Saturday, January 31, 2009

Andrew Bird @ Orpheum Theater

I've been a fan of Andrew Bird since 2005's The Mysterious Production of Eggs. Both that album and its 2007 follow up, Armchair Apocrypha, have made my top ten albums in their respective years. Last night was the second time I've seen Bird in concert, but the first time I realized how much more special he is live than on record.

From his skill for multi-tasking by alternating between violin, guitar and xylophone--often times on the same song--all the while maintaining his primary role as frontman and lead singer; to his stage presence and subtle charm at conversing with his audience, Bird is an amazing performer. His act truly has to be seen in order to believe that his talents go well beyond his ability to craft and arrange fine pop songs.

Bird's trademark instrument is the violin, but his most interesting talent may very well be his whistling, probably the musical element that makes his sound most unique. Adding to his uniqueness were the hot pink socks that came on display when he removed his shoes while the music played in extended loop during the show's opening song. My curiosity was further aroused as I spent quite a bit of time trying to figure out how he manages to hold the violin's bow in the same hand that he uses to finger-pick it with, so that he can move back and forth effortlessly between playing it conventionally and unconventionally.

Last night's show was just the second on his recent tour to support his new album, Noble Beast. As a result, there were plenty of artist-acknowledged mistakes that resulted in double and triple-takes to the openings of songs, but all were handled with Bird's charming sense of humor and didn't detract from the incredible performance in the slightest. Judging by the crowd response, the majority in attendance last night were in absolute agreement with me.

We missed part of the opening act, the Swedish popsters Loney, Dear. But, the portion of their set we witnessed made me re-think my own idea that I probably wouldn't like them as much as I did a couple of years ago, and realize that spending a little time with their recently released album will be well worth the effort.

All-Lifetime Team, Part 2: Outfielders and DHs

This is the second in my three-part series rating the greatest Major League Baseball players of my lifetime. First, though, I have to admit that I may have overlooked someone in Part 1.

Pete Rose played more games at first base than at any other position in his career, yet most sources, when comparing players by position, tend to consider him as either a left fielder or a right fielder. He actually played more games at second and third, in addition to first and in left, than he did in right. So, why anyone--especially Bill James--would consider him there is beyond me. Making matters even more complicated, here's the breakdown of Rose's seasons by primary position:

2B (1963-66)
LF (1967, 72-74)
RF (1968-71)
3B (1975-78)
1B (1979-86)

While first base is the position he played the most, he only played three games there prior to 1979. That's the first 16 years of his career, making it pretty difficult to consider first base as his true position. Considering the other four positions are divided fairly evenly--four seasons each--I've decided instead to call Rose the ultimate utility player. Instead of filling in game-by-game at the spot he was most needed, he did this on a year-to-year basis.

So, rather than create a special category for Rose, I'm going to lump him in with the DHs. Enough semantics, though. It's time to get back to my selections.

1. Pete Rose
2. Paul Molitor
3. Frank Thomas

On some level, Rose is a bit over-rated. That's not to say he's not a Hall of Fame caliber player, he just doesn't belong in the conversation with the greatest players of all-time. Still, the fact that he capably was a regular at five different positions in his career--and was probably an above average outfielder and an average infielder--negates any discussions about his lack of defensive prowess. Molitor was similarly versatile, but was somewhat injury prone, which is the primary reason he spent close to half of his career as a DH. Thomas has racked up the kind of numbers that should be good enough for him to become the second DH in the Hall of Fame. Edgar Martinez and Harold Baines had very good careers, but come up a bit short, although I do consider Martinez to be a just-below-the-borderline candidate.

Left Field
1. Barry Bonds
2. Rickey Henderson
3. Carl Yastrzemski

I avoided having to weigh in on the old "S" word dilemma when I chose Rod Carew as my third first baseman over Rafael Palmeiro and Mark McGwire, but that was only postponing the inevitable. Actually, I'm really not going to address it, except to say that I'm making these selections simply based on what has happened on the field. There is no doubting that, based on on-field performance, Bonds is the greatest player of my lifetime. The next two were pretty easy as well, except deciding in what order to rank them. I chose Henderson over Yastrzemski, although I feel that it was really close, and lot of people probably don't realize this, as Yaz is a little on the under-rated side. No one else even compares to these three, although I'll say without reservation, that Tim Raines comes much closer than Jim Rice. In fact, this exercise has made me truly realize that Rice really does fall short of Hall of Fame caliber. It's not a travesty that he got in, but he's just not quite there, in my opinion.

Center Field
1. Ken Griffey Jr.
2. Andre Dawson
3. Bernie Williams

Griffey was an easy pick as the greatest center fielder of my generation. In fact, I remember a time when everyone thought he--rather than Bonds--was going to be the one to challenge Hank Aaron's home run record. Dawson actually played more games in right than he did in center for his career, but he had just as many excellent years--and won four of his eight gold gloves--as a center fielder. So, I'm putting him on my center field list because of this, and the fact that the position is relatively much weaker than right. I feel that Williams is quite under-rated, and the proof that I'm not just being a homer of a Yankee fan is that I didn't even consider Don Mattingly at first base or Thurman Munson at catcher. Speaking of Munson, there's a player whose career ended just as prematurely--although not as tragically--that I left off this list. That player, of course, is Kirby Puckett. I think Puckett is more worthy of the Hall of Fame than is Munson, but I find it interesting that his shortened career was treated so much more favorably than was Thurman's. Still, I think Puckett comes up short, and I would even rank him behind Jim Edmonds on this list.

Right Field
1. Manny Ramirez
2. Dave Winfield
3. Reggie Jackson

George Steinbrenner would be rolling over in his grave at the news that I ranked not only Winfield, but also Ramirez, ahead of Jackson. That is, if the Boss was actually in the grave, and if he cared about my opinion. But, Manny has accumulated a phenomenal body of work, and he becomes the third active player--not counting Bonds--to earn the top spot at his position. Winfield gets the nod over Reggie because of his better all-around game, and the fact that I weighed the regular season much more heavily than the post-season. On the outside looking in at this loaded position are Tony Gwynn, Gary Sheffield, Sammy Sosa and Vladimir Guerrero.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

All-Lifetime Team, Part 1: Catchers and Infielders

An old high school friend--one of many with whom I've recently re-connected on facebook--asked me to name my all-lifetime team--in baseball, of course. Since I'm always up for this kind of challenge, I decided to rank the top three players at each position during my lifetime of fandom.

To be eligible, a player has to have played the majority of his career--or a minimum of ten seasons--after 1973. 1974 would be my best recollection of the year I truly became a baseball fan. The most notable player who missed the cut so far is Willie McCovey, whose career spanned from 1959 to 1980. Re-thinking my eligibility requirement, I feel justified in my decision, since this means I was only 13 years old when he retired.

There were also a couple of gray areas with regard to positions, but generally I considered each player's entire career at the position at which he played the most games. I'm going to do this in three installments, starting with catchers and infielders. Stay tuned for part two (outfielders and DHs) and part three (pitchers).

Hall of Famers are listed in bold print.

1. Johnny Bench
2. Carlton Fisk
3. Ivan Rodriguez

Bench was a fairly easy pick for #1. Among catchers, only Mike Piazza has better offensive numbers, and only Ivan Rodriguez can match his defensive prowess. Fisk still holds the record for most career games caught, so of course his cumulative numbers benefit from this longevity, but he was an excellent defensive catcher--not as good as Bench and Rodriguez, but much better than Piazza. Rodriguez, as the best defensive catcher of his era, and certainly no slouch offensively, earns the third spot over Piazza and Gary Carter.

First Base
1. Eddie Murray
2. Jeff Bagwell
3. Rod Carew

Again, Murray was a fairly easy choice for the top spot. He has to be considered the ultimate model of consistency, hitting 504 career homers without ever hitting more than 33, and reaching 3255 hits with a career high of 186. He may have never won an MVP, but it seems he was almost always a leading candidate. Surprisingly, I consider Bagwell to be an obvious #2 on this list. It will be interesting to see if Hall of Fame voters consider him the slam dunk that I do. Carew played more games at first base than second base in his career, and more seasons--10 to 9--yet it seems that most sources consider him as a second baseman. He wouldn't have made my top three at second, though, so I chose him over Tony Perez, Rafael Palmeiro and Mark McGwire as my third first baseman.

Second Base
1. Joe Morgan
2. Roberto Alomar
3. Craig Biggio

Another no-brainer at #1, Morgan is widely considered to be the greatest second baseman of all-time. The only players you could even argue in comparison are old-timers Rogers Hornsby, Nap Lajoie and--the pride of Dutchess County--Eddie Collins. You might be surprised at my second and third choices, and the fact that I opted for them instead of the slightly over-rated Ryne Sandberg. Alomar's skills faded quickly after his 34th birthday, otherwise I might be making a case for him over Morgan. But, that's a moot point, and some would argue that I should rank Biggio ahead of him due to his consistency and longevity. Regardless, both of them are first ballot Hall of Famers, and clearly better than Sandberg and the recently retired Jeff Kent, in my opinion.

1. Alex Rodriguez
2. Cal Ripken Jr.
3. Robin Yount

Is it premature to rank Rodriguez ahead of Ripken already? I don't think so. A-Rod would be well on his way to being considered the greatest shortstop of all-time if not for the fact that in 3+ more years as a third baseman, he'll have played more games there. But, for now, that's a dilemma I don't have to consider. As far as I'm concerned, Ripken and Yount were pretty obvious choices over fellow Hall of Famer Ozzie Smith. In fact, Smith might not even make my top five, as he'd be up against Barry Larkin and Derek Jeter for that honor.

Third Base
1. Mike Schmidt
2. George Brett
3. Wade Boggs

This was probably the easiest position of all, so far. All three of these guys are Hall of Famers, and Schmidt is considered by most to be the greatest third baseman of all-time. I suppose you could argue putting Boggs ahead of Brett, but that's about the only debatable point with this list. Chipper Jones is the only other player who even comes close, and considering he's only approaching his 37th birthday and doesn't appear to be slowing down, he may play a part in this discussion before all is said and done.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Filling a Void

It's mid-January, the best music of 2008 list is completed, Cooperstown enshrinees have been announced, and with the start of baseball's regular season 2 1/2 months away--since the reporting of pitchers and catchers in mid-February doesn't quite do it for me--comes a period of time that is somewhat devoid of blogging material for me.

A little less than two years ago, I began a series of memoir-style blog entries chronicling one of my lifelong obsessions. I called it the Fab 40, as I wrote about the 40 artists who've meant the most to me during my lifetime as a music fan. Well, I've recently been working on compiling another list. That is, the 40 most important sports moments of my life so far.

Once again, these moments will be judged based on their importance to me, not on how important they were to their respective teams or sports, or to anyone else. Having been in attendance at the particular event, of course, will increase its likelihood of making the list. However, the most important factors will be how vivid my memories are, and how these memories make me feel today.

I need a little help, though. I don't know what to call this series. I'm looking for something a little more creative than the Sports Fab 40, but I'm coming up void of ideas. So, if you have any thoughts, please send them my way.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Rock 'n the Hall

With the latest Hall of Fame vote coming up on Monday, despite the fact that there are a number of borderline names on the ballot, I've been thinking a lot about the candidacy of one particular player. Unfortunately, the player in question received only 24.3% of the vote last year, in his first year of eligibility. In fact, he received only one-third the amount of support as another player, who happened to play the same position that he did, and who is much less deserving of the honor. But, I'm not going to get into comparing these two players. If you're interested, you can read about that here. I just want to make the case for the guy I feel is the second most deserving candidate on this year's ballot.

Rickey Henderson, of course, is the most deserving player. Should I waste any time, or space here, explaining why? Probably not, so I'll let the numbers do the talking: 1406 SB (1st all-time), 2295 runs (1st), 2190 BB (2nd), 3055 hits, .401 OBP, 127 OPS+, 535 win shares (400 means absolute HOF enshrinement, according to Bill James).

Tim Raines, while maybe not a first-ballot Hall of Famer, should be fairly obvious as well. In the '80s, he was the National League's version of Henderson. That is, the best leadoff hitter in his respective league. He was not quite as good as Rickey, of course, but that's certainly no insult. He had an OBP of .390 or better, which ranked in the top six in the NL, in seven seasons in that decade. Also in the '80s, he ranked first or second in runs scored four times (six times in the top ten), and in the top four in stolen bases eight times, including leading the league for four consecutive years from 1981 to 1984. He also ranked in the top three in runs created for five consecutive years (1983 to 1987).

Raines had an excellent prime, but there was a bit of a drop-off after he left Montreal. Still, although his base stealing ability declined quickly from his early to mid-30s, he remained a good offensive player with a high OBP and decent power. He also played a significant part-time role for two World Series teams in his late 30s, and accumulated 390 win shares over the course of his career. I said earlier that Bill James, the creator of win shares, has stated that 400 is the plateau for automatic enshrinement in Cooperstown. James has also called 300 the level at which a player is more likely than not to enter the Hall of Fame. The last ten position players to be inducted have averaged 377, from Kirby Puckett's 281 to Eddie Murray's 437, with Wade Boggs (394) and Tony Gwynn (398) achieving the closest totals to Raines' 390.

Raines also had a career OBP of .385, an OPS+ (park/league adjusted OPS) of 123 (23% better than average), and is 5th on the career stolen bases list with 808, at an outstanding success rate of 84.7%, which ranks first all-time. By comparison, Rickey Henderson was successful 80.8% of the time, and Lou Brock's rate was 75.3%. In fact, although caught stealing statistics only existed for the second half of Ty Cobb's career, it's extremely likely that Raines would rank second all-time in stolen bases minus caught stealing (Henderson - 1071, Raines - 662, Brock - 631). It seems more than obvious to me that this should be considered a more important statistic than merely stolen bases on their own.

Speaking of Brock,'s similarity scores judge him to be the player whose career mostly closely compares to Raines'. Brock is not only a Hall of Famer, but he was elected on the first ballot. I'm a strong advocate that we should never argue that one player deserves to make it just because another undeserving player did. I'm not saying Brock is undeserving, but he is over-rated and has nothing on Raines, other than 130 stolen bases—which, of course, is more than offset by having been caught stealing 161 more times—and the fact that he reached the artificially magical milestone of 3000 hits.

Raines beats him in win shares (390 to 348), and tops him easily in OBP (.385 to .343), OPS+ (123 to 109) and runs created per 27 outs (6.6 to 5.2), while maintaining fairly comparable statistics in other more traditional cumulative categories (39 fewer runs, 80 more RBI, 21 more HR). Furthermore, Raines never won a Gold Glove, but he was an above average outfielder, and Brock was a surprisingly poor defender, making 10 or more errors in 12 different seasons. Yes, you're reading that correctly. He made 196 errors in 19 seasons, with a .959 fielding percentage, as an outfielder.

But, as I said, Brock's shortcomings should not be an argument for Raines' candidacy. However, I have no problem saying that Raines compares favorably with the two men considered to be the best speed-oriented leadoff hitters in the second half of the 20th century. In fact, if you asked me to rate them in order, I'd feel very confident rating Raines behind Henderson, but ahead of Brock. Therefore, Tim "Rock" Raines is, without question, a Hall of Famer.