Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Devine inspiration

I remember watching Joey Devine's first Major League appearance, a Fox Saturday Baseball game that was played two short months after the Braves drafted him 27th overall out of N.C. State in 2005. Devine entered a game against the Padres that was tied at two in the 12th inning and pretty easily retired the side. Then Bobby Cox allowed Devine to start the 13th, and the scalding waters of Hell broke loose and drowned poor Joey right there on the Turner Field mound. He gave up four runs, capitulating on a monster grand slam to Xavier Nady. I thought I may have seen the last of Joey Devine. I hadn't.

The second time I saw Joey Devine pitch was two months later, when Bobby Cox again brought him into an extra-innings game, this time in the NLDS against the Astros. Devine, whose entrance literally emptied the bullpen in the 17th inning, quickly retired the Astros but gave up the NLCS-winning home run to Chris Burke with one out in the 18th. Though I've read about his travails, I haven't seen him pitch since.

Which is why I guffawed when I saw his 2008 line as a member of the A's -- he was traded in the Mark Kotsay deal in January 2008. In 45 innings, Devine struck out 49, while allowing 38 baserunners (15 walks, 23 hits). His ERA was a nifty 0.59 and his ERA + was a staggering 685. I had no idea ERA + could get that high. In fact, it doesn't very often.

Thanks to the life-changing Baseball-Reference Play-Index, I now know that among pitchers with at least 25 innings pitched, Joey Devine posted the second-highest single-season ERA + total since 1901. He trailed only Buck O'Brien, who posted a ludicrous 866 ERA + in 47.2 innings of the 1911 season. Moreover, only nine players have ever posted an ERA + over 500 in more than 25 innings of work since 1911, including Jon Papelbon (515) and Dennys Reyes (504) in the 2006 season.

I'll eschew the obvious descriptor and say that Joey Devine's 2008 season was the apotheosis of great relief pitching and is a feat that may not be equaled for some time. But damn, way to rebound, young man.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

You throw batteries at the other Drew.

Consider the stats of three 25-year-old middle infielders, all playing in good hitting environments:

Player A: .291/.333/.502, 21 HR, 67 RsBI, 110 OPS +

Player B: .263/.355/.441, 20 HR, 61 RsBI, 109 OPS +

Player C: .266/.308/.468, 13 HR, 57 RsBI, 93 OPS +

The third set of counting numbers are diminished because their owner, Chase Utley, only appeared in 94 games as a 25-year-old. But the rate stats hold true.

The second set of counting numbers are also dampened slightly because their owner, Ian Kinsler, appeared in 130 games. The rate stats still hold true.

The owner of the first set of stats, Stephen Drew, played 152 games as a 25-year-old. His rate stats are the best of the bunch. He also became only the third short stop in history -- joining Nomar Garciaparra and Robin Yount -- to accumulate 40 doubles, 10 triples and 20 home runs, which is admittedly a bit of an invented stat.

All told, Drew accumulated 76 extra-base hits in 2008, which beat Hanley Ramirez (71) and Jose Reyes (73) -- though to be fair, Ramirez and Reyes didn't play in hitter-friendly parks.

Now consider what Kinsler and Utley did as 26-year-olds:

Kinsler: (121 GP) .319/.375/.517, 18 HR, 71 RsBI, 134 OPS +

Utley: .291/.376/.540, 28 HR, 105 RsBI, 132 OPS +

Baseball Prospectus' PECOTA projection system doesn't see Drew quite matching the age-26 seasons of Kinsler or Utley, but it does rank Drew as an elite short stop in EQA (ninth among SS), slugging (third), VORP (sixth) and Upside (ninth).

Drew is a talented hitter with a ton of upside. He's not that far off from being an elite short stop, and he bears watching in 2009 and beyond.

Monday, February 23, 2009

The Audacity of dope.

For fans who are tired of the A-Rod scandal but not quite ready for World Baseball Classic scandal, consider the curious case of Nationals general manager Jim Bowden. During a week in which Bowden should still be basking in the glow of his first big-fish free agent signing as Nationals GM, Adam Dunn, the embattled executive instead finds himself answering to reporters about his club's operations in Latin America. Specifically, Bowden must address questions about whether he was involved in wrongdoing in skimming bonuses from Latin American players. Moreover, it is Bowden's employer that is encouraging the investigation.

Bowden's best possible outcome is that he's portrayed as an incompetent supervisor, one who, potentially since 1994, has unwittingly allowed his scouts in the region to illegally take pieces of signing bonuses that should have gone to players. This would add to Bowden's already impressive run of incompetence, from the 102-loss 2008 regular season to failing to properly gauge the contract demands of ninth-overall pick Aaron Crow and adjust his team's draft board accordingly.*

Bowden's worst possible outcome is that he was complicit in the scandal, in which case he should find legal representation. He will be fired if he had a hand in the scandal.

Either way, it makes the decision to double the next-highest bidder in the Esmailyn Gonzalez negotiation look like another of Bowden's major blunders. Gonzalez was, of course, found out to be four years older than originally thought, making the Texas Rangers happy that the Nationals overbid for his services by $700,000.

As a general rule of thumb, anytime an executive must stand before reporters and say, "I'm innocent of any wrongdoing, and besides that I don't have any comment," it usually means his walking papers are in short order. Organizations, particularly baseball teams, don't run well with controversial winds swirling. Already, team president Stan Kasten appears less-than-pleased with the storm. Witness this quote from the WaPo writeup:

"While talking about Bowden on Monday, Kasten bemoaned the lack of recent attention given to on-field story lines. 'It's happened with your backs turned to it at the moment,' Kasten said, motioning to one of the practice fields. 'I hope you're not happy about that. Something could be happening out there. We could have Adam Dunn at third base at the moment and you wouldn't know about it.'"

Win or lose, it may be time for Jim Bowden to freshen up his resume. Unfortunately, he won't have Cold Pizza as a fallback option this time.

* The Nationals get the tenth pick in the 2009 Draft as compensation for losing Crow, but that just delays their rebuilding by a season. They would have been better served drafting a Brett Wallace, a Justin Smoak or a Jemille Weeks and adding that player to their 25-man roster as much as a full year earlier.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Votto is my Vato.

Consider the stats of two rookie first basemen, both 24-years-old, both playing in friendly hitting environs:

Player A: .297/.368/.506, 24 HR, 84 RsBI, 124 OPS+

Player B: .315/.380/.530, 25 HR, 97 RsBI, 119 OPS+

The question arises: Player B has the better numbers across the board, but Player A has the better OPS +. What's the disconnect? It may help to point out that Player A is Reds first baseman Joey Votto, and Player B is Rockies first baseman Todd Helton. Adjust their numbers to neutral ballparks, as OPS + does, and Votto comes out ahead. That bears restating and italicization:

In a neutral hitting environment, Joey Votto was a better player as a rookie than was Todd Helton.

The Reds are counting on Votto to play a key role in their offense in 2009, and he will rack up plenty of RsBI while hitting with Jay Bruce and Brandon Phillips on base. Votto's logical place in the Reds batting order is the cleanup spot, and he'll feast on NL Central pitching, where the most fearsome lefty is Ted Lilly.

Baseball Prospectus projects Votto to finish 12th among first basemen in EQA, 9th in slugging and 11th in VORP. Eschew the Justin Morneaus and Adrian Gonzalezes and draft Votto a few rounds later. Better yet, draft both and get a solid first baseman and utility player.

Votto is a solid bet as he enters his second season in Cincy -- draft him in the middle rounds so you can take premium talent at other positions early. Plug Joey Votto in their lineup every day and focus your worries elsewhere.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Tiger's back.

Who is the best American athlete going right now? Is it LeBron? Kobe? Manning? Casey Hampton?

It's this guy.

Tiger Woods will never again exist outside public consciousness, but he's spent the past eight months about as far out of sight as possible The biggest story about Tiger since he went down to injury has been the birth of his second child, a son named Charlie Axel. So when his caddy and confidant Steve Williams says Tiger's knee is about "95 percent" healthy, and that he "just needs a little bit more walking. He hasn’t been able to walk too well," it should put the rest of the PGA Tour on notice.

Like baseball players, golfers must have strong legs to hit the ball at peak efficiency, so it's a bit disconcerting to hear that "Woods had remodeled his swing to accommodate his injured knee." But in the annals of recorded medical history, recovery from a torn ACL and stress fracture isn't unique. Woods is a great athlete, though the talk of him being able to succeed in any sport is a bit over-the-top. Regardless, he's just about the perfect golfer. And he's back.

Over/under two major wins for Tiger this year?

Intransigence in Lubbock, Texas

Mike Leach is a good, albeit somewhat overrated Big 12 coach. He's probably not worth a five-year, $12.7 million contract ($2.54 million per annum), but in the Big 12, that seems to be the going rate for somewhat overrated head coaches. Gary Pinkel makes $2.3 million per year until 2015; Mike Gundy makes $2.2 million until 2015. Leach is not a better coach than either Pinkel or Gundy, though he is more in-demand -- HE LIKES PIRATES, says ESPN, HE'S TOTALLY NOW -- so he will get a small popularity premium included in his salary.

That said, the sticking point in the Leach-Tech negotiation seems to be a clause in the contract that "would trigger his firing and a $1.5 million penalty if he interviews for another job without athletic director Gerald Myers' permission."

In an era when Bobby Petrinos openly quit on their teams and Rich Rodriguezes leave their dream jobs unfinshed, there is no loyalty in football coaching, college or pro. It's somewhat refreshing to see college ADs take stands against head coaches with clear, obvious cases of Wanderlust. Anybody who thinks -- new contract or otherwise -- that Leach won't bolt Lubbock for the first major college big-fish job he can find is fooling themselves and has probably never visited Lubbock, Texas. Monetary penalty be damned, Leach is gone. Tech should save themselves the trouble and start interviewing candidates now.

And as far as Leach goes, well, Dabo Swinney should probably watch his back. Clemson boosters are aiming a Sword of Damocles named Mike Leach for a spot located just below Swinney's fifth lumbar vertebra.

Sometimes winning isn't everything.

Great writing by AP sports columnist Tim Dahlberg, who tells the story of a game between the DeKalb, Ill., High School basketball team and Milwaukee Madison. After traveling two hours to play a road game, the DeKalb players made a tremendous show of sportsmanship, sacrificing two points to help an opposing player honor his recently passed mother. It reminds us what sports can mean to people in their times of need. It reminds us what sports writing can and should be.

The rites of spring.

A day late with this, but such is life.

Ah, Spring. Printemps. Snow melts, skirts appear, pitchers and catchers report. A Yankee explains to a media horde why he used steroids.

Alex Rodriguez told reporters at the Yankees' Spring Training facility in Tampa that his cousin regularly injected him with substances between 2001 and 2003. “I didn’t think they were steroids,” Rodriguez told the assembled crowd, though he conceded that “I knew we weren’t taking Tic Tacs.”

“This public bloodletting of individual stars, the fallen stars, anybody who witnesses what these individuals have to go through after the fact, say, ‘You know what? I don’t want to be that guy. I don’t want to be in the chair, I don’t want to be the one—the poster child for the problem with the game, and on every newspaper across the country and every talk show.”

Whether he likes it or not, Rodriguez is now the poster child for this era. He got into that boat when he signed a $250 million contract. He's got the best numbers in an era when everybody's numbers were inflated. The one thing he is not is shunned.

Now let's hear from that cousin.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Mr. Dunn goes to Washington

The Nats got themselves a steal in Adam Dunn for two years, $20 million. Dunn is a very strangely controversial player, inasmuch as he flys pretty low under the radar. Still there are people out there who hate Adam Dunn. Toronto Blue Jays General Manager J.P. Ricciardi recently made the conventional anti-Dunn argument.

“Do you know the guy doesn’t really like baseball that much?” Ricciardi asked a call-in show questioner. “Do you know the guy doesn’t have a passion to play the game that much?"

Dunn is also controversial for another of Ricciardi's charges, that he's "a lifetime .230, .240 hitter that strikes out a ton and hits home runs." Dunn is a lifetime .247 hitter, and he strikes out in 32.4 percent of his at-bats.

That doesn't mean Dunn is particularly prone to making outs. Break out the handy Baseball Reference Play-Index and sort the numbers of all active non-pitchers between age 21 and 28 -- the years Dunn has been active in the Majors -- by the number of outs they have made. Dunn ranks 18th, behind Jimmy Rollins (2nd), A-Roid (3rd), The Pujols (6th), Derek Jeter (11th), Barry Bonds (12th), and Carlos Beltran (15th). The rest of the list is impressive enough. You have to be pretty good to make a lot of outs at a young age, to be allowed to make a lot of outs at a young age.

Go back to the Play-Index and sort the same group* by on-base percentage and see that Dunn is 13th. Dunn ranks behind fellow free agent Manny Ramirez (3rd) but ahead of fellow free agent Mark Teixeira (14th).

Sort the same group by home runs and see that Dunn ranks 4th.

So Adam Dunn makes a lot of outs, though he still gets on base at an elite level, and he slugs the ever-loving crap out of the ball. Dunn will be moving to first base, where defense is really a formality. He's a valuable hitter who isn't going to kill you defensively.

Less than a week after Ryan Howard, who is 10 days younger than Dunn, signed for three years and $54 million, THE NATIONALS signing Dunn for two years and $20 million is a veritable masterstroke for Nats GM Jim Bowden. Bowden, however, is still a doufus with a segway, a DUI -- unrelated -- and Elijah Dukes.

As far Adam Dunn not liking baseball goes, if not liking baseball means a .381 OBP and 40 home runs every year, like clockwork, I'll take not liking baseball any day. Adam Dunn may not wear his heart on his sleeve, but you don't get to the Major Leagues without caring. A lot. Saying otherwise disrespects the amount of work that it takes to be a Major Leaguer.

* Lie. I set a minumum number of 879 games played to exclude Kei Igawa.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Free Alex Rodriguez, or steroid fatigue.

The worst part about baseball's steroid story is that it lends itself so perfectly to bottomless pessimism, and I find that my cynicism extends to all the agents of the story, from the players to the executives, and especially to the reporters. I believe most baseball writers either missed or willfully ignored the steroid story in the Nineties and early Aughts, and now they're forced to play catch-up. This makes much of their sanctimoniousness retroactive, hence the focus on and romanticization of baseball's past.

I'll admit steroids sell. But if the public never again has to read about another of Alex Rodriguez's urine samples, I think they'll find a way to live. The general public is not too attached to the steroids story that it can't let it go. It's the writers who do the perpetuating.

Baseball writers forget the fundamental rule of baseball players: They are scoundrels. This has been common knowledge since the game was first formed. Baseball players will do anything and everything to get ahead, from sharpening their spikes to taunting Jackie Robinson with racial epithets to injecting Winstrol in a teammate's buttocks.

It's irresponsible for me to name names, but suffice it to say that if baseball players from Babe Ruth's era to Hank Aaron's era to Mike Schmidt's era had access to the types of supplements and performance enhancers that today's players use, they would have used them as well. If you ask a retired player today whether or not they would have used steroids of course they'll deny it. Today's baseball players haven't exactly been forthright about their steroid usage, have they? That's because baseball players are scoundrels.

So as I read articles with titles like A-Rod has destroyed game's history, I can't help but be annoyed. I have this image in my mind of writers like Jayson Stark firing off a priggish invective in one burst of creative energy, sitting back in their desk chairs and feeling like they're righting a wrong. It's so disingenuous. Where were you in 2002, Jayson? Here:

We keep hearing how players today can't play like they did in the olden days. Give it a rest. You can go to a game these days and see [...] a shortstop who has hit 50 homers two years in a row (A-Rod) [...] Or you can see a six-time Cy Young award-winner (Roger Clemens) [...] a 600-homer man (Barry Bonds) [...] In Babe Ruth's day, the game was played by a whole lot of slow white men. Players today are far better athletes [...] Let's broadcast that to the world, huh?

You ain't foolin' me, fellas. If you had done your jobs right the first time, this wouldn't be necessary.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009


I've never actually ranked the loves of my life, but I know that if I did Cardinals baseball would rank disturbingly high. It's not a question of whether or not I take it too seriously; It's a question of how long victory or defeat will fundamentally affect my baseline mood. Far too often, memories of Cardinals baseball are so viscerally seared into my memory that I can tell you ludicrous specifics about my surroundings during weighty Cardinals games. When I say I'm a Cardinals fan, I mean I've lived and fucking died with them.

For example, I can't tell you many specifics about the year 1996 -- think there may have been some sort of Presidential election -- but I can tell you that I watched the entire NLCS Game 7 -- a feat, I assure you -- in my parents' kitchen, and that I ate four bowls of Frosted Mini Wheats during the game. Two percent milk.

Or that I skipped school -- first time ever -- and watched Rick Ankiel's meltdown in the Game 1 of the 2000 NLDS at the bar of Houlihan's in the St. Louis Galleria -- malls are very big where I'm from -- while drinking three iced teas.

I also sense that my experience isn't particularly unique.

My street-cred established, I come to bid farewell to one of my favorite players, Jim Edmonds. He's the greatest center fielder I've ever watched on a daily basis, and he's the new benchmark for a center fielder who falls just short of the Hall of Fame.

If the payroll contraction inspired by the economic crisis causes star free agents to remain unsigned, Edmonds' career could very well be finished. Edmonds crushed the ball with the Cubs last year, and I think he can hit the 18 home runs he needs to reach 400. But time is a fast current and Edmonds has been swimming against it for a while now. Edmonds gets no play in the media. Take a look at a Google News search of Edmonds' name and you'll find a lot of older articles and terrible sources. (Not you, David Heck of the Tufts Daily.) Free agency is still at a point where a team can sign Manny Ramirez or Adam Dunn. Jim Edmonds isn't a hot commodity right now.

So if Edmonds is finished, I think it's the end of a career that was historically significant but not worthy of Hall enshrinement. According to the always handy Baseball-Reference Play Index, Edmonds ranks 12th in career OPS+ among players who played at least 500 games in center field. Ahead of him are the following 11 names:

1-8: Mickey Mantle, Ty Cobb, Tris Speaker, Willie Mays, Joe DiMaggio, Hack Wilson, Duke Snider, Ken Griffey Jr.

9-11: Wally Berger, Larry Doby, Earl Averill

Every single name on that list is a Hall of Famer, though some (the Earl of Shomish) are less significant than others (Seven). Edmonds stacks up well to the final three, though Doby is, of course, an exceptional case relative to Edmonds. Still, based on their stats, it's not unreasonable to say that those players have marginal Hall of Fame candidacies. Doby, of course, still being an exceptional case relative to, well, nearly everybody.

The problem is that there are also impressive names directly following Edmonds -- players who aren't Hall of Famers:

13-15: Fred Lynn*, Jimmy Wynn, Ellis Burks

All of those guys were fantastic players for a lot of years, but aside from Red Sox homers wanting to see their boy Fred get in, these guys don't have groundswells to get them elected to the Hall of Fame (And why doesn't Red Sox nation have more love for Ellis, who began and ended his career in Boston? Probably racism.)

So Jim Edmonds is stuck in the middle between a group of marginal Hall of Famers above and a group of talented non-Hall of Famers below. Then there's the fact that he played during an era of unprecedented chemical advantage, legal or otherwise. It's the unfortunate truth of this era and, all things considered, I'll take it over World War and institutional racism.

Jim Edmonds has authored as many Cardinals moments that are burned into my memory as anybody. Jim Edmonds is so great, he's beloved by both Cardinals and Cubs fans (admit it, you were smitten last June). I will one day prattle to the idiot friends of my children's children about the catch I saw Jim Edmonds make in second inning of Game 7 of the 2004 NLCS on a ball that Brad Ausmus hit that I don't think Jim even thought he could reach. But Jim Edmonds falls short of the marginal Hall of Famers.

Jim Edmonds is not worthy of Hall of Fame enshrinement.

* Stylistically, Jim Edmonds is the Fred Lynn of this generation. You heard it here first.