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.
So I just tweeted a little bit about this. It’s something I stumbled across in writing a piece about the Pirates and Indians, which will run on MLB.com on Friday. So, y’know, get ready, Eastern Ohio and Western Pennsylvania.
Anyway. I’ve been thinking about the Pirates a lot, for a variety of reasons. They’re interesting, of course, as a team trying to make a surprising run for the second straight year. They’re unusual in how few runs they score and allow. And they play in a city starved for a good baseball team, a city that is absolutely desperate to come out and believe in them and follow them. I really want to see the Pirates succeed, so I am watching them closely.
And I had a notion a couple of days ago, that one of their biggest problems from last year wouldn’t be a problem this year. I wrote this over the winter, but one of the truly critical issues that plagued the ’11 Buccos was reliever fatigue. They had four very good relievers, and they rode them hard. As a result, all four — Joel Hanrahan, Daniel McCutchen, Chris Resop, and Jose Veras — experienced significant fades in the second half.
That’s part of why I really liked the A.J. Burnett trade for them, as I outlined here when the deal was made. Burnett brought a high likelihood of a high innings total, and that’s something Pittsburgh needed badly.
So when I took a look at the Bucs, and saw Burnett, James McDonald (who I’m also really high on, and have been for a while), and Erik Bedard all putting up very strong years, I just kind of assumed that the relievers would be working less. And then I looked up the numbers, and what do you know, it’s the opposite.
Through 60 games, Pirates starters have pitched 340 innings, fourth-fewest in the Majors. Their relievers have pitched 188, ninth-most in the Majors. That’s a bit disconcerting, since once again a big part of the Bucs’ success is riding that excellent bullpen to success in close games.
However, I’m not at all convinced they’re doomed to a similar fate, for a few reasons.
One is that the innings and the success have been spread across more guys. Pittsburgh has six relievers who have pitched in at least 20 games, and all of them have been somewhere between decent and very good.
The second, and this I think is the real key, is that the heaviest workload on the Bucs’ relievers didn’t happen in the early part of last season. Over the first 60 games, Pirates relievers tossed 179 1/3 innings, or just the slightest smidge less than 3.0 per game. It was over the NEXT several weeks that they were really used up. From game 61 through game 101 (the infamous extra-inning loss in Atlanta), they pitched 134 1/3 innings in 41 games, or nearly 3 1/3 innings per game. One extra out per game may not seem like much, but when it’s every single night, you start paying a price.
From July 27 through the end of the season, Pittsburgh relievers posted a composite 4.96 ERA. You want to know how a team stops outperforming its pythagorean projection? That’s how.
So the question is whether they can avoid putting that kind of stress on those guys between now and the stretch run. I think they can. McDonald has emerged as one of the league’s better pitchers. Burnett is averaging nearly 6 1/3 per start, and it’s 6 2/3 per start over his last seven. Erik Bedard is always a health question, but as long as he is healthy, he should continue to go deep into games.
The Bucs need to find a way to score more runs. They need to stay healthy. They need a lot to go right. I’m not writing them into the playoffs by any means just yet. But I think there’s reason to believe that one key cog in their fall last year won’t necessarily be repeated this year.
I had a thought when I started seeing the details of the new Andre Ethier contract, as reported by my friend and teammate Jesse Sanchez among others last night.
Not so much about whether it’s a good or bad deal especially; I think I like it a little more than some of my analyst friends do, but not as much as it seems that more traditionally-minded ball writers do. Instead, my mind wandered to some thoughts about context and comparables, and one comparable in particular. Essentially, the Dodgers have given Ethier the second through sixth years of Matt Holliday’s contract, plus the option.
Ethier and Holliday are closer in age than I suspect many people think. Holliday is two years older, but his deal started three years earlier, so the deals cover very similar portions of the two men’s careers. His deal covers his age-30 through 36 seasons, with an option on 37, at a clean $17 million per year. Ethier’s deal covers his age-31 through 35 seasons, with an option on 36, at $17 million per year. The Cardinals’ option is a straight club option, whereas Ethier’s deal has a vesting option based on plate appearances. One significant difference: Holliday has blanket no-trade protection. Ethier doesn’t yet, though he’ll reach 10-5 status sometime early in 2016.
And in broad strokes, they’re pretty similar players. They both have well-rounded offensive games, with moderate but not spectacular power, solid strike zone judgment but not extremely high walk rates, and not much speed. Holliday is a better hitter for average, but they’re more or less cut from the same cloth.
Here’s the thing, though: by pretty much any measure, Holliday does those things better. He’s a better player. He has significantly higher career AVG/OBP/SLG, and before you write that off to Coors Field, Holliday has been better over the past two-plus years to boot. Since the start of his deal, the start of the 2010 season, Holliday has hit 300/384/516 in 340 games. In that same span of time, Ethier has hit 292/364/469 in 334 games. He’s also the better defender by pretty much every statistical measurement that I use and trust. They have similar durability records.
There’s not really a huge, block-letter point here, other than this: with every year that goes by, and every new outfielder contract that gets signed, the Holliday deal looks a little better. And I should probably eat a little crow on that. I didn’t hate it when it was signed, but I didn’t love it, either. It seemed like an awfully hefty deal and big risk, but the more context we get as far as other deals, the better it looks.
1. Bigger loss: Matt Kemp or Roy Halladay?
2. The current top-5 in the NL in home runs is: Beltran, Braun, Gonzalez, Stanton, Kemp. Who finishes on top (even if it’s not one of those guys)?
3. Who would you rather have for the next 10 years: Mike Trout or Bryce Harper?
4. Who’s more likely to make the playoffs: fifth-place Red Sox or fifth-place Phillies?
5. Are we going to have a Triple Crown winner (horse variety, not baseball) this year?
6. Kings or Devils?
7. Best beach in America?
OK, one thing I really need to start doing more in my new gig is blogging. This can be a great outlet for all sorts of cool stuff, and it’s been underutilized. And since it’s a Thursday, it seems like a fine day for a new Lucky Seven.
Here’s how it works: seven questions for you to answer. About half baseball, plus some other sports and some not-at-all-sports. The rule here is the rule everywhere at this blog: courtesy. If you don’t like a question, or aren’t interested in the topic, just don’t answer. Don’t tell me “nobody cares about (x topic),” because, well, obviously at least I do.
1. The Orioles have played a tough schedule and have a positive run differential, so their record isn’t ALL smoke and mirrors. Still, are you buying? Is this a playoff team?
2. All five teams are still in it in the NL East. Yes, even the Phillies. Who you got? Which team wins it?
3. Cardinals, Reds, or Field in the NL Central?
4. Albert Pujols has four homers in 44 games. How many will he have at the end of the year?
5. Indy, Charlotte, or Monaco? (Or, as with me, all three?)
6. Of the six teams left in the NBA playoffs, who will win it all?
7. Best album you’ve heard this year?
One of the things I’m most often asked when people ask about my job is what it was like to cover Tony La Russa. In short, it was terrific much more often than it was terrible, but at different times it was both. I wrote about that in some detail for MLB.com tonight as part of our package on the Cardinals retiring La Russa’s number. You can check out that story here.
Slightly less often, I’m asked if I have any particular favorite TLR stories. And I have a few. But I have one favorite, even though it was no fun at all at the time. And since it’s too long to fit into the story I’m writing for the site, it goes here.
The background: It was early April of 2003, a season that likely still gives many Cardinals fans heartburn. Jason Isringhausen was on the disabled list, and TLR and Dave Duncan were scrambling for ways to close out games. After a 3-0 start, the Cardinals had lost four out of five, with three different relievers taking losses already.
Matt Morris was the starter in Houston in the Friday night opener of a big early three-game series. Six days earlier, Morris had pitched one of the best games of his life, eight shutout innings with 10 strikeouts against those very same Astros, only to see the bullpen blow a 1-0 lead in the ninth.
If you know anything about TLR, you probably have an idea of where this is going already. He loves gritty everyday guys, and he loves reliable closers, but there’s nobody he loves more than his stud starting pitchers, his “stallions” (as he called Morris more than once). One blown win for Morris was more than enough. So on April 11 at Minute Maid Park, Morris wasn’t going to have another win taken from him, no matter what it took.
Well, it took a lot. Morris had a much harder time facing Houston for the second time in a week, but he battled. There were some loud outs, some balls hit right at guys, things like that. Morris entered the ninth with a 2-1 lead, having allowed four hits, but if ever a box score line was deceiving this was it. He was getting hit pretty hard, but he was battling his way through it. Still, he’d been staked to a 2-0 lead in the first and he’d made it stand up.
As a beat writer, the game up to this point was therefore a gift. Bullpen is battered, so big-hearted ace steps up and takes the team on his back, battles through a tough outing even on a night he doesn’t have his best stuff, etc etc. It’s a slam dunk angle, and Morris was usually a good interview to boot. The game was even going to finish in a shade over two hours. Seriously, about as perfect a setup as you can have as a beat writer.
Cut to the ninth, and the heart of the Astros order coming up. Geoff Blum flies out to center. Jeff Bagwell flies out to deep right — it’s a scare, but it’s an out, and Morris is one out from the CG and the win. Then Lance Berkman pokes a groundball single to keep the inning alive.
That brings up Jeff Kent, a man who hit Morris hard over the years and one of those guys who just always scares you. Morris falls behind 1-0, then 2-1, then 3-1. This is getting very scary, very quickly. Then, boom. Two-run, walk-off jack from Kent. Astros win. Morris, left in to finish his own game, takes the loss.
I bang out the new game story as fast as I possibly can, since I have to have one version in before I go downstairs to get quotes. I do the best I can to turn “Morris takes team on his back” into “Morris gives all he has, but it’s not quite enough,” then hurry downstairs. I’m reframing the whole story in my head as I go to the clubhouse, but really, the basic gist of much of the story is still going to be the same. Morris still gave a really game effort, still survived a heck of a gutty showing despite not having his best stuff.
The gamer, in short, is still largely a cap-tip to Morris, just with the acknowledgment that he was asked to give a little bit more than he had. Understandably so, given the circumstances. There really was little reason to quibble with the decision. It was just a bad spot for TLR/Duncan/Morris be in. Sometimes it happens.
So the various media types make our way downstairs as quickly as we can. Joe Strauss of the Post-Dispatch actually had to do so much re-working of his game story that when the clubhouse opens and we go into TLR’s office, it’s just me and a local Houston radio guy. I let him lead the questioning, and immediately regret it.
His first question: “Dramatic ending, wasn’t it?”
And it was on.
“I don’t think dramatic’s the word. It’s disappointing,” the manager responded.
Then there were a couple of questions about the decision-making progress to stay with Morris and about the rivalry and about Tino Martinez, who had injured his finger.
And then I started asking my questions. I don’t remember EXACTLY how I framed the first one, but it was basically about how even though Morris had allowed a lot of hard contact, he battled, how he was “on the edge” of trouble all night. Tony didn’t let me finish the question. He jumped. (edited for a family blog)
“You think those were little league hitters up there? They’re gonna make some contact. There was one run on the [bleep] board. You think he was on the edge? If that’s what you saw, that’s what you write. I think that’s so full of [bleep] it’s not even worth commenting on, so I ain’t gonna comment. One run into the [bleep] ninth inning and he’s on the edge? I tell you what, you ought to cover the next league up from this one.”
I tried to explain that I meant it as a compliment, but at that point there was no salvaging. He was off and running.
“I don’t agree. So just take your opinion and… I already told you what I think of your opinion. So don’t try to explain it to me because I don’t agree with it.”
And it was done.
And “the next league up from this one” lasted as an inside joke among Cardinals beat writers for a decade.
Congrats, Tony. Seriously.
OK, I’m going to get in on the fun. Prediction time. These are no doubt worth roughly the electrons they’re printed on, but here we go.
AL East: Yankees, Rays, Red Sox, Blue Jays, Orioles
Comment: Bold, I know. And it was actually difficult. I do think the Yankees are the best team in baseball, but I also think the Red Sox are really underrated this year. I would be perfectly fine with any order of those three clubs, and if the Red Sox win the division I won’t be shocked at all.
AL Central: Tigers, White Sox, Royals, Indians, Twins
Comment: Like the top three in the East, I’d at least listen to an argument for absolutely any ordering of the middle three teams in this division. I do think the White Sox are being undersold. I could definitely see a case for flipping the Indians and Royals. I just don’t see much to like with this Twins team.
AL West: Rangers, Angels, Mariners, A’s
Comment: The Angels obviously get a lot better with their two big additions, but I just think the Rangers are a deeper, more complete team. I like Texas’ lineup quite a bit more, and I don’t think the gap between the two rotations is that great.
Wild Cards: Rays, Red Sox
Comment: I think both of these clubs are better than the Angels, though not by a lot. The depth and difficulty of the AL East might actually argue for picking the Angels, since they’ll have a less difficult schedule than Tampa Bay or Boston, but I feel more comfortable picking based on my read of the quality of the teams than based on schedule.
NL East: Braves, Phillies, Marlins, Nationals, Mets
Comment: The Braves are, along with the Red Sox, the most consistently underrated team coming into this season, in my opinion. I love their rotation and bullpen, and I think they’ll score more runs this year. I have major concerns about the Phillies’ lineup. I think the Marlins are closer to the top two than to the bottom two, and I won’t be surprised if they make a real run. I don’t see Washington scoring enough runs to contend seriously.
NL Central: Reds, Brewers, Cardinals, Pirates, Cubs, Astros
Comment: I had the Cardinals winning the division a month ago, but the Carpenter situation is a major question. I’m obviously pulling for him, but this is not a routine injury where you know the recovery time and can say, ‘He’ll be back in N days.’ I still won’t be the slightest bit surprised if everything works for them, people stay healthy and they win north of 90 games. But I also won’t be surprised if injuries add up, a few of their north-of-30 regulars step back, and things don’t work out.
I just feel that the Reds have a lot more margin for error. They have the fewest weaknesses in the division, even with Madson out, and it’s clear that they’re aiming to win this year. That front office won’t stand pat at the deadline again.
The Brewers, the more I look at them, the more I like them. They still have the same rotation and bullpen that were so effective for them last year, the lineup may not fall off as much as people think, and the defense should be improved. Another really underrated team coming into this season, IMO.
NL West: Giants, Diamondbacks, Dodgers, Rockies, Padres
Comment: Probably the hardest division for me to figure, but the Giants are another team that I keep looking at and keep realizing that I like more and more. The offense should be improved, and you know all about the rotation. I can definitely see some regression from the D-Backs, though I don’t at all think they were a fluke. The Dodgers are another team I could see surprising. I’m obviously officially off the Rockies bandwagon after driving it for a few years.
Wild Cards: Phillies, Marlins
The NL is so hard to figure. I think you can make a very real case for as many as 10 teams having legitimate shots at the playoffs, so anybody I’m not including here is not to say I’m down on them. There are just only five spots. Nats, Brewers, Cards, Snakes and even Dodgers could all be in there come October.
MVPs: Miguel Cabrera, Matt Kemp
Cy Youngs: Felix Hernandez, Roy Halladay
World Series: Yankees over Giants
Pics from Fort Myers. It’s really an impressive facility.