Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Game 53: Badlands

Working in the fields, 'til you get your back burned
Working 'neath the wheel, 'til you get your facts learned
Baby I got my facts learned real good right now.
You better get it straight darling:
Poor man wanna be rich; Rich man wanna be king
And a king ain't satisfied 'til he rules everything.
I want to go out tonight, want to find out what I got.

I had been thinking about choosing "Born in the U.S.A." as tonight's song to commemorate my return to the States, but then I got to thinking that I didn't want to misinterpret the song's meaning as badly as Ronnie Reagan did during his 1984 re-election campaign. That, and I didn't want my preview tonight to be as self-indulgent as Jay's was last night.

So, with Springseen in mind, having had a Springsteen cover band play the wedding reception I attended Saturday, and with Andy Pettitte taking the mound for the first time since back pain forced him to a premature exit in his start last Friday, we turn to one of my favorite Springsteen songs: Badlands.

Now this is not yet another blog post bashing the new Stadium and its issues. In fact, it has nothing to do with the Stadium itself. Rather, it's a brief look at Andy Pettitte. Early in his career, a knock on Pettitte was that he was constantly battling arm problems and that he often had difficulty discerning the difference between pitching in pain and pitching injured.

Pettitte has long outgrown that reputation, twice (at least) with the aid of human growth hormone, but more due to better conditioning and the savvy that comes with being a 15 year veteran. He spent much of the second half last year pitching through shoulder pain knowing that the team was already decimated by injuries, thin on pitching, and in a (losing) fight for its post-season life. Pettitte pitched poorly during this stretch: after going 10-7 with a 4.03 ERA and a 1.34 WHIP in the first half, he struggled to the tune of 4-7, 5.35, 1.53 in the second half.

It was an unfortunate turn for Pettitte, finishing off his contract in such a poor fashion and raising questions again about his health and durability. After making $16M in both of the last two seasons, he held out for much of the off-season, hoping for a deal similar in value. Pettitte however overestimated both the market and his own worth at this advanced stage of his career, instead settling in late January for a $5.5M base salary with incentives for every ten innings pitched from 150 to 210 as well as roster bonuses for days on the active roster. The incentives can bring the contract value to a much more palatable $12M.

So, as Ben at RAB wisely pointed out Saturday, it comes as no surprise that Pettitte has been adamant since last Friday that he would be starting tonight. You can say that his back may be burned, but he's got his facts learned: he knows what his body can and can't do at this point in his career and he knows what's on the line financially. This rich man wants to be king, or at least richer, and tonight he'll go out to the mound and find out what he's got.

In other news, Chien-Ming Wang, who almost assuredly would have started tonight had Pettitte not been able to go, will now return to the starting rotation tomorrow. CC Sabathia will be pushed back to Friday, and it appears that Phil Hughes is now ticketed for the bullpen. Rest assured we'll be talking about this more over the next day or so.

Opposing Pettitte tonight will be Scott Bizarro Kramer. I have some misplaced hatred towards Bizarro Kramer. He baffled them in this game last year, spoiling Brett Gardner's Major League debut. I then proceeded to get tagged with a $397 speeding ticket driving home from the game. I blame Feldman. Go get him fellas.

Best Catcher Of the 00's

A fortunate oversight on the part of Matt Waters and Rob Neyer provides an opportunity for us to give some love to Jorge Posada. Waters' left the catcher off his All-2000 team, Neyer re-posted the list offered his opinions but didn't notice that catchers were omitted. In turn, this allowed Neyer to dedicate a whole post to that one position.

Neyer reluctantly assumed that Pudge Rodriguez would have been top dog, like I think most people would have, myself included:
Let's talk catchers now, though. One commenter commented, "Pudge, no one even close."

Is that right, though? My gut reaction was that Pudge has had some pretty ineffective seasons in this decade, and someone else must be at least close to him.

Someone is. More than close.
My first reaction when I saw the OPS+ comparison between the two was, "really?". Jorge's 129 is significantly higher than Pudge's 113. Much of this is because Pudge's MVP Season was 1999 and he has steadily declined as a hitter ever since. His great years in Texas in the late 90's positively influence your image of Pudge in the Aughts, but they doesn't help his actual numbers. 

This exposes the arbitrary nature of all-decade teams or what have you. The eras in baseball, like the generations in society, all flow together as new people are always coming and going. This list does make you think about how underrated Jorge Posada is, though. 

I hate talking about "over/underrated" because it's so subjective, but I think this one is pretty clear. When you first read the title of this post, how long did it take you to get to Posada? My first reaction was Pudge, then Piazza. Jorge is right under my nose, but he was sort of invisible in all of this. I don't know why that is. He was a well above average hitter, not just for a catcher, in every single season and he averaged over 140 games through 2007. Posada has made 5 All-Star teams in the decade, which is that many considering Albert Puljos came up in 2001, has made 7 and the one year he wasn't voted in, he finished second in the MVP voting

Still I think that if it takes you longer than it should to rank a player at the top of a list, even the list in contained to an arbitrary timeframe, that would mean that they are by definition, underrated. 

I'll leave you with Neyer's conclusion, because he sums it perfectly. 
So it's Posada vs. Rodriguez in a fight to the finish. And while the finish won't be until October of 2009, I have a hard time believing that Pudge can do enough in the next four months -- or has done enough with his glove and arm over the last nine seasons -- to make up for that 16-point gap in OPS+.

Ivan Rodriguez is going into the Hall of Fame. Posada isn't, and shouldn't; he just happens to have played the lion's share of his fine career in a single decade.

Nice Try, Sports Guy

It was only a matter of time until Bill Simmons weighed in on the demise of David Ortiz. We've already had some fun with it, but not nearly as much as our buddy Simon on Sports who did some digging on FanGraphs and found out that they estimate Ortiz's value on the free agent market to be negative $5.2M

In his most recent ESPN The Magazine column, Simmons sounds like he's left Papi for dead:
At first, we Sox fans thought we were just watching an early-season slump. Then three weeks passed and we started worrying. The guy couldn't hit the ball out of the infield. His bat was so slow he had to cheat on fastballs; even then, he couldn't catch up. One swing a night made him look like the drunkest batter in a beer league softball game. Look, I've seen slumps. This was different. This was the collapse of a career.
I'm not ready to throw dirt on the guy quite yet. His struggles weren't quite as bad as Ortiz, but at the begining of last year, everyone had completely given up on a 36 year old Carlos Delgado and he ended up raising his OPS by over 200 points in the second half.

Like I did when the Manny HGC story came out, Simmons assumed that there was a good chance Papi's torrid mid-00's were a product of the juice, but he's since changed his tune. 
He just looked old. It reminded me of watching Jim Rice fall apart in the late '80s, when he lost bat speed overnight the way you and I lose a BlackBerry. That was painful too.

By mid-May, I was pondering another theory: Maybe Papi was older than he claimed. In Seth Mnookin's book Feeding the Monster, he recounts the story of how Boston nearly blew the chance to acquire Ortiz because they were concerned that he was much older than the media guide said.
This is an intersting theory, and right off the bat it seems to make a lot of sense. High profile Dominican guys like Vlad Guerero and Miguel Tejada have both been busted for fudging their ages recently, so the when performance seems out of line, it's reasonable to question that. 
Watching Papi flounder now, I'd believe he's really 36 or 37 (not 33) before I'd believe PEDs are responsible.
If he was three years older, it would make it more likely to me that Ortiz used PEDs.

On the surface, Ortiz being older seems to explain away his decline and works to rationalize him at this stage of his career. However, Ortiz's prime already took place in his late 20's and early 30's. If you take Simmons' lower estimate and add three years to his age, he would have hit 10 home runs at the age of 27, when a player is nearing the end of their ostensible physical prime. 

In Papi's defense he made a remarkably steady rise to being a power hitter, increasing his home run totals and slugging percentage every year from 2000 to his apex in 2006. The incredible (and somewhat suspicious) thing about Papi's carrer arc is that the biggest jump in home runs (+11) came when he went from the 12th best home run hitting park in 2002 (HHH Metrodome), to the 25th (Fenway), a layout that does not favor left handed hitters. 

Papi's late peak wounldn't be totally unprecedented. Raul Ibanez's highest home run total was 33 at age 34. However Ibanez didn't fall off a cliff like Papi. Despite hitting in Seattle, one of the very worst home run hitter's parks in the league, Ibanez continued with 21 and 23 HRs over the next two seasons and will almost certainly set another high water mark this year. Jason from IIATM,S can't help but wonder if something in up with him too

Every player ages, but not too many become totally useless in the matter of one season like Ortiz has, or goes on a sudden homer binge at age 37 like Ibanez. Unfortunantely for them, a significant portion of those who have these dramatic late career fluctuations are linked to steroid use, so the suspicions are going to swirl. 

It's Good to Be Back

At long last, I'm back in the good old U.S. of A. Jay is off at the dirty hippy jamband concert tonight, no doubt in the midst of a 45 minute noodle-rific face melting guitar solo, so I'm going to throw up a game recap, despite the fact that I have been able to watch exactly one inning of Yankee baseball since last Wednesday's game. So forgive me if this is poorly constructed or if it sounds like I put it together from looking at the box score and reading the play by play - because that's exactly what I did.

Just as I have returned home (to America at least, won't be officially home until tomorrow), the Yankees returned home after a successful 5-2 road trip, starting their second series with the Rangers in nine days. Derek Jeter led off the first with a single, the tenth time he's done so in the last twelve games, extending his hitting streak to sixteen games. But the real action didn't begin until the bottom of the second inning.

Jorge Posada led off with a base hit, and was then thrown out at third on a Hideki Matsui base hit, allowing Matsui to take second on the throw. Matsui moved to third on a Melky Cabrera groundout and was then driven in by Brett Gardner. A Jeter infield single and a walk by Johnny Damon loaded the bases, then all three runners advanced on a balk by Vincente Padilla. Padilla then plunked Mark Teixeira to re-load the bases, but A-Rod let Padilla off the hook by grounding out to end the inning.

Texas countered in the top of the third. After getting two quick outs, A.J. Burnett allowed a walk to Michael Young and a double to Hank Blalock. Nelson Cruz then added to Texas' league-leading HR total, launching one to left and giving Texas a 3-2 lead. They would be the only runs Burnett would surrender on the night.

The eighteen game errorless streak ended in the fourth, as Elvis Andrus stole second and Jorge Posada's throw sailed into centerfield, allowing Andrus to take third.

The Yankees countered in the fourth. A Johnny Damon RBI single plated Cabrera to tie the score at three. Teix then got plunked for the second time in as many plate appearances and he was none too happy about it, voicing his displeasure to Padilla. Teix would not have to wait long to take out some aggression. With the bases loaded and one out, A-Rod hit a potential double play ball to Ian Kinsler. But Teix went in high and hard on rookie shortstop Elvis Andrus, breaking up the double play, allowing Jeter to score the go-ahead run (the 1,500th of his career), and most importantly, keeping the inning going.

The Yankees capitalized on the opportunity. Cano singled Damon home, chasing Padilla. Posada singled off Padilla's replacement, Derek Holland, scoring A-Rod, followed by a Matsui homer that scored Cano and Posada. When the inning was over, the Yankees had scored seven and taken a commanding 9-3 lead.

The scoring for the night was capped in the sixth as Posada blasted a three run homer to right, that I'm told just missed the upper deck, making it 12-3.

Meanwhile, Burnett cruised, going 7 innings, allowing 8 hits, 3 ER, and 8 Ks to just 1 BB. It was the second straight victory for Burnett, both of which have been impressive performances. From there on, it was garbage time, as the likes of Angel Berroa, Brett Tomko, and Jose Veras finished out the night. Fortune is smiling upon the Yankees right now, as even the combustible Veras turned in a perfect ninth.

Anyway, it's good to be back. I'll have some more content tomorrow, recapping my excursions over the past several days. And I look forward to watching a Yankee game again.