This bit of news is so surreal, I can only think it's a set-up for a mob hit. Tony Muser, manager of the hapless Kansas City Royals, has been selected by Joe Torre to be one of the American League's coaches for the All-Star Game.
The Royals currently own a 25-40 record, third-worst in the American League. The two managers whose teams have done worse (Texas' Johnny Oates, and Tampa Bay's Larry Rothchild) are already toast. What's more, Muser is hardly a Felipe Alou type of manager, somebody who draws praise from his peers despite his teams' shortcomings. His career winning percentage in almost four years of managing the Royals is .428.
He is a frequent target of ESPN columnist Rob Neyer, who follows the Royals more than any sane man ought to. Writing about Muser's shortcomings back in April, Neyer noted that several good young hitters have developed on his watch, but that Muser's handling of the pitching was the real problem. "If Tony Muser and I co-managed a Rotisserie team, I would send him out for cold beverages when it came time to bid on pitchers," wrote Neyer at the time. The results (13th in the league in ERA in '98, 14th in '99, 13th in 2000 and a robust 12th as I write this) speak for themselves. But wait, there's more: "Muser's a lousy in-game tactician, too, but that only costs the Royals three or four games per season, which is paltry compared to the other stuff," wrote Neyer (the full columns are available here. Scroll down to April 19.)
The most insight Muser has shown regarding managing a ballclub in his four years was a comment he made early in May about how the Royals weren't nasty enough to win at a big league level. "Chewing on cookies and drinking milk and praying is not going to get it done... I'd like them to go out and pound tequila rather than have cookies and milk because nobody is going to get us out of this but us." No better managing advice has been given to a losing ballclub since the Seattle Pilots' Joe Schultz told his hapless team to "pound that ol' Budweiser."
Anyway, despite his poor record, K.C. management stands behind him, which only goes to show that Muser's incompetence is symptomatic in the organization. But my point is the last person I'd think of when I think of an All-Star caliber manager is Tony Muser. I don't know what rationale Joe Torre could have used, other than Tony Muser is about to die, and this is his last request. Blindfold and cigarette, please...
The Yankees have shuffled their roster considerably over the past week or so, in the name of strenghtening their bench. Jorge Posada's thumb injury triggered a veritable avalanche of moves, and it's a sure thing that more changes are to come.
Posada's injury necessitated the addition of a third catcher, who arrived in the person of Todd Greene. Greene was once a hot prospect for the Angels, but injuries have derailed his career. Signed by the Yankees because they offered him the opportunity to prove he could catch again, he was recalled from Columbus and had an immediate impact, with a three-run HR in his first game and three more RBI in his second.
The move apparently made Joe Oliver expendible. I have a soft spot for "Country Joe," as I call him. Amid the hip-hop and classic rock intros which introduce the players for their at-bats at Yankee Stadium, Oliver stuck out with his country music intros. But not the good kind of country; this was the contemporary Nashville stuff which sounds as if Hank Williams were never born. Still, I respected his individuality in that department. Anyway, Oliver is a savvy veteran who's been around the block, and even has a World Series ring to show for it (Cincinnati 1990, with Paul O'Neill and Lou Piniella). I was at the game on Sunday night against the Braves, where Oliver drilled a Greg Maddux pitch into the black "batter's eye" at Yankee Stadium—a rarefied zone which only 16 players have previously reached (Posada had done so the night before, coincidentally).
Now Oliver is as gone as that home run, which is, in my mind, a questionable call. Carrying three catchers gives Torre the luxury of occasionally DHing Posada, who's become one of the Yanks most productive and feared hitters. Greene has some versatility, able to play 1st and the outfield. Oliver had 10 HR and and 803 OPS last year, and he's probably a better defensive catcher than Posada. So I'm not crazy about the move.
The Yanks have jettisoned outfielders Michael Coleman, Henry Rodriguez and Robert Perez, as well. Rodriguez got exactly eight at-bats to make or break a $1.5 million contract—and they traded Glenallen Hill to give him a shot! All Hill did last year was crush a lot, 27 HR in 300 ABs. The move was merely a cosmetic one, to protect the Yanks from having the highest payroll in the game. You can't tell me they don't miss the occasional pop he brings.
Coleman was as useless as bosoms on a pitching coach—a guy who couldn't hit any breaking pitch, had no strike zone judgement (he's got a Soriano like 1:26 walk to strikeout ratio for his career), and was uncomfortable coming off the bench. Like the typical Coleman at-bat, that's three strikes right there.
The Yanks picked up outfielders Darren Bragg and Shane Spencer, and infielder Enrique Wilson. Spencer is a welcome return; he was finally hitting his stride when he tore his ACL last year. Given the struggles of O'Neill, David Justice, and Chuck Knoblauch, Spencer should get his share of at-bats if he's healthy. Bragg brings some speed, and the ability to play CF, which is enough to justify his roster spot.
The other addition to the roster is infielder Enrique Wilson. Once highly regarded as a Cleveland Indians prospect, he was stinking (.186) in oblivion (Pittsburgh). He's not yet 26, can play 2B, SS, and 3B, and he had a 767 OPS last year, so he's not a bad pickup. The move may portend bigger things; if the Yanks find it necessary to trade Alfonso Soriano to get this year's model of David Justice, Wilson is a likely candidate to step in as the regular. Don't be surprised if it happens.
On the occasion of his first managerial meeting with his mentor, Toronto Manager Buck Martinez pronounced Bobby Cox "the dominant manager of his era."
Indeed, Cox is a fine manager. Since 1991, he's led the Atlanta Braves to nine division crowns, five pennants, and one World Championship. An impressive record of success, no doubt. Of course, during that same time period, Joe Torre has trumped him with four World Championships, including two victories over Cox's teams.
Cox is great for the long haul, but his postseason record leaves much to be desired. Besides Torre, he's lost out to Tom Kelly, Cito Gaston, Jim Leyland, Bruce Bochy, and Tony LaRussa. Good managers all, yet none (okay, maybe LaRussa) hailed as the answer to Casey Stengel.
I've been doing a lot of research on Tommy Lasorda lately, and thinking about his methods in the context of what constitutes a great manager. Lasorda's tactics were overshadowed by his personality, by and large, but one would have to say that he made his personality part of his tactics. What I mean is, when Lasorda's teams showed a weakness, he could deflect attention away from that though his own magnetism, while rallying the troops at the same time. Think of the 1988 World Series, where he won with a cleanup hitter who batted .196, among a patchwork of role players pressed into duty by injuries.
Lasorda's not alone in his force-of-personality shtick. Pepperpots like Billy Martin and Earl Weaver pulled as much or more out of less talented ballclubs and acted as lightning rods for the attention. Their teams were almost always in contention.
Cox, on the other hand, has always struck me as somewhat bloodless. I've seen the man blow up over bad calls, but I also get the sense that he's not one to resort to the kind of win-one-for-the-Gipper pep talk that a team might sometimes need. I know this may sound stupid, when we sit here analyzing statistics and tendencies, but the manager of the team sets the tone. Torre's professionalism, Martin's aggressiveness, Lasorda's B.S., whatever it takes...
Character doesn't win ballgames, but the collective attitude of a team does have an impact on how they play. The Braves seem to lack a hunger to get over the hump at critical times, and in my eyes that's a reflection of the manager. Dominance of the NL East and the National League during the course of the past decade—that I will concede to Cox. But he falls short beyond that measure.
A guest writer for Baseball Primer named Jonathan Daly has suggested that pitcher Mike Morgan is the Kevin Bacon of baseball. That is, he can be linked by a few degrees of separation to nearly everybody in the baseball universe.
Morgan has played for twelve different teams over twenty-one seasons, spanning four decades. Daly estimates Morgan has had close to 650 teammates, which is around 4% of all major leaguers who ever played. Each of those players has a Morgan number of 1. Daly doesn't count managers and coaches in his linking.
Here's as close as I'm ever going to get: The only foul ball I ever retrieved was at a rookie league game in Walla Walla, Washington, and was signed by catcher Bob Geren. Geren eventually made the big leagues and was a teammate of Don Mattingly, who was a teammate of Mike Morgan. Thus, my Morgan number is 3.
Roll over, Mike Morgan, and tell Kevin Bacon the news...
Four days after failing to retire a single batter and leaving the game suffering from back spasms, David Wells pitched seven shutout innings. Okay, it was only the Cincinnati Reds. But the start affirmed that Wells is reasonably healthy, and is capable of pitching well, especially when he's got something to prove.
The win also brought the Chicago White Sox, who have won 14 of 17, to within 4 games of .500. They're still in 3rd place, 11 games behind Minnesota and 10.5 games behind Cleveland for the Wild Card. But the bleeding has apparently stopped, and Wells' performance may, paradoxically, keep him in Chicago.
Or it may just up the ante when the Red Sox or the Yankees or another contender comes calling. The price will be high—lately the Sox have been asking for three big-league-ready ballplayers. But so will the stakes. It's tough to imagine George Steinbrenner sitting on his hands while the Red Sox trade for him.
Consider these stats:
• Wells is 16-8 lifetime against the Yankees.
• He was 2-0 with a 1.23 ERA against them last year.
• In his second game against them, on September 14, he pitched eight strong innings in a game the Blue Jays won in extra innings. The loss was the first one of a 3-15 skid which closed the regular season for the Yankees. Voodoo curse, anyone?
• Wells is 28-9 with a 3.27 ERA lifetime at Yankee Stadium.
If the Yanks don't get him, and Wells helps somebody beat them, the blood of Brian Cashman will be shed. If the Yanks do get him, and they don't win, the blood of Brian Cashman will be shed. Oh, to be young and working for the Boss...
Manny Ramirez has missed Boston's last two games due to illness. Suffering from flu-like symptons, he's been taking antibiotics. And he's apparently lost weight. But when asked about his baggy uniform pants, Ramirez explained that they had been fitted for rotund reliever Rich Garces. According to the listings, "El Guapo" (the Handsome One, en Español) outweighs Ramirez by forty pounds.
Which brings up the question I'd love to ask: "Manny, how did you put on your pants today?"
Rob Neyer devoted a whole column to Hampton's hitting, examining it in the context of other great-hitting pitchers. The last pitcher to hit 5 in one season was Bob Gibson, in 1972. Elsewhere on ESPN.com, Jayson Stark listed the following pitchers who've hit five or more since 1968:
Earl Wilson, 1968, 7
Ferguson Jenkins, 1971, 6
Sonny Siebert, 1971, 6
Rick Wise, 1971, 6
Bob Gibson, 1972, 5
Johnny Odom, 1969, 5
Wilson's season represented the fourth time he topped 5 HR in a season, and his 35 career HRs ranks #2 all time among pitchers to Wes Ferrell (38). Rick Wise's season included a game in which he hit two homers and threw a no-hitter. He had another two-homer game later that season.
At the other end of the spectrum, I believe Ron Herbel is the worst-hitting pitcher of all time, with a career average of .029 (that's 6 for 206). In his first season he was 0-for-47, then 1-for-49 in his 2nd season. After that 1-for-96 start, he got hot, banging out four hit over the next two years, two of them doubles. Bob Buhl gets an honorable mention for an 0-for-70 season in 1962, but his .089 career average was much more robust than Herbel's.
I've been fascinated by the hitting records of pitchers ever since Steve Carlton homered against the Dodgers in the 1978 NL Championship Series. The next year, Dodger rookie pitcher Rick Sutcliffe drove in 17 runs, furthering my interest in the subject. Nolan Ryan homered in his first game as a Houston Astro, against the Dodgers, in 1980. Fernando Valenzuela hit ten home runs in his career, as did J.R. Richard. Don Robinson was widely acknowledged as the best-hitting pitcher while I was growing up. In his 15 seasons, he hit .231 with 13 HRs—not exactly Babe Ruth, but good for a couple of pinch-hit chances every year.
My head is filled with this kind of stuff—it's a wonder I can remember where I parked my car. Oh, wait—I live in New York City and don't have a car. Whew...
The New York Daily News' Filip Bondy has an entertainingly hyperbolic piece on the Yankees-Expos "rivalry". According to Bondy, it started with the 1967 World's Fair in Montreal trying to outdo the previous one in New York. Bondy places Expos SS Orlando Cabrera at the center of the current conflict. Cabrera made the final out of David Cone's perfect game in 1999. But last season, he exacted some revenge by homering off of Cone, then flipping the bat towards the pitcher's mound. Bondy's satire runs until the end, when he refers to Montreal as one of the best factory outlet stores in the major leagues. Anyway...
Baseball in Montreal is in a sorry state, with the recent dismissal of longtime manager Felipe Alou, an attendance that has reached five digits only three times since the season's first series, and rumors that baseball will eliminate two teams as early as next season. Having recently visited the city and spent an afternoon in the shadow of Le Stade Olympique, the 'spos have been on my mind. The apathy with which the city views the team saddens me; I would not be surprised to find that I have more fond memories of Tim Raines' career than most Montreal residents.
The blame should be shared by (who else) the team's ownership, which seems to be playing out the string before relocating or folding, and the city's tax base, which is unwilling to fund another stadium to replace the concrete money pit that is the Big O(we).
Montreal is a historic city from a baseball standpoint. Among other things, the city was Jackie Robinson's first stop once he signed with the Dodgers, the year before he broke the color barrier in the majors. At their peak, the Expos had three Hall of Fame-caliber players, in Tim Raines, Gary Carter, and Andre Dawson. Their 1994 team, which featured Pedro Martinez, Larry Walker, and Moises Alou, had the best record in baseball when the strike pulled the plug. They couldn't afford to keep those players once their contracts came up, and the team has never been the same.
Major league baseball is a precious gift to any city. If fans don't support it in Montreal, it ain't EVER coming back. I hope for the sake of the few Expos fans in Montreal that an ownership committed to keeping the team there can be found. But I'm not optimistic.
When pitcher Mike Hampton signed with the Colorado Rockies, many people wondered aloud whether he would fall victim to the rarefied air of the Mile High city. They were partially correct: the home runs have been soaring out, but they're off of Hampton's bat. He slugged his fifth of the season yesterday. That's five more than Ken Griffey, Jr. That's more than the regular first basemen of the Mets (Todd Zeile) and the Braves (Rico Brogna) combined. Forget the Rey Ordoñez jokes, that's as many as Derek Jeter has.
Hampton's a great athlete, and even before this season was considered an exceptional hitter for a pitcher (his last three seasons: .262, .311, and .274). But this power surge is unprecedented for him, as he had never homered coming into the season. At this point it wouldn't be surprising to see Hampton drawing the occasional pinch-hit duty when he's not pitching.
Like any complete ballplayer, Hampton has been working on his clichés to go along with his performance. "I'm seeing the ball right now, that's about as far as I can go," Hampton said. "I just hit the ball good and got it over the fence." And those pants, Mike, how do you put them on?
Here's an interesting piece on where Randy Johnson fits in among today's elite pitchers. What's more interesting than the result, to me, is the methodology, because it's a useful one to compare any group of pitchers.
Today we hear a lot of talk about how great Pedro Martinez is. And it's true--the man is a great pitcher, and his dominance relative to the conditions of the time is virtually unprecedented. His ERA is less than half of the league's ERA. Last year he won the ERA title by almost two whole runs (Pedro 1.74, Roger Clemens 3.70)!
But what's missing from that analysis is some perspective on how valuable Pedro is compared to pitchers from other eras who put up similar numbers (with respect to W-L and ERA), but who may not have been as dominant relative to the league. Sandy Koufax comes to mind, as does Lefty Grove. What they have on Pedro is that they were starting more games (in a four-man rotation rather than five), completing more games (as was the style at the time), and racking up significantly more innings.
The reason this is significant is that in weighing the value of 225 innings of Pedro against 300 innings of Koufax, you're left with the fact that some other pitcher not named Pedro Martinez has to cover those other 75 innings, and he's not going to be as good. And that needs to be considered if we're putting these pitchers in their proper contexts.
Anyway, this article focuses on comparing Randy Johnson to Sandy Koufax using a measure called Wins Above Replacement. A replacement-level pitcher, here, is one who gives up 20 percent more runs than the league average. In other words, a below-average pitcher. As great as Johnson is, he doesn't measure up to Koufax, which is no embarassment. But the article places him 3rd among active leaders in WAR, behind Clemens and Greg Maddux, but ahead of Tom Glavine and Kevin Brown. Pedro is tied for sixth, but climbing fast.
What I would like to see is a comparison between Martinez, Koufax, Grove, and perhaps a few other pitchers from other eras who sustained periods of dominance along the lines of those three (Mathewson? Maddux? Carlton?). If I had a spreadsheet I'd run it myself, and in time I probably will. For all I know, somebody over at the Baseball Prospectus has already done the work. I'll keep an eye out.