Off and Running
The majors are teeming with fast starters, but what do amazing
Aprils mean in the long haul?
In the words of Shakespeare, April "hath put a spirit of youth in
everything." In the words of Ricky Gutierrez, April "doesn't mean
much of anything." Whom to believe, the Bard or the ballplayer?
In this instance Gutierrez, the Cubs' good-field, no-hit
shortstop, certainly has the stats on his side.
Gutierrez, a warm-weather-loving native of Miami, has a history
of getting red hot during baseball's coolest, if not cruelest,
month. Over the past five seasons Gutierrez, 30, has the fourth
best cumulative April batting average (.351) among active
players. Of the top 10 April hitters during that span, none on a
list headed by Tony Gwynn (.363), Larry Walker (.359) and David
Segui (.352) have a career batting average below Segui's
.292--save Gutierrez, who's a .263 batter.
"I know, I know, it makes little sense," says Gutierrez, who was
hitting .283 through Sunday. "I don't especially like cold
weather, but I've never been afraid to play in it. That's the
only explanation I can think of. That, and I try to come to
spring training in pretty good shape."
Early-season baseball stats are notoriously poor indicators of
things to come. True, no team that has lost more than three
straight games to open a season has won a World Series. On the
other hand, the 1987 Brewers, whose 18-2 start was tied for the
best in baseball history, finished third in the American League
East. In 2000, Royals rightfielder Jermaine Dye hit 11 April home
runs. He finished with 33. In 1961 Roger Maris had one April home
run. He finished with 61.
We don't know much. We do know this:
--If it seems too good to be true, it probably is: Alex
Rodriguez hitting 50 home runs is conceivable. Luis Gonzalez
hitting 70-plus isn't. However, Gonzalez, the Diamondbacks
leftfielder, opened on a tear, homering 11 times in 17 games.
"I'm not kidding myself," says Gonzalez, who hit a career-high
31 homers last year. "I'm no McGwire. I'm a doubles hitter on a
good power run. It can't last forever."
Neither will the outlandish figures of such pedestrian players
as Giants shortstop Rich Aurilia (.361 through Sunday), Royals
leftfielder Mark Quinn (.351 and eight homers), Astros third
baseman Chris Truby (six homers in his first 11 games) and White
Sox infielder-centerfielder Jose Valentin (.333). "I don't get
too worked up over April," says Dodgers first baseman Eric
Karros. "When they show your numbers on the scoreboard and
you're hitting .600, it looks real nice, but it can't last."
The perfect example among overachieving teams were those 1987
Brewers, a young, modestly talented group that, recalls Rob Deer,
an outfielder with Milwaukee that year, "began thinking we were
unbeatable." They weren't, especially after a 12-game May losing
streak dropped the Brewers to third. "It's easy to get caught up
in yourselves," says Deer. "We were playing great baseball, and
we thought we could be destined for the World Series. Then it
fell apart, and we weren't prepared."
--Youth won't necessarily be served: Since 1975, 23 rookies have
hit five or more home runs by the end of April. Only four
finished with more than 30. More common is the plight of Greg
Pirkl. In 1994, Pirkl, a 24-year-old rookie first baseman for the
Mariners, had five homers in his 34 April at bats. Three years
later he was gone from the majors, with eight career dingers.
"You have to be a little skeptical of young players with
incredible numbers," says Gonzalez. "Pitchers at this level are
very smart. They learn how to handle you."
In 1982 the Twins were enraptured by the play of Randy Johnson, a
23-year-old rookie DH whose April numbers were similar to those
of 21-year-old Cardinals rookie third baseman Albert Pujols this
year. Johnson batted .393 with five home runs for the month.
(Pujols through Sunday was hitting .375 with six homers.) Johnson
finished the season at .248 with 10 homers.
--Pitchers who get off to a good start usually stay good:
Through the first three weeks of the season, the Braves' Greg
Maddux led the National League in earned run average (0.67), and
the Red Sox' Pedro Martinez (1.61) was second in the American
League. Although there are always shockers--could anyone have
imagined the Cubs' Jeff Fassero having saved nine games as of
Sunday?--good pitchers tend to start hot and stay hot. From 1996
through 2000, baseball's top April winners were Maddux (17),
Martinez (16), Tom Glavine (16), Randy Johnson (16) and Shane
Reynolds (16). All, except Reynolds, have won 20 games. April's
top losers? The mediocre Dave Mlicki (14), John Burkett (11) and
Juan Guzman (11).
Karsay Back in the Bullpen
No Relief From Relief
In November, Indians righthander Steve Karsay visited orthopedic
surgeon James Andrews in Birmingham for an MRI, X-rays and an
examination of Karsay's pitching arm. Since his major league
debut, with the A's in 1993, Karsay, 29, has missed nearly three
seasons and has had four operations on his right elbow--Tommy
John surgery in '95 and three operations to remove bone spurs or
chips, in '94, '96 and '99. Karsay hadn't started a game since
August '99, and the examination by Andrews, made at the
insistence of John Hart, then Cleveland's general manager, would
determine whether Karsay, who led the Indians with 72
appearances last season, was ready to leave the bullpen. As long
as he didn't throw more than 105 pitches per start, Andrews
said, there would be no risk. Karsay was back in the Cleveland
On March 30, a day before Karsay was scheduled to make his fifth
and final spring training start, Indians manager Charlie Manuel
informed him that rookies C.C. Sabathia and Tim Drew would be
Cleveland's fourth and fifth starters, after Bartolo Colon, Chuck
Finley and Dave Burba. "I know [Karsay] was sold on being a
starter," says Manuel, "but we couldn't replace him in the pen."
Since being traded from the A's, for whom he'd been a starter, to
the Indians before the 1998 season, Karsay has been a victim of
his own versatility. He made only one start in 1998, went from
long man to setup man to starter and to short relief the next
season, began 2000 as Cleveland's closer and ended the season as
a setup man for closer Bob Wickman. "I prefer to start or close,"
says Karsay, a power pitcher who can hit 97 mph on a radar gun.
"Guys in the middle get hung out to dry."
As a starter, though, Karsay is 9-17 with a 4.83 ERA in 40 career
starts. Compare that with his record of 13-12 with a 3.49 ERA in
136 relief appearances, including 10 2/3 scoreless innings in 2001
through Sunday. Before the Indians traded for Wickman last July
28, Karsay had converted 19 of 24 save opportunities.
In spring training this year, he went 1-0 with a 6.23 ERA in four
starts, though Cleveland's brass insists that Karsay's
performance wasn't to blame for his demotion. More relevant was
the pitching of righthanded middle reliever Justin Speier, 27,
who followed a productive 2000 (3.29 ERA in 47 appearances for
Cleveland) with an abysmal spring (13 runs in 131/3 innings),
leaving a Karsay-sized hole in the bullpen.
Karsay signed only a one-year, $2.7 million contract in January
and looks forward to shopping himself to a team looking for a
starter or a closer. "This is a great club, but it's hard to
recognize where I fit in," he says. "I understand it's a business
decision. At the end of the year I'm a free agent, and it'll be a
business decision for me." --Jamal Greene
High Noon for Kevin Malone
Last September, Dodgers general manager Kevin Malone sat in the
Dodgers Stadium home dugout, discussing the future. It was near
the end of another disappointing season for Los Angeles, and
Malone--a normally upbeat sort--laced his forecast with
self-pitying asides. "I've felt misunderstood and
misrepresented," he said. "I feel my image isn't me."
Specifically, he pointed to his oft-ridiculed prediction of a
1999 Dodgers-Yankees World Series, made five months after his
Sept. 11, 1998, hiring. "I was only being hypothetical," he
said. "Everything got blown way out of proportion."
Last week it was Malone who got blown away, when he resigned
under pressure after 2 1/2 unproductive, frequently embarrassing
years in L.A. His tenure will be remembered for three things:
1) Terrible trades.
2) Reckless spending.
3) Personal gaffes.
It was Malone who traded Charles Johnson, a quiet leader and the
game's second best defensive catcher, to the Mets for
over-the-hill Todd Hundley; who signed mediocre lefthander
Carlos Perez to a three-year, $15.5 million contract and moody
outfielder Devon White for $12.4 million over three years; who
broke the bank for righthanded ace Kevin Brown and outfielder
Shawn Green, outbidding the closest competitors by several
Moreover, Malone--personable and charming in one-on-one
settings--could never hold his tongue or contain his swagger in
public. "A lightning rod," as Dodgers managing partner Bob Daly
termed him, the 43-year-old Malone brought much of the storm on
himself, strutting around the Dodger Stadium batting cage during
BP, cell phone in hand, sunglasses down. Upon taking the L.A.
job he proclaimed, "There's a new sheriff in town," and whether
he was kidding or serious (he swears it was the former), he
should have known better. Hence, it was hardly a surprise when,
on April 14, Malone got in a verbal altercation and threatened a
Padres fan who was heckling Gary Sheffield at Qualcomm Stadium.
Daly learned of the incident and decided he'd had enough. He
demanded Malone's resignation.
April 30-May 2, the Devil Rays at the Orioles
One team is over the hill (Baltimore has six starters 30 or
older), the other is over Hill (Tampa Bay released righthander
Ken Hill and his 12.27 ERA last Thursday). Both teams are loaded
with journeymen and even have sons of former major league
journeymen in their lineups (Orioles second baseman Jerry
Hairston Jr., son of Jerry; Devils Rays outfielder Ben Grieve,
son of Tom). Both clubs also are struggling, as expected: Through
Sunday, Baltimore was 8-11; Tampa Bay, which fired manager Larry
Rothschild last week, was 5-14.
So why should anyone care about this series? Because for Orioles
fans, their best hope is for their team to come in fourth in the
American League East, ahead of Tampa Bay. For the Rays, who have
never finished out of the cellar since entering the big leagues
in 1998, Baltimore offers them the chance to do just that.
For scores, stats and the latest news, plus more from Tom
Verducci and Stephen Cannella, go to cnnsi.com/baseball.
COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER Though he's a career .263 hitter, Gutierrez has averaged .351 over the past five Aprils.
COLOR PHOTO: NEIL LEIFER
Two advance scouts, one from each league, discuss what they saw
and heard last week
Teams came into this season with the idea of exploiting Barry
Bonds with the new high strike, but that tactic hasn't worked. I
was there for his run of six home runs in six games, and it was
incredible. His bat speed is still phenomenal. He was turning on
high inside fastballs with ease....
I never thought I'd say this, but the A's really miss Matt
Stairs and Ben Grieve. Nobody is protecting Jason Giambi in the
four hole. Teams aren't afraid of Olmedo Saenz. Oakland will
have to trade for another power guy, because there's no reason
now not to pitch around Giambi....
The Devil Rays had to make a managing change, but I'm not so
sure about Hal McRae. I never thought he got the most out of his
players when he managed the Royals....
Orioles manager Mike Hargrove has almost no talent to work with,
but Baltimore pitching coach Mark Wiley has made great strides
with righthander Jason Johnson, who looks as if he could turn
into a very good No. 2 starter....
Though umpires have been pretty consistent in calling high
strikes, a bunch are still giving pitchers too much room on the
outside. If they keep it up, the commissioner will have to step
I'm in love with Phillies shortstop Jimmy Rollins. He hasn't hit
that well yet, but I've never seen a rookie play so hard. He's
your National League Rookie of the Year--no question....
I know he was good last season, but the Blue Jays' Shannon
Stewart is the most improved hitter I've seen. He has excellent
bat control. He seems to have a good idea about what he's doing.
in the BOX
Reds 9, Mets 5
After doubling with the bases loaded against the Pirates on
April 12, Cincinnati shortstop Barry Larkin returned to the
clubhouse to find a 25-pound weight had been left near his
locker, a subtle suggestion from teammate Juan Castro that
Larkin needed to get stronger. Who could argue? To that point
Larkin had gone 6,723 career at bats without a grand slam, the
longest such streak among active players. At 36 and in his 16th
big league season, Larkin was at risk of ending his career
without a salami. Just eight days later, though, in his 6,734th
at bat, he found himself facing Al Leiter in the bottom of the
second at Cinergy Field, with one out and the bases full. Leiter
grooved a 1-and-0 fastball, and Larkin hammered it over the
leftfield wall. It was a moment worth the weight.
A's righthander Jim Mecir has 209 big league appearances, all in
relief. Over the past three seasons, with the Devil Rays and
Oakland, he has been one of the game's best vultures--gobbling
up 17 wins in 23 relief decisions. But in 2001 he has lost at an
alarming rate, getting the L in four of Oakland's first 15
games. Mecir still has a way to go before reaching the record
for relief losses, though. Here's whom he's reluctantly chasing,
including Mike Marshall (above), who endured a couple of rough
years. --David Sabino
PITCHER SEASON RELIEF APPEARANCES W-L RECORD
Gene Garber, BRAVES 1979 68 6-16
John Hiller, TIGERS 1974 59 17-14
Mike Marshall, DODGERS 1975 57 9-14
Darold Knowles, SENATORS 1970 71 2-14
Mike Marshall, TWINS 1979 89 10-14*
*Marshall also lost his only start for an overall record of 10-15