Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Best MLB players of the last 30 years, #10: Jeff Bagwell

Did Jeff Bagwell have too little power, or too much? Some believe his numbers just weren't impressive enough; he hit "only" 449 home runs, leaving him a couple solid seasons short of 500, which itself isn't even an automatic ticket to Cooperstown anymore. Not enough power for a first baseman. Others believe his prodigious blasts mean he must have been on steroids. Too much power, very suspicious. There's nothing that really links Bagwell to any banned substance; his name wasn't on any of the lists of reported users that have been released over the years. He was strong though, which is all it takes for some to think you were up to no good. His numbers weren't good enough! On the other hand... He must have been cheating! Bagwell has been stuck between a rock and a hard place; I can't think of another player whose status has been hit so hard by both sides. I don't know how to convince anyone who thinks Bagwell was cheating, except to say you could think that of anyone. As for the people who don't think Bagwell's numbers were quite good. Look again, and maybe look just a little closer.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

The past I am borne back ceaselessly into

The afternoon before Game 5 of the World Series, I went for a run. The weekend before I had skipped the Frank Lloyd Wright Race, my hometown's annual 10K, for the first time in years, because my right knee has been bothering me a little, and I didn't want to aggravate it. I'm not in race shape, but I always go for at least a short run on the weekend. My plan that day was to do four miles. The night before, the Indians had won Game 4, giving them a 3 to 1 lead over the Cubs. It was possible Sunday night would bring the Tribe its first crown since 1948. As my wife could tell you, I'm generally pretty optimistic, not prone to worrying, instead believing things will get done, things will work out. My favorite baseball team is my exception. When it comes to the Indians, I expect the worse. I wouldn't believe they'd win the World Series until it happened, not one pitch sooner, but they were as close as a team could be, needing to win just one more game, and with three chances to do it. They were on my mind when I set out that afternoon, and I found myself pulled towards the house I lived in when I first fell in love with the team, now more than 30 years gone by.

Monday, October 31, 2016

Best MLB players of the last 30 years, #11: Adrian Beltre

Why do we love the ones we love? Some of the people we love, they loved us first. Loving them back felt natural without us ever really thinking about it. I don't remember a time when I didn't love my parents and my sister. There may be ups and down, but love is the blackboard, whatever else goes on it only chalk dust. Some of the people we love, it's through the accumulation of shared experiences and survived battles. Most of my closest friends are people I've known for decades. Those relationships have had their share of tumult, but we've come out on the other side, and now it's hard to imagine those bonds ever being broken. Some of the people we love, almost immediately they're exactly the person we needed. I met my wife when I was seven years removed from really having my feet under me, at a moment when another relationship, one that had never been quite right, was in the process of disintegrating. It took some time for me to find the courage to ask her out, but within weeks of our first date I had the ineffable something I'd been missing.

Friday, September 30, 2016

Best MLB players of the last 30 years, #12: Frank Thomas

Frank Thomas was the best hitter the American League has had in the thirty years this project is focused on. He finished his career with a batting line of .301/.419/.555 and a wRC+ of 154, a figure which puts him among the top 20 in baseball history. He hit 521 home runs and 495 doubles. He scored 1494 runs and had 1704 RBI. He hit massive home runs, and he combined that awesome power with patience and plate discipline held by few players in history, which helped him draw 100+ walks in ten different seasons, a total topped by only Barry Bonds, Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, and Ted Williams. In 1993 and 1994 Thomas became the first player since Roger Maris in 1960 an 1961 to win back-to-back American League MVP Awards. There should be no doubt about Thomas' excellence as a hitter. Having said that, allow me to also say this:

There's no player I've hated more than Frank Thomas.

Friday, August 19, 2016

Best MLB players of the last 30 years, #13: Curt Schilling

Curt Schilling started 19 postseason games in his career, with a 2.33 ERA in 133.1 innings. He went 7+ innings while allowing no more than two runs in 13 of those starts, including two shutouts. In the 2001 postseason he pitched a complete game in Game 1 and Game 5 of the NLDS, and then pitched another in the NLCS, striking out 12. He started three games in the World Series, going 7+ innings in each of them, and allowing a total of only four runs. In his six starts that postseason, Schilling had a record 56 strikeouts in 48.1 innings, with a 1.12 ERA. During the 2004 ALDS, a tendon in Schilling's ankle tore. He underwent a procedure to stabilize the ankle before Game 6 of the ALCS, then went out and won. The suture began to give way during the game, leading Schilling's sock to famously soak through with blood. He underwent the procedure again a few days later, so that he could help the Red Sox win their first World Series in 86 years.

If Schilling had done nothing else in his life, he'd still be rightly remembered as one of the greatest postseason players in baseball history.

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Best MLB players of the last 30 years, #14: Mike Mussina

Mike Mussina's career seems to have been marked by bad timing. In the process of working my way through this project, I've already written about other pitchers from the last thirty years having to face unfair comparisons to Rogers Clemens, Greg Maddux, Randy Johnson, and Pedro Martinez, four of the dozen or so greatest pitchers in history. Mike Mussina also spent his entire 18-year career in the higher scoring American League, during just an era when offense ruled baseball. Mussina played for good Orioles teams that were stymied in the ALCS. He joined the Yankees in 2001, when they'd won four of the last five World Series. They made the postseason in seven of his eight seasons there, but didn't win the World Series. Mussina won 20 games and posted a 3.37 ERA in 2008, but decided to retire, giving him the best final season by any pitcher since Sandy Koufax. The Yankees proceeded to win the World Series in 2009. As I said, bad timing, and that probably goes a long way towards explaining why Mussina doesn't get his due. And to be clear, Mussina doesn't get his due.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Best MLB players of the last 30 years, #15: Mike Piazza

Mike Piazza will be inducted into the Hall of Fame this weekend. Given that I've got him as the 15th best player of the last thirty years, it's an honor I obviously believe is much-deserved. I'm not sure there's ever been a Hall of Fame player who made it after less was expected of him at the start of his professional career though, not in the 50+ years the MLB Draft has existed anyway. Piazza was a child of privilege, his father having made a fortune selling cars and real estate. When Piazza was a boy, he received hitting instruction from Ted Williams. Baseball is incredibly difficult though, and even with those advantages, Piazza wasn't viewed as a real talent. As you're probably aware, Piazza wasn't drafted until the 62nd round in 1988, and only as a favor to Piazza's father, a lifetime friend of then Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda. More than 1300 other players were chosen ahead of Piazza that year, but we went on to outplay them all.

Friday, June 24, 2016

Best MLB players of the last 30 years, #16: Derek Jeter

In 1996 Derek Jeter was a unanimous American League Rookie of the Year winner, and was an important part of the Yankees winning the World Series for the first time since 1978, ending the team's longest drought since winning its first championship in 1923. By the end of 2000, Jeter had played little more than a quarter of his career, but had already won four World Series rings and played in more nationally televised games than just about any player in history. He was the face of the Yankees, which in many ways made him the face of baseball, and he was still only 26 years old. Unsurprisingly, being the most beloved player on the Yankees made Jeter a divisive figure. In the three decades I've been a fan, no player has received as much adulation, and few have received as much scorn.

Friday, June 17, 2016

Best MLB players of the last 30 years, #17: Jim Thome

When I was young, being a baseball fan meant playing the game, collecting cards, and checking the sports section of the newspaper my dad brought home at the end of every workday. Each year I went to a couple games at Wrigley and a couple games at Comiskey, but otherwise, watching baseball was pretty infrequent. We didn't have cable, I was in school or playing somewhere when the Cubs were on WGN, and while the All-Star Game and postseason were already a big deal to me, they were rarities. I'd become an Indians fan at the age of six, but I bet I could count on my fingers the number of Tribe games I actually watched before reaching junior high. Julio Franco was my first favorite Indian, but he and the others I liked in those early years, I liked for what I could see on the front and back of their baseball cards. It was an appreciation for static things. In the mid 90s we got cable, the Indians got good, and I could suddenly enjoy my favorite team far more dynamically.

Enter Jim Thome.

Friday, June 10, 2016

Best MLB players of the last 30 years, #18: Manny Ramirez

To be a teenage Indians fan during the 1990s was to have a wealth of fantastic offensive players to cheer for at a time when you were too young to fully appreciate it. At the time I graduated from high school, in June of 1998, Manny Ramirez had finished runner up in the AL Rookie of the Year voting, had been named an All-Star and won a Silver Slugger, had received mention on MVP ballots, and had a career OPS close to .940, but he'd never been the Tribe's best or even second-best hitter, and having luxuriated in the warmth of Albert Belle, Jim Thome, Kenny Lofton, and David Justice over the years, I didn't fully grasp how good Ramirez was. As the 1998 season continued though, Ramirez drew more and more of my attention, and then in 1999 and 2000 Manny put up two of the best seasons by any hitter in any era. You could argue he was too good for the Indians, because by hitting so well, he played his way out of their price range and signed with Boston, going on to far greater fame than he'd found in Cleveland.

Friday, June 3, 2016

Teammates with long hitting streaks in the same season

Red Sox shortstop Xander Bogaerts just finished up a 26-game hitting streak going. His teammate, Boston outfielder Jackie Bradley Jr. recently had a 29-game hitting streak. Two players on the same team each putting up a streak that long seemed liked a rarity, and while most people would have been content to leave it at that, I've never been one to back down from hours of research to answer a question few people are asking. It turns out my hunch was correct; since 1913 (the first season there are box scores for at Baseball-Reference), Bradley and Bogaerts are only the sixth pair of teammates to each have a hitting streak of 25+ games in the same season.

Friday, May 27, 2016

Best players of the last 30 years, #19: Kevin Brown

I don't have nearly a large enough readership for anything I write here to generate controversy, but if I did, and if one thing from this countdown were going to cause a stir, I'm certain it would be this entry. Kevin Brown simply doesn't strike most baseball followers as having been excellent, and every one of the pitchers I've already written about in this countdown would beat Brown in a landslide if they were pitted against him in a head-to-head voting amongst baseball fans. If there was some sort of crowdsourced ranking of players from the last thirty years, I don't believe Brown would finish anywhere in the top 50. At the risk of sounding arrogant, I'm going to say the crowd is wrong on this one. Kevin Brown was outstanding.

Friday, May 13, 2016

Best MLB players of the last 30 years, #20: Mariano Rivera

When I first became a baseball fan, it was clear to me that the Mets were the New York team. And yes, the Yankees played there too. By the time I'd been a baseball fan for nine seasons, the Yankees hadn't made the postseason in any of them. I'd learned about their success throughout history, but it felt like just that, history, not something that applied to the here and now (which twenty years later, exists as the there and then of 1995). It didn't seem like there was much reason to care about them one way or another. I was about to learn the error of my ways though, and would soon loathe them in a way previously reserved for the guy my first girlfriend dumped me for. Hating the Yankees quickly became one of my core baseball principles, and the importance of that principle would only grow. Through it all though, there was one Yankee I could never bring myself to hate.

Saturday, May 7, 2016

Bartolo Colon breaks record for most PA without a walk

Bartolo Colon is a marvel. He turns 43 later this month, and is MLB's oldest active player. He isn't just hanging on by the skin of his teeth though; through his first five starts of 2016 (plus one relief appearance), Colon has an ERA of 2.56, better than his more celebrated rotation mates Matt Harvey, Noah Syndergaard, and Steven Matz. Colon is in his 20th season, having debuted more than half my lifetime ago, in April of 1997. In 2002 he became the first pitcher to throw a Maddux on Opening Day. In 2005 he won a Cy Young Award. Aside from half a season with the Expos and a handful of Interleague Play games though, until 2014 we were denied arguably the greatest pleasure of the Colon experience: watching Bartolo bat.

Friday, April 22, 2016

Best MLB players of the last 30 years, #21: Rickey Henderson

I feel compelled to remind you that I became a baseball fan in 1986, and for the purposes of putting these rankings together, anything before then was ignored. I mention this because from 1980 through the 1985, Rickey Henderson was the best baseball player on the planet, and that stretch isn't being counted here, yet he still made the list. I've basically taken away more than 1000 of his 3055 career hits, more than 700 of his MLB record 2295 runs scored, and precisely 573 of his MLB record 1406 stolen bases, yet he still cracks the top 20. If I'd included his full career, Henderson would have ranked 6th on this list, and if I ranked the top players in history, Henderson would be among the top 25. He was tremendous.

Friday, April 15, 2016

Best players of the last 30 years, #22: Roy Halladay

Near the end of this countdown will be four starting pitchers who not only comprise the pitching Mount Rushmore of my life as a baseball fan, they all belong somewhere near the top ten pitchers in baseball history. Probably no era had four pitchers of such excellence at the same time. So much greatness leaves a wake in its path though, and the consequence of that wake is that other starting pitchers from the last three decades have rarely gotten their due. Greg Maddux, Randy Johnson, and Pedro Martinez (three of the four pitchers I alluded to) cruised into Cooperstown in their first year of eligibility; Roger Clemens has been waylaid by PED connections. Only two other pitchers whose career came mostly during my thirty years as a fan have been voted into the Hall of Fame though: Tom Glavine and John Smoltz. They both deserve the honor, but as this list will show, I think even better pitchers have landed on the ballot in recent years and been denied. The next pitcher with much of a chance of getting through the doors will be Roy Halladay.

Friday, April 8, 2016

Best players of the last 30 years, #23: Ivan Rodriguez

Some positions in baseball have what feel like a prototype. The prototype first baseman isn't a tremendous defender and may not hit for a great average, but he's got a ton of power at the plate, and posts big home run totals. The prototype shortstop is the opposite, a player without much power, but who can slap some singles, steal a few bases, and make tremendous defensive plays. The prototypical catcher has some pop in his bat (though not enough to lead the league in home runs or anything like that), but doesn't have great speed. He isn't know  for his offense though. He's known for his toughness, his leadership, his ability to call a good game, and for exploding out of his crouch to nail runners at every base with strong, accurate throws to any base. In my lifetime, the best prototypical catcher has been Ivan Rodriguez.

Sunday, April 3, 2016

2016 MLB predictions

I don't remember what happens if you make these sort of predictions and turn out to be right, because it's been a while since I had the correct World Series winner. All the same, each time Opening Day rolls around, I find myself compelled to make them again. In the four years I've been writing about baseball online, I haven't gotten a single World Series participant right. I'm 0 for 8 on those, and only 11 for 24 on division winners. I've been correct on only one of my eight Cy Young guesses, and on none of my eight MVP selections. Despite all that, when Opening Day rolls around, like the swallows returning to San Juan Capistrano, I must make predictions.

Friday, April 1, 2016

Best players of the last 30 years, #24: Barry Larkin

Barry Larkin was a better baseball player than Derek Jeter.

Jeter will rank ahead of Larkin on this list, because being able to stay on the field matters, and Jeter was a lot better at that, but in terms of doing things well when on the field, Larkin was superior, and I don't think it's especially close. As hitters they're close, with Jeter batting .310/.377/.440 for his career, and Larkin batting .295/.371/.444. Adjusting for their respective ballparks and slightly different eras, Jeter had an OPS+ of 115 and a wRC+ of 119, while Larkin had an OPS+ of 116 and a wRC+ of 118. Both were good base runners, but Larkin has the edge, stealing more bases and with a higher success rate, plus doing things like taking the extra base a bit better. Once you look at defense, Larkin pulls well ahead. He was a good defender, while Jeter was a poor one. Larkin's sample size is far smaller, but he also has better postseason numbers than Jeter. It seems off to call someone who won an MVP and was voted into the Hall of Fame underrated, but I'm going to. Barry Larkin doesn't get nearly the attention he ought to.

Friday, March 25, 2016

Best players of the last 30 years, #25: John Smoltz

I can't think of another player who had a career quite like John Smoltz had. He was a 22nd round draft pick, not the sort of player who seems destined to even make the Major Leagues, much less star there. In his first full season he was an All-Star, and he eventually won a Cy Young. A serious injury sidelined him for a full season though, and then not long after his return, he was moved to the bullpen. Almost immediately he became one of the best closers in the game. Then, after a few years in that role, he shifted back to the starting rotation, and was almost every bit as good as he had been a decade earlier. That's not taking the road less traveled, it's using a machete to carve out a new path entirely.

Friday, February 26, 2016

Best players of the last 30 years, #26: Scott Rolen

Every player in this countdown is someone I believe deserves to be a member of the Hall of Fame. Of the 30 players who'll be featured here, 11 of them have already been voted in; others will get in without much trouble once they're eligible. A fair number are having or soon will have a hard time because of connections (sometimes substantive, sometimes not) to performance-enhancing drugs. Absent PED problems though, and especially among the hitters on this list, very few of these players are going to face many obstacles on their path to Cooperstown. An exception to that is Scott Rolen.

Rolen won the National League's Rookie of the Year Award and eight Gold Gloves for his work at third base. He was named to the All-Star team seven times, and was the second-best player on a World Series winner. Despite those accomplishments, he is going to be nowhere near to the 75% of the vote needed for induction when he lands on the ballot at the end of 2017.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Best players of the last 30 years, #27: Miguel Cabrera

Even for baseball fans who don't get too caught up in them, numbers tend to be at least part of what the game means to them. More than any other sport, baseball is connected to its own history. By the time I began following baseball in 1986, it had been 19 years since Carl Yastrzemski won the Triple Crown (which means he led his league in batting average, home runs, and RBI). That was already the longest stretch MLB had ever had without a Triple Crown winner. Two-and-a-half decades later, we were still waiting, and the Triple Crown had long since grown into a mythical accomplishment to me, something I wasn't sure I'd ever see happen. 

Friday, February 12, 2016

Best players of the last 30 years, #28: Tom Glavine

The crafty lefty is one of many notable archetypes from the world of baseball. Not as famous or well-regarded as the slugger, the speed merchant, or the flamethrower, the crafty lefty is a pitcher (left-handed, of course) who doesn't seem to have the same tremendous physical gifts some possess, who doesn't have a fastball that lights up the radar gun, but who somehow still gets a lot of guys out, presumably with a mixture of wits, wiles, and voodoo magic. According to the popular view, a crafty lefty doesn't have as much talent as most other pitchers, but on the right day, or even for the right season, a crafty lefty can become the most frustrating pitcher in the world to face. If the crafty lefty puts things together like that just not upon occasion, or for a good year or two, but is instead able to do it over and over again for two mostly uninterrupted decades of success, were they really a crafty lefty?

If so, Tom Glavine was arguably the greatest crafty lefty in baseball history.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Best players of the last 30 years, #29: Wade Boggs

Wade Boggs led MLB with a .357 batting average in 1986, the year I fell in love with the game. He won the AL batting crown for each of the first three seasons of my fandom, and because batting average was king back then, I figured Boggs must be the best hitter in the game. If you led the league in something, the number would be italicized on the back of your trading card, and the far right side of Boggs' card, where batting average was found, always seemed to be filled with that wavy print. It wasn't until almost a decade later that I began to consider the value of walks, and to recognize that on-base percentage was a much better statistic than batting average. Did this new knowledge lead me to realize I'd been wrong about Boggs being the best? Nope. It turns out that in addition to lining singles and doubles all over the American League, Boggs walked his ass off too, and nobody was better at the plate in my nascent years as a fan.

Monday, February 8, 2016

My favorite movies of 2015

Movies rarely mean as much to me as they used to. I don't think that's a commentary on the quality of movies being made, as much as a commentary on me. It used to be that almost every year brought multiple movies I wanted to own, so I could revisit them again and again. In recent years though, I more often walk out of a theater thinking, That was very well done, instead of, I loved that! I'm an incredibly fortunate person. I was raised well by loving parents, I'm married to my best friend, I remain closer to my other important friends than most people my age, I have a good job, my wife and I have the means to travel some. Fortunate as I am, life doesn't leave me with the same time or energy for caring about movies it used to, and I miss that sometimes. And while I'm very happy in my grown up life, I've clung tightly to parts of my childhood too. My favorite movie of 2015 is a reminder that I don't ever have to let go of it completely.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Best players of the last 30 years, #30: Mark McGwire

It was half my lifetime ago, but 1998 remains more vividly drawn in my memory than any season before or since. Baseballs were flying over fences at a record clip. Not one, but two players were making a run at the single-season record in all of sports. Baseball fans were coming out of the woodwork, and they were all having a blast. Many fans and writers have since concluded that the summer of 1998 was a dark time in baseball's history. They didn't feel that way at the time though. The players most closely associated with that season were made into pariahs, but that was years later. In the moment, those players were gods. Hindsight has led many to pretend that summer wasn't awesome. Not me though, I remember. Meanwhile, even among those generally willing to look past the PED stuff and judge a player by their production, Mark McGwire has become an underrated player.

Monday, January 25, 2016

The 30 best players of the 30 years I've been a fan

It was April of 1986 when I showed up for my first day of t-ball practice wearing shorts, and was promptly told by Coach Jerry it would be better to wear long pants. It was a couple weeks after that when our t-shirt jerseys arrived, "Indians" printed across the front, fating me to cheer for a team hundreds of miles away in a city I wouldn't visit for almost twenty years. That was that spring I bought my first baseball cards, back when you could find in corner stores and supermarkets. That was the summer I went to my first baseball games, one at Comiskey, one at Wrigley. That was the fall I watched the extra innings of what was then the longest postseason game in MLB history.

I've now spent three decades as a baseball fan. I've seen 17 teams win 29 World Series. I've seen dozens of Hall of Famers and dozens more who will (or should) be there someday. As a way of looking back at my time as a baseball fan, I thought I'd rank the 30 best players of these last 30 years.