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Archive for November, 2011

Bobby Valentine is the new manager of the Boston Red Sox. For a franchise trying to overcome the perception of dysfunction, that might not have been the best decision. Valentine is alternately one of the most revered and hated managers in all of baseball, so his presence in the volatile powder keg of Red Sox Nation is sure to provide a spark. Whether that’s a good or bad thing is matter of wildly varying degrees of perspective.

Is Boston ready for the song and dance that usually accompanies Bobby Valentine? (Photo: AP)

During his long managerial career, Bobby Valentine has probably made as many enemies as he has won games. And, it hasn’t taken long for some of them to rear their heads. One former adversary, blogger-extraordinaire Murray Chass, recently suggested (with stats to back it up) the Red Sox hired themselves a bona fide loser. Of course, Chass’ post is dripping with personal dislike for Valentine, not to mention disdain for his former employer the New York Times, so his sentiments can be taken with a grain of salt. However, one element of Chass’ hit piece is based on truth: Valentine is a very unpopular figure because of his outspoken, often arrogant manner.

Even though a figure like Valentine in a media market like Boston could become a distraction, likability probably wasn’t item number one on the Red Sox’ wish list. Otherwise, there would have been no need to part company with Terry Francona. However, there is a strong indication of discord within the Red Sox’ organization. If GM Ben Cherington really did prefer Gene Lamont, but was overruled by Larry Lucchino, then the reports of dysfunction within the Red Sox hierarchy might actually be understated. With all the rumors swirling around the Nation, Valentine could turn out to be one of the least controversial figures in Boston over the next few months.

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Jim Crane has begun his tenure as Houston Astros’ owner, and the franchise’s 50th year, by firing Tal Smith, a long-time baseball executive who had been with the team off and on since its inception. Although the more significant move was the dismissal of general manager Ed Wade, whose four years in Houston were punctuated by losing, Smith’s pink slip symbolically represents a new era in Houston baseball.

Astros' GM Ed Wade (c.) and President Tal Smith (r.) will not be a part of the new era in Houston baseball.

Older Yankees’ fans might recall that Tal Smith served as the team’s executive vice president and right hand man to de facto GM Gabe Paul from 1973 to 1975. However, the relationship between Paul and Smith went back long before the two joined forces in the Bronx. The two men first met in 1960, when a then 27 year-old Smith was trying to land his first job in baseball. Paul, who was GM of the Cincinnati Reds at the time, rebuffed the solicitation, suggesting Smith first learn shorthand if he wanted a job. At the second meeting, however, Paul was forced to relent when the young would-be executive triumphantly returned three months later having acquired the skill.

Smith followed Paul to the expansion Houston Colt 45s (as the Astros were then called) in 1962. Although Paul quickly moved on a few months later to become GM of the Cleveland Indians, Smith made Houston his home. For the next 13 years, the young executive gradually climbed the ladder with the Astros until his former boss, who had been instrumental in brokering George M. Steinbrenner’s recent purchase of the Yankees, came calling.

In November 1973, Paul hired his former protégé to be his top assistant. Paul had just spent his first season in the Bronx, and was still trying to get a handle on how the organization structure would work, particularly in light of Steinbrenner’s growing involvement. Considering the franchise’s rapidly expanding front office, Paul was probably as much in need of an ally as an assistant, but regardless, the two men proved to be a very effective team as they gradually rebuilt the Yankees over the next two seasons.

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Last year, the Yankees took a low-risk gamble on Freddy Garcia that paid off handsomely, so this year, they’ve decided to roll the dice again.

Freddy Garcia will be returning to the Yankees’ rotation, but whom will he be joining?

Before the 2011 season, Garcia wasn’t a lock to make the team, much less the rotation, but the veteran right hander wound becoming a key cog, going 12-8 with a 3.62 ERA in nearly 150 innings. On any team, that kind of production from a fifth starter would be exemplary, so it’s not hard to see why the Yankees would want to bring Garcia back on a one-year deal worth a reported $5 million. The only problem is Garcia currently ranks much higher on the Yankees’ rotation totem pole.

You could make the case Garcia was the Yankees’ second best starter in 2011, so, it’s not too farfetched to think he might be the same in 2012. C.C. Sabathia remains the rotation ace, but after the big lefty, not much else is certain. A.J. Burnett has been so bad for two straight seasons that any positive projection has to be considered blind optimism. Also, although the Yankees may be quietly confident about Phil Hughes having a bounce back year, his struggles over the last season and a half are hard to ignore. Finally, Ivan Nova’s breakout 2011 campaign seems to bode well for the future, but the 2010 performance of Hughes is a reminder about how inconsistent young pitchers with little big league experience can be. In other words, the 2012 Yankees’ rotation is full of question marks, and the return of Garcia doesn’t really provide any definitive answers.

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Even in peace, MLB finds a way to get bruised. Instead of focusing on the unprecedented 21 years of labor peace that will result from yesterday’s new collective bargaining agreement (CBA), the focus of many, if not most, has been on elements of the deal they don’t like. Interestingly, the strongest objections have been for items like draft slotting and expanded playoffs, which just so happen to be heralded in other sports. In some ways, that’s unfair, but baseball has always been held to a higher standard (see steroids) because it is the National Pastime.

We are headed for massive problems in the next CBA. Competitive balance is going to get progressively worse.” – Anonymous GM, quoted by Ken Rosenthal, November 23, 2011

The most repeated criticism of the new CBA is it has the potential to dampen competitive balance by restricting the amount of money that small market teams can spend in the draft and international free agent market. Because teams like the Royals, Pirates, Royals, and Padres have become the most prolific spenders in the draft, the theory goes, curtailing the amount of money spent will limit their ability to be competitive. However, there is a flaw to this logic. The reason those teams have spent more is twofold: they have amassed more picks and bonus payouts at the top of the draft have been increasing exponentially.

Top-10 Spenders in the Rule IV Draft, 2007-2011

Team Total Bonuses
Pirates $52,057,400
Nationals $51,084,600
Royals $45,204,900
Red Sox $44,097,250
Orioles $41,219,700
Rays $40,582,200
Blue Jays $38,429,600
Mariners $36,055,900
Padres $35,768,100
Diamondbacks $35,261,000

Source: baseballamerica.com

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Labor peace in baseball has become a given, which is remarkable considering the contentious history between the players and owners. However, after reading a summary of the new CBA unveiled this afternoon, it appears as if the partnership between owners and players is even stronger than imagined.

In the past, negotiations between the two sides were more like a battle of attrition in which changes were enacted only by give and take. This time around, both parties seemingly took a more pro-active approach, co-authoring some of the most sweeping changes in recent history. Although many of the final details have yet to be revealed, enough information is available to make an early assessment about the new CBA. A summary of the key changes is listed below, with an analysis provided after each section.

Baseball's new CBA was the product of a partnership, not battle, between the owners and players.

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Is Feliz being moved to the rotation because of his blown save in game 6? (Photo: Getty Images)

The Texas Rangers made a surprise move by agreeing to terms with Joe Nathan on a two-year deal worth $15 million in guaranteed money. After making the announcement, the team decided to kill two birds with one stone by also letting it be known that former closer Neftali Feliz will be joining the rotation in 2012.

The pair of moves seems to make sense, especially because free agent C.J. Wilson appears to be on his way out of town. Considering the lack of comparable starters available (and affordable), and the glut of relievers on the market, moving the 24-year old Feliz’ electric arm into the rotation should give the Rangers the best chance to remain competitive in the A.L. West.

But, is that the only reason the Rangers are moving Feliz to the rotation? According to Buster Olney, the lingering effects of Feliz’ blown save in the sixth game of the World Series might also be a factor. In a series of Tweets, Olney expressed sentiments that are probably widely believed throughout the game: young closers who blow big games become damaged goods. So, if the Rangers had any concerns about Feliz’ ability to stare down the barrel of the ninth inning going forward, it would make sense to usher him into the rotation.

History tells us that young closers who blow postseason leads in big moments rarely recover; it’s a good time for TEX to shift Neftali Feliz.” – Buster Olney on Twitter

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Lou Gehrig puts his arm around Babe Dahlgren, the first baseman who replaced him when his consecutive games streak came to an end.

Ellsworth Tenney “Babe” Dahlgren would be an anonymous figure in Yankees’ history if he hadn’t been penciled in as the starting first baseman on May 2, 1939, the day Lou Gehrig’s then record streak of 2,130 consecutive games came to an end.  In that game, the Yankees didn’t miss a beat without their legendary captain as Dahlgren went 2-5 with a home run, but the rest of his career hardly met the standard established by the Iron Horse.

Following in Gehrig’s footsteps couldn’t have been easy for Dahlgren, but at least it gave him a bit of immortality. After all, without that distinction, chances are very few baseball fans, even the most hardcore, would know his name. However, that isn’t the footnote Dahlgren seemed to believe was most associated with his name.

I recently came across the following video from the 1939 World Series, which includes a glimpse of Dahlgren crossing home plate after homering in game 2. Amazed by the quality of this rare footage (which is remarkable in its own right), and hoping to find more just like it, I clicked on the provided URL and stumbled across an intriguing website about a book called “Rumor in Town”, which tells the story of another anecdote regarding Dahlgren’s career: one about which I had never heard even though Dahlgren spent the rest of his life trying to  dispel it.

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(The following was originally published at SB*Nation’s Pinstripe Alley)

Pitching, pitching, and more pitching. That has become Brian Cashman’s mantra when addressing questions about his offseason plans. But should that be his only focus?

As we enter the process this winter, I don’t anticipate a bat being of need at all. Offense is not an issue that we’ll be focusing on. It will be the pitching. I feel our offense is very, very strong. – Brian Cashman, quoted by Bloomberg, November 2, 2011

Last year, the Yankees offense was very strong in terms of run production. In fact, it was historic when compared to the league average. However, a couple of warning signs are evident (albeit relatively minor) when you take a look under the hood.  As illustrated in the chart below, at the same time the Yankees’ average run total per game spiked, the underlying performance of the offense, as measured by OPS+, dropped to its second lowest level since 2001. Also, although the lineup’s 2011 wRC+ of 113 was healthier than last year’s, it was still off recent highs in 2007 and 2009. Until 2010, the Yankees’ relative run production had an almost perfect correlation to weighted Runs Created and adjusted OPS (r2 of .97 and .93, respectively), so unless the divergence experienced over the past two years is sustainable because of an underlying dynamic (improved base running and lots of homeruns?), Cashman should at least be mindful about the possibility of these lines converging in 2012.

Yankees Relative Offensive Performance, 1996-2011

Note: R/G vs. Lg is the Yankees’ R/G divided by the league average.
Source: fangraphs.com, baseball-reference.com, proprietary calculations

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The Houston Astros have been relegated. After losing 100 games for the first time in franchise history, the team’s rapid descent in the N.L. Central has culminated in a transfer to the A.L. West. Talk about a tough crowd.

Drayton McLane and Jim Crane shake hands on a deal to sell the Astros. (Photo: Houston Chronicle)

Ironically, in a year during which the Astros were mostly irrelevant on the field, the franchise has become the linchpin for some of the most significant changes in recent baseball history. Luckily for major league baseball, former team owner Drayton McLane was anxious to sell because, otherwise, Bud Selig’s master plan probably could not have been implemented.

While purists often criticize Bud Selig for moving too fast, more casual observers accuse him of dragging his feet. In reality, however, Selig has been a master compromiser. Since his early dogmatic failures, including the 1994 World Series cancellation and the aborted attempt at contraction, Selig has accepted his role as a facilitator and successfully taken the middle road. Always willing to make a change, but not too much, the commissioner has made an art out of completely alienating no one.

By moving the Astros to the A.L. West, Selig has once again negotiated a master compromise. Now, baseball can move forward with its plan to expand the playoffs by adding two Wild Cards and pay lip service to both sides of the aisle. To a purist like me, the one-game wild card round is really nothing more than a de facto extension of the regular season that actually has the effect of making the division more important, and by extension, restoring credibility to the 162-game schedule. To more casual observers, however, baseball can market the expanded playoffs as a competitive balance initiative with the added benefit of an exciting winner-take-all segue into the real postseason. In that sense, the added wild card, and the abbreviated play-in game that will result, is really nothing more than a lead-in to October.

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Earlier in the week, Justin Verlander became only the 14th unanimous Cy Young selection in the 56-year history of the award. However, according to some prognosticators, that might just be the appetizer for the Tigers’ right hander.

Unanimous Cy Young Award Winners

Pitcher Years
Justin Verlander 2011
Roy Halladay 2010
Jake Peavy 2007
Johan Santana 2004, 2006
Pedro Martinez 1999, 2000
Roger Clemens 1986, 1998
Greg Maddux 1994, 1995
Orel Hershiser 1988
Rick Sutcliffe 1984
Ron Guidry 1978
Steve Carlton 1972, 1977
Denny McLain 1968
Bob Gibson 1968
Sandy Koufax 1963, 1965, 1966

Source: mlb.com

When the A.L. MVP is announced next Monday, many believe Verlander will add to his list of already impressive accomplishments by becoming the seventh starter (and 10th pitcher) to win both the Cy Young and MVP in one season. In addition, if the Tigers’ ace is given his second trophy, he’ll join the Brooklyn Dodgers Don Newcombe as the only player to be named Rookie of the Year, Cy Young, and MVP during his career. Throw in a pair of no hitters, and the list of accomplishments achieved by Verlander has Hall of Fame written all over it.

Although his credentials as an MVP candidate are beyond question, there is an element around the game, and within the BBWAA, that seems to think pitchers should not be eligible for the award. At the very least, a commonly held position is that if a pitcher is going to win the MVP, he must clear an extra hurdle. So, does Verlander’s 2011 campaign meet that higher standard?

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