In a kind of breakthrough for the Angels–and defeat for those of us looking for easy hooks on which to hang our analysis–you can no longer complain about Darin Erstad. Sure, the average AL first baseman (which, from a New York vantage point, seems an entirely mythical creature) is batting .263/.344/.441 and Erstad is only hitting .319/.369/.436, but this is a distinction hardly worth quibbling over, especially since the man with a paucity of vowels in his surname has hit .351/.408/.503 since the All-Star break and played good defense.
Last week, TEAMS pursued Erstad into his den to get the lowdown on this sudden turnaround of this poster child for sabermetric anemia. Here is how the interview began:
TEAMS: You’ve hit so well lately after struggling for such a long time and…
ERSTAD: What do you mean “for a long time struggling?” Like what?
Reader, here TEAMS failed you. Taking into account the angry glare with which Erstad was now fixing your host, TEAMS hesitated to give the proper answer, “Like, forever,” and instead said…
TEAMS: Uh, the last couple of years you had numbers that –
ERSTAD: I played 60 games last year. It’s kind of harsh to say that I…
TEAMS (laughing nervously): Right.
ERSTAD: You know what I mean?
TEAMS (glancing about for an exit): Right.
ERSTAD: So it’s just–I’m finding holes, you know?
TEAMS: Your approach hasn’t changed?
ERSTAD: No. Just swing and put in play and sometimes it falls and sometimes it doesn’t, you know?
As George Harrison wrote just before his death, “When you don’t know where you’re going, any road will take you there.” GRADE: A
One of baseball’s streakiest teams had an 0-6 week as the pitching staff combined for an 8.50 ERA. We don’t have the numbers, but one wonders how many weeks the 1930 Phillies pitching staff had an ERA of 8.50. This is a hard thing to do, particularly when you’re playing the Blue Jays–no Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig on that team–for half of the week. On the plus side, all the reliable Orioles continued to pound the ball. Rafael Palmeiro, no longer in that category, went 2-for-23, continuing a season-long slide towards retirement. GRADE: F
BOSTON RED SOX
The whiplash-inducing BoSox went 6-0 on the week, annihilating lesser opponents from Toronto and Chicago, outscoring the enemy 45-25. Just about every Bostonian you can name this side of Basil Ransome had a good week (David Ortiz and Doug Mientkiewicz were the sole lightweights), but the hottest of the band was Jason Varitek, who batted .474/.500/1.105 and is on the way to a nice free-agent contract… Though pundits throughout the land have dismissed Boston’s chances of winning the American League East, with six games to play against New York and a current gap of 5 1/2 games, it remains a possibility. The Red Sox are 16-7 in August, the Yankees are 13-10, and if the trend continues the gap will have tightened by the time to two teams clash on September 17. The existence of the wild card has all but eliminated any sense of tension resulting from division races, but the wild-card race is itself close enough that the loser of the East may not automatically go to the post-season. This one ain’t over ’til it’s over. GRADE: A
CHICAGO WHITE SOX
Just playing out the string and performing like they know it. This includes the manager, who sounds way too jaded for a rookie skipper entering his first September. A veteran manager like Bobby Cox or Joe Torre might be able to burn his bridges in the fall and still have a clubhouse to come back to in the spring (not that they would do that), but that’s only because they have the luster of their accomplishments and job security that tenured professors would envy to back them. Most players know you can’t fight city hall, Mt. Rushmore or Cooperstown. Guillen lacks the Coxian résumé, and though he is welcome to play up his trio of misbegotten All-Star appearances for whatever they’re worth, it should be noted that the list of stars turned managers-who-couldn’t-forget-they-were-stars is short on accomplishment and long on clubhouse rebellion… At the end of the year, the spin will be that injuries did in the Alabaster Stockings, but the truth is that they have simply failed to develop the requisite pitching. Remember, that was supposed to be the team’s strength. White Sox starting pitchers have an ERA of 5.13. GRADE: D
“Evacuate? In our moment of triumph? I think you overestimate their chances!” They had the post-season in their grasp, the Twins on the mat–the most complacent team of all time, ready for the taking. If someone out there can determine a fair standard for complacency, we can rank teams annually and award a “Jose Offerman is My Co-Pilot” trophy to the team that most efficiently squanders obvious resources. The trophy should be topped by a figurine of a drooling fat man, who, though surrounded by a cornucopia of rich foods, is happily dining on his own leg… Back in the early 1970s, Jack Kirby created a comic book called “The New Gods,” an obvious, if unacknowledged, inspiration for “Star Wars.” In it, a hooded bad guy from an armored planet went questing after the mysterious power that animated all life, “The Source,” while battling his estranged son. The problem for Darkseid was that if you approached The Source without sufficient purity, it reached out and swatted you away. The Indians approached The Source without sufficient purity, or in our context, pitching. With the entire offense signed for next season (Omar Vizquel has a mutual option, while the Indians just have options, as in Jhonny Peralta and Brandon Phillips), it will be fascinating to watch how the Indians go about adding pitching (The Source found their eight-plus ERA of last week wanting). They should beware of the traditional Mets route, which involves adding loads of mediocre middle relievers at high cost… Most devastating non-performance of the week, among a team of non-performers: Travis Hafner, 0-for-13, no walks, in four games. GRADE: F
Meet one of baseball’s best offenses, powered by Sluggin’ Bobby Higginson and his .556/.667/1.278, four-home-run week. We should also salute Carlos Pena‘s .391/.462/.565 week, having often roasted him several times in this space. Here’s to you, Charlie! We hoist our naturally fruit-flavored sucralose beverage in your direction, then fling the dregs at Brandon Inge (ancient Jewish tradition we just made up) in recognition of his transformation from caterpillar into hitter… Like division pal Cleveland, Detroit has all of its essential bits signed on for next year, so adjustments to the pitching staff will undoubtedly be the focus of the winter meat markets. Such an approach will not be rewarded if Inge or the amazing Carlos Guillen find their way back to mundane terra firma in the future. A smart team might hedge its bets and trade one while the market is high. P.S. We’re not talking about the shortstop. GRADE: B+
KANSAS CITY ROYALS
Andres Blanco hit .400/.471/.600 on the week. The Royals reacted by recalling Angel Berroa from the minor leagues and giving him his job back. Appropriate analytical response: whatever. John Buck finally brought his batting average back alive, hitting .357/.400/.643. Expect Raul Casanova up from Omaha any second now. We have to teach these rookies that life isn’t fair. As for the rest, nothing to see here folks. Move along. GRADE: D
For all their sins appraising their surfeit of talent (see Cleveland, above), the Twins have assembled a successful and colorful pitching staff. Last week, opponents were held to a .295 on-base percentage. In this home-run-happy age of ours, this is the way to go; if the enemy is going to hit home runs, let them all be solo shots. In this way did the Twins, who also had a grand hitting week, double up the competition 45-22. The Indians and the White Sox are dead. The Twins have survived the crucible. As long as the Twins play their best lineup in the postseason, they could advance to the finals. That’s a mighty big if, given this team’s unfathomable hierarchy of priorities. GRADE: A
NEW YORK YANKEES
Went 1-5 on the week, didn’t hit (but for the amazing Gary Sheffield–.435/.480/1.087–whose like we have not seen in the Bronx lo these many years), and pitched to a 6.58 ERA, which is perhaps more common than we gave the Orioles credit for back at the top of the column. The Yankees say they hit this late August/early September slowdown every year, and they do, but for the first time it looks as if they might not have the wherewithal to rebound. The most consistent pitcher on the staff right now is Jon Lieber. After that, it’s Forrest Gump’s box of chocolates. The best hope is that Steve Karsay re-emerges and combines with QuanGorMo to let the Yankees have a Reds ’99 kind of finish, with the starters going four and the bullpen holding the opposition after that. Stay tuned, stay skeptical. GRADE: F
Their only loss on the week was a 2-1 nail-biter to Tampe Bay. Opponents batted .201/.242/.310 (11 walks in 53 innings, 2.04 ERA), making the Twins’ superlative pitchers look like plumbers. The A’s batted just .285, but true to their philosophy drew a ton of walks and hit 15 bombs, leading to a .370 OBP and .551 slugging percentage. They nearly tripled the offensive output of the competition, outscoring them 34-12. The bullpen did not allow a run all week. Peaking at just the right time. GRADE: A+
Spent the week on the road, hit about as well as anyone (.335/.394/.548), still lost three of five contests on their wunnerful, wunnerful pitching, as Lawrence Welk would have had it… On July 31, Jamie Moyer was a 41-year-old pitcher with an ERA of 4.29. Though his ERA for July was 5.73, the M’s elected to hold on to him. Since then, he’s allowed 23 runs in 30 innings, and whatever he would have been worth in trade in midsummer, he’s not worth that now. Branch Rickey warned against this kind of thing, but incoming general managers aren’t required to take an orientation course. GRADE: D
TAMPA BAY DEVIL RAYS
This week’s TEAMS almost omitted the Devil Rays, skipping right from the Mariners to the Rangers. That oversight has now been rectified. GRADE: D
Went 5-1 on the week but didn’t really dominate offensively. The pitching department did most of the heavy lifting, registering a 4.08 ERA. They walked far too many and allowed a good number of hits, but succeeded because they kept all but four baseballs in the ballpark. They spent half the week on the road, which undoubtedly helped. The opposition was Cleveland, post-being unmanned by Minnesota, and the Kansas City Chum, so we won’t read too much into any of this. GRADE: B-
TORONTO BLUE JAYS
Lost three games to Boston, then decimated Baltimore in the next three. All that’s happening here is auditions for Next Year’s Model, but even then there are some things to take away, like the good hitting of Alexis Rios, the sporadic redemption of Eric Hinske, and the continued weakness of the Canadian against the American dollar. Say this for the Jays: although their season expired long ago, they’re still in there punching. You can buy a ticket for a game and expect to see a few compelling things, a home run here, a home run there, even if a few too many are hit by the opposition. GRADE: C