Closing Yankee Stadium

Last night we watched the last game at Yankee Stadium, the 85-year-old “House that Ruth Built” which has hung more World Series championship flags than any other stadium. Even though a Yankees loss would have clinched a Red Sox playoff appearance – not to mention the Hated Yankees’ first non-playoff season since 1993, it’s hard to begrudge them a 7-3 victory against the hapless Baltimore Orioles (a.k.a., the only team in the AL East which isn’t any good).

Before the game they trotted out plenty of Yankee greats, a few not-so-greats, and a few relatives of greats, including Babe Ruth’s 92-year-old daughter to throw out the first pitch. It reminded me a lot of the 1999 All-Star Game at Fenway Park in which the All-Century Team was presented, and the players, legends, and fans were all having such a great time that it delayed the start of the game (to the consternation of the baseball executives, who wanted to Get On With It). This one was purely Yankee-centric, of course. But it was still interesting to see. After the game, Derek Jeter gave a short speech thanking the fans for their support, and the team took a lap around the park waving to the fans. I’m not overly fond of Jeter – he is, after all, the face of this generation’s Yankees – but I can’t deny that he seems a classy guy.

ESPN did a good job covering the game, which felt more like an All-Star Game with the Yankees appearing to enjoy every minute of it, win or lose, and there were several good interviews with the retired players in the park. Reggie Jackson was as always a provocative figure, stating his opinion that Mariano Rivera is one of the five greatest Yankees. (Let’s see: Ruth, Gehrig, DiMaggio, Mantle… who else has a clear claim to that fifth spot? Jeter? Whitey Ford? Jackson himself? Maybe Reggie’s on to something here.) Yogi Berra’s always fun to watch, as well.

Even as a Red Sox fan, it’s a little sad to see another historic stadium closing up shop – the Yankees move to their brand new stadium next year. This leaves Fenway Park (opened 1912) and the Cubs’ Wrigley Field (1914) as the last links to the era before expansion. The next oldest is Dodger Stadium (1962), amazingly enough, and only a half-dozen other parks pre-date the 1990s (and the Mets’ Shea Stadium and the Twins’ Metrodome will be history soon enough). While we shouldn’t be a slave to history, a sense of its history has always been one of baseball’s strengths.

Looking forward, the Yankees have some pretty serious problems to deal with over the next few years, even with the biggest payroll in baseball. A lot of things went (unexpectedly) right for them this year, but they’re still going to miss the playoffs (demonstrating once again that Daring Fireball’s John Gruber may be a good technology columnist, but he’s a pretty poor sports analyst), and Jeter, Mike Mussina and Hideki Matsui seem to be firmly into the decline phases of their careers. The first few years at the new Yankee Stadium could be rough ones for the home team.

On the bright side, we all can watch the Red Sox try to defend their World Series title next month!

Manny Ramirez Traded

Today the Red Sox traded Manny Ramirez to the Dodgers. It’s actually a 3-way trade, also involving the Pirates, which works out like this:

  1. The Red Sox trade Manny Ramirez (LF, age 36) to the Dodgers.
  2. The Pirates trade Jason Bay (LF, age 29) to the Red Sox.
  3. The Dodgers trade Andy LaRoche (3B, age 24) and Bryan Morris (SP, age 21) to the Pirates.
  4. The Red Sox also trade Craig Hansen (RP, age 24) and Brandon Moss (OF, age 24) to the Pirates.
  5. Plus the Red Sox send $7M in cash to the Dodgers to cover the rest of Manny’s 2008 salary.

Overall I think this is a good trade for the Dodgers and Pirates. For the Red Sox, I think it’s not a good trade, but I think it’s not a bad one either given their stocked farm system, financial means, and the strange circumstances of the trade itself.

I don’t have a lot to say about the Dodgers and Pirates ends of the trade: The Dodgers traded a prospect they clearly had little confidence in plus a low-level pitcher for one of the best available hitters, and they don’t even have to pay him! Assuming the Diamondbacks don’t counter with their own trade, the Dodgers could be the favorites to win the NL West now. The Pirates had a pretty barren farm system and anything their new GM can inject into it is going to help. The Pirates are a long way from contending, and while it’s fun to wonder whether they could have gotten more for Xavier Nady and Damaso Marte (and they probably could have), in their position I think that’s splitting hairs. Until they acquire some impact players – probably through the draft – they’re just trying to rebuild the organization.

The deal is a very interesting one from the Red Sox’ end. Reportedly Manny has been agitating to get out of Boston, saying he’d waive his no-trade clause if the Sox would decline their options to pick up his contract for 2009 and 2010 (at $20M per year). Why has he been agitating to get out? I have no idea, and I can’t tell whether anyone else does, either. Is he fed up with Boston? With Red Sox management? Is he feuding with other players? Did he just decide he’s done what he can do in Boston and he’d feel more comfortable playing for another team? Or did he just want to have his options declined so he can try to sign one more long-term deal, which might possibly net him even more money over the length of the deal? Beats me.

But Boston has apparently been very good to Manny, both in fan support for him and in management bending over backwards to accommodate his foibles. In other towns, on other teams, Manny could have ended up as Barry Bonds of the American League, a moody, private player who runs his team the way he wants to. Instead Manny was a star on a team of stars, which won two World Series during his tenure. If he caught some flak for “Manny being Manny” from time to time, I know the memories I have of him tend to involve him hitting home runs, or running on the field with a big smile on his face. Manny’s antics – such as they were – don’t come close to stacking up against those of Bill Lee, or Wade Boggs, or Ted Williams.

Assuming Manny was the driving force behind the trade, I think it’s to the Red Sox’ credit that they worked to accommodate his departure as well as they did his presence, trading him to a contending team in a deal which isn’t truly to their benefit, as they traded two prospects and cash along with him in order to get a player who’s younger, and maybe as good, but that’s hardly guaranteed.

Jason Bay is a good player, he hits a ton and seems to have a decent defensive reputation (Manny was not a good fielder). He’s also a lot cheaper, being signed for $7.5M next year, and of course he’s 7 years younger. In 2008, he might be as valuable as Manny. We’ll see. In 2009, he could provide similar value for a lot less money, which means the Sox will be players in the free agent market this off-season, not to mention having some money to throw around to help acquire players in trade.

And who did the Sox give up? Hansen is starting to look more suspect than prospect, and relief pitchers tend to be fungible anyway. Moss is a bit more of a loss, although he’s not looking like a star in the making.

Overall, I think this deal is a lose for the Red Sox, but not a large one. It’s too bad to see Manny head out this way, but in a way it seems fitting given his sometimes-baffling tenure with the team. Bay should be a solid addition for the next year-plus, and ought to help us win this year. The big win for the Sox is that Manny’s intermittent injuries are now the Dodgers’ problem, and they don’t have to figure out what to do when he gets hurt, since they don’t have a DH slot to place him in. Bay isn’t an iron man, but he’s also not 36 years old; I expect Manny to get more fragile over the next couple of years.

I’d have been happy to have kept Manny for this year, though. He’s still an asset, and one more run at the brass ring with this Red Sox team would have been fun to watch. Ah, well. I hope playing for the Dodgers gives him what he’s looking for, whatever that is.

The VORP Flap

There’s a little controversy in the baseball blogosphere regarding the value of the statistic VORP. VORP is a sabermetric statistic which strives to provide a “single number” answer to the question “How good was this baseball player in this season?”

Prompted by an article in the Washington Post, J.C. Bradbury, whose blog Sabernomics I read and enjoy, doesn’t understand why it’s more useful than other metrics, and questions the need for the concept of “replacement level”. Moreover, he finds VORP to be socially exclusive:

I view VORP as an insider language, and by using it you can signal that you are insider. It’s like speaking Klingon at a Star Trek convention. I can signal to others who speak the language that I am one of you. But, the danger of VORP is that once you bring it up the discussion goes down the wrong path as the uninitiated have reason to feel they are being told they are not as smart as the person making the argument. It’s like constantly bringing up the fact that you only listen to NPR or watch the BBC news at dinner parties. The response is likely going to be the same, “well fuck you too, you pretentious asshole!”

I don’t really understand why he finds this such a big deal, especially since in the very same article he tosses out a couple of similarly-advanced concepts, OPS+ and MRP. OPS+ is a very useful stat, but I’d hazard that most people who know what OPS+ is will also be familiar with VORP. (Conversely, if your casual baseball fan doesn’t know what VORP is, it may be a stretch to expect him to know what OPS is, never mind OPS+.)

Like any stat, you don’t so much need to understand the finer points of VORP as just have a feel for what it represents and what its values mean. The key concept is that a VORP of 0 indicates that a player’s hitting is only minimally valuable at his position, and if it were any lower his team would be better off releasing him and calling up practically anyone from the minors instead.

Others have written some excellent posts in response to Bradbury. I especially liked this one by Tangotiger, but this one by Phil Birnbaum has an excellent perspective by putting VORP in economic terms, which is Bradbury’s stock-in-trade.

Admittedly, VORP and other advanced stats are relatively geeky, in that you’re not likely to care unless you’re pretty seriously interested in baseball research. But then, Bradbury’s blog is all about baseball research, so it seems to me that he ought to be comfortable using the more common advanced stats. I guess we all have our limits of how far down the path we want to go – my own eyes start to lose focus when we get around to WXRL – but picking on VORP seems silly to me, since I think it’s a pretty straightforward and intuitive stat. It has its flaws, but then, they all do.

A Tale of Two Weekends

The days have been just flying by, lately! I realized this weekend that I never wrote an entry about last weekend, partly because I’d been busy catching up on posting photos from my Dad’s visit!

The bittersweet part of last weekend was going to two Red Sox/Athletics games, which I’d been excited about since this is a rare year in which my Red Sox visited Oakland twice in the same season. Unfortunately, we ended up seeing two games of a three-game sweep by the A’s, with the Sox losing 8-3 on Friday, and then 3-0 on Saturday. The Saturday game was almost very exciting as Justin Duchscherer came two baserunners away from pitching a perfect game. But he hit Jason Varitek leading off the 6th, and David Ortiz singled in the 7th. Huston Street replaced Duchscherer for the 9th, and that was it. Bummer. On television we watched the A’s finish the sweep by winning 6-3 on Sunday. Alas.

On the bright side, the Sox have gone 4-2 since then, and they still have the second-best record in the American League (behind the Rays, who seem to finally be capitalizing on their substantial talent base).

Sunday we also had Subrata and Susan over for the day. We hadn’t heard from them for a few days and we’d figured they might be going stir crazy waiting for their child to arrive. (As I wrote over this past weekend, he arrived last Thursday.) We met at The Counter for lunch and then came back and played Magic (Subrata and me) and dominoes (all four of us) for the afternoon, winding up having dinner at Marie Callender’s.

The Magic session was interesting, my second time really playing Shadowmoor. We played a sealed deck game. Subrata had two viable builds from his cards, while I thought I had three or even four, but part-way through one game I realized I just didn’t have the right mix of stuff to make a white-blue deck work; it kept wanting to be write-green. So I did that instead and it worked quite well, better than the black-red deck did. The red-green version might have worked, too, but I didn’t try that. Anyway, it does feel like Shadowmoor is a slower format than Lorwyn or Time Spiral were. But since I enjoy creature-based decks, that’s not really a bad thing.

This weekend as I said we went to the hospital to visit Subrata, Susan and Ajay on Friday evening. Saturday we went out and did some shopping, including buying a new cat bush (half-height cat tree) for the downstairs. Even though it’s nearly identical to the old one, the cats still had to sniff it all over. But it seems to have passed muster!

I also went by a sale at Illusive Comics, an area store which I hadn’t visited before. (Well, I might have visited them years ago under their previous incarnation and previous owners, but I honestly don’t remember.) The owners are very enthusiastic, which is a great thing in anyone doing small retail! I’ll probably go back every so often, even though my I already have a regular shop I patronize (Comics Conspiracy). As most stores today do, Illusive seems to be focusing on new books and paperback collections. Unfortunately I’m an outlier among comics fans: the main thing that brings me back to a shop is a good and constantly-changing back issue selection, and the comics retailing biz has moved away from back issues over the last 15 years. And every store has pretty much the same set of paperback collections, so you don’t really need to go to multiple stores for those.

Anyway. Comics retailing is hard enough without listening to me moan about how comics shops aren’t like they were back when I was a teenager, so enough about that.

We spent a good chunk of Saturday doing chores around the house: We did a whole bunch of long-awaited cleaning, throwing away the little things which stack up on bookshelves and in the garage and in nooks and crannies elsewhere. I put up a bike hanger so we could reclaim some floor space by hanging Debbi’s bike above mine. Now Debbi wants to hang the step ladder and our spare folding chairs, so that may be another project soon! Debbi fixed up the shadowbox with my old Mardi Gras beads and coins, and it looks great!

Sunday we had a quieter day. I spent a lot of the afternoon and evening up in the study paying bills, putting together some Magic decks, and doing some cleaning up (though not nearly enough). We also cooked dinner and watched Sunday night baseball.

So that about covers it. We have some more projects to take care of around the house (for instance, replace the long-broken kitchen dispose-all), and I hope we can get a bunch of it taken care of this summer. It ought to keep us busy!

Meanwhile, happy June, everyone!

Impending Baseball Milestones

The other night while the Yankees were routing the Red Sox, Alex Rodriguez hit his 522nd career home run, moving into 15th place on the all-time home run list. Combined with an article in this morning’s paper, I realized that there are actually a cluster of career stats milestones likely to be passed this year:

  • Ken Griffey Jr. is 4 home runs away from 600, which would make him the 6th player to reach that milestone. (ARod probably won’t hit that mark for a year or two.)
  • Manny Ramirez hit his 494 and 495th home runs last night and should reach 500 in the next month or so. He’s currently 24th on the list, but should crack the top 20 this year.
  • Gary Sheffield is at 481, and has a shot at 500 if he can stay healthy.
  • If anyone signs him, Barry Bonds (2935) has a shot at 3000 hits. No other active player is close, and I think Derek Jeter (2369, age 34) is the most likely active player to get there.
  • Greg Maddux goes for his 350th career win tonight. He’s already 9th in career wins, and seems likely to pass the recently-retired Roger Clemens (354). If he can stay healthy, I think it’s not ridiculous to think that he could claim the 3rd spot all time (currently shared by Pete Alexander and Christy Mathewson with 373). Walter Johnson (417) and Cy Young (511) are likely out of reach, though.
  • Maddux is also likely to be the 13th person to pass the 5000 innings pitched mark.
  • Randy Johnson (284) could reach 300 wins this year.
  • Johnson (4623) could also pass Clemens (4672) for #2 on the career strikeouts list this year, though his back has been so balky that nothing is really certain with him. In any event, Nolan Ryan‘s record (5714) looks safe.
  • John Smoltz should reach 3000 strikeouts in his next start or two.

Of all the milestones on this list, I think Maddux’s are the most impressive. He’s not thought of as a strikeout artist since he’s not a classic power pitcher, but he’s 11th on the all-time list. He is, however, 52nd on the list for walk rate (and 2nd among active pitchers), which means he’s been both effective and efficient, which is why he’s been pitching for so long.

Maddux’s last great season was 2002, but he was 36 in that year, and he’s been a consistent league-average pitcher since then. Anyone who can be an average player in their 40s at the highest level of professional baseball is clearly doing something right. He still only walks about 1 guy every 8 (!!) innings, which is just amazing, so I could see him doing this for several more years. He doesn’t get a lot of fanfare since he left the Braves, but he’s still one of the all-time greats.

On the hitting side, Griffey and Ramirez are busy polishing their admission tickets to Cooperstown (or whatever bad metaphor you’d care to apply), but ARod is clearly going to blast through all sorts of records over the next 8 years, so we’d better save up some superlatives for him. Like Barry Bonds, he’s not a widely-loved player, but being likable is rarely a requirement for playing Major League baseball.

2008 Baseball Picks

I finished my picks for the 2008 baseball season, so I thought I’d share. 🙂 First up are my Predictatron picks at Baseball Prospectus, picking how the whole season will turn out:

AL East
Boston 95 – 67
New York 90 – 72
Toronto 81 – 81
Tampa Bay 80 – 82
Baltimore 65 – 97 (mortal lock)
AL Central
Cleveland 93 – 69
Detroit 90 – 72
Chicago 76 – 86
Kansas City 72 – 90
Minnesota 69 – 93
AL West
Anaheim 88 – 74
Texas 81 – 81
Seattle 80 – 82
Oakland 75 – 87
NL East
New York 90 – 72
Atlanta 88 – 74
Philadelphia 88 – 74
Washington 75 – 87
Florida 67 – 95
NL Central
Milwaukee 88 – 74
Chicago 87 – 75
Cincinnati 85 – 77
St. Louis 73 – 89
Houston 70 – 92
Pittsburgh 70 – 92 (mortal lock)
NL West
Arizona 90 – 72
Los Angeles 88 – 74
San Diego 86 – 76
Colorado 82 – 80
San Francisco 68 – 94

I approached this by trying to figure out who I thought would be the “surprises” in baseball this year (either doing better than expected, or worse than expected), and I had an awfully hard time coming up with some. It seems like there’s a lot of parity in the Majors these days, with few truly great or truly abysmal teams. A few observations:

  • The two really bad teams in the Majors are Baltimore and San Francisco, both of which lost their best player in the off-season after a bad year last year. Both will struggle to win 70 games.
  • The young teams on their way up are already here: Arizona won their division last year – partly through luck – but should be better this year. Cleveland and Milwaukee are already contenders. Detroit is not exactly young anymore but is a contender.
  • I think the Tigers will overcome their slow start, but lose by a nose to Cleveland.
  • I expect both Texas and Cincinnati to be modest surprises this year. Texas I think had off years from a bunch of guys in 2007 and will be better this year. Cincinnati is a young club, but not yet a good club.
  • Like some sabermetric analysts, and in opposition to some mainstream analysts, I expect Seattle to be a mediocre team this year. Their offense is bordering on the moribund, with three infield hitters who could all be abjectly bad. Their pitching is Erik Bedard, Felix Hernandez, and a bunch of uninspiring guys in both the rotation and the bullpen.
  • The NL East is especially hard to pick since it’s full of teams who have some good points and some bad points and a lot of risk. I could see the top three teams finishing in any order.

Here’s how I picked the playoffs:

American League Division Series:

  • Cleveland over New York in 4 games
  • Boston over Anaheim in 3 games

National League Division Series:

  • New York over Milwaukee in 4 games
  • Arizona over Atlanta in 4 games

American League Championship Series:

  • Boston over Cleveland in 6 games

National League Championship Series:

  • Arizona over New York in 6 games

World Series:

  • Red Sox over Arizona in 6 games

I decided to give in to my Red Sox bias this year, in part because last year I did my picks and came down to picking the Sox and thought, “I pick the Sox every year! I’d better pick someone else.” And we saw how that turned out.

I do think the Sox have the best team in the Majors; it’s not a perfect team, but I think it’s better than any other team. But of course that only gives them a slight edge and they could certainly get knocked off in a short postseason series. But this is the way I decided to bet.

I also picked my HACKING MASS team, which is basically a set of players who I expect will provide the biggest aggregate drags on their teams during the season:

C Ramon Hernandez BAL
1B Rich Aurilia SF
2B Jose Lopez SEA
3B Pedro Feliz PHI
SS Yuniesky Betancourt SEA
LF Juan Pierre LA
CF Willy Taveras COL
RF Brian Giles SD
P Matt Morris PIT
P Barry Zito SF

You can see how I thought Seattle’s infield would suck. (1B Richie Sexson is the third infielder they have who I think won’t hit this year.)

I also wonder whether Barry Zito’s giant (or Giant) contract might be the worst contract any team has ever signed a pitcher to. On top of his 8 year/$126M pay schedule, he has a 2014 option which vests if he pitches enough in 2011-2013, and a full no-trade clause. Which means the Giants are likely stuck with him for the next 6 years, unless the team is so abjectly terrible that he waives his no-trade clause to get out, and they’re willing to take on enough of his salary that they can unload him. (I’m skeptical he’d ever waive his no-trade clause, though, since I have the impression that he loves living in San Francisco.)

It’s going to be a grim year for the local baseball teams here in the Bay Area (the A’s are rebuilding, the Giants don’t seem to have an idea how to start rebuilding), but it should be a good year for us Red Sox fans! 🙂

Real, Live Baseball

So a month or so ago I bought some tickets to some baseball games, including to today’s Red Sox vs. A’s game, which was supposed to start at 7:35. But, uh, a few weeks later I received a phone call and a postcard informing me that the game had been moved to a 12:35 start time. You’ll notice that today is a Wednesday. Gah. To be fair, the time was moved so the Sox could fly back to the east coast before midnight. Fair enough. Fortunately, both Debbi and I were able to take the day off to go to the game. Whew! I only went to one ballgame all last year, and I want to make a better showing this year.

Debbi pointed out that we might have better luck parking at the Millbrae BART station with its huge parking garage than in the east bay, plus afterwards we could go to the excellent Brother’s Deli for dinner. Sold! So we drove up and caught BART to the Coliseum. Along the way we met a fellow who was in from Boston and was going to catch the game himself. Nice guy, we chatted about the Sox and gave him some advice on getting a ticket (which mostly consisted of “where the good seats are” and “where the ticket office is”).

We got there in plenty of time and found our seats in the second deck basically right behind home plate. In fact, we had a view like this:

Hazy Morning
It was a light and cloudy morning…

I do enjoy my ballpark food, but along with rising ticket prices, park food is getting more expensive, too. The Coliseum features Round Table Pizza, which I enjoy pretty well for chain pizza, but their pizzas seem to be getting smaller even as they get more expensive. So I may be switching to sausages soon.

The A’s are in a rebuilding period now, having traded Dan Haren and Nick Swisher in the off-season, so they’re not going to be very good (although not as bad as the Giants). Consequently, the stadium attendance resembled 1999, when I first moved here, when Red Sox fans seemed to outnumber A’s fans. Here’s a sample. Keep in mind that the Sox’ colors are red and dark blue, while the A’s colors are green and gold:

The colors of baseball fandom
Sox fans are red, Sox fans are blue…

The game got under way just a couple of minutes late, and it was a pretty exciting game! Jon Lester – cancer survivor and World Series hero – pitched for the Sox, while the great but oft-injured Rich Harden pitched for the A’s. The Sox kept collecting baserunners, but just couldn’t bring them across the plate, and at the end of the 6th inning the game was still scoreless. (The ump’s strike zone seemed to be ridiculously wide, which had something to do with it.)

But Harden had been pulled at the start of the 6th, and the top of the 7th began with Kevin Youkilis rapping out a double (quite a heads-up play as he was running all the way and just barely beat the throw), and David Ortiz followed with a home run to right field. The Sox added 2 more in the 8th off 5 consecutive singles (4 to shallow left field), and Jason Varitek capped the scoring with a home run in the 9th. Meanwhile Lester cruised through 6-2/3 innings, and two relievers closed out the game, as the Red Sox held the A’s to 4 hits and shut them out 5-0.

The forecast was for rain today, but we never got more than a light drizzle – hardly even noticeable – and it was cool and pleasant. It also turned out to be “foul ball day” as dozens of the things peppered the infield stands, including this one which came right back at us as I was taking this photo, landing a few rows in front of us:

Low bridge!
Low bridge!

We were also amused that whenever the A’s brought in a reliever, the infielders and outfielders would each gather and stand around chatting. I guess they were just killing some dead time like anyone does, but I rarely see it happen so regularly.

Pitching critics
“Do you think that curveball makes his butt look big?”

That photo’s also great because of the Sox baserunner in the background working out a problem with his laces during the dead time.

All-in-all a great day at the park, and the Sox are now 3-1 on the season. We headed out to BART and took the train back to our car, looking forward to our dinner plans… only to find that Brother’s Deli closed sometime late last year! What a bummer! They’d moved from Burlingame a few years ago and although their new digs were nicer, they seemed to have a lot of trouble attracting customers, and I guess it caught up to them. Parking around downtown Millbrae could be a challenge sometimes, too. Alas, I’ll need to find somewhere new to order meat blintzes. I’m going to miss them.

Hard to believe that our bonus day off is over already! Back to work tomorrow. Fortunately it’s only for a 2-day week…!