Baseball Stuff

Baseball is, as many of you may have gathered, my first love. I’ll be posting a fair bit about it in this, the best of all months on the sports calendar. I know a lot of people regard baseball as slow and boring, and sometimes it is, but that sometimes slow pace turns into unbearable tension come playoff time. There’s nothing like it.

Of course, if the Yankees are eliminated early, depression might put a crimp in my posting, but I’ll do my best.

One other thing – how sports media cover big time athletics is, of course, a primary interest of mine, and that’s the filter through which I typically write about sports. This month, I’ll deviate from that a little more than usual, though I’ll still do my best to watch the professional watchers.

OK, a few notes as we head to the postseason:

1) I don’t have much to add to the voluminous commentary on the Mets’ collapse. I am not a fan, (though some of my best friends are) and I feel their pain. Losing a seven game lead in seventeen days is brutal. And, in similarly dramatic, though more concentrated, fashion, the Padres have been vanquished by the Rockies, whose 14-1 surge to the finish line was nothing short of incredible (and, no, there’s no way Matt Holliday touched home plate in the thirteenth inning last night).

Not that it matters, because there is a bottom line in sports – winning, but I share Gary Hucakaby’s take on these matters:

The Mets didn’t lose the NL East because of a failure of character. They didn’t lose because they were somehow less virtuous than the Phillies. They didn’t lose because of some grand plan of an incomprehensible God. They lost because they just didn’t play good baseball down the stretch, and they got beat. Tom Glavine’s got some postseason experience (if it matters — I don’t know if it does), and has proved his worth in the game a thousand times over. No matter how big the strike zone was for him during his career, he’s a deserving Hall Of Famer. And today, he just got pounded. Not because of some mystical rubbish that allows those of us with access to a keyboard or microphone to pass judgment on players like some sort of meddlesome scold, but because he just got beat up.

2) With the fantastic finish of the Phils, and the equally extraordinary closing run by the Rox, Jimmy Rollins and Matt Holliday appear to be all alone in discussions of the NL MVP. Both had tremendous seasons, and I will talk more about awards down the line, but both also have weaknesses in their candidacies that, I am confident, will receive little or no attention from the mainstream media. For all the talk of the sabermetric revolution – and it has taken hold in many front offices – it’s still only selectively understood and applied among most people who cover the sport.

Rollins had a terrific season – a league leading 139 runs scored, 30 homers, 20 triples, 38 doubles and 41 steals among his stat line.  Where Rollins’ game does not stand out is inhis ability to get on base. He walked only 49 times against 716 at bats, turning a very good .296 batting average into a merely pretty good .344 on-base percentage. Largely because of that OBP, Rollins adjusted on base plus slugging percentage is 120. That’s very good, well above average for all national leaguers. It’s just not quite as stellar as the counting statistics make it look like. Of course, I think it’s fair to say that the Phillies are damn happy that Rollins plays for them. He’s not Hanley Ramirez with the stick, but Rollins can also field his position, whereas Ramirez probably needs to be moved.

Overall, Baseball Prospectus’ Wins Above replacement measure, which takes into account all contributions – offensive and defensive – has Rollins at about 9-10 wins above a replacement player. Translation: a helluva season, though not quite the best in the National League. Of course, the fact that Rollins’ team surged down the stretch and that he played a pivotal role in that surge is going to count for a lot.

Which brings us to Matt Holliday. Holliday also had a whale of a season, and was a monster in the closing weeks as the Rockies made their own historic push to the post-season. Holliday led the NL in batting and RBIs, and the latter statistic is the one that voters most value in MVP voting (despite the protestations of many voters that they “look beyond the numbers.”But, Holliday’s numbers are legitimately eye-popping – 137 RBIs, 50 doubles, 36 homers, and a .341 batting average. And, despite having badly misplayed a ball in the eigth inning last night, he’s a very good left fielder. What’s the catch? Well, to the extent that there is one, it’s that Holliday’s numbers are somewhat inflated by playing in Coors field. The park doesn’t play like the ridiculous numbers-inflater it used to be, when it made guys like Dante Bichette look far better than they were. But, Holliday does get an advantage from playing in Coors. For example, he walloped 25 homeruns this year in Denver, and 11 on the road.  And, especially notably, he slugged .722 at home and .485 on the road. Not to get overly wonkish about this(OK, I know I’ve already past the point of no return), but not all of that difference is attributable to the park. In other words, Holliday hits better at home than other guys do in Denver, which means he’s still helping the team. But, to some degree, everyone’s numbers are better in Denver, which requires discounting the value of his statistics. Overall, Holliday’s OPS plus (which accounts for one’s home park), was 150, an outstanding total, and sixth best in the National League. Holliday rates slightly higher in wins above replacement than Rollins.

Like Rollins, Holliday had a great year, and was a pivotal player in his team’s historic drive to the post-season. David Wright, based on all the numbers I’ve seen, was a better player this year than either of those two, and had his team not collapsed down the stretch, likely would have been the MVP. He’d still get my vote if I had one. But, the nice thing about this year is that both Rollins and Holliday are good candidates. They’re not quite as good as they appear, but they’re each good enough to be worthy MVPs.

3) I am loathe to make post-season predictions, especially in baseball, which is the most unpredictable of all the sports. Over 162 games this season, the Boston Red Sox were the best team in baseball. They were 210 runs better than their opponents, and are the only team in the post-season that has both a first-rate pitching staff, and a first-rate offense.  And, they finished tied for the best record in baseball with the Cleveland Indians. But, this means not a whole lot in baseball’s postseason. The last time the team with the best regular season record won the World Series was in 1998, when the 114 win Yankees pulled off the feat. Before that, you have to go back to the 1989 Oakland A’s.

I only heard the American League run down this morning on Mike and Mike – but Steve Phillips and the Mikes evaluated each American League team based on their starting pitching, their offense, their manager and their bullpen. The Yankees were deemed best in two categories – offense (unquestionably true), and bullpen (much more questionably so). Phillips logic was that the Yankees’ back end is now the strongest of the four teams, and this may be true, with the so far unhittable Joba Chamberlain setting up Mariano. Bullpens in general, and closers in particular, are over-rated in some ways during the regular season. But, given the schedule of off days (and there will be more this October) in the playoffs, and the extent to which top relievers are used (often averaging an inning a game during the playoffs, the equivalent of pitching 162 innings during the regular season), they have a huge impact. However, you still need more than two guys, and whether the Yankees have more than two is unclear – Kyle Farnsworth stinks, Luis Vizcaino is shaky, and beyond that, the Yankees have questions marks. What I found strange about Phillips’ discussion of the Red Sox bullpen (which I think is the deepest of the AL clubs in the playoffs), which he ranked second, was his characterization of them as having lots of experience. Actually, the key guys have almost none. Okajima has never pitched in the postseason. Papelbon pitched four innings in middle relief in 2005, and Gagne’s pitched a grand total of three innings. Manny Delcarmen has never pitched in the playoffs. The only guys with significant post-season experience in the Sox pen are Mike Timlin and Julian Tavarez, and neither of those is the reason why the Sox have a good bullpen. For my money, experience is over-rated. It also is not characteristic of this year’s Sox relievers.

Yes, I am still avoiding making predictions. I can’t do it when the Yankees are in the playoffs. I can say this – the fact that the Yankees went 6-0 in the regular season against Cleveland this year gives me no comfort. Sabathia and Carmona are superior to the Yankees’ two best starters – Wang and Pettitte. And, need I note the huge expectations/burden that hangs over Arod. Boston and Anaheim are really different teams, and really good. I can’t remember the last time all four playoff teams in one league were this strong.

The NL is really a toss-up.

4) Finally, about Phillips, I have picked on him and his predictions a lot. So, I have to give him props now, and pick on myself.  He did predict, in early August, that the Rockies would make the postseason and the Mets would not. Of course, he conceded the division to the Mets three weeks ago, so I am not sure whether this counts as a correct prediction, and the Rockies’ getting in was the result of a miraculous final two weeks that no one saw coming.  But, here we are – with the Mets home for October, and the Rockies moving on.

OK, so it’s not the most gracious mea culpa, but it’s the best I can do. Seriously, the Rockies really are a good team. In addition to Holliday, they’ve got a terrific rookie shortstop in Troy Tulowitzki, a no-name but very good bullpen, productive players in Todd Helton and Brad Hawpe. So, kudos to them.

More to come.

13 Responses to “Baseball Stuff”

  1. A couple of thoughts: One, the Mets’ collapse being a “historical” event is just a product of bad timing. Had they had this stretch in August instead of September, no one would care. The Phillies would have won the division because they were the better team, and the Mets’ flaws as a team would be exposed. Instead, because the collapse happened after Sept. 12th, Willie Randolph gets blamed, the Mets get labeled chokers, and everyone is on the firing line, even Jose Reyes. I’m not a Mets fan, but I do feel bad for them. They were probably never that good to begin with….
    ******
    Agree that the 1-2 punch of Sabathia and Carmona are the best in the AL. It’s not even close – only John Lackey and maybe Beckett can compete with them for the Cy Young award. I think the Red Sox bullpen is not very good. Okajima has worn down as the season as progressed. Gagne has been terrible since his arrival in Boston, a Red Sox version of Farnsworth. Papelborn is pretty much it for the Sox bp, and he’s had his problems recently, too. The Yankees at least have two to three innings in Chamberlain and Rivera. They have the ability to turn it into a six-inning game.
    ******
    Jimmy Rollins’ bold prediction at the beginning of the season (“We’re the team to beat”), plus his 30/40 numbers (that 30th HR really makes his season look bigger) should propel him to the MVP. I, too, would argue that Wright was better, but Jimmy is gonna get the hardware this year.

  2. The Mets collapsed is magnified by the fact that they were up 7 games with 17 to go. So of course it wouldn’t have mattered much if it happened in August, but it wouldn’t have gone without mention. I think Willie Randolph should get blamed because honestly, I feel the Mets have one of the best bullpens in the National League and his mis-use/poorhandling of the late inning relievers really put a strain on their effectiveness. Aside from that, he can’t help the minor injuries that have come, and he can’t be the one to blame regarding the front office’s decisions to get older rather than build around their cornerstones (Reyes, Wright, and Beltran). The mix just wasn’t there this season for them, and the important thing for them going into this offseason is to find a more stable corner outfield. Chavez, Alou and Milledge aren’t going to cut it, and don’t even mention a Shawn Green…

    I hate to admit it, but the Tribe do appear to have the best 1-2 punch in the AL as far as starters go. Aside from that, they are very average (talent wise) but they are clutch which has helped them win many a come from behind game this season. Joe Borowski is a joke for a closer, and aside from Betancourt there is noone in that bullpen that is worth worrying about if your name is Alex Rodriguez.

    Let’s not forget that Tulowitzki and Holliday both play on a team with less talent than the Phillies as well. Holliday won a batting title and hit 35+ homers, and had 130+ rbi. Those are ridiculous numbers, especially considering the balls don’t necessarily fly out of Coors anymore. I think Holliday deserves some serious consideration for MVP, as well as Rollins.

  3. The Red Sox owming the best record in the league is, in my
    opinion, very misleading. Check the divisions, the AL East
    was awful. Besides the Yankees, what was there/ the Blue Jays
    were above average, the Devil Rays were the Devil Rays, and
    the Orioles were (and have been for ten years), shit. Have you
    guessed that I’m from B-More?

    The Indians had to get out of the AL Central, where the Tigers
    would have taken the wild card if not for injuries, IMO, and
    the Twins, although four games under .500, were still tough
    to play.

    The Angels had to deal with Seattle before they faded, but it
    wasn’t easy early on.

    The Indians have the most complete team and are my pick to
    go to the World Series.

    If someone bets on this and I’m wrong, that’s their dumb ass.

  4. Really, I think the only quibble anyone has about Rollins is that he hits like a #2 guy in the lead-off spot. I would much rather see him hit 15 HR and .320 than 30 HR and .296. Or, better yet, if Victorino can muster a .400 OBP, Rollins in #2 and Victorino in lead-off.

    But, the Phillies players themselves say that Rollins is the straw that stirs the drink. He keeps things light, keeps them motivated, and plays with incredible heart all the time, offense and defense. The first inning of the last game was a microcosm of what he does: single, steal 2nd, steal 3rd, score on sac fly. Everyone get pumped, and then Jamie Moses goes out and gets a quality start.

  5. J-
    Baseball is beautiful to watch and not boring at all….

    What did you think of last night’s game? Was the strike zone ridiculously small to you, too, or did I imagine that Tim McClelland caused Jake Peavy to alter how he pitched the Rockies? If not, he’s one of the worst umpires for a pitcher to have to deal with in a place like Coors. I mean, if you’re a bettor and McClleland’s behind the plate, bet the “Over!”

  6. Dwil

    It did look small. The umpiring situation in MLB is a serious problem. I wonder if there could be a cyclops-like mechanism for calling balls and strikes. That might be drastic, but the variation in strike zones is a problem – as is the general attitude of the umps.

    Des

    I think the two divisions were very similar. The second place team in the East had a better record than the second place team in the central, and ditto the third place team. The White Sox were pretty similarly bad to the Orioles, and the Royals were a lot like the Devil Rays – young, feisty, but with a bad record. The West, albeit with only four teams, had no terrible teams. That might have been the toughest division.

  7. Dwil, be fair about it though. I watched that game and LaTroy got squeezed on a few as well.

    Evidently that game’s officials were selected much like they do the playoffs in the NFL. McClelland is a good umpire, his strike zone is tight and he gets agitated easily, but that’s not anything that these guys haven’t seen before.

  8. jimmy paz Says:

    Two key players: Raphael Betancourt and Carlos Marmol. The TonyLaRussa-ization of baseball is complete, and everyone (except sometimes Torre with Mo) uses the closer only in “save” situations. Most of the time, the closer starts the ninth inning when the team is ahead. Any competent major league pitcher should be able to get three outs before the opposition scores even one run at least 95 per cent of the time. Using your best relief pitcher as your closer doesn’t make a lot of sense. Use your best reliever from the seventh inning on when the game is on the line. Some managers, including LaRussa, seem to manage this way. The “success” of guys like Wickman, Isringhausen, Joe Borowski (my son could hit this guy), and Todd Jones (I could hit this guy) prove that you don’t have to be great, or even very good, to “close”. This has all been a round-about way of saying that the “set-up man” is actually more important than the closer, and more often pitches in the seventh or eighth inning with the game on the line. Betancourt and Marmol did this to near-perfection this season, and give Cleveland and the Cubs (as much as it pains me, as a Sox fan, to say this) a real advantage that I haven’t seen anyone else remarking upon. Laugh, but I’d consider voting for Betancourt as the AL Cy winner. He’d have to be in my top three. Anyway, I enjoyed your post, and look forward to some great baseball.

  9. Jimmy Paz,

    There’s at least one guy whose baseball acumen I’d trust who’s in total agreement with you: Lou Pinella. He was pestered by fans and the local media most of the second half to move Marmol into the closer role and finally he told the media that sometimes the game needs to be saved in the 7th or the 8th, so he was going to leave Marmol right where he was, as the late-inning stopper. On the NL side, I’d say the Cubs have the best combination of starting rotation and relief pitching, but Arizona’s bullpen is really tough at the end; on the AL side, I think Boston’s got the best rotation, and Cleveland, largely due to Betancourt’s dominance, might have the best bullpen. However, as JWeiler has noted, Joba Chamberlain gives the Yankee bullpen a horse in that race.

  10. Jimmy Paz Says:

    Prn: Thanks for the heads-up. Piniella is a hard guy for me to figure. His temper tantrums make him seem so childish, almost cartoon-ish, it’s hard to take him seriously. And he was horrible as a TV analyst in last year’s post-season. An absolute MOTO (Master Of The Obvious). But the man certainly seems to know how to manage a baseball team. I didn’t know that Piniella had said this, but it’s okay by me to be “scooped” by someone of his stature. Obviously Leyland, LaRussa, and Wedge agree. There’s no other way to account for using Jones, Isringhausen, and Borowski as “closers”. And Torre will use Rivera in “non-save” situations. Thanks.

  11. JP and PM

    Marmol is very good, though he still walks enough guys that I might be a little nervous with him in the postseason against, presumably, better and more patient lineups. Betancourt is just a monster. In ’96, as I recall, Mariano got serious Cy Young consideration as a set-up guy. Of course, he threw 107 innings, which one is unlikely to see from a reliever anymore.

  12. J, I just can’t consider Holliday an MVP candidate for the reasons that you aleady mentioned. I think the best method to eliminate the “home park” variable from the discussion is to take a player’s away stats and double them. In the case of Holliday his final numbers would be an underwhelming 22 HRS, 110 RBIs and a .301 average. Sorry Matt.

    As for baseball, it is the one sport whose greatness multiplies exponentially come playoff time. Baseball jumps from my 3rd favotite regular season sport to my absolute favorite. There is absolutely nothing better than playoff baseball particularly a game 7 where everything is riding on every single pitch. There is something about the drawn out suspense between each pitch that separates it from all the faster-moving sports. It is not a contest, not even where reasonable people could even disagree in my mind! My stance is: if you don’t agree, then you just don’t get it. I will stop now for fear of sounding worse than Bob Costas throwing out sappy metaphors through 18 hours of Ken Burns “Baseball” documentary.

  13. khilafah…

    […]Baseball Stuff « The Starting Five[…]…

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