March 2010

Andy Pettitte: Hall Of Famer?

You haven’t considered that question, have you?
I don’t think it’s anywhere near the 50 most pressing issues of the spring, but it started formulating for me last fall as the veteran Yankees’ lefty cut such an unlikely swath through the post-season. And while the case for a Cooperstown spot for Pettitte is hardly closed, but it is surprisingly compelling.
Comparing across eras is often a dangerous thing, but it does offer a little perspective. And barring a breakdown, at some point in the season ahead Pettitte is going to win his seventh game and pull up into a tie on the all-time victories list with none other than Whitey Ford.
Ford ended what amounted to a 16-year career with a 236-106 record, for a phenomenal winning percentage of .690. Right now Pettitte is at 229-135, which is an impressive .629 (another Yankee great, Herb Pennock, is in Cooperstown with 241 wins and a .598 percentage, and Hal Newhouser of the Tigers is there at 207 with a .579). 
A numbers box follows, just to get to the essence of the thing (the asterisk indicates the numbers have been adjusted to cut out seasons that are just cameos).

                         Ford               Pettitte           Pennock

Seasons              16*                   15                   20*

Wins                   236                  229                  241

Losses                106                  135                  162

Percentage         .690                 .629                 .598

ERA                   2.75                 3.91                 3.60

K                       1956                 2150                1227

W                      1086                  921                  916

20 Win Yrs            2                      2                      2

World Series       10-8                  5-4                   5-0

I’m fascinated by the World Series marks. Pennock made his bones in the post-season, and Ford, from his rookie year of 1950 onwards, became legendary in them. And here’s Pettitte with as many World Series wins as Pennock, and the same post-season percentage as Ford.

I do not go in for lumping all post-season statistics into one number – it is unfair to pitchers pre-1995 and especially pre-1969. Neither should it be ignored that Pettitte is now 13-5 in division and league series. More over, with his triple-play from last fall he has now pitched the decisive game of a playoff series or a World Series an astonishing nine times, and is a tidy 6-1 in such games, with his team having won both of his personal no-decisions, and the one loss being Game Six of the 2003 World Series in which he surrendered exactly one earned run in seven innings. It gets a little less impressive if you include his human torch act in Game Six of the 2001 Series which could have won it for the Yankees – but still, that’s 6-2 in ten potential deciders.
I find Ford was asked to pitch the wrapper three times. He won the finale of the sweep of the Phillies in 1950, got a no decision in the win in Game Six in 1953, and lost the fourth game as the Dodgers swept New York in 1963. As with everything else concerning the post-season, it was tougher for pitchers to get chances to pitch the decider in the days before the playoffs, but Ford did pitch in eleven Series. Pettitte has pitched in no fewer than 28 post-season series (that percentage of deciders pitched is thus still higher than Ford’s).
To this day I think Pettitte deserved the 1996 Cy Young Award, if only for the fact that he went 13-3 after New York losses that season. One wonders if his strong Hall of Fame credentials would be a little more prominently discussed if he’d taken the trophy. If you’d like to be further befuddled by stats and Cooperstown and lefty pitchers, consider one more set: 239-157 (.604), a cumulative post-season mark of 10-5 and a 2-1 record in four deciders. That is David Wells.
YOUR SCORECARD WON’T HELP YOU NOW, MY FRIENDS
I was delighted to settle down, between hospital visits tonight, with MLB Net’s telecast of the Dodgers and White Sox from Arizona, and not merely for the intriguing return of Eric Gagne. Dodgers’ announcer Charley Steiner was my second boss in broadcasting – he hired me 30 years ago last December to jump from UPI Radio to his operation at RKO Radio and from there I was poised to leap into television with CNN (yes, this was before they invented color tv). And I know Charley’s colleague Rick Monday even longer, having interviewed him as far in the past as the 1977 World Series. Rick was later the sports director at Channel 11 in Los Angeles while I held the same post at Channels 5 and 2.

Thumbnail image for 66A.jpgThis monstrosity at the left is included because my friends Charley and Rick were victims of one of the standard media nightmares of the spring. In the bottom of the sixth, the White Sox sent number 83 out to play shortstop. And, of course, as can be the case from the first game of the exhibition season through the last, t
here was no number 83 on the White Sox roster. Managers, especially in split-squad situations and/or road trips, supplement even the usual mass of 40-man roster guys and non-roster invitees with as many as dozen extra minor leaguers on a one-game basis, whose identities are usually written down on the shirt cuff of the visiting Media Relations guy. Anyone in the press box is thus left as helpless as in high school, when whoever kept your scorecard had to exchange rosters with whoever kept theirs (I once had a hockey game in which the rival team wore several years’ worth of uniforms and thus had multiple players wearing the same numbers – they had at least three guys wearing number “5” and tried to fix this by stitching in a little “A” or “B” atop the number).

Anyway, 83 was eventually unmasked as minor leaguer Eduardo Escobar and Rick and Charley moved giddily on to the further disturbing truth that Mr. Escobar was wearing an expandable cap, the surest sign of minor league serfdom. Steiner assured his audience that having been the first pick in the first-ever amateur draft in 1965, Monday suffered no such degradations, whereupon Monday insisted that in his first spring training with the then-Kansas City A’s in 1966, he had been insulted in no less an astonishing way than being assigned uniform number 104.
A-hem.

Monday66.jpg
As they used to say on Letterman, “#104 Rick Monday” is a bit of writer’s embellishment. Conceivably in some instructional camp after they anointed him the first-ever draftee, the A’s made him wear such garb, but it wasn’t in spring training. 
It is kind of marvelous, though, that as late as 1966, number 45 was still the kind of number you gave to a non-roster second-year pro who wasn’t going to make your team. By the time Monday reached the bigs in the fall of ’66 he was wearing 28, and then moved to 7 the following year.
And the White Sox, by the way, later debuted an outfielder named Justin Greene and a pitcher named Justin Cassel (brother of quarterback Matt and pitcher Jack).  Both Justins were wearing number 86.

Johnny Orsino, Hall Of Famer

Ah, the joys of spring training games showing up on my television, enabling me fleeting glances between hospital visits of a spring that here in New York seems a long way off.

The first few exhibitions always make me wonder if any player ever made a greater debut than that of a fairly obscure catcher for the Baltimore Orioles during the exhibition season of 1963. In the preceding off-season, the Birds had moved on from the man who had been virtually the only catcher in their modern history, Gus Triandos, and were auditioning a kid with just 43 games of big league experience whom they’d gotten in a winter deal with San Francisco.
Orsino.jpg
Johnny Orsino had shown a power bat in the minors but was an unproven commodity as the Birds assembled in Miami 47 years ago. More over, he was hurt. A bad back forced him to miss Baltimore’s first six exhibition games. So his first at bat in an Orioles uniform on March 15th was by itself something of a triumph. 
Orsino promptly hit a three-run homer off Joe Moeller of the Dodgers. In his next at bat, he was accidentally intentionally walked (Boog Powell had been balked to second and manager Walter Alston was gesticulating wildly about the call; Dodger catcher Mike Brumley mistakenly believed he was being inexplicably ordered to walk his Oriole counterpart). In his third trip to the plate, Orsino hit another homer, a solo blast.
He came out of the game at that point, and missed Baltimore’s next two exhibitions. But against veteran Reds’ lefty Jim O’Toole at Al Lopez Field in Tampa on March 18th, Orsino made it three homers in three Baltimore ups. Then four in four. Then five in five. 
You read correctly. Not just home runs in five consecutive official at bats, nor just home runs in the first five at bats of spring training, but five consecutive home runs in the first five at bats with a new team. The streak was finally snapped when a Reds’ prospect named John Flavin got Orsino to pop up to the catcher.
Orsino’s unbeatable debut (What? somebody’s going to hit homers in his first six at bats with a new team, even in spring training?) got him considerable attention, and he had a strong season (19-56-.272) as Baltimore’s top receiver in 1964. But the bad back lingered, and he never again played in as many as 100 games in a season. By 1966 the Orioles had dished him off to the Senators, and he spent all but one game of 1967 in the Pacific Coast League, and by 1968 was in Double-A.
But the spring training world was his. It is largely forgotten now, but the Designated Hitter made its debut on the big league level not in 1973, but in a handful of exhibitions in 1969. And the first man to get a hit as “The Designated Pinch Hitter” was a non-roster invitee struggling unsuccessfully to catch on with the Yankees: John Orsino.
OFF TOPIC:
I promised no politics here and I stick to it. But I never said anything about never mentioning other sports, although I think I’ll start that rule about a paragraph from now. If you’d like to read the most poorly-informed conclusion I’ve come across in sports media this year, you have your link. Proceed with caution. In short, it is the contention that the comeback of Tiger Woods will be more difficult than the one Muhammad Ali faced in the 1960’s. If the writer can let me know when Woods is punitively drafted by the military even though he is about eight years older than almost all the other draftees, I’ll begin to take him seriously. In the interim I am again left to marvel how somebody can rise to a fairly prominent media position with no discernible insight or talent, save for an apparent ability to mix up a vast bowl of word salad very quickly. 

Yo, Out Of Here, Adrian – And The Bunning File

I guess you mention this now to decrease your client’s trade value, so maybe the best option for his current team winds up being letting him walk as a free agent. They take the draft choice; you take the percentage of whatever the market can bear. Otherwise there can’t be anything logical about the agent for Adrian Gonzalez explaining he is expecting a Mark Teixeira deal, from the Padres, or from which ever the Padres deal Gonzalez to, or from the free agent market in the winter of 2011-12.

The Padres are not going to summon $180,000,000 even to keep a popular hometown superstar, and it seems unlikely that many other franchises would. If the Cubs really aren’t looking at Derrek Lee long term (how is my Micah Hoffpauir recommendation working out, by the way?), the Chicago teams might battle for him, maybe the Mets, but without the Yankees there to help drive the market, the money just isn’t going to be like that for a player who is not Teixeira’s defensive equal, and it would presumably limit trading interest in a pre-free agent Gonzalez to lesser prospects.
Consider what a difference a year – and a conviction by one team that they could sign him, and the conviction by another that they could not – did to Teixeira’s “value.” In 2008 the nonpareil first baseman was a nice rental in Anaheim at a price of Casey Kotchman and Steve Marek. In 2007 Atlanta (in retrospect, disastrously) gave up Neftali Feliz, Elvis Andrus, Matt Harrison, Jarrod Saltalamacchia, and Beau Jones, thinking they were buying Teixeira.
If new Padres’ GM Jed Hoyer somehow doesn’t see those stark options, there is the added dimension of Gonzalez’s salary. At just $4.75 million this year, with an option for $5.5 million in 2011, he will be paid for two seasons what Jonathan Papelbon asked for in arbitration for just the one ahead of us.
With even the false pretense of a hometown discount erased by the agent’s remarks, there would seem there are three stages to the Padres’ end game with Gonzalez: 1) trade him immediately for a package not unlike what the Braves gave for Teixeira, to a team that believes it can sign him (if you are getting ten years of Gonzalez for the price of eight of Teixeira, the deal suddenly begins to make a little more sense). 2) It is conceivable the personnel price might peak as late as this year’s trade deadline, but certainly beyond it, it will deflate. 3) The last stage is when it just isn’t worth it for anybody to go to the prospect bank to rent Gonzalez for all or part of 2011.
Think of it this way. Trade him today and you can have Andrus, Feliz, and Saltalamacchia. Trade him in July and it might just be Andrus and Saltalamacchia. Wait until July 2011 and maybe it’s just Saltalamacchia.
BUNNING DECONSTRUCTED
I vowed when I started this blog last year to keep politics out of this, so I’ve waited until the news story involving Kentucky Senator/Baseball Hall of Famer Jim Bunning changed from active to past tense tonight, to share an odd bit of research I compiled awhile back.
One of the more intriguing measures of a pitcher is his record in the heat of pennant races. Don Drysdale, measured against the Dodgers’ chief rivals in each season of the ’60s, was only about a .500 pitcher. Juan Marichal pitched closer to .600 ball against the key teams in the Giants’ various pennant pursuits.
Another measure paints a very odd picture of Bunning the pitcher. He just wasn’t that good down the stretch.
Only once in his years with Detroit were the Tigers competitive. On July 15, 1961, they were tied for first with the Maris/Mantle Yankees. From that date on, Bunning posted a record of just 7-5 and his losses were not exactly to the cream of the crop (Baltimore twice, Boston, Chicago, and Minnesota). The Tigers plummeted to second place, eight games out.
1964 can hardly be blamed on Bunning alone, or even to a great degree. But it is still fascinating that however foolhardy Gene Mauch was in running his starters into the ground, the facts were pretty straightforward: On the morning of September 16, Bunning was 17-5 and the Phils were still five games in front. Their ace would make five starts between that day and September 30, and he went 1-4 with a 7.46 ERA. The Phils finished third, though Bunning did win on the last day of the season in a game that could have theoretically forced a playoff.
In 1966, the Phils were still on the outskirts of the pennant race on September 5th, seven out. Bunning had a 16-9 record. He dropped five of his remaining eight decisions and the Phils were no factor down the stretch.
In the winter of 1967-68, the Pirates stripped their farm system of a couple of top prospects (shortstop Don Money, who made it, and lefty pitcher Bill Laxton, who didn’t) and packaged them with quality lefthander Woody Fryman to pry Bunning from Philadelphia. I can recall vividly that many believed the addition of a pitching ace like Bunning made the Pirates the NL favorites for 1968. He went 4-14.
In 1969, the Pirates sold Bunning to the Dodgers in mid-August (and got a couple of fringe prospects to boot) as LA sought to replace the suddenly-retired Drysdale during the frantic five-team NL West title hunt. On August 19, Los Angeles was half a game out. They proceeded to lose six of Bunning’s nine starts (four of the five after September 5, when they were still only a game-and-a-half back). The Dodgers finished fourth, eight out.
Again, you can’t pin any of these pennant race collapses entirely on Bunning. In ’64 the Phillies would never have been in the position to fold had he not dominated the league until the middle of September. In ’68 a lot more went wrong with Pittsburgh than just Bunning. And in ’69 he pitched some fine games in LA that the Dodgers could not win for him. 
But it is odd that not once in four pennant sprints did he finish strongly.

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