Clearing the Bases: Hump Day Edition

Off to a hot start this week, with two pieces at Pinstriped Bible and two more at Baseball Prospectus along with a chat:

• It’s been a grim stretch for the Yankees in losing seven of eight and temporarily surrendering first place, but Curtis Granderson’s resurgence has been something to write home about:

It was just over a month ago that he went to hitting coach Kevin Long for help retooling his swing, specifically by eliminating some of its extraneous movement. While his overall numbers haven’t taken a huge jump since then — particularly as he’s fallen into a 2-for-19 mini-slump over the past week — there’s reason to be optimistic that the change has taken hold. Check out the splits since he reemerged in the Kansas City series:

Before   336  .239/.306/.415   7.7   22.0  .283   .317
Since    114  .263/.360/.515  12.2   17.5  .264   .329

First things first: NuCurtis is making more contact than before, as noted by the 20 percent drop in his strikeout rate. When he makes contact, he’s actually hitting for a higher average (BACON isn’t just a tasty breakfast food, it’s Batting Average on CONtact: H / (AB-SO)). Granderson’s not exactly getting lucky when he makes contact; his Batting Average on Balls in Play has dropped 19 points (it’s 51 points below his career rate!), but the balls are flying out of the park. His home run rate has doubled from 3.0 percent of plate appearances to 6.1 percent, and his isolated power (SLG – AVG) has increased from .176 to .252. Along with all of that, his unintentional walk rate has risen nearly 60 percent.

The result is a much more productive hitter. Granderson’s seven homers are tied with Marcus Thames for the team high since August 12. Only Thames (.606) and Jorge Posada (.564) have higher slugging percentages in that span, albeit in about 20 percent less playing time; only Robinson Cano has as many total bases (51). As if that weren’t impressive enough, Grandy’s hitting .342/.419/.579 with two homers and five walks in 43 plate appearances against lefties, compared to an anemic .206/.243/.275 with one homer and five walks in 110 PA against them before.

• I can practically recite the cover copy from the dog-eared paperback my grandfather sent me when I was nine years old:

In 1963, Jim Bouton won 21 games for the Yankees. In 1964 he won 18 games for them, and two more in the World Series. Then Bouton lost his fast ball, and came to the gut-twisting decision to try to make it with the knuckleball–the most erratic and difficult pitch there is. Bouton got sent to the minors, fought his way back to the majors. Almost wrecked himself working on his knuckleball. Insulted people. Made enemies. Made friends. Never gave up. And wrote a book. The biggest bestseller about the game of baseball, and the men who play it, ever published.

You don’t need me to tell you that Bouton means a lot to me and that Ball Four is a classic, but upon its 40th anniversary, I’m doing just that:

Ball Four is still being celebrated. Last month, the Baseball Reliquary — a shrine for the game’s iconoclasts and outcasts, based in the Pasadena Central Library — put together an exhibition in honor of the 40th anniversary of its publication, and this coming Saturday at the Burbank Central Library Auditorium, they’ll hold a special day-long panel featuring Bouton as well as the world premiere of a documentary on the Pilots, who spent just one season in Seattle before fleeing to Milwaukee to become the Brewers.

Ball Four is credited with being the first book to give a candid glimpse into the lives of major league ballplayers — hard-drinking, skirt-chasing, amphetamine-popping athletes using four-letter words — as they try to cope with the pressures and the boredom of the game. The story is set against a backdrop of social upheaval, and the outsider Bouton often finds himself at odds with his teammates when it comes to his views on the war in Vietnam, race relations, politics and the burgeoning union movement inside the game — which would eventually challenge the Reserve Clause, leading to higher salaries and the right to free agency. Amazingly, such an explosive exposé did not win Bouton many friends inside the game.

Hapless commissioner Bowie Kuhn attempted to get Bouton to sign a statement stating that its claims were fiction, a move which backfired. “I guess if you’re writing a book, you want to be banned in Boston or called in by the Commissioner,” Bouton recounted recently. “It was the perfect form of censorship. The publisher had only printed 5,000 copies on the grounds that nobody would want to read a book about the Seattle Pilots written by a washed-up knuckleball pitcher. Then the baseball Commissioner calls me in, and they have to print another 5,000 and then 50,000 and then 500,000 books…”

…It’s a book I myself have read at least half a dozen times since my grandfather gave me a dog-eared paperback when I was nine years old (I’ve even gotten to meet its author a couple of times), and I know of fans who re-read it on an annual basis, as a rite of spring. Every time through yields fresh insights as well as familiar laughs. Its tales of camaraderie, clubhouse pranks and good old-fashioned yarns form an often hysterically funny counterpoint to the battle for survival being fought on a daily basis by a group of players near the ends of their big league ropes. It continues to endure, to be hailed as a classic, because it’s a book about far more than just a game.

• Several days ago, I addressed Robinson Cano’s MVP case at PB and threatened to dust off JUMP (Jaffe’s Ugly MVP Predictor), a complex algorithm for predicting who will win (as opposed to who should win) based upon a few key tendencies of post-strike MVP voting which center around team success and individual performance in certain categories. I’ve finally done just that:

When I first ran the numbers on Saturday, [Joey] Votto led the pack, with the Reds’ hefty six-game lead in the NL Central standings helping him to overcome Pujols’ slight superiority in the individual stat categories. Nonetheless, [Albert] Pujols’ two homers and five RBI over the weekend were enough to push Phat Albert into the lead. He’ll need to hold those positions to have the upper hand on Votto here, and it wouldn’t hurt his cause to reclaim the total bases lead.

CarGo [Carlos Gonzalez] isn’t out of the race yet, however. He’s in the red as far as [Team Success Points] goes, but should the Rockies win the NL West—through Sunday they had a 23.2 percent chance of doing so according to our Playoff Odds Report—he would leapfrog the two slugging first basemen. Merely claiming the wild card (11.1 percent chance) wouldn’t be enough in terms of the point total unless he also passed Pujols and/or Votto in the runs and/or RBI categories. It’s not hard to see how the narrative of him helping the Rox reach the postseason after being nearly left for dead could carry the day, even with his Coors-infused stat line (.385/.433/.773 at home, .288/.310/.450 on the road).

The situation here should be considered extremely fluid. [Josh] Hamilton has been sidelined by bruised ribs since September 4, and he’s made little progress thus far in his recovery; he could easily drop out of the top 10 in RBI and out of the top five in homers if he doesn’t return soon, and could fall in the other counting categories as well. [Miguel] Cabrera could lose his meager allotment of Team Success Points if the Tigers fall under .500; that wouldn’t be enough to knock him out of the top three without other players stepping forward, though if Jose Bautista keeps launching enough bombs to boost his slugging percentage and total base total, it’s possible.

The first real surprise [in the AL race] is the presence of Teixera in the top three even in a down year; leading the league in runs scored for a division leader—a showing that owes to the fact that the supposedly unclutch Alex Rodriguez leads the league in OBI%—turns out to have its advantages, particularly when coupled with two other top-10 rankings. The second surprise is that Teixeira’s presence in the top three comes at the expense of teammate Cano, who’s put together an MVP-caliber season worthy of the narrative if nothing else by becoming the big run producer for the Yanks in a year where Rodriguez, Derek Jeter, and Jorge Posada have all shown their age. Cano is in the top 10 in six different categories, and has the middle infielder bonus going for him; alas, he’s in the top five in just one of those categories, and a lesser one (intentional walks) at that.

The other situation that could have an impact on the top three here is if the Yankees wind up with the wild card and the Rays win the AL East flag. Without changing anything in the individual statistical rankings, that switch alone would drop Teixeira to 32.3 points and Cano to 25.8. It would also push the Rays’ Carl Crawford into the top three with 39.4 points; Crawford ranks second in runs, third in steals and ninth in batting average thanks to a hot September showing (.444/.500/.778). Evan Longoria (33.2, thanks to five top-10 showings, albeit none above sixth) would pass Teixeira as well but would still be behind Mauer (34.8).

[Update] I’ve got a bit more on Cano and Teixeira at PB.

• Also at BP, I’ve got a few paragraphs in the second entry in our collaborative series of postmortems, “Kiss ‘Em Goodbye.” This one’s on the Orioles:

What went right: Guys such as [Adam] Jones, [Matt] Wieters, Matusz, Jake Arrieta and Brad Bergesen—key youngsters who all appeared to be going backward this season—have performed well since Showalter arrived, providing optimism going into next year. The Orioles’ defense is benefiting from the return of Brian Roberts and the departure of Miguel Tejada; the team’s batting average on balls in play has improved from .313 before to .284 since.

What went wrong: The Orioles came out of the gate 2-16; it’s nearly impossible to start that way in the AL East and have any drama left in the season aside from the eventual firing of your manager. They were 15-39 when manager Dave Trembley got the ax in early June. Roberts missed virtually the entire first half thanks to an abdominal strain and a herniated disc.

The key number: 5.61 to 3.12

Under Trembley and interim manager Juan Samuel, the Orioles’ rotation ERA was 5.61; under Showalter, it has been 3.12 (and starters are averaging 6 1/3 innings per outing). Bergesen (2.62), Jeremy Guthrie (2.64), and Matusz (2.72) all have ERAs under 3.00 during Showalter’s tenure, and Kevin Millwood (3.28) hasn’t been far off.

• Finally, I did a 2 1/2 hour chat on Monday:

Dick Whitman (Cubicle of Awesome): Any reason to be worried about Yankees starting pitching come playoff time? Pettitte health, A.J. being A.J., Phil’s fall off a cliff, etc? Or am I just overreacting because of how piss poor they played this past week?

JJ: I think there’s plenty of reason for concern. The Yankee rotation’s ERA since the All-Star break is 5.11, and CC Sabathia is the only experienced pitcher who’s healthy and pitching up to his skill level. Hughes (5.37), Burnett (5.82) and Vazquez (6.20) have all been awful for the most part, and while Ivan Nova’s shown promise, he’s got just four big-league starts under his belt. To play deep into October, the Yankees need Pettitte to come back strong AND they need at least one of the aforementioned trio to get their [expletive deleted] together.

On the other hand, their bullpen has rounded into shape, as I wrote at Pinstriped Bible on Friday.

Steve (VA): How filthy is Neftali Feliz? Fastball 96-99 Slider 80-83..When he throws his slider for strikes.. Watch out.

JJ: Filthier than a pig doing a Redd Foxx imitation out at the Smut Hut on Highway 61.

Paul (Boston): Would you rather have A-Rod + Contract or Beckett/Lackey + Contracts?

JJ: Beckett and Lackey will receive about $130 million combined over the next four years, A-Rod $180 million over the next seven. The latter is probably easier to swallow based on the time value of money and the fact that it’s less of a per-year investment. It’s also easier to hide a declining hitter than it is a declining pitcher (or two). Finally, given that the two pitchers are unlikely to be chasing any milestones, whatever minimal milestone value A-Rod has – and it’s not going to be that much given his steroid-infused past – is still higher. So I’d take the guy with the stick, particularly if I had the Yankees’ revenue stream.

There’s plenty more where that came from, but for now, it’s to the HitListMobile for me…

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