Friday, May 27, 2005

And Then There Were Two

There's a popular but inaccurate bit of baseball trivia flying around these days. This misnomer (the Red Sox sure do) involves major league players who never spent a day in the minor leagues. While it's not true that there have been only three such players in history prior to this week, it is true that since the amateur draft began in 1965, 17 players went straight from the draft to the majors, without riding the bus to Altoona. Further, three of these 17 players never played a day in the minors. Until this week that is. Dave Winfield is still on that list. Bob Horner is still on that list. But John Olerud makes that list no more.

Olerud played three games this week with the Pawtucket Red Sox before being called up just prior to the start of the latest Yankee-Red Sox brouhaha, starting Friday night in the Bronx. Last year Olerud was on the Yankee side of this fracas, but wasn't on the field for most of the excitement after hurting his foot in Game 3 of the ALCS in a freakish bat-into-foot accident.

When you think about that list of three players, does Olerud's name stand out? Is it surprising that Olerud joins those other hitters?

Winfield became a Hall of Famer, and was such an amazing athlete, that he was also drafted by teams in the NBA (Atlanta Hawks), ABA (Utah Stars) and the NFL (Minnesota Vikings, despite not having played college football). He went straight from the University of Minnesota, where he was MVP of the 1973 College World Series, to the San Diego Padres. So his inclusion on this list, and uninterrupted major league stay makes sense.

Horner was the College Player of the Year when he was drafted out of Arizona State in June, 1978. Eight days later he joined the Atlanta Braves and hit a home run in his first game, on his way to 23 that year and the Rookie of the Year award. By the end of the 1980 season, just past his 22nd birthday, Horner had 91 home runs. That matched Ted Williams for sixth most at that age, despite having almost 600 fewer plate appearances than Williams in that span. But wrist injuries and weight problems plagued Horner's career, and he finished in 1988 with 218 home runs (four of which came in one game). Though his wrist and weight problems never led him to the minors, he did play one season in Japan for the Yakult Swallows, fittingly.

Olerud, the only lefty in the group, wasn't a first round pick like Winfield and Horner; he was taken by the Toronto Blue Jays in the third round out of Washington State in 1989 after a stellar college career (note that all three were college stars long before Billy Beane made college players a draft focus: kids, stay in school). He set school single season records with a .462 average and 23 home runs, went 15-0 as a pitcher and was the NCAA Player of the Year in 1987 and 1988.

So how could he not have been drafted in the first round? In his senior season, Olerud suffered a brain aneurysm. He recovered and still hit .359 with 30 RBIs in 27 games, and has since always worn a batting helmet in the field to protect his head.

Olerud, with one of the sweetest swings (and dispositions) in baseball, went on to have an excellent, often overshadowed career. He chased .400 in 1993, finishing at .363, and was only the 20th player to have 200+ hits and 100+ walks in a season. He won back-to-back World Series with Toronto ('92-'93) before being traded to the Mets after the 1996 season. In 1999 he set the Mets' single season batting record, with a .354 average, and had on base percentages of .400, .447 and .427 in his three seasons in New York. He then spent four and a half seasons with his hometown Seattle Mariners, where he won three gold gloves as a sure handed first baseman.

Olerud, with the funny helmet and the unassuming manner, may not garner the same attention that the first baseman of his era did (at least one of whom was a performance enhanced behemoth). But he quietly put together a consistently excellent career. He had an on base percentage better than .370 for 11 years in a row. His .399 career OBP ranks him 14th amongst active players behind a pretty impressive list entering this season:

Barry Bonds, Todd Helton, Frank Thomas, Lance Berkman, Bobby Abreu, Brian Giles, Jason Giambi, Manny Ramirez, Jim Thome, Jeff Bagwell, Larry Walker, Chipper Jones and Gary Sheffield.

That's decent company (actually there are a bunch of surly guys on that list who wouldn't make great company, but this isn't a tea party).

He's also:
  • Fourth in active doubles hitters, behind only Rafael Palmeiro, Craig Biggio and Bonds.
  • Fifth in walks, behind Bonds, Thomas, Bagwell and Palmeiro.
  • Fifth in intentional walks (respect), behind Bonds, Ken Griffey Jr., Palmeiro and Thomas.
  • Seventh in sacrifice flies, behind Ruben Sierra, Palmeiro, Thomas, B.J. Surhoff, Bagwell and Sheffield.
  • Eighth in games.
  • Tenth in hits.
  • Tenth in runs created (don't ask).
There's also the one not so good category: he's grounded into the second most double plays amongst active players, with 226, behind Julio Franco. That list is mostly filled with players who hit hard and run slowly. And for a slow guy with only 13 career triples (12 at the time he did it), he amazingly hit for the cycle twice, easily the fewest triples for a guy with more than one cycle.

So while he won't get into the Hall of Fame without a ticket (or a museum membership card), the game has been bettered by his presence. His quiet professionalism in an age of yakkers (please stop talking, Schilling), his grace with bat and glove, and his consistent excellence (or at least really goodness) are what baseball should be about.

Friday, May 06, 2005

Horse Feathers

George Steinbrenner's horse, Bellamy Road, is running in this Saturday's Kentucky Derby. With his New York Yankees in last place in the AL East, despite a staggering $200+ million payroll, many have suggested that the Derby will provide the distraction Big Stein needs. Don't count on it.

Bellamy Road, at 5-2 odds, is the clear favorite to win the Derby. The Yankees, at 5-2 odds, were the clear favorite to win the 2005 World Series, according to The Yankees still have 133 games to go, so they haven't spit the bit just yet, but those odds appear to have been too generous. And if the same oddsmakers were involved in those predictions, I would hold off on buying any "Bellamy Road for Triple Crown" t-shirts just yet.

Steinbrenner clearly thought he had the horses to win the AL East for the 8th straight year when he acquired Randy Johnson, Jaret Wright and Carl Pavano to join the starting rotation. A curious move, when it was the bullpen that did the team in during the playoffs last year (see ALCS, Games 4-7, aka the Greatest Comeback of All Time).

Rather than addressing its most glaring weaknesses, however, the Yankees' cure for postseason hangovers has been to mimic the strengths of the teams that beat them. In 2003, the Yankees lost to the Marlins in the World Series, and George was infatuated with the speed and small ball skills of center fielder and leadoff man Juan Pierre. So the Yankees got Kenny Lofton. So what if Lofton is ten years older than Pierre, and had exited his prime, while Pierre was just entering his? GET ME LOFTON. And when Lofton performed below expectations in his first season with they Yanks? GET RID OF LOFTON.

In 2004, it was the Red Sox starting pitching that caught Big Stein's eye. You can just hear him saying, "That Curt Schilling is a warrior," much like Kevin Brown was a warrior for Big Stein, before he declared war on the clubhouse wall last September (not wanting to kick a man while he's down, I'll refrain from commenting on the much more generous pitching syle of Brown so far this season). So starting pitching it was, and in came Johnson, Wright and Pavano. GET ME STARTERS.

The Yankees' embarassment of riches has been embarassing. They're not just losing, they're losing badly, getting blown out by teams with payrolls 1/7 the size of theirs (Tampa Bay). They've now lost four series in a row, including three in a row to their cellar dweller roommates, the Devil Rays.

The losing has certainly led to some interesting moves. Tony Womack, the 35-year-old speedster who had a good postseason for the Cardinals in 2004, was brought in to play second base, the only position at which the Yankees didn't have a one-time All-Star last season. Why struggle when you don't have to?

Womack's been moved to left field as part of the domino effect of Bernie Williams moving out of center field (and into a hybrid bench/DH role) and Hideki Matsui moving from left to center. Now in his 12th season in the majors, Womack had never before played left field until Tuesday. Should work out fine. In his place at second? A rookie with zero Major League at bats prior to this week. Wouldn't it have made more sense to find someone else to play left field?

Two more rookies were thrown into the rotation this week in place of the possibly injured Johnson (groin) and the definitely injured Wright (shoulder, ego, chances for another big contract). With all of these rookies, they're starting to look like Tampa Bay. They're certainly playing like it. Both rookie pitchers, Sean Henn and Chien-Ming Wang, got bashed around this week. With Bellamy Road running in the Derby, one of Steinbrenner's farm systems is clearly in much better shape than the other.

Whatever happens in the race, King George will likely have made one of his best investments in a while. Steinbrenner paid $87,000 for the horse, roughly what Jason Giambi makes per game. So while Steinbrenner watches jockey Javier Castellano in the Run for the Roses on Saturday, and his fans run for the exits, don't be surprised if more changes take place. If Bellamy Road finishes out of the money, it'll be Castellano batting leadoff next week, Brown to the DL and the ever shrinking Giambi atop Bellamy Road for the Preakness. Big Stein's not horsing around.