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The Seven Tools (And Other Stuff)

Baseball Thoughts, Day 2 begins with a WAY too long discussion of the five tools of baseball. And, of course, we’ll update throughout the day.
Again, if you have questions, comments, post them here. I didn’t get to many yesterday, I’ll try to do better today.

Joe Posnanski � Posts Baseball Thoughts, Day 2 �

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Baseball Musings

Going to do a semi-live blog over at SI today. Here is the link if you would like to come along. And if you have any specific ideas or questions, you can post them here in the comments and I’ll come by throughout the day and check.

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Happy 61st

A happy 61st birthday to my friend Bill James … the best baseball writer who ever lived.

For fun, I was wading through the thousands — yes, thousands — of emails I have exchanged with Bill over the years and I came across this one I got … I must have asked Bill to tell me his greatest day in baseball. I don’t know if I ever used this or if, like many of my projects, it died on the vine. But I don’t think Bill will mind me reprinting it now:

This email is from May 22, 2007:

“I don’t know that this was absolutely the greatest day I ever had in baseball, but June 6, 1991, was certainly one of the most memorable days I ever had at a ballpark.   It was a Thursday afternoon, I think … anyway it was an afternoon game in mid-week with an unusual starting time. It was put on the schedule as a kind of experiment, and then it became apparent several days in advance that the pitching matchup was going to be Nolan Ryan against Bret Saberhagen … Hall of Famer against two-time Cy Young Award winner.

Susie and I made a decision to go late, got stuck in traffic near the park and didn’t arrive until the 3rd inning.  I wound up parking in some parking lot that, having been to Royals Stadium hundreds of times, I literally had no idea existed … it was way out behind the barn, over the hill … parking lot XX or EE or something.  

Ryan and Saberhagen were both very good, and the game was just a riot of fantastic events … people being thrown out on the bases or out of the game in bizarre ways. The Riyals lost the winning run in extra innings one time on a force out at the plate going 6-5-2 … a forceout.  

We had kids aged 3 and 5 at that time, left them with a baby sitter … every two or three innings we would call the baby sitter to see if she could stay late. This was before cell phones … we’d have to find a pay phone at Royals Stadium. Do they still have pay phones?

Anyway, the game went 18 innings, Royals finally won it in the 18th when Kenny Rogers, he of the Gold Gloves, threw away a bunt.  The Royals had FOUR successful sacrifice bunts in extra innings … I always wonder if that isn’t a record. Ruben Sierra came in with an 18-game hitting streak, went 0-for-7 with a couple of walks. I always wonder if he was the only player ever to lose a long hitting streak going hitless in 9 tries.  

Hal McRae was thrown out of the game arguing a call at third. The Royals had the winning run in scoring position in the 10th, 11th, 13th, 14th, 15th, 16th and 17th innings before finally cashing in in the 18th (in the 12th they had a runner on base but not in scoring position). The Rangers had the winning run in scoring position in the 12th, 14th, 15th and 16th.

I think Rogers and Julio Franco are the only guys left in the majors who played in that game … Juan Gone. . .don’t know if he made a team this year … and Sierra, who was in spring training but I think maybe didn’t make a team, not sure.  Those kids are in college now.

The game had an epic feel to it … it started in the middle of the afternoon and went on until well past nightfall, huge crowd really into the game. There were probably 25, 30,000 people there when the game ended. We just had the feeling that we had lived our lives at that ballgame. I don’t know that it was the greatest day I ever had, but it was a fun day, and I appreciate the opportunity to relive it.

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Bring Back Sports Arguments

Leo: “Sorry to tell you this but King threw out the monologue.”

Alice: “Leo, that monologue was good.”

Sy Benson: “Check that. Perfect. I wrote it! This is where Sy Benson draws the line. … First came the word and the word was funny. The monologue stays or I go.”

Benjy: “Sy, maybe we can compromise.”

Sy: “No compromise! Sy Benson has his integrity, his pride. King does that monologue word for word or I walk. I walk!”

Seconds later:

Sy: “King! About the monologue!”

King Kaiser: “Wait a minute! Sy! Do you smell something? (Sniff) It’s coming from the script. … (Holds script up to nose and sniffs) Ew, it’s your monologue. Ugh, what a stinkburger. … KC, pull!”

(His assistant KC throws the crumpled-up script in the air. King shoots it down. “BOOM!” Sy clutches his heart.)

King: “I hate it. It’s not funny. It’s out.”

Sy: “Hey, babe, we’re not married to it.”

— From “My Favorite Year.”

* * *

It seems to me that few people enjoy confrontation. Oh there are some who love it, thrive on it, make a nice living by sparking confrontation. But I certainly don’t. I was on a plane not too long ago — yes, this will be the story about me getting yelled at on a plane, though the concept sounds better than it is — and it was an early morning flight. I ended up sitting one row behind my actual seat by mistake. The guy who was sitting in my seat said, “Um, I think I’m in 14A” (or whatever it was) and I was thoroughly embarrassed and said, “Oh, I’m sorry.” And I moved up one row. This wasn’t the yelling part.

About three minutes later, a flight attendant came back to tell me that I had been upgraded to first class … a perk that comes with flying a lot. Well, I thanked her and moved up to first class. And I was sitting there when all of a sudden a man walked up to first class — not the man whose seat I had mistakenly taken but a different man, an Army man, dressed in full camouflage — and he tapped me on the shoulder and said, “Excuse me, there’s something I wanted to tell you.”

I turned around. And the guy screamed, “I just wanted to tell you that you are a selfish human being. You are an extremely selfish person. I would not have forgiven myself if I didn’t tell you that before you got off the plane. You are a very, very selfish person.”

And then, before I could say a word, he walked back to his seat.

Well … now what? The flight attendant came over to ask what that was all about, and I had to tell her that I had absolutely no idea. And I didn’t. And just about then, the plane took off, and I had to sit there and try to figure out what I was supposed to do. At first I thought maybe I should go back and ask the guy what that was all about, confront him there, but I decided against it. I didn’t want to create some sort of scene on the plane. I had no idea why the guy was yelling at me. Maybe I had hit him in the head with my backpack without realizing it or apologizing. Maybe he had tried to talk to me and I had ignored him. Maybe he was a big Yuni Betancourt fan. I didn’t know. I went over about 500 possibilities in my head because this is the ridiculous kind of person I am. And I hate confrontation.

I knew in the end the right way for me to handle it was to get off the plane, wait for him to come out, and directly confront him. I didn’t WANT to do this, not at all. But I had to do it. I have friends, many of them, who would have instinctively handled this in a better way. But you have to play your own cards. And so, for the rest of the flight I thought about what I must have done and dreaded the landing.

There’s no exciting finish to this non-exciting story. I waited for him to get off the plane, he tried to ignore me at first, and then I said: “Excuse me but what was that all about?” It turned out to be some ridiculous misunderstanding … he thought I was trying to steal that guy’s seat and then had tricked my way up to first class, or something like that. I never fully understood. Whatever the case was, I told him that none of that was true, and that I may be a lot of things but I don’t think selfish really applies. After we talked for a while, he thanked me for straightening it out and we went on our ways. Like I said: The story isn’t as good as the headline.

In any case, I dislike confrontation. I would go out of my way to avoid it. I think a lot of people feel the same way. I put the classic bit from My Favorite Year (one of my all-time favorite movies) on top because, well, Sy could be me. Maybe Sy could be you too … I don’t know you.

And I think confrontation has taken on big role in sports — not in PLAYING sports (where confrontation has always been a big part of the action) but in watching sports, in analyzing sports, in talking about sports, in THINKING about sports. Take the postseason baseball awards. I noticed Monday that one of my e-migos, Will Carroll, was taking a beating on Twitter because he said that if he had an American League Cy Young vote (he does not) he would vote for C.C. Sabathia. And I noticed that on the same day, my co-worker and friend Tom Verducci put out his awards choices, and said he thinks Felix Hernandez will win, not only because people have a better feel for how little pitcher wins really mean but also because of “how fast and wide groupthink travels these days.”

I actually DO have an American League Cy Young vote and out-of-respect for the process I will not reveal my vote … though if you are a regular reader here, I suspect you already know my vote. I have not exactly hidden my feelings on the subject. My point here is that it seems there is a black-and-white, up-and-down, Democrat-and-Republican, yes-and-no, right-and-wrong feel to baseball arguments these days. And it seems to me that sports used to BE like that … and I really don’t want to go back to those days.

I remember thinking about this hard in 2008 when Alex Rodriguez easily won the MVP award. I thought A-Rod deserved the MVP Award; in my mind, he was pretty clearly the best player in the league that year. But you might recall that year that Detroit outfielder Magglio Ordonez got two first place votes, the only two A-Rod did not get, and both from Detroit writers. Well, there was quite a bit of screaming about it, about the Detroit guys being homers, about A-Rod being jobbed from a unanimous MVP choice and all that. But more to the point, there was quite a bit of screaming about how the Detroit writers WERE WRONG … like A-Rod was the ONLY viable MVP choice.

I thought Bill James hit the subject hard and well in the 2008 Gold Mine: “I see absolutely nothing wrong or remarkable in the two MVP votes for Magglio Ordonez … Yes, A-Rod had a fantastic season, but Ordonez’ season is … well, Al Kaline was the same kind of hitter, and Kaline never came close to those numbers: 139 RBI, .363 average, 54 doubles, 28 homers. It was well above the standard of your average MVP season.

“Yes, A-Rod created more runs than Ordonez, but not that many more (159-146). Since when did a 13-run separation in offensive performance become a prohibitive barrier to sportswriters taking a broader view of the issue?”

A broader view of the issue. Exactly. I feel sure I would have voted for A-Rod … in fact, I might have voted for A-Rod, I don’t remember if I had a vote that year. But these things in sports are not crystal clear, aren’t without ambiguity, aren’t without nooks and crannies and subtleties and difference of opinion. There was a viable argument to be made for Ordonez (A-Rod’s one offensive advantage — and it was a big one — was in home runs. But Ordonez led A-Rod in some other stuff — including on-base percentage, doubles and RBI minus homers (they scored the same number of runs minus homers). And whether I AGREE or not with Magglio for MVP argument, I would very much like to HEAR the argument. I wouldn’t want that argument shouted down before it was ever made.

But I think that’s where we are going again. I do think we are getting back to the point in sports where arguments are being shouted down before they are made, that in this stats vs. scouts world of baseball that people are simply not even listening to the other side, that baseball is being turned into a game show like Do You Want To Be A Millionaire, where only one answer can be accepted as correct.

And it bugs me. Let me take this in a different direction for one second: You know why I love baseball statistics? Because they help me look at the game in a way I never had before. That’s all. I don’t love NUMBERS (though, I’ve always had a crush on the number 573 — but who hasn’t?), I love the way those numbers can spark in the imagination. It is true that for years and years in baseball we were hammered with the same empty platitudes — pitching is 75% of baseball, some hitters are better in the clutch than they are the rest of the time, a great shortstop can save you 100 runs a year with his defense, players are in their primes from 27 to 32 or so, you don’t want a guy in the middle of your lineup who walks a lot, bases are stolen off the pitcher, the best fielders were the ones who made the fewest errors, the most important thing is to have players on your team who are gamers … and so on. For a long time, you were told to believe those things, and disagreeing meant confrontation. Few people like confrontation. And so we kept getting fed the same baseball meals.

But you know what? Bill James liked confrontation. He and a few others started testing some of those platitudes by the numbers, by logic, and they began to suspect that some of these platitudes … most of these platitudes … really about all these platitudes were overstated at best, pure nonsense at worst. How could baseball really be 75% pitching? We were supposed to stuff hitting and fielding into the remaining 25%?

And by studying that pitching is 75% of baseball thing (and mocking it, yes), people came up with some pretty fascinating and new thoughts about pitching, some of them cutting hard against what the mind had been led to believe.

Wait a minute, Bill and others said: Pitchers don’t win games, not by themselves. We know that … why do we keep denying that point?

Wait a minute, Bill and others said: You can’t judge a pitcher without considering the ballpark where he pitches.

Wait a minute, Bill and others said: Strikeout generally pitchers DO NOT burn out faster than finesse pitchers … quite the opposite.

Bill and others weren’t always right. But the point wasn’t being right. The point was making the argument, questioning everything, refusing to accept something because it SEEMED so. One of the most fascinating baseball topics of the last few years has built around this question: How much control does a pitcher have over hits allowed? It’s easy to tell from the stats that some pitchers strike out more batters than others, some pitchers walk fewer batters than others, some pitchers give up fewer home runs than others. These are repeatable skills.

But how much control does a pitcher have if the plate appearance is not a strikeout, walk or homer.

Well here are some assorted pitchers’ career batting average on balls hit in play:

Andy Messersmith: .243

Mike Norris: .249

Jim Palmer: .251

Mario Soto: .257

Sandy Koufax: .259

Mariano Rivera: .263

Larry Gura: .265

Bud Black: .266

Eric Show: .267

Steve McCatty: .268

Nolan Ryan: .269

Orlando Hernandez: .270

Woody Williams: .280

Tim Belcher: .283

Mark Portugal: .283

Eric Milton: .285

Greg Maddux: .286

Steve Trachsel: .288

Kirk Rueter: .289

Brett Tomko: .291

Randy Johnson: .295

Tim Lincecum: .301

Zack Greinke: .310

Even now, I have a hard time believing a pitcher has NO control (beyond Ks, walks and HRs) over a hitters’ ability to get hits — I know instinctively that batting-practice fastballs will yield more singles than Tim Lincecum sliders — but the stats have certainly convinced me that a pitcher has FAR LESS CONTROL over hits than I ever would have suspected on my own. I mean Brett Tomko has a lower career BABIP than Lincecum. Mark Portugal has a much better BABIP than Randy Johnson. That’s what baseball stats can do for me as a fan … they can expand my scope, give me new things to think about, pull back curtains, create beautiful arguments.

And I worry that we are beginning to lose those arguments again — ironically, at least in part, BECAUSE of the proliferation of baseball stats. I cannot tell you how many people have sent me emails quoting one of my favorite statistics, Wins Above Replacement, as if that’s an argument ender. No! To me WAR is an argument STARTER. That’s what’s beautiful about it. The fact that (according to Baseball Reference) Felix Hernandez has a 6.0 WAR and C.C. Sabathia has a 5.4 WAR doesn’t end the Cy Young debate for me. It starts it.

As it turns out, while I hate confrontation in my personal life, I don’t mind it when it comes to baseball. I don’t mind people thinking I’m an idiot … I think that about myself anyway. But I do think there are some people out there (and I cannot blame them) who would rather just conform to stuff they don’t think or believe rather than get blitzed on the Internet or barraged on Twitter. I do worry about what Tom calls group think.

Yes, absolutely, I do believe that if Felix Hernandez wins the Cy Young, it will be a breakthrough — even more than Greinke or Lincecum last year — and proof that the voters didn’t just fall back on wins the way they often did in the past.

But I really hope anyone who believed C.C. Sabathia had the better year voted for him and will make the argument for him. Sabathia had one hell of a season. He pitched for a Yankees team that, for much of the season, did not have a viable second starter. New York won 23 of the 34 starts he made. He pitched under some intense pennant pressure. There’s an argument to be made. I’ve always thought that was one of the best things about sports. There’s always an argument to be made.

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Padres Don’t Stop Believin’

SAN FRANCISCO — So, a few San Diego players sat in a circle in a happy-but-not-too-happy Padres clubhouse and they went over the possibilities. “No, no, no,” Scott Hairston was saying. “If the Braves win tomorrow …”

“No, I’m saying if the Braves LOSE tomorrow,” Oscar Salazar said.

“Wait,” Luke Gregerson said. “Are we talking about if they win or if they lose?’

“You know what?” Hairston said. “Let’s just win, all right?”

This is the best plan at this point. The National League playoff picture is calculus at the moment, and the only thing that really matters for the Padres is winning. They came into Friday night cold, lost, on the brink of elimination. But they won an emotional game Friday night, with a crazed San Francisco crowd ready to celebrate. And they won an emotional game Saturday afternoon with Journey lead singer (and Giants fan) Steve Perry singing “Don’t Stop Believin'” in the crowd.

And now, the Padres go into Sunday with three different playoff scenarios, a couple of them baffling enough to confuse Copernicus. Let’s go over all the scenarios first and then we can talk about these amazing Padres.

Scenario 1: The Giants beat the Padres, and Atlanta beats Philadelphia.

— This is one of two easy ones. Right now, Atlanta and San Diego are tied for the wildcard, and San Francisco is one game up on both. In this Giants win/Braves win scenario, the Giants will win the National League West and the Braves will be the wildcard. No extra games necessary.

Scenario 2: The Padres beat the Giants, and Philadelphia beats Atlanta.

— This is the second easy one. In this case, the Padres would win the National League West (thanks to their head-to-head record against San Francisco), and the Giants will be the wildcard. The Braves are eliminated. I actually don’t like scenario this much — it seems to me that the division title should not be determined by head-to-head record. But this is the way things set up in baseball. Since both the Giants and Padres would qualify for the playoffs in this scenario, the baseball gurus have determined that it’s not worth having a one-game playoff just to see which team is division champ and which team is wildcard. So, again, Padres would be champ; Giants would be wildcard.

Scenario 3: The Giants beat the Padres, and Philadelphia beats Atlanta.

— OK, now we are dealing with an extra game. In this scenario, the Giants would be NL West division champs. And the Padres and Braves would play each other in a one-game wildcard playoff in Atlanta on Monday.

Scenario 4: The Padres beat the Giants, and Atlanta beats Philadelphia.

— And finally the world-is-exploding scenario. If this happens (and it certainly could happen), then we have a three-way tie between San Francisco, San Diego, Atlanta. And that would mean the first three-team, two-game playoff in baseball history. In this scenario, the Giants and Padres would play a one-game playoff Monday evening in San Diego, with the winner claiming the National League West. The loser would then have to hop on a plane and play ANOTHER one-game playoff, this one against the Braves for the wildcard. The winner of THAT game, should it be San Diego or San Francisco, would then go to Philadelphia on Wednesday for the first game of the National League Division Series. This means it is not impossible that the Padres or Giants could play:

Sunday in San Francisco.

Monday in San Diego

Tuesday in Atlanta

Wednesday in Philadelphia.

Four cities in four days. I’d say that hasn’t happened since Satchel Paige’s barnstorming days.*

*This leads to a fascinating point — it probably would be to the Phillies advantage to lose to the Braves Sunday. If they lose, there’s a chance for this three-team, two-game playoff, which could utterly wreck the rotation of the team facing the Phillies in the playoffs. Baseball should not have a system where LOSING is better for a team than WINNING. But we’re in uncharted territory here.

Oh, it’s a cavalcade of fun in baseball these days, and the main reason is that these San Diego Padres simply refuse to accept the general consensus that they’re simply not good enough to keep winning. The Padres, you will recall, lost 10 games in a row when they were leading the National League West by 6 1/2 games — and I’d say more people were surprised by the 6 1/2 game lead than the 10-game losing streak. These Padres — the great Adrian Gonzalez excepted — have an anemic offense. They have pitched very well, but the rotation and bullpen are not exactly loaded with big names. Coming into this series, they lost three out of four to a playing-for-nothing-but-pride Cubs team. The expectation is that the Giants playing at home in front of hungry fans would put them out of their misery quickly.

But … no. Friday night’s game was about a great matchup between two great players, San Francisco pitcher Matt Cain and Adrian Gonzalez — Gonzalez won, he turned on a fastball, set it soaring for a three-run homer, and the Padres won.

Saturday’s game was sketchier. The Padres made a serious base-running blunder. The Giants manager got tossed. It wasn’t exactly ballet. The Giants started Barry Zito who — after pitching pretty well much of the season and winning a little bit of hard-earned and grudging respect from San Francisco fans who had written him and his $126 million contract off — has in the last six weeks or so regressed again. He came into the game with the team having lost eight of his previous 10 starts, and his ERA over that stretch was 6.50.

Zito did not have it Saturday either. San Diego’s Chris Denorfia and David Eckstein led off the game with back-to-back singles. At that point both managers decided it was time for a little battle of chess. First up was Padres manager Bud Black, who had his No. 3 hitter Miguel Tejada sacrifice bunt. Tejada IS a double-play machine — he has led the league in double plays five of the last seven years — but sacrifice bunting in the first inning with your No. 3 hitter? Ugh.

At that point, San Francisco manager Bruce Bochy topped him by intentionally walking Adrian Gonzalez to load the bases. Yes, Gonzalez IS the Padres best hitter by far and there is a feeling among baseball managers that, if you can help it, you don’t want to let the other team’s best player beat you. But, an intentional walk in the first inning of a crucial game? Ugh.

Bochy’s “Ugh” turned out worse than Black’s. After Ryan Ludwick hit an infield pop-up, Zito walked Yorvit Torrealba and Scott Hairston to give the Padres two runs. I would like to think that was the Baseball Gods rewarding the Padres for a first-inning intentional walk, but more likely it was Zito simply being unable to control his stuff, a common theme since he signed the big money deal. He gave up an unearned run in the third when Pablo Sandoval made a poor throw to second base. And then in the fourth he led off the inning by walking opposing pitcher Tim Stauffer, which ended his game.

“I thought (Zito’s) stuff was fine,” Bruce Bochy said mysteriously after the game before saying, “He just had trouble getting the ball where he wanted.” Yes, well, there was that. Stauffer came around to score to give the Padres a 4-0 lead. And Stauffer pitched well, allowing one run in 6 1/3 innings. The Giants did get the winning run to the plate in the ninth but could not finish off the comeback*. “We’re going to win tomorrow!” Steve Perry yelled from a radio booth.

*If you want details, the Giants were down 4-2 in the bottom of the ninth, and they had runners on first and third with only one out. Jose Guillen was at the plate. I have seen a lot of Jose Guillen in Kansas City, a whole lot of Jose Guillen, the good and the not-so-good, and I turned to the reporter next to me and said that it might be a good idea for the Giants to send pinch runner Darren Ford, who was at first base. I felt sure the Giants would do that. Ford has appeared in seven games this year, all as a pinch runner, he is apparently quite swift (he has stolen two out of three bases). But the Giants DID NOT send Ford on the first pitch.

“Uh-oh,” I said. Guillen promptly hit into the easy 6-3 double play that ended the game. The writer looked at me like I was Nostradamus, but really I have just seen Jose Guillen hit a lot.

And now it’s down to today, which could be one of the wilder days in National League history. The Padres have their best starter, Mat Latos, going against San Francisco’s exciting and frustrating Jonathan Sanchez, who is striking out more than a batter per inning and also leading the National League in walks. There are those four crazy scenarios I listed above — in Scenario 2 we could actually have champagne baths in BOTH clubhouses. I don’t know that has ever happened in baseball history. But hey, in this crazy division, as the poet Steve Perry once sad: Any way you want it, that’s the way you need it, anyway you want it. I think that says it all.

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The Wild NL West

SAN FRANCISCO — There is no way to prove it, of course, but I think that San Diego’s Adrian Gonzalez is the most underrated player in baseball. He is, in my mind, the only guy in the game that Fire Joe Morgan’s Ken Tremendous could have written this about on Deadspin:

“You know who’s overlooked? Adrian F—– Gonzalez. Nobody in the world outside of Adrian Gonzalez’s immediate family has any idea he even exists, much less that he is one of the very best hitters in the world. A reporter recently asked Yorvit Torrealba to talk about how good Adrian Gonzalez has been for the Pads this year, and Torrealba said, ‘There is no one on our team by that name. You are mistaken. Perhaps you mean to ask about David Eckstein?'”

I think Gonzalez has the underrated award all to himself — has had it for a couple of years. But, you know, you could also make an argument for San Francisco’s Aubrey Huff. Have you seen the year this guy’s having? He plays three position, appears to be playing them all well, he is slugging .500, he is in the top 10 in the league in walks, he has scored 100 runs. In a season when the Giants seemingly unshakeable Tim Lincecum ran into a late summer rough patch and last year’s breakout star Pablo Sandoval has lost his Kung Fu Panda mojo, Huff has been a driving force and as big a reason as any player, I suspect, for the Giants being on the brink of the playoffs.

Now, you may disagree, you may rank other players as more underrated — it’s all a make-believe argument anyway. But I would say there’s at least a pretty good shot that the players you might call most underrated will be in the National League West.

There is something dreamlike about the NL West … and not only because so many of their games are played while two-thirds of America is asleep. No, this is one crazy division. Here’s a little fact for you: If the Giants go to the playoffs — they’re one win away — that will mean that in the last five seasons all five NL West teams have reached the playoffs. All five in five years — no other division can claim anything even close to this. Here’s how many seasons back you have to go to say that every team in a division has made the postseason:

AL East: 18 seasons (Toronto last made it in 1993)

AL Central: 26 seasons (Kansas City last made it in 1985)

AL West: 10 seasons (Seattle last made it in 2001 — and remember there are only four teams in the AL West)

NL East: Infinity (Washington has never made the postseason; if you want to go back to their days in Montreal you have to go back to 1981).

NL Central: 19 seasons (PIttsburgh last made it in 1992 — have not had a winning season since).

NL West: 5 seasons (The Padres last made it in 2006)

That’s absurd, right? The only team to not actually win the division the last five seasons is the Colorado Rockies (they made it twice as a wildcard), and they are also the only team from the division the last five seasons to go the World Series. This division is just a late-night roulette wheel — so late that the results don’t make it into the morning paper.

Take this year. In our SI “experts” preseason predictions this year — there were 13 of us — we picked the West as follows:

Six of us picked the Rockies.

Five of us picked the Dodgers.

One of us picked the Diamondbacks.

One of us picked the Giants.

The point isn’t that only one of us (Ted Keith, congrats!) probably got it right by picking the Giants. The point is that we clearly had no idea. We picked four of the five teams, and the one team we DID NOT pick, the San Diego Padres, was leading the division almost the entire season and still has a shot, by sweeping San Francisco, to win the thing. We have no idea how to pick the NL West because there isn’t a way to pick the NL West.

Here’s what you have in the NL West:

1. You have the most extreme pitchers park in baseball (San Diego.

2. You have the most extreme hitters park in baseball (Colorado).

3. You have the team that, most years, leads the National League in attendance (Los Angeles).

4. You have a team that has struck out more than any in baseball history (the Arizona Diamondbacks).

5. You have three teams that have never won the World Series (Colorado, San Diego and San Francisco — the Giants did win the World Series in New York).

6. More people pack into NL West Stadiums as a group by far than any other division in baseball.*

*Here’s the average attendance in 2010 by division:

1. NL West: 2.68 million

2. NL Central (shocker, eh?): 2.47 million.

3. AL East: 2.37 million

4. NL East: 2.35 million

5. AL West: 2.27 million

6. AL Central (no shocker): 2.12 million.

All this stuff thrown together seems to give the NL West a wild quality. You might get an absurd pitchers game (San Diego this year has been involved in TEN 1-0 games, the most in baseball … right after them is the Dodgers with 9 and the Giants with 8). You might get an absurd hitters game (The Rockies and Diamondbacks have both played seven games where 15 or more runs were scored — only the Mets have played in more). You will get a lot of home runs (Arizona, Colorado and San Francisco are third, fourth and sixth in the league in homers) and a lot of Ks (the Giants’ and Padres’ staffs are first and second in all of baseball in Ks, the Dodgers are fourth — strikeout pitchers like facing the Diamondbacks). It really is a free for all.

And this year that has led to a typically exciting, excruciating, thrilling and baffling pennant race. For the first five months or so, the Padres rather shockingly stayed on top of the division. Yes, we knew how they were winning — they pitched great, especially out of the bullpen, and won the majority of their close games — but we really had no idea HOW they were winning. Other than Kevin Correja — who has struggled much of the year — the entire starting rotation was new. The bullpen was pinched together with some a bunch of unfamiliar names who kept getting people out. And the Padres, except for the titanic Adrian Gonzalez, could not really hit. The Padres won 1-0 six times. They were up 6 1/2 games in late August.

Then … they lost 10 in a row. They are only 12-12 since the losing streak, which puts them one loss away from elimination. This is where people usually write “the Padres had their inevitable collapse,” and maybe it was inevitable. The Padres’ overpowering quality is that they cannot hit. They are 12th in the league in runs scored and it’s hard to win a division when you are 12th in the league in runs scored. But crazy stuff happens in the NL West. In 2008, the Dodgers finished 13th in runs scored and won the division. In 2007, the Rockies won 14 of their last 15 to race into the playoffs and, eventually, the World Series*. In 2001, the Arizona Diamondback essentially rode two dominant pitchers and one bizarre 57-homer season to the championship. The Padres story was no stranger than those.

*You can probably stump your baseball friends with this trivia question: Name the NL West team that has gone the longest period of time since appearing in the World Series. If they know baseball and think about it, they might get it. But if they go off instinct, NOBODY would think it’s the Los Angeles Dodgers.

And anyway, the team they are battling — the Giants — are hardly a paragon of consistency. They won seven of their first nine to start the season and then played lousy for a while then played great, then played lousy again. Starting May 7 they:

— Lost four out of five.

— Won four out of five.

— Lost five in a row

— Won five out of six.

And so on. A four-game winning streak. A seven-game losing streak. On Independence Day, the Giants were one game over .500. And then, some things began happening. Buster Posey hit .450 his next 20 games. The aforementioned Huff hit .400. Matt Cain became was his old workhorse self — the Giants have won 12 of the last 15 times he has pitched. And so on. The Giants immediately won nine out of 10, and seven of the following 10. Yes, they were 6 1/2 games back on August 25, but thanks to the Padres’ losing streak and their own good play, they were tied for the division lead 16 days later. They moved into a tie, fittingly, with a 1-0 win over San Diego.

The Rockies made an exciting (if brief) run at the top which promised an exciting finish to the race … which is why I’m here in San Francisco. But the excitement has drained the last few days. The Rockies collapsed. The Padres have faded. The Giants have pulled three games ahead … as mentioned it will take a Padres sweep just to force a playoff*. And with the Giants at home that sweep seems unlikely.

*If necessary … if they both qualified for the playoffs, there would be no playoff. The division title would be decided by a tiebreaker.

Then again, EVERYTHING about the NL West is unlikely. It looks like this time it might finish quietly, but you can never bet on that in this division. Like always, if you want to know, you really will have to stay up late and see what happens.

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My story on Vin Scully and Los Angeles over at Sports Illustrated.

This is part of an NL West week. Tomorrow, a story on the general awesomeness of the NL West. And then, some live coverage of the Giants-Padres series, though it looks like the Padres will need the sweep. And there’s some other stuff in the works as well.

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ERA and Ks

So, you probably know that at the moment Felix Hernandez leads the American League in ERA and strikeouts. Roy Halladay and Adam Wainwright are close to the top in both categories in the NL, but neither is leading and probably neither will lead. So mostly this focuses on King Felix.

Felix may not end up leading the league in either category. Jered Weaver is only three strikeouts behind, and he will pitch Friday. Clay Bucholz is just a few hundredths behind Hernandez in ERA and he’s scheduled to go Saturday. I assume King Felix will pitch the Mariners finale on Sunday, but I guess that hasn’t been announced yet.

Anyway, I was wondering how often a pitcher who led the league in ERA and strikeouts DID NOT win the Cy Young Award. It has happened — more often than I expected to be honest.

From my quick count 19 of the 24 times a pitcher has led his league in strikeouts and ERA since 1966 (the first year they gave out Cy Young Awards to each league), the pitcher did win the Cy Young Award. These would be:

Roger Clemens 4 times (1986, 1991, 1997, 1998)

Randy Johnson 4 times (1995, 1999, 2001, 2002)

Johan Santana 2 times (2004, 2006)

Pedro Martinez 2 times (1999, 2000)

Jake Peavy (2007)

Mike Scott (1986)

Dwight Gooden (1985)

Tom Seaver (1973)

Steve Carlton (1972)

Bob Gibson (1968)

Sandy Koufax (1967)

But that still leaves five pitchers who led their league in ERA and Ks who did not win the Cy Young. See if you can come up with them … I was able to come up with one off the top of my head, and scrambled to come up with another. But I missed the other three. They are:

2002: Pedro Martinez lost the Cy Young to Barry Zito. I eventually remembered this one. Wins Above Replacement (WAR) suggests voters got it right. Zito (6.5 WAR) made five more starts and pitched 30 more innings than Pedro (5.7 WAR).

1987: Nolan Ryan finished fifth in Cy Young voting. This is the one I remembered right off the top of my head … Ryan famously finished 8-16 this year despite leading the league in ERA and strikeouts. The Cy Young choice — Steve Bedrosian — was absolutely brutal, one of the worst choices ever I think. How do you pick for Cy Young a closer with 86 innings pitched and a higher ERA than Ryan had as a starter? Ryan’s WAR (5.5) was more than twice Bedrosian’s (2.6) — simply a swing and a miss by the voters. Then again, Ryan might not have been the best choice either. Orel Hershiser led the league in WAR with a 6.7 — the guy threw 264 innings that year.

1979: J.R. Richard finished third in the Cy Young voting behind Bruce Sutter and Joe NIekro. Sutter really did have a great year as a closer (though not as good a year as he had in 1977, when HE probably had a better year than Cy Young winner Steve Carlton). But Richard also finished behind Joe Niekro? Just weird. That was pure wins talking. The odd thing is the guy who had the highest WAR in the league that year was PHIL Niekro, who went 21-20 and finished 6th in the voting.

1971: Tom Seaver finished second in the Cy Young voting to Ferguson Jenkins. This, at the time, was actually a pretty famous snub. Seaver had a 1.76 ERA, a full run better than Jenkins. But WAR suggests that the voters probably got it right — or anyway it was a toss-up. Jenkins made four more starts, pitched 40 more innings (a staggering 325 innings total) and they had identical WAR totals of 9.2. The feeling seemed to be that Jenkins, who had won 20 the previous four seasons without fanfare, was deserving of recognition, and Jenkins really did have a great year. Of course that feeling may have been influenced by the fact that Jenkins won four more games than Seaver.

1970: Tom Seaver finished seventh int he Cy Young voting. This was a strange year — Seaver led the league in ERA and strikeouts, yes, but he only went 18-12 which doomed his Cy Young chances. And WAR suggests, once more, that the writers got it right. They gave the award to Bob Gibson, who did indeed lead the league in WAR. And second place was Gaylord Perry who was indeed second in the league in WAR. The voters messed up sometimes, yes, but I find it interesting how often their choices match up with WAR even though, obviously, they had no access to the statistic when they were voting.

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Diary of a Losing Team: Brutal Honesty

I’m fascinated by these Domino’s Pizza commercials. You have seen them, I assume. The basic plot line is that the guy who is running Domino’s has come to accept that the pizza sucks. And he promises to do something about it.

And so, the commercials somewhat sheepishly show a photo someone sent in of the pizza he received with cheese stuck to the box (“Unacceptable!”). They offer up past customer reviews that makes their pizza sound like manilla folders with Ragu on top. They talk about how basically the company had ripped off the American public for many years by giving them gawdawful substandard pizza. But now things are going to change.

I’m fascinated by this advertising turn. I always thought Domino’s marketing strategy was: “We all know our pizza is not great, but hey it’s cheap, and we’ll get it to you fast, and let’s face it, there’s at least a 50-50 shot you’re a college student who would be eating Ramen Noodles anyway so what do you care?”

But now, well, they talk about how they were betraying customers with bad pizza, and they won’t do that anymore, they are going to make a better pizza with fresher ingredients (somehow for the same low price). I was intrigued enough that we ordered Domino’s pizza a few weeks ago. Now, to me, it t was — as we used to say in North Carolina — pretty much exactly the same.* But, I’ve heard from numerous others who had a much better experience, and they say the new Domino’s pizza is much better than it was before. As my youngest daughter once said when I was trying to convince her that her food was, in fact, not too spicy: “We all have our own appetites.”

*We like qualifying our qualifiers in North Carolina — it’s very different to say “I might do that,” vs. “I could do that” vs. “I might could do that.”

But again, it’s the ad strategy not the pizza itself that interests me. I think most people like the ad. I obviously liked it enough to order the pizza again. I think most people like the fact that Domino’s was so refreshingly honest about the suckitude of its pizza … and whether it’s “refreshingly” honest or “opportunistically” honest is not our discussion point. It’s jarring when a company comes at you that hard, tells you they’ve been terrible, apologizes, says that you deserve better. I thought the BP commercials, the ones showing the various cleanup efforts, were pretty effective in that way too. This is probably the strategy that baseball steroid users should have followed.

All in all, this is the new era advertising flow chart.

1. We suck.

2. We know that we suck.

3. We promise to get better.

4. You deserve it.

Now it’s just my opinion, and I’m certainly no expert, but I don’t think the Domino’s thing will work, not long term, not unless they have a second phase planned out. This brief “We’re not good but we’re trying harder” phase apparently has worked short term — sales and stock prices jumped. And I think the initial shock of the campaign was strong. But sooner or later — and I think we’re kind of at that point now — people are going to want to stop hearing about how bad the pizza is and how bad the service is and that you’re going to try to do better. Sooner or later, you have to go that next step.

Of course, this all has made me think about the Royals because that’s how my stupid mind works. This is a team that has been three years away from success for, um, about 15 years now. The message has always been more or less the same for those 15 years: Help is on the way! Things are going to get better! Look at those minor league stars! Look at these exciting mid-level free agents! Just hang tight! We’re almost there now! Give us three more years, and then you’ll see something really special.

Three years away. Three years away. Three years away. It’s like the Vegas Walk — no matter how much you walk, the buildings never get any closer. The story never changes … at least it never changes for the fans. The Royals have had six different managers the last 15 years so for THEM the message always seems new. The Royals have had three GMS the last 15 years and for THEM the message always seems new. Last year, Royals manager Trey Hillman made an ill-conceived comment about how people didn’t understand what they were trying to do. I know why he said it … because this was the first time he had gone through this Royals rebuilding “give us three years” strategy.

But this was about the 10th time the fans had been through it so they understood perfectly, better than he did. They had seen it for more than a decade. They had heard all about “getting them to play the game the right way” and “building team chemistry” and and “teaching ’em how to win” and all that stuff. They had heard it and heard it and heard it and after a while, no matter how true it may be, the words just stop meaning anything.

The Royals, from what I can tell, really have built themselves a fabulous minor league system. The great Jim Callis over at Baseball America says that they’re favored to be ranked as the No. 1 farm system in baseball in next year’s BA Prospects book. The money and energy they have spent building that system seems like it is really close to paying off. It actually looks like the real deal. It really does look like the Royals could be a fun team in a year, two years and, yes, three years.

But how can you convince fans that THIS TIME it’s real? People have heard it all before. After all, the Royals were BA’s organization of the year in 1994 … and it has been pain ever since. The Royals have had prospects — some like Carlos Beltran, Johnny Damon, Mike Sweeney and Zack Greinke have even become stars. The Royals have had good ideas. They Royals have had sensible plans. But nothing has worked. We’re at the point now where even Zack Greinke — who was a key figure in one of those Royals “three years away” plans — doesn’t want to go through another rebuilding process.

And so there seems nothing the Royals can really say now, nothing that will break through the walls of defeatism and the layers of doubt that they have built up for all these years. When they say, “We just ask the fans for patience” and “We know we’re on the right track,” and “It will take time, but we’re going to win here” … what the fans actually hear is “Blah blah blah, fresh new kicks, and pants blah blah blah You gotta like that now you know you wanna dance blah blah blah.”

But what if the Royals went the Domino’s route? What if they went for the bluntest of blunt honesty. Supposedly the Minnesota Timberwolves are trying this now … but they don’t have the extensive bad history the Royals do. What if the Royals featured a commercial with Dayton Moore going, “OK, look, let’s not kid anybody. It’s been bad around here. Really bad. Embarrassing, really. We know that. Neifi Perez, anyone? Juan Gonzalez? Mike Jacobs? Yeah, we’ve made a few mistakes around here. You deserve better than that, Kansas City baseball fans.

“But we’ve heard you. What we’re going to do now is play our guys. No more trying to fool you with Rick Ankiels. No more trying to convince you that every good young player we ever get is the next George Brett. No more Kyle Farnsworths. No more dumping our best players for 50 cents on the dollar when their contract comes up. That’s over.

“No, from now on we’re not going to change the plan every time we hit a speed bump. No, we’re not going to treat our promising young players like we don’t like them, not anymore. No, we’re not going to rush our favorite prospects to the big leagues before they’re ready. No we’re not going to bring in these middling thirty-something free agents who were pretty good four years ago. We’re going to build this thing by scouting better, developing better, spending money to acquire talent and by staying strong. We’re going to do that because you deserve it.”

Hey, I think people might embrace that kind of honestly … that is if the Royals actually DO get better. That’s the second part of the plan. Because in the end, brutal honesty might get people to try your pizza again. But if it still tastes like manilla folders with Ragu on top, they won’t get fooled again.

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LJ’s Many Carries

You may have seen that Larry Johnson was released by Washington last week, and there are rumors that he might be signed as a quick fix in St. Louis now.

Larry Johnson was one of the greatest running backs I ever saw. That was mainly the end of 2004 and all of 2005. In 2005, he ran 1,750 yards and 20 touchdowns. He had a great offensive line blocking, but he was still a force of nature, a near unstoppable blend of power and speed. I wrote at the time that he was awfully similar to the great Jim Brown, and I actually heard from two of Brown’s former teammates, who agreed.

Now, five years later, he’s out of a job. No doubt Larry brought some of his pain on himself with the way he lived his life. He has made his share of mistakes — on the town, on Twitter, etc.

But I wonder how much his career was bludgeoned by the little fact that that in 2006, the Chiefs ran Johnson an NFL record 416 times. I wrote at the time that backs who were used THAT MUCH tended to fade quickly. Look at the backs who have gotten 400 carries in an NFL season.

1. Larry Johnson, 416, 2005

— Never again gained even 900 yards, was released less than three years later.

2. Jamal Anderson, 410, 1998

— Started only two games the next year. In 2000, he ran for 1,024 yards and a blah 3.6 yards per carry. After three more games, he retired.

3. James Wilder, 407, 1984

— Wilder did carry the ball another 365 times the next year; he was some kind of resilient (though not especially effecting — 3.8 yards per carry in 1984, 3.6 in 1985). But after that his rushing yards dropped to 704 to 488 to 343 to 244.

4. Eric Dickerson, 404, 1986

— An exception to the rule … sort of. Four times in Dickerson’s career, he ran the ball 375 times or more. Only one other back has done it more than once — go ahead and guess. Dickerson still had one more great season, and a couple more good seasons after ;his 400-carry campaign.

5. Eddie George, 403, 2000.

— George was never a big yards-per-gain kind of back. But after his 400-carry season, he averaged 3.3 yards per carry for the rest of his career.

Running backs, it seems to me, only have so many carries in them. The burst that makes a great running back is slowed just a tiny little bit with every carry — like sands in the hour glass.* There are some who have more sand in their hourglass. Emmitt Smith led the league in carries three times — he was a freak (but he was also a different back after he turned 27 than he was before). Walter Payton led the league in carries four years in a row and was still a great older back. Jim Brown led the league in carries six years, and never relented.

*So are the Days of Our Lives.

But it’s also true that none of them carried the ball 400 times in a regular season. Jim Brown only once carries the ball 300 times. Larry Johnson never looked the same to me after 2005. His line did deteriorate, as did the team around him. And his head was clearly clouded — there was a holdout in there too. Still … I tend to think all those carries took their toll.

The only other player besides Eric Dickerson to get 375-plus carries in a season more than once is … Ricky Williams. I wouldn’t have guessed that. He had 383 and 392 carries in back-to-back seasons. The first season, it should be noted, he averaged 4.8 yards per carry. The second, he averaged 3.5.

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