Thursday, December 30, 2004

On Again, Off Again, On Again?

As per the link above, the saga of Randy Johnson goes on, this time as Vazquez/Navarro/Halsey and $9MM directly to the D'Backs in exchange for the Big Unit.

One of the lessons of the past year is that "It Ain't Over 'Til It's Over". We saw it with A-Rod and the Red Sox, the Red Sox falling 10+ games behind the Yanks in July, and finally the crushing loss in the ALCS. So until the Yanks give a press conference, with Randy wearing an XX Long Yankees jersey, there is no news, here.

Since I'm going away for the weekend, this will probably be my final post of 2004. We'll be back in 2005 with a year-in-review, and the anniversary of the Weblog That Derek Built. Thanks to everyone who's come by to read us this year, and may you all have a safe and Happy New Year.


Wednesday, December 29, 2004

Tip Not Included

The Yanks got the bill for making (and dishing out) lots of money earlier this week. They're getting charged $25MM in luxury taxes (for having a total payroll over $120.5MM) and they're donating another $60MM to MLB's central fund as revenue sharing on their reported 2004 revenues of $315MM.

Given that there'll be another luxury tax uptick next year (it's almost physically impossible that the Yanks could get under the salary threshhold in 2005, given their long-term commitments) they'll probably give baseball $100MM or more next year.

I just hope that some of these teams start spending this bounty. I'm lookin' at you, Pittsburgh! Cincinnatti's doing their part, signing Eric Milton to three years, $25.5MM. Given that Cincy's stadium is a homerun derby heaven, and that Milton was extremely tateriffic in 2004, this could be dangerous to fans seating in the outfield bleachers.

Still, it's the willingness to spend, and not the wisdom of the expenditure, that we're looking at here. Carl Pohlad pockets the Twins' revenue sharing money, and the Royals ain't spending a dime, no matter how much in subsidies they get from New York, Boston, or Anaheim.

The Diamondbacks have a pleasant history of crying poverty, turning their pockets inside out, and then giving out big contracts like they were lollypops. They feel Troy Glaus and Russ Ortiz are worth a combined $78MM over the next four years, and all I can say is, good for them!

Still, I hope that the next time we have the "the Yankees are ruining the game" conversation (given the Randy Johnson and Carlos Beltran rumors, this'll probably be any minute now), people will remember the $85 Million the Yanks are giving baseball, and the $78 Million the maxed-out credit card folks in Arizona are doling out to free agents. Or the Reds passing out $33MM to two pitchers who didn't even pitch league average last season (Milton and Paul Wilson posted identical 92's in ERA+ last year).

Tuesday, December 28, 2004

Halls Within a Hall

The problem of Hall of Fame voting is that there is only one Hall, and many candidates with widely varying qualifications. Because of this, I tend to think of the candidates in tiers rather than simply whether they are in or out. So here's how I see the baseball writer's ballot, which is due for submission on December 31.

The Broom Closet of the Immortals

2005 Inductee: Wade Boggs

This is based on my theory that, to combat the Hall's drooping standards of admission (while not breaking the hearts of anybody presently in the Hall) you could simply build a separate wing -- maybe a small room, or a large broom closet -- and put the extra-special guys in there. Y'know, so Ted Williams doesn't have to rub shoulders with Lloyd Waner and Babe Ruth doesn't have to keep the same company as Rube Marquard.

The one Immortal in this year's batch is Wade Boggs. How many HOF thirdbasemen would you pick over Boggs? My list is Schmidt and Brett, maybe Mathews. Whenever you're in the top three ever at your chosen spot, there's a good chance that you're someone special.

But it's even more basic. When you saw Boggs play, you knew you were watching a Hall of Famer. Check his list of comparables at bb-ref: seven Hall of Famers, and Tony Gwynn, who'll be in in a couple of years. You could eliminate the bottom 80% of the membership of the Hall, and Boggs would still make it. He's simply one of the very best players in Major League history.

The Hall of Well, Duh!

2005 Inductees: Bert Blyleven, Goose Gossage, Ryne Sandberg

These guys haven't quite gotten there with the voters, yet, but there's no good reason for it. Each would be an above-average Hall of Famer, and should be an easy choice for the writers, yet each has a flaw or counter-argument toward admission.

Blyleven to the Hall of Fame is such a cause celebre that I'm barely qualified to comment on it. Better to just point you to analysis by Rich Lederer, who is one of the curveballing Dutchman's most vocal advocates. The short version is that Bert's run-preventing skills were well above those of other HOF pitchers, and he was a valuable pitcher for almost all of his long career (ERA+ under 100 in only 5 of his 22 seasons). I would add that he pitched well in the postseason, too.

The counterpoint is a low winning percentage (from pitching on losing teams) , no Cy Young awards, only one 20 win season. Also, it seems like Mr. Blyleven was somewhat of a cad, particularly to the press. While it's easy to dismiss this view as small-minded, but it actually boils down to something that's a real detriment for someone wanting to be admitted to the Hall of Fame--in a sense, Blyleven wasn't famous.

I wasn't self-aware, much less aware of baseball, during the early part of Bert's career, but I never heard of him as one of the best pitchers in baseball, much less one of the best pitchers ever. People raved about Blyleven's amazing curveball, but as for the overall package, I never heard someone speaking with awe of him.

It's a problem, but not one that should keep him out of the Hall of Fame. He's currently in the Hall of Well, Duh! because the voters have had a few chances to do right by him, and haven't really put a proper effort into it.

Now, maybe it's just the fact that I'm a Yankee fan, but I was always aware of people being in awe of Goose Gossage. For nearly a decade, Goose was near the top of the list of pitchers you'd least like to bat against. He had a blazing fastball, was a scary guy, and was brought in to pitch the highest-leverage innings his teams had. Nine All-Star teams, four top 5 turns in the Cy Young voting, and two top 10 showings in the MVP voting all point to people agreeing that he was a damn impressive guy. Great, even.

The problem is, the Hall of Fame doesn't exactly know what to do with relievers. Almost intrinsically, it's impossible for a reliever to be as valuable as a starting pitcher throwing two or three times as many innings per year. In addition, pitchers like Gossage, who were relief aces before the current save fetish that's taken over major league managers, don't have the kind of numbers many writers associate with closers. Gossage's career high in saves--33 in 1980--would have ranked 14th in the majors in 2004.

Jay Jaffe has some good work over at BP (get that subscription, already!) that deals with the disparity between starters and relievers, putting the reliever threshhold around 70% of the standards for starters. By those standards, and the more visceral "I know greatness when I see it" standard, Goose should be in.

Ryne Sandberg's another one of those guys that, during his career, you figured was a lock for the Hall. He was a nine time gold glover at second base, with ten All Star appearances in his 15 full-time seasons. But the amazing thing about Ryno was his power--the kind of power you simply didn't see out of a middle infielder in the 80's and early 90's. So...power, defense, what was there not to like?

Sandberg's hurt somewhat by the modern awareness of park effects, as he did much better in the Friendly Confines than anywhere else during his career. He is also hurt by the year he lost to a premature retirement. All that still doesn't change the fact that he was the best second baseman in the National League, for most of his career. He should be in the Hall.

The Hall of Maybe

2005 Inductees: Tommy John, Bruce Sutter, Alan Trammel

With these guys, it wouldn't be a travesty if they got into the Hall of Fame. It also wouldn't be tragedy if they didn't.

Sutter and John come to this from opposite ends of the spectrum. John got far on his longetivity, while Sutter's career was cut short by arm problems. Both candicacies depend heavily on non-performance related "extra credit." Tommy John is better known for the ligament transplant surgery that bears his name than for his pitching. Sutter is credited with two "innovations": the popularization (or revival) of the split-finger fastball, and the implementation of the one-inning, only-with-a-lead closer.

Those are some significant achievements (although the value of that last one is somewhat dubious) but I think the careers of these two pitchers fall a bit short.

Trammel's not an extreme case, like Sutter and John, he's a tweener. His career falls right between the two definitive shortstops of his time. Ozzie Smith was the classic shortstop--thin, short and fast, with no power and a ton of leather; while Cal Ripken was the prototype for the A-Rod/Nomar/Jeter/Tejada junta that would follow--bigger, more powerful, not as dependent on glovework. Trammel had a medium build, and strong offense for a shortstop of his day, but easily overshadowed by the slugging shortstops of the present. His glovework was excellent (four gold gloves), but not as spectacular as Ozzie's.

The vote's been going against him the past few years, but on the merits, he really should be in the Hall of Fame.

The Hall of Prematurely Bronzed Plaques

2005 Inductees: Don Mattingly, Dale Murphy, Jim Rice, Darryl Strawberry

If you saw these guys play, at the right time, you were dead sure you were looking at a Hall of Famer. You might have daydreamed about induction ceremonies, and the wording of the inscription on their plaques. And in each case, you would have been a bit hasty.

From 1984 to 1987, Don Mattingly's batting average ran between .324 and .353. He scorched the ball with great extra-base power, and was the toast of New York City.

From 1982 to 1987, Dale Murphy averaged 36 homers per year. And this was at a time when 40 homers in a year was pretty rare.

From '77 to '79, Jim Rice led the league in homers twice, came in second once, and had a slugging percentage that hovered around .600.

Darryl Strawberry defined the word potential. In 1980 he was the first overall pick in the amateur draft. When he hit the major leagues, three years later, he was the Rookie of the year. Three years after that he was the best hitter on the best team in baseball. By the age of 28, Strawberry had 252 home runs, and it really seemed that the sky was the limit. He was the kind of player where you stopped what you were doing whenever he came to bat.

But for each one of these guys, something happened on the way to Cooperstown. A back injury in 1989 turned Mattingly from a superlative hitter to a below average one. Murphy inexplicably stopped hitting well in 1988. He never recovered his form. Rice's power fell off in his late 20's, and he later fell victim to a growing awareness of park effects. A number of smaller problems (alcohol, legal problems, injuries) and one huge problem (cocaine) scuttled Strawberry's career.

If you started bronzing those HOF plaques early for these guys, you're now left with useless hunks of metal--and memories of guys who, in their day, could give most of the men in the Hall of Fame a serious run for their money.

Hall of Pretty Darn Good

2005 Inductees: Dave Concepcion, Andre Dawson, Steve Garvey, Jack Morris, Dave Parker, Lee Smith

With these guys we're talking for the most part about long careers, winning teams, mystique and aura. There's no questioning that they were stars, or that they had periods of excellence. It's just that they weren't quite excellent enough for the Hall of Fame.

Concepcion and Garvey share in common Gold Gloves, All Star appearances, and connections to a dominant NL franchise of the 70's (the Reds and the Dodgers, respectively). They also shared a lack of OBP (both players ended their careers in the .320's) and power.

Dawson and Parker were slugging outfielders, both credited with great defensive prowess by the powers that be (a conclusion with which the defensive statistics of both men seem to disagree). The primary problem with these two is that outfielders tend to have to slug a whole lot to meet Hall of Fame standards. Dawson hit about 100 more homers over his career than Parker, but made up for it with 16 fewer points of OBP. Since Parker's OBP was .339, you can see that neither man was particularly gifted at getting on base. These two basically stand in the same limbo as Dwight Evans, who had better on base skills than either man.

Lee Smith and Jack Morris are united by meaningless statistics. For Smith, it's the All-Time Saves record, perhaps the least meaningful major record kept by MLB. It doesn't seem, at any point in his career, that Smith was the best reliever in baseball, or even in the top three. He was just really good, for a good long while. For Morris, it's the "most wins in the 80's" stat. Did that make Morris a better pitcher than Roger Clemens or Steve Carlton? Morris never posted an ERA under 3.00 in his entire career.

Although each player was an All-Star on multiple occasions, neither captured a Cy Young award. Neither really dominated the league. Smith winds up with too few innings to make it as a reliever, while Morris doesn't have enough wins to make it as a Don Sutton-type.

None of these guys would be the worst player in the Hall of Fame. Most could have arguments built for them, based upon comparison to some of the Hall's lesser lights. In my humble opinion, that shouldn't be how Hall of Famers are made.

The Hall of the Extremely Competent

2005 Inductees: Jim Abbott, Tom Candiotti, Chili Davis, Mark Langston, Jack McDowell, Willie McGee, Jeff Montgomery, Otis Nixon, Tony Phillips, Terry Steinbach

There's no shame being on this list. Everyone here put in 10 years in the bigs, most were, at one point or another, fan favorites. Everyone except Abbott and Montgomery saw the postseason, most played in at least one All Star game. These are some good careers:

Abbott pitched a no-hitter, and provided an inspiration for thousands of kids with disabilities. Candiotti was one of a line of Major League pitchers keeping the knuckleball alive, and had a nice cameo in the movie 61*. Chili Davis was a "professional hitter" from both sides of the plate, who retired with three World Series rings. Mark Langston was an ace strikeout artist, with a career that just wasn't quite long enough, or quite great enough, for the HOF. Jack McDowell got to live the life of a rockstar, based on being a star pitcher. He won a Cy Young award, and was a horse for the White Sox teams of the early 90's. Willie McGee was a league MVP, a terrific centerfielder, and one of the oddest-looking major leaguers of his time. Montgomery was an ace reliever right around the time that title began to lose its cachet, and also around the time Kansas City's first division run ended. He quietly had an excellent career. Otis Nixon was a pure speedster, perhaps the last of that breed that we'll see for quite some time. He shares the Major League record for most steals in a single game, with six. Tony Phillips was a great utility player, playing multiple positions in all but one of his 18 major league seasons. He exceeded 100 walks in a season five times, in a career marred by drug use. Terry Steinbach was one of the core players of the Alderson A's mini-dynasty; he was an All-Star MVP in 1988, and got a World Series ring the following year.

If this group gets five HOF votes, total, I'd be shocked. Barring a miracle, all of them will disappear from the ballot next year. Some will say they had no business being on the ballot in the first place. But I like the opportunity the HOF vote gives us, each year, to remember these competent veterans, and to look at their careers.

It reminds me of a line from an obscure cable movie, called "Lush Life." In the film, Jeff Goldblum and Forrest Whitaker play musicians, Jazz session players, and at one point Whitaker is lamenting that although the two played with plenty of Jazz greats, they weren't great musicians themselves.

Goldblum interrupts him. "You've got it all wrong. Those guys [the Jazz greats] need us. Without us, there wouldn't be enough music to go around."

Without these extremely competent players, there wouldn't be enough baseball to go around. You won't get a bronze plaque in Cooperstown, guys, but you'll have thousands of fans remember you fondly.

Monday, December 27, 2004

RIP: Eddie Layton

As 2004 rustles to a close in YankeeLand--amidst the gnashing of teeth over the non-trade of Randy Johnson--real sad news comes to the Bronx Faithful, with the passing of Eddie Layton.

Layton provided the soundtrack of Yankee Stadium--not the contrived "Cotton Eye Joe" stuff--for over 35 years. He retired in 2003, after the Marlins beat the Yankees in the World Series. It was always somewhat ethereal watching Eddie play at the stadium: he'd sometimes play the organ with a handful of World Series rings on his fingers, and because of the audio delay, his hands would seem to move out of time with the music. But the most memorable thing was the smile he had on whenever they put him on camera.

Either he really loved what he was doing all those years, or he missed a true calling as an Oscar-worthy actor. I, and many other Yankee fans, will hold him dear in our hearts and memories.

Sunday, December 26, 2004

Still Alive!

This has probably been my longest absence from this space this year, and for that I apologize. Last time I went on vacation, I carefully arranged for guest-bloggers, and wrote practically until the day I left. This time, I left before dawn on the 17th, my one guest had technical difficulties, and I was unable to find--rather, unable to get an opportunity to search for--Internet access while abroad.

So, if you're one of the dozen or so people that still visit this site, I'm happy you're still checking in. It wasn't all fun and games while I was in the Dominican Republic--I did catch some Winter League baseball, and I'll be filling you in on what a crazy experience that was. I also worked on a few other items that have been pending far too long on this site.

For right now, I'll leave you with the last thing I did before the vacation, a Yankees piece that was published at Baseball Prospectus (yes, there's some Pirates and Marlins info mixed in, too). It's fun, and it's part of Prospectus' free content:

Prospectus Triple Play

Monday, December 13, 2004

Week in Review Part II: Beware the Loaiza

Read Part 1

Issue 2 -- PavaNO!!!

Looming even larger than the Jaret Wright deal is the rumored four year deal the Yanks are closing in on with Carl Pavano. The salary numbers I've heard range from $36 Million to $43 Million over that span.I've addressed the Pavano situation elsewhere, so let's just quote from last month's Prospectus Triple Play:

The big question for his off-season suitors is: was Pavano's performance this year a sign of greater acedom to come, or just a blip on the screen? Pavano is still relatively young (he'll be 29 in January), has demonstrated the ability to toss 200 innings per year over the past two seasons, and is a Proven Playoff Performer(tm) with a 2-0, 1.40 ERA postseason in 2003 and a high-profile World Series start. Sounds like "Show Me the Money!" time, right?

Not so fast.

[Stats Chart I don't know how to reproduce on my own web page snipped.]

Pavano doubled his previous high WARP1 value in 2004, while maintaining a flat strikeout rate in the mid-5's. Carl had an excellent 2004, but those don't look like the peripherals of an ace pitcher. Pavano may just have discovered a way to become the righthanded Jaime Moyer, but he's going to ask teams for a lot of money to prove that he can repeat this performance. Triple Play's advice: don't open the vault doors, guys, you might just wind up paying Curt Schilling money for Brian Lawrence performance.

Pavano's a prime candidate to "go Loaiza" on the team that signs him. Esteban Loaiza, as Yankee fans will remember from bitter first-hand experience, was a mediocre pitcher who showed promise and great "stuff" for a long time, and then settled in as a mid-rotation innings-eater from 2000-2002.

Then, in 2003, Loaiza had an improbable, near-Cy Young season: 20-9, 2.90 ERA for the White Sox. Unfortunately for Loaiza (and fortunately, for the White Sox) 2003 wasn't Esteban's walk year. In 2004, Loaiza fell flat on his face. At the end of the season, Loaiza could not best a gimpy Kevin Brown or an ineffective Javy Vazquez for a post-season rotation spot. What looked like a pitcher finally fulfilling his potential in 2003, turned out to be just another mediocre mid-rotation guy in 2004.

Maybe Carl Pavano really has turned a corner. Maybe he won't be bothered by moving to a stronger offensive league, having a worse defense behind him, and being in a more offense-friendly ballpark. I'm just saying there's no evidence to think he can repeat his 2004 performance, and nine or ten million dollars a year will be a bitter pill to swallow if we get the 2003 Carl Pavano, rather than the 2004 edition.

One of the emerging patterns from this off-season seems to be a propensity for picking up guys who have beaten the Yanks in the past, or have come from recent playoff teams -- Pavano pitched well for the 2003 Marlins, Womack was a 2001 Diamondback, Wright beat the Yanks as a Cleveland Indian. Since the mid 90's, the Yankees have benefitted from extreme advanced scouting of potential opponents come playoff time.

I wonder if all that advance scouting is skewing the Yankees selections in the off-season. The Yankees obviously scouted Pavano this way in 2003, and likely scouted both the Braves (Wright) and the Cardinals (Womack) this fall. Likely, all three of the free agents the Yanks have pursued so far have inch-thick dossiers in Tampa. Gene Michael, often mentioned behind the Womack signing, is the Yanks chief advance scout for the playoffs.

I would rather believe that there's a bias towards players that have been abundantly scouted by the Yankee advance machine than credit the other option: that the Yankees are out to get "proven winners" -- like Pavano, Wright, and Womack -- despite the fact that they haven't been terribly good over the past several years.

[By the way, in keeping with the subtitle of this section, other free agents I don't want the Yanks to pick up, such as TiNO! Martinez and Eric MiltOH, NO!]

Sunday, December 12, 2004

Week In Review Part I: Hate to See You In Pinstripes

Oh yeah, this was supposed to be a baseball blog, right?

Actually, there are a couple things in the pipeline -- some work for Baseball Prospectus, an article I'm doing for the blog on this year's Hall of Fame class, as well as the fact that I'm trying to clean things up at the office before I go on vacation next week. Still, this entry's been percolating for a while -- the Jaret Wright rollercoaster really bogged me down over the weekend.

Issue 1 -- Subject: Kill Me Now, Please

That was the subject line of an email I wrote to Brother Joe, after I learned -- all in a single blow bad enough to send me into a horrible case of the blues -- that at the arbitration deadline, the Yankees signed Jaret Wright and Tony Womack for a combined $27 Million.

No, I'm not over it yet. I may not be over until Wright's $21 Million deal expires in November, 2007.

It's as if the team got these guys only to spite me. I've spent a good deal of both men's careers detesting them. Why? With Wright, it's simple. He was a 21 year old kid in his rookie year of 1997, when he got a couple of postseason starts against the Yankees in the division series. He didn't pitch that well, but he won both his starts en route to sending the Yankees home early for their only postseason series loss between 1996 and 2000.

I didn't hate him for the fact that he won, so much as for his nasty, sneering attitude. From the smack young Jaret talked, you'd think he pitched a no-hitter in Game 2 of the ALDS, rather allowing 3 runs in six innings. And he also had a penchant for throwing inside, which was none too charming.

Wright turned out to be a plague we wouldn't have to bear for long. He performed around league average in 1998, and in 1999, his control -- never a strong suit -- went to pieces. He posted an ERA over six in 134 innings, hit the disabled list, and was gone. Bad shoulder. Over the next three years, combined, he pitched 99 innings. He was only 26 years old, but it looked like that was all she wrote.

We'll get back to Wright in a minute.

My antipathy for Womack is a different matter. Sure, the Yanks had a postseason run-in with him -- a little something in Arizona, around 2001, I think -- but even before his first at-bat against the Yanks, I disliked Tony beyond all reason.

You see, Womack also came up to the majors to stay in 1997. He was no 21 year old phenom, though, just a 27 year old marginal middle infielder with some speed. The comment on Womack in Baseball Prospectus '97 read simply, "A speedy, light-hitting shortstop who has somehow picked up three cups of coffee."

Then, in 1997, Womack became a regular lead-off hitter for the Pittsburgh Pirates. His OPS that year was .700 -- roughly 18% below league average -- and his defense at second base was also well below average. But he stole 60 bases, so he was installed as a regular.

Now, it's easy to take for granted small advances that happen during one's lifetime -- to forget, for example, that most of America didn't have a cell phone or an Internet connection just ten years ago. In 1997, Prospectus was publishing just its second annual, and Moneyball wasn't even a gleam in Michael Lewis' eye. Although there were a hard core of people who were hip to the importance of on base percentage and park effects (not to mention the high break-even point for base stealing), it was a small, but vocal, minority.

It was at this point that Tony Womack became the centerpiece of an ideological battle. Conventional Wisdom said that if you had a fast guy that could steal a lot of bases on your team, you batted him leadoff, particularly if he had no power, like Womack. Sabermetric wisdom said that if you batted a guy like Womack leadoff, you'd just give him a whole bunch more opportunities to make outs (since the #1 batter comes to the plate more often than a #8 batter does), and the bases he'd steal wouldn't make up for his lack of power or plate discipline.

Back in 1997 and 1998, the Pirates were all too happy to hand Womack nearly 700 plate appearances, and watch him make nearly 500 outs. In 1999, Womack became a Diamondback, and they followed suit -- just they put Womack in right field, one of the big power positions in baseball, where Tony's lack of production would really stand out. And so -- through no fault of his own -- Womack became a whipping boy for people who embraced the new baseball thinking -- one of the Things That Were Wrong With Baseball.

Since I was one of those people, I always disliked Womack. It wasn't anything he'd said or done, just the way he played baseball, and the decisions of managers and GMs to write his name -- in ink -- onto the roster and the lineup card.

In 2001, Womack got a measure of revenge against me by hitting a double off of Mariano Rivera, extending the rally that ended game 7 of the 2001 World Series. But in 2003, it seemed that low performance would finally put Womack out of the league. He went through three teams that year, and finished the season posting a .190 batting average in Colorado.

But both of my hated foes made big comebacks in 2004. Womack, for the first time in his career, batted .300 with the Cardinals. He still didn't post a league-average OPS, but he did play in the World Series for the second time in his career. Womack earned his way in 2004 with a big April, and a very good first half overall -- .319/.364/.427 before the All-Star break. By the Stathead tools, the cracks in Tony's game showed up in the second half. Although Womack maintained a decent .298 batting average after the All-Star break, his plate discipline and particularly his power went missing -- Womack had 27 extra base hits pre-ASB, and only 9 after.

Wright, on the other hand, had a life-altering experience. Picked up by the Braves in late 2003, Jaret "Found Leo".

You all probably know by now how I feel about Leo Mazzone -- he's managed to pick up some pretty sketchy subjects from the garbage heap, and somehow make pitchers out of them. Among Leo's fixer-uppers, Jaret Wright will stand out as a bonafide, fit-for-cannonization miracle.

Wright, a pitcher who'd had an ERA under six just once in the past five years, went 15-8 with a 3.28 ERA for Mazzone's Braves this past season. He struck out 159 batters in 186 innings, and had career highs in strikeouts, strikeout-to-walk ratio, and home run ratio.

Great! If Wright's cured of his suckiness, why not back up a truckfull of money to make him a Yankee?

There are a couple of reasons to believe that Wright isn't someone you'd want to invest big money in. First of all, he's a guy with serious health issues -- there's a reason he only pitched 99 innings between 2001-2003. [UPDATE: This consideration became even more worrisome as we learned over the weekend that Wright failed his first Yankee physical. Sadly, it seems that the Yanks accepted the results of a second, presumably better physical examination, and the Wright contract is still a go. How comforting.]

Second of all, it there's the Mazzone effect. The Sabernomics weblog did a study of Leo's charges, before, during, and after being under the Master's tutelage. I found this particularly intriguing:

Also interesting is the fact that the effect [of Mazzone improving his pitchers' ERAs] seems to go away when pitchers leave. This may be because Mazzone imparts useful everyday help, not just new knowledge to fix an old problem, or maybe the Braves know when to dump guys.

Yankee fans might remember some anecdotal evidence of this effect, in the form of lefty reliever Chris Hammond. Hammond, you will recall, was the pitcher who answered the call when the Yanks did their "We've offered the same contract terms to Mike Stanton and two other lefties. Whoever responds first is a Yankee." negotiation ploy in 2002.

Chris'd seen a big career resurgence that year, under Mazzone in Atlanta. Prior to joining the Braves organization, Hammond had been out of the Majors since 1998, his career derailed by arm troubles. Under Mazzone, Hammond posted an ungodly 0.95 ERA, and looked like one of the better relievers in the league.

The Braves passed on giving Chris a big raise after his career resurrection -- that honor went to the Yankees, who got a serviceable, but unimpressive reliever who was eventually eclipsed by both Felix Heredia (in his pre-Run Fairy days) and Gabe White. The Yanks wound up unloading Hammond's contract on the A's after the 2003 season.

You'd think, after Hammond, the Yankees would be smart enough not to give top dollar to a pitcher the Braves passed on. But here we are, three guaranteed years at $7 Million per.

So that's a whole lot of caveat emptor for two players. One was overrrated for much of his career, the other injured for much of his, both are coming off the best years of their careers to be given big money by the Yankees.

It's kind of like learning that your spouse has spent your nest egg on lottery tickets. I hope the Yanks get lucky with these guys. I hope the brain trust -- the brainiest of which (Gene Michael) is said to have signed off on the Womack deal -- knows something I don't about these fellows.

I just don't like our chances.

Tuesday, December 07, 2004

A Night at the Theater

Last weekend, my girlfriend's pal Anne was in town, so we all went to the Classic Stage Company's production of Death and the Ploughman -- as part of the typical you-are-in-New-York-you-must-do-cultural-stuff tourist situation. The production was pretty good (considering that Ploughman's a fifteenth century, three character play, with lots of didactic speechifying) with a spartan theater-in-the-square set and no props except two benches, a suitcase, and an umbrella.

As we were leaving, La Chiquita -- a onetime German major -- commented on the fact that Goethe's UrFaust was playing at the CSC on Monday, so I got tickets as kind of a surprise. UrFaust is basically the first draft version of Faust that Goethe made, a story he would rewrite over and over for the rest of his career. The performance we saw on Monday night wasn't a full staged production, but rather a reading with all the actors in their street clothes, reading from scripts they rested on a series of lecterns at the front of the stage.

The production featured two "name" actors: F. Murray Abraham and Michael Cumpsty. Abraham, who played the role of Mephisto, was a particular draw for me, since he was the lead in one of my favorite movies, Amadeus. Cumpsty, who played Faust, is a British stage actor with a deep, booming voice, who's had a number of small movie and TV roles.

[SIDE NOTE: I have a favorite embarassing resume item for each of the above actors. For Abraham, it's a 1991 fencing film called By The Sword, co-starring Eric Roberts, which is one of the great unintentional comedies of our time. For Cumpsty, it's the 1993 spoof movie Fatal Instinct, where he's the spoof version of the husband in Sleeping with the Enemy. I wish they'd had a Q&A after the reading, just so I could ask the guys about these films that they've probably forgotten ever having made.]

The reading was a gas. With the rich voices provided by Abraham and Cumpsty, at first it felt like watching a radio play. The young actors they had for the remaining parts did excellent work, also, and as they went along, the players seemed to get deeper into the spirit of the thing, acting their parts out more and more, rather than just reading them. Things remained somewhat informal, with Abraham at one point casting an aside to the audience at one of the more awkward line readings, "That's supposed to be a big laugh line. I don't get it, either."

Now, by itself, none of this is all that noteworthy (or blogworthy, as it were). Except that towards the end of the piece, in a scene where Gretchen (the young woman Faust seduces with the help of the Devil) is being tortured by evil spirits, a young man entered the theater by the main entrance, and stood just off-stage, as if waiting to make his appearance. The guy -- tall, blond, pretty fit -- was completely, full-monty naked, except for his shoes and socks.

It says a lot for my experience of off-Broadway theater that my only immediate reaction was "That's peculiar. No one else is in costume."

After a few seconds, F. Murray Abraham (and only F. Murray Abraham) gets up from his seat and says, in his stage voice, "Hey! We're doing a play, here!" And prodding Naked Guy with the edge of his script binder, Abraham pushes the guy back out the main entrance. Shortly, the Creative Director of the CSC follows Abraham out the door.

The actors keep on playing. The ones that are seated exchange looks between them. After a couple of beats, the actress playing Gretchen (who's on her knees because she's supposed to be praying in that scene) says, "Can we take this from the last line?" And everyone in the theater, actors and audience, broke up laughing.

After the laughing was over, the play went on. After everyone took their final bows, I kept expecting for someone to make an announcement about Naked Guy -- who he was, why he showed up, or even just apologizing for the disruption. Nothing. Naked Guy remains a total mystery.

As they say, only in New York.

Sunday, December 05, 2004

Week In Review: Yankee Blue

To begin with, I owe an apology to Mike Lupica. And Lisa Olson. And Ray Ratto. And Bill Madden. And Phil Mushnik. Everyone who seemed to have a hate-on for Jason Giambi, and against steroids.


OK, I'm back from the bathroom after vomiting up all the crow I just ate. Couldn't keep it down. Filthy stuff, that.

I've been on the run a lot this week, and was on the run to a court in the depths of Long Island when I heard the news. I was in a cab, on a ride that cost about the price of my regular commute for the entire week, when the story led off the newscast. Jason Giambi admits steroid use. This was leading the news not on one of the local sports radio outfits, but on the all-news station, WINS (I know, sounds like sports radio call letters, don't it?). This was the story of the day.

Now I was stuck on this long-ass ride now with a driver that couldn't stop talking about it. What the hell was Giambi thinking, that damn loser? Didn't he ever hear of Lyle Alzado? Why didn't Jason realize that he already had all the money he needed? What about the children, the poor little ones that look up to Jason as a role model?!?

The driver didn't know this, but I've defended Giambi in the past, and I've written a thing or two about steroids. Still, I didn't really have much to say on that long ride -- I chatted with the driver about MLB's steroid testing policy, agreed that it would probably get tougher, now, talked to him about Ken Caminiti and Jose Canseco. But I didn't have much to say about Giambi. I was kind of in shock.

The thing was, this news wasn't really a surprise. Giambi's weight loss last Spring was suspicious, and a writer I admire very much said once that looking at Giambi in the Yankee locker room, you could see where he'd gotten "more tatoos to cover up the acne" that steroid use can cause. Giambi had been called before the BALCO grand jury in 2003, and had developed a variety of illnesses and injuries during his time with the Yankees that raised eyebrows -- patella tendonitis, intestinal parasites, staph infections in his eyes, and ultimately a tumor, allegedly in his pituitary gland. So I thought it was possible, maybe even probable, that Giambi had been on the juice at some point in his career.

But knowing something is different than suspecting it. Knowing is different than admitting it's possible. That's what Giambi's grand jury testimony means to fans -- we can no longer plead ignorance, or give Jason the benefit of the doubt.

He's a cheat, a knowing cheat, and a liar.

Before we go on on that path, let's say a few things about grand jury testimony. Revealing grand jury testimony is a crime, the exceptions mainly being if the testimony becomes part of the public record at trial, or if the grand jury witness tells their own story. As we've seen before with the Sheffield leak right before the playoffs, the BALCO investigation is leaking like a sieve. Grand jury testimony is being quoted verbatim, and the San Francisco Chronicle claimed to have seen transcripts of Giambi's testimony.

I'd love to see some prosecutions of the cretins who are leaking grand jury minutes -- although, since the leaks might just come from the Justice Department, I wouldn't hold my breath.

Ironically, right before I got in the cab where I learned about Giambi, I'd been reading an Op-Ed column in the New York Times by Eugene Volokh, about creating a "journalist's priviledge" that would protect both mainstream journalists and bloggers from being forced to reveal their sources in court. One of Volokh's ideas had some resonance to this situation, at least a day before the story hit the written media:

Lawmakers could pass legislation that protects leakers who lawfully reveal information, like those who blow the whistle on governmental or corporate misconduct. But if a leaker tries to use a journalist as part of an illegal act - for example, by disclosing a tax return or the name of a C.I.A. agent so that it can be published - then the journalist may be ordered to testify.
In this case, under Volokh's rule, a judge would be able to compel the SF Chronicle reporters on the Giambi story to testify and reveal the source of the illegal grand jury leak. He's got my support...

Back to Giambi -- a lot of great work has already been done discussing the Giambi situation, and I don't want to rehash it. The best blog entry I've seen so far on the subject comes courtesy of Cliff's Big Red Blog. Cliff Corcoran's take on the situation is balanced and fairly comprehensive; other good angles have been examined by some of the usual suspects -- Jay Jaffe, Alex Belth, Brother Joe at BP, Sean McNally at Replacement Level Yankee.

In the mainstream media, Giambi's public flogging is being executed with no small measure of vindictiveness. After all, Giambi, aside from being a steroid-shooting cheater, is The Man Who Dared Lie to the Reporters.

Oddly, the mildest rebuke of all may have come from Mike Lupica, who went easy on Jason as a tradeoff toward hunting bigger game -- Barry Bonds:

Giambi gets no sympathy for being the kind of drug cheat that Barry Bonds and all the others have to be, even if he deserved better than he got from these prosecutors who promised him his grand jury testimony would be sealed and then gave him up in front of the world. So Giambi, who wanted to take drugs so he could hit more home runs and make more money, takes the fall for everybody. By telling the truth. You wonder if Bonds, the one they've been after all along, will ever do the same.

Lupica's Daily News colleague, Bill Madden, won't even give Giambi credit for honesty in front of the Grand Jury, insisting that instead, Giambi was too stupid to lie:

In the face of all the adversity these past two seasons in New York, Giambi crumbled. Apparently, things weren't much different on the witness stand where, unlike Bonds, he didn't have the capacity to cleverly answer the steroid questions without actually answering them. (By contrast, it matters not that Giambi lied to the media all spring about the same issues - we're easy to lie to.)
Things get even more breathless when you listen to Mike Vaccaro of the New York Post:

He thought he'd fooled the world, Giambi did. Thought nobody noticed how a skinny singles hitter blossomed into a powerful home-run freak overnight. Thought nobody heard the whispers that tailed him. He's been lying the whole time.
If Mike paid any attention to the grand jury testimony, or Giambi's career, he'd have noticed that Giambi "blossomed into a powerful home-run freak" before he started using steroids in 2001 (heck, he won the MVP the year before he started using), and maybe even realize that Giambi had never been a "singles hitter". Don't let the facts get in the way of the story, I guess.

Over at Newsday, John Heyman unloads on Jason with both barrels, talking about the first baseman's carousing ways, and demanding that Giambi "Ask that any statistic or trace of him be expunged from record books, right down to his date of birth". In today's Daily News, class act Lisa Olson puts the smackdown to Giambi's dad, presumably because she thinks it's a fun thing to do, or perhaps as a measure of revenge for causing her "to blush" with his off-color tales of nights on the town.

Personally, the feeling I have about Jason is closer to sadness than anger. Sure, I'm ticked that Giambi denied using 'roids for over a year after he came clean under oath. I'm upset that the Yanks have this sack of damaged goods on the roster, with no defensive value, possibly no bat anymore, nothing but a black hole, owed $80someodd Million dollars over the next four years.

But mainly, I'm sad for the Yanks. It had looked like 2004 was going to be a good year for the team, and in many ways it was. But the way the ALCS ended, paired with the major disappointments presented by Kevin Brown and Javy Vazquez, and now an off-season dominated by steroids and Giambi -- well, it's all pretty depressing.

The worst part about all of it is there's a scent of doom around the franchise at this moment. The so-called Fall of the Yankee Dynasty, retrospectively marked by Buster OIney as the end of the 2001 World Series, takes on more life each time this franchise suffers a black eye like the one Giambi has given it. When these things happen, we're reminded that the "legendary, sainted" 1996-2001 Yankees would never have done low-class stuff like shoot up Human Growth Hormone. Those Yankees, the Real Yankees, also would have found some way to beat the Red Sox in the ALCS, and of course, they wouldn't have lost to the Marlins last year, so they'd be on course for a three-peat in 2005. Sure.

Right now, rumors abound of these "Real Yankees" making returns to Yankee Stadium. Joe Girardi is the bench coach, now, but you get the feeling he could be told to suit up at any minute. Ditto Luis Sojo. Mike Stanton has already returned to the Bronx (more on this in a moment), and this Giambi news only makes it more likely that Tino Martinez will return to lead the team at first base.

This phenomenon requires a more substantial discussion than I can give now, but here's a summary of what I think about it: in baseball, you have to move forward, you have to continually improve. Those 1996-2001 teams didn't stand still, they always made changes -- David Wells, Chuck Knoblauch, Roger Clemens -- and added kids from the minors like Spencer, Ledee, and Soriano. You can't go backward, as much as nostalgia and a few seasons where you don't bring home World Series rings might tempt you.

Speaking of going backward, the big call around town has been for the Yanks to void Giambi's contract for juicing. Unless someone had some foresight of this when they made up Giambi's contract (and I think we'd have heard of that by now, if they had) I don't see how this is possible. Set aside the "illegal grand jury transcript" evidentiary problem, and the "what did the Yankees know, and when did they know it" problem. Even then, you have the most simple problem of them all: the Collective Bargaining Agreement has already set out what the punishments are for steroid use, and having your contract voided isn't among them.

This is the downside of having a steroid policy. In 2002, when steroid testing wasn't in place, maybe the Yankees could have tried to void Giambi's contract, maybe Bud Selig could have used his "best interests of the game" powers.

But the same agreement that imposed steroid testing on players also established a regime for disciplining them for steroid-related offenses. You can say that the disciplinary measures of the 2002 CBA are too soft, but the fact of the matter is, no matter what disciplinary system they chose, it wasn't going to be "one strike, you're out" an automatic ban for a first offense.

The Yankees can still try, and they have plenty of lawyers with more experience, and more knowledge of the situation, than I have. The Yankees can also try to bully Jason, remind him how nasty Yankee fans can be, and convince him that he doesn't want to play out the rest of his career in pinstripes. Heck, maybe they convince him that he just wants to hang up his spikes, period, and wouldn't he like a nice 60 cents on the dollar buyout as a parting gift?

I wish them the best of luck in this. They can't trade Giambi, couldn't trade him even before he came out as a liar and a cheat. They probably can't keep him on the DL for the next four years, like the Orioles did with Albert Belle, or the Mets with Mo Vaughn. But they have to do something, because I have a hard time imagining how I could ever cheer for the man again.

Don't get me wrong. I wish Jason the best of luck, particularly for his health, but also for his game. It's not impossible that he could come back next year, healthy and steroid-free, and slug 30-40 homers on the season. But for purely selfish reasons, I hope it's not with the Yankees. As a fan, I have to wonder, how can you revel in someone's accomplishments when you can't stand to look them in the eye? I know I can forgive the juicing and the lies, but how can I ever like this guy again?

So I apologize to the mean-spirited representatives of the Fourth Estate, who tried to warn us this day was coming. I'm sorry, damn you.

Uh oh. I just realized I forgot to apologize to Selena Roberts. Oh, man, I think I'm going to be sick again.