Friday, March 27, 2015

The Best Designated Hitters in History

The designated hitter rule was implemented in 1973 as an experiment Since then, it has boosted offense in the American League considerably. Though the arrangement creates disharmony during inter-league play, there are no immediate plans to restore the AL to a time when the ninth spot in any lineup was virtually an automatic out. It just doesn't make sense at this point.

The debate over whether or not designated hitters belong in the Hall of Fame has raged for decades. Frank Thomas, who spent more than half of his career in that capacity, broke down the barrier last year. He wasn't the first. More than forty percent of Paul Molitor's 3,000-plus hits came as a DH. If relievers, closers and starting pitchers--none of whom are everyday players--can make it to Cooperstown, then why should designated hitters be excluded? It has been argued that most DH's are defensively challenged. But Babe Ruth, Luke Appling and Reggie Jackson (Hall of Famers all) were substandard fielders too.

Though the concept of a full-time professional hitter is loathsome to some, resistance is futile. Like it or not, designated hitters are here to stay. 

My selections for greatest DH's of all time are as follows:

Paul Molitor
The man known to some as "The Ignitor" was never more than average at any defensive station. He played at every position aside from pitcher and catcher during his twenty-one seasons in the majors. Molitor remained in Milwaukee until the age of thirty-five, when GM Sal Bando made one of the most colossal miscalculations in franchise history. Bando waited too long to offer Molitor arbitration then justified his actions by proclaiming that Molitor was "only a DH." Molitor made Bando regret that statement when he led the American League in hits and captured World Series MVP honors as a member of the Blue Jays in 1993. Three years later, he paced the circuit in hits again for the Twins. Molitor appeared in 1,173 games as a designated hitter overall, compiling a lifetime average of .308 in that capacity--numbers good enough for the Hall of Fame.

Frank Thomas
Thomas logged more experience as a DH than any player currently in the Hall of Fame (1,310 games). He began his career at first base, but after finishing among the AL leaders in errors on five occasions, his glove more or less ended up in cold storage. During his prime, Thomas won two MVP Awards and led the league in on-base percentage four times. He had ten seasons with 100 or more RBIs. In 969 games as a first baseman, he compiled a .337 batting average. He was less proficient as a designated hitter, but gathered over 500 extra-base hits along with 881 RBIs. A clutch performer, he hit .312 with runners in scoring position and .352 with the bases loaded during his career. He retired with 521 homers.

David Ortiz
Imminently likeable, Ortiz carries the warm and fuzzy nicknames of "Big Papi" and "Cookie Monster." There are many who consider him the best DH of all time. He certainly has the numbers to back it up. Among the greatest clutch players in baseball history, Ortiz launched 12 walk-off homers between 2003 and 2013 (including postseason play). He currently holds the record for most hits and RBIs by a DH. Additionally, he owns multiple franchise records, including the single-season mark for homers (54 in 2006). That's quite an accomplishment considering that Ted Williams once called Fenway Park home. To date, Ortiz has spent most of his career in the DH slot with only 268 appearances at first base. But his value to the club has been immeasurable. "I know that great players are great, are supposed to be great in any moment" said Red Sox GM Ben Cherington, "but it's hard to see [Ortiz] in those moments and not think there's something different about him...I can't add anything more to the legend that's already there. He keeps writing more chapters on his own." Outside his on-field accomplishments, Ortiz gives back to the community at large. His Children's Fund has been supporting a wide range of worthy causes since 2007. It's hard to believe that baseball writers will overlook Ortiz when he becomes eligible for the Hall of Fame.

Edgar Martinez
Martinez held the all time mark for RBIs by a designated hitter before David Ortiz surpassed it in 2011. On that same day, Martinez's franchise record for hits was broken by former Seattle teammate Ichiro Suzuki. Born in New York City, Martinez completed high school in Puerto Rico. He spent his entire career with the Mariners. Originally a third baseman, a knee injury stunted his development as a positional player. He was twenty-seven years old by the time he attained full-time playing status. As a designated hitter, Martinez won two batting crowns and led the league in on-base percentage three times. He also paced the AL in double twice. He earned seven All-Star selections. The Mariners never made it to the World Series during Martinez's career, but he had prodigious numbers in the ALDS, compiling a .375 batting average in 17 games. Though he has yet to receive more than thirty-six percent of the Cooperstown vote, he is currently a member of three other Halls--The Seattle Mariners Hall of Fame, The Latin-American Baseball Hall of Fame and the Hispanic Heritage Baseball Museum Hall of Fame.

Harold Baines
Baines spent nine seasons with the White Sox before becoming a nomad. He played for five teams before he retired. Few players have been as successful over a long period of time. During his twenty-two years in the majors, Baines gathered more than 2,800 hits and 1,600 RBIs. Every eligible player with higher numbers in both categories is currently in the Hall of Fame. A true measure of respect, Baines was intentionally walked 187 times during his career--a number that places him at #21 on the all time list. A six-time All-Star, he compiled a .306 lifetime average with men on base. He launched a total of 13 grand slams and gathered at least 20 homers in eleven seasons. In 1,643 games as a DH, his numbers were as follows: .291 BA/ 1,690 H/ 236 HR/ 981 RBI. 

Chili Davis
Davis's birth name was Charles. He got his nickname in sixth grade after a bad haircut prompted a friend to tease: "How'd the barber cut your hair--with a chili bowl?" Davis was the first Jamaican-born player in the majors. Over nineteen seasons, he established himself as one of the best. He spent roughly equal portions of time as an outfielder and a DH. Defense was not his strong point as he led both leagues in errors once apiece. He did have a strong arm, pacing the NL with 16 outfield assists in 1982. From 1991-1999, he served almost exclusively as a designated hitter. He hit .282 in that role during his career with 428 extra-base hits and 736 runs batted-in. By the time he retired, he had captured three World Series rings--one with the Twins and two with the Yankees.     


Friday, March 20, 2015

Going Out With A Bang! How Some Hall of Famers Fared in Their Final At-Bats

Few players have provided the kind of high drama that took place at Yankee Stadium last September. Playing in his final home game, fourteen-time All-Star and beloved Yankee captain Derek Jeter came to bat in the bottom of the ninth against Baltimore with the score tied at 5. The Yankees had been mathematically eliminated from the playoffs and the original plan was to remove Jeter from the game. He had already delivered a clutch double in the first inning and circled the bases with the tying run. A sellout crowd had saluted him during the middle innings with the thunderous chant of "Thank You, Captain!" Their words had brought Jeter to tears. After Yankee closer David Robertson blew a 3-run lead in the top of the ninth and Brett Gardner sacrificed pinch-runner Antoan Richardson to second in the bottom of the frame, manager Joe Girardi figured no better script could be written. He allowed Jeter to bat one last time in the Bronx cathedral that had been the site of so many of his iconic career moments. Jeter rose to the occasion yet again, delivering a single to center field that scored the winning run. It was his first walk-off hit in seven years. "It was sort of an out of body experience for me," Jeter said after the game. "I was just trying not to cry." Three days later, in his final career at-bat in Boston, Jeter rapped another one of his trademark singles, scoring Ichiro Suzuki and ending his career with a lofty total of 3,465 hits.

Though it's difficult to top Jeter's grand finale, he was not the first Hall of Fame caliber player to bid a fond farewell to the sport. Here are how some other Cooperstown legends fared in their last licks.

 Jimmie Foxx- Sept. 23, 1945- At thirty-seven years of age, Foxx was finishing up his career with the Phillies. In the third inning of this game at Ebbets Field in Brooklyn, he doubled off of Tom Seats, scoring teammates Dick Barrett and Jake Powell. The clutch hit gave Philly a 3-1 lead. Foxx struck out in the fifth inning and was later lifted for a pinch-hitter, but his clutch hit was pivotal as the Phillies hung on for a 4-3 win.

 Joe DiMaggio- Oct. 10, 1951- There could have been no grander stage for DiMaggio's farewell. The Yankees held a 3 games to 2 advantage over the Giants in the World Series. It was the year of Bobby Thomson's famous "Shot Heard 'Round the World." Leading off the bottom of the eighth inning, Joe D. doubled off of Larry Jansen. It was his 54th postseason hit. The Yankees clinched the Series that day, giving DiMaggio a total of nine World Series rings (a record broken by teammate Yogi Berra).

Ted Williams- Sept. 28, 1960- The greatest natural hitter in baseball history proved he was still dangerous at the age of 42. In his final plate appearance, Williams lifted a pitch from Orioles' reliever Jack Fisher into the deepest recesses of Fenway Park. It was his 29th home run of the season and the 521st of his career. When he retired, only Babe Ruth and Jimmie Foxx had more lifetime homers.

Stan Musial- Sept. 29, 1963- Musial's Cardinals beat the Reds in 14 innings behind a stellar pitching performance by Bob Gibson. In the bottom of the 4th, Musial singled. In the sixth, he singled again, bringing Curt Flood across the plate with the first run of the game. Musial was lifted for a pinch-runner. The hit was #3,630 (4th all time). The RBI was # 1,951 (7th all time)

Roberto Clemente- Sept. 30, 1972-  In his final career at-bat, Clemente doubled off of Jon Matlack of the Mets and later scored on a Manny Sanguillen single. The hit gave Clemente exactly 3,000 for his career. The Pirates won handily, 5-0. After Clemente died in a plane crash on a humanitarian mission to help earthquake victims in Nicaragua, the Baseball Hall of Fame waived the standard 5-year waiting period and inducted Clemente.

Frank Robinson- Sept. 18, 1976- The first black manager in the majors, the 41 year-old Robinson inserted himself as a pinch hitter for shortstop Frank Duffy in the bottom of the eighth inning at Cleveland. He singled off of Rudy May of the Orioles, scoring Joe Lis. It was RBI # 1,812 for Robinson (currently among the top 20 totals of all time).  

Hank Aaron- Oct. 3, 1976- In the sixth inning of a game at Milwaukee, Aaron bid a fond farewell to the sport with an RBI single. The Brewers lost, 5-2, but Aaron's RBI was # 2,297--an all time record. 

Willie McCovey- July 6, 1980- McCovey's last at-bat occurred at a critical time. He appeared as a pinch-hitter with one out and the game tied at 3 in the eighth inning at Dodger Stadium. The 42 year-old slugger lifted a sacrifice fly to center field off of Rick Sutcliffe, putting the Giants ahead. Reliever Greg Minton replaced McCovey in the ninth, but failed to hold the lead. The Giants rallied in the tenth for a win.

Reggie Jackson- Oct. 4, 1987- It seems fitting that "Mr. October's" last hurrah took place in the month that made him famous. Finishing up his career with the A's, Jackson doubled in the first inning of this regular season game against the White Sox, scoring Jose Canseco. In his farewell at-bat, he singled to center field off of closer Bobby Thigpen. 

George Brett- Sept. 30, 1993- Brett spent his entire career with the Royals and played his final game at Texas. In his last at-bat, he singled off of Rangers' ace reliever Tom Henke. He later scored on a homer by Gary Gaetti, giving Kansas City a comfortable lead. Brett's hit was # 3,154 (currently placing him at #16 on the all time list).

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

The Greatest Man I Have Known

Don Weeks
(Nov. 23, 1938 - Mar. 11, 2015) 

When my father was born in 1938, the Yankees were finishing up a run of four consecutive world championships. He vividly remembered the teams of the late-'40s/ early-'50s and would regale me with stories of their on-field adventures. Though I began my formative years as a fan of Cincinnati's "Big Red Machine," I was officially converted in 1976 when my father took me to Yankee Stadium for the first time. I still remember the smell of hot dogs and beer, the shouts of refreshment vendors hawking their wares, the row of billboards lining the facade in center field (among them ads for Brut cologne and Marlboro cigarettes). Most of all, I remember my father's passion as he told me about the exceptional men who had worn pinstripes over the years. Though I was only eleven at the time, I left the stadium with a vague notion that the game of baseball is a metaphor for life itself--how some men rise to the occasion while others wilt in the spotlight. Throughout my childhood and into my adult years, my father was one of the heroes. He taught me about courage, perseverance and fair play. He led by example--especially during his twilight months when he endured the loss of his beloved wife (my Mom) while fighting bravely through chemotherapy and radiation. Even as he lay dying, his body ravaged by an insidious disease known as Merkle Cell Cancer, he had a kind word for everyone who entered the room. When words eventually eluded him, he offered smiles instead.

In honor of this great man, I would like to share the boxscore from the first game we attended together. 

Game Played on Saturday, June 26, 1976 (D) at Yankee Stadium I

MIL A    1  0  0    0  0  2    0  0  0  -   3  5  0
NY  A    0  0  0    2  2  2    0  0  x  -   6 11  2
Milwaukee Brewers            AB   R   H RBI      BB  SO      PO   A
Joshua cf                     4   1   0   0       0   0       3   0
Money 3b                      4   0   0   0       0   0       0   1
Scott 1b                      4   1   1   1       0   0       7   0
Carbo rf                      3   1   1   2       0   0       1   0
Hegan dh                      4   0   2   0       0   0       0   0
Lezcano lf                    2   0   0   0       2   1       4   0
Yount ss                      4   0   0   0       0   0       4   1
Porter c                      3   0   1   0       0   0       5   0
  Heidemann ph                1   0   0   0       0   0       0   0
Johnson 2b                    3   0   0   0       0   1       0   2
  G. Thomas ph                1   0   0   0       0   1       0   0
Slaton p                      0   0   0   0       0   0       0   0
  Austin p                    0   0   0   0       0   0       0   1
Totals                       33   3   5   3       2   3      24   5
DP: 1. Austin-Yount-Scott.
HR: Carbo (4,6th inning off Figueroa 1 on 1 out).
SH: Carbo (1,off Figueroa).
Team LOB: 6.
SB: Lezcano (6,2nd base off Figueroa/Hendricks).
New York Yankees             AB   R   H RBI      BB  SO      PO   A
Rivers cf                     5   1   2   0       0   0       3   0
White lf                      3   1   1   1       0   0       6   0
C. May dh                     3   2   1   1       0   1       0   0
Chambliss 1b                  4   0   3   2       0   0       9   0
Nettles 3b                    3   0   1   0       1   1       0   1
Gamble rf                     3   0   0   0       1   0       4   0
Hendricks c                   3   1   1   2       0   1       4   0
Randolph 2b                   4   1   1   0       0   0       1   5
Mason ss                      2   0   0   0       0   1       0   0
  Velez ph                    1   0   1   0       0   0       0   0
  Stanley ss                  1   0   0   0       0   0       0   1
Figueroa p                    0   0   0   0       0   0       0   0
  Lyle p                      0   0   0   0       0   0       0   0
Totals                       32   6  11   6       2   4      27   7
DP: 1. Chambliss.
E: Rivers (4), Randolph (10).
2B: Rivers (15,off Slaton); Chambliss (10,off Slaton).
3B: C. May (1,off Slaton).
HR: Hendricks (2,6th inning off Austin 0 on 1 out).
SF: Hendricks (1,off Slaton); White (6,off Austin).
HBP: C. May (2,by Slaton).
GDP: Hendricks (1,off Austin).
Team LOB: 7.
Milwaukee Brewers            IP     H   R  ER  BB  SO  HR BFP
Slaton L(8-6)                 4.2   5   4   4   2   3   0  22
Austin                        3.1   6   2   2   0   1   1  15
Totals                        8    11   6   6   2   4   1  37
HBP: Slaton (5,C. May).
New York Yankees             IP     H   R  ER  BB  SO  HR BFP
Figueroa W(9-4)               8     5   3   2   2   2   1  33
Lyle SV(13)                   1     0   0   0   0   1   0   3
Totals                        9     5   3   2   2   3   1  36
Umpires: HP - Greg Kosc, 1B - Nestor Chylak, 2B - Jim Evans, 3B - Joe Brinkman
Time of Game: 2:27   Attendance: 29395

Monday, March 2, 2015

Teams That Are Long Overdue

Chicago Cubs
Established in 1876, the Cubs have made fourteen World Series appearances (discounting the nineteenth century when the Series was not yet official). They are the longest suffering franchise in the majors, having played the last 106 seasons without a world championship. Beginning in 1910, the club assembled a streak of seven consecutive World Series losses. Their last appearance came in 1945, when they bowed to the Tigers in seven games. Despite their penchant for postseason failure, they have one of the largest fan bases in the majors. From 2000-2009, only the Yankees, Dodgers and Giants boasted higher attendance.
Outlook for 2015: The general consensus is that the Cubs should be competitive. They made several major transactions during the offseason and have a slew of top minor league prospects scheduled to join the team this spring.

Seattle Mariners
In existence since 1977, the Mariners have never been to a World Series. Their last playoff appearance was back in 2001, when they tied a single season record for wins with 116. Despite strong performances from Ichiro Suzuki, Edgar Martinez and Bret Boone, the team folded in the ALCS, losing to the Yankees in five games. The past several years have been lean ones for the Mariners. They've finished below .500 in five of the last seven seasons.
Outlook for 2015: Robinson Cano is arguably the best second baseman in the league. Felix Hernandez is among the top starters. Third baseman Kyle Seager is coming off his best season ever and AL home run king Nelson Cruz was acquired from the Orioles in the offseason. Most sources agree that the Mariners will be in Wild Card contention.  

Houston Astros
The Astros began their humble existence as the Colt .45s back in 1962. Since then, they have failed to capture a championship. A World Series berth in 2005 gave fans some hope, but the players who guided that squad to the only pennant in franchise history are long gone. The Astros haven't been to the playoffs since. Three consecutive seasons with 100 or more losses (2011-2013) dramatically illustrated just how far the team has fallen from grace.
Outlook for 2015: The talent is thin and the prospects are grim. Most insiders are predicting a last place finish.

San Diego Padres
The Padres are yet another team without a World Series title. They've been chasing it since 1969. Their last Fall Classic appearance came in 1998, when they got crushed by one of the greatest Yankee teams in history. They've been shut out of the postseason for eight years running.  
Outlook for 2015: Though they haven't finished above .500 since 2010, the Padres are being hailed as a team to watch this year. Several blockbuster deals in the offseason (including the acquisition of Royals' pitching ace James Shields) should dramatically improve the team's fortunes.  

Cleveland Indians
The Indians are a star-crossed franchise. Since their inception in 1901, they've captured just two world championships. The last time they won a World Series, Hall of Famers Bob Feller and Bob Lemon were anchoring their pitching corps. In the sixty-six seasons that followed, the team has been to the playoffs nine times and dropped a total of three World Series (1954/ 1995/ 1997). Lately, they've been on the rise with a Wild Card bid in 2013 and a near-miss last year.
Outlook for 2015: The Indians have the fourth lowest payroll in the league. Though there is some talent present, most notably left fielder Michael Brantley and starting pitcher Corey Kluber, experts agree that it will be extremely difficult for the club to slip past the Tigers and White Sox in the AL Central.   

Pittsburgh Pirates
Founded in 1882, the Pirates have 5 world championships, 9 pennants and 16 playoff appearances to their credit A loss in the 2013 NLDS ended a twenty-year postseason drought. The '70s were the last successful decade for the club as the Bucs captured World Series titles in 1971 and 1979. Some of the greatest players of all time have worn Pirates uniforms, including Honus Wagner, Roberto Clemente and Willie Stargell. But players of that caliber have been absent for quite some time now.
Outlook for 2015: Andrew McCutchen and Starling Marte make a nice outfield tandem. The pitching staff has vast potential. The Pirates should make a run for the Wild Card this year.

Baltimore Orioles
The O's were established in 1901, playing as the Brewers and Browns before adopting their current moniker. Fans have waited a long time for bragging rights. Between 1998 and 2011, the team made zero postseason appearances. The last World Series victory came in 1983. Since their inaugural campaign, the club has averaged just one postseason appearance every sixteen years.
Outlook for 2015: The loss of Nick Markakis and Nelson Cruz will definitely hurt the team's offense. Other players need to step up considerably in order for the O's to repeat their successful 2014 run, which ended with a loss in the ALCS.           

New York Mets
Since joining the National League in 1962, the Mets have logged four playoff appearances and two World Series victories--the last one dating back to 1986. The 2014 campaign marked the eighth consecutive year that the club has been excluded from postseason play. The Mets made a convincing run in 2006 under manager Willie Randolph, but lost to the Cardinals in the NLCS. They haven't been in serious contention since.  
Outlook for 2015: The Mets appear to have some pitching depth. The offense has potential as well with several players needing to bounce back from sub-par seasons. Whether this team will end up in the Wild Card race or not remains to be seen.