Thursday, October 23, 2014

Royals Return Favor

Billy Butler came up big for the Royals with a pair of RBI singles (BleacherReport)
After getting pounded 7-1 by the San Francisco Giants in Game 1, the Kansas City Royals responded with a 7-2 victory in Game 2 to even the World Series at one win apiece.

Though the scores of the games were nearly identical, they played out very differently. Game 1 was all Giants from the outset, as they jumped all over James Shields for three runs in the first and led the entire game. San Francisco was in control from start to finish. Game 2, at least through the first five innings, was closely contested.

Once again the Giants drew first blood, this time on a Gregor Blanco leadoff homer. Unfazed, Yordano Ventura regained his composure and set down the next three Giants in order. Kansas City responded with a run of its own in the bottom half to knot the score at one on a Billy Butler RBI single. The Royals took their first lead of the series the following inning when Alcides Escobar doubled home Omar Infante. After a scoreless third, the Giants evened the score at two-all in the top of the fourth on Brandon Belt's RBI double.

The score remained 2-2 until the bottom of the sixth, when Kansas City blew the door down with a five run frame. Giants' starter Jake Peavy was still dealing (Ventura had departed in the top half), but Bruce Bochy quickly lifted him from the game after Lorenzo Cain singled and Eric Hosmer walked to begin the inning. Four pitching changes later, and the Royals had themselves an improbable 7-2 lead. Butler singled Cain home for the go-ahead run, putting Kansas City ahead for good. Following an Alex Gordon fly out, Salvador Perez provided some insurance with a two-run double, preceding Infante's back-breaking two-run shot that finished the Giants.

San Francisco was unable to scrape anything together in the final innings as the Royals went on to win 7-2. The series shifts to San Francisco for Game 3 on Friday night, which will feature Jeremy Guthrie against Tim Hudson. As well as Guthrie pitched in his ALCS start against Baltimore (five innings, one earned run, three hits and two walks allowed) I have to give the edge to Hudson. Huddy's had the better year, the better career, and has the advantage of pitching at home, where he was slightly more effective this year with a 3.76 K/BB ratio, 1.21 WHIP and .704 opponents OPS compared to 3.29, 1.25 and .720 on the road. Expect the Giants to bounce back on their home turf in Game 3.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

My Favorite Baseball Books

Mickey Mantle rounds third after homering in the '64 World Series 
Here's a list of some of my favorite nonfiction baseball books, in no particular order. Also I'm probably forgetting some, so I may need to update this list in the future:

The Teammates
I like how Halberstam balances the past and present here, telling two different but interconnected stories of the relationship between Ted Williams, Bobby Doerr, Johnny Pesky, and Dom DiMaggio. He covers the familiar ground of their time as teammates quite well, but it is his re-telling of their modern relationship and reunion that makes this read special.

Summer of '49
Superb tale of two amazingly talented teams and their epic war for the pennant. Postwar America and the baseball of that time was very different (train travel, games on the radio, fledgling integration) but Halberstam wonderfully recalls all of it.

October 1964
1964 was a time of great change in America and in baseball, which Halberstam masterfully encapsulates with his re-telling of the gripping '64 Fall Classic between the Yankees and Cardinals. The juxtaposition of the aging, white Yankees dynasty and the emerging, fully integrated Cardinals squad embodies the shifting demographics of the game at that time. Baseball would never be the same, and Halberstam gracefully brings this watershed moment to life.

The Last Boy
The best baseball biography I've ever read. Jane Leavy's thoroughly researched portrait of Mickey Mantle captures him as he really was; a humorous and charming but deeply flawed man who also happened to be one of the greatest baseball players of all time.

Emperors and Idiots
For my money, the best book on the Red Sox-Yankees rivalry. Mike Vaccaro does a great job of bringing history to life here with his vivid writing style and language that pops off the page.

The Yankee Years
I used to be a big Tom Verducci guy, and I have to say he really knocked it out of the park with this one. Co-authored by Joe Torre, it's an eye-opening read about the famed Yankee skipper's tumultuous tenure at the helm. Let's put it this way; you'll be glad you're not managing the Yanks or answering to George Steinbrenner after reading this one.

Kostya Kennedy's incredible journey through Joe DiMaggio's legendary 56 game hitting streak. Expertly takes the reader back to that time and place as well as inside Joe D's head. I learned a lot about the hardships he faced during the streak as well as more intimate details about his personal life.

Loved this book. I learned so much about the Brooklyn Dodgers dynasty of the late 1940s and early '50s. Very cool oral history that lets the players bring their stories to life.

The Greatest Game
Great in-depth look at the 1978 playoff tie-breaker game between the Red Sox and Yankees.

Mickey and Willie
Explores the parallel lives of Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays, regarded by many as the two greatest center fielders of all-time. They both played in New York during the 1950s and twice met in the World Series.

Now I Can Die in Peace
Gotta love Bill Simmons. Too bad he hardly ever writes about baseball anymore/

The Victory Season
Very much a modern Summer of '49, except for the 1946 baseball season. It was an exciting time to be a baseball fan with the game's greatest stars back from the war, and Weintraub makes those feelings palpable.

Great book. Great movie. A must-read about Billy Beane and the 2002 Oakland A's.

Mantle's Miserable Closing Act

All great things, especially great athletic careers, must end (LIFE)
With the 50th anniversary of the 1964 World Series just having passed, I've been thinking a lot about the players on those teams, but I keep circling back to one in particular: Mickey Mantle.

Everybody remembers the 1964 Fall Classic as Mantle's last hurrah. It was the last World Series he ever played in, and statistically it was also one of his greatest. He slugged three home runs, including a walk-off blast in Game 3 that broke Babe Ruth's record for Series homers, knocked in and scored eight runs apiece, and batted .333/.467/.792. Mantle was a beast and, had the Yankees prevailed over Bob Gibson in Game 7, likely would have copped World Series MVP honors.

After that great series, at the end of Mantle's last great season, it was all downhill for the Mick and his Yankees. His final four years, 1965-1968, are generally regarded as an exercise in futility. An old 33, worn down by his many injuries and years of hard living, Mantle declined sharply after the 1964 season. His last four seasons produced a meager .254 batting average, dragging his lifetime mark down from .309 to .298. To make matters worse, the Yankees were horrible during this time, losing 41 more games than they won and never sniffing a pennant. Mantle's misery was compounded by the failures of his team, and vice versa.

Theoretically, one could pinpoint the beginning of Mantle's decline midway through the 1964 campaign, Mantle's last truly great season. Through July 15th he was hitting .335/.453/.631. Had he maintained those, he probably would have secured his fourth MVP. As it were, he tailed off a bit and batted .271/.393/.550 the rest of the way. Still great numbers, but bringing his seasonal stats down enough for Brooks Robinson to steal the award out from under him.

What's often forgotten is that Mantle came roaring out of the gates in 1965, with four home runs in his first 11 games and seven through his first 24. Halfway through May he was hitting .275/.451/.623--in line with his second half performance from 1964. Then Mantle went into an extended slump, scuffling through May (.780 OPS), June (.732 OPS) and July (.775 OPS), with just five home runs in June and July combined. He rebounded in August to hit .325/.404/.519, but went out with a whimper in September. After homering in his first two September games, Mantle went into a major funk, collecting just four hits in his final 34 at-bats, with no homers and no RBI. In those final three weeks he lost more than 40 points off his OPS, as his batting line fell from a respectable .269/.392/.480 to a more pedestrian .255/.379/.452 (still good for a 137 OPS+). Believing Mantle's retirement to be imminent, the Yankees hosted Mickey Mantle Day for their beloved legend at Yankee Stadium on September 18th.

Mantle had missed 40 games and struggled when he did play, posting the lowest batting average of his career to that point. It hadn't helped that the Yankees slipped to sixth in the standings, their worst finish since 1925. Embarassed by his poor performance, Mantle very nearly retired following the 1965 season. Ailed by his battered legs and a shoulder injury that hampered his swing and throwing ability, Mantle made up his mind to quit. But when he went to New York to inform the Yankees, Ralph Houk talked him out of it. He said Mantle shouldn't retire on a bad note, and that he'd still be valuable even if he was only able to play half a season.

Mantle played almost two-thirds of the season (108 games).

By the late '60s Mantle was no longer the physical specimen he had once been
1966 was better for Mantle, but not at first. It took him 21 games to launch his first home run. For most of the first half his numbers were in line with the previous season's until he enjoyed the last great power binge of his career. From June 23rd through July 19th, a span of 28 games, Mantle mashed 15 home runs. For one glorious month, he was the Mantle of old. His revival sparked the moribound Yankees to a brief spurt, helping them climb from ninth place at the All-Star Break to sixth place after play ended on July 29th. New York's hot streak ignited talk of a possible second half surge, but such speculation quickly dissipated as the Bombers bombed in August and stumbled towards a last place finish.

Mantle reverted to his old self, too, parking only two more dingers the rest of the way. With 21 in late July, he should have been able to bank one last 30 homer season, but managed only two in August and none in September, as he played just five games. He had a real shot at batting .300 one last time and topping a .400 OBP as well, but did neither, falling short at .288 and .389. Mantle was not an All-Star for the first time since his rookie season even though he compiled a .927 OPS (170 OPS+).

1967 marked the true beginning of the end. Mantle was moved from the outfield to first base to preserve his body (which worked, as Mantle played 144 games that year and the next) as well as limit the harm he could incur on defense, which had been terrible for five years by that point. Once again it took awhile for Mantle to get going, as he went without an extra base hit in his first 10 games of the season and managed but one RBI. He caught fire after that though, homering in consecutive games and launching 11 in all over the next month, including the 500th of his career on May 14th, Mother's Day. Mantle celebrated by hobbling around the bases on a dreary day at the Stadium.

Mantle's numbers remained strong through late July, with his OPS just a shade under .900. But like most old players, Mantle crashed and burned during the dog days of summer. From July 26th through the end of August, Mantle managed just one home run and six RBI while slugging .308.  By September Mantle was clearly out of gas, and once again his numbers were dragged down by a terrible finish. Hitting .259/.403/.462 midway through September, he recorded just three hits in his final 12 games and lost nearly 40 points off his OPS, which fell from .864 to .825 over the season's final two weeks. He failed to go yard in his last 22 games of the season as well, ending up with 22 on the year when he easily could have had 25+.

Looking back, it's puzzling as to why Mantle did not hang it up after that miserable '67 campaign, which had been even worse than his 1965 season. The Yankees were still terrible, having lost 90 games and finishing 9th in 1967. Whitey Ford, his good friend, drinking buddy and last remaining link to the team's heyday of the 1950s, had retired, giving Mantle the perfect opportunity to go out side-by-side with Whitey, With 518 home runs and a .302 batting average, Mantle should have been satisfied. He should have called it a career. He should have walked away.

But Mantle did not. He came back to play one more season at age 36, though nobody was certain that the 1968 season would be Mantle's last. He did not officially retire until the next spring training, but there was a general sense that Mantle's pride and ability had diminished to the point where retirement was going to be a superior option to grinding out another meaningless season.

Late-career Mantle made home run trots look painful (Yanks Go Yard)
Sure enough, that's what 1968 wound up being for Mantle and the Yankees. New York improved considerably, going 83-79 to bump themselves up to fifth place, but were never seriously in contention and finished 20 games out of first. Mantle got off to a decent start with a .918 OPS at the end of April, but that turned out to be an early season mirage. His numbers flatlined in May, save for a turn-back-the-clock performance against the Senators on May 30th in which Mantle stroked two home runs and a double as part of a 5-for-5 day.

Mantle had one multi-hit game in June, no homers in July, and a thoroughly mediocre August. He entered September stuck on 534 career home runs, having gone homerless since tying Jimmie Foxx on August 22nd. It would take him nearly more weeks to pass Foxx, and only because Denny McLain gifted him several pitches in a meaningless late season game against the World Series-bound Tigers. The following day Mantle ripped his 536th and final home run, taking reigning AL Cy Young winner Jim Lonborg deep at the Stadium. It was Mantle's last true hurrah as a big leaguer, for he managed just one hit--a measly single--and three walks over his final 21 plate appearances as his batting line tumbled to .237/.385/.398. Mantle played his last game at Fenway Park.

Looking back, Mantle should have sailed off into the sunset after 1965. Joe DiMaggio retired after his lone bad season. So did Hank Greenberg and, for all intents and purposes, Derek Jeter. Ted Williams almost did the same before going out on his terms with one last monster season. It would have been better for everyone. Mantle could have spared himself and his fans three more years of watching him flail away for terrible Yankee teams. All that pain and misery could have been avoided. Had he done that, Mantle would have retired with a .306/.426/.576 line and a career 1.002 OPS. He would have been one of only eight players to finish their careers with a four-point OPS (the others being Ruth, Williams, Foxx, Greenberg, Barry Bonds, Lou Gehrig, and Rogers Hornsby).

So yeah, Mantle hung on too long, but most great athletes do. Even Willie Mays did. But Mantle knew he was washed up long before he said goodbye, and came oh so close to retiring a full three years before he did. If only he had gone through with it.

Giants Grab Series Lead

San Francisco won Game 1 behind a brilliant start from Madison Bumgarner (WSOCTV)
The Royals' postseason winning streak of 11 (dating back to the 1985 World Series) was snapped last night as Kansas City lost Game 1 of the World Series, 7-1. The San Francisco Giants, making their third World Series appearance in five years, earned a decisive Game 1 victory on the road to open the Series.

The Royals' meek offense was no match for Giants' ace Madison Bumgarner, who held them to three hits and one run over seven stellar innings. The southpaw continued his month-long run of dominance, lowering his ERA in these playoffs to a microscopic 1.40 while improving his career postseason record to 6-3.

Meanwhile, "Big Game" James Shields failed to live up to his reputation once again, as he was bombed for five runs and seven hits in three innings. Shields struggled from the get-go, allowing hits to five of the first six batters he faced as San Francisco jumped out to an early 3-0 lead. He seemed to settle down with 1-2-3 innings in the second and third, only to unravel again in the fourth. Hunter Pence stroked a leadoff double, Brandon Belt followed with a walk, and Michael Morse singled to drive Pence home.

That was all for Shields, who saw his postseason ERA swell to 5.74 with the poor outing. Danny Duffy came on in relief and walked in a run before getting himself out of a bases loaded, one out jam.

But the damage was done. The Giants would have all the runs they would need on a night when Bumgarner was practically unhittable. San Francisco padded its lead to 7-0 in the seventh, and when Salvador Perez touched MadBum for a solo shot in the bottom half of the frame the game was already out of reach. Bumgarner departed after 106 pitches, having struck out five against only one walk, and the Giants bullpen took it from there.

Tonight's Game 2 becomes a must-win for the Royals, who need to even the series before traveling to San Francisco for Games 3, 4, and 5. They'll send young Yordano Ventura, their 23 year-old flamethrowing rookie, to the mound against Jake Peavy, a major league veteran of 13 years. Peavy, pitching in the Fall Classic for the second year in a row, has been a revelation since being traded from Boston in late July. Ventura was excellent in his ALDS start but struggled against Baltimore in the ALCS, so it's tough to say how he'll perform in his first World Series start. Peavy's on a roll, with a 2.14 ERA since joining San Francisco, and will look to maintain that momentum against a meager Royals lineup that managed just four hits against his teammates last night.

In a matchup of young versus old, Kansas City needs its youth to step up, otherwise there may not be another game at Kaufmann Stadium this year after tonight.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Commemorating Chavez

Over the summer, at the height of Derek Jeter's much-ballyhooed retirement tour, Eric Chavez quietly retired, bringing an end to his 17-year major league career. While age and injuries reduced Chavez to a part-time player during the second half of his career, it's important to remember just how good he was during the first half. Had he just been able to stay healthy, his resume would probably be Hall of Fame worthy. As it is, it resembles something of a poor man's Scott Rolen; strong defense at third base complemented by good power and on-base ability, but a boatload of injuries later in the career. Rolen also happens to be Chavez's most similar batter through age 30, not surprisingly.

Drafted out of high school by the Oakland A's with the 10th pick of the 1996 draft, Chavez made his major league debut two years later. The year after that, he was Oakland's everyday third baseman. After a solid showing as a rookie, Chavez broke out in 2000 with 26 dingers and an .850 OPS, beginning a run of seven straight 20-homer seasons. He would max out at 34 in 2002, the year he won his only Silver Slugger and netted his highest MVP finish (14th) as part of the famed "Moneyball" A's squad. He produced nearly identical numbers the following year, led the league in walks with 95 in 2004, and enjoyed his fourth 100 RBI season in 2005. 2006 marked a bit of a decline for Chavez, as his average tumbled to .241, but he still posted a .351 OBP, smacked 22 home runs, and won his sixth straight Gold Glove.

Because he was basically replacement level for the last eight years of his career, I don't think people remember or appreciate just how good Chavez was at his peak. He was the American League's answer to Scott Rolen. From 2000 through 2005, when he averaged 30 homers and 98 RBI per year while winning five Gold Gloves, he was practically even in terms of value with Manny Ramirez and ahead of guys like Derek Jeter, Carlos Beltran, Miguel Tejada, Carlos Delgado, and Sammy Sosa. He never had that one monster MVP-caliber season or even made an All-Star team, but consistently stayed in the five-win range for half a decade. Had he been able to do that through the rest of the decade into his early 30s, would be discussing his Hall chances right now.

Because through 2006, his age-28 season, Chavez had already piled up 1,143 hits, 245 doubles, 212 home runs, 716 RBI, and 2,060 total bases. His 32.5 fWAR were within one of Chipper Jones at the same age and within two of Wade Boggs and Brooks Robinson. His 212 long balls ranked eighth of all third sackers through age 28, ahead of Dick Allen, Jim Thome, and Mike Schmidt, among others. His 716 RBI were seventh. And with six Gold Gloves already under his belt, Chavez appeared well on his way to Cooperstown.

Then, injuries. First it was debilitating back pain, followed later on by crippling knee ailments. After averaging 144 games per year from 1999 through 2006, Chavez never again played more than 115 games in a season. He played 90 games in 2007, 23 the year after that, and just eight in 2009. In 2010, his 13th and final year with Oakland, he suited up for only 33 games. His performance declined steadily during that time as various injuries took their toll. Worse, he became an enormous bust for the A's, collecting $45 million in player salaries over those final four years in Oakland, during which time he contributed -0.3 fWAR, damning him for all eternity as one of Billy Beane's worst investments.

Those four lost prime years effectively murdered whatever chance Chavez had the Hall, but incredibly they did not end his career. The Yankees, seeking backup for an aging Alex Rodriguez, scooped him up at a bargain bin price. Chavez was a non-factor in his first season with the Bronx (2011) but enjoyed a resurgent 2012 with 16 homers and an .845 OPS in 113 games. Chavez moved on to Arizona following New York's LCS elimination and continued to hit well there in spite of his old age, putting up an .810 OPS at age 35 and .795 at 36.

It was somewhat surprising, then, that Chavez retired midway through last season on July 30th. But the Diamondbacks were going nowhere and a knee injury had forced him to the disabled list. At 36, he was all done fighting his way back from injuries, so he forfeited the $1 million remaining on his contract and went home.

It's a shame we'll never know what Chavez would have accomplished had he stayed healthy. He was on track to be one of the 15, maybe even 10-best third basemen ever, at least on par with Rolen, Ken Boyer, and Ron Santo. Based on his early career trajectory, Chavez probably would have reached benchmarks such as 300 home runs and 2,000 hits, and may have added a few more Gold Gloves as well. As it is, his six Gold Gloves are tied with Buddy Bell and Robin Ventura for fourth-most all-time among third basemen, behind only Brooks Robinson, Mike Schmidt, and Rolen. His career .970 fielding percentage is the fifth-highest at the position.

Chavez is not a Hall of Famer, but for awhile he played like one. It's just too bad things didn't turn out differently, because by all accounts he was one of the game's classier, most respected players. Nobody deserves to have their career ravaged by injuries, but Chavez especially.