Friday, January 20, 2012

Prediction: No Postseason Play for Aging Yankees

Contrary to what most baseball experts believe, the New York Yankees are no longer the best team in the American League.  In fact, they're not even the best team in their division; maybe not even the second best team in the much-improved (except the Yankees) AL East.

On the surface, the Yankees appeared to have addressed their most glaring weakness - starting pitching - when they signed 37-year old free agent former-Dodger Hiroki Kuroda to a $10 million one-year deal and acquired (via trade) 22-year old rookie sensation Michael Pineda from the Mariners.  With last year's shaky pitching trio of AJ Burnett, Freddy Garcia and Phil Hughes providing little stability to the rotation, adding these two arms should eat up some innings in 2012.  That's the good news.

Here's the bad news:

Kuroda has spent his entire four-year major league career with the Dodgers, who play their home games in pitcher's haven Chavez Ravine.  Consequently, his career ERA of 3.45 is artificially low, which accounts for a so-so won loss record of 41-46.  He may give the Yanks some innings, but don't expect double digit wins as his ERA soars well over 4 runs per game in hitter-friendly Yankee Stadium.

Likewise, Pineda's 2011 ERA of 3.74 seems like a pretty good number for a rookie, but Safeco Field was his home field advantage.  Pitching away from home resulted in a less than desirable 4.40 ERA for the youngster.  Performing in the harsh spotlight of New York is never easy for even the most seasoned hurler; putting that kind of pressure on a kid with just one season of stress-free experience on his resume may be disastrous.

Last year, the Yankees relied heavily on the one-two pitching punch of CC Sabathia (19-8) and rookie Ivan Nova (16-4) to facilitate another trip to the post season, as AL East division champions. Their failure to get past the Detroit Tigers in the ALDS reveals what is perhaps the real challenge facing New York heading into the 2012 season:  The offensive core of this team has grown old.  Derek Jeter is heading into his age-37 season and Alex Rodriguez seems practically washed-up at the age of 36.  Of course, neither key player did much of anything in that five-game flop against Detroit.

Ironically, only the now-deposed Jorge Posada rose to the occasion in that series, hitting .429 (6 for 14), drawing four walks (OBP of .579), and slugging an impressive (especially for a 40-year old) .571.  By contrast, Jeter hit just .250 while striking out a team-high eight times, and A-Rod managed a paltry .111 BA with six whiffs, including the game and series-ending punch-out.

More bad news:

The Yankees dealt rising star Jesus Montero (.328 - .406 - .590 with four home runs in 18 games) to Seattle in exchange for Pineda.  Montero displayed great opposite-field power in his brief stint with the Yankees last season, and would've fit in nicely in the middle of that lineup in '12.  Certainly, there is some offensive fire-power returning in '12, led by the explosive Robinson Cano, who drove in 118 runs while scoring 104 in '11.  Curtis Granderson had a career year with 139 runs scored, 119 RBIs, 41 home runs, and an OPS+ of 138, but can he keep up that type of production in '12?  It's more likely he'll return to his normal career averages:  109 runs scored, 81 RBIs, 28 home runs, with an OPS+ of 117.  Those are good numbers, but nowhere near his 2011 production.

When all is said and done, the failure of the Yankees to reach the 2012 post season will be largely attributed to the continued demise of Alex Rodriguez.  Here's a look at A-Rod's steadily declining OPS+ since he led the American League in 2007:

'07 - 176
'08 - 150
'09 - 138
'10 - 123
'11 - 116

Look for that OPS+ to fall below the "average" level of 100 in 2012.  That's not the kind of production the Yankees are going to need from its aging superstar third baseman, if they expect to reach the post season, and possibly win another World Series.

Unfortunately, if you're a Yankees fan; that's the harsh reality.  Don't expect to see New York playing past the first 162 games in 2012.  Their glory years are at least temporarily on hiatus.

Larry Underwood is a baseball historian, die-hard Cardinals fan and author.  Here's his latest:  St Louis Cardinals IQ - The Ultimate Test of True Fandom (Volume 2)

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Will Door to Cooperstown Ever Open for Dick Allen?

Dick Allen is one of nine former major league players and one former executive eligible for Hall of Fame consideration - through the Veteran's Committee selection process.  The committee has the authority to elect as many as five of the following (along with Allen): Ken Boyer, Luis Tiant, Jim Kaat, Maury Wills, Billy Pierce, Minnie Minoso, Tony Oliva, Gil Hodges and Bob Howsam (former general manager of both the Cardinals and Cincinnati Reds).

Dick Allen's Cooperstown Credentials:

His career spanned 15 seasons and two name changes.  As "Richie", he was the NL Rookie of the Year in 1964.  By the time he convinced most people he preferred to be called "Dick" (1972), he had become the American League's Most Valuable Player - and its most pre-Reggie Jackson-acclaimed slugger.

One thing is certain:  Richie-call me-Dick Allen could hit a baseball very hard.  So hard, in fact, it was almost beyond belief.  And he did it with a piece of lumber so big and heavy it looked more like a telephone pole than bat.

Swinging that big stick, Allen had the 19th highest OPS+ in MLB history:  156.  The eighteen players in front of him are either in the Hall of Fame or named Bonds or Pujols.  The three players immediately behind him with an OPS+ of 155 are named Aaron, DiMaggio, and Mays.  That's pretty impressive company.

However, the door to Cooperstown never opened for Dick Allen, who retired after the 1977 season with 351 home runs to his credit.  Although he twice led the American League in home runs, Allen's swing usually produced vicious line drives that simply weren't hit high enough to clear the fences.  Allen's specialty was denting the fences, which he did with eye-popping consistency during his career.

Still, this great slugger from Wampum, PA is not in the Hall of Fame.  Why not?   There are a few mitigating factors which may be working against him.  In this recently enlightened age of saber-metrics, the most obvious reason past voters ignored his accomplishments:  Nobody knew what OPS+ was thirty years ago, when Dick Allen's name first appeared on a Hall of Fame ballot.  Home runs mattered most - 500 was the magic number, and he didn't extend his career long enough to reach that plateau.

Hall of Fame voters have typically been enamored with the .300 batting average.  Case in point:  George Kell, who averaged .306 during his well-traveled (five different teams) Hall of Fame career, which featured 78 home runs in 15 nondescript American League seasons during the '40s and '50s.  Kell was a personable fellow - well-liked by just about everyone he knew, including the members of the Hall of Fame Veteran's Committee, who decided he was ready for Cooperstown membership in 1983.

Dick Allen "only" hit .292.  Not good enough, according to the voters, who also seemed to ignore his .378 OBP and his .534 SLG - both Hall of Fame caliber numbers.  How could this happen?

Unfortunately for Dick Allen, he was not universally admired by the "baseball establishment" - owners, front office executives, along with the media - were generally not enamored by the free-spirited antics of this enigmatic superstar.  Since Allen didn't fit the conventional mold of what was considered "acceptable behavior" for superstar ballplayers - he liked to play the horses and hit the nightclub scene from time to time - he wasn't so well-liked (in contrast to the less-skilled but personable Hall of Famer George Kell).

Cooperstown shouldn't be a popularity contest - but let's face it - for players considered to have "borderline" qualifications, they need to have a lot more friends than enemies with the voters who make the decisions on who gets in and who doesn't.  The truth of the matter is, Dick Allen's Hall of Fame credentials aren't "borderline".  They're exemplary.

It's time to open the door to Cooperstown and let Dick Allen in where he belongs.  Hopefully, the Veteran's Committee will get it right this time around.

The ballots will be cast by December 8.

Larry Underwood is a baseball historian - die-hard St Louis Cardinals fan - author:  St Louis Cardinals IQ - The Ultimate Test of True Fandom - Volumes 1 & 2

Friday, January 13, 2012

The Hall of Fame Case for Ted Simmons

I have to believe Ted Simmons' long, overdue inclusion into baseball's Hall of Fame will finally happen, as the Veteran's Committee will be reviewing his qualifications - which are decidedly Hall of Fame caliber - in time for the upcoming January selection process.

* His career began as a full-time catcher for the Cardinals in 1970, which happened to coincide with a prolonged period of mediocrity the team would endure throughout his tenure in St Louis, which came to an end ten years later, when he was traded to Milwaukee.  Being stuck on a mediocre team wasn't his fault.  In fact, without Ted Simmons in the lineup, the Cardinals would have been something far less than mediocre through the 1980 season - in other words, they would have really sucked.

* His career roughly coincided with the career of Johnny Bench, who was arguably, the greatest catcher in MLB history.  Being second banana to the Great Bench unfairly diminished his performance, which was in fact, Hall of Fame caliber.

* Playing half his games for most of his career in cavernous Busch Stadium turned countless home runs into long outs.  Few players in MLB history ever smashed baseballs with the degree of ferocity Simmons did in 21 big league seasons, so his relatively modest home run total of 248 is misleading.

The hard-hitting (switch-hitting) Simmons amassed 2472 hits (probably none of the "infield variety") - more than Bench, Carlton Fisk, Gary Carter, or Jorge Posada, for that matter.  His lifetime .285 BA also leads that quartet, and his 1389 RBI total is close to the top of that heap, trailing only Bench by a mere seven runs batted in.

What about OPS+?  This is perhaps the most accurate saber-metric measurement of a player's offensive production, taking into consideration "on base percentage" and "slugging percentage", while factoring in the "degree of difficulty" associated with the playing venue.  As stated, old Busch Stadium was a pitcher's haven - not at all condusive to the long ball.  Here's how Simmons stacked up against the three Hall of Famers and the one potential Hall of Famer:

Bench - 126
Posada - 121
Simmons - 117
Fisk - 117
Carter - 115

Of the three catchers already enshrined in Cooperstown, Bench played in four different World Series, winning twice; Carter and Fisk both played in one Fall Classic (both were very "classic" Fall Classics), as did Ted Simmons - ironically, as a member of the Milwaukee Brewers, playing against his old team - and losing in seven games - in 1982.  Carter was on the winning side playing for the Mets in 1986, and we all know Fisk's Red Sox fell to Bench's Reds in 1975, although Carlton's memorable Game Six walk-off home run made him an instant legend in Bean Town.

If World Series success affects Hall of Fame voting, five-time winner Jorge Posada may find himself in Cooperstown some day; hopefully, by that time, Cooperstown will have already admitted the greatest Cardinal catcher in history - Ted Lyle Simmons. 

Just ask Peter Gammons; he belongs.

Fascinated with St Louis Cardinals history?  Test your Redbird IQ!

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Dawson's '87 NL MVP Award a Travesty - Here's Proof

In 1987, Chicago Cubs right fielder Andre Dawson led the National League with 49 home runs and 137 RBIs.  He was the toast of Chi-Town.  Everybody loved him.  His loyal fans in the bleachers paid non-stop tribute to The Hawk with arms raised high, bowing at the waist in that classic "Wayne's World" We-Are-Not-Worthy Salute.  Remember that?

Meanwhile, despite the heroic efforts of the Mighty Dawson, the Cubs lost the vast majority of their games, finishing dead last in the NL East, far behind the division champion St Louis Cardinals.  That didn't matter to the sports writers voting for the most "worthy" candidate to receive the NL Most Valuable Player Award - it went to Dawson.

At the time, I was a little irked that Cardinals slugger Jack Clark - who had his best season ever despite having it shortened by a severe ankle injury in early September - didn't win it.  Clark's acrobatic teammate, Ozzie Smith, actually finished second in the voting that year, putting together his best season ever - both offensively (75 RBIs) and defensively - he was never better.

Back in '87, measuring player performance was done the old-fashioned - and sometimes misleading way - things like "batting average", "home runs" and "runs batted in" were the crucial barometers of performance.  Today, we realize "on base percentage" paints a better picture.  Therefore, batters who are adept at drawing "base on balls" are generally more helpful to their team than free-swingers who rarely walk.  It's so obvious, but rarely got much attention until guys like Billy Beane (Money Ball) started analyzing offensive production more effectively, about a decade ago.

So, let's take a closer look at the true numbers Dawson (AD)  and Clark (JC)  put up back in '87.  A category in bold type indicates a #1 NL ranking.  The conclusion:  Clark should have been named Most Valuable Player that year - just as I suspected!

          R        HR        RBI        BB        BA        OBP        SLG        OPS        OPS+        WAR
 JC    93        35         106        136       .286        .459        .597        1.055        176             6.5 

AD   90         49         137         32        .287        .328        .568         .896         130             2.7

There are several fascinating observations here.  Clark walked 104 more times than the free-swinging Dawson, accounting for the NL leading OBP - SLG - OPS - OPS+ - All true measurements of offensive production.  Dawson's OBP is extremely low for someone considered to be a league MVP!

Sure, it would have been one thing if Dawson was on the pennant winning team.  Instead, Clark played for the winner, and based on his true production, it's not surprising!

I rest my case.  Sorry Andre, we have to give the MVP Award to Jack the Ripper now.  Only because he deserved it all along. 

I knew it!

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Fielder Could Make Giants Champs Again

After Albert Pujols deserted his Cardinal Legacy in favor of that heavily back-loaded ten-year deal Artie Moreno convinced him to accept, many Cardinals fans (myself included) were hoping 27-year old Prince Fielder would hook on with the World Champions, and help lead them back to another title - 12 in '12, baby!

If the Cards do repeat however, it will be with a lineup featuring former Cardinal-killer-turned-caught looking-in-'06-victim, Carlos Beltran; not Prince Fielder.  I understand the economic challenges facing the Cardinals - forking over a couple hundred million to one guy would hinder future efforts to keep guys like Wainwright, Molina, and Freese on the payroll.  Makes sense.

Meanwhile, the team that does sign Fielder may have the missing ingredient necessary to reach the post season.  I think he's going to stay in the National League - my guess is he'll wind up signing with the Washington Nationals.  No doubt, that would greatly improve their lineup; whether or not that would translate to a post season berth in '12 is anybody's guess. 

Unfortunately for the Nats, they play in the NL East - a division dominated by the Philadelphia Phillies and their vaunted pitching staff.  Also lurking in the shadows are the Atlanta Braves, who will be inspired to prove that last season's September collapse was a fluke.  Then there are the vastly improved (except the uniforms) Miami Marlins.  If they sneak in the back door and sign Prince, that may lead to extended October play for that franchise.  I'm only giving them a 10% chance of making that happen.  As if I really know.

There's another team that may come into play in the Fielder sweepstakes - the San Francisco Giants.  This is the one team that could benefit the most from having Prince in its lineup; they've got plenty of pitching - not much hitting.  With a healthy Buster Posey returning to the lineup in '12, the Giants should be able to average more than the three and a half runs per game they produced last year.  Add Prince Fielder to the lineup, and they could get closer to five runs a game.  That could be a huge run differential in '12 - and that could make them a premier playoff-caliber team.

Of course, any team that gets into the post season is dangerous.  Barring injuries, the Cardinals should be able to make it back again - this time as NL Central champions.  None of this wild card nonsense, please.  It's too nerve-wracking.