Monday, August 22, 2011

Jim Thome's 600th HR Causes Ripples of Stupidity

It’s nice when good things happen to good people.  It reinforces our faith in humanity.  As such, I’m not surprised about the outpouring of adulation for Twins Designated Hitter, Jim Thome.  Thome, a former Phillies first baseman, hit his 600th career home run on Monday.  His career accomplishments will likely land him in the Hall of Fame one day.  After playing 11 seasons in Cleveland for the Indians, Thome signed a monster free agent contract with the Phillies before the 2003 season.  It was a move 1 part baseball, 2 parts public relations and marketing.  Sure, the Phillies were a reasonably competitive team at the time, but Thome’s signing was ownership’s chief “Hey, come to the new stadium we tricked you into paying for!” plea. 

Thome with Chase Utley.
In 2004, when Citizens Bank Park opened, Thome was already the face of an awkward franchise.  A 24 year old Jimmy Rollins and a 26 year old Pat Burrell hadn’t yet grabbed hold of the reigns in the clubhouse from the likes of Bobby Abreu and Mike Lieberthal.  The on field play of Burrell, Rollins, Lieberthal, David Bell and Marlon Byrd was frustratingly erratic and Abreu (one of the greatest Phillies ever) was totally unlikeable despite his excellence.  The pitchers were all awful.  Combining the 2003 and 2004 seasons, only Randy Wolf in 2003 had a sub-4 ERA.  Thome had to step in and immediately be the Phillies bell cow, producing on the field and shining behind the microphones.  He did.  He played two full, terrific seasons for the Phillies before getting hurt in his third year (like 34 year old players often do).  The player who replaced him during his injury? Ryan Howard.  The Phillies realized they had a cheaper, younger alternative to Thome and so he was traded during the following offseason.  In just two and a half years, Thome managed to make a lasting mark upon our fair city.  He gets a standing ovation every time he comes back.  His name graces the short list of ex-Philadelphia athletes that the town still loves.  A number of specific criteria must be met to get on that list and the All Time Ex-Philadelphia Athlete Roster deserves its own column one day, but for now Thome deserves a column all to himself.

He is the 8th major leaguer to hit 600 home runs.  Eight.  That’s how many people have done what Jim Thome has done.  It’s a remarkable accomplishment that was reported lightly in comparison to Alex Rodriguez’s track toward 600 homers and Derek Jeter’s corpse’s march to 3000 hits.  I’m sure Thome, whose personality is almost universally lauded in the media, wouldn’t have had it any other way.  After Thome homers he circles the bases with swiftness and humility.  It’s as if he wants to get back into the dugout as quickly as possible because it makes him uncomfortable that everyone in the stadium is looking at him.  He is 80th all time in Career Wins Above Replacement, ranking ahead of Brooks Robinson, Derek Jeter, Tony Gwynn and Barry Larkin.  He’s had an incredible career. 

That was it.  That was supposed to be the extent of this column. “Jim Thome is really good and more people should notice.”  Unfortunately, I ran into something dumb that needs addressing.

“@DailyHombre:   Hate to say it, but just because J. Thome is a nice guy doesn't mean we can accept his 600 HR without question. He's tainted like everyone.”

“Daily Hombre” is the Twitter handle for Philadelphia based sports writer, Michael Bradley.  Bradley’s career has been impressive especially when you consider the journalistic climate he’s had to deal with over the past decade and a half.  He’s broken a number of big stories (Rich Rodriguez’s hiring at Michigan comes to mind), written pieces for Sports Illustrated and the Sporting News and even makes cameos on the radio for 97.5 The Fanatic every now and then.  He’s mostly a college sports guy.  The 140 character comment of his you see above is insipid and irresponsible.  It is totally inappropriate for Bradley to offer up speculation like that.  It was irresponsible when Colin Cowherd made similar comments after Raul Ibanez had a hot month two years ago and again when several mainstream media outlets whispered about Blue Jays slugger, Jose Bautista, after he exploded into an MVP candidate last year.  Some industries never learn.

You might argue that, due to the dark cloud of Performance Enhancing Drugs that hovers over the era in which Thome left his mark, it is okay to question the legitimacy of Thome’s accomplishments.  You’d be wrong.  If you know anything about the science of PEDs, you know there isn’t a lot of science to it.  Studies on the effects of HGH and Steroids on baseball players don’t exist, because you’d have to have Major League players taking steroids to do the tests.  It’s impossible to say what any known steroid user would have done had he not taken the drugs, since we can’t quantify the aid the drugs provided.
Secondly, Thome has never tested positive for anything.  Bradley’s tweet about Thome being tainted is unfounded speculation and nothing more.  Bradley might hide behind the guise of journalism and claim it is okay to ask questions Thome’s HR total, but this claim is entirely semantic.  Which is why I sent Bradley the following tweet immediately after reading his drivel:

“Aren’t you an Anti-Semite?”

Do you see how ridiculous that is? Let me be clear, Michael Bradley is not an anti-Semite.  But for me to say such things and claim I’m just asking questions about him is a dangerous game to play.  I had exactly as much evidence about Bradley’s anti-Semitism as he does for Thome’s steroid use.  The problem is that when public figures like Bradley plant seeds like that in the public consciousness they can be very difficult to uproot. 
Michael Bradley is a great guy who made a mistake. I'm calling him on it

Why have I deviated from what started as a puffy little diddy about Jim Thome? What about Bradley’s comment got to me?  Why do I hold such high journalistic standards? Because Michael Bradley taught them to me.  Bradley was my Sports Journalism professor at Saint Joseph’s University (I took it as an elective, I was a Business Administration Major).  He was a brilliant teacher and even offered to be a reference on my resume or call in a favor should I need it (I have not, as of yet).  He violated the rules he so passionately preached from 6-9pm on Tuesday nights on Hawk Hill.  Old school, hardcore, journalistic standards thrown aside for a split second, but thrown away nonetheless. 

Jim Thome hit 600 home runs.  He can go to Cooperstown to pick up his Hall of Fame plaque.  Where can he go to get his reputation back?

Note: I approached Michael Bradley via email for comment before sending this to editing.  He threatened to sue for libel.  I’m not sure if he was serious or not.  I guess I’ll find out.

Anthony Recker's Call Up

The small town of Catasauqua, PA is back in the major leagues.  Catty High product, Anthony Recker, will be called up by the Oakland Athletics tomorrow as the A’s begin a series against the Yankees in New York.  It’s a fitting place for Recker to begin his major league career since it’s where Pat Kelly, the last Catasauquan to play in the majors, began his.

If you’re from the Lehigh Valley, you probably already know all about Pat Kelly.  The Yankees selected Kelly out of West Chester University in the 9th round of the ’88 draft.  Kelly made his major league debut 3 years later at the age of 23 and played parts of seven season in the Bronx before signing with the Cardinals in the winter of 1997.  He played one year for the Red Birds then departed for Toronto where he played the start of the 1999 season before injuring his shoulder diving for a popup in foul territory (At least, that’s how I remember it happening.  I was 9 so I’m not totally sure).  The injury effectively ended his career.

Pat Kelly in his Aussie garb.
Was Kelly a great player? No.  Kelly’s best season came in 1993 when he was worth a respectable 2.1 Wins Above Replacement in only 450 plate appearances.  He spent most of his career either platooning or injured, hovering around replacement level with a career OBP below league average.   While by no means was Kelly a great player, he did have, in my opinion, an amazing career.  He got to play with Don Mattingly, Bernie Williams, Wade Boggs, Paul O’Neil, Derek Jeter, David Cone, Tim Raines (who needs to be in the HoF, by the way), Joe Girardi, Jorge Posada, Mariano Rivera, Shawn Green, JD Drew (Booo!), Carlos Delgado and Dwight Gooden.  He was the first one out of the dugout to greet Mark McGwire when Mac broke the single season home run record in ’98.  He’s currently part of the coaching staff for Australia’s World Baseball Classic team and the Scouting Coordinator for the Seattle Mariners in the Pacific Rim (which, if I were Pat, I would constantly brag about. “I got the Pacific Rim job! I got the Pacific Rim job!” It’s priceless).  His experience in baseball has taken him around the world, is beyond unique and I’m sure he wouldn’t trade the road he’s taken for any number of home runs or awards. Neither would anyone in Catasauqua who still toast to him on a weekly basis in our local bars.  We love Pat Kelly because he made it out of our small town but didn’t forget that he came from it, even now as he and his family dwell peacefully in Australia.  We wouldn’t think any more highly of him if he’d won a handful of MVP awards.  He was only a utility player, but he was our utility player. 

Almost serendipitously, Kelly made his way back to the US this summer to, among other things, play in the Yankees Old Timers Game at Yankee Stadium.  (Long aside…He drifted down to Catasauqua where I saw him at the local playground one evening.  I had a conversation on the phone with him a day or two later, pleading for him to look at my scouting reports in the hopes of landing some sort of job.  He has not, as of yet, called or emailed me.  In fairness, I haven’t written as many as I wish I have.  Pat, if you’re reading this, I’m insanely busy but call me.  I’m better than 90% of the scouts out there.)  A few months later, Recker ascends to the majors and picks up in the same stadium at which Kelly left off.

So what should you expect from Recker?  Well, if his stats at AAA Sacramento are any indication, you’d think he’d be pretty good.  A .388 OBP with a .500 SLG? Sign me up.  Sadly, his stats aren’t a good indicator of what he’s likely to do in the bigs.  The Pacific Coast League is full of comical hitters parks (Cody Ransom had 25 HRs before the All Star break in the PCL) that inflate his numbers and Recker, age 27, is making his third go around in the PCL.  Scouting reports indicate he’s below average defensively as well.  The best part about all that pessimism? I don’t care one bit.  He might be a 27 year old rookie backup, but he is our 27 year old rookie backup.  No matter what Recker does during his Major League career, however brief or tenured, his picture will grace the walls of local taverns from now until eternity because he made it to the big leagues.  Everyone from Catasauqua feels like a piece of us has made it back, too.  

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

MLB Prospect Scouting Report: Scott Mathieson

Scott Mathieson (Philadelphia Phillies Pitcher)

Age: 27

Height: 6’3”

Weight: 230lbs

From: Vancouver, BC (17th round of 2002 draft)

I wrote a lengthy human-interest type of column on Scott Mathieson for  Since that piece was published, Mathieson has bounced around from the Phillies to the IronPigs and been shifted from the bullpen to the rotation.  It’s an interesting move for a pitcher whose secondary stuff has never been very good.  Pitching through the lineup several times with one pitch is not something one can do, even if that pitch deserves an 80 grade.  For the first time since his move back into the rotation I had a chance to sit and watch Mathieson pitch with the scrutiny and level of attention he deserves, and my thoughts are as follows:
First, some general stuff.  It was pretty clear Mathieson was working on things, rather than pitching like he would in an actual game.  He’d have stretches where he’d only throw one type of pitch, even if it was a secondary pitch, and neglect the rest of his repertoire.  He didn’t even start throwing his splitter until his final inning of work.  At 27, Mathieson and the Phillies need a plan to stick to.  He’s a clear bullpen arm for me but with a lack of rotation depth beyond what the Phils have in the major leagues, he might be needed to start should a rash of injuries make its way down Broad Street.  It should be noted that the Phillies began to stretch Mathieson out around the same time they discovered Joe Blanton had nerve damage in his elbow.  Phillies coaches likely have him working on all of his pitches during his starts as a last  ditch effort to develop secondary stuff in case he needs to start in the big leagues. 

Mathieson’s Fastball:

Mathieson’s fastball is his meal ticket.  He touched 98mph a few times in his start against Scranton but sat mostly in the 94-96mph range.  Late in his start Mathieson either tired or was working on something with a little less velocity, either a new sinker or a two-seamer, and his velocity dropped into the 91-93mph range.  He got a second wind later in the start and was back into the mid 90s.  That velocity is great but the fastball is very flat.  It has no sink.  Mathieson’s Groundball:Flyball ratio was a paltry 2:7.  It is a sign his pitches are flat and/or up.  It won’t fly in the majors.  Mathieson’s control of the fastball is about average.  He threw 32 of the 56 fastballs he threw for strikes.  It’s a viable major league pitch, but it’s not the hammer of god like the radar gun would lead you to believe.

Mathieson’s Curveball:

Yikes.  The mid to upper-70s offering is anything but tight.  Mathieson threw a handful of good ones but he doesn’t often know where it’s going and it’s flat.  It won’t miss bats and the lack of control means he can’t throw it for strikes early in counts.  It’s probably too late to scrap it and re-try to emphasize his slider.  It’s a dead-fish offering.

Mathieson’s Splitter:

Here we have something real.  Mathieson’s splitter sat 85-86mph with late sink.  He garnered several swings and misses with it, and showed no variation in release point, arm angle or arm speed.  I have little to compare the splitter to since I don’t see them too often, but it sure looked nasty enough to be an effective major league pitch to me.  He threw nine splitters, eight for strikes, five of those strikes were swings and misses.  Jesus Montero caught one that was about shin high and smacked it for a single, it was otherwise untouched. 

Mathieson’s Other stuff:

He seemed to toy with a slider, a pitch he used to use a lot more.  From my seating angle (Perpendicular to the batter’s stances down the first base line.  I was focusing on the hitters) I could not see the two-plane movement one looks for in a slider, so I won’t comment on it at this time.  Just knw he threw it sparingly. 
Mathieson’s mechanics:

We know Mathieson has had plenty of arm trouble in the past but he’s 27 now and there’s no use in being careful with him anymore.  The delivery undoubtedly puts a lot of stress on the elbow and isn’t the most athletic of offerings, but like I said, there’s no use in trying to change it now.  It isn’t so violent that it’s detrimental to his command.

All in all, Mathieson is an up and down guy at this point and for the foreseeable future.