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Ten Years Down the Road

Ten years down the road making one-night stands
Speeding my young life away
Tell me one more time just so I’ll understand
Are you sure Hank done it this way?

Waylon Jennings

April 9 marked a momentous day in the history of FutilityInfielder.com. Namely, it’s now been 10 years since the inception of this site, a decade since I penned this memorial tribute to Willie Stargell, registered a domain name that had been rolling around in my head for a few weeks, started learning the basics of HTML and web site construction, and began inflicting my version of baseball fandom and Luis Sojo worship on an unsuspecting public.

It has turned out to be a life-changing journey, in more ways than one. Over the decade of this site’s existence, I’ve transitioned from full-time graphic design work to full-time writing, joined the staffs of Baseball Prospectus and Pinstriped Bible, battled my way into the press box, and earned a BBWAA card; so far as I know, I am the first of those who started as independent bloggers to claw his way up through the ranks. Along the way I’ve traveled in pursuit of spring training, the All-Star Game, and the World Baseball Classic. I’ve run in the famous Sausage Race, dropped an f-bomb in the Wall Street Journal, and had my mug on TV plenty of times, to say nothing of the hundreds of radio hits I’ve done. I’ve been published at ESPN, SI.com, Salon, and New York Magazine, contributed to six Prospectus annuals, six Fantasy Baseball Indexes, and a handful of non-annual books, writing approximately 3.7 bajillion words about the national pastime along the way. I’ve generated some laughs, pissed a few well-chosen people off, and worked tirelessly to bring a dose of rational analysis to the often irrational Hall of Fame voting. I take great pride knowing that I helped elect Bert Blyleven into the Hall, even if I don’t have a vote yet myself.

I’ve been blessed with the opportunity to work with wonderful people, and made some incredible friends along this journey. While not wishing to omit anyone from an honor roll that would number in the hundreds, I must single out Alex Belth, Cliff Corcoran, Steven Goldman, Christina Kahrl and Emma Span, all of whom I’ve been blessed with the opportunity to collaborate with, and none of whom I likely would have met had it not been for the initial decision to follow my muse at the encouragement of my then-girlfriend Andra Hardt and two of my closest friends, Nick Stone and Issa Clubb.

As I said five years ago, writing this blog allowed me the chance to find a new voice for myself, a voice I realized I’d been seeking my entire life. I thank you all for listening and for reading while looking forward to our next ten years together.

Badge #643

It arrived yesterday, the most important envelope I’ve received since my college acceptance letter nearly 23 years ago, but also nearly the emptiest, just a single piece of plastic, with no accompanying document. Still, I was told this would be arriving, and the enclosed item spoke for itself:

No: 643
Baseball Writers’ Association of America

Jay Jaffe
Baseball Prospectus
New York

is a duly qualified member, and is entitled to the press courtesies of the clubs of the National and American Leagues of Professional Baseball Clubs, subject to the conditions set forth on the back hereof.

Back when I first got the news I was in, no less an authority than Rob Neyer reminded me to savor this occasion: “Enjoy your BBWAA card when it arrives in the mail. That moment is about as good as it gets.” Hence this little celebration.

Now back to work… plenty busy over at Baseball Prospectus and Pinstriped Bible, even if it seems pretty quiet around here.

Gus Zernial (1923-2011)

Former major league outfielder Gus Zernial passed away on Thursday at the age of 87. A World War II veteran, he didn’t debut in the majors until he was nearly 26, but he enjoyed an 11-year career with the White Sox, A’s and Tigers, earning All-Star honors once and leading the AL in homers and RBI in 1951. Nicknamed “Ozark Ike” after a popular comic strip character and billed as “the New Joe DiMaggio,” he was something less than that as a complete ballplayer, but he was a genuine thumper, placing in the top five in the AL in dingers five other times from 1950-1957, and ranking sixth on the leaderboard during that span, surrounded by Hall of Famers:

Rk   Player           HR
 1   Duke Snider*     288
 2   Gil Hodges       263
 3   Stan Musial*     235
 4   Ted Kluszewski   231
 5   Eddie Mathews*   222
 6   Gus Zernial      220
 7   Yogi Berra*      215
 8   Roy Campanella*  211
 9   Mickey Mantle*   207
10   Larry Doby*      202
11   Hank Sauer       202
12   Ralph Kiner*     201
*Hall of Famer

For a long time Zernial held the distinction of hitting the most homers for a player whose last name ends in the letter Z with 237, but Todd Zeile passed him in 2003 while playing for the Yankees, hitting a homer off the Red Sox Bruce Chen. In 1951, Zernial and Al Zarilla did team up to form the first outfield with two players with the last name starting with Z, so there’s still that.

I’m too young to have seen Zernial play, but I’ll always remember him for the oddity of the above card, which came to my attention via one of my all-time favorites, The Great American Baseball Card Flipping, Trading, and Bubble Gum Book by Brendan C. Boyd and Fred Harris. Here’s the entry for Zernial’s 1952 Topps card:

This is one of my all-time favorite cards. How do you suppose they got those baseballs to stay up there anyway? Nails? Scotch tape? Postage stamp hinges?

And why do you think Gus is giving us the high sign? Is he trying to assure us that everything is OK? Is he trying to indicate to us that he thinks the Athletics are a big zero? Does he want a cinnamon doughnut to go?

And why is he wearing a pink undershirt?

And what the hell is it all supposed to mean anyway?

The back of the card sheds very little light on the situation. In fact, other than telling us that Gus was a radio mechanic in the Navy during the war it is not particularly informative on any matter whatsoever.

Gus Zernial was a member of that band of bulky, slow-moving, power-hitting outfielders who made their way into the majors shortly after the end of the war. It included among its number Roy Sievers, Clyde Vollmer, Irv Noren, Elmer Valo, and Gil Coan. Of these, Gus Zernial was the best. He was also the bulkiest.

Hey Gus, do you know where I can pick up on a pink T-shirt?

Rest in peace.

Rookie Blogger Stumps for Blyleven: January 2002

With the voting results for the Hall of Fame’s Class of 2011 scheduled to drop at 2 PM today, I dug deep into the Futility Infielder archives and found my first piece advocating for the election of Bert Blyleven to the Hall of Fame. It dates to January 6, 2002, a day short of nine years ago, and less than a year into this site’s existence. I hadn’t invented JAWS yet, hadn’t discovered the existence of WARP yet, hadn’t started writing for Baseball Prospectus, and was still taking wins and losses into consideration, just like Bill James was (and to an alarming extent still is). At that point, Win Shares was the total value metric du jour:

Win Shares is a promising new system, but until the methods behind it are published, all we have to go on is what’s in the new Abstract, which is why [Jack] Morris’s numbers aren’t included above – he didn’t rate in James’s top 100 pitchers, while Blyleven (39th), [Tommy] John (63rd) and [Jim] Kaat (65th) did. Using Win Shares right now is like calling up a hot prospect in the middle of a pennant race – maybe he can help you here or there, but he’s not ready for prime time. Until the methods see the light of day and can be picked apart from the master’s own idiosyncracies, they remain somewhat suspect. That said, I do think we should take a look at what he’s made available thus far. So… WS is the player’s career total in Win Shares; the Top 3 are his top 3 seasons, the Top 5 is a total of his five best consecutive seasons, and the AVG is projected to 43 starts per season (a high total given all of these pitchers spent most of their careers in 5-man rotations).

Of Blyleven, John, and Kaat, none are overwhelming on the basis of their career peaks; Kaat and John each had three 20-win seasons, Blyleven just one. But all had extremely long careers, John at 26 years, Kaat at 25, and Blyleven the baby of the bunch at 22. All of them come from a time period which is somewhat over-represented in the Hall; six 300-game winners (Carlton, Ryan, Sutton, Niekro, Perry, and Seaver), plus Hall of Famers Fergie Jenkins (285-226, 115 ERA+, seven 20-win seasons in an eight-year span), Jim Palmer (268-152, 125 ERA+, eight 20-win seasons in a nine-year span), and Catfish Hunter (224-166, 104 ERA+, five straight 20-win seasons). Those three all had longer (and higher) sustained peaks than our three, not to mention hardware in the shape of Cy Young Awards (three for Palmer, one each for Jenkins and Hunter), while our fair trio won none.

So these three are not clearly better than the bottom ranks of the enshrined from their era. But each of them has their additional merits which I feel should be enough to vault them into the ranks of the Hall.

Blyleven ranks number four on the career strikeout list, having been passed by Roger Clemens near the end of the 2001 season. He is also in the top 10 in shutouts (#9, with 60). He came up big in the postseason (5-1, 2.47 ERA , with World Series wins for champions Pittsburgh in ‘79 and Minnesota in ‘87). And his curveball had the reputation as being the best in the game. He spent most of his career with some mediocre (but not horrible) Minnesota and Cleveland teams, and rarely outperformed them by significant margins in the Won-Loss columns–he was an inning-eating horse who stuck around for the decision most of the time. But his ERAs relative to the league were excellent, as was his consistency–outperforming the league average by 15 percent or more (that is, an ERA+ of 115 or better) for the first nine years of his career and fourteen times overall. He won in double figures seventeen times, and won 17 or more games seven times. He gets my vote.

Win Shares has long since been superseded as a value metric, but back then it was as good as the tools got. Strikeouts and ERA+ figured prominently in my discussion, as did some notion of the distinction between career and peak. I’ve come a long way from certain aspects of my evaluation, particularly the reliance on W-L records (read the article and you’ll see I was still open to the idea of Morris being a Hall of Famer), but as opening salvos go, I’m quite proud of this.

The JAWS Take

All may look quiet around Futility Central, but that’s only because after a brief Xmas respite following 26 straight working days, I’m busy putting my pedal to the metal to finish this year’s JAWS series on the Hall of Fame candidates at Baseball Prospectus. In case you’re looking for a quick set of links as to where they can be found, you’re in luck:

Starting Pitchers: Bert Blyleven, Kevin Brown et al (leiter).Will this be the year Blyleven gets in? I certainly hope so. I’m starting to fear that Jack Morris is picking up Jim Rice-level momentum though he’s nowhere near as deserving.

First Basemen: Bagwell and Baggage. It’s unbelievable to me just how many writers have come out of the woodwork to make Jeff Bagwell — a player who never tested positive for steroids, never was named in an investigation related to steroids, never was leaked among the supposedly anonymous list of 104 players who tested positive during the survey testing — has been made the water boy for the collective failure of the players union, owners, commissioner and media to address the steroid problem coherently. The Hall of Fame debate surrounding him lays bare the great divide between those of us who adhere to “the search for objective knowledge about baseball” — the very definition of sabermetrics — and those who prefer witch-hunting. It’s the season of the witch for Jeff Pearlman, Danny Knobler, Dan Graziano and so many others willing to put hearsay, innuendo and Ye Olde Eyeball Test ahead of facts; their justifications speak so poorly of their own character that they should refrain from judging those of others. Kudos to Joe Posnanski for nailing them and so many others, and for going a perfect eight-for-eight versus JAWS when it comes to his definites. Colleague Christina Kahrl nailed it, too:

The problem of sportswriters investing themselves with too much significance in the process and belated paragons of probity is just another manifestation of the Chinese water torture that trails every “new” revelation about who tested positive seven or eight years ago, before a comprehensive testing regime was part of MLB’s operations and practice. After missing history instead of recording it, only to see the industry itself tardily address the problem of PED use, it’s as if the sportswriting community can’t spend enough time wailing about what happened then to make up for lost time. Having so thoroughly, absolutely, and completely failed to produce history’s first draft, it seems as if any number of writers are investing in a narcissistic thrill-kill, avenging themselves on the game’s history by assuming a moral responsibility they already shirked. Steroids stopped being a relevant or timely issue years ago, having long since been reduced to self-absorbed media navel-gazing: What didn’t we know, and how long didn’t we know it, and now I’m belatedly mad as hell now that I no longer need to dig a quote out of this guy.

Second Basemen: Roberto Alomar’s Second Chance. After finishing eight votes short in his first ballot appearance, Alomar should get over the top.

Shortstops: No Shortage of Quality. Both Barry Larkin and Alan Trammell are worthy of votes, but while the former cleared 50 percent in his ballot debut last year, the latter reached just 22 percent in his ninth year on the ballot.

• Edgar Martinez: In both ESPN and Baseball Prospectus flavors, I put forth the argument that Martinez was the Mariano Rivera of DHs: so good within his limited role that he produced enough value to transcend it. In writing up Edgar’s career, I discovered that his most famous hit, his 1995 ALDS-winning double, has its own Wikipedia page, putting him in very select company.

Bronx Bombers on the Ballot: At Pinstriped Bible, I made a quick rundown of the former Yankees who are up for election. With the exception of Tim Raines and maybe Kevin Brown, none of them are particularly strong candidates, but they’re fun to write about nonetheless.

I’ve still got to polish off the outfielders (Raines and Larry Walker being the most interesting) and the relievers before next Wednesday’s announcement of the voting results. Wait ’til next year, as they say…

In the meantime, thank you, dear readers and Twitter followers, for your support in 2010, and best wishes to you for a happy and healthy 2011!

The Call-Up

Oy vey, it’s been far too long since I updated this space, easily my longest stretch of silence here in over nine years of blogging. Needless to say, I’ve been extremely busy, delivering content for Baseball Prospectus and Pinstriped Bible through the postseason and into the Hot Stove season, diving into the Prospectus annual and the Fantasy Baseball Index winter work, and dishing out the shorter reactions to the news of the day via Twitter instead of this blog. That’s been a matter of self-preservation, because as I’ve re-learned in blogging at Pinstriped Bible, it’s nearly impossible for me to keep anything brief. Why say in one paragraph what you can say in five?

Though my tendency towards verbosity is not my strongest trait when it comes to self-preservation — ask anyone who’s ever had the burden of editing me, most notably colleagues Steven Goldman and Christina Kahrl — it’s an extension of my belief that if you’re going to find the time to read my work in whatever venue, you deserve something substantial, well-composed, and distinct from what’s being offered elsewhere. Anybody can react to the news of Adrian Gonzalez being traded to the Red Sox, but how many people who wrote about the story over the last 48 hours linked it to his career-long shadowing of Mark Teixiera while also parsing the various rumors of his contract extension?

I don’t wish to sound as though I’m patting myself on the back, but today, I do owe myself a pat on the back. Shortly after 10 AM, Christina Kahrl called me from the Winter Meetings in Orlando to relay the news that I’ve been voted into the Baseball Writers Association of America, the professional association of baseball journalists writing for newspapers, magazines and qualifying web sites — and the people whose votes on year-end awards and the Hall of Fame I’ve spent a great deal of time critiquing and occasionally ridiculing over the years.

Now I’m one of them — one of somewhere between 700 and 800 in the entire country — which means that I’ll have credentialed access to major league press boxes and clubhouses just like the beat writers and columnists of the New York Times and ESPN and so forth. I’ll be able to vote for a postseason award, and if I reach 10 years doing this, I’ll be able to vote on the Hall of Fame, provided I haven’t already gone joyriding up to Cooperstown with Jonah Keri to burn it to the ground over the exclusion of Tim Raines — who will still be eligible at that point, so long as he doesn’t slip below the five percent mark in any vote between now and then.

But I digress. Fucking hell, I always digress…

In getting to this stage of my career, I’m standing on the shoulders of giants… giants, at least, within this little niche of web-based baseball analysis. Because for so long, our sliver of the industry has been outside the gates of the BBWAA. It wasn’t until 2007 — three short years ago — that the organization voted to open its membership to web-based writers at all, and even that first wave consisted mainly of ESPN, Fox Sports, Sports Illustrated and Yahoo writers who had lost their memberships by moving from print publications to web ones, among them Peter Gammons, Ken Rosenthal, Buster Olney, Jayson Stark, John Heyman, Tom Verducci — a Murderer’s Row of industry veterans.

Left outside in the cold at that point were ESPN’s Rob Neyer and Keith Law, the only two of the 18 web-based writers whose applications which were turned down. Neyer’s work at ESPN was one of the main drivers of just about every early baseball blog that sprung up, helping to bring the teachings of Bill James (for whom he was an assistant) to a new audience. Law, a longtime writer at Baseball Prospectus, was a pioneer in making the leap into a major league front office (that of the Blue Jays) before departing four years later to take a job at ESPN. Fortunately, both gained entry the next year (2008), as did the first two of my BP colleagues, Christina Karhl and Will Carroll. With arrivals and departures, BP’s BBWAA contingent now includes Karhl, managing editor John Perrotto, Brad Doolittle, fellow 2010 entrant David Laurila and myself. I’ve known that my application was in process for almost exactly a year, but only a few people closest to me were aware of it as well.

The new kids on the block have found controversy, particularly when it came to the 2009 NL Cy Young vote, when both Carroll and Law caught flack in some quarters for leaving the Cardinals’ Chris Carpenter off their ballots in favor of Dan Haren and Javier Vazquez, respectively. Both made choices informed by non-mainstream statistics, breaking some amount of ground by tossing around acronyms like VORP, WARP, FIP and SNWP as voting members of the BBWAA rather than interested bystanders, and both defended their votes rationally against an angry mob while withstanding more scrutiny than most mainstream writers get — or at least used to get — over their picks. The controversy even resulted in a rule change; the so-called Keith Law Rule now provides for five spaces on the Cy Young ballot instead of three. (I’m told Keith isn’t crazy about being singled out in such a manner, but it only points to the disproportionate level of scrutiny to which he and the other members of this small minority have been subject.)

In any event, sometime late next season I’ll find out what award I get to vote for next year. The more immediate result is that I will have consistent access to major league press boxes and clubhouses, and will thus find myself at Yankee Stadium, CitiField (and perhaps other venues) more often as a result. After years of being denied credentials via various circumstances — most particularly the Mets’ spectacular folds in 2007 and 2008, those after BP had painstakingly arranged postseason credentials for me — I finally got a taste of access last year. It’s a different world than being at a ballgame as a fan; there’s no cheering in the press box, as Jerome Holtzman’s book title reminds, and on a couple of occasions I caught myself having to stifle the urge to whoop it up. On the other hand, I had an extremely hard time getting myself to ask questions in press conferences and pre/postgame clubhouse visits, stifling the urge to nitpick Joe Girardi’s bullpen usage down the stretch or to secure a post-game quote from Alex Rodriguez when I was standing three feet from him as he asked, “Anyone else have a question?” I was a green rookie then, up for my cup of coffee. While I’m still a rookie, I’ve tasted the Show now, and have a better idea of what to expect.

In reaching this point, I have so many people to thank that I’m in danger of leaving some of them off. Most notably I owe a huge debt of gratitude to BP colleagues past and present, particularly Christina, Will, Kevin Goldstein, John Perrotto and Joe Sheehan. Huge thank yous to BP/PB colleague Steven Goldman and Bronx Banter’s Alex Belth as well, two fantastic pals inside the baseball writing racket who have encouraged me to keep pushing down this path; Nick Stone and Issa Clubb, two incredible friends who’ve put up with my daily yammerings on baseball and the rest of my life since years before this blog was invented; my family and other loved ones too numerous to name; and those to be named later.

And thank you, dear readers. My most heartfelt thanks and gratitude for nearly 10 years of checking in here, at Baseball Prospectus and at Pinstriped Bible, whether it’s on a daily basis hoping that I’ve got something new to say or just from time to time to follow my progress around the web and around the world. Without your feedback and encouragement, I’d have never gotten very far down this path, never left the relative security of my job as a full-time graphic designer to test the waters with my writing. In the few hours since breaking the news over Twitter and Facebook, I’ve been reminded by so many of you that you’re out there and that you care, and I’m incredibly touched by your well-wishes. Rest assured that so long as I am a member of the BBWAA, I will remember the humble roots from which that privilege sprouted, and the examples of those who blazed this unlikely trail.

Friday’s Child: Pre-ALCS Edition

Whew, it’s been a busy couple of weeks for yours truly covering the Yankees and their march into the postseason at both Baseball Prospectus and Pinstriped Bible. Since I last touched base here, I wrote 5,000-word Playoff Prospectus previews for both the Division Series against the Twins and the League Championship Series with the Yankees. I also covered all three of the Yankees’ ALDS games for BP, and delivered the year-end Hit List as well as a tome on A.J. Burnett’s penchant for disaster starts (and a more Yankee-flavored angle here).

Over at PB, I wrote about how the Twins were the more favorable matchup for the Yankees in the ALDS, covered a few pre-series roster and rotation decisions, delved into the possibility of the Yankees carrying second lefty Royce Ring, noted three keys to the ALDS, penned a Carl Pavan0-inspired retrospective of ex-Yankee hurlers facing the Yanks in postseason, took a look at how the Yanks were winning the battle of the lefties in the ALDS, figured the Rays as the more favorable matchup for the Yankees in the ALCS, provided three keys to the ALCS, and spun “A Two-Step Tale of Texas Turnaround,” about how pitching and defense turned the Rangers into contenders. Somewhere along the way, I also took time out to give a hearty plug to friend Alex Belth’s book, Lasting Yankee Stadium Memories,  culled from the Bronx Banter series he curated in late 2008 and featuring yours truly as well as numerous other writers of much bigger name.

With the Twins series now ancient history, I’ll stick to the matchup with the Rangers for a few excerpts. From the PB keys:

1. The Rangers’ lineup is well-constructed to battle the Yankees.
In CC Sabathia and Andy Pettitte, the Yankees could throw as many as four high-quality left-handed starters at the Rangers. Luckily for Texas manager Ron Washington, he’s got no shortage of quality right-handed bats to counter that. In fact thanks to a multi-position platoon involving the outfield corners, the Rangers can field a lineup with just two lefties, Josh Hamilton, who hits third, and first baseman Mitch Moreland, who will hit eighth or ninth. Lefty outfielder David Murphy is most likely to start in left field versus righties, with Nelson Cruz in right field, but against southpaws, the much-maligned ex-Met Jeff Francoeur starts in right, with Cruz sliding over to left. Frenchy (who incidentally got off a nice dig at the Mets today: “I always wanted to know what it was like to play meaningful baseball in New York and I’m going to have the opportunity.”) is absolutely clueless against righties (.256/.296/.403 career), but he’s quite playable against lefties (.299/.343/.481 career), something neither Braves manager Bobby Cox nor Mets manager Jerry Manuel ever bothered to figure out…

Revising the back-of-the-envelope calculations I ran the other day, the Rangers’ lineup comes out with a composite .312/.377/.460 line and a 123 OPS+ against lefties based upon their 2010 splits, compared to a .287/.348/.456 line and a 113 OPS+ against righties. By comparison, the Yankees are basically even against both hands (.274/.363/.455 with a 117 OPS+ versus lefties, .274/.357/.465 with a 118 OPS+ versus righties). For the Rangers, leadoff hitter Elvis Andrus showed no platoon advantage in 2010, but every one of the Rangers’ two through eight hitters except for Hamilton are stronger against lefties, with batting averages above .300 and OBPs above .360.

On the Yankees’ rotation, from the BP preview:

The Yankees had planned to return with Sabathia on three days’ rest for Game Four of the Division Series, but here they’ve decided to go with a four-man rotation rather than asking the big man to work on short rest twice in a row for Games Four and Seven. That means a start for Burnett, whose 2010 season has seemingly been one disasterpiece after another. The good news is that he fared relatively well against the Rangers, throwing seven shutout innings against their early-season lineup (including Borbon, Chris Davis and Taylor Teagarden), on April 17, tossing another seven solid frames against a more representative lineup in a losing cause on August 10 (Murphy took him deep), and throwing four innings and allowing two runs before a 58-minute rain delay forced him from the game on September 11. Burnett was pummeled fairly equally by hitters from both sides of the plate (.286/.376/.444 versus lefties, .285/.355/.473 versus righties). For some reason, he’s had a touch more trouble against same-handed hitters over the last few years than opposite-handed ones; call us when you figure out why, because we’re as baffled as anyone.

Amid another typically strong season (first in the AL in wins at 21, sixth in strikeouts at 197, seventh in ERA and SNWP), Sabathia showed a rather atypical reverse platoon split (.232/.295/.354 vs righties, .261/.318/.360 vs. lefties) due to a BABIP against lefties that shot up more than 100 points (to .361) beyond his 2009 rate. Pettitte’s platoon splits were more extreme than usual, likely due to the smaller sample size; he smothered lefties with a zeal rarely shown before (.186/.226/.256) while getting a bit knocked around by righties (.283/.346/.434). He still hasn’t gone beyond 88 pitches since July 8, but he looked plenty strong against the Twins while effectively mixing in his four-seamer, two-seamer, cutter and curveball. Despite his long history of Game Two successes, he’s being pushed back to start Game Three this time around, which lines him up for a potential Game Seven. That gives Hughes a bit more room to work, ballpark-wise, though despite concerns about his homer-prone nature in the Bronx, he rarely allowed a hard-hit ball against the Twins, spotting his fastball effectively while backing off his initial plans to use his changeup and cutter. He was much more homer-prone against lefties than righties (one for every 23 PA, compared to one for every 43), particularly from late June onward, when he began relying more on his curveball than the cutter, though his overall platoon differential wasn’t all that wide (.253/.292/381 vs. righties, .235/.311/.417 vs. lefties).

From the Two-Step piece:

The turnaround began last year, when the influence of team president and Hall of Fame hurler Nolan Ryan began to take hold. The Rangers took a page from the 2008 Rays’ blueprint and made a significant commitment to upgrading their defense by promoting 20-year-old shortstop Elvis Andrus directly from Double-A. The team’s Defensive Efficiency, their rate of converting balls in play into outs, rose from .670 (last in the league) to .699 (second), a 29-point jump that took a backseat only to similar plans by the Mariners (who improved by 30 points) and Reds (32 points) and ranked among the top 10 year-to-year turnarounds ever.

This was particularly important because the 2008 and 2009 Ranger pitching staffs put tons of balls in play, as they ranked 13th and 12th in the league in strikeout rate, respectively. Even with just a total of 31 starts from two pitchers (swingman Dustin Nippert and rookie Derek Holland) with K rates above the league average (6.9), the Rangers jumped from 79 wins to 87, and they remained in contention until mid-September. The improved defense helped Kevin Millwood (5.6 K/9) post his first ERA under 5.00 in three years, turned Scott Feldman (5.4 K/9) into a 17-game winner, and gave Tommy Hunter (5.1 K/9) a foothold in the rotation for the first time. Of course, it didn’t hurt that they poached one of the most respected pitching coaches in the game, Mike Maddux, from the Brewers to oversee their staff.

Pitchers who don’t miss many bats aren’t great bets for long-term success, while those who do more often are; one need look no further than all-time strikeout king Ryan, who pitched until he was 46 and was still striking out a hitter per inning until his injury-abbreviated final season. For that reason, the Rangers still sought to upgrade their rotation. They traded Millwood to the Orioles and decided to convert C.J. Wilson, their top lefty reliever and sometime closer (2.81 ERA, 10.3 K/9 and 14 saves in 2009), into a starter. They took a free-agent flier on oft-injured by occasionally electrifying Rich Harden, and signed one Colby Lewis to a two-year, $5 million deal.

…The Harden move was a flop; the 28-year-old righty was rocked for a 5.58 ERA while making just 18 starts in an injury-laden season. But the Wilson and Lewis gambits paid off big-time. The two power arms ranked among the league’s top 25 in SNLVAR while tossing more than 200 innings, with the former leading the staff in both (4.7 SNLVAR, 204 innings) while putting up a 3.35 ERA, tops in the rotation. Though Wilson led the league in walks (93, or 4.1 per nine), he whiffed 170 (7.5 per nine), and generated plenty of ground balls while yielding just 10 homers (0.44 per nine, second in the league). Lewis notched 196 strikeouts (8.8 per nine, fifth in the league) while walking just 65 in 201 innings (a K/BB ratio of 3.0) en route to a 3.72 ERA.

Amid those excerpted pieces, I also wrote bits for both BP and PB about the Rangers’ chances of winning the series being damaged by the fact that they won’t get to pitch ace Cliff Lee until Game Three and not again until a potential Game Seven because unlike the Yankees’ big man, Sabathia, Lee won’t pitch on short rest. Never has before, wasn’t asked to by the Rangers, and didn’t volunteer, either. Some people have taken stabs at explaining, with or without fancy probability-based math, why this is or isn’t a big deal to the Rangers’ overall chances of winning the series, though for my money nobody has answered the question definitively.

I think it matters, based upon the following logic:

  1. The Rangers’ best chance of winning the series is in getting two starts out of their best pitcher, Cliff Lee.
  2. As the rotation lines up, their unwillingness to place Lee in the position of pitching on three days’ rest — which could bring him back for Games Two and Six if he does it once, or Two and Five if he does it twice, with the slight possibility of being available out of the bullpen for Game Seven — means they’ll get just one start from Lee in the first six games.
  3. In the Wild Card era (1995 onward), only about one in four seven-game series have gone to seven games. Wild Card era ALCS have averaged 5.8 games in length, with six ending before six games, and only four going the distance. Include the NLCS and the average is 5.73, with 12 ending before six games and only eight going the distance. Include the World Series during that timespan as well and the average drops to 5.6, with 20 of the 45 ending before six games and only 11 going the distance, 24 percent.

Independent of anything involving the actual abilities of the two teams, the odds strongly favor something less than a seven-game series, and I have to think that works in the Yankees’ favor. They’ll have their hands full with the Rangers — there’s a reason I tabbed the Twins and Rays as the more favorable matchups, though at Pinstriped Bible I was distinctly in the minority on the ALDS front — but I think they’ll prevail.

Changin’ It Up

I’m off to a running start this week, with new stuff up at Baseball Prospectus and Pinstriped Bible today. The BP piece assembles a bunch of take-home points from the three games I spent at Yankee Stadium over the past week, watching the Yanks duke it out with the Rays and Red Sox. I’ve got notes about the Yankees’ chances at making the playoffs (99.93 percent) and winning the division title (22 percent), the rotation struggles of all three teams, the fine work of Phil Hughes on Sunday night, and the odd season arcs of David Ortiz and Alex Rodriguez. But the single most important point I tried to make comes from a piece I did a year ago:

While there are reasons to be concerned about the specific circumstances of any playoff-bound team’s late-season struggles—particularly with regards to injury availability—there’s virtually no correlation between a team’s September performance and their playoff fate.

Bless Joe Sheehan for reminding me that I’d written this piece a year ago. With the help of Eric Seidman, I examined the September/October performances of all the playoff teams in the wild card era, 112 in all. For each team, we recorded their record over the final seven, 14, and 21 games, as well for all of September and whatever fragment of October remained. The result was, as I termed it then, “a whole lot of nothing.” None of the correlations between September interval performance and first-round series outcomes even reached .05 in either direction, and six of the eight were actually negative.

Looking beyond the first round, the correlations between those September performances and series won or “playoff success points” (doubling the value of the LCS and quadrupling the value of the World Series such that the same number of points were awarded each round) only got as high as .137, and they were negative at that. If anything, there’s an ever-so slight inverse relationship between success in the final weeks and in the postseason, perhaps because some playoff-bound teams rest their regulars more often, or simply regress to the mean after a summer of beating up on opponents.

Furthermore, I went back and looked at performance over four-week intervals during the regular season, using not only actual record but also our suite of ordered Pythagenpat records from our Adjusted Standings page and found only minimal correlations between those performances and those of the next “month.” Using actual or projected records, the correlation between the four-week splits and the following month were always smaller than if we’d used year-to-date records to project the following month’s performance; roughly speaking, the correlations were around .2 and .3, respectively.

The bottom line is that short-term performance intervals don’t tell you anything reliably useful from a predictive standpoint. As the great Earl Weaver liked to say, momentum is the next day’s starting pitcher.

Yankees manager Joe Girardi reiterated Weaver’s point at Saturday’s postgame press conference:

“We haven’t gotten a whole lot of distance out of our starters,” he said after Saturday’s game. “One [Burnett's outing against Tampa Bay last Wednesday] was due to a rain delay, and there’s not a whole lot that you can do about that. And we’ve gotten behind in games, which always changes the complexion of the game… We’ve always talked about how momentum starts with your starting pitching. And sometimes when one facet of the team is struggling, the other guys have to pick ‘em up. Sometimes the offense is struggling and they’ll shut the other team down, and vice versa… The bullpen, you use one way if you have a lead and you get distance from the starter. And when you don’t, you use it a different way.”

As for Hughes, he initially wasn’t supposed to start Sunday night’s game, but Girardi changed his mind. The kid rewarded that faith. From PB:

As I joked first on Twitter and then in this morning’s column at Baseball Prospectus, I was initially willing to fake my own death to avoid watching the potentially plodding Sunday night matchup between Dustin Moseley and Daisuke Matsuzaka. Luckily, Joe Girardi decided the best way to shake the Yankees out of their 6-13 September doldrums and their second four-game losing streak in a fortnight was by starting Phil Hughes instead of Moseley. Matched against a suddenly stellar Matsuzaka, who hadn’t delivered a quality start since August 5, the kid gave the Yankees his best outing in more than a month.

…He’s now delivered two quality starts in a row for the first time since mid-August, and he owes it in large part to the fact that he’s finally integrating the changeup which helped him win the fifth-starter job back in the spring — but which may as well have spent the summer in the Federal Witness Protection Program.

According to the PITCHf/x data at TexasLeaguers.com, Hughes threw his changeup just 3.8 percent of the time against lefties (and just once to righties) from the beginning of the season through his September 5 start. In his three starts and one relief appearance since then, he’s thrown it 12.1 percent of the time against lefties (and not at all against righties). He’s throwing the pitch early in the count — 80 percent of the changeups come on 0-1, 1-0 or 1-1 counts according to the data at Joe Lefkowitz’s PITCHf/x Tool — and while those batters are taking the pitch about three-quarters of the time, using it to change speeds has borne positive results on his overall outcomes against lefties:

vs. LHB       PA  HR  UIBB%   K%     AVG/OBP/SLG   BABIP
Through 9/5  332  14   9.6   20.9  .249/.320/.431  .278
Since         54   3  13.0   14.3  .149/.259/.340  .111
vs. RHB       PA  HR  UIBB%   K%     AVG/OBP/SLG   BABIP
Through 9/5  315   8   5.1   18.7  .255/.293/.391  .294
Since         26   0   7.8   30.8  .250/.308/.292  .375

As noted in the writeup, those are small enough sample sizes that they may be a fluke, particularly given how Hughes’ recent success is founded in an unsustainably low BABIP while his strikeout and walk rates move in the wrong direction. If so, it’s been a timely fluke, as the Rays and Red Sox have stacked their lineups with lefties, and as Hughes has generated more swings and misses with his fastball and cutter against righties.

As for Ortiz, while he’s cut his strikeout rate since I buried him back in May, and while his overall numbers are his best since 2007, his performance against lefties has collapsed (.217/.270/.320, 29.1 K%), leading to a failure to deliver in high-leverage situations (.196/.304/.454). The Sox hold a $12.5 million option for 2011 on an aging, corpulent one-way slugger whose declining abilities may be masked by the sentimentality Red Sox Nation feels towards him — a combustible combination which could lead to a bad decision on Boston’s part. Ortiz has already begun agitating for an extension; how about a three-year deal?

As for A-Rod, I noted prior to Saturday’s game that since returning from the disabled list, he was already having his best month of the season since May. Since then he’s delivered two more homers, including the pivotal two-run shot on Sunday night which got them on the board against Matsuzaka and briefly gave them the lead. He’s hitting .333/.415/.710 with eight homers in September, more than any other month despite his abbreviated time in the lineup. The 2010 Yankees needed him as much as they ever have on Sunday night, and he came up big.

Friday’s Child: Losing it?

Went to two Yankees-Rays games this week and they couldn’t have felt more different, nor could my writeups pertaining to them. On Monday, I sat in the pressbox as the team welcomed Joe Torre and Don Mattingly back to Yankee Stadium for the first time since their unseemly departures and unveiled their massive, ostentatious monument to the late George Steinbrenner. While Ivan Nova kept the Rays at bay, the Yankees chipped away at Matt Garza and broke the game open thanks to a pair of Curtis Granderson home runs after the Yankees temporarily blew a four-run lead. On Thursday night, the Yanks coughed up a 3-1 lead in the sixth inning amid an unbelievable seven-run meltdown behind CC Sabathia and Joba Chamberlain, and in doing so, emerged with merely a split of their four-game series.

At the outset of the series, here’s what I wrote:

So in the grand scheme of things, it would be tough to pretend that a September Yanks-Rays series actually mattered much; barring either team repeating the 2000 Yankees’ stretch-drive imitation of the 1899 Cleveland Spiders, both teams will reach the postseason, and both those games and this week’s four-game series in the Bronx represent nothing more than jockeying for position. Players and managers from both clubs have dutifully said otherwise, that their goal is the division title and home-field advantage through the first two rounds of the playoffs rather than the backdoor invitation via the wild card, but watching the way Yankees manager Joe Girardi ran his bullpen in the opener of last week’s series—a taut pitchers’ duel between David Price and CC Sabathia which remained scoreless through the first 10 innings — reveals otherwise.

While the Yanks had come in off a rough stretch of having been swept in three grueling games in the Texas heat, Girardi was clearly more concerned with making sure his pitchers were rested. After using Kerry Wood and Boone Logan — two pitchers who’ve been the key to the Yankees bullpen’s second-half resurgence — following Sabathia’s eight stellar innings, Girardi passed up the opportunity to use Joba Chamberlain, David Robertson, and Mariano Rivera, all with at least a day’s rest under their belts, in a tie ballgame on the road. Instead he went with mop-up men Chad Gaudin and Sergio Mitre; the latter yielded a game-ending home run to Reid Brignac, the first hitter he faced. “Maybe you have to lose the battle to win the war,” lamented pitching coach Dave Eilland of the A-listers’ unavailability. Meanwhile, the Yankees’ lineup for that series was without Brett Gardner and Nick Swisher, both of whom received cortisone shots, where they might have played under more meaningful circumstances or with 25-man rosters instead of larger ones padded by September call-ups.

Given the persistence of home-field advantage throughout the regular season — home teams win at about a 54 percent clip — you’d think it would matter more in the postseason, particularly with the AL’s four likely invitees holding stellar records at home; the Yankees and Twins both shared 49-25 records at home through Sunday, while the Rangers were 48-26 and the Rays 46-29. In fact, the tale of the tape is a mixed bag. According to Joe Sheehan, since 1998, when Major League Baseball began seeding playoff teams instead of using a pre-set rotation, teams with the home field advantage have won 45 of 84 series (a .536 winning percentage). That figure suggests an even larger HFA, since the math on a four percent HFA comes out to a 51.3 percent chance of the home team winning a Game Seven. On the other hand, home teams are just 9-10 since 1998 in the small sample of decisive Games Five and Seven. More damningly, as many wild-card winners — who don’t have home-field advantage in either of the first two rounds — have gone on to reach the World Series as have No. 1 one seeds in that time span, with eight apiece.

Re-reading the piece, I’m pretty sure I undersold the value of winning the division; more importantly, so have the Yankees. Because their road is considerably harder now, as I wrote today at Pinstriped Bible:

Had [Sabathia] and the bullpen been able to convert that into a win, they’d have taken this week’s series with the Rays 3-1 and secured a split of the season series at nine games apiece. More importantly, they would have held a 2.5-game lead in the division with nine games left to play. A 5-4 record the rest of the way would have required the Rays to go 8-2 to achieve a tie, though that still would have given the latter the division title based upon a better intra-division record.

…[W]hile the Yankees still hold a half-game lead over the Rays in the AL East, they’ve got the much tougher schedule of the two teams the rest of the way… Ignoring home-field advantage for a moment, the weighted winning percentage of the Yankees’ remaining opponents is .538, while that of the Rays is .401 — the equivalent of a 22-game difference between the two slates over the course of a 162-game season, or roughly the gap between the Red Sox and the Royals.

Baseball Prospectus’ Playoff Odds, which factor home field advantage, scoring environment, run components and quality of opposition into a Monte Carlo simulation of the remainder of the season — BP colleague Tommy Bennett explained the complicated-sounding system very well a few weeks back — show the Yankees with a 38.4 percent chance of winning the division and the Rays with a 61.6 percent chance. A mere two days ago, those numbers stood 74.5 to 25.5 in New York’s favor.

As I go on to point out, the Twins have now pushed their way into the best-record picture; they’re a half-game ahead of the Yankees at the moment, and a full game ahead of the Rays, plus they’ve got an easier schedule the rest of the way as well (.479 via the Tigers, Royals and Blue Jays). The bottom line is that the odds suggest the Yanks are likely not to have home field advantage in any round of the playoffs, and will need help from others in order to have it for one round. They’re going to have to step up considerably if they want to repeat as champions.

How good are the Twins? Good enough to break the Yanks’ and Rays’ 1-2 monopoly atop the AL Hit List, which has been in place since the April 23 edition, though the two teams have swapped places a few times. Here’s how the top three shake out this week:

[#1 Yankees] Grand, and Not So Grand: Curtis Granderson’s two homers lead the Yanks past the Rays on the night they unveil a massive monument to the late George Steinbrenner and play host to prodigal sons Joe Torre and Don Mattingly. Granderson is hitting .261/.358/.543 with 11 homers since retooling his swing with hitting coach Kevin Long in mid-August, and Derek Jeter is riding a 12-game hitting streak (.327/.410/.404) thanks to Long’s help as well. Alas, the Yanks are unable to do more than secure a split of the series with the Rays, and in losing the season series, their odds of winning the division plummet from 74 percent to 38 percent in two days.

[#2 Twins] Don’t Call Them Twinkies: After battling all the way to a 163rd game in each of the past two seasons, the Twins rally to surmount a three-run deficit and become the first team to clinch their division, winning their sixth AL Central title in nine years. They’re 16-4 this month, and now a half-game ahead of the Yankees for the league’s best record. Danny Valencia bops three homers in a four-game span; the 19th-round 2006 pick, who was once seen merely as an organizational player is hitting .332/.374/.463, and the team is 48-23 (.676) with him in the lineup.

[#3 Rays] Back-End Blues? After losing the first two games of their series in the Bronx with the Yankees, the Rays move into the driver’s seat by taking the next two; although they’re a half-game back in the AL East, they’ve now got 62 percent chance of taking the division thanks to a much easier schedule the rest of the way. Still, there’s plenty of cause for concern given the rotation’s recent performance, as Jeff Niemann, James Shields, and Matt Garza have combined for an 8.36 ERA in 11 starts this month while averaging just 4.7 innings per start. Niemann has been particularly brutal since returning from his DL stint, with a 14.43 ERA, 7.0 BB/9, and 2.8 HR/9 over five starts while averaging less than four innings.

The NL Hit List was a lighter-hearted affair, with some of the best bits in the middle:

[#7 Cardinals] Jack the Ripper: Former Cardinals slugger Jack Clark brands the 2010 squad “quitters” with “poopy in their pants,” (yes, really) while Tony LaRussa alludes to Clark’s own checkered history. The Cards are now 13-25 since their sweep of the Reds, and while the lineup’s big guns haven’t stopped firing during that span (Albert Pujols, .294/.395/.625, Matt Holliday .331/.396/.556, Colby Rasmus .302/.425/.523), they’ve reaped what they have sown with a regressing Jon Jay (.220/.288/.283), a Replacement Level Killer-worthy Brendan Ryan (.212/.248/.263) and the half-eaten remains of Pedro Feliz (.208/.227/.255), to say nothing of the clearly trouser-loading Felipe Lopez (.132/.231/.191), who’s released for repeated tardiness.

[#10 Mets] Flushing Follies, Part 647: As the Mets continue traveling their road to nowhere in ignominious fashion (seriously, did they play this week?), Jerry Manuel takes issue with Joe Torre’s tepid expression of interest in managing the Mets. Without asking the obvious question (“Why in the #$%@ would a septuagenarian future Hall of Fame manager leave one disasterpiece to step into an even bigger one such as this?”), Manuel questions Torre’s integrity while conveniently forgetting his own scruples-free pursuit of predecessor Willie Randolph’s job. Sadly, the laughingstock Manuel and his superior Omar Minaya’s days are likely numbered in Queens, which could leave the Hit List with a dearth of comic material. Then again, if they hire Wally Backman to replace Manuel, we’ll be just fine.

There’s one more BP-related link for the week, but I’ll save that for the next post.

“That’s Heads-Up Baseball!”

Derek Jeter’s adventures in acting on Wednesday night reminded me of a favorite old Bobby Murcer story. See Pinstriped Bible for details, and check out the joint chat I did with Steve Goldman as well.