Saturday, January 21, 2012

Number 2,500

We Americans are a funny and stubborn people. We have this abject fascination with multiples of five or ten. That's why we fly in the face of world pressure to move to the metric system. It's also why it would take a major shift in our belief systems to move away from the dollar and go to some other form of world money. The love of fives and tens probably comes from our monetary system. When earning that daily one-hundred cents becomes so important, then it's only natural that all of our comfort level comes from five and ten. It's also why 493 homers is a bummer but 500 homers is terrific. It's why we celebrated Jim Thome and Derek Jeter in 2011. 3,000 and 600 just tickles us in all the right places.

And it's also why the last post (about Michael Morse) was number 2,499 on this site and this one is so much cooler because it's number 2,500. The writer here understands that it's an arbitrary number and yet it feels like a milestone. Two-thousand, five hundred posts. That's pretty sweet. Very few of them have been of the short variety like so many other blogs out there. This writer doesn't visit too many of those sites. If you are only going to give a paragraph or two to read, might as well go somewhere else. The posts here are rarely as long as a Joe Posnanski post, but then whose is? 

This site started in 2003. The writer wrote a lot that first year and then just tinkered around for four years (life got busy) until becoming an obsession starting in 2009. Two-thousand, one-hundred and nineteen posts have come since the start of that year. It's weird going back to the beginning. The posts didn't even have headings. The first post was about David Wells. The second included immortal players like Tony Bautista, Pokey Reese and Brian Jordan. Well, Jordan was kind of cool. We've come a long way, baby.

It must have been in 2009 that the posts became mostly told in the third person. This author likes it that way. It's harder to pull off and most think it pretentious. But it goes back to journalistic underpinnings. Real journalists never wrote in the first person. Bloggers get such a bad rap and a lot of that is deserved. If we want to be taken seriously, then we need to consider ourselves as journalists first and fan-writers second.  That doesn't mean that most of this writer's favorite blogs aren't written in the first person. They are. It's simply a personal choice.

A lot of gratification is taken by the growth of the site in the last year and a half. With a large circle of "friends" on Twitter and a positive association with Yardbarker, the amount of readers that have come this way is astounding. Of course, it doesn't hurt that the site is now 2,500 posts deep either. Just about every search word a baseball fan can type in Google has been covered here. Even so, it will always be a total surprise that so many people come here to read what this writer has to say. To be sure, there is much thanksgiving for those that do. So thank you.

There has been a lot of discussion on Twitter lately about "blogging" versus "writers." The issue seems to come to a head around credentials given by major league clubs. Different teams handle this new world uniquely. The Mets are very open to credentials while the Yankees are very closed. To this writer, the Yankees need to wake up and smell the coffee. Electronic writing is where reporting is going. Even beat writers and newspaper guys are bloggers. The world is a much smaller one and anybody who can type can be a star. Not that it will matter here. Credentials are not even a consideration when you write in a basement in Maine on the next to last stop on Route One before hitting Canada. The Montreal Expos used to be the closest team to this location. Boston is eight or nine hours away.

This writer's grand vision is to be scooped up by a major site. That's long been the goal. But if that doesn't happen, there will still be contentment with tens of thousands of readers each month and a topic that never gets old. Baseball is the greatest sport on earth and writing is so much fun every day. Whether looking back, or forward or at what is going on today, there is always something interesting to talk about. That's shared by the dozens of sites this author visits every day. It never gets stale.

So, yeah. 2,500. That's pretty cool. For some stupid reason, it's more cool than 2,499. Such fat round numbers cause us Americans to celebrate and look back. It's how we're wired. This Fan is no different. Thanks again for the sweet knowledge that you come here often and spend a little of your precious time. Hope we're all around to see 5,000 together.

The Cool Story of Michael Morse

Close your eyes if you will and picture Michael Morse in your head. Got it? Okay, does that look like a shortstop? No, right? But that's what he was drafted as way back in 2000 (third round by the White Sox) and that's where he played his first six years of his ten-year minor league career. The easiest thing to state in this entire piece will be that Michael Morse doesn't fit anywhere on the diamond. He was too big as a shortstop. He played some third base. He's played first. He's played in the outfield. In 2006, Morse got a cup of coffee with the Mariners. He played six different positions (if you include DH). There's no real way to hide him. But boy can he mash a baseball!

His story is fascinating. He comes from Fort Lauderdale, one of this writer's favorite places on earth. He played for the Davie, Florida high school team, one of the best Florida towns on earth. He was drafted by the White Sox, traded to the Mariners and traded to the Nationals straight up for Ryan Langerhans (how did that turn out, Seattle?). During his long wanderings around minor league baseball, he tore his labrum diving for a ball against the Angels. He tore a meniscus that cost him most of 2008. He was suspended for using PEDs. Seattle converted him away from short because they had Yuniesky Betancourt. Yeesh. And it's not like he tore it up in the minors. His lifetime slash line there was, .271/.330/.425. So where did this come from?

Oh sure, you can point to the PEDs and say that was it. But that was way back in 2005 and to be sure, his tests have been scrutinized ever since. So don't throw that accusation around. It seems that he came back with a vengeance after his lost 2008. He mashed the ball in the minors in 2009 and though he started slowly in 2010, the Nationals called him up May 16th of that year and he's been killing the ball for the Nationals ever since. He loses value with his defense and base running, but with the bat, he was terrific in 2011. He was tenth in ISO, fifteenth in wOBA, tenth in slugging, nineteenth in batting average, thirteenth in wPA and seventh in home run per fly ball percentage.

He was remarkably consistent in 2011. Morse had a .879 OPS at home and .937 on the road. He had an .886 OPS in the first half and went at a .935 clip in the second half. His OPS against left-handed pitchers was .892 and it was .915 against right-handed pitchers. He started slowly in April and finished slowly in September but was fantastic in all the in-between months. He ruined the Phillies' rotation to the tune of  a 1.170 OPS. His OPS was over one against the Cardinals, Dodgers, Astros, Brewers and Rockies. Three of those teams were in the playoffs. Only nine of his thirty-one homers were pulled. Eighteen of them went to center and nine went to the opposite field. Sixty-seven of his 158 hits were for extra bases.

If there is any knock against Morse besides his fielding and base running, it has to be his plate discipline. He struck out 21.9 percent of the time (136 total) and walked only 6.3 percent of his plate appearances. He had only 31 non-intentional walks all season. But he does get hit by pitches regularly. He was hit thirteen times last season. He swung at 34.8 percent of pitches out of the strike zone. That's a lot. And that number is right in line with his career line, so it's not like he's going to change.

So where does he go from here? The Nationals just signed him to a two-year deal (avoiding arbitration) worth $10.5 million. Morse was worth $15.1 million last year alone, so that could be a steal. Three projection systems have him regressing slightly, but not by much. So projectionists are somewhat bullish on him being a force in the Nationals' line up for the future.

Michael Morse has hit 46 homers in his last 788 at bats. Home runs are back to being a premium commodity. The "Beast" has basically come out of nowhere at a later age than most. In a career that has a lot of twists and turns, it's hard to root against the guy. It will be very interesting to see if he can continue to be this good a hitter going forward. This Fan will be watching his boxscores in earnest.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Justin Masterson - The One That Got Away

The date was July 31, 2009 and it was the last day of that season's trade deadline. The Boston Red Sox needed a boost to help that season's playoff chances. And so on that deadline day, the Red Sox pulled the trigger on a deal with the Cleveland Indians for Victor Martinez. In return, the Red Sox sent Justin Masterson, Bryan Price and Nick Hagadone. Martinez performed admirably for the Red Sox and they did indeed make the playoffs but were swept in the first round by the Angels. Martinez had another good season for the Red Sox in 2010 but the Red Sox failed to make the playoffs. The Red Sox had little to show for their year and a half rental of Martinez and perhaps have given up one of the rising stars in the American League.

Justin Masterson had a much better 2011 season as the anchor in the Indians' rotation than most people realize. He finished with a 12-10 record for his 33 starts which is yet another reason why a pitcher's win-loss record is meaningless. According to Fangraphs' valuation methods, Masterson was tied for being the sixteenth most valuable pitcher last season. The guys he was tied with? Cole Hamels, James Shields and Daniel Hudson. That's pretty good company. Just think if Masterson had been in the Red Sox rotation last September when they sank faster than a leaky rowboat!

And the good news is that Masterson is only going to be 27 in 2012. He showed all the signs that he is going to be a star for the Cleveland Indians for years to come. Perhaps getting to learn on the job with the Indians over the past three seasons has allowed Masterson to reach his full potential. Seriously out of contention in 2009 and 2010 allowed the Indians to have patience with Masterson to give him room to grow. Those first two seasons weren't pretty as Masterson went 7-20 with a WHIP over 1.5. And the patience paid off beginning with the second half of the 2010 season. Despite his final record in 2010, Masterson cut his walks down in the second half of that season and he carried that even further into the 2011 season. His 2.7 walks per nine innings in 2011 along with an improved 2.43 strikeout to walk ratio were easily the best of his career.

But the good news doesn't stop there. Statistics show that Masterson's change up became a much better pitch in 2011 and now all three of his pitches are in the plus category. He only allowed eleven homers all season for a sparkling 0.5 homers per nine innings, again, the best of his career. Batters had a total OPS against him of .667 with a slugging percentage of .349. No matter how you judge pitching, he was terrific. If you like holding on to ERA, that was 3.21. If you prefer FIP, that was 3.28. xFIP? 3.64. SIERA? 3.68. tERA? 3.53. ERA+? 128. It's all good across the board.

Going deeper into Masterson's numbers, you have to love the way he gets batters to hit ground balls. His ground ball percentage of 55.1 percent in 2011 was just below his career average and for his career, he induces two ground balls for every fly ball he allows. Showing that Masterson is hard to square up, his lifetime line drive percentage sits at only 16.7 percent for his career. And he also increased the number of infield pop ups in 2011 pretty significantly (9.1 percent compared to a career rate of 6.4). Perhaps the real key to his success was that Masterson increased the contact rate on pitches out of the strike zone. His 70.7 percent contact rate on those pitches was up almost eight percentage points of his previous best season.

After all is said and done, so far all three projections for Justin Masterson for 2012 show a regression of his 2011 numbers. That's hard to understand. Perhaps that is a reflection of a ground ball pitcher pitching in front of a notoriously bad infield. Asdrubal Cabrera rated as the worst fielding (qualifying) shortstop last season. Jason Kipnis at second, came in with a -5.6 fielding runs. If Carlos Santana continues to play first as often as he catches, that won't help either. At least Lonnie Chisenhall over at third base seemed above average with his fielding stats last season.

Even so, it's this writer's opinion that Justin Masterson will not regress and that he'll continue to improve and will be one of the best pitchers in the American League in 2012. He shows all the signs of an emerging star and if this writer is correct, then he will continue to be the pitcher that got away for the Red Sox. And now that the same Victor Martinez is lost for the season for the rival Tigers, Masterson will have a lot to say about whether the Indians can compete in the AL Central this coming season. Oh, and by the way, Nick Hagadone has great stuff as a lefty reliever and might also be a big key for the Indians. It should be fun to watch.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

BBA Link Fest - General Aviation

Our writers in the General Chapter of the Baseball Bloggers Alliance have taken flight for another week of terrific posts. Like we do every Thursday here in the FanDome, what follows are links to pieces around the country and around the world. Please be so kind as to click the links. Our writers would be much obliged. But more than that, you'll enjoy yourself on this wintry January day.

First up, we all want to congratulate Michael Clair on his Old Time Family Baseball "blogathon" this past weekend. Working for a great cause, Michael went the distance for 24 hours and then followed that up with some great guests posts from a whole slew of writers. Most importantly, the blogathon was a rousing success and Michael met his contribution goal. Thanks to everyone in helping make that possible. Apparently, Michael doesn't require sleep as even after his big weekend, he keeps churning out content like this.

Secondly, we have a brand new member this week! We'd like to welcome Justin Jabs and his Baseblog. Check out his recap of the past year in Tampa Bay Rays bobbleheads. Very cool.

Meanwhile, over at his X-Log site, Michael Cardano doesn't think Tim Lincecum is $6.5 million better than Cole Hamels. Agreed!

Scott Annis over at Through The Fence Baseball tells us why Pablo Sandoval's new contract is great for the Giants.

Hehehe. Sully over at Sully Baseball compares Yankee fans to the fans of the Twilight movie series. Oh, that Sully...

In a fantastic post, Replacement Level Baseball Blog gives us the All-Harmony Game in honor of Martin Luther King Day.

Bill over at The Platoon Advantage is back to being @Bill_TPA after roaming the earth as Saber Boy for a while. But he's still writing like a super hero. Here's his great piece on Jamie Moyer and links him back to Babe Ruth!

In somewhat a break in form, let's celebrate our friend, MTD, from Off Base Percentage who had a great guest post on the great Baseball Prospectus. Way to go, Mr. Lloyd!

Chris Papas of NumberOneBaseball takes us back to the beginning. Check it out.

Over at MLB Reports, Doug Booth has a cautionary tale for those considering Prince Fielder. Great post! The Fan wrote a post a long time ago but can't find it now that postured that big guys have at best eight good years in them.

Andrew Martin of MLB Dirt has a terrific article and interview with Anthony Ranaudo, the Boston Red Sox prospect.

In one of the Fan's favorite posts of the week, Left Field gives us the greatest leftfielders not in the Hall of Fame. Super!

If you love baseball trivia, you've got to check out Theo's latest quiz. Love these and also check out his work on retired numbers and help him pick the next team he should do over at Hot Corner Harbor.

A pitcher's daughter was on American Idol! The Hall of Very Good gives us all the details. Cool! And, golly, can that gal sing the National Anthem!

Grubby Glove is bored with Bud Selig and isn't celebrating Selig's recent extension by MLB.

Dee Clark's great prospect series on The Golden Sombrero has been terrific from beginning to now. But the latest one on Jesus Montero cut this Fan's heart in two. Sigh.

Curley Bender over at Crum-Bum Beat calls Kerry Wood the post-modern Mr. Cub. Great post and the spot on.

Our friends across the sea at comment on the Yu Darvish deal. 

The Baseball Index has a great breakdown of the Seth Smith deal.

The OCP over at For Baseball Junkies gives us one of the best Montero-Pineda analysis this Fan has yet seen. Great job.

In another great post, Dugout 24 presents five myths about baseballs. 

TheNaturalMevs of Diamond Hoggers doubts that 2K Sports can ever make a great baseball game.

In a timely piece, Mario Salvini of Che Palle! talks about Jackie Robinson.

The always terrific Blaine Blontz gives us the scoop on the latest Fidel-ity over at Call to the Pen. What is a Fidel-ity? You'll have to read this Fan's post on new baseball lingo. Heh. Shameless Self Plug there.

The Post of the Week this week goes to Baseballism for a great post on Paul O'Neill!

Ryan Sendek of Analysis Around the Horn has a great reply to another post on things the Pirates should be doing. Read both the original article and Ryan's response. Both are terrific. 

And finally, the Fan leaves you with one terrific piece of note, this one on 85% Sports on Roy Halladay. Truly superb. And love the wordplay in the post's heading.

New Baseball Lingo

Over the years of writing in this space, posts have included outdated lingo ("can of corn") and cool lingo ("yakker"). But we really haven't added much in the way of new lingo over the years. Oh sure, there are the new statistical jargon such as WAR and wOBA. That's off the field stuff. What about on the field? This long-time Fan remembers when, "Big Fly" was relatively new (did Joe Morgan bring that to the table?). But what else has been added? How many others can you think of off the top of your head? This writer is coming up empty except perhaps, "concussion syndrome." Who wants that to be our centerpiece? Exactly.

With so little happening in the world of baseball lingo, perhaps we need to invent a few of our own. If we use a little imagination, we can freshen up the place a little bit. The easiest way to create new lingo is to base it on stuff certain players become known for. This can be a good thing or a bad thing. Take Daric Barton, for example. And after last season, the A's would probably let you have him. But he was pretty good in 2010. He led the majors in non-intentional walks, for example. But in the first half of 2010, Barton was inexplicably bunting every time he came up to bat with runners on base. He had ten by the end of the first half.

This writer doesn't know a whole lot about market inefficiencies that are the crux behind the whole Moneyball story, but bunting every at bat with a runner on base couldn't have been one of them. If this writer remembers correctly, his frustrated manager said that Barton was doing that "sacrificing" on his own. Barton must have gotten the message (and a few manager spikes up his butt) because he only had two sacrifice bunts the rest of the season. Derek Jeter has been known to do the same thing on occasion. But we'll leave Jeter out of this and use Barton for a new bit of lingo.

From now on, every time a batter bunts for a sacrifice on his own volition, we can name the action after Daric Barton. The Fan's first thought was to call it a "Bart On." That separates his last name to make it a lingo. But that doesn't have the right pizzazz to it. A player bunts and the play-by-play guy would say, "Why would he bunt there? He must have got his Bart On." Nah. Doesn't work. Perhaps the Fan is dating himself, but some time ago, there was a bombshell named Bo Derek in Hollywood. She was the featured actor along with Dudley Moore in the movie, Ten, since that's what she was. With that memory in mind, the Fan suggests that every time a batter bunts when he really shouldn't, we'll call it a "Bo Daric." Fan in the stands can watch a National League pitcher bunt with runners on first and second with one out and groan, "Oh man, not a Bo Daric!"

But our new lingo can be named after good things too. When a second baseman dives in the hole to make a great stop, we can call it an Alomar. But to make it cool, you'd have to stretch out the syllables like this: "AL-Oh-Mar!" We could call a triple a "Rollins." That would be cool. It's far sexier than calling it a "three-bagger."

What else can we come up with? This writer doesn't know about you, but, "Loogy" is fairly new jargon (hey, the Fan thought of one!) but to be frank, it's already gotten old. We have to name it after somebody. How about if we call Loogys, "Jaycees," instead? The name is in honor of J.C. Romero. But there could be better ones out there. Usage: "The Astros are going to bring their Jaycee in now to face Fielder."

Here is a list of a few more the Fan can think of. Add in your own suggestions in the comments. We can then create a poll of the submissions to see what should stick.
  • A Fidel-ity - A Cuban defector. It's got to be better than calling such a player, "defected," right?
  • Futilla - Bad hitting catcher. It's a combination of Futile and Butera. Or perhaps A Shoppage would be better in honor of last year's Bay Rays' catcher.
  • A Soriano - Any swinging strike on a slider way wide of the plate and in the dirt. Usage: "Oh man, Burnett got him to Soriano that thing." If you have any questions about this one, just watch the 2003 post season series between the Red Sox and the Yankees.
  • A Laffey - This replaces "Laugher" as the definition of a one-sided contest. Why? Because those are the only games Aaron Laffey pitches.
  • A Yu - Any Japanese post-er. Speaks for itself.
  • A Macoris - Any of the three dozen players that hail from San Pedro de Macoris in the Dominican Republic. It's just too much to say. Pronunciation: "Mack-or-eee." The fear here is that this would turn into, "macaroni" in no time.
  • A Hairball - Named after any Hairston, a family whose players are like cats because their careers have nine lives.
  • A Halladaze - Named after the Phillies' pitcher and used for any batter walking back to the dugout after a particularly baffling curve.
  • An Oxy - Any ballplayer whose name is an oxymoron such as Fielder, Outman, etc. Or it could be Angel Pagan, whose very name is an oxymoron.
  • Donkeyed - Any player who suddenly loses all ability to play the game. Named after Mr. Dunn of course. Usage: "He was a pretty good player before he donkeyed.."
  • An Albert - Any player who fails to run out a ground ball. Named after Pujols, of course."Geez, A-Rod pulled an Albert out there and trotted to first."
  • A Gardener - Any batter that looks at two fat strikes in a row to start an at bat. Named for Brett Gardner.
  • A Huffer - Any player signed to a stupid contract based on one surprising year. In honor of Aubrey Huff, of course.
  • Crawful - Any player signed to a big contract who fizzles with his new team. This comes courtesy of @soxanddawgs who used it all of 2011 for Carl Crawford. Could have been Werthless too.
  • An Ichiro - Singles.
  • A Yunick - Any Betancourt-type player you wish wasn't on your team.
  • Bronsoned - Any homer-prone pitcher that gives up a homer. 
Those are the Fan's suggestions. Can you think of any more?  Let's spice this thing up a bit!

***Update*** Just thought of another one: A Posey-do. Where a catcher ole's the runner at home to avoid a collision.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Yankees Should Extend Russell Martin

The arbitration deadline looms for the New York Yankees and Russell Martin. And if this writer was a betting man, the odds seem high that the team and its catcher are already in negotiations for a long-term deal. Now that the Yankees have determined the fate of Jesus Montero, there is no reason not to try to tie up Martin for the next three years. This will allow the team to bring Austin Romine along at a slower pace (back up catcher) and if that doesn't work out, Gary Sanchez--one of the team's best prospects--should be ready in two years.

All the latest research this author has found makes Russell Martin even more valuable than his valuation on ($13.8 million in 2011). Mike Fast's work at Baseball Prospectus on the value of framing pitches (and thus getting extra strikes), along with Bojan Kopravica's work at The Hardball Times on blocking pitches has allowed Kopravica to piggyback on Fast's work and come up with an adjusted value for catchers. From his work Martin's new WAR total would be 4.6 WAR instead of Fangraphs' 3.1. Such a study lifts Martin's true value to the Yankees last year at $20.47 million.

Obviously, you don't want to max out a contract equal to a player's actual worth. But a three year deal in the ball park of $35 million makes perfect sense. The Yankees have offered him $7 million in arbitration and Martin is asking for $8.5 million. Back load the deal so that it only costs the Yankees $8 million or so this year and the Yankees can tie up the sixth most valuable catcher in baseball for three years.

Martin's somewhat draggy offense in 2011 did dim his value. His offense was only worth about 1.9 wins in 2011. When the Fan downloaded Kopravic's spreadsheet and sorted the catchers by defensive value, Russell Martin was the second best defensive catcher in baseball last season. And most of that value is tied up in how well he frame's pitches and gets his pitchers extra strikes. That is exactly the kind of skill the Yankees need with their latest acquisitions on the pitching side of things.

Obviously, the Yankees are crying poverty right now. Translated, you can read that as being tired of being penalized for being so high in salary. But the team made a big splash to go out and get pitching. Wouldn't you want to back that up to get the second most valuable defensive catcher and the top-rated "framer" of pitches in the game? That's a no-brain decision on this end. Romine is loved by the Yankee brass for his defense. But let him learn for awhile behind Russell Martin, one of the best in the game.

Monday, January 16, 2012

If John Elway Played For the Yankees

The weekend was awash with playoff football as four games were played to decide which four teams would play for the league championships. One of the games on Saturday featured the New England Patriots at home against the Denver Broncos. That game, of course, held everyone's attention because of the match up between Tom Brady and Tim Tebow. Brady destroyed the Broncos and Tebow struggled. And during the game, mentions were made of John Elway, now a senior executive with the Broncos. Elway was once the hero of such Bronco playoff games as one of the top ten quarterbacks to play the game. With that fresh in the memory bank, Kevin Goldstein--a writer for Baseball Prospectus and ESPN and something of a Twitter hero--had the following tweet interaction:

That was all it took to fire the imagination and led to the investigation of what exactly Mr. Goldstein was talking about. This writer had vaguely remembered the power play that occurred when Elway was drafted by the then Baltimore Colts in 1983. But the details weren't remembered, nor was the baseball angle. Here is a brief recap of what occurred.

Elway, of course, was one of the most heralded quarterbacks in college football history. Playing his career at Stanford, he set several Pac-10 records for a team that never managed to make it to a bowl game. But still, Stanford played an NFL-like offense and Elway became the number one prospect in the draft. Meanwhile, he was also a terrific college baseball player at Stanford and despite the football angle, The Yankees took a flier on him and chose him at the end of the second round of the 1981 draft. 

Naturally, Elway was selected with the first overall pick in the draft by the Baltimore Colts, a team he most decidedly did not want to join. The Colts were led by a head coach long forgotten by time named, Frank Kush. Kush was dreaded taskmaster for a team nobody wanted to join because of his hard-nosed reputation. Elway said there was no way he would play there. The Colts knew this ahead of time and still drafted him with the first pick. 

Normally, this would have made Elway a villain of sorts in much the same way J.D. Drew became when he pulled the same scenario when he was drafted by the Phillies and refused to join them. But Elway's move pitted him against Robert Irsay, the unpopular owner many claimed had ruined the Colts in the early 80s. Irsay would go on to cement his bad name when he moved the beloved Colts out of Baltimore in 1984. Plus, Elway had all the leverage.

Elway could play baseball. As mentioned, the Yankees had drafted him in 1981 and Elway had a highly encouraging baseball start at Oneanta, the Yankees minor league outlet in the summer of 1982 (more on that later). Elway made it clear that if Irsay kept his football rights, he would play baseball. The ploy worked. Irsay caved and traded Elway to the Broncos for a quarterback, Mark Herrmann, rights to the Broncos' first round pick and a first round pick in the 1984 draft. The rest, of course, is history. John Elway became a superstar and Hall of Fame quarterback, author of the legendary "Drive" and two-time Super Bowl champion.

But what if Robert Irsay didn't cave? What if he had stuck to his guns? If Irsay called Elway's bluff, two things would have happened. Either Elway would have to cave and would have played for the Colts or he would have stayed and played baseball for the Yankees. History might have been very different for the Colts if Elway had played there. During the Ron Meyer years, the team was close to being playoff caliber with a running back named, Eric Dickerson. But they scored few points. Throw John Elway into that mix and the Colts could have been highly successful. But how would history be different if Elway has played for the Yankees?

Goldstein's comment found earlier in this post and the one record we have of Elway's minor league career are tantalizing. The record shows that he batted left and threw right and played 41 games for Oneanta. His slash line was, .318/.432/.464. The 41 games hint that John Elway was already an accomplished baseball player with excellent plate discipline. He only struck out 16.5 percent of the time and walked at a rate of 15.1 percent. He was an excellent base runner and stole thirteen bases in just sixteen attempts. Plus, he seemed to be a terrific right fielder. He made 69 putouts in 71 attempts (89.9 percent) and the arm that made him a quarterback was on display in the outfield where he made eight assists in just those 41 games. He didn't make a single error.

Surely, the Yankees, with George Steinbrenner at the helm, would have realized the marquee value they had in John Elway. Elway was one of the most recognizable athletes of his day. He was already 22 years old by his 1981 minor league season and many considered college baseball like the minor leagues. The Yankees would have fast-tracked him and certainly, he could have been in the majors by 1984. How would that have changed the Yankees? After titles in 1977 and 1978 and though the team made the World Series in the strike-shortened 1981 season, they famously then went zero for the 1980s and a long drought occurred until the 1996 team.

Would John Elway have made a difference? Elway didn't show much power at Oneanta, but as he matured, surely that would have come, especially as a left-handed batter at Yankee Stadium. He already had all the other tools to succeed in plate discipline, base running (he wouldn't have ruined his knees in baseball) and defense. He easily could have been a .300/.400/.500 player with positive value on the bases and in the field. 

The Yankees had some bad teams in the 1980s, but were in the mix in 1985 and 1986 (the Lou Piniella years). In 1985, the Yankees won 97 games and finished just two back of the Toronto Blue Jays. The Yankee outfield consisted of Dave Winfield, Rickey Henderson and Ken Griffey (Sr.). Griffey was on the downhill slide but was still a pretty good player, but he platooned with Billy Sample. Elway could have possibly been a two-win better player than the combination of those two. Two wins would have been enough to catch the Blue Jays.

In 1986, the Yankees were an outfielder short of being a great team. Henderson slid a little that season, but Dave Winfield was still productive. But the third outfield position was a wasteland filled with the likes of Danny Pasqua, Gary Roenicke, Claudell Washington and Henry Cotto. Griffey had been traded after 59 games to the Braves. The 1986 Yankees finished five games behind the Boston Red Sox, who would go on to the Bill Buckner World Series. Could John Elway have made a difference? Certainly.

The Yankees fell on hard times after 1986. They went a few years with their best players being guys like Steve Sax, Roberto Kelly and Scott Sanderson. It's not hard to imagine that John Elway would have been a star during those years and the Yankees' WAR leader board during those years would be different. Elway would have still been playing in 1993 and 1994. The Yankees finished well back of the Blue Jays in 1993, so Elway couldn't have made that difference himself. And there was no wild card back then. But you'd like to think he would have been a better outfield option than Dion James and Hensley Meulens. The Yankees came in first place in 1994, but the strike ended that season and no post season was the sorry result.

Speculations lead down another path too. What if the Yankees hadn't drafted Elway? Selections in that draft after Elway included such guys as a young David Cone and Tony Gwynn. How would history have changed in the Yankees had drafted one of those guys instead? Well, that will have to be another article for another time.

According to Kevin Goldstein, John Elway could have been a superstar. While the 1980s were George Steinbrenner at his worst and most manic, Elway could have brought the Yankees at least one title and maybe two if he had been a Yankee. He could have been a perennial All Star. As a baseball player, it's not hard to imagine him as a Larry Walker kind of player. But it was not to be. John Elway made his name in football as the quarterback for the Denver Broncos. History is what it is. But just imagine if John Elway had been a baseball player! The thought is tasty to ponder.


Sunday, January 15, 2012

Players to Celebrate in 2012: Omar Vizquel

This is the fourth part in a series of celebrating long-time players who we might see for the last time in 2012. This post and the one before on Pudge Rodriguez are difficult because the players in question have yet to sign deals for the 2012 season. The first three in the series also focused on what this writer figures to be Hall of Fame careers. Adding Omar Vizquel to this series runs into two problems then. First, we don't know if he'll get a job in 2012, and secondly, his career really doesn't seem like a Hall of Fame career. So why include Vizquel then?

For one thing, Omar Vizquel has been around forever. His career started six years before Jeter's. In Omar Vizquel's first season, Junior Griffey was nineteen years old, Edgar Martinez was not yet an every day player and Randy Johnson was not yet a full-time starting pitcher. Omar Vizquel was born in the 1960s. And he played his twenty-third season in Major League Baseball in 2011 at the age of 44.

But there is more to celebrate with Vizquel than just the fact that he's hung around forever. He is arguably the best fielding shortstop of his generation. Vizquel is third all time in shortstop assists. And, if you don't count Troy Tulowitzki--who has just begun his major league journey--Omar Vizquel has the highest fielding percentage of any shortstop in history. If you consider fielding percentage to have any value at all, Vizquel has had four of the top ten shortstop fielding seasons in that category. He also has a 22nd, a 26th, a 28th and so on. He has played more games at shortstop than any player in history.

But maybe defensive percentage is not your cup of tea. It's a statistic that has fallen out of favor in recent seasons. rates Vizquel with the fourth highest shortstop in total zone runs of all time. The three ahead of him are Ozzie, Belanger, Ripken and Aparicio. Yes, those guys were pretty good.

Here's kind of a mind-boggling thing. Both Fangraphs and B-R rate Vizquel's 2007 season as his best season defensively. According to Fangraphs, he was 23 runs above average that season. B-R has him at 23 as well. Vizquel was 40 years old at the time. Oddly enough, that was the first year in a long time that he didn't win a Gold Glove. He won thirteen of those awards before that. 2007 was also his last season as a shortstop in a full season.

This writer's recollection of him was as a shortstop diving all over the place getting to balls one thought were by him, hopping up and making a lollipop throw to first to just barely get the runner. Vizquel never had a cannon for an arm. In fact it was more of the opposite. But he had a quick release and he was deadly accurate.

The thing that will keep Vizquel out of the Hall of Fame was his offense. In his twenty-three seasons in the majors, his OPS+ was only twice over 100. And he had only four other seasons where it was in the nineties. His career OPS+ sits at 82. He has a career OPS of .690. He's never lead the league in any offensive category except for sacrifice bunts (four times).

He was a throwback kind of shortstop to the era when shortstops were played because of their defense and not their offense. Earl Weaver would have loved him. But there are two things you have to love about Omar Vizquel's career. First, you could absolutely tell that he loved to play baseball. When he made a great play, his smile told you that he relished such moments. There was joy in his game. He never lost his little-boy thrill of playing baseball and you could see it. You don't hang around twenty-three years and long after you're a regular player without that. Lastly, Omar Vizquel made the very most out of his meager baseball skills. He was never a great or even a good hitter. But at least he made himself not to be an easy out. He had no arm and yet he's one of the great shortstops of this or any generation. And in a game where players are six foot, two inches tall or taller, he was, "Little O."

Just to leave you a taste of what this writer saw watching Omar Vizquel do during his career, we leave you with a patented Omar play, recorded when Vizquel was 43 years old. Imagine how good he was when he was in his prime. Yeah, he could pick it alright.