September 2012

September 30 – Happy Birthday Rusty Torres

Their dynasty had already crumbled by the time the Yankees drafted today’s Pinstripe Birthday Celebrant in the 54th round of the 1966 amateur draft. Rusty Torres was born in Puerto Rico but grew up in Queens, where he starred in baseball as a high school and sandlot player. It took him five plus seasons to work his way up the Yankee ladder of farm teams, but when he hit 19 home runs and averaged .290 for the Triple A Syracuse Chiefs in 1971, Ralph Houk decided to give the switch-hitting youngster an opportunity to become New York’s starting right-fielder, alongside Bobby Murcer and Roy White.

Torres proved not up to the task. He got into 80 games during the 1972 season but hit a putrid .211 with just 3 home runs and 13 RBIs in 199 at bats. That November, the Yankees sent Torres, Charley Spikes, Johnny Ellis and Jerry Kenney to Cleveland to obtain third baseman, Graig Nettles.

Even though his lifetime average was just .212, Torres defensive skills as an outfielder helped him last nine seasons in the Majors. His only year as a starter was 1976, when he was the Angels’ everyday center fielder.

Torres shares his September 30th birthday with this long-ago Yankee starting pitcher.

Year Tm G PA AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI SB BB SO BA OBP SLG OPS
1971 NYY 9 26 26 5 10 3 0 2 3 0 0 8 .385 .385 .731 1.115
1972 NYY 80 219 199 15 42 7 0 3 13 0 18 44 .211 .280 .291 .571
9 Yrs 654 1523 1314 159 279 45 5 35 126 13 164 246 .212 .301 .334 .635
CAL (2 yrs) 178 399 341 46 66 17 4 9 37 4 46 57 .194 .288 .346 .634
CLE (2 yrs) 230 545 462 50 92 10 1 10 40 8 63 86 .199 .296 .290 .586
NYY (2 yrs) 89 245 225 20 52 10 0 5 16 0 18 52 .231 .291 .342 .633
CHW (2 yrs) 106 254 214 33 57 8 0 11 30 0 29 44 .266 .359 .458 .817
KCR (1 yr) 51 80 72 10 12 0 0 0 3 1 8 7 .167 .250 .167 .417
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 9/30/2013.

September 29 – Happy Birthday Jake Westbrook

Once again, researching for this blog has taught me something I did not know (or had at least forgotten) about my favorite baseball team. Every Yankee fan over the age of 20 remembers Hideki Irabu. He was the Japanese pitcher the Yankees signed with great fanfare back in 1997, who went a disappointing 29-20 during his two-plus seasons in Pinstripes and who was infamously labeled a “fat toad” by impatient Yankee owner, George Steinbrenner. “The Boss” ordered Irabu traded after the 1999 season and Brian Cashman obliged by sending him to the Montreal Expos that December for three young pitching prospects. All three of those prospects were assigned to Yankee minor league teams in 2000 and two of them, a right-hander and a southpaw are still pitching in the big leagues today and have compiled over 220 career victories thus far between themselves. Only ten of those victories, however, belong to the Yankees.

The southpaw New York got in that Irabu deal was Ted Lilly and the right-hander is today’s Pinstripe Birthday Celebrant. Originally assigned to the Yank’s triple A team, then located in Columbus, Westbrook was called up to the parent club in June of 2000 and lost his only two career starts in pinstripes. Later that same month, the Yankees sent Westbrook, outfielder Ricky Ledee and a pitching prospect named Zach Day to the Cleveland Indians in exchange for slugger, David Justice. Westbrook spent most of the next decade starting for the Indians and then signed a free agent contract with the St Louis Cardinals in November of 2010. In 2011, his 12-9 regular season record helped St. Louis make the postseason and he ended up getting and his first World Series victory (against Texas in Game 6) and his first championship ring that year. He’s currently 13-11 for this year’s Cardinals who are in the thick of the 2012 NL Wild Card chase.

As of today, Westbrook’s 35th birthday, he has 98 victories. Lilly, currently a Dodger and on the DL, has won 130 big league games. Both are doing much much better than poor Irabu, who hung himself in Los Angeles in July of 2011.

Westbrook shares his birthday with this former Yankee outfielder, this former Yankee shortstop prospect and this 1967 Cy Young Award winner.

Year Tm W L W-L% ERA G GS GF CG SHO SV IP H R ER HR BB SO WHIP
2000 NYY 0 2 .000 13.50 3 2 1 0 0 0 6.2 15 10 10 1 4 1 2.850
13 Yrs 105 103 .505 4.32 314 272 11 15 4 0 1746.2 1884 922 839 148 571 965 1.406
CLE (9 yrs) 69 69 .500 4.29 218 179 10 13 3 0 1191.1 1269 624 568 107 368 655 1.374
STL (4 yrs) 36 32 .529 4.28 93 91 0 2 1 0 548.2 600 288 261 40 199 309 1.456
NYY (1 yr) 0 2 .000 13.50 3 2 1 0 0 0 6.2 15 10 10 1 4 1 2.850
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 9/29/2013.

September 28 – Happy Birthday Jack Fournier

I remember very well the first time I realized the purpose and power of a good first baseman’s mitt. I was 11 years old and playing for St. Agnello Club, a team in my hometown’s youth baseball league. During our first practice before the season began, the coach of my team had asked me what position I played. Although Mickey Mantle was my favorite player back then I knew center fielders had to do a lot of running and the only running I did at that time was to get to the dinner table before my two older brothers ate all the good stuff. So I told my coach I played first base.

He looked at the “Rocky Colavito” model Rawlings’ outfielders’ glove I was wearing on my left hand and said, “You can’t play first base with that tiny thing, you need the Trapper.” He then picked up and reached into the large burlap equipment bag that was lying alongside the batting cage and pulled out the biggest wad of rawhide leather I’d ever seen in my young life. It was a genuine first baseman’s mitt.

I put that monster on my hand and went over to first base for my first-ever official infielder’s practice. Coach hit the first ground ball to our third baseman, who happened to also be one of the two sons he had playing on that year’s team. He bobbled the grounder a couple of times before finally getting the ball into his throwing hand and making a pretty hard throw toward my direction. I could tell the ball was not going to reach me and it was going to be wide of first toward right field, so I did my best Joe Pepitone impersonation and put my right toe on the side of the first base bag while reaching across my body to attempt a sweeping backhand scoop catch of the misdirected thrown ball. I may have also closed my eyes. Somehow, the ball ended up in the huge webbing of the “Trapper” and a couple of the parents who were watching the practice started clapping. I heard my coach yell “Looks like we found our new first baseman.”

For the rest of that practice and the first six or seven games of that first season, me and the Trapper caught every ball hit or thrown within four feet of first base. That glove was magical. If a baseball touched it anywhere on its palm side surface it seemed to stick to it like an EZ Pass sticks to the inside of a car’s windshield.

Then before one game, I went to the burlap bag to grab the Trapper for infield practice and it wasn’t there. One of my coach’s sons had taken it out of the bag to play with it that week and left it in their garage. I was forced to play first with my tiny Colavito glove. Sure enough, the first ball in play that game was a grounder to our second baseman. His throw to me was hard but true and I still remember the horror of watching that ball bounce off the pocket of my glove and onto the ground in front of me. After picking up the dropped ball and throwing it back to our pitcher, I remember turning toward our bench to see what the coach’s reaction was to my first-ever miscue and seeing him get into his pick-up truck and drive away. He was on his way home to get the Trapper. From that moment on, the glove never left my side. I remember almost crying when I finally was forced to return it to coach when the baseball season ended.

So why am I telling you all this? Because today’s Pinstripe Birthday Celebrant would probably be in Cooperstown today if he had the chance to play first base with the Trapper. In fact, if Jack Fournier had a modern day first baseman’s mitt, Lou Gehrig might have never been signed by New York or might have instead been traded by the Yankees before Wally Pipp got that famous headache. Why?

In 1918, Pipp left the Yankees for WWI military service. New York signed Fournier to take his place. The French-American native from Au Sable, Michigan got into 27 games for Manager Miller Huggins ball club and instantly became one of the best hitters on that team, scorching the ball at a .350 clip during his 27 games of action. After such an impressive offensive performance, you’d figure the Yankees would quickly offer the guy a contract for the following season or at the very least invite him to next year’s spring training. Instead, the Yankees dropped him like a hot potato. How come?

Jack Fournier might just have been the worst-fielding first baseman in baseball history. During just those 27 games he played as a Yankee, the guy made 7 errors. During his 14 seasons in the big leagues, he made over 200. In Nelson Chip Green’s excellent SABR Baseball Biography profile of Fournier’s career, he quotes from a 1916 LA Times article describing the Chicago White Sox chances for success in the upcoming baseball season. Fournier played his first six big league seasons for the Pale Hose. Here’s that quote: “[t]he only weak defensive point in the infield is at first base,” where “Fournier will again try his hand at playing that position. For every run that he lets in,” suggested Williams, “he will drive in another, making it a so-so proposition.”

It seems that Fournier had hands of stone and played first base like his feet were stuck in cement. Balls thrown or hit directly at him were frequently dropped. Those that passed just a foot to either side of him were considered automatic base runners. Managers tried to hide him in the outfield but he was even worse defensively out there.

The one thing Fournier could do on a baseball field was hit. His lifetime average was .313 and once a livelier baseball was introduced to the game in 1920, Fournier became a power hitter, who was often referred to as the National Leagues “Babe Ruth.” He led the NL with 27 home runs while playing for Brooklyn in 1924. Truth was that Fournier was a great DH before there was a DH in Major League Baseball.

He shares his September 29th birthday with this former Yankee center fielder, this former Yankee relief pitcher and this one-time Yankee pitching prospect.

Year Tm G PA AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI SB BB SO BA OBP SLG OPS
1918 NYY 27 110 100 9 35 6 1 0 12 7 7 7 .350 .393 .430 .823
15 Yrs 1530 6032 5208 822 1631 252 113 136 859 146 587 424 .313 .392 .483 .875
CHW (6 yrs) 444 1582 1360 192 383 60 43 15 190 61 156 161 .282 .367 .422 .789
BRO (4 yrs) 519 2176 1866 322 629 85 35 82 396 22 242 129 .337 .421 .552 .973
STL (3 yrs) 418 1731 1508 244 478 83 32 29 208 52 138 111 .317 .384 .472 .856
BSN (1 yr) 122 433 374 55 106 18 2 10 53 4 44 16 .283 .368 .422 .790
NYY (1 yr) 27 110 100 9 35 6 1 0 12 7 7 7 .350 .393 .430 .823
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 9/29/2013.

September 27 – Happy Birthday Don Schulze plus the 2012 Yankee Report Card

The only Yankee I could find who was born on this date is a right-handed starting pitcher named Don Schulze. Schulze started two games for the 1989 Yankees, winning one and losing the other. He went 16-25 during his six-season big league career, during which he also pitched for the Cubs, Indians, Mets and Padres. The Yankees traded Schulze and third baseman Mike Pagliarullo to the Padres right after the 1989 All Star break for Walt Terrell. He is now a pitching coach in the Oakland A’s organization.

As the Yankees wind down their regular season this week, its a good time to share my Pinstripe Birthday 2012 Yankee Team Report Card. You can use the comments feature at the end of this post to let me know if you agree or disagree with my grading:

INFIELD –  B
1B Mark Teixeira (B-) – Its been a disappointing season for Tex. He got off to another slow start at the plate in April and then slumped again in June. He’s also had a tough time staying healthy. He’s strained his calf muscle twice and those injuries have cost him right about forty games of inaction this season. Defensively, he’s remained close to brilliant. He’s currently got 23 home runs and 81 RBIs, decent numbers considering he’s missed a quarter of the schedule.

2B Robbie Cano (B+) – A lot was expected from Robbie in 2012. He got moved to the middle of the order this year and he did hit 30 home runs for the first time in his career but he has driven in just 80 thus far. For a while, it seemed to me that he was trying to hit everything out of the park instead of spraying the ball to all fields and he was once again swinging at way too many bad pitches. He’s been hot of late and is still the best all-around second baseman in baseball, hands down. A pure hitter and superb defensively.

SS Derek Jeter (A) – I am a Derek Jeter fan. Always have been, always will be. His April-to-September brilliance this season finally quieted the media morons who kept insisting the Yankee Captain was in permanent decline.

3B Alex Rodriguez (C) – For the third consecutive season, A-Rod has experienced physical breakdowns that have limited his playing time. This year it was a broken finger at the end of July that caused him to miss approximately 40 games.   Now looks to me like his 30-40 homer, 100 RBI seasons are history. Still, when he’s healthy and in the Yankee lineup, it is a much more productive lineup.

Infield Reserves – Chavez (A-) Nix (B-) – Chavez filled in close-to-brilliantly when A-Rod was hurt this season but the Yankees had a tougher time winning with him in the line-up. Nix hit better than I thought he would and proved to be much more versatile defensively than Nunez was.

C – Russell Martin (C+) – Had a horrible first five months at the plate. Looked like he was trying to pull everything. I also think his defense was down a notch this year. I’ll raise his grade if he finishes these last few games like he’s been playing this final month.

Backup Catcher – Chris Stewart (B) – Definitely an improvement defensively over Francisco Cervelli. Offensively, he’s certainly no Thurman Munson. Still, I was impressed by the way Stewart handled pitchers when he was behind the plate. I don’t expect him to be in pinstripes too much longer but he’s certainly worn them well.

Outfield – B+
OF – Curtis Granderson (B+) – They pay Granderson to hit bombs, drive in runs and play a solid center field. He did all three with a lot more line-up shuffling going on this year than last. Yes he strikes out a lot and he appeared to have more trouble with southpaws this year than he did last season but the Grandy-Man is still this team’s stud outfielder

OF – Nick Swisher (B+) – Another solid Swisher-like season from a guy who has given the Yankees four years of maximum effort. The question now becomes will he get a chance to extend that streak as a Yankee.

OF – Ichiro Suzuki (A) – Great move by Yankees to bring Ichiro east. After an OK start in pinstripes he’s been a fireball recently and huge reason why Yankees are on their current hot streak.

DH – B
During the first part of the season, there were times Ibanez (B+) and Jones (C) carried the Yankee offense. Both went stone cold in the second half though Ibanez’s bat has certainly come back recently.

Starting Pitching -B
Sabathia gets a B+. That tender elbow slowed him down but his last two starts tell me he’s back in force. Kuroda gets a B+ too, for taking over as ace in Sabathia’s absence, though I still think he loses too many close decisions to make a huge difference to a team in a pennant race. I give Hughes a B because he’s rebounded nicely after another horrid start but I still won’t hand him the ball before a must-win game in the postseason. Nova gets a C-. He needs to watch Pettitte pitch and try and mimic him on the mound, exactly. Pettitte gets an incomplete for now. I’ll wait to give him his final grade until after the season because I think he’s got a shot at an A+. Phelps and Garcia both pitched better than I thought either would this season. We will see more of Phelps in pinstripes, I’m sure.

Bullpen – A
When the greatest closer ever was lost for the season, there were probably more Yankee fans who thought it would be David Robertson (C-) and not Rafael Soriano (A+) who tried to fill the gaping hole Rivera’s injury left in the team’s bullpen. We were wrong. The “Un-tucker” had a brilliant season while Robertson let it be known he was not yet ready for primetime. Eppley, Rapada, Logan and more recently Joba and Lowe gave the Yankees one of the League’s better bullpens in 2012.

Manager Joe Girardi – Incomplete
Managers who win their Division deserve an A for their regular season performance. Managers of teams with a ten-game lead in July that lose their Division, don’t. I’ll wait and see.

Intangibles: One of the things I like most about this Yankee team is their professionalism. They play the game the right way. All they seem to care about is winning games and they keep trying to do that and believing they can, regardless of the score until the very last out is made. I love the fact that they don’t brag about themselves and they don’t disrespect their teammates or their opponents.

Use the form below to tell me if you agree or disagree with any of my Yankee 2012 regular season grades.

September 25 – Happy Birthday Johnny Sain

When it came to baseball, nothing came easy for Johnny Sain. He was born in Arkansas in 1917, five months after America’s entry into WWI. His dad was a pretty good semi-pro pitcher in his day and a  patient father, who took the time to teach his son the basic mechanics of pitching, including how to throw a curve ball. Although he was a physically big kid ( 6 feet 2 inches tall and close to 200 pounds) Sain never developed a fastball and as a result failed to impress any big league scouts during his high school pitching career. In fact, when Sain’s dad invited fellow Arkansawyer, Bill Dickey to talk to his son about a Major League career after one of Sain’s high school games, the Yankee catcher refused because he didn’t want to have to tell the youngster that he didn’t have what it would take to pitch in the big league.

Despite the lack of interest from big league teams, Sain persevered and got himself signed to a minor league contract in 1935. Seven years later, he made his big league debut with the Boston Braves, one of baseball’s worst teams at the time. That Brave team was managed by Casey Stengel and the “Ol Perfessor” wasn’t shy about using his rookie right-hander, getting Sain into 40 games that year as both a starter and reliever. Sain finished his 1942 rookie season with a 4-7 record and then enlisted in the Navy and went to aviation school. He eventually served as a flight instructor and later credited his flight schooling as a key to his later success as a pitcher because it forced him to improve his concentration skills and he applied what he learned about aerodynamics to improving his curve ball.

He returned to the Braves in 1946 and went 20-14 with an outstanding 2.21 ERA. By 1947, Warren Spahn had joined him as a Braves’ 20-game winner and a year later, the dynamic mound duo pitched Boston into the World Series and the rally cry of “Spahn and Sain and pray for rain!” was born. The Indians beat the Braves in that Fall Classic in six games, but Sain did beat Bob Feller, 1-0 in a classic pitchers’ duel in Game 1. He also pitched a second complete game in Game 4, losing a 2-1 heartbreaker. In 1948, Sain achieved the 20-victory mark for the third season in a row. After slumping to 10-17 the following year, he won 20 again for Boston in 1950. But Sain had developed a sore shoulder during the 1949 season, trying to learn how to throw a screwball. By 1951, it looked as if his career might be over, when he slumped to 5-13. At the end of August during that ’51 season, the Braves jumped at the opportunity to trade “The Man of a Thousand Curves” to the Yankees for New York pitching phee-nom, Lew Burdette. Boston also received $50,000 badly needed Yankee dollars in that deal.

In New York, Sain was reunited with Stengel, his first big league manager. Casey and Yankee pitching coach Jim Turner made the great decision to return Sain to the same role he had filled during his rookie season with the Braves, a reliever and spot starter. He went 11-6 with 7 saves in 1952 and 14-7 with 9 saves in ’53. The Yankees won World Series rings in both those seasons and Sain’s versatile pitching was a big reason why. In ’54, the Yankees converted Sain into a full-time reliever and he led the AL in saves with 22.

When the 1955 season began, Sain was 37-years-old and Yankee GM George Weiss was convinced he was finished as a big league pitcher. The cold-hearted Weiss dealt both him and 39-year-old Enos Slaughter to the Kansas City A’s in May of that year. Sain’s playing career was in fact over. He would retire after the ’55 season with a 139-116 record for his 11 year big league career, with 51 saves. (His Yankee record was 33-20 with 39 saves.)

In 1961, Yankee manager Ralph Houk would hire Sain as his pitching coach and he would perform brilliantly in that role. It was Sain who convinced Houk to go from Stengel’s five-man pitching rotation to a four-man version and Whitey Ford credits that move with rejuvenating his career. In his best selling book, “Ball Four,” Jim Bouton called Sain “the greatest pitching coach who ever lived!” Sain left the Yankees after the 63 season but would later serve as pitching coach for both Minnesota and Detroit. He developed a reputation for being tremendously loyal to and protective of the pitchers under his care. In addition to Yankee hurlers Ford, Bouton and Ralph Terry, he is also credited with helping Denny McLain, Mudcat Grant, Jim Kaat, Mickey Lolich and Earl Wilson become 20-game-winners. Sain was also one of baseball’s best hitting pitchers during his playing career, compiling a lifetime .245 batting average and striking out just 20 times in over 800 career at bats.

Sain was born on the very same day as this Hall-of-Fame Yankee shortstop and also shares a birthday with Robinson Cano’s predecessor as Yankee starting second baseman and this one-time Yankee reliever from the 1990’s.

Year Tm W L W-L% ERA G GS GF CG SHO SV IP H R ER HR BB SO WHIP
1951 NYY 2 1 .667 4.14 7 4 2 1 0 1 37.0 41 17 17 5 8 21 1.324
1952 NYY 11 6 .647 3.46 35 16 15 8 0 7 148.1 149 70 57 15 38 57 1.261
1953 NYY 14 7 .667 3.00 40 19 19 10 1 9 189.0 189 68 63 16 45 84 1.238
1954 NYY 6 6 .500 3.16 45 0 39 0 0 22 77.0 66 27 27 11 15 33 1.052
1955 NYY 0 0 6.75 3 0 1 0 0 0 5.1 6 4 4 4 1 5 1.313
11 Yrs 139 116 .545 3.49 412 245 124 140 16 51 2125.2 2145 947 824 179 619 910 1.300
BSN (7 yrs) 104 91 .533 3.49 257 206 35 121 15 11 1624.1 1640 733 629 118 502 698 1.319
NYY (5 yrs) 33 20 .623 3.31 130 39 76 19 1 39 456.2 451 186 168 51 107 200 1.222
KCA (1 yr) 2 5 .286 5.44 25 0 13 0 0 1 44.2 54 28 27 10 10 12 1.433
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 9/25/2013.