It Is What It Is
July 7, 2008

Those concerned about Edinson Volquez' recent struggles should not worry too much.  True, he is a bit petulant on the mound when things aren't going his way.  And he is at times overly confident in his ability to dominate hitters, although when he's hitting his spots the hitters really have no chance.  But a significant part of his struggles has been the guy behind the plate.  When Paul Bako has caught him, his ERA is 2.10 and his WHIP is 1.179.  More importantly, he's struck out 98 batters in only 85.2 innings.  When David Ross is behind the plate, Volquez still has a respectable ERA of 3.24, but his WHIP is 1.480 and his strikeout rate drops off severely: just 18 in 25 innings and with a slightly higher walk rate.  In 14 starts with Bako behind the plate Volquez has allowed more than 2 earned runs just twice.  With Ross behind the plate Volquez has equalled that number in just 5 starts.  Nopefully (that's my new word - it means that you'd like to say "hopefully" but you know the answer is "nope, that won't happen")... anyway, nopefully Reds manager Dusty Baker will look at the numbers and realize that despite Bako's inferior offense, he's the best choice behind the plate when Volquez is on the hill.  Speaking of Dusty, any chance he'll figure out that Jay Bruce is much more productive as a #2 hitter (.356/.449/.542) than he is a lead-off hitter (.194/.250/.472)?  Maybe the 21-year old isn't ready for the pressure of leading off the game but rather should be put in a position where he can get accustomed to how pitchers are going to pitch him and be able to maximize all his talents.  Is that too much to ask from the guy who abuses talented young players yet coddles veterans without it?  I think so.

Another pitcher who seems pretty easy to figure is the Giant's Brian Wilson. When he comes into a game and the outcome is not in question or it's not a save situation, his ERA is 15.00 and his WHIP is 3.000. When it is on the line and/or a save situation, it's 2.48 ERA and a WHIP of 1.068.  The other drawback of using him in non-save situations is that he throws a lot of pitches in those meltdowns so he's either unavailable the following day or he's ineffective: three more of his runs allowed came on days after a meltdown.  That accounts for 12 of the 17 he's allowed.  In early May he went 7 days between appearances yet still threw a perfect inning in his next appearance so time off is not an issue with him. Wilson is really quite predictable so it's only a matter of manager Bruce Bochy looking at the facts for Wilson to emerge as one of the premier closers in the NL... which makes him another nopeful case, I'm afraid.

One player I'm looking to have on my fantasy rosters next year is Elijah Dukes.  He's shown a lot of maturity this year and his talent is just starting to reveal itself.  He continued to show a good eye at the plate despite his early season struggles.  Consider that he's only had 175 at bats this season and it wasn't until June that he got regular playing time, his performance thus far has been nothing short of exciting.  Since the start of June - a span of 125 ABs - he has hit .304 with an on base just shy of .400 with 6 homers and 7 steals.  At that rate over a full season with regular at bats we're looking at a .300/.400/.500 player with 25-30 homers and 30-35 steals.  I'm not too worried long term about his knee injury - he suffered a similar injury in high school and was back on the field in two weeks after surgery.  The Nationals will be especially careful with him as there's no reason to rush him back but next year I have no doubt he will be a top 10 outfielder in the NL in both fantasy and real baseball.

The Brewers made a brilliant trade yesterday, snagging CC Sabathia from the Indians for Matt LaPorta, Zach Jackson, Rob Bryson and a player to be named.  LaPorta really had nowhere to play in Milwaukee as there really wasn't any way they'd be letting Prince Fielder, Ryan Braun or Corey Hart leave town any time soon.  Bryson has had a good season but unless he develops an offspeed pitch his career will be as a short reliever.  Neither of the other two players involved firgure to have significant major league impact.  In exchange, the Brewers have the best lefty-righty top of the rotation in the NL, perhaps the best since Schilling and Johnson led the D-Backs to the 2001 title.  The addition of last year's AL Cy Young winner will also reduce the the number of innings the Brewer's bullpen will have to pitch, further increasing their effectiveness.  And lefties coming to the NL historically enjoy three to four months of career best effectiveness (see, Lilly, Ted and Lieter, Al) so Sabathia might even be better than he was last year for the balance of this season.  If his performance after a rough April is any indicator - 2.39 ERA, 1.0405 WHIP with 90 Ks in 90.3 innings - his post-All-Star performance might be downright incredible, along the same lines as Johan Santana's second half in 2004.

On a non-baseball note, I wanted to pose a question: is Tiger Woods the best golfer ever?  There seems little doubt that he will pass Jack Nicklaus' record of winning 18 majors.  But does that make him the Mohammed Ali of golf or the Larry Holmes, who won 49 consecutive fights and retained the championship belt for years but never fought anyone tougher than glorified tomato cans?  Is there another great golfer, or even a non-tomato can playing right now who knows how to win and can challenge Tiger? 

Ali gets the edge as the greatest boxer over greats like Joe Louis, Jack Johnson and Rocky Marciano because he defeated Joe Frazier and George Foreman, champions who are often ranked as two of the 10 best heavyweights ever.  Pete Sampras (14 majors) might be the greatest tennis player ever, not only because of the number of majors he won but because he had to beat Andre Aggassi (8 majors), Boris Becker (6) and Stefan Edberg (6) to win them.  Roger Federer (12 majors) could challenge him for that title because he's got the wins but also because he's had to beat Rafael Nadal (5 major wins but who knows... maybe in a few years it will be Nadal who is making the greatest ever argument because he had Federer to beat).  Jack Nicklaus' 18 major wins is so impressive because he had to contend with guys like Tom Watson (8 majors), Gary Player (9 majors), Armold Palmer (7 majors), Lee Trevino (6 majors) and Seve Ballesteros (5 majors).  All of those guys knew how to close the deal if they were leading going into the back nine on Sunday.  Ben Hogan won 9 majors and survived a life threatening car accident that left him crippled for the better part of his career, but it was because he got the better of Sam Snead (7 majors but probably would have won more had play not been suspended for 3 years during World War 2) and Byron Nelson (5 majors but whose last win came in the first major after the War) that he gets as much respect as he does.  Bobby Jones (7 major titles, all as an amateur) had Walter Hagen (11 major titles) and Gene Sarazen (7 majors) to deal with on Sundays. 

Who does Tiger have to contend with?  Phil Mickelson with 3 major wins, who completely collapsed on the final hole of the 2006 US Open and hasn't been heard from since?  Ernie Els who hasn't won a major since 2002?  Vijay Singh hasn't won since 2004.  None of those guys has more than 3 majors and all of them appear to be done.  Sergio Garcia was supposed to be the guy to challenge Tiger but he has yet to win a major, failing to seal a fairly easy win at the 2007 British Open.  Tiger's biggest challenge to date has come on a bad knee against a 47-year old journeyman with back troubles.  How daunting is that?  With a lead going into Sunday he can pretty much count on his competition having a meltdown on the back nine... or before.  Tiger doesn't have a Frazier or an Aggasi.  Right now it appears that he doesn't even have a Trevor Berbick. 

Tiger might very well be the best ever but until he has a worthy challenger he might just be the unluckiest great champion ever.

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