Saturday, April 16, 2011

Feet of Clay: Did Elias Make a Mistake??

Statistical geeks such as myself generally bow down to the words “Elias Sports Bureau,” since that oft-cited agency is the gold standard for statistical accuracy and omnipotence in the world of sports. This is especially true where baseball is concerned. If you want to know the last time an Oklahoma-born second basemen named Fred with shin splints and a stubbly beard hit into a force play in five consecutive games batting lefthanded in the month of August, the guys at Elias will find that stat for you.

Sometimes it’s even annoying the stats Elias comes up with, their obscurity and/or irrelevance so remote that it bears recalling that presumably someone is actually getting PAID to look that stuff up. (Those of us who toil in a similar sports vineyard but hardly get paid much at all to exercise the same statistically geeky impulse can only imagine what an Elias statistician brings home every week. Besides a head full of useless but sometimes still very interesting information and factoids.)

As the esoteric facts get revealed in baseball game accounts with increasing regularity, it has occurred to me that the Elias folks at some point must have lurched headlong into the computer age with sophisticated metrics and search enginery that makes looking up the improbable oh so very possible. The other possibility--that there’s a small army of bespectacled, socially awkward and hermitlike nerds sitting in little cubicles at an office in New York City constantly looking up the facts using PCs and books and only their brains--just can’t be right.

But last night, in’s reprinted Associated Press account of the game between the Indians and Orioles, we read this:

According to the Elias Sports Bureau, [Zach] Britton is the first Orioles pitcher to allow just one earned run in his first two starts since Tom Phoebus, who did it in 1954 when the franchise was still in St. Louis.

Hmmm, thinks I... I remember Phoebus, but he played in the ’60s. Then I thought, was there ANOTHER Tom Phoebus, and was he on the 1954 St. Louis Browns, which the Orioles were before they moved to Baltimore?? As Miss Clavell used to say in the Madeline books, “Something’s not quite right...”

So I looked it up at Sure enough, there was--and is--only one Tom Phoebus, and he played major league baseball from 1966-72, with the Orioles, Padres and Cubs. Phoebus was a decent pitcher, mainly a starter--56-52 lifetime, 3.33 ERA, 11 career shutouts, and he picked up a World Series ring with the 1970 Orioles. As for the 1954 reference, in fact that was the first year the Orioles played in Baltimore, so they were no longer in St. Louis by then. Needless to say, there was also no one named Tom Phoebus on the 1954 roster.

Which means that a) ESPN made a huge series of improbable misprints or mis-types; b) the AP reporter working on this item was hugely incompetent (not outside the realm of possibility); or c) the Elias boys released incorrect statistical information.

If it’s the latter, I think there should be a major press conference. I mean, if Elias & Co. got this wrong, how many other bits and bites have they fed us through the years that also were incorrect? Who knows, maybe those guys have just been making stuff up. How would we know they weren’t, since their word is accepted as gospel all the time?

Makes ya wonder. (Well, makes ME wonder.)

Anyway, hello to Tom Phoebus, 69 years old, wherever you are.

Wednesday, April 06, 2011

National Obsession: Are Washington's Nats Moving Up or Down?

The Washington Nationals are off to yet another stellar start. Not. At the moment, the team shows early signs of good pitching being undermined by impotent hitting.

Of course, I don’t know why a team that ought to be building with youth added to its roster Jerry Hairston, Jr. (34), Laynce Nix (30), Alex Cora (35) and Matt Stairs (43). Sorry, but none of these guys was a star in his prime anyway. (Stairs is a pinch-hitter only. And the Nats have that luxury why??)

Plus there’s new starting center-fielder Rick Ankiel, who makes for a good baseball story--former pitcher who lost his mojo then resurfaced as a position player with legit power--but is 31 and has declined with the bat since his impressive comeback in ’07-’08.

Even high-priced off-season free-agent signee Jayson Werth is 31, and the team will be spending--take a deep breath now--$126M over 7 years on the guy. That’s $18M a year, folks. Ya think Werth’s gonna be worth that when he’s 35? Or 36? How about when he’s 38? It's nuts, I tell ya.

In the meantime, Nats management dumped or traded proven slugger Adam Dunn and decent power guy Josh Willingham, who are 31 and 32, respectively. (Both hit homers in their opening day games for their new teams, by the way.)

I guess all these moves have to do with money and stuff--or presumably someone’s incredibly brilliant assessment of talent. I’d still rather have Dunn than Werth. But whatever.

Just for fun, let’s track management’s team-building by following the former Nats they’ve let go to other rosters in the past few years. Did they show foresight in these moves? Or folly? Hard to know, but the names below certainly could be comprised by someone’s major league roster.

Where Are They Now?

Luis Ayala--The right-hander’s promise of 2003-5 had never been fulfilled. Was with the Nats organization up to 2008, then went journeyman. He’s with the Yankees now, though.

Miguel Batista--Journeyman starter/reliever had his best ERA in seven years with the Nats in 2010. He’s 40, and signed with the Cards in the off-season.

Emilio Bonifacio--Briefly with the Nats in ’08 after a trade with Arizona, he’s now with Florida. He has skills as an infielder, but his bat is off and on. Still only 25.

Marlon Byrd--Let go by the Nats in ’05, Byrd has established himself as a quality ballplayer and was an All-Star in 2010 for the Cubs.

Matt Capps--Acquired from Pittsburgh in 2010, Capps had a career year as a reliever, posting 42 saves, but not before the Nats traded him to Minnesota to acquire catching prospect Wilson Ramos.

Jamey Carroll--Since the Nats gave up on him in 2005, Carroll has carved out for himself a very nice niche as a dependable utilityman and sometime starter. A late-bloomer, he’s now 37, but the career .276 BA is legit, and he’s played well with Colorado, Cleveland and now the Dodgers.

Adam Dunn--Signed with the White Sox as a free agent, after the Nats wouldn’t sign him as a free agent. Should have a monster season as a DH with Pale Hose.

Alberto Gonzalez--Traded to Padres at start of 2011 season. Decent fielder, versatile, .253 career hitter. Not yet 28, but never established himself as a first-stringer.

Joel Hanrahan--Nats kept waiting for this guy to do something really great with his fastball, as a starter or reliever. They gave up and traded him to Pittsburgh. Jury’s still out, but he’s 29 already.

Willie Harris--A semi-fan-favorite for three seasons, Harris never hit better than .251 for the Nats. They expected more. Occasional power, a versatile guy in the field, Harris is now a Met. He’ll probably exact his revenge sometime this season.

Austin Kearns--Starting left-fielder in the home opener for the Indians. In truth, if Kearns is your starting anything, your team is in big trouble. No one misses him.

Adam Kennedy--Unknown by many: Kennedy is a career .275 hitter and has a World Series ring. Spent 2010 with the Nats, then signed a free-agent deal with Seattle.

Ryan Langerhans--It may be a mystery how Langerhans has managed to have a nine-year MLB career, but when you’ve spent the past five years with the Nats and the Mariners, never hitting more than .234, some clarity emerges. Langerhans hasn’t looked promising since 2005 with the Braves. But he’s getting a pension, and that’s nothing to sneeze at.

Mike MacDougal--Another journeyman pitcher, he actually had a strong ’09 for the Nats. He just keeps moving from pillar to post, and the Dodgers like him currently.

Lastings Milledge--Nats dumped him off on the Pirates a couple years ago, claiming he was a head case. He put up respectable batting averages for the Bucs (.277, .291), and earned a roster spot with the expected-to-contend White Sox this year. Still only 25.

Nyjer Morgan--When the Nats acquired him from the Bucs in ’09, it was presumed that the team had found a centerfielder and leadoff hitter for a solid five years. Morgan has some speed but no power, and he didn’t draw that many walks for a leadoff man, and he had some weird adventures in the outfield. Suddenly he looked expendable. So right before the 2011 season, he was traded to the Brewers for a minor leaguer named Cutter Dykstra plus some cash. Hope it was a LOT of cash, ’cause Dykstra’s .274/.374/.383 aggregate line in the low minors, plus his anemic power numbers and tons of Ks, reek of bad prospect. He’s only 21, though. And he’s versatile, having played six positions in his three years. Alas, that probably means he’ll never anchor one single position. If only he were Lenny Dykstra.

Wil Nieves--A catcher who can’t hit, Nieves signed with the Brewers in the off-season.

Pete Orr--Had stints with the ’08 and ’09 Nats. It’s always interesting when a team that went 69-93 finds useless a guy who hooks on with a team that went 97-65 (Phillies). Orr’s a journeyman infielder, sorta like Alex Cora or Jerry Hairston, Jr. Only younger.

Jon Rauch--The 6’10” former Morehead State Eagle is 32 now, pretty much a journeyman, but has had a solid career as both a long and short reliever. With the Blue Jays currently.

Brian Schneider--With the Expos/Nats for parts of eight seasons, the journeyman catcher was a Met and is now a Phillie. He’s a .250 career hitter with occasional power and is a reliable receiver. At 34, you can at least say he’s a lot younger than Pudge Rodriguez.

Alfonso Soriano--He hit 46 homers for the ’06 Nats, who couldn’t (or wouldn’t) pay the price to sign him in free agency. Now he’s a gazillionaire with the Cubs battling age (35) and occasional injury. He’s still a step up from Roger Bernadina.

Josh Willingham--When healthy, a solid bat with consistent if unspectacular power, and a run producer. Traded to the A’s this past off-season, and he’s hitting cleanup for them.