Reality Check :: Silver Lining

This is the begining of what will be a fixture here on the Confines. For the last few seasons, various figures in the baseball world have launched a campaign to convince the world that Billy Beane and his sabermetrics are ruining the game of baseball. Paul De Podesta has come under the same attacks (although oddly enough, not Theo Epstein. I guess if you win all is forgiven) for the moves he's made with the Dodgers. The purpose of this column is to look, honestly, at the record, at the statistics, and at the payroll, to see if these men are indeed crazy, or if they are crazy like foxes.

From time to time I may invite the other Confines writers to join in this series. I am by far the most sabermetric-minded of the group. Brooks walks the line between traditional wisdom and the 'new baseball math', and Aho is firmly of the old guard, though he does keep up with the newer stats.

So, without further ado, the first edition of ... Reality Check.

The Oakland Athletics have had a disappointing begining to their season, last in their division at 9 and 11. Even worse, the A's have a team batting average of .229, dead last in the majors and haven't scored in the last 22 innings. There is no point in talking about the Dodgers right now, as there is nothing to critique or quantify. I don't think they are a team that is good enough to keep up this pace all season, which would get them 110 wins. 100, however, is not out of the question.

The A's have signs for encouragement, though. They are sixth for ERA (3.65) thus far and if the offense pulls it together, they should be able to make a run at winning their division in what is a rebuilding year. Even if you hate the A's (which I find personally hard to imagine, but to each their own) you can't believe that Chavez won't improve on his .171/.256/.276 ([BA/OBP/SLG] career .274/.352/.497), that Jason Kendall wont improve on .233/.300/.274 (career .305/.386/.415). Durazo .203/.286/.275 (career .282/.383/.489) and Byrnes .182/.250/.364 (career .268/.333/.457) will also move back towards normal as the season goes on, and Crosby is on the DL. When all of this is taken into account and the A's find themselves only three off the division lead , they've got every reason to be optimistic.

The pitching staff has carried this ball club so far, with 7 pitchers with sub-2.10 ERAs and 6 with ERAs of 1.75 or below. These 7 account for nearly 82 innings of the 175 thrown this year. They also have nearly 40 innings from pitchers with ERAs less than 1. The bright spots are obviously Joe Blanton and Rich Harden. Harden has the lowest ERA in the AL (like Clemens, only one ER on the season), and his K/9 is 9.3. He has stepped up in a big way from last year. Blanton threw a fantastic game on Sunday Night Baseball this week. He made one bad pitch to Steve Finley in the seventh and lost because of it. Finley jumped on it and sent it flying into the right-centerfield seats.
Blanton's line for the game:
8.0 IP, 6 H, 1 R, 1 ER, 1 BB, 2 SO.
For the year:
25.2 IP, 18 H, 6 R, 5 ER, 6 BB, 7 SO.
The important thing to note about Blanton is his experience, or lack thereof. Last year he threw eight innings in the majors. Eight. None of those were in starts, and he's shutting down the Angel's lineup four starts into the season. Just ignore his 0-2 record, because it doesn't mean a damn thing. This guy could be very, very good.

Zito has proved himself an enigma this season, once again. If you take out his horrible start against the Devil Rays, his ERA is 4.68, which is not great, but respectable. He's also had two good starts that have been marred by late declines, both of which have come against very good lineups, the Angels on the 15th and the white hot White Sox yesterday. Against Anaheim he threw eight strong innings, only surrendering two runs in the seventh. Last night against the Sox, Zito threw six scoreless, but gave up four in the seventh. In both starts he threw just over 115 pitches.The splits from ESPN's stat page paint a clear picture of what is happening. Zito is tiring in the later innings and pressing to make pitches. In the first inning, batters are hitting .167 off him. Innings one through three, .276; innings four through six, .196. The problem comes in the seventh, eighth and ninth, when he's being hit at a .467 clip. It's is even more obvious looking at average by pitch counts. From 76 to 90, batters are only hitting .143, but from 91 to 105 they're hitting .357. Slugging also jumps from .143 to .429. With the strength the A's have in the bullpen, if I was managing I'd keep Zito on a short leash and pull him before he got into the mid 90s for pitch counts. Working the bullpen for an extra inning every fourth or fifth day is certianly worth the wins, and worth getting Zito's confidence back up. I already mentioned Crosby on the DL, but A's bullpen staple Chad Bradford could be back as soon as mid-June to help as well. The Angels should fear this team, because for as badly as they're playing, they're still in the thick of things, and they are very, very likely to improve.

In a few weeks, we'll check back on the boys in green and yellow, as well as the boys in blue. There's not much to say about the Dodgers right now, except that Hee Seop Choi is hiting (a predictable) .205, but with Kent and Bradley over .350, it doesn't really matter. Just remember, baseball fans, the three most important things in statistics are sample size, sample size, and sample size.


Light at the End of the Tunnel

Many of you from outside the state might wonder why the Twins still play indoors in an age when so many clubs have built new facilities. Although the story of why is complex, the answer is really fairly simple: Carl Pohlad. The Twins owner had a friendly Governor in during the Arne Carlson administration, but he turned public opinion against him by pretending to consider moving the team to North Carolina. The public thereafter has remained quite skeptical of helping out an owner who is perhaps the most unpopular man in the state.

However, it may not matter.

This is from the Star-Tribune:

Twins, Hennepin have stadium deal

With a new promise of $125 million from Minnesota Twins owner Carl Pohlad in hand, Hennepin County will seek state permission to increase the local sales tax for a Warehouse District ballpark in downtown Minneapolis.

Under the terms of the plan to be unveiled at a Metrodome press conference Monday, the Twins and the county would build a $360 million, 42,000-seat open-air stadium. The site is near the confluence of Interstate Hwy. 394, the end of the Hiawatha Light Rail line and the proposed Northstar commuter rail in downtown Minneapolis.

The total cost of the ballpark project is projected to be $478 million, including bonding costs, site preparation and surrounding infrastructure, such as road and pedestrian improvements. No state money would be required.

The team, which has been seeking a new ballpark for a decade, would reap revenues from concessions, naming rights and luxury suites.

"It's simple. It's straightforward. You know exactly what you're voting on," said Jerry Bell, Pohlad's longtime point man on stadium matters.

One group that probably won't be voting on the tax -- which would amount to three cents on every $20 in purchases -- is Hennepin County residents: County and team officials said that requiring a public referendum would kill the deal.

St. Paul voters killed a proposed ballpark plan in 1999, and polls have shown scant support for public funding of stadiums.

The proposed ballpark wouldn't include a roof, but the Twins still favor one.

The team will encourage the state to help cover that cost, projected to be at least $100 million.

Top legislative leaders said on Saturday they will consider the proposal after this session's major budget bills are complete, but the plan already has detractors. Gov. Tim Pawlenty declined to comment.

The Hennepin County Board is expected to endorse the plan Tuesday.

"It's important to have a vital downtown," Hennepin County Commissioner Mike Opat said of the ballpark plan. "The team is a state asset, and we can't forget that."

The proposed 0.15 percent increase in the general sales tax is projected to raise $28 million a year and underwrite $353 million in county debt. County officials involved in drafting the proposal plan to issue 30-year bonds, but they predict the tax would raise enough money to pay off the bonds more quickly.

In Denver, 20-year bonds issued to build Coors Field for the Colorado Rockies were covered by a 0.10 percent sales tax and were paid off in less than 10 years.

The use of the sales tax -- as opposed to user fees -- allows the county to issue tax-exempt bonds, which carry lower interest rates than taxable bonds. The sales tax also is a stable and predictable funding source that would grow along with the local economy.

Opat said the goal was to "keep the public's involvement as reasonable as possible, and I think this deal does that."

Pohlad, known as a steely negotiator, sent a letter to the county on Friday saying he would pay $40 million up front with an additional $85 million to follow before the ballpark would open in 2009.

If the Legislature approves, the deal would go back to the County Board, which would then vote on whether to increase the tax.

Capitol reaction

Senate Majority Leader Dean Johnson, DFL-Willmar, and House Speaker Steve Sviggum, R-Kenyon, both said on Saturday that they would support the proposal.

"This is a very workable plan because it does not require any state general fund money," Johnson said. "Three cents on $20 falls out of most people's pockets before breakfast."
Sviggum called it a "reasonable" plan. "Obviously, it's a significant commitment of the Twins owner," he said.

But both also warned that they would not consider a stadium proposal until after the budget bills for health care, education and transportation were done. That's an important caveat because in recent years the Legislature has had major trouble putting together a budget.

I'm inclined to agree with Majority Leader Johnson. A three cent sales tax on every twenty dollars of goods sold is a small price to pay for the revenue which a new stadium would bring to the county. Minneapolis is one of America's best mid-sized cities in terms of the arts, entertainment, and has managed to stay economically vibrant. It has been hampered by the lack of a decent pro sports facility. I hope that I can see the day when Tori Hunter makes an astonishing play at the wall, on grass. I hope I can see Morneau put one in the seats, seats which aren't folded up from a football game. However, a few more political battles need to be fought. Although I don't want to speak for Righty Grove, I imagine he'll have something to say about the politics of it from his birds eye view in St Paul.


Bad Blood in the Central

Just when the White Sox make you respect them, just when they've gained some semblance of character, they go and do something like this that reminds you of the attack on the umpire, of the drunken fans, of why it seems so appropriate that AJ Pierzynski is playing there.

The quotes in the Chicago Sun Times article read like so --

"He never was my friend because I don't know him," Guillen said. "If he thinks what I said hurt him, I don't give a [bleep]. I didn't come here to make friends, I came here to win games. I've got a lot of friends. If Magglio doesn't want to be my friend, I'm not going to lose sleep at night."

Guillen only was warming up, though. He saved his best for last, launching into an expletive-laced torrent of insults.

"He's a piece of [bleep]," Guillen said. "He's another Venezuelan [bleep]. [Bleep] him. He thinks he's got an enemy? No, he's got a big one. He knows I can [bleep] him over in a lot of different ways.

"He better shut the [bleep] up and just play for the Detroit Tigers. Why do I have to go over and even apologize to him? Who the [bleep] is Magglio Ordonez? What did he ever do for me? He didn't do [bleep] for me. But he said I'm his enemy -- he knows me. Tell him he knows me, and he can take it how he wants to take it.

"Did he play good for me? Yes, he did. Did he play hard for me? Yes, he did. He might like me. He might be sensitive of me. He might be jealous of me, I don't know why. But saying I'm his enemy, he hates me, I could care less what that [bleep] thinks. I don't give a [bleep] what he does with the rest of his life. He [bleep] with the wrong guy, and he knows that, too. He knows for a fact that he [bleep] with the wrong people."

Now the mouthy catcher has a mouthy manager. I'll set aside all the personal rancor for the time being, and even the strategic value (or lack thereof) of character assassination of players in your division, but why the [bleep] did [bleep]ing race come into [bleep]ing play? April 15th was Jackie Robinson day. The aniversary of King's assassination was less than a month ago. If these two men want to sling mud, great; if they want to manipulate the media and sent insults back and forth, fine; if they want to step outside, I'll referee the damn bout myself. Just honestly, can't we hate someone for who he actually is, without bringing his race (or nationality) into the picture?

It's reasons like this that makes virtually everyone outside of the South side root against the White Sox. Some days it's no surprise that the White Sox are the only team to ever try to throw the World Series. Somehow The White Sox always wind up with a black eye.


Notes and Notions: April 19th

Last night was a full slate with two nationally televised games and one local (the Twins). While watching the games, I came to come conclusions.
  • Great American Ball Park is a hitters park. Really, really a hitters park. Part of the 6 homeruns and monster doubles were due to the fact that the starters did not have their best stuff (more on this later), but the ball was rocketing around that field

  • Jerry Hairston Jr. is fast. Really, really fast. He stole a third for the Cubs and his speed was astonishing. With Hairston and Patterson at the top of the order, the Cubs may have a real speed threat. This leads me to my next note as well ...

  • Dusty Baker makes strange lineups. Really, really streange lineups. I should be used to it by now, after watching some of the incomprehensible moves he made with the Giants (eg, hitting JT Snow third in the lineup). For example, here's the starting lineup for the Cubs against the Reds last night (although I am keeping in mind that Nomar is sitting):

    • Jerry Hairston Jr.
    • Neifi Perez
    • Corey Patterson
    • Aramis Ramirez
    • Jeromy Burnitz
    • Derrek Lee
    • Todd Hollandsworth
    • Michael Barrett
    • Kerry Wood

    You can call me crazy, but here's how I'd hit these guys:

    • Jerry Hairston Jr.
    • Corey Patterson
    • Aramis Ramirez
    • Derrek Lee
    • Jeromy Burnitz
    • Todd Hollandsworth
    • Neifi Perez
    • Michael Barrett
    • Kerry Wood

    Top load the speed, get to the power earlier in the lineup, and leave the strikeout prone Burnitz later in the lineup. Neifi and Hollandsworth hit for average better than power, so you keep them around to get on base late in the lineup. Furthermore, it is ludicrous to hit Corey Patterson in the third spot in the lineup. It would be like using Kenny Lofton or Rickey Henderson in the same slot.

  • This is more of a cosmetic concern, but it really got to me. I was watching the Twins on FSN North, and while flipping back to ESPN and TBS, something felt wrong about the game. I realized that the normal camera angle used to film was off center. I tried to figure out why this was the case for about three innings, especially because neither of the other games showed the same incongruity. Then, suddenly, it hit me. It was framed the way it was so the the entire advertisement behind homeplate could be read. It was poor planning by the ballpark to set up the camera wells and the ads where they did, and I realize this is mainly a superficial quibble, but the pitcher was at least 10 to 20 percent right of where he should of been. This was a bit depressing, that the ads have become more important to the broadcast than the game.

  • George Steinbrenner is a big crybaby. The Yankees make it impossible to win 162 games this year, and he throws a hissy fit in the New York media. This man has the most obvious inferiority complex in the Western Hemisphere.

  • The Braves announcers are an improvement over past seasons. That being said, they are still some of the worst on television, which is amazing considering they are nationally televised. They also need better topics to discuss. Last night they were commenting on the mowing patterns at Minute Maid Field. On a slightly realted note, the WGN announcers for the Cubs this year are also better. Not less critical, but smarter and more interesting.

  • The Twins are really counting on youth this year. They are hitting rookie Jason Bartlett second in the lineup (at least they did last night against their division rivals the White Sox) and "super-rookie" Joe Mauer third. That's a serious vote of confidence in these kids (I can say kids because Mauer is younger than I am, if only by a nine days).

  • There was a bizarre play in the Cubs / Reds game. With the bases loaded and none out, there was a hard chopper to third. Ramirez gloved it, used his momentum to cross third and threw a perfect strike to Barrett to turn two and cut down the run. Barrett then fired wide back to third, which apparently allowed the runner from second to score. Unfortunately for him, he was already out (the force at third). However, this mistake set up second and third with two outs and eventually led to the Reds taking a two run lead (which Graves nearly blew).

  • Finally, something is really wrong with Kerry Wood. In 12 innings on the year he has an ERA of 5.84, seven walks and no wins. His control is the problem, and unlike his iron horse days, he seems to be fatiguing early in games, in the fifth or sixth. At least Prior has looked good, which would give the Cubs three solid to great starters. They need to figure out something with that bullpen, though.

  • A bit of a postscript. Clemens threw seven scoreless, but Hudson matched him pitch for pitch, and took it through the ninth before he was lifted for a pinch hitter. They were both on fire tonight.

It was a great night for baseball. This writer is looking forward to the opener for the St. Paul Saints, when I can sit outside and enjoy some baseball. Thankfully, they have Summit on tap at the Saints. The beer, at least, is big league.


The Good Old Days?

Everyone talked about the new Braves rotation all winter, and mostly they asked questions. Could John Smoltz handle the strain of throwing 200 plus innings? How would Hudson (or any of the Big Three for that matter) perform on his own? How many times could Mike Hampton homer off Mets and Nationals pitching? Can anyone even remember who the hell else starts for the Braves? (John Thomson and Horacio Ramirez, by the way)

The one the puzzled me the most was taking Smoltz from a role in which he had been dominant and putting him into a position where there is enormous potential for risk, both for the team and for his health. It was clear when the Braves acquired Danny Kolb that they were going forward with this gambit. Like a lot of other people, I felt that Kolb was suspect, and that his microscopic strikeout numbers would catch up with him eventually. Gammons was convinced that his numbers from 2003 showed that he had the potential to be a dominant closer who gets key strikeouts, but his numbers have fluctuated wildly throughout his career. In 2001 and 2003 his K/9 were 8.80 and 8.49, but he threw only fifteen innings in '01. 2003 was a great season for Kolb, with an ERA less than two, but that may be what the old folks call a "career year." So far this year, his performance has been disturbing.

You can get away with allowing hitters to put balls in play in order to get outs as long as you don't give up baserunners, and in only five innings this year he's given up six walks and five hits. Right now OBA is .500, and the OPS of hitters against him is 1.247. To give that number some perspective, in 2003, Barry Bonds' season OPS was 1.278, and the AL MVP last year (Guerrero) only had an OPS of .989. it is very early to speculate, but there are signs everywhere. His pitches per inning is up almost three from last year, and his pitches per AB is up one and a half.

I watched most of the Sunday Night game last night on ESPN, and saw all of the 10th inning heroics by the Phillies. But that's not really an accurate description of what happened. What I actually saw was the complete meltdown of Dan Kolb. He proved unable to find the strikezone, and walked the eighth and ninth men in the batting order. Kenny Lofton came up with no one out and tried to bunt towards the third baseman. Kolb pounced on the ball and had more than enough time to cut down the man at third, and possibly to even turn two. However, Kolb threw the ball three feet wide of Larry Jones (Chipper for those of you who are so inclined) and into the outfield, allowing the tying run to score. Next up was Jimmy Rollins, who had the most brilliant bunt I've ever seen, a high bouncer off the dirt in front of home plate that died in the grass, eliminating any possibility of a play. I don't fault Kolb for not being able to field it, as it would have been almost impossible to play. Bobby Cox brought in Kevin Gryboski, who promptly gave up a game winning single to Placido Polanco, a rocket shot that was past Larry (Chipper) Jones before he even had a chance to react.

It was nice to see the Phillies play with some heart, after the dismal seasons they've had over the last few years. Really, though, this seems to me to be an example of a rare misstep by the Braves as an organization. I think that the closer position has been ridiculously overpaid in the last few years, and is held in much higher regard than it should be. This article from The Hardball Times gets to the heart of some of my feelings on the modern, ninth inning, no men on closer. Still, it is a position of great import and was a missing ingredient for the Giants last year that no doubt cost them a playoff spot (and to all you Dodger's fans, if they'd picked up even 3 of their 11 blown saves last season, they'd have won the division). We'll still have to wait and see how Kolb recovers, but for now, the Braves are probably wishing for the good old days when their man in the ninth was the only man left from 1991, and their first NL East Divisional title. It looks like a good week's worth of games on ESPN this week, starting with the Reds at the Cubs tonight. Play ball!


Week 2 Questions

Well, the season is officially underway and this writer couldn't be happier. Less than ten games into the season, about half the commentators and sportswriters already look foolish in their predictions, which is fine, because in a month the other half will look just as wrong. There is a reason baseball was called the best conversation topic ever invented. However, some specific questions come to mind.

1) Is there an opening day jinx?

Zito, Smoltz, Vasquez, Wells and Radke, had attrocious to poor outings, Zambrano was lifted early in a game (for walking in a run, slightly more forgivable than Wells balking in a run) where the Cubs offense (for a change) spotted him a glut of runs. Plenty of starters had fine days to open the season, and there is a reasonable explanation (for the most part) for all of these starts. Zito is coping with the pressure of leading the A's and still has either problems with his mechanics or psychology. Smoltz had not started regularly since 1999, Vasquez has had all sorts of problems throughout his career, and Wells may simply be getting old. Beer and brats eventually catch up to a man. Radke is harder to explain, but even solid pitchers lose 4 to 8 games a season. And Zambrano still has problems with control, especially when he is excited. I still found it odd how many starters were shelled on opening day.

2 & 3) Are the White Sox this good / Are the Cubs this bad?

The Sox are on top in the Central and would have swept the Twins if they hadn't ran into Johan the Barbarian. Quite simply, at this point, the White Sox are doing the one thing right so far that they've managed to fail at almost every other season. They are pitching competently as a staff. They've always had sluggers, but thus far a solid rotation and a better closer in Takatsu has helped them to look like a team that knows how to win games. Every other year, they've look like a team that found a way to lose them. Takatsu did have one bad game, but in three other chances he has yet to surrender a hit (or even a baserunner). The answer here, is a frightening maybe, and if the Twins lose Silva for the season, there could be baseball in October on the South Side for the first time since 2000.

The Cubs are sputtering along near the bottom of the Central. It has been almost impossible to diagnose this team the last few years. Thier biggest challenge now it to transition from a homerun offense anchored by Alou and Sosa to a hit-and-run singles-and-doubles machine. Whether Dusty Baker will help the team in this regard remains to be seen, but after presiding over the Giants for so many years,(a team anchored by Barry Bonds) his history suggests no. If the Cubs can accomplish this, (which makes the Sosa for Hairston trade make some sense) then their pitching should be able to turn them into a dangerous team. Burnitz may be the key, and if his strikeouts are as high as in previous years (110 to 150 fo a full season), it may be a long summer in Wrigleyville. He alerady has 9 in 32 AB, which is on par with his career rate of a SO every 4 ABs. The X-factors for the Cubs is are Prior and Wood. If they are as healthy as the Cubs would have us believe, they could be great. They do desperately need a new arm (or two or three) in the pen if they want to compete with the other top teams. The Cubs are better than their record, with Wood and Prior. Without them, this looks about right.

(Side note: what is most troubling about the Cubs is how they've won, and lost. the opening day blowout, came from the revamped D'backs, and then they took two from the Berwers. However, the loss that came in their home opener, with a lead in the ninth could become common place if Hawkins continues to struggle. The 1-0 loss to the Padre's may also be a sign of things to come.)

4) What the hell happened to Sammy Sosa?

The other man in the fabled chase for 61, who brought baseball back from the dead after the strike. The Dominican Daddy. The man who, for so long, seemed to bring a rare joy to the game, has six total bases for the season, five hits, no RBI or HR, an AVG of .200 and an SLG of .240. Worst of all, this move was supposed to revitalize him. How could anyone could hit that poorly in a lineup that includes Melvin Mora (who, despite hitting only .115, has at least 1 RBI), Miguel Tejada, Javy Lopez and Rafael Palmeiro is beyond me. His plate discipline has always been lacking, and it may be that pitchers have finally figured out how to sit him down. Sosa used to be the most dependable power hitter in the majors(10 straight seasons with 35+ HR, and 5 straight with 49+), and now he just looks old and tired. He's said he'll retire at 40, no matter what, so maybe he is. Maybe he only has so many hops.

5) The AL East ????

Toronto leads the division by two games over New York and Boston and one and a half over Tampa Bay and Baltimore. How did this happen? Firstly, Toronto looks good, pounded the A's last night, and took two of three from both the Rays and Red Sox. The O's took two from the Yankees, and dropped two to Oakland to even up, and the Rays won two against the A's and one against Toronto. The Yankees and Red Sox have been too busy worrying about each other to worry about teams like Toronto and Baltimore. Furthermore, like the red last year, this lead won't last long for the Blue Jays. $120 million plus payrolls eventually take their toll.

So there you have it, the first official Friendly Confines article of the season. Get out and watch some games. We've all been waiting for this.