Tuesday, September 30, 2008

The Zen of K

It all started with my esteemed colleague Steve Bitker's rants about Jack Cust. Cust is the A's outfielder/designated hitter who has put up some truly bizarre numbers the last two seasons. This year, he led the American League in both strikeouts and walks. He also hit 33 home runs and drove in 77 runs while batting .231. Read his complete line here.

Steve's complaint is that Cust is boring: more than 51% of his plate appearances end with Cust either trotting to first base or making a U-turn to the dugout, without putting the ball in play.

I won't quibble with Steve's conclusions; they do represent a value judgment (is a fly out more interesting than a strikeout?). But in digging into Cust's stats, I came to realize this: he is not alone.

Cust's 197 strikeouts this year represented a personal high (and got him oh-so-close to becoming the first 30/100/200 man in baseball history), but he didn't lead the majors in strikeouts. Arizona third baseman Mark Reynolds managed to whiff 204 times (while batting .239), and Phillies first baseman Ryan Howard is considered an MVP frontrunner after striking out 199 times and hitting .251.

And then there's Arizona's Adam Dunn, who outwalked even the oh-so-patient Cust (122) and managed to strike out 164 times, while also pounding 40 homers and driving in 100 runs.

In all, 8 fulltime big-leaguers averaged more than one strikeout per game this season (and a couple of others, Matt Kemp and Jim Thome, came very close). Cust had 16 games where he struck out 3 or more times. That's a lot of Silver Sombreros.

It's pretty clear that the phrase "contact hitter" is becoming an anachronism in baseball. "Grip it and rip it" is the new mantra. Even when you miss.

Friday, September 26, 2008

The Jeff Kent Club

So it turns out the Warriors' Monta Ellis really wasn't "working out in the offseason" when he badly injured his ankle, unless you count moped-riding as exercise.

Of course, the Warriors don't count it as exercise, because they specifically forbid it in Ellis' contract. It remains to be seen how they'll handle this, although the best guess seems to be a fine and a stern scolding. Plus I bet they take away his keys.

Ellis now joins a long list of pro athletes whose offseason antics rendered them unable to perform. Many of them first told whoppers to cover up the true cause of their injuries. Remember Jeff Kent and the carwash? Sure you do. Here's the original report about Kent's 2002 broken wrist, which was later revealed to have occurred while Kent was popping wheelies on a motorcycle in Scottsdale.

Just last year, the Lakers' Vladmir Radmanovic had to 'fess up about his shoulder injury, which he said happened when he slipped on a patch of ice. Sort of true, except that the patch of ice was under the snowboard he wasn't supposed to be riding.

There are plenty of weird offseason injury stories. The NBA's Minnesota Timberwolves will start the season without center Jason Collins, who needed surgery after he suffered an elbow tendon injury in...wait for it...a golf cart accident. At least he told the truth about it.

And then there's Tigers reliever Joel Zumaya, who has suffered not one but two bizarre off-field injuries. He once missed several playoff games when he hurt himself playing Guitar Hero, and this past off-season, he damaged his shoulder moving boxes in the garage.

Some of this stuff you just can't make up.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

We Smell Victory

Just back from The Second Quadrennial Cheesehead Experience, in which KCBS colleagues Doug Sovern, Mike Sugerman, Steve Bitker and I first cadge Green Bay Packers tickets out of John Madden, then try to cram as much fun as we can into a weekend.

This time, we:
  • Ate the most expensive steak any of us had ever eaten (a $55 bone-in filet mignon) in Chicago
  • Saw the Cubs clinch the NL Central pennant at Wrigley Field and actually smelled the champagne they were spraying
  • Sang "Go Cubs Go" with the locals
  • Caught a legendary bluesman none of us had ever heard of at Chicago's Kingston Mines blues club
  • Got stuck on the El for 30 minutes at 2 in the morning, then missed our stop because we were on an express train
  • Grilled 500 bratwursts in the Lambeau Field loading dock to serve to NBC Sports people, cops, US Marines, and others
  • Sat 10 rows up from the field for the Sunday night Packers/Cowboys game
  • Got stuck in postgame traffic trying to drive the 30 miles to the nearest hotel we could book while Doug swore that the map on his iPhone offered a better route
  • Stopped at Mars' Cheese Castle to acquire a hunk of Cheddar shaped like the state of Wisconsin and a sausage shaped like a bottle of Miller Lite

Does it get any better than that?

Friday, September 19, 2008

Our Tim

Lots of talk this week about how two Giants/Diamondbacks games would have a lot to say about who wins the National League Cy Young Award.

On consecutive nights, the D-Backs' Brandon Webb and the Giants' Tim Lincecum started. As it turns out, Webb won and Lincecum lost. But if anyone thinks that proves Webb's the better 2008 pitcher, he's not looking at the stats (or the video).

Webb may have 21 wins to Lincecum's 17, but he's pitching for a team with a better record (and if I wanted to get snarky, I'd point out that Webb's lost 7 games to Lincecum's 4). In virtually every other category that matters, Lincecum has the edge over Webb:

  • ERA 2.46 to 3.26
  • Strikeouts 243 to 170
  • Innings pitched 215 to 212
  • Fewest HR allowed 10 to 13
  • Hits allowed 172 to 192

Plus, Lincecum leads in an intangible category, one I'll call GILLTF (baseball has enough weird stats; why not another one?): Guys I'd Least Like To Face. Ask around baseball, and there's near-unanimous praise and respect for what this kid's done in his 56 major league starts. As they say, he has filthy stuff, and the cojones to go with it.

End the debate. It's Cy Tim in '08.

Monday, September 8, 2008

The New Dumbest Rule

Quick: how high is high?

Apparently, the correct answer spells the difference between winning and losing in college football.

The referees at Saturday's Washington-BYU game flagged UW quarterback Jake Locker for an "excessive celebration" penalty when he scored a last-minute touchdown to pull the Huskies to within a point of the nationally-ranked Cougars, and then celebrated by tossing the ball in the air.

The refs invoked NCAA Rule 9.2(c) and penalized Washington 15 yards on the extra-point attempt, which was then blocked to seal a BYU win.

This moronic rule prohibits a player from scoring and then--and I quote here from the rulebook--"throwing the ball high into the air".

Give me a break. How high is high? A foot? Two feet? 35 feet?

The ref whose crew flagged Locker said, "It was not a judgment call." Excuse me? Of course it was a judgment call. Somebody had to decide that Locker's toss was "high".

It's easy to blast the refs for throwing the flag. Probably they shouldn't have. But what about the brain-dead NCAA suits who wrote the rule in the first place? Can anyone explain why there's a need to legislate against exuberance in college sports?

Thursday, September 4, 2008

The Real Crash Davis

Quick: how many minor league home runs did the fictional Crash Davis hit in "Bull Durham"?

Answer: 247 (and as Kevin Costner's Crash told Susan Sarandon's Annie Savoy, "247 homers in the minors would be a dubious honor, if you think about it.")

Well, screenwriter Ron Shelton undershot reality with that number. The guy you see on your screen hit 362 dingers in the minors (including time in Japan). But with that swing, Scott McClain put himself on the all-time major league home run list. Career total: 1 (tied with Duane Kuiper).

When McClain left high school in Atascadero back in 1990, he undoubtedly didn't expect to spend all those years playing for all those minor league teams (10, including the Durham Bulls, plus 4 seasons in Japan). But he kept plugging away (and swinging away, because his home run totals have been offset by some stunning strikeout totals).

Another guy with McClainish numbers at least has an Olympic medal to show for his efforts. Mike Hessman, with 286 minor league HR's spread over 13 seasons, played in Beijing and got a bronze medal.

But for McClain, it was year after year of rounding the bases in the minors. He even switched from 3rd base to 1st base along the way. He went 28/107 for the A's top farm club two years ago and followed that with 31/100 and 22/83 seasons for the Giants' Fresno team before the September callup that gave him that memorable moment in Denver.

Give McClain credit for hanging in there. And while you're at it, give the Giants credit for giving him the chance to hit that first big-league bomb. The organization has plenty of younger players who actually might have a future, yet the brass recognized and rewarded McClain's commitment to the game.

Remember: for every home run king, there are hundreds and hundreds of Scott McClains.