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Tuesday, June 5
June 2001 Archives




THURSDAY, JUNE 29
These days, I'm not a particularly popular fellow in Seattle, my adopted hometown. A good chunk of Mariners fans have fitted me for horns because I took the radical position that Troy Glaus is a significantly better player than David Bell.

Well, today I would like to use my superpowers for good rather than evil. Today I would like to convince you -- along with any major-league executives who just happen to be reading today -- that a young man named Kevin Lovingier deserves a chance to pitch in the big leagues.

There's a great chance that you've never heard of Kevin Lovingier, and I can't blame you. Lovingier is 29 years old (turns 30 in two months), has yet to pitch even a single major-league game, and he's never started even a single game since becoming a professional pitcher in 1994. As you probably know, 30-year-old minor-league relief pitchers generally are asked to seek other work before long.

Still, I think that Kevin Lovingier can pitch. Here's his career minor-league line, including last year's stint with independent Nashua:
Games  Innings  Hits   BB  SO   W-L    ERA
 418     560     422  273 628  34-20  2.83

Pretty impressive, don't you think? Particularly his hits-to-innings and strikeouts-to-innings ratios.

In 1994, the Cardinals drafted Lovingier out of the University of Oklahoma. And after his first two professional seasons, both in Class A, he boasted a 1.49 ERA in 121 innings. Rather than belabor the details of Lovinigier's career, instead I'll just run his stats at each minor-league classification:
             IP    ERA
Class A     121   1.49
Independent  78   2.55
Class AA    219   2.76
Class AAA   142   4.24

Yes, this does look like a pitcher who may have hit his ceiling at Triple-A. In Lovingier's only full season in Class AAA (1999), he posted a 4.85 ERA and walked 40 hitters in 78 innings. This year, after signing with the Yankees, he gave up five runs in five innings with Triple-A Columbus and got demoted to Double-A Norwich, for whom he has posted a 1.59 ERA in 57 innings. But look at that chart again ... Lovingier has pitched only 142 innings at the Triple-A level. What's more, in 1998 he posted a 3.05 ERA (and went 5-1) in 59 innings for Triple-A Memphis. While it's certainly possible that Lovingier's Triple-A stats tell us that he can't pitch effectively in the major leagues, they certainly don't prove any such thing.

Advancement in professional sports, more than virtually any other profession, is tied to merit. It's one of the great things about sports, that if you're good enough you'll move up. But this mechanism doesn't always work efficiently, and sometimes it doesn't work at all (best recent example: Roberto Petagine).

Look, I don't know if Lovingier can pitch in the majors. He doesn't throw particularly hard, but he's a lefty and I suspect that he remains very tough on left-handed hitters; in 1998 and ?99, he held Triple-A lefties to a .183 batting average in 131 at-bats. If Tony Fossas can pitch in the major leagues until he's 41, doesn't Kevin Lovingier deserve a real shot?

All it takes is one team to find out.

  • Jayson Stark's proposal that Major League Baseball create "living-legend" slots on the All-Star rosters certainly sounds nice, and I would certainly come across as a callous heel if I were to argue with the idea.

    So of course, that's what I'm going to do.

    To me, it's a practical matter. How many Living Legend roster spots are allowed? One per team? In 1993, 3,000-hit men George Brett and Robin Yount both called it quits. Two Living Legend roster spots per team? Well, in 1993 Nolan Ryan threw his last fastball.

    Is the commissioner supposed to choose from among three players like that? Or does he submit to public and media demand, and name all three of them to the All-Star team? Of course, once they're there they have to play. And now you've got a game already marred (in this writer's opinion) by serial substitutions, mucked up even more.

    Here's another practical matter ... Does a player have to announce his retirement before a certain date to qualify for Living Legend status? Rickey Henderson has been, over the course of his career, a better, more valuable player than both Cal Ripken and Tony Gwynn. This is very close to an Objective Truth. But Henderson apparently wants to play until someone takes his uniform away, so there's been absolutely no call to get him a spot on the All-Star team.

    What I'd like to know is, when did we decide that every great player needs a grand sendoff in mid-July? Willie Mays got one in 1973, and Johnny Bench and Carl Yastrzemski got one in 1983 (all as reserves). But Hank Aaron didn't get one, Harmon Killebrew didn't get one, Willie Stargell didn't get one, Joe Morgan didn't get one, Reggie Jackson didn't get one, George Brett didn't get one.

    There may well be a place in the All-Star Game for sure Hall of Famers like Ripken and Gwynn. But let them get there the hard way. Let the fans vote them in (not that I encourage that sort of thing), or let MLB find room for them on the 30-man rosters. Otherwise, sentiment will careen out of control, and life as we know it could cease to exist.

    WEDNESDAY, JUNE 28
    My friends over at Baseball Prospectus have a saying, "There's no such thing as a pitching prospect." They don't really mean that, of course; they write about pitching prospects all the time. What they mean is that pitching prospects are only about as predictable as the weather six months from now.

    Are they right, though? I got to thinking about this question last week while watching Tim Redding mow down the Tacoma Rainiers (in Redding's first, and perhaps last, Triple-A start).

    To answer the question, first we have to define "pitching prospect," and I decided to limit our discussion to the best pitching prospects. So I turned to the experts in the field, my old friend John Sickels and the good people at Baseball America (some of them are my friends, too). Every spring, John comes up with a list of baseball's top 50 prospects (published in his book, the "STATS Minor League Scouting Notebook"). Baseball America comes up with its own list of the top 100 prospects. These lists contain significant overlap, but BA tends to emphasize tools slightly more than Sickels does, while Sickels tends to emphasize actual performance slightly more than BA does.

    I examined these lists from 1996 through 2000, and typed the names of everyone who made the top 50 on both lists into an Excel file, figuring that if both sources consider them great prospects, then they probably were. Next, I set out to determine which of them eventually justified their status as great prospects. For starters -- and the great majority of them have started in the majors -- I generally considered a pitcher a success if he threw at least 100 innings in one season and posted an ERA better than the league average. This is, of course, arbitrary, but I tried to figure out what I'd like to see from a prospect pitching for my favorite team. And I'd be thrilled to see Kris Wilson finish this season with 120 innings and a 4.50 ERA.

    There are great prospects, and there are great prospects. Among the latter group I would include those pitchers who made the Sickels and Baseball America lists twice, and there were 11 who did that from 1996 through 2000.
                     Career           Best Year
    Bartolo Colon  56-35, 4.13    1999: 18- 5, 3.95
    Carl Pavano    20-21, 4.32    2000:  8- 4, 3.06
    Kerry Wood     28-17, 3.96    1998: 13- 6, 3.40   
    Rick Ankiel    12-10, 3.84    2000: 11- 7, 3.50
    Matt Clement   28-34, 4.92    1999: 10-12, 4.48
    Bruce Chen     13-10, 4.13    2000:  7- 4, 3.29
    Brad Penny     15- 8, 4.15    2001:  7- 1, 3.41     
    A.J. Burnett   12-13, 3.59    2001:  5- 4, 2.27
    Ryan Anderson        None
    John Patterson       No MLB Experience
    Matt Riley           No MLB Experience
    

    Friends, that's an impressive group. Of the eight pitchers here who have actually pitched more than a few innings in the majors (Riley made three starts), each has shown extended flashes of quality, and some have shown extended flashes of greatness.

    That said, only one of the eight -- Bartolo Colon -- might be said to have encountered smooth sailing over an extended period of time.

    Carl Pavano and Kerry Wood have both suffered serious elbow troubles, and subsequently been subjected to Tommy John surgery. Matt Clement just barely qualifies as a success, and continues to fight control issues. Bruce Chen got traded last summer for two months of Andy Ashby. Rick Ankiel, you know about. Brad Penny and A.J. Burnett have both pitched well, but of course it's still early.

    And look at those three guys at the bottom of the table. Ryan Anderson? Out for 2001 after surgery to repair a torn labrum. John Patterson? Blew out his elbow, will miss most or all of 2001 after Tommy John surgery. Matt Riley? Blew out his elbow, will miss most or all of 2001 after Tommy John surgery.

    Speaking of injuries, in the five years I studied, only one other pitcher drew the kind of acclaim that Rick Ankiel did. Prior to the 1996 season, both Baseball America and Sickels rated Mets right-hander Paul Wilson as the No. 2 prospect in the game. However, between pitching for the Mets in 1996 and the Devil Rays in 2000, Wilson didn't throw a single inning in the major leagues. Instead, he spent three years recovering from major surgeries on his elbow and his shoulder. Wilson did spend two months in the majors last season and pitched quite well ... but this year, he's posted a 7.91 ERA in 66 innings.

    We've looked at the super-prospects, the guys who were at the top of the lists for two years running. What about the other top pitching prospects?

    From 1996, the successes include Jason Schmidt (No. 9 prospect, averaging Sickels' and Baseball America's rankings), Billy Wagner (10), Alan Benes (13), Jeff Suppan (26) and Chan Ho Park (31). The failures (sorry, no offense meant) include Paul Wilson (2), Rocky Coppinger (22), Jimmy Haynes (25) and Matt Drews (26). Haynes is pitching well this year for Milwaukee, and might well join the list of successes. Drews, then a Yankee farmhand, remains the only consensus prospect from 1996, '97 or '98 who hasn't pitched at all in the majors.

    From 1997, the successes include Jaret Wright and Matt Morris; there have been no failures from that small, five-member class, which also included two-time consensus prospects Wood, Pavano, and Colon.

    From 1998, the successes include Kris Benson and Scott Elarton, along with four two-time consensus prospects (the aforementioned three, plus Bruce Chen). The only failure has been Brian Rose, and you could certainly argue the opposite. After all, he did post a 4.87 ERA in 1999 for the Red Sox. However, with 98 innings he just missed my (admittedly arbitrary) 100-innings cutoff, and his ERA was just barely higher than the league average.

    From 1999, the successes include Brad Penny, Braden Looper and A.J. Burnett. The failures (to this point, at least) include Ryan Anderson, John Patterson, Matt Riley, Roy Halladay, Ryan Bradley, Octavio Dotel, Odalis Perez and Jason Grilli.

    A couple of obvious things about the consensus prospects from 1999 ... First off, all three of the success stories are currently pitching for the Florida Marlins, and obviously they're a big reason that the Marlins themselves are a success story this season (Grilli's a Marlin, too, but has yet to pitch well in the majors). And second, it's apparent that a significantly lower percentage of these guys have been successful than from the prior classes. Of course, that's partly due to time, as some of these pitchers simply haven't had a chance in the majors yet. But it goes beyond that; since making the list, Patterson and Riley and Perez underwent Tommy John surgery on their pitching elbows. Anderson suffered a serious shoulder injury, and won't pitch at all this year.

    From 2000, the successes include Ramon Ortiz and Tony Armas, plus two-timers Ankiel, Penny, and Burnett. Failures include Kip Wells (though he's close to becoming a success story), Wilfredo Rodriguez, Francisco Cordero, Eric Gagne, Josh Beckett and Wes Anderson.

    Florida's Beckett, of course, is still regarded as one of the game's great pitching prospects, perhaps the game's greatest pitching prospect, and it's simply a matter of time (barring injury, of course). Right now, he's pitching lights-out in Double-A. Anderson is yet another great Marlins prospect, but he pitched poorly for five weeks in Class A before going on the DL, where he remains. Wilfredo Rodriguez, yet another hard-throwing Astros farmhand, struggled badly last year, is again pitching poorly this season for Houston's Double-A franchise in Round Rock. Cordero and Gagne have both spent part of this season back in Triple-A, but still project as solid major leaguers.

    Conclusions?

    Of the six "super-prospects" -- those who appeared on both top-50 lists two straight years -- from 1996 through 1999, all six have enjoyed at least one successful major-league season since.

    On the other hand, of the five super-prospects who appeared on both lists in both 1999 and 2000, three have suffered serious arm injuries and will pitch very little or not at all this year. Only Penny and Burnett have been able to avoid major arm surgery (and both have pitched quite well this season).

    Of the other 21 prospects who made both top-50 lists just once between 1996 and 1999, 11 have enjoyed at least one good major-league season, and 10 have not.

    Again, though -- I don't think I can stress this enough -- there have been some major bumps in the road even for the success stories. Jaret Wright's a success story due to his 1997 regular-season and postseason performance, but since then he's been either ineffective or disabled for the better part of four seasons. Elarton has struggled badly since his good season. Suppan's been inconsistent. And a lot of these pitchers have suffered major injuries after first pitching effectively in the majors. This list includes Billy Wagner, Alan Benes, Matt Morris, Carl Pavano, Kris Benson, and of course, Kerry Wood.

    Looking at my list, in fact, among all these great prospects only two names stand out as unqualified successes: Chan Ho Park (in 1996, Baseball America's No. 18 prospect, and John Sickels' No. 44), and Bartolo Colon (twice a consensus top-50 prospect).

    Great pitching prospects are actually pretty good bets to make a significant contribution at the major-league level ... but they're far from good bets to do so consistently, year in and year out. Yes, there really is such a thing as a pitching prospect, but you certainly shouldn't count on one of them, not until he's run the brutal injury gauntlet that delays or prevents the ascendancy of so many young hurlers.

    The next step is to run a similar study for consensus hitting prospects, to see if they're better bets than the pitchers.

    TUESDAY, JUNE 27
    I'll be honest with you. I don't care much for Allan H. "Bud" Selig, who's now been baseball's commissioner for nearly a decade. His specialty is extorting taxpayer money for new ballparks, yet he can't seem to figure out how to get teams into markets that could presumably support them, like North Carolina and northern Virginia and Portland and north New Jersey. As near as I can tell, the only truly smart move Selig has made in eight-and-a-half years was hiring Sandy Alderson. Now, if Alderson could somehow mount a bloodless coup and take over, then we'd really have something.

    In the meantime, though, we're stuck with old Uncle Bud. In another week or so, he may have a chance to do something right for a change, something that will take a lot of guts. Before we get to that, though, let's suppose that Joe Randa -- he's currently batting .261 for the last-place Kansas City Royals -- were leading American League third basemen in the All-Star balloting ... wouldn't you want to know where all those Joe Randa votes were coming from? If not, then I'm afraid that you don't have a curious bone in your body, and frankly I'm surprised that you've bothered reading this far.

    David Bell
    Third Base
    Seattle Mariners
    Profile
    2001 SEASON STATISTICS
    G HR RBI R SB AVG
    64 7 34 27 0 .250

    Well, Joe Randa's having a better season than David Bell. Randa's got a higher batting average than Bell, along with more games played, a higher on-base percentage, more walks, more RBI, more doubles, more stolen bases, fewer strikeouts and fewer errors.

    Of course, Joe Randa does not lead the American League third basemen in the latest All-Star voting. David Bell does. I don't know exactly where Randa ranks, actually, because he doesn't make the top five, which are all that MLB reports. However, we do know that Randa has pulled fewer than 213,936 votes, the total for No. 5 man Tony Batista (who was just waived, but that's another story).

    But hey, Batista made the All-Star team last year, and wound up hitting 41 home runs. You can certainly understand why people would vote for Tony Batista.

    No. 4 in the balloting is Scott Brosius. He's having a heckuva year, on balance probably the second-best third baseman in the American League this season. Plus, he's now spent three-and-a-half seasons playing for the most famous baseball team in the world.

    No. 3 in the balloting is Cal Ripken. As you might remember from last week, he's no starting All-Star, at least not in my mind. But gosh, it's certainly no surprise that fans are voting for him. Cal's certainly among the five or six most famous players in the game, right up there with Big Mac and Sammy and A-Rod.

    No. 2 in the balloting is Troy Glaus, who has merely established himself as the best third baseman in the American League. Sure, he's slumped lately. And sure, Brosius might even be playing slightly better this year, all things considered. But if you could have one AL third baseman for your team, you'd take Glaus without a second thought.

    And No. 1? Why, David Bell, of course. Bell's not as good as Glaus, or Brosius, or Randa, or even Eric Chavez or Jose Macias or Corey Koskie (Bell is, I hasten to add, better than Shea Hillenbrand, Batista and Ripken). David Bell's never played in an All-Star Game, nor has he deserved to. He did enjoy a solid 1999 season with the Mariners ... as their second baseman. Since then, Bell's been so weak at the plate that the Mariners -- remember, this is a club winning roughly 75 percent of its games -- are anxious to replace him.

    Everybody seems to have his or her own definition of "All-Star," but Bell certainly doesn't fit any definition that I've ever heard. And I don't mean any disrespect to Bell, his devoted family, or his fans. Shoot, he's probably one of the 25 or 30 greatest third basemen in the world ... he just isn't an All-Star.

    So how has his happened? Before you answer, let me first dispose of one popular theory.

    I've been to a dozen games at Safeco Field this season, maybe half of them during the Mariners' 25-game voting period (which has ended). I've sat in three different locations, and I can tell you, without even a tinge of equivocation, that the Seattle Mariners organization is not pumping the vote for their players.

    At one point during the middle of the game, the Mariners would make a brief announcement about the All-Star voting, accompanied by a graphic on the scoreboard encouraging fans to vote for Bret Boone. A few minutes later, ushers passed out ballots ... but not the stack that I remember from my youth at Royals Stadium. Rather, there might have been roughly one each for everybody in my row, though an individual fan might end up with two or three because of disinterest around him. At Safeco Field, it simply isn't possible to stuff the ballot boxes with the ballots provided. Now, it's possible that one could have acquired a stack of ballots by request, but I've never seen it happen, or heard of it happening. To the best of my knowledge, the voting at Safeco Field was on the up-and-up from Game No. 1 to Game No. 25.

    So what does that leave?

    Internet voting, of course. As far as I know, anybody anywhere can vote on the Internet, and up to 25 times (but how does MLB keep somebody from switching computers and voting 25 more times with a different e-mail address, and 25 more after that?). No fans are more wired than those in Seattle, and no fans are more capable of figuring out how to electronically stuff the virtual ballot box.

    Except Bell's support isn't coming from the Internet. Major League Baseball does release the Internet results, and the totals through June 20 are quite instructive ...
    Troy Glaus    177,600
    Cal Ripken    150,542
    David Bell    147,245
    Scott Brosius 115,168
    Tony Batista   67,947
    

    Same guys, same order ... except Bell is No. 3 in the Internet voting rather than No. 1. In fact, Bell has received fewer of his votes via the Internet than any of the other American League leaders. Here are the percentage of Internet votes for all eight of them, in ascending order:
    Bell         Mariners   24%
    Olerud       Mariners   25%
    Ichiro       Mariners   29%
    Martinez     Mariners   30%
    Boone        Mariners   30%
    I Rodriguez  Rangers    32%
    Gonzalez     Indians    35%
    A Rodriguez  Rangers    35%
    Ramirez      Red Sox    38%
    

    Anybody else notice a pattern here? Far from dominating the Internet vote (presumably due to Japanese or Seattleites), the Mariners are benefiting less from the Internet than their peers. Hackers? Hardly. So if Mariners fans aren't stuffing the ballot box at the ballpark, and savvy computer users aren't doing the same electronically, then what's going on? Is it simply the Mariners' great home attendance (coupled with civic pride), along with the team's new-found national fame? Well, the M's do lead the AL in home attendance ... but they're not far enough ahead of the Yankees or Indians to make that much difference. As for the Mariners' success, I'm not sure that it's having a major effect on voters in other cities. In 1998, the Yankees were 56-20 at the end of June, yet not a single Yankee started that summer's All-Star game. Fans don't vote for teams (other than their own), they vote for players.

    So what does that leave? After exploring the other possibilities, one might turn to the following note, easily found at MLB's web site:
    Major League Baseball's All-Star Balloting Program, the largest in professional sports, encompasses Claritin in-stadium balloting at all 30 Major League ballparks, RadioShack online balloting at MLB.com and RadioShack.com, Pepsi retail balloting at Kroger Grocery Stores and international balloting throughout Puerto Rico, Canada, Mexico, Venezuela, Japan and the Dominican Republic.

    The italics are, as they say, mine.

    Now, a few readers were upset with me last week when I responded (in a chat session) to the question, "Do you think the Japanese are the reason there are four Mariners leading at their positions in the All-Star ballots?" with "I don't have any idea, but I certainly hope that MLB clarifies the situation at some point. Baseball has a responsibility to its fans, and so we have a right to know where the votes are coming from."

    That was before David Bell's ascendancy. Is it discriminatory to suggest that when apparent voting anomalies crop up, we try to figure out what caused them? I'm not begrudging Japanese baseball fans the right to vote for Major League Baseball's All-Stars -- well, maybe I'm a little begrudging -- but is it fair to the non-Mariners on the ballot, when nearly every game played by the Seattle Mariners -- alone among the 30 major-league clubs -- is telecast back in Japan?

    Doesn't seem so fair to me. So let's at least find out just how many of David Bell's votes -- and Dan Wilson's (he's second at catcher) and Mike Cameron's (he's fourth among the outfielders) and Al Martin's (he's eighth) -- are coming from across the Pacific, and then we can make up our own minds.

    In 1957 (as the official Baseball Guide and Record Book reported the following spring), "A deluge of 500,000 late votes from Cincinnati resulted in all of the Reds' regulars except First Baseman George Crowe being the leaders at their respective positions. Because of the 'overbalance of Cincinnati votes,' Commissioner Ford Frick ordered Outfielders Gus Bell and Wally Post of the Reds dropped from consideration."

    That was it. Forty-four years ago, everybody knew something was fishy, and so the commissioner took a drastic step (Bell -- David's grandfather, by the way -- was actually named to the team as a backup, but Post didn't make the team at all). No, this year's situation isn't exactly the same as what happened in '57, but let's be honest, sports fans ... there's something mighty fishy going on in 2001, fishier than the fresh salmon you can purchase at Seattle's Pike Place Market. I don't know if Bud Selig has the power that Ford Frick had, though, and I sincerely doubt if Selig even has the guts to find out.

    So, what if Selig can't, or won't, figure a way out of this mess? The Internet voting booth remains open for five more days, friends. Vote for Troy Glaus, and you can save Commissioner Bud (and the American League All-Star team) from his own willful negligence.

    MONDAY, JUNE 26
    We've seen a number of interesting transactions over the last few days ...

    Sunday, the Tampa Bay Devil Rays released Gerald Williams. Let's review the situation. This season, the Rays are paying Williams nearly $3 million, and he returned the favor by slugging .332 and reaching base approximately 25 percent of the time. What's more, with another 66 plate appearances, his $4 million contract for next season would vest. Faced with this likelihood, the Devil Rays sensibly cut their losses by cutting Williams. And somewhere there's a GM -- can you say Allard Baird, everyone? -- salivating at the chance of claiming Williams for a very low price. And who knows? If Marquis Grissom and Devon White can both rejuvenate their careers, anyone can.

    Of course, Williams wasn't the only Devil Ray who failed to earn his keep this season. A quick look at Tampa Bay's salary list tells a sad story:
    Wilson Alvarez  $9 million    0 IP in 2001
    Vinny Castilla  $7.2 million  released
    Juan Guzman     $5.6 million  0 IP in 2001
    Albie Lopez     $3 million    3-10, 5.65 ERA
    Gerald Williams $2.9 million  released
    

    Granted, veterans Greg Vaughn ($7.5 million) and Fred McGriff ($6 million) have both played well, certainly better than I thought they would. And both Alvarez and Guzman are expected to rejoin the rotation within the next few weeks. Still, it's safe to say that whatever the Devil Rays have been doing for the last few years, it hasn't worked. So Castilla and Williams are gone, and Vaughn will likely be traded in the next five weeks. And it's said that since John McHale joined the club, much of the decision-making power has passed to him from general manager Chuck LaMar ... leaving one to wonder, what, exactly, did McHale do to deserve this role? Last I checked, he hadn't exactly built a powerhouse in Detroit.

    Of course, as we know only too well, in baseball it's quite often not about what you've done, but rather who you know. The Kansas City Royals -- who, in their characteristic brilliance, yesterday traded a 26-year-old pitcher with a great arm (Mac Suzuki) for a 33-year-old catcher who won't hit (Brent Mayne) -- are the current champions of this philosophy, but other examples abound.

    Speaking of who you know ... it seems like the Astros have made more trades with the Tigers over the last few years than they've made with every other team combined. And vice versa. This time, it was Dave Mlicki to the Astros, with Jose Lima and cash -- actually, I suspect that it was a wire transfer, but cash certainly sounds more dramatic -- going to the Tigers. The "cash" is, I suspect, simply designed to make up the difference between Lima's salary ($6.25 million) and Mlicki's ($5.3 million). Neither, of course, have done much to justify those salaries recently. Here are their numbers since Opening Day of the 2000 season:
             IP  Hits  BB   SO   W- L   ERA
    Lima    249   328  84  165   8-18  6.79  
    Mlicki  200   261  85  105   8-20  6.29 
    

    Amazing. Yet Lima and Mlicki combined for 35 victories in 1999 (21 for Lima, 14 for Mlicki), so their new teams can have at least some hope that they'll pitch effectively again.

    I'm skeptical. They've both been so bad for so long that we may see a pair of arm surgeries before we see either of them return to form.

    Also yesterday, the Astros recalled Tim Redding. You'll remember that I saw Redding pitch for New Orleans last Monday night, and you might also remember that I proclaimed him ready for the major leagues, if only in a bullpen role. Still, I'm surprised that he got only one Triple-A start before the Astros summoned him to the big club. Like I said, I think he's plenty ready, but I do hope he gets at least a couple of months in the bullpen before heading to the rotation. And it's not inconceivable that the Astros might groom Redding to replace Billy Wagner, when the latter starts to get truly expensive.

    A couple of weeks ago, I was fairly confident that Alfonso Soriano's days as Everyday Second Baseman, New York Yankees, were growing short. Now I'm not so sure, because Saturday the Yanks traded D'Angelo Jimenez, the most obvious candidate to replace Soriano, to San Diego for Jay Witasick.

    Witasick failed as a starter for various clubs, but this spring the Padres had the bright idea of making Witasick a full-time reliever, and it's paid off big. You know, as an aside, I've always wondered why teams aren't quicker to try this. Even at his best, Witasick throws only two pitches with any consistency, and that's just not enough unless one of those pitches is truly outstanding. And Witasick's best pitch, a low-90s fastball without a lot of movement, was certainly short of outstanding. But now -- and we've seen this a million times -- he doesn't have to pace himself, and can throw a bit harder for an inning or two, which makes him a bit more effective. Presto, you've got a middle reliever with a 1.86 ERA in 39 innings, a guy with closer stuff.

    In Jimenez, the Padres get a shortstop who, a year-and-a-half ago, looked like a future All-Star shortstop. But then in January of 2000, Jimenez suffered a broken neck when his car collided with a bus. He barely played at all last year, and hasn't done much with the Yankees' Triple-A team this year. I don't have any idea where Jimenez is, physically, but he's certainly worth Jay Witasick. Rebuilding teams like San Diego can't afford the luxury of great middle relievers, not when they can trade one for a guy with Jimenez's potential.

    Friday night, the Braves traded John Rocker and Troy Cameron to the Indians for Steve Karsay and Steve Reed. Their stats this season, before the deal:
             IP    H  BB   K    ERA 
    Karsay  43.1  29   8  44   1.25
    Reed    27.1  22  10  21   3.62
    Rocker  32.0  25  16  36   3.09
    

    Two winters ago, John Sickels wrote of Cameron, "Right now, he reminds me of Russ Branyan" ... which now seems funny, because of course the Indians already have Russ Branyan. But the Indians would be very, very lucky if Cameron turned into Russ Branyan. He turns 23 in two months, isn't ready for Double-A yet, and his power numbers are down this season. So essentially, this deal is Rocker for Karsay and Reed.

    All three are effective relievers, the Braves getting two and the Indians one. So what's in it for the Tribe? I don't know that I have a good answer for that one. Yes, Rocker has been anointed with the magical appellation, CLOSER ... but didn't the Indians already have one of those beasts in captivity? Here are the two pitchers now apparently serving as Cleveland's co-closers:
             IP   H  HR  BB  SO   Sv  BlSv   ERA
    Wickman  30  22   3  10  35   15    1   3.03
    Rocker   30  25   2  16  36   19    4   3.09
    

    Both have pitched well, but by nearly any objective measure Wickman has pitched better. So you really can't blame him for being upset about the arrival of Rocker, who figures to take a good percentage of the save chances.

    There are some other odd things about this deal. When was the last time two contenders traded relief pitchers? And did you know that the Indians rank third in the American League in relief ERA? Yet they traded two of the pitchers who got them there. In the end, this trade will come down to one question: Can Steve Karsay succeed as Atlanta's closer? If he can, then put this one in John Schuerholz's column.

    And finally, Friday the Reds quite sensibly released Deion Sanders. One could, fairly easily, have predicted that Sanders would flop, given his age and his lack of recent baseball experience. Still, one couldn't have predicted just how poorly he would play, especially considering his excellent April stats in Triple-A. So considering the Reds' injury problems in center field, I can't really fault Jim Bowden for signing Sanders in the first place ... wait a minute. Sure I can.

    Taking a flyer on Sanders was not smart. The only thing you know you're getting with Deion is the speed, but the Reds were already loaded with speed. He doesn't give you power, and he doesn't give you plate discipline, both of which have been in relatively short supply for the Reds this season. What's more -- and this is something nobody talks about -- Deion Sanders is a distraction. How many hours do you think Bowden spent talking about Deion, to his agent and his manager and the writers, et cetera?

    Hundreds? Maybe not, but certainly scores. And I would submit that all those hours could have been productively spent in some other fashion. Deion Sanders, merely by dint of who he is, eats into a club's "organizational capital" (as I call it). Some players are worth it, but at this point Sanders simply isn't. If you want to sign a role player as a stopgap while your superstar's on the DL, fine ... but why sign one who's going to be a hassle?

    And now Toronto GM Gord Ash -- whose team certainly doesn't need a center fielder who can't hit -- is spending half his time talking about Deion. Cripes, when will these guys learn ...

    THURSDAY, JUNE 21
    Tying up some loose ends regarding recent columns and various baseball news ...

  • Last week, I demonstrated (to my satisfaction, at least) that we're seeing fewer very young major leaguers -- 21 and younger -? than we've ever seen before. I was trying to get at the question, answered in the affirmative by Sports Illustrated's Stephen Cannella, "Are players reaching the big leagues at a younger age than their predecessors?"

    No, they're not, in large part (I suspect) because more players than ever (I think) play in college before entering the professional ranks at 20 or 21.

    In response to that column, super-researcher Tom Ruane delved into the data and found that players in general are getting older all the time. For the three-year period 1974-1976, the average age of a major-league batter was 27.94; for the three-year period 1998-2000, the average age of a major-league batter was 29.45, almost exactly a year-and-a-half older. From 1974 through 1976, the average age of a major-league pitcher was 28.10; from 1998 through 2000, the average age of a major-league pitcher was 29.11, almost exactly a year higher.

    Yes, it seems as if players are hanging around longer now than they used to, perhaps due to both better physical conditioning and heftier paychecks. But the data suggests that at least as much of the difference in those aforementioned average ages is due to players reaching the majors later, i.e. older, than they ever have before.

  • A couple of follow-up notes to Tuesday's column, wherein I wondered if any other organization could match the great young pitchers featured by Houston's organization. Well, a couple of readers chimed in with the opinion that the Cubs are right there with the Astros, and maybe they're right. The major-league staff is on pace to obliterate the all-time strikeout record, with 24-year-old Kerry Wood (120 K's in 85 innings) and 25-year-old Kyle Farnsworth (55 K's in 34 innings!) leading the way. At Triple-A, the Cubs have 22-year-old Ruben Quevedo (96 K's in 93 innings), 23-year-old Mike Meyers (72 in 77), and 20-year-old Carlos Zambrano (82 in 79).

    I've been awfully rough on Don Baylor in the past, but this year no Cubs starter has thrown 120 pitches in a single game. If Baylor continues to exercise such restraint over the next year or three, the Cubs could indeed feature a very impressive staff, a staff that will keep them in contention well past this season.

    That said, I didn't exhaust the list of impressive young hurlers in the Astros system. Larry Glover pointed me to a 20-year-old named Mike Nannini. Pitching for Houston's Class A affiliate in Lexington, Nannini -- thanks to a mid-90s fastball and a nasty curve -- has posted a 1.74 ERA and struck out 82 Sally League hitters in 98 innings. And yes, Nannini's another of the organization's "short" starters -- 5-11 in his baseball spikes.

  • Now, a letter from a reader ...

      Hi, Rob -

      I heard a conversation between the Cubs radio announcers the other day that made me think of you right away. They were talking about Dick Such, who I guess is the Twins pitching coach. Pat Hughes mentioned that Such had an season in the minors during the '60s -- I forget which team, sorry -- where he started almost 20 games and posted an era like 2.90.

      Hughes asked his partner, Ron Santo (who is like a car wreck -- hard to listen to, but somehow I can't turn him off), if Santo could guess what Such's record was. Santo guessed, as I would have, that the record would be at least .500. Of course, the kicker is that Such apparently went 0-16!

      Anyhow, I know that there must be more to the story, and that what is always the first possibility -- anomoly -- just couldn't be. Surely you are aware of this season, and have some ideas on what else went wrong that year. I have heard the minor-league stats like that guy in the PCL hitting 80 dingers or the like, and they seem to at least have some basis in reality, but 0-16 with an ERA under 3.00 seems like something entirely out of this world.

      Thanks for your time.

      Chuck Rohde

    Just the other day, someone very near and dear to me suggested that perhaps I already know all there is to know about baseball. I assured her (as many of you in New York would) that I have much to learn, and in fact my baseball knowledge is a molehill next to the Mt. McKinley that is baseball history. And if I needed confirmation, here it is, because this is the first I've heard of Dick Such's amazing season.

    Indeed, he did go 0-16 while posting a 2.81 ERA for the York White Roses, Washington's Double-A affiliate in the Eastern League, in 1967. Such's season, now largely forgotten, did not pass unremarked upon. The Official 1968 Baseball Guide noted,

    HARD LUCK HAUNTS DICK SUCH'S PITCHING
    In the long history of baseball, there have been few, if any, pitchers to match the hard luck of Dick Such of York in 1967. The Eastern League righthander compiled an excellent earned-run average of 2.81, but he lost 16 straight games and finished the season without a victory. In 11 of his defeats, Such allowed no more than two runs a game. However, he had poor support from his teammates. York had a club batting average of only .217. The White Roses were shut out 29 times and were the victims of four no-hitters.

    Four no-hitters?

    More to the point, the White Roses scored only 351 runs in 138 games, or 2.54 per game. It was a pitcher's league -- the other teams in the league, the good ones, averaged 3.33 runs per game -- but 2.54 was still pretty bad. York's pitching wasn't bad at all, a 2.60 ERA, but they couldn't overcome the anemic bats, and the White Roses finished 43-95. Thanks to York, every other club in the league won at least 48 percent of their games.

  • I'd like to correct a bit of misinformation that's floating around out there. Wednesday, Mets outfielder Tsuyoshi Shinjo was placed on the disabled list with a strained left quadriceps, suffered Sunday night when he slid, feet-first, into first base. It was one of the dumbest plays that I've ever seen.

    One account reads, "Shinjo's slide allowed Mike Piazza to come to the plate and hit a two-out, two-run homer that capped a six-run inning."

    Uh, no.

    Shinjo didn't need to slide, because the throw was both high and late. Shinjo's slide allowed Alex Escobar to get promoted to the majors despite doing very little in Norfolk to deserve it. And that's it.

    Turns out that the press reports, and the guys broadcasting the game, had it wrong. Shinjo wasn't trying to slide into first base at all. Rather, he hurt his quadriceps while running to first, and the pain simply didn't allow him to run any further. My apologies, and I wish Shinjo a full and speedy recovery.

  • Most of the reports I've seen suggest that the Ugueth Urbina trade died because both Urbina and Brandon Knight "failed physicals," but it's not quite that simple. Knight's essentially healthy, while Urbina just hasn't recovered fully from the two elbow surgeries last year. According to The New York Post's George King, the Expos nixed the deal at the last minute after deciding that Knight and D'Angelo Jimenez were not enough for Urbina, and asked for Brett Jodie instead of Knight. The Yankees said no -- Jodie's currently 7-4 with Triple-A Columbus, and sports a team-best 2.74 ERA -- and so the deal died, at least for now.

    Meanwhile, after tomorrow night Tino Martinez will be a "10-and-5 man," which means he can veto any trade. Nevertheless, Joe Torre claims that this "deadline" hasn't even been discussed between him and Brian Cashman. I'm not sure I believe that, but it doesn't sound like the Yankees have much interest in moving Martinez, who was terrible last year and has been even worse this year.

    Torre's loyalty has likely been a key ingredient in the Yankees' dynastic ways, but eventually such loyalty is going to backfire on the franchise. Veteran Yankees Martinez, Chuck Knoblauch and Paul O'Neill are all hurting the club, just as they did last year, and one wonders how long they can get away with it.

    WEDNESDAY, JUNE 20
    This spring I wrote some pretty awful things about Sports Illustrated writer Tom Verducci, but the man can write. Last week's S.I. included Verducci's wonderful article on closers, and the amazing pressures that come with that particular occupation. There's all sorts of interesting psychological stuff in Verducci's piece, but I found the following to be the most interesting statistical stuff ...

    Over the past five years, 44 pitchers saved at least 30 games in a season.

    Four current closers have saved at least 30 games in each of the last three years.

    Wow. Only four, which struck me as dramatically few.

    Still, I couldn't help but turn my critical eye upon these figures. Wouldn't it make more sense to list the number of pitchers who have saved at least 30 games in any season over the last three years? Also, using the "current" qualification leaves out John Wetteland, who registered 30-plus saves in each of the last six seasons but isn't pitching this year. Clearly, Wetteland should be a part of this discussion. So he makes five (along with Trevor Hoffman, Mariano Rivera, Robb Nen, and Troy Percival).

    Coincidentally, the same day that I read Verducci's article, I caught one of those AFLAC trivia questions during a Braves game on TV ...

    :Aside from Greg Maddux, who are the five pitchers to win at least 15 games in each of the last three seasons?

    The answer -- David Wells, Pedro Martinez, Randy Johnson, Aaron Sele and Dave Burba (Dave Burba?) -- isn't nearly as interesting as the question, is it? Because 15 victories (like 30 saves) really doesn't sound like a lot, does it? And remember, there are a lot more pitchers with a shot at 15 victories than pitchers with a legitimate shot at 30 saves. Last season, 63 major-league pitchers started at least 30 games, and each of those 63 had at least a theoretical shot at 15 victories (23 of those 63 starters did win 15 games, plus Pedro Martinez won 18 despite starting only 29 times). Meanwhile, almost by definition the maximum number of pitchers who could save 30 games is 30, the number of major-league clubs.

    So six major-league pitchers have won at least 15 games in each of the last three seasons, and five major-league pitchers have saved at least 30 games in each of the last three seasons.

    Is this comparison appropriate?

    Over those same three seasons, 55 different pitchers won at least 15 games in at least one season, and five of them -- nine percent -- won at least fifteen games in each of those seasons.

    Over those same three seasons, 33 different pitchers saved at least 30 games in one season, and five of them -- 15 percent -- saved at least 30 games in each of those seasons.

    Are 15 wins comparable to 30 saves? Well, the modern practical limit for victories is approximately 23, and the modern practical limit for saves is approximately 50.

    15/23 = 0.65
    30/50 = 0.60

    Close enough, especially when you remember that many more pitchers have the opportunity to win 15 games.

    The point of Verducci's article is that closers must overcome a huge psychological burden to maintain their long-term effectiveness, and very few are able to do this. I certainly can't prove that he's wrong. And in fact, it's certainly possible that closers must indeed fight powerful emotional demons, while starters are faced with physical demons.

    But however you slice it, it seems to me that piling up victories, season in and season out, ain't a whole lot easier than piling up the saves.

  • I took a fair amount of heat last week when I predicted that Shea Hillenbrand would find himself in Pawtucket within a month. The most common argument -- well, not the most common, but certainly the most cogent -- was that, while Hillenbrand might not be a world-beater, he's better than anybody else who can play third base for the Red Sox.

    Really? Here are career numbers for a pair of Red Sox infielders:

                   OBP  Slugging
    Hillenbrand   .282    .390
    Chris Stynes  .350    .416
    

    I think that Hillenbrand's actually a little better than he's played. By nearly any objective measure, though, Stynes figures as the more productive hitter. Yes, Hillenbrand is younger, but he's not that much younger. Stynes is 28, Hillenbrand turns 26 a month from next Monday.

    Despite playing virtually every day thus far, Hillenbrand is on pace to finish the season with 60 runs scored and 57 RBI, which are not acceptable figures for a third baseman playing for a good team in a hitter's park. They're just not. And while the Sox are sitting pretty, in first place even without Nomar, it doesn't pay to get arrogant when you're in a pennant race.

    TUESDAY, JUNE 19
    I have seen the future of Houston Astros pitching, and it throws hard. Very hard.

    Before I get into specifics, though, riddle me this ... How many organizations can match Houston's young hurlers when it comes to pure strikeout power?

    Billy Wagner ... well, Billy Wagner's not "young" any longer, turns 30 next month. But four years ago, when he was 25, Wagner struck out 106 hitters in 66 innings.

    Scott Elarton is now 25 years old, and struggling. But before he joined the Astros in 1998, Elarton struck out 596 hitters in 684 minor-league innings; in 1997 and '98, his last two minor-league seasons, Elarton struck out 291 hitters in 279 innings.

    Wade Miller is 24, and he's struck out 168 hitters in 200 innings since arriving in the major leagues for good last July. (Those numbers just might be even better if Miller hadn't thrown approximately 125 pitches in successive April starts).

    Roy Oswalt is 23, and he entered the 2001 season with 497 strikeouts in 493 minor-league innings. This year, Oswalt struck out 32 hitters in 31 innings for Triple-A New Orleans, which earned him a summons from the big club. Since putting on the Astros uniform, Oswalt has struck out 26 hitters in 31 innings, posted a 3.19 ERA and a 4-1 record.

    Next in the pipeline? An impressive young man named Tim Redding.

    Redding was drafted by the Astros in 1997. And like Oswalt, Redding was not a high pick; the Astros took Redding in the 20th round, a year after drafting Oswalt in the 23rd round. Redding's listed at six feet even and 180 pounds, Oswalt at six feet and 170. And of course, both are strikeout artists. A year ago, Redding struck out 192 hitters in 181 minor-league innings, most of them coming in the tough Class A Florida State League. He opened this season with Double-A Round Rock, and in a dozen starts there he went 10-2 with a 2.18 ERA and K'd 113 hitters in 91 innings.

    And last night, I was lucky enough to see Redding in Tacoma, where he made his first Triple-A start for the New Orleans Zephyrs. The last time I was at Cheney Stadium, April of 2000, I saw Ryan Anderson make his Triple-A debut for the Rainiers. That night, Anderson struck out 10 Salt Lake Buzzers in six innings. Watching Anderson from a ringside seat, I felt like I was witness to The Next Big Thing. Or perhaps the next Big Unit, as Anderson scrapes the ceiling at nearly seven feet tall.

    Of course, he's become neither of those yet. After a solid Triple-A season, Anderson ran into the dreaded arm problems, and won't pitch at all this year after reconstructive surgery this spring.

    But every season brings another great pitching prospect, and Tim Redding is certainly a great pitching prospect. It's one thing to see numbers on a page or a computer screen -- and make no mistake, Redding's numbers are mighty impressive -- but it's something else to actually see the guy pitch. Both experiences are thrilling alone, but somehow incomplete without the other, just as I highly recommend reading Ian Frazier's masterpiece, "Great Plains," and visiting the Great Plains yourself.

    So how did Redding look? He's more polished than Anderson was a year ago, not quite as polished as Oswalt is right now, and one hell of a prospect. In fact, after watching him the word "prospect" may not do Redding justice. He could, right this very minute, do quite well in a major-league bullpen. In fact, given the Astros' tendency to start their prospective starters in the bullpen, there's really little reason to keep Redding in the minors much longer. Maybe it's time to just give up on Jose Lima, he of the sparkly 6.79 ERA over his last 249 innings.

    Last night, though, Redding was essentially a two-pitch pitcher. They're two really good pitches -- a 90-plus fastball that occasionally hits 94 or 95 on the JUGS gun, and a sharp slider -- but most starters need a third pitch to keep the hitters honest. Redding does have a changeup, and last night he threw it exactly once ... in his pregame warm-up routine. Redding's "changeup" of choice was instead his curveball, but he didn't really know where that was going most of the time. It might have just been the adjustment to a new team and a new level, but Redding simply didn't have good command of his pitches.

    And yet, he still managed to toss seven innings of shutout baseball, seven innings that included eight strikeouts and only six baserunners, against the team with the best record in the Pacific Coast League. Which leads one to wonder, what might Redding do with command of one (or more) of his slow offerings? If the Astros are careful, and his body cooperates, we should find out later this summer, or perhaps next spring.

    So where do the Astros get all these guys? Different places. But I believe that the Astros give themselves an advantage because they're not afraid of short right-handers.

    Let me explain ... for a long time, there has been a prejudice against "short" right-handed pitchers. Why not left-handed pitchers? You got me, but I suppose it's because teams are always so desperate for lefties that they'll take whatever they can get. But righties, no. This prejudice is so strong that many scouts simply won't turn in a report on a right-handed pitchers shorter than six feet. If he's 5-10 or 5-11, the scout will simply lie, and write down "6-0" on the form. Of course, this sort of subterfuge can only go so far. When Astros executives see those "6-0"s on the form, they must know six feet doesn't always mean six feet. And they still draft these supposed six-footers. Yes, they wait a while, but that's presumably because they know they can. Redding and Oswalt, who both might wind up as rotation anchors someday, were steals as 20th- and 23rd-round picks.

    Wade Miller's not a little guy -- he's listed at 6-2, which might or might not be inflated by an inch or two, as is the fashion -- but he too was a 20th-round pick (in 1996).

    Meanwhile, Elarton (who's 6-8) and Billy Wagner (who, with a bushy hairstyle, stands 5-11 in his baseball spikes) were both first-round picks. Now, if only the Astros could find some great pitchers in Rounds 2 through 19 ...

    MONDAY, JUNE 18
    Friends, there's still time to get the right players into the starting lineups for the All-Star Game.

    What's a "right player"? Look, I understand that the All-Star Game is for the fans, and in a sense an All-Star is self-defining; if the fans think you're an All-Star, why then of course you are one. So it's hard to begrudge the fans their choices. However, this fan thinks that an All-Star should be the best player at his position. Not necessarily the player with the best statistics on June 18, but rather the player you would pick if you were starting a team from scratch. Cliff Floyd is enjoying a wonderful season, no doubt, but would you rather have him or, say, Bobby Abreu? The choice is pretty clear, I think.

    No All-Star team is going to be perfect, of course, and it certainly wouldn't offend even my delicate sensibilities if Floyd makes it and Abreu doesn't, or John Olerud starts ahead of Jason Giambi and Carlos Delgado. They're all great players. And this year, the fans have done a good job of voting for great players (if only because the most famous players are generally great players).

    In the National League, there's only one danger spot: outfield, where, as of last week, Junior Griffey trailed Luis Gonzalez by just a few hundred votes (Bonds and Sosa are well ahead for the top two slots). Gonzalez is having a fantastic season (after excellent 1999 and 2000 campaigns), and No. 5 man Larry Walker is playing wonderfully, too. But rather than split your vote, it's best to just vote for Gonzalez, to ensure that Griffey -- who has collected the grand total of five base hits this season, and wasn't that much better than Gonzalez last season -- doesn't grab a starting spot.

    In the American League, I can only argue with Cal Ripken. Yes, I know he's a titanic figure in the history of the game, but does that mean he should be a sort of perpetual All-Star? After all, it's not like he's never been an undeserving All-Star before. Ripken has been named to every American League All-Star team since 1983, but I would argue that his actual performance has merited inclusion only twice in the last nine seasons. A spot on the All-Star roster shouldn't be like a Social Security check, for which breathing is the only requirement.

    Begin extraneous digression ...
    Cal Ripken isn't the first Orioles third baseman to play well past the point where he was actually helping his team. Twenty-five years ago, 39-year-old Brooks Robinson posted a .307 slugging percentage in 218 at-bats for the Orioles. This came on the heels of a 1975 season in which Brooks slugged .274 in 143 games. In 1977, Robinson finally called it quits after going 7-for-47 to open the season.

    But even Brooks Robinson, sure future Hall of Famer that he was, didn't keep getting elected -- or named by the manager -- to the American League's All-Star squad. His last All-Star season was 1974 (which also happened to be his last good season). In 1975, Graig Nettles started for the American League, and in 1976 George Brett took over.
    End extraneous digression ...

    So if not Cal Ripken, then who?

    The choice is as clear as George Steinbrenner's conscience, as simple as Bud Selig's intellect. Last season, Troy Glaus led American League third basemen with a 1008 OPS, and nobody else was even close. This season, Troy Glaus leads American League third basemen with a 938 OPS, and nobody else is even close. Glaus is obviously the No. 1 third baseman in the American League, the AL third baseman you would choose if you were starting your own franchise. Last year was Glaus' first big year, so one can certainly excuse fans then for not knowing about him. But the guy hit 47 home runs and scored 120 runs last season, and this year he's showing that last season wasn't any fluke.

    Fortunately, Cal Ripken over Troy Glaus isn't quite a fait accompli. Glaus, who is again enjoying a wonderful year, was less than 8,000 votes behind Ripken in the latest results (released today). If just half of you vote for Troy Glaus 30 times -- nobody else has a shot at winning, so there's absolutely no reason to vote for your favorite team's third baseman -- then the American League's best third baseman might take the field in the first inning, along with the rest of the game's greatest players. You can vote 25 times at MLB's web site, and of course you can vote as often as you like at your big-league ballpark of choice. This is your big chance to make the world, or at least our little corner of the world, a little better.

    THURSDAY, JUNE 14
    In the aftermath of Ben Davis' well-conceived bunt to break up Curt Schilling's no-hitter on May 26, there has been a great amount of talk about those famous "unwritten rules" that supposedly govern so many baseball situations. Or used to.

    There has also been speculation about a supposed lack of knowledge of those unwritten rules. As Stephen Cannella wrote in Sports Illustrated last week, "With players reaching the big leagues at a younger age than their predecessors, a generation gap may be developing when it comes to etiquette. Though most players, managers and scouts say it was a good play, Brenly says that Davis's bunt didn't jibe with Brenly's 'old-school' philosophy."

    Rather than nail Brenly -- I've already done that in this space, and anyway he's managing the team with the second-best record in the National League -- let's explore the notion that today's players are "reaching the big leagues at a younger age than their predecessors."

    With the help of the Bill James Electronic Baseball Encyclopedia (now out of print) and The Sports Encyclopedia: Baseball, I entered the names and at-bats for every player 21 years or younger for eight different three-year periods, spaced a decade apart. This would, I figured, make for sample sizes large enough to tell us something about the relative degrees of youth over time.

    Below are the number of players, along with their composite at-bats, for each of the eight three-year periods in the study:
                <-21 Players   <-21 AB
    1928-1930         57         8,134
    1938-1940         58         9,211
    1948-1950         47         6,362
    1958-1960         68         8,179
    1968-1970        104         9,157 
    1978-1980         67        10,452 
    1988-1990         38         7,133
    1998-2000         38         5,015
    

    The level of participation by very young major-league players was fairly stable in the first two three-year periods. It dips in the late 1940s (I don't know why), then jumps significantly in 1968-1970, perhaps due to the 1969 expansion that included the addition of four new teams. Another uptick in 1978-1980, but again, that was just after another expansion in 1977 that added two new teams.

    Which brings up something that most of you have already figured out ... It's somewhat pointless to simply count players and at-bats, without somehow accounting for the number of major-league teams. So the next step is to enter the total number of major-league at-bats for each of the seasons in question, which allows us to compute the percentage of at-bats compiled by very young players.
                Pct AB <- 21
    1928-1930        3.2
    1938-1940        3.6
    1948-1950        2.5 
    1958-1960        2.3
    1968-1970        2.5
    1978-1980        2.4
    1988-1990        1.7
    1998-2000        1.0
    

    The trend is clear, and it most certainly is not in the direction of "players reaching the big leagues at a younger age than their predecessors."

    If anything, the trend is in the opposite direction. After four straight three-year periods of stability -- roughly 2.5 percent of the at-bats were posted by players 21 or younger -- the last two periods in the study show steep declines in that number. No, this isn't exactly an exhaustive or comprehensive study. But based on the evidence at hand, it's fairly safe to suggest that players are now reaching the big leagues at an older age than their predecessors.

    We illogical humans are boxed in by our prejudices and our experiences. Bob Brenly is prejudiced toward his own players, so of course he was angry when Ben Davis broke up Curt Schilling's no-hitter. And Bob Brenly spent nearly nine years in the minor leagues before finally reaching the majors when he was 27. In Brenly's mind, players are supposed to spend years in the bush leagues, eating at McDonald's and learning all the wonderful things that Brenly learned.

    But it doesn't work that way. Players generally stay in the minor leagues only until they're good enough for the major leagues. More to the point, today's inexperienced major leaguers today are older than they've ever been.

    As for those unwritten rules ... On May 16, 1987, a sunny Saturday afternoon, I sat in the left-field seats at Royals Stadium for a game between the home team and the Milwaukee Brewers. After five innings, my Royals led 6-0 and Charlie Leibrandt hadn't allowed even a single Milwaukee baserunner, let alone a hit. But with one out in the top of the sixth, Brewers catcher Bill Schroeder dropped a bunt (as I remember it) down the third-base line. He reached first base with ease.

    Leibrandt didn't allow another hit, or anything even approaching a hit, and the Royals wound up winning 13-0. Leibrandt never did throw a no-hitter (and it was another dozen years before I saw one in person). But did Royals manager Billy Gardner vilify Bill Schroeder? Did Schroeder's lone, dinky "hit" reverberate around the baseball world?

    No, and no.

    So why all the hullabaloo this time around? I suppose it's due mostly to Brenly's intemperate reaction, which of course quickly spread across the nation as quickly as the cable networks could play the videotape.

    All of which is fine. The great majority of baseball fans and media recognized the absurdity of Brenly's argument. What amuses me, though, is that while Brenly's position is essentially a philosophical one, and thus at least arguable, very few people even questioned this other notion -- which is not philosophical, but empirical -- that today's young players are younger than ever.

    They aren't.

    WEDNESDAY, JUNE 13
    The following letter came in a few weeks ago, so it's been edited to reflect current numbers. But the general points are still valid.

      Rob, I've been pretty amazed by James Baldwin's performance this year. I reckon that you have noticed, or that someone has brought it to your attention by this point, but in case not ... Baldwin is having what strikes me as remarkable success for a pitcher who is striking out almost no hitters. I've never seen anything like it. Every year, there are several starters who only strike out three or four hitters per game. They almost always do poorly. This year, Aaron Sele is at 3.9 strikeouts per nine innings, with great success, and Joe Mays and Scott Schoeneweis are both short of 4.5 yet doing well. But most of the starters in this low range are not doing well at all. But James Baldwin is at 2.05! That's just outrageous. Rather than just screaming out the stats (and betraying my very limited research), let us ponder why this might happen: 1. Anomoly. Always the most likely reason, but how long can this go on?

      2. High Strike. I see no real relevance here. If anything, strikeout rates should go up, not down.

      3. Sandy. Pretty straightforward conjecture. Alomar, in all his wisdom, comes to Chicago and determines that Baldwin is trying to hard to strike guys out, and should change his style.

      4. Injury makes you craftier. He comes back, doesn't want to get injured, realizes that he has to set up guys rather than overpower them, etc. The Frank Tanana scenario. I guess I'll go with anomoly, but what do you think?

      - Jason

    Baldwin's certainly off the charts. Here are the lowest strikeout rates among American Leaguers who have started at least eight games this season:
                     IP    K    K/9    ERA
    James Baldwin    57   13    2.1   4.26   
    Ryan Glynn       43   15    3.1   7.12
    Aaron Sele       83.2 34    3.7   3.01
    Brian Meadows    50   21    3.8   6.97
    Steve Parris     54   23    3.9   5.87
    

    Baldwin has the lowest strikeout rate by a significant margin. What's more, three of the next four with the lowest strikeout rates have been hammered ... but then you get to Aaron Sele, who's pitched as well as anybody not named Pedro Martinez in the league. What's more, Nos. 6, 7, and 8 on this list are held by Steve Sparks (3.9), Scott Schoeneweis (4.0), and Joe Mays (4.3), all of whom have pitched well this season.

    Here are the top five:
                    IP   K   K/9   ERA
    Pedro Martinez  94 140  13.4  2.01
    Hideo Nomo      78  82   9.5  3.69
    Barry Zito      74  76   9.2  5.45
    Ted Lilly       41  41   8.9  6.10
    Roger Clemens   59  58   8.8  4.00
    

    This is a better group ... but not a lot better. Zito's been something of a disappointment, while Lilly can't seem to escape the fifth inning. Take out Pedro -- who is, of course, something of an outlier -- and this group hasn't been any more effective than the low-strikeout group.

    But speaking of Lilly, the Yankees have been amazing this season. In addition to Lilly and Clemens, they've also got Mike Mussina (8.5) and Orlando Hernandez (7.7) in the No. 6 and No. 9 spots, respectively. And even Andy Pettitte (6.9) is No. 17, which means that every current member of the Yankee rotation ranks among the top 17 in the American League.

    What does it all mean? You got me. I haven't seen Baldwin pitch this year, and I don't have any idea why he can't strike anybody out. However, I do know that in 2000, when Baldwin went 14-7 with a 4.65 ERA, he struck out 5.87 hitters per nine innings, or close to triple his rate this season. And I suspect that if Baldwin doesn't get his strikeout rate up, he's going to run into some big problems over the next few months. Because while the stats presented might not show a strong correlation between strikeouts and success this season, I can tell you that last season such a correlation certainly did exist. Among the top 10 in their respective leagues in strikeout ratio last year were Pedro Martinez, Randy Johnson, Bartolo Colon, Al Leiter, Roger Clemens, Mike Mussina, Chan Ho Park, Robert Person, Kevin Brown, Chuck Finley, and Tim Hudson.

    Summing up, then ... Strikeouts, good. No strikeouts, not so good.

      Hi Rob,

      Great column today on Mike Hampton and hitting pitchers of the past. I'm surprised the Babe didn't get a mention, though. In 1918, he pitched 166 innings with a 2.22 ERA while hitting 11 home runs, and posting a .411 OBP and a .555 slugging average. Of course, he was playing in the outfield on off days, so I'm not sure how much of his hitting production came while actually pitching.

      - Skarp

    Aside from "You jerk, stop ripping the Mariners," this was the most common sentiment arriving in the mail yesterday. And I'm thrilled to learn that people out there haven't forgotten about the Babe, who was only the greatest ballplayer that ever lived.

    Ruth certainly qualifies as a great-hitting pitcher. Including only his plate appearances as a pitcher and as a pinch-hitter in the seasons (1914-1917) in which he was exclusively a hurler, Ruth batted .304 and slugged .590, which might make him the best-hitting pitcher of them all. But Ruth compiled only 490 at-bats as a pitcher, while Ferrell finished with 1,128. Ruth does place seventh on my list of best seasons, as in 1915 he batted .315 and slugged .576 in 92 at-bats. Oh, and in 1918 Ruth batted .344 and pounded 13 extra-base hits in 61 at-bats as a pitcher.

    Here's another popular topic lately ...

      Rob,

      Since you're an ESPN employee, please tell me the fascination with the dead center camera. Yes, I've watched the games, and I've heard Joe Morgan and Jon Miller talk about it giving us a sense of the movement on pitches. It does do that, but with the lateral judgment that you gain, you lose the vertical. It's really hard to tell if a pitch is low or high now unless it's dramatic, which is the supposed complaint about the offset view in relation to whether a pitch is inside or outside.

      The biggest complaint I have is that the dead center view makes you feel like you're watching the game from the upper-deck bleachers. The other view made you feel like you were watching from shortstop. Watching from the upper deck is fine if you're at the game, but not if you're watching on TV. The poor view at the game is offset by getting to actually be there. Besides, you can always bring binoculars. Hmmm, maybe I should try that at home.

      Thanks,
      Patrick, Champaign IL

    Like I said, a common sentiment.

    Yes, the new camera angle is somewhat disorienting. You've spent your entire life watching the plate from behind the pitcher's right shoulder, and all of a sudden you're above his head and (seemingly) much further from the action. My advice is, give it some time. Nearly every innovation runs into initial opposition, because we tend to be conservative by nature.

    I'm not completely comfortable with the new angle yet, either, but I think I'm going to like it. After all those years of guessing whether that pitch really did catch a piece of the plate, now I have a pretty good idea. As for the most common complaint -- you can't tell where the pitch is, vertically -- I think it's way overblown. Just watch the catcher's glove. If he has to raise it above his head, the pitch is probably high. If he has to drop it below his knees, then it's probably low.

    Look, you can complain all you want. But give it a few more months. If you still hate the dead-center camera in October, then by all means complain to the proper authorities. I'll even give you ESPN's address.

    TUESDAY, JUNE 12
    Sunday afternoon, Mike Hampton hit his fifth home run of this young season.

    It's been quite some time since a major-league pitcher hit five home runs in a single season; 29 years, to be precise. In 1972, future Hall of Famer Bob Gibson hit five home runs in his last great season (19-11, 2.46).

    Just a year earlier, three different pitchers -- including Ferguson Jenkins, another future Hall of Famer -- hit six home runs. If Hampton can reach six homers, next in his sights will be Earl Wilson, who homered seven times in both 1968 and 1966. Four other pitchers hit seven home runs in a single season, including Don Drysdale and Wes Ferrell twice each. (Interestingly enough, the other two -- Bob Lemon and Don Newcombe -- were both big stars in the 1950s).

    Only one pitcher ever hit more than seven home runs in a season. The aforementioned Wes Ferrell holds the record, with nine bombs in 1931.

    Ferrell is generally regarded as the best-hitting pitcher ever. When the Society for American Baseball Research published "Great Hitting Pitchers" in 1979, it was Ferrell's picture that went on the cover. Yes, his career overlapped almost exactly with the hitter-happy 1930s, but Ferrell's .451 career slugging percentage -- in 1,128 at-bats -- is 32 points higher than the next pitcher (Doc Crandall) on the list. Ferrell is the one pitcher who almost certainly could have enjoyed a solid career as an outfielder or first baseman, had he (or his managers) chosen that path.

    (Ferrell was also a fantastic pitcher, better than a lot of guys in the Hall of Fame. Coincidentally, the new issue of SABR's "The National Pastime" just arrived in my mailbox, and it includes Dick Thompson's assiduously-researched article on Ferrell's career.)

    Here's my somewhat-arbitrary list of the best hitting seasons by pitchers (reprinted from "Baseball Dynasties" with my permission):
                   Year   AB   Avg  HR RBI   OBP  Slug
    Wes Ferrell    1935  150  .347   7  32  .427  .533
    Don Newcombe   1955  117  .359   7  23  .395  .632
    Wes Ferrell    1931  116  .319   9  30  .373  .621
    Walter Johnson 1925   97  .433   2  20  .455  .577
    Lynn Nelson    1937  113  .354   4  29  .387  .549

    Mike Hampton 2001 37 .297 5 10 .297 .703

    Ferrell's 1935 performance probably deserves an asterisk, because 32 of his at-bats (and nine of his hits) came as a pinch-hitter. In 1931, Ferrell went 0-for-7 as a pinch-hitter, so perhaps that season should be upgraded because his hitting stats as a pitcher were better than the line above.

    Right now, Hampton sports a neat 1000 OPS, right in line with the guys on that list. But it's a weird 1000, weighted more heavily with slugging percentage than any of his heavy-hitting predecessors. Given that Hampton hasn't drawn a walk yet, and that he's hit five home runs, we might expect his mound counterparts to throw fewer strikes the rest of the way.

    One truly odd thing about Hampton's power surge ... though he's long been regarded as a great athlete and one of the game's better-hitting pitchers, he never hit a home run until this season. That's right. Entering 2001, he'd gone through seven National League seasons and 372 at-bats with nary a round-tripper. After going 0-for-3 in his first start this season, he homered his first time up in his second start.

    Now, there have certainly been other players who went at least 375 at-bats before their first home run, but I suspect that very few of them then homered five times in their next 34 at-bats. And Coors Field notwithstanding, I wouldn't be at all shocked if Hampton hit zero homers the rest of the way.

    Of course, I hope he hits five more and breaks Ferrell's record. Even more so, though, I hope that Hampton's hitting doesn't overshadow his brilliant pitching. Before the season, I suggested that if Hampton finished with 18 wins and an ERA below 4.00, he would probably deserve the Cy Young Award. Well, right now he's on pace for 24 wins and an ERA below 3.00.

    Granted, Hampton's 2.98 ERA is just 10th in the National League, but that's a phenomenal number when you consider where he does half his pitching. Plus, Hampton's 9-2 record is bettered only by Curt Schilling's 10-1 mark. Certainly, Hampton's record has been helped by his hitting, which brings up an interesting question ... should Cy Young voters consider a pitcher's contributions with the bat?

    If one believes that a pitcher's job is solely to prevent the other team from scoring runs, then the answer is no. But if one believes that at least part of a pitcher's job is to win games, then the answer is yes.

    And if I had to vote today, Mike Hampton would be at the top of my ballot.

    MONDAY, JUNE 11
    1. What team is most likely to fade first? The Mariners, Twins, Indians, or Red Sox?
    What's your definition of "fade"? I don't believe that any of these teams, other than the Red Sox, can continue doing what they're doing. The Twins are over their heads, the Indians' rotation is living on the edge, and the Mariners ... well, no team's ever won 80 percent of its games over an entire season.

    I guess I'd say the Twins are the most likely to fade badly, based on recent history. But all four of these clubs have solid (or better) shots at the postseason.

    2. Which player is most likely to keep hitting at his current level? Ichiro, Bret Boone or Doug Mientkiewicz?
    Most likely? How about least likely? Boone's not really this good. Friday night, I was at Safeco Field and somebody asked me to write down Boone's final 2001 numbers. Here's what I came up with:

    .292-26-118

    And that's nothing to be ashamed of. Boone's career highs are .267 in 1995 (he hit .320 in the 1994 strike year), 24 home runs and 95 RBI (both in 1998), and he's playing half his games this year in a great pitcher's park. Actually, he might hit a few more than 26 home runs, but I'll stick with the other numbers.

    That leaves Ichiro and Doug, and I'm not convinced that both can't continue at, or close to, their current levels. In fact, Mientkiewicz is in the midst of a 9-for-71 slump that has dropped his average from .403 on May 22 to its current .312.

    3. Aaron Sele and Joe Mays ... Will they keep it up?
    Sure, why not? I mean, Sele's not going to go 22-0 this season, and it's been a long time since he posted an ERA below 4.23 -- he's at 2.87 right now -- but he did go 7-2 with a 2.74 ERA as a rookie in 1993. Sometimes good pitchers have great years, and this looks like Sele's great year. Mays is a guy who skipped Triple-A on his way to the majors, and so he's had to do some of his growing up in the spotlight. I don't know that he's ever going to win a Cy Young, and if he continues to give up a homer per start it's going to hurt his ERA. But Mays is legit, and a worthy All-Star.

    4. Will Kazuhiro Sasaki challenge Bobby Thigpen's saves record?
    Not bloody likely. It's not that Sasaki's not good enough. But think of all the great closers who've come along since Thigpen saved 57 games in 1990 ... Bryan Harvey, Dennis Eckersley, Roberto Hernandez, John Wetteland, Jeff Montgomery, Mark Wohlers, Jose Mesa, Mariano Rivera, Trevor Hoffman, Jeff Shaw, Billy Wagner, Ugueth Urbina, Robb Nen, Tom Gordon, Jeff Shaw ... and none of them have come close to 57 saves. Since 1990, nobody's saved more than 53 games in a season (Randy Myers in 1993, Hoffman in 1998).

    Of course, that's not to say it can't happen, but that any number of pitchers, pitchers every bit as talented as Sasaki (24 saves so far), haven't really approached the number. And no, it really doesn't help that the Mariners are probably going to clear 100 victories with ease. Below are the nine teams to win more than 100 games since 1990, along with some various saves data:

    Year Team     Wins  Saves  Leader              
    1993 Braves    104    46   Stanton (27)
    1993 Giants    103    50   Beck (48)
    1995 Indians   100    50   Mesa (46)
    1997 Braves    101    37   Wohlers (33)
    1998 Braves    106    45   Ligtenberg (30) 
    1998 Yankees   114    48   Rivera (36)
    1998 Astros    102    44   Wagner (30)
    1999 Braves    103    45   Rocker (38)
    1999 D-Backs   100    42   Mantei (22)     
    

    The Braves didn't have a full-time closer in 1993, and Greg McMichael saved 19 games himself ... but he and Mike Stanton accounted for all of Atlanta's saves: 100 wins, 46 saves. In fact, none of these 100-win clubs even topped 50 saves as a team. Winning 100 games doesn't necessarily prevent high save totals, but it certainly doesn't necessarily result in them, either. Quite possibly, that's because great teams win a lot of blowouts, games in which there simply isn't a save available for a one-inning pitcher.

    5. Anybody else in the American League on pace for some sort of record?
    Mike Sweeney's got 30 doubles in 62 (team) games, which projects to 78 doubles, 11 more than Earl Webb's American League (and major-league) record.

    Ichiro's got 100 hits in 61 (team) games, which projects to 266 hits, nine more than George Sisler's American League (and major-league) record.

    Neither, of course, is likely to keep their current paces. We've seen guys on pace for the doubles record before, and they always slack off in the second half. Ichiro will, presumably, be rested in August and September as the Mariners coast into the postseason.

    6. Who has been the American League's most disappointing player?
    Johnny Damon, hands down. Remember, this was the guy who was supposed to add that missing dimension to Oakland's lineup, and give them great defense in left field. Well, Damon's certainly better with the glove than Ben Grieve, but he's been an absolute disaster at the plate. Among the 91 American Leaguers with enough plate appearances to qualify for the batting title, Damon's got the worst OPS ... and by a healthy margin. He's at 579, while Brady Anderson is No. 90 with a 601 mark. I do think Damon will bounce back -- historically, April has been his worst month -- but for $7.1 million, the A's need a lot more than they've been getting.

    Honorable mention goes to those spanking new White Sox: Sandy Alomar, Royce Clayton and David Wells.

    7. Who has been the American League's most surprising player?
    This question isn't as easy to answer as I thought it might be. If you look at the OPS rankings in the American League, the top 12 spots are all held by past or present stars, with nary a big surprise among them. Once you get past those top dozen, however, you find three interesting names: Jose Valentin, and the aforementioned Doug Mientkiewicz and Bret Boone.

    Valentin hit very well last year as a shortstop; this year, he's playing center field and hitting like a first baseman. Mientkiewicz spent most of last season in Triple-A (where he posted a 930 OPS), and this season he's been great, though, in fairness, he's "only" the fifth-best hitting first baseman in the league (behind Giambi, Delgado, Thome and Olerud). Boone wins the prize in my book, because there's no way that anybody thought he'd be leading the American League with 66 RBI at this point in the season.

    8. Which current non-contender is going to fight its way into postseason contention?
    There aren't many candidates. Five clubs -- the Mariners, Red Sox, Yankees, Indians, and Twins -- will be there in early September, but it's tough to divine even one other moderately sure shot. The third-place, power-challenged Orioles? The fourth-place, pitching- and OBP-challenged Blue Jays? The third-place, Big Hurt-less White Sox?

    Hardly.

    In fact, it's almost impossible to see any other teams but the Angels and Athletics getting into the postseason hunt. But they're at a disadvantage, because the division title is no longer an option for them. So they've got to fight each other, plus two of those other five clubs, for the wild card. At this moment, I give the A's a slight edge over the Angels, but I rate both of their wild card chances significantly behind those of the Yankees or Red Sox, and the Twins.

    9. Who will finish the season with fewer walks, Alfonso Soriano or Shea Hillenbrand?
    This one suddenly got real interesting yesterday, as Hillenbrand somehow walked three times in one game (one intentional), after having drawn two walks in his previous 59 games. So now he and Soriano both have five in 60 games, and the battle has been joined in earnest.

    I'm going with Hillenbrand. The Yankees aren't happy with Soriano, and he'll probably be traded within a month ... to a really stupid team that will continue to play him every day. Hillenbrand, on the other hand, will likely be doing his hacking for Pawtucket within a month.

    10. How long can Tony Muser keep his job?
    There's no telling. Just the other day, Allard Baird, Kansas City's brilliant young general manager, remarked, "We have a plan, and Tony's a big part of that plan. We have to stick to what we think is right."

    Like Joe Garagiola said, "Baseball's a funny game."

    THURSDAY, JUNE 7
    You want to be a smarter sports fan?

    Here's a lesson that some of you -- who am I kidding, many of you -- might consider taking to heart ... when a writer or a broadcaster takes a position regarding your favorite team with which you disagree, don't immediately assume that he or she is, for some reason, "biased" against your favorite team. When we members of the media list our complaints -- and of course, we don't have much to complain about -- this knee-jerk attribution of bias is generally at the top of the list.

    A great example rolled into my e-mailbox yesterday, with the subject heading "East Coast Bias." To wit:

      You don't believe the M's are quite as good as the 1912 New York Giants, or the 1928 New York Yankees, or the 1939 Yankees? How do you know that this is true? Is it your opinion that those teams will never be surpassed by any team forever? Should we dismiss this possibility? If the current New York Yankees had this record, would all the East Coast writers declare them as the best ever? Yes, Yes, and Yes -- that is what you are saying. It's true that no team from so far away will EVER make the grade on the East Coast ... Have you ever watched the Mariners other than 3 games in NY? We are used to this bias and expect it, so go back and put your East Coast blinders on and write your biased stories and let us win the World Series.

      Doug
      Seattle Wa

    What Doug doesn't know, presumably because he only reads columns about the Mariners, is that Seattle's been my home for more than five years now, and that I'm the lucky owner of season tickets at Safeco Field. What Doug also doesn't know is that when I write anything less than wildly glowing about the Yankees or Mets, I am accused of bias against East Coast teams. And what Doug also doesn't know is that, even though I grew up in the Midwest and maintain an unrequited, somewhat unhealthy affection for a certain Kansas City baseball team, when I write anything halfway-negative about the Indians or White Sox or Twins, I am accused of bias against ... you guessed it: Midwest teams.

    I don't mean to whine about this. It's just something that comes with the territory of this particular great job, just as baseball players -- who have a great job, too -- have to deal with obnoxious autograph seekers, and guys wearing glasses sticking microphones and tape recorders in their faces, when all they want to do is shower and go home. But as ESPN.com and this column have become more popular, I've been obligated to read more and more idiotic e-mail, and I'd rather be doing something else with my time. So if you were thinking about writing one of those messages, I'll bet there's something significantly more productive you could accomplish with your time.

    Which brings us, in a roundabout fashion, to the Cubs ... Yesterday I wrote about the Phillies, and today I'm surprised just how similar these two ancient combatants are this season. The first-place Cubs have scored 264 runs, allowed 226, sport a 35-21 record and own a four-game lead over the preseason favorite in their division. The first-place Phillies have scored 266 runs, allowed 247, sport a 36-21 record and a five-game lead over the preseason favorite in their division.

    What concerns me about the Cubs, as it does about the Phillies, is the pesky little matter of last year's record.

    65-97

    While it's certainly not unprecedented for a bad team to suddenly get better, it's quite rare. And it's not exactly like the Cubs made a lot of positive changes, at least not in the lineup. Mark Grace is gone, replaced by Matt Stairs and Julio Zuleta. Stairs has been fantastic, and when healthy he constitutes an improvement over Grace (especially if we don't consider defense). Third basemen Shane Andrews and Willie Greene are gone, replaced by Bill Mueller (who's now on the DL) and now Ron Coomer. Slight upgrade there. They've gotten better in left field with Rondell White there for an entire season.

    So give Andy MacPhail credit, he improved his club at three positions ... but the Cubs are still weak at center field and catcher, and Sammy Sosa remains the only real star in the lineup. The Cubs currently rank 10th in the National League in run production, and they could go either way because they're 23 runs behind No. 7 Milwaukee and 22 runs ahead of No. 14's Atlanta and New York. If the Cubs drop two or three spots in scoring, they're simply not going to reach the postseason, so it's incumbent upon MacPhail to find some more offense.

    The pitching, of course, has been fantastic. The Cubs are virtually tied for the NL ERA lead with Arizona, and they trail only the Braves in runs allowed per game.

    Like the Phillies, the Cubs sported a lousy bullpen last season. The Phillies finished with the worst ERA in the league, the Cubs the second-worst. And just as Ed Wade and Larry Bowa have turned around the Philly relievers, MacPhail and Don Baylor have turned around the Cubs relievers. Rookie Courtney Duncan, Jeff Fassero, Kyle Farnsworth, and Tom Gordon have all pitched well, and this season Chicago's bullpen ranks ninth with a 3.89 ERA.

    The real improvement has come with the rotation. Last season, Cubs starters ranked 12th in the NL with a 5.29 ERA. This season, they're second with a 3.73 ERA, behind the Braves but ahead of the Dodgers, the Diamondbacks, and everybody else. Three-fifths of the Cub rotation -- Kerry Wood, Jon Lieber, and Kevin Tapani -- is the same as last year, and all three have lowered their ERA by at least a full run. And Julian Tavarez, who pitched for Colorado last year and entered this season with a 4.41 ERA posted mostly as a reliever, has a 3.46 ERA in 11 starts. (Jason Bere is 4-2 despite a 5.13 ERA).

    I have written any number of uncomplimentary things about Don Baylor, but if he can keep his pitching staff near the top of the National League rankings for an entire season, he certainly deserves a share of the credit.

    Before we leave this subject, a note from frequent correspondent Aaron Schatz ...

      Rob --

      When you talk about the Cubs tomorrow, you should note the difference between them and the Phillies. The Phillies are winning with the team they've been building for the last couple of years. Burrell, Abreu, Rolen, Lee, Rollins ... the moves of the last couple of years have been building up to this, and only Eric Valent is really missing from their prospect list.

      On the other hand, the Cubs are winning with a totally stopgap team. The team they have been building for 2003 is still in the minors -- Patterson, Hill, Kelton, Choi, and pitchers like Christensen, Cruz, Meyers, and now Prior. This year was supposed to be a waste, the veteran players just place-holders until Patterson, Hill, and Choi showed up in 2002. As a Cub fan, I can only hope the team doesn't mortgage its future for a quixotic run in 2001, because the team they are building for the future could be a juggernaut.

      I mean, if you look at the Cubs and ask, "Who will be on the team when the Cubs win the World Series?" the only names that pop out are Sosa, White, Lieber, Wood, and maybe Hundley or Tavarez.

      Aaron

    Great point, Aaron. The Phillies are a young team that could, if the owner isn't afraid to spend some money, challenge for East primacy over the next few years. Yes, they could use another big arm in the rotation, and I remain unconvinced that Jose Mesa and Ricky Bottalico are the anchors of a solid bullpen. But with the exception of the OBP-challenged Doug Glanville, the lineup has potential. The Cub lineup, on the other hand, is Sammy Sosa and Rondell White and a bunch of guys who will be enjoying spot duty, if not retirement, in a few years.

    Of course, it would really be interesting if the Cubs could win with the veterans they have now, and then again with the kids in 2004. Of course, if they do win this year, it'll be that much harder to jettison the veterans in favor of the prospects ... and therein lies the conundrum of athletic success.

    WEDNESDAY, JUNE 6
    I keep reading that the Phillies are playing well -- their three-game losing streak notwithstanding -- despite the fact that their hitters really haven't hit their strides yet. Well, that may have been true a month ago, but is it still true? Below are the OPS for the seven Philly regulars -- they don't have a catcher with more than 121 at-bats -- next to their career OPS entering this season:

                    2001 OPS  Pre-2001
    Bobby Abreu        888       928
    Pat Burrell        862       822
    Travis Lee         832       733 
    Scott Rolen        810       886
    Doug Glanville     730       731
    Marlon Anderson    694       647
    Jimmy Rollins      692
    

    Abreu, Burrell, Glanville, and Anderson are all doing about what they've done before. Travis Lee is doing significantly better than what he's done before, though of course some would argue he's now simply living up to his talent. Rolen is 76 points short of his pre-2001 OPS, but that's not hugely significant after two months. Rollins is a rookie, and he's doing about what his minor-league stats suggested he would do.

    All of which is to say, there's no objective reason to think that the Phillies are going to appreciably improve their run production with the talent at hand. The Phils currently rank 10th in the National League in scoring, and that's about where they belong.

    Before you Phillies fans jump me, though, let me hasten to say this ... The Phillies have a real chance to win the pennant. It's funny, I picked them for second place a year ago or two, and of course they wound up in the tank. They're back this year with a rotation that looks weaker than it did a year ago -- remember, Curt Schilling and Andy Ashby were both Phillies this time last year -- but isn't. Meanwhile, the bullpen ... well, let's just say I didn't expect Jose Mesa and Ricky Bottalico to pitch this well. Here are the Phillies' top five relievers, in terms of innings pitched:

               GP   IP   Sv   W-L   ERA
    Cormier    23   18    1   3-0  3.00
    Bottalico  28   32    2   2-3  3.13
    Mesa       24   24   16   1-0  3.38
    Gomes      25   29    1   4-1  3.45
    Brock      21   28    0   2-0  4.18      
                   131   20  12-4  3.44
    

    No, there's no Mariano Rivera or Troy Percival here. But if your top five guys combine for a 3.44 ERA, you're not going to blow a lot of late-inning leads. The Phillies recently lost Gomes to a knee injury, so Monday they traded for Kansas City's Jose Santiago to takes Gomes' spot. Santiago was getting cuffed around with the Royals, but I wouldn't be at all surprised if getting away from Gunnery Sergeant Anthony Muser does wonders for Santiago's numbers (and Santiago tossed a couple of scoreless innings last night in his National League debut).

    Bottom line, though, the Braves simply have to be considered the favorites in the East. Yes, they're five games behind the Phillies. And yes, their offense is terrible. But the Braves have plenty of room for improvement. John Smoltz should get stronger, Kevin Millwood will eventually come of the DL, and John Schuerholz will, presumably, swallow his pride and acquire a hitter (or hitters) to make up for the poor production the Braves are getting from imports like B.J. Surhoff, Brian Jordan, Rico Brogna and Quilvio Veras.

    Meanwhile, where will the Phillies get better? They've got a set lineup, with Glanville the only good candidate for replacement. The starters are doing well enough, but aren't likely to get better. The bullpen is, if anything, likely to decline at least moderately.

    It would be a wonderful story if the Phillies could unseat the dynastic Braves, but it's simply too early to assume that they have a significant chance of doing so. Now, if the Phils had J.D. Drew in center field ...

    Tune in tomorrow, when your intrepid columnist deconstructs the Chicago Cubs in similar fashion.

    TUESDAY, JUNE 5
    Responding to a couple of letters while I try to figure out what to say about the Phillies and Cubs ...

      Rob,

      Forget contraction. Forget revenue sharing. I think I've figured out how the smaller clubs clubs can survive, and even thrive, without having to coerce the money out of George Steinbrenner.

      Is there any really good reason why there's a limit on how much money can be involved in a player transaction? It seems to me that the most valuable asset any club has is its ballplayers, and the fact that the smaller clubs can't liquidate these assets is disastrous. How much could the Expos get for Vlad right now? Probably more than enough to pay their payroll for a year, don't you think?

      The current system really favors the rich clubs, like my beloved Rangers, but it isn't right. And while we're at it, let's allow teams to trade or sell draft picks, too. I could be wrong, but I suspect that revenue sharing would cease to be a big issue if we just got rid of that money cap.

      What do you think?

      Thanks,
      Jake

    It's an interesting rule, Jake. As you might or might not know, it came about in the summer of 1976, when A's owner Charlie Finley sold -- or thought he had sold -- Joe Rudi and Rollie Fingers to the Red Sox for $1 million apiece, and (a day later) Vida Blue to the Yankees for $1.5 million.

    Now, owners had been selling players to other owners for more than a century, and for amounts not appreciably smaller than what Finley was getting (if you account for inflation). But coming on the heels of nascent free agency, from a franchise that had won four straight division titles, the sales didn't make it past the desk of Commissioner Bowie Kuhn, who canceled the transactions before Rudi, Fingers or Blue played for their new teams.

    Finley sued Major League Baseball, and eventually lost (the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal). Kuhn decided to prohibit any deal that involved more than $400,000, and he made it stick for the duration of his tenure. What's more, to my knowledge no player deal has involved more than $400,000 since, though of course $400,000 today isn't what it was in 1976.

    I can see a couple of problems with allowing teams to sell their star players for huge piles of money.

    One, what's to prevent Jeff Loria from getting $10 million for Vladimir Guerrero ... and spending his new-found gains on a lovely new yacht (I Got Mine painted on the stern)? That's essentially what happened with the luxury tax, which has been used as a profit-making device by the supposed have-nots. Bob Costas has suggested that for revenue sharing to work, teams must have a salary floor to ensure that they're spending the money on trying to get better, rather than simply lining the pockets of the owners.

    And two, baseball fans hate fire sales. You think Olympic Stadium is deserted now? Wait and see how many tickets the Expos sell if they sell Guerrero to the highest bidder. Fans want to think their team is trying to win, and selling (or trading) great players sends the opposite message, even if it's a sensible long-term move.

    As for trading draft picks, the general philosophy is that owners have to be saved from themselves. And you know, they probably do.

      Dear Mr. Neyer,

      I am a diehard Mariners fan. I was inside my mother's womb for Opening Day at the Kingdome 1977. That said, my reason for writing is not to lambaste you for saying that "the Mariners can't keep up this pace, or even stay close," or for your criticism of the holes in a lineup that even Pat Gillick recognizes do exist. I simply find it difficult to grasp where the analysis of statistics leaves us.

      There is no soothsayer to tell us where the Mariners will end the season, but a plethora of sports writers have attempted this feat. The statistics say the Mariners will not win 110 games, and the objective response would be to say that this is probably true. I do not, however, wish to read an article with an ambiguous tone that leaves me wondering what its author believes. My conclusion from your article is that you will be "somewhat surprised" if the Mariners go .600 in the remainder of the season and "shocked" if they don't win 100 games. But is this what you think or what the statistics tell you? Is this the cordial way of appeasing the fan of baseball?

      I want to agree or disagree with you, not be left wonder. Be bold, show some cajones, and I will enjoy your column that much more.

      Sincerely,
      Peter J. Freeman
      London, England

    You're absolutely right, Peter. I meant to take a position regarding the Mariners' final record this season, and then I didn't.

    The last four teams to start like the M's won 79 percent of their games during those fast starts, and 61 percent of their games afterward. However, I don't believe the M's are quite as good as the 1912 New York Giants, or the 1928 New York Yankees, or the 1939 Yankees, or the 1953 Yankees. Well, they might be as good as the '53 Yankees. But I don't believe these Mariners are on a par with the general quality of those other four clubs, all of whom rank among baseball's all-time greatest, both quantitatively and qualitatively.

    So I'll say that the Mariners win 56 percent of their remaining games, which gives them a final record of ...

    103-59.

    Give or take five games. (How's that for taking a position?)

    Hey, has anybody noticed that Bret Boone is this year's Jeff Kent? Second baseman for great team, batting in the middle of the order behind a bunch of guys who are on base all the time ... and driving home nearly every duck on the pond. After last night's seven-RBI performance, Boone now leads the major leagues in RBI, and has to be considered an MVP candidate.

    MONDAY, JUNE 4
    You've probably heard that the Seattle Mariners are off to one of the great starts in major-league history.

    By my count (and yours, I hope), including this year there have been 1,986 team seasons since 1901. Seven teams have won at least 43 of their first 55 games (not including ties). Seven of 1,986, or 0.35 percent; roughly one of every 285 teams.

    How good were those earlier six clubs? Believe it or not, five of the six (the 1902 Pirates just missed) are among the 15 teams profiled in a recent book titled "Baseball Dynasties," co-authored by me and Eddie Epstein. And we rated one of those six clubs -- I won't tell you which, in case you haven't read the book and want to be surprised -- as the greatest ever.

    Here's what all six did in their first 55 games, and thereafter:
                  First 55     After           Final
    1902 Pit.   43-12 (.782)  60-24 (.714)  103-36 (.741)
    1907 Chi(N) 43-12 (.782)  64-33 (.660)  107-45 (.704)
    1912 NY(N)  44-11 (.800)  59-37 (.615)  103-48 (.682)
    1928 NY(A)  43-12 (.782)  58-41 (.586)  101-53 (.617)
    1939 NY(A)  44-11 (.800)  62-34 (.646)  106-45 (.702)
    1953 NY(A)  43-12 (.782)  56-40 (.583)   99-52 (.656)
    2001 Sea    43-12 (.782)
    

    As we would expect, none of these clubs were able to keep up with their early pace; after all, the post-1901 record for winning percentage over an entire season is .763, set by the 1906 Chicago Cubs. So no, the Mariners can't keep up this pace, or even stay close. Two of the six previous fast starters weren't even able to play .600 ball the rest of the way, and I'll be somewhat surprised if the Mariners can.

    That's not a knock, because these were all great teams. The 1902 Pirates didn't have a World Series to play in, but the 1907 Cubs won the World Series. The 1912 Giants lost a dramatic World Series to the Red Sox. The '28 Yankees swept the Cardinals, and the '39 Yankees swept the Reds for their fourth straight. And the '53 Yankees also won the Series ... their fifth straight! So you've got six teams, six pennant winners, and four World Series winners. All of which is to say, teams with starts like this have a history of great success, and I'd be shocked if the M's don't wind up winning 100 games and cruising into the postseason.

    There is, however, an obvious difference between the M's and those other six clubs: the latter really were dynasties, while the Mariners have a ways to go. The Pirates finished first in the National League in 1901, '02 and '03. The Cubs won in 1906, '07, and '08. The Giants won National League pennants in 1911, '12 and '13. The 1928 Yankees had been even better in 1927. The '39 Yankees were coming off three straight World Championships, and the '53 Yankees had already won four straight.

    So while these particular seasons included each team's best start, each franchise had already established an exceptional level of performance. With these Mariners, all we've got to go on is last year's 91 wins, and roughly two months of brilliance this year. It's simply too early to rank this club with recent great teams like the '98 Yankees, '95 Indians and '84 Tigers.

    What's more, yesterday's starting lineup included the following players:
                     Avg  OPS
    Dan Wilson      .252  669
    Carlos Guillen  .242  648 
    Stan Javier     .225  637
    David Bell      .233  614
    Al Martin       .162  517
    

    Javier was in there because of Edgar Martinez's sore foot, but Guillen, Bell and Wilson are all everyday, or near-everyday, players, and Martin is the closest thing the M's have to a regular left fielder.

    Of course, most or all of these players will either improve or be replaced. Nevertheless, any club with hitters like these in the lineup is going to go through some rough stretches, stretches where runs are a tad scarce. And as the Braves have shown us this year, all the pitching in the world doesn't mean much if you can't score any runs.

    I was at Safeco Field Sunday as the Mariners finished off their seemingly inevitable sweep of the Devil Rays, and man was it ugly. It was like Muhammad Ali vs. Chuck Wepner. Clarence Darrow vs. William Jennings Bryan. Godzilla vs. Bambi.

    I exaggerate, of course. The Mariners aren't really this good, and the Devil Rays can't really be this bad ... can they? They're now 15-41, which works out to a .268 winning percentage. Nobody's played that poorly over an entire season since 1962, when the Amazin's went 40-120. The Devil Rays will get better, because Gerald Williams and Aubrey Huff and Steve Cox and Jose Guillen and Ben Grieve and Felix Martinez -- OK, maybe not Felix Martinez -- are all better hitters than they've shown to this point.

    Not a lot better, though. I've been pretty rough on Devil Rays GM Chuck LaMar over the last couple of years, but the truth is that LaMar, for all his faults (whatever those might be), has been hamstrung by truly horrible ownership. It's likely that things will get better -- remember, in 1996 the Tigers opened the season 13-46 -- but just as we watch the Mariners aim for great heights, we can perhaps watch the Devil Rays sink to great depths.

    Rob Neyer is a Senior Writer for ESPN.com. His column runs Monday through Thursday. You can e-mail Rob at rob.neyer@dig.com.


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