Nationals Arm Race

"… the reason you win or lose is darn near always the same – pitching.” — Earl Weaver

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Ask Boswell 3/3/14 edition

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Walter's hot start to the spring has him in a lot of people's thoughts... Photo unk via wp.com

Walter’s hot start to the spring has him in a lot of people’s thoughts… Photo unk via wp.com

Well, the entire DC area was off-work with yesterday’s (hopefully) final snowfall of the season snarling roads and cancelling work.  But Tom Boswell was busy chatting.  Here’s how i’d have answered his baseball-related questions from his WP chat session on 3/3/14.

Q: Walters is 5-5 and making some impressive defensive plays. Do you foresee him being more than a September call up this year – perhaps a quality utility player? He also seems like a sharp kid and an interesting character.

A: Well, the only “impressive play” I’ve seen Zach Walters pull off was a 2-run scoring throwing error … but that’s just a “short sample size.”   To answer this question; yes I think Walters is more than a 9/1 call up this year; I think he’s going to be the first guy called up (ahead of both Jamie Carroll and/or Mike Fontenot at this point) if we need middle infield coverage.  I’m worried about his defense (as has been noted in this space before), so I dunno how much we want to depend on him … but so far he’s looking impressive indeed at the plate.  What more does he have to prove in AAA?   The more he hits, the more he pressures the organization to give him a shot at the MLB level.  Boswell doesn’t know either; there’s no room at the inn for him here; maybe a trade is in order to either move him or free up space for him.

Q: If Danny Espinosa can find his swing and cut down on the strikeouts, could Matt Williams get 300+ ABs for him alternating between 2nd/SS/3rd as a super utility?

A: I’m pretty sure that’s the plan for him even if he doesn’t necessarily “find his swing” right now.   Who would you rather go to war with as your backup infielder right now?  Danny Espinosa or a 40-yr old punch-less middle infielder like Carrol or Fontenot?  More and more I think the decision may be Espinosa vs Walters.  Boswell agrees, thinking Espinosa *is* going to be the primary utility guy for this team.

Q: Does Mussina get in to HOF?

A: Hmm.   That is a tough one.   On the one hand his career bWAR is *way* up there (82.7, which puts him in some very heady company right around 50th best in the history of the game). JAWS likes him, and the “Hall of Fame Standards” metric on B-R.com thinks he’s borderline.  On the other hand his ERA isn’t fantastic (career 3.68, career ERA+ of 123, which is about what Jimmy Key or Tim Hudson are pitching to for their careers).  Didn’t get the magical 300 wins or 3,000 strikeouts.  Never won a Cy Young but was in the top 6 in voting 9 times out of 18 years.  Five all-star appearances, seven gold gloves.  7-8 with a 3.42 ERA in 139 2/3 post season innings, where he peaked in his 1997 exploits in an epic Baltimore vs Cleveland series.  I think he was unquestionably one of the best arms in the game for a period of time, even if Cy Young’s don’t show it.  He did not have the greatest reputation with the media though.

Answer?  I’d vote for him, but i’m a “bigger hall” guy.  I think he’s the type who gets in after a few votes to gather steam as people remember how good he was.  But I think its also telling that his best player comparable on B-R is Andy Pettitte, another very borderline hall-of-fame guy.  There’s certainly no PED usage issues with Mussina; maybe that’s enough to get him votes that other players will never get.  Boswell agrees with my sentiments here.

Q: What are the Syracuse Chiefs expecting in terms of a pitching staff this year?

A: In December 2013, here’s what I predicted for Syracuse’s pitching staff:

  • AAA Rotation: Jordan, Karns, Rosenbaum (L), Young, MLFA or two?
  • AAA Bullpen: Barrett, Mattheus, Garcia, Davis,  Cedeno (L), Robertson (L), Herron (AA?), Alfaro, Stange, Delcarmen
  • AAA Release candidates: Meyers, Lehman

What’s happened since then?  We traded away Karns, resigned Ryan Tatusko, resigned Tyler Robinson, signed Clay Hensley , signed a lefty Zack Jackson, signed a righty Warner Madrigal, signed former Nat Luis Ayala, traded for Felipe Rivero, signed Josh Roenicke and (just today) signed another former Nat Reliever Michael Gonzalez.

Phew.  That’s a lot of guys signed who all look like they belong in AAA.   I honestly have no idea how spring training is going to shake out but I do see one issue here: none of these new guys coming in are starters.  So with Karns traded away, we’re looking at just 3-4 true starters left out of all these guys.  Does Tatusko go back into the rotation?   Do the Nats throw a bone to one of the remaining veteran FA starters out there (Joe Saunders has local connections, and Barry Zito could use some work).

If I had to guess, right now, what 5 starters and 7-8 relievers break camp and fly to upstate NY i’d go with the following:

  • AAA Rotation: Jordan, Rosenbaum, Young, Myers, Tatusko
  • AAA Bullpen: Barrett (closer), Davis, Cedeno (L), Robertson (L), Ayala, Gonzalez, Rivero (L), Delcarmen.
  • AAA D/L: Mattheus, Garcia (come on, you know its going to happen)

As for the rest of these guys?  Maybe some push back to AA, maybe the rest exercise out clauses and hit MLFA again.  But there definitely seems like a ton of 4-A/AAA guys for not a lot of spots.  Boswell has no idea and openly solicits input from people who do follow the Nats minors.

Q: Why is the opener in Australia a real game instead of an Exhibition?

A: Probably because the moment it becomes an exhibition thousands of miles away … teams would basically send their AAA squads.  And MLB knows it, so they have to be “real games.”  Boswell just notes how unfair it is to the teams that play.

Q: What’s the best way to get Bryce Harper’s autograph on a special piece of memorabilia?

A: Probably to go to Spring Training and bring along a little kid :-)  That’s my plan, eventually, to use Son-as-proxy to get cool autographs.  Of course, I also have this thing where everytime i’m in a position to get an autograph I have the player customize it to my son … cheesy, sure.  But i’m not acquiring autographs to re-sell them or some fool thing.    Boswell doens’t have any good advice.

Q: Assuming you could afford them all and they would resign, if you had to who on the current roster to make “lifelong” Nats – who would you choose among Desmond/Zimmermann/Strasburg/Harper? And who is the most replaceable?

A: Great question.  The kind that will inevitably lead to 30+ comments here :-)

Assuming money is no object and that they’d all re-sign, I think your “lifelong” Nats have to be in order Desmond, Harper, Strasburg, and then Zimmermann.  All four if you can get them.   I think they’re replaceable in this order: Zimmermann, Strasburg, Desmond and Harper.  But even that order is splitting hairs between Strasburg and Desmond; who is more replaceable?  A top-5 short stop in the league or a top-10 arm?  I dunno.  Harper is in a league by himself; you just can’t replicate power hitters who matriculate to the majors by age 19.

I think Zimmermann is the most replaceable by our pipeline of upper-end arms.  The other three guys, not so much.

By the way, this question goes to the essence of my arguments against “Big Money GMs” as postulated in the post and comments sections of my big GM Rankings post last week.  This question is entirely moot if you have a $200M payroll.  Do you think Brian Cashman ever had to sit down with his ownership and go, “ok we’ve got Derek JeterMariano RiveraBernie Williams and Jorge Posada coming up on the end of their deals: we can only keep a couple of them; which ones are we letting walk?”

Boswell goes slightly different order of replaceability, putting Strasburg ahead of Desmond because the Nats have Espinosa and Walters.  Uh … not sure I think either of those two guys is a “replacement” for Desmond right now Mr. Boswell.  Nonetheless he also postulates that the Nats really can only keep two of the four, and that internally they keep a “5 max contract” limit in place, meaning that they still have some flexibility to keep three of these four guys.  

Q: I am not impressed with the Nats’ bench, because it is a bucket full of strikeouts. Does this open a door for Jamey Carroll to make the Opening Day roster? Would it be a bad sign if he did?

A: I cut-n-pasted this whole question because I love the “bucket-full of strikeouts” line.   Maybe a grizzled vet keeps Carroll instead of Espinosa or Tyler Moore.  Maybe not.  But if you carry Carroll instead of Moore, you are trading one commodity (defense) for another (power).  I’d rather have Moore but understand the positional flexibility of Carroll.   Boswell seems to intimate the decision will be Carroll vs Walters: why does everyone assume Moore is making this team with two other backup outfielders already under multi-million dollar contracts??  

Q: If Zach Walters continues his excellent play from the end of last year deep into the Spring, and Danny Espinosa parties like it’s 2012, do you see the Nats dealing Espinosa this year, or are his defensive skills at short and second too valuable to lose?

A: Yes, I think Espinosa will eventually be traded, as I’ve noted many times here (best summarized in this 1/2/14 Ladson inbox response).   But, he has to regain value first.  If he’s suddenly returning to a near 100 ops+ hitter with his defensive prowness, there’s a whole slew of teams that could use an upgrade at the position (just perusing RotoWorld depth charts, I can see a 2011-esque Espinosa being a desirable choice to current options for at least Houston, Minnesota, Miami, maybe the Mets, Pittsburgh, San Diego, maybe Chicago (WS), maybe the Angels, maybe Seattle, and maybe the Dodgers (so they can move Hanley Ramirez back to 3B).   And that doesn’t even look at the 2B options out there that he could ably fill.  Boswell notes this little nugget; the Dodgers sniffed around on Espinosa exactly to do what I just said; move Hanley back to third.  

Q:  Should we be concerned about middle infield depth? If Espinosa can’t hit over .200, who’s left? Jamey Carroll’s OBP was .267 in 227 ABs last season… yikes.

A:  I’m not concerned because we should only have to count on one of these guys.  Espinosa (as mentioned ad naseum) had a pretty legitimate excuse for his BA last year; he was hurt.  He’s healthy now; there should be no reason he doesn’t return to at least a .240 guy with power he was for his first couple of seasons.  Boswell points at his new favorite fan boy Zach Walters.

Q: Assuming the Nats fifth starter (whoever it may be though I’m pulling for Detwiler) has a great “fifth starter” season, how good can we expect it to be? Has any fifth starter won 15-20 games? 

A: I think a “good” season out of our 5th starter would be 28 starts, a 14-8 record or something like that, and an ERA in the 3.50 range.  I’d love to see that happen.  Has a 5th starter ever won 15-20 games?  I have no idea how you’d find that out; it isn’t as if starters are “labeled” by their rotational rankings like we do in the sportswriting world.  I looked up a couple of options though to see how some “5th” starters fared on some very good teams (looking up the winningest teams I could think of in the 5th starter era)

  • The 5th starter for the 108 win 1986 Mets was Rick Aguilera; he went 10-7 with a 3.66 ERA.
  • The 114-game winning 1998 Yankees 5th starter was Orlando “El Duque” Hernandez, who went 12-4 and had the best ERA+ on the staff, but he wasn’t exactly a “normal” 5th starter.   In reality by the time the playoffs rolled around the real 5th starter was Hideki Irabu: he was 13-9 in the regular season but didn’t get a start in the post-season.
  • Lastly the 116-game winning 2001 Mariners’ 5th starter seemed to be John Halama, who went 10-7 despite a 4.73 ERA and was replaced mid-season by rookie Joel Pineiro. 

Boswell notes a good point; if a “5th starter” wins 20 games … people forget he was the 5th starter.

Q: He had 38 (or thereabouts) errors in Syracuse this year. I don’t think there should be any serious talk of him spending significant time with the Nats until he can clean up his fielding in AAA.

A: I wonder if the person who sent in this question also reads me.  By the way: the break down of Errors (per b-r.com) was 31 errors in 104 games at short to go along with 7 additional errors in 27 games while playing third.  That’s a LOT of errors.  And it is almost entirely consistent with the number of errors he committed in 2012 in AA.  So this wasn’t a fluke season.

We all hear stories about how crummy minor league fields are and how they contribute to poor fielding numbers for players.  Have you ever played on a pro field?  They’re miles better than any amateur field and looked beyond immaculate to me.  I wonder just how much nicer they can get honestly.

But, yes I do somewhat agree with the questioner here; I’d like to see Walters have a cleaner fielding season before counting on him.  That being said, we should all remember that we were ready to string up Ian Desmond for his fielding issues … now he’s a gold-glove calibre talent.   Boswell brings up Desmond’s incredibly poor minor league fielding record … maybe there’s more truth to the whole minor league field issue than we thought.

Q: Do you think Storen might not be long for the team? I’ve felt for some time that Game 5 in 2012 truly affected how Rizzo sees him. Also, many like to say they have three guys who have closed in the bullpen. I feel the 7th, 8th and 9th are all different so that theory doesn’t always work. Thoughts?

A: I’m not sure if 2012 has anything to do with it: Drew Storen definitely got squeezed in that inning and in some ways was very unlucky.  And as my dad likes to point out, Davey Johnson‘s usage of Storen in the series (and his bullpen management overall) really left something to be desired.  Nonetheless, to answer the question no I think Storen is eventually moved, not because of any bad blood but because of simple economics.  We’ve got a really expensive bullpen and three closer-quality guys when only one is needed.  At some point we will cash in.  I’m not sure I believe that 7th/8th/9th innings require different mindsets; you still want guys who can get people out, you want swing-and-miss talents, you want people who can keep the ball in the park and not walk anyone.  Boswell doesn’t really answer the question.

 

HoF Post mortem/Is the Hall in trouble?

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Biggio has to wait for enshrinement to the HoF. Photo Karen Warren/Houston Chronicle

Obligatory HoF Reaction post.

I wasn’t going to write one.  But email/text conversations later I thought it may just be easier to write a thousand words on the topic.

As the front page of the BBWAA site says, “No players elected for the first time since 1996.” Also for only the 8th time in the history of balloting, no player was elected this cycle by the electorate.

We all knew this day was coming.  You can google articles from nearly 5 years ago when the whole slew of these first time players were first known to all be eligible on this ballot and know this day was coming.  And now here we are.

My interpretation of the results for the major players kind of goes like the following:

  • Craig Biggio was “penalized” by some voters for not being a “First Ballot Hall of Famer” calibre player.  Therefore lots of voters who have annointed themselves the keepers of this title skipped voting for him this year.  Much like what happened to Roberto Alomar (who went from 73% to 90% from 1st ballot to 2nd) we probably see Biggio get > 90% next year.  He’s clearly a hall of famer, but clearly not a first balloter in some eyes.
  • Jack Morris is screwed.  He only rose from 66% to 67%, indicating to me that enough people have bought into the anti-Morris narrative that has been so fully expoused by sabre-tinged writers to outlast the old-school guard of baseball writers who covered Morris and remember him as I do.
  • Piazza and Bagwell both are side effects of the PED argument, but clearly get more credit for possibly being clean than the next two names.  But enough people are believing that “back acne” proves PED usage for Piazza, and “muscles” proves PED usage for Bagwell, so both will likely struggle to get to 75% for a few years.
  • Clemens and Bonds: both getting almost identical vote totals in the 36-37% range despite both being amongst the best who ever played indicates a clear statement being made by the older voters, who clearly are penalizing these guys for their alleged/accused/leaked grand testimony involving PEDs.  I’ll bet though that both players will get significantly more votes in subsequent years and probably eventually make it.
  • Sosa and McGwire: probably both never get in, since both are in the 12-16% range.  Writers clearly believe both guys were 100% the product of andro and steroids, and thus artificially gained their accomplishments.
  • Bernie Williams and Kenny Lofton both amazingly will fall off the ballot.  I don’t think either are HoFamers but I also thought they deserved to hang around on the ballot for a while (kind of like a Dale Murphy or a Don Mattingly) to discuss.
  • Tim Raines and Lee Smith are probably never getting in; their vote totals don’t seem to be changing much, and a slew of more deserving names are coming in the next 5 years.
  • Edgar Martinez, TrammellMcGriff, Walker, Mattingly: they’re all marginal candidates for different reasons, and they all seem likely to die on the ballot in the 30-40% range.  I like Martinez for the Hall; in a sentence if you elect the best relief pitchers, how can you not elect the best designated hitters?
  • Palmeiro sealed his fate the moment he tested positive.  It doesn’t matter if he broached magical barriers of 500 (homers) and 3000 (career hits).  He’ll never get in.
  • Lastly, the interesting case of Curt Schilling.  38.8% on the first ballot.  What does this mean?  He’s definitely never been accused of PEDs, had a great peak, was absolutely one of the best pitchers in the game for at least a short amount of time, has 3000 Ks but not 300 wins (or close to it), had an iconic moment in the bloody sock game, and was on two different WS winning teams.  A 127 career ERA+ puts him career 48th, even or ahead of plenty of hall of famers.  Why so few votes?  What statement is being made here?  I’m not sure entirely.  Maybe this is a combination of the “not a first ballot hall of famer” denials AND some sense of outrage against the outspoken Schilling from older media members who covered him and still vote primarily with their egos.

Back to the question of the article; is the HoF in trouble?  Well, yes and no.

No because I think Biggio will be elected next year, along with two more big names who have never had a schred of PED accusations (Maddux and Glavine).  And you can see guys in each of the subsequent years easily being elected (Randy Johnson and Pedro Martinez in 2015, Ken Griffey Jr in 2016, Pudge and Manny in 2017 unless there’s still PED outrage at that point.  And that ensures there’s ceremonies with who should be absolute no-brainer electees each year for the next few years.

But, Yes because Cooperstown and the Hall itself are not always profit making endeavors, and having an election year without any recently retired players is going to mean a massive drop in income for the town and the hall.  Reportedly the museum has lost money in 8 of the last 10 years.  That coupled with the continued recession, and we could see some serious financial hardship in upstate New York in 2013.  Will it be enough that the BBWAA agrees to one of the litany of election system changes being proposed on the internet?  Maybe, maybe not.  But if this continues into 2013, yeah we may see something change.  Perhaps a panel of judges versus the BBWAA electorate (similar to what the NFL does) makes sense in the long run.  The point is that the HoF NEEDS to have a compelling election class in order to stay profitable, and may change its entry mechanisms to guarantee attendance (and thus revenues) each year.

One thing I do agree with; I think writers who purposely send in a blank ballot should be removed from the voting system.  You just can not look at this list of players and tell me there’s not at least ONE deserving candidate.  A blank ballot does nothing but hurt the chances of legitimate players to be honored and should be interpreted as a writer who does not take the process seriously.

Murkier are my thoughts on entrance requirements to the BBWAA in general.  Should we allow in all these internet baseball writers?  I think that a lot of the moral outrage and indignance expressed by frequent baseball bloggers over the BBWAA and the “old school” writers is simply mis-placed jealousy that they (the internet blogger) are not eligible to vote.    There is a section of the BBWAA constitution that talks about internet writer acceptance and the requirements don’t seem that unfair.  The intent of the organization is to find people who “cover the game” but also people who actually “attend the games,” interview players and coaches, and are generally members of the traditional media.  People who have access and who understand more than the average baseball blogger, who interprets box scores and statistics websites to pass judgement.  I’m ok with the limitations set out as thus.

Two other quick thoughts:

  • Yeah, we should probably increase the 10-player limit.
  • Yeah, we should probably force writers to reveal their ballots (much as the major awards now do).

Until next year.  One thing is certain; much like relief over the end of the election news, I’m relieved that no more HoF articles will be appearing.

Obligatory Class of 2013 Hall of Fame opinion piece

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Roger Clemens; is he a Hall of Famer or an opportunity for writers to make a PED statement? Photo unknown.

Obligatory Class of 2013 Hall of Fame opinion piece.

The 2013 Hall of Fame class ballot was released in Late November, on BBWAA’s site.   Here’s the 2013 class on Baseball-Reference.com, along with relevant career stats and past voting results.

As we’re about to read, over and over again from every writer in the Baseball world, this is the Steroid-era ballot.  Several of the biggest names of the era are on the ballot.  Just in case you were wondering who has or hasn’t been officially linked to PEDs, here’s a handy guide for your ethical dilemma.

My Previous posts on the same topic:

I typed up such exhaustive opinions on a number of candidates from the two previous versions of these posts, that I won’t repeat them here.  Instead i’ll just state below, of the returning candidates this year here’s who I’d vote for and who I wouldn’t in list form.

Returning Candidates I’d vote for:

  • Jeff Bagwell
  • Jack Morris
  • Tim Raines
  • Mark McGwire
  • Edgar Martinez

Returning Candidates that I would NOT vote for (my reasons mostly are stated in the 2012 class post referenced above):

  • Bernie Williams
  • Alan Trammell
  • Lee Smith
  • Larry Walker
  • Rafael Palmeiro
  • Don Mattingly
  • Fred McGriff
  • Dale Murphy

New Candidates in 2012 that I’d vote for, with some  discussion; Unlike a lot of opinions I state, my thoughts on the Hall of Fame have always been more driven by how a player “seems” to be in the pantheon of baseball history.  I don’t like to get into the same stats-driven discussions that other writers do.  So and so had a career WAR of X, or a career ERA+ of Y, which makes him better than this other guy.

  • Barry Bonds: A transcendent player before any use of “the cream” or “the clear,” this 7-time MVP is clearly in the pantheon of the greatest players of all-time.  The best 5-tool player since Willie Mays, the only thing that should have been standing in the way of unanimous voting is Bonds’ surly nature towards sports writers (several of whom would have “penalized” him by omitting him from first ballot status).
  • Roger Clemens: replace “7-time MVP” with “7-time Cy Young winner” and the Bonds argument essentially repeats itself with Clemens.  Normally we’d be talking about his place as one of the greatest right handed pitchers to ever play the game.  Instead we’re talking about how much of his later career was enhanced by virtue of foreign substances.
  • Mike Piazza: One of the best 3 hitting catchers of all time (Johnny Bench being the best, with Yogi Berra in the discussion), his purported “back acne” proof of steroid use likely costs him votes.  Which is just ridiculous, but that’s the nature of this ballot and the next 15 year’s worth of ballots unfortunately.
  • Curt Schilling: his career accomplishments don’t include a Cy Young award, but that wasn’t for lack of trying; he just happened to pitch in the same ERA as Randy Johnson and Johan Santana in his prime power.  But Schilling was a game-changing starter, an Ace who could get you the win.  He was one of the biggest “big game” pitchers out there.  And, his legendary playoff performances push him over the top for me.  Some will argue against him b/c he “only” had 216 wins or he “only” had a career 3.46 ERA.  He passes the eye test for me.
  • Craig Biggio: he wasn’t the flashiest player, but then again you can’t judge middle infielders the same way as you judge power hitters.  Biggio hit the 3,000 hit plateau, was a good combination of power (291 career homers) and speed (414 career SBs), and showed good defense (several Gold Gloves).  For one of the last career one-team guys, he makes the cut for me.

New Candidates that I would NOT vote for:

  • Sammy Sosa: 600+ career homers, and I can’t help but think that a good number of those were either PED or corked-bat assisted.  That’s probably completely unfair, but you can make a good argument that more than 150 of his career homers were likely “surplus” to his legitimate career capabilities.  He averaged 37 homers/season as he approached his prime, then suddenly averaged 60/season for four seasons.  Clearly Bonds’ 73-homer season is attributable to a single-season PED spike, but Sosa made a career of it.  There’s just no way for me to distinguish who the real Sosa was (he had a 99 OPS+ the year before his power spike) versus the PED enhanced version.
  • Kenny Lofton: I know lots of people view Lofton in the same breath as Rickey Henderson in terms of quality lead-off hitters, but to me he was just a vagabond who kept looking for work year after year.  He played for 12 teams by the time he hung them up.  Perhaps I’m not really “remembering” his time in Cleveland, where he stole a ton of bases and set the table for that powerful lineup.   He had a handful of gold gloves, a handful of all-star appearances.  I may be under-appreciating him a bit, but when I hear his name I don’t knee-jerk Hall of Famer.
  • Everyone else first time eligible, the best player of which is probably David Wells.  Wells basically had two good seasons (the only two times he received any Cy Young consideration) and otherwise was a rubber-armed hurler who prided himself on making 35 starts despite being in god-awful shape (as noted extensively in Joe Torre‘s book The Yankee Years).

I’d be shocked if anyone else on the first time eligible list got enough votes to even stay eligible for 2014′s ballot.

Critics may state that my fake ballot has some inconsistencies; how can I support a vote for Biggio but not for Trammell?   How can you vote for McGwire but not Sosa?  How can you vote for Edgar Martinez but not Larry Walker?  How can you vote for *any* PED guys but shun Sosa and Palmeiro?  How can you support Morris but not support Wells?   All these are good points; good arguable points.  Maybe if I had an official ballot I’d have a more serious discussion with myself about these points.  All the above thumbs-up/thumbs-down opinions are mostly knee jerk, did the guy “feel” like a hall of famer as opposed to a full statistical analysis.   As I covered in my Jack Morris piece, I think its ok to have slightly lesser players who contributed more to the baseball pantheon than slightly better players statistically who had no real lasting impact on the game.

And for now, that’s good enough for me and my fake Hall of Fame ballot.

Nats Off-season News Items Wrap-up 1/14/12 edition

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I’m looking for a contract “This Big!” Photo unknown via iusport.com

This is your semi-weekly/periodic wrap-up of Nats and other baseball news that caught my eye.

Nationals In General

  • Talk about rumors that just won’t go away: Nationals apparently remain the favorites for Prince FielderKen Rosenthal says the sameBuster Olney has a nice overview with pros/cons laid out.  For me (as discussed in the comments of the previous posts), I think he’d be a mistake for 8-10 years, but an absolute steal for 3.  Here’s some thoughts from Tom Verducci, who thinks the Nats are his destination.  And here’s a post that says one of the 3 candidates for Fielder I identified in this space a few days ago (Toronto), is out of the running.
  • Imagine a lineup that goes like this: Espinosa-Werth-Zimmerman-Fielder-Morse-Ramos-Desmond-Cameron to open the season, and then potentially inject Bryce Harper hitting behind Morse and replacing Cameron in the outfield.  That’d be 5 straight home-run hitting threats in the middle of your order, with good L-R balance.  I know he’d be expensive, but that’s a 95 win offense.  It’d be even better if we got a one-year stop gap hitter to open the year playing RF and who we could flip in trade if Harper comes up sooner than later.
  • From Jdland.com: the concrete factory across the street from Nats park is finally coming down!
  • Whoops: Zech Zinicola hit with a 50-game suspension for non-PED drug abuse.  Sounds like Marijuana to me.  I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Nats release him after this, his 2nd transgression.
  • John Sickels‘ new rankings of the Oakland A’s top 20 prospects, post trades this off-season.   6 of the 10 top were acquired in the Trevor Cahill and Gio Gonzalez trades, while three more represent Oakland’s #1 draft picks in 2011 (Sonny Gray) and 2010 (Michael Choice) and 2009 (Grant Green).  Say what you will about Billy Beane, but he’s clearly building a big-time farm system for the future right now.
  • A nice review of the Nationals 2012 outlook from seamheads.com.
  • We lost Doug Slaten.  Now he can go be horrible for Pittsburgh.
  • Good news on both Sammy Solis and Bobby Hanson from Byron Kerr.
  • Adam Kilgore says the team is still talking to Rick Ankiel about coming back as a 4th OF… I wouldn’t be totally opposed to that; he’s essentially the same player we got in Mike Cameron, right?  Only difference seems to be lefty versus righty.
  • Fun little position-by-position exercise: ranking the NL east teams position by position from David Shoenfield.  I must admit though I think he was a bit generous with his Nats rankings in some cases.

Free Agents/Player Transaction News

  • MLBTraderumors is great; they’ve created arbitration tracking pages that will “keep score” of all the cases coming up in Jan-Feb.
  • If you believe Jim Bowden, the Rangers are playing hardball in their Yu Darvish negotiations.  If this falls through … look for pandemonium both on the Prince Fielder front and with Darvish next year when he’s an unrestricted FA and could attract interest from pretty much every team in the league.
  • Makes sense: Marlins plan to aggressively pursue Yoenis Cespedes.  Getting the latest big name Cuban defector can only be a good thing for the franchise as they try to re-build a fan base in a heavily latino/cuban community.
  • Well, the  Yankees shored up their rotation in one 3 hour period on Friday night; trading for Michael Pineda and then signing Hiroki Kuroda.   They went from having three question marks in their rotation to now wondering if AJ Burnett can hold onto the 5th rotation spot.  Wow.  Here’s Keith Law‘s analysis, predictably giving the “edge” to the Mariners in the deal despite the obvious fact that Pineda is MLB proven while the other three guys in the deal, aren’t.

Hall of Fame items

  • Mike Silva becomes one of the very few BBWAA writers with a HoFame vote to publish support for Jack Morris.  I’m sure I’ll be seeing the inevitable Craig Calcarerra blog posting questioning Silva’s IQ for doing so.
  • David Shoenfield has a little missive on the HoFame, voting procedures and comments on how few players are getting elected these days.
  • Chris Jaffe does an excellent job predicting HoFame votes every year; here’s his guess on 2012′s election.  Bad news for Bagwell and Morris, good news for Larkin though.
  • Other interesting HoFame notes: one site in particular collects ballots; here’s a summary of the 80-some ballots she has right now.  Very good support for Larkin.
  • No Bagwell votes here; prepare for the ridiculing.  Danny Knobler and Scott Miller.
  • I think i’m just about fed up with bloggers who see everything in modern baseball through little spreadsheets of data and who never even saw Jack Morris and Bert Blyleven tell me I’m an idiot because i think the former is a better pitcher than the latter.  At some point statistics are just that; numbers that prove or disprove whatever your theories are.  You can’t just ignore 20 years of performance and context of playing in the league by boiling down thousands of innings pitched into one number, whether it is ERA+ or WAR or whatever.   For me, when you talk about whether a player is a Hall of Famer, you look at individual season accomplishments.  Morris basically had 15 seasons of full time pitching.  In 5 of those seasons he was a top-5 vote getter in the Cy Young; that means in 5 seasons those people who covered baseball that season considered him among the best 5 pitchers in his league.   In another two seasons he didn’t finish top 5 but still received votes.  He was god-awful his last two seasons, lowering his career totals.  And there’s dozens of examples of him completing games despite having given up 3-4 runs and sitting on 140 pitches.  Maybe Morris just needed to pitch in the current era, where he would be taken out in the 7th on a pitch count and then replaced by specialized relievers.  Meanwhile Blyleven, in 21 full seasons of starting made exactly TWO all-star games and received comparable Cy Young support 3 times.  I’ll ask again; how can you be considered one of the best of all time if nobody who covered you day in and day out during your career thought you were even among the best of your day??
  • Jorge Posada announces his retirement; the inevitable “Is he a Hall of Famer” articles start.  Immediate gut reaction from me: yes he’s a HoFamer.  Unlike some of his Yankees dynasty team members (Bernie Williams, Andy Pettitte) Posada seems a bit more transcendent in terms of talent and legacy.  A quick glance though at his career stats show some of the problems with his eventual candidacy.  He’s a late bloomer; not playing a full-time season til he’s 25.  However for the 10 seasons he had from 25 to 35 he was fantastic; 5 all-stars, 5 Silver Sluggers and two top-6 MVP votes.  After he turned 35 though he struggled with health and had a relatively poor final season at the plate.  He has no gold gloves and had a reputation for having a very weak throwing arm but had a 121 OPS+ for his career (a great offensive player for a catcher).  His compareables in b-r are heady company (including Carlton Fisk and Gabby Hartnett).  I guess we’ll see in 5 years’ time.
  • Jan 9th 2012: the wait is over.  Only Larkin elected, Morris and Bagwell vote totals rise but still not close.
  • Spreadsheet of all published/known hall of fame votes, with links to explanations.  Interesting to say the least; several blank ballots and several very odd ballots to say the least.

General Baseball News

  • Buster Olney continues his rankings of the top 10s of baseball; this time with lineups.  Predictably its very AL East heavy. Previously he had done rotations, bullpens, infields and outfields.  Links to other lists available from this article (ESPN insider only; consider spending $2/month for it; its worth it).
  • Buster, after finishing the above rankings, publishes his preliminary 2012 top 10 Power Rankings.  Rays #1, Nationals essentially #11/”Best of the Rest.”  Boy this team’s reputation has come a long ways in just a few short years.
  • Jeff Passan‘s A-to-Z discussion on Baseball this off season and in 2012.  I link it since I like most everything Passan writes.
  • Joe Torre joins an ownership group chasing the LA Dodgers … but not the one that Stan Kasten is heading.  Bad move; I think Kasten’s a shoe-in to be Selig‘s pick.
  • This could have a bigger effect than the loss of Albert Pujols: St. Louis pitching coach Dave Duncan is taking a leave of absence from the team to care for his ailing wife.  Duncan has been such a miracle worker for reclamation project starters over the past few years that its hard to imagine the Cardinals pitching staff not to take a dent.
  • The Chicago Cubs franchise potentially takes another hit: Starlin Castro reportedly accused of sexual assault.  Castro returned home for the off-season and isn’t in the country; could this incident prevent him from getting a work visa in 2012?
  • Jonah Keri takes on one of my favorite topics; calling out Billy Beane and showing how he’s closer to being an incompetent GM than he is to his vaunted reputation as the game’s best GM.
  • Great article on Baseball Prospectus about SLAP tears in baseball players (normally pitchers).  The article is very heavy on medical jargon but talks about the different types of tears and surgical remedies.  This is the injury that Chris Carpenter had and recovered from (though I’m pretty sure he ALSO had Tommy John surgery too).
  • Nice book review for “A Unique Look at Big League Baseball.”

Collegiate/Prospect News

  • 2012 AL rookie of the year favorite Matt Moore, profiled at seedlingstostars.com.  This is part of a series of prospect reviews, counting down to #1 and Moore is ranked #4 … but the author immediately caveats it by saying that any of the top 4 could be #1.  I talked about Moore after his playoff start on this site, coming away with a Wow factor that I havn’t had since Strasburg.
  • Scout.com’s top 100 Prospect list for 2012Bryce Harper #3 behind Moore and Mike Trout.  Can’t argue there.  Other Nats on the list include Anthony Rendon (#56).  AJ Cole (#76) and Brad Peacock (#85) would have made us a bit more respectable pre-Gonzalez trade.  Here’s hoping that the Nats “other” big prospects (Meyer and Purke in particular) turn in stellar 2012′s and beef up our presence on the national prospect scene again.

General News; other

  • Article on 10 “trendy sports medicine” fixes.  Including some exotic baseball remedies we’ve heard about recently.
http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/2012/writers/tom_verducci/01/13/ryan.madson.prince.fielder/index.html

2012 Hall of Fame Ballot thoughts

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Can we please elect one of the best hitters of the last 30 years? Photo via bill37mccurdy.wordpress.com

On November 30th, the BBWAA announced the 2012 official Hall of Fame ballot.  Let the cavalcade of Hall of Fame opinion pieces begin! (just a few early examples here, here, and here).

We all knew who was eligible for this ballot, thanks to the excellent work at baseball-reference.com.  All the anticipated ballots are available for perusal along with statistical summaries of each player’s career and a few Bill James-inspired metrics created to give simple statistical measures of Hall-worthiness.

2012′s ballot is the last year before the Steroid accused superstars start becoming eligible (Bonds, Sosa, Piazza, and Clemens are all on the 2013 ballot for the first time, in addition to Schilling and Biggio) and the narrative about Hall of Fame voting turns to morality voting for the next decade or so.  Gee, I can’t wait.  All these players played in an era where there was no testing against PEDs and no MLB-specified rules against PEDs, but voters continue to penalize these players as if testing WERE being done, as if there WERE rules at the time they played.  Meanwhile nobody talks about the PEDs that were prevalent for the last 30 years or so (amphetamines, or “greenies” in baseball parlance), and many players from the latter part of this decade freely talk of playing on speed.  Frankly, it isn’t fair.  We didn’t penalize Bob Gibson and put an asterick next to his accomplishments for pitching in a pro-pitcher, massive ballpark era did we?  No; that was the game at the time.  We don’t talk about how baseball fields used to be caverns with 480 foot distances and 30 foot walls, making triples far more common than homers.  No; that was the game at the time.  And frankly. the steroid era will eventually be remembered for what it was.  Sometimes I think the anti-PED crowd is just a bunch of middle-aged white guys who are really peeved that an arrogant black ballplayer in Barry Bonds broke the cherished home run records of storied players from their youth (Babe Ruth and the far more likeable Henry Aaron).  But I digress.

That being said, I like doing these Hall of Fame blog posts, if only because I usually disagree with the rest of the baseball blog-o-sphere on what really constitutes a Hall of Famer.  I’ve been watching baseball long enough to form my own independent opinions on players and not depend on revisionist historians turning mediocre players into other-worldy hall-of-fame electees (see Blyleven, Bert and my stated opinions on his Hall-worthiness ahead of the 2011 ballot, and especially read the comment section where people refuse to address any aspect of Blyleven’s playing career and only use statistics to canonize him).

Notwithstanding that comment, I believe we’re being too parsimonious with Hall of Fame elections.  Nate Silver from the NY Times wrote on this same topic in January of 2011, pointing out another interesting fact about the Hall of Fame (namely that roughly 13% of active major leaguers at various points in the 1930s and 1940s are now in the Hall).  I’m not advocating that we need to be looking at 10% of current active major leaguers for the hall, but I am advocating that we be less “parsimonious” with the voting.  This may seem contradictory to my opposing the candidacy of Blyleven; not so.  There are a number of very deserving candidates who are not getting the votes they need.  There seems to be several reasons for this:

  • Players whose accomplishments in the pre-Steroid era are being discounted for the lack of “big numbers” (Larkin, Raines, Trammel, McGriff to certain extents).
  • Players who toiled in the Steroid era are either users/suspected users (McGwire, Palmeiro), or are being caught in the steroid web (Bagwell).
  • Players who are suffering from a conflict of opinion in the voter base for various reasons (Smith, Morris, Martinez).

I’m not sure how to resolve any of these situations frankly.  But I’d hate to have these players languish on the ballot and age off of it and have to wait for some nebulous Veterans committee to enshrine them after they’re dead (see Santo, Ron).  Some people advocate modifying the voting methodology, but in reality there’s no easy fix.

Back to the 2012 ballot: the only candidate eligible for the first time this year worth any discussion is Bernie Williams.   For me, Williams was a nice player who retired early instead of facing the inevitable end of his Yankee career.  He was part of a great core group of home-grown Yankees that formed the core of the late 90s dynasty team and will certainly be remembered as a great franchise player.  That’s not enough; he was never the best player on his own team, he never sniffed an MVP vote and he never accumulated enough production to warrant being a focal point in the opposition.  He had a great 5-year run … but if we were electing people on 5-year runs then Juan Gonzalez would already be in.

For the rest of the remaining candidates, I’ll borrow some from last year’s version of this post.  I’m not going to go into major statistical analysis for each candidate (that analysis is freely available on most every major baseball blog site out there), but will state my opinion with a few choice links.  On my hypothetical ballot I’d vote for:

  • Jeff Bagwell: a career 149 OPS+.   That’s a career averaging nearly 50% better hitting than the average MLBer.  That he’s being lumped in with actual PED users without a shred of proof has become the latest hall of fame “cause” on the internet, starting with this excellent article accusing BBWAA writers of “plagiarism” (when I think he really means laziness, frankly).  At least I support this one.  Here’s an excellent case for Bagwell.  You won’t find anyone penning a “case against” him that doesn’t claim that he’s a PED user without the proof.
  • Jack Morris.  The “anti” sabrematrician selection.  Here’s a link to the most canonical case against Morris, as well as Joe Posnanski‘s anti Morris (and anti-other) rant.  And here’s a case for Morris from former Washington Post writer Richard Justice, now with MLB, which goes a lot towards my way of thinking about the guy.  Lots of people seem to be spending as much time arguing AGAINST him as they did arguing FOR Blyleven.  I wonder why that is?  Maybe there really just is a kind of pitcher who you had to see in context versus looking at his stats after the fact.  Nolan Ryan “only” had a 112 ERA+ for his career and was barely a .500 pitcher, yet was a first ballot overwhelming hall-of-famer.  There’s some disconnect here.  For me, the vote for Morris is about the “feeling” of a dominant pitcher, just as Blyleven was about the “feel” of a mediocre pitcher, no matter what his eventual career stats looked like.  For people who say this is fallacy, I say this: judgement of a player can not ONLY be done by looking at his stats.  Morris had a reputation for “pitching to score,” though sabrematricians have attempted to debunk that pitching-to-score exists for some time (see this link on baseball prospectus, then note at the bottom that despite 3500 words he says “none of this proves it doesn’t exist.”) but he also had a reputation for being the “Best pitcher of the decade.”  Bill James published a list of factors to consider, when evaluating a player’s candidacy, and the one takeaway I got from that list was (paraphrased) whether or not a player was the best on his team, the best in his league, a guy that the other team was afraid of.  Morris was that, for a period of more than 10 years.  His last two seasons took him from a 3.70 era to a 3.90 career era, and may have pushed him over the edge to his current stat-nerd polarizing stance.  For me, he was THE pitcher of the 80s, led one of the most dominant teams ever (the 1984 Tigers) and pitched a 10-inning complete game win in one of the best games ever played.  Those things stand for something, and should add up to more than a clinical analysis of his era+.
  • Barry Larkin: lost in the shadow of Ozzie Smith for so long, that people forget that he was an excellent defender AND a great hitter.  Long overdue for enshrinement.  Here’s a pretty stat-heavy analysis FOR him.
  • Tim RainesCase for.  Its hard to find cases against.  Raines, like guys like Trammell and Larkin, played in the shadow of Rickey Henderson for so long and was always judged to be 2nd best.   But his accomplishments, especially during the earlier part of his career, should be enough to get him into the Hall.
  • Mark McGwire: He was a lock before the PED ensnarement.  I say “ensnared” despite him using a completely legitimate supplement at the time.   He didn’t try to hide it either.
  • Edgar Martinez: I recently watched one of the games from the great series “MLB’s greatest games” of the last 50 years, and one of the games was the great game 5 playoff in 1995 between the Mariners and the Yankees.  David Cone in that broadcast said that Martinez was “the best right handed hitter he ever faced.”  And it struck me; Martinez indeed was one of the most feared hitters of his day.  Look at his career: he didn’t play a full season til he was 27 and he played a ton of DH.  He also retired with a career slash line above the mythical .300/.400/.500 targets.  For those that discount his heavy use at DH I ask one simple question: if you think Martinez didn’t contribute that much by just being a DH, then how can you possibly support the inclusion of a one-inning relief pitcher/closer?  Who do you really think contributes more, a DH with his 650 PAs or a relief pitcher with 60-some innings in a season?   In reality, you can’t.  It just takes an uber-DH like Martinez to press the issue.

Specific Names i’d leave off and why:

  • Alan Trammell: I just don’t think he was a dominant enough player to warrant inclusion.  I’d place him well behind his peers at shortstop for the ERA.  There’s plenty of support for him in various forums though, with good arguments for him.
  • Lee Smith: My tried and true argument; closers are incredibly overvalued, and especially closers with lifetime ERAs in the 3.00 range and with a career whip that’s closer to a league average than it is to dominant.  Sorry; Smith isn’t a HoFamer for me.
  • Larry Walker: the whole “he played in Colorado” angle probably isn’t as true as we think, but he still enjoyed a bump in his stats because of it.  Otherwise he’s in the hall of Good, not the Hall of Fame.
  • Rafael Palmeiro: its less about his idiotic stance in front of congress as it is about his method of “accumulating” his way to historic numbers.  Much like the discussion we’ll eventually have about Johnny Damon (who is only a few hundred hits away from 3000 but clearly isn’t a transcending player), Palmeiro was always a good, solid guy but never that much of a game changer.
  • Don Mattingly: I would love to vote for Donny Baseball, but being the Captain of the Yankees just isn’t enough (well, unless you’re a NY writer).  Retired too early, not enough power for a first baseman, peaked at 25 and struggled into his 30s.

Let the comments calling me an idiot for supporting Jack Morris begin.