Results tagged ‘ Josh Hamilton ’

2012 Previews: A.L. West

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.

Sorry.

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.

UNRELATED NOTE:

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.

The Cardinals Rally To Overcome…The Cardinals?

Was that the greatest World Series game ever played?

For games in which a team, having put itself on the precipice of elimination because of managerial and/or strategic incompetence, then stumbles all  over itself in all the fundamentals for eight innings, and still manages to prevail? Yes – Game Six, Rangers-Cardinals, was the greatest World Series Game of all-time. I’ve never seen a team overcome itself like that.

But the Cardinals’ disastrous defense (and other failures) probably disqualifies it from the top five all-time Series Games, simply because it eliminates the excellence requisite to knock somebody else off the list. Mike Napoli’s pickoff of Matt Holliday was epic, and the homers of Josh Hamilton and David Freese were titanic and memorable. But history will probably judge the rest of the game’s turning points (Freese’s error, Holliday’s error, Holliday’s end of the pickoff, Darren Oliver pitching in that situation, the Rangers’ stranded runners, Nelson Cruz’s handling of the game-tying triple, the failures of both teams’ closers) pretty harshly.

For contrast, in chronological order here are five Series Games that I think exceed last night’s thriller in terms of overall grading.

1912 Game Eight: That’s right, Game Eight (there had been, in those pre-lights days at Fenway Park, a tie). The pitching matchup was merely Christy Mathewson (373 career wins) versus Hugh Bedient (rookie 20-game winner) followed in relief by Smoky Joe Wood (who won merely 37 games that year, three in the Series).  Mathewson shut out the Red Sox into the seventh, and the game was still tied 1-1 in the tenth when Fred Merkle singled home Red Murray and then went to second an error. But the Giants stranded the insurance run, and in the Bottom of the 10th, as darkness descended on Fenway (the first year it was open) there unfolded the damnedest Series inning anybody would see until 1986. Pinch-hitter Clyde Engle lofted the easiest flyball imaginable to centerfielder Fred Snodgrass – who dropped it. Hall of Famer Harry Hooper immediately lofted the hardest flyball imaginable to Snodgrass, who made an almost unbelievable running catch to keep the tying run from scoring and the winning run from getting at least to second or third. Mathewson, who had in the previous 339 innings walked just 38 men, then walked the obscure Steve Yerkes. But Matty bore down to get the immortal Tris Speaker to pop up in foul territory between the plate and first, and he seemed to have gotten out of the jam. Like the fly Holliday muffed last night, the thing was in the air forever, and was clearly the play of the inward rushing first baseman Merkle. Inexplicably, Mathewson called Merkle off, shouting “Chief, Chief!” at his lumbering catcher Chief Myers. The ball dropped untouched. Witnesses said Speaker told Mathewson “that’s going to cost you the Series, Matty” and then promptly singled to bring home the tying run and put the winner at third, whence Larry Gardner ransomed it with a sacrifice fly.

1960 Game Seven: The magnificence of this game is better appreciated now that we’ve found the game film. And yes, the madness of Casey Stengel is evident: he had eventual losing pitcher Ralph Terry warming up almost continuously throughout the contest. But consider this: the Hal Smith three-run homer for Pittsburgh would’ve been one of baseball’s immortal moments, until it was trumped in the top of the 9th by the Yankee rally featuring Mickey Mantle’s seeming series-saving dive back into first base ahead of Rocky Nelson’s tag, until it was trumped in the bottom of the 9th by Mazeroski’s homer. There were 19 runs scored, 24 hits made, the lead was lost, the game re-tied, and the Series decided in a matter of the last three consecutive half-innings, and there was neither an error nor a strikeout in the entire contest.

1975 Game Six: Fisk’s homer has taken on a life of its own thanks to the famous Fenway Scoreboard Rat who caused the cameraman in there to keep his instrument trained on Fisk as he hopped down the line with his incomparable attempt to influence the flight of the ball. But consider: each team had overcome a three-run deficit just to get the game into extras, there was an impossible pinch-hit three-run homer by ex-Red Bernie Carbo against his old team, the extraordinary George Foster play to cut down Denny Doyle at the plate with the winning run in the bottom of the 9th, and Sparky Anderson managed to use eight of his nine pitchers and still nearly win the damn thing – and have enough left to still win the Series.

1986 Game Six: This is well-chronicled, so, briefly: this exceeds last night’s game because while the Cardinals twice survived two-out, last-strike scenarios in separate innings to tie the Rangers in the 9th and 10th, the Met season-saving rally began with two outs and two strikes on Gary Carter in the bottom of the 10th. The Cards had the runs already aboard in each of their rallies.  The Red Sox were one wide strike zone away from none of that ever happening.

1991 Game Seven: I’ll have to admit I didn’t think this belonged on the list, but as pitching has changed to the time when finishing 11 starts in a season provides the nickname “Complete Game James” Shields, what Jack Morris did that night in the 1-0 thriller makes this a Top 5 game.

There are many other nominees — the Kirk Gibson home run game in ’88, the A’s epic rally on the Cubs in ’29, Grover Cleveland Alexander’s hungover relief job in 1926, plus all the individual achievement games like Larsen’s perfecto and the Mickey Owen dropped third strike contest — and upon reflection I might be able to make a case to knock last night’s off the Top 10. But I’m comfortable saying it will probably remain. We tend to overrate what’s just happened (a kind of temporal myopia) but then again perspective often enhances an event’s stature rather than diminishing it. Let’s just appreciate the game for what it was: heart-stopping back-and-forth World Series baseball.

The Bob Wolcott Of 2011?

You remember Bob Wolcott, right?

One of the seminal figures in modern Post-Season history. A key to an exciting playoff series, a dramatic interjection into the–

No, huh?

Bob Wolcott made six indifferent starts for the 1995 Seattle Mariners. In the exhausting first-ever American League Division Series against the Yankees, he watched from the bullpen, an utter afterthought in a brilliant competition that marked the end of Don Mattingly’s last hope to reach a World Series. He was the last man on the staff, happy to be in the playoffs without having to buy a ticket.

And then Lou Piniella decided to give his overtaxed staff an extra day, and start him in Game One of the A.L. Championship Series against the Cleveland Indians. Frankly, nobody – least of all the Indians – knew what hit them. Wolcott pitched seven innings of eight-hit, five-K ball, gave up a homer to Albert Belle in the last frame, and left a 3-2 lead to the bullpen. Jeff Nelson and Norm Charlton hung on, and the Mariners had a 1-0 lead over the favored Indians. Not that they did anything: the Mariners’ rotation of Tim Belcher, Andy Benes, Chris Bosio, and Randy Johnson each lost a game and Wolcott never even got a second shot as a reliever. After a decent 1996 in the M’s rotation, he was dealt off, hurt his arm, went to college (Oregon State for mechanical engineering) and practices his craft in the northwest.

But the prospect of starting a mystery man against a team that had never seen him before – in the opening game of a playoff series – proved plausible. And in this case, Bob Wolcott was not the game’s top pitching prospect.

Matt Moore is. And Joe Maddon of Tampa Bay tonight decided to open him against the Texas Rangers in Game One of the ALDS. It is, to descend into the only appropriate vernacular, one of the ballsiest post-season managerial moves and Maddon will live or die by it – but why not? The other best option, Jeff Niemann, has been sharp lately after weeks of playing the role of the Rays’ Mr. Dynamite – the pitcher who gets into the box out in centerfield before the game and then gets blown up by the opposing team.

Moore has a shorter track record even than Bob Wolcott. He has just one Major League start, but in it, at Yankee Stadium, his heavy lefthanded fastball pulverized New York: eleven strikeouts and just four hits in five innings. He had come off a minor league season split between the Southern and International Leagues in which he finished just eight K’s short of leading all the minors in strikeouts – for the third consecutive season.

And not one Texas Ranger has ever crossed paths with him. Not in his brief stint in the majors, not in AAA, not in AA, nowhere. There is admittedly righthand power to be concerned with in the Texas lineup – Nelson Cruz, Ian Kinsler, Adrian Beltre – but Moore only gave up eleven homers in 155 innings in the minors this year and if he just ties up Josh Hamilton, the Rangers could be stymied (ask last year’s Giants about that).

Remember what K-Rod did as a very, very late-season addition to the Angels’ roster in 2002? The Yankees had never seen him. The Twins had never seen him. The Giants had never seen him. Results? 18-2/3 post-season innings pitched, 28 strikeouts, and in eleven appearances: five wins and two holds – and Frankie Rodriguez wasn’t even the closer.

But Matt Moore is more than just a power pitcher. One of the most astute judges of pitchers I’ve ever known gushes about his composure, his tendency to greet trouble not with panic or fear but with anger, his ability to unintentionally elevate with the fastball so that the batter is eventually swinging at balls at his neck, and lastly a change-up that’s brilliant and that Moore is only beginning to understand the value of. “It has two-plane depth,” my guy explains. Two-plane depth, I ask, sweetly? “It moves through two planes: as in downward, and tailing to the left.”

Can you imagine what that does to a lefthanded hitter, especially one assuming a fastball at his letters? I’d retire immediately.

The advice to the Rangers from my eyewitness: “Swing at the first good heater you see.” The advice from him to Moore: “use the change-up… if I’m hunting fastballs— and the Rangers historically are— making them guess heater or change will set up the hammer, which is devastating.”

What exactly does Moore have to buy the Rays for this to work? A win – in Arlington – would be dandy. Six good innings – win or lose -in which they don’t have to run through the entire bullpen and they establish Moore as a new weapon in the arsenal that Texas might just have to face again in a Game Five, or Hamilton might have to face all by himself in any of the remaining games, would be a great second prize. Five innings that don’t devastate the bullpen is enough to keep Tampa alive until James Shields takes the mound in Game Two.

Maddon’s decision – and how many managers would have the cajones to do this – was enough to make me trash the prediction I made on the air tonight: a good, safe assumption that a gifted but no doubt exhausted Rays’ team could not hold a candle to the rested Rangers. I like this call on so many levels: I like Moore against them, I like Moore as a potential part of the rotation, I like Maddon saying to his team “we have a secret weapon.” Until tonight, the Rangers had been the beneficiary of the madness of the Wild Card race. Now they may have become its victim.

I also note my Matt Moore scout sums it up this way: “Matt is advanced and his stuff, though not pin-point, is better than (David) Price’s.”

I like Tampa in five, I like the Phillies possibly as quickly as three games (hats off to the Cardinals, but they are running on fumes here), and the Brewers, probably in five. And I particularly like the Tigers over the Yankees, quickly. Lost in the tumult of the Red Sox collapse and the Rays spectacular (you do realize that home run was Dan Johnson’s first major league hit since April 27th, right?) is the fact that after August 21st, the Yankees won just 20 of 37 games, and, after September 6th, the Yankees won 10 and lost 12. They didn’t win the American League East: the Red Sox fell past them like the meteor they keep telling us will some day crash to earth and kill us all (the usual caveat: if the Tigers or anybody else give the Yankees four outs an inning, the Yankees will win – they are vampires).

We’ll look at the Championship Series and the World Series after we see how Matt Moore does. But I gotta tell you: I also like those Brewers.

Ask Not For Whom The BP Tolls, It Tolls For Thee (Revised)

The good BP that is – Baseball Prospectus - the annual forecasting bible aptly blurbed on the back page: “If you’re a baseball fan and you don’t know what BP is, you’re working in a mine without one of those helmets with the light on it” (yes, I’m egotistically quoting my egotistical self).

sc0009881d.jpgIt’s basically 573 pages of the sports almanac Biff Tannen finds in “Back To The Future II” so the material to mine is practically endless, and you will find it as useful on September 30th as you will today. But the aficionado often goes first to find the collapses that time, tide, and the theories of statistical reduction insist will afflict players you are counting on for your team, real-life or fantasy.

In short: BP does not like Josh Hamilton’s chances this year. In the list of the biggest falloffs in WARP (“Wins Above Replacement Player” – basically a measurement of how much
better or worse a player is than the absolute average Schmoe you could
stick out there at his position), it sees Hamilton dropping from 6.9 last year to 2.7 this. Mind you, this does not envision Hamilton winding up as a player-coach at Round Rock; 2.7 still makes him the fifth most all-around useful leftfielder in the majors. The computers still suggest he’ll drop from 32-100-.359/.410/.633 to 22-77-.294/.356/.509.

While similar plummets are predicted for Aubrey Huff, Adrian Beltre, Carl Crawford, and Jose Bautista (try 25 homers, because “if teams are smart, it could be May before he sees an inside fastball”), the most intriguing of them belongs to Austin Jackson of Detroit. As BP’s write-up notes, Jackson led all of baseball with a .393 BABIP (Batting Average On Balls In Play – in other words, what you hit when you actually hit it). Jackson struck out 170 times last year and had a mediocre on-base percentage of .344, and unless those numbers alter positively and profoundly, if his “BABIP” just drops back from Ted Williamsy to kinda great, they see his WARP collapsing from 3.6 to 0.2.

The BP formulae always tend to under-promise for pitchers. Dan Haren, Felix Hernandez, and CC Sabathia are the only guys forecast to win as many as 15 games this year, and that’s obviously an absurdly conservative prediction. Nevertheless it is chilling to see the computer spit out the following seasons for some of the game’s “name” twirlers:

Chris Carpenter: 9-5, 94 SO, 3.21 ERA
Phil Hughes: 8-6, 109 SO, 3.74 ERA
Zack Greinke: 11-7, 166 SO, 3.52 ERA
David Price: 12-8, 147 SO, 3.46 ERA
Tim Lincecum: 12-6, 190 SO, 2.74 ERA

It also doesn’t look so hot for some of the game’s closers, listed by predicted saves: Jose Valverde, 20; Carlos Marmol, 17; David Aardsma, 17; Brandon Lyon, 15; Brad Lidge, 15.

Last year’s biggest predicted collapse was Derek Jeter, and in fact the BP boys and girls turned out to have been optimistic. This year, the accompanying biography makes me look like Jeter’s most hopeful fan:

“Jeter pushed for a contract of four years and up, which suggests at least one of the following: (A) while Jeter may be the closest thing the modern Yankees have to Joe DiMaggio, he lacks DiMaggio’s sense of dignity; (B) never mind winning, it’s money that matters; (C) the emperor has no clothes but doesn’t know; (D) the emperor has no clothes but doesn’t care.”

Ouch.

Still, the PECOTA equations don’t see Jeter getting appreciably worse than last year (9-66-.281-.348-.377 compared to 2010’s 10-67-.270/.340/,370) but does see the once mighty warrior’s WARP sinking to 1.0. For contrast, Jeter’s great 2009 season had a WARP of 4.2, the top two shortstop numbers for 2011 belong to Hanley Ramirez at 4.8 and Tulowitzki at 4.7, and J.J. Hardy is a 1.9.

Having pilfered so much of their hard work, I feel it’s imperative to throw out some teasers to get you to buy this essential tome. Granted, at the BP website, the computers refine and refine these numbers even as the season progresses, but right now they somehow see Ryan Rohlinger absolutely tearing up the pea patch for the Giants this year, adore Javy Vazquez in Florida and Lance Berkman in St. Louis, and see potential breakout years for Sam LeCure, Brad Emaus, and Robinson Chirinos that even those players probably don’t.

And I’ll confess right now I had no idea who Robinson Chirinos was. Another reason to secure Baseball Prospectus 2011. However much you think you know about baseball, they know more than you do.

The Josh Hamilton-Bengie Molina Series

They could – and did – give the trophies to other guys, but let’s face it, if you’re a fan of the Phillies, or the ’09 Yankees, or the ’10 Giants, you know that the World Series MVP last year was Damaso Marte, and the NLCS MVP this year was Javier Lopez.

Simply put, for whatever degree of offensive incompetence the Phillies didn’t create themselves, Lopez did it for them. He pitched in all six games and faced Chase Utley and Ryan Howard each time. And they were 1-for-12 off him, completely mesmerized by his left-handed sidearming.
Josh Hamilton faced him this year, went 0-for-1. He faced him three times in 2008, went 1-for-3 with a double.
Past performance, as they say, is not a guarantee of future results, but even if Lopez continues his hot streak (and remember his ERA for the Red Sox in ’09 was 9.46), Hamilton just isn’t as easily dominated by lefthanders. If his ALCS home run details don’t tell you that (Game One: Sabathia; Game Three: Pettitte; Game Four: Logan — all LHP, plus a fourth game off Sergio Mitre in garbage time), just check out his 2010 splits:
                                    AB    HR     RBI     AVG    SLG
At Home Vs LHP           82       5       13     .305     .524
On Road Vs LHP           84       3       10     .238     .393
Overall Vs RHP           352      24      77      .401     .716
That last one is thrown in there for the edification of Brian Wilson. Josh Hamilton hit .401 against right-handed pitching this year.
This underscores the Giants’ obvious problem: Hamilton is the only essential lefthanded bat in the Texas line-up. These are not the Phillies. The bats who surround him, particularly Michael Young, Nelson Cruz, and Vladimir Guerrero, are all righties. The other lefties in the Texas lineup are fungible.
In short, unlike the Phillies, the Rangers are not going to whiff themselves out of big innings by virtue of their power being suffocated by a same-side sidearmer. 
The other salient issue of this Series is Bengie Molina. We are in new territory here. Never before did the catcher for one of the World Series teams open the season catching for the other World Series team. Pressed about this in interviews, Molina has been taciturn, almost blank, insisting he doesn’t think it’s much of an advantage. I think Benjie wants us to believe that, but if for no other reason than the Giants have to completely rejigger the pitch signals and any lingering dugout-to-coach or coach-to-hitter signals, he will inconvenience San Francisco mightily.
For my money, the kind of scouting Molina can offer on San Francisco pitching is the kind of information for which teams scramble at this time of year. The Yankees’ National League scouting under the supervision of Stick Michael was so startlingly good that during the ’99 Classic it seemed as if few Yankee fielders had to step more than a foot or two to field or grab a ball, so well did the Yankees know what and where the Braves would hit it. My guess is Molina can provide that – only in real time, on the field – for all of the Giants’ pitchers (and imagine during his own at bats, his familiarity with their pitch qualities, selections and patterns).
The most recent vague comparison to this unique situation would probably be Ted Simmons, who moved from the 1980 Cardinals to the 1981 Brewers, then wound up facing his old team in the ’82 Series. Simmons caught Game One and the Brewers pounded his old St. Louis battery-mate Bob Forsch 10-0 (with Simba hitting a homer). They faced Forsch again in Game Five and beat him up for six runs in five-and-two-thirds. In the other starts they lost to John Stuper (a 1982 rookie Simmons had never caught) and Joaquin Andujar (who joined St. Louis half a year after Simmons was traded). In the other Milwaukee victory, the Brewers were largely stymied by Dave LaPoint (one earned run). He had gone from Milwaukee to St. Louis in the Simmons trade.
For these two reasons alone (we haven’t even mentioned Cliff Lee) I like the Rangers and fast: five or six games.
Just for the record, Molina will join very, very select company when he appears against the Giants in Game One. Only Lonnie Smith, who started 1985 with the Cardinals and then played against them for the Royals in the Classic, has previously pulled off the both-teams stunt. The year before, reliever Sid Monge went from the Padres to the Tigers but did not pitch in the post-season for Detroit. Of all the MLB-issued media guides to all the World Series I’ve covered, the one I cannot find is 1984, so I can’t check my memory that Monge was indeed eligible but just wasn’t used.
If not, he falls into a slightly larger club: playing for both Series teams in one year, but not being eligible for the Classic. Jack Kramer (1951 Giants and Yankees), Johnny Schmitz (1952 Dodgers and Yankees), Jim Bruske (1998 Padres and Yankees), and Chris Ray (2010 Rangers and Giants) are on that list, and if you want to stretch it, so is catcher Eddie Tucker of the 1995 Indians, who wound up the property of the Braves the same year but never playing for them.
So there.

Rangers Run Past Yankees?

Whether or not his team actually beats the New York Yankees, I have to start this by standing up and applauding Ron Washington’s primary gamble.

He has in large part been forced into it by the reality of the fifth game against Tampa Bay, but there were other options and he chose the one in which unless the ALCS goes seven, he will only start Cliff Lee once. This means that one of the three key figures in this series will be not Lee, but C.J. Wilson.
Thus a lefthander will start Game One against the Yankees, and another one would start Game Seven, and because they are so scheduled, they would also each start a game in Yankee Stadium. Lefties in Yankee Stadium – your best bet to beat them. Provided they are good lefthanders.
The Yankees’ switch-hitters are all more powerful against righthanders. Their lefthand bats (Cano, Gardner, and Granderson) tend towards bad splits against southpaws. And Alex Rodriguez has mysteriously lost much of his punch against lefties (he hit .214 against them during the regular season). 
But is Wilson a good lefthander, or a bad one? Consider what the seven susceptible Yankee bats (Cano, Gardner, Granderson, Posada, Rodriguez, Swisher, Teixeira) did against the Twins’ southpaws:
Versus All Minnesota LHP                  11-39  .282  two 2B, two 3B
Versus Fuentes & Mijares                     1-7   .143
Versus Duensing & Liriano                  10-32  .313

Admittedly it’s a small sample (two starts and five relief appearances) but there are some indicators. Though Marcus Thames tattooed Brian Duensing for a home run, none of the Yankee Seven hit a long ball off any of the lefties, even though Posada, Rodriguez, Swisher, and Teixeira all batted righty against them.

IMG_2234.jpg

The inference, I think, is not a very complicated one. The entire Yankee line-up save for Jeter and Thames are stymied by effective lefties and merely slowed down a little by bad ones. We can pretty well guess to which category Cliff Lee belongs (although the second time the Yankees faced him in the World Series last year they beat him up for five runs, even in defeat). The question is, which kind is Wilson (the guess is: the good and improving kind). The indeterminable is whether either of the Rangers’ righties steal a win against New York, which would obviously reduce the Texas reliance on their former closer and their mid-season acquisition.
I described Wilson as one of the three key figures in this series. Given that Manager Washington tipped his hand against the Rays, the other two are Francisco Cervelli and Jorge Posada. The Rangers were the runningest team in the first round, and they are now facing the team with the fewest caught-stealings in the major leagues in 2010. Cervelli, Chad Moeller, Posada and the Yankee pitching staff stopped just 23 out of 155 would-be thieves during the year.
Minnesota didn’t try to swipe one bag in its cameo against the Yankees. Texas tried seven (and succeeded six times) against Tampa. Rays’ catchers had nailed 25 percent of runners during the season. The Yanks only caught 15 percent.
I think you see where Washington is going with this. Try to at least slow the “Susceptible Seven” down with Wilson and Lee, to say nothing of Darren Oliver in relief. But much more impressively, run the Yankees crazy. Five Rangers stole 14 or more during the regular season, Josh Hamilton had eight, and Jeff Francoeur had eight while with the Mets.
The Rangers may literally steal this series. I think the Yankees are utterly unprepared for this kind of onslaught, and if you think there’s a Plan B about swapping Cervelli in for the decreasingly mobile Posada, think again. Posada may have only caught 13 of 85 bandits, but Cervelli only got nine out of 64.
As suggested here when New York swept a series which I thought they’d lose, the Yankees are vampires. Manage passively against them as Ron Gardenhire did, let them up off the mat for a second, and you lose. But Ron Washington has already shown an absolute unwillingness to sit back, and that aggressivenes won him Game Five against Tampa. Take the chance with me. Rangers win, and might just get to hold Mr. Lee back to start Game One of the World Series.

Surprise: Twins, Rays To Advance

It’s the kind of story line that can overshadow the reality of a playoff series in any sport: A superstar with an amazing season and an amazing story of overcoming the nightmare of drug addiction, facing the team that originally drafted him, with the prospect of eventually getting to a World Series against the team that gave him a second chance (and then traded him away anyway). 

It’s almost as if it’s just Josh Hamilton versus the Tampa Bay Rays.
Actually, it is almost as if it’s just Josh Hamilton versus the Tampa Bay Rays. Ian Kinsler and Michael Young had ordinary seasons, the bottom third of the line-up is a mixture of Mitch Moreland, Julio Borbon, Jeff Francoeur, David Murphy, Bengie Molina, and Matt Treanor, and the starters – Cliff Lee included – had long dead spots, and despite Nolan Ryan’s pronouncements about longer outings from them, the Rangers actually got the shortest efforts from their starters of any A.L. team. 
But, you say, what about those two hitters behind Hamilton? Boomstick Cruz is the real thing, but human history divides evenly into those times when he’s out with a hamstring pull, and those times when he’s about to sustain a hamstring pull. And Vladimir Guerrero found the fountain of youth, but only in the first half. His second half was a very pedestrian .278/.322/.426 and he has deteriorated on the basepaths to such a degree that a foot race between him and Molina would probably continue into November.
By contrast the Rays have largely been underachieving all year long. One of Joe Maddon’s lineups against Texas might feature three sub-.200 hitters. But Tampa is a disciplined, designed ballclub at the plate and in the field, their pitching is deep and even writing off Jeff Niemann, startling, and the irony of ironies is that the key to the series might not be Tampa castoff Hamilton but Texas throwaway and Rays set-up man Joaquin Benoit.
I like the Rays, and quickly, unless Texas somehow batters David Price tomorrow – and Price is 9-and-2 at home this year (and a tidy 17-and-5 there lifetime).
Meantime, trust me, I have front row seats at Yankee Stadium, there’s nothing I’d like more than to watch World Series games from them. I’m not even sure I’m going to get to see two playoff games there this weekend. I haven’t liked the chances of this Yankee team since spring training and while I commend and am heartened by their accomplishments despite glaring holes and what has become one of the most parochial and even jingoistic eras in New York media history, I think they’re not going to reach the ALCS.
The key here is the fact that the Yankees should face lefthanded starters in three of the five games (possibly, if Ron Gardenhire wants to gamble, in three of the first four). Lefthanders turn Mark Teixeira and Nick Swisher to their weaker sides (and in Yankee Stadium force them to aim at the tougher fences in left), hurt Robinson Cano, Curtis Granderson, and, unexpectedly, Alex Rodriguez: 6-35-.217-.441 and make Brett Gardner into a .252 hitter. The trade-off is that they enable Marcus Thames at DH and actually make Derek Jeter look like his old self (6-24-.321-.481 – correct: Jeter hit .246 against righties this year, with a slugging percentage of .317 and an on-base of .315).
You’re not overwhelmed by Minnesota southpaws Francisco Liriano and Brian Duensing? How about the prospect of Brian Fuentes coming out of the bullpen, right before or right after Jon Rauch, with Matt Capps warming up for the 9th.
We have not even discussed Yankee pitching. There is a reason CC Sabathia should be the Cy Young winner. Without Felix Hernandez, the Mariners wouldn’t have been much worse. The Rays without David Price might not be post-season favorites, but Jeremy Hellickson could have stepped in. Right now, Sabathia is the only Yankee starter who is not attached to a question mark the size of, well, Sabathia. On the other hand, I wouldn’t worry too much about Mariano Rivera’s September slump, although the Yankee set-up men are hardly what they were a year ago and I’ll believe Boone Logan in the clutch when I see him whiff Jim Thome twice.
The Twins did not prosper down the stretch (none of the AL playoff teams did) and would have loved just the thought of Justin Morneau returning later on. But since the Yankees saw them last in the playoffs, the rest of the infield has been upgraded, Jim Thome has been added at DH, and Delmon Young has gone from a dubious platoon guy to a 112 RBI man. Young struggled over the last two months, then seemed to come alive in the last ten (3-7-.293). The Twins’ lineup is also staggered to minimize repeating same-side bats, which could completely befuddle the pitching-change challenged duo of Joe Girardi and coach Dave Eiland.
Frankly, if Minnesota somehow beats Sabathia in the opener, with an ailing and/or rusty Pettitte and an erratic Hughes behind him, the Twins could sweep. I doubt that. I like them in four or five.

2010 Forecasts: AL West

We’ll wrap this up tomorrow night with some thoughts on individual players and awards, but let’s do the last of the six divisional previews first.

Does it
seem to you as if Brandon Wood has been on the verge of breaking in to the LOS
ANGELES line-up since Mark Langston was the Angels’ pitching ace? Whether it’s
been four years or forty, this is the first time the team is actually relying
on Wood, and the
pressure is probably a lot more intense than generally understood. If Wood does not produce
a power-filled season, or doesn’t hold on to the job, the Angels will have to
revert to the Chone Figgins-driven line-up, only without Chone Figgins. It’ll
be tough enough adjusting to Erick Aybar at the top of the line-up, without the
Halos also failing to add the last layer of punch they missed so dearly in the ALCS
last year. The emergence of Kendry Morales and the resuscitation of Howie
Kendrick gave life to the club last year, but face it, four key positions are
beginning to creak a little bit with age, including the now three ex-Yanks in
the line-up. Torii Hunter should be terrified at Mike Scioscia’s insistence that
he may occasionally use Hideki Matsui in left. If placed between Matsui and the
periodically mystified Bobby Abreu in right, MLB might consider letting Hunter
ride a Razor. Pitching is deep but once you get past Jered Weaver, not very
intimidating, and Joel Pineiro might have been the off-season’s most overrated
signing (Fernando Rodney might have been the second, but with or without him,
the bullpen is the team’s top asset).

OAKLAND
looks like an all-or-nothing proposition. Anderson, Braden, and Cahill might
emerge as world-beaters. Sheets and Duchscherer could make remarkable
comebacks. Bailey could expand on a ROTY season. Or literally any one of the
six could lose his job by June 1. The ailments of Joey Devine and Michael
Wuertz thin out an already thin pen, and the line-up, while energetic and
dynamic, does have to play 81 games on the road against teams that actually hit
those things where, you know, the ball goes past those walls behind the gents
standing on the far lawn – what are those called again? Honestly, if your
line-up looks like it could be beaten up, man for man, by that of the Royals,
you could be in for a long summer, even if every one of the pitchers come
through.

With the
strategic building in SEATTLE over the last two years – Figgins, Wilson,
Gutierrez, Lee, even Byrnes and Snell and League (to say nothing of Wakamatsu)
added to the Ichiro/Felix base, it would seem it would be almost impossible for
the Mariners not to be favored. But as I have suggested before, Jack Zduriencik
managed to make the one move that could undo all the good ones. Ask the 2004-05
Dodgers, who thought he was the guy who could take them over the hump. Ask the
2006 A’s, who thought he was the missing piece (and surrendered Andre Ethier to
get him). Ask the 2007 Padres, who brought him in for the stretch run (and
infamously coughed up the division to the Rockies). Ask the 2008 Rangers, who
signed him, only to start shopping him at mid-season. Ask the 2009 Cubs, who
gave him $30 million for three years and sent him home before the first year
ended because nobody could abide his presence any more. Ask the fans he’s
confronted, the reporters he’s confronted, the play-by-play man he ran up
several flights of stairs in hopes of knocking silly. It’s not as if Milton Bradley
has had a few problems. This is six clubs in six seasons and the longest he
lasted with any of them was until June 29th of the second year. I
don’t know what it will be, I don’t know when it will be, but Bradley will do
something to cost the Mariners the division. And if this somehow does not come
to pass, he will have earned an apology from me – but probably will not have
asked for it, because he would have already experienced an epiphany in which
his consistently uncontrollable behavior would have appeared as unacceptable to
him as it has to everybody else, and he
would have apologized to the Cubs. And the Rangers. And
the Padres. And the A’s. And the Dodgers (and just for good measure, Cliff Lee
is not only hurt – he has the most nagging and unpredictable of injuries for a
baseball player, ‘something in the abdomen.’)

The
line-up in TEXAS frightens me. I know Josh Hamilton is not going to hit 57
homers. I understand Vlad Guerrero has aged. I’m sure Chris Davis could repeat
the first half of 2009. I noticed Ian Kinsler’s on the DL. Without them this
is still the most potent batting order in the division.
So the Rangers’ questions are, as
ever, on the mound. But in addition to reclaiming Darren Oliver and bringing
back Colby Lewis from banishment, Texas has one other answer to those
questions: Neftali Feliz. It is impossible to watch him pitch and not see
either a super closer, or a 250-strikeout starter. Either one of them will do
the Rangers fine upon his maturation; for now, a dominating 8th-inning
presence will probably win them the division. And it will be fascinating to
watch any player struggles completely overshadowed by the good or bad conduct
of a manager – not to make a comparison that would be slanderous to the
good-hearted Ron Washington, but we haven’t seen that since Billy Martin died,
and it occasionally helps a team get on with its business while the skipper
takes the heat.

DIVISION FORECAST:
As suggested, I like Texas. Oakland’s pitching could jell to challenge them;
Milton Bradley could go AWOL on May 1 and save Seattle’s season; Brandon Wood
could be everything the Angels ever wanted from him. But I don’t think any of
those things are going to happen. Rangers by a five or six game margin, with
the others following in a jumble I can’t quite yet discern.

LEAGUE
FORECAST: I think Tampa ends up with the best record, Texas the worst, and the
Rays will handle the Rangers easily. The Wild Card will go to Boston, most
likely, and they should probably dispatch Detroit, setting up a re-run of 2008,
including the TB victory. This time I like the Rays to win the Series, five
years after other owners seriously murmured about moving them or contracting
them.

Introducing the Baseball Nerd

Phoenix, Arizona

GREAT TRUTH

Do not be overwhelmed by the 15 homers propelled yesterday in Surprise by the Angels and Royals, nor any other offense you see in the Arizona boxscores. An unrelenting 20 MPH wind blew across the fields of the Cactus League. Cars wobbled on highways, at least one canopy was toppled at Camelback Ranch in Glendale, and Randy Wolf pounded the Rangers for two long hits, including a two-run double.

ON THE OTHER HAND

It’s not like the Dodgers managed to turn the wind off as Wolf shut down a Texas lineup that included Josh Hamilton on two hits over six (six strikeouts). The positioning of the otherwise splendid new park the Blue share with the White Sox appears to have been done in the dark. The sun will not let up on the batters; the batters’ eye in centerfield is about half standard size, and the Dodgers’ bullpen is uncovered and does not see shade until nearly sunset. The players have less of a chance of being grilled than do Dodger Dogs.

MISLEADING HEADLINE OF THE DAY: MARTINEZ REJOINS DODGERS

That’d be Ramon Martinez, who celebrated his 41st birthday yesterday by sitting in the dugout of the team for which he won 123 games in the eleven seasons ending in 1998. The former 20-game winner – who set the land-speed record for going from being “The Martinez,” to “He’s Pedro’s Brother” – looked not much heavier than the 165 at which he pitched for the Dodgers’ last champions. He knew nothing of his brother’s chances, silently underscoring the mumbles of the spring: that Pedro’s WBC performance did not resonate, and with his killer fastball down to 90, is unlikely to find a home this year – or at least not a prominent one.

UNLIKELIEST SIGHTING

The skinny blond guy in the Rangers’ uniform staying low-key in the tunnel between the clubhouses and the field was not a minor leaguer summoned to take the road trip in hopes of a late-game at bat. It was actor Owen Wilson, getting into what is apparently his next character – that of pitcher – in his next film, opposite Reese Witherspoon. Coincidentally, Ms. Witherspoon was on The Tonight Show last Wednesday with your faithful Nerd, and offered viewers a bewildering variety of jokes based on the German words “Ausfahrt” and “Einfahrt.”

NERD THRILL

Like the relaxed pace and increased interaction of Spring Training wasn’t thrill enough. This is the start of my 43rd year as a fan, my 43rd year attending games, and my 43rd year of keeping score. On Saturday in Phoenix, I witnessed, for the first time, a triple play. First and second, Oakland’s Bobby Crosby with a solid one-hopper to Ryan Rohlinger of the Giants. Rohlinger unsuccessfully tried to tag elusive Oakland runner Matt Carson, fired to Matt Downs at second for one out, who relayed to Scott McClain at first for another. That’s when it became evident Carson had been called out for leaving the baseline. A double play is, of course, scored by writing the position numbers (5-4-3) and circling them. A triple play requires two circles. Making my first “second circle” was the thrill of the spring

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