Bill Parker

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The Baltimore Orioles started the season 19-9, and have been at least two games above .500 since the second game of the season. They’ve fallen as far as 10 games behind the Yankees in what’s generally considered to be baseball’s toughest division, but have never been more than a handful of games out of the races for the two wildcard spots.

It took an 18-9 August (and a 2-1 start to September), though, and a crawling back to within a game of the Yankees in the East, for people to really take notice and start taking the O’s seriously.

Part of that, of course, is because they’re the Baltimore Orioles, the team that still needs to go at least 7-21 to secure its first winning season since 1997, and needs to go 15-13 for its second 90-win season since 1982. But another part is that it’s really hard to analyze this team in any way (other than one that begins and ends with the won-loss record) and conclude that it’s anything more than an average team. Read the rest of this entry »

September starts this weekend, bringing with it one of the things that makes baseball markedly different from every other professional sport on the planet: starting on Saturday, rosters are permitted to expand from 25 active players to 40.

This rule seems to be almost universally hated (except, one would think, by the extra guys who actually get called up rather than sloughing off home or to a fall league after their minor league season wraps up). Joel Sherman is the latest to pile on, noting that teams in September often face off with wildly different-sized rosters, his entire post dripping with something like incredulity that this sort of injustice is perpetuated in 2012.

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So they announced last offseason that MLB would be adding a second wild card team in each league to this postseason, with the two not-quite-winners playing each other in a one-game playoff to determine which moves on to play a real series. I think the reactions generally ranged from extreme displeasure (that was me, for one) to…a kind of extremely cautious optimism, I suppose? The change was so obviously and unabashedly profit-driven that it was hard for anyone to get terribly excited about it, but let me know if someone did and I missed it. Anyway, we said our things, and we kind of forgot about it for six or seven months.

Now, though, there’s about a quarter of the season left, around the time that people really start paying attention to the wild card race. Understand, now, that we’re not really going to know much about how the new system is working for at least a few years now, since the way the races break down next year could be drastically different from this one and so on. It’s way too early to make judgments about that sort of thing.

Still, though: how’s the new system working?

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You’ve probably read something this week about Johnny Pesky, the beloved Red Sox player, manager, color commentator, instructor and foul-pole-name-inspirer who passed away on Monday at the age of 92. There was a lot to be written about Pesky, whose exceptionally long post-playing career has a tendency to obscure his impressive accomplishments as a player.

Then there’s Pesky’s military service. In the fall of 1942, Pesky was 22 years old and coming off of a season in which he batted .331 and led the league in hits, finished third in the MVP voting and easily would have won the Rookie of the Year Award if such a thing had existed. A few months later, though, he was in the service, and wouldn’t play a big-league baseball game again for more than three full years.

Pesky wasn’t special in that regard, in the context of his time — that’s just what the players (and other able-bodied men) did then, most of them. As you might know, established Major Leaguers who joined the armed forces would generally end up playing baseball in the armed forces as well — but they would also have regular, military duties, many of them played and served in dangerous parts of the world, and of course, even the ones who played regularly didn’t have anything like the same routine that they would have had in an organized professional league.

Over on his Sports Illustrated blog, Jay Jaffe made a pretty good case that, had WWII never happened, Pesky may well have ended up putting together a Hall of Fame career. And Jay was being intentionally conservative in what he gave Pesky credit for, too. Pesky was a top player in his rookie year and a top player when he came back, so it’s not crazy to assume that, by happening to play during the years he did and answer the call of duty, he cost himself three full elite-level seasons.

That got me to thinking about other players who sacrificed more than most in the World War II — guys who didn’t live to see the age of blogs and Twitter and who didn’t work visibly in front of an adoring fan base for decades after their careers ended, but who, like Pesky, may have missed out on something truly special on the baseball diamond in exchange for doing their part toward something quite a bit more important. And as great as Ted Williams’ sacrifice was (his more than four combined service years almost certainly kept him from reaching the 600-HR and 3000-hits milestones), and Joe DiMaggio’s (he skipped his age 28-30 seasons, which should really have been his true prime), you know about those guys, and they’re legends anyway; I’m thinking about players who missed the chance to become legends, or at least superstars, because of their military service.

So here is a totally subjective top five: guys of whom you might not be particularly aware and who, like Pesky, saw their lives and careers affected most significantly by the War.

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I love Baseball-Reference.com, as does every right-thinking North American. Of all the hundreds of things that site has given us as baseball nerds, however, one of my favorite is its nicknames. I mean, everyone knows that Babe Ruth was “The Bambino” and “The Sultan of Swat,” and most know that Honus Wagner was “The Flying Dutchman,” though it’s good to have those things recorded on there just in case. But did you know that Walter Johnson was not only “The Big Train,” but also “Barney” for some reason? You may have heard David Eckstein referred to as “The X Factor” back in the day (I prefer the alternate spelling “Ecks Factor”), but how about “Just Enough”? And from five seconds from now through the end of time, will you ever be able to think of Billy Butler and not think of his perfect-but-somehow-not-yet-universal nickname, “Country Breakfast”?

It gets weirder: one of Pablo Sandoval‘s three nicknames is “Fat Ichiro,” which I love because that has the ring of a name that just has to be race-based…but it’s not! And then there’s my favorite of all: Lou Gehrig, Biscuit Pants. That has a story that I’m sure I once knew, but I don’t even want to know it anymore. I picture Sean Forman sitting there in his (mom’s) basement, conjuring these names from thin air and giggling madly to himself, and dammit, that’s just exactly as I want it to be.

“The Toddfather” is hardly “Biscuit Pants,” but I was similarly confused and surprised to learn that that’s apparently the nickname of Colorado legend Todd Helton. I’m on the fence on that one. On one hand, it’s kind of obvious, and could be (and, I assume, more or less has been) applied to every person who has been alive since 1972 and has happened to be named Todd. On the other hand, though, it fits this Todd pretty perfectly; he’s the Rockies’ longest-lived and probably still most beloved star, and he was kind of the grizzled veteran on the team’s first World Series squad in 2007. So, I like it for him. I think.

Anyway, it was announced yesterday that The Toddfather needs season-ending surgery.

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I think we need to start paying more attention to something. Adam Dunn is on his way to doing something that hasn’t happened since Babe Ruth did it in 1927. No, it isn’t “sixty homers by a big oaf while wearing black and white/gray” — he’s on pace for closer to fifty of those. Rather, Dunn could be the first in 85 years to lead the entire Major Leagues in each of the “Three True Outcomes” categories: walks, strikeouts and home runs.

Through Sunday (though he’s done nothing to improve his standing in any of the categories so far as I write this on Monday evening, managing to put the ball in play twice thrice four times in a row), Dunn was leading both leagues in all three categories, and by a relatively healthy margin: his 31 home runs are three better than the four guys tied for second, his 77 walks lead Ben Zobrist by ten, and his 150 strikeouts lead Carlos Pena by twenty (it’s very possible that Dunn would end the season in the top ten in that category if he didn’t strike out again all year). Dunn, through Sunday, was on pace for 50 homers, 124 walks and a record-smashing 241 strikeouts.

Leading the American League in all three categories would by itself be an admirable feat. As Jonah Keri (with help from Elias) noted a month ago, a Three True Outcomes Triple Crown (TTOTC) has historically been half as common as the old BA/HR/RBI Triple Crown, having been done just eight times in history. Leading both leagues in all categories, though? That’s been done by exactly one guy. Until now.

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As you’ve probably heard by now, yesterday was a big day for Tigers 3B Miguel Cabrera. He hit two solo homers in his first two plate appearances against the White Sox’ Phil Humber, leading Detroit to a 6-4 win. The second homer, coming in the third inning, was the 300th of Cabrera’s still-fairly-young career.

Here’s a list showing the players with the most homers through their age-29 seasons; Cabrera is the 13th to get to 300 before the end of that year. Among the other 12, seven are Hall of Famers (Foxx, Mantle, Mathews, Aaron, Ott, and Robinson), and three more are certain to eventually be Hall of Famers (A-Rod, Griffey and Pujols). One other is Andruw Jones, who arguably deserves Hall consideration, but won’t get it; one is Juan Gonzalez, who looked like a Hall of Famer once; and one is, well, Adam Dunn. As of yesterday, Cabrera’s rest-of-season ZIPS projection had him hitting 13 more HR over the remainder of the year, which would keep him in 13th place on that list, three behind Dunn.

300 homers well before the end of one’s age-29 season is an impressive accomplishment to be sure, but considering that within all of our lifetimes, Pujols had 366, Griffey 398 and A-Rod 429 (!), it’s not the kind of thing likely to make you want to scrapbook or order a set of commemorative plates.

What I think is noteworthy about Cabrera, though, is that he’s not just — or even primarily — a home run hitter. Read the rest of this entry »