Commentary

Identifying the most feared hitter in the bigs

Originally Published: April 24, 2008
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

In the good ol' days -- by which we mean, well last year -- it was so simple.

In the good ol' days, the title of Human Intentional Walk belonged to Barry Bonds. And there wasn't a challenger to his throne in our land. Or any land.

THE VOTE

Among the 30 current big league managers, the following players received votes as to the guy to whom they'd least want to pitch:

Albert Pujols: 11 1/3
Vladimir Guerrero: 4
Alex Rodriguez: 4
Manny Ramirez: 3 1/3
David Ortiz: 3
Ichiro Suzuki: 1
Chipper Jones: 1
Chase Utley: 1
Derrek Lee: 1
Miguel Cabrera: 1/3

But now that Barry has headed off to a world where his biggest walk of the day is to the car, now what?

Who ascends to that title of Most Feared Hitter in Baseball? Who now ranks as the Man Least Likely to Get Pitched to with a Game on the Line?

We polled all 30 big league managers on that subject this week. By the time we'd surveyed them all, 20 different names had come up.

One of those names, however, came up way more than anyone else. That was Albert Pujols. (Hey, you were expecting maybe Hiram Bocachica?) Pujols blew out the field in the National League.

But the American League was such a free-for-all, we had to go outside the managerial sphere and survey a half-dozen scouts and executives just to see if we could get a consensus. And when we'd finished, it was still, essentially, a four-way tie, among Alex Rodriguez, Vladimir Guerrero, David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez (none of whom, by the way, has as many intentional walks this year as Raul Ibanez or A.J. Pierzynski).

It's a fascinating topic. So here it comes -- the All-Guys You'd Least Want to Pitch to Team:

Albert Pujols

Pujols

Albert Pujols

It was actually Sir Albert who inspired this entire project -- when a scout who had been following the Cardinals observed one day: "It's beyond me why anybody ever pitches to that first baseman."

Pujols has finished in the top four in the NL in intentional walks three years in a row. But this year, as the offensive cast around him thins, he's tied for the league lead with Ryan Howard -- and is on a 46-intentional-walk pace.

Just to put that in perspective, if he does get to 46, he'd be only the third player in history to get that many free journeys to first (joining only Bonds and Willie McCovey).

So Pujols was such a clear-cut pick in this poll that even his own manager (Tony La Russa) and one American League manager (Jim Leyland) voted for him.

"He's one of those hitters you know is better with the game on the line," said the Giants' Bruce Bochy. "He has a long track record to prove it, and there's not a pitch he can't hit."

"He's the total package," said the Mets' Willie Randolph. "He's capable of adjusting to any pitch and any pitcher. You come inside, he'll pull it. You pitch him away, he'll take you the other way."

What's really hard to understand, then, is why Pujols has been intentionally walked 22 fewer times than Howard over the past three seasons, even though Howard has struck out nearly 300 more times than Pujols in the same span.

"The guy in St. Louis scares me more than Ryan Howard," said one manager who agrees. "Obviously, you don't want Howard to beat you. But you can still pitch to him if you pick your spots. When he's hot, you've got to be careful. But if you pitch to his weaknesses, you can strike him out. And that's a big difference from the other guy."

Vladimir Guerrero

Guerrero

Vladimir Guerrero

Vlad is the answer to one of our favorite trivia questions: Now that Bonds is outta here, which active player has led his league in intentional walks the most times?

It's Guerrero, all right, with four. And that tells you why some of our panelists were adamant that Vlad was the only correct choice in the AL polling.

"Vlad's the answer," said one AL executive, "because there's no one else in that lineup I fear. Torii Hunter is a really good all-around player. But the difference between him and Vlad is, Vlad's a guy who makes you feel like you can't breathe the whole time he's at the plate."

"I'd go with Vlad because the plate isn't 17 inches wide with him," laughed a long-time advance scout. "It's more like 25 inches. He's an amazing guy. He's not a guy with a swing you'd put in an instructional video. But, somehow, he puts that bat on the ball no matter where the pitch is."

Alex Rodriguez

Rodriguez

Alex Rodriguez

A-Rod embodies why this debate gets so tricky. He's going to go down as one of the greatest hitters who ever lived. But over the past three seasons, 32 players have drawn more intentional walks than he has -- including Nick Swisher, Brad Hawpe and Sean Casey.

That, clearly, is because the Yankees hitters around this man are almost as scary as he is. But just because opposing managers don't send him to first base doesn't mean he doesn't terrify the heck out of them.

"He has the ability to change the game with one swing," said one manager who requested anonymity.

"He's like Pujols," said a scout. "There's no way to pitch him."

So it's fascinating to note that A-Rod has never finished in the top five in his league in intentional walks, even when he was in Texas. And over the past three seasons, he has finished 11th, 15th and 17th, respectively.

Of course, behind him, the Yankees have ranked either first or second in the league in OPS by No. 5 hitters in all three seasons. But they rank ninth this year -- and A-Rod still has only one intentional walk (fewer than Ross Gload). What's up with that?

David Ortiz

Ortiz

Manny Ramirez

Ramirez

Manny Ramirez/David Ortiz

Pitch to Manny or pitch to Big Papi? Or neither? Or both? That turned into the big debate within the debate.

Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon said he prefers not to mess with Ortiz. "He has a propensity for hitting in the clutch situations," Maddon said. "He just lives for the moment."

But Joe Torre picked Ramirez, even though the former Bronxian is now safe from both of them out in L.A. "He's always been one of the top five hitters in the game," Torre said of Manny. "But when gets in that 'determined' mode, he's really, really difficult to deal with."

And Toronto's John Gibbons sounded like a man who has decided you can't win either way. "The tough part of saying the guy you fear the most is Manny is, you've got Ortiz, too," Gibbons said. "When Ortiz is on, there's no point in pitching around him because then you have to face Manny."

Excellent point. So no wonder it was Manny who got intentionally walked more last year (12-11), but Ortiz beat him the year before (23-16). And they were tied the year before that (nine apiece). So, obviously, nobody can decide who to avoid.

"What the hell," muttered one scout. "It's pick your poison."

No kidding. With any of these guys. Now here's a look at everyone else who got a first-place vote:

Ichiro Suzuki: "The guy that we probably end up walking the most is Ichiro because you can't set him up," said Boston's Terry Francona. "He has a way of dictating things, depending on how he feels. Left-handers don't bother him, either. And you can't double him up. Lots of ways to beat you."

Chase Utley: "He hits for average, hits for power, has a great idea of the strike zone," said an NL manager who preferred not to be named. "He is smart enough to take the walk or get hit by the pitch if he needs to get on base."

TRIVIALITY

Albert Pujols has already ripped off six seasons of 30 or more home runs and a batting average of at least .325 -- the most seasons like that by any active player. Can you name the only other active player who has even had five years of 30-.325? (Answer later.)

Chipper Jones: "Still the best pure hitter in the league, from both sides of the plate," said Washington's Manny Acta.

Derrek Lee: "He can hit the ball out of the park," said one scout. "He uses the whole field. He has power to all fields. Good fundamental hitter. And he's really hot right now."

Also got a mention: Ryan Howard, David Wright, Prince Fielder, Hanley Ramirez, Matt Holliday, Magglio Ordonez, Miguel Cabrera, Derek Jeter, Justin Morneau, Joe Mauer, Victor Martinez.

Ready to rumble

An Addition to the Shopping List Dept.: Our good friend Peter Gammons reported this week that Roy Oswalt would be willing to waive his no-trade clause this summer if the Astros continue to slide. But the big question here -- as with any potential Astros deal -- isn't whether the Astros want to trade him. It's whether owner Drayton McLane would sign off on it even if they did.

And don't bet your copy of "The Life and Times of Jim Deshaies" on that.

"Drayton is so locked into that guy, I don't think he'd even fathom it," said an executive of one team who speaks frequently with the Astros hierarchy. "It's something I think the baseball people might consider, if they got the right pieces back. But the owner really loves this guy."

McLane did approve a potential 2006 deal at the trade deadline that would have sent Oswalt to the Orioles (who then would have flipped him to the Mets). But that was before the Astros knew that Oswalt was willing to sign a five-year extension to stick around. Now that Oswalt is signed through 2011, McLane seems likely to have an entirely different take.

Cuantos Años Dept.: We'll never know now how life would have been different had Miguel Tejada disclosed his real age years ago. But you can't help but wonder whether the Astros would have made the same trade to get him if they'd known.

The same executive told Rumblings his impression is that the Astros still would have had strong interest in dealing for Tejada -- "but I think it would have changed their mind-set about giving up five players for him. And it may have changed Baltimore's ability to hold out for five players. And you never know if the owner [McLane] would have signed off on it if he'd known. That's always a question."

Frank Thomas

Thomas

Who's Hurtin' Now Dept.: Undoubtedly, Frank Thomas is going to find work -- most likely in Oakland or Seattle -- if he wants to play badly (i.e., cheaply) enough. But you'd be surprised how many scouts and executives are using words like "done" to describe him.

That seems harsh, if not downright unfounded, since it was only a few months ago the guy was finishing off a 26-homer, 95-RBI season. But this is also a fellow who hit .176 during what one exec described as a "dreadful" spring training. And other than a four-day stretch this month when he "ran into" all three of his homers and 10 of his 11 RBIs, he was 5-for-44 (.114) for the season, with no extra-base hits.

"His bat was so slow, he was missing 85-mile-an-hour fastballs," said one scout. "Everything looked so slow, I couldn't believe what I was seeing. I didn't see him drive one ball. Not one. Even in [batting practice], he wasn't that good. So I'm really not surprised [he got released] at all."

Another review: "What he became was a complete guess-hitter. He has to gear up for the fastball. If he gets it right, he can still do some damage. It's just not as regular, as predictable or as likely to happen as it used to be."

Joba-mania Dept.: Now that Hank Steinbrenner has doused his own flames, the prevailing opinion seems to be that his you've-gotta-be-an-idiot-to-make-Joba-Chamberlain-a-reliever diatribe will have no significant impact on his team. Hmmm. You sure about that?

Nobody's getting fired over it. That's true. But …

"It put a lot of pressure on three different starting pitchers -- [Phil] Hughes, [Ian] Kennedy and [Mike] Mussina," said one AL executive. "Now they know there's a guy out there in the bullpen who eventually is going to come out and replace one of them. And it creates a tension that didn't really have to happen, that everybody has to deal with."

Plus it means there's now no turning back on the idea of moving Chamberlain into the rotation this year -- even though the upshot of that, said one baseball man, is that it means "you're talking about a 25- to 30-day [transition] period where you're basically saying Joba won't help you at all."

Finally, that outburst continues to foster the impression that there's not even the slightest doubt that Chamberlain will be pretty much an instant ace when he moves into the rotation. But in fact, said the AL exec, "nobody knows if Joba is going to be a 1, 2, 3, 4 or 5 starting pitcher. We have no idea."

All true. But now that Hank has started that avalanche rolling, there's no stopping it. Is there?

Evan Longoria

Longoria

Get 'Em While They're Young Dept.: Now that Tampa Bay has tied up Evan Longoria potentially through the year 2016, six days into his big league career, what's next? Signing the MVP of the preschool league?

GMs, owners and other officials are all heaping praise on the Rays for getting a potential franchise player signed so "cheap" (six guaranteed years for $17.5 million, plus three club option years that could total around another $27 million). But while this deal seems like a precedent-setter, it's almost impossible to find another current rookie who would fit Longoria's mold.

"If you have a guy like Longoria, a can't-miss player who you know is going to be very valuable, it's a great thing to do," said one AL executive. "But you have to do it with the right guy. You can't do it if you have any doubts."

So who's the "right" guy? The only player currently in the big leagues who seems to fit: Justin Upton.

But is Upton even open to a Longoria-type deal? He hasn't said. But it's notable that one young building-block player who hasn't been locked up yet by Tampa Bay is Upton's brother, B.J. And that's an indication the Upton family has its own ideas about the market value of both brothers.

Get 'Em While They're Young Dept., Part 2: If you break down this contract, it's almost incomprehensible how gigantic a bargain Tampa Bay negotiated for itself -- if Longoria is even close to the player the world expects him to be.

Ryan Howard will earn $10 million this year as a "super-two" arbitration-eligible player with two-plus years of service time. That's five times the $2 million Longoria will earn as a "super-two" in 2011.

In fact, Longoria will earn $12.5 million for his first three years of arbitration eligibility combined. That's nearly $5 million less than Troy Tulowitzki, $5.5 million less than Robinson Cano and $10 million less than David Wright. And it could wind up being only about one-third of what Howard will earn for the same years if he takes it year by year.

So the question other agents keep asking is: If a player is willing to give up this many dollars, all his arbitration years and even two free-agent years, shouldn't he be getting something more significant in return than just a bump in his rookie- and sophomore-season paychecks?

Pat Burrell

Burrell

Stand Pat Dept.: Pat Burrell's future is becoming a bigger issue in Philadelphia by the day.

So if Burrell keeps grinding out quality at-bats, mashing balls to the opposite field and putting up the same scenic numbers he has been spewing since last July, he can corner the Phillies into a very uncomfortable position.

On one hand, Burrell is their only middle-of-the-order right-handed bat. And the free-agent market next winter will offer just about zero alternatives.

On the other, Burrell's foot speed and mobility have declined so much, he is increasingly being viewed as "just" an American League-type player. And considering the cash the Phillies are going to owe players like Ryan Howard and Cole Hamels over the next few years, there's virtually no chance they'd be interested in paying Burrell anywhere near his current salary ($14 million).

So baseball men who have felt out the Phillies on this issue speculate that the club figures to offer Burrell no more than a two-year deal, at about half of what he's making. But if he continues down the path of rake-age he's been traveling since last July 1 (.312, 29 HR, 87 RBIs, .636 slugging percentage), it's tough to envision him saying yes.

Stand Pat Dept., Part 2: Burrell's MLB ranks since July 1: First in slugging (.636), first in OPS (1.072), third in RBIs (87), fourth in on-base percentage (.436), sixth in homers (29).

But this year, he has been especially locked in, balanced and driving balls to right field that he used to wave at. It was that stroke that made him the No. 1 overall pick in the entire draft 10 years ago. But it's been missing in action for a lonnggg time.

"I think I knew there was something there," Burrell told Rumblings. "I just had gotten away from it, and it was hard to get back. When I came up here, I used to move the ball around a little bit. I was a pull-hitter, but I had the ability to hit the ball to right field -- maybe not for as much power but I'd get some hits over there.

"I'll tell you what: That's a good feeling to have, when you can cover both sides. It's one thing to hit the ball to right field. But it's nice to hit it hard to right field."

Sori You're Gone Dept.: In the Cubs' first eight games without Alfonso Soriano they averaged 8.4 runs a game. They looked so good, in fact, that some scouts say they like this lineup better without Soriano than with him.

"Soriano is a first-pitch hacker, and that goes against everything Lou [Piniella] has been preaching to that club about patience," said one scout. "They're the most patient team in the big leagues right now. What they've been doing is grinding down starters and getting into those secondary relievers. But Soriano doesn't let them do that because he's hacking early in the count. To me, Soriano's a valuable guy when he's stealing 40-50 bases. And I'm not sure he's going to do that anymore."

Delmon Young

Young

The Young and the Take-Less Dept.: Speaking of which, it's no CIA secret that Delmon Young likes to takes his hacks. According to Bill James Online, in fact, he already has chased 50 pitches outside the strike zone this season -- way more than Albert Pujols (19) and Chipper Jones (18) combined.

But Young's new manager in Minnesota, Ron Gardenhire, told Rumblings this spring that the Twins made a conscious decision not to overemphasize plate discipline as they let Young evolve as a hitter.

"I watched Torii Hunter for like 10 years," Gardenhire said. "You think Torii hasn't swung? You know what? There's nothing wrong with swinging. That's why they give you a bat. This kid's 22 years old. He's got everything ahead of him. So let it fly. Learn as you go. He'll learn the strike zone.

"To start telling a guy to just 'take, take, take,' sometimes that's just not human nature. You don't get to the big leagues, and you don't become a big league player, by 'take, take, take' and get walks. Some people are paid to drive in runs. You think David Ortiz goes up there to walk? He's paid to drive in runs. He walks because we walk him. On purpose. And that's what's going to happen to Delmon as he goes along, too. Right now, they know he's going to chase a little bit, but that's OK. I'll take my chances with him letting it fly."

Ready, Aim, Fire Dept.: Reds owner Bob Castellini has no idea how many people in baseball he alienated by firing his GM, Wayne Krivsky -- as well-liked and highly respected a man as you'll find in the business.

"They just went from a team you root for to a team you root against," is the way one veteran baseball man put it Wednesday.

Sure, Krivsky made his share of mistakes. Goes with the turf. But have there been three bigger steals in the past two years than Bronson Arroyo for Wily Mo Pena, Brandon Phillips for Jeff Stevens, or Josh Hamilton for 50,000 bucks? And Jeff Keppinger for Russ Haltiwanger is right up there, too.

TRIVIA ANSWER

Todd Helton has done it five times. The group at four: Manny Ramirez, Vladimir Guerrero and (if he resurfaces) Frank Thomas.

So why was this guy fired again? Because this team came out of spring training with a little promise and then started 9-12? Ridiculous. The Yankees, Phillies, Cubs and Rockies were all 9-12 or worse last year this time -- and made the playoffs.

"There's nothing worse than these owners who treat the national pastime like it's the frigging stock market," said an official of one team. "They think it's got to keep going up, up, up, every day. But that's just not the way of works. This is a game of human beings."

Quippage Dept.: Finally, Jay Leno reports that "46,000 people showed up to see the Pope in the Washington Nationals' ballpark. He beat the Nationals 15-1. … To make sure the crowd did not get unruly they cut off beer sales after the 7th commandment."

For your viewing pleasure

This week marked 60 years since the big league debut of Richie Ashburn, the most beloved athlete in the history of Philadelphia. My friend, Video Dan Stephenson, has just released a brilliant DVD tracing Ashburn's improbable, touching and often hilarious ride from small-town Nebraska boy to Hall of Famer to official Philadelphia icon, "Richie Ashburn: A Baseball Life." I can't recommend it highly enough, no matter what part of America you live in.

This 95-minute film is guaranteed to make you cry. But it will also make you laugh 'til it hurts. It will even do both at the same time. And the DVD set contains 3½ hours of bonus footage that includes some priceless Ashburn broadcast banter. Such as …

Ashburn to one-time partner Tim McCarver: "You had a great career, Tim. Too bad you didn't realize it was over a couple of years sooner."

Taking the Subway

Four weeks into Subway's sponsorship of Rumblings and Grumblings, we've yet to see a single meatball marinara sub arrive at our door. Nevertheless, we continue to offer our uplifting, yet shamelessly commercial, salutes to our sponsors -- the weekly Subway awards:

Chase Utley

Utley

The On a Roll Award

Jimmy Rollins dropped two pronouncements on us this spring: 1) He wouldn't have won the MVP award last year if Chase Utley hadn't gotten hurt because Utley would have won it. And 2) Utley will win the batting title this year. We didn't ask him about the home run title, too. But don't rule out anything for the most underrated offensive force in baseball. Utley is now outhomering the A's for the year (10-9), after a ridiculous week of bat artistry. He hit seven homers in seven games, piled up an 1.807 OPS, had more homers than singles (7-5) and reached base eight times in 13 trips in a series against the Mets. And if you're wondering, he's now the first second baseman in history to thump 10 home runs before the end of April.

Cold Cuts Award

The competition for this prestigious award can't get any tighter. But we're cutting some slack to Jim Edmonds (1 for his last 23, with 7 strikeouts), Andruw Jones (3 for his last 18, with 9 whiffs) and a guy who has already won this "honor" once, Adam LaRoche (2 for 21, with 7 K). Instead, this week's Cold Cuts non-trophy goes to a man who has actually been a real, live Subway spokesman, Ryan Howard. He's now 6 for his last 39, with 15 punchouts. Brrrrr.

Chipper Jones

Jones

Worth the Bread Award

We couldn't decide whether the Braves' highest-paid pitcher or highest-paid hitter deserved this award. So what the heck. We'll honor both of them. All Chipper Jones has done in the last week is hit .462, including back-to-back multihomer games and his first four-hit game since Aug. 14, 2006. Which brings up this aside: Who's the last hitter to bat .337 (as Chipper did last season) without a four-hit game? Meanwhile, his long-time compadre, John Smoltz, had quite the week himself, piling up his first back-to-back double-digit strikeout games in 11 years and joining the exclusive 3,000-K Club. But Smoltz also founded his own club -- the 3,000-Whiff, 100-Save Club. It'll be a long time before anyone else joins that one.

Super Sub Award

So here's a question for you: What does San Diego's Justin Huber have in common with Marcus Thames, Shane Halter and Jack Voigt? All four of them hit their first career homers off Randy Johnson. That's what. Huber mugged the Big Unit on Sunday, in only the ninth big-league game he has started in the last three seasons. But the pride of Emerald, Victoria, Australia, told the San Diego Union-Tribune's Tim Sullivan afterward this wasn't a moment he could tell the grandchildren -- or even the neighbors -- about. "I don't see myself telling stories about it in 10 years' time or 20 years' time," Huber said, "because nobody in Australia knows who Randy Johnson is."

Farewell to a friend

Like Richie Ashburn, John Marzano left us too soon. In Marzano's case, way too soon. At age 45. How tragic.

My favorite people in the world are people who (A) love baseball and (B) love Philadelphia, the town I've lived in most of my life. So John Marzano occupies a permanent place in my Philly baseball hall of fame. And he always will.

John Marzano was a first-round draft pick, but he was never a star. Which didn't prevent him from loving every minute he spent in a uniform. He was a guy who had a unique knack for befriending everyone who came in contact with him, from the grounds crew on up to Ken Griffey Jr.

But I got to know him best when he moved into my business. And I saw him turn himself into a terrific broadcaster and analyst, a man who pulled off one of broadcasting's toughest feats -- by forging a reputation as both relentlessly honest and universally likable. Not many people I know can do both.

But John Marzano got it. He understood that his audience wasn't the players, or the manager or the front office. It was the people watching and listening. So he wasn't afraid to say what needed to be said. But he showed up at the park all the time with a smile on his face, was always willing to listen to anybody's complaints and earned incredible respect, from the men he covered and the audience he bonded with.

He was a special human being with a bright future. I'll miss him. And so will the many, many people he touched along the way.

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His book, "The Stark Truth: The Most Overrated and Underrated Players in Baseball History," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores. Click here to order a copy.

Jayson Stark | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com