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.