LAKELAND, Fla. -- It was a terrifying thought. Dave Dombrowski tried to push it out of his head, but it kept coming back:

Suppose the Detroit Tigers had to start the season with no Miguel Cabrera and no Victor Martinez. Maybe for just a couple of weeks. But maybe for longer. The prospect hung over the Tigers’ president, CEO and general manager like a polar vortex.

“It was not a refreshing feeling,” Dombrowski laughed about it Thursday morning, as not much more refreshing 42-degree temperatures and 20-mile-per-hour winds whipped through Joker Marchant Stadium, on the day Tigers pitchers and catchers reported to spring training.

[+] EnlargeTigers
AP Photo/Tony DejakMiguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez combined for 57 home runs and 212 RBIs last season.
But fortunately for the GM and everyone around him in this camp, that feeling passed. Those fears abated. And the increasingly upbeat medical prognoses for his team’s two injured mashers inspired Dombrowski to make three head-turning proclamations Thursday:

• He wouldn’t be surprised, he said, if Cabrera, who is coming off ankle surgery, “put up the biggest numbers this year that he’s ever put up.”

• Martinez is making such good progress following knee surgery this month that Dombrowski predicted, confidently, “He’ll be ready” by Opening Day.

• And Dombrowski said that after reading all the dire predictions and projections for a team that has dominated its division for the last four years, he has concluded, “I don’t think people know how to look at our team.”

So why does he feel that way? Here’s how the GM explained his reasoning behind all those proclamations.

Miguel Cabrera

The two-time MVP is essentially right on schedule in his recovery from surgery last October to remove bone spurs and bone chips from his right ankle and to repair a fractured navicular bone at the top of the same foot, a surprise injury that the team wasn’t even aware of before the surgery.

The projected recovery time of six months would put Cabrera back in the Tigers’ lineup in mid-April, possibly sooner. But while he wasn’t ready to attach a date to the current prognosis, Dombrowski said Cabrera’s rehab has gone remarkably well, especially considering the extent of his injuries.

After the surgery, Dombrowski said he was “shocked” by the size of the bone chips and the bone spur that were removed, by the surprise navicular fracture and by the fact that Cabrera was still able to bop 52 doubles and hit .313/.371/.524 while playing in so much pain and discomfort.

“I said at the time, 'I don’t know how anybody would ever, ever question, one iota, Miguel Cabrera’s toughness, after what he’s gone through the last couple of years,'” the GM said. “With the core muscle [which Cabrera tore in 2013], I don’t know how he played with that. But then with what he went through this past year, I have no idea how he played with that either. … I mean, he was the player of the month in the American League in the month of September.”

But now that Cabrera finds himself on the road to recovery from both of those major injuries, Dombrowski believes the people who think Cabrera is “on the downhill side” of his career before he even turns 32 are going to be in for a shock.

“I don’t buy that at all,” Dombrowski said. “The people who say that, they don’t know the extent of the injuries he played through the last couple of years. Look, I know he’s a big guy, and people talk about the aging process. But they don’t know his drive to excellence and to be a winner. So he plays through these types of injuries. But also, he wants to play at a high level until he’s 40. And he will work hard to do that. He will make adjustments if he needs to. …

“I know that at 37 and 38, he won’t be the same as he was at 28 or 29. But if you look at history, even before this era [of performance-enhancing drugs], the premium hitters -- I’m talking about the best hitters -- many of them continued to hit until they were 38 to 40 years old. You start looking at the Ted Williams, the Stan Musials and the Hank Aarons. Well, Miguel Cabrera is in that conversation. … So I don’t know why he can’t be a productive hitter till he’s 37, 38, 39. In fact, I’ll be surprised if he isn’t.”

Dombrowski made it clear he’ll be even more surprised if Cabrera doesn’t do some serious raking this year “because really, he hasn’t been healthy the last couple of years.” But the GM made it just as clear that the Tigers also need that to happen -- because Miguel Cabrera “is as valuable as any player in the game.”

Victor Martinez

As confident as he is in Cabrera’s eventual return to health, Dombrowski said he’s even more confident that Martinez will be fine by Opening Day.

After Martinez had surgery Feb. 10 to repair a torn meniscus, doctors projected his recovery time at four to six weeks. So “even if he’s on the long end of that recovery time, which would be six weeks, that would still give him the last two weeks of spring training” to get ready for Opening Day, Dombrowski said.

If Cabrera isn’t ready by the opener, that would at least make Martinez available to hold down first base until Cabrera is healthy. But unlike last year, when the Tigers occasionally let Martinez catch during interleague games to keep him and Cabrera in the lineup, you won’t be seeing Martinez in shin guards any time soon this year -- if at all.

“We don’t plan on that,” Dombrowski said. “We were even debating, as it was, how much we would have Victor catch. Who knows, later in the season. But we only play 10 interleague games [in NL parks], and three of them are the second week of the season, at Pittsburgh. So I’m sure he won’t be catching those games.”

And what happens if both Cabrera and Martinez suffer setbacks in their recoveries this spring and neither is ready to start the season? “To be determined,” Dombrowski said.

The Tigers' demise

Dombrowski said he tries to ignore all the skeptics who look at his team and ask, “Are the Tigers done?” But obviously, he hasn’t been able to ignore all that talk -- because he feels a need to respond to the folks who don’t “know how to look at our team.”

One reason, he said, is health. He ticked off all the significant players who are working their way back from major injuries: Cabrera, Martinez, shortstop Jose Iglesias, reliever Bruce Rondon and two of his most important starters, Justin Verlander and Anibal Sanchez.

“Hey, those are six big guys,” Dombrowski said. “But my instincts have always been pretty good about those guys, when you talk to the medical people. You put those six guys in, and you put them in playing real well, that’s a lot different club.”

The other reason, he said, is that this team has had an unusual amount of roster turnover, dating to last year’s trading deadline. And he isn’t sure the critics have gone all the way back to last July in their evaluations of what the Tigers have set out to do -- particularly in the way they look at the starting rotation.

“I keep hearing that [new acquisitions] Alfredo Simon and Shane Greene are replacing [Max] Scherzer and [Rick] Porcello,” he said. “Well that’s not true. David Price is replacing Scherzer. That’s why we got David last July. So if people are saying that Simon and Greene are not as good as Scherzer and Porcello, that’s not what we’re asking them to do.”

So what he sees is a team that has, in effect, added key pieces like Price, Joakim Soria, Iglesias, Rondon, Anthony Gose and Yoenis Cespedes -- none of whom were around last year at this time -- and he likes this group’s chances.

Now if the jury is out everywhere but Lakeland and Detroit, “I understand that,” Dombrowski said. But his strong words, on the day his 2015 edition reported to spring training, made it clear exactly what the architect of this team really thinks is about to unfold in the long, and hopefully warmer, months ahead.

How to sum up baseball's busy winter

February, 17, 2015
Feb 17
2:40
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Well, today’s the day, when the results of my annual survey on the best and worst of the offseason appear on this site. And I’m betting that Max Scherzer, Hanley Ramirez and Michael Cuddyer (among others) won’t believe how this one turned out.

But there’s one category in my survey that didn’t make it into the main piece. I asked the 35 executives who responded to nominate an event or story that they thought summed up the baseball winter. Those results are always highly entertaining. So I thought you’d enjoy seeing some of the responses:

Josh Donaldson

Donaldson

TRANSACTION FEVER -– A half-dozen execs weighed in on the insane, almost exhausting pace of activity this winter, especially all of the major trades involving names as prominent as Josh Donaldson, Matt Kemp, Justin Upton, Yoenis Cespedes, Ben Zobrist and Jeff Samardzija, among others. “It appears that the entire industry, with the exception of maybe three to five teams, is in a definitive win-now mode,” said one exec.

THE PADRES –- You might have noticed that the San Diego Padres had a few things on their plate. And it wasn’t just what they did. It was all the stuff they tried to do. One exec’s summation of what most amused him this winter: “The Padres pursuing every player on the planet.”

DAN DUQUETTE -– Last we checked, Duquette was still running the Baltimore Orioles’ baseball-operations department. But for two months this winter, that wasn’t such a sure thing, because the Toronto Blue Jays were openly trying to hire him as their team president (a job that Paul Beeston wasn’t aware was vacant, by the way), and Orioles owner Peter Angelos was openly trying to make that as difficult as possible. Has there ever been a tug-of-war over any executive that went that public and dragged on that long -– between teams in the same division, no less? It’s tough to remember one.

James Shields

Shields

JAMES SHIELDS -- How the heck did it take this guy more than three months to find a team? That still amazes many, many people in the industry. Did agent Page Odle frighten teams away with his steep asking price? Did “something happen,” as several execs have suggested? Maybe a blowup between the agent and an early pursuer that never leaked out? A medical red flag, possibly? Or were Shields and Odle simply waiting around for a specific opportunity that never came? Whatever. When a free agent this attractive goes unsigned for this long -– and he isn’t a Scott Boras client –- it’s a source of endless fascination for one and all.

OTHER STUFF -– And then there was the vast potpourri of other entries that were literally all over the map but just as revealing. Here’s a sampling of those fun nominations:

• The passing of the commissioner's torch from Bud Selig to Rob Manfred –- and everything that entails.

• Joe Maddon’s opt-out escape from Tampa Bay that turned him into the face of the Chicago Cubs.

• Two years after Wil Myers and Shields were traded for one another, they wind up as teammates in San Diego. Amazing how the world spins.

• The Phillies finally getting the memo that it’s time to blow it up and start over. But apparently that’s going to take a while.

• The fascinating offseason approaches by three really bright front offices in Oakland, the L.A. Dodgers and Boston: What was Billy Beane up to this time? What do we make of the dawn of the Andrew Friedman era at Chavez Ravine? And was it a good idea for the Red Sox to introduce Hanley Ramirez to the Green Monster? We’re about to find out.

• The beginning of the °Viva Cuba! era, with ramifications stretching from the White House to Yoan Moncada’s house.

• The realization by front offices everywhere that the age of parity is here. Other than the Nationals, wondered one GM, did any team really separate itself in any division? Um, no, actually. There might be 25 teams with legit playoff aspirations. And you can’t beat that.

• And finally, the tweet of the winter, from pitcher Andrew Heaney, who started the offseason as a Marlin, ended it as an Angel and spent a glorious half-hour or so in between as a Dodger before getting traded again. His unforgettable contribution to Twitter lore afterward:

World Series trophy, Vince Lombardi TrophyUSA TODAY SportsBaseball has created a playing field on which just about every team has a shot to win it all.

Yup. It's that time again.

Time to use another Super Bowl as an excuse to write maybe my favorite piece of the entire year -- the one in which I get to hold that (cough, cough) paragon of parity, the NFL, up to the blinding light of reality and find … (gasp) … that pretty much everything the NFL has worked so tirelessly to make you believe (that every darned team has a chance to win every darned year) is a bigger myth than the Loch Ness Monster. Whoah. Who knew?

But, meanwhile, unbeknownst to humankind (or at least the portion of humankind that doesn't read the MLB page on ESPN.com), it's actually baseball that has created a playing field on which just about everyone has a shot to live the postseason dream.

Imagine that.

It's even become downright hilarious that every year, when I write this opus, people who don't believe in actual facts start ripping on me as if I'm making this stuff up just because I cover baseball. So let us repeat:

Everything you are about to read is true. Factual. Indisputable. Much as the NFL would love to dispute it. So, ready for that truth parade? Here we go:

• First off, I'd like to thank the Patriots and Seahawks for playing this Sunday, because they’re making this way too easy for me to expose the fiction that permeates the popular wisdom about these two sports.

In football, that popular wisdom goes, "anything can happen." In baseball, on the other hand, it's, "the same teams win every year." Oh, really? Well, let's look more closely at this Super Bowl and see how true that is.

• Let’s start with the Seahawks, a team that hasn’t played in a Super Bowl since, whaddayaknow, the last one. If they win, they would uphold a rich tradition of repeat Super Bowl champs. They’d be the ninth repeater in the Super Bowl era and the fifth in the just past 35 years.

All right, ready for a list of all the repeat World Series winners in baseball over those past 35 years? Here we go:

Yankees 1998-2000
Blue Jays 1992-93

Hold it. That's all? Yup. That's all -- even in a sport in which "the same teams win every year."

• Now let's move along to the Patriots. What a heartwarming story to find them in the Super Bowl, with or without their deflated footballs. Who ever would have guessed they've now played in nearly half of the past 14 Super Bowls (six of 14)?

Over in baseball, on the other hand, the only example you'll find of anything like that in modern times is (who else?) the Yankees, who showed up in six of eight World Series from 1996 to 2003.

Now I'm not going to pretend that the Yankees' dominance thing never happened. But … (A) I need to remind you the Yankees' run also inspired an influx of more significant revenue sharing, which has changed the sport and B) even that streak was an aberration. I can verify that for you, if you'd like.

So how many teams besides those Yankees have played in six out of 14 World Series at any point in basically the past half-century? That would be none. It hadn't happened before that since the 1955-66 Dodgers and 1957-64 Yankees were doing it pretty much concurrently. Of course, back then. the same teams really did win every year. But there were also only 16 of them (at least when those streaks began).

Meanwhile in the NFL, aka the Anything Can Happen League, here's what has actually been happening:

• Boy, thank heaven the same teams don't win every year in football because -- oh wait, did somebody say the Patriots are in the Super Bowl?

Hey, of course, they are -- because over in the wide-open AFC, the Patriots, Broncos, Colts, Ravens and Steelers play in pretty much every Super Bowl.

Go check this out if you don't believe me, but I swear this is true: Just those five teams have represented the AFC in the past 12 Super Bowls in a row. Yeah, 12. And 17 of the past 19. Seriously.

Luckily, the NFL has totally mastered the art of parity, so you Jaguars fans, take heart. Your fine squad can expect to stampede into one of these Super Bowls any decade now.

• But at least anything can happen in the rounds leading up to the Super Bowl, right? Except that -- uh oh, hold on a second -- it turns out that pretty much the same stuff keeps happening year after year. Just take a look at the NFL's final four playoff teams. How 'bout this group of upstarts:

The Patriots -- who have made the playoffs six years in a row and 11 of the past 12.

The Seahawks -- who have made it four of the past five years and nine of the past 12.

The Colts -- who have been a playoff team in 12 of the past 13 years.

The Packers -- who have been there six seasons in a row, seven of the past eight, 11 of the past 14 and 17 of the past 22.

So think about this. In a league in which (ahem) anything can happen, those four teams have made 21 playoff appearances in the past six years (the maximum possible would have been 24) and 40 times in the past 12 years (the max would have been 48).

Hmmm. I don't know why, but I'm guessing that if you look up "parity" in one of those online dictionaries, you won't find a link to this blog post.

• Well then, obviously, that parity is showing up in other ways. Yeah, that's the ticket. So let's search for it in the other four playoff teams in the NFL's final eight, among which we find (oh, noooo):

The Ravens -- a playoff team in six of the past seven seasons and seven of nine.

The Broncos -- a playoff team four years in a row and 11 of the past 19.

The Panthers -- a playoff team for the second straight year.

The Cowboys -- a playoff team for the first time since 2009 but also a playoff team in 13 of the past 24 years.

Wait. Really? Oops.

• Then again, that might have something to do with this: The NFL has eight divisions. And you know who won six of them? The same team that won the year before. And the two who missed -- the Bengals and Eagles -- were literally a bounce of the ball away from making it eight out of eight. Parity at its finest and shiniest, wouldn't you say?

• But finally, it doesn't seem fair to just look at this season when we have so many other parity-filled seasons to choose from. Did you know that if we look at the past 30 Super Bowls, you can find nine teams in the NFL that have played in, well, none of them?

And that more than half the teams in the sport (17 of 32, to be exact) have avoided winning any of them?

And that, no matter who wins Sunday, a mere eight teams will have combined to win 24 of the past 30 Super Bowls?

Gosh, you can't beat that for never-ending, unpredictable madness, can you?

• So how does the NFL's sparkling record compare with baseball's? Glad you asked.

First of all, there’s this: All but six baseball teams have played in at least one of the past 30 World Series, and 17 teams have won one. No matter how you do the math, at least 12 teams have divvied up the champagne in 24 of the past 30 World Series, even though the Yankees have won five of them all by themselves. How'd that happen in a sport in which the "same teams win every year?"

• OK, OK. I know what you're thinking: What about the Giants, who have won three of the past five World Series? And how is the AFC so different than the National League, in which the Giants, Cardinals and Phillies have represented the NL in the past seven World Series and nine of the past 11?

Well, obviously, it's not that different. It's not my thing to pretend it is. But I bet I can still make the case that baseball has at least as much parity as the Anything Can Happen League, and here's how:

• Let's start with how much turnover there is in the makeup of teams that reach the playoffs in any given year. Here's a little chart for you from the past six seasons, listing the number of teams that made the playoffs after missing them the year before (see table on right).

• So … digested all that yet? I can help. This makes five years in a row in which baseball has flukily had a better percentage of new playoff teams than the National Parity League. No kidding.

And you'd have to go all the way back to 2005 to find a season in which more than half of the baseball playoff field was comprised of teams that had been there the previous year.

Want to compare percentages over those nine seasons? No, you don't. In the NFL, 58.3 percent of all playoff teams were repeaters from the year before. The percentage in baseball: 39.7. Oops.

• Over the past 10 seasons, 90 percent of the franchises in baseball have made the postseason. That's 27 of 30 (everyone but the Marlins, Blue Jays and Mariners.)

In the NFL over the same span, just 87.5 percent have made the playoffs. That would be 28 of 32 (everyone but the Rams, Bills, Raiders and Browns).

Yeah, that seems pretty close, except for one thing: The NFL has had nearly 40 percent more playoff spots available to be won in those 10 seasons (128) than baseball has had (86). So you probably won't find that note in any NFL parity presentations, either.

• In the NFL, it's truly the land of extra-special opportunity, since even minor technicalities such as, oh, having a winning record aren't always necessary. The NFL has now had two playoff teams in the past five seasons that actually lost more games than they won, whereas baseball has had zero losing teams participating in its postseason since the invention of postseasons. Just thought I'd mention that.

• Another amusing myth about baseball is that only teams with money can win. Which makes total sense -- other than the fact that five of the nine teams with the highest Opening Day payrolls missed the playoffs in 2014. Three of them finished last (Red Sox, Rangers, Phillies.) And of the teams with the 12 highest Opening Day payrolls, exactly one of them (the Giants) even won a series in October. Just two (Giants and Nationals) even won a postseason game. So, er, never mind on that money theory.

• Finally, let's face it, friends. When people try to tell you "the same teams win every year" in baseball, you know what they're really talking about, right? The Yankees.

Yeah, the Yankees sure win every year nowadays, don't they? Other than the fact that they've played in one of the past 11 World Series, that is, and that, in seven of the past 10 seasons, they haven't won a single postseason series.

So there you go. I think it's clear there is, in fact, an Anything Can Happen League. I just have one question: Are you sure it's the league you thought it was?

The All-Unemployed Team

January, 27, 2015
Jan 27
4:31
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If you’re a free-agent baseball player, there’s only one thing on earth that’s scarier than being teamless on New Year's Day.

And that’s still being teamless on Super Bowl Sunday.

Well, Super Bowl Sunday is approaching. And the baseball unemployment lines are still way too long. So either that means Congress is going to have to pass a baseball-jobs bill (ho ho ho) or we’re going to have to take action here -- by churning out the latest, annotated edition of our All-Unemployed Team:

The infield


Hey, pickings are slim. It’s not a great time to go infielder-shopping, OK? At first base, my options basically came down to Branyan, who spent most of last season playing for los Toros de Tijuana, or Lyle Overbay, who was last seen (or heard) leaning toward retirement. Or there’s Greg Dobbs, who went 7-for-41, with one extra-base hit and a .381 OPS, last year. So what the heck. Always fun to have Russell Branyan on your team, even if he hasn’t had a big league hit since 2011.

Second base ought to be Yoan Moncada's spot. But since he still hasn’t been cleared to go team-shopping, the State Department tells me I’m down to Ellis, Rickie Weeks, Rafael Furcal or Pick A Utility Dude from a list that includes Robert Andino, Tony Abreu, Mike Fontenot, Brandon Hicks, Jayson Nix, Elliot Johnson and Brent Lillibridge. I took Weeks in my Twitter version of this team last week, so I’ll mix it up and go with Ellis this week.

But wait. Why not Beckham, you ask? Because I need him to play third. Somebody has to do it on this team, even if we shift a lot.

And at short? How could we not trot Cabrera out there? The alternatives are Ronny Cedeno, Omar Quintanilla, Ray Olmedo and Mike McCoy. Any debate here? Great. Let’s move on.

The outfield


Once Ichiro Suzuki, Jonny Gomes and Colby Rasmus signed, I no longer needed to consult any advanced metrics to pick the outfield on this team. The alternatives: Ryan Doumit, Eric Young Jr., Scott Hairston and a bunch of six-year free agents you don’t need to hear. Anybody want to lobby for EY Jr. or, say, Mike Baxter? Feel free. But our All-Unemployed Team front office was pretty much unanimous on this one.

The rest of the lineup


My DH selection came down to Giambi, who still wants to play, or Manny Ramirez, who is still Manny, or somebody like Weeks, who got squeezed out at another spot. I don’t know if Giambi could stay healthy enough to play more than, like, 35 games, but whatever. He’s got “All-Unemployed DH” written all over him.

At catcher, hey, take your pick: Molina, Geovany Soto, Gerald Laird, Wil Nieves, Humberto Quintero, Kelly Shoppach. But here’s the deal: I’m in favor of keeping all the Molina brothers on the planet playing until they’re at least 52. So Jose, go frame some borderline strikes.

The rotation


I’m not sure what Shields is doing hanging out with the rest of this rotation, but I’ve already covered that. And I really can’t understand why nobody will give Young a big league deal, either. Heck, the Mariners won as many games when he started last year (17) as they did when Hisashi Iwakuma started.

But after those two, I’m basically throwing darts. If I could jump in a time machine, I’d run Johan Santana, Barry Zito, Randy Wolf and Bruce Chen out there. But since that isn’t an option, I’ll take Correia, Kendrick and Saunders. You can have Roberto (Don’t Call Me Fausto) Hernandez, Paul Maholm and Brandon Beachy. Or Eric Stults, Freddy Garcia and Scott Baker, for that matter. I’ll take my chances.

The bullpen


I’m not sure how often the rest of my team will allow my bullpen to take a lead into the seventh inning. But I like my chances if that ever happens. This is actually a respectable bullpen, which is more than I can say for most of this roster. And if you don’t like this group, it’s insane how many other options there are out there to choose from.

Ready for just a partial list of other relievers left on the buffet line? Brian Wilson, John Axford, Joba Chamberlain, Mike Adams, Carlos Villanueva, Dustin McGowan, Matt Lindstrom, Chris Perez, Kevin Gregg, Carlos Marmol, Matt Capps, Jared Burton, Joe Beimel, Ronald Belisario and Jose Veras.

Granted, your reaction might well be: “Those guys weren't any good last year.” To which I’d say: Maybe, but given the year-to-year dependability coin flip with modern relief pitchers, you’d have a better shot signing a bunch of guys who had lousy years than guys who had breakthrough years. I’d argue the law of averages would actually be with you on that. Then again, there’s an excellent reason that the only team I’m allowed to be the general manager of is the All-Unemployed Team.

The rest of the roster

Finally, any team like this needs extra-special attention to detail. I think I’ve got that covered:
    Facial Hair Coach – Brian Wilson
    Dreadlock Coach – Manny Ramirez
    Shirt Tuck Fashion Coach – Rafael Soriano
    Guitar Picking Coach – Barry Zito
    Poetry Coach – Will Rhymes

Breaking: Washington Nationals announce they've signed Max Scherzer to a seven-year, $210 million contract.

You can't measure seven years in baseball with a yardstick, a ruler or even Altuves. So we're here to measure it in a different way. (You're welcome.)

Seven seasons ago -- that would be in 2008, if you’re not calculating along at home -- 13 pitchers showed up on at least one ballot in the Cy Young voting. Six of them are retired now (Mike Mussina, Roy Halladay, Mariano Rivera, Brad Lidge, Ryan Dempster and Brandon Webb).

Of the other seven, Daisuke Matsuzaka is headed back to Japan, Johan Santana hasn't won a big league game since June of 2012, CC Sabathia and Cliff Lee spent a combined 200 days on the disabled list last year and, while his team was winning the World Series, Tim Lincecum was starting as many games last October as Juan Marichal.

And that leaves two others, Ervin Santana and Francisco Rodriguez, who are, amazingly, still alive and well. But they also have changed teams a combined seven times since then.

So … would you give a seven-year contract to any pitcher?

That's a decision the Washington Nationals had to make this week. We know now what they concluded. What we don't know is how these next seven years, for their newest ace, Max Scherzer, will turn out. But we can sure guess.

[+] EnlargeMax Scherzer
AP Photo/Evan VucciIn joining the Nationals, Max Scherzer signed the largest total contract ($210 million) for a right-handed pitcher in baseball history.

And we can sum up that guess in four words: Good luck on that.

"We've gone through this a lot," said one executive whose team has pursued big-ticket free-agent starters. "And there's just a massive risk in these kinds of deals. Massive."

And that's just a general assessment -- of any deal like that, for any pitcher -- coming from a team that will admit to making offers of five years and up for other aces, despite that risk.

We'll get into the factors that make Scherzer in particular a gamble later. But first, let's see what history tells us about contracts this long.

According to ESPN's trusty Stats & Info gurus, Scherzer is the seventh free-agent pitcher in history to agree to a deal of seven years or longer. Here's a look at the other six, ranked from best to worst:

Kevin Brown

Contract details: 7 years, $105 million. Years: 1999-2005. Age in first season: 34. Total wins above replacement (WAR): 22.9.

The Dodgers got two fabulous seasons from Brown right out of the chute (31-15, 2.80 ERA, 68 starts, 154 ERA-Plus). But then came those final five seasons, in which he made more than 22 starts just once and spent the final two years of both his contract and career with the Yankees. And we'd still rank this as the best of all of these deals.

CC Sabathia

Contract details: 7 years, $161 million*. Years: 2009-2015. Age in first season: 28. Total WAR: 21.6. (*Opted out of contract after 2011 and signed five-year extension with Yankees.)

We actually should use multiple asterisks to assess this contract. For one thing, Sabathia opted out of it. For another, it would still be a work in progress even if he hadn't. If he contributes anything at all this year, he'd move up to first on this list in total WAR. And regardless, you could still argue he should rank above Brown, because CC's first three seasons as a Yankee were so dazzling (59-23, 3.18, zero missed starts, one World Series parade, 138 ERA-Plus).

But obviously, those seven years in total are not ending well. Sabathia is 32-23, 4.21, over the past three seasons, with four trips to the disabled list and a bunch of question marks heading into this year.

Barry Zito

Contract details: 7 years, $126 million. Years: 2007-2013. Age in first season: 29. Total WAR: 3.0.

One thing you can say for Zito: He kept showing up for work. Other than 2011, when a foot issue sent him to the disabled list twice, he didn't miss a turn (not voluntarily, anyway) in any of his other six seasons. That -- and his save-the-season masterpiece in Game 5 of the 2012 NLCS -- would be the good news. The bad news is, his ERA was north of 4.00 in every one of his seven seasons. And his ERA-Plus of 87 tied Edinson Volquez for second worst (ahead of just Livan Hernandez, at 85) among all pitchers who made at least 140 starts in those seven years. Which could have something to do with why Zito often shows up in those Worst Contract Ever debates.

Mike Hampton

Contract details: 8 years, $121 million. Years: 2001-2008. Age in first season: 28. Total WAR: 2.9.

At least Zito will always have Hampton to keep him company on those Worst Contract Ever lists. Let the record show Hampton did make the All-Star team in Year 1 in Colorado (despite a 5.41 ERA). And he was a definite offensive upgrade, over just about any pitcher on earth. (He hit .315/.329/.552/.881, with 10 homers, in his two seasons as a Rockie. Really.) But his day job? That didn't go too well. He had a 5.36 ERA in his time in Colorado. It took one of the wildest, we'll-pay-you-zillions-to-take-the-guy-off-our-hands, three-team trades in history to get him out of town. And while Hampton had his moments in Atlanta in 2003-04, he also missed over 100 starts (including two full seasons) over the final four years of this deal. And his kids never did fall in love with that Colorado school system, either, by the way.

[+] EnlargeBarry Zito
Denis Poroy/Getty ImagesBarry Zito signed a seven-year, $126 million deal with the Giants prior to the 2007 season. He had a 4.62 ERA in his seven seasons with San Francisco.

Wayne Garland

Contract details: 10 years, $23 million. Years: 1977-1986. Age in first season: 26. Total WAR: 0.7.

Granted, Garland signed this deal in a very different time and a very different place, for very different moolah. (Just so you know, if you adjust for inflation, his contract would have been worth $89.85 million in current dollars.) But it was still quite the disaster. Garland went 28-48 for the Indians, with a 4.50 ERA and an 89 ERA-Plus. And the highlight of his career in Cleveland was losing 19 games in Year 1. After that, he made a total of 50 starts, never made more than 20 starts in any other season and pitched zero innings over the final five years of his deal. So, um, that went well.

Masahiro Tanaka

Contract details: 7 years, $155 million, plus $20 million posting fee*. Years: 2014-2020. Age in first season: 25. Total WAR: 3.3. (*Can opt out of contract after fourth season.)

If you were assigning a grade to this deal, it would have to be incomplete. Wouldn't it? Tanaka is only heading into Year 2. But he missed almost half a season in Year 1. And he's still pitching with a partially torn ligament in his elbow. So as awesome as he was before he got hurt, he's the living definition of "massive risk." If all goes well, Tanaka will opt out in just three years (which means the Yankees will have been on the hook for $27 million a year, counting the posting fee, even if he winds up missing 12 to 18 months with Tommy John surgery). And if all doesn't go so well? Uh-oh. There's another six years and $133 million left on the books, no matter what.

OK, so what have we learned from reviewing those six deals? Well, "buyer beware" would pretty much cover it. And that goes not just for these contracts, but for the seven-year extensions for Felix Hernandez, Justin Verlander and Clayton Kershaw which are currently in progress.

"Hey, at least Kershaw is the best pitcher on the planet," said one NL exec. "And the planet is a big place."

But that doesn't make him any less risky, on this or any other planet. And Scherzer is no exception, no matter how Scott Boras wants to spin it.

Executives of three different teams reminded us that the reason the Diamondbacks traded Scherzer -- five years ago -- was specifically because they were convinced he was going to break down. And even though they've turned out to be wrong, obviously, over the past five years, are they going to be wrong over a period that now has to span 12 years? History says that's highly unlikely.

We've also had front-office men from a number of clubs tell us this winter that they believed Jon Lester (who got six years, $155 million from the Cubs) was a better bet to hold up physically, and adjust as his stuff changes, than Scherzer is.

"I actually think Lester is a pretty unique case," said another NL executive. "His delivery is awesome. He's got great pitchability. And he's exactly the kind of guy who could lose a tick [in velocity] and reinvent himself if he has to will himself to do that."

"What makes Scherzer great now is that his fastball is so intimidating," said an AL exec. "But he's going to start losing some of that velocity. So does he have the gift to have that second career that all the great pitchers have, to win without the same velocity? Honestly, I have more of a problem saying that he does than I do with Lester. Even though he's developed more pitchability over the last couple of years, Verlander and CC both had pitchability beyond their power, too. And they're still having troubles."

This same exec then asked the question that actually planted the idea for this opus: What's the last contract of even six years that worked out -- for any pitcher? Well, we looked. And the correct answer is: Mike Mussina.

Mussina signed a six-year, $88.5 million deal with the Yankees before the 2001 season. He averaged 31 starts and 200 innings a year over those six seasons, making only one trip to the disabled list because of an arm issue, and the Yankees went 114-72 in games he started. So even all these years later, he still looms as the poster boy for "what you hope you find when you do these types of deals," said one GM.

"Look, these contracts are dumb to begin with," said another GM. "Really, only a three- or four-year deal makes sense. Seven or eight is what the players want. So they should come down to five or six, as opposed to seven. But here's the thing: It's all market-based, so you do it. But rationally, from a baseball point of view, it doesn't make sense. And we all know that."

But incredibly, they do it anyhow. They hand out these contracts. They hold their breath. They pray for a parade in the first couple of years. And then they hope they don't have to spend the next five years hearing anyone invoke the name, "Mike Hampton."
Carlos DelgadoAP Photo/Chris O'MearaCarlos Delgado hit 473 home runs in his 17-year career in the major leagues.

This just in: We owe Carlos Delgado an apology.

You think Hall of Fame election week didn't go so hot for Edgar Martinez, or Jeff Kent, or Alan Trammell? Heck, they had an awesome week compared to Delgado.

Of all the victims of this messed up voting system, he's the biggest. This was his first year on the ballot. And his last.

He showed up on the ballot with his 473 homers and .929 career OPS. And 21 votes later, he was waving adios. It takes 5 percent of the vote to live to see another election. He got 3.8 percent. And that'll be a wrap.

Now it may be true that a guy who falls 391 votes shy of election was probably never going to make it to Cooperstown anyway. But whether he was or wasn't, after looking at this for a couple of days, I've come to this conclusion:

Carlos Delgado is the best player in history to get booted off the Hall of Fame ballot after his first year.

There are some excellent contenders for that honor, too: Lou Whitaker, David Cone, Andres Galarraga, Kevin Brown, Kenny Lofton, etc. But it's incredible to think that a guy couldn't make it to even a second ballot after doing all this:

• Hit 30-plus home runs 10 years in a row

Only seven other eligible players in history have even had nine (or more) 30-homer seasons in a row. Four of them -- Jimmie Foxx, Lou Gehrig, Mike Schmidt and Eddie Matthews -- are in the Hall of Fame. The other three -- Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa and Rafael Palmeiro -- all have PED storm clouds hovering over them. But that didn't get any of them sentenced to the one-and-done club. Now did it?

• Have an OPS over .900 for nine years in a row

Only nine other eligible players have ever had an OPS of .900 or better in at least nine consecutive seasons in which they qualified for the batting title. Seven are in the Hall: Gehrig, Foxx, Schmidt, Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Stan Musial and Mickey Mantle. The other two are Bonds and Mike Piazza. No need to get into why they're not Hall of Famers. But at least they're still on the ballot.

• Hit 473 home runs

Before Delgado came along, only three members of the 400-Homer Club were ever one-and-done. The guy with the most homers on that list was Jose Canseco (462), the famous author. The other two were Dave Kingman, who hit 442 homers but didn't even finish with an .800 career OPS, and the underrated Darrell Evans (with 414 homers and 2,223 career hits). Evans was clearly in the argument for Best One-and-Done Player Ever before this week. But not anymore.

• Have a .929 career OPS

Only two players in history finished their careers with an OPS over .900 and got whisked off the ballot after one year. One was Mo Vaughn (.906). The other also got the boot this year -- Brian Giles (.902). Giles is another guy who probably belongs in the Best One-and-Done Players of All Time conversation. But neither Giles nor Vaughn was within 20 points -- or 140 homers -- of Delgado.

• Do a Big Papi imitation

Now obviously, there are lots of differences between the careers of Delgado and David Ortiz. But if we stop Ortiz's career clock right this minute, here's how similar their numbers are:


OK, so Big Papi has October going for him, while Delgado made it to the postseason only once (with the '06 Mets -- and hit .351, with an 1.199 OPS). But at least Delgado wore a glove for all 17 seasons. So while it's way too early to forecast where Ortiz's Hall of Fame candidacy will lead, I'd bet the Green Monster it won't be to a first-ballot exit.

It wasn't so long ago that we'd have looked at a player like Carlos Delgado and said: "He's a Hall of Famer." But sadly, thanks to the Rule of 10 and the way we devalue all the numbers in the era he played in, we now have to look at him and say something else:

Sorry.

The one-and-done team


Before we go, time for a couple of our ever-popular Hall election All-Star teams, starting with one in honor of Carlos Delgado -- the All One-and-Done Team:

1B: Carlos Delgado
2B: Lou Whitaker
SS: Tony Fernandez
3B: Matt Williams
LF: Brian Giles
CF: Kenny Lofton
RF: Moises Alou
C: Ted Simmons
DH: Andres Galarraga
Pinch-hit specialist: Julio Franco
Opening Day starter: David Cone
Closer: Jesse Orosco
Beat writer: Jose Canseco

The all I-got-exactly-one-vote-for-the-HOF team


And, finally, a round of applause for Darin Erstad, ladies and gentlemen. He's the latest and greatest player to add himself to the ever-expanding, prestigious list of guys who got exactly one vote for the Hall of Fame.

That may not get him a plaque in upstate New York. But it will get him a spot on the exalted 2015 edition of this one-vote-and-one-vote-only All-Star team. And as always, it's a club any 124-homer man would be honored to join:

1B: George (Boomer) Scott
2B: Bret Boone
SS: Shawon Dunston
3B: Tim Wallach
LF: David Justice
CF: Darin Erstad
RF: Ellis Valentine
C: Darren Daulton

Starting rotation: Todd Stottlemyre, Kevin Appier, Jose Rijo, Dock Ellis, Dennis Leonard

Bullpen: Mark Davis, Armando Benitez, Jesse Orosco, Steve Bedrosian, Bill Campbell

Broadcast team: Mike Krukow, John Kruk, Ron Darling, Jim Deshaies, Ray Knight
One of these days, one of these weeks, one of these months, Max Scherzer will find a team to pitch for. It might be Christmas Eve. It might be Valentine's Day. It might be in the middle of a spring training game.

But one of these days …

The question, though, is which of these days. And that’s a question I love to pose to executives and agents around baseball every year as we head into the winter meetings:

How’d you like to pick a date when the marquee free agents will sign?

That got tricky this winter, with free-agent hitters flying off the board faster than I could compile predictions. So I decided to confine this year’s survey to just the big three of free-agent starting pitchers -- Scherzer, Jon Lester and James Shields. And the results were as intriguing as ever.

Nine baseball men took part in this year’s survey. Here’s how they saw it:




And now a quick breakdown:

Jon Lester

Obviously, he’s nearing a decision. So in the decade I’ve been doing this, I’ve never had such unanimous agreement on when any free agent would sign. Not only was next Wednesday the average of these picks, it was the exact date selected by nearly half the group.

So what was more interesting were the predictions (all optional) for where Lester will sign. The six panelists willing to cast a vote (several of them split) broke down like this:
  • Red Sox 3
  • Cubs 2
  • Dodgers .5
  • Giants .5


In other words, they don’t know, either. It’s great to learn that this sort of thing represents as big a guessing game inside baseball as it does for the rest of the continent.

Max Scherzer

Now this was fun. An AL exec guessed a St. Patrick’s Day signing by the Cubs. An NL exec predicted a March 4 signing by the Nationals. Another NL exec made Scherzer the winner of his annual “Halftime of the Super Bowl” prediction (but to no team in particular). And only one of the nine panelists picked a date earlier than a month from now. So clearly, Scherzer is going nowhere fast. Literally.

But where is he going? If you truly want to get analytical, if Scherzer really does wait until spring training for somebody’s ace to get hurt, he almost has to be a Yankee, right? The odds of Masahiro Tanaka or CC Sabathia walking off a mound in midinning are certainly not minuscule. And what other team besides the Yankees could find $175 million or so stuffed in a mattress for use on an emergency sign-an-ace fund?

Well, it was just that sort of thinking that drove the confused selections of the five panelists willing to take a guess on where Scherzer will wind up. The voting:
  • Yankees 2.83*
  • Nationals 1.33
  • Cubs .5
  • Tigers .33


(* one vote split two ways, another split three ways)

One GM described this derby as “fascinating,” even to him. But it was good to know that these folks think this is just as entertaining as the rest of us do. Most amusing prediction: The exec who picked March 4 guessed a signing by Washington -- “but if Tanaka gets hurt, it’ll be the Yankees for $50 million a year.”

James Shields

How linked is Shields’ timetable to Lester’s? So closely that one exec even predicted Lester’s signing date would be “two days after Lester,” to a club that misses out on Plan A. (Guess who?) And they all picked dates within two weeks of one another -- with four panelists predicting Shields will choose a team before the end of the meetings.

What nobody seemed to have a feel for was which team that will be. Three predicted a reunion with Joe Maddon in Chicago if the Cubs miss out on Lester. One guessed Shields could reunite with Andrew Friedman in L.A. A fifth picked the Red Sox if they get shut out on Lester. And a sixth took the Cardinals, just on a hunch.

So ultimately, that’s what all of this is, you understand. Just a bunch of hunches from people who do this for a living and still find the prediction business to be highly overrated -- but entertaining all the same.

Stanton's megadeal makes perfect sense

November, 18, 2014
11/18/14
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OK, now that you've all had time to vent about how crazy this Giancarlo Stanton contract is, here's my question:

What the heck is so crazy about it?

The more I look at the contract, the terms, the franchise, the player and the history of players like the great Giancarlo, the more sense it starts making. Seriously.

Let's begin with this: What choice did the Marlins have? They had to do this. Didn't they? Had to. Whatever it took. Outside of maybe giving the man his own salsa club on South Beach or something.

Imagine the soundtrack if they hadn't. Imagine the bludgeoning Jeffrey Loria would have taken for being too cheap to keep his latest "franchise player," just the way he waved adios to Miguel Cabrera and Josh Beckett and Hanley Ramirez. And if that's how this had turned out, the owner would have deserved every haymaker to the kisser that he took.

So if you're one of the people who's calling him insane now, that's fine. I get it. But it seems as if we all need to pick a side. We can't say he's wrong to pay this guy and keep this guy, and also say he'd have been just as wrong not to pay him and not to keep him.

And why is that? Because if the Marlins were going to keep Giancarlo Stanton, this was the deal.

He wasn't signing an extension for five years or seven years or nine years. He was signing only if he got this deal -- a lifetime deal, a historic deal, a build-it-around-me-or-I'm-gone deal.

There had to be a full no-trade clause. There had to be an opt-out at age 30. And there had to be commitment on both sides. So that all added up to this -- 13 years, 325 million Loria family dollars. Kaboom.

Is it too many years? Sure. No kidding. Is any baseball player really worth 325 million bucks? Of course not. Not in real-world dollars. But who said this has anything to do with the real world? It's the cost of doing business in a $9 billion industry.

[+] EnlargeGiancarlo Stanton
Derik Hamilton/Icon SMIGiancarlo Stanton led the National League in home runs (37) and was second in RBIs (105) in 2014.

But it's also obvious, just from the structure of this contract, that winning was Giancarlo Stanton's primary motivation. It had to have been. Why else would he say yes to a deal that pays him "only" $30 million over the first three years and "only" $117 million before his opt-out rights kick in after Year 6?

He clearly was told that at some point in the next three to six years, the Marlins will have a sweet new TV deal and a lot more revenue to pay for talent in the back end of the contract -- but they needed to free up dollars if they were going to spend on the front end. And he still responded by asking: "Where do I sign?"

So now he's put up on his end. It's time for the Marlins to put up on their end.

He invested in them. Now they'd better invest in him, and the team around him. Or they don't deserve to have a franchise. Period.

Never in Marlins history have they been better positioned to operate like a real baseball franchise than they are right now. They have the ballpark. They have the young talent base. They have two really bright, personable baseball men running the operation, in Michael Hill and Dan Jennings. They have a legit, charismatic 22-year-old ace to front the rotation, in Jose Fernandez, once he returns from Tommy John rehab in midseason.

And now they have Giancarlo Stanton -- wrapped up, signed up and fully engaged in doing what he can to make them great.

So they have no excuses this time. They'll tell us at the news conference Wednesday that we can stop yapping about how they unloaded Miggy, and broke up the World Series champs, and gashed the payroll by $60 million after 2012, because this is different.

Well, it is, actually. It is different. So it's time for them to do this right. Or else.

Look, we have no idea what the next 13 years will hold for Giancarlo Stanton. There isn't an Excel spreadsheet or a Ouija board on earth that can tell us, either.

But if you look at what baseball history tells us about players who have an age 20-to-24 career arc like this man, it's shocking, actually, how well they tend to age. Take a look:

• According to Lee Sinins' Complete Baseball Encyclopedia, Stanton is the fifth player in history to hit 100 more home runs than the average player in his league before his age-25 season. The other four -- Eddie Mathews, Jimmie Foxx, Mickey Mantle and Mel Ott -- all went on to join the 500-Homer Club and end up in the Hall of Fame.

• Stanton's career slugging percentage (.540) is 138 points above the league average. Of the 19 other players in history who outslugged their peers by that amount (or more) through age 24, the only ones who are eligible and never wound up in Cooperstown are Dick Allen and Hal Trosky. And by December, the Veterans Committee might lop Allen off that list.

• As ESPN Stats and Info's Justin Havens reports, Stanton is one of only three players in the live-ball era who have led the National League in slugging twice before their age-25 seasons. It's safe to say the others had careers that turned out OK. Willie Mays is one. Stan Musial is the other.

• And according to baseball-reference.com, Stanton has been worth 13.90 batting wins through his age-24 season. That ranks as 20th best among players in the live-ball era. There are 14 Hall-eligible players ahead of him. All but Allen wound up having a Hall of Fame career. And again, it's possible that in a few weeks, we can say Allen had one, too.

Now let's consider something else: Giancarlo Stanton is irreplaceable. In a sport where power has disappeared, this man is a human "Going, Going, Gone" highlight reel.

He's a special player and person, with a unique skill set for his era. And he just turned 25 years old. So for any franchise to lose a player like that would be worse than sad. It would be embarrassing.

Elsewhere on this site, Dan Szymborski used the fabled ZIPS projection system to look at the likely path of Stanton’s next 13 seasons. His findings sure didn't make this deal look insane in any way.

ZIPS projected Stanton to be a guy who will still be worth three-plus wins a year through the first nine seasons of this deal and still be a threat to hit 20 homers a year through Year 11 -- meaning he's likely to give the Marlins $316 million worth of production over the next 13 seasons.

And that doesn't even factor in what his presence could mean to the franchise as it negotiates its next TV deal, or how just this signing could enhance its credibility with a long-skeptical fan base.

So tell me again then, please, why this contract is "crazy." To me, it's the thought of pushing a player like this out the door that seems way more insane than doing what it took to keep him.
And now … The Greatest October Feat That Nobody Noticed:

It isn’t quite true that Jeremy Affeldt got more air time this October than Joe Buck. But if you were watching the Giants play baseball last month and Affeldt didn’t show up on your screen at some point, well, you must have nodded off or something.

To say he pitched a lot is kind of like saying Taylor Swift sings a lot. Do the San Francisco Giants win the World Series without him doing what he did? I’d vote no.

Eleven consecutive scoreless appearances (heaped on top of 11 more before that over the Giants’ previous two postseasons). … Appearances that ranged from one out to seven outs. … With 38 batters faced -- and only five hits allowed (all singles).

So that was cool. And invaluable. But now it turns out that those of us watching and chronicling him do it still missed his coolest feat of all.

[+] EnlargeJeremy Affeldt
Ron Vesely/Getty ImagesGiants reliever Jeremy Affeldt didn't allow a single run in 11 postseason games (11 2/3 innings pitched) last month.
It occurred to me this week -- thanks to a post-World Series conversation with my brother-in-law (and always-energized Giants fan), Bill Bernstein -- that Affeldt did something in this postseason that you never, ever, ever see:

He pitched in the second inning. And the third inning. And the fourth inning.

He also pitched in the fifth inning. And the sixth inning. And the seventh inning.

But why stop there? So he didn’t. He pitched in the eighth inning, too. And the ninth inning. And the 10th inning.

So wait. In an age in which bullpen guys are routinely labeled as “seventh-inning guys” or “eighth-inning guys” or “long men” or “left-handed specialists,” and daring bullpen usage now consists of using the “seventh-inning guy” in the (gasp) sixth, Affeldt did what?

Right. He pitched in nine different innings -- every single inning from the second through the 10th. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is incredible.

It’s a tribute both to Affeldt and his free-thinking manager, Bruce Bochy. But more importantly, it stands alone in the history of modern bullpen usage.

Just to be sure, I asked the Elias Sports Bureau to look at whether any other relief pitcher has ever done this in any postseason. Amazingly, Elias did find one.

It was a fellow named Charley Hall. For the Red Sox, in the 1912 World Series.

But it’s also safe to say that Charley Hall’s October went a little different than Jeremy Affeldt’s October. Here’s how our man Charley logged those innings:

In Game 2, he entered in the eighth, blew a 4-3 lead, gave up another run in the 10th and only got off the hook (twice) because the Red Sox scored unearned runs off Christy Mathewson in the eighth and 10th innings. Hall faced 14 hitters in that game. Six reached base.

Then, in Game 7 (in an eight-game Series), Charley was back for some classic, or not so classic long relief. Smoky Joe Wood gave up six runs in the first. Then Hall relieved him in the second and took one for the staff, allowing nine hits, five walks and five runs over the final eight innings.

So basically, just one outing accounted for most of those Hall innings. Affeldt, on the other hand entered games during seven different innings. Seven.

Four different times, he finished one inning and stuck around for the next. And in Game 7 of the World Series, he was the seven-out bridge from Tim Hudson to Madison Bumgarner. You didn’t forget that Affeldt pitched in that game, did you? Heck, the MadBum Relief Show wouldn’t have been possible without him.

It was that final outing that led the Giants to the parade floats. But it also gave Affeldt the chance to pull off The Greatest October Feat That Nobody Noticed.

Until now, that is. When somebody finally did notice. Anyone think we’ll ever see that again? I know what I think: No way.

Giants and Royals a study in contrasts

October, 20, 2014
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AffeldtUSA TODAY SportsWild cards and using Jeremy Affeldt at some point may be all the Royals and Giants have in common.


They both lived to survive the wild-card games. They both think they’re America’s underdogs. And they’ve both employed Jeremy Affeldt at one time or another.


But outside of that, is there anything the San Francisco Giants and Kansas City Royals have in common?


They’re about to meet in the 110th World Series. But boy, have these two teams taken dissimilar routes to get to the same place. So here are five big differences between the two World Series juggernauts:

1. What an experience


This is the Giants’ third World Series since 2010. It’s the Royals’ third World Series since, well, the invention of the Royals -- and, as you might have read somewhere, their first since the Reagan administration.


The Giants will bring 16 players to this extravaganza who have already played in a World Series. In fact, eight of those 16 have been a part of all three of the World Series runs just by this core group. And Buster Posey has won more World Series games than the Royals’ entire franchise has won it its history (eight games to six). Just sayin’.


The Royals, on the other hand, are likely to have only two players on their roster who have played in a World Series -- neither of them on the winning side. One is Omar Infante, whose World Series experience as an everyday player consists of getting swept in the World Series by the Giants, in 2012. The other is James Shields, who was the winning pitcher in the only game the Rays won in the 2008 World Series against the Phillies.


And if Raul Ibanez ends up on the K.C. roster, you can make that three. He had a big World Series (.304/.333/.609) for the 2009 Phillies, but he didn’t play on the winning side, either.


Not that any of that necessarily means anything, since these Royals are currently on such a ridiculous roll, most of them have never played on a team that has lost a single postseason game. But they definitely lose the experience war.

2. Seasons in the mirror


Considering they’re both wild-card teams, could these two teams’ seasons possibly have had less in common?


The Giants went 43-21 in their first 64 games. That was the second-best record in baseball. After that, they were eight games under .500 over their last 98 games, which ought to take care of all those myths about how hot you have to be in September to reach a World Series in October.


The Royals had a losing record (49-50) as late as July 22. Then they flip-flopped, too: They went 40-23 over their last 63 games (the third-best record in baseball). So maybe it helps to start cooking down the stretch after all.


Over in the standings, the Giants blew a 10-game lead in their division to the Los Angeles Dodgers. But that didn’t stop them from playing deeper into October than the Dodgers did.


The Royals, meanwhile, became the first team in history to trail by seven games or more twice in the same season and then chew up both of those deficits to take over first place. That didn’t stop them from still finding a way to finish behind the Tigers in their division. But as you may have noticed, the Tigers then won no games in October, and the Royals have lost no games in October. So there’s that.

3. Manage this


Ned Yost and Bruce Bochy. Not even sure we need to go on. But what the heck. Yost might be the most second-guessed manager in the history of World Series managers. Bochy might be the least second-guessed manager in the history of World Series managers.

[+] EnlargeNed Yost
John Rieger/USA TODAY SportsAlmost everything Ned Yost does gets second-guessed, but he's in the World Series.


Best we can tell, every living American with a Twitter account thinks every move Yost makes is wrong, even when it turns out right. Bochy, on the other hand, has developed a reputation as some sort of all-knowing, all-seeing Jedi tactician with a crystal ball that enables him to see how everything he does will turn out before he does it.


Bochy feels bound by no traditional tenets on bullpen usage, bunts or lineup makeup. Yost sometimes seems to feel tethered to all of them.


Bochy’s team laid down the fewest sacrifice bunts in the National League this year (45). But it’s not true that the Royals attempted that many just in the wild-card game. In fact, the two teams are tied in successful postseason sac bunts, with seven each. So regard this as proof that perception isn’t always reality -- especially in the case of Ned Yost.

4. Regime change


Royals GM Dayton Moore has spent eight years building his team in a steady, methodical crescendo -- and gotten pretty much no credit for it (unless you count a bunch of top prospects lists) until about two weeks ago.


But Giants GM Brian Sabean has been in his job longer than any general manager in baseball. This would be season No. 18 -- and counting. And this makes four World Series appearances, seven trips to the postseason and 13 winning seasons for Sabean, whose .533 lifetime winning percentage ranks 10th all-time among all GMs since 1950 who spent at least 10 years in the job.


So naturally, Sabean’s regime has been arguably the most stable in the whole sport. Meanwhile, it feels as if Moore has been swirling inside a should-Dayton-Moore-keep-his-job debate for years now.


Even their coaching staffs have epitomized the dramatic distinctions between these two regimes. The Royals have run through six hitting coaches just in the last 24 months, five in the last 17 months and two this year. The Giants, on the other hand, have had a pitching coach (Dave Righetti) and bench coach (Ron Wotus) who have been around so long (15 and 17 years respectively), they’ve held their jobs under three different managers.


So stability is vital, unless it isn’t. Remember that, kids.

5. Youth movements


The Royals and Giants do have one thing in common: They’ll each start at least five position players in this World Series who came up through their organizations. But that’ll do it for those similarities.


Those home-grown Royals -- Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, Salvador Perez, Alex Gordon and Billy Butler -- were among the most ballyhooed prospects in baseball, practically from the moment they signed. Four of them (all but Perez) were first-round picks. And three (Hosmer, Moustakas and Gordon) were top-three picks in the country.


But of the six home-grown Giants in the October lineup, only Buster Posey and Joe Panik were first-rounders. Brandon Crawford went in the fourth round, Brandon Belt in the eighth, Travis Ishikawa in the 21st. Pablo Sandoval was an international free-agent signings.


So given their draft positions, those Royals players spent year after year trying to play baseball under the weight of expectations which the outside world kept concluding they hadn’t lived up to, while many of those Giants arrived in the big leagues with little or no sense of expectation and never had to deal with any of that.


In the end, though, they find themselves playing each other in the same World Series -- a place, thankfully, where none of that matters. For the next seven games, the history of these teams couldn’t be more ancient or irrelevant. And the divergent roads they traveled somehow led them to the same destination on the baseball map.


Funny how life -- and baseball -- so often work that way, isn’t it?

NLCS Game 3: Molina out, Pierzynski in

October, 14, 2014
10/14/14
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SAN FRANCISCO -- You didn’t need a medical degree from Harvard to suspect the Cardinals’ lineup card Tuesday wasn’t going to include the name “Molina.”

It’s never a good idea to take any quotes at face value this time of year. No matter how optimistic Cardinals manager Mike Matheny was 24 hours earlier about the rapid improvement of Yadier Molina’s strained left oblique, history and reality told us this:

Nobody is physically capable of recovering from a strained oblique and starting any baseball game two days later, let alone a pivotal October baseball game. The Incredible Hulk might. Iron Man might. Human beings don’t. Won’t. Can’t.

So the Cardinals went into Game 3 of the National League Championship Series with A.J. Pierzynski hitting seventh and catching John Lackey. That’s a move Matheny essentially had to make. Now here’s what it means:

The Lackey-Pierzynski connection: Matheny said one reason he chose Pierzynski over Tony Cruz to catch this game was that “A.J. and John Lackey obviously have had a lot of work together.” And that’s correct. Pierzynski caught Lackey both in Boston and St. Louis this season -- in 20 of his 31 starts, in fact. That’s the good news. The bad news is Lackey had a 4.24 ERA in games Pierzynski caught and a 3.01 ERA in games caught by anyone else.

Lackey’s strikeout-to-walk ratio was better (4.52 to 1) when Pierzynski caught him than when Cruz (3.00 to 1) or Molina (3.25 to 1) did, but the opponent OPS against Lackey in Pierzynski’s starts was .752, versus .639 in three starts with Cruz. It was even higher (.778) in five regular-season starts with Molina catching. But obviously, the Cruz and Molina sample sizes are significantly smaller.

The Hudson connection: Another reason Matheny said he went with Pierzynski was that he “has some history with Tim Hudson.” That would also be correct. Counting the postseason, Pierzynski has had 23 career plate appearances against Hudson, more than anyone on the Cardinals roster except Matt Holliday. And Pierzynski has hit .381/.409/.429 against Hudson, with zero homers and just two strikeouts. Cruz, on the other hand, is 0-for-3 lifetime against Hudson, with two strikeouts.

But hold on. All but three of those plate appearances by Pierzynski came over a decade ago, from 2001 to 2003. And the last time they faced each other was on June 23, 2010. So is “history” overrated? It might be in this case.

The rust factor: It’s been a long time since Pierzynski caught Lackey or anyone else on this staff. He last started a game behind the plate on Sept. 11 -- almost five weeks ago. And that’s the only game he has caught since Aug. 30 -- a span of six and a half weeks.

But Matheny pointed Tuesday to the fact that when the Cardinals signed Pierzynski, he was in quasi-retirement mode, walked in the door in July from attending Frank Thomas’ Hall of Fame induction in Cooperstown and “was swinging the bat well, probably as good as we saw him, and also looked good behind the plate.”

Matheny also said Pierzynski’s “16 years' experience has some carry-over effect,” mentioned that Pierzynski caught a bullpen session Monday and emphasized that the Cardinals had him on the roster “in playing mode and not just pulling him off the bench as an extra player.” Nevertheless, one game behind the plate in 45 days is going to take a lot of Rust-Oleum to overcome.

The Molina effect on the running game: As Buster Olney wrote in his column Tuesday , the drop-off from Molina to Pierzynski, in its impact on stopping the running game, is as dramatic as it gets. Then again, the drop-off from Molina to anyone is huge. Molina threw out 48 percent of opposing base stealers this year. Pierzynski threw out 18 percent (14 percent as a Cardinal).

The opposition also attempted 71 percent more steals per game against Pierzynski (0.70 attempts per game) than against Molina (0.41) in their time as Cardinals this year. But how relevant is that going to be in this series? Certainly not as much as if the Cardinals advance and have to match up without Molina against Kansas City in the World Series.

The Giants stole the second-fewest bases in the big leagues this year, have swiped just two (in five attempts) in this postseason and are playing without Angel Pagan, one of only three players on their roster who stole more than five bases this year.

So with or without Molina, this series won’t be turning into a track meet. But it did just get a lot more challenging for the Cardinals.

In other news …

Late-inning magic: The Cardinals have scored 23 runs in this postseason. They have scored 18 of them from the seventh inning on. If they can somehow keep up that 78 percent rate, it would be the highest percentage of runs scored this late in games in postseason history. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, the highest percentage of runs scored in the seventh inning or later by any team that played six games or more in any postseason is 70 percent, by the 1998 Braves.

Ninth-inning magic: But the Cardinals haven’t exactly cornered the market on scoring late. The Giants have tied two games in this postseason by scoring runs with two outs in the ninth inning -- Game 2 of the NLDS (aka “The Jordan Zimmermann Game”) and Game 2 of the NLCS on Sunday.

Elias reports that the Giants are the sixth team in history to do that twice in a single postseason. The others were the 2009 Phillies, 2005 Astros, 2001 Yankees, 1992 Braves and 1985 Cardinals.

Welcome to the LCS: Hudson was making his 11th postseason start Tuesday. The difference between this one and all the others: It was his first ever that didn’t come in a division series -- because Hudson had appeared in the postseason in six seasons but none of his teams before this one had ever advanced to an LCS. By appearing in this game, he actually unbroke a record for most division series by a player whose teams had never made an LCS. According to Elias, he had shared that one with Joe Nathan, Ellis Burks and Ramon Hernandez. But not anymore!

Paul Konerko's historically unique career

September, 28, 2014
9/28/14
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As Paul Konerko’s career wound down this month, in the shadows of all those trumpets blaring about Derek Jeter, I found myself wondering something: Has any player ever had a career quite like Paul Konerko’s?

And you know what? Thanks to the Elias Sports Bureau, we now know the answer: No. Nobody.

Here’s what I mean by that: Pretty much no one -- and by that, of course, I’m talking about Mike Greenberg and Mike Golic on Trivia Day -- remembers anymore that the White Sox were actually Konerko’s THIRD team.

Take a look at his career. He spent 55 games with the Dodgers. He got traded to the Reds and hung around Cincinnati for like 15 minutes (OK, actually 26 games). And then he wound up in Chicago … for 16 fabulous years.

Who does that? How does that happen?

Seriously. How is it possible that any player could spend less than half a season with two teams, for which he was really just passing through, and then end his career by turning into a 16-year, iconic, face-of-the-franchise figure for a THIRD team? Never heard of that.

So I ran this by my friends from Elias the other day. And here’s what they told me:

There have been three players in history who spent 16 seasons or more with one team (not necessarily even consecutively) -- and also spent fewer than 100 games with at least two other teams.

One was Phil Niekro (Braves for 21 years, plus Yankees, Indians and Blue Jays).

The second was Don Sutton (Dodgers for 16 seasons, plus Astros, Brewers, A’s and Angels.)

And the third was Konerko.

Except there was one humongous difference between Konerko and those other two guys: Both Sutton and Niekro STARTED their careers by playing 16-plus seasons for their first team, then bounced around at the end of their careers. That’s the normal path. At least that’s a plot line you might expect.

But Paul Konerko did it in reverse, zipping through cameo appearances for his first two clubs and only then settling in for a lonnnggg run with team No. 3.

In other words, he’s had himself a unique, historically distinct career path, shared by no one else who ever played in the major leagues. And because he has, he got to do something this weekend that very few players ever get to do: go out as a beloved figure on the team he came to be most identified with -- but not the club he started with -- after an incredible 16-year run.

How cool is that?

Other than in Chicago, Paul Konerko hasn’t gotten the kind of send-off he deserves -- not this season and certainly not this month. Too bad. He’s been the kind of player, and human being, that any franchise would be happy to have on the payroll for a decade and a half.

He won a World Series in Chicago, hit a grand slam in a World Series, won an ALCS MVP Award. He isn’t a guy you’d elevate into the pantheon of all-time greats. But he did have one more excellent claim to fame that I haven’t seen enough hoopla about:

He’s one of just 10 players in history, whose primary position was first base, to make it into the 400-homer, 400-double club. Courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com, here are the others: Jimmie Foxx, Lou Gehrig, Albert Pujols, Eddie Murray, Jeff Bagwell, Fred McGriff, Carlos Delgado, Jason Giambi and Rafael Palmeiro.

Perhaps you’re familiar with their work.

For some reason, though, I feel as though not enough baseball fans are as familiar as they ought to be with Konerko’s work. I hate when that happens. But now you can ask your buddies down at the old tavern tonight if they can think of anyone in history who ever had a career quite like No. 14 had.

And when they scratch their heads, you can tell them the correct answer: Nope. Nobody.

History Watch: Catchers' 'Extra Effort'

September, 27, 2014
9/27/14
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Jonathan LucroyAP Photo/Morry GashMilwaukee's Jonathan Lucroy could make history with a few more slugging feats this weekend.

Welcome to the episode of our September History Watch in which we turn our attention to the guys who make knee surgeons everywhere drool by coiling into a catcher’s squat about 100,000 times a year.

But in between squatting, putting those fingers down, blocking sliders in the dirt, and learning to talk while covering their mouth with a mask and a mitt, catchers also have to hit for a living. And that’s where the History Watch fun begins, in the cases of two of our favorites -- the Brewers’ Jonathan Lucroy and the Rays’ Jose Molina.

We’ll be turning our attention to the same column on their stat sheets -- the old extra-base-hit column. But not only do the numbers in those columns look shockingly different, they look historically different. Here’s how:

The Doubles Machine That Made Milwaukee Famous

Unfortunately, Lucroy won’t be heading for the postseason next week. But fortunately, he still has an excellent chance to find himself heading for a place very few of his peers have ever landed: the extra-base-hit history books.

With two games left in the season, Lucroy has these two statistical pearls to call his own -- an incredible 52 doubles and a nearly as remarkable 67 extra-base hits. Now let’s put that in the sort of historical perspective we’re noted for.
  • He is going to lead the league in doubles, seeing as how nobody else in the NL is within nine of him. And you know how many catchers have ever led their league in doubles? That would be none. So, how cool is that?
  • But since “only” 45 of those doubles came in games when he was catching, Lucroy needs one more this weekend to break the record for most doubles as a catcher in one season. He and Pudge Rodriguez are tied for that one.
  • But hold on, This gets even more illustrious. Lucroy is only two back of the league leaders in extra-base hits, Andrew McCutchen and Giancarlo Stanton. As you know, Stanton’s total (69) is frozen because he won’t be playing any more baseball this season. So, if Lucroy can catch or pass those two, that would make him just the second catcher in history to lead his league in extra-base hits. The other? Oh, only Johnny Bench (who did it twice, in 1970 and ’74).
  • Finally, if Lucroy can somehow thump three more extra-base hits, that would put him in another fabulous group, of catchers who got 70 or more in a season (not necessarily all while catching). He’d be only the ninth catcher in that club. The others: Bench, Mike Piazza, Roy Campanella, Gabby Hartnett, Todd Hundley, Javier Lopez, Lance Parrish and, of course, Stan Lopata.

It feels as if we’ve almost taken Lucroy’s sensational season for granted. So, here at History Watch Central, we’re here to rectify that. And if you still don’t think all those doubles and all those extra-base hits are special, perhaps you just need to regain perspective, by comparing them to what’s happening on …

The Molina Watch

It wouldn’t be an official season if we didn’t have some spectacular feat to monitor from the Flying Molina Brothers. Well, this year’s history-maker is Jose, down in Tampa Bay. But we’re afraid we can’t give him any “extra” credit for this quest.

That’s because our man Jose Molina has amassed precisely two extra-base hits all season. Yes, two. In 244 trips to the plate. And that’s going to tie the modern record for fewest extra-base hits in a season with this many plate appearances. Take a look:


At one point, we thought Molina might make it all the way to the All-Star break without an extra-base hit, a feat that hasn’t been accomplished by a player with at least 150 plate appearances since Larry Lintz did it in 1975. Alas, Molina sneaked in a double, off the Pirates’ Jeff Locke, on June 24, in his 43rd game of the year.

Molina then doubled again, on July 23, off Lance Lynn, of his brother’s ever-cooperative Cardinals team. And that’s been it. All season.

But here comes the part of this where everything gets wacky: Molina somehow has more stolen bases (three) this year than extra-base hits (two). And you’d think that would never happen, right? Especially when it’s a catcher doing the Rickey Henderson imitation?

Nope. Wrong. Amazingly, there have been four other catchers since 1900 who got at least 240 plate appearances in a season and pulled that off, according to Lee Sinins’ Complete Baseball Encyclopedia, including one of them twice.


Ah, but those guys weren’t 39 years old, either, as Jose Molina is. So anybody want to guess the only other player this old, at any position, who has had more stolen bases than extra-base hits in a season in the 2000s?

Ha. It’s Rickey Henderson his very own self, in 2000, when he had 36 steals and 20 extra-base hits for the Mariners and Mets -- at age 41.

So we bet you never thought you’d ever live to see the day when Rickey Henderson and any Molina brother would have their base-stealing talents compared in an actual truthful, historical note.

Well, now you have -- thanks to the September History Watch.

Ten astounding Derek Jeter numbers

September, 24, 2014
9/24/14
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In just a few days, his wheel will stop spinning. His No. 2 will vanish into Monument Park. And the incredible numbers on Derek Jeter's stat sheet will freeze in time. Forever.

So what are the entries on his encyclopedia page that ought to pole-vault off the page at you? Here are 10 Jeter numbers I particularly love:

2,743 What’s that number? It’s the number of regular-season games Jeter has played in his career, every one of them for the New York Yankees. And how cool is that? The next-most games, by a man who played only for the Yankees, is 2,401, by Mickey Mantle. But even more cool is this: Jeter is one of just eight players in history who played that many games, all for one team. The others: Carl Yastrzemski (3,308 for the Red Sox), Stan Musial (3,026 for the Cardinals), Cal Ripken Jr. (3,001 for the Orioles), Brooks Robinson (2,896 for the Orioles), Robin Yount (2,856 for the Brewers), Craig Biggio (2,850 for the Astros) and Al Kaline (2,834 for the Tigers). Awesome group.

3,461 This, of course, is Derek Jeter’s hit total. And holy, schmoly, that’s a lot of hits. Heck, it’s more than Hank Greenberg and Shoeless Joe Jackson combined (3,400). And only five men in the history of baseball had more hits than Derek Jeter. See if they sound familiar: Pete Rose, Ty Cobb, Hank Aaron, Stan Musial and Tris Speaker. Wow.

2,673 Here’s another super-cool number. It’s the number of games Jeter has played at shortstop. And it's not only more games than Ernie Banks and Robin Yount played at short put together, but also the most games by any man in history who played one defensive position and never played anywhere else -- not even in the 19th inning, for one batter. Pete Rose played six positions. Ty Cobb played seven. Stan Musial played five (including pitcher). And Derek Jeter played one position. And only one. Now that’s how it ought to be done.

1,013 Can’t figure out why I love this so much, but whatever. Derek Jeter will finish his career with more than 1,000 multihit games. More than Tony Gwynn or Wade Boggs. More than Willie Mays or Rogers Hornsby. In fact, just three other hitters in the entire live ball era finished their careers in the 1,000 Multihit Game Club: Pete Rose (1,225), Stan Musial (1,059) and Hank Aaron (1,046). Pretty fair top of the order.

200 One of the most special Jeter numbers of them all. Why? Because he’s the only man in history who ever got 200 hits in the postseason alone. Now obviously, he got several more opportunities to get those hits than, say, Ernie Banks. But let’s put this in better perspective. In 158 postseason games, roughly the equivalent of a full season, Jeter wound up with 200 hits, 20 homers, 18 steals, a .308 batting average, a .374 on-base percentage and an .838 OPS. So how many active players have ever had a regular season like that? Exactly five. And one of them is (guess who?) Derek Jeter. Who of course also had a "season" like that in October. Against the best teams and the best pitchers, in the most pressurized games of his life. Don't tell me that's overrated.

11 Perhaps you think it’s no big deal that Derek Jeter had 11 seasons in his career in which he batted over .300 and finished with both double-digit homers and steals. But you want to guess how many other players in history have had 11 seasons like that? The correct answer, according to Lee Sinins' Complete Baseball Encyclopedia: zero. Willie Mays had seven. Hank Aaron had six. Barry Bonds had eight. Name whatever high-average, power-speed guy you’d like. Ken Griffey Jr.? Seven. Alex Rodriguez? Eight. Frank Robinson? Five. It’s a reminder that Jeter could beat you in multiple ways. And did.

[+] EnlargeDerek Jeter
Jim McIsaac/Getty Images5 -- Number of World Series titles for No. 2, Derek Jeter.
.377 Oh, all right, all right, I know that batting average isn't one of those stats that impresses the cool kids anymore. So how about this one? It’s Derek Jeter's career on-base percentage. And if you're not sure what to make of it, I can help. Since World War II, three dozen men have played at least 1,500 games at shortstop. You know how many of them had a higher career OBP than Jeter? Not one. Cal Ripken Jr. finished with a .340 OBP. Ozzie Smith wound up at .337. Alan Trammell had a .352 OBP. Among the shortstops of Jeter's lifetime, only Barry Larkin was even close, at .371.

92 From July 21, 2006 to May 16, 2007, Derek Jeter played in 100 games. He got a hit in 92 of them. Now once upon a time, in the 19th century, Wee Willie Keeler hit 'em where they weren’t in 93 out of 100 games. But since 1900, according to streak historian Trent McCotter, you’ll find only one other player who got a hit in 92 of 100. That was Ichiro Suzuki, in 2008 and '09. But it’s mind-warping to look at the list of guys who never did it. Ty Cobb. Rogers Hornsby. Honus Wagner. Tony Gwynn. Pete Rose. George Brett. But the shortstop for the New York Yankees, who never won a batting title or hit in more than 25 games in a row? He did. We mention it only because consistency was Jeter’s most important product.

6 Derek Jeter played for the Yankees when he was 20 years old. Derek Jeter also played for the Yankees when he was 40 years old. And he played for them at all the ages in between. Thanks to the Elias Sports Bureau, we know that doesn't happen much. He’s one of only six players who played for the same team at age 20 and after turning 40. The others: Ted Williams, Stan Musial, Brooks Robinson, George Brett, Cal Ripken Jr. There’s a word for that list: iconic.

1 Finally, there’s this astounding number. According to Elias, it’s the number of games Jeter has played, in his entire career, in which his team, the mighty Yankees, was mathematically eliminated from some sort of race for some sort of trip to the postseason. One meaningless game in 20 seasons? Whoa. On one hand, it would be nuts to argue that was all Derek Jeter’s doing. On the other hand, what defines his career better than that? A man who lived for the big game -- and played nothing but big games. For 20 years. What better way to put a frame around the career of one of the greatest shortstops who ever turned a 4-6-3?

Three peculiar routes to a batting title

September, 20, 2014
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Babe Ruth once won a batting title -- while hitting 46 home runs.

Matty Alou once won a batting title -- while hitting two home runs.

Just thought you’d want to remember that because it reminds us batting champs come in all shapes and sizes, and the record books don’t note any of that except batting average.

Ah, but we September history watchers note all of that. We can’t help ourselves. So let’s take a look at three potential 2014 batting champions -- and the potentially unique paths they’re traveling.

Six of one, half-dozen of the other

If the season ended today -- and luckily, that’s highly unlikely -- Josh Harrison of the Pirates would be your National League batting champ. What’s fascinating about that is he has basically been a guy who plays every day. You just never know where.

He’s started 46 games at third base, 44 games at all three outfield positions, 13 games at second base and four at short.

“Heck, he even pitched last year,” his teammate Andrew McCutchen said.

[+] EnlargeJosh Harrison
AP Photo/Gene J. PuskarWhen Josh Harrison hits the ball, he hits it hard. He's slugging .506, with 56 extra-base hits.
The guy gets around the diamond, all right. So allow me to repeat another McCutchen quote on Harrison, which originally was part of an NL MVP column this week. It’s so good -- how can you ever get tired of it?

“He’s like the hyena of our team,” McCutchen said. “He eats up anything that needs to be eaten up. You need someone to cover third base, or shortstop, or the outfield? He steps in. If you need something, he’s there.”

To be honest, I’d always focused more on the laughing portion of the hyena’s skill set than the eating portion. But that’s why MVPs are different from the rest of us, I guess. And that also brings us to the historic part of Josh Harrison’s pursuit of a batting title.

So, you ask, has there ever been a batting champion who played six positions the year he won?

Thanks for asking. And the answer is …

Not since 1900. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, in the modern era, we’ve had two batting champs who played five positions. One was Billy Goodman in 1950. The other might shock you; it shocked me.

Rogers Hornsby?

Yep. In 1921, Hornsby played first, second, third, short and left field while hitting .397 in his spare time. You can look that up. Pretty good player!

But to find the most recent six-position batting champ, you have to travel back in time all the way to 1883, when Michael (King) Kelly moved his throne around to all four infield positions plus right field and also caught 56 games.

Pretty impressive. But I bet he was never compared to a hyena. So Josh Harrison, meet King Kelly. You two have a lot to talk about -- at the next sťance.

Short people can hit

If you’re not aware of the awesome Twitter account @HowManyAltuves, you don’t know what you’re missing.

Just the other day, in fact, you could have learned, by following it, that the great Jose Altuve’s hits this season have covered 4,668.4 Altuves (or close to 26,500 feet, if you haven’t mastered the Metric Altuve System yet).



But we focus on that sort of thing only because Jose Altuve is kinda, well, short. Or height-challenged. Or, at the very least, minimalistic.

Officially, he’s listed as 5-foot-7, which could lead him to all kinds of fun achievements, such as …

He’d be the shortest batting champ since 5-foot-4 Willie Keeler led the NL in 1898. (Hey, why do you think they called him “Wee Willie?”)

But that’s not all Jose Altuve has on the line. Here’s more:

• He’s on pace for 227 hits. The record for most hits by an AL second baseman in the live-ball era just happens to be 227, by Charlie Gehringer in 1936.

• Altuve is leading the league in both batting average and stolen bases. The only other players to win a batting title and stolen-base title in the same season in the past 90 years: Ichiro Suzuki in 2001, Jackie Robinson in 1949 and the legendary Snuffy Stirnweis in 1945. Yeah, Snuffy Stirnweis.

• If Altuve keeps up his current, furious pace, he’d finish with 227 hits, 57 steals and 46 doubles. Only one man who ever lived had a season in which he reached those three totals: Tyrus R. Cobb in 1911 (248/83/47). Whoa.

Ah, but there’s one more thing we probably ought to mention: Due to the fact that his team’s offensive talents don’t match its second baseman’s, Altuve has scored only 82 runs this year -- even with all those hits, all those steals and all those doubles. So …

• The record for fewest runs scored by a guy who had 220 or more hits is 88, by Ichiro in 2009. That one’s in big trouble.

• The AL record for fewest runs scored in the live-ball era by a guy who had 220 hits and stole 50 bases is (ready?) 127, by Ichiro in 2001. That one’s in bigger trouble.

• The only batting champs who ever had 215 or more hits and still scored fewer than 90 runs are Kirby Puckett (215 hits, 75 runs for the 1989 Twins) and Rod Carew (218 hits, 86 runs for the 1974 Twins). Puckett’s record, thankfully, is in no trouble.

So is it worth rooting for Jose Altuve to win a batting title just for all the fabulous statistical tidbits it would generate? Of course it is. All the @HowManyAltuves tidbits it would generate would be an added bonus.

The midnight ride of Ben Revere

Finally, there’s one more guy with a shot at a highly unusual sort of batting title -- Ben Revere of the Phillies. He has faded to .309, which is nine points back of Harrison, so he probably isn’t going to win this thing. But if he does, boy is he headed for some odd history:

• His on-base percentage is .326. That would be the lowest OBP by any batting champ since 1900. Current record: .353 by Bill Buckner.

• Revere’s OPS is .693. Not only would that be the lowest by any batting champ in modern history, it would also be the lowest by many Altuves. Current record: .749 by Rod Carew in 1972.

• In a related development, Revere has walked precisely 12 times this season, so he’s undoubtedly headed for the fewest by any batting champ over a full season since 1900. Zack Wheat (16 in 1918) holds that esteemed mark.

• Revere also has racked up exactly 22 extra-base hits. That would be the fewest in a full season by any batting champ in the live-ball era (Carew’s 27 being the current record) -- and the fewest by any batting champ since Wheat’s 18 in 1918. Had the “gapper” even been invented in 1918?

• Revere has driven in 26 runs. He needs to avoid driving in any more if he wants to break Matty Alou’s record for fewest in a full season by any batting champ since 1900. (Alou drove in 27 in 1966.)

• Finally, Revere has scored just 68 runs. That’s not going to break any records. But it’s still pretty incredible. Here’s the most incredible part of all: That’s the same number of runs scored by Jay Bruce, the man with the fewest hits this year of any qualifying NL player. Ben Revere has 175 hits. Jay Bruce has 100. Granted, this might say more about the lineups around these players than about them specifically. But it’s worthy of mention in our September History Watch. Don’t you think?

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