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10, 000 Words on the Best of the Aughts: Geez, I need some Relief…

March 13, 2011 Leave a comment

I love the bullpen.  It’s where all the antics occur: it’s where you have guys bartering with fans for hotdogs or beer, guys taking naps in the afternoon sun (and who can blame them?  A good portion of my love of baseball derives from how blissful it is to doze off in the bottom of the third and wake up in the top of the sixth), and even guys occasionally touching themselves…  It’s a myriad and wonderful place, made all the more special, because the results of the bullpen are so capricious and – thus – frustrating.  Is there anything worse than watching your team build a three, four, five run lead only to see it frittered away in the eighth?  It’s infuriating.  How about watching a manager go to the bullpen to bring in a lefty, only to watch that guy walk the next batter?  You know the manager’s coming right back out again… And if you’re like me, you’re flipping channels and next thing you know you’re watching old Two and a Half Men episodes and wondering exactly what gold Charlie’s referring to?  When you finally remember to get back to the game, you find that your 3-2 lead has become a 9-3 deficit and Kyle Farnworth is walking off the mound looking like he just stepped on a flaming bag of…

The worst part of the bullpen is that – with one massive exception – the pitcher’s results bounce around more than two hyperactive kids experiecing a sugar high on a trampoline.  It’s why ESPN’s Keith Law criticizes any relief contract that runs beyond a year.  Their results are so temperamental that offering a reliever 16 million over four years is tantamount to pissing away 13.5 million.

The very best bullpens are built on hard throwing young arms who crash the strike zone and force hitters to swing and miss.  The way the compensation system works now, smart GMs (cough-AndrewFriedman-cough) utilize young power arms in their pen until those guys’ arbitration years are up.  They then allow them to walk in free agency, happily collecting a bushel of draft picks as compensation.  That’s right, I just wrote a bushel of draft picks.  Anyhow, what I’m saying is that the key with bullpens is to keep things simple.  Take hard young throwers and let them, in the words of Mr Roger Dorn,  “strike those m************ers out.”

As for the actual construction of the bullpen, you obviously want a closer*; then you have your set up man; a long relief guy, who’s usually either a fringy starter (Brian Tallet) or a young stud prospect breaking into the Bigs (?); a situational lefty, and a couple righties.  You need players of both arms, because otherwise your manager will have nothing to do in the seventh inning, but scratch himself.  Nobody needs that.

*Now, in the interests of maintaining my archaic rules from the outset, I’ve determined that I can only pick ONE closer.  That means I can pick guys who eventually became closers, but in one of the years before they were officially, regularly finishing games.  That actually isn’t that hard, as most relievers peak in their set up role and then are “promoted” to closer, at which point they regress (sometimes slightly, sometimes like BJ Ryan…).

Closer:

D’Uh.

Look if I wanted to be real cute, I could argue that (steroids or not) nobody had a better single season in relief than Eric Gagne when he had 14.98 K/9, a 1.20 ERA, an absurd 0.86 FIP and he accumulated 4.5 WAR during the 2003 season.  Over the entire decade, no reliever – not even the one you’re thinking about – had a single year close to that.  But, come on… he’s from Quebec…

I’m kidding…

I love Quebec – they take fries, add cheese curds and dump the whole thing with gravy, what’s not to love?  The real reason I can’t pick Gagne is that the only – I repeat ONLY – relief pitcher of the last twenty years who should be in the Hall of Fame was throwing from a small little locale out on the East Coast.  It’s possible you’ve never heard of him, because he was never talked about and the team he played for rarely made national telecasts, but, over our decade, this man accumulated more Wins Above Replacement than any other reliever; he also pitched in 53 post-season games, throwing 76 innings, while only giving up 6 earned runs.  Let me repeat that, because I don’t think I made myself clear: 76 innings, 6 earned runs, in the postseason.

That’s a ZERO-POINT-SEVEN ERA.

Gagne’s 2003 was stupidly good, but Mr Mariano Rivera essentially had a better year, over the course of the entire decade in the post season.  There’s absolutely no way I’m going toe to claw with Aliens over the fate of earth without Mo on my roster.  Although it should be noted that it’s a very real possibility that Rivera is himself an Alien and thus might defect in the middle of the series.  Still, as I always say, sometimes in life, it’s just a chance you gotta take…

Mariano Rivera – rhp (2008) – 6-5, 39 S, 64 G, 70.2 IP, 9.81 K/9, 0.76 BB/9, 0.51 HR/9, 1.4o ERA, 2.03 FIP, 3.1 WAR.

Set Up:

It’s fairly common for a team’s set up man to actually be their best reliever, and if they aren’t, they almost should be.  I’m not going to waste a lot of words arguing about the usefulness of having your best reliever come in to “save” the game with the bases empty simply because it’s the ninth inning.  Lets just say that it may be that the game was actually saved in the eighth when, leading by one with one out, there were runners on 2nd and 3rd, Babe Ruth at the plate and Lou Gherig on deck.  Doesn’t that seem like a situation for your best reliever?  Instead, thanks to Tony LaRussa, baseball managers now keep the pitcher they believe to be their best on the bench because it isn’t the ninth.  So, you’d better hope that your set-up guy is capable of coming in and striking Ruth out, before eliciting a cheap pop out from Gherig.

Strikeouts, that’s what you want from your set-up guy, because most of the time, they are going to be put in pressure situations where they getting the K is the only way out of a shitty situation.  In the last decade, the three best single season K/9 rates were:

Carlos Marmol, Cubs (2010) 15.99
Eric Gagne, Dodgers (2003) 14.98
Brad Lidge, Astros (2004) 14.93

Of course, the first two names (how insane was Marmol’s K-rate last year?  Too bad the Cubs sucked so no-one noticed) were closers the year they struck everyone out and we already know who our closer is, but Lidge?  Well, in 2004 the Astros’ closer was Octavio Dotel (more on him in minute), but their set up man was so good that they felt comfortable trading Dotel and turning the ball over to Bradley Thomas Lidge.  And really, who can blame them.  I’m not saying that my “Cosmic Team of the Aughts’ is going to trade Rivera and install Lidge as my closer, I’m just saying that in 2004 Lidge was beyond awesome.  Forgetting for a minute his 14.93 K/9 rate, Lidge appeared in 80 games, throwing 94.2 innings.  He saved 29 after Dotel’s departure and 88% of the base runners he acquired were left standing on base when the inning ended.  He was the perfect set-up man, the best of the Aughts and an easy selection to my team.

Brad Lidge – 6-5, 29 S, 80 G, 94.2 IP, 14.93 IP, 2.85 BB/9, 0.76 HR/9, 1.90 ERA, 1.97 FIP, 3.8 WAR.

Long Relief:

As I wrote above, this spot is often taken up by fringe starters who get shunted to the pen when the starting staff is healthy, but the best – or perhaps luckiest – teams use this slot to develop dominant young starters.  Guys who are too good for AAA, but who still have pitches that need development.  Being put into long relief allows them to work on their stuff, without having to be solely concerned with getting outs at all costs (which means they only throw their “out” pitch and never develop anything else).  The very best example of this over the last decade is a fairly easy choice for the team: Johan Santana.

In 2000 Santatna first broke into the majors as a 21 year old flamethrower, by 2002 he had established himself as a future star, the following year he made the transition to the rotation and the year after that he won the Cy Young.  That’s what I’m talking about.  A young guy, finding his sea legs, perfecting his pitches and then – when he’s finally promoted to a starting role – ready to dominate.

Johan Santana – lhp (2003) –  12-3, 45 G, 18 GS, 158.1 IP, 9.61 K/9, 2.67 BB/9, 0.97 HR/9, 3.07 ERA, 3.24 FIP, 4.1 WAR.

Lefty:

One of my favorite parts of this 10,000 word Best of the Aughts opus that I’ve put together is the players who surprise me when they make the team.  There is no greater example of this than BJ Ryan.  At the outset of picking relievers for the squad, I knew that Mo would be my closer and I was pretty sure that Lidge’s 2004 season would be my set-up guy.  Santana was a given for long relief and I was pretty sure that a young K-Rod would have a place (he will, just be patient), but if you had given me fifty guesses for who the lefty on my squad would have been, I would not have picked BJ Ryan.  Hell, I probably wouldn’t have picked him in a 100 guesses.  And yet, here we are.  A prime example of why long contracts for relievers are so dumb, in 2004 Ryan was the explosive, dominant set-up guy in Baltimore.  A year later he was promoted to closer and was still exceptional.  That offseason the Jays gave him 3/4 of a billion dollars and Prince Edward Island… and, well, the rest is craptastic history.  Still, look back at that 2004 season and you can see why JP Ricciardi wet himself over the chance to give a chain smoking hot head, with the nickname “BJ” 47 million dollars.

BJ Ryan – lhp (2004) – 4-6, 76 G, 87.0 IP, 12.62 K/9, 3.62 BB/9, 0.41 HR/9, 2.28 ERA, 2.08 FIP, 3.4 WAR.

The Rest:

The last two spots on my roster are going to monster flame-throwers.  Like I said at the outset, guys who are young, throw hard, and strike people out.  Before he was known for assaulting old men, Francisco Rodriguez was so known for sending batters dejectedly back to the dugout, that they gave him one of those catchy little “Rod” nicknames that all the Rodriguezes get.  Only, instead of it involving his first name (ala A-Rod), they used the letter K.  Get it?  “K-Rod”, for all the K’s he gets.

Yeah, I know… we live in an era of really lazy nicknames.  Anyhow, K-Rod burst onto the scene in the 2002 playoffs, compiling 28 K’s in 18 playoff innings (with a 1.93 ERA) for the World Champion Angels.  At that point he was 20 years old and pretty much just struck people out on pure machismo, but two years later he’d learned how to pitch and he was genuinely one of the best relievers in baseball.

Likewise, before Octavio Dotel became a traveling baseball injury, he was a phenomenal pitcher.  It’s hard to remember, because over the past seven seasons he’s played for 9 different franchises and spent more time in the Doctors office than my hemorrhoid toting grandfather, but back at the start of the decade, Dotel was beast.  A strike throwing flamethrower, he came into any situation and struck everybody out.  Sure, his control was a little wild sometimes, but there’s nothing wrong with the opposing hitters wondering whether the next pitch is going to land in their ear.  In 2001, Dotel compiled 105 innings, which makes him an incredibly valuable reliever and he did that with 12.43 K’s/9 and a 2.31 FIP.  Two years later he replaced Billy Wagner as Houston’s closer.  Of course, it was a short-lived move, as Lidge made him expendable.  Still, from 2001-2004 Dotel was one of the best relievers in baseball and he takes my final roster spot.

Francisco Rodriguez – rhp (2004) – 4-1, 12 S, 69 G, 84.0 IP, 13.18 K/9, 3.54 BB/9, 0.21 HR/9, 1.82 ERA, 1.64 FIP, 4.0 WAR.

Octavio Dotel – rhp (2001) – 7-5, 2 S, 61 G, 105.0 IP, 12.43 K/9, 4.03 BB/9, 0.43 HR/9, 2.66 ERA, 2.31 FIP, 3.5 WAR.

Ok, since 10,000 words on this project hasn’t been enough, I’ll make one more entry to wrap up my batting order, manager and what not.  I know, I know, I have problems.  Don’t worry though, because I’m going to cure myself the way Charlie Sheen cured himself, just close my eyes and…

The Best of the Aughts – Pitchers with Tiger Blood and Adonis DNA…

March 7, 2011 2 comments

I seem to remember, before all this NBA trade deadline madness, that I was writing a series of articles on the best Baseball team of the Aughts.  I started with the infield and then laid out my outfield and bench.  I think – and I’ve been known to be wrong before – that all I’m left with then is the pitching staff (well, I’ll probably select a manager too, but that’s just because I’m a masochist for the irrelevant).  So, lets begin where every good pitching staff begins: with the starters.

Starters:

When Rob Neyer picked his team of the decade, he took Roy Halladay as his starter.  Obviously Doc’s my favorite player and thus you’re not getting an argument out of me.  Over the course of the decade, nobody put together as impressive a total resume as Halladay, who dominated in the AL East against the Sox, Yanks, and Rays.  However, this team is all about the Wine Cellar concept – taking single years of greatness – and it would be fair to say that if you made a list of the five top single season performances of the Aughts, old Roy might not make the list.

I sort of look at a pitching staff like this.  At the top, ideally, you have your Ace.  The guy you want out there in any must win situation.  You want to know that he can go 9 innings, strikeout 15, demoralize the other team just by standing on the mound.  Basically, you want someone with tiger blood and Adonis DNA.  Then you have your number two.  Preferably, you want someone just a notch below those lofty Ace standards.  He need not be quite as dominating and he might be the opposite arm, to add contrast.  You want to mix up the look on the other team, but the guy still has to be a beast.  Like I said, you want him a notch below the Ace, but not a foot and a half.  For your team’s third starter, you want someone who eats innings, keeps the score low, and allows your offense to win.  After that, we’re into the back end of the rotation.  Frankly, most teams are looking to get a bit lucky back there. You might want to take a flier on a guy who has underachieved or who’s inconsistent.  Someone capable of flashing great things, but who doesn’t bring it every week.  And, finally you have your fifth starter.  For most teams this is just a dumping ground for whatever shlub you have who can actually put a ball near a strike zone.  If I ran a team I would want my fifth starter to be young.  I would want a constant stream of new talent breaching the majors through that spot.  Some will self combust, some will simply wash out, some will progress to a four or three, but – in the best case scenario – a very tiny few will have a year like Clay Buccholz gave the Sox last year.  So, with all that in mind, lets break down the contenders for the five spots:

Ace:

In my books, to qualify as an Ace you have to be one of the top fifteen pitchers in baseball.  Now, obviously there isn’t a delineated, cut along the perforated line of who are the top 15 pitchers, but you have to be in the discussion.  Some Aces are no-brainers, because they’re clearly top 15, others are fringy, but the point is that they are guys who at the start of the year you can identify as being bitchin’ rock stars from Mars.  Why only 15?  Well, not every team has an Ace, nor should they.  Who’s the last Ace that the Pirates had?  What about the Nationals?  Or the Orioles?  Should Shaun Marcum have been considered an Ace because he was the Jays’ best starter after they traded Halladay?  No, of course not.  Some teams simply have a “best pitcher,” but not an Ace (others of course are fortunate enough to have two Aces, but we’ll come to that in a second).

So, who was the best “Ace” of the last decade?  Well, as much as I love Doc, I must admit that there are really only two contenders for this spot and they both are holdovers from the previous decade who had one or two great seasons at the start of the Aughts:

Pedro Martinez and Randy Johnson.

In 2002 Pedro had his last truly great season.  He went 20-4, with a 2.26 ERA.  Those numbers are flashy enough, but of course we know that the former is dumb and the latter is influenced by defense and relievers.  So what were Pedro’s numbers in the categories entirely within his control?  Well, how about 10.79 K/9?  Or a walk rate of 1.81 per nine?  What about only giving up .59 home runs per nine?  Or an FIP of 2.24.  Yup, those are the kinds of numbers produced by a man with tiger blood.

It might have been the best pitching performance of the decade, but…

In 2001, Randy Johnson threw 249 innings and in those innings he faced 994 batters.  Of those, he struck out 372.  Three hundred and seventy-two.  I hate it when people use exclamation points in their writing, but I honestly think this might be an exclamation point moment… three hundred and seventy two!  That’s the third most in modern baseball history, with only Nolan Ryan (383) and Sandy Koufax (382) throwing more.  That means that 37% of the batters the Big Unit faced ended with the batter, dejected, bat in hand, walking back to the dugout.  That is what I’m talking about when I say that I want someone who will “intimidate the other team just by standing on the mound.”  And really, who was more intimidating than the Big Unit at the height of his powers?

Of those 622 players who acutally managed to get wood on rawhide against the Big Unit, only 181 actually got hits.  And of those, only 19 actually managed to get the ball over the fence.  Randy simply overpowered guys.  In 2001 he went head to head with the greatest hitter in history and in 17 at bats, he held Barry Bonds to 2 singles, a double, three walks, two RBIs and no home runs.  He also struck Barry out 5 times in those 17 at bats.  Those numbers don’t sound impressive to you?  Well, keep in mind that in 2001 Bonds hit 73 home runs with a .515 OBP.  Randy didn’t dominate Bonds, but he essentially turned Babe Ruth into Juan Pierre.

So who to pick?  Obviously they were both impressive, and frankly Pedro gets a few bonus points for his 1999 season, which was probably the greatest season by  a pitcher in baseball history, but Randy gets just as many bonus points for that superlative playoff run in 2001.  You know, the World Series where he went 3-0 with a 1.04 ERA, including coming in for an inning and a third of relief to win game seven a night after throwing 104 pitches to win game six.

The real clincher is that while Pedro still had tiger blood, by 2002, he was no longer really an Adonis.  He had already started his ascent into a 6 inning wonder-kind.  For the year he threw 199 innings, which is good, but in 2001 Randy threw 249, those extra 50 innings represent a lot of value.  Randy was going consistently deeper into games and he also made five more starts.  That’s what we call the using resentments as the rocket fuel in the tip of your sabre.

Randy Johnson – lhp (2001) – 21-6, 249.2 IP, 13.41 K/9, 2.56 BB/9, 0.68 HR/9, 2.49 ERA, 2.13 FIP, 10.7 WAR.

Two:

One of the reasons that everyone’s so excited by the Cliff Lee signing in Philadelphia, is that Lee brings a second clear Ace to the Phillies’ staff.  It means that whether you consider him the Ace and Doc the Two, or Doc the Ace and him the Two, the Phils are stacked up at the top in a way few teams can compete with.  The Cards have had a similar arrangement with Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright the past couple years, but in general having two Aces at the top of your rotation is pretty rare.  Most teams, even teams with great pitching staffs, have a defined Ace and then a guy who’s really, really good, but not really in that “top 15” conversation.  Take the World Champion Giants for instance: Tim Lincecum is their obvious, no doubt about it, Ace, and while Matt Cain is a hell of a second arm in the rotation, he’s not exactly someone you’d pick as a Cy Young candidate at the start of the season.

The best modern example of a team having multiple Ace quality starters is the Atlanta Braves, who had at least two, and often three, every year from 1993 to 2001.  But, with all due respect to those Braves, there is a modern example that was even more dominant – albeit for a far shorter time frame.  Fortunately for our purposes, that time frame falls perfectly within our  own.  If Randy Johnson is my Ace, then for my number two, why would I not pick the guy who so superbly served as Randy’s 1A for four years in Arizona?

Curt Schilling is everything I described in my opening.  He’s not quite as good as Randy, but by the slimmest of margins.  He’s a righty, he blows people away, and in 2001 and 2002 he was insane.  I could pick ’01 for the symbiosis with Randy, but Curt was better in 2002, just look at the numbers:

Curt Schilling – rhp (2002) – 23-7, 259.1 IP, 10.97 K/9, 1.15 BB/9, 1.01 HR/9, 3.23 ERA, 2.40 FIP, 9.7 WAR.

Three:

If you thought that I was going to assemble a team of the aughts and not include Doc, well, then you’re Charlie Sheen crazy (but without the Goddesses).  Roy’s 2003 season, was the perfect season to be the third pitcher on my starting staff: 266 innings in the AL East with a 3.25 ERA.  It’s not that he was incredibly dominatingly, lights out, but he was an incredibly valuable pitcher.  Those 266 innings pitched are the most in AL since Dave Stewart threw 267 in 1990 and nobody has topped 250 since.  He only struck out 6.9 per nine, but he kept excess runners off the bases by only walking 32 (or 1.08/9), and he kept the ball on the ground with a 58.4 GB%.  If anything, he was a little unlucky with his flyballs, as 14.3% of them found their way over the wall (highest percentage of his career), but still it was an exceptionally valuable season.  Indicative of the kind of pitcher Roy is… a workhorse who limited potential damage by not walking anyone, kept the ball on the ground, and allowed his fielders to do the dirty work for him.  Strikeouts are, after all, fascist.

Roy Halladay – rhp (2003) – 22-7, 266 IP, 6.9 K/9, 1.08 BB/9, 0.88 HR/9, 3.25 ERA, 3.23 FIP, 8.0 WAR.

Fourth:

As I laid out at the top, I want my fourth starter to be a little reckless.  Well, that’s not exactly true, I mean in reality I want my fourth starter to by Cy “Freakin'” Young, but the reality is that fourth starters tend to be mediocre, but the best ones also show flashes of brilliance.  Think about Brandon Morrow of the Jays last year.  He was their fourth starter, behind Shaun Marcum, Ricky Romero, and Brett Cecil.  Overall his line looked fine.  Solid, if unexceptional: 10-7, 4.49 ERA, 146 IP.  But, if you break down his individual games, you see nights like this:

May 10 v. Boston – 1.2 IP, 3 H, 6 ER, 6 BB, 4 K.

Contrasted with nights like this:

Aug 8 v. Tampa Bay – 9.0 IP, 1 H, 0 ER, 2 BB, 17 K.

So, who is the best pitcher over the last decade to fit this profile?  Well, there are two candidates: Cliff Lee and Zack Greinke.

In 2007 the Cleveland Indians won 96 games and came within a win of going to the World Series.  They accomplished this despite getting a big s**t sandwich from their intended number two Cliff Lee.  That season, the 28 year old lefty went 5-8 with a 6.29 ERA.  Ouch.  The next year however, he threw 223 innings, with a 2.54 ERA, won 22 games, lost only 3 and wrapped up the Cy Young sometime in July.  Of course, despite that, the Indians dropped to 81 wins, finished 7 games out, and traded ace C.C. Sabathia along the way.  Baseball’s a funny, funny game.

When the 2009 season began, Zack Greinke was known as the guy who was once a future phenom, until he went crazy and deserted the team.  In reality, he was a solid young pitcher, who lives with Social Anxiety disorder and depression.  Over the previous couple years, Greinke had worked hard to return to the team and reclaim his spot at the top of the rotation.  Still, no one was expecting what he did in 2009.  He started the year by throwing 29 straight innings without giving up an earned run.  He won his first six starts with a 0.40 ERA and when he finally lost, on May 9th to the the Angels Angels of Anaheim, it was because he gave up one run in eight innings.  Greinke’s season, did more to bring about the death of the “Win” in Cy Young voting than any player in baseball history.  That’s because he threw 229 innings, with a 2.16 ERA and 242 strikeouts, only because he pitched for the Kansas City Royals he won a whopping 16 games.

If I look only at the year they put “it” together, then Greinke takes the cake.  His 2009 season was the best pitching performance of anyone not name Randy or Pedro from this decade, on the other hand, he followed that up with an entirely average year in 2010 .  Of course, he was pitching for the Royals, so who can really blame him for losing interest when they fell out of the race in April… Lee dipped just slightly after his breakout year and has continued to be quite prolific (vagabond style) since.  He also has that sterling 7-2, 2.18 ERA record in 76 playoff innings.

Still, it’s hardly Zack’s fault that he was drafted by the Royals and thus hasn’t come within 13 games of the playoffs.  Maybe if he’d been picked by Tampa Bay instead, he’d have led the Rays past Philadelphia for the 2008 World Series.  Who knows.  I honestly thought that Lee would be the choice here, with his playoff record being the tiebreaker, but… I cannot leave a year in which a guy had an FIP of 2.33 and a 9.4 WAR off my team.

Zack Grienke – rhp (2008) – 16-8, 229.1 IP, 9.5 K/9, 2.0 BB/9, 0.43 HR/9, 2.16 ERA, 2.33 FIP, 9.4 WAR.

Fifth:

For this spot, as I noted above, I want a kid.  So, whatever guy I pick has to have been under 25 during the season I select.  Make sense?  No, probably not… There were some exceptional youngsters breaking into the bigs over the course of the decade.  In 2001 a 21 year old CC Sabathia struck out 171 major league batters; Mark Prior had a career year (literally) in 2003; 2005 saw the debut of Felix Hernandez, who might still be the best pitcher in baseball 25 or under; a year later, a 23 year old Justin Verlander won 17 games; In 2007, a year removed from besting cancer, 23 year old Jon Lester started and won the clinching game of the World Series.  And yet as impressive as all of those performances were, they pale in comparison to our fifth starter, who was drafted 10th in 2006, made his debut in 2007, won his first Cy Young in 2008 and was even better in 2009.  Plus, as if that wasn’t enough, he wears Bow Ties and is nicknamed the Freak.  Frankly, the bow tie thing might have been enough to get him on the team by itself…

Tim Lincecum – rhp (2009) – 15-7, 225.1 IP, 10.42 K/9, 2.72 BB/9, 0.40 HR/9, 2.48 ERA, 2.34 FIP, 8.2 WAR

So, there we have it: The Big Unit, Schil, Doc, Zach Greinke, and the Freak, if that isn’t what Charlie Sheen was thinking when he talked about tiger blood and Adonis DNA, then I have no idea what Charlie’s thinking…

The Best of the Aughts – Outfielders, Bench and Intangibles

February 19, 2011 Leave a comment

As you know, I began the construction of my Best Alien Destroying Baseball team of the aughts last week, by compiling the infielders.  Today I continue the process by mixing in some outfielders and a sprinkling of bench, before icing on the pitchers next week.   Since I’m going to, once again, ramble on beyond the 2000 word mark, I think it prudent to avoid a lengthy preamble, so… its go time.

Left Field:

Did you know that Barry Bonds has the greatest WAR amongst left fielders over the last decade, even though he basically only only played in five seasons. Roids or no roids, that’s impressive. On the other hand, he was an ass and I’ve committed to the dubious concept that chemistry matters. So Bonds, with his exclusive corner of the locker room, lounge chair and private TV, is out.

The next two names on the list essentially played other positions. Chipper Jones amassed a very impressive 51 WAR for the decade and should probably have a place on the team somewhere, but he only played left field in 356 of his 2200 games. Lance Berkman had an even more impressive 53 WAR and spent a considerable amount of time in left field, but if we’re honest with ourselves, he was a first baseman waiting for icon Jeff Bagwell to retire, and as a one bagger, we all know how he lines up against Pujols.

The fourth name is somewhat surprising for how low he is: Manny Ramirez. Honestly, when I started this, I really thought that Manny being Manny would be an automatic distraction worth having. His quaint, spacey routine would be more than made up for by his massive production, yet during the decade his peak WAR was 6. Good, really good in fact, but Bonds’ peak WAR was 13, so suddenly Barry’s lounge chair routine is looking a little more quaint.

The only other name on the list worth considering is Carl Crawford, but despite being a big name for most of the decade, he wasn’t really great until the last couple of seasons. Before then his OBP spent a little too much time hovering around .333 for my tastes. However, if I am relenting on Mr Flax Seed, then I’m going to need a bench guy who can field for him in the late innings and maybe occasionally run. So Bonds* is my man and Crawford’s in as a late inning defensive substitution and pinch runner. I know what you’re saying, doesn’t that violate my rule of having stars on the bench, but I’ll go with one of Crawford’s younger years, say 2004, and that way he’s not a star, just a youngster bidding his time, while the elephant in the room rumbles his way towards the door.

*(What’s that? Does including Bonds mean that I have to go back and reconsider my exclusion of ARod? Well, if I’m being honest, I wrote this paragraph before I wrote the shortstop paragraph, which is, I guess, my way of saying… No.)

The big question for Bonds is what season we want to select. Our 2001 timeframe perfectly coincides with his explosion from top 30 player, to in the discussion as the greatest of all time. And yes, I think there’s no doubt that those years were, ahhh… enhanced, but as I noted in my introduction… YAWN.

2001 was the year that Bonds crushed 73 home runs and he also had an absurd .863 slugging percentage. After that season, nobody pitched to Bonds again and so by 2004 his OBP had surged to .609. Each of those numbers are the highest in baseball history, but lets put that .609 OBP in perspective: in the last 50 years, the closest OBP to Bonds’ .609, put up by a player other than Barry, was Frank Thomas’ 1994 season when he posted a .487. I don’t really know how to do math, but 609 minus 487 seems like a big difference… That year Bonds was intentionally walked 120 times. That’s more walks – of any kind – than Albert Pujols, Alex Rodriguez or Manny Ramirez have had in any single season. Honestly, I don’t think it matters which of Barry’s seasons you select, but I just cannot get past that .609 OBP, so 2004 is my year.

Barry Bonds (2004) .362, .609, .812, 45 HR, 27 2B, 232 BB, 120 IBB, 41 SO, 129 R, 101 RBI, 263 OPS+, 12.4 WAR.

Center Field:

In the 90s this would have been a relatively easy decision, Ken Griffey Jr. led all center fielders by 21 WAR. Unfortunately, in the aughts the decision was not as straight forward. Nobody really stood out above the fray. Carlos Beltran was probably the best over the course of the decade and certainly he had some great years, but he also had some average seasons and he spent much of the last two years on the medics table.  After exploding onto baseball’s biggest stage in the 1996 World Series, Andruw Jones seemed like he was climbing the Hall of Fame ladder, but then he stepped on a faulty rung and tumbled to the cellar. Nobody was a bigger Grady Sizemore fan than me, and at some point it looked like he was making a serious bid as baseball’s best all around player, but sadly his career has been derailed by injuries and unlike either of the previous two guys, Grady had yet to peak. There were guys like Mike Cameron and Torii Hunter who fielded like Willie Mays, but then they hit like Willie Mays Hays. And, finally, there was Johnny Damon, who looked like Jesus, but threw like Mary. I might have picked him if he’d only ever been a capital “I” Idiot, but then he went to the Yanks, which I guess just makes him a small “i” idiot…

Really this is a two horse race, with everyone else looking up at Jones and Beltran. Neither inspires immense confidence in me, in part because neither had great control of the strike zone. Both were outstanding fielders, with Beltran winning two Fielding Bible Awards and Jones one. Of course, the Fielding Bible didn’t start putting out their awards until 2006 and I think that at his best Jones was a better fielder than Beltran. Granted, that’s largely anecdotal, but… yeah. Jones also had a little more power, but Beltran did almost everything else better. He ran extremely well; he had better plate discipline; he stole bases with an 88% success rate, while Jones stole with only 72% success rate. Clinching the decision for Beltran is that he’s a switch hitter. There’s nothing wrong with a little extra versatility.

Carlos Beltran (2006) .275, .388, .594, 41 HR, 38 2B, 18 SB, 3 CS, 127 R, 116 RBI, 150 OPS+, 8.0 WAR.

Right Field:

I sort of always assumed that I would select Ichiro here, because he’s such a dynamic, fascinating player to watch, but I thought that Vlad Guerrero would at least give me pause… nope, not really. Vlad the Impaler was the closest right fielder to Ichiro, but he trailed him by a pretty wide margin over the course of the decade. 8 Wins Above Replacement isn’t insurmountable, but when I factor in the extra gate receipts and jersey sales that including Ichiro on my alien destroying team will get me in Japan, it becomes an insurmountable cleavage (what, just because the world could possibly end, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be concerned with jersey sales…). Plus, over the course of Ichiro’s career, when I’ve gone to watch my beloved Jays lose their seasonal two of three in Seattle (I don’t know what it is, but they always seem to lose two of three when I go watch them play the M’s), there’s just something dynamically fascinating about this small (comparatively) man who does not to run in the outfield so much as glide and whose arm is actually Thor’s hammer. Ichiro’s just a truly magical player to watch and so while he was overrated for a time there in the middle of the decade, there’s nobody I’d rather have laying down that little slap hit/bunt to start off our games.

Ichiro Suzuki (2004) .372, .414, .455, 8 HR, 24 2B, 262 H, 101 R, 60 RBI, 130 OPS+, 8.1 WAR.

Bench:

For the bench you already know that I want a catcher whose hands have been caked with so much spit and dirt over the years that they look like a Walrus’s doink, and to that aim, I think there’s only one house to look towards. Down in Puerto Rico, there’s a little house where they do nothing but grow catchers. One they grew to hit the ball hard and run like that Walrus. Another they grew to catch everything, but not hit at all, and the third they grew such that Goldilocks would want a piece of him: just right. The Molina brothers are to catching what the Jackson family is to crazy (what, you thought I was going to say music?) and while Bengie might be the biggest of them, Yadier’s the best. He’s Bengie’s equal (well, not really, but close enough) with the stick and he’s Jose’s equal (and then some) with the glove. Yadier is the best fielding catcher in baseball and has been since 2006 or so.  Before that Pudge Rodriguez was the best, but somehow – even in his late 30s – I don’t feel like Pudge is a positive presence on the pine. Yadier however would be a dutiful and productive player behind Mauer.

Next I need a couple infielders: one a big presence with the stick, the other capable of manning multiple positions. The first is essentially my DH, so he can be someone of significant stature. I don’t know if the intergalactic aliens use a DH, but I don’t want to be like the Phillies DHing Chris Coste in the 2008 World Series, so I’m going prepared with a significant bench bat (that’s what she said…). With that in mind lets look over the candidates.

I must admit that at the outset, much like I assumed that Manny would make the team, I assumed that Big Papi would have to be here, but… that’s just not the case. If we look at War Grid for the 2001-2010 seasons for DHs, Papi comes in third behind Vlad and Jim Thome. Now, Thome was mostly a first baseman and Vlad was mostly a right fielder, but there’s really nothing wrong with my DH being capable of manning a position. As I said with Carlos Beltran, flexibility isn’t just for gymnasts and politicians. Of course, if I open it up to guys who can actually field occasionally, then two familiar names emerge as contenders, pushing Papi further away from the prize: Lance Berkman and Chipper Jones. I did write about a thousand words ago that there should be a place for Chipper on the team and the same could just as easily be said for Lance. With 51 and 53 WARs respectively, they put a fair bit of distance between themselves and the other DH contenders, so lets drop Papi, Thome, and Vlad as too one dimensional (although I would recommend that you look at Thome’s last year in Cleveland… WaWa WeWa!) and focus on Chipper and Berkman.

Both are switch hitters. Both have excellent control of the strike zone. Berkman probably had slightly more power, although Chipper was a better base runner. Chipper can play all the positions that Berkman can, plus he can play third. Berkman has better nicknames: Fat Elvis and BIg Puma. Tough, tough call. I guess with Scott Rolen as my starting third baseman, having a second guy on the squad who can play the hot corner is sort of necessary, but it’s a wrench leaving a guy with the nickname Fat Elvis off the squad.

For my utility infielder, there’s only one option. He might have had the career year of career years, but in 2009, Ben Zobrist played in 91 games at second, 59 in right field, 13 at short, 9 in left, 7 in center, 3 at first, and – just for good measure – 1 at third. If that isn’t a utility infielder, I don’t really know what is. Add in that he did all of that while posting a .297, .405, .543 batting line and well, we have ourselves a grease-man.

I’ve already told you that Crawford will be on the team. Barry wasn’t a terrible defender in his last few years, Fangraphs pegged his Ultimate Zone Rating at 1.7 in 2004, which isn’t the Barry of his youth, but also isn’t Adam Dunn either. Still, Crawford’s a phenomenal fielder and obviously bobble-head Barry wasn’t the fleetest of men, so having Crawford to catch and run is an easy decision.

All of which brings us to our final spot on the bench. The flexibility provided by Zobrist and Chipper means that I have the freedom to use this final roster spot on a pure bat. Now, obviously I’d love to just pick Berkman, but that would seem to contradict my rule about using players who are actually bench guys instead of just stacking the team all star style. This means that once again I have to say goodbye to Fat Elvis. There is however another big time slugger who could reasonably serve as the last bat on this team’s bench. He’s widely regarded as one of the nicest men in baseball.  He’s a grizzled veteran, who once was one of the ten or so best players in the majors, but last year was a backup and just happened to post an OPS+ of 178 in that role. Yes, Jim Thome ended up starting for much of last year, but he began the season as Justin Morneau’s backup and was a beast once called upon. He’s the perfect compliment to the other guys on my squad and thus the final piece of the proverbial puzzle.

Y. Molina C (2009) .262, .366, .383, 6 HR, 23 2B, 45 R, 54 RBI, 100 OPS+, 2.8 WAR.
J. Thome (2010) .283, .412, .627, 25 HR, 29 2B, 48 R, 59 RBI, 178 OPS+, 3.5 WAR.
B. Zobrist Utl (2009) .297, .405, .543, 27 HR, 28 2B, 91 R, 91 RBI, 149 OPS+, 7.1 WAR.
C. Jones, 3B/OF (2007) .337, .425, .604, 29 HR, 42 2B, 108 R, 102 RBI, 165 OPS+, 7.9.
C. Crawford OF (2004) .296, .331, .781, 11 HR, 19 3B, 26 2B, 104 R, 55 RBI, 59 SB, 15 CS, 105 OPS+, 20.9 UZR, 4.4 WAR.

So, we know the starters and we now know the bench, all we need are some pitchers…

Jeter, ARod and Pujols oh My: Or The Best of the Aughts

February 9, 2011 Leave a comment

Rob Neyer, who recently left the cozy, corporate confines of ESPN for the wild, wooly, world of Sports Blog Nation has begun his new writing life with a series of articles on the players he expects to dominate the next decade at each position. It is, of course, a project rife with the perils of future ridicule, but Rob has always taken the bards and slings of past stupidity with a classy indifference. Well, not quite indifference, more acceptance that if you write about sports often enough, long enough, you’re going to write something stupid. Probably many, many, many stupid things, its the problem with making predictions in a world with no statute of limitations. So, rather than be dissuaded Neyer’s charging ahead with a second go. And while his new attempt might not produce better results, it’s worth keeping track of, if for no other reason than because it’s so frivolous and Rob’s so good.

Having said all that, reading his mea culpa, got me thinking about the last decade and which players I would pick to assemble the best team. Not, as Rob did, merely the best players at each position, but the best entire team that could be assembled. You know, the if “Aliens are coming down to destroy the earth and they say that they will only spare us if we can beat them in a inter-dimensional, inter-galaxy baseball championship” scenario (girls just don’t have these kinds of thoughts do they? No wonder they’re so much more productive than we are).

So, starting today and concluding whenever the heck I get there, I will reveal my Alien protection team from the first decade of this century. For reasons which are somewhat beyond me, I’m starting the decade with 2001.

Now, some ground rules:

1) To be eligible, a player had to have played in at least a third of the decade, or roughly three and a half seasons. So, as good as Evan Longoria has been, he’s going to have to wait for the next decade.

2) I’m channeling Bill Simmons’ wine cellar concept, so once a player is eligible, I’m then picking a specific season from the decade that counts for him. Why? Well, it’s probably because my whiner background makes me particularly fond of his precept. Basically, this means that once a player is eligible I’m looking for the greatest peak season(s) not just the guy that happened to come along at the right time to have the best stats for the decade. Lets call it the Mark Grace corollary.

3) While I’m invoking the Mark Grace corollary to ensure that I get the very best season a guy had to offer, the rest of his resume still matters. Why? Well, my super team I’m assembling isn’t just playing one season. It’s an entire roster built for the long haul. If a guy is injury prone I want to know. If a guy had a couple great years and then started playing like Rosie O’Donnell, I want to know. Take Russell Martin, he looked like one of the great young catchers, a guy who might break into that upper echelon, but then he fell apart and was non-tendered by the Dodgers. I can’t take him on my team knowing I’m only going to get one good year out of him, that’d be stupid…

4) I just don’t care about who may, or may not have injected flax seed oil into their teammates butt cheek. Sorry, but I don’t.

5) The clubhouse matters. So, while I could care less that Bonds’ head was blowing up like balloons at a clown convention, I do care that he was a noted a$$hole, who had to have his own corner of the locker room, with a special lounge chair and TV. I come from the Sparky Anderson school of managers, where there definitely is a double standard for “stars” and “turds,” but most of these guys are “stars” and how they fit together is as much a part of the puzzle as how shiney they are.

6) Positions matter. Randy Johnson might have been an insane reliever, but he wasn’t, so he wont be… The outfield will have left fielders, right fielders and center fielders. The bench guys will be actual bench players (with the exception of a DH), or if not bench guys per se, then guys who weren’t stars and would be happy being a utility player spending most of his time on the pine.

7) I reserve the right to break all rules if it serves my interests. Sorry, that’s how we roll here at Sports on the Brain.

Check back soon for the real action…

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