Monday, April 30, 2007

OMG Another Automatic cookie

While there have been 39 immaculate innings in the history of baseball, this feat seems commonplace when compared to the Unassisted Triple play. As Wikipedia states, of all the rare events in baseball(perfect game and 4-HR game) this one is the most luck-based. Despite this we still award Troy Tulowitzki a cookie.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Publix Cookie Lifetime Achievment Award

Congratulations to Chris Mason of the Montgomery Biscuits, the Devil Rays AA affiliate. On Tuesday he saw three batters, threw three strikes to each, and struck them all out. Chris Mason pitched an immaculate inning. Here at The Immaculate Inning, we honor those who throw immaculate innings at all levels of professional ball. Congratulations Chris Mason, you are hereby awarded the first Publix Cookie Lifetime Achievment Award (still not sponsored by Publix).

More on Chris Mason: Drafted in the second round (56th overall) in 2005 by the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, Mason is a right-hander with a low-90s fastball, a hard slurve, and a decent changeup. In three years at UNC-Greensboro, Mason starred both on the mound (striking out more than 9 per 9 innings) and in the field (hitting around .315/.360/.450 for his career) as a two way player. The Devil Rays had him as a reliever to start his career and then slowly converted him to a starter, which worked well in the beginning of 2006. The wheels then fell off for Mason and he finished the season at A+ Visalia with a 5.02 ERA.
This season, though, has gotten off to a great start. The immaculate inning game raises Mason's record to 2-0, and he has struck out 20 in 23 innings, with only three walks. As we have a soft spot for all immaculate innings, we will be following Mason's career with great interest, especially if he gets promoted to the AAA Durham Bulls, where I may even watch him live. Congrats again, Chris.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Phil of the Future

Yesterday, it was announced that on Thursday, the New York Yankees will call up RHP Phil Hughes for his major league debut. This is a significant event for this storied franchise, and not just because the tattered rotation of 2007 will be featuring its fourth rookie starting pitcher. It is significant because Phil Hughes is the #1 pitching prospect in all of baseball, a player who was not only drafted by, but also developed by the spendthrift and prospect depleted New York Yankees.

To put this in perspective, here is a list of the #1 draft picks of the Yankees who, in my lifetime, have ever appeared in a major league game:

1990 Carl Everett, OF
1993 Derek Jeter, SS
1996 Eric Milton, SP
2001 John Ford-Griffin, OF (7 ML Games)

Here now is a list of all of the pitchers who were obtained via the amateur draft and went on to be part of the rotation for the New York Yankees:
1986: Scott Kamieniecki (debut 1990)
1987: Dave Eiland (debut 1990)
1989: Sterling Hitchcock (debut 1993)
1990: Andy Pettitte (signed as a FA in 1991, debut 1995)

Further, here is a selected list of "the next big thing" pitchers that I can remember in my life as a Yankee fan, and what happened to them.
1991 #1 Overall Draft Pick Brien Taylor: After signing to the biggest bonus in MLB history ($1.55 million), Taylor pitched less than one season before tearing his labrum while in a bar fight defending his brother. He missed two seasons and was finally released by the Yankees in 1998, and remains one of two #1 overall picks to never make it to the majors.
Ed Yarnell: Yarnell was involved in two fairly infamous trades before he even through a pitch in the majors. First, having been hyped by the NY press for a few years, he was traded by the Mets to the Marlins in a package that brought them Mike Piazza. Less than a year later, the Marlins swapped Yarnell right back to NY, this time to the Yankees for Mike Lowell. After recovering from cancer, Lowell would go on to lead the Marlins to the 2003 World Series title; Yarnell retired in 2004 having pitched just 20 innings in the majors.
Jake Westbrook: Out of all the prospect pitchers the Yankees have traded away since 1996, Westbrook is probably the most successful. Originally obtained in the Hideki Irabu dump in 1999, Westbrook was rushed through the minors, pitching in AAA at age 22, made two terrible starts for the Yanks in 2000, and was promptly traded for David Justice at the deadline. The trade worked out, as there is probably no three-peat for the Yanks if Justice is not there, and Westbrook has become an All-Star caliber pitcher for the Indians.

There are other similar stories to Westbrook, pitchers such as Brandon Claussen and Ted Lilly and Brad Halsey who were all rushed to the major leagues in order to appear more attractive, and then used as trade bait. Meanwhile the Yankees got their pitchers off the free agent market or via ill-advised trades. This has begun to change, starting with the rise of Chien-Ming Wang in 2005 and 2006. Wang, who makes his first start of the season tonight, was himself a 2001 foreign free agent signing, and is a little more like Irabu and Jose Contrares than Phil Hughes and Brien Taylor.

Hughes is young. He is two months away from his first legal alcoholic drink. As Steve Lombardi points out, no one has ever pitched 65 innings for the New York Yankees in a season that they started younger than 21 years old. Success in the major leagues when making a debut at Hughes' age is very risky: for every Roger Clemens, Dwight Gooden, and Fernando Venezaula, there is a Rick Ankiel, a Mike Witt, and a Dave Rozema. Meanwhile, the state of the New York Yankees is a bit desperate: sitting at just 8-9 and four games behind Boston already, the Yanks' rotation is in shambles. One must wonder at the wisdom behind putting a season of the most dissected sports franchise in the world onto the shoulders of such a young man. The pressure to produce right away is palpable- while there is no question that Hughes has the ability to get major league hitters out, the rate at which he does so may be limited at first.

At each level- high A Tampa, AA Trenton, and AAA Scranton, he has struggled in his first two starts. It is reasonable to expect him to do the same in his first starts in the majors. It would be not altogether unlike the debut of the man he idolizes and draws comparisons to: Roger Clemens. In 1984, the Rocket struggled in his first 8 starts, giving up about 4.5 runs per start and seldom making it past the fifth inning. It wasn't until his complete game, 9 K performance against the Blue Jays, that things started to turn around for Roger.

Here are the things that are known about Hughes: He has, in 265 professional innings, struck out 289 batters while walking only 60 and surrendering just six homers. He has a mid-to-high 90s moving fastball, a superb curveball, and has developed a nasty 78 mph changeup, and can throw all three wherever he wants, whenever he wants, at all times. After those first two starts, Hughes has absolutely dominated each level he has been at, while often facing hitters three to five years older than he. On Thursday he will face his hardest challenge of all, against experienced hitters such as Vernon Wells, Troy Glaus, and Frank Thomas. It is a significant day in the course of a storied franchise, and whether he shines or falters, Phil Hughes is here to stay as a beacon of the New Age of the New York Yankees: Pride, Power, and Youthful Pinstripes.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Master Debaters #2

Welcome to the second installment of The Immaculate Inning’s Master Debaters. Today, I will be acting as moderator while Agent Swag and Xenod answer some of the pressing questions of the day. Let’s get right to it.

1) A-Rod has 8 homers in 12 games: Will he break Roger Maris' AL HR record?
Xenod: A-Rod is off to a great start, and he has a good chance to make a run at the record, but I wouldn't put it any higher than 5%. His career max is 57HRs in 2002 a which shows he's certainly physically and he hit 48 HR a couple years ago, so he's certainly physically capable. The chances of him getting hurt or going through one slump too many is just too great. Look at Pujols last year. He was off to a phenomenal start and was crushing everything he swung at, but he got hurt.
Agent Swag: No, that's a ridiculous pace to keep up, and it's absurd to be discussing this two weeks into the season...if he's still on pace in a couple months, then we can talk. Besides, when the games actually matter later in the year, he will just strike out, right Yankees fans?
Mehmattski: Actually, no. I would say most Yankee fans are, like me, supportive of A-Rod and would like to see the trade rumors, the booing, the opt out talk all vanish. Regardless, this is still a hot start of historical proportions, one that has not been seen in the 100 year history of the New York Yankees, who I think have had some pretty good sluggers, I hear.

2) Should Bud Seilig and Hank Aaron go to Bonds' games when he gets close to 756?
Xenod: Hank Aaron can do whatever he wants, because he's Hank Aaron. I think he's certainly earned the privilege to take the high/non-committal road and not be at the crucial game. Bud Selig on the other hand, is the commissioner of Major League Baseball. In a game of statistics and records the Career Homerun Record is the big daddy of all records. This is way too important for Selig to downplay and avoid. Bonds breaking the record will force him to take a stand and either show up to the game and give his best Fake-Bud smile as he hands Bonds some plaque, or announce that due to the use of performance enhancing drugs Barry Bonds is forever disqualified from the career homerun record. I think that the time to stop Bonds from breaking Aaron's record was 3 years ago. Unless a syringe falls out of Bonds' pants as he rounds third on the way to 756, Selig has lost the window to ban Bonds from baseball.
Mehmattski: Agent Swag agrees with you, Xenod, and I do too for the most part. What strikes me as a bit odd is that Aaron has repeatedly said that Bonds hasn’t been convicted or officially accused of anything, but then he also says that he doesn’t approve of Bonds breaking his record. When it comes down to it, all it may be is that Aaron is just a weird old man. After all, it’s not like Babe Ruth came to Aarons 715th homer…

3) What is the most compelling story in the NFL Draft? Who will make the most immediate impact for his NFL team in 2007?
Xenod: The most compelling story is that there is no big story. There's no Vince Young or Reggie Bush in this draft. I'm not saying there's no good players, just that there's nobody nearly as heralded as those two were last year. It's a blah year for the NFL draft, but I'm sure great players will emerge, we just don't know who yet.
Agent Swag: I really don't find much about this draft that compelling. There are no ready-made superstars like last year, although Calvin Johnson is likely to turn into a very very good player. Joe Thomas seems like a nice guy...he's going fishing with his father during the draft instead of attending it in person like every other Top 5 pick ever. So I'm going to have to go with the most compelling story being the over/under on the amount of fish he catches and their combined weight, which I'm going to expertly place at 4 fish and 80 lbs. Takers?

4) The NBA playoffs are about to start, and so players like LeBron James will start to give a care. Who ya got? And is there any chance that any of the top three seeds in both conferences are upset in the first round?
Agent Swag (AKA our “NBA Guy”): I'm really excited about the playoffs this year...the Western Conference is going to be an absolute dogfight, and I could see any of the top five teams in it winning the whole thing. The East...well, not so much.

In the first round, as much as I'd like to pick the lower seeds, I think the only ones that actually will win their series are the two five seeds, who both actually have better records than the four seeds, and therefore homecourt advantage. Utah has been struggling lately, and with the way McGrady and Yao are playing right now, I think the Rockets have more than enough firepower to take out the Jazz. The Bulls are simply a much better team than Miami, especially with Wade at less than full strength. I'd pick Orlando to beat Cleveland, but the Pistons are just too good for them, so not pulling themselves out of the eight seed really hurt the Magic. The Nets (6 seed) definitely have the talent to take out the Raptors (3 seed), but I just can't see them pulling it together for an entire series, and Chris Bosh is having a great season. However, if there is one big upset in the first round, I've got to think it will be in that series. In the West, the top three are just too good to go down early. As much as people want you to think the bottoms teams have a chance (and if anyone does, it's Denver, as their great 'Melo-AI experiment is finally coming together), the Big Three are just too dominant. As much as I want to pick Denver, San Antonio was 25-3 in their 28 games before the last week of the season (during which they lost two because they stopped concentrating on winning with their seed locked up and a third because of the Crawford-Duncan incident), and they are going to be hard to stop in the playoffs.

As for the rest of the playoffs, look for the eventual champion to reside in the Lone Star State. Any of the three Texas teams could win this thing. Everyone knows how great the Mavs and Spurs are, but the Rockets are also more than capable of doing some damage. With T-Mac having perhaps his best season and Yao turning into a dominating inside force, the Rockets are playing at an incredibly high level while staying just under the national radar. The key for them will be the play, particularly the shooting, of Rafer Alston. If he can hold up his end of the deal, the Rockets certainly have the tools to go all the way with the two superstars and Battier, Head, Howard, and Mutombo.

If truly pressed to give a champion, I would have to say the Mavericks, but none of the Texas teams would surprise me, and of course the Suns have as good of a shot as anyone. It should be a great playoffs, and I can't wait for it to get started.

5) The Great NBA Draft Debate: Oden or Durant?
Agent Swag: Almost impossible to say. Neither played under a coach in college who was able to utilize their talents to their fullest potential. Durant seems to have more competitive fire and potential, but you can't teach size, and Oden has it in spades, as well as good mobility and athleticism for his size. I really don't think the team with the first pick can go wrong either way, so I would pick based on the biggest need for my team.
Xenod: I gotta go for Durant. I just don't see the intensity in Oden that is needed to be great. It's true that you can't teach size, but I don't think you can really teach passion either, and both are needed. I'm sure he'll have a good NBA career, but the Bill Russel comments are very, very, premature.

6) Which baseball player acquired this off-season has had the biggest impact for his team in the first two weeks?
Agent Swag: The best offseason acquisition so far has been Carlos Lee of the Astros. He has single-handedly been responsible for at least 2, and probably 3 or 4 of the team's 7 wins on the season. While his teammates have struggled at the plate (even Lance Berkman), Lee has hit .327 with 5 HR and 17 RBI. He has also meshed well with his teammates and loosened up a very professional clubhouse. If he can continue to contribute as he has so far (and the thus-stellar starting pitching holds up), look for big things from the Astros this year.
Xenod: Gary Sheffield.
Mehmattski: But… are you going to offer any explanation? Is it his .132 batting average? Or his one home run?
Xenod: But it was a big ‘un.
Mehmattski: Yeah. In the first inning. Of an April game. Against the Royals. Clearly you know nothing about soccer.

7) Bigger surprise: That Tampa Bay has scored the most runs (75) or that Chicago and San Fransisco have scored the least (39)?
Agent Swag: I've got to go with Chicago and San Francisco, if only because Tampa Bay has an extraordinary collection of athletes. They are young, so I don't see them winning their division or anything (especially considering who's in it...), but they certainly have a nice collection of talent down there that can mash with the best of them.
Xenod: The bigger surprise is Chicago. Any team can get off to a hot start, but it takes talent for a whole team to suck. Tampa isn't known for its Major League pedigree, but it was common knowledge that Delman Young and B.J. "throw the ball into the stands" Upton had bright futures in the majors.
Mehmattski: If only they could put some pitching together, the Devil Rays could be a formidable team. Chicago may actually improve now that Scott Podsednik is on the DL, although with Darrin “automatic out” Erstad leading off, any kind of mediocrity is possible. The Giants entire roster, meanwhile, is known to tank afternoon games so they can shower in time to make the early bird specials at Denny’s.

8) Ian Kinsler (.333/.429/.847, 7 HR): great mid round fantasy draft pick, or greatest mid round fantasy draft pick?
Agent Swag and Xenod: Two words: Chris. Shelton.
Mehmattski: Shelton was a rookie. This is Kinsler’s second year. Clearly he’s not going to keep slugging that well, but second base is a weak fantasy position full of young, inconsistent players. Kinsler’s at the top of the game for now.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Would You Like To Take A Walk?

Since he bumped the woeful Tony Womack out of the lineup in 2005, Cano has quickly become my new favorite player, and the leading candidate in the “Next Yankees Jersey that Matt Buys” contest. Among other things, his left-handed swing is just one of those fun things to watch in baseball. I clearly remember Robinson's second MLB homer, because it was against the Red Sox. With the Yanks trailing 3-1 in the bottom of the sixth, Cano smacked the first pitch he saw into the bleachers in right-center. I was hooked.

Last season Cano bounced back from a rough start and a hamstring injury to compete in a down-to-the-wire batting race with teammate Derek Jeter and the Twins’ Joe Mauer. Though he finished third, Cano proved the ability to use his sweet stroke to keep his batting average up. As many saber-friendly columnists have written about him, Cano needs to keep hitting line drives for hits in order to sustain his usefulness, as he has traditionally shown an inability to walk. His highest OBP in the minors at any extended stay was a .356 rate in half a season at AA Trenton in 2004. In the majors this trend has continued, as Robinson recorded just 34 walks in 1,004 at bats between 2005 and 2006.

Part of the reason for the lack of walks has been the number of pitches he sees per at bat. This has improved thus far in 2007, as Cano has raised his typical P/PA from 3.18 (career) to 3.74 (2007). His walk rate has improved considerably as a result- to 10.6 PA/BB (2007) versus 29.7 PA/BB (career). While Cano’s power has been lacking so far this season, he had the same number of extra base hits (2) that he had through the first eleven games of 2006.

In the meantime, Cano has shown an extra-ordinary ability to make contact when he swings. According to my calculations, in 2007 Cano has seen 185 pitches, and has swung at 90 of them. While this is a high rate, he has only missed while swinging on 16 of those pitches (an 80% contact rate), and has put the ball in play 37 of 90 swings (the other 37 are fouls, obviously). By comparison, Bobby Abreu- noted patient hitter and Cano’s mentor on the Yankees, swings at 38% of the pitches he sees, but makes contact with 80% of those. In addition, Cano is swinging at the first pitch a lot less (24% this season) than previously (35% career), but still way above his mentor’s career rate (a staggeringly low 14% for Abreu). For what it’s worth, Cano’s 13 first pitch swings this season have resulted in five fouls, three swinging strikes, and five balls in play: three flyouts, a double, and a groundout.

As a minor leaguer Cano was ridiculed for having a soft bat at the plate and hard hands in the field, and minor league observer John Sickels famously (among bloggers anyway) predicted that Cano would struggle, if he ever got to the majors. Clearly Robinson has made some adjustments as he started playing on the grand scale, but doubters were not convinced, having the “he doesn’t walk” complaints I alluded to above. It looks like he is again making adjustments and is improving his patience as well as his walk rate. However, I hope that Cano’s newfound ability to take pitches does not have long-term effects on his line-drive rate, which would impact his usefulness even more than an inability to walk. It will be telling season for Cano, as his third season officially dubs him as a “veteran,” and his long-term outlook should become clearer. I know that I’ll be excited for each at bat.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Cranberry Juice Update

While some may file this under “inexcusable,” I haven’t been paying as much attention to baseball as I should so far this season. Frequent travel and an increase in after-work activities has limited my ability to dedicate three and a half hours every night/day to a baseball game. It’s probably just as well, as my favorite team sits at 5-6 and has a starting rotation so in shambles that Chase Wright will be starting at Yankee Stadium tomorrow. Wright was picked over more featured minor league prospects such as Phil Hughes, Tyler Clippard, and Russ Ohlendorf because he is already on the 40-man roster. Still, though he has plowed through AA batters so far this year, his two starts are his only above A-level ever. This has Sean Henn circa 2005 written all over it.

The team I have been paying a moderate amount of attention to is of course my fantasy team. Things are going well so far this season in the League of Doom, and so let’s take a look at the players featured on Cranberry Juice:

C Johnny Estrada: Yes, I have a paid membership at Baseball Prospectus. Yes I bought the 2007 book and poured over it pre-draft. Yes, I downloaded the ZiPS projections and had them at the ready during the draft. And still, when it came down to making picks, I relied not on those proven projection systems and instead on a hastily written blog post about spring training slugging percentages. That method worked out in a couple of cases. This is not one of them. Also I waited till the thirteenth round to draft a catcher, so I got what I deserved. But catchers only play like four games a week anyway, so what’s it matter?

1B: Prince Fielder: The son of Cecil Fielder hasn’t gotten off to the start I would have liked, but .295/.385/.455 is respectable. A slump last week had me bench Fielder for Shawn Green, which sorta paid off. Green is outfielder eligible and is now there while Milton Bradley figures out if he’s got game or not.

2B Ian Kinsler: I still have no idea who this guy is. But, he has six home runs in 35 at bats and is hitting an otherworldly .343/.452/.886. Obviously the numbers are going to regress, but this is, so far, one of those wins for the Spring Slugging Projection System (SSPS).

SS Stephen Drew: I blocked the guy who was last from the joy of picking Stephen and JD back to back in the draft. So far he’s been pretty bad, hitting .209/.340/.233. Not much else to say here, other than that Jhonny Peralta is breathing down his neck to steal some starts.

3B Ryan Zimmerman: The SPSS picked this guy out as well, but he hasn’t performed very well this season so far- .188/.226/.260. Zimmerman might need to watch out for some replacements from the free agent list. I have hope that he’ll turn it around, but Kinsler can’t carry the team forever. Also the Nationals are bad. Really really bad. And that doesn’t bode well for Zimmerman’s RBI totals.

OF Bobby Abreu, Carl Crawford, Shawn Green: Abreu has been pretty quiet other than a 5 RBI game two weeks ago. But he has been doing that thing that a high OBP guy who hits third for an offensive powerhouse: he scores lots and lots of runs. Crawford hasn’t been getting on base much (OBP: .309) but half of his hits are of the extra base variety, including 3 homers. I do hope he continues to show the power he developed last season, but it’s costing him in his other valuable category- stolen bases (he’s 2 for 5 on the base-paths this season).

Utility Travis Hafner: He finally hit his first homer of the season the other night, and this guy is going to need to pick up his power to make it worth the second round pick I used to get him. I don’t have many worries that last season’s leader in RC27 and VORP will turn it around, and he will eventually carry my team through sheer willpower of OBP.

Starting Pitching: I have a reputation for finding diamonds in the rough when it comes to starters, and I rarely draft more than one before the tenth round. Last season was the cornucopia of free agent pitchers, including AL ROY Justin Verlander, mid-season callup Jered Weaver and current couch potato Fransisco Liriano. This season proves to be a bit more challenging, but the pitchers I have so far seem to be performing well. Roy Oswalt and Scott Kazmir anchor the staff, and have been solid- Oswalt with low ERA and WHIP, Kazmir with strikeouts (21 in 20 IP). However, Verlander and Tim Hudson have upstaged them so far; in 34 combined innings, given up two earned runs (both by Hudson). The Carl Pavano bandwagon has tipped, fallen, and several oxen have died; however, Jered Weaver comes off the DL tomorrow to make his first start of the season.

Relief Pitching: With ten teams this season, my strategy of poaching a closer off the waiver wire wouldn’t work. So I had the opportunity to draft Mariano Rivera in the eighth round and I jumped on it. He looked absolutely unfair in his first appearance, striking out the side on 13 pitches (yes, not an Immaculate Inning, but pretty filthy). He was significantly less sharp in his last appearance, grooving a fastball on an 0-2 count to supreme slugger Marco Scutaro, who hit a walk-off homer off the foul pole. My other closer, the Dodgers’ Takashi Saito, has converted all five of his chances. I also am holding Joel Zumaya, who I feel will at some point be closing for Detroit this season. So long as he avoids playing Guitar Hero 2 too much.

Well, that’s the Cranberry Juice update, and I promise some real content about actual baseball sometime soon.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Holy Small Sample Size, Batman!

Every year, fans and sportswriters annoint and villify certain players for their performances in the post-season. While post-season memories are certainly an important part of being a baseball fan, it is a bit odd to characterize someone for their ability to perform in a small sample size. Sometimes post-season heroics can have million-dollar consequences: Carlos Beltran parlayed his 2005 post-season into a giant contract with the Mets; for some reason the Seattle Mariners looked only at Jeff Weaver in October 2006 and not all the previous mediocrity (2003 postseason included), and handed him a fat contract last off season.

Yet, when the beginning of the next season rolls around, some outstanding performances are always turned in during the month of April. And invariably, fans and sportswriters will mention a "hot start" only to clarify that eventually that .650 batting average is going to come down. Why can fans understand the concept of sample size in April but not in October? For fun, here are some April Heroes and Goats:

Akinori Iwamura: 20 AB, .500/.600/.700
Alex Rodriguez: 25 AB, 5 HR, 13 RBI, .360/.448/1.080
Vladamir Guererro: 25 AB, 10 RBI, .440/.483/.880
Miguel Cabrera: 24 AB, 3 HR, 11 RBI, .500/.594/1.042

Adam LaRoche: 27 AB, 13 K, .111/.226/.259
Alex Gordon: 22 AB, 9 K, 1 H .045/.145/.045
Brandon Inge: 20 AB, 8 K, 0 H
Manny Ramirez: 22 AB, .217/.308/.261

I do have a new-found fondness for statistics that better capture a players' worth than the familiar triplet of AVG/HR/RBI. Still, I find myself every season watching the batting average leaderboard. It is true that a batting average fluctuates from season to season because of multiple factors: as Crash Davis points out in Bull Durham, the difference between .250 and .300 is 25 hits- one more dying quail a week and you're an All-Star. However, there is still something to be said for the mythical numbers of baseball tradition, and a .400 batting average is one of them. In sixty-five years, no one has come close to Ted Williams' .406 in 1941. In fact, of the top 100 batting averages of all time, only two have occured since 1941: Larry Walker's .379 in 1999 and Tony Gwynn's .394 in strike-shortened 1994.

Every year there is one last player above .400 that eventually falls below. It is fairly tough to get back over the .400 mark once it's breached, and so that point, usually sometime in late April or early May, marks the final hope that Ted Williams could be equaled this year. Obviously someone hitting .300 after 7 games could have a hot week and be over .400, but right now there are only six players above .400:

Cabrera (.500)
Iwamura (.500)
Guererro (.440)
Aramis Ramirez (.429)
Placido Polanco (.423)
Derek Lee (.414)

It will be fun to follow these players and see who can remain above the Ted Williams mark the longest.

Finally, another thing I'd like to see this season is for the AL Home Run record to fall. Surprisingly, Roger Maris still holds the AL single-season record, with his 61 in '61. The power surge of the late 1990s was well-distributed, but after McGwire's trade to the Cardinals (how are Eric Ludwick, TJ Matthews, and Blake Stein doing, anyway?), all of the 60+ HR seasons occured in the national league. In the forty-six seasons since Maris cracked Ruth's 34 year old mark, there have only been three seasons of even 55 homers in the AL: A-Rod's 57 in Texas in 2002, and Junior Griffey hitting 56 in both 1996 and 1997 for Seattle. I can't think of any explanation for this other than luck, given that the AL features 12% more hitters than the NL, and the Senior Circuit is generally credited for having better pitching.

Anyway, in a season where there are very few established "aces" in the AL (Santana, Halladay.... and... um... coughcoughcough), and coming off a season with a bunch of stellar rookie pitchers who are due for some hot regressive action, I think the stage is set for an AL slugger to get over the 60 hump. Alex Rodriguez is well on his way with 5 homers in the first 6 games, but the season is long and the boos at home are loud. After The Third Baseman, there aren't many names in the AL that jump out as SLUGGER!!!! Frank Thomas and Jim Thome are getting older and still could crank out in the 40s, but more than that is unlikely. Other budding sluggers like Carl Crawford and Grady Sizemore may be a few years away from 60 HR potential. That leaves us with three hopefulls, in my estimation: A-Rod, Vlad, and David Americo Ortiz Arias. Let's see if one of them can't top the asterisk.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Daaaaaaaaa Bulls

Tonight is the season opener for the Durham Bulls, the AAA affiliate of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. Minor league baseball is one of the most generally underrated sporting events in the country. For four years when I was younger we had season tickets behind home plate of the New Jersey Cardinals, the short-season single-A affiliate of St. Louis, and even though maybe 1% of the players would make it to the big leagues, it was still baseball in one of its purest forms.

The games are cheap- tonight I will be sitting in dead-center field in the first row for $6. And I will probably enjoy at least one beer at the low (for a sporting event) price of $4. On the field will be players that are so close to The Show that they can taste it; others have been to The Show and regale their teammates as Crash Davis did in Bull Durham. For those who aren’t aware, this is the same franchise featured in the movie that first brought together Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon. It is played in a new stadium now, a couple miles from the Durham Athletic Park (now home to events such as Beer Fest). As of last season, the Bull was still there (hit bull, win steak), but I’ve heard rumors that the giant blue wall in left field was coming down this season.

I attended opening night for the Bulls last year as well, paying student price to sit on the lawn in left-center field for $4. The Bulls struggled much of the night in front of a record crowd (11,060, the first time they’d ever cracked 11K). Entering the 9th inning, the home team was down 4-1 and the opposing starter (I wish I could find a box score) was still going strong. He got the first two on grounders, but then back to back singles and an error put runners on second and third. The opposing manager brought in his closer, who was wild and walked Delmon Young on four pitches. My friends and I joked that this set up the walk off home run, and stood up to cheer. Up came B.J. Upton, who was about to start a tumultuous year in which his face showed up everywhere from mug shots to the starting third baseman for the Devil Rays. On the first pitch, Upton swung mightily and the ball left into the night, high over the aforementioned Blue Monster, high above the Hit and Win a Steak Bull. A walk-off grand-slam. It was definitely one of the top three moments I’ve had at a live sporting event.

This season will probably be a little less exciting for the Durham Bulls. Unlike last year, when prospects like Upton, Elijah Dukes, and Delmon Young were featured, this year those players all made Tampa’s roster. With the Devil Rays getting even younger, this has meant that the Bulls’ roster is full of slightly older players who are in the traditional AAA role of major league backups, rather than prospects. Upton has displaced Jorge Cantu at second base in the majors, so Cantu will start the season for the Bulls. The pitching staff is even more this way, featuring struggling young pitchers such as Jason Hammel, Tim Corcoran, and Seth McClung. Many of the Devil Rays top prospects, such as 3B standout Evan Longoria, are in the lower levels, but could see promotion later this season. The lone Bull on the roster and the Top 10 Prospect List is 22 year old infielder Joel Guzman. The team also features two players who I saw on the NJ Cardinals many years ago- Brent Butler (on DL- and BaseballCube seems to disagree with my memory, but I have a baseball card with his picture on it) and Chris Richard.

I want to try to go to as many games as I can this summer and give frequent updates on the status of players on the Bulls and on other clubs' AAA teams. I'm real excited to see the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Yankees come into town this June, and see one of the deepest AAA pitching staffs in recent memory. But mostly, I just want to watch baseball.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Immaculate Inning's Master Debaters

Welcome to a new segment here at Immaculate Inning. It will pose some of the great minds of our day talking about sports. There's no real agenda, just discussing whatever seems to come up. Feel free to leave your comments on these topics. Today's Master Debaters are mehmattski and Agent Swag.

mehmattski: So, what's the biggest story of the year as the baseball season opens again?

Agent Swag: I've got to think it's Dice-K

mehmattski: Well he's not the first Japanese import, and there have certainly have been busts in the past... Nomo was okay and he threw that no-hitter, but within a few years he was on the Devil Rays. And don't forget Hideki "Fat Pussy Toad" Irabu.

Agent Swag: That's true. I think Dice-K will definitely have a great deal of his success the first time he goes through the league. The question is whether or not he can sustain it once batters have seen him and start to get a read on his tendencies. It's the same thing that any rookie pitcher goes through, but in his case he has exceptional stuff and the advantage of being older and knowing better how to manage a game.

mehmattski: Good points, but I can't help but think the story of the year is that the biggest record in all of sports- the career home run record- is going to fall this year, and most fans don't even care about it.

Agent Swag: I'll be honest with you - I care a lot more about Craig Biggio's quest for 3000 hits, because he goes about things the right way. He plays hard, keeps his mouth shut, and exemplifies much of what is right about baseball. Barry Bonds has turned himself into a sideshow, and I think fans are pretty much in agreement that even if the record goes down, he is not Hank Aaron.

mehmattski: Even so, I think he needs to be recognized for the amazing talent that he is. Sure, he took steroids, but I think it would be fundamentally different if he were the only player taking steroids. He played in a souped up home run culture when many players were probably juicing- and he wasn't just good. He dominated. He may not be Hank Aaron, but our generation of baseball fans deserves some heroes, and should stand up to those who suggest that the greatest players of our generation are somehow cheapened by a few chemicals.

Agent Swag: I'm not sure he qualifies as a hero in any sense of the word though. America likes its sporting heroes to be good guys as well as fantastic players, and Bonds has systematically alienated most of his potential fanbase and nearly the entire sports media. If he were perceived as less of a villain, I would think that people would care about his quest more. At this point, he seems to not care about the fans or anything except for his quest for the record.

mehmattski: I don't think that being a baseball hero and being a jerk are mutually exclusive categories- look at Ted Williams, Ty Cobb, even Babe Ruth was kind of a dick. Did you know he once charged the stands after a fan called him fat? This was a few days after being named the first Yankees captain (along with Gehrig), and led to his fourth suspension of the season.

Anyway, we should move on. How about some final thoughts on college basketball. Was the lack of a true Cinderella/sleeper team a detriment to the NCAA tournament?

Agent Swag: I don't think that in itself was necessarily a detriment, although it did make the first few days less exciting than usual. I think the real problem with this tournament was a combination of the lack of a cinderella and more importantly, the lack of a lot of truly compelling games. The favorites almost always pulled games out in the end, and there just weren’t any definitively "great" games. This tournament just lacked the excitement that it usually promises.

mehmattski: That's true, many of the first round games featured close contests that, in the end, were won by the higher seed. What you had this season, much more so than the last few seasons, was a level of parity among the top 25 or so teams. The fluctuation in the polls speaks to that- I think five different teams were number 1 after New Year's. In the end Florida showed an ability to "turn it on" at the right time, and I think that annoys a lot of fans- they want to see consistent dominant performances, and that's not what we saw in the regular season (save their demolition of OSU the first time).

Agent Swag: and even in that demolition, it was with a one-handed Oden and a very young OSU team. However, that should have been our first hint that they really could turn it on when they felt like it. They saw a young challenger, and decided to put them in their place right then and there.

mehmattski: Back to the parity for a second, I think an undeniable cause of the raised level of play is the NBA's age limit. With 18 year olds unable to declare for the draft, they are headed to school for a year- and it's not like those top high school players are going to pick a Butler or a George Mason for their one year stops. They're going to pick Kansas and UNC and Texas- and the top of college basketball gets heavy again. The mid-majors may be in a decline because of the NBA's rule.

Agent Swag: While I think that may have some merit, this year also featured an exceptionally talented class, so it may well be an aberration that the landscape was quite as top-heavy as this year. The rule definitely benefits the big-name teams, but at the same time, the ones that are going to be the MOST successful are those that have continuity from year-to-year. The young phenoms did a lot of damage this year, but the team that in the end was head-and-shoulders above the rest was a team that was returning their entire starting lineup as juniors (and one senior).

mehmattski: That is a fair point, and one that is debated endlessly on the top Duke message boards. Coach K was one of the last ones to be rocked by early NBA departures, but then felt it constantly up until 2003 with Deng and Livingston. Should a team like Duke focus on team-building, or going after the one-and-done players? If you think about it, one-and-done players are going to be the top 10 recruits every year, and if Duke avoids those, going for the recruits in the 25 to 30 range, then every year, they are going to have a less talented basketball team. Will "experience" of those (less talented) recruits help teams like Duke once they reach their senior years?

Agent Swag: I honestly think this is going to be the biggest challenge that Coach K has faced in quite some time. My answer would be to split the difference and go after some of each. I would target one or two of the top players whose talents Coach K thinks he can maximize for a year and then build around them with solid four-year players.

The gift and the curse of being Duke is that you are only like to appeal to certain types of players - generally players from solid family backgrounds with high basketball IQs and a good head on their shoulders. This is great when that type of player is among the best in the class (see Battier, J. Williams, Brand, etc), but it presents a problem when the players at the top of a given class are not interested in the Duke ideals or system (take OJ Mayo for example - what he did in telling Tim Floyd that he was coming to USC would never fly at Duke).

So to return to the question, Coach K is really going to have to balance between supreme talents and players who will truly buy into his system and fulfill the image of the "ideal" Duke player. If he can get enough players like Battier, then he can certainly recruit a few of the very top talents who might be "riskier" and not quite fit the Duke mold to start with but could be brought into line by the team's leaders.

mehmattski: I do think Duke has some of that balance in the class of 2011- potentially four top 30 players, including a top 5 player in Kyle Singler.
Agent Swag: I think that if Duke can manage to bring in Patrick Patterson (another top 10 or so talent) to go along with the rising sophomores and the rest of the talented incoming class (that includes at least two or three potential four-year players), they will have the nucleus for another run of domination.

We're about out of time, any other topic you'd like to sound off on?

Agent Swag: The NBA season is entering its last 10 games or so, and the playoffs are shaping up to be first-rate. The Suns and Mavs are both playing an incredibly entertaining style of basketball, and with the Spurs, Rockets, Jazz, and Kobe Bryants also playing great ball, the Western Conference playoffs should be quite a spectacle. Do you have any final thoughts before we go?

mehmattski: I'm excited to see how the first month of the baseball season plays out. Young players on teams such as the Diamondbacks, Marlins, Brewers, and Devil Rays make for an exciting opportunity for these teams to get back on a competitive track. Don't be surprised to see more than one of these teams in the playoff hunt come August.

Agent Swag: ...and if the NCAA tournament has taught us anything, they will all come up just short.

That'll wrap it up for the first edition of Immaculate Inning's Master Debaters.