All-Star Break BLog

Rather than spend my time trying to perfect a single article during the Break, I've decided to jot down notes on the first half of the season as they come to me in a trial run of a very popular format - the blog - to see how well it is received.  After the Break, I'll be taking a few days off but will be back with renewed vigor on Monday. 

A Change in Houston  - 7/15/04
I'm not a big fan of Jimy Williams' managerial ability, but what is with this endless cycle of retreads?  Phil Garner has only once finished higher than 3rd and his career average season is 76-86.  Just once during his 10 years with the Brewers and Tigers did he manage a winning record and that occurred his first year in Milwaukee when he piloted a team with two Hall-of-Famers (Yount, Molitor), a future 50-home run hitter (Greg Vaughn), five future All-Stars (Dante Bichette, BJ Surhoff, Dave Nilsson, Kevin Seitzer and John Jaha) and the Rookie of the Year (Pat Listach).  He also inherited a very strong bullpen that year (Doug Henry, Mike Fetters, Jesse Orosco, Darren Holmes, Dan Plesac and Bruce Ruffin) and a solid rotation which included rookie phenom Cal Eldred.  Only in his final full year in Detroit could it be said that he helmed an undertalented team.  The other nine years, his clubs should have been competitive or at least within reach of .500. 
With the exception of the 1996 Brewers, they weren't.

Like Williams, Garner has a compulsion to change the line-up daily and has a tendency to use three relievers when one will do.  In fact, about the only tendencies where they differ are that Garner likes to run a little more and Williams likes to pitch out a little more.  Shave his mustache and Phil Garner is Jimy Williams, at least when it comes to the game on the field. 
The team will be a little more active on the bases, which had been an under-used asset with Williams, but most of that will come in the form of hit-and-runs.  Maybe Garner's clubhouse demeanor will make a difference with the Astros, but right now, it appears that their primary criteria for hiring him was that he lived in Houston.  "Improved team chemistry" will be what brings the Astros out of 5th place because it sure won't be Garner's game.

The Game and the Rumor - 7/14/04

Well, it just goes to show that having the best talent doesn't mean you win one game.  Still, I have to hand it to Joe Torre: he did a very nice job of mixing the looks of his pitchers.  He started with a control lefty Mulder, then went to hard throwing right-hander Loaiza, then hard-throwing lefty Sabathia, followed by 4-pitch right-hander Javy Vazquez.  Then he put in lefty Lilly, followed by flame throwing righty Nathan and then finished it off with 2 excellent set-up men Gordon and KRod, followed by Rivera to close it out.  It's easier when you have so many quality arms to choose from, but he did a good job mixing repertoires and arm angles.

McKeon did an OK job and he was sorta stuck with having to play Kent because of the fan vote and playing in Houston, but the play he didn't make in the first inning really was the ballgame.  However, McKeon did make a puzzling sub in the ninth, replacing Beltran with Todd Helton, which meant that Jack Wilson (?!) got to bat for a second time and also meant that if they had gotten a rally going that Gagne would have had to bat for himself since no one else was left on the bench.  Oh well.

The big rumor that began to circulate during the game was that the Cubs, Red Sox and D-backs had worked a deal in which Randy Johnson would go the the Red Sox, Nomar Garciaparra would go to the Cubs and the D-backs would get several prospects from the Cubs, likely someone like Todd Wellmeyer, Bobby Brownlie and/or possibly Jason DuBois.  If it's not true, it sounds legit enough, so I have to give its creator accolades for making up something at least believable. 

The Red Sox would, theoretically, be freed up to trade Derek Lowe or move Tim Wakefield into the bullpen.  Pokey Reese would become the everyday shortstop up until Hanley Ramirez was ready or if they could get someone in return for Lowe.  The Cubs middle infield defense would suffer, but their offense - Walker, Patterson, Garciaparra, Sosa, Alou, Lee, A. Ramirez, Barrett - would be deep enough to make a very serious run for the division title despite being 7 games back.  They could also trade Alex Gonzales for some bullpen help.  The D-backs would get the quality prospects they so crave and get relief from Johnson's contract.  Question: given the number of very good prospects they've traded away the last few years to get to this point, how long will the D-backs hold on to these guys anyway? 

Big Unit Sweepstakes - 7/13/04
Besides all the useless talk about the Clemens/Piazza situation, the biggest topic of conversation at the Break has been the destination of Randy Johnson this season. 

The conventional wisdom says that the Yankees will get him.  Of course, the conventional wisdom always says that... and they haven't been right about a star-level player coming to New York in a mid-season trade since 2000 when David Justice was brought from Cleveland.  Since then, just about every major free agent-to-be has been rumored to be headed to the Yanks in a deadline deal, including Sammy Sosa a couple years ago.  The fact is that Yankees have very little to offer the Diamondbacks.  Dionner Navarro is the best chip they have and his OPS in AAA is .484.  That's not exactly the major league-ready talent Arizona is looking for in return.  And I wouldn't doubt that there is some lingering resentment from Jerry Colangelo over Steinbrenner stealing David Wells from him in 2002 after Wells had a verbal agreement in Arizona.   But maybe that was all Wells' doing.  Regardless, it's probably not something that works in favor of a Yankees/D-backs trade.

The Red Sox have a couple players that might be of interest (Kelly Shoppach, Hanley Ramirez) but Ramirez is injured and Arizona will almost assuredly want some pitching in return.  Plus there's the fact that the Red Sox never seem to be able to pull the trigger on the big deal.  They always seem to content themselves with picking up spare parts and hoping it works out.  Sometimes it does, sometimes it flops.  Making a big trade for a Johnson-caliber player, however desperately they might appear to need him to the media and the Red Sox Nation, just doesn't seem to be in their character. 

The Angels have a plethora of prospects that would entice Arizona, they don't have any of the emotional baggage that the Yankees might have with Colangelo and have shown that they have both the money and the resolve to pull the trigger on a big trade.  Ervin Santana probably tops the D-backs wish list, but Dallas MacPherson and Jeff Mathis would definitely add some sweetness to a deal.  With their quality depth in the bullpen, adding Randy Johnson would allow them to shop Ramon Ortiz for some more offensive depth. 

The Rangers also make an intriguing trade partner.  There was already talk of sending Kevin Mench to Arizona and no team in the AL race could stand to use another front-line starter more than the Rangers.   The Rangers also have a nice mix of young position players and pitchers they could part with that would be attractive to Colangelo and Co.  Juan Dominguez, Marshall MacDougal, Ian Kinsler and/or Mench or Laynce Nix would fit in very nicely in their long range scheme. 

In the NL, the Dodgers have some depth in the farm system, some room in the payroll and a desperate need for a big time starter that would make a match, but it's hard to imagine teams in the same division making such a trade.  There's nothing worse for a GM than seeing his farm products beating his team 15-20 times a year for the next dozen years.  The Padres aren't as desperate for a starter, but have all the other advantages and concerns that the Dodgers do.  The Dodgers are also probably looking to make several deals rather than just one big one as they have more than a couple concerns that need to be addressed.  The Padres just need to get healthy and find someone who can cover Petco's vast centerfield.

The Phillies have the prospects but not the wiggle room on the salary.  Same with the Marlins, although it remains to be seen how much impact Johnson would have with either of those teams since they already have quality depth in the rotation.  The Braves could definitely use him and have some prospects that would be of interest like Andy Marte, but with bean counters running the show now instead of Ted Turner, they're quite unlikely to take on his salary.

The Mets have set their sights on Kris Benson as the addition to their rotation, but Johnson would make a very interesting play.  They would almost certainly have to give up David Wright in the deal, which makes the cost prohibitive, but with their offense picking up since the trade for Richard Hidalgo and the bullpen rounding into shape, having Johnson, Leiter and Glavine going into the playoffs would make them an incredibly dangerous team. 

Both the Astros and Cubs are loaded in the rotation so they'll be looking for bullpen and bench help, but the Cardinals could use more of a sure thing in the rotation.  Of course, they don't really have anything in the minors that would attract the D-backs enough to make the deal.  But the more one looks at this team, the more they look like a team that could squander a 7-game lead because their rotation has won more often than their numbers support to this point. 

My guess is that if Johnson agrees to go anywhere, the Angels or Rangers seem like the best fit to make everyone involved happy.  Both teams have a very good shot of winning it all with Johnson, both have the money to spend and both have the young players to trade that could make it happen.  The logical choice would be the Angels, since Johnson has a home in California, but it's not often that logic enters the equation when D-back GM Joe Garagiola Jr. is making the deals, so about the only place that it would surprise me for Johnson to end up would be Montreal.

One final note on the home run derby: if team chemistry ends up playing any part in the All-Star game, it certainly seems be in the AL's favor.  It was interesting to watch how much those guys pulled for Tejada during the contest.  On the NL side, most of the players were disaffected on-lookers.  Maybe it was the predominantly latin make-up of the AL squad that made them so closely knit, but they certainly seemed to enjoy the event as a team, rather than as a bunch of unrelated observers.  It was almost as much fun to watch David Ortiz cheerleading as it was to watch Tejada and Berkman hitting in the final.  That said, judging from the rosters the NL appears to have the more potent squad and staff; they have the potential to make this a laugher.

Home Run Derby - 7/12/04
After Miguel Tejada outlasted Lance Berkman for the home run derby title, I wondered ,"does winning it portend to a good second half?"  Actually, a number of hitters have stated they don't like to enter the contest because they get so pull-conscious that they screw up their swings.  Well, after looking at the data, it doesn't appear that the winners ever feel any negative after-effect.

Last year, Garrett Anderson won and then turned in almost identical year-end numbers as he had the previous year.  The runner-up, Albert Pujols went on to establish career highs in homers and came fairly close to winning the triple crown.   In 2002, Jason Giambi won and ended up hitting 41 homers for the season, which was pretty much what he had done in Oakland the previous two seasons. 

Luis Gonzales was one of the hottest hitters in baseball in the first half of 2001 when he won and went on to establish a career high in homers with 57 that season.  He did cool down a little after the break, hitting only 22 out with a .290 average. 

Sammy Sosa won the contest in 2000 and that also happened to be the first year he went on to win the overall home run title.  He finished with 50, which oddly enough was a down year for him as he had topped 60 the previous two years and topped it again the following year.  He didn't wear the overall crown again until 2002, when he finished with 49 for the season, but second to Giambi in the derby.  In 2001, he finished second in the derby to Gonzo and second overall to Bonds.

Ken Griffey Jr won in 1999, 1998 and 1994.  His 1998 win occurred during the second of his career best 56-homer seasons and the 1999 win was the last time he topped 40.  The strike shortened the season the year of Griffey's first win, but he still finished with the lead in the AL with 40.  He finished second in a derby playoff in 1993, but that marked the first big home run year of his career with 45.

Tino Martinez won it in 1997 and that was the year he hit 44 homers.  In no other year has he hit more than 34.  Bonds won in 1996, the same year he became the second player in history to hit 40 homers and steal 40 bases in a single season.  In second place that season in the derby was Brady Anderson.  That just happened to be his 50-homer season.  Albert Belle edged out Frank Thomas in 1995, which also happened to be his 50-homer season.

In 1993, Juan Gonzales won the 2-round playoff with Griffey.  He finished the season with 46, the second consecutive year he won the AL home run title.  McGwire won in 1992 and he finished the season with his best year since his rookie campaign.  However, injuries were becoming a problem for him and he'd spend much of the next two seasons on the DL before bouncing back in 1995.

Cal Ripken won the derby in 1991 and finished with 34 in what would be his second MVP season.  In 1990, Ryne Sandberg won the derby and finished the season with 40 homers, becoming only the third second baseman to hit as many and besting his next best season by 10.  In 1989, Eric Davis tied with Ruben Sierra for the title.  That year was Davis' second best home run season (34 bombs) and was Sierra's best year as a professional, finishing second in the MVP voting.  The 1988 contest was canceled due to rain, but the 1987 winner, Andre Dawson, went on to win the MVP and the home run crown with 49 homers that year.

So what does all this mean?  Not much really.  Guys who get into the derby are pretty good hitters regardless and barring injury can be expected to perform at a very high level throughout the course of the season.  But it is interesting to note that no one who won the contest has fallen off the map in the second half, and more than half of the last dozen or so winners went on to finish with MVP-worthy or career seasons.  And it hasn't been a bad omen for the guys who finished as runner-up. 

Run Support and other mysteries - 7/12/04
Perhaps the biggest secret for a starting pitcher to win lots of games is get your teammates to score a lot of runs for you.  It doesn't guarantee a gaudy total, but it sure does help.

For example, no starting pitcher in the American League has more strikeouts (136) or has allowed fewer baserunners per nine innings (9.63) than Johan Santana.  The biggest reason his record is barely above .500 (7-6) is because his teammates do a terrible job of scoring runs for him: just 4.37 per outing, 12th worst in the American League.  Since the beginning of June, he has gone at least 7 innings in every start, struck out at least 10 batters in all but 2 (and in those he struck out 7) and has allowed a total of 12 runs in eight starts.  In those 62.2 innings, he's allowed 41 baserunners.  He's 5-3 in that span and in the three losses, his team scored a total of three runs.  Likewise, his teammate Brad Radke has pitched very well so far but has little to show for it (5-5) thanks to 4.13 runs per game, 5th worst in the league. 

The rumors are that the Twins are in the market for another starter, someone like Kris Benson or Tony Armas.  But does that really solve their problem?  They say that their offense will get better once Shannon Stewart (career .816 OPS) returns, but given that they never sit Doug Mientkiewicz (career .775) when he's healthy and Lew Ford (career .875) has been their most productive outfielder to date, how much better are they going to get by replacing Ford or Matt LeCroy (.career .773) in the line-up?  It's probably just a crazy idea but maybe it's time they considered playing Justin Morneau (.912 OPS in the majors, .992 in AAA this year) a little more often than either LeCroy or Mientkiewicz.   No, he's  not a defensive wiz, but an OPS that's more than 100 points better than what they're using might make more of a difference than the occasional scoop play at first does.  Maybe replacing Cristian Guzman at short (career .685) via trade would help, too.  

Another good starter on the losing end of the run support spectrum is Kelvim Escobar.  He's gotten the 4th worst run support in the league - 3.47 per game.   What's weird is that teammates Jarrod Washburn and Bartolo Colon are among the top 10 in run support.  Washburn gets an AL best 8.53, Colon is 7th at 6.56.  It's hard to imagine such a disparity on the same team continuing for the rest of the season so life should get a little easier for Escobar.  Perhaps a second half slow down for Colon and Washburn is also in the offing.  There's a similar case in Texas, where Kenny Rogers gets the 4th best run support (7.22 per game) and Joaquin Benoit is not far behind with 6.81 per game.  Ryan Drese, on the other hand, has gotten the 11th worst support with just 4.33. 

Victor Zambrano is an very interesting study in contrasts.  He allows more baserunners than all but 3 starters in the AL, but doesn't let opposing batters do the damage.  He has the second best batting average against in the AL (.227) and the 8th best strikeout rate (7.81).  And with the 10th best run support (6.37) and a bullpen with the 4th best save percentage in the league, it adds up to a starter winning 9 of his 14 decisions.  It'll be interesting to see if he can continue to toe the line between success and disaster for another two and a half months

The most consistently well supported staffs in the AL so far are those of Chicago, who have 3 starters in the top 20 - Buerhle, Loaiza and Garland - and surprisingly, Cleveland, who have 4 starters enjoying more than 5.91 runs of support per start - Davis, Sabathia, Lee and Westbrook.  Had either team settled their bullpen issues sooner, both could be sporting 3 or 4 starters with double digit wins right now.  As it is, neither team has even one 10-game winner.

In the National League, Kaz Ishii is doing his imitation of Victor Zambrano, enjoying the best run support in the League (7.64) and holding opposing batters to a .237 average (10th best) but allowing more baserunners than all but 15 starters. 

Eric Milton hasn't pitched poorly, but hasn't pitched very well either, so it's accurate to say that his success in the wins column (11) is largely the result of the 2nd best run support in the senior circuit (7.51 per game).  What is noteworthy is that he will need to continue to get that kind of support in order to keep winning because he allows more fly balls than any starter in the NL and the new Philly ballpark is a haven for homers.

Not surprisingly, three Colorado starters rank in the top 10 in best run support, but what is surprising is that there is a New York Met in the top 10.  Shea Stadium has never been a good hitter's park and the Mets offense hasn't exactly been lighting up the scoreboard.  They rank 10th overall in the NL and 7th as a visitor, yet Steve Trachsel (6.39) has been the beneficiary of the 7th best run support in the league to this point.

A couple other oddities: Ishmael Valdez (5.45), Bret Tomko (5.47) and Kurt Rueter (5.36) are in the top 20 in best run support.  All three pitch in notably pitcher friendly venues and each is more of an afterthought in their rotations, far inferior to the front line talent.  Yet for some reason, their teams are scoring like crazy for them.  Another Giants pitcher near the top is Jerome Williams (5.28), who is # 21 on the list. 

Which brings me to another oddity.  Did anyone think going into the season that the San Francisco Giants would field the 3rd most prolific offense in the NL, and have the second best home offense in the league, behind only Colorado?  Stuff like that renders statistical probability and analysis moot.  As a team they are hitting .321 with the bases loaded and both Neifi Perez and Ray Durham are hitting .500 in such situations, a combined 7 for 14.  I'm not sure too many people envisioned this entire team would have that many bases loaded opportunities all year, much less two players.  The team has had 3040 at bats so far and 106 of them have come with the bases loaded.  To show just how crazy that is, the Yankees have had 2945 at bats and have come up with the bases loaded 107 times.  The Texas Rangers, the most prolific scoring team this season, have amassed  3058 at bats and have come up with the bases loaded just 57 times.  The Red Sox have the highest team on base in the majors (.360) yet have 109 at bats with the bases full.  Did anyone think before the season that an offense with Michael Tucker, Pedro Feliz, Neifi Perez, Deivi Cruz and Edgardo Alfonzo hitting regularly would match the Yankees, Red Sox and Rangers in scoring?   In all likelihood, this is an extreme anomaly and the players who are exceeding their career rates (which includes just about everyone on the team) will revert to their norms.  Combined with a bullpen that has similarly over-achieved, as well as surprisingly good performances from their starting pitchers not named Jason Schmidt, the Giants appear to be prime candidates for a substantial, perhaps historic crash in the second half.  If they don't, it'll be hard to deny that Felipe Alou has done one of the best jobs of managing in major league history.

Back to run support, David Wells probably doesn't regret spending his final year(s) in his hometown San Diego, but I bet he sure misses the Yankee run support.  Wells has the 2nd worst run support in the majors at 3.09 per game and even when he's pitched well and the Padres have scored enough runs for him to win, the bullpen has let him down.  In fact, all three of Trevor Hoffman's blown saves have occurred in David Wells starts.  Twice Wells held the opposition scoreless, but was left without a win because of a Hoffman meltdown. 

The guy with the worst run support, however, is Zach Day.  The Expos offense has been the worst in the majors this season, in part due to injuries but also due to a brutal travel schedule that would make even the WWE cringe.  But I didn't imagine it would be so bad that Day couldn't even get two and a half runs of support per start, because that is where he is - 2.49 runs per game. 

Other good starters who have suffered from criminally negligent offenses are Odalis Perez (3.39), Ben Sheets (3.43), Matt Clement (3.53), Brad Penny (3.82) and Adam Eaton (3.89).  Two surprises near the bottom of the list are a couple of gray beards who are having very good seasons: Tom Glavine (3.85) and Roger Clemens (4.09).  They might not be able to keep up their strong first half performances but it seems likely that their teammates will help them out a little more.  And Cris Carpenter's success is not due to great run support (4.43) unlike teammates Matt Morris (6.50), Jason Marquis (6.50) and Woody Williams (5.49).