Wednesday, February 10, 2010

7 Days Until Spring Training: Mickey Mantle

There's a reason Rodney Dangerfield changed his name from Jackie Roy, Kirk Douglas wasn't satisfied with Issur Danielovich, John Wayne didn't go by Marrion Marrison, and Cary Grant's real name wasn't Cary Grant; it was Archie Leach. Studies have shown that students are excellent at predicting which college professors they will enjoy having before they even hear them speak. But that probably says more about how much first impressions shape our interactions with other people than our powers to judge them based solely on their looks.

Of course, baseball is far more of a meritocracy than Hollywood and its players aren't judged based on the first time they play in front of someone, but there is a certain subjectivity involved in selecting those who are fit for higher levels of the game. There's even more bias involved in determining who becomes a superstar. A prospect must be noticed, scouted, signed and promoted through the ranks. To become a star, a player must be talked about and popularized through the media and by fans. Having a catchy name certainly doesn't hurt in either of those pursuits.

All of this is a long way of saying that Tom Greenwade, the scout who first saw him in Baxter Springs, Kansas in 1948, was probably more intrigued by the name "Mickey Mantle" more than his teammate Billy Johnson, the first time he saw the two listen in a game program.

Greenwade said he was the best Yankee prospect he could remember. Mantle was offered $400 for the rest of the season and a $1,100 signing bonus. Eventually, Joe DiMaggio agreed with Greenwade's assessment and Casey Stengel added, "He's got more natural power from both sides than anybody I ever saw".

Of course, they were right; Mantle's talent was undeniable. He tore through the minor leagues and made his Yankee debut on April 17th, 1951 as a lanky 19 year old, with just 20 games experience above C-ball. After a brief slump punctuated by a four strikeout effort against the Red Sox, Mantle was sent back down to Kansas City. He stayed in AAA for 5 weeks and hit .361 in 40 games before getting called back up to the Bigs.

Mantle spent the rest of the season with the team and was included on the roster when they faced the New York Giants in the Fall Classic. He and Willie Mays actually made their World Series debuts in the same game. Mays went 0-5 and Mantle 0-3. It would be 11 years before those two met in another World Series game and the Yankees would prevail in the 1962 Fall Classic as well.

In his first full season with the Yankees in 1952, Mantle replaced Joe DiMaggio in center field, hit .331/.394/.530, made the All-Star Team and finished 3rd in the AL MVP voting. It was his first of 14 straight All-Star berths and the first of 6 times he'd finish in the top 5 of the MVP voting without winning. He did, however, win three MVPs. They came in 1956, in 1957 when he hit .365/.512/.665 and barely edged Ted Williams in the voting, and in 1962 when he took home the only Gold Glove of his career (the first year they were awarded was '57).

The Mick was also a part of 7 World Series winners during his playing days. The Yanks were still obviously lucky to have him, but his postseason batting line of .257/.374/.535 was not nearly as good as his regular season line of .298/.421/.557.

Mantle had unprecedented power as a center fielder. He was legendary for not only the number, but the length of his home runs, as the term "tape measure home run" was coined for his one of his prodigious blasts.

That shot, perhaps his most famous, came at Griffiths Stadium in Washington D.C. on April 17th, 1953. It was said to have traveled 565 feet, a claim originally made Yankees PR man Arthur "Red" Patterson. There was a breeze blowing out to left field that day and Mantle crushed a pitch off of a middle reliever named Chuck Stobbs off the Natty Boh beer sign and out of the Stadium. Patterson set out to retrieve the ball.

He claimed to have found a ten year old boy at 434 Oakdale Lane by the name of Donald Dunaway in posession of the ball. He offered young Donny $1 and two signed balls in exchange for Mantle's souvenir and claimed to have take a tape measure from the stadium to the ball's landing spot. Peterson admitted later in life that his claim of measuring the home run was less than accurate but insisted the part about Donald Dunaway was true. However, numerous baseball historians have set out to find someone with that combination of age, name and address but come up empty. Still, the term "tape measure home run" was born.

The famous graphic to the right triangulates another legendary home run, with slightly more concrete mathematical calculations. Mantle drilled one off the facade of Yankee Stadium which was still 118 ft high 370 feet from home plate.

For all his swiftness and brawn, Mantle struggled mightily with injuries but usually played through them. He had both acute and chronic ailments in the bones and cartilage in both of his legs. In his World Series debut mentioned above, he and DiMaggio both sprinted towards a fly ball, but Joe called him off, causing Mickey to stop short. Mantle tore the cartilage in his right knee as his cleat got caught on a drainage cover hidden in the outfield grass. To mitigate the damage he might cause after that, he applied thick tape wraps around each knee before games.

In addition to injury, Mickey battled alcoholism. His father died when Mantle was 20 years old and he was nagged by the dread of his own mortality. As a result, he lived hard. He gave incredible effort on the field, but also partied recklessly away from the Stadium. Mick, Whitey Ford and Billy Martin frequented Toots Shor's and the Copacabana.

One infamous night at the Copa, a bunch of the Yankees were there with their wives and an especially unruly group of people fresh off of a bowling league victory came in and sat down. Sammy Davis Jr. was performing that night and the bowlers started heckling him. A few of the Yankees took umbrage to that and asked them to quiet down. Words were exchanged and led by Billy Martin and Hank Bauer the group of Yanks were soon involved in a full scale brawl out near the coat room.

While they walked away unscathed, Billy Martin was traded as a direct result of that incident for being a bad influence on Mantle as well as Whitey Ford and Yogi Berra - players who normally stayed out of trouble and meant far more to the team on the field than Martin. They had to go in from of a grand jury, but none of the Yanks were ever brought up on charges.

Eventually, all the partying and all the injuries caught up with Mantle. He was only 36 years old but could barely run when the 1968 season came to a close. His power had finally started to leave him and in his final two years his failing legs kept him exclusively at first base. His career batting average dipped below .300 in his final season and the Yankees finished 5th in the American League.

Years later his wife Merlyn recalled: "When Mick retired, a big chunk of his self-esteem went out the window. I question whether he ever had much to begin with".

Baseball followed, even haunted Mantle after he hung up his cleats:

For years after he stopped playing, Mickey Mantle said, he would dream he was in a taxi, in uniform, late. ''I could hear them saying, 'Now batting, No. 7, Mickey Mantle,' and I'd try to crawl through a hole into Yankee Stadium and I'd always get stuck. Looking through the hole, I could see Casey Stengel and Whitey Ford and all them out there and I couldn't get in. And I'd wake up and I'd be sweating like hell. I had that dream a long time.''

Alcoholism followed Mickey long after his playing career too, right up until he died at age 63 in 1995. He had checked into the Betty Ford Center in 1994, but by then, the damage had been done. Upon his examination, a doctor from the BFC told his that his liver was so damaged that "his next drink could be his last". Before he died, Mantle acknowledged his alcoholism and was able to reflect on the harm it had caused him and more importantly those around him.

While he was the hero of an entire generation of Yankees fans, Mantle certainly wasn't without his flaws. A character plucked from the cornfields and brought to the big city, the story of Mickey Mantle was something Hollywood might have dreamed up had it not actually happened. His self-perpetuating fight with his inner demons that led to his own demise seemed plucked from a Greek tragedy. Mantle may have appeared to be more of a legend than a man during his playing days. However, as the years wore on, his humanity and mortality became increasingly obvious.

Mantle's tale is both inspirational and cautionary. He got a lot out of his 63 years on this earth, but it' clear that if he had taken better care of himself, he would have got a whole lot more. Even still, he was one of the greatest Yankees of all time.

What Went Wrong With Wang

As a fan of the Yankees in general and of Chien-Ming Wang in particular, it was extremely difficult to watch the demise of the former staff ace play out over the course of the past two years.

Wang started out 2008 strong, winning 6 of his first seven starts. Then he hit a rough patch, working up an ERA of 6.45 over his next six outings before briefly getting back on track just as the second round of interleague play was beginning. Of course, he injured the arch of his foot running the bases after 5 innings of shutout ball in Houston and it was all downhill from there.

When he came back in 2009, he had one of the worst three game stretches possible to begin the season. In just six innings, he gave up 23 runs. Wang had transformed from a dominant sinkerballer to a batting practice pitcher.

What caused this seismic shift?

According to pitch f/x data from FanGraphs (which only dates back to 2007), 73% of the pitches Wang threw in '07 and '08 were sinkers. However, in 2009, only were 57% sinkers. Is that possible? I know it's a small sample size, but it's hard to believe that he would have changed his repertoire that dramatically.

From my read of the data, it seems as though Wang was throwing the same amount of sinkers, but some were so flat that they were being miscategorized as two-seam fastballs. Two-seamers move similarly to sinkers but less downward and more to the right. Lets take a look at the velocity and movement of Wang's versions of those pitches:

In 2009, it appears that Wang's sinker was actually straighter and sunk more than in previous years. However, that can be explained.

Wang has always thrown sinkers that were miscategorized as two seamers, but there was a sharp increase in 2009:

So the movement on his sinker looked better in pitch f/x because all of the ones that were so flat that they were identified as two-seamers were taken out of the sample. So it's not that Wang's pitches sank less, instead they started running more side to side. So much so that they basically became a different pitch.

As Pat Androila pointed out at the the Hardball Times yesterday, Wang's numbers against lefties have always been bad, but were especially terrible in 2009. Why? I have a bit of a theory about this. I think Wang's increased side to side movement in '09 caused him to have difficulty throwing strikes (highest BB/9 of his career at 4.1), in addition to making the pitches that did travel through the zone much more hittable, particularly to lefties (gave up a 1.146 OPS against southpaws).

In general baseball terms, some pitches travel through the strikezone on planes that are more difficult to square up with than others. My contention is that those elite pitches find slots - angles of movement - that run counter to the barrel of the bat and minimize the time that they can be struck squarely. From the batter's perspective, this is similar to a golf swing. The longer your clubface is square through the impact zone, the better chance you have of hitting the ball straight. If your club is turning on the way through, you need to get very lucky to hit it flush.

Randy Johnson's slider was death to lefties because it crossed the zone from an extremely wide angle, diving down and to the right. Mariano Rivera's cutter is even tougher than lefties than it is on righties because it veers in on their hands and away from the thick part of the bat.

Though it seems odd to say now, Wang's sinker was one of those elite pitches over the course of almost three full seasons. Batters knew it was coming 3/4 of the time and still had trouble making solid contact. I remember Brandon Inge saying during an interview played on a broadcast that he used to literally try to swing under the pitch and would still sometimes drive it into the ground.

Take a look at these two graphics I made from Wang's at bat against Nick Markakis in the first inning of the game on April 8th, 2009. But keep in mind that this is far from exact; I'm trying to provide a 2-D visualization for a 3-D problem. The yellow lines represent some potential slots that Markakis' bat could fall into while the red represents the trajectory of Wang's pitch. The graphic on the left is meant to resemble a sinker and the one on the right shows what pitch f/x would classify as a two-seamer.

An effective sinker by Wang is running nearly perpendicular to the bat once it reaches the strikezone, while his drifting 2-seamer is much closer to parallel. They often say baseball is a game of inches and the break on Chien-Ming Wang's sinker is a perfect example of that.

Of course, this doesn't get to the part of the scenario that any team looking to sign Wang actually cares about: Will he ever be able to command the sinker that made him so effective before his injury in Houston again?

When Wang is finally able to pitch this year, it will have been almost two years since he could throw enough effective sinkers to be a solid Major League starter. It seems as though the Yankees messed up his rehabilitation by telling him not to exercise his legs when recovering from his lisfranc sprain, which probably contributed to his inability to find his old sinker. It took an intricate combination of forces and no small amount of touch to toss that pitch and his failed rehab might have thrown him irreparably off course. To continue with the nautical analogy, he might have already run ashore and there's no telling if he will be able to rebuild his ship.

The troubling part is that the line between being awesome and awful for Wang is so thin. It only takes one bad pitch to ruin an at bat, and just a 17% drop in good sinkers made him one of the worst pitchers in the history of the game over his first three starts. He's never thrown good enough offspeed pitches to get guys out so any team who gives him a deal is betting on whether or not he recoups the magic sinker. Personally, I hope Wang finds it. Objectively, I don't think he will.

Joel Sherman Uses Old Story To Drum Up New Drama

In Sherman's column in today's Post, he dusts off the story about Derek Jeter's belief that he was still a good defensive shortstop before he started special training to improve his range between the 2007 and 2008 seasons. Joel suggests that his "arrogance" as an athlete might lead to some contentious contract negotiations come November:
So Cashman took Jeter to dinner in Manhattan and told the Yankees captain that his side-to-side actions must improve. Jeter has an outsized athletic arrogance. He believes in himself completely, which allows him to deftly block out criticism and negativity. This trait enables him to thrive in the cauldron, but also prevents him from seeing personal shortcomings the way others perceive them. Still, to his credit, he agreed to try a new way.

With the Yankees paying the bills, Jeter enlisted Jason Riley, the director of performance at the Athletes Compound in Tampa. Riley formulated a plan to increase Jeter’s first-step quickness, particularly in fielding grounders to his left. Power lifting was diminished, agility — especially in the hips — was emphasized , weight was lost. The results came slowly at first in 2008 and in a wave last year when Jeter had one of his finest defensive seasons.

“The player Derek is, he took to it and said, ‘Watch, I will prove you wrong,’ ” Cashman said.

This story is instructive in anticipating how Jeter’s contract talks will play out when his 10-year, $189 million contract concludes after this season. First, like the Cashman-Jeter meeting remaining untold publicly until now, Jeter will demand that his negotiations are done privately. Second, the good news for the Yanks is that Jeter is a competent shortstop again; the bad news is he is a competent shortstop again.
If this story sounds familiar, that's because Ian O'Connor wrote about everything but the dinner meeting the day after the 2009 regular season ended. Does this dinner meeting tell us anything, as Sherman is trying to infer? How else was Cashman going to have this conversation with him? At the top of his lungs in the locker room? Whether it was in his office or at a restaurant, it was going to be a private and delicate discussion.

So this dinner anecdote leads Sherman to the following revelation: Derek Jeter would like to negotiate his contract in private. You know, unlike all the other baseball players who sit down and exchange numbers with their teams on live television.

Jeter's contract negotiations will be interesting and like Sherman says, made more difficult by the the shortstop's defensive renaissance. Both sides have a lot of leverage given that Jeter needs the Yankees just as much, if not more than they need him. But we already knew that Jeter's ego was going to make this difficult. I think the years of him refusing to acknowledge his deficiencies as a shortstop or change his position were a lot more informative than one dinner with Brian Cashman.

Debating the merits and estimating the size and length of Jeter's next deal are wholly futile at this point, despite the fact that this is a hotly debated topic and will be revisited ad naseum throughout the season.

How Jeter performs this year is going to go much further in shaping his next contract than any facts of the situation as they currently exist. If the Captain continues his excellent offensive production and is again solid at shortstop, the Yankees are going to be backing up the truck in a big way. If he struggles at the plate or in the field or God forbid, gets injured, the franchise isn't just going to give him a blank check.

Paradoxically, the better Jeter plays this year, the uglier the back end of his contract has the potential to look. Of course, we'd all "settle for" a great season and the resulting huge contract, but the best of both worlds scenario would be for Jeter to have a good but not great season and go back to being great in 2011. The first and foremost concern though, is Jeter's ability to stay productive in his later years, and unfortunately for the Yanks' checkbook, there is a direct relationship between the probability that he will continue to produce at an elite level and how much they are going to have to pay for the privilege of retaining his services.

Have Damon And Boras Lost Their Collective Mind?

Good morning Fackers. I know Johnny Damon's endless search for a contract is well beyond played out at this point, but I'd like to take a moment to call attention to the lunacy of the recent and rather pathetic attempts at public relations and spin that Scott Boras is attempting to execute on behalf of his client. They fly in the face of all rational thought. I'm not sure if these two are crazy like foxes or just plain crazy, but I'm fairly certain it's the latter.

Nearly two weeks ago, I questioned whether the recent misplays of Scott Boras are indicative of the super agent losing his touch. Monday, Tim Dierkes at MLBTR questioned whether Boras has failed unsigned clients Johnny Damon, Jarrod Washburn, and Felipe Lopez this off-season.

Boras has been reduced to an embarrassingly transparent PR blitz in Detroit, one of a few remaining potential landing places for his client. Boras has had success in the past duping Detroit into overpaying for convincing Detroit to sign his clients, so he's really turning on the charm here. He's largely bypassing general manager Dave Dombrowski and appealing directly to owner Mike Ilitch.

In an advertisement interview with the Detroit Free Press yesterday, Boras stated "Johnny came to me about Detroit. He told me, 'If I can't play for the Yankees I want you to let the Tigers know I want to play for them. I can make that team a winner.' " He further explained that Damon has long been a fan of the Detroit Red Wings, who incidentally are owned by none other than Mike Ilitch. If that weren't enough, Boras went on XM yesterday afternoon to hammer his talking points further; Jason tweeted most of the details.

Meanwhile, Damon appears to be working an angle with his other remaining suitor, the Braves, telling the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that the Braves "are definitely at the top of my list". Is that the top of the list next to the Tigers, above the Tigers, or just below the Tigers?

Yet according to Boras, Damon has passsed on "four or five" offers since it became apparent that he wasn't re-signing with the Yankees. If this is true, it's apparently because he's holding out for a two year deal.

To which I say: are you out of your minds?!?! Look, I understand that Damon and Boras are trying to get the best deal possible. I understand that Damon will likely be forced to sign a contract that pays him less than what he'll be worth next year. I understand that there's pride involved here, and that Damon's assets were frozen for a time last year as the result of some bad investments, so maybe he does need the extra money he's holding out for.

But at some point these two have to wake up and smell the coffee. As much as they try, they cannot create the market they want for Damon's services. Spring Training starts in a week and Damon's suitors are limited. The Reds apparently have bowed out, and aside from the two teams listed above, the Rays are the only other possible landing spot. They're trying to outwit GMs who aren't likely to be outwitted. We're not talking about the types of guys who would hand a job to Mike Jacobs.

Damon should just take his best offer and sign. He's already cost himself millions by refusing the Yankees' offers. There's no way he's getting a two year deal now, and given how badly his market crashed this off-season, he's probably better off signing a one year deal and having another go at it next year anyway. Boras can't seem to handle more than one client at a time this off-season, so the sooner Damon signs, the sooner Boras might be able to salvage what little interest is left in Jarrod Washburn before he decides to retire, and the sooner we'll be freed from the siege of daily Damon updates.