While DePo has made some head-scratching decisions that haven't been popular with fans -- trading Paul Lo Duca, leting Adrian Beltre depart as a free agent after a monster season, signing Derek Lowe -- he's showing an ability to combine the analytical perspective he honed as an assistant GM in Oakland under Billy Beane with the strengths of the Dodgers' resources -- an excellent player development system and scouting department, an open-minded manager, and deeper coffers than he had as an A. He's taken a lot of flak for his approach, but last season the Dodgers reached the postseason for the first time since 1996 and won their first playoff game since the 1988 clincher, shedding some rather large monkeys from their back. For whatever it's worth, the Dodgers are the Baseball Prospectus staff pick to win the NL West.
Cherrypicking a few choice quotes from Weisman's DePo discussion...
On the stats vs. scouts divide:
"I don't think all of us have to be versed in objective and subjective analysis, but we at least have to appreciate that both exist and will be pieces of the puzzle. Our professional scouts have asked me, are there (particular) statistics you want me to look at? I said, 'No, we can do that in the office. Your job is to add texture to those numbers.'"
On losing Adrian Beltre and signing J.D. Drew:
"Our biggest fear was being left standing without a chair when the music stopped."
On evaluating the organization's top prospects:
"We're trying to predict the performance of human beings in special situations... We're never going to be right about that. We're going to try to build a decision-making process where we're right more often than we're wrong. We know we're not going to be right all the time.
On being linked with Moneyball:
"I was small enough in the book that it hasn't affected me at all... But people who, for whatever reason, were offended by the book or what it posits, definitely would like to see the people in the book fail that became pretty clear through the course of last year. It hasn't necessarily changed my day-to-day."
Excellent work from Weisman, and kudos to DePodesta for granting the most astute man covering the Dodgers some quality time.
Speaking of the Dodgers, one of the more controversial decisions made by DePodesta and company was letting starting pitcher Jose Lima, who won their lone playoff game in flamboyant fashion, depart for free agency. While the decision may have been difficult from a sentimental standpoint, the analytical red flags were all there: his 4.07 ERA was nothing special in the context of the pitcher-favoring Dodger Stadium, his success was founded on a low .268 batting average on balls in play, his homer rate was a ghastly 1.7 per nine innings, while his K rate of 4.9 per nine was well below league average.
Lima's Opening Day start in Royal blue appeared to validate that decision. He was bombed for five runs in three innings by the Detroit Tigers, yielding three homers, two by Dmitri Young, who scored a rare Opening Day hat-trick, and one by Brandon Inge. Lima Time was not a good time yesterday.
From the Controversial Departure/Bombed on Opening Day files, here's the line of former Yankee Javier Vazquez in his debut for the Diamondbacks: 1.2 IP, 10 H, 7 R, 7 ER, 0 BB, 2 K, 37.80 ERA, L, 0-1. Wow, turn off the ugly. While I somehow ended up with Vazquez on my fantasy team, it wouldn't surprise me one bit if a few more outings like this elicit revelations that something is amiss in his shouler or elbow.
MLB's revised steroid policy has claimed its first victim, but it's hardly the marquee name one would have expected. Former Tiger centerfielder Alex Sanchez, now with Tampa Bay, received a 10-day suspension for testing positive, a result Sanchez claims was produced by use of over-the-counter supplements. Aided by whatever juice he was on, the 5'10", 180-pound Sanchez walloped two homers last year and slugged .364. We're still waiting for congressional blowhards such as Henry Waxman, Christopher Shays and John McCain to pass a bill requiring him to be burned at the stake, with all four of his lifetime homers expunged from the record books.
Baseball Prospectus' Nate Silver weighed in with an excellent look at some of the numbers behind the power surge of the last two decades, testing what he called the Steroid Gap Theory:
Suppose that the predominant media opinion on the subject of steroids is correct: a substantial number of players are using steroids, and steroid use results in substantial and bifurcating improvements to player performance. We will call this the Steroid Gap Theory. What would we expect the corresponding impact on the game's competitive ecology to look like?
It might be the case that offensive levels would rise, if more hitters than pitchers were using steroids, or if the benefits of steroid use were more profound for hitters than they were for pitchers. But this would not be the distinguishing mark of steroid use; offensive levels cycle upward and downward all the time, and they have since the very origin of the game. Rather, the distinguishing mark would be that variance in player performance would increase. If some players, be they hitters or pitchers, were gaining a new and substantial competitive advantage, while others were remaining in place, then we'd expect a greater amount of differentiation between the best-performing players and the worst-performing players....
Silver compared the standard deviations in home run rates between two eras, 1961-1992 (exlcuding the '81 strike season) and 1996-2004 (excluding the transitional '93 season as well as the strike-marred '94 and '95 campaigns). His findings ought to surprise the mainstream wags who posit that steroids are solely the province of the musclebound big bashers:
As it happens, not only has the increase in the standard deviation failed to keep a proportionate pace with the increase in home run rates, but it has actually decelerated. That is, while offensive output has increased substantially, the playing field has become comparatively more level. Last season, for example, about 19.3 home runs were hit per 650 plate appearances in the National League, with a standard deviation of 11.9. Compare that to 1970, when just 15.6 home runs were hit per 650 PA -- about a 20 percent decrease from contemporary levels -- but the standard deviation was actually a bit higher, at 12.3.
This is far from a perfect experiment. But at the very least, it is highly problematic for the Steroid Gap Theory. If just a substantial minority were benefiting from steroid use, and the benefit were predictably and markedly positive, then we'd expect the differentiation between the haves and the have-nots to have increased. That differentiation has in fact increased on an absolute level, but it has decreased relative to what we would expect given the overall environmental improvements that all hitters are benefiting from, be those in the form of expansion, a lively ball, a smaller park, the birth of Jimmy Haynes, or what have you.
Silver's findings mesh neatly with the work I did in contributing a chapter to Will Carroll's forthcoming book, The Juice: The Real Story of Baseball's Drug Problems, which hits the shelves in a couple of weeks. In my work, which analyzed the unprecedented home run rates of the 1993-2004 era, I concluded that while steroids might be playing a part in the increased number of longballs, other factors such as expansion, new ballparks and especially changes in the ball itself are more likely culprits given the broad shape of the trends. One point I'd like to emphasize is that while seating capacities in the 18 new ballparks introduced since 1990 are less than in the previous generation of parks, outfield fence distances themselves are generally further than they were before:
Arn Tellem certainly isn't George Steinbrenner's favorite agent thanks to the gag order Tellem placed on his client, Jason Giambi, with regards to addressing steroids-related questions. In a classic case of misdirected anger, the Boss lashed out at Tellem back in February, likely still smarting from the revelation that the Yanks assented to Tellem's request to omit the word "steroids" from the language of Giambi's seven-year, $120 million contract.
For whatever sentiments that Steinbrenner and Tellem deserve each other are worth, Tellem weighed in with a thoughtful back-page article in this Sunday's New York Times regarding the recent Congressional and mainstream media grandstanding over steroids:
To politicians and the sports commentariat, baseball - pure, beatific, transcendent - is a kind of national sacrament, a near-holy aspect of our moral fiber. It is a ritual affirmation of an eternal America, a yearly renewal of life and humanity. As James Earl Jones's character mused in "Field of Dreams," "It reminds us all of what was good and could be again."
The game's self-appointed moral avatars act as if "Field of Dreams" were a documentary. In fact, a recent cover of Sports Illustrated featured the "Field of Dreams" field inset with an excerpt from the most self-righteous essay in baseball history: "What am I going to do with this scrapbook full of memories and the stories I used to tell? Another summer full of moments will soon begin, the biggest home run record of all ripe to fall. What will we do, each of us, now that we know?"
By manufacturing emotion and outrage, the sporting press resembles sports talk radio, a medium in which designated hotheads make outrageous comments solely to draw attention to themselves. The designated hitters of the print media portray themselves as honest referees, but see gray in only one shade. Never mind that back when McGwire was suspected of taking steroids, the major leagues had not yet banned the drug. Never mind that he was a team player who stayed out of trouble and remained fan-friendly. Never mind that he started a foundation and gave $3 million to help abused children. Some of the same writers who in 1998 were praising Mark McGwire for saving baseball now call him a disgrace. Today's athlete can be a hero or a villain, but nothing in between.
...I don't deny that sports figures can have an outsize effect on an impressionable child. Nor do I diminish the sorrow of families whose children have died after aping the actions of their favorite athletes. But if fingers must be pointed, shouldn't they also be directed at those parents who live through their children's athletic careers, force-feeding them pie-in-the-sky expectations? Or coaches who pressure young people to get faster and stronger and win at all costs? Aren't they the real role models?
In that aforementioned SI cover article, writer Gary Smith wistfully recalls 1998, "The Summer of Longballs and Love" as he terms it; your barf bag is located in the seat pocket directly in front of you. It's writers such as Smith who built the pedestals on which sluggers such as McGwire, Sammy Sosa, and Barry Bonds were placed, and watching them knock those pedestals down in such a self-serving manner is particularly gag-worthy. Smith, who has written perceptively on the role of sports in American culture, certainly knows better, so here's a big Bronx cheer to him.
But the much more troubling point that Tellem raises is that while players such as McGwire make convenient villains in this tale, it's the parents and coaches of the susceptible kids who should be the real targets of public ire. More than anyone, they, not the players, have a direct impact on those kids day-to-day lives. They, not the McGwires and Bondses of the world, should bear the brunt of responsibility for the use of steroids at the high school and college levels rather than assuming the roles of unwitting victimhood. Those relatively anonymous men and women don't make the sexy headlines, don't end up as the targets of congressional investigations or grandstanding front-page articles in mainstream magazines, but if the steroid problem is going to be solved, they'll have to step up to the plate along with the big names.
In my recent BP article, I made reference to the Yankees' increased ticket prices for 2005 but wasn't able to provide an exact percentage by which they rose. Since that article was published, Team Marketing Report has released its annual figures, which show that the average Yankee ticket price has risen to $27.34 -- a 10 percent bump over the previous year's figure of $24.86. Given that their average price only rose 60 cents from 2001-2004, the Yanks can hardly be singled out for passing the increased cost of their on-field product to their customers.
By the way, the most expensive tickets in the major leagues still belong to the Red Sox, whose average price went up 9.3 percent to $44.56. The gap between the Sox and the Yanks has increased over the past five seasons; in 2001, Sox tix cost $34.86, 44 percent higher than the Yanks. Now, they're a whopping 63 percent higher than their AL East rivals. Of course, given that the Sox have one more World Championship to celebrate than the Yanks in that span, I doubt anybody in New England will complain.
I tuned in just in time to catch the Yanks mounting their third inning rally against David Wells to break a 1-1 tie. The Fat Man, who usually brings his A-game to Yankee Stadium no matter what uniform he's wearing, was a complete basket case at that point, yielding a pair of doubles to Derek Jeter and Gary Sheffield, a couple of singles here and there, and plunking Jason Giambi on the arm. To top it all of, he balked in a run with the bases loaded, capping a three-run rally.
Wells departed with the bases loaded and one out in the fifth, having allowed 10 hits and letting 13 of 26 hitters faced reach base. Adding insult to injury, he received an earful of jeers from a Stadium crowd which once revered him. Writes Jack Curry in the New York Times:
Wells might have been the only person within 100 miles of the stadium who thought that the reception would be warmer. Wells said he had hoped the fans in the right-field bleachers would include him in their roll call, as they had done when he visited with the San Diego Padres or the Toronto Blue Jays. Forget about it.
While Wells dug his cleats into the pitching rubber during the fifth inning, killing time when Manager Terry Francona came out to remove him, boos escalated into a roar. If any fan dreamed of giving Wells a courtesy clap for four successful years here, he would have been drowned out.
...Wells took one peek into the stands when his miserable night ended after four and a third innings, absorbed what it was like to be a villain here and lowered his head. He looked wounded and frustrated after surrendering 4 runs and 10 hits.
Wells thought he was returning to a place where everyone knew his name and everyone loved his game. But that was then.
Wells inched across the line separating New York and New England when he signed with the Red Sox and he is now Boom-ah, with a derogatory drawl, not Boomer, with a lovable laugh.
"The reception I got tonight obviously wasn't good," Wells said. "It's funny how a season changes. You got a Padre uniform, you get cheered. You got a Boston, you get booed."
Even as somebody who's given Boomer more sympathy than most -- I participated in the hearty ovation he received as a Padre last summer -- I had to chuckle at Boomer's naοvete. Love for a guy wearing Red Sox, even one whose uniform number was in tribute to Babe Ruth (not that the Bambino ever actually wore the number for the Sox)? Fuggedaboutit.
Boomer aside, top billing for the evening went to Randy Johnson, making his debut in the tallest set of pinstripes ever issued. From what I saw, the Big Ugly was very good but short of dominant, allowing five hits and one run in his six innings of work while striking out six. Even given my reservations about this team, watching him pitch had my blood pumping. "Sit down, bitch!" I heard myself hollering as David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez both struck out looking at various times. From the other room, Andra could only laugh at my animated behavior. I was in midseason form.
For all of the Unit's success in his debut, the most dominant pitcher on the night appeared to be his successor, Tanyon Sturtze. A middling middleman who put up an unsightly 5.47 ERA last year, Sturtze came on strong down the stretch -- 14.2 scoreless innings, mostly against the Sox and the Twins -- thanks to a cut fastball learned from the master of that pitch, Mariano Rivera. The new weapon hasn't deserted him yet, apparently, as he struck out Bill Mueller looking and then Mark Bellhorn swinging to start the seventh, then whiffed Ortiz looking to end the eighth. Not too shabby.
Also notable last night was what went on at first base for the Yanks. Giambi, making his first regular-season appearance since the BALCO admissions, reportedly drew an ovation from the crowd after singling in his first at bat. He was hit by Wells twice, neither time to much effect, and departed after six in favor of Tino Martinez. Playing in pinstripes for the first time since the World Series of 2001, Tino drew the night's biggest ovation when he dove to snag a sharp liner down the first base line, then threw to first base for the out. He'd have certainly received a curtain call from the crowd of 54,818 were it not for the seventh-inning stretch which immediately followed. Martinez has his limitations as a hitter, but he can certainly pick it, and it was impossible not to feel good for the reception he got upon his return to the Bronx.
In the late innings, the Yanks rung up the score against a soggy parade of Sox relievers. Alan Embree and Mike Timlin were their usual surly selves, but Matt Mantei yielded a two-run jack to Hideki Matsui, and an error by his successor, John Halama, scored another run later in the inning to push the Yankee advantage to 9-1. Tom Gordon gave up a garbage-time run in the ninth, but it could hardly put a damper on this damp affair. There are still 161 games to go, but for one night, it felt like old times for the Yanks pushing around the Sox.
I was pretty far from the action compared to my man Cliff Corcoran, who braved the rain to sit in the rightfield bleachers. Head to Bronx Banter to check his report (complete with scorecard and mash notes to 25th man Andy Phillips, a late add to the roster with Kevin Brown doing what Kevin Brown does best, going on the DL with a balky back).
My own first trip to the Stadium is supposed to happen later this week -- I've tickets to either Tuesday or Wedesday's game, but I haven't gotten my hands on them yet to confirm which date. Last night's game and an afternoon spent flipping around my new Extra Innings package has me antsy to go. Play ball!