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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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Scully

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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Missing Marmol

You may or may not know this — I didn’t until brilliant reader Hard_8 alerted me on Twitter — but Chicago’s Carlos Marmol is having one of the greatest strikeout seasons in the history of Major League Baseball. It’s obscene, really. Marmol has struck out 131 batters in just 73 innings this year. That’s 16 Ks per nine innings. Nobody in baseball history has ever been within a strikeout of that:

Best strikeouts per nine (min. 50 ip)

1. Carlos Marmol, 2010, 16.00

2. Eric Gagne, 2003, 14.98

3. Billy Wagner, 1999, 14.95

4. Brad Lidge, 2004, 14.93

5. Armando Benitez, 1999, 14.77

Even when I was a kid and knew even less about baseball than I do now, I always got a thrill by comparing a pitcher’s strikeout total to his innings pitched. I remember when I got my first Herb Score baseball card — picked it up in a baseball card shop when I had this idea of collecting every Topps Indians card ever made — and saw that he had struck out 245 batters in 227 innings. And that really set my imagination going. How good would a pitcher have to be to strike out more than one major league batter per inning? It’s a miracle, really.

And when Score did it, well, it kind of was a miracle. He was the first full-time starter to do it. Technically Bob Feller was the first to do it when he was 17 years old in 1936. But he only threw 62 innings that year, and while it’s remarkable that a 17-year-old kid could come off the Iowa farm and strike out 76 batters in 62 innings. Feller struck out 150 in 148 2/3 innings the next year.

Bob Turley in 1953 struck out 61 in 60 1/3 innings. And a man named Bill Bailey struck out 131 batters in 128 innings in 1914, but that was in the old Federal League.

Anyway, Score was the first to do it over a full season, 200-plus innings pitched, and he did it in back-to-back years, 1955 and 1956.

It became fairly common after Score, for overpowering starters to strike out a batter an inning. Sandy Koufax became the first qualifying starter to strike out 10 per nine innings in 1960. Sam McDowell struck out 10.7 per nine in 1965. In the 1960s, starters like Jim Maloney, Bob Veale, Luis Tiant, Don Wilson and Sonny Siebert all averaged a strikeout per inning in their best seasons.

In the 1970s, Nolan Ryan (7 times), J.R. Richard, Frank Tanana and Tom Seaver all did it.

In the 1980s, Ryan, Dwight Gooden, Mike Scott, Roger Clemens, Mario Soto and Mark Langston all did it.

In the 1990s, a bunch of guys did it — Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez, David Cone, Clemens, Curt Schilling, Hideo Nomo, Kevin Brown, John Smoltz, Darryl Kile and, yes, one more time, Nolan Ryan.

And in the 2000s, 22 different pitchers have thrown 200 innings and struck out more than a batter per inning.

So, striking out a batter an inning it’s not a rare thing anymore. And it’s basically a requirement for relievers now. Hard-throwing relievers have pushed the strikeouts-per-nine numbers into the stratosphere the last 50 or so years.

10 Ks: Ryne Duren struck out 10.35 batters per nine in 1958.

11 Ks: Dick Radatz struck out 11.02 batters per nine in 1963

12 Ks: Tom Henke struck out 12.26 batters per nine in 1986

13 Ks: Rob Dibble struck out 13.55 batters per nine in 1991

14 Ks: Rob Dibble struck out 14.02 batters per nine in 1992

Then there was Gagne getting within .02 of 15 strikeouts per nine in 2003.

And now there’s Marmol striking out SIXTEEN batters per nine innings. He’s an interesting story — he started off as a no-hit catcher and outfielder. Well, I guess the no-hit part came later. When he was 18, he hit .295 with no power for the Cubs Rookie League team, which really isn’t bad for an 18-year-old. The next year, however he hit .236/.250/.309, which is bad, especially when you consider he looked utterly overmatched in a brief tryout in Class A ball. The Cubs were apparently not entirely down on him as a hitting prospect, but they thought his great arm showed more promise and moved him to pitcher. He struck out 74 in 62 innings in Class A. The Cubs were sold.

What seems to make Marmol so ridiculously unhittable is his odd semi-sidearmed motion that apparently makes the ball very difficult to pick up before it’s right on the hitter. Oh, he throws plenty hard — 94-to-98 mph on his good days — and his dominant pitch is his slider which perhaps more than any other pitch in baseball looks like a fastball until you’re halfway through your swing and miss. The awesome Fangraphs site shows that hitters miss Marmol’s pitches 59.4% of the time when the ball is out of the strike zone, which is the highest percentage among relievers in baseball.

Miss percentage when ball is out of strike zone among relievers:*

1. Carlos Marmol, 59.4%

2. Billy Wagner, 58.2%

3. Carlos Villanueva, 55.6%

4. Jonny Venters, 52.6%

5. Joel Hanrahan, 52.5%

*It’s worth noting that when hitters swing at Mariano Rivera’s pitches, they usually make contact. Not GOOD contact, mind you, but contract. Even on pitches outside the strike zone, hitters who swing connect more than 75% of the time.

Well, his strikeouts are down this year, but this trend is not actually new. It’s been a a couple of years since Rivera has gotten a lot of swinging strikes. His continued dominance seems to come from his Svengali-like talent for getting hitters to get themselves out.

But perhaps more impressive than Marmol’s ability to get hitters to swing and miss when the ball it out of the strike zone is his ability to get hitters to swing and miss when the ball is IN the strike zone.

Miss percentage when the ball it in the strike zone among relievers:

1. Carlos Marmol, 26.3%

2. Octavio Dotel, 24.9%

3. Tyler Clippard, 24.6%

4. Matt Thornton, 23.8%

5. Takashi Saito, 22.7%

Remarkable. When Marmol throws a strike, and major league hitters swing, they will flat miss more than a quarter of the time. It’s the highest miss percentage for a reliever in five years.*

*I just have to share this with you: In 2004, hitters swung and missed at Brad Lidge strikes almost 42% of the time. And if the ball was out of the strike zone, forget about it, they missed more than 70% of the time. I have no doubt that Brad Lidge, that one year, was one of the most unhittable pitchers in the history of baseball.

Strikeouts are a tricky thing. For instance, you probably know that Red Sox closer Jonathan Papelbon has been disastrously bad lately. His last seven outings, he has given up 14 hits, 11 earned runs, he has blown two saves and his ERA is 13.50. BUT he has also struck out 15 in 7 1/3 innings. How do you explain it? Joe Sheehan points out that he has been unlucky — the batting average on balls hit in play is a ridiculous .650. A couple of Brilliant Readers offer the theory that his split fingered fastball — probably his most effective strikeout pitch — has been fine while his fastball command has not.

But the point is Papelbon, these last few games, is striking out batters at an absurd rate, and he’s pitching terribly. It’s hard to figure. Marmol, meanwhile, his last seven outs have been strikeouts. Seven times this year, every out he has gotten in an appearance have been strikeouts. He has struck out three or more in an outing an 20 times — a simply astonishing number for a relief pitcher. No reliever in baseball is even close.

And he has been comically good the last month. He has not given up a single run. He has struck out 23 in 14 innings. The league has batted .064 against him over that stretch — and all three hits have been singles.

And yet, Marmol hasn’t exactly had a legendary season overall. You know about his last month. You know about the strikeouts. He has allowed only 39 hits per 73 2/3 innings, and he has only allowed one home run, and you get 10 Cubs brownie points if you know who got the home run*. You would think this would make him just about invincible.

*Pittsburgh’s Jeff Clement.

But he has not been invincible. And you know why? Well, the main point seems to be simple control: He has walked 50 batters, and he has hit seven more. It is funny the contortions people will go to to prove that a walk is not as good as a hit. It’s not — in certain situations. But a walk is still awfully good for a hitter. It’s MOSTLY as good as a single. Marmol’s lack of control has probably been the key in him blowing five saves. His WHIP ranks a mediocre 12th among closers with 25 saves, and before the great last month his ERA was 3.39 (even now his 2.69 ERA ranks 10th among closers). It’s like the little ghost on the old CIncinnati Reds scoreboard used to say: “Walks Will Haunt.”

Still, this is a remarkable year for Carlos Marmol because of the strikeouts. Think about it this way: 59% of the outs Carlos Marmol has gotten this year are strikeouts. Crash Davis once said strikeouts are fascist, and maybe they are. And maybe Carlos Marmol’s nickname should be “The Dictator.”

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Ode To Quiz

This is going to be an essay about Dan Quisenberry. It is something I plan to read at the last Quisenberry Golf Tournament for the Harvesters food bank, which will take place Monday at the Shadow Glen Golf Club in Olathe, Kansas.

The tournament has been going on for 17 years, which is pretty remarkable stuff for a charity golf tournament in today’s world. It’s even more remarkable because Quiz did not start the tournament until he had been retired from baseball for three years. And it’s even MORE remarkable because Dan passed away a dozen years ago (has it really been 12 years?), and the tournament has continued all this years thanks almost entirely to the heroic efforts of Janie Quisenberry Stone, who has worked so hard to keep it going.

The tournament has raised almost $900,000 through the years — enough, the Harvester people calculate, to provide 4.5 million meals to those who desperately needed them.

Every community, of course, has its own charities, its own challenges, its own daily heroes who try in big ways and small to make things better. Dan and Janie have been a couple of those daily heroes. If you have a moment and a few extra dollars, I would ask you to consider helping out Harvesters. OK. Now the essay, which is about baseball.

* * *

“There has never been a pitcher who made fewer mistakes than Dan Quisenberry.”

— Bill James in the New Historical Baseball Abstract.

Dan Quisenberry threw the first career wild pitch on a Saturday night in 1979. It was his 10th big league game. Kansas City was playing Baltimore, and the Royals were leading by four runs, and Quiz entered the game with the Orioles’ star Eddie Murray on second base. Quisenberry’s wild pitch moved Murray to third base. A single by Lee May scored Murray. Quiz finished the game without much more trouble. In the ninth inning, he coaxed Terry Crowley into hitting a double play grounder. It was already the fifth double play ground ball he persuaded a batter to hit. When it was all said and done, Quiz would persuade 130 batters to hit into double plays. And he would throw four wild pitches. Four.

Dan Quisenberry hit the first batter of his career on a Friday night in Chicago’s Comiskey Park in 1980. Quiz was, by then, 27 years old and fully formed as a submarine-style pitcher. It had not been an easy transition. He had gone undrafted after a fine but not especially noticeable career at the University of La Verne. Something turbulent bubbles inside people like Dan Quisenberry, something that tells them they are destined to do something high above their most obvious talents. Dan was a pitcher who could not throw hard. He knew this better than anyone else. He called his fastball Peggy Lee after her song “Is That All There Is?” But he also once told the writer Roger Angell: “I’ve always felt that when I throw it something wonderful is going to happen.”

His college coach recommended him to Kansas City, and Quiz signed with the Royals for — he always said — $500 and a bag of chewing tobacco. He then proceeded to pitch unbelievably well in the minor league, and I used the word “unbelievably” literally here. Nobody believed it. He pitched in Class AA Jacksonville, Fla. four years in a row, though his ERA there was 1.88. The numbers did not match the eyes. They never did in Quiz’s baseball life.

He was a sidearm pitcher then and also when he finally got the call to the big leagues in 1979. His manager, Jim Frey, famously took him out to a bullpen session and asked him to throw fastballs and curves. Frey’s decidedly profane scouting report after that disastrous tryout was that Quiz could throw neither. But Frey then did one of the great favors of Dan’s life — he got Quiz together with a submarine pitcher named Kent Tekulve during spring training. Tekulve taught Quiz how to throw submarine style. Quiz took the style, added a couple of wrinkles, and in 1980, Quiz had a great season. He won 12 games, led the league in 33 saves, helped pitch the Royals to their first World Series appearance. He hit his first batter on August 1 — he came into the game with the Royals winning 4-3, and he plunked a White Sox hitter named Jim Morrison. He stranded Morrison though and in the ninth, despite giving up a triple, he held the White Sox scoreless and the Royals won. Quiz would hit only six more batters the rest of his career.

Quiz gave up his first home run on a Monday in August of 1979. It was in Milwaukee. He gave up that first home run to a man who would become a nemesis, Ben Oglivie. Many years later, when Quiz had stopped pitching and started writing poetry, he took some time to write what he called “An Ode to Ben Oglivie.”

i heard you were a quiet man

could do a times crossword in 15 minutes

yet you seemed nervous at the plate

waving, wiggling that bat

a puppy’s tail

held high by sinew-strong arms

Quiz gave up that first home run in 1979, and he would give up others, like the one he gave up to Reggie Jackson that, he said after the game, was “still burrowing its way to Los Angeles.” But here again, he did not give up many home runs. Quiz gave up just 59 home runs in more than 1,000 innings pitched. He kept the ball low, and made the ball sink lower. In the checkered history of closers — among the 40 men who saved 200 games or more — only Mariano Rivera allowed fewer home runs per nine innings.

Quiz allowed only 65 stolen bases in his career — and 17 of those came in his final year, 1989, when he had run out of tricks and no long had the same good feelings when he threw the ball to the plate. He fielded his position well — he had 245 assists in his career, which, by comparison, is 100 more assists than Hall of Famer Bruce Sutter had in his career. Of course, Sutter was a strikeout pitcher and Quiz was not. You made do with what you have.

Quiz walked his first batter on a July day in Comiskey Park in 1979. The batter he walked was Claudell Washington. And it was an intentional walk. His second walk came four days later, at home, against Baltimore’s Ken Singleton. That too was intentional. His third walk was his first unintentional one — against Toronto pinch hitter Tony Solaita.

And over a long career, 1,043 innings worth, Quiz walked just 162 men. You have to go back more than 80 years to find a pitcher who walked so few per nine innings, but even this is deceiving because Quiz walked 70 of his batters intentionally. We don’t have intentional walk numbers of Cy Young or Deacon Phillipe or Babe Adams — the only three men who walked fewer per nine innings than Quiz. But it’s fair to assume that they did not intentionally walk many. And it’s fair to assume that Quiz’s one unintentional walk per 11 innings is, by far, the best walk ratio in the history of baseball. Quiz was, I believe, the greatest control pitcher of all time.

Which brings us to the point: So Quiz didn’t walk people. He didn’t hit batters. He didn’t give up home runs. He was never slow off the mound covering first base, and he hit the catcher’s mitt where it was held, and when he gave up his inevitable hits (after all, he did not have a fastball or curveball) he held those inevitable runners close at first base. What does it add up to mean? Well, it will sound hopelessly corny, but I believe it: Inside all of us is something possible. It isn’t something easy to see — and you can be sure most people won’t see it. There’s a good chance nobody will see it. People do not, cannot, often see much beyond what’s obvious, I think. That’s baseball. That’s life. If you are a pitcher who throws 99 mph, people can see that. If you are a pitcher who throws Peggy Lee fastballs, no, it’s asking too much for them to see the possibilities. It isn’t that they’re rooting against you. They simply cannot see. Maybe, if you are lucky, someone who loves you will see what you see.

Dan Quisenberry saw the possibilities. For Quiz to become a good big league pitcher without a fastball — and a good big league pitcher is all he ever really wanted to be — it was not enough for him to be good at what other people would call “little things.” He had to be better at those little things than anyone. He could not walk anyone. He could not give up home runs. He could not hit batters or allow runners to advance on wild pitches or give away stolen bases. Batters hit his pitches and often hit them hard, there was nothing he could do about that. He did not have anything more to give away. “Have I told you about my agreement with the ball?” he asked Roger Angell. “Our deal is that I’m not going to throw you very hard as long as you promise to move around when you get near the plate. Because … I want you back.”

I believe Dan Quisenberry was as good as some pitchers in the Hall of Fame, better than some too.

Five times he led the league in saves. Four times he finished Top 3 in the Cy Young balloting. His 2.76 ERA, compared to the pitchers’ ERA of his time, is one of the best totals in baseball history. Whether this makes him a Hall of Famer is the decision of many other people. Quiz was on the Hall of Fame ballot for only one year, though his near-perfect performance comparable Bruce Sutter would get voted into the Hall of Fame. People still have a hard time seeing.

You know, Bob Uecker had a funny line about how anybody with ability can play in the big leagues … but to last as long as he did with his lack of skills was a triumph of the human spirit. It’s a funny line, but it’s true too. For Sandy Koufax, for Johnny Bench, for Willie Mays, for players like them to become great meant fulfilling the potential that everyone saw in them. Sure, it took hard work, dedication, strength of mind, all those things. But Dan Quisenberry found a ballplayer inside himself that others could not see no matter hard hard they glared. It may or may not make him a Hall of Famer, but it makes him one of the great ones. No player in baseball history got more out of his own talents.

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Jordan on Shatner

This is a little bit late, but if you haven’t read this bit of brilliance — Pat Jordan on William Shatner — then you have missed out on a bit of joy in your life.

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Joe Blogs Changes

Well, I have been thinking about how to make this blog make sense. As you know, I hope, the Curiously Long Posts is alive and well over at Sports Illustrated. And for a little while, for reasons that were not always entirely clear to me, I was running a mirror blog where I was essentially printing the same posts in two places.

Then, of course, my blog got hacked and I believe I was able to take it down before it handed out malware to every Snuggie loving sports fan in America.

So, now I have this easier-to-maintain blog … which seems somewhat without a mission. I started out with the same Curiously Long Posts concept — again reprinting stuff on the SI blog — but I’m thinking now that this would make me a lot like the awesomely impressive WordGirl villain and criminal “Lady Redundant Woman.”

So, I’m going to try to give this blog its own character … we will see how that develops over the next few weeks. I don’t know exactly how that will go, but I’m considering:

1. Guest posts.

2. More links.

3. More of a mix of shorter and longer posts.

Like I say, we will see. As you know, we here at Joe Blogs* are not always especially good at follow-through (I’m telling you, the iPad review is coming! It’s coming soon!). But, this is the plan.

*Joe Bloggs, you may know, is — well let’s let Wikipedia explain: — “commonly used as a placeholder names in United Kingdom, Irish, Australian and New Zealand teaching, programming, and other thinking and writing.” I vaguely knew this, which was why I was calling the site “Joe Blog.” I added the “s” to the name and changed the subtitle. Oh, yeah, things are changing now.

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