Monday, April 30, 2012

Sox Recover on the Road

Following a three game sweep of the Twins in which Boston scored 24 runs, the Sox strolled into the Windy City and promptly took three in a row from the White Sox, climbing back up to .500 with that six game winning streak (which came on the heels of a five game losing streak) before dropping the series finale when Gavin Floyd outdueled Josh Beckett.  Yesterday afternoon Floyd limited the Sox to just one run for the second consecutive game (a resurgent Jake Peavy hurled nine innings of one-run ball on Saturday, only to get slapped with the loss as Jon Lester and co. blanked the South Siders) and handed Boston their first and only loss of the road trip.

But before Boston's bats went stilent they had been booming, winning each of the first two games by a score of 10-3 and pounding out 25 total hits.  David Ortiz and Ryan Sweeney continued to swing hot sticks, Jarrod Saltalamacchia and Cody Ross seemed to get it going and even Marlon Byrd, who was batting all of .070 when the Cubs unloaded him, finally showed some signs of life at the plate.  Even without Carl Crawford and Jacoby Ellsbury, this lineup still has plenty of firepower.  Mike Aviles has been a revelation at shortstop, too, and is making everyone forget Marco Scutaro.

Aceves reacts after sealing the win on
Saturday, Boston's sixth in a row
The rotation and bullpen are still issues, but there were some good signs in the Chicago series.  The pitching staff surrendered just ten runs to a lineup that features Paul Konerko, Adam Dunn, Alexei Ramirez, and Alex RiosFelix Doubront notched his first win of the season and seems to be holding his own in his first season as an everyday starting pitcher.  Daniel Bard, who hadn't made a start since walking seven Tampa Bay Rays on President's Day, looked much sharper this time around (only one walk against six strikeouts, two earned runs in seven innings).  Lester bested Peavy in a classic pitcher's duel and enjoyed his best start of the season, or at least his best since he went toe-to-toe with Justin Verlander on Opening Day.  And Beckett, aside from the two-run gopher ball he served up to Dunn, was nearly flawless yesterday and has now turned in four consecutive quality starts.  Their key contribution was that all of them made it to the seventh inning or later, preventing the thin bullpen from getting exposed late in games, though to their credit the 'pen seemed to regroup a bit in Chicago and Alfredo Aceves has reeled off three straight saves.  Clay Buchholz is still scuffling, but he's been done in by a couple of big innings and hasn't been quite as bad as his inflated numbers indicate.  His xFIP is more than three and a half runs below his actual ERA, which indicates some bad luck, as does his BABiP, HR/FB rate and LOB percentage.  I'm not too worried about him and think he'll turn it around. 

Because of their slow start the Olde Towne Team is still sitting at the bottom of their division, but this road trip was a step in the right direction and it shouldn't be too much longer before the Red Sox are right back in the thick of things. They should be able to stay hot against the Oakland A's and Baltimore Orioles during this week's homestand.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Bryce Harper Makes MLB Debut

Nearly three years after SI's Tom Verducci tabbed then 16 year-old Bryce Harper as baseball's LeBron James and two years after the Washington Nationals selected him with the first overall pick in the 2010 draft, the phenom was called up to the Show yesterday and made his highly anticipated debut.  It was only fitting, then, that his career began where many stars are born; in Los Angeles, California, the land of Hollywood and celebrities.  Harper, 19 and a half now, batted seventh and started in left field to make him the youngest player in baseball right now.  Boos mixed with cheers as he walked up to the plate in the top of the second inning as fans whipped out cameras and cell phones to capture the moment.  Two outs, bases empty, and the score tied at zero as he stepped in against Chad Billingsley.  Harper worked the count to 2-1 before chopping a grounder back to Billingsley, who threw over to James Loney at first to retire Harper and the side.  Harper, to his credit, sprinted all the way and nearly made the play close.  In the bottom of the inning he caught a lazy fly ball off the bat of Jerry Hairston to record his first major league putout.

His second at-bat came in the fifth inning with the score still knotted at zero.  This time there was one out and Rick Ankiel on first after leading off the frame with a single.  Harper again ran the count to 2-1, but swung at a tough pitch (outside corner at the knees), hit it off the end of the bat and lifted an easy fly ball to Tony Gwynn Jr. in left field.  Visibly frustrated, Harper pounded his chest as he turned back towards the dugout.

Harper speeds into second with his first major league hit, a double
His third at-bat went much better.  Adam LaRoche had led off the inning with a home run to give Washington a 1-0 lead, but Billingsley bounced back to fan Ankiel and Danny Espinosa.  Harper battled until the pitcher to a full count, then pounced on a fastball up in the zone, parallel to the letters on his jersey, and smoked a line drive to deep center, over the head of Matt Kemp that bounced off the base of the wall.  Sprinting into second base like his pants were on fire, Harper pulled a Manny Ramirez and flipped off his helmet after rounding first.  In the bottom of the frame with runners on first and second, A.J. Ellis roped a ground ball single through the hole between second and third.  The converted catcher, known for his powerful arm, unleashed a perfect throw to Wilson Ramos at the plate that arrived just in time to beat Jerry Hairston, only the baseball popped out of Ramos's glove as he applied the tag and the run scored, tying the game at one.

In the top of the ninth the score was still even at one apiece as Harper dug in against Javy Guerra, the major league leader in saves.  With runners on the corners and only one out, Harper had a chance to give his team the lead and didn't disappoint.  He seized the opportunity by jumping at the first pitch he saw, lacing an opposite field line drive right at Gwynn Jr. plenty deep enough to score Ankiel, advance Espinosa to second on the throw and give the Nats a 2-1 lead on his sacrifice fly.  When Ramos followed with an RBI single to double the lead, it looked as if Harper would be credited with a game-winning RBI in his major league debut.

Alas, it was not to be. Drew Storen's replacement Henry Rodriguez came in and blew the save.  After allowing LA to cut the lead in half on a Juan Uribe double, he had two strikes on Dee Gordon, the Dodgers' light-hitting shortstop, with two outs.  Just one strike away from victory, he uncorked a wild pitch, his second of the inning, and Uribe dashed home to tie the score.  The game went to extras, but unfortunately Harper didn't get another chance to do inflict any more damage.  Washington went down 1-2-3 in the top of the tenth against Jamey Wright, and Kemp, the hottest hitter on the planet right now along with Josh Hamilton, led off the bottom of the frame with a two-strike walk-off homer to center field off Tom Gorzelanny, who'd relieved Rodriguez the inning before and do what his predecessor couldn't; get the crucial third out (with runners on second and third, to boot).

Many, myself included, were surprised to see Harper called up so soon given that he wasn't exactly setting the world on fire for AAA Syracuse, seeing as how he batted just .250/.333/.375 with one home run in 82 plate appearances there.   All along, the organization maintained that they would not rush their budding superstar to the majors, that they would make sure he was ready, although it was clear that they wanted him to make his debut this season.  To be fair, they let him get a taste of all three minor league levels when many stars skip AAA ball altogether.  He began 2011 playing for the Hagerstown Suns, where he tore the cover off the ball with a .973 OPS, had his home runs replayed on Sportscenter and earned a promotion to AA Harrisburg after 72 games.  He struggled with the Senators, batting .256//.329/.395 with three home runs in 37 games.  Nonetheless, the Nationals invited him to spring training this year, and he nearly made the team before getting sent down to Syracuse.  Although his numbers there were unimpressive, scouts maintain that he did not look "overmatched."

I still think it's a curious move by the Nats, who were 14-6 heading into yesterday's game.  Because of their lights out starting pitching from Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez, Jordan Zimmerman, Edwin Jackson and Ross Detwiler, they have a stranglehold on the NL East.  It's not like they were slumping midseason and needed a spark, which many minor league callups seem to be (a quick fix designed to inject some energy during the dog says of summer). With Mike Morse and Ryan Zimmerman both on the DL, the lineup is thin and needs all the help it can get, but I usually say if it aint broke, don't fix it.  Still, it's understandable that they would want to do everything in their power to sustain this hot start for as long as possible, because this club hasn't  enjoyed a winning season since moving to the nation's capitol.  Now that they're finally winning, they just want to keep the good times rolling, and who can blame them for that?  Harper will certainly draw more fans to the ballpark, and could supply some timely hitting while Morse and Zim are on the mend.  If yesterday was any indication, Harper knows how to work the pitcher and get himself into hitter's counts.  He didn't look overly anxious given the amount of hype and media attention he's attracted at such a young age.  Harper could hit the ground running and key a playoff run a la Buster Posey in 2010.
The sky is the limit for Harper, who doesn't turn 20 until October 16th
But it's just one game. Maybe Harper will struggle and return to AAA for more seasoning; that's what the Angels did with their own teenage superstar Mike Trout (who some have likened to Mickey Mantle) last summer.  It depends how long the leash is, how quickly he can adapt to big league pitching, and how soon opposing hurlers can figure out the holes in his swing.  Maybe he'll be the monster many have expected him to be and win NL Rookie of the Year after leading the Nationals to the postseason a few seasons ahead of schedule. 

Nobody knows.  But regardless of what Harper does or doesn't do on the baseball diamond this year, for the first time in a long time, it's shaping up to be an interesting summer for baseball in the District of Columbia.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

First Round NBA Playoff Predictions

Eastern Conference

1 Chicago vs 8 Philadelphia

The Bulls once again posted the best record in their conference, whereas Philadelphia got off to a hot start before fading down the stretch.  Derrick Rose shredded his ACL in Chicago's Game 1 victory and will miss the remainder of the postseason.  Chicago still has enough depth, defense and firepower to win the series (so long as Carlos Boozer, Joakim Noah and Luol Deng pick up the slack), but the loss of last season's MVP has crippled their title chances.  Philly is also blessed with depth and defense so expect them to put up a fight, but their lack of a closer will hurt them in close games.  This one could go the full seven games if everything breaks right for the Sixers.

Chicago in six

2 Miami vs 7 New York

Both teams boast some powerful trios, but I think we can all agree that LeBron James (the probable 2012 MVP), Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh > Carmelo Anthony, Amare Stoudemire and Tyson Chandler.  Anthony and Stoudemire didn't play well together this year, and were plagued by inconsistency.  Plus New York's backcourt remains an issue.

Miami in five

3 Indiana vs 6 Orlando

The Magic will be hard pressed to win a game with Dwight Howard rehabbing in Los Angeles.  Orlando's blueprint for success has been to build around a superstar in the paint and surround him with three point shooters, which is fine and dandy except when that superstar is out of commission.  Sans Howard I believe Jason Richardson, J.J. Redick, Jameer Nelson and Ryan Anderson will struggle to find open looks.  Without D-Ho the Magic are like "The Office" without Steve Carell.

Indiana in five

4 Boston vs 5 Atlanta

I provide an extensive preview here

Boston in five

Western Conference

1 San Antonio vs 8 Utah

A lot of people gave up on the Spurs after their meldown against Memphis last spring and tabbed OKC as the favorites to win the west, but San Antonio bounced back on the strength of what may be Tony Parker's best all around season to record the top record in their conference once again.  Parker, Manu Ginobili, and Tim Duncan are mostly healthy and well rested for the playoffs.  On paper, San Antonio's backcourt blows Utah's away, but Devin Harris and Gordon Hayward ended the season strong and could be poised for some big playoff games. The Jazz hold an advantage in the paint with Paul Millsap and Al Jefferson.  The question is; has age caught up with the Spurs? Or do they have one more title run in them?  I don't think they're done just yet,but wouldn't be totally shocked if the Jazz upset them.

Spurs in five

2 Oklahoma City vs 7 Dallas

Remember when I said Dallas wouldn't repeat in 2012? The Lamar Odom experience was a total disaster, father time finally caught up with Jason Kidd, and for much of the season Dirk Nowitzki just didn't look like himself.  The aging Mavs will be making a first round exit, kids, and it won't be close.  The Thunder, with Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden, simply have too much talent.  Wouldn't be shocked if they swept, but then again I could see the Mavs pushing this thing to seven games, too.

OKC in five

3 Lakers vs 6 Denver

Kobe Bryant didn't win the scoring title, but proved he's still got game.  Andrew Bynum is coming off a career year, Pau Gasol is still a top player, and Ramon Sessions is a long-overdue upgrade at point guard over a washed up Derek Fisher.  Denver is one of those sneaky good teams that could upset the aging Lakers, but I think the Nene Hilario-JaVale McGee trade will be their version of the Kendrick Perkins-Jeff Green trade that diminished the Celtics last year.  Nene is a vastly superior player to McGee, who's more athletic but lacks Hilario's finesse and polish.  Nene will be sorely missed against Bynum and Gasol.

Lakers in six

4 Memphis vs 5 Clippers

This will be the best playoff series of them all.  I'm tempted to go with the Clips here because a) they have Chris Paul, statistically one of the best crunch time players in the game and b) Zach Randolph didn't look like himself after spending most of the season on the sidelines, but I know better.  The Clips are too top heavy.  They don't shoot free throws well.  Blake Griffin is overrated.  The Grizzlies have so many weapons, with Z-Bo, Marc Gasol, Rudy Gay, the underrated Mike Conley Jr., and the always streaky O.J. Mayo.  Bottom line: Memphis is a much more balanced and complete team.

Memphis in seven

Friday, April 27, 2012

Celtics-Hawks Playoff Preview

A battle of the four and five seeds, perhaps the two most evenly matched teams (on paper) in the Eastern Conference.

The Hawks
Record: 40-26
Expected W-L: 41-25
Def Rating: 6th
Off Rating: 16th

For all their talent and raw athleticism, are perennial playoff disappointments.  They're always good enough to make the postseason, but never good enough to advance beyond the conference semis.  Their starting five is usually loaded but the bench is thin, and the team lacks a go-to scorer in crunch time.  Just because they pay Joe Johnson superstar money doesn't mean he is one, and most would agree that Josh Smith was actually the MVP of the team this year.  Atlanta is also sorely missing go-to scorers in the post, big bangers who can set up on the block and punish opposing defenses with interior scoring.  Jason Collins, who will likely start in lieu of Al Horford and Zaza Pachulia, is a black hole on offense. The Hawks were young and athletic enough to overcome these flaws and survive the lockout shortened season by outlasting their elder foes, but this advantage is diminshed by the off days in between playoff games.   Atlanta's offense has been average at best this year (they really missed Horford and Jamal Crawford--Tracy McGrady hasn't done much off the bench), but their defense rates among one of the best in the Association. The offense relies heavily on Smith and Johnson scoring 20 per night, so if Boston can shut one of them down the Hawks will struggle to put up points on the board.

Even so, second year head coach Larry Drew oversaw a nice improvement from a team that won 53.7 percent of its games last year to one that was victorious in 60.6 percent and finished the season strong by going 16-7 over their final 23 games.  Drew deserves some credit for sparking the streak by replacing Marvin Williams in the starting lineup with veteran Kirk Hinrich, a small roster shakeup that went a long way; Williams thrived in his new role coming off the bench and Hinrich provided more speed, experience and basketball IQ to the starting five.   The 23 year-old Jeff Teague has quietly developed into a capable starting point guard in his first season running the offense, and Josh Smith just posted career bests in points (18.8) and rebounds (9.6) per game.

The Hawks will be without Horford, still recovering from a torn left pectoral muscle. His replacement, Pachulia, had been churning out double-doubles in his stead before he sprained a ligament in his left foot. Zaza is out indefinitely and will miss the start of the playoffs, meaning Collins, Erick Dampier (returned last night against Dallas) and Ivan Johnson will see increased minutes, which is probably not a good thing for the Hawks.

The Celtics
Record: 39-27
Expected W-L: 39-27
Def Rating: 1st
Off Rating: 27th

Unlike in years past, Boston barreled into the postseason with a full head of steam.  Celtics fans had gotten used to seeing their C's burst out of the gates, dominate teams during the first half, then cruise into the playoffs as they rested regulars and tried to conserve energy.  Not so this year, when a sluggish start made a strong second half imperative.  Many gave up on the aging Big Three and suggested that Danny Ainge blow the team up, but he stayed the course and was rewarded when the Celtics put together a 24-10 roll after the All-Star Break. As a result, this team has gathered momentum over the past two months and seems to have gotten stronger as the season wore on, surprising given their advanced age.  The defense, sans Kendrick Perkins patrolling the paint, has been exceptional as always, but the offense is so bad that they have no margin for error.

This is a squad that has come together and finally found its identity.  Brandon Bass is as steady as they come with his midrange jumper and is providing the production everybody expected from Jeff Green (lost for the season after heart surgery).  Avery Bradley has filled in nicely for Ray Allen (out with a sore right ankle), proving himself to be a capable starting shooting guard who can play tight defense and knock down perimeter shots. Greg Stiemsma is piling up blocks like his name is Bill Russell, according to Tommy Heinsohn. Kevin Garnett (now playing a lot more center) and Paul Pierce look rejuvenated, and Mickael Pietrus, a key reserve, returned to action against Milwaukee last night and logged nearly 20 minutes of action.  Perhaps most importantly, the team's best player and NBA assist leader--mercurial point guard Rajon Rondo--is playing some of his best, most consistent ball of the season, having dished out ten or more dimes in 24 consecutive games now, a streak that runs back to March 11th.  He's the MVP of this team, and the Celtics will go only so far as Rondo can carry them.  The offense is one of the worst in the league, and it depends on Rondo penetrating into the lane, finding cutters for easy baskets and setting up his teammates for quality looks. 

Other notes:
-The Celtics start the series on the road; they were 15-18 away from the TD Garden this season.
-Boston won the season series, two games to one, and their lone loss came last Friday when Doc rested his starters, and even then Atlanta barely managed to squeak out a five point victory.
-Ray Allen will not practice today and is listed as questionable for Game 1 on Sunday.  Normally this news would be cause for concern, but Bradley has been so tremendous lately that I wouldn't mind seeing the 36 year-old take some time to mend his wounds
-The last time these two teams met in the playoffs was four years ago, when the Celtics were the number one seed and the up-and-coming Hawks were the eighth.  The series went seven games, with the home team winning each time, and Boston emerged victorious/went on to defeat Kobe Bryant's Lakers in the Finals.  Will history repeat itself?

My prediction; Celtics in five

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Sox Sweep Twins

Ross sparked Boston to a win on Monday by slugging a pair of home runs

After a demoralizing weekend series with the Yankees at Fenway sent the 4-10 Red Sox plummeting to "rock bottom," the beleaguered Bostonians were fortunate to cross paths with the lowly Minnesota Twins, a team that lost 99 games last year and hasn't gotten much better (5-11 entering the series).  It was a much needed breather in the schedule for the Sox, who had been pitted against the Tigers, Blue Jays, Rays, Rangers and Yanks in a brutal stretch to open the season.  The odds were in Boston's favor, as they had their top three starters lined up for the series, but the they way they'd been playing lately you couldn't take anything for granted.  The team seemed to be at a crossroads; they would continue to sputter or they'd get back up and dust themselves off.  Sure enough, after a hard-fought bout with the pesky Twins, the Red Sox emerged with three consecutive victories that, God willing, puts their early season woes in the rearview mirror.  Even if the sweep didn't help much in the standings, where they are still last place in the AL Beast, it has to be a confidence booster, right?

The Red Sox, despite winning the trio of games, did not dominate the series; they took a pair of one-run wins (games they just as easily could have lost) sandwiched around a classic Boston blowout, an 11-2 pounding in which the Sox rapped out 18 hits and put the game out of reach early.  The fireworks display overshadowed another solid start from Josh Beckett, who limited the Twins to just two runs in six innings while tossing 65 of his 100 pitches for strikes.  The night before, Cody Ross, the one-man comeback, single-handedly dug Boston out of a 5-3 hole after another subpar outing from Jon Lester by blasting a two-run homer in the seventh and a go-ahead solo shot in the ninth off a stunned Matt CappsDaniel Bard, who made his first appearance out of the bullpen this season, vultured the win and Alfredo Aceves recovered from a shell-shocked performance in Satuday's nightmare to earn the save.

Even last night, as the defending champion Boston Bruins were eliminated from the playoffs by the Washington Capitals in overtime of Game 7, the Olde Towne Team held on to win after nearly coughing up a 7-1 lead.  The Sox scored early and often, giving Clay Buchholz a nice cushion as he cruised through five innings of one run ball.  But then Minnesota put a five spot on the board as they batted around in the sixth, knocking Buchholz out of the game and inducing three pitching changes from Bobby Valentine.  After trimming Boston's once sizable lead to just a run, they were poised to erase the deficit with bases loaded and only one out when Matt Albers extinguished the five alarm fire by getting Sean Burroughs to bounce into an inning ending double play. The Twins bullpen stifled Boston's bats, and it looked like Minnesota would enjoy a walk-off win when Alfredo Aceves loaded the bases with two outs in the ninth.  Thankfully, Aceves buckled down and clinched the sweep by punching out Denard Span to end the game.

The series was a microcosm of Boston's season thus far.  The offense, sans Jacoby Ellsbury and Carl Crawford, can still score runs in bunches and rake with the best of them.  Mike Aviles, Ross, and Ryan Sweeney have all performed better than anyone could have expected, and David Ortiz is hitting like it's 2004 again.  However, the starting pitching is hit or miss and the bullpen remains shaky. Aceves has thrived in low leverage situations and is not a reliable closer, so you have to wonder if Bard will ever get an opportunity to fill the ninth-inning void left by Jonathan Papelbon while Andrew Bailey remains sidelined.  In this division every game counts (as we saw last year), and you can't afford to blow ninth inning leads because you've got the wrong guy on the mound at the end of a close game.

Tonight the Sox begin a four game series with the Chicago White Sox, who lead the AL Central with their 10-8 record.  David will take their cuts against Phillip Humber, who hurled a perfect game against the punchless Seattle Mariners in his last start.  Boston will counter with their southpaw, Felix Doubront, whose excellent start against New York on Saturday was wiped out by the 'pen's pathetic showing.  Hopefully he can start the series off on the right foot by shutting down Paul Konerko, Adam Dunn and co. 

I'd settle for a split here in a Sox vs. Sox matchup. The White Sox are no pushovers, and their starting pitching looks much better this year with a resurrected Jake Peavy and converted reliever Chris Sale giving the rotation some much needed firepower.  This is a much better team than last year, and they have some big bats in that lineup.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Pudge 2.0 Calls it a Career

Yesterday, Ivan Rodriguez, baseball's best two-way catcher since Johnny Bench, announced his retirement after 21 big league seasons.  He retired as a member of the Texas Rangers by signing a one-day contract with the organization in a manner similar to how Nomar Garciaparra retired with the Boston Red Sox two years ago.  The club honored the fourteen time All-Star by allowing him to throw an unconventional first pitch before their tilt against the Yankees; he settled into his old position behind home plate and threw down to second base, where former teammate Michael Young received the throw.  He joins Jason Varitek and Jorge Posada to form a trio of impressive catchers who hung up their spikes after playing their final games in 2011, though Rodriguez is clearly the best and arguably a top five catcher in baseball history.

The 40 year-old Rodriguez last played on September 28th, 2011 as a member of the Washington Nationals against the Florida Marlins, with whom he won his only World Series ring in 2003.  His final season was a trying one for Pudge (not Carlton Fisk), who was pushing 40, struggling to bat his weight and playing as a part-timer for the first time in his career.  Even worse, he was an old man on a roster of young up-and-comers, a backup to Rookie of the Year candidate Wilson Ramos.  The veteran led off the top of the fifth with a single, the last of his 2,844 career hits (nearly 1,000 of which went for extra bases), off Chris Volstad and came around to score the go-ahead run on an Ian Desmond single.  Although he struck out looking in his last big league at-bat (against Ryan Webb), he caught a gem from phenom Stephen Strasburg, who delivered six innings of one-hit ball while punching out ten Marlins.  The Nats went on to win, 3-1, closing the books on an 80-81 season. 

It was a solid finish to a stellar career in which the Puerto Rico native caught more games than any other catcher in history posted the best caught stealing percentage in history.  The former MVP fell just short of the magical 3,000 hit mark that Derek Jeter reached last summer, but his career statistics and accomplishments are worthy of induction into Cooperstown on the first ballot.  At the time of his retirement, Rodriguez was the active leader in doubles, with 572, and double plays grounded into, with 337.  He bounced into at least ten twin killings every year except 2011.

Speaking of stats, I got plenty more where those came from (aka

-Rodriguez was well decorated and well compensated for his talents.  Starting in 1992, I-Rod made ten straight All-Star squads and won ten consecutive Gold Gloves behind the dish.  His streak was snapped in 2002 when a lengthy DL stint triggered by a herniated disk took him out of commission from mid-April to early June.  He made four more All-Star teams and earned three more Gold Gloves.  He started all but two of those 14 Midsummer Classics and the 13 career Gold Gloves are a record for backstops (Bench is second with ten).  He also collected seven Silver Sluggers, including six in a row from '94 through '99.  As a result, he raked in more than $122 million in player salaries alone during his illustrious career.  Then again, it's easy to make untold millions when Scott Boras represents you.

-From 1993 through 2009, he finished every season with double digit home run totals.  That's how he socked 311 dingers over his career despite having only one 30 home run season

-Ten times he batted over .300, but similar to Mickey Mantle (who also hit .300 ten times) he hit just .265 over his last five seasons and lost his career .300 average (it was .304 after 2006 and ended up at .296).  Interestingly enough, both wore the number seven as well...

-I-Rod had great wheels for a catcher; he stole 127 bases during his career (caught 64 times) and reached double digits in that department four times.  He was the first catcher to go 20/20 in 1999 when he swiped 25 bases to go along with his 35 long balls

-He took home an MVP award that he did not deserve for a career year in 1999.  He finished tenth three other times, but was never a serious contender for the award

-Over an eleven year stretch from 1994 to 2004, when Rodriguez was at the top of his game, he batted .315/.357/.513, good for a 120 OPS+, while averaging 21 home runs a season

-Was putting on quite an encore for his '99 MVP campaign; was batting .347/.375/.667 with 27 home runs and 83 RBI before his season was cut short on July 24th when he fractured his right thumb while attempting to throw out a baserunner, and his hand smacked into Mo Vaughn's bat. You have to figure he would have cleared 35 home runs and 110 RBI with ease, as he did the year before, and maybe could have threatened 40-120.

-After spending his first dozen seasons in a Texas Ranger uniform, he moved around a lot during the final years of his career, making stops with the Marlins, Tigers, Yankees, Astros, Rangers (again) and Nationals.  There is little doubt about which cap they'll put on his plaque, though.

-Came up big for the Marlins in the '03 playoffs, taking NLCS MVP honors and leading the young franchise to its second World Series title in seven seasons.  Fresh off a monster NLDS performance (1.038 OPS) against Barry Bonds and the reigning NL champion San Francisco Giants, he kept swinging a hot bat by knocking in ten runs during the seven game series against Sammy Sosa's Cubs with the NL pennant hanging in the balance.  He batted  an Albert Pujols esque .321/.424/.607.  This is significant because in every other postseason series outside of the '96 ALDS, he was useless with a bat in his hands.  For example, in his two World Series appearances he batted just .220/.233/.293.  He was no Mr. October, so don't mistake him for a Reggie Jackson or David Ortiz.

-Pudge rarely saw a pitch he didn't like; he only drew 446 non-intentional walks during his career and his walk rate is a measly five percent.  In 2007, his final year with the Tigers, he drew eight unintentional walks in 515 plate appearances.  Not surprisingly, his OBP that year was an abominable .294.  The free-swinger usually got his bat on the ball, though, for he never struck out 100 times in any season (but finished his career with nearly three times as many whiffs as walks).  From 2002 through 2011 he chased 34.7 percent of pitches outside the zone, well above the league average of 28 percent.

-Batted in all nine lineup slots

-Loved hitting in the Ballpark in Arlington, where he was a career .325/.361/.530 hitter

-Accumulated 67.3 bWAR, 73.9 fWAR
There has been much speculation that Rodriguez used steroids, and I'd bet that he probably used them.  Several teammates from his Texas years, notably Alex Rodriguez, Rafael Palmeiro, Juan Gonzalez, Ken Caminiti and Jose Canseco are all admitted or suspected users.  I don't mean to say that Pudge is guilty by association, but given the culture of his team and era it seems that performance enhancing drugs were readily available and probably encouraged in that clubhouse.  I find it hard to believe that any mortal human being, especially one as small (5'9") as him, could maintain the stamina necessary to catch 148 games per year in the brutal Texas heat as he did from 1996 to '99.  Catchers are lucky to play in 140 games under normal circumstances, much less in Arlington's 110 degree weather.  In addition, his physique diminished significantly during his post Texas years, and his power numbers suffered accordingly (after 2004, his home run figures decreased each year, although age and ballpark were contributing factors as well).  Obviously there's no proof, and this is merely speculation, but if you put a gun to my head I would bet that he took steroids.  I believe that one is innocent until proven guilty, but there have been enough whispers in recent years about this guy to create reasonable doubts about his integrity and cleanliness.  He's been dodgy whenever the subject is brought up, and hasn't denied that he used 'roids.

Is he still a Hall of Famer?  Of course.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

MLB All Decade Team 1950s

C Yogi Berra Much more consistent than Roy Campanella, who was an every other year player to the extreme
1B Gil Hodges You could make a case for Ted Kluszewski as well
2B Nellie Fox I hate to leave out Jackie Robinson, but he was done after '54
3B Eddie Mathews
SS Ernie Banks
OF Willie Mays
OF Mickey Mantle
OF Duke Snider Hate leaving out Ted Williams
U Stan Musial Stan the Man was an outfielder during the first half of the decade, then moved over to first base full time
RHP Robin Roberts Edges out Early Wynn
LHP Warren Spahn Over Whitey Ford

Friday, April 20, 2012

MLB All Decade Team 1960s

This team is so stacked that I had to leave out Mickey Mantle, Ernie Banks, Al Kaline, Roberto Clemente, Carl Yastrzemski, Billy Williams, Lou Brock, and Vada Pinson, among others.

C Joe Torre Edges out Elston Howard
1B Willie McCovey Thought about Orlando Cepeda
2B Pete Rose over Dick McAuliffe
3B Ron Santo Over Brooks Robinson and Eddie Mathews
SS Maury Wills Gets the nod over Luis Aparicio and Jim Fregosi
OF Hank Aaron
OF Frank Robinson
OF Willie Mays
U Harmon Killebrew
RHP Juan Marichal Better than Bob Gibson
LHP Sandy Koufax Over Whitey Ford
RP Hoyt Wilhelm Sustained excellence puts him ahead of Dick Radatz's brief brilliance

MLB All Decade Team 1970s

Notice how almost all the players here were employed by National League teams

C Johnny Bench over his American League counterparts Carlton Fisk and Thurman Munson
1B Willie Stargell
2B Joe Morgan Gets the nod over Rod Carew
3B Mike Schmidt
SS Dave Concepcion
OF Reggie Jackson
OF Bobby Bonds over Lou Brock
OF Reggie Smith over teammates Carl Yastrzemski, Fred Lynn and Jim Rice
DH Pete Rose Nobody played as an everyday DH during their prime a la David Ortiz and Edgar Martinez; the position was typically used for older players at the end of their careers like Orlando Cepeda, Dick Allen, etc.  Rose was a jack of all trades with no natural position, so I'll use the DH as a utility spot
RHP Jim Palmer Edges out Tom Seaver in a photo finish
LHP Steve Carlton
RP Rollie Fingers over Sparky Lyle

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

MLB All Decade Team 1980s

C Gary Carter Gets the nod over Carlton Fisk
1B Eddie Murray Apologies to Don Mattingly
2B Ryne Sandberg Over the criminally underappreciated Lou Whitaker
3B Mike Schmidt Tough to leave George Brett and Wade Boggs out
SS Cal Ripken Jr. Thought long and hard about Robin YountAlan Trammell also deserves consideration
OF Rickey Henderson
OF Dave Winfield
OF Dale Murphy Barely edges out Dwight Evans and Tim Raines
DH Paul Molitor Even though he spent more time in the outfield
RHP Nolan Ryan beats out Jack Morris, who was a workhorse but is lacking in strikeouts and ERA
LHP Fernando Valenzuela over Steve Carlton
CL Dan Quisenberry Five top-5 AL Cy Young finishes from 1980-1985