SweetSpot: Juan Pierre
You might have been one of those children who grew up with parents who, every Saturday, turned your radio’s dial to "A Prairie Home Companion," where among other features you could reliably look forward to the segment in which Garrison Keillor welcomed you to Lake Wobegon, where “all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking and all the children are above average.” You might also be one of those adults who tunes in to hear him say that same thing every Saturday, to this day. And you might be one of those adults who does so only after following an afternoon’s worth of major league action. If you are, you might be forgiven if you have started to wonder whether ol’ Garrison wasn’t talking about children, but about big league center fielders.
That’s what comes to mind after watching Adam Jones rocket another baseball out of the ballpark to settle affairs with the Phillies on Saturday. That’s his 17th home run on the year, another reason why the Orioles shelled out at least $85.5 million to keep Jones in Baltimore through 2018. (As the always indispensable Cot’s Contracts on Baseball Prospectus reports, he stands to make another $6 million beyond that in incentives.) His adjusted OPS (or OPS+) of 146 is a career high.
It’s probably no coincidence that he’ll turn 27 in August, the age forecasters have pegged as the likely peak for most players. Informed by that, no doubt a few spoilsports already mourn the Angelos dollars spent on Jones when he’ll be 32. But the next couple of seasons should look very good for an O’s franchise that hasn’t had a center fielder this good since Brady Anderson’s run in the 1990s and that had nothing to compare beforehand.
After all, 17 home runs from your center fielder a little more than a third of the way through the year? Nice, very nice. However, it’s also good for just the third-highest tally among major league center fielders so far, and Jones probably ranks that high only because Matt Kemp is out on an excused absence on the disabled list. Josh Hamilton is out in front of all stick-bearing bipeds with 22 taters to his name, and Jones’ homer came the same day that Curtis Granderson hit yet another home run for the Yankees, his 18th.
So that’s three center fielders who could wind up with 50-homer seasons ... plus Kemp and however many he could hit. Where are we, back in the days of Willie, Mickey and Duke?
But those are just four guys, and we’re talking only home runs so far. For all the headlines Hamilton, Kemp, Granderson and Jones have already generated, you have to get into the tremendous season Andrew McCutchen is having for Pittsburgh or the just-reactivated Austin Jackson has put up for the Tigers. Hamilton and Granderson are the two on the “wrong” side of 27; the others are all just heading into their primes.
Mike Trout is “finally” here to stay, a couple of months shy of his 21st birthday, and he very well could be the best of the bunch ... except he might not even be the best teen phenom center fielder in baseball right now, because Bryce Harper is playing center field for the Nationals, and he’s proving that’s something else he can do much better than anyone might have reasonably expected of him already.
But even the ex-prospects are coming around. Dexter Fowler is at long last delivering on his blue-chipper billing for the Rockies, slugging .544. Is that a headline? No, because in this crowd, he’s just another guy, joining the Mariners’ Michael Saunders on an “oh yeah, I guess he came around” list.
There’s also a gaggle of top-of-the-order types having great years. Michael Bourn? He’s posting a .368 OBP from the leadoff slot for the Braves -- a huge part of the reason they’re third in the National League in scoring. Alejandro De Aza is having a scrapheap superfind season for the White Sox, posting a .389 OBP as the everyday leadoff man Juan Pierre could only dream of being. You’d be hard-pressed to meet folks beyond Chicago’s South Side who’ve noticed.
What’s worth noting is that all these guys have OPS+ marks above 110. A total of 16 center fielders do so far this season. That’s why I’m bemused by the concept of average not meaning quite the same thing for center fielders these days. Center fielders as a group posted a 104 OPS+ in 2011 and 101 in 2010, but right now, major league center fielders are posting a collective 110 OPS+. It's probably no coincidence that the center fielder with the worst OPS+, Marlon Byrd, was designated for assignment Saturday.
What this adds up to is that center field is moving up in the world. Among the position-playing positions, center fielders currently rank behind only the right fielders (115 OPS+) for production and are even a bit better than the first basemen (109). While MLB-wide offense is essentially flat this year relative to last, the center fielders as a group are doing better, a lot better.
Now, think on all that, even with Hamilton and Kemp and Jones having hogged the headlines, with Harper shining and Trout breaking through. Adam Jones is enjoying his moment in the sun with the promise of so many more to come. Call it a leap of faith, but I put all of that together, and I don’t think it’s out of line to suggest that we’re entering a new golden age of center-field superstars, one that isn’t dependent on just one player or one in each league, but one in which, compared to the recent past, most teams really are better off than they were.
Sure, that might defy the notion of what constitutes “average.” But maybe we’re just lucky enough to be watching the game at a time when, as Garrison Keillor might have it, maybe all the center fielders are above average.
PHOTO OF THE DAY
OK, let's be brutally honest here about Jon Lester's complete game 6-1 victory on Monday night: It came against the Seattle Mariners. A lot of pitchers look pretty good against Seattle.
Nonetheless, it was Boston's first nine-inning complete game of the season and first since Josh Beckett threw a shutout last June. In fact, Beckett's shutout was Boston's only nine-inning complete game in 2011.
So it was a good sign that Lester went the distance (he did pitch eight innings in a 3-1 loss to Toronto back in his second start). For a guy who has had difficulty keeping his pitch counts down, he threw 119 pitches. He didn't walk anybody, although he threw first-pitch strikes to just 15 of 34 hitters. He struck out six, which at least was an improvement over his past two starts when he put away just five batters in 11 innings. I don't think we suddenly say the Jon Lester of 2008 through August 2011 is back, but it's a small step forward.
The Red Sox, of course, began the day in last place in the American League East. The Angels and Phillies also began the day in last place in their divisions. All three teams are under .500 and looking for small positives. Lester throws well against the Mariners? Hey, that's a positive. Joe Blanton beats the Astros? That's a positive. Small steps.
It has me wondering: Which of these teams -- all World Series contenders back in March -- is the best bet to take the big steps and reach the postseason? Let's backtrack a bit first.
Here were the odds to win the World Series for the three teams at the start of the season, from a certain gambling website:
Red Sox: 10-1
And the current odds:
Red Sox: 14-1
I'm actually surprised those odds haven't fallen a bit more, but it's a reminder that we're not even at the quarter pole yet.
Here were the preseason odds to make the playoffs that ran on ESPN Insider, via Dan Szymborski's ZiPS system:
Red Sox: 61.1 percent
Angels: 68.1 percent
Phillies: 62.2 percent
ESPN's panel of baseball personnel was even more optimistic about the Angels and Phillies. Here were the playoff percentages from the 50-person voting panel back on Opening Day:
Red Sox: 32 percent
Angels: 92 percent
Phillies: 86 percent
Not only were the Angels an overwhelming pick to the make the playoffs, 18 of the 50 voters picked them to win the World Series. Interesting that while Dan's numbers-based projected rated the three teams' playoff odds pretty similarly, the Red Sox were viewed in much less regard by the human prognosticators.
And now, as each team sits under .500? The current playoff odds via Coolstandings.com that run on ESPN.com:
Red Sox: 29.8 percent
Angels: 17.8 percent
Phillies: 31.5 percent
Clay Davenport also calculates projected playoffs odds. His system still likes the Red Sox in particular (percentages entering Monday's games):
Red Sox: 65.9 percent
Angels: 20.8 percent
Phillies: 51.6 percent
Clay projects Boston winning 88 games. Maybe his system views Lester as a Cy Young contender.
Now, this is where I pick which of these three teams will make the playoffs. Of course, all three could make it; not a big surprise if that happens. But if I had to pick one team, it's the Phillies. "Baseball Today" podcast host/KaraBlog author/SweetSpot contributor Eric Karabell says I can't do this; he says I've been bagging on the Phillies too much. He says I have to pick the Angels. I think Karabell is misremembering a few things. After all, I did have the Phillies to win the division and was one of just four of those ESPN folks to have the Angels missing the playoffs.
Look, the Red Sox can pound the old leather. My favorite stat: They have 100 doubles, 24 more than the Royals and at least 40 more than half the teams in baseball. The Angels have the advantage of playing the Mariners and A's 36 times this year, still have that great-on-paper rotation, and you know Albert Pujols will go on a tear at some point (although maybe we don't know that).
But I still see too many question marks on those teams. I need to see Lester and Beckett pitch several good games in a row. I need Vernon Wells and Erick Aybar and a few others hitting for the Angels. So here are five quick reasons I'm voting for the Phillies.
1. National League parity.
The Phillies, Brewers and Diamondbacks each won at least 94 games last season, but there's a high degree of possibility that no team will win that many in 2012. Heck, no team may win 90. This suggests the two wild cards may only have to win 85 or 86 games or so. Considering the mediocrity we've seen in the NL Central and NL West divisions outside the Cardinals and Dodgers, it seems like a good bet that two wild cards will come out of the NL East.
2. The Phillies' offense is bad ... but so is much pretty much every other team's offense in the NL.
The Phillies rank ninth in the NL in runs scored. They ranked seventh a year ago. Yes, Carlos Ruiz and Juan Pierre are leading the attack right now. The point isn't so much that this is suddenly going to turn into an offensive juggernaut once Ryan Howard and Chase Utley return and once Jimmy Rollins, Hunter Pence and Shane Victorino start hitting better, but merely to suggest that the Phillies' offense isn't a huge albatross when you compare it across the league.
3. They have Jonathan Papelbon.
OK, Charlie Manuel hasn't exactly done a good job of using him in high-leverage situations, but in a season where closers are falling prey to injuries and blown saves everywhere you look, Papelbon will still prove a small advantage over 162 games.
4. Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels.
I still wouldn't trade them for another trio in baseball.
5. Blanton and Vance Worley.
Blanton lowered his ERA to 2.96 with seven strong innings against Houston on Monday. He has a 35/7 strikeout/walk ratio and has allowed just two home runs in 48.2 innings. Worley is once again proving skeptics wrong, with a 3.07 ERA and 45/15 strikeout/walk ratio in 44 innings. The rotation is five-deep and that depth will slowly show up over 162 games.
What do you think? If you haven't, vote in the poll at the top of the page.
PHOTO OF THE DAY
My parents still love watching baseball, even Seattle Mariners baseball. I called them Monday evening to see if they watched Philip Humber's perfect game on Saturday and my dad said he watched a few innings, went out to the mow the lawn and came back just in time to see the bottom of the ninth.
He then proceeded to complain about Chone Figgins ("He just can't hit.") and Justin Smoak ("Most good hitters don't take three or four years to figure things out."). Hey, he's right. And you can't blame him; he's been watching inept offense for two-plus years now. But then he said something that sums up a problem not unique to the Mariners:
"You know, even with their great pitching staff the Phillies can't win either."
Indeed, the Philadelphia Phillies entered Monday's game against the Arizona Diamondbacks with a 2.46 ERA. Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels and Vance Worley had allowed just 22 runs in their 13 starts. It doesn't take a Ph.D. in Sabermetrics to realize that's fewer than two runs per start. But after losing 9-5 to Arizona (made closer with a five-run outburst in the ninth inning) the Phillies are now 7-10. That's the same record as the Mariners, and the Phillies have scored just 48 runs, an average of 2.82 runs per game.
That's right, the Philadelphia Phillies -- the five-time defending National League East champs -- have become the Seattle Mariners.
OK, OK ... I kid, Phillies fans. But the Phillies have scored 12 fewer runs than the Mariners, a team whose OPS leader is Brendan Ryan, a guy with a .190 batting average. We all know the laundry list of the Phillies' problems -- Ryan Howard and Chase Utley on the disabled list; Jimmy Rollins hitting .242 with no power (two doubles, no home runs) and just four walks; Placido Polanco hitting .185 with one extra-base hit and one RBI; John Mayberry Jr. hitting .205 with no walks and 14 strikeouts. And so on. In fact, it's fair to ask: Where would the Phillies be without Juan Pierre and Ty Wigginton?
Man, those 45-homer seasons from Ryan Howard seem like a long time ago.
What I'm wondering: How many runs do the Phillies need to score to contend for the playoffs? After all, offense is still 50 percent of the game.
Entering Monday's action, the National League was hitting a collective .242/.310/.376 -- a .686 OPS that is 24 points lower than 2011's numbers. That figure takes us back to the offensive levels of 1988 to 1992, when the NL OPS figures were .673, .678, .704, .689 and .684. So one way of looking at this: Let's assume it will take 87 wins to make the playoffs. What's the lowest run total for an NL team from that 1988-1992 period that won at least 87 games?
For you baseball historians out there, it shouldn't come as a surprise that the 1988 Dodgers scored just 628 runs, or 3.88 runs per game. That actually put the Dodgers sixth in a 12-team league. The Dodgers allowed 544 runs and finished 94-67, exceeding their projected record by three wins.
Back to the Phillies. They're on pace to score 457 runs. Obviously, that won't cut it, but of course the offense won't be that bad all season. It will pick up, that we can predict. In 2011, they allowed 529 runs, the lowest full-season total since the 1969 Orioles allowed 517. So if they match the '88 Dodgers' total of 628 runs, they're still in good shape and project as a 93-win team, assuming the same run prevention as 2011.
What will it take to score 628 runs? They'd have to score 580 runs over the final 145 games, or 4.0 runs per game. Or just about what the National League average has been so far -- 3.94 runs per game entering Monday's game.
But just like the offense is likely to improve moving forward, the pitching staff probably won't match last season's historic stinginess. With Cliff Lee heading to the DL over the weekend with a strained oblique, we see the precariousness of relying so much on a few starting pitchers. The Diamondbacks lit up Kyle Kendrick, Lee's replacement, for 11 hits and seven runs in three innings on Monday. Kendrick had a nice season in 2011, posting a 3.22 ERA over 114.2 innings, including 15 starts. Kendrick, however, lives on a fine line of success. Among 145 pitchers last season with at least 100 innings, his strikeout rate ranked 138th. So as he steps in for Lee -- who may miss a month, meaning four or five starts -- don't expect a 3.22 ERA from Kendrick.
That's just one reason to expect the staff to allow a few more runs. Let's say 30 more than a year ago. That's 559 runs. Now that '88 Dodgers total of 628 runs projects to a win total of ... 89.5.
That might still be enough to squeak into the playoffs. Four runs a game. That's all you need, Phillies fans.
But what if the Phillies average 3.8 runs per game the rest of the season instead of 4.0? That projects to 599 runs scored.
And 86 wins. One run every five games. A couple of extra bloops or bleeders per week. A few ground balls with eyes. The difference between making the playoffs and going home.
PHOTO OF THE DAY
Gomes may not be Carlos Quentin or Ron Hunt or the immortal Hughie Jennings when it comes to taking one for the team, but he does rate 58th all-time among batters with 1,200 or more career plate appearances by getting hit by a pitch 2.2 percent of the time. So maybe, if anyone dreamed the impossible dream of being a winner by taking one for the team, it might just be the transiently heroic Jonny Gomes.
Second: C’mon blue! Need a reason to beat the replay drum? Wednesday night’s Phillies-Marlins game gave us something avoidable yet dumb: Juan Pierre was out trying to steal second in the bottom of the third, but the fallible human charged with making the call blew it, giving the Phillies a shot to do some damage. They exploited that in full when Placido Polanco hit a ball that deflected off Josh Johnson to head into the hole at short, a hole emptied out because Reyes was moving to where the ball should have gone while Hanley Ramirez was covering third -- because Pierre had been ruled safe. Pierre scored on that infield single, and that combination of events -- umpire error plus a changed set of defensive responsibilities -- opened the floodgates.
Third: Box score confusion. Nothing beats a baseball bloodbath, and the 17-8 slugfest between the Giants and Rockies in Denver was a nice bit of mile-high mayhem as far as that goes. But the ugliest part came in a blown rundown in the bottom of the fifth, when Ramon Hernandez belted a single that plated Todd Helton, advanced Michael Cuddyer, who got hung up between home and third in a rundown. But Brett Pill committed two errors on the same play -- first with a wild throw home and then again in a flubbed rundown. Who do you think had a worse night of it in the aftermath: Pill, Giants manager Bruce Bochy or the official scorer?
Home: Tweet(s) of the Day. Because smart teams have a play book and they use it ... and smart people like Sam Miller noticed:
Tampa Bay Rays baseball i.imgur.com/O34IJ.gif
-- Sam Miller (@SamMillerBP) April 11, 2012
@cistulli RJ tells me that's just a thing they're always doing
-- Sam Miller (@SamMillerBP) April 11, 2012
@cistulli Some sort of defense chart, yeahChristina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.
-- Sam Miller (@SamMillerBP) April 11, 2012
1. We’ve got different teams representing the NL in this season’s World Series, and neither is a stranger to October baseball. But what’s the theme of the NL? Is parity a good thing?
2. Is acquiring Bobby Abreu a good thing? While I can’t possibly understand Cleveland’s possible interest in the one-time OBP machine, Mark takes a different angle.
3. All baseball fans should know the unbridled joy when their favorite team signs Juan Pierre. #Sarcasm. Hey, I mock because I care.
4. Mark and I discuss our recent defensive runs saved draft, which was a blast and we’ll follow throughout the season. No, really, we did it and SweetSpot blogger Dave Schoenfield wishes he had!
5. Among the topics in email was how the Rays will treat James Shields and B.J. Upton, John Olerud’s batting helmet and what happens to a pitcher after he allows a home run on the first pitch of the game! We have answers!
So download and listen to a packed Friday episode of the Baseball Today podcast, and return with us on Monday as we get you ready for a huge week of relevant baseball!
Adam Dunn hit .159 (lowest ever for a player with 450 plate appearances), Alex Rios had a .265 OBP (one of the 10 lowest figures ever for an outfielder with 500 PAs), Gordon Beckham hit .230 with a .296 OBP, Brent Morel posted a .287 OBP and Juan Pierre played 157 games.
That, my friends, is a lot of bad hitting.
The bad news is all those guys except Pierre are back. The good news is that they can't do any worse. The White Sox lost longtime starter Mark Buehrle and outfielder Carlos Quentin (second on the team in home runs and RBIs in 2011) via free agency. In their spots will be Chris Sale, moving from the bullpen, and prospect Dayan Viciedo. The rotation will count on better seasons from John Danks (4.37 ERA) and Jake Peavy (4.92 in 18 starts) and a repeat performance from 2011 surprise Philip Humber. Gavin Floyd fills out what could be a solid rotation, although one lacking a No. 1-type ace.
The bullpen is minus closer Sergio Santos, traded to the Blue Jays, but the White Sox believe they have depth with Matt Thornton, Jesse Crain, rookie Addison Reed and Will Ohman.
But it's the offense that will decide the fate of the 2012 White Sox. Do you believe in comebacks? If so, maybe you'll take the over on the betting line of 77.5 wins.
1. Ugh, Ryan Braun, are you kidding me? We both want to see how this ends up before reaching full judgment, but regardless, it’s a shame one of baseball’s top stars has seen his reputation sullied. We also discuss the MVP award subject.
2. Meanwhile, good news for the Brewers, as they sign Aramis Ramirez to handle third base. Then again, one of us doesn’t think that news is all that good. We also deal with some of the other signings and trades, including Trevor Cahill to Arizona.
3. In our Simon Says segment, Mark discusses his latest project, delving into the top defensive games of the season, and also waxes poetic about Burke Badenhop. Hey, relief pitchers should be inexpensive!
4. Our ridiculous email of the week dealt with the San Francisco Giants and their litany of first basemen, but we only received the email thanks to our trusty, um, intern.
5. Our special guest of the week was Sam Miller, from Baseball Prospectus and the Orange County Register, and the "Mark Simon of the West Coast" was a good sport about the serious topics (Angels and Albert Pujols) and the not-so-serious ones (whither Mark DeRosa!).
So download and listen to Tuesday’s Baseball Today podcast, because it’s the right thing to do! We’ll be back next Tuesday with Keith Law. Have a great week!
Keep in mind, this is sorted by bunt attempts, not successful sac bunts, so the nine guys who have attempted to bunt the most often are not always the same guys who lead the league in successful sac hits.
The other thing to remember is that the tally of plate appearances where a hitter has laid one down include bunting for base hits and bunting to advance runners, so when you see that Juan Pierre’s 16-for-32, that means he has 16 bunt singles, but doesn’t necessarily mean he was trying to bunt for a hit 32 times. And because this was fairly quick and dirty, we didn’t tease out ROE results. However gritty the info, it’s interesting for the sense it gives us of which players are dropping one down most frequently, and what this also tells us about the managers they play for.
Looking at the top nine of baseball’s bunting fiends, we lead off with the White Sox’s Pierre, just like they do. Looking at these totals, he’s clearly the class of the little man’s game when it comes to placing pitches up the lines and around the mound. It has always been a centerpiece of his game, with the attending results in base hits, runs driven in and what some refer to as productive outs.
It’s worth noting that Pierre doesn’t just lead all position players in sac bunts, but all the pitchers as well. You can take that as a reminder of one of those pesky facts that NL-brand fans don’t often care to cite -- that you’ll usually find AL managers bunting more often with the people who can actually hit for a living, and not just with pitchers because what else can you do with them? This year’s team that has gotten the most sac bunts from its hitters? Ned Yost’s Royals squad. Between his fellow former Brewer Alcides Escobar (with a remarkable 17 sacrifices in 21 attempts) and Getz, it’s enough to make you wonder if Yost misses managing in Milwaukee.
Between Pierre and Getz you’ve got a group of guys who actively attempt to bunt for base hits: The Marlins’ Emilio Bonifacio and the Angels’ infield assault duo of Eric Aybar and Peter Bourjos. You can probably also put the token Twin on the list, Alexi Casilla, in this category as well. Ron Gardenhire might not have Nick Punto, and whatever value designated bench bunter Matt Tolbert has seems to have dried up after 2009, but Gardenhire's past fascination with the bunt still found an outlet with Casilla this season.
The pair of playoff-bound bunters should get some additional attention, despite the tactic’s associations with White Sox and Royals and Twins. The Yankees’ Gardner isn’t just an OBP hero and everybody’s favorite underrated Yankee (if that isn’t automatically oxymoronic), he’s also someone equally adept at pushing bunts for base hits or to move runners up. That’s something he has in common with Rangers speedster Elvis Andrus; if you remember the impact Andrus had within last year’s ALCS on both sides of the ball, this is just one piece of his value as far as being able to push sac bunts and base hits and exploit his speed to good effect.
For the curious, the best bunting pitchers in terms of raw numbers are the Phillies’ Roy Halladay and the Nats’ Livan Hernandez. Where Doc’s really only had two years to work on his craft, he’s already come fairly far as a pitcher capable of helping his own cause, ripping his first two career extra-base hits when he isn’t laying one down. Livan owns a career .528 OPS as a hitter (probably good enough to put him in the Twins’ infield), but bunting’s just another component in his batsmanship.
Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.
We closed another fine week on the Baseball Today podcast as Mark Simon and I discussed many interesting and fun stats and topics, including these:
1. The Phillies topped the Brewers, but the names will probably be different if they meet in October. Does this series have more significance than most?
2. On an otherwise slow Thursday, Ian Kennedy continued his winning ways... so why isn’t he getting more Cy Young consideration?
3. Juan Pierre picks up hit No. 2,000, but how should the speedy outfielder’s career -- and season -- be interpreted?
4. We discuss the baseball term “golden sombrero” and its potential relevance to a recent Baltimore Orioles game.
5. Two notable weekend series could make the pennant races a lot more interesting, but only if the Rays and Cardinals simply don’t lose.
Plus: Excellent emails, more on Jerome Williams, Justin Verlander and misunderstood closer Jose Valverde, one-out victories and other wild stats and much more -- including Super Bowl picks! -- on a fun and packed Friday edition of Baseball Today. Enjoy your weekend!
It’s better news still for the Kitties if what victories are won between the Sox and the Tribe are pyrrhic, and Tuesday’s result certainly looks like that sort of outcome. Because of the extra innings created by bad umpiring, worse outfield defense and Sergio Santos’ blown save in the ninth, both teams had to use their entire bullpens, with the Indians finally reaching into their rotation to plug in David Huff as their eighth reliever on the evening. This was not what the Indians traded for when they acquired Ubaldo Jimenez, but after receiving two bad starts in three, it’s what they have to show for the deal so far.
Even though the Sox delivered 22 hits, including five triples -- their most since the Black Sox were still on the field for the South Side back in 1920 -- the remarkable thing is that the game was a draining thing to get through to reach a decision, reflecting the mediocrity of the teams and the division.
For the Sox, a big part of the reason they’re struggling to be anything more than a .500 team is their offense. Dan Szymborski did a nifty piece a few weeks back for Insider on the lack of balance in the Tigers’ lineup, because Jim Leyland’s club was getting horribly subpar performance from several lineup slots. Now that we’re down to the season’s final six weeks, the White Sox have their rivals beat for imbalance, because while Paul Konerko’s delivering another down-ballot MVP campaign and Carlos Quentin’s enjoying a great comeback campaign, there are four lineup slots delivering awful offense. Consider what the Sox are getting from their second and third basemen, their center and left fielders, and Adam Dunn, the man sharing first base and DH duties with Konerko:
Using Alex Rios in center, Brent Morel at third, Gordon Beckham at second, Juan Pierre in left and Dunn if you consider him a DH, the only thing keeping the Sox from having MLB’s worst-hitting performers at three everyday lineup slots is Chone Figgins’ horrendous season for the Mariners at third base. Rarely has the cost for breaking in a pair of youngsters like Beckham and Morel been so steep, although three years and more than 1,300 plate appearances into his career, Becks has become a long-term investment as bad as most mortgages these days. Although the Sox aren’t the worst when it comes to scoring fewer runs than expected -- they've scored 16 fewer runs than expected, given their overall hitting numbers -- they’re close.
The irony is that in Tuesday’s game the Sox got performance out of their non-performers, a reminder that even the worst among the best ballplayers can play. Morel had his first-ever four-hit day; it took seven at-bats, but it counts. Beckham set himself up to score the winning run with a one-out double in the 14th -- which invited some boos from Sox fans greedily asking for a sixth triple, but it was enough. And Pierre was the man of the hour -- whether the second or sixth or both in Tuesday’s extended action -- after hitting a rare homer off Jimenez in the fourth, and decisively slapping the winning single to left. Even Rios chipped in, coming off the bench as a defensive replacement for Carlos Quentin and hitting one of the triples -- only to wind up stranded at third base.
Pierre took the outcome -- and his homer -- with good humor, noting that when he stepped up with Beckham and Morel aboard in the bottom of the 14th, he was wondering if any Ozzieball was in the offing, but, “I didn’t see the squeeze sign.” About his 16th career home run, he observed, “I can’t explain it. Not too many of them come off my bat. I was just trying to put it in play. Once -- and if -- I get to 20, we can start talking about 25.”
Pierre might also have sounded a bit like a stathead when he dispelled any notion that he’s doing anything differently in the second half while hitting .336/.369/.426. “I’m not trying to do too much. I’m not doing anything different. I’ve looked at the tape and I’m doing everything the same.”
So much for the hot hand if Pierre is just keepin’ on keeping on, but as a guy who lives and dies on ball-in-play outcomes, what would you expect? It’s the sound of the voice of experience talking about hitting the way he knows how after a long night.
Can the Sox fix their lineup-wide problem? Not easily or soon, which might help explain GM Kenny Williams’ glum outlook. Thanks to the gambles Williams has already taken, they’re stuck with Dunn and Rios through 2014 for more than $80 million combined. If Morel and Beckham don’t step up, the Sox won’t be getting much help from home-grown talent at pre-arbitration prices -- pushing the Sox toward free-agent fixes who might be no better than Dunn or Mark Teahen. Pierre is free agency-bound, but given his $8.5 million price tag for 2011, even offering him arbitration to potentially recoup draft picks would be a risk not worth running. That’s the wreckage of a win-now team that isn’t.
Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.
So it might seem more than a little surprising that Gibby never got to participate in an All-Star Game as a player. A number of obvious factors contributed. First, as a corner outfielder, he was always just one more very good player in a very crowded field. Second, he didn’t exactly have an effortless rise to the top -- when Gibby finally became a star in ’84 (in his age-27 season), that was after he’d been knocking around in a Tigers uniform for years.
But finally and most importantly, Gibson usually had the “misfortune” of having a number of All-Star-worthy teammates, and that can get in the way of being honored when the selection process demands you include somebody from every team. In ’84 alone, the Tigers’ entire up-the-middle combo were on the All-Star team, as catcher Lance Parrish, second baseman Lou Whitaker, shortstop Alan Trammell, and center fielder Chet Lemon all garnered inclusion. Were Gibby a Cleveland Indian instead of a Tiger, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.
You can also look at these so-called Uninvited by straightforward statistical criteria. Take Todd Zeile, a contributor to four different playoff teams, all of which had the distinction of losing to the Yankees -- the ’96 Orioles in the LCS, the ’98 and ’99 Rangers in the LDS, and the 2000 Mets in the World Series. Per Elias Sports Bureau, in the All-Star game era there have been 97 players with 250 career home runs and 2,000 hits, and Zeile is the only one who did not make an All-Star game.
Granted, Zeile is on the low end of both career totals with 2,004 hits and 253 homers, and the oddity of his playing for 11 different teams in the span of 12 years over his career probably did him no special favors. Add in a spotty defensive reputation at third base, and you can see how he fell through the cracks.
However, neither Zeile nor Gibson (with 255 career homers) has the honor of being the Never-Star with the most home runs. That title belongs to Tim Salmon with 299, although one of the best all-time Angels will almost certainly get passed by Pat Burrell (292 and counting).
Among highest career hit tallies, on-base machine Tony Phillips appears to lead with 2,023, but as one-time All-Star Eddie Yost can attest, being one of the game’s best walking men doesn’t necessarily draw the glamor of an All-Star invite, and Phillips’ positional flexibility made him an odd fit. Nowadays, Phillips would probably be a lock as a reserve selection because of that flexibility, but such are the vicissitudes of fate and bad timing.
Phillips won’t hold this honor for much longer, however, as Orlando Cabrera may have him beat by next week, since he has 2,018 career hits. Juan Pierre (1,927 hits) deserves mention in this regard. Switch over to batting average, and Hal Morris (.304) and Rusty Greer (.305) are the more recent notables, but Barney McCoskey (.312) has the highest career average for a Never-Star.
We should not ignore the men on the mound, but the list of criteria winds up a bit shorter. The highest career wins tally for a pitcher never invited to the All-Star Game appears to be the 185 won by Mike Torrez. Torrez is a perfect example of the kind of starter who doesn’t get voted onto an All-Star team. He was a mid-rotation workhorse, not an ace, and would have had a 12-year run of 30 start seasons if not for the strike of ’81. He won 20 games once, with the ’75 Orioles, but even then finished second to ace Jim Palmer (23). Perhaps most problematic for his gaining any positive notoriety was his wildness, as he averaged more than four walks per nine on his career, barely any more strikeouts.
Behind Torrez, you find Danny Darwin with 171 wins and 182 losses. Darwin essentially made a career out of being a swing man, starting more than 30 games just three times over a 21-year career. He could have been a rotation regular more often than that, of course, but he was so useful in a relief role that it seemed like his managers were always willing to shunt him into the bullpen. His ERA title in 1990, while starting 17 games and relieving in 31, remains something of a contemporary oddity in the statistical record.
After that, you get into a group of starters like Torrez. Although he won 168 games, Cardinals great Bob Forsch never got to represent his team in an All-Star Game, but the Birds’ great inning eater had just one 20-win season while pitching in three different World Series. The late Paul Splitorff was the Royals’ analog to Forsch, spending his entire career with K.C. while winning 166 games; as a workhorse who relied on his defense instead of piling up strikeouts (he averaged just 3.7 K/9 on his career), he was a lamentably overlooked star despite being a key element to the Royals’ contending teams of the late ’70s.
All of which goes towards observing something fairly obvious this time of year: Who winds up an All-Star isn’t always fair. It takes some peculiar misfortune to wind up never getting invited, of course, but it happens. A lot of moving around doesn’t look like it does a player any favors -- witness Zeile or the well-traveled Torrez -- but sometimes it happens to players who rate among their team’s all-time greats, as you might say of Salmon or Splitorff.
Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.
So, a low-water mark was set in 2010, the worst leadoff OBP in 32 seasons … until this spring's action. In 2011, leadoff hitters have managed to get on base at a .325 clip. It’s especially bad in the American League, where leadoff men were eking out a .312 OBP through Thursday’s action. More than a quarter of the way in, we’re still waiting for both leagues to flip the ignition, but without any ignitors, let alone the original Paul Molitor, how is that supposed to happen?
Some of that is a matter of the selection of leadoff likelies available to their teams: Jacoby Ellsbury is not a big-time walking man, for example, and wishing he was won’t make it so, but it doesn't make him ineffective. However, in a league and time where Rickey Henderson is still retired, finding people who can draw ball four hasn’t exactly been easy, which is probably why Juan Pierre or even Scott Podsednik keep getting opportunities. Some of it can also be institutional -- last year, the Rays came up with a perfectly functional creative adaptation, moving John Jaso and B.J. Upton into and out of the role as Joe Maddon played matchups. But this year they got carried away with the Sam Fuld phenomenon, only to learn what they already knew from his projections, which is that for a leadoff hitter he makes a heck of a defensive replacement.
Admittedly, when we think about leadoff hitters, it's easy to stick with happier memories, of the guys who are or were truly great at it: Rickey and Tim Raines in the '80s for example, or Ichiro for the past decade. You can take things down a notch and think fondly of Ray Durham or Tony Phillips, or from the current generation of players get sentimental about guys like Brian Roberts and Chone Figgins. And from any of these guys, you generally knew what to expect: OBPs that were .350 or higher, plenty of walks, and stolen-base totals in the 20-50 range.
But even then, there were always the other guys, the way the other half lived with their leadoff options, which pulled leadoff OBPs down around .333 year after year. If you were around in 1981, you had a rare opportunity to see one of the worst leadoff hitters of all time in action, achieving what would be, even by his standards, a career lowlight. Alfredo Griffin posted a .236 OBP leading off for the Blue Jays for the bulk of a season that was blighted by a strike. It's a mark for single-season leadoff putrescence that hasn't been underwhelmed in the 30 years since.
We can get into origin myths if you like, and ask where the great leadoff men came from and now, where they went, and whether or not we're bereft of truly elite leadoff men in this particular generation of players -- beyond admirable dinosaurs like Ichiro, of course. I wonder if we aren’t just stuck in the Michael Bourn generation. That might not seem entirely fair to Bourn, because he's one of the better leadoff hitters by today’s standards. He has posted OBPs better than league average in 2009 and 2010, after all. He's off to a slow start this season, but at least he's reliably within spitting distance of walking once every ten times and he runs well. That might represent a new, lower standard of what will do, but perhaps this isn't a burden to be Bourn, but a reflection of a changed game. Bourn makes an appropriate symbol for a time when teams are getting used to living with less offense.
Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.
2. Francisco Liriano. As bad as Minnesota's offense has been (only the Padres have scored fewer runs), I'm just as worried about Liriano, so good a year ago but struggling with his control in 2011 (18 walks in 23 2/3 innings). There were trade rumors surrounding Liriano in spring training, which makes you wonder if the Twins had concerns about his health. His average fastball velocity is down from 93.7 to 92.1, which isn't a major concern ... for now. Considering the state of their offense, the Twins need Liriano to return to ace-like production.
4. The Rangers bullpen. Darren O'Day just landed on the 60-day DL with a torn labrum in his hip. Even when Neftali Feliz returns from the DL, there could be issues. The pen has compiled a 4.02 ERA, 24th in the majors so far, but I point to a mediocre 44/30 SO/BB ratio as a sign that this pen is treading a fine line. Throw in the ages of Darren Oliver and Arthur Rhodes and you have another red flag. And while much has been made about Nolan Ryan urging Rangers starters to work deeper into games, the reality was Texas starters were just 11th in the AL in innings pitched in 2010. They'll need a deep and effective bullpen.
5. White Sox on-base percentage. Everybody has been focused on the Sox' bullpen problems, but I'm wondering if the Chicago offense is overrated. Yes, the Sox will hit plenty of long balls, but how many of those will be solo home runs? Juan Pierre, A.J. Pierzynski and Alexei Ramirez are notorious non-walkers and rookie third baseman Brent Morel has yet to draw a free pass. Oddly, Alex Rios isn't hitting (.163, no homers), but has 10 walks.
Follow David Schoenfield on Twitter at @dschoenfield. Follow the SweetSpot blog at @espn_sweet_spot.
Colletti has held the management reigns for more than five years now, and some clear patterns have emerged. He values depth. He values veteran leadership. He wants young players to succeed, but he’d much rather do it on his own timetable. One of the funnier revelations I’ve had is that while Dodger fans think Colletti took too long to commit to then-kids like Andre Ethier or Matt Kemp, Colletti would tell you that he wishes they could have had more time in the minor leagues to develop. You can imagine that there would be some fun arguments at the imaginary Dodgers dinner table.
Then there were the players who would seem to have no other function other than to be clubhouse gents and gems. The Dodgers would give money to players staring retirement right in the face -- last year, it was Garret Anderson and Brad Ausmus -- and justify it in large part by the examples they set as professionals. Nothing against these guys personally, but there’s a word for baseball men who can teach but can no longer play. They’re called coaches -- or at least they should be.
All this might be enough to conjure up an image of Colletti’s Dodger clubhouse as a local branch of the VFW -- guys hanging out, sharing war stories while hazing the rebellious small-fry. But that wouldn’t tell the whole story.
It doesn’t get discussed much in a broader context, but Colletti has also taken in guys who have worn problems on their sleeves. Vicente Padilla was practically chased out of Texas, but not only did Colletti pick him up from the midseason junkyard in 2009, he has signed him as a free agent twice since, including once shortly after Padilla shot himself in the leg.
In his first year as Dodger GM, Colletti traded away catcher Dioner Navarro when he was a 22-year-old with promise, in order to clear the path for Russell Martin. This winter, Colletti signed Navarro to a $1 million contract when he was a 26-year-old who packed his bags and left the Tampa Bay Rays after they didn’t include him on the active postseason roster, rather than stay and support the team.
Ronald Belisario will be back, visas willing, despite being late to the past two spring trainings and having a DUI arrest and rehab stint on his ledger.
Meanwhile, Blake DeWitt, who wowed even the irascible Larry Bowa with his work ethic, and Juan Pierre, who was considered the clubhouse MVP at one point, are among the good citizens who have been traded away in the past year.
In other words, the pattern to Colletti’s attitude toward the clubhouse is that there isn’t exactly a pattern. He’s wants a good mix off the field, but he’s not afraid to take a chance on a player that would upset that mix if he thinks he can help. Colletti asks the question, “Can they succeed in Los Angeles?” and comes up with an answer. That answer might sometimes perplex fans, but it isn’t dependent on the players being angels.
Jon Weisman writes about the Dodgers at Dodger Thoughts for ESPNLosAngeles.com.
In that sense, he’s living up to his billing (if not his salary). Pierre leads the American League this year with 29 steals (and his 78-percent success rate is fine). He’s the active leader in stolen bases by nearly 100.
And yet, five times this year, with Pierre on first and nobody out in late-inning situations, Ozzie Guillen has called for a sacrifice bunt to get him to second.
Guillen isn’t alone when it comes to this self-defeating strategy. In a game against the White Sox on Wednesday, Kansas City manager Ned Yost did the same thing with Chris Getz, with a one-run lead in the eighth inning. Not only is Getz one of the game’s smartest basestealers (34-for-38 in his career, in 153 games), but he had successfully run on A.J. Pierzynski earlier in the game.
Did I mention Scott Linebrink was on the mound? In his time with the White Sox, baserunners have been successful on 17 of 18 attempts with Linebrink on the mound.
That’s another element that’s confusing about these particular moves. Often, the pitcher is a closer or setup man who usually enters games with the bases empty and isn’t quick to the plate. Back in May, Don Wakamatsu chose to bunt Ichiro Suzuki to second in the ninth inning off Fernando Rodney; a basestealer hadn’t been caught on Rodney's watch since 2007.
Ichiro didn’t score in May. Neither did Getz on Wednesday. There have been several other such cases this season (and these are only when the sacrificing batter actually got the bunt down).
Guillen just happens to be the biggest offender, and it doesn’t help that he got lucky the last time he tried it on June 24 against Atlanta. With no score in the bottom of the eighth, Pierre led off with a single. According to Win Expectancy, that increased Chicago’s chances of winning by 6.4 percent. With Takashi Saito and his inability to hold baserunners on the mound (opponents are 16-for-19 off Saito in his career), Alexei Ramirez followed with a first-pitch bunt, which lowered the chances of a White Sox winner by 2 percent. Ramirez did eventually score ... thanks to Paul Konerko's two-run homer.
Obviously, the bunt didn’t really come into play, but since it didn’t end up costing the Sox, it won’t exactly discourage him from trying it again.
Guillen and Pierre are the perfect posterboys for putting an end to this call. There may be some rare collision of circumstances that make it more palatable -- a pitcher who can hold runners like Mark Buehrle; or an extreme groundballer with a GIDP machine at the plate -- but in most cases, the pitcher is inherently unable to hold a runner close. If the guy at first makes his money because he can steal second, it makes no sense to forfeit his greatest strength when it's so well-suited to take advantage of an opponent's key weakness.
For baserunners, making the first out at third is worthy of a fine in kangaroo court. Maybe they can start hitting up the manager for cash when he makes the first out at the plate when no sacrifice is needed to move the runner. This might motivate Guillen, at the very least. He already has to sock away cash to pay MLB for post-ejection fines. How much more could he afford?