June 2009

The Two Best Players You Think Are Doing Terribly

Travis Ishikawa hit a three-run homerun off Brad Thompson in St. Louis tonight. A fairly thoughtful fantasy league site grudgingly complimented him for “filling in well for Rich Aurilia.”

In point of fact, Ishikawa is on a 16-for-48 tear (as a starter) since May 25th, with all five of his homers this year and half of his 24 RBI, in the thirteen starts. The reason he’s been nearly invisible is that between May 27th and June 17th, Ishikawa had started only one game for the Giants. After a pathetic start to the season, he had just begun to get hot when Pablo Sandoval’s arm acted up and made it impossible to make any throws on those few balls he gets to at third base. So Ishikawa hit the pine and Sandoval moved to first. 
It is extraordinary to consider that Ishikawa was one of the toasts of the Cactus League after seven spring homers, then didn’t connect until May 25, then got hot as a pistol — and is still being viewed as a stopgap. The man is averaging just under an RBI per start, has whacked five homers in thirteen starts, and he still gets the Dangerfield treatment.
Meantime, raise your hand if you saw Chad Gaudin’s selection as Co-Player Of The Week in the NL and thought it was a typo. 
Raise your hand if you’re not sure who he’s playing for.
Raise it again if you can’t remember if he’s a pitcher or a hitter.
Gaudin struck out 11 Mariners in seven innings of four-hit ball on Tuesday, then followed that up with probably as good a game as any visiting starter has thrown in Arlington: limiting the Rangers to one hit over eight, and striking out nine of them. Three starts back it was a six-inning, eight-K loss at Petco against Seattle. Even now his seasonal line (4-6, 4.97, 1.39) looks more than a little wobbly. It is, in fact, a picture of five very bad starts (two against the Diamondbacks, one each against the Cubs, Dodgers, and Angels) mixed in with eight really good ones, including those last three in a row.
There are several axioms at work here. There is always a pitcher who suddenly “gets” it thanks to instruction from new coaches or managers (how many organizations owned Johan Santana?). There is always another who is released by a contender (usually under ignominious circumstances, like Gaudin, dropped by the Cubs so they could keep Rule Fiver David Patton) and flourishes elsewhere. And there is always at least one who does the Brigadoon bit and pitches perfectly for a limited time and a limited time only (go look up Aaron Small). Gaudin could be any one of these guys and actually fulfill the glimpses of promise he showed in Tampa and then Oakland. Of course if he’s all three he could run the table and the Padres could challenge for the N.L. West after all.

Some Mets Afraid Of Ghosts

I hate ghosts. They’re spooky. And I don’t respond well to spooky behavior.

                – Amy Poehler as “Maxine Walken,” Saturday Night Live, 2008



It is beyond tempting to give names to any of the three players involved, but as the New York Mets prepared for their road trip beginning in Milwaukee, those guys – and maybe more – are worried about ghosts.
The Mets are staying at the venerable Pfister Hotel and once again the 106-year old landmark has been cited as a place in which rooms might be booked by Supernatural Expedia. The local legend is that it’s one of the hotel’s founders, well-dressed and amiably, if somewhat transparently, still greeting guests from a perch on the 9th floor.
Cardinals’ infielder Brendan Ryan told a local television reporter that he sensed something from another world in his room at the Pfister: “It was more like a moving light that kind of passed through the room. It was very strange. The room got a little bit chillier. Strange things. Strange things.”
This is from a guy who has had to participate in the Bat-The-Pitcher-8th deal, so he knows his strange.
One non-believing Met has been egging on two of his teammates. One is a rookie who seems a little vulnerable to suggestion (and should really wonder if he isn’t being set-up for a Tim Hudson/Moe Drabowsky level of sophisticated practical joke while at the Pfister). The other is veteran whom the provocateur claims is seriously contemplating staying at another hotel and seems to have convinced himself he’d rather take his chances at Jack Nicholson’s place from The Shining.

Before you observe that the Mets should be more worried about trying to find the ghost of their offense, just in terms of the Pfister, there should be more practical concerns. The hotel was the scene of the most infamous fights in modern baseball history, which has twice been described to me with the phrase “Wild West Saloon Brawl.” The perpetrators were the 1974 Yankees, arriving in Milwaukee on September 30 for the end of the season with a slim chance to reclaim the lead in the A.L. East. Instead, backup catcher Rick Dempsey and backup utilityman Bill Sudakis, already jabbing on the plane, both tried to get through the Pfister’s revolving front door.
The breaking of the logjam at the door seemed to propel the two men into each other. The next thing that amazed on-lookers knew, furniture and players were flying around the lobby (the New York Times elegantly called it “brief but violent”). At least one vintage lamp was used like a javelin, and one version of the story has a chair being launched, either by Dempsey or Sudakis. Dempsey later told me that he knew if Sudakis, or somebody, didn’t stop him, he was going to kill Sudakis with his bare hands.
Unfortunately, the late Bobby Murcer decided he had to break it up with his bare hands. Murcer, a month away from being traded to the Giants for Bobby Bonds, also broke his pinky in the process and had to be scratched from the do-or-die game the next night. His replacement in rightfield, Lou Piniella, backed away from a tweener fly ball in the 7th, costing the Yankees the lead, in a game they would lose in extra innings – and in the process, be eliminated.
There should be at least a plaque in the Pfister about that. And if there really is a ghost, it should be of the 1974 Yankees’ post-season hopes.
YES, YOU WALK JETER TO PITCH TO MARIANO RIVERA, BUT:

As various announcers kept insisting with jaws agape that with runners at first and second, two out, Derek Jeter up, Mariano Rivera on deck, Yankees 3, Mets 2, top nine, that the Mets were insane to have Francisco Rodriguez pitch – even cautiously – to Jeter, two thoughts occurred to me:
1) What exactly would you do to K-Rod in the event Rivera got his bat on the ball and blooped a single somewhere, or worked out a bases-loaded walk (as he did)?, and…
2) Did anybody remember Joe Torre’s assessment of his outfield a few years back? That based on pure athleticism, his second most-gifted centerfielder would be Derek Jeter, and his first most-gifted centerfielder would be… Mariano Rivera?
EXTRAORDINARY IMAGE OF THE WEEK:

Jerry Manuel, whose obvious humanity earns him the respect and affection of virtually all who are privileged to know him, still can produce an occasional howler of a blooper.
On both Friday and Saturday, he insisted to the media that he was comfortable playing Ryan Church in center “because he’s played it in JFK.” We all assumed he meant RFK in Washington, because center at JFK Airport is around 18,000 square yards and has planes in it.

The Philadelphia Spiders?

The Phillies, who have brought new meaning to the phrase “home away from home,” are in St. Petersburg tonight, giving us time to contemplate the insanity of a divisional leader having lost 22 of its first 35 games in its own park. For the record, in the NL East only the Mets are at .500 or better at home, and that 13-22 mark for the Phils compares unfavorably to Washington’s 12-23 home start.

Futility at home always brings back fond Collective Baseball Consciousness Memories of the 1899 Cleveland Spiders, baseball’s all-time worst team, and the last to actually abandon their home city in midseason. Cleveland was the National League’s third most successful franchise during the monopoly years of the 1890′s, but in those days there were no rules about the same people owning more than one franchise. When the St. Louis Browns slid into bankruptcy before the season of 1899, the Cleveland owners, the Robison Brothers, bought that team as well. 
With St. Louis then being a far larger market, and less than three weeks before Opening Day 1899, the Robisons promptly transferred all 20 of the Spiders’ top players – including future Hall of Famers Cy Young, Jesse Burkett, and Bobby Wallace – out of Cleveland. The Spiders, filled with has-beens, reserves, and occasionally local amateurs signed for cameos, lost 20 of their first 23 games, and managed to draw a total of 3,179 fans for their first 16 home games (you not only read that right – less than 200 fans a game – but many contemporary reports suggested that those numbers were padded).

It quickly went from bad to unbelievable, even for the fluid standards of 19th Century baseball. By a July 1st home doubleheader split with Boston, the Spiders were 11-48. It was at this point that the Robisons decided that there was very little purpose in playing any more games in Cleveland. They would perform in front of the home fans (fan) only eight times thereafter, and as a wandering tribe of dispirited players, they finished the year with the remarkable record of 20 wins and 134 losses (9-33 at home, 11-101 on the road, and 0-13 in Cincinnati). Cleveland ended up in twelfth place, 84 games behind first-place Brooklyn and 35 games behind eleventh-place Washington. And of course it got worse as it went along. The Spiders lost 35 of their last 36 games (only one of them played in Cleveland).
Necessarily the Spideys produced some horrific statistics, especially for pitchers. Coldwater Jim Hughey, the staff ace, was 4-30 (and the majors’ last thirty game loser). Charlie Knepper finished 4-22, and Frank Bates, 1-18. Among the position players, Lave Cross is a longshot Hall of Fame candidate (and after suffering as player-manager until June, was ransomed back to St. Louis). Saddest of all, the man who might have been the most talented athlete in the game’s history, Louis “Chief” Sockalexis, was already so far lost to alcohol that he lasted just seven games with history’s worst team, and was dropped on May 14.
Thus at 13-22 at home, the ’09 Phils are already guaranteed to do better than this gothic nightmare out of the pages of the history of baseball greediness.

Five Innings For A Win?

Join me in a hypothetical, starring a manager who has shown a past willingness to use his starters in limited relief on their “throw” days, Bobby Cox.

It’s Javier Vazquez’s turn and Derek Lowe’s throw day (or, if you fear I’m jinxing Vazquez, I think you might be able to flip them). The Braves are up 2-0 with nobody out as Vazquez takes the mound for the two outs in the top of the third inning. He throws an obvious strike, which the ump calls outside. Vazquez detonates and is ejected.
You supply the reason – his bullpen is short, or it’s overworked, or Lowe really needs to work on something in a game situation, or the All-Star break looms and he’s going to get too much rest – but, for whatever purpose, Cox summons Lowe, intending to have him throw no more than 25 pitches. Lowe does so with maximum efficiency, and exits for a pinch-hitter in the bottom of the fifth, the Braves now up 4-0. They win 6-0.
By the rules of scoring, Lowe is going to be credited with the win. The starting pitcher, Vazquez, is, alone among all pitchers, required to finish five innings with an unvanquished lead. Of course we have just constructed the scenario in which two pitchers, both of them starters, have produced nearly identically: Vazquez has thrown 2.2 scoreless, Lowe 2.1.
Now, obviously, in this case Lowe is literally, if not traditionally, a relief pitcher. But this hypothesis is designed to show a scenario in which merely the act of being the relief pitcher earns Lowe a win, while merely the act of being the starting pitcher disqualifies Vazquez from a win. And it is built to underscore the point: why does this rule exist?
In the He-Man Days of the Complete Game the inference was obvious to us. Starting pitchers who didn’t make it through five were not only not worthy of getting a victory, they were not really worthy of being starters, and should suffer the ignominy of that halfway house that was known as the bullpen. Certainly we have lost nearly all of that bigotry towards the reliever, that he is necessarily a failed starter. If that still existed, it was certainly killed off by the conversions of guys like Righetti, Smoltz, and Lowe himself, from starter to closer (and in two cases, back again).
There was, as I recall from the ’60s, a certain lingering fear that the Five Innings Rule was necessary to protect against a statistical armageddon. You could construct a scenario based on the 1972 Phillies where there is a horrific team with one unhittable pitcher with a rubber arm and the a chance to win 30 games in a season. Why not start him every third day for the last month of the season, and pull him after three innings or the attaining of a lead, whichever came first? Our alternate-universe Carlton could’ve won 30 or 35 that way.
Certainly that fear has to be gone by now. Faced with going down 3-1 to the Indians in the 2007 playoffs or starting Josh Beckett on short rest, Terry Francona bit the bullet and took the former. In their life-or-death battle last September, the Mets had to be talked into letting Johan Santana pitch on three days’ rest rather than four – by Santana. The likelihood of abuse in a world without a Five Innings Rule seems almost nil.
There was certainly also the belief that a reliever coming in for a starter struggling with a lead before five innings had been completed, was probably going to pitch as long, or nearly as long, as the starter. How often is that true?
And I’m not of the opinion that a sudden elimination of the rule would lead to managers yanking starters even earlier – or at least any earlier than a batter or two, usually in the fifth. Ask all 30 managers what one wish they’d ask of a Baseball Genii and I think all 30 would answer “starters going seven every night.”
All these ruminations come from the Mets-Rays game in New York this afternoon. Jeff Niemann of Tampa Bay did not pitch well by any stretch of the imagination (4 IP, 4 BB, 3 H, 2 ER). But he left for a pinch-hitter in the top of the fifth, losing 2-0; they rallied in that inning to lead 4-2. If the Rays had held onto the lead (they did not; Lance Cormier coughed it up) Niemann would have been ineligible for the win even though he was technically the pitcher of record when the runs were scored, and Cormier or one of the others who pitched even more poorly than he did, would necessarily have gotten it.
Just a thought here: is the Five Innings Rule a meaningless vestige of the past? Should it be eliminated? Modified to four innings? Left to the Official Scorer’s discretion?

F-Rod?

Lost in the adventures of Luis Castillo at Yankee Stadium last Friday was the reality that even if Castillo had made a game-ending catch, Francisco Rodriguez would have begun tonight’s Mets game in Baltimore having recorded consecutive saves in which he had allowed two base runners and just escaped with his life.

Tonight he did not escape, and so K-Rod has, in four appearances, one Save, one other clean 9th, two combination Blown Saves/Losses, and one pre-game argument with a guy 35 pounds heavier than him. This is no more evidence that he’s hurt or in pitching distress, than the fact that somebody finally roughed up Trevor Hoffman suggests that Hoffman is in trouble.
But in the superheated atmosphere of New York, both questions will be raised about Frankie, especially in the context of the Mets’ bullpen troubles, which have endured for a decade and proved fatal the last two seasons. The more important issue, of course, is what exactly would the Mets do if there really was something wrong with Rodriguez? J.J. Putz is out, perhaps until September. Bobby Parnell is a rookie who has been more than challenged by merely the 8th Inning role. Sean Green has been strong for a month, and in ten save opportunities over four big league seasons, he has converted only one of them, and Pedro Feliciano is only four-for-twelve.
Minor league resources? The “Closer Of The Future,” Eddie Kunz, is working set-up at Buffalo, with major league journeyman Elmer Dessens finishing the games.
There are stories that Billy Wagner has found the Lourdes of baseball and expects to be pitching in big league games in 30 days. What kind of story would it be if the Mets really needed him?

Johan Santana Must Be Hurt (Updated With Quotes)

This does not come from Mets sources, and it does not come from ballpark speculation, and it certainly does not come from the player himself, but barring an extraordinary breakdown in the mechanics of the game’s most-mechanically sound pitcher, Johan Santana must be pitching with an imposing injury.

This thought had been in the back of my mind since a fired-up Santana virtually willed the Mets to a victory in Boston, then followed that with a six-walk game against Washington on May 27, and finally his four-homer victory over the Phillies last week. Having now gotten to see Santana from field level during his implosion this afternoon at Yankee Stadium, there is not only the loss of velocity suggested by the radar guns, but he also seemed to have a softer break on his breaking stuff, and he clearly had trouble keeping the ball down. Many of the Yankees’ nine hits would have been swinging strikes on Santana pitches in the dirt, if he was 100 percent. Hideki Matsui’s homer might as well have been hit off a tee.
The one flaw in Santana’s makeup is the gung-ho attitude that has otherwise contributed mightily to the making of a superstar. If you will remember, he just missed single-handedly forcing the Mets into the playoffs last year with one of the great pitching performances in Mets’ history, his shutout of the Marlins on the next-to-last-day of the regular season.
That was on Saturday. On Wednesday, Santana was being operated on to repair a torn meniscus in his left knee. He had been pitching through its pain for the last month of the season. He had come back from a 125-pitch performance to mesmerize the Marlins, and had done so on three days’ rest.
And all that time, he had been pitching while hurt.
If he’s doing it again, the Mets’ 15-0 loss at Yankee Stadium will have been the least of their problems.
UPDATE, 5:00 PM EDT: Post-game, Santana insisted he has no arm problems nor any other injury (“no, not at all.”). See if you can spot the phrase that might make Mets’ fans doubt him:
“It was a bad day, worst of my career. I’m fine, it’s not excuses or anything, it’s just that today was a tough day.” Was his velocity down? “No, not at all. I made a few mistakes locating my pitches and if you are not able to locate the ball around the plate, that’s what’s going to happen.” No injuries at all? “I had some soreness in my back about a month ago. We battled through it. I had a split nail on my finger. We battled through it.” No lingering effects from either of those small problems? “No, I’m fine. We battled through it. Not a dead arm, not even close.”
AND THE NOBEL PEACE PRIZE GOES TO:

Jose Veras of the Yankees and Mike Pelfrey of the Mets seem to have gotten in between Francisco Rodriguez and Brian Bruney, just in time. Bruney’s remarks about K-Rod’s not-entirely-deserved “L” on Friday had inspired the Met closer to confront Bruney in the outfield during batting practice. K-Rod was giving away at least three inches and at least forty pounds to Bruney… Top Observation from the Mets’ on the new ballpark in the Bronx comes from veteran Mets’ media relations guru Jay Horwitz. Asked what he thought of the place, Jay said, with a tone of mild surprise, “It looks a lot like the old Yankee Stadium.” Told that that was the point, Jay didn’t miss a beat. “Oh, well, then they did a really good job”… whatever comes of Santana, the Mets continued to struggle defensively. Luis Castillo dropped a skydiver:
IMG_0749.JPG

Details later from a more blog-friendly venue…

But sitting behind the plate at Yankee Stadium

You will not convince me Santana is not hurt

Marquis Performer

If you’ve seen Baseball Prospectus you may have waded through my overly cute introduction – at minimum you know I am awed by the accuracy of the forecasts of the figure filberts.

But every year, amid the Nostramadus-like exactitude of most of the player line previews, they miss by more than a mile. Last year it was Cliff Lee. This year an early front-runner for the 2009 version is Jason Marquis.
The Rockies’ righthander is now at 8-4, 3.98, 1.34.
BP predicted 6-10, 5.57, 1.61.
This is not to say they could not still come awfully close. The forecast was for 21 starts and 11 relief appearances. Marquis would not exactly have to go up like downtown Chicago in 1871 to go 0-6 the rest of the year, fall out of the rotation after nine more starts, and inflate the ERA by not much more than a run and a half. Manny Parra could offer him instructions.
Still, as I noted in that intro, spooky things do seem to follow when the forecast maximums are reached. Tim Hudson was expected to end up 12-10 last season; he got to 11-7 and then his elbow went blooey. Mr. Marquis is now two wins past where he was supposed to end up.
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