Thanks to the magic of TiVo, I watched a dandy of a ballgame the other night, the pitchers' duel between soon-to-be 42-year-old future Hall of Famer Randy Johnson and 19-year-old rookie Felix Hernandez. Brother, that was one game which lived up to the hype. I'd seen Hernandez, the Mariners' wunderkind, pitch once before, but that was against the Royals, a team that barely fits the definition of major league. Through his first five starts, Hernandez had faced the Tigers, the Royals, the Twins (twice) and the White Sox, who have been scrambling for runs for the past month. In those five starts, he'd gone 35 innings with a 1.75 ERA and a nice 38/5 K/BB ratio. Prior to his third start (against the Royals, having already faced the Tigers and Twins), Baseball Prospectus' Joe Sheehan noted, "The next number in this sequence is an intrasquad game against his Mariners' teammates, followed by a start against the Washington state representative to the Little League World Series regionals."
The Yankees didn't exactly knock King Felix out of the box, but they did wait him out, drawing four walks, two of them in the first inning. They couldn't capitalize on any of them, however. Derek Jeter's walk to lead off the game was immediately erased by a double play. A Jason Giambi walk in the fourth was erased by an inning-ending double play. And Alex Rodriguez's walk to lead off the seventh was followed by a Giambi single, but again, a double play took a bite and then Matt Lawton lined out with A-Rod on third.
Hernandez has a great fastball that can top 97 MPH, and better yet, the ability to control it. His curve is so heavy that it gets referred to as a hammer, and he's dropped many a hammer on hitters thus far, one reason for his incredible 3.52 groundball/flyball ratio. His changeup is supposed to be good as well, but it cost him against the Yankees when Robinson Cano launched one over the rightfield wall for a solo shot. He immediately came back to strike out Jeter looking at a fastball on the outside black. Perfect pitch. Siddown, Cap'n. The only other mistake he made after that was a fastball that stayed over the plate enough for Gary Sheffield to jerk into the bullpen in left-center to put the score at 2-0.
Fortunately for the Yanks, Randy Johnson was even better -- snarling, screaming, practically frothing at the mouth. Johnson, of course, spent a decade pitching for the Mariners, evolving from a 6'10" freak show to one of the game's elite pitchers, and it's no stretch to say that the entire existence of Safeco Field, if not the ballclub's continued presence in Seattle, owes its existence in part to his heroics back in the 1995 postseason. Though Johnson downplayed its significance coming in, the billing of this matchup as the Mariners past versus their future certainly gave him every reason to be fired up. His fastball reached as high as 97, his slider was devastating. The M's hitters could have gone up there with a rubber hose and had just as good results.
Through five innings Johnson had allowed no hits. Even on TiVo delay, that called for preparations: put the computer to sleep to avoid any messages "from the future," check to see that I wasn't going to have to switch brands of beer mid-game, taking note of the position of lightswitches, Yankee paraphelia... you name it. It's goofy to react like that, but why mess with the magic? My hair was standing on end, and I was pacing around the room.
Alas, Johnson yielded a leadoff double in the sixth to Yuniesky Betancourt. Which brings me to another point: the M's lineup had some of the weirdest first names around: Jamal (Strong, their centerfielder), Yuniesky, Yorvit (Torrealba, their catcher), Adrian (Beltre), Raul (Ibanez). In that crowd, a name like "Ichiro" starts to sound normal. Ichiro's grounder sent Betancourt to third, setting up a memorable at-bat in which Johnson fell behind before finally getting Strong to look at strike three. As he went down, Johnson was shouting at the hitter in a manner that seemed like he was promising to defile Strong's grandmother's grave or something. N-A-S-T-Y. But he wasn't out of the inning. He got a couple of quick strikes on Ibanez, who after getting a ball fouled off a couple off pitches, one of which was dropped by Tino Martinez. Grrrrrr. Fortuantely, he grounded out to end the threat.
All told, Johnson K'd seven in seven innings on the night, throwing 116 pitches, 79 of them strikes, and allowing just three hits. Hernandez lasted eight frames, yielding four hits and striking out seven. It was as good a pitchers' duel -- hell, as good a game -- as you're going to see this year, a tight contest finished in 2:33 (and even less on a TiVo). I pity the fool who missed it.
I don't have any family in the Gulf Coast region, but having lived through September 11 in Manhattan, I can begin to identify with the fear and uncertainty the people down there must be facing. News from two of my good friends at Baseball Prospectus whose families have been affected by the hurricane bring the crisis even closer to home. Dayn Perry reports that his parents' home in Gulfport, Mississippi was completely destroyed. Steven Goldman and his wife spent a tense couple of days awaiting word that her parents, who also live in Mississippi, were safe. My heart goes out to them and their families as well as everyone else affected by this crisis.
It's heartening to see even everybody's favorite villain, George Steinbrenner, set a positive example with his generosity by donating $1 million to the relief effort. If you haven't done so already, I urge you all consider a donation to the Red Cross in the face of this emergency.
Last week's Prospectus Hit List generated a larger and more contentious batch of reader mail than usual, with the relative rankings of the Oakland A's and Anaheim Angels of Whereversville a particular flashpoint for some readers. Rather than take a defensive attitude towards the criticism, I've used the opportunity as a means to explain the methodology behind the Hit List in more detail, first in a blog entry for this site and now in a more formal article to accompany this week's list.
Much of the mail came from Angels fans who accused me a BP of bias towards the A's, a charge not to be taken lightly. It's certainly true that BP has benefitted from the attention paid to the A's front office for their use of sabermetrics in building their ballclubs. The smash hit Moneyball drastically expanded the market for such analysis, no doubt raising BP's profile and and ultimately generating more subscriptions. A's GM Billy Beane and Moneyball author Michael Lewis have both endorsed BP on the covers of the 2004 and 2005 annuals, and a BP alumnus, Gary Huckabay, now consults for the A's. Furthermore, BP's writers have picked the A's to win the AL West in 2000 (eight out of 11 first place votes), 2001 (13 out of 13), 2002 (nine out of 13), 2003 (13 out of 13), 2004 (10 out of 12) and 2005 (seven out of 12; in my first year being polled, I was among the four who picked the Angels). They/we have been right three out of five times so far, and in the other two, the A's garnered the Wild Card in 2001, and fell short of the division by a game last year. Of course, they're right in the hunt this year as well. That's not too shabby a record, either for the A's or for BP, considering how out of vogue the team was a few years ago.
That said, as I wrote in the article:
I'm somewhat bemused by the fact that readers think there's some bias built into BP's brand of analysis to favor the A's over the Angels. While it's true that the two teams' offenses are built along different models and that the A's follow one that's more in line with a sabermetric analysis, if you read what we've written over the years, you'll see that we have no shortage of respect for the latter as a team, particularly in the way the Angels run their bullpen and their farm system. We don't sit around trying to find measures that say, "Hey, we need to find a way to make the A's come out on top, or at least better than the Angels." As Bill James defined it, sabermetrics is the search for objective truth about baseball, and we hold to that standard. If we kept putting our thumbs on the scales every time the A's--or the Red Sox, or another saber-friendly team--came up, our analysis wouldn't have much value.
Look, there's a reason the A's and BP both favor the sabermetric approach: it's a route to building a better ballclub, particularly when 90% of teams--and that percentage is much, much less now than it was a few years ago--aren't using it. Entire books have been written on the subject, so I won't belabor the point any further than that., except to say that nobody within the A's or BP signed Orlando Cabrera, he of the .315 career OBP, to a four-year, $32 million deal, nor do they keep writing Darin Erstand and his .371 SLG into the lineup at first base every day.
Turning to this week's list, the A's rebounded from last week's 1-5 showing to go 5-1, drubbing their opponents by a combined score of 47-14 and securing the #2 spot on the list. The Angels, perhaps exhausted by so many readers arguing on their behalf, went 2-4 and were outscored 29-22, falling three notches to #8 and thus earning themselves this week's Golden Anvil award. The Hit List Factor gap beween the two teams, just .0027 last week, is now about 10 times that, .0254. And of course, the A's now find themselves atop the Al West.
Elsewhere, the Yankees earned this week's Platinum Pole Vault award, swapping places with the Angels to move to #5. As noted in their entry, GM Brian Cashman pulled a minor coup over the weekend by acquiring outfielder Matt Lawton from the Chicago Cubs for an A-ball pitcher named Justin Berg. Lawton (.266/.366/.408 on the year) immediately strenghtens a bench populated by the likes of John Flaherty, Bubba Crosby, Tony Womack and Felix Escalona, four players with a combined -20.0 VORP and little chance of hitting water if falling out of a boat. Unlike those stiffs, he gets on base; his current season is pretty much right on his career number of .369. He's got a bit of pop, too, as he showed last night, homering against the Seattle Mariners. Reports today indicate that the Yanks will further strengthen their bench by adding Red Sox castoff Mark Bellhorn, who endured a dismal .216/.331/.360 season before being designated for assignment but was one of the Sox key players last year, hitting .264/.373/.444 and getting some huge hits in the postseason. He'll likely take up some at-bats against lefties while slumping Robinson Cano sits, and with at least some experience at every position besides catcher, he gives Joe Torre some other options as well. With Alex Rodriguez reportedly nursing a groin injury, some spot work at third base would appear to be a likely scenario as well.
Meanwhile, the Dodgers are still mired at #24, and I, for one, have given up hope. Last week's ugly war of words between Milton Bradley and Jeff Kent was disheartening; whether Bradley was right or wrong about Kent's ability to deal with black players, going to the press with a clubhouse problem and playing the race card is a nuclear option which illustrates a startling lack of judgement and guarantees nothing but misery. I don't look on Bradley's season-ending torn patellar tendon as any sort of schadenfreude; I've been in his corner through every controversy during his entire Dodger career. Fellow Dodger fan and Dodger Thoughts blogger Jon Weisman wrote some words about the situation which I agree with:
The Dodgers will need to make a baseball decision about Bradley, not a therapeutic one. But - and I'll apologize in advance for being soft on this one - if Bradley does leave, I'll be disappointed for non-baseball reasons. For all his problems, I have found Bradley's story so compelling ever since he became a Dodger, I don't want to see it play out somewhere else. I want to see the third act here. Not to gawk, but because I think there's value in the resolution. For all the talk about how difficult Bradley's presence has been in the Dodger clubhouse, I think that the team would become stronger, more cohesive, if they see this through. I think we'd all learn something.
And I know many have lost patience with him, and I don't begrudge that. But I'm still rooting for him. His emotions may not all be pleasant ones, but I just feel his struggle. I can't justify it beyond that; I can't be rational about it.
Having gone thermonuclear, Bradley has set off much soul-searching among the Dodger higher-ups. As an arbitration-eligible player who's going to be dealing with injury and rehabilitation to go along with his growing list of off-the-field woes -- new reports of multiple domestic violence incidents have surfaced in The Daily Breeze, a Redondo Beach newspaper -- he has now given the team every reason to non-tender him rather than sign him to a multi-year deal. He's played his last game in Dodger blue, cost himself millions of dollars, and lost the support of many who've stuck with him through the ups and downs, myself included. Sad but true.
None of which is to exonerate Kent, by the way. On the field, the Dodger second baseman is all business, and despite the reports of his locker-room detachment, the 37-year-old potential Hall of Famer has a right to "police the clubhouse" as he termed it. But pressing the sensitive Bradley's buttons in the manner he reportedly did serves little productive purpose, either. You've got to pick your battles, and a lost RBI in an 11-6 win isn't worth the trouble.
The Dodgers are now 11 games under .500 at 60-71, yet they're only 4.5 behind the Padres in the standings, tied with the even more execrable Diamondbacks (who rank #28 on the Hit List thanks to being outscored by a whopping 151 runs, compared to 63 for the Dodgers). They're tantalizingly close, but so inept and broken down I'm not sure I even want to see them win only to be crushed again by the Cardinals in the playoffs. From an emotional standpoint I've pulled the plug, and my continued attention to them is as much for professional reasons as any others.
• • •
As the Bradley controversy escalated last week, one of my BP colleagues noted internally the difficulty of writing about racial issues without either resorting to platitudes or being branded a racist. It's a sensitive area even when taken to the baseball arena to address Milton Bradley's mid-tirade observation that less than nine percent of players are African-American. But it's not an impossible one, as I was reminded last night when reading Howard Bryant's fine history of the post-strike epoch,Juicing the Game. Some 340 pages into the book, I reached Bryant's chapter on Barry Bonds and Gary Sheffield (recently excerpted in two parts by Bronx Banter). Bryant himself is African-American, and his first book was Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston, so he's well-versed in writing about the topic of race, and he brings to the Bonds discussion a unique and valuable perspective. Bryant notes Bonds' connections to the game's elite black players:
A unique figure in the history of the game, Bonds was third-generation black baseball royalty. His father was Bobby Bonds, who combined exceptional speed and power to become one of the most gifted five-tool players of the 1970s. With the Giants from 1968 to 1972, Bobby Bonds was mentored by his legendary teammate Willie Mays, who in turn became young Barry's godfather. Growing up in Riverside, Bobby Bonds was a childhood friend of Dusty Baker. Baker's father coached young Bobby through Little League. Like Bonds with Mays on the Giants, Dusty Baker, as a young outfielder with the Atlanta Braves, was mentored by the great Hank Aaron. As contemporaries of Jackie Robinson, Mays and Aaron were two of the most prominent forefathers of integrated baseball. As a child, Barry Bonds learned baseball directly from his father, Willie Mays, and Hank Aaron. No black player of Bonds's generation would own such a personal connection to the roots of the integrated era, nor would any of his contemporaries be more closely linked to the major league black experience.
Not only did Barry Bonds grow up in the game of baseball, but his experience was not unlike that of a privileged member of a political dynasty. When Bobby Bonds played for the Yankees in 1975, Billy Martin, then the manager, would constantly have to run the eleven-year-old Barry off of the field during batting practice. Years later, after Bonds signed a record-breaking contract to join the San Francisco Giants, his on-field performance would help Dusty Baker become the most influential and successful African American manager in baseball history. Baker would be Bonds' manager for his first ten years with the Giants. Baker's hitting coach for the first four of those years would be Bobby Bonds.
...As a major leaguer, [Barry] Bonds's battles with the press were legendary. He had inherited from his father a suspicion of the writers that was tied to a large degree to race. During his playing days, Bobby Bonds suffered through a difficult relationship with the writers and team executives, and he often warned his son to be cautious of the press. There would always be a distance between the players and the writers, he would say. Part of it is inevitable; it is your job to play, and their job to judge. But while the writers should be treated with respect first, Bobby Bonds believed, very few could be trusted.
To Bobby Bonds, what made the relationship especially volatile was the element of race. The overwhelming majority of the writers were white, and very few seemed willing to take the time to understand the special circumstances that existed for black players. In a sense, the relationship was no different than the black-white relationships that existed in the society at large. There was a certain unfairness to it, but that made it no less true: Whites could live their entire lives and never know or care to know anyone black. Yet it was impossible for a black person to be successful in America without knowing how to deal with whites and navigate the white world. As a result, there was a critical imbalance to the way white reporters would interpret the actions and personalities of black players that made it a virtual certainty that the black athlete would be portrayed inaccurately, if not unfairly. There was, especially when Bobby Bonds played, a type of conduct white reporters expected from black athletes. As much as the black player who was generally outgoing would receive fairly favorable coverage, the black player who showed any type of independence or intensity was met with an almost open hostility from the white press corps. There were a few reporters who would take the time to be fair, but most would not, and because they were the primary liaison between the player and the public (not to mention their connections to the upper reaches of club management), the writers could make life very difficult for a black player.
Barry Bonds' penchant for seeing his career as an opportunity to revisit the battles his father fought has been discussed before in several places. But Bryant brings a new perspective to the equation. As a black writer himself, particularly one covering the Red Sox, no doubt he's found himself in the same shoes as the Bonds duo, needing to understand racial dynamics with a depth his white colleagues may not have had to. Here, that plays to his advantage.
It was a mistake to view Bonds' obdurate demeanor as a sign that he had not been profoundly affected by a society that was clearly racist and whose racism inflicted considerable damage on people whom Barry Bonds loved. He did not advertise his hungers, for there certainly would be no advantage in it for him, but Bonds sought redress through his play. There would come a time when he would have a chance to avenge the slights, both small and large, that contributed to his father's alcoholism and bitterness. To Monte Poole, when it became clear that he had an opportunity to reach the elite milestones in the game, Bonds began to sharpen his focus. His evolving black conscience paralleled his rising place in the game. He did not want to break Hank Aaron's record, he said. What he wanted to do, he once told Poole, was to erase the white men who played in the segregated era from the top of the record books. They were leaders because they were great players, but only in part, Bonds believed. The other reason was that they did not have to compete against a significant part of the baseball-playing population. It was not lost on him that the great black players of the Negro Leagues were cheated out of their moment in history by racism, and that many white players became legends at their expense. It was also not lost on him that despite his incredible natural talents, he, too would have been denied the opportunity to compete against the white players who would become icons had he been born in the segregated era. He was fueled to a large degree by addressing this historical racial slight.
...Bonds went through the decade consistently dominant, amassing staggering numbers, yet paying a price for his freedom. For despite his brilliance, something remarkable happened: The game started having fun without him. The best player in the game was not its most celebrated. Bonds may have been the best player in the National League, but he nevertheless seemed to be diminished by the home run fiesta that took place in the poststrike years. While Bonds smoldered, the story was Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire. To Jon Heyman, watching Sosa and McGwire led Bonds to a fateful choice to transform himself into an incredible hulk of a baseball player, which led him eventually to use steroids. "I think he got mad when he saw lesser players like Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa getting all the attention, and he said to himself, 'Let's level the playing field,'" Heyman said. "And when he leveled the playing field realized he was two times better than everyone else. He literally became twice as good as anyone else playing baseball."
With a great deal of skill, tact, even-handedness and historical perspective, Bryant provides a fascinating level of insight into Bonds and his link with the steroids scandal. It's just one more reason I can't recommend this book enough.
• • •
Last week when I noted that I wasn't the only BP writer to be tapped by Salon to pinch-hit for King Kaufman, I missed one detail. Namely, that this piece by Chris Karhl carried the following byline: "Christina Kahrl is a sportswriter who lives in the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area. She writes the column 'Transaction Analysis' at www.baseballprospectus.com." For those of you doing a double-take, yes, Chris has been living as a woman since 2003. I met her at a BP Pizza Feed in March 2004, itself significant because it marked her first public appearance under the BP banner in her new identity.
But the Salon piece marked the first time she'd written under her female name, a fact that led to a nice profile of her situation in the Washington CityPaper:
Kahrl... adds that her heart's been warmed by the utter nonreaction she's gotten from baseball and baseball-journalism folks since converting to womanhood. At insider baseball events she's hosted at U.S. Cellular Field, home of the Chicago White Sox, and at her alma mater, the University of Chicago, all the focus has been on her knowledge of the game, even from those who knew Chris Kahrl back in the day.
"Nobody has batted an eye," says Kahrl. "Everybody has been great and supportive, from friends and family and colleagues to everybody with the White Sox to the University of Chicago alumni. A reader said, 'I had no idea that Chris was short for Christina.' And I was like, 'Yeah, that's what it's short for.' But that's it. So whatever people might be saying about the rising tide of conservatism in America today, from my experience, we're also in a place now, a better place and a better society, than we were 50 years go. I'm certainly happy. Again, this isn't something I broadly advertise, because it's a secondary issue. Yes, it's proof that life is interesting, but it doesn't change the fact that I love baseball. I still love the game."
Kahrl's love of baseball comes through in each installment of her Prospectus column, Transaction Analysis, and whenever she even talks about the game. There is no way to exaggerate how well Kahrl knows the names and numbers of baseball and how good she is at cramming that knowledge into her writing and conversation.When talking about the Oakland A's, the first team Kahrl fell for as a kid growing up in Northern California in the '70s, she uses "the Chris Codiroli years" as a punch line. (Codiroli was a right-handed pitcher who put up a 38-47 record with the A's, Indians, and Royals from 1982 to 1990. But everybody knows that.)
Kahrl's column was itself the hook that got me reading BP on a regular basis; my email archives are filled with great lines I've clipped and sent to friends as they've generated laughs while providing spot-on analysis. Prior to meeting her in 2004, I had been briefed on her situation, but I had no idea what to expect. I'm pleased to note that we hit it off instantly and have since hosted each other on trips to our respective cities. Male or female, her love for the game is the same, and she remains one of the best baseball writers in the country, and has proven herself to be a great friend and ally as well.
The CityPaper article has garnered her some positive attention, with Editor & Publisher, Romanesko, and the Huffington Post all picking up the story and... well, I don't want to jinx anything else, but suffice it to say there may be some exciting opportunities opening up for her. Kudos to Christina!