Thursday, September 24, 2015

Goodbye Yogi

Being a lifelong Yankee fan, the death of Yogi Berra feels a lot like losing a friend. He was a Yankee icon and a genuine character who became firmly embedded in baseball history and American pop culture. A three-time MVP, he played in seventy-five World Series games and won ten rings--numbers that may never be surpassed by subsequent generations. I don't have any personal stories to share about Berra, but I do know that my father took my two nephews to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown when they were quite young. As they were walking up the street, they spotted Berra from a distance. Incredibly, when Yogi noticed he had been recognized, he actually crossed the street to say 'hello' and to tell them to 'have fun' inside the Hall. Few if any legendary players would have done that. Since my own words are woefully inadequate to capture the spirit of this man, I would like to share a few quotes from others who were close to Yogi.

Commissioner Rob Manfred
"Renowned as a great teammate, Yogi stood for values like inclusion and respect during the vital era when our game became complete and open to all. With his trademark humility and good humor, Yogi represented only goodwill to baseball fans." 

Bernie Williams
"What a beautiful man...What a Beautiful spirit. Celebrate the life of Yogi Berra today."

Hal Steinbrenner
"Yogi Berra's legacy transcends baseball. Though slight in stature, he was a giant in the most significant ways through his service to his country, compassion for others and genuine enthusiasm for the game he loved. He has always been a role model and hero that America could look up to."

Derek Jeter
"To those who didn't know Yogi personally, he was one of the greatest players and Yankees of all time. To the lucky ones who did, he was an even better person. To me, he was a dear friend and mentor. He will always be remembered for his success on the field, but I believe his finest quality was how he treated everyone with sincerity and kindness." 

Joe Torre
"We've lost Yogi, but we will always have what he left for us: The memories of a lifetime filled with greatness, humility, integrity and a whole bunch of smiles. He was a lovable friend." 

President Barack O'Bama
"Berra was an American original--a Hall of Famer and humble veteran, prolific jokester and jovial prophet. He epitomized what it meant to be a sportsman and a citizen with a big heart, competitive spirit and a selfless desire to open baseball to everyone no matter their background."

In closing, it seems fitting to include an exchange that took place between Yogi and his beloved wife Carmen one day.
Carmen: We live in New Jersey and you used to play ball in New York. If you go before I do, where would you like me to have you buried?
Yogi: Surprise me.



Friday, September 18, 2015

The Game's Biggest Whiffers

Any batter who swings for the fences is bound to strike out fairly often--it's an unavoidable fact. On the road to 700-plus lifetime homers, Babe Ruth, Hank Aaron and Barry Bonds were victimized by opposing pitchers more than 1,300 times apiece. Reggie Jackson--considered by many to be the most reliable October slugger in history--struck out 70 times in postseason play while generating 33 extra-base hits (18 of them homers). Everyone loves the long ball and it seems that GM's and managers are willing to tolerate high strikeout totals in exchange for homers and RBIs. 

But how many strikeouts are too much? 

Of all the ways to be retired, a strikeout is the least productive. A guy who whiffs a lot is consistently failing to advance base runners. And though a healthy number of walks might help offset high strikeout totals, there's a point where the cost of a strikeout exceeds the potential benefits. The following men helped raise the bar for futility at the plate over the course of their careers.

Jake Stahl (1903-1913)
A .261 lifetime hitter, Stahl led the American League in homers while playing for the Red Sox in 1910. He would later serve as a player/manager during Boston's championship season of 1912. In an era when players were encouraged to make contact with the ball, Stahl was an accomplished strikeout artist. He led the league three times in that category, gathering more than 80 K's in six of his nine major league seasons. His 128 strikeouts in 1910 were a record at the time. He was the only player in the majors to reach the century mark that year.

Vince DiMaggio (1937-1946)
The oldest and least heralded of the three DiMaggio brothers, Vince enjoyed a few good slugging seasons in the late-thirties/early-forties. He put up double digit homer totals in seven of his nine seasons while driving-in 75 or more runs four times. He also led the NL in strikeouts on six occasions, peaking at 134 in 1938--a new single-season record. 

Jim Lemon (1950-1963)
 Lemon was among the Senators top run producers for a considerable stretch. Between 1956 and 1960, he clubbed no fewer than 26 homers four times while driving-in at least 64 runs each year. His production came at a rather high price as he finished among the top five in strikeouts for four straight seasons. In '56, he broke Vince DiMaggio's record with 138 K's. Over the course of his career, Lemon averaged one whiff per every 4 at-bats.            

Dave Nicholson (1960-1967)
Few people remember outfielder Dave Nicholson. During his seven years in the majors, he played for four different clubs and never appeared in more than 126 games in a season. He reached the peak of his offensive potential with the White Sox in 1963, tying for the team lead in homers with 22. On the downside, he broke Harmon Killebrew's single-season record for strikeouts with 175. He retired with an average of 1 strikeout per every 3 at-bats. 

Bobby Bonds (1968-1981)
For a good portion of his career, Bonds served as a leadoff man, combining speed with power. He was a member of the 30/30 club five times. He also captured three gold Gloves. But despite his many talents, he was vulnerable to the strikeout. He whiffed more than 100 times in seven consecutive seasons from '69-'75. In 1969, he set a new strikeout record with 187 K's. The following year, he raised the bar by two--a mark that would stand into the twenty-first century.

Adam Dunn (2001-2014) 
There are few hitters who have whiffed with more regularity than Dunn. A giant of a man at 6-foot-6, 285 pounds, he strung together five consecutive 40-homer seasons from 2004-2008. He reached the century mark  in RBIs on six occasions. Though Dunn drew quite a few walks--leading the league twice in that category--his strikeout totals are mind-blowing. He whiffed no fewer than 159 times during twelve of his fourteen seasons, averaging one K per every 3 at-bats. He broke Bobby Bonds strikeout record in 2004 and would have reset the mark multiple times had Ryan Howard and Mark Reynolds not beaten him to the punch.

Ryan Howard (2004-Present)
A prototypical slugger at 6-foot-4, 250 pounds, Howard was Rookie of the Year in 2004 and MVP the following year. He reached the 30 homer/100 RBI plateau in six straight seasons with the Phillies. He also held the single-season strikeout record briefly when he was victimized 199 times in 2007. Still active at the time of this writing, Howard was averaging 1 whiff per every 3 at-bats during his career. 

Mark Reynolds (2007-Present)
Reynolds has spent ample portions of his career at first and third base, fielding both positions below the league average. Though his offensive numbers have dropped off over the past two seasons, he was a top run producer for the Diamondbacks and Orioles between 2008-2012, averaging 33 homers and 88 RBIs per year. In that same span, he carved a small niche in the annals of baseball history with his high strikeout totals. For three straight seasons, Reynolds struck out more than 200 times, setting the all-time single-season mark in 2009 with 223. At the time of this writing, he was playing for the Cardinals and averaging one strikeout for every 3 at-bats during his career.


Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Top Rookies Who Quickly Faded (2000-present)

Jason Jennings- Colorado Rockies
Rare is the occasion when a Rockies pitcher earns accolades for his accomplishments on the mound. But Jennings captured Rookie of the Year honors despite playing in baseball's most bountiful hitter's paradise. In his first game, he pitched a shutout and hit a home run--the only pitcher to do so. He never had another winning season after his 16-8 showing in 2002. In 2007, he underwent arm surgery that effectively ended his career.

Dontrelle Willis- Florida Marlins
With a flamboyant personality and dramatically high leg kick, Willis became the toast of the town when he helped the Marlins to a World series title in 2003. A resounding choice for Rookie of the Year, his career was star-crossed after that. Though he followed a sub-par 10-11 effort in '04 with a 22-win campaign in '05, his life began to unravel. In December of 2006, he was arrested for driving under the influence. In 2007, he began to lose the plate. By 2008, he was suffering from acute anxiety on the mound, which warranted a demotion to the minors. He made multiple unsuccessful comeback attempts.

Geovany Soto- Chicago Cubs
The Cubs rejoiced in 2008 when Soto landed among the top offensive catchers in the majors and received a Rookie of the Year nod. Though he continued to play well defensively after that, he lost his swing. In his sophomore campaign, he hit just .218. He bounced back in 2010 with a .280 mark at the plate, but the performance proved to be a fluke when he reached a personal low of .198 in 2012. He has served as a back-up catcher ever since.

Andrew Bailey- Oakland A's
According to Oakland's Moneyball philosophy, relievers are replaceable. Bailey seemed to be on his way to great things when he recorded 26 saves and captured Rookie of the Year honors in 2009. He saw increasingly less playing time over the next two seasons. Traded to Boston in 2012, he posted a 7.04 ERA in 19 appearances. He is currently property of the Yankees though he has spent most of the year in the minors.

Jose Fernandez- Florida Marlins 
The right-handed Fernandez was an All-Star and Rookie of the Year in his 2013 debut. His career was derailed the following year when he sustained an elbow sprain and underwent Tommy John surgery. He returned to the majors in July of 2015, but complained of shoulder stiffness in August. Only time will tell if he can fully recover.

Wil Myers- Tampa Bay Rays
Myers made his debut in June of 2013 and was named Rookie of the Year on the strength of his .293 batting average and 36 extra-base hits in 88 games. He slumped to .222 in 2014 after sustaining a wrist injury in an outfield collision. Traded to Padres before the 2015 slate, his fortunes have not changed any. As of this writing, he has missed close to 100 games and spent a significant chunk of time in the minors.