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Friday, October 29, 2010

If You Aren't Worried About the Giants Ability to Score Runs, You Aren't Really a Giants Fan

The Giants 20-run eruption in the first two games of the World Series has spawned a flurry of righteous San Franciscans to bombard the mainstream media comment boards and call-in shows with juvenile "I told you so" hysterics, claiming that the popular prediction by baseball pundits, that the Giants would struggle to score runs, is somehow evidence of ineptitude and "East Coast bias."  There are plenty of reasons to make such claims; however, this is not one of them.

I will point out that I was not among the multitude who published such a prediction, but only because I believe that it's so utterly obvious that it fails to qualify as meaningful analysis.  So-called Giants fans are objecting to tautological platitudes.  Really!?!  Is that worthy of your outrage?  The Giants offensive woes have been well-documented and continuous.  They haven't scored 700 runs in a season since 2006.  (The Rangers, as an alternative example, haven't failed to score 700 runs since 1995.)  This 20-run explosion is an outlier of extraordinary proportions.  Here's a few reasons why:

1.) It took the Giants seven previous postseason games to accumulated as many as twenty runs of offense.

2.) In a 162-game season, they scored twenty runs in a two-game stretch exactly three times.  In those games, the starting pitchers they were facing were guys like Chris Narveson, Manny Parra, and Homer Bailey.

3.) In 170 career starts for San Francisco, Matt Cain's Giants teammates have scored nine or more runs for him on only nine occasions (providing a partial explanation for how a guy with a 3.45 career ERA and a 1.22 WHIP is saddled with a losing record).

4.) The Giants scored 41 fewer runs than any other postseason team in 2010.

If you aren't worried about the Giants ability to score runs, either you haven't been paying attention or you're living in a state of oblivion.  The real Giants fans are, even with their two-game lead, living in anticipation of the spigot being shut off, perhaps permanently.  I heard several anxious utterances during both games to this effect: "Stop scoring, we're going to need some of these runs tomorrow."  This is, of course, a somewhat hilarious baseball superstition, but it indicates exactly how run-starved this team has been.  Unlike Texans, who have come to expect frequent firework displays, Giants fans can't even enjoy a blowout.  It's too unfamiliar.  It feels like a portent of doom.  

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

The Bengie Molina Factor (World Series Preview)

Mark Simon said on the ESPN Baseball Today podcast yesterday that Bengie Molina will join Lonnie Smith as the only players in baseball history to play in a World Series which featured two teams which both voted them postseason shares.  That means, of course, that Molina's going to get a ring either way, though, no doubt, it will be something of a mixed blessing if it has the Giants logo stamped on it.  Mr. Smith (a.k.a. Skates) ended up on the side of the World Champions and no doubt enjoyed putting it to his former team.  (He hit .333 in the '85 Series, with three doubles, four runs, four RBI, and two steals.  The rookie who inspired the Cardinals to trade him, Vince Coleman, sat out the series with an injury and his replacements, guys like Cesar Cedeno and Andy Van Slyke, struggled mightily (combined 3-for-26).)  So, if the Rangers lose, Molina would be the first to receive a ring for a World Series in which he played for the opposing side.

Even if he goes nuts and wins the World Series MVP, there's probably no way Molina can make the Giants regret trading him.  After all, they don't get this far without finding a way to get Buster Posey in the lineup everyday.  Posey solidified the middle of their lineup throughout the second half and his four hits and two RBI sparked a crucial Game Four win in the NLCS.

That said, nobody knows better than the Giants (and their fans) how streaky Molina can be and how dangerous he is when running hot.  He carried a heavy load this past April, hitting .344 with a .403 OBP at a time when the rest of the offense (even Aubrey Huff) was sputtering and guys like Posey, Pat Burrell, and Cody Ross weren't even on the roster.  But also lingering in the minds of the Giants faithful, including GM Brian Sabean, is certainly the clutch performance Molina put forward the last time they were in the World Series, in 2002.  Problem is, at that time he was also on the opposing team, the Angels.  Molina's overall stats for the '02 Series are solid (.286 AVG, .375 OBP, etc.), but what Giants fans will remember are the two doubles he hit in Game Seven, the first of which tied the game.

Molina has, thusfar this postseason, been running hot.  He hit .333 with 2 HR, 7 RBI, and a 922 OPS during the Rangers first two series, highlighted by his huge three-run homer in Game Four of the ALCS.

Of course, Molina's offense is not the only thing he brings to the table.  There is only one player on the Rangers roster who has a significant history with Tim Lincecum, Jonathan Sanchez, and Matt Cain.  And that player, Bengie Molina, has seen more pitches from the trio of Giants hurlers than anybody in the game, having been their primary catcher every since they reached the big leagues.  If there is a functional scouting report for San Francisco's Aces, Molina knows it.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Under Constructions Indefinitely (World Series Preview)

How much can a general manager really do during the season?  Sure, the trade deadline provides an exciting midseason sideshow which sometimes leads to stars changing uniforms, but only on rare occasions (say, C. C. Sabathia in 2008) do those moves really create contenders.  Remember when the Braves acquired Mark Teixeira from the Rangers for a package that included two key players on their World Series roster (Elvis Andrus & Neftali Feliz), as well as two more players who made minor contributions during the 2010 season (Matt Harrison & Jarrod Saltalamacchia).  (You think the Braves might've been a better team this year with Andrus at short and Feliz in the bullpen?)  Teixeira played great down the stretch, but it wasn't enough to push a flawed Atlanta team past the Phillies and the Mets.

Although a GM can certainly contribute by building organizational depth and knowing who to promote and when to promote them, most of their job is done during the offseason.  Look at the Yankees and Phillies for instance.  When the Yankees took the field in the ALCS, they had exactly the lineup New York fans enjoyed on Opening Day, with the exception of Lance Berkman/Marcus Thames being substituted for the injured Nick Swisher.  Ditto for the Phillies.  On their pitching staffs you had a couple notable additions, Roy Oswalt and Kerry Wood, but otherwise they looked much as they had six months ago.  You could make the same observations about the Rays, Reds, Twins, and Braves.

One of the most interesting things about our two World Series contestants is their exceptional roster turnover.  When the managers set their 25-man rosters on Wednesday, both sides will likely feature at least a dozen guys who didn't break camp with the team in April.

For Texas, the top two thirds of the lineup, though they've struggled through injuries to Josh Hamilton, Nelson Cruz, and Ian Kinsler, have been crucial to their success.  Thats the core you think about when you think about the Rangers.  The bottom third, however, composed generally of catchers, first basemen, and right-fielders, has been a constant source of stress for Ron Washington.  The Rangers began the season with a bunch of promising young players, many of the former first-round draft picks fighting for these positions - guys like Justin Smoak, Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Julio Borbon, Max Ramirez, and Chris Davis.  They ended up giving an unfortunate number of at-bats to also-rans like Matt Treanor, Jorge Cantu, Jeff Francoeur, and Ryan Garko, because several of the kids had trouble finding the Mendoza line.

However, Texas's most drastic renovations came in the rotation.  The Rangers year began with starts by Scott Feldman and Rich Harden, a few days later they turned to Matt Harrison.  If those names aren't familiar to you, that's because none of them made the playoff roster.  Ten pitchers got the chance to start games for Texas in 2010 and only Colby Lewis and C. J. Wilson were constants.  That's not generally a recipe for postseason success, but the Rangers eventually found a rhythm, mainly through the acquisition of Cliff Lee and the promotions of Tommy Hunter and Derek Holland.

The bullpen was a similar work in progress, as Frank Francisco was expected to return as the closer and Chris Ray was going to be one of his key set-up men.  Francisco went on the D.L. after a week and when he returned, Neftali Feliz had taken his spot.  Ray eventually got shipped to San Francisco following the discovery of Alexi Ogando.  All told, though the Texas bullpen was one of the best in the American League, they used fourteen different pitchers for at least ten innings.

The Giants tell basically the opposite story.  Four pitchers made 33 starts, a picture of rotational consistency which is the envy of nearly the entire league.  Only one change was made all year, when 20-year-old rookie Madison Bumgarner replaced Todd Wellemeyer at the end of June.  The bullpen, conceived around closer Brian Wilson and set-up men Sergio Romo and Jeremy Affeldt did have some turnover, as all bullpens do, but the central pieces were always in place and five pitchers threw at least 50 innings.

The lineup, however, was something of a marvel of musical chairs.  Assuming that Bruce Bochy starts the World Series with the defensive alignment he's used through most of the playoffs, it will feature exactly one player, Aubrey Huff, who was in the lineup on Opening Day.  (Freddy Sanchez would've been in there had it not been for a lingering injury.)  Four of the Giants eight starting position players weren't even with the team until June or later.  Here's a comparison of Opening Day and the likely Game One lineup:

Aaron Rowand, CF Andres Torres, CF
Edgar Renteria, SS Freddy Sanchez, 2B
Pablo Sandoval, 3B Aubrey Huff, 1B
Aubrey Huff, 1B Buster Posey, C
Mark DeRosa, 2B Pat Burrell, LF
Bengie Molina, C Cody Ross, RF
John Bowker, RF Juan Uribe, SS
Nate Schierholtz, LF Mike Fontenot, 3B
Tim Lincecum, P Tim Lincecum, P

Bet you didn't recall that the Giants "big" offseason signing was Mark DeRosa.  Ten players got double-digit starts in the Giants outfield in 2010.  The infield provided significant amounts of work for Matt Downs, Ryan Rohlinger, and Emmanuel Buriss.  Remember them?

Honestly, I haven't yet found one team, let alone two, that did these kind of renovations over the course of their season, yet found their way to the World Series nonetheless.  It helps, of course, that each has a abundant strength - the top of the lineup for Texas, the rotation for San Francisco - but even so, we all know that dominating one aspect of the game isn't enough to make it to the mountaintop.  You've got to give a great deal of credit for these team's opportunities to the in-season creativity of Brian Sabean and Jon Daniels.

Monday, October 25, 2010

The Giants Have Suffered Since They Left New York, The Rangers Have Suffered... (World Series Preview)

All season long it seemed like we were on course for an inevitable collision.  

The reigning World Champion, the Yankees, did little to dispel the notion that they were the team to beat.  Very little had changed following their celebration last October.  They still had the nine-figure talents of A-Rod, Teixeira, and Sabathia.  They had their lucky charms: Jeter, Rivera, Pettitte, Posada.  The ever-excellent lineup was perhaps even the slightest bit improved by the acquisition of Curtis Granderson and the continued development of Robinson Cano and Brett Gardner.  

On the other side we had the two-time reigning NL Champs, the Philadelphia Phillies, who still boasted the league's most intimidating lineup, but had also added the league's best pitcher, Roy Halladay.  His greatest appeal for Philadelphia GM, Ruben Amaro, may have been his incredible record against the team that had ousted the Phillies the previous fall.

The Yankees got out of the gates quickly.  They had the best record during the first half, and finished the season just one win short of the AL's top seed.  The Phillies struggled with injuries early, but by going 50-25 after the All-Star Break, they managed to finish with the best record in baseball.  To many, a rematch seemed destined.  Would Doc Halladay be the key to trouncing the Bombers?  Would Sabathia again dominate the lefty-heavy Phillies lineup?  How many big homers would be yielded by the shaky middle relief corps on either side?  

Alas, we got ahead of ourselves...

And it appeared the megaliths did as well.  The Yankees got owned by Colby Lewis, Cliff Lee, and Derek Holland, while the Rangers put up crooked numbers night after night after night.  Texas had a dozen multirun innings against Yankees beleaguered staff.  They hit nine homers and outscored the Bombers by nineteen runs over six games.  Although nobody seem comfortably saying it, this was a flat-out shelling.  In at least half the games, including two in their home ballpark, New York barely showed up.  

In the NL, the vaunted Philadelphia lineup had no answer for Tim Lincecum in Game One, for Matt Cain in Game Three, or for Javier Lopez and Brian Wilson throughout, while the self-described conglomeration of "misfits and castoffs" manufactured runs when they needed them most, led by unlikely hero, Cody Ross, who probably wouldn't have been in the starting lineup had it not been for a neck injury which sidelined Jose Guillen.  But San Francisco hardly dominated.  They were actually outscored by Philadelphia over the course of the NLCS (by one run) and never led any game by more than three.  It was tortuous, to borrow the sentiment of Giants announcer Duane Kuiper which has become the rallying cry of Bay Are fans, but it was enough.

And so, for the first time since 2005, when the White Sox broke the Black Sox curse against the Astros, who were representing the NL for the first time, we have a matchup of two teams who have both been waiting a very long time for some relief.  To me, that's a recipe for excitement.  Sure, in 2005, the White Sox managed an impressive sweep, but every game was decided by two runs or less, and one of them lasted 14 innings.  In 2002, when the Giants faced off with the Angels, who were, like the Rangers, coming off their first AL Pennant, we certainly got our money's worth.  There were for one-run games, including a wild 11-10 slugfest in Game Two.  It was the last time we had a World Series that went to seven games.  

So, the Giants have been here as recently as 2002 (which, of course, really isn't that recent), but they lost, in heartbreaking fashion (famously up 5-0 with eight outs to go).  In 1989 they got swept in the infamous "Quake" series against the Bash Brothers.  In 1962, they lost in seven to the Yankees.  The Giants have never brought the Championship Trophy home to San Francisco, and the franchise hasn't won it period for more than half a century.  Willie Mays was 23-years-old the last time they won in '54.  Willie McCovey never got a ring.  Juan Marichal never got a ring.  Ditto for Will Clark.  And, most famously, Barry Bonds.

The Rangers, an '60s expansion team, had never won a postseason series before this month.  Before this weekend, they were one of only three franchises who had never won a pennant (sorry Mariners and Nationals).  They joined the league as the Washington Senators in 1961, making them easily the oldest team to be making their first trip.  Generally, teams look to mark such occasions by rolling out a roster of the best players in their history for photo-ops and opening ceremonies, but the Rangers history has been so thoroughly mediocre that's it's hard to imagine who, besides Nolan Ryan, would make the guest list.  The hitters who top all the franchise record boards are Ivan Rodriguz, Rafael Palmeiro, and Juan Gonzalez.  Pudge, of course, still plays for the Nationals, so it's hard to imagine him trotting out like an old-timer.  All three have been tainted by the steroid controversy and all left the franchise on relatively bad terms.  But who else do you turn to?  Toby Harrah?  Ruben Sierra?  Don't be surprised if we get to see Kenny Rogers first World Series appearance since the infamous "dirtball" incident in 2007.  Charlie Hough won 139 games for the Rangers, best in franchise history.  That'd barely be good enough for 10th on the Giants list.

San Francisco will, of course, role out a cavalcade of stars.  We'll likely see Hall of Famers like Mays, McCovey, and Marichal.  Perhaps Orlando Cepeda.  Gaylord Perry pitched for both squads.  That might be interesting.  Bonds threw out a first pitch during the NLCS.  Will he return for another engagement with the team that refused to offer him a contract the year after he broke the home-run record?  

Clearly, the Giants have the more impressive history, they've got the more diehard fan base, and, to be fair, they've waited longer.  There are plenty of octogenarians in the AT&T stand who may not be able to handle another heartbreak.  It's probably good news for Giants fans that there isn't a single player on the team who was even in the organization in 2002.  Matt Cain and Tim Lincecum were still in high school at the time.

What promises to be great about this matchup in general is that both these teams have proven themselves utterly immune to expectations, pressure, criticism, second-guessing, and outside forces of all variety.  That's partially why, when I gave my Narrative Likability grades prior to the playoffs, these two teams got the highest marks.  I don't expect a whole lot of momentum swings.  These teams don't work like that.  The Rangers suffered one of the most brutal losses in recent postseason history in Game One of the ALCS, as the Yankees game back from five runs down in the eighth inning.  The Rangers followed up on the gutwrenching loss with three straight wins by a combined score of 25 to 5.  In the NLCS, the Giants led for only 43% of the innings.  They easily could have been worn out waiting for the other shoe to drop, but they rallied from behind on three separate occasions to beat a team which literally everybody thought was better than them.

In the next 48 hours I hope to provide a few tidbits and a little provocative analysis regarding The Expendables and The Rangers of Redemption.  I don't know that I've ever been more excited for a World Series. 

Sunday, October 24, 2010

BBA Ballot: Stan Musial Award

I'm going to have plenty to say about what I consider the most exciting World Series matchup since at least 2005, but there's plenty of time between now and Game One.  So, to prevent myself from being distracted by the BBA Award deadline, which unfortunately falls during the Series, I'm going to go ahead and get in my ballot for the most valuable position player in each league:

American League:

10. Shin-Soo Choo (Indians)
9. Paul Konerko (White Sox)

Let's begin with a couple of players from the AL Central who will probably be largely overlooked.  Konerko had a career year at the age of 34, driving in 111 with 39 bombs, while batting .312 with a career high 977 OPS.  Without his tremendous performance, it's hard to imagine the Sox would've hung with the Twins for as long as they did.  Choo's team, of course, didn't hang with anybody, unless you count the Royals, who barely beat the Indians out for worst team in the division.  Choo, however, hitting in a lineup absent of other threats, continued his ascension towards the top of the AL with his second consecutive 20/20 season.  He hit .300 with a .401 OBP and drove in 90 runs, while playing a very commendable right field.

8. Joe Mauer (Twins)

It may have seemed a disappointing season when compared with his MVP campaign in 2009, but Mauer is still a premium defensive catcher who finished third in the league in hitting (.327) and OBP (.402).  With no Morneau in the second-half, he was the driving force in a lineup that was among the best in baseball, while also guiding a rotation which dramatically outperformed expectations.  Will he be worth $20 Million in 2018?  That remains to be seen, but he certainly was this season.

7. Evan Longoria (Rays)
6. Carl Crawford (Rays)

It was difficult to separate the Rays studs, who actually finished in a tie for third in the AL in WAR (6.9, also tied with Jose Bautista).  Longoria was the RBI man (102) with power (32 HR), while Crawford was the speedy table-setter (110 R, 47 SB), who also posted plenty of extra-base hits (62).  Both played exceptional defense at their positions, hit for high averages, and played basically every game.  Crawford, of course, benefitted from having Longoria batting behind him, while Longoria benefitted from frequently having Crawford on base in front of him, driving pitchers crazy.  This could easily be flip-flopped, but I gave Crawford the slight edge.

5. Adrian Beltre (Red Sox)

The Red Sox played much of their season without Kevin Youkilis, Dustin Pedroia, Victor Martinez, Jacoby Ellsbury, and Mike Cameron.  When you lose more than half your Opening Day starting lineup, you're not supposed to win 89 games, particularly in the AL Easy.  The main reason the BoSox stayed in the hunt until the final weeks of the season was Adrian Beltre, who was nothing short of spectacular both offensively and defensively.  He led the AL in doubles, was fourth in the league in hitting, and fifth in OPS.  His 11.8 UZR was easily the best among third-basemen.

4. Robinson Cano (Yankees)

The Yankees postseason lineup featured five players making more money than Cano, but there's no denying who New York's MVP was in 2010, both during the regular season and in October.  Cano, who the Yankees have signed through 2013, has turned into a real bargain.  Not only did he set career highs in HR (29), RBI (109), and OPS (914), while again hitting well above .300, but he also made dramatic strides with his fielding for the second straight season.

3. Jose Bautista (Blue Jays)

Bautista's season was nothing short of remarkable.  The 30-year-old breakout sensation was the first player to break the 50 HR plateau since 2007, and had 15 more bombs than any other player in the American League.  Bautista also showed excellent plate discipline (100 BB/116 K) and versatility, by playing 3B as well as both corner outfield spots.  Many will question his ability to duplicate this type of performance, but all the underlying metrics, including his spectacularly low .233 BABIP, suggest this was not a fluke.

2. Miguel Cabrera (Tigers)

Miggy led the league in OBP (.420), OPS+ (179), and RBI (126), among other things, while hitting at the center of a beleaguered lineup, which is why he also led the league in intentional walks (32).  Clearly, his offseason pledge to stay off the sauce paid major dividends for the Tigers and his massive contract has thusfar been warranted.  In fact, one gets the sense that, at 27, Miggy's best years are still in front of him, which is frightening, considering he's gotten MVP votes every year since he entered the league.  If it weren't for Pujols, we'd probably be talking about this eight-year stretch as among the best ever to begin a career.

1. Josh Hamilton (Rangers)

Every day is a challenge for Hamilton...outside the lines.  But he proved again this year that when he's healthy - physically and mentally - the game of baseball is actually pretty easy for him.  His 8.0 WAR paced baseball, even though he missed most of the final month of the season.  He won his first batting titles, led the AL in OPS, and played excellent defense in both center and left.  Most importantly, the team he led made their first trip to the postseason in over a decade, won their first playoff series, and has now punched their first ticket to the World Series.  None of that happens without Hamilton.

National League:

10. Andres Torres (Giants)

Certainly, Torres is among the best "feel good" stories of the 2010 season.  However, most people don't realize that he actually finished 7th in the NL in WAR (6.0), ahead of preeminent names like Adrian Gonzalez, Hanley Ramirez, and Ryan Braun.  Certainly, Torres was good as the Giants leadoff hitter, bring power (67 extra-base hits) and speed (26 SB), but he was outstanding in the outfield, easily leading the league with a 21.2 UZR.  Flanked on both sides by below average fielders, Torres' defensive range, as much as anything, explains why the Giants season really took off after he was made an everyday player.

9. Matt Holliday (Cardinals)

Although it was a disappointing season overall for the Cardinals, Holliday definitely lived up to expectations in his first full season in St. Louis, hitting .312 with 28 HR and 103 RBI.  He provided exactly what the Cardinals were looking for in terms of protecting El Hombre.

8. Adrian Gonzalez (Padres)

As A-Gonz goes, so go the Padres.  He carried his team through much of the season and, at the All-Star Break, was probably neck-and-neck with Pujols and Votto in terms of MVP consideration.  However, he fell off slightly in the second half and slumped dramatically down the stretch (.200 AVG in final 17 games), and the surprising Padres ended up falling short of a playoff berth.  Still, 31 HR, 101 RBI, and a 904 OPS playing at PETCO Park and hitting in the middle of a terribly lineup is very, very impressive.  Someday Gonzo will leave San Diego and when he does, the numbers could be truly terrifying.

7. Jayson Werth (Phillies)

In the past, Werth has always been a great compliment to the cast of MVP candidates at the top of the Philadelphia lineup.  This year, however, J-Roll, Utley, and Howard all spent significant time on the DL, and Werth was the only constant.  He rose to the occasion and helped the Phillies put up the best record in baseball, despite their plague of injuries.

6. Aubrey Huff (Giants)

I made the Huff for MVP case a couple weeks ago.  I'm not going to rehash the details, but, clearly, Huff was the only constant at the heart of the lineup for the eventual pennant-winners and he also showed versatility and was surprisingly efficient in the field.  Not enough to warrant top five consideration, but a very commendable season for the journeyman.

5. Troy Tulowitzki (Rockies)

If Colorado had made the postseason the back of Tulo's historic September (15 HR, 40 RBI, 1120 OPS), he might've cracked the top three.  Tulo, of course, also brings outstanding defensive prowess at a key position, but the fact that he missed a quarter of the season holds him back slightly.

4. Ryan Zimmerman (Nationals)

Another guy who flashes some major leather, but also missed a substantial amount of time, unfortunately.  If you don't live in D. C., you may not have noticed how good Z-Pack was this year.  Even with his trip to the disabled list, he managed to finish third in the NL in WAR (7.2).

3. Joey Votto (Reds)
2. Carlos Gonzalez (Rockies)
1. Albert Pujols (Cardinals)

This is, of course, the much-publicized battle, as each of these guys seemed like Triple Crown threats at one point or another.  In the end, they all finished top five in the league in nearly all the major categories.  Pujols paced the senior circuit in homers (42) and RBI (118), while CarGo won the batting title (.336) and Votto the OPS crown (1024).  But in none of these categories did one have a tremendous advantage over the others.  You could say that CarGo's numbers are inflated by the Coor Field factor, but, of course, Great American Ballpark isn't exactly a pitchers park.  You could say that Votto's numbers are inflated because he was hitting at the center of the NL's most productive lineup, but the Rockies (#3) and Cardinals (#6) weren't that far behind.  Freakishly, all three of these guys also had double-digit steals, so it was difficult to make an argument for CarGo based on his clearly better speed.  You can make a strong argument for ranking these guys in any order, but here's my rationale.

1.) It ain't that easy being Albert.  Even with Holliday batting behind him, Pujols once again led the NL in intentional passes, for the third year in a row.  While Votto and CarGo are still earning the respect of the league, Pujols frequently gets the Bonds treatment, where opposing managers choose to force somebody else to beat them.  This helps his run totals (he led the league with 115) and OBP (.414), but makes those RBI seem even more exceptional.

2.) For power-hitters, Votto and CarGo don't have extremely high strikeout rates, but Pujols is just flat-out superhuman.  For the eighth consecutive season he walked more than he struck out (103/76).  Again, that's Bonds-esque.

3.) All three of these guys are good defenders, but Pujols is one of the best ever at his position.  And, CarGo gets a little bonus because of his ability to play center, a premium defensive position.  

Saturday, October 23, 2010

BBA Ballot: Walter Johnson Award

It was "The Year of the Pitcher" after all, so it should come as no surprise that this was easily the most difficult ballot to construct.  Not so much at the top, since each league featured a pitcher who was at least a notch or two above the rest of the competition, but the rest of the ballot was a real struggle.  In both leagues, there were at least a dozen players who I thought well worthy of consideration, but eventually, this is what I came up with.

American League:

Honorable Mention: Justin Verlander (Tigers), Francisco Liriano (Twins), Jon Lester (Red Sox), Trevor Cahill (Athletics), C. J. Wilson (Rangers), Gio Gonzalez (Athletics), Zach Greinke (Royals), Colby Lewis (Rangers)

5. Jered Weaver (Angels)

For the first time since his career began, the Angels were not a serious contender, so Weaver's breakout season, which we've been anticipating for at least two or three years, managed to fly under the radar.  He led the league in strikeouts (233), while also managing a career low walk rate.  He piled on the innings (224) and posted an ERA (3.01) and WHIP (1.07) which in many years would make him the cream of the crop.  Not so in "The Year of the Pitcher."

4. David Price (Rays)

By going 4-0 with a 1.64 ERA in six September starts, Price nearly pitched his way to the top of the ballot.  And, although he struggled against the mighty Rangers (and, really, who hasn't) in the ALDS, Price showed confidently in 2010 that all the hype surrounding the #1 pick in the '07 draft was completely justified.  The 25-year-old southpaw will probably be back on this ballot several times in the coming seasons, particularly if he manages another sparkling ERA (2.72) like this one.  What held Price back (slightly) this season was a clear limitation on his innings (he was almost 42 innings off the league lead) and moderate struggles with control (3.4 BB/9).  Nevertheless, he won 19 games for the league's best team (at least in terms of record).

3. C. C. Sabathia (Yankees)

Yes, he's a Yankee, so his teddy-bear personality doesn't play as well with the rest of the nation as it did when he was carrying underdogs like the Indians and the Brewers.  Yes, King Felix was clearly the better pitcher this season, and likely would have won more than 21 games if he'd had the luxury of pitching in front of the C.C.'s teammates.  However, there's been a lot of over-the-top player-hating on The Big Sleep, who, besides leading the league in wins, was #2 in innings (238), #6 in strikeouts (197), #7 in ERA (3.18), and #8 in WAR (5.1).  He absolutely owned Yankee Stadium (11-2, 3.00), which C. J. Wilson discovered this past week, isn't necessarily friendly to southpaws.  At 40-15 after two years, C. C. Sabathia is putting himself in the position to be the first pitcher to ever be undervalued with a $100+ Million contract.

2. Cliff Lee (Rangers/Mariners)

This vote actually has nothing to do with his historic postseason run.  Cliff Lee was, during the 2010 regular season, according to FanGraphs, the most valuable pitcher in all of baseball, posting a 7.0 WAR, which is 0.4 better than even Roy Halladay.  I'm not sure I would take Lee's season ahead of Halladay's, or for that matter King Felix's, but what WAR does make clear is that Lee's production goes well beyond his 12-9 record.  For starters, his ridiculous 10.28 K/BB ratio is the second best in the history of the sport for a pitcher who threw at least 150 innings (Bret Saberhagen, '94 is the trivia question answer, in case you were wondering).  Moreover, with seven complete games and 17 starts where he went at least eight innings, Lee averaged over 7 2/3 innings per start, better even than Halladay.  Basically, even though his win totals were underwhelming, Lee enters free agency with a very legitimate argument that he is "the best pitcher in baseball."

1. Felix Hernandez (Mariners)

You're probably sick of the explanations, as King Felix has been a posterchild for sabermetrics since the end of August.  Yes, if Felix wins a Cy Young, he would have easily the lowest win total and the worst winning percentage of any starting pitcher in the history of the award.  But, of course, his team boasted one of the worst offenses in the history of the game.  He led the AL in innings (250) by a significant margin, and also paced the league in ERA (2.27), QS% (0.88), Opponents Average (.212), and Opponents OPS (585), while finishing one strikeout behind Weaver.  It's very hard to imagine what more King Felix could've done.

National League:

Honorable Mention: Roy Oswalt (Phillies/Astros), Josh Johnson (Marlins), Brett Myers (Astros), Yovani Gallardo (Brewers), Clayton Kershaw (Dodgers), Mat Latos (Padres), Matt Cain (Giants)

5. Chris Carpenter (Cardinals)

Carp has been so good for so long that he frequently gets overlooked, especially now that he has a teammate putting up equally gaudy numbers, but at age 35, he's still as dominant as ever, and showed it during his 35 starts in 2010, going 16-9 with a 3.22 ERA and 1.18 WHIP.

4. Tim Lincecum (Giants)

We were spoiled by the Freak in his first two full seasons, to such an extent that his 3.43 ERA this season seems like a major backslide.  However, it is unduly influenced by his first slump, which lasted much of August.  That month aside, Lincecum still managed to be one of the best pitchers in his league, again pacing the senior circuit in strikeouts and finishing fifth in the league in WAR (5.1).  Moreover, his 5-1 record in September (with a 1.94 ERA) powered the Giants into the playoffs, for which he gains a little boost on my ballot.

3. Adam Wainwright (Cardinals)
2. Ubaldo Jimenez (Rockies)

This was probably the hardest decision on either side of ballot.  The performances of Wainwright and Jimenez were eerily similar:

Jimenez: 19-8, 2.88 ERA, 1.15 WHIP, 214 K, 222 IP
Wainwright: 20-11, 2.42 ERA, 1.05 WHIP, 213 K, 230 IP

Wainwright clearly has slight edges in most of the basic stat categories, but I chose to give in to the popular refrain coming out of Colorado in the second half: "If you punish CarGo for hitting at Coors, you've got to reward Ubaldo for pitching there."  I think there's a great deal of truth in this and for that reason (as well as my general affinity for watching Ubaldo pitch) I gave the edge to the Rockies Ace.

1. Roy Halladay (Phillies)

Most of you are probably sick of reading my lavish praise for Doc.  If you aren't, you can certainly check out the nineteen previous posts I've made in which he's featured prominently.  For the time being, I will simple point out again that the expectations were obscenely high when he was acquired by the Phillies this offseason and he lived up to them.  No easy feat.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Hey, New York, Who's Your Daddy?

As I sat, familiarly flabbergasted, amidst a bar full of equally frustrated strangers, and watched the Yankees deliver a barrage of singles, piling up runs at a tortuously slow pace, as Ron Washington tried pitcher after pitcher in an effort to tourniquet the ridiculous trickle of scoring, I recognized that, despite the fact that C. J. Wilson had absolutely stymied the most infamous lineup in baseball for seven innings and the Rangers had chased New York's only dominant pitcher in four innings, the series might well be over by the end of Game One.  Even if you attempt to adhere to that Curt Schilling credo, that Mystique and Aura are just dancers at a nightclub, you cannot deny that the Yankees have a habit of getting in their opponents heads.  For ages, of course, it was that way with the Red Sox (if you haven't already, hurry over to iTunes and watch ESPN's Four Days In October documentary).  More recently, it's been that way with the Twins.  And, now, I feared, they had the Rangers on their heels, ever waiting for New York to again assert their superiority by doing something truly improbable (like scoring five runs in an inning, off one of the best bullpens in baseball, without hitting an homer, indeed, with the help of only one extra-base hit).  If the Yankees had successfully quelled the Rangers aggressive, can-do spirit, this series would be over in five.

But that didn't happen.

Instead, Texas walked away from the game with the kind of impression which would make any sabermetrician proud: "They got lucky."  In baseball, no matter how good you are, the stringing together of seven consecutive baserunners is, to a significant degree, a matter of luck.  Brett Gardner reached on a grounder which would be an out, even with his speed, at least 80% of the time.  Jeter and A-Rod both hit the ball hard, but again, on the ground, and found that narrow, dangerous gap just inside the third base line.  Thames hit was a broken-bat dying quail.  If that bat stays whole, it's probably a line drive right at the left-fielder.  Certainly, there's nothing wrong with these kinds of hits and the Yankees made their luck possible by working counts and, in most cases, making fairly solid contact, but even they would tell you, they got some fortuitous breaks.  That night, when their inclination must've been to throw in the towel and, in the words of Pedro Martinez, call the Yankees their Daddy, Ron Washington and the Rangers instead observed that if they played hundred more games in which they entered the eighth with a five run lead, they'd probably win 95 of them.

On the bright side, they had hammered the Yankees only top-flight starting pitcher, C. C. Sabathia, and the Yankees had struggled against their second-best southpaw, C. J. Wilson.  When Colby Lewis went to work on the Yankees the next afternoon and his teammates again battered the New York starter, this time Phil Hughes, you could see several Rangers (most noticeably, Elvis Andrus) smirking in the seventh and eighth innings, as if to say, "If you're so good, why don't do it again?"  Facing several of the same pitchers they had chased less than 24 hours earlier, New York managed just one hit off the Rangers bullpen Sunday.  On Monday night, they got another taste of Rangers best southpaw, Cliff Lee, who, in the last two postseasons, has thusfar struck out 26 Yankees while allowing only 19 baserunners, making it clear that the only solution New York has for former Cleveland Indians lefties is to pay them $150 Million.

Certainly, the ALCS is far from over, but thankfully, the Rangers were immune to the massive momentum shift that could've followed their heartbreaking loss in Game One.  At this point, based on the pitching performances of the first three games and the fact that, setting aside that incredible eighth, the Yankees have scored only three runs to the Rangers twenty, one cannot see how the Yankees are favored in any of the next four games.  Tommy Hunter v. A. J. Burnett has the potential to be the first slugfest of the 2010 playoffs, which could go either way.  Sabathia will likely bounce back in Game Five, on normal rest, but there's no reason to believe New York's lineup will have any better answer for C. J. Wilson.  Same can be said for Colby Lewis in Game Six.  Most importantly, perhaps, Texas needs only one of the next three to assure that Cliff Lee gets back to the mound for Game Seven.

If anybody has gotten inside anybody else's head this postseason, it's Cliff Lee.  In fact, he's been inside the Yankees heads since last October.  In the clubhouse and on New York talk radio, Cliff Lee is discussed in hushed tones, like a marauding gunslinger.  That's why Brian Cashman pursued him with such fervor at the trade deadline, as much to keep him off another playoff team as to put him on theirs.  As he hung golden sombreros on Derek Jeter and Marcus Thames Monday night (and added a pair apiece for Posada, Granderson, and Teixeira), you could see by their expressions that this was a recurring nightmare come true.

If the ALCS goes to Game Seven, Rangers fans have every right to chant "Who's Your Daddy?" throughout the top half of every inning.  

Saturday, October 16, 2010

BBA Award Ballot: Goose Gossage Award

Taking my cue from the reliever we chose to name our award after, I did not conceive of this as resembling the "Rolaids Reliever of the Year" award, which is open exclusively to closers who pile up saves.  I did give some consideration to closing prowess, as I do tend to believe that all other things being equal, the last three outs are the hardest.  However, there are of course many games when the hardest outs come earlier, with men on base and the heart of the lineup coming up.  With that in mind, these were the factors I prioritized:

1.) Overall Dominance: Generally represented by stats like ERA, WHIP, and K/9, clearly if I was going to put a pitcher on my ballot, he needed to be among the best in his league at keeping runners off the basepaths and, preferably, able, when the situation demanded it, to keep them from even putting the ball in play.

2.) Durability: Being able to strike guys out is great, but being able to get outs night after night is even better.  Therefore, relievers who piled up innings and appearances while maintaining their effectiveness got a significant boost on my ballot.  After all, during the prime of Gossage's career, from 1977 to 1985, he averaged 93 innings per season.

3.) Closing Games: Pitchers who remained in the running on the basis of the first two standards were given an added boost if they also logged a significant number of those innings at the end of games.

4.) Pressure Situations & Pennant Implications:  This was essentially my tiebreaker category.  When it came to guys who were more or less evenly matched, I tried to take into consideration how they faired in "Close & Late" type situations, with men on base, etc., and also whether they were pitching crucial innings in August and September, with their team's fate riding on every game.

So, here's my ballot for the American League:

Honorable Mentions: Daniel Bard (Red Sox), Neftali Feliz (Rangers), Andrew Bailey (Athletics), Mariano Rivera (Yankees), Matt Thornton (White Sox), Alexi Ogando (Rangers)

3.) Joakim Soria (Royals)

Pitching for the worst franchise in baseball, Soria proved that he's nonetheless among the most valuable relief pitchers.  The Royals have Soria wrapped up at rather favorable terms until 2014, so the 26-year-old may never get to show off his talents on the national stage, but over the last four years he has been one of the top five closers in all of baseball.  This season he logged 65 2/3 innings, third most among AL closers, picked up 43 saves for a 65-win team, posted a 1.78 ERA, a 1.05 WHIP, and an exceptional 4.44 K/BB ratio.  He finished 2nd among AL relievers in WAR at 1.7.

2.) Rafael Soriano (Rays)
1.) Joaquin Benoit (Rays)

You can easily make a case that the biggest difference between the '09 and the '10 Rays was the presence of shutdown relievers, Rafael Soriano and Joaquin Benoit.  Last year the Rays didn't establish their bullpen roles until deep into the season and ended up blowing 22 save chances and being in the middle of the pack in bullpen ERA (3.98).  This year Soriano led the league in saves, with 45, and, more importantly, alongside Joaquin Benoit, made it almost impossible for teams to put runners on base in the late innings against Tampa.  Tampa's overall bullpen ERA topped the league at 3.33.  Benoit and Soriano ranked #1 and #2 in the AL in WHIP, Opponents OPS, and Opponents Batting Average.  In 127 combined appearances, they coughed up only six leads.  It was difficult to decide which should rank higher, since Soriano had, arguably, the harder job, but in the end, Benoit's dominance was just too exceptional.

Benoit: 25 HLD (1 SV), 60 1/3 IP, 75 K, 0.68 WHIP, 1.34 ERA
Soriano: 45 SV, 62 1/3 IP, 57 K, 0.80 WHIP, 1.73 ERA

As for the senior circuit:

Honorable Mentions: Heath Bell (Padres), Matt Belisle (Rockies), Billy Wagner (Braves), Mike Adams (Padres), Jonny Venters (Braves), Sean Marshall (Cubs)

3.) Brian Wilson (Giants)

In many seasons, Wilson would be the runaway #1 on my ballot.  He led the league in saves (48), while producing a stingy ERA (1.81) and WHIP (1.18), pitching a ton of innings (74 2/3) and piling up strikeouts (93).  And, his team edged into the playoffs, highlighting how critical each of his outings was. He was particularly dominant down the stretch, when the Giants needed him most.  From August 1 to the end of the year, his ERA was 0.95.

2.) Hong-Chih Kuo (Dodgers)

You though Benoit's numbers were impressive.  While pitching almost the exact same number of innings, Kuo did him one better, compiling a 1.20 ERA, a 0.78 WHIP, an absolutely insane 403 Opponents OPS, and an 11.50 K/9.  Kuo also spent about half the season as the Dodgers closer, so he picked up 12 saves to go along with his 21 holds.  What really stands out to me, however, is the fact that over a whole season, he only allowed eight earned runs.  Single digits!

1.) Carlos Marmol (Cubs)

If you just see Marmol's solid, but not superlative ERA (2.55) and his 38 saves, you might think I'm revealing my Cubs bias with this vote.  However, Marmol's season was actually kind of historic.  Only once before in a the Division Play era has a pitcher compiled as many as 138 strikeouts as a reliever (Brad Lidge had 157 in 2004).  What gets really crazy, however, is when you look at Marmol's strikeout rate.  His 15.99 K/9 is literally the best in baseball's long history, for a player who pitched at least 40 innings.  And, really, it isn't even close.  Eric Gagne's wild 2003 season, for which he won the Cy Young, comes in at #2, a full strikeout behind Marmol (14.98).  Marmol also led all NL closers in innings (77 2/3), so this wasn't exactly a matter of small sample size.  And, he topped all relievers in WAR (3.1) by a significant margin.  Marmol's ridiculous combination of power stuff and durability has turned him into the league's premier reliever, even though he continues to struggle with wildness (6.03 BB/9).

Friday, October 15, 2010

A-Roid Bankrupted The Rangers, Now Is The Time For Vengeance (ALCS Preview)

Expanding upon the superlative "Narrative Likability" grade I gave the Rangers prior to the ALDS, let's look at three reasons why the Rangers deserve to beat the Yankees:

3.) As I heard Michael Wilbon say on PTI earlier this week, "You can't give this anything but an A+."  He was referring to decision by Josh Hamilton's teammates to forego the champagne in favor of ginger ale following their Game 5 victory over the Rays.  The Rangers have chemistry in spades and this was just the most recent evidence of it.

2.) Dom Perignon v. Schweppes is actually a pretty good metaphor for Yankees v. Rangers.  New York has, famously, the highest payroll in baseball - over $213 Million in 2010, highest in MLB history - while the Rangers have easily the lowest payroll among playoff teams.  In fact, in the American League, only Oakland and Cleveland spent less than Texas this season.  The Rangers combined salaries (for the 30+ players who spent time on the MLB roster this season) come in at less than $65 Million.  A-Rod, C. C. Sabathia, and Derek Jeter will, by themselves, earn $76 Million in 2010.

1.) Just in case you need one more reason to call A-Rod a dick: how about the fact that he was represented on the "creditors committee" during the Rangers bankruptcy hearings earlier this year.  That's right, the man whose record-setting salary helped run John Hicks and his baseball franchise into the ground (and who will make $32 Million from the Yanks in 2010) was still lobbying hard to get $24.9 Million of the $67 Million the Rangers agreed to give him just to get him off their team way back in 2004!  You can bet, if Nolan Ryan were starting in this ALCS, he'd be on the lookout for timely opportunities to play some chin music for the smarmiest superstar.  We'll just have to wait and see how much of the Rangers president has rubbed off on his team.

Okay, now here's three reasons the Rangers can beat the Yankees:

3.) One theory that's been leveled in the wake of the largely misunderstood Moneyball explosion is that while the Three-Outcomes approach (walk, strikeout, homers) works well over the course of the regular season, a more diverse offensive strategy is necessary in the postseason.  In the first round of the ALDS, the Ranger beat a team, the Rays, who were definitely something of a Three-Outcomes team.  They led the league in strikeouts and walks, were sixth in homers, and were second-to-last in batting average.  The Rangers, meanwhile, topped the AL in batting average and were near the bottom in both strikeouts (11th) and walks (8th), while still getting their fair share of power (5th in HR).  I had theorized that the extreme strike-throwing abilities of Cliff Lee, C. J. Wilson, and Colby Lewis might make problems for the Rays, and that was apparently the case, as the Rangers staff managed a nearly 5-to-1 K/BB ratio during the ALDS.  The Yankees are not as drastically reliant on patience and power as the Rays, but they were 2nd in walks, 7th in strikeouts, 2nd in homers, and 7th in average.  In the first round, 7 of the 17 Yankee RBI were created by the long ball and 3 of their 17 runs were created by walks.  If the Rangers cut down on those types of production, they will dramatically improve upon Minnesota's results.

2.)  In the post-PED era, speed kills.  In the first round, New York matched up against a plodding team who ranked 13th in the AL in steals this season.  The Twins could not expose one of New York's most apparent flaws, their inability to hold runners and prevent steals. The Yankee catching tandem led the league in errors and allowed an astounding stolen-base success rate (85.2%).  You can bet the Rangers, who swiped six bags against the Rays, and were 5th in the AL in steals during the regular season, will never stop running on Jorge Posada.

1.) Of course, Cliff Lee famously baffled the Yankees last October, winning both of his World Series starts.  For him to get two in this ALCS, it will require the series to get to seven games.  If it get there, however, the Rangers are in good shape.  Including the postseason, since 2008 (when Lee's "coming-out" began) the lefty is 6-1 against New York, with a 2.31 ERA.  And, he's not the only tough lefty on the Rangers staff.  C. J. Wilson is slated for a pair of starts against Yankee Ace, C. C. Sabathia.  Over their last 15 starts, here's how each fared:

Sabathia: 9-4, 3.29 ERA, 1.26 WHIP, 7.85 K/9, 668 OOPS, 106.2 IP
Wilson: 8-3, 3.36 ERA, 1.24 WHIP, 8.70 K/9, 618 OOPS, 91 IP

Was Sabathia really a better pitcher?  If the Texas lefties win, three of their four starts, the Rangers likely head to the World Series.  So, much rides on how Wilson pitches tonight.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

The Best Pitcher's Duel You've Ever Seen?

It is quite possible that, from a purely aesthetic perspective, the Saturday night showdown between Roy Halladay and Tim Lincecum in the opening game of the NLCS will be the apex of the 2010 season.  Certainly, the postseason drama, as always, will continue to escalate as the series moves forward.  And, regardless of the outcome of Game 1, both teams will still be very much alive.  However, you are unlikely to see a high-stakes matchup of better pitchers, in this, or any, postseason.  It's hard to imagine a better showcase for the craft of pitching.

For starters, it is not unreasonable to call Halladay and Lincecum the two best pitchers in baseball at this particular moment.  Perhaps, I take this too much for granted, as a longtime initiate to the "Cult of Halladay," but Doc was ubiquitously called "the best pitcher in baseball" throughout last offseason and since then all he's done is pitch a perfect game, a playoff no-hitter, lead the NL in wins and innings (among other things), and (probably) win his second Cy Young.

The argument for Lincecum is less clear, as Cliff Lee, Felix Hernandez, and C. C. Sabathia all have reasonably good cases for being called #2, but Lincecum's argument is as strong as anybody's and perhaps he gains a small advantage because a.) he's younger than all but Hernandez and b.) he's yet to show any real sign of weakness, having won Cy Youngs in each of his first two full seasons and likely finishing very high in the voting again this year.

Over the last three seasons, this is how Halladay and Lincecum rank in a number of key pitching categories (among starting pitchers with at least 300 innings during that span).

Wins: Halladay #1, Lincecum #5
ERA: Halladay #1, Lincecum #5
WHIP: Halladay #1, Lincecum #10
Strikeouts: Lincecum #1, Halladay #5
Innings: Halladay #1, Lincecum #7
ERA+: Halladay #1, Lincecum #3
QS%: Lincecum #2, Halladay #4
Shutouts: Halladay #1, Lincecum #3
Complete Games: Halladay #1, Lincecum #14
K/9: Lincecum #1, Halladay #34
BB/9: Halladay #1, Lincecum #67
HR/9: Lincecum #3, Halladay #26
K/BB: Halladay #1, Lincecum #14
OPS Against: Lincecum #1, Halladay #7
OPS+ Against: Lincecum #1, Halladay #4
Wins Above Replacement: Halladay #1, Lincecum #3
Average Game Score: Halladay & Lincecum tied for #1

Whether you favor the Freak over Lee, King Felix, and the Big Sleep is really inconsequential.  Pitchers of this caliber just don't get together very often.  In the entirety of the 2010 season, there was only one occasion when two of the five pitchers mentioned above took the mound against one another.  Sabathia and Halladay squared off in an interleague game in June (Sabathia got the victory, in case you were wondering).

One might expect it to happen more frequently in the playoffs, as teams are more likely to have time to set their rotations and there is a greater preponderance of Aces.  However, that isn't necessarily the case.  For one thing, the preeminent pitchers in the league aren't always around to participate.  We're all aware of Halladay's long suffering.  This is Lincecum's first trip to the playoffs as well.  Cliff Lee didn't make it until last season and Hernandez still hasn't been.  Cy Young and Walter Johnson each got only two shots at championships.  Tom Seaver, Bob Gibson, and Warren Spahn just three.  Roger Clemens didn't start making annual appearances in October until his mid-thirties, by which point, though still great, he wasn't really at the height of his powers.  In recent memory there are only a few duels which rival the one we're anticipating on Saturday.

In the 1998 NLCS, Kevin Brown got the call against Tom Glavine in Game 2.  Glavine and Brown would finish 1st and 3rd, respectively, in the NL Cy Young voting that year (with reliever Trevor Hoffman separating them) and both were dead in the center of their primes (it's easy to forget how good Kevin Brown was from '96 to '00).  The title "best pitcher in baseball," however, was still a toss up between Greg Maddux and Pedro Martinez, so it isn't quite the same.  It was a great game though.  Brown tossed a shutout and struck out 11 Braves.  Glavine gave up only one run in six innings, but took the loss.

Sadly, Maddux and Martinez never faced each other in the postseason.  Maddux did, however, get a shot at Randy Johnson in Game 1 of the 2001 NLCS.  Johnson had just earned the third of his four straight NL Cy Youngs and was getting the ball rolling on what would be a notoriously great run of postseason starts.  Though Maddux was probably not the same pitcher he was when he won four consecutive Cys, his powers were not dramatically diminished and it would be another four years before he won less than 15 games in a season.  This was another game that lived up to its billing.  Johnson delivered a three-hit shutout with 11 strikeouts, while Maddux went seven strong and lost 2-0.

Probably the most famous showdown of this variety came in 1963, when on two occasions Sandy Koufax and Whitey Ford, both of whom had led their respective leagues in victories that season, shared the mound for games one and four of the World Series.  In the opener, Koufax's infamous 15-K outing, the Dodgers roughed up Ford early and he only lasted five innings.  But the finale (it was a Dodgers sweep) saw both pitchers allow just a single earned run.  Ford allowed only two hits in seven innings, but a crucial error by Joe Pepitone (who let a throw get away from him on a routine groundout) set up a sacrifice fly, which was all Koufax needed to polish off the '63 Yankees for good.  

(Yes, I am implicitly comparing Roy Halladay to Sandy Koufax.  No, I don't think it's an exaggeration.)

As was the case for Maddux v. Johnson and, to a lesser extent, for Koufax v. Ford, what makes Lincecum v. Halladay even more exciting is the fact that these two pitchers, though both at the pinnacle of their profession, have dramatically different personalities and pitching styles.  Halladay is, of course, famously unflappable.  Ever calm and workmanlike, Doc's dedication to routine sometimes makes him seem robotic.  In interviews following the no-hitter he threw last week, in his first postseason start, he still spoke in an unwavering monotone.  After the final out was recorded, his feet never left the ground, there wasn't so much as a fist pump (the kind of thing which we see from many pitchers at the end of a routine inning).  He stood and smiled while Carlos Ruiz and his teammates celebrated his accomplishment giddily, looking all the while a little claustrophobic and uncertain whether it really warranted all the fuss.

Lincecum, on the other hand, is unabashedly emotive.  He can't restrain himself from cursing on live television.  In the last week he's looked like a kid in the midst of a prolonged sugar rush and the adrenaline even effected his ability to locate his pitches in the first inning of his NLDS start (he got over it quickly, obviously).

As a closer reading of the stats listed above reveals, though both are extremely effective, they go about their business in very different ways.  Lincecum is the epitome of the power pitcher.  Although he can occasionally finish a game, as he did during the NLDS, he relies heavily on the strikeout and is thus prone to higher pitchcounts and occasional wildness.  Halladay is certainly no slouch when it comes to getting a necessary strikeout, but he relies much more heavily on the defense behind him, almost never allows free passes, and takes great pride in finishing games.  As a result, of course, he gives up more hits and more homers.  Hitters come to the plate knowing he is going to have to throw strikes, so they are prepared to hack.  For Halladay, who has extraordinary movement on all his pitches, this often works to his advantage.

Adding even a little more excitement is the fact that Halladay and Lincecum are both streaking right now.  Obviously, the are both coming off outings which were among the best in playoff history.  You've probably heard all about it.  But, it goes back even further than that.  Halladay threw a two-hit shutout in his previous outing, to clinch the Phillies division title.  He has won each of his last six starts, and from July on is 13-3 with a 2.34 ERA.  Lincecum suffered probably the worst month of his young career in August, but rebounded in a major way in September.  In his last seven starts he is 6-1 with a 1.60 ERA and 66 K in 51 innings.  Clearly, neither is in the mood to lose.

There is, of course, always the possibility that one or both of these dominant Aces won't respond well to the prolonged rest, the hype, or, for whatever reason, won't have their best stuff.  We could end up seeing a 10-8 slugfest on Saturday...but I doubt it.  This is an extraordinarily rare opportunity to see two superlative players, at the height of their abilities, pitching against each other on the biggest stage.

Or you could watch college football.  Jackasses.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

BBA Ballot: AL Willie Mays Award

Playing time was already a sizable factor when considering the differences on the NL side of ballot between Jason Heyward and Buster Posey, and between Jaime Garcia and Jhoulys Chacin.  On the AL side, it becomes an even more crucial aspect of the conversation, as only two AL rookies got enough at-bats to qualify for a batting title, and two more qualified for the ERA title.

Honorable Mention: Austin Jackson (Tigers), John Jaso (Rays), Brian Matusz (Orioles), Brennan Boesch (Tigers)

Third Place: Wade Davis (Rays)

Davis' season did not get off to a great start.  At the All-Star Break he was 5-9 with a 4.86 ERA and rumors swirled that he might soon be replaced by the Rays phenom, Jeremy Hellickson.  Whether something or someone lit a fire under him, or Davis merely adjusted after his first tour through the AL, he solidified his job in the second half by going 7-1 with a 3.22 ERA and 1.21 WHIP.

Second Place: Danny Valencia (Twins)

Valencia didn't come to Minnesota until June, but his presence solidified a position which had been the Achilles heel for the Twins since 2005.  Valencia had the highest OPS (799) of any AL rookie who got more than 200 plate appearances.  He also led the way in batting average, by a long shot, with a .311 clip.  It is true that Austin Jackson got more than twice as many at-bats and was therefore superior to Valencia in most of the counting categories, but Jackson's extraordinary good fortune (.396 BABIP), extremely high strikeout rate (27.5%), and precipitous second-half slide (86 OPS+ in August and September) made him difficult to vote for.

First Place: Neftali Feliz (Rangers)

Andrew Bailey won the AL Rookie of the Year last season with 26 saves and a 1.84 ERA in 83 innings.  22-year-old phenom, Neftali Feliz, has not been quite as good, but on a superior ballclub, he's piled up nearly twice as many saves, setting a new rookie record with 40.  His other numbers were none too shabby either.  Feliz's triple-digit heat helped him strike out 71 in 69 innings.  His 0.88 WHIP was bested by only Mariano Rivera, Rafael Soriano, and Joaquin Benoit among AL relievers.  It's not particularly exciting to vote for a reliever, but Feliz is a pretty special pitcher, so I feel somewhat better about it.

Monday, October 11, 2010

BBA Ballot: NL Willie Mays Award

A 20-year-old Willie Mays won the Rookie of the Year Award way back in 1951 with a line that looks eerily like those of this year's major candidates, Jason Heyward and Buster Posey:

Mays: 464 AB, 59 R, 127 H, 22 2B, 5 3B, 20 HR, 68 RBI, 7 SB, .274/.356/.472
Heyward: 520 AB, 83 R, 144 H, 29 2B, 5 3B, 18 HR, 72 RBI, 11 SB, .277/.393/.456
Posey: 406 AB, 58 R, 124 H, 23 2B, 2 3B, 18 HR, 67 RBI, 0 SB, .305/.357/.505

Clearly, based on the standard-bearer for the BBA's award for rookie excellence, Heyward and Posey are both excellent candidates.  Heyward's appearance of similarity is even boosted by the fact that he's an African-American outfielder who was also 20 years of age for the majority of his rookie season.  As he's substantially larger than Mays and plays right field for the Braves, the even more tempting comparison is Hammerin' Hank Aaron, who also broke in at age 20, in 1954, and although he lost the Rookie of the Year to Wally Moon, his stats for that season will look pretty familiar:

Aaron: 468 AB, 58 R, 131 H, 27 2B, 7 3B, 13 HR, 69 RBI, 2 SB, .280/.322/.447

Am I proposing that Heyward and Posey are destined to be the rivals of two of the best players in the history of the game?  Certainly not.  Plenty of rookies have equaled, or even surpassed these stats only to have their development fizzle after a couple seasons in the majors.  But to produce in such a fashion, at such a young age, while hitting at the center of playoff-bound lineups, is a pretty exceptional feat, and both have sparked the imaginations of their fan bases to an extent which warrants this lofty comparison.  The drama is further heightened by the face they their teams are currently squaring off in the NLDS.  So, who do I give precedence in my second-annual BBA Awards ballot?

First off, the best of the rest:

Honorable Mention: Jhoulys Chacin (Rockies), Starlin Castro (Cubs), Madison Bumgarner (Giants), Jonny Venters (Braves), Daniel Hudson (D-Backs), Tyler Colvin (Cubs), Neil Walker (Pirates), Mike Stanton (Marlins), Travis Wood (Reds), Pedro Alvarez (Pirates), Hisanori Takahashi (Mets), Gaby Sanchez (Marlins), Ike Davis (Mets), John Axford (Brewers), Logan Morrison (Marlins), Chris Johnson (Astros)

Third Place: Jaime Garcia (Cardinals)

Because Garcia faltered a little in September and was prematurely shut down, I was tempted to make a case for Jhoulys Chacin, who actually got better as the year went on, finishing off the regular season with a 1.44 ERA in his last eight starts, and was superior to Garcia in both strikeouts and WHIP.  But although Chacin is probably much closer than many people think (according to FanGraphs he trails Garcia by only 0.2 in WAR), Garcia still has the edge, thanks mainly to his truly extraordinary ERA (2.70) and the fact that he made seven more starts than Chacin (who spent part of the season in Colorado's bullpen) and threw 26 more total innings.  It has been a long, long time since an NL rookie posted an ERA like Garcia's.  No pitcher with 120+ innings has done it in the 21st century (Roy Oswalt came fairly close, 2.73, way back in 2001).

And now, the main event:

Second Place: Jason Heyward (Braves)
First Place: Buster Posey (Giants)

In the end, what it came down to for me was the Posey should not be penalized for Brian Sabean's mistakes.  The Braves were very adamant this spring that they were going to put their top prospect in the Opening Day lineup because they considered themselves legitimate contenders and they didn't want to jeopardize wins in Bobby Cox's final year just so they could get one more year of arbitration at the backend of Heyward's tenure in Atlanta.  The Giants, unfortunately, went the opposite route, leaving Posey in the minors until June and renting Bengie Molina for a couple unhappy months.  It's probably safe to say that Posey would've been worth one or two wins had he joined the team in April, but the Giants nonetheless edged into the postseason, so I guess they got the best of both worlds.  My point is, had Posey gotten the approximately 20% more ABs that Heyward has, he definitely would've beaten him in the majority of the counting categories.  Heyward only has a healthy lead in runs, steals, and triples.  In addition to having superior rates stats, for the most part, Posey plays a far more valuable position.

Imagine if the Giants had been forced to put Posey, probably their best hitter, at first base or in right field.  It would've limited their ability to use the outfield platoons which were so successful for them in the second half, instead leaning on light-hitting catchers like Molina or Eli Whiteside.  Posey was no Mike Piazza either.  His 37.1 CS% trails only Yadier Molina, Miguel Olivo, and Russell Martin among NL catchers who played at least 62 games, and his 3.18 Catcher's ERA was second to Yorvit Torrealba.  I don't mean to suggest that Heyward was a slouch (3rd in UZR among NL right-fielders), but no outfielder can possibly equal the defensive contribution of an outstanding catcher.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

If Brooks Conrad Ain't A Second-Baseman, I Don't Know What He Is; Aubrey Huff for M.V.P.?

I've heard several commentators, including ESPN's Jon Miller, make excuses for Braves infielder, Brooks Conrad, who has made an outlandish four errors in the first three games of the NLDS, based on the fact that he's "not a natural second-baseman," having been forced into the position following injuries to Chipper Jones and Martin Prado.  The fact is, however, the 30-year-old rookie was only a third-baseman out of necessity.  Cox moved him to second this postseason in an effort to make him more comfortable, as 90% of him minor-league chances came at that position.  He hadn't exactly been slick at the hot corner, making 7 errors in 22 starts (.903 FLD%).  I don't mean to pile it on, but you can't blame these mistakes on Cox.  Conrad is playing his "natural" position.  He's just clearly having some sort of exacerbated Chuck Knoblauch performance anxiety in his first exposure to the October pressure-cooker.  He doesn't exactly bring the heavy lumber (1-for-10), so it's probably time to give Troy Glaus or Diory Hernandez a chance.

On a more positive note, in celebration of Aubrey Huff's game-tying and potentially season-saving hit, let's take a look at a highly underrated season-long peformance from the Huffinator:

1.) Huff led the Giants in runs (100), hits (165), homers (26), total bases (288), RBI (86), walks (83), average (.290), OBP (.385), and slugging (.506).  He also led the team in games played and at-bats, which may be the biggest accomplishment, considering he was coming off a season in which he was consistently hobbled by back and knee problems.  Obviously, even after Andres Torres was made a permanent starter and Buster Posey was promoted to provide him with a little protection, Huff was the single most important addition to this year's team.

2.) Huff's 891 OPS was good for tenth in the NL.  His 5.7 WAR was also good for tenth.  He also finished in the top ten in runs (7th), walks (6th), and runs created (9th).  All this, despite the fact that the lineup around him, especially in the first half, was among the weakest in the National League, and he played half his games in a pitcher's paradise (AT&T Park was 22nd overall in Park Factor this year).

3.) Huff's overall numbers are suppressed by the fact that he had a horrible April.  In the final five months of the season he hit .300 with a .922 OPS and 24 of his 26 homers.  During that span, only five NL players had a higher OPS than Huff.  They were Albert Pujols, Joey Votto, Carlos Gonzalez, Matt Holliday, and Troy Tulowitzki.  That's VIP company.

4.) Huff increased his value be being a kind of premium utilityman, when the Giants needed it.  He played over 250 inning in both left and right field.  And, according to FanGraphs, he was actually fairly decent in the outfield (1.3 UZR).  He was excellent once he took over as the everyday first-baseman, posting a 5.3 UZR, which trailed only Ike Davis and Adam LaRoche on the senior circuit.

I certainly won't be voting for Huff ahead of Votto, CarGo, and Prince Albert, but he should probably be on everybody's ballot.

Saturday, October 09, 2010

BBA Ballot: NL Connie Mack Award

Stay tuned at the BBA for the unveiling of the winners later this week.  Here's my ballot for the senior circuit:

Honorable Mentions: Bud Black (Padres) & Bobby Cox (Braves)

I spent all season predicting both these teams to bend over like wet noodles and, in the end, I was only half right about each, so I'm here to say that their collective "overperformance" should be a feather in the cap of their managers.  That said, it was only by virtue of the fact that their late-season flounderings were synchronized with those of the Cardinals and Rockies, as well as each other, that either one of them backdoored their way into playing baseball in October.  Black worked a minor miracle with his young pitching staff, but he also gave away a few critical wins by being too loyal for too long to guys like David Eckstein, Nick Hundley, and the Hairston brothers.  Cox overcame a bevy of injuries and coaxed career years out of Omar Infante and Martin Prado, but he also worked his pitchers to the bone, especially Tim Hudson and Jair Jurrjens, both pushed too far too fast following their injuries.  It was an outstanding season for both franchises, but one that might actually have leveraged future performance for only modest immediate returns.

Third Place: Charlie Manuel (Phillies)

Eric Karabell has been making the case for Manuel for most of the past month and it's a pretty good one. His entire infield, and therefore his one through four hitters, all missed substantial time.  At one point in late July, when the attrition was particularly high, the two-time reigning NL champs fell as far as seven games back of the Braves and were only three games above .500.  Yet, somehow, even though they were never a full strength, the Phils came raging back over the last two months and finished with the best record in baseball and their best record since 1993.  Karabell is correct.  This is among Manuel's finest accomplishments.  However, he was blessed with an unflappable veteran roster, the core of which has been through this gambit for each of the last four seasons.  He is overseeing a dynasty on rival with Big Red Machine, the "We Are Family" Pirates, and the late-'60s Cardinals, the standard-bearers for National League baseball.  And, this season, he also had the best pitcher in baseball, who threw a perfect game, brought home 21 victories, and recorded more outs than anybody since Livan Hernandez in 2004.  Was there ever a chance this team would finish anywhere except atop the National League?  Probably not.

Second Place: Bruce Bochy (Giants)

In his fourth year with San Francisco, Bochy got the Giants back to the postseason for the first time since the "Bonds Years" ('00-'03).  He was blessed with an extraordinary rotation, but as has been the case in every season since his arrival, Bochy had to fret and stress for every run.  I've already covered San Francisco's dubious, but extremely entertaining "expendables" strategy at length.  It's not easy choosing between Jose Guillen, Nate Schierholtz, and Cody Ross, when that's all you have available.  It's not easy benching two likable veterans (Edgar Renteria & Aaron Rowand) who are making over $20 Million, but can't hit a lick.  It's not easy turning the left side of your infield over to two men who weigh about 250 lbs. apiece (Pablo Sandoval & Juan Uribe) when you are team built around pitching.  Bochy was faced with numerous tough decisions and almost all of them worked out perfectly.  You can give some of the credit to Brian Sabean or to luck, which may be the same thing, but you can't argue with the result.

First Place: Dusty Baker (Reds)

Cincinnati's 13 win improvement is the largest of any team in the majors between '09 and '10.  There only significant offseason acquisitions were a 20-year-old Cuban lefty who didn't make his debut until late August and a 35-year-old journeyman shortstop who finished the season at 0.4 wins above replacement.  When Baker came to Cincinnati in '08 promising to get them back to the postseason, many probably believed he would do it with a ton of veterans acquired through free agency, as he had with Chicago and San Francisco.  Quite to the contrary, this team is built on a foundation of youth and primed to compete for several years to come.  Baker clearly had a plan from the moment he joined the organization.  As usual, he gained the trust of his players.  And, as usual, he kept his promises.  It doesn't take a whole lot of stats to prove that Baker is worthy of his fourth Manager of the Year trophy, tying him with Tony La Russa and Bobby Cox for the most all time.  But there are these.  The Reds led the NL in runs, hits, homers, total bases, RBI, average, slugging percentage, and OPS.  They also tied for the fewest errors and the highest fielding percentage.  In my opinion, it's enough to make Baker deserving of his first Connie Mack award.

BBA Ballot: AL Connie Mack Award

Announcements of the second-annual BBA awards will begin later this week with the Connie Mack Award for managerial excellence.  Here's an explanation of my ballot for the American League:

American League:

Honorable Mentions: Ron Gardenhire (Twins), Ozzie Guillen (White Sox), & Joe Maddon (Rays)

Gardenhire is likely to get a lot of support this season, and much of it is deserved, but I would be remiss if I didn't point out that he was coaching the defending champion in the AL Central, a relatively weak division, and his front office blessed him with a 50% spike in payroll and brought in reinforcements like Matt Capps and Brian Fuentes for his depleted bullpen at the deadline.  Gardenhire did a pretty good job compensating for his team's defensive deficiencies and he got a lot out of his starting rotation, but I'm not sure the Twins dramatically exceeded expectations, which is arguably the best way of judging a manager.

Minnesota's rival, the White Sox, who stayed in the hunt until September, were probably a bigger surprise, as they were a losing team in 2009.  Guillen, as controversial as ever, might've won this award running away if he'd been able to mount a pennant-winning charge in the final month.  Even so, the Sox improved by nine wins, the third-biggest improvement in the AL, despite the fact that the roster had very little turnover.  I believe that Ozzie and GM Kenny Williams deserve at least a modest shout-out for that accomplishment.

It's hard to leave the winningest manager in the AL off my ballot, and I do believe Joe Maddon deserves a great deal of credit for the success the Rays have had the last three seasons.  He made some very deft moves this year.  As always, he managed his bullpen as efficiently and effectively as anybody in either league.  He was patient with his young pitchers and they rewarded him in spades.  He mixed and matched at four positions in order to keep everybody on his deep, talented bench involved.  The Rays played great defense, they got clutch hits (until recently), they held leads, and their starters pitched deep into games.  Impressive work, Joe.  It is, however, one of the most talent-laden rosters in recent memory and they went the entire season without a critical injury, so he had a pretty nice template to work from.  It would've been hard to manage this team out of the postseason.  So Maddon falls just a hair short of my ballot.

Third Place: Terry Francona (Red Sox)

Gardenhire's supporters will frequently cite the losses of closer, Joe Nathan, and All-Star first-baseman, Justin Morneau, but the Twins were the picture of health compared with Boston.  The Red Sox, who finished with just five fewer wins than Minnesota, in a significantly tougher division, suffered significant injuries to Kevin Youkilis, Dustin Pedroia, Jacoby Ellsbury, Victor Martinez, Josh Beckett, and Mike Cameron, yet they were still within striking distance of a playoff berth with less than a week remaining.  Francona got way more than anyone could've expected out of replacement-level journeymen like Darnell McDonald, Bill Hall, and Daniel Nava.  He continued to cobble together innings from an aging, overworked bullpen.  And he gingerly nursed the egos of his stars and they struggled with prolonged slumps, flukes, bad breaks, misdiagnoses, position battles, and quarrels, both on and off the field.  The Red Sox missed the playoffs for the first time since 2006, but one could easily argue that this was among Francona's most masterly performances.

Second Place: Cito Gaston (Blue Jays)

Last offseason, Toronto said a tearful goodbye to quite possible the greatest player in their franchise's history (only Carlos Delgado has a competitive claim), Roy Halladay.  They also gave away their most talented (and overpaid) hitter, Alex Rios.  Their two best hitters from 2009, Adam Lind and Aaron Hill, began the season mired in horrible slumps and finished with a combined drop of more than 400 pts. in OPS.  Yet, somehow, despite everything working against them, the Blue Jays improved their record by ten wins in 2010.  With no Halladay, what passed for an elder statesman on Toronto's staff was 28-year-old Shaun Marcum, who hadn't pitched in a single game during 2009, yet somehow four young Jays reached double-digit wins, and combined for a .627 winning percentage.

Gaston's much-maligned free-swinging approach helped Jose Bautista, John Buck, Fred Lewis, and Alex Gonzalez achieve career years, and former superstar Vernon Wells turned in his best season since 2006.  When the season began, this team was expected to be overwhelmed by the stiff competition of the AL East, but not only did they finish with a winning record, miles ahead of the Orioles, but they managed go 10-10 against the playoff-bound Yankees and Rays.  If you include Texas and Minnesota, Toronto was actually 23-16 against the best teams in the American League.  Gaston deserves at least some of the credit for this highly unexpected turnaround and his successor is going to have a very tough act to follow.

First Place: Ron Washington (Rangers)

Yes, I'm partial to Washington and the 2010 Rangers.  That's well-established by now.  However, the case for Washington goes well beyond his extremely high Narrative Likability Factor, buoyed in part by the adversity which marred the Rangers Spring Training and forced him into answering silly questions about cocaine.

The Rangers were not a charmed franchise this year, despite the fact that they turned in their best performance in over a decade.  For one thing, the fragile trio of Josh Hamilton, Nelson Cruz, and Ian Kinsler remained fragile (Hamilton made 116 starts, Cruz 101, Kinsler 102).  Likewise, Rich Harden and Scott Feldman, who entered the season #1 and #2 in the rotation, made a combined total of 40 starts, compiled a record of 12-16, and an ERA upwards of 5.50.  Texas also spent a significant portion of the season without incumbent closer Frank Francisco.  There was an ongoing clusterfuck at three different positions, as highly-touted youngsters Julio Borbon, Justin Smoak, Chris Davis, and Max Ramirez were all busts.  As a result, Texas ranked near the bottom of the league in OPS from catcher (28th), first base (27th), and center field (20th).  Clearly, not every move Ron Washington (and GM Jon Daniels) made worked out perfectly, but here are some crucial ones that did:

1.) Putting Elvis Andrus in the leadoff spot and leaving him there, even after Kinsler returned.  Andrus struggled a bit with a hamstring injury down the stretch, depressing his numbers, but his excellent first half (.361 OBP, 23 SB) helped Texas take control of the division.

2.) Putting Neftali Feliz in the closer role and leaving him there, even after Francisco returned.  Feliz notably set a rookie record for saves, with 40, threw 70 innings, and was among the most dominant closers in the AL (2.73 ERA, 9.2 K/9, 0.88 WHIP).

3.) Putting Alexi Ogando in the bullpen and leaving him there.  Ogando, another rookie, had not even thrown a pitch in A-ball prior to this season.  But the Rangers rushed him through the organization and Washington had the confidence to make him a late-inning reliever almost from the moment he reached the bigs.  In 44 innings, all coming after June 15, Ogando compiled a ridiculously low 1.30 ERA.

4.) Putting Tommy Hunter in the rotation and leaving him there.  With Harden, Feldman, Derrek Holland, and others clamoring for starts in the second half, the 23-year-old Hunter was not the favorite of many in the Dallas media.  But the Hoosier responded with eight straight wins in June and July.  He finished the season 13-4 with a 3.73 ERA and will take the ball in Game 4 of the ALDS.

As you can see, Washington never made the easy decision by going with the status quo or a mediocre veteran over ayoung player.  He had the audacity to go against the conventional wisdom, even though many local sportswriters were calling for his head even before the season began.  Even on the hot seat, Washington was always the picture of calm and never threw one of his players under the bus.  And, now, largely due to his example, the Rangers are a win away from their first ever ALCS (knock on wood).

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

Narrative Likability Factor & The San Francisco Giants

The Giants began this season looking much like they have for the entirety of Bruce Bochy's tenure, which began in 2007.  They had pitching, in abundance, led by the youthful trio of Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, and Jonathan Sanchez, but they had a lineup composed primarily of overpaid, over-the-hill veterans who hit very little and fielded less.  After two months, Giants fans must've had an eery feeling of deja vu.  They were still in the thick of the NL West hunt, but the team seemed content wasting at-bats on Edgar Renteria, Aaron Rowand, and Bengie Molina.  It seemed only a matter of time before the Rockies and the Dodgers simply hit their way past San Francisco, just as they had done in each of the last three years.

The first step in Brian Sabean's plan to thwart this inevitability was so obvious, one might call it shameful that he hadn't resorted to it sooner.  He recalled top prospect, Buster Posey, who had done nothing but hit ever since the Giants drafted him.  The fresh-faced Posey was almost immediately inserted in the center of the lineup.  He has been the Giants most productive hitter ever since.  But the remainder of his strategy was neither particularly obvious, nor particularly advisable.  Basically, Sabean decided he was going to the scrap heap, looking for the players other teams were giving up on.  Such players, many of them with some modicum of former glory, would be carrying a chip on their collective shoulders which might further inspire their performance, at least over the short term.  Somehow this motley crew of overweight infielders, former designated hitters, and minor-league journeymen, replete with aching backs, bad knees, and tendonitis, were able to inch the Giants into the postseason, where, suddenly, sporting one of the game's best rotations, they become a serious threat.  As part of my ongoing dissertation on Narrative Likability Factor in the 2010 playoffs, here's a look at the cast of San Francisco's EXPENDABLES:
  • Andres Torres, CF:  The face of the Expendables is definitely Andres Torres, who Sabean signed to a minor-league contract prior to the 2009 season.  At the time, Torres was 30-years-old and had been through six different organizations without being granted more than 168 at-bats at the major-league level.  His most recent cup of coffee had come with the Rangers in 2005 and had lasted all of eight games.  Torres had long ago been reckoned "organizational depth."  The Giants were unenthusiastic, even following Torres's excellent performance at AAA in '08.  They gave younger, mid-level prospects like John Bowker, Nate Schierholtz, and Travis Ishikawa every opportunity to win the job that fell, finally and reluctantly, to him.  Torres responded to his first ever shot at regular playing time by becoming the most valuable center-fielder in the National League.  His 6.0 WAR trails only Matt Holliday and Carlos Gonzalez among NL outfielders and his 21.5 UZR was best in the league.  Meanwhile, he'll take home the league minimum and won't be eligible for free agency until 2014, by which point he'll be 36.  If the Giants win the pennant, Andres Torres becomes the future subject of a Disney biopic.  You heard it here first.
  • Juan Uribe, SS:  The long-time White Sox shortstop also joined the Giants prior to the '09 season.  Sabean gave him a minor-league contract and the opportunity to win a utilityman job for just 20% of the salary he'd made the previous season. Clearly, there wasn't a bidding war following a year in which Uribe missed substantial time, posted a 682 OPS, and quarreled with Ozzie Guillen.  Uribe played 300 innings at three different positions in '09 and hit well enough that the Giants resigned him this past offseason.  In May he became their everyday shortstop, potentially the fattest everyday shortstop in the history of major-league baseball, and responded my posting career highs in homers (24) and RBI (85).
  • Aubrey Huff, 1B:  Huff has had a helluva ride the last few years.  After an extended tenure with the Devil Rays, Huff signed a sizable deal with the Orioles and rewarded them with a big year in 2008, when he won a Silver Slugger and even got some MVP votes.  The following year, however, he was so bad that the Orioles traded him to Detroit at the deadline for a bucket of balls and a minor-league reliever.  This offseason, as he recovered from a back injury that kept him out of the lineup for much of the stretch run, nobody wanted anything to do with him and he ended up signing a one-year deal with the Giants for less than half of what he'd become accustomed to making.  Following a slow start, he has once again turned himself into an MVP candidate, leading the Giants in runs, homers, RBI, and OPS.  Of this cast of Expendables, he looks the most like a washed-up Hollywood action hero.
  • Santiago Casilla, RP:  The 30-year-old reliever spent three years doing mop-up duty in Oakland before being unceremoniously released by Billy Beane during the offseason.  Across the Bay, Sabean saw something he liked.  Casilla has blossomed in San Francisco proper, becoming one of the Giants top set-up men and posting a miniscule 1.95 ERA in 55 innings of work.  A big-bodied flame-thrower without a second pitch, Casilla is basically the Latino Bobby Jenks.
  • Pat Burrell, LF:  Pat the Bat also fell from grace in a hurry.  The longtime Phillie signed a sizable deal with the Rays prior to '09.  He was awful as their DH and ran amok with teammates and management to such a degree that the cash-starved Rays released him, eating about $7 Million in salary.  Sabean swooped in with a minor-league deal and Burrell eventually became the team's everyday left-fielder, swatting 18 HR and driving in 51 in half a season.  This man clearly should've never again played the outfield, but he's still good for the occasional 440 ft. moonshot.
  • Ramon Ramirez, RP: Ramirez joined his sixth organization prior to his 29th birthday.  It was the fourth time he'd been traded, most notably on the other end of deals for Jorge De La Rosa and Coco Crisp.  Ramirez had been a very valuable, durable middle reliever for two seasons in Boston, accumulating a 2.74 ERA in 141 innings between '08 and '09.  But when he started slow, the Boston brass looked to unload him for a 23-year-old with a 4.09 ERA at AA.  As the Boston bullpen imploded down the stretch, it might've been nice to have the guy who has given up only two earned runs since joining the Giants (0.67 ERA).
  • Jose Guillen, RF:  Perhaps feeling invincible by this point, Sabean netted Guillen in a waiver trade with the Royals in August.  Guillen is most famous for being such an unbelievable pain in the ass that the Angels asked him to leave during a season in which he had driven in over a hundred runs.  He also has one of the ten best throwing arms in major-league history (according to MLB Network).  The Giants are Guillen's tenth major-league team.  Always a tantalizing talent, Guillen never managed to make an All-Star team and had just that one lonely season of 100+ RBI.  This one has had only modest returns thusfar, as Guillen has been merely replacement level since joining San Francisco.  However, he's a notoriously streaky hitter, if he got hot in October it could be exactly the thing to spur the Giants to an unlikely pennant.
  • Cody Ross, OF:  Ross was unexpectedly DFA'd by his former team, the Marlins, after two solid seasons as their centerfielder.  For the Giants, he plays against southpaws, pinch-hits, and comes in as a defensive replacement.  He's performed admirably in that capacity. 
If there has every been a gaggle of baseball grinders with something to prove, this is it.  And that makes the Giants a lovable underdog.  They are old, they are slow, occasionally to the point of provoking laughter.  They swing for the fences with great frequency and miss with greater ferocity.  They are, like Sylvester Stallone, often aggravating and painful to watch.  If the Giants advance, it will be primarily because of their stable of flamethrowing 25-year-olds.  But in order for that to happen, the 35-year-olds are going to have a grind out at least a couple runs a game and when it happens, it's cause for the kind of elation usually reserved for middle-aged men who hit homers at fantasy camp.

Narrative Likability Factor: A