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Monday, October 29, 2007

5 Things I Learned From the 2007 Series

- Regular season broadcasters really aren't that bad.

I often find myself growing frustrated by the inanities of color commentators like Bob Brenly (Cubs) and Rex Hudler (Angels), but I yearn for them when faced with the prospect of watching several games in a row with Joe Buck and Tim McCarver. I often find myself wondering if they even pay any attention to the regular season. I know that they are catering to an audience that may only watch baseball in October, but doesn't that make it all the more important that they provide a rich context for what makes the World Series worth watching. I don't expect anybody to be Vin Scully, but based on their broadcast, it's hard to tell if they do any preparation at all. When they do bring up a tidbit of moderate interest, like Manny Ramirez' average with two strikes or Troy Tulowitzki's likely Rookie of the Year candidacy, we get pounded with it at-bat after at-bat, night after night. Baseball is a game of nuance and almost hypnotic attention of detail. The broadcast should help bring that to life for both the baseball novice and the fanatic. Buck only sounds enthusiastic when he's making an ill-timed plug for one of their sponsors. Fox's broadcasters are neanderthals. If Fox wants to raise World Series ratings, I would start with something that they can change, instead of complaining about the prevalence of land-locked franchises in the playoffs. I was pleasantly surprised by the TBS broadcast team during the Division Series and the NLCS. Maybe that's an indication of a welcome change on the horizon.

- Dice-K needs to make some adjustments...and so do the Red Sox.

I was disappointed that Francona elected to remove Dice-K with one out in the sixth in Game 3. He had yet to give up a run, he had only allowed three hits and three walks, and Boston had a six-run lead! However, I did suffer through several of his late-season starts in which everything appeared to going smoothly before he suddenly got lit-up in the middle innings, so I can imagine what Francona was thinking.

I would argue that Dice-K's rookie year has been a success. Perhaps he has not fully lived up to the phenomenal expectations, but he pitched 200 innings, won 16 games, and was among the league leaders in strikeouts. And, there is no reason to believe that next year won't be even better. He is a smart pitcher and a fearsome competitor. I don't think he would've elected to join the MLB if he didn't think it was going to be a challenge. What is critical, I think, is that the Red Sox also make some changes to accomodate his idiosyncratic style and routines. I'm no saying they should be letting him throw 200 pitch bullpen sessions, but maybe they should let him get up to 120 more often. That is what his arm is used to, after all.

- Something really is wrong with the National League.

See previous post.

- Todd Helton deserves all those Gold Gloves, and another one in 2007.

Much has been made of the Rockies defense, and justifiably so. As the postseason wore on, announcers, particularly Buck and McCarver, became more and more enamored with the play of Colorado shortstop, Troy Tulowitzki. Again, justifiably so. However, what often got overlooked, was that the Rockies record-setting team fielding percentage could not have been achieved without Todd Helton. Sure, Helton has the typical lumbering physique of an aging first basemen. His range is not what it used to be. But, he is extraordinarily agile, his footwork is remarkable, and he has an amazing knack for reeling in wayward throws, whether they're in the dirt, over his head, or well off the bag. I think Tulowitzki and third baseman Garrett Atkins are pretty good glove men and they have extremely strong arms, but neither is particularly accurate. They don't have to be.

- Manny Ramirez is underrated.

It's strange to make such a remark about the fourth highest-paid player in the league, who is the clean-up hitter for one the best publicized teams in all of sports, but it's true. Sure, Manny has his adventures in left field, but he also turns in his fair share of web gems, especially when he's playing at home. His throw to cut down Kenny Lofton in a critical situation during Game 7 of the ALCS is a perfect example. Buck and McCarver don't like that his intentionally knocks off his helmet when he's on the basepaths or lingers to admire his atmospheric home runs. We're never going to confuse him with David Eckstein, but Manny doesn't exactly dog it either. His antics, which I can't help but find endearing for the most part, and the increasingly epic persona of David Ortiz, overshadow the fact that Manny Ramirez may be the best pure hitter in baseball right now. He works the count. He has power to all fields. He walks as often as he strikes out. He murders lefties and righties, even the best in the game. He hits situationally. You never see him swinging for the fences in an RBI situation, even though he often ends up clearing them nonetheless. And, of course, he's money when it counts most. In his four postseasons since joining the Sox, Manny is batting .321 with a 980 OPS and 38 RBIs in 43 games.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

What's wrong with the National League?

Don't get me wrong. I'm not ready to pronounce the Rockies dead just because they got pummeled in Game 1. It was a game they were destined to lose. That much-discussed eight day reprieve was the inevitable end of their magical streak. Not only that, they had to fight off the cobwebs in the inhospitable Fenway Park against the hottest postseason pitcher since Bob Gibson. Regardless of the magic, I don't think anybody would've picked Colorado to win Game 1. However, the drubbing the Red Sox gave their Ace, Jeff Francis, was certainly cause for concern.

Colorado's Game 2 starter, Ubaldo Jimenez, has enough talent to be competitive against anybody, so long as he is effectively wild. But, after that, the Rockies counter Dice-K and Jon Lester with the pedestrian Josh Fogg and the rehabilitating Aaron Cook, neither of whom can be expected to perform better, or even as well as, Francis. I don't believe the Rockies' bats will remain quiet, especially once the series moves back to Coors Field, but the always potent Boston lineup is truly running on all cylinders. Even disappointing free agent signees J. D. Drew and Julio Lugo have gotten involved in the last several Red Sox victories. If Jimenez loses Thursday, I fear another World Series sweep may be imminent.

If it unfolds as I'm suggesting, or even if Colorado extends it to five games, we will start the offseason with more discussion of the growing divide between the quality of teams (and players) in the American and National leagues. While the NL's disadvantage in the Fall Classic hasn't been that remarkable (they've been represented by five of the twelve champions between 1995 and 2006), they have lost eleven consecutive All-Star games and have been trounced in interleague play each of the last three seasons. In 2007, all four playoff franchises from the AL won more games than the best team in the NL.

Not long ago any discussion of the most valuable players in baseball was focused in the National League, where Barry Bonds, Ken Griffey Jr., Sammy Sosa, Mark McGwire, Gary Sheffield, and Vladimir Guerrero all resided as of 2000. Now Sheffield, Sosa, and Guerrero have defected, with Bonds and Griffey likely soon to follow, and the same discussion revolves around A-Rod and a couple of players from the Red Sox. Five of the six highest-paid players in 2007 were American Leaguers.

Although we have been taught by Billy Beane (or, maybe more accurately, Terry Ryan) that building a team is about more than money, it is telling that the NL has only three of the top ten payrolls in Major League Baseball, and six of the bottom seven. It seems strange then that ten teams in the senior circuit had attendance figures over $2.7 Million, compared to only four in the AL. Notoriously, the Chicago Cubs have sold out Wrigley Field regardless of the quality of team on the field or the amount of the Tribune Company's commitment. In recent years, while the Cubs have spent more, other NL franchises have learned to milk their traditions.

The Atlanta Braves spent nearly $20 Million less in 2007 than they did in 2002, even though the average major league player's salary has gone up half a million dollars during that time. The Braves '07 payroll was their lowest since 2000. To put that in perspective: in 2000, the Yankees only spent $93 Million, less than half what they did in '07. The Braves have not exactly been keeping up with the Joneses.

Similarly, the Giants, Cardinals, and Pirates, all among the oldest and most storied franchises in the National League, have authorized only fractional increases (or even decreases) in their payrolls over the last fives seasons. Conversely, the elder statesmen of the AL - the Yankees, Red Sox, White Sox, Orioles, Athletics, and Tigers - have all raised their payrolls by $20 Million or more over the same span. All told, the American League pays more than 52% of all player salaries in baseball, despite the fact that they have two fewer franchises!

If the explanation for the difference between the leagues isn't money, what is the explanation? Is it that the DH rule allows the American League to retain great players longer? It is true that guys like Frank Thomas and Jim Thome continue to contribute to contenders into their forties. It is also true that David Ortiz, Sheffield, and Guerrero got many more at-bats this season, despite nagging injuries, than they would've if they were required to play the field everyday. In the '70s and '80s, when the Designated Hitter first came into play, teams usually filled the role with the equivalent of a top pinch-hitter, a guy who was at best the sixth or seventh best hitter on the team, or, occasionally, a veteran with considerably diminished skills. In 2007, more than half American League teams regularly batted their DH in the middle-of-the-order, third or fourth, employing him explicitly for the purpose of anchoring their lineup. One must wonder whether Ortiz or Travis Hafner would've had careers in the era before the DH was invented. Or, whether Thomas and Thome could've built convincing cases for the Hall of Fame. Nonetheless, this is hardly an acceptable explanation for the difference between the leagues. After all, the National League faired just fine during the '90s, when teams were beginning to understand the DH and excellent hitters like Edgar Martinez, Paul Moliter, Albert Belle, Harold Baines, and Jose Canseco were exploiting it to improve their contracts and prolong their careers.

Do quality free agent pitchers prefer the AL because they don't have to bat? Their may be some truth to the theory that power pitchers like Clemens and Beckett can pitch inside more comfortably in the AL because they don't have to fear retribution when they step into the batter's box. Additionally, some veteran pitchers - say a Curt Schilling or a David Wells - may feel that staying off of the basepaths and away from the lumber keeps them from humiliating themselves, hurting their teams, or spending time on the DL. But, then again, just as many pitchers prefer the NL, either because the like to hit (Livan Hernandez, Carlos Zambrano, etc.), they are comfortable with the NL style (Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, etc.), or they hope to revitalize their careers by facing weaker lineups (Barry Zito, Ted Lilly, etc.).

I am the first to agree that teams should be focusing on drafting and developing their own players, and showing prudence on the free-agent market. However, the lesson to be learned from teams like Oakland, Minnesota, and Cleveland is not that you have to spend like those teams to play like those teams. National League teams seem prone to using the success of small-market franchises as an excuse for excessive frugality.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

The World Series is next week! But who cares?!? Let's talk about the Yankees.

The Indians and Red Sox have reached the winner-takes-all moment in a series which featured, among other things, a seven run 11th-inning explosion, back-to-back-to-back homers, and the 35th stolen base of a postseason career. All are historic firsts.

The Rockies have won 21 of their last 22, including seven straight in the playoffs. They're headed to their first World Series.

But, naturally, most of the baseball headlines are concerned with the Yankees off-season plans. Will A-Rod opt-out? Will Joe Torre still be welcome in the Bronx? What part will Hank and Hal Steinbrenner's reclusive younger brother, Huck, have in the day-to-day baseball operations of the franchise? Does Jorge Posada look more like David Schwimmer or a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle?

Well, I have nothing more to say about the postseason at present, except that I'm enjoying it more and more the further it moves inland, so I may as well hop on the bandwagon. Obviously, I've got no insider information (despite my close relationship with Don Mattingly's second cousin). As one of the many Yankee-haters who will be watching the headlines of the next several weeks maniacally anticipating the worst fate for all things pinstriped, the best I can offer is what I hope will happen.

Brian Cashman & the Steinbrenners, the barbershop quartet auditioning for the next season of The Next Great American Band, will finish their secretive rehearsals in Florida and, unwilling to go back on George's word, fail to offer Joe Torre a reasonable contract, perhaps belittling his accomplishments during a widely-publicized press conference. You know, "He hasn't really proved himself in this millenium."

Against the recommendation of Cashman and others, the Steinbrenners will replace Torre with current bench coach, Don Mattingly, assuming that this offer of moderate stability will prevent an all-out desertion by the potential free-agent class that includes Jorge Posada, Mariano Rivera, Andy Pettitte, and Alex Rodriguez.

Rodriguez will, predictably, opt-out and end up on the West Coast, probably in San Francisco. Mariano Rivera will follow, perhaps even joining the same team.

At this point, probably around December, the Stooges will begin to get anxious, as it dawns on them that they may actually end up with a worse team in 2008 than they had in '07, and one without an experienced manager or a confident clubhouse to help them overcome their annual spring slump. Hank and Hal don't want to give their father yet another reason to call them losers. They pick up the option on Bobby Abreu. They convince Pettitte to hang on for another year. And, in order to prevent Posada from defecting to the Mets, they offer him way more money than he's worth, something in the neighborhood of three years and $35 Million. (Cashman starts having Javy Lopez nightmares.)

Still, even with three dynastic (a.k.a., old and overrated) pieces of the puzzle in place (Posada, Pettitte, Jeter), the roster seems to have gaping holes in it. The Red Sox have lost next to nothing as they shore up their rotation with Clay Bucholz and Dontrelle Willis (in return for Coco Crisp and a prospect). Suddenly, as desperation fuels fantasy, members of the weak free-agent class begin to look tempting. The heroes of yesteryear, men who have haunted them in postseasons past: Schilling, Rogers, Lofton, Piazza, Glavine, Colon, Jones. Who could possibly replace A-Rod? Maybe, with rested knees and a revitalized lineup around him, maybe Barry Bonds? Who could possibly replace Rivera? Maybe Eric Gagne? Who could possible replace Roger Clemens? Well, maybe the Rocket has another year in him after all? They sign player after player on whim after whim, regardless of price, priority, or position. Melky Cabrera is once-again relegated to reserve duty. Ian Kennedy and Phil Hughes are forced to fight over the one remaining spot in the rotation (Joba Chamberlain is, as Hank promised, inserted as the fourth starter). Out of necessity, Johnny Damon learns to play third base. As usual, the bullpen gets overlooked.

The season starts well. The Steinbrenner boys strut around the yard, the Yankees are still atop the division at the end of May. But, the tide turns. Leads are blown, repeatedly. Injuries plague key players. They stumble into the All-Star break around .500. Still, they say, "better than last year."

Chamberlain loses it in the second half, overworked and under-prepared. Posada's average dives toward .250. One after another, players land on the D.L. Without Torre's steady hand, the cookie crumbles. Even Jeter begins to look anxious at the plate. He argues with umpires, drops double play balls. Yankees fans wonder aloud, "Didn't he use to have more range on his right?" Only Robinson Cano lives up to expectations, exceeds them even. He smiles and, beginning to look more and more like Alfonso Soriano (if Soriano could really play second base), contemplates his looming free agency.

At the end of the year, the Yankees make a grand push. They finish above .500 for the 16th consecutive season. The Red Sox win the division. The Blue Jays finish second. Mattingly is summarily dismissed, like many great Yankee players before him (Martin, Pinella, Berra, Michael), he failed to live up to the Steinbrenner conception of managerial greatness. Torre, having taken a year off to work as an ESPN commentator (ala Pinella and Dusty Baker), is offered $8 Million to return. Instead he takes a job in St. Louis, as La Russa's bench coach.


That's what I hope will happen and, no matter what your loyalty, I think you'll agree that it isn't an entirely absurd prediction. The much more difficult question is, what should happen?

Even in the best of circumstance, with nobody looking over his shoulder and only moderate expectation, Cashman would have a hell of a lot of work to do this offseason. He has three potential holes in his everyday lineup (first base, third base, catcher), as well as a clusterfuck at designated hitter (Damon, Giambi, Duncan). He is probably looking at three rookies (or, practically rookies) in the starting rotation (Chamberlain, Hughes, Kennedy) and only one reliable arm in the bullpen (Vizcaino). And, like I said before, his fiercest rival in the division (the team with the best record in baseball in 2007) only loses one contributer (Schilling).

It won't happen, but the Yankees should commit to rebuilding, with or without Torre. Unlike teams like Pittsburgh or Kansas City, this would probably only take them a year, during which they would still be respectable. This would mean letting Posada, Rivera, Clemens, and Rodriguez go. Cabrera, Duncan, Betemit, Kennedy, and Hughes would all be expected to take on everyday roles. Perhaps they acquire underrated, lower-tier guys to shore up first base (somebody like Adam LaRoche), catcher (maybe Micheal Barrett), and closer (say Borowski or Dotel).

At the end of 2008 they will be relieved of their huge contractual commitments to Giambi, Abreu, and Mike Mussina. There will be a much stronger free agent class, probably including marquee guys like Johan Santana, C. C. Sabathia, Mark Texeira, and Vladimir Guerrero. Most importantly, perhaps, they will have a better sense of what they need. Are Hughes, Kennedy, and Chamberlain all dependable starters? Can either Duncan or Betemit be valuable day in and day out? Do they have any other valuable prospects on the horizon?

The next Yankees dynasty is not far off, will they have the patience to wait for its arrival? Or will they compromise it in order to win 90 games next year?

Monday, October 08, 2007

The 1990's Expansion Series: Colorado v. Arizona

I'm guessing this is not what Ted Turner was envisioning when TBS purchased the rights to the NLCS (and the rest of the playoffs up to the World Series) prior to the 2007 season. The clubs from two top markets - Chicago and the Philadelphia/Tri-State area - both with strong, loyal followings eliminated in the first four days of postseason play. And, to make matters worse, eliminated by a pair of teams from out west, not from L.A. or San Francisco or Seattle, but from that pesky Mountain Time Zone, separated from the vast majority of the American television-watching baseball-following population by at least an hour, and hundreds of miles of scenic wilderness.

The Diamondbacks, despite accumulating the best record in the National League, had a difficult time drawing fans from Arizona in 2007, much less attention from the coasts. They were 12th in the NL in attendance. The Rockies didn't fair much better. They were 11th. Only the bottom-feeding Reds, Pirates, Marlins, and Nationals had less support than the NL's two best franchises, and they averaged 19 fewer wins. One will notice, however, when the series shifts back to Colorado, that Rockies fans have turned out en masse since their team started its historic late-season run. Coors Field was as loud as any baseball stadium west of the Bronx during the epic one-game playoff between the Rockies and Padres. It will be interesting to see, on the other hand, whether Arizona can fill its ballpark without the thousands of Cubs fans which turned up in Phoenix for the Division Series.

You've probably heard it multiple times now in reference to the Diamondbacks, especially: "This was supposed to be a rebuilding year." The Baby Backs have nine rookies on their postseason roster and fourteen players who are 27-years-old or younger. Their "grizzled" veteran leaders include Eric Byrnes, who at the ripe old age of 31 is in his fifth full season in the majors; Brandon Webb, also in his fifth season, at the age of 28; and Tony Clark, who, at 35, is the D-Backs oldest regular (pinch-hitter Jeff Cirillo is three years older).

What you may not realize is, the Rockies aren't exactly riddled with experience either. They are carrying nine players who weren't alive when Reagan was elected, including seven rookies. Their starters for games two and three of the NLCS will have a combined age less than that of Roger Clemens, and a total of 7 career wins in 24 career starts. Their Ace, Jeff Francis, a baby-faced 26-year-old who undoubtedly still gets carded for beer everywhere outside of Denver, has more innings pitched this season than the rest of the rotation combined (assuming Mark Redman gets the Game 4 nod over Josh Fogg). Only Redman, Latroy Hawkins, and Todd Helton have more than five seasons of major-league experience.

As Dane Cook so astutely predicted in that TBS commercial that has been running through every televised game for the last eight weeks, "The future is now!" Let me introduce you to a few of the Baby Backs and Rookie Rocks.

Stephen Drew - SS

In about a third of a season in 2006, the younger brother of J.D. Drew batted .316 with 25 extra base hits, while playing above average defense at a critical up-the-middle position. That, along with about 148 games worth of minor-league stats that added up to a .299 average with 27 HR and 103 RBI, made the 24-year-old Drew a fantasy favorite prior to the season. In 2007, his defense lived up to expectations, but little else. He hit only .238, slugged a measly .370, and struck out 100 times. While the strikeouts are unlikely to go away, Drew is a much better hitter than these number indicate, and he showed as much in the Division series. Drew batted .500 with a double, a triple, two home runs, four runs scored, and four RBI in three games against the Cubs, while making several slick defensive plays at short. Like his older brother, Drew seems to have more psychological weaknesses, than physical ones. He has the skills to hit even the most dominating pitchers (i.e. Carlos Marmol in Game 1). With renewed confidence to go along with his outstanding talent, Drew is a likely candidate to make some big splashes against Colorado.

Troy Tulowitzki - SS

You've probably already heard a good deal about Tulowitzki, who will celebrate his 23rd birthday the day before the NLCS. He's becoming the fashionable choice for NL Rookie of the Year. He's surpassed Milwaukee's Ryan Braun mainly because of the playoff platform which always gives award contenders a boost. He is, however, by no means an illegitimate candidate. You probably haven't heard all the reasons why. Yes, he batted .291 with an 838 OPS, 104 Runs, 24 HR, and 99 RBI, but Braun nearly equaled or surpassed all of those numbers in 200 fewer plate appearances, so counting offensive stats hardly seems to be to Tulowitzki's advantage. Where the Troy the Tool Box really excelled was in the field. He has the best fielding percentage among shortstops in all of baseball. Better than Omar Vizquel, better than Orlando Cabrera, better than Jimmy Rollins, better even than Derek Jeter (who, by the way, finished 16th among 24 qualifying candidates). He also has the best Range Factor, this by a long shot. Range factor figures the number of assists plus the number of putouts, divided by the number of innings played.

Ubaldo Jimenez - SP

It's one of the overlooked postseason storylines: Ubaldo Jimenez, age 23, who in his last outing gave up only three hits over 6+ innings against the powerful Phillies in their home ballpark. Jimenez has the nasty stuff - a power fastball and a sharp overhand curveball - which can help a young, largely unknown pitcher rise to the occasion in October (i.e. Josh Beckett in 2003 or Justin Verlander last year). Jimenez has even less experience than those examples, having only reached the bigs as of July 19. His overall numbers (4-4, 4.28) are modest enough, but he's hitting his stride at just the right time. On the last scheduled day of the regular season, in a game the Rockies had to win in order to force a one-game playoff with the Padres, Jimenez through 6 1/3 innings, allowing only one hit and striking out ten. The opponent? The Arizona Diamondbacks.

Chris Young - CF

I sang his praises prior to the Division Series and he blasted a pair of key homers. Young is probably not ever going to be a prototypical lead-off hitter, however, he showed some ability to adapt during the second half. In exactly the same number of plate appearance he drew nearly twice as many walks (raising his OBP from .277 to .314), hit for a slightly better average (.242, as compared to .233), stole twice as many bases (18), and, most importantly, didn't compromise his strength, which is, quite literally, strength. He hit 13 HR prior to the All-Star break, and 19 after (raising his SLG% from .427 to .509). Young has awesome power. At 24, he has the chance to unfurl a Prince Fielder-esque blitzkrieg during his sophomore season in 2008, especially if he continues to show improved plate discipline. If Augie Ojeda continues to get on base from the bottom of the order and Drew stays hot in the two-hole, Colorado's pitchers will have to pitch more aggressively to Young (many teams have exploited him outside the strike zone) and his assault could start earlier. We could see some very impressive Coors Field moonshots.

Micah Owings - SP

The D-Backs hoped beyond hope for the return of the Big Unit of old, back in the desert for 2007. And, for a few weeks at least, it looked like their risk was going to pay off. In ten starts, Randy Johnson went 4-3 with a respectable 3.81 ERA, including a stretch of four consecutive wins across five starts during which he averaged six innings, four hits, one earned run, and nine strikeouts per outing. Alas, his back had failed him by the beginning of July and he could not manage a second-half comeback. Many doubted that a surprising Arizona ballclub could rebound from losing their #2 starter. However, the D-Backs turned to another man of imposing stature. Micah Owings is a 6'5", 225 lb. 25-year-old who, like teammate Livan Hernandez, believes that National League pitchers are allowed to bat for a reason, and it isn't so that their opponent has an easy out. Besides racking up a 3.02 ERA and a .195 OAVG in the season's final two months, Owings hit a staggering .483 with seven doubles, three homers, and eleven RBIs in 27 at-bats. The rookie finished the season with a respectable 8-8 record and a 4.30 ERA in over 150 innings. Nothing jaw-dropping, but also no small feat. As Arizona's Game 4 starter, he draws a favorable match-up against either Mark Redman or Josh Fogg, and he gets to swing his big stick in the thin mountain air. In a game which could turn into a high-scoring affair, look for Owings to give his team a solid outing. He finished the season on a 15 inning scoreless streak.

Manny Corpas - CL

From June 22nd to July 1, Colorado's closer-in-residence, Brian Fuentes, who had saved 81 games since the beginning of 2005, gave up ten earned runs in 3 1/3 innings, took four losses (imagine how much easier Colorado's road to the playoffs might have been!), and was promptly placed on the disabled list. 24-year-old rookie Manny Corpas, who had been excelling in a set-up role, took Fuentes' place, permanently (Fuentes has pitched well as a set-up man since returning). Since then, including the Division Series, Corpas has converted 22 saves in 23 chances, won two games in relief, and compiled a 1.28 ERA with a .191 Opponent's Average in 41 games. The Rockies are 36-5 (.878) in games he's made an appearance since becoming the closer. Compare that to, say, Trevor Hoffman (50-11, .820), Mariano Rivera (54-13, .806), and Jonathan Papelbon (50-9, .847) and you begin to see just how special Manny Corpas has been.

Jose Valverde - CL

As good as Corpas has been, Valverde's been better. The Diamondbacks have been trying to install the 6'4", 250 lb. Valverde as their closer since he was 23, in 2003. In '06 he got off to an outstanding start, at one point converting twelve saves in succession, before the wheels fell off. During one fourteen game stretch in May and June he had a 15.07 ERA and a .408 OAVG. He was demoted, as one might expect. He returned in the middle of August as a different pitcher. Since August 15, 2006, Jose Valverde has converted 52 saves (in 60 chances), stuck out 108 batters (in 86 innings), posted a 2.40 ERA, a .191 OAVG, and a 1.05 WHIP. His 47 saves during the 2007 regular season led the major leagues. The team which he converted the most saves against? Colorado. 7 times.

Saturday, October 06, 2007

The Right Way to Lose

Yes, like every Cubs fan, I'm in mourning. It isn't often that we come so close. But, in all honesty, we weren't really that close. The Cubs entered the postseason with a record five games worse than any other playoff contender. And they didn't exactly surge into October. They were an unspectacular 17-12 in the final month (even though they faced only one team with a winning record) and 2-4 in the final week (including three straight losses against the worst team in the NL East).

Against their first round competitor, the Diamondbacks, who sported the league's best record, the Cubs had gone 2-4 during the regular season and 8-19 since 2004. The D-Backs top three - Webb, Davis, and Livan - had combined to go 21-12 against the lovable losers in their careers. While the Cubs top three - Zambrano, Lilly, and Hill - had gone 2-5. Not exactly the best possible draw. There was very little besides sentimentality to give a Cubs fan hope. But, then again, we're rarely armed with anything more than that.

The beauty of this year's Cubs failure is that they were never within an out, an inning, or a game of advancing. They had only one lead. And it lasted less than an inning. No D-Backs outfielder kept a critical home run out of the stands. There were no black cats, no botched grounders, no unearned runs, and, thank goodness, no fan interference. The Cubs lost this the old-fashioned way. They stranded 54 runners in three games. Their three best hitters - Soriano, Ramirez, and Lee - combined to hit .158 with one run and no RBIs, striking out in an astounding 33% of their plate appearances. Their best reliever, Carlos Marmol - he of the 1.43 regular season ERA - gave up two homers in three innings pitched. Marmol had allowed three dingers in 69 innings during the regular season. Their Game 2 starter, Ted Lilly, had by far his worst (and shortest) outing of the year, walking four and giving up six earned runs in 3 1/3 innings.

All in all, the Cubs recipe of mediocre pitching and bad situational hitting makes for a pretty predictable early exit. No curse required.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Who's gonna stop the Rockies!?!

We hear a lot about the possible advantages wildcard teams have because they enter the postseason on a roll. 60% of the World Series participants the last five season entered the postseason as wildcards. Well, has any team ever entered the playoffs as hot as the Colorado Rockies? After taking two straight from the Phillies (in Philadelphia!?!), the Rockies have won 16 of their last 17 games. It's an amazing accomplishment in and of itself. It's made significantly more amazing by the fact that all but one of those games (the first one, against the Marlins) was played against a team with a winning record, including four against the Padres, the team fighting them for a wildcard berth, and three against the team with the best record in the NL, the Diamondbacks. The Rockies faced only two losing teams after August 29, the Marlins and the Giants, yet nonetheless went 24-8. The Phillies have shown no signs of stymieing their momentum, despite throwing Cole Hamels at them in Game 1 and getting good nights from Jimmy Rollins and Ryan Howard in Game 2. Assuming the Rockies win one of their next three and advance to the NLCS, who has the best chance of slowing them down?

The Diamondbacks lost four out of their six series with the Rockies this season, including all of them after May 17. That triumvirate at the center of Colorado's lineup - Holliday, Helton, and Hawpe (The Killer H's?) - all hit better than .350 against Arizona. Even the indomitable Brandon Webb went 1-3 with a 5.77 ERA against Colorado, by far his worst performance against any club. The Diamondbacks best match-up is Livan Hernandez, who managed a 1-0 record with a 1.54 ERA in five starts against the Rockies in 2007.

The Cubs faired significantly better, sweeping the Rockies during a three-game series at the end of June and gaining a split in a four-game series in mid-August. The Cubs' Aces, Zambrano and Lilly, went 3-0 with a 4.00 ERA against Colorado. However, the Rockies only two wins were the last two games between the teams, two games during which the Rockies outscored the Cubs 21-5.

It would seem, at this moment, with the Cubs dangerously close to falling behind the Diamondbacks 0-2, the Rockies - who weren't on anybody's rader a month ago - have to be the odds-on favorite to win the NL Pennant. How will Colorado fair against their "stronger" American League opponent? Well, the Rockies had the second-best record in the NL during interleague play (10-8), including a three-game sweep of the Yankees and a series win against Boston, if that's any indication.