Friday, May 30, 2008
1. Florida 30-22
2. Philadelphia 31-24
3. Atlanta 28-25
4. New York 25-26
5. Washington 23-31
I was stunned and needed to let the information sink in for a moment before I could process it. Now to all of those Mets fans who questioned my sanity in the preseason for doubting that the '08 Mets were the greatest thing since sliced bread, let me just take a moment and say this:
That felt good ... Well let's just look at the puny Marlins, with their team payroll according to ESPN.com of $22.6 million dollars (half - half! - that of the #29 team, the Tampa Bay Rays at $43.4 million) and the fact that have a better record that the of not-so-mighty New York Mets, spenders of $137 million dollars. Truly stunning. Now, I do intend to take a moment and devote an entire post to mocking the Mets (soon) and dissecting their struggles, but that's not going to be today. Today we are going to try and solve an important question. The Florida Marlins: Who are these guys?
Marlins Offense vs. Phillies Pitching & Fielding. So far the Marlins are scoring runs off their ability to hit home runs. They've hit 76 thus far, second in the N.L. after the Phillies with 79. Dan Uggla leads the team with 16 home runs and 38 RBI. Uggla, who finished third in the 2006 Rookie of the Year Award, is a solid defensive player with a lot of power. He makes a lot of comparisons to Chase Utley because the two play the same position - second base - and hit for power and average, but Uggla isn't the great defensive player that Utley is. While Uggla is an extremely talented player, Hanley Ramirez, the 2006 N.L. Rookie of the Year, is clearly the Fishstripes best: with nine home runs Ramirez has power, but he also supplies something that the Marlins lack this season. Speed. Ramirez has 13 steals in 18 attempts, having swiped half of the Marlins stolen bases.
While Uggla and Ramirez have been great, the big surprise to me is the play of Mike Jacobs. The unheralded Jacobs, who like Uggla and Ramirez debuted with the Marlins in 2006, has quietly hit 11 home runs and 29 RBI so far this season. The Marlins are going to need guys like Jacobs to continue to produce, lest they become a two-man show.
Their power at the plate is the reason why they've scored 254 runs, but they haven't nearly been as efficient as the Phillies have. They've hit .242 with runners in scoring position (BA/RISP) thirteenth in the N.L. Their paltry .326 OBP is also eleventh in the N.L. While the Marlins have scored runs and have had success I believe that their long-term prospects offensively are limited: without good situational hitting or without guys setting the table for the big bats, the Marlins are going to decline offensively because after a while you stop hitting solo home runs and winning games 4-3 by hitting three home runs.
The series will be an interesting test for Brett Myers, who pitches tonight. Can he stop Uggla, Ramirez and Jacobs? Thus far this season Myers has surrendered 15 home runs in 65 innings: 2.07 HR/9. Yikes. Can Myers survive the Fishstripes onslaught? Cole Hamels and Jamie Moyer, the Phillies pitchers for Saturday and Sunday respectively, matchup well with the Marlins. Tonight will be the big, critical test.
Phillies Offense vs. Marlins Pitching & Fielding. At the moment the Phillies are doing nearly everything right. They rank second in the N.L. in clutching hitting, they are second in runs scored, first in home runs, third in doubles and fourth in On-Base-Percentage (OBP). They set the table, score runs, hit for power ... all they need is to improve their team speed which languished with Shane Victorino and Jimmy Rollins on the shelf, but seems to be making a comeback. The Phillies are doing what they are doing largely on the strength of Chase Utley (17 home runs, 46 RBI, .394 OBP) and Pat Burell (13 home runs, 35 RBI, .417 OBP) strong performances. The Phillies have done all of this despite weak play from free agent signee Pedro Feliz (7 home runs, 28 RBI, .305 OBP) and the struggles of superstar Ryan Howard (14 home runs, 38 RBI, .315 OBP). Add in the fact that speedsters Rollins (8/8 steals) and Victorino (12/14 steals) spent much of the season on the bench, and you have a Phillies offense that will only improve as the season wears on.
What do the Marlins send to the mound? A unit that is young (four of their five starting pitchers are younger than the age of 25) and solid, if unspectacular. The Marlins run a little behind the N.L. average in terms of getting strikeouts and allowing walks, so the team's middling 4.25 ERA is no surprise. That the Marlins team ERA is worse than the Phillies (3.99) is a shocker.
Defensively, the Marlins are basically average. There isn't a whole lot separating the Phillies and the Marlins here. Both teams are near the N.L. average of .695 in terms of Defense Efficiency Ratio (DER):
Marlins: .699 DER
Phillies: .692 DER
What does the series hold? With the Phillies coming off their big sweep of the Rockies which saw them score 33 runs, the Phillies clearly have momentum. My prediction is that the Marlins get to Brett Myers tonight and win a close one, but that the Phillies win Saturday and Sunday. Have a good weekend everyone ...
Wednesday, May 28, 2008
Managing in baseball is a pretty tough thing to look at and evaluate. In football coaches shape their team’s actions as in no other sport and are recognized for doing such. The football coaches devise the complicated game-plans (e.g. Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Johnson), install complicated and innovative schemes (e.g., San Francisco 49ers coach Bill Walsh and his West Coast Offense or Michigan Coach Rich Rodriguez and his spread-option offense), motivate players (Bill Parcells was a genius at this). To a lesser extent coaches in the NBA and NHL shape their teams too by devising strategies to emphasize and magnify strengths and downplay weaknesses. But unlike in football and basketball and hockey, where the action is fluid and much of the action and decision-making lays in the hands of the coaches, baseball is the game where the players make the key decisions and the format of the game is fairly static. Managing in baseball is less like being at the helm of the battleship as it steams into battle than sitting as the chairman of the board at a Fortune 500 Company.
But managers do shape their teams in far subtler ways that have real impact as the 162-game season unfolds.
I think we can look at a number of things and see how Charlie Manuel manages. Here are a few things that are important:
1. Charlie Manuel got his start in the American League. In Manuel’s first two seasons of managing a Cleveland Indians team in decline (the previous season, in 1999, it had blown a massive lead to the Boston Red Sox in the ALDS, flaming out from the playoffs yet again) were quite successful: the Indians went 90-72 and 91-71. In ’02 Manuel was cashiered after the Tribe got off to a 39-48 start, the beginning of the Indians rebuilding campaign. In the AL, with the designated hitter, they do thing differently. There is more of an emphasis on power-hitting and moving runners around the bases than on timely hitting and speed. Seeing how the Phillies routinely hit poorly in the clutch yet score bushels of runs thanks to their power-hitting, you can see how Manuel’s experiences shaped him when he was the Indians skipper.
2. 2007 was different. The 2007 campaign represented a number of doctrinal shifts in Manuel’s thinking. The evolution of Manuel towards speed and defense – a more National League-oriented game – occurred in ’07. Let’s measure speed two ways: stolen bases attempted and pinch-runners.
The number of stolen base attempts is pretty obvious in terms of the meaning it conveys. After ranking eighth in stolen base attempts in 2006, the Phillies jumped to second in 2007, after the Mets. Manuel did have terrific personnel to pull off the move (Jimmy Rollins, Shane Victorino, Michael Bourn) but Victorino and Rollins had been on the roster in ’06 and they hadn’t run much. Victorino had played extensively in ’06 and attempted a mere seven steals. In ’07 he attempted 41. Rollins was pretty consistent in ’06 and ’07, but he was the team’s sole base-stealing threat in ’06. In fact, he attempted 43% of the Phillies steals in ‘06, while attempting 30% in ’07.
Not persuaded? Okay, look at the increasing number of pinch-runners the Phillies used in 2007. As the Indians coach in ’00 and ’01, Manuel used 40 and 30 pinch-runners respectively. That number increased slightly in ’05 when Manuel took over the Phillies: 36. It jumped to 42 in 2006. In ’07 Manuel used 56 pinch-runners, most in the majors. The average N.L. team, as a matter of fact, utilized such 28 pinch-runners, half what the Phillies used. I don’t think this was solely a factor of personnel – the fact that Manuel had the speedy Michael Bourn sitting on the bench – but of a real interest in utilizing speed whenever possible to stretch the defense. When Bourn was on the DL Chris Roberson, the speedy and talented outfielder whom Bourn beat-out for the fourth outfielder slot oftentimes got into the game when the Phillies needed some speed.
Defense became much more important to Manuel. When Manuel took over the Phillies in ’05 he made 19 defensive substitutions. The next year he more than doubled that, making 49. Last year Charlie Manuel made a whopping 75 defensive substitutions, second-most in the N.L. after the Nationals Manny Acta. The average N.L. team made 48 … What that tells me was that Manuel consistently wanted to see better defensive players in the game and to do so he was willing to sacrifice some offense. Typically, the defensive switch Manuel would make would be to bring Michael Bourn into the game to play leftfield in place of Pat Burrell. If the game rolled on and Bourn came to hit, the Phillies would find themselves with a light-hitting outfielder in Burrell’s spot, costing the team plenty of offensive firepower.
However Manuel placed such a premium on defense that he usually assumed the risk and made the switch. Again, like with stealing bases and pinch-hitters, defensive substitutions are typically a National League thing. In 2007, the average A.L. team utilized 32 defensive substitutions. The average N.L. team utilized 48. Five N.L. teams utilized more defensive substitutions than the Texas Rangers, who led the A.L. with 53.
3. Manuel doesn’t tinker. Charlie Manuel utilized 87 different lineups in 2007, second-fewest in the N.L. after the Braves Bobby Cox with 86. The average N.L. manager utilized 115 lineups. I think there is a tendency amongst baseball managers to tinker with their lineups to show people how smart they are and how hard they are working. For example: the manager who decides to sit Person A from the lineup because he hits .001 lower against lefties than Person B. That is someone who is needlessly tinkering and fidgeting with their lineup because that what they think wins baseball games. Players want to know where they are hitting in the lineup and they want to stay there.
Manuel was exceedingly consistent in terms of his lineup usage. His 87 lineups in ’07 is right in line with the 81 he used in ’06 and the 80 he used in ’05.
4. Manuel is a good tactician. This is sort of a tough thing to judge because it is tempting a lot of times to engage in Monday Morning Quarterbacking and pass judgment on whether or not bringing Person A in was a better move than bringing Person B into the lineup or on the mound. It is difficult to tell, difficult to get an actual idea about which decision was the best. I am going to focus on Manuel’s decision-making where it comes to utilizing the intentional walk. The IBB is usually a maneuver teams employ to minimize damage by setting up force-outs or to avoid dangerous hitters. Oftentimes it comes back to bite teams in the butt. The Bill James Handbook started looking at whether or not their utilization of the IBB was good (no runs scored in the inning or the next guy grounds into a double play), not good (one run scored in the inning) or the bomb (two or more runs scored). Manuel utilized the IBB 62 times in 2007. 41 times the outcome was good. That’s a 66% success rate. The average N.L. manager utilized the IBB 50 times, 31 of them good. That’s a 62% success rate.
Okay, my belief in Manuel’s tactical-decision making is partly subject to conjecture, but he really does a nice job in the dugout, in my opinion. He sets a stable lineup and plays to his team’s strengths. He’s willing to change and makes good tactical decisions. And he’s a winner. Aside from his short season in ’02, he’s had teams that contended for the playoffs each and every season. Can’t argue with that.
Tuesday, May 27, 2008
Let's start off with a book review.
The 1970's may not have been a great era for America - Watergate, malaise, gas shortages, the Iranian Hostage Crisis, bell-bottom pants and disco - but it was actually a good era for baseball in many respects. The game had declined in the late 1950's as the public left the cities near their teams in favor of the suburbs. Football, a game uniquely suited for television, took off in popularity following the 1958 NFL title game between the Baltimore Colts and New York Giants, as the NFL-AFL rivalry in the 1960's spurred interest in the game. Baseball no longer seemed relevant in the rebellious era of the 1960's. Pitchers came to dominate the game in the '60s, great stars like Mickey Mantle retired, fans felt disconnected to the game and baseball seemed ill-suited to adapting with the changing times.
That changed in the 1970's as baseball emerged from the dark days of the 1960's and began to embrace a more exciting form of baseball. Speed combined with power and made baseball more exciting and multifaceted than it had been in the station-to-station, wait for the home run 1950's. Dramatic personalities entered the picture, a welcome departure from the staid conformity of the 1950's. George Steinbrenner bought the Yankees, that symbol of 1950's establishment corporatism, and injected some life into a dull entity. The Oakland A's won three consecutive titles between 1972 and 1974, featuring a team that was never dull and uninteresting. Oh, and some guy out in Kansas City took out some paper and began to write about baseball in his spare time as a night watchman. It was, in many respects, a great era for baseball.
It is with all of that in mind I sat down and began to read Hammerin' Hank, George Almighty and the Say Hey Kid, the story of the 1973 baseball season. Written by John Rosengren, Hammerin' Hank has a lot of material to move through and I wanted to see what the author did with it. I was very impressed with Rosengren's approach. He really tries to move the reader to get a feel for the season as it unfolded, practically day-by-day. As the story moves along we get to see how the '73 season unfolded, but we also hear about Nixon and Watergate and how events outside of the game drove the public and impacted the game.
Some things about the '73 season that Rosengren reminds us:
-Hank Aaron made his run on Babe Ruth's record of 714 home runs in the 1973 season before falling a little short and breaking the record early in the '74 season. Aaron's story is pretty dramatic: the virulent racism hurled at the quiet man whose sin was that he was black and exceptionally talented. Aaron made his run on Babe Ruth's record amid exceptional hatred and intimidation. Rosengren's book is worth reading alone for the discussion about Aaron's season from hell.
-The novel Designated Hitter Rule began in '73, an innovation which would dramatically alter the game. It would seperate the American League from the National League and be an excellant example of how innovations to the game in the '70s helped bring fans back.
-What a colorful and exciting group the 1970's Oakland Athletics were. Reggie Jackson, Jim "Catfish" Hunter, Joe Rudi, Dick Williams and Owner Charlie Finley - I doubt that baseball will ever see such an interesting and diverse collection of personalities to grace the game ever again. The A's feuded and fought and argued and won again and again and again. Aside from the Yankees, no other franchise has won three consecutive World Series as the A's did from '72 to '74. If Charlie Finley had the financial resources of Steinbrenner, who purchased the Yankees in '73, the A's of the 1970s might have stayed together and done terrific things. Sadly, we'll never know.
I loved every page of Hammerin' Hank, George Almighty and the Say Hey Kid and couldn't put it down once I picked it up. That's what a good book should do for you ...
Labels: Book Review