Wednesday, September 30, 2009
Players who've thrived for losing teams
By Jerry Crasnick
As the playoffs approach, Albert Pujols, Derek Jeter and several other major league stars are about to put some sterling accomplishments behind them and begin focusing on the pursuit of a World Series ring.
Some other players, in contrast, will soon have lots of time to reflect from the solitude of a duck blind or a fishing boat. Here's to the losers.
As ESPN Stats & Information researchers Jeremy Lundblad and Ryan McCrystal point out, no statistical achievement is too obscure to be chronicled. Did you know that Shin-Soo Choo recently became the first Cleveland right fielder to surpass 20 stolen bases since Von Hayes swiped 32 in 1982? Or that Luis Castillo (.366 at Citi Field) has a chance to become the first Mets player ever to lead the National League in batting average at home?
In this final regular-season installment of Starting 9, we pay tribute to other players who achieved noteworthy things on sub-.500 teams in 2009. We're leaving out Kansas City pitcher Zack Greinke, who's already received a ton of publicity this summer and might bag a bigger prize -- the American League Cy Young Award -- as his reward.
Achievement: Gonzalez joined Greg Vaughn, Phil Nevin and Ken Caminiti as the fourth Padre to hit 40 homers in a season.
Remember the flurry of activity surrounding Gonzalez at the trade deadline, when the Red Sox were trying to assemble a package to acquire the two-time All-Star from the Padres? San Diego has posted a 34-23 record since late July, leading general manager Kevin Towers to predict the team might be a dark-horse postseason candidate in 2010.
That can only help the chances of Gonzalez's staying put this winter. He's a natural fan favorite as a local boy, and he's under contract for a very reasonable $10.25 million over the next two seasons, so the Padres would have to be blown away to trade him.
"We had quite a few hits on him at the deadline and a lot of dialogue, but we're probably in a little different position today and so is Adrian," Towers said. "In the last two months we've gained enough momentum where we think we might be able to contend next year. It's not going to be as long a rebuilding process as we thought. And I think Adrian has kind of changed his thinking. I think he sees the light at the end of the tunnel."
Gonzalez enhanced his reputation as one of baseball's quiet superstars in 2009, becoming the first Padre to drive in 100 runs or more three straight years. That's not an easy feat, considering that San Diego has ranked 19th, 30th and 28th in the majors in runs scored in that span.
Gonzalez has also become adept at taking what opponents give him. He's drawn a career-high 110 walks this season, and 27 of his 40 homers have gone to center field or the opposite way.
"He has everything you look for in a premier first baseman," Towers said. "He's able to work through slumps. He's levelheaded, and he can make adjustments when teams start pitching him differently. You can tell when he comes to the plate that other clubs don't want him to beat them. They're better off just walking him."
Achievement: Dunn and Zimmerman became Washington's first 30-30 homer tandem since Frank Howard and Mike Epstein achieved the feat for the 1969 Senators.
Former Washington GM Jim Bowden was accused of overspending after signing Dunn to a two-year, $20 million deal last winter, but the expenditure looks quite sound in hindsight. Dunn remains an on-base machine, and he's enjoying life even more now that Arizona's Mark Reynolds is saddled with all those nagging "Why do you strike out so much?" questions.
Zimmerman, who turned 25 on Monday, is living up to his billing as Washington's resident franchise player. The Fielding Bible's plus-minus system ranks him as the second-best defensive third baseman in the game behind the Angels' Chone Figgins. And Zimmerman recently became the fifth player in MLB history to score 100 runs and drive in 100 for a 100-loss team.
Beyond the numbers, Washington manager Jim Riggleman is amazed by Zimmerman's attention to detail and the well-roundedness of his game.
"I have never seen him make a mistake on the field," Riggleman said. "I've seen him make an error. But as far as a mental mistake -- not taking the extra base when he should, or not advancing on a ball when he should -- never.
"I managed Tony Gwynn for two years, and I can say the same thing about him. As I've told people around here, Ryan has really had good coaching -- whether it was his father or his high school or college coaches. He's totally prepared to play the game, and he really has great instincts."
Achievement: Hill ranks first among major league middle infielders with 36 home runs and 334 total bases. He joined Alfonso Soriano and Bret Boone as the third American League second baseman to hit 35 homers in a season.
Hill came highly regarded when Toronto picked him 13th overall in the 2003 draft out of Louisiana State, but he's shown more power than the Blue Jays or anyone else anticipated. His 102 RBIs as a second baseman this season are the most by an AL player at the position since Boone drove in 117 runs in 2003.
"I think most everybody thought he was one of those 'Moneyball' picks who would be a solid player, but not a plus player," said an American League executive. "He has a good approach and a good swing, but I thought he would be a 16-18 homer guy -- max. I don't know where the power is coming from."
Hill's performance is even more impressive considering that he missed the final four months of the 2008 season with concussion-related issues. Hill and Adam Lind, both 26, will finish the season with 30 homers and 100 RBIs apiece. They've been among the few bright spots in a season that's gone progressively downhill since May 18. The Blue Jays peaked at 27-14, and have gone a dismal 47-70 since then.
Achievement: With his next double, Roberts will have 56 this season and break Lance Berkman's record for doubles in a season by a switch-hitter.
A pessimist might note that Roberts has played 1,129 career games without a postseason appearance. That's the ninth-longest drought among active players, behind Randy Winn, Mike Sweeney, Michael Young, Aubrey Huff, Adam Dunn, Frank Catalanotto, Vernon Wells and Jack Wilson.
An optimist might counter that Roberts is laying the foundation for a Hall of Fame run. He just recorded his third season with 100 runs, 70 walks, 50 doubles and 25 stolen bases. Tris Speaker, Kiki Cuyler, Craig Biggio and Bobby Abreu are the only other players to manage that combination, and they all did it once.
Baltimore manager Dave Trembley loves Roberts because he never gives away at-bats, never asks out of the lineup and can be found lifting weights long after home night games end at Camden Yards. The classic overachiever clichés all ring true.
"He plays with passion and has respect for the game," Trembley said. "He's a little guy with a big heart."
Roberts' doubles carry an extra punch because he's so adept at turning them into triples. He's a perfect 14-of-14 in attempted steals of third base this season. Since 2003, he's been successful a major league-leading 73 times in 79 attempts.
Achievement: Butler joined Hank Greenberg, Alex Rodriguez, Albert Pujols and Miguel Cabrera as the fifth player in history to post a 20-homer, 50-double season before age 24.
As the Royals wait for Alex Gordon to show he was worth a first-round pick, they can take heart in watching Butler develop into a legit middle-of-the-order presence.
Butler hit sixth in the order on Opening Day, but eventually moved into the third spot. He has worked deeper counts this season, improved his on-base percentage and is hitting .301 with runners in scoring position.
Butler is also the first Royals player to bat .350 at home since Johnny Damon did it in 2000. Before that, you have to go all the way back to George Brett.
"He has tremendous hitting tools," said Royals GM Dayton Moore. "He's one of those guys who can center the ball off the bat in different areas of the strike zone, and he stays on his legs very well. He's very balanced."
Hit Tracker shows that six of Butler's 21 homers have gone to center field or the opposite way. That's not a lot, but it's a sign that Butler is willing to take what pitchers give him rather than simply try to pull everything.
Achievement: Reynolds is one steal away from joining Chipper Jones as the second third baseman to hit 40 homers and steal 25 bases in a season. Upton leads the majors with a .771 slugging percentage against left-handed pitching.
It's easy to understand why Reynolds bristles and says "So what?" when reporters harp on his strikeout totals. For all the holes in his swing -- and they're abundant -- Reynolds has gone to great lengths to overcome any deficiencies in his game. He made himself into a stolen-base threat this year while working extensively with bench coach Kirk Gibson.
Upton's talents have been readily apparent since he was a teenager, but he also wins points for accountability. When manager A.J. Hinch sat him down for admiring a long fly ball and turning an extra-base hit into a single against Colorado, Upton admitted that his manager was correct, called the benching a "humbling" experience and promised to learn from it.
"That's a noteworthy personality trait with Justin," said Arizona GM Josh Byrnes. "He's a pretty intense guy."
At the risk of overstating the obvious, Justin Upton's approach distinguishes him from his brother, B.J., who's three years older and arguably as talented, but still must prove he's ready to bring his best game every day in Tampa Bay.
Achievement: Fielder and Braun each surpassed 30 homers for the third consecutive season. They were already the only players to do it two straight years for the Brewers.
Milwaukee went down the tubes this year because Yovani Gallardo was the team's only starter to post a sub-5.00 ERA. It didn't help when Rickie Weeks suffered a season-ending wrist injury in May and J.J. Hardy and Corey Hart both failed to produce to expectations.
But the Brewers can't argue with what they've gotten from the middle of the order. Braun and Fielder are about to become the fourth pair of Milwaukee teammates to score 100 runs each in a season. And Fielder is trying to join Cecil Cooper as the only Brewer to win an RBI title.
The big question is, how long will he stick around to enjoy it? Brewers owner Mark Attanasio, never hesitant to make news, recently seemed to acknowledge the possibility that Fielder could be shopped in an effort to upgrade the team's pitching.
"Prince could not have been more of a dominant player and we're scuffling to get to .500 with the challenges we've had with starting pitching," Attanasio told the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. "What do you do?"
Brett Anderson and Oakland's rookie starters
Achievement: The Athletics have logged 112 starts (and counting) by rookie pitchers. That's an American League record, and not far removed from the major league mark of 124 held by Brian Meadows, Jesus Sanchez, Andy Larkin and the 1998 Florida Marlins.
"We rushed some of these guys to the big leagues because of our circumstances, but they've performed admirably for 21- and 22-year-old kids," said Oakland GM Billy Beane. "They've given us some continuity moving forward with one area that's hard to find -- cost-effective starting pitching."
Oakland's starters have logged the second-lightest workload in the AL this season, and that's helped them hold up for the duration. They're 13-5 with a 4.08 ERA over the team's past 22 games.
Anderson has been particularly impressive, with a 6-3 record, 3.58 ERA, 81 strikeouts and 19 walks in 83 innings since the All-Star break.
Anderson is the son of Oklahoma State baseball coach Frank Anderson, and everybody raves about his maturity, poise and feel for the art of pitching. But he's shown a different side than what some scouts saw when they followed him in advance of the 2006 draft.
"This kid has always had a knack for pitching," said an AL scout. "He could repeat his delivery, and he was able to change speeds and location. But he's not very athletic, and when you saw him in high school, you worried about how he'd cover first base and field balls hit back at him. Now I think he has a chance to be among that upper tier of left-handers in baseball."
Achievement: Berkman and Lee each have hit 20 homers in every season this decade. As ESPN Stats & Information researcher Mark Simon points out, Alex Rodriguez and Manny Ramirez (with his next homer) are the only other players who can make that claim.
It hasn't been a year to remember in Houston. Manager Cecil Cooper lost the clubhouse early, then lost his job in September. Pitcher Roy Oswalt bemoaned the "dead feeling" around the team before a back injury ended his season. And with the exception of Wandy Rodriguez, Michael Bourn and Jeff Fulchino, it's hard to find an Astro who's surpassed expectations.
Still, Berkman and Lee capped off a decade of all-around hitting excellence with their production. It's a tribute to Berkman's craftsmanship at the plate when he can have a season that's considered a disappointment by his standards, and he still ranks 14th in the National League with a .911 OPS.
According to ESPN Stats & Information, Houston shortstop Miguel Tejada also did something special this season. He's closing in on 1,578 games this decade, which would tie him with Brooks Robinson in the 1960s for the second-most games played in a decade. The record belongs to Pete Rose, who appeared in 1,604 games in the 1970s.
(Yes, we double-checked, and Cal Ripken Jr. and Lou Gehrig both failed to make the cut).
Jerry Crasnick covers baseball for ESPN.com. His book, "License To Deal," was published by Rodale. Click here to order a copy. Jerry can be reached via e-mail.