Imagine for a second this scenario: a New York team wins consecutive pennants. They lose the first World Series to a lightning-in-a-bottle fast-finisher from the other league. They lose the next year to another one-month-wonder despite twice being one strike away from sealing the deal in Game 6. The New York team owner – one of the most famous men in sports – has to decide whether or not to retain his popular, African-American manager after the latter tests positive for cocaine. This was after he built the batting order around a recovered addict, who then falls off the wagon in the weeks before he was to get a nine-figure contract extension.
Can you picture that? It would be Armageddon every day at that ballpark as the media – not just in New York but nationally – struggled merely to decide whether these misceants were to be called the worst chokers of all time, or a bunch of druggies, or the team with the owner who needed to be run out of the game on a rail for letting such tainted underachievement continue. It would be, to adapt Dorothy Parker’s phrase to baseball, a Fresh Hell every day.
Of course, you don’t have to imagine anything here but the geography. This is not the imaginary story of the most controversial New York team of all time. It’s the 2012 Texas Rangers – and only their worst headlines – and in one of the most meaningful and revealing truths about baseball, and sports media, and America itself, they remain one of our feel good stories.
It’s not just New York, by the way. The 180 degree difference in how the New York Baseball Rangers would be treated, would also be true of the Boston Rangers or the Philadelphia Rangers or the Los Angeles Rangers. Regardless of the venue, it’s amazing, and it’s real.
And it’s relevant to a preview of the American League West because it means what is largely the same team can try it again for the third straight year – without Josh Hamilton being traded for Ken Phelps or Ron Washington being replaced by Dallas Green. There are only two notable changes: a real closer in Joe Nathan, and C.J. Wilson being swapped out for Yu Darvish.
The former move seems to reduce the variables; the latter may do the opposite. Darvish is the prototypical Japanese pitcher – with slight deception in the delivery, a mastery of five pitches and about four subtle varieties for each of them, and a rubber arm (at least for awhile). But Darvish is something Nomo and Matsuzaka and the rest are not: he is a Giant. He is 6’5”, 215, meaning he’s bigger than Nathan and Colby Lewis, and at least taller than Josh Hamilton. So the four different fastballs come in as fast as 95.
Watching Darvish against Colorado last week was watching the biggest kid in Kindergarten playfully slapping all the other ones. Half of them fell unconscious to the floor. The others? He missed them and he fell to the floor. The Rockies got their licks in, but in six at bats against him, Cargo and Tulo struck out six times and didn’t look close on any of the swinging strikes. It is almost a given (since we still condescendingly look at even Japan’s greatest veteran stars as our freshmen) that Darvish takes the Rookie Award in the AL. He may take the Cy. He may also go 12-15. The question isn’t whether or not he’ll make American batters look bad most of the time, but whether he might make American pitchers look bad most of the time.
The Rangers have competition in Orange County, but the ANGELS are the most tragically snake-bitten of all teams, and investments like the zillions spent on Wilson and Albert Pujols have always ended in tears – usually the late Gene Mauch’s. Despite the addition of Pujols and the resurrection of Kendrys “Just Shake Hands” Morales, the Cherubs are nowhere near a match for Texas offensively (hell, the ’27 Yankees might not be). The Mark Trumbo third base play comes at considerable defensive risk, and the bullpen remains a series of risky albeit probably good gambles. Ironically, for all that money, the difference-maker for Mike Scioscia might be his fifth starter, either retread Jerome Williams or rookie Garrett Richards, who at times looked lights out this spring.
There might be something to watch in SEATTLE. My affection for Jesus Montero’s opposite field power has been elaborated upon here before. But there is a flock of young hitters around him who might also blossom, and not just Dustin Ackley. Smoak, Carp (hurt), Saunders, Liddi, Gutierrez (hurt), and behind them Catricala and another Fernando Martinez might make the Mariners Wild Card eligible in a year. Probably would’ve helped if they hadn’t traded Doug Fister, because the rotation gets dicey just about the time you ask “Kevin Millwood is still alive?”
My friend Bob Melvin gets his first full year managing again, in OAKLAND. He loves to do it and was born to do it, and if anybody can drag this team back into respectability after its latest re-casting, it’s Bob. Unfortunately, even though he only played 11 games there in his career, Bob might be the best first baseman he has, and that’s a problem. The base hits get thin once you get past the exciting Jemile Weeks and the possibly exciting Yoenis Cespedes. And I won’t write anything long-winded on the latter for fear of being accusedof being Cespedes-sesquipedalian.
It’ll be fun watching the A’s continue their role as baseball’s breeding and/or training grounds for B+ pitchers. Mulder, Zito, Hudson, Harden, Haren, Street, Gonzalez, Cahill, Bailey, Anderson, et al. The new names are De Los Santos, Milone, Parker, and Peacock and maybe baseball can get on the stick and get the A’s into San Jose before they become eligible for the A’s Alumni Association, too.
AMERICAN LEAGUE WEST FORECAST:
TEXAS wins again, with Darvish filling the Wilson vacuum. LOS ANGELES/ANAHEIM/THE OC, afflicted by some calamity, still has enough to claim a wild card. SEATTLE approaches .500, and OAKLAND does better than you’d think.
Love the Braves taking a flier on third baseman Juan Francisco. He may amount to nothing, but he is capable of a Jose Bautista like breakout, and he’s no more of a load defensively than Cabrera or Trumbo. He was dying a slow death in Cincinnati where I believe Dusty Baker never played him two games in a row. Because he isn’t 37.
Got it first Sunday at a chain bookstore here and have not dived fully in, but the predictions based on Statistical Reduction and a dozen other complicated formulae cascade out upon you from every page and it’s worth mentioning a few even before anybody’s done a thorough vetting of what they’ve got.
The most poignant of them, perhaps, are the minimalist predictions for the Yankees’ only offensive addition (“his dense hasn’t been good in a decade, and his bat is barely good enough to fill a DH role”) compared to the man the franchise downgraded, degraded, and then forced into retirement:
Player PA 2B 3B HR RBI AVG/OBP/SLG WARP
Raul Ibanez 552 28 3 17 65 .251/.311./.416 1.5
Jorge Posada 376 18 0 13 45 .260/.350/.440 2.1
The predictions were done, obviously, before Ibanez signed with the Yankees and do not account for their intention to sit him against lefthanders. If that brings Ibanez’s predicted Plate Appearances down the 32 percent or so to where the Posada predicted Plate Appearances are, the BP forecast for Ibanez translates to 19 doubles, 2 triples, and 44 RBI.
In short, the stats – and remember this is the predictive formula that got Evan Longoria’s rookie season virtually exactly correct, even though it had nothing but college and minor league data to work with – suggest Jorge Posada would’ve had a better year than Raul Ibanez will have. This underscores a point that has become clearer and clearer to me since the Montero-Pineda trade: Brian Cashman and the Yankees are approaching 2012 in exactly the opposite way they should be. They are not flush with hitting and weak with starting. Their offense is, in fact, getting dangerously old, and the only immediate productivity from their farm system was likely to be more starting pitching (the traded Hector Noesi, plus Manuel Banuelos and Dellin Betances). They did not have a hitter to trade, least of all one that Cashman compared to Miguel Cabrera.
I’ll go into the Yankees’ age problem in another post but the Alex Rodriguez prediction is appropriate here:
Player PA 2B 3B HR RBI AVG/OBP/SLG WARP
Alex Rodriguez 437 18 0 24 66 .279/.377/.525 4.3
BP has long been known as a deflator of the balloons of hope. It sees Mike Trout getting just 250 ups this year, with a 4-24-.254/.317/.369 line. Bryce Harper gets the same number of plate appearances, and just 7-26-.239/.304/.383. The rookies it likes best include an unusually large lot of catchers: Jesus Montero (2.7 WARP), Robinson Chirinos (2.5), Ryan Lavarnway (2.3; I agree; Boston hopes this year may rest on whether or not anybody on the “New Sox” has the vision to see it); James Darnell (2.1) and Devin Mesoraco (2.1). The likelies to crash (in terms of WARP falloff) are Jose Bautista, Jacoby Ellsbury, Alex Gordon, Matt Kemp, Alex Avila, and Jeff Francoeur – but even with that it still sees Bautista at 9th in that category in the AL and Kemp tied for 7th in the NL.
What it says about the big Pujols move, and the other transactions, I leave to the hard-working editors and publishers. I’ve stolen enough of their thunder.
As to an evaluation of the book itself, there is a format change. In past years, players were grouped by the teams they were with in the preceding year. In this edition, all those who have moved before the publishing deadline have been put in the sections of their new teams – which sounds great, except when you go looking for Pujols and Fielder you’ll find the former with the Angels and the latter with the Brewers instead of the Tigers. It’s a nice try but ultimately not helpful.
And in what is either a booming typo or a bizarre redefinition, the very last leader board in the book – Rookie Pitchers’ WARP – seems to list last year’s rookie pitchers. Unless I’m missing something, Pineda, Hellickson, Ogando, Kimbrel, Sale, et al, don’t get a second bite at the kiddo apple.
The reaction to the Pineda-Montero trade is unanimous: Everybody seems to believe it was a hugely significant deal, but a ripoff of biblical proportions. Unfortunately, I have yet to read consecutive analyses saying who did the ripping.
My concern is the other part. Ever the contrarian, I am not convinced this is an epic trade, nor a rip-off. I’m not convinced by either of these guys.
I suppose the confusion originates with the similarly disparate conclusions about Montero’s ability to survive on the major league level. Before he hit the Bronx last September there was no middle about him. He was either the next great slugger and at least a sufficient catcher, or an overrated stumblebum whose ceiling might be Jake Fox.
I don’t think September cleared things up for us. He drove in a dozen runs and slugged .590 in 61 at bats, and showed the kind of jaw-dropping opposite field power off the middle-to-high fastball that seems to appear only once per decade. But as the Yankees cruised towards the division title amid the Red Sox collapse and a Rays surge that could never have threatened them, they trusted Montero to start exactly one game behind the plate. He wound up catching thirteen more innings in two other games and four of five baserunners stole off him. He did not impress defensively.
Nevertheless, the real question mark should be how New York used him – or didn’t use him – in its post-season cameo. Yes, Jorge Posada got on base eleven times in 19 plate appearances (five singles, four walks, a hit batsman, and a triple) but he didn’t drive in a single run and six of his eight outs were whiffs. It is intriguing that only one of the hits, only one of the walks, and the lone HBP came in the two Yankee wins (9-3 and 10-1 wins no less). Posada’s fireworks were mostly empty calories. Montero, meanwhile, appeared only in the rout portion of the latter and went 2-2 with an RBI.
The Yankees also just traded a bat when the forecast for their 2012 production is not optimistic. Alex Rodriguez slowed to a crawl last year, Curtis Granderson vanished in late August and Russell Martin long before that, Nick Swisher was all over the place, and there is only one Robinson Cano. I realize Joe Girardi envisions the DH spot as a place to park the fading Rodriguez or the beaten-up Swisher on a given day but this “keep ’em fresh” use of the DH implies that the batters you’re going to use there are still of value. To me, the Yankee batting order got almost spasmodic in the second half of last season and a great young power-hitting bat in its middle would be far more useful than another young starting pitcher.
That is, if the Yankees really believed Montero was a great young power bat. I’m convinced that for all of Brian Cashman’s comparisons of Jesus Montero to Miguel Cabrera and Mike Piazza, he has decided that there is some grave flaw not just in his glove but in his bat. Cash was reportedly ready to trade Montero to Seattle for Cliff Lee in 2010 but balked at trading Montero and Eduardo Nunez (this was confirmed for me last summer by another Major League GM). Cashman has been surprisingly willing to trade this supposed blue chip prospect for whatever the drooling Mariners would surrender. It was suggestive enough that he seemed to value Nunez more highly than Montero. And now, if he just traded a Cabrera or a Piazza for a Michael Pineda, he’s an idiot – and I don’t think he’s an idiot.
And I’m giving Pineda the benefit of the doubt here. I was first astonished by this guy’s potential during a throwaway appearance at the end of a televised Mariners’ game late in spring training 2010. His spectacular start to 2011 was no real surprise to me, and I’m assuming even though they cuffed him up for three earned on five walks and three hits in five innings at Seattle on May 27th, the impression was left on New York brass that this was one of the coming mound stars of the game. After all, before that start at Safeco, Pineda had been 6-2, with 61 K’s in 58-1/3 innings. He’d only given up 46 hits and only twice had walked more than two men in a game.
Pineda went 3-8 thereafter.
He was still good in June, and what followed could very easily have been exhaustion – except he had managed 139 innings pitched in the minors in 2010 and 138 two years before that. This was not totally foreign territory. And yet he collapsed at the All-Star Break:
GS IP ER BB K HR W L ERA WHIP G/A OA
Before 18 113 38 36 113 10 8 6 3.03 1.04 0.84 .198
After 10 58 33 19 60 8 1 4 5.12 1.38 1.38 .236
Look, a 1.38 WHIP is not going to kill you, not with the Yankees. Consider that for all the disappointment the second half tacked on to his rookie season, Pineda got run support of 5.16 for the season (Derek Lowe/Dan Haren/Chris Carpenter territory). The Yankees gave all of their guys a lot more help: Ivan Nova 8.82, Freddy Garcia 7.49, A.J. Burnett 7.19, CC Sabatha 6.98, and Bartolo Colon 6.41.
But there is another disappointing set of splits to consider. Pineda not only did better in the pitcher’s paradise that is Safeco, but he did better in a supremely bizarre way.
Michael Pineda’s home-road splits:
GS IP ER BB K 2B 3B HR W L ERA WHIP G/A OA
Home 12 77 25 28 82 3 0 9 5 4 2.92 1.01 0.92 .182
Away 16 94 46 27 91 21 2 9 3 4 4.40 1.17 1.05 .234
Do you see it?
Michael Pineda surrendered only 12 extra-base hits at home, exactly one a game. On the road, he gave up 32 of them, exactly two a game. The homers are the same but the doubles helped to kill him.
Another stat to throw at you. His BABIP (for the un-SABRized, the opponents’ Batting Average on Balls hit In Play) was .258. That was the ninth lowest in the majors last year, and while having the ninth lowest opponents’ batting average on anything would intuitively be a good thing, in this case it ain’t. The BABIP for all pitchers combined was .291, which implies that on as much as thirteen percent of the outs Pineda got on balls the hitters hit, Pineda was lucky they were outs. Low BABIPs (or high ones) tend to correct themselves over the course of a season, or from one season to another, which is as good an explanation for his opponents’ actual batting average to jump by .038 after the All-Star Break as is “he got tired at 113 innings.”
There are a lot of numbers in here, but between Pineda’s second half (and road) woes, and the Yankees’ remarkable unwillingness to put Montero on the spot in the playoffs, I infer that this wasn’t a rip-off, and it wasn’t a trade of future Hall of Famers – that it might have just been the trade of a couple of high-ceiling but deeply flawed ballplayers.
Pitchers and Catchers report, New York temperatures clear 40 degrees, and somebody issues a forecast that references “55” by the end of the week and it’s not the age of the latest pitcher the Yankees invited to camp.
sses Young and Capuano, and the likelihood that R.A. Dickey actually found himself last season at the age of 35). And the bullpen? You don’t want to know about the bullpen.
I wonder sometimes if I am still living in the baseball city in which I was born.
At almost any point from my teen years to several months ago, the New York newspapers would by now have been calling for the dismissal of Yankees’ GM Brian Cashman, and the public shaming and court-martialing of the Wilpon family.
Instead I am reading a lot about how the Yankees will be “better balanced” without Cliff Lee; that they can get the bullpen depth they need instead, and a righty bat off the bench. Yes, having Sergio Mitre as your third starter and thus sinking to a record around .500 is about as balanced as you can get.
When the city isn’t making excuses for the Yanks’ impenetrable player acquisition strategy, it is commending new Mets’ GM Sandy Alderson as a great baseball man. So’s John McGraw, and what’s more, McGraw’s made just as many big moves this winter as Alderson has.
Seriously, I’m a baseball fan who happens to be a Yankee customer, and I did not have an irrational rooting interest in whether or not Lee ended up in the Bronx. But between the Yanks’ two failures to get him, and the sudden signing of Russell Martin, I’m very dubious about the chain of logic in the front office – if any.
As I recall, the trade with Seattle for Lee fell through last summer because Brian Cashman refused to part with both catching prospect Jesus Montero and shortstop prospect Eduardo Nunez. Nunez, of course, later came up to New York and showed he might survive as a utilityman but right now doesn’t come close to being even a reliable .250 hitter. I have heard two completely conflicting sets of information about Montero: the first that he is the Super Prospect: an influential catcher in all aspects of the job, and a potent bat. The second is that he has not grown either as a defender, handler of pitchers, or check on baserunners, and that his swing has more than one hole.
In 25 years of carefully watching scouting reports, when they conflict this much, I’ve never seen the positive ones prove correct. More over, it is clear that the real catching prospect in the Yankee system is young Gary Sanchez, who cut across rookie ball and at Staten Island like lightning this summer.
And now mix Russell Martin into the recipe. And the re-signed Derek Jeter, with the loose plan that he’ll play shortstop for another two years, by which time Jorge Posada will have presumably retired and Jeter can slide over to become a 39-year old DH without any measurable power.
So Montero has no role in 2010 and Nunez won’t be thought of for a job (one he probably can’t handle anyway) until 2012? And they are in New York and Cliff Lee is not? And even assuming the statistics, the history, the precedent, and the hands of time are wrong about Jeter and Cashman is right – nobody is yelling at Yankee management? Even though there are no prominent pitchers to trade for (and don’t say “Felix Hernandez” – he has a no-trade deal and the Yankees are reportedly on the no-way list)?
And the Mets of this winter make the Yankees of this winter look like the Red Sox of this winter. When you are operating in the nation’s largest community, and your team is without a single nearly-ready position prospect, and you still haven’t bitten the bullet on Luis Castillo and Ollie Perez, and you insist there are no economic restrictions on your personnel budget, and your top free agent signees are two guys dropped by the Pirates, surely some member of the Enraged Fourth Estate that has made this city the cuss-filled territory it is today should be demanding that the team either get on the stick or let the fans in for free.
It would be nice to dismiss this as the ranting of a big market fan with a sense of entitlement and a terrible fear he is finally facing his comeuppance. But face it, in the smaller markets, when the ownership misleads you and puts an inferior product on the field, they do not have the further gall to charge you $100 a ticket in the upper deck.