Friday, November 25, 2005

Maddux V Clemens '05

It seems like every year I end up having this debate with someone and the whole thing evolves each and every time but I always come round to the same conclusion and it usually flies in the face of what the other person thinks as I truly believe that, contrary to popular consensus, Greg Maddux has been a better pitcher throughout his career than Roger Clemens.

Now people will bring up the seven Cy Youngs (he may have deserved three or four of those) and the two 20 strikeout games a decade apart which were a part in putting him second on the strikeout list behind fellow Texan Nolan Ryan and I guess if strikeouts are your thing then there's really nothing I can say to change your mind as you've probably believed the hype and think Clemens is the greatest of all time and he'd probably agree with you.

It would be so easy to try and make this a personality thing and we could go on and on about how he abandoned the Jays, who gave him a chance to re-establish his career after it went a bit wobbly in Boston, in pursuit of the green. We could talk about his rep as a head hunter and the whole Subway Series that saw him throw a splintered bat head at Mike Piazza. What do we have to compare that to with Greg Maddux who basically just turns up to the clubhouse everyday, punches in, does his job and punches out? We can't debate this on a PR standpoint as only one of the two really puts his face in the papers or cares about his reputation.

We might as well start with the biggest difference between the two and that’s the strikeout. Like Crash Davis once said, "Strikeouts are fascist." What does a strikeout really mean? What is so great about having the ability to strikeout a lot of people? Don't get me wrong, there are situations where a strikeout is a great thing, like when the bases are jammed with less than two out, but surely if you can keep those ducks off the pond then you won't need to pull that out of the hat. What happens if we have the bases loaded with one out? Is it better to get a K or to get that ground ball to get the double play? Its all swings and roundabouts and while you might think one is more preferable than another, the fact of the matter is both would do in a pinch. The job of the starting pitcher is to give your team the best foundation upon which to win games and it shouldn't matter if you strike out twenty seven guys or get twenty seven groundouts or twenty seven fly outs so long as you get those twenty seven outs. The strikeout is just another means to get an out and its not like Maddux doesn't strike people out, he is a member of the 3000K club which is usually reserved for the top power pitchers who have played, and just because Clemens has over 4000 K's shouldn't necessarily mean that he's better. Surely we should compare these guys in terms of their ability to get outs, keep runners off the bases and stop runs being scored. Isn't that what being a pitcher is all about?

I guess the closest stat related to strikeouts would be opponent batting average as that indicates how tough it is to get a hit off a pitcher (I would have thought). Clemens has restricted hitters to a .206 avg over his career which, unsurprisingly, beats out Maddux and his .228 but Maddux has always been about control so if we move to the en vogue stat of OBP (on base percentage) how does that tip the scales? Clemens shoots up to .293 (I say shoots up but it's still pretty damned good) and Maddux meanders to .285, so what does this mean? Well Maddux is the only player in baseball history to have over 3000 K's and less than 1000 walks which says a lot. Its also worth noting that Maddux has been in a steady decline in recent years whereas Clemens, to his credit has hit a bit of a purple patch so you'd think these numbers would be closing in on each other but also it brings to light just how difficult Maddux was to reach on during his prime. It also goes to show that striking out a lot of people isn't such a big thing if you're just walking other people (there's a reason Nolan Ryan lost as many games as he did).

The importance of the walk also shows up in WHIP (walks and hits per innings pitched), with Clemens' 1.173 beaten out by Maddux's 1.132 so how can we continue to believe Clemens to be the best pitcher? Maybe its the seven Cy Young Awards to the four of Maddux but what we need to remember here is that the Cy Young Award is for the best pitcher in that particular year. We could draw parallels to someone like Joe Jackson who never won a batting crown but is still third all time in career average. Jackson even batted over .400 one year but that’s what happens when you play in the same era as Ty Cobb. So does the fact that Shoeless Joe never won a batting crown make mean he was a bad hitter? Or maybe he wasn't one of the greatest hitters of all time? Of course it doesn't mean either of these things and likewise with the Cy Young Award.

Maddux had a year in 1998 where he had a Cy worthy season but it was also one of the years where Pedro Martinez was inhuman. Similarly Clemens could be seen to have been lucky to win awards in 2001 where Mussina was better across the board in every stat bar wins, and even in 2004 where several other pitchers could have laid claim to deserving the award. Its all in the eye of the beholder and both Maddux and Clemens might have more or less Cy's than they actually do so why get hung up on it? The fact that we are having this debate means that both have been nigh un-hittable for prolonged periods of time.

Similarly it would be easy to go on about the countless Gold Gloves Maddux has won but as good a fielder as he has been, it would be easy to argue that he doesn't actually deserve the number he has won (the Gold Gloves have become a bit of a joke of late anyway). Maddux needs to be a good fielder because he pitches to contact and needs to be able to field the stuff that gets back at him if he's going to be effective. Clemens has built his game on the strikeout (come on, he is so fixated on strikeouts that his kids names all start with the letter 'K') and therefore isn't expecting many balls to be hit his way if he's on his game. We're back to the power pitcher vs. finesse pitcher argument again where we always come round to the simple fact that the two have different demands and basically one is not necessarily preferable to the other so long as they get the outs.

I've also heard the argument that because Maddux has played his entire career in the DH free National League he has benefited from having to face fewer proper hitters and that his numbers would be less favourable if he had pitched in the American League. This seems to neglect to factor in the fact that in the AL pitchers can focus on nothing but pitching and can be pulled as soon as they hit trouble rather than be left in till the end of the frame so they can last until their spot in the order comes up. How often do we need to see a pitcher coasting through a game, get a hit, runs the bases and then straight after he seems to lose effectiveness? We could also factor in the whole Coors effect or dig up the number of pitchers injured by being hit by pitches but the whole argument about how leagues effect your numbers is so tenuous you could argue back and forth and never get anywhere because the pros and cons offset each other and the whole issue is a mute point.

Many people wish to dismiss the win as an over-rated stat but it can also not be ignored as what else is there that’s more important in baseball than teams winning games and starting pitchers are a big part of that. Both have reached the mighty plateau of 300 wins and might well be the last two guys who reach that level for a very long time but on the face of it Clemens has 23 more wins which comfortably puts him ahead of Maddux even if you account for his extra year of experience. What I would like to factor in is something that many would love to forget and that is the strike of '94. That year Clemens was in the midst of a spell which had the Red Sox thinking he was in decline and his average numbers would soon see him leave for a renaissance in Toronto. In Atlanta however, Greg Maddux was doing his best Bob Gibson impersonation in a year where he went 16-6 with a 1.56 ERA in the abridged season and he followed that with a similar showing in '95 where he went a staggering 19-2 with a 1.63 ERA. Over his career Greg Maddux has averaged 33 starts a season but in his two prime years he started 25 and 28 respectively due to the shortened schedule so that’s 13 starts in a period of dominance that he lost. Over the same period Clemens went 9-7, 2.85 and 10-5, 4.18 so, in a nutshell, the strike hit Maddux whilst he was at his best and Clemens when he was at his relative worst.

Of course it's impossible to say how many games Maddux might have won if not for the strike or how it would have effected Clemens but it does make you think what if..? Its also worth noting that both Maddux' seasons either side of the strike were statistically superior to anything Clemens has ever done including his spectacular '05 and 1990 campaigns.

Also on the subject of wins, how can we forget that Greg Maddux has achieved an unmatched feat that not even the likes of Christy Matthewson, Walter Johnson and the other great pitchers of the dead ball era could achieve by winning 15 games or more in seventeen straight seasons which is an unbelievable achievement which exemplifies how metronomic he has been throughout his career. It is this consistency that seems to have hurt his notoriety as people seem to expect him to do it even though for most 200+ innings and 15+ wins is a great year.

Clemens has punctuated his career with a handful of so-so seasons and then a good few great years. You almost expect the wheels to fall off a guy when he does that which means we are amazed when they don't whereas Maddux seemed to be expected to just roll on. Even now with his days numbered Maddux has still only had four years with an ERA over 4.00 (his first two and last two no less) and Clemens has had five scattered throughout his career so how do we weigh those numbers against each other? Is it better to be the hare who shot off ahead and then had periodical snoozes or to be the tortoise who just plodded on slow and steady?

So where does this leave us? Basically with a lot of interpretation and conjecture like most baseball related debates (I love this game). The way I see it, both have had tremendous careers reaching some of the heady heights that only the truly great reach and no matter who you are you can't possibly deny that both are first ballot Hall of Famers and genuine legends of the game but having played their careers over roughly the same era you'd think we would be in as good a position as you could be to compare two of baseballs all time greats.

It's easy to make arguments for both and those of us who saw both in their prime probably will make those arguments for a very long time. I must admit that watching Greg Maddux in the 1990's shaped the way I viewed the art of pitching as he literally bewildered hitters (the Chambers Dictionary defines bewilder as "to perplex, confuse; to cause to get lost" which sums it up beautifully) and the way power pitchers like Clemens go about their business seems far less poetic. I believe the stats back me up when I say Maddux has been a better pitcher but we all know that there are lies, damn lies and statistics and you can make statistics fit any argument but that’s what I believe. How can you not see the greatness of a guy who could shut out teams in less than two hours by throwing less than 90 pitches?

Saturday, November 19, 2005

The Awards Season Summary

Well its awards time and I thought we’d see how my picks stack up against the actual picks. I doubt they’ll match up too much but that’s why this is Spurious Baseball.

AL Rookie
My Choice : Huston Street, Oak
To me its not even close. While Chacin, Iguchi and ‘Tin Can’ Cano (with the bat that is) have had good seasons, Street single handedly solidified a very young bullpen which took a lot of pressure off a very young rotation and was a key figure for an over-achieving Oakland side.
MLB’s Choice : Huston Street, Oak (97 points, 15 first place votes)
A sufficiently large portion of the votes just goes to show how obvious a choice he was.

NL Rookie
My Choice : Willy Taveras, Hou
It’s a toss up between him and Howard in Philadelphia, but Taveras has had to be the igniter on a very limp offence all year and that got the Astros a wild card birth. While his numbers might not be as impressive as others, his importance is that much higher.
MLB’s Choice : Ryan Howard, Phi (109 points, 19 first place votes), Taveras (78, 7)
I still maintain that Taveras was more important to his team but its hard to argue with the guy who was up there among all rookies in most offensive/power categories.

AL Manager
My Choice : Ozzie Guillen, Chx
A lot of people want to heap praise on Eric Wedge but I picked Cleveland to win that division at the beginning of the year and the way they played in the second half of the season was how they should have been playing all year. Meanwhile, Ozzie Guillen took a team that no one picked to win the division and made them the best team in the AL.
MLB’s Choice : OzzieGuillen, Chx (105, 17)
Ozzie Guillen takes an un-fancied team all the way and gets his just reward and the only surprise to me is the size of his majority as I thought Macha and Wedge would get more support.

NL Manager
My Choice : Bobby Cox, Atl
How can it be anyone else? That team was decimated by injuries and most parts of the team not only had to refer to plan B but also plans C, D and E. This team had so many personnel problems but they still won the division with time to spare and that says so much of how good a manager Cox is.
MLB’s Choice : Bobby Cox, Atl (152, 28)
It really was a case of who else could you possibly vote for? Is there even a slight case for someone else?

AL Cy Young
My Choice : Mariano Rivera, Nyy
The first week of the season Boston roughed him up a little and then he shutdown every other team for the rest of the year. Just an unbelievable year from a guy who is really carving out his niche in baseball history.
MLB’s Choice : Bartolo Colon, LAA (118, 17), Rivera (68, 8)
They really should change this award to become the Cy Young Award for Most Wins. What’s most amazing is the size of his victory margin because while he had a good season as a real stopper for the Angels (even through injury), Johan Santana and Mariano Rivera were more dominant all year and should have at least split the vote more.
I suppose what would the off-season be without another bout of people talking about how wins are an over-rated stat?

NL Cy Young
My Choice : Chris Carpenter, StL
This guy was huge for St Louis all year. He not only ate up innings and kept his team in every game When he was matched up against other teams aces in clutch games down the stretch, he was a monster pitching complete games where he held the opposition to practically nothing.
MLB’s Choice : Chris Carpenter, StL (132, 19)
I had this guy as my third place pick in MVP voting. Just an outstanding year from a guy who’s had more than his fair share of adversity.

My Choice : Scott Podsednik, Chx
Yes, Ortiz carried the Sox with more clutch hits than you can shake a big stick at. Yes, A-Rod notched up some gaudy numbers but in a nutshell, with Podsednik in the line-up the ChiSox were the best team in baseball. Take him out and they start limping to the playoffs. He comes back and they’re the best team in baseball. Sounds like an MVP to me.
MLB’s Choice : Alex Rodriguez, Nyy (331, 16), David Ortiz (307, 11), Podsednik (15, 0)
Well what a surprise they give it to the sluggers. Oh well, I guess when you’re on a roster worth $200m and you stutter all year and eventually make it unconvincingly into the playoffs then someone on that team must have put forward a huge effort to make that team stutter. Oh how valuable A-Rod has been because he must be valuable because if he just put up numbers then he’d win the Hank Aaron Award instead. I mean, isn’t that what it’s there for?

My Choice : Albert Pujols, StL
As good as Andruw Jones was in a similar situation to Pujols (both were immense on teams with injuries to key guys in the line-up) it simply comes down to the fact that Albert was better. Right now Bonds is probably the only player who impacts how opponents play his team more than Pujols.
MLB’s Choice : Albert Pujols, StL (378, 18), Andruw Jones, Atl (351, 13)
Nice to see Pujols get the nod but also nice to see Andruw run him close. You really couldn’t argue either as both were integral to teams who endured a number of injuries to their line-ups but still managed to make it to the post-season.

Saturday, November 12, 2005

10 Reasons to Hate the Gold Glove Awards

10 Its so obvious that offence counts when they allocate them (Varitek over Molina? Give me a break)

9 Have you seen what they look like? Damn they look cheap and tacky

8 When in doubt, give it to whoever won it last year

7 They serve to highlight how the value of defence has diminished in recent years. Where’s the pomp and circumstance?

6 They seem to be doled out to guys who people think deserve some award but are unlikely to get one (Jeter)

5 Reputations mean that too many players get more Gold Gloves than they deserve e.g. 1999 when Palmeiro won a Gold Glove as a DH even though David Segui was awesome at first that year

4 You can count on one hand how many players got into The Hall because of their glove. I mean, how long did it take for Mazeroski to get in? Its what players do most of and the thing players get least recognition for!

3 You know there are people who base their choices on fielding percentage and that really is the most pointless and meaningless stat in the history of stats

2 What sort of award is it when Kenny Rogers is included especially after the season he’s had and when there are guys like Buerhle and Mussina out there?

1 They don’t actually indicate who the best defensive players are, do they?

Sunday, November 06, 2005

The Dodgers Lost Their Nerve by Richard Meade

Picture the scene - you are a wealthy Real Estate entrepreneur who has just taken over an MLB team. You want to bring in fresh faces, give the team a strong reputation, and encourage a winning attitude. So one of the first things you do is hire a GM with a big reputation who believes in a new brand of baseball.

In the GM’s first season the team bring home the divisional title and in an injury plagued second season the team finish fourth.

What do you do?

If you’re Frank McCourt, Chairman of the LA Dodgers, you let your GM sack your team’s Manager then you sack your General Manager and leave your fans and players scratching their heads about how the team is going to be run next season.

Last week McCourt came out in front of a packed press conference and announced that after only two seasons he had shown GM Paul DePodesta the door. The first thing that sprang to my mind was that McCourt had lost his nerve.

When LA hired DePodesta in 2004 I remember thinking that it was a good move. I had just read Moneyball and I was interested to see that another big league club was taking notice of what Billy Beane and the Oakland A’s had managed to achieve. I was eager to see what DePodesta, who had come to fame as part of that organisation, was going to do with this team. Would we see a Dodgers team to be feared or was their new GM going to drop the ball?

Initially things looked good, despite inheriting a manger rather than choosing one, LA took the division by two games but went out in four games to the St Louis Cardinals in the NL divisional series.

DePodesta started making some big trades, most controversially one that took Paul Lo Duca to the Marlins. He brought in Jeff Kent, J.D. Drew and Derek Lowe and began creating a team he thought could compete.

But then the injuries struck and everyone got nervous. The Dodgers suffered an abysmal season and rather than chalking it up to a transition period or looking at the amount of players they had on the DL, LA got scared and sacked everyone.

I don’t understand how they could have come to that decision. Any other GM would have been given the benefit of the doubt or at least a couple more seasons crack at the whip. Would Paul DePodesta’s brand of baseball have worked in LA? We will never know for sure. But I think it is a shame that rather than let the man build his team and see where he could go with it the Dodgers lost their nerve and decided to start again.