Archive for the '360 The Pitch' Category

Arbitrary arbitration

With arbitration figures filed over the last few days, I thought I would revisit an old column I wrote on January 25, 2005 when the sports podcasting site 360 The Pitch still carried columnists. Arbitration has always intrigued me; in an arena where free agent contract negotiations are public and unhappy stars freely air their greivances, arbitration is the last bastion of secrecy in baseball. Here’s my take on this arbitrary process.

Salary arbitration stands alone in the world of baseball transactions. Free agent pursuits are the best part of the Hot Stove League. Baseball’s collective bargaining sessions are covered religiously. Yet salary arbitration stands as the last bastion to secrecy in the baseball world. What goes on during arbitration stays in arbitration leaving fans to wonder what exactly happens in an arbitration case.

From the start, arbitration is clearly not the desirable ends for a contract negotiation session. As the arbitration panel must choose between either the player’ request or the club’s offer, the arbitration session consists of the player proclaiming his greatness and the team attempting to show how that player is not worth as much as he thinks he is. No matter the result, there’s bound to be some ill will between the team and his club after the case. I know I wouldn’t feel too good if a boss of mine tried to convince me I wasn’t worth as much as I thought.

As far as the public is concerned, that’s about all there is to it; these hearings are, after all, confidential. Yet the arbitration process is a lot more involved than just the outcome, and it seems to me that Major League Baseball’s salary arbitration may be quite arbitrary.

Baseball’s Collective Bargaining Agreement provides the most information a fan can hope to gather about the arbitration process. In it, there are a whopping five and a half pages devoted to salary arbitration. This may not seem like too many, but Article IV, Section F is actually one of the longest entries on a single topic in the 2002 agreement.

While much of the section involves filing dates and contract legalese, a few passages deserve some analysis. First, every arbitration case is heard by a three-member panel made up of “prominent, professional arbitrators? recommended by the American Arbitration Association. This association is one specializing in alternative dispute resolution through arbitration or mediation, as their Web site proclaimed.

While those hearing the panel are highly qualified as dispute resolution, their knowledge of baseball may not be as comprehensive. If you think the battle over traditional scouting vs. sabermetrics is a tense one within baseball, imagine trying to explain the advantages of Runs Saved Above Average to an arbitrator with only a passing knowledge of baseball. And there’s a time limit to boot; each side gets only one hour for an initial presentation and 30 minutes for a rebuttal and a closing statement. My fantasy draft routinely lasts twice as long, and it doesn’t determine anyone’s salary for next season.

The other interesting part of Article IV, Section F is subsection 12. In this subsection, the CBA dissects those criteria which can be used as admissible evidence during the hearing and those facts that must be left outside the room. First, the agreement allows for the broad statement of “the quality of the Player’s contribution to his Club during the past season.? This includes — but is not limited to — his overall on-field performance, his leadership abilities, and his public appeal. Clubs and players can also mention the length and consistency of the player’s career contributions and the comparative baseball salaries of the day.

With these criteria in mind, the arbitration panelists are instructed to give weight to the evidence as they deem appropriate under the circumstances. Furthermore, the arbitration panel is asked to pay careful attention to the contracts and salaries of those players with similar playing time to the player in question. This is a review of the player’s ability at its rawest. He has to justify his worth in relation to his peers in a tough process, and the CBA does not allow any press comments that may provide some more insight into how the player compares to those on his team and those against whom he competes.

That’s a lot of stuff to cram into a 90-minute session, and it’s quite clear to me why teams, players and agents work their hardest to avoid arbitration. It’s not comfortable for any of the parties involved in arbitration. Furthermore, as we’ll see over the next few weeks, there’s no real way to tell who will win and who will lose. It’s the luck of the draw in terms of the knowledge of those panelists, and it all depends on which side clearly and cleverly manipulates those statistics.

Personally, if I were making an arbitration case, I would rely on the current market to deliver me a win. After an off-season in which free agents struck it big, a panel instructed to pay attention to current salary levels would be hard pressed to deny many players a significant raise in today’s market.

Finally, what I see as one of the biggest flaws in the salary arbitration process is the reliance on what the player has already accomplished in his career. Because the player’s past performance is admissible evidence, it is quite possible for a player to win a massive salary increase based upon what he’s already done regardless of what he is likely to do in the upcoming season.

2005 NLDS: Breaking down the series

Much like in the American League, the National League Division Series sees three out of four teams returning to the October field. The perennial division winners/playoff chokers Atlanta Braves will once again play host to the Wild Card-winning Houston Astros. The Major League-best St. Louis Cardinals will play the San Diego Padres, the worst division leaders in baseball history.

It’s a good year in the National League for pitching. So how will these teams fare offensively?

St. Louis Cardinals (100-62) vs. San Diego Padres (82-80)

Season Series: Padres won 4 out of 7

The San Diego Padres were downright awful this year. They finished the year 82-80 and now own the distinction of being the worst team to win a division title. They were outscored by 42 runs and had the seventh best record in the National League. In fact, the Washington Nationals, while finishing at .500, allowed fewer runs and had a smaller run differential than the Padres.

Yet, for all of their struggles, the Padres have the young stud Jake Peavy and could, if they got lucky, pull out an upset. But it was not to be as Peavy was battered today in Game 1. After the game, he announced that he had broken his ribs while celebrating the Padres’ division title and would be unavailable for the rest of the playoffs. Was it really that jubilant of a celebration? The Padres won because no other GM in the NL West could put together a .500 team. And they lost their lone ace to a celebration. So much for the Cinderella story of the postseason.

With Peavy out, this series belongs to the Cardinals. While Tony LaRussa showed today what happens when you don’t just let one pitcher throw the 9th in an 8-2 game, it’s barely cause for concern. The Cardinals were second in the NL in runs scored and second in fewest runs allowed. There’s no need to highlight any keys to this series. It’s hardly a contest. Sorry, Padres fans.

Key Stat: With his home run today, Jim Edmonds has now launched 11 long balls in 37 postseason games.

Prediction: Cardinals in 3.

Atlanta Braves (90-72) vs. Houston Astros (89-73)

Season Series: Braves won 5 out of 6

When last the Braves faced the Astros, the boys from Houston were 11-19. The loss of Carlos Beltran loomed large, and it seemed as though 2004’s Astros, who were just a few innings away from the World Series, were a fluke. The Braves swept the Astros in a four-game series at Turner Field. Two and a half weeks later, the Astros hit rock bottom. They were 15 games under .500 at 16-31.

Since that day in late May, the Astros went 73-42. Led by one of the best pitching trifectas in the history of baseball and an age-defying 43-year-old pitching to an ERA under 2.00, the Astros proved that you don’t need an offense to win. They scored just 687 runs, good for 11th in the NL. Their team OBP of .322 tied them with the Pirates, Nationals and Mets for 13th in the NL and 22nd over all.

The Braves, meanwhile, were fourth in runs scored, eighth in OBP, and third in slugging in the National League. Leo Mazzone turned Jorge Sosa into a bona fide starter, and Atlanta edged the Phillies by two games. The stage is set for a rematch of the 2004 NLDS. Will the outcome be any different?

Keys to the Series:

1. While it has become a cliché, game one may truly be the most important game of this series as Roger Clemens faces John Smoltz in what many would call an Instant Classic before the first pitch is delivered. While Smoltz and Clemens both have stellar season numbers, the two aces both faced some tough times down the stretch. In September, Clemens pitched just 20 innings with an ERA of 5.40. More noticeable though were Clemens’ poor peripherals. In those 20 innings, he struck out just 13 and walked 10. On the season, he walked just 62 and struck out 185 in 211.1 innings. Smoltz, meanwhile, ran into a similar rough stretch and has been battling a sore shoulder. If the Braves can’t beat Clemens, then they will be facing Andy Pettitte and Roy Oswalt down 1-0. If the Astros can’t beat Smoltz, they will once again leave their ace out to dry.

2. Last year, the Astros in the playoffs did not have Andy Pettitte. This year, they have Andy Pettitte better than he’s ever been. Pettitte, a darkhorse NL Cy Young candidate, was 17-9 with a career-best 2.39 ERA. He threw 222.1 innings and struck out 171 while surrendering just 188 hits. In his other life on the Yankees, Pettitte in 30 postseason starts went 13-8 with a 4.05 ERA. He developed, rather incorrectly, a reputation as a big-game pitcher. If the Astros are to win with their limited offense, they’ll need Pettitte to stymie the Braves just as he did for 8 innings in game 5 of the 1996 World Series.

3. After an explosive debut, Jeff Francoeur faded badly down the stretch. In September, .247/.287/.452 with 21 strike outs. Andruw Jones underwent a similar dry spell. While blasting 8 home runs in September, he hit just .208/.294/.500. If the Braves are to succeed against the Astros’ stingy rotation and top-flight bullpen led by Brad Lidge, they will need their dragging offense to step up in October. Otherwise, it may be an early exit once again for Atlanta.

4. If this series comes down to a battle of the bullpens, the Astros have a decisive advantage. Led by closer Lidge, Dan Wheeler, and Chad Qualls, the ‘Stros’ bullpen put up a 3.66 ERA while striking out 8.39 per 9 innings. The Braves, meanwhile, couldn’t find anyone to close until Kyle Farnsworth showed up. Their bullpen ERA was 4.66 and their K/9 IP was just 6.83. The Astros have killer pitching; the Braves sneaked into the playoffs without a clear answer in the bullpen.

Key Stat: With Clemens on the mound, the Astros were shut out nine times, including four 1-0 games. Clemens’ ERA in those nine starts was just 1.11.

Prediction: With superior pitching and a few timely hits from Morgan Ensberg and Lance Berkman, the Astros will move on to the NLCS in 4 games leaving the Braves to ponder yet another unsuccessful October.

2005 ALDS: Breaking Down the Series

For the last few years, parity has become the Major League Baseball buzzword. After all, every team in the NL East finished at or above .500, and even the Milwaukee Brewers, showing signs of life, reached the .500 plateau for the first time since they were in the American League East way back in 1992.

But for all of this winning, the 2005 Division Series match-ups look quite similar to those from 2004. Six of the eight teams to make the Division Series in 2004 are right back where they were last year. The only newcomers are the Chicago White Sox and the barely-above-.500 San Diego Padres. As five of the top 10 payrolls made it to the playoffs this year (Yankees, Red Sox, Angels, Cardinals, Braves), money doesn’t ever guarantee a World Series trophy.

For now, I’ll leave the economics for next season. Let’s look at the match-ups instead.

Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim (95-67) vs. New York Yankees of the Bronx (95-67)

Season Series: Angels won 6 out of 10 games.

In 2002, the relentless Anaheim Angles faced the Yankees in the ALDS. The wild-card Angels upset the team with a Major League-best 103 victories. That year, the Yankees had no problems scoring runs or hitting the Angels’ pitching staff. The Bombers blasted seven home runs in four games while hitting .281 as a team. But the Angels were better. Powered by Troy Glaus, they launched nine home runs while hitting .375 with a .624 slugging percentage. For all of the Yankee offense, their pitching couldn’t bring home a championship.

By this time next week, that paragraph may ring true for 2005 as well. The Yankees were second in the Majors with 886 runs scored; Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez became the first two Yankees to be one and two in the AL in runs scored since Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle in 1961. But they had the tenth-worst ERA in the Majors at 4.48. The Angels were 11th in the Majors with 754 runs scored, but they limited opponents to just 3.67 earned runs per game. This will truly be a rematch of 2002.

Keys to the Series:
1. The Yankees’ pitchers are notoriously bad at holding runners; Yankee catchers caught just 29 percent of all would-be base stealers this year. Chone Figgins, the pesky Angels lead-off hitter with a .350 OBP and an AL-leading 62 stolen bases, is notoriously good at stealing bases. The combination could portend many runs for the Angels and many headaches for Jorge Posada.

2. Other than Figgins, the Yankees pitchers must figure out a way to neutralize the reigning AL MVP Vladimir Guerrero. Vlad is as big a threat as David Ortiz, but he lacks a hitter of Manny Ramirez’s caliber in the lineup. While Garret Anderson could potentially force the Yanks to throw to Vlad, with the way Anderson’s second half has gone, Yankee hurlers will probably intentionally walk Vlad to pitch to Anderson. Over the last few months, Anderson has hit just .252/.279/.389 with just 20 extra-base hits in 234 at-bats and 30 RBIs over that time. A long-time Yankee killer, more so in the Bronx than in Anaheim, Anderson could play a decisive role if the Angels are to score enough runs to overwhelm the Yankees’ fragile pitching staff.

3. For the Yanks, the key to any of their games these days has been to get the ball to Tom Gordon and Mariano Rivera. Everyone else out of the bullpen from early-season hero Tanyon Sturtze to Alan Embree to Al Leiter has been unable to get any outs. That means the Yanks’ starters are going to have to pitch at least 6 innings. For some – Shawn Chacon and Randy Johnson – that hasn’t been a problem. Game One starter Mike Mussina, meanwhile, hasn’t pitched more than six innings in one start since Aug. 19. The Angels have a little more depth with Kelvim Escobar backing up Brandon Donnelly and Francisco Rodriguez, but the Yanks have the edge if they can just get the ball to Gordon and Rivera.

4. Since the All Star break, Randy Johnson has gone 8-2 with a 3.31 ERA and 94 strike outs in 98 innings. He’s held opponents to a .208 average and has been everything the Yankees expected. Now, they’ll have to win a series relying on just one game started by their ace. This wasn’t how the Yanks ever envisioned running through the playoffs, but for now, they’ll just have to hope that Mussina and Chacon can hold the Angels before the dominating Unit shows up on Friday. On the flip side, the Angels’ ace has been anything but stellar against the Yankees. Combined, the Yanks have hit .299/.383/.536 off of Colon, with A-Rod leading the pack. Rodriguez has 7 home runs in 43 at-bats against the Angels pitcher and a .442/.458/1.093 slugging. While on paper the Angels have the pitching edge, the Yanks’ offense has never given the Angels much of a break.

Key Stat: Never known as a big-game pitcher, Mike Mussina has started in Game 1 for the Yanks’ last four playoff series. He’s won just once. Since he’ll be relied upon to start game 1 and 5, the Yanks better hope that Mike Mussina the ace shows up.

Prediction: Yankees in 5.

Chicago White Sox (99-63) vs. Boston Red Sox (95-67)

Season Series: Red Sox won 4 out of 7 games.

In 2004, the Red Sox shed 86 years of disappointment to bring home the World Series. Can the White Sox of 2005 break 88 years of bad luck? To do so, the old adage – good pitching beats good hitting – will be severely tested. The White Sox gave up just 645 runs; the Red Sox scored 910. Can the Sox pitching shut down the Red Sox machine?

Keys to the Series:

1. Both teams have to neutralize the offensive keys on the other team. This is never in doubt in any game. But these two teams have two totally different approaches to the game. For the Ozzie-ball oriented White Sox, Scott Podsednik is the table-setter. He’ll get on base; steal; score. For the Red Sox, David Ortiz is the big man. He’ll just mash the ball. Can the White Sox great pitchers shut down Ortiz? Can the Red Sox and Jason Varitek, who threw out just 24.4 percent of base stealers, shut down the White Sox running game?

2. Which Jose Contreras will show up? The Red Sox have long owned Jose Contreras. Prior to this year, he was 2-4 with an 11.67 ERA against the Red Sox in 27 innings. He had given up 40 hits and 9 home runs in seven games. This year, he pitched decently in the one game he pitched against the Red Sox. But more importantly, he’s 11-2 with a 2.96 ERA since the 2005 All Star break. If he can keep up his pitching run while shutting down Boston, the White Sox will win the series.

3. Which Curt Schilling will show up? Curt has been nothing but a big game pitcher recently. He’s shut down the Yankees twice while losing badly the rest of the time. There’s no need to analyze his numbers. Some days, his location is off; some days, his velocity is off; and some days, he faces the Yankees. If Schilling can step it up against the White Sox, he may turn the series in favor of Boston.

4. How will the young guns stand up in this series? The Red Sox bullpen, long in tatters, may be resting on the backs of Jonathan Papelbon and Mike Timlin. The White Sox are calling on Bobby Jenks to close. That means that two 24-year-olds with a grand total of 74 innings of Major League experience between them will be asked to step up and deliver. The White Sox with El Duque out of the bullpen have a major advantage, but these young players will be thrown into the fire. Can they repeat the success of 2002’s Francisco Rodriguez ?

Key Stat: Opponents hit just .249/.310/.396 against the White Sox this season. As a team, the Red Sox hit .280/.356/.453. Can good pitching trump great hitting?

Prediction: White Sox in four.

The NL Cy Young and the fallacy of wins

The Baseball Gods have long enjoyed playing games with the Cy Young Award, and this year is no different.

In 2001, Roger Clemens undeservingly won the Cy Young Award because he had a 20-3 record. This season, Roger Clemens won’t win the Cy Young Award he deserves because of won-loss record.

Four years ago, when Clemens was pitching on the Yankees and was just 38 years old, he went 20-3 with a 3.51 ERA. He struck out 213 in 220.1 innings en route to what was then his sixth Cy Young Award.

While these numbers placed Clemens in the top ten of nearly every pitching category, the general consensus that year seemed to be that Clemens’ teammate Mike Mussina would have been a better choice for the Cy Young Award. Mussina’s 3.15 ERA was good for second in the league, just 0.10 runs behind Freddy Garcia. Mussina recorded one fewer strike out that Clemens, had a better walk ratio than the Rocket, and threw three shut outs and four complete games while Roger managed goose eggs in both of those categories.

Yet, the Baseball Writers Association of America loved the gaudy 20-3 record and the fact that Clemens had managed to win 20 games at age 38. He won the Cy Young in a season during which Yankee fans didn’t even regard him as the best pitching on their team let alone the entire American League.

Of course, baseball always takes back those generous gifts, it seems, and this year, Clemens will be denied his Cy Young.

It’s hard to argue with Clemens’ numbers. He’s doing something no one his age (currently 43, but who’s counting?) has ever done. In 192.1 innings, Clemens is throwing to an ERA of 1.78. Opponents are hitting .188 against him with a .251 on-base percentage and a .272 slugging. He’s allowed 129 hits or 63 fewer hits than innings pitched while striking out 171.

Even more impressive are the Rocket’s home-road splits. After last night’s disastrous outing in Milwaukee during which Clemens gave up five earned runs in three innings, his road ERA clocks in at an even 1.00. He’s thrown 90 innings on the road while giving up just 10 earned runs and striking out 81. The baseball world rarely witnesses pitchers this dominant anymore, and Clemens is doing this at age at which nearly every player except for Julio Franco has already hung up their spikes.

The only problem is that the Astros have delivered just 11 wins so far for Roger Clemens. Sometimes the offense is shut out; sometimes the bullpen has blown games. Either way, Clemens, with just four or five starts left, has a shot at winning 15 games. But he can’t come close to Chris Carpenter’s lofty 21 wins and counting.

While I believe that Clemens deserves the recognition simply because he’s pitching an outstanding season at age 43, Clemens’ main competition has nearly outpitched him and is equally deserving of the Cy Young Award. The Cardinals’ Chris Carpenter – the true ace that should deliver his team a World Series championship this year – has 21 wins and 4 losses. His ERA is 2.21, now just 0.40 runs higher than Clemens’. Opponents are hitting .213/.256/.322 against him. He has 198 strike outs in 220 innings, four shut outs and seven complete games.

At this point in the season, many baseball writers on the Internet have long conceded the Cy Young to Carpenter. His win total which could top out at 25 and the rest of his impressive numbers are too hard to ignore even in light of Clemens’ accomplishments this year. But this debate underscores the fallacy of the won-loss record.

In 2001, Clemens won the Cy Young because he had an .870 winning percentage. He wasn’t as good that year for the Yankees as he is this year for the Astros. But this year, his team hasn’t won with him on the mound. Winning, then, is not at all a decent indication of how a pitcher has performed. Winning is one way of interpreting a pitcher’s success. But as Clemens has shown, a pitcher can be downright dominant without reeling in the wins if the offense behind him or the bullpen backing him up can’t emerge victorious after the ninth inning ends.

Both Clemens and Chris Carpenter deserve major recognition for outpitching the league mean ERA by over 2.00 runs a game. But in the end, Carpenter will walk away with the award because he won more games. Whether or not he’s more deserving than Clemens is impossible to tell. I would want both of them on my hypothetical team. But this debate just shows that sometimes it’s hard to let go of the so-called traditional stats well after they’ve been proven obsolete time and time again.

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.

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.

Bat Boy shows what happens to a dream fulfilled

For decades, baseball writing has long delved into two sides to the sport. Some of the best works have described the game on the field and its social interaction with America. Recently, authors have delved into the front-office strategies of General Managers as they struggle with baseball’s twisted economics. Now, a highly enjoyable new book, Bat Boy: My True Adventures Coming of Age with the New York Yankees, by 30-year-old Matthew McGough, shows something not often seen in literature: the behind-the-scenes madness that permeates a Major League Baseball clubhouse every night for 162 games.

McGough’s book, witty and serious, entertaining and nostalgic (if it’s even possible to be nostalgic for the early 1990s), is certainly one to add to an ever-growing list of classic tales about baseball and its effects on the lives of impressionable teenagers growing up in America.

McGough’s story is the stuff every eight-year-old boy’s dreams are made of. He became a Yankee fan during the summer of Dave Righetti’s no-hitter and George Brett’s infamous pine-tar game. As a teenager sitting in the back row of the right-field bleachers, he eyed the bat boy and decided to write a letter to the Yankees asking if he could join the team in that same position. Improbably, the team hired McGough, and in April of 1992, McGough joined a team that had finished the previous season at 71-91 in fifth place.

As McGough’s memoir follows the Yanks as they stumble to a 76-86 record in 1992, he delves into the ins and outs of life in a Major League clubhouse. On his first day at work, a starstruck McGough is sent by Don Mattingly to find a bat stretch because, ostensibly, all of Donnie Baseball’s bats shrunk during the flight up from Spring Training in Florida. McGough survives this prank, and over time, he grows increasingly more comfortable as he realizes that these baseball players are normal people too.

The first half of the book focuses largely on the inner workings of the clubhouse. McGough introduces clubhouse manager Nick Priore as a no-frills, down-to-business type of guy whose constant stream of profanities and insults keep the teenage bat boys on their heels at all times. As McGough details his day-to-day dealings, a new baseball world is shown to the world. This isn’t a tale of the riches of baseball and the fame of the players as they don pinstripes or win World Series titles. Rather, McGough lets the reader in on the life of those who are responsible for shining everyone’s spikes, for cleaning up the mess after a player takes out his frustration on the nearest TV set, toilet, or food spread, for running errands for the players, and for running out those new balls to the umpires.

For every story about the doors the Yankees could unlock, such as road trips driving Matt Nokes’ SUV up from Spring Training and gaining access to Fort Lauderdale bars without the benefit of an ID, Bat Boy doesn’t hesitate to highlight cruder aspects of the job as well, including the nasty temperament of a drunk Mickey Mantle on Old Timers’ Day. One of the major events to mark McGough’s time as the Yankee bat boy was his and a friend’s involvement in the Network, a pyramid scheme that swept the New York metropolitan area during the winter of 1992-1993. Introduced to the network by Priore despite a tacit disapproval from Rob Cucuzza, Priore’s assistant, McGough and his friend each end up $750 short when the scheme falls apart. Later on, McGough lands into trouble when a CD-for-memorabilia deal goes awry.

For all its charm – and one of the book’s strenghts is its charm – the continued apeearance of Nick Priore was one spot where I wanted more dirt. A few years after McGough’s time with the Yankees was up, Nick Priore was fired from the Yankees for clubhouse theft, and he and his family have been in and out of the headlines over the last few years. Most recently, Priore’s name came up when mob connections to the New York Mets were divulged in the Daily News a few months ago. But before that, his son Paul had been involved in a sexual harassment lawsuit against members of the Yankees. The suit, largely forgotten in New York these days, alleged rampant homosexuality and homophobia in the Yankee clubhouse. It was dismissed without a hearing. McGough’s narrative is noticeably silent on any of these topics. While a long tangent on these issues wouldn’t have fit the narrative tone of the memoir, the prominence of Priore in the tale hinted at a darker side of the clubhouse left unexplored by McGough’s book.

In the end, it’s easy to love McGough’s book if only for the reason that every fan once dreamed of being a Major League bat boy. It doesn’t try to be anything more than a memoir, and in that role, it passes with flying colors. It is a quick, fun and funny read that, in an age of statistical-oriented books and anti-Moneyball diatribes, returns baseball writing to the timeless genre of the coming-of-age tale, and it shows that baseball players, bat boys and clubhouse managers are, just like you and me, real people with real failings and real power whether they know how to use it or not.


RSS River Ave. Blues

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