Ortiz can swing the stick
The matchups (and mis-matchups) of the week ahead, including Russ Ortiz's hitting prowess.
Remember those ads where Tom Glavine and Greg Maddux told us that "chicks dig the long ball?" Two other Braves pitchers are carrying the hitting torch for their mound-bound brethren this year. Russ Ortiz is having another fine season at the plate, actually beating out well-known hitting hurler and teammate Mike Hampton.
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Here are the top 10 OPS among pitchers with 50 or more plate appearances:
1. Woody Williams (St. L.): .712
2. Ortiz: .696
3. Darren Oliver (Col.): .657
4. Adam Eaton (S.D.): .652
5. Jeff Suppan (late of Pitt.): .628
6. Mark Prior (Chi.): .624
7. Brett Tomko (St. L.): .610
8. Dontrelle Willis (Fla.): .606
9. Carlos Zambrano (Chi.): .606
10. Jason Jennings (Col.): .592
Hampton's .575 puts him just outside of the top 10. No position-playing starter would finish below this top 10, but two players, Brad Ausmus of Houston (.594) and Alex Cora of Los Angeles (.599) would not make the top five.
Something happened on the way to mediocrity over the past 10 games: the travelers veered off toward a better place. For a while there, it looked the AL Central Division title race would follow one of these previous templates:
163-160: 1973 NL East, New York and St. Louis
165-159: 1984, AL West, Kansas City and California or Minnesota
168-156: 1987, AL West, Minnesota and Chicago
This list shows the worst-ever combined records of first- and second-place teams. Over the last 10 games, however, the Twins have gone 8-2 and the White Sox 6-4 to further elevate the class level of the race.
In the long run, the Twins will probably be glad they eased Johan Santana -- who pitches the third game of this series -- rather than force-feeding him into the starting rotation, having saved some wear and tear on his arm.
For their purposes this year, one has to wonder what might have been had he been in there the entire way, though. He was clearly the Twins' best pitcher heading into the season and was briefly slated for the starting rotation when Eric Milton went out for the year in spring training. The Twins then surprised one and all by signing Kenny Rogers and it was back to the pen for Johan. Had he been starting along, would he be 16-4 instead of 8-2 in that role? If so, how far ahead would the Twins be rather than tied?
Maybe a year from now when he's anchoring the staff and emerging as one of the game's best starters this slow acclimation will look like a stroke of genius. For now, Santana's ERA of 2.85 as a starter is nearly two runs better than the next-best Twins starter (Rogers), which leaves us to wonder what could have been for 2003.
The A's are the college students of Major League Baseball; they leave everything to the last minute. For the first part of the semester, they hang around the dorm, cutting class and only doing some of their assignments. Come finals week though, they hit the libes and make the Dean's list. Here is a rehashing of their all-too-famous late-season records of recent memory: over the past three seasons, they have played .738 ball from August 1 on after playing at .559 prior to that. The ironic thing about this year is that they had a better pre-August 1 record than in the previous two years, but will not end up with a better final record. This is in spite of their recent upturn in fortunes. In order to best their August-September finishes from 2001 and 2002, they'd have to win every game from here on out. Sorry, only one 20-game winning streak per team per century, please.
Speaking of hanging around college dorms and doing very little, there comes a time in a person's life when they really need to put away that most childish of impulses: making like a bit player in a Cheech and Chong movie. The time to do that should probably start on the day you have your first kid. By the time you have three, as a certain member of the Angels' entourage who was recently busted for marijuana possession does, it is well past time to be acting like a 15-year old at a tree fort bong party.
Now, I'll just jump off my soap box and talk about ...
Do you ever wonder how some teams win any games at all? Take the Reds of recent weeks. For the first part of the season they had the worst starting pitching around, but some very talented men fighting for playing time in their outfield and some solid contributors at other positions as well.
Now, through trade and injury, all of those men are gone. What is left is something very much like the Tigers as the Reds begin to trot out some of their young arms backed up by a patchwork lineup. It's not fun to watch and few are, in spite of the new ballpark. Had the Reds not had all those heroic and improbable comeback victories earlier this year, they'd really be cleaning the bottom of the fish tank. This should leave the Cubs in good stead for this series.
What does the future hold for players on teams of legendary non-accomplishment? Is there life beyond playing for a team with a bad record of historical proportions?
1935 Braves: Only one Braves regular was still at it when World War II began seven years later. Pitcher Danny McFayden, who was 30 in '35, won 45 games over the next three seasons, allowing him to still be hanging on in 1942. Rookie Elbie Fletcher had the best future, playing until 1949 when he finished his major league career at the age of 33. Among players who had at least 100 at-bats and pitchers who threw a minimum of 50 innings, no less than 10 appeared in one or fewer seasons after 1935. Even star slugger Wally Berger only lasted another four seasons.
1916 Athletics: Even though this team posted the worst record of the modern era, there were a surprising number of them that emerged from the ashes to carve out significant careers. First baseman Stuffy McInnis was still in the majors a decade later. Wally Schang is one of the better catchers not in the Hall of the Fame. He was still in the bigs 15 years later. Val Picinich was a 19-year old rookie on the '16 A's who played another 17 seasons without ever managing to get more than 358 plate appearances. (I don't know if that's a record for longest career without qualifying for a batting title, but it has to be up there.)
Amos Strunk was the one standout in the lineup and he lasted all or part of another eight big league seasons. Shortstop Whitey Witt was 20 at the time and made it to 30 in the majors. Staff ace Joe Bush was on hand to see the A's go full cycle. He was there for the pre-dismantling of the dynasty in '13-'14, experienced the low of 1916 and was still at it 12 years later for a brief stint with a revitalized Philadelphia team. In the interim, he pitched in the World Series for the Red Sox and Yankees.
1962 Mets: A handful of Amazins went on to lengthy stints as major leaguers. The best among them was Jim Hickman, an older rookie at 25 in 1962 who was still playing 12 years later. Catcher Chris Cannizzaro lasted long enough to play for another expansion team, the '69 Padres, whom he represented in the All-Star Game. Robert L. Miller pitched another 12 years for eight different teams, finishing up with the Mets again in 1974.
Who among the 2003 Tigers can we speculate about having long and productive careers?
Of the five Giants pitchers who won the most games for the 2002 club, only two have won a game for them this year. Jason Schmidt has 14 and Kirk Rueter seven. Ryan Jensen has been injured and hasn't registered a decision in 2003. Russ Ortiz and Livan Hernandez have combined to win 33 games for other teams.
Where are their victories coming from, then? With Schmidt as the only pitcher in double figures in victories, the answer is: from a wide variety of sources. The Giants and Diamondbacks are the only plus-.500 teams who have gotten less than two-thirds of their victories credited to starters. The Giants are currently 11th in the league in that category.
N.Y. Mets: 86 percent
Los Angeles: 78 percent
Chi. Cubs: 77 percent
Cincinnati: 48 percent
Milwaukee: 57 percent
Arizona: 61 percent
The Mets are interesting in that they have two starters with winning percentages over .620 (Steve Trachsel and Al Leiter) yet a team winning percentage almost .200 points lower than that. On the other extreme are the Reds who have arrived at a very similar record with very little positive input from their starters.
Based on all this, it would stand to reason, then, that the Mets bullpen has the worst record in the league while the Giants would have the best and it so happens that they do, going 9-25 and 28-12 respectively.
This series features four of the five top leaders in the American League batting race in the persons of Bill Mueller, Manny Ramirez, Nomar Garciaparra and Magglio Ordonez. Regardless of who among the frontrunners (a group that includes Derek Jeter of the Yankees), it looks as though the winner is going to finish in the .320s. This will be the first American Leaguer to do so since George Brett won at .329 in 1990. If the current figure of .322 holds, it will be the ninth-lowest title number in league history:
.301 Carl Yastrzemski, 1968
.308 Elmer Flick, 1905
.309 Stuffy Stirnweiss, 1945
.316 Frank Robinson, 1966
.318 Rod Carew, 1972
.320 Pete Runnels, 1960
.321 Tony Oliva, 1965
.321 Carl Yastrzemski, 1963
.322 Derek Jeter or Bill Mueller, 2003 (as of Monday)
Of course, this only tells part of the story. Yaz's struggle to reach .300 in 1968 is legendary because the entire league was depressed. So, relative to the context of that moment in time, Yaz's .301 is actually kind of robust. Not so the 2003 number of .322. The differential between the league average and the leader's number is the lowest ever both in terms of the raw number (54 points above the league average, tied with Stuffy Stirnweiss of the '45 Yankees who hit .309 in a league that hit .255) and that difference as a percentage of the league total.
Fewest points above league average
54 Derek Jeter/Bill Mueller, 2003
54 Stuffy Stirnweiss, 1945
63 Fred Lynn, 1975
65 Pete Runnells, 1960
67 Lou Boudreau, 1944
67 Elmer Flick, 1905
What does this mean? Nothing, really. It's just one of those things that happens once in a while. Next year Ichiro or Manny Ramirez or somebody will hit .350 and this will be soon forgotten.
The Padres get the short end of the stick by being the underdog in the Biggest National League Mismatchup this week and that is not entirely fair. That is based on overall season records. The Padres are 11-6 in recent play and are beginning to look like a pretty interesting team for 2004.
With the addition of Brian Giles and a new stadium as well as super prospect shortstop Khalil Greene to an ever-improving Sean Burroughs, they should at least be fun to watch next year. Will they improve enough to punch through all the way to the top? That's probably not the point of the exercise.
Is it possible that Alex Rodriguez is going to, once again, put together the best season in the American League and not win the Most Valuable Player award? (On the other hand, until his latest swoon (not to be confused with his April swoon), there were some who were touting Ichiro Suzuki for another Most Valuable Player award. This is in spite of a wide gap in demonstrable contributions between the two, even pre-Ichiro slump.
If not A-Rod for MVP, then whom? Nobody will vote for Carlos Delgado for the same reasons that A-Rod won't get support: his team is out of it. Nomar Garciaparra and Manny Ramirez are doing well for the Red Sox, but there is little separating them unless you wish to veer off into intangibles. Yankees leader Jason Giambi has been slumping like nobody's business and that is going to weigh on voter's minds. If the Mariners don't get in the postseason, what will that do to the candidacy of Bret Boone, who is having one of the best years in the league?
With no clear-cut candidate from a playoff-bound team, this would be an excellent opportunity to finally give A-Rod a big trophy.
According to a report by Andy Call in The Canton Repository, Indians farmhand Kazuhito Tadano once appeared in an x-rated movie in his native Japan. Because this was common knowledge there, he was not given any attention in their amateur draft, leading the Indians with an opportunity to sign the youngster with the very impressive fastball. The interesting thing about it is that Call reports that a number of Tadano's college teammates were in the video as well. Aren't Japanese ballplayers supposed to practice 16 hours a day? Where does one find the time to shoot the odd porno movie?
I think this revelation means it's time we revisit my idea for a publication dedicated only to sports scandals. I think there's room in our nation's supermarket checkout lines for just such a fine tabloid, don't you? Of course, I wouldn't put my good name on such a rag, I would simply accept a one-time seven-figure check for coming up with the idea.
The Yankees will probably win three out of four (there is a day-night doubleheader on Saturday), but you know it won't be enough:
As I bluster through this life
I state I'll have no truck
With disappointing so and sos
Who do nothing more than suck.
(I mean this in the modern sense
So please don't tsk and cluck.)
I'm talking about my underlings
Who do nothing more than suck.
Yes they win, but not enough
To earn their Yankee buck
These poor pinstriped pretenders
Who do nothing more than suck.
I don't believe in miracles
I believe one buys good luck
Yet I've bought a bunch of stiffs
Who do nothing more than suck.
So take me now, I beg, oh Lord!
Free me of this mortal muck
Deliver me from my hirelings
Who do nothing more than suck!
12. The Mystery Matchup of the Week
? vs. ?
Earlier this season we talked about teams and their relation to amusement facilities. This week's Mystery Matchup involves World's Fairs. Which two opponents have significant ties to World's Fairs?
Last week's clue: These two teams took their names from previous major league entries, although not necessarily in the same city in both cases. The names are variations on the previous names.
I was looking for Boston Red Sox versus Chicago White Sox, both names were headline-friendly updates of the 19th Century Red Stockings and White Stockings.
Jim Baker writes Monday through Friday for ESPN Insider. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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