Sports Outside the Beltway

Randy Johnson wins his 300th game

The Big Unit is headed to Cooperstown. From AP-

Randy Johnson had to wait a while for his shot at 300 wins. The crowd was small, and the weather was wet. His performance, however, was more than worthy of the occasion.

The Big Unit hit the big number on Thursday, becoming the 24th pitcher to reach one of baseball’s most revered milestones. Johnson tossed two-hit ball over six innings, leading the San Francisco Giants to a 5-1 victory over the Washington Nationals in the first game of a doubleheader.

Johnson allowed only an unearned run and threw 50 of his 78 pitches for strikes. He faced four batters above the minimum and got spotless relief from his bullpen.

He left leading 2-1 and nearly wound up with a no-decision. The Nationals loaded the bases with two outs in the eighth, but Adam Dunn was called out on strikes with a full count on a knee-high fastball from reliever Brian Wilson.

Some of the few thousand fans who witnessed Johnson’s victory — the Nationals have trouble drawing a crowd for anything these days — chanted “Randy! Randy!” in the bottom of the ninth. When the game was over, he gave hugs to teenage son Tanner, who served as a Giants batboy, as well as all of his teammates. Johnson then tipped his hat to the cheering crowd before entering the dugout.

Johnson is one of six lefthanders to notch 300 wins. Another member of that exclusive company, Tom Glavine, was just released yesterday. For pure dominance, Johnson is the greatest lefty of all time. For consistency, Warren Spahn gets the nod.

Without a 300th win, there was little doubt Johnson would make the Hall of Fame eventually. He is arguably the best pitcher of his era, and that should have been good enough in baseball writer’s eyes.


Milwaukee Brewers release reliever Jorge Julio

This takes place the day after the Florida Marlins shell the veteran righty. From AP-

The Milwaukee Brewers made big changes to their thin bullpen on Tuesday.

One day after reliever Jorge Julio allowed five runs while facing six batters in the sixth inning of Milwaukee’s 7-4 loss to the Florida Marlins, the Brewers released the right-hander.

Julio entered Monday night’s game in Miami with Milwaukee leading 4-2. He gave up two hits, hit two batters, walked one and another reached on an error. Signed to a one-year, $950,000 deal in the offseason, Julio was let go Tuesday after going 1-1 with a 7.79 ERA in 15 appearances.

The Brewers called up right-hander Mike Burns from Triple-A Nashville. Burns was 6-2 with a 2.98 ERA for the Sounds.

Milwaukee’s manager says the bullpen is thin. Which it is, particularly after David Riske was lost for the season after elbow surgery.

Julio, who has played for eight ML teams since 2001, throws very hard. Something baseball managers like. I expect a ninth team to take a chance on him before the 2009 season is over. Perhaps even by the 4th of July.


Ryan Zimmerman hits successfully for the 27th straight game

The hitting streak by the Washington National 3rd baseman marks the longest by a player at that position since a 28 game streak by Wade Boggs in 1985. From AP-

Ryan Zimmerman homered to extended his hitting streak to 27 games. Adam Dunn hit one out of the park for the second night in a row.

And the Arizona Diamondbacks squandered one opportunity after another.

The play that everyone was talking about after Washington’s 2-1 victory over Arizona Saturday night, though, was made by Nationals right fielder Austin Kearns and catcher Jesus Flores.

“Unbelievable,” Washington starter John Lannan said. “I’ve never seen that happen before.”

With the Nationals leading 1-0 and the bases loaded with one out in the seventh inning, Arizona’s Josh Whitesell lined what looked like a base hit just in front of Kearns. Felipe Lopez, the runner at third, had to hold close to the base in case the ball was caught, and Kearns rifled a throw home.

Flores stretched out like a first baseman to make the grab for the force out.

“That was the play of the game, actually,” Washington manager Manny Acta said. “It was just a tremendous play.”

I have seen a similar play in high school ball but can’t remember one at the MLB level.

Zimmerman remains one of the few assets the Nationals have. He is hitting .338 for the year and has 6 homeruns for the season so far. Washington in spite of winning 5 of their last six, are 10-18 for the season so far. I expect the Nationals to lose 95 or more games this year.

Yesterday’s game marked the 2nd time AJ Hinch was the manager of the Arizona Diamondbacks. He was appointed to replace the fired Bob Melvin.

After firing Bob Melvin, the Arizona Diamondbacks have turned their fortunes over to a 34-year-old former catcher with no experience as a manager.

A.J. Hinch was introduced as Melvin’s replacement as manager Friday at a news conference, where general manager Josh Byrnes acknowledged the hiring was “unconventional.”

“He brings unique leadership and perspective to the job,” Byrnes said. “We’re not here to reinvent the wheel, but to change the nature of the job a little bit? OK, we’ll do that. A.J.’s a leader. He connects with people. He gets things done.”

Hinch, who has a degree in psychology from Stanford, was in his fourth season as the Diamondbacks’ director of player development. He becomes the youngest manager in the majors since Eric Wedge was hired by Cleveland in October of 2002.

So how is the unconventional hiree doing? Arizona is 0-2 since giving Melvin. So much for fast turnarounds. I only expect Arizona to be moderately more successful this year than Washington is.


Arizona Diamondbacks fire Manager Bob Melvin

He is the first to get fired in 2009. From AP-

The Arizona Diamondbacks fired Bob Melvin on Thursday, hoping a new manager will be able to get the most out of their talented core of young players.

The Diamondbacks will make A.J. Hinch, their vice president for player development, Melvin’s replacement on Friday, according to a person familiar with the move who requested anonymity because the announcement had not been made.

The 34-year-old Hinch is a former major league catcher with no professional managerial experience. His promotion was first reported by radio station KTAR.

[+] EnlargeBob Melvin
Kirby Lee/Image of Sport/US PresswireBob Melvin has been fired by the Diamondbacks.

The 47-year-old Melvin’s firing comes after a disappointing start by the Diamondbacks, who entered Thursday 8½ games behind the Los Angeles Dodgers in the NL West. Melvin, who went 337-340 in four-plus seasons, had one year left on a contract he received after being the 2007 NL Manager of the Year.


“This is a difficult decision, but I feel that our organization needs to move forward with a new voice,” general manager Josh Byrnes said in a statement.

Hitting coach Rick Schu also was fired, and pitching coach Bryan Price resigned.

Melvin’s stock rose when he guided a youthful but talented group to the NL West title two years ago. He was dismissed because many of the same players have failed to live up to expectations based on that season, when the Diamondbacks posted an NL-best 90-72 record despite being outscored by 20 runs across the season.


This is the second time in their 12-year history that the Diamondbacks have changed managers in midseason. In 2004, the Diamondbacks fired Bob Brenly after a 29-50 start and replaced him with Al Pedrique on their way to a franchise-worst 51-111 record.

That disaster paved the way to Melvin’s return to Arizona, where he had served as Brenly’s bench coach on the 2001 World Series champions.

Melvin’s hiring as the Diamondbacks’ manager came under bizarre circumstances. The club had selected Wally Backman as manager, but Backman was dismissed four days later following revelations he had been arrested twice and struggled with financial problems.

Arizona then turned to Melvin, who was out after two seasons in Seattle, where he went 156-168.

Melvin made an immediate impact in the desert. He led the 2005 Diamondbacks to a 77-85 record, a 26-win improvement.

Two years later, the Diamondbacks made a surprise run to the NL West title despite scoring 20 fewer runs than they allowed — a fact that led many to praise Melvin’s ability to squeeze the most out of his lineup.

Melvin was honored as the 2007 NL Manager of the Year, and soon after the club extended his contract through 2010.

How much of Arizona’s slow start if Melvin and his coaching staff’s fault is debatable. The team hasn’t been hitting, but on the other hand the Dodgers started great this year and Diamondback staff ace Brandon Webb is on the disabled list. To me the blame for the 12-17(I had to look it up. Associated Press didn’t report it in the above article) start Arizona had this year is more complicated than whether the team had or hadn’t good direction from their manager and coaches. As usual in sports the manager or head coach is the fall guy deservingly or not. Melvin, who was a journeyman catcher and coach before becoming a big league manager, won’t be unemployed for long.

Do note that Arizona hasn’t named Melvin’s replacement yet. Will they name for his coaching staff to the job or look elsewhere? I am betting the former.


Yankees sign Sexson

To address their .732 OPS against southpaws, the Yanks signed former Mariner slugger (and I use that word loosely) Richie Sexson to a league minimum contract. At this point, he can’t be worse than Wilson Betemit and will only play against lefties, so it’s a low risk move. And he does hit lefties well: 1.045 OPS this year (albeit in 71 plate appearances) – his career totals aren’t quite so hot: just an .879 OPS vs. southpaws. This presents a frightening scenario, what if Sexson regresses to his career norm? Then the situation is no better off and probably even worse than a righty Wilson Betemit. If that happens, Sexson can always be released, but the damage done will be irreversible.

- The 15 inning All-Star Game received great TV ratings, which will only further empower FOX and MLB that the 8 p.m. start time is perfectly suited. What kid watching on a Tuesday night stays up to 2 a.m.? I understand that 15 innings is an aberration, but even the normal All-Star game lasts until near midnight because of the frequent pitching changes and longer commercial breaks. Not a good formula for future fandom (how’s that for alliteration?).


Arizona pitcher Doug Davis has cancer

He got biopsy results this week that resulted ina cancer diagnosis. From AP-

PHOENIX – Diagnosed with thyroid cancer, Arizona Diamondbacks left-hander Doug Davis decided he wanted to keep pitching until his April 10 operation.

And he said he expects to pitch again soon after that.

“It’s going to take me down for a while but not out for good,” said Davis, who spoke at a news conference after facing the Colorado Rockies in a Chase Field exhibition Friday night.


Doctors discovered a lump in Davis’ throat during a routine physical on Feb. 6, Davis said. On Wednesday, biopsy results revealed it to be cancerous.

Davis will have his thyroid gland removed and is expected to be out of the hospital the day after the operation, Diamondbacks head physician Dr. Michael Lee said.

Lee said the team doesn’t have a projected return date for Davis but said it could be within four to six weeks.


Davis went 13-12 with a 4.25 ERA and pitched 192 2-3 innings last season, his first with Arizona. Davis is 75-75 with a 4.34 ERA in nine seasons.

I’m a cancer survivor. My mother-in-law is a thyroid cancer survivor. First diagnosed in 2004, she is alive and kicking today. I wish Doug Davis the best.


Florida Marlins sign Luis Gonzalez to a one-year deal

Lugo is veteran, and I’ve liked him in the past, but what will the Marlins do with him? From the Miami Herald-

The Marlins and Gonzalez, a 40-year-old outfielder, have agreed on a one-year contract that will pay Gonzalez $2 million. The contract contains incentive bonuses, ones based on plate appearances, that could raise the total to as much as $3 million.

What is uncertain is how the Marlins intend to use Gonzalez, who has spent most of his 18 seasons in the major leagues playing left field, a position that belongs to Josh Willingham.

But Willingham has been bothered by lower-back problems, which caused him to spend the end of last season on the bench, and the Marlins could be looking at Gonzalez as backup insurance.

Gonzalez’s agent, Gregg Clifton, said the Marlins told him their plans are to use Gonzalez in the outfield and at first base, but did not guarantee a starting job. Gonzalez has played just five of his 2,455 games in the majors at first base, where Mike Jacobs appears set to return.

”He’s happy to do whatever it is to help the team,” Clifton said.

That has to be seen yet. Many veterans can’t handle a smaller role on a team. Especially one that looks not to be very good. Maybe Gonzalez will be different, but I see his acquisition as being of little help to the 2008 Marlins.


Kansas City Royals Sign Jose Guillen

If published reports are to be believed, the Kansas City Royals have decided to continue the fine pharmaceutical heritage that began with Ewing Kauffman by signing outfielder Jose Guillen to a 3-year, $36 million deal on Tuesday.

The potential steroid suspension aside, are the Royals spending David Glass’s new found money wisely? How about some charts!

Below are two charts showing Guillen’s On-Base Percentage (OBP) and Slugging Average (SLG) by age. The difference between the top chart and the bottom chart is that Guillen’s partial years have been removed (in ’99, ’01, ’02 and ’06, Jose appeared in fewer than 100 games for the season).

By removing the partial seasons, we can see that the Dominican fellow has followed a pretty standard career path, peaking at age 27-28 in the power department while maintaining some positive growth in the ability to get on base.

Walks as a percentage of plate appearances:

Again, Guillen has shown an improved eye at the plate over the course of his career.

Extra base hits as a percentage of hits and plate appearances:

Here is where it gets sketchy for the Royals. At first glance, Guillen appears to have a somewhat erratic ability to hit the ball hard when he makes contact, but overall looks like he is trending upward.

However, when you remove the years most likely to be affected by small sample size blips, he begins to look like any typical player. In terms of full-season ability, Guillen’s power potential seems to have peaked when he was 27.

The Royals have just “fixed” their middle order power problem with a guy who looks to be on the decline in terms of hurting the baseball over the next three years.

The good news is that while Guillen now becomes the highest-paid player in team history, his contract is not exorbitant in the current market. Three years is a short enough time frame that Kansas City can cut their losses if Guillen fails to find rejuvenation in the fountains at Kauffman stadium.

That said, I’d still rather see them go after Miguel Cabrera.


MLB Pitcher Joe Kennedy dead at 28

He died in Florida today. RIP.

TAMPA, Fla. – Major league pitcher Joe Kennedy died early Friday morning, a Hillsborough County sheriff’s official said. He was 28.

Kennedy passed out at home and was brought to a hospital, Hillsborough County sheriff’s spokeswoman Debbie Carter said. She had no further details.

Kennedy’s agent, Damon Lapa, told that Kennedy died while at home with family in Florida. He did not return phone calls and an e-mail from The Associated Press.

“We were terribly shocked,” Blue Jays president Paul Godfrey said. “From what we understand he was in Bradenton … to be the best man at a wedding today.”

Godfrey said he didn’t have any particulars on the cause of death.

“When a 28-year-old man dies it’s terrible,” he said.

The left-hander was 43-61 in seven major league seasons with the Tampa Bay Rays, Colorado Rockies, Oakland Athletics, Arizona Diamondbacks and Toronto Blue Jays. Kennedy compiled a 43-61 record with a 4.79 ERA, pitching 908 2/3 innings over 222 career appearances. first reported the news of his death.

Kennedy made his major league debut in June 2001 and made his last appearance in relief on Sept. 29 in a 5-3 win over Tampa Bay.


The John Hart Post-season

If someone would ask who is the most influential general manager in baseball today, many people would answer, Billy Beane of the Oakland Athletics. Beane, the one-time prospect, was the first general manager to put the ideas of Bill James to practical use. By using metrics that other organizations ignored, Beane built a team that has been competitive over the past decade despite operating with one of the smallest budgets in the game. Now more teams are using statistical analysis to evaluate their talent, but Beane was the first to do it. (At least this time around. Other teams did it in the past, but there wasn’t a fancy name like Sabermetrics to describe it then.) And Beane had a book written about him. How much more influential can he be?

It’s possible though, that Beane isn’t the answer. In fact an argument could be made that the most influential GM in baseball isn’t even a GM anymore.

John Hart now a special assistant to owner Tom Hicks of the Texas Rangers may have transformed the game even more than Beane has. In fact, it’s the change that Hart introduced that has helped make statistical analysis more accepted throughout the game.

Hart did set an example in the early 90′s as he brought the Cleveland Indians back to respectability and the World Series (twice). He signed his young talent to multi-year contracts before they reached arbitration. He figured that if he locked up players early, he might spend more at the beginning of the deal but spend a lot less than he otherwise would have at the end of the deal.

Back in the day when teams controlled the players (and salaries) Branch Rickey famously said “Trade a player a year too early rather than a year too late.”

For baseball, things have changed a lot economically in the past half century. Given the popularity of the sport, the free movement that players have achieved and the resulting rising salaries, identifying, signing, developing and keeping talent is the toughest challenge of every major league team. But what Branch Rickey describes that challenge.

What John Hart did in Cleveland was introduce a way to meet that challenge. But what he did behind the scenes was even more interesting.

At the time of the championship series this year, Jerry Crasnick of ESPN wrote John Hart’s family tree.

Excuse Hart if he feels as if his professional life is flashing before his eyes.

His former right-hand man, Dan O’Dowd, is riding a late-season wave with the resurgent Rockies. But first Colorado must get past the Arizona Diamondbacks, who are run by Josh Byrnes, a former front-office assistant in Cleveland at the height of Hart’s regime.

And the Cleveland Indians, the franchise Hart guided to six postseason berths and two World Series appearances from 1995 through 2001, will try to end 59 years of championship futility against Boston. General manager Mark Shapiro, yet another Hart protégé, is the man in charge in Cleveland.

That means three of the four general managers still playing consider Hart a mentor and lifelong influence. Which makes you wonder: How did he miss Theo Epstein?

How’d he develop all of this front office talent?

The John Hart front-office “tree” encompasses more than the three LCS general managers. Neal Huntington, the new GM in Pittsburgh, spent nine years in Cleveland. Paul DePodesta worked for the Indians before moving on to Oakland, the Dodgers and San Diego. And Chris Antonetti, Shapiro’s top assistant, is widely regarded as a GM-in-waiting.

Shapiro has a history degree from Princeton, Byrnes went to Haverford, Huntington is an Amherst graduate and DePodesta went to Harvard. Those academic pedigrees might seem a little highfalutin for the old guard, but Hart found a way to marry the two approaches in Cleveland. Nothing got done until John Goryl, Tom Giordano and the veteran baseball men had their say.

“This isn’t Sabermetrics,” Hart said. “I wanted our guys to hear what the manager says and how tough it is in that dugout, because I’ve been there. I wanted them to respect the old scout in the blue Plymouth who’s going from one city to the next trying to find the next young superstar out of high school or college. They all got schooled on old baseball.”

Antonetti was widely regarded as a future GM someplace else. His name came up as a possibility in St. Louis but Cleveland offered him a deal to stay in place. but look at the academic backgrounds of the men listed above. It appears that John Hart’s innovation to the front office was to introduce the interdisciplinary approach to running a baseball team.

There are still those who deride the statistical approach to baseball. But what Hart showed was that different approaches could be melded together to run a baseball team successfully.

Rob Neyer, in a similar article, four years ago had Hart describe his philosophy.

“My background was field development,” Hart recalls. “But as I noticed the evolvement of the game, I realized that while there were a lot of strengths I was going to bring, if we wanted to have the best organization, we needed to have people around that offered another skill set. When you’re in that position, you worry. You want to be good. And at some point I said to myself, ‘Here’s where we want to be. And if we want to get here, this is what I need. I can’t do this by myself.’ ”

As the new general manager, one of Hart’s first hires was Shapiro. “I knew that Mark had great leadership skills,” says Hart, “in addition to being a Princeton graduate and very bright. But what I wanted to do with Mark was get him to where he was in a leadership position, to where he could go lead a farm department. And the great thing was to get him around the baseball people, the guys that had made a living in the game for so long, the Johnny Goryls and the other 40-year guys. Mark picked it up. He just got it, and the baseball guys established a great confidence in Mark.”

But Crasnick didn’t give Hart enough credit. Hart’s model may well have been copied by the Boston Red Sox. No Theo Epstein didn’t serve under Hart, but he apparently learned quite well from him.

One majored in history at Wesleyan University. One studied psychology at Harvard. One pursued American studies at Colby College. One elected Russian studies and political science, also at Colby.

One managed two hits off future Anaheim Angel Jarrod Washburn as a sophomore at Wesleyan. One had a .301 career average for the Crimson. One began at Colby as an “OK field, no hit” infielder, took up pitching, and won nine games. One tried out for the varsity at Weymouth South High as a junior and was told “I’d made the team, but that I was never going to play.”

One grew up in Plymouth, N.H., one in Swampscott, one in Walpole, N.H., the other in Weymouth, all fans of the Boston Red Sox.

Today, they constitute much of the organization’s underpinning, literally and figuratively. Literally, they are based underground, below the Fenway Park box office at the corner of Brookline Avenue and Yawkey Way. Figuratively, they get the necessary and complex work — contracts, arbitration casework, player recruitment, advance scouting, and more — done.

But there was another way that John Hart influenced the Red Sox this year. Not in the front office but on the bench.

When he was a younger manager with the Phillies, Francona did little to distinguish himself. In four years on the job, Francona never managed more than 77 wins in a season, and by the end of his tenure he’d lost control of the team. There were also concerns that Francona overused his young pitchers in the service of, well, not much of anything. After the smoke cleared, it appeared that Francona had squandered his opportunity.

However, he then spent time in the Cleveland Indians front office and as the bench coach for the Texas Rangers and Oakland A’s. In those roles, Francona learned new approaches to the game — namely, the value of statistical analysis when it comes to making baseball decisions. Certainly, Francona never abandoned his traditionalist bearing, but his time in progressive organizations like Cleveland and Oakland helped him learn to blend approaches. That rare skill impressed the new regime in Boston when they interviewed Francona for their vacant managerial post.

At the time of his hiring, Francona’s managerial record was pocked with failure, and he was viewed by fans and media as an uninspired choice; you may recall a similar reaction when Torre was named Yankees manager. Of course, Francona promptly proved them all wrong.

Dayn Perry, who wrote the article, also noticed what I did: the similarity of the Francona signing with the Red Sox to the Torre signing by the Yankees. Each came in with a less than impressive managing career, but both emerged as top managers. Francona, was prepared for his new position, in part, by learning the Hart approach to baseball.

Baseball Musings noted something about Francona right after he was hired.

I always thought this was Buck Showalter’s strength with the Yankees, using players in situations in which there was a high probability of them succeeding. If that’s Terry’s philosophy as well, he’ll do well with the Red Sox.

So it can reasonably be argued that John Hart’s influence extended to all four teams to reach the championship series this year. And with another Hart protege now running the show in Pittsburgh the interdisciplinary approach to running a ballclub continues to spread.

Crossposted on Soccer Dad.


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