The Wrong Man

By now, every baseball fan older than the age of six (and a few of the more precocious kindergartners) is asking the same thing: why isn’t Joel Zumaya closing for the Tigers? Or at the very least, why wasn’t he allowed to finish off the Yankees yesterday? After decades of watching the concept in action, we now know what a closer looks like, don’t we? In everybody’s mind’s eye, a closer bears a striking resemblance to Mr. Zumaya and his blazing right-sided ball cranker. What a closer does not resemble, however, is the man who followed Zumaya yesterday, and many times before that, the not-quite-immortal Todd Jones.

Over the past three years, the average K/9 rate of all the pitchers who’ve logged 35 or more saves in a season is just over one per inning. Of the 39 times this mark has been hit in 2004-2006, all but a handful whiffed at least seven batters per nine innings. All but two got at least one every other inning. Those two? Jones in 2006 and the ill-fated Danny Kolb in 2004. In fact, of all the pitchers ever to save 35 or more games in a season, only one man managed the feat with a lower K/9 rate than Jones and Kolb. Since he did it four times, we need to understand that his was a unique talent and the fact that he was successful in spite of his low strikeout totals should not work as an inspiration to others to try to duplicate his success. Here are the lowest K/9 figures ever for pitchers who logged 35 or more saves:

PITCHER         YEAR  K/9   SV
Dan Quisenberry 1984  2.85  44
Dan Quisenberry 1982  3.03  35
Dan Quisenberry 1983  3.11  45
Dan Kolb        2004  3.31  39
Dan Quisenberry 1985  3.77  37
Todd Jones      2006  3.94  37

It should be noted that Quisenberry was throwing about twice as many innings than even the most active of today’s closers. Two positive things that Jones ’06 had in common with Quisenberry in his prime are low walk and home run rates. Still, though, as Rany Jazayerli wrote in his playoff preview of the Yankees-Tigers series, “the Tigers have been playing Russian Roulette with the ninth inning all season.” It’s one thing to hang your hopes on a pitcher like Jones when there are no other alternatives; it’s another altogether when you’ve got a big jug of lightning at your disposal. One thing in Leyland’s defense, at least in Game Two, is that Zumaya’s stint covered the middle of the Yankees order, while Jones was brought in to finish things up against the lower third. Of course, New York’s lower third of the lineup is not exactly a picnic, but Zumaya did the heavier lifting while Jones got the money-generating stat. I don’t think that was by design, however, it was just the way the lineup played out in the late innings.

Maybe this will work out for the Tigers. The thing is, they’re already carrying a major handicap in this series. Looking at the starting lineups of the two teams, only one Tiger has an OBP higher than that of any Yankee. At .400, Carlos Guillen would fit into the New York lineup. The lowest Yankee (Gary Sheffield with an uncharacteristic and small sample size-driven .355, about 40 points below his career average) is higher than the second-highest Tiger, Magglio Ordonez at .350.

Abuse for the Wrong Rodriguez?

While Alex Rodriguez continues to get treated like Celine Dion in a mosh pit by Yankee fans and the media, it’s one of his opponents and former teammates who is really taking it on the chin this LDS. No, this has nothing to do with allowing a stolen base to Jason Giambi (who really swiped it owing to pitcher’s indifference), it has more to do with a continued lack of postseason production by Ivan Rodriguez. What? The star of the 2003 playoffs, you say?

Yes, I do. While Pudge had nice turns against the Giants and Cubs three years ago, he has historically flatlined against the Yankees whenever he’s met them in October. He’s 0-for-8 so far in this series, continuing a trend of career underperformance whenever New York is the after-hours opponent. In his five October appearances against the Yankees, Rodriguez has hit .235/.268/.294. Compared to his career numbers (.304/.342/.483), that’s a heck of a thing. Since pitching gets tougher in the postseason, some decline is expected, but during those same regular seasons (1996, 1998, 1999 and 2006-he didn’t face them in 2003), Rodriguez has handled Yankee pitching to the tune of .270/.310/.453. In 39 games, that’s about four singles shy of hitting his overall career averages.

That’s just the thing-these are small sample sizes. At this limited level of participation, Pudge is one two-homer day away from making it look a lot better in a hurry. The same should also go for A-Rod, although his playoff numbers have been generally excellent, nearly mimicking his regular season output. Unfortunately for his current reputation, the bulk of that excellence occurred before Game Five of the 2004 ALCS. Since then, he’s had three singles and a double in 35 official at-bats, so it’s probably going to take more than a two-homer game to rehabilitate his reputation in New York. In fact, he is so far past the tipping point with the fans and the media at this point, there’s probably no rescuing his image in that town.

The best ever?

During last night’s MetsDodgers telecast on Fox, Thom Brennaman offered the opinion that Jeff Kent is the best offensive second baseman of all time. When I was done respooling my tongue, I began to wonder if he was going to qualify that proclamation somehow-like maybe somebody in the truck would yell in his ear, “add ‘or at least since Joe Morgan retired.'” He didn’t, though. Jeff Kent…best ever. Over the years, we’ve grown used to this kind of hyperbole from our playoff announcers, but this one is a stretch of Willie McCovey-esque proportions. But is it a conversation starter, or a conversation killer?

Let’s use it as a starter. While most fans can name the handful of players that disprove Brennaman, is his proposition insane? Yes, but probably not by as much as most might guess. While Kent’s name doesn’t belong in a discussion of the absolute best, he’s definitely in the green room. Here are the only ten second basemen to have career Equivalent Averages over .290 (adjusted for all time). Also included are their Batting Runs Above Average or (BRAA).

.337: Rogers Hornsby (988 BRAA)
.311: Joe Morgan (704)
.310: Eddie Collins (812)
.309: Jackie Robinson (327)
.308: Nap Lajoie (709)
.302: Rod Carew (477)
.295: Bobby Grich (289)
.293: Kent (331)
.293: Roberto Alomar (296)
.293: Charlie Gehringer (424)

These are the top ten in BRAA as well, save for Craig Biggio (376) and Larry Doyle, who had 301 but, because he only had a .286 career EqA, didn’t make this list. If the company Kent keeps is any indication, he’s a first-ballot Hall of Famer waiting to happen. I wouldn’t bet on that taking place, given his likeability factor, but he is certainly deserving. So, to recap: Kent not the best ever, he is Hall of Fame-worthy, and note to self, hire Thom Brennaman to be my publicist.

Why I don’t bet on individual baseball games, part 246

In last night’s Mets-Dodgers game there occurred a play that would have driven me to madness had I money on either team. As it was, it nearly drove me to madness without a financial stake in its outcome. With runners on first and second base, nobody out, and a man who slugged .490 this season at the plate, manager Willie Randolph had the hitter bunt. Did I mention that this is the seven-hole batter, meaning he’s giving up an out so that the eight and nine men get a shot at driving in the runs? Yes, I realize the nine spot was probably going to be a pinch-hitter anyway, but Jose Valentin, the batter in question, is a better bet to knock somebody in than anybody the Mets could currently bring off the bench.

To make matters worse, when he got the bunt down, Brett Tomko was a little slow off the mound to field it, giving Valentin a chance at beating it out for a hit–a chance he compromised by sliding into first base. There is little on this planet that bothers me more than that single act. To my mind, that grown men are still sliding into first base cancels out so many of mankind’s greatest achievements. They’re announcing the Nobel Prizes this week and, as awe-inspiring as it is to hear what these brilliant people have accomplished and discovered, where are we really headed as a species if our highest-paid professional ballplayers can’t get it through their heads that sliding into first is one hell of a stupid play, unless it’s to avoid a tag?

So, we’ve got a highly-questionable managerial decision compounded by a stupid baserunning play. Had I money on New York I would have been headbutting the nearest load-bearing column at that point. Instead, the throw was errant and Valentin was safe. From the replays, it looked to me like a good throw would have had him because he slid. Had he stayed on his feet, he would have beaten it no matter how accurate Tomko’s throw had been. So now, the bases are loaded with nobody out and Mark Hendrickson is coming in to pitch. Had I money on the Dodgers at that point, I would have been breaking crockery against my nose. The opposing manager and batter had just gone out of their way to give away a free out and help diffuse a potential scoring situation only to have it go wrong. Madness!

Yeah, I’m really not wired right for gambling.

Unfinished regular season business

Back on September 8, I issued a challenge to readers to predict the outcome of the remaining nine PhilliesMarlins games. Respondents were to name the number of games each team would win and, as a tiebreaker, the number of runs they would score as well. First prize was an all-expenses paid luxury suite at the World Series for whichever of the two teams made it. No, not really. The prize is getting mentioned here, on the world stage. The Phillies won six of those nine contests, as the Marlins did a bit of a fade down the stretch, sending their attendance reeling to the bottom of the league. Philadelphia outscored Florida 49 to 32 in the nine games.

A slight majority of the contestants had Florida winning more games. Three contestants got the exact game count right. The player with the most accurate run differential prediction didn’t submit his ballot until after two of the games had been played, so I’m afraid his ballot won’t count (although one could make a case for him since the series was split 1-1 with a 6-6 run count at that point). His name is Dash Carlisle of Peoria, Illinois. His run prediction was 47-31, just three runs off the total. Two-game jump or not, that’s pretty good. We’ll give him an honorable mention.

Instead, we’re awarding the champion predicting crown to Brian Whitney of East Brunswick, New Jersey. He had the Phils at 6-3/36-32; he nailed the Marlins run total exactly. Second place belongs to Asher Fusco of Lawrence, Kansas. He too had the Phils at 6-3, but with a 34-28 run differential.

Thank you to all who participated, those who thought about participating, and even those who thought it was a stupid idea but at least bothered to read about it.

Thank you for reading

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