I prefer counting pitchers’ actual wins to hypothetical stats like WAR

12 01 2014
Ron Guidry, photo I took in 1977 with his daughter

Ron Guidry, photo I took in 1977 with his daughter

Pitchers’ wins don’t get much respect as a pitching statistic.

I don’t understand that. Isn’t the starting pitcher’s job to win the game? Wins are simple, usually fair, and easy to understand. Maybe that easy-to-understand part doesn’t appeal to the sabermetricians. Some of them appear to prefer stats like WAR that only they can understand.

I’d try to figure out WAR if it measured actual performance or measured something that really matters. Or if it were accurate. But I just analyzed how it measured Ron Guidry‘s 1978 performance, and it wasn’t anywhere close to accurate. It doesn’t give one shred of understanding about his performance that year, while his 25-3 won-lost record tells you immediately that he was historically dominant.

After I blogged my comparisons of Guidry to Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine, Andy Smith told me that wins weren’t an important statistic for pitchers. And he asked me why I’m not a fan of WAR:

Here’s why I think wins are one of the best measures of a starting pitcher’s value: The starting pitcher’s job is to win the game. And in most games the starting pitcher has more impact on whether his team wins than any other player.

Like any stat, wins are not a perfect measure: A powerful offense can help a pitcher win a game when he doesn’t have his best stuff. Lousy defense can lose a game for a pitcher who’s throwing well. A bullpen can blow a win that the pitcher deserved (or even get the win after blowing the save). It’s a team sport and the team context matters. But over time, starting pitchers who win lots of games are always really good pitchers. And starting pitchers who don’t win games don’t last.

Here’s why I don’t place much value on WAR (wins above replacement): I prefer measuring actual performance to hypothetical stats. WAR doesn’t actually measure real wins compared to a real replacement player. Both the W and the R in this stat are hypothetical, projected by computer analysis rather than measured by performance on the field.

I appreciate every attempt to improve analysis of baseball. I used to read the annual Bill James Baseball Abstracts and have his Historical Baseball Abstract and The Politics of Glory. I’m not going to argue that the Triple Crown stats are the best way to measure an offensive player (though they are good).

But I don’t embrace a stat just because it’s new or just because the sabermetricians do. I’m not a fan of WAR for pitchers or position players. It doesn’t measure what the player actually did. It tries to strip players in a team sport away from their teams and speculates about how many more games this player’s own actions “won” above what a mythical “replacement” player from the bench or minor leagues would have won. I won’t try to explain WAR further here (I don’t fully understand it), but you can read for yourself how they figure WAR for pitchers and for hitters.

I’ll just explain, using Guidry’s 1978 season, which Andy and I were discussing, why WAR isn’t nearly as accurate or as valuable as measuring what the player actually did.

In 1978, Guidry’s record was 25-3, 22 games over .500. We don’t have to speculate about what a “replacement” player on the Yankees would have done. Jim Beattie was a replacement pitcher, a rookie who started 22 games, making the team in spring training after some injuries to veteran pitchers. He lost seven games in a row at one time and slipped out of the rotation for a while but ended up with the fourth-most starts on an injury plagued staff. Since Beattie actually played pretty much the whole season, he’s actually a notch above replacement (which WAR confirms by giving him a rating for the year of 0.7 WAR). But he’ll do.

Beattie was 6-9. So one way to measure his wins over replacement would just be Guidry’s wins (25) minus Beattie’s (6), or a WAR of 19. I think that’s a fair way, because a replacement player isn’t generally going to play a full year anyway. But that doesn’t count losses, and Beattie lost three times as many games in his 22 starts as Guidry lost in his 35 starts.

A better way to count in my view would be to compare how far they were above or below .500. The Yankees were 22 games over .500 with Guidry getting the decision, three games under when Beattie got the decision, so that way, Guidry’s WAR would be 25.

Or maybe you want to project Beattie’s performance over 35 starts, which would give him a record of 10-14. That would change the WAR to 15 just counting wins or 26 counting wins and losses.

But WAR doesn’t work that way. The WAR formula gives Guidry 9.6 wins above a mythical replacement pitcher. It tries to slice and dice a player’s contributions to the wins to figure hypothetically what that player’s number of wins is. And it’s flat wrong.

Maybe you don’t want to credit the pitcher for every win the team got. Some of those (or fractions of every win) surely must belong to the offense or defense. But can’t we agree that Guidry was the most important factor in the nine shutouts he pitched in 1978 (including his epic 18-strikeout game in June and three September two-hit shutouts, two of them against the Red Sox on consecutive starts). Beattie didn’t have a shutout, so there’s nine wins above replacement right there. So Guidry was just .6 wins above replacement in his other 26 starts? Hardly.

Let’s set the hypothetical projections aside and look at Guidry’s actual starts, breaking them into different categories, according to the pitcher’s importance in the game and how much the pitcher contributes to the likelihood of a win:

Dominant starts. I’m going to define a dominant start as pitching eight or more innings and giving up no more than one run. If a starting pitcher does this, his team nearly always wins. If not, the blame goes to the bullpen or the hitters.

Should-win starts. These will be starts where the starting pitcher goes at least six innings and gives up no more than two runs. Usually if the starter does this, his team will win, but you need at least average offensive support and maybe some bullpen help. This is a more-demanding standard than a “quality start,” which is pitching six or more innings and allowing no more than three unearned runs. I think the pitcher often bears partial responsibility for unearned runs, so I just look at runs on the scoreboard.

Keep your team in the game. This will be when the starting pitcher goes at least five innings and gives up no more than four runs, without qualifying for the top two categories. The offense and bullpen play a bigger role, but most teams will come somewhere close to breaking even in these games.

Lucky if your team wins. If the starting pitcher gives up five or more runs or pitches less than five innings, the offense and bullpen really won the game, if you win at all.

Here’s how Guidry’s 1978 year broke down:

Dominant 

Guidry pitched eight or more innings allowing zero or one run 15 times in 1978. All 15 times, Guidry won the game. Thirteen of them were complete games where the bullpen was no factor. It’s a team game and you have to score at least a run to win even with a dominant pitching performance. But in every case, Guidry was by far the most important Yankee in winning the game.

Should-win

Guidry pitched seven games of six or more innings in which he gave up two runs. In three games, he gave up only a run but came out sometime after the end of the sixth inning and before the start of the ninth. The team wins the vast majority of these games, and the Yankees won eight of Guidry’s 10.

In the one-game playoff with the Red Sox (more on that later), Guidry pitched on three days’ rest. He gave up two runs on six hits and a walk in 6 1/3 innings, strong but not dominant. Mike Torrez pitched better for six innings and led 2-0 starting the seventh. A famous (infamous if you’re a Red Sox fan) three-run homer by Bucky Dent gave Guidry and the Yankees the lead and Thurman Munson added an insurance run that inning on an RBI double. After a strikeout and a single in the bottom of the seventh, Goose Gossage replaced Guidry, leading 4-2. Reggie Jackson hit another homer and Gossage gave up two runs in the eighth, but the Yankees never lost Guidry’s lead. The game exactly fits this category. When the starting pitcher gets into the seventh allowing just two runs, he’s done his share and if the teammates provide some offense and relief pitching, he’ll get the win. Guidry did.

On the other end of the season, Guidry pitched seven innings Opening Day and gave up only one run. He left a tie game and Gossage lost the game, 2-1, in the eighth. So there’s a game Guidry pitched outstanding in and got a no-decision.

Guidry’s second loss was a 2-1 complete-game duel with Mike Flanagan. He gave up two runs, one of them earned, on a homer following an error by Dent.

In addition, Guidry left a game with the Twins in the seventh inning, leading 2-1 with the bases loaded and one out. Gossage allowed the tying run on a sacrifice fly and ended up getting a win and a blown save as the Yankees won, 3-2. Both runs were unearned but charged to Guidry.

So we have three should-win situations where Guidry didn’t win. In this context, at least, Guidry’s win total was actually diminished, not padded, by the contributions of his teammates in these three games.

On the other hand, Guidry got notable help in two games with the Tigers. Once he trailed 1-0 after eight innings. Four Yankee runs in the top of the ninth gave him the lead and Gossage got the final three outs (and allowed a run) after Guidry walked the lead-off batter in the ninth. The other time, he had a 2-2 tie after eight innings. A run in the bottom of the 8th gave him the win and Gossage saved it with a scoreless ninth.

So in 10 should-win situations, the Yankees won eight of the games and Guidry got seven wins. Adding dominant wins to should-wins, in 25 of Guidry’s 35 games he pitched six or more innings, giving up two or fewer runs. His teammates did their share most of the time. Guidry was 22-1 in those games and the Yankees were 23-2.

Keep your team in the game

Guidry kept his team in seven games, going five or more innings and giving up no more than four runs (but not strong enough to make one of the other categories). The Yankees won six of the seven, so you have to give the offense some credit for scoring runs. One was a 5-3 complete game win over the Blue Jays, so the bullpen wasn’t a factor then. Guidry also pitched into the ninth in a 5-3 win over the Indians, saved by Gossage, who also saved a 5-4 win over the Orioles after seven innings by Guidry.

In three of the games, the Yankees won but Guidry didn’t. Twice the bullpen blew saves. Once he left with the game tied 3-3 (with the tying run unearned). The offense won the games, overcoming the runs given up by Guidry, the bullpen and the defense.

In the only game in this group that the Yankees lost, Guidry pitched five innings (one of only two appearances shorter than six innings) and left leading 3-2 (only one of his runs was earned) and Gossage blew the save in a 5-4 loss.

In the seven keep-your-team-in-it games, Guidry was 3-0 and the Yankees were 6-1. Even when he gave up a few runs, he contributed notably to the victories. The Yankees were 29-3 and Guidry was 25-1 in the 32 games where Guidry dominated, pitched well enough that he should win or kept his team in the game.

Lucky if your team wins

Guidry had only three of these games, and the Yankees were lucky once. He pitched nine innings against the White Sox, giving up six runs. The game went into extra innings, tied 6-6. Gossage got the win in 11 innings. The other two games were Guidry losses and rightly so. He gave up five runs in six innings in a 6-0 shutout by the Brewers. He deserved the loss, but the offense didn’t give him a chance to win either. In his worst game of the year, and the only one shorter than five innings, he gave up five runs, three of them earned, in 1 2/3 innings against the Blue Jays. That was an 8-1 loss, sandwiched among those September two-hitters.

When you give up five runs in a game, as Guidry did in those two losses, you can’t blame the loss on the offense. But Guidry had little offensive support in his three 1978 losses, with the Yankees scoring a combined two runs.

Adding up the four categories, in the 35 games Guidry started, the Yankees were 30-5, 25 games over .500.

More on Guidry’s amazing year

The Yankees had some other good pitchers that year. Ed Figueroa was 20-9, Catfish Hunter 12-6. Beattie and Dick Tidrow had losing records, each with more than 20 starts.  They weren’t exactly “replacement” level. The Yankees, with exactly the same hitters, fielders and relievers as Guidry played with, were 69-59 in the other pitchers’ starts. His starts were 15 wins more above .500 than the rest of the staff. How does that amount to 9.6 wins above a replacement pitcher?

Without Guidry, the Yankees were a .539 team, fourth place in the American League East instead of winning the division and ultimately the World Series. In the games Guidry started, they were an .857 team, way better than any team ever over a full season. Figure those winning percentages over a full season, and the Yankees would win 87 games with the rest of the staff pitching and 139 if Guidry could pitch every day. If you want to make up a hypothetical stat, say that Guidry was 52 WAT (wins above teammates) that year.

I prefer counting actual wins. With a little luck and team support, Guidry could have approached 30 wins. But I’ll settle for 25-3 as a fair measure of his year, maybe the best year any pitcher ever had.

Do you keep your team from falling behind?

OK, perhaps I exaggerate when I say a pitcher’s job is to win the game. In the American League (there was no interleague play in 1978), a pitcher can’t score and you can’t win without scoring. So really all a starting pitcher can do is keep his team from falling behind.

In 22 games in 1978, the Yankees never trailed while Guidry was in the game. They won 21 of those games. He only trailed by three runs three times, including two of his losses. He trailed in less than 20 percent of his 273 2/3 innings.

And Yankee Stadium didn’t particularly help Guidry. His won-loss record was nearly identical at home (12-1) and on the road (13-2). His ERA was a shade better on the road (1.69 to 1.79). He dominated anywhere.

How the pitcher impacts the game

Let’s take a close look at that Bucky Dent game, which the Yankees had to win to earn the championship. Dent was the star of that game, with his surprising three-run homer (it was his fifth homer of the year) that put the Yankees ahead.

But let’s quantify which Yankees had how much impact on that game:

Dent played the whole game at shortstop. He had three other at-bats, all outs, and threw out two runners in his only defensive chances. Of the 78 plate appearances of the game by either team, he was involved in six of them, three of them positively contributing to the victory.

Jackson was the DH and the homer was his only hit in four at-bats. First baseman Chris Chambliss went 1 for 4, advanced to second on a Roy White single and scored on Dent’s homer. He made eight putouts at first base. He was involved in meaningful ways in 14 plays, 11 of them positive. Second baseman Brian Doyle went 0-for-2 and didn’t make a defensive play. Pinch-hitter Jim Spencer was 0-for-1 and second-base replacement Fred Stanley was 0-for-1 and didn’t field the ball. So the four of them combined for four meaningful plays, none of them positive. Third baseman Graig Nettles was 0-for-4 with a putout and three assists, so he was involved in eight meaningful plays, four of them positive.

Center fielder Mickey Rivers got a double and two walks in four plate appearances. He stole second twice, scored on Munson’s double, caught two fly balls and fielded four hits to center. So he figured in meaningful ways in 13 plays, at least eight of them positive (the game log doesn’t tell whether he made a play on a hit that might have saved a base, which would make another positive play; I’m assuming these were routine plays that neither cost the Yankees nor helped them win). His replacement, Paul Blair, got one hit in his only at-bat and didn’t field the ball. He was forced at second, so he was involved meaningfully in two plays, one of them positive. Lou Piniella got a single in four at-bats, was forced at second base and caught four balls in right field and fielded three hits, so he was involved in 12 meaningful plays, at least five of them positive. White had a single and a walk in his four plate appearances. He scored on Dent’s homer and caught four balls in the left field and fielded three hits. So he figured in 11 meaningful plays, at least seven of them positive.

Gossage faced 14 batters, retiring eight and giving up five hits and a walk.

Munson was in the game for all of Guidry’s and Gossage’s pitches, but I’m not counting each pitch as a play, just those that resulted in outs or runners getting on base. Certainly he played a meaningful role in calling the pitches, but he also called the pitches of the other Yankee pitchers, who didn’t pitch nearly as well as Guidry. I’ll count the strikeouts as plays for Munson, since they are recorded as putouts. He had seven putouts, an assist and a passed ball as well as a double in five at-bats. So he figured in 14 plays, nine of them positive. That’s probably an undercount, but I’m not sure how to quantify the catcher’s involvement in pitching.

The game log doesn’t count every involvement, such as taking a cutoff throw, backing up a base or a late throw trying to catch a runner at home. But that’s a pretty close assessment of the players’ involvement.

Guidry faced 26 batters. He gave up six hits and an intentional walk, so 19 of his plays were positive. No one was involved in more plays or more positive plays.

No Yankee figured in anywhere near the 26 plays that Guidry influenced. Only Munson, Gossage, Rivers and Chambliss figured in even half as many plays. And no one made anywhere near Guidry’s 19 positive plays. Only Chambliss was in double figures and seven of those were putouts at first, catching balls from Guidry, Munson and the infielders. Not quite comparable to the role of a pitcher striking out a batter or inducing a ground ball or pop fly.

Quantitatively, Guidry impacted the most plays that contributed to the win. Qualitatively, you can still say (and I wouldn’t argue) that Dent’s homer was so big he still had the biggest role in the win. You can even argue that Munson’s role behind the plate, plus his RBI double, places him even with Guidry. But clearly, Guidry had a major impact on the win.

And, as I’ve noted before, he had 15 dominant starts with significantly better impact than he had in the playoff game. Break those down and his role will be even bigger. Every time. In addition, this wasn’t one of his stronger performances in the should-win category, so he easily had 20 games where he played a bigger positive role. Guidry went deeper into the game in 28 starts than he did in the playoff game.

Wins matter. Wins get you to the post-season and to championships. No one plays a bigger role in most wins than the starting pitcher. I’d much rather judge a pitcher based on his actual wins than on some hypothetical wins above “replacement.”

Stats and other details here come from Baseball Reference.

Other posts about Ron Guidry:

Ron Guidry compares well to three Hall-of-Fame Dodger pitchers

Bert Blyleven belongs in the Hall of Fame, but not before Ron Guidry

Ron Guidry elevated the great teams he played on

Great pitchers (Justin Verlander, Ron Guidry) really are the most valuable players





Ron Guidry and Don Mattingly’s best years compare well to new Hall of Famers

9 01 2014
Ron Guidry, photo I took in 1977 with his daughter

Ron Guidry, photo I took in 1977 with his daughter

Congratulations to Greg MadduxTom Glavine and Frank Thomas on their election to the Baseball Hall of Fame.

All three were elected on the first ballot and rightly so (to the extent that the screwed-up Hall of Fame selection processes have created this stupid first-ballot-election category).

Ron Guidry and Don Mattingly will probably never make it into the Hall of Fame, but you can see that they belong there when you compare them to this year’s Hall of Famers. They aren’t better, especially when you factor longevity, which has become unduly important in Hall of Fame voting. When you measure players at their best, though, Guidry and Mattingly clearly were comparable to this year’s Hall of Famers.

I wish I could make the same case I did three years ago, comparing Ron Guidry to Maddux or Glavine as I did when Bert Blyleven made the Hall of Fame. (Guidry was significantly better than Blyleven except for longevity.) Read the rest of this entry »





Memories of Paul Blair’s brief time as a Yankee

27 12 2013

Paul Blair, photo linked from Bronx Baseball Daily

Paul Blair, best known as a Baltimore Oriole and the best defensive center fielder of his day, died yesterday.

But he was a valuable reserve on the Yankees’ 1977-78 championship teams. And he was a bit player in a famous near-fight. And he was the answer in my most memorable press-conference question.

The most-famous confrontation of the volatile relationship between Billy Martin and Reggie Jackson was a near-fight in the dugout in 1977, when aging-but-still-powerful Yogi Berra and Elston Howard restrained the manager and superstar, who were ready to fight.

I watched that one on TV. It was in Fenway Park and Jackson (never a good outfielder) had loafed in pursuit of a fly ball that fell in safely. Martin furiously sent Blair, an eight-time Gold Glove winner, in to play right field. He sent him in immediately, not between innings. So the Fenway and TV audiences got to see Jackson’s stunned reaction and his long run in from right field to the visitors’ dugout. And then the near-fight.

Actually, Blair was a frequent defensive replacement late in games for Jackson that year, playing 34 games in right field and starting only five. It’s just that in the other 28 games, Martin sent him in between innings, which wasn’t humiliating for Jackson.

Blair also played 42 games in center (starting 33) and six games in left field that year. He was their fifth outfielder, but a valuable one. Lou Piniella and Roy White shared left field. Mickey Rivers started in center and Reggie was in right. Blair was a mediocre hitter than year, batting .262 with only four homers. But he was reliable in the field, making 125 putouts and four assists, with just one error.

What I remember even better than the near-fight is Game 4 of the American League Championship Series. The Yankees needed a win to push the series to a deciding fifth game. I was managing editor of the Evening Sentinel in Shenandoah, Iowa, and the sports editor, Mike Williams, and I had jumped at the chance when the Kansas City Royals sent us instructions on how to order credentials to cover the playoffs. We didn’t cover the Royals regularly, but they were the closest team and their games ran on the local radio station, KMA. So we went down to KC for the playoffs.

Jackson started and went 0-for-3 with a strikeout and two ground balls to second. He didn’t hustle down the line on the second ground ball, the second out of the seventh inning. I thought Martin looked angry, but nothing happened in the dugout and, let’s face it, Martin always looked angry. But Blair came out to right field in the bottom of the inning, early for a defensive replacement, but Martin was trying to protect a 5-4 lead.

Blair got an at-bat that normally would have been Jackson’s, singling to center. He caught a fly ball from Fred Patek in the ninth (I don’t remember how difficult it was).

Our credentials didn’t give us access to the locker rooms but did let us into the post-game press conferences. In the press conference, I asked Martin why he took Jackson out of the game. He snapped, “To put Paul Blair in. Next question.”

That wasn’t the most memorable part of the game. What was most memorable was how Martin used Sparky Lyle, his bullpen closer, who won the Cy Young Award that year. Though the Yankees scored five early runs, starter Ed Figueroa was ineffective and Martin replaced him with Dick Tidrow in the bottom of the fourth inning, leading 5-3 with Patek on second after an RBI double. Tidrow gave up a double and a walk and got one out.

The Yankees’ lead, once 4-0, was down to 5-4, with two outs in the fourth inning. And Martin brought in his closer. Can you imagine Joe Torre ever going to Mariano Rivera in the fourth inning? Or any manager today going to his closer that early?

And the amazing thing was that Lyle closed out the game. He pitched 5 1/3 innings, giving up two hits, no walks and no runs.

And Lyle was back out the next night for Game 5, replacing Mike Torrez with two outs in the eighth inning and the Yankees trailing 3-2. After the Yankees got three runs in the top of the ninth, Lyle got the win with a scoreless ninth. (By the way, Jackson played that whole game as DH, with Blair playing right field and going 1-f0r-4.)

Lyle also got the win in relief in Game 1 of the World Series, so he won three straight post-season games. He actually blew the save in the ninth inning of that game, but pitched 3 2/3 innings to get the win.

But this is a post about Paul Blair, so I need to bring it back to him. You know who won that game? Paul Blair drove in Willie Randolph in the bottom of the 12th with a walk-off single to center.

He wasn’t a Yankee for long, but he was a terrific role player with a lot of class. RIP.

Stats and details of the game come from Baseball Reference.





Joe Torre should have made the Hall of Fame as a player

15 12 2013


Catching up on off-season Yankee news:

Joe Torre is a Hall of Famer — finally

I actually intended to write a post sometime this year making the case for Joe Torre‘s election to the Hall of Fame. But the Expansion Era Committee chose Torre to enter the Hall of Fame this year, along with his managing peers Tony LaRussa and Bobby Cox.

All three managers are clear Hall of Famers, ranking third (LaRussa), fourth (Cox) and fifth (Torre) on the all-time wins list for managers.

Torre was a strong candidate for the Hall of Fame as a player and probably should have been chosen on that basis, regardless of his performance as a manager. He and Elston Howard were the best catchers of the 1960s and most people who were best of their era at a position are in Cooperstown. He was a nine-time All-Star and most eligible players who’ve made that many All-Star teams are in the Hall. He also was MVP in 1971 (after moving to third base), leading the league in batting, RBI and hits.

No Hall of Fame catcher topped Torre’s career figures in all of the triple-crown categories (.297, 252 HR, 1185 RBI) as well as his 2,342 hits, and each of those figures ranks in the top half of all Hall of Fame catchers. Among third basemen, only George Brett topped Torre in all four categories, and his totals again measure up as a Hall of Famer compared to the third basemen in Cooperstown. And he won a Gold Glove as a catcher, so he wasn’t being kept out of Cooperstown because of defensive deficiencies (though he wasn’t good defensively at third). Read the rest of this entry »





Wrapping up the 2013 season: Congrats to Red Sox, Mo, Pettitte

2 11 2013

Reflections on the 2013 season:

Hat tip to the Red Sox!

Something that Red Sox fans and Yankee haters don’t understand is that Yankee fans (most of us anyway, in my experience) don’t hate the Red Sox the way that Red Sox fans and Yankee haters hate the Yankees.

Yes, when the Yankees are playing the Red Sox, I hate them and revel in every win against them (and felt pain at this year’s losses). But when they’re not playing each other, the Red Sox are among my favorite non-Yankee teams. And certainly this year, when they played classy after last year’s debacle and all of the nation was feeling “Boston strong,” I enjoyed watching the Red Sox play and win. (I think sports get exaggerated as healing for a city, but I got caught up in the Yankees’ near-win after 9/11, and I was glad to see Boston have this to feel good about.)

I’m a cancer survivor who enjoys the success of Jon Lester. I’ve always enjoyed watching David Ortiz play (well, maybe not always; 2004 wasn’t so enjoyable) and enjoyed both his post-Marathon exhortation and his post-season hitting (and walking) binge this year.

If the Hall of Fame ever starts admitting players who’ve been tainted in the performance-enhancing-drugs scandals, I’ll probably be cheering for Big Papi to get his place in Cooperstown. The Hall of Fame needs some DH’s and Papi might deserve to be the first pure DH to win enshrinement.

Of course, the Red Sox hired a good manager and acquired some good players, but mostly I think this year established once and for all that Bobby Valentine is a horrible manager.

Farewell to Mo!

I’ve blogged before about why Mariano Rivera is one of the most unique baseball players ever and why he’s one of the most incomparable pro athletes ever in any sport.

I might not take note again of Mo’s retirement except for the post by ESPN’s Jim Caple (I considered not linking to it here because it was pure click-bait, but I believe in linking, so I did) that twisted and selectively used stats to pretend that Rivera and closers in general are overrated.

I presume Caple was not watching the post-season, where Koji Uehara was the biggest reason that the Red Sox beat the Tigers to make it to the World Series.

Here’s how important closers are (and specifically how important Rivera was): The Atlanta Braves of the 1990s had a strong offense, including certain Hall of Famer Chipper Jones. They had three certain Hall of Fame starting pitchers in their prime (Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz) and some other pretty good pitchers and players.

The Yankees of that period had Derek Jeter, a certain Hall of Famer in his prime, and some pretty good players and some pretty good pitchers (Roger Clemens would be a sure Hall of Famer if not tainted with suspicion of using performance-enhancing drugs). But they didn’t have anything as fearsome as that Braves rotation. Except for Mo. The Braves had weak closers (until Smoltz moved to the bullpen, when the team was on the wane). And the Braves won one World Series to four for Rivera in the same stretch (and another later, when Mo was still going strong and the Braves’ starters had scattered).

ESPN should have higher standards than publishing ignorant click-bait nonsense.

Farewell to Andy Pettitte

I noted the first time he retired that Pettitte had a strong case for being a Hall of Famer but wouldn’t make it. In his return to the game, he added a few wins, but he still won’t make it. He has more post-season wins than anyone and a better career than quite a few Hall of Fame pitchers. But he’s borderline as a Hall of Fame candidate, even if he wasn’t tainted by use of human growth hormone. I reserve my Hall of Fame outrage for those who absolutely belong in Cooperstown.

But as a Yankee fan, I remember Pettitte’s 15 years in pinstripes fondly. He always pitched with grit and class.

Good riddance to A-Rod

When the Yankees traded Alfonso Soriano for Alex Rodriguez after the 2003 season, I said I’d rather have Soriano over the next seven seasons (the time remaining on A-Rod’s 10-year contract). Well, A-Rod won two Most Valuable Player awards for the Yankees and finally contributed to a World Series championship in 2009 after (and before) several post-season disappointments.

The Yankees won four World Series and played in six in the 10 years before A-Rod arrived. They made it to one World Series on his his watch. He also had two drug scandals. That’s not a successful tenure, not for one of baseball’s best-ever players on the most successful sports franchise ever.

One of A-Rod’s most memorable moments as a Yankee was a fight he didn’t even start, when Jason Varitek of the Red Sox followed A-Rod down the first-base line after Bronson Arroyo hit A-Rod, probably on purpose. A-Rod didn’t charge the mound, but he was jawing at Arroyo on his way to first base, as many hitters do after being hit. Varitek was certainly OK to stay between the hitter and the pitcher in that situation, but if there’s going to be a fight here, the guy who got hit by the pitch should start it.

Amazingly, Varitek hit A-Rod with both hands while still wearing his catcher’s mask and helmet. It was perhaps the most cowardly punch in the history of baseball fights. Can you imagine the outrage if Jorge Posada, protected by his catching gear, had taken a swing at Big Papi (or even Manny Ramirez)? But because a guy who was widely liked was swinging at the most-hated player on the most-hated team, Varitek was lauded for his grittiness and his leadership. It showed as clearly as anything how universal the A-Rod hatred was.

And the dust-up with Arroyo had an equally bizarre second chapter: In Game 6 of the 2004 American League Championship Series, A-Rod hit a weak grounder with Jeter on first base and one out, with the Red Sox leading 4-2. Arroyo fielded and was reaching to tag A-Rod near first base. A-Rod swatted the ball away and was called safe and Jeter raced home to make it a one-run game.

But after Terry Francona argued, the umpires conferred and reversed the call, invoking a weird rule I’ve never seen cited before or since: You can’t knock the ball out of a guy’s glove with your hand. Base runners always try to kick the ball loose and you can knock the everloving crap out of a catcher (think Pete Rose) to knock the ball loose, but you can’t swat it. So A-Rod would have been fine to run right through Arroyo, but not swat his glove.

But it was A-Rod. And the Red Sox were about to sweep the Yankees on their way to breaking their supposed Curse. So there was no outrage about the stupid rule.

I tried to be sympathetic to A-Rod. If he hadn’t cheated — again — I might have at least had mixed feelings about him. But I  wish the Yankees had never made that trade. I wish they had not extended his contract. I presume and hope we’ve seen the last of A-Rod in pinstripes. I was glad to see Soriano return as A-Rod’s Yankee career was wrapping up.

Jeter’s coming back

I was giving some thought to a blog post wondering whether four such great players as A-Rod, Rivera, Pettitte and Jeter had wrapped up their careers the same year with the same team before. If A-Rod’s really done, it’s still a valid question. Might be a valid question anyway to ask just about Rivera and Pettitte. But Jeter‘s not done yet.

I’m not sure how I feel about him signing for another year. I’d like to see him return to his 2012 form. I’d like to see him get another crack at the post-season. I’d like to see him make a run at 4,000 career hits. But I’m doubtful that any of that is possible.

When the 2012 season ended, Jeter had an outside shot at Pete Rose’s all-time hit record. But his long return from injury this year, followed by new injuries, makes me think his career’s about over. If he has another good year or two in him, I’ll be glad to see him back. If he comes back to struggle, I won’t like watching that.

Shake off the tough calls

I hated the way Game 3 of the World Series ended: with umpire Jim Joyce giving a run to the Cardinals that they didn’t earn. I think Joyce made the wrong call. I think even as the obstruction rule is written, it was Allen Craig’s step toward second base that put Will Middlebrooks in his path. Middlebrooks was nowhere between third base and home, so Joyce should not have called obstruction. While Craig didn’t seek out Middlebrooks to get the call, the fact that Joyce called it could result in runners deliberately colliding with fielders who aren’t in their way, trying to get bogus obstruction calls.

Baseball should rewrite that rule to specify that incidental contact with a fielder who’s not between the bases is not obstruction.

Even if that was the right call, it was bizarre and tough, an unfair outcome to the Red Sox (though the catcher never should have thrown the ball).

But champions shake off the bad calls and the tough calls, as I’ve noted before here (and as the Yankees didn’t do after that Arroyo-A-Rod call in 2004). Game 3 was the last game the Red Sox lost. Of course, they wouldn’t necessarily have won the game if Joyce hadn’t given the Cardinals the winning run. The game would have gone into extra innings, and it was anyone’s game. But if the Red Sox had won that game and the next two, their fans wouldn’t have had that wonderful celebration in Fenway.

Losers whine forever about bad calls. Champions overcome them.

2013 in review

Given their injuries, the Yankees made a decent showing. They hung in there in April and May, took over first place with a strong run in June and July, then faded in August. Even though they remained in the wild card chase well into September, they never looked like a champion.

I enjoyed three Yankee games, watching them play in Yankee Stadium, Camden Yards and Target Field. I got to see two Rivera saves and Sabathia’s 200th win.

 

Looking ahead to 2014

If Jeter, Mark Teixeira, Curtis Granderson return healthy and in top form, and if the Yankees re-sign Robinson Cano, they should be good next year. But how likely is that? They have some decent (but not great) starting pitching, and Dave Robertson might be ready to step into the closer role. But mostly 2015 feels like a rebuilding year to me.

I’d like to see the rebuilding come from a strong farm system. The dynasty of the ’90s was built heavily on homegrown talent: Jeter, Rivera, Pettitte, Jorge Posada, Bernie Williams.

But I’m not aware of that kind of talent in the minors now. I expect some trades and free-agency signings. Optimism doesn’t abound.





Tommy John belongs in the Hall of Fame as a member, not a special guest with his surgeon

26 07 2013

Tommy John, photo linked from mlbreports.com

The Hall of Fame is recognizing Tommy John’s undeniable fame Saturday, but not by inducting him as a member. What could more clearly illustrate how farcical Hall of Fame selection has become?

John will be honored with the surgeon who pioneered Tommy John surgery, Dr. Frank Jobe. That’s fine, and certainly Jobe deserves to be honored by the Hall of Fame. But, as I’ve noted here before, Tommy John deserves to be a full-fledged Hall of Famer based on his pitching career but especially based on his role as the trailblazer who showed about 500 other pitchers the way back from an injury that used to end careers. It’s called Tommy John surgery, for crying out loud!

But let’s set aside the surgery for a while. Tommy John is a clear Hall of Famer based on his credentials, however you examine the record:

With the exception of Roger Clemens, who’s being kept out of Cooperstown because of allegations about performance-enhancing drugs, every eligible pitcher who played in the 20th Century with as many wins as Tommy John is in the Hall of Fame (and more than 30 pitchers with fewer wins than John are in the Hall of Fame). Read the rest of this entry »





Mariano Rivera — incomparable in all sports

4 07 2013

I’ve been pleased to see Mariano Rivera pitch twice (and nail down the save both times) in his farewell season.

He gave up one hit in the ninth to the Twins last night, putting the tying run on base in a 3-2 game. But that just set him up against the Twins’ best hitter, Joe Mauer, with two outs. Mo got him to pop up weakly for the final out.

When Rivera became the all-time career saves leader in 2011, I wrote about how unique he was in baseball history.

Even then he stood so far above every other reliever that I compared him to Babe Ruth, Rickey Henderson and Nolan Ryan as baseball players whose achievements were so far above everyone else that they stood alone.

With his amazing comeback this year from major surgery at age 43, Rivera is making himself unique in team sports history. As ESPN’s Jason Stark noted earlier this year, no one in team sports history has had as dominant a season like Rivera is having at this age. Read the rest of this entry »








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