Just saw (via MLB Trade Rumors) that the Pirates are reportedly one of the teams interested in Bobby Abreu. That's great. They should be. Abreu is a great guy to both help the team out and bring a return at the deadline or in the way of draft picks after the season is over. Just don't count on it actually happening. Look at the other teams that Heyman lists: the Angels, Braves, Mets, and Reds. Three contenders, two sad sack NL Central teams. Unless the Pirates are offering twice what the contending teams are offering, Abreu's only taking their calls to try and play their offer off of one from a team he's interested in playing in to try and grab a little more cash. Abreu might not sign for much, but I'll believe he'll be a Pirate the day he pulls on a jersey and not a day before.
I still remember the day the Ken Caminiti news broke. June, 2002. Without the internet as a major vehicle to drive the news at that time, the allegations hit the airwaves early in the week and on Thursday, Sports Illustrated came out with its memorable cover, a baseball crossed by syringes. I remember literally waiting for that week's SI to come out to read the story about Caminiti and to finally get the scoop for myself. I read the story and Caminiti's words inside it in complete disbelief:
"It's no secret what's going on in baseball. At least half the guys are using steroids. They talk about it. They joke about it with each other. The guys who want to protect themselves or their image by lying have that right. Me? I'm at the point in my career where I've done just about every bad thing you can do. I try to walk with my head up. I don't have to hold my tongue. I don't want to hurt teammates or friends. But I've got nothing to hide.
"If a young player were to ask me what to do," Caminiti continued, "I'm not going to tell him it's bad. Look at all the money in the game: You have a chance to set your family up, to get your daughter into a better school.... So I can't say, 'Don't do it,' not when the guy next to you is as big as a house and he's going to take your job and make the money."
To that point, the only player I ever had really connected with steroids in my mind was Barry Bonds, and a nagging voice in my head always told me the only reason I thought Bonds was on steroids was because I wanted him to be on steroids due to my personal dislike of him.
I was 17 at the time and I was disgusted by what I read in that story. How could those players do that to the fans? To me? As a kid I obsessed over players like Ruth, Gehrig, Aaron, Johnson, Koufax, Williams, Clemente, Stargell, Kiner, and Wagner; those guys were my mythology. I read baseball encyclopedias for fun. I constantly got in trouble with the librarian at the Shenango Valley Library for taking out too many books on the same subject (which I still think is a stupid rule). In 2002, I felt like this story was depriving me of my own Olympus of baseball players. Like most Pirate fans my age, I grew up hearing stories about the amazing Roberto Clemente, about the '79 World Series team that Pops and the Cobra pulled out of a hole to defy the odds and win a Championship. I heard my uncle rave about the way Al Kaline swung the bat and patrolled the outfield. How could I possibly talk about these steroid addled players with such reverence to my own children in the future?
That was seven years ago. Yesterday, when debating the A-Rod story with my fellow FanHousers, I wrote this:
And I'm sorry, but I hate the "I don't want to see Aaron lose his record to a bunch of cheaters" argument. Baseball evolves over time. How can you tell me that the 100-meter dash world record has been lowered by so much time since Babe Ruth retired, but only two guys have hit more home runs? Pitchers and hitters are constantly getting better, but they keep each other in check and it creates the illusion that somehow, we can compare Babe Ruth in 1924 to A-Rod in 2009. I honestly think that the '27 Yankees would get smoked by every single big league team today 9 times out of 10 ... just because these eras seem comparable doesn't mean that they actually are.
I understand what a bold statement that is and it might seem like I'm making that point to argue for arguments sake, but I can assure you I'm not. But after I wrote that, I realized that my 17 year old self would want to punch my 24 year old self in the face for saying it. Is that really what I believe? (Yes, yes it is.) Do I think that because I think it's true or because the combination of being a Pirate fan and a lab rat has made me so hopelessly cynical that I'll never enjoy anything the way I used to enjoy baseball? That question is harder to answer.
The truth is this: what I love about baseball are not numbers. I use numbers a lot and this blog can sometimes be analytical, but that's because that's who I am. What I truly love about baseball are the stories it's created. I don't love Ted Williams' 521 home runs or his .406 average in 1941; I love that he could feel when pine tar made his bat too heavy, I love that when teams started shifting on him, he used a heavier bat to hit the ball into the holes in the shift, I love that the guy had such amazing eyesight that he was a fighter pilot in World War II. I don't love Lou Gehrig's 1995 RBIs, I love that he could've hit five home runs in a game if only a teammate hadn't mistaken a home run for a flyout and run off the base paths, allowing Gehrig to pass him and costing him a home run. I love that even faced with an uncertain future and a disease that robbed him of all of his amazing talent, he still considered himself the luckiest man on the face of the earth. I never cared how far Mickey Mantle actually hit a baseball, I only care that he hit a ball so far that people still talk about it 50 years later. I don't love the fact that Roberto Clemente had 3,000 hits, but the idea that one of the most decent men to ever play the sport somehow hit one of the game's magic numbers on the nose, and shortly afterwards stepped on to an overloaded plane and gave up his own life trying to help someone else is pure magic.
Who cares how many home runs Barry Bonds hit? Who will ever forget that his dad used to throw him tennis balls with numbers scrawled on them and told him to only swing at the even numbers? Or the way managers were so afraid of him that they'd walk him regardless of the situation? Or the villian he created? Who can forget Mark McGwire's rush to embrace his son after hitting his 62nd home run? Tell me he cheated, but don't tell me he's a bad person. What about a tired Pedro Martinez coming out of the bullpen in Game 5 of the 1999 ALDS to spin six shut-out innings against one of the best offenses of the 1990s? What about Rob Mackowiak celebrating the birth of his son with two of the most memorable home runs in PNC Park's short history?
Sure, the numbers are part of that mythology. But doesn't the steroid era glorify some of them? Joe DiMaggio hit in 56 straight games and no amount of HGH or Winstrol could help anyone top that. Roger Clemens did some amazing things on the mound, but Greg Maddux won one more game than he did and no one, not even Sandy Koufax, dominated quite like Pedro Martinez did in a pure hitter's era. We still have numbers, we'll just have to change the way we value them.
Sports, and baseball in particular, have always been about finding an edge. Babe Ruth swung with a uppercut! Some (but not all!) players in the 60s and 70s took greenies! Gaylord Perry threw a spitball! Tommy John got part of his shoulder put in his elbow! Just because science has advanced cheating doesn't mean that it invented it. All that ever really matters is that the playing field is level and for the most part, it really has been. The Ranger teams that played early this decade might have been juiced, but they weren't winning World Series because of it. The A's teams in the late 80s and early 90s might have been steroid pioneers, but they really only stood out above the rest of the league for three years and in those three years, they won one World Series. It took a while, but baseball tests for steroids now and so long as steroid abuse remains illegal, they should. That doesn't mean players will stop trying to find ways around the tests, but with the money and fame involved, can you blame them? They only reason past players didn't take steroids is because they weren't available and that's just a fact.
If you love baseball, you love (or at least love to hate) cheaters and jerks. Ty Cobb the racist and Babe Ruth the womanizer went right into the Hall of Fame with Honus Wagner and Christy Matthewson. The villification of Pete Rose has made him more famous than induction in the Hall would've. If I have a son that tries to emulate Roger Clemens or Barry Bonds, I will consider myself to have failed as a father and that has nothing to do with steroids.
All the focus right now is on the numbers, but did Hank Aaron invalidate Babe Ruth? Did Pete Rose make Ty Cobb's feats less impressive? Did Nolan Ryan eclipse Cy Young or Sandy Koufax? No, and just like the earliest generations of the game live on, so will Aaron and Maris and Rose and Ryan, no matter how many strikeouts or hits or home runs modern players rack up. The true allure of baseball has never been the numbers themselves, but rather the lore -- the myths, the heroes, the villians -- that the numbers have created. And steroids will never change that.
Coming off of a rough 1993 1994 1995 1996 1997 1998 1999 2000 2001 2002 2003 2004 2005 2006 2007 2008 season, hope still springs eternal in Bradenton. Pitchers and catchers report on Friday and on Saturday, manager Jim Leyland Gene Lamont Lloyd McClendon Jim Tracy John Russell will hold the first practice with pitching coach Ray Miller Pete Vuckovich Spin Williams Jim Colborn Jeff Andrews Joe Kerrigan.
While general manager Cam Bonifay Dave Littlefield Neal Huntington insists that every pitcher will have to earn a spot in the rotation, the early focus will certainly be on working with Paul Wagner Esteban Loaiza Jason Schmidt Kris Benson Kip Wells Tom Gorzelanny and Ian Snell to improve upon their disappointing performances last season.
When the position players report, all eyes will be on Freddy Garcia Chad Hermansen Andy LaRoche after his struggles at the plate put a damper on his ascent to the Majors. Still, the club expects Jacob Brumfield Trey Beamon Jermaine Allensworth Adrian Brown Chris Duffy Rajai Davis Nyjer Morgan to infuse the club with an exciting dose of excitement and speed and hustle.
While pundits are expecting yet another losing season for the Pirates, the steady returning veteran presence of Denny Neagle Jason Kendall Kevin Young Brian Giles Jason Bay Nate McLouth and Ryan Doumit along with Leyland Lamont McClendon Tracy Russell's insistence that the team will stress good, fundamental baseball this spring, improving young players, and pixie dust, perhaps 1994 1995 1996 1997 1998 1999 2000 2001 2002 2003 2004 2005 2006 2007 2008 2009 will be the year that things finally turn around for the Pittsburgh Pirates.
We could spend hours trying to figure out what Zach Duke did in 2005 that he hasn't done since then and what that might have to do with his success that year and his lack of success since then, but Duke's story is an easy one to figure out: he doesn't just doesn't miss enough bats. In his rookie year, Duke struck out more than 6 batters per 9 innings, since then his K/9 rates have been 4.89, 3.44, and 4.23. Check out the K/9 leaderboard for qualified starters in 2006, 2007 (Duke didn't qualify due to his injury, but you can see where Duke's 3.44 would fit), and 2008.
That said, Duke was really a lot better last year than his 5-14 record suggests. Many of his peripherals match up pretty closely with his 2006 season, which everyone mostly agreed wasn't great, but wasn't exactly unexpected. The reason I'm pointing this out is because I think a lot of people expect the Yankee trio to boot Duke out of the rotation this year and I don't think that that's a given by any means. In both 2006 and 2008, Duke's batting average on balls in play against was .327. That's a good 30 points higher than the league average and a lot of that can be contributed to the Pirates' defensive failings. Using the same PMR conversion to runs that I've been using, Duke lost more than a tenth of a run of ERA to the Pirates' defense this year.
What always gets me about Duke is that he's supposed to be a finesse pitcher, but his control isn't all that great. His strikeout rates are always low, but his walk rates aren't particularly low to match. The only season when he's had a K/BB ratio better than 2:1 was that rookie year. I think that it's certainly possible for a pitcher to be an adequate starter while striking out less than 5 hitters/9 innings, but if you're allowing hitters to put that many balls in play, you've got to minimize the number of free passes you're giving out.
It's hard to write a lot more about Duke, because he's really one of the more scrutinized pitchers in the rotation. I will say that people (myself included) do tend to way over or underestimate Duke's actual value. There's one crowd that finds him completely worthless because of his terrible record last year and his awful 2007 season. There's another crowd that still thinks he can find the 2005 magic and turn into an ace again. I'm quite guilty of this as well. I mean, I just wrote a bunch trying to sell you on Duke not being as bad as he pitched last year, but where did I mention the 646 hits he's given up in his last 507 2/3 innings? Duke can't be more than a fourth or fifth starter until he stops doing that.
If we give rotation spots to Maholm, Snell, Gorzelanny, and Karstens (which Neal Huntington won't do right now, but I think it's a safe bet), then Duke's probably in a battle for the fifth spot with Ross Ohlendorf right now (unless Braden Looper walks through that door). Would the Pirates be better suited with Ohlendorf in a set-up role and Duke in the five slot, assume Duke can bring the strikeout rate up a little more and the defense can help him out some? I think they probably would, but then I'm not sure I'd gamble on Duke being a lot better than last year, either.
If this post seems abrupt, just know that I'm still adjusting to the lack of autosave feature or a "Warning! You're about to click away from unsaved data!" dialog box in the engine that powers Bloguin.
TJ Beam is gone, plucked off waivers by the Blue Jays. He was kind of decent last year, but he's almost 29 and that makes him at least three years older than any of the other candidates for removal from the 40-man. I think age probably had a lot to do with him being the one that went to make room for Hinske. This is hardly worth losing sleep over.
I was sad to see Baseball Toaster close up shop. When I started blogging 2005, they had some of the best baseball writers on the web there and a few links from them really encouraged me to keep going. Most of the blogs are going to new homes, but it feels weird to know that the Toaster is gone. If you've got time, Ken Arneson (writer of Catfish Stew and founder of Baseball Toaster) wrote an epic farewell post. Thanks for everything you did for the baseball blog world, Ken.
You should head to BP and check out Will Carroll's latest post about the evolution of steroid usage by athletes while it's still free. It's both incredibly informative and Raymond Chandler-esque.
You know what will happen with a Honus Wagner bobblehead? Every 9-15 year old kid at that ballpark will say "This isn't (insert popular or current Pirates or other player name here). I'm breaking this thing apart!" I can guarantee there will be hundreds of Honus Wagner pieces laying around PNC Park by the time Matt Capps throws his final pitch against the Dodgers and picks up his 60th save of the year.Vote for ¡Romulo! right here. Do the right thing. And if anyone makes "Vote for ¡Romulo!" campaign propaganda, I'll be happy to post it.
The Road to 17 is a look at each losing season that the Pirates have had since their last playoff appearance in 1992. The object is not to wallow in the misery of the Pirates, but instead remember just what it is that makes us Pirate fans in the first place. Every team has their great moments, the Pirates' are just fewer and further between. Today, we hit the fifteenth stop on the Road to 17: 2007
If you are not a Pirate fan or are uncertain what being a Pirate fan might be like, let me tell you that without a doubt, my happiest memory as Pirate fan in the last decade was hearing that Dave Littlefield was fired. It might be petty, it might be sad, but it's true.
In preparation for this post, I've been looking back at 2007 and I'm now starting to honestly wonder if Dave Littlefield was trying to get fired. He opened up the year with a bang, finally completing the Adam LaRoche/Mike Gonzalez trade that had been rumored for months. The problem was that Brent Lillibridge was the second player involved from the Pirates and it was completely unnecessary to involve him in the trade when the Braves were enamored with Chris Duffy at the time. The Pirates entered 2007 with three prospects: Neil Walker, Andrew McCutchen, and Brent Lillibridge. Before January even ended, they were down to two.
Shortly after the LaRoche trade, they unveiled the red uniforms. I'd prefer we never speak of these crimes against humanity ever, ever again. We weren't even to Piratefest yet, and it was clear this was going to be a bad year.
And so of course, amid all of those things, the Pirates opened the year up with a dramatic sweep in Houston, with Xavier Nady hitting a game-tying home run in the ninth and Jason Bay hitting the winner in the tenth, then Nady coming up huge again by knocking in the go-head run in the eighth of game two. They won another one-run game to finish off Houston and even got a win in Cincy to roll into Pittsburgh for the home opener at 4-2. Of course, the Pirates responded by dropping four straight at home to the Cardinals and Giants, mostly in freezing weather before tiny crowds. That includes the second home game of the year; a 3-2 12 inning loss to the Cardinals that the Pirates carried a 2-0 lead into the ninth inning in front of about 12,000 fans, the lowest attendance I've ever seen for a fireworks night. Still, the Pirates mostly hung around .500 for April, aided by another sweep of Houston at home, and finished the month 12-12.
I remember there being some serious debate on WHYGAVS after April over whether or not the Pirates were any good and of course, we quickly found out they weren't. The two best offensive players on the team that saw any considerable amount of playing time were Nate McLouth and Ryan Doumit (who both had a 110 OPS+) and they only combined for about 600 at-bats while Chris Duffy (.249/.313/.357) and Ronny Paulino (.263/.314/.389) split the season with those two (though to be fair, Doumit did get hurt again in August). Doumit even spent time in AAA because, I dunno, he told Jim Tracy he was stupid or something.
Really, the 2008 offense was all about let downs. Freddy Sanchez's average dropped 40 points, Paulino tanked after hitting .310 his rookie year, LaRoche never really got going until June, Jason Bay battled a knee injury and didn't even have an average OPS. At the time, any one of us probably would've said, "It's just another one of those years, you know?" The problem shortly became that it wasn't "just" one of "those years." Somehow, Dave Littlefield set out to make it worse.
The Pirates entered June with the fourth pick in the draft. Everyone knew David Price was going first to the Devil Rays and most people considered Matt Wieters to be the best hitter in the draft. The Pirates seemed particularly interested in high school third baseman Josh Vitters, but the Cubs were also interested and they had the pick in front of them. So who would the Pirates take? Matt LaPorta or Beau Mills, two awesome college hitters? Rick Porcello, the best high school arm in the draft? Jason Heyward, a good high school outfielder? Wieters? Nope. Danny Moskos, a pitcher from Clemson who spent most of his career as ... a reliever? He pitched in the College World Series the day after the Pirates picked him and I watched the game. He wasn't terribly impressive and at the time, I thought that we must've picked him in the hopes that we could rush him to the majors as a reliever. Charlie has said time and time again that Littlefield ran the team like an expansion team and he's right.
The bad draft pick then lead to the walkout. We can sit around all day and debate whether or not the walkout was effective, whether more people should've left the park instead of just leaving their seats, whether people should've picketed instead of buying tickets, etc., but what I can say for the walkout is this: people noticed it. It got mentioned on most major sports news sites, MJD gave it some extra attention when he was still at FanHouse, and I was even interviewed on Fox Sports Radio that night. Maybe Bob Nutting is just playing to the crowd when he says fan outrage is part of the reason that Littlefield eventually got fired, but the truth is that even if the walkout wasn't that noticeable in the park or there weren't that many people that left the park entirely, it got the team a slew of bad press and that's what ownership eventually notices.
And even being mad enough to walk out of the ballpark, none of us saw what was coming next. The 2007 trade deadline was one of my last days living in Western Pennsylvania, so I spent it like I spent mostly every other day that summer: sitting on the couch, blogging and watching TV. Most of the day went by with no Pirate news, which was pretty much what we expected. The deadline passed at 4:00 and around 4:30, I left for Pittsburgh with my dad for my last Pirate game before my move to NC. We got to the park and were greeted with a scoreboard message: "PIRATES TRADE OF RAJAI DAVIS TO SF GIANTS FOR P MATT MORRIS." I thought it was a joke. I texted a friend to try and find how much of Morris's deal we picked up and the answer came: "All of it." All of it? But ... but ... why? Why would we do that?
Who's to say what the final straw was? Bob Nutting, in his first year as the real owner in 2007, was upset by a lot of things that happened. He was clearly perturbed by the lack of presence in the Dominican, he wasn't happy with the draft or the resulting walk out, he wasn't happy with the Morris trade, does it matter what the final straw was? Littlefield was finally fired in early September and for me, personally, it felt like a giant weight was lifted off of my chest. At the time, having just moved and started grad school, I was actually starting to kick around the idea of folding up WHYGAVS. Why keep writing about something that was never going to get better? But as soon as Littlefield was gone, it felt like things changed. "Well, if we make some good trades and start scouting Latin America and spend some money in the draft, maybe things will head in the right direction!"
The start to 2007 was just as bad as any year we've had in this streak, but the end of it just might be what ensures that this road eventually ends.
In 2005 and 2006, we would've all agreed that Zach Duke was a more promising pitching prospect than Paul Maholm. In 2007, we would've all put him behind Tom Gorzelanny and Ian Snell in the rotation. In 2008, Maholm was the only pitcher to emerge unscathed from one of the worst team pitching performances in team history and now in 2009 we're all expecting him to ace an improved staff. So what's happened to Maholm since 2005? And can he keep it up?
It's been interesting to watch Maholm progress as a pitcher. When he came up in 2005 and in his first full season in 2006, he walked far too many batters for a lefty without overpowering stuff. In '06, his 81 walks in 176 innings gave him a rate of 4.14 per 9 innings. His control improved in the second half of 2006, though, and in 2007 he only walked 49 batters in 177 2/3 innings (2.48/9 innings), which was an impressive improvement. That saw his WHIP drop from 1.608 in 2006 to 1.424 in 2007 and it was pretty clear that he was pitching better, even though his ERA went up. Last year his ERA went way, way down (to 3.71, a full run better than his previous full-year career low), but there's good news and bad news about that. His strikeouts reached a career high 6.06/9 innings and his walks stayed down, but his batted ball data didn't change much. He actually gave up more line drives in 2008 (18.6% vs. 17.1% in 2007). The big difference in 2008 was that the Pirates' defenses actually appeared to give some help to Maholm.
The only possible explanation that I can come up with for that is that Maholm had a much better ground ball/fly ball ratio than any of the other pitchers on the Pirates staff, all of whom were far more hurt by the Pirates' defense. Pinto's system ranked both Jack Wilson and Adam LaRoche as above average and the Andy LaRoche/Jose Bautista combo came in as about average third, while Nate McLouth, Xavier Nady, and Jason Bay all score very poorly. Given, again, that his line drive percentage went up, it seems pretty likely that Maholm got some unexpected help from the infield defense last year.
That's not to say that Maholm's not improving as a pitcher. In 2006, his K/BB ratio was 1.44. Last year it was 2.21. The increase in strikeouts and decrease in walks makes a big difference. FanGraphs has Maholm's FIP (fielding independent pitching, a method of approximating ERA using factors that only the pitcher can control) declinining from 4.81 in 2006 to 4.60 in 2007 and 4.15 last year. The Hardball Times sees a similar trend.
So while it's true that Maholm probably didn't pitch quite as well as his ERA indicated last year, he is getting better every year. The improvement in his strikeout and walk rates is plainly evident and since he's only going to be 27 in June, there's no real reason to believe he'll regress a lot in 2009. His ERA may drop back a bit towards the other side of 4.00, but if that happens it'll more likely be a case of him not getting as lucky with the defense. He's not a true ace and the fact that the Pirates are forced to treat him like one painfully spells out how bad the pitching situation is, but he is a solid middle of the rotation starter.