Monday, July 15, 2019

MID-JULY '69: APOLLO 11 & AL WEIS' "MOONSHOTS"

July 15, 1969--a day like any other...save for that foreign war, Brock Hanke's broken back, and the impending launch of Apollo 11. Baseball had a day that looks oddly like what we see on a daily basis fifty years later: more HRs than games played (32 in 26 games, led by four from Reds' masher Lee May, who drove in 10 runs as Cincinnati split a doubleheader with the Braves in which 31 runs were scored).

Even the Houston Astros scored in double figures this day, their 10-7 win coming despite a poor outing from starter Don Wilson, who gave up seven hits and six runs in 2 2/3 IP. (Truth told, the Astrodome actually played as a slight hitters' park in 1969--the only time that ever occurred.) Wilson, who'd die at age 29 in a tragic, mysterious accident five years later, was taken off the hook thanks to 4 1/3 innings of stellar relief by erratic lefty Skip Guinn, who earned his lone major league win as a result.

In Seattle, Jim Bouton (who passed away a few days ago at age 80), mopped up in a game that his soon-to-be-infamous team, the Pilots, lost in an unusual way--opposing pitcher John (Blue Moon) Odom drove in four runs with a 3-run HR and a single as the Oakland A's stayed in the chase for the lead in the AL West (1969-first year of divisional play). Odom was a very good hitting pitcher--he hit .266 with 5 HRs and a .503 SLG in 1969. Bouton came within a strike of fanning four batters in an inning (Rick Monday reached first safely when Jim's knuckleball eluded catcher Jerry McNertney), but Jose Tartabull (father of Danny) grounded out with two strikes on him to keep Bouton out of the record books.

But the truly unexpected event occurred at Wrigley Field, when the Mets' Al Weis hit a three-run homer off the Cubs' Dick Selma (a former Met) in the fourth inning. Weis, equally adept at SS and 2B, was subbing for starting SS Bud Harrelson that day. It was just his fifth lifetime HR. His keystone partner that day, second baseman Ken Boswell, connected against Selma in the next inning, and that proved to be the decisive run in the game (the Mets would eventually win 5-4).

Weis would also homer the following day as the Mets took it to the Cubs again, 9-5. It was the only time in his career that he hit homers in consecutive games.

The Mets hit 109 HR in 1969: a total that, fifty years later, several reams have managed to hit in just two months. In 2019, here's no longer such a thing as an unexpected homer unless it's hit by a pitcher...

Weis' "moonshots" were a prelude to the incredible events that followed; first, the moon landing; second, Woodstock; third, the Mets' surreal stretch run. July 15 was a pumped-up prelude to all that, but even in that context the raw offensive numbers (.269 BA, .431 SLG, .161 ISO, .598 ISOBA) are not distended in shape--they're natural progressions of what would occur in a day of clustered good hitting (as evidenced by the unusually robust .347 aggregate OBP). It was a premonition of 1996 or 2000, not 2019. Looking back to that time, we can more clearly see how our new "whack" is really out of whack.

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

A TRIPLE GRAND SLAM FOR THE BASEBALL RELIQUARY

Some of you may remember "the power of three" as it manifested itself on the long-running TV series Charmed--all about the tortured lives of twenty-something young women (who just happened to be witches). Their weekly adventures contained multitudes--a bit too pre-fab at times, but jam-packed with adversity, extremity, and otherness.

What often rescued the three witches from destruction, eternal damnation, wardrobe malfunction, or (merely) the prying eyes of those ever-judgmental mortals, was a shared faith in their collective heritage. It buoyed them--saved them--in the face of relentlessly desperate times.

Now, we suddenly find ourselves living in desperate times, and the Baseball Reliquary--though arguably not as slinky as the actresses who played those three witchily beleaguered heroines--is also twenty-something: its monument to faith in a collective heritage, the Shrine of the Eternals, turns 21 on this Sunday, July 14th--as usual, in Pasadena, CA, where its own uncanny "power of three" continues to shine a light on the true underpinnings of baseball's hold on the American psyche. (Lord knows that this is a year in which we need a reminder of that.) It's an especially propitious moment for us to be reminded that since 1999, the Shrine has honored three unique, unusual individuals whose lives are indelibly and inspirationally tied to baseball, receiving induction into a group of honorees who comprise a viable "Cooperstown for the rest of us."

Sometimes those inductees appear to represent "corrections" for the Hall of Fame's various exclusions--Dick Allen, Joe Jackson and Pete Rose, just to name three---but the Shrine can now safely be seen as something operating well beyond the oddly limited scope of Cooperstown. Think of it as a cultural laboratory which, admittedly, "leans left" from the perspective of a divided America; beyond such self-limiting characterizations, however, it should be seen as a magic portal into the wonder and awe that continues to manifest within a game that, despite ever-expanding media hype and unlimited TV money, still manages to retain its qualities of passionate innocence.

The Reliquary's enduring genius is to take hold of this innocence and cast it through the lens of three forces that drive humanity's desire to excel but that cast a dangerous spell over the ability to succeed. These forces, as we've so often noted here (and, occasionally, elsewhere...) are adversity, extremity and otherness.

Each of the yearly Shrine inductees--and the 2019 class (Billy Beane, Lisa Fernandez, and J. R. Richard) is no exception--captures an uncanny connection to these three principles. Amazingly, even as the membership of the Reliquary (who make the Shrine choices via a yearly vote) has changed over time--Executive Director Terry Cannon (he of the subtle smirk and the extra-loud cowbell) estimates the turnover in membership is now around 80% since the Reliquary's inception in 1996--these three forces continue to dovetail in the ongoing choice of deserving individuals. (Charmed had a writing staff to invoke "the power of three" in a fanciful supernatural fiction--it's arguably at least as supernatural that the Reliquary voters have managed to do the same with actual persons. Where fiction and fact converge, however, is in the connective tissue of empowerment and transformation--a spiritual place where a collective faith in the meaning of existence itself can be nurtured and supported, even in desperate times.)

Both in fiction and real life, we all know that great natural talent can blossom--we see it, every day, evidenced in art, music, film, literature, sport--but the path that talent will take once it has blossomed is neither predictable nor assured. Beane, Fernandez, and Richard each possessed surpassing physical gifts, but their paths to the dais at the Shrine of the Eternals could not be more different from one another. They arrive there this Sunday due to forces beyond those gifts--and for how they ecountered and overcame the turbulences amid opportunity that occur via adversity, extremity and otherness.

Richard's incredible physical talent brought him to the pinnacle of success in 1980 when he then suffered a career-ending stroke because his team, the Houston Astros, decided that the African-American pitcher was "malingering" when he reported baffling medical problems. As a result, his life took a hard right turn for many years, including a stint of homelessness. (Call it the otherness of extreme adversity--or perhaps you'll forgive me if I do.) When one is homeless, one is definitely perceived by the world as "other." But Richard gamely fought back from his undeserved fall from grace, and has embraced the contours of his life story as one that can enlighten and inspire others.

Fernandez, the most dominant pitcher in the history of women's softball, is a singularly fascinating example of extremity. In the male world of baseball, there is no one with a lifetime .930 winning percentage. There is also no one, not even Babe Ruth, whose two-way statistics (pitching and hitting) are such astonishing outliers (the Reliquary's 2019 press release for the 2019 Shrine ceremony reminds us that in her senior year at UCLA, Fernandez not only had an ERA of 0.23, but she also hit .510!). Here is otherness in the form of the otherworldly. Her selection dovetails with the Shrine's previous induction of Ila Borders (the first woman to pitch in the minor leagues) and should inspire us to ask if their is somehow a future in sport where forms of athletic competition can become, if not androgynous, then somehow gender-neutral.

Beane was a "can't miss" player who managed to fizzle, a commonplace occurrence in the world of sports (but one that is peculiarly haunting in baseball, with its lingering focus on the individual). Despite this setback, Beane found a way to augment his natural charisma with an unheralded intellectual curiosity to fashion a career in baseball that is truly unique--the first widely-acknowledged front office executive to embrace sabermetric concepts and apply them in a way that undercut the "bidding war" philosophy vis-a-vis baseball talent that had taken hold in the game after the advent of free agency.

While the "extreme measures" he employed for a team--the Oakland A's, who've remained a team enmeshed in economic adversity throughout his twenty-year tenure--have become both more commonplace and more extreme (the home run surges that currently threatens the game's aesthetics and strategic variety), Beane has transcended the hype of Moneyball (the book, the movie, the lingering fetish...) and retooled his own idiosyncratic vision of how to build a winning team "on the fly" year after year. While not as successful as some (Theo Epstein) who've also had copious financial resources in order to achieve ultimate post-season glory, Beane's career is only truly soulful use of a set of precepts that currently dominate baseball's approach but that might not ultimately serve the game well in its attempt to navigate the roiling currents of the twenty-first century (particularly the last half of its dangerous second decade).

But it's once again those indefatigable Reliquary voters, as they sift through their shifting, eclectic set of names, who keep finding such inspiring and illustrative troikas to honor as they fashion their own history of the game and honor the cultural/spiritual hold it still has over America. Yes, the Reliquary "leans left," but I think it does so because it knows that nostalgia alone does not lead us to a viable future, and that a more critically devotional history needs to be constructed in order to ensure that the great gifts the game (and, by extension, the nation as a whole) does not perish from the earth.

For as long as the Baseball Reliquary continues to provide such a vision--played out in its quirky but reverent ceremony held one week before "the official story" takes place in Cooperstown--we can be assured that the three forces (like three strikes and three outs--but not "three true outcomes"...) will remain in play, inspiring the same type of wonder in the game that was seen in its youth by Walt Whitman and Mark Twain, the original aestheticians of the game. More than a century after their passing, the Reliquary and its Shrine continues to keep the flame of that wonder alive.

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

SUMMER BIRTHPANGS, 1969: A RETRO-REMEMBRANCE

French noir is a beast, but we have wild imagery from it that will baffle and bewilder...as time permits some posting here, we'll foist these off on you as if it somehow had something to do with the purported subject of this rag-tag blog (which, of course, it doesn't). No matter: it's our blog and we can digress when we want to.

(Wild image, though, right? Given the state of the USA as we enter the summer of 2019, you may be feeling just how the great French actor Raimu felt when we shoved a set of stairs upside his head. We call it "double exposure"--you can call it what you like.)

Fifty years ago tonight, there were nine games on the schedule (out of a possible twelve: 1969 was baseball's most unruly expansion year, with four new teams in the same season). A total of thirteen home runs were hit in those games, which works out to .72 HR/team game: just a bit more than half of the rate we're seeing in 2019. (There has been a game this year where teams combined to hit 13 HRs in a single evening--with liftoff like that, you might just be able to land a man on the moon. Pretty sure who 60% of America would like to send up to "green cheese exile" right now.)

After the games June 19--two days before the beginning of the third and final "summer of love" and two months before Max Muncy's grandfather got the idea to name his son after a Republican dairy farmer (Max Yasgur) by flying his freak flag at Woodstock--the Orioles were playing .734 ball (47-17). Their reckoning would come on the day after the Vietnam "Moratorium Day" protests--but we're getting ahead of ourselves. The Expos and Padres, en route to 110 losses apiece, were a combined 42-86. The Chicago Cubs were cruising along at .641 (41-23), some six games ahead of the upstart New York Mets.

June 19, 1969 was something of a high-water mark for Jim Bouton, embroiled in his diary-stained season in Seattle: in an uncharacteristically high-scoring game at Comiskey Park, the Pilots' cheeky knuckleballer pitched four solid innings in relief even as all hell was breaking loose around him. He even got an at-bat in the game, extending a three-year streak of going hitless at the plate. The White Sox eventually won, 13-10.

Perhaps the most consequential game that day, however, featured those pesky Mets, playing in Philadelphia just a few days before Dick Allen would be suspended for a month in what would prove to be his final altercation with Phillies' management (at least in the 1960s!). In the midst of a streak where they'd won fourteen of their last eighteen games, the Mets sent Tom Seaver to the mound against lantern-jawed Jerry Johnson, an ex-Met farmhand who would accompany Allen to St. Louis as part of a fateful trade (Curt Flood) that eventually figured in the dismantling of the reserve clause. He'd soon have what was his single top-notch season after being traded to the Giants, where in 1971 he was a workhorse reliever (109 IP, 12 wins, 18 SV) and actually finished sixth in the Cy Young Award voting, but on this night he seemed over-matched.

But Seaver was a bit off, surrendering a run in the bottom of the first and setting up short-time big leaguer Gene Stone with a barroom story usable for the next four decades. Stone received his first major-league start in place of Allen when the slugging first basemen came up lame (or, as the ever-supportive Philadelphia press noted--so he said!) and faced Seaver with two outs and men at second and third--whereupon he received his first and only intentional walk. Manager Gil Hodges wanted Seaver to have the platoon advantage, so lefty Stone was passed and righty slugger Larry Hisle, who'd play 1100 more major-league games and finished fourth in the NL Rookie of the Year voting that year, came up with the bases loaded--and struck out.

The two teams see-sawed over the entire game, with each pitcher having problems with significantly weak hitters. The inimitable Al Weis, who'd wind up with a .215 batting average in 1969, rehearsed the first of his two big World Series hits with a game-tying RBI single in the top of the second. In the bottom of the third, catcher J. C. Martin threw out Johnny Briggs trying to steal second, which proved fortuitous because the next Phillies batter, offensive sinkhole Mike Ryan, a brilliant defensive catcher who'd thrown out 58% of runners attempting to steal the previous season, hit a home run off Seaver, making it 2-1.

It got worse: Cookie Rojas took Seaver deep in the fifth. But the Mets had Art Shamsky, who'd regained his hitting stroke after hitting .197 and .236 in the last two seasons. And they got just what they need from him on this night: with Cleon Jones on first and one out in the top of the sixth, Shamsky hit the first of two late-in-the-game HRs he'd hit that night to tie the game. Two innings later--boom--his second homer gave the Mets their first lead of the game at 4-3.

But Seaver and normally reliable reliever Ron Taylor weren't quite through giving ground. In the bottom of the eighth, Ryan doubled and Gene Stone tried to sacrifice him to third. But Stone got more barstool bragging rights when his bunt took a strange hop over Seaver's glove and wound up being a hit. Taylor came in and got a couple of outs, but manager Hodges decided to "play it safe" and intentionally walk the other Stone on the Phillies' roster--Ron Stone, who was hitting .150 on the year. This set up the force play at any base, but the next hitter--Rick Joseph--was more successful than Hisle had been in the first: his single scored two runs and the Phils took a 5-4 lead into the ninth.



Enter Al Raffo, the gangly (6'5") rookie right-hander, groomed as a starter in the Phillies' farm system but converted to the bullpen upon his elevation to the majors in late April. Very effective of late (1.20 ERA in his past six appearances), he was getting a shot to be a closer. But the Mets' gremlins had other ideas for him: Martin, hitting .205, coaxed a leadoff walk. Next up: the enigmatic Ron Swoboda, batting for the downright baffling Al Weis. Trying to jam him, Raffo left a pitch out over the plate and the mercurial slugger (who over the next weekend would strike out in ten of his next twelve at-bats) lined a single to left.

Phils' skipper Bob Skinner (soon to get the axe after mishandling the Allen fiasco lying in wait for him) took no chances, bringing in Dick (Turk) Farrell, his top reliever. Pinch-hitter Jerry Grote bunted the runners over to second and third; Farrell fanned Tommie Agee for the second out.

But Skinner elected not to emulate Hodges by walking Ken Boswell--and the Mets' second baseman made him pay for that decision with a two-run single that put the Mets back on top, 6-5.

Tug McGraw pitched the bottom of the ninth, got two outs, walked a batter--and gave Gene Stone a chance for his first career RBI. Stone lined it into left, but Cleon Jones raced over and snagged the ball at his knees for the final out. It was just one of 64 one-run games that the Mets played that season, but it was part of a key turnaround in their fortunes. After going 7-9 in one-run games during April and May, the Mets went 9-3 in June and fashioned a spectacular 34-14 record in one-run games from June 1st through the end of the 1969 season.

By the way, Gene Stone never did get that first career RBI. Even when Allen was suspended, he did not get a chance to play first base, and was farmed out to AA, never to return.

The aggregate batting line for the games played on this night fifty years ago was as follows: .262/.330/.378. Aggregate ISO was just .116, with ISOBA of .462, as opposed to .190 ISO (!) and .785 ISOBA (!!) on June 18, 2019. But you know what--those weak-kneed banjo hitters back then still managed to score 4.56 runs per game that night--about 2/5ths of a run more than the long-ball lotharios managed.

Yes, Virginia: baseball was definitely more interesting fifty years ago...

Monday, April 22, 2019

TEN PARKS ARE DOMINATING THE EARLY-SEASON HR SURGE

Nine days to go in April 2019, and at least Robert Mueller hit a triple. (That last base is up to those who need to undrink the Kool-Aid.) In the fervid world of baseball, however, the "base" has taken over: we've even seen so-called analysts such as Eno Sarris and Matthew Baggerly don pom-poms and suggest that the Giants recalibrate their ballpark so it, too, can be a home run palace.

And to think that just last year some of these fine feathered folks who write for the increasingly embedded shrines of empty-headed analysis were decrying the aesthetics of a two-dimensional game. This year, however, as homers fly out of ballparks at a record rate, they seem to be as giddy and shell-shocked as that uncomfortably large plurality of Americans whose attention spans and senses of history are so attenuated that they can barely process the slow train coming for the carcass of the Orange Menace. 

Let's all be home run thugs together, they chant, suggesting that the inexorable pull of isolated power that is now reaching an historical extreme is now to be swallowed whole just as the escalating thuggery of politics is the "new normal." 

After all, if Jose Altuve can "stand and crank" (as Brock Hanke used to call those players who did little but swing for the fences whenever they occupied the batter's box) then it should be a universal law as iron-clad as the historical eschatology of G.W. Hegel (a philosopher whose interest in power was in no way isolated).

And it would thus seem to be, as the "barrel" frippery of sabermetric Anti-Christ Tom (Love Pie) Tango and the ergonomic eugenics of Ben "Frankenstein" Lindbergh take us into a world where athletics and elitism are blood brothers. The "proof" is in the rising HR/G rate thus far this April, and we are to bow down to the stone tablets of this new reality.

However, let's toss out an operating phrase that's parcel and part of Big Bad Baseball lore: not so effin' fast. Could there be a counter-pattern hidden in the data somewhere that belies at least part of this hegemonic hoo-hah that's turning the game into a raging staph infection? Might things not be as monolithic as they first appear?

Yes, folks, there is a glimmer of good news, and it's in the table at right. It's a breakout of HRs by ballpark that shows you the HR/G rates thus far in 2019, along with projected totals for the year--and compares those numbers to what occurred in the previous two seasons. There is a very intriguing sub-pattern here that bears scrutiny, one that just might be the beginnings of a "cure" for baseball's rash of home runs.

The current homer surge this month is being spearheaded by events in ten major league ballparks where the long ball is currently out of control. One of these parks--Camden Yards--has always been a homer haven, and right now things are beyond ridiculous there: their current pace of 2.6 homers/game would go beyond shattering the current record for most HRs hit in a ballpark (271 in Coors Field in 1997). Similarly outrageous numbers can be found in Miller Field and Citi Park (though the latter is currently by far the smallest sample size).

Right now six ballparks project to break the Coors Field record for HRs. These ten parks would have an average of 300 HRs each.

But the other 20 parks are not joining in with this HR madness. They are, for the most part, going the other way. They actually project to hit less HRs per park in 2019 than they did in 2018, and about 30 HRs less per park than in the "kaboom year" of 2017.

We averaged the three-year numbers for all the parks, and while HRs would go up again from 2018, the projection according to that average brings us in a bit under the 2017 numbers.

While we won't be surprised if Camden Yards does set a record for most HRs in a ballpark this year--a grotesque coupling of congenial ballpark and an execrable home team pitching staff--we expect that the current glut of HRs in these ten parks will dissipate. They may even hit enough homers at the Giants' Oracle Park to placate Sarris and Baggerly, the panting bandwagoneers who think that hitting homers is the only way to win. (The Giants, hitting just five homers in ten games at home this season, are 5-5 there--low run scoring environments actually encourage better relative home won-loss records...but don't tell those two post-neo nabobs of Homeric hoo-hah.)

We actually need more parks like Oracle Field, but the chances of that happening remain slim at best. What baseball still has to watch out for is a definitive counter-movement that neutralizes "launch angle" that, if implementable across all of the game, would put us at 1968 batting levels. If the current "Lords" are worried about attendance (possibly not, given how they're drowning in television money..) they might want to consider what will happen if baseball gets to the point where it is both low scoring and scores more than half its runs via homers. At that point the folks who natter on about the game being terminally boring will actually be right. 

We'll follow up on this table a bit later in the year and let you know which way the wind is blowing.

Thursday, February 14, 2019

FRANK ROBINSON: DOWNRIGHT UPRIGHT

Frank Robinson: A swing literally like no other...
Frank Robinson's passing last week reminded me of how I wound up wearing number 20 whenever I played "organized ball" (from Pony League to high school to fast/slow-pitch softball). It also prompted a stroll through the data at Forman et fils (just given a shoutout in the New York Times, BTW) to sharpen an entire range of recollection.

First, number 20. It came from Frank, stemming from my first trip to a major league ballpark in Los Angeles. (That is, if you can call the Coliseum a major league baseball park. It was big, to be sure: but that "Chinese fence"--offensive then, even more so now--in left was clearly a jive-ass kluge even to a callow eight-year old.)

The date was Sunday, July 9, 1961. I'd finally badgered my Dad to take time out of his workaholic schedule and schlep us to a game. (We'd moved to LA in 1959 just in time for the Dodgers to pull off their improbable World Series win; we were supposed to go to a game the next year, but two weeks before our scheduled excursion I rode my bike into an open intersection and was hit by a car. Riding barefoot like any fool kid at the time, I had my left foot torn up as part of the collision and spent the next six weeks in a cast: needless to say, the game was scratched.)

Even without the aid of the electronic box score (kudos to Retrosheet for bringing it all back home), the game was memorable. You're not likely to forget a first game when during it someone drives in seven runs.

Yes, that someone was Frank Robinson. The Dodgers had been chasing the Reds, coming into a weekend four-game series (the last before the All-Star break) in second place, three games behind. Their new ace, Sandy Koufax, had gotten hit hard in the first game of Friday's doubleheader: the Dodgers had dropped both games that night, 11-7 and 4-1. They'd regrouped on Saturday behind Johnny Podres (on his way to his best-ever season with the Dodgers: he'd finish the year 18-5), knocking out 14 hits en route to a 10-1 win--but Robinson had been hot (.375 over his last 50 games, with 16 HRs and 52 RBI) and he was primed for action on Sunday afternoon.

I can still remember the distinctive upright stance, and the hands swinging low, followed by a quick stride. There was contact, and--bam!--a high fly that settled over the ludicrous screen in left. It gave the Reds a 2-0 lead.

We were down fairly low, as tickets hadn't sold well at all for this game--and Robinson had seemed even bigger than his 6'1" frame. (The only guys who seemed bigger--Reds' pitcher Joey Jay, and a huge guy in the Dodgers dugout who didn't play but seemed to be grinding up the dugout railing bare-handed. You may recall his name: Frank Howard.)


I'd forgotten, but the game was remarkable for something that would never happen today: both Koufax and Don Drysdale pitched in relief.

In fact, they came into the game back-to-back. Koufax relieved Roger Craig with the bases loaded and one out in the third with the score tied 2-2: he struck out the first man he faced, but his on-again off-again nemesis Wally Post slapped a liner into center to drive in two runs--we call them "inherited runners" now--putting the Reds back in the lead, one they never relinquished. Drysdale relieved Koufax in the fifth, when Post was due up again. I remember being mystified that Drysdale then proceeded to intentionally walk Jerry Lynch, who'd been sent up to hit for Post. And I remember asking my Dad: "why couldn't the other pitcher have just walked the guy who was batted for?" My Dad's reply was the classic non-response: "That's a very good question."

He also didn't have an answer when Gene Freese's liner to center was caught by a charging Ron Fairly, who thought he had a play at the plate on Vada Pinson, but who then threw wildly to home, allowing the run to score and the two other runners (Robinson and Lynch) to take an extra base. Reds 5, Dodgers 2. The next batter, catcher Johnny Edwards (who hit .186 that year), was intentionally walked to get to pitcher Jay, who (as Forman et fils tells us) was at that very moment hitting 3-for-48 (.065) thus far in 1961 and currently had a lifetime .108 batting average.

"Mirror, mirror on the wall, who's the gnarliest headhunter
of 'em all? That big jackass DRYSDALE, that's who!"
My father had been enjoying a beer he'd just purchased from a vendor (who talked strangely while sweating profusely), but when Jay proceeded to line one into the right-center field gap, he began to swear--just as profusely. Two more runs scored, and it was hard to tell who had the more astonished expression on their face: Don Drysdale, Joey Jay, or my Dad.

Drysdale was able to work off his frustration during the next inning, however. After he'd allowed a double to Pinson, he then proceeded to hit Robinson with a pitch, at which point he was given the rest of the day off.

Frank didn't take the rest of the day off, however. In the eighth inning he hit his second homer--a wicked line drive off Dick (Turk) Farrell that kept rising as it rocketed into the left-center field seats about ten feet east of the silly screen. That made it 10-3, which became 11-3 when Freese homered later in the inning.

And in the ninth, Farrell--who'd been victimized by two consecutive infield errors--found himself facing Frank with the bases loaded. He got a slow curve over in the zone for a strike, but Frank was in a zone of his own and sent the next pitch rocketing toward left-center again.

This one wasn't hit as high, and stayed in the park, but it sailed over Fairly and made a thunderous sound when it hit the base of the wall. Three more runs scored, and Frank collected RBIs five, six and seven.

As we trudged back to our car afterwards (final score: Reds 14, Dodgers 3), I remember saying to my Dad: "Number 20 killed us." (And even though the numbers 7, 24, and 44 were far more iconic in the world of 60s baseball, when it came time for me to wear a baseball uniform, Frank's performance on that July afternoon cemented my choice of a lifetime.) As we all know, "number 20" (except for that one year when he actually played for the Dodgers, when Don Sutton wouldn't relinquish the number and Frank inexplicably wore number 36...36?) killed a lot of teams--and many opponents' dreams.

He was also a pioneer, a clubhouse comic, and a hitter who never quite was considered to be as great as two other superb right-handed sluggers whose careers were closely aligned with his: Hank Aaron and Willie Mays.

Neither of those two incredible inner-circle Hall of Famers accomplished what Frank Robinson did, however: he won a Triple Crown (in 1966, after having been traded to the Orioles by a GM who had the temerity--and idiocy--to call him "an old 30"); he appeared in five World Series (equal to the combined totals of Hank and Willie); and--big "and"--he was the first African-American to manage in the big leagues.

Frank didn't quite match the HR output of Hank and Willie: that upright stance produced more line drives than they did. But his overall output was, at its peak, equal to theirs. The combined OPS+ chart for six-year peaks demonstrates that he was just as devastating in his own way. But due to the vagaries of All-Star game selection, he started only two All-Star games during his ten years with the Reds. The greatest troika of outfielders in the history of the National League started only one All-Star game together (1957).

Frank was a bit mercurial as a manager--as a former superstar, he could be excessively demanding. But he was very good at restoring equilibrium for struggling franchises. He could be irreverent and imperious at the same time, and pull it off. There was more depth to him than the other superstars who only seemed to shine more brightly. Rest in peace, Number 20...


Wednesday, February 6, 2019

JUST HOW MANY HR WILL MIGUEL ANDUJAR HIT?

Most of you know that Bill James has his own site, where he and a crew of significant lesser lights crank out content, most of it driven by Bill's wormhole-like gaze into the desiccated remains of sabemetric inquiry. Thanks to the continuing double-dribble of the Tango Love Pie™ (indisputably the Donald Trump of neo-sabermetrics, who's worked hard to pre-empt James in subtle--and not-so-subtle--ways), the "dialogue" between Bill's pet method for assigned a "single number" to player performances (Win Shares) and the tortured, mangled, compromised Wins Above Replacement has resulted in a series of tragic, retrograde "linkages" between concepts now wielded more as political tools rather than vessels of actual insight.

Recently Bill created a new Hall of Fame "projection system" which purported to bridge the "gaposis" between these two "tools of overreach" by force-fitting them, Jay Jaffe-style, into a silly set of gradations that ignored the essential incompatibility of the two methods. The results added little to nothing to currently existing approaches to that knotty problem, which (as noted last time) requires a lot more nuance than any of these fine feathered folk are willing to pro for vide to it.

But that's NOT where we're going here, actually. We're here today to address a totally different topic--a side issue that stemmed from Bill's most recent effort to elasticize his pet method (Win Shares) into a slippery new-old vernacular (a refashioned variant of "winning percentage"). Critiquing that unfortunate effort--which, like so much of what Bill works on in his dotage, needs much more space than he's either willing or able to devote to it--will have to wait for another time, but suffice to say that it's yet another unfortunate concession to modeling imperatives that produces no actual/practical result with genuine utility in the real world (and by that we also mean the current "real world" inside baseball itself, which is increasingly beset by measures that lead us down multiple rabbit holes simultaneously).

In the midst of that effort, Bill--as he's often wont to do--suddenly shifted gears and moved from theory to colloquialism (a writing strategy that he's over-employed to the point where it's long since teetered over into self-parody; folks are so used to this writerly tic of his that they've become unable to distinguish between legitimate and gratuitous uses of this furtively defiant sleight-of-hand).

In this instance, the subject shift was to the Yankees' rookie third baseman Miguel Andujar, who had an impressive power year (even in the context of another semi-absurd "power year" for baseball) as a 23-year-old in 2018: 27 HR, 47, doubles, .527 SLG. These are all solid numbers: his OPS+ is also solid at 126. All very respectable, even if he's overly aggressive at the plate (just 4% base-on-balls percentage, and an extremely low OBP/SLG ratio), a factor that often retards further offensive development.

Bill, however, decided to enter into his "blurt mode" once he'd encountered Andujar's name on his team-by-team "winning percentage" lists. He gushed out a statement to the effect that Andujar could hit 400 lifetime HRs. He offered no accompanying context whatsoever. When challenged by several skeptical readers, he added nothing but his own first-hand observation of Andujar and the admonition that he trusted his own judgment more than those who challenged his assertion.

Of course, we've all become used to such discussion in "chat" situations by now; by the same token, Bill's use of social media has, over time, become aggressive to the point of bellicosity (an unfortunate sign of the times we live in that's difficult for anyone to successfully avoid). But rather than dwell on that issue, it suddenly became clear that a better approach would be to find how to place that remark into some kind of actual historical context.

And that led to an effort to concoct, just as Bill has done himself on so many occasions, an intriguing little jackleg study that could put Andujar's 23-year-old 2018 season into a perspective capable of generating a range of lifetime HR predictions. To do so, it was also desirable to avoid the overused and not very reliable chestnut of projection tools that Bill had developed back in his pre-dotage days: the Brock2 system (or Brock6, or 201.1, or whatever "final version number" it had stalled at back in the days of yore before it wound up in the lost universe of floppy disks.) If Bill had dusted it off for such a projection, it probably would have produced a lifetime 400 HR projection for Andujar; but given its set of assumptions and the almost comically optimistic results it produces, it clearly makes sense to omit any reference to it.

No, there had to be a better way than that. And so, after quickly soaking my head (at last following the kind long-term advice from such a sizable plurality of you...) I struck upon a way to do. The control study would be to create a list of 23-year old hitters with 20+ HRs and with an OPS+ tightly in the range of what Andujar had posted in 2018. (Since his was--remember?--126, the search range was 125-129.)

As you can see in the table below, this actually produced a robust little list of players--17 in all, beginning with Harlond Clift in 1936. Adding to the seasonal data for each player, we focus on HRs hit prior to age 24 (15 of the 17 on the list had played at least a significant portion of a season or seasons as a younger player), followed by HRs hit from age 24 on.

This data permits us to create an average expected career HR total for the group, factoring in the highest achievers (Jim Thome, with 20 HRs in 98 games during his age-23 year in 1994, who wound up with 612 lifetime HRs; Andruw Jones, with 36 HRs in this fifth major league season at age-23, whose career total was 434) to those who flamed out (Ellis Valentine, Tommie Agee, Carlos Baerga, Billy Butler, Nate Colbert, Clift, and Cesar Cedeno, all who wound up with less than 200 lifetime HRs). It was clear from this initial list that Andujar was in a group that would produce far fewer than 400 HRs--35% fewer, in fact: the group's average lifetime HR total was 257.



But looking at that list again, and adding some more precise parameters, we can refine our projection in a way that better takes into account Andujar's power profile.

We like to measure "power profiles" by using a stat we call ISOBA. (You might recall it from earlier posts: ISOBA measures the ratio of isolated power to batting average. The higher it is, the more power-based the hits that are being produced.)

Andujar's ISOBA is .774, while most of the players on the list (including those with less than 200 lifetime HRs) had a significantly lower ISOBA value. So, to better predict Andujar's likely career HR total, we need to remove those players (Valentine, Agee, Butler, Baerga, Vern Stephens, Ron Santo).

We added two layers of refinement: first, a lifetime HR projection for the players on the list with ISOBA higher than .700, and second, a subsequent projection using only those players whose ISOBA was higher than Andujar's (exit Clift and Cedeno). The projection range calculated for these two groups is shown above in two locations: in the boxes as the far right of Andujar's stat line, and again in the "HR 23+" column (down at the bottom where the numbers are displayed in a light green background).

What they suggest is that Andujar's likely range for his career HR total is between 274 and 317.

So is Bill is right that Andujar "could" hit 400 HRs. Two players on this list--Thome and Jones--did so. Of course, Andruw had an 80 HR head-start from breaking into MLB as a teenager, while Thome proved to be a bonafide Hall of Fame slugger. Both players showed significantly more strike zone judgment at this age than Andujar has (12% for Thome and 8% for Andruw, as opposed to just 4% for Miguel) and this is a factor that can't be discounted as a likely retardant for sustained career success.

But Bill would have been much more comfortably connected to the level of rigor that people assume exists in his work if he'd revised his statement to say that there's a good chance that Andujar will hit 300+ HRs.

So why did he opt to go with the 400 figure? Was there actually something else behind that number, which just appeared out of thin air and reads like one more of his patented "fanboy excited utterances" (you know, like "Don Mattingly: 100% baseball, 0% bullshit": sheesh...) used as his preferred form of stylistic lubricant? Apparently not: his responses to skeptics in the subsequent chat sequence do not open any doors with respect to a viable rationale...

One final note, not related to Bill's "excited utterance." Note that the player on the above list with the lowest total of offensive WAR in his age-23 year is Jim Thome--who happened to wind up with the most lifetime HRs of anyone on the list. That's because even "offensive WAR" is subject to distortion, befouled by positional adjustments and insufficient attention to rate stat and league-relative valuations. It's untrustworthy as a gauge of overall and/or future value: in short, it's as much of a hot mess, honey, as a radioactive Tango Love Pie™ left randomly out in the sun...

Tuesday, January 22, 2019

THE UNCONSCIOUS DESIRE FOR A TIERED HALL OF FAME...

1939 Hall of Fame induction ceremony, Cooperstown NY...
This is a topic that needs a great deal of numerical annotation--in fact, it would probably require a book to cover properly (and we've already had two seminally misguided efforts on the Hall of Fame in book form--Bill James in muckraking mode and Jay Jaffe in glorified hack mode: while the book could definitely be sold to a publisher, the question is more whether it has any chance to undo the damage already done).

But so many perspectives continue to be omitted from the discussion that it just might have to be done. The Hall of Fame needs transformation from within, and none of these smug outsiders (including yours truly) are going to penetrate the shifting veils that create more problems than they solve. We need an entirely different approach to make a Hall of Fame that absorbs its historical errors and points a way toward a more scrupulous approach to greatness.

The matter of a "tiered" Hall of Fame, where three levels of achievement are recognized and separated from one another, is an idea that's floated around since the mid-1980s, when Tom Hull (better known as a music critic) devised a vast project for a group of semi-sabermetrically inclined participants which operated on such a concept. These folks (and their names, aside from Tom's, mine and Brock J. Hanke's, are being withheld to protect the innocent) were known, at least for a time, as the Baseball Maniacs. (You can see that they were even mentioned in the first edition of James's Historical Baseball Abstract...)

Inner circle, middle circle, outer circle: these terms were explicitly part of Tom's scheme, and while the project didn't complete itself due to a level of effort that was virtually impossible to sustain, the tiered idea has wafted around the edges of subsequent "sabermetric consciousness" ever since.

Thirty-some years later, it's time to dust off that idea again and re-examine all of the vagaries of Hall of Fame selection to demonstrate how this approach can put to rest an entire series of stalemated arguments. (Assuming, of course, that some of those people can be convinced to take the bit out of their teeth...)

As for the current Hall of Fame voting (which announces later today), we expect Mariano Rivera, Roy Halladay and Edgar Martinez to make it over the 75% threshold which allows them "front-door" entrance to Cooperstown. But are any of these players "inner circle" Hall of Famers? Should we use the convention of "voting consensus" to make these determinations? Does induction in the first year eligible make one a member of the "inner circle"? In the case of Edgar, would his (presumed) election on the 10th year of eligibility make him an "outer circle" Hall of Famer?

The knee-jerk answer is "no," but that answer stems from a series of imprecisions and imprecations that are attached to the process. A tiered structure is implicit in several ways, including the difference between election via the BBWAA (the "front door") and the various Keystone Kop-like incarnations of the Vets Committee ("the side-car door"). A different perspective on the Hall's history and a different approach to the data that is now wielded like a blunt instrument over stat-based "eligibility requirements" needs to evolve in order to untie the Gordian knot that is suppressing the possibility of a creative resolution to the Hall's perpetually divided consciousness.

It's a some-day project, sooner than later, hopefully--where there's life, there's hope. (As is the case that 2020 will restore sanity to the White House and finally put Dick Allen into Cooperstown. Does Dick really need to die before he's inducted? There's an amendment in the Constitution that should be protecting him--and us--from that.)

Oh, yes: here's my Hall of Fame ballot, in case anyone wants to know...

Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Mariano Rivera, Edgar Martinez, Mike Mussina, Curt Schilling, Larry Walker, Manny Ramirez, Jeff Kent, Gary Sheffleld

Mine is a tactical ballot. Left off for purposes of down-ballot strategy are Halladay, who figures to get in anyway, and Todd Helton, who figures to get more than enough votes to set up an eventual induction. Ramirez, Kent and Sheffield need more votes from the BBWAA to either boost their chances down the road or strengthen the arguments that will be subsequently discussed by some cockamamie incarnation of the Vets Committee. If Kent gets to 50% before falling off the ballot, the Vets Committee will (as Vets Committees have done in the past) read that as a reason to pull the trigger for him.

But there might be a more interesting way to conduct the voting that works in conjunction with a "tiered" approach. Is that too complicated for the roiling world of public discourse? Should there be several linked voting mechanisms that get combined to produce a consolidated set of voting results that accommodate tiers?

Right now, the knee-jerk answers to those three queries are: yes (a positive), yes (a negative) and HELL NO. The job of the next book about the Hall of Fame (whether written by yours truly or some other poor unfortunate...) will be to turn around these knee-jerk responses and make the Hall of Fame into something that doesn't exist anywhere else: a truly interesting hagiographic institution.

As we like to say (when we remember to come here)...stay tuned.

Thursday, November 1, 2018

McCOVEY'S PEAK

Willie McCovey's passing reminds us of those paradoxical times when people thought it was amazing when a ballclub had four players who could hit 20+ HRs a year. (Examining that phenomenon as it existed in the four decades in which McCovey played is not part of this post, but it'd make an interesting follow-up...we'll try to remember to do that.)

What we're here to do today is a bit different. We want to examine McCovey's peak, which was a bit later in manifesting itself than what is usually characterized by sabermetric theory. (Truth told, peaks built around single seasons, such as the age 27 shibboleth, are ultimately not very useful--either for predictions or evaluations. We need more years, and we need to see peaks in the context of some number of years.)

And so, here, we're dusting off one of our favored "flavors of peak"--the six-year version. We require that a player collects at least 2500 plate appearances over those six years to be eligible to appear on a peak list--for which we resolutely (read: stubbornly) sort it by the old-school, "highly flawed" OPS+.

OPS+ is flawed, but what isn't? "Better" measures quickly become far too wonky and don't provide significant advances in understanding offensive ability--which is 90% responsible for the selection criteria involved in Hall of Fame arguments. (The other 10% are what people spend countless hours chasing their tales about.)

So, a useful basic approach to evaluating a hitter's historical achievement can still be found in OPS+, which is league and park adjusted--the basic and useful necessary adjustments. And, as noted, six-year increments give us a benchmark for how well a player can sustain a "peak" performance. When measured against all the hitters in baseball history, it's both illuminating and meaningful.

When we do this for McCovey, we see he has a great "stretch" (pun definitely intended...) from age 27-36 clustered in five six-year measures (ages 27-32, 28-33, 29-34, 30-35 and 31-36). In these five age ranges, McCovey ranks in the all-time top ten for OPS+ for six-year averages.

Most of this is driven by the three great seasons he had in a row from 1968-70, where his aggregate OPS+ tops out at 188. But the seasons surrounding these, particularly the years from 1965-67, weren't exactly chopped liver: McCovey's OPS+ for those years was 159. The backside (1971-74) was lower, but not that much lower (148 OPS+). All of that, and the forces of age as they impose themselves upon hitters, explains McCovey's continuing lofty position in the six-year rankings all the way out into the age 31-36 range.

And regarding the Hall of Fame, it's instructive to look at the leaderboards for six-year OPS+ to get a sense of how many hitters with lofty rankings over these "half a HoF" snapshots wind up in the Hall of Fame. We won't do anything systematic with that here--but let's look at the age 27-32 range with respect to who's in/out of the HoF.

The guys in the Hall are the ones in white type. As you can see, 21 of the Top 30 guys on this list have been inducted. (Several others ought to be inducted eventually--Barry Bonds, Miguel Cabrera, Manny Ramirez, Albert Pujols. And we can always hope that the Vets Committee--or whatever they're calling that overdetermined clump of misdirected ersatz lobbyists these days--will see fit to put in Dick Allen before he dies. That would bring us up to 26 out of 30.)

Rights, wrongs, and rants notwithstanding, we can see McCovey here at #10, where he's in fine company. RIP, Willie...


Tuesday, October 30, 2018

SHREDDING THE BULLPEN: A WORLD SERIES SUCCESS STORY

Following up on our discussion of what happened to the Astros in their ALCS matchup with the 2018 World Champion Boston Red Sox, we thought it might be worthwhile to see if playoff teams--and World Series winners in particular--showed a pattern of hitting well against relief pitchers. (You should know that the Dodgers, the first losers in two consecutive World Series since the Rangers did in 2010-11, had their bullpen shredded by both of the teams that beat them--the Astros in 2017, and the Red Sox this year...the Dodger relievers posted a 5.48 ERA in the just-completed Fall Classic.)

Thinking more globally, we went back to the data at Forman et fils (baseball-reference.com) to look at the overall performance vs. relievers over the past decade. (That gives us nine years of data to work with--a total of 270 data points--just shy of what's needed to win twelve slightly used Dodger Blue™ cupcakes.) Do teams that make the playoffs hit better than average against relievers? And do teams that win the World Series exceed the average of "garden variety" post-season teams?

The answer to both these questions is "yes." The table at right breaks it all out for you. Teams that
made the post season have their OPS+ vs. relievers displayed in bold type. Teams with a 120 "sOPS+" (Sean's acronym, not ours!) are shown in scalding orange; we've also color-coded teams with 110-119 (pale orange), 100-109 (yellow), and--on the opposite side of the spectrum--teams whose "sOPS+" is less than 85 (pale, pale blue).

At the bottom of the chart you have some averages--these are yearly "sOPS+" averages for the playoff teams. As you can see, the figures are uniformly above league average: for the nine years in question, the average "sOPS+" is 107.

Finally, note the cells with the double-thick lines around them. These are the World Series winners. And, yes, the World Series winners (as seen in the double-thick-lined box at the very bottom right of the table) are better yet on average than their post-season also-rans. Over the past nine years, World Series winners have an aggregate "sOPS+" of 112 vs. relievers.

Now, doing well in this statistic doesn't guarantee you a trip to the post-season; after all, it's only one component of team performance. There are many examples of teams doing well in this statistic who didn't make it to the playoffs at all. But if you do make it, having an offense that is able to do damage against the opposition's bullpen seems to give you a measurable advantage with respect to winning the World Series.

(And to complete another historical tidbit that was given a teaser above: teams that lost consecutive appearances in the World Series include not only the 2017-18 Dodgers and 2010-11 Rangers, but the 1991-92 Braves, the 1977-78 Dodgers, the 1963-64 Yankees, the 1952-53 Dodgers, the 1936-37 Giants, the 1923-24 Giants, the 1921-22 Yankees, and two teams--the 1911-12 Giants and the 1907-09 Detroit Tigers, who are the only teams to lose three World Series in a row. By doing it this year and last, however, the Dodgers have joined the Giants as the only teams to have three instances of "two-time loser" syndrome in the World Series. To match their Bay Area rivals, they'll need to make it back to the World Series next year--and hit the skids again...)