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Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Career Years

Some of them are famous: Zollo Versalles (1965), Terry Pendleton (1991), Steve Stone (1980). Others, infamous: Brady Anderson (1996), Luis Gonzalez (2001), Adrian Beltre (2004). But, while they rarely result in MVPs and Cy Youngs - like the former trio - there are instances every year, a solidly mediocre major league veteran turns in a performance well above his career averages, in most cases, never again to be duplicated. They're almost impossible to predict, especially prior to the start of a season. And, even a few weeks in, there's no reason to believe that the fast starters won't revert back to their normal selves by midseason. Nonetheless, here's a few candidates to be this year's version of Mark DeRosa (2006) or Aaron Small (2005).

Jason Marquis - SP - Chicago Cubs

This winter I got a call from an old friend in St. Louis, a diehard Cards fan, who just wanted to let me know that he had been a little worried about all the Cubs' offseason acquisitions, until they signed Jason Marquis. He said, "You know, the guy that didn't even make the Cardinals postseason roster." Six weeks into the season, I haven't heard from him. The Cardinals pitching staff is depending on continued brilliance from Braden Looper, while Marquis is 5-1 with the third best ERA (1.70) in all of baseball. While it is too early to call Marquis a Cy Young candidate, it is worth noting that his league worst ERA in 2006 was largely due to a few truly putrid starts in which he gave up 10 or more runs. He did manage to win 14 games nonetheless, and he won in the teens for St. Louis three years in a row. There is an important rub to take into consideration: in his seven year career, Marquis is 38-22 in April, May, and June, but 23-31 in July, August, and September.

Kyle Lohse - SP - Cincinnati Reds

His record is 1-3, but it's got nothing to do with him. His 3.21 ERA is more 1 1/2 runs below his career mark. His 32-9 K/BB ratio is among the best in baseball, and he's only given up 4 HR, despite making most of his starts so far at some of the league's best launching pads (Cincinnati, Houston, & Chicago). Lohse has been a durable back-of-the-rotation starter throughout his carreer (mostly in Minnesota), making 30 starts in four consecutive seasons before last year (he was only prevented from it in 2006 by a prolonged demotion to the bullpen before being traded to the Reds), but he has never flashed the wicked bite on his breaking pitch and the movement on his fastball that has him looking like an elite pitcher in his first seven starts. The Reds will start scoring some runs for him eventually, so if he keeps throwing like he has been, he'll still have an outside chance at fifteen wins. There is reason to believe he might keep this up, considering Lohse generally gets better as the season progresses.

Tim Wakefield - SP - Boston Red Sox

Just a few things to throw out there. When Charlie Hough was 40, he won 15 games, pitched 252 innings, and had a 3.32 ERA. When Tom Candiotti was 40, he won 11 games, pitched 201 innings, and had a 4.84 ERA. When Phil Niekro was 40, he won 21 games, pitched 352 innings, and had a 3.39 ERA. When Joe Niekro was 40, he won 11 games, pitched 225 innings, and had a 3.83 ERA. In all honesty, who can predict what a knuckleball is going to do?

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Little Mysteries

Every manager makes mistakes. But Grady Little is the only manager I know of who's been fired for one bad move. Little's decision to leave Pedro in just a bit too long in the 2003 ALCS has gone down in history as the epitome of boneheaded mishandling of a pitching staff. But, at the time, I remember thinking that it would've been very difficult for me to take tht ball from one of the games greatest pitchers and hand it to "Wandering" Mike Timlin or B. Y. "Word Series Meltdown" Kim. Boston's firing of Little for that one mistake seemed even more unjust to me when he became manager of the Dodgers last season and I had the opportunity to become very familiar with Little's managing style. Little handles matchups very effectively. He's not afraid to bench veterans when the situation dictates. He gets great performances from mediocre players like Marlon Anderson, Ramon Martinez, and Wilson Valdez by finding situations for them to suceed, much like Tony LaRussa. He seems to get more than the average number of clutch performances, both at the plate and on the mound. Like last night, when he pinch-hit Olmedo Saenz for Luiz Gonzalez and Saenz knocked a game-winning single with 2 outs in the bottom of the 9th. But Little has one strange, and very glaring weakness, which also showed itself in last night's game. When he makes a mistake, it's a doozy, one that has an effect (like the Pedro fiasco) that goes well beyond a single game. In the 6th inning, with the Dodgers up 1-0, Little pinch-hit Nomar Garciaparra for starting pitcher Brad Penny, with 1 out and men on 1st and 2nd. Penny had thrown only 95 pitches, allowing only three hits and, obviously, zero runs. He certainly had enough for at least one more inning. The choice would seem like something of a toss up were in not for a few other considerations. The Dodgers were only two games removed from a 17-inning extravaganza with the Padres which had obviously reaked havoc on the bullpen, such that both Derek Lowe and Brett Tomko had been on call for the D-Backs series. Getting a long, strong outing from on of their top starters was of paramount importance, and every indication was that Penny was ready to give it to them. Additionally, the pinch-hitter, seemingly an obvious choice since Garciaparra is one of the Dodgers best, was sitting out for a reason. He was 0-for-his career against D-Backs' starter, Livan Hernandez. Little had wisely chosen this game to rest his (supposedly brittle) star first baseman. Garciaparra (only 19 career pinch-hitting appearances) was clearly uncomfortable in his AB, but Hernandez, struggling with his control, managed to walk him anyway. Nonetheless, the Dodgers couldn't squeak a run out of the bases loaded opportunity, as Furcal and Pierre both popped up. Sure enough, the D-Backs tied it up the next inning and it looked as though the Dodgers could be headed into another extra-innings marathon with an already depleted bullpen. Thankfully, pinch-hitter extraordinaire, Olmedo Seanz, saved his manager from a mistake which could've put the Dodgers at a disadvantage for weeks to come. Still, one has to wonder, in a situation like this, what is Little thinking?

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Soulful Seasons (Week 4)

Jimmy Rollins - SS - Philadelphia Phillies

Rollins hit a couple more bombs this week and continued to be among the few bright spots on the Phillies. He talked the talk in the offseason, now he's walking the walk. Unfortunately, he can't do it alone. Rollins still leads the NL in home runs, making John Kruk's suggestion that Philadelphia move him into the cleanup spot seem progressively more deft. It certainly makes as much sense to me as putting Brett Myers in the bullpen.

B. J. Upton - 2B - Tampa Bay Devil Rays

He made the team largely because of Jorge Cantu's bad attitude and stayed around largely because of Akinori Iwamuru's injury, but B. J. Upton is quietly on pace for a 30/30 season. He's hit 3 HR and driven in 9 in the past week, and is now batting .365 on the year, good for third in the AL behind Vladimir Guerrero and Joe Mauer. He's 4th in OPS and tied for 8th in extra-base hits. He's only drawn six walks so far, while striking out 27 times, which suggests that teams will soon start making him chase, but Upton did show the ability to be selective in the minors, so he will probably adjust quicker than most rookies. Along with his teammate, Elijah Dukes, Upton looks to challenge Dice-K for Rookie of the Year honors.

Fausto Carmona - SP - Cleveland Indians

He's headed back to Triple-A with Cliff Lee returning to the Indians rotation. But the 23-year-old Carmona, who was brutalized during a brief run as Cleveland's closer last season, looked very comfortable as a major league starter. He averaged 7 1/3 innings in his last three starts, never allowing more than two earned runs, and netting a pair of Ws. Even with his rough first outing, he finished his cup of coffee with a 3.76 ERA. I've applauded Cleveland's depth in the past and Carmona is further proof that the Indians will be able to stay afloat in the extremely competitive A. L. Central even if they suffer a few key injuries. I imagine Carmona could will be back in the rotation before the end of the season, perhaps as a permanent replacement for Paul Byrd.

Dan Haren - SP - Oakland Athletics

The talk about Oakland's rotation always centers around Rich Harden - who, granted, is an Ace when he actually takes the mound - but Oakland's pitching succes this year, like last year, depends upon the durability and reliability of Dan Haren. He's won three straight starts since Harden hit the DL again, going 7+ innings every time, and has a nasty 1.60 ERA for the season. If Oakland hangs around in the AL West it will be largely because of their real Ace, Dan Haren.

The Most Soulful Shot of the Season?

Gary Sheffield has been off to a slow start, like many of his Tigers teammates, but they've somehow managed to remain well above .500 and within a couple games of the division-leading Indians. If you want to see the picture-perfect way to break out of a slump and pick up your team, head over to ESPN or, or whatever your favorite baseball video archive, and check out Sheffield's game-winning blast on Monday night. Sheffield was pegged by Daniel Cabrera for the second time in as many games earlier in the evening, clearly as a response to Bonderman throwing at Miguel Tejada. The benches cleared, but there were no fisticuffs and no ejections. Sheffield quietly headed down to first after his beaning. Then, in the fifth, with a man on, and the game tied at three, Sheffield murdered a Cabrera fastball. Sheffield's swing is always violent and his batspeed is infamous, but he put a little something extra into this one, as though he wanted something to admire as he walked leisurely towards first base. After the game he quoted Dave Parker, "When you hit one like that, you deserve a look."