The Marlins’ comeback to walk off against the Nationals on Monday was one of those happy reminders that you really do have to play the games. With a Miami win expectation that FanGraphs pegged at one or two percent with the Nats up 6-0 after six innings, this is a game the Nationals have to deliver on if they’re ever going to put the Braves away in the NL East race. Instead, sometimes the “better” team winds up demonstrating it really isn’t that much better than everyone else. In football, they’ll talk about the notion of what can happen any given Sunday, but in baseball every day is gameday, and everything -- every move and every outcome -- matters.
Let’s start with Jayson Werth getting thrown out needlessly challenging Giancarlo Stanton’s arm on a leadoff single in the seventh -- again, with his team up 6-0 -- and getting injured on the play. Not too many months ago, Nationals manager Matt Williams was being hailed for old-school wisdom for pulling Bryce Harper out of a game for not hustling. Whatever you make of that, if the side benefit of old-school virtue is having a notoriously fragile regular like Werth hurt himself, maybe the Nats need less, not more of it -- especially if it helps keep their already injury-hampered lineup strong for the stretch.
OK, so maybe Werth’s injury doesn’t have to be the end of the world, because it’s 6-0. Well, sure, except that right field probably isn’t Nate McLouth’s best position, not that he’s much of a center fielder these days, either; his six starts in right for Washington this year are more than he’s made in the previous five seasons combined. But he is the Nationals’ notional fourth outfielder, so in he went. We can probably really only blame him for Garrett Jones’ seventh-inning triple with two outs -- McLouth dove and didn’t even get a glove on the ball. But hey, they were up 6-0, and he hustled, right? Except that scored the Marlins’ first run from first base, then created a second two-out run when Marcell Ozuna’s infield dribbler clanged off Ian Desmond’s glove.
So let’s go to the ninth inning: Nats still up by three, save situation, closer in -- all very playbook, all very much as it should be. Rafael Soriano had pitched Sunday, but it wasn’t like he’s been terribly overworked of late. But he simply didn’t have it Monday night, generating just one swing-and-miss strike in 26 pitches, and creating trouble at the outset by walking Casey McGehee on four pitches. Wrapped around a lone out, Jones pulls Sori for a double to right, Ozuna plates a run on an opposite-field hit (to right), Jarrod Saltalamacchia pulls a fly ball for a sac fly (to right), and Adeiny Hechavarria triples to right to tie the game. It’s enough to give some of you former Little League right fielders flashbacks to your worst day ever.
Anyway, after a hit batsman, that’s it for Soriano. First and third, lefty Chris Yelich at bat, Williams sensibly brings in lefty Jerry Blevins to get the matchup, and wins it with a strikeout. And then skips the last page of the La Russa playbook by leaving Blevins in to face Jeff Baker. And if you love Jeff Baker for what he is, this is it, this is all he’s for: to face a lefty now and again, and play five or six positions on demand. He has an .858 career OPS versus lefties, .645 against righties. The Marlins had no lefty bat left on the bench; the righty-batting Stanton and McGehee were on deck. This isn’t particle physics, certainly not if you or I get it. This is where you’re supposed to bore the excited few in Marlins Stadium, pause the action (again) and bring in a righty to keep the game alive. Craig Stammen hasn’t pitched in almost a week; what’s the point of carrying seven relievers if you don’t use them?
Williams lets it ride with Blevins, giving Baker his best possible chance to be a hero. Baker executes. Game over, win. Or for the Nats, loss.
Now, sure, we may caution ourselves not to read too much into any one outcome, but sometimes a game in detail can make you wonder, not because it’s “just” one loss. Monday’s loss for the Nationals in one of those games that should have been won. They were supposed to win because they had six runs on the board and Jordan Zimmermann was awesome, because he’s pretty reliable that way -- giving up just two runs on five baserunners in seven innings.
But maybe a night like this goes some way toward explaining why the Nationals aren’t performing as well as their expected record, which is four wins better than their current 57, and five wins ahead of the Braves’ expected record. There were things they had in their control that they failed to do. If the devil’s in the details, it’s interesting to mull these things, especially now when the Nats can’t afford any mistakes heading into what looks like a dogfight with the Braves all the way through the next two months. If they aren’t using their full roster to their best advantage, they need to start. Maybe they do need to be held accountable for doing dumb things on the bases, but perhaps not the same things Williams has voiced his disapproval about publicly. And perhaps they shouldn’t have given a 30-something like McLouth almost $11 million guaranteed for two years after his first good year in five.
It’s certainly more interesting to ponder than the pre-fabricated Nats narratives to explain their failures, like noting Ryan Zimmerman is hurt (again), that Harper hasn’t hit 60 home runs yet/ever/yesterday, or that Stephen Strasburg hasn’t already put Nolan Ryan in the shade. But if the Nationals fall short of making it into October’s action, or have to settle for the one-game play-in, you can bet they’ll have more people to hold accountable than just those usual suspects. And they’ll need to remember games like this one.
- Felix Hernandez tied Tom Seaver's major league record with 13 consecutive starts pitching at least seven innings and allowing two runs or fewer.
- Adam Wainwright has allowed zero runs in 10 starts this season, three more than any other starter.
So, which feat is more impressive?
To put Wainwright's nugget in context, since 1980 only three pitchers have had more than 10 no-run starts, all with 11: Dwight Gooden and John Tudor in 1985 and Cliff Lee in 2011. Eight other times a pitcher matched Wainwright's total of 10: Roger Clemens (1997 and 2005); Pedro Martinez (2000 and 2002); Clayton Kershaw (2011 and 2013); Greg Maddux (2002); and Chris Young (2007).
(The Baseball-Reference Play Index goes back to 1914 and five other times a pitcher topped 11: Pete Alexander in 1916 with 16, all complete game shutouts; Sandy Koufax in 1963, Dean Chance in 1964 and Bob Gibson in 1968, all with 13; and Alexander again in 1915 with 12.)
Baseball Prospectus used to have a stat called support-neutral win-loss record, which assessed each pitcher's projected win-loss record given his innings and runs for each outing and average run support, but I don't see that on their site. (Felix has won just seven of his 13 starts, no fault of his.)
Interestingly, Hernandez has just two zero-run starts this season. But he's allowed more than four runs just once -- six against Houston on April 21 (and just two of those were earned) -- whereas Wainwright has had games of seven, six and six runs.
For the season, we can use a stat like to WAR evaluate each pitcher's overall performance. Felix leads Wainwright in FanGraphs WAR, 5.5 to 3.5, while Wainwright leads in Baseball-Reference WAR, 5.3 to 5.0. Felix leads in Baseball Prospectus' WARP, 4.0 to 3.3.
So which feat is more impressive? One thing about allowing zero runs: You're almost guaranteed to win the game. And, indeed, the Cardinals are 10-0 in those 10 games.
On the other hand, Felix has a chance to do something no pitcher has ever done -- 14 consecutive great starts.
What do you think? I'd probably give the slight edge to Wainwright's 10 scoreless games ... although the edge to Felix for the better overall season.
In other words: You have to earn your way to the big leagues. Even to throw a bullpen session.
As Ortiz tweeted, "In a sport that prides itself on having guys pay dues, the Astros didn't help perception in clubhouse that Appel is being babied."
Look, the whole "paying your dues" thing in baseball has created a terrible caste system, where poorly paid minor leaguers are forced to eat peanut and jelly sandwiches or unhealthy fast food because they can't afford to eat better, but the system is the system and the Astros clearly ticked off players on the current major league roster.
At Lancaster, Appel had a 9.74 ERA in 12 starts, allowing 74 hits and nine home runs in 44.1 innings. For a supposedly polished college pitcher who was the No. 1 overall pick, Appel should be dominating Class A pitchers, even in a hitter's heaven like Lancaster. Early on, Appel suffered from tendinitis in his right thumb and recently the Astros reported he'd been pitching through a wrist problem that required a cortisone shot. Maybe that explains some of the numbers; but he's healthy enough to pitch and has been lit up.
Maybe the Astros just figured they needed to get Appel out of Lancaster. His last start was a good one -- five hits, seven strikeouts, no walks in six innings -- but he'd been roughed up for 20 hits and 14 runs in six innings over his two previous starts. Those two starts came in Lancaster; the last one was in Stockton. Still, you can't defend the promotion based on performance.
Chris Rodriguez of Baseball Prospectus wrote a scouting report on Appel last week:
Appel's struggles are not simply explained by his delivery or command. What many other sources have noticed and written about Appel is his lack of pitchability. Appel's stuff is good; in his July 10th start, Appel's fastball touched 96 mph a couple times, sitting mostly 91-95. Early in his start, it was 94-96 mph. As the start progressed he seemed to tire, and kept pitching out of jams using mostly his slider and changeup. The fastball velocity dipped, and in his last inning sat only 91-93 mph. Most of the 13 hits off of him that evening were off his fastball, which was flat and up in the zone. He made no adjustment with his tempo throughout the game, keeping the same pace, which made it very easy for the opponent to time. He also made no adjustment with his pitch sequence, going to his fastball every time he was behind in the count, which was often a flat 93 mph get-me-over offering. He rarely attacked. It seemed he was simply going through the motions, and he didn’t show any emotion on the mound or in the dugout once he was removed from the game. While it's not a requirement to show some fire, when you pitch like you're scared of the opponent it doesn't look good.
Not the kind of report you want to read about the guy drafted one spot ahead of Kris Bryant.
This is simply the latest questionable episode to rock the Astros' world, from the public leak of internal trade discussion notes to the failed negotiations with this year's No. 1 overall pick, Brady Aiken. Really, going back to the handling of George Springer -- starting him in the minor leagues to save on service time after offering him a low-ball seven-year, $23 million contract -- it's been a bad year for the Astros. The big league team had started to play better when that Sports Illustrated cover appeared, but has gone 10-25 in its last 35 games.
There is a potential trickle-down effect of the Springer, Aiken and Appel situations: The Astros are arguably developing a bad reputation among players. When the team is ready to compete and may need to sign free agents to fill out holes on the roster, will players want to play there? Sure, in the end money talks and the Astros will have money to spend considering the youth on their rosters, but they may find it difficult to attract players (let alone keep their homegrown stars if they feel they've been mistreated by the organization).
Investing in analytics is a nice story, especially for us numbers geeks. Tanking, while despicable, may prove to be a smart strategy. But before we praise the Astros, let's see if their "new way of doing things" actually works.
Ian O'Connor wrote an interesting column on Tulo's presence in the Bronx, essentially blasting him for attending the game and comparing him to Alex Rodriguez. I don't quite get that comparison, but O'Connor's bigger point was hinting that Tulo would make for a nice replacement for Jeter. He writes:
The Yankees aren't just replacing Jeter full time next year with the likes of Brendan Ryan, so Tulowitzki makes sense on all sorts of levels. He's 29. He's a monster at the plate. He's tired of losing. And he's a Dan Marino fan who doesn't want Marino's postseason résumé -- a one-and-done trip to the big game in the early hours of his career.
Tulowitzki lost the World Series in his rookie season; Marino lost his only Super Bowl in Year 2. The shortstop is under contract with Colorado through 2021, and he's afraid of being stuck in mile-high loserville for the balance of his prime.
So he figured he'd go catch a couple of playoff contenders between doctor's appointments. Tulowitzki had to know how this look-at-me stunt would play, and beyond that, he had to know Jeter would've never showed at another man's ballpark while his own team was scheduled to play.
Well ... Tulo makes sense for nearly every team, of course, not just the Yankees.
Trouble is: How do you get him if you're the Yankees?
Let's say the Rockies do decide to blow things up, figuring they haven't won in recent years building around Tulowitzki and Carlos Gonzalez, and shop Tulo in the offseason for depth and young assets. As O'Connor mentioned, he's signed through 2021. But he's also signed at a pretty team-friendly rate for a superstar performer: $20 million per year through 2019, then $14 million in 2020 (his age-35 season) with a $15 million team option for 2021. Yes, there's risk considering Tulo's injury history, but he's still averaged 5.1 WAR per season since 2009 -- and that's including a 0.4-WAR season in 2012 when he played just 47 games (plus an incomplete 2014).
Trading for seven years of Tulowitzki would obviously be expensive. I can't think of a player of his ability who has been traded with that many years of team control remaining, so there are really no comparable deals to consider. You think of Miguel Cabrera going from the Marlins to the Tigers, and while he was younger (entering his age-25 season), he was traded with just two seasons of control remaining. The Tigers gave up Cameron Maybin (a top-10 prospect in the game at the time) and Andrew Miller (a top-10 prospect the previous year). When the Mariners traded Ken Griffey Jr. to the Reds, he had asked for a trade but also had just one year left on his contract.
The Mariners' hands were tied; the Rockies' hands aren't, not with Tulo signed long-term.
Anyway, to acquire Tulo, you have to start with at least one top-10 prospect, probably need another top-25 guy or young proven major leaguer, and then add in a slew of other good prospects or young major league talent. The Yankees don't have those kinds of prospects. Keith Law recently updated his midseason top 50 prospects and the Yankees had one player on it, Class A outfielder Aaron Judge, ranked No. 45. Aaron Judge is not the starting point for a Troy Tulowitzki trade.
Truth is, I'm not sure any team could afford Tulo. Well, the Cubs. But you're talking a Kris Bryant-Javier Baez starter package. Maybe the Dodgers, with Corey Seager, Joc Pederson and Julio Urias. The Twins could start with Byron Buxton and the Rockies would want Miguel Sano as well. The Astros could build a trade around Carlos Correa and a bunch of young pitching. That's what it would take to get Tulo. Remember: Even Bryant isn't a lock to be an annual 5-WAR player in the majors like Tulo.
So, sure, Tulo would make a nice successor to Jeter. But it's not going to happen.
Last Sunday, Kevin Correia gave a frank assessment of the Minnesota Twins' situation: "We need a miraculous run right now."
And in the three games following that statement -- three must-win home games within the division -- the Twins' starting pitchers were Kris Johnson, Yohan Pino and Anthony Swarzak. Two aging minor-league journeymen with little major-league experience, and a long reliever who hadn't made a start in two years.
I was struck by the Correia quote because, while it may have been uttered in a moment of frustration, it provides a glimpse into the mind-set of a competitive guy who is watching the same scenario unfold for the second year in a row.
Correia was there all along, making his start every fifth day, just as he has this year, where he's watched the Twins draw within two games of .500 as recently as June 22 before spiraling once again. Mired in last place, the team's selling process has already begun with Thursday's trade of Kendrys Morales to the Mariners.
Correia has played his part in the struggles -- his numbers are below-average across the board -- but it is the turmoil that has played out around him that defines these last two dismal seasons for the Twins, not to mention the two dismal seasons that preceded them. There has been some mismanagement, but the extended and ongoing losing spell goes well beyond that. This organization is flat-out snakebitten.
In the Cleveland series last week, the Twins were forced to start Johnson, Pino and Swarzak because $60 million worth of offseason investments (Ricky Nolasco and Mike Pelfrey) are on the shelf indefinitely and Kyle Gibson came up with a stiff back.
Trevor May, one of two MLB-ready pitching prospects who could actually make an impact? He's working his way back from a month-long absence due to a calf strain that struck right as he was on the verge of being called up. His teammate, fireballing righty Alex Meyer, has had his pitch counts and innings strictly limited in Triple-A after missing two months last year due to shoulder issues. The team's warranted caution has pushed back Meyer's heavily anticipated MLB debut.
These poorly timed injury setbacks are par for the course in a system loaded with talented prospects who can't seem to get over the hump.
Byron Buxton, the team's glimmering beacon of hope, has basically had his entire season ruined up to this point by multiple wrist injuries. Miguel Sano became one of the few position players to require Tommy John surgery and will miss the entire season. Both Buxton and Sano were universally ranked as top-10 prospects in the game, and were both set to open in Double-A. The real potential of midseason call-ups for either young phenom added a much-needed element of potential excitement to this 2014 campaign.
Alas, it appears that neither is in the cards. So it goes for the Twins these days.
It is almost unbelievable how much bad luck this franchise is enduring right now. The way misfortune is striking every key player throughout the system, it's reminiscent of Mr. Burns' softball team the day before the big game against Shelbyville.
Even looking beyond Buxton and Sano, you've got Eddie Rosario, another top prospect whose upward momentum was halted by a 50-game drug suspension over the winter. Kohl Stewart, last year's No. 4 overall pick and a highly touted young arm, recently landed on the DL with a shoulder impingement. I'm just waiting to hear about a prospect diagnosed with gigantism.
At the big-league level, you have the Joe Mauer situation. Who knows what's going on there. Maybe it's just a bad year; he's young enough to bounce back. But man, has it been hard to watch.
My pal and fellow Twins blogger Aaron Gleeman had a tweet the other day I thought rang pretty true. He said, "More and more I think the Twins have reached the point of fans not caring as opposed to fans being angry, which is a dangerous place to be."
I hate losing and I'm sickened by what appears to be transpiring yet again. In the new setup where there are two wild-card spots in each league, it shouldn't be that difficult to at least remain relevant into the last two months of the season, but for a fourth straight year the Twins have failed to do so.
I can't even be angry about it. For the most part, I don't hate what Terry Ryan and company have been doing. They spent some money during the offseason to fill some holes. Phil Hughes and Kurt Suzuki have been two of the most successful free agent signings in franchise history. But what can you do when your two super-prospects who are nearing the majors suffer massive setbacks, and when your highest-paid player and franchise centerpiece turns suddenly into a pumpkin at age 31?
Regardless of who's at fault, the Twins are once again terrible. As much as I love my baseball -- I've been following and writing about this team fanatically for about a decade -- getting pummeled with bad break after bad break is taking a toll on me, and I know I'm not alone.
I'm not amused. I'm not depressed. I'm just growing ambivalent, and as Aaron put it, that's a dangerous place to be.
Nick Nelson helps run the Twins Daily blog, which just unveiled a new design with the same in-depth coverage of the Twins and their minor league system.
It's a form of deception -- maybe working to hide the ball just a little or present a motion batters aren't used to seeing -- enough to help his stuff play better than a scouting report would ever suggest. His fastball has averaged 89.4 mph this year -- his fastest has been a mere 91.8 mph -- velocity that hardly screams "closer."
But that's what Street has been in the major leagues since the A's made him a supplemental first-round pick out of the University of Texas in 2004. He was closing a year later and won American League Rookie of the Year honors with 23 saves and a 1.72 ERA. At his best, he leaves batters guessing, confused and probably shaking their heads in frustration as they head back to the dugout.
Take, for instance, Miguel Cabrera on Sunday. Brought in to protect a 2-1 lead in the ninth for the Angels after David Freese had homered in the eighth off Joba Chamberlain, Street retired Austin Jackson on a fly ball to center and Ian Kinsler on a grounder to first. That left Cabrera. Street is basically a fastball/slider guy, who mixes in the occasional changeup (his breakdown on the season: fastballs 50 percent, sliders 33 percent, changeups 17 percent). That ratio hasn't really changed much in recent years. Two fastballs for every slider; two sliders for every changeup. His two-seam fastball has some sink, though he tends to pitch up in the zone with it. He's been prone to home runs at times, especially in 2013, when he allowed 12 in just 56.2 innings with the Padres.
On this day, however, it was nothing but fastballs and sliders. He threw Jackson five straight sliders before finally getting him with a fastball. He started Kinsler off with a slider before retiring him on a 1-1 fastball. Cabrera swung through a first-pitch slider on the outside corner and then took a fastball for a strike, a pitch that might have been just off the plate. The 0-2 pitch was another slider, off the plate and in the dirt, but Cabrera read or thought fastball and flailed harmlessly for strike three.
This is exactly why the Angels acquired Street -- for those tough saves in one-run games against good clubs. It allows Mike Scioscia to stretch out his bullpen. Underrated Joe Smith is back in a setup role and pitched a perfect eighth inning. Rookie Mike Morin, a 12th-round pick in 2012 out of North Carolina, struck out three in 1 2/3 perfect innings and lowered his ERA to 2.50. Throw in the recently acquired veteran, Jason Grilli, plus Kevin Jepsen (1.84 ERA, .164 average allowed) and lefty Joe Thatcher, and the Angels' bullpen suddenly looks like a strength, not the weak spot it was the first two months of the season.
It's been a complete bullpen makeover for the Angels. Look at how the bullpen stacked up coming out of spring training:
Only Smith and Jepsen remain from that original group (Salas was just optioned to Triple-A Salt Lake), with Shoemaker now doing a solid job in the rotation. Give credit to general manager Jerry Dipoto for making some moves, but it's also a reflection of the often volatile nature of bullpens. Who could have predicted Morin's rise (he was Baseball America's No. 14 prospect for the Angels heading into the season) or Jepsen having the best year of his career? Bullpens can go up and down from year to year -- or, often, within a year.
This group reminds me a bit of what happened with the Cardinals back in 2011 on their way to a World Series title. That club had bullpen issues much of the season, as eight different relievers saved games, and two closers (Ryan Franklin and Salas) lost their jobs. Franklin, like Frieri, didn't last the season with the club. The Cardinals picked up Octavio Dotel and Marc Rzepczynski at the trade deadline and signed Arthur Rhodes. By the time Jason Motte finally became the closer, the bullpen had turned into a strength and was key as the Cardinals beat the Rangers in seven games.
If you need more evidence of the rising strength of the Angels' bullpen, check out the following monthly totals:
Expect Mike Scioscia to lean even more on this group over the final two months, like he did Sunday when he pulled Hector Santiago after 85 pitches in the sixth inning. Santiago had allowed a one-out hit to Jackson, but with Kinsler and Cabrera up, Scioscia wanted a right-hander to face the meat of the Detroit lineup. Morin, who has held righties to a .157 average, got the call. Morin throws 90 to 94 mph with his fastball but has a very good changeup and developing slider. He struck out both Kinsler and Cabrera on changeups.
A lot will still depend on Street, however. Maybe he's not cut from the prototypical closer mold. But he's been getting major league hitters out for a long time. He has depth in front of him. The Angels are looking good.
If you're the Oakland A's, I'd be very worried about the team breathing down your neck.
Oh, and the trade season is upon us (Jake Peavy to the Giants; Kendrys Morales to the Mariners) and plenty of other chatter as the deadline is fast approaching and the Rays won't lose.
Arizona Diamondbacks: Inside the 'Zona
Prado once again finds patience is a virtue: Martin Prado is an unusual contact hitter in that he typically has one of the lowest swing rates in the majors. Jeffrey Bellone checks in on Prado's recent success. Follow on Twitter: @JeffreyBellone.
Chicago Cubs: View From The Bleachers
Who is the real Travis Wood? Noah Eisner takes a look at the performance of Wood compared to what we saw last year. Follow on Twitter: @Noah_Eisner.
Chicago White Sox: The Catbird Seat
The AL Central in 2015: With the White Sox far out of contention, Nick Schaefer looks ahead to how the division race will look next year. You won't believe this: The White Sox team blog is optimistic about their team's future. Follow on Twitter: @TheCatbird_Seat.
Cleveland Indians: It's Pronounced "Lajaway"
Indians' best defender is ... Carlos Santana? Ryan McCrystal evaluates Santana's performance at first base, and how he's evolved into one of the more reliable defensive players on an otherwise shaky defensive squad.
Colorado Rockies: Rockies Zingers
Rockies Zingers first-half highlights: From Doctor Who parodies and Hologram John Denver, to swing mechanics and breaking unwritten rules, Rockies Zingers recaps the analysis and silliness from the first half, with features such as Denver comic Adam Cayton-Holland's experience throwing out the first pitch, Jason Hirsh discussing arm care and Maury Brown's opinion on whether the Rockies should be scared of the Dodgers' payroll. Follow on Twitter: @RockiesZingers.
New York Yankees: It's About The Money
Appreciating the amazing David Robertson: Katie Sharp breaks down just how dominant D-Rob has been this year in his first season manning the Yankee closer throne. Follow on Twitter: @ktsharp.
Cashman deserves props for recent moves: Brad Vietrogoski examines the recent trades made by the Yankees and gives Brian Cashman credit for bringing in solid-to-very good value without giving up much in return. Follow on Twitter: @IIATMS.
St. Louis Cardinals: Fungoes
Outfield offensive production rather shabby: Cardinals outfielders haven't produced much at the plate, and to make matters worse, they waste chances when they do actually reach base through poor base running. Follow on Twitter: @fungoes.
Tampa Bay Rays: The Process Report
New Phil Hughes meets old Danks theory: The Rays continued their winning ways in the second half by using an unconventional lineup against the Twins' Phil Hughes as Tommy Rancel explains. Follow on Twitter: @TRancel.
Jason Rosenberg is the founder of It's About the Money, a proud charter member of the SweetSpot Network. IIATMS can be found on Twitter here and here as well as on Facebook.
It's also a celebration of those great Atlanta Braves teams of the 1990s and early 2000s. Maddux and Glavine were teammates from 1993 through 2002, and the Braves won a division title in each of those seasons, excepting the never-completed 1994 season. Throw in division titles in 1991 and 1992 plus three more from 2003 to 2005 and the Braves won a remarkable 14 consecutive division titles, one of the most remarkable achievements in baseball history.
This article isn't meant to be a criticism or to detract from the accomplishments of Maddux, Glavine and Cox, but it's fair to point out that part of the legacy of those Braves teams is that those 14 playoff appearances led to just one World Series title (1995). Why wasn't it more? The law of averages -- if every playoff team were considered equal -- suggests the Braves should have won 2.1 championships in this period, so they underperformed by only one title by this measure.
But the Braves were often better than the opponent that beat them, at least in the regular season, so maybe it should have been at least three titles. I thought it would be interesting to go back and see what went wrong for them. We'll list three factors for each postseason series defeat during that period.
1991: Lost World Series in seven games to the Minnesota Twins
Let's go straight to Game 7, a classic game in maybe the best World Series ever played. (By starting at the end, we conveniently skip past Otis Nixon's drug suspension late in the season, Kent Hrbek doing this to Ron Gant in Game 2 and Kirby Puckett doing this in Game 6).
2. Still, the Braves had runners on second and third with no outs and couldn't score. Gant grounded out, and after an intentional walk to David Justice, Sid Bream grounded into a 3-2-3 double play. From what I can tell from a play-by-play search on Baseball-Reference.com, this is the only 3-2-3 double play in World Series history.
3. Dan Gladden's bloop double leading off the 10th off Alejandro Pena that eventually led to the winning run. Thank you, Metrodome turf.
1992: Lost World Series in six games to the Toronto Blue Jays
1. In Game 2 -- the Braves up 4-3 in the ninth, about to go ahead two games to none -- little-used Ed Sprague (one home run on the season) hits a two-run, pinch-hit homer off veteran reliever Jeff Reardon, who had been acquired late in the season.
2. More bullpen blues in Game 3. The Blue Jays had tied it in the eighth off Steve Avery, who was removed after a leadoff single in the bottom of the ninth. Mark Wohlers enters to face Joe Carter and Dave Winfield -- but Roberto Alomar steals second, so Bobby Cox intentionally walks Carter. Winfield bunts the runners along and Mike Stanton is brought in to face John Olerud, but Cito Gaston goes again to Sprague and Cox issues another intentional walk. Candy Maldonado then delivers a deep fly-ball single off Reardon to score the winner. The big mistake was walking Carter, a free swinger, but I'm guessing Cox never imagined Gaston would have Winfield bunt.
3. Nixon's bunt. OK, Otis could run. But in the bottom of the 11th, the Braves down 4-3, pinch runner John Smoltz at third base with two outs and the World Series on the line, Nixon tried to bunt for a hit. Gutsy play or dumb play? Mike Timlin fielded the bunt, and the Jays won.
1993: Lost NLCS in six games to the Philadelphia Phillies
1. Bad run distribution. The Braves outscored the Phillies 33-23, winning two games by 14-3 and 9-4 scores but lost three games by one run.
2. More bullpen blues: Greg McMichael, the rookie closer, lost Game 1 in the 10th inning on Kim Batiste's RBI double. Wohlers was the loser in the 10th inning of Game 5 when Lenny Dykstra homered.
3. Maddux's poor Game 6 outing. He walked four batters in giving up six runs in 5⅔ innings.
1995: Won World Series in six games over the Cleveland Indians
1996: Lost World Series in six games to the New York Yankees
1. That hanging slider from Wohlers in Game 4.
2. Earlier in that game, the Braves led 6-0 in the sixth inning when a rookie named Derek Jeter lofted a pop fly down the right-field line that Jermaine Dye chased after until he ran into umpire Tim Welke. The ball fell for a hit, starting a three-run rally. (We should have realized back then that the Yankees rookie shortstop was destined for greatness, considering he would also hit the Jeffrey Maier home run in the ALCS against the Baltimore Orioles a week earlier.)
3. Marquis Grissom's error. His dropped fly ball led to the only run in Game 5 as Andy Pettitte outdueled Smoltz 1-0.
1997: Lost NLCS in six games to the Florida Marlins
1. Eric Gregg. The worst strike zone in the history of baseball (undocumented but presumably true) helped rookie Livan Hernandez strike out 15 and beat Maddux 2-1 in Game 5. Here are all 15 strikeouts. Fast-forward to the 1:30 mark for the final out on Fred McGriff on a pitch that will make you laugh, cry and disgusted.
2. Glavine's stinker first inning in Game 6. Single, walk, single, two-run single, sacrifice bunt, intentional walk (sure seems like Cox issued a lot of intentional walks), HBP with the bases loaded, RBI groundout, strikeout. The Marlins were up 4-0 before the Braves came to bat.
3. Pinch hitting. Thought I'd throw this in here somewhere. Braves pinch hitters were generally awful in the postseason during these 14 years. I'm not sure if that had to with the strength (or lack thereof) of the Braves' benches or just something that happened. Cox always liked to carry a third catcher for the playoffs, which generally meant he wasted a roster spot when he could have had another pinch hitter available. Then again, during much of this period, he carried only nine or 10 pitchers, not the 11 or 12 you see now, so he still had plenty of pinch-hitting options. Anyway, by my count, from 1991 to 2005, Braves pinch hitters went 39-for-208 (.188) in the postseason with zero home runs, 17 walks and just 22 RBIs. Considering postseason pinch hitters are often used in critical situations, that performance had to have hurt. Outside of Francisco Cabrera in the 1992 NLCS, they were certainly lacking their Ed Sprague moments.
1998: Lost NLCS in six games to the San Diego Padres
1. Sterling Hitchcock. In two starts, San Diego’s journeyman left-hander allowed just one run in 10 innings.
2. More bullpen blues. The closer this year was another rookie named Kerry Ligtenberg, who was discovered in independent ball. He had a good year with 30 saves and a 2.71 ERA. The Braves generally had good bullpens during this period. They just didn't always pitch well in the postseason. In Game 1, Ken Caminiti torched Ligtenberg for a home run in the 10th inning.
1999: Lost World Series in four games to the Yankees
1. Another crucial error. In Game 1, the Braves lead 1-0 in the eighth, with Maddux pitching a gem. Scott Brosius singles. Darryl Strawberry, pinch hitting, walks. Knoblauch bunts, but first baseman Brian Hunter -- who had just replaced Ryan Klesko for defense -- boots the play to load the bases. Jeter singles to tie the game, and Paul O'Neill greets John Rocker with a two-run single, with Hunter making another error that allowed the runners to move up a base. After an intentional walk and two strikeouts, Rocker walked Jim Leyritz with the bases loaded. Yankees win 4-1.
2. The Chad Curtis Game. Knoblauch had tied the game in the eighth with a two-run homer off Glavine that Brian Jordan just missed -- a classic Yankee Stadium home run. That led to Curtis, now rotting in jail after being convicted for sexual misconduct, hitting the game-winning home run, his second of the game, in the 10th inning off Mike Remlinger.
By the way, if you're counting, extra-winning wins, 1991-2005 postseason:
3. Mariano Rivera. One win, two saves. The Yankees had him; the Braves didn't.
2000: Lost NLDS in three games to the St. Louis Cardinals
1. Maddux got pounded in Game 1.
2. Glavine got pounded in Game 2.
3. Kevin Millwood got pounded in Game 3.
2001: Lost NLCS in five games to the Arizona Diamondbacks
1. Randy Johnson. The Big Unit allowed two runs in 16 innings in winning both of his starts.
2. Bad Maddux, bad defense. In Game 4 -- a must-win against Albie Lopez, the weak link behind Johnson and Curt Schilling -- Maddux gave up eight hits and six runs in three innings. The Braves committed four errors in the game, including three in a four-run third, leading to three unearned runs.
3. Three-man rotation? Maddux and Glavine started Games 4 and 5 on three days' rest while Johnson started Game 5 on four days' rest. Neither pitched well. Was this an issue throughout this era? From 1991 to 2005, Braves starters pitched 24 times on three days' rest. There were some notable successes -- Smoltz pitched 7⅓ scoreless innings in Game 7 of the 1991 World Series, Glavine pitched a four-hit complete game in Game 1 of the 1992 World Series, and Denny Neagle tossed a four-hit shutout in Game 4 of the 1997 NLCS -- but the Braves went 10-14 in these games and the starters allowed 4.37 runs per nine innings; when pitching on four or more days of rest in the other 98 games, the starters allowed 3.64 runs per nine innings and the team went 53-45.
So to recap, and considering Cox used his best starters on short rest:
Three days of rest: 10-14, 4.37 runs per nine innings. (The Braves were 0-3 in games started on two days' rest, after a starter had appeared earlier in relief.)
Four or more days of rest: 53-45, 3.64 runs per nine innings.
Cox understandably put a lot of faith in Glavine, Maddux, Smoltz and, early on, Avery. In retrospect, maybe he should have trusted the depth of his rotation a little more.
2002: Lost NLDS in five games to the San Francisco Giants
1. Glavine. In two starts, he lasted a combined 7⅔ innings, allowed 17 hits and 13 runs and had more walks (seven) than strikeouts (four). In his final playoff start for the Braves in Game 4, he got knocked out in the third inning after Rich Aurilia hit a three-run homer. Glavine signed with the Mets that offseason, and you wonder if his poor playoff performances in recent years was a reason the Braves let him go.
3. One last gasp that fell short. Game 5, bottom of the ninth, the Braves had two on with nobody out. Gary Sheffield struck out and Chipper Jones grounded into a double play.
2003: Lost NLDS in five games to the Chicago Cubs
1. No offense. By 2003, the Braves had morphed into an offensive powerhouse. This team led the NL with 907 runs scored as Javy Lopez clubbed 43 home runs, Sheffield hit 39, Andruw Jones hit 36, and Chipper Jones hit .305 with 27 home runs. They hit .215 with three home runs against the Cubs.
2. Mark Prior and Kerry Wood. Prior pitched a two-hitter in Game 3 (throwing 133 pitches). In Game 5 in Atlanta, Wood allowed one run in eight innings. Again, note that Wood was pitching on four days of rest while Mike Hampton went on three days.
3. Smoltz as reliever. From 2001 through 2004, following Tommy John surgery that forced him to miss all of 2000, Smoltz became the team's closer. However, he rarely had save opportunities in the postseason in these years; considering he later returned with success to the rotation, you wonder how Braves history would have been different had Smoltz been starting those years.
2004: Lost NLDS in five games to the Houston Astros
1. Jaret Wright. The Braves' Game 1 starter (posting a 3.28 ERA that year), Wright gave up 10 runs in 9⅔ innings in his two starts and lost both games.
2. Carlos Beltran. He hit four home runs and drove in nine runs for the Astros in the five games, including going 4-for-5 with two homers and five RBIs in a 12-3 rout in Game 5 -- yet another Game 5 loss at home.
3. Marcus Giles. He hit .125 in the series without an RBI. In 25 postseason games for the Braves, he hit .217/.277/.315 with two home runs and six RBIs in 101 plate appearances. Not to pick on one guy or anything.
2005: Lost NLDS in four games to the Astros
this walk-off home run off Joey Devine. You remember Joey Devine, right?
2. Kyle Farnsworth. The Braves blew a 6-1 lead in the eighth inning of that game. Farnsworth gave up a grand slam to Lance Berkman in the eighth and a game-tying home run with two outs in the ninth to Brad Ausmus.
3. Failed opportunities. The biggest came in the 14th inning when the Braves loaded the bases with one out. But Brian McCann struck out and pinch hitter Pete Orr grounded out. Roger Clemens, pitching on two days' rest after starting Game 2 and making his first relief appearance since 1984, then tossed three scoreless innings to get the win.
And that was it. The end of an era. That wasn't a great Braves club, going 90-72, at least compared to some of the earlier editions. In 2006, they fell to 79-83, but they rebuilt and gave Cox one final playoff appearance in 2010 -- in which the Braves lost the division series once again. (With another loss in 2013, the Braves have lost six consecutive division series, with a wild-card defeat thrown in as well.)
Still, it was a splendid stretch of baseball. From 1991 to 2005, the Braves played 125 postseason games. They won 63 games and lost 62. Maybe they should have won another World Series. In going through the play-by-play of a lot of these games, besides the obvious bullpen issues, I was struck by how many games were affected by errors. The Braves allowed 55 unearned runs in these 125 postseason games; as it turns out, that total isn't that much different from how the Braves performed in the regular season. From 1991 to 2005, not including 1994, they averaged 61 unearned runs per season; in the postseason, they were a little worse, as their total prorates to 71 over 162 games.
Of course, in the postseason, when the margin for error is smaller and the opponents better, those mistakes become more important. Still, maybe that wasn't a decisive factor; the Braves reached on an error 58 times in these 14 playoff years, their opponents 64.
Maybe a key to the Braves' success -- starting pitching depth -- just wasn't as big of a factor in the playoffs, when their opponents could shorten their rotations. Maybe power pitching does win in October; think of some of the pitchers the Braves lost to (Schilling with the Phillies and Diamondbacks; Johnson; Wood and Prior; Clemens and Roy Oswalt). The Braves' best playoff starter was Smoltz, more of a power pitcher than Maddux and Glavine. Maddux went 11-13 with a 2.81 ERA in his Braves postseason career but also allowed 18 unearned runs in 27 starts; he was good but not quite the Maddux of the regular season. Glavine was 12-15 with a 3.44 ERA in his Braves postseason career. (He had a 3.15 ERA in the regular season during this period.)
But Braves fans will always have 1995, Maddux pitching a two-hitter to win the opener and Glavine clinching it with that masterful Game 6 performance, allowing just one hit in eight innings. It's hard to believe that was 19 years ago.
Saturday was one of those days when baseball fans looked at MLB’s schedule, perused the pitching matchups and more than likely became very excited because a bunch of aces were slated to start. So in case you missed what happened, here is your roundup:
• Chicago’s Chris Sale was simply dominant against the sliding Minnesota Twins en route to a 7-0 win at Target Field. It was the 10th win of the season for White Sox’s ace, and it makes him the first Sox starter to win 10 of his first 11 starts since Mark Buehrle accomplished the same feat back in 2005. Sale lasted eight innings, gave up five hits -- all singles -- and walked two while collecting 12 strikeouts.
The biggest threat from Minnesota’s offense came against Sale during the second inning, after he walked Kurt Suzuki, who advanced Josh Willingham to second base. After that, Sale barely broke a sweat. He had three innings in which he set down the batters in order, and he recorded at least one strikeout in every inning he pitched.
According to Brooks Baseball, Sale was averaging 95.3 mph on his fastball while dialing it up to 97.3 mph when needed. He threw his two-seamer 63 times while sprinkling in his changeup (30) and slider (19). Seven of Sale’s 12 strikeouts were of the swinging variety. He got nine swings on misses on his changeup, and four of the singles came off his fastball, while one came off his changeup. The Twins could not do anything against his slider.
• Sonny Gray, the ace of the Oakland Athletics, faced the lowly Texas Rangers in Arlington. While he picked up the win, which was Oakland’s 64th of the season, Gray wasn’t as dominant as you’d want your ace to be against the worst team in baseball. Gray lasted 6 2/3 innings and surrendered one earned run on seven hits, but he walked four and struck out five. His season ERA is now 2.65.
Gray favored his fastballs (two-seam, four-seam) and curveballs equally and got the most swings on the four-seamer. He also got the most strikes on the curve. It was his 12th win of the season, and he moved his strikeout total up to 121 on the season.
• Longtime Cy Young front-runner Justin Verlander didn’t fare well against the resurgent Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. He picked up his ninth loss of the season but wasn’t exactly that bad. For other pitchers, a seven-inning, three-run performance could earn them a victory, but that didn’t happen for Verlander. Unfortunately for him and the Tigers, they ran into Matt Shoemaker, who pitched a gem -- seven innings, three hits, five strikeouts and no walks.
Verlander’s record is now at .500 (9-9), and his ERA is a robust 4.79. While he’s been struggling to put something good together all season, Detroit fans should be relieved about his velocity going back to more Verlander-like levels; on Saturday night his fastball was sitting around 96 mph.
• In Cincinnati, Johnny Cueto and Gio Gonzalez of the Nationals were locked in a pitcher’s duel that was ultimately won by the Reds’ ace thanks to a seven-inning, four-hit, nine-strikeout performance. Cueto, who saw his season ERA drop to a 2.08, threw 103 pitches -- 67 for strikes. The 28-year-old Cueto now leads the National League in innings pitched (155.2) and looks to be a front-runner for the NL Cy Young. He also has held opponents to a .184 batting average and has a WHIP of 0.93. He has 163 strikeouts on the season along with 11 wins.
Unlike Sale, Cueto used a bigger variety of pitches to get to the Nationals. According to Brooks, while Cueto favored his four-seamer -- he threw it 36 times -- he also sprinkled in 21 two-seamers, 16 cutters, 13 sliders and 11 changeups. He recorded a three-up, three-down inning in the third and struck out all three batters (two swinging).
• Last, but certainly not least in any sense of the word, we have another NL Cy Young front-runner, Clayton Kershaw of the Dodgers, who did Clayton Kershaw things against the San Francisco Giants in one of those games you don’t want to say is big because it’s still only July, but in actuality, it is pretty big.
So what exactly did Kershaw do? He only pitched a complete-game shutout while giving up two hits and striking out seven. The poor Giants just didn’t have an answer for Kershaw, who picked up his 12th win of the season and lowered his ERA to 1.76. He favored his four-seam fastball and threw 68 of them while tossing 113 pitches overall. He set down the Giants in order during the first four innings of the game. The win helped the Dodgers pull ahead of the Giants in the NL West standings.
Stacey Gotsulias writes for It’s About The Money, a blog about the New York Yankees. You can follow her on Twitter.
COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. -- The Hall of Fame voting process can wear on the emotions of a candidate who lingers on the ballot for a number of years. But it’s unseemly for that candidate to state his case too vigorously, lest he appear arrogant, or complain about the judgment or the intelligence of the baseball writers, in which case he stands a good chance of alienating the people entrusted with determining his legacy.
Few players had their nerves taxed on a big stage more consistently than Bert Blyleven, who passed through stages of anxiety, frustration, resignation and jubilation during his time on the ballot.
At the beginning, Blyleven waited for congratulatory phone calls that never came. He later expressed frustration over being excluded despite 287 career wins, 242 complete games, 60 shutouts and 3,701 strikeouts -- still the fifth highest total in baseball history.
By the time his 10th appearance on the ballot rolled around, Blyleven threw up his hands and spent election day having his truck serviced.
The public water torture finally ended in 2011 when Blyleven made it to Cooperstown on his 14th try. So he seemed like the ideal person to assess the latest directive from the Hall of Fame’s executive board, which condensed the waiting period for potential inductees from 15 to 10 years Saturday. If a decade isn’t enough for a player to crack 75 percent, his name is passed on to the Hall’s Era Committee in perpetuity.
The Hall’s decision might expedite the process, but it still isn’t going to satisfy observers who think the Baseball Writers Association of America is clueless, has too many personal agendas, or is too selective or not selective enough. And the wait, while shorter, will remain stressful for the person being judged.
“What helped me is that guys like Bob Feller and Harmon Killebrew said, ‘You’re going to get in. Be patient,’” Blyleven said. “It’s a tough thing to crack. This [change today] might put more pressure on the Veterans Committee.
“Maybe if the wait is only 10 years, the writers will look at the numbers a little bit better and quicker. I hope so. I’ve wondered over the years about some of the guys who have the opportunity to vote. You have guys like Tony Gwynn and Cal Ripken and you wonder, ‘How can they not be on 100 percent of the ballots?’ Writers got more publicity for not voting for them than the guys who did it in a legit way. Maybe they ought to look at that more than the number of years [on the ballot].”
Jane Forbes Clark, chairman of the Hall’s board, praised the baseball writers Saturday for their “excellent" job in the voting. In a follow-up interview, Hall President Jeff Idelson said the likelihood of a player being elected after 10 years on the ballot was "incredibly minimal," and the overriding goal is to keep the process "relevant." If the new system is more humane, helps unclutter the ballot and forces writers to come to grips with players from the steroid era more quickly, those will be significant fringe benefits.
Still, the process could be further improved by eliminating the 10-man limit on the ballot each year. The ballot continues to get more crowded as Roger Clemens, Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire and other real or alleged PED users stick around but can’t generate enough support to make it to Cooperstown. Meanwhile, other candidates are being judged by factors beyond their individual merits. When Jack Morris slipped from 67.7 percent to 61.5 percent in his 15th and final appearance last year, it didn’t help his cause that some voters simply didn’t have enough room to vote for him.
The Hall’s new system will add a sense of urgency to the candidacy of Tim Raines, who received 46.1 percent of the vote last winter and now has three more cracks at Cooperstown rather than eight. The same sense of urgency applies to Alan Trammell, Lee Smith and Don Mattingly, all of whom fall in the 10 to 15 year netherworld and will receive the full 15 years of eligibility under a grandfather clause. Trammell received a strong endorsement Saturday from Tigers Hall of Famer Al Kaline.
“I’ve always thought that he should be in the Hall of Fame,” Kaline said. “He should certainly get more recognition than he’s gotten. I’m not being prejudiced because I’m a Detroit Tiger. I watched him play for over 20 years. He was an outstanding fielder and a very clutch hitter. He was MVP of the World Series and a leader of the club. I’ve been totally shocked that he hasn’t gotten more votes.”
Many fans and Hall-watchers wonder how a player’s Hall case can change so drastically years after he’s hit his final home run or recorded his final strikeout. It’s a valid question. Blyleven received 17.5 percent of the vote in 1998 and 14.1 percent in 1999. Twelve years later, he was celebrating his election with almost 80 percent of the vote.
Blyleven benefited from a concerted lobbying effort by the sabermetric community, and human nature invariably enters into the process. Some writers change their minds with time or loosen their standards when they know a player is nearing his final appearance on the ballot. The makeup of the electorate also changes slightly each year as new voters attain the requisite 10 years of BBWAA service time and are added to the rolls.
But every time a player makes it to Cooperstown after a lengthy wait, it debunks the notion that “A Hall of Famer is a Hall of Famer, and you shouldn’t have to think too hard to figure it out.” Some of that distinction might lie in the philosophical divide that separates writers who think Cooperstown should be a place for only the true elite and others who advocate a “Big Hall” approach.
Among the Hall of Famers in Cooperstown this weekend, Jim Rice and Bruce Sutter can best understand the ordeal that Blyleven endured. Sutter waited 13 years to be inducted, and Rice went the full 15. Five years after his election, Rice still questions whether the baseball writers are the best arbiters and would be open to a system in which the writers and current Hall of Famers both have a say on new inductees.
As for the question of time on the ballot, Rice insists that he never worried about it because his fate was beyond his control.
“What’s the difference between 10 years and 15?” Rice said. “The bottom line is, if the numbers are there, it doesn’t matter if it’s 10 or 15 years. The numbers aren’t going to change.”
But the rules just did.
Will Pierzynski meet the Cardinals’ need during Yadi’s absence? I suppose it depends on what you anticipate. AJP has been nothing if not durable, averaging 133 games played over the previous 12 seasons while catching and losing every conceivable popularity contest with opponents, who thus might have more than a little extra reason to take an extra shot at him on plays at the plate or when he’s on the bases. That either speaks to the superb state of sportsmanship in the game, or it might mean that Pierzynski is as reliably nimble as he is ornery, but if you don’t think it’s going to add a little bit of extra tension in those Cardinals-Reds or Cardinals-Brewers games down the stretch, guess again.
But the important thing is that he’s been sturdy and serviceable, and that’s a valuable commodity in itself, but perhaps even more so for catchers. Especially when the alternative is bench jockey Tony Cruz and his career .595 OPS -- whatever else you might say in Cruz’s defense, that’s something you don’t want more of.
As for the bat, Pierzynski will be useful. He may have been handed his walking papers by a Red Sox team deciding that it’s just as well to go young if they’re going to get anything down this season, but he was hitting .282/.319/.400 against right-handed pitching this season, and a team can use that, especially from a left-handed catcher with a long track record for providing some measure of offense. No, he doesn’t walk, but this isn’t a discussion of what he can’t do; he can provide some line-drive pop and a bat from the left side. Let’s not get too upset and look a gift horse in the mouth, just because he isn’t Mike Piazza.
The big question, especially with the Cardinals’ young staff in mind, is whether Pierzynski has a lot left behind the plate, not just at it. His throwing numbers are down again this year (pegging just 19 percent of would-be base stealers), although you can blame some of that on having to catch John Lackey (who’s allowed 15 of 16 stealers to get away with it) and Felix Doubront (a perfect 9-for-9), two guys who don’t do a great job of holding runners close. On this score, the one guy on the Cardinals who might have a problem forming a battery with Pierzynski is probably Shelby Miller, the one guy who’s been slow enough to inspire a number of attempts before Yadi broke down, but we’ll see how it goes in Pierzynski’s debut on Saturday. As for Pierzynski’s receiving skills, using Baseball Prospectus’ measures for evaluating catcher framing, he isn’t great, rating 75th among the 89 men who have caught this year as far as Fielding Runs added by count -- better than Jarrod Saltalamacchia or A.J. Ellis, and about as good (or bad) as Derek Norris. In other words, nothing so epically awful as to deter you from using him, especially when he was a receiver for a lot of young starters with the White Sox.
All in all, a nice pickup, even better because it effectively comes cost-free for the Cardinals. Add in how Pierzynski might help amp up the drama in the NL Central down the stretch, and I like it that much better for what it is: A useful patch to solve a multi-month problem on a contender that can’t afford to let a position add bupkis at bat.
Christina Kahrl writes about MLB for ESPN. You can follow her on Twitter.
The biggest part of the announcement is that it’s cutting down the length of time players might stay on the ballot, from 15 years to 10, while grandfathering in three guys in that 11- to 15-year window: Don Mattingly (headed for his 15th year next year), Alan Trammell (in his 14th) and Lee Smith (headed toward his 13th). All three remain long shots at best, but at least the voters get another shot or two at being convinced.
On one level, this may not seem like a very big deal: The BBWAA’s voters can usually congratulate itself for getting the flat-out obvious guys right, albeit with less than 100 percent success, which is why there really isn't much to brag about on that score. (Chicago remembers Ron Santo.) In a perfect world, this latest twist for guys looking to get in means that the latest version of Veterans Committee voting will take up the causes of those in their respective eras and get them to Cooperstown a little sooner, rather than leave them in the back-end, five-year “pause” while they wait to slip off the ballot.
A problem with that expectation is whether you want to get hung up on the distinction between the people voted in by the BBWAA versus those selected by any version of the Veterans Committee, because if you want to cling to the assertion that being voted in by the writers is more significant -- when I'd expect most are just happy to get their plaque on the wall -- then this abbreviates that window of possibility. Which isn't necessarily the biggest deal in the world, although it does rob the electorate of late changes of heart in the face of cogent cases advanced for eminently worthy candidates -- as happened with Bert Blyleven in his 14th year of eligibility, after years of arguments advanced by sabermetricians helped swing voters all the way ’round.
Which brings us perhaps to the case of the next great “cause” candidate: Tim Raines. What do you do about the greatest leadoff hitter in the history of the National League, the latest example of a guy who needs to be talked up and debated because he spent the best years of his career in Canadian obscurity? Raines will be in his eighth year, so he, like Lee Smith, has just three more shots at getting voted in by the writers coming to him. That’s nothing if you have complete faith that the variation of the Veterans Committee or the present “Expansion Era Committee” eventually gets this done. But considering that the Hall’s extra-electoral processes have given us frankly stupid outcomes, like inducting former commissioner Bowie Kuhn while overlooking former MLBPA honcho Marvin Miller, I wouldn’t invest too much faith in the idea this will produce better justice when it comes to inducting people.
Another way of thinking about this new tweak is that it means we’ll have that much less time to put up with sportswriters yammering about the immorality of the PED scourge they either failed to discover during its heyday, or retroactively want to employ to punish people they suspect used PEDs. Think Jeff Bagwell, a slam-dunk Hall-worthy great, subsequently smeared by more than a few chuckleheads without much in the way of evidence or even rumor. Now, Bagwell has to endure just six more years of that kind of nonsense, while known users such as Mark McGwire (two years) or Sammy Sosa (eight to go) won’t have to worry about their past being brought up every December for too much longer. For me, that’s less of a big deal. The PED story has long since become more about the public posturing of people who want to sound off on the subject. I’d agree, seeing less of that is a good thing. But I don’t see how taking a generation’s greats off the ballot sooner makes for a better Hall of Fame.
The other huge problem created by shortening the window for Hall-worthy players is that this change did not also get rid of the cap on how many guys electors can vote for: It’s still at 10. With ballots already crowded with potential inductees, leaving a hard ceiling in place on who you can vote for guarantees that guys are going to get crowded out, not for lack of merit, but because of the number of worthies they’re among, and the fixed limit for how many votes are available (10 times the number of electors). This is a potentially massive, destabilizing error. You can hope it gets fixed before the next balloting, because relying on the tender mercies of whatever variation of the Veterans Committee exists now and in the years to come won't provide an effective correction.
All of which makes me ask again the question I always put to myself every time we get on this subject: Whose Hall of Fame is it? Who does it serve?
If you say “the players,” which ones? Those already elected, as often seems the case when you have guys on the various recent iterations of the Veterans Committee keeping players out? Or should it serve those who belong?
If you say “the fans,” here again, who? Today’s fans, or those who enjoyed the players in their heyday? That would seem to ill-serve someone such as Raines, a marquee player for a franchise that no longer plays in Montreal. Or are the fans a proxy for something amorphous, like the history of the game? If so, how do you tell the story of the game’s history by excluding many of the guys who made the biggest impact on the field?
At any rate, I don’t anticipate the changes being a good thing, but in the Hall’s long history of tinkering with the election process to guarantee a full and happy house every July, we’ll just have to see who gets shafted by the latest variation on this theme.
Christina Kahrl writes about MLB for ESPN. You can follow her on Twitter.
But at this point of the build-up to his induction, you probably know all that. You probably know he's one of just four people to hit .300 with 500 home runs, 1,500 RBIs, 1,000 runs scored and 1,500 walks (joining Mel Ott, Ted Williams and Babe Ruth). You probably know he's one of just seven men to ever average better than .300/.400/.500 in 10,000 or more plate appearances, joined by Ruth, Ott, Chipper Jones, Ty Cobb, Stan Musial and Tris Speaker. (Williams is short of at-bats because of his service in two wars, while Jimmie Foxx and Manny Ramirez ran out of gas.) You probably know what Jay Jaffe has to say about Thomas' rank among the all-time greats, and (I hope) you know to respect where he's coming from, because no one has devoted as much care to the study of the subject of who is and isn't a Hall of Fame-worthy player.
It's a writer's conceit to talk about the power that words have, but here, it merely serves up the easy observation that Thomas was power, investing even the words used to describe him with greater power still.
In sabermetrics, we're necessarily focused on outcomes, even as we're aware of possibility; it's been this way going back to the ancient Greeks, if not further. When Aristotle discussed his concept of potentiality to explain concepts of physics, he distinguished between the idea that a thing might happen or get done and a thing that might be done well. These days, in simplest terms, we might discuss the difference between potential energy and kinetic energy -- between the energy that could be and the energy that is.
At bat, Thomas was the fulcrum that converted potential into kinetic energy. More than that, he was the man who could take the potentiality of a hunk of cork, yarn and hide, and through his magic, through his intelligence and strength, could could convert it into many things at once, many places at once, a concatenation of facts: souvenirs 400 feet away, runs on the scoreboard, joy for Sox fans, fireworks at the Cell. Call it physics or call it magic; at some point, the distinctions blur because this was a thing that Thomas did more than well -- he did it beautifully.
Watching Thomas poised at the plate, you were only too aware of that potential each and every time that he stepped in. None of us were alone in this, whether you were in the stands, the dugouts, on the field; hundreds of major league pitchers knew this, feared this, and desperately tried to avoid surrendering to his power. And Thomas in turn would not submit to any chicanery outside the zone. Even in a game defined by failure, by the .300 hitter who fails seven out of 10 times or by the pitcher who can never beat every batter every night, Thomas' career-long unwillingness to settle for less than his own excellence generated 1,667 walks.
So, as we reckon Thomas getting his due in Cooperstown, what are we to make of his selection to the Hall at a time when others are outside, with numbers as great or greater, tainted by actual PED usage or unanswerable accusations? It is the big question at times like this, now and in the decades to come. Hallowing Hall-worthy performance has become more of an elective decision for the electorate, and in this, memory and data alike are providing fewer easy answers.
In hallowing Thomas, you can choose to celebrate the performance and all that means: the numbers themselves, the man who made them or the mind's-eye memory indelibly imprinted by one towering blow after another. But what I will treasure most about Thomas -- even at this moment of career closure -- when we know what is known and can put away the arguments, is that sense of anticipation -- that, maybe, tonight, here and now, we'll see magic.
That said -- going back to the stuff that can excite us to this day as far as his career numbers -- Thomas is first in White Sox history in so many things: home runs and RBIs, runs and walks, extra-base hits and total bases, on-base percentage and slugging -- all of which you might have wished for after his college career starring at Auburn. He was the perfect first-round pick, the best of four straight first-round picks from 1987 to 1990 (along with Jack McDowell, Robin Ventura and Alex Fernandez) that turned around a moribund franchise trying to recover from making more mistakes in the '80s than your average hair band.
Looking beyond his White Sox career, we can nevertheless acknowledge and enjoy the three seasons split between Oakland and Toronto at the end of his career. They added the counting stats that may have made it easier for some voters to vote for him at first blush -- the 73 homers pushing him beyond 500 for his career, a number which once held its own magic -- but a .267/.373/.484 line across those seasons made it clear he was finishing his career on his own terms, still able to contribute as an offense-only player as a designated hitter.
Which brings us to another part of the big deal about the Big Hurt's induction: We really shouldn't begrudge Thomas playing more than half of his career at DH. We're now more than 40 years into the history of the thing, more time than baseball was played between the creation of the World Series (1903) and the Hall of Fame (1939). It is, and should be, part of the baseball landscape, and if unofficial "positions" like closer have long since been acknowledged -- with the first real official saves generator, Rollie Fingers, getting into Cooperstown in 1992, less than a quarter-century after the save became an official stat -- then we were overdue for a guy we should describe as a DH.
That said, again leaning on offensive WAR (oWAR) for the suggestion, Thomas ranks among the best offensive players at first base, with that 79.8 career mark trailing just Lou Gehrig (112.1), Foxx (94.3), Albert Pujols (81.4) and Rod Carew (80.4). Or, if you're like me and want to punt on pre-war, pre-integration and (effectively) pre-slider stats, he belongs in the conversation as one of the best first basemen ever, given the slender margin separating Thomas from Pujols and Carew.
A big part of that was a peak between the ages of 25 and 29 that was picture perfect for illustrating what a great player can do at the peak of his power. In those five seasons, spanning 1993-1997, Thomas hit .334/.455/.631 with 194 home runs and 575 walks. In part, the DH was created to preserve, extend and make possible careers such as this, not merely to create job opportunities for the Ron Blombergs of the world. After Thomas tore the triceps in his throwing arm, ending his 2001 season less than a month into the campaign, his ability to play as a regular first baseman ended. But he also very clearly wasn't done.
Like prior DH stars Harold Baines, Don Baylor, Hal McRae and Paul Molitor, Thomas was a man who was one of the most gifted hitters on the planet. He was someone who the friction of being a pro athlete on both sides of the ball could simultaneously wear down. By blazing this trail and earning this honor, we can hope this means that the Hall of Fame electorate will give due consideration to guys like Martinez (immediately) and Jim Thome (eventually).
As feats go, all of them are individually awesome. So many records remain covered in the dust of decades long gone, set in smaller leagues against fewer foes in puny parks and before integration expanded the game's greatness. Seeing Frank Thomas elected is a validation of the present and the recent past, one earned through his gifts. You don't have to be a White Sox fan to enjoy seeing the big man get his due, but if you know one who rooted for him, here's hoping she or he can pass along how enjoyable watching the big man on the South Side was, a man armed with more thunder in a bat than Thor has in a hammer, a power source who was his own special effect.
Christina Kahrl writes about MLB for ESPN. You can follow her on Twitter.