Sunday, August 28, 2011

Sox Sweep Doubleheader, Eye Yankees

The Red Sox are playing so well, not even a hurricane can stop them.

It rained, it poured, and still the Red Sox won

Yesterday Boston took both games of  doubleheader against the Oakland A's, persevering through three lengthy rain delays during the afternoon and evening to beat the Athletics 9-3 in the first game and 4-0 in the second as Hurricane Irene descended on the Boston area. 

The first game was a typical Bosox blowout; the Sox burst out of the gates and had nine runs up on the scoreboard before the sixth inning, and with Jon Lester on the bump that cushion was more than enough.  Each member of the starting nine notched at least one hit, run, or RBI as Beantown's Bruisers fattened up on Guillermo Moscoso's pitching before the storm rolled in and snuffed out both offenses for the rest of the game.  You know it's a rout when Jason Varitek can get in on the fun; the Captain cranked a two-run homer (his ninth of the year, or as many as Joe Mauer and Victor Martinez combined) and added an RBI single for good measure

The nightcap was less one-sided, but the feeble Athletics mustered just three hits, all singles, off Red Sox pitching and were shut out by Erik Bedard, Alfredo Aceves, Daniel Bard and Jonathan Papelbon.  Bedard was shooting for his first win in a Boston uniform but a mid-game rain delay washed away his chances.  At the dish David Ortiz and Jarrod Saltalamacchia inflicted most of the damage; Big Papi, who had already roped two doubles in the first game, continued his big day by going 3-for-4 with a two-run blast (his 27th) over the Green Monster in the second inning. Salty plated the other two runs with a fourth inning groundout and a sixth inning double.

The pair of wins pushed Boston's division lead over the Yankees, who had their doubleheader rained out in Baltimore, to two games.  The Sox are off today and tomorrow, and then the Bronx Bombers (currently engaged in a doubleheader of their own with another game tomorrow) come to town for a midweek series.  If you merely looked at the division standings you would deem those three games crucial with first place in the AL Beast on the line, but New York has such a stranglehold (seven game lead over the plucky Rays) on the wildcard race that, barring a sweep, they barely affect either combatant's postseason chances. 

Both still have outside shots at 100 wins and both will be playing October baseball this year, so if we're lucky we just might get to see Yankee-Red Sox ALCS.  But for now, a surprisingly meaningless early September series at the Fens will have to do.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Counting Down the 12 Greatest Red Sox Teams Since World War II

After pummeling the defending American League champs in back to back games, the Red Sox are looking in top form as they wrestled first place back from the Yankees.  With 100 wins still a very real possibility ( expects them to finish with 98 wins), these Beantown Bombers could go down as the best in franchise history.  If they can bring home another World Series title two months from now, then I think they are unquestionably the best Red Sox team ever.  I guess we'll have to wait and see, but in the meantime I thought it would be fun to rank the top dozen Red Sox squads since the Second World War.  My only criteria was that the team had to win at least 90 games and either make the playoffs or be in contention.

12. 1950
Record 94-60
Boston had arguably the most potent offense of all time despite losing the Splendid Splinter for 65 games after he crashed into the wall at Comiskey Park during the Midsummer Classic.  The slugging Sox scored 1,027 runs (nearly seven per game), batted .302, and led the league in runs, hits, doubles, total bases, and the three triple slash stats.  Every regular hit at least .294 and the lineup featured seven .300 hitters.  Unfortunately the pitching wasn't nearly as productive; Mel Parnell and Ellis Kinder couldn't duplicate their magical '49 success and no one else really picked up the slack.  Another slow start under manager Joe McCarthy doomed them for the third consecutive season, and the Olde Towne Team wouldn't play this well again for nearly two decades. 

11. 1977
Record 97-64
After a disappointing third place finish in '76, Boston regrouped and nearly mashed their way into the postseason.  They led the league in home runs (with 213), total bases, batting average, SLG and OPS.  Five players knocked in at least 95 runs and four players scored at least that many.  Fisk and Butch Hobson both had career years, and Captain Carl enjoyed his last great offensive season at the age of 37.  As usual, the pitching was another story.  Although six hurlers posted double digit win totals, none pitched like an ace or had more than 13.  Free agent acquisition Bill Campbell was the bright spot with 31 saves, a 2.99 ERA and those 13 wins.  The Bronx was Burning that summer, and Reggie Jackson pushed the Yankees (100 wins) over the top in the division.

10. 2003
Record 95-67
Cowboy Up! This lineup was stacked from top to bottom; it led the league in runs, hits, doubles, total bases, the three triple slash stats, unbelieveable comebacks and buzz cuts.  Six players smacked at least 25 home runs (the team blasted 238) and slugged over .500 (the squad's .491 slugging percentage shattered the record-.488-set by the 1927 Yankees).  Every regular except for Johnny Damon knocked in at least 85 runs and Bill Mueller and Manny Ramirez finished 1-2 in the AL batting race.  The pitching wasn't nearly as prolific; the back end of the rotation was a disaster and the bullpen lacked dependable relievers and utilized the dreaded closer by committee.  As a result, Grady Little stuck with a tiring Pedro instead of turning to a fresh arm during that fateful eighth inning in Game Seven of the ALCS.  If the Bosox had held on to win, I think they would have beat the Marlins in the World Series.

9. 1948
Record 96-59
A crumbling rotation killed the club's World Series hopes in '47, but the team bounced back to tie Cleveland for first place.  Boston's Core Four of Ted Williams, Johnny Pesky, Dom DiMaggio, and Bobby Doerr once again led the charge, plus newcomer Vern Stephens added some firepower with 29 four-baggers, 137 ribbies and 114 runs scored.  Not surprisingly, the Red Sox paced the AL in runs, doubles, walks, and OBP.  The starting pitching, except for 16 game winner Joe Dobson, had been completely overhauled from '46.  Dave "Boo" Ferriss, Tex Hughson and Micky Harris all had ERAs over five and never recovered their forms.  Instead, newby Jack Kramer went 18-5 and Parnell, in his first full season, won 15 games with a nice 3.14 ERA.  The bullpen was a train wreck, though, and new manager Joe McCarthy infamously passed on a rested Parnell and went with Denny Galehouse during the one-game playoff with the Indians.  We all know how that turned out.

8. 1967
Record 92-70
The Impossible Dream version came out on top in one of the most thrilling pennant races of all time.  Led by Triple Crown winner and AL MVP Carl Yastrzemski, Boston's young starting lineup (average age-25.2) was average or above at every position except catcher and led the league in runs, hits, doubles, home runs, total bases, batting average, slugging percentage, and OPS.  AL Cy Young winner Jim Lonborg anchored an otherwise pedestrian startin rotation with 22 wins, 15 complete games and 246 punchouts, but he just ran out of gas when pitching Game Seven against Bob Gibson and the Cardinals on two days rest.  This Cinderella team saved baseball in Boston by drawing more than twice as many fans than the previous year, when the team finished in second to last place.  This squad is ranked the lowest out of the teams that made the World Series because the 92 wins are the lowest total on this list and I feel like this ragtag group was basically Yaz, Lonnie and a bunch of good role players.

7. 1986
Record 95-66
The lineup featured Jim Rice in his last productive season, Wade Boggs and Dwight Evans in their primes and a resurgent Don Baylor, but the other five regulars were below average hitters and the team was nothing special offensively for a change (although they did lead the league in doubles and were second in OBP).  What Boston did have was pitching.  AL MVP and Cy Young award winner Roger Clemens enjoyed what was probably the finest season of his illustrious career by going 24-4 with a 2.48 ERA and 238 strikeouts, 20 of which came in a record-setting performance against the Mariners at Fenway on April 29th.  Dennis "Oil Can" Boyd chipped in 16 wins, Bruce Hurst posted a 2.99 ERA and three time Cy Young winner Tom Seaver even won a handful of games while fading into the twilight of his Hall of Fame career.  The bullpen was shaky, though, and eventually squandered their Game Six lead and cost them the Fall Classic.  It wasn't your fault, Bill Buckner.

6. 1975
Record 95-65
Yaz and Rico Petrocelli were the only holdovers from the '67 squad (Tony C. did make a 21 game cameo in his final season), so they were the old faces in a starting lineup that had no other players older than 28.  The Gold Dust Twins, Jim Rice and AL MVP/Rookie of the Year Fred Lynn, drove the offense that also featured up-and-comers Carlton Fisk, Dwight Evans and Cecil Cooper.  Armed with a deep bench, Boston led the league in runs, hits, doubles, total bases, and the three triple slash stats.  Their pitching wasn't too shabby either, with five hurlers earning at least a dozen wins.  The bullpen was just as strong, and if not for Ed Armbrister and Joe Morgan these Boys of October would have beaten the Big Red Machine and won it all.

5. 1949
Record 96-59
As always Boston had a powerful lineup, one that led the league in runs, hits, doubles, homers, walks, total bases, and the three triple slash stats.  AL MVP Teddy Ballgame missed a third Triple Crown by a fraction of a point in the batting average department, shortstop Junior Stephens plated 159 runs and six regulars hit at least .290.  The staff was led by 20 game winners Mel Parnell and Ellis Kinder, but the bullpen was wholly ineffective.  Skipper Joe McCarthy once again managed his team out of the World Series by yanking Kinder for a pinch hitter and inserting Parnell, who had pitched the day before, against the Yankees with the pennant on the line in the season's final game.  He may have won four consecutive championships with New York but in Boston McCarthy was the late 1940s version of Don Zimmer.

4. 1978
Record 99-64
These guys seemed to have the World Series wrapped up in mid-July, but a ferocious Yankee comeback and Don Zimmer's poor managing down the stretch kept them out of the postseason.  The offense didn't lead the league in any important categories, but did finish second in runs, doubles, homers, total bases, SLG, and OPS.  Jim Rice had a career year (46-139-.315 with 406 total bases) and took home MVP honors, but he had plenty of help from Lynn, Fisk, Evans and Yaz.  On the hill, 20 game winner Dennis Eckersley led the rotation with his 2.99 ERA.  The dependable duo of Mike Torrez and Luis Tiant teamed with Eck to form a solid 1-2-3 punch, and the bullpen was superb with Dick Drago, Bill Campbell and 15 game winner Bob Stanley.  Unfortunately, Torrez couldn't neutralize Bucky Dent in the season's 163rd game, so we'll never know if they could have won the Series (although I suspect they would have).

3. 2007
Record 96-66
Winners of the AL East for the first time since 1995 broke New York's string of eleven consecutive division titles.  With down years from Manny and newcomers J.D. Drew and Julio Lugo, the offense wasn't as impressive as in 2004, but still led the league in doubles and walks.  Rookie of the Year Dustin Pedroia and September call-up Jacoby Ellsbury sparked their ALCS comeback against the Indians and World Series sweep of the red-hot Rockies.  The pitching led the league in ERA and was superb; 20 game winner and Cy Young runner-up Josh Beckett enjoyed a career year, Tim Wakefield won 17 games and rookie sensation Daisuke Matsuzaka led the team with 201 strikeouts.  The bullpen was absolutely filthy; Japanese import Hideki Okajima thrived as the set-up man (2.22 ERA and 0.97 WHIP) for stud closer Jonathan Papelbon and his even stingier 1.85 ERA and 0.77 WHIP.

2. 1946
Record 104-50
Boston stomped all over the American league, winning the pennant by a dozen games in the first season of the post-World War II era. The Sox were practically unbeatable at Fenway that year, boasting a 61-16 record in home games. Led by AL MVP Ted Williams, Bobby Doerr, Johnny Pesky, and Dom DiMaggio all in their primes, the Sox led the Junior Circuit in runs, hits, doubles, walks, total bases, and the three slash stats. And while the pitching staff wasn't quite as dominant, it was still very good thanks to 20 game winners Dave Ferriss and Tex Hughson (they tossed a combined 47 complete games), plus 17 game winner Micky Harris and the always reliable Joe Dobson, none of whom were older than 30.  Their only weakness: southpaw starting pitchers, surprisingly, against whom this team was barely above .500 at 12-11.

1. 2004
Record 98-64
The unfortgettable band of brothers that ended the franchise's 86 year World Series drought deserves the top spot.  The beloved Idiots sure could hit, as they led the league in runs, doubles, total bases, OBP, SLG, OPS, handshakes and hair length. Johnny Damon with his .380 OBP and 123 runs scored, set the table for the big guns, David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez, who both hit over .300 with more than 40 long balls and 130 RBI.  Boston also had a great pitching staff to go with its thunder; aces Curt Schilling and Pedro Martinez were great while Derek Lowe, Tim Wakefield and Bronson Arroyo stayed healthy and fortified the back end of the rotation.  Keith Foulke was untouchable (2.17 ERA, 0.94 WHIP and 32 saves) as the team's lockdown closer, serving as a poor man's Mariano Rivera and coming up big in the postseason.

The 2004 team holds the title, for now...

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

The Brothers Upton

Justin Upton has surpassed his big brother B.J., and it's not even close
Ask any knowledgeable baseball fan which Upton brother is better and he will tell you, without any hesitation, that the answer is Justin Upton.

Although their profiles look almost identical--five tool outfielders with long swings, good pop, and the kind of speed that can make scouts drool--and their early careers (can't miss prospects drafted out of high school, youngest players in the Show when they were called up, and heralded as future stars) Justin is obviously the superior player right now because he leads B.J. in every offensive category except for walks and steals.  The younger Upton, a legitimate MVP candidate this season, tops the Senior Circuit in doubles and total bases and is only one steal and a handful of hits short of his second 20/20 and .300 average campaign in the last three years.  He's riding a month-long hot streak (his brother has gone the other way with a .175 average and just two big flies since July 17th) and has helped vault Arizona to the top of the NL West with his steady bat, proving once again that his absence from Prince Fielder's home run derby squad was a glaring omission.  Sure, Justin was a disappointment last year when he regressed in every category besides walks and he's leading outfielders in errors for the third time, but even his down 2010 and occasionally erratic fielding look much better than what his older brother has been doing in Tampa Bay for the last few years.

B.J. Upton seems to have become a perennial disappointment because he clearly possesses all the tools, but has yet to put them together.  To make matters worse, he's stubborn, immature and clashes with management and teammates such as Evan Longoria, especially when they rightfully question his lack of effort and focus.  It's become easy to forget that in 2007, when B.J. was the same age Justin is this season, the elder Upton appeared to be on the brink of superstardom when he hit .300, cracked 24 homers and swiped 22 bases for the lowly Tampa Bay Devil Rays.  He struck out a lot (as does Justin), but also worked 65 walks so he was by no means a free swinger a la Miguel Tejada.  His future seemed bright and he was primed to become the biggest talent on a team that included Carl Crawford and Carlos Pena fresh off a career year.

But alas, he has yet to realize that overflowing potential and with each oh-for-four line the chasm between what he is and what he should be grows a bit wider.  Unfortunately, the former second overall pick of the 2002 draft has been labeled as an underachiever, a gifted player content to coast on his abundant natural ability without putting in the hard work that could make him an elite player.  He still works his walks and the 40+ steals every year are nice, but his middling power, massive strikeout numbers and plunging batting averages have torpedoed what is supposed to be the prime of his career.  He's never been selected to an All-Star team, received any MVP consideration or taken home any hardware in the form of Silver Sluggers, Gold Gloves or World Series rings.  His monster 2008 ALDS and ALCS teased us by providing a breathtaking glimpse of B.J.'s ability to get in the zone and take his game to new heights.  But he just doesn't reach them often enough, and based on his OPS+ figures he rates about average at the dish.  While he's become a more intelligent basestealer and plus defender he just isn't worth the lengthy slumps and constant headaches.  The Rays, clearly frustrated with his lack of progress, shopped him before the deadline and will likely try again during the winter, and if they can move him it will be the best for both sides.  B.J. is a substantially better hitter away from Tropicana Field and a change of scenery would likely do him some good.  Although a jump to superstar-caliber player seems unlikely, Bossman Junior is still only 27 and could make a significant leap to, say, 2007 B.J. Upton if he could play half his games every year in a more hitting-friendly venue or even a neutral park.  Who knows? Maybe he'd be more motivated and would try harder if he played some place where fans actually show up to games every now and then, but I just don't see him ever reaching his ceiling.

As for Justin, the sky's the limit.  Unlike his brother, he is mature for his age and has embraced the role of a team leader.  The D-Backs have the two time All-Star under contract through 2015 at an affordable $8.5 million per year, and at the moment it looks like a great investment.  Justin seems to be getting better and has made some great strides this season by cutting down on his whiffs and flashing even more power (probably due to an elevated fly ball rate) than he did in his '09 breakout season.  He's been able to stay on the field more this year after missing substantial time in each of the past two seasons, and as a result is on pace to set career highs in just about everything.  2011 will probably just be the first of multiple 30-100-100-.300-20 seasons, and he might even threaten 40/40 once he hits his prime.   

But if the career arc of B.J. Upton has taught us anything, it's this; don't count your chickens before they hatch.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

An Ode to Nomar

My earliest baseball recollection dates back to 1998, when I was six years old.  I wish I could say I remember Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa's assault on Roger Maris's single season home run record, or that I had the faintest idea of Derek Jeter's Yankees winning 114 games, but I would be lying if I did.  I can't even remember my beloved Red Sox playing the Indians under the bright lights of October.

Nomar was a fan-favorite in Boston before 2004

Two things stick out to me from that eventful baseball season.  One was Mo Vaughn leaving Boston and splitting to California as a free agent, and the other was my falling in love with Nomar Garciaparra

Nomie was at the apex of his career, fresh off a close second place finish in the MVP race to Juan Gonzalez and on the cusp of winning consecutive batting titles, the first righthander to do so since the Yankee Clipper accomplished the feat before World War II.  To me, he was the greatest baseball player in the world, better than Ken Griffey Jr., Barry Bonds, and all the rest.  I guess you could qualify it as hero worship, but he was larger than life to me.  I have never loved baseball as much as I did then, and Nomah was my Babe Ruth, my Mickey Mantle, my Stan Musial.  Before and baseball-reference, I checked the box scores in the Boston Globe each morning to track his extraordinary batting averages. I can still remember getting a giant poster of him for Christmas and feeling like it I'd just received a million dollar windfall.  Garciaparra, fully extended in his swing's follow through, dominated my bedroom door for years until one of my younger sisters ripped him in half during her toddler years.
In kindergarten I dressed up as him, not Superman or Batman or Spiderman, on Halloween.  On the Little League diamond I imitated his sidearm throw and had to re-learn how to throw overhand again.  When uniforms were distributed I always wanted number five so that I could pretend to be my hero for a couple nights each week.

Garciaparra had a .923 OPS in his nine Boston seasons
On the field, it was impossible to take your eyes off him.  All those ticks at the plate, the constant fidgeting and toying with the batting gloves.  His defensive acrobatics deep in the hole, his ability to swipe a bag when he wanted it.  The smooth swing and the frozen ropes he lined all over Fenway, where he was a career .338 hitter with a .572 slugging percentage.  He was the Laser Show, minus the catchy nickname, when Dustin Pedroia was a freshman in high school. If only Nomah could have stayed healthy and remained with Boston, he would have ended up with Joe DiMaggio type numbers and a plaque in Cooperstown.  Ted Williams heaped praise on him, and he seemed destined to go down as one of the greatest shortstops of all time.

As it is, his body and career just fell apart starting with that magical 2004 season.  By then he was no longer the team's star, not when fan favorites like David Ortiz, Curt Schilling and Johnny Damon had surpassed him as superior players and clubhouse presences.  He sulked and pouted his way out of Beantown three months before the beleaguered Idiots won their first World Series in 86 years, and before you knew it his name was mud in this city.  I had been oblivious to his faults and imperfections all along, but once he was gone my eyes opened up and I realized he wasn't anything close to the man I'd idolized for most of my childhood.  They said he was moody, selfish, petulant and prickly. I was fine with the trade because it saved the season but never really forgave Nomar for breaking my heart like that, for basically walking out on the team after they tried to trade him and ManRam for Alex Rodriguez and Magglio Ordonez the previous winter (I'm not going into his suspected use of steroids.  Peter Gammons and others have provided evidence that he was clean, even if that SI cover says otherwise, so I'll give him the benefit of the doubt.  But I wouldn't be surprised if he was on something).

The Red Sox gave him a World Series ring anyways, but he couldn't stay healthy for the Cubs, who were more than happy to cut ties with the walking medical bill. After a solid bounce back for the Dodgers, where he played under Grady Little with Bosox cast-offs Bill Mueller, Derek Lowe and, later, Manny Ramirez, in 2006, he won NL Comeback Player of the Year Award and signed a two-year contract for $18.5 million.

But 2006 turned out to be the last gasp of Garciaparra's career.  He was already 33, past his prime and injuries had taken their toll.  His power disappeared for good and his batting average plunged.  Nomar was a shell of his former self, a replacement level player at best plagued by brittle wrists.  Aggressive to a fault, he had never been a patient hitter and was now getting himself out far too often.  Father Time had caught up with him, and he was quickly fading into the twilight of his career.

The Dodgers clearly were not going to resign him after he'd practically robbed them, so he hoped to latch on to an American League team where he could DH and try to refind his hitting stroke.  The offensively challenged Oakland A's took a chance on him, hoping to catch lightning in a bottle with the six time All-Star and former Rookie of the Year.  I guess you can't blame Billy Beane for rolling the dice, especially since he'd previously resurrected aging stars such as David Justice and Frank Thomas.  But Nomar was finished, and he was lucky the Red Sox let him sign a one day contract with the team before the 2010 season so he could retire as a member of the organization.  His new job? Cushy position as a baseball analyst for ESPN alongside former nemesis Aaron Boone.  It still hasn't sunk in yet.

There are no words to describe this
But by then I was seventeen years old and hardly cared.  I had moved on from Nomar to newer, more exciting players like Dustin Pedroia and Jonathan Papelbon.  We had broken up, and I was seeing new people, but that didn't erase all the great memories I have.

Or all the dents he left behind on the Green Monster.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Thome Thumps 600th

Of the more than 36,000 people who took their seats at Comerica Park for last night's mid-August tilt between the scuffling Twins and first place Tigers, I'm guesssing not even the most optimistic fans were expecting to witness history from Minnesota's Designated Hitter that evening.  Jim Thome had been stuck on career home run number 598 for eleven days, and hadn't enjoyed a multi-homer game since before Memorial Day.  His pursuit of number 600 had been a slow and steady crawl, and it culminated last night in consecutive plate appearances.
Thome may be old, but he can still hit

With Jason Kubel on first and the score knotted at three in the top of the sixth, Thome stepped in against Rick Porcello.  The 40 year-old slugger had already lined out and stroked a single, but this time he hacked at the first pitch and connected for a two-run shot to left-center field, no easy feat given Comerica's spacious outfield.  Since Thome probably had only one or two more ups left in this one and no one had ever notched his 600th career blast in a mult-homer game, many assumed the big guy had achieved enough history for one night.  But how long would he take to get his next big fly?  Would he pull an Alex Rodriguez and endure 47 pressure packed at-bats, make everyone wait another week or two before ushering him in to the exclusive 600 club?

Thome spared us the suspense and belted number 600 the very next inning, this time with a three-run job to left field that gave the Twins some much needed insurance runs in their eventual 9-6 victory.  It was fitting that he went deep to the opposite field, where only the strongest and most powerful hitters can consistently muscle them out.  Number 600 reflected the strength and skill that helped him become an elite basher who has done something only Barry Bonds, Hank Aaron, Babe RuthWillie Mays, Ken Griffey Jr., A-Rod and Sammy Sosa had ever done before. 

The sad part is that few seemed to notice or care, a stark contrast to Derek Jeter's hyped quest to 3,000 hits a month ago.  It was appropriate that Thome's listless journey 600 ended then and there (not at home in front of packed crowds toting corny homemade signs while hoping for a slice of history), before reporters saturated us with depressing stories of how this great man and player was getting ignored and shafted by baseball fans from Boston to Seattle, before it became a hot topic for sports radio and pundits and twitter.  If he had waited a bit and let the hype build, his 600th and subsequent celebration would have just felt awkward and forced (as it is, he was lucky to get a nice ovation from Detroit's fans and a video message from the game's legends).  It happened 24 hours ago, and everyone has already moved on.  The steroid era has tainted home run accomplishments and stained its best players, even if they never sniffed steroids.  Thome has never been associated with PEDs, yet we treat him (and his peers like Jeff Bagwell amd Frank Thomas) like he has.  He's guilty by association, an unwitting accomplice in a decade long drug-fueled assault on baseball's most hallowed records.  It's not fair in a country where you're supposedly innocent until proven guilty, but that's just the way the cookie crumbles with this proverbial elephant in the dugout.  We've lost some of our reasoning and most of our faith.  We're quick to make snap judgments about players, careers, and achievements.  It's that kind of mentality that makes so many baseball fans skeptical of a guy like Jose Bautista, who went from a journeyman nobody to one of baseball's best hitters.  They disregard his hard work that drastically improved his swing and timing because surely, they argue, he must be on something.  For some, that's become the only possible explanation, and Thome is just another victim of this skewed mentality.

But Thome had long been underrated before he ever got a whiff of 600.  I think of him as a modern day Harmon Killebrew, another big strong country boy who made a living off the long ball (Interestingly, neutralizing his statistics indicates he would have finished with 596 career home runs; surely he would have hung on for 600 if he could have).  Neither could field nor run worth a lick, but both were gentle giants, excellent teammates and class acts that were widely regarded as the best men in the game.  Despite their prodigious power numbers, they were routinely underappreciated stars who played in Minnesota and never wound up on the roster of a World Series winner.  The Killer was undone by low batting averages, lack of respect for his high walk totals in a less informed time and a swift decline--he was done at 36, like many other stars from his era--and paid for these faults by not getting into the Hall of Fame on the first ballot.  Thome deserves to be a first ballot Hall of Famer, as Killebrew did, and I believe he'll earn it.
So other than having the misfortune of playing with tainted sluggers during a period of inflated offensive statistics, why did Big Jim never get his due?  While I'm comparing him to Killebrew, he outhit Harmon by 21 points, eclipsed 100 walks in season nine times in an era when free passes finally got their due and posted a stellar 1.039 OPS during his age 39 season, the "Year of the Pitcher" and while playing half his games in a pitching friendly venue.  Sure, he wasn't a complete player with his meager 19 career steals and negative 3.8 defensive WAR, his .277 average is unimpressive and he's whiffed more than anyone not named Reggie Jackson.  But the guy did more than just swat home runs; he was a complete hitter and lethal offensive force that compiled a .403 OBP (higher than Joe DiMaggio), .558 SLG (higher than Mickey Mantle), and over 1,000 extra base hits (more than Al Kaline), 1,500 runs (more than Roberto Clemente), 1,600 RBI (more than Mike Schmidt) and 1,700 walks (more than Pete Rose).  His career statistics are superb, and he also played in two World Series and hit 17 postseason home runs, so it's not like he never got exposure on baseball's biggest stage.  So what gives?

I think I have three good reasons why baseball's version of Paul Bunyan never got enough credit;

Thome was never the dominant slugger in baseball
The guy mashes 600 homers, and managed to lead the league exactly once, with 47 in 2003.  He also led the league in walks three times, slugging percentage once and OPS once during his 21 seasons, and never finishEd Higher than fourth in the MVP balloting.  He has only one Silver Slugger (as a third baseman--scary thought) to his name!  How is that possible?  He was simply overshadowed by Griffey, Bonds, Sosa, Rodriguez, Manny Ramirez, Albert Pujols and Mark McGwire.  Check it: in 2001 he slammed 49 over the fences and set a career high the following year with 52, but didn't lead the league either year because a pumped-up A-Rod topped him with 52 and 57.  (Did I mention how this wasn't fair?) He only made five All-Star teams in this day and age where it seems like every big leaguer and his mother gets to play in the Midsummer Classic.  Thome put up outstanding numbers year in and year out, but he never had a season where he was the clear cut best hitter in baseball.  He was more like a rich man's Adam Dunn.

Bad Timing
Besides having his prime land smack dab in the heart of the steroid era, he also wore the wrong uniform at the wrong times.  After leaving Cleveland he played three seasons for the Phillies...before they won a World Series in 2008 and had the fearsome foursome of Roy Halladay, Roy Oswalt, Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels.  Then he moved on to the White Sox...the year after they broke out of an 88 year World Series drought.  The Sox traded him to the Dodgers...who were overpowered by Thome's previous employer in Philadelphia.  And now he plays for Minnesota...the American League's perennial postseason doormats.  In short, Thome's had some tough luck with his career destinations and has zero World Series rings to prove it (in fairness, Ted Williams, Ernie Banks and Barry Bonds didn't win a title, either).  If he reverses his stints with Chicago and Philly, he ends up with a pair of World Series rings instead.  Go figure...

Bland Personality
He didn't chase strippers, play poker or say all the wrong things like A-Rod, alienate fans and reporters like Bonds, become a caricature and goofball like Manny, or hit dramatic game winning home runs with a warm grin like David Ortiz.  He didn't fight with teammates and throw temper tantrums like Carlos Zambrano, date supermodels and build mansions like Jeter, or grow a lumberjack beard and wear a spandex suit like Brian Wilson.  He was humble, modest, and quiet, a great clubhouse guy and role model who just went about his business and never attracted unnecessary attention to himself or get into trouble off the field.  He's a family man, not fodder for gossip magazines, so the spotlight never shined his way unless he was in the batter's box.  Although he's made a ton of money, he didn't sign any outlandish contracts and never earned more than $16 million in any season.  The worst thing he ever did was delay Ryan Howard's career by three years by holding down the first base job for Philadelphia.  Nice guys don't finish last, but they don't sell a lot of papers, either.

So congratulations, Jim Thome, on 600 homers and a wonderful career and a future plaque in Cooperstown.  And while I'm sorry you didn't get the attention and recognition you deserved, I have this sneaky feeling you probably wouldn't have wanted it anyways.

Monday, August 15, 2011

25 Weird and Interesting Stats

Just a list of 25 random and possibly meaningless statistics I've compiled from the 2011 baseball season. In case you can't tell by now, I'm a big stats guy. Enjoy!

1. Poor Hiroki Kuroda.  The Dodger pitcher is leading the NL in losses with 14 despite a 2.88 ERA.  He is no stranger to pedestrian win-loss figures, since his career record is somehow 36-44.  His career ERA and WHIP are 3.43 and 1.19
2. 35 year-old Lance Berkman is leading the NL in slugging percentage (.586) and OPS (.995).  Big Puma is also second in home runs with 28
3. Boston catchers Jarrod Saltalamacchia and Jason Varitek have combined for 18 home runs, the same number as slugging first baseman Adrian Gonzalez
4. Matt Kemp's counting numbers are virtually identical to last year's despite playing in 43 fewer games this year.  His batting average is 71 points higher, his OBP is 84 points higher and his SLG is 131 points higher
5. Joe Mauer has hit ten home runs in his past 788 at-bats, and only one has come at home.  Head and Shoulders is for more than just dandruff, but it's not helping him clear those fences in Minnesota.  Curse you, Target Field!
6. Ichiro Suzuki ain't hitting like he used to, but he's still running at will with 30 stolen bases to prove it.  He's only been nabbed five times
7. John Lackey and Jon Lester both have eleven wins so far despite Lester's ERA being nearly three full runs lower
8. A 33 game hitting streak brought Dan Uggla's batting average all the way up to .232 (it was .173 on the Fourth of July)
9. Jeff Francoeur has 34 doubles, 15 homers and 19 steals while teammate Melky Cabrera has 32 doubles, 15 homers and 16 steals.  Who saw either one coming?
10. Who has more stolen bases than Jose Reyes, Jacoby Ellsbury and Brett Gardner? Coco Crisp, of course
11. Jhonny Peralta is hitting .309.  Entering the season his career batting average was .263
-Casey Kotchman is hitting .335.  Entering the season his career batting average was .259
12. The underrated Ben Zobrist is quietly leading the majors in doubles with 37 after a terrible 2010 campaign
13. Cole Hamels has the best WHIP of Philadelphia's Big Four despite having the least impressive track record
14. Jason Bay was the proud owner of a career .519 slugging percentage when he got a $66 million contract from the New York Mets.  He slugged .402 last season and is slugging .363 this year.  Moral of the story? Don't leave Fenway if you don't have to
15. Ryan Howard leads the NL in RBI with 95, but his .840 OPS is a career low
16. Dustin Pedroia was hitting .239 on June 4.  After an Uggla-like turnaround he's currently batting .310
17. Nick Swisher was hitting .213 on June 4.  After a nice turnaround (.935 OPS since) he's currently batting .267
18. No one who is still playing for San Diego (so long, Ryan Ludwick) has more than seven home runs, so it's certainly possible that none of them crack double digits
19. J.P. Arencibia has more long balls than any other catcher in the bigs this year, but the rookie's .272 on base percentage makes him a liability at the plate
20. Did you know Nats first baseman Michael Morse is third in the NL in batting average? Me neither
21. Aramis Ramirez is the NL equivalent of David Ortiz; absolutely brutal in April and May but a beast thereafter.  Somehow no one seems to notice this
22. Former Yankee darling Ian Kennedy leads the Senior Circuit in wins with 15 and winning percentage with .833.  Going out on a limb here, but I think the Yanks would rather have him than A.J. Burnett, probably the only guy on the planet who couldn't earn a win after being staked to a 13-0 lead against the struggling White Sox
23. Asdrubal Cabrera has two fewer runs, three fewer big flies and four fewer ribbies than Miguel Cabrera.  It's going to take me a while to process that.
24. The American League has a .321 on base percentage.  The Oakland Athletics have a .313 on base percentage.  I guess Billy Beane doesn't play Moneyball anymore.
25. Albert Pujols is back!  The Machine leads the NL in runs and four-baggers despite a sluggish start and spending time on the DL in June.  The average should be back over .300 by the end of August

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Ranking the Pixar Movies

I'll admit it; I'm a sucker for Pixar movies.  They're nearly perfect in every way, even though they're so simple on the surface (plots center on fish, toys, bugs, trash, and cars).  But maybe that's why they're so successful; because we can all understand and enjoy them regardless of age.  Their combined 11 Oscar wins only validate their greatness.

They're so good and timelesss that if we survive the looming 2012 apocalypse I can guarantee that twenty years from now, I'm going to dust off the old DVD player and pop in Monsters Inc. and enjoy it with my children. 

Pixar has rolled out a dozen films over the past decade and a half, and almost all of them have been top notch movies that satisfy critics and audiences alike.  Although its budgets have swelled from $30 million for 1995's Toy Story to a blockbuster-like $200 million for Toy Story 3 and Cars 2, they're worth every invested penny because these movies are more bankable than Will Smith.  They rake in cash faster than an experienced card counter at a blackjack table in Vegas, never failing to hit the $360 million benchmark for worldwide gross.  Simply put, these flicks put lots of butts in those cushy movie theatre seats.

Quick tangent.  Interestingly, the studio's first half dozen films except for Finding Nemo came out in November as holiday season movies, whereas the last half dozen have premiered during the late spring/early summer and have competed with (and often surpassed) the summer blockbusters.  I'm guessing Pixar could release a movie during the slowest weekend of the year (usually the one closest to New Year's) and still own the box office.

But how would you rank them?  Subjectively, this task appeared nearly impossible at the beginning.  I mean, how in the world do you pick between Finding Nemo and WALL-E?  It's like choosing between your children.  These movies all have great characters, meaningful lessons, and Randy Newman's music, yet they are also unique and maintain strong senses of identity. They are just so darn good, I needed a little help from some movie websties to put them in order.  I conducted my ratings by summing up IMDb ratings (converted to 100 points to give them equal weight), Metacritic and Rotten Tomatoes, and while some rankings were easy to predict I found others to be quite surprising.

12. Cars 2 (2011)
IMDb 65/100
MC 57/100
RT 38/100
Pretty obvious.  The disappointing sequel bombed with critics and audiences, and no amount of Oscar recognition can save it from itself.  It is easily the worst Pixar film to date (but still not a bad movie) and will hopefully discourage the company from thinking about a Cars 3.  This one felt less like a Pixar movie and more like a James Bond flick, and if I wanted to see Daniel Craig kicking some butt this summer I would have waited for Cowboys and Aliens, right?  I'm not sure if less Owen Wilson was a good thing or a bad thing, but I do know that there was way too much Larry the Cable Guy.  The world just didn't need a second Cars movie, just like we don't need five pound cheeseburgers, segways and houses with nine bathrooms.  But I digress....

11. Cars (2006)
IMDb 74
MC 73
RT 74
Intriguing premise set it on the fast track to greatness before it was likely derailed by Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) acting like a total jerk (imagine a completely watered-down Ricky Bobby) until the last act of the movie.  We don't watch Pixar movies to see friendless, selfish, egotistical meanies treat everyone like crap. Cars was the only Pixar film that failed to win the "Best Animated Feature" Oscar between 2000 and 2011, so that should tell you something, too.  I'm actually surprised it scored so well with critics and audiences considering it had been widely regarded as Pixar's worst movie until Cars 2 came along.

10. A Bug's Life (1998)
IMDb 73
MC 77
RT 91
Pixar waited three years to make its second movie and didn't fall very short of the high bar it had set for itself.  Don't confuse this with Antz, which is very similar but different enough to stand on its own.  For instance, the ants in this one look round and blue whereas the ones in Antz are brown and thin.  As good as this movie was, I think I like the animated short (where the old guy plays chess with himself) attached to it even more.  I can't for the life of me figure out how Cars has a higher rating on IMDb.

9. Monster's Inc. (2001)
IMDb 80 (#242 all-time)
MC 78
RT 95
We learned that the monsters lurking in the nooks and crannies of our closets aren't as scary as we think they are.  A valuable lesson, to be sure, for the millions of frightened tikes out there.  But how could you be scared of a diminuitive green cyclopse named Mike Wazowski (Billy Crystal) or a blue furry bear called Sulley (John Goodman)? 

8. Toy Story 2 (1999)
IMDb 80
MC 88
RT 100
Pixar dipped into the sequel pool with its third movie (seems early for a company with so much creative juice) and scored big time.  A surprising lack of Oscar recognition hurts this film in the rankings, but Seinfeld's Newman character is classic in the role of an overweight slob of a toy collector trying to make a quick buck by shipping Woody to a Japanese museum.  Toy exploitation is no laughing matter, though, especially when it involves our favorite talking playthings.

7. The Incredibles (2004)
IMDb 81 (#209)
MC 90
RT 97
Tie goes to the higher IMDb rating here.  The first Pixar movie with humans (albeit ones with superpowers, because let's face it--regular humans are just plain boring) as main characters.  You could tell Cars 2 was trying to replicate the secret agent feel of this one but ended up missing the mark.  Plus this one had Samuel L. Jackson in it, so you know it's good.  I'm just glad director Brad Bird got the recognition he deserved five years earlier for The Iron Giant, another animated masterpiece.

6. Finding Nemo (2003)
IMDb 82 (#169)
MC 89
RT 98
A smash hit that threatened to gross one billion dollars, this fan favorite was so vibrant and colorful; in my opinion it has the most impressive visuals of all the Pixar productions.  Nemo may have been a little fish swimming in a big ocean, but Pixar was firmly establishing itself as the Hammerhead shark in the animated movie tank at the Hollywood aquarium (see what I did there?).  Barely beats Toy Story 2 and the Incredibles, but the higher IMDb rating tells the story here.

5. Up (2009)
IMDb 83 (#100)
MC 88
RT 98
Another tie!  Once again I use the IMDb rating to give this one the edge, and the fact that it was nominated for Best Picture doesn't hurt either.  I think this is Pixar's saddest movie, but you gotta love the dogs with the talking collars and Kevin, the gigantic bird with an even bigger sweet tooth. The ornery old guy balances well with the sweet little kid, and by the end they develop great chemistry as the father and son the other never had. The 3-D was a nice touch, too.

4. Ratatouille (2007)
IMDb 81 (#187)
MC 96
RT 96
Patton Oswalt's movie career never took off, but he stayed relevant in Hollywood by playing an underdog French rat with a gift for cooking.  With a little help from a bumbling garbage boy, he becomes a renowned chef in Brad Bird's second turn with Pixar.  Moral of the story, as always; it's who you know. For the record, I think this is ranked too high, but my stats don't lie (and yes. that rhymed).

3. Toy Story (1995)
IMDb 82  (#139)
MC 92
RT 100
Pixar's impressive feature film debut takes home the bronze.  I will always hold a special place in my heart for this one because it was the first movie I ever saw in a theatre (I was three at the time).  After thrilling us with Pizza Planet, the Claw, and attempted escapes from the sadistic next-door neighbor Sid (somewhere between Darth Vader and the shark from Jaws on the pure evil scale), this one taught us to reach for the stars in our journey to infinity and beyond.  It also helped Tom Hanks solidify the apex of his career during the mid-90s after Forrest Gump and Apollo 13.

2. WALL-E (2008)
IMDb 85 (#51)
MC 94
RT 96
Gas prices approached five bucks a gallon in the summer of 2008 and called more attention to environmental/energy issues, so this movie came out at the perfect time.  Dialogue was scarce in a movie where the two main characters (a trash compactor and robot) can hardly speak, so WALL-E relied on its stunning visuals, creative concept, and interesting vision of the future (to briefly summarize, we're all fat and live on a spaceship resort in the bowels of outer space) to carry the day.  Nothing wrong with silver, WALL-E.

1. Toy Story 3 (2010)
IMDb 86 (#36)
MC 92
RT 99
Was there really any doubt? One of the best movies ever.  Period. I laughed, I (nearly-movies never make me tear up but this one came dangerously close) cried, and I felt like my childhood had come full circle because Andy is going off to college and so am I.  It eclipsed a billion dollars worldwide during the same summer we got our collective minds blown by Inception.  Toy Story 3 is my favorite Pixar movie and deserved to win the gold.  Its masterful use of 3-D was just icing on the cake.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Michael Young Gets 2,000th Career Hit

Last night, a typical 102 degree summer night in Arlington, Texas, Michael Young notched his 2,000th career hit against Cleveland Indians' starter Josh Tomlin.  Facing an 0-2 count in the bottom of the seventh, Young swung on an 86 mile-an-hour change-up and dribbled the ball down the third base line.  Rookie Lonnie Chisenhall charged the slow roller, barehanded it and whipped it across the diamond to Shelly Duncan, but Young beat the throw easily and had himself an infield single, his second hit of the evening.  A banner was unfurled beneath the center field scoreboard to commemorate his achievement, the 37,000 fans on hand gave him an extended ovation, and he took a moment to acknowledge the Arlington faithful by waving his helmet.  To top it off the Rangers came back the next inning to win the game 5-3 and maintain sole possession of first place in the AL West for another day.

2,000 down, 1,000 to go.

Since Michael Young broke in with the club back in 2000, Texas has trotted out star-studded lineups each and every year.  Over the past decade, Ranger managers have penciled in Rafael PalmeiroIvan RodriguezJuan Gonzalez, Alex Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira, Alfonso Soriano, Sammy Sosa, Josh Hamilton, Nelson Cruz, Ian Kinsler, Andruw Jones, and Adrian Beltre, among others, to form an impressive roll call of hitting talent from the 2000s.  But Young has been the one mainstay, the career Ranger and face of the franchise through its disappointing lows and more recent highs.  Through last place finishes and an AL pennant he has managed to stay healthy and provide steady production while playing second, short, third, and DH.  A career .303 hitter and Gold Glove winner, Young won a batting title and led the league in hits in 2005, earned seven All-Star nods and helped lead Texas to the World Series last year.  He's not just a singles hitter, either, as nearly 600 of his hits have gone for extra bases.

Young's certainly enjoyed a fine career, and if he can continue to produce for a few more seasons he'll make a legitimate Hall of Fame case (better than comp Johnny Damon, also pursuing 3,000).  My question is this; can he hang on for 1,000 more hits?

Right now I'd rate his chances as possible at best, and I don't think he'll make it.  He's already 34 years old and will turn 35 in October (by comparison Derek Jeter, the rich man's Michael Young, was three years younger when he got to 2,000) so time isn't exactly on his side.  He's on pace to finish the season with about 2,065 hits or so, meaning he'd still be more than 900 away.  Assuming he plays until he's 40, five more seasons, he would need to average more than 180 hits per season, an extremely difficult task for someone about to enter the decline phase in his career and become even more prone to wearing down during the brutal Texas summers. 

On the bright side, he's showed no signs of slowing down by hitting a career high .336 this year and leading the league in games played (no surprise for a man who's averaged 156 games played since 2002 and led the league in 2006).  He's very durable and looks like a strong bet to age well.  In addition, skipper Ron Washington has cemented him as the full-time DH, a move that should help him stay healthy and slow his decline.  If he can hang around until he's age 42 or 43, he'll have a great shot at reaching the magical 3,000 mark, but I find it hard to believe Texas would give many at-bats to an aging DH when there will be many other players clamoring for the slot during a scorching August night.

A night just like the one Michael Young got his 2,000th base knock.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Is Kevin Durant #1?

Around this time last summer, Kevin Durant was absolutely tearing it up for Team USA in a mindblowing, FIBA World Championship winning performance that marked the latest development in the lanky shooter's swift rise to superstardom.  The former number two overall draft pick in 2007 (obligatory shout-out to Greg Oden here) had gone from good to great to elite in a matter of his three seasons and had just led the Association in scoring, games and minutes played, field goals made (and attempts) and free throws made (and attempts, at an otherworldly 10.2 per game).  He also grabbed more than his fair of rebounds, blocked shots with his 7'5" wingspan, and drilled long three pointers with an effortless shooting stroke.  The kid, barely old enough to drink and the youngest player ever to win a scoring title, seemed on the cusp of undeniable greatness, and his summer romp made you believe he could do whatever he wanted to on a basketball court.  The scary part was (and sill is) that KD hasn't even hit his prime years yet; it's very possible that he hasn't reached his ceiling yet and could actually improve.  Not surprisingly, the MVP runner-up was drafted first in the majority of fantasy basketball leagues last year ahead of halfway decent ballers such as LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, and Dwight Howard.

And while "Durantula" had another great season for the Thunder, he actually seemed to take a small step backwards.  I wouldn't call it a "down year" because he still led the league in scoring and free throws made, but he regressed in several key areas including field goal percentage, free throw percentage, three point percentage, rebounds, and scoring.  It could have just been a result of the natural fluctuation that occurs with sports statistics, but there could have been other factors that played roles in his slight decline.  Perhaps he had grown content after inking a five year, $86 million contract extension the previous summer.  Maybe he conceded more opportunities to talented teammates Russell Westbrook and James Harden, especially once opposing defenders keyed in on him.  Nothing was blatantly wrong with Durant's game; he was most likely a victim of setting the bar too high too soon.  As a result his season's shine just lost some luster and got lost in the shuffle with all the hoopla over the Heat and Blake Griffin.

And as far as media attention goes, playing in the OKC certainly isn't a boon in that regard.

But earlier in the week we were reminded of his considerable skills when he dropped 66 points at Rucker Point in Harlem.  There he was again, calmly pulling up and raining a barrage of three pointers that would have made Ray Allen and Reggie Miller proud.  It was an unforgettable performance, regardless of the setting or competition, and it confirmed my belief that Kevin Durant is currently the best player in the NBA, last year's mildly disappointing season notwithstanding.

Some of you might be nodding in agreement, and I'm sure others will claim LeBron or Kobe to be superior.  In my opinion, athletic freaks such as LeBron and Wade are overrated because they are more football players than basketball players.  They're average shooters (at best) who succeed because they can put their heads down, barrel into the lane and draw a foul, dish to open shooters or posterize some poor, unsuspecting center.  They're great for SportsCenter highlight reels and can make your jaw hit the floor on any given play, but at the same time you realize that they're dominating more on God-given natural athletic ability than basketball skills.  When you clog the lane and turn them into jump shooters, they become far less effective basketball players because they force up bad shots and don't move well without the ball.  As for Kobe, probably the best basketball player of the past decade, he still has something left in the tank but is clearly past his prime and should continue to decline with those creaky knees of his. 

That leaves Durant, tall, skinny, and awkward, the antithesis of James and Wade.  He's not exceptionally quick or graceful and can't jump out of the gym or stun you with flashy plays, yet he is smooth and can contribute in all facets of the game.  He's unquestionably the best pure scorer in the game today, a much more potent offensive weapon than James or Wade, and at 22 he still has plenty of time to polish his game and improve with increased experience (he can start by crashing the boards a little more frequently). 

Durant isn't the most exciting player out there right now, but he's still number one in my book.