Tuesday, July 15, 2008

How The Season Flies

I'm amazed that we have already reached the All-Star Game break in a season that seems as if it's just getting rolling. Maybe that's because it took until the last nine days for my Mets (my #2 team) to wake up and start playing the brand of crisp, winning baseball they played most of the previous two seasons. Their nine-game winning streak has included many amazing feats: their erratic pitching staff became the first since 1900 to hold opponents to three hits or less in five straight games; their much-maligned bullpen currently has a 19-inning scoreless streak; and their offense has been fueled by the late-inning heroics of second-stringers Damian Easley, Fernando Tatis, and Ramon Castro.

As we pause for the annual exhibition to confirm that an American League city will host the first game of the World Series, here are a few things worth noting after the first half (more like 60%) of this season:

1) JOSH HAMILTON: After last night's astonishing performance in the Home Run Derby, Hamilton affirmed his place as the most dramatic human story of this baseball season. As Joe Morgan noted on the telecast, it's tough enough to hit major league pitching after a few weeks off, but Hamilton went three full years without swinging a bat against live pitching, afflicted by a cocaine addiction which nearly killed him. He needed a special dispensation from Pope Bud I just to be allowed to go to spring training in 2007. Now he has 95 RBI at the break, second-most in the past 50 years, and has emerged as the star he was supposed to be years ago. His home run display at Yankee Stadium was mind-boggling. At one point he had 8 HR and 6 outs; he hit 20 balls into the far reaches of the stadium in his next 22 swings. He hit everything served up by his Everyman batting-practice hurler, 71-year-old Clay Counsil. Over the years, Home Run Derby participants have learned the wisdom of taking a pitch or two between swings, to help them relax, conserve energy, and remain patient enough to find the pitch in their sweet zone. Not Hamilton. When he rocketed into baseball lore with 13 straight blasts, he let only a handful of Counsil servings pass by unmaimed. He couldn't help himself. In the greatest BP groove ever, he swung at everything, and everything disappeared into the upper deck, adding up to 28 home runs covering nearly 2 1/2 miles. The question now is whether this is going to ruin Hamilton the way that Home Run Derby fame wrecked Bobby Abreu. Then playing for the Phillies, Abreu hit 24 home runs in one round in the 2005, the record smashed by Hamilton, then hit only 6 the rest of the season. His power swing somehow altered by that flash of stardom, he hit only 8 the first half of 2006, then was traded to the Yankees, who felt that he'd flourish with the Stadium's short right-field porch. But it just hasn't happened. In two seasons with the Yankees, Abreu has hit a far-from immortal 33 home runs, eight fewer than he launched in one night in 2005. Will Josh Hamilton fall victim to Abreu's Syndrome, or will that he continue as an RBI magnet with that sweet swing?

2) (INTRALEAGUE) PARITY: Look at the standings. Teams are bunched together as never before. The best record in each league is an unexceptional .600, by the Cubs and Angels, both on a pace for 97 wins, which would make this the fourth straight season with no team winning 100 games. Last season, no NL team won more than 90 games. Only 6 of the 16 teams in the NL are over .500 at the moment, none of them from the West Division. How mediocre are NL teams? Once again, they got drilled in interleague play, with an aggregate 103-149 record. Only the Mets, Reds, and Braves played winning ball against the other league; the first-place Phillies went 4-11. Things are more bunched in the AL, where 8 of the 14 teams are over .500, one is at .500, and only three teams are more than three games below the break-even mark. The Kansas City Royals, with the third-worst record in the AL, are struggling at 30-48 against their own league, but cruised to a 13-5 record against the NL. Was the schedule stacked against the NL? Because of the different number of teams in the leagues, all AL teams played 18 interleague games, but only four NL teams did so, the rest playing 15. Is it coincidence that the four NL teams forced to play that extra series against the tougher AL--the Padres, Nationals, and Astros--are in last place? Add the Giants, and those four teams went a dismal 24-48 in interleague play.

3) LOUSY LINEUPS: Where have all the scary lineups of a few years ago gone? We can speculate all we want about why there isn't as much offense or as many home runs this year (have the baseballs been de-juiced, or just the players?), but in the bigger picture, it's all part of the ebb and flow of offense vs. defense. Baseball history is full of cycles. Hitting dominated the 1890s, the 1930s and the 1990s. Pitching ruled in the 1910s and the 1960s, and we may be entering another pitcher-friendly era. Check the batting averages in the box scores and you'll find some teams with more hitters below .220 than above .280, even in the American League. Only a handful of teams have the kind of top-to-bottom intimidating lineup that seemed the norm ten years ago.

4) GREAT YOUNG PITCHERS: Which comes first, great pitching or weak hitting? Are the lineups looking sickly because players have forgotten how to hit, have the pitchers caught up in their knowledge of how to exploit modern hitters, or do we just happen to have a crop of extraordinary young pitchers bursting onto the scene all at once? Check out the array of pitchers who are 25 years old or younger.

NATIONAL LEAGUE
Edinson Volquez (25): 12-3, 2.29 ERA, 126 Ks in 117 innings, All-Star
Tim Lincecum (24): 11-2, 2.57 ERA, 135 Ks in 129 innings, All-Star
Jair Jurrjens (22): 9-4, 3.00 ERA
Manny Parra (25): 8-2, 3.78 ERA
Ricky Nolasco (25): 10-4, 3.70 ERA
Cole Hamels (24): 9-6, 3.15 ERA, 126 Ks in 142 innings
Mike Pelfrey (24): 8-6, 3.64 ERA
Chad Billingsley (23): 9-8, 3.25 ERA, 128 Ks in 119 innings
Add an even greater number of starters who have shown glimpses of brilliant potential, including Johnny Cueto (22), Matt Cain (23), Micah Owings (25), Max Scherzer (23), Homer Bailey (22), Ubaldo Jiminez (24), Andrew Miller (23), Scott Olsen (24), Yovani Gallardo (22), Kyle Kendrick (23), Zach Duke (25), and Jonathan Sanchez (25). Don't forget about currently injured starters Josh Johnson (24) and Anibal Sanchez (24), or this fine quintet of already-established relievers: Carlos Marmol, Jonathan Broxton, Manuel Corpas, Matt Capps, and Kyle McClellan. National League hitters are going to have their hands full with these guys the next 5-10 years.

AMERICAN LEAGUE
Jon Lester (24): 7-3, 3.38 ERA
Gavin Floyd (25): 10-5, 3.63 ERA
Ervin Santana (25): 11-3, 3.34 ERA, 122 Ks in 129 innings, All-Star
Joba Chamberlain (22): 2-3, 2.62 ERA, 76 Ks in 65 innings
Felix Hernandez (22): 6-6, 2.95 ERA, 101 Ks in 113 innings; 14-7 last year
Andy Sonnanstine (25): 10-4, 4.58 ERA
Scott Kazmir (24): 7-5, 3.04 ERA, led AL in Ks last year, All-Star
Justin Verlander (25): 7-9, 4.15 ERA; went 35-15 last two years
Zack Greinke (24): 7-5, 3.48 ERA, 104 Ks
John Danks (23): 7-4, 2.67 ERA
Matt Garza (24): 7-5, 3.96 ERA

Here's the "glimpses of brilliance" list for the AL: Edwin Jackson (24), Clay Buchholz (23, with a no-hitter), Garrett Olson (24), Aaron Laffey (23), Kyle Davies (24), Jered Weaver (25), Phil Hughes (22), Ian Kennedy (23), Dana Eveland (24), Chad Gaudin (25), and Jesse Litsch (23). Fausto Carmona (24, with 19 wins last season) and Jeremy Bonderman (25) are on the shelf, and the fine group of young AL relievers includes Joakim Soria (24, All-Star), Joel Zumaya (23), Jim Johnson (25), Huston Street (24), Brandon Morrow (23), and Jose Arredondo (24).

That's a ton of talent. Yes, you can look at any baseball season and find a lot of great young arms, and the caveat is that so many of those arms burn out too quickly. The Mets thought they had it made 15 years ago with the baby-faced trio of Paul Wilson, Bill Pulsipher, and Jason Isringhausen. They all blew out their arms early and never formed that dream core of the rotation. Pulsipher disappeared for good, Wilson surfaced briefly years later but was mediocre, and though Isringhausen has put together a decent career it has been as a one-inning reliever, not a starter. You never know. The Marlins and Rays always seem to have a lot of young potential; how would you like a starting rotation of Josh Beckett, Ryan Dempster, A. J. Burnett, and Brad Penny? The Marlins had them all in 2002, but now they're all pitching elsewhere. So keep an eye on these young prodigies. See how many survive, how many thrive, and how many nosedive.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Adventures In Cleveland. . .Or Was It Cincinnati

The last weekend of June marked the annual SABR convention. This year's gathering was the fourth I have attended; my first was 2002 in Boston, followed by 2003 in Denver and 2006 in Seattle. For the record, SABR is the Society for American Baseball Research, founded by 16 gentlemen in 1971 about two doors down from my current office at the Hall of Fame, and now numbering about 7,000 members who devote tons of time and effort to figuring out how baseball history happened, what it means, and why it is so important to us.

Two quotes sum up SABR in my mind. One was from the keynote address at the Seattle convention, delivered by Jim Bouton, who opened his speech by saying, "It must tough for SABR members, knowing more about baseball than the people who play it. It must be like a bunch of nuclear physicists sitting around watching the government play with bombs." It's safe to say that most SABR members would rather be out there playing and letting other people analyze us.

The best quote about SABR was uttered by R. J. Lesch at the 2002 convention. We had met at another SABR event earlier in the year, and this was our first convention, at which the chief fun was meeting other members and matching up faces with the names we had seen on so many books and other writings. Halfway through the convention, R. J. summed up SABR thusly: "It's extremely reassuring on two levels. First, it's great to know that so many people care about this stuff as much as I do. Second, it's great to see that so many of them are way further out there than I am." That's it. All SABR members are way out on the right side of the Bell curve of interest in baseball. But there are other Bell-curve sub-sets within SABR, and even though I make a living from studying baseball, I still see myself more toward the middle of those sub-sets. For instance, I'm "the numbers guy" at the Hall of Fame library, but my lack of formal training in statistical methods keeps me grounded in the middle of the pack compared to the extreme number-crunchers who devise formulae to determine whether a middle reliever whose "wins share" is 1.3 better than the average middle reliever is a big enough improvement over a middle reliever who is only 1.1 win shares better than average to merit recommending a move by the general manager.

SABR's modest inception occurred in 1971 at the instigation of L. Robert (Bob) Davids, a government employee whose passion for baseball history flourished at a time when hardly anybody knew what anybody else was doing about researching baseball's past. You can find his byline on "Sporting News" pieces in the 1960s, along with the bylines of other pioneers and mavericks like John Tattersall and John Holway. Davids wrote to everyone whose name appeared above a baseball article, and met in Cooperstown with the 15 who responded to begin the process of coordinating their efforts and sharing their discoveries. The rest is (baseball) history.

The SABR convention is a four-day combination of research presentations, panel discussions, special events, ballgames, and, more than anything else, reunions of baseball fanatics sharing their interests with friends they only get to see once a year. The only bad thing about the conventions is that there isn't enough time to do everything and talk with everyone you want to. I find myself spending more time socializing than attending presentations, partly because so many people have things they need to say to or find out from "the guy from the Hall of Fame." Only two HOF people attended this year's Cleveland convention, me and senior curator Tom Shieber. In my position as a researcher, it's important to know who is doing what on the baseball exploration scene and to see what has been published and what will be, so that back on the job, I can connect people and information to each other.

While I was disappointed to miss a few research presentations I really wanted to catch, the SABR website (check it out at www.sabr.org) will eventually post text and/or film of many of those presentations. So I was comfortable with spending the bulk of my time talking to people. Some were old friends, but many of the more memorable people from this convention were new to me. Here are a few:

James Walsh is the founding publisher of the Maple Street Press, which focuses on New England sports and team annuals. He also published THE KANSAS CITY A's AND THE WRONG HALF OF THE YANKEES, a fine book by Jeff Katz, whose presentation at the convention highlighted his dissection of the many transactions which indicate that the American League A's were operated more or less as a high-level farm club of the Yankees in the late 1950s. Walsh was manning his table in the vendors' room when I introduced myself and showed him the cover design and introduction for my upcoming book THIS BAD DAY IN YANKEES HISTORY. He gave me positive feedback on the intro, which I expected since he is clearly a Red Sox fan. A Massachusetts native, he looks and acts like Matt Damon with his boyish enthusiasm for all sports, particularly the minute details of the fates of various Boston teams. Late one night, I talked with Walsh, Mark Armour, and Jeff Bowers, all intense enthusiasts who are experiencing the exhilarating hangover of the Red Sox winning two titles in the last four years after a drought which outlasted the lifetimes of many of their fans. Walsh also joined Tom, Jeff, and me for the ballgame on Saturday night and proved himself to be a funny, lively, and savvy baseball observer.

One afternoon in the hotel lounge, Tom Mahl wandered over to where several of us were sitting and introduced himself. I had seen him earlier, passing out bookmarks advertising his upcoming publication, THE SPITBALL KNUCKLEBALL BOOK. We wound up exchanging books; he gave me the unbound galleys of his book, and I gave him a copy of UNHITTABLE! which contains chapters on two of his spitball specialists, Jack Chesbro and Ed Walsh. I have since read his book, which is a well-researched, thorough, beautifully illustrated, and smoothly written examination of the history of these two quirky pitches. I hadn't realized the connection between them, but Mahl's thesis and evidence has convinced me of their kinship as extreme strategies employed by pitchers to befuddle hitters. Keep an eye out for it, along with his two books espionage, and keep an eye out for Tom Mahl, who might be appearing in a classroom near you. He is a teaching dynamo, armed with a history Ph.D. and a working knowledge of so many disciplines that there is no disputing his claim that "I can cold-teach the first two days of 29 different college courses." Engaging and fast-talking, he told us that his favorite subject to teach is geography, "because it includes everything else." This sense of so many things being inter-related is common to SABR members, very few of whom are merely baseball savants.

"You have to meet the Franks," Steve Steinberg said to me late one night, just as I was thinking it was time to head for bed. I had mentioned to Steve that I attended Colgate, and a moment later he spotted the Franks out in the lobby. Rich Frank graduated from Colgate about six years ahead of me, and his daughter Jessica got her degree there seven years ago. They are a SABR institution of sorts, and now I've finally met them, spending more than a half-hour chatting with them about Colgate and baseball. Rich is not a joiner, but something about SABR tempted him to sign up in 1986. He attended his first convention that year, bringing along his six-year-old daughter, whom he was raising pretty much on his own. He did not bring her there to do childish things or be pawned off on some caretaker. He took her to the research presentations and included her in everything he did. They've done the same thing every year since, making this their 23rd consecutive convention. She hopes to make her own research presentation someday, but meanwhile they still relish all of the convention activities and the passing parade of baseball historians.

Friday is always a special night at the convention because attendees go to the ballpark together (the conventions are scheduled for major league cities when the local team is at home). In Boston and Denver I really enjoyed watching the game while surrounded by fellow fanatics, but in Seattle and Cleveland I've done better than that. My friends Jan and Judy Finkel have rented a luxury suite and invited 15-20 people to join them there for the game. We got ripped off in Seattle, where we spent awhile feasting on the big spread of ballpark (and comfort-food) fare, talking baseball, and swapping stories, before drifting out to the seats to watch the ballgame. By the time we got out there, it was the 7th inning -- we attended one of the shortest major league games of this decade, which lasted all of one hour and 52 minutes. We were hardly settled in our seats before we had to clear out. That's one reason why Friday night in Cleveland was so much better. A one-hour rain delay preceded the game, giving us plenty of time to gorge ourselves and get our tall tales and gossip out of the way before catching pretty much the entire game. The game wasn't close--the Indians, behind C. C. Sabathia, trounced the Reds 6-1--but but the company was terrific. As with the rest of the weekend, some folks I knew already, and some I hadn't met. The latter group included Bill Johnston, whose robust laugh I exercised, Owen Ricker of Saskatchewan, and Irv and Mercedes, whose last names I did not catch but who wanted to hear all about my "Jeopardy!" appearance, and now know all about it. During the game, I spent the most time sitting next to John Zajc, Cleveland native and executive director of SABR. I've met John at all the conventions and am sometimes in touch with him on business matters, but this was the first time we've socialized. We had a blast, predicting what each batter was going to do and goofing around like a couple of teenagers playing hooky to sneak into the ballpark. The spectacular post-game fireworks were more exciting than the baseball action, but the best thing about the evening was the laughter and the baseball talk. Thanks, Jan and Judy!

There were other sidelights during the convention, notably two excursions made with Tom Shieber and Jeff Katz. One was dinner at Mallorca, a Spanish-Portuguese restaurant recommended by several people; the food was fabulous (Tom's paella could have fed the whole table, and I had twin lobster tails in an apple champagne sauce), the sangria hit the spot, and the service was almost continuous. When the maitre d' hugs you on the way out, you know that your patronage is valued. The other outing was a four-trip romp around the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame on Saturday afternoon. We had planned to return to the hotel for a 4pm presentation, but wound up staying at the museum and going from there right to the ballpark just in time for the game. The RRHOF was overwhelming in a lot of respects, and we gave it strongly mixed reviews. The artifacts and the music were terrific, but the navigation and some of the displays didn't seem user-friendly.

That's a capsule view of SABR and Cleveland. My ever-loving wife, whose absence was the only down-side of the trip, has a mental block about Ohio geography, always confusing Cleveland and Cincinnati. So it was that when she saw Tom Shieber a couple of days after the convention and he told her how much fun he and I had had together, she said, "oh, you were in Cincinnati, too?" Tom flinched only slightly, thinking fast, and replied, "sure. . .if that's what he told you." Thanks, buddy. I'm sure we would have had fun there, too.