Happy Birthday, Frank Robinson!

August 31, 2010

Today, August 31, is Hall of Famer Frank Robinson’s birthday. He is 75 years old. I met him two years ago at the baseball Winter Meetings in Las Vegas, and he was gracious and kind.

He was with baseball commentator Ed Randall, who said, “See Frank, someone does remember you!” And Robby laughed.

The Judge, as he was sometimes known, was one of the most underrated ball players of his generation. And it is tough to be underrated when you are  Hall of Famer! He played the game hard all the time and was one of the fiercest players on the diamond.

Robinson is one of my favorite all time players, and not just the way he played the game.

We share the same birthday.

But Robinson is not the only Hall of Famer born on this day. Eddie Plank, a left-handed pitcher for Connie Mack’s Philadelphia A’s team in the first two decades of the 20th Century was also born on August 31st. Plank won 326 games over 17 season with 2.35 career ERA.

Five times he threw over 300 innings, with a high of 357 IP in 1904 when he won 26 games.

Maybe we can get another HOFer born on this date as Tim (Rock) Raines was born today, too.  Rock received 30.4% of the ballots this year, his third on the ballot.  He is currently the manager of the Newark Bears in the independent Atlantic League.

Other well-know ballplayer born on August 31st include Tracy Stallard (Gave up Roger Maris’ 61st HR), Claudell Washington, Tom Candiotti, Von Hayes, Hideo Nomo and Ramon Ramirez.

These are good baseball players, but none were better than Frank Robinson.

Happy Birthday, Frank!

Vladimir Guerrero: Good for Baseball or Reason to Eliminate the DH?

August 11, 2010

The Bleacher Report editorial staff asked me my opinion on the designated hitter. Do guys like Vladimir Guerrero of the Texas Rangers and David Ortiz of the Boston Red Sox help the game, or is their specialization bad for baseball?

I consider myself a baseball purist (I dislike artificial turf, 12-man pitching staffs, innings limits, pitch counts, and the Wild Card) but I do like the DH.

Certain hitters in 2010, such as Ortiz and Guerrero, were thought to have been done as major league hitters. The Angels made the hasty decision to believe Hideki Matusi’s heroics in the 2009 World Series would translate over to 2010. The Halos signed him instead of re-signing Vlad.

However, Guerrero and Ortiz have had a resurgence in 2010 and are big reasons why their teams are in playoff contention.

If there were no DH, then these players would likely have not had the same type of seasons, if they were playing at all.

Since the April 6 game in 1973 when Ron Blomberg of the New York Yankees was the first ever DH to have a plate appearance, this position has allowed many players to elongate their careers in the comfy confines of the “half player.” 

Those early days included DH’s like Orlando Cepeda (who could have been the first DH), Frank Robinson of the California Angels, Tony Oliva of the Minnesota Twins, Billy Williams of the Oakland A’s, Harmon Killebrew of the Kansas City Royals, and Hank Aaron of the Milwaukee Brewers.

These players were all former 1960s hitting stars (most are Hall of Famers) who were near the end of their careers. Although slower in the field, they could still be productive with the bat.

For instance, Robinson hit 30 home runs in 1973 as DH, and Oliva, who was often injured and had terrible knees, extended his career by a few years.

The game at that time was not in a boom period. Pitching dominated. Runs were at a premium, and the AL owners (who voted eight to four in favor of the DH), wanted to boost run production and attendance. It was the second time within five years that baseball made rules changes for improved run production.

After the 1968 season, affectionately called the Year of the Pitcher, the height of the mound was lowered from 15 inches to 10 inches.

And young fans (such as myself at the time) were able to see big time former stars (such as the all-time home run king Aaron), able to still play baseball. We wanted to see Aaron hit. Most of these DH’s still played the field a little bit, too, yet they probably would not have had a roster spot if the DH were not in effect.

In 1973, several young players also got the opportunity for more early career at bats. Oscar Gamble (23) of the Cleveland Indians likely had his career kick-started a little earlier with the help of the DH.

Even though Gamble already had major league time accumulated, the increased frequency of his plate appearances were the result of the DH. Others, like Carlos May and Hal McRae, played more often because of the DH position.

The DH has now evolved into not just a full-time position, but also a rotating spot in the lineup. For example, the New York Yankees regularly give one of their position players a “half day off” by letting them DH in a game to give them a break.

This is another example of what baseball has always loved: seeing the big stars play more often. Who wants to go to their first baseball game (a day game following a night contest) and not see Alex Rodriguez or Vlad Guerrero in the game? The DH spot allows for this star player to still play.

The great Joe DiMaggio retired early because he wasn’t at full-strength in 1951, his last season. DiMaggio primarily meant his play in the field. If the DH were present and in full swing in 1952, DiMaggio could have still had a few more productive seasons with the bat while a young Mickey Mantle assumed full-time duties in center field.

And maybe a few more young fans today would have been able to say they once saw Joe DiMaggio play for the Yankees. 

This is similar to the All-Star Game played every year. It does not matter how good Alex Gonzalez played for Toronto in the first half when fans want to see Derek Jeter start at shortstop. If some National League first baseman were having a “career year” in the first half, sorry Charlie, but Phat Albert is playing at the first sack.

Since the game (and people’s jobs) are determined by wins and losses, if an aging DH is not producing, he likely will not keep his job. That is why managers with not a whole lot of tenure will only play guys who are productive, not being able to afford to sit on a certain player.

Guys like Harold Baines, Hal McRae, Edgar Martinez, and Paul Molitor all succeeded at the DH position because they were still productive. Frank Thomas was the same way, and when he stopped hitting, he was “retired.”

Of that group, only Molitor is currently in the Hall of Fame, although Thomas will probably get in quickly. Pushes for Baines and Martinez (although eligible only one season thus far), have fallen on voters’ deaf ears. While Martinez still may have that Bert Blyleven push if he continues to struggle, it shows that only the “best of the best” at any position will make the hallowed Hall.

It is not like a bunch of aging veterans are hanging on to accumulate Hall-ready numbers. Even if Ortiz produces a year or two more, he is not Hall-worthy, while Guerrero probably would be as he was a better all-around player for his entire career.

The game is about winning and only the good players will play.

Ask former Seattle Mariners manager Don Wakamatsu how quickly things can change when your team does not play well. Where Wakamatsu had not built up any “winning tenure,” a manager like Boston’s Terry Francona can weather the David Ortiz storm a little longer, hoping he breaks out of his early season malaise. But most managers need to win now.

And it was good for the game overall to see Big Papi become a threat once again, as it was for Vlad Guerrero. Two stars who the fans want to see, not because they are “padding their stats” but because they are productive players who are helping their teams win games now.

Don’t the Angels wish they had Vlad back this season?

David Wright’s Career Is Over Unless He Becomes Fearless at the Plate

April 19, 2010

The event occurred after my college career was over and I was several seasons into one of the various semi-pro leagues I played in during the summer. Make no mistake about the quality of “summer ball,” as these were some of the most competitive seasons we ever played. A regular season was usually a 40-game schedule played over 60 days, then playoffs.

We were taking infield practice during a team workout and while playing second base, I moved to the left to field a ball hit into the 3.5 hole, when the ball hit something (the skin fields were never great), and came up and hit me square in the nose.

You can tell by my picture on my home page here a Bleacher Report , that it was not the only time I was hit in the nose by a baseball.

But this occasion, which produced a stream of blood and an immediately dark black eye, produced a fear for me in fielding ground balls. I would flinch every time I was about to field a ground ball. For at least a month (or maybe more) I shied away from ground balls, especially those which were hit hard.

I was relegated to outfield duty until my fear of the baseball eventually subsided.

If a baseball player is ever fearful of the baseball, then their ability to play the game is severely compromised.

Which bring me to New York Mets third baseman, David Wright.

After watching the very draining three-game series the Mets played at the St. Louis Cardinals, I have come to the conclusion that Wright’s baseball career, as he and Met fans knew it, is over.

Why? The Aug. 15, 2009 fastball from San Francisco Giants RHP Matt Cain which beaned Wright in the head. That 94 MPH 0-2 pitch sailed in on Wright and knocked his helmet off.

When Wright was beaned, he suffered a concussion, was placed on the 15-day disabled list and did not return to the Mets lineup until Sep. 1, 2009. Wright missed 15 games.

This past weekend, I saw all three Met games, including all 20 innings Saturday night. In these three games, Wright ducked away from eight inside pitches, literally turning away from the ball in a frightened state.  

What was amazing is that all eight of these pitches were curveballs! They were pitches which were thrown at Wright, which then broke over the inside or middle part of the plate.

David Wright was afraid of these pitches as they were thrown at him.

Wright also now “steps in the bucket” on most pitches, pulling his front foot towards the third baseman rather than stepping straight at the pitcher. It must be noted that Wright, in his career prior to the beaning, almost always didn’t step directly at the pitcher, but his bailing out now is much more pronounced.

After the inside curveballs, Wright was peppered with breaking pitches away. The standard procedure, likely devised by Cardinals manager Tony LaRussa and pitching coach Dave Duncan, was to throw Wright inside pitches to get ahead and then get him out away.

But teams cannot pitch the same way every time to a hitter, so the Cardinals mixed up the philosophy a few at bats, just to keep Wright honest. They would work outside, then get him looking outside before coming in with their “out pitch.” 

Also, a couple times this weekend (ninth inning Saturday, fifth in Sunday) Wright took inside curve balls for strike three. Wright literally turned away from the ball before taking the called third strikes. The main situation is that the Cardinals sensed Wright’s fear and set him up all weekend.

Professional sports are copycat businesses, and I expect to see other teams follow suit with this program of pitching to Wright.

If he continues to be afraid of the ball, Wright will never be the same type of productive hitter he used to be prior to Aug. 15th of last season.

There have been many beanings in baseball’s history and some of the most famous include Tony Conigliaro of the Boston Red Sox, Dickie Thon of the Houston Astros, and Paul Blair of the Baltimore Orioles.

Because of various reasons none of these three hitters ever were the same as they were before the beaning. It is tough to get back in the batter’s box to face 90+ mile an hour pitches when you have suffered a head shot.

Blair even tried switch hitting before ending that experiment. I do remember Blair from his days as a New York Yankee, a backup outfielder on the two World Series teams of 1977 and 1978. At that time, Blair had a severe “step in the bucket” hitting style, afraid to stand in against right handed pitchers.

Blair was one of the best defensive center fielders of all time and was primarily a defensive specialist for those Yankee teams.

In addition to Wright, there were seven other players hit in the head with a pitch during the 2009 season, including Marco Scutaro, Paul Konerko, and even pitcher Micah Owings. A check of their statistics after their beaning indicates very little change, although I do notice Scutaro stepping away from the pitcher a little. Several players even hit a little better.

However, Wright returned after the beaning and hit .239 BA/.289 OBP/.367 SLG/.656 OPS after the beaning. This was after putting up a line of .324/.414/.467/.882 OPS prior to the beaning. That is very significant.

And Wright also walked only nine times and struck out 35 times in that final month after the beaning, whereas he never had less than nine free passes and never had more than 27 punch outs during a single month—in any full season of his career!

While that could be a fluky final month in 2009, combined with Wright’s slow start and high strikeout rate already (14 whiffs) this season, there should be cause for concern. While he has continued to walk (17 times so far in 2010), that can attributed more to big money free agent Jason Bay’s even worse start (another great move by Omar !), the batter who normally hits behind Wright.

While the above beaned player’s careers were stunted after their beanings, three Hall of Fame players also suffered severe beanings—Mickey Cochrane, Joe Medwick, and Frank Robinson.

Cochrane was the premiere catcher in his day but never played another game after he was beaned in 1937, but both outfielder’s Medwick and Robinson returned to the diamond. 

Medwick won the National League’s Triple Crown in 1937 as a 25-year-old. He was in his prime when he was traded from the St. Louis Cardinals to the Brooklyn Dodgers early in the 1940 season, and was beaned a week later by former teammate Bob Bowman of the Cardinals.

Before the beaning, Medwick was a superstar, finishing first or second in various batting categories 28 times, including three straight RBI titles* from 1936-1938. After the beaning, he was a shell of his former self, never leading the league in any category and finishing second once.

*I know the sabermetric crowd doesn’t like the RBI stat, but driving in runs is still the most important job a hitter can do. Just ask the Boston Red Sox and New York Mets this season about getting hits with runners in scoring position (RISP). They can’t hit with RISP and, so far, both teams stink this season.

Medwick hit .338 and slugged .552 before the 1940 season and after the 1940 season hit hit only .302 and slugged .439. Severe drop-offs. According to reports from the time, Medwick was plate shy and not the same aggressive hitter.

Similar to Conigliaro , Hall of Famer Frank Robinson was a hitter who stood on top of the plate, and was always getting hit by pitches (198 total). Robinson, who was one of my favorite players (we share the same birthday), led the league seven times in getting hit by a pitch. Robinson was beaned in spring training 1958, his third season in the major leagues, and his career was in jeopardy.

In an interview with Investor’s Business Daily on April 5, 2007, Robinson admitted when he woke up in the hospital he wasn’t the same hitter. “I was in denial. I was fearful at the plate for the first and only time in my career. I had struggled through the first half of the season. I was just leaning back on pitches, rocking back, and I wouldn’t admit it to myself .”

The great Robinson, Rookie of the Year in 1956 and already a superstar was afraid of the ball. Then during the 1958 All-Star break, he decided it was time to have a talk with himself. “I said, ‘If you still want to be a major-league ballplayer, you’re going to have to start going into the pitches again and not have any fear up there at the plate .'”

David Wright has the ability to play the game at a high level, but the beaning he took last August has noticeably affected his play. The numbers since the beaning supports that observation.

Wright can take one of two routes going forward. He can fight through the fear of the pitched ball like Robinson did and improve his game or he can stay in his state of fear and continue his downward spiral, similar to the spiral Joe Medwick had after his beaning.

I fear Wright will follow Medwick’s path, and that is too bad.

If I was running a pre-series meeting before facing the Mets, I would tell my pitchers to be aggressive up and in EARLY to Wright at least once a game to intimidate him. Take advantage of his current weakness.

You never know how long it will last, and with continued aggression, it might last forever.