erik lundegaard

Baseball posts

Friday September 11, 2009

Jeter's First HIt

I always thought I was at the game at the Kingdome (R.I.P.) when Derek Jeter made his major league debut. I thought I remembered some announcement or talk: The Yankees have this kid they just brought up... But then I read Jack Curry's piece on Jeter's debut—published on the day Jeter tied Lou Gehrig for most career hits by a Yankee—and this morning I checked the shoebox full of old ticket stubs I have from the '90s that I've never been able to throw away, and discovered I wasn't there for Jeter's first game.

I was there for Jeter's first hit. Tuesday, May 30, 1995. Aisle 313, row 1, seat 8. 7:05 PM. $8.00.

I used to write highlights on the back of the ticket stubs—that's part of why I kept them, I guess—and Jeter obviously wasn't on my mind in that May 30th game. The previous ticket stub, from May 27, simply says: “Balt 11, Seattle 4: First Griffey-less game.” The stub before that, May 26, reads: “Seattle 8, Balt 3; RJ 13 Ks; KGJr solo HR; Junior injures wrist, out for 3 months.” Yeah it was that game. That's what Mariners fans were thinking about when Jeter first showed up.

The May 30th ticket stub simply says: “Seattle 7, NY 3: 5-run 8th inning—all runs with two outs.” The beginning of “Refuse to Lose.”

There might have been talk about it when Jeter singled to lead off the top of the fifth—particularly when they retrieved the ball. “Hey, it's that kid's first hit.” Maybe that's why I remembered it. Or misremembered it.

Or maybe I remembered reading about it in The Seattle Times the next day (warning: clunky writing ahead):

The Mariners had jumped to a 2-0 first-inning lead off Yankee starter Melido Perez. But the Yankees led off five innings of starter Tim Belcher's seven innings with a hit.

They scored single runs in the fifth and seventh. Both rallies were started by rookie Derek Jeter.

Jeter opened the fifth with his first major-league hit, a single to left. He scored on Jim Leyritz's two-out double into the left-center gap. The Mariners nearly escaped without damage but second baseman Joey Cora mishandled a potential double-play ball.

Jeter started the seventh with a single to center. That would be Belcher's 92nd and final pitch.

The other night, the night Jeter tied Gehrig's mark with hit no. 2,721, there was a discussion among the talking heads on the MLB network about Jeter's placement among the all-time Yankees greats. In the background they showed the five players with the most hits in Yankees uniforms—Jeter, Gehrig, Ruth, Mantle and Bernie Williams—and Matt Vasgersian asked the others, Al Leiter and Dave Valle, if Jeter was as great, or greater, than these other guys. I expected laughter. But Al Leiter took the question seriously and said that, yes, Jeter was as great as these other guys. Dave Valle, bless him, looked at Leiter as if he were insane. Because outside of FOX-News, I can't imagine a more absurd conversation on television. Ruth is generally regarded as the greatest player in baseball history—and I wouldn't argue it—while Gehrig is usually ranked in the top 5 or 10. One of the best measures of a player's overall hitting performance is OPS (On-Base Plus Slugging), and Ruth and Gehrig are first and third on this list, respectively, with only Ted Williams coming between them. Jeter? He's 181st and dropping. (2014 update: now 263rd.) That's damn good for a shortstop, but still...

Look, Jeter's fine. He's good. He seems clean in a dirty era. But he led the league in runs once, and hits once, and that's it. He's overrated as a defensive shortstop. Bill James talks about .300/.400/.500 guys and Jeter's not that. He's a .300/.300/.400 guy. Both Gehrig and Ruth are .300/.400/.600 guys. It's not even a discussion.

If you're insulted by this, if you're a huge Derek Jeter fan who thinks I'm dissing the man by saying he's not as good as the best players in baseball history, let me say one thing: I have a ticket stub from the game when Jeter got his first hit. Bidding starts at $10,000.

Posted at 08:21 AM on Sep 11, 2009 in category Baseball
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Thursday September 10, 2009

Leavy's Koufax

About six years ago a friend gave me an uncorrected proof of Jane Leavy's "Sandy Koufax: A Lefty's Legacy," which was getting a lot of attention at the time, and I finally got around to it this past weekend. Something about September makes me want to read baseball books, I guess. Temperatures are cooling down and pennant races are heating up. Post-season is just around the corner. Or maybe it's the fact that baseball is dying (for the year) and everyone appreciates things more when they're dying. Baseball books are almost always pubished in spring, which is the one time of year I get to take baseball for granted. It's also the season I'm least likely to be inside, reading.

I like the structure of Leavy's book—every other chapter is an inning in his perfect game against the Chicago Cubs on Sept. 9, 1965—while the subsequent chapters give us his life and career: How a wild, afterthought lefty, with an ERA hovering near 4.00, became, for five years, the best pitcher in baseball. Levy would say "the best pitcher in basebal history" and that's part of the problem. She's a little hagiographic. She's a little too close to her subject. So was Aviva Kempner in that "Hank Greenberg" doc, but for some reason I found Kempner's love letter charming, Leavy's less so. Maybe it's the medium. Maybe it's the messenger.

Some of the best stuff is in the intro, when Leavy interviewed the players, many of them Hall of Famers, who faced Koufax. It's been said that his fastball rose when it got to the plate, which, according to science, is impossible. Of course 19th century scientists claimed no ball could curve, either; that the so-called "curve ball" was merely an optical illusion. The players here collectively give science a Bronx cheer:

Stan Musial: "Rose up just before it got to the plate."
Willie Mays: "I don't know how much it rose, it just rose. Ain't got time to try and sit there and count how high it goes. You just know it went up—very quickly."
Hank Aaron: "It did something, you know?"
Carl Erskine: "It re-accelerated. It came again."
Dave Wallace: "Fifteen feet from home plate, where the grass ends and the dirt begins, it got an afterburner on its ass."

Love Hank Aaron's line.

Ken Burns' "Baseball" doc argued, in passing, that Koufax went from mediocre mop-up man (with great stuff) to the best pitcher in baseball when someone told him he didn't have to throw so hard, but Leavy argues that the Dodgers in general, and manager Walter Alston in particular, just didn't give him the chance to find his rhythm during the 1950s. Koufax was a "bonus baby." Because he signed for over $10,000 in 1954, MLB rules stipulated that he had to stay on the 25-man roster. So not only did his signing piss off the other, veteran players, most of whom weren't even earning what this kid had just been given, but it pissed off the manager, who was suddenly saddled with a player he couldn't get rid of. If the kid wasn't any good he couldn't send him down to the minors; he had to keep him in the bigs. Alston, Leavy implies, dealt with this fait accompli by not taking advantage of Koufax's god-given talent.

That's certainly the case during his first two years: Koufax pitched 41 innings in 1955, 58 in 1956. In 1957, though, he seemed to find his rhythm, or at least a rhythm: 5-4, 3.88 ERA, with, most importantly, a 122-51 strikeout-walk ratio in only 104 innings. You'd think a manager would take notice. Maybe Alston did. Because the next year Koufax started twice as many games. But he got wild again: a 131-105 strikeout-walk ratio in 158 innings. His WHIP soared. The following year, too. So maybe he just wasn't good enough yet. Or maybe, as Leavy implies, Alston never let him settle into a rhythm. Who knows? Koufax probably doesn't even know.

Leavy also gives us the Ken Burns scene. Scenes. "Stop throwing so hard." Everyone told him this. Don Newcombe told him this. In a bar the night before a spring training game in 1961, Kenny Myers, an old scout, supposedly told him to keep his head level, don't rear it back. And in that spring training game, Norm Sherry, his catcher, came to the mound after Koufax walked the first three batters and told him, according to Koufax's autobiography, to "take the grunt out of the ball." According to Sherry, via Leavy, what he actually said was "Let 'em hit it." Take something off and let them hit it. Koufax, pissed off, did just that, in part to show Sherry how wrong he was.

And he struck out the side.

Back in the dugout, Sherry told him: "Sandy, I'm not blowing smoke up your rear end. But you just now threw harder trying not to than you did when you were trying to."

Something zen in that. Something zen about Koufax. The book attempts to probe his inscrutability. It lauds both his quest for perfection and his dislike of fame and celebrity—positing both against our sorry times—but, to me, the key to his success, and thus his meaning, is in this spring training game. The key is in finding the balance. Between force and not-force, pressure and not-pressure. Between wanting it too much and not wanting it at all. Maybe that's true of all things.

Chapter 12 is my favorite. The '63 World Series. When Koufax entered the national stage and ushered the Yankees off it. By '63 the Yankees were as common an autumnal sight as yellow leaves. From 1949 to 1964, they were in the World Series every year but two—1954 (Indians) and 1959 (White Sox)—and they won most of them, including the two most-recent Series. And there they were again. And what does Koufax do? He strikes out the first five guys he faces: Kubek, Richardson, Tresh, Mantle and Maris. He sets a Series record (that lasted all of five years) by striking out 15, and the Yankees went down in four games. How often had this happened before? Never. Not to the Yankees. John McGraw's New York Giants had beaten them once 4-0-1 way back in 1922, and the Yankees themselves had swept their Series' opponents six times (1927, 1928, 1932, 1938, 1939 and 1950), but they themselves had never been swept. Until the '63 Dodgers. In that first, 15-strikeout game, the Yanks lost 5-2 and the remarkable thing is they never scored that much again, losing the next games: 4-1 (vs. Podres), 1-0 (vs. Drysdale) and 2-1 (vs. Koufax). Koufax's 1.50 ERA for the Series was actually the worst on the Dodgers' pitching staff. That's from me, not Leavy.

"Sandy Koufax" is a good book but not a great book. It's the Johnny Podres of books. You could say Leavy never finds the balance Koufax found. Between force and not-force, pressure and not-pressure. She commits the most forgivable of writerly sins: She wants it too much.

Posted at 08:51 AM on Sep 10, 2009 in category Baseball
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Wednesday September 09, 2009

Jeter Sucks! (On the Yankees Anyway)

Quick baseball trivia question for you. Derek Jeter's name has been bandied about for the American League MVP award. But where does he place among qualifying Yankees in terms of OPS—On-Base Plus Slugging—which is generally regarded as one of the best indicators of a player's hitting prowess?

Seventh. As of this morning, he has the seventh-best OPS on the Yankees.

M.V.My ass.

What's more remarkable? Jeter is still 24th among the 74 American League players who have the requisite number of plate appearances to qualify for the batting title. Meaning seven of the Yankees' nine hitters are among the top 24 hitters in the league. Ouch! Here they are:

AL pos. Player OPS
5. Mark Teixeira .928
8. Alex Rodriguez .919
17. Nick Swisher .884
19. Johnny Damon .874
20. Robinson Cano .868
22. Hideki Matsui .865
24. Derek Jeter .860

No other team is close. Among the top 24 players in OPS, the Rays have four (Ben Zobrist, Jason Bartlett, Evan Longoria and Carlos Pena), Boston has three (Kevin Youkilis, Jason Bay, J.D. Drew), the Twins have three (Joe Mauer, Jason Kubel, Justin Morneau), Texas has two (Nelson Cruz, Michael Young), and the Tigers, Angels, Blue Jays, Mariners and Indians all settle for one a piece (Miguel Cabrera, Kendry Morales, Adam Lind, Russell Branyan and Shin-Soo Choo). White Sox, Royals, Orioles and A's get zilch. Especially the A's.

The Yankees, again, have seven. That's gotta be worrisome for anyone playing them in the post-season.

New Yankee Stadium—so nice you get to homer twice—has, I'm sure, helped the Yankees accrue the best team OPS in the Majors, .842, 40 points higher than second-place Boston (.802). At the same time, didn't it destroy their pitching staff? Their pitching OPS must suck.

Not really. Here's how the 30 teams in the Majors stand when you add their batting OPS ranking and their pitching OPS ranking. Current division and wild-card leaders in bold:

Rank Team OPS bat. rank OPS pit. rank Total
1 NY Yankees 1 7 8
2 Colorado 4 9 13
3 LA Dodgers 13 1 14
4 Tampa Bay 5 10 15
5 Boston 2 16 18
  Texas 7 11 18
  St. Louis 15 3 18
8 Philadelphia 6 18 24
  Florida 12 12 24
  Chicago White Sox 16 8 24
11 Atlanta 20 5 25
12 Chicago Cubs 21 6 27
13 LA Angels 3 26 29
  Minnesota 9 20 29
15 Seattle 26 4 30
16 San Francisco 29 2 31
17 Detroit 18 14 32
  Arizona 19 13 32
19 Cleveland 8 25 33
20 Toronto 11 23 34
21 Milwaukee 10 28 38
22 Washington 14 29 43
  NY Mets 22 21 43
  San Diego 28 15 43
25 Oakland 27 17 44
26 Baltimore 17 30 47
  Houston 23 24 47
  Kansas City 25 22 47
29 Cincinnati 30 19 49
30 Pittsburgh 24 27 51

What is this measurement worth? Not much. For one, teams have reconfigured for the season. The good and the rich are better, the mediocre and middle-class are worse. No way, for example, that the Marlins and White Sox are equal to the Phillies, who are my gut pick for NL champs. No way the Angels are that bad. Even so, I was surprised that the only other team in slngle digits in both categories—besides the Yankees—is the Colorado Rockies. Ninth in the majors in opposition OPS? Wow.

Yes, as an avowed Yankees hater, none of this is exactly good news, but stats are stats. Put it this way: the Yankees are overbudget, filled with lousy actors, get too much attention...but they're good. “Transformers 2” is all of those things and it sucked. That's how bad that movie was. It makes the Yankees look good.

Posted at 07:53 AM on Sep 09, 2009 in category Baseball, Yankees Suck
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Friday July 31, 2009

Bobbleheads

From ESPN.com...

The Boston Red Sox got the big bat they were looking for, acquiring All-Star slugger Victor Martinez from the Cleveland Indians on Friday...

Martinez, who had spent his whole career with Cleveland, fought back tears after being told he'd been traded. He sat in front of his locker, hugging son Victor Jr. -- earlier in the day, the young boy asked his dad, "Are we still an Indian?"

"It's tough," Martinez said. "This is my house. This is my home."

Martinez leaves Cleveland a day before the Indians were to hold Victor Martinez Bobblehead Night at Progressive Field in their game against Detroit.

Posted at 03:30 PM on Jul 31, 2009 in category Baseball
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Friday July 24, 2009

Anatomy of a Catch: DeWayne Wise

Seriously, if you haven’t seen DeWayne Wise’s catch with nobody out in the top of the ninth inning to preserve Mark Buehrle’s perfect game yesterday—only the 18th perfect game (including the postseason) in Major League Baseball history—you’ve gotta see it. Right here.

As I said before, I may have seen better homerun-robbing catches but never in that kind of situation, never to preserve that kind of baseball history. Not even close. It’s the catch of the year.

Watch it.

Watch where he starts from. I mean he’s dead centerfield and not particularly deep. He has to run a long way to get to that thing. He has to run at a sprint to be exactly where the ball is heading.

He runs so fast, in fact, that it allows him to slow down at the warning track. That’s key. If he’d been running faster when he made his leap, the ball probably would’ve jarred loose from his glove when he hit the wall. Or he might’ve injured himself. Instead, because of his earlier speed, he’s able to slow down and go into the wall relatively softly.

OK, over the wall. Because it’s obviously a homerun. Kapler hit a homerun. Until Wise brought it back.

But even going over the wall relatively softly, the ball is still jarred loose from his glove. So, coming off the wall, falling down, he is able to re-glove and bare-hand the ball (both hands, kids), roll over on his back, and stand and raise the ball in his bare hand. I mean...goddamn.

Then he does a very baseball thing. With his gloved hand he points at Buehrle. I love that. I’ve written articles about “the point” in baseball and how it compares favorably to the antics in other sports, particularly the solipsistic celebrations of football, which are all me me me. Pointing in baseball means: “Good job, you. Good work. We’re a good team.” But why does Wise point at Buehrle here? Because Buehrle kept Kapler from hitting it deeper? Because Buehrle’s pitch, and Kapler’s hit, have just made DeWayne Wise a household name? Of course not. He’s just on automatic. I’m sure he’s pumped. But in baseball, particularly in the field, you maintain cool while the game is going on. You maintain nonchalance. Wise does. You can see his adrenaline almost overwhelming his nonchalance but he keeps it tamped down. After all, there are two outs to go.

Then he taps gloves with the left fielder and goes back and retrieves his sunglasses. Unsmiling. He’s serious. After all, there are two outs to go.

It’s beautiful. Everything I love about baseball is in this moment. Watch it.

Posted at 09:55 AM on Jul 24, 2009 in category Baseball
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