Congratulations Ichiro On Hit Number 4,000!! (Make Sure You Purchase Your Commemorative T-Shirt On The Grand Concourse)

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Just remember one thing when quantifying Ichiro Suzuki’s 4,000 combined hits in Japan and North America: Kei Igawa was considered a “star” pitcher in Japan with these gaudy numbers before joining the Yankees. Considering the fact that he was pitching for a powerhouse Yankees team in 2007 and 2008, Igawa could have been less than mediocre and, based on his attendance record, won 12 to 15 games. Instead, in 16 games, the Yankees got an evil 6.66 ERA for their $46 million.

This is not to decry Ichiro’s accomplishment, but how can we legitimately consider this to be worthy of all the attention it’s getting as something other than an attempt on the part of the Yankees to sell some T-shirts? It may not be as silly as my snide Twitter crack that we should calculate O.J. Simpson’s accumulated yards in the white Bronco chase and add them to his NFL rushing total, but it’s in the vicinity.

Because of his contact with an agent, Reggie Bush’s USC football records were wiped out, he surrendered his Heisman Trophy and USC’s wins in 2005 were vacated. Since he was benefiting from these relationships while in college, couldn’t it be argued that he was technically receiving remuneration for his work and was therefore a professional? Shouldn’t his college rushing yards be added to his NFL totals?

You see where I’m going here.

The argument with Ichiro is that he was such an accomplished hitter in the major leagues that he would have had a vast number of hits—probably coming close to 4,000 by now—if he’d spent his entire career in North America. I don’t doubt it. But we can’t give legitimate accolades for a record of this nature based on “probably would have” vs. “would have” and “did.”

If Babe Ruth had been a hitter for his entire career rather than spending his first five seasons with the Red Sox as a pitcher, how many home runs would he have hit? If Josh Gibson or Satchel Paige had been allowed to play in the majors rather than being relegated to the Negro Leagues, what could they have done? There are no answers.

Then we get into the Japan-North America comparison. Do Randy Bass’s 202 homers in Japan get added to his nine big league homers to make 211? Does he jump ahead of Kirby Puckett (207) and Roberto Alomar (210) on the career list?

With a clear stake in the perception of being the top hit-getter in baseball history, Pete Rose diminished Ichiro’s hit total as not being equal in difficulty to his. Any comment Rose made was probably done during a break in relentlessly signing bats, balls and other memorabilia to accrue cash, but he’s not wrong in scoffing at the concept that Ichiro’s 4,000 hits are in any way equivalent to his 4,256 hits. Although he’s banned from baseball and unable to receive Hall of Fame induction, Rose is the true hit king whether Ichiro “passes” him in the next couple of years or not.

The Yankees’ celebration of the achievement was relatively muted compared to what they’ve done for such occurrences in the past. They’ve retired numbers they shouldn’t have retired (Reggie Jackson, Billy Martin, Roger Maris) and created “history” out of thin air even if it isn’t actual history in any way other than to suit the narrative. Michael Kay didn’t have a long-winded and poorly written moment-infringing speech prepared similar to the pablum he recited when Derek Jeter collected his 3,000th hit. The Yankees came out of the dugout to congratulate Ichiro and there will probably be a small ceremony at some point (to go along with the T-shirts), but Ichiro had 2,533 of his hits with the Mariners. His Yankees numbers are those of a fading veteran hanging on and collecting more numbers.

It was handled professionally and appropriately by the Yankees. The problem with this is the idea that there’s a connection between what Ichiro did in Japan and in the majors. There’s not unless you want to start going down that slide to count everything any player has ever done anywhere as part of his “professional” resume. That slide leads back to Igawa. He was a horrible pitcher for the Yankees who didn’t belong in the big leagues and was a star in Japan. For every Yu Darvish, how many pitchers are there like Igawa in Japan against whom Ichiro was getting his hits? Probably a lot. And that means the 4,000 hits is just a number that’s being lost in translation from Japanese to English. It’s an impressive number in context, but a number nonetheless.




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Reggie In Time-Out

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One amazing thing you’ll find about Reggie Jackson is how little he’s evolved from his playing days.

When looking for a Thurman Munson quote regarding Reggie’s famous “straw that stirs the drink” comment I found this William Nack Sports Illustrated profile from 1980 that is almost identical to the piece this week that’s gotten him placed into time-out by the Yankees organization.

The quote I was looking for, attributed to Munson, was an incredulous, “For four pages?!?” at the suggestion that Reggie’s “straw” comments in Sport Magazine were taken out of context.

When the latest Sports Illustrated piece came out, I wrote essentially that Reggie was Reggie before Manny was Manny (Manny Ramirez); that he was going to do what he would do, say what he would say and backtrack when faced with the consequences for his “candor”; that he was goaded into saying those things by the reporter.

Is his relationship with Alex Rodriguez damaged beyond all repair? Are the disparaged Hall of Famers and their families offended? Will he be allowed to hang around the Yankees again at his leisure?

Here’s the cold-blooded answer: what’s the difference?

A-Rod is very intelligent and calculating. He’s attention-starved and brings on much of his problems himself, but a large chunk of his issues stem from the hypocrisy he saw with Derek Jeter and Joe Torre among others. The “Jeter does no wrong” brigade is shocked when Jeter acts as if he was hit by a pitch when he really wasn’t and takes his base as the umpire instructs; the “St. Joe” label attached to Torre conveniently hid how calculating, money-hungry and manipulative the former manager could be. With A-Rod, when he used the gamesmanship of yelling “HA!!” in Howie Clark’s ear to distract him when trying to catch a pop-up, it was A-Rod being a bush leaguer; when he opted out of his contract—clumsily—it was A-Rod listening to his Svengali agent Scott Boras and being greedy.

I doubt A-Rod was seriously bothered or surprised by what Reggie said. He’s smart enough and cynical enough not to be offended by it long-term.

You might see Kirby Puckett’s and Gary Carter’s family reply to what A-Rod said; for Jim Rice to start his “why me?” act; but they’ll have their own reasons for doing so. In the case of Puckett and Carter the families will presumably reply to the question when it’s asked. With Rice, he’s still looking for validation that he presumably felt would fill that void when he was finally (deservedly) elected to the Hall. But he’s still hearing the same old debates about whether or not he belongs and now it’s coming from a peer and rival.

As for the “adviser” role Reggie has with the Yankees, his influence died with George Steinbrenner. Reggie’s position is similar to Johnny Pesky with the Red Sox when the club let him be involved without any real power other than that of a treasured former player—i.e. an old man who hung around. He was popular with the fans and wasn’t bothering anyone. Along with the Boss’s other circle of “advisers”—Billy Connors, Dick Williams, Clyde King, Dick Moss, Randy Levine, his sons, sons-in-law and whoever else managed to gain his ear for a period of time, it’s not the way it used to be with the Yankees. Gone are the days when Steinbrenner listened to the last voice he heard (validating a Boss rant with sycophantic agreement) and reacted by dumping a player the baseball people wanted to keep and getting a player that no one else would take.

Reggie’s mistake is that he is bothering the club by creating a controversy for no reason. It’s a hallmark of his life. Whereas it would once be brushed off and handled by the Boss, now with Brian Cashman in charge, Hank Steinbrenner effectively muzzled and subdued and the more thoughtful Hal Steinbrenner holding sway, how much of Reggie’s advice is actually taken? How much of it is listened to? How much is he even around and does anyone notice when he is or isn’t?

Notice.

That’s what Reggie wants. It’s always been that way and clearly from the latest SI piece and fallout, that’s never going to change.

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Cameron vs Puckett—*Wink Wink*

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Following his retirement, I saw it repeated ad nauseam that Mike Cameron has a higher career WAR (Wins Above Replacement) than Kirby Puckett.

What the implication of the “higher WAR” for Cameron suggests is anyone’s guess because they won’t come out and specifically say it.

I’m not grasping the random, silly comparison between two different players who have very little in common apart from both being center fielders.

But why pick on Puckett? Couldn’t they compare Cameron to a player with whom he has comparable stats according to Baseball-Reference’s comparison metric at the bottom of each player’s page?

Cameron’s comps are the likes of Jimmy Wynn (the Toy Cannon—great nickname), Tom Brunansky, Bobby Murcer, Chet Lemon, and Torii Hunter.

Puckett’s similar players are Don Mattingly, Cecil Cooper, Magglio Ordonez, Kiki Cuyler (the only Hall of Famer along with Puckett) and Tony Oliva.

The big problem that Puckett has is that he was elected to the Hall of Fame while probably being an “outside looking in” player had he retired of his own volition rather than because of glaucoma.

Was it sympathy? Was it a projection of what he “would” have done had he not had such a devastating career ending?

If they’re going down that road, the argument could be made that Mattingly should also be a Hall of Famer because of his injured back that robbed him of his power.

If Puckett is overrated, then so is Larry Walker who had similar home/road splits as Puckett did. And stat people push Walker for the Hall of Fame.

Walker hit .381 for his career at Coors Field. The next best number per ballpark was in Montreal’s Olympic Stadium where he had a slash line of .293/.373/.518.

After that was his other home park of Busch Stadium late in his career where he posted a .294/.391/.536.

Good but not all world or in the realm of ridiculous as his Coors Field numbers are.

The crux of the wink wink/nod nod argument is that Cameron’s career WAR was 46.7 and Puckett’s was 44.8.

Yes, I suppose technically Cameron had a “higher” WAR than Puckett, but since the people who reference WAR treat it as the end-all/be-all of analytical existence, wouldn’t it be prudent to mention that Cameron played in 5 more seasons than Puckett did to accumulate that total?

If you’d like to go by WAR, Cameron’s highest season WAR was 6.4 and his average, per season was 2.7.

Puckett’s highest WAR was 7.2 and his average was 3.7.

The aforementioned Walker had a career WAR of 67.3, but his numbers were severely bolstered by playing in the pinball machine of Coors Field in his prime. Plus there were suggestions that Walker’s power wasn’t all natural and, considering the era, everyone’s a suspect.

The only thing Puckett used in excess were cheeseburgers.

Here’s the reality, statistically and otherwise, with Cameron vs Puckett:

  • Cameron was an all-world defensive center fielder; Puckett won 6 Gold Gloves and his statistical defensive decline coincided with his burst of power in 1986. As a contemporary of Devon White and Gary Pettis, Puckett didn’t deserve the Gold Gloves.
  • Puckett batted .318 for his career with a .360 OBP and .477 slugging. Cameron’s slash line was .249/.338/.444.
  • Puckett hit 207 homers and stole 134 bases. Cameron had 278 homers and stole 297 bases.
  • Puckett averaged 88 strikeouts a season. Cameron averaged 158 strikeouts a season.
  • Puckett won 6 Silver Slugger Awards and batted above .314 eight times in his twelve year career. Cameron’s career high average was .273.
  • Puckett had a career OPS of .837. Cameron’s was .782. Puckett’s OPS+ (which accounts for ballpark factor) was 124. Cameron’s was 105.
  • In Game 6 of the 1991 World Series, Puckett made a great catch in center field to rob Ron Gant of an extra base hit, went 3 for 4 at the plate and hit a game-winning homer to send the series to a decisive Game 7, which the Twins won.
  • Puckett won two World Series with the Twins and batted .309 with 5 post-season homers. Cameron batted .174 in 112 post season plate appearances with 1 home run.

What’s the comparison here?

There is none.

Puckett and Cameron not only shouldn’t be compared, they shouldn’t even be mentioned in the same sentence.

So what’s the point?

I’m not sure because they won’t say it. All they’ll utter are interjections like “WOW!!!” followed by the indirect suggestion that Cameron was better than Puckett.

I think.

Are they saying that Cameron was better than Puckett? That Puckett was overrated and Cameron was underrated? And if they’re trying to say something to the tune of either argument, why not just come out and say it? Why does it have to be danced around like a clumsy, worn out ballerina with the kindasorta suggestion of what’s being said without it actually being said?

I don’t know.

This is why those who aren’t immersed in numbers can’t take seriously those who use statistics as the final arbiter of all discussions. They use them when they’re convenient to their argument, leave out context and then avoid saying what they’re trying to say to avoid the attacks of people like me who don’t want to hear such silliness.

But I said it anyway.

Puckett was better than Cameron. Period.

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Donnieball

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There is not one player on the entire Los Angeles Dodgers roster that can make a claim to having been better than an in-his-prime Don Mattingly.

Not one.

Even those who have superstar potential like Matt Kemp can only hope to be mentioned in the same breath with Mattingly.

That’s how great he was; how dangerous he was. In fact, you can make the Koufax/Puckett argument for Mattingly’s Hall of Fame candidacy. Both Sandy Koufax and Kirby Puckett had their careers derailed by injuries. Koufax’s arthritic elbow forced him from the game at the height of his powers at age 30; Puckett had glaucoma and was done at 35.

They’re in the Hall of Fame because of Koufax’s dominance over a 5-year period and Puckett’s combination of greatness and what he “would” have achieved had he played another 3-5 years.

Because Mattingly was sabotaged by back problems, his production took a dive from its tremendous heights; but from 1984-1989 there was not a better player at the plate or in the field than Mattingly.

Trapped as an innocent bystander in the Steinbrennerean purgatory of the Yankees in the 1980s, he never got the chance to show his wares on the big stage.

As the Yankees turmoil mounted and the revolving door of teammates and managers spun and spun and spun, Mattingly was at the center of the clubhouse—the hapless victim of circumstance—as things came apart.

It was only when he was a mere shell of his former self; when those back injuries limited him to being good as opposed to great and robbed him of his power and George Steinbrenner was suspended that the foundation of the late-90s championship teams was able to break ground under Gene Michael and Buck Showalter.

In a cruel irony, Mattingly retired the year before the Yankees 1996 championship.

Passed over for the manager’s job following Joe Torre’s ouster, he left and joined Torre with the Dodgers. It can be said—reasonably—that Joe Girardi was the wiser and safer choice because of his experience; but it can’t be discounted that had GM Brian Cashman chosen Mattingly as his manager, he would never have been able to fire him.

Ever.

No GM wants a manager he can’t fire.

Now that he’s the manager of the Dodgers, we’ll see whether the lack of experience will be mitigated by his status as a megastar player who’s seen it all; done it all; experienced it all. Mattingly can look at the swirling drama of the McCourts’ divorce, shrug and say, “You wanna know about nuts? I’ll tell you about nuts.”

How does this translate to managerial success?

Easily.

For every player who’s willing to play as hard as possible and respect his manager and coaching staff, there are those who try to exert their perceived authority and use a large contract and big numbers to bully their “bosses”. We saw it with Hanley Ramirez and Fredi Gonzalez last year.

After years of tolerating and dancing around Ramirez’s diva-like behaviors due to the player’s skills and close relationship with owner Jeffrey Loria, Gonzalez punished Ramirez for an egregious lack of hustle and engaged in a public spitting contest with his star player. In the short-term, Gonzalez was supported by the players, contemporaries and public opinion; eventually he was fired in no small part because of Ramirez. He landed on his feet with the Braves with his self-respect intact.

The attitude of certain star players was exemplified in Ramirez essentially saying, “Who’s he to say anything to me? He never played in the big leagues.”

Well, Mattingly not only played in the big leagues, but he was the MVP in 1985 and, as said earlier, was better than anyone on the Dodgers roster. In what would be an unsaid retort, Mattingly could put forth the aura of, “I was better than each and every one of you, so don’t come at me with that ‘who are you?’ horse(bleep).”

He wouldn’t say it because it’s not in his personality; but it helps that he wouldn’t have to say it.

If you saw Kemp’s hustle on Friday night in which he went from first to third on a hit-and-run ground out, it’s a good sign for the Dodgers that they’re playing hard and smart—the enigmatic and hard-headed Kemp in particular.

What people fail to understand when selecting a manager is that strategy is sometimes a small part of him doing his job; it’s not just about “I’m the manager, do what you’re told.”

As was shown with Ramirez, a star doesn’t have to exert much effort (literally and figuratively) to get the manager fired.

Controlling the players and the clubhouse can be far more important than the negligible lineup choices, pitching changes and whom to pinch hit—many of the results of said maneuvers are based on luck.

Mattingly knows what it’s like to be a superstar player and doesn’t have the peacock ego and rampant insecurity to make sure everyone knows he’s in charge by repeatedly saying it; he’ll be able to defer to pitching coach Rick Honeycutt on what to do with the arms; to ask coaches Trey Hillman, Davey Lopes and Tim Wallach (whom he beat out for the job) what they think without being threatened.

He’ll make his mistakes, but the players not wanting to let Donnie down will overcome them.

And he’s accustomed to lunacy.

That’s why he’s going to make it as a manager.

My podcast appearance with SportsFanBuzz previewing the season is posted. You can listen here The SportsFan Buzz: March 30, 2011 or on iTunes.

I was on with Mike at NYBaseballDigest and his preview as well. You can listen here.

Paul Lebowitz’s 2011 Baseball Guide is available.

I published a full excerpt of my book here.

It’s available now. Click here to get it in paperback or E-Book on I-Universe or on Amazon or BN. It’s also available via E-book on Borders.com.

Now it’s also out on Amazon Kindle and Barnes and Noble Nook.


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