RIP Earl Williams

Earl Williams, who at 22 was named 1971 NL Rookie of the  Year, died today after a bout with acute leukemia. He was 64.

Williams was one of five Atlanta Braves — along with Kimbrel, Fukey, Justice and Horner — to win ROY. Although Justice and Horner had better overall seasons, and fewer AB’s, Williams’ 33 HR and 87 are tops among Atlanta Braves rookies.

Remarkably, Williams’ rookie season also marked his debut as a catcher. The former corner infielder started 71 games behind the plate, and though he had 15 passed balls he threw out 27 percent of runners trying to steal.

The Society for American Baseball Research has an interesting overview of Williams’s career.

Productivity at catcher was a huge problem for the 1971 Braves. Both Bob Didier and Hal King were exceptionally weak hitters, and on June 20, Manager Lum Harris came to Williams and stunningly announced, “You’re my catcher.” Earl had no preparation for becoming a full time catcher in the Major Leagues, his May 23 appearance being his lone time behind the plate. His attitude toward catching would be a subject of controversy over his career. At the time of the move, Williams was ambivalent: “It’s okay… but I play where they put me.”

Williams told Sport Magazine in 1972, “My favorite position is batter,” and he played it well in 1971. On April 16 against the Phillies, Earl hit a two-run single for an 8-7 Braves victory, and the next day had the first of his five two-home run games of the season. On June 13, Williams had two three-run homers against the Astros, and on July 7 Earl pounded the Phillies again, this time with two home runs off of Barry Lersch. He won August player of the month honors in a media poll. For the year Earl had 33 homers and 87 RBI (fifth best in the NL), along with a respectable .260 average.

His fielding as a novice catcher was seen as remarkable at the time. Phil Niekro marveled at Earl’s ability to catch his knuckler, saying he caught as if he’d been “playing it for ten years.” Honey Russell said that Earl “isn’t far behind Johnny Bench as a catcher defensively.” In the Braves report in The Sporting News on July 24, Braves pitchers were quoted as saying Earl is “smart and calls a good game.” Also, his strong arm from his schoolboy pitching days served Williams well behind the plate. Earl himself would only offer that he had “plenty of room for improvement.”

He followed up his rookie season with 28 HR and 87 RBI but was traded, along with the Braves’ first round draft pick in  ’71, Taylor Duncan, for Pat Dobson, Davey Johnson, Johnny Oates and Roric Harrison.

He was traded back to the Braves in ’75 but wasn’t the same. Williams’ big league career was over at age 29.

Earl Williams, 1971 NL Rookie of the Year, had a life and career of dramatic swings. His power numbers for his first three years were first rate, but his pugnacious nature and willingness to speak out were constant trouble during his career. After 1980 he never played professional ball again. As he said in a Braves publication in 1976, “unusual things happen to me.”

NPR’s “All Things Considered” also has an interesting feature on Williams, from 2011.

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The 20 worst A-Braves pitchers: #9, Jason Schmidt

Jason Schmidt wasn’t as good as you remember. He was mediocre at best for the Pirates after they acquired him from Atlanta in the Denny Neagle trade. It wasn’t until he landed in San Francisco did he emerge as one of the league’s best starters,  twice finishing in the top 5 for NL Cy Young.

The beginning of his career was as bad as the finish, when he flopped as a free agent with the Dodgers. With the Braves he showed little ability to keep runners off base, walking 5.4 and allowing 10.3 hits per 9 IP. He pitched 22 games for the local nine, starting 13, and left Atlanta with an unsightly 6.45 ERA and 1.745 WHIP.

Granted, he was just 23 but the 20 worst does not distinguish between rookies and veterans.

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The 20 worst A-Braves pitchers: #10, Lance Cormier

The 2007 season was marked by the acquisition of Borasbot (and the depletion of the farm system). The trade was supposed to put the Braves over the top but they were doomed by a porous rotation beyond Huddy and Smoltz.

Fellow 20 worsters Kyle Davies, Jo-Jo Reyes and Mark Redman received a significant number of starts. Buddy Carlyle started 20 games. Chuck James, 30.

Lance Cormier, who walked 39 and allowed 90 hits in 2006, re-entered the rotation in June and was consistently awful. He had a 6.85 ERA in 9 starts, walking 4.3 and allowing 11 hits per 9 IP — and these were starts made during a pennant race that wasn’t.

Cormier as a Brave: 6-11-5.73, 119.1 IP, 146 H, 61BB, 24 HR, 1.735 WHIP.

Head, heart divided on Prado deal

Do the intangibles matter? Do strikeouts not? Depends on your school of thought.

I think they can both be true. Having a player who serves as an example for others by the way he plays the game is a plus — but it doesn’t compare with talent. Justin Upton could win an MVP this year. Martin never will.

Yes, an out is an out but some outs are productive. Strikeouts never are — but they are better than double plays. A strikeout-heavy line-up is prone to collective slumps, and this one should be no different.

Upton’s 121 K’s aren’t bad fora power hitter; I’m more troubled by Chris Johnson’s 131 K’s in 136 games. He’s likely to be platoon with Bigger Frank, who struck out 70 times in 192 AB’s. McCann and Andrelton are the only line-up regulars who won’t top 100 K’s.

Defensively, the Braves have gotten worse. The outfield is a little better but third base could be a nightmare. Chris Francisco is likely to be to 3B what Uggla is to second.

I’m glad the Braves didn’t trade any of their best pitching prospects. If I wasn’t so attached to Martin I’d probably like this trade.

Instead, I’m conflicted

Justin Upton will be a Brave by Friday

There’s good reason to be optimistic.

Scribes Rosenthal, Heyman and Olney all report the Braves have offered a “strong package” of players for Upton. DOB says the offer likely involves Teheran plus two-to-three additional prospects. Among the names bandied about: Gattis, Ahmed, Gilmartin, Spruill …

Bet on it happening by Friday, an artificial deadline favored by the D’backs, according to reports.

If it does the Bravos will boast the game’s most gifted outfield, one that combined for 72 homers, 227 RBI and 70 steals in 2012 — and that’s with Justin Upton having an off year.

My concern is what impact this will have on extensions for Jay Hey and Medlen. I’d rather lock those two up than acquire Upton. Hopefully it’s not an either/or proposition.

Still, I’d rather be talking about the possibility of another Upton than trying to rationalize  the signing of Delmon Young.

Are the Phils a threat?

I like Ben Revere, acquired by the Phils from Minnesota, but otherwise their offseason has been a bust. They got older, acquiring Michael Young, who’s coming off a dreadful season with the Rangers. And the 36-year-old third sacker will only make a bad fielding team worse.

Today they signed clubhouse cancer Delmon Young, another poor fielder who had a .296 OBP and .411 slugging percentage last year in Detroit. His career numbers aren’t much better.

Yes, they still have Hamels, Lee and Halladay.  Lee was better than his record in 2012 but will be 34 on Opening Day. Halladay, 36 in May, wasn’t very good last season and with nearly 2,700 innings pitched you’ve got to wonder how much he’s got left. Kyle Kendrick and John Lannan complete a rotation with little depth.

Looks like a .500 team to me.

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The 20 worst A-Braves pitchers: #11, Bob Walk

The acquisition of Bob Walk from the Phillies ranked 6th on our list of the 10 worst trades in A-Braves history, and for those of us who loved Gary Matthews the deal was an even tougher pill to swallow. Sarge had been a force in the Braves line-up during the late 1970s but was coming off his worst season in Atlanta, though it wasn’t bad (.278 BA, .325 OBP, .419 slugging).

The 23-year-old Walk, six years younger than Matthews, got the win in Game 1 of the ’80 World Series despite allowing 8 hits and 6 earned in 7 innings. The right-hander won 11 games that season but posted a pedestrian 4.57 ERA and 1.543 WHIP, numbers in line with Kyle Davies’ rookie season.

Nonetheless he barely cracked the ’81 rotation, slotting behind Knucksie, Gaylord Perry, Tommy Boggs and John Montefusco. He won once in 8 starts, walking 22 and striking out just 13 in 35 IP. His ERA and WHIP: 5.66 and 1.686. On top of that he lost more than half the season to injury.

Meanwhile, Sarge rebounded to hit .301 with an .849 OPS for the Phils.

Walk got off to a decent start in ’82 but his numbers declined each month. He pitched his way out of the rotation with a 6.64 ERA and 1.709 WHIP in the second half. He spent all but one game of the ’83 season in Richmond, where he struggled mightily with his control, finishing with a 5.21 ERA. He was released the following March.

That same year Matthews helped lead the Cubs to a division title and was 5th in MVP voting.

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The 20 worst A-Braves pitchers: #12, Rick Luecken

The 1990 Braves had Justice, Gant, Smoltz, Glavine and Avery. The pieces were in place for their historic turnaround in 1991. They also had the worst ‘pen in team history.

No one saved more than 8 games. The Braves recorded 30 saves in all, blowing 22 opportunities. Charlie Kerfeld, Dwayne Henry and Joe Hesketh all had runs as closer, but none of them can be called the worst reliever in that ‘pen.

That would be Rick Luecken, who gave up a single to Brad Komminsk in his Braves debut — one of five Giants hits the right-hander allowed in 1-2/3 innings. He allowed three hits in 1 IP in his next outing, a pitiable ratio he nearly maintained — 73 H in 53 IP as a Brave. Opposing batters hit .355 against Luecken.

When he wasn’t giving up hits, Luecken was giving up walks: 5.1/9 IP. That’ll get you a 1.943 WHIP, and your eventual release.

Quite an accomplishment on that team.

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The 20 worst A-Braves pitchers: #13, Kyle Davies

On a cold drizzly night in Boston in May 2005, Kyle Davies made his major league debut, and it was a gem. Facing a line-up featuring Johnny Damon, David Ortiz, Manny Ramirez, Jason Varitek — all in their primes — Davies pitched five shutout innings, striking out 6.

Four nights later he tossed 5-1/3 shutout innings vs. the Mets. He shut out the Pirates through 7-2/3 two starts later, beating #19 on this list, Mark Redman.

After four starts the kid from Stockbridge boasted a stingy 0.77 ERA, providing hope that he would be the first homegrown pitcher since Kevin Millwood to thrive in Atlanta. Instead his career is all but over at age 29.

No one can say he didn’t get a fair shake. Despite a poor finish in 2005, Davies entered the ’06 season as one of the Braves’ five starters. His first two outings were forgettable but in his third start Davies pitched a complete game three-hitter against the Mets. He followed that up with seven strong innings vs. Milwaukee.

Then the roof caved in. Davies posted an ungodly 8.38 ERA in 14 games, all starts. He didn’t make it past the third inning in 4 of those starts, giving up 90 hits in 63.1 IP for a 1.942 WHIP.

But the Braves weren’t ready to give up on him. Davies started 2007 in the Braves rotation, showing some improvement from the previous year. But when a 5.76 ERA represents improvement, your days are numbered. In July JS shipped him to Kansas City for Octavio Dotel, where he toiled for four mostly forgettable years.

As a Brave, Davies was 14-21 with a 6.15 ERA and 1.713 WHIP. Five of those wins came against the Mets and Pirates.

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The 20 worst A-Braves pitchers: #14, Jamie Easterly

Jamie Easterly is the third pitcher from the ’77 Braves — which finished with a league-worst 4.85 ERA — to make our list, joining Don Collins and Preston Hanna. Like Collins and Hanna, Easterly was a high draft pick, selected in the 2nd round in 1971. Until Bill Lucas came along the Braves drafted terribly, helping make the 70s a lost decade for the local nine.

Easterly began his career as a starter, with 28 of his 36 career starts coming as a Brave. He was 7-16 with a 5.43 ERA and 1.629 WHIP  in those games, striking out just 98 in 182 IP. He eventually settled in the bullpen, though he was no specialist; left-handed batters hit .292 against the southpaw.

Hard to believe he lasted 13 seasons in the majors. Easterly was better, though still middling, after leaving Atlanta, pitching for Milwaukee and Cleveland. His final Braves numbers: 8-20, 5.72 ERA, 232.2 IP, 272 H, 137 BB, 127 K’s, 1.758 WHIP.

For the ’77 Bravos, Easterly was 2-4 with a 6.14 ERA but was far from the worst pitcher on the team. We’ll identify that hurler later in the list.

Details of Braves horrible TV contract finally emerge

Finally, a comprehensive article on the worst TV contract in baseball.

The good news? The Braves deal expires in 14 years, much sooner than we were previously led to believe.

The bad news? Most everything else.

For one, the Braves appear to be receiving less annually than has been reported.

The Braves deal, negotiated as the team was being sold by Time Warner to Liberty Media in 2007, is believed to be worth less than $20 million annually to the team. Some have said that figure is closer to $10 million annually, which would place it at the bottom of the major league scale. …

McGuirk didn’t provide specific dollar amounts on the Braves’ deal, but said neither the $10 million nor the $20 million figure was accurate. He did say it’s not a good deal going forward and that it included just a modest four-percent annual increase.

The Dodgers receive about $240 million per year. The Angels get $147 mil annually. Even the Astros and Pads’ contract dwarfs the Bravos: $80 and $60 mil, respectively.

According to McGuirk, there’s no getting out of it.

“There is no “out” clause. … That deal was an iron-clad deal,” he said. “We are constantly trying to figure ways to improve it. We’re pretty good at that, and that will be our job today, tomorrow and going forward. We are able to improve it now and then and you’ll hear about that as we do it.”

So who is responsible for this abomination?

“I’m not exactly sure whose final hands were on [the deal], but I’m pretty sure,” said McGuirk, who worked 35 years at TBS, rising to the rank of CEO from 1996-2001. “I think the guy is no longer with the company…. And I don’t know that it serves any purpose to put a bull’s eye on somebody.

 “It was done simultaneously [when the team was being sold to Liberty]. It was to Turner’s advantage, obviously, to do it that way. They were parting with the team and they were able to structure a long-term relationship with Fox. If there was no deal it was far better for the team. But it is what it is. [The team] was bought with that in place. I know enough about the media business, I knew what we were working with and I just knew, that with the fullness of time, all these other elements of the [Braves] business were going to have to be stronger to compete.”

T-Mac said the Braves would not be severely hamstrung by the deal, though it sure ain’t going to help going forward.

McGuirk said he’s not worried because the organization is positioned to stay competitive by enhancing other revenues and maintaining a strong minor league system that’s produced a steady infusion of young talent such as current Braves Jason Heyward, Freddie Freeman, Andrelton Simmons, Kris Medlen and Mike Minor.

Re-signing them is a different matter, but McGuirk pointed to the team’s advantage over most other teams in that Turner Field is paid for.

One more reason to hate the Red Sox

The owners of the Boston Red Sox were preoccupied with sagging TV ratings and hired marketing consultants who urged the team to place a greater emphasis on “good-looking stars” and “sex symbols,” according to an excerpt from a book co-authored by former Red Sox manager Terry Francona. …

On Nov. 2, 2010, a group gathered at Fenway Park to review results of a $100,000 marketing research project the Red Sox had commissioned in response to the drop in TV ratings.

The book stated the marketing report said: “(W)omen are definitely more drawn to the ‘soap opera’ and ‘reality-TV’ aspects of the game … They are interested in good-looking stars and sex symbols,” parenthetically citing All-Star second baseman Dustin Pedroia as an example of the latter.

“They (the consultants) told us we didn’t have any marketable players, that we needed some sizzle,” Epstein is quoted as saying. “We need some sexy guys. Talk about the tail wagging the dog. This is like an absurdist comedy. We’d become too big. It was the farthest thing removed from what we set out to be.”