Saturday, February 19, 2011

Where Will the Seattle Mariners Pick Up Nine Wins?

Slowly but surely, the projections systems are cranking out their data. ZiPS, Chone, Marcel, Bill James, Baseball Prospectus (and PECOTA) are just some of the systems that crunch the numbers and spit out their expected results. Since looking at statistics are one of this writer's favorite activities (though interpreting them are still a weakness), the Fan thought he would once again look at Ichiro Suzuki's page because all those hits and little else are so much fun to look at. While there, the plight of the Seattle Mariners as a whole crossed the mind and the Fan decided to see what was out there for projections for the wayward team. One, Baseball Prospectus, projects the Mariners to win 70 games. That's not very good, but at least it's nine games better than last year when the team finished at 61-101. But the question that projection brought up was: Where are they going to pick up nine wins?

The Mariners had the benefit of Clif Lee last year for thirteen starts. He won eight of them. There won't be any Cliff Lee this year. Despite heroic efforts, Felix Hernandez only won 13 games. If he pitches with similar dominance this coming season--and there is no reason why he shouldn't--then you can figure he'll win 15 or 16 games (BP gives him 17). That increase takes up half of Lee's slack. But we're still in the negative column. Where are the other wins going to come from?

The rest of the rotation is problematic. Once again, we have a hopeful Eric Bedard. We'll put that in the, "I'll-believe-it-when-I-see-it" category. There is Doug Fister, who at 27, should improve a bit. He does a great job of limiting walks and homers, but has a low strikeout rate. There is no reason he can't win ten games with a league average ERA. That's another plus four so we are still dead even with last year.

There is Jason Vargas, who will be 28 in 2011. He's another guy who limits walks (not as well as Fister) and homers, doesn't give up as many hits as Fister but doesn't strike out a whole lot more either. The best you can hope for there is another league average season with possibly ten wins. Okay, we're at plus one now.

But then you get into a whole lot of what ifs. One projection included youngster, Michael Pineda, an impressive 22 year old right-hander. The projection gave him six wins and a good strikeout to walk ratio. That's a lot of hope for a kid who has never thrown a pitch in the major leagues. But okay, we'll go with that. Those six wins are five better than Ryan Rowland-Smith, who took his hyphen and ran as fast as he could to Houston. So we are plus six. We only need six more wins to stay that far ahead in the rotation. The Mariners should be able to find them from Luke French or somebody.

So let's for the sake of argument, give the starting rotation a plus 6 for wins. We still need to find three more. It won't come from the relief pitchers. There is serious concern about David Aardsma, a pitcher for the record books if only because of all major league players that ever played, his name will always be first on the list. Aardsma has had some success as a closer, but he's not a mortal lock down guy. His 4.5 walks per nine make things adventurous and  the team has no ability to overcome blown saves with its offense. Plus, Aardsma is injured and starts the season with a question mark.

The rest of the bullpen is a hodge-podge of guys like Brandon League Average. Ha! The Fan loves that. Brandon League Average. hehe. Apologies. But anyway, the Mariners have some young guys that can throw hard like Dan Cortes, but this bullpen will be a work in progress. So let's give it the benefit of the doubt that it won't be any worse or better than last year. We're still up six games.

And finally we get to the offense. Baseball Think Factory makes the point that only four teams have more underperformed their projected offense than the Mariners did last year. And of the ten all time under performing teams, they collectively rebounded by +.0.6 runs per game the following year. But just what have the Mariners done to improve their offense? Their only hope there is that some of the players who were bloody awful last year get back closer to their career norms. Can you hope for that from Milton Bradley at this point? This Fan can't.

Chone Figgins is one that should improve. But most projections have him finishing with a .675 OPS instead of the .646 stinker he put up in 2010. The Fan thinks that is pessimistic. Figgins should improve and hit better than his .263 projection. Just putting him back to third base should be enough to add a level of comfort needed to hit better. Figgins and Franklin Gutierrez are this Fan's favorites for a nice rebound. Gutierrez has this bizarre odd/even year thing going. If that keeps true to form, this should be the good year. How scientific of the Fan, eh?

But shorstop and catcher are this Fan's biggest concerns. Catchers for the Mariners did not even hit above the Mendoza Line last year. Projections give starter, Adam Moore a .243 batting average for 2011. But that sounds awful high for a guy who didn't even hit .200 last year. The Mariners have some great fielding infielders like Jack Wilson, Brendan Ryan to figure out who is going to play in the middle of the diamond. The problem is that none of them are much on the offensive side. This Fan would say that Brendan Ryan has the most upside, especially away from LaRussa.

A real key to finding the four more wins from the offensive side will be guys like Justin Smoak, Michael Saunders and Dustin Ackley. They are all good prospects that have to take the next step in becoming productive major league players. Neither Smoak nor Saunders have shown much at the highest level in their brief looks.

There are two things to say about the Mariners this coming season. One is that there doesn't seem to be any possible way for the offense to be as bad as it was last year. But unless certain key things happen, it bloody well could be as bad. The back end of the rotation...well, let's say the entire rotation after Hernandez is suspect. If the offense rebounds just a little, the Mariners could pick up a few games up in the win columns. But this Fan just can't seem them winning 70 games as much as the brain tries to find a way.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Strat-O-Matic Baseball and Fantasy Sports

Strat-O-Matic celebrated its fiftieth year recently and reading those stories sure brought back fond memories. In many ways it was the perfect game in that it took our built in love for the backbone of baseball (the stats) and forced them into a game where you could create your own season and see what happened. I remember the first time seeing an ad for the game in the Sporting News, a magazine I was fortunate enough to receive every week for most of my childhood. That magazine, which was always printed on newspaper stock, was devoured religiously for the great writing on each team AND the statistics section in the back. That this game was advertised by such a great periodical was good enough for me and it was ordered with paper route money.

And in many ways, Strat-O-Matic was a continuation on a tradition we kids had already built. I had created my own dice baseball game before that and my brother, a best friend and I played entire seasons based on this dice game. I remember that seven was a strikeout and a twelve was a homer because of the rarity of it. It wasn't a scientific game, but it was played and created with some rudimentary knowledge of how often certain events occurred in the game. Once we received Strat-O-Matic, we didn't need the dice game.

We must have played thousands of games of Strat-O-Matic as we created our own seasons with all the teams and played 162 game schedules for all the teams. That meant that we kept box scores and intimate statistics on the games' results. It's really too bad I never took this love of statistics to a professional level. I could be Tango Tiger right now if I had. Anyway, we had notebooks full of the score sheets and statistics. I remember that my favorite player was Mike Shannon, the former Cardinal who I believe still works on their broadcast team. For some reason, he was always a star in our leagues and always among the league leaders. There was a White Sox pitcher who was also fabulous for me but I can't remember his name. According to his playing card, he only started like 13 games with some success. I parlayed that into a thirty start season and he won over 20 games. Strat-O-Matic pitchers never got sore arms.

I think I stopped playing once I went off to college. In fact, I'm sure I did. Then a decade or so ago, the Fantasy sports craze started. And really, to me, Fantasy leagues are a natural evolution from those of us who played Strat-O-Matic (which is proving to be mighty tough to type over and over). Again, the game was based on statistics except this time, it wasn't the stats from the prior year, but as they were occurring in real time. Needless to say, I got highly involved in Fantasy baseball and football.

But I have had to stop. For one, they require time I no longer can justify to do it well. Secondly, I found it was changing how I was watching the games. In the past, I always watched games rooting for one particular team. For a Fan, there is always a hierarchy of teams. Now that I am a "journalist," I'm not sure I can list that hierarchy. But let's say the Rangers are ahead of the Angels on that hierarchy. So if the Rangers were playing the Angels on television, I would root for the Rangers.

But once you get into Fantasy sports, it changes how you root for games. Say you have Jered Weaver on your fantasy team and he was starting for the Angels in that game against the Rangers. Then what happens to who you root for? Since I write about baseball exclusively, I can safely say that I am a huge Patriots fan in football and have been since the Steve Grogan days. But with Fantasy, suddenly you are hoping that the running back on the hated Jets rushed for 100 yards when that might not be in the best interest of your favorite team winning the game. See what I mean? You become divided in your loyalties and that's stressful. All I wanted to do was watch a game and root for a team to win. Fantasy made that complicated and life is complicated enough.

But Fantasy sports are huge businesses now and a thousand blogs are devoted to just that aspect of sports. Each large mainstream media site has a featured Fantasy writer. And that's okay with me. I have no problem with that. As long as it builds interest in my favorite sport, all the better. I just can't do it anymore. This house was too divided and it drove me crazy.

Miguel Cabrera Merits Concern, Not Judgement

There is a certain slice of our society that received the news concerning the arrest of Miguel Cabrera with either glee or condemnation. Throw the bum in jail was probably an oft repeated thought. And yes, on the one hand, over-pampered athletes that make millions of dollars to do something we would all love to be able to do get little sympathy when they get into trouble. And yes, there is always the knowledge that what Cabrera chose to do could have killed somebody. The Fan gets all of those thoughts and ideas. And perhaps the Fan is an old softy, but this news was not good news. It was sad news.

It was sad because most of us believed that Cabrera was over the problems that made him an embarrassment at the end of the 2009 season when he let his teammates down during the pennant stretch. If Cabrera was not forthright about his shame at his problems, if he hadn't apologized so profusely or worked so hard to beat the alcohol, we wouldn't be sad. But he did all those things. He was a different man last year and his play reflected his sobriety and his new status as a dry ball player. That Cabrera was worth rooting for and someone to be encouraged about. His arrest is shocking to the system and shocking how far a person can fall.

But it really isn't shocking if you have any experience with alcohol or drug addiction. This writer has a family riddled with the stuff and it's a painful family shame and the stress is extreme. When you live through that kind of thing, you understand that addiction is never beaten. It is only handled and overcome on a daily basis.  Many addicted who spend some time away from the root of their problem think that one drink won't hurt or that an occasional taste won't hurt. But it's all that is needed to restart the snowball from hell to start running down a hill. Consider cigarette smoking. Many have quit that awful and sad addiction for months or even years at a time only to fall prey to the addiction from a family stress situation or a few too many to drink at a party.

No, Miguel Cabrera doesn't get a free pass this time. He needs to confront and face this episode and work with doctors to get him back on the dry side. But the last thing Cabrera needs is judgement and punishment. If anything, facing his problem should be the alternative to punishment and only failing to work on solutions for his life should lead to suspensions and that sort of thing.

You have to have experience with addiction to know how difficult this is. If you and your family have been immune to this kind of situation, it's very difficult to explain to have you understand. Yes, all addiction stems from choices. Yes, to a strong degree, we have control over those choices. But life can be hard and sometimes resolve can crumble in a quick spate of depression. It happens.

Ultimately, this Fan will root for Cabrera. He's not just a rich ball player. He's a human being with a family and children. His blood runs red and he's part of the human family. How can you not root for him to learn from this experience and work diligently to keep it from being repeated? People around him are affected too and thus they need our support and prayers. Point fingers if you must. Be one of the throng that shout epithets to him at the stadium. Not this Fan. This Fan will be concerned with thoughts only on Cabrera being well and a healthy member of society and our human family.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

When Did We Get a "Cardinal Nation"?

Yesterday, after Albert Pujols ended negotiations with the Cardinals due to his "self-imposed" deadline, Pujols released a statement to the USA Today. The statement, which, if you'll forgive this Fan, reads a bit self-serving and trite, personally addresses "Cardinal Nation" promising them his full effort just like always. It was the first time this writer had ever heard the term, "Cardinal Nation." Certainly, we have heard Red Sox Nation to the point of nausea. But the Fan never heard of Cardinal Nation. Is this a recent development?

Apparently this is not a overly new development. There is a Cardinal Nation blog that was started in June of 2010. But that wasn't that long ago. No, that's wrong. Their on-site archive only goes back that far, but there are posts to be found from that site back before then. There was or is another site called with the hyphen. How old is the term? Did it come before the Red Sox Nation or after? There is a Cardinal Nation Facebook group.

Simply doing Google searches, the term was being used in 2008 and 2007 and 2006. The Sporting News Books advertised its third edition "Cardinal Nation" hardcover book in 2005. So that brings us back to at least 2002. The Facebook group by that name was founded in 2001. Okay, so this has been around a while then? Who knew? Well, obviously Cardinal fans knew as this has been an ongoing thing for a long time.

So then the Fan was all wet. This isn't a situation of the Cardinals copying the Red Sox. It seems it's the other way around. This writer has been in New England for a long time and the whole Red Sox Nation thing didn't really begin until the Red Sox won the World Series and broke the curse. What was at first a pleasant feeling for long-suffering Red Sox fans has turned into an insufferable arrogance as that team's fans follow the team and are in attendance at stadiums all over the country. The Red Sox Nation has come to represent a snobbish and uppity feeling that the Red Sox and their fans are smarter and better than anyone else. Of course, the Fan knows not all Red Sox fans are like that. But still, if you mention the term to most baseball fans around the country, a distasteful look will occupy most faces.

And so it wasn't the Cardinals who copied the Red Sox, it was the other way around and this Fan is now properly educated. Thankfully, reading that trite and self-serving statement by Pujols led to an education in something the Fan wasn't aware of and is happy to have learned correctly. After this scientific study (...ahem) into the past, the Cardinals and their fans rightly own the term. Carry on, Cardinal Nation. Carry on.

Andruw Jones is a Great Addition to Yankees

Memories of Andruw Jones always begin with the 1996 World Series against the Yankees. His amazing performance in that series as a rookie included a .400 batting average in a losing cause. Never had a rookie made his presence felt so fast and so explosive. Has it really been almost fifteen years since then? And it's been half a dozen years since Andruw Jones was everyone's favorite center fielder. He was an early star on the fledgling days of ESPN's Baseball Tonight with his nightly highlight poetics and big homeruns. That Andruw Jones is probably long gone. But Jones is now a member of the Yankees, the team he almost beat single-handedly all those years ago. And he could be a significant player for the team this season.

Most know the story of the downfall of Andruw Jones. He got fat and lazy, the story goes. He got homer happy which led to a 51 homer season, but an erosion of the rest of his batting skills. According to Fangraphs, he was a $28 million player in 2005. Just three short seasons later, he famously batted .158 for the Dodgers with a .259 slugging percentage. He was lost and he was a disaster. The Rangers picked him up in 2009 and his power picked back up but he still hit only .214 in 331 plate appearances. What looked like a sure Hall of Fame career was going up in smoke. The Rangers gave up on him too.

Jones then signed with the White Sox in 2010 and ended up posting a 119 OPS+ despite batting only .230. But .230 with his power and his ability to work a walk showed some signs that perhaps his career wasn't dead after all. Hit hit 19 homers for Ozzie Guillen in only 278 at bats and gave the White Sox almost $15 million in value. He played all three outfield positions but was best in right field. He's no longer a viable centerfielder. Those days are gone unfortunately.

And so his year with the White Sox earned him a $2.0 million contract with the Yankees for 2011. As a fourth outfielder, if he performs exactly as last year, he will be a steal. He can give Granderson and Gardner days off against tough lefties and add a potent right-handed bat into the line up. And most importantly, Jones is a good insurance policy if the Yankees want to trade Swisher in the last year of his deal.

Not that there isn't cause for some concern. While Jones can still hit a fastball and his homer to fly ball ratio is excellent, his line drive percentage has shrunk to minuscule proportions (11 percent last year). While he has a very good eye and only swung at 25 percent of pitches out of the strike zone, he is still vulnerable to the slider off the outside of the plate, something the Yankees have had a heavy dose of over the years (Soriano, Thames, etc.). His power may take a hit in the spacious left field of the Yankees. But again, even with all those negatives, he will be more valuable than Thames was for the Yankees for several reasons.

First, Thames really couldn't play the field. So if you wanted to get his bat in the line up--particularly against lefties--he had to play in the field. That wasn't pretty to watch. Jones will not be that much of a loss in the outfield when he spells those wonderful fielding outfielders the Yankees have. Plus, Jones is a more disciplined hitter than Thames, has just as much power and still runs the bases fairly well (Thames was like a lumbering bull). Jones stole nine bases in eleven attempts last year. But most importantly, if the Yankees get to the post season, Jones has a proven track record there. He has hit ten post season homers in his career and has a .797 OPS over his post season career. Thames was brutal in the post season.

It's not like Andruw Jones is an old man. At 34, he is younger than people think (he was 19 his rookie season). And with a commitment after the lost years to conditioning, he could still have a few productive seasons within him. For $2.0 million plus incentives, Jones is a sweet deal for the Yankees.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The Mark Kotsay Syndrome Revisited

A week or so ago in this space, we talked about how teams rely on veteran players to fill out their rosters despite that fact that many of them provide no overall value to their teams. Mark Kotsay was used as an example and we used his name for the "syndrome." But we very well could have used Jerry Hairston, Jr., Kotsay's teammate, Craig Counsell or any other of the dozens of players who continue to get jobs years after year despite the fact they provide a wins above replacement (WAR) in the negative numbers. In fact, a further study found that in 2010, there were 123 players (non-pitchers) who had over 100 plate appearances and finished with a WAR of zero or in the negative numbers. 123!

The Fan read off some of that list on his podcast last night and many of the names are no doubt familiar to you. Some will open the season as starters for their respective teams (Getz, Theriot). But many of the same group of guys that hang around year after year. Many of them are catchers of the Butera, Molina, Hester and Cash variety. If you can squat for five innings, you can play in the major leagues for fifteen years. It doesn't matter if you are any good or not.

The point of the original post was that these guys are kept around because managers and general managers are more comfortable with "proven" major league-experienced players than they are with youngsters. Many of those people will say that these veterans add to the clubhouse. That must be a lot of clubhouse value to those guys to keep so many of them without value around for so long. Kevin Millar made five or six extra years in his career because of his "clubhouse" gifts.

The other point in the original post was that these guys are more expensive than the major league minimum in most cases. Kotsay will make $800,000 or almost double the minimum. Many will make in the millions. Many teams cry poverty and budget restrictions and yet will sign Melky Cabrera, Pedro Feliz and others way above major league minimum despite their history of no or negative value. Feliz finished last year with a WAR of -2.3, the lowest non-pitcher with more than 100 plate appearances. Yet, Feliz has a job (with the Royals) for far over the minimum. It just seems to this observer that teams could save a lot of money and not lose a whole lot of player value by always rounding out their rosters with rookie players to act as their utility people. The Tampa Bay Rays do this to perfection most of the time. If the Fan was running a team, the utility guy would always be a first or second year player making near the minimum.

This topic fascinates the Fan and this writer finds it amazing that so many fringe players hang around so long. Not only does this cost teams money now but also later as these marginal players who hang around for years add to their retirement packages by playing that long. It seems foolish when you think about it. After some careful (unprofessional) study, the Fan found that the 123 total of 2010 was certainly not out of line for the total amount of MLB players with a zero WAR or with a negative number. Below is a little chart the Fan put together of the totals for each decade going back to the 1911. The number on the left is the decade and the number on the right was the amount of players with 100 plate appearances and zero or negative WAR.
At first the Fan was struck by how large the numbers have gotten over the years. If you used a graph to show the increase over the years, it would look like this:

But then the Fan remembered that the teams have increased over the years and so there would be many more players. The number of teams chart looks very similar to the one above. Those early decades had 16 teams and then it moved to 20 and then 24, then 26 and finally 30. So it's more instructive to look at the percentage of players over the years who fit our category. That is, the percentage of total players in a league for a decade.

And the percentage over the years looks like this:

1911 - 20 -   18.78%   Dead ball era.
1921 - 30 -   17.15%   Getting into live ball era
1931 - 40 -   15.70%   Real hitters' era
1941 - 50 -   17.60%   More mediocre players due to WWII
1951 - 60 -   16.38%
1961 - 70 -   18.66%   First wave of expansion. Pitchers' era
1971 - 80 -   19.57%   Still pitchers era?
1981 - 90 -   16.63%
1991 - 00 -   16.55%
2001 - 10 -   16.87%

As you can see, those numbers are pretty consistent over the eras with slight variations due to conditions in the game. You can also see that the last three decades have shown a vast improvement over the 1960s and 1970s, so perhaps we are getting smarter.

The conclusion of all this is that first, sixteen and a half to twenty percent of the majors has been made up of non-pitchers with at least 100 plate appearances that end up with zero or lower value. It also shows that managers across time have held onto players with little value as comfort food. That was okay in the old days when players cost relatively little. But it's simply not financially acceptable to keep pouring money into fringe players that have hung around for five years or more and have proven over and over that they offer little, no or negative value at a rate of pay much higher than the major league minimum.

Josh Hamilton Leads Rangers for Repeat

Peter Gammons wrote a wonderful piece on how Josh Hamilton has inspired a former number one pick and addict, Jeff Allison. It's a great story as only Peter Gammons can write it. With Josh Hamilton, his past will always be a part of the story, and his past also leads to the real fear that he can always fall again. Every indication is that Hamilton has his life under control and while we all pray that is the case, as long as he plays for the Texas Rangers, he will lead that team as they begin their run to defend their American League title.

Much has been written about the Rangers this off season. They didn't get Cliff Lee to stay. They signed Adrian Beltre and then we have all been obsessed with what's going to happen with Michael Young. But the real story for the Texas Rangers is Josh Hamilton, who if he can stay healthy, is the best player in the American League. And the bad news for the rest of the league is that Hamilton, at age 29, should be at the peak of his powers.

Of course, if you are talking about Josh Hamilton and not talking about his drug past, you have to talk about his injuries. People wonder whether Hamilton's past is a part of his injury-riddled present. That seems to be a difficult argument to make. What we do know is that Hamilton has missed significant time in every season except 2008. That season, he drove in 130 runs. And Hamilton is a much better player now than he was in 2008, which was his first full season after breaking in with the Reds the year before.

Instead, Hamilton seems a lot like Larry Walker. Walker, when he was healthy, was simply a brilliant ball player. But his style of play simply led him to miss a boat load of games over the course of his career. Hamilton seems a lot like Walker. Certainly from a talent standpoint, the two are very similar. What the Rangers have to hope for is that Hamilton can play 155 games. Until he can put a couple of those types of seasons together back to back, there will always be a question of injury.

Baseball needs Hamilton to be healthy because he simply can do things others can't. His homer against the Yankees in the ALCS was amazing. He was fooled by the pitch, his front leg and hips were already gone but somehow he got the head of the bat on the ball and hit it out of the park. Josh Hamilton is the best player, with more pure talent than any player this Fan has seen since Barry Bonds.

As Peter Gammons wrote, President Bush said we all love a reclamation project. And as such, Josh Hamilton is our favorite story in baseball. If Jeff Allison can make it to the major leagues, he'll be another favorite. We root for guys who have overcome the depths of despair to succeed using the talent they were born with. Baseball needs Josh Hamilton and it needs him healthy. The Rangers need him that way too. Because if he is healthy, the Rangers are clearly better than anyone else in the American League West.

Monday, February 14, 2011

My Valentine Girl

A long time ago in a place far away, I fell for a cute little blond while in Manchester, New Hampshire. I was totally lost and alone at a (then) small party school for rich kids called New Hampshire College. The cute little blond and I were probably the only non-rich kids in the whole school. The college was relatively new and did not even require SAT scores, hence the dumping ground for all troubled rich kids everywhere. The only reason I was there was because it was the only application I'd completed of the dozens my Sicilian mother had given me in her hopes for the American Dream. Naturally, the school accepted me. So there I was.

The cute little blond was driven to be a good student by an inferiority complex while I cared more about how long I could keep winning to keep the pool table. The drinking age was 18 then and the snack bar served pitchers of beer for next to nothing. Not a good idea in retrospect.

The cute little blond, finished her two year degree in fashion merchandising. That was the stupidest major she could have possibly taken but her father had talked her out of the physical education path she had wanted to pursue. He didn't see the later trend in the booming fitness business. She never used the degree.

I had gotten a job at Radio Shack and was making relatively good money and lost interest in classes. After two and a half year, the college and I were ready to be rid of each other. Instead, I married the cute little blond. Soon after, our son was born.

Our son was perfect in every way. I'd never seen a more perfect looking baby. And he was my buddy. By then I was working the graveyard shift at a tannery in Berwick, Maine and had my days free to do whatever me and my handsome lad wanted to do. We went to the lake together, took walks, played baseball, watched baseball. He came with me to my bowling leagues and would go in the nursery with the other kids. All the babysitters there adored him. So did the waitress, Lisa, at the local Friendlies who always knew exactly what the boy wonder wanted to eat. Truth be told, his dad had as big a crush on Lisa as the boy wonder did.

I love my son more than anything. We had a great childhood together. We went to Disney. We shared baseball. I coached him in Little League. It was wonderful.

But as the years went by, there wasn't another child. I went about my work in the tannery and the cute little blond, who never did work, started her workout career. She eventually came in third in the Miss New Hampshire body-building competition. I won the New Hampshire bowling tournament, but I was far from the cute little blonde's fitness inspiration.

And so it became an unusual household. The boy wonder would bring his friends home, run past Dad and ask Mom to make a muscle. If he needed a jar or bottle open, he asked Mom. The joke became that Mom had the muscles and Dad's biological clock was ticking. I wanted another child. I wanted a girl.

But it didn't happen. The years went by. The cute little blond and I had marital troubles. She was prone to depression and was the analytical, plan-everything type of person. I was the "artist" and the dreamer. During one phase when reconciliation was occurring and the boy wonder was sixteen, that oops moment came and the cute little blond was pregnant. It was probably one of the rare occasions when her body fat was high enough to allow that to happen. Who knows. But at the age of 40, I was going to have another child. The question was, what sex would it be? We refused to find out during the exams by the doctor.

During the pregnancy, all kinds of opinions were offered. She's carrying high or low or something and it's going to be a boy. I held out hope for a girl. I steeled myself for whatever it might be, but I REALLY wanted a girl. This was all happening fifteen years ago.

At last, the cute little blond went into labor. We had moved to northern Maine by then and I took her to the hospital in Caribou. After a lot of fraught moments (the cute little blond was 40 after all), the baby was born...and it was a girl! And she was perfect. Next to her brother, she was the most beautiful baby I had ever seen. And she had full lips! That's an inside joke. I always kidded the cute little blond that she had chicken lips and kissed me like an auntie. We named her Shaina Lise (my ideas both) which to me is the perfect name. And she was born, most fittingly...on Valentine's Day.

She turned fifteen today. She's so far unaffected by the pitfalls of the teen years. She's a good girl. A while ago I told her that I had always wanted a little girl and that she has been everything and more that I ever wanted. She has the good looks of her mother with some of my better features. She's imaginative, ambitious, and unbridled in her outlook on life. Her favorite shirt says, "Today is going to be awesome."

Needless to say, I am as smitten with her as the first time I took her out of the birthing room to show her to her brother. The boy wonder, now a man, hugged me and said, "You have your little girl, Dad." It was a wonderfully touching thing for him to say and I'll never forget it. That was my first real Valentine's Day. There have been fifteen of them since. I will always treasure February 14th because that's the day my little Valentine girl was born.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Predicting the Top Seven Catchers of 2011

Much like the shortstop position, there is a bit of a swoon in Major League Baseball when it comes to catchers. You have top of the line guys like Joe Mauer and Brian McCann and then the ranks start thinning out very quickly. And yet even the worst catcher in the majors last year had a positive WAR value simply because of how important the position is the the game. If you really stop and think about it, there never has been any great era for catchers, has there? The top catchers of all time stand out so much because there was so much mediocrity everywhere else. For every Johnny Bench, there was a Rich Gedman. The thing about catching is that there is this tie to the pitching staff that's never really been measured. Rick Dempsey was the Orioles catcher for so many years because his pitchers swore by him. Jason Varitek can say the same thing. Maybe some day there will be this measurement us amateurs can go to that's called a catcher's pitching index or something. But for now, all we have is WAR and at least that component has fielding and hitting built into it's algorithm. Based on those flawed figures, here are the Fan's top catchers for 2011.

Joe Mauer - Of course you have to start with Mauer. He's a  batting champion and has that sprawling, heads-up tag he made against the Yankees last year to sink our teeth into. According to Fangraphs, he wasn't the best overall catcher last year. Fangraphs listed Brian McCann ahead of him in WAR. But you can never bet against Mauer retaining the top spot in 2011. The only question from year to year is his health. He hasn't been a rock of health like Ivan Rodriguez over the years. Plus, his defense has been questioned of late. Fangraphs gave him a negative figure last year. That may be due to some of the nagging injuries he played with all year. But again, if you were in a school yard and picking teams, Mauer would be your first pick.

Brian McCann - As mentioned, McCann had the highest WAR of all catchers last year. He's been hailed as an offensive catcher his entire career, but his scored well for his defense last year, which is what pushed him ahead of Mauer. Both Mauer and McCann have been entrenched for years now which is a nice anchor for their pitching staffs. If there was some sort of catching pitching index, McCann would probably score very highly. But what makes McCann so good is his offense. McCann's slash line for the last five years reads: .290/.361/.496. If there wasn't a Joe Mauer, McCann would get a lot more attention. He's one of the best.

Buster Posey - It seems impossible for Buster Posey to have dreamed a better debut season. He came in and along with some improbably contributors, helped the Giants win a World Series. Posey also displayed remarkable dexterity and nimbleness behind the plate that wasn't expected (take heart Montero fans) and scored very well for his defense as well as his offense. The real question for 2011 is whether he can increase his patience when batting. His 6.8 percent walk rate leaves a lot to be desired. Also to be seen is whether NL pitchers make adjustments when facing him and how the young catcher handles those adjustments. But this guy is very, very good and with a bump in all his offensive numbers, could be the top of the class of 2011 catchers. He's that good.

Yadier Molina - The youngest of the Molina brothers turned out to be the best catcher of the bunch. There is no question that he is the best defensive catcher in baseball. Plus, you can't argue with the success he's had catching St. Louis pitching. The only question concerning Molina is his offense, which has hit hard times of late. If he could just hit his slash line of the last five years (.271/.333/.362), then he'll easily be the third best catcher in the game in 2011. But the problem with Molina is that he doesn't walk enough, which when he isn't hitting, can't give him any impact in the line up. Molina doesn't strike out much either. No catcher has struck out less often in the last five years than Molina. But he has to hit better than 2010. The Fan is betting that he will.

Russell Martin - This pick may surprise you. But Martin had, by all accounts, a really bad year last year, which ended abruptly with a bad injury. But even his "bad" abbreviated season garnered him a 2.1 WAR, higher than a lot of starting catchers around the league. Martin will take over for Jorge Posada, who catching days have passed him by. Posada was rated the second worst defensive catcher in 2010 (behind only Doumit). Martin might turn out to be one of the most unheralded improvements any team has made this off season. The Fan believes he will handled the pitching staff better and his defense will certainly be the best the Yankees have had for years. Of course, he has to be healthy to make this prediction work out. But no worries. Even if he can't stay healthy, Jesus Montero is a pretty darned good Plan B.

Carlos Ruiz - The Phillies catcher had a bust out season in 2010. With a slash line of .302/.400/.447 along with solid defense, Ruiz has become the focus of the Phillies and their great run. Plus, he is going to have fun handling what looks to be a great pitching staff. The thing with Ruiz for the Fan is just how much was 2010 a fluke or a progression? He was very good in 2009, but not good like 2010. Even if he slides back a bit, he's a rock for the Phillies and is certainly among the best in baseball. The Fan isn't sure he shouldn't be rated higher. If Martin rounds back to his old form, he's the better catcher. But if not, Ruiz is better than the 2009 and 2010 versions of Martin.

Geovany Soto - Would you have guessed that among all MLB catchers, Soto had the highest walk percentage in 2010? This Fan wouldn't have. Soto's season was hidden by the Cubs falling out of the race so fast last year. But he had a great offensive season. The difficulty with Soto is that he doesn't rate out well as a defensive catcher. Soto rates as one of the poorer defensive catchers in the game. But, darn, he is a good offensive catcher with a high OBP (obviously), a solid .280 batting average that can improve and good power (.497 slugging percentage in 2010). Now he just has to get better with the mask on.