Identifying the most feared hitter in the bigs
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.
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
Albert PujolsIt 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 GuerreroVlad 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 RodriguezA-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?
Manny Ramirez/David OrtizPitch 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."
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.)
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 Aņos 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."
Todd Helton has done it five times. The group at four: Manny Ramirez, Vladimir Guerrero and (if he resurfaces) Frank Thomas.
For your viewing pleasureThis 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 SubwayFour 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:
The On a Roll AwardJimmy 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 AwardThe 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.
Worth the Bread AwardWe 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 AwardSo 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 friendLike 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.
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