Chone. It’s prounounced “yes”

No more unfair expectations of home runs from our 3B

As a Mariner fan, it’s an unusual feeling to trumpet my team’s adventures in free-agent signings (see: Richie Sexson, Carlos Silva, Rich Arulia).  But it looks like the Mariners are signing Chone “play anywhere and do so pretty well” Figgins to a four-year deal.  We now have two of the best leadoff hitters in the game.  Find us a player to knock them in, and we’re in business.

Figgins walked 101 times last season.  Off the top of my head, I think that was more walks than the entire Mariners infield drew last season.  I guess if you want to improve OBP and you can’t sign Bobby Abreu, you sign somebody who hangs out with Bobby Abreu.

Please, Joe Mauer, Stay a Twin (a short essay)

One of the early themes of this off season is the status of Joe Mauer and Albert Pujols.  Both are franchise players a year away from the end of their current contracts.  Commentators seem to enjoy asking whether Minnesota or St. Louis can afford to keep these iconic players.  Will they be able to match the deals Mauer or Pujols could receive as free agents?

Well, wait.  Don’t Joe and Albert get a say in this?

Much writing, wailing, and gnashing of teeth has accompanied discussion of baseball players’ astronomical salaries.  I don’t mean to add another decibel to that cacophony.  But there is a prevailing attitude to the coverage of players like Mauer and Pujols which profoundly bothers me: that they are obligated to take the biggest paycheck offered them.

*Ahem.*

sigh...

Growing up a Seattle Mariner fan in the 1990s, I watched Randy Johnson, Ken Griffey Jr., and Alex Rodriguez leave town, each motivated to varying degrees by a bigger paycheck elsewhere.  It was heartbreaking.  Learning as a boy how the game’s greatest players were linked to specific teams (Stan Musial and the Cardinals, Roberto Clemente and the Pirates, all the Yankee greats), I longed for Seattle to have greats of its own.

Baseball’s history with respect to money and labor negotiations is long and complicated.  I understand this.  Stan Musial could not have left for Boston if he disliked St. Louis.  Free agency gives players an important lever in dealing with their employers.  But to read commentators and the last ten years of free agency, it seems as if star players have fallen into the opposite situation.  They are not able to stay with their teams even if they want to.

I have never heard anything about this, but I suspect there is enormous pressure within the Player’s Association on big stars to go for big money.  If CC Sabathia really wanted to play for Cleveland, I’m pretty confident Cleveland would have found the money to welcome him back for $10 million a year.  But such a contract would depress the signings of all the lesser pitchers.  Negotiating with Randy Wolf, an owner could say, “No way are you worth eight million a year if Sabathia is only worth ten!”  So the top free agents seek the most money in order to help out the rest of the union.

That is understandable.  But how often has a star player wanted to play for a team, but felt unable to do so because money elsewhere was so much greater?  Has that really never happened?  Do the highest salaries always come from the preferred team?  Surely not always.

The best games are played for free

Free agency not a problem

The perception that a team’s best players are almost required to take the largest contract offered them in free agency undermines the important emotional connection between team and fan base.  Young boys (and girls!) dream of playing ball for their favorite teams.  Has baseball constructed a system where those who make it to the majors learn that it just isn’t that simple, kid? It is already difficult to overlook the absurd piles of money players earn for playing my favorite childhood game (after Calvinball).  It is too much to consider that baseball has commercialized itself into a coldly pragmatic machine indoctrinating players with the belief that everybody is in it for the money.

This is more of a problem for fans of younger, less successful teams.  Yankee and Red Sox fans can root for the franchise as a lasting entity with characteristics independent from its players.  As a Mariner fan, I cannot hold onto a winning tradition, or even a losing tradition made appealing by sheer length (see: Cubs, Phillies).  I’m a Mariner fan because of specific teams made up of specific players.

The danger here threatens baseball’s bottom line.  Baseball has a reputation, which it tries desperately to maintain, of being a transcendental team game.  A sport of beautiful simplicity and generation-binding nostalgia.  It brags of a history where players were synonymous with the cities they played in.  Baseball does not carry itself with the glossy, militaristic swagger of the made-for-TV NFL.  If baseball wants to keep this aura, I strongly believe it needs to do a better job of juggling its finances and the un-capitalistic, impractical, romantic tendencies of its fan base.

I do not begrudge a player his millions, since the league and its owners are making many millions off of his play.  And a city’s love for a player does not necessitate the player’s love for a city or team (see: Bonds, Barry).  But it is this perception, almost absurd when stated aloud, that baseball needs to combat: a superstar taking a discount to play for his hometown team is a heroic and noble act.  When I think about this, and realize that this heroic act involves taking $60 million dollars instead of $90 million dollars, I feel foolish for caring so much.

Both great and adored

I hope, someday soon, a player will take a significant pay cut in order to play for his favorite team.  Perhaps the team he grew up rooting for, perhaps the team that gave him his shot at the Big Time.  For a city’s emotional attachment to individual players is part of what makes sports special, and what gives those players the ability to make enormous salaries in the first place.  And the transient loyalties in free agency, even if motivated by a union-vs-management mindset, undermines these emotional attachments and makes those contracts all the less attached to reality.

So, as my two cents, here are some players I hope remain with their current teams for the rest of their careers.  Because they are great players in a position to be forever enshrined in the baseball heart of their cities:

  • Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera, Yankees
  • Albert Pujols, Cardinals
  • Joe Mauer, Twins
  • Jimmy Rollins and Ryan Howard, Phillies
  • David Wright, Mets
  • Chipper Jones, Braves
  • Roy Halladay, Blue Jays (not gonna happen)
  • Ichiro, Mariners

Just great

It is these feelings which put Tony Gwynn and Cal Ripkin Jr. ahead of Ricky Henderson and Reggie Jackson in my baseball pantheon.  Perhaps a “franchise player” rule, like in the NFL, could help make one-team careers more common.  Possibly there are fans in Minnesota who want Joe Mauer to go to the Yankees, make $23 million a year, and make good.  But I bet most of them want him to remain in Minnesota, let the city name a street after him, and let the fans include him in future conversations about the best players to ever grace the Twin Cities.

The Decline of Adam Dunn

Sell out

Sadly, our heroes do not live forever.  The baby robins in the front yard eventually abandon their nest.  The family dog loses his eyesight and can no longer bound up the stairs.  And Adam Dunn has sold out to the almighty batting average.

 
Enough time has passed since the end of the regular season that we can now touch on a painful wound: Adam Dunn did not hit 40 home runs this season.
 
In an apparent effort to appease the Batting Averageistas, Dunn sacrified power for average this season.  The result?  A career-high batting average of .267, but not that sweet 40 in the HR column we thought was as reliable as your father’s old Toyota Corolla.
 
The Decline of Dunn
2004: .266 avg, 46 HR
2005: .247 avg, 40 HR
2006: .234 avg, 40 HR
2007: .264 avg, 40 HR
2008: .236 avg, 40 HR
2009: .267 avg, 38 HR
 
Perhaps he will return to his free-swinging ways next season, but the Streak is over, the bubble is popped, and winter is on its way.

Gold Glove, Gold Smhlove

The 2009 Gold Gloves have been awarded.  As a young boy, I always rooted for my favorite players (Ken Griffey Jr, lock; Jay Buhner, one!; Edgar Martinez, fat chance) to win.  Today, I know that this award is decided by a process dramatized below:

Manager: “Hey Jim, time to fill out those flippin’ gold glove ballots.”

Jim: “Oh yeah?”

Manager: “Hmm.  Shortstop.  Who made some good plays against us this year?”

Jim: “That Jeter had a good season.  Battin’ leadoff, too.”

Manager: “Yeah, he did.  I remember that one grab he made against us in June.  Good play.”

Jim: “Yup.”

Manager: “Okey doke.” [checks box]

Now, by contrast, I provide a dramatization of how the Gold Gloves could be decided:

Manager: “Hey Jim, time to fill out those flippin’ gold glove ballots.”

Jim: “Oh yeah?”

Manager: “Hmm.  Outfield.  What outfielder made more plays against us than most other outfielders?  Who didn’t make many errors, took good routes to balls, covered more ground, threw strongly and accurately, and generally decreased the number of runs the average pitcher gave up by playing in the field?”

Jim: “That Franklin Guiterrez had a good season.”

Manager: “Yeah, he did.  I remember that one grab he made against us in June.  Good play.”

Jim: “Yup.”

Manager: “Okey doke.” [checks box]

Now, I present to you my league-winning fantasy baseball team for 2009 the Gold Glove teams from each league:

National League:
C  Yadier Molina (playoffs)
1B Adrian Gonzalez
2B Orlando Hudson (playoffs)
3B Ryan Zimmerman
SS Jimmy Rollins (playoffs)
OF Shane Victorino (playofs)
OF Michael Bourn
OF Matt Kemp (playoffs)

American League:
C  Joe Mauer (playoffs)
1B Mark Teixeria (playoffs)
2B Placido Polanco
3B Evan Longoria
SS Derek Jeter (playoffs)
OF Torii Hunter (playoffs)
OF Adam Jones
OF Ichiro

What a coincidence that the game’s best offensive players are also the best defensive players, and a majority of them played for teams that made the playoffs.  Such well-rounded athletes!

The Knuck Marches On

ESPN reports that the Red Sox have torn up the best contract in baseball.  Yes, they have replaced Tim Wakefield’s perpetual, $4 million per year contract with a 2-year, $5 million dollar deal.  This is obviously a source of concern for those who want to see Wakefield play indefinitely, as it suggests a timeline in the Red Sox’s mind.  Nevertheless, two more years will bring Wakefield that much closer to the great cumulative records of all time.  Here is how our favorite Everyman is doing in his relentless assault on the greatest pitching records of all time (years to goal are based on his average yearly production):

WakfieldTim Wakefield: 17 years Major League service (not including 1994, when he regrettably did not play)

Wins: Cy Young (511)
Wakefield: 162
Years to goal:36.6

Innings pitched: Cy Young (7,354.2)
Wakefield: 2,931.2
Years to goal: 25.7

Walks: Nolan Ryan (2,795)
Wakefield: 1,122
Years to goal: 25.3

Earned runs: Cy Young (2,147)
Wakefield: 1,411
Years to goal: 8.9 (!!!)

Hits allowed: Cy Young (7,092)
Wakefield: 2,836
Years to goal: 25.5

These year goals are, of course, rough approximations.  Everyone knows that the knuckle ball can, without warning, go off and become unhittable for a day, month, or half-season.*

I hope the Red Sox will do the right thing and let Wakefield remain their #5 starter until he accomplishes his Destiny as our generation’s greatest and best chance to wipe Cy Young, and occasionally Nolan Ryan, from the cumulative-stat record books.  Phillies, you are on standby to retain Jamie Moyer should the Red Sox fail in this mission.

*See Wakefield’s first half of 1995: 1995: 7-1, 1.61 era in 10 starts.

Trends Dashed

Some trends which ended with this World Series (dashed trend indicated by sad orange text):

1) In this playoff season, the demise of good closers and the ascent of bad closers:

  • Jonathan Papelbon (good):
    Regular season: 38/41 in save opportunities, 1.85 era
    Post season: 0/1, 13.50 era
  • Joe Nathan (good):
    Regular season: 47/52, 2.10 era
    Post season: 0/1, 9.00 era
  • Ryan Franklin (good, somehow):
    Regular season: 38/43, 1.92 era
    Post season: 0/1, 0.00 era (couldn’t retire side after Holliday error)
  • Jonathan Broxton (good):
    Regular: 36/42, 2.61 era
    Post-season: 2/3, 4.05 era
  • Mariano Rivera (good):
    Regular season: 44/46 svs, 1.76 era
    World Series trend dashed: 5/5 svs, 0.56 era
  • Brad Lidge (bad):
    Regular: 31/42, 7.21 era
    Post-season until World Series: 3/3, 0.00 era
    World Series trend dashed: 1 IP, 3 R, loss

2)  Alex Rodriguez continuing to not win a World Series:

  • Alex Rodriguez, July 27 1975-November 3, 2009: not winning the World Series
  • Alex Rodriguez, November 4, 2009: won World Series

3)  The Phillies winning the World Series and the Yankees not winning the World Series.

  • 2008: Phillies win the World Series, Yankees do not
  • 2009: Yankees win the World Series, Phillies do not

One trend that remains to be tested is teams getting better after Alex Rodriguez leaves:

  • 2000 Seattle Mariners, with A-Rod: 91-71
  • 2001 Seattle Mariners, without A-Rod: 116-46(!)
  • 2003 Texas Rangers, with A-Rod: 71-91
  • 2004 Texas Rangers, without A-R0d: 89-73

If this one holds, look out for those 2018 New York Yankees.

Whatever Happened To…

Raul2

Raul Ibanez?

Last seen: June 13th, 2009; Philadelphia.

At time of last sighting: was seen batting .322 with a 1.058 OPS, 22 home runs and 59 RBI.

Howard1

Ryan Howard?

Last seen: October 28th, 2009; the Bronx

At time of last sighting: was seen batting .361 with RBI in 9 out of 10 playoff games.

dog1

Roscoe Roosevelt?

Last seen: October 13th, 2009; the backyard

At time of last sighting: was working off the frustration of losing a squirrel over the fence by chewing on an old Jim Thome batting practice bat.

Anyone with knowledge of the whereabouts of these three individuals should contact Charlie Manual at 1-800-CHARLIE.

In the news, briefly

Our colleagues in the world of sports journalism have turned in two fine pieces worth noting here:

  • Kudos to ESPN’s Jim Caple for hitting the streets to find those rare Yankee fans who have legitimate feelings of championship drought.
  • On the other side of the coin, The Onion’s sports section continues its strong coverage with a timely piece on the Phils own championship drought.

Post-Season Howard

From the Mildly Interesting Stats Department:

The last few NL MVP races have induced many discussions of Ryan Howard vs. Albert Pujols.  Regular season numbers pretty much decide the issue in Albert’s favor.  But playoff numbers are interesting:

  • Howard’s career line: .279 / .376 / .586 (AVG/OBP/SLG)
  • Howard’s playoff career, through yesterday: .300 / .408 / .590
  • Numbers-wise: 27 games, 100 AB (plus 18 BB), 17 R, 6 HR, 25 RBI

Pujols has played in almost twice as many playoff games:

  • Pujols’ career line: .334 / .427 / .628 (seriously…)
  • Pujols’ playoff career: .322 / .431 / .578
  • Numbers-wise: 56 games, 199 AB (36 BB), 39 R, 13 HR, 36 RBI
Howard

Get me to August and then let me loose

The point?  No grand one, but a couple snack-sized observations.  Albert’s video-game-like regular season numbers mean that his tidy playoff 1.009 OPS is actually lower than his regular season numbers.  Howard, by comparison, has thus far batted above his regular season numbers.  In half the games, he has two-thirds as many RBI as Pujols.

The MVP is not decided by post-season performance, but if Howard keeps this up, he may win over a few more people in the debate over which elite NL first basemen you want on your team.

What’s that, espn? Aces are important?

ESPN’s position as vanguard of in-depth baseball analysis continues with their latest gem: a top-10 list of players who are important in this upcoming World Series.

Baseball’s tea leaves being more subtle and multilayered than other professional sports, ESPN did not leave this important piece of prophecy to one writer. No, this gem of a post was composed by “many of ESPN’s baseball writers, analysts and contributors.”  Some of the key points:

  • Important player #1: Cliff Lee.  Reason: “Lee is the Phillies’ Game 1 starter; he would also likely start Game 5.”
  • Important player #2: CC Sabathia.  Reason: “Sabathia will start Game 1 for the Yankees and could start Games 4 and 7 if Joe Girardi chooses to [start him].”

Other important players ESPN wants the world to keep an eye on: Alex Rodriguez!  Ryan Howard!  And wait, Mariano Rivera!?!?

Thank you, ESPN, for reminding us that the most important players in this World Series are the best players on each team, particularly the ones who will play the most.  We had not considered this.

Perhaps ESPN is trying to educate those people who will confused the World Series with the World Series of Poker, and want to know who the Phil Iveys and Phil Hellmuths are.  Covering the top end so thoroughly, I thought I’d identify the bottom 5 least-important players to this World Series.   Note that the World Series rosters have not been released yet, but ESPN didn’t wait for them, so neither are we.

All Swings Considered asked many of its baseball writers, analysts and contributors who were on gchat at the moment to rank the players. Here are the results:

  1. Jerry Hairston Jr, bench, Yankees.  Why is he not important? He probably won’t play, unless Girardi decides to play him (<– analysis!).
  2. Francisco Cervelli, C, Yankees.  Why is he not important? He’s the third catcher on the roster, probably.  And Girardi wouldn’t even use #2 catcher Jose Molina if Burnett wasn’t such a head case and baseball didn’t have its One Catching Molina Per Postseason Series rule.
  3. Mike Harkey, bullpen coach, Yankees.  Why is he not important? If at all possible, the Yankees will use only Mariano Rivera out of the bullpen.  Rivera does not need a bullpen coach.  If the Yankees are forced to use other relievers, Mike Harkey is not going to help.  Which brings us to:
  4. The Rest of the Yankees bullpen.  Why are they not important? The Yankees spent $1.073 billion dollars on 9 players, and none of them pitch in the bullpen.
  5. The Easter Bunny.  Why is he not important? Baseball prostituting itself to television contracts, combined with bad weather, mean there is only a 15% chance that the World Series lasts until next Easter.

Honorable mention: Kenji Johjima, Lynn Cheney, Roosevelt’s Face On Mount Rushmore.