Living in the Past

I have no interest in talking about steroids. Unfortunately, I’m afraid I can’t make the point I’m about to make without talking about, or at least alluding to, steroids. One of the many unfortunate byproducts of the “steroid era” in the late 1990s and early 2000s is that fans and writers seem to have lost touch with the realities of aging.

Double G Sports, a blog unfortunately dedicated to New York/New Jersey sports, posed a series of questions on the Baseball Bloggers Alliance listserve about the most feared players in MLB. Easily baited, I offered my opinion, then watched somewhat incredulously as other bloggers weighed in with their answers. I couldn’t help but be dismayed by some of the answers that seemed to reflect the baseball landscape when Mark Prior was the next big thing and Ken Griffey, Jr., was starting to fade. It occurred to me for the first time that the steroid era blinded observers to the unfortunate effects of aging that plagued (steroidless) baseball players for generations.

Here are the questions Double G Sports posed, along with my answers, the answers I expect to dominate the polling, and some of the surprising answers I saw today:

1. Your team is on the field with a one-run lead and a (runner) on first in the bottom of the 9th. A home run and you lose. Which batter would scare you the most?
My pick: Miguel Cabrera
Likely winner: Jose Bautista
Living in the past: Albert Pujols

I know the point of this question was to find the “scariest” home run hitter, and that’s probably Bautista, by virtue of his 124 home runs since the beginning of 2010, 1/3 more than any other hitter. Bautista, though, is 31, and gets a little less fearful every day despite his continued success. In 2012, Bautista has made an out in 64% of his plate appearances, so there’s a decent chance “my team” escapes from Bautista’s at bat. Cabrera, remarkably, is still 28, hits 30+ homers every year, and is still getting on base at a .382 clip, his lowest since 2004, and a pace he’ll likely improve on in the second half.

I wouldn’t argue too vehemently against Bautista here, if that’s who the voters pick. I’d also be unoffended by Josh Hamilton, who hits fewer homers than Cabrera only because he’s on the field less often. Hamilton is legitimately scary with a bat in his hands. Joey Votto would be another great pick.

I was surprised, though, to see support among the Alliance for Pujols. Pujols is the second- or third-best player of my lifetime (maybe the best “clean” player, of you’re into such distinctions), and will certainly rebound from his dismal April and May to become one of the game’s best hitters again. He’s at least 32, though, and he’s seen his batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, and raw home run count decrease every year since 2009. This is not a flaw in his character or a surprising development. This is the same thing that happened to Jimmie Foxx and Stan Musial and Mickey Mantle as they approached their mid 30s. They remained among the game’s better players, but ceased to be the one guy in all of baseball most likely to hit a home run in any given at bat. Just because that didn’t happen to Barry Bonds or Mark McGwire or Rafeal Palmeiro doesn’t mean it isn’t a fact of life.

2. A one-game, must-win, do-or-die scenario. What starting pitcher do you not want your team to face?
My pick: Zack Greinke
Likely winner: Justin Verlander
Living in the past: Roy Halladay

I’ll admit that my pick was motivated at least partly by the assumption that few, if any, of my peers will vote for Greinke. From a run prevention standpoint, Greinke was the best pitcher in the world in 2009, below average in 2010, and very good, but not among the best handful of pitchers in the game, in 2011 and 2012. From a true outcomes standpoint, though, Greinke has been the best pitcher in the game since 2009, his 2.79 FIP outshining Verlander, Halladay, and co-runners-up Cliff Lee and Josh Johnson. By the end of this month, Greinke might be pitching for a team with a decent defense, which might just remind the world how devastating a pitcher he is.

Verlander is probably the right answer here, but last night’s All-Star Game meltdown was fresh on my mind, and recalled his postseason struggles in 2011. Those struggles were most likely due to all the work on his right arm by that point in the season, and I’d be terrified to face him this October. Similarly, as a player, I’d soil myself immediately upon stepping into the batter’s box to face Stephen Strasburg. Felix Hernandez is Verlander without the motivation of a playoff race, and Clayton Kershaw is building a case as the game’s best pitcher. I wouldn’t argue against any of these options.

I suspect that Halladay’s current injury has led to fans and bloggers forgetting how dominant he was in 2011, when he outpitched Verlander by some measures, so he may not get many votes. If he did, they wouldn’t be misplaced (his 2.45 FIP leads all pitchers if we limit the sample to the last year and a half) but we should remember that Halladay is 35, and seasons of fewer than 30 starts are likely to become par for Halladay’s course for the remainder of his career. You may argue that Halladay’s success in his early 30s may suggest a late-30s rebirth, but check out the graphs in Bill Petti’s work on pitcher aging curves if you think Halladay’s about to replicate Roger Clemens’s late career.

3. Bottom of the ninth, you are down a run and need to score at least one run to tie the game. Which closer to you not want to face?
My pick: Craig Kimbrel
Likely winner: Craig Kimbrel
Living in the past: Mariano Rivera

I’m less offended by Rivera’s name appearing on several of the ballots I saw today, since he’s basically been the same pitcher every year since 2001 (and was pretty good for five years before that). In 2012, though, there is a better choice. Since the beginning of last year, Kimbrel has struck out 14.97 batters per nine innings, to Rivera’s 8.78. Kimbrel has walked more than twice as many, but has given up fewer home runs, accumulating a ridiculous 1.36 FIP. Rivera’s 2.15 FIP over that time is still elite, but not in Kimbrel’s league. In fact, Rivera’s best full-season FIP (1.88 in 1996) can’t match the worst season (1.53 in 2010) in Kimbrel’s young career. If you prefer ERA, Kimbrel’s 1.88 since last year nips Rivera’s 1.94.

4. Runner on third in a tie game, less than two outs. Your team is on the field. Give up a single and you lose. Which batter do you not want at the plate against your team?
My pick: Joey Votto
Likely winner: Joey Votto
Living in the past: Derek Jeter

Here’s where this whole exercise gets a little ridiculous. First off, the situation above calls for a hit or a sac fly or a ground ball to the right side. Let’s assume there are two outs, so we need a hit to win the game or a walk/HBP to keep the inning alive. Cabrera actually has the best batting average in the game (.330) since the start of 2011. I went with Votto here because the two are practically interchangably excellent and I felt like I unfairly dismissed Votto in question one. Votto walks a little more, and has the best on-base percentage in the game (.434) last year and this year, while their wOBAs are almost identical (Cabrera has a .421 to .419 edge).

Ryan Braun would be equally apt here, though I suspect his near-suspension this offseason will cost him votes. Matt Kemp has a case as well.

You know who doesn’t have much of a case? Derek Jeter, who showed up on two of the first eight ballots I saw. Sure, his .301 batting average since 2011 is 20th among all players. That’s still pretty good. More relevantly, his .355 OPB ranks 44th, so 43 hitters are more likely to keep the inning alive than Jeter. Most relevantly, Jeter just turned 38, an age at which Ernie Banks hit .253 and Mike Schmidt hit .249 with 12 home runs. In 1999, I’m afraid of what Derek Jeter might do with two outs and a runner on third in the ninth. In 2012, I might walk Brett Gardner to face him.

5. Your opponent needs to get a runner in scoring position. Who do you not want to see on first base looking to steal?
My pick: Mike Trout
Likely winner: Michael Bourn
Living in the past: Anyone but Trout?

No complaints here. I’ve never actually seen Trout play, so I’m relying on anecdotal and statistical (30 career steals in 33 tries) evidence to make this pick. Bourn (86 for 108) is a defensible pick here as well. In fact, aside from these two, the only other name cited was minor leaguer Billy Hamilton. No “proven veteran” bias here.
________________________________________________________________________________________________

As fans, we believe what we’ve seen. Albert Pujols hit a huge homer off Brad Lidge in the NLCS in 2005, so I’m afraid he’ll do the same against my team’s closer in 2012. Derek Jeter hit a big homer in the World Series in 2001, and had many more “clutch” hits while Bill Clinton was in office, so we should pitch around him in 2012. If our heroes don’t age, maybe we can run as fast and jump as high and chug as many beers now as we could in college.

Names are static, and images tend to be as well. Picture Ichiro Suzuki and it’s hard not to imagine him lunging at a pitch in the dirt, pounding it off the ground, and beating out an infield hit. Today, that same Ichiro jogs back to the dugout in failure over 70 percent of the time he comes to the plate. It happened to Ichiro. It happened to Babe Ruth. It’s happening to Pujols and Jeter and Halladay, at various rates. It will happen to Votto and Cabrera, and someday to Trout and Bryce Harper.

It’s more fun to pretend our heroes are infallible and we’re as young as we used to be than it is to admit that a 27-year-old is more likely to succeed in sports than a 32-year-old. Maybe fear, the original subject of this series of questions, is inherently biased by static images of past heroes winning games.

I, on the other hand, am more afraid of what I don’t know. A Strasburg fastball. Trout on first base. Harper camping under a fly ball when Jacoby Ellsbury is tagging to score from third. That’s scary. In 2012.

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One Response to Living in the Past

  1. Great writing and excellent observations. I think Gen-X is beginning to show their age. As you say, it’s not the year 2001 anymore, folks.
    Bill

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