Monday, September 28, 2009

Greinke Schoen

Zack Greinke has been the best pitcher in the American League since April. That should be obvious to anyone with or without a cerebral cortex. What wasn't obvious, at least until the last three weeks, was whether Greinke would win the AL Cy Young Award. As of September 16, he had just 13 wins which is three shy of the bare minimum number required to garner serious consideration. No starting pitcher in MLB history has won the Cy Young Award with fewer than 16 wins in a 162-game season. Fernando Valenzulea won 13 games in the strike-shortened '81 season. The idea of Greinke getting to 16 wins seemed nearly unfathomable on August 24 when he sat with just 11 wins. It seemed equally unfathomable on September 16 when had just 13 wins. Now? Well, he's got 16 wins. So, I guess it seems pretty fathomable. Greinke is 5-0 in his last seven starts with a .72 ERA in 50 innings. That's not even his best 50-inning stretch of the season. Needless to say, he has solidified himself as "the only AL pitcher in contention for the Cy Young."

This is a good story if you like baseball. Greinke famously suffered from social anxiety disorder and depression in 2006. He was so bad as a starter upon his return in 2007 that he was moved to the bullpen. He returned as a full-time starter in 2008 and posted promising numbers. Then there's the fact that he plays for the Kansas City Royals which has been the worst baseball franchise in the AL for 50 billion years. Kansas City is not exactly the place for a pitcher to breakout. That hasn't stopped Greinke. Despite KC's 64-92 record and virtually non-existant run-support, he has put together one of the most statistically impressive seasons of all-time accounting for 25% of KC's wins in the process. This is, indeed, a good baseball story. Fortunately, this is also a good story if you like the Detroit Tigers.

If you're a Tigers fan, then you are likely well aware of all of this. Greinke has destroyed the Tigers this season. In 36 innings (five starts), he is 3-1 with a 1.00 ERA, a .861 WHIP, and a .176 BAA. I don't have to tell you that those numbers are sickening. If you are a Tigers fan, you have had a case of the "Greinkies" five times this year. However, I am happy to report that "Greinke season" is over in Detroit and just getting started in Minnesota. While Greinke put up those truly horrifying numbers against the Tigers through the first five and a half months of the season, he posted the following line against the Minnesota Twins: 0 starts and 0 innings. Despite playing in the same division as the Tigers, the Twins somehow managed to avoid Greinkie for five and a half months. Their luck ubruptly ended yesterday.

The bell finally tolled for Minnesota on Sunday and the results were predictable for anyone who has fawned over Greinke's game logs this season. He blitzed Minnesota for seven innings of one-run ball. More importantly, he gave the Twins only their second loss in their last 13 games. Perhaps only one pitcher in the American League would've prevented the Twins from winning yet again. The Twins had climbed to within two games of Detroit and the Tigers were getting beat by the White Sox. A razor-thin one-game lead looked inevitable but Greinke's heroics prevented such a fate.

The Tigers must, at the very least, split their four-game series with the Twins this week to maintain their grip on the Central Division. If that doesn't happen, then it's hard to see the Tigers rebounding to overtake the Twins. However, the Tigers have an ace-in-the hole and it's not Justin Verlander, Edwin Jackson, or Rick Porcello. I'll give you a hint, I've written his name 13 times in this post already. Yep, it's Greinke who will, in effect, be pitching for the Tigers on Saturday when he faces the Twins again. In most instances, a last place team like Kansas City wouldn't have much motivation heading into the last weekend of the season. Thankfully for the Tigers, this is not most instances. Greinke is trying to slam the door on the Cy Young race and a win on Saturday would certainly do that. He will be dealin' and, hopefully, the Twins will be foldin'.

The Tigers can make most of this moot by splitting with the Twins over the next four days. They're playing at Comerica Park where they've only lost one of their last nine series. They roll out Verlander and Porcello today and tomorrow against the Twins. They'll also get both against the White Sox in the final two games of the season this weekend. The Tigers should be able to hold on to the division by themselves but don't be surprised if the margin in a tight race is Greinke's right arm against Minnesota on Saturday.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Walking the Line

In two weeks, the Tigers will have accomplished something truly extraordinary. Unfortunately, it's not yet evident whether it will be something extraordinarily good or extraordinarily bad. If they hold off the Twins and win the AL Central, it will go down as one of the most unexpected division titles in recent baseball history. Nobody picked the Tigers to win the division before the season. ESPN had 21 of its experts predict the AL Central and only one picked the Tigers. Sure, the division has been atrocious but when you can use fewer than half of your fingers on one hand to count postseason appearances over nearly a quarter of a century, simply getting to the playoffs is a huge deal.

Of course, this could also end tragically. The Twins have already shaved off 4.5 games in just over two weeks; an additional 2.5 games in the next ten days to pull even doesn't seem so unrealistic. As far as collapses go, this would be even worse than 2006. The Tigers snuck into the playoffs as a Wild Card in '06 so few people actually remember but they blew a 5.5 game lead on September 1st. If they blow it this year, it will be one of the greatest collapses in MLB history. The 2007 Mets are famously known for blowing a 7-game lead in the NL East on September 12. If the Tigers fail to hold off the Twins, their collapse would be nearly identical. They were up by 7-games on September 6. Rarely have ten regular season baseball games meant so much.

There is plenty of good news in the midst of a precarious situation for the Tigers. They hold a three game lead over the Twins which, according to, gives them an 84% chance of winning the Central Division. Every GM in baseball would be ecstatic to find out before the season that they will have an 84% chance of making the playoffs with just ten games to go. Mathematically, the Tigers are in a strong position. Unfortunately, the Minnesota Twins control their own destiny. If they sweep the Tigers next week and play even with the Tigers in the remaining six games, they will win the division. Fortunately, the Tigers control their own destiny as well. If they take two of four against the Twins next week, it will be very difficult for the Twins to overcome it.

Of course, the only reason we're in this situation to begin with is because the Twins surprised nobody by catching fire and the Tigers surprised nobody by blowing a huge division lead. The Twins are 9-1 in their last ten games validating The Texas Chainsaw Massacre comparison I made back in June. The Twins are scary. They're even more scary when the Tigers go 7-9 over their last 16 games. If there's a silver lining here, it's that the Twins didn't get hot earlier. Had that happened, I'm not sure we're even talking about the "Tigers" and "playoffs" in the same sentence.

There is good news and bad news with respect to Minnesota's remaining schedule and it all has to do with the Kansas City Royals. The bad news is that the Twins play six of their last ten games against the lowly Royals. The good news is that the Royals are 12-5 in their last 17 games. Hopefully, the Royals can prove to be more useful to the Tigers than they were in '06. They, of course, swept the Tigers in the final series of the season to give the pennant to Minnesota. I hope the Royals fancy themselves as equal opportunity season-ruiners. I would hate to think that the sole purpose of the Royals franchise is to embarrass itself for 95% of every season and then ruin things for the Detroit Tigers. That would be a lame existence.

If you're getting a feeling a deja vu, you're not alone. The only difference between this year and 2006 is that the Tigers don't have the Wild Card to fall back on if they blow it. The Twins are hot on their heels, again. The Tigers are struggling in nearly every facet of the game, again. The mighty New York Yankees are poised to humiliate the Tigers in the first round, again. The Royals are the spoilers, again. I have no idea how the Tigers made the playoffs in '06 and I have no idea how they've led the AL Central for 137 consecutive days this season. I had no idea how they were going to win a single playoff game in '06, and I have no clue how they're going to win a game if they make it this year. I just hope the similarities continue because it gets real good after that. I've said it before and I'll say it again, no matter how bad things get over the next few weeks, this is so much better than the alternative.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Perspective and Patience

I was walking through the airport in Boston on Monday and came across a similarly outfitted Michigan fan. I was sporting a head-to-toe attire that must have looked more like an advertisement than a fashion statement. My advertising comrade remarked as he passed by, “Now we just have to beat Penn St!” Certainly it is possible that this particular fan has specific disdain for Penn St. Maybe he is from Pennsylvania and took a lot of crap from his buddies last year. Those motivations can’t be ruled out entirely. However, I’m pretty sure that’s not what provoked his statement. Expectations are rising faster than a space shuttle on Viagra. Just a few short weeks ago there weren’t any expectations. More than a few of Michigan's own fans actually thought a loss to Western was likely. There weren’t expectations of beating Notre Dame. There was hope but hope is something entirely different than expectation. There were no expectations of beating Michigan State in E. Lansing or Iowa in Iowa City. Again, there was hope but not expectation. Penn St. doesn’t come to Ann Arbor until October 24. Yet, "airport fan" already has Michigan 7-0 heading into that game. If it were just one guy, I could chalk this up to someone getting a little too excited a little too early. Unfortunately, this rapid change in expectation is starting to spread a little too fast for comfort. Seconds after Michigan capped off its dramatic win over Notre Dame, a fan turned around and said to me, "With EMU and Indiana next, we're basically 4-0 and then we should beat MSU and Iowa!" I was like, "whoa!" It’s not a wildfire or a plague, yet, but it could become one.

Confidence is high amongst the “M” fanbase and for good reason. Rich Rodriguez has accomplished as much in these first three games as he did in his entire first season. There is no doubt that Michigan is a “good” team. The problem is that “good” is very ambiguous. Nobody knows just how good and nobody will know until the wee hours of October 11 when Michigan finishes its wicked two-week road exam in E. Lansing and Iowa City. Blowing out Western and Eastern Michigan, and pulling out a squeaker against Notre Dame speaks to Michigan’s ability to be competitive which is vastly different from Michigan’s ability to beat good teams on the road. As a result of Michigan’s impressive start and Michigan State’s unimpressive one, Michigan fans now expect a victory in E. Lansing. I’m not sure that’s fair.

I’m not suggesting that Michigan will lose to Michigan State and Iowa. I have no idea what’s going to happen. I’m just saying that the expectation of a win is a disservice to both Rodriguez and the team. These guys were left for dead after last season. Nobody with the exception of a few level-headed Michigan fans had the Wolverines even remotely on their radar heading into this season. As a result, any success this season should be viewed as a bonus. If fans absolutely need to get carried away with something, they should get carried away with the idea that Rodriguez should be the frontrunner for National Coach of the Year. His team is averaging 38 points per game with two true freshmen at quarterback.

Some may not understand the dangers of seemingly innocent expectations—especially in this particular instance. Trust me, expectations are never harmless. This was supposed to be a rebuilding year for Michigan. Even the most enthusiastic of supporters of the program admitted that the struggles of 2008 would likely haunt Michigan through 2009. Everyone knows how difficult it is to transform a football program from something as specified as a pro-style attack to something equally and oppositely specified as the spread. Rodriguez hasn’t received any favors off the field but he’s been given some leeway on it. If we infuse expectations into 2009, then Rodriguez suddenly becomes vulnerable to something that he was supposed to be immune to this season. When expectations aren’t met, criticism is quick to follow and that is the last thing this team needs. Large groups of people cannot be trusted to handle failed expectations with "a grain of salt." That is why the term "mob mentality" exists. Instead of asking people to do the impossible by acting reasonably in the face of failed expectations, the expectations should be eliminated all together. They serve no purpose; not this season.

I mentioned that new expectations are not fair to Rodriguez but I also mentioned that they aren’t fair to the team. The latter is not to be overlooked. Michigan is being led by two true freshmen quarterbacks. The fact that they’ve managed to put up 38 points per game so far is truly unprecedented. However, it’s all been at home against defenses that are hardly physical. At some point in the next year or two, Tate Forcier and/or Denard Robinson will be savvy enough to perform equally well on the road as they do at home. Right now, though, there should be every expectation that these guys will struggle in hostile environments. Even veteran quarterbacks struggle on the road. Increased expectations are simply not fair to Forcier, Robinson and the rest of a team that was universally picked to finish near the back of a weak Big Ten conference.

Unfortunately, "expectations" have already started to have a negative impact. I couldn’t help but to chuckle at the headlines and stories that discussed Forcier’s “struggles” against Eastern Michigan. Michigan won 45-17. That’s a four touchdown spread. Forcier had zero interceptions and completed over 50% of his passes. He was called to pass just 13 times compared to 33 attempts against Notre Dame. Michigan ran the ball 39 times against EMU because it was averaging 9.7 yards per carry. Forcier didn’t struggle because he didn’t have a chance to struggle. He was asked to hand the ball off and not make mistakes and that's what he did. That didn’t stop ESPN’s Big Ten blogger, Adam Rittenberg, from reporting that Forcier struggled. It also didn’t stop the AP from making Forcier’s struggles the story of the game. The original title of that story was, “Forcier struggles, Brown lifts Michigan.” It was, of course, changed to a more fitting title most likely because it looked incredibly silly next to a four touchdown blowout.

The “Forcier Struggles” angle could be a prophetic sign of what could come later in the season if Michigan starts looking more like the young team that it is. Unreasonable expectations lead to unreasonable criticisms. Nobody would be talking about Forcier “struggling” if he hadn’t been idiotically thrown into the Heisman race after the Notre Dame game by overzealous college football writers and pundits. Likewise, nobody would have any reason to blast Rodriguez for road losses to good teams if his young Michigan team wasn’t built-up sooner than it should be. This is a talented but inexperienced team with many unanswered questions. Those questions will be answered by Mid-October. Meanwhile, Tate Forcier is playing really well. Michigan is playing really well. Why can’t that be enough for now?

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Invisible Milestones

The baseball regular season is winding down and so are my opportunities to write about general baseball stuff. So, I’m going to get this post out there so I don’t have to hold on to it over the winter. Even the most novice of baseball fans understands the significance of baseball’s most celebrated milestones. Whenever a player closes in on 3,000 hits, 500 home runs, or 300 wins, MLB and its contractually interested partners make a big deal about it. The reason they make a big deal about it is because those numbers are important. The reason those numbers are important is because they are essentially the equivalent of finding a golden ticket in a Willy Wonka candy bar. In other words, you get to bypass the line and head straight to Cooperstown. Obviously, the steroid-era will wreak havoc on the traditional milestones as voters try to fruitlessly separate players who didn’t take steroids from players who did but would’ve made it anyways from players who were only good because they took steroids. The next ten years are going to be a mess but considering the fact that power numbers have regressed back to the pre-steroid norm, there’s every reason to believe that the traditional milestones will survive and regain their importance at some point.

I always found it interesting that there are only three significant milestones in a sport that trumpets a stockpile of readily available statistics. In fact, with the introduction of sabermetrics and more complex measures, it seems like baseball statistics are infinitely expanding like the universe. With such a sheer volume of statistics, I would think that MLB could find more than three milestones to celebrate. The only thing making the aforementioned milestones so much more important than other milestones is the attention they receive. For instance, I don’t think anyone would argue that "500 home runs" is any more important than "1,700 RBIs." Yet, based on the level of excitement generated by each accomplishment, it would seem like there is a huge difference. Other milestones don’t exist because MLB hasn’t made a big deal out of them. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t unofficial milestones for every other statistic in which every player above that mark is in the Hall of Fame. There is a specific number in each statistic that has historically guaranteed induction into the MLB Hall of Fame. In the interest of indiscriminate behavior, I have identified these previously neglected marks. I doubt these new “milestones” will ever be celebrated but they do provide a pretty good way of identifying Hall of Fame distinguishing accomplishments beyond the big three.

Note: All statistics are for players since 1901. This list does not include active players, players who aren't yet eligible and players who are ineligible for other reasons (i.e. Pete Rose and Joe Jackson). All statistics that involve "average" (i.e. Batting Avg, OPS, OPS+, Slug%, OBP, ERA+, and Win%) have a min. of 2,000 hits for hitters and 200 wins for pitchers.

MLB “Milestones”

StatisticHOF MilestonePlayer with highest mark not in HOF
Hits2,900Harold Baines
Runs1,650Jimmy Ryan
RBIs1,650Harold Baines
Batting Avg..311Bobby Veach
Doubles550Al Oliver
Home Runs475Jose Canseco
Walks1,700Eddie Yost
OPS.900Bob Johnson
OPS+140Bob Johnson
SLG%.500Will Clark
OBP.400John Olerud

Total Bases

4,800Andre Dawson
Runs Created1,700Tim Raines
Wins300Bobby Mathews
K's4,000Bert Blyleven
ERA+125Eddie Cicotte
Win%.590Eddie Cicotte

Some of these “milestones” won’t last long. There is a pretty good chance that Fred McGriff, Kevin Brown and Larry Walker won’t get into the Hall of Fame. Larry Walker’s omission alone would eliminate the above milestones for batting average, OPS, OPS+, Slug%, and OBP. Kevin Brown’s omission would remove the markers for ERA+ and Win%. Fred McGriff would have the same impact on Runs Created and Home Runs. Nonetheless, I'd like to see some of these invisible milestones celebrated. For instance, players who reach 1,700 RBIs and Runs should probably be given the same fanfare as a 500th home run. Having just three milestone statistics is getting boring.

Monday, September 14, 2009


I wasn’t alive yet when Rick Leach captivated the college football world as a true freshman 34 years ago. Until yesterday, I had no idea how ridiculously stupefying that feat actually was. True freshmen don’t start at quarterback for a reason. So, it’s always newsworthy when one manages to fool enough of the coaches to win the starting job. It’s just downright transcendent when one becomes so good so immediately that he becomes the identity of an already iconic program. Five years ago, Chad Henne started as a true freshman at Michigan. By all measures, he played well. In fact, he played so well that he is regarded as one of the rare exceptions—a “poster boy” if you will—for success as a true freshman starting quarterback. With all due respect to Henne, though, what we’re seeing from Tate Forcier is literally rewriting what is possible for a true freshman quarterback to accomplish. Henne was good because of his physical attributes. He could zip the ball through a meat grinder. He was also good because he had both the all-time leading receiver and leading rusher in the history of Michigan football at his side. Henne had enough in the toolbox early on to guide Michigan; but not lead Michigan. He allowed his teammates to make plays while Forcier makes them himself. Consider that Michigan is fielding one of its weakest receiving corps in recent memory and yet that hasn't hindered him in the slightest. That distinction is where Forcier’s greatness lies. What he has that even most seniors don’t is so ambiguous to describe and so obvious to see. It’s something that could not be taught by 1,000 teachers in 1,000 years.

All the might in Jeff George’s right arm could not account for Forcier’s matrix-like ability to “feel” the field. 90% of the quarterbacks who ever played in the NFL could not do what Forcier did on Michigan’s second-to-last offensive play; the one where LaTerryal Savoy tragically dropped the ball. In fact, if you’re wondering where the missing piece to George’s Hall of Fame career has been hiding, it’s in Tate’s head. It took just two games for Forcier to become a legend and a leader in Ann Arbor. On a day when the next great USC quarterback was coronated, he became the story of college football. I’ve heard Michigan fans say on more than a few occasions that “Tate will do for now” but Michigan will really start rolling once it gets a more dynamic player behind center. I hate to disappoint these people, but they might want to check into a hotel because they’re going to be waiting for a long, long time. Tate is your starting quarterback for the next four years. You should be so lucky.

If you don’t have Saturday’s game saved on DVR, then I extend my condolences. It was a performance worthy of the most successful Broadway stage. Forcier was a magician or a maestro or whatever metaphor you want to use. What I’m still undecided on is what part of his performance was the most astonishing. I can’t decide if it was his cat-like quickness or his ability to feel without feeling a collapsing pocket. I don’t know if it was fitting the ball into space that seemed geometrically impossible or his ability to shrug off misreads and interceptions like they were the learning experiences that they were. The sheer number of breathtaking plays that Forcier laid on the Irish was astounding. If you have the luxury of watching the game again, do yourself a favor and count the number of times he escaped from the pocket and threaded a needle through a needle to extend a drive. It was mesmerizing the first time I saw it all live in the stadium but it requires a second viewing to truly appreciate how often and how beautifully he altered the game.

(Jump to the 5:40, watch for two minutes, and marvel.)

I wrote last week that—in the face of early success—Rich Rodriguez deserves patience. It’s not his fault that his team is better than anyone expected much earlier than anyone expected. He should be applauded for the rate of progress rather than saddled with new expectations. Saturday hasn’t changed my perspective. This season has the potential to be one that will be remembered forever not because of a win or a bowl but because it was immaculately conceived. Rodriguez has returned glory to the Michigan program in the face of a negativity storm that would humble even the most accomplished of political degenerates. So, I will gladly refrain from extrapolating Saturday’s success over the remainder of the season. I’m not even the slightest bit tempted to do so. Michigan is back and Rodriguez is so obviously a “Michigan Man.” Asking for more than that from 2009 is dangerously tempting the limits of fate and karma and whatever other cosmic forces are out there.

What I don’t mind doing is emphasizing just how satisfied I am with the present. I don’t care what happens in two or three weeks. I don’t care what bowl game waits. I just want to watch Michigan play football. At some point as I was very slowly coming down from my suspended state of euphoria on Saturday night, a question entered my mind and an answer followed nearly simultaneously. It wasn’t an important question but the answer does more to ease the pain from last season than any case of amnesia could ever do. Here it is: if given the choice, would you go back in time 18 months and secure a commitment from Terrell Pryor, or would you leave the present unchanged? There’s no doubt in my mind that Pryor is going to follow Vince Young’s path, stride for lengthy stride, to the NFL. Pryor is physically gifted beyond design. So far, though, that’s where it ends. Tate Forcier has already shown more in just two games than Terrell Pryor has in two years. Pryor will put it all together and it will be to the detriment of Michigan but if you’re looking for my answer, I hid it in the title of this post. Who would’ve thought that it would ever be possible to look back on the failure to secure a commitment from Pryor—something that has been incessantly referenced by pundits as a huge misstep by Rodriguez—and look at it as a blessing? Not me.

I don’t know what this season has in store for Michigan. I don’t know how good this team is and, frankly, I don’t care. I spend more time being frustrated by totally meaningless football games than I could ever care to admit. Miraculously, that frustration is gone right now and I’m not in a hurry to go looking for it. I often wonder why I put myself through the emotional turbulence of sports. I think it’s because I know that under the right conditions awaits a state of total satisfaction that money could never buy. I don’t know how long it’s going to last but I have found that state. In a sport cursed by its brevity, I realize this utopia will ultimately be fleeting like Tate Forcier on 4th and 3. It would be great if it lasted forever but I’m just thankful that my inexplicable sports fetish has yielded a return. I can’t say that I saw that coming walking into the Big House on Saturday.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

A Walker to Remember

This has been a really long week. My anticipation for Saturday’s showdown has somehow managed to make time screech to a snail’s speed. Every day this week I have woken up thinking that it was actually the next day. I guess the good news is that I should have record time to devote to this post. So, naturally, I’m going to spend it talking about Larry Walker! I bet you didn’t see that coming. I apologize for the somewhat random topic but if you’re a regular reader, you know that’s how I roll. Anyhow, Larry Walker should be in the MLB Hall of Fame and here’s why…

Walker won three batting titles. There have been 17 players in MLB history who have won at least three batting titles. Only two of the 17—Tony Oliva and Bill Madlock—are not in the Hall of Fame. Walker destroys both Oliva and Madlock in a statistical comparison. He has much more in common with the fifteen who are in the HOF than the two who aren't.

Walker hit over .360 in a season three times. In the last 75 years, only two other players—Tony Gwynn and Wade Boggs—have accomplished that feat. They were both first-ballot Hall of Famers. He also hit at least .350 four times. In the last 75 years, only four other players—Stan Musial, Rod Carew, Wade Boggs, and Tony Gwynn—have accomplished that feat. All four were first-ballot Hall of Famers.

Additionally, Walker has a career batting average of .313. Since 1901, nobody with a batting average of at least .311 has been kept out of the Hall of Fame (min. 2,000 hits).

If you are a baseball fan, chances are you know two things about Larry Walker: 1. He was very good and 2). He played at Coors Field. If Larry Walker doesn’t get into the Hall of Fame, it will be because of #2. There is no question that Coors Field has been a hitter’s park since it opened in 1995. However, that doesn’t mean that a Hall of Famer can’t play there. What if Albert Pujols spent his entire career in Colorado? Nobody would know if he was truly a superstar or simply a product of Coors Field. Walker’s resume cannot be dismissed simply because it was made in Coors Field. By that logic, nobody could ever make the Hall of Fame as a member of the Colorado Rockies and that’s just a silly concept. Plus, Walker won the National League MVP in 1997 with Colorado. If a guy can win an MVP in Colorado, then he can make the Hall of Fame in Colorado.

Thankfully, Walker didn’t play his entire career with the Rockies. The means we can eliminate unsubstantiated assertions on whether Walker was solely a product of thin air and look for ourselves. Walker started off his career with the Montreal Expos in 1989. In just his third full season, he finished 5th in the NL MVP voting with a 142 OPS+. He was even better in his fifth season with Montreal. He hit .322 with a 151 OPS+. He also blasted 44 doubles which led the NL. The Expos played at Olympic Stadium which was in the middle of the pack in terms of Park Factor which essentially means that hitters and pitchers were on equal footing. Before Walker ever stepped foot in Colorado, he was a gold glove, all-star with two seasons of at least a 140 OPS+. He was an elite defensive outfielder and an above average base-stealer making him the quintessential five-tool player.

Walker played 9.5 seasons in Colorado where he was one of the premier players in MLB. In 2004, he was traded to the St. Louis Cardinals. The Cardinals played at Busch Stadium which was also in the middle of the pack in terms of Park Factor. In his first season with the Cards, Walker produced a 143 OPS+. In his second season with the Cards and last in the majors Walker contributed a 130 OPS+.

Walker played in three parks. Two of the three were hitter-neutral parks. The other was, of course, Coors Field. He played in a hitter-neutral park before Coors Field and was a budding superstar. He played in a hitter-neutral park after Coors Field and was well above the league average in production. Clearly, Walker was not a great player because of Coors Field. He was a great player who played at Coors Field.

It would be silly to suggest that Walker’s numbers weren’t aided by playing in the top hitter’s park in the league. However, nobody knows how much of an impact it specifically had on Walker’s production. Considering Walker proved to be a superior hitter both before and after his time in Colorado, it seems pretty reckless to me to simply guess that it had so much of an impact as to keep him from election to the Hall of Fame.

For those unconvinced of Walker’s candidacy as a Hall of Famer, I direct you to his home/road splits from 1997 when he won the NL MVP. Walker was dominating at home with 20 home runs and a 1.169 OPS in 78 games. If he was dominating at home then he was a word that hasn’t been invented yet on the road. In 75 road games, Walker hit 29 home runs with a 1.176 OPS. If we remove known or suspected steroid-users from the equation (Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire, and Sammy Sosa), Walker’s 1.168 OPS in ’97 is the fourth best single-season mark of the last 52 years. His performance at Coors Field that season--as amazing as it was--actually hurt his OPS that season.

Walker didn't hit better on the road every year. He certainly thrived playing at home as most players do. However, he was always been, at the very least, a very good player on the road. Walker struggled with injuries in both 1996 and 2000 amassing just 83 and 87 games respectively with the Rockies. In his other seven seasons with the Rockies, his road production was at an elite level. Note: "sOPS" refers to his split relative to the league road average. For example, 110 would mean that he was 10% better than the average league road OPS.

Road Warrior

YearRoad PAsRoad OPSsOPS+

*Statistics from

Clearly, Walker was no one-venue pony. If someone played 20 healthy seasons and had Walker’s road production only, that player would very likely be a Hall of Famer. Walker was a great road player and a phenomenal home player.

Walker’s career totals aren’t the greatest in large part because of injuries. He didn’t come close to 3,000 hits. He doesn’t have the massive totals that some Hall of Famers do. However, he had a number of elite seasons to go along with fairly impressive career totals. He reached 1,300+ runs and RBIs. He hit 471 doubles and stole 230 bases. Alone, those numbers probably aren’t enough. Combined with his .313 batting average, .400 OBP, .565 SLG%, and 140 OPS+, though, they make him a Hall of Famer. The Hall of Fame Monitor test says he's well above the level of a “likely” Hall of Famer. The Hall of Fame Standards test has him above the “average” Hall of Famer. The three closest players to Walker in Baseball Reference’s Similarity Score—Vlad Guerrero, Chipper Jones, and Duke Snyder—are either in the Hall of Fame or future Hall of Famers.

It’s easy to dismiss Walker as a product of the thin air of Colorado. The same dismissive attitude is going to make it difficult for Todd Helton to get into the Hall of Fame. While Helton doesn’t have the luxury of pointing to success playing for other teams in other ballparks, Walker does. Hopefully, voters have enough respect for him to look beyond the Coors Field stereotype. If they give him that courtesy, then he’ll have no problem getting in. Something tells me that's not going to happen.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

House Money

Prior to 2008, the thought of a MAC opponent revealing anything remotely telling about Michigan’s season was unfathomable. Since Michigan managed only 26 combined points against the two worst teams in the MAC Conference last year—suffering its first loss to a MAC team ever in the process—the home opener against Western Michigan was going to reveal quite a bit. I don’t want to get carried away here. We weren’t going to find out if Michigan could compete with Ohio State and Penn State. That’s just not something that a game against a MAC team can reveal. However, we were going to find out very quickly just how much has changed since last season. Usually, a game against Western has the damned if you do, damned if you don’t feel. If you win, so what. If you lose, it’s an embarrassment. This game was different for two reasons. First, a win—by any margin—would’ve alleviated the negativity that was building following months and months of personal attacks on both Rich Rodriguez and the football program. Second, and most importantly from a fan’s perspective, this game was an early litmus test for how competitive Michigan would be this season.

Here’s why: Last season, Michigan played two MAC teams—again, the two worst MAC teams—whose combined record was 5-19. Miami (OH) and Toledo gave up 33 and 31 points per game, respectively. Michigan managed just 16 points against Miami (OH) and just 10 points against Toledo. Last year was abysmal and I can’t think of a better example to illustrate that than Michigan’s offensive futility against two horrible teams. Western Michigan, on the other hand, gave up just 24 points per game. The Broncos were one of the top teams in the MAC last year and one of the favorites to win the conference this year. They have one of the top five quarterbacks in the country. They beat Iowa in 2007 and Illinois in 2008. Illinois clobbered Michigan by 25 points last season if you recall. So, while beating Western Michigan isn’t a launching pad for a national championship run, it certainly could answer many, many questions. And, it did.

Michigan scored 31 points against Western in the first half which is more than the 26 combined points in two full games against Miami (OH) and Toledo last year. Instead of struggling to score against horrible MAC teams, Michigan dominated a very good MAC team. Perhaps the number one unanswered question surrounding the Michigan football program by fans and pundits alike was: will Michigan be better this season? The answer was already pretty obviously yes if you follow the program closely, but the answer after the opener against WMU is: unquestionably, yes.

I guess the next question is: how much better is Michigan? Well, that’s the one drawback of having a litmus test against Western Michigan. It can tell you if you’re better but it can’t tell you how much better. We won’t find that out until the aftermath of the Notre Dame game. However, one of the points of this post is to argue that it doesn’t matter how much better Michigan is. For the first team in maybe forever, I don’t want Saturday to come. It has been exhausting--albeit rewarding--defending both Coach Rodriguez and the program over the last 18 months. To finally see results on the field is enough for me. After this season, success will be measured by wins and championships. This season—even after what we saw on Saturday against Western—success should be measured by competitiveness. This was supposed to be a 6-6 or 7-5 type season that lays the foundation for a successful run in 2010. Saturday was easily one of the most enjoyable Michigan football games I have ever witnessed. I can’t think of too many instances in 20+ years of watching Michigan football where Michigan played a better half. I just want to enjoy it for what it is instead of giving into the temptation of ratcheting up expectations for the remainder of the season. That would be unfair to Rodriguez and the players.

Keeping expectations down was hard enough after watching Tate Forcier and Denard Robinson play like seasoned quarterbacks on Saturday. Seeing Iowa, Illinois and Wisconsin—three of Michigan’s ‘09 road opponents—look pretty weak on Saturday makes it even more difficult. Before Saturday, fans had no choice but to mark those games down as probable losses. Now, they seem like toss-ups. All of a sudden, a quick look at Michigan’s schedule might reveal nine and ten-win projections. I think we need to hold off on projections. Right now, Rich Rodriguez is playing with house money. Just four days ago, blowhard journalists were trying to push him out the door. Several brain-dead talking heads across the country were saying that he would lose his job if he lost to Western. Nobody—not Spartan fans, not Michigan fans, and not national pundits—were projecting Michigan to have anything close to a successful season. Nearly all projections peaked at 7-5 as the absolute ceiling. I just hope people remember that in November regardless of how the season unfolds.

It’s tempting to ramp up the expectations for the remainder of the season. I’ve been in a minute by minute fight with myself ever since Saturday to keep those expectations down. Michigan still has two true freshmen quarterbacks leading the offense. It still has four difficult road games in East Lansing, Iowa City, Champagne, and Madison. This season should be what last season was supposed to be. The great travesty of 2008 wasn’t how poorly Michigan played. It was that it meant absolutely nothing moving forward. It was a dead end season. Steve Threet was not going to be the quarterback this season. Nick Sheridan was never going to play significant minutes ever again. The most important position in Rich Rodriguez’s offense, by far, is quarterback. Last season should’ve been a 12-game prep for Michigan quarterbacks moving forward. Instead, it was an epic waste. Even though Michigan is clearly much better, that 12-game prep has simply shifted to 2009. Any success that comes this season should be viewed as free money. I wrote a post last season that argued that 2008 should be stress-free because at the very worst, the players were learning the system. For the first time in my lifetime, not being good was OK because there wasn’t an expectation to be good. I didn’t realize at the time that the worst case scenario was much worse. So here we are a year later and I could write the exact same post about this season. Except, this time I would be right.

I don’t want Saturday to come. I don’t want the new expectations that I have—the expectations that I’m not supposed to have—to be shattered. Every second that passes I become less excited about Saturday’s win and more trepid about Notre Dame. The prospect of seeing the hope that was gained on Saturday dashed is unnerving. The only thing worse than seeing expectations dashed with a loss to Notre Dame might be seeing expectations blow-up with a win. No matter what happens on Saturday, it should not be lost that 2010 was and is the ETA on Michigan’s return to the national stage. Rodriguez deserves the courtesy of not having that timeline moved up.

Thursday, September 03, 2009

Mauer Power

The Tigers pack as much punch at the plate as Glass Joe . They have averaged just over four runs per game since the All-Star break. They are near the bottom of the AL in just about every meaningful offensive statistic. They’re 10th in runs per game, 13th in hits, 13th in stolen bases, 11th in walks, 10th in strikeouts, 11th in batting average, 11th in OBP, 10TH in slugging percentage, 11th in OPS+, 12th in Total Bases, and 13th in sacrifice flies. I would go on but I need to wake up early. The Yankees have eight players in their starting lineup with an OPS+ better than 120. The Tigers have one. The top three offensive teams in the AL in order are the Yankees, Angels, and Red Sox. Not coincidentally, they are the three best teams in the AL. So, how is it that the Tigers are line to make the playoffs? There are a few suitable answers but I think they all involve Miguel Cabrera in one way or another. Without his 148 OPS+ in the middle of the lineup, the offense would be so miserable that any mention of the word “playoffs” would surely send everyone from Jim Leyland to Jim Mora over the edge. I think that probably makes Miggy the most important player to his team in the American League. Unfortunately, that doesn’t automatically mean he’s the most valuable player in the league.

This is really just a matter of semantics. I’ve never been a big fan of the vagueness of “most valuable player.” Everyone has their own take on what that means. In my opinion, “MVP” should be defined as, “the best player in the league”; not “most important player” or “best player on a playoff contender.” So, while I think Cabrera is the most important player in the American League, we’ve got to take it a little further to conclude if he is the most valuable. In my opinion, there are seven candidates that seem to have separated themselves from an otherwise underwhelming cast of players in the American League including Joe Mauer, Miguel Cabrera, Mark Teixeira, Justin Morneau, Kevin Youkilis, Chone Figgins, and Kendry Morales. All are having spectacular seasons but this debate really ends before it starts. OPS+, OBP, Slugging Percentage, and Runs Created are four of the most telling statistics in baseball. Joe Mauer leads the league in all four. He even leads the league in batting average. He also plays the most difficult defensive position in baseball.

If you remember back to the beginning of the season, Mauer missed the first 22 games. He has missed 25 games all together. While not enough to entirely dismiss someone from MVP contention, 25 games is 15% of the season which is a significant amount of time. To be fair to Cabrera, Teixeira, and the others, Mauer’s numbers should stand up under the scrutiny of a raw number comparison before being handed the MVP. Take Cabrera, for example. He has missed just three games. The fact that the Tigers have had his services for 22 games more than the Twins have had Mauer should be a boost to Cabrera’s case. As it turns out, though, Mauer has been so superior to his AL counterparts that even with the games played disadvantage, his raw stats stack up just fine. He has nearly the same number of home runs and RBIs as Cabrera. He has more walks and fewer strike outs. He not only beats Cabrera in runs created, but he leads the whole league.

As much as I’d like Miggy to take home some hardware, I’m kind of glad that Mauer has distinguished himself as the best player in the AL because if he is removed from the equation, what’s left is a giant messy mass of ambiguity. The result would likely be Mark Teixeira winning for being the best player on the best team and because of the draw of the New York market. As good as Cabrera has been this year, I’d be shocked if he finishes higher than either Mauer or Teixeira in the voting. The AL Cy Young race might be a little kinder to the Tigers. Zack Greinke leads the AL in ERA and WHIP but he only has 13 wins. If he doesn’t get that above 15, then all bets are off. Only one player (Fernando Valenzuela in ’81) has won the Cy Young with fewer than 16 wins. If Greinke fails to get there, then Justin Verlander would have as good a chance as anyone. His next six starts will make or break his case. And if you absolutely need some Tigers hardware, Rick Porcello should easily win the Rookie of the Year after a brilliant August.

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