Jan 09

Wrapping up Hall of Fame Day

Barry Larkin deservedly rode a relative landslide into the Hall of Fame today (overcoming a reported catastrophe). The highest-polling Dodger alum was Fred McGriff with 137 votes (23.9 percent of total ballots). Others with Dodger ties were Don Mattingly (102 votes/17.8 percent), Bill Mueller (4 votes, 0.7 percent) and Eric Young (1 vote, 0.2 percent). Jeromy Burnitz, Brian Jordan and Terry Mulholland came up empty.

Craig Calcaterra of Hardball Talk has a nice analysis of the ballot results and what they mean for candidates down the road, and David Schoenfield and Cliff Corcoran do similar work for ESPN.com and SI.com, while Dave Cameron of Fangraphs argues for a more inclusive vote.

* * *

Any future Hall of Famers, Dodgers, or Dodger Hall of Famers on this list? Tim Dierkes of MLB Trade Rumors looks at the potential big-name free agents a year from now. More here.

* * *

Mets pitcher R.A. Dickey is journaling his climb of Mount Kilimanjaro for the New York Times (link via Rob Neyer of Baseball Nation). It begins thusly …

I think I know now how Bilbo Baggins must have felt in Tolkien’s “The Hobbit.” My companions and I have set out on our own mountainous journey to try to attain a treasure.

The treasure in our case is not a pile of gold guarded by a dragon, but rather the gratification that comes with reaching the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro.

Instead of facing trolls and fighting goblins, we are battling steep climbs and the fatigue that accompanies seven- to eight-hour hikes. Furthermore, I’m not sure of the height of the Lonely Mountain, but I’m pretty sure I don’t remember reading about Bilbo’s having to worry about acclimatization and altitude sickness as he ascended the mountainside. …

* * *

Which teams should be interested in Manny Ramirez’s comeback efforts? Matt Klaassen of Fangraphs explores, and concludes as follows:

… Four teams, then, seem like they might be able to use Manny: the Rangers, the Twins, the Jays, and the Rays. Even then, each team would have to move things around to make it work, and only the Jays have been reported to express interest so far (as far as I know). This is all to say that while the chances for Manny landing a job seem slim, with a bit of work one can drum up some possibilities. Given the right circumstances, things could work out well for a team willing to take a low-risk chance on Manny.

I won’t be holding my breath.

Jan 08

Nomo, Bergen among new Shrine of the Eternals nominees

David Zalubowski/APIn the rain, Hideo Nomo faces the first batter in his September 17, 1996 no-hitter at Coors Field.

Former Dodgers Hideo Nomo, Bill Bergen and Lefty O’Doul are among the 10 first-time nominees for the Shrine of the Eternals, brought to you by the Baseball Reliquary.

Any member of the Reliquary can vote on the Shrine of the Eternals. An active membership costs $25 annually. Honorees will be announced in May, with Induction Day on July 15 in Pasadena.

Here are the 50 names on this year’s ballot (with years on ballot in parentheses) – really a wonderful list – followed by the Reilquary’s biographies of the 10 new nominees:

1. Eliot Asinof (9)
2. Gary Bell (new)
3. Bill Bergen (new)
4. Steve Bilko (new)
5. Steve Blass (3)
6. Chet Brewer (13)
7. Charlie Brown (5)
8. Jefferson Burdick (3)
9. Glenn Burke (5)
10. Bert Campaneris (new)
11. Jose Canseco (new)
12. Charles M. Conlon (11)
13. Dizzy Dean (12)
14. Bucky Dent (4)
15. Hector Espino (3)
16. Charles Faust (new)
17. Donald Fehr (2)
18. Eddie Feigner (12)
19. Lisa Fernandez (12)
20. Charlie Finley (2)
21. Rube Foster (14)
22. Jim “Mudcat” Grant (8)
23. Ernie Harwell (9)
24. Dr. Frank Jobe (10)
25. Annabelle Lee (new)
26. Effa Manley (14)
27. Conrado Marrero (3)
28. Dr. Mike Marshall (7)
29. Tug McGraw (9)
30. Fred Merkle (6)
31. Manny Mota (5)
32. Hideo Nomo (new)
33. Lefty O’Doul (new)
34. Joe Pepitone (2)
35. Phil Pote (10)
36. Vic Power (4)
37. Curtis Pride (2)
38. Dan Quisenberry (6)
39. J.R. Richard (13)
40. Annie Savoy (2)
41. Rusty Staub (7)
42. Chuck Stevens (4)
43. Toni Stone (new)
44. Luis Tiant (10)
45. Fay Vincent (11)
46. Rube Waddell (14)
47. John Montgomery Ward (6)
48. David Wells (2)
49. Wilbur Wood (2)
50. Don Zimmer (8)

GARY BELL (b. 1936)—Immortalized in the pages of Jim Bouton’s Ball Four as a charter member of the beer-pounding, beaver-shooting Seattle Pilots, the good-natured, wise-cracking Bell (inevitably nicknamed “Ding Dong”) came up with Cleveland in 1958 as a “can’t-miss” pitching prospect, part of a strong staff that eventually included Mudcat Grant, Sam McDowell, and Luis Tiant. Bell posted solid if unspectacular numbers with the Indians for a decade until a trade to the Red Sox in 1967 placed him in the midst of their “Impossible Dream” pennant-winning season. The cheerful Texan is the answer to the perennially-asked trivia question: “Who was the winning pitcher in the Pilots’ first home game?”

BILL BERGEN (1878-1943)—Whoever first offered the canard, “I don’t care what my catcher hits; he’s in there for defense,” must have been thinking of Bill Bergen, a defensively superb dead-ball era catcher who would have been forgotten entirely if not for the fact that he holds the most dubious record in baseball history: lowest batting average ever—.170—for a player with 2500 or more at-bats; a record that makes latter-day lightweights like Ray Oyler and Mario Mendoza look like Ty Cobb.

STEVE BILKO (1928-1978)—Moon-faced first baseman who wrapped a so-so major league career around a legendary stint in the Pacific Coast League, where he paced the circuit in home runs for three consecutive seasons (1955 to 1957), and won the PCL’s Triple Crown in 1956 with a phenomenal display of slugging for the Los Angeles Angels. Astutely drafted by the expansion Angels of the American League in 1961, the extraordinarily popular Bilko made further inroads into pop culture immortality as the source for the name of the Phil Silvers’ character, Sgt. Bilko, on the actor’s television program.

BERT CAMPANERIS (b. 1942)—Speedy, durable shortstop for the Kansas City-Oakland franchise of the 1960s and ’70s whose flash and flair embodied the spirit of the Swingin’ A’s. A six-time All Star who once played all nine positions in a single game, “Campy” in his prime was arguably the best shortstop between the Luis Aparicio and Dave Concepcion eras.

JOSE CANSECO (b. 1964)—Wayward Cuban-born slugger of prodigious gifts and blasé demeanor who, with fellow “Bash Brother” Mark McGwire, led the Oakland A’s back to respectability in the late 1980s. His open admission of steroid use throughout his career, documented in several tell-all books, made him a pariah in MLB circles after his retirement.

CHARLES “VICTORY” FAUST (1880-1915)—Few baseball tales are as odd—or ultimately, sad—as the story of Charlie “Victory” Faust, a gawky stringbean of a man who in 1911 managed to convince New York Giants manager John McGraw that he, Faust, was destined to pitch the team to a World Series championship, and furthermore had the talent to jinx opposing teams (“put the whommy on ‘em,” as Casey Stengel might have said). With Faust adopted by McGraw as team mascot/good luck charm, the Giants did indeed win the 1911 series, and Faust did indeed pitch in two meaningless games. Faust faded into oblivion after the 1912 season, dying in a Washington sanitarium in 1915, until his story was resurrected a half-century later by historian Larry Ritter. (More on Faust here.)

ANNABELLE LEE (1922-2008)—The poetically named southpaw pitched with four different teams in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League (AAGPBL) from 1944 through 1950 and is credited with hurling the first perfect game in league history in 1944, adding a no-hitter to her credentials the following season. A Los Angeles native whose father played in the Pacific Coast League and whose nephew Bill Lee was a Red Sox legend, Annabelle Lee is part of the AAGPBL permanent display at the Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum.

HIDEO NOMO (b. 1968)—Credited with opening the door to Major League Baseball for native Japanese players, right-handed pitcher Hideo Nomo established himself as a star early in his career with the Kinetsu Buffaloes (1990-1994) before taking advantage of a contractual loophole to sign with the L.A. Dodgers. Using an exaggerated, jerky windmill motion (the genesis of his nickname “The Tornado”), Nomo became an overnight sensation in the U.S., ushering in the era of “Nomomania” while winning the NL Rookie of the Year Award in 1995. He became an itinerant pitcher after a few seasons with the Dodgers, and never really captured the nation’s enthusiasm again after his rookie campaign, but by then U.S. fans had other Japanese stars to cheer for—Ichiro, Matsui, Hasegawa, Matsuzaka, and many others.

LEFTY O’DOUL (1897-1969)—A man of many hats—most of them green, to match his favorite color of suit—the legacy of Francis “Lefty” O’Doul is so varied and accomplished as to defy neat description: a San Francisco native, still revered as a favorite son of the city (his sports bar is still a civic landmark), O’Doul began his big-league career as a relief pitcher, but re-emerged as a slugger after a reclamation stint in the Pacific Coast League. He terrorized NL pitchers during the late 1920s and early 1930s, won two batting titles, nearly hit .400 in 1929, and retired with the fourth-best career average of .349 in 1934. Returning to the PCL, he managed the San Francisco Seals through one of their most productive periods, mentored the young Joe DiMaggio, and established a reputation as one of the greatest hitting coaches in history. He also found time to work as a baseball ambassador to Japan, giving the professional game a leg up in that country. He is in everyone’s Hall of Fame except for the one that counts: Cooperstown.

TONI STONE (1931-1996)—Born Marcenia Lyle Alberga, Toni Stone played baseball from the moment she could walk, a standout player among local boy’s teams, American Legion squads, and black semi-pro outfits through the WWII era. Barred from play in the segregated AAGPBL, she was signed in 1953 by the Indianapolis Clowns of the Negro American League to play second base, a position recently vacated by Henry Aaron. She had her greatest thrill in baseball with the Clowns: a chance to bat against Satchel Paige. A victim of the sexism prevalent among all races during the era, her skills as an athlete were overshadowed by her value as a publicity tool, and after a stint with the fabled Kansas City Monarchs in 1954, she retired. She was inducted into the Women’s Sports Hall of Fame in 1993, and is memorialized in two separate permanent displays at the Baseball Hall of Fame.

The thirty-nine individuals previously elected to the Shrine of the Eternals are, in alphabetical order: Jim Abbott, Dick Allen, Roger Angell, Emmett Ashford, Moe Berg, Yogi Berra, Ila Borders, Jim Bouton, Jim Brosnan, Bill Buckner, Roberto Clemente, Steve Dalkowski, Rod Dedeaux, Jim Eisenreich, Dock Ellis, Mark Fidrych, Curt Flood, Ted Giannoulas, Josh Gibson, Pete Gray, William “Dummy” Hoy, Shoeless Joe Jackson, Bill James, Bill “Spaceman” Lee, Roger Maris, Marvin Miller, Minnie Minoso, Buck O’Neil, Satchel Paige, Jimmy Piersall, Pam Postema, Jackie Robinson, Lester Rodney, Pete Rose, Casey Stengel, Fernando Valenzuela, Bill Veeck, Jr., Maury Wills, and Kenichi Zenimura.

Nov 21

Looking back on Matt Kemp’s MVP chase

I began my National League Most Valuable Player watch on Matt Kemp in August, and along with the NL Cy Young scope for Clayton Kershaw, it became the primary Dodger story over the season’s final two months. That means a ton of words were spilled on the subject, and I’m reluctant, at this point, to spill any more (though for some fresh Kemp content, check out this ESPN.com roundtable on Kemp’s future in which I took part).

Looking back, these are the four primary pieces, a combination of comparing Kemp to his closest rivals (which in the end boiled down to Milwaukee’s Ryan Braun) as well as arguing emphatically that the voting rules do not call for the MVP to come from a pennant-winner.

August 15: Matt Kemp really can win the MVP award, but will he?

September 24: The myth and reality of ‘valuable’

October 1: So when exactly were the Dodgers out of contention?

October 14: Remembering 2011: Matt Kemp

Once more, with feeling:

Dear Voter:

There is no clear-cut definition of what Most Valuable means. It is up to the individual voter to decide who was the Most Valuable Player in each league to his team. The MVP need not come from a division winner or other playoff qualifier.

The rules of the voting remain the same as they were written on the first ballot in 1931:

1. Actual value of a player to his team, that is, strength of offense and defense.

2. Number of games played.

3. General character, disposition, loyalty and effort.

4. Former winners are eligible.

5. Members of the committee may vote for more than one member of a team.

Baseball Writers Association of America official site

Nov 17

Remembering 2011 and looking beyond: Clayton Kershaw

Getty ImagesBrothers in arms …

Baseball is a team sport that honors individual accomplishments like no other, so much so that when I ask this question …

Who is more revered in Los Angeles, the 1963 and 1965 world champion Dodgers, or Sandy Koufax?

… the answer, I believe, is surely Koufax.

It’s a choice between heaven and nirvana, a hypothetical beyond the heretical, one you need not fret over. You never have to have one without the other. But while those Dodgers were angels, Koufax is a god.

So when Clayton Kershaw draws comparisons to Koufax, it is no small matter. It is a very large matter, larger in some ways than the Dodgers’ passing another year without becoming world champions, and larger certainly than Kershaw’s fate in the 2011 National League Cy Young Award balloting.

Don’t misunderstand me — Kershaw winning today’s award is a big deal, a wonderful, rip-roaring accomplishment, and yet at the same time, the celebration of his victory is about 1/1,000,000,000th of how nuts Dodger fans will go the next time they’re the last team to leave the field at the end of a season. But if Kershaw turns about to be another Koufax, a living, breathing Zeus throwing lightning bolts from his pitching Olympus, that’s going to resonate through history even more.

Koufax is a Los Angeles Dodger who is honored like no other, so much so that when I ask this question …

Is Kershaw going to be even better than Koufax?

… the answer, I believe, may cause heart palpitations across an entire Dodgers universe.

Through age 23, Kershaw has 716 1/3 innings, 745 strikeouts, a WHIP of 1.173 and a
park/era-adjusted ERA, according to Baseball-Reference.com, of 135.

Through age 23, Koufax had 516 2/3 innings, 486 strikeouts, a WHIP of 1.461 and a
park/era-adjusted ERA, according to Baseball-Reference.com, of 100.

At the age that Kershaw became a Cy Young Award winner, Koufax had a 4.05 ERA in 153 1/3 innings in which he walked 92. Koufax didn’t have a significantly above-average season until he was 25 and wasn’t ever mentioned on a Cy Young ballot until he won the award for the first time at age 27.

Comparisons are never perfect — Jane Leavy’s Koufax biography is one of several sources that describes manager Walter Alston’s ambivalence about using the young Koufax, leaving open the possibility that Alston hampered Koufax’s early development. And surely, there’s no guarantee that even though Kershaw is better than Koufax was at age 23, he’ll still be better from ages 26-30, when Koufax, at the height of his astonishment, pitched 1,377 innings, struck out 1,444 with an ERA+ of 167.

Who knows if Kershaw will ever reach a World Series, let alone pitch in four of them with a 0.95 ERA and 61 strikeouts in 57 innings, including back-to-back shutouts with 10 strikeouts apiece with only two days in between?

But in the race across time between Koufax and Kershaw, Koufax is the tortoise, and Kershaw is the hare, except that he’s a hare with a head on his shoulders, not to mention better medical.

Scouts told Tony Jackson of ESPNLosAngeles.com all the different ways Kershaw can still improve. “That change[up] is still a work in progress,” one scout said. “The curveball has a chance to be really good. I had his fastball from 89 [mph] all the way up to 96. So I don’t think he is where he is going to be yet, not anywhere near it.”

Koufax won three Cy Young Awards and finished in third place for another. Already, Kershaw is more than a quarter of the way there. He’s 23, and should remain a Dodger past Koufax’s age of retirement, 30. Kershaw is the kind of pitcher who people will make pilgrimages to see for decades after he has left the playing field, who can carry a franchise’s legacy even if the franchise itself is too weak to build upon its own.

It could all go haywire in an instant, so easily that when I ask this question …

Can Kershaw do it over the long haul?

… the answer, I believe, is let’s see. Yes, please, let’s see.

* * *

We saw this coming. Looking ahead to the 2011 season in February, we could say the following:

… He’s not a Fernando or a Sandy. Not even a Piazza or (for that brief, baggage-heavy moment) a Manny. He’s not a “Bulldog” or a “Game Over.”

He’s still a plain old guy with two plain old names, with a humble personality to match — a wolf in sheepish clothing.

If you say Clayton Kershaw is the best player on the Dodgers, you won’t necessarily get an argument, but you might get a shrug. With disappointment still dripping from the team’s 2010 season, “best player on the Dodgers” won’t earn you much more than a patronizing pat on the head, maybe an extra juice box after practice. For now, anyway.

Sometimes it happens practically overnight, the way it seemed to with Fernando Valenzuela and Mike Piazza. Other times — more often, really — it’s years in the making, as with Sandy Koufax, Orel Hershiser and Eric Gagne.

Either way, there’s an explosion within reach for Kershaw — oh, you better believe there is. He turns 23 on March 19, and soon after, he might turn Dodger Stadium back into a place where fans are racing through the crowds for their seats, the way they did for those transcendent heroes of the recent or distant past, for no other reason than to drool over his next pitch or exult in his supremacy. …

Kershaw’s 2010 season had been very, very good — a 2.91 ERA and 212 strikeouts in 204 1/3 innings — so good that if he had regressed in 2011, he still could have had a very good season. Despite shutting out San Francisco over seven innings on Opening Day, Kershaw’s first month of 2011 looked like it would fall into that groove. Even with 41 strikeouts in 38 1/3 innings, inconsistency left him holding a 3.52 ERA at the end of April.

May was our first sign that something really special was within reach. He started six games and allowed eight runs, pitching 40 2/3 innings with a 1.77 ERA and 46 strikeouts, finishing the month with a two-hit, 10-strikeout shutout of Florida in which neither hit was a hard one.

But June started with two absolutely carking games. (Note: “Carking” is both archaic and a bit inaccurate, but it sounds exactly like the word I want.) On June 4 at Cincinnati, Kershaw had faced the minimum number of batters in the sixth inning, only to have things slip away for six runs over the next two innings. Five days later, Kershaw virtually repeated himself in Colorado. His ERA zipped back up to 3.44, and “learning experience” again elbowed its way into the picture.

Now here’s where things really get fun.

Over his final 19 starts of the year, Kershaw allowed only 24 earned runs. He pitched 141 2/3 innings with 146 strikeouts and a 1.52 ERA. Opponents had a .236 on-base percentage and .285 slugging percentage.

Over his final nine starts of the year, Kershaw allowed only seven earned runs. He pitched 65 2/3 innings with 64 strikeouts and a 0.96 ERA. Opponents had a .225 on-base percentage and .274 slugging percentage.

There were pitches he would have liked to have had back, but not many, not many at all.

He pitched another two-hit shutout June 20. He need only eight pitches for a perfect fifth inning with a strikeout in the All-Star Game. He struck out 12 in eight shutout innings on July 20 to beat Tim Lincecum for the second time in 2011, struck out nine in eight innings while allowing only an unearned run to beat Lincecum again Sept. 9, then earned his fourth win over Lincecum (and 20th of the season) on Sept. 20 by allowing one earned run in 7 1/3 innings.

With a triumphant final outing against San Diego on Sept. 25, Kershaw (21-50 ended his year with a league-leading 248 strikeouts, 0.977 WHIP and 2.28 ERA and an adjusted ERA of 163 that was a hair behind Roy Halladay’s 164.

Should Halladay, who pitched home games in a more challenging park, have won the Cy Young? If you think so, I won’t try to dissuade you. I’ll just relax with this.

Halladay, 34, is a true Hall of Fame candidate, practically the gold standard for pitching over the past four seasons with by far the best adjusted ERA during that span. When Halladay was 23, he allowed 80 earned runs in 67 2/3 innings for a 10.64 ERA.

It was a close call for who should be called the best pitcher in the NL today. But one, just one, is so amazing at such a young age, that when I ask this question …

What pitcher in baseball would you most like to have right now?

… only one answer should come to your mind: Clayton Edward Kershaw.

Nov 01

Gold Gloves: Kershaw, Kemp, Ethier all win

I hoped Clayton Kershaw would win a National League Gold Glove award, though I wasn’t counting on it. As for Matt Kemp and Andre Ethier, I didn’t even hope.

But all three of them won the prizes in the first annual Rawlings Gold Glove award show broadcast by ESPN – a record haul in one year for the franchise.

And the funny thing is, if there was any Dodger I would have picked for a Gold Glove, it would have been James Loney. But he got shut out. Yep – Andre Ethier won a Gold Glove, and James Loney did not. In any case, congrats to the winners, and don’t think too hard about the selection process.

Oct 03

Dodgers move to AM 570

The Dodgers made official today their move from KABC 790 AM to KLAC 570 AM, beginning next season.

The new three-year deal puts Vin Scully and the Dodgers on an all-sports station for the first time in years. The deal calls for all regular season games plus “at least seven Spring Training games.”

DodgerTalk will air for at least one hour after every game, with an hourlong exhibition season program airing at 7 p.m. from the start of Spring Training until Opening Day. There was no immediate word whether Josh Suchon and Joe Block would be part of the transition, although I have trouble believing anyone doesn’t want them included.

In other news and notes:

  • ESPNLosAngeles.com and Tony Jackson have offered a poll where you can decide which Dodgers you would keep and which you would “trash.” I always find these kinds of questions hard to answer when you don’t know what the cost would be in many cases — I wouldn’t trash Jamey Carroll, but I wouldn’t go crazy trying to keep him either — but my biggest question is how Matt Kemp would have fared in such a poll a year ago.
  • The fan vote for the Hank Aaron Awards for the best hitters in the National and American Leagues has begun. We can finally settle the question of who is more deserving: Matt Kemp or Cameron Maybin.
  • The Dodgers have asked federal bankruptcy judge Kevin Gross to reconsider the exclusion of evidence on how Major League Baseball has dealt with other teams. Wrote Craig Calcaterra of Hardball Talk: “Motions for reconsideration just never, ever work. They’re the litigation equivalent of my son saying “but DAAAAAD!”
  • Milwaukee Brewers owner Mark Attanasio (who lives in Los Angeles) has been named to the LACMA Board of Trustees, where he will share metaphorical office space with Jamie McCourt.
  • Most everything you wanted to know about 2011 ejections but you were afraid to inquire about can be found in this post at the Platoon Advantage.
  • Japanese free agent Tsuyoshi Wada gets a closer examination from analyst Chad Moriyama, whose guard is up and optimism down about the Japanese lefty.
  • Jay Gibbons, who finished the season with Albuquerque, has filed for free agency, according to MLB Trade Rumors.
  • Update: Eric Stephen of True Blue L.A. breaks down the contract status of everyone on the Dodger 40-man roster.
Oct 01

So, when exactly were the Dodgers out of contention?

On August 24, St. Louis was 10 1/2 games behind Atlanta in the National League wild card race. Though everyone might have thought the Cardinals were out of playoff contention, it turns out they were anything but. Today, they will play the Phillies in the National League Division Series.

As a result, by the definition of “valuable” that exists in the minds of some (as opposed to the one that actually exists in the Baseball Writers Association of America voting guidelines), everyone on the Cardinals is eligible for the NL Most Valuable Player Award.

What does this have to do with the Dodgers?

On August 24, Los Angeles was 10 1/2 games behind Arizona in the NL West race. Same date, same deficit.

(Yes, the Cardinals were closer to Milwaukee in the NL Central race, but that’s not the race they won.)

If you argue that the Dodgers were never in contention this summer, then you have to argue that the Cardinals were never in contention. Which is obviously not true.

National League standings after August 24
1t) .719 23-9 Arizona
1t) .719 23-9 St. Louis
3) .688 22-10 Los Angeles
4) .600 18-12 Milwaukee

13t) .355 11-20 Atlanta

The Dodgers certainly played as if they were in contention. They played hard and they played well. The difference between the Dodgers and St. Louis has nothing to do with the Dodgers. The Braves collapsed, and the Diamondbacks didn’t.

I realize the 2011 MVP ballots have already been cast, so this is moot as far as this year goes, but it should be remembered for future votes. The comeback of the Cardinals in the NL (along with Tampa Bay in the AL) points out yet another flaw in the misbegotten argument that Matt Kemp should be effectively ineligible for the MVP award because the Dodgers didn’t contend.

You certainly can’t argue that the games through August 24 didn’t matter for the Dodgers, and given how incredible the other comebacks were, I’m not sure how you can argue that any game for the Dodgers before they were eliminated September 17 didn’t matter to them.

With the season on the line, from August 22 through September 10, the Dodgers went 15-3 – yet they lost 1 1/2 games in the standings. Is it really fair to punish Kemp, who had a typical .971 OPS during that stretch, for his team not making the playoffs?

As smart as they think they are, sportswriters (and fans) don’t get to decide when the games no longer matter. The players do.

Update: Mike Petriello of Mike Scioscia’s Tragic Illness has more on the subject.

Sep 29

Is award a case of brains vs. Braun?

When I read the news release that Dee Gordon had been named National League Rookie of the Month, I didn’t get far before I realized that maybe he shouldn’t have won the award. Not that I wasn’t pleased for Gordon or happy with his performance, but the first player under “others receiving votes,” Washington catcher Wilson Ramos, had a higher on-base percentage and slugging percentage. Now, Ramos didn’t play as many games, and he didn’t have Gordon’s steals or his NL-high 42 hits, but it’s not as if I can’t see the case for the non-Dodger.

So when I see that Ryan Braun has been named NL Player of the Month for September, when Braun’s on-base percentage, slugging percentage, OPS, RBI and runs created were lower than those of Matt Kemp (and other players), I feel I’m entitled to raise an eyebrow or three.

Note, by the way, that the confusing word “valuable” does not appear in the award.

It’s funny – I don’t really have my heart in this post (and I certainly don’t have any anger), because I happen to think Braun is a great player. That division-clinching home run he hit, boosting Milwaukee to its first title since the 1980s, is something Brewer fans will cherish for a long, long time. I know this because I still cherish the division-clinching home run Steve Finley hit in 2004, boosting the Dodgers to their first title since the 1990s.

But every time I told myself not to bother with this post, there was something else that told me that it was worth noting that Matt Kemp had a better September than the NL Player of the Month for September. And so that’s what I’m doing. (Also, I kind of liked the headline, whether or not it makes perfect sense.)

Sep 26

What watch? Ten watch? Such watch

Hope you know what the headline above refers to.

  • Every National League batting race scenario you can imagine is provided by Eric Stephen of True Blue L.A. My personal nightmare: Matt Kemp gets 10 hits over the next three games, but Albert Pujols homers in his last at-bat.
  • Tim Brown of Yahoo! Sports has two good pieces today, on McCourt v. Selig and on Kemp very much not v. Newcombe.
  • Jay Jaffe of Baseball Prospectus has a good piece on Kemp, Clayton Kershaw and the Dodgers. Among other things, he notes that when “you factor in opponent quality and ballpark, (Kershaw) has done better against a slightly tougher slate of hitters than Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee” — a reminder that just because Kershaw has gotten to pitch against the San Francisco and San Diego offenses this year doesn’t mean he’s had it easy.
  • Orel Hershiser and Eddie Murray make Chris Jaffe’s “Ten worst career-ending performances of all time” list at the Hardball Times.
Sep 24

The myth and reality of ‘valuable’

Dear Voter:

There is no clear-cut definition of what Most Valuable means. It is up to the individual voter to decide who was the Most Valuable Player in each league to his team. The MVP need not come from a division winner or other playoff qualifier.

The rules of the voting remain the same as they were written on the first ballot in 1931:

1. Actual value of a player to his team, that is, strength of offense and defense.

2. Number of games played.

3. General character, disposition, loyalty and effort.

4. Former winners are eligible.

5. Members of the committee may vote for more than one member of a team.

Baseball Writers Association of America official site

* * *

The idea that an MVP must come from a contending team is completely invented. It is not part of the rules of the award nor its roots. Nor is it part of baseball history, unless you’d like to go back and take Ernie Banks’ MVP awards away from him.

Nevertheless, the idea persists among many that an MVP must come from a team that, at a minimum, is in the thick of a pennant race. It comes from people who believe, apparently, that if a tree falls in the woods, it does not make a sound.

Guess what.  It makes a sound.

* * *

If, instead of voting for the player with the best performance, you vote for only the player with the best performance on a potential champion, you’re arguing that anything that takes place outside the spotlight doesn’t matter.

Think of the implications of that.

I have three kids.  Sometimes I watch them play. Right now they’re playing downstairs while I type this. If one of my children does something nice for another, that is a good thing, whether I’m in the room or not.  The value is equal. To think otherwise is to send a message that your actions only matter when people are watching.

Baseball asks you to run out a ground ball even when you’re sure you’re going to be out.  It asks you to put your best effort even if you’re team is 50 games out of first place. The sport asks this, for one, because fans and TV networks have been promised this in exchange for their hard-earned money. And because it’s a belief that virtually all of us share. Do your best.

To then turn around and say that “Oh, by the way, we aren’t paying attention to you anymore, so your effort doesn’t matter,” is nonsensical.

And it’s not a matter of degree. Even though you have an adjusted OPS+ of xxx, playing on a contending team doesn’t mean you add three points, or 10 points or 24.6 points.  The value of the same performance is the same regardless of where it took place.

Sending my kids to college is so much more important to me than buying my kids the Webkinz stuffed animals they love.  Nevertheless, $10 I put away for my kids’ education is not more valuable than $20 I spend on the toy. No, $20 is more than $10.

* * *

All that being said, the idea that the Dodgers’ games have been meaningless this season is a complete fiction.

They were clearly meaningful in April and May, before anyone had broken free in the National League West.

They were also meaningful later in the season, even after the losing began. If not for Arizona’s remarkable breakthrough this season, something that no one could have guaranteed, the Dodgers’ second-half rally would have put them in the thick of the race. With five games to go in the season, the Dodgers have 79 victories, which means they still have the chance of matching their division-winning total of 2008 and surpassing the Padres’ division-winning total of 2005.

When, exactly, were the Dodgers supposed to stop trying?

But even if you concede that this team was not going to go to the playoffs, the indispensable point is this: The Dodgers have had meaning all season as an opponent.

From April through September, the Dodgers played games that mattered because winning or losing had a direct effect on the pennant races. In addition to their own postseason dreams, there were also postseason dreams for their opponents. On Tuesday, San Francisco came to Los Angeles, having won eight games in a row in making a late run for the playoffs. With two out in the first inning, Matt Kemp singled and then scored a run off Tim Lincecum in what became a 2-1 victory that severely damaged their hopes.

Then, a day after the Giants beat the Dodgers to keep their hopes alive and a day before San Francisco had a showdown series with Arizona, Kemp went 4 for 4 with three doubles and a home run in a Dodger victory that was crushing for the Giants.

You want to tell San Francisco’s fans that that didn’t count?

The Dodgers were not eliminated from postseason contention until September 17. Every game they played to that point counted for themselves. In their entire 2011 season, they will have played eight games – two against Pittsburgh, three in their current series against San Diego and three to finish the season against NL West champion Arizona – that had no bearing on the postseason (though keeping in mind they still mean something to the fans who watch).

Ryan Braun’s Milwaukee Brewers, who like the Diamondbacks clinched their division title Friday, will play five games this season that have no bearing on the postseason.

That’s a three-game difference out of 162. Three games in which Kemp’s performance mattered less to the playoff race than Braun’s.

* * *

Pressure of the pennant chase? I don’t even need to bother with this one, because Joe Posnanski already destroyed this argument:

… This line — that it’s easier to put up numbers without pennant pressure — is a lot like that. Nobody can possibly believe this. First of all, there’s the obvious flaw: If it were easier to put up numbers in non-pressure situations, then players would consistently and obviously have better years on lousy teams than they do on good ones. Does this ring even the slightest bell of truth? Does anyone believe that Derek Jeter would have put up better numbers had he played for Kansas City? Does anyone believe that Albert Pujols would be so much better if he had spent his career playing in the carefree world of the Pittsburgh Pirates? Roy Halladay was great for mediocre Blue Jays teams and is great for outstanding Phillies teams. Hank Aaron was the same great player with the same great numbers when Milwaukee won, when Milwaukee almost won, and when Milwaukee wasn’t very good at all. …

If you’ve read this blog at all you know: I’ve covered a lot of bad teams in my life. I’ve been around some good ones, too. And as far as “pressure” goes, well, from my observation, it’s not even close. There is infinitely more pressure on players on lousy teams than on good ones. Obviously, this depends on how you define pressure, but if the textbook definition of pressure is “the feeling of stressful urgency cause by the necessity of achieving something,” well, absolutely, there’s way more pressure on the lousy teams.

… Think about it: What pressure is there on players in pennant races? The pressure to win? Sure. But players come to the ballpark energized. Everyone on the team is into it. The crowd is alive and hopeful. The afternoon crackles. Anticipation. Excitement. There’s nothing in sports quite like the energy in a baseball clubhouse during a pennant race. Players arrive early to prepare. Teammates help each other. Everyone’s in a good mood. There’s a feeling swirling around: This is exactly the childhood dream. The added importance of the moment could, in theory I suppose, create extra stress. But the reality I’ve seen is precisely the opposite. The importance sharpens the senses, feeds the enthusiasm, makes the day brighter. Baseball is a long season. Anything to give a day a little gravity, to separate it from yesterday, to make it all more interesting — anything like that, I think, is much more likely to make it EASIER to play closer to one’s peak.

A losing clubhouse? Exactly the opposite. The downward pressure is enormous and overwhelming — after all, who cares? The town has moved on. A Hawaiian vacation awaits. Teammates are fighting to keep their jobs or fighting to impress someone on another team or just plain fighting. The manager might be worried about his job. The reporters are few, and they’re negative. Smaller crowds make it easier to hear the drunken critics. Support is much harder to come by, and there is constant, intense force demanding that you just stop trying so hard. After all: Why take that extra BP? You’ve got the swing down. Why study a few extra minutes of film? You’ve faced that hitter before. Why take that extra base? Why challenge him on that 3-1 pitch? Why? You’re down 9-3 anyway.

It’s absolutely AMAZING to me when a player puts up a fantastic year even when the team around him stinks. …

The Dodgers, frankly, deserve a special recognition in this category. If there were a Downward Pressure World Series, they surely would have won. With unsurpassed nightmares in the owners’ suite and a fan base in outward revolt, with numerous devotees boycotting games, with expectations for success absolutely disappearing, late summer in Los Angeles should have been the most soul-sapping time for a player in the franchise’s 54 seasons here, even more so than the 99-loss 1992 season played in the aftermath of the city’s riots.

Instead, Kemp, not to mention Clayton Kershaw and some others, bore down and did the only thing anyone can ask – be the best they can be. They were better than anyone had a right to expect.

It is, in terms of environment, easily as impressive an achievement as what the same performance would have been on a season-long contender.

* * *

I’m not saying it’s a stupid question to wonder if a player on a non-contender should get voted MVP? Even Vin Scully asked the question aloud during Friday’s Dodger broadcast.

The problem is not with the question. The problem has been with the answer.

If the answer is, “The goal is to win a championship, and any performance that does not come with a championship isn’t the most valuable,” you’re saying that Matt Kemp wasn’t valuable because Juan Uribe was terrible. Does that make any sense? “Because my next-door neighbor is a bad guy, it doesn’t matter how good I am.”

Value, clearly and cleanly, comes down to this. What would you rather have?  If you knew everything there was to know about the 2011 regular season in advance, which player would have been your first pick before Opening Day?

If you think Ryan Braun was a better player than Matt Kemp this year, vote for him.

If you think Braun was absolutely, indivisibly, incontrovertibly equal to Kemp this year, and you want to use the fact that Braun is going to the postseason as the only thing that can break the deadlock, vote for him.

But if you think Kemp was better than Braun, by a mile or a millimeter, and you vote for Braun, you’re making a mistake. You’re not upholding the values of this game or our society – you’re subverting them.

Sep 23

Why did Kemp’s Triple Crown pursuit go unnoticed for so long?

I have spent the better part of the past two months tantalized by the possibility that Matt Kemp might win the National League Triple Crown, becoming the first player to do so since Joe Medwick in 1937 and the first in either league since Carl Yastrzemski in 1967. My first post on the subject was on August 1:

No, we don’t value RBI much as a stat in these parts — not without context anyway — and we value batting average even less.

Unless they give us something fun to root for.

Here we are on August 1, and Matt Kemp still is plumb in the thick of Triple Crown contention.

The thing I like most in Kemp’s favor is that 33 of the Dodgers’ remaining 55 games are on the road, where Kemp is batting .335 with 15 homers and 45 RBI in 48 games.

Admittedly, some of those games will be in pitcher paradises like San Diego, where the Dodgers begin a three-game series tonight. But most of them are in ballparks where Kemp’s bat will feel much more footloose and fancy-free than it has in Dodger Stadium this year, where he is batting .301 with 11 homers and 42 RBI in 59 games.

The odds are against Kemp, but it’s not ridiculous to think he could do it. …

During most of that time, despite regular updates, I haven’t completely understood why most of the baseball world was so slow to get excited about what might be happening. (Is it possible that I don’t have that much influence in the baseball universe????)

I realize as much as anyone that batting average and RBI aren’t as universally valued as categories – in essence, they’re not part of the Triple Crown of stats themselves anymore. Nevertheless, the world stops every time someone is threatening to pitch a no-hitter, even if they’ve walked seven, and no-hitters happen almost every year.

The Triple Crown hasn’t happened in 44 years. In August, Kemp entered the seventh inning of his pursuit. Hardly anyone batted an eye. Somehow, 40 home runs and 40 stolen bases were more intriguing than a feat many of us haven’t seen in our lifetimes. Yaz finished his Triple Crown about two months before I was born. My Dad was two when Ducky had his.

Well, now he’s in the bottom of the ninth. He’s so close … and finally, people are taking note.

The tough part might be playing in spacious Petco Park in San Diego, where home runs and RBI could be hardest to come by, while home run leader Albert Pujols and the Cardinals are hosting the Cubs and batting average leader Ryan Braun and Milwaukee are hosting Florida. (Jose Reyes, also in the batting average race, will play for the Mets against the Reds.) Kemp will face starting pitchers Wade Le Blanc, Aaron Harang and Cory Luebke in San Diego.

Then for the final three games, Kemp travels to a better hitting environment, Arizona. He’s scheduled to face Daniel Hudson, Wade Miley and Joe Saunders, according to ESPN.com and pending any rejiggering by the Diamondbacks if and when they clinch the NL West. Pujols and the Cardinals go to Houston, Milwaukee hosts Pittsburgh and the Mets host the Reds.

I said it once and I’ll say it again. The odds are against Kemp, but it’s not ridiculous to think he could do it. …

Sep 21

Despite loss, Triple Crown chase heats up for Kemp

Harry How/Getty ImagesMatt Kemp watches the ball head toward the outfield bleachers …
Mark J. Terrill/AP… after this home-run swing in the Dodgers’ 8-5 loss to the Giants tonight.

NL batting average leaders
.330 Jose Reyes
.330 Ryan Braun
.322 Matt Kemp

NL home run leaders
36 Albert Pujols
35 Matt Kemp
35 Dan Uggla

NL runs batted in leaders
116 Matt Kemp
113 Ryan Howard
112 Prince Fielder

Promise: When ballplayers vote for Most Valuable Sportswriter, they will give equal consideration to writers from average publications that aren’t contending for the title.

Sep 20

Lee’s surge complicates road to Cy Young for Kershaw

Jayne Kamin-Oncea/US PresswireClayton Kershaw is set to finish his season with starts tonight and then Sunday in San Diego.

How heated is the National League Cy Young competition? The top four candidates — Roy Halladay, Ian Kennedy, Clayton Kershaw and Cliff Lee (in alphabetical order) — have a combined September ERA of 1.46.

Kennedy continued his late bid for recognition by pitching eight innings of one-hit ball with 12 strikeouts in a 1-0 victory for Arizona, which built its lead to 5 1/2 games in the NL West, while Halladay gave up a sliver of ground by allowing four runs in a 4-3 Phillies loss to St. Louis.

Kershaw and Lee — both red-hot of late, both scheduled to start tonight — have the opportunity to affirm themselves as the two top finalists for the award. In particular, if Kershaw bests Tim Lincecum for a fourth time in 2011 tonight, that’s going to be memorable.

For the first time, I’m starting to think that Halladay and Lee being teammates could hurt the award chances of both. Up until very recently, I’ve felt that the award was Halladay’s to lose, given that he pitches for the best team in the NL and that he’s pitched so well — his numbers are virtually equal to Kershaw’s (see chart below), with a slightly lower strikeout rate but better control, and higher wins above replacement.

However, Lee’s amazing stretch run —a 0.56 ERA in 64 2/3 innings since August 1 — has helped him catch up to the leaders and throw more confusion into the race. If you’re a voter who wants to honor the Phillies in some way with this award (given that the MVP race doesn’t really offer that opportunity), whom do you pick?

Now, if you watched “Modern Family” win bunches of Emmys on Sunday despite multiple nominations in those categories, you learned that teammates don’t always bring each other down. Still, as much as Lee presents another rival to Kershaw, he could also aid the Dodger by stealing votes from Halladay.

Voters who treasure wins may lean toward Kennedy, who certainly has been no slouch. But if Kershaw ends up with 20 wins himself, I think you can remove that category as a path to Kennedy leapfrogging the Dodger lefty.

In fact, much has been made lately of Kershaw possibly winning the pitcher’s triple crown: wins, ERA and strikeouts. My guess is that if he does, he will collect the Cy Young (though for me, the win totals are essentially irrelevant).

But let’s put it this way: If Kershaw doesn’t finish first in the balloting, there will be no crime. Halladay and Lee have been every bit as fierce as Kershaw. It’s been a superb year for all of them.

Top National League Cy Young Award candidates
(bold text signifies leader among contenders)

IP W-L ERA Sept. ERA ERA+ WAR (B-R.com) WAR (Fangraphs) WHIP K/9 K/BB
Roy Halladay 227 2/3 18-6 2.41 2.03 160 7.1 8.0 1.045 8.58 6.38
Cole Hamels 206 14-9 2.80 4.18 138 5.1 5.0 0.981 8.13 4.54
Ian Kennedy 216 20-4 2.88 1.88 137 5.3 4.9 1.083 8.08 3.66
Clayton Kershaw 218 2/3 19-5 2.30 0.90 161 6.4 6.8 0.983 9.71 4.63
Cliff Lee 219 2/3 16-7 2.38 0.72 162 6.7 6.5 1.015 9.14 5.31

* * *

  • By the way, this caught me by surprise, but Kershaw is no longer leading the NL in strikeouts per nine innings. Zack Greinke of Milwaukee is on top.
  • Chad Moriyama has a mammoth analysis of James Loney that you need to read, in which Moriyama analyzes both Loney’s stats and his swing. Conclusions:

    … What fans want to hear is that Loney has simply flipped a switch and will now pull 35% of balls and put up an OPS near .900 going forward. While I wish my analysis could guarantee that, it’s simply not a feasible conclusion to reach.

    What is clear though is that Loney has changed his approach and swing over the last two months in a way that has drastically affected his hit distribution and production. As such, the possibility does exist that his numbers could improve significantly in 2012 if the changes he has made carry over on a consistent basis.

    That said, all of my findings are subject to the usual sample size critiques, which is precisely why nothing about this is a sure thing. However, I have shown that Loney’s change under Hansen has absolutely happened, and looking at the free agent list at first base for 2012, unless the Dodgers can get Albert Pujols, Prince Fielder, or Lance Berkman, I’d rather give Loney another shot if he comes at a reasonable salary (4-6 million?) even though I had previously preferred signing Carlos Pena (probably more expensive).

    When talking about baseball players, hope is part of what makes the game so fun to follow, but it can also be a dangerous thing, especially when that hope is invested in a 27-year-old first baseman with a .749 OPS/103 OPS+ over four full seasons. Still though, as of now, I’m more willing to take a chance on Loney than ever before.

  • Ramona Shelburne of ESPNLosAngeles.com has a really nice feature centering on A.J. Ellis that will only make you root for him more.
  • Dylan Hernandez of the Times looks at the increasingly favorable comparisons of Kershaw with Sandy Koufax.
  • Jonathan Broxton had his elbow surgery Monday, with “a bone spur and associated loose bodies” being removed.
  • Adam Rubin of ESPNNewYork.com has an update on ailing catcher Gary Garter.
  • Tim Dierkes of MLB Trade Rumors compiles the $100 million free agent contracts in baseball history.
  • David Pinto of Baseball Musings reminds us that batting order is less about stats and more about egos.
  • Patrick Dubuque at Notgraphs has a fun essay on the impulse for a fielder to throw his glove at a ball.
Sep 19

NL MVP race down to two: Kemp and Braun

Reed Saxon/APWith nine games to play, the Bison is leading or in the top three in the NL in batting average, home runs, RBIs, total bases, steals, slugging percentage, OPS and Wins Above Replacement (WAR), according to FanGraphs.

The National League Most Valuable Player race, as far as I’m concerned, is down to two finalists: Ryan Braun and Matt Kemp.

Braun has seized the high ground among players from contending teams, pushing aside his Brewers teammate Prince Fielder and Arizona’s Justin Upton. Kemp is the preeminent player from the also-rans.

Kemp and Braun are in something close to a dead heat statistically — Kemp leads in some categories, Braun in others — which, of course, might not be good enough for Kemp, who will be battling the belief by some voters that the MVP has to come from a contender.

On the other hand, despite the Brewers’ run to a division title, I’m not sure Braun has had the nationwide publicity that Kemp has had — I do get the sense that some think Kemp has simply been the best player in the NL this year, and that might be good enough for them.

Kemp also retains an outside shot at the Triple Crown (he trails Braun by .016 in batting average, Albert Pujols by two in home runs and is tied with Ryan Howard for the NL lead in RBI), and if he can do something that hasn’t been done in the NL since 1937, then forget about it. A 40-40 season (he needs six homers in his last nine games) wouldn’t hurt, either.

But Kemp, who singled, doubled and hit his 34th home run in the Dodgers’ 15-1 pasting of Pittsburgh on Sunday, can’t relax until the finish line. He might be No. 1A at this point, but there’s no award unless you’re No. 1.

Top National League MVP candidates
(bold text signifies leader among contenders)

PA OPS OPS+ Sept. OPS HR RBI TAV (BP) WAR (B-R) WAR (Fangraphs)
Ryan Braun 595 .997 168 .974 31 103 .342 7.6 7.1
Prince Fielder 654 .960 160 1.064 34 112 .321 4.7 4.8
Matt Kemp 648 .963 166 .945 34 113 .343 9.1 7.6
Albert Pujols 604 .921 154 1.113 36 95 .317 5.3 5.2
Troy Tulowitzki 599 .924 134 .965 30 105 .305 5.9 6.6
Justin Upton 649 .911 145 .932 30 86 .308 5.0 6.8
Shane Victorino 543 .875 135 .617 17 60 .312 5.4 6.2
Joey Votto 675 .971 162 .855 28 98 .332 6.7 7.1