Thursday, August 27, 2009

The Best Player Of My Lifetime

Sports Illustrated’s Peter King said the best player of his lifetime is Derek Jeter. My first impression was the King should stick to what he knows best (the NFL). But with a little digging, I found King is not so far off. And maybe, just maybe, Jeter is more than a great player who benefits from playing on a moneyed team that buys other top players to reach the playoffs.

I started following baseball in the mid-1970s, so my options are numerous, listed here alphabetically: Wade Boggs, George Brett, Rod Carew, Steve Carlton, Ken Griffey Jr., Tony Gwynn, Rickey Henderson, Derek Jeter, Randy Johnson, Greg Maddux, Cal Ripken Jr., Nolan Ryan, Mike Schmidt, and Robin Yount.

Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Mark McGwire, Alex Rodriguez and any other performance-enhancing drug (PED) suspect doesn’t count. Are some unknown PED guys on my initial list? Possibly, but I don’t think so.

Other potential candidates either have played too few seasons (Albert Pujols and Ryan Howard) or their best years occurred just before my baseball-following time (Johnny Bench, Joe Morgan, Pete Rose, Hank Aaron, and Willie Mays).

I love high-average hitters, but if we’re looking for the best overall player, there has to be more. Sorry, Boggs, Carew, and Gwynn. Also, for me, top everyday players trump pitchers so that eliminates the best two pitchers I’ve seen (Carlton and Maddux) as well as Johnson and Ryan.

That leaves Brett, Griffey Jr., Henderson, Jeter, Ripken, Schmidt, and Yount. Schmidt (three-time MVP and five-time top-five finalist) beats Brett (one-time MVP and four-time top-five finalist).

Two-time MVPs Ripken and Yount, unlike Schmidt and Brett, never led their league in any of the three major hitting categories. Neither has Jeter, who has never been an MVP and only finished in the top five twice.

Griffey Jr., a one-time MVP, had nine outstanding seasons and finished in the MVP top-five five times. But injuries curtailed his career; his first 11 seasons were stunning, but he dramatically tailed off after the 2000 season. And Henderson, a one-time MVP and two-time top-five finalist, is right there with Rose as the greatest leadoff hitters of all time.

But I’m going with Schmidt as the best player of my lifetime. He was the best offensive and defensive third basemen in baseball history. He led the NL in homers eight times, in RBIs four times, won 10 Gold Gloves. In 14 seasons, from 1974 to 1987, Schmidt had just one sub-par season (1978) and was named to 12 All Star teams.

Here’s my personal top five: Schmidt, Brett, Jeter, Carlton, Carew.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Howard Making History?

Ryan Howard's two home runs and five RBIs in the team's 6-2 victory over New York give him 34 homers and 104 RBIs for the season. It's the fourth consecutive year he has at least 30 home runs and 100 RBIs, something only Hall of Famer Chuck Klein has achieved in team history.

That's just the start of what could be a season for the ages for Howard. In Major League history, just five players have been their league's single-season leader in home runs and RBIs more than twice, and the list is a Who's Who of the all-time greatest.

Mike Schmidt ('80, '81, '84, '86) and Hank Aaron ('57, '63, '66) are the only National Leaguers with more than two such seasons, while Ted Williams ('42, '47, '49), Hank Greenberg ('35, '40, '46), and Babe Ruth ('19, '20, '21, '23, '26, '28) did it in the AL. That's it. No Albert Pujols--he hasn't done it even once--no A-Rod, no Bonds, McGwire, Mays, Musial, heck, even no Hack (Wilson).

Howard, of course, led the NL in homers and RBIs in 2006 and 2008. He's currently third in both HRs (behind Pujols with 40) and RBIs (trailing Prince Fielder with 110) but is riding one of those scorched-earth hitting tears that would allow him to catch both players by season's end. He has eight homers and 22 RBIs in his last 11 games.

He's also heading into what historically has been his hottest month. Howard has more HRs and RBIs in September than any other month. He totaled 11 homers and 32 RBIs last September; Pujols had eight and 27, while Fielder collected 6 and 21.

Can Howard do it? Absolutely. Remember, Howard already is the fastest Major Leaguer to 100 and 200 career home runs. With 40 games remaining, he could potentially finish with 45 homers, 150 RBI, and a place in history.

Friday, August 21, 2009

The Phillies' Best In-Season Trades

Cliff Lee’s hot start since joining the Phillies (4-0, 0.82 ERA) brings to mind another Cy Young-winning lefthander to pitch for the team—and not Mark Davis (NL Cy Young for San Diego in ’89) or Willie Hernandez (AL Cy Young for Detroit in ’84).

Four-time Cy Young winner and Hall of Famer Steve Carlton is the Phillies’ all-time greatest trade acquisition, coming to the team from St. Louis before the 1972 season for pitcher Rick Wise. But Lee, last year’s AL Cy Young winner with Cleveland, has the potential to become the Phillies’ best in-season trade pickup.

(Some would say the best in-season trade the Phillies made was getting rid of Bobby Abreu in 2006 for essentially cab fare, but we’re talking player upgrades and not team-chemistry improvements.)

Lee is not unique on the current Phillies roster. Other in-season acquisitions include Jamie Moyer in 2006, Joe Blanton, Scott Eyre, and Matt Stairs in 2008, and Ben Francisco, who came along with Lee.

Lee’s competition for tops all-time in-season, though, includes some of the bigger names in team history, including outfielders Garry Maddox, Lenny Dykstra, John Kruk, Bake McBride, and Tony Gonzalez (three .300 seasons in the 1960s), as well as pitchers John Denny (the ’83 NL Cy Young winner after being acquired), Gene Garber, and Terry Mulholland.

Oddly, the team’s only in-season infield pickups of note were long-time Phillie Tony Taylor in 1960 and Placido Polanco in 2002.

It wouldn’t take much for Lee to top the other pitchers. Denny, a 1982 pickup, won the Cy Young Award the next year, going 19-6 on the NL champions, but he won just 18 games combined over the next two seasons before being traded. Garber was a solid reliever on some great bullpens in the 1970s, and Mulholland was an All Star on the ’93 NL champs, but neither player is one for the ages.

Lee has tougher competition among the outfielders. Maddox played parts of 12 seasons with the Phillies and was fifth in MVP balloting in 1976 when he hit .330. Dykstra, who starred in the early part of the Steroids Era, played parts of eight seasons, was a three-time All Star, and the NL MVP runner-up in ’93.

Kruk was a part of the team for six seasons, making three All Star teams, while McBride played parts of five seasons, hitting .309 for the ’80 World Series champions.

So who is the all-time best in-season pickup? Excluding Lee for now, I’d go with Maddox, followed by Dykstra, Kruk, Taylor, and McBride.

Friday, August 14, 2009

One More Pro Bowl-Caliber QB

If you put aside the issues surrounding Michael Vick, the Eagles' acquisition fits right in with the team's successful history of picking up Pro Bowl-caliber quarterbacks. The Eagles have acquired--rather than drafted--most of the best quarterbacks in team history.

Six of the Eagles' top nine quarterbacks in completions and passing yardage joined the team after Pro Bowl seasons elsewhere--or would eventually become a Pro Bowler. That includes Ron Jaworski (an Eagle from 1977-86), Tommy Thompson (1941-50), and Norm Van Brocklin (1958-60), all of whom took the Eagles to the league championship game.

Other Pro Bowl pickups in the top nine include Norm Snead (1964-70) and Roman Gabriel (1973-77), both named Pro Bowlers prior to, and also with the Eagles. Bobby Thomason (1952-57) was a Pro Bowler only with the team. And Jim McMahon (1990-92), and Andy Reid pickups Jeff Garcia (2006) and now Vick aren't in the historical top nine, but were Pro Bowlers before the Eagles landed them.

All-time completions and passing yardage leader Donovan McNabb, No. 3 Randall Cunningham, and No. 6 Sonny Jurgensen are the only draftees in the top nine.

Where does Vick fit into that mix? At 29, he's the same age as Jaworski when he took the Eagles to the Super Bowl, and just a year older than McNabb during his Super Bowl season. However, at the same age Cunningham's best Eagle days were behind him.

Can Vick, in a new environment and with less physical wear and tear than other 29-year-olds, produce like Jaworski or McNabb? Maybe not, but for the Eagles, it's better for him to try it here than with any other NFC team.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Give Buddy Ryan Credit For Helping Cris Carter

Sports Illustrated's Peter King includes ex-Eagle Cris Carter on his list of potential 2010 NFL Hall of Fame inductees, along with Dick LeBeau, Jerry Rice, Emmitt Smith, Richard Dent, and Russ Grimm. If so, ESPN and others will certainly enjoy themselves at former coach Buddy Ryan's expense for his famous quote, "All he does is catch touchdowns."

Ryan, however, did Carter a huge favor by cutting him before the 1990 season. I covered the Eagles in 1989 for Eagles Digest and Carter was a sullen, moody, selfish player. He later admitted that he was abusing drugs and alcohol and that Ryan helped him turn around his personal life.

He joined the Vikings, and after getting clean became second to Jerry Rice all-time in receptions and touchdowns by a receiver. He was an eight-time Pro Bowler and one of just five players in NFL history with more than 1,000 receptions.

So if Carter indeed makes the Hall of Fame in 2010, let's give a little less grief and a little more credit to Buddy Ryan, who gave Carter the reality check that saved his career.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

The Phillies' Batting Champ Drought

The last time a Philadelphia Phillie won a batting title, Dwight D. Eisenhower was President, Elvis was inducted into the Army, and the average American worker made $3,851 a year. You could say it's been a while.

Richie Ashburn, with a .350 average in 1958, topped no-names Willie Mays, Stan Musial, and Hank Aaron and was the last Phillie to win a batting crown. The other seven National League teams in 1958 have since seen a player win at least one title, and newcomers like Colorado, San Diego, and Montreal/Washington also have produced batting champs. Florida (which began play in '93 and whose Hanley Ramirez leads the NL now), New York ('62), Houston ('62), Milwaukee ('69/moved to NL in '98), and Arizona ('98) are the others without batting champs.

Batting average is the only major hitting or pitching category in which the Phillies have drawn a title blank since 1972. Ryan Howard claimed home run and RBI titles in 2008, Curt Schilling took the strikeout crown in '98, John Denny led the league in victories in '83, and Steve Carlton took the ERA title in '72.

The Phillies batting-average dry spell actually isn't so unusual, considering the team has had few high-average-hitting stars since 1958. Aside from Pete Rose, most of the team's batting-title contenders rode one-year hot streaks. The closest were Jim Eisenreich, who hit .361 in 1996, and Bake McBride, who hit .339 in 1977. Both would have led the league, but the platoon players had too few at-bats to qualify.

Since 1958, 12 Phillies have finished in the top five in hitting, with three second-place finishes: Tony Gonzalez (.339 in '67 to Roberto Clemente's .357), Rose (.331 in '79 behind Keith Hernandez's .344), and Rose again (.325 in '81 to Bill Madlock's .341),

However, in the last 27 years, just four Phillies have finished in the top five: Lenny Dykstra--fourth in '90, John Kruk--third in '92, Bobby Abreu--third in '99, and Chase Utley--third in '07.

No Phillie is currently in the top 10 this season, so the streak figures to continue. Of the current players, Utley and Shane Victorino figure to have the best shot, though neither seems likely to pull it off. Average-wise, Utley goes hot-and-cold too frequently, and Victorino's high-water mark seems to be in the .310 to .320 range.

Who does that leave as a possible future batting champ? In a few years, perhaps Triple-A stud Michael Taylor, or Double-A star Domonic Brown. Good thing Ruben Amaro kept them off the table at the trade deadline, or the Phillies' streak could easily stretch another decade or so.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

The Best Phillies Team

The Phillies’ two World Series-winning teams would seem to be the obvious choices as the best clubs in team history. But not so much.

As I wrote in the previous days’ entries, the fourth-best team was the 1950 club, the third was the 1976 101-win team. That leaves the competition down to the 1980 champions and this year’s team, one that’s significantly better than last year’s World Series winners. By adding a reigning Cy Young Winner (Cliff Lee), a 2009 All Star (Raul Ibanez), and a confidence that comes with the title, the ’09 team easily trumps the ’08 winners. But how do the 1980 and 2009 teams compare?

The 1980 team featured two Hall of Famers (Mike Schmidt and Steve Carlton) and a hard-to-believe 17 players who’d be named All Stars during their careers. Seven of the eight regulars were All Stars at some point (Garry Maddox was the only one not named).

It’s hard to tell how the careers of the 2009 players will play out, but already 11 players on this year’s team have been named All Stars, including six of the eight regulars (except Carlos Ruiz or Pedro Feliz) and not counting yet-to-be-activated Pedro Martinez.

The key to comparing the teams is to focus on the individual season and not a player’s career. Some Phillies greats didn’t produce in ’80, or haven’t yet in ‘09: Bob Boone (.229), Greg Luzinski (.228), and Garry Maddox (.259) struggled then, while Jimmy Rollins (.242) and Ruiz (.231) are having off years now.

Conversely, Carlton won the Cy Young and Schmidt was NL and World Series MVP. Barring a freakish hot streak by Chase Utley or Ryan Howard, there won’t be any regular-season award-winners on the ’09 club.

The ‘09 team, however, has strengths the ’80 team didn’t. The starting rotation of Cole Hamels, Lee, Joe Blanton, J.A. Happ, and Jamie Moyer/perhaps Martinez is far better than the ’80 staff of Carlton, Dick Ruthven, Bob Walk, Randy Lerch, and Nino Espinosa/Larry Christenson.

The ’09 everyday regulars are also having better years than the ’80 starters. Howard tops an aging Pete Rose (.282 BA, .352 OBP), Utley’s better than Manny Trillo, Ibanez bests Luzinski, and Shane Victorino is better than ’80 Maddox. Boone/Ruiz is a wash. That leaves Bowa over a slumping Rollins, Schmidt ahead of Feliz, and Bake McBride ahead of Werth.

The ’80 team gets points for its bullpen and bench strength. Tug McGraw was otherworldly after returning from his injury (1.46 ERA for the season), and Ron Reed, Dickie Noles, and Kevin Saucier held down the fort. The ’09 team has potential over the next two months to swing the vote, though, with Brad Lidge finally coming around, and J.C. Romero, Chad Durbin, and Brett Myers due back.

The ’80 team demolishes the ’09 club in bench depth. Lonnie Smith, Keith Moreland, Greg Gross, and Del Unser pushed the ’80 starters for their jobs, while ’09 backups Greg Dobbs and newly acquired Ben Francisco are the only bench players who could be considered starters on other teams.

The final tally: the ’09 team’s everyday lineup and starting pitching are better than the ’80 club. Only the ’80 bullpen and bench beat the ’09 club. Remember, the ’80 team finished just 91-71, winning the division following a gut-wrenching series in Montreal on the season’s last weekend. Aside from a total collapse, the ’09 team should easily win the division and head to the playoffs as the defending World Series champs and likely NL favorites to reach the World Series.

What do you think? Let me know by commenting or sending me an e-mail.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Best Phillies Team, Part 2

Following up on yesterday’s entry: Is this year’s Phillies team the best in club history? I’ve narrowed the competition down to four: 2009, 1980, 1976, and 1950.

I expected the 1950 team would give the ’80 and ’09 teams a challenge, but it looks like just the fourth best of the bunch. The Whiz Kids got hot for one season behind 25-and-unders Robin Roberts, Richie Ashburn, Curt Simmons, Del Ennis, Granny Hamner, and Willie Jones.

Despite having just three players named to that year’s All-Star team (Roberts, Jones, and Jim Konstanty), the Phillies claimed four of the top seven spots in the year-end MVP balloting and six of the top 16. Reliever Jim Konstanty (16-7, 22 saves) won the award and Del Ennis (4th), Granny Hamner (6th), Robin Roberts (7th), Andy Seminick (14th) and Curt Simmons (16th) rounded out the group.

Despite the team’s strong lineup, the Phillies lacked starting pitching beyond Roberts and Simmons; the other four starters combined to go 31-32. Also, the bench was weak, with no player hitting above .250. The team, under manager Eddie Sawyer, finished 91-63 and won the National League by two games over Brooklyn before the Yankees beat them in the World Series in four straight.

Next up: the surprise of the bunch, the 1976 Phillies, a team loaded with highly talented players at divergent stages of their careers. A whopping 14 players on the roster would make an All-Star team at some point in their career, from 40-year-old reserve Tony Taylor (an All Star in ’60) to 25-year-old Greg Luzinski, in the middle of four straight All-Star seasons. Every starter (Bob Boone, Dick Allen, Dave Cash, Larry Bowa, Mike Schmidt, and Luzinski) except Garry Maddox and Jay Johnstone would be selected at some point.

The pitching staff featured six eventual All Stars and two Cy Young winners in Steve Carlton (’72, ’77, ’80, ’82) and 34-year-old Jim Lonborg (’67 with Boston), whose 18 victories that season would be one less than he’d collect in his final three seasons combined. Jim Kaat, Ron Reed, Tug McGraw, and Wayne Twitchell were the other All Stars.

Manager Danny Ozark’s ’76 team went 101-61 and won the division by nine games before running into the Big Red Machine. Cincinnati beat the Phillies in three straight before demolishing the Yankees in four straight in the World Series.

Schmidt, Luzinski, Maddox, Carlton, and Lonborg had standout seasons. Bowa (.248), and aging vets Allen (15 HR, 49 RBI) and Kaat (12-14) didn’t. The bullpen was phenomenal with Reed, McGraw, and Gene Garber putting together the first of two straight seasons that Baseball Prospectus would rank second all-time in baseball history.

The ’76 team had a solid bench (Bobby Tolan, Tim McCarver, Ollie Brown), but only a so-so rotation beyond Carlton and Lonborg (Kaat, and 22-year-olds Larry Christenson and Tommy Underwood). As a result of its average starting pitching and off years by a few regulars, the ’76 group is just a notch below the 1980 and 2009 teams, whom I’ll profile tomorrow.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Is This The Best Phillies Team Ever?

The big question raised by the imminent arrival of pitcher Pedro Martinez to the Phillies lineup isn’t who will be the team’s fifth starter. When you’re talking about a team choosing for its fifth starter between either a three-time Cy Young winner or one who’s won more than 250 career games, can you really go wrong?

The more intriguing question: with Martinez, who also finished in the top five in Cy Young voting seven times, and the recent addition of reigning AL Cy Young winner Cliff Lee, is this now the best team in Phillies history?

Sadly, of course, the Phillies aren’t the Yankees when it comes to great teams, so the list of contenders is shorter than Carlos Ruiz (does every home-plate umpire have to be taller than him?).

The contenders include the title teams of 2008 and 1980, the World Series teams of 1915, 1950, 1983, and 1993, and the 100-regular-season-win teams of 1976 and 1977, as well as this year’s group.

It’s pretty easy to eliminate some from the list quickly, starting with the World Series teams. Grover Cleveland Alexander’s ’15 team featured three Hall of Famers but pitcher Eppa Rixey (the Reds) and shortstop Dave Bancroft (New York Giants/Boston) would make their names elsewhere. Pitching carried a workmanlike lineup.

The ’83 Wheeze Kids included the most Hall of Famers ever on one Phillies team with four (Mike Schmidt, Joe Morgan, Tony Perez, and Steve Carlton), not counting Pete Rose. But as the team’s nickname implies, they’d seen better days.

The ’93 team had unique chemistry—Lenny Dysktra’s arms indicated maybe there was a little too much chemistry—and a solid pitching staff led by Curt Schilling (16-7) and Mitch Williams (43 hair-raising saves). The 97-victory team knew how to win and how to have fun, but Schilling is the only possible Hall of Famer, so the greatness factor is missing.

Then, you have to choose between the back-to-back teams. The 1976 and '77 teams were similar except for a few players that give '76 (Dick Allen, Dave Cash, Jay Johnstone) the edge over ’77 (Richie Hebner, Ted Sizemore, Johnstone/Bake McBride) The pitching staffs were roughly the same, though Jim Lonborg and Jim Kaat were better in ’76.

And, without a title to back it up yet, I’ll still take the 2009 team ahead of 2008: Raul Ibanez over Pat Burrell, Lee over Kyle Kendrick, and the '09 team has the swagger of having won a World Series. Brad Lidge and the bullpen were better last season, but there’s still two months and an incoming Brett Myers to remedy that. This year’s group has the largest division lead in the majors at 7 games, has a better winning percentage than last year (.575 vs. .567.), and gets Lee and possibly Martinez for the rest of the season.

That leaves a Final Four of 1950, 1976, 1980, and 2009 for tomorrow’s entry.