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Monthly Archives: February 2007

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Action

The Yankees played their intrasquad game yesterday. Here are the lineups. Jim Baumbach of Newsday blogged the first four innings. Peter Abraham details the fifth inning in which Jeff Kennard gave up four runs to the subs without getting an out. Once again, pitching was the story of the game, with Kei Igawa, Jeffrey Karstens, and Steven Jackson impressing. The Yankees seem to be very pleased with Igawa’s approach both on and off the mound thus far. Listen to Ron Guidry talk about Igawa over on LoHud (clip lasts six-plus minutes). Joe Torre also praised Mike Myers and Ron Villone. Incidentally, Miguel Cairo played the outfield late in the game, but Torre said that it was only out of the necessity borne of fielding two teams and making spring training substitutions. The Yankees have no plans to use Cairo as an outfielder except in emergencies.

In other pitching news, Carl Pavano threw off flat ground and is still on schedule to throw his bullpen session on Thursday and make his exhibition start on Sunday. Humberto Sanchez is being shut down for a few days due to the swelling in his pitching elbow and the Yankees are considering making some adjustments to his delivery to avoid further injury.

In other aches and pains news, Juan Miranda, who doubled home the only run for the losing intrasquad team, experienced some pain in his knee while running the bases. Like Miranda himself, the pain is unlikely to be significant.

For your reading pleasure, here’s a good piece on new bench coach Don Mattingly by MLB.com’s Bryan Hoch, and some nice clubhouse memories of Bernie Williams from Sweeny Murti (below the divide).

For your viewing pleasure, here’s a shot of Robby Cano sporting his new number, and the ridiculous Topps card of Derek Jeter.

Finally, good news for the Torre family. Frank Torre, who is in need of a kidney transplant, has found out that two of his kids are matches.

Aches and Pains

Now that everyone’s been in camp for a week and games are set to start in a couple of days, the aches and pains are piling up. Steven White’s neck strain turned out to be nothing. Brian Bruney experienced a stabbing pain on his left side (or back, depending on the source), but an MRI came back negative and he should be back in action shortly.

More problematically, Humberto Sanchez experienced tightness near his right elbow and stiffness in his right forearm, as well as a throbbing sensation. His MRI revealed some inflammation, but no structural damage. Still, any such discomfort is troubling given Sanchez’s history of elbow problems.

Speaking of injury histories, Carl “Heavy Legs” Pavano was hit on the left instep by an Alberto Gonzalez line drive during batting practice on Saturday. His MRI revealed a bone bruise. Pavano threw 27 pitches in his BP session after getting hit with the comebacker and Joe Torre considers the injury a non-issue. The proof will be in the pitching as Pavano’s scheduled to throw a bullpen session today, then another on Thursday to put him on pace to start the Yankees’ fourth exhibition game on Sunday.

Finally, as Alex has already reported below, Bobby Abreu will miss at least half of the Yankees’ exhibition schedule after having strained his right oblique muscle during batting practice yesterday. Apparently Abreu felt a tweak in his right side, but kept hitting, resulting in a worse injury than if he had cut his BP session short. Abreu will be unable to hit or throw while recuperating, but should be ready for Opening Day, though the pace of healing on oblique injuries is often hard to predict. Still, even this injury should prove to be ultimately insignificant. Rather, it’s Sanchez that bears the closest watching right now.

For those wondering, Cashman and Torre have both ruled out the possibility of Bernie Williams coming to camp given the playing time made available by Abreu’s injury. As well they should, Melky and the Kevins will fill in just fine. Oh, and Johnny Damon took a couple of personal days away from camp. He’s back now. Nothing to see there.

Today the Yankees will play their intrasquad game. Last year this turned into a pivotal event in the season as Jorge Posada creamed a Mike Mussina changeup, then taught Moose how to better disguise the pitch, leading to a 7-1, 2.42 ERA start for Mussina. Today’s intrasquad hurlers are less prominent, with only Kei Igawa appearing from the projected rotation.

Abre-yeoww

Bobby Abreu has suffered

Bernie and the Yanks (From the Outside Looking In)

By Rich Lederer (Guest Columnist)

Winter has turned to spring – well, at least when it comes to the baseball calendar – and, for the first time in more than 20 years, Bernie Williams is not in Tampa or Fort Lauderdale, taking batting practice and shagging down fly balls.

Signed as an undrafted free agent by the Yankees on September 13, 1985, Williams has spent 21 of his 38 years roaming the outfields in Florida, Oneonta, Prince William, Albany, Columbus, New York, and dozens of other minor and major league cities. He has been one of those rare one-team players, who re-upped with the Yanks on two occasions. Sure, he almost left the Bronx for the greener pastures of, gasp, Boston in 1998. But he took it upon himself to meet with the Boss and the two sides worked out a seven-year, $87.5 million contract that was virtually identical to the offer made by the Red Sox.

After Bernie’s multi-year deal ran out, he agreed to return in 2006 for $1.5 million. Expected to be the fourth outfielder, Williams was thrust into a starting role when Hideki Matsui and Gary Sheffield landed on the DL for an extended period. He started 104 games, playing mostly in RF but also in CF, LF, and as a DH.

Melky Cabrera also benefited from the injuries and emerged as a viable fourth outfielder for 2007, rendering Williams nothing more than a pinch hitter who could also serve as a fifth outfielder and an occasional designated hitter. Bernie filed for free agency at the end of October and the Yankees opted not to offer him salary arbitration. Not wanting to guarantee the 16-year veteran a roster spot, the Yankees offered him a non-roster invitation to spring training in late January.

Nearly four weeks have passed and Williams sits home in Westchester County, N.Y., waiting to see if a guaranteed job opens up for him. Earlier this month, Bernie told the the New York Daily News, “I’m working out, but I think the way it looks right now, it doesn’t seem like I’m going to be playing with that team this year.” That team? Yikes. I can sense the anger all the way out here in Southern California.

What’s going on here? Who’s at fault for allowing the situation to get to this point? Is Bernie an asset or a liability at this stage in his career? Let me see if I can offer a non-partisan viewpoint on this hotly debated subject.

OK, let’s take these questions one at a time. “What’s going on here?” Well, a Yankees great is nearing the end of the road and the club no longer has a guaranteed roster spot for him. Look, these things happen. It happened last year with Tim Salmon and the Angels. Salmon, like Williams, had played his entire career with the team that originally signed him. Unlike Bernie, the all-time Angels great missed the previous season due to an injury. Salmon did not file for free agency and the Halos, unsure of his health status, offered him a minor league contract and an invitation to camp. With a good spring, Tim earned a spot on the roster and was a productive force as a PH and part-time DH, playing only four games in the field all season.

“Who’s at fault for allowing the situation to get to this point?” Without being privy to all the conversations that took place, this one is a difficult question to answer fairly. I believe Brian Cashman should have sat down with Bernie during the off-season to explain the situation to him. “You have been a great Yankee. We appreciate everything you have contributed over the years. Going forward, we would like you to remain with the organization in some capacity but, to be candid, we’re just not sure if there will be a spot for you on the roster this season. It all depends on whether we trade Melky as well as some other moves we may or may not make. You’re a free agent and you can do as you please, but I’d like to invite you to spring training and give you an opportunity to make the club. I can’t promise you anything, but I know Joe would like to have you on the team, if at all possible. If this works for you, great. If not, I can understand that, too. Either way, I just wanted to extend you the courtesy of letting you know what was on our minds.” Unfortunately, I don’t believe this meeting ever took place. If it had, I would say it was up to Bernie to accept Cashman’s offer, sign with another team (which really wasn’t an option he wanted to pursue due to his goal of retiring as a Yankee), or retire.

“Is Bernie an asset or a liability at this stage in his career?” Well, let’s take a look at the numbers.

Bernie’s last great season was in 2002 when he hit to the tune of .333/.415/.493. You might even say it was his last good season. Yankee fans know all too well that Williams slumped in 2003-2005, yet he was far from horrendous – at least at the plate – in ’03 and ’04 when he slugged 37 HR and drew 156 BB while putting up an OPS+ of 110. He had a poor year in ’05 but bounced back last season and hit .281/.332/.436. Not too bad, especially when compared to several other players on the team, including someone who could earn a spot on this year’s roster.

AVG  OBP  SLG  OPS
Crosby   .207 .258 .299 .557
Phillips  .240 .281 .394 .675
Wilson   .212 .248 .365 .613

Bernie crushed lefthanded pitchers (.323/.387/.549). Are you going to tell me that there’s no room on the team for a player who put up a .936 OPS vs. LHP? Last year was not a fluke either. He has always pounded lefties. Let’s take a look at his career spits.

AVG  OBP  SLG  OPS
vs. LHP   .308 .397 .503 .900
vs. RHP   .292 .373 .465 .838

In limited playing time, Phillips has had reverse splits.

AVG  OBP  SLG  OPS
vs. LHP   .195 .233 .244 .477
vs. RHP   .262 .305 .470 .775

Josh Phelps, who is also competing for one of the 25 jobs this spring, didn’t even play in the majors last year but has hit lefties well when given the opportunity.

AVG  OBP  SLG  OPS
vs. LHP   .292 .357 .500 .857
vs. RHP   .257 .325 .460 .785

The problem with Phelps is that he strikes out over 25% of the time and is a liability on the bases and in the field. Yes, he is younger than Williams, but it’s not like Bernie faded down the stretch either.

AVG  OBP  SLG  OPS
1st Half  .282 .323 .416 .739
2nd Half  .278 .347 .468 .815

It looks to me like Williams still has some fuel left in his tank. Just in the last five years, the Yankees have given more than 100 AB in a season to such veterans as Ron Coomer, Karim Garica, Ruben Sierra, Shane Spencer, John Vander Wal, Craig Wilson, and Todd Zeile. I would submit that a 38-year-old Williams is better than each and every one of these players – all of whom were nothing more than corner OF/1B/DH/PH types. Not a one was on the team for his glove.

OK, I realize yesterday was yesterday but is the makeup of this year’s club all that different? If you want to keep Doug Mientkiewicz for his glove and lefthanded bat, fine. But let’s not kid ourselves here. Minky will turn 33 in June and has never been much of a hitter. He doesn’t hit RHP any better than than LHP so it’s not like he is going to make sense as a platoon partner with Phillips or Phelps. I never cared for Jason Giambi as a first baseman, but isn’t it possible that the Yankees could be better off running him out there vs. southpaws while inserting Williams in the lineup as the DH? And why couldn’t Bernie have learned to play 1B if the Yanks were petrified at the thought of seeing Giambi with a glove in his left hand?

As Rob Neyer so keenly noted in a recent column (Insider subscription required), Bernie Williams has been treated well financially by the Yankees over the years. How well? $103 million well. However, as far as I can tell, this matter has little or nothing to do with money. But, if this is the end, you would think that both sides could have shown each other a bit more respect after a successful partnership that has lasted nearly 22 years.

Rich Lederer, a native of Long Beach, California, is a longtime friend of Bronx Banter. Rich and I collaborated on a profile of Bernie Williams and Derek Jeter three years ago, almost to the day. His site, The Baseball Analysts, is essential reading for baseball fans.

And the Winner Is…

I’ve been laid-low with a head cold for the past few days, but I’m headed out to Jersey this afternoon to listen to records with my friend Stein anyway. Be back in time to watch the Oscars tonight. Funny, but I like watching them in the same way I like watching the Super Bowl (at least the Super Bowl offers the potential for surprise and excitement). But I don’t get upset about who “wins” and “loses” at the Oscars, mostly I like to talk a lot of trash, bust all the stars’ chops. It seems so ridiculous to give out awards for artistic merit anyhow. Aside from that, the whole thing is so corny and political, you’d have to be crazy to let it bother you. That said, why then do I let the baseball awards get me nuts each year? Go figure.

I figure they’ll give Scorsese a lifetime achievement nod tonight and give him Best Director for “The Departed,” a movie that I found highly entertaining but far from his best. For the record, my favorite Scorsese movies are: “ItalianAmerican,” “Mean Streets,” “Taxi Driver,” and his segment from “New York Stories.”

Here are a couple of few links for a cool Sunday in New York:

Pete Abraham has a nice piece on Mike Mussina, who has become something of an avuncular figure for some of the younger Yankee pitchers.

Tyler Kepner profiles Colter Bean in the Times, while Jack Curry examines the increasingly important role that intrepreters have in the game.

Joel Sherman is blogging about the Yankees over at the Post this spring.

No Wynn Situation

Put Jimmy Wynn near the top of my list of players I wish I had seen play. I’ve read about him and talked to people about him, but the closest I know from Wynn as a thirty-five year old Yankee fan is the fact that he was in the dugout when Billy Martin yanked Reggie Jackson off the field at Fenway Park in 1977. I got to thinking about Wynn cause I found an article on him the other day at Think Factory. It’s one of those stories where the long-retired jock talks about how he’d be a Hall of Famer if he played today. Not much of an article. But it reminded me of something I once read about Wynn.

I read it in Joe Morgan’s autobiography (co-written by David Falkner), of all places. Morgan and Wynn were teammates in Houston for nine years. They both first appeared in 1963 when Morgan was 19 and Wynn was just 21. Wynn had more talent than Morgan. Wynn was a five-tool player. Stuck out a lot but walked a lot. Hit for power, steal bases, had a great arm.

They were the best of friends. Later, Morgan wrote about Wynn:

He was Willie Mays at the same age, but he just had a different agenda, and because of that he never progressed [into a truly great player].

It used to bother me a lot that Jimmy wouldn’t work to nuture his talent. I’d talk to him about it but it never mattered and I never pushed it because I liked him too much and who as I, anyway, to tell anyone what they should or shouldn’t be do with their careers. It may be that Jimmy had the right idea and I had the wrong one about what a life in baseball was all about.

Jimmy, in so many ways, epitomized the old ballplayer, the guy who came along before the portfolios, the agents, and the business managers. When he said he was going to put aside most other things and concentrate on home runs, he was really saying he didn’t want to work at those other things. The home run, he knew, would keep him in the majors…

I am sure Jimmy could have made it to the Hall of Fame if he had wanted to, just as I know there are other players who might have if they had cultivated the superior talent they had. But Jimmy’s choice was clear. Maybe there should be a Hall of Fame for all those guys, too, the ones who decided that life at the top was about enjoying yourself to the fullest while you had the chance. I went another way. And I can measure that way not only by the numbers I put up, by the awards I got, but also by all those hours sitting alone in hotel rooms, watching TV, not enjoying myself very much, but doing what I wanted to do nevertheless.

Wynn was a monster talent who had a very good career, but wasn’t willing to do what it took to have a Hall of Fame career. Interesting how Morgan wonders if Wynn had the right idea all along.

Pastime Passings

[Editor's note: 2007 will bring several new contributors to Bronx Banter. I want to further complement what Cliff and I already provide for you. Bruce Markusen, author and historian, is not a new name to longtime readers and I'm pleased to report that each month, Bruce will run a "Pastime Passings" post that formerly appeared in his "Cooperstown Confidential" column. And that's not all he's gonna do...I'll have more on the new contributors and what they'll be up to shortly. Cliff and I are still going to be holding it down as usual, but my hope is to give you guys even more of a good thing. I love the idea of having additional voices. The spirit of this blog to generate conversation and community, you know, banter, baby. And that's word to Big Bird.]

By Bruce Markusen (Guest Columnist)

For many years, The Sporting News filled a vital role by providing obituaries from the sports world. For fans in the pre-internet era, it was often our first notice that someone significant had passed away. Throughout the 2007 season, I’ll try to take on the task once done so ably by The Sporting News by providing regular updates on baseball figures who have departed us. Some of the obituaries will be straight-laced and fact based; others will include some of my own personal commentaries.

Through the first two months of 2007, the baseball world has already lost several significant and influential figures. The list includes former Yankee players Steve Barber, Hank Bauer, and Lew Burdette, and former pitching coach Art Fowler.

Steve Barber (Died on February 4 in Henderson, Nevada; age 67; pneumonia): A hard-throwing but erratically wild left-hander, Barber won 121 games over a 15-year career that began with the Baltimore Orioles in 1960. During his tenure in Baltimore, Barber went 95-75 and became the first 20-game winner in the history of the franchise. He was later inducted into the Orioles’ Hall of Fame.

Commentary: Steve Barber. I always thought that was a great baseball name for a pitcher, in a Sal Maglie kind of way. When I was growing up in the early 1970s, Barber was just finishing up a long career. I remember him mostly as a middle reliever—like a lot of veteran pitchers of that era, that’s where he ended up—but it was as a fireballing starter that Barber created some lasting imagery during much of the 1960s.

Barber was considered one of the hardest throwers of his era, though his radar gun readings look relatively unimpressive by today’s standards. In 1960, Barber was clocked at 95 and a half miles per hour, which was actually the third-fastest mark on record at the time, behind only Hall of Famers Walter Johnson and Bob Feller. Most hitters who faced Barber in his prime would tell you that he threw harder than the mid-nineties, just as old-timers would have said the same about Feller and “The Big Train.” I think it’s probably safe to say that the 1960s devices used to clock Barber were somewhat slow, in contrast to the ballpark readings of today, which are generally on the high side.

Not only did Barber throw hard, but he threw a sinking fastball that darted and dipped, and was very heavy on a batter’s hands. Ellie Hendricks, who caught him with the Orioles and later faced him as an opponent, said hitting Barber’s fastball was akin to swinging at a “ball of iron.” Barber could also be about as wild as Mitch Williams, at least on some days, making it very uncomfortable for opposing hitters to stand in against him.

It’s too bad that Barber came down with a bad bout of tendonitis in 1966. He was having a terrific season, appearing to have harnessed his talents after years of sporadic success, and then had to miss the second half of ’66, including the World Series. Barber did have his moments, including that famed no-hit loss in 1967 (when he walked ten batters and threw 144 pitches before giving way to Stu Miller), but any chance of greatness had gone.

In his later years, Barber bounced around as a reliever, pitching for the New York Yankees, Seattle Pilots, California Angels, and Milwaukee Brewers. As a member of the 1969 Pilots, Barber became one of the most notable figures of Jim Bouton’s Ball Four. Unfortunately, Bouton portrayed Barber in a villainous role, suggesting that he was hiding an injury in order to maintain his presence on the roster, thereby denying a younger pitcher of a chance at pitching. I’ve always thought Bouton’s portrayal of Barber was unfair. Like Barber, Bouton had hurt his arm, and like Barber, was doing all he could to preserve a career in the major leagues. Barber may have spent more than his fair share of time in the trainer’s room, but at least he was trying to pitch, rather than just putting in time on the disabled list.

Hank Bauer (Died on February 9, 2007 in Kansas City, Missouri; age 84; cancer): The ultimate hard-nosed ballplayer, Bauer filled an important role as a secondary cog during the New York Yankees’ dynasty of the 1950s. During his 12-year tenure in New York, Bauer contributed to nine American League pennants and seven World Championships. Almost exclusively a pull hitter, Bauer saw significant time in both right and left field, earned All-Star berths in 1952, ’53 and ’54, and compiled a major league record 17-game hitting streak in World Series play. In 1961, Bauer turned to managing, hired by Charlie Finley as the skipper of the Kansas City A’s. In 1964, he became the manager of the Baltimore Orioles, leading them to a World Championship two seasons later.

Commentary: Bauer lived one of the most fascinating lives of any ballplayer, succeeding on three completely different levels: as a player, manager, and American soldier.

First and foremost, Bauer was an unquestionable war hero. As a member of the U.S. Marines during World War II, he overcame a severe bout of malaria to earn 11 campaign ribbons, two Bronze Stars, and two Purple Hearts. Bauer’s heroics reached their heights during the battle of Okinawa, when he served as the commander of a battalion of 64 men. Only six men survived the assault, with Bauer sustaining a shrapnel wound to his thigh. The injury sent him home, but not before Bauer had lost four of his prime seasons to wartime service.

Bauer’s military toughness extended to his physical appearance. He was once described as having a face that looked like a “clenched fist.” He accentuated that look by consistently wearing his hair in a Marine buzzcut, even years after his military tenure ended.

Though not blessed with an array of physical talents, Bauer made the most of what he possessed. He hustled at all times and prided himself on playing the game in a fundamentally sound way, especially in the field and on the basepaths. He also hated seeing younger teammates who didn’t hustle, coining the phrase that became popular with Yankee veterans in addressing a youthful lack of enthusiasm: “Don’t mess with my money.” Younger Yankees like Mickey Mantle and Whitey Ford heard that refrain a few times and learned some lessons from Bauer.

A good player in regular season play, Bauer became a larger-than-life force in the World Series. After struggling badly in his first four Fall Classics, Bauer emerged as a terror in the 1955 and ’58 World Series. Bauer batted .429 in the ’55 Series against Brooklyn and then clubbed four home runs in ’58 against Milwaukee.

After winning seven World Championships as a player, Bauer added a world title as the manager of the Orioles in 1966. Bauer was an underrated manager, most likely because his managing days ended rather abruptly. Emphasizing discipline and accountability, he led the 1967 Orioles and 1969 A’s to second-place finishes. Bauer’s tough-guy approach might not have worked with players in the 1970s, but he obtained good results in the sixties.

Bauer also carried on a celebrated feud with Earl Weaver, who succeeded him as Orioles manager. Bauer had refused to hire Weaver as a coach, and Weaver returned the disfavor by not keeping Bauer on the Baltimore staff. Several years ago, one of my relatives approached Bauer and Weaver at a baseball function. Not knowing of the bitterness between the two, he asked the two rivals if they would pose for a photograph. After the photo was taken, Weaver remarked to Bauer: “That might be the only picture in existence that shows us together.” Even though he couldn’t stand Weaver, Bauer still managed to laugh.

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Bull Session

Phillip Hughes wowed-’em” in Tampa yesterday during a BP session. What can you say? We are all looking foward to watching the kid pitch (All together, everyone knock on wood and let’s hope he stays healthy). After all, look what happened to Mark Prior, who was billed as the second-coming of Tom Seaver.

I got together for drinks and burgers with Cliff, Jay Jaffe and Jake Luft last night in the distinctly gentrified neighborhood of Hell’s Kitchen. I love being able to soak-up baseball knowledge, and these three have it in spades. I mean, they really have a thorough working knowledge of players, even prospects, in both leagues–an ability that never fails to impress me. Yo, I have a hard enough time following just one team, let alone the AL East, or the entire American League, forget about both leagues. Anyhow, at one point I said the player I’d like to see have a breakout season this year, pushing him over-the-top as a legitimate star, is Carl Crawford. Jake thinks Crawford is already there (and a quick look at Crawford’s stats show that Jake is probably right). But imagine if he continues to build on last year’s success? The dude is only 25.

What talented player do you think will make that jump this year? Or, which player would you like to see make it?

An Excursus on Picking Mariano Riveraís Best Season

By Chris DeRosa (Guest Columnist)

Reading Sherman’s book, I got to wondering how many analysts would choose 1996 as Rivera’s best season. It’s chief rivals are 2005 and 1999. It would probably be easiest to sort through the cases of the closer seasons, and then compare to the set-up year in ’96.

We can easily rule out 2002, when injuries limited him to 46 innings; his debut season of 1995, when he was a starter with a 5.51 ERA; 2000, with his career-high relief ERA of 2.85; and both 1997 and 2006, which were fine seasons but boasting no advantages over his very best seasons.

2005 was the year Rivera had his best conventional rate stats: a career low 1.38 ERA (and a career high ERA+ of 323). He allowed his smallest percentage of baserunners (.235 on base percentage against), and was just as effective in denying power (hitters slugged .230 off him, missing his career best by only .002). He also had his best ever-rate of stranding inherited runners, allowing only 2 of 18 to score. He threw 78.3 innings, went 7-4, and saved 43 against 4 blown saves. In an unspectacular postseason, he allowed 1 run in 3 innings with two saves against the Angels.

In 1999, he was nearly as sharp in 69 innings, allowing a .239 on base percentage and a .237 slugging percentage. He went 4-3 with a 1.83 ERA with 45 saves against 4 blown saves. Of 27 runners inherited, he stranded 22 and permitted 5 to score. He also was the most efficient he had ever been, notching an out every 4.8 pitches, a career best. At this point, you would still have to put 2005 first. But then you get to the postseason. 1999 is in his top three: 12.3 scoreless innings, with 2 wins and 6 saves (and the World Series MVP Award). Counting their postseason and regular seasons stats together, 2005′s ERA advantage shrinks to 1.44 to 1.55. And there’s more: Rivera allowed only 1 unearned run in 1999, whereas he allowed 6 in 2005. If charged for all runs, inherited, earned, and unearned, in the regular and postseason, Mo was less scored upon in 1999 (2.21, 81.3 innings) than 2005 (2.32, 81.3 innings).

Rivera allowed an even smaller average of total runs the year before, in 1998. In 61.3 regular season innings, he allowed only 13 runs, all earned, and allowed only four of 24 inherited runners to score. In 13.3 postseason innings, he allowed only 6 hits, 2 walks, and no runs at all. In 74.6 combined innings, he allowed 2.05 runs per game, a career best. He also his highest percentage of good results: 3 wins, 36 saves, and 6 postseason saves, against no losses and only 5 regular season blown saves. Overall, though, it is hard to pick 1998 as his best year. The results may have been the cleanest, but he was hit harder (.270 on base percentage, .309 slugging percentage) than in 1999, and he didn’t pitch as much.

2001, when he saved 50 games and got more batters out (236) than in any other year besides 1996, was his career high in win shares. I’m a big win shares fan. Asking them to pick a closer’s best season, however, is among the last things win shares should be asked to do. It was a really good year, but he wasn’t as dominating as in other seasons, and given that, I wouldn’t pick the year he got beat by the Diamondbacks in the World Series as the best of his career.

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Those Were the Days

Book Review

By Chris DeRosa

Chris DeRosa has been posting book reviews here for three or four years now. Actually, that’s not entirely true. Chris puts out a Yankee Annual each year that he sends around to his friends. The Annaual always contains book reviews, and Chris is generous enough to allow me to co-opt them for Bronx Banter. Here is one that I thought you guys might like…and there is a follow-up essay from Chris that I’ll post a bit later on.

Joel Sherman, Birth of a Dynasty: Behind the Pinstripes with the 1996 Yankees (2006)

There’s the requisite quote on the back, proclaiming that you don’t have to be a Yankee fan to enjoy this book. On the contrary, I’d say you might have to be a Yankee fan. The frequent invocations of the Yanks’ championship “destiny” would probably wear out the non-Yankee fan reader before long. But, you know, that’s fine. Remember when they used to make Star Trek movies? The studio would always say, “this time, it’s not just for the fans,” as if there weren’t enough friggin’ Star Trek fans to pay for their movie. Then more often than not, they’d make a lousy film trying to please a lot of people who were never going to be interested anyway, when they’d just have been better off aiming it right at the people who loved it. So there’s nothing wrong with Joel Sherman writing a book just for those of us who would like to wallow in the details of the Yankees’ 1996 title season. As such, it does not disappoint.

Sherman’s motif is “perfection.” Every chapter title is “The Perfect Manager,” “The Perfect Resolve,” The Perfect Whatever. Sherman knows that the Yankees’ flirtation with perfection was a couple of years down the road. What he actually means is that it took a perfect confluence of circumstances for this most imperfect 92-win team to pull it off. And indeed, the author chronicles both the little things that broke right—Jeffrey Maier made “The Perfect Catch (Almost)”—and the real strengths this team sported, including a quality in depth and a terrific cohort of young players: Andy Pettitte, Derek Jeter, Bernie Williams, and Mariano Rivera.

Some of the best parts of the book are about how those guys broke in and showed their stuff. In the chapter, “The Perfect Formula,” Sherman reminds us of the context of Mariano Rivera’s breakout season. It was the first full-length season under at the new mid-90s hitting levels, and American League pitchers were lit up for more runs per game than in any season since 1936, include a record barrage of 2,742 homers. Rivera, in 107 innings of stellar relief, surrendered just one of those. He was not only the most effective pitcher in the league; for a couple of months there, it seemed like he was the only effective pitcher in the league.

Sherman compares Torre’s quick recognition of Rivera’s value in 1996 favorably to Showalter’s waiting too long to get him into Game 5 of the ALDS in 1995 (when he had proved so devastating in Games 2 and 3). But here, Sherman’s own good reporting contradicts his instinct for the tidy storyline. In spring training, Torre saw “a straight fastball that made Rivera’s role murky.” Rivera himself is quoted as calling his fastball “straight as an arrow.” Sherman writes that that he was working on a change-up because he expected to be a starter. He might have added that it was Torre and Stottlemyre who were instructing him to do this. But as the season developed:

Torre kept defining a more and more vital function for Rivera, from mop-up man when the season began to a hybrid role that united middle and setup relief. Rivera was asked to get as many as nine outs to bail out a rotation that was proving far more unreliable than Torre had forecast.

Case in point, the Yankees led the Royals 5-2 in an April game when David Cone couldn’t make it past the 5th and Torre’s pen was already fried.

…Torre was staring at nine outs before he could summon closer John Wetteland. A concept was born—what Torre would come to refer to as the Formula. Rivera was asked to not only protect a lead but protect it for an extended period, to become a lone bridge between starter and closer.

In half of his 61 outings, Mo got six or more outs (22 two-inning stints, 8 three-inning stints, and 5 in between). But of course, Mariano Rivera in 1996 was not the first quality 100-inning middle reliever in baseball history. He was closer to being the last. The formula Sherman thinks Torre invented was pretty much the same one Cito Gaston used for Duane Ward in 1990, Sparky Anderson used for Mike Henneman in 1987, Jimy Williams used for Mark Eichhorn in 1986, and Dick Howser used for Ron Davis in 1980, and so forth.

It was the big hitting 90s that drove the division of setup chores, making the LaRussa bullpens more a necessity than a choice. That Rivera could still succeed in the older pattern was to his enormous credit, and was out-of-place enough that it fooled Sherman into thinking it was something new under the sun. And what is this nonsense about a straight fastball? Rivera may not have been throwing the cutter, but his fastball was explosive and jumpy, with irresistible illusory rise. If you want to see a straight fastball, try watching Kyle Farnsworth pitch.

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Feel Like You’ve Heard This All Before? (Well, You Have!)

Spring training has just begun and yet many of us are already saying, “Wake me up on Opening Day.” Fair enough. In the meantime, dig these pearls of Grapefruit League wisdom from the one-and-only Earl Weaver (from his wonderful book–co-written by Terry PlutoWeaver on Strategy, essential reading for any serious baseball fan):

The Cliches of Spring

Another problem in spring camps is all those sportswriters with nothing much to write about. Every year it seemed I got asked the same questions, so I started giving my answers by the numbers. Here are my nine favorite answers.

1. The hitters are ahead of the pitchers. You use this one after your staff gets pounded for fourteen runs early in the spring. After all, maybe the hitters ARE ahead of the pitchers at this point. Who’s to say which group develops faster?

2. The pitchers are ahead of the hitters. The opposite of number 1, so it should be used when you get shut out by three rookie pitchers nobody’s ever heard of.

3. The Second-Time-Out theory. I’m not sure why it happens, but veteran pitchers often get hit in their second outing of the spring. When reporters asked me why, I had few answers. Instead, I’d just tell them it was just another case for the second-time-out theory.

4. The Loss In Daytona Beach theory. You can substitute any city, but this excuse is to be used when you get bombed on the road in the spring. So you lose to Montreal, 20-3, on March 22 in Daytona Beach. Who cares?

5. That’s why they call ‘em exhibition games. The Orioles often had records like 12-15 in the spring because I spent my time looking at players rather than worrying about winning. Most managers do the same. They call them “exhibition games” because they don’t count.

6. The Lee May syndrome. This can be used for any veteran hitter who’s having a lousy spring. Lee May couldn’t hit his weight for me in the spring, but the man did the job once the season began. The writers would get nervous about Lee’s springs, but I didn’t worry. Guys who hit in the past and haven’t gotten injured or too old are a great bet to hit again, regardless of their batting averages in Florida.

7. Yes, Palmer will pitch the opener. Every spring it seemed that Jim Palmer had some sort of injury–elbow, back, ulna nerve, etc.–and people would wonder if Jim would be able to pitch the opener. There were millions of stories speculating about Palmer’s condition. Usually Jim was ready when the bell ran. I never worried about it unless Jim came up to me right before the opener and said there wa a problem.

8. Can’t you see what we’re doing out there? A lot of young writers had a million questions about what was happening in the spring. They didn’t seem to understand that you had to do certain drills to get ready for the season. Rather than explain it all every day, it often was easier to pose this question. After all, they should have been smart enough to see what we were doing.

9. Phenom? What phenom? Every spring, the writers are looking for a phenom, a young player they can build up and go crazy about in their stories. I understand that they have to write something, but they’ve gotten carried away sometimes. I remember one rookie baseball writer who had Mark Corey ready for the Hall of Fame just because he hit the ball hard a couple of times in an intersquad game. Patience! It’s a long way from the Grapefruit League.

Remember, Weaver’s First Law:

No one’s going to give a dam in July if you lost a game in March.

I don’t think the Boss ever got that memo.

The Way It Is

I ran into a Yankee fan yesterday at work and the first thing he says to me is that Alex Rodriguez is a bum. This reminded me of something I read recently in Robert Lipsyte’s book, SportsWorld: An American Dreamland (Lipsyte was a reporter then a columnist for the Times during the sixties–and later, in nineties–and is particularly famous for his coverage of Ali. This book is out-of-print, but worth checking out if you run across it in a used bookstore):

“A sportswriter learns early that his readers are primarily interested in the affirmation of their faiths and their prejudices, which are invariably based on previous erroneous reports. They do not want fact that conflict with preconceptions.”

Which also brings to mind, what the newspaper man tells Jimmy Stewart at the end of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance:

“This is the west, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

Having said all that, of course, Derek Jeter is getting ripped in the local papers today.

In Living Color

If everybody’s doing it, there’s a lot of guys doing it.
Vince in The Color of Money

New blogs just keeping popping up, don’t they? One of the most exciting new ones is called Bronx Comix run by longtime-Bronx Banterite, Knuckles. Be sure to give it a look. Knucks, the only problem I can see you running into is posting on the reg. Once you start something as fun as what you are doing, we’re going to want our daily fix, Snoops.

The New York Times recently launched Met and Yankee blogs too. Columnist Jack Curry and beat writer Tyler Kepner are doing a fine job holding down the Yankee blog. After Derek Jeter spoke with reporters this morning about his relationship with Alex Rodriguez, Kepner notes:

The key difference between Jeter and A-Rod is this: Jeter goes to great lengths to keep things uncomplicated, and A-Rod seems to complicate everything. In this case, I think they’re both being sincere. They should get some credit for that. They function well as teammates. The rest is interesting, for sure, but it’s mostly a soap opera.

From an image standpoint, this is good for Rodriguez. Fans appreciate honesty and perseverance. That’s why people cheer for Jason Giambi. If A-Rod wants to win over the fans (and we know he does), he may have finally hit on a good strategy. He’s telling the truth about his relationship with Jeter, and he hasn’t bailed on the Yankees despite his struggles in the clutch. I could be wrong, but I sense that fans will respect him for that.

Lastly, on another (non-baseball) blogging note, Hip Hop mixmaster, Steinski recently launched his own site, which features posts on music and (left wing) politics. It is a lot of fun if you are into that sort of thing.

Joe Torre’s Holiday Camp

The Yankee position players reported to camp on Sunday and took their physicals yesterday. Today the team will hold its first full-squad work outs. Here at the Banter, we’ve taken a look at the Yankees three major position battles, covered a couple of early controversies, and gotten some actual news about the pitchers and catchers who reported last week. With that, it’s time to take a look at the 63 players who will be in camp with the Yankees this year. To begin with, here’s how I expect the 25-man roster to shake out come Opening Day:

1B – Doug Mientkiewicz (L)
2B – Robinson Cano (L)
SS – Derek Jeter (R)
3B – Alex Rodriguez (R)
C – Jorge Posada (S)
RF – Bobby Abreu (L)
CF – Johnny Damon (L)
LF – Hideki Matsui (L)
DH – Jason Giambi (L)

Bench:

S – Melky Cabrera (OF)
R – Miguel Cairo (IF)
R – Phillips/Phelps (1B)
R – Todd Pratt (C)

Rotation:

R – Chien-Ming Wang
R – Mike Mussina
L – Andy Pettitte
L – Kei Igawa

R – Carl Pavano

Bullpen:

R – Mariano Rivera
R – Kyle Farnsworth
R – Scott Proctor
L – Mike Myers
R – Luis Vizcaino
R – Chris Britton
L – Ron Villone

The last two spots in the bullpen are the most tenuous, as Villone is in camp as a non-roster invitee and Britton is a new arrival who, despite having excelled for the Orioles last year, will have to fend off numerous rivals in order to maintain his spot. What’s not in question, however, is that both of those rosters spots will go to relievers. Upon arriving in Tampa a week ago, Joe Torre reiterated the need for the Yankees to carry 12 pitchers, in large part because of the dearth of innings that can be expected from LOOGY Mike Myers, Kyle Farnsworth’s frustrating inability to pitch multiple innings or on consecutive days, and Torre’s desire to limit the 37-year-old Mariano Rivera—who missed three weeks last September due to a muscle strain in his right forearm—to the ninth inning as much as possible.

Of course, Torre also threw into question the roster spot currently designated for a right-handed first baseman by suggesting that he’ll consider playing Giambi in the field and telling reporters that he has encouraged Bernie Williams to come to camp to challenge for that spot and that spot only. Bernie still hasn’t agreed to come to camp, however. So, for the moment, Phelps and Phillips still have a fight to finish to fill that first-base fissure.

Most of the players above are familiar, and some we’ve looked at earlier this week or this offseason as per the links, but since there are a few who fall into neither category, here’s a quick look at three of the lower profile new faces (ages in parentheses are as of Opening Day):

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Fessin’ Up

It’s a bitterly cold Presidents’ Day Observed and I’m alone at the office, having traded Friday for Monday on my work schedule.

Down in Tampa it’s a good 35 to 40 degrees warmer and there’s an atmosphere of unburdening in the air. Yankee Chairman of the Board and heir apparent to the Boss Steve Swindal made his first appearance at Legends Field and spoke to reporters about his DUI bust in the wee hours of the morning last Thursday. Clearly humiliated, Swindal was very apologetic, but unable to comment much due to his pending trial scheduled for some time in March.

A bit earlier, Alex Rodriguez spoke candidly to reporters about his opt-out clause, his relationship with Derek Jeter (which will grab most of the headlines) and his reaction to batting eighth in the Yankees’ final postseason game last year. About the last he admitted to being “disappointed” and “embarrassed” and said he “didn’t like it,” but expressed awareness that his performance was what lead to Torre’s decision.

Our man in the field, Peter Abraham has full audio of both men up on his blog: Swindal, Rodriguez.

The latter is enlightening not simply because of Rodriguez’s refreshing honesty, but because of the way the assembled reporters badger him about his opt-out clause. Rodriguez says some version of “I want to be a Yankee” at least eight times but, wisely, refuses to say more because that opt-out clause is a tremendous bit of negotiating leverage and he’s obviously too smart to undermine it just to get a bullheaded beat reporter off his back (he also says “I understand my contract” or the like at least four times). The closest he comes to conceding to the onslaught, which at one point becomes so absurd that the crowd erupts in laughter, is saying that he will not be a free agent next year, but he simultaneously refuses to turn “I want to be a Yankee” into “I will be a Yankee.” If you want to know why the New York media drives some athletes crazy, give a listen and consider that this is Rodriguez’s first day in camp and all he’s done thus far is unpack his things and get a physical.

In injury news, Steven White threw today, his neck pain from Friday having proven to be as inconsequential as had been assumed. Meanwhile, according to Joe Torre, Carl Pavano ended some of his drills early today due to “heavy legs.” With any other player this wouldn’t be news. Indeed, Meat did throw his bullpen session later in the day. Still, because it’s Pavano, it bears watching.

Hello, Goodbye

Last fall, when Emily and I got a cat, a friend at work told me that she once had a cat that she loved very much. She said that once it died she never got another one. It was simply too painful for her to get a pet knowing that she would likely out-live it. I had animals around my house when I was growing up–cats and dogs–but I haven’t owned one as an adult. But in no time, I’ve grown attached to our charming little cat, Tashi. I had to board her at the vet’s late last week before I trooped up to Vermonth to meet-up with Emily at her folks’ place for the weekend. I asked to see the vet where Tashi would be staying and was shown to the basement where the boarding animals stay. Dude, I had to hold back the tears, and when I got home, I burst-out bawling like a baby.

Loss has been foremost on my mind recently. My dad had a heart attack one month ago and he died the following day. I miss him dearly.

I’ve been thinking about ol’ Bernie Williams this weekend, about how much I’m going to miss him–that is to say, if he’s really gone. It’s not so much his production, or lack thereof, that I’ll miss, but him. Of course, I don’t know him personally, but I’ve watched the majority of his big league games and have grown accustomed to his face, his swing, his mannerisms, his gestures. It isn’t the big things but the nuances, the details.

I love the continuity baseball offers. Each year, guys get too old and retire, while new guys come up and offer us something new to admire. If you’ve been a fan for a long time–as most of us have been–you see the professional life and death of many players. Sometimes, it is soothing to see a familiar face just because they are familiar, and nothing else. I thought of this last week when I read that Steve Trachsel was signed by the Orioles. I find his games almost intolerable to watch, he pitches so damn slowly. Otherwise I have no particular feelings about him. But I am used to him. Knowing that there is a chance that, months from now, in the middle of summer, he’ll be involved in one of those agonizing Yankee-Oriole, four-hour-plus slugfests, is strangely comforting.

Aches and Pains

Every year players get ouchies in spring training as a normal part of getting back in shape. Folks always overreact. The Yankees haven’t been in camp a week yet and they already have their first “casualty.” Steven White tweaked his neck. He left camp in a neck brace and got an MRI, but Joe Torre thinks he just slept wrong and will be back in action early next week.

In other news, Raul Chavez got the cast off his broken glove hand and could be catching bullpen sessions in about a week. He should be ready to go once games start in March. I still think he has no shot at making the Opening Day roster, but it looks like he’ll get a chance to try after all.

What Do The Numbers Say?

In these early days of spring training, reporters, bloggers, and fans desperate for any little bit of news cling to every comment made by the manager and GM, wishcasting and overreacting wildly to anything that seems to betray more than intended.

For example, at the end of his chat with the press yesterday, Joe Torre was asked if he got to see any of the relievers work out in the bullpen and if he saw anything he liked. Here’s his response:

“Kozlowski. I like his size and the fact that he’s left handed. I thought Veras was very good. It looked like he was hitting spots which is pretty unusual. Plus, Gator said to him ‘what was that?’ He says, ‘curveball.’ He [Guidry] says ‘No, no, no. Fastballs. Changeup.’ So, he felt good enough to want to do that today. . . . Let’s see who else was there. . . . Vizcaino I missed, I wanted to see him, but I was a little tardy. Gator said he hit his spots all the time and threw well. I though Beam threw the ball pretty good. Henn, I tell ya, Henn’s throwing the ball hard, and, again, he showed us that last year that we didn’t see before that. So it’s going to be interesting. I thought Villone threw the ball good. If you compare to last year, where he was at this time last year, because he didn’t have a good spring as far as pop on the ball.”

Using the list of pitching groups posted earlier yesterday by Peter Abraham, Torre mentioned the lone new guy in group one (Vizcaino), one guy from group three (Kozlowski), and one guy not listed (Villone) as well as every member of group two but one: Chris Britton, who was not only part of group two, but is a pitcher Torre’s never seen before in camp.

So should Chris Britton be worried? Probably not, but that’s the level of clue-hunting that tends to go one this time of year.

With that in mind, one thing that always interests me is the assignment of spring training numbers. If you’re wearing number 83 and competing with a guy wearing number 14, odds are you’re fighting an up-hill battle. So, what do the numbers tell us?

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Dirt McGirt

I know I promised you all my campers post this week, but with the influx of juicy news items and it being Friday and all, before a three-day weekend no less, well, forgive me for taking the easy way out.

Did I say juicy? How about the Boss’s son-in-law and successor, who to some degree has already taken over the day-to-day operations of the team, being busted for a DUI.

How about Mikey Moose making mince meat out of Pavano’s “What Me Worry?” attitude toward returning to the team (quotes below the fold).

How about Kerry Wood taking a page out of Pavano’s book and missing the opening of camp because he slipped and fell out of a hot tub.

How about Barry Zito, San Francisco’s $126-millon man, showing up for Giants camp with a completely new delivery that pitching coach Dave Righetti thinks could ruin his famous curveball.

How about the BALCO testimony leak being identified.

Less juicy is the news that the Yankees will be wearing black armbands this season in memory of Cory Lidle. The Yankees last wore armbands in 2000 in memory of Catfish Hunter and Bob Lemon.

Speaking of uniform alterations, the ad wizards at MLB have tricked out the Yankees batting practice duds with white underarm stripes on the jerseys and these godawful caps complete with highly illogical ear piping. Last year the Yankees avoided this crap. It’s severely disappointing to see them infected this spring.

Even more problematic, Joe Torre has finally spoken to Bernie Williams and is encouraging him to come to camp. Torre told the media today that Bernie’s only chance of making the roster would be at the expense of the winner of the Phelps-Phillips battle, but that he’s not opposed to playing Mientkiewicz fulltime at first base. Curiously, he also indicated that he’s not going to rule out starting Giambi at first base until he gets a look at him this spring, which opens up the possibility of Giambi playing first and Melky Cabrera seeing a spike in playing time as Giambi and the three outfielders rotate through the DH spot. That would reduce Mientkiewicz to a backup role and clear room for Bernie in place of Phelps/Phillips. One other piece of relevant info from Torre’s chat was that while Philip Hughes is all but guaranteed to start the season in triple-A, his only chance of making the major league team would be as a member of the rotation. So much for my bullpen idea.

Finally, here’s a puff piece on Kyle Farnsworth in which he says all the right things and indicates a budding friendship with Andy Pettitte that I imagine would do the big guy a hill of good (pun intended).

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Position Battles: Backup Catcher

The Yankees’ options for fifth starter are a solid group that combines a 31-year-old who won 18 games three years ago, a pair of rookies in their mid-20s who filled in capably last September, and perhaps the best pitching prospect in all of baseball, with another of the game’s top prospects available as Plan E. At backup catcher, however, their choices are the old, the infirm, and the incapable. Here are the four candidates for the job:

Name DOB Bats ML career (AB) mL career (AB) 2006 (AB-level)
Wil Nieves 8/25/77 R .159/.198/.220 (82) .288/.339/.398 (3,368) .259/.298/.346 (321-AAA)
Todd Pratt 2/09/67 R .251/.344/.398 (1,612) .260/.356/.402 (2,693) .207/.272/.341 (135-MLB)
Raul Chavez 3/18/73 R .212/.253/.284 (405) .258/.309/.338 (4,412) .255/.290/.337 (196-AA)
Ben Davis 3/10/77 S .237/.306/.366 (1,512) .262/.325/.416 (2,231) .222/.254/.333 (162-AAA)

Chavez, easily the worst hitter among this feeble foursome, was to be part of the discussion because of his defense, something Joe Torre has always valued highly from his catchers as evidenced by his conspiring to dump Mike Stanley for Joe Girardi upon arriving in the Bronx. Chavez, however, had his left hand broken by a pitch in winter ball. As he arrives in camp with his hand still in a cast, he’s out of the running for the Opening Day roster.

Ben Davis was once a top catching prospect but, other than breaking up a Curt Schilling no-hitter with a bunt, has never done anything of value with the bat. Mix in a July 2005 Tommy John surgery which he spent last year rehabbing from, and he’s fighting to keep his career afloat, never mind attempting to break camp with the team. He’ll need to impress at triple-A and have the winner of this battle struggle to have any real shot at returning to the majors.

Thus, this battle rather quickly boils down to Wil Nieves, the youngest and least experienced of the group, and 40-year-old veteran Todd Pratt.

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"This ain't football. We do this every day."
--Earl Weaver