On Thursday night, the Yankees and Red Sox played an epochal extra-inning game, possibly the most compelling contest of the season to date. This was the game in which Derek Jeter flew like a deranged Superman into the third row of seats in short left field. A consequence of If Jeter Had Wings was that Jeter had to leave the game and the Yankees were out of infielders. Alex Rodriguez slid over to shortstop and Gary Sheffield, who had last played third base in 1993, was called upon to take A-Rod’s place at the hot corner.
Sheffield’s first chance came on a Kevin Millar grounder. The outfielder looped the throw over first base for an error; it was clear that he had forgotten both the range and the mechanics of playing the position. The Red Sox, already up by a run, had Dave McCarty and Cesar Crespo due to bat. An obvious strategic question presented itself: could the Red Sox run up the score by bunting the ball at Sheffield?
NATIONAL LEAGUE EAST
Currently sporting a run differential of just +5, using Lenny Harris as DH in interleague games, and that isn’t helping. 9-13 in June, and if you survey pennant races, it’s just one bad month that sinks many a strong team. Ate Billy Koch’s contract, which was just charity, tied for the league lead in caught stealing, pinch hitters batting .177, one of the worst benches in baseball… These scattershot muttering add up to a strong club being undone by inattention to detail. Reminiscent of some Braves teams of the past which had the pitching and select offensive parts but couldn’t buy a hit off the bench in about 800 post-season series. GRADE: D+
NEW YORK YANKEES
Andruw Jones and his $12.5 million to Yankees in the right deal? It sounds crazy, but the Braves are going nowhere, even in a division in which all the teams forgot to show up (echoes of “What if we gave a war and nobody came?”). If offered a choice between Carlos Beltran and Jones, who would you rather have? Beltran and Jones, both center fielders, are precisely the same age, having been born two days apart.
G AB HR AVG OBP SLG
Jones 1203 4361 233 .267 .341 .494
Beltran 792 3121 121 .287 .352 .482
Beltran has seemed to blossom while Jones has stood still, but keep in mind that Beltran has been hitting in a park very friendly to hitters, while The Ted has been tougher on Jones. Defensively, Jones is by far the better fielder. Finally, one will become a free agent at the end of the season, while the other is locked in for all eternity… We should probably alter the baseball vocabulary when it comes to pitching and injuries. We normally say, “Kevin Brown will be on the disabled list indefinitely.” A better way of putting it might be to say that “Kevin Brown has been activated from the disabled list indefinitely.” Actually, you can apply that to everything: relationships, mortality…boy, that’s depressing. Better have another donut.
Every once in a while you have a day or a week that flashes back to other, older days and weeks.
Last week, the United States and Great Britain signed a treaty pledging to protect the wreck of the Titanic, which sank beneath the waves in 1912; Roger Clemens and Mark Prior faced off in a pitching match-up that was a descendant of one in 1912; and a boob from Texas mistreated a four-year-old fan in a way that made one wish it was 1912. John McCain even had an opportunity to bolt the Republican Party last week, but apparently no one told him that Theodore Roosevelt had done so with honor back in 1912, because the Senator refused to go along with the 1912ness of things. Baseball, though, was unabashedly singing
Homo sapiens emerged from Neanderthal man about 38,000 BCE. It took another 31,500 years or so for the Sumerians to invent the wheel. There were 315 centuries of watching stones rolling downhill, fallen trees being pushed aside, dates falling off the table, before experience and observation could be transformed into principles (Hey! Round stuff rolls! Round stuff that rolls might be useful to have!) and those principles then put into practice (We should try to make round stuff that rolls!). Of course, as with all good ideas, some people never bought in. The Western Hemisphere did without the wheel until the Europeans showed up. Either the locals were too busy eating the corn to roll the cobs or they just didn’t think much of wheels.
As with the wheel, so too with the amateur draft, which kicked off in 1965 as a way to finally bring down those annoyingly persistent Yankees. Many of the lessons that have been taken away the draft–high school pitchers are riskier bets as college pitchers, don’t draft high school catchers, etc.–were there to be found after the first few drafts, but it took several more years before experience hardened into a set of principles.
With luck, Raul Mondesi is a temporary condition, like a heat rash. Jeff DaVanon has mashed righties, with a .451 OBP/.533 SLG against mundane-handers, so you really don’t want to see him sit until he proves he can’t keep it up. Vladimir Guerrero and Jose Guillen have made like Wonder Twins whose super power is the ability to channel Al Simmons from beyond the grave. Tim Salmon is rehabbing. Garret Anderson will be back soon. That makes five players for four spots, the outfield and DH, all of whom have a better claim to playing time than the deserter Mondesi. That’s not even counting Chone Figgins, who has apparently settled in at third, or the return of Darin Erstad. Make that “revival” instead of “return.” To return you had to have been here in the first place. Now, if only they could get one of those outfielders to slide over to first. Casey Kotchman may be the future, but he’s not getting it done now. GRADE: B-
In this week’s Pinstriped Bible (one of the other columns in the Steve Goldman media empire, the entirety of which can be yours for a song), a reader takes your host to task for suggesting that an incident that took place last week involving Gabe White should be a hint to managers to pay attention to the rule book for bonus competitive advantages. Around here we take any excuse to delve further into a worthy thesis, in this case, that gamesmanship is, or should be, a major component of the manager’s job.
The White situation was very simple. The Yankees lefty entered the team’s May 26 game at Baltimore in the sixth inning with the Yankees leading 7-6. The game was momentarily delayed when the umpire asked White to remove a gold chain. With the chain removed, White gave up consecutive hits, allowing another run to score and setting up a blown save for future Hall of Famer Tanyon Sturtze. After the game, White claimed that he had pitched badly because he’d been unnerved by the umpire’s request.
One of the values of knowing history is that you can recognize repeat situations when they arise. We humans are pretty creative, but somehow every generation has to work itself into some scrape that a previous class already tried out. Sometimes it’s a historical blunder on the scale of invading Russia from the west with winter coming on; other times, it’s just hiring Raul Mondesi.
The benefit to recognizing a repeat situation as it manifests is that you can call it off before, say, you trade this year’s Jay Buhner for this year’s Ken Phelps, or your Iraq becomes your Vietnam, and consequently someone else’s problem. In some cases, it’s just fun to know that even if you missed something the first time around, chances are it will come up again so you can see it for yourself. For example, it’s safe to say that none of our readers were in attendance at Game Six of the 1917 World Series between the Chicago White Sox and the New York Giants, and so they didn’t see the controversial play that iced the championship for the American League. Fortunately, Monday’s Angels-Blue Jays game was just as good as a time machine–and not just any time machine, but the deluxe model with the cruise control, the heated mirrors, and the side mirrors that fold down when passing through a dangerously narrow aperture, handy for automotive proctological exams and navigating the capillaries of longtime smokers.
The score was tied 5-5 with two out in the bottom of the 10th at Toronto and two runners on. Chris Gomez was standing on second. He had reached on a fielder’s choice, then was pushed into scoring position by Eric Hinske’s walk. Simon Pond came to the plate. Pond grounded to first baseman Casey Kotchman, who dove for the ball and knocked it down. Pitcher Ben Weber stood at first, waiting to receive the ball for the 3-1 put out. Gomez rounded third, trying to score. Second baseman Adam Kennedy picked up the ball and fired it to catcher Ben Molina. Gomez was now in a rundown. Molina chased him up the line, then threw the ball to third baseman Alfredo Amezaga. Gomez reversed field and headed back towards home. Amezaga threw the ball to…he didn’t throw it to anyone, because there was no one to throw it to. Gomez scored. Game over.
Adam Everett leads the majors with 10 sacrifice bunts. That’s from the #2 hole, which means that Mr. Williams is shortening the innings in which his best bats come up. With slugging and on-base percentages in the threes (OBP low-threes), there’s no reason to keep Everett up there, except for the stubborn belief that he’s “changed.” This concludes this week’s Jimy Williams bash.
Moving from the mundane to the sublime, Roger Clemens is doing something that has very little in the way of precedent. Perhaps it’s an obvious point, but most 41-year-old pitchers don’t perform at this level. Heck, most 41-year-old pitchers aren’t pitchers. The closest parallels are Cy Young, who posted a 1.26 ERA (LERA of 2.39) in 299 innings for the 1908 Red Sox, Ted Lyons’ wonderful “Sunday Pitcher” performance of 1942, Warren Spahn’s last hurrah in 1963, and, most appropriately, Nolan Ryan, who struck out 301 batters in 1989 at the age of 42. None of them had quite the year the Rocket has had to this point… There’s a moment in “Bonnie and Clyde” where Clyde says: “Hi! We’re Bunny and Claude. We steal carrots.” Houston version: “Hi! We’re the Houston Astros. We blow saves.” GRADE: B-
I intended this week’s YOU to be a tale of one of baseball’s great reprobates, a square table of scum and villainy that Christensen will now not have a chance to join. It’s hard to pick just one. It’s easy to dispense with Cap Anson, Dixie Walker, Ben Chapman. They were racists, sadly common rather than arch-villains. Chick Gandil and the other game-fixers of 1919 are closer to the mark, but everyone knows their story. They were the subject of a classic book and an excellent film. Hal Chase, the serial cheat, would have been a great subject, but in the last couple of years he’s been rediscovered, with two full biographies hitting bookstores. Denny McLain’s’s story is just distasteful and travels to too many places far removed from the ball field. Rogers Hornsby and Ty Cobb were anti-social and paranoid, respectively, but that’s all.
For today, that leaves us with a more obscure figure, not one of the game’s spectacular evildoers, but simply a consistently bad guy, one who, like Christensen, went out of his way to cause injury. Jake Powell played the outfield for the Washington Senators, New York Yankees, and Philadelphia Phillies in the 1930s and 1940s. He spoke rashly, acted rashly, and ultimately paid the price for his way of living.
This year’s Yankees are an exception to the unrecognized truth that bullpens aren’t bought or made, but found. In any given season there are about 12 actual closers, relievers who are consistent enough to earn their pay, and a bunch of other guys who earn their share of saves by virtue of the way their managers use them. Add in the 20 or so really reliable middle relievers and you have the total population of relievers worth building around. At present, the Orioles don’t have any of those guys–even the indefatigable Buddy Groom generally gets smacked around, not that that’s anything new. The O’s have an aggregation of no-names who happen to be pitching well at the moment. This may or may not continue, but it had better, as the starting rotation looks like something that was dreamed up by Wile E. Coyote. Meanwhile, all bets on offense have panned out with the exception of Luis Matos. That’s about to change as Lee Mazzilli makes Jerry Hairston Jr. the DH, a huge misapplication of baseball’s version of Free Parking. “Sometimes you look for the prototypical DH who’s a power-type guy, but with our lineup and the way I like to run the guys, Jerry fits in fine for me,” said Mazzilli, who doesn’t quite recognize he’s giving up the initiative to teams with DHs who can hit for power–that is, the teams in front of and behind him. In a productivity contest in which the winner gets to eat the loser’s DH, it’s going to be a barbecued Hairston every time. Then again, it could be a showcase. If this fustian writing leads to Custian time/ you’ll forgive the bad writing, and even this rhyme. There’s a better chance of hell freezing over, on both counts. GRADE: B
Americans have many rights, but as many recessions and depressions have revealed, the right to work is not one of them. Conversely, there is no compulsion to stay at a job a moment longer than you want to. If you’re not happy, if you can’t put the same spirit into the job that you used to, or the job is taking more than it gives back, just move on.
Easier said than done, of course. Every day, many of us trade a little misery for the security of a paycheck. Even when more rewarding fruits are obviously ready to be plucked from the tree, the cubicle we know sometimes feels safer than the office that we don’t. Sparky Anderson chose security for the last half-dozen years of his career. Long after it was clear that Detroit ownership had quit on the team, even past the point that the strain of losing sent him home with nervous exhaustion, he stayed on as captain of a sinking ship.
Two weeks in, the sample sizes are still small but nearly 1/10th of the season is in the bag and some undeniable trends have emerged. The race now belongs to the quick, to those teams that spot their problems early and attacks them aggressively. As the iconic GM Branch Rickey said, “A man who isn’t alert is usually in the second division, and that’s where he belongs.” Have at it, boys.
There isn’t much about in the way of statistical reports on managers here at Baseball Prospectus. The official BP POV is that you need proof to prognosticate or pontificate, and there is little about managers that can be explained without resorting to subjective, anecdotal evidence. The most we can do is point out aspects of a manager’s personality or performance that are well-documented and likely played some role in influencing the performances of those around him. Fortunately, the most successful and longest lived managers–not always the same thing–have left a fossil record of accumulated incidents that goes a long way towards defining them. Though it is impossible to prove a manager’s precise effect on his team’s record of wins and losses, the historical record contains ample evidence of managers’ ability to both hinder and, in more select circumstances, help their teams. Here, in order, are the 20 managers who have compiled the most victories in the history of the game, with an emphasis on their human side–from which much about their teams can be inferred, but conclusions cannot be drawn.
This week’s grades are based on getaways, fast, slow, or N/A, with a healthy allowance for the biases that a small sample size encourages. In other words, we can call Victor Zambrano the Cy Young award winner after just three starts and excuse it as a moment of vernally-inspired hormonal exuberance. Still, with just one week in the bag every team on this list has been possessed by Chicken Little-style paranoia or Pollyannaish optimism, and their plans are being altered accordingly. Maybe you can’t trust TEAMS this week, but you can’t trust teams either. Caveat lector, caveat emptor, and laissez les bon temps rouler!
He still had a fantastic career–you can make an argument that Mantle was the most valuable player in the American League for at least 10 years (he was first or second in runs created/game in 1952-1958, 1960-1962, and 1964, while playing a key defensive position), but many, including Stengel, were left wondering what the boy with the power of Ruth and the speed of Cobb would have done had he been completely healthy for even one season. His 1957-1958 performance, 358/.487/.686 in a league that hit .266/.343./.404, seemed only to scratch the surface. No one will ever know if their expectations were too high. Once Mantle’s knee was damaged the opportunity to find out vanished. Earlier this week, 20-year-old Twins rookie catcher Joe Mauer tore medial meniscus cartilage in his left knee sliding after a foul ball on the hard Metrodome turf. It is said to be a minor injury, though it still required surgery to repair. The catcher will be back on the field in about a month, and there are not expected to be any lingering consequences to Mauer’s assumedly glorious future. Yet, any sudden disruption of a young player’s career can have unanticipated consequences.