Saturday, February 22, 2003
Koufax Knows Best
Honestly, I did not expect that the Post would issue any kind of apology, much less so quickly. The paper first apologized for the consequences of its "blind item" on Sandy Koufax, then for "getting it wrong."
Think of all the gossip this paper runs. The Koufax bit wasn't even the only blind item about a public figure's homosexuality in the column that ran December 19. I'm sure public figures have complained to the paper on a weekly, if not daily basis. Why would they care that this old ballplayer was boycotting his team, miles and miles away.
But Koufax got to the Post. I underestimated his power, and his brains.
Friday, February 21, 2003
What’s All This Talk About a Health Insurance Crisis?
Although Derek Thompson came to the Dodgers in the Rule 5 draft, he was probably destined to be redirected to Cleveland and the minors. However, now he is out for the season with a torn medial collateral ligament.
As a result, he will spend the year on the Dodgers’ major league roster via the 60-day disabled list. And he will earn a major-league salary of $300,000 – six times what he would have earned in the minors.
Yes, injuries are painful and scary. But, especially with how effective Tommy John surgery has become, could an injury come at a more propitious time for a borderline player?
Koufax is Post-erized
The news: Sandy Koufax has severed ties with the Dodgers because of his offense at a gossip item in the New York Post, which, like the Dodgers, is owned by News Corp.
The gossip, printed two months ago, didn’t mention Koufax by name, but by implication. I hadn’t heard anything about it here in Los Angeles, so I don’t know how big a deal it was on the East Coast. Apparently, it was enough.
I don’t want to take generalized potshots at the media, whom I still consider colleagues, but this particular example appears to exemplify the incredibly poor behavior some in the business are capable of. I realize this puts the very existence of some gossip columns in question, but I don’t believe that innuendo has any news value and that it should be printed. Almost all of the people I’ve worked with feel the same way.
Koufax has all my sympathy in the world for what's happened.
Even acknowledging the mutual ownership of the Post and the Dodgers, it seems too bad that Koufax is rigid about the connection between the two entities - that he can't endorse one while protesting the other. Their common interests are far up the food chain.
Koufax now won't visit Dodgertown, either as a freelance employee or as a friend. It doesn't make sense to me. He certainly wouldn't expect any of the Dodgers - his best friend Dave Wallace, for example - to resign in protest or otherwise withhold services over what transpired at this so-called sister organization, the Post. Is there any reason Koufax should feel the need to do so?
The only conclusion I can draw is that he's just so mad and he doesn't know what else to do to show it. But in effect, he's directly bumming out the Dodgers, indirectly hurting News Corp. and not harming the Post at all. It seems misguided.
In any event, News Corp. won’t own the Dodgers forever, or even the long term, it appears. For a lot of reasons, including but not limited to Koufax, this is good.
I’ll just renew my plea that the next owners, whoever they are, come in quietly and humbly. They can do good, but they can also do harm, even if they’re not Fox. The Koufax issue aside, Bob Daly, Dan Evans, Dave Wallace and Jim Tracy have made progress mitigating the effects of Fox ownership. I’d hate to see that path changed.
P.S. Tommy Lasorda’s quote in the Los Angeles Times:
"This just ruined my day," said Lasorda, who joined Koufax on the Brooklyn Dodger pitching staff for part of the 1955 season. "Sandy would always come by and say hello when the team would come to town, so I was wondering what was going on because I hadn't seen him all spring. Now that I know what happened, I can't tell you how bad I feel."
Maybe it’s my own reflexive reaction to Lasorda, but saying it “ruined my day” seems like an idiotic choice of words. That’s the expression you use when you get a speeding ticket, not when your friend of 50 years will no longer be coming around.
Thursday, February 20, 2003
March Madness is coming soon, and everyone will be filling out their NCAA hoops brackets.
Part of the fun with March Madness is that you know there are going to be upsets, so you can’t just pick who you think is the better team. You have to take a stab at who is ripe for a surprise. It’s even more rewarding when you gamble on an underdog to make a run to the Sweet 16 or beyond – and they do.
Making season predictions for baseball is similar, as last year’s Villanova/North Carolina State run by the Anaheim Angels proved.
Here is a sneak peek at my predictions for the 2003 baseball season. I’m going to give myself one more chance to revise them before the regular season starts, but I’ve been giving it some thought for a few weeks and wanted to put them out there now.
I don’t have too many upsets, but there are a few that might set my bracket apart.
Comment: Tampa Bay ahead of anyone is an upset. But I’m going to play a hunch that they can improve enough to pass Baltimore, which may not be as bad as its 4-32 finish last year indicates, but doesn’t look much better. New York vs. Boston should be a fun race but I don’t think the Yankees are done yet.
Comment: I’m really tempted to pick Chicago over Minnesota – I may reconsider that one before April. No real reason to think Minnesota is due for a decline, but I like Chicago’s lineup, and even if Bartolo Colon isn’t as good as we was last year, he won’t hurt.
Comment: Hard to go against an Angel team that should have better pitching this year, and perhaps a better season from Troy Glaus. But Oakland was a freight train last fall until the playoffs, and I think they’re really going to be hungry.
AL Wild Card: Anaheim
AL Champion: Oakland
Comment: I think Art Howe deserves more respect as a manager than he’s gotten, but without him misusing the A’s’ great starting pitching in the playoffs last year, Oakland might have won it all. I think this year, they’ll get it right. Brutal division – it’s a bit of an upset to pick a wild card coming from this highly-competitive quartet.
(Using A’s as a possessive is weird.)
Comment: The Phillies’ lineup looks great and Atlanta’s does not. But I believe in Braves pitching coach Leo Mazzone, and I’m not sure I believe in Phillies manager Larry Bowa. Tons of pressure on the Phillies this year. As for the bottom three, I’m hunching that Montreal has another surprise season in them. New York’s pitching is dubious behind Glavine, and Florida, despite its talent, looks totally mismanaged.
Comment: No real upsets here. I’d like to pick Chicago, with its great pitching and new manager, but I’m not convinced the overall team is superior to St. Louis or Houston. The fact that St. Louis could win last year, with all the problems it had, makes it hard to pick against them.
Comment: The Giants have high-ceiling pitching depth coming up from the minors, but I don’t believe in their lineup after Barry. With Arizona, their starters after Schilling and Johnson still aren’t great, but they’re better than they were last year. I think the Dodgers can hang close with the top two, but they’re going to need some falloff from either Bonds, Schilling or Johnson to be a factor. The Dodger starting pitching is truly fragile across-the-board, but I think they’re still a good bet to stay ahead of San Diego and Colorado.
NL Wild Card: Philadelphia
NL Champion: Philadelphia
Comment: If Philadelphia can make the playoffs, I think they could have the fire to blast through. I’m willing to gamble on it now.
World Series Champion: Oakland
Comment: AL wins again, no matter who’s in.
I’d love to seed these teams in a bracket and have a March Madness-like tournament – one-game series where each team uses its best pitcher – but Strat-o-Matic has stopped making its computer game for Macintosh, and I don’t really have the time to spend on it. But it’d be fun.
Wednesday, February 19, 2003
The New Stats – They Mean No Harm
Calculus killed me. Math was easy until calculus. After that, math became Sanskrit. So I get that there are limits.
But the new baseball stats that are coming into use today – they aren’t calculus. So don’t be afraid. Give them a chance.
It’s often said that no sport depends on numbers for its popularity more than baseball. Numbers like 61, .406 and 1.12 have volumes of meaning that bridge generations.
That said, many baseball fans, writers and professionals are resistant to, if not critical of, any hint of excessive or, dare I say it, newfangled statistical analysis. (By the way: 27 words in that sentence and six commas, for a ratio of 4.50 WPC.) These people can be longtime fans who worry that stats will suck the romance out of the game, or managers who feel that stats can’t substitute for human observation. Statisticians are often perceived as a threat to the game itself.
In no way am I a statistician, but I’d like to speak up in their defense – and explain why this matters to Dodger fans.
The Suits and the Dungarees
Everyone will have their limit, based on how much they want to know and how much they want to learn. But it seems to me that baseball is not baseball without numbers. It is a poetic game, to be sure, and a visual one. But fundamentally, you keep score. One team gets more runs than another. Stats help us evaluate who helps their team get more runs than another.
This shouldn’t be like a high school war between the jocks and the geeks. Watching a player has its role, and evaluating a player with numbers has its role. They can co-exist.
That said, can we agree that it’s okay to use newer, better stats?
Some people are fiercely loyal to the stats they grew up with, and are offended by change. Batting average is cool, but OPS (on-base plus slugging percentage) is too much. (Can I get away with a WKRP in Cincinnati reference here? It’s a battle between “the suits and the dungarees.”)
In the end, we all need clothes.
Look, I take the purist side on many issues, like being anti-DH and anti-wild card, but I don’t do so for the sake of being a purist, but because I think the game was better without those changes.
I get that there will always be some magic to a player’s batting average, to the idea of trying to hit .400 or even .300 and of avoiding .200, so I don’t want to see batting average eliminated from the records.
But it’s becoming clearer that magic and poetry are about the only value that the batting average statistic has. People should not be affronted by the idea that measures of performance that are newer and more reliable than batting average have been discovered, such as OPS. People should be encouraged that they can offer more informed explanations about why Eric Karros is no longer a very good player.
In particular, the media should not live in denial.
Pull Up a Chair for OPS
OPS is a relatively new concept. It’s second-hand to me now, but I don’t think I’ve been aware of it for more than a few years. Of course, a few years is better than nothing. I revel in the ability OPS has to provide a one-shot indicator of a player’s performance. Clearly, it is more effective than batting average, and nimbler than citing separate on-base and slugging percentages. Some media outlets, such as ESPN.com, have come to realize this.
And yet, I’m pretty sure that the next reference to OPS in the Los Angeles Times will be the first.
The Times is the paper of record in Los Angeles, so it does not need to take change lightly. But it should also strive to provide the best analysis of any given subject. Certainly, a minority of its readers are going to be familiar with OPS. But I think if this is the best tool at hand, providing both efficiency and simplicity, then the Times beat writers should learn it and use it.
Same goes for Vin Scully. There’s no announcer for whom I have more love or respect. But past achievement does not eliminate the need to adapt – just look at Kevin Brown. There are better tools available today, and I am dying to see Vinny look beyond the old school stuff and use them in his broadcasts.
(It has to be Vin, by the way. If Ross Porter does it, more power to him – but he’s so criticized for his reliance on numbers that the citywide resistance may be vitriolic. And if Rick Monday does it, will anyone notice amid his rambling? Even though he has his detractors, Vin has the necessary authority to put OPS into use in Los Angeles.)
My own audience, such as it is, is a mix of people who used OPS before I knew what it was and people who may still be in the dark about it. But you know, you’ve got to learn sometime. It’s not like the Times explains what ERA is every day. If a media outlet uses vocabulary that the reader doesn’t understand, I don’t see a problem with the reader having to do a little self-education.
Stats are part of the game. Everyone should agree on that. Sure, let Dusty Baker ignore OPS, play a hunch and let Shawon Dunston into a World Series game (and watch him hit a home run). But can a better stat like OPS at least be part of the discussion? I don’t see why not.
EqA – Obscurely Wonderful, Like … Fernando in 1980
I was gonna say Jack Fimple in 1983, but it turns out his OPS was only .658, and I thought that might be controversial.
Anyway, I’m not saying OPS is not the be-all and end-all.
I’m studying this stuff more, trying to understand all the statistical tools out there. Not as an end to itself, but as a better means to do the evaluation of the Dodgers that I’m trying to do.
In using OPS, I’m ahead of the mainstream curve, but I still trail the cutting-edge curve.
The latest item I’m just now starting to work into my baseball vocabulary is Equivalent Average, or EqA, which appears to be even more useful than OPS.
Baseball Prospectus defines EqA as “a measure of total offensive value per out, with corrections for league offensive level, home park, and team pitching. The EqA adjusted for all-time also has a correction for league difficulty.”
You can see the advantages right away. OPS doesn’t make any of the above corrections. So when I use OPS to compare Shawn Green to a player from another team, like Raul Mondesi -- much less a player from another era, like, oh, Mel Ott, I have to guess at the adjustments that I must make.
Additionally, in a manner that serves to appease or entice the so-called purists, the EqA scale is deliberately set to approximate that of batting average. An average EqA is .260 – which on a gut level, seems like the batting average of an average ballplayer. (Does it hurt the case for EqA if I wish they had picked .250? You know – a simple 1 for 4?)
For now, OPS remains handier because it can be located on many baseball websites and can be calculated very easily. EQA is not nearly as accessible. The only EQA chart I know of is on the Baseball Prospectus site, and it’s not comprehensive.
I also have to mention that in this, my first experience writing about EqA, the shift between capital and small letters is tiresome. I hate to be insolent, but can I write EQA instead?
Let’s try it. Write me if it bothers you.
In any case (literally), I’m going to start to try to work in EQA into my articles, hoping it provides some use, while acknowledging that it might be another gateway drug for me to an even more obscure if effective stat.
Here are some relevant 2002 EQAs for the Dodgers, and where they ranked in the major leagues within their given position (minimum 502 plate appearances):
.265 Paul Lo Duca (6th among C)
.294 Fred McGriff (14th among 1B)
.262 Eric Karros (21st among 1B)
.242 Mark Grudzielanek (16th among 2B)
.259 Adrian Beltre (15th among 3B)
.292 Alex Cora (in 291 plate appearances – would be 5th among SS)
.201 Cesar Izturis (in 449 PA – would be worse than all 19 SS regulars except Neifi Perez)
.284 Brian Jordan (14th among LF. Barry Bonds was at .457!)
.277 Dave Roberts (in 472 PA – would be 13th among CF)
.289 Marquis Grissom (in 367 PA – would be 11th among CF)
.322 Shawn Green (5th among RF, 21st among all players)
Beltre really does have a ways to go, doesn’t he. Good thing he still qualifies as young. Of course, no one on the team is has more ground to cover than Izturis.
You can see the similarity in the EQA scores between Lo Duca and Karros, but the difference as to where they rank in their given positions.
McGriff, Jordan and Grissom were more above-average than I expected. And Cora, for his position, was really high – and it’s not like he had an infinitesimal amount of at-bats. With his fielding ability, doesn’t it seem strange that he is an underdog for a starting job this year? Or is it that human element that makes it wise to make him a backup? Seriously – I’d like to know.
Barry Bonds was 87 points higher than the next-best major leaguer, Manny Ramirez (.370).
No, I don’t need OPS or EQA to tell me Barry Bonds had a better season than anyone else last year. But those stats say it more authoritatively, and are of great use in putting in perspective the mediocrity that is the Dodger lineup. I hope that the Dodgers are paying attention. Better stats might have helped prevent some of the horrible decisions made in recent years. Tom Goodwin – hello?
And though I hate to mention football as a role model, that sport has been using a complicated statistical formula for ranking quarterbacks for about 25 years. No one seems to mind.
Everyone who is a baseball fan should embrace OPS, if not EQA. They’re great fun and easy to spell!
I wish I had Vin’s number.
Changes at Dodger Stadium
No, it's not a box-score scoreboard (see February 11), but there's big news today about scoreboard renovations at Dodger Stadium.
I like the ideas, but I am holding my breath about how they will look.
Another scoreboard comment: Last year, the Dodgers stopped showing players' batting averages before each at-bat. Instead, we'd get information along the lines of Adrian Beltre was named to the all-time Vero Beach Dodger team. I strongly hope that trend will be reversed.
Tuesday, February 18, 2003
Brown is here
Hot off the MLB.com presses - Brown arrived at Vero Beach today.
And said the following:
"My dedication is what it's always been. If they moved the [reporting] date to Jan. 1, I'd be here Feb. 18."
It's a little unclear. Is he saying that if the reporting date were earlier, he'd already have been at Dodgertown today? Or is he saying that no matter what his obligation were, he wouldn't be at Dodgertown until today.
I think, scarily, that the more disturbing interpretation is the more likely one.
Brown also told the site that he thinks tests have discovered the source of his back trouble, but that he doesn't know how his back will behave once he starts throwing for real, because he, the site writes, "only played catch a few times over the winter with his family."
So much for training on your own.
I don't question whether Brown wants to do well and help the team. I'm questioning whether he knows how to do well and help the team. Does he realize that what worked in the past might not work anymore?
That's the question he needs to be asked. If he thinks, or if his teammates or the media lets him think, that the question is about his dedication, then he's going to have every reason to feel righteous.
It's not about his dedication. The question is, is Kevin Brown ignorant?
Hello? Backup Catcher Injured
I just read a four-day-old article on Dodgers.com that backup catcher David Ross has a broken foot.
While this doesn't merit the attention of 200,000 anti-war protesters in every major city, I don't know why papers like the Times have reporters covering Spring Training if they're not going to report this news.
Ken Gurnick adds that the injury may not prevent Ross from being able to play, but that Tracy hasn't ruled out only going with Paul Lo Duca and Todd Hundley - and going with 12 pitchers, instead of 11. This would allow the Dodgers to add a lefthander like Pedro Borbon, Jr. to the bullpen without having to dump a righty like Guillermo Mota.
In my opinion, if Ross can play, the Dodgers would still benefit more from a third catcher than a 12th pitcher, because Lo Duca would benefit from more rest and the flexibility that Ross would provide would encourage that. Either the Dodgers will have a pitcher like Brown or Dreifort in the bullpen, which would seem to eliminate the need for even more depth there, or one of those pitchers will be on the disabled list, at which point your 12th pitcher is really your 13th-best pitcher - and how much is that worth?
Honestly, have the Dodgers come to terms yet with the idea that they're going to have a starting pitcher in the bullpen? Are they actually going to train the potential starters-turned-relievers for that possibility? Or are they sort of hoping one of them remains injured?
Of course, we will wait and see.
Everybody Hates Kevin
Last night, on Everybody Loves Raymond, Ray was volunteering at a hospital. Question: If his fellow volunteers are at the hospital at 7 p.m., and he shows up at 7:05, is he late?
The reason I ask is because of headlines today like this one, on Dodgers.com, regarding Kevin Brown’s absence from Dodgertown:
Tracy defends tardy Brown
Injury-plagued pitcher skips voluntary workouts
It really strikes me as oxymoronic that you can be late for something voluntary. But I guess it’s possible.
In any case, before passing judgment on Kevin Brown, let’s make sure we have a clear understanding.
He isn’t late for Spring Training. He has until February 26 to report – eight days from now. Any insistence that he report sooner is a violation of the Basic Agreement between owners and players.
Despite the fact that most pitchers and catchers have been working out for days, despite the fact that a full-squad workout is scheduled for today, despite the fact the Dodgers have designated Thursday as Photo Day and despite the fact that the Dodgers’ first exhibition game is only one day after the mandatory reporting day, not one dollar of Brown’s contract requires him to be in Vero Beach today.
So maybe it’s a workers’ rights issue for Kevin. Long live the proletariat!
I do believe that, family birthday parties aside, Brown should have been in Vero Beach with the rest of the pitchers. Kevin’s job is to help the Dodgers win a World Series (stop snickering) and his absence works against that goal. In addition to the divisiveness and ill-will it creates, the Dodger staff has made it clear that Brown is already behind when it comes to rounding into pitching form. This allows us to enter the stipulation into the record that Brown’s private workouts in Georgia are no substitute for working out in Vero Beach.
I don’t think the additional family time makes up the gap. And in any event, shouldn’t the Dodgers at some point qualify as family for Brown?
Brown is no longer penciled in as the No. 1 starter – in fact, for now, he is the No. 6 starter, as even Darren Dreifort has to be considered ahead of him, if only temporarily. So this very well could all blow over by the time spring is over, and maybe Brown knows that. Maybe Brown has a better perspective on life than anyone we know.
I don’t want to vilify Brown for not being at the Dodgers’ voluntary Spring Training workouts. But I share in the disappointment, and it’s all I can do not to brand him as a selfish jerk for this act.
Of course, no doubt there will be other moments down the road when the opportunity to brand Brown will recur.
Can I love the Dodgers without loving Kevin Brown? Can I love them while thinking that his character grows more selfish and irritating with each passing year?
Well, I love Everybody Loves Raymond without loving Ray Barone, thinking that his character grows more selfish and irritating with each passing year.
Things that make the Dodgers the Dodgers:
1) Chad Hermansen is acquired … while under anesthesia during shoulder surgery.
2) Andy Ashby injures his back while ducking away from a beanball thrown by … a pitching machine.
No word on whether the machine has been suspended or merely issued a warning.
Monday, February 17, 2003
The Proving Ground: Kinkade and Brown
Just a few quick notes today:
On the encouraging side: Mike Kinkade. Coming off a little preview, with an OPS of 1.083 in 50-plus plate appearances, not only has Kinkade been told that he doesn’t have to win a roster slot this spring, but he’s responding to the news by working harder.
"I'm coming down to make the team, that's my goal," Kinkade told the media. "Everybody wants to have a starting job and play every day in one spot. That's not going to be my role on this team unless something happens. My goal is to make it as a utility player."
There was a report that Kinkade has been working out a catcher, in addition to infield and outfield. I’m a little skeptical about that - it’s not like the Dodgers don’t have a poor-fielding backup catcher in Todd Hundley - but I love the attitude.
In all honesty, I wonder if Kevin Brown has to earn a job this spring. The sentiment is that the Dodgers are tired of Brown dictating his recovery and when he is going to pitch, but that sentiment, for all I can tell, may only be coming from the beat writers. I don’t know if the Dodgers are ready to seize the upper hand with Brown, especially considering their relaxed attitude, justified or not, toward his not working out for the team this winter and not arriving at Spring Training until today (at the earliest).
The players and staff are defending him. I wonder what they’ll be saying about Brown five years from now. Maybe he is just as great a guy behind the scenes as they say. Not even Gary Sheffield popped off about him, as far as I know.
Anybody ski? There’s an issue that comes with skiing - you buy an expensive lift ticket, and then you decide after an hour that it’s too cold or you’d just as soon stay indoors. Some people feel that once they’ve spent all that money, they have to justify the expense by skiing all day. But a better philosophy is, you’ve spent the money, you might has well have the best day you can have - whether you’re indoors or out.
Kevin Brown’s lift ticket has been purchased. If he’s a starting pitcher, great. If he’s a reliever, oh well. If the conditions aren’t that great, well, let’s just have the best day we can. But let’s not struggle hopelessly in a bad blizzard.
It also pleases me that the Dodgers haven’t forgotten how truly miserable they were at bunting last year, and have made it an early issue in Spring Training. (Can anyone point me to some bunting stats?)
Reports say Kazuhisa Ishii won the first bunting competition of the spring. Since he bailed out of the plate last year like he was afraid of getting hit by the ball -- and that was before he got hit by the line drive on the head -- this is doubly encouraging. Unless all the other Dodger pitchers have become even skittish themselves.
Have you been reading about Tommy Lasorda’s comments about Felipe Alou. Are we supposed to take Lasorda seriously?
It’s never ceased to amaze me that professional athletes need bulletin board material to motivate them. I can’t believe there is a level of effort that is held in reserve until someone from some other team pops off about them. And yet, you hear about this stuff all the time.
The combination of being mad at the speaker, and feeling insecure about whether you are doing your best, could inspire me to play harder (although frankly, I might just believe him and get depressed). But I’m an amateur. Wouldn’t you think the pros would be above all this?
Brian Jordan is quoted as saying more little ball is coming. “We shouldn't have to sit back and wait for the three-run home run. We're going to do a lot more."
I think I could find a quote like this every year from more than one Dodger. I know this was supposed to be a big part of Bill Russell’s approach as manager, and I’ve heard Tracy advocate it as well.
But it’s like the bunting thing. It’s all well and good to want to hit and run - who doesn’t want to send a runner from first to third on a single? But unless you teach these guys to do it -- and apparently, major leaguers still need to be taught -- it ain’t gonna happen. So hopefully, it’s being taught this year, not just talked about. Think Mike Scioscia would leave the Angels to become a hit-and-run coach here?
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