Friday, May 6, 2011

Willie Mays Would Have Had It

"Willie would have had it." I heard it the first time I went to a baseball game and have heard it or thought about it at every game since. The words would come from my father as he tried to teach me about the greatness of Willie Mays. Fly balls that hit warning track or that would drop in front of or to the side of an outfielder would get the same comment from my Dad, "Willie would have had it".

My father grew up a Mays fan and was surrounded by Mickey Mantle fans. His neighborhood was just one of the many neighborhoods where fans of all ages debated over who was better. Mantle fans would talk about his ability to switch hit and when Mantle would struggle to match up with Willie they would argue it was only because of his bad knees. My father would respond accordingly, "fine, Mickey is the best centerfielder with bad knees and Willie is just the best centerfielder".

I was born in 1974, a year after Willie Mays played his final game. I never got to see him play but I was fortunate enough to take an unofficial life long course about all things Willie Mays. It was a course taught by my father and I had no choice but to attend.

Ken Griffey Jr was billed as the next Willie Mays. He was a five tool player that wore #24, the comparison was easy to make. My father and I attended a game at Fenway Park early in Griffey's career. It didn't take long for my Dad to sum up his thoughts on Griffey. "He is no Willie, they should rip the #24 off his back". This opinion was formed right after a fly ball landed off the base of the centerfield wall behind Griffey. Willie would have had it.

It wasn't just his range that my father would rave about. He would also brag about his arm. He would remind me that the great thing about Willie's catch in the 1954 World Series is that nobody tagged up. My father also loves to share the story of a game in Philadelphia that he attended. His seats were on the third base line with Willie and the Giants in town. There was a base hit to center and a Phillie attempted to go first to third on the great Willie Mays. "All I saw was Willie throw it and then a puff of dirt at third base and the umpire making the out call, the throw was not visible to the human eye".

Willie Mays is an icon and when it comes to icons they always tend to get better as the years pass. It is easy to exaggerate the exploits of players who played before the age of Sportscenter. It is much easier to be critical of modern players because we have access to every at bat and every play. It is impossible to exaggerate a play because we have video of it and it is also impossible to hide their failures because we have video of that too. Willie, Mickey, Babe, Ted had it made in that respect. It wouldn't quite be the same if they came around today. However, stats don't lie. Willie played the majority of his career in a 16 team league and against great pitchers. The league was not watered down and the rules favored the pitcher. The mound was high, the strike zone was big and there were many more pitcher friendly parks. Despite all this Willie put up numbers that are still mind boggling today. Hitting for average and power without the use of anything but his natural ability.

About a decade ago ESPN did a series in which they counted down the greatest athletes of the past century. Mays finished 8th and Mantle finished 37th. Secretariat came in at #35. My father, then in his mid 50's loved it. Not only did he feel vindicated that Willie was well ahead of Mickey but he also loved the idea that even a horse beat out The Mick. He said the only bad thing was that he couldn't go back to the old neighborhood and find those kids again. My Dad had won the argument and he wanted to take a victory lap in front of those kids. Those kids are all grown up now and somewhere they have come to the same conclusion we all have, Willie would have had it. Happy 80th Birthday Willie!

Ten Reasons Why Willie is the Greatest
Final SportsCentury Rankings

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

The Captain?

Derek Jeter really is this generation's version of Joe Dimaggio. Joe Dimaggio was seen as soft spoken, classy, and a great quiet leader. We learned much later that wasn't quite the case. Dimaggio wasn't exactly friendly and a great teammate to a young kid named Mickey Mantle. Turns out that classy Dimaggio had an ego and while I am sure he loved to win, he wasn't much different than the normal pro athlete who thought of himself first. Dimaggio after all was the first player to hold out for more money, and after he retired, Joltin' Joe would only show up to events if his name was announced last and only if he was introduced as "the greatest living ballplayer". Stay classy Joe D.

Jeter is loved by Yankee fans because they view him as the ultimate winner. A team first guy, a leader, the Captain! We are starting to learn that Jeter may not be those things. Excerpts from Ian O'Connor's latest book have been released and The Captain comes off as more of a thin skinned athlete who is more concerned about personal agendas than winning on the field. Then there were his contract negotiations this past offseason where Jeter's agent took the negotations public first making the Yankees fire back in the press leaving Jeter upset that the Yankees were negotiation through the media. You can't make this stuff up.

Jeter is now struggling. It might be a slump or it may be the beginning of the end. The latest debate is whether or not to drop him in the order. Wallace Matthews and Andrew Marchand debate it in this article.

Andrew Marchand makes a great point at the end of debate. He writes "if Jeter is really all the things his captaincy and legend represents, then he should be all for the move. It is for the good of the team"  This makes perfect sense but here is the issue, Jeter isn't all the things his captaincy and legend represents. If he was all those things he would have moved positions in 2004 when Alex Rodriguez arrived. Rodriguez was the best defensive shortstop in baseball. He made only eight errors in 2003 and his range factor numbers dwarfed that of Jeter's. The 2004 Yankees would have been a much better team with Arod at SS and Jeter moving to second or third base. I don't know if Jeter was asked to move but a captain shouldn't have to be asked. He should do it when it makes the team better. Jeter won't move down in the lineup on his own just like he won't change positions on his own. He is there for himself first and foremost leaving Girardi twisting in the wind to make the decision which will only bring controversy and a split among Yankee fans and possibly the clubhouse. Does this sound like a captain to you?

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Storybook Beginning for the Boston Red Sox

The 0-6 start for the Red Sox is a really good sign. Yes, you did read that correctly. The Red Sox of the last 25 years have always had to overcome long odds in order to have great moments. It has never been easy and 2011 will be no different.

The 2011 Red Sox were picked to breeze to an AL East title over the Yankees, steam roll through the playoffs and then beat the Phillies in the World Series. That sounds awful boring and the Red Sox have never been boring.They have also never been great at being the favorite. Six straight losses the favorite tag is now off of them and history tells us that this team filled with talent has some great moments ahead of them.

At 0-3 we could compare these Sox to the 1998 Yankees who went on to win 114 games and the World Series. At 0-6, that talk has stopped and it seems like many have counted the Red Sox down and out a week after a season of such promise began. However, isn't it possible that the 2011 Red Sox could do something no other team in the history of baseball has done before? History tells us yes.

2004 is the obvious comparison. The Red Sox did something that no baseball team had ever done and has yet to do since. They were down and out and pulled off the miracle. The comeback against the Yankees is what makes the 2004 championship so special. It is what makes it a great story. Can you imagine if the Sox beat the Yankees in 5 games and then went on and swept the Cardinals? Not exactly a great story there, kind of boring, very much like the scenario that many were predicting for this 2011 team.

2004 wasn't the only instance of the Red Sox coming back from the dead to triumph. Three years later the Red Sox were down three games to one against the Indians in the ALCS and stormed back to win the pennant and eventually the World Series.

The examples don't end with 2004 and 2007. There was the 2003 ALDS miracle. The Red Sox lost the first two games in Oakland in a best of five series and stormed back to tie the series and then win an incredible Game 5 in Oakland behind the relief efforts of Derek Lowe. 2003 didn't end the way Sox fans wanted thanks to Aaron Boone but many fans had given up on the Sox several days earlier when they were down 0-2 to the Athletics.

Speaking of the ALDS and being down 2-0 in a best of five series, let's talk about those 1999 Boston Red Sox. The Indians were the opponent again and the Red Sox overcame the odds again. Nomar Garciaparra was never better and Pedro came out of the bullpen during the decisive Game 5 in Jacobs Field to shut down the Indians and move the Red Sox on to the ALCS.

This October will mark the 25th anniversary of perhaps the greatest postseason in MLB history. 1986 is often associated with Bill Buckner and the cold evening in Shea Stadium. However, the 1986 Red Sox were not supposed to even get that far. They found themselves down three games to one in the ALCS to the Angels. It was in Game 5 when things looked their worst as the Sox were down to their last strike. Dave Henderson then went deep and the rest is history.

 The Red Sox are 0-6. A week into the season and they are no longer the favorites. The Rangers look incredible and a team very capable of defending their American League crown. The Yankees look better than the experts thought. 156 games left and the Red Sox are being counted out. No team has ever recovered from an 0-6 start to make the postseason, let alone win it all. This is how the story for the 2011 Red Sox begins. We have seen this story before, I think we all know how it ends.

You can follow me on twitter @ThePeskyPole6

Fixing Opening Day

Opening weekend of the baseball season is over and I want to give Bud Selig and MLB some credit for changing the way the baseball season starts. It is an improvement but definitely not perfect. I like the fact there is no "Opening Night" game. It works for the NFL but not for baseball. I also like the idea of starting the season with a weekend series but as usual MLB still doesn't get things totally right. Here are my issues:

Opening Day should be "Opening Day" for all teams! Start the season on Friday for all teams and have as many afternoon games as possible. There is no reason not to do it this way. MLB's explanation centers around having a built in off day as a possible make up day in case bad weather forces a cancellation.There is a real easy way to fix this.

I am not the smartest guy in the world but isn't there enough MLB teams that play home games in cities and/or ballparks where weather won't be a factor in April? Marlins, Rays, Rangers, Astros, Blue Jays, Braves, Dodgers, Giants, Angels, Diamondbacks, Padres are the obvious ones and then the next batch of teams that have a pretty good chance at decent weather are the Orioles, Nationals, Cardinals and Royals. That is 15 teams. Is it that hard to make sure all those teams are home for maybe the first week of the baseball season. Can someone explain to me why the Rockies and Diamondbacks were playing this past weekend in Colorado? I don't think it snows inside of Chase Field. Baseball is the greatest sport in the world. It is so great that it survives despite how poorly it is run by MLB.

The other option which will fix all of this is to go back to a 154 game schedule. Start the season around April 15th and schedule Sunday doubleheaders on every Sunday beginning the first Sunday in June through the first Sunday of August. Make these games free for all kids under the age of 16. It will be a short term money loss for MLB but a long term gain. MLB doesn't think this way though but that is an entirely different topic. Back to the schedule, 154 games, April 15th, Sunday doubleheaders and eliminate all off days in a postseason series. The postseason should be more like the regular season. You get one off day a week during the season, it should be the same in the playoffs. I would agree to an off day before any Game 7 of a series. This will give the teams their one off day of the week and also build up some anticipation for the ultimate game. This schedule will eliminate regular season games in late March and early April along with playoff baseball no longer taking place in late October and November. It also just might bring in younger fans. After all, baseball is going to need them in the future.

Are the 2004 Boston Red Sox Overrated?

 The 2004 Red Sox will never be forgotten. They are easily the most loved team in the history of the Boston Red Sox, but are they really the best?

I conducted a poll and the 04 Sox received over 28% of the vote edging out the 1978 edition by about 7%. The shocking thing is that the 2007 champs only received 6% of the vote.

It is amazing how our perception changes over time. Seven years later and the 2004 Boston Red Sox are thought of as unbeatable when truth be told they were a very average team for most of the season.
Please save the hate mail. I do not think they were an "average" team but they did have more flaws than we care to remember. The 2004 Red Sox will always be special to me. They are by far my favorite Red Sox team, although I sure did love that 1999 team with Pedro Martinez
 and Nomar Garciaparra.

Many Red Sox teams have brought me to tears but the 2004 team finally brought the good tears out of me. It is impossible to put into words the emotions so many Red Sox fans felt in October of 2004. Personally, I cried, laughed, screamed, and yelled in sheer and utter delight!! I felt this sense of vindication. It was amazing! No matter how many times the Red Sox win it all again in my lifetime it will never come close to making me feel how I felt in 2004. Those emotions will always be there for me and the memory of them will last a lifetime.

I started a tradition on Opening Day of 2005. I break out my DVD of Reverse of the Curse and watch the last chapter. I always find myself fighting back tears when the graveyard scene comes up and I mean ALWAYS. No matter how many times I watch it those emotions and that feeling from 2004 are there.
My newest tradition is to watch ESPN's Four Days in October on every October 20th. The preview clip below will give you chills.

I more than understand the appeal, the connection, the emotion and the love for this team and what they accomplished in 2004. However, it doesn't change the fact that they did have flaws, flaws that disappeared over the last eight games of the 2004 postseason and that is all we tend to remember.
Derek Lowe is the best example of our forgotten, if not, selective memory. Lowe had a pretty bad 2004  regular season, so bad that he was not supposed to even make a start in the playoffs. However, circumstances and destiny put the ball in his hand three times in the postseason and he was virtually unhittable. When we think of Derek Lowe we think of those three starts, we don't think of all the rest of those starts in 2004 that led to his balooning ERA of 5.42

It is hard to compare teams from different eras, but it isn't hard to compare teams that are just three seasons apart. The 2007 Red Sox were also World Champions. They may have won two fewer games than the 2004 Red Sox but they did win the division and their Pythagorean record was actually 101-61, a full five games better than in 2004. Was the 2007 team better than the 2004 Red Sox? I think so and the numbers below don't lie.

Before you take a look at the numbers I want to explain a few things:
The only actual stat I used to compare the teams was WAR. My readers who are more traditional in the way they evaluate players and teams probably just threw up in their mouth. I understand the opposing view when it comes to sabermetrics but I truly believe that WAR is currently the best way to measure the value of a player. If you are not familiar with WAR it simply means WINS ABOVE REPLACEMENT player. So if you have a rating of 3.4 it means that in that season you helped to earn your team 3.4 more wins than would the "average" ballplayer. The average ballplayer would have a WAR of 0.

I broke down the comparisons by lineup, pitching and bench. For lineups I went by most games played. This is why Pokey Reese is the shortstop for the 2004 team. Injuries and being traded cut down on Nomar's games played while Cabrera getting to the team late made it impossible for him to get more games in at shortstop than Pokey. This was also the issue in RF in 2004 as Trot Nixon missed most of the season due to various injuries making Gabe Kapler the rightfielder of the 2004 World Champions. Our perception though is of Trot Nixon as the every day rightfielder in 2004 simply because of his long tenure with the Red Sox and the fact he had the game winning RBI in Game 4 of the World Series that year.
The pitching staffs are comprised of the ten pitchers who threw the most innings in their respective seasons.
The bench is everyone else that contributed in the 2004 and 2007 seasons.
Here is the breakdown:

2004 Red Sox
WAR 2007 Red Sox WAR
C- Varitek 4.1 C- Varitek 3
1B- Millar 2 1B- Youkilis 4.3
2B- Bellhorn 3.5 2B- Pedroia 4.3
SS- Reese 1.6 SS- Lugo 0.4
3B- Mueller 1 3B- Lowell 5.1
LF- Ramirez 3.8 LF- Ramirez 1.4
CF- Damon 4.4 CF- Crisp 4.1
RF- Kapler 0.1 RF- Drew 2.7
DH- Ortiz 4.3 DH- Ortiz 6
TOTALS 24.8 31.3
Pitchers Pitchers
Schilling 6.4 Matsuzaka 3.2
Martinez 4.8 Beckett 4.7
Wakefield 0.8 Wakefield 1.4
Lowe -1.1 Schilling 3
Arroyo 2.4 Tavarez -0.5
Foulke 3.4 Lester 0.6
Timlin 1.1 Papelbon 2.8
Embree 0.4 Okajima 2.6
Williamson 1 Timlin 0.7
Leskanic 0.7 Snyder 0.1
TOTALS 19.2 18.6
BENCH 2.5 5.5
Overall 46.5 55.4

As you can see it is not really close. This did surprise me. After thinking about both teams I did have it in my mind that the 2007 team was better but the numbers prove it emphatically. The biggest gap comes through in the everyday lineup. The 2004 Red Sox lineup did score more runs but the 2007 lineup was better all around. Remember, WAR also puts a measure on defense. Notice Derek Lowe and his negative number,very different from the postseason Derek Lowe we think about when it comes to 2004.

The question is could the 2007 Red Sox really beat the 2004 Red Sox in a best of seven when those idiots have things clicking? We will never know the answer to that, but based on the season as a whole and overall roster construction the 2007 Red Sox team is the better team. Are the 2004 Red Sox overrated? Their overall talent is definitely overrated but what they accomplished can never be called overrated. Separating the two is hard to do and only becomes more difficult as time goes by. The 2004 Red Sox will only get better while the 2007 Red Sox will tend to be forgotten. That is the way history is but the truth remains even if we don't want to admit it.

You can follow me on twitter @ThePeskyPole6