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Tag: Tom Verducci

The Illest

Man, every time I hear the name “Joey Votto” I think of Bob Sheppard.

Over at SI.com, Tom Verducci makes the case for Votto being the best hitter in the game:

I could throw a gazillion other numbers at you to help define the wizardry of Votto, but I like these three best:

• Votto has not popped up to the infield all season. In fact, he has popped out to the infield only three times in 2,138 plate appearances over the
past four seasons.

• The average NL hitter bats .198 when he is behind in the count. Votto hits .300 when he is behind in the count.

• Votto has pulled a ball foul into the stands only once in his entire major league career. Once.

“Sure, I remember it,” he said. “It was my rookie year. It wasn’t that deep — and maybe 20, 30 feet foul. I haven’t hit a long home run foul in my whole career.”

I was stunned when Votto told me that. We were talking about pull hitting last Friday because I was intrigued that he had not hit a home run to rightfield all year. (Lo and behold, he smacked a Wandy Rodriguez breaking ball into the rightfield seats about two hours later.) I told him I’ve noticed that he almost never gets out on his front foot with the barrel well in front of the plate — a mistake of timing that often creates the empty drama of the majestic but worthless foul “home run.” And that’s when he told me he never has hit one of those crowd teasers.


Waiting on a Milestone

Last week, Tom Verducci profiled Derek Jeter in SI:

“In all my years playing with him,” says Paul O’Neill, Jeter’s teammate from 1995 through 2001, “I don’t think I ever heard him have one technical discussion about the mechanics of hitting. He keeps it simple. He just plays. It’s like he’s still playing high school baseball.”

…”I worked on staying inside the ball in the minor leagues and pretty much every offseason in Tampa with [coach] Gary Denbo,” Jeter says. “But he didn’t teach it to me. That’s just how it was: Keep my hands inside the ball. It’s still the same thing. A lot of people stay inside the ball, but I don’t know about to that extreme.”

Jeter’s hands-in approach relies on making contact with the ball so late—farther in its flight path—that he can hit even inside pitches to the opposite field with authority. Entering this season, on pitches he hit to rightfield, Jeter had a .479 average and a .718 slugging percentage.

“All these years he’s stayed true to what he does best,” O’Neill says. “He had a year or two where he started to gain some strength and turned on some balls, but for the most part he is an example of taking something you do that is good and making it great. In a time when there was pressure in baseball to hit more home runs, he never caved in to that.”

It’s a defensive-looking swing. Jeter hasn’t changed his approach all these years and shortly after he returns from the disabled list he’ll reach 3,000 hits. We’ll be there cheering him on.

[Photo Credit: Sports Illustrated]

Basic Training

Kevin Long is a busy man. Over at SI.com,  Tom Verducci has a piece on the work Derek Jeter will do with the Yankees’ hitting coach in the coming weeks:

“I feel like Derek always has been the type of player who cares about winning instead of the numbers,” Long said. “I think the contract probably caused him to think more about numbers than he otherwise would want to. It probably did affect his performance.

“Listen, he’s human, just like anybody else. A lot of guys try real hard, and when they don’t get results they try even harder. And sometimes the harder you try the more you fail.”

[Photo Credit: Life Magazine]

Yankee Panky: Book Review

Tom Verducci’s “The Yankee Years” caused a tremendous stir in spring training, when the tabloids got hold of it and railed Joe Torre for allegedly violating the cardinal rule of keeping clubhouse events in the clubhouse. YES Network fired Verducci from “Yankees Hot Stove” for the way he portrayed the Yankees’ front office in the book, and he was put on the spot by numerous outlets, including our own Alex Belth in an SI.com Q&A.

I finally got around to reading the book, and I wholly disagree with the negative criticism heaped upon Torre, Verducci and the book earlier in the year. It’s not an “as told to” story, as Alex points out. It reads like a well-researched textbook on the Yankees from 1995 to 2007, with notes and observations by a reporter who had been there through all of it. The anecdotes from the Yankee manager of the time, as well as former players, coaches and staffers enrich the context of the story.

As a Yankee fan, I almost think you have to read this book to gain an understanding of the teams of the YES Network era and just how tough a job Joe Torre had, and how difficult it was to pull those 2005, ’06 and ’07 teams into the playoffs after what they went through those years.

Was there information I knew already? Certainly. The details of Bernie Williams’ near move to the Red Sox and Andy Pettitte’s near trade in 1998, the Roger Clemens trade in 1999 and the components of the dynasty breaking up following the Game 7 loss of the 2001 World Series have been recounted in numerous books this decade, most notably in Buster Olney’s “The Last Night of the Yankee Dynasty.” Moreover, covering the team from 2002 through ’06, Torre would tell the local press corps some of the anecdotes Verducci recalled in the book, like the fan in Tampa during Spring Training of 2002 telling him, “Don’t worry Joe. We’ll get ’em this year,” and his fondness for Pettitte, given the way he stepped up in Game 5 of the ’96 World Series, out-dueling John Smoltz. I got to see the best and worst of David Wells’ second tour of duty, Jeff Weaver (Torre said the day of Weaver’s introductory press conference: “That kid will be leading the parade here some day.”), Gary Sheffield, Randy Johnson, Kevin Brown, and of course, Carl Pavano, and Jason Giambi, Johnny Damon and A-Rod’s brain cramps in the clutch and Chien-Ming Wang’s inability to handle being the ace of the staff.

For me, the most revealing quotes came from bullpen catcher Mike Borzello, who was the key source on the “A-Fraud” items, and Mike Mussina, who was great because he presented the point of view as an outsider to those championship Yankee teams. He acknowledged the greatness of Mariano Rivera but looked back on three games: Game 7 of ’01, and Games 4 and 5 in Boston in ’04, and wondered why and how he blows those three games? It sounded selfish at first, but if you were in the same spot, how would you have answered? I came away from this with a different level of respect for Moose. His insight helped shape the book.

The stories of the emotional toll dealing with Management took on Torre over the last three years of his tenure got me thinking about his current situation in Los Angeles. He has a similar makeup to what he had in 1996 and ’97. A good mix of veteran free agents like Manny Ramirez, Orlando Hudson and Rafael Furcal, and young players like Russell Martin, James Loney, Matt Kemp and Andre Ethier, and an even younger pitching staff figuring out how to win. But beyond that, the loyalty of the coaches he brought with him shifted as well. The way Verducci portrays Larry Bowa and Don Mattingly and their places in the coaching hierarchy during Torre’s last few years on the job, it’s easy to see why they followed him to L.A.

Why bring this up at this juncture of the season? The Yankees clawed back to sniff first place and had a chance to hold or share first place and had a chance to sweep the Angels in Anaheim. The makeup of the team, particularly Joba Chamberlain’s place on it, is under heavy scrutiny. It’s looking like a repeat of the last four years, only with a greater sense of impending doom because the Yankees’ run of 13 consecutive playoff appearances ended, while Torre’s didn’t.

If it happens again, Verducci might want to consider a similar book for Mr. Girardi.

Yankee Panky: Paralysis By Analysis?

The past 10 days have seen an immense range of stories leapfrog to the forefront of New York sports fans’ collective consciousness. In no particular order, with some analysis and commentary mixed in…

• The Yankees slashed prices for the primo seats, an altruistic move that still leaves many of us thinking, “You know, you have your own network, and it’s on my cable system. I’ll contribute to your bottom line that way and I won’t feel like I got stabbed in the wallet.”

• Alex Rodriguez did everything necessary in extended spring training and returned to the lineup Friday. He punctuated the return with a home run on the first pitch he saw, thus fulfilling his job as the media-anointed savior of the team’s season. He proceeded to go 1-for-10 with two strikeouts in the remainder of the series, and perhaps fearing aggravating the hip injury, didn’t hustle down the line to run out a ground ball, thus reclaiming his role as the team’s most prominent punching bag.

• The Yankees lost two straight to the Red Sox at home and have lost the first five meetings of the season. (Sound the alarms! Head for the hills! There’s no way the Yankees can win the division without beating the Red Sox! Except that they can, and they have. In 2004, the Yankees went 1-6 in their first seven games against the BoSox, ended up losing the season series 8-11 and still finished 101-61 to win the American League East by three games.)

• Joba Chamberlain 1: His mother was arrested for allegedly selling crystal meth to an undercover officer. Following Chamberlain’s own brushes with the law during the offseason, it stood to reason that the tabloids attacked this story like starving coyotes. It’s remarkable that he was able to pitch at all given the negative attention he received.

• Joba Chamberlain 2: Flash back to Aug. 13, 2007. Chamberlain struck out Orioles first baseman Aubrey Huff in a crucial late-inning at-bat to end the inning and in the heat of the moment pumped his fist in exultation. Yesterday, following a three-run home run in the first inning that gave the O’s a 3-1 lead, Huff mocked Chamberlain’s emotional outburst with his own fist pump, first while rounding first base, and again when crossing home plate. Apparently, Mr. Huff holds grudges. Thanks to the New York Daily News’s headline, “MOCKING BIRD” with a photo of the home-plate celebration, this story will have wings when Baltimore comes to the Bronx next week. Even better, as it currently stands, Chamberlain is due to start in the series finale on Thursday the 21st. Get ready for a rash of redux stories leading up to that game.

• Mariano Rivera surrendered back-to-back home runs for the first time in his career last Wednesday night, a clear signal that something is wrong. Maybe.

• The team as a whole. The Yankees are 15-16 through 31 games, and some rabid fans (the “Spoiled Set,” as Michael Kay likes to call them; the group of fans between ages 18-30 that only knows first-place finishes for the Yankees) are calling for Joe Girardi’s head. As in the above note on the Red Sox, some context is required. The Yankees’ records through 31 games this decade:

2000: 22-9 (finished 87-74, won AL East)
2001: 18-13 (finished 95-65, won AL East)
2002: 18-13 (finished 103-58, won AL East)
2003: 23-8 (finished 101-61, won AL East)
2004: 18-13 (finished 101-61, won AL East)
2005: 12-19 (finished 95-67, won AL East)
2006: 19-12 (finished 97-65, won AL East)
2007: 15-16 (finished 94-68, won AL Wild Card)
2008: 15-16 (finished 89-73, missed playoffs)
2009: 15-16 (finish TBD)

No one is going to make excuses for the team with the billion dollar stadium and the highest payroll, least of all your trusted scribes here at the Banter. Looking at the last three years — including 2009 — it should be noted that similar issues of injury, age, and woes throughout the pitching staff have befallen the Yankees.


Yankee Panky: The Writes of Spring

The last week of March signals the beginning of the regular season like light at the end of a tunnel. In Florida, beat writers and their backups, many of whom have been stationed there since the beginning of February, are gathering the final roster notes and putting the finishing touches on their season preview specials for next Sunday’s paper, while the columnists, most of whom are based in New York, continue to track the off-field news and craft profiles of the key players involved in those scenarios.

It’s an exciting and stressful time for all the moving parts of a baseball operation, from the team itself to the media outlets covering the team, but if you work in sports and if baseball is the sport in which you’ve chosen to specialize, it’s the best stress you can have outside of being involved in the postseason.

Much has been made of Joe Girardi’s decision to flip Derek Jeter and Johnny Damon in the batting order. Much was written about this topic in the winter and spring leading up to the 2006 season, Damon’s first in pinstripes. At the Baseball Writers Association of America dinner in December of 2005, I remember asking SI’s Tom Verducci, who is a proponent of Sabermetric analysis, what he thought about putting Jeter in the leadoff spot. He agreed that the combination of Jeter’s ability to get on base more consistently (he was coming off a year with a .389 OBP to Damon’s .366), and Gary Sheffield batting third—which would have kept the righty-lefty-righty element in play that Joe Torre favored—made Jeter the better choice for the leadoff spot. But that spring, when the writers asked Torre about his plan, the Yankee manager was undeterred about keeping Damon as the leadoff hitter. Torre, in his way, usually deflected the discussion by saying, “You only have to worry about the leadoff batter for the first inning. Then the rest of the lineup takes care of itself.” It was as if the decision was predetermined from the moment Damon signed with the Yankees.

What we know as baseball fans is that the numbers rarely lie. Jeter’s lowest seasonal on-base percentage pre-Damon was .352 in 2004. Head to head, Damon, whose career has spanned the same exact time frame of Jeter’s, had a higher OBP than Jeter only once prior to his arrival in New York (in 2004: Damon .380 to Jeter’s .352.). The trend has held true since 2006, as Jeter has bested Damon in OBP twice: .417 to .359 in ’06, and .388 to .351 in ’07.

Adding further credibility to Jeter as a leadoff batter is the number of times that Jeter has grounded into double plays versus Damon. Over the course of their respective careers, Damon has grounded into 120 fewer double plays than Jeter (75 to 95), an average of nine fewer GIDPs per season.

Cliff Corcoran, through Pete Abe, did a great job of breaking down the numbers earlier this week.

Here’s a thought, though: If Girardi is adamant about Jeter in the leadoff spot now, did he think about this at all in 2006 when he was Torre’s consiglieri on the bench? If so, and if he had Torre’s ear, why didn’t he suggest it? By the numbers, and the fact that Damon is entering his Age 35 season and Jeter will turn 35 on June 26, this decision appears to be three years late.


Until next week . . .

True Master

Relax, all right? Don’t try to strike everybody out. Strikeouts are boring. Besides that, they’re fascist. Throw some ground balls – it’s more democratic.

Crash Davis

Of course Greg Maddux is retiring tenth on the all-time strikeout list (3371). Still, when I think back on Maddux in twenty, thirty years from now, my guess is what I’ll remember the most about him is a dinky ground ball to second base. That was the signature out of his prime, a crappy grounder, a squibber that rolled harmlessly to a waiting infielder. Or maybe a little jam shot pop-fly.  Or yeah, even a strikeout, the late-breaking fastball tailing back over the plate leaving hitters with their asses out, hands up and bats still on their shoulder.

In his prime, you rarely saw good swings or heard solid contact against Maddux.

There will be a host of tributes to Maddux this week. Here are the early birds.

Joe Posnanski:

I never presumed to think with Maddux or have a deeper understanding of why he was so good. I just loved watching him pitch, loved the whole scene, loved seeing the frustration batters would show, loved the way umpires over the course of a game became willing co-coconspirators, loved the way catchers would just let the ball tumble into the glove without moving, loved the way Maddux would fidget when he didn’t have all of his stuff working, loved it all. He was Mozart, I was Salieri, and no I couldn’t reproduce it, no I couldn’t get close to it, but I felt like I could hear the music.

Over at SI.com, Tom Verducci writes:

The magic show is over. I dislike absolutes, but of this I am sure: Greg Maddux is the most fascinating interview, the smartest baseball player and the most highly formed baseball player I have encountered in 27 years covering major league baseball. There is no one alive who ever practiced the craft of pitching better than Maddux.

…I will miss watching him pitch. In his prime, Maddux never received enough credit for the quality of his stuff. Too many people equate power with stuff, but Maddux’s fastball, at least back when he was throwing 90 mph, had ridiculous movement — late, large movement. Think about this: he dominated hitters with no splitter and a curveball that was no better than high-school quality.

That’s how good were his fastball and changeup. It wasn’t just location.

Here is Verducci’s 1995 feature profile on Maddux for SI.


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