"A New York Treasure" --Village Voice
Category: 1990s

Card Corner: 1972 Topps: Gene Michael

If you’re looking for connections between the current Yankee organization and the 1972 season, there are not many. Other than some minority shareholders and some old-time spring training instructors, there really is no one left from the 1972 days. Except for Gene Michael, that is. These days, he serves as one of Brian Cashman’s senior advisors, giving him advice on such newsworthy matters as the re-signing of the formerly retired Andy Pettitte. Back then, some 40 summers ago, Michael did his best to give the shortstop position the kind of defensive dignity it had lacked since the days of Tony Kubek.

Gene Michael looks a little bit surprised on his 1972 card, as if he isn’t quite ready for the snapshot taken by the Topps photographer. But it is most fitting that he is posed with a glove, for that was by far his best tool as a player. Michael really couldn’t run very fast, and he couldn’t hit a lick, though he did have enough patience to coax a walk here and there. He certainly had no power, with a total of 15 home runs in ten seasons. But he could handle the glove. And notice how small that glove was. We’ve always heard that middle infielders prefer small gloves so that they can take the ball out of the glove quickly and make a fast throw to one of the bases, but that glove is really stretching the limits of that theory.

It‘s rather amazing that Michael established himself as the master of the bidden ball trick using that small of a glove. Where exactly did he hide the ball? In his shirt? Yet, Michael could pull that play better than anyone in history. Here’s what he would do. With the runner at second base assuming that the pitcher was holding the ball, Michael would casually sidle over toward the second base bag with his ball nestled in his glove. He would then place a decisive tag on the unsuspecting victim before making the ball readily apparent to the umpire.

It’s a play that major leaguers rarely use in today’s game–I can’t remember the last time I saw a second baseman or shortstop pull it off–but Michael did it with a stunning degree of frequency. According to the official records, he executed the hidden ball trick at least five times. Considering that the hidden ball play relies on surprise and deception, it’s remarkable that Michael was able to execute it more than once or twice.

By the time that Michael had refined the hidden ball trick, he was well established as a Yankee. But he did not start out in the organization, instead coming up through the Pirates’ system. Signed by the Pirates in 1959 after a standout career as a basketball player at Kent State, the six-foot, two-inch Michael might have wondered at times if he should have signed with one of the NBA teams that wanted him. “Stick” rode the minor league buses for seven seasons before finally making it to the major leagues in 1966, when he was already 28.

Though he was unusually tall and lanky for a shortstop of that era, he impressed the Pirates with his fielding and his range. His hitting was another story. A .152 batting average in 33 plate appearances will discourage a coaching staff. After the season, the Pirates had a chance to upgrade the position by acquiring Maury Wills, so they did just that. They packaged Michael with power hitting third baseman Bob “Beetle” Bailey, and sent them to the Dodgers for the mercurial Wills.

Michael didn’t hit much better for the Dodgers, who evaluated him for one season before deciding that he couldn’t play every day and selling him to the Yankees in a minor transaction. He entered the 1969 season with a chance to become New York’s No. 1 shortstop, but his bat remained quiet, limiting him to 61 games. Then came the best offensive outburst of his career. He lifted his average from .198 to .272 and cemented himself as the first-string shortstop.

He never came close to hitting that well again, but the Yankees didn’t seem to mind, as long as he gobbled up groundballs like a Hoover, showed a knack for heady plays, and turned his share of double plays with second base partner Horace Clarke. Steady and smooth, he remained the Yankees’ regular shortstop through the 1973 season. In 1974, he lost the job to Jim Mason. That winter, the Yankees, believing they had a capable replacement in Mason (boy, they were wrong on that one), released Michael. He later latched on with the Tigers, where he filled a role as a utility infielder for one season before being released.

It’s not particularly well remembered, but the Red Sox gave Michael a spring training invite in February of 1976. Michael stayed with the Red Sox through late May, but never actually appeared in a game for Boston before drawing his release. That’s why you won’t find Michael listed as a Red Sock in his entry at Baseball-Reference. The release not only ended his Red Sox tenure before it began, but it ended his well-traveled career.

While Michael’s playing career was unremarkable, it was after his playing days that he established his genius in the game. Michael’s intelligence had always impressed George Steinbrenner, who hired him as a coach and then as a manager, before making him a part of the front office. He then spent some time as manager with the Cubs, where he was criticized by Dallas Green for not being tough enough, before coming back to New York. In the early 1990s, the downtrodden Yankees, having hit one of the worst stretches in their history, turned the task of rebuilding the franchise over to Michael.

As a general manager, Michael didn’t bring much flash or showmanship. With his extremely deep voice and chopped manner of speaking, he wasn’t particularly engaging in interview settings; in some ways, he was the antithesis of Billy Beane (or Brad Pitt). While Michael didn’t know much about glitz or self-promoting, he knew what he was doing in putting a team together, while still emphasizing the Sabermetric principles of on-base percentage and defensive range. He placed an emphasis on player development, which included the drafting or signing of such cornerstone players as Pettitte, Mariano Rivera, Jorge Posada and Derek Jeter. He patiently waited for the right trade to come his way. On Election Day 1992, he made his signature move by trading Roberto Kelly to the Reds for Paul O’Neill. The trade changed the look of the lineup, while bringing an intensity, a property that had been sorely missing, to the Yankee clubhouse.

It’s unfortunate that Michael was fired as GM before he could see the benefits of his labors. The 1994 strike didn’t help matters either. It’s possible the Yankees would have advanced to the Series that ill-fated year, in what turned out to be Stick’s second-to-last season at the helm.

And those who know the game realize the importance that Michael had in laying the foundation for the success of the late 1990s and early 2000s. He deserves credit, just like Cashman and Bob Watson. Not bad for a guy who didn’t see the major leagues until he was 28.

Thankfully, Michael remains part of the Yankee organization today. I feel a lot better about things knowing that Gene “Stick” Michael is still around.

Bruce Markusen writes “Cooperstown Confidential” for The Hardball Times.

[Featured Image Via Linnett Portraits]

Observations From Cooperstown: Bill Hall, Mel Hall, and Jimmie Hall

The Yankees’ rumored interest in free agent utility man Bill Hall is a bit puzzling. Should we interpret that interest as a sign that the Yankees do not believe that Eduardo Nunez can handle the defensive responsibilities of being a utility infielder. Alternatively, is it a signal that the Yankees would like to trade Nunez, perhaps in a deal for a left-handed bat who can fill part of the DH role? To be honest, I’m not sure which of those thought processes are running through the mind of Brian Cashman.

Still, Hall is an interesting player. In 2006, he hit 35 home runs as a starting shortstop and looked like a budding star at the age of 26. Stardom never happened. In 2010, he was a reasonably productive utility man for the Red Sox, filling in around the infield and outfield. Then he signed a free agent contract with the Astros, where he flopped as the team’s everyday second baseman. After being released by the ‘Stros, the Giants took a flier on him, but watched him hit a mere .158 in 38 late-season at-bats.

Now 32 years old, Hall will never be a 30-home run man again, that’s for sure. But if he can revert back to the player of 2010, a versatile player who can play three infield positions and all three outfield positions while hitting with some pop, he’s be a useful guy to have. If not, if his 2011 numbers are an indication of his true current ability, then the Yankees will have to tread lightly here. If they sign Hall and trade Nunez, there may not be a safety net available in the event of a Hall breakdown.

When you’re a baseball fan, it’s funny how the mind works. When I hear the name “Hall,” I think of the Hall of Fame, and I think of past Yankees with the same last name. The Yankees have not had a player named Hall since the now-infamous Mel Hall, who was one of the team’s bright spots during the fallow years of the early 1990s. Hall played hard, pounded right-handed pitching, and delivered his fair share of clutch hits, but then he took some “hazing” of a young Bernie Williams to ridiculous extremes, driving the young outfielder to the verge of tears. He repeatedly referred to Williams as “Zero.” When Williams began talking in Hall’s presence, the veteran outfielder chided him by yelling, “Shut up, Zero.” Why this treatment was allowed to go on unchecked remains one of the great mysteries in Yankee history.

Hall also failed to make friends with the front office when he brought his two pet cougars–yes, a pair of pet cougars–into the Yankee clubhouse without warning, creating a mild panic in the process.

Yet, the hazing and the cougar incident pale in comparison to Hall’s post-career problems. Hall is currently sitting in a federal prison, where he will remain until he is old and gray because of his repulsive relationship with two underage girls. Hall was convicted of sexual assault; he essentially raped the girls, one of whom was 12 at the time of the relationship. Sentenced in 2009, he will have to serve a minimum of 22 years, or the year 2031, before he is eligible for parole. If he does not gain parole, the total sentence will run 45 years, putting him behind bars until 2054. Hall is 51 now, so that would put him at a ripe old 93 years. So who knows if he’ll even live that long.

There is one other “Hall” that I remember playing for the Yankees. He was Jimmie Hall, a left-handed power hitter of the 1960s. He began his career with a flourish, putting up OPS numbers of better than .800 in his three major league seasons with the Twins. As a rookie, he set a record for most home runs by a first-year player in the American League, busting the mark set by Ted Williams in 1939. He also had the ability to play all three outfield spots, making him particularly valuable toMinnesota.

Apparently on the verge of stardom, Hall then fell off the map. He struggled so badly in 1966 that the Twins traded him to the Angels. Some say his early decline was the result of being hit in the head with a pitch. Others pointed to his inability to handle left-handed pitching. And then there were those who felt that he was done in by the changes to the strike zone that hurt so many hitters during the mid-to-late sixties, when the second deadball era set in.

By the time that Jimmie Hall joined the Yankees, he was a fragment of the player who had once torn through the American League. The Yankees acquired him early in the 1969 season, picking him up from the Indians in a straight cash deal. Hall came to the plate 233 times for the Yankees, but hit just three home runs and reached base only 29 per cent of the time. Even in a deadball era, those numbers didn’t suffice.

Hall didn’t last the season in theBronx. On September 11, the Yankees dealt Hall to the Cubs for two players with wonderfully opposite names, minor league pitcher Terry Bongiovanni and outfielder Rick Bladt. If you remember either of those players, give yourself a cigar.

So that’s it for the Yankees’ legacy of Halls. Mel and Jimmie. If the Yankees end up signing Bill Hall, we can only hope that he’ll be a better player than Jimmie and a better man than Mel.

Bruce Markusen writes “Cooperstown Confidential” for The Hardball Times.

Observations From Cooperstown: Ibanez, Mike Stanley, and Burnett

So who will be the Yankees’ designated hitter? The first DH name that came up in the aftermath of the Jesus Montero trade was Carlos Pena. But he wanted too much money for the Yankees’ liking and returned to Tampa Bay. The second name belonged to Johnny Damon, who instead expressed an interest in returning toDetroit, only to see the Tigers sign Prince Fielder to that ridiculous nine-year contract. So Damon is still in play for the Yankees, at least for the moment. Next up on the list is former Phillie, Mariner, and Royal Raul Ibanez, who is also a free agent. My reaction to the possibility of Ibanez becoming a Yankee? Don’t touch this guy with a ten-foot bat, corked or otherwise.

Ibanez is a native New Yorker, a good guy with a strong clubhouse reputation, and a left-handed hitter with power, so it’s only natural that his name would come up in connection with the Yankees. But that’s where the interest should begin and end. At one time, Ibanez was a fine hitter with the Royals and Mariners, capable of slugging at or near .500. Those days are over. He’s 39, hit only 20 home runs last year despite playing in a hitter’s playground, and slugged a mere .419. His on-base percentage was more strikingly worse, a meager .289. This guy’s not a lefty DH. He’s barely even a good pinch-hitting candidate at this point in his career.

With Ibanez, there’s no consolation coming from his defensive play. Though he spent the last three years playing left field for the Phillies, his fielding is–and always has been–atrocious. There’s a video somewhere on the Internet from a game in which Ibanez is playing for the Mariners against the Yankees. After he fields a ground ball down the left field line, Ibanez attempts to throw the ball back toward the infield, but he instead accidentally spikes the ball, which travels a few feet to the right and straight down to the ground. Video records are incomplete, but it may be the worst throw in the history of major league baseball.

Of course, that play represented Ibanez at his worst, but his general level of fielding acumen ranks somewhere between bad and poor. For his career, TotalZone puts him minus 5 for his play in left field, a ranking that matches his awful reputation. As a point of comparison, former Yankee Marcus Thames has a career TotalZone of minus three. So, by this rating, Ibanez is even worse than Thames, a frightening proposition. Yikes.

So other than DH, there’s no where to play Ibanez without risking further embarrassment. And if he’s not good enough as a hitter to be a DH, then there should be no role for him on the 2012 Yankees…

***

In assessing the great catchers of Yankee lore last week, I discussed Jorge Posada and Thurman Munson while referencing Elston Howard, Yogi Berra, and Bill Dickey. Though he was neither a particularly strong defensive player nor a longtime Yankee, I should have included at least a footnote mention of Mike Stanley. In terms of pure offense, Stanley was one of the best catchers the Yankees have ever had, putting up OPS numbers of .800, .923, .929, and .841 from 1992 to 1995. In 1993, he even received some votes in the MVP balloting. Stanley’s emergence as the No. 1 catcher coincided with the Yankees’ return to glory in the mid-1990s.

Why have we forgotten Stanley so quickly? Unfortunately, he didn’t join the Yankees until he was 29, the result of one of Gene Michael’s prudent free agent signings. He played four full seasons in New York, left when the Yankees acquired Joe Girardi, spent a year and a half with the Red Sox, and then returned to the Yankees as a DH for the tail-end of 1997. As a matter of bad luck, he missed the Yankees’ 1996 title while in Boston, and was not brought back for the world championship season of 1998. The end result was zero titles for Stanley.

The emergence of Posada over the last decade and a half also made it easier to overlook the prior contributions of Stanley. But Stanley was a very good player, a right-handed hitter with power who had a terrific opposite field stroke, and brought the kind of patient, grinding style at the plate that became a hallmark of the Yankees in the mid to late-1990s. He wasn’t Posada and he wasn’t Munson, but Stanley was an important part of the Yankee turnaround, and that makes him an important part of franchise history…

***

A few Yankee fans have asked me which of their bottom-of-the-rotation starters will be traded between now and Opening Day. I don’t think it will be Phil Hughes, if only because the Yankees would be trading him while his value is so low. This Yankee administration hasn’t forgotten that Hughes was once their top prospect, and the front office would love nothing better than to see Hughes report to spring training in good shape and take aim on the potential that he seemed to be tapping two years ago. I also don’t think that the Yankees will trade Garcia, who is probably the one pitcher best suited to serving as a long man/spot starter. Nothing seems to phase “The Chief,” so I’d expect he’d handle the Dick Tidrow/Ray Burris/Ramiro Mendoza role without a hitch.

That leaves A.J. Burnett, who still has two years to go on that nonsensical contract and continues to be Yankee fans’ greatest source of frustration. Is Burnett tradeable? Sure, anyone is, assuming that the Yankees pick up enough of his contract. But I do get the feeling that Brian Cashman will want something tangible in return, whether it’s a lefty DH or a utility infielder. If the Yankees eat something like 80 per cent of the $33 million owed to Burnett, then Cashman will expect a player in return, and not just some 25-year-old middle reliever pitching in Class-A ball.

There have been suggestions of a swap sending Burnett to the Cubs for Alfonso Soriano, but there is a problem with that. Soriano has three years remaining on his monstrosity of a contract, meaning that the Yankees would have to commit an extra year compared to the two years left on the Burnett deal. Soriano also happens to be a right-handed hitter, making a platoon with Andruw Jones a bit unfeasible.

Still, there may be a deal out there somewhere. At the right price, a team might just think that it can fix A.J. Burnett.

Bruce Markusen was born on January 30. Hey, that’s today!

[Drawing by Larry Roibal]

Observations From Cooperstown: Posada, Pineda, and Pena

Jorge Posada still hasn’t made his decision official, but it’s become common knowledge that he has decided to retire rather than continue his career as a backup catcher in Tampa Bay, Baltimore, or Philadelphia. While I would never begrudge a player who wanted to prolong his career as much as possible, there is some artistic symmetry in Posada beginning and ending his playing days in the same place.

Posada represents the latest in a long line of great Yankee catchers, a succession that began with Bill Dickey before continuing with Yogi Berra, Elston Howard, and Thurman Munson. Dickey and Berra are members of the Hall of Fame, Howard and Munson are not, and Posada will become the focal point of what should be an interesting five-year debate over his worthiness for the Hall of Fame.

The comparison of Posada and Munson has long fascinated me. Based strictly on OPS (.848 to .756), one would conclude that Posada was the superior of the two. Posada certainly had more career value, thanks to luck and longevity. But using an eyeball approach–assuming you’re old enough to have seen both players–Munson was the better player, especially when you factor in the areas of fielding and baserunning.

As much as I like Munson, he just didn’t have the career longevity that is needed for a Hall of Fame player. I would also vote “no” on Posada’s entrance into Cooperstown, though I’m open to change my mind. The relatively late start to his career, along with his defensive deficiencies and baserunning misadventures, render him just short of my personal Hall of Fame line. But that should not be interpreted as some kind of insult. Any player who is even considered for the Hall of Fame is a player of achievement, a player of longevity, a player who is worthy of praise and appreciation. Posada’s offensive excellence—encompassing his ability to hit with power, draw walks, and do damage from both sides of the plate–made him a modern day version of Ted Simmons.

And let’s not forget that early in his career, Posada was a respectable receiver who generally developed good rapport with his pitchers. For every A.J. Burnett, there have been dozens of pitchers who came to trust and rely on Posada’s enthusiasm, passion, and leadership abilities. By all accounts, Posada has been a good and well-liked teammate who has blended well with the vast array of personalities the Yankees have had over the last 15 years.

Posada’s career path is rather remarkable given its origins. It’s worth noting that he was not a highly touted player when first signed by the Yankees. He was a 24th round selection in 1990. He started his professional career as a second baseman with the Oneonta Yankees, a short-season Class-A franchise in the NY-Penn League, before someone in the organization had the foresight to convert him to catcher. When the Yankees first brought him to the major leagues, they often used him as a pinch-runner. It’s almost as if the Posada of the 1990s was someone else, some alien life form who possessed the powers of self-transformation. I guess his makeover is proof that players are adaptable, than they can evolve, and that a longshot can become a success in the game of major league baseball.

Farewell, Jorge. Next stop, Old-Timers Day. I think you’ll be pretty popular that day.

***

I think I’ve been as big a booster of Jesus Montero as anyone who writes for The Banter, so you might expect that I’d be unhappy with the trade that sent him and Hector Noesi to the Mariners for Michael Pineda and Jose Campos. Granted, I’m a little disappointed that I won’t have the opportunity to see Montero play every day in pinstripes, primarily because I think he is going to be a star hitter, the kind of player who will hit .300, slug .500, and carry a team’s offense for days at a time.

As much as I like Montero, I love the trade. Scouts praise Pineda the way I rave about Montero. At six-feet, seven inches and 260 pounds, he’s been described as a “monster,” even as a “leviathan,” which may be the first time I’ve heard that word used to refer to a ballplayer. (He looks like a bigger version of Lee Smith, if such a thing is possible.) With his 95 to 98 mile-an-hour fastball and bone snapping slider, Pineda makes mitts pops and heads turn.

If Pineda duplicates the way he pitched for the Mariners, particularly over the first half of the season, the Yankees have a perfectly formidable No. 2 starter. If he adds a third pitch to his repertoire and pitches to a reachable higher level, he becomes a full-fledged No. 1 starter, someone who can eventually wrestle with CC Sabathia for the mythical top spot of the Yankee rotation.

As a bonus, the trade with the Mariners also netted Campos, whom some scouts project to be better than Pineda. With his smooth delivery and live fastball, the 19-year

-old right-hander will start the season at Single-A ball, but could move up to Double-A by midsummer.

While the Yankees often deal prospects for established veterans, they don’t often make trades where they deal young talent for young talent. In fact, I can’t remember Cashman making this sort of transaction in the past. This deal reminds me of the 1978 trade in which the Yankees traded Mike Heath, a highly touted young catcher, to the Rangers for a power-throwing left-hander named Dave Righetti. (The deal also included a longtime veteran in Sparky Lyle, but Heath and the three other prospects going to Texas were really the keys to the trade.) Righetti became a serviceable starter before Yogi Berra made the controversial and still-debated decision to move “Rags” to the bullpen, where he had some level of success but never became a dominant closer.

I think Pineda will turn out to be a better pitcher than Righetti. He’ll need to stay healthy, and have some luck along the way, but I think his chances of success are pretty good. With Pineda and the bonus addition of free agent Hiroki Kuroda, the Yankees now have their deepest rotation since the days of Clemens, Pettitte, Mussina and Wells…

***

As with any trade, the Pineda deal leads to the inevitable question: what is the next move? The subtraction of Montero leaves the Yankees without a DH. Joe Girardi has said he wants to rotate some of his resting veterans into the DH slot, but that’s not a fulltime proposition that can be sustained through 162 games. There will be plenty of days when the Yankees will want–make that, need–a proper DH who can put up some raw numbers. Two free agent candidates appear to be at the top of the list. They are Johnny Damon and Carlos Pena.

I’d be fine with either one on a reasonable one-year contract, but my preference would be Pena. At 33, he’s five years younger than Damon, outslugged him by 44 points in 2011, and has a history of launching long balls at Yankee Stadium. With 28 home runs and 101 walks for the Cubs in 2011, Pena fits the Yankee offensive blueprint to a tee.

Pena can no longer hit for much of an average, and he must be platooned, because he’s become like Oscar Gamble against left-handed pitching. The Yankees have a solution for that in the re-signed Andruw Jones, whose prowess against left-handed pitching has been well documented. A Jones/Pena platoon would be an ideal fit for the seventh position in the Yankee batting order.

On the other hand, Damon still has something to offer. He can hit the long ball (16 home runs) and can still steal a base (19 stolen bases in 2011). He would bring more of a contract presence to the lineup, an ingredient that was sometimes missing in 2011. And we know that Damon would have no trouble fitting into the clubhouse dynamic or dealing with the New York City press.

Damon or Pena, which is your choice?

[Photo Credit: Seattle Mariners Musings]

Bruce Markusen writes “Cooperstown Confidential” for The Hardball Times and can be found from time to time on Facebook.

Color by Numbers: How Do You Spell Relief?

Milestones are usually defining moments in a player’s career. In many cases, the achievement and performer become synonymous. Pete Rose and hits, Barry Bonds and home runs, and Nolan Ryan and strikeouts are examples of players being permanently linked to the records they hold. However, when Mariano Rivera passes Trevor Hoffman on the all-time saves list, it will be nothing more than footnote because, in this instance, the man is so much bigger than the milestone.

Breakdown of Mariano Rivera’s 600 Saves

Source: Baseball-reference.com

Six hundred saves is not an insignificant accomplishment. The longevity and consistency required to reach the plateau are attributes that not many relievers possess, but in the case of Rivera, such traits are woefully inadequate when it comes to defining his greatness. After all, the Yankees’ closer has done more than just compile saves over a long career. He has dominated at every step along the way.

Pitchers Who Most Benefited from Rivera’s Save Total

Winning Pitcher #
Andy Pettitte 68
Mike Mussina 49
Roger Clemens 35
Orlando Hernandez 32
David Wells 25
Chien-Ming Wang 24
Ramiro Mendoza 23
David Cone 20
Mike Stanton 17
CC Sabathia 16

Source: Baseball-reference.com

So, if not saves, what is the best way to measure Mariano Rivera’s success as a reliever? If you are a pitcher like Andy Pettitte or Mike Mussina, a handful of extra wins would be a good place to start. Opponents could probably start with the sinking feeling that comes when Enter Sandman begins to play, but for those who prefer a more tangible metric, the forest full of broken bats created by Rivera’s cutter would suffice. For the Yankees’ organization, an extra championship or two seems like an appropriate yard stick, especially when you consider his 0.71 ERA in 140 post season innings. Finally, many Yankees’ fans can probably translate Rivera’s success into lower blood pressure readings and better overall mental health. Forget the sweaty palms, pounding hearts, and upset stomachs. In 552 of his 600 saves, Rivera pitched a scoreless frame, and in 341, he didn’t even surrender a single hit. Ball game over.

Rivera’s Overall Performance in Saves

G IP H ER ERA BB K P/IP Strk %
600 636 2/3 358 47 0.66 95 578 14.2 69%

Source: Baseball-reference.com

Although some closers have approached Rivera’s level for a year or two, none have remained on that plateau for a prolonged period of time. Even Trevor Hoffman, whose record Rivera will soon break, shrinks under the scrutiny of a side-by-side analysis. In many ways, comparing Rivera to his peers only serves to illustrate the degree to which he stands alone. As Sparky Anderson might say, “you don’t ever compare anybody to Mariano Rivera. Don’t never embarrass nobody by comparing them to Mariano Rivera”.

Tale of the Tape: Hoffman vs. Rivera

Source: Baseball-reference.com and fangraphs.com

There is no one way to measure Mariano Rivera’s greatness. Even his failures speak of success. So throw out the numbers and just sit back and enjoy. For over 1,000 games, the great Yankees’ closer has been second to none, and, for all we know, the best may still be yet to come.

Color by Numbers: See You in September

For minor leaguers, September 1 is like the day after high school tryouts when you check the list on the gymnasium wall to see if you made the team. After being confined to only 25 men, the active rosters expand to 40 once the calendar turns from August, allowing for reinforcements from the minors. Dating back as far as the beginning of the last century (the concept was based upon a delicate business arrangement with what was then the independent minor leagues), this tradition of promoting serviceable journeymen and/or promising young prospects marks not only a rite of passage for the players finally getting a crack at the big leagues, but also heralds the final month of the pennant race.

This year, the Yankees announced that their lone September call-up will be Jesus Montero, a 22 year-old catcher who ranks among the best prospects in the game. Although many September promotions are regarded more as a chance to give a young player a taste of the major leagues, Montero is expected to play a significant role for the Yankees as they head down the stretch. There has even been some speculation that Montero will take over as the Yankees’ DH against left handers.

Whatever role he plays, the promotion of Montero is a bit of a departure for the Yankees, who have not had a position player make a September debut since 2008. In addition, the team has not had a raw rookie compile more than 25 plate appearances in the final month since Gerald Williams came to bat 27 times in 1992. So, if Montero does in fact see regular playing time, he will distinguish himself in that regard.

Yankees’ September Call-Ups, Since 1919

Note: Only those players making their major league debut in September are considered. Years without call-ups are omitted.
Source: Baseball-reference.com

Of the 84 position players that the Yankees have promoted for the first time in September, only 17 have had more than 25 plate appearances. With a few notable exceptions like Roy White, Bobby Murcer, and Hank Bauer, not many from the list went on to make a lasting impression. In fact, only a handful made much of a first one. Included in the latter group is the aforementioned Williams, who posted an OPS of 1.000. Meanwhile, on the other end of the spectrum, is Charlie Spikes, who managed an OPS of .348 in his September call-up. However, Spikes made up for his lackluster debut during the off season when he was traded as part of package that helped the Yankees acquire Graig Nettles from the Indians.

What makes Montero’s promotion different from most in the above list is the Yankees’ place in the standings. Aside from Hank Bauer in 1948 (1.5 games behind) and Fenton Mole in 1949 (three games ahead), all of the prior September call-ups were given their shot when the team was playing out the string (i.e., seven or more games out of a playoff spot).

Yankees’ September Call-Ups with At Least 25 PAs, since 1919
Source: Baseball-reference.com

Just because the Yankees haven’t had much of a meaningful impact from their position player call-ups is no reason to despair. After all, the team has promoted several impact players who were only given a September cup of coffee. Included on that list is Yogi Berra, Don Mattingly, and Jorge Posada, so if Montero falls in line, the Yankees should be more than happy.

Notable by their exclusion from the call-up list this year are Manny Banuelos and Dellin Betances, the two most heralded pitching prospects in the Yankees’ farm system. Once again, that’s mostly par for the course in the Bronx as only seven Yankees’ pitchers have made their major league debut in September since 1992. However, that doesn’t mean the team hasn’t had rookies make an impact on the pennant race. Mel Stottlemyre and Joba Chamberlain are two examples to the contrary, but each was promoted before the final month. When confined to September, there haven’t been many notable additions.

Yankees’ September Call-Ups with At Least 3 GS/15 IP, since 1919

Source: Baseball-reference.com

Once again, with the exception of Walter Beall in 1924 (one game behind) and Ian Kennedy in 2007 (five games behind), if a Yankees’ pitcher was given a significant look in September, it was done at a time when the team wasn’t competing for the post season. Among those with at least three games started or 15 innings pitched in their September debut, the most notable call-ups were Vic Rashi, Al Leiter, Dave Righetti, and Kennedy. It’s also worth noting that both Righetti and Stan Bahnsen won the rookie of the year award two years after their initial September call-up.

Montero’s ascension to the major leagues has been long awaited by Yankees’ fans, so expectations are bound to exceed reason. Nonetheless, the young catcher has a chance to make a rare September contribution for a Yankees’ team in pursuit of a championship. More importantly, however, the Yankees hope their wunderkind will do much more than help out this year. After all, making it the majors is often said to be the easy part for the most talented players. Remaining there is another story. A look at the Yankees’ past September call-ups illustrates that often repeated adage. That’s why what Montero does in his first month will be nowhere near as important as the impact the Yankees hope he will have over the rest of his career.

Color By Numbers: Who Wants Pie?

Entering this week’s series against the Athletics, the Yankees had a dominating 26-5 record against Oakland since 2008. Perhaps that’s why it seemed inevitable that the Bronx Bombers would rally to win each of the first two games. At least that’s how it must have felt to the Athletics. However, in both games, the comeback fell short, which gave Oakland consecutive wins against the Yankees for the first time since July 1, 2007.

The Yankees’ lack of late game heroics against the Athletics echoes a season long trend. Despite having the American League’s second best record and compiling statistics that rank among franchise highs in several categories, one area in which the Yankees have come up short (in some cases, as on Tuesday night, literally by inches) is in games played close and late. Under those conditions, the team’s current OPS+ of 107 would rank near the bottom since 1996, and lag, in some cases significantly, every championship season during that time period.

Yankees’ OPS+ in Close & Late vs. Winning Percentage When Tied or Trailing in the 7th Inning or Later

Source: baseball-reference.com

Because of the small samples involved, it’s hard to draw a meaningful conclusion about the future from this one split. However, looking back, we can probably conclude that the Yankees failure to produce late in games has cost them a few comeback victories. In fact, the team’s current winning percentage of .204 when tied or trailing entering the seventh inning is one of the lowest since 1996. When you consider that the Yankees’ bullpen leads the league in ERA and WAR (and important factor because offense alone demonstrates only a slight correlation to winning percentage in this split), the onus seems to fall squarely on the relative lack of late-game offensive production.

Yankees’ Walk-off Victories, Since 1950

Source: baseball-reference.com

Regardless of the implications of the Yankees’ muted offensive levels in close and late situations, whether looking forward or back, the team’s inability to finish off comebacks has robbed the season of one important element: the fun and excitement of the walk-off victory. To this point, the Yankees have left the opposition on the field in only three games, which pales in comparison to the 15 walk-offs recorded just two years ago. Although dramatic victories are not a pre-requisite for winning championships, they do provide enjoyable highlights over a long 162-game schedule. After all, anything that has Yankees’ fans clamoring to see A.J. Burnett must be pretty special.

Since 1950, the Yankees have had 441 walk-off victories prompted by outcomes ranging from home runs to reaching base on an error (the following pie chart, and what better way to display walk-off data, provides a break down). Just over half have come in the bottom of the ninth, with the rest occurring in extra innings, including one walk-off as late as the 20th frame: Horace Clark’s game winning single against the Red Sox’ Jose Santiago on August 29, 1967. Speaking of the Red Sox, the Yankees have left their rival on the field 57 times, more than any other opponent.

Yankees’ Walk-offs Since 1950, by Event and Opponent (click to enlarge)

Source: baseball-reference.com

Although the terminology wasn’t around at the time, no Yankee has authored more walk-offs than Mickey Mantle, who had 16 game-ending events. Among the current crop of Bronx Bombers, Jorge Posada, Derek Jeter, and Alex Rodriguez also rank in the top-10.

Tippy Martinez remains the Yankees’ most frequent walk-off victim, having surrendered five game-ending hits to the Bronx Bombers, including, most notably, Bobby Murcer’s two run double that cinched victory in the Thurman Munson tribute game. Of particular interest to current Yankees’ fans, Red Sox closer Jonathan Papelbon ranks among the large group of pitchers who have surrendered three Yankees’ walk-offs. Provided he remains in the American League for most of his career, Papelbon could eventually claim the victim’s mantle from Martinez.

Yankees Most Common Walk-off Heroes and Victims, Since 1950

Source: baseball-reference.com

Complaining about the lack of walk-offs from a team with a .600 winning percentage probably won’t sit too well with other teams’ fans, but those who follow the Yankees have grown accustomed to having their pie and eating it too. Besides, even though winning is fun in its own right, doing so in dramatic fashion makes it that much more memorable.

I can still vividly recall Don Mattingly’s game winning home run against Ron Davis on May 13, 1985 as if it happened yesterday. And, I am sure fans of every team can do the same. How about you?

Observations From Cooperstown: Old Timers' Day

Bar none, it’s my favorite promotion on the Yankee calendar. It is “Old-Timers’ Day” and it arrived early this year. For the 65th time in their history, the Yankees officially celebrated their past glory. It is somewhat hard to believe, but Joe Torre and Bernie Williams participated in their first Old-Timers Day, several years after completing iconic careers in the Bronx. Their presence alone made the day special, but I was just as interested in seeing old schoolers like Moose Skowron and Hector Lopez, characters like Oscar Gamble and Joe Pepitone, and even those Yankees who made only cameos in the Bronx, including Cecil Fielder, Lee Mazzilli, and Aaron Small.

More so than any other sport, baseball revels in its ability to celebrate its past. Some would call it nostalgia; I’m more tempted to call it history. No franchise has had more cause to recall its own accomplishments than the Yankees, given the team’s longstanding on-field success, which began with the arrival of Babe Ruth in 1921. So it’s no surprise that the Yankees became the first team to introduce the concept of an Old-Timers’ Day to its promotional calendar.

The Yankees initiated the promotion in the 1930s, though they didn’t actually refer to the event as Old-Timers’ Day. Rather, the tradition began more informally as solitary tributes to retired stars like Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. The salute to Gehrig became the best known of the early Old-Timers affairs. On July 4, 1939, the Yankees staged “Lou Gehrig Day” at Yankee Stadium as a way of paying homage to a legendary player whose career had been cut short by the onset of ALS.

After several former and current Yankees delivered emotional speeches lauding Gehrig as both a player and teammate, the retired first baseman stepped to the microphone. In an eloquently stirring address, Gehrig referred to himself as “the luckiest man on the face of the earth,” full knowing that he had only a short time to live because of the ravages of the disease. (Gehrig would succumb to ALS only two years later, at the age of 37.) At the conclusion of his speech, the capacity crowd responded with deafening applause, signifying its appreciation for an “old-timer” who had met with the unkindest of fates.

Seven years later, the Yankees introduced their first official Old-Timers’ Day to the franchise’s promotional slate. Rather than concentrate the honors on one retired player, the event became a celebration of teamwide accomplishments that had taken place over past years. Inviting a number of the team’s former stars to the Stadium, the Yankees introduced each one over the public address system, with each player acknowledging the applause from the 70,000-plus fans in attendance.

Ever since the 1946 event, the Yankees have held Old-Timers’ Day on an annual basis, always on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon, and usually sometime from mid-July to mid-August. (Other teams followed suit in the 1960s and seventies, particularly older franchises with sufficient history to draw from. Even an expansion franchise like the Mets participated in the tradition by celebrating the New York roots of the Giants and Dodgers.) In the earlier years of the event, the Old-Timers’ Game pitted former Yankees against retired stars from the rest of baseball, with the non-Yankees wearing the opposition uniforms of their most prominent teams. In more recent times, the Yankees have invited only former Yankees to the party, largely because they have so many retired stars from which to choose, some as far back as the 1940s. The retired stars now play a kind of celebrated intra-squad game, pitting the “Bombers” against the “Pinstripes.”

Other than the game itself, the format of Old-Timers’ Day at Yankee Stadium—with an on-field announcer introducing each retired player, who then jogs (or walks) from the dugout to a spot along the foul line—has remained relatively unaltered. Yet, the voices have changed. For years, famed Yankee broadcaster Mel Allen handled the emcee duties exclusively. Standing at a podium behind home plate, Allen introduced each retired player with his stately Southern drawl. Eventually felled by declining health, Allen gave way to the less acclaimed but highly professional Frank Messer, the team’s longtime play-by-play voice who was best known for his on-air partnership with Phil Rizzuto and Bill White. In recent years, radio voice John Sterling and television play-by-play man Michael Kay have shared the announcing chores—a far cry from Allen’s dignified presence at the microphone.

Over the years, Old-Timers’ Day has occasionally managed to overshadow the events of the “real” game played later in the day by the existing version of the Yankees. This has especially been the case during the franchise’s lean years. In 1973, the Yankees staged one of their most elaborate Old-Timers events as part of a 50th anniversary celebration of Yankee Stadium. The front office invited every living member from the 1923 team, the first to play at the Stadium after the relocation from the nearby Polo Grounds. With Gehrig and Ruth long since deceased, the Yankees invited their widows to participate in the ceremony from box seats located along the first base dugout. Mrs. Claire Ruth and Mrs. Eleanor Gehrig, both outfitted in oversized Easter hats, helped bid farewell to the “old” Yankee Stadium, which was slated for massive renovation after the 1973 season. The day became even memorable because of a development in the Old-Timers’ Game that followed; the fabled Mickey Mantle, retired five years earlier, blasted a home run into the left-field stands. The Mick still had some power in his game.

One of the most indelible Old-Timers’ moments occurred only five years later. After the usual introductions of retired players, the Yankees stunningly declared that Billy Martin would return as Yankee manager. Martin had been fired only five days earlier, done in by his damning declaration that “one’s a born liar, and the other’s convicted,” a reference to the duo of Reggie Jackson and George Steinbrenner.

In spite of the omnipresent New York media, the Yankees somehow succeeded in keeping news of Martin’s return a complete secret. There were no whispers, no rumors, no hints in the local newspapers. Having managed to keep the agreement with Martin in tow throughout the morning and early afternoon, the Yankees arranged to have all of their old timers introduced as usual by Allen, clearing out a final announcement for their deposed manager. Explaining that Yankee Stadium public address announcer Bob Sheppard would now deliver a special announcement, Allen turned over the microphone to his announcing counterpart. Maintaining his dignified delivery throughout, Sheppard revealed that Martin would return to the Yankee dugout two years later, in 1980, with recently hired manager Bob Lemon moving up to the front office as general manager. As a gleeful Martin trotted onto the field at a sun-splashed Yankee Stadium, a capacity crowd greeted him with a prolonged standing ovation that was motivated as much by shock as it was by joy.

In terms of dramatic theater, it was as timely and well orchestrated as any announcement I’ve seen during my lifetime as a fan. It showcased Old-Timers’ Day at its best, combining the predictable and orderly splendor of a ceremonial day with an unexpected and newsworthy development that bordered on spontaneity.

We didn’t see that kind of news making event yesterday, but that didn’t make the day any less significant. Seeing former Yankees in uniform, sometimes for the first time in years, is something that will always prompt the goose bumps. If you like and appreciate the history of this franchise, then Old-Timers’ Day remains the one day that cannot be missed.

[Photo Credit: Ron Antoneli, N.Y. Daily News]

Bruce Markusen writes “Cooperstown Confidential” for The Hardball Times.

Beat of the Day

This?

or that?

Beat of the Day

A Brooklyn freestyle for lunch:

Masta Ace’s verse always cracks me up.

Hall and Oats

Your new Hall of Famers:

Roberto Alomar — and (at long last, love) Bert Blyleven.

Barry Larkin’s totals were third-highest, with 62.1% of the vote (short of the 75% needed, but in good shape to get in a few years down the road); Jack Morris managed 53.5%, Lee Smith 45.3% (…seriously?), and Jeff Bagwell 41.7%, so get ready to have that fun discussion all over again next year. You can see the full results over at the BBWAA’s high-tech website of the future.

According to Jay Jaffe’s JAWS system and series of articles over at Baseball Prospectus, there were eight deserving candidates on the ballot this year: Roberto AlomarJeff BagwellBert BlylevenBarry LarkinEdgar MartinezMark McGwireTim Raines, and Alan Trammell. I wasn’t so sure about Raines and Trammell initially, but I’ve completely come around on Rock over the last year and I’m edging towards being convinced on Trammell. It’d help if the guy had a better nickname, which I believe is not a factor JAWS takes into consideration, but it really ought to be. That’s something I’ll have to bring up with Jay, and I won’t have to wait long because he’s chatting live over at BP this very moment.

For those of you who are sick of reading and debating about the Hall of Fame, exhale. For those who aren’t, have at it in the comments. What would your ballot look like?

Beat of the Day

Eh, Sacramento is close enough to the Bay Area for me…

Bonus Beats…

Feel the vibe.

Too Close to the Sun?

Hard to imagine the Giants beating Roy Halladay twice–and to go to the Whirled Serious? Just don’t see it. But then again, they’ve got the Freak on their side so it’s not out of the question by any stretch. Anything can happen and often does.

I’ll be listening on the radio because I’ve got Cablevision and Fox is blocked-out.

Let’s Go Base-ball.

Straight out the Bay Area…

Beat of the Day

First things first…

Beat of the Day

Don’t you worry…

Spit it Out

Over at the Pinstriped Bible, Cliff, Steven and Stephani say Bring on the Rangers. Jay’s like, nah, bring on the Twins.

Nine Days Old…

Saturday Morning Melodies…

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