So the 2013 schedule came out today. (Well, technically yesterday in the Eastern and Central time zones)
And it’s been dissected and analyzed, and I’m a bit of a schedule geek, so I find that stuff interesting. There’s plenty of it around if you care to take a look. But there’s one thing that came up a few times that I disagree with, and why does one have a blog if not to disagree with conventional wisdom?
There’s an angle, a point a few people have made, about Interleague play in September. About how, for an AL team going on the road in September for Interleague games, there’s a special disadvantage because they’re doing without the DH in the most important games of the year.
And, I mean, when you first hear it, it makes sense. Except there’s a big problem: September games aren’t any more meaningful than any other games. They’re equally important, or maybe even less so.
In a literal sense, every game counts exactly the same. You lose a game, you lose a game. There’s not extra weighting for September games. Unlike, say, college football, where the last games are in fact more important because they have more bearing on the polls. Or college basketball, where a team’s final 10 games are a factor for the tournament committee. In baseball, every game counts the same. One win, one loss. If you start 100-0, then go 0-62, you’re in the playoffs. Start 0-81, finish 81-0, you’re not.
But let’s go a step farther than that. The most important games of the year are almost certainly in July. That’s when a GM shapes what his team will look like over the final two months. Let’s say the Brewers had exactly the same record they do now, but they had five more wins in July and five fewer in August and September. So they were 49-49 on the morning of July 27, and 23-22 since then. Well, they’d have a better team than they do right now, because they probably would still have Zack Greinke.
It’s a credit to them that they’re charging like they are without Greinke, but they’d be better with him in their starting rotation. The Phillies would probably be better with Shane Victorino and Hunter Pence.
If you told me a team was going to win N games, say 90, and asked me how I wanted them distributed, I’d want more in July than any other time.
Today’s playlist, btw, is “Twenty-Five For the Rest of Our Lives” by the Henry Clay People. Recommended album.
I just finished a story that will go up on MLB.com tomorrow examining a few teams that might be particularly well-built for October. In it, I included a line about how I was leaving out teams like the Nationals and Rangers, because anybody can pick a favorite.
The problem is, when I wanted to include at least one National League team, that limitation made it pretty tough on me. I found a team (a team I’ve liked since March, actually), but my heart was less in it. I think there are more of those interesting-in-October teams in the AL than in the NL. The White Sox, the Angels, even the Orioles all look like teams that have some argument for being tough outs in the playoffs. Heck, even the Rays and A’s, if you wanted to make a case, I’d listen.
That’s because the two teams that are best built for October in the NL, for my money, are the two best teams in the NL. I know, on Twitter, this would probably earn me an #analysis hashtag, but I really think the Nationals (even without Stephen Strasburg) and the Reds are the teams to beat in the NL postseason.
(STANDARD AND ESSENTIAL DISCLAIMER: Nobody has that much more than a 1/8 chance of winning the whole thing. The best team doesn’t win a playoff series that much more than 50 percent of the time, so predicting October outcomes is really a fool’s errand. Anyway, on with the show.)
Baseball Prospectus “retired” its Secret Sauce rankings a couple of years ago, but I think the things still have some merit. The idea was that the things that best determine October success are: a rotation that strikes people out, a dominant closer, and an airtight defense. I think there are a couple of other things (though without actual evidence, I’m perfectly open to any skepticism about this theory; it’s based on observation, which is always dangerous) to take seriously: a tactically sound manager and an offense that has at least one of the following two traits: lineup depth and/or power.
I believe in the first because I’ve just seen it too many times, managers getting exposed tactically in October and paying the price. I don’t believe, at all, that tactics are all there is to being a manager. In fact, it’s one thing that being on the beat really impressed upon me, that I had that balance wrong. I thought tactics were the vast majority of managing. I no longer do. But in October, while some personal challenges become magnified, many kind of fade away. It’s easier to get everybody on the same page when the goal is so clearly in sight.
As for the offensive part, well, the expression (courtesy of my friend Joe Sheehan) is “Ball go far, team go far.” It’s easier to hit one home run than to string several baserunners together against elite pitchers and defenses. But if you don’t have power, the next best thing is depth, as the increased exposure, scouting, video, etc. of a short series should make it easier to shut down one or two or three key guys. (for a second time: I’m not decreeing these things to be so. I could be wrong. They’re based on my impressions, observations, reading, analysis, etc. Just my take. I’ve been wrong more than once before in my life. Anyway, again, on with the show.)
Well, look at the Nats and Reds, and especially the Nats. Talk about a rotation that misses bats. Even without Strasburg, they certainly have that. They don’t have a Rivera-class closer, but they have something that IMO is even better: a core of four or so relievers who can dominate. I don’t think you need to go seven deep in October. In fact, I know you don’t. But you do need more than just a closer. Most teams are going to ride 3-4 relievers hard in the postseason. They can do that.
As for the offense, as of right now Washington meets both criteria. Believe it or not, the Nats are second in the NL in home runs. They also feature a lineup where Jayson Werth leads off, and guys with 22 and 16 home runs bat sixth and seventh. A rejuvenated Kurt Suzuki is a nice-looking eighth hitter. The more I see this team, the more I like it. They’re a load for just about anybody in the NL.
The defense isn’t great, but it’s not bad. And the manager, for my money, is one of the shrewdest tacticians of the past few decades. There just aren’t any obvious weaknesses to exploit here. If I had to pick a team to win the NL (and at some point, I’m sure I will have to do just that), right now it’s Washington.
And if it’s not Washington, it’s Cincinnati, which has many of the same qualities. I don’t like the depth of Reds’ rotation as much as that of the Nats’, but the top two guys definitely miss bats. The bullpen, on the other hand, may be even better. They’re potent from the left and right sides, and if Dusty Baker gets creative, Aroldis Chapman could be a 4-, 5-, or even 6-out monster in playoff games.
The lineup is just as deep, if not deeper, with seven players who have 14 homers or more. The Reds are right behind the Nats in homers on the year, and they’ve done that with Joey Votto missing a huge chunk of the year. Top to bottom, I’d take the Reds lineup over the Nats lineup. I don’t like Dusty Baker as a tactician nearly as much as I like Johnson, but then, I could say that about most managers. Davey’s awfully sharp. They’re also not quite as good defensively as the Nats according to the numbers, but boy, they look like a pretty good fielding team to my eye.
In short, I think the Reds are sort of 90 percent of the Nats, with broadly similar strengths and weaknesses. And while I certainly wouldn’t rule out the Giants’ rotation getting torrid for a month, or the Cardinals hanging six runs a game for a month, as of right now I like the Nats and Reds a good bit more than any other team in the NL when it comes to October matchups.
Feel free to call me on this in mid-October when it’s a Dodgers-Pirates NLCS, btw.
This has been fun, setting up shop for a full series, watching two good teams play, actually getting to know the clubs a little bit. Here are a few thoughts and observations that haven’t made it into what I’ve written for the site.
* I really like the Braves lineup, but it’s somewhat susceptible to being shut down by good left-handed pitching. It’s a heavily lefty lineup, though Freddie Freeman for one has been solid lefty-on-lefty.
What will be interesting to see, as they go down the stretch and if they make it to October, is how Fredi Gonzalez handles the tactical pieces he has on his bench. Atlanta has two very nice lefty-killers in reserve: David Ross and Reed Johnson. And that’s convenient, since Jason Heyward and Brian McCann have been the two most problematic players against lefties for Atlanta this year.
By contrast, the Nationals have very little platoon split, and they go left-right-left-right all the way through the lineup. They have dangerous hitters from both sides of the plate. The reason I wasn’t as optimistic about Washington as a lot of people were back in March was that I wasn’t sure they’d score enough runs. But with Jayson Werth’s bounceback, Mike Morse repeating what he’s done and Adam LaRoche having his best year since ’09, this is a strong offense.
* Davey Johnson seemed to let slip the target date for Stephen Strasburg’s shutdown today. He said they would need two or possibly three starts from whoever steps in, indicating that Strasburg will pitch until about the last 10-15 games of the year.
Washington ends the season with 16 games in 16 days, so it sounds like Strasburg make his last start sometime in the Nats’ last full-week homestand, quite possibly against the Dodgers between Sept. 18-20.
It sounds like there’s still a little bit of wiggle room based on changing circumstances, but the way Johnson phrased it today made it pretty clear that they have a date. They just haven’t made it public.
* The Braves’ schedule is intriguing. They’ve got a rough go right now, with a trip to San Francisco immediately following tonight’s game and no off day in between. But after that, it really eases up. They have exactly the schedule you want if you’re leading a race (and they are, leading the Wild Card by three games over Pittsburgh and 3 1/2 by the first team not in playoff position, St. Louis).
They not only see mostly non-contending teams (with the exception of those games against the Giants and one more series with Washington), which is of course nice. But more important, the teams that are chasing them have almost no chances to gain ground directly. After this weekend, Atlanta has one more series in 2012 against another team in the Wild Card race — they end the year with a series in Pittsburgh.
And, finally, the playlist is an assortment of stuff from some of my favorite albums so far in 2012:
Japandroids, “Younger Us”
Bruce Springsteen, “Rocky Ground”
Cloud Nothings, “Stay Useless”
Justin Townes Earle, “Am I That Lonely Tonight?”
Jack White, “Love Interruption”
A few thoughts from the past week or so of watching baseball (including three games in person, which was quite nice)…
* I talked about this some on Twitter last night, but after seeing the Indians and White Sox this week, and after researching them both quite a lot in advance of seeing them, I’m a much bigger believer in the Sox than the Tribe.
As I wrote in my column last night, the Sox don’t have many real gaping weaknesses. The ‘pen has been an issue, but the arms are there for it to be plenty good, and of course there’s nothing easier to fix than a bullpen. Alexei Ramirez’s falloff has been really puzzling, but that’s still only one lineup spot. Elsewhere in the lineup, there’s danger even at the spots where there are OBP issues.
Meanwhile, I just don’t see a lot to like with Cleveland. The back of the bullpen has been effective, but beyond those three guys, it’s a problem. And three-man bullpens tend to burn out. The rotation only goes about two deep with any real effectiveness, and the lineup has far too many holes. Chicago’s a better defensive team too.
Of course, that still leaves the Tigers, who I’m having a hard time getting a handle on, but my expectation is that it will be a Tigers-White Sox race. The opportunity would have been very much there for the Royals if they had had more luck keeping their starters healthy, but the injuries to Duffy and Paulino just look like too much to overcome.
* I find myself believing a little bit in the Mets, even after their rough weekend against the Yankees. The lineup is better than it gets credit for (third in NL in runs scored… yes, really), the rotation is solid and deep, and the bullpen… Well, can it really be THIS bad? The NLE is a fascinating division where there are a lot of strengths and a lot of weaknesses, and I’m beginning to think the Mets should buy.
* I’ve also been thinking a bit about paces. Nobody ever hits them, and there’s a reason for that. Remember early in the year, the paces that Josh Hamilton was on? Now it’s Joey Votto, on pace for about 70 doubles.
Here’s the thing: we only seem to extrapolate guys’ paces when they’re at their absolute peaks. Earl Webb hit 67 doubles in 1931. That means that on AVERAGE, he was at a 67-double pace. Not at his high point. At one point, in mid-July, Earl Webb was on pace to hit 77 doubles.
Over the course of a season, a player has peaks and valleys on the way to his final numbers. He doesn’t sustain his hottest stretch for a full season. Joey Votto is almost certainly not going to hit 69 doubles.
Doesn’t mean he’s not having a great season, of course. Just a reminder that hot streaks are considered hot streaks for a reason.
I’ll be writing about R.A. Dickey in advance of his start Sunday night, and that’ll appear on Mets.com and MLB.com at some point in the next 24-48 hours, so I attended his news conference at Citi Field today.
It was, in a word, fascinating. He’s one of the most interesting, thoughtful players I’ve heard speak, and there was a lot of good stuff in the presser. Most of it I’ll save for the story, but I wanted to pass along two things that I thought were particularly of interest.
* The first is an anecdote. He was asked whether he takes note of, or enjoys, or whatever, the reactions of hitters to trying to hit the flutterball. And, well, let’s just say the answer is yes.
“I do look at reactions of hitters,” he said. “Not only their swing reaction to the pitch I’m throwing, but their facial expressions. For instance, Adam Jones, the first at-bat [on Monday], I saw him talking to Josh [Thole, catcher] and Josh told me what he said. I saw him giggling after a couple pitches, and that right there tells me that he’s going to be struggling with it all night. That’s a bullet in my gun. I’m out there to win the game, and I’m out there to make him go back to the dugout as quickly as possible. So if I have that, that certainly is ammunition.” (emphasis added)
He’s a nice guy and an interesting guy. He throws a pitch that has kind of a “cute, cuddly” connotation. He’s also a competitor, and if you give a competitor an edge like that, well, that’s what happens.
* Second was something that I saw brought up on Twitter a couple of days ago (I forget who I saw mentioning it, sorry about that). Dickey was asked whether writing a book this winter, and revealing some traumatic experiences (most notably sexual abuse that he suffered as a child), might be contributing to his success this year. In short, whether having that off his chest might help him, or whether that was a stretch.
The response: “I don’t think that’s a stretch. I think that’s good insight. I think any time you feel the freedom to be yourself, it’s going to enhance the other aspects of your life. Whether it’s how you are as a father, how you are as a baseball player. That was certainly one of the things that I was hoping for when I wrote it. And as far as the attention that it’s gotten, I’m certainly flattered and my hope in that is that people will learn from my mistakes.”
-M, blogging fiend today.
Pardon kind of a freeform post here. Not that they all aren’t, I guess.
As I’ve mentioned a few times, 2002 was my first year on the beat, and in fact the first year I ever held a beat of any kind. As everyone knows, that’s the year Darryl Kile and Jack Buck died. But it was also the year Tino Martinez stepped in for Mark McGwire, the year that 11 different pitchers started a game for the Cardinals before the end of May, the year the Cards traded for Chuck Finley and Scott Rolen, and the year that Ozzie Smith was inducted into the Hall of Fame. It was the most eventful season out of my 10 covering the team.
To top it off, I finagled my way into covering the College World Series for MLB.com that year as well. I was out of town when Jack Buck passed away, and I was out of town when the club held a memorial service for Buck.
And on Saturday, June 22, I was sitting in the press box at old Rosenblatt Stadium one more time, covering the national championship game between Texas and South Carolina, when I heard-but-didn’t-hear something. Surely you all know how that is. Something is said in a crowded room, and somewhere in the back of your brain you’re aware that it was said, but you don’t really hear it. You don’t really process it.
Someone said, “Darryl Kile died.” And I didn’t process it. Then somebody else said it, and I came a little closer to actually hearing it. By the third or fourth time, I actually processed it. This was something that had happened. This was something real.
I got to the work part of things as quickly as I could, but there wasn’t much that I could do. The Cardinals were in Chicago, and my esteemed colleague Carrie Muskat was covering the series. Carrie was on top of everything, and honestly I owe her a huge debt to this day. I remember being in the press box, hearing the news and finally processing it, like it was yesterday. I literally remember nothing else about that day. I’m sure I wrote something off the game. I’m sure I had dinner. I know for a fact that I rearranged my travel plans, but I don’t remember doing that either.
But I know I did it, because I got on a much earlier flight on Sunday than I had intended. I had been scheduled to come back from Omaha sometime in the afternoon. Instead, I adjusted things so I could get on an early morning departure. Flew back to St. Louis, rushed back to my apartment in the Central West End to grab a change of clothes, and made straight for Chicago.
I pulled into a parking lot somewhere near Wrigley at about 3:15 p.m. Rushed to pick up my credential, hustled up to the press box (if you’ve never done that, it’s an endeavor. You take the stairs, and it’s not real close), and basically walked in there right at the moment that the clubhouse was to open.
I walked up to Carrie, tried to take a minute to thank her for carrying the load the day before, and she stopped me before I could even finish. There was work to be done. This is why I love working with Carrie, by the way.
Mercifully, the Cardinals did not open the clubhouse that night. The players didn’t want it, the coaching staff didn’t want it, and I assure you I didn’t want it. I can’t speak for anyone else in the media, but I was extremely relieved. Five years later I was in the clubhouse pregame the day after Josh Hancock died, and I wish I hadn’t been.
They brought a couple of people out to talk to us, and everyone was just in a haze. The game was played in a haze, truth be told. Jason Simontacchi had the unenviable task of pitching on what would have been Kile’s day, and he handled himself as well as could be asked. Kile took pride in the fact that he never missed a start in the big leagues. Taking his spot, under the lights on ESPN no less, was unfair to ask of anyone.
The ensuing days were scarcely any better. We had to write about Kile, but humans grieve in a lot of different ways, and some of these guys simply didn’t want to talk about him — understandably. Matt Morris, who counted Kile as one of his closest friends, just didn’t want to talk about it. As I’ve mentioned here before, Dave Veres was a godsend, because he wanted to talk about his friend. It helped him.
The rest of the season, of course, continued to be tremendously memorable for better and worse. The Cardinals weren’t done losing members of their family; Darrell Porter and Enos Slaughter both passed away in August. The Rolen and Finley trades were huge boosts to a team that played inspired baseball through the summer. The playoff win against the Diamondbacks was uplifting.
And then there’s one last memory I have of that team and that season. I’ve been in a lot of losing locker rooms, including World Series and LCS. I’ve seen some teams take some hits. And I have never, in my time covering baseball, been in a clubhouse as silent, as dejected, as punched in the stomach over the outcome of a game, as the Cardinals after the 2002 NLCS.
They sincerely believed, like no team I’ve been around, that they were destined. They were playing for Darryl and Jack, and for the fans who had their back throughout the season, and for each other with all they went through. There’s always disappointment when a season ends, but that team wasn’t just disappointed. I really feel like they thought they had let people down.
They didn’t, of course. Quite the opposite. That was a remarkable team, and among other things for my money it was the best managing job TLR ever did. But there was no hearing it that night. No “we gave it a good run.” It wasn’t the time for appreciating what they’d done, as far as they were concerned.
Anyway, this is long and rambling, so I’ll stop now. Thanks for reading.
I’m writing a column on Darryl Kile — writing it now, actually, and this blog post is me taking a breather in that process — and the column will be up later this afternoon. As with my remember of Tony La Russa’s career, though, sometimes there’s an anecdote that just doesn’t fit into a story if you want to tell the anecdote right.
Kile, as I’ve written and said before, was very tough to cover when he was in St. Louis. I’ve heard that that was not the case when he pitched for the Astros, but by the time he got to the Cardinals, after a stop in Denver, he didn’t like giving interviews. He could be prickly and was always brief. I was in my first year on the beat, my first year on any beat, and in fact had been warned by my predecessor that Kile could be a bear to reporters. He was a big guy, I was a rookie who was totally out of his depth — it’s fair to say I was a little intimidated by him.
(Note: please read the column when it goes up, since it’s all about my reflection on the difference between the player that we in the media see and the man that the player is at other times.)
Anyway, it was early in Spring Training. I’d been down in Florida for maybe a couple of weeks. The reporters were standing around at the corner of Field 1, waiting for La Russa to come out and hold his customary briefing. Pitchers were tossing, warming up for the day. The nearest pair of pitchers was Kile and Rick Ankiel — Kile near, along the warning track, Ankiel farther, out in the outfield. This was 2002, so Ankiel’s difficulties throwing the ball were already well known and documented. It was a sore subject, to say the least.
(Perhaps some other time in this space I’ll share my favorite Dave Duncan story, which also pertains to Ankiel and is extremely funny but would require some heavy editing to fit in a family blog. But that’s for another day.)
So we wait, and we watch the pitchers throw. That’s quite a bit of what you do in Spring Training. And after a few, Ankiel throws a ball that drifts a bit, sailing in the direction of the writers. It didn’t sail a lot. It didn’t get away. But Kile had to stretch to get it. And from my angle, it really did look like the ball was coming right at us.
So, I said, not loudly and not pointedly, “Heads up.” The universal signal for, “Hey, that baseball could be in someone’s face sooner than later, so you might want to be careful.” Like I’ve said dozens, maybe hundreds, of times over the years at ballparks.
Kile caught the ball and immediately turned around. With a scowl, he practically growled, “Who said that?!?!?” I meekly acknowledged that I had, but that I certainly hadn’t meant anything by it. He didn’t follow up, didn’t pick a fight. I’m sure he quickly realized that it wasn’t a shot or a dig at Ankiel — but he didn’t know that at first, and for all he knew until he checked, it might have been. So it was his duty to make sure he had his teammate covered.
It was a little thing, but it was very much the essence of what Kile was about when he was around the team. Teammates first, above all else. He’d sent his message — he had Ankiel’s back, and if anybody DID want to get cute, they were welcome to go through him.
Upon returning to the office on a Monday morning, I always make a point to spend a good part of the morning poring through boxscores and the standings. No matter how much ball I saw over the weekend, it’s valuable to see those lines, and they typically send me digging up info on a number of players and teams.
So, I figured, why not share it? Following are a few of the numbers and trends I came across while poking around this morning.
* I’ve written and tweeted a good bit about the Yankees lately. I guess that’s what living in NYC does. But it’s amusing the degree to which Yankees fans freaked out early in the year. This team is very good, and now they’re showing it. Despite the RISP struggles that have been beaten to death, they’re still fifth in the league in runs scored. That’s likely to climb. But what caught my eye this morning was starting pitching, and in particular two guys who were giving people heartburn earlier in the year.
Ivan Nova’s last six starts: 42 1/3 innings (7.1 per start), 33 K, 9 BB, 5 HR allowed. The latter number is still too high, but overall that’s very encouraging.
Phil Hughes’ last eight starts: 52 1/3 innings (6.5 per start), 49 K, 13 BB, 8 HR allowed. Again, the homers are high, but overall, really good.
* Adam Wainwright was very good again on Sunday. Every time he has an iffy start, people kind of freak out, but they’re getting fewer and farther between. The trend line, overall, is very good even if there’s the occasional step back.
Wainwright’s past six starts: 41 IP (6.8 IP/S), 40 K, 10 BB, 1 HR. His past 11 starts: 71 IP (6.45 per start), 66 K, 22 BB, 3 HR.
* Eric Hosmer’s overall numbers are still ugly, but he’s definitely coming around after a truly brutal start. Hosmer is at 297/369/473 over his last 24 games, in part because an almost impossibly low BABIP of .165 has corrected itself. Hosmer’s a hitter. He’s going to hit.
BTW, over those 24 games, the Royals are 13-11, even as the previously torrid Mike Moustakas has cooled off a little. Along with Hosmer, Alex Gordon has heated up a good bit over that span (297/423/451). KC is five games out of first in a wide-open division. The Royals remain one of the more intriguing teams around, for my money.
* Carlos Zambrano has 21 strikeouts and 21 walks in 30 innings over his past six starts.
* Cole Hamels has 26 Ks and 6 walks over his past four starts… and has allowed 20 runs in those games (six homers will do that).
* Brett Lawrie is at 316/381/474 over his past 19 games.
Now playing: Alabama Shakes, “Boys & Girls”
A few nuggets, including some baseball, as we head into the weekend…
* I tweeted this in brief, but look out for the Yankees. The schedule is pretty meaty for the next few weeks, but everything else seems to be coming together. Bringing David Robertson back restores the bullpen to as strong as it’s going to be in the absence of Rivera, which is to say pretty dadgum strong. Phil Hughes is definitely trending in the right direction, and it appears Ivan Nova is as well. Andy Pettitte has been brilliant. And the offense is going to hit. Even with those heavily publicized RISP and bases loaded woes, the Yankees are fifth in the league in runs per game.
They already have the best record and second-best run differential in the AL, and that’s with quite a bit of sputtering over the first two months. I picked this as the best team in baseball before the season started, and while they may not reach those heights without Michael Pineda, the Yanks are a very good, very dangerous team that appears to be hitting its stride.
* Did you know how good a season Matt Cain was having even before his perfect game? His 14 K/0 BB showing brought his K/BB ratio for the year to 6.00, but even before that it was at 5.13, which would be fifth in the Majors. His 2.18 ERA is second in the NL, his 14.9 pitches per inning average is 12th in the league and a career-low. It’s no longer quietly a brilliant year, thanks to the perfecto, but it’s still a brilliant year, a Cy Young-type of season at this point.
* Speaking of pitches per inning… I bet if I gave you 25 guesses, you wouldn’t name the most efficient starting pitcher in the Majors so far this season. It’s Edwin Jackson at 13.8 pitches per inning, a drastic drop for a pitcher who’s never averaged fewer than 16.0 and once had a full season where he averaged 18.4
* One of my favorite events starts tonight. The College World Series is the best thing in American sports that seemingly nobody knows about (though thanks to some nice work from ESPN, its profile is growing). The ball is tremendously entertaining, the crowds are great, the drama is huge. Do yourself a favor and check it out, and if you ever get a chance to go in person, do not miss it.
* There’s been a serious dearth of music talk here at OYNAG lately. Thanks to Spotify, I’ve gotten into a few albums lately, though. After 2-3 listens to a whole bunch of new stuff, my favorites these days are Japandroids’ “Celebration Rock,” Dr. John’s “Locked Down,” Justin Townes Earle’s “Nothing’s Gonna Change The Way You Feel About Me Now,” and Red Collar’s “Welcome Home.”
* And, finally, a personal note. There probably aren’t two people in the world who are more devoted readers of what I write than my dad and my father-in-law. I couldn’t have a better one of either and I’m incredibly thankful for them both. Happy Father’s Day to both of you. I know you’ll both see this, so thanks.
If you weren’t watching Matt Cain last night, you missed out. There was so much packed into just the last 3-4 innings that even if he hadn’t completed the perfect game, it would have been a blast to watch. Gregor Blanco’s spectacular play, Cain’s changeup to get Jed Lowrie in the seventh… it was really terrific stuff.
I figure I’m not really going to have anything to add to last night that somebody hasn’t already written. There’s a bunch out there, you should go read it (starting here, but I’m biased). But it got me to thinking about a topic that I wrote about during the spring — the greatest single-game individual performances in history.
One of the candidates was Sandy Koufax in his perfect game in 1965. Koufax held (and now shares) the record for the most strikeouts in a perfect game with 14. That means that he also is tied for the second-highest game score in history, at 101. Game score is not perfect, but it’s a pretty good quick-and-dirty measure of how good a game a pitcher had. The only other 101 (again, before last night) was posted by Nolan Ryan in 1991, when he struck out 16 and walked two in a no-hitter. Kerry Wood holds the record with 105, but we’ll get to that in a moment.
So, two things.
One is, I think you can make a case that Cain’s game really is the second-greatest performance in history. Although offense is down somewhat these days relative to a decade ago, it’s still not really a pitching-dominated era. The average runs per team per game in 1965 was 3.99. In 1991 it was 4.31. In 2012 so far it’s 4.30.
Taking nothing away from Koufax, who is an all-time great and was brilliant on that night, you basically can’t construct a better pitching environment in the last 90 years or so than Dodger Stadium in 1965. It was an extreme pitchers’ park in an extreme pitchers’ era, and Koufax threw his gem against a team with one of the poorer offenses in the league. A great, special, historic accomplishment, but at a lower degree of difficulty than either Cain or Ryan managed. “Merely” one of the 5-10 greatest nights by any pitcher.
Ryan, meanwhile, pitched his 1991 no-no in old Arlington Stadium, which was not a bad place to hit but isn’t the kind of haven that the new place in Arlington is. Cain’s perfecto came at AT&T Park, which is one of the better pitchers’ parks these days. Slight advantage, Ryan. Ryan faced a team that went on to win the World Series, but it wasn’t a potent offensive club. In fact, the 2012 Astros are averaging ever so slightly more runs per game than the ’91 Jays did (4.26 to 4.22… I was surprised too, but that’s why you look things up). Slight advantage, Cain.
It’s sort of a matter of taste between the two, but I think I’d take the perfecto with very nearly as many Ks over the game with two more Ks and two more walks. But when this is the question you’re asking, second- or third-greatest game ever, that really says it all. There’s sometimes some chatter about becoming desensitized to no-hitters or whether they’re becoming devalued, and in general I just think that’s silly. But even if it were true, last night’s game was not “just another no-hitter.” It was a game for the ages.
The second thing to come from it, though, for me, is an increased appreciation for Wood’s 20-K game in 1998. When I wrote the piece on the greatest individual game, I talked to a wide variety of people in baseball — players, front office folks, broadcasters, analysts, etc. And while there was no clear consensus, the Wood game received more votes and mentions than any other.
The only baserunner was on an infield hit, a roller in the hole on the left side. Wood didn’t walk anybody. He struck out 20, tying the all-time record, and becoming the only person with that many Ks and fewer than three baserunners. He needed only 122 pitches to do it. He did it at a hitters’ park against an excellent team, an Astros club that won 102 games, led the league with 5.4 runs per game and posted a season-long OBP of .354. And he did it in the midst of one of the greatest offensive eras in history.
It may not be the toughest environment you could construct for a pitcher, but it’s in the conversation. And even so, Wood dominated like no one has before or since. ‘Kid K’ hung it up this year, and many tributes were written to him a few weeks ago when he did. But here’s one more: that game keeps looking better the longer you look at it.