Monday, February 24, 2014

2014 MLB Predictions

After pitchers and catchers report to spring training, I usually start consulting various sources to get a handle on what might happen during the upcoming season. From what I can see, most sportswriters seem to be in general agreement about who will win their respective divisions. It's whats in-between that seems to be a source of debate. Here is the predicted order of finish according to a pair of trusted sources. I should preamble with the fact that Vegas odds aren't actually predictions--they're an attempt to maximize house profits. But since the smallest odds are given to top contenders, they're a fairly reliable barometer.

American League East
Vegas Odds               Bleacher Report
Red Sox                     Red Sox
Yankees                     Yankees
Orioles                        Rays
Rays                           Blue Jays
Blue Jays                    Orioles

American League Central
Vegas Odds               Bleacher Report
Tigers                         Tigers
Indians                        Royals
Royals                        Indians
White Sox                   White Sox
Twins                          Twins

American League West
Vegas Odds               Bleacher Report
Angels                        Rangers
A's                               A's
Rangers                      Angels
Mariners                     Mariners
Astros                         Astros

National League East
Vegas Odds               Bleacher Report
Nationals                    Nationals
Braves                        Braves
Phillies                       Mets
Mets                          Phillies
Marlins                       Marlins

National League Central
Vegas Odds               Bleacher Report
Cardinals                    Cardinals
Reds                          Pirates
Pirates                       Reds
Cubs                          Brewers
Brewers                      Cubs

National League West
Vegas Odds               Bleacher Report
Dodgers                     Dodgers
Giants                        Diamondbacks
Diamondbacks            Giants
Rockies                      Padres
Padres                        Rockies

Here are a few things worth watching during the upcoming season:

New rules are in effect allowing the use of instant replays and banning home plate collisions. I agree with both changes even though I am old school all the way. What remains to be seen is whether or not the instant replay will add significant length to games that are already becoming too long. I suspect that fans of the AL EAST will need more than four hours of their time to watch a Yankee/ Red Sox showdown in its entirety.

The Pirates made their first playoff appearance in more than twenty years, which was one of the bright spots of the 2013 campaign. They lost A.J. Burnett during the offseason, but pitchers Charlie Morton (lost to right elbow surgery) and Wandy Rodriguez (shelved with a forearm injury) are expected to be healthy this year. Gerrit Cole, who made his debut last June showed a lot of promise with a 10-7 record and 3.22 ERA. Can the Bucs do it again? 

The Washington Nationals have been hailed as a top prospect team for the last two seasons. So far, they haven't lived up to that billing. The annual Stephen Strasburg/ Bryce Harper watches are about to begin. Are these guys as good as everybody says they are? Sports Illustrated has predicted a Cy Young Award for Strasburg this year.

It will be refreshing to watch a season of Yankee baseball without the distractions created by A-Rod. All eyes will be on big money acquisition Masahiro Tanaka. Will he end up like Yu Darvish or Hideki Irabu? Only time will tell.

The Red Sox lost Jacoby Ellsbury, Stephen Drew and Jarrod Saltalamacchia. There were few if any big signings in the offseason. DH extraordinaire David Ortiz is getting old. Can the Red Sox repeat as world champs--or even division champs for that matter? And will the Chia Pet hair trend continue in Beantown?

The Dodgers are predicted by many to win the World Series. A healthy Hanley Ramirez and a full season from rookie sensation Yasiel Puig will give them an edge. Puig brought a lot of energy to the clubhouse and is fun to watch on the field. The Dodgers have added Dan Haren and Paul Moholm to their rotation. Things are looking pretty good for manager Don Mattingly, who was in the hot seat for awhile last year.  

Monday, February 17, 2014

The Best Pitching Duos in History (Part VIII--1970-1979)

Jim Palmer and Mike Cuellar/ Baltimore Orioles (1970-1973)

Cuellar got his first call to the Majors in 1959 with Cincinnati, but didn't reach his peak as a player until he was in his early-thirties. From 1969-1974, he won no fewer than 18 games per year for the O's. A left-hander, he relied on slow junk pitches, changing speeds and arm angles. A sportswriter once joked that you could catch his fastest pitch bare-handed.

Jim Palmer was one of the winningest Baltimore pitchers ever and arguably among the most dominant hurlers of the 1970s. During that decade, he was a 20-game winner seven times, leading the league in victories for three straight seasons. Palmer was a three-time Cy Young Award winner and a four-time Gold Glove recipient. He is remembered by many for the Jockey underwear ads he appeared in.

On an interesting side note, the Orioles became the subject of a trivia question in 1971, when four of their starters posted at least 20 wins--a feat that had not been accomplished in more than fifty years. For the record, the other two hurlers to win 20 games that year were left-hander Dave McNally and right-hander Pat Dobson. 

                                                              1970            1971            1972            1973
Palmer                                                   20-10             20-9            21-10           22-9
Cuellar                                                    24-8              20-9           18-12           18-13

Catfish Hunter and Ken Holtzman/ Oakland A's (1972-1974)

Hunter's Hall of Fame plaque reads: "The bigger the game, the better he pitched." His nickname was given to him by PR-conscious A's owner Charlie Finley. Known for his pinpoint control, he won at least 21 games every year from '71-'75. In '74, he captured a Cy Young Award with 25 victories and a 2.49 ERA. Hunter was a country boy at heart with a wry sense of humor. He was particularly fond of poking fun at arrogant teammate Reggie Jackson. He died in 1999 of Lou Gehrig's disease.

Holtzman tossed 2 no-hitters during his career. While playing for Chicago, he believed that manager Leo Durocher was holding him back and requested a trade. He landed in Oakland in time for three straight world championships. Between '72 and '75, Holtzman averaged 19 wins per year. In the Fall Classic, he was a clutch performer, appearing in 8 games and going 4-1 with a 2.55 ERA.

                                                                             1972              1973              1974
Hunter                                                                    21-7               21-5              25-12
Holtzman                                                               19-11             21-13            19-17

Fergie Jenkins and Milt Pappas/ Chicago Cubs (1970-1972)

Pappas got his start with the Orioles, winning no fewer than 15 games on six occasions between '59 and '67. He is on a short list of post-deadball pitchers to win 150 games before the age of thirty. In '72, he came one batter short of a perfect game. He had a 2-2 count on Larry Stahl with 2 outs in the ninth, but umpire Bruce Froemming determined the next two pitches to be outside the strike zone. Pappas settled for a no-hitter. He was a decent hitter with 20 career homers. In 1970, he was traded in late-June to the Cubs. He turned his season around and followed with two more great efforts. He retired after the '73 slate.

Jenkins won 20 games in six consecutive seasons for the Cubs from 1967 through 1972. He led the league twice in victories and retired with 284 wins. That number is impressive considering that he played most of his career with non-contending squads. He won the Cy Young Award in '71 with a record of 24-13 and an ERA of 2.77. He finished among the top three in Cy Young voting four other times. Extremely durable, Jenkins led the league in complete games four times. In 1980, he was arrested for cocaine possession and banned for life by commissioner Bowie Kuhn. It didn't stop him from being elected into the Hall of Fame.

                                                                                1970              1971              1972
Jenkins                                                                     22-16            24-13             20-12
Pappas                                                                     10-8*            17-14              17-7

*-Pappas arrived in Chicago in late-June of that year.

Luis Tiant and Bill Lee/ Boston Red Sox (1973-1975)

The outspoken Lee was among the most colorful characters of the 1970s--often making controversial statements to the press. At one point, he wanted to change his number to 337 because it spelled "Lee" upside down and backwards. Nicknamed "Spaceman," he won 17 games every year form '73-'75. He suffered arm trouble after that and was traded. He had just one good season left in him, going 16-10 with a 3.04 ERA in 1979 with the Expos.

The Cuban-born Tiant won 20 games four times between '68 and '76. He was a top notch hurler for both Cleveland and Boston. In '68 with the Tribe, he posted a 21-9 record and league-leading 1.60 ERA. He later became immensely popular in Beantown. He had an upbeat personality and was great in interviews. He was known for his pirouette style of delivery, during which he would turn his back to the plate. He also waggled his glove dramatically during his windup.

                                                                               1973              1974              1975
Tiant                                                                       20-13             22-13            18-14
Lee                                                                         17-11             17-11             17-9

Nolan Ryan and Frank Tanana/ California Angels (1974-1977)

Ryan was one of the top strikeout artists in baseball history. He set a record with seven no-hitters and also holds the all-time strikeout mark with 5,714. Extremely durable, he pitched in the majors until he was 46. Named to eight All-Star squads, he never won a Cy Young Award. Some of his best years came with the Angels during the '70s. He won 19 games four times between '72 and '79. California was often a poor team during his tenure with the club. In '76, he led the league in losses even though he posted a handsome 3.36 ERA.

A left-hander, Tanana began his career as a power pitcher. After suffering arm trouble, he relied on finesse. Tanana had a long career, gathering 240 wins in 21 seasons. His longest successful run came between '74 and '78, when he collected no fewer than 14 victories per year. In '77, he led the league with 7 shutouts and a 2.54 ERA. In '75, he topped the circuit with 269 strikeouts.

                                                                               1974            1975            1976            1977
Ryan                                                                        22-16           14-12*        17-18           19-16
Tanana                                                                     14-19**         16-9           19-10           15-9

*- Ryan's season was shortened by an injury
**- Tanana ended up with this losing record despite posting an excellent 3.11 ERA

Dennis Leonard and Paul Splittorff/ Kansas City Royals (1976-1978)

Born in Brooklyn, Leonard spent his entire 12-year career with Kansas City. From '75-'80, he was a 20-game winner on three occasions. He led the league in starts three times and placed among the top ten in shutouts on six occasions. He logged more than 200 innings of work in seven straight seasons and helped the Royals to consecutive division titles in '76,'77 and '78. In an unfortunate twist of fate, he was limited to just 2 appearances in '85 when Kansas City finally won the World Series.

Splittorff was known for his high leg kick. In '73, he was the first Royals' hurler to win 20 games. Between '72 and '80, he was a durable workhorse and prevailed in no fewer than 15 decisions on four occasions. Among the Royals' most reliable postseason performers, he went 2-0 with a 2.79 ERA in 7 appearances (4 starts). Retiring in '84, he was a Kansas City broadcaster for more than twenty years.

                                                                                  1976            1977            1978
Leonard                                                                      17-10           20-12           21-17
Splittorff                                                                      11-8*           16-6             19-13

*- Splittorff's season was shortened by a finger injury

J.R. Richard and Joe Niekro/ Houston Astros (1977-1980)

For a brief period, Richard was among the most dominant power pitchers in the majors. While playing for the Astros, who rarely contended, Richard won at least 18 games in four straight seasons. He led the NL with a 2.71 ERA in '79. He posted 200 or more strikeouts every year from '76-'79, reaching the 300 mark in back-to-back campaigns. He was off to a great start in 1980, when he suffered a stroke. He survived, but his big league career was over. 

Niekro is the brother of Hall of Famer Phil. Together, they hold the record for most wins by a sibling duo with 539. Joe's father taught both of his sons to throw a knuckleball. Joe began relying heavily on it while playing for Atlanta in '74. His most successful big league run came between 1978 and 1984, when he won 15 games five times and reached the 20-win threshold twice. In '79, he led the NL with 21 wins and 5 shutouts. Niekro pitched until the age of 42. In his last season, he was caught with a nail file in his pocket during a game and accused of "scuffing" the ball. He received a ten-game suspension.

                                                                             1977            1978            1979            1980
Richard                                                                  18-12           18-11           18-13          10-4*
Niekro                                                                    13-8             14-14           21-11          20-12

*- Richard made seventeen starts before his stroke and posted a 1.90 ERA along with 119 strikeouts

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

A Tribute to Ralph Kiner

On February 6, 2014, the world of baseball lost a crown jewel when legendary slugger and broadcaster Ralph Kiner died at the age of 91. Among my favorite sports personalities of all time, I was saddened to learn of his passing. I would like to share a few details about this remarkable man's life.

Born in New Mexico, Kiner grew up in Alhambra, California. By the time he reached his teens, he had set his sights on becoming a  professional ballplayer. In high school, he attracted the attention of Pirate and Yankee scouts. The Pirates offered to start Kiner at the Class-A level and the aspiring slugger felt that a trip through New York's lower ranks might take too long. He wisely inked a deal with Pittsburgh. 

In his first spring training game during the '41 slate, Kiner blasted a pair of homers. He later clashed with manager Frankie Frisch and ended up getting sent back down for "loafing." He led the Eastern League in putouts and homers during the '42 slate before enlisting in the Navy. Kiner served until December of '45 and joined the Pirates for good the following year.

Though Kiner has been criticized by some for being a one-dimensional player, he did occasionally hit for average, topping the .300 mark in three of his ten seasons. Defensively, he was little more than adequate, leading NL left fielders in double plays twice, assists once and fielding percentage on another occasion. At the same time, he finished among the top five in errors for nine straight seasons. To his credit, he posted the highest range factor twice in that span (though the statistic didn't exist at the time).

Looking to acquire aging slugger Hank Greenberg before the '47 campaign, the Pirates offered to shorten the left field fence by 35 feet, creating a home run paradise known as "Greenberg Gardens." Greenberg accepted the proposal, but enjoyed it for just one season. Kiner, on the other hand, ended up making a living off of it. In his first seven seasons, the young slugger set a record that no power hitter in history has equaled (not even Ruth and Aaron) when he led the league in long balls every year. During that stretch, he topped the circuit in walks and slugging percentage three times apiece. He was named to six straight All-Star teams and, though he never won an MVP award, he became the highest paid player in baseball. "Greenberg Gardens" became known as "Kiner's Korner." Aware of his market value, Kiner once commented that: "Cadillacs are down at the end of the bat."

A major celebrity in his prime, Kiner dated Hollywood starlets Liz Taylor and Esther Williams. He also endeared himself to teammates with his sense of humor. In his classic book Baseball is a Funny Game, former player and broadcaster Joe Garagiola wrote that Kiner belonged "in the practical joker's nine." In one of his more elaborate stunts, Kiner took all of the bottles out of the trainer's med kit and replaced them with lunch meat. When a Pirates' player got spiked one afternoon, the trainer ran out onto the field, reached for a bottle of antiseptic and ended up with a liverwurst sandwich instead.

 Pittsburgh General Manager Branch Rickey was not a fan of Kiner, commenting that the slugger had "so many other weaknesses that if you had eight Ralph Kiners on an American Association team, it would finish last." When Kiner's home run production dipped dramatically in June of '53, he was traded to the Cubs. He finished the season with 35 circuit blasts--fifth in the league.

Kiner suffered from chronic back problems and, by '54, he was no longer the slugger of old. He wrapped up his career with Cleveland in '55. He later served as GM of the minor league San Diego Padres and began a broadcasting career calling White Sox games with Bob Elson. He is better known for his days as a Mets broadcaster. His post game show was known as "Kiner's Korner." Kiner had extensive knowledge of the game's history and inside strategy, though he became more famous for his mispronunciations and malapropisms, which were commonly referred to as "Kinerisms." A handful are included here:

"Solo homers usually come with no one on base."
"The Mets have gotten their lead-off batter on only once this inning." 
"If Casey Stengel were alive today, he'd be spinning in his grave."
"All of his saves have come in relief appearances."

In '75, Kiner made it into the Hall of Fame in his last year of eligibility. In '87, the Pirates retired his number 4. His passing was mourned by many--even those who never personally knew him. Fortunately, Kiner left two books behind for posterity: Kiner's Korner: At-Bat and on the Air-My 40 Years in Baseball (released in 1987) and Baseball Forever: Reflections on 60 Years in the Game (released in 2004).

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

The Best Pitching Duos in History (Part VII--1960-1969)

Whitey Ford and Ralph Terry/ New York Yankees (1961-1963)

The right-handed Terry enjoyed his best seasons with the Yanks from '61-'63, winning no fewer than 16 games per year. He is best remembered for one of the most painful moments of his career--the Series-clinching homer he surrendered to Bill Mazeroski in 1960. In '62, Terry led the AL with 23 wins. He partially redeemed himself in the World Series that year, winning 2 games and posting a 1.80 ERA. One of those victories was a 4-hit shutout in Game 7.

Southpaw Whitey Ford was nicknamed "Slick" for his coolness under fire. Mickey Mantle commented that Ford had "nerves of steel." Yogi Berra said that Ford was so easy to catch, he could have done it "sitting in a rocking chair." Ford's .690 lifetime winning percentage is highest among pitchers with 200 career wins. Until recently, he held the Yankee record for strikeouts. It was broken in 2013 by Andy Pettitte. Ford won 10 World Series games during his career and posted a 2.71 ERA in the Fall Classic. 

                                                                  1961              1962             1963
Whitey Ford                                                25-4               23-12             24-7
Ralph Terry                                                  16-3               17-8             17-15

Don Drysdale and Sandy Koufax/ Los Angeles Dodgers (1963-1965)

Koufax's era of dominance was relatively brief. After pitching ineffectively for several seasons, it was discovered that he was gripping the ball too tightly when he threw. A simple adjustment was all that was necessary to make him one of the most devastating pitchers in the majors. Between '61 and '66, he won three triple crowns while posting the lowest ERA in the NL for five straight seasons.He became the first hurler to toss four no-hitters. An arthritic elbow forced him into early retirement.

Drysdale gathered 14 or more wins eight times between '57 and '68. He captured Cy Young and MVP honors in '62, posting a 25-9 record with 232 strikeouts. His crowning achievement came in '68, when he tossed six consecutive shutouts. His record of 58 straight scoreless innings stood until Orel Hershiser broke it in 1988. An intimidating presence on the hill, Drysdale hit 154 batters in his career--among the top totals of all time.

                                                                  1963             1964            1965
Sandy Koufax                                               25-5              19-5             26-8
Don Drysdale                                               19-17            18-16           23-12

Denny McLain and Mickey Lolich/ Detroit Tigers (1965-1969)

McLain enjoyed his peak seasons between '65 and '69, winning no fewer than 16 games and leading the AL twice in that category. To date, he remains the last pitcher to gather 30 wins in a season, a feat he accomplished in '68. He posted back-to-back 300-inning campaigns in '68/'69, capturing Cy Young honors both years. His arm was never the same after that and he slowly lost his effectiveness. Off the field, McLain's life was a hot mess as he went to prison twice for charges of fraud and embezzlement.

Southpaw Mickey Lolich was one of the greatest Tiger hurlers of all time, winning 14 or more games every year from 1964-1974. He led the league with 25 victories in '71. In the '68 World Series, Lolich turned in one of the greatest performances in history, going 3-0 with a 1.67 ERA. He was a lock for Series MVP. A power pitcher in his prime, Lolich finished among top five in strikeouts eight times--leading the league with 308 in '71.

                                                              1965             1966            1967            1968           1969
Denny McLain                                           16-6            20-14           17-16           31-8            24-9
Mickey Lolich                                            15-9            14-14           14-13           17-9            19-11

Juan Marichal and Gaylord Perry/ San Francisco Giants (1966-'71)

Dominican hurler Juan Marichal reached the 20-win threshold six times between '63 and '69, leading the league twice. A nine-time All-Star, he was cursed to pitch in the same era as Drysdale, Koufax and Bob Gibson, who dominated Cy Young honors while Marichal was in his prime. Marichal is best remembered for his high leg-kick on the mound. He led the league in shutouts in '65/'69. He also paced the loop with a 2.10 ERA in '69.

Gaylord Perry got away with throwing spitballs for years. He later admitted his indiscretions in his 1974 autobiography, which was appropriately titled Me and the Spitter. A two-time Cy Young Award recipient, the Giants were the first stop in Perry's long career. He won win 314 games with eight different teams and spent roughly equal amounts of time in both leagues.

                                                                   1966          1968          1969           1970            1971
Juan Marichal                                                25-6           26-9          21-11          12-10*        18-11
Gaylord Perry                                                21-8          16-15        19-14          23-13          16-12
*-Marichal's season was shortened due to illness

Jim Bunning and Chris Short/ Philadelphia Phillies (1964-1966)

Bunning pitched the first regular season perfect game in more than forty years during the '64 slate. By then, he was a veteran of nine major league seasons and had won 14 or more games on five occasions. Known for his lively fastball, elusive slider and sidearm delivery, Bunning led the league in strikeouts three times and shutouts twice. He later served in the House of Representatives and the Senate. Bunning spent nine years with the Tigers and six with the Phillies. 

Short's name accurately describes his era of dominance in the majors, which lasted from 1964-1968. He won 17 or more games four times in that span while consistently keeping his ERA below 3.00. The left-hander never led the league in any major category aside from wild pitches in '61. Through 2004, his 132 career wins ranked fourth for the Phillies behind Steve Carlton, Robin Roberts and Pete Alexander.

                                                                             1964             1965              1966
Jim Bunning                                                           19-8              19-9              20-10
Chris Short                                                             17-9              18-11            19-14

Tom Seaver and Jerry Koosman/ New York Mets (1968-1970)

Seaver joined the Mets in '67 and had an immediate impact, capturing Rookie of the Year honors with 16 wins, 18 complete games and 170 strikeouts. The right-hander, known as "Tom Terrific" to fans, led the NL in strikeouts five times and ERA on three occasions while pitching in New York. During the Mets' improbable World Series run in 1969, Seaver paced the loop with 25 victories. He retired with 311 career wins and three Cy Young Awards.

Southpaw Jerry Koosman made his big league debut the same year as Seaver and ended up winning more than 200 big league games. He appeared to be on his way to super-stardom before suffering serious injuries in '70 and '71. He enjoyed sporadic success after that, winning 21 decisions in '76 and 20 in '79. Seaver departed in '77 and Koosman couldn't do it by himself as the Mets fell out of contention.

                                                                                1968            1969            1970
Tom Seaver                                                               16-12           25-7             18-12
Jerry Koosman                                                          19-12           17-9             12-7*
*-Koosman's season was cut short due to an elbow injury