Friday, April 25, 2008

Royals Today: 4/25/2008.

The Royals sure know how to kill a buzz.

Eight years ago, the Royals were the talk of baseball in early April. They started the season 8-3, the last three of those wins coming in succession on walk-off home runs, the last (by Rey Sanchez) provoking Denny Matthews' "What is going on?" call. They were tied for first place on April 13th, and spirits were high as they embarked on a nine-game road trip.

They lost all nine games on that trip. By the final series in Seattle, the team was playing so poorly that I was starting to wonder if they'd ever win again. They eventually would, and in fact would fight their way back over .500, reaching a high-water mark of 30-26 on June 5th. They finished 77-85 that year; those 77 wins are the team's second-most in the last 15 years. (Wow, I can't believe how depressing that sentence is, and I've covered them throughout those 15 years.) But the party was over early.

This year, the Royals were 8-5 and in first place on April 14th, 9-6 and a half-game out two days later. They've been outscored 57 to 18 ever since. They'll turn this around eventually - as Sparky Anderson said, "momentum is tomorrow's starting pitcher", and Greinke toes the hill tonight. But once again, the Royals have killed the wonderful delusion that is early-season baseball before April is out. Thanks, guys.

- At what point does Hillman concede to common sense and start Callaspo over Pena at shortstop? Callaspo has more hits (9-8), more extra-base hits (2-1), and more walks (2-1) than Pena, even though Pena has more than twice as many at-bats (59-26). Callaspo also has yet to strike out this year, which is a nice trick if you can pull it off.

I've credited Hillman multiple times for being willing to pinch-hit for Pena with Callaspo in game situations. Well, last night, with the Royals down 2-0 in the ninth, Hillman let Pena hit against Cliff Lee in a situation where baserunners are paramount. Grudzielanek was unavailable, and I suppose you could argue you don't want to let Gathright or Gload bat against a LHP (except that Gload has hit LHP better than RHP in his career, and anyway, Hillman already showed he's willing to give up the platoon advantage when he pinch-hit for Gathright with Olivo against a RHP.) But why wouldn't you use Callaspo there? Callaspo's a switch-hitter, but in his brief major-league career he's actually hit LHP (.264/.316/.340) better than RHP (.226/.277/.289). He's 2-for-3 against LHP this year.

I'm not going to echo the sentiments of one Rob Neyer, who said of this move, "I think we have to start wondering if Hillman just isn't real good at this job." But it was a bad decision. Tony Pena is a glorified defensive replacement, and you'd think a team that's struggling to score runs as badly as the Royals are would recognize that.

- Can we stop with the "maybe Billy Butler can handle first base" talk until he actually makes a difficult play even once? Yesterday, he had only two chances that could remotely be described as difficult, and he flubbed them both. One was a hot shot by Travis Hafner that he tried to backhand, but misjudged the ball - it bounced a foot or two in front of where he thought it would go, so instead of bouncing into his glove it bounced off it and into right field. It was charitably called a hit, a scoring decision which loomed rather large for a while given that the play was the only thing keeping Brian Bannister from having a perfect game into the 7th inning.

The other was a groundball to his right in the 7th inning with a man on second base, an easy grounder that somehow went under his glove; Esteban German alertly backed up the play and Bannister did a terrific job of reaching for German's throw and getting a toe on the bag, barely preserving the out.

Yet to listen to the announcers, you'd think that Butler was doing okay out there, because hey, he's trying his best. I wrote in our Baseball Prospectus book this year that Butler "fields at a first-grade level," and it seems like everyone's taking that a little too literally. Hey, he can't field the position, but let's give him an "A" for effort! I'm waiting for Ryan Lefebvre to award him a gold star for not tripping over his shoelaces on the way to the bag.

The reality is that I'm less convinced that Butler will ever play an acceptable first base today than I was at the start of the season. The sooner we stop with the denial, the sooner we can focus on finding a real solution for first base, a solution which does not involve the words "Ross" and "Gload".

- The Royals scored six runs in the opener (a season-high!) and were shut out in the finale, but I was probably more upset the offense's approach in game 1. If you don't believe me, please - please - read this. This concisely explains the single biggest flaw the Royals have had as a franchise since the early 1980s. The box score tells you that the Royals drew four walks against Carmona in five innings. The box score can't tell you that there could - should - have been much more. And given all the baserunners that Carmona put on base, even a few more baserunners might have led to a lot more runs.

- Lee, on the other hand, was just filthy - he probably would have shut out half the teams in baseball last night. He worked the inside and outside corners all night; I think he threw two pitches down the middle the entire game. He's been doing this all season; he allowed four hits and unearned run in 6.2 innings in his first start of the season, and that has been his worst start all year. Lee's last three starts have produced lines of 8 2 1 1 0 8, 8 2 0 0 1 8, and 9 3 0 0 0 9. That's not just impressive, that's downright historic.

In his last three starts, Lee has 1) pitched 8 innings or more, 2) surrendered no more than 3 hits; 3) surrendered no more than 1 walk; 4) struck out at least 8 batters. In the Retrosheet era (i.e. since 1956), do you know how many pitchers have met all those parameters in three consecutive starts?

None. Nada. Zilch. Zippo. Until Cliff Lee.

If you eliminate the strikeout provision, only two pitchers have had 3 straight starts with 8+ IP, <= 3 hits, <=1 walk. The most recent was Woodie Fryman, in 1966. The other was Sandy Koufax, in 1963.


- Those two pitches that Lee threw down the middle were the two pitches that Jose Guillen spanked for basehits. Guillen hit the second one about as hard as you can hit a baseball; when it came off the bat it looked like it would fall into leftfield for a hit, then it looked like it would carry to Dellucci, then it became clear that the ball wasn't following the normal rules of gravity and went over Dellucci's head, surprising him more than anyone. We've established, at least, that Guillen can hit fastballs down the middle with authority. The evidence is still out on the other 95% of pitches he'll see.

- Is anyone still even worried that Bannister is going to turn into a pumpkin? You can add this humble writer to the swelling ranks of the Cult of Brian. He was all-but-perfect through six innings, and while he lost it in the 7th, that was apparently because he was still hurting from the liner he took off his leg in the 6th. Anyway, Dellucci's homer was a 300-foot flyball that caught up in the wind.

That homer was the first Bannister's given up all year. Which is interesting, because despite what you may have heard, Bannister is not a groundball pitcher. lists his G/F ratio this year at 1.05, right around his career level of 1.06. The league average is about 1.2, so he actually has slight flyball tendencies. A pitcher who gives up that many flyballs can't sustain a home run rate of 1 per 33 innings - Brandon Webb would have trouble maintaining a home run rate that low.

Bannister has a few things working in his favor. He pitches in Kauffman Stadium, which is tough for home run hitters. He has shown the ability to limit homers before; his career totals are 20 homers in 236 innings, which is above-average. And, of course, he's Brian Bannister: he's the baseball equivalent of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle.

The Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle is a physics concept that boils down to - my apologies to any physicists reading this for my horrible description - the idea that there will always be uncertainty in any physical measurement, because (for instance) in the process of trying to establish the exact location of a particle - let's say an atom - you will have to bounce energy off the proton in the form of a photon to establish its location, but by bouncing energy off the atom you will have changed its location.

In other words, the mere act of measuring a phenomenon changes the phenomenon. And the mere fact that Brian Bannister understands sabermetric principles changes those principles as they apply to him.

Now, I still don't think he can sustain his career BABIP, which is now .254 and dropping fast. But I think he has the ability to keep it below league average. More importantly, I'm not even sure it matters. So far this year, he's whiffed 18 batters in 32.2 innings, a rate of 4.96 per nine. That's still below average, but it's better than last year. And in those 32.2 innings, he's walked six (1.65 per nine) and allowed just one homer. He's actually ninth in the league in strikeout-to-walk ratio.

You give me a pitcher that doesn't allow walks and homers, and even if he doesn't have the ability to lower his BABIP you're talking about a guy who could be Carlos Silva or Bob Tewksbury. That's pretty valuable. If he does sustain a low BABIP to boot, you've got, uh, Brian Bannister. Well, you've got him if you're a Royals fan. If you're not, then buzz off. He's ours.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Royals Today: 4/23/2008.

Well, that really sucked.

If there’s one weakness I have as an analyst – humor me here, I know I have a lot more than one – it’s that no matter how hard I try, I always give early season results more meaning than I should. This is a weakness that carries over into other areas of life as well – in any kind of debate I’m always inclined to agree with the last argument. I’m a little too trusting of my fellow man, I think, when I should have my bulls**t detector on. That goes for small sample sizes as well as arguments. I know I shouldn’t have been excited when the Royals were 6-2, but I was. And now that the Royals have gone 3-9 since, it’s hard not to abandon ship. It helps to remember the words from that sage philosopher, Rob Neyer: “a team is never as good as it looks when it’s winning, and it’s never as bad as it looks when it’s losing.”

Which is a good thing. Because the Royals looked as bad as they ever have last night, losing 15-1. In their last five games, they’ve been outscored 46-15. The Tigers were outscored 44-15 in their first seven games and everyone (myself included) was openly mocking them; they’ve won 8 of 14 since and have crept to within 1.5 games of the Royals. Things turn around quickly in baseball. They better.

Small sample size or no, these guys are worrying me:

- I’m not that concerned about The Epic, even though he does have an ERA of 8.00 after five starts. He’s given up a couple more homers than you’d like, and his control hasn’t been there yet, but most of his problems stem from the .337 BABIP, which should come down over time.

But looking over the long term, keep in mind that after starting last season with a 1.91 ERA in his first nine starts, he had a 4.36 ERA the rest of the way. Breaking up seasonal stats by month and trying to explain the trend is usually a fool’s errand, as the best explanation is almost always “dumb luck”. (The main exception to this is with a rookie making his major league debut. While I haven’t seen research done on the topic – it’s probably been done, I just haven’t seen it – I’m almost certain that players, on the whole, need an adjustment period of about 100 plate appearances before they find their true talent level in the majors, and so an improvement after that point might be for real. Exhibit A: Alex Gordon.)

But over the last 11 months and 30 starts, Meche has a 4.90 ERA. Should we be concerned? In 182 innings over that span, he has 60 walks, 129 Ks, and 21 homers – not great peripherals, but not 4.90 ERA bad either. He’s given up 195 hits, which are more than you’d expect from his other peripherals. Like I said, I’m not concerned. And I still think he’s been an excellent signing. But it would be nice if he would put up a Game Score of better than 51 at some point – that’s his best score in five starts this year.

- We don’t have the equivalent of Game Score for relievers, so allow me to invent a completely useless stat on the spot: a “Dominant Outing”, or DO. A DO occurs when a reliever:

1) Does not surrender a run;
2) Strikes out at least one man per inning pitched;
3) Surrenders no more than one baserunner (walk + hit) per inning pitched;
4) Has at least as many strikeouts as baserunners allowed.

This is something you can figure out from the box score line.

1 1 0 0 0 1 is a DO. 0.2 1 0 0 0 1 is not.
1.1 1 0 0 0 2 is a DO. 1.2 1 0 0 1 2 is not.

This doesn’t have any analytical value at all; the point is simply to say whether a reliever has shown the ability to overpower hitters in a short outing. Joakim Soria, for instance, had 3 DO’s in his first five major league appearances – a pretty good sign that he had the potential to be dominant. Soria had 28 DO’s in 62 appearances last season; I suspect anything close to 50% is amazing. (Jonathan Papelbon had 30 DO’s in 59 appearances as a rookie.)

What worries me about Yasuhiko Yabuta isn’t that he walked four batters in less than an inning last Friday. It’s that in seven appearances so far, he hasn’t had a Dominant Outing, and really hasn’t come close. I want to see some sign that plucking him out of Japan hasn’t been a mistake, that he bears more resemblance to Takashi Saito or Hideki Okajima than to Masao Kida or Masumi Kuwata.

I loved the decision to sign Yabuta, because while there have been a fair number of starting pitchers from Japan who turned out to be busts, the vast majority of relief pitchers have turned out well. Here’s a list of every native Japanese pitcher with 40 or more relief appearances (and no more than 10 starts) in the majors:

Shigetoshi Hasegawa: 124 ERA+
Masao Kida: 81 ERA+
Hideki Okajima: 225 ERA+
Akinori Otsuka: 170 ERA+
Takashi Saito: 240 ERA+
Kazuhiro Sasaki: 138 ERA+
Shingo Takatsu: 137 ERA+
Keiichi Yabu: 103 ERA+

While there have been other relief pitchers who washed out before they made 40 appearances, in almost every case those were marginal guys who weren’t expected to do much in the first place; Kuwata, for instance, was 39 years old and essentially unwanted back home. None of them were signed to multi-year deals, like Yabuta was. So of the eight guys to whom Yabuta can be directly compared, Kida was a mistake, Yabu has been barely average (though he was 36 when he came over, and also lightly-regarded), and the other six have been sensational.

Saito, in particular, ranks among the greatest free-agent signings in history. He was thought to be over the hill back home, and was so lightly regarded here that he signed for the league minimum back in 2006. Instead, he’s delivered a 1.88 career ERA to date in 149 innings, with 191 strikeouts and just 86 hits allowed – those are Playstation numbers.

Given the track record of Japanese relievers, it’s fair that we should expect Yabuta to be a solid-average set-up man at the very least. You can argue that the success of Japanese relievers has led major league teams to scrape further down the barrel, and you might have a point. Three relievers came over from Japan this winter. Masahide Kobayashi, who Yabuta set up for in Japan, has been okay for the Indians so far. The third guy, both in this paragraph and in reputation, is Kazuo Fukumori, who in three outings for the Rangers has allowed six hits and four walks in 1.2 innings.

So maybe the Royals reached for a reliever who’s not in the same tier as Okajima and Sasaki and the like. The problem is that they’re paying him like he is; you don’t spend 2 years and $6 million for a mop-up man. Credit Hillman at least for realizing before Opening Day that while Yabuta was signed to be a set-up man, the job belonged to Leo Nunez on merit. It’s still very early, but the signs are there that Yabuta may prove to be a waste of cash.

- Speaking of wastes of cash…Jose Guillen. My goodness. We heard that the possibility of a suspension was weighing on his mind. We heard that he just can’t hit in cold weather. Well, the suspension was waived over a week ago, and the weather here in the Midwest has been at least in the 60s for at least that long. And last night, facing a left-hander (Guillen hit .362/.433/.616 vs. LHP last year), he struck out four times in four plate appearances. He’s batting .165/.195/.291, in 82 plate appearances.

There’s no question in my mind that, whatever his performance has been, the Royals overpaid for Guillen. I say that because they were essentially bidding against themselves; there were never any other credible other offers for Guillen that were reported. I think it’s very telling that after hemming and hawing about the Royals’ offer, the minute the Royals dropped the rumor into the media that they were changing gears and trying to sign Andruw Jones instead – Guillen signed the next day. Given how quickly the market dried up after Guillen and Carlos Silva signed, I’m quite certain the Royals could have signed him for $8 million a year instead of $12 million. And they might have been able to go lower than that.

All that is money under the bridge at this point. What isn’t is Guillen’s performance, which is awful six ways from Sunday. It’s almost like he’s afraid to draw walks – I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen him calmly take pitches until he had three balls, then start swinging at 3-1 and 3-2 pitches at his ankles or up at his neck.

I looked through his career numbers trying to find a month in which he batted this poorly with at least 50 plate appearances. Only two months come close: September 2005, when he hit .151/.264/.219 in 87 plate appearances, and April 2001, when he hit .203/.213/.220 in 61 PA.

He missed half of the 2001 season with an injury, but from May 1st to the end of the year he did hit .329/.393/.500, albeit in just 84 plate appearances. And in 2005, in a full season he hit .303/.350/.519 through the end of August before going into a tailspin. So I guess you can hold out hope that Guillen has shown a history of playing like utter crap for a few weeks and then hitting like an All-Star the rest of the way. That light bulb better turn on soon, or the comparisons to Kevin McReynolds may turn out to be hopelessly optimistic.

(Late update: apparently Guillen’s not in the lineup tonight. Hillman can read the numbers as well as we can.)

- For those of you with satellite radio, I’ll be appearing on my friend Jeff Erickson’s show tomorrow (Thursday) morning at around 11:05 CDT. I imagine we’ll talk about the Pennsylvania primary and the impact of high oil prices on the global economy. Also the Royals.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Royals Today: 4/21/2008.

Well, that sucked.

A sweep at the hand of the mighty A’s – don’t you ever get the feeling that Billy Beane exists purely to make life hell for Royals fans? – exposed the team’s gaping chest wound of a flaw for all the world to witness. Namely, the team can’t score runs, and if the starter has an off-day (like Friday), or the bullpen is less than perfect (like Saturday), or the defense lets a few potential outs drop in (like Sunday)…the Royals are toast.

In 19 games, the Royals have 63 runs. In 19 games, the Giants have 61 runs. And when you adjust for run elements and schedule – what we at Baseball Prospectus call “third-order” record – the Royals should have scored 64 runs in a neutral park against an average opponent. That’s the lowest mark in baseball – lower than all 16 teams that play without a DH.

That’s bad, folks. Really, really bad.

I’m not sure what the Royals can do to shake their funk. The only obvious move – other than, you know, finding a real first baseman – is that instead of starting Pena at shortstop and using Callaspo to pinch-hit when the Royals are losing, Hillman should start Callaspo and use Pena to play defense when the Royals are winning. Teams are extremely averse to playing the bat over the glove at shortstop, and understandably so. No less a sabermetric authority than Earl Weaver, whose book “Weaver on Strategy” should be absolute required reading for any new manager, advocates starting the glove and using the bat off the bench rather than the other way around.

(By the way, Trey, I’m serious about reading “Weaver on Strategy.” I’ll send you my copy if you want.)

Weaver made the excellent point that the glove is more useful at the start of the game than at the end of the game because your relief corps is likely to strike out more batters than your starters will, and so your starters will surrender more balls in play for your shortstop to handle. And he did manage the Orioles to six AL East titles, four pennants, and a world championship with Mark Belanger as his starting shortstop the whole time. Belanger hit just .228 with a .280 slugging average for his career, and like Hillman has with Pena, Weaver would pinch-hit for him whenever the Orioles were losing late.

Pena has a career .252 average and has slugged .337, but even so there are reasons why Hillman should be more willing to bench his glove than Weaver was. For one, Belanger was an absolutely phenomenal defensive shortstop, an 8-time Gold Glove winner, and that might be underselling him. Dan Fox’s defensive fielding system (called simple fielding runs, or SFR), which he unveiled at Baseball Prospectus just before he accepted a job with the Pirates, credits Belanger with an outstanding 262 runs saves over an average shortstop over the course of his career. That’s the highest of any shortstop in our database going back to 1957, including Ozzie Smith, although we’re missing data for some of Ozzie’s prime years. (In terms of runs saved per game the Blade and the Wizard are almost dead even.) Pena’s good; he’s not that good.

Plus, Belanger made up for his feebleness with his stick by not swinging it unless it was absolutely necessary; he walked about once for every 10 at-bats in his career, which is about the upper limit of a walk rate when pitchers don’t fear you at all. Pena has drawn 13 walks in his career of over 600 at-bats, so despite out-hitting Belanger by 24 points, Belanger has a 30-point lead in OBP, .300 to .270. Then there’s the fact that Belanger played in a much tougher offensive context than Pena; neutralize his stats to a 715-run context and his career numbers are .252/.330/.310. Do the same with Pena and he’s at about .240/.255/.320.

Most importantly, looking through the logs of the Orioles’ roster throughout the 1970s, it doesn’t appear that they ever had another option to start at shortstop that was comparable to Callaspo. Except once.

In 1972, Belanger had the worst season of any year between 1968 and 1978, hitting just .186/.236/.246. Not coincidentally, that was the only year in that stretch that Belanger didn’t get 300 at-bats in a season; he only started 86 times at shortstop that year, even though he does not appear (by looking at game logs) to have been placed on the DL at all. Instead Weaver gave a 23-year-old near-rookie his first real playing time, starting him 68 times at shortstop. Kid by the name of Bobby Grich.

It took Weaver a while to come around to the idea that the new guy should be starting; Grich only started six times in the season’s first six weeks, but he was in the lineup almost every day from May 24th on, playing second base on the days that Belanger was in the lineup. Grich finished the year with a line of .278/.358/.415, which was pretty damn impressive for a middle infielder in that era; he was an All-Star and ranked 14th in MVP voting. The next year Grich started every game at second base, won the first of his four Gold Gloves, and his borderline Hall of Fame career was on.

It so happens that 1972 was the only year between 1969 and 1974 that the Orioles didn’t finish first. But that’s hard to pin on Grich’s defense; the Orioles led the league with a ridiculous 2.53 ERA. I’m going to wager that the fact that Paul Blair hit .233 with 8 homers – and the fact that Blair led the entire outfield in both categories – may have had more to do with it.

Callaspo is no Bobby Grich any more than Tony Pena is Mark Belanger. But just as Grich gave the Orioles a shot in the offensive arm at shortstop while waiting for the second base job to open up (the Orioles would move Davey Johnson to Atlanta that off-season, just in time for Ol’ Davey to hit 43 homers the next year), Callaspo can help the Royals today by playing shortstop in anticipation of grabbing Grudzielanek’s job next season.

We don’t know for sure that Callaspo can hit at all; this is a guy who hit .215 last season, in almost 150 at-bats. But the early returns this year are positive, and anyway the sooner we know the better. Grudzielanek refuses to cooperate by getting hurt, and he’s playing well enough that you really can’t argue he should be benched. (Though J.P. would solve that dilemma by releasing him.)

By starting Callaspo you might also free up some playing time for Esteban German, who’s on pace to bat about 110 times this year. I’d like to say that Hillman’s a moron for not getting German more playing time, but what’s his alternative? The fact is that, between Callaspo and German, the Royals probably have two of the ten best utility infielders in baseball on their roster. German has that .381 OBP over the last two seasons we’ve talked about; Callaspo has hit .337 and .341 in Triple-A the last two years. Callaspo can play second base well and shortstop passably; German can’t handle shortstop, but can play third base and the outfield as well as second.

The situation screams “trade”, and the longer German goes without sustained playing time the more his trade value drops. Starting Callaspo every day means that you can use German as an early-inning pinch-hitter in addition to starting him in the outfield vs. LHP on occasion and at second base to spell Grudz on Sundays. Pena gets a pair of plate appearances and 18 innings in the field every week.

(Random trade idea: the Dodgers have expressed interest in German, but are understandably reluctant to part with Chin-Lung Hu. How about Ivan DeJesus? He doesn’t turn 21 for another week, he’s hitting .328/.446/.459 in Double-A, and the Dodgers are so flush with talent that they don’t know what to do with him. Plus, his dad was once traded for a prospect named Ryne Sandberg, and it would be poetic justice if Junior made the Dodgers regret letting him go the way Ryno did with the Phillies.)

- I know a lot of people are excited that the Royals called up Luke Hochevar, and I share that excitement. I liked what little I saw on Sunday, where he was outstanding for three innings and then got bled to death in the fourth. But keep in mind that Hochevar came into the season with 27 days of service time. He was called up on 21st day of the season, which means that if he stays on the major league roster all year he’ll have a full year of service time, moving his free agency up a year.

There are roughly 11 more days over the course of a season than are needed to be credited with a full year of service time, so Hochevar would have to go back to Omaha and stay there for about three weeks if the Royals want to keep him under contract through 2014. He’s the best option for the fifth starter’s role right now, and 2014 is a long time from now. Just remember that this is a decision that might cost the Royals in the distant future.

- A few days ago I pointed out the Royals’ great defensive efficiency and wondered if the improvement was for real given that the defense was substantially similar to last year’s. Well, I think we know now: it’s not. On Sunday the Royals struck out 12 batters in eight innings, did not surrender a homer…and still gave up 11 hits. The A’s had a .458 BABIP that day. For the season the Royals now have a .683 defensive efficiency, 12th in the league and worse than last year’s mark. The defense isn’t that bad, but the evidence that the Royals had taken a defensive leap from last year has evaporated.

- Growing up in the late 1980s, I watched all the movies your typical early teenager would watch, which meant I saw a lot of Penelope Ann Miller on the big screen. Along the way Miller somehow became the epitome of wholesomeness for me – it seemed she always played a sweet, innocent woman, sometimes ditzy and sometimes clueless, but never overtly raw or, ahem, mature. Looking at her IMDB page, the movies that stand out are Adventures in Babysitting (1987), The Gun in Betty Lou’s Handbag (1992) and especially Kindergarten Cop (1990). I never saw Big-Top Pee Wee (1988) but I’m sure that fits in the same category.

So when I walked into a theater one day in 1993 to see Carlito’s Way, I had no idea what I was getting myself into. Seems Ms. Miller decided that if she was going to be taken seriously as an actress, she was going to have to shed that sweet, innocent persona. She was going to have to go topless.

I was not prepared for this. It was like opening the new Playboy magazine and finding your 10th-grade English teacher inside. When the movie ended, what was on my mind wasn’t that Al Pacino gave his usual performance or that Sean Penn had just resurrected a career that seemed to have been in a tailspin ever since “Shanghai Surprise”…it was that I had just seen Penelope Ann Miller’s breasts. I was not prepared for this.

Miller was evidently not prepared for this either. Her movie career ended almost on the spot; her IMDB page shows no listings at all for three years, and pretty much everything since then has been on the small screen, including such highlights as “All-American Girl: The Mary Kay Letourneau Story” and “National Lampoon’s Thanksgiving Family Reunion.” I’m thinking she wishes she had the opportunity to work in an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie again. (Although she’s currently filming “Robosapien: Rebooted.” So she’s got that going for her.)

I guess I should have learned from this that you never know when sweet and innocent is just a cover. But I didn’t. Because I never in a million years would have expected to find a cursing contest between Scott Raab and Pat Jordan, two of the finest artists of that genre, being refereed by…Joe Posnanski.

Poz? The man I once called “Mister Rogers with a keyboard?” Using actual f-bombs in his writing? Debating the best place to position the f-bomb in a phrase? I need to lie down. The story that Mister Rogers ended one of his shows by saying “that ought to shut the f@!kers up” because he didn’t realize the cameras were still rolling was one of the great urban legends of my adolescence. But it was false. This urban legend is true. Joe Posnanski just hosted a Swear-Off between Scott Raab and Pat Jordan. (Or as I like to call it, “The Great American F@!k-Off.”)

You could tell that Poz almost immediately regretted using curse words (as opposed to merely quoting other people’s curse words), because in his next column he completely replaced all his curse words with $*#@%# punctuation marks, like he was writing a Beetle Bailey comic strip. But the cat’s out of the bag, Joe. Heed the warning of Penelope Ann Miller, lest you find yourself forced to make ends meet by writing B-movie screenplays in ten years. On the bright side, maybe you can get Miller to star in them.

(EDIT: It appears that some of you may be taking my playful jabs at Posnanski as genuine criticism. That's my fault, as unlike the subject of my jabs, I'm not a particularly gifted writer. So to be clear: I'm not trying to criticize Poz. I'm not offended by anything he or his guest writers wrote - the man placed enough "Parental Advisory" stickers on his post to satisfy both Tipper Gore and Lynn Cheney. I'm just having fun with him. Please. The man sh!ts - pardon my Poz - better prose than I write on my best days.)