Pettitte belongs in the Hall of Fame

Coming out of retirement used to be something that boxers did. But in the last few years it’s been chic for baseball players to do it too. The motivation may be the same, regardless of the sport.

Money.

But that’s not completely the case with Andy Pettitte, who announced today that he was coming back with the Yankees. The club got his name on a minor league contract, Andy has promised to round himself into proper pitching form, and if we had to bet, we’d say the lefty will be back on the mound at Yankee Stadium sometime later this spring. Yes, the money is probably a factor, but his unmatched competitive nature is the driving force.

Regardless of what the 39-year old does in his return from a one-year hiatus, one thing won’t change – his stature as one of the best pitchers of his era. When he does decide to hang his spikes up for good, Pettitte deserves to be elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame. former teammate and quasi-friend Roger Clemens may never earn that honor, but Pettitte has earned it.

First, let me address the apparent double standard in that statement. Clemens and Pettitte both have been accused of using performance enhancing drugs (PEDs), Pettitte admitting to using them and Clemens denying it despite evidence to the contrary. Pettitte himself admitted that his buddy Roger used PEDs and suggested that he use them too. The pair spent countless hours together in weight rooms and on pitching mounds, crafting their bodies for the grueling task of pitching at the big league level. When Pettitte was injured he admits, on two occasions he took growth hormone to help himself recover. According to Andy, it was Roger who supplied the stuff through his personal trainer. Clemens vehemently denied this, even though his wife, Pettitte, and others have made statements or testified that he has used PEDs. A trial awaits in the case against Clemens for perjury and obstruction of justice, but Pettitte’s career hasn’t prosecuted.

The ironic thing about Pettitte’s career is that he was rarely the most famous pitcher on the staff. With the Yankees there was always a David Cone or Roger Clemens or Mike Mussina or C.C. Sabathia filling the role of staff ace. But when it came to crunch time, Pettitte was the go-to arm for the Yanks.

In 42 post-season starts, Pettitte had 27 quality starts (at least six innings and three earned runs or less). he pitched into the 8th inning  nine times and into the 7th inning 32 times. He won 19 games in the post-season: 18 for the Yankees and one for the Astros. He was at his best in closeout games, winning the clinching game of a playoff series or World Series seven times.

But post-season success is just one reason Pettitte deserves to be in the Hall of Fame. His regular season stats warrant the honor, especially when compared to other starting pitchers who’ve been elected in the last 30 years. Catfish Hunter and Don Sutton are two excellent examples. Like Pettitte, Hunter was “fortunate” to play for very good teams in his career, which helped him win 20 games in five straight seasons. Hunter won 224 games in his career, Pettitte has won 240. But Hunter also lost 166, while Pettitte has a glimmering .635 winning percentage (240-138). Admittedly, wins and winning percentage can products of the team not an individual pitcher’s greatness. But Hunter made the Hall of Fame based largely on his wins and win rate. Ditto Sutton, who won 324 games and pitched for excellent teams as well. Pettitte should get the same consideration. He was on the mound when his team won a lot of games, and lost infrequently. That characteristic places him in the same category as a pair of Yankee Hall of Famers from a bygone era – Herb Pennock and Red Ruffing. Neither was the ace of the Yankees staff in their prime, but they won a lot of games and appeared in a lot of World Series, and both ended up in Cooperstown. And when compared to Pettitte in ERA+ (which measures the pitcher’s ERA against his peers and accounts for the ballpark and era he pitched in), Pennock and Ruffing are inferior. Pennock’s career ERA+ was 106, Ruffing’s was 110. Pettitte so far has recorded a mark of 117.

There’s no reason to believe that Pettitte won’t be able to be effective in his return. Two years ago, in what was supposed to be his final season, he posted a 3.28 ERA, his lowest mark in the American League in eight seasons and the fourth lowest ERA of his career. He’s still in excellent shape, had marvelous mechanics, and he has an astronomic pitching IQ. He’s one of those guys who could, if he wanted, pitch into his mid-40s.

Yankee fans will settled for one more season of their left-handed pitching hero, a man can rejoin Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera for their 12th season as teammates. There’s no doubt that Jeter and Mariano will one day get their plaques in Cooperstown. Pettitte deserves to be there too.

Will Rangers and Astros be baseball’s biggest rivalry?

Next season the Houston Astros will be moved to the American League as part of MLB’s restructuring. The move was a consequence of the sale of the Astros in November – the new owner received a $70 million discount if he would accept the switch to the AL. MLB was not going to let the opportunity slip away to get something they think they need – six divisions of five teams each. In MLB’s view, that will equal fairness in scheduling. Of course, it means that every day there will need to be an inter-league game scheduled, as well. But MLB is fine with that, even if purists aren’t.

But as the Astros prepare for their 51st – and final – season in the National League, it’s interesting to note that next season they’ll be in the American League West, along with the Los Angeles Angels, Oakland A’s, Seattle Mariners, and Texas Rangers. It’s that last team that makes it very interesting. For the first time in MLB history, two clubs in the state of Texas will compete in the same league and division. Will it result in a heated rivalry?

First, an aside: Chris Czar, over at Detroit Athletic Co., examines the plight of rivals in a column today. He notes that the advent of three divisions in the 1990s has contributed to the erosion of several natural rivalries.

But Texas is a proud state filled with passionate and opinionated fans. Land in any Texas airport and it won’t be long before you hear a “YEEHAH!”

The Rangers are one of baseball’s best teams, winning the last two AL pennants. The Astros stink right now. Surely, that will be a factor, but still, the heated competition for Lone Star bragging rights will be on display every year when the two division rivals meet close to 20 times, or whatever the schedule will look like.

Separated by a mere 250 miles (a drop in the spit bucket to Texans), Houston and Dallas/Ft. Worth have many reasons to poke at each other. There are old football rivalries, geographical rivalries, and just plain crankiness. The Rangers and Astros may not be as heated as the Yankees/Red Sox right away, but it won’t take long. In their inter-league games the two teams have drawn record crowds and gained huge media attention. Walk-off victories have prompted on field celebrations similar to those seen in post-season games.

For decades the population of the country has been shifting from the north to the south, from the east to the west. Next season the eyes of baseball will be switching to Texas for the sport’s greatest new rivalry.

YEEHAH!

Ozzie Guillen is a far better manager than he was a player

There’s a saying in baseball: “His mouth is writing checks his ass can’t cash.”

It might have been invented with Ozzie Guillen in mind.

As a player, Ozzie was a  fine defensive shortstop for a few years, until an injury robbed him of his range, and then he stuck around the big leagues for several more years as a glorified utility player. But even at his very best, Guillen’s performance on the diamond never lived up to his braggadocio.

After his playing career, Guillen transitioned to the sidelines and eventually became manager of his old team, the White Sox. In 2005 he guided them to a title, their first World Series championship since soldiers were fighting the first World War. Even with that success, Guillen has been a lightning rod for controversy. He’s been a miracle of m poor manners – he’s offended nearly every group of people inside and outside the game of baseball – often to the bemusement or frustration of those around him. His penchant for drawing attention to himself may be annoying, but it serves a purpose. It redirects attention away from his players, who are allowed to go about the business of winning games for Ozzie.

One of Ozzie’s famous quotes was about Latin Americans, who he felt got a bad rap because of the illegal immigration issue. “There are a lot of people from this country who are lazy,” Ozzie said. “We’re not. Prove me wrong. A lot of people in this country want to be on the computer and send e-mails to people. We do the hard work. We’re the ones who go out and work in the sun to make this country better.”

As a player, Ozzie was a lightweight, figuratively and literally. He was signed out of Venezuela as a teenager, following in the tradition of great shortstops from that country: Chico Carrasquel, Luis Aparicio, and Dave Concepcion. But Ozzie wasn’t their equal in any part of his game. He couldn’t turn the double play like Chico, he didn’t have the speed of Little Looey, and he didn’t have the powerful arm of Davey. Ozzie did have good range and he was sure handed, talents that caught the eye of the White Sox, who included him in a trade with the Padres in 1984. The next season he was at short for the ChiSox, and largely due to his defensive reputation, he won the Rookie of the Year Award.

But Guillen was a one-dimensional player, better suited for the 1950s than the 1980s. Back then a shortstop was expected to make the routine plays in the field and whatever he did with the bat was a bonus. But in the 80s, Guillen was at a position that had been transformed by Robin Yount, Alan Trammell, Cal Ripken Jr., and others. Shortstops could pick it and poke it.

But Ozzie never could poke the ball. He was a miserable hitter, and once he suffered that severe injury in 1992 and had to have surgery, he couldn’t field very well either. To consider how bad Guillen was at the plate: of all the players in baseball history who had as many as 5,000 plate appearances in the majors, Guillen’s OPS+ of 68 is the lowest. His OPS+ means that Ozzie was 32% below an average major league hitter. His glove helped make up for some of that deficiency early in his career, but after the surgery, Ozzie wasn’t really a major leaguer any more.

So, he learned as much as he could about the other areas of the game, much of it at the feet of manager Bobby Cox during Ozzie’s two seasons with the Braves late in his career. The chatty Venezuelan started to learn how to back up what his mouth was spouting about the game. If he couldn’t play it at a high level, Guillen figured he could pull the strings.

After a brief apprenticeship as a coach with the Expos and Marlins (he earned a World Series ring in 2003 with the Fish), he was welcomed back to the Windy City to manage the Sox. At 40n years old he was not much older than many of his players, but he earned their respect. His eight seasons in Chicago were entertaining (just Google “Ozzie Guillen quotes”) and fruitful. One could argue the Sox should have made the playoffs more than just once, but they did win that title, and the club stole the spotlight from the Cubs for a few summers.

Now the Ozzie act is in sunny Florida with the newly named “Miami” Marlins. Already run out of one spring training game for arguing a call, Guillen hasn’t lost the touch for drawing the spotlight. It remains to be seen whether the Marlins can meld together new players under the new uniforms with a new manager, but one thing’s for certain: it’ll be interesting. Ozzie is right where he does his best work – in the dugout.

The Braves long road to .500

The baseball gods placed Huntsville, Alabama's Craig Kimbrel on the mound last June in the game that brought the Braves to an historic position.

On the final day of the 2011 season the Atlanta Braves experienced heartbreak. Their loss, coupled with a victory by the St. Louis Cardinals, cost the Braves the wild card spot that they had held for much of the season.

But last season wasn’t a complete loss for the Braves. In fact, in terms of winning it was historic.

You see, the Braves finally reached the .500 mark in 2011. After a long – and I mean loooong – journey, the Braves made it to the break-even mark again after 88 years.

The Braves trace their roots back to the Boston franchise in the National League in the 19th century, in fact they were a member of what is considered by most baseball experts to be the very first “major” league. In 1876, the Boston Red Stockings – as they were known then – debuted in the fledgling league. In those pioneering days of pro “base ball”, Boston was pretty darned good. They finished first or second in five of the first nine seasons of the NL, and then in the 1890s they really cranked it up.

By that time they were known as the Beaneaters (imagine the possible promotional giveaways) and Boston rivaled the Baltimore Orioles for the title of best team in baseball. In 1892, 1893, 1897, and 1898, they posted the best record in the league. With star pitcher Kid Nichols, outfielder “Sliding Billy” Hamilton and other future Hall of Famers, the Beaneaters helped spread the popularity of baseball in Massachusetts and the rest of the east coast.

Then came some lean years in the early 20th century, but in 1914 the “Miracle Braves” went from last to first and won the World Series, their first modern championship. But losing seasons mounted after that, and in 1923, in the midst of their second straight 100-loss campaign, the Braves fell below the .500 mark all-time. At season’s end they had 3,121 wins and 3,159 losses. From then on, until 2011, the Braves were under the .500 mark. The low point was in 1945, when the team all-time mark was at .473. The team was so terrible back then that they asked their fans to help them pick a new name. As a result, for a few years they were known as the Bees.

And so it went for decades, through moves to Milwaukee and later Atlanta, the franchise tried to dig itself out of the hole and get to the even-steven mark. For 14 straight seasons, from 1953 to 1966, the team posted a winning record, on the strength of a roster filled with names like Aaron and Spahn and Matthews. Still, the Braves were more than 200 games under .500, and after stinking for pretty much the entire 1970s and being mediocre again in the 80s, the franchise was more than 500 games under .500 after the 1990 season.

Yes, every one of their games was beamed into our living rooms via cable television, but you couldn’t make us watch them.

But since 1991, the Braves have been winning a lot. A child born in that year would think the Braves were constitutionally mandated to finish in first place. Beginning in ’91, the Braves won 13 of 14 division titles, winning 100 games six times. Sure they were sort of the Buffalo Bills of MLB, losing nearly every year in the post-season, but they kept climbing the hill of respectability, inching closer to the .500 plateau all-time. With each victory off the arms of Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, and John Smoltz, with every game-winning hit off the bat of Chipper Jones, the Braves were chasing decades-old ghosts.

In 2003, the Braves moved to 71 games under the .500 mark. The following year they chopped 30 games off that figure. After winning 91 games and making the playoffs as a wild card in 2010, they were only nine games under the .500 mark, also fast approaching their 10,000th franchise win. Would they get to 10,000 wins before 10,000 losses? Would the Braves reach the .500 mark after nearly nine decades?

Would anyone notice?

They needed to get to nine games over .500 in 2011 – and hopefully stay there – to reach the even mark for franchise history. They played “win a few, lose a few” in April before reeling off  six straight wins when the calendar turned to May. Now, surely the spirits of Kid Nichols and Billy Hamilton, and Tommy Holmes and Warren Spahn, were working their celestial magic in their favor.

Again, when the calendar turned – this time to June – the Braves got hot. On June 10, Tim Hudson defeated the Astros to improve the club’s 2011 record to 36-28. They were one game away from a milestone of generational importance but of absolutely no significance in the present. That didn’t stop the baseball gods from entering with a sprinkling of magic fairy dust.

The next night, the Braves matched up against the Astros again at Minute Maid Park in Houston. The Astros jumped out to a 2-0 lead before Jones drove in a run and then Eric Hinske, who was born just a few miles from Milwaukee, where the Braves had once been the toast of the town, hit a home run that would have made Hank Aaron proud, tying the game at 2-2. That’s the way it stayed heading into extra-innings, the Braves teetering with a record of 9,981-9,982. One of the scales of the baseball universe was swaying in the balance.

Jordan Schafer, who hadn’t even been born when Dale Murphy was winning MVP awards for the Braves in the 1980s, led off the top of the 10th with a single and then swiped second base in true Ralph “Roadrunner” Garr fashion. Dan Uggla followed with a walk, which brought Brian McCann to the plate. A Georgia native, McCann had grown up rooting for the Braves – cheering from the stands at Fulton-County Stadium for Chipper and Maddux and Glavine and “The Crime Dog” and Dave Justice – the gang who had helped start the franchise on the uphill road to the .500 mark.

McCann smoked a 2-1 pitch deep into the right field stands for a three-run homer. Another run came across – scored appropriately by Chipper – and the Braves had a 6-3 lead. Reliever Craig Kimbrel came into close out the win for Atlanta. On the day Kimbrel had been born in 1988, the Braves all-time record saw them 419 games under .500. Now they were three outs from being right where they started back in 1876. Kimbrel had more good karma working for him and the team – he was born in Huntsville, Alabama – the birthplace of Henry Aaron. Yes, the baseball gods had lined it up – the man on the mound was a direct baseball descendant of the Aaron Crimson Tide bloodlines. But outside maybe someone in the Braves’ PR office, no one knew this was significant.

Kimbrel struggled a little – he pitched like he was Hank Aaron – but he finally nailed down the win and Atlanta was nine games over .500 for the season, just two games behind the Phillies for first place. But more importantly in a cosmic way was the fact they were now 9,982 up and 9,982 down. For the first time since the Harding administration the Braves were at .500 all-time.

There weren’t any celebrations, no commemorative cups, but the deed was done. And since they’d worked so damned hard for 88 years to get back to .500, they made sure to stay winners. The next day they beat the ‘Stros again, and a 14-2 stretch that started on June 19 pushed them above the mark for good. On July 15, their first game back from the All-Star break, the Braves won their 10,000th game, punishing the Washington Nationals, 11-1. Their ace, Tim Hudson, channeling Spahn, won that day.

Even though the Braves suffered that sour loss in game #162, they were still winners. As far as the baseball universe is concerned, they’re on the correct side of the ledger.

Cabrera and Fielder can join this list of great power-hitting Tigers’ duos

Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder follow in a long line of great power-hitting duos who've worn the Old English D of the Tigers.

It’s a great time to be a Tigers fan and 2012 will be a great season to be sitting in the outfield seats at Comerica Park.

That’s because the Detroit lineup features not one, but two of the best sluggers in the game. Miguel Cabrera is joined by free agent acquisition Price Fielder to form a scary middle of the lineup for Jim Leyland.

Cabrera has already shown how special he is with the stick. In his four seasons as a Tiger the right-handed slugger has won each part of the triple crown: a batting title, home run crown, and RBI title. Now, he has Fielder hitting behind him, a man-child who has 230 career home runs at the age of 27, and who once hit 50 homers for the Brewers. The Tigers powerful duo is unmatched in baseball right now.

A look at the history of the Detroit Tigers shows us that the franchise has had their share of sluggers. Where Cabrera and Fielder will rank among the most productive duos to wear the Tigers uniform remains to be seen. For the next several seasons, the two have a chance to make history with their bats.

Here are Detroit’s 10 greatest power-hitting duos*, ranked by overall home runs, per season averages, and contribution to winning teams.

10. Tony Clark and Bobby Higginson
In the darkest days of the Tiger franchise, when they were losing more games and having more losing seasons than ever before, and baseballs were being hit out of parks more often than ever before, the Tigers had Bobby Higginson and Tony Clark. For seven seasons, from 1995-2001, the switch-hitting Clark and lefty-swinging Higginson were power threats for the Tigers. Each of them had four 20-homer seasons together, topping out with a combined 59 twice.

Combined HR as Tigers teammates: 307 (156 for Clark, 151 for Higgy)

9. Al Kaline and Charlie Maxwell
Al Kaline was not a pure power hitter, not like Mickey Mantle or Ted Williams or Harmon Killebrew, three sluggers who were his contemporaries. No, Kaline was a great natural hitter who hit the ball with zing all over the diamond. But he did hit more than 20 homers nine times, five times when “Paw Paw” Maxwell was his teammate. Maxwell was a heck of a hitter and he had power in his bat. He finished in the AL top ten in home runs four times, including fourth in 1959 with 31. Their best season as a duo was 1959 when they hit 58 taters together.

Combined HR as Tigers teammates: 316 (183 for Kaline, 133 for Maxwell)

8. Lance Parrish and Kirk Gibson
Parrish was the greatest power-hitting catcher the Tigers have ever had, in fact in 1982 he broke a long-standing American League record when he hit 32 homers at his position. He and Gibby were teammates from 1979 to 1986, but Gibson didn’t crack the starting lineup until 1981 and didn’t have his first full injury-free season until 1984. Both of these guys could send a ball a long way. Gibson hit balls over the right field roof, including a famous blast that traveled into the lumber yard across the street. Parrish had mammoth arms, chest, and shoulders and hit a lot of line-drive homers that were in the stands quickly. Their best season was 1984 when they combined for 560 homers while batting third and cleanup, respectively.

Combined HR as Tigers teammates: 321 (195 for Parrish, 126 for Gibby)

7. Willie Horton and Al Kaline
Kaline’s home run buddy from the mid-1960s through the early 1970s was left fielder Willie Horton, who was just about as strong as any man who’s ever worn the Old English D. Horton hit 262 home runs for Detroit, all but 39 of them with Kaline as his teammate. Both right-handed hitters, they had different styles. Kaline was a line-drive hitter, while Horton hit high, long, deep, fly ball home runs. They combined for 56 home runs in 1966.

Combined HR as Tigers teammates: 434 (223 for Horton, 211 for Kaline)

6. Norm Cash and Willie Horton
Like Horton and Kaline, Cash & Horton were teammates for the same 12 seasons (1963-1974). Cash often hit fifth behind Kaline and Horton, and he was more of a power threat than Kaline was. Teamed with Horton, Cash formed a dangerous right/left combo for the Tigers.

Combined HR as Tigers teammates: 498 (275 for Cash, 223 for Horton)

5. Darrell Evans and Kirk Gibson
In two of the four seasons these two were paired together in the Detroit lineup, the Tigers posted the best record in baseball. Evans had a swing built for Tiger Stadium: he lofted high fly balls into the short porch in right field and he rocketed line drives into the lower deck. Gibson and Evans totaled 69 homers in 1985, the third best single-season mark by Tigers teammates.

Combined HR as Tigers teammates: 316 (119 for Evans, 108 for Gibby)

4. Cecil Fielder and Mickey Tettleton
Of all the power hitters who teamed with Fielder during his Tiger days (Rob Deer, Kirk Gibson, Travis Fryman, Tony Clark), Tettleton was the most productive as far as homers were concerned. For four seasons (1991-1994), the switch-hitting Tettleton hit directly behind Fielder in Sparky Anderson’s fearsome lineup. “Big Daddy” averaged 34 homers and Mickey averaged 28 during their time together. Even so, their teams were mediocre.

Combined HR as Tigers teammates: 249 (137 for Fielder, 112 for Tettleton)

3. Norm Cash and Al Kaline
For longevity, no other Tiger power-hitting duo can match these two. Cash hit almost 100 more homers than Kaline in their 15 seasons together: he was healthier, had more natural power, and as a lefty was helped by the shorter dimensions of right field in Tiger Stadium. But few of Cash’s home runs were cheap, he hit the ball hard and far. Kaline and Cash both retired after the 1974 season, one with fanfare, one with humor. The two were teammates for many years but no more different personalities ever existed on a ballclub. Kaline was quiet, aloof, almost stately in his dignified demeanor. Cash was brash, crass, and hard-living.

Combined HR as Tigers teammates: 647 (373 for Cash, 274 for Kaline)

2. Rocky Colavito and Norm Cash
For one season this dynamic duo was scary good. In 1961, Cash and “The Rock” combined for 86 home runs, 272 RBI, 248 runs scored, and 237 walks. They weren’t quite Mantle and Roger Maris, but they were very close. With a lefty (Stormin Norman) and a righty (Colavito) they were about as perfect a pair as was ever in the middle of a Detroit lineup. Their per-season average of combined HR (66) is four higher than that of Fielder and Tettleton. As Tigers, Colavito hit cleanup behind Kaline, and Cash followed Rocky.

Combined HR as Tigers teammates: 263 (139 for The Rock, 124 for Cash)

1. Hank Greenberg and Rudy York
If it wasn’t for Mickey Cochrane, York would probably be in the Hall of Fame. It’s hard to imagine today after so many years, but in the late 1930s and early 1940s, these two were the best right-handed hitting power hitters in the game. The problem was that they played the same position. Greenberg was a .330 hitting, 45-homer, 150+ RBI bat at first base when York was signed by Detroit. A hulk of a man with incredible strength, York was a 19-year old catcher/first baseman but the Tigers had Cochrane behind the plate and Greenberg at first base. The powerful right-handed hitter spent three seasons in the minors (1934-1936) when he was obviously a major league caliber hitter. He won two minor league MVP Awards before finally cracking Detroit’s lineup in 1937 when Cochrane was nearly killed by a pitched ball. York hit 18 home runs in one month as a rookie on his way to 35 for the season. He made seven All-Star teams, led the league in homers and RBI, and was in the top five in home runs nine times during his career. But being stuck in the minors those three years probably cost him 100 homers and 300 RBI. Still, he was a fantastic hitter with raw natural power, described by one observer as “Able to hit the cover off a baseball, quite literally.” We all know about Greenberg, or at least you should. He hit 58 home runs in 1938 and managed 331 for his career despite missing nearly five full years to service in World War II. York and Greenberg hit 91 homers as teammates in 1938, a Tigers record. In their four full seasons in the middle of the Detroit lineup, the sluggers averaged 73 homers and 256 RBI. When Greenberg returned late in the 1945 season, the duo won a World Series title.

Combined HR as Tigers teammates: 360 (187 for Greenberg, 173 for York)

Should Cabrera and Fielder maintain their established levels of production they can challenge the best duos on this list. 2012 will be the first of many chances they’ll have to etch their names in the Tiger record books.

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*For the purposes of my list I focused on duos in the home run era, meaning that Ty Cobb, Sam Crawford, and Bobby Veach, three powerful Tiger sluggers from the Deadball Era, did not make the list. In their day, a power hitter was a batter who hit a lot of doubles and triples, not necessarily the longball, which was not a large part of the game until the 1920s.

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