Talking Baseball

Your weekday baseball fix. Some days.

Posted by Ben K. on Tuesday, February 10, 2004

Lord, I was born a ramblin' man

Finally, it's here. Or at least, it's almost here. In less than 5 days, Spring Training begins as pitchers and catchers report to their camps in Florida or Arizona. While many stars are already starting their work outs, for us baseball fans, the last few days before Spring Training opens are among the slowest days for news and trades. Outside of Greg Maddux, all high-profile free agents have landed contracts for the 2004 campaign (and beyond). So with no pressing topic, I'm going to offer my thoughts on a variety of subjects, ranging from contract extensions to the wonderful world of annual stat books. And in honor of last night's Grammy's and Peter Gammons' love affair with mentioning songs in his column, all of my headings are going to be song quotes. Just for kicks, really.

So Happy Together

Proving that the days before Spring Training are among the most boring in Major League Baseball, ESPN's lead story today was the stunning news that Mariano Rivera wants to remain a Yankee. Stop the presses. Can you believe that? Ok, maybe that's nothing to get too excited about, but there's actually an interesting twist to this story. Mariano is pitching in the final year of a contract valued at $39.99 million. He signed this contract back in February of 2001 when the Free Agent market was awarding players with much higher contracts than they get today. Rivera, who stands to make $8.89 million this season, did not mention any numbers in the short AP story. I would like to propose that Rivera should indeed get another contract worth about $8 million a year.

First, let's take a look at Rivera's numbers. Overall, Rivera was third in the AL with 40 saves. Breaking that down Bill James-style, Rivera had 23 easy saves (where he never had to think about the tying run), 12 regular saves (see the Rule Book), and, thanks to the Yankees' bullpen, an AL-leading 5 tough saves (where he entered with the tying runner on base and still recorded the save). Rivera, with 283 saves in 327 career opportunities, is the Yankees' save leader. More impressive was his 1.66 ERA, which was 0.40 runs lower than save leader Keith Foulke's. Rivera accomplished all of this by missing the first 25 games of the season with a groin injury. As the Yankees struggled along with Juan Acevedo's half-assed attempts at closing, had Rivera been healthy he would have approached 45-50 saves last season.

Some critics might look at these numbers and say that $8 million is now too much for a 34-year-old closer. Keith Foulke just signed a deal worth about $6 million a year, and his numbers are on par with the Rivera's. While ├╝ber-closer John Smoltz stands to earn $11 million this year and Eric Gagne will one day reach the same monetary level, Yankee detractors might say that Rivera's performance and a history of groin injury should net him that same $6 million. I say look at the postseason intangibles.

In his career, Rivera becomes Mr. Automatic in October. He is 7-1 with 30 saves and a 0.75 ERA since 1996. That one loss was a game 7 blow up against the Diamondbacks when Rivera launched a ball into the outfield. He now does that every time he has to field a bunt. But that's not the point. Look at this postseason numbers. I don't see those from Smoltz, Gagne, Foulke, or anyone really. Last year, Rivera was once again utterly dominant in the postseason. Who could really forget his three innings of dominance in game 7 of the ALCS? His two saves and game 7 victory secured him another postseason MVP award and he was equally dominant against the Twins and the Marlins.

The secret, I contend, to Rivera's postseason success of late is, in fact, his groin injury. On average, Rivera only pitches about 65 games a season, much fewer than most closers. What this means is that when other pitchers are tiring in October, Rivera's arm is still feeling late-August/early-September fresh. If the Yankees can afford to keep Rivera on the bench--and with Paul Quantrill, Tom Gordon, and maybe even Steve Karsay, they most certainly can--then by all means, Rivera should get the first 25 games of the season off.

So in my opinion, Rivera lives up to this contract and any extension he may want. Making considerably less than the 37-year-old Smoltz, Rivera might even deserve more than $8 million a year. As long as he keeps closing games during the regular season and shutting down even the most potent offense of all-time (2003 Red Sox) in October, the Yankees should keep paying Rivera the big bucks.

She told me to walk this way

Last week, I received the 2004 Bill James handbook, and let me tell you, this book is a stat-lover's paradise. It has complete stats for every single Major Leaguer, along with Managerial stats, very complete fielding stats, lefty-righty matchups, and leader boards for every conceivable statistic. If you're a stat junkie or want to become one, this book is a must-buy.

Now that I've done my part selling the book, I'm going to explore a few of the more interesting statistics I found in the book. Quick, out of Nomar Garciaparra, Alfonso Soriano, and Ichiro Suzuki, who walked the least last year? Suzuki, as we all know, is a very disciplined hitter who can spray balls to fields. Garciaparra and Soriano are known for their free-swinging tendencies. I was surprised to see that Suzuki walked a total of 36 times last year. Soriano received 37 free passes, and Nomar got 38. How did I find this out, you may ask. Well, I consulted the league leaders in plate appearances. Soriano, Ichiro, and Nomar were two, three, and four, respectively. (If you known number one without looking it up, e-mail me, and I'll name the first person to get it right for my next post.)

Consulting their walk numbers, I was surprised to see that while Soriano certainly has a reputation for free-swinging, other high-profile stars have the same problem. Yet, they aren't doubted nearly as much as Alfonso is. On a positive note for the Yankees, Soriano increased his walk total by 15 over 2002 while Nomar has witnessed a steady decline since a career high of 61 walks back in 2000. Ichiro's walk numbers dropped by 32 last season and he received only 7 intentional walks as opposed to his AL-leading 27 in his 2002 MVP campaign. But that's a topic for another post. Now, I want to look at Alfonso and Nomar.

Something about the ALCS has bothered me a lot this off-season. Why did Nomar and Alfonso seemingly tank? Some say Alfonso's head was messed up; he was swinging at everything. Some say Nomar was well behind on the fastball. But it's remarkable how similar their stats were during the 7 game series. In the end, Soriano was 4 for 30 with one double and 11 K's. Nomar was 7 for 29 with 1 triple and 8 K's. In game 6, Nomar went 4 for 5. Without that night, Nomar and Soriano's numbers would have been perfectly identical. Which is weird because their regular season numbers were statistically identical. During the regular season, Soriano had 198 hits, 36 doubles, 5 triples, and 38 HR. He drove in 91 runs, scored 114, and created 112 more. He hit .290 with an OPS (On base + Slugging) of .863. Nomar had 198 hits, 37 doubles, 13 triples, and 28 HR. He drove in 105 runs, scored 120, and created 114. He hit .301 with an OPS of .869. It's remarkable how similar these two players' seasons were last year.

So I thought maybe they were so ineffective during the postseason because their approach to the game is tailored for long-term success. I don't think that this, by the way, is very deep analysis. It's just not something that Tim McCarver or Joe Buck would ever think to mention on a FOX telecast. (They suck. That's all there is to it.) Nomar and Soriano both go through extremely hot and extremely cold stretches of the season. When they're cold, they look horrible as they did during the ALCS. When they're hot, they look incredible. When Nomar's on a tear, it's impossible to throw a pitch by him, and when Soriano's swinging a hot stick, balls are leaping off the bat. I've never seen quicker hands than Soriano's as they fly through the strike zone. I think baseball analysts are wrong to question Soriano's ability to rebound from a poor postseason while assuming that Nomar's going to be ok. Both players will return to form next season as they endure good and bad extremes of the season. If anything, I would question Nomar more because of the off-field Alex Rodriguez trade shenanigans from this season.

And so it seems, only in dreams

Finally, I'll end with something really short. One of the more entertaining parts of the Bill James Handbook is his Career Assessments section on the last page before the glossary. Based on previous year's stats and career performance, James assesses which players have a chance to reach major career milestones. For example, it's interesting to see that Barry Bonds has a 52 percent chance of breaking Hank Aaron's home run record and a 20 percent chance of reaching 800 home runs. Alex Rodriguez has a 34 percent chance of reaching 800 but only a 43 percent chance of breaking Aaron's record. While it appears that Aaron's home run and RBI records are under assault, it's interesting to see that Pete Rose's hit record is the safest, based on Bill James' projections. Of the active leaders, only the 23-year-old Albert Pujols and the 27-year-old Alex Rodriguez have a chance to reach 4257 hits. Pujols has a 2 percent chance, and A-Rod has a 1 percent chance. If you believe Pujols to be 26 instead of 23 (like some do), then his chances are probably 0. This probability chart just goes to show what an outstanding ballplayer Pete Rose truly was. It's a big shame that he couldn't control his personality off field and that he refuses to show any remorse for violating some of baseball's more sacred gambling rules.

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