Musings on Sports, Politics and Life in general

Sports

(No) Freedom of Speech


When I titled this blog Political Baseballs, I was using a common euphemism that I thought explained my two great passions in life. (Not discounting my wife, but I think she understands). That is to say, I’m passionate about baseball. And I’m passionate about politics. I never thought the two topics would wind up in the same post. After all, the last time politics and baseball met in the Twilight Zone we were subjected to Mark McGwire suddenly forgetting how to speak, Sammy Sosa suddenly forgetting how to speak English and Raffy Palmeiro suddenly forgetting how to tell the truth. I’ve always relied on baseball to take my mind off the drudgery to which everyday life subjects all of us. I’ve reveled in the game’s unique characters and their antics. I mean, who can forget Bill “Spaceman” Lee, Dick “Dirt” Tidrow from the ’70s? And who didn’t become enthralled with Cal Ripken’s pursuit of Lou Gehrig’s record (yes, even I, the lifetime Yankees fan found myself rooting for him)?

But thanks to the Lords of Baseball and their unrepentant zeal to one-up Roger Goodell and Co. over at the NFL, here we are again. It seems that in their quest to make major league baseball apolitical, they’ve stepped right into the issue of First Amendment rights. Or perhaps I should say, stomped on the First Amendment altogether. And now, MLB is facing the prospect of alienating a whole segment of their fans. Shortsightedness certainly can go a long way.

For those of you unfamiliar with the story, last week MLB banned all employees from using their Twitter accounts from commenting on anything other than games or their teams. What seems to have been the inspiration behind this dubious edict is a little known reliever for the Oakland A’s, Brad Ziegler. Ziegler was posting comments on his Twitter account regarding his non-support for a potential sports boycott of Arizona, following that state’s passage of SB1070. As a result of Ziegler’s non-political speech, baseball got nervous. What if other players or writers started using Twitter to voice non-political ideas? Ziegler was adamant over a series of posts that he couldn’t support the ban because he hadn’t read the bill and didn’t know enough about it to take a position. Horrors! Imagine – a public figure stating that the bill should be read and understood before everyone started going loco!

Of course, baseball couldn’t stand for this expression of First Amendment rights. Why, what if ALL of their employees decided that they should tell people to think before they act? What a travesty!

Ok, I’m exaggerating a bit. In the end, baseball’s executive office was trying to prevent the firestorm around this bill from consuming the game. Let’s face it; regardless of where you officially make your stand on this, you’re going to alienate one of baseball’s two core constituencies – either the suburbanites who attend most games, or the Hispanic community, which produces half of MLB players. Rather than take a stand and risk alienating ticket buyers or most of their players, baseball decided it would be best to trample on everyone’s inalienable right to expression. Only, it’s not inalienable if your paycheck is signed by Bud Selig, I guess.

By shutting off a reasonable place where fans and players could voice their opinions, they’ve invited their doomsday scenario. Over the weekend, the MLBPA formally requested that Baseball’s All-Star Game for 2011 not be played in Phoenix. Uh, oh. Financially, baseball can’t really afford to do that – it takes 2-3 years to put the shindig together. Baseball’s executives also don’t want to seem as if they’re caving to player pressure – ever. At the same time, they can’t really risk alienating their players. The last time baseball had acrimonious player relations was in the mid-1970’s through early 1990’s. That period saw 4 work stoppages, including the loss of the World Series in 1994. During that time, baseball slipped in popularity from “America’s Pastime” to fall behind football nationally – and has even slipped behind basketball in some cities.

I don’t know how MLB can extricate itself from this mess. My guess is, they can’t.

I’m looking at it this way: Jefferson wrote that our rights were granted by our Creator. Obviously, the Creator is showing Bud Selig the meaning of “inalienable.”

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Vazquez the Bust


As anyone who knows me realizes, I was never a fan of bringing Javier Vazquez back to the Yankees. I’ve always thought his failure to win during his last go-round, in 2004, was more mental than mechanical. Those suspicions were furthered when, two years ago while pitching for the White Sox, his manager basically threw him under the bus; challenging his manhood and daring him to be aggressive prior to a playoff start against the Rays. Javy’s response was, well, certainly not full of machismo:

“You know what? It’s not going to [change a lot of opinions] because I’m really the type of guy that when I retire, I’m going to be home in Puerto Rico with my family. I’m not looking to have to change minds if people feel that way.”

He then went out and proceeded to give up 6 runs on 8 hits, including two moon-shot homers, in a miserable 4 1/3 innings. Regardless of how much Kenny Williams may not like Ozzie spouting his opinions in public, he must agree with his manager. After all, the following off-season the White Sox shipped him to Atlanta in exchange for 4 minor leaguers. Of those, only Brent Lillibridge has had any lasting power at the major league level – that is, if you call a .177 batting average in 75 games over parts of two seasons “lasting power.”

Vazquez has been known as baseball’s greatest enigma during his career. When playing for 2nd-division teams, his stuff is electric and he posts eye-popping numbers. But the moment a contender trades for him, he goes into the tank. Consider this chart:

Javier Vazquez Teams in Contention Teams not in Contention
W 38 41
L 105 101
Win % 48.1 50.97
ERA 4.94 4.00
WHIP 1.36 1.23
SO/BB 3.05/1 3.98/1
HR/9 1.83 1.14
CG% 1.98 8.33

And you quickly appreciate what Ozzie and other baseball people have long realized: Javy has the stuff, but neither the heart nor the stomach to be a quality big league pitcher. So imagine my horror when I read this in Joel Sherman’s blog yesterday:

“The Yanks did not consider Javier Vazquez a perfect fit. There were members of the organization who felt it was never worthwhile to reunite with a player who had failed previously as a Yankee. There were members of the organization who thought Vazquez had, at the least, a bit of the loser gene; that knack to pitch below his stuff and to give up the crushing hit at the worst time.

‘But for their purposes, the Yanks saw Vazquez as the best possible situation. The Yanks were worried about how hard CC SabathiaA.J. Burnett and Andy Pettitte worked last year between the regular season and postseason, and feared that there could be a diminishment in their stuff/effectiveness. Vazquez, they figured, would at the least be a league-average innings eater, at a time when that species would be of incredible value.”

If true (and I have no reason to doubt it; Joel Sherman has usually been dead right on his sourcing), then that means the sabermatricians in the Yankee front office won out over the baseball people – again. Because let’s face it, Javy Vazquez has been far from league average. His ERA now stands at a nine – dead last among 111 league starters who qualify for the ERA title; the league average is 4.75. I’d rather not get into the rest of the numbers. You can pick up today’s columns from Marc Carig, Paul Bourdet and Mark Feinsand if you’re masochistic enough for that. The most disconcerting thing about Vazquez is that the Yankees brought him back in the hopes that with a reduced role – being a league-average innings-eater – he wouldn’t feel the pressure that has always cooked his goose. Unfortunately, it seems as though Javy can’t get out if his own way. He should have realized from his first tour in the Bronx that blaming the fans for his failures is not the way to get them off his back. Yet, that’s exactly what he did after his last start at Yankee Stadium, when the fans booed him off the field. If he expects better treatment in his next start after those comments (likely on Saturday), then he’s living in fantasy world.

Look: it’s really very simple for Javier Vazquez to get the fans and media off his back. All he has to do is start giving some quality starts. You know, 6+ innings, 3 or fewer runs. String 3 or 4 of those together, and he can start to solidify his hold on the #4 rotation spot. The problem is, I don’t think he’s capable of it, at least not while wearing  pinstripes. And already, the rumblings are being heard from the front office that it may be time to cut and run on the whole experiment. Even staunch supporters like Mike Francesa are beginning to jump off the bandwagon (which may be the first time I’ve agreed with him in  a long time). The simple fact is, Javy had a horrendous April. But unlike past bad Aprils by  CC Sabathia (a proven winner everywhere) or Chien Ming-Wang (who had been a winner before running the bases in Houston), Yankee fans have one indelible picture of Vazquez in their minds, and it’s similar to that of a cowed schoolboy who was just sent to the principal’s office. It doesn’t help him that he was traded for Melky Cabrera – a very popular player. But that’s his reality; he’d better start living it or find another city to play ball in.

The question the Yanks need to ask is, how many more starts are they willing to give him to demonstrate he has the heart, the mental toughness and the desire to pitch in New York? Is it one more? 5 more? 10 more? Right now, the rest of the rotation is pitching well enough to carry him, but nobody really expects Andy Pettite to keep pitching to a 1.29 ERA and nobody really expects Phil Hughes to throw one-hitters every time he takes the mound. Once they come back down to earth, the Yanks will need Vazquez. Will he be up to the challenge, or will they be forced into looking at other options?


What? Me Worried?


Our beloved Yankees are 8-3 and regardless of today’s outcome, have won their first four series of the year. So why be worried, right?
The last time the Pinstripers won their first four series was 1926. Guys named Ruth and Gehrig anchored that roster and the pitching staff was led by 23 game winner Herb Pennock. They won the AL pennant by 3 games. They were the precursor to the team that many think was the greatest team ever assembled, the 1927 Yankees.
They also lost the World Series that year, 4-3 to the Cardinals.
As anyone who has watched baseball knows, April greatness does not necessarily translate to October success. Last season, the Yankees went into May in 4th place in the division and Toronto and Baltimore were battling for top dog. Toronto wound up in fourth and the Orioles last, with neither even in the conversation by the end of July. Two seasons before, the Mets came out of April looking like the kings of the road, with a ML best 17-6 record. We all know how that season ended – with one of the most infamous collapses in baseball history. I point out these example only to illustrate the point that God has a strnage sense of humor – and he loves to use baseball teams as his punch-line.
Great opening months are, of course, better than lousy opening months. Except for good teams, sometimes going through an early baptism of fire can forge the toughness needed in the postseason. Consider the 1998 Yankees, probably the best team of the divisional era. Few remember how that season started – with the Yankees at one point 1-4 and not looking anything like a playoff team. There came a closed door meeting and what was actually said in the clubhouse remains a mystery – nobody will actually say – but the result was the Yanks winning 14 of the next 15. As they say, the rest is history. Or take the 1978 Yankees – the team that couldn’t get out of their own way. Everything finally came to a head one infamous day in Boston, when on national TV, Billy Martin and Reggie Jackson decided to let a season and a half’s tension explode in the dugout. But afterwards, the newly cohesive Yanks made up a 14 1/2 game deficit, forced the Bucky Dent one-game playoff, smoked the Royals in the playoffs and won the World Series.
So, while the Yanks should certainly enjoy their opening two weeks, the fact is that several of the questions about this team coming into this season haven’t really been answered yet:
1. Can Curtis Granderson and Brett Gardner hit lefties? Call it mixed reviews so far. After two weeks, Gardner finds hinself in a platoon with Marcus Thames and only hitting .230. As the saying goes, you can’t steal first base. If he doesn’t start to hit, can the Yanks live with a Randy Winn/Thames platoon? As for Granderson, he’s currently killing right-handers to the tune of .357 and holding his own against lefties at .267. Although he hasn’t displayed much pop against lefties, if he can keep his average against them around .260 and continue to play an above average CF, there probably isn’t much concern there.
2. Can Javier Vazquez vanquish the 2004 demons? So far, the answer is “NO.” His first start was atrocious and his second not much better. The one thing about Vazquez that concerned many observers, myself included, isn’t Vazquez’ physical talent – it’s his mental make-up. This is, after all, a pitcher who has managed to crack in every pressure situation he’s ever been presented with. For the Yanks sake, he better get his head on straight – or else the answer to the number 4 spot in the rotation could end up being…Uh Oh Mitre.
3. Who is the 8th inning guy? Two weeks in, and still no answer. Joe Girardi seems to be leaning towards Chan Ho(me Run) Park, but the Pepto Bismol Kid has yielded three homers in 6 innings. and in one two inning stint should have given up three more (thank a stiff wind blowing in for saving him there). Joba Chamberlain has only had one great outing, although he has been effective in two others. David Robertson, who seemed to have the early lead for the job, has demostrated a penchant for striking guys out but also giving up flurries of base hits.Stay tuned on this one.
4. Can Robbie Cano handle the 5 spot in the order? This one gets a “YES.” Through 11 games, Cano is hitting .356 and has an OPS of 1.083. Those are Albert Pujols type numbers.
5. When will the ageless wonders (Jeter, Mariano and Posada) begin to show their age? We won’t get an answer to this one until, well, they start playing like guys who are closer to 40 than 30. But so far, Jeter and Posada are hitting over .300 and showing some serious pop in their bats, and Mo just keeps on being Mo. Let’s hope this remains a question in 2011, too.
In short, enjoy the season as it’s unfolded so far. But keep in mind that it’s long season – we’re barely 5% of the way in. The battles haven’t really begun and nobody knows what will wind up being this team’s iron forge. But I’d prefer it come early. 1926 was a very good year, but it ended on a pretty sour note – with Babe Ruth standing on second base after being caught stealing and the Cardinals celebrating a World Series championship.

Bums in the Bronx


Over the past couple of days, I’ve been involved a Twitter war. (Imagine that – Twitter has even encompassed warfare!) The topic: is it OK to boo players on a team you root for?

There are people who believe you should root for players who wear your team’s colors, regardless of their performance. As a fan of the New York Yankees for over 40 years, I find that idea to be incredibly naive. After all, Yankee Stadium is home to the “Bronx Cheer.” For generations, fans have filed through the turnstiles at the House That Ruth Built (and now, that George Built) and cheered our heroes and LOUDLY booed the players who didn’t measure up. The idea of “earning your stripes” originated in the Bronx. It means that a player needs to perform well if he wants to be accepted by the fans. And if he fails, well…his days at Yankee Stadium will be pure hell on earth.

The cause for the twit-war lately has been two recent additions to the Yankee’s pitching staff, Chan-Ho Park and Javier Vazquez. Park is brand-new to Yankee’s fans, but this is the second go-around for Vazquez (his first didn’t end well). Both have, over the past two days, been booed lustily as they exited the game.

The new breed of fan, who doesn’t believe in booing poor performances, is having a hard time reconciling this. In Parks’s case, he made a bad first impression – giving up the winning runs in the first game of the year and pitching poorly in two appearances against the hated Red Sox to begin the season. When he gave up a long home run to Kendry Morales during yesterday’s home opener, he lost whatever support the fans were willing to give him. After all, the hallmark of Yankees Pride throughout the years has been not cracking under pressure and rising to the challenge instead. There’s also CHP’s history to consider. Brian Cashman signed Park based on a half-season of relief work for the Phillies last year. Prior to that, his career wound through stops in LA, Texas, San Diego and Queens. His one year with the Mets? He started on the DL, came on to pitch in one game, giving up 7 runs over 4 innings. Then he disappeared onto the DL for the rest of the year. His prior AL numbers aren’t particularly eye-popping, either. A 5.89ERA, 23-24 record and 1.6 WHIP all point to a guy who’s been hit hard whenever he’s stepped away from the NL. Which is exactly what we’ve seen so far in his Yankee appearances – and thus, the booing.

Javy Vazquez is morphing into the second coming of Eddie Whitson. For those of you unfamiliar with the saga of Eddie Whitson, he came to the Yankees in the mid-80’s, fresh off a spectacular campaign with the Padres. Possessing a lighting fastball, big curve and devastating slider, Whitson was supposed to be the ace that would anchor the Yankees staff for pennant runs to come. Unfortunately for him and Yankees fans, it turned out he couldn’t handle pressure. The booing got so bad that Billy Martin, the manager at the time, didn’t dare pitch him at Yankee Stadium. Eventually, the Yankees traded him back to the Padres for the immortal Tim Stoddard. (Stoddard, by the way, was loudly cheered just for not being Ed Whitson).

Vazquez also possesses a hard fastball and slider, along with a good change-up. He also strikes out lots of hitters. Unfortunately for him, he tends to crack under pressure. In his last Bronx adventure in 2004, he was summoned out of the bullpen in game 7 of the LCS – and gave up the grand slam to Johnny Damon that ended the Curse of the Bambino. That came  after a second-half in which he was largely ineffective. Since then, the company line has been that he was pitching with a sore shoulder. Maybe. Or maybe, despite having “plus” stuff Javy just doesn’t have the heart needed to be a prime-time player.

Yankee fans are quickly deciding the latter. In two starts this year, Vazquez has displayed the electric stuff – he has 9 strikeouts in 11 innings – but we’ve also seen him wilt with men on base. He’s only allowed baserunners in 4 of his 11 innings – but those four innings have yielded 12 runs. In other words, when he gets into trouble, Vazquez tends to implode. Contrast that to a fan favorite, Andy Pettite. Pettite always has runners on base – but he makes the big pitch when he needs to and escapes trouble. Andy has HEART. Javy has jelly-legs. It’s also not the first time Vazquez has heard this, by the way. Ozzie Guillen, for whom he pitched in Chicago, got rid of him because he didn’t trust him during the White Sox pennant drive.

It’s the difference between being a Yankee, and simply being a good player who will never earn the right to call themselves a Yankee.


Country Joe sings the blues


From the “In case you missed it” file: umpire Joe West is calling out the Yankees and Red Sox for playing too slow. You can listen to the full link on ESPN.com here – http://espn.go.com/video/clip?id=5067225

“They’re the two clubs that don’t try to pick up the pace. They’re two of the best teams in baseball. Why are they playing the slowest? It’s pathetic and embarrassing. They take too long to play.” [emphasis mine]

I may not be a genius, but this sure looks like sour grapes to me. In case you’ve never heard of “Country Joe” West, he is noted as an umpire who (a) gets some rather obvious calls wrong and (b) has a girth comparable to the Hindenberg. I hate to say it, but I don’t think he’s missed many meals – except for dinner this weekend, which is where I suspect his tirade originated. But in the quest for fairness – an alien concept to most ML umpires, I admit – I decided to investigate further. Do Yankees/Red Sox games take longer than the average game? And if so, are they playing at a “pathetic and embarrassing” pace or is some other factor the culprit?

I decided the best way to tackle the question of pace was to determine how long each pitch interval is. That is, how long is it taking (on average) for the pitcher to deliver the ball to the batter? Do determine this, I tallied the total number of pitches thrown, the total number of batters and how long the games took. There are some things I can’t account for, because they don’t show up in a box score (like pick-off attempts) that will also affect the pace, but those factors will likely cancel each other out so long as we’re comparing the same types of games. A little investigating quickly found that no two other teams were able to put up total pitches thrown and plate appearances, so I chose to take the Orioles/Rays and Rangers/Blue Jays series to use for comparison.

So, here’s the data I compiled using the box scores for the games:

Yankees / Red Sox
Date Batters Pitching Changes Total Pitches Total Time
4-Apr 83 6 308 208
6-Apr 79 10 333 206
7-Apr 91 9 326 190
3 gm avg 84.33 8.33 322.33 201.33
Orioles / Rays / Rangers / Blue Jays
Date Batters Pitching Changes Total Pitches Total Time
5-Apr 70 5 267 156
6-Apr 78 7 302 182
7-Apr 154 9 546 323
4 gm avg 75.5 5.25 278.75 165.25

(more…)


Joba: Back to the Future


Well folks, according to Joel Sherman of the NY Post in this article, Phil Hughes gets the nod as the Yankees #5 starter, Joba Chamberlain becomes Mo’s heir apparent, and Sergio Mitre and Alfredo Aceves are both now in the long relief/emergency starter role.

As I commented in this earlier post, this move should have come 2 years ago. Joba has never had the mental make-up of a MLB starter, and it’s doubtful he could successfully grow into that role. Yogi said it best, “Baseball is ninety percent mental and the other half is physical.” Joba has never lacked the physical stuff to be dominant and certainly has succeeded in the late innings reliever role. But he’s never looked comfortable as a starter.

Just think back to last year. One of the “Joba Rules” that rarely gets discussed anymore is how the Yankees coaching staff had Joba warming up in the bullpen whenever the Yanks were at home. I can’t think of another pitcher who has had to resort to such zaniness to try and mentally prepare for an outing. And despite all of that, he still had trouble throwing strikes as a starter.

Consider: according to Baseball Reference, Joba has pitched to a .759 OPS, .266 OBA, and 1.480 WHIP in 221 career innings as a starter. He has also pitched to a .512 OPS, .182 OBA and 0.983 WHIP is 60 relief innings. The experiment was tried, and it failed.

So Hughes moves into the 5 hole. If he continues to progress (and assuming his change-up is as improved as has looked this spring, no reason he won’t), then the Yankees have somebody pitching out of that spot who would be better than most teams #3. In fact, he might well be as a good as most team’s number 2. Joba moves into the 8th inning, where he can prep to one day take over from Mariano as the closer. Aceves demonstrated his value last year, by being a rubber-armed guy who can pitch multiple innings on consecutive days.

The guy I most worry about in this alignment is Mitre. His best pitch is a sinker, and I don’t know too many sinkerballers who are effective relievers. Especially when they’re not going to get very much work, as will be his case, being the 12th arm in the pen. He has gotten rave reviews from scouts and opposing hitters this spring – it’s always possible the Yankees trade him at some point for an outfielder, I guess.

Anyway, see the poll and chime in!


Joba, the new Goose


For the better part of two seasons, debate has raged about Joba Chamberlain. Should he be a reliever or starter? The debate has concentrated on two trains of thought:

1. As a starter, Joba can develop into a prototypical top of the rotation stud. He has a plus fastball, slider and curve. He just needs time to get stretched out and become dominant.

2. Out of the pen, Joba just rares backs and makes ML hitters look foolish.

Well, we’ve been waiting for two years while lesser names like Clayton Kershaw and Cole Hamels have blossomed. And its beginning to look as though, party line not withstanding, Brian Cashman and Co are now leaning towards putting Joba into the 8th inning role.

The thing is, there’s precedence for this debate – one the Yankees only need to dust off their copy of Baseball Almanac to find.

Back in the mid-1970’s, the White Sox had a young right hander with a plus fastball, slider and curve. But he never found success as a starter. He was, at best, inconsistent. But coming out of the bullpen, he became the original Mr. Nasty. He let loose with a 95+ fastball, spitting fire and daring hitters to swing. For him, it was all about attitude and not having to think on the mound. His demeanor was, you know what I’m going to throw. Everyone here knows what I’m going to throw. I double-dare you to try and hit it.
Joba has the same attitude when coming out of the pen. And likewise, he tends to overthink and overanalyze when starting. For both, the mental side of the game had the potential to prematurely end promising careers.

That guy in the mid-70’s? He went on to post 300+ career saves and a plaque in Cooperstown. His name? Goose Gossage.