Archive for August, 2005

Rivera deserves the AL Cy Young

These days in the Bronx, winning isn’t coming easy to baseball’s highest-paid players. With a pitching staff in tatters, getting a night with the lead hasn’t become easy for the game’s most potent offense.

Yet, this year, Yankee games are only 8 innings long, for when Metallica’s “Enter Sandman? starts thumping from the PA system at the Stadium and Number 42, Mariano Rivera, Number 42, comes trotting out of the bullpen, it’s all over.

For Rivera, this is nothing new. During his career, Rivera has saved 367 games, good for fifth all time. His postseason resume – 32 saves and a 0.75 ERA in 108.6 innings – is without comparison in the game’s history.

Now, it’s time for Rivera to earn one award that has long alluded him: the Cy Young. In a wide-open race in the American League, Rivera truly has been the best pitcher and the most important cog in the stumbling Yankee juggernaut.

No matter how they’re spun, Rivera’s numbers are astounding. First, Rivera’s recorded 31 saves this year and all of them in a row. His two blown saves against the Red Sox in early April seem a distant memory. During the 2005 campaign, Rivera has been in 48 games. He’s thrown 52.1 innings, and he’s given up a meager six earned runs for a 1.03 ERA.

But wait, it gets even better. In those 52.1 innings, Rivera has allowed just 27 hits. That’s one hit nearly every two innings. He’s walked 11 and struck out 59. Opponents are hitting a whopping .148 off of him with a .202 slugging and a .199 on-base percentage. It doesn’t get any better than that.

Except that it does. Discounting those two disastrous games against the Red Sox in April, Rivera’s numbers are even more unbelievable. Since April 7, Rivera has been in 46 games. He’s thrown 50.2 innings with an ERA of 0.71. He’s walked eight while striking out 56 and hasn’t surrendered a home run. He’s also given up just 22 hits in that span.

Rivera’s dominance is unprecedented in recent times, and there is no reason why he should not win the Cy Young. Rivera, though, will face an uphill battle. The BBWAA voters are often loathe to give the Cy Young out to a reliever. They seem to feel that guys who go every five days contribute more to the overall success of a team than a closer. While Eric Gagne won the 2003 Cy Young during his record-setting run of consecutive saves, Dennis Eckersley was the only relieve to win the Cy Young during the 1990s. Of the 50 Cy Young Awards given up in the NL and AL combined since 1980, only five of them have gone to relievers.

Despite this inherent bias, it will be tough to deny Rivera his rightful award simply because the American League has not produced a clear-cut starting pitcher who deserves this award. Looking at the win and ERA leaders, two popular categories among the BBWAA voters, a few names jump out. Roy Halladay, Mark Buerhle, and Jon Garland are on the list. Yet the three of them have hardly been overwhelming pitchers.

While he has won 16 games, Garland has managed just 72 strike outs in 152 innings. Opponents are hitting a fairly pedestrian .255 against him. At 13-5 and with a 2.99 ERA, Buerhle seems to be a legitimate contender. Yet, his July ERA was 5.01, and he was shelled by the Red Sox tonight. Roy Halladay is out indefinitely, and his 19 starts wouldn’t qualify him in the eyes of the voters.

On the West Coast, there are two other candidates worth considering: Rich Harden and Barry Zito. Zito’s season numbers aren’t remarkable. He’s 11-8 with a 3.62 ERA and 117 strike outs in 164 innings. Yet, opponents are hitting just .217 off of him, and he’s given up 35 fewer hits than innings pitched. Zito also has a winning streak that has propelled the A’s to the top of the West going for him. Since June 18, Zito is 8-0 with a 2.27 ERA. If he continues to drive the A’s toward the playoffs, he will emerge once again as a serious Cy Young contender.

Then finally, there is Rich Harden, a 23-year-old phenom for the A’s. Due to injuries, Harden is just a few innings short of qualifying for the ERA leaderboard. He is 9-5 with a 2.99 ERA. In 108.2 innings, he has 99 strike outs. Opponents are hitting .214 off of him. But he too will suffer from a lack of wins by the season’s end. Harden has around eight starts left. For him to earn serious consideration, he’ll have to win seven of those while keeping his ERA down and his strike outs up.

With this weak field, there’s no reason for anyone to deny Mariano Rivera what is rightfully his. If this seriously flawed Yankee team makes it to the playoffs, it will be as a result of Rivera’s pitching. If they fail, it will be in spite of a phenomenal campaign by the 35-year-old reliever. The 2005 Cy Young Award should simply be another part of Rivera’s resume as he builds his portfolio on the way to Cooperstown.

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Failed drug test dims Palmeiro’s star power

A few weeks ago, Rafael Palmeiro was the talk of the baseball world. On Friday, July 15, just two days into the second half of the season, Palmeiro launched a double into the corner in Safeco Field in Seattle to join the 3000-hit club. More impressively, at the time, he also joined Hank Aaron, Eddie Murray, and Willie Mays as the fourth member of the 3000-hit, 500-home run club.

Today, though, Palmeiro is the latest and most prominent poster boy for baseball’s ongoing steroid scandal. Shortly before this afternoon’s Orioles-White Sox game, Palmeiro was suspended 10 games for violating baseball’s drug policy.

While the policy does not allow MLB or Palmeiro to disclose the banned substance for which he tested positive, the slugger denied that he knowingly took anything illicit. “Although I never intentionally put a banned substance into my body,” he said, in a statement, “the independent arbitrator ruled that I had to be suspended under the terms of the program.”

For baseball, Palmeiro’s failed drug test for whatever substance he claims he did not know he took couldn’t have come at a worse time. Just 24 hours ago, baseball was reveling in its most celebratory of occasions as Wade Boggs and Ryne Sandberg, two guys who supposedly “played the game right” and would have been accused at most of eating too much chicken, were inducted into the Hall of Fame. These two players, with a combined 400 career home runs in over 17,000 at-bats, would never be suspected of steroid use. It was clean baseball, denying the tainted era of the last few decades.

At the same time, the old poster boy for steroids, Yankees slugger Jason Giambi, was wrapping up a month in which he hit .355 with a .524 OBP, a .974 slugging percentage, and 14 home runs. Giambi, if he were truly clean, showed to the world that steroids don’t help someone who can already hit for power and get on base. They just cause problems.

Now, it’s a new week, and Rafael Palmeiro, the Orioles, and baseball are once again confronted with something that just causes problems. For Palmeiro, on a day-to-day basis, he has let down his team and his teammates. The Orioles are currently clinging to their Wild Card dreams. Their loss today dropped them a season-high three games under .500 and Baseball Prospectus’ Playoff Odds Report has the Orioles making the playoffs only 3 percent of the time when the remainder of the season is simulated one million times.

Now, as the Orioles face 10 games against the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, the Texas Rangers, and the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, they will be without their power-hitting first baseman. Palmeiro, hitting .280/.354/.472 this year with 18 home runs, has been a key cog in the Orioles’ lineup. For 10 days that will make or break the Orioles’ season, Rafael Palmeiro will watch from the stands.

For Rafael Palmeiro, the baseball player, this suspension raises all sorts of questions about the legitimacy of his past accomplishments. Palmeiro, named earlier this year in Jose Canseco’s infamous book, has long denied any steroid use. His is a career .289/.371/.516 hitter with 569 home runs, good for ninth all-time. His 1834 RBIs rank him 14th all-time. While many analysts have long questioned his Hall of Fame credentials because he never had those great seasons, the MVP awards, of the championship rings, it’s hard to deny that Palmeiro should be inducted into the shrine in Cooperstown.

Now, though, Palmeiro’s accomplishments will inevitably be cast into doubt. Did he legitimately hit those 500 home runs? Would he have been this good without steroids? Does this drug suspension negate his accomplishments and effectively lessen his career in the eyes of Hall of Fame voters? Right now, there is no way to answer these questions without knowing more about what Palmeiro was found to have taken. But these are issues Palmeiro and baseball analysts will be grappling with well beyond the 1 a.m. SportsCenter tonight.

Then, finally, there are ramification for Rafael Palmeiro, the one-time Congressional ally in the fight against performance-enhancing drugs. As BP’s Will Carroll notes in an Under the Knife Special, Palmeiro may or may not have perjured himself in March when he denied having taken steroids at the time. Conveniently, in March, he left out the word “intentionally.” He simply said he had never and never would use steroids. Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.), the man behind the hearings, was unavailable for comment, but I am sure Congress won’t miss this opportunity to further explore steroid use in baseball.

In the end, baseball fans, analysts, players, commentators, and officials are left with the words of Rafael Palmeiro. “I have never intentionally used steroids. Never. Ever. Period,” he said this week. Only time will tell whether this is indeed the truth and what the future, kind so far to Jason Giambi who never tested positive for drug use but was heavily involved in the BALCO leak, will bring for Rafael Palmeiro.


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