. Are those fighting words? GRADE: C

SAN DIEGO PADRES

Won four of seven, handling the Dodgers but bending before the Giants… We were talking about Ben Sheets' great control in the Milwaukee comment above. This David Wells fellow is something else. He can't button his shirt, but he's one of the game's great precision pitchers, walking just 0.86 batters per nine. That just misses the top 10 all-time, but still bests seasons by the aforementioned Mathewson and Young, and almost exactly matches his own 0.85 (15th all time) from a year ago. The Yankees sure could have used him this year, but leaving was his choice, as was true of Andy Pettitte and Roger Clemens. You can talk about the Yankees' dough all you want, but all that money didn't stop three of the better pitchers in the game (injury to Pettitte notwithstanding) from deserting them simultaneously. Short of the entire Oakland A's dynasty decamping at once to get the heck away from Charley Finley, there's really no parallel in history.

Speaking of history, one of the great things about expansion franchises is that their "best of" list is so mutable. If a player wants to have the best season by a Yankees second baseman, he's got to get through Del Pratt, Tony Lazzeri, Joe Gordon, Snuffy Stirnweiss, Gil McDougald, Willie Randolph, and even Steve Sax and Alfonso Soriano. Short of socking 50 homers and batting .350, it's just not going to happen. Not so with the Padres, whose Mark Loretta is having the best season by a second baseman in Padres history--though he didn't hit last week. The hottest hitter on the Padres was--ready for this?--Jay Payton, who batted .385/.407/.731 and slugged three home runs. GRADE: B

SAN FRANCISCO GIANTS

How could a guy with a .608 OBP score just 120 runs? The year Sliding Billy Hamilton scored 192 runs his OBP was only .523. Before Bonds' fans--already cheesed off with me for this week's YOU column, which states that Babe Ruth was a bigger man in the game (and he literally was)--take out a contract, let's admit that this is a joke. Actually, Ruth, playing in much stronger lineups with Lou Gehrig behind him, outscored Bonds too. It's all contextual... Went 5-1 when they needed to, not even bothering to hit because the pitching was so dominant, allowing just 11 earned runs to cross the plate in 54 innings (1.83), with just two home runs against them. Schmidt was the sole loser, Dave Burba, who teleported in from Milwaukee, the only other pitcher to struggle. If they can do this against the Dodgers... GRADE: A

Steven Goldman is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Steven's other articles. You can contact Steven by clicking here

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