While it’s certainly been a rewarding experience, my blog pursuits have rather outgrown the confines of MLBlogs, and in the interests of becoming a member of a more vigorous and active baseball community, I have moved operations to a new blog hosted by Baseball Toaster: it’s called Bad Altitude. Update your links.
Hey, we won something! I feel like Chris Burke, Joe Carter, Aaron Boone, and Bill Mazeroski all rolled into one — Joe-Chris Booneroski. But moving past the giddy stage, what does TGTBATB’s dark horse victory for "Best MLBlog" say about baseball in general, and how has our championship season reflected the larger game that we love, obsess over, and make early-morning long distance phone calls about Mark Kotsay’s contract status for? Why is it that (near) daily meanderings on mostly the topic of the National League’s worst team can win "Best Of" anything?
Well, let’s reflect. I watched the Bears-Browns game this afternoon with my father, as I have watched many Chicago football games over the years. My father likes to surround himself with briefs and depositions while he endures the Bears, but this is largely for appearance’s sake as he spends somewhere near a quarter and a half of every game asleep, snoring conspicuously. If you wake him, he wil gruffly insist he was merely "resting his eyes" and pretend to scan documents for a few minutes before he begins to doze again. Somehow he manages to take in the entire football game while engaged in this process. There’s a lot of dead space in the average NFL game (yet still another reason why I favor Major League Baseball) and my dad has more or less perfected the art of between-play snoozing.
Dad knows about as much about football as any other male, midwestern attorney, which is to say a fair amount. There are three things about the Bears that have been driving my father nuts since at least 1975, when he first settled in this part of the country: stupid holding penalties, passing plays on third down that have all the receivers running short of the markers, and calling the same up-the-gut running play twice in a row to unsuccessful ends each time. Every game it seems (except of course in 1985) they do this stuff, and every game my father registers his disgust. Kyle Orton is not going to become Joe Montana, just like Rex Grossman, Jonathan Quinn, Henry Burris, Jim Miller, Shane Matthews, Cade McNown, and Rick Mirer (and so on) before him. Bad football teams are all pretty much bad in the same way. I pity the guys on the Houston Texan and Arizona Cardinal beats. How many ways are there to say we’re less talented and more poorly coached then the other guys, and there’s not much of a way to overcome that?
But baseball is different. 162 games is an amazingly long season, long enough that if you pick small enough samples, every team in the league gets a chance to look like the best there is for a week or at least for three games. The Rockies finished with the worst record in the National League (tied with Pittsburgh), and so a lot of good things happened this season that only real diehards (and the audiences for this blogs and its sisters) noticed. Aaron Cook made an extraordinary comeback from a life-threatening blood clot condition to become the first ace in Rockies history. Rookies like Garrett Atkins, Cory Sullivan, Brad Hawpe, Jeff Francis and (oh yeah) Clint Barmes proved that maybe there was something to the much-ballyhooed "Gen-R" advertising campaign beyond ownership trying to save money on veterans’ salaries. An ad hoc group of minor league free agents, waiver claims, and Rule Fivers weathered constant personnel changes to constitute perhaps the second-best Rockies bullpen ever, giving hope to those true believers like myself who think "winning with pitching" and "Coors Field" are not necessarily anathema. Perhaps most impressively, Todd Helton, one of the least-noticed great players of this era, shook off nagging injuries and his franchise’s ever-increasing obsolescence to finish with his usual dazzling numbers.
When I started working on this page on May 1st, 2005, I was caught up in the excitement over the early numbers posted by young shortstop Barmes. I thought it would be cool to follow a Rookie of the Year-in-waiting on a day-by-day basis. Plus, somewhere in the back of my head, I imagined that Colorado had a decent chance of challenging the 1962 Mets’ modern futility record of 120 losses. There’d be a book in that somewhere for sure. Of course, the Rockies weren’t dramatically bad this year — they were this close to being mediocre, especially in the second half. And Barmes took a tumble down some stairs while hauling wrapped venison, a gift from Helton, up to his apartment, breaking his collarbone and pretty much scuttling my original mission statement.
But the Rockies still played baseball, because the games were on the schedule, and that’s what baseball teams do. And bad baseball teams are very different than bad football teams. Since the Rockies had a manager who was (at least for the moment) secure in his position and a team of young players who were all just pleased to be getting the opportunity to play, they had one of the most upbeat 95-loss seasons imaginable. And fascinating stuff happened. On the first day of the season, Dustan Mohr injured himself celebrating a walk-off homer by Barmes. That was just the beginning. The 2005 Rockies, to anyone watching closely enough and in the right frame of mind, had a remarkable season. Hawpe caused the hearts of millions of Cubs fans to skip a beat when he pegged Mark Prior in the elbow with a screaming liner in May. (I was in the bleachers at Wrigley and you could hear the plonk! from there.) In July Jason Jennings accomplished the unthinkable and won a 1-0 game at Coors Field, a first in the history of the ballpark. Byung-Hyun Kim, acquired by the Rockies mostly so they could rid themselves of Charles Johnson, ended up the team’s most reliable starter, at least until Cook burst onto the scene. (And although due to sour grapes we’ve been trying to downplay it, Shawn Chacon was traded to the Yankees for two middle-relief prospects and ended up propelling New York to a division title, pitching beautifully in his first playoff start to boot). In August, again against the Cubs, I caught a home run ball! OK, maybe that was only fascinating to me.
No matter where you looked, storylines abounded. An interleague sweep at the hands of the Indians sent that team off to the races. A sweep that went in the Rockies’ favor against Cincinnati may have cost manager Dave Miley his job. The Rockies affected the Wild Card chase by winning only 1 of 6 against Houston but taking 2 from Philadelphia and Washington (and 3 from Florida). Well, maybe I’m reaching a bit there. I will say that if the Chicago White Sox win the World Series, it won’t come as a shock to any gung-ho Rockies fans. There was no series all year where Colorado was more dominated in every facet of the game than Chicago’s three-game sweep at Coors in early June. If the Cardinals win, however, we were a respectable 4-4 against them.
That’s what I’m getting at, I suppose, about the differences between bad football teams and bad baseball teams and how all of this ties in with why (hopefully) this humble site was a worthwhile destination for baseball fans of all affiliations this season. Since the season is so long and the games turn on such tiny decisions — a stolen base here, a missed cut-off man there, an ugly error by a usually reliable defensive replacement — every now and then a bunch of nobodies like the 2005 Rockies can look like world champs. They beat a playoff team 20-1, for pete’s sake. Well, yes, it was the Padres. But still.
Thanks, MLB.com, for the opportunity to do my thing and for the recognition. One little thing: it’s spelled Donohue, D-O-N-O-H-U-E, with two "o’s" and no "a’s." Thank you.
Rob Neyer says that Derrek Lee and Albert Pujols are going to split the "sophisticated" vote for the NL MVP and hand it to the undeserving Andruw Jones, which makes me unhappy. I doubt very many (if any) BWAA members are going to come here to make up their minds before filling out their awards ballots, but I would feel remiss if I didn’t at least try.
NL MVP: Derrek Lee (.339/.422/.668, 45 homers, 104.1 VORP) has been the best hitter in the majors this year by a wide margin. But they have an award for best hitter. Pujols (.330/.428/.606, 39, 96.9) has been nearly Lee’s equal while carrying a St. Louis offense that’s not nearly as loaded as people think (Scott Rolen and Larry Walker have been hurt, Jim Edmonds is having a slightly down year for him). Pujols would have won multiple MVP’s in the past few years were it not for the otherworldliness of Barry Bonds. He deserves to win this year as his Cards have the best record in baseball and Lee’s Cubs are an uninspiring 77-80. Why Jones (.264/.347/.579, 51, 61.4) is even in the discussion is a mystery to me. His OBP is good only for 42nd in the NL. And, if you care about "complete players," he only has four steals to Pujols’ 16 and Lee’s 15. Just say no to Andruw Jones.
AL MVP: Another two-man race, but in this case both players are on teams in contention: Alex Rodriguez and David Ortiz. If you leave out the fact that A-Rod plays Gold Glove defense at third and Ortiz is primarily a DH, Rodriguez still gets over on his hitting numbers alone. Rodriguez (.320/.422/.607, 46, 98.0) is second in the majors in VORP (which includes defense) and Ortiz is fifth. (Lee and Pujols are first and third.) Who’s #4, you ask? Why, it’s Pittsburgh’s Jason Bay. Who knew? Travis Hafner missed a little time this season with a concussion but he’s had an amazing year, look out for him in 2006.
NL Cy Young: I can’t stand Alex Rodriguez, and I can’t stand Roger Clemens, but a full-season ERA of 1.89 in the modern era is completely ridiculous. His won-loss record is unimpressive but people who think a starter’s win total is his most important stat are likely people who think Andruw Jones is a slam-dunk MVP. Chris Carpenter and Dontrelle Willis have had fine years but Clemens is just on another planet. One day I’m going to have to tell The Next Generation that yes, I saw Roger Clemens and yes, I saw Barry Bonds and they were both huge jerks.
AL Cy Young: What’s both good and bad about the major leagues’ top awards is that there’s really no rules. In the absence of an obvious, slam-dunk best pitcher or position player for a year, you can let all sorts of things color your thinking — his team’s record, his historical importance, whether or not he’s won a bunch of times before. The AL doesn’t have a starter with perfect credentials. Kevin Millwood is the ERA leader but has a losing record. Johan Santana (and, significantly, his team) was better last year, when he won it. The White Sox duo of Jon Garland and Mark Buehrle has faded badly down the stretch. Bartolo Colon has 20 wins but he’s not even in the majors’ top 10 in VORP. So where do you turn? Easy: Mariano Rivera. He’s the greatest closer who ever lived and at age 35 he’s had a career year: 1.41 ERA, 42 saves, 0.88 WHIP, .178 BAA, 9.31 K/9. I have the end of the Baltimore-New York game on as I’m writing this and I know I don’t even have to look up, even with the Yankees having but a one-run lead. Rivera is as sure a sure thing as there ever was in the game. Except against the Red Sox. He deserves to win a Cy Young, just as he deserves to one day enter the Hall of Fame.
NL Rookie of the Year: Tight, tight race between Ryan Howard (Philadelphia) and Jeff Francoeur (Atlanta). Francouer has the average (.306 to .284) but eschews the walk (.343 OBP to Howard’s .348). Francoeur’s got 14 homers to Howard’s 20. Jeff has a slight edge in slugging (.565 to .547). The Braves have sewn up yet another division title (ho, hum) and the Phillies will at least be in it into the final days. They’re 1-2 in the NL for VORP among rookie position players (Howard at 24.1, Francoeur at 23.5). I’m tempted to call it a tie but I’ve grown sick of draws watching Liverpool the last few weeks so I will give it to Howard seeing as he has played slightly more. (Also, it will make it all that much more hysterical when Philadelphia has to trade Howard due to the foolish contract they signed Jim Thome to.) If Pittsburgh’s Zach Duke had spent the whole year with the big club, this title would be his.
AL Rookie of the Year: Way more candidates over in the Junior Circuit. Two rookies arguably saved the Yankees’ season (Robinson Cano and Chien-Ming Wang). Joe Mauer arrived at last for the Twins and was everything they said he would be (.302/.378/.422). Unheralded guys Jonny Gomes and Chris Shelton were revelations for the Tigers and Devil Rays. Tadahito Iguchi quickly became a linchpin for the White Sox after arriving from Japan. Counting on rookies in a pennant drive is becoming more and more common in the current economic climate, but Oakland abused the privilege with Nick Swisher, Dan Johnson, and Joe Blanton. It seems fair that an Athletic should get the award, and I’m throwing my support behind Huston Street, who at age 22 assumed the closer’s mantle in Oakland and thrived — in fact, he was practically Rivera-like. How does a 1.63 ERA, 22 saves, a .193 BAA, 0.98 WHIP, and 8.26 K/9 strike you? Strikes me like a Rookie of the Year winner.
There’s games left to be played, of course, so I reserve the right to change my mind. Big Papi might go insane at Fenway Park this weekend, and so might Rivera (for the wrong reasons). Ryan Howard could slug the Phillies past the Astros, maybe. But this is how I see things as of right now. If I impress anything upon you at all, please, let it be that Andruw Jones is a pretender as an NL MVP candidate. .347!
Attention bettors: I played New Orleans vs. the Giants in Madden this morning and won 27-0. For what it’s worth. Also, Deuce McAllister is on my fantasy team, and my fantasy team is having a crazy good week — go, T.J. Houshmandzadeh, go! Not to mention Mike Brown and the Bears’ defense. (Peter King says, "If Mike Brown stays healthy and the Bears win a few games, he’ll give Ed Reed a run for his money as the best safety in football." Who am I to argue with Peter King?)
On the subject of the special Monday Night Football doubleheader tonight, I’d like to take a second to shake you all down for money. I give you all of this premium Rockies content and ask you nothing for it, now it’s time to give back. You see, I’m poor. Real poor. I "work" as a freelance writer and live quite literally story to story. There has been less than a dollar in my bank account since whenever Fox cashed my three-dollar check for shipping on my replacement "Simpsons" Season Six box. So I’d like to pursuade those with better jobs than I to toss a few dollars towards the hurricane relief effort. My uncle, aunt, and their two daughters lived in the Virgin Islands several years ago and when the hurricane hit it was like somebody hit "reset" on their lives. Not everyone in New Orleans is fortunate enough to have a huge concerned Irish Catholic extended family, so please considering giving if you can spare it. If you’ve already given in your name, now’s your chance to do so in mine!
Moving to the relatively trivial matter of the baseball pennant races, I’d like to remind you anew to check Baseball Prospectus‘s daily Playoff Odds Report. On second thought, if you are a fan of one of the teams trailing in the various races, maybe you shouldn’t. The rigorous methodology of BP’s system takes into account the offensive and defensive abilities of every team in baseball, but by its very nature it treats games played by Tampa Bay in April just the same as games played by Cleveland this week. Obviously if two teams are in a close race that means they have very similar winning percentages, and probability dictates that they are likely to continue playing at more or less the same pace. This gives a huge advantage — theoretically — to frontrunners like the Red Sox, Astros, and Angels. But you know and I know that there are times in baseball when you simply throw the numbers out. It’s like one of the fundamental precepts of baseball fandom. We have to believe that teams can "come together," that players can "take the team on their backs," that a single game or play can "make all the difference." As an A’s fan I look at that 34.9% chance of playoff games and shrug it off. We still play the Angels! At home!
In any case the only team guaranteed postseason play as of this writing is St. Louis, which clinched a few days ago. The Cardinals have to be pulling for Houston to win the wild card, giving them San Diego in the first round. If the Marlins or Phillies (or heck, the Nationals, they still have a 1.3% shot) win the fourth spot, that means the Braves will play awful San Diego in the first round and the Cardinals will have to deal with the wild card team. Baseball’s rules about first-round seeding, by the way, are incredibly stupid. Not as stupid as having the All-Star winner’s league have home field in the World Series, but on that level. The teams should be slotted 1 vs. 4 and 2 vs. 3 by record, throwing out the foolish prohibition on intradivisional first round series. The NFL wild card round always seems to have at least one intradivisional game, and more often than not it’s the best one of the weekend. Of course I know MLB is loathe to do anything that will cost us nationally televised Yankees-Red Sox games, but having the best record in your league — or for that fact, the majors — is worth basically nothing except home field in the second round if you get there. I’m not against the wild card, because having only 4 playoff teams out of 30 seems wrong somehow, but they could definitely manage it in a better fashion.
I haven’t been paying terribly close attention to day-to-day Rockies affairs, and hence I didn’t notice due to injury that Mike Esposito and Jamey Wright will start instead of Zach Day and Byung-Hyun this week. I know there are some people out there who are very fond of Esposito, but I’ve seen him pitch in person and he just strikes me as a minor league lifer. Love his control, love his makeup, hate his stuff. Day’s season is over with a broken thumb, assuring that he will finish the season with more DL trips for the Rockies than wins. Oh, but I’ve got tons of faith in him for next season.
On another topic entirely, tonight is a big evening for TV nerds like me, as current Best Show On the Planet "Arrested Development" premieres for its third season and immediately afterwards "How I Met Your Mother", featuring thinking America’s sweetheart Alyson Hannigan (Aly, if you’re somehow reading this, I love you, and will you please autograph my Vampire Willow action figure?), debuts on CBS. Well, it has Neil Patrick Harris, it can’t be entirely bad. Carry on.
I spent a few hours this morning messing around with the archives on ESPN.com, and now so I can justify it as "research" I’m going to write a few words about my favorite sportswriters.
- Bill Simmons. ESPN’s Sports Guy makes me laugh out loud while I’m reading him more often than any time since I first read Dave Barry Slept Here when I was probably 11. The web format really suits Simmons as he’s able to ramble about his non-sports obsessions — trash TV, ’80s cinema, TiVo — and be completely partial when it comes to his teams (all Boston squads and, endearingly, the L.A. Clippers). It’s great that we live in an era when a sportswriter can be most strongly influenced by a TV show. Simmons wears his "Seinfeld" fixation proudly and shares its overly detailed, almost scientific obsession with everyday minutiae. He’s also a pretty canny analyst and extremely stat-friendly for a humorist.
- Jay Mariotti. He comes off as sort of a mook when he appears on "Around the Horn" or guest-hosts "Pardon the Interruption" but Mariotti’s paranoia is perfectly suited for the city he works in. Unlike, say, Philadelphians, Chicagoans secretly want their teams to fail. We’re not sure what to do, really, when they win. Remember all the people tipping over taxis after the first Bulls championship? Or the ’85 Bears "dynasty" folding like a tent after one Super Bowl more memorable for its spinoff music video than any of the action on the field? If you get all your Chicago sports news from Jay, you won’t necessarily believe that the Bears will finish 1-15, the White Sox will take their best-in-the-AL record and end up out of the playoffs, and Kerry Wood, Eddy Curry, and Rex Grossman will never play healthy again, but you won’t be surprised if they do. Mariotti also leads the campaign to keep Chicago’s numerous crooked owners (Wirtz, Reinsdorf, the nefarious Tribune Company) honest, although the Cubs still scalp their own tickets and the Blackhawks’ home games still aren’t on TV, so who knows what good it’s doing.
- Peter King and Paul Zimmerman. SI.com is inferior in nearly every other respect to the mighty ESPN.com, but their football coverage lords it over the competitors because of this dynamic duo. They’re opposites in lots of ways — King is agreeable, Dr. Z acerbic. Peter loves coffee and Paul loves wine. King fills column inches with his daughters’ field hockey exploits, Z writes often about his formidable wife (The Flaming Redhead). They each view football in a completely different way, and you couldn’t get a full picture of how the NFL works from reading only one or the other. King is a total insider, with every coach and coordinator on speed dial. Dr. Z is a clinician who watches tape of every single game and has a Baseball Prospectus-like knack for identifying and ridiculing the overrated, the inefficient, and the just plain stupid. King’s Monday Morning QB column and Z’s weekly picks in the print magazine are must-reads. I particularly anticipate Zimmerman’s end-of-the-year ratings of all the TV announcers. It’s nice to know I’m not the only viewer out there who despairs when the analysts completely ignore substitutions, fail to credit tacklers, and waste hours of airtime with "storylines" they worked out before the game and have little to do with the events on-field.
- Rob Neyer. Sadly, you need a subscription to ESPN’s Insider service to read most of his stuff, but Neyer is one of the few guys (actually, the only guy) good enough to convince me to pay money for Internet content. This flannel-wearing Pacific Northwest denizen isn’t the most brilliant statistic manipulator on the Web (that distinction could belong to any one of a number of BP employees), but he has a way of making sabermetrics accessible that few share, and he can write a straight-up "color" column when his editors demand it. Neyer doesn’t suffer fools gladly, and some of his best work comes from his bristling responses to fools who insist Derek Jeter is a great defensive shortstop or Andruw Jones is a slam-dunk NL MVP candidate. No other writer provides me with more things to be self-righteously angry about. Well, I guess that’s not entirely true, as Joe Morgan has on more than one occasion driven me into an incoherent rage. But in Neyer’s case we’re usually on the same side.
There’s probably people I’m forgetting but that seems like enough for now. I will note that my omission of all Denver’s local writers is not an accident. Come back, Woody Paige.
A (relative) lot of comments lately, which makes me happy. I’m glad people are still at least glancing in the Rockies’ direction this late in the year. (Perhaps it was brought on by that hideous Broncos loss in Miami. Not that as a Bears fan I have anything — underline, anything — to gloat about.) Anyway I started to respond to the most recent comment regarding how the Rockies should go about constructing a pitching staff, and I realized my thoughts were involved enough to go the route of a whole new post.
Why is it not a good idea for the Rockies to build a pitching staff around guys who throw sinkers, or guys who throw changeups, or guys who throw spitters? Theoretically, since curveballs depend on air resistance to "curve," guys with big hooks are hung out to dry in the rarified air at Coors Field. Well, as I see it, there’s basically three reasons.
- The Rockies already win at home. This is something I have to repeat so often that I’ve been thinking about tattooing their lifetime home winning percentage (which is about .560, twenty percentage points or so higher than league average, even though Colorado has been bad more often than not) somewhere on my person. Assembling a pitching staff with the goal of winning more games at home is as bad an idea as putting together an offense that only scores runs at Coors. The Rockies’ trouble is now, and always has been, winning games on the road.
- Sticking to a plan is hard. It would take at least three years to implement an organization-wide "pitch preference" in the Rockies’ minor league system, free agent acquisitions, and drafts. Chuck LaMar aside, very few management teams get that much time to turn a team around. Dan O’Dowd has shown no lack of initiative when it comes to dreaming up new ideas about how to bring playoff baseball back to Denver. Trouble is he changes his mind at least once a year. Launching a new plan every offseason is arguably more damaging than consistently executing a flawed plan over several years.
- Limiting your pitching staff to one "type" is damaging in more ways than one. First of all, the Rockies have simply never had a dominating starting pitcher of any stripe. Coors gets a bad rap for what "happened" to Mike Hampton, but Mike Hampton wasn’t that good to begin with and hasn’t been all that great since he’s left. Are you going to tell me that the Rockies would have no interest in acquiring (for example) Barry Zito because he throws a curveball? That would really be putting the cart before the horse, or perhaps some other metaphor I’m not quite sure the meaning of. Also, if opponents come into games against Colorado prepared to sit on a changeup for nine innings, they’ll have an advantage. Having a variety of pitchers with different styles benefits any team — this has long been Oakland’s strategy, as they’ve run out screwballers (Jim Mecir), knuckleballers (Steve Sparks), submariners (Chad Bradford), and flat-out gas guys (Octavio Dotel, Billy Koch) in a dizzying array the past several years. The improvement of the Rockies’ pen this season has a bit to do with this as well, not least to mention the unique delivery of its biggest success story, Brian Fuentes (a fastball-slider guy with a wonky windup).
Smart Rockies — particularly Jeff Francis and Marcos Carvajal, I’ve noticed — figure out how to use their breaking pitches differently at Coors. Just because a curve doesn’t break as dramatically at altitude doesn’t mean it can’t be an effective pitch. That’s what it boils down to. It’s the same as building an offense. Don’t find guys who can hit at Coors — find guys who can hit anywhere. Don’t find guys with good changeups — find guys with good pitches, period. It’s elementary but worth stating anyway: the most effective way to keep a hitter from getting on or knocking in runs is to strike him out. If a pitcher can strike guys out, I don’t care if he does it with a Pedro Martinez changeup, a Brad Lidge slider, or Orlando Hernandez’s goofy 50-MPH blooper.
Well, another reason to be excited about the other football: the Chicago Bears’ season is over, before it even began. Again. Expletive deleted.