Thursday, 3 March 2011

To be the man.....

Perhaps it is an inevitable by-product of the free agent era in Baseball, or something more representative of a change in the ethos of the professional sports locker room in general but there appears to have been a marked decline in teams sporting an individual, or small group of individuals, who can clearly be identified as “the man” on their respective teams.

The most obvious case in point being that only three Major League teams (Yankees, Red Sox, White Sox) have officially designated captains.

This in itself raises an interesting question as we head into the 2011 season: does success come from a close knit community of players which, while clearly including players with varying levels of experience, has no clear leader, or it is necessary to have a talisman on one’s team in order to be successful.

From a brief look around the league it is easy to see that there are team which adhere closely to both models. There are the ‘team-first’ teams (San Francisco, Oakland, Philadelphia (although this is more to due with their embarrassment of riches that anything), Tampa Bay – although the signings of Manny and Johnny Damon may alter this, Pittsburgh etc) and there are also those teams which clearly have players who we would consider “the man”.

The concept of “the man” is a difficult one to define. It is not simply about highly developed leadership skills. For example Jason Varitek is clearly no longer “the man” in Boston, his age has caught up with him and he is now a part-time player. That isn’t to say that his influence and skill at handling pitchers aren’t of value, but he clearly no longer possesses the intangibles that make a player “the man” (in fact it is highly unlikely that he ever did – Boston was Pedro and Nomar’s team throughout Tek’s peak). Nor is simply being the best player on the team enough to gain “the man” status – Alex Rodriguez has never been “the man” in New York, nor is Hanley Ramirez “the man” in Florida. Being “the man” is therefore a subtle combination of character and leadership abilities coupled with prodigious skills on the field.

The undisputed “men” in baseball at the moment would appear to be:
Texas: Josh Hamilton
New York Yankees: Derek Jeter
Chicago White Sox: Paul Konerko
Seattle: Ichiro
St Louis: Albert Pujols
Boston*: Dustin Pedroia, Kevin Youkilis
Atlanta: Chipper Jones (for how much longer who knows?)
Minnesota: Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau
Cleveland: Grady Sizemore (although this is dwindling by the day)
Colorado: Todd Helton (soon to be succeeded by Troy Tulowitski)

*Boston represents an interesting conundrum and was the example (surprise, surprise) I had in mind when writing this piece. Boston has seen dynastic shift over the past two decades in terms of who its “men” were. In the early nineties “the man” was undoubtedly Roger Clemens. The Rocket eventually gave way to Nomar Garciaparra and Pedro Martinez. Due to Nomar’s injuries and eventual exit from Boston I think one could argue that Curt Schilling briefly co-held the position of “the man” during 2004. Following the World Series victory Manny Ramirez and David Ortiz emerged as “the men” in Boston. Post 2007 however, with the departure of Manny (both from Boston and from his senses) and Ortiz’ decline the Red Sox have clearly been Pedroia and Youkilis’ team. The key issue for the Red Sox this year, and one that ties in nicely with the question I posed at the start of this entry is how the signings of Crawford and Gonzalez will affect this dynamic.

Adrian Gonzalez was the undisputed “man” in San Diego for several years. While Crawford was never “the man” in Tampa, he was a prominent figure in the clubhouse and, along with Evan Longoria, probably the closest thing the Rays had to “the man” – definitely (curiously along with the sadly retired Rocco Baldelli) Crawford was “the man” of the last few years of the Devil Rays.

Are we about to see another dynastic shift in Boston? Youkilis has given up his position to accommodate Gonzalez. This can be viewed either as a relinquishing of “man” status to the more skilled newcomer, or a re-enforcement of Youk’s status as “the man”, a demonstration of his team-first mentality and ability to lead by example both on the field and off.

Certainly the Red Sox have a enough star power to morph into the sort of “team” team the Phillies have become – after all Josh Beckett was “the man” on the 2003 Marlins, John Lackey was “the man” (with Vlad Guerrero) on the Angels for years. Surely all this assorted “manhood” can combine to turn the Red Sox into a $150m a year version of the 2010 Giants.

Personally I think this is unlikely. While Crawford and Gonzalez will undoubtedly become influential players in the clubhouse (Gonzalez especially amongst the Spanish speaking players) I doubt there is to be any serious challenge to the hegemony of Pedroia and Youkilis. However the pressure will certainly be on both of them to bounce-back from disappointing 2010 seasons to ensure that their authority over this 2011 Red Sox team (which has no business not winning the AL Pennant if not the World Series) continues.

Ultimately the success of the teams which can boast a “man” speaks for itself. They have clearly achieved greater success than the (typically small market) “team” team. Every term that heads into Spring Training talking about the amazing chemistry of their team (which is invariably composed of B and C grade talent) secretly wishes they had an Albert Pujols or a Derek Jeter around which to focus their amazing team-spirit. It is the hope of every GM who drafts a potential superstar such as a Bryce Harper hopes that that player fulfils both their projected talent, but also is able to emerge as “the man” on that team.

Friday, 18 February 2011

The All-Star Team of my (baseball) Lifetime!

Once again shamelessly stealing from the brilliant Joe Posnanski I’ve decided to open my 2011 blogging season with the All-Star team of my lifetime.

I should mention that, whilst born in 1985, I did not start to watch baseball (due to living in the United Kingdom) until sometime during the 2002 season. My earliest baseball memory was watching Boston beat Cleveland in September 2002 and falling in love with the Sox after watching Manny Ramirez take Charles Nagy deep early on. Therefore consider this team the All-Star team of my ‘baseball lifetime’.

We’ll go American League and National League with the DH in place. In the case of players who have played in both leagues I’ll group them into the league in which they spent the majority of 2002-2011.

American League:

Catcher: Joe Mauer (Twins)

- As much as I would like to vote V-Tek in on the basis of unparalleled ability to handle a pitching staff, one simply can’t argue with catchers who win multiple batting titles.

1st Base: Jim Thome (Phillies, White Sox, Dodgers, Twins)

- Just a hitting machine and, by all accounts, a thoroughly nice chap. Should reach 600 HR this season – yet doesn’t seem to get his due as one of the greatest power hitters the game has ever seen.

2nd Base: Robinson Cano (Yankees)

- A new one but there is just no one close at this position in baseball at the moment. Pedroia is a close second, Cano beats him for consistency and offensive production.

3rd Base: Eric Chavez (Athletics, Yankees)

- The most exciting defensive player I have ever seen. The last few years have been painful but I will always love the Eric Chavez of 2002-2006. It upsets me greatly that he is going to camp with the Yankees. Surely Boston could have given him an invitation – anything’s better than Yamaico Navarro.

Short-Stop: Derek Jeter (Yankees)

- My second Yankee on the list. A-Rod may be the superior player (although given all the PED controversy, who knows). Defensively over-rated and seemingly in irrevocable decline Jeter is still the face of baseball for me during my time as a fan. I only wish I had been able to catch some of Nomar’s glory years in Boston...

Left Field: Manny Ramirez (Indians, Red Sox, Dodgers, White Sox, Rays)

- A complete liability in the field and in the club-house but I can’t help but love Manny. The absolute best hitter I have ever seen.

Center Field: Josh Hamilton (Reds, Rangers)

- Josh is getting dangerously close to being the best player in baseball. The only truly complete player in the game. Torii Hunter would have won this spot if he hadn’t gone to Anaheim.

Right Field: Vlad Guerrero (Expos, Angels, Rangers, Orioles)

- Vlad in his prime was the only opposing hitter who would make me genuinely fearful whenever he stepped up to the place. Just a ridiculously good hitter. It makes me sad to see him playing for the Orioles in what is probably his swansong year. He deserves better. Narrowly edges out Ichiro.

Designated Hitter: David Ortiz (Boston Red Sox)

- PEDs or no PEDs everyone loves Big Papi. The 50+ HR years are long gone but Ortiz is still a great character and, providing you don’t count April and May, a great hitter.

Starting Pitcher: Roy Halladay (Blue Jays, Phillies)

- An absolutely master. Halladay is so far and away the best pitcher in baseball at the moment they should probably retire the Cy Young for the foreseeable future.

Closer: Mariano Rivera (Yankees)

- There can be no debate, the greatest closer who ever lived.

National League:

Catcher: Brian McCann (Braves)

- Not a choice I’m particularly enthused by, but McCann nudges Yadier Molina for the best catcher in the NL during my baseball watching experience. Unfortunately I only caught the last few years of Piazza in New York. I always had a soft spot for Paul Lo Duca but frankly he doesn’t hold a candle to what McCann has quietly achieved in Atlanta.

1st Base: Albert Pujols (Cardinals)

- The Cardinals offering Pujols less annual salary than Teixiera and Howard is a slap in the face to the man who is a close second to Manny Ramirez as the greatest hitter I have ever seen.

2nd Base: Placido Polanco (Phillies, Cardinals, Tigers, Phillies)

- Just a great, great all-round player, here primarily for his role on the World Series Tigers of ’06. Bonus points for looking like Glen Quagmire.

3rd Base: Scott Rolen (Phillies, Cardinals, Blue Jays, Reds)

- Was great to see Rolen have a resurgence last year as part of the surprising Reds. Was an absolutely beast with the bat and the glove in St Louis.

Short-Stop: Hanley Ramirez (Marlins)

- Poor defensively and, seemingly, kind of an ass but wow, he’s good.

Left Field: Barry Bonds (Pirates, Giants)

- I only caught the final years of Big Barry, credibility gone, joylessly advancing towards the HR record. I’m on the fence about Bonds and the whole steroid issue (usually I don’t think it was that big a deal) but the fact remains, he could hit.

Centre Field: Jim Edmonds (Angels, Cardinals, Padres, Cubs, Brewers, Reds)

- St Louis players seem to be dominating my NL team (only fair really as they have been THE NL team of my baseball lifetime). I loved Edmonds for the same reason I loved Rolen – great hitter, exciting fielder and played with a ton of heart.

Right Field: Matt Holliday (Rockies, Athletics, Cardinals)

- Although no longer a right fielder I will never forgot how good Holliday was in 2007. Quite how he failed to win the MVP award is completely beyond me.

Designated Hitter: Lance Berkman (Astros, Yankees, Cardinals)

- Just a fantastic slugger. Had the weight of the world on his shoulders trying to replace Bagwell in Houston but coped admirably.

Starting Pitcher: Pedro Matinez (Dodgers, Expos, Red Sox, Mets, Phillies)

- He’s here more for the work I saw in his last few years in Boston than for anything since (although he was fantastic in his return for the Phillies in 2009) but those three years I saw in Boston were amongst the greatest of all time. An undisputable first-ballot Hall of Famer.

Closer: Trevor Hoffman (Marlins, Padres, Brewers)

- Now mercifully retired Hoffman is a clear choice for San Diego’s second ever Hall of Famer. Honourable mention goes to Billy Wagner.

Thursday, 9 December 2010

The tide has turned!

After months of complaining and wondering whether Theo Epstein has lost his mind I finally have something positive to say about the Red Sox:

Adrian Gonzalez AND Carl Crawford!

This is clearly going to make the Red Sox formidable once again going into 2011. I was secretly delighted when V-Mart was allowed to sign with the Tigers. His shoddy defence means he is simply not worth paying big bucks to as a big-league catcher. And, if he is only fit to DH or play 1B then why not go after a legit 1B, like Gonzalez. Martinez is only an elite level hitter as a catcher, as a DH/1B he is relegated to being above average. Gonzalez is the best hitting first baseman not named Pujols in baseball. He is also a gold glove calibre fielder.

Another happy development in this move is the likelihood that Beltre will now leave as a free agent. This is also fantastic news! While I would never deny the greatness of Beltre’s 2010, nor would I diminish his value to the Red Sox during this injury-plagued year, I simply cannot get over the idea that he has historically been so much better in contract years than when he has the security of a fat contract ahead of him. I’m also not sold of his defensive prowess at third either. Yes, Beltre makes the flashy play and makes the highlight reel, he looks decidedly shaky making routine plays. Personally I will be much happier seeing Youkilis man the hot corner in 2011.

Crawford is another great signing. I’m not entirely convinced that paying $142,000,000 over 7 years is entirely wise, although if Jayson Werth is worth $126,000,000 (he isn’t, nowhere close, much like Jason Bay last year) then Crawford was clearly going to get a contract of this type. Crawford is the sort of play we all hope Ellsbury can become, he will make the 2011 Red Sox instantly far superior defensively and offensively to the 2010 version. I can only assume (and hope) that Crawford will play CF for Boston, with Ellsbury moving to LF. Crawford’s talent is utterly wasted in LF whereas playing in the shallowest LF in baseball will definitely extenuates the positives in Ellsbury’s defence.

Mike Cameron needs to go, there is absolutely no value in keeping him on the team at this point. None whatsoever.

Let’s see how the Red Sox compare to the Yankees in 2011 (I just can’t see a Rays team without Crawford being able to compete):

Red Sox Yankees Decision
C: Saltalamacchia Posada Yankees, particularly is one considers likely backups.
1B Gonzalez Teixiera Sox on the basis of Gonzalez being thus-far slump proof.
2B Pedroia Cano Tie.
3B Youkilis Rodriguez I’d give Youk the nod as A-Rod seems to be in decline.
SS Scutaro/Lowrie Jeter Yankees, for the so-called ‘intangible’.
LF Ellsbury Swisher Tie.
CF Crawford Gardner Red Sox, a clear winner.
RF Drew Granderson Tricky one here, I’d have to call it a tie.
DH: Ortiz Thames Red Sox if Papi can squeeze out another good year.

A pretty even split here, though as a whole I think the Red Sox are the more complete, more multi-dimensional team, particularly if Jeter and the post-steroids A-Rod continue to decline offensively.

How about pitching? I’m assuming here that the Yankees will sign Cliff Lee. I just can’t see it not happening.

Red Sox Yankees Decision
Josh Beckett Cliff Lee Yankees, unless Beckett has a major return to form.
Jon Lester CC Sabathia Tie.
Clay Buchholz A.J. Burnett Sox. A.J might be the biggest bust in Yankee history (inc. Pavano).
John Lackey Phil Hughes Tough one, I’ll give it to the Sox as Lackey should bounce-back.
D. Matsuzaka Mitre/Nova Red Sox.

Red Sox are clear winner here. Congratulations Theo, I think you’ve cracked it!

Thursday, 11 November 2010

The Giants of Moneyball

I’m saving a proper post with which to close the 2010 baseball season until the season is truly wrapped and we know who the MVP and Cy Young award winners are. However, clearly I couldn’t stay away.

To begin with, congratulations to the San Francisco Giants, thoroughly deserving winners of the World Series. It is a bitter pill to swallow for a Red Sox fan as, although I like the Giants and was glad to see them in the World Series, how can one all-pitching/no-hitting team do so well and another do so miserably.

The answer of course is clear. The Red Sox were meant to be a pitching and defence heavy team who scored runs where they could. Instead they became a team which got Cy Young calibre seasons out of its two lowest paid starters and mediocre to poor performances out of $50,000,000 worth of pitchers (Lackey, Beckett and Matsuzaka). The great defence thing didn’t happen either, although as Derek Jeter managed to pick up his 5th Gold Glove at SS this week who really knows anything about defence – all these advanced fielding stats could be nonsense and many Jeter is the new Ozzie Smith. Instead what we had for 2010 in Boston was a horrendously fragile team which leaked runs like a sieve (especially on the days neither Jon Lester nor Clay Buchholz pitched) and offensively….umm, well offensively they had Adrian Beltre.

Much of the off season debate for the Red Sox will focus on whether or not to resign Beltre and Victor Martinez. The answer to both questions is no.

Martinez is worth re-signing ONLY if he is prepared to become a full-time first baseman. He is simply too poor defensively to continue as the Red Sox catcher. In a division where the Sox play against the likes of B.J. Upton, Brett Gardner, Curtis Granderson and Carl Crawford (although hopefully he will be suiting up for the Red Sox come 2011, please Theo, just get it done) it is suicide to have someone that bad at throwing out basestealers behind the place. Of course, if Martinez moves to 1st then Youkilis moves to 3rd. Youkilis is a far superior player to Beltre (who, given his track record of over-performing in contract years will likely be far worse next season), therefore there is no need to pay Beltre the $15,000,000 or so over 3 or 4 years he is likely to demand. Clearly a catching tandem of Jason Varitek and Jarrod Saltalamacchia isn’t going to win anything. Boston should use their bulging minor league system to secure a good young catcher to work with Varitek. My preference would be for Josh Thole of the Mets.

Mike Cameron needs the Old Yella treatment. With Ryan Kalish and Daniel Nava emerging as legitimate big leaguers there is absolutely no need to pay the 37 year old Mike Cameron $5m a year to get hurt every five minutes. He needs dumping back to the NL even if it means eating his contract for the year, after all if we keep him he’ll only get hurt again and we’ll eat the contract anyway.

The whole LF situation will sort itself out one way or another. Come opening day either Carl Crawford, Jayson Werth or Ryan Ludwick will be patrolling Manny’s old stomping ground for the Red Sox. I’m not hugely concerned about this, all three would help the team, although I’ve put them in order of preference.

What is crucial is that the Red Sox find a good, long-term short-stop. Obviously the Red Sox are unlikely to be able to prize the likes of Hanley Ramirez or Troy Tulowitski away from their teams, but they don’t need to. Dustin Pedroia wants to move to SS, he keeps saying it every year! Let him! Then the Red Sox should go out, armed with the likes of Nava, Josh Reddick, Lars Anderson, Jacoby Ellsbury (Kalish is more valuable to the Red Sox right now) and attempt to prize a good second baseman from a non-contender. Possibilities (in order of preference) are: Nick Walker (Pirates – Neil Huntington absolutely lives to trade away hot young talent for substandard prospects, give him Ellsbury he’d probably chuck in Pedro Alvarez too, that the long term DH problem sorted), Aaron Hill (Toronto), Scott Sizemore (Detroit), Luis Valbuena (Cleveland).

In summary, I would like my 2011 Boston Red Sox to look like this:

C: Thole/Varitek
1B: Martinez
2B: Walker
3B: Youkilis
SS: Pedroia/Scutaro
LF: Crawford/McDonald
CF: Kalish
RF: Drew/Nava
DH: Ortiz

SP: (in order) Buchholz, Lester, Beckett, Lackey, Matsuzaka
CP: Papelbon (unless he can be traded – highly unlikely).

Right that’s enough Red Sox ranting.

With the Giants winning the World Series I see that there has been a lot of gloating from the anti-Sabremetrics brigade declaring that the Giant’s victory is a public slap in the face for those who put their trust in advanced stats. It is however, simply not true.

“Moneyball” is a very misunderstood book: it is a chronicle of how one small-market, financially weak team achieved modest success, not a bible of how all teams should run their baseball operations. People tend to confuse sabremetrics and money-ball. They are not the same thing. Sabremetrics is the use of advanced statistical methods to evaluate baseball and baseball players in a way that the old, simple stats such as batting average cannot do. Money-ball is about GMs of poorer teams exploiting inefficiencies in the market in order to purchase baseball players who the use of advanced stats suggests can make a valuable contribution to their club for far less than those players who score highly in more traditional statistical catergories.

The thing is the Giants are the exact model of a team which has used advanced statistics and sabremetrics to its advantage. It is has also, with a few noticeable exceptions (Zito and Rowand) played ‘Money-ball’ very effectively too.

The Giants won the World Series on the back of their pitching. This is not surprising, they reached the playoffs on the back of their pitching too. Barry Zito and his $17m a year contract is the odd man out in the Giants rotation and he didn’t even pitch in the post-season. The remaining members of the Giants rotation are all products of their own system: Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, Jonathan Sanchez and Madison Bumgarner. This is very similar to the A’s teams of the early 00’s. Their closer is home grown too, the shaky but exciting Brian Wilson. It the Giants truly decide to play Money-ball they should trade Wilson immediately whilst his stock is high.

The Giants have taken a similar approach with their position players. They recognised mid-way through the season that rookie catcher Buster Posey represented a better option behind the plate then Bengie Molina, and so, Molina and his large contract went to Texas. Posey went on to put up Rookie of the Year numbers.

Aubrey Huff has been one of the most under-rated players in baseball for years. The Giants signed him on a very cheap one year deal. Huff leads the team in HR and RBI.

Andres Torres scuffles around various teams, staying around as a 4th outfielder due to his speed. Rowand gets hurt and the Giants are forced to play Torres everyday. He emerges as one of the best leadoff hitters and most dangerous base-runners in baseball.

Juan Uribe is let go by the White Sox and generally ignored by every team in baseball. The Giants pick him up and he makes the all-star team.

Cody Ross. This is dubious as the Giants only picked him up to prevent the Padres from doing so. But, while the Padres were ruining their team chemistry by introducing Miguel Tejada and Ryan Ludwick to the mix, the Giants quietly went out and picked up Cody Ross who was instrumental in driving the Giants past Atlanta and the Phillies.

Finally, the Giants picked up Pat Burrell on the cheap from Tampa Bay, where he had the worst 18 months of hitting performances I have every witness. Clearly Bruce Bochy deserves a medal of honour, much less a manager of the year award for turning Burrell into a legitimate cleanup hitting down the stretch (although he was dire in the World Series).

So there you go. The San Francisco Giants: not the throwbacks you might think.

Tuesday, 12 October 2010

Speed Kills

So the Cincinnati Reds’ fairy-tale season has come to a sad end. It was perhaps inevitable but, for the neutral fan at least it’s never nice to see a plucky young team dumped so unceremoniously out of the playoffs by the more polished, more experience team they met in the form of the Philadelphia Phillies. Of course it would have taken a monumental comeback for the Reds to have come back to win a short series after the humiliation of getting so convincingly no-hit in the opener.

Despite feeling sorry for Dusty Baker’s team generally I must admit to feeling slightly smug whilst watching Aroldis Chapman blow game two after coming out of the bullpen to the usual pomp and circumstance. Why? Because he simply isn’t particularly effective and represents everything that is wrong with how we prize our pitchers.

Sure Chapman throws very, very hard and (according to his BB/K rate although he looks extremely hit or miss whenever I’ve watched him) has decent control, that’s all very impressive and makes for copy in sports publications. It does not however make him an effective pitcher. While only a few hitters are able to get around on a 105mph fastball, most will be able to make enough contact to foul one off. Speed will not necessarily get you outs, this has been proven time and time again and yet every time a new phenom emerges with a 100mph+ fastball the media goes gaga over it and common sense goes out of the window.

There is a lot of talk about Chapman becoming a starter next year. I can’t see how this will be a success. He simply doesn’t have the poise that other flame-throwing starters like Strasburg and Verlander do. Plus, how well will his arm hold up? I don’t think that one can even make the argument for Chapman that he will mature and grow into his position. He is, or at least should be a lot more seasoned than Stephen Strasburg was, he’d been a major star in Cuba for years, had travelled internationally and played in the WBC. That is worlds apart from Strasburg’s experience playing college ball. Yet it was Strasburg who made it to the show first, looking like a polished veteran whilst Chapman doesn’t appear until late in the year and, to my mind at least, looks more Joel Zumaya than Nolan Ryan.

Still, I don’t want to labour the Chapman-Strasburg comparison too much as its really not my point. The point of this post is to argue that neither of them are likely to enjoy success over a long period of time. History is not kind to flame-throwing starters. For every Nolan Ryan there are dozens of others who were either forced out of baseball through injury or returned as very different players. We should be very careful about prizing velocity over the other, more fundamental pitching skills. Nolan Ryan after all may have been one of the best pitchers of all time (strikeouts, no-hitters etc) but he was also, in many respects, one of the worst (all time BB leader, poor winning percentage).

Given Strasburg’s unusual poise and his vast assortment of secondary pitches he stands a very good chance of successfully returning from surgery but I think the days of 100mph fastballs are gone. With Strasburg’s range of pitches he simply doesn’t need to throw that hard to be successful, Josh Beckett doesn’t, Roy Halladay doesn’t, not even Tim Lincecum throws that hard – it just isn’t necessary. Chapman however seems to be all about velocity and this will hurt him, just like it killed Zumaya’s career.

Chapman has become a baseball side-show. People come to watch him throw 105mph, not to get people out. It was the same with Zumaya when he was throwing 104mph and yet was not consistent enough to wrestle the Tigers’ closer role from the likes of Todd Jones and Fernando Rodney (another speed merchant who you would never want pitching for your team with the game on the line).

It’s like boxing. It’s not about how hard you can punch your opponent, it’s about knowing his weaknesses and knowing when to punch your opponent. Take a look at the best pitchers of recent years: Glavine, Maddux, Mussina, Pettitte, Wells, Cone. None of them threw hard but they combined for two perfect games and a shelf full of Cy Young awards. Even the era’s hard-throwers: Johnson, Schilling, Clemens used their guile a lot more than today’s flame-throwers.

Baseball fans and writers would do well to remember George Carlin and his routine about the different between baseball and football. Brute force will not win you pennants. If that were the case then Mark Reynolds would be the MVP every year.

Monday, 11 October 2010

The Hall-aday of Fame

After watching the brilliance of Roy Halladay once again on Wednesday night I inevitably began thinking about Doc’s hall of fame chances.

While the value of wins in determining a pitcher’s hall of fame-worthiness is a matter of great debate, a debate I am resolutely on the fence about, Halladay’s win total seems to closely match what would be considered hall worthy at this stage in his career. Halladay is 169-86 with a strong 3.32 ERA for his career thus far. He is 33. Given that his control is likely to last longer than his speed I think it’s definitely plausible that Halladay can pitch into his early 40s and continue to pitch at his current elite level for another 4-5 years. For the sake of argument lets say that Halladay has another 8 years in him as a big league starter. Playing for Philly for half of that I would predict Halladay averages around 17 wins for the next four years, that’s another 68 victories. For the remaining four years I’ll guess that Halladay averages 12 wins a year, another 48. I’ll also assume that Roy picks up an average of 10 losses a season during these years. Calculating loses is harder to do of course as Halladay might find himselves pitching for a non-contender in later years. This leaves Halladay with a career total of 275-166. Combine this with a career ERA in the 3.30-3.60 range and Halladay is clearly a better hall of fame prospect than the likes of Mike Mussina, John Smoltz and Curt Schilling (who are both, in my opinion, clear 3rd of 4th ballot inductees). It leaves him 100 wins over .500 which gets him into the best-of-the-best Pedro Martinez territory.

Without wanting to get bogged down in the advanced stats, which if anything just serve to elevate Roy’s genius, I shall move on to the intagibles which usually play a huge role in deciding who is a hall of famer and who isn’t.

Halladay has appeared in 7 All Star games. He will appear in at least 5 more unless something pretty horrendous happens to him. He has won one Cy Young award and is a lock to win another. This will put him in elite company as a pitcher who has won the award in both leagues. He has thrown a perfect game and a no-hitter – in the same season! At his current rate I would predict that Halladay will come very close to, if not exceed 3000 SO for his career.

In conclusion he is an absolute certainty for the Hall of Fame, first ballot, Greg Maddux style, bet your house on it type candidate.

But…what if Halladay never pitches again. It could happen. He could get hurt, he could join a cult, he could decide to ‘spend time with his family’. What of his chances then? In short, how long does a player have to be dominant and prove themselves as the very best in the game to be considered worthy of Cooperstown? Is it possible for a player’s performance in one season to gain him entry?

For the record I believe that it is possible, or at least it should be. I’ve long held the belief that the hall of fame should be viewed like the MVP award. It is not about selecting the best players from the era, it is about magic, aura and the stories that will live on throughout subsequent re-tellings of baseball history. While no-one minds when the likes of Jim Rice and Andre Dawson are rewarded for careers of consistency and for being very good players, for me, this is the antithesis of what the hall of fame should represent. The hall is about Babe Ruth redefining the game, about DiMaggio’s hit-streak, about Jackie Robinson breaking the colour barrier, about Koufax’s brief brilliance and so on and so until we reach Henderson’s dazzling base-running and Ripken’s beating of Gehrig’s consecutive game record. Sustaining a .300 average or having X amount of 100 RBI seasons just don’t cut it for me. I say it tongue in cheek but I do think there is a great of merit in the view that the sole criteria of election to the hall of fame should be having Ken Burns mention your name when he makes a documentary about the decade in which you played.

That said, I think Roy Halladay’s 2010 season makes the grade. He has done everything a pitcher might hope to do over the course of a long career in the space of one brilliant year. He has won 20 games, he has led his team to the post-season where they have to be considered favourites to win the World Series, he has thrown a perfect game and he has now thrown a post-season no-hitter. Ask any young pitcher starting what they hope to be a lengthy career what they hope to achieve and chances are all of these achievements will be cited. That Halladay has managed to do them all in one year is not simply excellent, it is legendary, it is hall of fame-worthy.

Tim Lincecum is another case in point. Obviously Tim doesn’t have the career numbers of Halladay and, due to his youth he is not eligible for the hall at present. But the magic is there. What could be more magical than the idea of a small, skinny kid who looks more like a character from a Harold and Kumar movie than a big league ball-player emerging from nowhere to win back to back Cy Young awards and put up Ryan-like strikeout numbers whilst almost single-handedly making the Giants a playoff team once again? While ‘the Freak’ has had a down year this year those two years of dominance equal the brief peaks of Pedro Martinez and Whitey Ford and can legitimately be mentioned in the same breath as those of Koufax. While I’m not saying that Tim Lincecum is a hall of famer, at least not yet, he represents the excitement and dazzling dominance that the honour should represent. While I’ve already said that I think Mike Mussina is a hall of famer I would take Lincecum’s brief dominance (even if it all ended tomorrow) over Mussina’s 15 years of simply being very good and very dependable any day. We watch sports to be entertained, to be shocked and to be amazed. We do not watch sports to see talented employees methodically going about their business. That is the distinction.

It comes down more or less to the old adage of whether it is ‘better to burn out than to fade away’. Whitey Ford is a perfect example of this. He was dominant for a very short period of time, then he became the sly villain of the Yankees, using any edge he could to win. Even with his ball tampering later years Ford has a very short career. His career victory total is way below the majority of his hall of fame brethren. He, along with Koufax epitomises the idea of the brief but brilliant career being more interesting and more worth of fame than, for example, the endless succession of fair to very good seasons compiled by Bert Blyleven. MLB needs to do away with this ridiculous 10 years Major League service rule associated with the hall of fame. It is utterly redundant, and, I suspect, would never actually have been enforced. If Albert Pujols had retired at the end of 2009 with 9 consecutive seasons of 30 HR and 100 RBIs, a lifetime .330 average, 3 MVPs and a world series ring would he have been denied entry to Cooperstown because he’d only played for 9 years? I seriously doubt it.

I’ve gone way off piste in this entry but I feel I’ve arrived at a point none the less. We should celebrate excellence over consistency. Roy Halladay is excellent, celebrate him.

Wednesday, 29 September 2010

BBA Awards 2010

As with the All-Star game the Baseball Bloggers Alliance has asked all of its members to vote for the snappily named end of year awards. Therefore, without further ado, here are my votes.

We’ll begin with the American League:

Connie Mack Award (Best Manager): 1. Joe Madden (Tampa Bay Rays) 2. Terry Francona (Boston Red Sox) 3. Bob Geren (Oakland Athletics)

The Red Sox fan in me wants to give Francona the nod in this category and I think I would be justified in doing so as the Red Sox have been far more competitive than their injury marred roster should have allowed them to be (look for a post trumpeting the positive contributions of the likes of Hall, McDonald and Kalish in the coming days). Still, the Red Sox are not going to make the play-offs and ultimately success is the true measure of an excellent manager. Therefore I'll have to vote for Joe Madden who's Rays have dominated the AL East and outplayed the far richer Yankees all year. The Rays do not have the depth of talent New York and Boston do and therefore their ability to win so many ball-games has to be largely due to do Madden's exciting brand of baseball. I toyed with giving my third place vote to Cito Gaston of the Blue Jays but balked after it dawned on me that they are only over 500 due to Jose Bautista's freak season and Vernon Wells' half a good season. I don't think it's anything Gaston can take credit for. I've got the same reservations about Geren in Oakland and of course its long been whispered that A's managers are simply Billy Beane's puppets but I'm prepared to give Geren the benefit of the doubt and attribute the A's' surprising competitiveness to his managerial decisions. Honourable mention goes to Ron Gardenhire who is a fantastic manager however (aside from the injury to Morneau and Nathan, who as a closer is easily replaceable anyway) the Twin simply had too good a team not to run away with the Central, no managerial heroics necessary. Credit to Ozzie Guillen and his White Sox for pushing them close however.

Willie Mays Award (Rookie of the Year): 1. Austin Jackson (Detroit Tigers) 2. Sergio Santos (Chicago White Sox) 3. Brennan Boesch (Detroit Tigers)

I'm not particularly enthused about any of these guys and other than Jackson who is a clear winner (and yet would not have cracked my top 5 in the NL) the 2nd and 3rd picks could easily be replaced with any number of other AL rookies. While technically a Rookie I've not giving consideration to Neftali Feliz as I think he got too much of a look last year to really count. Honourable mention to Ryan Kalish of the Red Sox who looks to have the makings of an incredible defensive CF (Lord knows the Sox could use one after years of Ellsbury) and some decent pop. Dishonourable mention goes to Matt Tuiasosopo of the Mariners who I picked in my team of 2010 back in April and has spectacularly failed to hit the Mendoza line. Then again, he does play for Seattle, not a lot of role models around there anymore.

Goose Gossage Award (Best Reliever): 1. Joakim Soria (Kansas City Royals) 2. Ryan Perry (Detroit Tigers) 3. Sergio Santos (Chicago White Sox)

First of all I object to the BBA's insistence that this award be named after Gossage. It should be the Lee Smith award. As with the Rookie award the AL has a significantly weaker class than the NL. I'll give Soria the nod, more as compensation for having to play for Kansas City than any real merit. Perry and Santos have both been really solid competitors for their teams, nothing particularly exciting about either of them, but the sort of guys who you'd happily have on your team. Honourable mention to Daniel Bard, Rafael Soriano and Jose Valverde (before he got hurt).

Walter Johnson Award (What the Cy Young should really be called) 1. Trevor Cahill (Oakland Athletics) 2. Felix Hernandez (Seattle Mariners) 3. Jon Lester (Boston Red Sox) 4. David Price (Tampa Bay Rays) 5. Clay Buchholz (Boston Red Sox) 6. Francisco Liriano (Minnesota Twins) 7. CC Sabathia (New York Yankees) 8. Brett Anderson (Oakland Athletics) 9. Cliff Lee (Seattle Mariners/Texas Rangers) 10. Matt Garza (Tampa Bay Rays)

I must say I'm a bit old-fashioned when it comes to the W. I complained bitterly the other year when CC Sabathia beat Josh Beckett for the Cy Young even though Josh had 20 wins (oh to have more years like that!). However I read Joe Posnanski's excellent article comparing CC and King Felix's starts this year and I am sold, Felix has had by far the better year. I'm putting Hernandez second behind Cahill simply because I think the young A is better able to satisfy both the advanced stat and the Joe Morgan sides of me; he has enough wins, he has the low ERA and has come up big in the big game this year. Jon Lester has emerged as a legit ace in Boston and has a shot at 20 wins. Buchholz and Price are both Cy Young award winners of the future. I'll pick Price over Buchholz here partly to deflect accusations of Red Sox bias but also because Price carries with him an excitement that Clay doesn't. Liriano has been great for the Twin, who, at the start of the year lacked for a legit ace - they clearly have one now. If it weren't for the wins I'd leave CC out of the top ten entirely but deep down I know I couldn't really justify it. Brett Anderson is another white-hot prospect who if he can stay healthy will be a dominant pitcher for years to come. Cliff Lee has struggled lately but has the best walk to K ratio in baseball history this year! Garza, with his no-hitter and utter dominance against the Red Sox rounds off the top ten. Honourable mention goes to Carl Pavano who has completed his return to baseball respectability admirably and is a big part of the Twin's success this season.

Stan Musial Award (MVP) 1. Paul Konerko (Chicago White Sox) 2. Josh Hamilton (Texas Rangers) 3. Miguel Cabrera (Detroit Tigers) 4. Adrian Beltre (Boston Red Sox) 5. Evan Longoria (Tampa Bay Rays) 6. Robinson Cano (New York Yankees) 7. Joe Mauer (Minnesota Twins) 8. Alex Rios (Chicago White Sox) 9. Jose Bautista (Toronto Blue Jays 10. Vlad Guerrero (Texas Rangers)

I want to make it very clear that I regard the MVP award as just that, the most VALUABLE player award. I believe my voting largely reflects this. While the White Sox are not going to make the playoffs this year they came close and the fact that they did so is almost entirely due to Paul Konerko's monster year. Konerko is at the stage in his career where he can sit back, hit 15-20 bombs a year, knock in 60-70 and get a pat on the back from everyone (sit Jason Varitek only less so). Instead Chicago's captain has put up Albert Pujols numbers while still providing the emotional heart of Ozzie Guillen's line-up. Hamilton is much the same, and would have one this award if it weren't for his injury. He just seems to be the talisman the Rangers needed this season. Miguel Cabrera is the best hitter in the AL but his value is significantly less than Konerko's. The same is true of Longoria, Cano and Beltre - all three had fantastic seasons and all will win MVP votes, however all three played in good lineups with a lot of other talent around to support them (and pad their RBI totals). I pick Beltre first as, given the Red Sox's problems staying healthy he carried the team on his back offensively for big portions of this year. Joe Mauer is Joe Mauer, a catcher who can win batting titles - that will always be of incredible value. Jose Baustista will probably never have another year like this and I doubt that the Blue Jays would have finished any worse off had he not hit 50 bombs. Still, 50 HR is 50 HR and deserves MVP consideration I suppose. Vlad and Alex Rios both had big bounce-back years and really helped out their clubs.

And now for the National League:

Connie Mack: 1. Bud Black (San Diego Padres) 2. Bruce Bochy (San Francisco Giants) 3. Charlie Manuel (Philadelphia Phillies)

It would appear that the Padres are going to blow their lead and end up out of the post-season. Still, no matter how things end up the 2010 Padres has absolutely no business even being a .500 team led alone one that entered September in first place in their division. Bud Black deserves huge credit for that (as does Kevin Towers, the new Arizona GM). Bruce Bochy is a similar case, he has done very well with what was and (to a lessen extent post Burrell and Guillen) is a very poor offensive team. As for Charlie Manuel, consider him the poor man's Terry Francona.

Willie Mays: 1. Jason Heyward (Atlanta Braves) 2. Buster Posey (San Francisco Giants) 3. Gaby Sanchez (Florida Marlins)

For more detailed discussion of the NL Rookie of Year award please see a previous post. There I promoted Sanchez as the true winner over Heyward. Since then Sanchez has faded while Heyward has carried on producing at a high level. Buster Posey has had an amazing year and, given that he is a catcher, I would like to pick him over Heyward. However Heyward's WAR is significantly higher and he is a more exciting player to watch.

Goose Gossage Award: 1. Luke Gregerson (San Diego Padres) 2. Johnny Venters (Atlanta Braves) 3. Nick Masset (Cincinnati Reds)

I've decided not to get over excited about closers for this vote. Billy Wagner has been sensational this year and would be a deserving winner. However Gregerson, Venters and Masset have done exceptional work all year long without the attention and praise lavished on their 9th inning counterparts. Essentially all these nominees are inter-changeable, the current order is simply how I viewed it at the time of writing, all are worthy winners who played huge roles in their team's success.

Walter Johnson: 1. Roy Halladay (Philadelphia Phillies) 2. Mat Latos (San Diego Padres) 3. Ubaldo Jimenez (Colorado Rockies) 4. Josh Johnson (Florida Marlins) 5. Tim Hudson (Atlanta Braves) 6. Roy Oswalt (Houston Astros/Philadelphia Phillies) 7. Adam Wainwright (St Louis Cardinals) 8. Chris Carpenter (St Louis Cardinals) 9. Jon Garland (San Diego Padres) 10. Yovanni Gallardo (Milwaukee Brewers)

Roy Halladay did the impossible and managed to live up to the hype, Jimenez throws a no-hitter, Halladay throws a perfecto. That's a pretty good way of summing up the whole Cy Young battle really. Given Philly's injury problems (which, to be fair, are a little over-reported) one can't even make the claim that Halladay's season is diminished by moving to a contending team. Latos gets the runner up vote partly due to his youth and partly due to playing for a team so offensively impotent. Jimenez has a great year and would be a worthy winner, he just lacked the consistency of Halladay and Latos. Josh Johnson has become the forgotten man of NL pitching. His one run complete game against Philly was forgotten as Halladay threw the perfect game, yet he beat Doc in a low scoring follow up the next week. Without any of the hype of the Jimenez-Halladay Cy Young race Johnson has quietly put up a season that rivals both of them. Oswalt, Carpenter, Wainwright and Hudson's seasons are all pretty much interchangeable. I'll put Oswalt, Wainwright and Hudson above Carpenter simply because Chris seems to be a gigantic d#ck. Jon Garland is a gamer, pure and simple. A big reason for the Padre's success. Gallardo is the only bright spot as far as pitching is concerned in Milwaukee (no matter how many ludicrous moustaches they make their closers grow).

Stan Musial: 1. Joey Votto (Cincinnati Reds) 2. Albert Pujols (St Louis Cardinals) 3. Troy Tulowitski (Colorado Rockies) 4. Adrian Gonzalez (San Diego Padres) 5. Carlos Gonzalez (Colorado Rockies) 6. David Wright (New York Mets) 7. Scott Rolen (Cincinnati Reds) 8. Jason Heyward (Atlanta Braves) 9. Brian McCann (Atlanta Braves) 10. Aubrey Huff (San Francisco Giants)

A clearer choice than in the AL. Joey Votto is unquestionably the MVP of the NL. Votto emerged as a legitimate triple crown threat and powered the Reds to their first post-season appearance in years. Extra credit should go to Votto for returning so strong from his trouble last year. Pujols is Pujols, he has another MVP calibre year but simply (given the Cardinals' collapse and the good year enjoyed by Matt Holliday) wasn't as valuable as Votto. Troy Tulowitski is comfortably the best short shop in baseball and is currently on a one-man mission to get the Rockies to the play-offs. Given the decline of Todd Helton expect Tulo to be the face of the Rockies for the foreseeable future. Speaking of one-man-offences, Adrian Gonzalez can be considered a legit MVP on the basis of value alone. Cargo drops to fifth on this list and again the reason for this is value. His numbers are inflated by Coors Field but what's more he simply isn't the most valuable player on his own team, yet alone the whole league. Neither Rolen, Wright, Heyward, McCann or Huff are true contenders for the MVP, they all however have had big years and were of great value to their teams, particularly Rolen and Huff - two great players who's solid, dependable contributions are often over-looked in favour of their more flashy team-mates.