Friday, February 12, 2010

Frank Thomas Retires

Upon first hearing the story that Frank Thomas was announcing his retirement, this writer was a bit baffled. Wasn't he already retired? Apparently not. He didn't play in 2009 because no one offered him a job, which is a rather ignominious way to end what was a brilliant career. The previous sentence is even more stark in the little news that covered the slugger's absence from the game. After all, for a ten year period, he was one of the best batters in baseball. At least his formal announcement will give the baseball world some time to catch up and encapsulate his career, something that wasn't happening last year when he didn't play and very few people noticed. And it was a career worth talking about.

By any of the current player measurements, Frank Thomas was a great player. He led the league in OPS four times and OPS+ three times. He finished with a .974 career OPS. His career line finished at: .301/.419/.555. The .419 for On Base Percentage is what everyone will remember. Frank Thomas walked a LOT. He walked more than he struck out in his career. He walked over 100 times in a season ten times, including eight years in a row.

But he also hit the crap out of the ball when he did swing. He finished with 521 homers and had eleven seasons where he drove in more than 100 runs. And Frank Thomas was big. He was six foot, five inches tall and played close to 265 pounds. He led the league in doubles once and hit over 30 homers nine times.

Frank Thomas finished in the top ten for MVP eight times. He won the award twice. His career WAR (wins over replacement) finished up at 75.9. To get some perspective on that number, Jim Thome sits at 66.9 and Hall of Famer, Eddie Murray finished at 66.7. Of course, that figure would have been higher if he hadn't been a first baseman/DH. Thomas wasn't much of a first baseman. His counting stats also suffered from three lost seasons in 2001, 2004 and 2005 when he missed most of those seasons.

Thomas had one last great season for the Oakland A's in 2006 and a very good campaign for the Blue Jays the following year. But in reality, he was never the force after 2001 that he was from 1991 to 2000. His slow and gradual decline, broken by a few over the top seasons after 2000 probably accounts for his low profile and lack of recognition from the average fan. In that regard, his career most compares to Harmon Killebrew whose career path was very similar.

Is Thomas a Hall of Fame candidate? Count the Fan with a resounding YES. His career exemplified power and patience and few ever did it better. By the way, there was another Frank Thomas who played when the Fan was growing up. He was also big (6' 3") and had a nice career from 1951 to 1966. He hit 286 homers. So the combined total of 807 homers by the pair of Frank Thomases has to be a record for any one name.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Tale of Three Pitchers

Three pitchers that figured greatly in their teams' runs to the playoffs and beyond have been in the news this week. Two will be pitching for different teams and one is still under contract. All three have had varying levels of success, two of them have had high levels of success. All faced difficulties in 2009 and have serious question marks behind their names. The three? Todd Wellemeyer, Chien-Ming Wang and Daisuke Matsusaka.

Wellemeyer just signed with the Giants, so let's start with him. Two years ago, he seemed to be another of Duncan's miracles for the Cardinals. He went 13-9 with an ERA of 3.79. After never throwing more than 79 innings in any season in his years with the Royals, Cubs and Marlins, he threw 191 quality innings for the Cardinals.

Then 2009 came and Wellemeyer had a dud. His record sunk to 7-10. His ERA ballooned to 5.89 and his hits per nine and homers per nine innings were downright scary. So the question needs to be asked, is he as good as 2008, or as bad as 2009? The answer is probably no to both.

After playing around with Wellemeyer's numbers, it appears that he was pretty lucky in 2008. His BABIP or Batting Average for Balls in Play was a ridiculous .267. It was an even more absurd .216 on ball hit on the ground. His 20.6% line drive percentage was high, his walks per nine were high and he gave up 25 homers. But the Cardinals had a good team, a good defense and they won a good percentage of his games.

As lucky as Wellemeyer was in 2008, he was as unlucky in 2009. His BABIP shot up to .357 including .330 on ground balls. Remember that he had Schumaker out of position at second base and a rotating case of fielders at third and short whereas he had Troy Glaus at third and Cesar Izturis at short and Adam Kennedy at second (a good fielding infield) in 2008. .300 is about right for BABIP and would be considered neutral on the luck scale. But BABIP also shows fielding skills behind a pitcher. Wellemeyer had good fielding support in 2008 and lousy support in 2009. The Cardinals were 11th out of 16 teams in fielding percentage in the NL.

So what can the Giants expect? Probably a league average pitcher. He fared well in relief last year after he lost his rotation spot. He walks too many and gives up his fair share of homers, but whether he is in relief or starting, he should give them a shot at winning any game at least. It should also be noted that last year, he was coming off a year in which he threw more innings than ever before. That had to be some kind of factor as well.

Chien-Ming Wang has been reported close to a deal with the Nationals. The question begs as to why the Yankees gave up on him. What do they know that they aren't telling anyone? After all, before his injury in 2008 (running the bases in an interleague game), he had gone 54-22 for the Yankees. That's a pretty darn good winning percentage, eh? And it wasn't a fluke. In 2006 and 2007, his ERA+ was over 120.

So Wang got hurt and when he tried to come back last year, he had one of the most horrendous starts in the history of baseball. The Fan watched most of those games and has never seen a pitcher get so rocked...ever! Obviously, he wasn't right. After spending some time on the DL, he came back late in the year and pitched three games in relief. The numbers looked good for those outings too. So given his history, and given the state of pitching in the game, why would the Yankees just let him walk? Only they know. But it will be interesting to see if they were right or if he comes back and pitches well for his new team.

If he does sign with the Nats and can give them some semblance of his former self, they could be a lot more fun to watch this year than last. They already have Marquis, so they could have some decent starters at least.

Daisuke Matsusaka (his nickname of Dice-K is MUCH easier to say) is pretty much in the same boat as Wang except he still has a contract with his old team. If he didn't, odds would be that he wouldn't still be with the Red Sox either, especially when he angered his manager in a dispute over his conditioning and the state of his shoulder.

Like Wang, Dice-K had a dreadful year to forget in 2009. After two years of success, he apparently hurt his shoulder in the World Baseball Waste of Time Thingy. He never could get started for the Red Sox, but since they have committed a lot of money with him, he will get a chance to prove he can pitch again for the Red Sox--something Wang didn't get from the Yankees.

But again, Dice-K's numbers are interesting. He fared moderately well in 2007. His BABIP was right where it should have been at .301. He walked way too many batters, but struck out a passel of them too. His 18-3 in 2008 was something of a fluke. His BABIP was an insane .260 which also showed how good the Red Sox were in the field. His walks were still high and he has showed a propensity over the years to pitch worse when runners are on base and he has to pitch out of the stretch. His saving grace is his strikeouts--consistently in the 8.2 K/9 range for his career.

Last year, he wasn't quite as bad as much as he wasn't quite that good in 2008. His BABIP shot up to .382 which is REALLY high. Everyone agrees (including the Red Sox themselves) that the Red Sox did not field well last year. Shortstop was particularly painful.

So what does this tale of three pitchers tell us? First, things sure do change from year to year, don't they? Second, if all three are healthy, they could help the teams they will be pitching for. Predictions? Dice-K, from all accounts has worked hard on strengthening his shoulder and legs and should finish with an ERA+ between 115 and 125. Wang, if he is healthy, should finish with an ERA+ of between 100-110 and Wellemeyer will be anywhere from 95 to 105. If those predictions were to come true, everyone who employs them should be quite happy.

Monday, February 08, 2010

Real Life Versus Unreal Life

Life takes on new perspective when money is tight. When money is tight and life is about survival from week to week, which it is for 90 percent of us in this country, then the unreality of someone paying $103,579 for a baseball...any surreal. But that is how much money it cost some lucky bid winner to buy the baseball that Alex Rodriguez hit for his 500th homer.

Normally, this Fan doesn't exercise in this kind of futility when players' salaries are discussed. After all, $4 million a year for marginal players is not even computable in this Fan's brain. But a number like $103, 579 is a number that the brain can wrap around. It's not so big a number that the average Joe cannot understand what it means. And for most of us, it means a lot.

To put it into perspective, that much money would buy 36,992 gallons of heating oil, or enough to completely fill a home owner or renter's home tank 148 times. That would get you through a few winters, eh? For the struggling family, that amount of money would supply over 1,000 weeks of groceries. It would pay 695 power bills. It would pay 1726 months of cell phone service. For those of us who dream of traveling for vacation, it would buy 478 plane tickets. It would buy five modest new vehicles for families or 50 used ones.

All that money for a baseball that because of our obsession with stats and numbers, is seemingly worth so much more than the 499th homer or the 501st. All that money was spent for a baseball that will sit in someone's trophy case and do nothing for nobody.

Look, the Fan gets it. The Fan once spent $275 for a 1968 Mickey Mantle (Topps) baseball card. It's cool to collect things...that is until you fall on hard times and the money seems like a travesty. Imagine how many folks in Haiti that money would help. But the story has a good flip side. The average Joe who happened to be lucky enough to catch Alex Rodriguez's 500th homer ball, just made enough money (minus the auctioneer's take) to buy all that fuel oil, groceries, cars or plane tickets. Good for him.

Sunday, February 07, 2010

Coming to Terms With Greatness

The following is one of the most obvious statements in history. Wait for it... Here it comes... Hank Aaron was a great baseball player. But while that statement is obvious to anyone who knows baseball at least a little bit, the belief held here is that very few have a good idea of how good he was. To put it in an even more obvious statement and this STILL an understatement: Henry Aaron was an incredible player.

Hank Aaron wasn't flashy. He wasn't the "Say Hey Kid." He wasn't white and beloved like Mickey Mantle. He wasn't nasty or arrogant like Barry Bonds. He wasn't a big kid like Babe Ruth. But despite all of those things, Aaron might be the best all around player that ever lived. It's impossible to compare eras of course and such a statement is impossible to prove. But the point is that Aaron's greatness is understated by those who have loved the game for a long time.

Part of Aaron's problem was that he played originally in Milwaukee when the Braves played there. He didn't play on a lot of nationally televised games except for the All Star Game every year. He played in two World Series and one NLCS (late in his career). The Braves won only one championship during the Aaron years. And even his chase of Babe Ruth late in his career was not the overwhelming story you would have thought it should have been. Commissioner, Bowie Kuhn, didn't even bother attending the games.

But Aaron was remarkable and he was remarkable for a long, long time. He batted over .300 fourteen times in his career. He drove in over 100 runs thirteen times. And it wasn't just homers that tell the story of Aaron. He also hit over 600 doubles and 98 triples in his career. He is the all time leader in total bases thanks to his 1477 career extra base hits. Let that number sink in for a second. 1477 career extra base hits. 39% of his 3771 career hits went for at least a double or more.

And if his career 155 OPS+ and 2297 RBIs (the all time record) don't grab you, he had less career strikeouts than he did walks. He also stole 240 bases at a 77% success rate. Too bad he didn't have three more RBI because then he would have had 2300 in 23 seasons or 100 for every season he played.

And it wasn't just the homers, the extra base hits, the RBIs, the stolen bases, the OPS+. He was also an excellent fielder. His career runs above replacement player in the outfield add up to 104.1. His career range factor was above league average. His career fielding percentage was above league average. He also threw out 201 runners in his career.

The Fan never really thought much about Hank Aaron. He played in the National League and thus was not often on this Fan's radar screen. It was a surprise when he was going for Babe Ruth's homer record. It was a surprise at the time that he had more than Willie Mays.

In fact, it's a fun exercise to compare Aaron with Mays in every category. Mays had 93 more stolen bases with the same success rate. Their career OPS+ is a wash (155 for Aaron, 156 for Mays). Their career batting averages were nearly the same. Mays had a higher OBP for his career, Aaron a higher Slugging Percentage. Mays struck out more, but not by much. If you restore the year and three quarters that Mays lost to the military, his homer and extra base total may have been near Aaron's. The one big difference is that Mays was a better fielder (as good as Aaron was).

But again, the bottom line is that Mays is given credit for being one of the best all around players (you've heard the term, "Five Tool") of all time. But Aaron is right there too. Can you only imagine how much money those two would have made in today's market? But not only are these two of the best players of all time, but they entered baseball soon after Jackie Robinson and while Robinson was a very good player, Aaron and Mays were much, much better and as the elite players of their era, had to endure harsh bigotry.

Yeah, it's easy to overlook Hank Aaron. And unfortunately, Willie Mays left his last years with the Mets in a lot of people's minds. But man, they were brilliant for a long, long time.