Short Takes

(Photo: Eric Gay/AP)

Touching on a number of topics, from veteran John Smoltz down to some of the top young players that baseball - and primarily, the NL East - has to offer.

Spring Phenoms

Yeah, you should take Spring Training stats with the proverbial grain of salt. Or, at least if you remember Ron "Palm Trees" Stone you do. But, which of these two spring outfield phenoms would you rather have, based on their spring numbers as of St. Patrick's Day?

  

AB  

R

H

2

3

HR

RBI

BB

K

AVG

SLG

A  

24

2

10

2

0

2

8

3

5

.417

.750

B  

22

8

10

4

0

1

5

9

3

.455

.773

Small samples, but both pretty impressive, right? Facts not listed above… "A" has three outfield assists, and zero at bats above Double-A. "B" is two years younger than "A" and has exactly 11 at bats in Triple-A. Maybe that tips the scales to "B," but it's hard to see either one going back to the minors soon.

Well, one of them just took a virtual trip to Allentown , PA. That's because "A" is the Phillies Domonic Brown, and therein lies the biggest difference, not necessarily between the two players ("B" is the Braves Jason Heyward, BTW), but between their two teams. Both have been equally good… though to hear the Braves media sycophants drool over Heyward, you'd think he was at least the second coming of Hank Aaron… but Brown, barring several catastrophic injuries, is going to spend 2010 in Double A or Triple A, and Heyward is going to be the Braves right fielder, learning the game the hard way on the major league level (can you say, "Jeff Francoeur," class?)

So what's the difference? Simple, The Phillies don't need Brown, and the Braves have to bring Heyward up and hope he really is the number one prospect in baseball to have any chance of generating enough offense to compete in 2010. And that's a big difference, Braves fans.

Smoltz Farewell Tour Short-Circuited

Speaking of virtual trips, John Smoltz announced his virtual retirement in conjunction with St. Patrick's Day… he's joining TBS as a color man, thus proving Abraham Lincoln's saying that you can't fool all of the people all of the time. Smoltz certainly fooled the Red Sox and the Cardinals last year, fooled them into thinking he could still pitch effectively. Of course, Smoltz has been fooling people for years, notably baseball writers who keep insisting he's a lock for the Hall of Fame. Now, since these same fools will be doing the voting, he very well may be a lock, but, just like Earl Coombs and Jesse Haines and George Kelly, he is, in reality, a marginal candidate. Not that reality has much to do with the Hall, otherwise Phil Rizzuto and Rabbit Maranville wouldn't be there, either.

No, Smoltz' "fame" has largely been based on two highly selective stats – he is indeed the only pitcher with more than 200 wins and more than 150 saves. A meaningless combination, at least as far as the Hall goes. For instance, Dennis Eckersley, who is deservedly in the Hall, had 390 saves and 197 wins.

So, Smoltz (or at least his stats) have been fooling people. And that's not uncommon in baseball, especially among elderly and formerly great pitchers, who have a long and inglorious history of not hanging up their spikes until they're forced to do so, because they've run out of teams to fool. These hurlers – Steve Carlton being probably the most notable case -- conduct their own, unofficial farewell tours, looking for teams that will let them keep pitching, despite the best judges – the hitters – ruling they should be in retirement. Up until recently, it sure looked like Smoltz was going to continue his farewell tour, actively seeking a sucker (and there's one born every minute, you know) to pick him up after the Red Sox and Cards decided not to invest in a composite 3-8 record with a 6.35 ERA (which is what Smoltz posted for those two teams in 2009.)

As noted, Steve Carlton probably had the most painful of these exercises, going from the Phillies to the Giants to the White Sox to the Indians to the Twins from 1986 to 1988, and posting the following lines…

Year     W-L     ERA

1986     9-14      5.10

1987     6-14      5.74

1988     0-1      16.76

Still, Lefty was hardly the first (or last) great pitcher to suffer in this fashion. Take Warren Spahn, who went from the Braves to the Mets to the Giants in 1964 and 1965, with records of 6-13 and 7-16 and ERAs of 5.29 and 4.01 (in a pitcher's era). And then there was Gaylord Perry, who like Carlton toured five cities ( Texas , New York , Atlanta , Seattle and Kansas City ) on the way out.

Year     W-L     ERA

1980     10-13    3.68

1981       8-9      3.94

1982     10-12    4.40

1983     7-14     4.64

Back in the 30s, Burleigh Grimes, like Carlton , Spahn and Perry a Hall of Famer, didn't get the message, either. He pitched for the Cubs, Cards, Yankees and Pirates on the way out, fashioning this record…

Year     W-L     ERA

1932     6-11      4.78

1933     3-7       3.78

1934     4-5       6.11

Most of the booming that Boomer Wells heard in his last two seasons with the Red Sox, Padres and Dodgers was the sound of line drives. Here's how he fared in 2006 and 2007…

Year     W-L     ERA

2006     3-5       4.42

2007     9-9       5.43

Finally, Luis Tiant did himself and his legacy no good after leaving the Red Sox. Although he pitched effectively for the Yankees in 1979 (13-8, 3.91), he spent the 1980, 1981 and 1982 seasons being used for BP while appearing on the rosters of the aforesaid Hateds, the Pirates and the Angels.

Year     W-L     ERA

1980      8-9       4.89

1981      2-5       3.92

1982      2-2       5.76

Now, not all of these records would normally be automatic trips to the minors or the Old Pitchers' Home if your name was Joe Blow. But, they sure represented a demeaning come down from the glory days of these individuals. Smoltz is making the right move.

Stephen Strasburg

So just how much might Stephen Strasburg accomplish in 2010, assuming the Nationals do keep him in the majors for most of the year? There's been all sorts of speculation – he's everything from another Tom Seaver to the best college pitching prospect ever to comparisons to Mark Prior. One thing to keep in mind is that, if he does pitch for the Nationals in 2010 (and it's hard to believe, given how awful the Nats' pitching is, that he won't) it will be for a team that deservedly lost more than 100 games last year. Thus, his record isn't likely to be real good, no matter how good he may be individually.

The corollary to this question is Strasburg's age – he's 21. And very few starting pitchers are stars at such a young age. Nonetheless, it has been done. If you go back through history to the start of the Expansion Era (1961), there have been six Rookie of the Year pitchers who were age 21 or younger. They were, in chronological order; Mark Fidrych (1976), Dave Righetti (1981), Fernando Valenzuela (1981), Dwight Gooden (1984), Kerry Wood (1998), and Dontrelle Willis (2003). Fidrych, Righetti, Wood and Willis were all 21 during their ROY seasons. Valenzuela claimed to be 20 (maybe yes, maybe no), and Gooden, essentially the youngest true pitching star (if you discount Wally Bunker, which almost everyone does) since Bob Feller, was 19. So, yes, a 21 year old (or younger) pitcher can make a big splash.

(In case you're wondering, Mark Prior spent part of the 2002 season in the minors, and only made 19 starts for the Cubs at age 21, going 6-6 with 3.32 ERA.)

                        W-L     ERA

Fidrych             19-9      2.34

Righetti               8-4      2.05

Valenzuela        13-7      2.48

Gooden             17-9      2.60

Wood               13-6      3.40

Willis                14-6      3.30

There's another stat that might prove more significant in terms of speculation on Strasburg's 2010 season. And that's each pitcher's exposure to professional baseball, prior to their ROY campaigns, their exposure via the minor leagues.

Fidrych             53 games

Righetti             80 games

Valenzuela        30 games

Gooden             38 games

Wood               55 games

Willis                69 games

Strasburg, fresh out of college, has zero games experience in the minors, making a huge 2010 less likely.

There's also one final consideration -- the long term. None of the now-retired ROY pitchers listed above had careers that were near what their ROY stats would have indicated. Fidrych blew out his arm. Righetti had a good career, but as a reliever. Valenzuela only won 20 games once, and finished with 173 Ws. Gooden, beset by substance abuse, was the best, finishing at 194-112 with exactly one, 20-win season. And that gloomy prediction is just as true for Wood, Willis and Prior, none of whom is retired, but none of whom is a candidate for the Cy Young Award anytime soon.

Don't start making plans for a parade down the Mall quite yet, Nats fans.


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