Rolling Home…

First things first.  You may be aware that Devil Rays 2B is putting the finishing touches on an excellent season.  Then again, you may not, as Cantu is the 2nd baseman on the Devil Rays and really, nobody pays attention to them.  But outside perhaps of Jeff Kent, no second sacker in the league has been better offensively than Cantu.  While you (and I) weren’t paying attention, he’s managed to pile up 28 homes, 115 RBI, a .289 BA, .503 SLG, and .803 OPS.  The only real knock against him is his 18 walks translate into a .313 OBP.  Not quite Christian Guzman, but still that number should be higher.  To think these guys were planning on playing Robbie Alomar at the beginning of the year.

Add Cantu to Carl Crawford, Scott Kazmir, Jonny Gomes, Joey Gathright, Justin Upton, Delmon Young, a returning Rocco Baldelli, a great trade chip in Aubrey Huff, and Mark Hendrickson (every baseball team needs a guy who can dunk), and the Devil Rays have a bright future, evidenced by their 2nd half performance.  Of course, we all said the same thing going into this season, after the Rays had a good 2nd half in ’04. 

Other guys who have had great years that have flown under the radar:  Garrett Atkins and Matt Holliday for Colorado, Bill Hall for Milwaukee, Oakland’s Mark Ellis and Dan Johnson.  Jessie Crain has been incredible for the Twins, Solomon Torres has been very effective out of the bullpen for Pittsburgh, and Arizona’s Chad Tracy.  There are plenty of others, especially on bad teams.  It’s another post for another day. 

NL WEST UPDATE:  I’d congratulate the Padres for nearly clinching the division, but I don’t think anything that comes out of there deserves praise. 

AL WEST UPDATE:  I love the Angels.  While they started the season with more talent than the Dodgers, and by all rights should be where they are, comparing the two LA teams is like night and day.  The Angels have dealt with injuries and ineffectiveness from stars (hello, Steve Finley), yet kept it together.  They watched the A’s catch them, but instead of folding, they kept playing.  I’m a huge fan of Dodgers manager Jim Tracy, but the Angels under Mike Scioscia have played much like the Cardinals this season (or the Dodgers last year).  No matter what happens, it’s the team on the field that has to perform.  No excuses.  The Dodgers can’t say that, though much of the blame goes to GM Paul DePodesta for the team he constructed. 

NL CENTRAL UPDATE:  The Cards wrapped it up weeks ago, because they’re awesome.  Thought I’d throw that out there.   

Finally, I’m keeping my fingers crossed for the Indians and White Sox.  Not just because I said the Indians would win the Central, and that the Yanks wouldn’t make the playoffs (a prediction made in midseason, in the interests of full disclosure), but because the offseason is so much more fun when George Steinbrenner is angry.

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Lost in Baseball…

Like most of the world, I’ve been gearing up because for tomorrow’s season premiere of Lost.  Unlike most people, I’ve crammed the entire season into about 3 days of DVD viewing.  (I missed most of last season- getting lost, so to speak, after about the 7th episode.  I knew if wasn’t ready for the 2nd season, I’d have to TiVO the first couple episodes, and end up hopelessly behind again.  For reference, check my attempts to follow Fox’s Prison Break, scuttled after 2 Mondays.)

Needless to say, I’ve spent the last couple days with those crazy castaways on the brain, and honestly, it’s cut into my baseball time (Between the pennant race, Lost, and Fantasy Football, there really aren’t enough hours in the day).  My little DVDathon got me thinking.  Yeah, the pennant race is pressure.  Sure it’s tough to look down the barrel of a 2-2 fastball with a man on third, a 1/2 game lead in the wild card, and 50,000 fans screaming at you.  But try walking through the "Dark Territory" while "the others" are breathing down your neck and you’ve got a boat you want to launch made from bamboo and twine into a very large ocean with no particular idea of where you’re headed (I’m currently on the 2nd to last episode…). 

So in that spirit, I’d like to make some comparisons.  If those characters on the pressure filled environment of Lost were teams in the pressure filled pennant race, which ones would they be? 

Jack (Matthew Fox)-  Dependable, honorable, highly motivated, and seems to be good at everything you need to do on an island.  Solid in every area, all Jack seems to lack is a fully developed sense of humor.  All business, his satisfaction comes in seeing the job done.   He’s probably the best thing the island has to offer. 

HIS TEAM:  St. Louis Cardinals.  So focused, they refused to celebrate their division title when they had technically clinched- no that didn’t happen a month ago- through tiebreakers against the Astros.  Instead, they waited one more day.   These guys mean business. 

John Locke (Terry O’Quinn)- Enigmatic and extremely resourceful, he is the MacGyver of the jungle.  A boy scout on steroids.  An encyclopedia of stuff the rest of us learn on The Nature Channel.  He lost a kidney, lost his legs, got them back, lost them again, and got them back again.  You just can’t get rid of the dude.  Plus, he’s full of riddles.  Everyone likes riddles. 

HIs Team: The Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim–  Every time it seems like they’re dead, they come back to life.  They’ve lost their power hitter (Steve Finley, who has basically ****** all year), and another power source (Dallas McPherson).  But they’ve stayed on top.  Why?  Because they’re resourceful.  Any team whose second leading home run hitter is stuck on 15 (Garrett Anderson) needs to be. 

Kate (Evangeline Lilly)- She’s young, she’s hot, she’s gonna be good for a long time.  You’d think by looking she wouldn’t be helpful, or couldn’t do any damage, but lo and behold, she kicks serious a**.   And as for Evangeline Lilly, how the heck did anyone go this long without discovering them?

Her Team:  The Cleveland Indians- They’re young, they’re hot, and they’re gonna be good for a long time.  You’d think by looking that they might not be helpful (okay, I picked them to win the division), or at least you would have thought that 40 games into the season.  Lo and behold, they can do a ton of damage, and kick some serious a**.  How did we go so long without discovering them?

Boone (Ian Somerhalder)- Runs a wedding company (not too manly), has a crush on his step-sister, tries to be brave, tries to be useful.  He’s good looking enough that you think something good will come out of him, but he just ends up dead in the end. 

His Team: The New York Mets- They have a crush on their step brothers (the Yankees), or at least their success.  They try to be brave, and they want desperately to be useful (hence Omar Minaya’s offseason spending spree).  They look good enough on paper, with Beltran, Pedro, Benson, and Wright, but in the end, they just end up dead. 

Sawyer (Josh Holloway)- He plays dirty, is more than a little unpleasant, and nobody likes him.  And man, oh man, has that guy got some serious family issues. 

His Team: The New York Yankees- Think for a second.  Isn’t a seven gazillion dollar payroll past kosher?  Isn’t collecting an all-star team kind of unfair? Ignore for a second that at this point, they’re season rests on Aaron Small and Robinson Cano as much as the Unit, A Rod and Sheffield.  That’s not how it was supposed to happen.  Outside of New York, nobody roots for these guys.  And any team run by George Steinbrenner is gonna have some family issues.  That’s a given.

Hurley (Jorge Garcia)- Entertaining, occasionally useful, bloated comic relief. 

His Team: San Francisco Giants- Fine, they’re not entertaining, and they don’t really provide any comic relief (it’s not like they’re the Rockies, or anything).  But sitting 11 games under .500 with a $90+ million payroll, they’re certainly bloated. 

Albert Pujols and Shaq…

Among the sportswriting Kamenetzky’s, I am known as an unabashed Albert Pujols fan.  Deb7_pujols He’s the greatest thing since sliced bread.  Better, really, since I haven’t bought a loaf of Wonder since I graduated from college.  He has the power of Mickey Mantle and the discipline of Tony Gwynn (58 strikeouts? That’s a good month for Adam Dunn).  No player is more focused on winning.  That alone would make Pujols worth every penny of the big, long term contract the Cards gave him.  But he’s more.  Pujols has turned himself into one of baseball’s best first basemen and is an amazing baserunner, always hustling out of the box and always taking the extra base.  Dude is not fast, yet he’s stolen 14 bases this season because he constantly takes advantage of pitchers who doesn’t pay close enough attention.  In nearly 5 full seasons, he’s a career .334 hitter, has 196 home runs, a career .416 OBP and 1.040 OPS.  Sick.   He is the kind of player about whom you tell stories to your grandchildren. 

Yet he’s never won an MVP.

Fine, you say.  He’s been in the Bonds era.  It’s hard to argue against Barry (although I’ve occasionally tried).   But this year, with Barry on the shelf, it’s not much different.  Most of the MVP buzz right now is on the red hot Andruw Jones.  Sure, Jones leads the NL in homers and RBI’s, but his lead in the latter isn’t all that large.  Meanwhile, Pujols has him dominated in just about every other statistical category there is. 

It may not matter.  Why?  I’ll tell you. 

I was watching PTI a couple days ago, when Jay Mariotti was putting forward his reasons why Jones is a better MVP candidate than King Albert.  After going through the obvious- his lead in HR’s, that he’s finally having that true breakout season, that Pujols gets so much protection in the Cardinals lineup (with their injuries, by the way, that’s debatable.  Yadier Molina hit cleanup a couple days back)- he got to the kicker:

Albert Pujols isn’t even having a dominant, Albert Pujols season.  He’s capable of more.  His ’05, by his standards, has been standard.   That’s when it hit me.

Pujols may be the new Shaq. 

Quick quiz… how many MVP awards has the player many consider to be the most dominant force basketball has ever seen actually put on his mantle?  Six?  Seven?  Try one.  Shaquille2520o27neal2520 He suffers from "Shaq Syndrome", where everyone knows how good he is, and expects him to be better than everyone else.  He’s bigger and better.  He should dominate.  It’s just too easy to vote for Shaq.  Who else is around that deserves a vote?   

Pujols, if members of the media aren’t careful, could end up filling the same role.   He’ll probably never have seasons too much better or too much worse than the ones he’s turned in each year of his career (really, how much better can he get?).  15% in either direction, year in and year out.  Maybe one monster where he can’t be ignored, but other than that, just another Albert Pujols season.  He’s always there, so who else can we vote for?  Who’s the guy having that sexy, surprise season?  The guy on a team that shouldn’t be as good?  The guy that isn’t freakin’ boring?  That’s who gets my vote! 

Meanwhile, Pujols, like clockwork goes .330, 45, 130.  Year in and year out, while his mantle stays clear of trophylike clutter. 

Maybe I’m overreacting.  Maybe he’ll win it this season, and take home five or six more before he’s done. 

Or, maybe we’ll look back in 10 or 12 years, after Albert retires, and wonder, "How the heck did that guy only win 2 MVPs?"

www.coolstandings.com

Today, as usual, in an effort to find something interesting to say, I found myself trolling through the work of guys who are actually good at what they do for a living. 

Never fails.

Today, I found it in Rob Neyer’s column on ESPN.com, where a reader (it helps to have readers!) sent him a link to what may be the most fun baseball sight ever… www.coolstandings.com. Using some computerized formula that I am unprepared to explain, it figures out the mathematical likelihood that your team will win their division, take the Wild Card, or in the case of Oakland and Anaheim (sorry, Los Angeles… still haven’t got that right), either one. 

For example, the Red Sox, who woke up Tuesday with a 1.5 game lead on the Yankees, have reason to smile.  With their 59.9% chance of taking the East, and nearly 74% chance of making the playoffs, why shouldn’t they?  Anyone would take these odds in Texas Hold ‘Em, right?  Sure, they’re not as solid as Atlanta and their 96.9 chance of a playoff birth, or the White Sox, sitting pretty at 98.7% (Which should put an end to all the talk of the ChiSox blowing the lead in the Central.  I’ll go ahead and say it.  They’ll limp in, flirting with losing the lead to the Indians, and then bow out so quietly you’ll think they all grew up in a library.).  And nobody is as solid as my Redbirds, a 100% mortal lock to make the playoffs… and a slightly more tenuous 99.9% favorite to take the Central. 

Are the calculations accurate?  Well, according to them, the Orioles are out of contention, so how bad could they be? 

Actually, they seem to really cover their bases, giving fans a choice of two types of standings- "smart" and "dumb" (love that!).  Rather than type out the explanation, I’ll give you the link:  http://www.coolstandings.com/welcome.asp.

To paraphrase, "dumb" mode assumes a 50/50 chance of one team beating another, no matter who the teams are, while "smart" mode takes into consideration all those Sabermetricesque stats that are creepily accurate and interesting.  That explains why, despite being tied in the NL West this morning, the Dodgers have an 11.8% of winning the division, while the Diamondbacks are slogging along at 2.9%.  By most measurements, the Dodgers are a less terrible team, have 2 games in hand on Arizona, and a slightly easier schedule and an extra game against the Pads. 

(Editor’s Note:  I could be miles off in my understanding of why the computer says the Dodgers have a better shot.  I’m just making assumptions.  Thought I’d put that out there…)

Even more fun is to go back in time, and see how the standings have evolved (for example, on August 10 the ChiSox were 99.5% near locks to take the Central, and while the lead has shrunk considerably, it’s interesting to note that the percentage hasn’t since the pool of games is also smaller).  Who’s made big progress, who hasn’t? 

Anyway, it’s a fun site, pretty interesting.  Check it out if you get a chance.  After all, it’s always good to know if you really need to start putting money aside for playoff tickets. 

St. Louisans can save with impunity. 

Belated Birthday and Other Things…

I was planning on doing this whole deal where I’d rank the prospects of every potential playoff team (even the ones on the fringes) to win the World Series, but then I realized I’d have to spend too much time on the rest of the NL West (for example, the Giants out of necessity mind you, have been forced to print playoff tickets on the odd chance they make it to the top of the division.  They’re 15 games under .500 and 7 games out… and management was right.  The division is so bad that one 15-3 streak could have them at the top.  I can’t focus energy on that sort of division). 

So in a nutshell, here it is:  Everyone has issues, and there’s no team I see as a dominating force heading into the playoffs.  There are some teams that won’t make it anyway, so analyzing their chances is a waste: Washington (sad but true), the Dodgers (though they could be interesting for the rest of the year, just for different reasons), Toronto (wait until next year, when the money starts flowing!), Milwaukee (am I the last one to notice they’re somehow only 5.5 back in the wild card?), NY Mets (weakest pitching staff among the NL Wild Card contenders, especially if Pedro pitches every 6th day, plus too many injuries on O), Minnesota (too little O, even if they’ve got a good staff)…

…and the New York Yankees (I’m not buying what Jared Wright is selling, Randy Johnson finally seems 42. Everything about them this year screams "something is just wrong enough for us to make the playoffs.")

If I were a playoff team, I’d be scared of Houston, Florida, and Oakland in the 1st round, just because on any given night the one run they score might be enough to win.  As for Cleveland, the way their staff is coming together, they’re not far behind in that group, and they have more mash potential than any of the other three.  All four teams could make noise in the playoffs.

As for division leaders, the last 2 weeks have shown the White Sox are vulnerable, the Red variety still have major pitching staff issues, The Cardinals batted So Taguchi in the cleanup spot due to injuries, and the Angels, outside of Vlad and Figgins, have some dead spots in their lineup.  All in all, it’s pretty wide open.  (I’m still sticking to Red Sox vs. Cards in the World Series)

But forget all that.  While I was trying to find the dirt on those teams, I missed yesterday’s most important news:  Julio Franco turned 6000.  Julio_franco20010901_3 Okay, 47, but still… 47!  I play in a Sunday men’s 28 and over hardball league, and there aren’t that many dudes in that league that are 47.  And he’s still productive.  Plenty of teams would take what he’s given Atlanta this season- 9 HR, 40 RBI, .298 in only 188 AB’s. 

I’ll forgive myself for not remembering that Franco broke in with Philly in ’82 as a shortstop (a freakin’ shortstop!), because I was not even 7 when it happened.  There’s a lot I don’t remember about the early days of the Reagan administration, too.  Plus, the dude got his first hit of Bob Forsch.  Bob Forsch, who incidently was my brother’s favorite player… when he was 12!  Nobody currently active in the majors should have gotten their first base knock off Bob Forsch.  Joanie Loves Chachi was still on tv.  Really, everything I currently watch for kitch value on TV Land was actually on the air in 1982. 

I do remember when he won a batting title (and stole 36 bases!) at age 32 in 1991… go ahead and get a handle on the math for that one for a minute. 

Julio says he wants to play until he’s 50.  Personally, I believe if there are still jobs for Carlos Baerga and most of the San Francisco Giants roster, there’s plenty of room for this guy over the next 3 years.  Honestly, I want him to play until he’s 500.  And he might.  After all, if he were a lefthanded reliever, he could play forever.Birthday2520cake

So happy belated birthday Julio!  Keep up the good work.

Change of Plans…

I was going to kick off today’s entry making fun of the Royals by describing all the things that have happened to me and the world since they last won a game (because really, who wouldn’t want to know exactly what I’ve been up to?).  But the problem is, I can’t rememeber what I was doing on Wednesday, July 27, when a 6-5 victory over the White Sox capped off a hot streak of 4 wins in 6 games, and pulled the Royals tantilizingly close in the AL Central (those 18 game losing streaks will knock you back a ways…)

Unfortunately, the cold slap of reality is… I have no idea what I was doing on the 27th, or most of the days after that.   Of course, I doubt the Royals do, either.  What’s interesting to me is the psychology of the whole thing.  The Royals have been terrible all year, with fits and starts of competence thrown in here and there just to keep things interesting.  I doubt from a baseball standpoint they’ve been substantially worse during this stretch than they have over any 18 game stretch earlier in the year.  They’ve lost some heartbreakers (including 7 games by 1 or 2 runs) and some laughers (a 16-1 blowout followed by an 11-0 pasting at home against Oakland). 

The rest have been typical Royals games.  They just lose, and nobody really notices because that’s what they’re supposed to do.  How many people do you think paid attention to this streak until it reached double digits?  "The Royals have lost six in a row" sounds eerily similar to "the sun rose in the east this morning" in the pantheon of attention grabbing statements.  Now, "Kansas City has won five in a row!" is likely to cause panic along the lines of yelling "Fire!" in a crowded theater.  Five in a row?  That’s when you start checking the skies for rolling clouds and shrouded guys on horseback. 

I’d love to have been in the clubhouse, too, on the day the Royals realized they had something special going.  Was it at 10 games?  14?  Is there even a little bit of pride in what they’re doing?  Assuming everyone is trying their best and not tanking- though with KC’s roster, it might be hard to tell the difference- it’s almost impossible for a major league team, or even a AAA team playing against major leaguers, to lose 18 games in a row.  You win one on accident.  The other team kicks the ball around.  Five flares fall in for base hits, which combined with 2 wild pitches give your team 3 cheap runs.  On Sportscenter, people talk about how bad the other team was, and how they lost the game.  Your squad had nothing to do with it.  To me, it’s amazing the Royals haven’t had one of those yet.  18 games in a row.  That’s pretty impressive. 

Just as a capper, Rob Neyer wrote in his column for ESPN.com that he doesn’t think the Royals could lose the rest of their games and finish with 124 losses.  But wouldn’t it be cool if they did?  If you’re gonna ****, ********. 

You can make an arguement that the Royals are finally taking pride in what they do.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the state… 

Mark Mulder’s shutout of the D-Backs last night has me smiling.  Every time he pitches well, it makes me think the Cards have that much more of a shot to take the series.  Walker is on his way back, as is Reggie Sanders.  There’s no need to rush.  As long as both get a couple weeks worth of AB’s before the playoffs, all will be well with them.

Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for Scott Rolen.  It’s never a good sign when after about three months of rehab and inactivity (with 87 AB’s tossed in between) a body part actually seems to be getting worse, not better.  That’s the deal with Rolen.  According to the Post Dispatch online, there’s now a good chance Rolen could miss the rest of the season and the postseason.  If I had to make a prediction, I’d say he’s done.  I just don’t think they’d speak in these terms unless they knew.  Every quote sounds like the speaker is holding out hope, but you can almost sense the tone, quiet and with head hung as if talking about a terminally sick relative. 

That means the Cards are in the Abraham Nunez business.  Dude’s been amazing, but having to use him in the every day lineup makes the Cards significantly weaker.  Even if Rolen can’t hit, he saves games with his glove.  Nunez isn’t a hack, but he won’t do much of that.  Plus, when he’s on the bench, the whole team is stronger.  And we all remember what seemed to happen to the Cards the last time Rolen missed the playoffs.  Ugliness.

Maybe there’s something out there, where Walt Jocketty can make a waiver deal for some help.  Even if it just bolsters the bench, hefting up the spot vacated by Nunez when he moved into the lineup.  Something.  Anything.  Just so I can sleep a little easier, you know?   

Gene Mauch and History…

Growing up in St. Louis, the closest I ever got to watching Gene Mauch was the ’86 ALCS, the one that forever linked Dave Henderson to Donnie Moore and tragedy.  I remember watching that game and that series.  Around September 15 of every season I about the Cardinals team that caught Mauch’s Phillies, overcoming a 6 1/2 game lead with 12 games left.  I never met him, spoke to him, covered a team that played one of his, or (outside of the playoffs or occasional Game of the Week), watched his teams play on tv.  I couldn’t tell you a word about his managerial style outside of what I’ve read today in articles honoring his life.

But I know who he is, I know what he did, and though it was in the tiniest of ways, his life overlapped with mine. 

Baseball is a long game.  It’s history is long, it’s season is long, it’s games are long.  That length can be a curse, as anyone who has suffered through an August game in Tampa can tell you.  But that same length gives the game what makes it most special.  Context and history.  My brother (ak.mlblogs.com) has never been the baseball fan that I have.  I played the game longer and more often than he did, I’ve always taken stats more seriously.  Honestly, I can’t remember ever seeing him hold a baseball card (Recently, I found a pile of cards I’d set aside as potential winners down the road.  Seriously, I must have saved every freakin’ rookie card on the planet, no matter how useless.  I had four Van Snyder rookie cards.  Van Snyder doesn’t have four Van Snyder rookie cards).  But he still signpost the 80’s based on what the Cardinals were doing and who was on the team.  That and which John Hughes movie came out that year. 

Length is what allows the game to wind itself into the national fabric the way it does.  It’s what allows broadcasters to tell stories to fans, fathers to tell stories to their kids.  Every 15 second gap between pitches is a chance to learn about a player.  Every minute and a half between innings is a chance to learn about a season.  Time enough to teach someone to keep the book.  Length is what makes a boring game in May exciting in October.  It’s what makes baseball often more interesting to talk about as in intellectual exercise than watch on tv.  All at once length is why no sport will ever be so fundamental a part of American life and why kids seem to be leaving it at the same time.  Take a kid to a hockey game.  They may get hooked on the sport- there isn’t a better one to watch- but they won’t sense the history.  There’s no time to explain it.